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Who's abandoning the Blu-ray format? Collectors like to collect because we wish to possess copies of films that we can see whenever we want. Think of this: historically speaking, studios sometimes suppressed older versions of films so as not to compete with new remakes, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Show Boat to name just two. Just last week we were informed that a studio was doing the same thing digitally, pulling streaming, digital copies and 'cloud' iterations of a certain title, so as to clear the way for a new remake being released. Viewers that may have thought they 'owned' the movie on digital may have been locked out. But had I purchased the movie on disc, I'd still be able to see it.
Warner Home Video pioneered the idea of boxed library DVD sets about 14 years ago, grouping movies by stars or subject into 4- or 5-disc packages. Now they've started doing the same thing with Blu-rays. We've seen great sets like a Gangsters Collection and have been promised more this Fall, a horror box and a special effects box. But here in June the big release is The Golden Year Collection 1939. No, I don't think they're going to do 1940 next; the year was chosen because at some time in the past, I believe in a "Life Goes to the Movies" TV special, 1939 was singled out as a banner year for great pictures. Four out of five of these movies are indeed great, and the fifth is good fun. Four out of five are on Blu-ray for the first time. All are long overdue - the selection covers three studios: Warner Bros., RKO and MGM.
Dark Victory may be the quintessential film in the 'women's picture' subgenre. It's stylized to fit into a specific fantasy for a specific time. Some of the details are almost laughably dated, but once one gets beyond the wish-fulfillment fantasy of a moneyed class pursuing its entitlements, the emotions are true enough. Movies of this time seldom presented themes of sickness and death in such direct terms. The average Dr. Kildare program picture is pseudo-medical nonsense.
True, Davis is afflicted with the original 'movie sickness,' the glamorous kind that can be predicted down to the final symptoms, yet leaves the victim free to be active and find the correct noble postures to assume on her way out. Yet, for dramatic truth, Casey Robinson's intelligent script and Bette Davis' performance hit the nail on the head. Hard-drinking & headstrong Judith Traherne (Davis) jumps horses like a pro. She lives a wild life of hunting, riding and partying on her New England estate. Her loyal secretary Ann King (Geraldine Fitzgerald) is also her best friend, and together they take on the taunts of Judith's obstinate horse trainer, Michael O'Leary (Humphrey Bogart). Neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent) postpones his research retreat to attend to Judith's problem -- migraines, blurred vision and loss of feeling. His operation buys her a few months of symptom-free living, but both he and Ann withhold the truth from Judith: the prognosis is negative, and she's going to die.
In many ways Judith Traherne is a selfish pain in the tail. The entire world seems to revolve around her. The more important a party, the more dresses she throws on the floor before making a choice. She's so dismissive with her friends that we're surprised anyone will associate with her. Yet Bette Davis makes this impossible woman a likeable identification figure for practically every woman alive. The vibrant, flawed Judith eventually moves to a position of greater self-knowledge.
The opening stages of this 'movie sickness' are fairly realistic. The neurological symptoms are obvious. The bovine Dr. Steele (eternal costar for powerful females George Brent) complains about the survival rate for brain surgery, which in 1939 must have been pretty dismal. After the operation, Judith blithely believes she's cured, when we know she's living on borrowed time. It's actually rather amusing, to see Brent staring at Davis as if her head were about to split open. He's like Dr. Frankenstein wondering when the stitches will start falling out of his latest monster.
(Spoilers begin) This is one of those movies in which poignancy is achieved by cruelly withholding vital information from people. Davis waxes enthusiastic about her new lease on life, while Ann and the Doc shudder and look guilty. Then Judith gets the truth and goes on a wild bender, which at first gives the impression that she's sleeping with every man she meets. John Ridgeley makes a crack to that effect, which cues the good Doctor to slug him upside the head. Gee, nobody talks about Ridgeley's blood clot and subsequent horrible death due to the good doctor's powerful right hook.
This is also the kind of movie where young handsome research doctors fall madly in love with their patients, and they go off to find peace together and learn simple rustic values -- with a passel of servants to do the work, of course. Judith barges into Doc's bio lab, ruining any experiment he might be trying to do, but the interruption is laughed off. In just a few weeks he cooks up a promising lead toward curing 57 varieties of human sickness, or whatever. If he were a good Frankenstein, he'd be finding a way to put Eleanor Roosevelt's brain in Judith Traherne's body.
