|The Christmas Column - Classic Reviews Round-Up #66 and New Announcements
Welcome to the latest Classic Coming Attractions column. This is the last column before Christmas and of 2010 so I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all readers a very Merry Christmas and may 2011 be a great DVD and BD year for classic enthusiasts.
This time out I have 13 reviews for you, including Dark City, Appointment with Danger, and Union Station (from Olive Films); The Bing Crosby Collection (from Universal), Cuban Rebel Girls/Untamed Women (from VCI); The Night of the Hunter (on Blu-ray from Criterion); Fantasia/Fantasia 2000 (on Blu-ray from Disney); Waking Sleeping Beauty (also from Disney); The Legendary Bing Crosby and Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume Two (from Infinity); The Lemon Drop Kid (from Shout! Factory); and Gunsmoke: The Fourth Season, Volume 2 and Have Gun, Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume One (from Paramount).
The usual round-up of new classic release announcements is included and the classic announcements database has been updated.
I hope you'll enjoy this latest installment.
Classic DVD Reviews
Dark City is a 1950 Paramount film noir that is now available on DVD from Olive Films. It's a terrific little tale of a gang of four small-time Chicago hoods who fleece a visiting ex-serviceman from L.A. (Don Defore) of $5000 in a crooked poker game.
Unfortunately the $5000 wasn't Defore's to lose and he hangs himself in remorse. Defore's brother (Mike Mazurki, whose beefy hands are all we see of him for most of the film) gradually takes revenge on the four, each of whom has reacted differently to Defore's death. In his Hollywood debut, Charlton Heston plays the head of the gang Danny with an assurance that belies his lack of screen experience. He captures Danny's ambivalence to his chosen profession with a subtlety that makes the characterization constantly interesting and his interactions with the other actors are very natural. It's extremely interesting to see Jack Webb and Henry (Harry) Morgan playing two of the gang members (Ed Begley is the other). Webb's tough guy Augie is a good contrast to Morgan's more low-key, try-to-get-along ex-boxer, but the real interest comes from the comparison of their antagonism towards each other in Dark City versus their portrayal of friendly police partners in the 1960s reincarnation of the TV series Dragnet. Even though Dark City's setting varies from Chicago to Las Vegas, the film manages to maintain a claustrophobic atmosphere with its emphasis on small rooms and dark, dreary surroundings (in Vegas, even the lights of the strip seem to be dulled by the night). The presence of Lizabeth Scott as Heston's girlfriend and the very nature of Heston's ambivalent character are in the best noir tradition. William Dieterle provides brisk direction. He was responsible for several good noirs around this time (The Accused, The Turning Point), showing that his days of directing classy biographies for Warner Bros. were far behind him. Olive Films presents Dark City in a full frame image on DVD as originally projected. The image is very strong - sharp and reasonably clean with very good shadow detail. There's some slight distortion just after the film's mid-point, but it doesn't last long. Mild grain is evident. The mono sound is in good shape, but there are no supplements and no English subtitles. Recommended.
More Alan Ladd on DVD is always a good thing. His Paramount career prior to the early 1950s is particularly under-represented (We don't even have The Glass Key on DVD in Region 1 yet!). So it's a pleasure to see that Olive Films has made 1951's Appointment with Danger available by way of its licensing arrangement with Paramount.
