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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #11 - October 2004

In this edition of the Classic Reviews Roundup, I look at a grab-bag of material released over the past four months for the most part. Included are 15 DVDs - from Paramount (Fancy Pants, The Country Girl, Goodbye, Columbus, The Black Orchid, and The Counterfeit Traitor); Fox (Alexander's Ragtime Band, The Snake Pit, The Boston Strangler); MGM (Judgment at Nuremberg: Special Edition, The Charlie Chan Chanthology); Warner Bros. (That's Entertainment!: The Complete Collection, The Spencer Tracy Legacy from Tracy & Hepburn: The Signature Collection); Aircraft Films (The Memphis Belle: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition) and Music Video Distributors (Swing Era: Duke Ellington in Hollywood, The Frank Sinatra Show: Welcome Home Elvis). The reviews as usual are ordered by original theatrical or television release date.

Swing Era: Duke Ellington in Hollywood (1929-1943)
(released on DVD by Music Video Distributors on August 3rd, 2004)

As part of its Swing Era series of music DVDs, Music Video Distributors on behalf of Idem Home Video has issued a very interesting compilation of Duke Ellington appearances on film. These appearances are in various short subjects and feature films made between 1929 and 1943.

Swing Era: Duke Ellington in Hollywood

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Included are Black and Tan, a 1929 RKO two-reeler in which Duke stars and performs six numbers ("Black and Tan Fantasy", "The Duke Steps Out", "Black Beauty", "Cotton Club Stomp", "Flaming Youth", "Same Train"); an extract from the 1930 RKO Amos and Andy feature Check and Double Check in which Ellington and his band play "Three Little Words" and "Old Man Blues"; Symphony in Black, a 1935 Paramount one-reeler featuring four Ellington numbers, one of which briefly features Billie Holiday ("The Laborers", "A Triangle: Dance, Jealousy, Blues", "A Hymn of Sorrow", "Harlem Rhythm"); Making Records with Duke Ellington, a 1937 Paramount short that describes the record manufacturing process while two of Duke's numbers are performed ("Daybreak Express", "Oh Babe! Maybe Someday"); two extracts from the 1937 Republic feature Hit Parade of 1937 featuring Duke and his orchestra ("I've Got to Be a Rug Cutter", "Jungle Interlude"); RKO Jamboree No. 7, a short from 1943 highlighting Duke and his orchestra ("Mood Indigo", "Sophisticated Lady", "It Don't Mean a Thing", "Don't Get Around Much Anymore"); an extract from the 1933 Paramount one reeler, A Bundle of Blues, in which Duke and his orchestra play "Rockin' in Rhythm" and "Stormy Weather"); and three Mae West numbers from the 1934 Paramount feature, Belle of the Nineties, with music played by Duke and his orchestra ("When a St. Louis Woman Goes Down to New Orleans", "My Old Flame", "Memphis Blues").

The reproduction of this material on DVD is of course far from pristine looking with numerous scratches, dirt and debris in evidence. Contrast and blooming whites are sometimes problems, but compared to other releases in Music Video's Swing Era series which features reproductions of Soundies in dubious shape, this Duke Ellington disc is not too bad. The earliest item, the1929 Black and Tan short, was surprisingly decent looking, for example. The mono sound on the disc is characterized by hiss and crackle, but is listenable. In any event, it's indeed welcome to have all this early material available in one place. It's certainly recommended for Duke Ellington fans, but others will find much good entertainment value here as well as a valuable record of music history on film.

Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938)
(released on DVD by Fox on September 7th, 2004)

Fox has finally made one of Alice Faye's movies available on DVD. To date, fans of this wonderful singer had had to content themselves with 365 Nights in Hollywood (a 1934 Fox film released by Image) or look to Region 2 where Fallen Angel (1945, not a typical Faye role) is available from the British Film Institute. Fox's new release is Alexander's Ragtime Band - prime Alice Faye material from 1938, and one only hopes that this will open the floodgates for lots more.

