Box Set Bonanza: Flynn, Novak, Kurosawa, Guitry & Walsh, plus Elvis at 75 – DVDs of the Week

11 August, 2010 (15:39) | Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, DVD | By: Sean Axmaker

What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.

Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)

The Story of a Cheat

How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.

Guitry was not particularly cinematic in the visual sense—his images are direct and literal and often flat, like shooting actors against a theatrical backdrop, with little stylistic revelation or visual ambiguity—but he uses those tools well. In Cheat, he quite masterfully slips out the actor playing the younger Cheat and takes over the role, revealing the switch in a scene where he shaves off his beard and discovers, much his surprise (and our delight), that he’s suddenly aged into Guitry. He shares a wink with the audience, making a joke of the convention even as he uses it to emphasize the passing of time. But the man is an auteur: his intricate narratives are endlessly inventive and creatively applied and his writing sparkles with comic invention, droll wit and continental sophistication (he’s been called the Gallic Noel Coward). And as a leading man, he’s a model of easy elegance and knowing experience, a man of the world who accepts the essential absurdity of modern life with a wry smile and sense of challenge. His sophisticated yet playful wit and creative personality unmistakably shape his films. And as a delightful bonus, he has introduced me to the charms of Jacqueline Delubac, his wife and leading lady in Pearls and the final two films in the set: the drawing room sex romp Desire (1937) and the comically romantic rectangle Quadrille (1938), neither of which I had time to do view. Dave Kehr reports, in his weekly DVD column for the New York Times and on his blog, that this appears to be half of a Guitry box set released in France by Gaumont in 2007, which inspires hope for a follow-up Eclipse set. The no-frills Eclipse presentation comes on four discs in four thinpak cases in a paperboard sleeve. No supplements beyond excellent notes on each film by Michael Koresky.

Turner Classic Movies Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures (Warner)

The generic “Adventures” description of this collection of five Errol Flynn features misses the defining characteristic of these brawny adventures: they are all World War II thrillers with Flynn leading the fight against the Axis. And fans of classic Hollywood movies will appreciate that four of the five are directed by Raoul Walsh, the Warner action-drama specialist whose lean, muscular style give his collaborations with Flynn a distinctive, driving quality different from the more ornate and elaborately designed spectacle-oriented studio gloss of Michael Curtiz (The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood).

Winning World War II by themselves

Desperate Journey (1942) opens the set, a lively behind-enemy-lines adventure with Flynn as an Australian Flight Commander (playing his own nationality for once) whose bomber is shot down on run over Germany and leads his squad (including a Ronald Reagan as a grinning, two-fisted All-American who punches his way through most of the German army) back home with secret plans. This is pure wartime propaganda where a five-man squad practically defeats the German army (led by a grimacing Raymond Massey) on their escape back to England, but it’s great fun and a rollicking adventure. Even Reagan (who gets rare star billing with Flynn) is fun, not much of an actor but energetic and affable as a fun-loving patriot with boy-next-door spunk.

Flynn is a German-born Canadian Mountie who infiltrates a group of Nazi saboteurs in Northern Pursuit (1943). The set-up, which has Flynn mouthing off against Canada and spouting pro-German sentiments, isn’t fooling anyone, including the captured German invaders who escape from their prison camp and head into the wilds. They take him as a guide but take a little insurance along as well: his sweetheart (Julie Bishop). The Nazis are either brutal master race fanatics (Helmut Dantine) killing anyone and everyone on their path or weaselly cowards (Gene Lockhart) ready to sell out their ideals to save their own skin. Walsh’s Objective, Burma! (1945), a tough thriller of American paratroopers stranded behind enemy lines in Burma, is one of the darker Hollywood war pictures of the era. Errol Flynn gives a superior performance as the platoon Captain whose successful mission turns sour when their escape route is cut off and their position discovered. It’s a tough, grim, “war is hell” take on the classic platoon drama, people with familiar faces (including George Tobias as the typical urban grunt and Henry Hull as the aging war correspondent itching to get into action… until he does), and Walsh drives it with a relentless momentum that makes it feel far shorter than its 142 minute running time.

Also features two resistance dramas set in occupied Europe: Walsh’s Uncertain Glory (1944), with Flynn as a French playboy who finds untapped courage during the Nazi occupation, and Lewis Milestone’s Edge of Darkness (1943), with Flynn leading the Nazi resistance in Norway. I didn’t see either of them, but I hope to soon. Each film includes a “Warner Night at the Movies” collection of vintage shorts, cartoons, newsreels and trailers from the time of the film’s release and Objective, Burma! features commentary by historians Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame and Frank Thompson. Five discs in a foldout digipak.

