Criterion is going to release Orson Welles’ ‘Othello’

It was reported overnight by Wellesnet that the Criterion Collection is going to release Orson Welles’ Othello on Blu-ray in Fall 2015. This is incredible news. Othello (1952) is the last completed Orson Welles movie that I haven’t seen yet. (Obviously, I haven’t seen The Other Side of the Wind, which hasn’t been completed…yet.)

Othello_(1952_film)_poster

Hopefully, someone will get to release Chimes at Midnight soon. I only saw that once on a really terrible VHS copy that Hofstra University had in its video library. It might have even been a bootleg.

Anyway, more Orson Welles from Criterion is the best news of the day. Their releases of Mr. Arkadin and F For Fake (which I still haven’t picked up on Blu-ray) are essentials.

20th Century Fox Studio Classics: ‘In Old Arizona’

In my ongoing quest to see as many early Oscar-winning films as possible, I have finally reached In Old Arizona, released by Fox in 1929, although made in 1928. Co-directed by Raoul Walsh and Irving Cimmings, the film is notable as the first sound Western made on location and outside of a studio. The film earned five Oscar nominations at the 2nd Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (which only cited Cummings). However, the only winner was Warner Baxter, who won Best Actor for his performance as The Cisco Kid.

in old arizona

from amazon.com

In all honesty, Baxter’s performance is really the only reason to watch this movie. The plot, based on O. Henry’s The Caballero’s Way and written by Tom Barry, boils down to a love triangle between outlaw The Cisco Kid; Sgt. Mickey Dunn (Edmund Lowe), who is assigned to catch him; and Tonia (Dorothy Burgess), The Cisco Kid’s only love. There’s no final duel between our two men, revealing that the standard of how Westerns should end wasn’t quite set in stone. The film’s finale is all about the Cisco Kid tricking Dunn.

I wish there was more to say about In Old Arizona, but there really isn’t. The film is achingly slow, despite running 99 minutes. The sound technology renders a lot of dialogue completely inaudible and the acting is about as bad as you’d expect from a really early talkie. In addition, Fox’s MovieTone process must have created a strip on the actual camera negative, so the film is even narrower than the typical 1.33:1 ratio. Instead, it is actually 1.20:1, similar to how Sunrise looks. (Fritz Lang’s M and Carl Th. Dreyer’s Vampyr are also this narrow.) This means that many of the compositions pack in characters close and, even though it is shot on location, there’s no particularly beautiful shot of canyons or desert.

Walsh probably didn’t have much of an impact on the final product. If he did, the film probably would have more action and less stagey talking scenes. Walsh did get to direct Fox’s first film in the 70mm Grandeur process, The Big Trail with John Wayne, so he was clearly the studio’s go-to guy for major technical leaps. It does make you wonder what In Old Arizona would be like if it was a solo Walsh effort.

Last year, Fox inexplicably released this film on Blu-ray. I have no idea how to justify this decision. The studio didn’t even ask a Western historian to record a commentary. There’s nothing on the disc other than the movie and Spanish and English subtitles (trust me, you’re going to need them). The film is in awful, awful shape. Trust me, I’m all for as many classic movies being available on Blu-ray as possible, but there’s no logical reason for this film’s Blu-ray release.

Bring Up Jeanne Crain and ‘People Will Talk’

from acertaincinema.com

For awhile, I wasn’t as well-versed in the goings on at 20th Century Fox during the Golden Age of Hollywood. I’d seen much of John Ford’s best work, which was made there during the ’40s, but I didn’t really know of the great wealth of stars Fox had. Rather blindly, I assumed MGM had the biggest stars. That can happen when TCM is your first source for classic movies, since most of their programming comes from the Turner library. Heck, if I waited for TCM, I wouldn’t have even seen Laura for the first time until earlier this year when it was part of their Essentials line-up and they finally got access to it from Fox.

The reason why I look for MGM movies is to see the stars, but I go to Fox movies for the directors first. Fox is where Ford made his best movies in the ’40s. It’s where Elia Kazan got his start in Hollywood. And, most importantly, it’s where Joseph L. Mankiewicz made his best movies as a director. Through these three filmmakers, I’ve encountered an amazing class of leading ladies that Daryl F. Zanuck curated. From Linda Darnell and Gene Tierney to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield, the studio had a knack for finding women who could act (when they didn’t get on Zanuck’s bad side, of course).

One who seems to get lost in this shuffle is Jeanne Crain. She has this gorgeous, unique look about her, where at one moment, she’s a street-wise cynic and other times, she’s a fragile young woman. While other Fox women were typecast, Zanuck somehow allowed her to take on a wide range of roles. Her peak was easily 1949 through 1951. In that time, she played a young wife in A Letter To Three Wives, gave an Oscar-nominated performance in Pinky and played a high school student in Cheaper By The Dozen. In 1951, she reunited with Mankiewicz for his follow-up to the Oscar-winning All About Eve, People Will Talk.

