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Nick Zegarac DVD/Blu-ray reviews

Nick Zegarac is an author, poet and writer of several screenplays, two currently under consideration in Hollywood.  He currently writes a monthly column for Retort Magazine, is shopping a short-story manuscript, two more screenplays, and a book about Hollywood filmmaking.  He lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.  Visit his The Hollywood Art site.  Read his serial novel, Eddie Mars.

 

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© 2012  Nick Zegarac

 

 

Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary (Blu-ray), Jean Harlow 100th Anniversary Collection, Star Wars Saga (Blu-ray) 

 

 

"It's terrific!" publicity posters for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) declared: a rather fitting declaration. The word "terrific" means something that is at once awe-inspiring and strangely unsettling. Welles' movie is certainly both.

 

As Gone With The Wind (1939) remains the benchmark of producer David O. Selznick's uncompromising vision for ancient Hollywood glamour, Welles' Citizen Kane is the epitome of the new decade's darker and more nightmarish visions of the human condition. Welles was just 23 when he enthusiastically accepted the daunting task to rescue RKO Studios from their steep financial decline. He was told to make whatever sort of movie he wanted without compromising or interruption. But the enfant terrible who had frightened the masses half out of their wits with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds a few years earlier was about to meet his match (or perhaps his alter-ego) in aging newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. 

 

Citizen Kane is often misperceived as a film a clef of Hearst and his relationship with MGM starlet Marion Davies. In actuality Welles' movie is a scathing, semi-autobiographical amalgam of incidents (some borrowed from Hearst's life, others not) that seeks to show how a great man is reduced to nothing by his own ambitions. In this respect, Citizen Kane foreshadows the demise of Welles' own reputation in Hollywood, although in 1941 no one - least of all Welles - could have known this.

 

As scripted by Herman J. Mankiewicz (a fairly bitter though brilliant screenwriter) and Welles, the resulting nonlinear narrative charts the life of Charles Foster Kane (Welles), a child torn from his mother's bosom who thereafter embarks upon a life of self-destruction under the auspices of his miserly banker/legal guardian, William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris).

 

In his twenties Kane takes over a beleaguered newspaper, The Enquirer, with the aid of his best friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane, who shaved his head for the role). Over the course of the next decade Kane grows the paper into a publishing empire. But the trajectory of Kane's political ambitions is interrupted twice: the first time to his advantage with his engagement to the President's niece, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), and the second to his own detriment after his affair with chorus girl, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), is exposed by political adversary Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins).

 

The rest of the film is dedicated to a rather depressing illustration of Kane's own demise, his misguided attempts to regain respectability that ultimately unravel his life.  Publicly disgraced, socially humiliated, Kane embarks upon the almost Svengali-like transformation of Susan's career from chorine to aspiring opera diva. But this possessive pursuit leads to a rift in their marriage, one that leaves Kane alone, frustrated and reclusive inside his decaying pleasure palace, Xanadu. 

 

When Kane finally dies his derelict of possessions is reduced to a bonfire, the march of time crushing the last tangible vestiges of all that his life - or lack thereof - has amounted to. Citizen Kane's final act is at once self-reflexive and very Shakespearean: "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury...signifying nothing."  Kane has failed in his attempts at immortality. He has become a forgotten relic in his own time. Coincidentally, Welles' own reputation as a director never fully recovered afterwards.

 

The same fate might have befallen Citizen Kane the movie. Upon its release Hearst fired off a litany of injunctions that all but crippled the movie's ability to earn back its production costs. Despite unanimously glowing reviews from the critics RKO's management panicked and pulled the film from circulation at the height of its appeal, shelving it indefinitely to satisfy the tyrannical publisher.  RKO did allow Welles another bite at their creative apple however. After all, they could recognize true artistry and were determined to recoup their losses by having Welles produce another masterpiece for them. That Welles chose an even more taboo subject for his follow-up project (about family incest) with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) effectively crippled his own chances at immortality as a Hollywood director.

 

In retrospect time has been more than kind to Citizen Kane, which was rightfully resurrected to prominence on home video, its stark deep-focus cinematography by Greg Tolland largely contributing to our enduring appreciation for the film. Yet, even by today's more apocalyptic narratives in filmmaking, Citizen Kane is a darkly haunting and fairly disturbing motion picture. It illustrates that the real demons we often fear are not to be found externally. They come from within our own flawed makeup. 

 

Welles was a creative genius. His prowess both in front of and behind the camera is staggering. Before our eyes he ages some forty years from an ego-driven entrepreneur into the very shell of that great man he once hoped to be. But behind the scenes Welles is the supreme puppetmaster, plucking away at all the creative strings, creating his singular vision of cinematic perfection using actors who - like Welles himself - had never before appeared before the camera.  That Citizen Kane is as perfect a movie as one might wish it to be is not only a minor miracle but a major coup from the boy wonder who would quickly find himself on the outside looking in on his own Hollywood career.

 

Warner Home Video has unleashed Citizen Kane on Blu-ray in a new 4k 1080p transfer that absolutely blows their old DVD out of the water. The image is slightly darker (as it should be). The gray scale is infinitely more refined with a startling amount of fine detail throughout. Blacks are solid, deep and velvety. Whites are pristine.  There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. This is a reference quality Blu-ray that belongs on everyone's top shelf. 

 

Extras are pretty much what we've come to expect from WHV: everything but the kitchen sink and most of it carried over from their DVD release from 2001. There are two competing audio commentaries, one from Roger Ebert, the other from Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert's is more comprehensive and introspective. We also get two celebrated documentaries on the film and Welles career: The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1995) and RKO 281 (1999).  Warner's slick and handsome packaging is also to be commended.  It's an extensive collection of lobby cards, reproductions of memos and other archival materials and a thin, but glossy collector's book with factoid information and some production stills. 

