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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #18 - June 2005

The new classic DVD releases continue to mount up inexorably, so let's try and whittle the pile down. I've got coverage of four box sets and some 16 other discs for you this time out. Included are Errol Flynn: The Signature Collection and The Doris Day Collection (both from Warner Bros.); the British War Collection and Ealing Studios Comedy Collection (both from Anchor Bay); Ambush Bay, Attack on the Iron Coast, Beach Red, Beachhead, The Quiet American, Submarine X-1, The Noose Hangs High, and Dance with Me, Henry (all from MGM); Paris Underground (from Image); Shirley Temple: Little Darling Pack (from Universal); and Anna and the King of Siam, The Best of Everything, The Razor's Edge, Nightmare Alley, The Street with No Name, and House of Bamboo (all from Fox). There's no particular order to the reviews.

Errol Flynn: The Signature Collection
The Doris Day Collection
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on April 19th and April 26th, 2005 respectively)

In what is becoming a norm for Warner Bros., the company has pumped out two more highly desirable box sets in April. The collection of Errol Flynn films includes Captain Blood, The Adventures of Elizabeth and Essex, Dodge City, The Sea Hawk, They Died with Their Boots On, and a new documentary The Adventures of Errol Flynn. All are new to DVD and all are also available individually except the documentary. The Doris Day collection contains eight films of which two (Calamity Jane, The Pajama Game) have previously appeared on DVD. New to the little disc are Young Man with a Horn, Lullaby of Broadway, Love Me or Leave Me, Billy Rose's Jumbo, The Glass Bottom Boat, and Please Don't Eat the Daisies. All are also available individually.

Errol Flynn: The Signature CollectionThe Doris Day Collection

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The Flynn films offer a decent representation of the frequently under-rated actor's career although one could argue with the inclusion of Elizabeth and Essex, which is more of a Bette Davis film than a Flynn one. Substitution for it by the likes of Gentleman Jim or one of Flynn's wartime propaganda efforts such as Desperate Journey or Edge of Darkness would have made for an ideal box set, but what we have is still great. Besides, a second Flynn set down the road seems like a safe bet. I've already covered the two westerns in this set (Dodge City, They Died with Their Boots On) in my recent western round-up column, so I'll restrict my comments here to the other four titles. Captain Blood (1935) was of course Flynn's break-through role (one in which he plays a 17th century doctor turned pirate after managing to escape unjust imprisonment) and it was then and remains now an amazing one. To entrust the leading role in such a high-grade production to someone as unknown and inexperienced as Flynn was a major leap of faith on Warners' part, but a risk for which they were greatly rewarded. Flynn looks entirely comfortable in the role and as many have remarked, was one of the few actors on whom period costume looked entirely believable. The film itself is a fine blend of action and excitement with great support from the always impressive Basil Rathbone and Olivia de Havilland (Flynn's first of many films together with her). The Sea Hawk (1940), outside of the remarkable The Adventures of Robin Hood, is the quintessential Flynn swashbuckling film. Using stock footage from a previous Warners version of the film (the principal reason that it was shot in black and white) blended with new action footage shot on newly-built full-scale ships, the film puts Flynn through his paces as a British sea captain who eventually warns England about the impending invasion of the Spanish armada. It offers a wealth of action and plenty of court intrigue, not to mention a role for that giant of supporting players, Claude Rains. Brenda Marshall (not Olivia for a change) provides the romantic interest. The Adventures of Elizabeth and Essex was, as mentioned above, mainly a Bette Davis film, and the one often mentioned in connection with Davis's reported distain for Flynn's acting ability. (In later years, she would admit her mistake in that assessment.) The film is not a typical swashbuckling effort for Flynn, but concentrates instead on the dramatics of the romantic relationship between the aging Elizabeth I and the young Earl of Essex. It's a tour-de-force for Davis, but Flynn is remarkably effective despite the scene-stealing tendencies of Davis's unglamorous portrayal. The Adventures of Errol Flynn is an aptly-titled new Flynn documentary, produced for Turner Classic Movies by Joan Kramer and David Heeley. It provides an excellent 87-minute overview of Flynn's life and film career, narrated by Ian Holm and utilizing an appealing blend of rarely-seen footage, film clips, and new and archival interviews with family and associates.

