Lost and Found: The Man and the Moment (1929)

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The light comedy The Man and the Moment (1929) was considered lost until a dupe negative was recently discovered at Cineteca Italiana di Milano. This part-talkie from First National Pictures was restored in 2K by Warner Bros. at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, and was released on Warner Archive DVD last month. A charming proto-screwball comedy, it’s about a marriage of convenience between a rich playboy and an impetuous adventuress that ends up destroying planes, boats and nightclub aquariums. Made during the transition to sound, it exemplifies the stereotype of that era’s stiff, static line readings. It has snap and vigor in the silent sequences, and grinds to a halt for dialogue. This is not aided by leading man Rod la Rocque, who is a debonair charmer in the silent sequences and a wooden statue during dialogue. His co-star Billie Love is more of a natural, and she waltzes away with the film.

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I Am Also A Fugitive From A Chain Gang: Hell’s Highway (1932)

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In 1932 the treatment of prisoners on chain gangs became an issue of national import. In January Robert Elliott Burns published I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang!, which recounts two escapes, eight years apart, from brutal prison camps. Warner Brothers would rush to adapt it into I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang for a November release. In June Arthur Maillefert died inside a “sweat box” at the Sunbeam Prison Camp in Florida, a chain wrapped around his neck and wooden stocks nailed around his feet. The camp’s captain was charged with first degree murder and found guilty of manslaughter, sentenced to twenty years imprisonment. Calls for reform reverberated across the country, and the film studios were eager to capitalize on the nation’s interest. Universal was developing Laughter in Hell (which I wrote about here), adapted from a Jim Tully novel, while RKO was fast-tracking Hell’s Highway, which combines Burns and Maillefert’s stories into a narrative they hoped not to get sued over. Prizing speed above all else, RKO got Hell’s Highway into theaters first on September 23rd, beating Fugitive to screens by almost two months (Laughter in Hell didn’t arrive until January of 1933). Brought to the screen by the famously combative director Rowland Brown, Hell’s Highway is cynical and punchy, but compromised by studio meddling.  The Warner Archive has made Hell’s Highway available on DVD as part of “Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9″, the latest in their series of pre-code DVD sets (it also includes Big City Blues, The Cabin in the Cotton, When Ladies Meet, and I Sell Anything).

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Silents on Demand: Flicker Alley’s MOD DVD Program

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Pity the poor DVD. Its death has been foretold for years, yet it soldiers on, providing pleasure for those not yet hooked into the HD-everything ecosystem. DVD sales have declined overall, but it remains the lifeblood of boutique distributors like Flicker Alley. Makers of luxe box sets of Chaplin’s  Mutual comedies, Mack Sennett shorts and Cinerama travelogues, Flicker Alley is trying to get the good stuff out there. They’re  our kind of people. But the shift to higher resolutions abandons films that have never had expensive HD transfers, making them cost-prohibitive for Blu-ray. This is the case for a huge number of silent films now out-of-print on DVD. In an admirable effort to get classics out on disc, in good transfers superior to the muddy messes on YouTube, Flicker Alley has partnered with the Blackhawk Films library to release nineteen classics (mostly silents) on manufactured-on-demand DVD – the same route the Warner Archive has gone to plunder their deep library. They plan to add two new MOD titles every month. Flicker Alley doesn’t have the deep pockets of WB to back them, but with the help of a modest crowdfunding campaign were able to get the program off the ground. From their initial slate I sampled D.W. Griffith’s tale of plainspoken rural heartbreakTrue Heart Susie (1919) and Ernst Lubitsch’s sophisticated urban bed-hopping roundelayThe Marriage Circle (1924).

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Saying Good Night to Brian G. Hutton (1935-2014): Night Watch (1973)

taylorhutton1Last week this blog started to resemble the obituary section of my local newspaper and while I hate to continue that trend I couldn’t let Brian G. Hutton’s demise go unmentioned. The New York born director and actor is best remembered today for his work on two popular big-budget WW2 films, WHERE EAGLES DARE (1968) and KELLY’S HEROES (1971) but he also appeared in some memorable films such as John Sturges’ GUN FIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL (1957) and the Elvis vehicle, KING CREOLE (1958) as well as many popular television shows including GUNSMOKE, PERRY MASON, RAWHIDE and ALFRED HITHCOCK PRESENTS. The last film Hutton helmed was the Indiana Jones inspired HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983) and soon afterward he retired his directing chair. According to the fine folks at Cinema Retro, Hutton’s self-deprecating sense of humor often led him to criticize his own movies and he didn’t look back all that fondly at the time he spent in Hollywood but many film enthusiasts like myself appreciate the eclectic body of work he left behind.

