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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Back to Part One

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Randolph Scott on DVD and New Announcements

(Western Roundup #2 - October 2005 - continued)

Fighting with Kit Carson (1933)
Rustlers of Red Dog (1934)
(both released on DVD by VCI on June 21st, 2005)
Riders of Death Valley (1941)
(released on DVD by VCI on August 30th, 2005)

It's interesting to compare a couple of Universal western serials made seven years apart. Rustlers of Red Dog appeared in 1934 and starred Johnny Mack Brown in a 12-chapter outing while Riders of Death Valley was released in 1941 and starred Dick Foran in a 15 chapter effort that was billed as "The Million Dollar Super Serial". The latter tag resulted from the impressive serial cast that, in addition to Foran, included Buck Jones, Leo Carrillo, Guinn "Big Boy" Williams, and Noah Beery Jr., not to mention Charles Bickford and Lon Chaney Jr. as the chief heavies.

Fighting with Kit CarsonRustlers of Red DogRiders of Death Valley

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One might expect the more recent serial to be the more entertaining one particularly as it was released in the heyday of the serials, but that turns out not to be the case. With its impressive cast, Riders of Death Valley (RDV) would seem to have much going for it. Unfortunately its problems start right with its lead player. Dick Foran, whose appearance in serials (RDV was his second one) came on the down side of his career, is far too bland to carry a serial where in general the plot is light and much depends on the charisma and energy of the star. RDV also makes the mistake of pairing Foran with Buck Jones, someone who does exhibit such qualities, but who is given so little to do in the serial that when he does get a few minutes of major screen time, his reactions only make Foran's inadequacies stand out more. RDV's plot is particularly thin and its execution is also lacking. There are far too many shots of riders charging from one place to another, not to mention numerous aimless shootouts in which seemingly hundreds of bullets are fired to little or no effect during the first 14 chapters. Ironically, only about a dozen shots are then needed in the last chapter to dispatch the entire gang of bad guys. Rustlers of Red Dog (RRD) certainly demonstrates some of the failings of early sound serials - some uncomfortable acting, poorly-staged fist-fights, and crudely executed cliffhangers, but there is an energy to the whole thing and some excellently edited action sequences that constantly maintain interest. The plot, although standard stuff is more carefully thought out and staged much less repetitively that that of RDV. Primarily, however, it benefits from a lead player in Johnny Mack Brown who commands respect even if he's a little stiff, having not yet fully settled into a comfortable B western niche. Brown also works well with his sidekicks, Raymond Hatton and Walter Miller. Of course, not being saddled with Leo Carrillo doing his annoying Pancho routine, as Foran is in RDV, is a major plus to RRD right away. Both serials look remarkably good on VCI's DVD presentations, given their age and the lack of a major restoration. RRD exhibits a fair bit of grain and numerous speckles and scratches, but the black levels are strong and the image exhibits decent contrast and brightness. RDV is somewhat sharper and shows less grain. The mono sound allows for easily understood dialogue on both serials although there's more hiss on RRD. There is no sub-titling offered. RDV is presented on two discs and provides actor biographies, a photo and poster gallery, and several serial trailers (including one for RDV itself) as supplements. RRD is on a single disc and provides actor and director biographies and several serial trailers as supplements. Rustlers of Red Dog is recommended.

Fighting with Kit Carson is a Mascot serial from 1933 that has much the same feel as Rustlers of Red Dog. That's partly due to the presence of Johnny Mack Brown in the lead. There's also much of the same energy and brisk execution in evidence, not surprising since it came from the cliffhanger specialist and Republic forerunner, Mascot. The serial does, however, tend to flag a little in the final chapters. One of the serial plot's neat features is the inclusion of a group known as the Mystery Riders, a bunch of riders on horseback wearing capes which the audience knows are bad guys although our hero Kit Carson is unaware of it for a while. This type of plot device had been previously used by Mascot in its Phantom of the West and The Vanishing Legion serials. While Johnny Mack Brown goes about his business as Kit Carson, the scenery is nicely chewed by Noah Beery Sr. as the chief villain who's trying get his hands on a gold shipment that Carson was responsible for. Beery's real-life son (Noah Beery Jr.) plays an Indian chief who leaves his tribe and tags along with Carson as his sidekick. VCI's DVD presentation is again more than acceptable for such vintage material. There's substantial speckling and debris, but the image is quite bright with good detail for the most part. The mono sound does exhibit substantial hiss, although dialogue is generally quite clear. There is no sub-titling. Supplements comprise some biographies and serial trailers. Recommended as at least a rental.

