While the giants of the media world slug it out on streaming platforms, smaller concerns (and one division of a communications titan) are still releasing vintage films on DVD and Blu-ray. What’s more, the bonus content they provide can’t be found online. That’s why I’m not giving up my discs anytime soon. They help me to discover “new” gems and deepen my appreciation of familiar classics all the time.
Flicker Alley is a specialty outfit that does admirable work. Its latest release is Trapped (1949), a good, solid film noir B picture directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton and John Hoyt. Up to now the only way one could watch it was in substandard public-domain copies. Now the Film Noir Foundation has overseen a restoration with the UCLA Film & Television Archive and it looks great. FNF honchos Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode have provided welcome bonus features for its DVD/Blu-ray debut, produced and directed by Steven C. Smith: a background piece about the film, which was one of a series of “docu-noirs” released by Eagle-Lion and produced by the legendary Bryan Foy. (Others include T-Men and He Walked by Night)…a moving tribute to Richard Fleischer by his son Mark…and a savvy commentary by Alan K. Rode and Julie Kirgo. Trapped may not be a landmark noir but it’s worth watching and features first-rate performances by its stars, including its ill-fated leading lady.
Flicker Alley’s next “event” is a collection of three landmark titles by Russian master Vsevolod Pudovkin: Mother (1926), The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and a 2K remaster furnished by Lobster Films, Storm over Asia (1928). Look for these at the end of this month.
The Criterion Collection continues to release multiple discs every month, maintaining its reputation for quality and thoroughness. I look forward to savoring their new edition of Holiday (1938) which includes the little-known 1930 version of Philip Barry’s play starring Ann Harding and Mary Astor—a surprisingly good adaptation that can hold its own against the remake with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Most recently I’ve spent a lot of time screening the supplemental content on Criterion’s All About Eve, and there’s a lot of it—the most exciting being a two-part interview with Joseph L. Mankiewicz from 1983, conducted by film scholar Michel Ciment. I also enjoyed reading Mary Orr’s original short story “The Wisdom of Eve,” originally published in 1946 in Cosmopolitan magazine. It appears in the booklet that accompanies the disc (along with an excellent essay about the film by Terrence Rafferty). Although she received no screen credit, Orr’s story serves as a blueprint for Mankiewicz’s screenplay and establishes both the principal characters and the Broadway milieu in which they operate. We learn more about Orr and the real-life woman who inspired Eve Harrington in a fascinating featurette. (This is not the first time Criterion has provided the literary source of a famous film. If you haven’t read Ernest Lehman’s two magazine pieces that introduced the principal characters from Sweet Smell of Success, I can’t recommend them highly enough.)
Warner Archive may be part of a massive media conglomerate but it provides an invaluable service to film buffs. Western fans are reveling in the Monogram Cowboy Collection Volume 10 featuring nine low-budget westerns starring Johnny Mack Brown. They know how much effort went into tracking down 35mm materials on these B movies. The rarest of the batch is The Haunted Mine (1946), an entertaining yarn which has a missing line of dialogue and a splice toward the end as its only detriments. Given the extraordinary rescue of these titles, which Warner Bros. didn’t distribute for decades, that’s a small complaint.
An MGM B movie has little in common with a Monogram quickie. Over the holidays I brought a Warner Archive disc along to an evening with friends and we all enjoyed the 1937 version of Bayard Veiller’s play The Thirteenth Chair starring Lewis Stone, Henry Daniell, Madge Evans, and “the distinguished English actress” Dame May Whitty. It’s a straightforward locked-door whodunit…and it still works. You’d be surprised how much tension can be derived from merely turning out the lights in a room full of murder suspects. The disc also includes the 1929 version directed by Tod Browning and starring Conrad Nagel, Leila Hyams and Margaret Wycherly, all enunciating their dialogue to a fare-thee-well. A pre-Dracula Bela Lugosi, billed 7th in the cast list, plays the inspector tasked with solving a murder—a prominent part that was expanded further in the 1937 remake with Lewis Stone in the role.
Kino Lorber has been issuing a steady flow of goodies from every decade of the past century. I wish I had time to review them all. As a silent film aficionado I was especially glad to see Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan (1924), mastered from a pristine 35mm print. Betty Bronson is a delightful Peter, maintaining the tradition of having a woman play the title character as the fabled Maud Adams did on stage. Ernest Torrence is perfectly cast as Captain Hook and Anna May Wong is an appealing Tiger Lily. The film was shot by the great James Wong Howe, who used clever devices to bring Tinker Bell to life. David Pierce produced this edition of the film, which includes an audio interview with Esther Ralston (who played Mrs. Darling), an orchestra score by Dr. Philip Carli, and an informative commentary by Kat Ellinger, who knows a great deal about James Barrie and his most famous creation.
Having brought out two early Alfred Hitchcock titles (Blackmail and Murder) some months ago, Kino has just released a set of the director’s late-silent and early-sound pictures: The Ring (1927), The Farmer’s Wife (1928), Champagne (1928), The Manxman (1929), and The Skin Game (1931). The silents have newly recorded scores, expert commentaries, and excerpts from the legendary Hitchcock interviews with François Truffaut. These are all welcome; for years one could only find these important films in inferior prints that did them a great disservice. Next month Kino Lorber is releasing another significant silent film: Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1920), in a restoration that promises to be exceptional.
Undercrank Productions is the moniker through which silent-film accompanist Ben Model releases rare silent films, including several long-unseen Marion Davies titles from the Library of Congress archives: Beauty’s Worth, The Bride’s Play, and When Knighthood Was in Flower. I screened Little Old New York (1923) not long ago, while the story of poor 19th century Irish immigrants is utterly predictable it’s still pleasant to watch because Davies is just so likable. It also features elaborate sets by Joseph Urban, the world-renowned Ziegfeld Follies designer who also put his architectural stamp on the New York headquarters of William Randolph Hearst.
VCI Entertainment has been in business for decades, dating back to the era of 16mm prints. One of its specialties is Saturday matinee serials, like The Roaring West and Red Rider starring Buck Jones, which I wrote about not long ago. Last year VCI scored a coup by arranging to restore and release a number of Universal Pictures titles in fresh 2K scans. Some of these chapter-plays haven’t been available for decades and one was thought lost: The Vanishing Shadow (1934). The storyline is juvenile, to be sure, but it presents a robot and a futuristic ray-gun, for possibly the first time onscreen. Also of interest: the film debut of Lee J. Cobb in a small but noticeable part in Chapter 3, spilling over to Chapter 4.
Olive Films has access to the Paramount vault, which includes the Republic Pictures library and a number of independently-produced titles like Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s. This lovely film starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman gets deluxe treatment with a number of added features, including an interview with Steve Massa about McCarey’s career and an excellent commentary track by the erudite Crosby biographer Gary Giddins.
Arrow Academy and Shout! Factory have been diving into the Universal Pictures library, which incorporates Paramount features from 1929 to 1949. Arrow has released such significant titles as Billy Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and the Minor (1942) with Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in recent months. Up next: the Universal film noir Black Angel (1946) starring Dan Duryea and June Vincent, based on a Cornell Woolrich story and directed by the Sherlock Holmes series’ Roy William Neill. Shout! Factory’s big release of the fall season was an expanded boxed Blu-ray set of all the Universal Abbott and Costello features.
All of this feeds my hunger for anything to do with classic movies. I watch new shows on the streaming services, but I take special pleasure in popping in a DVD or Blu-ray disc and seeing material that’s unfamiliar to me. Keep ‘em coming in 2020!