 

Warner also offers this set as an Amazon exclusive with a DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons (the only way one can own Welles follow-up to Kane). This reviewer has obtained a copy of this film and will review it separately in days to come so stay tuned. But, for now, Citizen Kane: The 70th Anniversary comes highly recommended. It's a very early Christmas gift from Warner Home Video and one surely to be treasured for many years to come. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Hollywood's pre-code era yielded some rather raunchy masterpieces that have recently resurfaced as part of the 'golden age' canon of classic movies. Given our own current laissez-faire cultural climate, the concerns and constraints imposed upon the film industry then by the Hayes/Breen offices at the behest of the Catholic League of Decency seem laughable. But at the time there was a very fervent morality that wholly believed movies were capable of corrupting the masses. (They may have been on to something there!)

 

One of the cinema's most popular attractions then was Jean Harlow, a brassy, unabashedly crass young lass (at least on screen) whose escapades inside a rain barrel in Red Dust (1932) prompted a targeted outrage. Although sympathetic to the cause of propriety, MGM's Louis B. Mayer was not about to turn Harlow out from his stable of stars. After all, she was a top moneymaker. And Harlow's screen image was diametrically opposed to the rather naive and fun-loving girl behind the scenes.

 

Nevertheless, Harlow's early on screen persona was that of a loud-mouthed, sexually promiscuous tease, unapologetically perverse and in search of sin where and whenever it could be found. In many ways, Victor Fleming's Bombshell (1933) seems to foreshadow the coming of the production code while still getting away with slinging its mud: its underlying "pity the poor misunderstood trollop" narrative thread pitched low as a sort of subliminal apology for Harlow's more gregarious on camera antics.

 

In Bombshell Harlow is Lola Burns, a Hollywood star cut in the image of Paramount's Clara Bow.  Her "It girl" status in constant danger of being capsized by sleazy press agent E.J. Hanlon (Lee Tracy), her unbearably greedy family which includes father (Frank Morgan) and brother (Ted Healy), coarse private secretary Mac (Una Merkel) and wayward romantic partners, Hugo (Ivan Lebedeff) and Jim Brogan (Pat O'Brien).  

 

Lola's career is a resounding success. But her home life is a shambles. She hungers for peace, though perhaps not at any price. However, Hanlon is not about to let Lola settle down with anyone - especially since he is in love with her himself. Lola doesn't see that love, however. To her Hanlon is just another sponge among many, and, in some ways she's right. To pad his own interests, Hanlon has hired actors to portray Lola's latest lover, Gifford Middleton (Franchot Tone), and his uppity blueblood parents, Mrs. Middleton (Mary Forbes) and Wendell Middleton (C. Aubrey Smith).

 

After some moonlit badinage, Lola is all set to marry Gifford. But a chance meeting between the Middletons and Lola's father and brother results in predictable disaster. The next day Lola retreats to the relative safety of the studio: Hanlon's plan all along. The two reconcile and Lola begins to fall for Hanlon - until she learns the truth about Gifford.

 

Bombshell is gregarious entertainment. The film is justly famous for a line of dialogue uttered passionately by Franchot Tone: "Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I'd like to run barefoot through your hair." But the film's loudmouth approach to comedy tends to grate on one's nerves. Everyone is shouting at everyone else all the time and this frantic mayhem threatens to drown out the carefully crafted witticisms and more biting comedy peppered throughout by screenwriters Caroline Francke, Mack Crane, John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman and Norman Krasna.

 

When the actors settle down for a moment or two there's pause for the audience to catch their breath and reflect upon the ripeness of this parody. In truth, the film is a scathing jab at what life might be like for Hollywood's alumni, besought by leeches at every turn and hounded by the press for the next big scoop about glamorous life. Bombshell isn't a great film, but it has great ideas inserted throughout its rather meandering plot, enough to provoke sincere thought after the footlights have come up.

 

Bombshell is one of the films offered by the Warner Archive as part of its 100th Anniversary dedicated to its star. Harlow died tragically of uremic poisoning at the age of twenty-four, necessitating retakes with a double on her last movie, Saratoga (1937). Those interested in owning this film really should invest in the entire Harlow Anniversary collection that features seven films for a mere $49.99, plus taxes.

 

Although advertised as "remastered," Bombshell's transfer suffers from virtually every age related pitfall known to film preservationists. For starters, the image is rather "thick" instead of refined, characterized by a veil of heavy grain and with fine detail wanting throughout. The gray scale seems gritty and on the low end of the contrast spectrum. Age related artefacts are heavy and frequently distract. Warner has arguably done its best on a shoestring budget in bringing this film to home video.  But it could stand to benefit from a costly "ground up" digital restoration. The audio is mono as originally recorded and rather strident throughout. The only extra is a theatrical trailer for the Spanish version of the film. Not recommended.  

 

 

Jean Harlow is Eadie Chapman, The Girl From Missouri (1934), in director Jack Conway's saucy romantic yarn about a good girl from the wrong side of the tracks.  Eadie's mom started out that way, but fell hard for men who passed her around until her looks and fresh faced innocence turned to chalk. Now she's the hostess of a seedy dive that caters to more of the same rough trade. But that life's not good enough for Eadie. She wants something better for herself. Together with friend Kitty Lennihan (Patsy Kelly), Eadie makes a late-night break for Manhattan where she lands a job as a chorus girl who does private parties for rich millionaires.

 

Her most recent client is Frank Cousins (Lewis Stone), a onetime captain of industry who's fallen on his own hard times. Frank is too old for Eadie but kind to her nevertheless. He gives Eadie his ruby cufflinks and proposes marriage. But the moment she leaves him alone he takes his own life with a revolver.  Frank's rival, Thomas Randall Paige (Lionel Barrymore), wastes no time covering up the truth about Eadie and the cufflinks to the police. To show her gratitude Eadie latches onto Paige, following him back to his stately office under the accusatory glare of T.R.'s secretary, Ms. Newberry (Clara Blandick).