I can't imagine anyone seriously quibbling over the transfers that Warners has afforded these discs. All are full frame as originally produced. Admittedly, the two Technicolor features (Dodge City, The Adventures of Elizabeth and Essex) have not been treated to the company's expensive Ultra Resolution process, but they still look sumptuous despite some occurrences of mis-registration of the three-strip negatives due to differing degrees of shrinkage over the past 65-odd years (more obvious on Elizabeth and Essex than on Dodge City). The Sea Hawk and They Died with Their Boots On (both in black and white) offer the best-looking overall transfers of the bunch with sharp images and excellent image detail (aside from some restored footage in The Sea Hawk which is softer and more prone to debris). Captain Blood is a little rougher-looking with more scratches and speckles and some occasional softness, but still quite pleasing. The Adventures of Errol Flynn is sharp and bright, as one might expect from a disc of a newly-produced film. The mono sound on all discs is in good shape with background hiss slightly apparent only on Captain Blood. A French mono track is provided on several of the titles and English, French, and Spanish subtitles on all (except the documentary). Each feature film disc includes a Warner Night at the Movies supplement that comprises an introduction by Leonard Maltin, a newsreel, short subject, cartoon, and a coming attractions trailer. There is also a new making-of featurette on each film and the original theatrical trailers are included. Very highly recommended.

Doris Day is a star that some people are inclined to dismiss solely on the basis of some of the Rock Hudson/Doris Day vehicles she appeared in. In truth there is substantially more to her ability than those films. She was a musical talent of a very high order, an enchanting light comedienne, and a star when that word still had real meaning. The eight Doris Day films in the new Warner collection cover a 18-year period from 1949 to 1966, providing a good overview of her film career. Young Man with a Horn (1949), a loosely based account of cornetist Bix Biederbecke's life, starred Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall. In her fourth picture for Warner Bros., Doris has an important co-starring role that offered some fine singing opportunities ("You're Just Too Marvelous for Words", "I May Be Wrong") as well as some dramatic situations in which she certainly holds her own. Lullaby of Broadway, made the following year, is a glossy musical filmed in Technicolor that offers plenty of good musical numbers featuring Doris, but the background story is routine and the film is the least of the titles in the box set. Calamity Jane (1953) on the other hand is a blockbuster of a musical, proving that not all the best musicals were made at MGM at that time. Doris, in the title role, propels the Technicolor film along briskly with first-rate singing ("Secret Love" won the Best Song Oscar for the year) and dancing, and with Howard Keel as co-star playing Wild Bill Hickok, the result is highly repeatable musical entertainment. Love Me or Leave Me (1955) is the best film in the set, not just because it features Doris in a grittier role than usual as songstress Ruth Etting with plenty of good songs to boot, but because it also offers a dynamite James Cagney performance as the obsessive racketeer-turned-promoter Marty "The Gimp" Snyder. The Pajama Game (1957) is a lavishly filmed musical comedy that originated on Broadway. Doris plays the head of the grievance committee at the Sleeptite Pajama factory where the offer of a meager raise is cause for concern. John Raitt co-stars as the factory manager. Once again, the singing ("Hey There", "Hernando's Hideaway") and dancing is terrific and the result is solid entertainment under the direction of George Abbott and Stanley Donen. With the onset of the 1960s, Doris Day undertook a less onerous schedule of films, although the standard remained fairly high. Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) focuses more on comedy than singing and like another Day film of the time (It Happened to Jane) is an enjoyable if lightweight film, with fine supporting performances from the likes of David Niven, Janis Paige, and Spring Byington. Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962) has a rather tedious circus background, but the musical numbers are well-staged if somewhat forgettable. Doris plays the circus owner's daughter whose horseback riding abilities are one of the circus's main attractions. Entertaining turns by Jimmy Durante and Martha Raye help to keep the whole thing afloat. The Glass Bottom Boat (1966) is a mixture of slapstick comedy and spy spoof that provides middling entertainment. Doris plays a tour guide at an aeronautics think-tank where she is mistakenly suspected of being an enemy agent. Most of the film's pleasure comes from seeing the likes of Dom DeLuise and Paul Lynde early in their film careers.