Alexander's Ragtime Band

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The film's plot is typical of many musicals of the era with Tyrone Power playing a bandleader who hopes to make it big in New York eventually. Alice Faye is at first a reluctant singer with the band and from that point it's a case of boy loves girl, boy loses girl, and boy finally wins girl again. Don Ameche is along for the fun as a composer and piano player who also falls for Alice, but dutifully bows out when it's clear she really only has eyes for Tyrone Power. Also appearing are Jack Haley, Ethel Merman, and numerous familiar character actors such as John Carradine, Paul Hurst, Jean Hersholt, and Helen Westley. Power, Ameche, and Faye were a potent trio for Fox in the late 1930s and early 1940s and all three are in prime form in Alexander's Ragtime Band. Although all three would appear together in only one other film (1937's In Old Chicago), two of them were frequently paired - Faye and Ameche made seven films together, Faye and Power made three, and Power and Ameche made four. For Alice Faye, the film was a major advance as she had an opportunity to demonstrate considerable acting ability as well as further enhance her singing reputation. Tyrone Power was Fox's major rising star at the time and, first-billed, gives a credible, breezy performance as he conducts his band through the many musical numbers.

Alexander's Ragtime Band is mainly about the music, however. It features over two dozen Irving Berlin songs including three expressly written for the film. One of those is "Now It Can Be Told" with which Alice Faye shines. Another - "Marching Along with Time" - was cut from the final film, but is included as an extra on the disc. Ethel Merman fans will find much to applaud as well, as she sings at least six Berlin standards.

The production was one of Fox's major efforts for 1938 with over $2 million lavished on it. This paid off handsomely with both positive critical reaction and good box office, and the film is still often cited on various lists of the best musicals. MGM wasn't the only studio that could make good musicals. The film did receive six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, but won only for Best Music (Scoring).

Fox's DVD is one of its Studio Classics releases. The film is correctly presented full frame and offers a crisp image with excellent shadow detail. Some modest grain and the absence of edge effects provides a nice film-like appearance. The image is far from pristine, however, with some speckles and the odd scratch. There is also an intrusive vertical line that appears on the extreme left of the picture about a third of the way into the film and lasts for a couple of reels. Despite that, the overall impression is quite positive. Both stereo and mono tracks are offered, but there's little discernible difference. The music sounds fairly lush on both. English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements are a little more substantial than some of Fox's other recent Studio Classics releases. We get a good audio commentary by Film Score restorationist Ray Fiola which concentrates mainly on the musical aspects and their historic background. This is supplemented by the A&E biography of Alice Faye, three musical numbers deleted from the final film, some quirky Movietone news footage from the film's London premiere, and the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

The Memphis Belle: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition (1944)
(released on DVD by Aircraft Films on July 14th, 2004)

A number of documentary films intended to further the war effort were created by Hollywood personnel serving in the armed forces during World War II. Some of the most famous directors of the time, such as Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, and William Wyler, were active in this regard. Wyler's contribution was The Memphis Belle, released by the War Department and distributed commercially through Paramount Pictures in 1944. The film documented the 25th mission over occupied Europe of the Memphis Belle plane and its crew, and its subsequent new mission - to bring their story to the American homefront.

The Memphis Belle: 60th Anniversary Collector's Edition

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Wyler spent considerable time in 1943 with the Ninety-First Bomber Group stationed in Bassingbourn, England and as he did so, the idea for the film crystallized from several related projects that Wyler had initially been interested in pursuing. Footage for the film was shot by Wyler and his team both on the ground and in the air during actual combat operations. Wyler in fact would participate in five missions over Europe to obtain the footage he wanted. In all, it amounted to some 19 thousand feet of exposed, silent, colour film. Using this and dialogue recorded later by the Memphis Belle crew (who by that timing were traversing the U.S. with the plane on a successful War Bonds tour), Wyler would eventually create the 40-minute featurette that the War Department released. The resulting film is a beautifully crafted and very personal portrait of a plane and its crew. It conveys a real you-are-there feeling and is characterized by Wyler's typically artifice-free direction. The audience gets to know the crew well and the result is a shared experience over Europe that does more than a dozen Hollywood war propaganda films to emphasize the perils faced by the country's men in the forces. The film retains its interest some 60 years later.

A two-disc 60th Anniversary Collector's edition DVD has been released by Aircraft Films and it's safe to say that it offers just about all one could want in respect to the film. The first disc contains two versions of the film. Using source material from the National Archives and the Smithsonian, one version was "rebuilt" from the originally shot reels and colour restoration was applied to provide a very pleasing result. The image is correctly presented full frame and despite numerous speckles and scratches, looks reasonably sharp and colourful. The other version is a high definition transfer of the Smithsonian holdings presented in a widescreen version by cutting off some material at the top and bottom of each frame. Serious colour fade in the source material and the cropping of the image renders the results less appealing than those of the first version. The mono sound is adequate, but there is no sub-titling provided. The second disc contains over three hours of supplementary material including a generous sampling of colour footage (no audio) shot but not used by Wyler; footage of the Memphis Belle and her crew back in the U.S. (both in colour and black and white, some with audio, some without); out-takes from Wyler's first cut of the film; the U.S. Army Air Force film Winning Your Wings narrated by James Stewart (18 minutes); and the U.S Government film on the story of the Flying Fortress airplane - Mission Accomplished (11 minutes). The latter two are a little soft-looking with numerous scratches, but quite watchable. Recommended.

