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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Roundup #12 - November 2004

In this edition of the Classic Reviews Roundup, I look at three special edition releases from Warner Bros., whose recent work and future plans are a model for what all the studios should be doing with their classic catalogs.

Gone with the Wind: Four-Disc Collector's Edition (1939)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on November 9th, 2004)

For anyone at all interested in classic films, the title Gone with the Wind instantly evokes the era of classic Hollywood. For many, it is their favourite classic film, for others it's the best classic film, and for some it's neither, just a film they enjoy for its impressive level of craftsmanship and attention to detail. By virtue of the immense publicity that accompanied the film's production and original release, not to mention subsequent successful releases and numerous books, articles, and documentaries on the making-of the movie, it is a film that has remained high in our collective memory for 65 years. Is there any classic enthusiast who is unaware of the search for the right actress to play Scarlett; the negotiations that finally assured that Clark Gable would play Rhett Butler; the parade of directors that included Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood, Cameron Menzies, and Reeves Eason; and the over-riding presence and influence of producer David O. Selznick throughout the production process? These are some of the most often-cited activities that arose during the more-than-three-year process that led from Selznick's offer for the screen rights in mid 1936 to the film's premiere in Atlanta in late 1939.

Gone with the Wind: Four-Disc Collector's Edition

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At just two minutes under four hours in length, Gone with the Wind was and remains among the longest films ever released. Yet it never seems that long for it is blessed with a compelling narrative and a cast that never makes a wrong step (despite some people's carping over Leslie Howard being too old to play Ashley Wilkes). The story is that of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), the daughter of the owner of a southern plantation named Tara and who eventually comes to rule Tara herself at the time of and immediately after the Civil War. Her principal suitor and later husband (number three actually) is the charismatic Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), but it is Ashley Wilkes of a neighboring plantation with whom she is really in love. The film is based on the 1037-page novel by Margaret Mitchell that was such a phenomenon at the time, and it was readers' great love for the story and its characters that posed the most difficulty for a successful translation to the screen. Everyone had their own image of the characters and it was David Selznick's greatest success that he was able to satisfy people's expectations with the casting. Vivien Leigh justly received the Academy Award as Best Actress for 1939 for her work as Scarlett, but too often overlooked is the contribution that Clark Gable made as Rhett. He was surprisingly beaten out for the Best Actor Oscar by Robert Donat, and while Donat's work was worthy, repeated viewings of Gable's efforts stand the test of time and only reinforce Gable's strong and vital work that provides in Rhett the necessary counterforce to Scarlett. Gable made it look easy and as so often in such situations, got overlooked. No other actor of the time could have come close to him in that particular role.

Selznick poured immense resources into the film, from a massive cast (best embodied by the Atlanta railyard scene but also evident in the longest list of credited parts in any film up to that time) to the use of Technicolor (at one point employing all seven existing Technicolor cameras), the employment of numerous writers, and the marshalling of crew from his own studio as well as MGM. It all amounted to an expenditure in excess of $4 million, an immense total for the time and potentially a disastrous investment. But from the very first sneak preview, it was apparent that the film would be a hit and official gala previews in Atlanta and New York that resulted in glowing reviews confirmed it. The film was nominated for 13 Academy awards, winning in eight categories (Picture, Actress [Vivien Leigh], Supporting Actress [Hattie McDaniel], Director [Victor Fleming], Screenplay, Art Direction, Colour Cinematography, and Film Editing). A special award went to William Cameron Menzies for his work with colour on the film and a scientific/technical award went to Don Musgrave. Selznick was also recognized individually by being awarded the Irving Thalberg Award. To be so dominant in the year often considered to be the peak of the Hollywood Golden Age was a true testament to Gone with the Wind's greatness.

