Classic Reviews Round-Up #67 and New Announcements
Welcome to the first Classic Coming Attractions column of 2011.
This time out I have 8 reviews for you, including Jimmy the Gent, That Certain Woman, A Stolen Life (from the Warner Archive); Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray: The Romantic Comedy Collection (from TCM/Universal); The Andy Griffith Show: 50th Anniversary - The Best of Mayberry and Bonanza: The Official Second Season, Volume 1 (from Paramount); Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition and Tomorrow We Live/Inquest (from VCI). I also some brief remarks on a couple of early 1950s classics that have recently made their way to Blu-ray - Alice in Wonderland (from Disney) and Les vacances de M. Hulot (a Region B release from the British Film Institute).
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 first installment of the new year.
Classic DVD Reviews
After four years on the Warner Bros. lot playing mainly gangsters or at least semi-scrupulous characters, James Cagney decided to vary his camera image to annoy Jack Warner by sporting the likes of a thin moustache (as he does in He Was Her Man) or shaving his hair short as he does for the film at hand, 1934's Jimmy the Gent.
Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is a typically brisk Cagney vehicle with him playing the operator of a business that attempts to seek out rightful heirs (or if unsuccessful, create fictitious ones) to unclaimed fortunes. Jimmy has lost his assistant Joan Martin (Bette Davis) to a competitor who masks his approach to the same racket with a high-toned operation (where the serving of tea seems to be a continual pastime). Eager to win back Joan, Jimmy assumes the trappings of a classy operation himself while mounting a typically questionable scam intended to prove to Joan that her new boss is an even bigger crook than Jimmy. The story is a trifle, but mounted with the normal Warner enthusiasm and efficiency of the early 1930s. Cagney and Davis are a delight together in a film that is a less ambitious, but more enjoyable outing than their later teaming in the A production that was 1941's The Bride Came C.O.D.. Jimmy the Gent also benefits from a strong supporting cast including some nifty work by Alice White as a dumb blonde, not to mention the likes of Allen Jenkins, Alan Dinehart, and Mayo Methot. The film has been released as part of the Warner Archive and sports a full frame transfer that's quite acceptable. Image sharpness is very good and blacks are deep. The image does look a little dark at times resulting in shadow detail being less than optimal. There are lots of speckles and scratches, but nothing particularly distracting. The mono sound is in good shape and the theatrical trailer is the only supplement. Recommended.
In 1937's That Certain Woman, Bette Davis takes centre stage in a film that reveals an early version of the sort of mature dramas that she would specialize in for Warner Bros. over the following ten years.
She plays a young woman first married to a gangster at age 15, widowed by the St. Valentine's Day massacre, remarried to a playboy (Henry Fonda), forsaken by him through the machinations of his father, and left to raise her baby alone. Davis' work is the main reason to see this film. She looks every inch the movie star in it (she later credited director Edmund Goulding - who would also guide her in Dark Victory and The Great Lie - for making her look special) and it is her luminosity that makes the somewhat shaky material at all palatable. It doesn't help that she has to overcome a boyishly na´ve portrayal by Fonda - one so grating that the film seems to shift into slow motion ever time he's on screen. Fortunately, every one else provides good support, from an energetic Ian Hunter playing Bette's boss to Anita Louise as the other woman and Donald Crisp as Fonda's father. The film runs 93 minutes and seems to drag noticeably in the middle, but the last couple of reels redeems it somewhat with some very moving work by Davis and Louise. The film has been released by the Warner Archive in a full-frame transfer that's quite strong. The image is bright and crisp for the most part with only a few soft sequences intruding. There is some speckling evident, but overall the image seems quite clean for this vintage of material. Modest grain is present throughout. The mono sound is in good shape and the theatrical trailer has been added as a supplement. Recommended as a rental.
Nine years after her work in That Certain Woman, Bette Davis was queen of the Warner lot and A Stolen Life was typical of the sort of fare she was delivering then.
It was also the first picture to appear from Davis' own production company, B.D., Inc. The story, which had previously been filmed in Britain in the late 1930s with Elisabeth Bergner starring, concerns twin sisters Kate and Pat, the first one good and the second a vain vixen who manages to steal Kate's prospective husband (Glenn Ford) from her. Later, the sisters are out boating when a storm comes up and Pat drowns. This enables Kate to assume her sister's identity and husband, except that identity proves to be less palatable than she'd anticipated. Davis undertakes the roles of both sisters and delivers a superb effort in conveying the two personalities through differences in the way she walks and talks. The many scenes with both sisters in them together were managed through precise work involving optical printing; a particularly difficult one involved the lighting of a match by Kate and passing it to Pat, with the transition looking virtually seamless on screen. Glenn Ford provides solid support in his first film after his wartime service. Also strong are Walter Brennan and Charles Ruggles as a lighthouse keeper and Kate and Pat's cousin respectively. The film was well received by the movie going public even if some critics weren't convinced by the melodramatic happenings. The Warner Archive's full frame release looks very strong - clean, sharp, and nicely detailed. Contrast is noticeably good and modest grain is apparent. The mono sound is in good shape and the theatrical trailer has been added as a supplement. Recommended.
