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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #24 - November 2005
Catching Up with Paramount

A short while ago, I devoted one of these columns to recent classic releases by Fox. Now it's time to do the same catch-up with Paramount who also have been releasing classic product with too little fanfare. Using the end of 1971 as an arbitrary cut-off date, theatrical or television releases originating before that time that Paramount has brought to DVD during the July-to-October number some 25 titles. That's not quite as impressive as Fox's efforts during the May-to-September period, but then, unlike Fox, Paramount has virtually no access to its pre-1950 titles (those being currently controlled by Universal). I suspect few people can list the titles of more than a handful of these 25 releases. Only the appearance of four films originating with John Wayne's own production company (The High and the Mighty, Island in the Sky, Hondo, McLintock!) and perhaps Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek have made any great splash at all.

One reason that Paramount's product often gets dismissed is its failure to include any supplementary material on the majority of its classic discs (unlike Warner Bros. and to a lesser extent Fox). That's a poor excuse for overlooking the product though, for the transfers (which are the most important characteristic of any disc) are as a rule superior and the pricing is very reasonable. And even when supplements are included, the latter remains true.

July Releases

Paramount's July offerings comprised six films that all contained significant star power: Candace Bergen and Ernest Borgnine in The Adventurers (1970), Lana Turner and Sean Connery in Another Time, Another Place (1958), Sophia Loren and Maurice Chevalier in A Breath of Scandal (1960), Elizabeth Taylor and Dana Andrews in Elephant Walk (1954), Clark Gable and Sophia Loren in It Started in Naples (1960), and Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn in The Rainmaker (1956). Unfortunately, only the latter was really a very good film, the rest mainly highlighting players either before or after much of their best work. Reviews of all titles follow, except for It Started in Naples, which I previously reviewed in my August 4th, 2005 column. The reviews are ordered by year of original theatrical release.

Elephant Walk

Elephant Walk (1954)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 12th, 2005)

This, I suspect, is a guilty pleasure for some. A glossy soap opera with a very predictable though well-executed story, it looks sumptuous and offers a good Elizabeth Taylor performance with the usual fine work from Dana Andrews. The story revolves around a love triangle involving the heir to a Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) tea plantation (Peter Finch, in a nice job of scenery chewing), his new bride (Taylor), and the plantation's overseer (Andrews). The plantation is called "Elephant Walk" because it stands in the path of an ancient elephant migration route. Might an elephant stampede threaten the plantation at some point in the film? Not only might it, it does, leading to a terrific sequence that's worth the price of admission alone. Paramount originally signed Vivien Leigh for the lead role, but eventually had to replace her with Taylor, probably to the film's ultimate benefit. Overall, this is one of those films that the public enjoys, but which gets little critical respect.

The DVD presentation is full frame, which is probably correct although the framing suggests that the film could also have been adapted to the wider screens being introduced at the time. There's noticeable source material damage and the contrast is not always what it could be, but the colour is generally very bright and well saturated. The mono sound is clear although subject to some minor hiss. There are English subtitles, but no supplementary material. Well worth a rental.

The Rainmaker

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Rainmaker (1956)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 12th, 2005)

In early 1956, Burt Lancaster still had two masters - himself by virtue of his own production company (Hecht-Lancaster Productions) and producer Hal Wallis to whom he was under contract for two more films. Wallis had a Wyatt Earp film in mind for Lancaster - Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but Lancaster balked at the idea initially. Then Wallis purchased the rights to the Broadway play, "The Rainmaker", and offered its lead role of Starbuck to Lancaster if he would agree to the Earp picture. Lancaster, greatly interested in playing Starbuck, signed on to do both films.

The Rainmaker revolves around two characters primarily - a con man named Starbuck who promises to bring rain to the drought-ridden towns of Kansas and Lizzie Curry, the rather plain but warm-hearted woman of the Curry household. Lizzie (played by Katharine Hepburn) is in danger of becoming an old maid until Starbuck open her eyes to all the possibilities available to her.