Red Ryder Double Feature, Volume 9:
Tucson Raiders (1944)
Marshal of Laredo (1945)

Red Ryder Double Feature, Volume 10:
Marshal of Reno (1944)
Sheriff of Redwood Valley (1946)
(both released on DVD by VCI on August 30th, 2005)

The latest two Red Ryder double feature discs from VCI give us four more B westerns, all with Wild Bill Elliott portraying the popular comic strip hero. Bobby Blake appears in each as Ryder's sidekick, Little Beaver. The films are all Republic productions from the 1944 to 1946 period and each features the typical Republic B-western polish.

Red Ryder Double Feature, Volume 9Red Ryder Double Feature, Volume 10

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Marshal of Laredo is the least of the lot with a rather mundane plot about a crooked lawyer who tries to go straight, although it does benefit from the presence of the always-great Roy Barcroft as the chief heavy. Tucson Raiders and Marshal of Reno feature Gabby Hayes whose comic relief is always a pleasure. Both have plenty of action and plots with a bit of depth (relative to many B westerns). Best of the lot is Sheriff of Redwood Valley which gives a good supporting role to former B western star Bob Steele as a wrongly convicted man. As always, Bill Elliott ("I'm a peaceable man …") is the real strength of these westerns and one has the sense of a decent actor being wasted as the Ryder series went on. Elliott would soon graduate to a series of good A westerns for Republic before wrapping up his career in B pictures for Monogram/Allied Artists in the 1950s. The VCI DVD presentations are good value - two films on each disc plus good supplements (biographies, trailers, 2 chapters from the 1940 Red Ryder serial). The image quality is not sterling but certainly presentable, offering fairly clear transfers although speckles and scratches abound. Sheriff of Redwood Valley looks a little softer than the others. And for some reason, as with previous Red Ryder double bills, the video of each film is characterized by several very brief freezes in the image scattered throughout the playing time. The mono sound on all is workable, although the level of hiss and crackle on Sheriff of Redwood Valley is noticeably higher than on the other titles. There is no subtitling. Both volumes are easy recommendations for Ryder/Elliott fans. For others wanting to try out these types of films, Volume 10 is the best bet.

The Last Frontier (1956)
(released on DVD by Sony [Columbia] on September 6th, 2005)

One expects a little more from an Anthony Mann film than is on display here. It's a rather curious item. The story is strictly standard, as a disgraced cavalry colonel (Robert Preston) attempts to redeem himself by leading a squad of army recruits against the Indians. It's really a suicide mission and only one person may be able to stop the slaughter - an uneducated frontiersman and scout (Victor Mature) who sees glory in wearing the army uniform, but distains authority and happens to love the colonel's wife.

The Last Frontier

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On the other hand, the characterizations offer interest just by virtue of being offbeat. For instance, Mature plays his role like a stone-age man dropped into a relatively modern society, while Anne Bancroft, in an early role, plays the colonel's wife with some realistic moral ambiguity. Even Preston's martinet-like colonel is not one-dimensional, recognizing virtue in the character of his subordinates even when they oppose him. Unfortunately, they all reside in a film during which nothing much happens for long stretches. Then when we do get bursts of activity, they're not particularly well-written or convincingly staged. The film was one of Columbia's early CinemaScope efforts and maybe Mann found the opportunity to work in that format enough to overcome any script concerns he may have had. Certainly the film looks well-composed in terms of taking advantage of the wider ratio. The supporting cast, other than Guy Madison who does some good work as a cavalry captain, is not memorable. James Whitmore, for example, is wasted as an Irish-sounding frontiersman.