Though usually included in any listing of films noir, the film lacks much of a noir ethos although it does possess some of the visually stylistic trappings. It's more of a straight undercover police procedural presented in a semi-documentary manner. Ladd is a postal inspector assigned to follow up the death of a fellow inspector and as a result finds himself posing as a crooked operative in order to gain the confidence of the gang both responsible for his colleague's death and a future heist that is being planned. Ladd's character is an interesting one, as he plays a cynic who has little faith in other human beings and no time for their emotional failings. As an actor, Ladd was a fine one, always providing a depth, sense of authority, and integrity to his work that often was much better than some of the films he appeared in deserved. Appointment with Danger was better than much of the fare he had to work with, which almost seems to have surprised Ladd for he tends to overplay his part at times. That aside, it's a pleasure to hear him handle some of the film's tough dialogue in exchanges with the likes of gang members Jack Webb and Paul Stewart. The film is tautly directed by Lewis Allen and includes a couple of memorable sequences - one a brutal murder by Webb of his fellow gangster Henry Morgan (that Dragnet connection again!) and the other a tense handball game between Ladd and Webb. The always impressive Jan Sterling adds some intrigue from the distaff side in terms of loyalty. Olive Films' full frame DVD release is very good. There are plenty of speckles and scratches, but the image is sharp and offers good contrast. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is pretty good though perhaps a shape below that of Dark City. Modest grain is evident. The mono sound is quite workable, There are no English subtitles and no supplements. Recommended.
William Holden appeared in the well-received Sunset Boulevard and Born Yesterday in 1950, so it would be no surprise to learn that a film he made between the two has tended to fall by the wayside. Such is the case with Union Station.
While it's hardly in the same league as the other two, it is an engrossing, unpretentious crime story about the kidnapping of a young blind woman. Although she doesn't know it at the time, Joyce Willecombe (Nancy Olson) observes the crime being set in motion in the persons of two suspicious men she sees board the train she's taking to the city. She reports her concerns about the men to the chief of the railway police at Union Station (Holden) when she arrives there. Though Holden is initially skeptical, further investigation reveals the kidnapping plot of the young woman who turns out to be the daughter of Joyce's boss. The railway police in conjunction with the city police (headed by Barry Fitzgerald) then set in motion a comprehensive shadowing scheme to capture the kidnappers and their victim. Holden, though seeming a little young for his position, delivers a strong and likable performance. There's good chemistry between him and Olson, with whom he had appeared in Sunset Boulevard. Barry Fitzgerald also does well in an offbeat role for him (not entirely novel though, for he had appeared similarly in The Naked City a couple of years before). Lyle Bettger is in good form as the main kidnapper and it's always pleasing to see Jan Sterling in a film even if she's underused as here. The film builds good suspense and makes good use of various Los Angeles locations under the direction of Rudolph Mate, but it's a bit of a stretch to call Union Station a film noir. Somewhat like Appointment with Danger, it's a police procedural that has some of the visual style, but little of the noir ethos other than a predilection towards ruthless tactics by the police. Olive Films has released the title on DVD as part of its licensing arrangement with Paramount. The full frame image (as originally released) is in good shape. The image is sharp and shadow detail is quite acceptable. Modest grain is apparent throughout. The mono sound is clear and free of distortion. There are no supplements and no English subtitling. Recommended.
Bing Crosby made a lot of fairly lightweight musicals at Paramount in the 1930s and five of them are on display in The Bing Crosby Collection, a release in Universal's Backlot Series.