The Charlie Chan Chanthology (1944-1945)
(released on DVD by MGM on July 6th, 2004)

This box set collects together the first six Charlie Chan films produced by Monogram after Fox discontinued its association with the character. Sidney Toler, who had succeeded Warner Oland as Chan at Fox, had obtained the screen rights to the character after Fox dropped the series and he was able to negotiate the arrangement with Monogram that allowed him to continue playing the character. Unfortunately, however, Toler was aging and his last Fox entries had seemed uninspiring so the outlook was not great given that the production values that Monogram could offer would suffer compared to Fox.

The Charlie Chan Chanthology

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For Charlie Chan lovers such as myself, the first Monogram effort, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service (1944), was not an auspicious debut. Charlie Chan is called upon by the Secret Service to solve the murder of a scientist who has developed an advanced explosives technology. The entire story takes place in the scientist's large old house and uses the old chesnut of the culprit being one of a large gathering of different people each with their own secrets and agendas. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but there's so little inspiration in Phil Rosen's direction (he would do the first five Monograms), Toler is so slow-moving as Chan, and most of the rest of the cast so stiff that the 65-minute running time seems much longer. Only Mantan Moreland's comic relief as Birmingham Brown, the cab driver, livens things up at all. Benson Fong as Number Three son is no Keye Luke, but at least there's some life to him as well.

The same deficiencies characterize the next three entries - The Chinese Cat (1944, murder and gem thieves), Meeting at Midnight (1944, also known as Black Magic, murder and seances), and The Jade Mask (1945, murder and family suspects). Monogram wasn't willing to spend any more on the Chans than it did on its other programmers, so derivative scripts and cheap sets were the order of the day. Mantan Moreland became a fixture in the films, but the only real interest nowadays is identifying character actors such as Ian Keith, Cy Kendall, I. Stanford Jolley, Jack Norton, George Chandler, Joseph Crehan, Hardie Albright, Frank Reicher, and the like.

1945's The Scarlet Clue was a trifle better. Charlie goes to a radio station to investigate a murder complicated by a plan to steal top-secret radar plans. Toler seems a little more inspired by the material and the plot has enough twists and novel murders to engage our interest. Mantan Moreland has a neat exchange of dialogue with Ben Carter. The Shanghai Cobra (1945) is an even further improvement. Phil Karlson took over the direction in this tale of murder by cobra venom. Karlson, who later made a name for himself in film noir, e.g. Kansas City Confidential, gave this Chan a slightly noirish look that helped to camouflage the set's inadequacies. More screen time for Benson Fong seemed to help Toler too, as he is slightly more animated when he does appear.

MGM's packaging of these six Chan films seemed like a smart marketing move given the unavailability of the Fox productions on DVD and Fox's reluctance to make them available. The latter is apparently due to rights issues that may see Fox lose their distribution rights in the near future, although others have speculated that Fox's intransigence is more in response to a minority of members of the Asian community who object to the Chan characterization and his portrayal by a non-Asian. The latter is of course political correctness taken to extremes and fails to recognize that the films are merely products of their time that need to be viewed in that context. In any event, MGM's box set is somewhat of a disappointment beyond the merits of the films themselves. Each film is merely packaged on a separate disc in its own case with no supplementary material whatsoever. A mild disclaimer on the back of the disc which MGM cites as a "Fact from the Vault" states, "Created in a time when casting Caucasians in minority roles was considered acceptable, the Charlie Chan films continue to spark debate to this day." The transfers (correctly presented full frame) are all quite watchable though hardly up to the standard of the better black and white transfers for films of the same era. The films generally are somewhat soft-looking with noticeable grain in many darker scenes, but clarity overall is quite workable. There are certainly ample scratches and speckles, but they are generally not a distraction. The mono sound often has mild background hiss, but it doesn't influence the clarity of the dialogue. English, French, and Spanish sub-titles are provided.

I don't know how well this is selling for MGM, but I'd be surprising if it's doing all that well. A little more inspiration on the content would have paid dividends even given the mediocrity of these entries compared to the preceding Fox ones. Unfortunately, Fox is probably looking to this set's level of success as one indicator of interest in these films. It would be a shame if we are denied the Fox entries partly because MGM didn't make a splash with these Monogram ones.