 

T.R. attempts to thwart Eadie's advances. After all, he's just been appointed the head of the international trade mart and doesn't need any complications on the home front. But Eadie is hard to get rid of. After T.R. gives her some cash to go away, she instead takes Kitty and tails him to his working vacation in Palm Springs. There, Eadie is inadvertently introduced to T.R. Jr. (Franchot Tone). The young Tom falls hard for Eadie, but sees her just as his dad does: as a flashy gold digger he can bounce on his knee without any fear of commitment.

 

The wrinkle here is that Eadie really is a good girl. After T.R. Jr. takes her to his bedroom inside their palatial family estate she breaks down, but bears only her soul to him. Tom is genuinely touched by Eadie's sincere confession of hard knocks. He rushes to his father's side to tell him that he intends to propose to Eadie at the first possible moment. Publicly T.R. Sr. gives his blessing. But behind the scenes he is determined as ever to rid their lives of Eadie once and for all.  Hiring an actor to play Eadie's lover, T.R. Sr. sends the press and the district attorney to Eadie's hotel suite. The very public scandal sends Eadie to jail and fills Tom Jr. with disillusionment about his future bride. Eadie turns to Charlie Turner (Hale Hamilton), a rich, but slithery friend of T.R. Sr. who has no qualms about taking advantage of Eadie's precarious predicament. Charlie pays her bail with the expectation that she is now to become his kept woman.

 

Instead Eadie makes haste to confront T.R. Sr. She stows away inside his ship's stateroom as he is about to embark upon his first trip abroad as director of the trade mart. At precisely the right moment she emerges in her scanties and clutches his arm. Members of the press take T.R.'s picture as Eadie shouts "There! See how you like it!"  Angry and tired of being a good girl, Eadie succumbs to Charlie's advances. He gets her drunk then promptly takes her to his home while his own wife is away in Egypt. But Kitty has wisely assessed the calamity about to occur. She intervenes then lets both T.R.'s into Charlie's home. T.R. Sr. confesses that he admires Eadie's spunk and determination; qualities that will be useful to him on his world tour, but only if she and Tom Jr. are married. After some apprehension, Eadie agrees. She still loves Tom Jr. and he is very much in love with her.

 

The Girl from Missouri is typical 1930s fluff and nonsense sold with great conviction and the chic good taste that only MGM in its heyday could sell as pure gold. Anita Loos' screenplay makes its points but never remains on one for too long. Harlow is sublime as the proverbial good girl with a heart of gold buried under mounds of tacky clothing and some very harsh makeup.  This reviewer has never been a fan of Harlow's early look: the bee stung lips, painted mole and pencil drawn brows. Although it was the "hot" look of its period, when viewed through contemporary eyes it really is a freakish parody of womanhood, like Kabuki makeup designed to mask an asexual creature lurking beneath. 

 

Franchot Tone's rather effeminate visage is a good match for Harlow's severe facade. Moreover, he and Harlow have real on screen chemistry. Lionel Barrymore and Lewis Stone give solid backup, and Patsy Kelly is always good for a laugh. In the final analysis, The Girl from Missouri is a gritty dark romantic comedy that sells its wares with great gusto.

 

Warner's Archive MOD DVD falls short of expectations. Although advertised as remastered, the image is very grainy and riddled with age related artefacts. The image appears rather "thick" instead of refined with fine details wanting throughout. Contrast levels seem just a tad darker than they ought to be. Once one gets used to these visual shortcomings the image has a consistent rendering that is tolerable. But the heavy patina of grain looks digitally harsh at times. The audio has been cleaned up but continues to exhibit slight hiss and pop that will not distract. The only extra feature is a Spanish theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

Jean Harlow's career undeniably crests into the "sheer magnificence" category of movie acting with Victor Fleming's Reckless (1935), a glowing example of the studio bound melodrama that unexpectedly wallops its audience with genuine heart and soul. The film is loosely based on a 1931 scandal involving torch singer Libby Holman's marriage to tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds and was first proposed as a project for Joan Crawford by writer/producer David O. Selznick. A bit of well timed verisimilitude extended beyond the project's history.

 

Jean Harlow replaced Crawford after Selznick felt that Harlow's real-life romance with William Powell (her co-star) would deliver added cache at the box office. But Harlow was initially reluctant to accept the role. Her own husband, MGM producer Paul Bern, had committed suicide the same as Zachary Smith did, and her on-screen husband, played by Franchot Tone, would have to.

 

The screenplay by Selznick and P.J. Wolfson changed the names "to protect the innocent" but kept pretty much everything else in this high-octane tearjerker. Harlow stars as Broadway chanteuse, Mona Leslie. We first meet Mona in jail for reckless driving. She is salvaged from the tank by sports promoter Ned Riley (William Powell) who has come to Mona's aid at the behest of her concerned Granny (loveably cantankerous May Robson). 

 

Granny knows that Ned carries a torch for Mona. However, at present that flame has been transferred from Mona to wealthy playboy Bob Harrison Jr. (Franchot Tone). Certain that his affections will not be reciprocated, Ned is reluctant to confess his true feelings to Mona. The one time he musters the courage to propose he finds that Mona has slipped off to sleep before he can find the words.

 

Bob is the rather devil-may-care sort. Although engaged to socialite Josephine "Jo" Mercer (Rosalind Russell), he enjoys slumming with Mona. She, in turn, has mistaken his affections for genuine love.  Out on a drunken bender, Bob decides to marry Mona then quickly comes to regret his haste.  Although Jo accepts their marriage and Mona without any sort of personal resentment, Bob's father, Colonel Harrison (Henry Stephenson) is unable to bring himself to be anything less than utterly condescending towards Mona.

