Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

Open, general discussion of classic sound-era films, personalities and history.
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Nov 23, 2016 8:30 pm

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Walt Disney and William Castle are not normally associated with the same sorts of films, but Castle had a range that many do not realize. He made films from noirish westerns like THE AMERICANO (1955) to the peculiar dark comedy SHANKS (1974) – both of which are on Blu-ray – but even during his popular horror period he departed from his typical formulas on occasion. A month ago I reviewed a pair of William Castle horror films released on a bargain-priced double-feature Blu-ray this summer by Mill Creek Entertainment. The same day, Mill Creek released another Castle double-bill with titles that sound like horror films but are really something else, especially the second. Castle aimed his memorable thrillers HOMICIDAL and MR. SARDONICUS (both 1961) mainly at teen and adult audiences. Both were serious horror films played straight, except for Castle’s cheesy promotional gimmicks (a built-in “fright break” for timid patrons to leave the theatre before the climax of the former, and an audience vote on the fate of the villain in the latter).

However, 13 GHOSTS (1960) and 13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! (1963) are kid-friendly, even Disneyesque family fare that, contrary to what their titles might suggest, could provide enjoyable holiday viewing for gatherings of a wide range of ages. They have just enough suspense to engage adults but enough comedy and over-the-top situations to keep children entertained while simultaneously wrapped up in plots that depict kids getting critically involved in dangerous adult schemes. Either film might seem perfectly natural to star Dean Jones and Hayley Mills and Fred MacMurray, though they work fine with the lesser-known casts they have.

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13 GHOSTS (1960) 84m *** (Double-feature Blu-ray released June 19, 2016)
13 GHOSTS has another Castle audience participation gimmick called “Illusion-O,” which Castle as usual introduces to the audience personally at the beginning of the film. Although shot in black-and-white, scenes showing the ghosts were printed in blue with the ghosts in red. Audience members could then choose to look through either a red filter or a blue filter in a special “ghost-viewer” so they can either see or not see the ghosts. The Blu-ray edition has the colored ghost sequences but does not include any ghost-viewers. Anyone interested in the effect can easily construct a viewer with red and blue cellophane or just use an old pair of red-blue 3-D glasses. Otherwise the ghosts will be faintly visible in red over the blue background. The rest of the movie is straight black-and-white.

The plot begins as a family with money problems is having their furniture repossessed -- again. Just as the little boy Buck (Charles Herbert) makes a birthday wish for a home with furniture, the father (Donald Woods) receives a notification that he’s inherited the old mansion of an eccentric uncle, who apparently captured ghosts as a hobby. His collection of eleven ghosts comes with the mansion. The uncle’s ghost is the twelfth, and the thirteenth is to be someone living in the house. Despite all the supernatural legends, warnings from the uncle’s young lawyer (Martin Milner), and a spooky maid that Buck thinks is a witch (the wonderful Margaret Hamilton), the family is happy to have a fully-furnished house, haunted or not.

Another major plot point is that the uncle’s fortune is hidden somewhere inside the house. As things develop, it becomes clear that the film is as much a family sit-com and a murder mystery as it is a ghost story. Teenage daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) is attracted to lawyer Ben, who also makes friends with little Buck. 13 GHOSTS is designed to provide spooky thrills for younger children and campy comedy for teens and adults, and succeeds in both counts. It would make an appropriate double-feature with the classic Don Knotts old-dark-house comedy-thriller THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN (1966), to which it bears some similarities.

Picture quality on the HD scan supplied by Sony Pictures for Mill Creek’s Blu-ray (at a 1.78:1 aspect ratio) is excellent, and audio quality is very good. There are unfortunately no bonus features.

13 GHOSTS on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: F

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13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS (1963) 88m *** ½
(Double-feature Blu-ray released July 19, 2016)
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! was obviously titled to cash in on the earlier 13 GHOSTS, but does not in any way resemble a horror film and actually involves fifteen girls who attend an exclusive Swiss academy for daughters of diplomats. In Australia the film was called THE CANDY WEB and in Italy it was THE INCREDIBLE SPY, either of which would be a far more accurate indication of its content. Kathy Dunn stars as Candace “Candy” Hull, the precocious 16-year-old daughter of American diplomat John Hull (Hugh Marlowe) who has a crush on her father’s CIA agent Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), a frequent visitor to their consulate and home in England.

Castle does not introduce or appear in this film, like he did for many of his previous pictures. His promotional gimmick this time was a preproduction international contest to cast girls from the foreign countries. Each foreign release would then feature a special scene starring that country’s girl driving the school bus, as well as talking about the film in the local trailers. The Mill Creek Blu-ray naturally uses the American actress Kathy Dunn for this scene, but apparently an earlier DVD release included several of the other versions as bonus features.

While visiting the home of Chinese classmate and friend Mai-Ling (Lynne Sue Moon) Candy discovers the murder of another foreign diplomat that Red China has arranged to blame on the U.S. She immediately decides to help out the American intelligence officer she loves by sending him an anonymous tip signed “Kitten.” After this success, she sets out to become a super-spy, by reading up on modern espionage methods, then following the gossip among her schoolmates, even wooing away their boyfriends to gain information, and quickly building up a reputation in spy circles around the world. All this is unbeknownst to her father, who believes Kitten is a top secret agent code name whose identity the confused but pleased Wally wants to protect.

It doesn’t take long for Candy to get in much deeper and in more danger than her romantic notions of espionage prepared her for. Things especially heat up when she tries to seduce a foreign spy who catches on to her, with potentially disastrous results. There are a couple of unexpected twists along the way, and at least one traditional William Castle “shock” moment inside a dumbwaiter. Overall it’s an almost exceedingly cute Cold War spy comedy-thriller that came out around the same time the James Bond craze was starting. But instead of being a campy and risqué action-adventure for boys and young men, this one targets girls and families (though you’d hardly know it from the U.S. title or exploitation-style movie poster) with a Disney-like larger-than-life ambience and sense of fun. It provides an empowering role model for young girls (perhaps at times a bit too uncomfortably empowered for today’s PC ultra-sensitivity about certain underage activities), while promoting interracial friendships and cooperation, all against a backdrop of early 1960s Cold War issues with China, the USSR, and foreign intrigue in general.

The Blu-ray quality is again outstanding, with bright colors, a crisp film-like image (at 1.78:1), and fine sound. Again sadly there are no bonus features on the Blu-ray beyond a menu and chapter stops.

13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS on Blu-ray -–
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu Nov 24, 2016 3:24 pm

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CINERAMA'S RUSSIAN ADVENTURE (1966) 127m ***

Given the success of the first few Cinerama films, the Russians "invented" their own version of Cinerama, known as Kinopanorama, and a couple of their films, Great Is My Country and The Enchanted Mirror, played in a theater in New York in 1958 during a Soviet trade expo, where they got mostly condescending notices.

Cinerama films always did well, except for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, but there was always a need for product, which was slow in coming. A couple of producers had the idea of creating an omnibus film of the best of the Russian sequences, with high-minded goals of increasing understanding among peoples as well as the more mundane ones of providing product to Cinerama theaters, and the Soviet film authorities agreed. By this point anamorphic 70mm had largely replaced the cumbersome three-projector system, and Cinerama's Russian Adventure played in true Cinerama in only one venue, Chicago's McVickers theater.

The film has the air of a diplomatic venture; the narration by all-American Bing Crosby is almost never at risk of saying anything that isn't dully banal. But the visuals, and that's what you're here for, are enthralling: cruising down a boulevard in some big Soviet sedan whose prow extends into the frame, as Khrushchev-era Moscow goes by in Fiestaware colors, is getting a glimpse of a hidden world as the stars of 77 Sunset Strip might have seen it. Beyond that, we get views of many different aspects of Russian life, some modern (scenes of the Moscow subway, a vast steel plant) but with a definite emphasis on places where peasant life has hardly changed—perhaps the best sequence involves loggers steering a massive raft made of their product down the river to where it will be milled; there's also a terrific one of horseback riders from the southern USSR capturing a wild boar. There are also the inevitable cultural sequences—we get circus performers, the Bolshoi in several highlight sequences, and the Moiseyev dancers doing a spectacular folk dance number (another candidate for the best sequence, and the best filmed). All in all, it's a great glimpse into the vastness of that country— with very little acknowledgement of its political system, admittedly, something the Americans probably didn't want to do any more than the Soviets did.

Russia's version of Cinerama isn't quite so perfect as the American one—a skiing sequence has real problems with keeping registration—but overall it provides a similar effect of widescreen spectacle extending to peripheral vision. (Watch the documentary about transferring the film to video to see how much David Strohmaier & co. did to minimize the flaws of the three camera system, as you would have seen them in theaters.) The film was thought lost until a 70mm print was found and used for a showing at a widescreen festival; then it was found that the family of producer Hal Dennis had all the individual reels, and so the film was reconstructed using the 70mm print as a guide.

The set from Flicker Alley includes a number of extras, including two short films, both shot in widescreen 70mm and with themes reflecting the Cold War zeitgeist; Concorde is a promotional documentary, bombastically narrated, about the then-upcoming airplane, produced in cooperation by France and the UK; Fortress of Peace is one about Swiss neutrality, most of it taken up by footage (quite real) of military maneuvers showing Switzerland as ready to defend itself, which you'll find interesting to the extent you like watching combat footage with no particular story. Both show that originating in 70mm, no matter how spectacular it may have been, still didn't rival the visual splendor of Cinerama. There's also a collection of Cinerama trailers, including a couple of 70mm films the same team has worked on— Holiday in Spain, which was the edited reissue version of Mike Todd's smell-o-vision A Scent of Mystery, and The Golden Head, a Disneyesque comedy adventure shot in Hungary, with the unlikely team of George Sanders and Buddy Hackett as the international art criminals, which apparently never saw U.S. release and premiered at a 2009 showing at the Cinerama Dome.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Dec 04, 2016 12:33 am

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THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (1939) 143m ***½ (Blu-ray released September 13, 2016)
ZANGIKU MONOGATARI ( 残菊物語 ), or THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM, is an ambitious and idiosyncratic work by master filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956), based upon a stage play adaptation of a novel about Japan’s stylized kabuki theatre. This September the Criterion Collection released to Blu-ray the Shochiku Studios’ new 4k digital restoration of the film.

Mizoguchi was one of Japan’s major directors, making about 75 films from 1923 until his death, but little of his earlier career survives and he was not well-known outside his native country until the last few years of his life. His films frequently focused on the plight of women, with a strong female character forced to endure oppression or domination by the male-oriented society, whether ancient or modern. Many are set during the 17th and 18th centuries, although THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM takes place in the late 19th century and others are set in the contemporary era they were filmed. After making about 50 films Mizoguchi felt he had finally become a serious artistic filmmaker with his 1936 productions OSAKA ELEGY and SISTERS OF THE GION. But the film that finally brought him international attention was THE LIFE OF OHARU (1952), a 136-minute epic tale of a woman’s fall from prestige, which became the first of three consecutive prize winners at the Venice Film Festival. (I reviewed this when Criterion released a Blu-ray edition three years ago.) The next two years he won for his moving anti-war ghost story UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953) and his unrelenting portrayal of feudal slavery and the human spirit, SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954).

The Criterion Collection released both THE LIFE OF OHARU and SANSHO THE BAILIFF on Blu-ray in 2013 but so far has released only a DVD version of UGETSU, as well as a four-film DVD set of notable films from 1936 through 1956 called “Mizoguchi’s Fallen Women” (which includes both OSAKA ELEGY and SISTERS OF THE GION). For those who prefer Blu-ray, UGETSU, OSAKA ELEGY, SISTERS OF THE GION, and several other Mizoguchi films can be found in Region B-locked editions from Eureka and Artificial Eye in England.

OSAKA ELEGY might easily have been right out of PreCode Hollywood with its interesting and perverse look into mid-1930s urban mores, and frequent jazz music to match. A pretty young switchboard operator reluctantly decides to become the mistress of her boss so she can help her financially-strapped father who had embezzled company funds for an investment that went bad, and her college-student brother who needs his tuition paid. Of course she is ostracized for her immorality from the family, who don’t bother giving her the chance to explain how they got the money they wanted so much. Various other relationships and subplots also come into play.

But such a heavy critique of modern society’s ingrained traditionalist oppression and materialism became more risky with Japanese government censors by the late 1930s when the country was at war with China and soon to be with the rest of the world. Always more interested in his art than in politics, Mizoguchi went back to a safer period a half-century earlier for his setting in LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM, with a story that was an ode to the distinctively Japanese 17th-century tradition of drama through exaggerated costumes, makeup, song, and dance called kabuki. Three long segments of the film depict kabuki stage presentations related to the movie’s plot. The basic plot, however, follows Kikunosuke (Shotaro Hanayagi) the adopted son of a prominent Tokyo kabuki family dynasty, expected to succeed his father as the company’s lead performer. The problem is that he knows he’s not a very good actor and is increasingly depressed at the false praise by others simply due to his name, while the same people ridicule him behind his back. He’s genuinely touched when the family nursemaid Otoku (Kakuko Mori) dares to tell him how bad his latest performance was, yet that she thought he showed promise if he would apply himself instead of basking in his celebrity and living it up. Naturally he falls in love and defies his family to run off with her so he can make a name for himself. Disowned by his father, he and Otoku quickly learn it is harder than they thought to achieve success using a name unrecognized by the public and they spend five painstaking years in poverty moving from one theatre company to another and eventually with a group of fly-by-night traveling players. Nevertheless, the hardships and Otoku’s devoted support eventually give him the experience he needs for his acting to improve, and there’s an inevitable Hollywood (or Tokyo) tear-jerking ending reminiscent of family melodramas like “Stella Dallas” and others.

The film has a strong element emphasizing family loyalties and reinforcing the cultural class system and Japanese tradition that the government praised, apparently not noticing how the experiences and sympathies of the characters actually repudiate those rigid traditions. Mizoguchi’s style and structure are as much a part of the film as its story, with his long takes, moving camera, and rare use of close-ups emphasizing the artistry of his handling of actors within the setting. Pacing is substantially slower than American films, but the drama cycles relentlessly on. A perhaps interesting bit of trivia is that the two stars were stage actors who made very few films.

Criterion’s Blu-ray is not bad but not up to the typical Criterion standard. The restoration had access only to a finegrain positive and a duplicate negative instead of the original camera negative. As a result THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM has somewhat disappointing image quality. It’s all a bit soft-looking and often dark, generally appearing like a reasonably good DVD. Audio is also just okay. Non-availability of superior 35mm elements may account for why Criterion has released other early Mizoguchi films only on DVD. Bonus features are simply a flyer with an essay and a new on-disc discussion (shot in HD) by a critic/historian specialist in Mizoguchi’s work.

THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: B
Audio: B
Extras: C+
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Mike Gebert

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Dec 10, 2016 9:18 am

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THE EXECUTIONER (1963) 92m ***½ (Blu-ray released October 25, 2016)

Sometimes when Criterion has a sale, I look through the lists of all those old Janus classics and think, do I really need a blu-ray of Rules of the Game or Throne of Blood or The Magician to go with my laserdiscs that I never watched that much? Isn't there anything new? (Don't they make new old movies?) Letting my son get his culture on by picking a few titles, he picked this Spanish comedy from 1963, by the basically unknown to me Luis Garcia Berlanga.

At last, something old that's new! This is a real find for those of us in the English-speaking movie world, something like if Jack Lemmon had been making comedies in Franco's Spain. I am a newly minted apostle for this movie, add it to your next Criterion shopping cart.