Sony's 2.55:1 anamorphic presentation is rather disappointing. The colours are faded, yielding a preponderance of browns, and many night-time sequences are hard to make out. Film grain is exceedingly noticeable and is a further irritant in the darker scenes. The 3.0 audio exhibits decent fidelity and provides some directionality. English and Japanese sub-titles are included. There are several bonus trailers, but not one for this film.

Major Dundee: The Extended Version (1965)
(released on DVD by Sony [Columbia] on September 20th, 2005)

I've generally always thought more of this film than most critics and I'm pleased to see it play even better in this new extended version. The film, which tells the tale of a Union officer who attempts to track down a band of renegade Apaches in Mexico with a group of Rebel prisoners, ex-slaves, and criminals, has always featured fine lead performances from the likes of Charlton Heston (Dundee) and Richard Harris (head of the Rebels), as well as a number of fine supporting efforts (R.G Armstrong, Dub Taylor, L.Q. Jones, Ben Johnson, Warren Oates). Directed by Sam Peckinpah, the film, however, had been taken out of his hands and released in a shortened version.

Major Dundee: The Extended Version

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What remained was still amazing and typically Peckinpah in its scenes of stark, violent action contrasted with passages of introspection and almost pastoral repose (taken to even greater extremes in The Wild Bunch), but the story's clarity and continuity was compromised. Now, some of the excised footage has been found and restored by Sony, giving us a version some 12 minutes longer than the original theatrical release and presumably closer to Peckinpah's original conception, although there is still much missing. Certainly story clarity, particularly in the second half, has been improved although not completely fixed. The extra footage is mainly spread throughout the film in small chunks, rather than as major new sequences. Similarly, Sony has also addressed the issue of the film's soundtrack. The original one by Daniele Amfitheatrof always seemed just a little out of sync thematically and was a sore point with Peckinpah as well as fans. A new score commissioned by Sony from Christopher Caliendo is a vast improvement in my opinion. It's a pleasure to listen to if you want to focus on it, but like any good score, never steals from one's attention to what's on the screen.

Sony's 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is very good. The image is crisp and clear with good colour fidelity and fine shadow detail. There are some modest edge effects in evidence at times, but otherwise I can't imagine anyone having any difficulty with Sony's efforts. The new 5.1 score is dynamic and offers decent directionality. The original mono score is also included as is a French mono track and English, French, and Korean sub-titles. The disc's supplements are impressive. The audio commentary by Peckinpah historians Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle is an excellent listen, full of information and informed comment and criticism. There is also a 20-minute excerpt focusing on the film from Mike Siegel's film Passion and Poetry: The Ballad of Sam Peckinpah that makes one want to see the whole program, various extended scenes and outtakes, the vintage stunt featurette Riding for a Fall, some good liner notes by Glenn Erickson provided on a four-page insert, and various trailers and other promotional material. Highly recommended.

New Classic Announcements

I have just a few odds and ends for you this time out.

Alpha has another wave of releases, 22 in all, for November 29th. Most of the releases are B westerns featuring the likes of Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, the Range Busters (Ray Corrigan, Max Terhune, Dusty King), Johnny Mack Brown, and Tex Ritter. There's one serial (Mascot's The Last of the Mohicans from 1932), and a few TV series compilations (26 Men, Night Court USA, You Asked for It). See the database for the complete list.

On October 25th, Cheezy Flicks Entertainment offers the 1949 Republic serial King of the Rocketmen, The Day of the Triffids (1963), and several titles from the late 50s/early 60s that really fit the company's name (Curse of the Faceless Man, The Flesh Eaters, and The Headless Ghost).

Disney has Walt Disney's Timeless Tales: Volume 3 on the schedule for a January 3rd release. It will include Casey at the Bat, Little Hiawatha, The Wise Little Hen, The Golden Touch, Morris the Midget Moose, and Ben and Me.