The First Films Of Akira Kurosawa (Eclipse Series 23) (Criterion)

After a relatively brief apprenticeship in the Japanese studio system, Akira Kurosawa made his directorial debut in 1942 with Sanshiro Sugata, a martial arts drama about the moral education of a scrappy Judo student (Susumu Fujita). It’s a conventional tale with old-fashioned martial arts scenes but Kurosawa already exhibits a firm command of storytelling and delivers a dramatic climax where the violence of the battle-to-the-death is created in the stormy atmosphere and windswept landscape. The film was unfortunately cut in 1944 by government censors but even this short version (the only surviving version) shows his maturity as a director and his evocative use of symbolic imagery and dramatic settings.

The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail

Kurosawa followed it up with the wartime propaganda drama The Most Beautiful (1944), a morale-booster about the women working at an optics factory shot in a semi-documentary style that anticipates his social dramas of the late-forties and fifties, and the sequel Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two (1945), another wartime effort that makes a pair of Americans the villains. I didn’t see those two but I found The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (1945) marvelous, a short, simple yet evocative film that turns a historical incident into the cinematic equivalent of a folk song. The tale of a young Lord and his six samurai retainers on the run from a paranoid Shogun is a modest production, shot on soundstages standing in for forest trails and mountain passes, but deftly directed as a cagey battle of wits and wiles (with rather overemphatic comic relief from Kenichi Enomoto as the civilian porter and guide, who face has the elasticity of a Japanese Jerry Lewis, all bug-eyes and wide-mouthed smiles and lizard frowns). Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura (of Seven Samurai and Ikiru, among others) stars in three of the four features. Previously available only in the massive (and expensive) Criterion box set AK 100: 25 Films of Akira Kurosawa, the first four films from Akira Kurosawa are now offered in this budget-minded box set from Eclipse (the no-frills line from Criterion). Features excellent accompanying notes by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.

The Kim Novak Collection (Sony)

Kim Novak was shaped into a glamour queen of late fifties Hollywood, but beneath her voluptuous beauty and platinum hair was a shy, vulnerable working girl playing the part of a starlet. That mix of glamour and discomfort, an ordinary girl with extraordinary looks, defines her best performances, such as the small-town beauty queen who falls for hunky drifter William Holden in Picnic (1955), the handsome screen adaptation of William Inge’s Broadway drama, and the Greenwich Village witch halfway between the worlds of magical and mortality in Bell, Book and Candle (1958) with James Stewart. (I reviewed them both years ago for Amazon: Picnic here and Bell, Book and Candle here.)

Both have been on DVD before but Jeanne Eagels (1957) debuts here, starring Novak as the real-life stage and screen of the twenties. It’s less a biopic than scandal-sheet melodrama that revels in Eagels’ seamy sideshow beginnings, her ruthless climb to the top and her fall into alcoholism and social notoriety, and second-tier leading man Jeff Chandler plays her carny boyfriend left behind on her climb into legitimate theater and Broadway stardom. Also includes Pal Joey (1957) with Frank Sinatra and Rita Hayworth, a classic stage music with some superb Rogers and Hart songs (“Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”) but lackluster direction from George Sidney (who is usually more spry) and the DVD debut of Middle of the Night (1959) with Fredric March (which, yes, I did not make time to see). Three discs in a box set of two thinpak cases, with select scene commentary by Kim Novak and author Stephen Rebello on two films, four brief featurettes and an animated gallery of stills and film clips with commentary by Novak and Rebello.

Elvis at 75

If Elvis really does live, he’s now a 75-year-old dinosaur reliving his glory days doing karaoke versions of his hits in roadside taverns. But then he does live in a way, through his music and movies, which are perpetually rereleased with every notable anniversary (2007 was the last one, the 30th anniversary of Presley’s death). For the 75th Anniversary of his birth, Warner repackages its Elvis library along with the DVD debut of the last theatrical Elvis film that was, until now, unavailable.

The King at 75

The concert film Elvis on Tour (1972), which debuts on both DVD and Blu-ray, captures Elvis a couple of years into his seventies revival as a Vegas headliner and concert superstar with performances filmed during a 1972 15-city concert tour. Unlike the superior 1970 Elvis: That’s The Way It Is, this one captures the King after he’s settled in to live performance and his glitzy new style of showmanship. He’s still a dynamic performer but you can already see that he’s packing on weight (despite the grueling workout of his show, pouring off sweat through the sets) and at times he seems to be simply falling into familiar rhythms. He’s all professionalism and really connects with his fans (he showers the front rows with his trademark scarves) but only rarely is he gripped in the fire of genuine passion.