It was actually an Italian-Spanish coproduction and the star is Nino Manfredi, basically the Jack Lemmon of Italy as a comic actor who could shade into seriousness easily, known in the U.S. for a few 70s things like Bread and Chocolate and We All Loved Each Other So Much. He's an undertaker, living on the sofa in his brother's apartment, and he and his partner have to pick up an executed prisoner. Though he's squeamish about it, they end up giving a ride to the executioner, a cheerful old man who is professional about the form of execution he practices—which is, horribly, garroting. (He has a conversation over tea as to why Spain's method is actually preferable to French guillotining or American electrocution.)

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From that point the undertaker is pulled into becoming the executioner's successor by every method of control that society has—woman (the executioner has a pleasant, earth-mama daughter who no one wants to date because of what Dad does), economics (they can finally get an apartment in a modern new building on the edge of Madrid—if someone holds the job), bourgeois pleasures (a trip to an execution in Mallorca becomes a vacation for the whole family), morality ("He's already made his penance. If there's a delay, he could slip back. Don't you want him to die in a state of grace?") He's the real condemned man, being led to his fate as the guy who will make the fascist system which everyone cooperates with really work, doing the brutal work that is its ultimate end, its guarantor of power. This comedy of social embarrassments is wonderfully sly at taking all the tropes of the capital punishment genre and twisting them into comedy over the poor unwilling executioner.

The film is handsomely shot in black and white, with a vivid sense of the smallness of life in backward Spain at this time, and a cast full of people you don't recognize, but have the lived-in believability of movie veterans, which I'm sure they are. (The old man, Jose Isbert, had a career going back to 1912, and worked until 1975 in over 100 films.) It's not a visual masterpiece, but it looks very nice in Criterion's pristine transfer. There are a few extras, mostly TV shows dealing with the career of the director, who is apparently a beloved figure in Spain if little known outside it. I wonder what else he made that's good?
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Rick Lanham

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Dec 10, 2016 11:16 am

I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I've gone back a second night to watch a movie again in the theater. Bread and Chocolate was one. It was so funny. I've looked for a good copy on DVD, but there doesn't seem to be one, last I looked. So, I've added The Executioner to my shopping list. Thank you.

Rick
“The past is never dead. It's not even past” - Faulkner.
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Dec 11, 2016 1:06 am

Okay, now you've done it, Mike. I just picked up THE EXECUTIONER last month during the Barnes & Noble Criterion half-price sale, but it's been sitting on the shelf and after reading that review I had to watch it tonight! I also liked it quite a bit, and would probably rate it borderline three to three-and-a-half stars, maybe an A- or high B+. I may well like it a bit more after a second or third viewing, especially after going through the bonus features. The documentary on the disc shows HD clips from several other major films by Berlanga, who apparently is as well-respected and popularly beloved in Spain as Buñuel but little-known outside his own country, so I hope at least a couple more show up on Blu-ray soon.

Meanwhile, here's a bargain Blu-ray I found at Target for $10 (and is cheaper on line) that some Nitratevillians might appreciate. I'm not a huge fan of the Three Stooges, but I enjoy a number of their shorts and thought two of the three films on this disc well-worth the price.


In the 1920s, comedian Moses Horwitz, then later his brother Samuel, and comic-violinist Louis Feinberg, better-known as Moe and Shemp Howard and Larry Fine, were vaudeville performers with promoter Ted Healy, who billed them as “his stooges.” When Shemp left the act to go out on his own, Moe’s younger brother Jerry replaced him using the nickname “Curly.” After a few films with Healy, mostly for MGM, the Three Stooges broke up with Healy and started making films for Columbia Pictures in 1934, where they starred in 190 shorts until Columbia shut down its short film department at the end of 1957 (although the last eight shorts they completed were held for release throughout 1958 and into the middle of 1959). They then made a half-dozen feature films from 1957-1965 and showed up as guest stars in a couple others.

Fans probably already know that all 190 Columbia Three Stooges shorts are on DVD in a large multi-disc collection released four years ago, and in eight individual three-disc volumes released from 2007-2010, presenting the films in chronological order. Although remastered in HD, none have made it to Blu-ray yet, but that will change next month when the two 1953 shorts they filmed in 3-D (SPOOKS and PARDON MY BACKFIRE) will be bonus items on the 3-D restoration of Vincent Price’s THE MAD MAGICIAN (1954), to be released on 3-D Blu-ray from Twilight Time. Meanwhile, last year Mill Creek Entertainment released two nice but no-frills triple-feature bargain Blu-ray sets with four of the six Stooges starring features, plus two other Columbia features they appeared in. Either would make an ideal Christmas gift for Three Stooges fans with HDTVs or HD projectors.

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THE THREE STOOGES TRIPLE FEATURE: VOLUME ONE *** (Blu-ray released April 21, 2015)
This first volume may also appeal to film buffs (and jazz/swing music fans) who never really warmed up to the broad and violent slapstick comedy the team was noted for, and quite possibly will be more fun for fans of musicals than fans of the Stooges. It’s a shame there are no bonus items, but the features all look quite good and have decent sound. “The Three Stooges Triple Feature” from Mill Creek spotlights two entertaining but rarely-seen 1940s Columbia musicals that include the Stooges in roles a bit different from their shorts. The third movie is their first starring feature, made in 1959, with the boys back in their familiar personas, if a bit more subdued due to their ages by then.

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TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM (1941) 75m ***
TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM stars the great dancer Ann Miller with Rudy Vallee, Rosemary Lane, Allen Jenkins, Joan Merrill, Richard Lane, Glen Gray and his Casa Loma Band, and others. It’s a nice little backstage musical set in the world of Broadway, nightclubs, radio, and television (before World War II postponed national TV broadcasting for nearly a decade). The plot follows the careers of two agents (Vallee and Richard Lane), one of whom is trying to romance his difficult star (Rosemary Lane), and the other of whom discovers her maid (Ann Miller) may be even more talented. The Three Stooges pop in every so often as vaudeville comics looking for work, and performing some of their best routines. They’re integrated perfectly into the showbiz atmosphere. Without the necessity of carrying an entire storyline or the opportunity to go wild with their extreme slapstick style, they may disappoint die-hard fans at the same time they provide amusing comic relief for viewers who came to see the musical. As a Stooges film, it’s nothing special. As an early 40s musical it’s no timeless classic but it’s still a lot of fun.

Mill Creek’s Blu-ray has a strong film-like HD image with good textures and details. Sound is good, but can benefit from turning up slightly and boosting the subwoofer.

TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F

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ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES (1945) 68m ** ½

ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES is another Columbia musical-comedy, this time based around western-flavored swing music, the precursor to today’s country-western music. The Stooges are featured much more prominently than in TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM, but again traditional Stooges fans often dislike this film because again it’s not the typical anarchic slapstick of their shorts. It’s basically a pleasant B-western musical that happens to star Moe Howard as a Nevada ranch foreman named Shorty Williams. After watching a musical act by Mary Beth Hughes and Gladys Blake (doing the film’s title number) in a Reno casino, he helps local vagrants Larry and Curly escape the sheriff by conning them into investing in a mining operation. The result is more like “Moe plus the Two Stooges” but this works just fine in the context of the musically-oriented story. When the casino does not renew their contract, the showgirls reluctantly become Moe’s additional prospecting partners so they can get back to New York. Several of the ranch hands also have a musical act they keep unsuccessfully trying to promote at local venues. By convenient coincidence a New York producer is vacationing in the area and they all try to get him to audition them. The ranch is actually owned by Shorty’s cousin, who returns unexpectedly as all this is going on. Plenty of songs fill in between quick plot points and comedy routines, and the whole thing is done in barely over an hour.

Picture quality is fine and audio quality is quite good except for a brief section in one of the music numbers, which has a mild warble distortion as if the film was not tight around the sound drum.

ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES on Blu-ray --
Movie: B-
Video: A
Audio: A-
Extras: F

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HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL (1959) 76m **

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL may be more of a Three Stooges film than the other two, but is the weakest of the three films on the disc, both in entertainment and image quality. The boys are back to the traditional Stooges formula, but by this time veteran comic Joe DeRita (as “Curly Joe”) makes his first appearance as the third stooge. Here they play bungling janitors at a rocket science lab who want to save the job of the pretty scientist (Anna-Lisa) in charge of the project. Meanwhile the base psychologist (Robert Colbert) is trying without much luck to romance her away from her career. Somehow the boys concoct a successful rocket fuel but inadvertently get trapped in the spaceship when it blasts off for Venus. There they discover a talking unicorn, a giant fire-breathing tarantula, and a ruling robot-computer that makes evil robot twins of each of the Stooges for companionship. Of course a long sequence has the Three Stooges chasing or being chased by their duplicates.

There’s some cute satire on science-fiction, and some occasionally amusing slapstick, notably at a celebration party after they return to earth, but much of the film relies heavily on their trademark comedy of mean-spirited personal pain and humiliation, the formula that endeared them to mass audiences but kept them from widespread critical acclaim. Even so it leans much more towards the sentimental than the classic Stooges shorts. In many ways HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL is more interesting as an example of low-budget 1950s sci-fi than as a Three Stooges vehicle. The film lacks the freshness and chaotic sense of energy and non-sequiturs that infused their best shorts of the 1930s and 40s, but it should still appeal to young children and die-hard Stooges fans.

Picture quality is uneven, with some very sharp scenes and many that are soft and/or grainy, likely due to overuse of optical effects and stock footage. Audio is respectable.

HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL on Blu-ray --
Movie: C
Video: B+
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue Dec 20, 2016 11:29 pm

Although the commercial Christmas celebration and consumer buying frenzy began the day after Thanksgiving, the actual holidays start this weekend. Christmas Eve is this Saturday night (coincidentally this year also the first night of Hanukkah). The holiday season of a week or so (twelve days of Christmas, eight days of Hanukkah) features religious observances, sharing of traditional activities, memories, food, and fun. It is also typically a vacation time for relaxing with family and friends, often watching movies together.

The various cable TV channels are rife with repeated showings of favorite Christmas movies, from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and WHITE CHRISTMAS to A CHRISTMAS STORY, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION, and THE SANTA CLAUSE, among numerous others. These classics may be fun to revisit (and many if not most are now available on Blu-ray), but it’s also fun to watch or re-watch films that can be provide entertaining escapism any time of the year. Here are four 1950s romantic comedy-dramas released to Blu-ray earlier this year that are suitable for winter holiday viewing, plus a less-known one from 1940 released to Blu-ray two years ago. Only two of them take place on Christmas Eve, two are Fred Astaire musicals, and one is a tropical melodrama with musical interludes. It's likely too late to order them for arrival before Christmas, but there's always that week between Christmas and New Year's to fill with good movies and these are all worth watching any time of the year.


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REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940) 94m *** (Blu-Ray released November 18, 2014)
Preston Sturges wrote this off-beat and often underrated blend of sentimental feel-good nostalgic romance, modern world-wise cynicism, and occasionally dark human drama, skillfully directed by Mitchell Leisen for Paramount in 1939 but not released until early 1940. Barbara Stanwyck dominates the cast as an attractive shoplifter apprehended during the Christmas season. Fred MacMurray is the young D.A. assigned to prosecute her case. Afraid that the jury will acquit her because of the Christmas spirit, he arranges to adjourn the trial until after New Year’s. Then he feels guilty she’ll be spending the holidays in jail, so he bails her out. Just as he’s ready to leave for his mother’s Indiana home for Christmas, he discovers the bondsman has dropped the woman off at his place because she has nowhere to go, so he reluctantly decides to bring her home with him. It’s no surprise that they gradually warm up to each other over the road trip, and develop serious feelings toward each other once they settle in at his mother’s rural picture postcard home. Although there is no question that there will be some sort of happy resolution, it is to the credit of Sturges’ script, Leisen’s direction, and especially Stanwyck and MacMurray’s performances that we’re never quite sure exactly how it will play out.

The TCM Vault Collection Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment has a stunningly film-like HD image with rich contrasts, crisp textures and little to no print wear. Audio is also quite good. Bonus features are sparse but pleasant, with a trailer, a couple of brief interviews with art director Henry Bumstead and actress Constance Moore reminiscing about working with director Mitchell Leisen, a Robert Osborn introduction, image galleries of stills, posters, and lobby cards, plus text screens with articles about the film, writer, director, and trivia.

REMEMBER THE NIGHT on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: C+


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SUSAN SLEPT HERE (1954) 98m *** ½
(Blu-ray released April 19, 2016)
Former Warner Brothers cartoon director Frank Tashlin directed this cute and often very funny romantic comedy for RKO. It bears a number of similarities to REMEMBER THE NIGHT but has an overall much lighter touch, not to mention sumptuous Technicolor and widescreen (1.66:1). Dick Powell heads a great cast as a middle-aged screenwriter who has never been able to recapture the success he had after he won an Oscar. He’s on his way to a Christmas Eve party thrown by his society girlfriend (Anne Francis) when a police officer acquaintance persuades him to take in a teenage delinquent (a radiantly confident Debbie Reynolds) so she won’t have to spend the holidays in jail. Of course they can’t stand each other at first but gradually warm up to the situation. Things heat up a bit when the girlfriend calls and Reynolds answers the phone instead of Powell, volunteering some easily-misinterpreted information. Snappy and cynical dialogue from his old Navy buddy (Alvy Moore) and long-time secretary (Glenda Farrell) add to the fun and keep things lively, with plenty of cracks all around about the age difference, especially when Powell’s lawyer (Les Tremayne) gets involved. Later there’s a cute stylized and amusingly symbolic semi-ballet dream sequence where Reynolds gets to show off her gymnastic abilities. There are plenty of movie in-jokes and even an unexpected North Dakota joke plus a surprise cameo at the end.

The 1.66:1 HD picture and mono sound on Warner Archives’ Blu-ray are both excellent with the rich Christmassy Technicolor popping off the screen. The only bonus feature is a standard-definition trailer.

SUSAN SLEPT HERE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: D


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SILK STOCKINGS (1957) 118m ****
(Blu-ray released July 2, 2016)
Veteran director Rouben Mamoulian’s final film is a musical reworking of the classic 1939 Ernst Lubitsch Greta Garbo comedy NINOTCHKA is updated to the 1950s Cold War era with a wonderful score by Cole Porter and still-timely political gags. It’s one of the rare cases the remake is more fun than the original. Fred Astaire stars as a movie producer trying to get a Russian composer touring in Paris to score his new version of “War and Peace.” Cyd Charisse is the beautiful but stern Soviet commissar who shows up to bring back the three Soviet agents who were supposed to bring back the composer to Russia but were seduced by the decadent Parisian life. Of course she too soon cannot resist the pleasures of a free economy, or the charms of Astaire. Astaire and Charisse play well off each other and dance even better. Peter Lorre is a delight in a rare comic role, even singing and dancing, as one of the corrupted Soviet agents. Singer Janis Paige delivers Porter’s show-stopping song satirizing late 1950s Hollywood filmmaking, not to mention this very scene in this very movie, with “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope, and stereo-phonic sound!”

The Warner Archives Blu-ray has generally good picture quality but is sometimes soft and grainy due to the aging of the problematic film stock it was photographed on. The original stereo recordings have been preserved and remixed for a fuller and richer 5.1 sound than the Perspecta “fake” stereo heard on its theatrical release. The disc has no audio commentary but includes a generous selection of bonus features, including a featurette on the film (in standard-definition), a fun 1934 Bob Hope Vitaphone “Broadway Brevity” musical short “Paree, Paree” based on Cole Porter’s musical “50 Million Frenchmen,” a 1954 CinemaScope and stereophonic sound short of the MGM studio orchestra playing “The Poet and Peasant Overture,” and a trailer, all three in high-definition.