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Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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Favorite Home Video Releases of 2013

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Physical media is aging gracefully. If it dies, it will leave a beautiful corpse. Sales continue to crater, but DVDs and Blu-Rays have never looked so ravishing. And while the vast majority of film history is still absent on video, it dwarfs the spotty selections available on streaming services to date, although that may change in the distant future. For right now, though, those round shiny discs remain essential to the education of any curious film lover. This year they’ve introduced me to hidden gems of the classical Hollywood era as well as the tragically short career of a subversive Japanese master. Below the fold I’ve listed ten discs that expanded and deepened my understanding of the movies in 2013.

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A Celluloid Revolution – James Dean: Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

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“In sixteen months of acting, he left a more lasting impression on the public than many stars do in thirty years.”
- Henry Ginsberg (GIANT producer)

The original rebel, the first rock star, the cultural icon of teenage disillusionment, an American legend and the Sphinx of Youth. These are just a few of the labels that have been used to describe James Dean but I like to remember him as one of our greatest actors.

I lost count of how many times I’ve seen EAST OF EDEN (1955), REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955) and GIANT (1956) long ago but I never get tired of watching Dean and each time it is a revelation. There’s always something new and invaluable to discover in his performances. His critics like to complain about his line delivery and often refer to his “mumbled dialogue” but like any great actor, Dean didn’t need words to express what his characters were thinking and feeling. He understood the power of silence and with a sudden twitch of his boyish body or a gentle tilt of his cowboy hat he could reveal his character’s fears, fervors and focus without uttering a single word. You can see entire worlds illuminated in his eyes when they’re lit up by studio lights and the shadows that dance across his face speak their own distinct language. James Dean may have followed in the footsteps of guys like Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando but he was a wholly unique talent who managed to carve out his own individual path in Hollywood during a few short years with a handful of notable films. Those films have recently been collected into a beautifully packaged Blu-ray DVD set released by Warner Home Video.
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Adults Only: House on Straw Hill (1976)

lhIn the early 1980s British home video stores found themselves in the center of a storm when moral panic swept through the U.K. Religious leaders, parents and politically motivated individuals created what’s now known as the “video nasty” scare after discovering that stores were renting graphic horror films usually reserved for American grindhouses and indiscriminate drive-ins. Most of the objectionable movies were made in the U.S. or Italy where excessive violence and nudity had few problems getting past censors if it was properly rated but in Britain film censorship tended to be much more restrictive. Movies with explicit content and titles that often intended to shock such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) caused widespread outrage throughout the U.K. that led to them being removed from video stores, criminally prosecuted or cut for British audiences. The only British film that was apparently singled out during the video nasty scare was James Kenelm Clarke’s THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka Exposé; 1976). For decades this notorious erotic thriller has had the reputation of being one of the sleaziest films ever produced in Britain during the 1970s, which made it difficult to see. Badly cut or edited video copies circulated among the curious but the quality was always questionable. Thanks to the efforts of Severin Films I recently had the opportunity to catch up with this infamous film on DVD but it didn’t exactly live up to its seedy status. Is it an unsung cult classic waiting rediscovery? Or is it one of the most depraved movies ever made? In truth it’s neither of these things but I’m glad that Severin has saved the film from obscurity and given it a new life on DVD.

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Better Than Nothing: The Complete (Existing) Films of Sadao Yamanaka

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The history of Japanese cinema can never completely be told. It is estimated that 90 percent of its pre-1945 film output was lost or destroyed, the silent era razed in the 1923 Kanto earthquake, and Allied firebombing in WWII incinerating the rest. One of the most tragic casualties of this cultural obliteration are the films of Sadao Yamanaka, of whose 27 features only 3 survive. A galvanizing figure in the 1930s, he was a passionate cinephile and member of the Narutaki Group of Kyoto that sought to modernize the jidai-geki, or period drama. His films bring the heroes of pulp novels and kabuki theater down to earth, into sake bottle level views of the everyday lives of the working poor. They speak in modern Japanese, in dialogues modeled after his drunken late night conversations with the Narutaki Group. He wrote, “If what drinkers say is lively when utilised in a film, I may insist that drinking is part of my profession.”

He took flak for turning the popular nihilistic samurai Tange Sazen into an irritable layabout, but he gained fans and friends from peers like Yasujiro Ozu. He died at the age of 28 as a military conscript in Manchuria, from an intestinal disease.  The scrupulous Masters of Cinema label (the Criterion Collection of the UK) has released his surviving works in an essential two-DVD set (make sure you have an all-region player): Tange Sazen: The Million Ryo Pot (1935), Kochiyama Soshun (1936) and Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937).

