The Christmas Column 2009
Welcome to the final Classic Coming Attractions column of 2009. This is the Christmas edition and in that spirit, I've included reviews of three recent Christmas-themed releases - TCM/Universal's Remember the Night, VCI's A Christmas Carol on Blu-ray, and Fox's Miracle on 34th Street on Blu-ray. Eight other classic releases are also covered, including Summer Storm (from VCI); Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (from Warner Bros.); The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1 (from E1 Entertainment); Downhill Racer (from Criterion); The World at War (from A&E History Channel); Wichita and The First Texan (both from the Warner Archive); and a double feature disc of California Joe and Canyon City (from Grapevine Video).
As usual, I have the latest classic announcements for you too - somewhat lean pickings, but we hope for better things in 2010.
As usual the Classic Announcements database has been updated with this column's new announcements.
Finally, I'd like to take this opportunity to wish all of you an enjoyable holiday season, a very Merry Christmas, and all the best for a very happy and healthy New Year.
We all know the traditional Christmas favourites such as the various versions of A Christmas Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, etc., but one title that seldom gets mentioned is the 1940 heart-warmer Remember the Night.
I imagine this is partly because it's received only a brief release on VHS many years ago, never arrived on laserdisc, and only now has made it to DVD (Courtesy of the TCM Vault Collection, in conjunction with Universal) some 12 years into DVD's history. In addition, the film was not particularly conceived as a "Christmas" film and although Christmas is an important component of it, the film was actually released originally by Paramount in the month of January. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray star in the story of a shoplifter (Stanwyck) whom MacMurray is prosecuting. When MacMurray arranges a continuance in her trial in order to minimize the sympathetic effects that her long-winded defence attorney is having on the jury, he feels guilty that she will have to spend Christmas in jail. He arranges her bail until after the holidays and when he finds out that like him, she comes from Indiana, he offers to drive her home to see her mother while he continues on to visit with his family. As one might imagine, things don't turn out quite so simply. The resulting film is a happy amalgam of several components. One is an intelligent and appealing script written by Preston Sturges (the last of his scripts that he would not direct himself) and massaged by director Mitchell Leisen to reduce some of its overly sentimental aspects. The other is the fine combination of Stanwyck and MacMurray. Remember the Night was the first of their four teamings on screen (Double Indemnity being the most well-known). Both provide strong performances in Remember the Night, with the pair being particularly impressive in the film's final scenes. Also memorable are Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, and Sterling Holloway who play MacMurray's Indiana family. The TCM release comes on a pressed DVD that offers quite a strong full frame transfer, typical of the effort that Universal puts into its classic restorations. The image is sharp and clear with very good contrast and mild grain. There is some very mild combing evident which suggests a non-progressive transfer, but regardless it's no deal-breaker. Anyone who has seen earlier versions on TCM showings will notice a substantial improvement. The mono sound is in very good shape, being both clear and free of age-related crackle and distortion. Supplements include a Robert Osborne introduction, a five-minute segment of two interviews (of art director Henry Bumstead and actress Constance Moore) concerning Mitchell Leisen (from the TCM archive and apparently never-before-aired), the theatrical trailer, various publicity stills and posters, production notes, trivia, and the theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.
VCI has been delivering gradually improved versions of the delightful Alastair Sim A Christmas Carol on DVD for some years now.
The latest effort is a new Blu-ray release that has been "digitally restored from a new 1080p, 24 fps high definition transfer produced from the 35mm negative and fine grain". The improvements over the previous DVD release are fairly apparent. The image is cleaner and detail in clothing, facial features, and in some background scenes is improved. Some modest grain is retained and an overall film-like look results. Occasionally whites seem a little overblown, but that's a minor issue in what is a very satisfactory result. The mono sound track has been retained and a 5.1 Dolby Digital track has also been provided, the latter still strongly rooted in the centre but providing a more robust feel to the audio experience. One can lament the lack of a lossless track, but I doubt it would deliver much of an advance over what VCI has provided. The supplements include an audio commentary by Marcus Hearn and George Cole, pop-up trivia, and the British and American trailers. A standard DVD disc that contains both 4x3 and 16x9 versions is also included. A Christmas Carol on Blu-ray is recommended.
