Classic DVD Reviews (Continued)
Two shows three years apart, one still on the way up, the other at the start of its decline - such was the state respectively of Gunsmoke: The Fourth Season, Volume 2 and Have Gun, Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume One.
Both half-hour shows are among the best of the many TV western series of the 1950s and 1960s, one with more of an ensemble cast though clearly headlined by one of them (Gunsmoke with James Arness as Marshal Matt Dillon), the other a star-centred vehicle (Have Gun, Will Travel with Richard Boone as Paladin). Paramount in cooperation with CBS Video has been releasing both series for some years now and both appear to be back on track after various hiatuses. The latest Gunsmoke release has 20 episodes on 3 discs from a season that yielded four Emmy nominations including a win for Dennis Weaver as Best Supporting Actor. Matt has his work cut out for him dealing with the usual aspiring gunfighters out to make a reputation for themselves by killing him. He also has to deal with guerilla fighters known as Jayhawkers, abusive buffalo hunters, bounty hunters, a questionable lawyer, a broken leg, and his own mistaken arrest by the cavalry. Kitty (Amanda Blake), Doc (Milburn Stone), and Chester (Dennis Weaver) each get individual episodes in which to shine. The Have Gun, Will Travel release offers 19 episodes on 3 discs. Paladin's travels from the comfort of his San Francisco home involve him with a nurse intent on helping the mining town victims of an accident, a gang leader who wants vengeance for the murder of the wife of one of his men, a mail order bride with two suitors, a horserace with no rules, a piano being held for ransom, a wild kid that falls into his care, and a European brain specialist who wants to study the West's most famous gunfighter. Both series feature the wide range of character performers that was common for TV westerns of the time. The likes of Warren Stevens, Denver Pyle, Ben Johnson, George Kennedy, James Drury, Dabbs Greer, Strother Martin, Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Jack Elam, etc. can easily be identified. Gunsmoke of course was just warming up for an eventual 20-year run in prime time. Have Gun, Will Travel though had only one more season to go, having fallen well out of the top ten shows in its fifth season. In these most recent DVD releases, both series continue to look very good. The full frame transfers are very sharp with excellent contrast and good image detail. Speckles and scratches are minimal. The level of consistency is slightly superior on the Gunsmoke discs as several of the Have Gun, Will Travel episodes look a little softer than the rest. The mono sound is in good shape in all cases. English SDH subtitles are available on both sets, but only the Gunsmoke release has any supplements - several sponsor spots. Both are recommended.
Waking Sleeping Beauty is a 2010 documentary that illuminates the events of the 10-year period 1984-1994 that resuscitated animation at the Walt Disney Studios. It was directed by Don Hahn and produced by Hahn and Peter Schneider, both individuals who were there at the time.
What comes through clearly is the tremendous spirit of excitement and accomplishment that galvanized the studio during those 10 years - a spirit that extended from the lowliest animator to the executives in charge at the time, and resulted in an amazing string of hits including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and culminated in The Lion King. Behind the excitement and success though, there was unrelenting pressure that tested the personal lives and health of many and plenty of palace intrigue involving the likes of Roy Disney, Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells - many of them with egos that are brutally revealed in the documentary. All this is effectively communicated without the use of talking heads and after-the-fact, rose-coloured-glasses reminiscences. Instead, footage and words from the individuals involved as recorded during the years in question are allowed to make the case. We the audience effectively provide our own context, based on our own memories of where we were at the time and the snippets of information that came to us through the media (more or less strongly depending upon our interest in or involvement with the film industry then). Those with an interest in the Hollywood studios or animation in general will find Waking Sleeping Beauty well worth viewing, but for classic film enthusiasts, there are obvious parallels between the events of the 1980s/90s and the 1930s at the studio and for that reason such people will find the documentary to be a particularly fascinating exploration. Disney's presentation on DVD is delivered anamorphically enhanced at 1.78:1 and looks as good as the vintage footage will allow. Some of it is crystal clear and brightly colourful; some is fuzzy with washed out colour. The only suggestion that what we are seeing is any less than the best reproduction possible is some digital sharpening that's apparent with captions that have been added to images identifying off-camera speakers. A 5.1 Dolby Digital track is provided and does a solid job. The few hiccups in dialogue clarity are attributable to the source material. English SDH subtitling is provided. An impressive set of supplements has been added to the disc. The highlights are a tremendously informative and engaging audio commentary by Hahn and Schneider, and over a half-hour of unused scenes. Otherwise there are several featurettes related to individuals highlighted by the documentary and some of the studio tours excerpted in the documentary. Recommended, highly so for Disney aficionados.
