Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 5, Number 4: March 2005


Offtopic Perspective

Family Classics 50 Movie Pack, Part 1

I know the Offtopic Perspectives are a little silly, and I certainly don’t claim to be a film critic. On the other hand, nobody complained about the two last year—even though they detailed a set you probably can’t buy—and the issue containing the Rest of the DoubleDoubles was the most-downloaded issue of Volume 4. (I doubt that the Offtopic Perspective is the reason. I hope the IICA/INDUCE perspective had at least as much to do with it as did the first Wikipedia perspective!)

So I’ll keep doing these, half a pack at a time. As previously noted, you can buy these Treeline MoviePacks/MegaPacks for somewhere between $24 and $35, from Overstock, Amazon, and elsewhere. This time around, I’m including a plausible dollar value at the end of each rating—what I’d pay for the movie, with a maximum of $4 for one I thoroughly enjoyed (with a good to very good print), since that’s about what I think you’d pay for a single public domain DVD with no restoration work. If there’s no price, think $0: I wouldn’t pay a cent.

Each disc is correctly labeled “Disc n” on the disc itself and incorrectly “Disk 1” on the sleeve. When two timings appear, the first is as shown at IMDB; the second [in square brackets] is the actual DVD timing if it’s a minute or more different.

These prints are never entirely flawless, although some come close. I don’t think they are ever better than VHS quality. They are all full-screen (4:3 ratio, the same as TV)—but then, so were most movies before 1950 or thereabouts. These are not carefully restored classic movies; they’re a whole bunch of unrestored movies for a very low price. Each movie has four scene splits—and Treeline actually gives you images for each scene instead of just numbers—but in most cases, the splits are fairly arbitrary, based on time rather than logic. (There are exceptions, such as the lamentable Three Stooges cluster, where “scene” breaks are actually separate short subjects.)

Disc 1

Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946, Color, Richard Whorf (dir.), June Allyson, Judy Garland, Van Heflin, Lena Horne, Van Johnson, Dinah Shore, Frank Sinatra, Gower Champion, Cyd Charisse, Angela Lansbury. 2:15

Astonishingly, MGM failed to renew copyright on this biopic of Jerome Kern, so it’s in the public domain. The bio part is so-so, but the musical numbers are great and the print nearly flawless. (I was seeing occasional flaws, then realized that they occurred at regular intervals in the upper right hand corner: They’re reel-change flags, not flaws.) The picture is good enough that I tried it on our big TV to verify quality, which turns out to be VHS quality: Soft for a DVD, and the Pause key shows the difference, but still remarkable for $0.60. And what a lineup of stars, all singing Jerome Kern’s music. $4, easy.

The Medicine Man, 1930, b&w, Scott Pembroke (dir.), Jack Benny. 1:06.

Mediocre romantic comedy, an early talkie in a badly damaged print. The only excuse for watching this is to see Jack Benny when he was even less than 39.

Life with Father, 1947, color, Michael Curtiz (dir.), William Powell, Irene Dunne, Elizabeth Taylor, Zasu Pitts. 1:58.

Charming period family comedy based on Clarence Day’s own writing about his father, wife, four sons, and complex household. Taylor—two years older than in National Velvet, and already a beauty—has a secondary but important part. Well acted. Good print with occasional flecks and, near the end, a vertical streak. $3, reduced for damage.

The Three Stooges Festival, b&w, four short subjects: Disorder in the Court, 1936; The Brideless Groom, 1947; Malice in the Palace, 1949; Sing a Song of Six Pants, 1947. 1:06 total, each one 16 to 17 minutes. Larry and Moe in all four; Curly in the first and Shemp in the others.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk. The prints are so-so, but I guess I’ve finally outgrown the Stooges. Watching one short a day was tolerable; I can’t imagine watching all four at once—or ever wanting to watch any others. (Actually, I never saw more than a few minutes of the Three Stooges at once when I was growing up, which may be why I thought they were funny.)

Disc 2

Jack and the Beanstalk, 1952, color and sepiatone, Jean Yarbrough (dir.), Bud Abbott,Lou Costello, Buddy Baer. 1:10. [1:21]

I’m not sure why IMDB lists this as 11 minutes shorter than the running time on the DVD, but an Argentine release was apparently somewhere in the middle. This was another pleasant surprise. The surround, in sepia, has Abbott and Costello trying to babysit a rotten kid. The middle, in color, is the book Costello reads to him—or, rather, has the kid read to Costello. It’s a vivid retelling with songs added (which don’t help), with Costello as Jack and Abbott as the greedy butcher (who also climbs up to the castle). Not a laugh a minute, but well done. The print’s good but the sound is a little harsh sometimes. As for the acting, it’s fine—except for the Handsome Prince, who—when supposedly courting the Beautiful Princess (both assuming the roles of commoners, both held by the Giant)—seems to be looking over her shoulder either in a mirror or at his boyfriend. All in all, though, pretty good. $3

Let’s Get Tough, 1942, b&w, Wallace Fox (dir.), the East Side Kids: Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, Huntz Hall, etc. 1:02. [0:54]

The good news, as you can see from the timings: The print’s so damaged that more than 10% of the footage is missing. That’s the good news. Otherwise—well, this is a World War II movie, when the only thing wrong with beating up on people of one ethnicity is when they turn out to be of another ethnicity instead (all Asians look alike to these hero/hoodlums, after all). I’d never seen an East Side Kids movie before. I hope never to see one again. (But did, see below.)