Davis' performance makes all the difference. When a production doesn't support Davis, she carries the whole show like a female Atlas. A nicely judged picture like this one makes her seem like God's gift to sensitive acting. The finale is brilliant in its simplicity. Thanks to the Doc's incredibly accurate timetable of death, Judith is able to find dignity by facing the darkness all on her own. (spoiler spoiler) The most brilliant weepie touch is having Judith send hubby away, unaware that she's already blind and sinking fast. So she gets to 'withhold vital information,' right back at him. A zillion women probably debated whether that was the right thing to do.
Among the actors designated to orbit The Star are Geraldine Fitzgerald, quietly concerned and a barometer for dramatic typhoons to come; Ronald Reagan's forgettable playboy and Humphrey Bogart's painful turn as a smart-talking Heathcliff of the tackle room. We can tell Davis is a desperate woman by the way she encourages Bogart to make advances, and then pushes him away. Yeah, he's got the right hormones and she doesn't give a damn, but there are limits. I mean, this guy's a worker on the payroll. He's not even in the Blue Book.
Dark Victory hits some things on the head. Judith's series of reactions (denial, rage, blame, depression, acceptance?) resembles the standard sequence psychologists would later associate with patients coming to terms with impending death. There's also something correct about Judith's Earth Mother response to doom, even though the details are a bit corny. She's planting flowers, petting the dogs and bursting with Spring's joy, even on the way to the morgue. Davis makes the image worthy of the romantic poets, and not just a morbid irony.
Warners' restoration of Dark Victory clears up all the flaws of the old DVD. One plus I didn't mention is Max Steiner's impressive music score -- the old tracks really come through with Blu-ray audio.
The new disc ports over two old extras: film historians James Ursini and Paul Clinton provide an overview commentary with most of the known info on Davis at this point in time, along with insights and opinions about the contemporary attitudes toward death in movies and the film's treatment of medical industry. Boy, those doctors have a lot of time to wait exclusively on Judith! A featurette spends its time comparing Dark Victory to other big pictures of 1939.
A Warner Night at the Movies selection of goodies includes a trailer for The Roaring Twenties, a newsreel, the short Old Hickory and the cartoon Robin Hood Makes Good; a radio adaptation with Davis and Spencer Tracy, and a theatrical trailer.
In its 29 years of activity RKO produced some real highlights, the top contenders being noted usually as King Kong, the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Citizen Kane and the horror films of Val Lewton. Radio-Keith-Orpheum makes the cut for 1939 with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a breathtakingly vivid and exciting adaptation of the famed novel by Victor Hugo. The silent Lon Chaney version is impressive for 1923, but it's neither as cinematic nor as sensual as this re-visualizing by the underrated William Dieterle.
RKO was not a big company but its production facilities had some of the best artisans in the business, and in their better movies every bit of the artistry showed on screen. For Hunchback the studio used every known special effects trick to recreate the giant cathedral. But as is obvious from the film, they built enormous sets as well.
The no-flab screenplay by Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank begins with half a reel of concentrated exposition. While visiting a new printing press, Harry Davenport's king gives a rundown on practically every plot element. A book can now be duplicated in a few weeks, instead of a few years! At the circus of fools we meet the wildly idealistic poet Gringore (Edmond O'Brien, practically a grinning pixie) and the cheerfully murderous leader of the beggars, the realist Clopin (Thomas Mitchell). The ravishing gypsy girl Esmerelda (Maureen O'Hara, imported and whisked into the movie straight from Jamaica Inn) captures Gringore's heart in a flash, and also the attention of the narcissistic soldier, Phoebus (Alan Marshal). Esmerelda is a damsel in distress on multiple levels. Accused of thievery, she takes sanctuary in the Church, where she converts to Catholicism (in a way) just by being awed by the statues of the Virgin Mary. The Archdeacon (Walter Hampden) is kind, but the churchman Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) has a dangerously conflicted reaction to the sexy street dancer. He's supposed to be impervious to the charms of women, but the sight of Esmerelda turns him into a psychotic, blaming her for being attractive and wishing to either possess her or punish her, or both. As for Esmerelda, she takes pity on Gringoire, saving him from an unfair sentence of death in the Thieves' Den by offering to marry him.
