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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #20 - August 2005

In this mid-summer edition of the column, I'll be looking at two recent collections (The Gary Cooper Collection, The Film Noir Classic Collection #2) as well as providing shorter reviews of some 12 other titles that have been released mainly over the past couple of months (The Olive Thomas Collection, Pimpernel Smith, The Rocking Horse Winner, This Is Your Life: The Ultimate Collection Volume 1, It Started in Naples, Victim, The Andy Griffith Show: Season Two, The Wrong Arm of the Law, Waterhole #3, The Front Page) or are forthcoming (The High and the Mighty, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit). The usual section on new announcements of upcoming classic releases can be found after the reviews. As always, the Classic Coming Attractions Database has been updated to reflect the latest information.

The Gary Cooper Collection
(released on DVD by Universal on May 31st, 2005)

The Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on July 5th, 2005)

The Gary Cooper CollectionThe Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 2

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It is with agonizing slowness that Universal has been doling out the classic Paramount titles that it controls. As a consequence, much of the work of the likes of actors Fred MacMurray, Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, Bing Crosby, Claudette Colbert, Gary Cooper, Carole Lombard, Ray Milland, Mae West, Fredric March, Maurice Chevalier, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, and Bob Hope, as well as directors Josef von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch, Leo McCarey, Mitchell Leisen. Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, and George Marshall is still unavailable on DVD. Every so often, Universal gives us a little taste with a W.C. Fields set, or a couple of Shirley Temple films for example, but the approach is not nearly aggressive enough for Paramount fans, including yours truly. The most recent offering is The Gary Cooper Collection, which includes five films spanning the period 1933 to 1939: Design for Living, Peter Ibbetson, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, The General Died at Dawn, and Beau Geste. The films are presented on two double-sided discs and designated as part of Universal's Franchise Collection line.

Other than the absence of any western films, it's pretty hard to argue that Universal hasn't given us some prime Cooper in this set. We get three of his best adventure films, a nice sophisticated comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and an interesting fantasy never before available on home video (Peter Ibbetson). Cooper seems miscast in both the latter, but the others are all Cooper in top form. Despite his Academy Award wins in the 1940s and 50s and a pretty good stretch of films in the early 1940s, the 1930s was the decade with his most consistently good work. In Design for Living, he plays a painter who along with a good friend who's an aspiring playwright (Fredric March) falls in love with a young woman (Miriam Hopkins). The three attempt a platonic relationship while living in Paris. Based on a play by Noel Coward and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the film works quite well although it's a bit of a stretch accepting Cooper in a sophisticated role such as he essays here. If you're going to put Cooper in a comedy, it makes more sense to play upon his homespun nature, in the way that Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town does three years later. One could argue in a similar vein about casting Cooper as a Victorian architect in Peter Ibbetson, but the film works regardless. The fantasy about a doomed love between Cooper and his childhood sweetheart (Ann Harding) is consistently engrossing and handled thoughtfully by director Henry Hathaway. Cooper generally overcomes the miscasting and Harding is particularly good. Look for Ida Lupino in a small role. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer is the real stuff - a boys-own adventure about the British Army in Northwest India. There's a great story along with plenty of action, excitement, camaraderie, and witty dialogue. Franchot Tone is nicely paired with Cooper in the lead roles, and there's plenty of other familiar faces on hand - C. Aubrey Smith, Monte Blue, Akim Tamiroff, Douglass Dumbrille, and Mischa Auer to name just a few. Director Henry Hathaway is in his element. The General Died at Dawn finds Cooper playing an American adventurer in China where he tries to help the peasants against a warlord intent in subjugating the country. Akim Tamiroff does impressive work as the warlord, but this is Cooper's film as he imbues his role with sincerity and underplayed heroics. The actors benefited from a good script by playwright Clifford Odets. Best of all is the definitive version of Beau Geste. Cooper heads up a trio of brothers who join the Foreign Legion. The well-known adventure tale was previously filmed in 1926 with Ronald Colman, but Cooper makes the title role his own in the exciting, action-packed production for which Paramount pulled out all the stops. The first-rate cast includes Ray Milland and Robert Preston as the other Geste brothers and features Brian Donlevy in the definitive portrayal of Sergeant Markoff. William Wellman directs briskly while fine sets and a rousing score by Alfred Newman add to the film's lustre. It was a real high point on which to leave Paramount as henceforth Cooper would free-lance during his film career.

