Henry Fonda is a name that immediately evokes the term "film icon," with a career spanning from the late 20s to the early 80s. Fonda, over the course of his long and distinguished career would garner three Oscar nominations, with his swansong performance in 1981's "On Golden Pond" netting him the win a year after receiving the Lifetime Achievement award. "The Henry Fonda Collection" is another 10-film release of previous DVDs from Fox in a handsome looking, but completely unusable digipak (like with "The Robert Mitchum Collection" the tight cardboard slots scuff the discs with reckless abandon). The collection by and large is a rousing success save for a questionable technically inferior disc for one film and the notable exclusion of "12 Angry Men" (which granted, has a fine Criterion release, but would have made a nice addition here in lieu of one of the lesser films), showing some of Fonda's best work (with two exceptions all the films are from the 30s or 40s).
The set starts with 1939's "Jesse James," one of numerous westerns in both this set and Fonda's career; here Fonda is supporting player to Tyrone Power. The film is obviously a product of its time, filled with questionable facts and blatantly iffy morals. The James' come off as wronged and oppressed, a narrative choice that will make anyone familiar with real history roll their eyes. To put it bluntly, the film is the polar opposite of the more accurate and tonally subdued "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," but on a pure thrills and melodrama level, "Jesse James" is a solid entry; Fonda shines as Frank James in the supporting role and its easy to see why he'd quickly become a lead player in years to come.
Continuing with the Western theme but taking it back a century or more, Fonda gets the lead in "Drums Along the Mohawk", an adaptation of Walter D. Edmonds novel. It's notable mostly for being a John Ford helmed production. While not nearly as gratifying as "Stagecoach" or "Young Mr. Lincoln" (another Fonda starring role), which Ford also had released in 1939, it is Ford's first foray into color and on a personal level, films set during the American Revolution are always a welcome change of scenery form the standard, dusty Western setting. The film has its share of melodrama chronicling Fonda and Claudette Colbert as the Martins, a pair of colonists making a new life in the Mohawk Valley amidst turbulent times. The film's color cinematography is the real highlight.
What more can be said about "The Grapes of Wrath", a true landmark in both director John Ford and Henry Fonda's illustrious careers. While the film is a questionable adaptation of Steinbeck's original novel, Fonda's performance as Tom Joad is electric and Ford's masterful direction captures the anguish and tone of the Great Depression in stunning clarity. Jane Darwell's portrayal of Ma Joad earned the actress as Best Supporting Actress award and it's clear to see why, as she nearly upstages Fonda, if it weren't for that final iconic speech. Ford's direction earned him a Best Director Oscar, while Fonda would receive his first Best Actor nomination. The film is in no uncertain terms a masterpiece of the medium and its staying power of the decades should continue for decades to come.
While Fonda's role as Tom Joad in 1940 was a career defining moment, the choice to return to the role of Frank James in the aptly named "The Return of Frank James" was far from a wise decision. The film is another historically inaccurate romp through the exploits of the James, specifically the years following Jesse James' demise. The film is gratifying on a base level, but lacking any real redeeming value. Fonda is perfectly serviceable in the film, but thankfully his talents in the genre would be put to better use in the years to come.
"Immortal Sergeant" is your standard morality play, following Fonda's Cpl. Spence, a meekish Canadian and his exploits on the North African front during World War II. Maureen O'Hara appears in flashbacks as Kelly's love, Valentine, while Thomas Mitchell plays the titular Sergeant who has a pivotal stirring scene with Spence that acts as the catalyst for the remainder of the film and Spence's growth as a character. Unlike many films of its time, it's not as blindly patriotic as one might expect, while Fonda delivers an admirable, lower-key performance.
Fonda delves back into the Western in William Wellman's "The Ox-Bow Incident", which for my money is on par with "The Grapes of Wrath" in terms of narrative importance in the set. Running a very brisk, 75-minutes, Fonda is Gil Carter, who alongside Art Croft (Harry Morgan) are drawn into a vicious, vengeance stricken posse in order to keep alleviate suspicion that the duo, outsiders themselves, were not responsible for the murder of a local. The film is a solid adaptation of the 1940 novel of the same name and is a crushing morality piece that touches on numerous societal issues including race and the danger of groupthink. In addition to Fonda and Morgan, the supporting cast is incredibly solid and includes Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn, both of whom have pivotal and heart wrenching roles. "The Ox-Bow Incident" represents a shift in the standard for the Western to a certain extent and shows the consequences of cowboy justice that was (and still is to this day) a genre staple.
