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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #22 - October 2005

In this edition, I provide coverage of a couple of recent box sets - Warners new four-disc collector's edition of Ben-Hur and Universal's Bela Lugosi Collection - and Paramount's Anything Goes. Note that the Ben-Hur review contains elements of a previous review written for DVD Verdict at the time of the film's first release on DVD in 2001.

Ben-Hur: Four-Disc Collector's Edition

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Ben-Hur: Four-Disc Collector's Edition
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on September 13th, 2005)

More than four years ago when classic film fans were railing at the lack of classic titles on DVD, Warner Bros. tossed out one of its infrequent such bones in the form of a DVD-18 release of William Wyler's 1959 version of Ben-Hur. Those who acquired that disc will recall a fairly decent effort, but one somewhat compromised by some framing and colour fidelity issues. Warners has now addressed those deficiencies and then some, in its new four-disc collector's edition DVD set of the film.

Ben-Hur relates the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), a wealthy leader of the Jewish ruling class in Judea. When his boyhood friend Messala (Stephen Boyd) returns to Jerusalem as its new tribune, the two reunite, but it is clear that both have different allegiances now - Ben-Hur to his people in Judea and Messala to the Roman rulers. Messala's orders are to restore order to Judea, but Ben-Hur refuses to cooperate and the friendship between the two dies, with Ben-Hur and his family soon falsely arrested. How Ben-Hur manages to survive being condemned to the life of a galley slave, reclaim his former power, resolve the conflict with Messala, and eventually determine the fate of his mother and sister forms the bulk of the film's more than 3½ hour running time. The film is subtitled as a story of the Christ and Jesus is present at critical junctures of the plot, playing a pivotal role in the tale's resolution.

By the late 1950s, MGM was on the proverbial slippery slope to bankruptcy. It had never really adapted to the changing landscape of the times - the advent of television, the film industry's loss of control over its theatre chains - and a succession of bloated films that failed or were only marginally successful at the box office had placed the fabled studio in jeopardy. The response was to make one giant roll of the dice with a film that would be a remake of one of the company's most successful silent epics - Ben-Hur. Responsibility was handed to veteran MGM producer Sam Zimbalist who proceeded to spend $19 million including promotional costs, the most that MGM had ever expended on a production. Where did the money go? Consider some of the following statistics. For Ben-Hur, more than 300 sets covering 148 acres, most of them at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, were used. The chariot race arena took up 18 acres in itself and was one of the most expensive sets ever constructed. Its construction utilized 1 million feet of lumber, 250 miles of metal tubing, 1 million pounds of plaster, and 40 thousand tons of sand from nearby beaches of the Mediterranean Sea. Props for the film numbered over a million. And Ben-Hur was filmed in MGM Camera 65, a widescreen process using film 65mm wide and cameras that cost $100,000 each. The chariot race sequence alone cost $1 million requiring 3 months of shooting time and 8000 extras. The film-going public responded. Ben-Hur grossed $76 million worldwide and put MGM on safe ground again, at least for a while. Unfortunately there was one cost that couldn't be recouped - the life of Sam Zimbalist. He died of a heart attack during production, likely attributable to the stress of the epic production so pivotal to MGM's future.

While the attention to detail and the amount of money invested was prodigious for the time, the film's success really rests on three things - the direction of William Wyler, the acting of Charlton Heston in the title role, and the execution of the famous chariot race.

At the beginning there were questions about William Wyler's ability to handle a widescreen epic, for he had always been best known for more intimate dramas. Wyler himself had doubts, complaining that "the extreme width of the frame took in everything important and unimportant and eventually caused the audience's eye to wander". But the finished product belied Wyler's concerns. It was a masterly blend of spectacle and intimacy. Critical response to Wyler's work was strongly positive although not unanimously so.

