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page created: 1/23/04

12 Classic Films on DVD

reviews by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Applause (1929)
Love Me Tonight (1932)
(both released on DVD by Kino on October 25th, 2003)

During the early years of sound, Paramount was usually considered to be the studio producing the most stylish and sophisticated films. The apogee of that Paramount period probably occurred around 1932 to 1933 when Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living), Joseph von Sternberg (Blonde Venus), and Rouben Mamoulian (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight) were working at their peak. Paramount's film library from that era is presently controlled by Universal which has been slow to release its own early titles on DVD, never mind those of Paramount. Fortunately, Universal has been willing to license out some titles to independent companies like Criterion and Kino. It is by virtue of the latter arrangement that we now have two much-sought-after Rouben Mamoulian titles - Applause and Love Me Tonight. Let us hope for the continuation of this relationship and the appearance of additional early Paramount and Universal rarities.


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Love Me Tonight

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Applause tells the story of burlesque singer Kitty Darling (played by Helen Morgan) who goes from headliner to middle-aged has-been, all the time clinging to the hope that she will one day be a Broadway star. Through it all, she tries to protect her daughter April (Joan Peers) from being corrupted by the world of burlesque. The story maintains our interest and is generally well acted, particularly by the 26-year-old Morgan who was then at the height of her stage and music popularity. More important than the story, however, is the manner in which it is presented by director Rouben Mamoulian. In 1929, the newness of sound and the strictures it imposed on movement resulted in films that were virtually devoid of any action. With Applause, that all changed. Mamoulian insisted on camera movement and what he accomplished was revolutionary for the time. Camera pans, dolly shots, zooms, close-ups, and dissolves not to mention low and high angle camera placements are all in evidence. Mamoulian's approach extended to the sound as well. He insisted on separate sound tracks to record different events within a given sequence and then blended the results for the completed film. The result is a film that really captures the atmosphere of the burlesque world from the often cacophonous noise of the theatres themselves to the performers both fresh and over the hill, grasping agents, the almost grotesque nature of the overweight chorus lines (or "beef trusts" as they were known), and especially the diverse faces and voices of the customers. This is truly a startling film for 1929.

If Mamoulian broke new ground with Applause, how could he do it with a musical such as Love Me Tonight which on the surface looked merely like a copy of a Lubitsch musical comedy right down to the Ruritanian setting and the use of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in the lead roles? It helps of course that Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart provided a superb score, but it is Mamoulian's integration of that score into the story that makes it all work so appealingly. The story is slight. Parisian tailor Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) follows non-paying customer Gilbert, Viconte de Vareze (Charlie Ruggles) to the home of Gilbert's father, the Duke (C. Aubrey Smith). There he meets and falls in love with the Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) who first spurns him, but later relents. Mamoulian knits the story together with music and poetry in fascinating ways. The first and best example is the introduction of the song "Isn't It Romantic?" which Maurice starts off singing in Paris and which Jeanette finishes off in her rural manor house. How that happens has to be seen to be appreciated. Note particularly the rhyming spoken lines that precede the start of the singing. Later, the rendition of "Mimi" by Jeanette's family is almost equally entrancing. (The fact that C. Aubrey Smith sings part of it is worth the price of admission in itself.) It's not just the way Mamoulian uses music that makes Love Me Tonight stand out, however. It's again full of inventive camera work that this time includes slow and accelerated motion to underscore different parts of the story in amusing ways. Finally, mix in superb players such as Charlie Ruggles, Myrna Loy, and Robert Greig (doing one of his familiar haughty butler roles), not to mention a brief appearance by Gabby Hayes of all people as a Parisian grocer, and the result is something special.

Neither of the DVD transfers will make you forget the fine restorations coming from the likes of Warner Bros., but given the source material supplied to Kino by Universal, the results are quite acceptable. Both sport numerous speckles and debris, and there is not quite the degree nor consistency of crispness that one would like, but black levels are reasonably deep and contrast is generally good. Shadow detail is variable. The mono sound on both is quite clear with minimal hiss (slightly more evident on Applause). For films of this vintage, Kino has done a commendable job of assembling supplements. Applause includes Helen Morgan film clips from the 1929 Paramount musical Glorifying the American Girl and a newsreel in which she sings "What Wouldn't I Do for That Man", text and filmed interviews with Rouben Mamoulian, photographic and promotional material galleries, various background essays, and excerpts from the 1929 censorship files. Love Me Tonight includes a very entertaining and informative audio commentary by Miles Kreuger (President of the Institute of the American Musical), filmclips of Maurice Chevalier singing "Louise" and Jeanette MacDonald singing "Love Me Tonight" (the latter from the Paramount newsreel series Hollywood on Parade), the original theatrical trailer, screenplay excerpts covering deleted scenes, a gallery of photographic and promotional material, and production documents and censorship records. Both discs are highly recommended.