The films are all presented in their original aspect ratios, anamorphically enhanced where appropriate, and generally offer high quality transfers. Young Man with a Horn is the only black and white film and it has a glossy, crisp look that really pleases. The colour on The Pajama Game and the later features is generally vibrant and accurate-looking. Lullaby of Broadway has the distinctly bright, saturated look of Technicolor with only a few instances of mis-registration to betray its age. Calamity Jane has some instances of softness, but Love Me or Leave Me offers consistent sharpness and colour fidelity. Six of the films have mono tracks that for the most part are quite adequate. Remastered Dolby Digital 5.0 and 5.1 tracks, offered on Love Me or Leave Me and Billy Rose's Jumbo respectively (the latter with the original overture also included), are effective. Many of the discs include French mono tracks and all have English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Each disc has some supplementary material ranging from simply trailers on the earlier films to vintage shorts and cartoons as well on most of the later films. Highly recommended.

British War Collection
Ealing Studios Comedy Collection
(released on DVD by Anchor Bay on March 22nd and April 5th, 2005 respectively)

After first revealing its intention to bring these Ealing comedies and British war films out on DVD four or five years ago, Anchor Bay has finally made good on its promise with the release of two box sets, each containing five films. The Ealing Studios Comedy Collection contains A Run for Your Money, Whisky Galore, Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt, and The Maggie while the British War Collection includes Went the Day Well?, The Dam Busters, The Cruel Sea, The Colditz Story, and The Ship that Died of Shame. The latter collection could almost have been called the Ealing Studios War Collection as three of the films were made by Ealing.

British War CollectionEaling Studios Comedy Collection

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Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore, and The Titfield Thunderbolt are usually included among the cream of the Ealing comedies. In Passport to Pimlico, made in 1949, the Pimlico region of London discovers that it lies on land deeded to the Duke of Burgundy in perpetuity. As a result, it declares itself a sovereign territory no longer subject to the strictures of postwar rationing then still in place throughout England, and becomes a veritable paradise of goods and food. The film is a playful allusion to how England was lagging behind some of the European countries in its level of postwar recovery. The cast is headed by the delightful likes of Sterling Holloway, Raymond Huntley, and Margaret Rutherford with the reliable Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne along for the ride as a pair of Ministry types. Whisky Galore, also from 1949, is inspired by a true wartime incident in which a ship laden with Scotch foundered near one of the Scottish islands. The film, shot on location in the Outer Hebrides, depicts the efforts of the islanders, who have been deprived of the golden "water of life" by the war, to appropriate the cargo for their own usage before the authorities can intervene. The comedy arises from the different points of view of the officer in charge of the local home guard (a rather pompous Englishman) and the Scotch-starved locals whom the officer sees as half-crazy. Basil Radford is ideally cast as the Englishman and James Robertson Justice heads up the locals. The Titfield Thunderbolt was Ealing's tale of the struggle of group of villagers to maintain the service of their local train in the face of bureaucrats intent on closing it and replacing it with a bus service. The film is a gentle comedy focused on the typically British fondness for well-meaning amateurs that appears even more impressive because of its Technicolor (the first Ealing comedy to be so shot) and evocative West County locations. Of course any film with steam locomotives gets my vote. Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, and Naunton Wayne star. To turn now to the two lesser films of the group, A Run for Your Money gives the Welsh their turn in the Ealing sun. Two Welsh coalminers win a trip to London, some cash, and tickets to a football match, but things quickly go astray once they reach the big city. The two get separated and each fall in with some curious characters, including a harp-playing drunk and an attractive con artist, before matters are resolved. The two separate story strands after the pair get separated give the film a somewhat disjointed feel that never really goes away, although the film does provide an interesting perspective on 1949 London. Alec Guinness has, for him, a rather forgettable role as a newspaper gardening correspondent dispatched to cover Meredith Edwards and Donald Houston who play the lucky pair. Hugh Griffiths as the harpist is the most memorable character. The Maggie (U.S title, High and Dry) follows the fortunes of a pint-loving Scottish seaman who manages to convince an American businessman to ship an important cargo on his decrepit boat, the "Maggie", from Glasgow to one of the western islands. When the businessman learns that he has been deceived about the seaworthiness of "Maggie", a chase ensues as he tries to reclaim his cargo and transfer it to a safer boat. The situation seems to offer plenty of scope for comic situations, but the film is at times rather slow-moving and there are few real laughs. The two main characters are both at times irritating so that it's hard to sympathize greatly with either, resulting in a feeling of ambivalence about the film as a whole. Paul Douglas was imported to portray the American while Alex Mackenzie plays the Maggie's owner.

