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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #44, Western Views and News, and New Announcements

Welcome once again to Classic Coming Attractions. This latest column contains reviews of ten recent releases, a few western notes, and the usual update of new classic announcements. The reviews include: the Joan Crawford Collection: Volume 2, Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Two, and Warner Bros. Pictures Gangsters Collection: Volume 3 from Warner Bros., The Sign of the Wolf serial from Hermitage Hill, 12 Angry Men: Collector’s Edition from MGM, The Dragon Painter from Milestone, Saved from the Flames from Flicker Alley, the Portrait in Black/Madame X double feature from Universal, and Daisy Kenyon, Dangerous Crossing, and Black Widow from Fox. I hope you enjoy them and I look forward to hearing any reaction you may have to them. Note that classics release database has been updated to reflect the latest announcements.

Classic Reviews

The Joan Crawford Collection: Volume 2 from Warner Bros. is a welcome release even if it contains several forgettable films.

Joan Crawford Collection: Volume 2

First to the set’s high points, which are Flamingo Road, A Woman’s Face, and to a lesser extent Sadie McKee. Flamingo Road (1949) is the only title from Crawford’s Warner period from the mid-1940s to early 1950s, and is the class of the set even if not in the same league as Mildred Pierce or Humoresque. In it, Crawford moves from burlesque performer to respectability in small-town America stepping over the likes of Zachary Scott as she latches onto polito David Brian. The film features a juicy performance by Sydney Greenstreet as the town sheriff who controls state politics and hopes to raise the hapless Scott to the governorship. Crawford’s part offers her the same sort of meaty role (glamour, ambition, and eventual strength of character) that she had in Mildred Pierce although it doesn’t result in quite the same tour-de-force performance. The under-rated Zachary Scott (WB – please bring on The Unfaithful, Danger Signal, The Mask of Dimitrios, Stallion Road, South of St. Louis) is very good as always. A Woman’s Face (1941) came late in Crawford’s MGM period (late 1920s to early 1940s) and was one of her better roles for that time. The film is a remake of a Swedish production starring Ingrid Bergman and accounting for the Swedish setting – initially surprising given the casting of Crawford and such American character players such as Marjorie Main and Donald Meek. Tempering that is the presence of Ona Massen and Conrad Veidt who provide a European feel to things. Crawford’s character endures numerous surgeries to transform her deeply scarred face into that of a beauty in order to gain the love of aristocrat Torsten Barring (Veidt), but then finds that to ensure it, she must murder a little boy who stands between Barring and his inheritance of a fortune. Director George Cukor draws an effective performance from Crawford, but the film’s virtue stems mainly from an engrossing script that Cukor invests with substantial suspense crowned with a tension-filled finale. Sadie McKee (1934) , one of some 17 films churned out by Crawford in the 1930-35 period, is an efficiently-made rags-to-riches story for the energetic Crawford of that time. Franchot Tone (Crawford’s real-life flame at the time) and Edward Arnold (usually an asset to any film he was in, here offers a drunk act that gets hard to take after a while) co-star. The film clocks in at 93 minutes in length and has enough plot twists to keep one interested despite some familiar material. Less successful is 1940’s Strange Cargo. It sported the eighth and final teaming of Crawford and Gable, but their sparring was becoming predictable by then. The film itself seems like an interminable affair with a hackneyed escape from Devil’s Island premise and Crawford’s character in high heels along for the ride. The only thing that saves the film from sinking completely is the redemption angle provided by a Christ-like figure being one of the escapers, and good performances by supporting players such as Paul Lukas and Edward Ciannelli. Finally, we have Torch Song (1953) – a star vehicle for Crawford if ever there was one, even if the overall effect is one of excess to the point of ludicrousness. Crawford, in a film that marked her first outing at MGM in ten years, plays a tough, self-centred, musical stage star who eventually falls for a blind pianist (Michael Wilding) who speaks his mind critically of her. Crawford dances (at least a little more gracefully than her early MGM efforts) and lip-syncs several numbers, even bizarrely sporting black face for one. The film was shot in colour. All the others were made in black and white. Torch Song is presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer with some obvious registration problems and colour fidelity issues. It’s not terrible, but is distracting at times. I suspect a considerable effort would be required to improve on it but the title hardly justifies it. The other four films are presented full frame as originally shot. All look quite presentable with Sadie McKee slightly weaker than the others in terms of sharpness and black levels. All five titles look quite clean, however. The mono sound on all titles is in good shape. In terms of supplements, no commentaries are offered but each title does sport a welcome contemporary cartoon, theatrical trailer, and vintage short or radio adaptation. Three new featurettes based on interviews with the likes of daughter Christina Crawford and film historians Jeanne Basinger, James Barrios, and Molly Haskell (Gable and Crawford, Crawford at Warners, Tough Baby: Torch Song) are worthwhile additions. Recommended.

