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page added: 12/1/11

The Spin Sheet

DVD review by Barrie Maxwell of The Digital Bits

Jean Harlow: 100th Anniversary Collection
1933-1937 (2011) - MGM (Warner Archive)
Released on DVD-R on October 25th, 2011

Jean Harlow: 100th Anniversary Collection (DVD-R)

Buy this Blu-ray now at Amazon!

Dolby Digital

Film Ratings: B+ (collective average for the 7 films)
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C-

Let's see now: a nice, reasonably sturdy slipcase; seven standard Amaray cases each with its own disc containing a different film and vintage poster art on the Amaray outer sleeve; and a selection of extras accompanying each film. It all sounds to me like a typical Warner monthly box set pressed-DVD release from three or four years ago. But this is 2011 and the appearance of such an offering no longer is a regular Warner event. In fact, this newest release is a recent initiative of the Warner Archive. It's the Jean Harlow: 100th Anniversary Collection containing seven Harlow titles, each on its own MOD disc and each packaged in its own standard Amaray case, and the whole set contained in a cardboard slipcase.

So what are the seven titles? They are Bombshell (1933, Harlow as a much put-upon star in a Hollywood satire), The Girl from Missouri (1934, Harlow sets her sights on a millionaire), Reckless (1935, chorus girl Harlow complicates several lives) - all three remastered for this Archive release, and Riffraff (1935, Harlow and her husband are in the fishing business), Suzy (1936, Harlow in love with a flier in this WW1 drama), Personal Property (1937, light British comedy background for Harlow), and Saratoga (1937, doings in the horse-racing racket, with breeder's grand-daughter Harlow mixed up with a bookie). Harlow's male co-stars in these films? Just a roll call of MGM Golden Age greats: Lee Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Robert Traylor, and Clark Gable respectively. All the films offer decent entertainment, Bombshell and The Girl from Missouri being the best bets with Harlow seemingly really enjoying herself in them. Reckless and Suzy seem to me the weakest of the seven. Saratoga, of course, is famously Harlow's last film with her obviously being substituted for in a number of scenes. She was at the time suffering from the renal failure that would take her life at a very young 26 years of age.

But you say (never being content unless the glass is absolutely sloshing over), where are Red Dust (1932) and Hold Your Man (1933)? Well, the Archive wanted to include those two Harlow/Gable MGM films in this collection, but the original negatives were sadly destroyed in a fire in the 1970s and the surviving elements apparently weren't good enough to achieve acceptable quality for DVD. Warner Motion Picture Imaging is still working on those films (and another Harlow title, 1931's The Secret Six) in an effort to create good quality masters, but that work is open-ended and there are no guarantees of success.

Now, Warners took a lot of flack from Harlow fans for not getting this tribute out earlier and predictably the result we do have doesn't seem to satisfy a number of people - it's all too late, the discs aren't pressed, MOD discs won't stand the test of time, the extras and the transfers aren't up to snuff, etc., etc. As for being too late, I suspect Warners wanted to have the set released earlier in the year (closer to the March 100th anniversary month) too, but the uncertainty over Red Dust and Hold Your Man presumably held things up. Still it has appeared in the 100th year after Harlow's birth in 1911, so that's hardly a major issue for contention. The discs aren't pressed! Yes that's a deal-breaker for some, but others realize that MOD discs are where the classic market is for the most part these days. Hoping for a return to the halcyon days of pressed releases just means one misses out on the many fine titles appearing on MOD, from Warners as well as many other sources now. If the market place's lack of support for classic titles on pressed disc from the majors becomes matched by a lack of support for classic titles on MOD disc, what's left (beyond high profile titles coming to Blu-ray and the odd release from specialty houses like Criterion and Twilight Time)? Well, streaming on demand or digital download on demand is what's left, and most collectors don't want anything to do with those options. And regarding the longevity of MOD discs, the jury is still out on that, with only anecdotal evidence yet available one way or the other. As for the extras and transfers for each title in the Harlow set, we'll get into that soon.

All seven of the films are presented full frame as originally released theatrically. Three of the titles have been remastered for this MOD set and they all look very good (Bombshell, The Girl from Missouri, Reckless), offering bright, sharp transfers with decent gray scales and modest grain appropriately retained. There are a few speckles, notably on Reckless, but it's never an issue of any great concern. Of the other four un-remastered titles, Personal Property and Riffraff look pretty much as good as the remastered ones. Sharpness is equivalent and speckling is minimal in both instances. Suzy and Saratoga have their moments of sharpness and brightness, but they lack consistency, trending to softness on occasion and overall offer marginally the weaker images in the set. The mono sound on all the titles is quite acceptable, delivering clarity with very minimal hiss apparent.

The package of supplements in the set as a whole is rather disappointing for a 100th Anniversary Collection. The only physical extra is an envelope containing seven very attractive 5"x7" black and white studio portraits of Harlow. The disc extras comprise theatrical trailers for each title (though Spanish language versions only for The Girl from Missouri and Bombshell). Audio Vault supplements can also be found on the discs for Reckless (an edition of "Leo Is on the Air" featuring music from the film, and four pre-recordings from late January 1935 on the MGM stage featuring Jean Harlow, Nina Mae McKinney, and others); for Personal Property (the Lux Radio Theater production from December 1936 of "Madame Sans-Gene" starring Harlow and Robert Taylor along with Claude Rains and C. Henry Gordon); and for Suzy (an edition of "Leo Is on the Air" featuring music and dialogue from the film). There are no audio commentaries accompanying any of the films and no new featurette/documentary on Harlow's life, as one might have expected in a set dedicated to her.

Despite the lack of extras that one would have liked to have seen in such a set, the films are the main attraction and seven classic titles new to DVD with good-to-very-good transfers all packaged together are most certainly welcome. Recommended. Note that the three remastered titles (The Girl from Missouri, Reckless, Bombshell) can also be purchased individually; the other four are available only as part of the set.

Barrie Maxwell

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