 

Mona tolerates his paternal abuse, all the while hoping that he will someday warm up to her genuine kindness. Jo's brother Paul (Robert Light) is equally unwilling to let bygones be bygones. He deliberately excludes Bob from the country club fox hunt. This snub leads to the first of many scenes as Bob quickly realizes he is no longer welcome amongst the people he once regarded as his family and friends. Their alienation leads to his declining self-respect and his frequent turning to the bottle for solace. Mona does all that she can to win her husband back but it's no use. As Bob grows more sullen he begins to suspect that Ned is getting designs on his wife.

 

After making a public spectacle out of Jo's wedding to blueblood, Ralph Watson (Leon Ames), a severely drunken Bob confronts Mona and Ned in his hotel suite before taking his own life. The tabloids brand Bob's suicide a murder and suggest that Ned and Mona were in cahoots to finish him off for a million-dollar settlement. Although a coroner's inquest eventually exonerates Ned and Mona of any such crime, the court of popular opinion refuses to surrender the rumours surrounding Bob's death. Ned and Mona are branded social pariahs and ostracized from all "good" society.

 

Mona quickly discovers that no Broadway producer will take a chance on restarting her stage career. At the same time Mona learns she is pregnant with Bob's baby. The Colonel attempts to gain custody of the child but surrenders all claims when Mona agrees to forgo the million dollar insurance payout that is rightfully hers. Ned comes to Mona's aid by secretly raising funds to produce her comeback Broadway revue. But the mood at the premiere turns ugly when the Colonel stacks the audience with his own friends who hiss and boo Mona during her debut song. In her own defence, Mona confronts the audience.

 

She tells them once and for all that she had nothing to do with Bob's death and further admonishes them for their arrogance and ignorance in preventing her to go on. Her sheer defiance softens their hearts and Mona concludes her song to resounding applause and a proposal of marriage from Ned backstage that she gratefully accepts.

 

Reckless is a masterpiece on many levels, only slightly marred by the obtuse interjection of a severely botched musical number near the beginning of the film. Bob has bought out the house for a command performance. Harlow lip-syncs the title track "Reckless" then has her dancing done by an obvious double for most of the routine that follows. Musical comedy was never Harlow's strong suit.

 

Why anyone at MGM would have force-fed her into this claptrap production number (that migrates its action from an absurdly overproduced art deco nightclub backdrop that inexplicably transitions into a southwestern mariachi routine topped off by Mona's onstage murder) is beyond me. Only the inconsequentially painful ending of Dancing Lady (1933), set to "Rhythm of the Day," narrowly tips the scale of bad taste exercised in this sequence. But even that had Nelson Eddy do his own singing and Joan Crawford schlep her own feet to the beat.

 

Otherwise, what we have with Reckless is a lavishly produced melodrama with decorous accoutrements and top notch performances. Everyone is giving it their all and it shows in spades. George Folsey's elegant cinematography and Cedric Gibbons' superb art direction deliver a glamorous showcase that is eye popping. Reckless is high art with high quality written all over it. It deserves better than what it's been given on DVD.

 

And on that note, here are a few words about the transfer. Warner's MOD Archive release is good but not great. The gray scale is fairly accurately represented. But age related artefacts are prevalent throughout and at times quite distracting. Advertised as "remastered" the image is only a tad sharper and more refined than that offered on other titles featured in the Harlow 100th Anniversary Collection that do not advertise as much. At times contrast levels seem just a tad weaker than expected. Thankfully, we have all been spared the obnoxious inclusion of edge enhancement on this outing. But film grain occasionally looks more gritty than grainy. Overall, the transfer will not disappoint, but it's hardly worthy of a film as good as Reckless.

 

The audio is mono but adequate with minimal hiss and pop. Extras include an audio vault of outtakes and radio promos plus the film's theatrical trailer. Highly recommended for content. Moderately recommended for transfer quality.

 

 

 

Based on Herman Gorman's novel, George Fitzmaurice's Suzy (1936) is a congenial but misshapen narrative melodrama set against the backdrop of WWI. The screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Horace Jackson and Lenore J. Coffee has its ups and downs.  The chief problem with the story is that it waffles between legitimate melodrama and hackneyed hokum; a lot of sound and fury signifying absolutely nothing by the final fade out.

 

Despite the fact that Jean Harlow is cast as the title character, cabaret singer Suzanne "Suzy" Trent, the film really doesn't belong to her character. After her stage show closes Suzy decides to stay in England to look for another show or a rich husband. She finds neither but quickly latches on to loveable factory worker, Terry Moore (Franchot Tone) who truly adores her and comes to consider her his lucky charm. Terry is working on a stabilizer for aircrafts in his spare time - a device he is certain will make him rich. Unhappy chance that the munitions factory where he works is run by Mrs. Schmidt (Greta Meyer) and a gaggle of German spies who waste no time in their attempt to murder Terry after they think he has overheard their plans for industrial espionage.

 

Terry and Suzy are married. But on the eve of their wedding Terry is shot by German spy Madame Diane Eyrelle (Benita Hume) in Suzy's presence. Believing that Diane has murdered her husband - and also erroneously suspecting that she will be accused of the crime, Suzy flees to France and the relative safety of her friend, Maisie's (Inez Courtney) apartment.  Maise gets Suzie a job as a cabaret singer where she meets charismatic French flyboy Capt. Andre Charville (Cary Grant).  At first the two mix like oil and water. But very quickly Suzie falls under Andre's romantic spell. What she fails to realize is that Andre's way with her is his way with all women. He is a loveable womanizer incapable of settling down. Nevertheless, Suzy and Andre are married.

 

Andre's father, Baron Edward Charville (Lewis Stone) knows his son better than that. He is cold and aloof toward Suzy, believing that she has married his son for the family fortune. But when he sees just how much she truly loves Andre, Edward becomes Suzy's sincere champion - dedicating himself to seeing that Andre remains true to her.