The original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) has received several DVD releases from Fox with the most recent being an SE released in the fall of 2006.
That effort offered an excellent film-like transfer and an impressive array of extras anchored by an audio commentary by the film's star Maureen O'Hara, an AMC Backstory piece, and a featurette on the Macy's parade. Now Fox has delivered the film in a new Blu-ray version that is an example of how well a classic black and white film can fare in the new medium. The image is beautifully detailed and free of any overt digital manipulation, enhancing what was already a strikingly attractive greyscale. There's seldom that sense of strong three-dimensionality, but facial detail stands out and the overall film-like look is enhanced over the already good previous DVD impact. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio sound remains firmly rooted in the centre and the slight hiss noticeable on the DVD has disappeared. The original mono sound track has also been included. All the extras of significance from the DVD SE have been included on the Blu-ray. Fox has devoted virtually all its classic efforts in 2009 to Blu-ray releases and at least there the studio has delivered strong work. Miracle on 34th Street on Blu-ray is highly recommended.
Based on Anton Chekhov's ‘The Shooting Party", Summer Storm (a 1944 United Artists release) has been brought to DVD by VCI.
The film was an independent production directed by Douglas Sirk that highlighted a fine performance by Linda Darnell who was working on loan from her home studio, 20th Century-Fox. In the film she plays a seductive Russian woodcutter's daughter who dreams of marrying royalty and living in luxury. Her dreams lead her to become involved with three men whose lives are all affected deeply as a result, particularly a Russian Magistrate (George Sanders) who remains infatuated with her even after she marries an estate overseer (Hugo Haas). The story takes place in the final days of the last Tsarist regime and good production design conveys the Russian setting quite well. The cast is filled with familiar Hollywood faces but they do a persuasive job with the Russian characters. Only the casting of Edward Everett Horton as Count Volsky seems misguided. He tries hard, but the mannerisms of his many quirky American characters in screwball comedies and musicals keep intruding. Darnell's work is the best thing in the film and the vixen-like role, a departure from her more demure portrayals, helped to propel her career forward substantially when she returned to Fox. Summer Storm was Douglas Sirk's second directorial effort after coming to America. While far removed from the glossy 1950s melodramas for which he would become renowned, the film (for which he also wrote the screenplay) has the strong female characters and tangled personal inter-relationships that the director later mined so well. VCI's full-frame transfer looks quite acceptable. Image sharpness is very good and detail is good for the most part. Modest grain is evident and there are speckles and scratches at times. The mono sound is fine except for a few patches of noticeable hiss and crackle. The main supplement is an audio interview of author Bernard Dick on director Douglas Sirk, conducted by Joel Blumberg. Trailers for Summer Storm and a filming of Uncle Vanya are also included. Recommended.
One of the last pressed DVD releases of classic titles that we've had from Warner Bros. is Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. It's a two-disc collection of four titles - The Walking Dead (1936), You'll Find Out (1940), Zombies on Broadway (1945), and Frankenstein 1970 (1958).