Anchor Bay's box set contains each film housed in its own thincase, supplemented by a useful12-page booklet providing background information on each film. The source material for each film originates with Studio Canal. While all transfers are presented full frame as originated projected and look quite acceptable, none suggest quite the sharpness and brightness of many of Anchor Bay's earlier British imports. The colour on The Titfield Thunderbolt is in good shape, looking very natural and decently saturated. The mono sound of each film is clear, but there is no sub-titling provided, nor any supplements other than the aforementioned booklet. Recommended.

The British War Collection takes us to the home front (Went the Day Well?), into the air (The Dam Busters), out to sea (The Cruel Sea), into a prisoner-of-war camp (The Colditz Story), and then into the difficult postwar period (The Ship that Died of Shame). These are five films, mainly made in the early 1950s, that all reward the viewer with intelligent and thought-provoking stories. Two of them are based on true events (Paul Brickell's "The Dam Busters" about the special bombing techniques that had to be developed and executed in order to destroy the dams on the Ruhr River in the German industrial heartland, and Patrick Reid's The Colditz Story" about the escaping exploits of the most inveterate allied POW escape artists who were housed in Germany's supposed escape-proof Colditz castle). Went the Day Well? (the only one of the group actually made during the war years) is in the nature of a fantasy in which an English village is invaded by German troops masquerading as British forces in advance of an anticipated German invasion of the whole country. The villagers eventually rouse themselves to a sturdy defence in the best English tradition of simple, unhurried citizen turned tiger by force of circumstance. Nicholas Monsarrat's novel "The Cruel Sea" was turned into a powerful picture of the war in the Atlantic (by virtue of an excellent screenplay by Eric Ambler) as it highlighted the experiences of the captain and crew of a British corvette. A short story by Monsarrat was the source material for The Ship that Died of Shame, in which several ex-sailors reunite after the war (during which they had served on a coastal motor gunboat) to carry out some shipping of illicit goods designed to brighten up what were otherwise rather dreary days of food rationing and general personal sacrifice. Aside from the general delight at the intelligence of these films, each offers welcome performances from various members of the fine array of British talent typical of the time. Thus we get the likes of Richard Attenborough, George Baker, Virginia McKenna, and Bernard Lee in The Ship that Died of Shame; Jack Hawkins (a very memorable performance as the ship's captain), Donald Sinden, and Denholm Elliott in The Cruel Sea; John Mills and Eric Portman in The Colditz Story; Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave in The Dam Busters; and Leslie Banks, Basil Sydney, and Mervyn Johns in Went the Day Well?.

Similar to the Ealing Studios Comedy Collection, all the transfers in the British War Collection are taken from Studio Canal source material and look quite nice. All are black and white and full frame as originally shot, and all deliver clear images with decent image detail, if not quite as razor-sharp as many of the earlier Anchor Bay British releases. The mono sound is quite workable, but there are no sub-titles. There are no supplements on the discs, but there is an 8-page booklet with useful background information that accompanies the box set. Recommended.