Esmerelda flees sanctuary at the sight of Notre Dame's deaf bell-ringer, the monstrously deformed Quasimodo (Charles Laughton). Half-witted Quasimodo is used as a nefarious tool by the corrupt Frollo. When caught by the Guard, he's sentenced to a public whipping. Several plotlines converge -- a civic revolt, Esmerelda's bid for sanctuary in the cathedral, and Frollo's repressed villainy. At the center is the monstrous yet wholly human Quasimodo. He defends the cathedral against the mob as if fighting a war on the walls of a fortress. And to save Esmerelda from execution, he'll even defy the imperious Frollo, his master.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame has the artful density of a European film, and more joy and wonder than, say, the Dickens classics by David O. Selznick. The circus of fools is a riotous sequence packed with complicated shots that link together like puzzle pieces. The crowds are big but we get so close to them that dozens of bit players and grotesques make individual impressions. Clopin's thieves' court is murderous but wickedly funny, as if everyone present knows that life is so short & dirty that one might as well treat it as a joke. The king is always hovering about being wise and surprisingly progressive; he talks so much about the bright future that we expect to see him drafting the Declaration of Independence. The Church is given its fair due, but Frollo's hypocritical menace is not downplayed. The revolt makes it seem as if civilization can crumble at any time, just because of the whims of a few influential people.
Maureen O'Hara is charming and Edmond O'Brien is a revelation -- we're accustomed to seeing him looking older and more stout. But the thing that raises The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the heights of greatness is Charles Laughton. Quasimodo is a genuine movie monster at heart, and he expresses 'monsterdom' more acutely than any other screen creation. Karloff's Frankenstein monster is the only screen monster that so captures the whole spectrum of possible emotions with less effort -- innocence, ugliness, social rejection, triumph. Quasimodo makes a brief connection with Esmerelda and becomes a hero in his own mind. He's a tragic figure but not a helpless victim. He's also a grand romantic hero. We all understand Quasimodo's dilemma and we're all on his side. The ultimate underdog, Quasimodo captures our hearts.
It's a real triumph for Charles Laughton, who surely knew this was as important a character as he would ever play, despite the fact that he uses little or none of his unsurpassed oratorical skill. The role is personal in another way, too. Laughton was conflicted about his sexual identity. He possessed a healthy ego yet was convinced that he was a short, ugly man. That certainly comes through his performance -- unless you're one of the Beautiful One Percent, most of us at sometime or another have felt like a toad, to be shunned by one and all.
Quasimodo's a top movie monster of all time just for his incredible makeup job, by, I believe, George Bau and Perc Westmore. His misshapen face always looks good, even that projecting dead-eye that we're surprised was okayed by the Production Code. We end up with a slobbering, pig-faced monstrosity. Quasi is deaf, of course, and Laughton seals the deal by making him socially disengaged, forever trying to figure out what's going on around him. He's not initially aware that he's going to be flogged... not much earlier, he was the King of the Fools.
William Hamilton and Robert Wise are the credited editors, and the cutting in this show works closely with the director's camera angles. The timing of Esmerelda's execution scene, with its use of quiet against noise, greatly affects our emotional reaction. Kids often cheer the rescue, whether alone or in a screening situation. The great thing about the show is that it's historical but not ponderous, it contemplates big ideas but is not pretentious, and is emotionally engaging without manipulating us. People feel great after seeing this movie. Hunchback is one of RKO's greatest prestige triumphs, a picture to be proud of.
Warners' Blu of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the collection's most awaited restoration. One of the first titles released on DVD back in 1997 was an Image disc of Hunchback, and it just plain looked awful. Not so here... imagine everything looking velvety gray, with lots of deep blacks, carefully modeled faces and bright eyes. Laughton's Hunchback makeup is as easy to examine as it is in 8x10 still photos. The opticals are superb -- the only degradation we see occurs in scenes with multiple levels of film duplication, as when a composite already containing mattes and miniatures is used as a rear projection element through the portals of a bell tower. This is one of the first shots, actually.
Maureen O'Hara appears in a taped interview from some years back; she's just as sharp as she appears in the new Quiet Man documentary, and a little bit younger. She of course, praises the film to the high heavens, along with Laughton, who was responsible for launching her in Hollywood movies. We also get a short subject, Drunk Driving from the Crime Does Not Pay series, and a colorized cartoon, The Lone Stranger and Porky, complete with a PC ethic offense warning. The attached trailer is in better shape than the trailers I've seen for Hunchback as well.
Ninotchka is the fourth collaboration between Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, who struck sparks together writing witty dialogue and fleshing out clever meet-cutes and plot twists for the delightful comedies of Ernst Lubitsch. They were joined by writer Walter Reisch. Wilder worshipped everything Lubitsch did; from his early Paramount musicals forward. 'The Lubitsch Touch' wasn't an empty slogan but an apt description of the unique charm to be found in the German expatriate's films.
This is easily one of Greta Garbo's most agreeable roles, if only because it gives her a sense of humor, breaking MGM's 13-year run of dead-serious melodramas and tragedies. By 1939 repeats of Garbo's silent-era smoldering vamps were running thin in popularity, even if all the movies were successful. It was definitely a daring gambit to make a movie where, "Garbo laughs!," if not for Lubitsch, then certainly for Wilder and Brackett. 'Genius' writers that hurt the careers of studio assets like Garbo weren't very popular.