Classic Blu-ray Reviews
When The Night of the Hunter arrived on screen in 1955 via United Artists, it received but a lukewarm welcome from a critical establishment and public unprepared for its corrosive combination of terror from a child's point of view and use of religion to cloak evil.
From first-and-only-time director Charles Laughton, it sported a curious blend of silent screen photography (emphasized by the appearance of silent star Lillian Gish in a key role) and surrealistic imagery that with a naïve portrayal of a cold-blooded killer seemed to throw most people off guard. Robert Mitchum stars as the killer using religion as a cloak for his crimes, in this case the murder of the mother (Shelley Winters) of two children who know where a large amount of stolen money is hidden. Despite his efforts to terrorize the children into telling their secret, they manage to escape by taking a rowboat down the river nearby their home. Eventually they find sanctuary with a woman who takes in stray children (Gish), but Mitchum isn't far behind. Mitchum's performance is truly a superb one - scary if you're seeing the film for the first time as a youngster yourself or scary if you're an adult because of the empathy you can feel for the children he's after. The terror is generated not only by the images of the words "love" and "hate" that are tattooed on the backs of his fingers and the switchblade that he fondles so lovingly and barely on the edge of control, but the ill-concealed glint of contempt verging on madness in his eyes as he spouts religious sayings, smooth talks the local townsfolk, or tries to cajole the uncooperative youngsters. Mitchum's efforts, bringing new meaning to the words "holy terror", unfortunately generated little acclaim at the time from a viewership seemingly more interested in his off-screen bad-boy activities. Perhaps they were also dismissed because of Laughton's decision to present Mitchum's work in almost a surrealistic light that tended to make Mitchum seem so bad that he was almost comical in his ultimate ineffectiveness. Aside from Mitchum's efforts, Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce who play the children are both very impressive in the blend of vulnerability and fortitude that they convey. And Lillian Gish is quite up to the task of demonstrating why she was such a star of silent films 30 years before. Beyond the acting, the film is all Laughton's. He commissioned the spare script from James Agee, a perceptive film critic and sometime screenwriter, but it was his vision of seeing the material through the eyes of a silent film director, heightening the melodramatic aspects, and relying on a wealth of visual cues and images beyond the written word to advance the story that really gives the film its unique look and extraordinary impact. The Night of the Hunter was previously available on DVD from MGM, but Criterion has now blown away that version with a superb new 2-disc Blu-ray edition. Framed correctly at 1.66:1, Criterion's digital 2K transfer was created from the original 35mm camera negative and the results are exceptional. The image is crisp and very clear with at times a startling level of image detail. The film's gray scale is very well rendered and there's an impressive sense of depth to some of the interiors. The LPCM mono soundtrack was taken from the 2001 UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration with additional restoration carried out by Criterion. Dialogue is clear and robust with only a very slight hint of hiss on occasion. Sound effects and background music are well balanced with the dialogue. English SDH subtitling is provided. The Blu-ray release really shines in its suite of supplements. The highlight, contained in a second disc, is Charles Laughton Directs The Night of the Hunter - a 2½ hour compilation by UCLA's Bob Gitt combining narration with outtakes selected by Gitt from a trove of almost 8 hours of footage made available by Laughton's widow, Elsa Lanchester, after the actor's death. Gitt and Leonard Maltin provide an introduction to this compilation. The other supplements (all on the first disc) include a highly informative and interesting audio commentary from second-unit director Terry Saunders, film critic F.X. Feeney, archivist Bob Gitt, and author Preston Neal Jones. The same individuals along with several others participate in a good almost-40-minute making-of featurette. There's also an interview with actor Simon Callow on Laughton, a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show in which Peter Graves and Shelley Winters perform a scene deleted from the film, a 15-minute archival featurette aboutv the film freaturing Robert Mitchum among others, an archival interview with cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a gallery of sketches, and the theatrical trailer plus a booklet of essays about the film. Very highly recommended.
