Click here to learn more about anamorphic widescreen!
Go to the Home Page
Go to The Rumor Mill
Go to Todd Doogan's weekly column
Go to the Reviews Page
Go to the Trivia Contest Page
Go to the Upcoming DVD Artwork Page
Go to the DVD FAQ & Article Archives
Go to our DVD Links Section
Go to the Home Theater Forum for great DVD discussion
Find out how to advertise on The Digital Bits

Site created 12/15/97.

The Digital Bits logo
page created: 6/28/04

Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

June's Column - Part One

Disney Does it Right

Disney continues to release quality product via their 4th set of classic tins. Where during the laserdisc era, the company was known for purposeful double-dipping as one cartoon would show on up multiple releases of discs for varying purposes, today we have a well though out mechanism in place, properly handling their classic output.

This isn't to say that a cartoon won't occasionally show up on two different releases, but this is now the rare instance rather than routine.

Their latest tins bring to market some of the studio's finest short film animated work.

The Chronological Donald*, encompassing the years from 1934 to 1941, give us an entire run of Mr. Duck's work - 36 animated shorts in all - in a beautiful package of the highest quality. By 1960, the animated short had all but disappeared from the theatrical landscape, which means that with one additional release you can now own the entire output of the studio.

The same can be said of Mickey Mouse in Living Color, Part 2*, which covers the period from 1939 through 1953, 21 short films, again beautifully presented. 18 of the films are from the classic period and 3 are of more recent vintage.

My personal favorite of the newest releases is On the Front Lines* which appears to cover the entire output of the Disney studio as part of the war effort during the Second World War. Many of these films are brilliant pieces taking on those nations and individuals who were our enemies at the time. I applaud the executives at Disney for allowing these films to be released, and not keeping them vaulted away as the ethics contained within no longer apply. Der Fuehrer's Face (1942) is one of these classics. There are many here which I've never had the opportunity to view before and this set of films, which is a bit more specialized than the generic animated shorts, is highly recommended.

The last set, Tomorrowland*, encapsulates the Disney productions, many produced for television, which pertain to the future and the theme parks. A great deal of research has gone into this tin set, which while even more esoteric than the WWII films, should be a part of any serious DVD collection. It has the lowest "mintage" at 105,000 units - not huge in terms of current DVD production numbers.

All four of these titles will be showing up on EBay in the future. Right now the price is right and I recommend their purchase. To place things in an odd perspective, one can take an average running time of 7 minutes per short, times 36 for the Donald Collection, comes out to 252 minutes or what would be printed to 23,000 feet of 35mm film. In the case of the DVD it equals 66 cents per cartoon.

From another arm of Disney comes a two disc set of the 1996 Trainspotting* in its international version and packed with extras. Normally I attempt to highlight films which don't receive a great deal of space elsewhere, and this will not be Trainspotting*.

My reason for including this interesting film is a pet peeve of mine in regard to Disney packaging.

Going back to laserdisc days, there has been a lack of a simple date to allow the viewer to know when a film was produced. We all know that Bambi wasn't made yesterday. It's a superb film, and a landmark of animation. When it comes out next year, will the packaging report it as a "2005 release?"

It can't be for legal reasons that dates have been banished. They do give a generic with no date, leading one to believe that they don't wish their videos to be freely copied and disseminated.

But it's actually more complex and confusing than that.

Last year Disney released Freaky Friday*, which starred a then 45 year old Jamie Lee Curtis and a 16 year old Lindsay Lohan. The back of the packaging notes that this is a "2003 Release," and I believe them.

What I have a problem with is that this 2003 release starring Curtis and Lohan as mother and daughter, is based upon another film, strangely entitled Freaky Friday starring Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster as mother and daughter.

I hope that you're with me this far.

Barbara Harris is 68. Jodie Foster, playing the daughter is 41.

And yet, this film, which is the basis for the Curtis/Lohan film is...

You guessed it.

A "2004 Release."

Now there was another Freaky Friday - and also a good film -produced in 1976. That would be 28 years ago.

That Freaky Friday starred a 40 year old Barbara Harris and as her daughter, a 13 year old Jodie Foster. I remember that one.

The new Freaky Friday*, whenever it may have been made, is a great deal of fun.