Born to Be Bad (1934)
I Was a Male War Bride (1949)
People Will Talk (1951)
Kiss Them for Me (1957)
(all released on DVD by Fox on January 6th, 2004)

With its release of these four films on DVD, Fox has now made all six of the Cary Grant featured productions it controls available. Previously released were Monkey Business (1952) and An Affair to Remember (1957). I Was a Male War Bride and People Will Talk certainly rank right up with the latter two as the best of the Fox productions. Kiss Them for Me is a rather tiresome service comedy while Born to Be Bad vies with it to be the poorest of this bunch. In fairness to Fox, it should be noted that Born to Be Bad was actually a Twentieth Century production released through United Artists that predated the amalgamation that would result in the formation of Twentieth Century-Fox.

Born to Be Bad

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I Was a Male War Bride

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People Will Talk

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Kiss Them for Me

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With its release of these four films on DVD, Fox has now made all six of the Cary Grant Born to Be Bad was originally going to be a typical pre-Code film with several of the standard ingredients: woman protagonist with a job as an escort/prostitute and a take-whatever-she-can-get attitude towards society, a street-wise kid who becomes the focal point of the plot, the contrast between the life of the upper and lower classes, and of course plenty of lingerie shots. Unfortunately, the film seemed to draw a significant amount of attention from the Hays Office and was actually rejected twice before numerous cuts and new footage finally made it acceptable. The result, however, was a film that seemed to have much of the life sucked out of it and a plot resolution that defies belief.

Loretta Young plays unmarried mother Letty Strong who makes a living entertaining clients for an escort service. She has little time to monitor the activities of her young son who is continually in trouble for missing school. One day while roller-skating in the street, he is injured when hit by a dairy truck. The truck's driver is actually the dairy company's president, Malcolm Trevor, who is driving that day in order to understand all facets of his business. Letty attempts to sue Malcolm's company falsely, but her scheme is revealed in court. She is declared an unfit mother and Malcolm and his wife take her son to live with them. Letty, however, schemes to get her son back.

If there's anyone worth seeing in this film, it's Loretta Young who at age 21 was already a veteran of 50 films. The Letty Strong part is one that she could play with her eyes closed, but she still makes her part of the familiar material seem interesting. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she's an extremely attractive woman. Cary Grant, playing the Malcolm Trevor role, is an attractive actor too, but that's all he brings to his part. Grant was unhappy with his roles at Paramount at the time and he had been loaned out for this film more as punishment than anything else. His colourless performance suggests he was pouting over the situation rather than trying to show Paramount that he was worthy of better things.

It's always a pleasure to have an early film such as this made available, even if there are much worthier items that haven't see the light of day. Fox's presentation is okay. The full frame image (in accord with the OAR) is quite grainy to the point of being intrusive at times. It is, however, characterized by deep black levels and shadow detail is quite good for the most part. The sound (both stereo and mono) is adequate with dialogue being quite clear. English and Spanish subtitles are provided. Fox actually also unearthed a half-dozen or so production stills which it provides as a supplement along with trailers for five Cary Grant Fox films (but not Born to Be Bad). Unfortunately the packaging leaves much to be desired with an uninspiring cover and a plot synopsis on the back that is full of errors. For example, veteran character actor watchers will be bemused to see 50-year old Henry Travers credited as playing Letty's 7-year old son.

I Was a Male War Bride reunited Grant with director Howard Hawks for their fourth film together. The previous ones - Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, and His Girl Friday - had set a very high standard, so it is not unexpected that I Was a Male War Bride does not quite measure up. That's not to say that it isn't worth your time; after all, any film that has Ann Sheridan in it certainly has something going for it. It's still a very amusing outing, but just doesn't have the sustained level of entertainment that the earlier Grant/Hawks collaborations possess.