The Walking Dead (a Warner Bros. production) is the best item in the set, as Karloff is framed for a murder of an incorruptible judge and then revived after being wrongfully convicted and executed. His return eventually exposes the four men actually responsible for the murder. Once again, Karloff portrays a character with both sympathy and a subtle air of menace that makes the otherwise predictable story quite engrossing. Edmund Gwenn as the scientist who revives him is quietly effective, and Ricardo Cortez delivers a very polished effort as a slimeball lawyer. Director Michael Curtiz makes the most of the shadows. You'll Find Out is an RKO release that's essentially a vehicle to showcase big band leader Kay Kyser and several of the personalities in his group, notably Ginny Simms, Ish Kabibble, and Harry Babbitt. The story finds Kyser's band hired to play at rich girl Janis's 21st birthday party at an island mansion that later gets cut off from the mainland when a storm knocks out the only bridge. Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre as a crooked judge and phony medium and psychologist respectively are intent on murdering Janis because she's in line to inherit a fortune that the three have been gradually extorting from her aunt. The trio are rather underutilized in the film although they clearly dominate when on screen. All three seemingly recognize the rather silly nature of the whole thing and enter into the spirit accordingly. The result is a diverting entertainment with a little bit of mystery, some humour and music, but few chills. Zombies on Broadway, another RKO release, gives us a bargain-basement Abbott & Costello in the persons of Wally Brown and Alan Carney who must come up with a zombie for gangster Sheldon Leonard's Broadway show. Bela Lugosi appears as a zombie expert on a Caribbean Island to which the pair travel in search of their quarry. The whole thing lacks imagination and beyond Lugosi, who had been relegated to poverty-row productions at the likes of PRC at the time, the cast offers nothing to make one keep watching. Even more stultifying is Frankenstein 1970, an Allied Artists release in which Boris Karloff plays a Dr. Frankenstein descendant who allows filmmakers (led by Donald Barry) to shoot a horror film at his castle so that he can purchase an atomic reactor in order to... well, you can probably guess. Karloff overacts, perhaps in an effort to enliven the otherwise leadenly-paced tale. The fact that it's all filmed in CinemaScope is about the only point of interest. It's sad to see Karloff involved in something as bad as this, but the fact that you even feel sorry for former B western star Don "Red" Barry says it all. The three oldest films are presented in their proper full frame mode. You'll Find Out is the best looking of the three with a nice sharp and well contrasted image. The Walking Dead is almost as good. Zombies on Broadway is the weakest of the three with patches of softness and lack of detail at times. Frankenstein 1970 is presented in a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer that fares well on large displays. It's sharp and exhibits a very nice grey scale. The mono sound is in good shape on all four films. Supplements include very interesting and easy-to-listen-to commentaries on The Walking Dead and Frankenstein 1970, plus trailers for the latter and You'll Find Out. The release is nicely priced and even though only two of the films are really worthwhile, I recommend it.
Whenever there's a chance to see more Barbara Stanwyck on DVD, it's something to celebrate. E1 Entertainment, in association with The Archive of American Television, has now released The Barbara Stanwyck Show: Volume 1, a three-disc collection that contains 15 shows from the 1960-61 NBC drama anthology series.
The series only lasted one season, despite Stanwyck winning an Emmy for her efforts, with 36 half-hour shows being telecast. Stanwyck starred in 32 of them as well as providing an introduction to all. The latter come across as rather stilted, but the shows themselves for the most part are very entertaining except where the half-hour format causes rather rushed plot resolutions in a few instances. Stanwyck's work is for the most part superior as she clearly demonstrates that her heart is really in it with thoughtful and animated portrayals. The stories run the gamut from mystery to thriller to psychological drama to soap opera and to western - the latter being a favourite of hers and a love which would eventually be realized in the later The Big Valley TV series. A strong benefit was the fine roster of featured performances by the likes of Ralph Bellamy, Milton Berle, Charles Bickford, Julie London, Lee Marvin, Vic Morrow, Anna May Wong, and Michael Rennie. Even the directing ranks demonstrated a nod to classic Hollywood with Jacques Tourneur, Richard Whorf, and Robert Florey among the main contributors. The episodes are presented full frame as originally telecast and they look quite presentable for the most part. Contrast is quite good overall, but image clarity and detail are variable. There are plenty of speckles and scratches, but the net impact is never distracting enough to bother one's enjoyment of the program content. The mono sound is workable - clear enough but with variable amounts of hiss and crackle on most episodes. Supplements include a 20-page booklet of series background information including an essay by Robert Osborne, an unaired pilot episode "The Sponsor's Theatre", and Stanwyck's 1961 Emmy acceptance speech. Recommended for Barbara Stanwyck fans; others should try a rental.
A film for which there has been a modest but enduring demand since the beginning of the DVD era, the 1969 Robert Redford starring film Downhill Racer has finally been released on DVD by Criterion under license from Paramount.
