Fox Cinema Archives, the MOD program launched by Fox last year, continues to confound, frustrate and, every once in a while, come up with some surprisingly first rate work. My New York Times column this week takes a look at some recent releases from Fox’s very mixed bag; once again, the quality of the transfers ranges from the execrable (“Meet Me after the Show”) to the excellent (“The Model and the Marriage Broker”), while there’s no apparent logic behind the titles chosen for release. And why the studio that imposed CinemaScope in the 1950s should be the last company still releasing widescreen films in pan-and-scan remains a mystery beyond my modest powers of comprehension.
I haven’t been able to look at everything they’ve put out, though, so if folks have some discoveries to share (or titles particularly to be shunned), I’d love to hear about them. What Fox films would you like to see coming out in this program? What comes to mind for me right away, because I’ve been working on Allan Dwan for a few months now, are Dwan’s late 30s films for Fox’s B-unit, which include at least one perfect entertainment (the 1936
“Fifteen Maiden Lane”) and a pretty strong melodrama that weds Dwan’s fascination with parentage to an audacious racial theme (the 1937 “One Mile from Heaven”).
He’s not one of my guys, but those who love Sam Peckinpah love him very very much, and for those folks there is good news this week in the form of editions of two of his early films. VCI Entertainment has released Cary Roan’s restoration of Peckinpah’s first feature, the 1961 “Deadly Companions,” in a widescreen version that is remarkably acceptable in the context of all the hideous home video versions this public domain title has suffered over the years. And Twilight Time has issued a double-disc Blu-ray that contains both the 122 minute American theatrical release version of Peckinpah’s 1965 “Major Dundee” and the 136 minute “extended version” that Sony released in 2005. While neither of these cuts are Peckinpah’s (he was thrown off the film, by the producer Jerry Bresler, before the editing stage), the longer version does make a bit more narrative sense, while adding a taste of the graphic violence that would make Peckinpah’s career with “The Wild Bunch” four years later. (For a history of the two versions, and a detailed comparison between them, see Glenn Erickson’s essay at DVD Talk.) My New York Times review is here.
These are the two westerns in which Peckinpah seems to be most directly addressing John Ford — using a star (Maureen O’Hara) and a cinematographer (William H. Clothier) associated with Ford for “Deadly Companions” (though it was presumably the film’s producer, O’Hara’s brother Charles B. Fitzsimons, who determined the cast and crew), and borrowing significant themes and plot elements from “Fort Apache” for “Major Dundee.” But where Ford is about foundation myths, Peckinpah is almost entirely concerned with apocalyptic finales. These two films belong to the bright beginning of a too brief career, but already Peckinpah seems to be rushing toward the cemetery.
In the US, the most familiar work of Pierre Etaix is probably the poster he designed (boy, dog, umbrella) for Jacques Tati’s 1958 “Mon Oncle,” a film for which Etaix also served as sketch artist and assistant director. His own films — five theatrical features and a handful of shorts — languished in legal complications for years, until they were restored and returned to circulation in 2010.
A new box set from the Criterion Collection gathers this material in convenient form, with a generously illustrated booklet that includes program notes by David Cairns. My New York Times review is here.
It’s a diverse and surprising body of work, concentrated less on the panoramic vision of Tati than on minute and meticulously executed visual gags. The influence of Buster Keaton seems particularly strong in his first two (and apparently most commercially successful) features, “The Suitor” (1962) and “Yo Yo” (1965); the 1966 anthology of shorts, “As Long as You’ve Got Your Health,” abandons the timeless, silent clown quality of the earlier work in favor of a more painful comedy of irritation and interruption set in a contemporary France that weirdly anticipates Godard’s 1967 “Two or Three Things I Know about Her” and “Weekend.” “Le Grand Amour” (1969) looks forward to Blake Edwards’s later comedies of sexual humilation, while the 1971 “Land of Milk and Honey” — the most radical and difficult to digest of Etaix’s films — is a dyspeptic documentary on a France falling back into coarse consumerism after the upheavals of ’68. Reportedly greeted with universal distaste, the film effectively ended Etaix’s career in theatrical film.
Still missing are a couple of intriguing outliers, “L’age de Monsieur est avance,” a 1987 television film that pays homage to Sacha Guitry, and “J’ecris dans l’espace,” an essay film on the development of the semaphore, produced in 1989 in an early version of the IMAX process. But there is more than enough here to establish Etaix as another of the French cinema’s grand eccentrics, and a figure who merits more thorough investigation.
From Olive Films this week, two extraordinary movies about race and politics in the 1950s, as filtered through the American south of the early twentieth century by John Ford in “The Sun Shines Bright” (1953) and Samuel Fuller through the lens of what was then the French Indochinese war and would soon become our very own Vietnam in “China Gate” (1957). My New York Times review is here.