SILK STOCKINGS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: B+
Audio: A-
Extras: A-


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DADDY LONG LEGS (1955) 126m *** ½
(Blu-ray released September 6, 2016)
This is another musical re-envisioning of a non-musical source, based on a popular novel that had previously been made into pleasant films starring Mary Pickford in 1919 and Janet Gaynor in 1931. This version directed by Jean Negulesco stars Leslie Caron as a French orphan girl that traveling millionaire Fred Astaire happens to see and instantly decides he should provide her with an education, but anonymously to avoid talk of scandal, especially with their age difference. Of course she’s gratified but frustrated not to know her benefactor, pining to meet this mysterious distant father figure. He eventually decides to see her progress in her last year of college, they meet, and not knowing who he really is she confides her frustrations and falls in love with him. The film is updated to the mid-1950s with an appearance by Ray Anthony and his orchestra, so the music also includes a jazz-rock number as well as the obligatory expressionistic ballet. Naturally there are plenty of colorful dance numbers throughout, well-choreographed for the wide CinemaScope frame, and everything works out as expected in a classic musical romance.

The HD CinemaScope picture and stereo sound on Kino’s Blu-ray are both excellent. Bonus features include a commentary with Fred Astaire’s daughter, two newsreels with optional commentaries, and two trailers (all in standard-definition).

DADDY LONG LEGS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B-


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MISS SADIE THOMPSON –in 3-D (1953) 90m ***
(Blu-ray released July 12, 2016)
Director Curtis Bernhardt delivers a vivacious retelling of Somerset Maugham’s infamous RAIN (filmed by Gloria Swanson in 1928 as SADIE THOMPSON and Joan Crawford in 1932 as RAIN), this time in Technicolor, widescreen, and 3-D, with several hot songs by Rita Hayworth. Hayworth was at just the right age to play Sadie, still gorgeous if slightly past her prime, giving her an appropriate world-weariness when called for. She delivers one of the most compelling dramatic performances of her career as the prostitute-on-the-run who is temporarily marooned on a South Seas island with a marine base and a meddling, self-righteous fundamentalist preacher (Jose Ferrer). Aldo Ray is the soldier who falls for her and must learn to live with her past. Although some of the original dialogue and more obvious implications were censored for 1950s tastes, the resulting film loses little if any sense of what’s really going on in the story and actually gets away with more than one might expect under the circumstances. This film version easily holds its own with the two previous ones.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray has a good picture (at 1.85:1) with excellent 3-D, but for whatever reason the 2-D version on the disc seems slightly sharper with richer color saturation. Sadly the original stereo soundtrack is lost but the mono audio is fine. Bonus features include a booklet, an audio commentary (which concentrates mostly on Hayworth and a little on earlier versions), an isolated music and effects track, an introduction by Patricia Clarkson, and a trailer.

MISS SADIE THOMPSON on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A-
3-D: A
Audio: A-
Extras: B+
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Dec 21, 2016 9:53 am

Apparently the TCM Blu-Ray of Remember the Night is out of print; it's nowhere to be found in the TCM Shop, and all Amazon has is one of those insane Marketplace Seller listings for $1158.06.
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Dec 21, 2016 10:02 am

I never bought it because if there's a movie you know will be on eventually... it's a Christmas movie!

It's on Thursday night.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Dec 21, 2016 1:06 pm

Looks like the TCM shop still has the DVD of REMEMBER THE NIGHT and it's one of their best sellers at the moment (though it might be an MOD DVD-R). And yes, TCM is running it this Thursday (tomorrow) night, but a Blu-ray always looks better on a big screen, even if you have TCM-HD, and the difference between a Blu-ray and DVD from the identical HD digital transfer is comparable to the difference between a pristine 16mm original film printdown from the 35mm negative and a decent 8mm reduction print from a 16mm internegative.

I ordered the Blu-ray of REMEMBER THE NIGHT less than 17 months ago (for $15 plus shipping), along with TCM's release of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, and they arrived a few days later. I guess it's lucky I ordered when I did. The TCM Shop website no longer displays any Blu-ray editions of their exclusive TCM Vault titles. I had tried to order THE IRON PETTICOAT Blu-ray when it went on sale a couple years ago, but it went into "backorder" and has never again been available (except for $78 and up through Amazon Marketplace).

At least ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS is now available through Criterion on Blu-ray and LADY FROM SHANGHAI is available from Mill Creek on Blu-ray (although I'm quite happy with my TCM Vault Blu-ray editions, which now apparently are collector's items). I suppose they were limited pressings of one or two, maybe three thousand copies that didn't sell fast enough for them to reprint, but I wish they would have announced that in advance like Twilight Time does. Twilight Time just had a big sale that resulted in several titles selling out. At least the Warner Archive Blu-rays all still seem to be in print (and look fantastic). Moral of the story is, when Blu-rays of classics suddenly show up, it's best to order them within a few months of their release dates rather than waiting for a clearance sale. Now I need to get around to ordering Grapevine's new Blu-ray releases!
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Dec 21, 2016 1:22 pm

Remember the Night is a favorite of mine; one I showed a friend of mine to show him Preston Sturges' mind-bending ability to get stuff past the Production Code.

Bob
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostWed Dec 21, 2016 5:32 pm

Hey guys, would you mind mentioning in your reviews whether there are captions or not?

Mill Creek is one of those jobbers who never caption their stuff. Shout Factory is another.* Echo Bridge is a third. So if there are ever any exceptions to the rule governing the product of these three companies, please be sure to note it.

Thanks.

Jim

* Shout Factory particularly burned me up by the way they handled The Larry Sanders Show. They issued seasons 1 and 2 together in one set with captions to test the market. Finding the market very receptive indeed, they proceeded to issue the complete series ... without captions. Damn their hides!
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu Dec 22, 2016 8:48 am

Mike Gebert wrote:I never bought it because if there's a movie you know will be on eventually... it's a Christmas movie!

It's on Thursday night.


May not be the right section to mention this, but it's screening in a 35mm print today at the Metrograph: http://metrograph.com/film/film/608/remember-the-night
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu Dec 22, 2016 9:06 pm

Hope REMEMBER THE NIGHT had a good-sized and appreciative audience at the New York 35mm screening. As for subtitles on the Blu-ray, there are none on the TCM Vault titles (like REMEMBER THE NIGHT or their versions of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS and LADY FROM SHANGHAI). Criterion has subtitles on its ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, and according to Blu-ray.com Mill Creek actually has subtitles on its version of LADY FROM SHANGHAI, although they are rare or nonexistent on their other releases. The Warner Archive titles SUSAN SLEPT HERE and SILK STOCKINGS both have English subtitles, as does Twilight Time's MISS SADIE THOMPSON. Kino's DADDY LONG LEGS does not have subtitles. Some of the newer Olive releases include subtitles (not always coherent, however), but their Blu-ray of CHRISTMAS EVE reviewed below does not.

Here’s another Christmas-related film that came out on Blu-ray earlier this year that’s worth a watch, especially for fans of the stars, but is nowhere near the classic it appears like it was hoping to be. It's not very well-known, and there are reasons for that.

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CHRISTMAS EVE (1947) ** ½ 90m (Blu-ray released January 19, 2016)
Edwin L. Marin directed this sometimes intriguing but mostly disappointing blend of maybe three or four different stories by Laurence Stallings and Richard H. Landau into one family holiday homecoming tale. A wealthy eccentric old lady (Ann Harding) likes to give away large sums to charities, which grates no end on her nephew (Reginald Denny), who hopes to have her declared incompetent so he can control the estate. She convinces the judge to delay a decision until after he meets her three adopted sons, who long ago set out to live on their own. That’s when we get the equivalent of three interconnected short films as we see what each son is up to and wonder if each will make it back by the Christmas Eve deadline. George Brent is a spendthrift playboy with Joan Blondell after him to settle down. George Raft is (surprise) a gangster type who unwittingly gets mixed up with an escaped Nazi through his girlfriend Virginia Field. Randolph Scott is a drunken has-been rodeo performer who gets sidetracked when he returns by Dolores Moran, who we eventually learn is trying to expose a baby-selling racket led by Douglass Dumbrille. Each of these subplots could make an entire film on its own and tends to distract from the main plot of this one, besides slowing it down. There are some fun moments, especially in the baby-racket story and any time Joan Blondell is on the screen. The George Raft story shows promise but is underdeveloped. On the whole, however, it all seems forced, never completely connecting, and should have been much better considering the formidable cast, respected screenwriter, and usually solid journeyman director. Perhaps a prologue or flashbacks to their childhoods would have helped. It actually would come across as substantially a better film if it were available in a high-quality edition from the original 35mm negative or a finegrain positive struck from the negative.

Olive’s Blu-ray is in HD at a healthy bitrate, but the transfer has relatively low contrast and is slightly soft throughout, sometimes downright out-of-focus, as if sections were inserted from an inferior dupe. It looks as if it could be a scan from a used 16mm reduction print (i.e., a 16mm print struck from a 16mm negative reduced from a 35mm print) rather than from original 35mm material, much less a camera negative. Audio is also not very good, more like sound from a 16mm dupe. There are no subtitles available and no bonus features beyond a main and chapter menu. If this film had the image quality of, say, REMEMBER THE NIGHT, I could easily award it a B- or even a B for entertainment value, but the mediocre print pulls down the overall viewing experience and enjoyability.

CHRISTMAS EVE on Blu-ray --
Movie: C+
Video: C
Audio: C-
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon Jan 16, 2017 4:35 pm

I rarely review movies as recent as the 1970s in this thread, usually sticking to films from the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s, with occasional titles from the 1910s, 20s, and 30s when they happen to show up on Blu-ray. But it’s an inevitable, perhaps sad fact that recent movies (as well as all of us) get older every year and time seems to pass ever more quickly. It’s sometimes difficult to fathom that 1967 is now a half-century ago. Movies from 1977 are now 40 years old, and NitrateVille itself turns 10 years old at the end of this year. But anyway, all this is a preface to my first review of 2017, a film that premiered 41 years ago and played in U.S. theatres 40 years ago.

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THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (1976) 91m *** ½ (Blu-ray released May 10, 2016)
Jodie Foster today is known primarily as a film director and as an Oscar-winning actress for THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991) and THE ACCUSED (1988), among other films. Some may also remember her as a child actress in TV and children’s films of the 1960s and 70s. Mature for her age, by age 13 she broke into serious and adult roles as a key supporting character in Martin Scorsese’s TAXI DRIVER (1976) and the lesser-known but even more challenging and complex title role in the Canadian-French co-production THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE, which premiered in late 1976 but got its general theatrical release in 1977 through American-International. Two other major films for Foster in 1976 were the off-beat British gangster-musical BUGSY MALONE (which has a British region-free Blu-ray I reviewed back in February 2010) and the Disney fantasy FREAKY FRIDAY. Kino-Lorber released a Blu-ray edition of THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE last May that I finally got around to watching a few nights ago on Friday the 13th (it also would make a good Halloween movie, as it opens on Halloween night, coincidentally the 13th birthday of its central character).

For whatever reason, Foster has dismissed it as among her least-favorite films, but her performance won her “Best Actress” from the Saturn Awards for horror, science-fiction, and fantasy films, and the movie itself won Best Horror Film besides earning nominations for the director, script, and supporting actress at the same awards. But THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE is not really a traditional horror film. It’s essentially a mystery that develops into a thriller, with a few familiar horror film elements like the remote old dark house, the “don’t go into the cellar” warning, a young girl in potential danger, a mildly psychotic child-molester villain, and a sudden and somewhat bloody death, along with a few other tropes and an ominous undercurrent of unsavory suspicions pervading the plot.

After her parents’ divorce, a little girl named Rynn (Foster) has moved with her poet father to a small New England village where they have leased a house on the edge of town for three years from a Mrs. Hallet (Canadian-born Hollywood veteran Alexis Smith), the wealthy, snobbish, and uptight local real-estate agent who largely controls the town but often has difficulty controlling her sleazy pedophile son Frank (Martin Sheen), who sees Rynn as a new challenge to seduce. There’s also the friendly and concerned town cop (Mort Shuman, better-known as a songwriter and singer, who doubles as music supervisor for the film) and his nephew Mario (Scott Jacoby), a teenage magician with a crippled leg who takes an interest in Rynn. Mario instinctively feels Rynn is a misfit like himself, since she does not attend school and rarely goes into the village. Whenever any of them stop by the house to check up on things, Rynn’s father is always unavailable to see them, either out of town at a meeting, locked in his study working, or upstairs sleeping, according to the very independent-minded Rynn. Naturally, suspicions quickly arise as to whether he is even living there and about Rynn’s background in general. We eventually find out what’s been going on as Rynn and Mario’s relationship grows closer and they open up to each other, settling in to an above-average teen romance that makes up much of the plot. But the story isn’t over yet, as Frank refuses to abandon his pursuit of Rynn and becomes more aggressive in his tactics.

Foster, who turned 13 during production, drives the film with her assured, self-confident portrayal of a lonely but strong girl not afraid to do whatever she needs to in order to survive, yet conveying an underlying sense of vulnerability that gives her character depth. In her first truly starring role she easily holds her own against and even dominates the experienced veterans in the cast in their scenes together. The film works largely through suggestion and implication, but its PG rating would likely be a PG-13 or possibly even an R today for some of the touchy and potentially disturbing issues it deals with. Some also find the brief nude scene (with Foster’s 20-year-old sister doubling her) a bit gratuitous. THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE is a slow but steadily paced mystery that takes the time to develop characters so that the audience is more likely to care what happens to them, and has a cast that is able to bring them to life beyond what is on the printed page. Laird Koenig’s well-plotted script (from his own novel and play) results in one of the rare “horror” films that gets the audience to ponder its unspoken secrets before letting them in on the backstory that has brought things to where they are in the first part of the film and helps set up a conclusion that does not overexplain everything.

Picture quality is very good on Kino’s Blu-ray, a sharp and film-like 1.85:1 HD transfer with strong color, and the DTS-HD MA mono audio is also very good. Kino has provided a modest but impressive selection of bonus features. There is a new half-hour interview with Martin Sheen recalling his work on the film and the challenge of playing a villain for a change, a brief conversation by Skype between Sheen and the director, and the original American trailer (all in HD). The most interesting supplement is the excellent audio commentary by Hungarian-born and Swiss-educated director Nicolas Gessner, who has worked mainly in France. Gessner discusses why he wanted to make the film, and the story’s unusual evolution from stage play to novel to screenplay to finished film. He explains details of the plot structure, themes, and characterizations, as well as giving information on the production itself, working with each of the five main actors, the music score, directors who influenced him, and more. His commentary is essentially a master class in film directing. Gessner also tells several anecdotes about some of his other films and actors he’s worked with, expressing a preference for American actors. Kino's disc unfortunately has no subtitles. Apparently the Region B disc from Signal One Entertainment does include English SDH titles. It's oddly ironic that the British Blu-ray release uses the artwork from the American poster, whereas the American Blu-ray release uses the artwork from the British poster (although it's reversible so you can switch it to the American poster if you desire).

THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Jan 29, 2017 6:29 pm

Here's an expanded version of the review I wrote for the 2017 "Watch That Movie Night" thread."

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THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI (1947) 112m *** ½ (Blu-ray released May 24, 2016)
Stories by French author Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) have inspired or influenced numerous films. His 1885 novel “Bel Ami” has had at least nine film and TV adaptations around the world from 1939 through 2012. Hollywood’s version of the risqué story about a social-climbing womanizing scoundrel was produced independently in 1946 and released in 1947 by United Artists as THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI. This unfortunately long-forgotten film has not been on home video since a 1991 VHS release but a fine new restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive came out on Blu-ray last year from Olive Films.

Albert Lewin was a Hollywood writer since the 1920s and became a producer in the 1930s. He directed only six films in his long career, starting with his own adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s THE MOON AND SIXPENCE (1942), which really deserves a Blu-ray release. Better-known are the classic horror-thriller THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1945) and the flawed but interesting cult romantic fantasy PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951), both of which are available on fine Blu-ray editions (from Warner Archives and Kino, respectively). In between those he made THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI, which some critics consider his best work. Despite heavy advance cleansing of the story’s more sordid aspects by the powerful Hollywood Production Code, Lewin’s effective direction and the consistently superb cast convey the literate and philosophical if sanitized content easily to anyone paying attention.

