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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #9 - August 2004

For this edition of the Classic Reviews Roundup, I have a number of off-beat items - a little something for everyone. We range from early animation (Winsor McCay, from Milestone/Image) to early German sound (La Habanera, from Kino) to a 1970s recreation of classic Hollywood (The Day of the Locust, from Paramount) and finally to various documentaries (Ronald Reagan, from CBS/Paramount; Rita, from Image; and The Golden Gong, from Shanachie). The reviews are arranged chronologically by year of original release.

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition (1911-1921)
(released on DVD by Milestone Film and Video on June 1st, 2004)

Winsor McCay was a pioneer of animation. Most people will have seen at least snippets of his most famous creation, Gertie the Dinosaur, and probably recognize the characters from his first cartoon, Little Nemo, even if they don't associate them with the name, Winsor McCay. If the introductory segments of these two McCay cartoons are to be believed, he was somewhat of a gambling man as both of them indicate that they originated as a result of wagers with his friends. Some 4000 drawings were completed by him in a month in order to create Little Nemo and win his first wager, for example. George McManus, another contemporary cartoonist, was part of the second wager. Anyone familiar with McManus's Bringing Up Father will see flashes of similarity between his characters and those of McCay, although who was the influence on whom is hard to say.

Winsor McCay: The Master Edition

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Milestone Film and Video, in association with The National Archives of Canada and the Cinémathèque Québécoise, has done all animation enthusiasts a big favour by releasing a new DVD (distribution by Image Entertainment) that brings together all surviving examples of McCay's magic. In addition to the aforementioned Little Nemo (1911, hand-coloured) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), included are How a Mosquito Operates (1912), The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), fragments of The Centaurs (c. 1918-1921) and Gertie on Tour (c. 1918-1921), and the less-frequently-seen later work of Flip's Circus (c. 1918-1921), Bug Vaudeville (c. 1921), The Pet (c. 1921), and The Flying House (c. 1921). The most impressive effort of all these is The Sinking of the Lusitania which exhibits incredible detail and involved some 25,000 drawings. Only some rather bombastic inter-titles take away from the overall effect. McCay's work thereafter became less interesting in light of the emerging artistry of Disney and his contemporaries. Part of this was due to the one area where his work fell short - its narrative qualities. The Gertie and Lusitania efforts don't suffer greatly from this, but his other cartoons do.

Milestone's DVD presents all the cartoons full frame as originally filmed and with a high standard of image quality. For material some 80 to 90 years old, the clarity and sharpness is very good indeed. In the case of Little Nemo, this can be partially attributed to the use of the only known 35mm in existence and for Gertie the Dinosaur, to the National Archives of Canada's restoration using four 35mm nitrate prints from the collection of the Cinémathèque Québécoise. Certainly, all the cartoons exhibit speckling and some debris, but in general, McCay fans should be very happy with the quality exhibited. The music composed and played by Gabriel Thibaudeau, and presented in stereo, is an excellent complement to the animation. The disc's supplements consist of an informative audio commentary by animation expert John Canemaker, Canemaker's documentary Remembering Winsor McCay which features one of McCay's assistants (made in 1976, it's a little harsh sounding to the point of being slightly hard to listen to at times), and a gallery of stills. Overall, this is a very fine tribute to McCay and is recommended, particularly to anyone with an interest in animation.

La Habanera (1937)
(released on DVD by Kino on March 30, 2004)

This a German film from director Detlef Sierck, better known to North American audiences as Douglas Sirk. The film was produced at UFA, the German state-owned film monopoly that came increasingly under the direct control of the Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels after the Nazis came to power in 1933. By 1937, the level of control was virtually complete with all film criticism banned and a German film star system in place that would hopefully make all German films, even the outright propaganda ones, palatable to the German film-going public. The only competition came from American films imported by the German subsidiaries of the major American studios. With America's entry into the war in 1941, that competition ceased.

La Habanera

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La Habanera is a film not untypical of its time and origin. On the surface, it is a compelling woman's melodrama, but there are overt Nazi themes of Aryan superiority and love of homeland as well as some sympathetic Nazi subtexts including anti-Americanism. The story concerns Swedish beauty Astree who becomes enchanted with the spell of Puerto Rico during a stopover there and falls in love with Don Pedro, an important local land owner. She remains behind when her ship sails, marries Don Pedro and has a child. The marriage soon turns sour and ten years pass. The island suffers from an outbreak of airborne tropical fever that the local authorities seek to cover up, but a Swedish doctor (Sven Nagel, Astree's former love) arrives to seek a cure bringing him into contact with Astree and conflict with Don Pedro and his associates.

As an early effort of Douglas Sirk's, the film exhibits many of the characteristics that would distinguish Sirk's glossy Technicolor melodramas of the 1950s for Universal - films such as Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows. Many of the scenes are composed with beauty and complexity and Sirk uses interesting and fluid camera movement throughout. Although La Habanera is in black and white, its use of light and shadow almost seems to make it glow in a way that foreshadows Sirk's later use of colour to accentuate doomed characters locked in by the narrow-mindedness of the social order of the time and place. The film's focus on a character affluent in a material sense but starved emotionally and sexually is a favourite Sirk theme. Even the bitter-sweet ending is typical Sirk.

