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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #8 - July 2004

This latest edition of the Classic Reviews Roundup will cover a number of box sets that have recently graced my shelves and have my recommendation. I'll briefly touch on two sets that came out during the first four months of the year and which merit your attention, before looking at three more-recently-released sets in detail. The former are The Douglas Fairbanks Collection from Kino and The Ingmar Bergman Collection from MGM, while the latter are The Fanny Trilogy from Kino and Cary Grant: The Signature Collection and The Complete Tarzan from Warner Bros.

The Douglas Fairbanks Collection (1920-26)
(released on DVD by Kino on February 3rd, 2004)

Kino's The Douglas Fairbanks Collection contains The Black Pirate (1926), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), Robin Hood (1922), The Three Musketeers (1921), The Mark of Zorro (1920), and Don Q, Son of Zorro (1925). Each film is packaged on its own disc in a separate keep case except for the two Zorro films which are combined in a double bill on one disc.

The Douglas Fairbanks Collection

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These titles represent the cream of Fairbanks' adventure oeuvre which he devoted himself to almost exclusively during the send half of his film career. Each is an exciting period adventure epic that withstands the test of time and I commend them to all. Making it easier is Kino's attention to presenting the films in their best light on DVD. The Black Pirate and The Thief of Bagdad are the best-looking of the bunch with minimal speckling and debris, and sharp images with good detail. The two-strip Technicolor of The Black Pirate is quite impressive. The second tier consists of The Mark of Zorro, The Three Musketeers, and Robin Hood. Speckling and debris is more in evidence and there is increased variability in the image quality with varying degrees of sharpness apparent. Least impressive is Don Q, Son of Zorro which presents a veritable blizzard of speckling and scratches at times. The musical accompaniment is generally good, particularly the Jon Mirsalis work on the Zorros and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra on The Thief of Bagdad.

Kino provides a nice collection of supplements spread across the various discs. Included are an audio commentary on one title (The Black Pirate), introductions by Orson Welles (The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad), various outtakes, and excerpts from various other filmed material. A glorious package highly recommended.

The Ingmar Bergman Collection (1966-77)
(released on DVD by MGM on April 27th, 2004)

MGM's The Ingmar Bergman Collection was originally scheduled to appear in February, but was delayed by MGM to correct the framing on two of the titles. Included in the box set are five Bergman films, each presented on a separate disc in its own keep case. The titles are: Persona (1966), Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), The Passion of Anna (1969), and The Serpent's Egg (1977). Of them all, only the latter can be considered a (slight) disappointment. The others all exhibit typically intimate and brooding Bergman portraits, grandly acted and beautifully photographed.

The Ingmar Bergman Collection

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The films are virtually bottomless emotional wells and infinitely rewarding for any discerning viewer. MGM delivers very fine transfers on all five films. The first three are full frame while the later two are 1.66:1, all in accord with the original aspect ratios. Unfortunately the 1.66:1 transfers are not anamorphically enhanced. In all cases, the images are clear and well-defined with good shadow detail, conveying Sven Nykvist's cinematography accurately. Speckling and debris is generally kept to a minimum and edge effects are mercifully negligible. The mono sound is at all times quite adequate. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided on all discs. Each disc has its own set of supplements which typically include audio commentary by Ingmar Bergman biographer Marc Gervais (usually quite informative, although at times repetitive - note also that David Carradine provides the commentary on The Serpent's Egg), adequate making-of featurettes which include clips from the film and interviews with cast and crew, interviews with Liv Ullmann (who appears in all the films), theatrical trailers and photo galleries.

Not content with that, however, MGM also provides a separate sixth disc of additional supplements, including a 2002 conversation and a 1970 interview with Ingmar Bergman, a featurette on Sven Nykvist, a featurette on Fåro Island - the principal location of many Bergman films, photo galleries on Bergman's life and work, and a collection of "American Cinematographer" articles on Bergman. Very highly recommended.

The Fanny Trilogy (1931-36)
(released on DVD by Kino on June 15th, 2004)

The Fanny Trilogy, also sometimes referred to as the Marseilles Trilogy, comprises the filmed versions of three plays by French playwright Marcel Pagnol. The films are Marius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936), all of which are set among the working class along the Marseilles "old town" waterfront. The three films form a continuous story centred around the characters of bar owner César, his son Marius, the young woman Fanny whom Marius loves but loses due to his desire to go to sea, and César's friend Panisse who's also interested in Fanny. The tale of love lost, love replaced, and love renewed is deceptively simple yet undeniably powerful as presented by a host of fine French actors of the time. The real star, however, is Pagnol's source material - a delightful blend of drama and humour that is rich in thoughtful dialogue and filled with memorable characters. Despite the five-year period over which the films were made and the use of three different directors (including Pagnol himself), the trilogy maintains the same sense of time and place as well as leisurely pace that allows us to savour the situations and fall in love with the principal and secondary characters.