Once again Pinky (1949, with Jean Crain) is on Fox's docket for January. It was last year too, but never materialized. It, along with Island in the Sun (1957, with James Mason and Harry Belafonte) and the delightful Stormy Weather (1943, with Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers), are now scheduled for January 10th. On January 24th, Fox will offer Time Tunnel: Volume One, a three-disc set of the TV series that debuted in 1966. I presume this will be the first half of the first season. Extras will include the unaired pilot "Rendezvous with Yesterday". Fox has also listed Something to Sing About (1937, with James Cagney) for a January 31st release. Since this is a perennial public domain title (made at Grand National when Cagney was at odds with Warner Bros.), this will likely be a Legend Films colourization effort. Maybe we'll at least get a decent black and white version out of it too.

Image will have John Ford Goes to War on December 20th. It's a new documentary on Ford's wartime contributions, narrated by Kris Kristofferson and will include excerpts from The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). On December 27th, we'll get two 1950 Gene Autry westerns, Beyond the Purple Hills and Mule Train, along with Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition - Season 5. In other Image news, the three-disc set George Pal: Flights of Fancy appears to have been delayed from early November to December 20th.

One of Laughsmith's current projects is Our Gang: Before The Little Rascals Spoke, planned for an early 2006 release. It will be a four-disc set with audio commentary, stills, newsreel footage, and imitator comedies.

Lions Gate (Hallmark) will finally offer another Little Rascals collection. On November 15th, they plan to release Little Rascals Collectors Edition III. It will include: Free Wheeling, Mike Fright, Washee Ironee, Fishy Tales, Shiver My Timbers, Divot Diggers, Bored of Education, Choo-Choo, When the Wind Blows, and Framing Youth.

Milestone (presumably via Image) is re-releasing Chang (1927) and Grass (1925) - both OOP since 2003 - on October 18th in celebration of Merian C. Cooper (in connection with the forthcoming King Kong releases).

Paramount will have Warning Shot (1967, with David Janssen) on November 1st. The studio will also offer Breakfast at Tiffany's: Anniversary Edition on February 7th. This will be the 45th anniversary of the 1961 film starring Audrey Hepburn. No details on disc content as yet.

Passport Video will release Hollywood Biographies: The Leading Ladies - 50 of Hollywood's Greatest Leading Ladies and Hollywood Biographies: The Leading Men - 50 of Hollywood's Greatest Leading Men, both on January 10th. The Zorro Cliffhanger Collection [5 DVDs of Zorro Rides Again (1937), Zorro's Fighting Legion (1939), and Zorro's Black Whip (1944)] will appear on the same date.

Questar offers A Bing Crosby Christmas (selection of highlights from Bing's 15 Christmas specials) and The Best of Andy Williams Christmas Shows (highlights from his various Christmas specials) on November 8th.

Coming from Roan Group on October 25th is Fisherman's Wharf (1939, with Bobby Breen).

Sony (Columbia) will have a Ray Harryhausen Gift Set (20 Million Miles to Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, Earth vs. Flying Saucers, all just repackaged with a scrapbook) on December 13th.

VCI apparently expects to release two Johnny Mack Brown western serials later in the fall - Flaming Frontiers (1938) and The Oregon Trail (1939).

As anticipated for some time now, Warner Bros. will release the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection in 2006. The date is January 10th. The set will feature two-disc versions of The Wild Bunch, enhanced for widescreen TVs for the first time, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid with a version restored to the late director's original intention. The other two films are Ride the High Country (Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea) and The Ballard of Cable Hogue (Jason Robards and Stella Stevens). All will have audio commentaries and several documentaries will be included among the supplements. The Adventures of Superman: The Complete Second Season will appear on January 17th. In other Warner news, The Nun's Story and The Shoes of the Fisherman have apparently been delayed from their anticipated early November release. They do not appear on the Warners press site. The release of Astaire & Rogers: Volume Two is currently planned for an August 2006 release.

And there you are. I told you it was short this time.

See you again soon.

Barrie Maxwell

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