Hermitage Hill Media returns to the fray this month with two serial releases. The first is The Sign of the Wolf, a 10-chapter 1931 effort originally produced by Metropolitan Pictures.

The Sign of the Wolf

The plot revolves around a pair of radioactive chains that can change ordinary sand into valuable jewels. Discovering them in India, eccentric explorer John Farnum (Harry Todd) brings them to his home in the American west where he and his daughter (Virginia Brown Faire) are confronted by a gang of crooks intent on stealing the chains for their own use. Two local cowboys (Rex Lease and Joe Bonomo) and King the Wonder Dog (who turns out to have a “sign of the wolf” marking on his ear) come to the rescue while an Indian Prince (Edmund Cobb) adds an air of mystery to the proceedings. There’s a lot to like about this serial including the realistic-looking, dusty settings typical of early sound westerns and the intriguing wolf-related plot trappings. The plot summaries at the start of each chapter are also interestingly staged. Lease, Bonomo, and King make for an easy-going set of protagonists, with King by far the most intelligent of the bunch. The serial seems like wall-to-wall fistfights at times which would be fine except the tussles are just protracted flailings that are poorly staged, not yet benefiting from the fight choreography techniques that Yakima Canutt and John Wayne would soon pioneer at Monogram. The cliffhanger endings are mediocre at best. Hermitage Hill’s DVD release originates with The Serial Squadron and presents the serial on a single two-sided disc (contrary to the disc jacket text which indicates two separate DVDs). The full frame image (sepia-toned black and white) is in decent shape considering what I expect was pretty difficult source material. There are numerous scratches and debris, but the overall image is reasonably sharp most of the time and shadow detail is quite good. There are some stretches that are a little fuzzy and several instances of negative damage, but nothing that really detracts from one’s focus on the story. The mono sound is quite workable although some hiss and other background audio anomalies are evident. The disc’s only supplement is a music track that cuts in near the cliffhanger endings of each chapter. It can be turned on or off either from the main menu or on the fly. This release is worth taking a flyer on, especially for those particularly interested in early sound productions.

This time, MGM’s latest release in its string of recent double dips benefits 12 Angry Men, the superb 1957 drama originally released through United Artists.

12 Angry Men: 50th Anniversary Edition

I recently had the pleasure of seeing the stage revival of 12 Angry Men now touring North America and was delighted to see that it stands the test of time without losing a step. Richard Thomas heads a talented cast in this revival, but revisiting the 1957 film immediately afterwards reminded me of the incredibly fine assemblage of actors that graced the original – Henry Fonda in the lead role, with able support from the likes of Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Jack Warden, Robert Webber, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Edward Binns, Martin Balsam, and so on. It’s hard to think of a film from the same era with as many character actors of such stature in it. The new Collector’s Edition features a new 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer, audio commentary by film historian Drew Casper, and two new featurettes. The 2001 DVD release already looked very crisp and clean indeed, despite the lack of an anamorphic transfer, so this new release offers but a very modest improvement image-wise. The audio commentary is a definite upgrade, full as it is of detail on all aspects of the production and its cast and crew – a typically packed effort by Casper. The two new featurettes add little to what we already know from Casper’s commentary. Curiously, the theatrical trailer (the only supplement at all on the 2001 release) is not included on the new edition. Obviously, this new edition is the preferred version to have of the film and is recommended, but for those who have the more-than-acceptable old version, only confirmed fans of the film need consider an upgrade.