Also included in the three-disc set is the 1947 musical comedy Welcome Stranger. The latter is a very pleasant outing that draws inspiration from Going My Way. Bing plays a doctor contracted to fill in for an aging physician (Barry Fitzgerald) who's planning his first vacation after 35 years of service to the small town where he has his practice. The pair meet each other on a train before either is aware of whom the other is and Crosby makes a bad impression on Fitzgerald. When each is finally revealed to the other, Barry rebels at turning his practice over to Bing. Things are played out rather predictably from then on, but with Bing and Barry in top form, Joan Caulfield around to play a potential love interest for Bing, and some conflict provided by Robert Shayne and Charles Dingle playing a son and father who might sabotage Barry's dream of a hospital for the town, the whole thing offers very diverting entertainment. Of the five musicals, solid enjoyment is offered by Sing You Sinners (1938), Mississippi (1935), and We're Not Dressing (1934). Sing You Sinners stars Crosby, Fred MacMurray, and Donald O'Connor as a trio of singing brothers. Crosby as a get-rich-quick type of guy seeks his fortune in Los Angeles only to end up getting all the brothers in trouble at the racetrack. The dramatic aspects of Crosby's part were a bit of a departure for him and demonstrated an acting range that would eventually lead to an Oscar six years later. The music performed by the trio is very pleasing, with "Small Fry" (by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael) the best of the lot. Mississippi would have been standard musical fare of the time for Crosby except that the presence of W.C. Fields as a riverboat captain elevates the film appreciably. Crosby is a singer who refuses to fight when challenged to a duel over his fiancée, and takes a job on Fields' riverboat as a result. There he gets tagged with a reputation as a singing killer after he tangles with another tough riverboat man and kills him. This complicates a newly blossoming relationship with the younger sister of his former fiancée. The film sports some fine music by Rodgers and Hart (particularly "It's Easy to Remember") and some typically inventive Fieldsian nonsense (much of it ad-libbed). There are some racial stereotypes that would be unacceptable today, but as always they should be viewed in the context of the film's times and not considered a reason at all to avoid the film. We're Not Dressing has Bing as a lowly deckhand shipwrecked on an island with an heiress he's smitten with (Carole Lombard) plus two wacky locals (George Burns and Gracie Allen). The story is very loosely based on J.M. Barrie's play The Admirable Crichton, and musicalized by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel. For Crosby, there were not only decent songs to sing, but some comedy material that showed his promise in that area. He and Lombard worked well together and the result is quite an amiable timepasser. In addition to Burns and Allen, Ethel Merman also provides support. The most tedious of the set's films are the all-too-familiar College Humor (Bing's a college professor chased by a beautiful young coed - Mary Carlisle - while Jack Oakie must uphold the college's traditions on the football field. It does have a good musical number in "The Old Ox Road".) and Here Is My Heart (a dreary and silly effort that has famous singer Bing pretending to be a waiter in order to pursue an upper class woman - Kitty Carlisle - who wants nothing to do with him). Universal presents all the films full frame as originally released and as is typical for the Backlot Series, the transfers are quite good. The images are sharp with good contrast and light to moderate grain. Most are relatively clean too. The three earliest films look a little weaker than the later ones in all respects, but are still very watchable, even on large screens. The mono sound on all titles is in good shape and English SDH is provided. Some minor hiss is evident on College Humor and We're Not Dressing. The only supplements are trailers for Welcome Stranger, Sing You Sinners, Mississippi, and We're Not Dressing. Recommended.
It would have been nice had 1958's The Roots of Heaven proved to have been Errol Flynn's final screen performance before his death in 1959 at age 50. Unfortunately there was one more film, however - the truly amateurish and cheaply-made Cuban Rebel Girls which VCI has now made available on DVD on a double feature disc with 1952's Untamed Women.