All of the films are presented full frame as originally released and all look quite attractive. Design for Living and Peter Ibbetson (at least, for the most part) both look quite sharp with excellent contrast and very deep blacks. Grain is evident during both, though never excessively so. The General Died at Dawn and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer both offer acceptable transfers that are a little less consistent than the first two films. Dirt and debris with some instances of softness are somewhat more prevalent, with Lancer having a few very worn-looking sequences. Beau Geste, by a slight margin, offers the best of the five transfers. It has the same degree of sharpness and contrast as the first two but a greater overall level of consistency. The mono sound on all five films is quite acceptable with minimal background hiss and all provide English, French, and Spanish sub-titles. The only supplements are trailers for Beau Geste, Peter Ibbetson, and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer. Considering that these titles work out to less than $6 apiece even at full retail price, this is a no-brainer of a purchase. Released on May 31st, 2005 by Universal and highly recommended.

After last year's successful film noir box set, Warner Bros. has returned with a second dip into its noir catalog. The Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 2 offers five more often-requested titles. Four are from RKO, the home of film noir: Born to Kill and Crossfire from 1947 and Clash by Night and The Narrow Margin from 1952. Dillinger, an independent production from the King Brothers (distributed by Monogram) in 1945, rounds out the box. This is not quite the offering that the first volume was, but there is some good stuff here. Crossfire and The Narrow Margin are prime noir titles; on the other hand, Dillinger isn't really even film noir. Clash by Night and Born to Kill are lesser but still solid noir entries.

Crossfire is the film of the three Roberts: Robert Young, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Ryan. Ryan is superb as a bigoted serviceman who may have murdered a man just because he was Jewish. Often overlooked in the film is a magnificently underplayed portrayal of a police detective by Robert Young, some of his finest work on film. The movie is very capably directed by Edward Dmytryk, right from the brutal murder that begins it, shot entirely in the shadows cast by a lamp. In Born to Kill, Claire Trevor finds Lawrence Tierney's remorseless killer irresistible. It's a brutal yet fascinating film whose complications may require several viewings to sort out. Directed by Robert Wise (his first film noir), it has all the typical RKO film noir trappings, both visually and psychologically. Clash by Night presents a love triangle that finds Barbara Stanwyck vacillating between Robert Ryan and Paul Douglas after she returns to her home town from the big city. Ryan is the quintessential noir personage of the man on the outside looking in, and as usual he handles it masterfully here. Stanwyck does her usual strong work, but Douglas's one-note performance almost unbalances things. Fritz Lang directs with assurance, but the whole thing seems like less than the sum of its parts. The Narrow Margin is a real crackerjack of a film that finds a cop bringing a gangster's moll by train to testify before a grand jury. Of course, there are others on the train looking to kill her. Charles McGraw plays the cop while B-movie queen Marie Windsor plays the moll. Not strongly noir in its trappings, the film gains its noir entrée by virtue of the confined space within which the action takes place. Director Richard Fleischer makes the most of the limited resources at his disposal. The film has justifiably gained in reputation over the years and even spawned a decent remake with Gene Hackman in 1990. Dillinger is the odd man out in the set. It's a nifty little portrait of the real gangster with good work by Lawrence Tierney in the title role, but its noir pedigree is highly questionable. Just because the film was a low budget effort made independently, uses a few dark scenes, and deals with a criminal element doesn't mean it's automatically film noir. The psychological and environmental underpinnings are given short shrift in favour of straight-ahead exposition.