Milestone Film and Video has recently released The Dragon Painter, a 1919 silent film starring Sessue Hayakawa, best known to modern filmgoers for his portrayal of Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Dragon Painter

In the silent era, Hayakawa was an acknowledged film star with enough clout to start up his own studio, Haworth Pictures, when he tired of the roles then being offered to him in Hollywood. The Dragon Painter, which presented a more realistic picture of Japanese culture to American audiences than previously available on film, tells the story of a young artist named Tatsu who believes his princess fiancée has been captured by a dragon. When he comes under the wing of a master painter looking for a new protégée, Tatsu believes the master’s daughter to be his long-lost love. In finding her, however, he loses his ability to paint. The film was long believed lost until a print was discovered in France and brought to the George Eastman House for restoration with the original tints. The Dragon Painter is a mere 53 minutes in length and tells a simple story well. The acting is uniformly good, though typically demonstrative (at times particularly so by Hayakawa) for the time. Excellent use is made of Yosemite Park for some exteriors. The DVD shows off the film to good advantage. The image is window-boxed and looks remarkably clear and well detailed. There are the inevitable scratches and hints of deterioration for an almost 90-year-old film, but I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed in what they see. A new score commissioned from Mark Izu by Milestone complements the image very appropriately. The supplement package is impressive and very pertinent. It includes the interesting full-length 1914 feature The Wrath of the Gods (with Hayakawa, and Frank Borzage), a 1921 comedy short in which Hayakawa cavorts weakly with Fatty Arbuckle and Charles Murray, a stills gallery, and DVD-ROM content (the original “The Dragon Painter” novel, a featurette about recreating the climax of The Wrath of the Gods, and a press kit). The audience for this release is likely to be quite limited, but those willing to take a chance will be well rewarded. Recommended.

Over a year ago, Warner Bros. gave us the first volume of Forbidden Hollywood, which contained four much-anticipated releases but disappointed somewhat in terms of supplementary content and attention to packaging detail. Now we have the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Two and the results are much more in line with what fans have come to expect from Warners.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Two

