New DVDs 7-15-2008

Shot in India by the German director Franz Osten in 1929, “A Throw of Dice” is an unexpected visual treat, a film that blends the highly sophisticated technique of late silent, Weimar cinema with an expansive use of Indian locations — the sort of thing that Alexander Korda would be straining to reproduce in the studio just a few years later. From Kino, and a real pleasure.

At Republic Pictures, they took their serials seriously, and VCI has released another fine example of the action craftsmanship of William Witney and John English in the form of the fifteen chapter “Dick Tracy Returns” from 1938. Another independent distributor, Restored Serials, is offering a digitally restored version of “The Green Archer,” a 1940 fifteen chapter serial from Columbia, where they definitely did not approach their work with a straight face. Filmed by the veteran comedy director James W. Horne (Keaton’s “College,” the Laurel and Hardy “Way Out West”), the serial becomes a hilariously extended study in frustration starring James Craven as a criminal mastermind continually frustrated by his incompetent henchman, whom at one point are observed playing Tiddlywinks.

All this in today’s thrilling installment of The New York Times.

17 comments to New DVDs 7-15-2008

  • mike schlesinger

    Columbia lost the rights to several serials not due to lax copyright renewal, but because those rights reverted to King Features (or other syndicates that owned the underlying characters) after a fixed period of time.

    Also, according to Alan Barbour, English directed the interior/dialogue scenes while Witney did all the action/location stuff.

  • But King Features didn’t own “The Green Archer,” or any of several other Columbia serials that have fallen into the public domain. The most famous King Features screw-up was letting “Flash Gordon” go PD, but that, of course, was a Universal serial.

    That myth about English directing the dialogue and Witney directing the action has been floating around for years, but Witney’s completely unselfconscious and unselfserving account of his working methods in his autobiography (a great read, by the way) convincingly contradicts this. Because the schedules were so tight, one man would direct one day while the other would prepare the locations and stunt work for the next day’s shooting. They would take turns, from serial to serial, on who would shoot the first day. Witney has nothing but praise for Jack English’s handling of action, which is also on fine display in the Gene Autry films that English directed on his own.

  • John H

    Witney and English were both marvelous directors of action sequences.
    “The Last Round Up” and other Columbia Autry films directed by John English contain rousing action scenes that are similar to the William Witney directed films in the Roy Rogers series at Republic of the same era.

  • David Boxwell

    VCI also has nice transfers of the 4 very fun Dick Tracys that came out of RKO’s B unit from 45-47, two of which starred Byrd. They share many of the same visual hallmarks of the bigger budgeted noirs from the same studio of that vintage (although the scripts were pretty hokey), as well as such cast stalwarts as Jane Greer, Esther Howard, Mike Mazurki, et al. Also Val Lewton sets and staff got pulled into the DT productions, it would appear…

  • Aurelien Ferenczi

    Hi guys,

    What would be the best dvd store in NYC (I mean largest choice and hidden gems) for a french guy on holidays there ?

  • James L. Neibaur

    While James Horne did direct Keaton’s COLLEGE and Laurel and Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST, I think in both cases he was a veritable traffic cop while the real work was done by Keaton and Laurel, respectively.

    I have never seen his non-comedy work, where he had to actually do the direction and not leave it to the superior talents of his star comedian. I’ll have to check out this serial

  • nicolas saada

    It seems that I need to do my homework on serials ! I know that Witney is one of Tarentino’s favorite directors. I just know his last film, Master of the worls, with Charles Bronson, which made quite an impression on me as a kid.What do you think is the main difference between the logics of a serial and that of a television show today ?

  • John H

    Almost all the Witney-English serials are worthwhile. I particularly enjoy “Drums of Fu Manchu”, “Mysterious Doctor Satan” and the final 3 Dick Tracy serials.
    As for Witney’s solo films, “The Golden Stallion” is Tarantino’s favorite but I think “Eyes of Texas” and “Bells of San Angelo” (both with Roy Rogers) are pretty good as well. Later Witney features that are worthwhile include “The Outcast” with John Derek and “Santa Fe Passage” with John Payne.

  • @Aurelien: Alas, there’s not much left here in the way of interesting video stores. Kim’s, on St. Mark’s Place at Third Avenue, is effectively it, but they seem to be reducing their inventory. You’re probably better off with mail order: Movies Unlimited (www.moviesunlimited.com) has probably the widest selection of hard to find films, and they have an 800 page catalog (a nice reference in itself) that they’ll send you for a modest fee. Oldies.com consistently has DVD remainders of interest to users of this site, such as the Fox/MGM sale they’ve got going on now ($6.98), as well as their own line, Alpha Video, of very cheap (5 for $25) but usually horribly transferred public domain titles.

    @James: I agree with you completely about the authorial dominance of Keaton and Laurel, but one of the interesting things about the Horne serials is how much they do reflect the particular comic qualities of the Laurel and Hardy shorts, particularly the interest in the psychological detail and slow-burn reactions. So maybe it was a bit more of a two-way street than we imagined.

    @Nicolas: I’ve been working on Witney (as well as English, Joe Kane and George Sherman) for a couple of years now, and I’m almost always pleasantly surprised by the quality of his work, even on the most undistinguished projects of his late American-International period. If you ever have a chance to see his penultimate film, the truly surreal blaxploitationer “Darktown Strutters” (from a script by George Armitage) — well, you won’t forget it anytime soon.

