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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #17 - April 2005

In an effort to catch up on current discs before the spring onslaught, I offer today short takes on 17 classic DVDs released mainly over the past three months that remain on my "to do" shelves. This in no way should be considered as diminishing the quality of these offerings, for there are many really good discs worth recommending among them. It's just an effort to remain as current as possible in the reviews that these columns provide. These short-take reviews are, as usual, ordered by year of original release.

A Mormon Maid (1917)
(released on DVD by Reelclassicdvd in 2004)

There's not much mention of this film in most of the silent reference books, perhaps because it is viewed as a poor distant stepchild of Birth of a Nation and also because it could be seen as being quite offensive to the early Mormon faith. Originally produced by the Jesse Lasky Company and directed by Robert Z. Leonard, it relates a tale of a pioneer family who live in Utah. They are attacked by Indians, but saved by a group of Mormons who happen by. With their home burned down, the couple and their daughter move to a nearby Mormon settlement where they eventually prosper.

A Mormon Maid

The settlement is guarded by a group of Mormon fanatics called the Avenging Angels who dress like the Ku Klux Klan, one of whose leading members, Darius Burr, contrives to take Dora as his fifth wife. First, however, he must neutralize any opposition from Dora's parents. This is a well crafted and smoothly directed melodrama that holds the attention throughout its 65-minute playing time despite its overt anti-Mormon slant. Mae Murray, doing somewhat of a Mary Pickford impersonation, is quite effective as Dora while Hobart Bosworth and Edythe Chapman provide solid work as Dora's parents. Noah Beery steals the show with a real sleazeball portrayal of Burr. Interestingly, Frank Borzage who was just beginning his lengthy directorial career at the time plays a young Mormon who loves Dora.

Reelclassicdvd's presentation is very pleasing. The transfer, from untinted source material, is quite clear for the most part with good contrast and shadow detail, and minimal print damage evident. An original piano score composed and played by Stuart Oderman is a plus. Recommended as a curiosity, although be aware that some may be offended by the material's bias.

Victory/The Wicked Darling (1919)
(released on DVD by Image on January 25th, 2005)

Two more Lon Chaney films have been made available on DVD through the efforts of David Shepard (Film Preservation Associates). Victory and The Wicked Darling were both released in 1919 (by Paramount and Universal respectively) and are two of only 19 Chaney films that are known to exist from his output of 116 films during the 1913 to 1919 period. The Wicked Darling tells about Mary Stevens, a street criminal who steals a pearl necklace from the former fiancée of Kent Mortimer, a well-off man now down on his luck. Falling in love with Kent, Mary reforms herself, but when Kent learns that she was a criminal before, he rejects Mary who seems likely to return to her old ways as a result. Lon Chaney plays Stoop Connors, a thug who used to work with Mary and wants his cut from the stolen necklace. Priscilla Dean does a marvelous job as Mary, but it is Chaney who steals the show as the ruthless Connors.

Victory/The Wicked Darling

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The first collaboration between Chaney and director Tod Browning, the film has a real sense of atmosphere in its realistic portrayal of the seamy side of life and the various low-lifes that inhabit it. Victory is an entirely different sort of experience with its setting of a South Seas island (based on a Joseph Conrad story). In it, a reclusive man named Heyst takes Alma, a young woman being abused by a hotel owner, to his private island for safety. Using the pretext that there is gold on Heyst's island, the hotelier Schomberg convinces three criminals to go after Heyst and Alma, leading to a lethal confrontation. Victory is a beautifully filmed and engrossing tale directed by Maurice Tourneur. Lon Chaney is again a notable character as he plays the cruel and menacing Ricardo, one of the three criminals. His characteristic use of makeup to create a memorable face and some good stunt work are both in evidence. Jack Holt and Wallace Beery (looking more like Sig Rumann) are worth a mention as Heyst and Schomberg respectively.

On the Image DVD, Victory looks very good indeed - nicely tinted with a clear image characterized by only mild speckling and a few scratches. The Wicked Darling is in much poorer shape. The film was rediscovered in the 1990s and preserved by the Netherlands Filmmuseum and is more or less complete. It does suffer from extensive negative damage from wear and mildew so be prepared for a rough transfer that is, however, watchable. Both films sport engaging stereo music scores compiled and performed by Eric Beheim. The only supplement is an excellent two-page set of liner notes written by Chaney expert Michael Blake. Recommended.

Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921)
(released on DVD by Milestone on March 1st, 2005)

This is one of a couple of silent filmings of the Frances Hodgson Burnett classic story of young Cedric Errol who grows up in a tough neighborhood of New York where he lives with his widowed mother Dearest. Cedric, however, is the rightful heir of the elderly Earl of Dorincourt, whose son had married Dearest against the Earl's wishes.

Little Lord Fauntleroy

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When the Earl summons Cedric and Dearest back to England, their fortunes look to improve, but there are others claiming Cedric's birthright. The film was one of Mary Pickford's biggest hits when released in 1921. She actually plays both Cedric and Dearest and does a fine job with both, although her Cedric is the somewhat less convincing of the two.

The actual shooting of the film, particularly the scenes involving both characters, was quite grueling in order to get the timing exact for the double exposures. Pickford also had to endure uncomfortable six-inch shoe lifts to create Dearest's extra height. The film has the look of an expensive production (which it was) and recreates the appearance of rough New York neighborhoods and an expensive English country estate equally effectively. Despite the passage of almost 85 years, the film still provides fine entertainment and would make for an excellent double bill with the 1936 David Selznick sound version.

Milestone's DVD release (via Image) is from sepia-toned source material that looks fairly worn. The transfer, however, is well done providing a crisp and fairly clear image, although well sprinkled with speckles and scratches. The title cards appear to be mainly intact. A very pleasing addition is a new orchestral score by Nigel Holton that catches the spirit of the film well. Supplements include an extensive photo gallery for the film itself (about 50 images), a shorter one on the life of Mary Pickford, and extensive DVD-ROM content focusing on Pickford's life and career. This is the first of several Mary Pickford releases scheduled from Milestone this year and is Recommended.

We Live Again (1934)
(released on DVD by MGM on March 8th, 2005)

Jeanette MacDonald, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo - having directed each of these female stars in the early 1930s, Rouben Mamoulian then took on Anna Sten, a Ukrainian actress that producer Samuel Goldwyn had discovered in Europe and was attempting to promote in a series of films. The vehicle was an adaptation of Tolstoy's "Resurrection" entitled We Live Again.

We Live Again

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Peasant girl Katusha is smitten with Prince Dmitri and when he returns from two years of army service, the two fall in love. Dmitri returns to his regiment not knowing that Katusha is pregnant. The baby dies and years pass before the two are thrown together again when Katusha goes on trial for murder. It's easy to look down on this film as Tolstoy-light, but even 70 years later, Mamoulian's feeling for the material is undeniable. The first half of the film is beautifully filmed (featuring some fine photography by Gregg Toland) with an effective evocation of the Russian setting and a real emotional connection to the two main characters. The second half seems more conventional in its presentation of the jail and trial scenes, but the film regains its footing during the ending. Anna Sten may not be to everyone's taste, but she's good as Katusha, and Fredric March delivers his normal superior effort as Dmitri. C. Aubrey Smith and Sam Jaffe are among the more familiar faces in a supporting cast that also includes Ethel Griffies and Gwendolyn Logan as a pair of nattering aunts.

MGM's correctly framed full screen presentation is average. The source material is in decent shape and the transfer looks generally bright with good contrast and shadow detail. The mono sound is clear with only some minor background hiss. A Spanish mono track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements.

Barbary Coast (1935)
(released on DVD by MGM on March 8th, 2005)

Originally slated to star Gary Cooper and Gloria Swanson and be directed by William Wellman, this Samuel Goldwyn production eventually metamorphosed into a Howard Hawks picture with Edward G. Robinson, Miriam Hopkins, and Joel McCrea starring.

Barbary Coast

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It's a tale of early San Francisco revolving around a crooked saloon keeper, a woman from the east who ends up working for him, and a naïve young prospector/poet who loses his money at the saloon but wins the woman's love.

The film's plot is a familiar one, but it's played out with some panache and a fairly rousing finale. Hopkins fares best in a somewhat Hawks-strong-woman-like role while Robinson gives a juicy western interpretation of his gangster persona (complete with earring). McCrea's role is decidedly curious and even more low-key than usual for him. A fine supporting cast also provides some diversion (Brian Donlevy, Walter Brennan, Harry Carey, Donald Meek, Frank Craven, and even a young David Niven).
MGM's correctly framed full screen presentation is quite decent. It has a fair bit of grain and the usual speckles and scratches, but image detail is very good. The mono sound is characterized by more hiss and crackle than is common for older films. French and Spanish mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. The theatrical trailer is included. A must for Howard Hawks completists and Edward G. fans, otherwise a worthy rental for others.