 

Andre is recalled to the battlefront and wounded. While convalescing in the army hospital he is visited by Diane with whom he is having an affair. He is also visited by Suzy who inadvertently is reunited with Terry. The two bitterly reconcile after Terry learns Suzy and Andre are married. But when Suzy learns of her husband's affair with Diane she also recalls where she has seen his lover before. She tells Terry that Diane is the one who shot him on their wedding night and that Andre is in grave danger. Terry and Suzy hurry to Diane's home to warn Andre but in an ensuing struggle Andre is shot and killed, forcing Terry to take over his air raid mission and win the aerial battle in his stead.

 

After shooting Diane, Terry conquers the German forces in the skies before crashing his plane near Diane's house. Terry and Suzy dress up Andre's corpse to make it appear as though he has been the one flying the plane. The French air force mourn their loss, but Terry and Suzy go off together - united in the knowledge that they have lived up to the legacy of Andre Charville.  

 

As top-flight entertainment, Suzy never gets off the ground. Harlow isn't bad in this melodrama, but she's not quite as glittery or engaging either. Grant is wholly unacceptable as a Frenchman. No accent, no depth of character, just the old Cary Grant we're used to seeing. That said, he's still Cary Grant - charisma plus - and for most that's probably good enough. The same cannot be said of Franchot Tone's pitiful attempt at an Irish brogue. It's there then it's not. He is the least convincing of the three principles.

 

All these sins could be forgotten if the script were better. It's not. The opening act puts our heroine in familiar territory, then plucks her from this musical melange to thrust her full force into a dark tale of espionage where she tends to languish. The last two thirds of the story are really about Terry struggling to reconcile his emotions between jealousy and admiration for Andre, to forget that he is married to his wife and to do right by their friendship. As such, Harlow's Suzy really gets cast into the dust bin during the film's last act. She's merely the go between these two soldiers of misfortune - serving as a bridge that will bring her back to her first love, Terry.

 

Warner's Archive MOD DVD is adequate, though hardly exceptional. The gray scale is nicely balanced but the image is frequently softly focused with a loss of fine detail throughout. Age related artefacts are everywhere and frequently distract. A hint of edge enhancement crops up now and then but nothing that will hinder one's viewing pleasure.  The audio is mono and with a noticeable hiss and pop throughout. A radio promo is the only extra.      

 

 

 

Comeuppances inside a cannery make for thrilling melodrama in J. Walter Ruben's Riffraff (1936) a sort of Americanized version of Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie with Jean Harlow cast as Hattie Tuttle, a hardnosed, tough talking broad who scrapes by on the meager salary she earns as a tuna fish gutter. Hattie lives with her sister Lil' Bunt (Una Merkel) and her two kids. But her heart belongs to roughhouse scrapper and tuna fisherman, Dutch Mueller (Spencer Tracy).

 

Dutch is desperately trying to convince his coworkers not to strike against their employer, Nick Lewis (Joseph Calliea) since doing so will force Nick to call in scab labour at a fraction of their cost and thereby dissolve the contract that has secured their current wages.  After some fast talking, and some even faster flying fists, Dutch convinces the employees to go back to work. Nick doesn't care much for Dutch. In fact, he's a thorn in Nick's side. But Nick's very sweet on Hattie whom he attempts to lure into his clutches with oily charm and a fur stole.

 

Dutch's relationship with Hattie runs hot and cold, leaving her feeling rather undervalued and ripe for Nick's advances. Pete (William Newell) is Dutch's best friend. But after a particularly rough break, Nick fires Dutch and refuses to take him back. Dutch's coworkers turn against him and he falls on hard times. To ease his pain, Hattie - who has begun to date Nick - asks him to loan her money to give to Dutch so that he can regain his self respect. When Nick refuses Hattie takes the money anyway. But she is too late to give it too Dutch who has ridden the rails out of town.

 

Nick learns of Hattie's theft and has her sent to the prison work house. Unbeknownst to Dutch, Hattie is pregnant with his child. When Dutch comes to the prison to visit her, suggesting that she make a midnight break through an open sewer so that they can finally be together, Hattie is appalled. She admonishes Dutch, telling him that she was ever the fool to ever believe he would make an honest woman of her and, more importantly, something out of himself. Demoralized, Dutch goes to Pete and begs for a job. Pete finds him one guarding the oil boat on the docks. After Dutch thwarts an attempt made to blow up the craft with a homemade bomb he earns the respect of his coworkers and a second chance from Nick to have his old job back.

 

Regrettably, at just the moment when Dutch has learned to appreciate his newfound respectability as a prospect for winning Hattie back, she has turned to a life of crime by making a break from the prison through the sewer as Dutch suggested. Hold up inside Lil's cramped waterfront shanty, Hattie sends for Dutch who tells her he will go with her anywhere so long as they can be together. But Hattie, realizing that their future as a family depends on the decisions made right now, begs Dutch's forgiveness and vows to return to prison to serve out the rest of her sentence so that they can start their lives together anew.

 

Riffraff is fairly engaging entertainment. Spencer Tracy is in the "mug" or "galoot" phase of his MGM career, a mantel he inherited from Wallace Beery. As such, Tracy was often cast as no accounts who eventually see the light and come to the side of virtue through their interactions with good women. Harlow's on-screen appeal is in transition with this film. Her harsh "gun moll" looks have been softened and her brassy veneer greatly tempered to reveal a tender and misunderstood virginal quality lurking just beneath her defensive facade.

 

Harlow and Tracy are indelible stars, the kind we don't see the likes of in our current cinema firmament.  They have their own presence on screen working apart, but are united in Riffraff to produce an entirely new persona for each through their on screen chemistry.  She gives Tracy respectability. He makes Harlow genuine with a real woman's heart.  A very young Mickey Rooney is in this one too, happily so as Jimmie Thurger, an impressionable kid who worships Dutch as a god. In the final analysis, Riffraff is good solid entertainment.  It coddles and wallops its audience with melodrama and comedy - as propriety demands.

