The DVD Report #713

Warner Archive has released Blu-ray upgrades of two of my all-time favorite films.

I first saw 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities and 1936’s San Francisco on TV but was later able to see them on the big screen in revival houses that were precursors to home video through the 1970s.

It’s not just modern epics that look better on large theatre screens, the old epics also looked better, especially these two with their larger-than-life special-effects scenes – the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities and the earthquake and resultant fires that destroyed large parts of the city in San Francisco. The high-definition Blu-rays do full justice to these two 1936 Oscar nominees.

A Tale of Two Cities was released in New York and other cities in December 1935 but held back until early in 1936 in Los Angeles so that it wouldn’t have to compete against MGM’s other high profile Dickens adaptation, David Copperfield, at the 1935 Academy Awards. George Cukor’s definitive version of David Copperfield lost anyway to another MGM epic, Frank Lloyd’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty.

Jack Conway’s film of A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth film version of Charles Dickens’ novel about the French Revolution. It wouldn’t be the last, but like so many MGM productions of classics of the era, it remains the best.

No version of A Tale of Two Cities would be worth much if it didn’t open and close with Dickens’ famous lines, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” at the start and “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done” at the end, and no version delivers them better.

Until this version, it had been a practice to use the same actor to play the protagonists Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, the look-alike husband of Lucy, the woman he loves, but Ronald Colman only wanted to play Carton and so he did, with Donald Woods stepping in to play Darnay. Elizabeth Allen plays Lucy.

The standouts in the cast, aside from Colman, are Basil Rathbone as the despicable Marquis St. Evrémonde, Blanche Yurka as the treacherous Madame De Farge, and Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross, Lucy’s faithful companion.

Audiences still get chills from the performances of Rathbone and Yurka. Rathbone never exuded more despotic evil than when after running over a peasant boy with his carriage, he lectures the crowd on keeping their children away as they may injure one of his horses. Yurka grabbed them with her sneers and snarls as she added one name after another to her list of relatives of the aristocracy who must be brought to the guillotine.

The storming of the Bastille was filmed by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who later worked together on the horror classics, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie.

The thirtieth anniversary of the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake occurred in April 1936. The release of MGM’s San Francisco two months later benefitted from the publicity surrounding that anniversary. It was a major success. Only MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld, which San Francisco lost the Best Picture Oscar to, made more money at the box-office that year.

Clark Gable, who plays a saloonkeeper, and Jeanette MacDonald, who plays the opera singer he loves, hated working with one another, but were forced to do so by MGM. Gable got even with MacDonald, who he accused of singing at him rather than to him, by eating garlic before their kissing scenes. Spencer Tracy, who had the film’s top supporting role of the waterfront priest, was recommended by MacDonald for the part that earned him the first of his nine Oscar nominations.

Tracy’s time on screen is less than 15 minutes, but he was placed in competition for Best Actor rather than Supporting Actor in the first year in which supporting performances were given Oscars because MGM was promoting him as a star. He lost to Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur but went on to win the next two Best Actor Oscars for Captains Courageous and Boys Town.

Nominated for six Oscars, San Francisco only won for Best Sound. The Special Effects Oscar was two years away. Had the award existed at the time, it would certainly have won for its earthquake sequence which still hits audiences with a jolt when it occurs.

Warner Archive has also released a Blu-ray upgrade of 1956’s Baby Doll, a film which might have died the quick death it deserved had it not been for the controversy surrounding it, which only brought more attention to it.

Elia Kazan, whose 1951 film of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Names Desire was a masterpiece, tried to repeat its success with this film based on a failed Williams play about a teenage bride (Carroll Baker) who refused to consummate her marriage to a lout (Karl Malden) before her twentieth birthday only to be seduced by his husband’s buffoonish business rival (Eli Wallach).

Not only did the Catholic Legion of Decency condemn the film, but New York’s Cardinal Spellman went on an all-media alert to condemn the film’s giant billboard in Times Square as well. That billboard featured Baker lounging in a short nightgown seductively sucking her thumb. The backlash soon put an end to the influence of the Legion of Decency. The Academy reacted by giving the film four undeserved Oscar nominations, including one for Baker, who was then also making a name for herself as Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson’s daughter in Giant.

Kino Lorber has released a Blu-ray of Jon Avnet’s 1994 film The War, his first film since 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes. This one, also set in the South, was not the success of his earlier film. Maybe it was the title, but audiences did not clamor to see Kevin Costner as a returning 1970s Vietnam War soldier whose children (Elijah Wood, Lexi Randall) get into a war of their own with the roughneck kids next door. For those that did see it, however, it was a memorable film that will hopefully reach a wider audience in this excellent upgrade for which Kino Lorber has provided two newly recorded commentaries, one by Avnet himself.

Also new from Kino Lorber is their Blu-ray of Steven Soderbergh’s 1995 film The Underneath, which had been previously available as an extra on Criterion’s Blu-ray of Soderberg’s 1993 film King of the Hill, which is now out of print.

The Underneath is a remake of Robert Siodmak’s better known 1949 film noir Criss Cross, with Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliott, and William Fichtner in the roles previously played by Burt Lancaster, Yvone De Carlo, and Dan Duryea. Gallagher and Elliott are superb in the leads, and the film features strong supporting work from Paul Dooley and Anjanette Comer and nice cameo work by Shelley Duvall and Joe Don Baker. It’s worth checking out.

This week’s U.S. Blu-ray releases include the 1951 version of Show Boat and the first Billie Holliday biographical film, 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues.

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