While "The Ox-Bow Incident" would mark Fonda's last film before his real-life WWII career, "My Darling Clementine" would be his return to the silver screen in another historically inaccurate, but crowd pleasing Western directed by John Ford. Fonda portrays legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in a film that follows the trend of completely embellishing the bloody, brutal, and brief "Gunfight at the OK Corral" into another melodramatic set piece. The film is a technical and narrative success if one looks past shaky history featuring Victor Mature as Doc Holliday and Walter Brennan as the patriarch of the villainous Clanton clan. When it comes to "old school" Westerns, one can't go wrong by "My Darling Clementine" and Fonda's firm establishment as a leading man doesn't hurt matters either.
"Daisy Kenyon" is a refreshing change of pace in the set in terms of genre, taking Fonda out of the world of horses and guns and into a post-WWII world of affairs and jealousy. Although Fox classifies the film under its "Film Nor" line, the film only resembles noir in its cinematography, with director Otto Preminger delivering a tightly crafted melodrama, held together by key performances from Fonda, Joan Crawford and Dana Andrews. The film is perfectly serviceable and entirely entertaining, but there's not a lot that jumps off the screen as particularly magnificent, especially considering the power in front of the camera and behind.
"The Longest Day" makes an appearance in the collection likely for the same reason it appeared in the "Robert Mitchum Collection." It's arguably Fox's biggest war film and sees Fonda cast as Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. I'll reiterate what I had to briefly say about the film in the Mitchum set: "The Longest Day" is a true who's-who of major actors of the time, "The Longest Day" holds up on its sheer spectacle, cast, and expansive storytelling. Frankly, I doubt we'll ever see a film as "big" as "The Longest Day" ever again; while it's surely been passed by other films in terms of realism and authenticity, it's place in film history is not up for debate and its entertainment value wanes little if at all.
The final film in the set feels like the biggest curveball, with Fonda playing John Bottomly in Richaard Fleischer's 1968 crime film, "The Boston Strangler". Fonda plays it relatively safe, but it's Tony Curtis as the titular murderer, Albert DeSalvo that makes the film a fascinating viewing experience. The film is a stark contrast to Fleischer's other two most previous films, "Fantastic Voyage" and "Doctor Doolittle" respectively, but the director's work here is only faulted by a wishy-washy script that apparently has some issues in the accuracy department. Overall, "The Boston Strangler" is the strangest inclusion in the set, if only for the veteran Fonda being generally unremarkable. Watch it for Curtis' performance primarily and as a thriller, secondly.
"Jesse James" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer that is mixed bag. For a color film from 1939, it generally looks pleasing to the eye, but there is a fair amount of instances of issues with intense contrast and muddled colors, not to mention merely average levels of detail. Digital noise/grain are surprisingly low as is print damage.
"Drums Along the Mohawk" is presented with a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. Like "Jesse James" detail levels are a mixed bag and contrast feels overly intense at times. Fortunately, the colors feel a bit more vibrant and solid, while the transfer itself is very clean and clear.
"The Grapes of Wrath" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. The transfer is quite clean, a product of Fox's respected Cinema Classics line. The black-and-white image boasts strong detail, generally natural, balanced contrast, and no indication of artificial digital tinkering.
"The Return of Frank James" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. Detail is adequate for the age of the film, while print damage is minor but still visible. Color levels are not quite as natural as expected, but generally consistent throughout, as are contrast levels.
"Immortal Sergeant" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. It's a overall, solid transfer with minimal print damage, consistent, natural contrast, and above average detail.
"The Ox-Bow Incident" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. Contrast levels are natural and consistent, while detail is about average for the age, and a little less so in a few scenes. Print damage is kept to a minimum but can be quite noticeable at times.
"My Darling Clementine" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. It's another very well-restored transfer that is very clean from print damage, sports noteworthy clarity and detail, and features incredibly solid contrast levels from start to finish.
"Daisy Kenyon" features a 1.33:1 OAR transfer. It's a very slick presentation for a classic noir, despite some varying contrast levels. Digital noise/grain is kept to a moderate level and detail is more than acceptable.
