Wednesday, January 31, 2007

ASTAIRE AND ROGERS: THE ULTIMATE EDITION (RKO/MGM 1933 - 1949) Warner Home Video


Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection is the complete filmic anthology of the screen’s most successful and fondly remembered dancing duo: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The set contains all ten of their efforts (9 made in B&W at RKO, the 10th and least memorable, conceived as a reunion at MGM nearly a decade after their partnership had ended) and is a comprehensive way to delve into an important part of Hollywood history in one fell swoop for a moderate purchase price.

The collection debuts with Thornton Freeland’s Flying Down To Rio (1933) – a film vehicle conceived for Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Raymond is cast as aviator and band leader of the Yankee Clippers, Roger Bond. So far, Bond’s penchant for the ladies has managed to get the band broomed from every hot spot in America. Bond’s latest conquest is Brazilian flame, Belinha de Rezende (Del Rio) who is already engaged.

But things really begin to heat up at the Hotel Atlantico when Roger and Belinha rekindle their romance under the radar of Belinah’s intended. The film is justly famous – and forever lampooned - for its flying circus finale in which a troupe of scantily clad ladies improbably tap dance on the wings of an airborne biplane. But it is also renown for ‘The Carioca’ a dance performed not so much ‘cheek to cheek’ as forehead to forehead by none other than Astaire and Rogers – cast as minor comic relief, Fred Ayres and Honey Hale.

On the strength of this film’s success, and the considerable notoriety that Astaire and Rogers generated with their routine, the two were paired for their first legitimate starring collaboration, Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934). Presumably because the idea that marital discourse could hardly be considered ‘gay’, the original title ‘The Gay Divorce’ was altered to reflect that only the person being divorced could exercise such a privilege.

In this comedy of errors, Mimi Glossop (Rogers) is the divorcee – or rather, would like to be. Her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) hires a professional to pretend to seduce her, thereby giving Mimi’s husband grounds for the divorce. But the plot goes awry as American dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) meets Mimi while visiting Brightbourne. She thinks he is playing the part of her paid seducer while he is actually falling in love with her.

A superlative Cole Porter’s score includes the elegant ‘Night and Day’ (sublimely danced by Astaire and Rogers) and the confounding ‘The Continental’ a twenty-two minute production number that unravels from poignant pas deux to all out tap dancing brawl for guests at a posh art deco hotel. This film set the standard for the rest of the Astaire/Rogers films – paper thin plot blown out of proportion by confounding and beautiful set pieces.

Next up is William A. Seiter’s Roberta (1935); Astaire and Rogers once again in supporting roles; this time to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. Football player John Kent (Scott) tags along with band leader and pal, Huckleberry Haines (Astaire) and his Wabash Indianans. The troupe arrives in Paris where John visits his aunt, Roberta (Helen Westley) the owner of a posh dress maker’s shop effectively run by her assistant, Stephanie (Dunne).

In Paris, the boys also run into former singer ‘Lizzie’ now masquerading as Comtesse Scharwenka (Rogers) who – no kidding - gets the Wabash Indianans a gig. Roberta dies. John inherits the business and thereafter plans to liquidate it to keep up his playboy lifestyle. But love predictably intervenes and the business is saved. Astaire and Rogers one grand moment to shine is in a dance to Kern’s haunting ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.’ For the rest, Roberta is elegant, if slightly off kilter entertainment.

Next, is the first hint that our duo is on the road to becoming legendary: 1935’s Top Hat. The film abounds with Astaire/Rogers clichés that, for their time were fresh and inviting and is a potpourri for Irving Berlin’s marvelous tunes including the sublime and romantic, ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ the charming, ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’ and the grandiose ‘Piccolino’ – a fiesta of tap set against the stunning backdrop of art deco Venice, complete with glistening black water canals.
Astaire plays showman Jerry Travers, a hoofer touring in a revue from producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Through a case of mistaken identity, Jerry is presumed to be Horace – a married man – whom Dale Tremont (Rogers) has already fallen in love with. Emotionally scarred by her mis-realization, Tremont attempts to marry her dress maker, Roberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) instead, but with comical results. Throughout, director Mark Sandrich never once fumbles these loose narrative threads, delivering an impeccably crafted musical extravaganza that is riotous, engaging and decidedly above par for the Astaire/Rogers collaborations that preceded it.

Sandrich is up to his old tricks again in Follow The Fleet (1936) a film that miscasts Astaire as able bodied seaman Bake Baker. Baker is out to rekindle his romance with old flame and hat check girl cum dancer, Sherry Martin (Rogers). Bake's above board shipmate, Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) is a bit of a rapscallion with the ladies, and he shows no signs of stopping when he takes up with Sherry's naïve sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard of future Ozzie and Harriet television fame).

Here’s the wrinkle – Connie wants a home and family and Bilge just wants to have fun. Can love blossom under these circumstances? Of course, but not before Bake and Bilge are thrown into the brig for jumping ship and breaking curfew. Berlin’s score is the real star of the film with such standards as ‘Let Yourself Go’, ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket’ and the haunting ‘Let’s Face The Music and Dance.’

Possibly the greatest of all Astaire/Rogers collaborations is George Steven’s Swing Time (1936). Astaire is put back in familiar garb – white tie and tails - as John Lucky Garnett. Garnett is engaged – repeatedly – to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). But after being tricked out of his nuptials for the umpteenth time, Margaret calls it quits. Determined to win back her affections, Lucky decides to earn enough money to woo her.

But instead he accidentally runs into – and nearly tramples - Penny Carroll (Rogers) a winsome dance instructor who mistakes Lucky for a flat foot. That kink is ironed out in the charming ‘Pick Yourself Up.’ Penny and Lucky develop a successful dance partnership. But their burgeoning romance is blunted when Margaret returns to reclaim Lucky whom she now deems worthy of her affections.

The film features three of Astaire/Rogers best choreographed routines; the aforementioned ‘Pick Yourself Up,’ the passionate and playful ‘Waltz in Swing Time,’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’ effortlessly conveyed inside a two-tiered glittering nightclub.

Arguably, there was nowhere to go but down and Mark Sandrich’s Shall We Dance (1937) does indeed begin that slow spiral – despite a brilliant score from George and Ira Gershwin. On this occasion, Astaire is miscast as ballet legend, Petrov Peters. Petrov orchestrates a not-so-chance meeting aboard an Atlantic luxury liner so that he can pursue a romance with Broadway musical star, Linda Keene (Rogers).

Unfortunately, reporters snap up the story and turn it into a nasty bit of gossip – touting a secret marriage that both Petrov and Linda feel they have to embrace to keep up appearances. The film’s key outstanding sequence is the delightful ‘Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off’ danced on roller skates presumably in Central Park – but actually on an RKO soundstage. The tragedy of the film is that George Gershwin did not live to see its completion – an immense loss to the artistic community that sent the production into a dower mood and tail spin even before its premiere. Though engaging enough, Shall We Dance is not vintage Astaire/Rogers, though frequently if gives a fairly good imitation of being as much.

The same is true of their next collaboration, Carefree (1938) – a politely amusing screwball comedy pretending to be a legitimate musical. Amanda Cooper (Rogers) is the on again/off again fiancée of Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Steve desperately wants Amanda to commit to him, so he sends her to his good friend, Dr. Tony Flagg (Astaire) to seek psychiatric counseling for her marriage phobia. One problem – Amanda falls in love with Tony and Tony is starting to dig Amanda. Amanda is hypnotized by Tony to hate him and love Stephen.

