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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #4 - May 2004

We've had quite a collection of classic releases by Fox recently and in this third edition of the Classic Reviews Roundup, I'll be tackling 15 titles. Included are one disc featuring James Stewart and Raquel Welsh (Bandolero!), two current Studio Classics titles (The Grapes of Wrath and Desk Set), a few family favourites (Cheaper by the Dozen, Belles on Their Toes, and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines), another round of musicals (Call Me Madam and Roxie Hart), the third wave of Marilyn Monroe films (As Young As You Feel, Let's Make It Legal, Love Nest, and We're Not Married) and such disparate titles as Prince Valiant, Reefer Madness, and A High Wind in Jamaica. The reviews are ordered by the films' year of original release.

Reefer Madness (1938)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 20th, 2004)

One wonders, when so much of Fox's classic catalogue is going begging for DVD release, why part of the company's distribution effort is directed to a notoriously poor independent production of the late 1930s warning about the dangers of marijuana. Reefer Madness (originally Tell Your Children) has become a subject of derision over the years and while any film may be considered worthy of a DVD release, it's annoying to see the special treatment that has gone into this disc when we can't even get a few of Alice Faye's or Betty Grable's films out on DVD. Actually we've been through this before. Last autumn, Fox brought us A Christmas Wish. Readers will recall that the impetus for the release was a colourization effort by Legend Films. We got both the original black and white version and the new colourized one along with a commentary by one of the stars that unfortunately was only accessible on the colorized version. This Reefer Madness release repeats the formula, but with a twist. This time, Legend Films doesn't even try to get the colours right.

Reefer Madness

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The colourized version is the centerpiece of the disc and it's supplemented by two audio commentaries - one by Mike Nelson of TV's Mystery Science Theater 3000", the other by representatives of Legend Films. Nelson's effort is his usual juvenile ramble while the one by Legend Films discredits the whole process of colourization even further, if that's possible. Legend Films freely admits that they made up the whole colour palette for the film as they went along, with no effort at authenticity, just a desire to throw in whatever colour caught their fancy or somehow reflected how they felt about a particular character or segment of the film. In one flight of inspiration, they decided to make the smoke from the reefers different colours depending on the character smoking them. I guess many people might say that Reefer Madness deserves no better, but that's hardly the point. In fairness, I must point out that the disc does include the original black and white version looking about as good as the film has looked on home video. Unfortunately, too many people will buy this disc for the other version, which just encourages outfits like Legend films to mutilate other films - next time, perhaps one you really care about.

I know many people say that some restoration of the original is occurring as part of the whole process, and as long as we get it included, where's the harm. For now perhaps that's true, but when do the powers that be decide that we don't really need the original included any more? A major studio like Fox shouldn't be encouraging this sort of effort nor devoting part of its distribution resources to it.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 6th, 2004)

20th Century-Fox reportedly paid author John Steinbeck $70,000 for the rights to his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the plight of the Okies displaced from their farms during the great drought of the early 1930s, The Grapes of Wrath. In so-doing, the company agreed that the film version would fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent of the book. The Grapes of Wrath certainly lived up to this clause, by virtue of a tremendous script by Nunnally Johnson, although one of its most famous scenes, Ma Joad's speech ("We're the people that live…") that ends the film, was taken from earlier in the actual book. That speech was the crowning touch on the film's most memorable job of acting, Jane Darwell's portrayal of Ma, for which she was quite justly acknowledged with 1940's Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. Not so lucky was Henry Fonda who had agreed to a seven-year contract with Fox so that he could do the role of the film's protagonist, Tom Joad. Fonda gave one of the best performances of his career, but he lost out to James Stewart who that year won the Best Actor award for a lesser performance in The Philadelphia Story (usually viewed now as payback for having been overlooked for his work in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939). If Darwell and Fonda are the most-often cited actors connected with the film, they are far from its only acting merits. The film is blessed with a tremendous ensemble cast of players (including John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Russell Simpson, John Qualen, Doris Bowdon, and Eddie Quillan portraying various members of the group traveling to the perceived salvation of jobs in California) and then buttressed by a whole host of familiar Hollywood supporting actors (Grant Mitchell, Ward Bond, William Pawley, Charles Middleton, Paul Guilfoyle, Joe Sawyer, Frank Faylen, Adrian Morris, Tom Tyler - the list goes on and on).

The Grapes of Wrath

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Guiding all this was director John Ford who along with the great cameraman Gregg Toland, created some of the most memorable images of Hollywood history to date. The film is shot starkly in both close-up and long shot to emphasize the desperate straits of the characters with no allowance for conventional Hollywood glossiness. In other words, there's no way you'd mistake this for an MGM picture of the time. Ford built his film around the characters of the Joads and claimed to distain the story's social context, but the latter comes through clearly enough that the film was later (during the McCarthy era) pointed to as an example of Hollywood's supposed socialistic if not communistic leanings. John Ford was the recipient of the film's other Academy Award (the second of his four Best Director Oscars). The film was also the year's best picture according to the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle, and was widely admired by both critics and the public. It has only grown in stature over the intervening years.

Given that the film's original camera negative has been lost, this DVD incarnation is about as good as it's going to get. Using an incomplete nitrate composite dupe negative from the Museum of Modern Art and a composite fine-grain master positive from Fox, the film was reconstructed and a new archival materials created. Digital clean-up was then applied to provide the transfer we see on the DVD. The results, compared to what has previously been available on home video are nothing short of miraculous. That's not to say that there aren't still problems with some loss of shadow detail and excessive grain at times, but on the whole, the black and white image (full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio) is significantly crisper, clearer and more detailed than the previous best video incarnation, the 1993 laserdisc. The sound is quite clear for the dialogue-driven film although there is fairly persistent low-level background hiss. Both stereo and mono English and mono Spanish tracks are provided, as well as English and Spanish sub-titles. Supplements include an audio commentary by film scholars Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw that is thorough and enlightening; the Biography episode Darryl F. Zanuck: 20th Century Filmmaker; the U.K. prologue; five Movietone newsreels including three drought reports from 1934, outtakes from a segment on the government migratory worker camps, and a speech by President Roosevelt at the 1941 Academy Awards banquet; a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer, and a restoration comparison. Very highly recommended.