The Last Time I Saw Paris, 1954, color, Richard Brooks (dir.), Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, Roger Moore, Odette. 1:56.

I didn’t watch this, because the same movie was one of the early freebies with InsideDVD—but it’s a very good movie, well worth watching. Skimming through it now, the print is generally very good (and the sound track is good), with some dirt and scratches. A good enough movie to watch through the minor picture flaws. $3

Jane Eyre, 1934, b&w, Christy Cabanne (dir.), Virginia Bruce, Colin Clive. 1:02.

A badly flawed print (lots of problems with the soundtrack and picture) of a badly flawed movie. Short as it is, it seems slow moving and turgid. The book certainly deserves better.

Disc 3

A Star is Born, 1937, color, William A. Wellman (dir.), Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Edgar Kennedy, Andy Devine. 1:51.

A naïve country girl goes to Hollywood to break into the movies—and eventually makes it, with the help of the alcoholic big star Norman Maine. They fall in love and marry; her career ascends as his falls apart. A classic “city of glitter” weeper, well acted by Janet Gaynor. Good to very good print (minor damage, rarely obtrusive, no lapses in continuity), and certainly worth watching. $3.50

The Racketeer, 1929, b&w, Howard Higgin (dir.), Carole Lombard, Robert Armstrong, Hedda Hopper. 1:06.

Tough New York mob boss (with a heart of gold) meets impoverished but beautiful and somewhat scandalous woman at a fundraiser, helps her cheat to win money, romances her as she tries to rehabilitate her alcoholic violinist lover. Another weeper, but with a badly damaged print that makes what may be a good picture difficult to watch. $2

The Jungle Book, 1942, color, Zoltan Korda (dir.), Sabu, Rosemary DeCamp, 1:49 [1:29].

The timing discrepancy may be an artifact: IMDB doesn’t list this picture, so I had to pick it up from elsewhere on the web—and I don’t remember any significant lapses, so there may or may not be 20 missing minutes. This is live action, not Disney animation. The special effects seem entirely natural, the print is generally very good, and the movie is enjoyable. $3

Gulliver’s Travels, 1939, color, Willard Bowsky & Orestes Calpini (dir.), animated, singing voices of Jessica Dragonette, Lanny Ross, 1:16.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this feature animation is the opening screen: Paramount Pictures, not Disney. According to IMDB, it’s the first feature-length animation from any studio but Disney; Max Fleischer produced it. Also interesting, and explained in IMDB details: Gulliver looks very human, while the other characters (with the partial exception of the singing prince and princess) look like typical early-animation cartoon people. Gulliver was apparently created by rotoscoping, painting over film of an actual actor. Otherwise—well, it turns the Lilliput episode into a musical with a teeny-tiny bit of social commentary buried by cartoon goofiness. Very good to excellent print. $3

Disc 4

The General, 1927, b&w, silent (with unrelated orchestral score), Clyde Bruckman and Buster Keaton (dir.), Buster Keaton. 1:46.

Since I’d already watched this on the DoubleDouble set, I didn’t rewatch it—but this version seems to be from a better-quality print (not flawless, but better), begins with an introductory screen or two (Harvard University Film Foundation is mentioned), and has a classical orchestral score, clearly not written for the movie. It’s also a few minutes longer. $2

The Kid, 1921, b&w, silent (with unrelated orchestral score), Charlie Chaplin (dir.), Chaplin, Jackie Coogan. 1:08.

One of the classic “Little Tramp” movies, in a good-quality print. If you like Chaplin in his silent roles, this is a must-see. $3

Long John Silver, 1954, color, Byron Haskin (dir.), Robert Newton, Kit Taylor, Lloyd Berrell. 1:46 [1:43].

Also known as Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island. Generally good print with some missing frames (three minutes’ worth, apparently!). A swashbuckling romp with Long John Silver and other pirates saying “Arrh!” and being Proper Pirates. Thoroughly enjoyable. $4

The Scarlet Letter, 1934, b&w, Robert G. Vignola (dir.), Colleen Moore, Hardie Albright, Alan Hale. 1:09.

The print varies from decent to barely watchable—and the same can be said for the movie itself. Slow-moving, somnorific, with a few comedy scenes added that do little to improve things.