So much has been written about Fantasia that little that I can add is going to alter your view of the ground-breaking 1940 feature film from Disney. It is a wonderful fusion of animation and classical music that I imagine has been an inspiration to many who later found themselves involved in those disciplines.
For two hours, encompassing some eight different pieces of music and brain-imprinted images that seem fixed for one's entire life all skillfully linked through connecting narrative by Deems Taylor, we are held in complete thrall. That some could not see the artistry and sheer entertainment value at the time of the original release is surely their loss, but also partly ours - for it denied the production of later incarnations of a film that was intended to be a constant work in progress with new sections added and others removed as the years went by. That denial was not entirely complete, fortunately. At the turn of the millennium, a new version - Fantasia 2000 - was commissioned. The only hold-over piece from the original was that of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" with Mickey Mouse. New pieces mix the abstract with the more realistic as in the original and this time Donald Duck gets his due in a Noah's Ark sequence set to Elgar's "Pomp and Circumstance". Particularly successful is the "Rhapsody in Blue" evocation of New York inspired by Al Hirschfeld's cartoon work. The more brisk 75-minute length is also a plus, but on the down side, we must suffer through some ill-advised celebrity introductions. Disney has now released both films in a 4-disc Special Edition - two discs for the Blu-ray presentations and two for the corresponding standard DVD ones. The most striking aspect of the Blu-ray transfers is the vividness of the colours. Whether the full frame Fantasia or 1.78:1 Fantasia 2000, colour leaps out at you providing a colour palette about as varied as any seen on the screen. Blacks are deep and inky; whites are clean and very white; and contrast is notably good throughout both films. Are the transfers perfect? Not quite. On very close inspection, there are very minor instances of digital toolwork apparent including the odd enhanced edge and very slight banding, but nothing worth being concerned over as it's not even apparent on casual viewing. Fantasia 2000 does register as slightly sharper than Fantasia but that's inherent in the original source material given the nature of the tools at hand to the respective animators. Both films have been accorded 7.1 DTS-HD tracks, Fantasia's being possible given the advanced Fantasound directional tracks that accompanied its original roadshow release. Both films sound very dynamic with impressive use of the surrounds and with a presence that is both entrancing and precise. Connective dialogue is clear on both films. Lossy 5.1 French and Spanish tracks are also provided as are English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitling. Each Blu-ray disc ports over the two audio commentaries that graced the previous DVD release of each film. A third, new commentary by Brian Sibley on Fantasia is very comprehensive and satisfying. If you want some background on the tempest-in-a-teapot censorship of the "Pastoral Symphony" sequence, that's a good place to go. The other key supplements are the 7-minute Destino, a collaboration between Disney and Salvador Dali that originally uncompleted was subsequently so at the behest of Roy Disney, and a fascinating 82-minute documentary on the Disney/Dali relationship. What of the numerous other supplements that graced the previous DVD release? Some are here, but many are only available via the BD-live feature - an unnecessary annoyance to the sort of collectors most interested in this new Blu-ray release. It's the release's only misstep. Highly recommended.
Criterion's March releases include The Mikado (1939, directed by Victor Schertzinger) on March 29th on both Blu-ray and DVD. Extras will include a new video interview with director Mike Leigh on "The Mikado" and its adaptation for the screen; a new video interview with "Mikado" scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr., tracing the 1939 filmed version of the opera back to its 1885 stage debut; and a short silent film promoting the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company's 1926 stage performance of "The Mikado". Eclipse Series 26: Silent Naruse, set for March 22nd, will include five titles - Flunky, Work Hard (1931), No Blood Relation (1932), Apart from You (1933), Every-night Dreams (1933), and Street without End (1934).