The story takes place in postwar Germany (with much of the filming being done there on location) and concerns French army officer Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) and American WAC lieutenant Catherine Gates (Sheridan). The two, who have worked together before, are assigned to do so again on a mission that is to be Rochard's last before leaving the army. After a series of mishaps, the two realize that they are in love and decide to marry. Catherine is then ordered back to the U.S. and the only way for her husband Henri to go with her is under the congressional act governing war brides. The film takes almost half of its running time to get to this point and it's only then that the film really becomes interesting. After all, it's Cary in drag, as the title implies, that we've been looking forward to seeing, but it just takes a bit too long to set up the situation. Nevertheless, once we finally get to that point, the film doesn't disappoint. The second half is rich in visual situations and spoken exchanges that generate real laughs, most related to the sex-reversal situation - one that characterized so many of Hawks's films. Here it's taken to extremes as Grant warms to his designation as a "war bride". Scenes such as Grant's reaction to hearing the latest fashion news from the States ("the natural bust-line is returning") are a delight to watch. Delightful to watch too is Ann Sheridan, full measure as a Hawks-type woman who is fully a match for any man. Sheridan had proved that in the past with James Cagney (Torrid Zone) and others, and she easily holds her own, quip for quip, with Grant in this film.

The full frame (in accord with the OAR) image transfer is quite decent. Although there's a fair degree of speckling, the image is sharp with fairly deep blacks and very good shadow detail. Grain is quite visible at times, but doesn't seem to have posed any problem for the transfer. Both stereo and mono tracks are provided, but there's little to choose between them. Both are adequate for the dialogue-driven film and are free from hiss or distortion. English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The disc's supplements included some raw newsreel footage (with no narration provided, these would have benefited from some sort of captioning to identify people and places), a stills gallery of about a dozen production shots, the film's trailer, and trailers for four other Fox films that Cary Grant appeared in. Recommended.

People Will Talk is an entertaining film that's never quite sure what it wants to be - serious drama, light comedy, or social commentary. It's an adaptation of a popular German play, "Dr. Praetorius", about a miraculous physician and was director Joseph Mankiewicz's follow-up to his extremely successful All About Eve. The story interweaves three threads dealing with Dr. Praetorius, who is a renowned doctor on the staff of a university and also the operator of a private clinic where he comes in contact with a young woman who is pregnant; Dr. Elwell, a university colleague of Praetorius's who seems to be on a self-styled crusade to discredit him; and a mysterious elderly man named Shunderson who is always at Praetorius's side.

Mankiewicz was always intrigued by medicine and its practitioners, so the subject is an understandable choice for him. He wrote the script himself and filled it with ideas and concerns that personally interested him. The intelligence of the writing is what sustains the film through its schizophrenic two hours. Not for nothing was the film's final title chosen by producer Darryl Zanuck as People Will Talk! Cary Grant is well cast as Praetorius and at the height of his acting prowess gives real credibility to the almost too-good-to-be-true doctor. Jeanne Crain lacks any great charisma as the young woman, Deborah Higgins, but her portrayal is competent and her lack of flair works to the advantage of the larger-than-life Praetorius character. The film benefits from a clutch of superb supporting performances including Hume Cronyn as the obsessed Elwell, Finlay Currie as the enigmatic Shunderson, Walter Slkezak as a sympathetic colleague of Praetorius's, and Sidney Blackmer as Deborah's father. And for character actor aficionados, Margaret Hamilton kicks the film off with a bang in her scenes with Hume Cronyn; it's marvelous stuff. If you're looking for the typical sort of farce at which Cary Grant excelled, People Will Talk is not your film, but if you want a well-acted film that maintains interest throughout despite its genre uncertainty, then People Will Talk is a good choice.

Fox offers an excellent disc transfer through which to enjoy this film. As no mention is made of any particularly intensive restoration, Fox seems to have had very good source material to work with. The full frame image (in accord with the 1.37:1 OAR) is crisp and clear and offers a finely detailed gray scale buttressed by deep blacks and clean whites. Shadow detail is superb and contrast is very good. There are no edge effects. Only the odd speckle is in evidence. Both stereo and mono sound tracks are offered, but there's little to choose between them. Either offers a full satisfactory method of enjoying this very dialogue-driven film free of hiss and distortion. The music under the direction of Alfred Newman is nicely conveyed although I found the music itself somewhat intrusive in some of the dramatic scenes. English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. Supplements include an image gallery, a teaser and a trailer for the film itself, and trailers for four other Fox pictures featuring Cary Grant. Recommended.

Kiss Them for Me is pretty much a dud. It's certainly hard to understand what it was in this film that interested Cary Grant enough to make it. It's a service comedy that's not even serviceable. Perhaps the lure was the opportunity to work with Stanley Donen who had collaborated so brilliantly with Gene Kelly in the past, or perhaps Grant thought the script by the usually reliable Jules Epstein was better than it actually was. Whatever the reason, the results are just an unfunny, tiresome bore. The story concerns three navy pilots during World War II who manage to wangle four days of shore leave in San Francisco. They are determined to make as big a party as possible out of it while their navy escort is equally determined to keep them on the straight and narrow. We've seen it all before and On the Town it certainly isn't. A real waste of talent, good (Grant, Ray Walston, Werner Klemperer) and poor (Jayne Mansfield, Suzy Parker) alike. If you care, you can look for character actors such as Leif Erickson (from the TV series The High Chaparral), Richard Deacon (TV's The Dick Van Dyke Show), Harry Carey Jr., Frank Nelson (TV's I Love Lucy), John Doucette, and Nancy Kulp (TV's Beverly Hillbillies).