Warners have done a fine job with all the transfers. All are full frame as originally released. The images are generally sharp with deep blacks and moderate grain that seems appropriate for these sorts of films. Dark scenes are generally well handled except for a few instances in The Narrow Margin and in Dillinger where murkiness creeps in. Speckles and the odd scratch are in evident in all the titles, but are never a distraction. Given the nature of the source elements, the results are commendable. The mono sound on all the films is in decent shape with only some very mild hiss and the occasional crackle in evidence. All offer English, French, and Spanish sub-titles. For supplements, all offer audio commentaries (the best ones are by Alain Silver and James Ursini on Crossfire and Peter Bogdanovich on Clash by Night) and most have trailers. Crossfire also provides a fine new making-of featurette. Released on July 5th, 2005 by Warner Bros. and highly recommended.

The Olive Thomas Collection

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The Olive Thomas Collection:
The Flapper
Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart (2004)

Director: Alan Crosland/Andi Hicks

Theatrical Release: Selznick Pictures/Timeline Films

Cast: Olive Thomas, Theodore Westman Jr., Katherine Johnston, Arthur Housman

DVD Company and Release Date: Milestone (Image), April 26, 2005

Video: 1.37:1 Full Frame; Colour Tinted/Colour

Audio: DD 2.0 English Stereo; English intertitles

Supplements: Stills gallery; Reenactments of anecdotes about Olive Thomas as told by Billy Bitzer and Lenore Coffee; Illustrated interview with Olive's first husband, Bernard Krug Thomas; Two songs written especially for Olive Thomas

Since many reading this may never have heard of Olive Thomas, it's best to begin with the recent documentary on her. Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart reveals that Olive had a five-year run of popularity beginning in 1916 during which time she was a model, a star in the Ziegfeld Follies, and a developing film star. Latterly married to Jack Pickford (Mary Pickford's younger brother), she died in Paris after swallowing poison in 1920. The death was ruled an accident, but the truth of it has never been resolved. The documentary covers all this territory in detail using photos, film clips, and interviews with various present-day family members. Narrated by Rosanna Arquette in a somewhat low-key fashion, it's an effective and interesting piece that appears to cover all the known facts in reasonable detail. The many glimpses of Olive's acting that it provides whets our appetite for the DVD's other offering, the 1920 feature The Flapper which finds Olive playing a 16-year-old school girl who precociously finds herself involved with an older man, two jewel thieves, and adventures in New York. Olive's acting is natural and quite enchanting and the part is well suited to her, but the plot's credibility degenerates in the second half reducing the effectiveness of the film's climax. Still it is a good showcase for her and makes for an appealing package when combined with the documentary. Milestone's DVD offers a very nice-looking tinted print (courtesy of George Eastman House) of The Flapper that's generally sharp with minimal debris, accompanied by a fine piano score by Robert Israel. A decent grab-bag of supplements is highlighted by an interview with Olive's first husband as read from a 1931 newspaper. Recommended.

Pimpernel Smith

Pimpernel Smith (1941)

Director: Leslie Howard

Theatrical Release: Anglo-American

Cast: Leslie Howard, Francis L. Sullivan, Mary Morris, Hugh McDermott

DVD Company and Release Date: Reelclassicdvd, 2004

Video: 1.37:1 Full Frame; B&W

Audio: DD English Mono; No subtitles

Supplements: Re-release theatrical trailer

In 1935, Leslie Howard gave us an excellent film adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel with himself in the title role and Raymond Massey as his chief continental nemesis. With the outbreak of World War II, Howard returned to England from America to do what he could for the war effort and one of his first contributions was an updating of the costume picture to current times in Pimpernel Smith. He produced, directed, and starred in the story of a Cambridge professor who assumes contrived absent-mindedness to mask a quick intelligence which he uses to help refugees escape from the Nazis. In this outing, his nemesis is the Gestapo head played in a somewhat caricaturish fashion by Francis Sullivan. Despite this lapse, the film succeeds very well as an entertaining adventure tale in addition to being effective propaganda. Howard is well cast as the professor and directs with skill. The ending is particularly effective, both in tone and in execution. Leslie Howard's wartime contributions were highly valuable and appreciated at home. Unfortunately he died when a plane he was traveling in while believed to be on an intelligence-related mission in 1943 was shot down. Reelclassicdvd's release of Pimpernel Smith is welcome, but the results are tolerable at best. The image is rather washed-out throughout and subject to numerous scratches and debris. The mono sound is understandable, but there is significant background hiss and crackle. This is the only DVD release either here or in Region 2 that I'm aware of. A fine film that deserves a better presentation, but for the time being, Reelclassicdvd's effort does fill the gap.