There’s a smattering of backstage footage and travel shots, a time-capsule montage of Elvis’ early years and a ridiculous montage of silly love scenes from the movies cut into a performance of “Love Me Tender,” but only the marvelous gospel jam session with his band and back-up singers offers any insight to the man behind the image. The rest is Elvis on stage, doing old classics (“Can’t Help Falling in Love”), new hits (“Burning Love”) and lots of covers (from “Proud Mary” to the bluesy “Polk Salad Annie,” a personal favorite of mine), and the filmmakers go split-screen crazy to cut in audience shots. That particular technique is borrowed from Woodstock, which is no surprise: Martin Scorsese (part of the editing team on Woodstock) is credited as “montage supervisor.” No supplements, but it is also available individually in a Blu-ray book with photos and notes on the film and the concerts.

For heft, you’ve got the Elvis 75th Anniversary DVD Collection (Warner), aka the King of all Elvis box sets: 17 films (over half of his filmography), from Jailhouse Rock (1957) through 13 of his silly sixties features (including newly restored and remastered editions of Kissin’ Cousins and Girl Happy) to his concert films of the seventies (including the DVD debut of the 1972 Elvis on Tour; more on that later), plus the documentary This is Elvis (1981). It sweeps the best (Viva Las Vegas) and the worst (take your pick, from It Happened At The World’s Fair to Charro!) of Elvis into one 17-disc set, collected in two supersized keepcases with hinged trays and a slipsleeve. (For the record, the rest of the sixties silly symphonies in the set are Tickle Me, Harum Scarum, Spinout, Double Trouble, Stay Away, Joe, Speedway and Live a Little, Love a Little.) And note that while it includes original 1981 version of This is Elvis (1981) and not the version expanded for home video with more material, it does include the 2000 restoration of the essential concert film/comeback documentary Elvis: Thats the Way It Is (1970/2000), which chronicles his phoenix-like rebirth as a Vegas showman as a concert rockumentary interspersed with interviews, backstage material, and a wealth of footage featuring the King in rehearsal. Producer Rick Schmidlin doesn’t merely restore clarity and richness to sound and image, he remakes the production in a linear fashion and jettisons much of the behind-the-scenes glimpses for more music, a calculated trade-off. The rehearsals are still a highlight, where Elvis jokes and laughs with an ease in contrast to his mumbling on-stage banter. Is the King nervous in his live comeback? Only between songs, it seems: he pours sweat in a passionate performance, but when he sings it sounds effortless.

It’s the easiest way to grab up all those forgettable sixties films along with the seventies rockumentaries in one easy and efficient package, but I confess I’d like to see the DVD equivalent of the RCA CD set “Elvis Command Performances: The Essential 60s Masters II,” something that plucks all the musical numbers out of the films so we can just skip through the moments that count (and, quite frankly, a whole mess of bad songs that he muscles through on sheer professionalism). Also includes commentary by rock journalist Steve Pond on two films, a handful of featurettes, a commemorative booklet and an envelope of reproduction of Elvis memorabilia.

And for those waiting for the hi-def upgrade, there’s the Elvis Blu-ray Collection: three Elvis classics making their Blu-ray debut in a triple feature collection. Jailhouse Rock (1957) is his third film and arguably his definitive screen appearance, playing a working class kid who lands in stir after a bar fight gone bad and emerges surly, hardened, and with a gift for rocking. He’s not much of an actor, but he’s dynamic in the film’s set piece, where is swivels and shakes through a dance number set to the title song. “It’s just the beast in me.” MGM musical specialist George Sidney helms Viva Las Vegas (1963) and gives the musical numbers a dynamic that no other Elvis film has, while Elvis meets his match in screen spitfire Ann-Margaret. Colonel Tom Parker made sure a costar never again made Elvis work for the spotlight in one of movies. The featurettes on Jailhouse and Viva are routine productions with more visual flash than interesting background. The commentary tracks, both delivered by music journalist Steve Pond (author of “Elvis in Hollywood”), are much more interesting and informative. Elvis on Tour (reviewed above and also available separately) rounds out the collection.

Postscript: For a different kind of anniversary remembrance, check out the book Return of the King, a chronicle of his phoenix-like rebirth from the ’68 Comeback Special through his return to the concert circuit, by my colleague and friend Gillian Gaar. I haven’t finished the book yet but I really like I’ve read so far.

Cross-published with seanax.com.

Available at Amazon:
Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22)
TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures
The First Films of Akira Kurosawa (Eclipse Series 23)
The Kim Novak Collection
Elvis 75th Anniversary DVD Collection
Elvis: Blu-ray Collection [Blu-ray]

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