TCM has released the latest title in its Vault Collection in conjunction with Universal - Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray: The Romantic Comedy Collection. It consists of three films: The Gilded Lily (1935), The Bride Comes Home (1936), and Family Honeymoon (1948) - three of the seven films that Colbert and MacMurray made together.
The pair's first teaming occurred in The Gilded Lily which focused on a budding romance between a newspaper reporter (MacMurray) and a stenographer (Colbert) who meet regularly at a park bench to share their dreams for the future. The idyll is spoiled by the appearance of a British nobleman (Ray Milland) who just happens to gibe with Colbert's fantasy of being married to a handsome millionaire. The stars are great in this film, especially Colbert and MacMurray who have obvious chemistry, but they have to struggle with a plot that is only semi-coherent at times and never really draws in the viewer. There are some fine moments in it for the actors, though, particularly a night-club sequence where Colbert has to sing and dance when her character supposedly doesn't have the ability to do either. The Bride Comes Home is much better. This time the other man is played by Robert Young. Colbert is a socialite left penniless after the stock market crash who takes a job as a writer for a men's magazine. Her editor is MacMurray and the magazine's owner is Young, and of course both vie for Colbert's affections with predictable though amusingly mounted results. There a really fine cast of supporting players including the likes of Donald Meek, Edgar Kennedy, Jimmy Conlon, and William Collier Sr. Family Honeymoon has a contrived plot that finds newly-wed Fred and Claudette forced by circumstance to bring Claudette's three children from her previous marriage with them on their honeymoon. An additional complication is a former flame of Fred's (Rita Johnson) who also tries to spoil the newlywed couple's time together. Utilizing some nice location work in the Grand Canyon, the film is crisply directed by reliable Universal studio hand Claude Binyon and the stars are so comfortable together that they make the whole thing very palatable. In fact, it's actually the most entertaining and engaging of the three films in the set. The supporting cast is once again a distinct plus - Lillian Bronson, Hattie McDaniel, Chill Wills, Irving Bacon, Harry Hayden, etc. Each film has its own pressed DVD housed in a fold-out digipack (which unfortunately lacks a slip case). The full frame transfers are typically good Universal efforts offering crisp transfers with good image detail and modest grain apparent. Family Honeymoon is perhaps a little sharper than the two earlier Paramount productions. The mono sound on all is in good shape and each film is accompanied by a Robert Osborne introduction and a selection of publicity and scene stills, poster and lobby card reproductions, and articles from the TCM database. Recommended.
The Andy Griffith Show has previously had all eight seasons released on DVD by Paramount. The show's pilot, which aired as an episode of The Danny Thomas Show (aka Make Room for Daddy), has also been made available on Questar's release of the 5th season of Danny Thomas. Now Paramount gives us The Andy Griffith Show: 50th Anniversary - The Best of Mayberry box set.
Comprising three discs, it contains 17 all-time favourite episodes, the pilot program, and the 1986 reunion special, Return to Mayberry. Let's deal with the latter first, as it's the only element new to DVD. Return to Mayberry does succeed in its primary intent - to reintroduce us to favourite characters some 17 years after the original show ended. Virtually all return - Andy, Barney, Gomer, Goober, Opie, Helen and Ellie-May among them - with only Aunt Bea and Floyd the barber not present (Frances Bavier and Howard McNear respectively having died in the interim). Beyond that task, which exhausts itself after about half an hour, the rest of the program is a bit of a chore. The story line concerning a fake monster being sighted in the local fishing pond is flabby and poorly executed. Worse yet, it involves the crazy Ernest T. Bass character and Briscoe Darling (Denver Pyle) clan all of whose actions would try the patience of Job. The full frame image is bright and clean with good colour fidelity, and the mono sound if clear. The other supplement, the Andy Griffith pilot, is an entertaining piece with Griffith's sheriff Any Taylor character being introduced along with his son Opie (Ron Howard). One can see the likeability of and relationship between those characters that made the idea of a spin-off series so appealing. The image quality is very good - basically the same as that of the individual best-of episodes in the set. As for those episodes, they all come from the first four seasons of the show: The Christmas Story, The Pickle Story, Barney and the Choir, Mr. McBeeVee, Convicts at Large, Man in a Hurry, Class Reunion, The Darlings Are Coming, Barney's First Car, Dogs Dogs Dogs, Mountain Wedding, Opie the Birdman, The Sermon for Today, Citizen's Arrest, Fun Girls, Barney's Sidecar, and Goober and the Art of Love. The choices are mainly worthy ones although I could do without the Darlings one. The transfers appear to be the same as those on the individual season releases. Other supplements in the discs include original sponsor material on selected episodes and some promos featuring Andy Griffith for the 1962 and 1963 CBS TV season openings. Recommended for those looking for a representative sampling of The Andy Griffith Show.