Despite having an Irving Berlin score, the film is really a one hit wonder – ‘Change Partners’ sung poignantly and with great affection by Astaire and later, and all too briefly, danced by Astaire and Rogers – presumably in a trance. Less successful is ‘The Yam’ – a colossally bad lyric and tune by Berlin and awkwardly danced by nearly everyone visiting a posh country club. The dream sequence that Amanda imagines dancing with Tony in a fairytale landscape is not much better.

By 1939, RKO was ready to abandon the Astaire/Rogers formula that had effectively kept them in the black for most of the 1930s. Hence, the studio’s farewell to their top box office draw (and Astaire/Rogers swan song for nearly a decade) was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939): a musical biography of the once successful dance team who invented ‘the Castle-walk’ and changed the face of ballroom dancing forever.

The film begins in earnest with Vernon (Astaire) falling in love with the stage-struck Irene Foote (Rogers). A few light-hearted misadventures later and the two are married. At Irene's insistence, they embark on a dance career that nearly impoverishes them. Enter agent (and fairy godmother of sorts) Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) who rescues the team from oblivion and transforms their meager beginnings into a brilliant career.

The chief problem with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is that it doesn’t adhere to any of the conventions of the typical Astaire/Rogers musical. It also does not have a very stylish ending. Vernon was drafted into service and killed in action during WWI. Because his widow had total creative control over the project, the film ends with Astaire’s death – hardly the sort of footnote any fan was expecting.

Nearly a decade passed before Astaire and Rogers reappeared on the screen together. In that interim, the Hollywood musical had greatly changed and so had Astaire and Rogers. Astaire became a highly successful dancer on a variety of projects at various studios in Hollywood. Rogers all but abandoned dancing to pursue her intentions as a ‘serious’ dramatic actress.
By 1949, producer Arthur Freed was ready to take a gamble on the old Astaire/Rogers magic at MGM with The Barkleys of Broadway – mishmash claptrap of clichés that ought to have stayed on the cutting room floor. Apart from reuniting the team to dance ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ (originally sung but not danced in Shall We Dance), Barkleys is a miserable artistic flop with so many misfires it’s hard to imagine a superlative producer like Freed allowing such a movie to be released.

The story concerns married couple, Josh (Astaire) and Dinah (Rogers) Barkley. On the surface, the two are the toast of Broadway. Behind the scenes they can’t seem to agree on anything. Eventually, this rift leads to divorce and the possibility that things will never be the same again. Far less corrective in the film are the musical offerings which range from the hoaky ‘A Weekend in the Country’ to the charm-free ‘My One and Only Healing Fling’ to the contrived and gimmicky ‘Shoes With Wings On’. The one outstanding new routine is ‘Bouncing The Blues’ a mesmerizing precision tap routine done as a rehearsal.

After previously releasing only five of the aforementioned movies in a single box, Warner Home Video now makes the entire collection available in one slickly packaged, slim-case box set: Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection. Despite advertising that all films have been digitally restored and remastered, the collection in totem is a mixed bag of offerings that – for the most part – will surely not disappoint.

The best transfers in the collection are The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Here, the B&W image has been impeccably cleaned up with fine details realized throughout. Solid deep blacks and very clean whites greet the viewer and the overall image is grain-free and quite smooth.

To a lesser extent Flying Down to Rio, Roberta and Carefree also deserve honorable mention for overall picture quality that is just a shade below the standard already discussed in the aforementioned titles. But Shall We Dance is a grainy, often softy focused, poorly contrasted and digitally harsh disappointment. Black levels are generally deep gray and whites are rarely clean. Age related artifacts are more prominent.

Finally, The Barkleys of Broadway – the only color film in the set – the Technicolor transfer is far from expectations. In fact, for much of the film, colors are quite muddy and softly focused. Flesh tones appear as garish orange or overly contrasted pink. There’s also an excessively dark haze that seems to plague much of the film. For example, Rogers’ green shimmering dress melts into the black background of the cab she shares with Astaire. Fine details are not realized.

Four of the films in this set come with an audio commentary and a featurette (the same four previously released in Astaire/Rogers Vol. One). This time around, all titles have been repackaged in Warner’s new slim-line cases. The rest of the films are only given bare-bones short subjects and theatrical trailers as their supplements. Extra disc: the exclusive to this collection and feature length documentary: Astaire and Rogers: Partners in Rhythm. The box set also includes a ten song digitally remastered CD of best loved musical moments and some vintage reproductions of art and press promotions for Roberta as well as publicity stills from behind the scenes. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Flying Down To Rio 3.5
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 2.5
Top Hat 5
Swing Time 5
Follow the Fleet 4.5
Shall We Dance 3.5
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2
VIDEO/AUDIO
Flying Down To Rio 4
The Gay Divorcee 4
Roberta 3.5
Top Hat 4
Swing Time 3.5
Follow the Fleet 3.5
Shall We Dance 3
Carefree 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 3
EXTRAS
4.5

DADDY LONG LEGS (20th Century-Fox 1955) Fox Home Video

Jean Negulesco’s Daddy Long Legs (1955) is a polite hiccup in Fred Astaire’s otherwise sterling 50s tenure. Although it affords Astaire the opportunity to dance with the leggy Leslie Caron in several sequences that are quite charming (most effective in their penthouse pas deux to Something’s Gotta Give) the tale of a French waif and her wealthy – much older – benefactor is more trite than treasured.

Julie Andre (Caron) is a benevolent English teacher in a school for French children. She is accidentally introduced to wealthy patron of the arts – and aspiring jazz musician, Jervis Pendleton III – a.k.a. John Smith (Astaire) after Pendleton’s car breaks down just beyond the gated orphanage.

The narrative trips along lightly enough through Andre’s maturity from college egghead to cultured young lady of the world. But then there are the dream sequences to contend with; the first a fantasy concocted in Jervis’ imagination as he reads grateful letters from Andre – who is writing in speculation of what he looks like.

In an attempt that seems all too desperate for an Astaire musical – Negulesco’s execution of the fantasy elements is both clumsy and garish – casting Jervis as a gregarious Texan, then cultured bore, then finally – as the aged December ideal of a young girl’s fancies. Whether uncomfortable with the dimensions of Cinemascope or directing his first musical, Negulesco keeps a great distance between the camera and his dancers – allowing for the vast 2:35:1 dimensions of the screen to almost swallow Astaire and Caron in a blank sea of backdrop.

The second ballet is a rather garish clumsy mess as Andre (Caron) assesses her life with or without Jervis – playing at various moments the young innocent, spinster clown and worldly prostitute. Finally, there is the heavy-handed way Negulesco handles all of the Johnny Mercer score, and the best song in the film (not written by Mercer) – Dream; only heard as backdrop sung by a heavenly choir with a lot of unnecessary reverb.

Designer John DeCuir – who never built small, on this occasion has delivered a stunning array of fifties chic that ironically doesn’t seem to date all that much from today’s vantage (well…okay, maybe that awful turquoise couch in Jervis’ office).

All in all then, Daddy Long Legs is a polite diversion in Astaire’s tenure as the greatest dancer on film. It’s neither terribly disappointing, nor up to the standards of previous or subsequent endeavors in his body of work.

The anamorphic DVD transfer from Fox Home Video is remarkable in both its clarity, detail and color fidelity. Rich, vibrant hues and deep saturation make for a stunning visual presentation augmented no doubt by Leon Shamroy’s elegant direction of photography. Fine details are present throughout. Age related artifacts are practically nonexistent. The audio is typically garish stereophonic 50s full channel – robust, hearty and loud whenever possible and quite brassy in Mercer’s scoring.