Lancaster and Hepburn enjoyed working together and the resulting chemistry generated two superb performances. Lancaster particularly succeeds with a wonderful blend of braggadocio one minute (reminiscent of his later Elmer Gantry work) and tender solicitude the next. Hepburn was considered miscast by virtue of her age and eastern upbringing by some critics of the time, but she seems well in tune with her part to these eyes. The Academy agreed and accorded her a Best Actress nomination for her work (although she lost out to Ingrid Bergman for Anastasia). The Rainmaker does not belie its stage origins as the studio didn't see fit to spring for any location work that might have opened things up a bit, but the principal players' work is so good that one soon forgets that deficiency.

Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer of the VistaVision picture is quite decent. There is some variation both in image intensity and colour vibrancy, but for the most part it looks fine. Speckling and scratches are noticeable at times. The mono sound is fully adequate for this dialogue-driven film. A French mono track and English subtitles are also provided. There are no supplements. Recommended.

Another Time, Another Place

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Another Time, Another Place (1958)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 12th, 2005)

As became common in the 1950s, stars had their own production companies and this title was produced by Lana Turner's outfit, Lanturn Productions. The story concerns an American newswoman (Turner) stationed in England during the closing days of World War II and engaged to her publisher (Barry Sullivan), but who falls in love with a BBC commentator (Sean Connery in a small but effective early role). When Connery is killed in a plane crash, Turner is devastated and after the war, in an effort to find closure, makes a pilgrimage to Connery's hometown in Cornwall, where his widow (Glynis Johns, in the film's best performance) still resides.

In addition to Lana Turner (she was 37 at the time, with much of her best work behind her and only Imitation of Life as a film of some distinction ahead of her), the film's impressive line-up of players is a real plus as is some of the cinematography resulting from the location work in Polperro, Cornwall. The latter is due to Jack Hildyard who had just won an Academy Award for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai. For these reasons alone, the film has interest. Just don't expect to get too caught up in the rather contrived story with its rather emotionless direction by Lewis Allen.

The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is first rate with a nicely detailed and glowing black and white image. The mono sound is workmanlike and supplemented by English subtitles. There is no bonus material. Recommended as a rental.

A Breath of Scandal

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

A Breath of Scandal (1960)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 12th, 2005)

An earlier filmed version of this Ferenc Molnar play, His Glorious Night (1929), is frequently cited as one of the reasons for the decline of John Gilbert's career. Fortunately for Sophia Loren and John Gavin, the 1960 version didn't have the same disastrous career results for them, although it sure is nothing to write home about.

The story is basically a very light romance, with Loren playing a princess whose life is complicated by her interest in a visiting American (Gavin) despite her father's (Maurice Chevalier) desire for her to marry a rich Austrian prince. The results are a deadly dull misfire, highlighted by absolutely no chemistry between the beautiful Loren and the wooden Gavin. Chevalier is the best thing in the film, providing another Gigi-like suave elder statesman performance. Angela Lansbury is wasted in a small role as a scheming countess. And what was 76-year-old director Michael Curtiz thinking, taking on this type of material?

Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is bright, fairly sharp, and for the most part does justice to the Technicolor film. Colour fidelity is good while there is minor grain in evidence at times. The mono sound is in fine shape, offering some presence in the musical interludes. English subtitles are provided, but there are no supplements.

The Adventurers

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Adventurers (1970)
(released on DVD by Paramount on July 12th, 2005)

A number of Harold Robbins' potboilers have been transferred to the screen with The Carpetbaggers and The Betsy not faring too badly in the process. The same could not be said for The Lonely Lady or The Adventurers. Just in case you might have forgotten how bad the latter was, or have to see it to believe it yourself, Paramount has released it on DVD. Not that it matters, but the story is that of Dax Xenos who as a child in the South American country of Corteguay, sees his mother raped and killed and his father betrayed by the revolutionaries he espoused. Dax grows up in Italy and becomes part of the idle jet set, using romance as a stepping stone to success, as he plans to revenge himself upon those who betrayed his family and country. There's no doubt that lots of money was spent giving the film good production values, but in every other way, it's a mess. The story is muddled and full of cheap sensationalism and the lead character is so objectionable that one just hopes for it all to end quickly.

Unfortunately it all goes on for three interminable hours. Someone named Bekim Fehmiu plays Dax and demonstrates no acting ability whatsoever. Others that have ability are wasted, especially Ernest Borgnine, Candace Bergen, Charles Aznavour, and Leigh Taylor-Young. I've heard some say that the film is a guilty pleasure. Guilty, yes! Pleasure, no!