Roxie Hart (1942)
(released on DVD by Fox on April 20th, 2004)

How can you not like a film that starts out with a dedication to "all the beautiful women in the world who have shot their men full of holes out of pique"? In this case, it's a film based on the play "Chicago" by Maurine Watkins, initially filmed as Chicago by De Mille Pictures in 1927, later resurrected as a stage musical by Bob Fosse in 1975, and most recently filmed as Chicago, the 2002 Academy Award winner. The 1942 Fox version, Roxie Hart, need take a back seat to none of the other efforts, particularly the most recent one. It has all the heart of the original play and none of the overblown aspects of the 2002 film musical.

Roxie Hart

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The story concerns would-be dancer Roxie Hart who agrees to confess to the murder of a theatrical booking agent killed by her husband Amos. Roxie is persuaded that the ensuing court case will bring her lots of publicity and therefore be good for her career. She need not fear actually being convicted because it's common knowledge that no attractive woman is ever found guilty in Chicago. Ginger Rogers, who was borrowed from RKO by Fox when Fox's first choice Alice Faye became pregnant, is ideally cast as the wise-cracking, gum-chewing Roxie. Her dance number in jail involving tap-dancing on a metal staircase, is a highlight of the film. The other lead in the film is Adolph Menjou who plays Roxie's defence lawyer. He delivers his usual reliable performance as the smooth shyster-like Billy Flynn. Otherwise, the film provides a field day for character actor watchers with the likes of Lynne Overman, Nigel Bruce, Phil Silvers, Sara Allgood, William Frawley, Spring Byington, Ted North, George Chandler, and Morris Ankrum all featured. The film runs a mere 74 minutes, but packs in plenty of laughs and just enough music to make for an ideal package of entertainment. The whole thing adds up to simply a fun time.

Fox provides a full frame (in accord with the original aspect ratio) DVD transfer that looks quite splendid. Blacks are deep, whites are very clean, and the image looks very crisp for the most part. Some modest grain is present giving the image a nice film-like appearance. The sound is in good shape with age-related hiss virtually non-existent. Dialogue is clear throughout. Both stereo and mono tracks are provided although there's little to differentiate between the two. English and Spanish sub-titles are available. Supplements include two versions of the theatrical trailer and trailers for five other Fox musicals. Recommended.

Cheaper by the Dozen (1950)
Belles on Their Toes (1952)
(both released on DVD by Fox on March 16th, 2004)

Along with its sequel Belles on Their Toes, Cheaper by the Dozen (the inspiration for the recent Steve Martin film of the same title) provides a fictionalized account of the real-life family of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their 12 children. Frank is a time and motion study expert who has decidedly unusual ideas about raising his children. Lillian is his patient wife who puts up with Frank's eccentricities, but then must guide the family into adulthood alone when Frank dies suddenly. Cheaper by the Dozen covers the story up to Frank's death, with Belles on Their Toes taking over from there.

Cheaper by the Dozen

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Belles on Their Toes

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Despite the historical basis of the material, the films never have the feel of biography and come across more as Andy-Hardy-like pictures of family life. Taken in terms of that sort of suburban comedy, these are charming and at times amusing films, particularly if one enjoys the acerbic nature of Clifton Webb's work on the screen. Webb, despite the dark image he first cultivated in Laura and The Dark Mirror, was by 1950 better known as Mr. Belvedere, a sharp-tongued genius-turned-babysitter whom he played in three films, and there are elements of the character in his portrayal of Frank Gilbreth. This adds to the air of unreality in Cheaper by the Dozen, but his presence still makes it the more entertaining of the two films. Myrna Loy provides a sobering influence as Frank's wife, Lillian, (much as she did as Fredric March's wife in The Best Years of Our Lives), and the believability she brings to the role makes her decision to carry on her husband's work when he dies a realistic expectation. She is consequently forced to carry most of the acting load in Belles on Their Toes, and with but a mediocre script, that film suffers in comparison to the first. Jeanne Crain is another carry-over as Ann Gilbreth, through whose eyes much of the stories unfold. Of interest in Belles, however, is the strong feminist viewpoint seldom evident in films of the time. This comes through strongly in the Loy character, but also to some extent in that of Jeanne Crain. Look for a number of familiar faces sprinkled throughout both films (Edgar Buchanan, Mildred Natwick, Sara Allgood, Jeffrey Hunter, Edward Arnold, and Hoagy Carmichael), adding to the stories' feeling of comfort. Both films clock in at just under an hour and a half and are briskly directed by house directors Walter Lang and Henry Levin.

Both films were originally made in Technicolor, but unfortunately Fox has not seen fit to do the type of restoration needed to make the films look their best. The source material is in decent shape, but the Technicolor vibrancy is missing and the image is frequently soft-looking. Belles on Their Toes looks the worse of the two with some mis-registration issues and edge effects at times. As is typical for Fox DVDs of films of such a vintage, both stereo and mono audio tracks are offered. The sound is quite acceptable on Cheaper by the Dozen, but is less clear on Belles. Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish sub-titles are provided for both films. Each disc offers the film's theatrical trailer, each other's trailer, and the trailer for the 2003 Cheaper by the Dozen. The Cheaper by the Dozen disc also includes an awards ceremony newsreel.

On to Part Two

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