Infuriatingly, "The Longest Day" is the decade-plus old 2.35:1 NON-ANAMORPHIC transfer. It's incredibly insulting that MGM/Fox has repackaged this inferior disc when an anamorphically enhanced version was released back in 2006 that also sported two great commentary tracks. Not much more needs to be said about a transfer in 2012 that's not even anamorphically enhanced, although it's worth noting the film has very intense contrast levels and noticeable digital/noise grain.
"The Boston Strangler" features a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Colors stay generally within the realm of the natural, while detail is decidedly in the average range (with a few scenes dropping even below that mark). There's no signs of digital tinkering, but it's far from a restored transfer.
"Jesse James" features an original English mono track as well as an English stereo track. The mono track is generally clear and balanced with little aural defects. An English stereo track is included as well as Spanish mono, and English subtitles.
"Drums Along the Mohawk" features an English mono track. English stereo, French mono and Spanish mono tracks are included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"The Grapes of Wrath" features an English stereo track. It's a solid track with little if any high-end distortion of hiss due to age. English and Spanish mono tracks are included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"The Return of Frank James" features an English stereo track that is nothing incredibly impressive, but generally clean and balanced throughout. English, French, and Spanish mono tracks are included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"Immortal Sergeant" features an English stereo audio track that sports a bit of high-end distortion, but is more than adequate on a whole. An English mono track is included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"The Ox-Bow Incident" features an English stereo audio track is respectable by-and-large, with a good mix, that keeps high-end distortion and hiss to a bare minimum. An English and Spanish mono track are included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"My Darling Clementine" features an English stereo track that is incredibly clean and well balanced. English, French, and Spanish mono tracks are included as well as English and Spanish subtitles.
"Daisy Kenyon" features an English mono track that is perfectly serviceable for the tone of the film. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included.
"The Longest Day" features a Dolby Digital English 5.0 track that is thankfully, well above the image in terms of technical merit. It's still an ear-pleasing track and much better than the 4.0 tracks Fox has done for other films of the same era. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
"The Boston Stranger" features an English stereo audio track that is generally clear, but not as well mixed as one would expect for the newest film in this set. English, Spanish, and French mono tracks are included as well.
The extras on "Jesse James" includes the film's original trailer and two Movietone newsreels.
"Drums Along the Mohawk" features a commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman as well as a still gallery and the film's original theatrical trailer.
"The Grapes of Wrath" features an audio commentary from a Joseph McBride and Susan Shillinglaw, two experts on Ford and Steinbeck respectively. An A&E episode of "Biography" featuring Darryl F. Zanuck" is included as well as a textual prologue that accompanied the UK release, a brief restoration segment, the original theatrical trailer, stills gallery and Movietone newsreels gallery.
"The Return of Frank James" features the film's original theatrical trailer.
"Immortal Sergeant" features the film's theatrical trailer.
"The Ox-Bow Incident" features a commentary with historian Dick Etulain and the director's son William Wellman Jr. An A&E "Biography" episode focused on Hendry Fonda is included as well as a restoration segment, theatrical trailer and still gallery.
"My Darling Clementine" features a commentary by author/historian Scott Eyman and Wyatt Earp III on the theatrical release. The biggest extra is the flipside of the disc, which features the pre-release version of the film, a featurette on the pre-release version and a stills gallery. The film's original theatrical trailer is included on the other side of the disc.
"Daisy Kenyon" features a commentary from historian Foster Hirsch, as well as a featurette on the film, a featurette on Otto Preminger's work at Fox, interactive pressbook, original theatrical trailer, and stills gallery.
"The Longest Day" consists of the film's original trailer.
"The Boston Strangler" consists of a Movietone newsreel and a short featurette on the Boston Strangler.
Ultimately, I'll contest that despite Criterion having better versions available, "Young Mr. Lincoln" and "12 Angry Men" deserved a place in the set far more than "The Return of Frank James" or "The Boston Strangler." As a whole, the set is a great encapsulation of Fonda's career despite only containing his efforts with Fox. In terms of other notable omissions outside the Fox banner, only "Once Upon a Time in the West" or "On Golden Pond" feel glaringly obvious. The technically quality of these discs is still generally admirable as are the bonus features; it's only Fox's inexcusable use of the long antiquated non-anamorphic "The Longest Day" disc that forces me to knock my recommendation of this set down a whole notch. If you're looking for a good place to start a Henry Fonda collection, you'd be hard pressed to do better than starting here. Recommended.