Thus we get Ninotchka, a humorless Russian trade agent, sent to Paris to straighten out a trio of goofy delegates that have become corrupted by the decadent capitalist West: in other words, they're having the time of their lives. When Ninotchka intervenes, she's waylaid by local lover boy Melvyn Douglas, who takes the trouble to tempt the lady from the Volga with the little pleasures of the good life -- food, music, and frivolous things in store windows. Any illusions about Garbo being a cold brick that vants to bee a -hlone disappear when the actress proves as adept at comedy as anything else; the writers tailor each scene to her. It's a delicate game of careful reactions, with the resistant Muscovite falling prey to worldly, non-collective temptations. Lubitsch led the creative team, solving a number of key plot issues with instantaneous inspirations. It was he who thought of the simple device of the hat, to show that the seduction of Ninotchka is having an impact.
Fans of Wilder can hear him getting in his punches, dialogue-wise. The three delegates are an adorable set of stooges, up for any verbal joke short of an outright pun. Garbo's slow seduction away from the ideology of Stalin is wickedly sexy, as if Douglas were prying her away from a church pew, and into a bed.
Ninotchka not only makes Garbo a partly 'straight-woman' in a comedy, it takes even more risks by virtue of its political basis. Classy MGM did normally NOT court controversy on any level. By 1938, the culture was aware of mass show trials in Moscow but not quite ready to believe that Stalin had inaugurated a vast reign of terror, murdering former associates, popular generals and seemingly anybody that stood out from his peers. Artists were suppressed as well. But news from such a far off place didn't affect the body politic in Washington, which at times seemed to be dominated by pro-German sentiments, or at least a strong vein of isolationism.
For that reason, much of the film's humor now seems radical, especially the jokes about the purges. Much of America was self-fixated in the '30s. If people were starving in China, it wasn't our problem. Somebody was always massacring somebody somewhere. People up at arms over those things either read the newspaper too much or had dangerous politics to sell. Ninotchka's central theme made Soviet repression into a joke. The key controversial line is Ninotchka's reaction to the purges: "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." Some of the sophisticated humor shows that Lubitch and his writers didn't mind stepping on toes: a White Russian expatriate in Paris (Ina Claire) is naturally against the Soviets, but is characterized as spoiled and selfish.
Lubitsch would take his edgy political jokes much further in his wartime comedy To Be or Not To Be, which is ten times more daring in its faith in the power of comedy and satire. And Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond felt the need to follow in Lubitsch's footsteps twenty years later with their One, Two, Three, a thematic re-make of Ninotchka with a German Communist (Horst Buchholtz) in the Garbo role. It even duplicates the three Soviet trade delegates. Wilder was certainly impressed by Garbo, as his later film Fedora is to a great degree a tribute to her legend.
Ninotchka is one of the more satisfying comedies ever to come out of Hollywood, and perhaps the warmest Garbo film. She doesn't die a horrible death in the end. As fate would have it, she would make only one other (fairly lame) movie for MGM before withdrawing into self-imposed retirement.
Warners' Blu of Ninotchka gives the film its original glossy MGM appearance. Even Paris looks too glamorous to be Paris, and the crowded living quarters of Ninotchka in Moscow don't exactly say squalor, just too many people in confined quarters. The extras are the short subject Prophet without Honor and a classy cartoon, The Blue Danube. The trailer does indeed shout, 'Garbo Laughs.'
Genre fans will love Ninotchka and Ernst Lubitsch for giving actor Bela Lugosi a break. He plays Garbo's supervisor in Moscow, and his performance is polished. It's too bad that Lugosi so rarely received such attention, and good direction.
Dodge City is a big-studio super-western that puts a fancy wrapper on the same themes as had been playing for thirty years in cheap series oaters. Thus every scene comes with a set piece on a big scale -- a train chase, a stampede, a barroom brawl, while the writers find ways to fit the not-particularly-American Errol Flynn into the proceedings.
Welcome to Dodge! Cattleman Wade Hatton (Flynn) escorts Abbie Irving (Olivia de Havilland) to the newly established cattle town. He observes several citizens apparently murdered by crooked cattle buyer Jeff Surrett (Bruce Cabot) before finally taking action and assuming duties as sheriff. But more violence will follow before law comes to The West.