George Sanders plays the ambitious and cynical central character Georges Duroy (a role that seems tailor-made for his talents), a devastatingly witty and unrepentant cad adept at seducing and exploiting women for his own gain. Yet the film’s female characters unexpectedly all have strong, independent-minded personalities at odds with the 1880s French society they live in (or for that matter, typical films of the era when the film was made). Foremost among these is Madeline (Ann Dvorak), the equally-conniving and cynical wife of Duroy’s best friend Charles Forestier (John Carradine), who uses her own talents and connections to help manipulate Duroy's rise to power from an unemployed war veteran to an influential gossip-columnist.

Marie Wilson, most often cast as a ditzy comedy relief character, here plays Rachel, a “dancer” (prostitute) who aggressively tries to attract the amorous attentions of Duroy. The beautiful young Angela Lansbury plays the vulnerable yet tough-spirited and recently widowed Clotilde, who can’t stop loving Duroy despite his cruelty and infidelities. But she can summon the strength to reprimand him so bitterly that even he is affected, as he does have reluctant deep feelings for her and her adorable little girl Laurene (played by Karolyn Grimes, who had appeared as Zuzu in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE earlier the same year). Clotilde’s nickname for Duroy, “Bel Ami” (“nice friend”), is quickly adopted by their acquaintances, often with a sarcastic edge, and of course gives the story its sardonic title. Duroy is even able to seduce the proper wife (Katherine Emery) of his publisher (Hugo Haas), but it is their love-smitten teenage daughter (Susan Douglas Rubes, in her screen debut) that he is really after, along with the family fortune that comes with her. Political rival Laroche-Mathieu (Warren William in his final screen role, ironically playing the opposite of the scoundrel roles he once specialized in) is disgusted by Duroy’s attitude and behavior from the start, later leading to his downfall through one of Duroy’s dastardly schemes. Eventually, of course, Duroy goes too far, and in accordance with Production Code rules must ultimately be seen to pay for his transgressions against common decency and moral values, unlike the more cynical original novel.

The plot is obviously softened due to censorship concerns, with key incidents cut either before or after filming, such as the implied intimate encounters between Duroy and Rachel. However, the film stands as a polished period melodrama and social commentary on the timeless themes of ruthless and hypocritical people who live primarily to increase their personal wealth and power over others while maintaining an outward respectability, and some ostensibly respectable people with secret desires they long to fulfill. Like any good film, not only the actors’ performances but clever uses of settings, lighting, and props reinforce less tangible concepts and character attributes only hinted at in the dialogue. A telling detail is the incorporation of a perversely hypnotic Max Ernst painting entitled “The Temptation of St. Anthony,” commissioned especially for the film, its surreal torments blazing from the screen in a brief Technicolor shot suddenly inserted in the otherwise black-and-white and deeply moody cinematography of Russell Metty, whose expert use of chiaroscuro adds so much to the dark themes and characterizations. The impressive production design by Gordon Wiles likewise contributes greatly to the story as does the fine music by noted classical composer Darius Milhaud, who conducted his own score for the film. Future director Robert Aldrich served as an assistant director. Other notable actors in the distinguished cast include Frances Dee, Albert Bassermann, Lumsden Hare, Wyndham Standing, and more.

THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI deserves to be much better-known. When it first came out “Variety” recognized some of its strengths despite the censorship accommodations, but Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review hated the whole thing. Later critics have been mixed in their assessments, likely based on second-hand contemporary reviews and/or the poor-quality editions previously available. The good-looking new Blu-ray of UCLA’s restoration will hopefully bolster the film’s reputation, and recent reactions, especially by those discovering the film for the first time, have generally been more positive. A film like this really warrants premium treatment in a special edition with a commentary, documentary, and other supplements.

Picture quality on Olive’s Blu-ray is excellent overall, except for some occasional minor white scratches inherent in the 35mm film elements. Audio is fine. As usual for Olive, the only special feature is a main and chapter menu, not even a trailer, although this disc also has optional (if too-often incompetently transcribed) English subtitles that show up as yellow.

THE PRIVATE AFFAIRS OF BEL AMI on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: F+
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Jim Roots

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Feb 25, 2017 1:16 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:Image

THE EXECUTIONER (1963) 92m ***½ (Blu-ray released October 25, 2016)


Remarkably, The Executioner was one of the very few Criterion titles still available at HMV's going-out-of-business sale in Toronto the other week, so I picked it up at 30% off.

What a delightful little film! I say "little" advisedly, as that's the way it is played out on the surface: a little film about little things happening to little people. But there's a black cloud of cutting satire overarching it all, making it a universal statement about how life becomes a series of compromises and dreams-deferred that lead us in directions we don't really want to go.

Some of the set pieces are wonderfully imaginative and funny, including the famous climax when the executioner and his about-to-be victim are led across the courtyard to the place of execution, and their attitudes are the absolute opposite of what they should be.

It's not often a laugh-out-loud comedy. The first time I really laughed was when the old executioner introduces his comely daughter to an interested young man thusly: "This is my daughter. She's very clean." Hands up, all you ladies who would like their dads to introduce them to handsome fellows this way! (Yes, I'm aware the old man is using a euphemism to signal that the girl is a virgin and therefore good marriage material; believe me, you'll laugh at the way the line is delivered, too.)

Apparently The Executioner is almost always chosen as the greatest Spanish film ever made. Considering it's going up against Bunuel's oeuvre, that's saying something, and what I'm saying is that I've never seen a Bunuel film that was this good.

So if you're still hesitating even after Mike's rave, let me add my voice to say you won't regret watching it. Its 92 minutes doesn't include 10 seconds of dullness.

Jim
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Feb 25, 2017 3:40 pm

Good to see another voice posting a review. Although I'm not quite so enthusiastic about THE EXECUTIONER, I still enjoyed it and like it better than many Buñuel films. Highly recommended for any fans of foreign cinema.

It's mid-term grades season up here and I haven't posted a new review in a while, but here's a movie I finally caught up with a couple of weeks ago, and I hope to have another review or two ready by next week. For whatever reason I had only seen clips of this film before, never the entire movie, partly because I didn't really want to watch a CinemaScope picture on a small TV set. The recent Blu-ray release gave me the perfect excuse to buy it and finally sit down to watch it for the first time from beginning to end in my home theatre. I'm glad I did, as it's now a favorite, especially with the great picture and sound presentation that cries out to be viewed on a very large screen with a good stereo system.


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IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955) 101m **** (Blu-ray released Nov. 22, 2016)
The weather has been unseasonably fair in North Dakota this past week, but it’s back below freezing again with snow expected. Last November MGM’s classic Gene Kelly-Cyd Charisse musical IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955), a film just as and perhaps more timely today than it was when first shown theatrically, made its Blu-ray debut. Not a big hit when it came out over six decades ago, the basic plot and characters have a timelessness that helped it last through two or three generations and still seem fresh while other musical films of its vintage frequently come off as dated. Apparently it’s a favorite of LA LA LAND director Damien Chazelle, whose own musical throwback is up for 14 Academy Awards this Sunday.

A major reason IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER feels relatively modern in the 21st century is likely the same reason it turned off many audiences in the 1950s. It's quite a bit darker in tone and more cynical than typical Hollywood musicals, which at the time were expected to be nothing but light escapism without the postwar angst that pervaded film noir, social issue dramas and sci-fi thrillers popular about the same time.

Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd play three best friends who served together through major World War II battles and have just gotten back to the United States in fall of 1945. The “lifelong” buddies are elated with their freedom and future potential, celebrate their safe return with a night of drinking and dancing across New York, and go their separate ways to live their lives after a pledge to meet again exactly a decade later. When the ten years are up they reluctantly get back together, only to find that all have changed in ways they didn’t expect. The once-energetic optimism of the three protagonists turns to bitter disillusionment at their reunion, none of them having achieved the dreams they were expecting after the war ended. Each now feels out of place with the other two thinking the others are happy and fulfilled whereas all of them are just going through the motions of living. Dailey’s character hoped to be an artist but sold out to advertising and is now an unhappy Chicago ad executive on the verge of divorce. Kidd’s character thought of himself as a great Italian chef, but wound up with a hamburger joint in Schenectady. Everyone expected Kelly’s character to become a lawyer, politician, or some celebrity, but after he learns his girlfriend got married during the war he drifts into gambling, womanizing, and the shady world of managing a pro boxer. Then he learns his big fight is being “fixed” by a notorious local gangster (J. C. Flippen).

Eventually, of course there is an inevitably happy (but actually somewhat bittersweet) conclusion after several intervening episodes that help to lighten the darker edge somewhat (but not entirely). A major plot thread, which leads to the film’s resolution, is a wickedly funny satire of television programming and advertising (major rivals of movies at the time), that prefigures Frank Tashlin's hysterical WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER two years later. Stage star Dolores Gray makes her movie debut as a musically-talented but self-centered reality-TV hostess hoping to boost ratings by reuniting the three soldiers on her live network show without telling them in advance. Dancer Cyd Charisse plays a single-minded and self-assured TV program coordinator who works to make it happen, but not before a knockout dance number with the veteran boxers at Kelly’s gym. Later, the gangster shows up at the broadcast looking for Kelly, and everything finally all comes together.

This last film co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen saw numerous behind-the-scenes disagreements that damaged their friendship, and strained some of the cast relationships, but never shows up on screen and may have even added to the realism of the uneasy reunion scenes. The film uses the wide screen very effectively, with a clever split-screen trio of the three men synchronously dancing and singing together but in different locations. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER garnered some critical acclaim and its literate screenplay was nominated for both an Oscar and a Writers Guild Award, but the story likely hit too close to home for too many people, despite the baby boom era of relative prosperity. The same premise might easily apply to present-day high school and college reunions with once-close friends suddenly seeing each other again some ten, twenty, or fifty years after graduation. Even though the songs are not as memorable as most MGM musicals, this is a highly entertaining romantic comedy loaded with great dance numbers and some fun songs. Besides the exhilarating “binge” trio of the soldiers at the beginning, and Charisse’s later boxing-ring number, Kelly does a show-stopping roller-skate tap-dance in the streets at one point that calls to mind the title number from SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. The Oscar-nominated music score is by Andre Previn with lyrics by screenplay writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who also wrote SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN a few years earlier for Kelly and Donan, among other hit musicals).

Warner Archives’ Blu-ray has fine-looking picture quality when its extra-wide 2.55 to 1 CinemaScope image is blown up to ten feet wide, except for the usual grainy brief dissolves and optical effects and two ultra-grainy optical zooms. The original four-channel stereo soundtrack, remixed to DTS-HD 5.1, has wonderful fullness and frequency range, though it helps to turn up the subwoofer slightly. There's also a decent selection of bonus features including a 16-minute documentary (in SD), two TV promotional bits for the film (in SD) the 1955 Tex Avery/Michael Lah cartoon DEPUTY DROOPY (in SD), the eerily timely Oscar-nominated 1955 Hanna-Barbera CinemaScope Christmas cartoon GOOD WILL TO MEN (HD), a trailer (HD), and four musical outtakes. One of these is the audio recording only for “I Thought They’d Never Leave.” The other three have HD picture transfers alternate takes of “The Binge” with no audio, the deleted Kelly-Charisse dance duet “Love Is Nothing But a Racket,” and the deleted Michael Kidd solo number “Jack and the Space Giants.” On those two the only sound is a partial rehearsal track, the latter of which lets you hear the choreography beat numbers being called out.

IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: B
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Feb 26, 2017 9:24 am

Chris, is it captioned?

Jim
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon Feb 27, 2017 3:25 pm

Jim Roots wrote:Chris, is it captioned?

Jim


It does have an English SDH subtitle option (I think pretty much all Warner releases do, at least the pressed ones, maybe not the DVD-R titles). The Blu-ray is a Warner Archives release but is a pressed disc and not a BD-R

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon Feb 27, 2017 5:22 pm

I'd written an overview of this set last fall for the High Plains Reader, but while it's still Black History Month, and in light of this year's more racially-diverse Academy Awards, I thought I'd better finally finish up the individual rundowns of each of the films in Kino's highly educational and often quite entertaining anthology of films made by and for black audiences before 1950.

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PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA 5-disc box set (Blu-ray released July 26, 2016)

Race relations have been hot topics in the news for some time, as have problems concerning economic class, sexual abuse, drugs, and alcohol, often all interrelated. Hollywood movies tend to avoid such themes as anything other than secondary plot points in mainstream action-adventures, except for a few instances of self-consciously serious films hoping for Academy Award recognition (especially the past couple of years). This was even more true during the heyday of the classic studio system from the 1920s through the 1940s. Seventy to a hundred years ago during the height of segregation, however, there was an alternate cinema largely off the radar of typical American moviegoers, a separate industry producing and exhibiting films by and for African-Americans. Last summer Kino Video released a well-curated collection of these films to Blu-ray in an amazing and eye-opening five-disc set containing films from 1915 through 1946, with a generous selection of supplementary material.

Unexpectedly, the first three films in the set not only tie into the world of professional sports but have a local connection to my home town of Grand Forks ND. Three short (and quite amusing) slapstick comedies made by the Ebony Film Corporation of Chicago were produced by Marvin Pollard. According to the program notes, he often worked with his brother Fritz, who was more interested in athletics. In 1916 Fritz became the first black to play in the Rose Bowl and later went on to become the first African-American coach in the NFL. His son Fritz Pollard Jr., who was born about the time these films were made, later went on to be a medal-winner in the 1936 Olympics with his friend Jesse Owens, and in the late 1930s became a star athlete at the University of North Dakota.

In all the set has 16 full-length features (some of them missing footage) from 1920 through 1946, brief surviving fragments from two other features, 12 shorts from 1915 through 1940, two trailers, a 1978 archival interview with some of the stars, and a 1985 promo about the discovery of some of the films. Basic genres and subject matter cover pretty much the same things Hollywood was making: comedy, drama, romance, social status, mystery, crime, revenge, westerns, musicals, uplifting stories of faith, etc. Short films also include home movies, ethnographic documentaries, and newsreels.

Unlike Hollywood, more than a few (especially the films of the prolific Oscar Micheaux, who has eight films in the collection) deal specifically with racial prejudice, interracial relationships, and intra-racial conflict between darker and lighter-skinned blacks. A frequent characteristic of Micheaux’s film is mixing dark-skinned actors, lighter-skinned actors (playing either blacks or whites or mixed-race people), black actors in white makeup, and white actors, as if to drive home the point that the color of people’s skin is irrelevant to their attitudes and actions. He also tends to punctuate dramatic sequences with music numbers, usually in jazz clubs. Among the major Micheaux films in the set are WITHIN OUR GATES (1920), BODY AND SOUL (1925), THE EXILE (1931), VEILED ARISTOCRATS (1932), and BIRTHRIGHT (1938). Frank Perugini’s THE SCAR OF SHAME (1929) is another thought-provoking look at class, domestic violence, and mixed-race issues.

Other “race films” tended to ignore the color line issue as an explicit theme, and instead strive to be typical genre movies but using all-black casts (though sometimes mixed-race production crews) set in an all-black environment. These are parallels to films made for mainstream white audiences in all-white environments. Good examples in the set include THE FLYING ACE (1926), a railroad mystery aviation romance directed by Richard E. Norman, who had a studio in Florida to make movies with black casts, and THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1939) starring Herb Jeffries, a standard California-shot B-western almost identical to the typical Hollywood product with its heroes, villains, action, comedy relief, and singing interludes, except for having an all-black cast. Then there are all-black versions of classic stage plays, such as TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM (1926), which is actually far superior and more moving than the 1930 Hollywood film of the play, and DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM, U.S.A. (1946), an entertaining postwar cross between Somerset Maugham’s RAIN and Prosper Merimee’s CARMEN.

