The TCM collections being released
in waves by Warner Brothers are very good bargains. Each release is
a four-film collection culled from a particular genre within the Warner
backlist. The transfers are sourced from the most recent DVD for each
film, which are uniformly excellent. Included on each disc are the same
extras found on the most recent release as well - the only way you lose
out is if the title in question has a two-disc special edition; in those
cases, the contents of the second disc are absent. But generally speaking,
for about $20, you get four grade-A movies, with the best transfers
available, and often with some decent extras.
This set, TCM Greatest Classic
Films Collection: Comedy, includes four classics from the Golden
Age of Hollywood, all of them previous released in very good editions.
1, Side A: Arsenic and Old Lace
Perhaps unique among films
directed by Frank Capra, Arsenic and Old Lace has an edge about
it. Credit that to the original play by Joseph Kesselring and
the lightening-fast screenplay by the wonderful Epstein brothers.
Capra's direction is fluid and confident, but the bizarre story, characters,
and dialogue are what make the film memorable.
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant)
is a theater critic and confirmed bachelor who has been "turned"
by the lovely Elaine; at the film's start, they elope and are planning
their honeymoon. Their simple desires are derailed when Mortimer
discovers that his beloved aunts Abby and Martha have been poisoning
old bachelors to ease their lonely suffering. They cheerfully
admit the murders, throwing Mortimer's life into chaos. The
arrival of Mortimer's criminally insane brother Jonathan (Raymond
Massey) and his associate Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) complicates matters
for Mortimer and Elaine as they attempt to maintain some kind of control
over the family's macabre antics.
Arsenic and Old Lace
plays like a screwball take on The Addams Family, which debuted
in The New Yorker a year before the play was written. The
actors talk very fast at times, and Grant's mugging, which at first
seems overwrought quickly gives way to a very careful sense of timing.
Lane goes well beyond the call of duty here, making Elaine an appealing
heroine when she could have easily stayed a damsel in distress.
The film is moodily shot by the great Sol Polito, and the design of
the Brewster sisters' house (the primary set) is appropriately off-kilter.
Massey and Lorre make a great pair of villains, although one wishes
that Boris Karloff, who played Jonathan on Broadway, had been cast here
Although the film's final
lines are a ridiculous anti-Darwinian "explanation" of Mortimer's
relative sanity and a transparent attempt to settle down humorless audiences,
Arsenic and Old Lace maintains a feeling of freshness and comic
invention after 70 years.
1, Side B: A Night at the Opera
One of the most beloved of the Marx Brothers' films, and known today
primarily for its famous stateroom scene, A Night at the Opera
has a clunky, talky first act that drags a bit. The convoluted,
nonsensical plot revolves around Driftwood's (Groucho) attempt to
woo the wealthy Mrs. Claypool (Margaret Dumont), offering her entrée
into high society by getting her to underwrite the career of a rising
opera star, Riccardo (Allan Jones). Fiorello (Chico) is Riccardo's
manager, and Tomasso (Harpo) his friend. Together, they conspire
to help Riccardo land the lead in a touring company's production of
The plot, of course, is secondary
to the horseplay of the brothers, and A Night at the Opera
contains several memorable set pieces. The sluggish first act
picks up with the famous conversation about contracts between Groucho
and Chico ("The party of the first part..." etc.) When the
whole group is aboard the steamer to New York, we have the crowded stateroom
scene, as well as show-stopping musical performances by Chico and Harpo.
The climactic sabotage of the opening night of Il Trovatore still
retains an unpredictable chaotic hilarity after 75 years.
The best thing about the Marx
Brothers is the quickness and the musicality that comes across not just
when they play instruments, but when they trade quips and establish
a patter in a particular scene. This is evident in A Night
at the Opera, even though their strengths have been watered down
here in their first MGM outing with the addition of a silly romantic
subplot and the overlong Marx-less musical sequences. A Night
at the Opera is Marx-lite, as it dumbs down their strengths for
consumption by a mass audience. No wonder the movie was such a
huge hit. A Night at the Opera is deservedly a classic,
but the Marx Brothers seem to have had a harder time being themselves
here. Stick with the Paramount pictures if you're looking for
the original, unadulterated Marx Brothers.
2, Side A: The Long, Long Trailer
This glowing, fussily-designed
Vincente Minnelli cream puff would have made appropriate viewing for
anyone over the last decade or so on the verge of being lured into a
subprime mortgage. It is a paean to, and a satire of, all-American
consumer acquisitiveness, as well as a comic warning of the dangers
inherent in taking on debt. This film is surpassed only by
Jingle All the Way in its total dedication to buying as a central
theme. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are the perfect representation
of all that was wrong with the 1950s and of the crass form of commercial
enterprise of which they themselves were a part.
Lucy and Desi (here re-named
Tacy and Nicky) are about to be married. Tacy has her heart set
on buying a trailer home, so that the couple can be mobile - and stay
together - while Nicky's job as a civil engineer bounces him around
the country. After much whining - though not as migraine-inducing
as that on I Love Lucy - Tacy gets her wish. The couple
purchases a trailer - at three times the budgeted cost; they buy a
new car to go with it, along with several additional accoutrements.