Warners puts all of its resources and bold Technicolor behind Dodge City. It still chalks up as one of Flynn's lesser vehicles, even if plenty of clever writing has been injected to spruce up the western clichés. Flynn's banter with de Havilland is reasonable (she looks prettier than ever in Technicolor) and Alan Hale's escapades with the Pure Prairie League get some genuine laughs, but most of what we see is ho-hum stuff. When a nice cattleman (John Litel) tries to do business with the villain, he might as well hang a "shoot me" sign around his neck. The hero minds his own business until an innocent kid (weepy-blubbery Bobs Watson) bites the dust. The activist newspaper publisher (Frank McHugh) doesn't see the danger even when he's told that the despicable baddie is gunning for him. And the peace-loving citizens of Dodge turn into a vigilante mob. "O.K. by me in America!"
Flynn looks odd as a cowboy, decked out in always-neat color coordinated outfits and a hat that needed to be re-thought. There are odd references to Shakespeare and possible service in India (!) to provide a reasonable explanation for his clipped speech, but nobody is fooled. Flynn's sheriff of course defends widows (Gloria Holden, formerly Dracula's Daughter) and upholds the rights of Indians, although I'm not sure we ever see any.
Victor Jory, Douglas Fowley and Ward Bond are the baddies, while a dozen familiar faces fill out other stock chores. The biggest waste is Ann Sheridan, who sings a couple of songs but has no real function in the story. If anything, the film is overpopulated. Guinn "Big Boy" Williams serves as a second-string sidekick under Alan Hale and doesn't contribute that much either.
It's a pleasant enough western with few surprises and a great look in color.
I can't say for sure if Warners' Blu of Dodge City is a digital reconstruction from Technicolor separations, or just an excellent digital rendering of an existing Eastman composite negative. I'm leaning toward the former, because my scan through the picture (I watched about a half-hour of it) betrayed no mis-registration color fringing, like I saw in the DVD ten years ago. Colors are warm, and some of the browns lean toward a uniform orange, but that's how I remember Technicolor WB pix from this time -- just like Fox musicals often skewed toward Blue.
Leonard Maltin hosts this Warner Night at the Movies extra list, which includes featurettes appropriate for 1939. Sons of Liberty is a Michael Curtiz- directed short subject starring Claude Rains, Gale Sondergaard and Vladimir Sokoloff. The theme is interesting -- Jewish Americans are shown donating funds to keep the American Revolution afloat. The funny cartoon is Dangerous Dan McGoo, starring a dog who speaks with Elmer Fudd's voice, and a Mae West- like singer doing a Katharine Hepburn imitation, even though a dissolve compares her to Bette Davis. Vew-wy confusing. The interview docu does best when describing the film's unique premiere, a star-studded junket to the real Dodge City, Kansas. Errol Flynn leads the premiere parade on horseback.
The one title not new to Blu is Gone With The Wind, the crown jewel of 1939, the David O. Selznick production that was the biggest thing in Hollywood since D.W. Griffith. It's essentially the excellent, fully restored scan and re-compositing job done for 2010's Gone With the Wind 70th Anniversary Edition. For the full review on this gotta-see landmark movie, let me refer viewers to that review.
The disc has no menu or chapter selection choices, just the movie, which plays as soon as it's loaded. As GWTW is such a long show, the extras here are limited to expert historian Rudy Behlmer's marathon commentary. As he talks about the movie for four hours straight, I hope the erudite Mr. Behlmer brought along a spare larynx. 1
The Warner Home Video Blu-ray set of The Golden Year Collection 1939 comes in their fanfold book-form disc holder. Each disc is lodged in a card sleeve, as in an old 78rpm record collection. In addition to the five Blu-rays, a sixth DVD disc holds an hour-long documentary, 1939: Hollywood's Greatest Year. It's a simple celebration of a year packed with hits of the 'timeless classic' variety; we see clips from about twenty pix now controlled by WB or Turner, and all of six from other sources. It's Nostalgia City, all the way. Produced in 2009, the docu is co-produced and co-written by Constantine Nasr, and is given a fine polish.
Blu-ray fans will want this collection for the movies themselves -- if I've got three solid favorites here, most everyone else will have at least one. And if you haven't seen Ninotchka or The Hunchback of Notre Dame ... well, the discs are available separately as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Believe it or not, younger people today don't know older movies. Most college-aged kids can't I.D. Cary Grant, and if they can identify an icon like Marilyn Monroe , they might not know anything about her. Even a famous show like Gone with the Wind is no longer as familiar as it once was. If you're young, it's like, an old movie, man. Don't confuse it with the edgy, irreverent hit comedy with Ben Kingsley, about the great man with gastric problems, Gandhi With the Windy. Pah-rump.
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T'was Ever Thus.