The DVD Report #23

Last week, I briefly mentioned the 50th Anniversary Edition of Funny Face, which I’ve now seen. Restored from the original negative, the film looks stunning. One of the most gorgeous films ever made, previous home video editions have been so washed out and ugly anyone discovering the film for the first time on VHS or DVD would have no clue as to what made this film so special. Now if they don’t get it, well, they just don’t get it. Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and the delightful Kay Thompson are resurrected in all their glory.

Having copies of beloved films in their original splendor is one of two main reasons for collecting DVDs. The other is to possess films that might otherwise be lost. DVD companies, both large and small, release films each week that have never been available to the home video market, including many that rarely, if ever, show up on television.

A case in point is the Fox Horror Classics Collection consisting of three films directed by John Brahm between 1942 and 1945.

The most famous of the three is The Lodger, a thrilling, atmospheric remake of the Hitchcock silent with a superb performance by Laird Cregar as a mysterious lodger in a London rooming house who may or may not be Jack the Ripper. Ably supported by Merle Oberon, George Sanders and Cedric Hardwicke, the standout next to Cregar, is Sara Allgood as the frightened landlady.

Just as thrilling is Hangover Square with Cregar in his final role as a tormented composer opposite Linda Darnell as a conniving music hall performer. George Sanders, Glenn Langan and Alan Napier head the supporting cast.

Paling in comparison to these two masterpieces is The Undying Monster, a standard vampire movie bolstered by its atmospheric delights and the performances of James Ellison, Heather Angel and John Howard, among others.

Released in 1970, the same year as Ken Russell’s Women in Love, Christopher Miles’ The Virgin and the Gypsy is generally regarded as the “other” film from a D.H. Lawrence novel released that year. Beautifully photographed with rich performances from a strong cast, The Virgin and the Gypsy was unjustly obscured by the more celebrated Russell film.

Joanna Shimkus, who retired from the screen after marrying Sidney Poitier a few years later, is simply radiant as the young girl awakening to her sexuality in Victorian England. No less superb are Franco Nero as the hot-blooded gypsy with whom she carries on a torrid affair, Honor Blackman as her world-wise friend, Mark Burns as Blackman’s lover, Fay Compton as Shimkus’ grandmother, Maurice Denham as her preacher father, and Kay Walsh as her old-maid aunt.

Filmed many times, the definitive version of Little Women is still George Cukor’s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Joan Bennett as Meg, Frances Dee as Amy, Jean Parker as Beth, Douglass Montgomery as Laurie, Henry Stephenson as Mr. Laurence, John Lodge as John Brooke, Paul Lukas as Professor Bhaer, Spring Byington as Marmee, and Edna May Oliver as Aunt March. However, one thing that television does better than the movies is give us more fleshed-out adaptations in the form of miniseries with their expanded versions of great novels.

The 1978 miniseries of Little Women was one of the best of the genre. While the young actresses playing the March sisters, Susan Dey, Meredith Baxter, Eve Plumb and Ann Dusenberry are all quite good, it’s the supporting cast that gives this one something extra special. Richard Gilliland as Laurie, Cliff Potts as Brooke, and William Shatner as Professor Bhaer are all fine, but towering above them all are three stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Dorothy McGuire is Marmee and Robert Young, who starred opposite McGuire in three of her early films, Claudia, The Enchanted Cottage and Claudia and David, is Mr. Lawrence. Eleven years after her last big screen appearance in The Happiest Millionaire, seven-time Oscar nominee Greer Garson is Aunt March. A major production in all respects, multi-Oscar winner Edith Head provided the costumes and Elmer Bernstein the score.

Detective stories had been a staple in film since the silent days, but female detectives were rare. The concept of the savvy woman who just happened to be there when a murder was committed was a device first used in 1932’s The Penguin Pool Murder and its sequels, Murder on the Blackboard and Murder on a Honeymoon. Edna May Oliver played crime solving schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers in that series.

The concept proved even more popular when Margaret Rutherford played Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple in a series of films beginning with 1962’s Murder She Said. Angela Lansbury later played the character in 1980’s The Mirror Crack’d and Helen Hayes played her in TV’s A Caribbean Mystery and Murder With Mirrors, but it took Joan Hickson to give us the definitive Miss Marple in a series of British TV movies from 1984 through 1992.

Also in 1984, Peter Fischer, Richard Levinson and William Link, the creative force behind TV’s Columbo, wanted to bring an Americanized Marple to American TV. The concept they came up with was Murder, She Wrote, which they first offered to All in the Family star Jean Stapleton. When she turned it down, they offered the role to Lansbury, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lansbury has had one of the most unique careers in the history of show business. While there are many stars who alternate between TV, the stage and film, Lansbury is the only one who had basically three distinct careers in those mediums.

From 1944 to 1966 she was one of the most distinguished character actresses working in film. She won back to back Oscar nominations for Gaslight and The Picture of Dorian Gray, films she made when she was 18 and 19 respectively. At 22 she tried to steal Katharine Hepburn from Spencer Tracy in State of the Union and in Samson and Delilah two years later she played the older sister of Hedy Lamarr, who in reality was seven years her senior. At 32 she played opposite middle-aged Orson Welles in The Long, Hot Summer while Paul Newman, six months her senior, played the romantic lead. At 36, without makeup, she played the mother of Laurence Harvey, only two years her junior, in The Manchurian Candidate, earning her third Oscar nomination.