Kino's DVD presents the film full frame in accord with the original aspect ratio. The image is merely average as classic releases go with noticeable softness at times and an occasional jitter in the picture. Speckling is present though not distracting. The image also has pronounced grain (which the disc packaging warns of). Despite these imperfections, the image is reasonably pleasant and does not distract from one's enjoyment of the film. The mono sound struck me as somewhat lacking in clarity for anyone trying to listen in German, although that may simply be due to my own lack of facility with the language. Optional English sub-titles are provided. The disc supplements include a four-page booklet essay by film scholar Jan-Christopher Horak providing historic context for the film's production, a Douglas Sirk filmography, a photo gallery, and excerpts from original German reviews. Recommended for all, but a must for Sirk fans.

The Day of the Locust (1975)
(released on DVD by Paramount on June 8th, 2004)

With today's cult of celebrity, we're used to hearing about how it is to be successful in Hollywood, but what happens to all the people who have similar dreams and hopes that go unrealized? Director John Schlesinger took on Nathaniel West's 1939 novel about the seamy side of Hollywood, The Day of the Locust and turned out a remarkable portrait of that aspect of the then-glamorous film capital. The result is one further must-see film that came out of Hollywood's second golden age, the 1970s. The focus here is on the losers, the wannabes, and the has-beens, with major figures such as successful producers or directors only shown when they are exhibiting some failed character trait. The story follows the intertwined lives of a budding art director (Tod Hackett, played by William Atherton), a platinum blonde extra (Faye Greener, played by Karen Black), a terminally shy and repressed bookkeeper (Homer Simpson [before there were The Simpsons], played by Donald Sutherland), and a former vaudeville star turned door-to-door salesman (Harry Greener, Faye's father, played by Burgess Meredith). Mix in aspiring child actors, domineering mothers, madams and prostitutes, drunks, tough talking little people, cock fights, revival meetings and crowds of adoring fans at Hollywood premieres and you have a graphic, sometimes unpleasant, but always fascinating portrait of what you generally don't read about in film books.

The Day of the Locust

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Unlike many films that try to recreate the 1930s or 1940s, The Day of the Locust not only looks right, it feels right and that's a major accomplishment. As I've stated in the past, filming in colour an era that we've mainly seen in black and white is a difficult thing to bring off successfully. Schlesinger and his crew succeed admirably through a judicious blend of location shooting, specially-built sets, careful research, and an eye for detail. A subdued colour palette smooths off the sharp edges that otherwise are a dead give-away of an ersatz product, whether it's in intimate sequences or major set-pieces like the climactic hallucinatory mob scene. The cast was all carefully chosen and Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, and Donald Sutherland deliver fine performances. The likes of Billy Barty, Paul Stewart, and real-life producer/director William Castle also provide memorable shorter contributions. The Day of the Locust received Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actor (Burgess Meredith) and Best Cinematography (Conrad Hall).

Paramount's DVD presentation is up to its usual high standard. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is very crisp and clean with fine shadow detail and no edge effects. Only the occasional speckle and some very minor debris mar the overall effect. The film's subdued colours are properly rendered. A new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track provides a very pleasing experience characterized by subtle use of the surrounds for background effects. John Barry's enjoyable score has nice presence. The original mono track is also included as are English sub-titles. There are no supplements. Recommended.

The Golden Gong: The Story of Rank Films - British Cinema's Legendary Studio (1987)
(released on DVD by Shanachie on June 8th, 2004)

The latest release in Shanachie's British Cinema Collection is a fairly decent documentary on the films that were produced by the J. Arthur Rank organization at its Pinewood Studios. It runs a brisk 76 minutes and is breezily narrated by Michael Caine. The documentary approach used is fairly standard as Caine takes us through the history of Rank Films in a chronological fashion, touching on the highlights of the organization's first 50 years. Film clips and interviews with film historian Peter Noble and many of the actors and directors who were responsible for the films are used extensively. The range of cast and crew interviewed is impressive, for example, producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, directors David Lean, Michael Powell, and Ronald Neame, and actors John Mills, Richard Attenborough, Dirk Bogarde, Stewart Granger, Christopher Reeve, Kenneth Connor, Joan Sims, Joan Collins, and Diana Dors.

The Golden Gong: The Story of Rank Films - British Cinema's Legendary Studio

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Most of the material one would expect to be covered is, including the creation of Pinewood Studios; David Lean's early work including In Which We Serve, Great Expectations, and Oliver Twist; some of the Powell and Pressburger films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and The Red Shoes; The Carry On films; Norman Wisdom's comedies; the Doctor films (Doctor in the House, etc.); and the James Bond films. Reference is made to the first Rank film (Mastership - a 20-minute short made in 1934) and the most recent one completed at the time the documentary was filmed (The Fourth Protocol). We even hear a little about Rank's trademark gong that heralded each production.