An audio commentary by laconic film historian Ken Barnes with Fred Astaire’s daughter Ava, and inserts from archival interviews with Johnny Mercer is the only real extra included herein. Stills gallery and a Movietone news reel are also included.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3.5

Monday, January 29, 2007

THE CHAMP (MGM 1931) Warner Home Video

King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) is the ultimate ‘tragic’ boxing story. The narrative is almost entirely seen through the optimistic eyes of child Dink Purcell (Jackie Cooper) who loves his alcoholic ex-heavyweight champion Andy (Wallace Beery) despite their squalid living conditions Andy’s frequent gambling and drinking debts have created.

The plot thickens when Andy takes Dink to a race tract in Tijuana. There, Dink is introduced to the lovely, wealthy Linda Carleton (Irene Rich), a woman who obviously is more than just a friend.

The kicker comes later: that Dink is actually her and Andy’s son – conceived years before when Andy was ‘the champ’ in all things. Linda's rich husband Tony (Hale Hamilton) figures out this link before anyone else and bribes Andy – not only into seeing Dink more frequently, but as blackmail - $200 against telling Dink who his mother really is. The prospect of having his son uncover the truth sends Andy on a binge.

He loses badly at horses and gambling and ends up in prison after a drunken tirade. Realizing that Dink’s place is with his mother, Andy promises to return for Dink when he’s made his comeback as ‘the champ’ – a misguided venture that leads to his ruin, for Andy isn’t nearly as young as he used to be and the mismatch of his last bout with the reigning Mexican champion in the ring ultimately dooms him.

The Champ is syrupy melodrama a la MGM of this vintage – a would-be gritty tale, made smooth around the edges by the studio’s lavish approach to every strata of society, whether or not that strata leant itself to such glorification.

Ultimately, the tale centers around the unique and poignant father/son charisma generated between Beery and Jackie Cooper; a quality absent in their relationship off camera – but convincingly embodied in the characters they play. We believe the tears, feel the pain, and ultimately come to love a character that otherwise might not be ours to embrace. All in all then, The Champ is a winner. It was remade in the 70s with John Voight and Rick Schroeder – painfully proving my point: that when it came to fanciful make-believe, no one quite managed to suspend reality as readily or with more success than MGM.

Warner Home Video’s transfer is very solid. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement crops up but nothing that will distract from the otherwise near pristine black and white picture. Grain is prevalent throughout. The image is sharp with fine detail available even during the darkest sequences. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are solid and deep. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras boil down to two short subjects and a trailer. Ho-hum.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

PIN UP GIRL (20th Century Fox 1944) Fox Home Video

H. Bruce Humberstone’s Pin-Up Girl (1944) is the film largely accredited with transforming Betty Grable into America’s #1 sweetheart for G.I.’s. However, if that’s the case, there is precious little to recommend either Grable or the film today. A decidedly dated pastiche of flag-waving, mired by a clichéd script from Libbie Block and Robert Ellis, the story concerns canteen cutie, Lorry Jones (Grable).

Lorry is off to join the USO. But not before a slight detour puts her in close proximity to her romantic ideal, naval hero Tommy Dooley (John Harvey). After finagling her way into Eddie Hall’s (Joe E. Brown) exclusive nightclub, Lorry meets Tommy and the two hit it off. Tommy gets Hall to hire Lorry – who fakes a past Broadway career as part of her résumé.

The fact that Lorry can, in fact, sing is just an added plus for the showman who eventually builds an entire review around her – much to the chagrin and fury of headliner and girlfriend, Molly McKay (Martha Raye). A wrinkle develops when Dud Miller (Dave Willcock) claims that he’s engaged to Lorry (a plot point easily explained away, as Lorry has become engaged to the entire armed forces as part of her ‘support the troops’ mentality).

It’s a telling hint that the best number in the film doesn’t feature Grable or her famous legs, but rather a novelty act – simply billed as ‘skating vanities.’ The number attempts (unsuccessfully) to emulate the geometric patterns of a Busby Berkeley musical but has some very skillful routines. If nothing else, they had to be very dangerous. The rest of the musical sequences are incongruously strung together without much thought. Grable’s dull and overly long military drill routine closes the show on a leaden note.

Fox’s DVD transfer is not very good. The Technicolor print is punctuated by an overly turquoise/blue palette that dominates and arguably overpowers all other colors. Flesh tones appear a garish orange or faded pink. Contrast levels are much too weak. The cumulative effect of these shortcomings is a generally muddy print that only occasionally appears sharp – though never detailed.

Overall, the image is much too dark to be enjoyed without viewing it in an entirely dark room. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. The audio has been remixed to stereo, but the mono is more than adequate for this sonically uninspired presentation. Extras include an audio commentary by noted film historian, Richard Schickel, ONE lobby card (not several, as the packaging suggests) and a theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2

WEEKEND IN HAVANA (20th Century Fox 1941) Fox Home Video

Walter Lang’s Weekend in Havana (1941) is atypical Fox musical fodder greatly buttressed by its lush Technicolor interpretation of Cuba. The plot begins in earnest when a ship runs aground on a reef in Florida. The owner of the line, Walter McCracken (George Barbier – who vaguely resembles the chicken hawk in the Warner Brothers cartoons) sends his son-in-law to be, Jay Williams (John Payne) to secure affidavits from all the passengers promising not to sue.

The only holdout is Nan Spencer (Alice Faye), a rather prudish department store sales girl who claims that her only vacation in ten years has been irreversibly ruined. To make a recompense for her inconvenience, and get her to sign the waver for the cruise line, Jay departs with Nan on a weekend in Havana – a lavish fairyland populated by plush nightclubs and swarthy caricatures of the roving lothario and lusty hothead.

In this former category, Nan meets Monte Blanca (Caesar Romero) – a slick and no good gambler who erroneously assumes that Nan has money…at least enough to pull him out of his debt to racketeer and club owner, Boris (Sheldon Leonard). He concocts a romantic liaison designed to extort the riches he believes Nan has, all the while under Jay’s watchful eye – growing more roving from his own fiancée, Terry (Cobina Wright).

There’s really not much to recommend the film beyond its lush settings and slick packaging. The songs are awkward and rather clumsy. In his desire to get things off to a quick tropical start – Lang opens the story with Carmen Miranda warbling the sultry title track. She is second billed – which is remarkable, considering how little she has to do in the actual film.

Fox’s DVD transfer is, for the most part, a sheer delight. The original majesty of three strip Technicolor exhibits a rich, detailed and ultra vibrant sheen that makes everything sparkle. Fine details are realized throughout. Contrast levels are bang on with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. There are several occasions where the Technicolor image momentarily falters with slight shimmering. There are also several brief occasions (mostly in stock shots of Havana) in which film grain seems quite excessive. Overall though, this is a very pleasing image that will surely NOT disappoint.

The audio has been remixed to stereo. The original mono is also included. There’s very little difference between the two except during the musical sequences. An audio commentary by Jeanine Basinger, ONE collectible lobby card (not more than one, as the packaging suggests) and the film’s original trailer round out the extras.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

JOHNNY BELINDA (Warner Bros. 1948) Warner Home Video

Jean Negulesco’s Johnny Belinda (1948) is a decidedly frank little film from Warner Brothers that provides a very compelling portrait of deaf mute, Belinda MacDonald played with uncharacteristic charm and depth by Jane Wyman.