Produced independently at small studios in New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Florida, among other locations, these films were all made on shoestring budgets. The often-amateurish performances (especially in the sound films) and budget-related continuity flaws tend to reduce their dramatic impact, yet these very limitations convey a sincerity and determination that makes their messages all the more powerful compared with slickly polished mainstream studio movies.

Picture quality of the movies varies drastically, depending on the condition of surviving film material, but all films have received new HD scans that are sharper and/or more complete than those titles that have been previously available on video. Many of the films have never before been available outside of the archives that have preserved them. Sound quality is excellent on the newly-recorded music scores for the silent films, though the scores themselves are a mixed bag of adequate to very good. Audio on the sound films is often problematic, so optional subtitles have been provided.

Approximately an hour’s worth of interesting interviews with historians and preservationists, spread over eleven separate segments on the five discs, set the films in a social context, and discuss some of the filmmakers, individual movies, and restoration work. An accompanying 76-page illustrated paperbound book has five insightful essays on black filmmaking for black audiences from the 1910s through the 1940s, as well as cast, credits, and notes on each of the films included in the set.

All in all the set can provide a worthwhile weekend film festival, and more than a few films are well-worth revisiting on their own or playing as shorts and second features with other films.

The Collection of Movies as a group: A+
Individual Movies: A- to C
Video: A to C+
Audio: A to C-
Music Scores: A to C
Extras: A-



Disc 1
TWO KNIGHTS OF VAUDEVILLE (1915) 11m ***

Enjoyable and sociologically fascinating slapstick comedy from Ebony Comedies of two black men who find tickets to prime box seats in a vaudeville house, which a wealthy white man has dropped. They escort a light-skinned woman to the show (which includes many performers in whiteface makeup), reacting raucously, and later put on their own vaudeville show.

MERCY, THE MUMMY MUMBLED (1918) 12m ***
Like TWO KNIGHTS OF VAUDEVILLE, this slapstick comedy could easily have been made by Sennett or any of the 1910s comedy companies, but in this case it’s another all-black Ebony Comedies production. A mad scientist advertises that he’ll pay well for an Egyptian mummy for his research, so a man hires another man to pose as a mummy to collect the fee. Sadly there is extensive decomposition in several portions of this film but the rest is astoundingly crisp and clear.

A RECKLESS ROVER (1918) 14m ***
Another Ebony Comedy in the Sennett mold has a shiftless man on the run from the police, taking mayhem-producing refuge in a Chinese laundry and tasting an opium pipe before a madcap chase by the cops.

WITHIN OUR GATES (1920) 79m ***
Oscar Micheaux’s second film is an interesting if often difficult to follow (due to multiple flashbacks and censorship cuts) tale of a mixed-race woman’s attempt to raise money for a school, but her past and that of her parents plays a major role in her relationships. Picture quality is okay, from a preservation dupe. The score by Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) is serviceable but does little to help the film’s melodramatic intensity.
Movie: B+ / Video: B / Audio: A / Music: B-

THE SYMBOL OF THE UNCONQUERED (1920) 59m ***

Quite interesting Micheaux film with different black characters passing for or thought to be white. One of these (played by Lawrence Chenault, who appears in several films in this set) has become an anti-black racist to disguise his own racial heritage, even to forming a criminal gang that looks very much like the KKK, so he can seize land by a black landowner who has his own hopeless love for a woman he believes is white. Again, picture quality is acceptable but obviously not from first-generation 35mm material. The music score by Max Roach has its moments, but is ultimately very frustrating in its use of only percussion instruments throughout.
Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio A / Music: C+

BY RIGHT OF BIRTH (1921) 4m fragment *** ½

Tantalizing clips with some key scenes from what looks like an interesting, well-made romantic melodrama dealing with social sets and inheritance.

BODY AND SOUL (1925) 93m ***
This may be Micheaux’s best-known film, largely for its memorable dual-role by the famous Paul Robeson as a corrupt, degenerate minister (or crook posing as a minister) and his shy and upright twin brother, both seeking the affections of a woman whose devout mother has been deluded by the evil preacher. The print quality is not bad. Again the music by Paul Miller (DJ Spooky) is only adequate.
Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio: A / Music: C+

SCREEN SNAPSHOTS (1920) 1m ** ½

This brief clip from a newsreel shows Micheaux working on the set of one of his films.


Disc 2
REGENERATION (1923) 11m (decomposing reel 2) ***

This frustratingly tantalizing section of what appears to be a fascinating romantic seafaring adventure is plagued by nitrate decomposition, giving almost a Stan Brakhage-like interpretation to the barely surviving images. Donald Sosin’s score is very good, making the missing footage all the more disappointing.

THE FLYING ACE (1926) 65m ***
Despite its title, this is really a Florida-filmed small-town railroad mystery-melodrama involving two male leads who both happen to be aviators and there’s a brief flying sequence near the end. It’s a bit slow, but reasonably entertaining program picture, helped immensely by the fine picture quality that is very sharp with some minor wear. The very good music score by the Mont Alto Orchestra also helps bring the story to life.
Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A / Music: A

TEN NIGHTS IN A BAR ROOM (1926) 64m ***

This all-black version of the classic stage melodrama about the damaging effects of alcoholism is unexpectedly effective, with sincere performances giving the audience characters to get involved with rather than caricatures for the most part. Print quality is pretty good. The interesting pit-orchestra-style score by Donald Sosin blends jazz with mood music and mostly works well.
Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio: A / Music: A-

REV. S. S. JONES HOME MOVIES (1924-1928) 16m ** ½

These fascinating 16mm home movies document everyday life in several all-black towns in Oklahoma.

THE SCAR OF SHAME (1929) 86m *** ½
This superior melodrama also deals with alcoholism, as well as the problems of class snobbery in a complicated plot involving a young composer from a good background, a tenement girl with an abusive stepfather, and a bar owner who plies the stepfather with alcohol to get access to the girl so he can have her work at his gambling joint. There is plenty of subterfuge along the way, romance, an assault with a gun, a prison term, and hiding of pasts. Production values are polished and professional, the equal of any good Hollywood program picture. Picture quality is mostly outstanding, with some minor wear and a few soft shots. The music score by Makia Mastumura is an excellent traditional piano accompaniment, aiding greatly in appreciation of the film.
Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A / Music: A


Disc 3
ELEVEN P.M. (1928) 60m *** ½

This bizarrely entertaining and often surreal crime melodrama with touches of comedy and romance has to be seen to be believed, written, produced, and directed by Detroit filmmaker Richard D. Maurice, who also stars in a major role (a half-breed street fiddler named “Sundaisy”). An athlete-writer tells his editor the theories on reincarnation into animals that he’s writing about, and is assigned to finish it by 11 pm. Then he gets a call that a prizefighter is out with a broken thumb and he’s asked to be ready by 11 pm for the midnight match, only to get a call from his girlfriend that she’ll be picking him up at 11 for a midnight party. What else can he do but take a nap? But is what happens next reality or just a dream? A few mismatched continuity edits and some inconsistent focus and exposure occasionally distract, but generally it’s not too difficult to follow. Luckily the print quality on this is from a good-condition 35mm print (with plenty of negative wear visible) and there’s a reasonably workable guitar score by Rob Gal.
Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A / Music: B

HELL-BOUND TRAIN (1930) 50m **

This surreal amateur 16mm allegory by evangelists James and Eloyce Gist is certainly a curiosity, but has difficulty overcoming its nonexistent production values, mediocre picture quality, and not particularly effective music score.
Movie: C+ / Video: C+ / Audio: A / Music: B-

VERDICT: NOT GUILTY (1933) 8m * ½

Another religious allegorical film by the Gists is far less impressive.

HEAVEN-BOUND TRAVELERS (1935) 15m **
This short sequel the Gists made to HELL-BOUND TRAIN might be of interest to those who liked that film.

THE DARKTOWN REVUE (1931) 18m **
This Oscar Micheax talking short is most interesting for its preservation of a minstrel variety show aimed at black audiences and Micheaux’s typically provocative use of stereotypes to make his points. Picture quality is okay, copied from 16mm elements, and the audio is mostly adequate.

THE EXILE (1931) 78m ***
Oscar Micheaux’s first sound film has quite an involved plot, dealing as usual with interracial and moral-philosophical issues. A pious young black man falls for a former maid who has taken over a Chicago mansion to start a gambling club, but he is scandalized by her wild life and leaves to become a farmer in South Dakota. The neighbor’s daughter is attracted to him, but he decides that marrying a white woman would pose too many problems for them both, so he returns to Chicago. About that time his former love is shot by a jealous old lover and he’s accused of the crime, but of course things work out in the end. It’s a shame the picture and sound quality aren’t any better on this film, as it’s otherwise among the best of the sound films in the set.
Movie: B+ / Video: B- / Audio: C-

HOT BISKITS (1931) 10m ** ½

Oddly entertaining Spencer Williams comedy with con-men playing miniature golf!

Disc 4
THE GIRL FROM CHICAGO (1932) 70m ***

This interesting Oscar Micheaux picture has some rough continuity editing, recorded camera noise, and amateurish but enthusiastic acting. The plot is a gangster romance of a Mississippi mobster and a secret service agent both interested in the same girl, with the story later moving to Harlem with some more great hot jazz scenes and another, overlapping story about the numbers racket. Picture quality, from a 16mm copy, is decent but slightly soft, and dialogue is intelligible. Not quite as off-beat and engrossing a plot as THE EXILE, but definitely entertaining for fans of low-budget PreCode independent films.
Movie: B / Video: B / Audio: B-

TEN MINUTES TO LIVE (1932) 58m ** ½

Quite interesting overall, but very disjointed Oscar Micheaux crime drama with music via plenty of night club performances. Blu-ray has pretty good picture quality but the print has lots of jumpy splices and some sloppier-than-usual editing. Audio quality is iffy.
Movie: C+ / Video: A- / Audio: C+

VEILED ARISTOCRATS (1932) 44m ***

Another interesting Micheaux film dealing with conflict between light-skinned blacks who pass for white and others who would rather not. Unfortunately the opening sequence is missing but the rest of the plot holds together with a few choppy spots. Picture quality on the Blu-ray isn't bad and sound quality is acceptable. The jazz and blues music numbers included in this and other Micheaux films, as always, are great fun.
Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: B-

VEILED ARISTOCRATS trailer 4m

BIRTHRIGHT (1938) 73m ***

Still another interesting Oscar Micheaux drama about difficult race relations in the South, focusing on a black Harvard graduate returning home who has trouble buying property to start a school. The main plot is interspersed with a few nice hot jazz song and dance numbers. Very sharp picture on the Blu-ray, although the first 20 minutes are missing and explained by titles.
Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: B+

BIRTHRIGHT trailer 3m

WE WORK AGAIN (1937) 15m ***

Government newsreel spotlighting the efforts of the WPA to improve the lives of America’s black citizens, including scenes from Orson Welles’ “Voodoo Macbeth” stage production, as well as performances by noted singing groups and various other African-American activities during the Depression.


Disc 5
THE BRONZE BUCKAROO (1939) 58m ***

This Herb Jeffries production is an enjoyable B-western of a cowboy searching for his missing rancher friend whose neighbor is trying to seize his land, comparable to typical Republic or Monogram westerns of the era but with an all-black cast. Pretty good-looking picture scanned in HD from a nice 16mm print with some minor wear.
Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: A-

ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S FIELDWORK FOOTAGE (1930s) ** ½
Fascinating if prosaic documentary scenes of everyday life in black communities.

COMMANDMENT KEEPER CHURCH (1940) excerpt ** ½
More documentary footage, depicting Gullah religious rites on a South Carolina island.

THE BLOOD OF JESUS (1941) 56m ** ½
There are obviously some technical rough edges and slow spots in this offbeat religious allegory by Spencer Williams, but a sincerity comes through that gives it some effective moments. Picture quality through much of it is only so-so, however.
Movie: B / Video: B / Audio: B+

DIRTY GERTIE FROM HARLEM, U.S.A. (1946) 60m ***

The “original” story for this film is obviously very closely “borrowed” from RAIN/SADIE THOMPSON, except for the ending, which has a strong resemblance to “Carmen.” Here the title character is a night club performer on the run from her ex-boyfriend, and has brought her whole company with her to a Caribbean island. Interestingly, Gertie is notably less sympathetic than Sadie Thompson, and the preacher is cleverly named “Mr. Christian,” with a comically over-eager young assistant instead of a stuffy wife. The cinematography is often quite striking, especially the night scenes. Acting is serviceable but uneven (no re-takes and not a lot of coverage, so a few flubbed lines make it in). Francine Everett is attractive and compelling in the title role, with more apparent experience than many of the other actors. There's a fun musical dance number (though it's weird not to hear the taps of the spectacular Nicholas Brothers-like tap-dance routine) and then Gertie's musical strip-tease at the island night club. Director Spencer Williams makes an odd cameo in drag as the voodoo fortune-teller, not even shaving off his mustache for the part! Somehow it still works! If this film had been given the budget and resources of even a second-tier major studio film, it would have been a minor classic. As it is, it is still entertaining, making allowances for its tiny budget.

The version in this set looks outstandingly crisp and film-like although the 35mm print(s) used show occasional white scratches and a few splices. The audio is okay except for the poor recording done in some scenes, mainly long-shots, due to the low budget (so the optional subtitles can help at times but mostly aren't necessary). This would be good to be available on its own, or if Kino ever upgrades the Gloria Swanson version and puts the Joan Crawford version onto Blu-ray this film would make a welcome third feature in the package.
Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A-

THE MOSES SISTERS INTERVIEW (1978) 33m ***
Three sisters reminisce on videotape about their years dancing on stage, at the Cotton Club, and appearing in a few all-black movies.

TYLER TEXAS BLACK FILM COLLECTION (1985) 6m ***
Interesting short promo film that re-enacts the fortuitous discovery of the cache of films (including two in the Blu-ray set) now archived at Southern Methodist University, hosted by Ossie Davis.
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue Feb 28, 2017 7:16 am

Christopher Jacobs wrote:
Jim Roots wrote:Chris, is it captioned?

Jim


It does have an English SDH subtitle option (I think pretty much all Warner releases do, at least the pressed ones, maybe not the DVD-R titles). The Blu-ray is a Warner Archives release but is a pressed disc and not a BD-R

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Thanks!

I yearn for the day Warners starts putting captions on its Archives releases...

Jim
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Mar 04, 2017 12:31 am

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ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) 82m ***1/2 (Released October 11, 2016)

We were just talking about Mildred Pierce being a women's picture crossed with a noir and then, by chance, I happened to watch this Christmas acquisition, which is a noir crossed with a Sirkian soap opera— so like the empathetic tone of Magnificent Obsession or All That Heaven Allows that I'm surprised this Nicholas Ray film got there first. (He actually got there in 1949; Howard Hughes messed with it for a couple of years before finally releasing it.)

It starts in the big city—not identified as LA but plainly that's what the RKO backlot is meant to be—as Robert Ryan, on the trail of hoods who shot a cop, is slowly revealed to be a cop on the verge of cracking up, lonely and alienated and too eager to beat a confession out of the hoods he meets (who, it must be admitted, also seem to be rather eager to be beaten, whether it's an almost-giddy hood played by Richard Irving or a petite sexpot played by Cleo Moore). At that point, if I had to guess where the plot was going to go, I would have bet on Ryan accidentally killing Moore and having to hide it (like Dana Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends). It just felt like a noir about a guy spiraling to his doom.