Inevitably, trying to cover 50 years in 76 minutes leads to a degree of superficiality, however. While the interview clips presented are quite good with some fine insight provided, it's somewhat unfortunate that the producers didn't take even better advantage of the interviewees they lined up by going into much more depth on the eras they were active in and the various productions in which they were involved. It strikes me as a significant opportunity missed. Perhaps there was much more to the interviews than was used, but if so, that material has either been lost or was not made available for use with the DVD presentation.

Shanachie's release is presented full frame and echoes the quality of most recent documentaries made available on DVD. The new material shot looks quite crisp and clean, while the archival material is variable in quality. The stereo sound is effective with some slight directionality evident across the front stage. No sub-titling is provided. The disc has no supplements. The disc is worth viewing for those looking for an introduction to the Rank films. All others should seek out a good written history such as Geoffrey MacNab's J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry.

Ronald Reagan: His Life and Legacy (2002)
(released on DVD by Paramount on June 22nd, 2004)

In the wake of the recent death of former actor and U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, we're starting to see a number of filmed tributes and biographies appearing. I include consideration of one such of these discs here because of Reagan's film background and the possibility that someone may be considering its purchase in hopes of getting some detail on his film career.

Ronald Reagan: His Life and Legacy

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Ronald Reagan: His Life and Legacy was prepared by CBS News about two years ago and is basically a puff piece. Its coverage of his film career is minimal beyond recognizing a couple of his better-known films and noting that he met Nancy Davis, his future wife, while filming Hellcats of the Navy. About five minutes into the 48-minute program, his film career has been virtually dealt with and coverage of his political career begins. Even the latter, however, is very superficially done. Just the basic facts are presented and the program then covers several themes such as the Reagan wit, the Reagan ranch, the relationship between the first couple, and life after the Oval Office. Any insight or informed analysis of the pros and cons of the Reagan years is lacking. Anyone who lived through the last four decades will already know at least as much as what this program tells you. Padding out the running time to 87 minutes are extended excerpts of seven memorable Reagan speeches ranging from the first inaugural address to the "Tear Down This Wall" speech to his farewell address.

Paramount's DVD, distributed on behalf of CBS, provides a crisp, clear full frame presentation and clear stereo sound (no sub-titling provided). It's no less than one would expect for such recent material. The disc's supplements include unabridged audio-only presentations of the Reagan speeches and a short featurette (appropriately called The Great Communicator) dealing with Reagan's communications abilities as seen through the eyes of his former speech-writer. The disc quality is fine; unfortunately the content doesn't merit a purchase.

Rita/Trouble in Texas: Collector's Edition (2004/1937)
(released on DVD by Playboy/Image Entertainment on June 15th, 2004)

Anyone who loves classic films knows about Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and anyone who watches TCM is aware of their original productions that provide profiles of stars of the Golden Age. One of those recent profiles, entitled Rita, focused on the life of Rita Hayworth and was produced in conjunction with Hugh Hefner and Playboy Enterprises. Rita is a 58-minute program narrated by Kim Basinger that covers the Columbia star's film career in reasonable detail and her later life that fell increasingly under the shadow of Alzheimer's Disease. The program is a mixture of film clips (though not enough of them), personal home movies, rare out-takes, and interviews with the likes of Hayworth's daughter Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Ann Miller, Tab Hunter, Tony Franciosa, Juanita Moore, Eli Wallach, Marc Platt, Vincent Sherman, George Sidney, and Delbert Mann. Basinger's narration that ties it all together is delivered in a rather flat voice. The profile is definitely revealing and worth watching, although it does leave you vaguely unsatisfied because it doesn't convey as much warmth and enthusiasm for the subject as she warrants.

Rita/Trouble in Texas: Collector's Edition

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Image's DVD presentation is a two-disc set. The first disc contains the documentary presented full frame as originally broadcast. The image is quite clear, sharp, and colourful where new footage is concerned while the archival material included is understandably less crisp in a number of instances. The stereo sound is unremarkable but obviously not an issue of concern for such a presentation. Bonus materials are extensive and include additional archival footage not used in the profile (including more home movies, Rita's honeymoon with Prince Aly Aga Khan, and a further clip from Rita's appearance on The Carol Burnett Show); extended segments of the interviews used in the profile as well as new interviews; an extensive and impressive photo gallery; and a Rita Hayworth filmography.

During the first part of her film career, extending from 1935 to 1937, Rita was billed under her real name, Rita Cansino. One of the last films from that time was 1937's Trouble in Texas, a Tex Ritter western produced by independent Grand National Pictures. Rita was second-billed and played an undercover agent who teams up with Ritter to investigate a series of rodeo prize money robberies. The film was at best an average B-western entry for the time, although it did contribute to Ritter becoming one of the top five western box-office stars soon thereafter. Image has included the film on the second disc of its Rita set. Unfortunately the print used is in pretty rough shape. It's watchable, but suffers from a washed-out appearance, dropped frames, occasionally fuzzy dialogue, and a blizzard of speckles and debris at times. The original Grand National main titles are missing on the source print used, having been replaced by a later distributor to attribute top billing to Rita Hayworth.

Despite my vague disquiet over the documentary itself and the limited quality of Trouble in Texas, this is a package worth having for any Rita Hayworth fan.

Barrie Maxwell

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