If there's any excuse for this much-too-late review of Warner Home Video's Classic Comedies Collection (beyond the fact that it didn't reach far off Kyoto until the afternoon before its street date) is that, well, there's enough material here to keep one busy for weeks. It's not just the six classic films - Dinner at Eight (1933), Libeled Lady (1936), Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942) - this eight-disc set includes trailers, cartoons, one and two-reel shorts, commentary tracks, and five big documentaries.
It's amusing to think of the talent included in this set of movies: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow, and Marie Dressler, in films directed by, among others, George Cukor, Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks, with material written by Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman, Herman Mankiewicz, and lots more. Not a bad line-up of talent, eh? Or that, under Leonard Maltin's four-star rating system, only To Be or Not to Be gets less than four stars. (He gives it three-and-a-half; I'd give it four.) Some retailers are selling the whole kit and caboodle for under $50, a real bargain considering the extras, making this an absolute must for movie buffs of all ages.**
It doesn't matter whether you've seen them or not. Stage Door was the only title new to this reviewer, but I could watch To Be or Not to Be a dozen more times and never tire of it, with Bringing Up Baby and Libeled Lady running not far behind. For those less familiar with these now 70-year-old movies, the collection is a well-chosen introduction to the Best of Hollywood, a cross-section of star power, fast and funny dialogue, social and political satire, screwball and romantic comedy, everything - including the individual strengths and styles of several different studios. (To Be or Not to Be was originally a United Artists release, though its flavor is very "Paramount.") Whatever your own particular tastes, and even if that taste generally steers you clear of old, black and white movies, there's at least one comedy here you'll surely fall in love with.
One might quibble with the lean toward Hepburn and Cukor, the absence of other stars and directors important to the genre, and the somewhat odd inclusion of Stage Door, which is basically a melodrama, despite George S. Kaufman's wisecracking dialogue. For my money To Be or Not to Be, a personal favorite, gets slighted somewhat and cries out for Ernst Lubitsch and Carol Lombard documentaries more than, say, the trivial Jean Harlow piece included on Dinner at Eight. Still, it's a can't-miss collection.
(The six movies, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story in particular, have been written about so exhaustively as to cry out for a film reviewer's moratorium. Instead, let's focus on the Video, Audio, and especially the Extra Features, shall we?)
Video & Audio
All six films, from three different libraries (MGM, RKO, and UA), look good for their age, and are presented in their original full frame format. There have been some complaints about Libeled Lady, easily the most battered of the bunch, but while it definitely has its share of negative scratches and a surprising amount of wear, the image itself is clear - except for the final three minutes, which do use a greatly inferior source, possibly a 16mm print from the look of it. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono is clean on all six titles. Each film has optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles, but no alternate language tracks. On one of this reviewer's players, a Cyberhome, the English subtitles came up all by themselves and wouldn't go away on several discs; I ended up switching to another player.
Even those overly familiar with the six movies will find the Classic Comedies Collection worth buying for its veritable feast of supplementary material. Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story are two-disc affairs, but even the other four films have their share of extra features.
The best extras are the five documentaries. There are two documentaries on each of the bonus discs that accompany Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Bringing Up Baby features The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks (1973) and Cary Grant: A Class Apart (2004). The Hawks show was revised somewhat in 2001 and its footage cleaned, the result being the lengthy interview clips of the great director, shot on color film, look as if they were filmed yesterday. Made at a time when licensing old movie excerpts was easy and inexpensive, the documentary abounds in great snippets from virtually every major studio. Unfortunately, writer-director Richard Schickel largely dismisses Hawks' Westerns and barely discusses Hawks' late career at all, favoring instead his screwball comedies. But for the clips of Hawks alone this is a must-see documentary.
Even better is Cary Grant: A Class Apart, an 87-minute program written and directed by Robert Trachtenberg, which masterfully explores the enigmatic actor, from the glamorous screen persona that seemed to consume the former acrobat from Bristol, to rumors of homosexuality and LSD use. Trachtenberg sorts through all this with great skill, making what might have been an ordinary clip show into a impressively thorough examination of the man as much as the movie star. Turning to a wide array of film clips - not just career highlights - friends and ex-wives, A Class Apart is full of surprises, including Grant's appearance in an 8mm home movie, The Killer of Fossil Gulch, directed by his stepson, and footage of the actor looking ageless well into his 80s. Also featured on this disc is Campus Cinderella (1938), a Vitaphone two-reeler about a college basketball team apparently included for no other reason than it was released the same year as Bringing Up Baby. Featuring Penny Singleton and filmed in three-strip Technicolor, the short is primitive by 1938 standards - it looks much older than it actually is - though the pre-Blondie Singleton is charming. An okay Friz Freleng cartoon, A Star is Hatched (also 1938), rounds out the disc.
Disc One of Bringing Up Baby includes an audio commentary by director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show), an authority on Hawks who knows the picture intimately and who, of course, directed What's Up, Doc? (1973), nearly a remake of Bringing Up Baby, and one of the very few retro-screwballs to contribute favorably to the genre. The disc wraps with a smattering of Howard Hawks Trailers, though there are no surprises here: Bringing Up Baby, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, and Rio Bravo.
