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FRED AND GINGER, FILM NOIR AND HAROLD LLOYD ON CRITERION

Three recent releases from The Criterion Collection have appeared on home video before, but the new Blu-ray/DVD editions are so good they make a strong case for upgrading these titles in your library. One reason is the exceptional quality of essays the company commissions for each film. (Criterion also publishes these on their website, where you can read them for free: https://www.criterion.com/current/category/2-essays.) I love good writing, and if you feel likewise I recommend Carrie Rickey’s splendid piece about Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother, Imogen Sara Smith’s worshipful essay about Swing Time, and critic/poet Robert Polito’s eye-opening take on Detour that includes nuggets of information I’d never known before.

 

 

As to the discs themselves, Swing Time offers a mini-documentary featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Siebert, and Deborah Grace Winer, author of a biography about lyricist Dorothy Fields. They all have pertinent thoughts and observations that enhance one’s enjoyment of this superb musical. A new interview with George Stevens, Jr. focuses on his father’s early career when he was known for directing comedies and musicals, before World War II darkened the tone of his work. Stevens, Jr. also provided raw footage of interviews he shot with Fred Astaire and his dance collaborator Hermes Pan for the 1984 documentary he made about his father. The real “find” is an audio interview with Ginger Rogers about her experience making ten films with Fred Astaire. I’ve never heard her speak more straightforwardly or specifically about the challenge of rehearsing and filming those glorious dance numbers. A commentary recorded in 1986 by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films accompanies the feature.

There is also a brief interview with film scholar Mia Mask discussing the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, which Giddins also addresses. I never gave this segment a second thought when I first saw it as a kid, but times have changed and so have I. Although the song is clearly inspired by the great dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, it does feature Astaire in blackface (albeit a light tone) and opens with a grotesque, minstrel-like image of a black performer. I have to admit that I now wince when Astaire begins to “black up” in his dressing room. Audiences didn’t respond that way in 1936, or for decades afterward.

That aside, Swing Time is a glorious accomplishment that many consider the zenith of Astaire and Rogers’ partnership. It’s pointless to argue whether this tops Top Hat or The Gay Divorcee. They’re all wonderful.

 

 

Harold Lloyd’s 1928 silent comedy The Kid Brother has also been available before but again the Criterion treatment is exceptional. Bonus features include a conversation between film historian Cari Beauchamp and Suzanne Lloyd (Harold’s granddaughter and keeper of the flame) about the comedian’s primary leading ladies; an entertaining video essay about the construction of Lloyd’s gags by David Cairns; a fine selection of behind-the-scenes photos including some shots of deleted sequences; a Dutch television interview with Lloyd conducted in 1962 when he released his compilation feature Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy to theaters worldwide; an eye-opening look at the locations where The Kid Brother was filmed by that master sleuth John Bengtson; a charming tour of Lloyd’s fantastic Greenacres mansion and grounds conducted by Suzanne, incorporating family home movies (which first appeared on the 2005 Lloyd boxed set from New Line Cinema); a demonstration of how two long-unseen Lloyd shorts that only survived on 9.5mm and 28mm were restored by USC archivist Dino Everett, as well as the shorts themselves, Over the Fence (1917) and That’s Him (1918); and a restoration of a different kind. This segment focuses on the former 20th Century Fox pipe organ which now belongs to film composer Nathan Barr, who reveals the vast equipment that accompanies an organ console, while Mark Herman demonstrates its versatility at the keyboard. A commentary recorded for the 2005 DVD release of The Kid Brother features Sue Lloyd, Harold Lloyd expert Annette D’Agostino, and the man who probably knows more about Lloyd and his films than anyone else on the planet, Rich Correll.

Bengtson’s piece about locations is one of his all-time best, with some genuine revelations. Only he would think to examine—in minute and fascinating detail—the background in the famous scene where Harold climbs a tree rather than say goodbye to his departing girlfriend. And only John would be able to determine a number of movie industry landmarks in the process.

The Dutch interview rekindles my memories of staying up late to see Harold Lloyd when he appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Steve Allen Show back in 1962. I was eleven years old and these tantalizing shows were past my bedtime, except on Friday nights when there was no school the next day. I remember all too well that Lloyd didn’t appear until the final quarter-hour of the Carson show, which kept me up till 1 a.m. It was worth it to me and in this Dutch interview Lloyd is just as I remember him—outgoing and more than happy to talk about his work.

 

 

Finally, we come to the ultra-low-budget landmark Detour (1945), directed by Edgar G. Ulmer…once seen, never forgotten. Finding a first-class print of this stunner has always been a challenge, however—until now. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Mike Pogorzelski and Heather Linville appear on camera to explain in detail how they undertook a 4K restoration of the film using a variety of sources—including the painstaking process of digitally removing French and Flemish subtitles from a Belgian copy! We learn about Ulmer in an interview with his biographer Noah Isenberg and in a 2004 documentary that features leading lady Ann Savage, Roger Corman, Wim Wenders, Joe Dante, John Landis, and many other admirers. Icing on the cake is an eloquent and thorough essay about the movie and the myths that have sprung up around it by Robert Polito. Detour can finally take its place among the long-acknowledged classics that make up the Criterion Collection.

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