Perceived by the town’s folk as a social outcast, Belinda has lived her life in complete silence on a remote farm off the coast of Nova Scotia, along with her gruff – though understanding father, (Charles Bickford) and his sister Aggie (Agnes Moorehead). But things begin to improve for all concerned with the arrival of Dr. Robert Richardson (Lew Ayres, doing a variation on his ‘Young Dr. Kildare’ persona that made him a star).

Dr. Richardson begins to understand Belinda’s isolation, teaches her sign language, and invests himself in restoring her to the community at large. However, all his hard work is seemingly shattered when Belinda becomes pregnant. The town’s folk – already a bunch of hypocrites – assume the doctor has taken advantage and boycott the two socially. Little does anyone suspect that boorish fisherman, Locky McCormack (Stephen McNally) is the culprit – having raped Belinda one evening in the grist mill.

Unable to speak her mind, Belinda accepts her lot, bears the child and begins to raise him on the farm. But the town’s folk have already decided that she is an unfit mother, and more to the point, that Locky and his new wife, Stella (Jan Sterling) should be the one’s to adopt Belinda’s son.

Attempting to take what he feels is his, Locky murders Belinda’s father by throwing him off a cliff, before charging the house. He is killed in an act of defense by Belinda, who is shortly thereafter put on trial for his murder. However, Stella – it seems – has had a change of heart. She confesses the unholy surprise to a packed court room.

The ending is more or less a forgone conclusion – not very cathartic and rather disappointing, considering the depth of character and narrative tension that director, Negulesco has infused up until that moment. Nevertheless, the film certainly commands a second look – primarily for Wyman’s masterful rendering of the spectrum of human emotions without ever uttering a single word.

Warner Home Video’s transfer on Johnny Belinda is very solid. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement crops up but nothing that will distract from the otherwise near pristine black and white picture. Grain is prevalent throughout. The image is sharp with fine detail available even during the darkest sequences. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are solid and deep. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras boil down to two short subjects and a trailer. Ho-hum.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

STORMY WEATHER (20th Century Fox 1943) Fox Home Video

In keeping with the threadbare and thinly veiled plots of like-minded one dimensional musicals of this vintage, Andrew L. Stone’s Stormy Weather (1943) is a moderately entertaining diversionary cavalcade of all-black talent. With its tigress cat-girls, tropical zoot-suited Dapper-Dans, the film effortlessly slinks by as a rambunctious confection of cliché and super kitsch on garish – if amusing – display. Put bluntly – you are not going to be watching this film for plot.

However, as compensation one is apt to be immeasurably impressed by the caliber and quantity of these musical performances; – Fats Waller sings ‘Ain’t Misbehavin,’ Lena Horne coos a half dozen songs – including the title track, and Cab Calloway and the Nicholas Brothers delight with the Jib Jab Jive finale.

The story, such as it is, loosely follows the exploits of Bill Williamson (dancing legend, Bill Robinson). Newly reinstated to civilian life after the ravages of WWI, Williamson meets the elegant chanteuse, Selina Rogers (Lena Horne) at a gala event given for returning soldiers. Though she is hard and unforgiving Williamson is hooked by her charms.

Instantly in love, Williamson vows to return to Selina when he deems himself worthy of her affections. However, settling down is not on Selina’s agenda. Feisty, determined and drawn into the fast life of celebrity, Selina relentlessly pursues her career. As the years roll by she and Williamson cross paths professionally. But the reunions do little to instill retirement. It is a bitter pill for Williamson to swallow, particularly since his career has now made him ‘worthy’ of any woman he should chose.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is disappointing. However, given the absolutely deplorable condition the film has appeared in on VHS and late night television in the past, this disc represents marked improvements. Contrast levels on the black and white image remain a bit lower than one would have expected with whites appearing light gray than white and blacks often a deep gray more than pure black. Age related artifacts are present but kept to a bare minimum throughout. The picture is slightly soft but again, not terribly distracting on the eyes.

Stereo and original mono tracks are presented on the disc, and although I am a purist on these matters, in the case of Stormy Weather the music does tend to benefit from Fox’s re-channeling efforts to faux stereo. Todd Boyd provides an accurate and enveloping audio commentary track as the film’s one genuine supplement.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

CABIN IN THE SKY (MGM 1940) Warner Home Video

Any intelligent critique of Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943) must first lay to rest whatever critical, and perhaps misguided, reservations persist about the issue of racism and its ‘place’ in Americana of the period – particularly within the context of film history. To begin with, the black perspective in films had until 1943 been largely neglected to quaintness for the benevolent slave and dutiful housekeeper.

Save King Vidor’s nostalgic Hallelujah (1929) –which viewed its actors as simpletons of blind religious faith, and 1936’s Green Pastures – which wholly dissatisfied its convoluted visitation on several Biblical verses reinvented for a black audience, the non-Caucasian in Hollywood was at best an appendage to the white establishment – loyal, thoughtful, menial background fodder destined for parody in minstrel shows or merely exploited as comic relief.

Cabin In The Sky had previously been a moderate success on Broadway where tastes in entertainment tended to run more the gamut toward tolerance than outright acceptance. To be certain, Lynn Root, Vernon Duke and John La Touche’s morality play about a wayward do-gooder Joe (Eddie Rochester Anderson) and his determined and forthright spouse, Petunia (Ethel Waters) played it safe by relying heavily on the aforementioned stereotypes.

Yet, in acknowledging this misrepresentation it seems equally prudent to reinstate what is usually and largely forgotten and rarely discussed, though quite obvious when attending a retrospective of 30s/40s American musicals: that rarely are any characters of this vintage – black or white – delineated beyond childlike comedic figures of fun within the musical/ comedy genre.

It must also be stated of MGM during this period, that they could have so easily chosen to ignore Cabin in the Sky – Broadway success et al – in favor of playing it safe with their prospering corporate image as purveyors of ‘family entertainment’. There is another reason to applaud MGM for its conviction. Hollywood’s foreign market, ergo its revenue derived from European exhibition was decimated by the outbreak of WWII.

Though every studio in Hollywood continued with varying degree to experiment with properties that were almost certain not to make a profit the general edict from the dream factories was to hone in the public need for certain kinds of entertainment and provide it to them without question. With its all black cast, Cabin in the Sky was a considerable gamble. Exhibitors in the deep South were more than likely to boycott its release – and did.

It is also saying much of director Vincente Minnelli that he greatly tempered the blanket stereotype of the simple-minded ‘darkie’ into varying gradations seem more enlightened in their understanding and tend to hold up far better than most of the period.

Petunia is not simple-minded (even as film scholar Todd Boyd suggest that she is in ‘Aunt Jemima mode’), but a woman of deeply instilled faith in the power of prayer. The filmic Georgia Brown (Lena Horne) is not as a woman of easy virtue as she remains in the play, but a decisive conniver whose greatest virtue is that she is able to break free of Satin’s power and recognize the error of her ways. Even character actress, Butterfly McQueen (as Petunia’s close friend and confident, Lily), whom arguably endured a legacy in idiotic depictions of child-like slaves and servants is prevented herein from repeating that expectation.

All things considered, Cabin in the Sky is a notable and noteworthy curiosity – developed with great patience under Minnelli’s direction as one of the most unique film musicals ever made. It does not represent the very best of the genre but it does bear the hallmark of perhaps the first ambitious attempt to separate those broad misrepresentations.