The Fanny Trilogy

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Marius first appeared as a play on stage in 1929. Two years later, Pagnol finally struck a deal for a film version that would be faithful to the stage version. The deal was with Paramount's French studio, which at that time had facilities in the Paris suburb of Joinville. Alexander Korda (later associated with London Films in Britain) was engaged to direct and formed an effective team with Pagnol who maintained a watchful eye over the production and an active involvement with the actors. Repeating their roles from the stage version were the popular French music-hall comedian Raimu as César, Pierre Fresnay as Marius, Orane Demazis as Fanny, and (Fernand) Charpin as Panisse. Raimu clearly steals the show, but all the others are very engaging. Whether it was Korda or Pagnol who worked most closely with the actors, we are treated to wonderfully natural and honest performances of a caliber infrequently found in early sound films. Korda and Pagnol stick very closely to the play and its stage directions with the result that Marius is probably the most stage-bound of the three films, but this is a minor concern. The sets (by Korda's brother Vincent) are very effective at evoking the feel of "old town" Marseilles.

Although Marius was a box-office success, Paramount did not choose to follow up with the sequels. Pagnol was likely quite content with this as he had become enamored with the film-making process and was developing his own film-making company. As a result, he quickly moved to produce Fanny himself in 1932. Not yet fully confident in his directing abilities, he employed the young Marc Allégret for that role while remaining closely involved in day-to-day shooting himself. The same actors repeated their roles and while Charpin has his chance to shine this time, the larger-than-life Raimu once again steals the show. The story quite literally continues right on from where the first film had ended. It has a less stage-bound feel to it, however, and on balance is probably the most cinematic and best directed of the three films.

Fanny's success led in 1934 to Pagnol being able to start realizing his goal of building his own film studio near Marseilles (completed in 1938). During the next few years, he would direct many films himself including César in 1936. At almost two and a quarter hours in length, it is the longest of the Fanny trilogy and seems somewhat bloated in comparison to the others, reflecting Pagnol's less-skilled (at least, at that time) directorial talents compared to Korda and Allégret. The story has jumped ahead 20 years to bring the saga to the conclusion that appears inevitable. Despite the film's ultimate predictability and merely pedestrian direction, it is saved by the acting which once again is highlighted by Raimu's work and by the continued high standard of Pagnol's writing.

Kino's packaging of The Fanny Trilogy is a delight. Each film gets its own disc and supplements, and a fourth disc contains a detailed documentary on the trilogy. The discs are contained in a fold-out digipak that is beautifully illustrated by reproductions of original poster artwork. Each film is presented full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio and is in remarkable shape. There is certainly age-related speckling and occasional debris present and the image occasionally looks somewhat soft, but for films some seven decades old now, the clarity and detail in the transfers is very good indeed. The mono sound (in the original French) is more than adequate. Optional English sub-titles are provided. The supplements accompanying the three films include audio comments or reminiscences related to each title or play by Pagnol, although the origin of the comments is not specified (obviously prior to 1974 for that's when Pagnol died). The comments range in length from 60 minutes (with Marius) to 10 minutes (with César). There are theatrical trailers for each film, cast and director selected filmographies, and a Marcel Pagnol biography. The supplementary disc contains the 74-minute documentary about the trilogy. It's in French with optional English sub-titles and is organized into seven parts which can be played individually or all together. The material mainly comprises interviews with film historians and Pagnol interpreters. It's quite informative about the era and Pagnol, but less helpful on the films' production details - still, very interesting overall. The other material on this fourth disc includes various poster, stills, and promotional galleries.

Kino is to be congratulated for its fine DVD efforts on a series of early French sound films that will have been little known to many. There's absolutely no excuse now, however, and Kino's The Fanny Trilogy is very highly recommended.

Cary Grant: The Signature Collection (1940-47)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on June 1st, 2004)

Warner Bros. has almost two-dozen Cary Grant films under its control that have not seen the light of day on DVD. Most of them are RKO titles with the others equally divided between MGM and WB productions. With this new collection, we get five of those wiped off the unavailable list (The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer, Destination Tokyo, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, My Favorite Wife, and Night and Day). That's a good start, but there's work still to be done. Suspicion is on its way soon, but some choice titles are yet outstanding - Bringing Up Baby, Gunga Din, and None But the Lonely Heart to name a few. It must be noted, however, that with this new collection, Cary Grant is vying with John Wayne as the classic film star whose career is best represented on DVD.