Cuban Rebel Girls (titled Assault of the Rebel Girls on the source material used by VCI) was a semi-documentary effort written, narrated, and co-produced by Flynn (likely as a tax write-off) in 1959 at a time when he was enamored of Fidel Castro and his revolutionary army in Cuba. Flynn appears as himself on assignment as a correspondent reporting on Castro's campaign. His footage is small, with most the screen time of 66 minutes being devoted to a couple of skirmishes between the revolutionaries and the Batista forces in the countryside and some footage of the take-over of Havana. Flynn's girlfriend at the time, Beverly Aadland, plays a young American woman in love with one of the revolutionaries. Flynn looks old and very tired, but even so provides the only professionalism in a film that is otherwise uncomfortably acted and poorly directed particularly in the "action" sequences that involve the smuggling of some guns onto the island and a raid on a sugar mill. Ironically, the film is credited as an Exploit Films production. The film is presented full frame on VCI's DVD and is in decent shape given the cheapness of the original production. The image looks dark virtually throughout but that's likely a reflection of the film's original lighting. The mono sound is passable but volume fluctuations are evident and distortion occasionally intrudes. There are no subtitles and no supplements. Compared to its accompanying feature on the disc, Cuban Rebel Girls looks like an Oscar winner, however. That companion piece is Untamed Women - a cheaply made independent production released theatrically by United Artists. Let's see, we have several World War II airman who end up stranded on an uncharted island when their plane crashes, one of whom is the sort of wisecracking idiot apparently from Brooklyn that always seems to be a member of such movie groups. The island is inhabited by an endless number of scantily-clad young women who are apparently all descendants of Druids and speak old English with lots of "ye"s and "thou"s being thrown around. Then there's also a tribe of hairy men - guys in questionable loincloths and fake-looking beards who like to prey on the women as a source of mates for themselves. Mix in a collection of prehistoric beasts (stock footage from the likes of One Million BC) and you've got plenty of reason for bemusement. I guess the idea is that our heroes will vanquish the beasts and hairy men, leading to connubial bliss with ye nubile women on the tropical island. Unfortunately nature intervenes. The dialogue is full of howlers; the action is rudimentary at best with our heroes have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ammo despite constantly commenting on how they're running low; and the acting is generally from the Tor Johnson school of mummery. VCI's full frame transfer is passable in terms of clarity and image detail, but is best viewed on a small screen. The mono sound is okay. There are no subtitles and no supplements. The DVD release is the second entry in VCI's "Positively No Refunds" line so there's no false advertising here. Of interest to Errol Flynn completists for the Cuban Rebel Girls inclusion only.
Infinity Entertainment has released two more offerings from Bing Crosby Enterprises. They are the single-disc The Legendary Bing Crosby and the two-disc Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume Two.
The first of these is a 2009 musical celebration (aired on PBS) of Bing's life illustrated with numerous songs from TV specials that Bing headlined between 1954 and 1977. The songs presented are performed in their entirety and some feature other greats of the music industry such as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, and Dean Martin. One even involves some double and triple exposure work so that Bing manages to perform with one and then two versions of himself. Songs performed include: "Ol' Man River, Swanee, I Love Paris, Pennies from Heaven, June in January, I'm an Old Cow Hand, Now You Has Jazz, Mama Don't Allow It, Married, It Had to Be You, I Believe in You, The Oldest Established, Sing, Swingin' on a Star, Where the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day, Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth", and of course "White Christmas". A particular highlight is "The Oldest Established" number from "Guys and Dolls" that features Crosby, Sinatra, and Martin all in top form. During the hour-long program, the performances are nicely balanced with comments from Bing's wife Kathryn, his daughter Mary, Great American Songbook expert Michael Feinstein, Leonard Maltin, Regis Philbin, and Andy Williams. The DVD looks very good, particularly the newly shot interview sequences (1.78:1) which are crisp with excellent colour fidelity. The song sequences (all full frame) are in both black and white and colour, and do vary in quality. Most are quite sharp while at least one has the look of a somewhat fuzzy kinescope. The mono sound is fortunately in good shape. Supplements consist of 35 minutes of material not seen in the original program - performances with The Crosby Boys, Maurice Chevalier, Dean Martin, and Andy Williams - and song commentaries from Michael Feinstein. Recommended, highly so for Crosby fans. Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume Two focuses on Crosby's Christmas Specials. Four (each 50 minutes long) are included in their entirety in the set. The December 11, 1961 show was Crosby's first Christmas special - a Christmas special by virtue of air-date only for there was no Christmas content beyond Bing's rendition of "White Christmas" at the end. A thoroughly entertaining effort, it was filmed in Britain (including footage of Bing on the streets of London) with Bing surrounded by British performers including the likes of Terry Thomas, Dave King, Ron Moody, Miles Malleson, and Shirley Bassey. The British-born Bob Hope even makes a cameo appearance. The second Christmas show in the set is from 1962 when Crosby starred in his first colour special (for Clairol) which aired on Christmas Eve. The Christmas content is restricted to an extended holiday-themed segment featuring Bing with his guests Mary Martin, Andre Previn, and The United Nations Children's Choir. In the 1970s, the Crosby Christmas shows had become family affairs featuring his wife Kathryn, sons Harry and Nathaniel, and daughter Mary Frances. The 1971 show (aired on December 14th) is the third one in the set. It also features Robert Goulet, opera star Mary Costa, and The Mitchell Singing Boys choir. For his 1977 Christmas show (the fourth one in the set), Bing returned to Britain and the show features a number of Britain performers (David Bowie in the well-known "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" duet, Twiggy, Stanley Baxter, and Ron Moody) along with the Crosby family with noticeably grown-up and more self-assured children compared to 1971. Crosby would die on a golf course in Spain five weeks after shooting ended and a month before the show aired. All four of the shows are different and each is well worth repeat viewing for the quality of talent on display. Each ends with Bing performing "White Christmas" which of course is appropriate given the song's importance in Crosby's career. It's especially poignant to hear his rendition at the end of the 1977 special knowing that he had just recently passed away. On DVD, the 1960s shows look sharper and better detailed than the 1970 ones. On the latter, the colour lacks vibrancy and some edge effects are apparent particularly on the 1971 show. The mono sound is in good shape throughout. There are some good supplements. Particularly fine is the 1957 Christmas edition of The Frank Sinatra Show - Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank. The 30-minute program is wall-to-wall Christmas music (both traditional and popular) with only minor connective banter. Even better it's in colour that's in remarkable shape aside from a slight pinkish cast. (The show was originally aired in black and white but shot in colour for a later theatrical release that never did materialize.) Other supplements include outtakes from the 1962 Christmas show, a short public service announcement for a Christmas "Toys for Tots" drive, and a 25-minute promotional piece for British Tourism. Recommended, highly so for Crosby fans.
One of Bob Hope's better vehicles, Paramount's 1951 filming of The Lemon Drop Kid has been released on DVD by Shout! Factory.
Adapted from a Damon Runyon story that was previously filmed under the same title in 1934 with Lee Tracy and Helen Mack, The Lemon Drop Kid makes generally good use of Hope particularly in the opening sequences when as racetrack tout Sydney Melbourne (The Lemon Drop Kid), he runs afoul of gangster Moose Moran (Fred Clark) and ends up owing him $10,000. Given until Christmas to pay back the money, Sydney along with girlfriend Brainy Baxter (Marilyn Maxwell) sets up a scheme in which various old pals pose as Santa Claus on the street corners of New York accepting donations for a bogus elderly ladies home. Unfortunately gangster Oxford Charlie (Lloyd Nolan) sees a good thing and decides to muscle in on Sydney's action putting Sydney's hopes of repaying Moose on time in jeopardy. There's a lot of good will in the film generated by likable performances from Hope himself, frequent radio and TV co-star Maxwell who seems very compatible with Hope's type of work, and a host of familiar character actors. Among the latter are William Frawley (who also appeared in the 1934 version), Jane Darwell, Nolan, Clark, Ben Weldon, Jay C. Flippen, Sid Melton, and even Tor Johnson. The smoothness of the film's opening half is replaced by a more frenetic, almost slapstick approach in the second that makes the proceedings absurd at times, but it's not enough to submerge the good will previously built up. Notable in the film is the introduction of the Christmas song "Silver Bells" written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. Sung by Hope and Maxwell, it's given a very pleasing production effort that easily makes it one of the film's highlights. Shout! Factory's DVD release is a result of a licensing agreement with Freemantle Media Enterprises which controls a number of the later Hope films. The full frame image is very pleasing, offering a crisp, bright experience that has only minor speckling evident. The mono sound is similarly in good shape. There is no subtitling and no supplements have been provided. Recommended. The title is also available in Shout! Factory's five-movie/three-disc The Bob Hope Collection.