Instead, he gets sent out of town to cool off by helping a local sheriff's department up in the mountains. The urban setting completely gives way to a stark wintry scene—and to the appearance almost halfway in at last of top-billed Ida Lupino, as a blind woman living in the country. Without giving too much away, Ryan has to get information from her, but he also discovers his own empathy, well hidden for so many years. Can he catch the bad guy without vengeful farmer and dad Ward Bond getting him first, and can they put a romance in the middle of a manhunt plot without botching one of them?

The answer is not entirely, this 84-minute movie would have been better with an extra 10 minutes to let things unfold more naturally, but even so, this is an affecting film with strong performances by Lupino as a determinedly independent woman and Ryan as a hard man partly softening, partly disintegrating through the events of the film (again, very different from the performance the opening city scenes lead you to expect). The Warner Archive disc comes from pristine material, and looks very sharp (except when either of the stars in closeup), maybe not as revelatory and three-dimensional as the best noirs from this era—the lighting inside Lupino's home is somewhat flat, but the outdoor photography is generally very good—but certainly satisfying to watch. (Especially satisfying is a brief skid row bar scene, where Nita Talbot, later a sexy blonde on Hogan's Heroes, plays an under-drinking-age floozy who puts a move on Ryan, and the details of her tight blouse and cantilevered bra may be studied with all the attention Howard Hughes brought to such marvels of applied engineering. Thus does blu-ray give us all the pleasures once reserved for millionaires.)

The real A/V star of the film is the score by Bernard Herrmann, which is reminiscent of his later score for North by Northwest and thrilling, if at times too big for a fairly modest film, seemingly chasing the cast into the mountains itself for a gotterdammerung out of step with the film's intimacy. All the same, it's great to listen to in the 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio, per DVD Talk. The only extras are a trailer and a commentary (carried over from an earlier DVD) by Glenn Erickson, as well as optional English subtitles.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Mar 05, 2017 4:41 pm

Thanks for the write-up of ON DANGEROUS GROUND, Mike. It's a great film, which I've seen on DVD but haven't gotten around to watching on the new Blu-ray yet. There are a bunch of other recent Blu-rays of classic noir I'll be reviewing soon. Meanwhile, here are a couple of surprise Blu-ray releases from Grapevine Video.

Grapevine Video, for decades a mainstay of rare and/or classic films for collectors through their transfers of collector prints to VHS tape and later DVD-R, have recently started releasing a few films on Blu-ray (BD-R) in decent-looking new high-definition transfers. Like most of the other titles in their catalog, these are films that major distributors are unlikely to consider worth their effort, even those devoted to rare and off-beat limited-interest niche products like Kino, Olive, Flicker Alley, Cohen, and Criterion. Part of the reason is not only due to the films’ extreme obscurity, but also the fact that many survive only in old 16mm prints that were frequently reduced directly from original 35mm nitrate negatives for the home, school, and rental library market back in the 1920s and 30s. These often look quite sharp, but cannot quite rival the crisp clarity of films whose nitrate negatives or high quality 35mm prints still exist (such as Kino’s Blu-rays of Buster Keaton’s THE GENERAL and Feuillade’s FANTOMAS, Olive’s Blu-rays of William S. Hart’s WAGON TRACKS and DeMille’s THE CAPTIVE, Cohen’s Blu-ray of Griffith’s INTOLERANCE, etc.). On top of this, the surviving 16mm prints are typically well-worn with plenty of scratches, splices, and missing footage that ideally would require extensive restoration work combining the best sections of multiple prints.

Grapevine’s Blu-rays present the films “as-is,” with no digital cleanup work or restoration other than creating new digital opening and closing titles when they’re missing from the source they’re scanning. The high-definition format lets home viewers experience them looking just as they would if the vintage 16mm prints were projected at a film festival, including occasional (but by no means pervasive) unsteadiness or frame jumps at bad sprocket holes, the extra resolution capturing a film-like appearance that is still sharper than a DVD and drastically sharper than an old VHS tape. Modern Blu-ray enthusiasts accustomed to pristine restorations may be disappointed, but experienced film collectors will notice nothing unusual. Besides making very good (though far from perfect) image quality copies available from very rare film prints, Grapevine also commissions or creates appropriate new music scores for the silent films. Below are comments on two virtually unknown silent “program pictures” made by low-budget independent studios for small-town and neighborhood movie houses that Grapevine released to Blu-ray this February.

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THE COWBOY AND THE FLAPPER (1924) 51m ** ½ (Blu-ray release 2/7/17)
This entertaining Phil Goldstone production for the Truart Film Corporation, later reissued under the title THE SHERIFF’S LONE HAND, is solidly directed by Alvin J. Neitz, later known as Allan James or Alan James. It stars prolific but little-remembered leading man and supporting actor William Fairbanks, who began his career under his real name Carl Ullman in 1916. He changed his name by 1921 and made over 60 films during his 12-year career (interrupted for a year by World War I). Many of his films were starring roles in low-budget Phil Goldstone productions but he began at Triangle and ended up at MGM except for his last film, a 1928 Mascot serial directed by Richard Thorpe. Fairbanks acted with the likes of William S. Hart, Tim McCoy, Louise Glaum, Ralph Forbes, Jack Perrin, Yakima Canutt, and others, but retired at the coming of sound and died of pneumonia at age 50 in 1945. Unfortunately only a few of his films have survived. In fact the Library of Congress has no record of any prints of THE COWBOY AND THE FLAPPER in the world’s film archives, so it’s possible this disc was sourced from a unique collector’s print.

The film itself is fairly routine but well-made and enjoyable action western with touches of comedy and the inevitable romance that develops by the end. Fairbanks plays Marshal Dan Patterson, newly arrived at a small western town where the leading citizens seem intent on fixing him up with their daughters. After the second such invitation, he politely excuses himself to go off and capture some bank robbers. When he locates the gang of Red Carson (Jack Richardson), he decides to pose as a notorious bank robber himself to gain their confidence. About that time, however, the attractive daughter (Dorothy Revier) of a local colonel (Milton Ross) happens to wander too close to the gang’s hideout and is captured, so Patterson has to figure out a way to rescue her (not realizing she’s the daughter he’d avoided meeting) as well as capture the gang. It’s not hard to predict what happens, but it’s still fun to watch. The film provides a rare chance to see William Fairbanks in action, demonstrating considerable screen presence and a charm sometimes approaching that of Fox cowboy superstar Tom Mix.

Picture quality is reasonably good, sometimes slightly soft and other times quite sharp, like a good if occasionally battered 16mm print. It also preserves the original pale pastel tints: amber for daylight, brown for interiors, and blue for night scenes. The missing main title is replaced with a digital one. The effective Dolby Digital stereo organ score was composed and played by Moorhead MN organist Dave Knudtson. There are no bonus features other than a main menu and chapter stops.

THE COWBOY AND THE FLAPPER on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: B+
Audio: A
Extras: F

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THE THRILL SEEKERS (1927) 50m ***

By odd coincidence the director of this film, Harry Revier, had been married to the female lead of THE COWBOY AND THE FLAPPER at the time that film was made, but divorced by the time this film was made. Originally a six-reel film running about 58 minutes, this surviving copy seems to be abridged by about a reel for its nontheatrical distribution. Nevertheless, this low-budget indie production (H.V. Productions, released by Hi-Mark Productions in September 1927, although not reviewed by Film Daily or Variety until early 1928) has a perfectly fine cast and good, well-polished production values. It’s a fun comedy-drama-romance about a rich but sheltered lumberjack (Jimmy Fulton, later billed as James F. Fulton) who decides to find thrills and excitement in the big city, with the help of his new valet (Lee Moran) and chauffeur (Harold Austin). At a classy but boisterous speakeasy, he sees an equally sheltered socialite (Ruth Clifford) being harassed by her escort, the villainous but supposedly respectable owner of the joint (Robert McKim), and naturally breaks in to help her get away with the assistance of showgirls Sally Long and Gloria Grey. This naturally does not go down well with our villain, who soon kidnaps both of them, planning to knock off the lumberjack and run off with the girl. Needless to say, after plenty of fisticuffs and action, all turns out well for our couple.

Picture quality is very good for the most part, slightly sharper than THE COWBOY AND THE FLAPPER, but there is plenty of print wear, especially splices and missing footage here and there. This one is in straight black-and-white. Like a typical five-reel 16mm print assembled onto one large reel, there are even “flash titles” indicating the heads and tails of reels. The main and end titles are missing, replaced by Grapevine with digital text rather than jumping right into the opening credits or freeze-framing the fragmentary “The End.” A long scrolling opening title explains the story’s setup, but it’s possible that the full-length original cut had some scenes of the lumberjack before he moved to the city, as well as a few other scenes that would help explain some of the hazy motivations and dialogue. Still, it’s not difficult to follow even with a few continuity gaps and jump cuts. The audio is a pretty good orchestral accompaniment well-synchronized by Grapevine’s Jack Hardy, likely using a movie-music library with scoring software like Sonicfire Pro. As usual there are no extras besides a main menu and chapter stops.

THE THRILL SEEKERS on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: F
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostFri Mar 24, 2017 6:06 pm

Lately (especially over the past year) media coverage has been almost as much about biased media coverage as it is about the stories that the media typically cover. But a cynical view of how slanted and exploitive media reports can be, not to mention chronic political corruption, is nothing new. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1927 film of CHICAGO is one of the best examples (which really deserves a Blu-ray release), and there are numerous other memorable movies from the 1930s through the 1950s taking both comic and serious approaches to exploitive reporters more interested in attracting readers than the subjects they’re covering, but two classic films of the 1930s remain the definitive portraits of tabloid journalism with a darkly comic edge. Below is a discussion interweaving both as well as an alternate version of one.

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HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) 92m *** ½ (Blu-ray release January 10, 2017)
THE FRONT PAGE (1931) U.S. cut 101m *** ½ (Blu-ray release January 10, 2017)
THE FRONT PAGE (1931) International cut 101m *** ½ (Blu-ray release August 11, 2015)
Less than two years ago, Lewis Milestone’s newspaper genre classic THE FRONT PAGE (1931) finally came out in a high-quality Blu-ray edition from Kino Video (which I reviewed in this thread back in August 2015). Based on a darkly satiric hit 1928 Broadway play, the double-plot deals with jaded journalists covering a politically-motivated execution (of an unemployed anarchist who shot a black police officer) and a conniving editor’s extreme attempts to prevent his star reporter from resigning in favor of marriage and a comfortable advertising job. Playwrights Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur had both been Chicago reporters and based their script on actual events they experienced, reporters they worked with, and political corruption they observed first-hand. In 1939, director Howard Hawks had the script rewritten to turn the star reporter into a woman and the editor into her conniving ex-husband, resulting in the classic screwball comedy HIS GIRL FRIDAY (finished in late 1939 but released in1940), which many find to be as good as or even better than the original. Early this year, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, which had been previously available on a pretty nice but out-of-print Sony DVD as well as numerous mediocre PD DVDs, made its Blu-ray debut from the Criterion Collection in a newly-restored edition.

By unusual coincidence, shortly after the release of Kino’s THE FRONT PAGE Blu-ray, an alternate cut of the film was discovered in the archives of its producer Howard Hughes, and it became evident that this was the original U.S. cut preferred by the director and the cut on the Kino disc was made for the international market using alternate takes and in some cases alternate dialogue and slightly different editing. The Criterion Blu-ray release is a double-disc set that includes the newly-restored director’s cut of THE FRONT PAGE as well as the romantic-comedy remake HIS GIRL FRIDAY. Both films are as timely today as when they were made.

THE FRONT PAGE intentionally kept the romantic angle subdued. Mary Brian’s character of Hildy Johnson’s fiancée is sympathetic but minor so that the film can concentrate on its satiric look at the peculiarities of individual newspaper reporters, the media’s shamelessly biased reporting of what it wants its readers to believe happened and the way it wants them to react to it, and of course corrupt city and county governments.. HIS GIRL FRIDAY touches on all that as well, but at its heart is a romantic comedy focusing on a pointed battle of the sexes with Hildy’s mild-mannered insurance-salesman fiancé Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy) becoming the butt of much of its comedy. Nevertheless it has just as much focus on the battle between the media and a corrupt establishment and the battle between one newspaper and all the others to break a story first. THE FRONT PAGE, by contrast, implicitly and explicitly considers romance as a nuisance getting in the way of people trying to do their jobs. In this case their jobs revolve around widespread corruption and subterfuge (both political and journalistic), whether to profit by it, exploit it, expose it, be cynical about it, be angry about it, or all of the above. THE FRONT PAGE premiered in March 1931, but looks years more advanced than typical filmed stage plays of that early talkie era. Rather than a stationary camera recording the performances, director Milestone uses an almost constantly moving camera and occasional bursts of rapid-fire editing that gives the film a cinematic appearance more in line with techniques of the silent cinema at its peak (just a few years before). Among the excellent ensemble cast, Pat O’Brien largely carries the film as fast-talking reporter Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson, with Adolphe Menjou in fine form as his conniving editor Walter Burns (Oscar-nominated for his role). It is difficult to decide which, if either, cut of THE FRONT PAGE is better. There are a few more Precode lines and innuendoes in the long-available international cut (on Kino’s Blu-ray) but the performances and editing in the U.S. cut are said to be the director’s preferred version. It is probably most accurate to describe the two variations as comparable to attending two different performances of the same hit play on different nights, each with its own charm. It’s wonderful to have both to compare. Apparently there was a third cut of different alternate takes made for the British market, supposedly the “second-best takes,” that is not known to survive.

For HIS GIRL FRIDAY director Hawks made the fast-paced dialogue even faster by having the actors overlap each other’s lines, establishing a style later adopted by other filmmakers, such as Orson Welles in his own darkly satiric newspaper drama CITIZEN KANE and Preston Sturges in his fast-paced screwball comedies. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant are ideal as Hildy and Walter, providing a perfect antagonistic romance in place of the love-hate “bromance” of the original version. As movie buffs already know, HIS GIRL FRIDAY also includes some very entertaining in-jokes about the cast, with Cary Grant making reference to his real name at one point, and at another point describes Hildy’s fiancé Bruce Baldwin as looking “like that actor, Ralph Bellamy.”

The picture quality on Criterion’s Blu-ray of HIS GIRL FRIDAY is very good to excellent, restored mostly from a new master positive struck from the original nitrate negative. Sound quality is also quite good, restored directly from the original nitrate optical sound negative. Bonus features include two new HD featurettes, including an in-depth analysis by film historian David Bordwell and archival interviews with Howard Hawks, plus four 1999 SD featurettes, as well as two trailers (in HD) and an hour-long radio adaptation starring Claudette Colbert (who had originally turned down the film role) and Fred MacMurray.

The two different versions of the 1931 THE FRONT PAGE each have good and bad points in the surviving picture and sound elements. Kino’s Blu-ray has better picture but worse sound. Criterion’s Blu-ray has much better sound but a disappointing picture. Picture quality on Criterion’s THE FRONT PAGE Blu-ray is reasonably good, but notably softer and darker than the better-known alternate cut on Kino’s 2015 Blu-ray. However, the sound on Criterion’s version of THE FRONT PAGE is drastically better than that on Kino’s edition, which had a lot of volume and clarity problems inherent in the surviving optical 35mm film print. The sound for this restoration of the original U.S. cut has been remastered from the original metal disc masters for the sound-on-disc audio, as all the surviving optical sound elements were inferior copies of copies. Bonus features include two new documentaries, one on the discovery and restoration of this version and one on writer Ben Hecht, plus two different radio adaptations of the play. Criterion’s release also includes illustrated program notes, essays, and credits for both HIS GIRL FRIDAY and THE FRONT PAGE, cleverly printed as an eight-page newspaper-style tabloid. Criterion’s discs include optional English subtitles. Kino’s disc does not (especially unfortunate due to the inferior audio and superior video).