Warner Home Video’s DVD of Cabin in the Sky is a disappointment. Not only is it not presented in the original sepia tone it was originally photographed in, but the B&W image is a bit ‘thick’ in texture. Whites are never entirely bright but somehow more of a slightly off-putting gray. Occasionally, edge enhancement crops up, but nothing that will distract. Age related artifacts are present and minimally distracting. The audio is mono and very nicely presented at a moderate listening level.

Special features include an audio commentary by the wife and daughter of Eddie Anderson, Lena Horne, and noted black culture scholars Todd Boyd and Drew Casper. The curiosity in the extras is that Lena Horne’s rendition of ‘Ain’t it the Truth’ is absent. Instead, we are given a short subject – Studio Visit, in which a portion of that number exists, and the audio prerecording of Louis Armstrong’s rendition of that same song, which is lengthy.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

THE GOOD EARTH (MGM 1937) Warner Home Video

Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth (1937) is based on Pearl Buck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about Chinese peasants toiling under the hardships of famine, revolution and a thoroughly terrifying locust plague.

One of producer Irving Thalberg’s pet projects begun before – but released after – his death, the story is that of an introvert; young O-Lan (Viennese actress Luise Rainer looking and behaving remarkably convincingly as an Oriental). A slave in a ‘great house’ she is sold in marriage to farmer, Wang Lung (Paul Muni, a bit over the top and out of his depth on this occasion).

O-Lan and her husband work the land and are granted a son. But Wang’s father (Charles Grapewin) and freeloading uncle (Walter Connelly) are superstitious. Eventually their greatest fears are realized when a devastating famine wipes out all of Wang’s crops. Impoverished and forced to flee from the growing ominous shadows of revolution – O-Lan is nearly assassinated by revolutionary soldiers for stealing some jewels from the now decamped ‘great house.’

In a sequence that must rank among the finest Hollywood is ever committed to film, the estate is stormed by starving peasants, ransacked with terrifying speed, leaving O-Lan to be crushed under foot. Trampled, but alive, she awakens to watch as a firing squad shoots many of the peasants for their actions.

But before she can be shot the army is recalled to fight. The reprieve is bittersweet. Giving the jewels to Wang, he mounts a campaign to regain his land. But the plot turns sour when Wang decides to take up with a wanton loot player, Lotus (Tilly Losch), a woman who uses Wang for his money, then turns to his eldest son for affection.

Distraught, Wang banishes both his son and Lotus from the ‘great house’ while O-Lan, who has never fully recovered from her injuries sustained during the looting, looks on. However, before the harvest and exile can take place, a horrifying plague of locust descend on the crops. This sequence is one of the most viscerally disturbing.

Wang’s son comes up with the idea to set ablaze part of the fields to create a smoke barrier between the locust and the rest of the crops. The plan works and Wang’s faith in his son is restored. O-Lan, grateful for the small mercies God has shown them, lies on her deathbed, even as Wang and the rest of the family celebrate the marriage of his son to another Chinese woman. For sheer spectacle and magnificent performances The Good Earth is as fine a film as any Hollywood has ever made. It should be seen by everyone.

Warner’s DVD transfer on The Good Earth is perhaps a tad below par, but still quite viewable. The gray scale in many scenes has been rendered with care. Age related artifacts are perhaps a bit more prevalent on this occasion but still do not distract. Several scenes have an excessive amount of film grain that is just a little distracting – though still, not terribly. Contrast levels are perhaps darker than one would have expected, with fine details often lost during night scenes. The audio is mono, as it should be, and presented at a reasonable listening level. Extras amount to two short subjects and a trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

PINKY (20th Century Fox 1949) Fox Home Video

Cyd Rickett Sumner’s exploration of miscegenation in the prejudiced South was at the crux of his explosive novel, Pinky (1949). In translating the book to screen, writers Philip Dunne and Dudley Nichols lost very little of the potency achieved in Sumner’s tale. Under director, Elia Kazan’s masterful direction, Darryl F. Zanuck’s personal production emerges as a thoughtful, critical and often shocking depiction of a young woman’s desperate attempt to escape her own race.

Patricia Johnson – ‘Pinky’ for short (Jeanne Crain in a role campaigned hard for by Lena Horne), has just returned home after graduating from a nursing program in the North. There, she has fallen in love with Dr. Thomas Adams (William Lundigan) a prominent physician from an upstanding family. All seems right and good – except that Pinky has been concealing her true identity. Born to a black mother and raised by her black grandmother (Ethel Waters), no one suspects that Pinky herself is a black woman.

Determined to escape her heritage, Pinky shuns an invitation from Dr. Canady (Kenny Washington) to induct and help train his African American students. At the behest of her grandmother, Pinky reluctantly takes on the responsibilities of caring for an ailing white woman, Mrs. Em (Ethel Barrymore). For Pinky the assignment is akin to the menial and degrading servitude her grandmother has had to endure. Resenting her charge, Pinky does eventually develop a friendship with Mrs. Em that is based on mutual trust and understanding.

As repayment for her kindness she inherits Mrs. Em’s estate – a good fortune that comes with repercussions. Although Mrs. Em’s belligerent and racially motivated family contest the will, they lose their case only after Pinky decides that the land she has been given is worth fighting for. Assuming the tasks of a laundress, Pinky earns the right to be whatever she chooses – but only if she continues to pretend to be white.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is abysmal and disappointing – with an excessively grainy and rather rough looking B&W image. The gray scale fluctuates from passable to much too darkly contrasted with very dirty whites. Occasionally the image appears softly focused and/or blurry. Edge enhancement is also a problem in several scenes. The audio is presented in both mono and re-channeled stereo. An audio commentary by Kenneth Geist is the one notable extra – very informative and engaging. *IMPORTANT NOTICE: This title NOT available in Canada.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
3

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (20th Century Fox 1950) Fox Home Video

Otto Preminger’s Where The Sidewalk Ends (1950) is quintessential big city noir, yet problematic storytelling, that nevertheless manages to get top marks all around. Bizarre to say the least, it stars Dana Andrews as Detective Mark Dixon. Dixon is a wild card. His father, Sandy was a criminal of the lowest order who died when Dix’ was only seventeen – some say at the hands of new mobster-about-town, Tommy Scalise (Gary Merrill, in an unusually slimy bit of ham acting).

Dixon is determined to shake down Scalise, especially after rich Texan, Will Bender (Don Appell) ends up with a knife in his gut at one of Scalise’s floating crap games. Bender and Scalise stooge, Ken Paine (Craig Stevens) got into a bit of a scuff just prior to Bender’s untimely demise. A once decorated war hero who nevertheless likes to beat the stuffing out of guys with cash, and, smack his wife, Morgan Taylor (Gene Tierney) around when she doesn’t behave, Paine is primed for a frame up.

At least that’s how Dixon sees it. Hightailing over to Paine’s apartment, Dixon accidentally slugs G.I. Joe in his steel plate, killing his witness. Rather than confess the accident, Dix’ concocts an elaborate hoax and frame up of his own. Only that plan backfires when Morgan’s father Jiggs (Tom Tully), who Dix’ also knows, gets nailed for the crime.

In the final reel Mark decides its better to die than get arrested for killing Paine. He pens a confession to be opened at the time of his death. But surprise, surprise…Mark lives to take the wrap. Seemingly untouched by the fact that the man she’s been romancing for nearly two hours has not only been a liar but the killer of her husband, Morgan vows to see Mark’s pending arrest and incarceration through. Now, ain’t love grand?

