Show Boat is one of the landmarks of American musical theater, and director James Whale captured the essence of the Broadway show in this stylish 1936 film. Edna Ferber’s generation-spanning novel inspired an exceptional score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which is heard at its best in definitive performances by Irene Dunne as Magnolia, Allan Jones as Gaylord Ravenal, Charles Winninger as Captain Andy, Helen Morgan as Julie, Hattie McDaniel as Queenie, and Paul Robeson as Joe, among others. Universal produced a silent version of the book in 1929 and hastily added talkie musical numbers as it went into release. All of that is covered in this expansive Criterion Collection release. Shana L. Redmond discusses the treatment of race in Show Boat and its use of Robeson, who is also the subject of an Oscar-winning 1979 documentary narrated by Sidney Poitier. Gary Giddins’ insightful essay explains the cultural significance of the novel and the show. Whale’s biographer James Curtis sets the film into the larger context of the director’s career. Show Boat expert Miles Kreuger provides more background material as he narrates surviving footage from the silent film. Best of all, this release includes talkie footage of Broadway cast members Helen Morgan, Jules Bledsoe, and Tess Gardella performing their signature numbers on stage. Two radio adaptations are also included, one produced and hosted by Orson Welles, with some words from Edna Ferber. No one could ask for a more generous or meticulous treatment of a memorable film.
It’s taken a long time for Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons to make their way to Blu-ray but it was worth the wait. Only when I started watching this jam-packed disc did I realize how long it had been since I last saw some of these shorts. I had a wonderful time rediscovering some of the “lesser” cartoons (only by comparison) and laughing out loud at the nonstop parade of distinctive Avery gags. Younger viewers may need a lexicon to understand all the topical World War II references involving rationing and the rubber shortage, but no explanation is needed for the dizzy delight of watching Red Hot Riding Hood or Bad Luck Blackie. You’ll also see the films that introduced Droopy, George and Junior, and Screwball Squirrel. There are 17 cartoons in all, in razor-sharp prints that show off the polish of MGM’s animation department in the 1940s and 50s. There couldn’t be a better time to release this collection. We all need a good laugh.
Ealing Studios set a standard for inventive, uniquely British comedy in the late 1940s and 1950s and it’s a treat to revisit them in restored editions. Passport to Pimlico (1949) is a whimsical satire featuring Ealing regulars Stanley Holloway, Hermione Baddeley, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, along with the inimitable Margaret Rutherford. The story concerns a London neighborhood that essentially secedes from England when a treasure map indicates that it once belonged to the Duke of Burgundy. The fun wears a bit thin in the second half but it’s still a cheerful bit of nonsense. A brief then-and-now featurette identifies the key London locations where it was shot.
Whisky Galore! (1949) is based on a real-life incident in 1943 when a cargo ship with cases of whisky ran aground near an island that had run dry. Told in the form of a fable, this highly entertaining film is accompanied by an equally rewarding visit to its location (the isle of Barra) in 1991 for an hour-long documentary. Director Alexander Mackendrick built a reputation on the picture, which debuted in America as Tight Little Island. He also directed (and provided the story for) a relatively obscure movie called The Maggie (1953). American actor Paul Douglas stars as a transportation executive who has the misfortune of having his private cargo hauled by a scoundrel of a sea captain (Alex Mackenzie). A quaint and eccentric little film, The Maggie made me laugh out loud, right up to the final gag.
The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) is a real charmer, written by T.E.B. Clarke and directed by Charles Crichton in glorious Technicolor. Like other Ealing comedies, it has the air of a fable as it chronicles the efforts of villagers to keep their regional railroad line running—against all odds. An audio interview with the late cinematographer Douglas Slocombe reveals that it was made with tender loving care and the knowledge that the filmmakers were documenting a way of life that was already disappearing. Slocombe also took color home movies on location and they are a treat to behold. A perfect cast is led by Stanley Holloway, George Relph, John Gregson, Naunton Wayne, Godfrey Tearle, Hugh Griffith, Sidney James, and Jack MacGowran.
The meteoric rise and fall of silent-film comedian Harry Langdon is the stuff of legend. Video producer Kit Parker has now provided comedy completists a rare opportunity to see how Langdon fared in his one and only season of talkie shorts for Hal Roach. What’s more, he has added subtitles to a pair of comedies for which the soundtracks no longer exist. This only confirms how inane the dialogue was. It’s a sad but undeniable fact that these are among the worst two-reelers ever made.
Yet there is a certain fascination to watching Langdon, whose timing is off and whose infantile character is woefully unfunny. The same is true for a surviving Spanish-language edition of The Big Kick. The saving grace in a handful of shorts is the effervescent Thelma Todd, who gives each woebegone script her best shot.