Charlton Heston's work occasioned a similar reaction. The character Ben-Hur and Charlton Heston are virtually synonymous now, but Heston was certainly not the first choice for the role. Burt Lancaster had been offered the role and later Rock Hudson was considered. Cesare Danova, one of several Italian actors, was also a candidate. Once Wyler was signed to direct, however, Heston was quickly finalized in the role, partly as a consequence of his work with Wyler on the latter's most recent film The Big Country (1958). Heston proved to be a great choice although Wyler had to push Heston hard to get the sort of performance he wanted. Certainly, Ben-Hur contains one of Heston's most expressive jobs of acting. It was also a marathon job with Heston appearing in all but a handful of the film's many scenes. Heston's work won him the 1959 Best Actor Academy Award - a worthy win, even though it is fashionable to deride his efforts now in favour of others among that year's candidates (such as Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot or Cary Grant in North by Northwest).

The centerpiece of Ben-Hur is of course the chariot race. It remains one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. Some credit must go to Wyler for his overall staging of the event, but the principals most responsible were Andrew Marton, the second-unit director whom Wyler left to work out every shot, crash and stunt, and who pre-shot the actual race, and Yakima Canutt who choreographed the stunt work. Crucial also were Heston and Stephen Boyd (who played Messala) both of whom learned to drive the chariots and then had to repeat much of what Marton had pre-shot. In fact, they did virtually all the driving they seem to be doing in the film. The main exceptions were two stunts. One was the sequence where Boyd, doubled by a dummy, was dragged under his chariot. The other is the part of the race in which Heston has to jump a pile-up in his path and almost seems to be tossed out of his chariot. The actual jump was done by Joe Canutt, Yakima's son, who was thrown forward out of the chariot but managed to grab a crossbar that harnessed the horses together. A shot of Heston climbing back into the chariot from in front of it was spliced into the stunt footage resulting in a spectacular sequence. Upon viewing the final version of Marton and Canutt's efforts, Wyler remarked that it was "one of the greatest cinematic achievements" he'd seen.

Warners' new DVD presentation delivers the film in a new 2.76:1 anamorphic transfer derived from restored 65mm elements. The film has been spread across the set's first two discs with the break coming at the film's intermission. The image now provides more information on all four sides and effectively addresses cropping concerns about the previous DVD release that arose partially because of its use of a 35mm reduction print as source material. The image on the new transfer is outstanding - from bright accurate colours (red is now red, not orange) to deep blacks, ultra-clean whites, excellent shadow detail, and an overall crisp presentation. Age-related blemishes (speckles, debris) are virtually non-existent. In every way, this new transfer improves substantially on the previous release.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track offered on the 2001 release is repeated on the new release. It sounded great four years ago and it still does. Dialogue is generally concentrated in the centre, but there is some directionality and limited but effective use of the surrounds. Fidelity is impressive and bass response is very good (particularly noticeable during the chariot race and the film's climactic scenes). It all shows off Miklos Rozsa's wonderful score to very fine effect. The score is also showcased in a music-only track. A French 5.1 track and English, French, and Spanish sub-titling are also provided.

The set's first supplement, obviously contained on discs one and two, is audio commentary by film historian T. Gene Hatcher and Charlton Heston. Heston's comments are a carry-over from the 2001 disc and are now nicely complemented by Hatcher's work. The result is an informative, engaging, and much more comprehensive commentary track than the previous one. The set's other main inclusion (contained on disc three) is much more than a supplement, and for many a key reason for acquiring the set. It's the silent version of Ben-Hur made by MGM in 1925 and starring Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman in the Heston and Boyd roles respectively. This version is the Thames Television restoration featuring a new stereo score by Carl Davis. For those unfamiliar with this version, Navarro does impressive work as Ben-Hur and the chariot sequence is every bit as exciting if not as polished as that in the sound version The film looks and sounds tremendous considering its age. There are the inevitable speckles and scratches, but image clarity and detail is very good and the film's tinting and its Technicolor sequences are well rendered. Davis' score complements the film very well and sounds reasonably lush.