This time we get five Pre-Code classics plus a new documentary on Pre-Code films, two audio commentaries, and three theatrical trailers. Every film in the set is a winner. The Divorcee and A Free Soul (MGM productions from 1930 and 1931) both show a sly and calculating side of Norma Shearer that is unexpected based solely on viewings of her later films. Each film sports an Oscar-winning performance, the one from Shearer well deserved as the wife who plays tit-for-tat with her philandering husband in The Divorcee, but the other by Lionel Barrymore in A Free Soul less obviously so given the passage of time. Shearer, whose title-role character plays fast and loose with gangster Clark Gable, is however superb in the latter film. Next up is Three on a Match (Warner Bros., 1932) which features Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis as the three women of the title. Ann Dvorak makes the most of the juiciest role as a society wife whose fortunes soon turn into a life of booze, drugs, and child neglect. Blondell is as perky, sassy, and street-smart as ever while Davis is merely window-dressing in this one. Look for Humphrey Bogart in a small but typical early gangster role. Then, Ruth Chatterton in Female (Warner Bros., 1933) shows us what life is like for a woman heading up a major industrial concern by day and sleeping her way through her support staff at night. The often under-appreciated Chatterton is terrific while George Brent chips in with an early version of his lengthy career of providing romantic support to Warners’ leading ladies. The only fault with this film is an ending which manages to undo the progressiveness of the preceding 59 minutes. Finally, Night Nurse (Warner Bros., 1931) stars Barbara Stanwyck as a nurse whose first independent job involves looking after two young girls, one of whom is apparently being starved to death. This lingerie-strewn outing co-stars the always-reliable Joan Blondell (seemingly ubiquitous in early 30s Warner films) and has a small but effective early role for Clark Gable as a malevolent chauffeur (he manages to get killed off twice in this box set). Aside from the narrative efficiency of each of the films (the three Warner titles range from an hour to an hour and a quarter in length while the longest of the two MGM ones is 93 minutes), there’s an amazing amount of plot detail and character development in all of them, making each film a joy to sit through. For films ranging in age from 75 to 78 years old, the DVD image results are very pleasing. There are some scratches and debris, but on the whole, the images are clear, crisp and nicely detailed. The Divorcee is perhaps slightly weaker than the others. The mono sound on all is quite good with only some minor hiss noticeable at times. The box set serves as a handy primer on the Pre-Code era, as the audio commentaries by film Historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta (on The Divorcee and Night Nurse) and the 68-minute documentary Thou Shalt Not: Sex, Sin, and Censorship in Pre-Code Hollywood together provide a wealth of information on the era in general as well as the set’s five films in particular. Highly recommended.

Based upon Retour de Flamme, a DVD series from Lobster Films in Paris (Serge Bromberg) and upon films from the Blackhawk Collection (David Shepard), Flicker Alley has now produced a three-DVD set of 54 rare and restored films from the period 1896-1944 called Saved from the Flames.

Saved from the Flames

Disc One contains 22 titles organized under three headings – “New Beginnings” (early experiments by Lumiere, George Mendel and others), “Magical Movies” (fantasy and trick films), and “Seeing the World” (travel or history related shorts mainly focused on America or Europe). Disc Two has 17 titles organized under “Laughing Like We Used To” (seven comedies including a recently-discovered nitrate negative of Chaplin’s first appearance in his “tramp’ attire), “Drawings and Models” (animated works including three from the Fleischer Studios), and “Grace Notes” (four rare musical performances). Disc Three concludes the set with 15 titles – “Persuade Me” (films intended to influence whether by commercial advertising, world war propaganda, or political campaigning), “Tell Me a Story” (three narrative films from 1912-1913 by D.W. Griffith, LoisWeber, and Thomas Ince), and “One for the Road” (a reel of “stolen kiss’ edits from various films). The pleasure of this set lies in its variety (narrative/documentary, live action/animated, drama/comedy/musical, foreign/domestic, silent/sound) and in the knowledge that we are viewing things that could have easily disappeared forever had it not been for the exhaustive efforts of the likes of vintage film enthusiasts such as Shepard and Bromberg. You likely won’t want to watch all this at a single sitting and indeed that’s not recommended. Better to savour this one in little chunks – whether it’s Laurel and Hardy dubbed in French promoting MGM releases, or Lillian Roth belting out “Ain’t She Sweet”, or stop-motion animation from 1911, or faked 1934 California election news intended to upend Upton Sinclair’s bid for the governorship, or Ub Iwerks’ bizarre 1935 cartoon Balloonland, or a 1922 comedy with Stan Laurel on his own, or Fox Movietone’s sound record of Lindbergh’s take-off for his non-stop flight from New York to Paris, or a 1907 rendition of “La Marseillaise” on film with synchronized sound on disc, or… well, you get the idea. The DVD image (all presented full frame) quality is variable as one might expect. Some titles look extremely sharp and detailed; others suffer from nitrate decomposition and other indignities. The sound is similarly variable although hiss and some distortion are common. New musical accompaniments have been commissioned in some cases and all work very well with the material. The only supplement is a 16-page booklet that effectively details the background for each film as well as indicating how it was saved or acquired for the set. Highly recommended.

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