She did not become at all glamorous until she starred in Broadway’s Mame in 1966 when she was over 40, earning the first of four Tony awards as lead actress in a musical. The others were for 1969’s Dear World, the 1974 revival of Gypsy and 1979’s Sweeney Todd.

Between Dear World and Sweeney Todd she had her first starring roles in Grade A films, Something for Everyone and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and won the lion’s share of the praise for the all-star cast Death on the Nile which she stole from the likes of Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith and Mia Farrow. Her greatest fame was still ahead.

The first season of Murder, She Wrote began just prior to her 60th birthday. She was 72 when the last regular episode aired, followed by several TV movies as Murder ‘s Jessica Fletcher.

As we look at today’s DVD release of Murder, She Wrote – The Seventh Season, Lansbury’s unique career comes once again into focus. The Internet Movie Database, with some major omissions, lists 656 guest stars for the twelve years that the series was on the air, most of them contemporaries of Lansbury’s in either her early screen career or late Broadway career, many of them former co-stars.

Among her more frequent co-stars in the series were Tom Bosley, known for Broadway’s Fiorello! long before he became a household name in TV’s Happy Days ; Jerry Orbach, a Broadway star of such shows as Carinival, Chicago, 42nd Street and Promises, Promises before his detective role on Murder, She Wrote led to Law & Order, and Len Cariou, Lansbury’s co-star from Sweeney Todd.

Other memorable guest stars included the movies’ Jean Simmons, Eleanor Parker, Lloyd Nolan, Claire Trevor, Teresa Wright, Mel Ferrer, Farley Granger, Hurd Hatfield (Lansbury’s co-star in The Picture of Dorian Gray ), Van Johnson, Jane Powell, Ann Blyth, Kevin McCarthy, Vera Miles, George Grizzard, Don Murray, Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, Pat Hingle, Julie Adams, Adam Beach, Claude Akins, William Windom, Stuart Whitman, Rod Taylor, Diane Baker, Kathryn Grayson, Ruth Roman, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Kim Darby, Dan O’Herlihy, Forrest Tucker, Dane Clark, Cesar Romero, Betsy Palmer, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Snodgress, Anne Francis, Hope Lange, Betty Garrett, Jay Robinson, Jayne Meadows, Sheree North, Barbara Rush, Marie Windsor, Beah Richards, Shirley Knight, Dennis Christopher, Nina Foch and Gloria Stuart.

From Broadway musical theater: Glynis Johns ( A Little Night Music ), Mildred Natwick ( 70, Girls, 70 ), Yvonne De Carlo ( Follies ), Florence Henderson ( Fanny ), Nanette Fabray ( High Button Shoes ), Vivian Blaine ( Guys and Dolls ), Gene Barry ( La Cage aux Folles ), George Hearn ( Sunset Boulevard ), Brenda Vaccaro ( How Now, Dow Jones ), Tony Roberts ( Victor/Victoria ), Dean Jones ( Company ), David Wayne ( Finian’s Rainbow ), Gloria De Haven ( Seventh Heaven ), Robert Goulet ( The Happy Time ), Carol Lawrence ( West Side Story ), Ken Howard ( Seesaw ), Clifford David ( 1776 ), Theodore Bikel ( The Sound of Music ), Roddy McDowall ( Camelot ), Orson Bean ( Illya Darling ), Herschel Bernardi ( Zorba ), Penny Fuller ( Applause ), Shirley Jones (Maggie Flynn ), Donald O’Connor ( Bring Back Birdie ), Rex Smith ( The Human Comedy ), Lucie Arnaz ( They’re Playing Our Song ), Howard McGillin ( Anything Goes ), Constance Towers ( The King and I ), Harry Guardino ( Woman of the Year ), Adrienne Barbeau ( Grease ), Paul Sorvino ( The Baker’s Wife ), Rene Auberjonois ( Coco ), Elaine Joyce ( Sugar ), Daniel McDonald ( Steel Pier ), Patrick Cassidy ( Assassins ), Maryann Plunkett ( Me and My Girl ) and Robert Torti ( Starlight Express ).

Happy 82nd birthday, Angie Baby!

Peter J. Patrick (October 9, 2007)

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Top 10 Rentals of the Week

(September 30)

  1. Knocked Up
              $10.1 M ($10.1 M)
  2. Next
              $6.87 M ($6.87 M)
  3. We Are Marshall
              $3.99 M ($8.58 M)
  4. The Condemned
              $3.61 M ($7.76 M)
  5. Blades of Glory
              $2.97 M ($28.6 M)
  6. Bug
              $2.65 M ($2.65 M)
  7. Death Proof
              $2.28 M ($5.15 M)
  8. Georgia Rule
              $2.09 M ($11.1 M)
  9. Delta Farce
              $1.93 M ($10.9 M)
  10. Perfect Stranger
              $1.67 M ($20.1 M)

Top 10 Sales of the Week

(September 23)

  1. We Are Marshall
  2. Death Proof
  3. Family Guy: Volume 5
  4. Barbie as the Island Princess
  5. Superman: Doomsday
  6. Smallville: The Complete Sixth Season
  7. The Condemned
  8. Grey’s Anatomy: Season Three
  9. Blades of Glory
  10. Wild Hogs

New Releases

(October 9)

Coming Soon

(October 16)

(October 23)

(October 30)

(November 6)

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