In honour of the film's 65th anniversary, Warner Bros. has issued a 4-disc DVD special edition, highlighted by a new Ultra Resolution transfer that provides a distinct improvement over the previously available single-disc release. The film is presented correctly full frame spread over the first two discs, and features exquisite colour and excellent detail that completely removes the bad-taste-in-the-mouth that the old version caused with its excessively processed image and noticeable edge effects. With deep, glossy blacks and very clean whites, the new transfer offers a real film-like look with some very modest grain and has completely eliminated any edge effects. The Ultra Resolution process has provided a natural sharpness to the image that probably exceeds what it looked like originally. Two sound tracks are offered - the original mono and a Dolby Digital 5.1 one. The latter is a very effective effort with some subtle surround effects and some real punch to the film's Civil War scenes. Age-related hiss has been virtually eliminated and both dialogue and Max Steiner's sweeping music are clearly and pleasingly rendered. A French sound track as well as English, French, and Spanish sub-titling are also provided. Fans will be glad to know that the film's overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music are all included. Were the restored film all that Warners had provided, this release would already be a winner, but the supplementary content is truly exemplary.

Film historian Rudy Behlmer provides audio commentary throughout the film's four-hour running time. Behlmer has a tremendous background in classic film and his wealth of knowledge is once again on display here. His commentary is very informative and entertaining and he speaks virtually continuously throughout the film. The rest of the supplementary features are contained on the third and fourth discs. The centerpiece of disc three is the 1989 documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind which in just over two hours thoroughly documents the whole process of putting together the film (casting, financing, direction, special effects, publicity), its premiere and subsequent reissues. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, the film is a superb example of what such making-of pieces should be. Also to be found on the third disc are: a fascinating featurette (about 18 minutes) on the film's restoration process, a newsreel of the Atlanta premiere, a 1940 short directed by Fred Zinnemann (about 11 minutes) called The Old South about the role of cotton in the economy of the region, footage of the 1961 reissue of the film in Atlanta celebrating the centenary of the Civil War, footage providing a prologue to the film as added to international releases, examples of scenes as dubbed in several foreign languages, and theatrical trailers for the original release and four subsequent reissues. Disc four contains three documentaries to start. The first, made earlier in 2004, presents reminiscences by Olivia De Havilland on her experiences in making the film and is a must-see item even though several of the incidents she relates are well-known by many fans. The second documentary is Gable: The King Remembered, a 1975 65-minute profile hosted by Peter Lawford. It provides an interesting blend of clips with interviews of Andy Devine, William Wellman, Adela Rogers St. John, and Yvonne De Carlo. Thirdly, we have Vivien Leigh: Scarlett and Beyond, a 1990 46-minute profile hosted by Jessica Lange. These three documentaries are supplemented by 16 short profiles of the film's main supporting players. Each lasts a minute or two and consists of a short audio summary of the player's career voiced over a visual background of stills and film footage.

Warner Bros. has packaged all this material in a very attractive digipak that fits into a classy-looking cardboard slipcase sporting the film's title in raised gold lettering. A 20-page reproduction of the film's souvenir program is also included. Without any doubt in my mind, this is the classic release of the year and bids fair to be the DVD release of the year period. My highest recommendation.

Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Two (1936-1958)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on November 2nd, 2004)

Warner Bros. has followed up last year's successful Looney Tunes debut on DVD with another winner very much cut from the same cloth. Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Two contains 60 Golden Era cartoons (four more than last year) that are derived from the original negatives and all restored, remastered, and uncut. They are presented on four discs housed in a digipak with a slipcase that has a cut-out revealing the images of Bugs and Daffy, and supplemented with a similar range of new and archive materials. I know that 60 cartoons a year or so doesn't seem like much, but the restoration approach that Warners is taking is expensive and time-consuming, so that 60 is actually an appreciable number. At this rate, it's going to take a long time to get all the titles (over 1000) out on DVD, but so far the wait is well justified.

Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Two

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The new collection is structured so as to feature Bugs Bunny on disc one, the Road Runner on disc two, Tweety and Sylvester on disc three, and parodies of show business personalities on disc four. The titles are as follows (note that those with an asterisk include audio commentary):

Disc One (1941-1956): The Big Snooze*, Broomstick Bunny*, Bugs Bunny Rides Again*, Bunny Hugged, French Rarebit, Gorilla My Dreams*, The Hare-Brained Hypnotist, Hare Conditioned, The Heckled Hare*, Little Red Riding Rabbit, Tortoise Beats Hare*, Rabbit Transit, Slick Hare*, Baby Buggy Bunny, and Hyde and Hare.