Fox is releasing All About Eve: 60th Anniversary Edition (1951, Bette Davis) and An Affair to Remember (1957, Cary Grant) on Blu-ray on February 1st. Each will feature digibook packaging and all the extras from the previous DVD versions are anticipated. In related Fox news, a new DVD specialty label, Twilight Time, featuring limited editions of vintage 20th Century Fox films, has been launched. The first film under the Twilight Time banner is John Huston's rarely seen 1970 spy thriller, The Kremlin Letter, which will be available Jan. 25th. A new title will be offered on the last Tuesday of each month thereafter, but after a 6-month trial period that may change to two titles a month. Only 3,000 units of each title (pressed, not MOD, from restored transfers supervised by Fox's head of Assets Management, Schawn Belston) will be made available for a limited time, geared to the classic-film DVD collector. Besides the disc, the package will come with an eight-page booklet about the movie, featuring original essays, stills and poster art, and in some cases, the musical score. Priced at $20, Twilight Time titles will be available only at screenarchives.com, the U.S.'s largest independent distributor of specialty soundtracks. Screen Archives ships internationally so it seems likely that the offerings will be available beyond the United States. Twenty films have so far been licensed to the new label by Fox (with more possible), only the first five of which have so far been named. After The Kremlin Letter will come Violent Saturday (1955, directed by Richard Fleischer), Fate Is the Hunter (1964, with Glenn Ford), April Love (1957, with Pat Boone and Shirley Jones), and The Egyptian (1954, with Jean Simmons and Victor Mature). These titles are all widescreen films from the 50s and 60s, but the 30s and 40s are expected to be represented eventually too.
Grapevine Video has six releases for December. The first is Lucrezia Borgia (1922) - an amazingly complete print of Richard Oswald's historical pageant film, transferred from an original and complete 35mm Nitrate and tinted. The other silent release is Shorts of Christmas Past (1901-1915) - eight assorted holiday shorts including films from Edison, Biograph, and others. The sound releases include: Babes in Toyland (1934) - a restored print of the delightful Laurel and Hardy comedy, complete with no cuts at 78 minutes; Street Scene (1931) - Elmer Rice adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama for this film version, produced and directed by King Vidor; and Tarzan Double Feature - The New Adventures of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Green Goddess on one disc, both features edited from the 1935 Herman Brix Tarzan Serial.
Image Entertainment's The Twilight Zone: Season Three already announced for Blu-ray release on February 15th will be a 5-disc set containing all 37 episodes. Most of the extras from the previous DVD set will carry over. Newly created for Blu-ray are 19 new audio commentaries, an interview with actor Edson Stroll, the original laugh track for Cavender Is Coming, a vintage audio interview with director of photography George T. Clemens, 19 new radio dramas (featuring Don Johnson, Blair Underwood, Ernie Hudson, Morgan Brittany, Adam West, Ed Begley, Jr., Jason Alexander, Shelley Berman, Michael York, Bruno Kirby and more) and isolated scores for all 37 episodes.
In a late announcement, Infinity Entertainment reports that it has Groucho Marx TV Classics available as of the end of November. It contains 16 episodes from You Bet Your Life, which Marx hosted from 1950-61; two episodes of The Hollywood Palace - hosted by Marx - ABC-TV's popular, long-running Saturday night variety show of the mid-to-late '60s; Marx's guest star appearances on the Dinah Shore Show radio program; and a rare episode of ABC's long-lost game show Anybody Can Play (1958), starring George Fenneman. Available on December 14th will be An Ultimate Collection of Gulliver's Travels. It will include two full-length animated features - Gulliver's Travels (1939), Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon (1965) - as well as seven Max Fleischer cartoons starring "Gabby" from "Gulliver's Travels" and a 1902 film by special effects pioneer Georges Melies.
Olive Films' first Paramount releases for 2011 will come on March 8th: Off Limits (1953, Bob Hope) and On the Double (1961, Danny Kaye).
Paramount will have The Fugitive: The Fourth and Final Season, Volume Two available on February 15th. Have Gun, Will Travel: The Fifth Season, Volume Two is set for February 22nd.
Italian DVD label RaroVideo announces the company will begin distributing its DVDs in the U.S. for the first time ever in February 2011 through leading indie distributor Entertainment One. The first two releases, both due February 22nd, will be Federico Fellini's The Clowns (1970) and The Fernando Di Leo Crime Collection. The latter will include Rulers of the City (1976, with Jack Palance) and the "Milieu Trilogy" - Caliber 9 (Milano Calibro 9 - 1972), The Italian Connection (La Mala Ordina - 1972) and The Boss (Il Boss - 1973). Both releases have been restored and will contain supplements. The Clowns will offer a rare and exclusive short film by Fellini, a video essay on the genesis of the film, and a 40 page booklet with exclusive Fellini drawings. Each film in the Di Leo set will have a making-of documentary.