Costs add up, and the couple is quickly in massive debt. With
that, they take off across the country, and the misadventures begin.
There is little that feels
unique about The Long, Long Trailer. The film was produced
a couple of years into I Love Lucy's run, and the comedy in
it feels watered down compared to the show. I am no fan of anything
that Lucille Ball ever did, but the high energy and screwball antics
of her television program certainly account for much of its success.
Here, the comic set-ups are slow and lazily edited. They feel
stagy and awkward, and there are zero laughs. In addition, the
issue of debt, which is at the heart of the movie's exposition, is
forgotten by its end. The bright '50s color palette and production
design makes for a visually interesting if generally predictable experience.
2, Side B: Father of the Bride
Also frothily directed by Vincente
Minnelli (four years earlier, in 1950), Father of the Bride
is highly representative of certain middlebrow attitudes of the 1950s.
Here we have dad Stan Banks (Spencer Tracy) worrying himself sick about
daughter Kay's (Elizabeth Taylor) impending nuptials with Buckley
(Don Taylor) while mom Ellie (Joan Bennett) excitedly goes about making
plans for the big ceremony.
All manner of clichés are
on display here. Tracy's typically careful performance notwithstanding,
he's playing the part of a TV dad here - worried but trying not
to show it, making a big fuss over Buckley's "credentials" and
whether he'll be able to provide for his daughter, etc. These
are the making of many generations'-worth of nonsensical tropes about
fathers and daughters, and their presence here reminds us how old they
are and how misdirected. Stan isn't really worried about
Buckley, he's anxious about "losing" his daughter. The scenes
in which Stan frets about Buckley are particularly absurd, because they
take the place of more realistic concerns that could have cropped up
in such a situation: What if Buckley was black? What if
he was poor? What if he was a writer - or God forbid, a musician?
Actually, there is nothing "wrong" with Buckley - he's from
a family that is basically a mirror image of the Bankses. Did
people in the 1950s get all worked up about nice pleasant well-groomed
young men coming after their daughters? Or did they just pretend
to in order to avoid dealing with the more substantive social problems
in their midst? This film, if nothing else, provides a pretty
empty-headed opportunity for audiences to do so.
But...it is not without its
charm. The performances out-act what the script provides.
Tracy is almost always appealing, and the monologues he directs to the
audience are especially successful. Taylor was never lovelier
and Bennett holds her own as a mother who wants her daughter to have
the lavish ceremony she couldn't afford herself. The pace is
quick. Minnelli demonstrates more confident comedy chops here
than he would four years later in The Long, Long Trailer.
The 1991 Steve Martin remake focuses more on slapsticky hijinks than
the original, which, for all its phony paternal fretting, is still a
more heartfelt experience.
As with other releases in the series, two double-sided discs are
housed in a regular single-width keepcase, with a disposable and ill-fitting
The transfers are all full-screen
and black-and-white, except The Long, Long Trailer, which is
in color. The three black-and-white pictures look fine.
A Night at the Opera shows a little print damage, and there are
jumps where some frames are missing, but overall it looks fine (it's
also the oldest film of the bunch). Arsenic and Old Lace
and Father of the Bride could use a bit of clean-up work at this
point, but they, too, look pretty good for their age. The Long,
Long Trailer is a little worse for wear. The color process
was called Ansco, and it hasn't survived particularly well.
Although the bright pastels of the production design still come through,
the transfer shows wavering tones in many scenes.
Each film comes with its original
mono soundtrack. In all cases, these are adequate, clear, and
in good shape. A few hiccups and pops are heard during A Night
at the Opera, but both dialogue and music are more or less intact.
The bonus content from each
feature's prior release is intact here:
Arsenic and Old Lace: Stage to Screen, a text feature
on the translation of the story from stage play to film.
A Night at the Opera: Commentary track by Leonard
Maltin; Remarks on Marx (33:57) a look at the film through the
eyes of contemporary comics, writers, and filmmakers; Groucho Marx
on the Hy Gardner Show (5:22) discussing Thalberg and the transition
from Paramount to MGM; two shorts: Robert Benchley's very funny
How to Sleep (10:39) and Sunday Night at the Trocadero (20:17),
which recreates a happening evening at the legendary Los Angeles nightclub
circa 1937; and the feature's Theatrical Trailer (2:17), which
includes some unique material.
The Long, Long Trailer: Two shorts: Ain't it Aggravatin'?
(8:18) with Dave O'Brien's Pete Smith character, and a Droopy cartoon
called Dixieland Droopy (7:43).
Father of the Bride:
Two short newsreels, both silent - Wedding Bells for Movie Star
Elizabeth Taylor (1:24) documents her first marriage (to Conrad
"Nicky" Hilton in 1950), and President Truman Meets
"Father of the Bride" (1:12) shows the cast of the feature meeting
a seemingly bemused Truman; a Behind the Scenes text feature;
and the Theatrical Trailer (2:13).
With the possible exception of The Long, Long Trailer,
which I found tedious and unfunny, there are a few nights' decent
entertainment in this four-film set. Three of the four films are
classics, and there are decent extras to boot. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.