 

Warner's Archive MOD DVD is adequate, though not exceptional. The gray scale is nicely balanced. But the image has a curious instability (most likely due to damaged sprocket holes). It wobbles continuously throughout this presentation, a distraction most noticeable in long and medium shots. Age related artefacts are everywhere and occasionally add another layer of distraction to the mix. But contrast levels seem bang on and the image is relatively crisp with fine detail evident in background information. The audio is mono with noticeable, though hardly distracting hiss and pop. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

A sparkling romantic comedy based on H.M. Harwood's play The Man in Possession, W.S. Van Dyke's Personal Property (1937) shimmers with a playful zest. MGM, the purveyors of such glossy/frothy entertainments during Hollywood's golden age, are working with stellar material here - and an impeccable cast too. The film stars the studio's resident bombshell Jean Harlow in her second-to-last feature, opposite the undeniably handsome heartthrob Robert Taylor.

 

On this occasion both give peerless performances.  Harlow is Mrs. Crystal Wetherby, a gold digger whose late husband left her with a fashionable home in London and his good name, but precious little else. Starved for cash, Crystal has become engaged to stuffed shirt, Claude Dabney (Reginald Owen), heir to a ladies undergarment factory.

 

Claude's brother, Raymond (Robert Taylor) has just been paroled from a six month prison sentence for illegally selling automobiles. Although Mrs. Dabney (Henrietta Crosman) dotes on her prodigal, Raymond's father, Cosgrove (E.E. Clive) has taken Claude's side in the matter. Raymond will have to leave the family estate and seek his livelihood elsewhere.

 

Raymond accidentally bumps into Crystal inside the lobby of his favourite hotel. Not knowing that she is his brother's fiancee, he doggedly pursues her with flirtatious aplomb then tails her to the opera and later, her home in an attempt to get to know her better.  Crystal rebukes Raymond at every turn. But a saving grace arrives in bailiff Herbert Jenkins (Forrester Harvey) who has come to collect on some outstanding debts. Because Herbert's wife is about to have a baby, he appoints Raymond as his sheriff's deputy and assigns him the task of living on the Wetherby estate until such time as the debt can be paid in full or his men arrive to confiscate the contents of the home.

 

At first this arrangement does not sit well with Crystal. In fact, she's about to have a lavish dinner party in Raymond's presence. How embarrassing! Not to worry, though. Raymond has thought of everything. He decides to help Crystal along by playing the part of her butler for the evening. Only the rouse curdles when he discovers that Crystal is Claude's wife to be.

 

The dinner party is most certainly the highlight of this Hugh Mills/Ernest Vajda screen adaptation, a potpourri of witty one-liners haughtily dispatched with superb comedic timing by all concerned. At the party are Crystal's girlfriend with a roving eye, Catherine Burns (Marla Shelton), her mother, Mrs. Burns (Cora Witherspoon), stuffed shirt Lord Carstairs (Lionel Braham) and musician with marbles in his mouth, Arthur Trevelyan (Barrett Parker). All will play a farcical part in entertaining us with the obtuse stupidity of the evening as Raymond (rechristened Ferguson the butler) subliminally threatens to expose his true identity (and much to Claude's chagrin) to the rest of the unsuspecting gathering.

 

By night's end Crystal has decided for herself that she cannot marry Claude whom she finds even more boorish and ill tempered. But what to do? She's penniless and still unaware that she might find an escape from her debts by marrying his brother. Raymond decides to play a percentage. He cons Claude, telling him that he has decided to vacate Crystal's home for four hundred pounds. Instead, Raymond uses the money to buy up the Jenkins' debt, thereby making him the guarantor of Crystal's estate. She has become "his" personal property!

 

Personal Property has wit, elegance, charm and genuine sparkle: all hallmarks of a classic "classy" comedy. There is real chemistry between Harlow and Taylor, the kind no amount of good acting can forge. As a pair of loveable frauds they're both real charmers. But there's something more added to the mix, that intangible quality that authenticates their burgeoning on camera romance.

 

Surrounded by a superior supporting cast, these Hollywood greats take charge and lead the audience into a sumptuous concoction of chic good taste and sardonic drollness. In the final analysis, Personal Property is a comedic gem through and through. They certainly don't make 'em like this anymore and more is the pity.

 

A pity too that Warner's MOD Archive release hasn't done a better job mastering the film for this release. The gray scale has held up remarkably well for a film over 70 years old. But age related artefacts (dirt, scratches, pocks and chips) are everywhere and, at times, distracting. Worse, there seems to be some rather obvious aliasing and edge enhancement applied to the transfer. When the image is solid (which is for a good portion of the film's run time) it's a middling mastering effort that we can tolerate though hardly accept. But when the shimmering of fine details kick in it all but dismantles our appreciation for the movie.

 

The audio is mono and adequately realized with minimal hiss and pop. Extras include a Lux Radio broadcast of a different play starring Taylor and Harlow, plus the film's original trailer. Highly recommended for content, not for transfer quality.

 

 

 

Just six days shooting remained on Jack Conway's Saratoga (1937) when its star, MGM's resident sex symbol Jean Harlow fell ill and succumbed to uremic poisoning at the tender age of 26. The back lot went into a state of shock, then mourning, leaving the completion of Harlow's last picture in jeopardy. MGM contemplated recasting the film with Virginia Bruce or Jean Arthur. But fans inundated the studio with pleas to release the film as a testament to its fallen star.

 

Several crucial sequences had yet to be filmed at the time of Harlow's passing. Undaunted, MGM regrouped, hired double Mary Dees and finished the film: a bittersweet occasion for all concerned. Fans may have won the battle, but the spoils of their conquest went straight into MGM's coffers. Saratoga was the biggest grossing film of 1937.

 

Viewed today, Saratoga is not quite the memorable last act of Harlow's career that fans might have preferred. In fact, the screenplay by Anita Loos is rather pedestrian.  Bookie Duke Bradley (Clark Gable) intervenes in the bank's takeover of Grampa Clayton's (Lionel Barrymore) once illustrious stud farm. Grandpa's son Frank (Jonathan Hale) has been contemplating getting out of the horse race business for some time. Frank's weak heart has left him tired and slightly disillusioned about the future of the farm.