Cary Grant: The Signature Collection

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My Favorite Wife is the earliest production in the set, having been made at RKO in 1940. It reunites Grant with Irene Dunne, with whom he had teamed so effectively in 1937's The Awful Truth. In fact, there's a certain similarity to the two pictures - both involve estrangements between Grant and Dunne that are finally resolved by cat and mouse games between the two actors' characters who have ended up trying to sleep in adjacent bedrooms. In My Favorite Wife, Grant believes his wife (Dunne) to be dead seven years after an ocean shipwreck and he prepares to remarry. But suddenly she returns, having finally been rescued from a tropical island upon which she was stranded. Grant seems amenable to a reunion with his wife until he learns that she spent the time on the island not alone but in company (platonic, she says) with a rather handsome man. Grant of course has second thoughts which causes Dunne to do so too. Once again, Grant and Dunne play off each other beautifully and there are plenty of good laughs. Strong support comes from Randolph Scott as the other man, Donald MacBride as a prissy hotel manager (what happened, wasn't Franklin Pangborn available?), and Granville Bates as an exasperated judge. It's not a grand slam like The Awful Truth, but it still easily goes for extra bases. Warner's full frame presentation (in accord with the OAR) looks quite clear and about as good as I've ever seen the film look, but the source material betrays various speckles, scratches, and debris. The image tends to be on the soft side with some noticeable grain, but shadow detail is good. The mono sound is quite adequate for the dialogue driven picture although minor hiss was noticeable. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements consist of a consistently enjoyable radio production of the film featuring Grant and Dunne and aired in December 1950, a mediocre Robert Benchley short entitled Home Movies, and the theatrical trailer.

Warner Bros. produced the best wartime propaganda films of any of the major studios and 1944's Destination Tokyo is one of their most entertaining. This was Grant's only real flag-waver and he turns in a nicely understated performance as the skipper of a submarine ordered into action to provide advance reconnaissance of Tokyo Harbour for the James-Doolittle-led first American bombing raid on the Japanese capital. At 2¼ hours in length, the film provides a nicely-detailed picture of crew relationships before getting into the meat of the story. Action sequences in the Aleutians, Tokyo Harbour, and in the Pacific subsequently are briskly handled by first-time director Delmer Daves. The film also provides some nice opportunities for the Warner stock company, particularly John Garfield as a ladies man sailor, Alan Hale as the ship's cook, and Robert Hutton and Dane Clark as new submariners. The full frame (in accord with the OAR) DVD presentation is about on a par with My Favorite Wife - quite pleasing and with less grain in evidence, but certainly not pristine. Black levels are decent as is image detail. The mono sound is quite adequate with only occasional instances of noticeable hiss. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements consist of a rather plodding musical short, Gem of the Ocean, and a gallery of ten trailers for Cary Grant films including the one for Destination Tokyo.

The best entry in Warners' Cary Grant box set is the RKO production of Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. This is a beautifully-observed situational comedy and a quintessential Cary Grant film, superbly played by Grant and ably backed up by co-stars Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas. The title pretty well conveys the tale, as Mr. Blandings and his wife (Grant and Loy) try to leave the confines of a cramped New York apartment behind for the wide-open spaces and idyllic country life of the Connecticut countryside. As one might predict, little goes smoothly, for their choice of a home proves to require demolition and the subsequent building of an entirely new structure, with all the headaches that entails. Cary Grant delivers arguably his most controlled and least affected performance in a comedy as the Manhattan advertising man completely lost in the minutia of building a new home while at the same time trying valiantly to come up with a slogan to sell Wham, a new ham product. Myrna Loy is simply exquisite as his long-suffering wife, having honed to perfection such performances in the late 1940s (The Best Years of Our Lives being another fine example of her work in such a role). Melvyn Douglas does some of his best work on the screen as the couple's best friend, lawyer, and voice of reason during the whole construction saga. Warners DVD full frame (in accord with the OAR) presentation of the film is very good. The source material is apparently in better condition than the two films reviewed above, so that speckling, scratches, and debris are much reduced. The image is quite sharp although not uniformly so throughout. Black levels are generally deep and shadow detail is very good. A very pleasing result. The mono sound is in very good condition, exhibiting clarity without background hiss or distortion. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include two radio broadcasts of the script (one featuring Grant and Irene Dunne and other, Grant and Betsy Drake), a great Tex Avery cartoon on the modern house called The House of Tomorrow, and the same 10-trailer Cary Grant gallery available on the Destination Tokyo disc.