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2012 DVD/Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

It is customary at year’s end to publish various “Best of” lists, to sum up The Year That Was as only a list can.  In that spirit, I offer up my own Best Videos of 2012.  These are the discs that genuinely made my heart flutter and my pulse quicken, which I purchased the instant I heard they existed and watched the instant they arrived.  This is not so much a Best Of list as it is a tour through the inside of my head:

DVDs:


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BUSTER KEATON AT MGM TRIPLE FEATURE

The three titles on this set are: Parlor Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily, and Passionate Plumber.  In other words—2/3 of this set has been available before in wretched quality PD editions and 100% of the set consists of movies that even Buster’s fans thinks he shouldn’t have made.  And I’m picking it as my Best of 2012.

Right.

But that’s the genius of Warner Archive—the DVD market is collapsing at large, and even archival releases of this highest profile have trouble.  There’s no way the mainstream marketplace would support this—even among the natural audience for archival releases, these movies are hard to sell.  But thanks to Warner Archive’s oblivious disregard for market realities, people like me who enjoy even Buster’s rougher outings can enjoy a beautiful print of Passionate Plumber, in all its gonzo glory.  (For the record—the rest of Buster’s MGM talkies are also available from Warner Archive as well, in individual editions).

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THE VITAPHONE COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME ONE 1932-1934

What this is, y’see, is 352 minutes of comedy shorts starring either Roscoe Arbuckle or Shemp Howard.  I’d seen some of these on appalling bootlegs before but getting this in a proper DVD (thanks Warner Archive, yet again!) means I now own this:

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Yes, that’s Jimmy Stewart, on the start of his Hollywood career, when no one yet realized his prospects and figured the best thing to do with this gangly stutterer was to drop him into a slapstick two-reeler so he could get slapped around by a Stooge!

Speaking of Stooges:

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THE THREE STOOGES: RARE TREASURES FROM THE COLUMBIA PICTURES VAULT

This has been available before, as a bonus disc included in a Three Stooges box set, but because most Stooge-maniacs bought the individual sets as they came out, and didn’t feel like double-dipping, there was strong clamoring for a standalone release, which Columbia finally granted this year.

Now, there have been collections before that billed themselves as Three Stooges Rarities or some similarly phrased notion.  Most of those previous collections focused on the usual suspects of the Three Stooges’ public domain shorts—the exact opposite of rarities.  Well, take note: when Columbia says this is a set of rarities, they mean it.

Most of this material will be absolutely new to even the most ardent and hardcore Stooge-a-phile.  There are lots of solo shorts with Shemp (there’s no overlap with the Vitaphone set—Shemp was a prolific comedian who made solo shorts for more than one studio), solo shorts with Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, cartoons in which Stooge caricatures appear, and a brace of feature films.

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CHARLIE CHASE SHORTS VOLUME 1

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Well, this is cheating.  It wasn’t even released in 2012 at all—it comes out next week.  And Sony doesn’t seem to be able to spell Charley Chase correctly.  But indulge me—and let me tell you the story behind this.

Back in 2008, I was producing a box set of Chase’s early comedies, and I was trying to coordinate the efforts of several different media companies so that we together, collectively, presented the bulk of Chase’s extant body of work to the public and with a minimum of double-dipping and overlap.

The original plan was this: I was producing Becoming Charley Chase, a 4 disc set that focused on Chase’s earliest films.  Then, between them, Milestone and Kino were going to present Chase’s 2 reel silent shorts from Hal Roach.  The talkie Hal Roach shorts were intended to come out courtesy Serge Bromberg, and the Columbia talkies were going to come from Columbia/Sony.

But it all fell apart.  I got Becoming Charley Chase out, and Kino produced two sets of Hal Roach Chase silent shorts, but Milestone’s Cut to the Chase got stalled for years thanks to the untimely death of Rusty Casselton, and only just arrived in stores this year (and with an unfortunately heavy overlap with Kino’s sets).  The Hal Roach talkies are MIA.  And when Sony’s DVD release of Buster Keaton’s Columbia talkies sank like a rock, the corporate support for continued comedy sets evaporated.

Then a miracle happened—some Chase shorts were scheduled to be screened at Cinecon, and Sony was obliged to strike new prints to accommodate the rental.  As routine archive policy, when the materials were accessed to make the prints, digital copies were mastered as well.  So Sony found themselves with digital masters of several Chase shorts which they’d already paid for—making MOD discs available through their website didn’t take any extra effort or expense, so it was really a no-brainer.

