The Criterion Collection remains the Gold Standard for DVDs and Blu-rays. While they cast a wide net over world cinema and contemporary releases by true auteurs, they truly win my heart when they approach Hollywood classics. Several new releases bear that out in fine fashion.
DIETRICH & VON STERNBERG IN HOLLYWOOD is a boxed set that scores an A+ for merely providing beautiful high-definition transfers of six of the most exotic, indulgently exquisite movies ever made: Morocco, Dishonored, Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is a Woman. To quote the promotional copy, “Over the course of six films produced by Paramount in the 1930s, the pair refined their shared fantasy of pleasure, beauty and excess.” There are a variety of bonus features spread over the individual discs including an incisive interview with female film scholars like Janet Bergstrom and Deborah Nadoolman Landis and director Josef von Sternberg’s son Nicholas, an informative discussion of Dietrich’s German career before she decamped for Hollywood, a rare Paramount short from 1935 featuring costume designer Travis Banton, and a radio version of Morocco featuring Dietrich and Clark Gable (!) in the role created by Gary Cooper. Most interesting is a 1971 German television interview with Dietrich herself, made for German television during one of her latter-day concert tours. Wow!
MY MAN GODFREY is perhaps the definitive screwball comedy of the 1930s, offering Carole Lombard one of her greatest roles and surrounding her with a pluperfect cast including real-life ex-husband William Powell, Eugene Palette (who utters some of the funniest lines in the script), Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, and Mischa Auer, just for starters. Eric Hatch adapted his novel about the idiocy of the idle rich with an assist from Morrie Ryskind, and the result is pure gold. Criterion builds a case for the nearly-forgotten director Gregory LaCava in several bonus features, including a monologue by the eloquent Gary Giddins and a careersqrvey by Nick Pinkerton. Long considered to br in the public domain, this official release shows off Ted Tetzlsff’s dazzling cinematography as it was meant to be seen. The film itself holds up extremely well and is a joy to behold.
HEAVEN CAN WAIT is another joyous bauble from director Ernst Lubitsch and one of his favorite screenwriters, Samson Raphaelson (who adapted an obscure German play). Don Ameche, an underrated farceur, stars as a playboy who thinks he deserves to be admitted to Hades (presided over by a wickedly amusing Laird Cregar). The tales of his womanizing ways are then played out in flashback. That’s where we meet leading lady Gene Tierney, exquisitely photographed in Technicolor. Vintage television profiles of Raphaelson and private recordings of Lubitsch at the piano are among the valuable extras on this disc, but my favorite item is a deliciously witty conversation from 2005 between the late Andrew Sarris and his wife Molly Haskell. Watching these two brilliant critics discuss the film and Lubitsch’s career is a rare treat, worth the price of admission.
Keep ‘em coming, Criterion. These goodies only whet my appetite for more.