The chief problem with the narrative patched together by Ben Hecht and Robert E. Kent is that it zeros in on Dixon from the start. As the audience, we know Dix’ is guilty of murder and a cover up and we can’t help feeling a bit sorry for Scalise, even though he probably murdered the Texan. Where The Sidewalk Ends was a much anticipated reunion flick for Andrews and Tierney who had previously costarred to exemplary effect in Preminger’s Teflon-coated masterpiece of romantic noir, Laura (1944). Yet, as the story wears on Tierney’s character, Morgan, gets pushed aside in favor of a cynical and critical exploit surrounding Mark’s guilty conscience.

Fox’s DVD transfer is near perfect. The stark noir lighting is ideally captured with deep solid blacks, bright whites and a minimal amount of film grain. Fine details are evident throughout. There are no digital anomalies for an image that is smooth yet sharp and ever so easy on the eyes. Truly, there are no complaints here. The audio is mono as it should be and is presented at an adequate listening level.

By now Alfred Newman’s ‘Street Scene’ music is beginning to wear thin on my acoustic nerve. It seems that nearly every Fox noir and/or melodrama (as well as the Marilyn Monroe comedy ‘How to Marry a Millionaire’) has found a way of inserting repeated strains from this one piece of music. Yes, it’s a brilliant composition. But on the 900th listen it does tend to drive one to distraction…like having the needle on an old gramophone stick in the same spot.

Extras include a fairly informative audio commentary, stills gallery, theatrical trailers and Fox’s utterly annoying ‘downloading movies is illegal’ preview that, honestly, isn’t likely to dissuade those who are pirating DVD’s to throw in the towel any time soon. It’s just frustrating for the rest of us who want to pay for the privilege of watching movies without commercials.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

ISLAND IN THE SUN (20th Century Fox 1957) Fox Home Video

The career of 20th Century-Fox mogul/producer Darryl F. Zanuck had reached an impasse by 1957. Perhaps, in part, because Zanuck had left both his studio and his wife, Virginia in favor of a career as independent film maker and aging love interest to actress Bella Darvi, Zanuck’s tastes in motion picture entertainment veered toward personally supervising the Cinemascope production of Island in the Sun (1957): a critical reexamination of love deemed illicit – not on the basis of marital infidelity but on the issue of miscegenation.

Determined, as he had done in the past to advance social justice by exposing the tyranny of prejudices in American culture, Zanuck launched an impressive film with an all star cast, in which black actors Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belefonte are perceived as equal to – if not better than – their white counterparts; James Mason, John Williams and Joan Fontaine.

Belafonte is David Boyeur – a staunchly outspoken labor leader battling racial injustice on an island in the British Caribbean. He is admired from afar by Mavis Norman (Fontaine); a growing mutual admiration that blossoms into romance against this backdrop of political turmoil.
Regrettably, Zanuck was forced to tone down the passion between Boyeur and Norman more explicitly realized in Alec Waugh’s novel. As a result, the subplot involving the Fleury family – American ex-patriots living in exile with their closet full of secrets that include racism, infidelity and murder - were given more meaty attentions.

As expected, the one unrequited kiss shared between Mavis and David sparked moral outrage in the south and Zanuck regrettably omitted most any and all reference to their having been lovers – they’re just good friends. The film is atypical of Fox films of this period – employing Cinemascope for glossy locations, pristine and generally sanitized storylines and a not so unexpected plot twist or two. In retrospect, Island in the Sun does not break new ground or old social taboos but helps assure its audience that fun in the sun comes with its limitations.

Fox’s DVD is astoundingly good. Rich vibrant colors, excellently balanced and with accurate contrast levels, the anamorphic picture will surely please in all aspects. The sumptuousness of 50s Eastman stock is evident. Flesh tones tend to appear a tad on the pasty beige side. Transitions between scenes suffer from minimal degradation as was an inherent flaw of all ‘scope’ productions.

A few scenes seem to be softly focused but these are not particularly distracting either. Age related artifacts are present, but kept to a bare minimum. The audio is a lush 5.1 Dolby Digital remastering effort and it brings back the directional splendor of early stereo recording. Dialogue is perhaps overly pronounced – bearing in mind that most of it during the mid-50s was – but overall the listening experience recreates what audiences heard in 1957.
*Important Notice: this title is NOT available in Canada.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

THE DARK CORNER (20th Century Fox 1946) Fox Home Video

How odd to find ex-MGM glamour girl and comedian extraordinaire Lucille Ball starring in a film noir; and how wonderful to discover her talents amply suited for Henry Hathaway’s razor-sharp thriller, The Dark Corner (1946). Lucy is Kathleen, the ‘faithful as a bird dog and can’t be devious’ secretary to private eye, Bradford Galt (Mark Stevens). Galt is working his usual batch of unhappy home wreckers when he decides to take a break from the fray with Kate. But the evening turns mysterious when they are tailed by Stauffer (William Bendix) – a decoy designed to put Brad in all the wrong places, starting with a frame up for the murder of his ex-friend, Anthony Jardine (Kurt Kreuger).

Meanwhile, on the more fashionable end of town, art dealer Hardy Cathcart (Clifton Webb) is entertaining a gala event at his glittering salon. Married to the stunning, and much too young-for-him beauty, Mari (Cathy Downs), Hardy doesn’t suspect that Jardine and his wife are lovers – that is, until the two become stupidly obvious in their love making.

As the chips begin to fall and it looks as though Brad’s going up the river for a crime he didn’t commit, he confesses to Kathleen his deep dark past – that he was framed and took the wrap for Jardine’s criminal activities several years before, a loyalty which doesn’t make much sense but that ironically makes Jardine’s untimely demise look ideally like an act of frustrated revenge.

Hathaway’s direction is rather nimble throughout, moving his characters around like ill fated chess pieces jumping toward their untimely demise. Okay, hiding a body under one’s bed and waiting for the upstairs maid to find it while vacuuming isn’t exactly sound logic or film making – but it gets the prerequisite laugh.

Constance Collier makes a welcome addition to the cast, playing one of her delightfully whacked out society dames – Mrs. Kingsley – for which the character actress was justly famous. Ditto for Clifton Webb’s run-of-the-mill, slightly homoerotic performance as Cathcart – a man who lusts after portraits that resemble his wife.

Running a scant 99 minutes, The Dark Corner gets into more than a few crevices, tipping over rocks and rare collector’s art with equal aplomb and finding the moral decay and grit of low society in some of its highest places.

Fox’s transfer on The Dark Corner isn’t ideal. Although the gray scale is relatively stark and stylized – as it should be – and fairly free of age related artifacts, there’s a considerable amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details that crop up sporadically throughout this DVD presentation. Watch for Kathleen’s V-stripped coat to shimmering uncontrollably, as well as background spectral highlights on telephones, chairs and most any other shiny surface. The audio is presented in original mono and a stereo remix. Both are adequate – the stereo only marginally spread across the three front channels. Extras include trailers for this and other Fox Noir titles, as well as an audio commentary by James Ursini.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

KITTY FOYLE (RKO 1940) Warner Home Video

I remain at a loss to explain how Ginger Rogers performance in Sam Wood’s Kitty Foyle (1940) earned a Best Actress Oscar over Joan Fontaine’s tour de force in Hitchcock’s Rebecca.

Does Ms. Rogers give a bad performance? - decidedly not.
Katherine ‘Kitty’ Foyle (Rogers) is the product of an era when working women were a novelty. The film spoofs that – even then – bygone era through rose colored glasses. Fast track to contemporary (at least for 1940) life – a woman doesn’t get any consideration or even a seat on the bus.