Paramount presents it in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that looks fine - fairly crisp, good colour, some grain in evidence. There are various speckles and scratches to be seen. Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 surround tracks are provided and both do the job. That is, you can hear things clearly, unfortunately. On the plus side, there are no supplements.

August Releases

This month's releases were highlighted by the appearance of the first two John Wayne produced films to which Paramount recently acquired the home video rights - the much anticipated The High and the Mighty and also Island in the Sky. Also made available was 1971's The Red Tent while Paramount continued working through the various seasons of the ever-popular TV series, I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show. Reviews of all titles follow except for The High and the Mighty, which I reviewed in my August 4th, 2005 column and recommended.

Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky (1953)
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 2nd, 2005)

Compared to The High and the Mighty, the other of the first two Batjac productions released on DVD by Paramount - Island in the Sky - was a much lower profile film. It still holds considerable interest despite the fact that its basic plot is a familiar one among aircraft-related films. Using some effective location shooting at Donner Lake, the film focuses on Dooley (John Wayne), a civilian pilot flying for the Army Transport Command who is forced to land his plane in uncharted territory when it ices up over Labrador. The bulk of the story involves Dooley and his crew's efforts to survive the minus 40º temperatures and blowing snow while his Transport Command buddies mount a search and rescue operation. The film is successful because John Wayne provides a credible portrayal of a pilot under stress, and also because of a supporting cast whose comfortable familiarity allows one to accept the "all-for-one" attitude that drives them to continue what seems to be a fruitless search.

Among those familiar faces are the likes of Lloyd Nolan, Andy Devine, Harry Carey Jr., Walter Abel, James Arness, Allyn Joslin, Regis Toomey, and Paul Fix. Direction is by the veteran William Wellman, a man with a long-time interest in aviation, who makes the film's 109-minute running time race by.

Paramount's Special Collector's Edition DVD presents the black and white film full frame as originally released. The source material has been restored and is in great shape yielding an excellent transfer - deep blacks, clean whites and good image detail. There is some mild grain in evidence at times. The mono sound has also been cleaned up and provides clear dialogue. English subtitles are also provided. The supplements begin with a short introduction to the film by Leonard Maltin. He then participates in a very entertaining and informative audio commentary that also involves William Wellman Jr., aviation consultant Vincent Longo, and actors Darryl Hickman and James Lydon. The making of the film is documented in three parts: Dooley's Down - The Making of Island in the Sky; Ernest K. Gann - Adventurer, Author & Artist; and Flight School - The Art of Aerial Cinematography. Additional supplements include an interview with Harry Carey Jr., some background on the Army Transport Command, newsreel footage of the film's premiere, a photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer, and an Introduction to Gunsmoke TV promo. Recommended.

I Love Lucy: The Complete Fifth Season

I Love Lucy: The Complete Fifth Season
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 16th, 2005)

The fifth season of the very popular television sitcom finds Lucy up to her usual tricks first in Hollywood, then back in New York, and then abroad after she and Ricky with their friends the Mertzes decide to travel to Europe when Ricky and his band get some bookings there. Of course, nothing ever works out straightforwardly for Lucy and she finds difficulties in raising money for the Europe trip, getting her passport in order, and actually getting on the ship. Once in Europe, she leaves a string of mishaps behind her as she, Ricky and the Mertzes make their way from London to Paris to Italy, and finally Monte Carlo. Along with the previous season's inspired trip to Hollywood, the Europe follow-up provided the writing team with a whole new set of possibilities and ensured that the series continued at a high entertainment level.

Lucille Ball was in top form as ever with her impeccable timing, facial expressions, and excellent comic delivery all in evidence. The ensemble work with Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley was by now so comfortable that it was like a visit with close family for the audience every week.

The fifth season includes some of the series' most memorable episodes including Lucy stealing some cement footprints from Grauman's Chinese Theatre (Lucy Visits Grauman's and Lucy and John Wayne), her predilection for pulling a train's emergency brake cord (The Great Train Robbery), her frenzied efforts to board the trans-Atlantic liner she's missed (Bon Voyage), modeling a French "gown" (Lucy Gets a Paris Gown), trying to smuggle cheese by wrapping it up like a baby (Return Home from Europe), and the famous grape stomping fiasco (Lucy's Italian Movie).