Not a commercial success upon its theatrical release, the film was a pet project for Redford. At the time, it looked like Roman Polanski might direct the film along with Rosemary's Baby, but eventually Polanski focused entirely on the latter film and Downhill Racer went into limbo. Only after Redford volunteered to find his own director and film cheaply in Europe did the project go ahead. The resulting film, a story of a determined loner who earns a spot on the American ski team when another athlete is injured and pursues winning with a total disregard for teamsmanship, the unwritten rules of ski racing, and personal relationships, is very much a product of its time. Redford's character fits in nicely with the likes of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, even James Garner in Grand Prix. In fact, as surprising as it may seem, Downhill Racer makes you think of the latter film more often than you might expect with its constantly shifting European race locations, the camaraderie of the international racing fraternity, the presence of women who capitalize upon the popularity of successful athletes, and sporting accidents that open up opportunities for others. Garner's Grand Prix racer has as much desire to win as Redford's skier but isn't nearly the social misfit that Redford's is, however. Redford never softens his character's hardass nature in Downhill Racer - a daring decision that probably worked against the film at the time, but one that adds to its luster now. Strong acting support is provided by Gene Hackman as the coach of the ski team and Camilla Sparv as the Swiss beauty who latches onto Redford. On the technical side, the film's use of handheld cameras to show the skiers barreling down the mountains was an innovative approach in 1969, yielding some breath-taking footage that retains its potency today. Criterion presents Downhill Racer in a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer from a 35mm fine-grain master positive print. The image is characterized by very good colour fidelity and brightness, but some inconsistency in sharpness. In fairness, much of this occurs during the skiing sequences that were shot in 16mm. The overall effect conveys well the slightly weathered look that characterized film stock of the time. The mono sound is in decent shape. It's quite clear enough, but does have some hiss still evident. There's no audio commentary, but the supplement package is quite good - including a new video interview with Redford and screenwriter James Salter discussing the film's origins and production, and another with film editor Richard Harris, production manager Walter Coblenz, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert who served as a technical advisor, ski double, and cameraman. Both pieces are about a half-hour long. There are also some audio excerpts from a 1977 AFI seminar with director Michael Ritchie, a vintage 1969 featurette narrated by Redford on skiing in general and Downhill Racer in particular, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet containing an essay by critic and author Todd McCarthy. Recommended.
I wanted to make a few comments about the latest release of The World at War on DVD - it comes from A&E Television Networks under the History Channel imprimatur with distribution handled by New Video.
Many will be familiar with this award-winning history of the Second World War, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier. The series was produced by Britain's Thames Television in 1973 and consists of 26 hour-long programs. More than 35 years after it first appeared, the series remains the definitive visual history of the War due to its deft blend of personal interviews (most of its subjects now deceased) and collection of newsreel, propaganda, and home-movie footage drawn from the archives of 18 nations. The series was first released on DVD in 2001 on a five-disc set by HBO. I haven't seen this version, but it did include a making-of documentary and several bonus featurettes. In 2004, A&E released the definitive version of the series - an 11-disc 30th Anniversary compilation that presented the 26 episodes and the original making-of documentary on the first 7 discs and added 4 discs of supplementary material (some 12 hours worth that expands on the subjects of the featurettes that appeared in HBO's release and added a new 30th anniversary making-of documentary and a gallery of photographs). The image quality of the release was of course at the mercy of the archival material for the most part, but it's more than acceptable throughout. The stereo sound is also quite good. Now we have History Channel's 2009 release and those interested should be aware that it merely consists of the first seven discs of the 2004 release. The four discs of supplementary content have been jettisoned completely. That's fine if all you want is the basic series, but the lost supplements added detail of much interest to WW2 devotees. The image and sound quality is identical to the 2004 release. If you don't have a DVD version of this fine series yet, but have always wanted to have one, my recommendation is to cast around for the 2004 release. It's still available and the last time I looked was actually cheaper at some retailers than the new release.