The remaining supplements are found on disc four. These include a couple of documentaries; an audio-visual recreation of the film utilizing stills, storyboards, sketches, music, and dialogue; screen tests; vintage newsreels; highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards ceremony; and a theatrical trailer gallery. The documentaries are particularly good. One is 1994's Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (narrated by Christopher Plummer) that was included on the previous laserdisc and DVD releases. It provides thorough coverage of the story's past presentation from book to stage to screen. The other documentary, Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema, is newly made for this box set and focuses on interviews with various contemporary film-makers that indicate Ben-Hur's influence on their work.

Whether you have the earlier DVD version of Ben-Hur or not, this new offering is a no-brainer. Very highly recommended.

The Bela Lugosi Collection

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The Bela Lugosi Collection
(released on DVD by Universal on September 6th, 2005)

When this release was first announced, the choice of title was a bit of an issue. Yes, Bela Lugosi is in all these films, starring in Murders in the Rue Morgue, but he shares lead billing with Boris Karloff on three of the other four (The Black Cat, The Raven, The Invisible Ray) and actually only has a small supporting role in the fourth (Black Friday, which Karloff starred in). So a good case for calling the set a joint Karloff/Lugosi collection could have been made. Unhappily for Karloff devotees, that didn't happen. Still, it's a pleasure to have all these titles finally available on DVD no matter what the collective title is.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is the earliest of the titles, being released in 1932, and one of the best. Loosely related to the Poe story and set in Paris, the film stars Lugosi as Dr. Mirakle, a scientist intent on creating a human being from the mating of an ape and a woman. The film was directed by Robert Florey who invested it with a real feel of German expressionism through his use of distorted sets and shadowy lighting. Lugosi is very effective in what is one of the quintessential mad scientist portrayals. The film has been remade at least twice, most notably in 1954 (Karl Malden in the Lugosi role) and in 1971 (Jason Robards Jr.) to diminishing returns.

The Black Cat (1934) presented Universal's two key horror film actors together for the first time. The film is the most prized title in the set. Lugosi plays the sympathetic role of Dr. Vitus Verdegast, a war veteran betrayed by Boris Karloff's Poelzig and so sentenced to years in a Russian prison. The film is a tale of revenge and devil worship with horrific consequences for both characters. Directed by Edgar Ulmer and based on a story by him too, the film is a minor masterpiece of the macabre featuring a chilling atmosphere accentuated by inventive camera work under Ulmer's guidance and two actors at the top of their game. It owes little to Poe other than the title of one of his stories and the occasional appearance of a black cat. Lugosi would have a small supporting role in a 1941 film of the same title, but otherwise with no connection to the 1934 film and even less to Poe.

The Raven (1935) was an excuse to re-team Lugosi and Karloff. This time, Lugosi played the outright villain, a scientist named Vollin, and was in fine form as was Karloff who played the victim of Lugosi's schemes. The film offers the same fine chemistry between the two horror stars, and the story is good, but its direction (by Louis Friedlander, aka Lew Landers) lacks the inventiveness that Edgar Ulmer demonstrated in The Black Cat. Universal did not remake this film although there was an American-International Pictures version in the early 1960s that starred Karloff and Vincent Price.

The Invisible Ray (1936) signaled the trend then apparent in Lugosi's and Karloff's careers with the latter's on a continued upswing while Lugosi's began to falter. Lugosi had a smaller role than Karloff though still an important one in this tale about a scientist who contracts radium poisoning causing him to kill those whom he touches. The premise was an interesting one for the time and contains a more restrained performance than usual from Lugosi. The film, however, is not as strongly atmospheric as the two previous Lugosi/Karloff teamings, particularly The Black Cat.