There are still Chase Columbias waiting to see the light of day, and the Hal Roach shorts haven’t been officially released on home video ever in any format, but we can grateful for what we have (and hope that sales of the various Chase sets currently available help prove the viability of future releases)

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BUGS BUNNY SUPERSTAR

Here’s another Warner Archive argument-ender.

On paper, this may sound enticing: Orson Welles narrates a documentary about the origins of the Looney Tunes, with archival footage from behind the scenes at Termite Terrace laced between selected Warner Brothers cartoons.  But in practice even I’ll admit this is slapdash—it seems like a half-finished documentary narrated by Friz Freleng ran into some kind of production difficulty and Orson Welles got roped in to add some additional framing narration to spackle over the gaps.  Which is actually kind of appropriate, when you think about it, given Welles’ own history with unfinished films and the haphazard air at Termite Terrace.  Still, this is a bit of a missed opportunity.  Serious cartoon fans will already have these shorts in other collections (maybe even Blu-Ray), and will probably find the behind the scenes material unsatisfying—it’s a long tease, an appetizer to a menu never served.

That being said, I have powerfully vivid memories of my parents taking me to see this when I was a small child.  I thought it might have been a dream, or a badly remembered experience of some other experience, until I got this disc and was overwhelmed by nostalgia.

Like the Buster Keaton set above, this is Warner Archive marketing something that probably I alone care that much about.  In any business model other than MOD (Made On Demand) DVD, it wouldn’t make any sense.

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JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION

Speaking of cartoons, UPA Studios had the distinction of making high-art ‘toons that won awards and influenced others, but weren’t the laugh-getting trendsetters of Warner, MGM, or Disney.  Their influence is palpable—you can see the moment in Looney Tunes when suddenly the artists loosened up and started making more abstract backgrounds, to compete with the UPA upstarts—but they’ve never been Boomerang mainstays.  In fact, for a too long, they’ve been out of public view altogether—until TCM brought out this sumptuous box set, with bonus material by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck (who are precisely the two people who should have been tapped to do this—nailed it).

Blu-Rays:

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RUGGLES OF RED GAP – MASTERS OF CINEMA BLU RAY

Lord love Masters of Cinema.  If you live in the US and don’t have region-free capabilities, then you may not know of them—I know they’d be annoyed at being called the UK version of Criterion Collection, but that’s the most efficient way of describing them.  Ruggles is one of my favorite screwball classics, and features one of the best single scenes in all of talkie comedy.

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I’ve run this clip before, and I promise I’ll run it again some day.  Here you have one of the great screwballs, directed by Leo McCarey at the height of his powers and an all-star cast, and then all of a sudden supporting players Roland Young and Leila Hyams for no apparent reason commandeer the stage and steal the show.

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INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS – OLIVE BLU RAY

I’ve been giving a lot of love to Warner Archive this week, but there’s another label that deserves attention.  In case you haven’t heard of them yet, Olive Films is an indie label focused on bringing the best of arthouse, foreign, and archival films to Blu-Ray (and DVD).  Plus, they’re based in Illinois—go home team!  They are what I wanted All Day to be—expect they appear successful, rather than ramshackle.  They have a fabulous, eclectic catalog—to quote my daughter, “I want these things in my life.”.  I still treasure my DVD edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—it was signed by Kevin McCarthy—but it’s gonna spend the rest of its existence on the shelf because I’ll be watching this gorgeous high-definition version instead.

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BOUND BLU RAY

Just because most of the things on this list are black and white oldies doesn’t mean my tastes are limited to that. In fact, Blu-Rays of more recent movies are a better use of the format.  And there aren’t many filmmakers more aware of the intricacies and textures of modern cinema than the Wachowskis.

I first saw Bound on laserdisc, and have been patiently waiting for it to show up on DVD, but for some reason this fun early work by the makers of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas became as obscure as some of the lost treasures of the 1920s and 30s I’m usually hunting.  Its appearance on Blu-Ray is way overdue, and very welcome.  Jennifer Tilley plays a mob wife who starts to scheme against her dangerous spouse once she strikes up a lesbian affair with handy(wo)man Gina Gershon.  It’s got the attitude of a 1940s film noir but handles content no 40s film would have dared, and does so with absolute swaggering confidence.

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GOJIRA – CRITERION BLU RAY

OK, maybe it’s a bit egotistical to call this out as a “Best of” when I worked on it, but so what?  My friends at Criterion completely killed with this one, and I’m super-proud of having contributed to this definitive presentation of such an important, influential, and beloved film.  And, just as an aside, I used to say that my commentaries on this set represented my “retirement” from the audio commentary business.  But I may just be getting back in the game for one last big score—keep watching this space through 2013 for details.

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