An equal opportunity employer, Fox gives this CinemaScope clunker a really fine 2.35 anamorphic transfer. The image is crisp and the Deluxe colours are bright and realistic looking. Shadow detail is excellent and edge effects are non-existent. High marks on this transfer. The stereo sound track is unremarkable. A Spanish stereo track and English and Spanish sub-titles are provided. The supplements consist of a stills gallery (that needs some captions to be really useful), a teaser and trailer for the film, and trailers for four other Fox films in which Cary Grant was featured.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (1936)
(released on DVD by Image on December 16th, 2003)

The year 1936 was the first full year of operations for Republic Pictures, a company that had just been formed by Herbert Yates. The new entity combined Yates' s Consolidated Film Laboratories, Nat Levine's Mascot Pictures, W. Ray Johnston and Trem Carr of Monogram Pictures, and other independents. One of Republic's key products would come to be the serial, of which Mascot Pictures had been the leading producer at the time. Four Republic serials were made in 1936: Darkest Africa, Undersea Kingdom, The Vigilantes Are Coming, and Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island. As Republic had not yet hit its stride with serials, however, this initial offering was very much a mixed bag. For my taste, Darkest Africa and Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island (hereinafter known as Crusoe) are the lesser titles of the bunch with the nod going to the latter as the weakest overall.

Robinson Crusoe of Clipper Island

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Crusoe tells the tale of Mala, a U.S. government agent sent to Clipper Island to investigate mysterious happenings there that appear to be related to the crash of a dirigible owned by Pacific Dirigible Airlines. Once on the island, Mala finds himself in jeopardy from both an international spy ring, directed by the mysterious H.K., and a native uprising fomented by high priest Porotu. Mala soon joins forces with native Princess Malani and together they work to combat Porotu's machinations as well as gather evidence on who is backing the spy ring. The serial is stretched out over 14 chapters, two more than the originally planned 12. (The two extra chapters were created by reusing footage to fabricate one of them and assembling a retrospective episode for the other.) This occurrence apparently derived from Republic's desire to generate more revenue (since income was generated from rentals on a per-chapter basis) to offset overruns on its serial production to date.

Mala was played by Ray Mala who looked the part of a Polynesian mainly because of his Inuit background. The upside of this casting is the pleasure of actually seeing a member of a minority group playing a protagonist on the screen. The downside is that Mala couldn't act particularly well and doesn't inspire the confidence expected from a serial hero. The serial's heroine is played by Mamo Clark who had appeared as Clark Gable's native woman in Mutiny on the Bounty. It says much that the other two credited leads in the serial - Rex, King of the Wild Horses, and the dog, Buck - more than held their own with Mala and Mamo in the acting department. On the other hand, the bad guys are ably handled by John Piccori (Porotu), Selmer Jackson and such familiar faces as Bob Kortman and George Chesebro.

Aside from the acting deficiencies, the serial is okay from the standpoint of its exotic setting, the handling of the villain H.K., and the interplay of the native and spy plots. It's clear, however, that in 1936, Republic had not yet hit its stride as many of the action sequences are not convincingly staged and the conception and execution of most of the cliffhangers is disappointing. I will mention only one of the latter so as not to give the others away for those who intend to persevere through the whole serial. At the end of Chapter Three, Mala is apparently trapped on the bottom of the ocean in a diving suit with no air. The solution at the beginning of Chapter Four? Why, just cut the airline and walk along the sea-bottom to shore, holding his breath the whole time. Anybody could do it!

The DVD has been released by Image as part of its line of Hal Roach Studios Film Classics titles. The transfer is workable, but certainly not nearly as good as some of VCI's recent serial offerings, for example, or even Artisan's Adventures of Captain Marvel. The image is characterized by numerous speckles, scratches and debris and exhibits a general overall softness and a fair amount of grain. Shadow detail is average at best, deteriorating to poor in darker sequences. The mono sound has plenty of hiss and crackle and even threatens to break up in a few instances. Nevertheless, dialogue is generally quite understandable. There is no sub-titling. Supplements consist of the original theatrical trailer and trailers for five other Republic serials: Darkest Africa, Radar Men from the Moon, SOS Coast Guard, The Undersea Kingdom, and Zorro Rides Again.

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