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Nowadays, true family movies are kind of a lost art; more often than not, they're aimed squarely at kids with maybe a few over-the-head jokes to keep Mom and Dad awake. In other cases, they just try too hard and the "family" aspect feels more like cheap pandering or a way to attract the broadest possible audience. Of course, it's impossible to ignore modern films that get it right or imply that "they don't make 'em like they used to", because a lot of family films from decades past just don't hold up any more. Case in point, kind of: Allan Dwan's Driftwood (1947), a lightly entertaining and overlooked family drama, which coasts by on a strong performance by young Natalie Wood but is far from a long-lost classic.
The story goes like this, with mild spoilers for Driftwood's first 15 minutes: young Jenny Hollingsworth (Wood) ventures out on her own after the sudden death of her great grandfather (H. B. Warner, It's a Wonderful Life) in the middle of his Sunday sermon. Armed with a bible and six years' worth of adorable religious indoctrination, Jenny witnesses a fiery plane crash in the desert. The only survivor is a collie who follows the young girl until they're found by Dr. Steven Webster (Dean Jagger, Twelve O'Clock High), who takes them to meet his fiancee Susan Moore (Ruth Warrick, Citizen Kane), Sheriff Bolton (James Bell, Holiday Inn), and other folks around town. While hiding the dog's true identity---and, along with it, a medical secret that may save countless lives---Jenny attempts to fit in with a community far removed from the one she left. Unfortunately, she's not always welcomed with open arms.
For obvious reasons, the bulk of Driftwood must be taken with a huge grain of salt. There's no shortage of disbelief that must be suspended to accept it at face value...but thanks to the commitment of its cast and Dwan's skillful direction, what might otherwise be a tangled mess ends up being lightweight and charming at several unexpected moments. It almost feels like two separate films smashed together, while the central placement of its charming collie is obviously due to the massively popular first three Lassie films just a few years prior. The end result works more than half the time, but I can't pretend that Driftwood is much more than a curiosity that would be completely forgotten if not for the presence of Natalie Wood. Released just a few months after her breakthrough performance in Miracle on 34th Street, she's the most engaging and memorable part of this uneven but strangely entertaining family drama.
In any case, the "two films in one" factor works against Driftwood's unconventional narrative, giving it a tone that will probably keep first-time viewers at arm's length. It's a lot more complicated than necessary for a film of this type, yet the fact that it works at all is a testament to the cast and crew involved. It's certainly an odd choice for a Blu-ray release, but Driftwood has been resurrected by Kino Lorber with a new 4K scan, lossless audio, and even a brand-new audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold. The end result probably isn't worth a $20 blind buy, but it's a decent purchase for established fans or, at the very least, an interesting rental choice for fans of canine-infused family entertainment.
Advertised as being sourced from a brand-new 4K scan (but from what elements?), Kino's 1080p transfer of Driftwood generally looks very good with a few obvious drawbacks. Not being overly familiar with the film on home video, I can only say that its overall appearance here is very clean with good detail and a slight haziness that looks more like a conscious decision than a technical oversight. It's mostly due to black levels, which rarely reach beyond a medium to dark gray and leave plenty of scenes somewhat lacking in strong texture and clarity. But aside from this obvious drawback, Driftwood looks quite passable on Blu-ray and obviously a few degrees stronger than anything possible on standard definition.
In contrast, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (split mono) mix sounds OK but there's definitely some room for improvement. Though dialogue is generally quite clear and well-balanced with background effects, the music cues by Nathan Scott (Lassie, ironically enough) often feel strained with lackluster dynamic range and a modest amount of distortion at times. Still, this split one-channel track largely gets the job done and, to its benefit, optional English (SDH) subtitles have also been included during the main feature.
The static menu includes options for playback, chapter selection, and one bonus feature, with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes vintage poster-themed artwork and a promotional booklet highlighting other Kino titles.
Die-hard fans of Driftwood are treated to a feature-length Audio Commentary with film historian Jeremy Arnold, who delivers a enjoyable and informative track. Topics of discussion include the cast, the film's underrated status, cashing in on the collie craze, truth and lies, Allen Dwan's earlier career and introduction to film directing, Ruth Warrick and Orson Welles, other members of the cast and crew, Easter eggs and cameos, shameless plugs, the dog's performance, and much more. This a very well organized and informative commentary, with lots of details about the supporting cast and a few well-timed gaps of silence to let certain scenes play out. I can't recall hearing other audio commentaries by Arnold, although he did write a nice essay last year for Sony's re-release of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Driftwood is still passable (if not slightly above average) old-fashioned family entertainment for a very specific audience, but it many ways it feels like just as much a dated relic as a hidden gem. The film's tone always seems a little bit off and this kept me from fully embracing its charms, although the central performances are strong enough to keep Driftwood grounded most of the way. Kino Lorber's Blu-ray, not surprisingly, is for established fans only: anyone can appreciate its solid A/V presentation, but the only extra is an audio commentary (which was enjoyable, but I realize they aren't for everyone). Unless you're head over heels for Driftwood already, this is more of a "try before you buy" disc. Rent It.