The Rocking Horse Winner

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The Rocking Horse Winner (1950)

Director: Anthony Pelissier

Theatrical Release: Rank

Cast: Valerie Hobson, John Howard Davies, Ronald squire, John Mills

DVD Company and Release Date: Home Vision, September 24, 2002

Video: 1.37:1 Full Frame; B&W

Audio: DD English Mono; No subtitles

Supplements: The Rocking Horse Winner 20-minute short film shot in Pixelvision by Michael Almereyda; Public radio broadcast of The Rocking Horse Winner as read by John Shea; Excerpts from a chamber opera version of the story; 24-page booklet

In the late 1940s, John Mills tried his hand at producing and the results were two interesting films, The History of Mr. Polly and The Rocking Horse Winner. Both were written and directed by Anthony Pelissier. Although neither were great successes at the time of their original release, The Rocking Horse Winner particularly has increasingly come to be recognized as a minor masterpiece of British cinema. It's based on a fantasy by D.H. Lawrence about a young boy whose parents are in financial difficulties due to his mother's spendthrift ways. Receiving a rocking horse for Christmas, he soon finds that by riding the horse in a frenzied manner, the winners of upcoming horse races are subconsciously revealed to him. With the help of the family's handyman, he places bets on the horses and wins substantial sums of money which are provided to his mother in the guise of bequests. But the more his mother gets, the more she spends and the more the young boy must ride, with eventually tragic consequences. While John Mills (as the handy man and Valerie Hobson (as the mother) both are excellent in the film, it is the performance of John Howard Davies as the earnest and innocent young boy that one remembers long after the film is over. Davies had a brief career as a child actor, also appearing in Oliver Twist and Tom Brown's Schooldays, but eventually became extensively involved in British television as a producer and director. Home Vision's DVD presentation is first rate. The image is bright, crisp, and nicely detailed while the mono sound is clear and generally free of age-related defects. The various other media versions of the story that are included as supplements provide interesting comparisons. Highly recommended.

This Is Your Life: The Ultimate Collection Volume 1

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This Is Your Life: The Ultimate Collection Volume 1 (1953-1987)

Director: Various

Television Release: NBC, Syndication

Host: Ralph Edwards

DVD Company and Release Date: Respond2 Entertainment, May 31, 2005

Video: 1.37:1 Full Frame; B&W and Colour

Audio: DD English Mono; No subtitles

Supplements: 32-page collector's booklet

This Is Your Life is the well-known television series created and hosted by Ralph Edwards that originated on radio in 1948. The first television version debuted in 1952 and the program aired weekly for nine years on NBC before continuing in syndication for another three decades. The format was simple. Each program would profile the life of a well-known guest mainly from the world of entertainment by bringing in people from the guest's past to highlight in person Ralph Edward's narrative on the guest's life. Normally the whole thing was a surprise to each week's guest. Eighteen of these programs covering the period 1953 to 1987 have been gathered on a three-disc set in what is being billed as presumably the first of a series of such sets. Disc One (Comedians, Movie Stars & Country Legends) contains the shows on Lou Costello, Laurel & Hardy, Bette Davis, Jayne Mansfield, Roy Rogers, and Johnny Cash. Disc Two (Rock & Roll Stars, Comedians & World War II) covers Bobby Darin, Dick Clark, Betty White, Milton Berle, Rear Admiral Samuel Fuqua, and Hanna Bloch Kohner. Disc Three (Music, Horror Stars & Olympians) covers Richard & Karen Carpenter, Shirley Jones, Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Jesse Owens, and Duke Kahanamoku. Most of the programs are fascinating to watch now, particularly those from the 1950s, which make up the bulk of the set. It's particularly interesting to observe the reactions of the guests to the whole concept of being profiled by surprise as well as to the various personages from their pasts that Edwards is able to unearth. Some are clearly embarrassed by the whole thing while others quickly warm to the idea. The image quality of the shows on the DVDs is variable, with the earlier shows mainly drawn from kinescopes suffering the most with a fair degree of speckling and debris as well as some soft sequences. Predictably the more recent shows are in better shape. No restoration has apparently been done, but all are quite watchable nonetheless. The mono sound is adequate. Ralph Edwards provides a newly-shot introduction to each show. The 32-page booklet that is included in the box set is attractively put together and provides good background information on the show in general as well as the 18 shows in the set in particular. Recommended.