 

Meanwhile, Frank's daughter Carol (Jean Harlow) has been abroad in Europe these many months and has recently become engaged to wealthy Hartley Madison (Walter Pigeon). Duke and Hartley have a long standing - though very congenial - rivalry stemming from a bet Duke lost to Hartley on the racetrack. Duke vows to get even and confides his intensions to friends, Fritzi (Una Merkel) and Tip O'Brien (Cliff Edwards). But Fritzi's husband, Jesse Kiffmeyer (Frank Morgan) is the loveably jealous sort. He thinks Duke is making a play for Fritzi. Actually Duke is in love with Carol. After Frank dies of a heart attack Grandpa hands over the deed to the farm to Duke. Carol is outraged but can do nothing without buying the farm back.

 

At an auction Duke goads Hartley into betting on Moonray, a colt that Carol is selling to pay off her debts on the farm. Duke is determined to win Carol's heart. But when he confesses his intensions to soak Hartley for the necessary funds to marry her, Carol is outraged. Duke decides that the only way to win Carol is to win enough bets to own the farm outright. But Carol sets into motion a plan to teach Duke a lesson about living life on the prospect of good bets alone.  Carol stacks the deck against Duke by getting Jesse's contract with jockey Dixie Gordon (Frankie Darro).  But Fritzi learns of this plot and alerts Duke who has already taken a $100,000.000 bet from Hartley that Moonray will win. Instead, Fritzi's horse comes in, securing Duke's future interests in the farm and winning back Carol's love and affection.

 

Saratoga is rather convoluted entertainment, complicated by the fact that Harlow is absent from the last third. Mary Dee does a so-so job of faking Harlow's presence, shot mostly with her hand to her face or from the back to conceal her identity. But Harlow's inimitable brass and cheek is missing and it is greatly missed! Anita Loos was forced to rewrite the last act to accommodate Harlow's absence but either way, Saratoga isn't as grand or memorable as Harlow's five other filmic outings with Gable, Red Dust (1932) being their finest.

 

Viewed today, the sequence where a beleaguered Carol, recovering from the flu, has Duke rub liniment on her back is a painful reminder of the sad few days left in Harlow's own life. Indeed, Harlow looks bloated and unwell throughout most of the film. Her mother's religious beliefs prevented Harlow from seeking the necessary medical treatment to save her life. By the time L.B. Mayer learned of his star's ailing health it was already too late.

 

As a film, Saratoga is passable entertainment. But its love triangle gets buried under a quagmire of screwball misdirection. Is this a story of dirty underhanded horse racing, or a playful romantic romp for its two stars? The screenplay never entirely decides and as a result Saratoga flip-flops between these contradictory plot devices. By the end we really don't care if Grandpa gets his farm and only marginally worry whether or not Carol and Duke will be together before the final fade out.

 

Gable's catch-all line, "I love yah," doesn't cement their relationship either because he says it to virtually everybody in the cast.  In the final analysis, Saratoga is good but not great. It is more of a footnote to the behind the scenes tragedy that brought down the curtain on one of Hollywood's most enduring and endearing stars.

 

Warner's Archive MOD DVD is a middling effort. The image is soft throughout, occasionally distractingly so, with a loss of fine detail that makes for a pretty murky presentation. Contrast levels seem a tad weak. Blacks are never truly black but velvety gray. Whites bloom during brighter scenes. Age related artefacts are everywhere and distracting. The audio is mono with noticeable hiss and pop throughout. The only extra is a very brief trailer hosted by Lewis Stone who does not appear in the film. 

 

 

 

 

 

Long ago in a galaxy that now seems much too far away, a great American sci-fi trilogy was born. It was immediately embraced and much beloved by movie audiences around the world, spawning a mad obsession to collect all things intergalactic. The original Star Wars (1977) (rechristened A New Hope by Lucas in 1981) has often been referred to as a "space opera," and that is a fitting description. In an age of anti-heroes Star Wars resurrected the heroics a la an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Yet, at its core the original film is a hybrid of the old morality play, an atypical "good vs. evil" conflict made palpable for contemporary audiences by being set in outer space - the real final frontier for mankind's daydreams and fantasies.  

 

If you don't know the history of this series by now then plot summaries really won't help, but here goes.  Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a farmer working the land for his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) when he is confronted by a cryptic discovery from two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels).  The droids have been sent by Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in search of Ben (Obi Wan) Kenobi (Alec Guinness), a retired Jedi knight living obscurely on this isolated planet. Leia's diplomatic ship has been captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse for height/James Earl Jones for voice), an Imperial autocrat, and his stormtroopers.

 

Vader's men track the droids to the farm and slaughter Luke's uncle and aunt. Obi Wan and Luke hire smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to take then on their rescue mission to the Death Star, an Imperial space station capable of destroying a small planet. Obi Wan is killed by Vader, but his spirit is transformed into part of "the Force" that will keep Luke, Leia and Han safe for the rest of their adventures.

 

In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the rebel forces are on the run as Vader and his evil empire rebuild the Death Star. After a spirited battle on the frozen tundra Luke retreats to a murky bog to begin his technical training as a Jedi knight with Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), the Jedi master. Luke, Leia and Han are conned by Han's old smuggling buddy, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). They arrive at Cloud City where Vader and his men take them hostage. Han is frozen in carbon as a bounty prize for Jabba the Hutt.

 

Leia and Lando escape from Cloud City, leaving Luke and Vader to do battle. In the resulting conflict Luke loses his hand. Vader implores Luke to follow him to the dark side, then confesses that he is his father. Luke defies Vader and is rescued by Leia and Lando.  The three vow to fight another day, and in Return of the Jedi (1983) that's just what they do, with the aid of a cute and cuddly band of Ewok warriors.  For the sake of economy I am greatly simplifying these film summaries. The Star Wars trilogy is among the most covered and revered in movie history. Suffice it to say, most who are reading this review know the rest by heart and don't need me to reiterate it. So why waste precious time and space even if the latter is infinite?

