Joan Crawford dramas, Ernst Lubitsch musicals mark new boxed sets
A legendary Hollywood star -- and far better actress than generally acknowledged -- and a giant among early film directors are given well-deserved tributes in two worthy DVD boxed sets.
In "Joan Crawford Collection Volume 2" (1934-1953), the star whose career spanned many decades is given a deluxe follow-up to her 2005 collection: five remastered titles encompassing her many years at MGM, her canny switch to Warner Bros. and then her brief return to MGM in the early 1950s.
Of greatest interest to Catholic viewers may be the 1940 "Strange Cargo," a fascinating tale of Devil's Island outcasts escaping to the mainland, through jungle and over sea, Clark Gable and Crawford among them. The hard-bitten crew includes such good character actors as Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker and Eduardo Ciannelli. Peter Lorre is on hand as a real baddie. But it's the mysterious God-like stranger in their midst, played by Ian Hunter, that makes director Frank Borzage's film so unique.
Interestingly, the film was originally given a "condemned" classification in 1940 for its "naturalistic concept of religion," along with other elements, but MGM quickly came up with a revised version and the Legion of Decency reclassified it as acceptable for adults (A-III).
Besides the usual cartoons and short subjects (including an interesting one about Nostradamus) that Warner adds to these vintage releases, there are three new Crawford biographies, all very well done: one on Crawford and her frequent co-star Gable, another on her career at Warner Bros., and one on the so-bad-it's-good musical drama "Torch Song" that marked her return to MGM.
There's scholarly commentary from film historians Jeanine Basinger and Richard Barrios, but the inclusion of Christina Crawford, who dishonored her mother in the trashy "Mommie Dearest" biography, is questionable -- though the idealized image of the star in a contemporaneous short, "At Home With Joan Crawford," included with "Torch Song," is nonetheless wryly amusing.
The set also includes Crawford's remake of an Ingrid Bergman Swedish film, "A Woman's Face," classified A-III -- adults. The disc is supplemented by two radio versions, one with Crawford rival Bette Davis, the other with Ida Lupino. None of these films were rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. (Warner Home Video)
Flamingo Road (1949)
Gritty romantic melodrama in which a stranded carnival dancer (Crawford) gets romantically involved with a man (Zachary Scott) being groomed for political office by the local sheriff (Sidney Greenstreet) who keeps trying to run her out of town. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the story's sudsy romance is fairly tepid but the escalating battle between former dancer and corrupt sheriff is what still holds interest. Stylized violence and sexual situations. Also contains a radio adaptation with the film's stars. A-III -- adults.
Sadie McKee (1934)
Sudsy melodrama in which a cook's daughter (Crawford) is left stranded in New York City by an unreliable beau (Gene Raymond), then marries an alcoholic millionaire (Edward Arnold) whom she reforms while a rich childhood friend (Franchot Tone) waits in the wings. Directed by Clarence Brown, the hokey plot is of less interest than a good cast playing flawed characters in a Depression-era setting. Sexual innuendo, divorce as part of the plot resolution and alcohol abuse. A-III -- adults.
Torch Song (1953)
Slick romantic melodrama in which a tough-as-nails musical star (Crawford) comes to realize that she's only human when she falls for a blind pianist (Michael Wilding) who is unintimidated by her tantrums. Directed by Charles Walters, the vehicle provides a chance for Crawford to strut in the musical routines (including a blackface number) while showing off her emotional range in the character's change of heart. Besides a making-of featurette, the anamorphic DVD includes Crawford's recording sessions for the film's songs. A-II -- adults and adolescents.
The "Lubitsch Musicals" (1929-1932) collection features four early musical classics, directed by the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch, in their DVD debut at last. After the stilted musicals of the early sound-era, these productions -- with their stylish technique and witty songs -- were recognized even then as unique, and time has scarcely dimmed their luster.
The box features two of the four films of Jeanette MacDonald, better remembered for her long operetta partnership with blond baritone Nelson Eddy, with her then-partner, French star Maurice Chevalier. Another pairs her with London's noted musical stage star, Jack Buchanan, while the fourth -- once considered lost -- pairs Chevalier with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins.
Some of the material is mildly saucy, but compared to the vulgarity of today's romantic comedies, the delicacy and sophistication with which this material is handled is refreshing indeed.
The print quality on these black-and-white gems is excellent -- despite some inevitable age-related imperfections -- and it's marvelous to have these classics available again, even without extra features. (Criterion Collection's new Eclipse line is said to offer "lost, forgotten or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions," which presumably means no frills.)
But the films themselves are quite enough to merit must-have status among film and musical buffs.
The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-III -- adults -- for each of the four films. None have been rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. (Eclipse)
The Love Parade (1929)
Delightful early sound operetta -- Lubitsch's first "talkie" -- marked the first pairing of MacDonald and Chevalier as a "Sylvanian" princess and military man, respectively, and holds up well despite sound being in its infancy. Songs were by Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey. Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth have key supporting roles.
Monte Carlo (1930)
Witty story of a countess (MacDonald) who flees before her wedding to an older man she doesn't love, and with her lady in waiting (Zasu Pitts) heads for Monte Carlo where she meets a count (Buchanan), in disguise as a hairdresser to woo her. MacDonald's rendition of "Beyond the Blue Horizon," sung on a speeding train, is considered one of the supreme moments of the early sound-era.
One Hour With You (1932)
Chevalier stars as a Parisian doctor tempted to stray from his loving wife (MacDonald) with her oldest friend (Genevieve Tobin). Songs by Oscar Straus and Leo Robin. George Cukor co-directed this one, while Roland Young and Charles Ruggles provide accomplished support.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
Adaptation of Oscar Straus' bittersweet operetta, "A Waltz Dream," has Chevalier as a Viennese guardsman torn between a dowdy princess (Hopkins) and his simple girlfriend (Colbert), the conductor of an all-girl orchestra.
These movies have been evaluated for artistic merit and moral suitability by the media reviewing division of Catholic News Service. The reviews include the CNS rating, the Motion Picture Association of America rating, and a brief synopsis of the movie.
The classifications are as follows:
A-I -- general patronage;
A-II -- adults and adolescents;
A-III -- adults;
L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
O -- morally offensive.
Note: Some movies previously were designated A-IV. Older films with this classification should be regarded as classified L.