Having found apparent success with their "Greatest Classic Films" four-film packages, TCM and Warner have moved to shake things up a bit with new "Greatest Classic Legends" sets, each focusing on a specific person. Packages include Errol Flynn, Jean Harlow, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Lucille Ball, John Ford, and finally, Marlon Brando. Three of the films (Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 version of Julius Caesar, The Teahouse of the August Moon, and Reflections in a Golden Eye), were included here were also previously released as The Marlon Brando Collection (DVD Savant's review here), with the set rounded out by Disc 1 of A Streetcar Named Desire's two-disc special edition (DVD Savant's review here).
Starting at the end and working backwards, the last film in the set, Reflections in a Golden Eye, is sort of framed on the packaging as if it represents a co-starring effort between Brando and Elizabeth Taylor, but the two rarely spend much time together as an estranged couple who are both looking elsewhere for romance. It's interesting how the film provides ample conflict but less of an arc, as if it knows, deep down, with enough adultery going on, eventually things will come to a head. The film drifts along on a current of melodrama, getting the most out of Julie Harris as a bedridden housewife who discovers her husband (Brian Keith) is cheating on her with Taylor's character Leonora, and Taylor herself, whose highlight has to be the scene where she mercilessly whips Brando with a riding crop as revenge for injuring her favorite horse. Brando himself stays at an understated simmer, his eye on a young, creepy Robert Forster, who rides horseback in the nude. Ultimately, the film's loose structure isn't wholly satisfying, but there is always an interesting performance on the screen at any given moment.
Next, a higlight: The Teahouse of the August Moon, an unusual farce in which Brando takes on the role of a Japanese translator to an American army captain named Fisby (Glenn Ford). The film not-so-subtly pokes fun at the gung-ho mission of U.S. troops bringing democracy to places that have none through Brando's character, who gradually takes Fisby's plan to build a Pentagon-shaped school in the tiny village of Tobiki and turns it into a plan to build the villagers a teahouse, by way of a sweet potato brandy business. It might've been easier for the film to paint the Americans as villains, but the way Ford's naively condescending military man turns into a genuine friend to all the residents is a genuinely sweet journey in a movie that contains something as broad as Brando playing a Japanese man. Brando's hand with the comedy is also excellent: the early scene where he increases the load on the captain's car piece by piece is excellent, topped only by a later incident when a woman's democratic council storms Fisby with demands regarding the local geisha girl (Machiko Kyô).
On the flipside of the first disc, things turn back to the dramatic with Joseph L. Mankiewicz's adaptation of Julius Caesar, which lines Brando up alongside John Gielgud and James Mason. Perhaps I haven't seen enough Shakespeare performed, but I only felt the emotion behind Brando's performance as Mark Antony, particularly his pivotal courtyard speech, and the varying degrees of uncertainty felt by Mason's Brutus, as well as Louis Calhern's Caesar, until he meets his end. The film, performed quite accurately to Shakespeare's original dialogue, is easy to follow and understand for non-experts (like myself), and although the sets are not as grand as they might've seemed in 1953 (when they won an Oscar), it feels complete in a way that some period pieces do not (perhaps thanks to Joseph Ruttenberg's pristine black and white photography).
Of course, the real star turn from Brando here is his performance in Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. A boozy, rapid-fire drama set in sweltering New Orleans, the film finds sisters Blanche (Vivien Leigh) and Stella (Kim Hunter) reunited in the cramped apartment Stella shares with her husband Stanley Kowalski (Brando). Stanley's gnawing suspicion about Blanche and her slippery intentions bursts through in fiery fits of drunken anger, played by Brando with such intensity it's as if all the heat in the city is emerging from inside of him. Of course, the entire ensemble is phenomenal: Hunter and Brando have excellent, almost buoyant chemistry for brief moments in between their explosive fights, and Leigh passes through an incredible of moods and desires, wresting sympathy out of Stella and playing Karl Malden like a yo-yo. Kazan stages the scenes with a excitingly cinematic energy, bringing the setting to life with a lived-in realism that many modern adaptations of plays can't muster with all the scope and money in Hollywood, and, as with any true classic, the film feels contemporary even today, 60 years after it was made.
Like the other entries in TCM's Greatest Classic Film collections, the Marlon Brando Collection arrives in a standard 2-disc case with a flap tray, with the films on double-sided discs, featuring a four-square cover artwork with a picture from each movie, and a back cover filled up by billing blocks and special features. The whole thing comes in a foil slipcover that looks the same on the front but includes short box copy for each film and some photos on the back. All in all, a clean, attractive, space-saving package.
The Video and Audio
Disc 1's presentations of Streetcar and Caesar are both framed at 1.33:1, while disc 2's Teahouse and Reflections are 2.35:1, and all four films in the set are given strong transfers. Not surprisingly, A Streetcar Named Desire's presentation is pristine, but Julius Caesar's image is also impressively free of significant scratches or debris. The Teahouse of the August Moon looks strong as well, if a touch fuzzy, but the second-disc winner is Reflections, which is given an extremely clear and detailed gold-tinted image, one that reportedly restores Huston's original intent.
Sound is a bit more varied. Dolby Digital 5.1 on Julius Caesar has a fair amount of "scope," but the dialogue still has a tinge of fuzz around it, while a stereo track for Teahouse is perfectly suitable and slightly more crisp, but essentially unremarkable. Strong mono tracks are provided on the remaining two films, which, like the image for the same movies, sound like they've had the most love in terms of restoration. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included for all four features.
Content is identical to previously-released editions: audio commentary by film historians Rudy Behlmer and Jeff Young and an Elia Kazan trailer gallery on Streetcar, a Robert Osborne introduction, recent featurette, and Brando trailer gallery on Caesar, vintage featurette and Brando trailer gallery on Teahouse, and behind-the-scenes footage and a Brando trailer gallery on Reflections. Worth noting, again, that fans lose all of the content on Disc 2 of Streetcar, including a feature-length documentary on Kazan's career.
Since two of the four movies here (Teahouse and Reflections) are not available separately, this is a reasonably good deal for anyone who doesn't want to shell out $35 for the Brando box, but still wants to own these unique entries in Brando's illustrious career. For those fans, especially those who haven't seen Streetcar, this fifteen-dollar collection comes recommended.
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