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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #21 - October 2005
Catching Up with Fox and New Announcements

Warner Bros. does such a fine job with its classic titles, both in execution and publicity, that we tend to forget that there are other studios doing a pretty good job with their classics too. Fox is one such example. It releases quite a few classics, with consistently good transfers. Where it tends to be somewhat weaker is in its publicity for its efforts. We're all quite familiar with Fox's fine Studio Classics and Film Noir release lines, but frequently many of its other classic titles seem to get announced quietly and then released with little fanfare. The result is that such titles often seem to show up discounted or even in the bargain bins a few months later. That's great for disc-seeking classic collectors, but the bottom-line results surely can't help Fox to make the decision easy on other potential classic title releases that collectors want - namely, to get those lesser-known titles out quickly and frequently. In an effort to make sure that you're all familiar with what Fox has made available recently, I'm going to provide comments on all the studio's classic releases of the past five months. Maybe if more people are aware of them all and are acquiring those of them that appeal, the results will help Fox to recognize the demand for such titles and start looking more seriously at releasing the many MIA films of the likes of Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Gene Tierney, Vincent Price, Henry Fonda, Tyrone Power, Don Ameche, Richard Widmark, Cesar Romero, Dana Andrews, the Ritz Brothers, later Laurel and Hardy, John Payne, early Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart, and so on. We might even see more B series pictures featuring characters such as Michael Shayne, Mr. Moto, The Cisco Kid, and even (gasp!) Charlie Chan.

May 2005

In May, Fox released a whopping 16 classic titles. The Studio Classics (Anna and the King of Siam, The Best of Everything, The Razor's Edge) were well publicized and even a prime group of westerns received plenty of press (The Bravados, Broken Lance, Buffalo Bill, Drums Along the Mohawk, Forty Guns, In Old Arizona, Warlock). The rest seemed to disappear with little trace, however (Brigham Young: SE, The Detective, A Farewell to Arms, The Frogmen, Lady in Cement, Tony Rome). Here are comments and recommendations on each of the May releases starting with the latter group.

[Editor's Note: Clicking on the artwork for each title will take you to its order page on Sales from these links help to support The Bits.]

Brigham Young: Special Edition

Brigham Young: Special Edition (1940)

Many have heard about Fox's forthcoming release of the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro as a Special Edition. It's simply the previously-issued Studio Classics release of the title with a colourized version added on the flip side of the disc. Well, it wasn't the first title to be so handled by Fox. Did you know that Fox did the same thing this past May to the version of Brigham Young that it first issued a couple of years ago? I haven't even seen this SE version, but simply adding a colourized version to the previous disc doesn't make it any more special than it already was. Maybe it does reduce the price on the older release and if so that's the only reason to welcome this new version. I reviewed the original release in one of my earlier columns and consider it a worthwhile though not essential disc.

The Detective

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The Detective (1968)

Here's the best of Sinatra's late 1960s films for Fox. He plays an NYPD detective who investigates both murder and corruption, with a script that seems determined to go as far as the new liberalness on the screen allowed. The role wallows in the sordidness of it all, but there's no denying Sinatra's effectiveness as the increasingly disillusioned cop. Tightly directed by the veteran Gordon Douglas, and with a good supporting cast featuring Lee Remick, Ralph Meeker, Jack Klugman, Horace MacMahon, and Lloyd Bochner. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks quite sharp and clear with fine colour fidelity although there is noticeable dirt and debris. The usual stereo and mono tracks are adequate, and English and Spanish subtitles are provided along with French and Spanish mono tracks. A clutch of trailers comprises the supplements. Recommended.

Tony Rome

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Tony Rome (1967)

In the first of three films made at Fox in the late 1960s, Frank Sinatra tries on a hard-boiled Bogart detective role for size and finds the fit a little tight. The story is a loose remake of 1946's The Big Sleep without the class and sharply-written dialogue. Sinatra is modestly entertaining as loner Rome, but too much of the proceedings seem contrived for cheap effect rather than giving rise to thoughtful consideration. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very good if a little red at times, while the sound is the usual offering of both mono and stereo mixes with little difference between the two. English and Spanish subtitles included as are French and Spanish mono tracks. A handful of trailers including one for Tony Rome are provided. A rental for Sinatra fans.