Night and Day is the one Technicolor entry in the box set, and also Cary Grant's first colour film. Released by Warner Bros. in 1946, the film is a biography of songwriter Cole Porter with even more of the usual Hollywood license applied to the facts. Despite the film's inadequacies as a biography and the miscasting of Grant as Cole Porter, it's always been a guilty pleasure of mine, however. With plenty of Cole Porter's music and the Technicolor gloss, it's fine ear and eye candy. The Porter music is particularly well orchestrated by Ray Heindorf, with Max Steiner filing in the gaps, and the two were nominated for an Academy Award as a result. Among the Porter numbers represented are "In the Still of the Night", "You Do Something to Me", "Begin the Beguine", "Night and Day", "Miss Otis Regrets", "What Is This Thing Called Love", "I've Got You Under My Skin", "Don't Fence Me In", and "My Heart Belongs to Daddy". Ginny Simms and Mary Martin (as herself) provide most of the singing highlights. The film also looks great as Warners called on all its production resources and expertise to ensure a polished final product. Unfortunately, the acting performances are average at best. Grant's portrayal of Porter is unpersuasive and he looks quite stiff throughout. Eve Arden contributes a bizarre impersonation of a French chanteuse while co-star Alexis Smith merely looks decorative in the unrewarding role of Grant's principal love interest. Monty Woolley appears as himself and is his typically acerbic and boisterous self. The Warner stock company again shines, however, in the numerous supporting vignettes. The full frame (in accord with the OAR) DVD presentation is again very good. The Technicolor images have been generally well rendered, yielding an accurate and colourful result. Warners has not applied its full restoration efforts, however, as occasional instances of mis-registration exist as well as the reel-change markers. Speckling is also in evidence. Still, the overall effect is quite pleasing. The mono sound is in good shape and the musical numbers are nicely rendered although none will benefit from great amplification. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplement package is a very pleasing one. It includes the 1944 Technicolor short Musical Movieland (a musical tour of the Warner Bros. lot), a 1946 short focusing on Desi Arnaz and His Orchestra, the Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoon The Big Snooze, and trailers for five Cole Porter musicals previously released on DVD by Warner Bros.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a 1947 RKO picture that probably is the least well-known of the five films in the Grant box set. It tells a lightweight comedy of a painter (and handsome mature man) who must act as the beau of a high-school girl to avoid prosecution in court for a more serious offense. It co-stars Shirley Temple in one of the ten or so films that she appeared in as a teenager, and along with Fort Apache and Since You Went Away, is among the best of that rather uneven bunch. Unfortunately the special charm she exhibited in her early Fox films didn't carry on into her teenage work and she retired from the screen in 1949. In The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, she's no match for Cary Grant, so while the film has its moments, they only come when they involve other cast members such as Myrna Loy and Rudy Vallee. Grant does seem to be enjoying himself in the film even when he has scenes with Shirley that are annoying rather than funny, so the audience generally does too. It's just not a vintage Grant film. It is a pleasure to see fine character actors such as Ray Collins, Harry Davenport, and Don Beddoe in action, however. The full frame (in accord with the OAR) DVD transfer is very good. Blacks are deep and picture detail is admirable. A fair amount of grain in evidence is the image's only weak point. The mono sound track is more than adequate with virtually all age-related hiss removed. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements consist of the 1949 Lux Radio Theater production of the script starring Grant and Temple, the Tex Avery cartoon Little Tinker that's not particularly memorable aside from a great rendition of "All, or Nothing at All", and the same Grant trailer gallery included on a couple of the other discs in the set.

Warner Bros.' Cary Grant: The Signature Collection contains plenty of entertainment with nary a real miss in the whole set. The DVD presentations are all good to very good, although none approach Warners' best classic title work. Those frustrated with Warner snappers will be glad to know that keep cases have been employed for the set. Highly recommended.

The Tarzan Collection (1932*42)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on June 8th, 2004)

The six original Tarzan movies produced by MGM during the period 1932-1942 and starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan have been packaged together on DVD by Warner Bros. in a four-disc digipak collection. For most fans, these are the definitive Tarzan films although there had been Tarzan films produced earlier with different actors portraying the character and there would be many more later.

