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One of the first Warner HD-DVDs out the gate was a painstaking restoration of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and now that that format has breathed its last the studio is backtracking to bring out more HD-DVD-only titles on the winning platform. According to the general buzz, Forbidden Planet is due out sooner than later.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was a reckless Technicolor gamble on the part of the studio and it paid off magnificently. It wasn't so much a brilliant production as a lucky one that benefited from the old studio system. The luck came when Errol Flynn won the lead role almost by default. The studio never seems to have believed in him, and he wasn't considered a great actor like many of his contemporaries. But the centralized control of the studio heyday could be a big boost in creative hands. Even Jack Warner was no dummy when it came to a good story. The all-powerful front office was able to do things like replace directors and order re-shoots of entire scenes if necessary.
The result is glorious. Forget the negative press on Errol Flynn. As Robin Hood he makes audiences feel young, invulnerable, noble and virtuous. While setting straight the problems of 12th century England, Robin also seems to be the answer to a world growing dark with totalitarian threats.
The 1938 film makes an even bigger splash in the higher resolution of Blu-ray. The earlier special edition's extras have been carried over for casual watchers and Robin Hood freaks alike. (See below)
Script-wise, The Adventures of Robin Hood is the Goldfinger of its day. Every scene takes over from the last with perfect timing, cued by a score that fulfills our hopes for action and romance before we even know what we're looking for. The first half of the picture is interrupted with illuminated inter-titles, as with a silent film; when these drop out, Robin Hood becomes an almost perfect action story.
I really doubt that anyone saw Claude Rains or Basil Rathbone as substitutes for Hitler, but Robin Hood appeals to the rogue political vigilante in all of us. Sir Robin of Locksley is a nobleman stripped of his rank by dastards higher up, something that happens all the time in the politics. Locksley struts on the scene as a self-appointed political avenger out to overthrow the present government in favor of the legitimate one he thinks has been stolen.
We early 70s film students naturally rallied behind this guy, even though overthrowing the present government to reaffirm an older one should have sounded reactionary. Robin's righteousness was undeniable, and Seton I. Miller and Norman Reilly Raine gave him the best snappy comeback line in subversive film history:
Robin, not batting an eye: "Fluently."
In The Adventures of Robin Hood, as pointed out in the overkill of commentaries and docus on the disc, the Golden Age of Hollywood was maturing to a level of production value that could seemingly do anything. The color is allowed to be bright and primary instead of the Natalie Kalmus-dictated subdued tones. Warners didn't build that many new sets but those that were built are lavish, like Prince John's great hall. If the show needed a green forest for Robin to hide in, that's where the studio went. And, following up on the precedent set by Captain Blood, the fencing duels are more than simply waving swords around, as Douglas Fairbanks had done a generation earlier. Camera speed is manipulated and moves are chosen more for show than for fight, but the Hood/Gisbourne confrontation is a showstopper not to be topped until The Mark of Zorro.
I've never heard complaints about the film's casting. Errol looks joyous and says his lines with a spunk and verve that makes them sing. Perhaps Flynn wasn't respected as an actor because he didn't overwhelm his material, or try to give the impression that he was superior to it. Still a good reason to watch Gone With the Wind, Olivia DeHavilland's sweetness is infectious. She's smart and vulnerable and would have made a fine Juliet. Actually, she does make a fine Juliet, as The Adventures of Robin Hood cribs the balcony scene for its first romantic encounter. 1
Claude Rains' major bad guy is the perfect disdainful creep, a sneering snob who likes his villainy carried out by others. He performs it at a walk, with few sustained speeches. The studio system was known for using great actors in roles technically beneath their stations; but the result was that movies were sometimes perfectly cast for what the story needed, not an actor's career. Rains must have had the clearest, bluest eyes of all the cast - in close-ups, we can see the reflections of the powerful lights needed to expose the film in the Technicolor camera.
Basil Rathbone is also perfect, an actor who believes that the role is more important than the career. Everyone seems to remember Rathbone as a humorless professional, and he's been made fun of as late as his last cheap Science Fiction pictures in the 60s, where he complained bitterly about the changes in the movie industry and the lack of respect given him. Nothing's changed, then or now. The 1938 blooper reel on this disc makes a big joke out of his sober costume tests, and in the home movie section, even host Rudy Behlmer suggests that Rathbone is something of a bore. Later costume pictures like The Sea Hawk could have used more colorful & 'serious' villains.
The rest of the cast falls into the line of studio contract players fitting into their correct slots. There must have been a lot of inter-studio flexibility, as we associate Una O'Connor with Universal and Herbert Mundin with MGM. When the studios traded these character actors like playing cards, it was surely the individual movies that benefited ... someone like Alan Hale reached high levels of popularity but kept drawing his measly $200 a week or so on his 7-year contract. But hey, it's show business.