    I don’t know how far the comparison between serials and episodic television can go. The serials were conceived as closed units, and scripted just as tightly as a feature before production began. And once it did, the trick was to produce the equivalent of a four and a half hour feature over the course of six weeks, so the real virtuosity lies in simply getting the damn thing done. From Witney’s book, it sounds like the crews were small and informal, and also very young — he became a director at the age of 22, on “The Painted Stallion.” So perhaps the conditions were closer to those of an independent film today than a television production.

  • … but after the serials died out, Witney and English both became workhorse TV directors, often on the same shows, most of which were low-budget westerns. So that comparison, between their serials & their TV shows, might be a worthwhile project for someone to undertake. (Not me, though.)

  • Steve L

    Dear Dave Kehr,

    I have been reading your film critiques since you wrote for The Chicago Reader and then your columns in your various newspaper carnations. Your writing has always been lucid, insightful, at times quite poetic, so unlike many film critics (let’s be frank, they’re film reviewers, not critics). And in your shorter formats, you have written some quotable, penetrating zingers, for example, describing Catherine Deneuve, Sophia Loren and Beatrice Dalle (the latter in a DVD-released French horror movie – what was the date of that New York Times article, which I unfortunately did not save?). I’ve learned a lot from your analyses and especially your ardent support of neglected directors and movies. Now I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. In one of the weekly independent newspaper, the East Bay Express, the film roundup includes some of your capsule reviews from the past, for example, John Boorman’s Point Bank. Were these reviews culled from The Chicago Reader or did you write for other independent papers in the past? You were quoted once that you have no interest in having your past critiques put into an anthology, which is a real loss for cinema readers. But, when will you (here, I don’t know the economics of film critique publishing) finally be asked to write the definitive all-in-one book analysis of John Ford, and (because you are such an enthusiastic and intelligent advocate of the former mayor of Carmel’s ouvre) of Clint Eastwood? (What was that Eastwood project in which you were involved recently?) I look forward to reading your website each week.

    Regards,
    Steve

  • @Steve,

    Thanks immensely for your kind words. It feels immodest of me to leave them up, but I guess I’ve you’re going to subject yourself to the slings and arrows of the internet you should learn to enjoy the occasional bouquet. The East Bay Express was founded by veterans of the Chicago Reader who bought the rights to reprint the Reader’s capsule reviews many years ago; I’m glad to hear that they are still in use. On the question of an anthology, there is something brewing and I may have something to report on that front in a few weeks. The Eastwood project I was involved in was a documentary on Budd Boetticher, “A Man Can Do That,” that started out as an independent effort and entered the Eastwood tent when he graciously offered the use of his editing room and the services of his brilliant editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach. The final cut, however, is not mine. Apparently, it will be included in the upcoming Boetticher box set from Sony.

  • Julian Pearce

    Completely off the subject but: does anyone own the current DVD of The Wild Child by Truffaut? I thought this film was supposed to be in B/W but the DVD is in color? Or no?

  • Julian Pearce

    It’s true, Dave. Your capsules from the Reader are unique, irreplaceable. I remember your long reviews too, like the one for Pialat’s A Nos Amours, but these alas are not available. Give your fans a break and do a HUGE vanity edition.
    I kid you because I love you.

  • It was my understanding that FLASH GORDON isn’t in the public domain, although FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE is. (The other one, FG’S TRIP TO MARS, is not in the PD.)

    James W. Horne… Reviled by many serial fans, but I love his work. TERRY & THE PIRATES is in many respects what a Hal Roach Comedy type of serial might’ve been. THE IRON CLAW, DEADEYE DICK, HOLT OF THE SECRET SERVICE… all excellent. I actually consider THE GREEN ARCHER to be near the bottom of the Horne canon, although I agree the new Restored Serials version looks terrific. By the way, if you want to see Mr. Horne, check out Laurel & Hardy’s BEAU HUNKS: Horne not only directed it, he plays the goofy villain.

  • Clifford, you are a far greater scholar of the serial than I am, but there are several PD versions of “Flash Gordon” on the market, most under the reissue title “Space Soldiers,” as well as “Conquers the Universe” and “Trip to Mars.” Just type “Flash Gordon” into the search box on Amazon.

    As the Bedouin heavy in “Beau Hunks,” Horne is billed as “Abdul Kasim K’Horne”! I wonder whether Horne’s nephew, George Stevens, was paying homage to him when he directed “Gunga Din” in 1939.

  • Horne got his start in the business directing serials back in the silent days; I don’t think any of those survive, alas. It would be interesting to see if they’re as manic as most of his sound serials.

    I never argue with the NY Times (well, hardly ever), but King Features does indeed “own” the Flash Gordon serials, which they licensed to Image Entertainment. While CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE somehow slipped into the public domain, the other two have not. I know there was a PD version of the first one (SPACE SOLDIERS) in the VHS days, but I suspect that was probably an error on the part of the releasing company. Many DVDs are labeled FLASH GORDON but actually feature FG CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE; adding to the confusion is the Steve Holland FLASH GORDON TV show of the 1950s and several PD featurized versions of the serials, some of which are also offered by VCI. Bottom line, though, is in Region 1 the only authorized non-boot versions of the first two Flash Gordon serials are the ones offered by Image; probably every DVD company in the nation has released a version of CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE. (The other Buster Crabbe sci-fi hero, BUCK ROGERS, is available from VCI Entertainment.)

    Thank you for your column, by the way; it’s one of the few must-read movie review columns on the web.