Roger Ebert nails this in his review, in which he discusses the ways in which Curtis and Lohan worked to channel each other.

Another new release from Disney, on the Miramax label, is one of the most beautiful and literate films of the year 2003. Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain* is a film which comes very highly recommended. This is one of the "no-brainer" purchases I mention on occasion.

Only Mr. Minghella's fifth film, Cold Mountain* places him in a rarified category, as one of the most entertaining as well as literate filmmakers. If I were to compare him to another, it would probably be either Richard Brooks, David Lean or Joseph Mankiewicz.

If one looks at the packaging for Cold Mountain*, one can readily see that the film is "Stunning" and "A Masterpiece Spectacular," but with no real copyright notice and not even an annotation which would read "2004 Release," which it isn't, one must either search for a mention of Renee Zellweger's 2003 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress or at the very bottom of the frame in tiny type the phrase *2003.

I have yet to find what the *2003 appends to as I haven't been able to find an asterisk anywhere else on the packaging. If anyone else can find it, please mention it on HTF.

All of this is the long way around requesting (once again) that Disney in some way annotate their releases with a year of the actual production of the film held within.

This is something that could be helpful to those who purchase the many important titles that the Disney organization has to offer.

The Invention of the "Hookless Fastener," and the Films of Merchant, Ivory & Jhabvala

Although invented in 1893, the "zipper" did not actually show up as a working part of fashion until around 1905.

I mention this for only one reason. View any number of films and you'll find "zippers" in biblical potboilers, dusty westerns and turn of the century melodramas where they should never have been seen. You'll also find sneakers covered over to appear to be something else.

Watch a Merchant Ivory production and you'll find them "zipperless" when a certain time period is being captured and reproduced. In a Merchant Ivory film, everything within their control is correct.

Producer Ismail Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala have been responsible for some of the most literate, sumptuous and historically detailed works to come out of modern cinema.

Merchant and Ivory have created 24 films together, 20 of them written by their third counterpart. Having won numerous awards, the majority of their works have been quickly making their way to DVD, and I thought that this was worthy of a short discussion.

The majority of the Merchant Ivory DVD releases have come to us via HVE - Home Vision Entertainment, which as seen by their elegant packaging, is produced at Criterion "in association with the Criterion Collection."

What this means is that the HVE releases carry with them the Criterion quality in terms of element selection and transfer quality.

I'm personally a fan of the majority of the Merchant Ivory films, with the exception of some of the earliest "art house" films. But get me past those and my time is theirs.

Beginning with The Europeans* in 1979 and going straight through to 2000 with The Golden Bowl*, Mr. Merchant, Mr. Ivory and (in most cases) Ms. Jhabvala have created 15 feature films which never seem to lose their direction or sense for being.

More than anything, their point of detail in production design, architecture and costuming surround their players with a sumptuous work in which to ply their trade as actors. The buildings in which they reside look "lived in." Their costumes seem to fall comfortably, as if they've worn them day in and day out for years, and the world in which they exist, just looks and feels "right."

Their films have come from a number of different publishers, but as mentioned, the bulk come from HVE, inclusive of nine currently in release: The Householder (1963), Shakespeare Wallah (1965), Bombay Talkie (1970), Autobiography of a Princess (1975), which is included as an extra on Heat and Dust* (1983), The Europeans* (1979), Quartet* (1981), The Bostonians* (1984), Maurice* (1987), Savages (1972) probably the strangest film in their repertoire is arriving later this month along with a 1978 television production, Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie's Pictures.

This is the core collection. Their later works went the studio route, becoming more "Hollywood" for lack of a better word, but never losing their literate roots.

The "standout" DVD in the HVE/ Criterion series is Maurice. Based upon E.M. Forster's novel, this is brilliant filmmaking and a brilliantly produced DVD. A gorgeous transfer inclusive of all the bells and whistles of the other films in the series is the basis. A second disc features new interviews, a half hour of alternate and deleted scenes and a newly reconstructed opening sequence with commentary.

If one shelves and categorizes their collection by filmmaker, the entire series of Merchant Ivory HVE / Criterions has been designed as a unit. All in high quality, transparent packaging, they share identical format and typography, creating a very attractive product to have on one's shelf. It isn't often that I'll go out of my way to call a DVD package attractive, but this is a set for which it must be acknowledged.