The Tarzan Collection

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MGM spared no expense in filming the initial entry, Tarzan the Ape Man, in 1932. It made an exhaustive search for a new actor to portray Tarzan, eventually settling on retired Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller (who was 27 at the time of filming). For the female lead of Jane, the company selected a 20-year old actress from Ireland, Maureen O'Sullivan. Filming was mainly carried out in the Toluca Lake area of North Hollywood. Under the guidance of MGM production chief Irving Thalberg and director W.S. Van Dyke, the film eventually became one of the top ten box office hits of the year as well as earning considerable critical acclaim. Two years later, MGM followed up with a sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, that improved on the original and was again a major million-dollar production that enjoyed critical and box office success. Direction this time was credited to Cedric Gibbons, MGM's top art director, although he was replaced by Jack Conway half-way through production. The film has become well-known for the underwater swimming scenes featuring a nude Maureen O'Sullivan. In fact, both the Tarzan and Jane characters were about as scantily clad overall in this film as any in the series. Later entries would see their costumes become increasingly modest.

Released in 1936, the third MGM Tarzan film, Tarzan Escapes, was a watershed for the series. It cost as much as the first two combined yet didn't do as well at the box office as either. Originally, the film was called The Capture of Tarzan and contained several quite intense sequences. When it was previewed, many complaints about its unsuitability for children caused MGM to rethink the film, eventually placing it in the hands of house director Richard Thorpe who watered it down substantially and changed the title. The resulting film was a disappointment in terms of action compared to its predecessor and its catering to the junior audience ensured lower box office returns. The fourth MGM Tarzan film, Tarzan Finds a Son was released in 1939. It was intended to include the death of Jane since Maureen O'Sullivan wanted out of the role permanently. Jane's death scenes were actually shot, but once fans got wind of it, they complained vociferously, causing MGM to rewrite the script. Johnny Sheffield upon the recommendation of Weissmuller appeared as the son, named Boy. Filming was done on location in Silver Springs, Florida.

MGM had two films remaining in its agreement with Tarzan's creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, but they would turn out to be somewhat lesser entries. The approach was increasingly semi-serious and stock footage (particularly a sequence where Tarzan fights an alligator) was being employed liberally. Weissmuller was beginning to look a little beefy as Tarzan and O'Sullivan was increasingly unhappy performing her role. Tarzan's Secret Treasure appeared in 1941 and Tarzan's New York Adventure soon after in 1942. The former probably represents the low-point of the MGM Tarzans while the latter just didn't seem to click with many fans, probably due to the shock of seeing Tarzan in modern attire.

Despite the variations in film quality noted above, the overall standard of the MGM Tarzan series was high as such things go. What could have been B-movie material in another studio's hands generally got first-rate treatment at MGM, which used its production design and impressive acting company to advantage. Aside from the obvious benefits of Weissmuller and O'Sullivan as the leads, one thing aiding the series was MGM's commitment to good supporting casts. Thus the films are peppered with the likes of C. Aubrey Smith, Neil Hamilton, Paul Cavanaugh, Ian Hunter, Laraine Day, Reginald Owen, Barry Fitzgerald, Tom Conway, and Charles Bickford. The MGM Tarzan films don't try to be more than the sort of exotic adventure Burroughs originally intended his books to portray and taken in that light, they all provide surefire entertainment value for a rainy afternoon. Those interested in further Tarzan film adventures should be aware that Weissmuller and Sheffield (though not O'Sullivan) continued their roles in a series of films for RKO. Perhaps we can look to Warner Bros. to make those available on DVD in the future.

In the meantime, Warners has attractively packaged the six MGM titles as double bills on three discs. Disc One contains the first and third films of the series while Disc Two contains the second and fourth. While a chronological presentation would have been preferred, that would have necessitated combined the two longest films (the first two) on one disc, perhaps to their transfers' detriment. Not that the transfers of those first two films are great anyway, which is a disappointment. One has become so used to superior efforts on Warners' classic titles that seeing the efforts on Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan Finds a Mate is surprising. Speckles, scratches, and general debris are abundant and the presentations are inconsistent ranging from quite sharp to fairly soft. One presumes that Warner had difficult source material to work with, but even so. Things improve somewhat with Tarzan Escapes and each of the last three films looks quite good with generally sharp images and only minor speckling in evidence. All transfers are presented full frame in accord with the original aspect ratios and edge effects are negligible to non-existent. In a similar pattern to the video, the audio of the last three films is markedly better. The noticeable hiss and age-related crackle and pop of the first three films are virtually eliminated. Overall, the mono audio is adequate. French language mono tracks and English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are also provided. The package of supplements to the set is contained on a separate fourth disc. The highlight is an 80-minute documentary Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle which provides endless fascination in its wealth of character history and production detail and insight. Featured prominently is film historian Rudy Behlmer. Other supplements include trailers for all six films and three vintage shorts (Jimmy Durante in Schnarzan the Conqueror, MGM on Location: Johnny Weissmuller, and Rodeo Dough). Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

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