Lady in Cement

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Lady in Cement (1968)

This sequel to Tony Rome has a title that pretty well tells it all. Sinatra's detective has to figure out who the lady was and why she was killed. It's all rather predictable, and evokes memories of Murder, My Sweet in the person of Bonanza's Dan Blocker as a Mike Mazurki-like boyfriend of the murdered woman. The gratuitous violence soon makes you realize how far it all is from the caliber of that fine film noir. Raquel Welsh and Richard Conte co-star. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is fairly consistent with the other 1967-1968 Sinatra Fox releases in terms of its high quality, although it's perhaps a little softer-looking than the other two. The stereo and mono sound tracks are both decent and are supplemented by English and Spanish subtitles and French and Spanish mono tracks. English and Spanish trailers for Lady in Cement and trailers for a number of Raquel Welsh films comprise the supplements.

A Farewell to Arms

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A Farewell to Arms (1957)

Having somewhat convincingly managed to bring the production scale of Gone with the Wind to the western in 1946's Duel in the Sun, David O. Selznick tried to do the latter for the war film with his filming of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms 11 years later. The story had been effectively and economically filmed in a 1932 version with Gary Cooper as the soldier and Helen Hayes the nurse with whom he falls in love, which only served to show up Selznick's overblown efforts. Filling the Cooper and Hayes parts with Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones didn't help much either. At two and a half hours, it all just plods along despite the obvious production values. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is merely adequate, with obvious softness and lack of sharpness quite prevalent. The sound is spread across the three front channels, but seems little better than mono. In any event it's not a 3.0 surround mix as advertised on the packaging. English and Spanish subtitles and French and Spanish mono tracks are included. The theatrical trailer and some Fox Movietone newsreel footage round out the disc.

The Frogmen

The Frogmen (1951)

I believe this has been the only new addition to Fox's ongoing War Classics collection so far this year, and a rather obscure title as well. A welcome one, though, as it gives us further representation on DVD of two Golden Age stars who are often regrettably overlooked - Richard Widmark and Dana Andrews. For the uninitiated, the frogmen of the title are not some crazed creatures from the deep in a cheesy horror film, but Navy underwater demolition experts. The plot is familiar as a new disciplinarian takes over a lax command, and eventually wins over the men so that a critical mission to sabotage a Japanese submarine base can succeed. The story is briskly told and reasonably convincingly acted by Widmark and Andrews (with good support from Gary Merrill) while the action scenes are crisply staged by veteran director Lloyd Bacon. It's a typical example of an efficiently mounted if standard studio product of the time. The black and white film is correctly presented full frame and looks quite good other than during the obvious use of stock footage and some rear projection. The stereo and mono tracks are both in good shape although with little discernible difference. English and Spanish subtitles and French and Spanish mono tracks are provided. The supplements consist of a teaser and two trailers for the film. Recommended as a rental although war fans won't go wrong with a purchase.

Broken Lance

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Broken Lance (1954)

With virtually every major star trying their hand at westerns in the 1950s, Spencer Tracy wasn't going to be left out. Bad Day at Black Rock and Broken Lance were his contributions, both excellent films though the former is the better-known of the two. In Broken Lance, Tracy plays rancher Matt Devereaux who allows his youngest son Joe to serve a jail term for a crime he committed. When Deveraux dies, the ranch is taken over by his other sons who then must deal with Joe when he returns from prison. As the steely-eyed, uncompromising Deveraux, Tracy gives a memorable performance, matched by a nuanced portrayal of his native American wife by Katy Jurado. Richard Widmark provides solid work as one of the inheriting sons (Hugh O'Brien and Earl Holliman are the others) while a young Robert Wagner is surprisingly effective as Joe. Director Edward Dmytryk drives the story along briskly and stages some excellent action set pieces. All told, the film provides quite repeatable entertainment. The 2.55:1 anamorphic image is beautiful with a crisp image, deep blacks, and minimal speckling. The Dolby Digital 4.0 sound is equally impressive with some decent directional effects and nice separation on the dialogue. English and Spanish subtitles and French and Spanish mono tracks are provided. The supplements consist of a trailer and some Movietone newsreel footage. Recommended.