The Snake Pit (1948)
(released on DVD by Fox on June 1st, 2004)

Based on the 1946 best-selling novel of the same title by Mary Jane Ward, The Snake Pit relates the story of Virginia Cunningham, a 24-year-old patient at a state mental hospital. The film begins with Virginia's doctor, Mark Kik, meeting with her husband Robert in order to get a perspective on the events leading up to Virginia's committal. These are related in a flashback. Then we follow Virginia as she first seems to get better, but then suffers more and more severe relapses until she finds herself in Ward 33 where the most severely disturbed patients are kept. There, in a place she likens to a snake pit, her future seems very questionable indeed.

The Snake Pit

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The Snake Pit is often referred to as the first film to deal seriously with the issues of mental illness and mental institutions. It's not surprising that it would come from Fox, a studio at that time in the forefront of producing films with adult themes - titles such as Gentleman's Agreement (anti-Semitism) and Pinky (racial prejudice) - usually shied away from by most of the Hollywood heavyweights. It was Anatole Litvak (City for Conquest, This Above All, Sorry Wrong Number, Anastasia) who had initially secured the film rights from the author and after being rejected by the other studios, reached agreement with Fox for the production with himself as director and co-producer. Litvak then offered the role of Virginia to Olivia De Havilland who immediately accepted (although modern sources suggest that Ingrid Bergman was the first choice, but turned the role down). De Havilland did research in one of the California mental hospitals and she later said that it was her observation of a likable and appealing schizophrenic patient there that helped her greatly with her role. De Havilland's penetrating performance and a very literate script are the keys to the film's success. Leo Genn also gives a subdued but effective interpretation of the Dr. Kik character. Overall, the film has an air of realism and avoids histrionics without shying away from the roller-coaster ride that characterizes "getting better". The ending does tie things up fairly conveniently, but that's a minor quibble given the context within which the film was made. The Snake Pit was a critical success and became Fox's highest grossing film of the year. Seven Academy award nominations followed, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, but the only win was for Best Sound Recording.

Fox has released the film as part of its Studio Classics series. The full frame image (in accord with the original aspect ratio) looks quite good. Blacks are deep; whites fairly pure; and shadow detail is very good. Only the odd speckle and bit of debris belie the film's age. Both mono and stereo tracks are provided, but you're just as far ahead with the former as the stereo provides little directional enhancement and even seems to unbalance the relative volumes of the dialogue and music. French and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The disc's main supplement is a good commentary by film historian Aubrey Solomon. Although there are some dead patches, Solomon provides a fairly consistent discussion of the film's production history, its cast, and its place in Fox production of the time. Other extras are five Movietone newsreels mainly depicting award presentations for the film, a still gallery and the theatrical trailer. Recommended.

Fancy Pants (1950)
(released on DVD by Paramount on June 29th, 2004)

In 1935, Paramount released Ruggles of Red Gap starring Charles Laughton as an English butler who finds himself transported to the wild west to work for an American couple played by Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland. Anyone who has seen the film will recognize it as one of the funniest films made. In 1950, Paramount somehow felt compelled to remake this classic in a version employing Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. Despite the presence of those two talents, the result - Fancy Pants - in comparison to the original is a disaster.

Fancy Pants

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Where the original was perfectly suited to the talents of its players, the remake shoehorns its stars into roles that don't really fit them and the result is forced and for the most part unfunny. Where the original was peopled with amusing supporting players such as Roland Young, Zasu Pitts, Maude Eburne, and Lucien Littlefield, the remake has to make do with Jack Kirkwood, Lea Penman, and Bruce Cabot. Where the original balanced broad comedy with gentle situational wit, the remake tries to rely too much on slapstick. Fortunately for Paramount in this case, it no longer owns the rights to most of its pre-1949 titles (they're under Universal's control) so it had no possibility of releasing both Ruggles of Red Gap and Fancy Pants together. Doing so would have doomed Fancy Pants in comparison. As it stands, the reputation of Hope and Ball will likely generate modest interest in the title. Fortunately, you're reading this review and can therefore save yourself some money. And if anyone from Universal is reading this, how about making Ruggles of Red Gap available as soon as possible.

Despite Fancy Pants' inadequacies as a film, Paramount's DVD is fully up to snuff. The image, correctly presented full frame, delivers a bright and beautifully rendered Technicolor transfer that is consistently sharp and generally free of age-related dirt and debris. The mono sound is free of hiss and English sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements.

