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FROM ALBERT BROOKS TO BETTY GRABLE: A SURVEY OF DVDs AND BLU-RAYS

I am back on an exercise bike every morning, which gives me an opportunity to catch up with DVDs and Blu-rays. Obviously, I’m not going to screen Lawrence of Arabia this way, so I choose my discs carefully: in some cases I revisit movies I haven’t seen in years, or check out bonus features on new releases. One thing is clear; if I enjoy what I’m watching I don’t think so much about the drudgery of exercising.

I devoured every moment of the extra material on Criterion’s new release of Lost in America (1985): Bob Weide’s relaxed, informative conversation with filmmaker and star Albert Brooks, plus interviews with costar Julie Hagerty, Brooks’s longtime manager Herb Nanas, and admirer and Broadcast News director James L. Brooks. I’ve been an Albert Brooks fanatic for decades; this wonderful comedy has had staying power for more than thirty years, and I’m glad it has been given the treatment it deserves on Blu-ray.

Only in recent years has The Breaking Point (1950) earned the respect it deserves. A remake of To Have and Have Not, it stands quite well on its own and needn’t be compared to the Howard Hawks classic with Bogart and Bacall. John Garfield is in top form as a charter boat captain in financial straits who takes on dangerous smuggling runs. The cast couldn’t be better, with Phyllis Thaxter as Garfield’s plain-Jane wife, Patricia Neal as a femme fatale who snares his attention, and Juano Hernandez as his first mate. Director Michael Curtiz brings his keen eye to every scene in Ronald Macdougall’s intelligent screenplay, and the results are highly satisfying. Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode sums up the director’s career in a solid interview, while Julie Garfield pays heartfelt tribute to her father in this excellent Criterion release.

“Vengeance—deep as the ocean!” proclaimed promotional ads for Irvin Willat’s revenge saga Behind the Door (1919). The new version of this vintage film was funded by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where the restoration made its debut. Now, thanks to Flicker Alley, everyone can savor the unique qualities of this rip-roaring melodrama. Hobart Bosworth stars as a man whose German heritage makes him a pariah in his New England hometown when war is declared. To prove his loyalty to his adopted country he enlists in the Navy, only to see his wife (Jane Novak) kidnaped and brutalized by a German U-boat commander (a leering Wallace Beery). What happens next startled audiences in 1919 and might still raise eyebrows today. This print was pieced together from all surviving material on the feature and looks remarkably good. Stephen Horne provides a first-rate score on piano and other instruments. It’s fair to say this Blu-ray/DVD combo includes every iota of information you could possibly want or need about the film and its restoration, including an amusing interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow, who recalls his encounters with the eccentric Mr. Willat.

Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is one of my all-time favorite serials, representing the pinnacle of Republic Pictures’ work in this field. Charles Quigley, Herman Brix (later Bruce Bennett), and stuntman David Sharpe star as circus performers who seek revenge for the death of their young pal. The villainy is left to the inimitable Charles Middleton (Ming the Merciless himself), known by his prison number 39013—although, in an arresting bit of business, he disguises himself as benign multimillionaire Miles Mander. The cliffhanger endings are ingenious, the stunt work is first-rate, and the film is great fun to watch if you can summon your inner 10-year-old. The only sour note is the presence of Fred Toones, known onscreen as Snowflake, whose alleged comedy relief is an utter embarrassment. Michael Schlesinger provides background information on cast members in his commentary for four of the twelve chapters. I’m grateful to Kino Lorber for making this serial available at last.

It’s hard to believe that The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (1949) played a role in dismantling the great Preston Sturges’ career and hurt Betty Grable’s box-office status in the bargain. It’s a short, unpretentious, funny film, filled with rapid-fire Sturges dialogue (“keep your beard out of my soup”) and a colorful cast of character actors and comedians, from Hugh Herbert to Margaret Hamilton. It had me smiling from start to finish, and occasionally laughing out loud. Kino Lorber’s beautiful copy has no extra material, but the film itself does look great.

Follow Me Quietly (1949) runs just under an hour, and was made on a shoestring budget at RKO. It shows how an up-and-coming director (Richard Fleischer) could make a watchable movie out of routine material. (It’s so threadbare that when its hero comes indoors from the rain, his coat is dry.) Clean-cut William Lundigan does his best to be convincing as a tough-guy cop, with Jeff Corey as his partner and Dorothy Patrick as a plucky reporter. Director Anthony Mann gets co-story credit with Francis Rosenwald; the screenplay was written by Lillie Hayward. I’m grateful to Warner Archive for helping me pass an hour’s time so painlessly.

Somehow I had never seen Fritz Lang’s Western Union (1940), a Technicolor Western starring Robert Young, Randolph Scott, Dean Jagger and Virginia Gilmore. It’s a handsome, innocuous piece of studio fluff that could have been directed by almost anyone. I can’t imagine Slim Summerville’s comedy relief or Barton MacLane’s snarling villainy being any different under another filmmaker’s tutelage. Peter Bogdanovich’s interview in the book Fritz Lang in America confirms that Lang took this on as an assignment, nothing more, although he had kind words for cinematographer Edward Cronjager. This is another great-looking Fox release from Kino Lorber.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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