The High and the Mighty

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The High and the Mighty (1954)

Director: William Wellman

Theatrical Release: Warner Bros

Cast: John Wayne, Robert Stack, Claire Trevor, Laraine Day

DVD Company and Release Date: Paramount, August 2, 2005

Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic; Colour

Audio: DD English 5.1 Surround, DD English 2.0 Surround; English subtitles

Supplements: DD English 5.1 Surround, DD English 2.0 Surround; English subtitles

Here is the first fruit of Paramount's agreement with the John Wayne estate to bring a number of the until-now unavailable Batjac (Wayne's own production company) titles to DVD. The High and the Mighty has for many years been the most sought-after of the titles by laserdisc and DVD enthusiasts, in the course of which it has been elevated to a level not really justified by the film itself. It is often referred to as the grand-daddy of airplane disaster films as it introduced the idea of a group of passengers with disparate backgrounds who are then put in jeopardy as the aircraft malfunctions with uncertain results. John Wayne stars as the co-pilot - a veteran flyer who proves to be the calming influence when the plane's chief pilot (Robert Stack) becomes rattled by the situation. Anyone who has seen the various Airport films and other disaster films of the late 1960s and 1970s will be familiar with the formula. The High and the Mighty excels by virtue of its presentation of the passengers and their relationships, in its memorable musical score (Oscar winner for Dimitri Tiomkin), and in Wayne's subdued performance. Less persuasive is the whole nature of how the plane manages to overcome its mechanical malfunction and the film's lack of explanation for the pilot's initial response to the situation. The positives outweigh the negatives and the film is easily enjoyable despite a hefty 2½-hour running time, but I suspect the repeat value may be compromised for some given the more recent disaster films. Paramount has identified its DVD presentation as a Special Collector's Edition and for once the product (a 2-disc set) is worthy of the moniker. The anamorphic transfer based on a thorough restoration of the source elements is quite good with only a few soft sequences and some minor speckling to detract from it. The surround track offers decent fidelity although no significant surround activity. The commentary is informative and the various supporting featurettes comprising the making-of the film (some 80-odd minutes) and framed by Leonard Maltin's comments are comprehensive and well done indeed, utilizing new interviews with many of the surviving cast and crew members. Recommended.

The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit

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The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956)

Director: Nunnally Johnson

Theatrical Release: 20th Century Fox

Cast: Gregory Peck, Jennifer Jones, Fredric March, Marisa Pavan

DVD Company and Release Date: Fox, August 9, 2005

Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic; Colour

Audio: DD English Surround, DD French Stereo, DD Spanish Mono; English and Spanish subtitles

Supplements: Commentary by author and publisher James Monaco; Movietone News footage of the film's premieres; Restoration comparison; Theatrical Trailer plus trailers for four other Studio Classics releases; Stills gallery