Korngold's music balances his big themes and sweet violin love music against passages scored heavily to match the on-screen action. Warner's arrangers, used to working with Max Steiner, probably influenced this greatly. If you've seen The Adventures of Robin Hood only a few times, watch it the next time while concentrating on the music. For many, the score-only track on this disc will be a major revelation. The score doesn't just follow and compliment scenes, it shapes and lifts them to the desired emotional level. Full scores like this one made Hollywood's pictures easier to watch for audiences anywhere, no matter how poor the foreign dubbing might be. The music carries one through the levels of drama far more efficiently than does an opera or an operetta. 2
Two small notes in passing: I'm told by reader D. Fletcher that an automobile can be seen for a brief second in one of the Sherwood forest scenes. And look at the Escape from the Gallows sequence: the extras show us views of the half-constructed stone church in the courtyard, completed in the final film with a flawless matte painting. In one shot, the composition couldn't avoid showing the church where a matte painting wasn't practical. Instead, the thatched roof of a house is positioned to cover where the church 'ends' in the middle of the sky. It's pretty funny - after being firmly established, the church is suddenly only half there.
Warners' Blu-ray of The Adventures of Robin Hood will surely draw more DVD enthusiasts into the new format. The colors on the show are sensational, and all one must do to get a full Technicolor look from the package is to elevate the chroma a bit on one's monitor. Although an occasional shot has grain problems (that may have been on original prints, when the Technicolor technology was still in its infancy) the added detail of Blu-ray will be a revelation for many. Besides bringing Claude Rains' brilliant blue eyes to life, we see much more detail in costumes. One of Maid Marian's dresses is a complicated-looking embroidery job, with a skirt that appears to have been airbrushed to form a gradient between white and blue. Crowds of spectators no longer look like shapeless blobs, and the action in the crucial swordfights seems even crisper than usual.
All of the extras from the 2-Disc Special edition are here, arranged on one very full screen like an enormous restaurant menu. The selections begin with the familiar "Warners Night at the Movies" package. Leonard Maltin introduces three cartoons, a newsreel and a musical short subject. He pinch-hits for Rudy Behlmer, the overall host for most of the added value material. We can tell that the marketing aim for this DVD is trying to go wider than the rabid movie fanbase, for most of Behlmer's intros are slightly dumbed-down. There's enough quality, detail, and certainly quantity in this package to keep everyone interested.
The overall docu is a bit long and has too much generalized praise for my taste, but it does nail most of the historically important points, including Olivia DeHavilland's lawsuit against Jack Warner and James Cagney's walkout that cleared the Robin Hood role for Errol Flynn. A huge quantity of home movies from the set is utilized for another featurette about Sherwood Forest. And finally included is the 1998 Turner TCM docu Glorious Technicolor, a really fine show about the amazing color process and the bizarre story of its inventor. It's not film-specific, but it's a great extra.
The fun highlight is a 1938 blooper reel shown at a company dinner. I've seen cartoon gag reels from the same time, and it looks as if the same Schlesinger cartoon gang was given the job. All of the studio's big stars are shown flubbing and breaking up, which is a hoot - the quality here is pristine. Pat O'Brien falls off a horse, twice, with a big smile on his face. Pre-star Humphrey Bogart breaks up into laughter different from his film-persona laughter. Only Ronald Reagan seems to lack a sense of humor - when a prop gun doesn't fire, he immediately blames somebody off screen.
There are yet more semi-related shorts, and the expected galleries of art and stills. A final goodie are a set of piano recordings of Erich Wolfgang Korngold themes, from a bunch of his more popular Warners pictures. I'm not sure if they're audition recordings or what; in some you can hear someone singing along faintly in the background. There are several cues from The Sea Hawk, my personal Errol Flynn favorite.
With all of these extras, Warners has surely maximized the appeal of their two-disc The Adventures of Robin Hood DVD set.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. This scene has a good example of some rather intrusive revisions during filming. Robin and Marian are in a clinch, rattling off dialog that we think is romantic but is really setting up the political exposition of the story. Suddenly, we cut to mismatched close-ups for four or five dialogue lines, surely improvements on what was there before. Then we cut back to the original clinch two-shot. And by they way, what's with the hat Una O'Connor wears in this scene? It looks like Klaatu's spaceship from The Day the Earth Stood Still.
2. Author Brendan G. Carroll thoughtfully corrects Savant's ignorance on classic film composers (from note 2.4.04):
I read your review of The Adventures of Robin Hood (Two-Disc Special Edition)' and enjoyed it thoroughly. However, there are two points I must mention.
I am the biographer of Erich Wolfgang Korngold and I do take issue you with your assertion that he usually worked on weepies. (note: corrected) He was Warners' number one composer for action-costume films and prior to TAORH, he scored Captain Blood, Anthony Adverse and The Prince and the Pauper. The reason Steiner was originally assigned Hood is because Korngold still lived in Vienna at this time, only occasionally visiting Los Angeles for prestige film assignments. Warners recalled him urgently when the film was 'upgraded' (colour, bigger budget etc) and while scoring it, Hitler invaded Austria preventing his return until 1949!
Concerning the orchestration, I can assure you that the colouring and extra brass are entirely Korngoldian and in all respects, Korngold detailed orchestral matters extensively - it was not his orchestrators influencing him but quite the reverse. Have a listen to Friedhofer's Adventures of Marco Polo to see what I mean. If you ever happen to get a chance to examine the manuscript of Korngold's Robin Hood (now in the Library of Congress) you will see that it is covered in notes and instructions as to what instruments are to be used for individual lines.
Glad you loved this DVD. It's a dream come true. Expect The Sea Hawk in 2005. One last thing: the 'piano tracks' derive from a party given by Ray Heindorf at which Korngold was secretly recorded playing his music. It is he himself that you can hear singing! Kind
Regards, Brendan G. Carroll
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