The DVD Report #624

The Man Who Laughs, the 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, has been adapted for the screen less frequently than the myriad versions of Hugo’s better-known works, 1831’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and 1862’s Les Misérables. The most famous version was Paul Leni’s 1928 silent classic, given a 4K restoration for its Blu-ray release by Flicker Alley.

Produced by Universal, The Man Who Laughs was the next to last film made by German director Leni who died of blood poisoning in Los Angeles a year later at the age of 44. Like Quasimodo, the title character in Hunchback, the title character in Laugh is physically deformed. Unlike Quasimodo, who was born physically deformed, Laugh‘s Gwynplaine was the son of a British nobleman who offended England’s despotic King James II before fleeing the country by refusing to kiss his ring. When he returns to England to reunite with his son in 1690, he is captured by the king’s men and told by the king before he has him executed that his son was sold to the Cormanchico gypsies who have carved a permanent grin on his face. When the Cormanchicos are exiled from England, they leave the deformed boy behind. Wandering in the cold and snow, he finds Dea, a blind baby girl, in the arms of her dead mother and rescues her, finding shelter in the home of Ursus, a showman who raises them both, making them stars in his traveling show.

Gwynplaine and Dea fall in love and are about to be married, when Barkilphedro, King James’ evil jester, plots to have Gwynplaine marry the duchess who now owns the estate once owned by Gwynplaine’s father so that Gwynplaine can be named the rightful heir to the estate by James’ successor, Queen Anne, and he, Barliphedro, can be rewarded.

The film’s success owes much to the performances of both Julius Molnar as the ten-year-old Gwynplaine and Conrad Veidt who plays him as an adult. Mary Philbin as the grown Dea, Olga Baclanova as the duchess, Brandon Hurst as Barliphedro, Cesare Gravino as Ursus, and Josephine Crowell as Queen Anne lead the supporting cast.

The film’s art direction, costume design, and cinematography are all outstanding and Conrad Veidt (The Thief of Bagdad, Casablanca), despite his very distinguished Hollywood career, would never have a better role.

Also making their Blu-ray debuts are four other major films from Universal. Arabesque, Winning, and How to Make an American Quilt are being released by Universal Home Video while To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is being released by Shout Select.

Stanley Donen’s 1966 film Arabesque was an attempt at duplicating the success of Donen’s 1963 film Charade, a combination Hitchcockian thriller and ultra-suave comedy starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn at their sophisticated best. Unfortunately, Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren playing cat-and-mouse all over the English countryside were not as winningly suited to each other as were Grant and Hepburn playing the same sort of game all over France three years earlier. The film has its moments, but it doesn’t live up to its high expectations.

James Goldstone’s 1969 film Winning stands apart from other racing dramas for two reasons. One is the dedication of real-life racing enthusiast star Paul Newman. The other is the writing by Howard Rodman that gives more substance to the personal story of Newman’s character, a loner who marries in middle-age and almost loses his new-found love. The year after he directed wife Joanne Woodward to an Oscar nomination for Rachel, Rachel, Newman and Woodward have their best on-screen pairing since 1958’s The Long, Hot Summer. Still, the film’s best acting is provided by newcomer Richard Thomas as Woodward’s teenage son, adopted by Newman. Robert Wagner co-stars.

Jocelyn Moorhouse, the Australian writer of Muriel’s Wedding and director of The Dressmaker, had her lone excursion into Hollywood filmmaking with How to Make an American Quilt, a wistful romance about a young woman (Winona Ryder) spending the summer with her grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), great-aunt (Anne Bancroft), and members of their quilt-making circle (Maya Angelou, Kate Nelligan, Lois Smith, Jean Simmons, Alfre Woodard) as she prepares her college thesis and gets ready for her wedding to Dermot Mulroney. Those eight actresses, as well as Samantha Mathis who plays Lois Smith’s character as a younger woman, were all nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award for their ensemble work. Not nominated were Mulroney, Claire Danes, Loren Dean, Jarod Leto, Johnathon Schaech, Cate Capshaw, Adam Baldwin, Melinda Dillon, Richard Jenkins, and others in the large supporting cast. They’re all quite good.

Beeban Kidron’s 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar was an attempt at capturing the magic of the 1994 Australian hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which was also about drag queens on the road. While the performances of Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo are terrific, the story doesn’t quite achieve the poignancy of the original characters played by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp in the Australian original. Stockard Channing co-stars as an abused woman with Blythe Danner, Arliss Howard, Chris Penn, Jason London, and Melinda Dillon in key supporting roles and Robin Williams, RuPaul, and Julie Newmar herself in cameos.

Both How to Make and American Quilt and To Wing Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar were produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment with Speilberg committing ot fill in for the pregnant Kidron should she have to leave the production. She didn’t!

Sony has released a double-bill of the 1998’s Stepmom and The Deep End of the Ocean on Blu-ray.

Chris Columbus’ Stepmom is a tearjerker masquerading as a comedy as Julia Roberts plays the awkward fiancée of Ed Harris who tries valiantly to bond with his kids Jena Malone and Liam Aiken despite the barbs from his ex, Susan Sarandon. Only when Sarandon is diagnosed with terminal cancer do the two women come to an understanding. All the actors give it their best, but 8-year-old Aiken easily steals it.

Ulu Grosbard’s The Deep End of the Ocean was the last film of the stage director whose screen credits include The Subject Was Roses and True Confessions. Like those films, it is an intense family drama with a highly satisfying conclusion centering on the kidnapping of a 3-year-old boy who is reunited with his family nine years later. Michell Pfeiffer had one of her best roles as the mother with Ryan Merriman and Jonathan Jackson outstanding as her two sons at ages 12 and 15.

Kino Lorber has released a Blu-ray of Hollywood Films’ 2003 film Veronica Guerin featuring Cate Blanchett in one of her best roles as the Irish journalist whose murder changed Irish law in the late 1990s. Directed by Joel Schumacher (A Time to Kill), the cast includes Gerard McSorley, Ciaran Hinds, Brenda Fricker, and, briefly, Colin Farrell. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray imports all the extras from the previous DVD.

This week’s new releases include the Blu-ray releases of Swing Time and Can’t Stop the Music.

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