Ambush Bay (1966)
Attack on the Iron Coast (1968)
Beach Red (1967)
Beachhead (1954)
The Quiet American (1958)
Submarine X-1 (1968)
(all released on DVD by MGM on April 19th, 2005)

MGM's annual spring release of war films is a mixed bag this year. There is one very interesting but infrequently-seen item (The Quiet American), two good combat films (Beach Red and Beachhead), and three standard actioners (Ambush Bay, Attack on the Iron Coast, and Submarine X-1). Two other releases (The Four Feathers and The Purple Plain) were not received for review.

Ambush BayAttack on the Iron CoastBeach Red

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BeachheadThe Quiet AmericanSubmarine X-1

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Beach Red is produced and directed by and stars Cornel Wilde in a quite honest and graphic depiction (for the time) of Pacific warfare as American forces attempt to take a Japanese-held island. The film focuses on the thoughts and reactions of individual soldiers on both sides and conveys the grim realities of war at a personal level quite effectively. One can see that the film could have been an inspiration for parts of Saving Private Ryan, although I don't know if it actually was. The Quiet American is Joseph L. Mankiewicz's take on the Graham Greene novel of the same title. Set in Vietnam of the early 1950s with the Communists trying to make gains against the French-controlled government, it focuses on an American businessman with uncertain motives who arrives in Saigon and becomes involved in the struggle, and a cynical British journalist already stationed there. When the American becomes involved with the latter's mistress, it leads the journalist to finally take sides in the country's struggle, with devastating consequences. With Mankiewicz's customary ear for dialogue and location shooting in Vietnam, the film is a thoughtful commentary on the early Vietnam situation although it subverts the intent of Greene's novel. Audie Murphy as the American and particularly Michael Redgrave as the British journalist are very good in what is a more interesting film than the 2002 remake despite the latter's closer adherence to Greene's novel. Beachhead takes us again to the Pacific theatre of World War II where four marines must travel behind enemy lines on a Japanese-controlled island to try to confirm the accuracy of intelligence on a Japanese minefield. There's no denying the excitement generated by the suspense and action sequences of this tale and its effort to convey a war-is-hell picture - effectively embodied in the two main marine characters played by Frank Lovejoy and Tony Curtis. Some may bristle at the rather gung-ho attitude that the film slides to near the end as well as the actual ending, but those concerns are not enough to detract from an overall decent piece of entertainment. Ambush Bay is a pretty much by-the-numbers actioner concerning a commando group on a secret mission in advance of MacArthur's landing in the Philippines. Hugh O'Brian, Mickey Rooney, and James Mitchum play characters we've seen a hundred times, but there is some good location shooting actually in the Philippines. Attack on the Iron Coast is one of those commando films where a group of men train for the first half of the film and then try to carry out their mission (in this case, to detonate a ship full of explosives in a port where some of the German navy is holed up) in the second half. It's all been done better in the likes of The Dirty Dozen or The Devil's Brigade. Lloyd Bridges grits his teeth and makes it all seem intense. Submarine X-1 has a story about miniature submarines and the German battleship Lindendorf (presumably the Tirpitz) peopled by either cardboard or stupid characters. James Caan, who stars, would have done well to avoid this one. It's the poorest of this bunch of releases.

MGM has handled these pretty much all in the same fashion. All are presented in their original aspect ratios which, aside from Beachhead which was full screen, were either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1. Unfortunately none of the latter has been anamorphically enhanced. Despite that, all the images look pretty decent. One can quibble over some slight flicker from time to time and source material that betrays some speckling and scratches, but the images are reasonably sharp with acceptable colour fidelity. The black and white of The Quiet American looks very fine indeed with some modest grain in evidence. The mono sound on each disc is quite workable, and is accompanied by a Spanish mono track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. A couple of the films include the theatrical trailer, but there are no other supplements. The price is right on these titles with Beach Red and The Quiet American being recommended purchases. War fans may also enjoy Beachhead as a rental.

On to Part Two

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