Their brilliant 1985 A Room with a View* was released in April as a beautifully produced two disc set from Warner Home Video. Mr. and Mrs. Bridge* starring Mr. and Mrs. Newman is available from Disney. Howards End*, which garnered three Academy Awards in 1992 as well as Remains of the Day* (1993) are available from Columbia. Remains* was nominated for eight Academy Awards inclusive of Best Picture, and like Howards End* should be considered compulsory viewing.

The 1995 production, Jefferson in Paris is available from Disney. Surviving Picasso (1996), has not yet made it to DVD after release on laser. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (1998), which was available from USA, now seems out of print.

The Golden Bowl* (2000), which I had missed theatrically, but have finally viewed via Lions Gate DVD is yet another quality production which should not be missed. The last film released, Le Divorce (2003) is available as a Fox title.

This leaves very few productions among the home video missing category, which once again confirms the fact that we're in a most interesting time for those who love the cinema. Thirty years ago, one would have to find a print in order to see these and other works. Today, especially with DVD, it couldn't be more simple to own and collect decades of a filmmakers' output for just several hundred dollars.

Mr. Bergman

Whenever I think of a Bergman film, I can't help but think of Haig Manoogian, the phenomenal NYU professor of film, who saturated our brains with the works of Bergman, Fellini and Antonioni in an effort to broaden our minds to accept film as art and sub-titles as the norm.

I have no idea how many times we sat through Wild Strawberries* and The Seventh Seal* and The Magician, but by the time class was over, we knew the films virtually shot by shot. The 16mm prints via which we viewed these films came from Janus, which now, in a different incarnation, is responsible for the films on DVD.

Much like the Merchant Ivory productions, home theatre enthusiasts can now own, and screen at will, the majority of Mr. Bergman's half century of cinematic output. Many of his earliest works had little or no distribution in the U.S. By the time Illicit Interlude, Naked Night, Lesson in Love and Devil's Wanton hit American screens, three to twelve years had past.

It was not until The Seventh Seal*, required viewing for any film student, that one of his films appeared here soon after its release in Sweden. That was 1957.

Since that time, the brilliant Mr. Bergman has created more than fifteen superb entertainments, none of which is without his obvious imprimatur as director. Sometimes bleak and dark, at other times colorful and filled with life, films like Wild Strawberries*, The Magician, Through a Glass Darkly*, Winter Light*, The Silence*, Persona*, Hour of the Wolf*, Shame*, The Passion of Anna*, Cries and Whispers*, Scenes from a Marriage* and Autumn Sonata* have graced our theatres and now our home video libraries.

While the Criterion Collection has been slowly releasing his works from the mid-1950s, it was not until recently that the floodgates opened. Last August Criterion released a boxed set of three classic films - Through a Glass Darkly*, Winter Light* and The Silence*. These added to the earlier releases of five other Criterion titles. Most recently Smiles of a Summer Night* and Scenes from a Marriage* have joined the collection.

After a shaky start, with a recall caused by incorrect aspect ratios, MGM / UA released a corrected collection of five films originally released through United Artists between 1966 and 1977. Persona*, Hour of the Wolf*, Shame*, The Passion of Anna* and The Serpent's Egg, combined with the Criterion releases now serve as a core collection of Mr. Bergman's work. With just a handful of major titles not represented, a lover of the cinema can have something unthinkable even ten years ago.

The MGM package is a worthy purchase, with fine transfers of un-cut versions.

For an accessible number of dollars, one can own the major output of a special filmmaker. This could not have been accomplished with any economy, even through laser discs.

For those who may not yet have had the pleasure of being surrounded by the work of this master, I suggest a sampling of Wild Strawberries* and Shame*. You can go on from there at your own speed.

For those already swept away by Mr. Bergman's work, more is on the way. I have it on superb authority that one of Criterion's top producers will shortly be on their way to Sweden to oversee a new transfer of Fanny and Alexander. At over three hours, this film stands as one of Mr. Bergman's (longest and) best. It won Academy Awards as Best Foreign Film, as well as (among others) for long time Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist. The transfer is in superb hands, which makes this a film worth waiting for.