These are the usual no-frills discs from Olive, though the company has taken the care to obtain a hi-def transfer of Ford’s original 100 minute cut of “Sun Shines,” which turned up unexpectedly some years ago. The old, 90-minute version is still floating around YouTube, and the differences are apparent from the first shot. The film now begins with Stepin Fetchit falling asleep as he fishes from the end of a pier, establishing a slow, dreamy rhythm that Ford sustains quite beautifully as the plot begins to unfold on three different levels. The film concludes with three ceremonial processions that resolve the plot strands while dissolving them into myth — a wonderful example of Ford’s growing indifference, in his postwar work, to classical narrative structure and the perceived need for closure.
And “China Gate,” long the most elusive of Fuller’s films of the 1950s, now comes to us in the beauty of black-and-white CinemaScope, for the first time since, I believe, the 16-millimeter days. There is much more to say about this brave, confounding, breathlessly urgent film than I had room for in my column, and I know of at least two regulars on this site who are able to say it much better than I can.
Missing in action since, if I recall correctly, a Criterion Laserdisc back in the paleolithic era, Luis Bunuel’s 1970 masterpiece “Tristana” has reappeared on Blu-ray, in a solid new transfer from the Cohen Film Collection. Apart from a brief dream sequence, it’s a film devoid of any overtly “surrealist” touches, yet every frame achieves a subtly insinuating strangeness — an almost too-perfect clarity that results from Bunuel’s classically balanced compositions, restrained color palate, and impassively even pacing. It may be my favorite of Bunuel’s films, but why choose when there is so much to admire in his magnificent late period, including his final film, the 1977 “That Obscure Object of Desire,” which has also resurfaced in a new disc from Studio Canal/Lionsgate.
I didn’t have space to get into this question in my New York Times review, but this “Tristana” comes with an ending slightly different from the one I recall — although that ending is included as well, as an extra sourced from what looks like an older video master. The movie still ends with a little flurry of flashbacks recapitulating the story, but instead of continuing all the way back to the first sequence of the film, it now ends with a quick fade out as Don Lope (Fernando Rey) leads his young ward (Catherine Deneuve) to bed for the first time. Is there a Bunuel scholar in the house who can account for this alteration? I think I prefer the more symmetrical ending I remember from the 70s, but I’d be most curious to know the history here.
It’s hard to believe that a comedy team with 21 features to their credit could be so completely forgotten, but such is the cast with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. In the early 30s, they were probably RKO’s biggest stars after King Kong — a couple of song and dance men whose partnership was formed, not through years on the vaudeville circuit as one might assume, but when Florenz Ziegfeld cast them together in the hit Broadway musical “Rio Rita.”
At first, they appeared in nonsense comedies in the Marx Brothers/Smith and Dale tradition, a couple of which — “Half Shot at Sunrise” and “Hook Line and Sinker” (both 1930) have been rescued from public domain hell and made available for the first time in watchable copies in a new box set, pithily titled “Wheeler & Woolsey: RKO Comedy Classics Collecton,” from Warner Archive.
The great comedy director William A. Seiter found a naturalistic context for their characters with the 1931 “Caught Plastered,” which is part of this set and its undoubted highlight; he continued with the team through two equally entertaining films, “Peach-O-Reno” (1931) and “Diplomaniacs” (1933), which Warners has already released in stand-alone editions.
The six other films in the new collection are “Cracked Nuts” (Edward F. Cline, 1931), “Hold ‘Em Jail” (Norman Taurog, 1932), “Hips, Hips, Hooray!” (Mark Sandrich, 1934), “The Nitwits” (George Stevens, 1935), “Mummy’s Boys” (Fred Guiol, 1936) and “High Flyers” (Cline, 1937). The quality of the work falls off toward the end, a consequence of dwindling budgets and Woolsey’s poor health (he died of kidney failure in 1938), but the good stuff is good indeed. A review here, in the New York Times.
In keeping with my monomaniacal commitment to review every single Fritz Lang film that appears on home video, here’s an account of Criterion’s very nice new release of Lang’s 1944 quasi-propaganda film, “Ministry of Fear.” It may fade out into conventionality toward the end (though doubtless there are those of you who disgaree), but the first couple of reels are gangbusters — possibly Lang’s most spectacular return to Weimar stylistics, apart from “Secret Beyond the Door.”
Also, a few words about Clive Brook’s “On Approval,” another 1944 release that acknowledges the war only enough to indicate that it is deliberately avoiding the subject. An adaptation of a stage farce by Frederick Lonsdale, it’s Brook’s only job of direction, and a surprisingly free-form one, full of baring-the-device moments that Frank Tashlin might have dreamed up (though Tashlin’s would probably have been funnier). The great attraction of the film is the presence of Beatrice Lillie, the brilliant Canadian farceur whose one appearance as a silent clown, in Sam Taylor’s 1926 “Exit Smiling,” suggest that the movies lost out on a very big talent.