The Country Girl (1954)
(released on DVD by Paramount on September 21st, 2004)

Clifford Odets' play The Country Girl had been a striking success on Broadway with Uta Hagen in the title role. With that role now going to Grace Kelly for the filmed version, the film became an acting tour-de-force for Kelly and her two male co-stars - Bing Crosby and William Holden. The story is that of former stage star Frank Elgin (Crosby) who is given a second chance by young director Bernie Dodd (Holden). Elgin, plagued by alcoholism due to his negligence in the death of his son, plays up his strength in dealing with his supposedly unstable wife but strong-willed wife Georgie (Kelly). Dodd tries to minimize Georgie's influence over Frank, believing that to be the main cause of Frank's unreliability. As Dodd struggles to get a decent performance out of Frank, he comes to recognize the true dynamic in Frank's marriage thus gaining a new appreciation for Georgie that eventually blossoms into love. Meanwhile, Frank has a major alcoholic relapse, shaking Dodd's confidence in him and placing the play's future in jeopardy.

The Country Girl

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Grace Kelly won the Best Actress Academy Award for her work as Georgie - a real departure from her aloof, ice-maidenish roles in the likes of Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and even High Noon. Here, she eschews grace and elegance in favour of a gritty, down-to-earth portrayal that demonstrates an acting range previously only hinted at. The same is true for Bing Crosby. He had previously won the Oscar for Going My Way, but that role merely showed off his typical breezy, low-key performance at its best. In The Country Girl, he submerges his standard screen persona completely and delivers a completely believable portrait of a drowning man. Oh, there are a few songs as a sop to Bing's fans, but they're strictly a necessary part of the stage role his character plays. Almost equally impressive is William Holden who was much in demand in 1954 after his Oscar win in Stalag 17. He appeared in five films that year, demonstrating a range and maturity that raised his acting stock considerably. Direction is by George Seaton, whose efforts belie the film's stage origins. Seaton also adapted Odets' play for the screen in a thoroughly entrancing fashion, winning an Academy Award for his efforts. Victor Young contributes an engaging music score.

Paramount's DVD presentation provides the black and white film full frame as originally shot. The image is very film-like with some modest grain in evidence. It is fairly consistent in crispness with deep blacks and good shadow detail. There are some stray speckles and scratches. Overall, it's a fine effort that seems to complement the story's grittiness. The mono sound is in fine shape with background hiss and distortion virtually absent. Victor Young's score is pleasingly rendered, with some modest presence. English sub-titles are provided. Unfortunately, for a catalog item of this stature, Paramount's standard lack of any supplementary material is particularly disappointing. Still, the disc is recommended.

The Black Orchid (1959)
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 31st, 2004)

Anthony Quinn gave us so many larger than life characterizations on the screen that one of his more subdued ones is often overlooked. I refer to his work as the Italian-American widower Frank Valente in the warm-hearted drama, The Black Orchid. Frank falls for Rose Bianco (Sophia Loren) whose husband was killed as a result of the criminal activities he gradually got involved in as he tried to meet Rose's desires for the good life. Rose is in mourning, but she gradually responds to Frank's interest in her, especially after she sees his positive influence on her young son who is in a reform school. Unfortunately, Frank's daughter, who is engaged to be married, is not thrilled with the prospect of Rose coming into her father's life and a rift develops between father and daughter that threatens everyone's future happiness.

The Black Orchid

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The Black Orchid is a simple tale of relationships that succeeds because of the work of its main players. The story is not particularly original, but Martin Ritt's direction is unobtrusive, allowing Quinn and Loren free rein to make the most of the material. As mentioned, Quinn is quite subdued but does allow Frank's warm-hearted and enthusiastic nature to surface judiciously. The result is a thoroughly rounded and very believable character that immediately draws us to him and becomes more and more appealing as the film goes on. In contrast, Loren's Rose is almost one-dimensional in her initial insistence on remaining aloof, but Frank gradually opens her up like a blossoming rose so that the pair makes a most appealing couple. The situations that threaten to destroy the union - those of Rose's young son and particularly Frank's adult daughter (the latter dramatized with some rather inappropriate background music) - are presented in a somewhat superficial way but are satisfyingly resolved. Overall, this is a little-known film that deserves more recognition.

Paramount provides an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of the black and white film that looks quite good for the most part. The image sharpness is a little inconsistent, but black levels are good and the shadow detail is fine. The source material is in decent shape, resulting in only minor speckling and the odd scratch being evident. The mono sound is free of age-related hiss and otherwise quite adequate for the dialogue-driven material. English sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements.

On to Part Two

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