Although the title The
Humphrey Bogart Era suggests that the contents are a documentary, what this
DVD actually offers is an odd compilation of various materials related to
Humphrey Bogart and his times. The main feature is the full-length film Beat
the Devil, along with a segment of The Jack Benny Show featuring
How can you go wrong with
Humphrey Bogart? I decided to give a try to Beat the Devil on the
strength of Bogart being its star. After all, I'd enjoyed his performance in The
African Queen a great deal, andBeat the Devil seemed to
promise the same style of adventurous fun as that film.
Alas, Beat the Devil
never really takes off. The film's storyline revolves around a bunch of
mercenary characters who plan to sail to East Africa where they propose to
(illegally) make their fortunes in the uranium mining business. Ironically, the
crucial point of the movie is precisely that they don't go anywhere, but are
kept waiting impatiently around the docks as one thing and another go wrong,
until it all falls apart. This isn't a spoiler, by the way, since the opening
sequence of the film is the criminals being led away in chains with Bogart
announcing that he's going to tell us what led up to their capture.
Like the plans of the
incompetent crooks, Beat the Devil feels like a mish-mash that never
fits together properly, and it never offers a particularly interesting story.
Nor does it ever succeed in being funny, despite being billed as a comedy; the
story simply sags along quietly from beginning to end.
True Bogart fans won't find
this release of Beat the Devil to be satisfying, either: it's the 1954
edited 89-minute version of the film, not the original 1953 100-minute version.
The other main feature on The
Humphrey Bogart Era is an episode of the Jack Benny Show featuring
Bogart as a guest star. The complete 30-minute program is included on the DVD.
Personally, I didn't find it particularly interesting, and the abysmal image
quality certainly made it more difficult to appreciate to begin with; I'd expect
this segment to be of main interest to viewers who are already familiar with
(and fond of) The Jack Benny Show.
Speaking strictly from a
historical perspective, there is one aspect of The Jack Benny Show
episode that is macabrely fascinating: its sponsorship by Lucky Strike
cigarettes. I'm a non-smoker myself; I grew up with Surgeon General's warnings
and I've witnessed the gradual dwindling of smoking as an accepted and normal
activity. But even though I know to expect a lot more smoking in older movies
than in modern ones, my jaw dropped at the opening sequences of The Jack
Benny Show. First, we get a lengthy testimonial from "Lou Little, football
coach" extolling the virtues of cigarette smoking and the tastiness of Lucky
Strikes; then we get a healthy-looking advertising man enthusiastically
promoting the Lucky Strike brand; last but not least, Jack Benny himself
reminds us that the show is sponsored by (you guessed it!) Lucky Strike. It's
one of those moments that in a small way captures the change from one
generation to the next.
The black-and-white feature
film Beat the Devil is presented in 1.33:1, which is reasonably close to
its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio; unfortunately, it appears to be in nearly its
original state of disintegration as well. Some shots are obviously unrestored,
with a brownish tint and a distinct flicker that's particularly noticeable in
the light-colored areas of the image. The larger portion of the film's footage
appears to have been cleaned up very slightly, insofar as the flicker is
concerned, but the image is nonetheless very poor. The image is degraded by
noise and numerous print flaws and scratches. Contrast is too extreme
throughout the film, with light-colored areas generally completely white and
darker areas easily becoming solid black; the result is an over-bright and
over-dark image with little detail.
At some point, a line has to be
drawn to say "this material is in too poor a condition to sell on DVD," and I
have to confess that I'd put The Jack Benny Show segment of The
Humphrey Bogart Era well over the "not acceptable" line. In addition to
noise and print flaws, the contrast is completely off: the image is essentially
pure white with black outlines indicating the bodies of the cast and the
furniture. Faces are white blobs with only an occasional detail visible to tell
one actor from another.
The two-channel mono soundtrack
for Beat the Devil is acceptable, considering the poor condition of the
accompanying image. I did notice a touch of harshness in the sound at times,
particularly in the band music played at the beginning and end of the film.
Overall, the sound is very flat, but dialogue is strong and clear even when
there are other noises in the background. Sound quality for The Jack Benny
Show segment is slightly worse but still in the same general range.
It's difficult to draw the line
on this disc as to where the feature ends and the special features begin. If we
consider that Beat the Devil and the episode of The Jack Benny Show
are the main content of the DVD, the special features are all found on the
second disc of the two-disc set. This is actually a music CD, not a DVD; it
contains twenty tracks from the 1940s, ranging from Louis Armstrong to Billie
Holliday to Bing Crosby.
Die-hard Bogart aficionados may
find this disc to be of minor interest, but given the poor image quality of the
material here, I really can't recommend even a rental. Probably the best bet is
just to skip The Humphrey Bogart Era completely.