Criterion’s Blu-ray of HIS GIRL FRIDAY -- Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: A-
Criterion’s Blu-ray of THE FRONT PAGE -- Movie: A / Video: B+ / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
Kino’s Blu-ray of THE FRONT PAGE -- Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: B- / Extras: B-
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSun Apr 09, 2017 10:35 pm

Movie advertisements promoting few big-name stars or even an all-star cast are usually an effective way to attract viewers but certainly do not guarantee that a movie will be top-notch entertainment. Sometimes a film pushing its cast above all else might even be a warning that the story may have difficulties holding interest on its own or is otherwise just a routine example of its genre. With most movies, it’s generally best if one watches without preconceived expectations, as overly-hyped films may easily be disappointing and overly-disparaged films might come off as minor classics or at least guilty favorites. With all movies, but especially with potentially borderline titles it really helps greatly to see them as close as possible to the way they were intended. That is exactly what the Blu-ray format can often help approximate, especially in a home theatre with constant-height projection for widescreen, making a substantial difference in viewer appreciation and/or satisfaction compared against other viewing options.

Two mostly-forgotten films from the 50s and 60s recently came out on Blu-ray, one last October and one this February, both of which illustrate how important high-quality audio-visual presentation is to enjoyment. Projected onto a large screen in high-definition with a decent sound system, both provide solid entertainment that belies their lesser critical reputations, whereas the same films watched in standard-definition on TV or streaming video might be easily-forgettable diversions fully living up to their lower critical ratings. Subtract a half-star from each of the following ratings if viewed in SD with the audio played through a typical TV or computer speaker, and a full star or full letter-grade) from each rating if viewed not only in SD but in a pan-and-scan edition cropping off the sides of the widescreen picture.

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BOY ON A DOLPHIN (1957) 111m *** (Blu-ray released Oct. 25, 2016)
This is the film that introduced young Italian superstar Sophia Loren to American audiences, and this April marks the 60th anniversary of its release. The male leads were major stars Alan Ladd and Clifton Webb, with direction by the versatile Jean Negulesco. The film is a pleasant romantic archaeological adventure with Loren as a beautiful Greek sponge diver who discovers an ancient statue of a boy riding a dolphin (hence the title) in a shipwreck. The local doctor (Laurence Naismith) tells her they can become rich if they can find a wealthy American to buy it, a prospect that quickly arouses her interest, as well as that of her lazy and greedy boyfriend (Jorge Mistral). But she eventually becomes torn between working with a rich but ruthless art collector (Webb) or a handsome and more ethical archaeologist (Ladd) to dispose of the artifact. Loren is wonderful (and extremely attractive) in her role, and both Ladd and Webb give strong if predictable performances in their typical screen personas. The action, however, frequently slows or pauses completely in favor of leisurely travelogue shots of Greece, local Greek dancers and musicians, and plenty of underwater swimming shots. The lovely cinematography in color and CinemaScope by Milton Krasner is as much a star as the actors, as is the effective stereophonic recording of the Oscar-nominated score by Hugo Friedhofer. Both of these aspects rely heavily on the picture and sound quality to make up for the film’s narrative shortcomings. The larger the screen, the better, which will allow viewers to take in all the details of the picturesque scenery while listening to the nice stereo music, and make the travelogue aspects seem to go by faster until the plot eventually resumes.

Fans of the stars and anyone with at least a passing interest in ancient and/or modern Greece should find BOY ON A DOLPHIN appealing, especially in Kino’s fine Blu-ray edition, which has excellent overall image quality and sharpness with natural film-like grain (although colors sometimes seem slightly yellowish). The disc also has quite impressive stereo surround sound (if the DTS-HD 2.0 track is played through a Pro-logic decoder that restores all four original channels plus subwoofer information). The only bonus features are a standard-definition trailer (cropped to 1.85) plus trailers to five other Sophia Loren films: FIVE MILES TO MIDNIGHT (SD, 1.33, English narration), MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE (HD, 1.78, all in Italian without subtitles), YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW (excellent HD, scope, Italian with subtitles), SUNFLOWER (softish HD, 1.78, Italian with subtitles), and BOCCACCIO ’70 (SD, 1.85, English narration). There are no closed-captions on the feature.

BOY ON A DOLPHIN on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: D+


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WHAT A WAY TO GO! (1964) 111m *** ½
(Blu-ray release February 7, 2017)
Trouble-plagued during its preproduction and casting phase, the resulting film is a good example of a lavish Hollywood would-be blockbuster comedy that had reasonable success with audiences despite poor critical notices, but ultimately lost money due to its bloated budget. Seen over a half-century later, it can be appreciated for its accomplishments (it earned well-deserved Oscar nominations for some spectacular color art direction and Edith Head’s often over-the-top costume designs). The use of color, props, and costumes almost but not quite overwhelms the amazing assembly of actors in its all-star cast, who provide a large part of the film’s entertainment value, all of them very much getting into the spirit of the wacky plot. On top of that are some unexpected Hollywood satire and dark comedy. The film opens with pallbearers accidentally dropping a pink casket down a set of pink stairs in a pink mansion (we learn some time later the reason for the pink décor). Film collectors might panic during the opening 20th Century Fox studio logo, which is rendered in various shades of pink, like a heavily-faded Eastmancolor by DeLuxe print. However, very quickly the golden letters of the titles show up and the opening scene continues the pink motif with natural fleshtones, so it’s soon obvious the effect was intended.

Shirley MacLaine does a great job in a role originally intended for Marilyn Monroe and then briefly for Elizabeth Taylor, getting involved in various romantic relationships with Dick Van Dyke, Dean Martin, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum (in a role planned for Frank Sinatra), Gene Kelly, and Robert Cummings. Her problem is that whenever she gets married, her husband soon works himself literally to death, leaving her an ever-wealthier widow. Fed up with all that money but thwarted personal fulfillment, she tries to give $200 million to the IRS on April 1st, and when they realize it’s not an April Fool’s joke she gets sent to psychiatrist Bob Cummings. From then on the rest of the film unfolds in flashbacks as she relates her sad story. Along the way, each of her four marriages features a fantasy within the flashback, giving perhaps overly cutesy but very clever movie parodies of silent comedies (the Dick Van Dyke flashback), risqué French artfilms (the Paul Newman flashback), lavish Hollywood romances (the Robert Mitchum flashback), and Gene Kelly musicals (the Gene Kelly flashback, of course), many of them featuring quick cameos by once-famous movie stars. None other than Margaret Dumont, in her final film role, appears in the first flashback as Shirley’s mother, looking and sounding pretty much the way she did over 30 years earlier in the Marx Brothers comedies even though she was over 80 by this time. Tom Conway (also his final film), Fifi D’Orsay, Reginald Gardiner, and more are among other former big-name actors who show up very briefly. A number of other movie in-jokes, especially referring to Fox films (notably CLEOPATRA), occur throughout.

While it’s far from a perfect film, and tends to overdo the slapstick at times, WHAT A WAY TO GO! is a great treat for any movie buff familiar with its stars. The script is by the creators of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, and there are some obvious direct parodies of that film in the Gene Kelly sequence. Kelly appears to be having a ball satirizing the excesses of Hollywood stars and his own image. Director J. Lee Thompson, better-known for THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, the original CAPE FEAR, and a couple of the original “Planet of the Apes” films, here does a decent job handling what looks more like a pretty good Blake Edwards comedy.

Kino’s Blu-ray has great picture quality spotlighting Leon Shamroy’s beautiful color CinemaScope cinematography (again a very large screen makes a huge difference in picking out details that might otherwise go unnoticed). The mono sound is fine, although with this film’s budget, it is surprising it was not made with a stereo soundtrack. The only bonuses are a trailer (in SD), and trailers to PARIS BLUES with Paul Newman (in SD), FOREIGN INTRIGUE with Robert Mitchum (in HD), and another 1960s comedy THE HONEY POT (in HD), all available on Blu-ray from Kino. The main feature has optional English subtitles.

WHAT A WAY TO GO! on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: D
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostSat Apr 22, 2017 3:25 pm

Over a decade after the commercial introduction of the Blu-ray format there is now a huge variety of choices to explore, of titles new and old, popular and obscure, with major stars or unknowns. Sometimes one is not in the mood for a major classic, a heavy drama, elaborate action-adventure, or even a light comedy or romance. Sometimes it feels good to watch a simple formula genre picture unashamed of its low budget, be it a western, film noir crime story, murder-mystery, or horror-thriller. The latter two genres often blend together, as in two B-grade thrillers released in 1940-41 by the low-budget Monogram studio, both of which came out on Blu-ray from Kino about a month ago. It’s nice to see films like this made available in high-definition, even if the available picture elements have variable quality, and Kino’s inclusion of newly-recorded audio commentaries is a major selling point for fans of this sort of film.

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CHAMBER OF HORRORS (1940) 85m *** (Blu-ray released March 21, 2017)
This Monogram release is actually a British-made murder-mystery originally titled THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS, based on a novel by popular writer Edgar Wallace and directed by Norman Lee. When Monogram imported it, they naturally insisted on making it sound much more lurid than it really was by changing the title and promoting the few horror elements that are part of the plot. The malevolent family doctor (played with great relish by Leslie Banks), who is the primary antagonist, collects torture devices from earlier centuries that eventually figure into the action and inevitable climax, but these are not the main focus.

The film is mostly a pleasant “old dark house” mystery with plenty of comedy relief, about a beautiful potential heir (Lilli Palmer) and her wisecracking best friend (Gina Malo). They travel from Canada to England to the ominous estate whose deceased owner (as we see in a brief prologue before the opening title) had himself entombed with the family jewels in the house behind a door with seven different locks. Somehow she winds up with one of the keys and quickly discovers various strange goings-on, murders, and conspiracies to get all the keys. Of course she also finds a handsome Scotland Yard detective (Romilly Lunge) and his eccentric boss (Richard Bird) to help unravel the complicated plot. Palmer carries the film nicely as the central character and Banks has great fun hamming it up as the villain, recreating key elements from his performance in THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932). There may be some obvious formula, cheesy fight scenes, and minor plot holes, but overall the film is an entertaining example of the murder-mystery genre with just a tinge of horror. Besides fans of Leslie Banks and Lilli Palmer, devotees of the Charlie Chan films, the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, and the like should find it enjoyable.

Picture quality on Kino’s Blu-ray at first is very disappointing, quite contrasty with a softness to details. It later becomes quite good through much of the film but varies from time to time. This appears to be inherent in the film elements scanned, rather than a video transfer issue. Note also that the film actually runs 85 minutes rather than the 89 printed on the box or referred to in the audio commentary. The audio quality is only fair but the dialogue remains clear and understandable. Optional English subtitles are available for those who need them. The main bonus feature is an okay audio commentary by two horror buff/historians (David Del Valle and Kenneth J. Hall) that provides some interesting information but mostly rambles on about various other horror films and actors until something on the screen suddenly catches their attention and they talk about that for a while. They don’t really dislike the film but make no pretense that they’d rather be watching THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME. The only other bonus is a collection of four trailers to other B-horror thrillers Kino has available on Blu-ray: WHITE ZOMBIE (1932, in high-definition that ironically looks better than the Blu-ray release of that feature), THE BLACK SLEEP (1956), THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942), and DONOVAN’S BRAIN (1953), the last three all in standard-definition although the features themselves all have fine HD transfers on Kino’s Blu-ray editions.

Of those titles, John Brahm’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, another atmospheric British-set mystery masquerading as a horror film and this time with the polished production values of 20th Century Fox and a first-rate HD scan, would make an ideal double-feature with CHAMBER OF HORRORS.

CHAMBER OF HORRORS on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: C to B
Audio: B-
Extras: C+


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INVISIBLE GHOST (1941) 64m ** ½
(Blu-ray released March 21, 2017)
Monogram itself produced INVISIBLE GHOST, and its ultra-low budget is even more evident than in the low-budget THE DOOR WITH SEVEN LOCKS that they imported the previous year, especially the settings. Like that film, it’s primarily a murder-mystery-thriller that Monogram promoted more as a horror film, likely due to it starring legendary horror icon Bela Lugosi. In fact there’s very little mystery, since we learn very soon who is committing the murders and why, but have to wait until the end before things are resolved.

It’s a peculiar film that has built up something of a cult following, partly because Lugosi has one of his most prominent roles after 1939’s SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. Interestingly, his character is not a vampire, mad scientist, twisted servant, or one of the other stereotypes he has become remembered for, but is a straight dramatic part as a kindly head of a household whose wife had suddenly run off with his best friend some years before, apparently killed in a car crash with her lover. Again, we soon learn otherwise, but the rather odd film maintains the suspense and atmosphere throughout so that it still holds interest in a strangely compelling way.

The plot gets off to a great start with a really bizarre and eerie dinner ritual that establishes the uneasy mood before explaining anything. Memorable performances from Lugosi, Clarence Muse as his loyal and dignified butler, and Polly Ann Young (Loretta’s less-famous older sister) as his daughter help hold the film together through numerous plot holes and eccentricities. There’s a weird semi-supernatural telepathic hypnosis element that soon shows up, which drags the plot down a bit. Nevertheless, the cast pulls it off reasonably well, although John McGuire is only adequate as the love interest and former Oscar-nominated silent film star Betty Compson is sadly wasted as Lugosi’s almost spectral and now-insane wife.

Director Joseph H. Lewis makes up for the shortcomings of the script and the admittedly cheap-looking sets with effective and moody use of the camera, lighting, and movement of the actors. The movie is best-remembered as one of Lugosi’s all-too few truly starring roles after DRACULA in 1931. While far from great, it’s a must for Lugosi fans and connoisseurs of off-beat genre films.

After a rough-looking opening Astor reissue title that appears to be a spliced-on replacement, Kino’s Blu-ray has truly excellent picture quality for the first 20 minutes, likely from an original 35mm Monogram print. The rest looks like a fairly good 35mm dupe (an Astor reissue print?) that looks a lot like my pretty-good old Niles 16mm reduction print (one of their better-quality releases that they boasted was reduced from 35mm). There are another few extra-sharp minutes near the end, probably the beginning of the final reel, that match the quality of the first two reels. Sound is adequate. Bonus features include optional subtitles, a good audio commentary with interesting contributions from several historians (primarily Tom Weaver, Gary Rhodes, and Dr. Robert J. Kiss) packing lots of details into the brief 64-minute running time, and the same four trailers that are on the CHAMBER OF HORRORS disc.

Out of that batch of trailers the Lugosi cult classic WHITE ZOMBIE would be the best to double-bill with INVISIBLE GHOST, and/or the interesting United Artists period thriller containing Lugosi’s final studio film role THE BLACK SLEEP (also from Kino). Another good choice would be yet another Lugosi Monogram picture, William Beaudine’s VOODOO MAN (1942), which is on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive.

INVISIBLE GHOST on Blu-ray --
Movie: B
Video: A+ to B
Audio: B-
Extras C+
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Christopher Jacobs

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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostMon May 15, 2017 8:43 pm

Now back to some good old westerns (it’s been a while). Westerns are no longer as prominent among movie release schedules as they used to be, but for over half a century they ranked among the most popular genres in America’s theatres, with various western subgenres. The form gradually faded away during the 1960s and 1970s as “revisionist” westerns replaced the classic formulas that were soon appropriated by modern police stories and then science-fiction sagas. For the past generation movie westerns (with a few exceptions) have tended to be just another form of historical drama, rather than yet another variation on standard formulas. Part of the reason seems due to a feeling that the prevailing western formulas perpetuated an unrealistic view of positive American values always overcoming any sort of threats to public and personal well-being, a mythic past that never existed, and attitudes that promoted negative stereotypes (especially regarding race, gender, and violence).