The Philadelphia Story's supplements include Katharine Hepburn: All About Me - A Self Portrait an intimate video-autobiography shot in 1992, when Hepburn was 85 years old but relatively strong and not the frail recluse she'd soon become. Though her weak, tremor-filled voice isn't exactly well-suited to off-camera narration, it's more than compensated by some incredible film clips, Hepburn's frank assessment of her career highlights ("No spark there!" she declares of a 1932 screen test), and the rare glimpse into her octogenarian private life at home in New York and Connecticut: playing Parcheesi, tying her shoes, shopping at the local market, etc. Highlights include footage of the actress taken at Bryn Mar in 1928 (!), behind-the-scenes footage from many of her early films (and, briefly, a round of golf with Howard Hughes), and a revelatory 1934 Technicolor screen test of Hepburn as Joan of Arc. Though it could easily run twice its 70-minute length, All About Me is very good indeed.
The Men Who Made the Movies: George Cukor (1973) isn't as interesting as the Hawks show as it relies more on (longer) film clips, though it does have a good deal of archival interview footage with the director. This revised-in-2001 show uses What Price Hollywood? (1932) and A Star is Born (1954) to bookend its hour-long overview, and in so doing makes no mention at all of My Fair Lady (1964) and a dozen other films of varying interest. There's also a good deal of overlap from the other DVDs; those sick of the same clips from Philadelphia Story, etc., are welcome to hit the scan-forward button.
The Philadelphia Story's second disc also features a fun MGM cartoon, Rudolf Ising's The Homeless Flea (1940), and an amusing Robert Benchley short making hay of life's little truths, That Inferior Feeling (also 1940). Both seem to have been included for those wanting a "night out at the movies," circa 1940 (like Warner's ancient VHS tapes of the same name), but why not instead tack those shorts onto Disc One, with a "play all" function? This disc's supplements conclude with two radio performances of The Philadelphia Story, amazingly enough with all three stars reprising their roles both times, in a 7/20/42 performance on Victory Theater, and on 3/17/47 as part of Lady Esther Screen Guild Playhouse. Disc One of The Philadelphia Story features an Audio Commentary track by historian Jeanine Basinger (Silent Stars, American Cinema) and a George Cukor Trailer Gallery, a better collection than the Hawks one, featuring Dinner at Eight, Little Women, The Women, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike, A Star is Born, Les Girls, and My Fair Lady. All the trailers are 16:9 where appropriate.
The single-disc Dinner at Eight, meanwhile, offers Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell, a 47-minute program from 1993 and hosted by Sharon Stone. By far the least interesting of the documentaries, Harlow is mostly a puff-piece, full of breathless (and not always accurate) hyperbole, though it does offer clips from more obscure pictures like Iron Man (1931), The Beast of the City (1932), and Personal Property (1937). Also included on this disc is Dinner at Eight's original Theatrical Trailer, which touts the film as only slightly less important than the Second Coming of Christ; and an amusing Vitaphone two-reeler, Come to Dinner (1933), a direct parody of the main feature with funny (and, at times, uncanny) impersonations of the stars.
Stage Door features a delightful musical two-reel short called Ups and Downs (1937), about a cheery, dancing elevator operator and his girlfriend (June Allyson, adorable in her screen debut), the daughter of a rich industrialist. Featuring Phil Silvers (with a full head of hair in what appears to have been his screen debut as well), Ups and Downs is a bouncy little mini-movie, with elaborate sets and production numbers: the big finish has the cast dancing in front of a giant tickertape machine. Also on this disc is a 2/20/39 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast and a (reissue) Theatrical Trailer.
Libeled Lady is light on extras, including only a rather pointless radio promo, Leo is On the Air, with audio excerpts from the film; and a Theatrical Trailer, notable for shots of the four principals arm-in-arm strolling about the MGM lot, much as they do over the feature film's opening titles.
The DVD of To Be or Not to Be includes an early Benny two-reeler, The Rounder (1930), with the actor uncharacteristically cast as a drunk playboy. While the short is fascinating in the historical sense of Benny's developing screen/radio persona - it's interesting how many of his familiar mannerisms are already in place - the short is decidedly unfunny, with archly jokey dialogue and static staging. Benny's co-star, Dorothy Sebastian, is not a good actress but of similar historical interest as the then mistress of Buster Keaton and concurrent wife of William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd. Excerpts from what is described as an Archival Newsreel is actually a pitch with Benny for stamps which can be collected and exchanged for war bonds.
Note: All of the extras are full frame format and, unfortunately, none have optional English subtitles.
In a DVD market where many box sets offer less for more, or package movies you'll watch only once into pricier sets for collectors and gift-givers, Warner Home Video's Classic Comedies Collection is a perfect balance of laughter and Hollywood history, with movies you'll find yourself watching again and again, or loaning out to friends. Definitely an addition to DVD Talk's Collector Series.
**Maybe it was too good a bargain. As a boxed set, the Classic Comedies Collection has disappeared from Amazon and several other online retailers, and reports are that it has become hard-to-find at walk-in stores as well. (Addendum: The box set finally did reappear on Amazon, shortly after this review went live.)
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.