Sloan Wilson's novel was a best seller in the mid-1950s and inevitably made its way to the big screen with all the trimmings: a great cast, good script, CinemaScope and colour. The story is a thoughtful and realistic account of the postwar aspirations of Tom Rath who seeks out a new job opportunity in the public relations area in order to meet his family's financial needs. Working directly with his new boss Ralph Hopkins who has been highly successful in business but has estranged himself from family obligations in the process, Rath soon finds that he has his own decisions to make in terms of what is important - family or success. The film version is first rate - intelligent and very well acted. Peck and March are particularly impressive as Tom Rath and Ralph Hopkins respectively, but even Jennifer Jones delivers one of her better efforts. The cast has an impressive roster of supporting players including Lee J. Cobb, Gene Lockhart, Henry Daniell, Ann Harding, and Keenan Wynn. With adult themes which are realistically portrayed and resolved (or not in some cases), the film's various threads are adroitly handled by director Nunnally Johnson who maintains interest throughout the 2½-hour running time by drawing convincing portrayals from the entire cast. The DVD release is part of Fox's Studio Classics line and reflects that series' high standard. The 2.35 anamorphic image (not 2.55 as stated on the packaging) is in very good shape as a consequence of considerable restoration efforts. The sound track offers good directional stereo effects typical of films of the time, though it's billed as Dolby surround. It does a fine job of highlighting a typically impressive Bernard Herrmann score. The main supplement is a mediocre commentary by film author James Monaco. Highly recommended.

It Started in Naples

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It Started in Naples (1959)

Director: Melville Shavelson

Theatrical Release: Paramount

Cast: Clark Gable, Sophia Loren, Vittorio De Sica, Paolo Carlini

DVD Company and Release Date: Paramount, July 12, 2005

Video: 1.85:1 Anamorphic; Colour

Audio: DD English Mono; English subtitles

Supplements: None

At the end of his career, Clark Gable found himself starring in films with major young female stars of the time. Some of these pairings worked well, as in Teacher's Pet with Doris Day, while others, such as It Started in Naples with Sophia Loren, didn't. Gable plays a Philadelphia lawyer who travels to Italy to tidy up the estate of his recently deceased brother. Expecting a straight-forward situation, Gable finds instead that there's a son he was unaware of and a fiery young aunt (Loren) who's acting as the boy's guardian. Gable and Loren soon become involved and the inevitable plays its way out after a few false starts. Naples and Capri sure look great and we get a nice performance from Paolo Carlini as the boy, but the story is pretty thin stuff and strictly predictable. Gable looks bored with the whole thing and Loren proves she can't dance. In a word, tedious! Paramount gives us its usual fine transfer. This time Paramount's usual lack of supplements is a blessing.


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Victim (1961)

Director: Basil Dearden

Theatrical Release: Rank

Cast: Dirk Bogarde, Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, Peter McEnery

DVD Company and Release Date: Home Vision, January 21, 2003

Video: 1.66:1 Anamorphic; B&W

Audio: DD English Mono; No subtitles

Supplements: Dirk Bogarde in Conversation filmed interview; Theatrical trailer

After a lengthy career as a British matinee star, particularly in the "Doctor" films of the 1950s (e.g. 1954's Doctor in the House), Dirk Bogarde decided to concentrate on more artistic ventures than the commercial efforts for which he was known. His first such endeavour was 1961's Victim, the first British film to portray homosexuals in a sympathetic light. Bogarde plays Melville Farr, a successful barrister who is married but also a closet homosexual. A blackmail scheme that is preying on a number of gay men (homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time) eventually forces Farr to take a stand although his career and marriage will both be threatened. The role is very well played by Bogarde who gives the Farr character both sensitivity and resolve. Bogarde himself was very happy with the results even though he alienated some of his fans who could only see him in the "Doctor" roles. The film also benefits from a fine array of supporting performances from the likes of Sylvia Syms, Dennis Price, John Barrie, and Nigel Stock. Basil Dearden's direction is spare and uncluttered. Home Vision's DVD is very good looking, offering a crisp image for the most part (there are a few soft sections) with good contrast and very fine image detail. The mono sound is in good shape. The supplementary interview with Bogarde (done near the time of the film's original release) is quite informative. Recommended.

On to Part Two

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