Disc Two (1942-1958): Beep Beep*; Going! Going! Gosh!; Zipping Along; Stop! Look! and Hasten!*; Ready, Set, Zoom; Guided Muscle; Gee Whiz-z-z; There They Go-Go-Go; Scrambled Aches; Zoom and Bored; Whoa, Be-Gone!*, Cheese Chasers; The Dover Boys*; Mouse Wreckers*; and A Bear for Punishment*.

Disc Three (1938-1953): Bad Ol' Puddy Tat, All Abir-r-r-d, Room and Bird, Tweet Tweet Tweety, Gift Wrapped, Ain't She Tweet*, A Bird in a Guilty Cage, Snow Business, Tweetie Pie*, Kitty Kornered*, Baby Bottleneck*, Old Glory*, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery*, Duck Soup to Nuts, and Porky in Wackyland*.

Disc Four (1936-1957): Back Alley Oproar*, Book Revue*, A Corny Concerto*, Have You Got Any Castles?, Hollywood Steps Out*, I Love to Singa, Katnip Kollege, The Hep Cat, The Three Little Bops*, One Froggy Evening*, Rhapsody Rabbit*, Show Biz Bugs*, Stage Door Cartoon, What's Opera Doc*, and You Ought to Be in Pictures*.

Content-wise, this new set is a mixed bag for me. I'm glad to see more Bugs and Sylvester and Tweety, and the parody cartoons are very welcome indeed. I could, however, do with a lot less Road Runner, a character whose cartoons I find repetitive and uninteresting. But that's me; others who enjoy Road Runner will no doubt be delighted. In all respects, though, we can delight in the look of these cartoons. The colours are extremely vibrant in the vast number of cases and sharpness and image detail is very good. The look of the original animation seems well-preserved. Some scratches and speckles remain, but are at no time intrusive. The mono sound is in very good shape throughout with only minor hiss evident on a few of the cartoons. French and Spanish tracks and English, French, and Spanish sub-titling are included.

In addition to the commentary tracks on selected cartoons noted above, each disc has its own selection of supplements much in the same vein as last year's Volume One. Disc One contains the first half of the TV special Bugs Bunny's Looney Tunes All-Star 50th Anniversary, a Behind-the-Tunes featurette A Conversation with Tex Avery, and two selections of The Bugs Bunny Show bridging sequences (for Do or Diet and There's No Business Like Slow Business). The Tex Avery piece is the class of these supplements although too brief at only about 7 minutes duration. The Bugs Bunny TV special material becomes rather tedious after a while. Disc Two contains the TV pilot for the Road Runner show - The Adventures of Road Runner, the opening sequence for television's The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, and the Behind-the-Tunes featurette Crash! Bang! Boom!: The Wild Sounds of Treg Brown. The latter is the best of the supplements on this disc and provides some insight into the man behind the sound effects that graced the cartoons. Disc Three includes the second half of the Bugs Bunny TV special begun on Disc One, opening sequences for The Porky Pig Show and The Bugs Bunny and Tweety Show, a newly-made cartoon Daffy Duck for President which fails to inspire, and another great Behind-the-Tunes featurette - Man from Wackyland: The Art of Bob Clampett. Disc Four contains three Behind-the-Tunes featurettes - Looney Tunes Go Hollywood (on the many parodies of Hollywood characters that graced so many of the cartoons); It Hopped One Night: The Story Behind One Froggy Evening, and Wagnerian Wabbit: The Making of What's Opera Doc?. Also included are three rareties from the vaults: So Much for So Little, a piece made for the Federal Security Agency Public Health Service in 1949 that won an Oscar for Best Documentary Short, and Orange Blossoms for Violet, a 1951 Friz Freleng/Chuck Jones short featuring chimpanzees portraying humans and reminiscent of the old MGM dog shorts ("Barkies") from the 1930s.