Meet John Doe is the 1941 Frank Capra film, distributed by Warner Bros., that continues to languish in the public domain.
The film (which stars Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper) is very well known for its typical Capra viewpoint of empowering the common man to effect change in the system and it still has much to say in the light of current socio-political happenings. Capra admittedly wrestled mightily with the ending and indeed it remains a problem, but not enough to negate the power of what comes before. In the early days of DVD, Image's release under the Hal Roach Studios Film Classics imprimateur was the best looking version available. Then in 2001, Britain's Laureate Presentations released a somewhat better version using superior source material and applying some digital restoration. Available as a region-free disc on NTSC, the image was brighter and slightly sharper throughout. Even better, there was a whole raft of generally worthy supplements that made that release the version to have. There were plans to have it released in North America by Hart Sharp Video, but those plans never did bear fruit. Then in 2010, Laureate reached an arrangement with VCI to bring the disc to Region 1 and the result, known as Meet John Doe: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition was released this past December as a two-DVD set. The film has received some further digital clean-up, but otherwise is virtually identical in content to Laureate's ten-year-old British release. The full frame image will not be mistaken for a full-scale restoration of original source material such as has been done by some of the major studios for their black and white classics, but given Meet John Doe's situation, VCI's effort is likely to be the best we'll see until and if Warner Bros., Criterion, or some other altruistic company is willing to spend money on the film. VCI's image is tolerable enough - reasonably bright and clear, but soft overall with some contrast issues. It can be viewed satisfactorily on larger screens, but tolerates a smaller presentation surface better. The mono sound is in good shape and English, French, German, and Spanish subtitles have been added. A minor cosmetic issue that was a concern with Laureate's original release has been only partially addressed on this VCI effort. Laureate had dropped the Warner shield and accompanying music from its release and superimposed a Laureate logo over part of the opening scenes of the film. VCI has restored the Warner shield (unfortunately without the Warner musical fanfare), but the Laureate logo remains. The better decision would have been to place the Laureate credit on a separate screen before the Warner shield. The first disc of the set that contains the film adds a comfortable-sounding and interesting audio commentary by film historian Ken Barnes interspersed with some archival contributions from Frank Capra. The commentary also offers optional English subtitles. The rest of the supplements, which are identical to those on Laureate's 2001 release, are found on the second DVD and include three good featurettes each between 15 and 20 minutes long and focusing on Stanwyck, Cooper, and Capra. There are also two vintage "Lux Radio Theatre" productions - "Sorry Wrong Number" starring Burt Lancaster and Barbara Stanwyck, and "For Whom the Bell Tolls" starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. Rounding out the extras are a before and after comparison, and text-based cast and crew profiles and production information. Recommended.
One of VCI's most recent "Best Of!" British Classics releases is a double feature disc containing 1942's Tomorrow We Live and 1939's Inquest.
Inquest is the more interesting of the two. It's based on a play by Michael Barringer and had been previously filmed in 1931. The 1939 version on display here runs a brisk 60 minutes and is definitely a cut above the standard British quota quickie of the era. The plot itself, concerning a man's death originally ruled of natural causes that may in fact have been murder, is mainly played out as a coroner's inquest with the man's wife (Elizabeth Allen) suspected of being responsible. That does give the film a static air, but it is saved by some very entertaining and extended verbal jousting between a coroner determined to exert control over his proceeding in the course of which he reveals some rather human weaknesses (Herbert Lomas) and the dogged King's Counsel defender (Hay Petrie) facing him. The film's director is Roy Boulting (his second feature as such). Tomorrow We Live is essentially a wartime flag waver in support of the efforts of the French Resistance, with the story revolving around attempts to destroy a secret submarine base. The cast is almost entirely British, but the film manages to convey a pretty convincing French atmosphere and maintain reasonable suspense throughout. The Germans are a little obviously caricatured, but aside from that the work of the ensemble cast (headed by John Clements and Hugh Sinclair) is solid. VCI presents both films on a single disc with full frame transfers (as originally released). Tomorrow We Live is slightly the better-looking of the two films with pretty decent sharpness and good contrast. Shadow detail suffers at times. Inquest has some contrast issues related to blown-out whites, but is a workable effort. The mono sound on both is in decent shape, with some hiss evident on Inquest. There are no subtitling and no supplements. Certainly worth a rental.