While the topic is Criterion, a couple of other titles must be mentioned.

The one filmmaker who pared the cinema down to its most basic structural parts was Yasujiro Ozu (1903 - 1963). Eschewing elements of the cinema that one would think a necessity, such as dissolves and moving camera, Ozu mounted his productions in terms of story, texture and camera positioning. If you've never experience an Ozu film, Floating Weeds*, a remake of his earlier (1934) Story of Floating Weeds is a good starting point.

The Leopard* is one of the most beautiful films of the period that one is apt to see on DVD. Photographed in the large format Technirama system by Giuseppe Rotunno, who was brought in by Criterion to oversee the transfer from the original Eastman color negative, The Leopard* has arrived on DVD in a 185 minute Italian version as well as its original shorter American release version, dubbed in English. The Criterion release represents the longest surviving version of the film, which comes highly recommended.

Pickup on South Street* directed by cigar-smoking iconoclastic filmmaker Sam Fuller is a beautifully transferred film, licensed to Criterion by Fox. Starring Richard Widmark, the film is a gritty New York story, shot on the Fox lot. Mr. Widmark, who is now 89, has had a long career with many memorable performances. A plan is afoot to garner him a special award from the Academy, which would be fitting for this gentleman actor who has given us so much.

Other News

While Fox is the subject, we welcome two more films to their Studio Classics series. Desk Set*, a Cinemascope production with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was released in 1957. The latest in the series is The Snake Pit* (1948), one of the first films to take mental illness seriously. Olivia de Havilland, was nominated by the Academy as Best Actress. Nominations also went to her director, Anatole Litvak, and Alfred Newman for Best Score as well as Best Picture.

Another Fox title is the 1991 Robin Hood, a slightly alternative telling of the tale starring Patrick Bergin and Uma Thurman. The production, apparently originally planned as a feature film, was turned into a longer television film in the U.S., and brought out just before the Kevin Costner film was released. This is a darker version of the legend and is an interesting comparison to the Costner film. It should not be allowed to become lost in all of the new DVDs seeking shelf space in stores and pages on e-tailers.

On a technical note, we're nearly through June, and Fox's Master and Commander: Special Edition - still stands in my book as the Reference DVD of the Year.


Paramount has released a number of fine DVDs in the past month or so, but none more interesting than John Schlesinger's 1975 The Day of the Locust*, based upon the novel by Nathanael West. A pessimistic tale of Hollywood in the 1930s. The reunion of Schlesinger, screenwriter Waldo Salt and producer Jerome Hellman, who were the creative team behind Midnight Cowboy* are joined here with cinematographer Conrad Hall (who received a nomination for his work) to reproduce a Hollywood through the eyes of a struggling sketch artist. The ending, which was considered shocking almost thirty years ago, has lost none of its power.

As an aside, Paramount's new cases seem to work quite well, with added tabs to prevent warpage or accidental opening.

Warner Home Video has released Lawrence Kasdan's 1994 biographical epic Wyatt Earp* in its original 195 minute version. The additional footage, which was used to create the longer laser disc, is now an addendum. The film works at either length and is one of the best westerns to come out of Hollywood in the last quarter century. The disc set is of top quality.

I finally got around to viewing Warner's release of three Lon Chaney silents released as The Chaney Collection*. Ace of Hearts, Laugh, Clown, Laugh and (the long missing) The Unknown make up what will hopefully be the first of more Chaney films to come from his MGM period. While the three films are important in their own right, a major addition here is a new documentary from Photoplay Productions - a beautifully rendered biography of Mr. Chaney by Kevin Brownlow, to me is alone worth the price of admission.

When I was working in L.A. last fall, I caught part of Starring Pancho Villa as Himself* on cable, slightly green in color, on a 27" hotel television. Now Warner has released this HBO production in an anamorphic widescreen version that translates beautifully to the home theatre screen.

The Life of General Villa, a 1914 seven reeler from The Mutual Company, was directly by W. Christy Cabanne with a very young Raoul Walsh. The film was a combination of production and documentary battle footage.

It is now considered lost.


