The DVD Report #277

There have been two big DVD stories this year. One is the proliferation of made-to-order DVD releases of long out-of-print titles, many of them having never been released on any home video format before. Fox has recently jumped on the bandwagon that already includes Universal, which owns the pre-1949 Paramount library; Columbia; and MGM/UA, the latter two now being released through the wildly successful Warner Archive, distributor of the extensive Warner library including RKO and old MGM films. Just this week it was announced that the Warner Archive would soon do the same for Paramount titles which leaves the future of Olive Films releases, their current distributor, in doubt.

The other big story has been Universal’s 100th anniversary restoration of 100 of their most celebrated titles, many of which are being released on Blu-ray for the first time. The most anticipated Blu-ray releases have been E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial out this week; Alfred Hitchcock: The Masterpiece Collection, postponed from September to the end of October; and the just released Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection.

Universal has really done itself proud with the latter which celebrates the eight classic horror films that were the hallmark of the studio from 1931-1954.

Founded in 1915 by Carl Laemmle, Sr., Universal had toyed with the idea of making Dracula from its inception, but it wasn’t until Laemmle turned the studio’s reigns over to his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr. in the late 1920s that the idea actually took hold.

Originally planned as an elaborate film based on Bram Stoker’s exhaustive novel, the stock market crash in November, 1929 lowered Junior’s hope of mounting such a large scale production and he settled instead on making a film version of the hit Broadway play that had established Bela Lugosi as a star. Ironically Lugosi was not Junior’s first choice, Lon Chaney, Sr. was but Chaney died before the film could be made.

At the dawn of sound, dubbing had not yet become a fully acceptable means of showing Hollywood films in foreign countries so films with broad popular appeal were often filmed simultaneously in other languages. One such case was Dracula, which was also filmed as Drácula using the same sets and same dialogue, albeit in Spanish, as the English version. The Spanish speaking actors set out to make a “better” version of the film than their English speaking actors, and by most accounts, they did.

Of all the horror classics in Universal’s library, Dracula has suffered the most from decaying film stock and a soundtrack full of hisses. Universal’s restoration on these two films is truly miraculous.

There are two problems with the English version of Dracula. The first is Tod Browning’s mostly static camera; the other is Lugosi’s mannered, very stagey performance. Carlos Villarías in the Spanish version is much livelier and the direction of George Melford is much more fluid. Another asset is the performance of Lupita Tovar as the leading lady, a much more animated and sexy performance than that of Helen Chandler’s buttoned up work in the English version. Laemmle’s assistant, Paul Kohner, who produced the Spanish version, was so taken with Tovar that he married her two years later. Their daughter, actress Susan Kohner (Imitation of Life and their producer-writer-director grandsons, Paul and Chris Weitz (About a Boy would all become Oscar nominees in the years since. Tovar, who is still very much alive at 102 is seen in an introduction to the Spanish version from an earlier DVD release.

The other film have all been restored as well, though none of them needed nearly much work as Dracula.

The three films directed by James Whale, the original 1931’s Frankenstein; 1933’s The Invisible Man and 1935’s The Bride of Frankenstein are not only great horror films, they are great films, period. The Bride of Frankenstein is that rare sequel that is even better than its celebrated original. If you’ve seen them, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you need to.

1932’s The Mummy was directed by Karl Freund, the famed cinematographer Metropolis and sometimes director Mad Love whose stylish direction is one of the film’s two great assets. The other is Boris Karloff, Frankenstein’s monster in a chilling performance that displays none of the humanity of his celebrated Frankenstein’s monster.

Curt Siodmak’s original screenplay for 1941’s The Wolf Man is one of that film’s greatest assets. The other is the performance of eighth billed Lon Chaney (Jr.) in the title role. Born Creighton Chaney in 1915, he made his film debut in one of his father’s films in 1922 and acted in both bit parts in major films and major parts in minor films through 1935, after which he reluctantly followed everyone’s advice and changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr. His portrayal of Lennie in 1939’s Of Mice and Menmade him a star. Dropping the Jr. for The Wolf Man, he never used it again, nor did he need to. He was finally a name player in his own right.

Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi and Maria Ouspenskaya also turn in memorable performances with Ralph Bellamy,Warren William, Patric Knowles and Evelyn Ankers also quite good in less demanding roles.

Universal’s restoration on this gem makes it look as though it were filmed yesterday.

The definitive version of The Phantom of the Opera is said to be Tod Browning’s 1925 version starring the senior Chaney, but my favorite is the 1962 version with the recently deceased Herbert Lom at his menacing best. In-between we had Universal’s first color version in 1943, which was also the first musical version of the classic. Claude Rains is effective in the title role, but there is too much emphasis on the characters played by Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy, whose singing tends to distract from the narrative rather than adding to it. Nevertheless Universal’s restoration is once again brilliant.

1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, originally released in 3-D, is presented in both 3-D and 2-D on the Blu-ray, although the standard DVD release features just the 2-D version of this minor classic.

Another major Blu-ray upgrade is that accorded Disney’s Cinderella, the 1950 film that brought life back to Disney’s animation program. To me, though, it’s always rather lifeless in comparison to the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of the classic fairy tale. The music is nowhere near as good, the production values are on the dull side and the story spends at least as much time on the mice as it does on Cinderella and the Prince. Fortunately we have the DVD versions of all three TV versions of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical and a forthcoming Broadway version starring Laura Osnes in the role made famous by Julie Andrews.

For something new there’s Alex Kurtzman’s People Like Us, an unusual family drama about the aftermath of a funeral in which an “only” son discovers he has a half-sister. Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks are quite good in the leads and they receive excellent support from Olivia Wilde as Pine’s fiancé and Michelle Pfeiffer as his mother.

This week’s new DVD releases include Universal’s highly anticipated 30th anniversary Blu-ray upgrade of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Warner Bros. 50th Anniversary Blu-ray upgrade of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

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