The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936)
(released on DVD by Shanachie on March 6th, 2004)

Originally released in North America as The Man Who Lived Again, this film was one of several that Boris Karloff made in Britain under his 1934 contract with Universal which gave him the right to free-lance elsewhere.

The Man Who Changed His Mind

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It's a typical role for Karloff as he plays Dr. Laurience who has successfully experimented with interchanging the minds of chimpanzees. Laurience, of course, wants to extend his experiments to human subjects but when he presents his ideas at a public lecture sponsored by Lord Haslewood, a prominent publisher and owner of the lab at which Laurience works, his efforts are ridiculed by other scientists. Enraged, and threatened with losing his lab by Haslewood, he seizes the publisher as the potential first human victim of his experiments.

A superior entry in the horror genre, the film features a fine performance by Karloff. The story is treated with respect by the performers and is briskly shot by director Robert Stevenson. Frank Cellier is particularly memorable as the Lord Haslewood character while Anna Lee (later in How Green Was My Valley) and John Loder play the obligatory young couple with a little more panache than those in similar entries. For enthusiasts of 1930s horror movies, the film has the usual lab trappings of breakers and arcing electricity, and even an old dark house (at least to start off the story).

Shanachie's DVD release (part of its British Cinema Collection) is licensed from Carlton International and presents a surprisingly good transfer. The image (correctly presented full frame) is a little soft at times, but otherwise gives the sense of a fairly sharp, clean, and nicely detailed picture. Source material damage is minimal. The mono sound is a little the worse for wear, sporting substantial hiss, although there is never a problem understanding the dialogue. There are no subtitles or supplements. Anyone who likes the Universal horrors should not be disappointed by this one.

Stella Dallas (1937)
(released on DVD by MGM on March 8th, 2005)

The Olive Higgins Prouty story of working class woman Stella Martin whose marriage to the formerly wealthy Stephen Dallas ends in separation and eventually leads her to a difficult decision on her daughter's future was first filmed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1925 with Belle Bennett and Ronald Colman in the lead roles.

Stella Dallas

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Goldwyn decided upon a sound remake under the direction of King Vidor. The lead role went to Barbara Stanwyck whose efforts resulted in a tour-de-force that garnered Stanwyck her first Academy Award Best Actress nomination (she lost out to Luise Rainer for The Good Earth). Stanwyck's excellent work is so engrossing that you virtually forget everyone else in the film. For the record, John Boles (in one of his less stodgy than usual efforts) plays husband Stephen and Anne Shirley is daughter Laurel. Alan Hale is good, in a typical role for him, as Stella's convenient boyfriend Ed Munn. Tim Holt, Marjorie Main, and Hattie McDaniel also appear.

Despite the years, this is still a powerful film and miles ahead of the lamentable remake, Stella, with Bette Midler. MGM's correctly framed full screen presentation is very good indeed, with contrast and image detail being particularly notable. A fair amount of grain is present. The mono sound is quite acceptable and a Spanish track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
(released on DVD by Warner on March 1st, 2005)

The Philadelphia Story

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It's hard to find something new to say about a film that almost everyone acknowledges as one of the great comedies.

Katharine Hepburn stars as a fault-finding, bride-to-be socialite who gets her comeuppance. She has to make do with Cary Grant and James Stewart as her costars. A sparkling script, an excellent cast from top to bottom, first-rate performances, and assured direction from George Cukor all add up to a winner. Stewart won the Best Actor Academy Award for his work, although some felt it was payback for losing out the previous year for much superior work on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film was remade as the musical High Society in 1956.

Warner Bros.' new DVD version is a two-disc special edition that offers a correctly framed full screen transfer that looks scintillating - sharp and clear with deep blacks, clean whites and a beautifully detailed gray scale in between. The mono sound is clear and is supplemented by English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Extras include an informative audio commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger, five George Cukor trailers including one for The Philadelphia Story, excellent documentaries about Katharine Hepburn (All About Me - A Self Portrait) and George Cukor (his episode from The Men Who Made the Movies), a Robert Benchley short (That Inferior Feeling), a cartoon (The Homeless Flea), and two radio adaptations from 1942 and 1947. Very highly recommended.

On to Part Two

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