The Serial Squadron now has The Masked Rider: Volume 2 available on DVD. The Masked Rider is a 1919 serial, a partially complete nitrate print of which was discovered in 2003, that starred Harry Myers, Ruth Stonehouse, and Paul Panzer. Due to the state of the copy found, the Squadron has undertaken considerable restoration and the results are being issued in three volumes. Volume 1 was previously released. Daredevils of the West (1943, with Allan Lane and Kay Aldridge) will be available in late December or early January. A long-desired Republic serial from the war years when the studio was at the top of its game, the source material for the DVD was missing audio in Chapters 1, 6, 7, and 8 that has been replaced with authentic sound effects and dubbing for missing dialogue. The Squadron is also conducting pledge drives directed at the release of The Trail of the Octopus (1915), The Hope Diamond Mystery (1921, with Boris Karloff), and Drums of Fu Manchu (1940, Republic). Both DVD and Blu-ray releases of the latter serial are in the plans. Complete details on all these titles can be found at serialsquadron.com.
Shanachie has announced a February 22nd release date for Car 54, Where Are You?: The Complete First Season. The 4-disc set will contain all 30 episodes mastered from the only known set of 35mm fine grain prints known to exist. The set will also contain a newly-shot roundtable conversation between Bronx-raised comedian Robert Klein and two of the regular cast members - Charlotte Rae and Hank Garrett. This is the first time the series has ever been released on DVD, and the rest of the series is expected to follow.
Synergy Entertainment will be releasing John Wayne: Bigger Than Life on January 25th. The three-disc set includes the western comedy McLintock! (1963) and three documentaries: Bigger Than Life (1990), covering the legend's life and films; The American West of John Ford (1971), highlighting the career and western films of acclaimed director John Ford, including interviews with Wayne and other colleagues; and No Substitute for Victory (1970), hosted by Wayne, about the communist threat and its zenith in Vietnam. Extras are rare TV appearances by Wayne on Art Linkletter's People Are Funny (1958); The Colgate Comedy Hour (October 11, 1953); Wide Wide World (1958) in a segment called "The Western"; and The Lucy Show (1966), in which Wayne plays himself as Lucy (Lucille Ball) is sent to deliver some papers pertaining to the financing of one of his latest productions.
Coming on December 7th from the Warner Archive are Cheyenne: Season 2, Part 1 (5 discs); Cheyenne: Season 2, Part 2 (5 discs); and Fort Dobbs (1958, Clint Walker, newly remastered). Warner Archive releases for December 14th include: Alias the Doctor (1932, Richard Barthelmess); Black Fury (1935, Paul Muni, newly remastered); Blondie Johnson (1933, Joan Blondell); From Headquarters (1933, George Brent, newly remastered); Goodbye, My Lady (1956, Walter Brennan, newly remastered); Heat Lightning (1934, Aline MacMahon, newly remastered); Night Must Fall (1937, Robert Montgomery, newly remastered); a Wallace Beery double feature of Bad Man of Brimstone (1938) and The Bad Man (1941); Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy Shorts (1926-1939, 53 shorts on 6 discs); Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951, Steve Cochran, newly remastered); The World, The Flesh and the Devil (1959, Harry Belafonte, newly remastered); Girl of the Night (1960, Anne Francis, newly remastered); and The Window (1949, Bobby Driscoll, newly remastered).
In a new agreement with Agamemnon Films (Charlton Heston's production company formed in 1981), Warner Bros. will release Antony and Cleopatra (1973, Charlton Heston) on March 29th. Also coming on March 29th on Blu-ray will be King of Kings (1961, with Jeffrey Hunter). Warner Bros. has also announced that three of its classic Blu-ray releases for 2012 will be Ultimate Collector's Editions. They will be: Camelot: 45th Anniversary Edition (1967), Singin' in the Rain: 60th Anniversary Edition (1952), and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: 50th Anniversary Edition (1962). The existing DVD versions will be going on moratorium at the end of this year.
Well once again, that's it for now. I'll return again early in the new year.