It’s true that many vintage westerns ground out by studios to fill public demand (especially those from studios that specialized in the genre) followed simple formulas of good vs. evil and often reinforced assumed stereotypes. Most were intended as simple, diverting entertainment, even if some basic analysis can reveal any number of themes related to the time they were produced. On the other hand, westerns were such sure-fire moneymakers that more than a few filmmakers used the genre at the height of its popularity to subvert stereotypes, incorporating characters and situations that challenged audience preconceptions and/or reinforced changing values. Four recent Blu-ray releases from Kino-Lorber provide examples of both sorts of westerns from the 1940s and 50s.

Republic Pictures was a small movie studio that was active from 1935-1959. Although it produced and distributed a wide variety of genres, it is best-remembered for its low and modest-budget B-westerns starring the likes of John Wayne and Roy Rogers, and its action-adventure serials. Representative examples of each cowboy star’s entertaining Republic work (one from 1945, the other from 1950) made their high-definition debuts this spring. Two major-studio westerns from 1949 and 1950 have more overtly socially-conscious agendas, yet demonstrate almost diametrically opposite approaches to help shift public attitudes. One is a spirited screwball comedy and the other a serious fictionalization of an actual historical event. Both are now on Blu-ray, one released last November and the other last month.

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DAKOTA (1945) 83m ** ½ (Blu-ray released March 28, 2017)
John Wayne’s first starring role was in Raoul Walsh’s 1930 70mm western epic THE BIG TRAIL (on a nice Blu-ray from Fox, as well as three bargain combo Blu-ray sets), but when it bombed theatrically, due mainly to theatres unwilling to invest in widescreen equipment at the start of the Great Depression, Wayne became stuck for nearly a decade in ultra-low-budget B-westerns running about an hour or less, mostly at Republic. Many of his Republic westerns are available on impressive-looking Blu-rays from Olive Films. Wayne’s appearance in John Ford’s STAGECOACH made him a major boxoffice attraction but he stayed mostly at Republic for more than another decade, this time with somewhat bigger budgets and better scripts tailored to his screen style.

In DAKOTA (1945) Wayne has the key role of John Devlin (he often seemed to play characters named “John”), a free-spirited gambler who in 1870 elopes with strong-minded railroad heiress Sandra Poli (Vera Hruba Ralston), hoping to settle in California and search for gold. Sandy, however, has other plans, and has bought train tickets to St. Paul and stagecoach passage to Fort Abercrombie in Dakota Territory so they can take a riverboat north to Fargo. There, the business-minded bride tells her new husband, they can use the $20,000 she “borrowed” from her father to buy up land rights because she knows the railroad will soon be coming through and they can sell it back at a profit. Things start to happen on the boat when they’re robbed, and quickly realize that the overtly crooked businessman (Ward Bond) who pretty much owns Fargo is behind it, since he has his own plans to profit from the railroad’s inevitable arrival.

Wayne is predictably effective at this sort of thing, balancing romance, comedy, and action, and Bond as always makes a good villain. Ralston is quite pleasant and rather better than her reputation sometimes gives her credit for. Ona Munson has an all-too-brief appearance as a saloon "entertainer." The routine formula of land-grabbing investors scheming to cheat the local farmers is handled well enough in this reasonably proficient 82-minute B-western with a fine cast of character actors, and there are a few impressive sequences, notably a nighttime wheat field fire (obviously filmed day-for-night). The standard theme of American expansion and developing the frontier has a hint of metaphorical subtext about crooked investors, monopolies, and inside collusion as a common business practice (that certainly remains today). But any political-economic commentary is pretty much overwhelmed by the action, romance, and comedy going on. However, the comedy relief is too frequent and annoyingly forced (including an over-the-top Walter Brennan as a riverboat captain and some unfortunate racial stereotype humor from Nick Stewart as his assistant). Comedy relief is to be expected in B-westerns but its prominence here detracts from the main conflict and romance elements of the plot. Also this film includes far too many poor-quality rear-projections on soundstages taking the place of location shooting, saving on the budget but greatly lowering production values that even in cheap Republic productions usually look better.

Devotees of Fargo history and those knowledgeable in regional geography will also find the mountain-desert landscape on the stage ride across central Minnesota to be amusing, not to mention how large the town of Fargo is depicted at a time when there were only a few scattered settlers in the area. Hollywood historical research is rarely accurate, but they do differentiate “Fargo in the Woods” (by the river) from “Fargo on the Prairie” (a mile or so west, now in downtown Fargo). However, the town of Fargo wouldn’t become as viable as it’s shown until a few years after this story supposedly takes place, shortly after the railroad actually did arrive. Still, it’s fun to see a Hollywood movie set in Fargo, including references to Grand Forks and “Pem-BEE-na” (the northeast border town of Pembina is pronounced PEM-b’na locally) as riverboat stops. Interestingly there’s another Republic picture from five years earlier (THREE FACES EAST, on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive) casting John Wayne as a North Dakotan, but this time as a rancher offering a job in a dying small town during the modern-day dustbowl to an immigrant doctor and his daughter fleeing Nazi Germany. This one looks better as a film, but has less specifically about North Dakota as they all quickly mount a trouble-plagued caravan out of the dusty state to the west coast. DAKOTA, at least, makes an attempt to recreate an early period in the early history of north Dakota.

Kino’s Blu-ray of DAKOTA starts off rather soft-looking but gradually gets sharper as the film progresses and much of it looks excellent, albeit with periodic scratches. Sound quality is fairly good. The main bonus feature is an often-sporadic audio commentary by western historian Toby Roan, giving background on the major cast and crew, but never really discussing the film, story, or historical period. There are also HD trailers to five other westerns available from Kino.

DAKOTA on Blu-ray --
Movie: C+
Video: B+
Audio: A-
Extras: C+

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SUNSET IN THE WEST (1950) 67m ***
(Blu-ray released April 18, 2017)
Roy Rogers was a popular country singer on the radio and records in the early 1930s. He got into western movies in 1935 at Republic Pictures as a singing cowboy, a once-popular subgenre of westerns, where he rose to a top boxoffice attraction from the late 30s through the mid-50s, and then had a popular TV series. His early films concentrated on incorporating several songs within a typical western formula plot, although he occasionally had non-musical western roles. After World War II, most of his films were directed by leading Republic action director William Witney, who shifted the focus from songs to action and used Republic’s proprietary low-budget color process Trucolor (which used two complementary colors instead of three primary colors).

SUNSET IN THE WEST (1950) is a fine example of Roy Rogers at the height of his career. The film is a nicely plotted story about rancher Roy helping an old sheriff friend (Will Wright) and his niece (Penny Edwards) deal with gun-runners who have been hijacking freight trains near the Mexican border. It is paced effectively in a 67-minute running time, including a few above-average songs worked appropriately into the action (one by spunky saloon singer Estelita Rodriguez), good footage of a vintage steam engine, well-staged, well-edited fight scenes, and just enough character development with a clearly-defined conflict of good guys vs. bad guys in a town of citizens quick to jump to conclusions. Even within its familiar formula there’s a subtext implying that pervasive crime may well be masterminded by some wealthy and outwardly respectable but secretly corrupt member of the community. All this plays out in crisp, pleasant-looking Trucolor whose limitations to oranges, blues, and browns with acceptable fleshtones were well-suited to the needs of western color art direction.

Picture and sound quality are outstanding on Kino’s Blu-ray, mastered from a new 4k restoration from the original camera negative. A few very brief sections are grainy and contrasty, sourced from other film elements where the negative was missing or too damaged to use, but they are rarely more than 10-15 seconds at a time. There is an audio commentary that is pretty good (also by Toby Roan) but has increasingly longer pauses as it progresses. There are also trailers to four other westerns available from Kino.

SUNSET IN THE WEST on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+
Video: A
Audio: A
Extras: C-

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THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND (1949) 77m *** ½
(Blu-ray released November 1, 2016)
This movie with the extra-long alliterative title is noted comedy writer-director Preston Sturges’ witty satire of the western and its stereotypes. He’d already taken on the Hollywood system with SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941), war heroics with HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO and THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (both 1944), and marital relationships with THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942). Both SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS and PALM BEACH STORY are on great-looking Blu-rays from Criterion. While not quite up to those classics, BEAUTIFUL BLONDE… does a great job skewering stereotypes and undercutting popular expectations while telling a funny, if sometimes downright silly story. As usual, Sturges delights in pushing the edges of what the Production Code censors would approve in his rapid-fire dialogue and bawdy implications. His playing around with sexual, racial, ethnic, and social attitudes, not to mention the central theme of gun violence would likely incite complaints even from today’s politically-correct watchdogs. Yet he’s actually poking fun at sexist, racist, and knee-jerk violent reactions in an only slightly less-crazy way than Mel Brooks did a quarter-century later in BLAZING SADDLES and reverses gender stereotypes by having two strong (and aggressive) female leads.

Sturges’ eponymous protagonist Winifred “Freddie” Jones ( Betty Grable), is a crack-shot saloon entertainer and gambler. (In a cute prologue we see her learning to use a six-shooter as a toddler.) When during one of her music numbers she notices her two-timing boyfriend (Cesar Romero) go up to a room with a French floozy, she goes after him with her gun but accidentally shoots a judge (Porter Hall) in the rear end. More than once. Then she hops a train with her Mexican dancehall girlfriend Conchita (Olga San Juan), who has violently waylaid and stolen the luggage of a demure Swedish schoolteacher named Hilda Swandumper and her Indian assistant to serve as their disguises. Conchita reassures Freddie, “All Swedes look alike.” Conchita also has several snappy comebacks to various leering men who see her Indian costume and come on to her in clumsy pidgin English, and later has a lively argument with Romero in their native Spanish. Freddie explains to onlookers “she’s only half Indian,” and in true Sturges style Conchita confirms “I’m not pure.” The plot continues to unfold as Freddie takes the place of the real schoolteacher and (somewhat reminiscent of Mae West) comes up with rather unconventional ways of dealing with various challenges presented by the local townspeople, rowdy students, and a naïve, mild-mannered but romantic-minded mine owner (Rudy Vallee, parodying his own image). Of course she’s eventually found out during the film’s big shoot-out climax, leading to a somewhat predictable conclusion but with a few twists. Along the way there are numerous great character actors contributing to the fun (many of whom appeared in previous Sturges films), including Hugh Herbert, Margaret Hamilton, El Brendel, Sterling Holloway, Chris-Pin Martin, Harry Morgan, J. Farrell MacDonald, Chester Conklin, Al Bridge, George Melford, and more.

Kino’s Blu-ray has an impressively sharp, colorful HD transfer, although some scenes are slightly yellowish and/or pale compared to the majority. Sound quality is very good. The only bonus features are trailers to four other films, one of which stars Betty Grable.

THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND on Blu-ray --
Movie: A-
Video: A-
Audio: A
Extras: D

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BROKEN ARROW (1950) 93m *** ½
(Blu-ray released April 18, 2017)
About the time BEAUTIFUL BLONDE… was released by 20th Century Fox, Fox was going into production on Delmer Daves’ distinctly more serious BROKEN ARROW, starring James Stewart as historical figure Tom Jeffords, who befriended Apache chief Cochise and managed to arrange an equitable peace treaty with the U.S. Government in 1872. This straightforward dramatic treatment of overt racism on both sides reached theatres in mid-1950 and became a major hit, earning Oscar nominations for its sensitive screenplay, for Jeff Chandler’s performance as Cochise, and for its beautiful Technicolor cinematography.

A number of major silent films such as THE VANISHING AMERICAN (1925) and REDSKIN (1929) dealt with unfair treatment of Indians by the government and especially by its appointed agents, but BROKEN ARROW is one of the earliest sound films to portray Native American culture sympathetically. Few if any films had ever encouraged audiences to root for the Apaches against the Union soldiers in a major battle scene. Not only does Jeffords try to mediate between hostile Arizona townspeople and suspicious tribesmen, but he falls in love with an Apache girl (Debra Paget) who chooses him to dance with at her coming-of-age ceremony, and he goes through the traditional engagement-marriage rituals to make her his wife. Except for the key speaking roles, most of the Apaches are played by native American actors, with Jay Silverheels as Geronimo. In true Hollywood fashion the film takes its historical basis merely as raw material for a marketable and heavily fictionalized Hollywood film. Besides the convenient introduction of the interracial romance as a major plot point, Chandler about three decades younger than the actual Cochise was at the time of the treaty although Stewart was reasonably close to Jeffords’ actual age. The film also conveniently ends before the treaty was broken a couple years after Cochise’s death and the war with the Apaches resumed for more than a decade against Geronimo.

Picture quality on Kino’s Blu-ray is outstanding, with a crisp film-like image and rich color that resembles a good 35mm Technicolor print. Audio is also good. Bonus features include two very brief newsreels related to the film, a trailer, plus trailers to three other films in Kino’s library that feature James Stewart, Jeff Chandler, or Debra Paget.

BROKEN ARROW on Blu-ray --
Movie: A
Video: A+
Audio: A
Extras: D+
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostTue May 23, 2017 3:16 pm

Have been enjoying these reviews, which closely match my recent purchases. In mentioning Toby Roan, I am reminded that back in the day, The Roan Group released a laserdisc of CHAMBER OF HORRORS that looked quite a bit better than the print on the Kino disc. They even included an alternate title sequence with the original British titles.
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Re: Old Movies in HD: An Ongoing Guide

PostThu May 25, 2017 9:04 am

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ZAZA (1923) 84m *** (Blu-ray release date June 6, 2017)

Zaza is the story of a tempestuous French music hall performer who has an affair with a married diplomat; as the opening title explains, it was a vehicle for stars from Eleonora Duse (in the original French, I presume) to Sarah Bernhardt (in David Belasco's English adaptation), and it was made into a film three times— before this one in 1915 with Pauline Frederick, and after in 1938, with Claudette Colbert.

I suspect it got a little more tongue in cheek each time, and this version, with Gloria Swanson, starts out halfway to screwball comedy. Swanson's Zaza is a spitfire who engages in catfights with rival Mary Thurman about every reel, while her love for H.B. Warner— certainly dapper in a middle-aged way, but here a colorless, bloodless character, well on his way to his casting as one of the waxworks in Sunset Boulevard 27 years later— seems a mystery to be wrapped up quickly, and not all that convincingly, in the last reel. (You get the idea from the fact that in the Colbert version, he's the similarly drowsy Herbert Marshall.)

No, the fun here is that Swanson is having fun— it was shot at the Astoria studio in New York, and according to the notes, she was happy to be away from Hollywood, her latest husband, and the director of her last few pictures, Sam Wood. I don't normally think of Allan Dwan as some great maestro behind the camera, but she took to him and they worked well together. Dressed in gaudily loud, flouncy clothing liberally festooned with Z's, as if her jeweler were Zorro, she plays Zaza to the hilt and gets to do a little of everything— she dances, she swoons with love, she throws things, she Suffers Nobly as a Woman. That the plot will run in an 1899 fashion is just a structure to hang her personality on here, and it's all very enjoyable, despite the blank that is the object of her amour.

This Kino release was a Paramount production and shot by Hal Rosson (The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain), so it's as handsome as all get out, making use of both sets and, apparently, some real life Long Island Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous circa 1923. Print quality is good, not great— the tonal range is nice and it's handsome to look at, but not as perfectly sharp as one might wish; as the titles show, it's a bit battered, but I'm sure skillful cleanup was done digitally, as you really don't notice that during the film proper. Jeff Rapsis contributed the piano score, based on the original cue sheets, and it's pretty much ideal, moving adroitly between comedy and tasteful Continental melodrama. The only extra is a commentary track, as well as a short essay in the booklet.

Weird fact from the notes: Swanson's last picture with Wood had been a film called Bluebeard's Eighth Wife; the Lubitsch film from the same play was what Colbert made just before her version of Zaza.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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