Disc 5

The Inspector General, 1949, color, Henry Koster (dir.), Danny Kaye, Walter Slezak, Barbara Bates, Elsa Lanchester, Gene Lockhart, Alan Hale. 1:42

Wonderful, wonderful. Based on the play by Nikolai Gogol, this film is a delight—not only Danny Kaye’s character but also the rest of the cast. Very good to excellent print with a few tiny flaws; fine color and sound. Even if the print was damaged, this would be a wonderfully enjoyable movie. $4

The Paleface, 1922, b&w, silent (unrelated orchestral score), Buster Keaton (dir. & star). 0:33 [0:21]

A Buster Keaton short about evil oil magnates, an Indian tribe living on potential oil property, and the poor dupe who saves the day. The print’s pretty good—but I can’t imagine where the other 12 minutes went! Worth watching, if you don’t mind a little political incorrectness—but in this case, there’s no question that the Native Americans are the good guys. $2

That Gang of Mine, 1940, b&w, Joseph H. Lewis (dir.), East Side Kids: Leo Gorcey, Bobby Jordan, more. 1:02 [0:59]

Another East Side Kids movie, a lot better than Let’s Get Tough. Which isn’t to say it’s great, but it’s not cringe-inducing either. I guess you had to be a fan of the series. So-so print; I’d guess the missing three minutes are mostly dropped frames, of which there are quite a few. $1

Son of Monte Cristo, 1940, b&w, Rowland V. Lee (dir.), Louis Hayward, Joan Bennett, George Sanders. 1:42

Pretty good print and a pretty good movie, with a damsel in distress (the beautiful Zona, rightful ruler of Zona), an evil officer (General Gurko Lanen, played with oily verve by George Sanders), and the heroic Count of Monte Cristo (Louis Hayward), son of the other Count, playing foppish banker to cover his tracks. Swordplay, valiant citizens fighting against tyranny, what more could you want? $3

Captain Kidd, 1945, b&w, Rowland V. Lee (dir.), Charles Laughton, Randolph Scott, Barbara Britton, John Carradine. 1:30 [1:29]

Long John Silver may be a pirate with a heart of gold. Captain Kidd’s heart (as played with fleshy gusto by Charles Laughton) is pure, double-crossing evil—a real Pirate’s Pirate, ready to kill off his own partners even faster than he kills off the good guys. A rousing, good old-fashioned swash-buckler, done with skill by a good cast. The print’s generally good but far from perfect; it didn’t distract from the swordplay and nearly-foiled heroics of Randolph Scott. $3

Disc 6

The Time of Your Life, 1948, b&w, H.C. Potter (dir.), William Saroyan (play), James Cagney, William Bendix, Broderick Crawford, Ward Bond, Jeanne Cagney, 1:49 [1:40]

I’m not sure where the missing nine minutes went, since the blips from missing frames seem relatively few. Generally very good print but scratchy soundtrack. A “filmed play”—but for a play entirely set in a pub, that works. Incredible cast, strong performances, well worth watching. $3.50.

A Farewell to Arms, 1932, b&w, Frank Borzage (dir.), Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou, 1:20 [1:18]

Since I watched this in the free movie pack, I didn’t watch it again. The movie is first-rate. Fast-forwarding through and stopping occasionally, this print seems to be in very good shape (dark at times), with a relatively noise-free sound track. I can’t vouch for that throughout. $3.

The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1934, b&w, Harold Young (dir.), Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon, Raymond Massey, Nigel Bruce, 1:37

“Is he in heaven or is he in hell? That damned elusive Pimpernel!” If Louis Hayward did a good job of playing “foppish banker who’s also a heroic fighter” in Son of Monte Cristo, Leslie Howard is magnificent as a wholly useless British aristocrat—who’s also the Scarlet Pimpernel, risking his life to save innocent noblefolk during the French Revolution. Great story, fine cast, very good print, some noise on the soundtrack but not enough to get in the way. Great stuff. $3.50.

The Black Pirate, 1926, [color], silent with unrelated classical music, Albert Parker (dir.), Douglas Fairbanks, Billie Dove, 1:28 [1:23]

Maybe the other five minutes went to the same place as the color. According to the sleeve blurb, this is a movie of “firsts”—produced and written by the star, Douglas Fairbanks (Senior, but of course that wasn’t part of his name), although he doesn’t get a writing credit on the film. “It was also one of the first features shot entirely in Technicolor.” Apparently that’s true, in the early two-strip Technicolor—but time has not been kind to the print used for this version. Oddly enough, it is in color: Depending on whether it’s outside, inside, at night, or at day, you may get shades of purple, shades of blue, shades of brown, or shades of some other color—but never multiple colors. There’s a $25-$30 DVD that contains a restored color version of this movie; the flick itself—“amazing action scenes” with Fairbanks’ swordsmanship and all—is good enough to make me really want to try the restored version. $2.50

The First Half

That’s the first half of the set. By my estimation, this half is worth at least $59 to anyone who enjoys old movies. Sometimes, you’ll find the print good enough for its purpose (unless you watch on a big screen, which will tend to magnify the flaws). Many times, the movie shines through the flawed print. In a few cases—The Black Pirate most of all—the print may make you hunger for a better-quality version. All in all, a great bargain (even if the other six discs weren’t there), and I’m picking up an interesting random education in earlier cinema.

 

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 5, Number 4, Whole Issue 60, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG.

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