Kitty is a struggling working gal – albeit living in fashionable clothes in her equally fashionable apartment and with narrowly a care in the world. Hers and the film’s biggest dilemma is which man she should choose – self-centered rich beau, Wynnewood Strafford VI (Dennis Morgan) who merely toys with her affections or flirtatious doctor, Mark Eisen (James Craig) who has offered his hand in marriage and only seems to have Kitty’s best interests at heart. Well…duh? Like, who would any woman pick?

Still, Kitty’s heart goes flip and flutter-up each time Wynn bats an eye. Though she’s less of a cliché around Mark, there’s really nothing to suggest that Kitty will choose either before the final fade out. RKO Pictures spent a lot cultivating a story they thought would appeal to their primarily female audience – and to the tune of $869,000 they were surely not disappointed.

Yet the film continues to feel flat in spots – the machinations of ‘will she or won’t she’ reaching their most entertaining crescendo after Kitty confronts Wynn’s stuffy parents and family – declaring her independence. Overall, the best that can be said of this film in retrospect is that it does not expect too much of its audience. Rogers delivers a rather par for the course performance, but the rather impressively mounted film has mood, setting and atmosphere on its side – all three undoubtedly proving winners.

Warner Home Video’s transfer is another treat. Picture quality on this DVD is remarkable. The gray scale has deep solid blacks and fine tonality throughout. Whites are generally clean. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum. This is a wholly visually satisfying transfer. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented in its original mono at an adequate listening level. Extras are weak – two short subjects from the vintage.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
1

VICTOR/VICTORIA (MGM 1982) Warner Home Video

Is she a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman? Or is he a woman, pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman?

Blake Edward's hilarious gender-bending musical comedy Victor/Victoria (1982) places pert and plucky Julie Andrews at the forefront of this convoluted question. Andrews is Victoria Grant – a struggling chanteuse who is about to lose all hope when she is ‘discovered’ by gay nightclub entertainer, Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd (Robert Preston, as a magnificent queen). Under Toddy’s tutelage, Victoria discovers her edge; she’ll become Count Victor Grezhinski – a drag queen female impersonator in posh Paris, circa 1912.

Confusing? Yes, but magnificently pulled off with old time musical panache and style. However, a wrinkle in Victoria’s success arrives in the personage of Chicago racketeer and lady’s man, King Marshand (James Garner). Staking his reputation – that he could not be so attracted to Victoria unless she were, in fact, a woman, King is determined to expose the truth behind the facade, much to the chagrin of his oversexed plaything, Norma Cassidy (Lesley Ann Warren).

Blake Edwards cut his teeth of frothy entertainments such as this throughout the 1960s and Victor/Victoria is the benefactor of his years of expertise. In a decade buffeted by cynicism and sex, Victor/Victoria sparkles with a shimmer bigger and brighter than the Hope Diamond.


Julie Andrews give her last truly great performance in the musical genre; a delightful and effervescent turn that is believable as both male and female. Ditto for the late Robert Preston (better known to many as The Music Man) who is obviously relishing his larger than life alter ego as a gay impresario. James Garner's macho gangster is a wee bit too heavy to tolerate at times, but is given good counterbalance by Leslie Ann Warren's devilishly obtuse sexpot.

Edwards' screenplay, based on Hans Hoemburg's concept and Reinhold Schunzel's 1933 screenplay is a winning update - ever so slightly tweeking the comedy to suit a more contemporary palette.

Henry Mancini's musical numbers interpolated between the plot and gags are as scintillating as the comedy. Andrews stops the show with Le Jazz Hot; Preston warbles the risque solo, ‘Gay Paree’ with sublime eroticism. He's even better paired with Andrews for the charming ‘You and Me’ and later, gives the comedic performance of his career when he takes Victoria's place in drag for 'The Shady Lady from Seville'. Leslie Ann Warren is too hilariously, belting out the raunchy ‘Chicago Illinois’ without any subterfuge.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is spectacular. Colors are warm, rich and vibrant. Some scenes appear softly focused, but overall the image is quite sharp without appearing digitally harsh. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. The image is very smooth, capturing most of the frothy pastels in Dick Bush's luminous cinematography.


The newly mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital thunders across the screen during musical sequences and is very ambient throughout the rest of the film. An audio commentary with Edwards and Andrews is fairly dull and gets old fast! Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (Universal 1982) Universal Home Video

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) is based on a real life incident involving one of Texas’ oldest operating bordellos, The Chicken Ranch. Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds) is a small town good ol’ boy in love with the madam of this house of ill repute – Ms. Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton). Mona hasn’t ‘been’ with another man since Ed Earl. Her exclusivity has cost her a few friends and a lot of cash. But it has also cemented their relationship. Mona runs her business tight, making sure all her girls are ‘ladies’ first. She even makes civic contributions to the town and its little league baseball team.

In fact, everyone adores her; everyone except self righteous crusading fanatic and muck-raking television celebrity, Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise). Melvin doesn’t really believe that sex is immoral and sin is akin to leaving one’s knickers in a ball with a few bucks on the bureau. But his smut laden diatribes are good for ratings.

Melvin assures Ed Earl that he and the town have nothing to fear from his TV cameras, then sets about to utterly humiliate both the sheriff and the town's folk on his national platform.

His daily assaults lead to friction between Earl and Mona. She reconsiders her position in town and he is forced to make a decision about his very public love affair with her. Does Ed really love Mona? When pushed to respond, Ed temporarily chokes and this leaves Mona feeling betrayed and insecure. She exiles Ed from her bed and the ranch and closes the bordello for an extended period.

Meanwhile, Ed goes to Austen to beg for a reprieve from the governor (Charles Durning). And although the governor sympathizes with Ed's predicament, the polls show that more Texans would prefer Ms. Mona close her doors for good than carry on in her chosen profession.

The news arrives at Mona's doorstep. And although Mona expected as much from the governor's decision her doubt in Ed is shaken to its very core when one of her working girls informs her how long and hard the sheriff fought for her to keep her dignity and profession alive. On her last day in town, Ed returns to the bordello professing his love. She will leave her home to live with him.

The real life Ed Earl Dodd married Ms. Mona and went on to become a popular legislator in the assembly. The film leaves their future open ended, in a cloud of dust as Ed drives away from the ranch for the last time.

The screenplay by Larry King, Peter Masterson and director Colin Higgins abounds in folksy redneck clichés about small town hicks, fast talking whores and slippery tongued politicians. The characters are all characters themselves - larger than life cut outs from a tapestry as wide as the plains of Texas. William A. Fraker's cinematography is colorful and perfectly captures that 'lighter than air' essential of the big time Hollywood musical.

Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds have genuine on screen chemistry. Jim Naybors, Dom DeLuise, Charles Durning and Teressa Merritt add to the homespun patina of friendly folk. Viewed through Robert F. Boyle's cozy production design the Chicken Ranch is a place most anyone would find homey enough to spend a few hours. Apart from the film’s rather obvious appeal - there's also lots of good music, some really stellar dancing, a whole lot of comedic wit peppered throughout with just a tad bit of the naughty tacked on for good measure. But hey, as the film’s tag line proudly proclaims, ‘there ain’t nothin’ dirty goin’ on!’

WHY ISN'T THIS ON BLU-RAY?

If there's room for the joyless The Wiz on Blu-ray, then there's most definitely room for the cheerful and charming The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Universal Home Video has provided a beautiful looking DVD transfer; remarkably clean with rich and vibrant colors. Contrast levels are exceptionally well balanced. There’s a good amount of fine detail present. Some darker scenes are perhaps a bit too softly focused. But there are no digital anomalies. The 5.1 soundtrack, though dated, is quite robust and engaging.