The list of three strip Technicolor films on DVD continues to grow with the release of Columbia's Down to Earth*. This beautiful but strange film has an odd family tree. To create a vehicle for Rita Hayworth, the studio took characters from Here Comes Mr. Jordan* (1941) starring Robert Montgomery and created a new story. (Mr. Jordan has not yet made it to DVD, but would be a welcome addition) Some of the same actors from Jordan were used in Down to Earth* playing the same roles. While not a great film, Down to Earth* is recommended for its Technicolor and for the rather odd way that Larry Parks still seems to be doing his Al Jolson routine from his previous film.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan was remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait with Warren Beatty, not to be confused with the 1943 Lubitsch Technicolor film Heaven Can Wait, from Fox. Here it gets more interesting. Down to Earth* was remade in 1980 as Xanadu.

Additional three strip productions are on their way from Universal, but as I haven't yet seen them, I'll report on them next time.

Columbia has also released the original mini-series of Das Boot* for the first time on home video in a new 293 minute version. This is the version that many people have been waiting for. It is considered by many to be not only director Wolfgang Petersen's finest work, but also one of the best modern German films. Highly recommended.

"Universal" Westerns

Universal has released a series of westerns, inclusive of both Paramount pre-'49 and Universal titles.

Sharing the new "locking tab" packaging with Paramount, the seven films span a period from 1937 (The Plainsman) to 1959 (No Name on the Bullet), three photographic processes, and two aspect ratios.

Cecil B. DeMille's Paramount Production, The Plainsman* is the best of the bunch, and holds up beautifully after almost seventy years. The Spoilers (Universal - 1942) starring Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne comes in second. When the Daltons Rode is worth a viewing. But the interesting film here from a technical standpoint is the 1948 Paramount production, Albuquerque.

While War Arrow and Whispering Smith were shot in three-strip Technicolor, and have transfers which only hint at their original beauty, Albuquerque was shot in the competing Cinecolor process.

In the late '40s the Justice Dept. filed an anti-trust suit against Technicolor charging that it held a monopoly over professional color cinematography. Technicolor countered that it did not have a monopoly, and that while the Technicolor process was used in 1948 for some 50 films, the competing Cinecolor and Trucolor processes were used for an equal number.

Cinecolor was an additive process using two colors. With roots going back to the teens, as Brewster and Prizma, it was used for a number of productions as Multicolor, inclusive of sequences for Hell's Angels (1930). By the early '30s, the process was halted, only to return as Cinecolor.

Although Cinecolor could not reproduce the entire spectrum of color found in three-strip Technicolor, a production company could get color dailies within 24 hours, and a color film could be produced for just 25% more than black and white. Skies were more or less blue and grass more or less green.

The first feature in the re-vitalized system was The Gentleman from Arizona (1940), and films continued to be shot in two-color through 1955.

Albuquerque is a wonderful example of the process, which in the case of this release looks almost on par with the Technicolor productions.

Registration of the image was apparently more of a problem for Cinecolor than for Technicolor. Watch the changes from shot to shot and you'll note that the image will jump a half perf vertically in many shots.


Where the quality of the new Universal three-strip releases may not be quite up to standards, Paramount has done a proper job with the Bob Hope / Lucille Ball vehicle Fancy Pants* (1950) and Just for You with Bing Crosby, Jane Wyman, and a young Natalie Wood. If Just for You isn't to all tastes, it shares the DVD with the 1951 Frank Capra production, Here Comes the Groom*. At under $9 at your local purveyor of DVDs, the price is right. Fancy Pants* fills a void in the Bob Hope films, getting completists closer to their goal.

As a final note to the first part of this column, I was viewing a new copy of Monster* from Columbia. This is another one of those films that doesn't need more said about it. Roger Ebert noted of Charlize Theron's performance: "This is one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema." Columbia has produced a beautiful DVD, inclusive of a special feature, which will allow you to preview sections of the film, listening to the audio stems, music, effects and dialogue. For those who haven't had this opportunity, it's a worthwhile extra.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page
E-mail the Bits!

Don't #!@$ with the Monkey! Site designed for 800 x 600 resolution, using 16M colors and .gif 89a animation.
© 1997-2015 The Digital Bits, Inc., All Rights Reserved.