I'm still waiting for more of the wartime Looney Tunes and more from the 1930s, but this latest collection provides some relief and certainly lives up to the high standard set by last year's first collection. Buyers should be aware that once again a shorter collection of 30 of these cartoons, without supplements, is also available as the Looney Tunes Spotlight Collection: Volume Two. For the real fan, however, the Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Two is the one to get. Highly recommended.

Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection (1940-1958)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on October 19th, 2004)

Somewhat lost in the interest over Warners' Looney Tunes collections was the recent release of a two-disc collection of classic MGM Tom and Jerry cartoons. There were 114 of these cartoons produced from 1940 to 1958 at MGM by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Included in the new set are 40 of these shorts, restored and remastered. The versions presented are, for the most part, the ones restored for the Cartoon Network in 2000, restorations generally based on source material such as interpositives that were made from the original negatives and used to strike projection prints. As the original negatives to the pre-1952 cartoons were lost in an MGM fire, it is questionable if those earlier cartoons can ever look as good as many of the Looney Tunes ones do. The cartoons look better than they did in their laserdisc incarnation, but many do generally exhibit noticeable scratches and dirt with images that show some intensity fluctuations and occasional fading. On the plus side, however, there are three CinemaScope cartoons (Touché Pussy Cat, The Flying Sorceress, Blue Cat Blues) for which new complete restorations have been done and as far as image quality goes, they represent the class of what we see on the disc. The sound is the original mono, which in all cases is in decent shape. One bonus is the presentation of Touché Pussy Cat in stereo as originally made.

Tom and Jerry Spotlight Collection

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Fans were expecting that all these cartoons would be presented uncut. Unfortunately, through an oversight, edited versions of three titles slipped through. These are The Milky Waif, The Truce Hurts, and Kitty Foiled (all on the first disc). Warner Bros. has already acknowledged the problem and has located uncut source material that it will use to make replacement discs available, hopefully before the year is out.

The list of titles available on the two discs is as follows (asterisks denote cartoons for which audio commentary is provided by cartoon expert Jerry Beck):

Disc One: Yankee Doodle Mouse, Sufferin' Cats, Baby Puss, The Zoot Cat*, Million Dollar Cat, The Bodyguard, Mouse Trouble, Tee for Two, Flirty Birdy, Quiet Please, The Milky Waif, Solid Serenade, Cat Fishin, The Cat Concerto, Kitty Foiled*, The Truce Hurts, Salt Water Tabby, The Invisible Mouse, The Little Orphan, and Heavenly Puss*.

Disc Two: Texas Tom, Jerry and the Lion, Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl, Jerry and the Goldfish, Cueball Cat, Slicked-Up Pup, Jerry's Cousin, Cat Napping, The Flying Cat, The Two Mouseketeers, Smitten Kitten, Johann Mouse, Two Little Indians, Baby Butch, Mice Follies, Designs on Jerry, Pecos Pest, Touché Pussy Cat, The Flying Sorceress, and Blue Cat Blues.

You will note that few of the earliest Tom and Jerry cartoons are included in this list. Many of those featured the Negro character "Mammy Two-Shoes" and political correctness has reared its ugly head in this case. Hopefully this will not be the case in future Tom and Jerry collections.

The supplements, in addition to the commentaries noted above, are very pleasing. Disc One contains How Bill and Joe Met Tom and Jerry, a new documentary (about 27 minutes) that covers the background to the cartoons and the subsequent history, and the clip from the film Anchors Aweigh which features Jerry dancing with Gene Kelly. Disc Two has another new documentary, Behind the Tunes: The MGM Orchestra, which tells about the music of composer and orchestra leader Scott Bradley which was used in the series, and the swimming sequence from the film Dangerous When Wet in which Tom and Jerry swim with Esther Williams.

While this set has its shortcomings, it's still a welcome addition to the growing library of classic animation on DVD. Recommended.

Barrie Maxwell

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