This film gave Crain another unique role and paired her with Cary Grant. Here, she plays Deborah Gibbons, a young student who is pregnant, but has no idea where the father is. She comes to Dr. Noah Praetorus (Grant) with her problem, but he has his own since Prof. Elwell (Hume Cronyn) doesn’t think he’s a legit doctor. As Noah tries to clear his name, he falls in love with Crain.

People Will Talk isn’t a crown jewel in Mankiewicz’s cap, but it’s a fun movie and features a really strong performance from Crain. Grant is a bit aloof here, but his love for Deborah – and Crain – grounds his character and makes him more likeable. She’s great, especially in her scene where she mouths off to Hume Cronyn, turning him into a little boy before our eyes. In another moment, earlier in the film at her uncle’s farm, she has this great play with Grant that leads up to their first kiss.

While I certainly have more movies with Crain left to see, her performance in People Will Talk and the movies she made just before it prove that she was good at her job. Perhaps it is because she got to work with both Kazan and Monkiewicz, but you have to have some talent to make it. She wasn’t just a pretty face and Fox gave her every opportunity to show off those acting chops.

Warner Archive Collection: ‘Test Pilot’ with Clark Gable, Myrna Loy & Spencer Tracy

I thought I knew all the reasons why I loved Myrna Loy, but then I saw Test Pilot this weekend and it completely changed my mind about her. She’s an MGM star we take for granted, with the good looks and sweet voice meant for the wife Clark Gable or William Powell meets at home at the end of the day. But in Test Pilot, she’s gets to show off those dramatic skills she had been forced to hold back.

test pilotTest Pilot, directed by Victor Fleming and released in 1938, is one of those stereotypical MGM movies. Gable is the dashing leading man with more wisecracks at the ready than dollars in his pocket. Loy is the young woman he falls in love with. Tracy – even though he has one more Oscar on his resume than Gable – is still Gable’s third wheel, the man tasked with trying to knock some sense into Gable’s head. Plus, what would an MGM movie be without Lionel Barrymore offering sage advice? The answer: not an MGM movie.

The plot finds Gable in one of his most dashing roles, as Jim Lane, the daredevil test pilot of the film’s title. Tracy is Gunnar, his mechanic and best friend. While trying to break the record for shortest trip across the country, Jim runs into some trouble at the exact middle point – Kansas – and has to make an emergency landing. There, he meets the most beautiful farmer’s daughter in film history, Ann Barton (Loy – can you tell that I have a crush on her?).

Now, this is where Fleming plays with the audience’s emotions like only a Golden Age director can. Fleming sets up everything against the two – Ann gets engaged and Jim’s plane is fixed so he can go home. But we know they have to get together! Jim even starts flying back to New York. However, he finally turns around and our happy couple gets together again.

Anyway, you can probably tell where the rest of the story is going. Jim has to decide between Ann and flying. (Of course, someone has to die to convince Jim to stay on the ground… guess who?)

Since I started buying Warner Archive titles in 2010, this is the first one where I’ve really wondered, “How on earth had Warner Home Video never released this on DVD before?” This seems like the perfect candidate to have been included in that old Signature Collection Gable box instead of Dancing Lady. No offence to Dancing Lady, but Test Pilot is more representative – to me, at least – of what Gable meant to the movies. Plus, it’s directed by Fleming and has Tracy and Loy. The print on the DVD is a bit rough and the sound is weak in the early parts of the film, but it’s still a serviceable transfer. WAC also included the trailer, which calls it the “Captains Courageous of the sky!”

Test Pilot is one heck of an emotional roller coaster. Fleming really did know how to salvage human emotion from a relatively predictable plot. The human drama never gets lost in between the flying sequences. It’s really one incredible movie.

Frank Capra: The Early Collection

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and TCM’s Frank Capra: The Early Collection, released in 2012, is one of the essential sets released exclusively through TCM. None of the five films were previously available on DVD before it came out and each of them receive stunningly beautiful transfers for movies all over 80 years old. In addition, each is entertaining, showing the evolution of Frank Capra and – just as importantly – the evolution of Barbara Stanwyck.

from TCM.com

 

This set would actually be better titled “The Early Sound Collection,” since Capra had been making films 1922. Ladies of Leisure, from 1930, isn’t even Capra’s first talkie, but it’s a great place to start as it was his first of five films with Stanwyck. (The only movie he made with Stanwyck that’s not in this set is 1941’s Meet John Doe, which is sadly in the public domain.) The movie is a delicious precode story of a rich painter (Ralph Graves) who falls in love with his model (Stanwyck), a female escort. Obviously, his parents don’t approve, but true love must prevail. Aside from Stanwyck’s star-making performance – which is truly remarkable – the film is highlighted by excellent comic relief turns from Lowell Sherman and Marie Prevost. Both are hilarious, but kindhearted when they need to be.