Dialogue sounds less than natural but the musical sequences pack a wallop. Extras include a making of featurette that is succinct, some hilarious outtakes in which the cast lets loose with all the four letter words they almost used in the film, and a darling theatrical trailer that features a song not included in the film; Dolly Parton singing ‘Down at the Chick-chick-Chicken Ranch’.

Bottom line: This is homespun, sexy-good fun that performs with a strong desire to go for a ride in the country. No pun intended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

THE CARY GRANT BOX SET (Columbia 1937-1942) Sony Home Entertainment


After soaking the paying customer with exorbitant prices for their lackluster and bare bones DVD transfers of classic releases it appears as though Columbia/Tristar Home Video (newly christened as Sony Home Entertainment) has had a change of heart – or, at the very least, a change of marketing strategy – with their release of The Cary Grant Box Set; a five disc compendium that exemplifies the very best work done by the actor under the old Columbia Pictures banner.

The set includes the screwball classics The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), The Talk of the Town (1942), the more serious Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and the never before released to DVD, Holiday (1938) – a trifle that is quaint and charming, if not up to the level of artistic standards set by the rest of the films included herein.

Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937) is a truly outstanding screwball comedy. Jerry (Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) divorce on a whim, then spend the rest of their time trying to get back together. The reason for the split: Jerry suspects that Lucy was having an affair with her music teacher, Armand Duvall (Alexander D’Arcy), even though the film hints that it is he, Jerry who was the one being unfaithful from the start.

Lucy attempts a static romance with foppish mama’s boy, Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy again). But Dan’s mother, (Esther Dale) isn’t convinced that Lucy and Armand are ‘not’ an item. Meanwhile, Jerry tries his hand at seducing a nightclub singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), a move that leads to one of the all time great burlesque comedy numbers ‘My Dreams are All Gone With The Wind.’

Failing that attempt, Jerry next becomes entangled with the stuffy socialite, Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). However, that amour is laid to rest when Lucy appears incognito as Jerry’s marvelously tacky sister – performing an even more riotous rendition of the aforementioned ‘Dreams’ number. Ultimately, Jerry and Lucy find true love where they ought to have been looking for it all along – in each other’s arms; a forgone but nevertheless fitting end to one of the all time great comedy classics.


Director, George Cukor’s Holiday (1938) is an anti-capitalist tale of free-thinker Johnny Case (Grant) who finds himself almost accidentally betrothed to a millionaire's daughter, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Despite Johnny’s lack of wealth (he hasn’t the proverbial ‘pot’ to his name) Julia’s family embraces the marriage – that is, until Julie’s father desires to have Johnny assume responsibility in their family business.

The request forces Johnny to rebel and take a ‘holiday’ with the black sheep of the family, sister, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda’s accomplice in this matter is her drunken brother, Ned (Lew Ayres). Both Linda and Ned have had their artistic flair beaten into the dust under the weight of familial responsibility and both sympathize with Johnny’s desire to escape. With the ‘not so subtle’ aid of friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan Potter (Jean Dixon), Johnny eventually makes up his mind.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) is director Howard Hawks’ dark and brooding tale of the short shelf life affixed to South American mail plane pilots. While waiting for her embarkation to parts unknown, American ingénue Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is detained at a small landing strip. The pilots there have almost sworn themselves to a suicide pact by delivering the mail across dangerous foggy mountains.

Geoff Carter (Grant) is the lead flyer – a rough and tumble by-the-seat-of-his-pants man’s man who is at once cold and aloof. After one of their own meets with a fiery end, the rest of the crew’s perceived lack of understanding forces Bonnie into a direct conflict with Geoff; a conflict heightened when Geoff’s old flame, Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth) shows up to pitch a little woo on the side – even though she has her own husband in tow. Hawks gets to the grit and adventure of the piece without getting mired in its seriousness.
Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940) - a remake of The Front Page - recasts the part of Hildy Johnson as a woman thereby creating one of the most sublime ‘battles of the sexes’ romantic comedy ever conceived for the movies. Hildy (Rosalind Russell in her best role) is the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Grant), a ravenously enthusiastic newspaper editor who still thinks he can win back Hildy’s heart. One problem: Hildy’s become engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, in a variation on the sort of ‘long suffering’ foppish roles that made him a solid second string actor).

Not that Walter will let a little thing like love with a tax attorney stand between him, Hildy and the greatest scoop of either one of their careers. After all, when Walter aims high, he does tend to hit low…at least below the belt. Peppered in great vignettes and rapid fire overlapping dialogue that is so incendiary it’s a wonder how many of the gags got past the censors, His Girl Friday is an untouchable among screwball classics – a genuinely inspired bit that never ceases to entertain.

George Steven’s The Talk of the Town (1942) is a film of various shadings. It begins in earnest as a prison break adventure; mutates into a romantic screwball comedy; is transformed into a mystery/suspense thriller, before miraculously ending on a high note of distinct melodrama. All these elements are kept in check in a film that is quite compelling and remarkably fresh in both its deportment and accoutrements. Grant is cast as Leopold Dilg, a presumed arsonist who escapes his prison term and takes up refuge at the country estate of one Nora Shelly (Jean Arthur). The trouble is that Nora has rented the property to Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) a law professor recently appointed to the Supreme Court.

Unaware that he is housing a fugitive, Michael and Leopold (pretending to be the estate’s gardener, Joseph) become the best of friends until realization and propriety demand of the former that he do the right thing. Unwilling to see his friend go to prison, Michael and Nora set out to hunt down the real culprits and clear Leopold’s good name.

Columbia’s commitment to DVD continues to be a mixed blessing and these transfers are no exception. Although Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday were sourced from prints given a thorough restoration effort before the studio reversed its policies on providing stellar transfers of their classic titles, the rest of the films in this box range in quality from passable to below average. The worst looking of the lot is Holiday – odd, since it is blatantly advertised on the front jacket as “first time ever on DVD!”

One would think that that moniker deserved a better looking transfer. On Holiday then, contrast levels are quite weak. There are no deep blacks or clean whites but variations of tonal gray. Film grain is intense. Often the image appears slightly blurry or out of focus. Fine details are generally lost under the haze of age related artifacts.

Since only Holiday was new to the home video market, one might expect that transfers on The Talk of the Town and The Awful Truth would have been made spiffy for this box. At least, on The Awful Truth some attention seems to have been paid between this transfer and its original release.

The original was plagued by quite a few age related artifacts (scratches, dirt and chips) that have been greatly reduced on this newer minting. Contrast levels too appear to be a tad more refined on this version with deeper blacks.
The image remains softly focused in spots – but again, compared to the first release – looks a shade better than it did before. However, The Talk of the Town has been given NO further consideration this time around. The edge enhancement and digital shimmering that plagued the original release has been directly imported here, along with the softly focused image and considerable film grain in spots.

Extras are skimpy at best. Each disc is given a featurette that boils down to a few choice comments made by various film critics, interspersed between scenes and sound bytes from the film. There’s also a short featurette on Rosalind Russell (which is a direct import from the original ‘His Girl Friday’ disc), as well as an all too short bio on Cary Grant.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Awful Truth 5
Holiday 5
Only Angels Have Wings 5+
His Girl Friday 5+
The Talk of the Town 5+

VIDEO/AUDIO
The Awful Truth 3.5
Holiday 3
Only Angels Have Wings 4
His Girl Friday 4.5
The Talk of the Town 3.5

EXTRAS
2