Paramount continues its fine work on the Lucy season releases in conjunction with CBS DVD. This fifth season has 26 episodes that are spread over four discs. The individual episodes are complete except for one (Lucy and the Dummy), which has been edited from its original network version. The full frame images are crisp and clear with excellent shadow detail and generally betray few defects other than the odd speckle and scratch. The mono sound is in good shape and is free of all but the occasional patch of hiss. English closed captions and Spanish subtitles are provided, while Spanish mono tracks also accompany many episodes. The supplements which we've become accustomed to on the I Love Lucy sets are once again present: flubs, lost scenes, "behind-the-scenes" featurettes, original series openings, script excerpts, production notes, guest cast information, and several complete episodes of Lucy's radio show "My Favorite Husband". Recommended.

The Andy Griffith Show: The Complete Third Season

The Andy Griffith Show: The Complete Third Season (1962-1963)
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 16th, 2005)

Fans who have purchased the first two seasons of The Andy Griffith Show will know what they're in for with this release - another 32 great episodes with Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee, and the rest of the Mayberry gang, and virtually all delivered in fine-looking full frame transfers (crisp images, good grayscale, only minor speckling) and clear mono sound (no subtitles provided).

The third season sees the introduction of Jim Nabors' Gomer Pyle character, who would continue into the fourth season before being spun off into his own series (Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.).

Potential purchasers should note that Paramount provides a warning on the packaging that some episodes are edited from their original network versions. Barney Mends a Broken Heart and The Darlings Are Coming, each of which have truncated endings, appear to be two of the episodes so affected. The latter (an episode in the public domain) also has noticeably poorer image quality than all the others.

The Season Three box set contains the 32 episodes on five discs packaged in three thinpack discs. The only supplement comprises original sponsor spots for a number of the episodes. The Andy Griffith shows are ones with a timeless quality and very repeatable entertainment value. Recommended.

The Red Tent

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Red Tent (1971)
(released on DVD by Paramount on August 23rd, 2005)

Sean Connery and Peter Finch star in this Italian/Russian co-production about an Italian dirigible expedition to the North Pole in 1928. Commanded by Italian explorer General Umberto Nobile (Finch), the dirigible crashed and a number of crew members, including Nobile, were stranded on the Arctic ice north of Spitzbergen. The resulting efforts to find and rescue them (including that of the famous Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen [Connery] who lost his life as a result) are the focus of The Red Tent (so-named for the shelter in which the survivors huddled). Nobile's actions in the course of events later threw his leadership qualities into severe question and the film ambitiously tries to address them through a framework in which Nobile imagines a reunion some 40 years later of all the main players and using a flashback approach, seeks their evaluation of the events and his role in them.

The Red Tent begins slowly and the framing sequence seems awkward at first, but once the film gets into the real meat of the story and the purpose of the framing scenes becomes clear, it becomes a compelling adventure drama.

The scenes of the Arctic are particularly well done. Peter Finch carries the film on his shoulders, giving a wonderful performance as Nobile. Connery's scenes are limited, although he does play a significant part in the resolution of the framing scenes. Also noteworthy is the work of Hardy Kruger as a mercenary aviator who seeks the glory of saving Nobile from his Arctic fate. The film's examination of the responsibilities of leadership is one of its strengths. Some sources list the film's original running time as being from 30 to 60 minutes longer than the 121-minute international release version that appears on the DVD. What the potential extra hour of footage may have included is unclear, but perhaps more of the event's historical context, especially the aftermath elaborating on the details of Nobile's subsequent fate, may have been covered.

Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is a sub-par effort for the studio. The image frequently lacks real sharpness and colours are rather muted, even allowing for the whites and grays of the Arctic setting. There is noticeable dirt and debris. A Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix is offered but it's merely workable and doesn't really allow Ennio Morricone's fine score to shine. A 2.0 surround track and English subtitles are also provided. Disappointingly for this type of film, there are no supplements. Still, the compelling nature of the film's subject matter make a rental well worthwhile.

On to Part Two

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