 

The original Star Wars trilogy was an all-inclusive saga, imaginative and breathtaking in both its scope and execution. It required no prequels to explain away its narrative threads. In fact, for a brief wrinkle in time Lucas himself insisted as much. Ah, but then came his 1987 divorce, a costly separation that threatened to wipe him out financially. Lucas had been developing prequels for some time and in 1993 announced that he intended to resurrect Star Wars by creating a backstory to the original films.  Logistically it all made sense. The principle actors from the first three movies (now the last three, chronologically speaking, were past their prime to reprise their roles in sequels). But Lucas quickly realized that there were too many loopholes in his original film series that defied "filling in the blanks" in the prequels without going back into his original films and making alterations to accommodate his new storyline.

 

So, the tampering began. At first it was only minor changes. A slight re-edit here, adding a brief music cue there. But pretty soon Lucas just could not help himself. CGI allowed him to revisit his classics with digital tools, making it all too easy for him to add whole scenes and characters to the series. Jabba now made his debut in A New Hope, not Return of the Jedi. Luke had a battle with the Wampa. Cloud City, a modest fortress, grew into a metropolis and the end battle on the moon of Endor had its magnificent John William's score excised in favour of a terrible piece of extended music that in no way captured the epic flavour of the original track.

 

And all of this was done to satisfy the meandering narrative threads present in three prequel movies.  Tragically, The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) are poor precursors to the original trilogy. They shift the focus of the first three movies from Luke and Leia to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. The resulting six films become a sort of psychological exploration of what makes a virtuous man turn to evil. But these prequels, and the theatrical reissue of 'new' cuts of the original films, made Lucas a lot of money. And money - more of it - is really what this latest Blu-ray release is all about.    

 

So hold on to your laserdiscs because here we go again. George Lucas trundles out the Star Wars Saga on Blu-ray with his predictable litany of "improvements," though not necessarily the ones we might have expected to see. The original Star Wars trilogy was art. But its retreads and prequels are mere manipulations designed to mine the consumer market (repeatedly and shamelessly) with reissues, all the while dangling the carrot in front of our noses that someday we will get the original films in their original theatrical presentation to add to our home video catalogues. No such luck on this outing or in the foreseeable future. So, at present we have to be contented with this set. Or perhaps "contented" is the wrong word. Tolerate is more like it. 

 

You would think that the delay of Star Wars on Blu-ray would herald all new 1080p hi-def scans of the movies. I mean, surely that's what Lucas and his minions must has been up to all this time, right? Wrong!  These films come to Blu-ray by way of the same HD scans created for DVD back in 2004. What?! The scans are not 8k, 6k or even 4k resolution. They are 1k and many moons removed from the current 'state of the art' in hi-def mastering. Many will recall from the DVD release that these scans were rife with video anomalies.  Lucasfilm and Lowry Digital have done wonders improving the overall image quality for these Blu-ray reissues but this is decidedly not the best that Star Wars can be. Nor is it a fitting tribute to one of the most spectacular film trilogies in cinema history.

 

Color timing, the biggest issue on the DVDs, has been corrected for the most part. Lightsabers, as expected, are now searing white hot in the middle rather than looking like pink, blue and frosty green sherbet.  So far, so good. But don't expect pristine quality elsewhere. In fact, we still have edge enhancement cropping up as well as some hold over artefacts like static grain and filtering and even a misregistration problem on Return of the Jedi that creates a bizarre loss of resolution about fifty to sixty minutes into the film.

 

If anything, Lucas' inserted scenes and digital manipulations in his original trilogy are even more obvious on Blu-ray. The CGI creations are more in focus, with crisper detail than the rest of the film based footage. We don't really get the ultra resolution that contemporary Blu-ray offers on vintage catalogue titles. In fact, fine detail in flesh and hair in the original series is remarkably subdued and, on occasion, even softly focused. Colour on all the films is much brighter but perhaps just a tad oversaturated. The best looking film in this 6-disc collection is Revenge of the Sith, not surprising since it is the last film to be shot chronologically and therefore benefited from all the contemporary filmmaking technologies at its disposal.  The audio is the big revelation on these discs. 6.1 DTS delivers a sonic kick to your speakers never before heard on home video. There's nothing to complain about here and you'll know it from your first listen.

 

Extras weigh in at over 40 hours. I must confess I have only had the opportunity to superficially review them. The audio commentaries on all the films are carried over from the DVD releases and remain informative, fascinating and comprehensive.  On Disc Seven we get an extensive archive dedicated to Episodes One to Three. Disc Eight does the same for Episodes Four through Six. Here you'll find original concept art, matte paintings, alternate scenes, outtakes and other archived materials, many never before seen.

 

Disc Nine contains a backlog of documentaries. The newest in this batch include 2011's Star Wars Spoofs, a look back at The Empire Strikes Back (2010) and Star Warriors (2007); a rather bizarre chronicle of diehard fans who aspire to "be" their filmic counterparts through meticulous costume recreations.  We also get the original "making of" featurettes for all three classic Star Wars films made at the time each film was being shot, as well as Classic Creatures (1983) a behind the scenes look at the creation of vintage Star Wars monster makeup. There's also a pair of vintage featurettes on the SFX and technical aspects of weaponry featured in the films.

 

Bottom line: This is Star Wars. Regardless of the tampering Lucas continues to do he knows you're probably going to run out and buy this set because it is the first release on Blu-ray. Just don't expect it to be the last. Is it worth your money? Probably. Is it the last time you're likely to see "improvements" made on this epic saga? Don't count on it. May the Force - and your wallet - be with you. You'll need both to keep up.

 

 

 

All reviews are copyrighted property of Nick Zegarac.

 

 

 

 

 

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