Here’s another nice collection of hard-to-find Universal titles from the TCM Vault Collection: “Western Horizons,” a five disc set that features Raoul Walsh’s “Saskatchewan” (1954), Budd Boetticher’s “Horizons West” (1952), John Sturges’s “Backlash” (1956), George Marshall’s “Pillars of the Sky” (1956) and George Sherman’s “Dawn at Socorro” (1954). The Marshall is the only dog here, though one might prefer a stronger director than Sturges for “Backlash,” which features Richard Widmark and Donna Reed in a Borden Chase screenplay that feels like it might have been written for Anthony Mann and James Stewart. The Boetticher is one of his best westerns before he really found his voice with “Seven Men from Now,” and “Saskatchewan” is one of Walsh’s terrific “map movies,” where the goal is to get from Point A to Point B — in this case, by accompanying Alan Ladd and Shelley Winters across western Canada and some mighty fine location work.
The revelation for a lot of people is going to be George Sherman’s risk-taking “Dawn at Socorro,” an audacious re-framing of the OK Corral story that imagines the Doc Holliday character (Rory Calhoun) surviving the shoot-out with the Clantons and trying to get out of the game, only to find himself in a town that exactly resembles the one he just left. There’s some highly imaginative staging here: a lot of the action takes place in a crowded saloon, where the main characters warily keep an eye on each other while nothing much happens, and there’s a stylized showdown at the end that makes use of some striking high-angle compositions that suggest Hitchcock more than Ford.
Also out this week is “The Philo Vance Murder Mystery Collection,” a six-film set from Warner Archives that is mainly notable for featuring a good transfer of Michael Curtiz’s 1933 “The Kennel Murder Case” — a public domain title that has been circulating in hideous dupes for as long as I can remember. It’s crisply directed by Curtiz and shows off some early zoom work as well as a couple of ingeniously constructed sets. The film was a personal favorite of the venerable William K. Everson, who called it “one of the very best films of its genre,” and it’s good to have it back in such fine form.
My New York Times reviews are here.
A very handsome 2K restoration of Douglas Fairbanks’s 1924 “The Thief of Bagdad” is the first library release from the Cohen Media Group, a new distributor that has acquired the rights to what was once known as the Raymond Rohauer Collection. Among the 600 or so other titles in the collection are quite a few treasures that have remained buried because the source material needs some major restoration; here’s hoping that Charles Cohen, the CEO of the new company, will be continue the fine work in evidence here with, for example, Frank Borzage’s 1925 “The Lady,” William K. Howard’s 1926 “Gigolo” and Roland West’s 1928 “The Dove,” just to pick a few of the more tantalizing titles in the catalog.
Fairbanks’s “Thief” has certainly not looked this good since its first release; the dust has been effectively busted without losing the texture of the images, and the color tints have been rendered with taste and restraint. The score, by Carl Davis, comes to us from the old Photoplay edition. Though the director of record is Raoul Walsh, this is one time when I’d assign the authorship to its star, producer and writer, in the person of Mr. Fairbanks, as well as to the great production designer William Cameron Menzies, who began construction the amazing art nouveau sets before Walsh was hired to direct. My New York Times review is here, along with an account of Criterion’s release of the seminal cinema-verite documentary “Chronicle of a Summer,” by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin.
Howard Hawks’s 1930 “The Dawn Patrol” has been missing in action for several years, but now it’s back in an excellent new edition from Warner Archive. Hawks’s earliest surviving sound film has been remasterd using an original release print (in place of the familiar TV version, retitled “Flight Commander” to avoid confusion with the Edmund Goulding-Errol Flynn remake of 1938) and the soundtrack has been rerecorded from the original Vitaphone discs, returning much of the crispness and clarity that’s been lost through several generations of duped optical tracks.
It’s easy to imagine the ever-competitive Hawks beings prompted by the stagey Goulding remake to tackle his own reinterpretation of the material, “. . . Only Angels Have Wings,” in 1939 — a film that also gave him the opportunity to offer some work to his original star, Richard Barthelmess, whose career had been sidelined by bungled plastic surgery). It’s possible to prefer “Only Angels” for the sexual and romantic tension added by the presence of two female cast members (Jean Arthur and a young Rita Hayworth, in the role that lifted her out of B movies at Columbia), but the 1930 “Dawn Patrol” has an unrelenting, pre-code grimness that puts it in a class by itself.
My New York Times review is here, along with an account of Flicker Alley’s superb Blu-ray presentation of Marcel L’Herbier’s 1926 rendition of Luigi Pirandello’s often-filmed “The Late Mathias Pascal.” L’Herbier’s direction is not as stylish as it would be in more self-consciously avant-garde efforts like “L’Inhumaine” (1924) and “L’Argent” (1928), but the film does offer a rare look at one of the legendary stars of European silent film, the Russian emigre Ivan Mozzhukhin, as well as the spectacle of a foppish, baby-faced Michel Simon in one of his earliest film appearances.