Drums Along the Mohawk

Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)

John Ford's Technicolor production set during the Revolutionary War is a favourite of many and while it hasn't received the Studio Classics treatment it deserves, the disc does look great. The film has many of the Fordian touches with plenty of the folksy routine of pioneer life punctuated by rousing action. Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert are both ideal as the young pioneer couple whose new life in the Mohawk Valley is overturned by war, but the film is stolen by Edna Mae Oliver as a veteran pioneer woman (deservedly receiving an Academy Award nomination for her work). The colour cinematography is superb and was also Oscar nominated. Fox has done some fine restoration work on the three-strip Technicolor film as a demonstration on its disc shows. The results are impressive, yielding rich accurate colour and sharp images virtually throughout, all presented full frame as originally shot. The only weakness lies in some blurry scenes presumably due to registration issues resulting from uneven shrinkage of the negatives. The sound (both mono and stereo) is quite adequate with only some mild hiss in evidence at times. English and Spanish subtitles and French and Spanish mono tracks are provided. The only supplements are the aforementioned restoration comparison and a black and white theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Forty Guns

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Forty Guns (1957)

Any film that starts off with Barbara Stanwyck on a white horse leading a column of forty riders across the western landscape can't be all bad. Follow it up with a tale of family rivalry that also involves a gunfighter-turned- U.S. marshal and a weasel of a sheriff and you've got the makings of a fine western. Top it off with Samuel Fuller at the directorial helm providing us with a fine mix of uniquely composed shots and sequences of brief, sudden violence and the result is a western with a different feel that bears repeated viewings. Standing up to Stanwyck are the often under-rated Barry Sullivan and Gene Barry, with John Ericson and Dean Jagger featured in support. Fox's black and white 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is impressive with a fine gray scale in evidence and sharp images throughout. There is some mild dirt and speckling present at times. The stereo (not surround as stated on the packaging) and mono sound is in good shape offering surprisingly good fidelity. A Spanish mono track and English and Spanish subtitles are included. The only supplement is the original theatrical trailer. Recommended.

In Old Arizona

In Old Arizona (1928)

In this early sound appearance of the Cisco Kid, Warner Baxter gives a rather mannered but generally entertaining performance that earned him a Best Actor Oscar. Otherwise, though, this first talking feature to be shot outdoors has little to recommend it aside from its historical importance. The typically static nature of early sound films is certainly present, but the amount of action is remarkably slight even for 1928 - a surprise, given the fact that Raoul Walsh was a co-director (with Irving Cummings). Aside from Baxter, the rest of the cast is lackluster, particularly a poor performance by the other lead, Edmund Lowe. For a film nearly 80 years old, Fox's full frame transfer is in pretty reasonable shape from the standpoint of clarity and contrast. Blacks are quite decent, although there is substantial debris and speckling to deal with. The original mono sound has plenty of hiss and crackle, but the dialogue is quite decipherable. A restored mono track reduces the hiss substantially but also some of the clarity of the dialogue. English and Spanish subtitles. There are no supplements, although in a welcome move, Fox has included the film's overture and exit music as part of the feature presentation. Despite the film's limitations, I urge support for this sort of release through at least a rental.

Buffalo Bill

Buffalo Bill (1944)

I've never been particularly impressed with this film, which abounds with historical inaccuracy in time, name, and place, and is saddled with a script that is infantile at times. The film loosely covers the key aspects of Buffalo Bill's life including his involvement with the conflict over buffalo between the Indians whose likelihood the buffalo represent and the encroaching white buffalo hunters, and his later wild west show days. Of course, a love interest is fitted in with Maureen O'Hara playing Bill's wife. As the title figure, Joel McCrea is likable enough, giving it his usual fine if uncomplicated portrayal. He would soon switch to starring in westerns exclusively, much as Randolph Scott was in the process of doing. Direction was by William Wellman who was unhappy with the completed film whose final script was more than a whitewash than he'd originally hoped. The full frame Technicolor production doesn't look quite as impressive as some of Fox's other Technicolor transfers on disc, showing some noticeable fluctuation between vibrancy and softness. The stereo and mono sound are in decent shape with generally clear dialogue. French and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are provided. There are no supplements.

The Bravados (1958), Warlock (1959) - See the reviews in my June 20th column. Both are highly recommended.

Anna and the King of Siam (1946), The Razor's Edge (1946), The Best of Everything (1959) - See the reviews of this wave of Studio Classics in my June 2nd column. The first two are recommended; the last is a suggested rental.

On to Part Two

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