Coming three years later in 1939, Black Friday is most definitely a Boris Karloff film with Lugosi reduced to a small although important supporting role. The tale revolves around Karloff's attempts to transfer a gangster's brain into a professor's body. Lugosi plays a rival gangster, but is somewhat miscast. Originally he was to have played the Karloff role, but the film was re-cast after initial shooting proved unpromising. The film was the final teaming of Lugosi and Karloff at Universal and is a worthy effort although not a major entry in the horror genre.

For the DVD release, which Universal has dubbed as one of its Franchise Collections, the studio has followed its recent pattern of placing numerous titles on DVD18 discs and making the result available at an attractive price. In this instance, the release is composed of a single disc with the first three films on side A and the other two on side B. Universal may have gone back to the original elements for these transfers, for all the films look remarkably good. Certainly there are speckles and a few scratches, but for the most part the images suggest the luminosity associated with nitrate source material. Generally, the transfers exhibit strong blacks, clean whites and reasonable shadow detail. Grain is certainly in evidence, imparting a pleasing film-like appearance to the images. The mono sound on all the films is in good shape with at most, very minor hiss present. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Film Classics re-release trailers are included for Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Ray, and Black Friday. Highly recommended.

Despite my high recommendation, I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that there has been some concern over the playability of this disc (as there has been with previous such discs from Universal - the previous Abbott and Costello collections and Frankenstein and Dracula Legacy Collections, for example). There have been reports of difficulties with The Raven freezing about half-way through. This did not happen with my disc (viewed via a Sony DVD player), but it is apparently not an isolated problem. Universal has not addressed the concern to my knowledge, so buyer beware.

Anything Goes

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Anything Goes (1956)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 27th, 2005)

From 1932 until 1956, Bing Crosby was under contract to Paramount and a major star there virtually throughout that period. One of his early films was a version of the successful Cole Porter stage musical Anything Goes. This film version was reasonably faithful to the play and found Bing co-starring with Ethel Merman. Cole Porter songs such as "Anything Goes", "You're the Top", and "I Get a Kick Out of You" were retained from the Broadway musical. The film was later retitled as Tops is the Limit to differentiate it, for television purposes, from a 1956 remake.

That 1956 remake was also known as Anything Goes and was the final film that Bing Crosby made under his Paramount contract. Unfortunately, like most of Crosby's Paramount musicals from the 1950s, it was a weak effort. Part of the problem was Crosby's seeming lack of interest in the whole thing. Of course, Crosby always seemed rather laid back on screen, but here you'd swear he was sleepwalking through parts of the role. Of course, his singing is just fine, but never much of a dance man, he looks positively totem-pole-like beside Donald O'Connor. In addition, even for a musical, the script is weak. Crosby and O'Connor are co-starring in a musical and a leading lady is needed. Crosby finds one in England and signs her up while O'Connor finds one in France and signs her up.

The rest of the film devotes itself to resolving which one will actually get the part. The film opens inauspiciously with a very poor Crosby/O'Connor song and dance duet obviously inspired by O'Connor's work with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain. A number of Cole Porter songs are woven into the plot, including "I Get a Kick Out of You", "You're the Top", and "It's De-Lovely", but all have been better staged in other films. The film was accorded the Technicolor treatment, but one has the impression that Paramount's budget didn't stretch much beyond that when it came to production value. The film is not a complete misfire, however, as it does give Donald O'Connor (here re-united with Crosby 18 years after their first teaming in Sing You Sinners) a couple of good dancing opportunities. It also has appealing work from Mitzi Gaynor and to a lesser extent, Jeanmaire.

Paramount presents the VistaVision production in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer that offers very good colour fidelity and a reasonably crisp image. It looks bright although a few sequences seem a little darker than they might be. There is an occasional hint of edge effects, but overall this is a very pleasing effort. There is a choice of a mono sound track or a Dolby Digital 5.1 one. Both offer decent fidelity although the latter does provide a noticeably wider front soundstage, as one might expect. It offers negligible use of the surrounds, however. English sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements.

Barrie Maxwell

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