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Raoul Walsh’s ‘Battle Cry’

That was embarrassing. The reason why Raoul Walsh hasn’t survived the test of time to be considered among Hollywood’s great directors is made clear by his 1955 effort, Battle Cry. While his contemporaries, like John Ford and Howard Hawks, got to ride out into the sunset with a few late-career masterpieces, Walsh was not afforded this luxury. During the 1950s, Walsh lost his way and got stuck with his named attached to a lot of bad movies. One of these is Battle Cry.

image from moviepostershop.com

Based on a novel by Exodus author Leon Uris, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, the movie centers on a U.S. Marine battalion lead by Major Huxley (Van Heflin) during the early days of the Pacific theater in World War II. Clearly, the point of the film was to look at the soldiers, not the war. Even though Walsh himself had done this much better in the silent days with What Price Glory?, the half-baked melodrama of Battle Cry isn’t worthy of his skill. Uris’ script turns the story of young men getting ready to fight into a terrible parody of Douglas Sirk’s best work. There’s even a sequence where Dorothy Malone (who won an Oscar for Sirk’s Written on the Wind) plays a married woman who sleeps with one of the marines!

Why would Walsh be interested in such material beyond a paycheck? The movie doesn’t even show an actual fight until the last half-hour of the film – which you’ll only see if the first two hours didn’t put you to sleep. It’s infuriating to hear James Whitmore’s narration gloss over battles that kill off the marines we’ve been following for so long. Even Tab Hunter is robbed of a death scene!

So not only is there not enough war in this “war movie,” but there’s also not enough Van Helfin. While Aldo Ray is pretty good as the marine who falls in love with a Kiwi (Sunset Boulevard‘s Nancy Olsen), Heflin is the true star in this film. He has two great scenes – his soliloquy about his terrible relationship with his wife and his confrontation with his superior (Raymond Massey) – but that’s it. Heflin was a really great actor and sadly underrated. Had this movie more closely followed his story, it would have been much better.

Battle Cry is a sad movie, not because of its subject, but because of the fact that Walsh wasted his time on the material. I haven’t seen much of his later work, but if most of those films are like this, I’ll skip them. At least Band of Angels (1957) was somewhat enjoyable, mostly thanks to Clark Gable. But these films are a long way from White Heat (1949).

Battle Cry is available on DVD from Warner Bros. It comes with a trailer (which tries its hardest to bill this as a real war movie) and a text bio of Walsh. You can also get it in a two-pack with William A. Wellman’s 1949 masterpiece, Battleground.

Kino Lorber Studio Classics: Jules Dassin’s ‘Topkapi’

While Jules Dassin is beloved for the film noirs he made in Hollywood during the 1940s and the French heist masterpiece Rififi, his later European work is largely forgotten. While he did score critical acclaim for 1960’s Never on Sunday, his post-Rififi filmography is filled with movies that haven’t aged particularly well or just never hit it off with American audiences.

I suspect this is because of his association with Greek actress Melina Mercouri, who later became his wife and starred in nearly all of his later movies. It’s not because she’s not beautiful or a good actress – she’s drop-dead gorgeous and hilarious – but it’s because of her incredibly thick Greek accent. She’s very difficult to understand, but thankfully Dassin excelled at directing silent sequences. And, of course, she excelled in them.

This brings us to Topkapi, which was released on Blu-ray last month as a part of Kino Lorber’s Studio Classics line. Released in 1964, Topkapi screams European, with bright, flashy colors, gorgeous scenery and an international cast. We have Mercouri, German actor Maximilian Schell and British actors Peter Ustinov and Robert Morley as a crew planning a heist in Istanbul. They plan to steal a dagger in the Topkapi museum, although Ustinov’s bumbling Arthur Simon Simpson sort of “falls” into the plan.

Like Rififi, Dassin is obsessed with the process and gives us this perfectly orchestrated heist sequence that stands up to the one in the earlier film. What makes Topkapi‘s a bit more effective – story-wise – is that it happens in the very last act of the movie, so there is much more emphasis on it. There’s a lot in Rififi after its heist, but Topkapi‘s entire plot builds up to the robbery. And while Rififi is dead serious, Topkapi is filled with humor, mostly thanks to Ustinov, who won his second Supporting Actor Oscar for this film. (He really should have been up for Best Actor, but I doubt he would have beat My Fair Lady‘s Rex Harrison.)

Topkapi is officially on my guilty pleasures list. It’s a movie that’s a complete blast, with a director clearly making fun of his own most famous film, with tongue firmly in cheek.

That’s why I’m seriously disappointed by Kino’s Blu-ray release. I know they only work with the masters they are given, but this movie looks atrocious. Thankfully, it’s not as awful as the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes Blu-ray, but it’s clear MGM/Fox never spent a dime on cleaning this movie up. It’s certainly watchable, but if I had this on DVD, I might not have rushed to get this Blu-ray. As for bonus materials, we just have a trailer.