THE DVD SHELF: Burton & Taylor, Bogey, and "Forbidden Hollywood"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Burton & Taylor, Bogey, and "Forbidden Hollywood"
 
Warner Home Entertainment seems to be turning out interesting box set after box set. This week's column examines three of them, presenting 12 films (plus three alternate versions) on 14 DVDs.
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Broadway's own Richard Burton, star of Camelot and a fabled "Hamlet," married Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher in 1964 and almost permanently decamped to the movies. The pair, who had first tangled in 1963 in the ill-fated "Cleopatra," went on to team for a series of major films into the early '70s (by which point the partnership, and the marriage, headed on the rocks). Four of the films have now been packaged into the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton: The Film Collection [Warner Home].

Only one of the films is especially good, but it is exceptionally good. The highlight is the "40th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition" of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." While the play was necessarily adapted for the screen (by Ernest Lehman) and thus is not quite the same as what you get on the stage, Taylor and Burton pack quite a punch. Eschewing the glamour of their public personae, "The 60's Most Famous On- and Off-Screen Couple" give true acting performances — arguably their finest (both individually and as a pair). Stand-up comic-turned-Broadway director Mike Nichols, in his first film, quickly demonstrated that he was a movie director all right. The play's cast is completed by Sandy Dennis (who, like Taylor, took an Oscar) and George Segal (who, like Burton, lost). Even now, 40 years and numerous revivals later, this "Virginia Woolf" is quite an adventure.

The other titles in the set are "The V.I.P.s" (1963), a Terrence Rattigan melodrama with Margaret Rutherford, Maggie Smith and Orson Welles in support; "The Sandpiper" (1965), a bit of a mess from Minnelli (Vincente) co-starring Eva Marie Saint; and "The Comedians" (1967), a Graham Greene thriller set against rebellion in Haiti, co-starring Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov.

Warner, which seems to be turning out box set after box set, follows the "Humphrey Bogart: Signature Collection" with Humphrey Bogart: The Signature Collection, Volume II. The headliner here is "The Maltese Falcon," presented on not one nor two but three discs. Diehard fans can watch not one but two earlier adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett story, a 1931 version starring Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade, and the 1936 "Satan Was a Lady," starring Bette Davis (with Warren William as detective Ted Shane).

These are joined by four wartime thrillers: "Across the Pacific" (1942), a spy-thriller featuring the "Falcon's" Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and director John Huston; "Action in the North Atlantic" (1943), with Raymond Massey, about — well, action in the North Atlantic; "Passage to Marseille" (1944), a Devil's Island drama filled with refugees from Casablanca (the movie, that is); and "All Through the Night" (1942), a surprisingly fun spy comedy with Bogey supported not only by Peter Lorre and Judith Anderson but — in smaller roles — Phil Silvers, Bill Demarest and Jackie Gleason.

Yes, "The Maltese Falcon" is the classic of the bunch. The others are admittedly of their period, but all of them are retain at least some excitement. More importantly, Bogart — along with his many and diverse supporting players — makes the films fun to watch.

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The five-DVD Taylor/Burton and the seven-DVD Bogart are joined by a relatively anonymous-yet-fascinating two-DVD set, Forbidden Hollywood Collection Volume One. TCM has dug through the archives and unearthed three never-on-DVD films from the long-ago days prior to the imposition of the moralistic Production Code in 1934. "Waterloo Bridge" (1931) is an early version of the more familiar 1940 film (which starred a memorable Vivien Leigh). Mae Marsh — the girl Cagney squished with a grapefruit in "Public Enemy" — plays a chorine forced into prostitution after the loss of her soldier-husband. Jean Harlow snags her married boss in "Red-Headed Woman" (1932), to a screenplay by Anita Loos. Most remarkable, perhaps, is the Barbara Stanwyck-starrer "Baby Face" (1933). Stanwyck sleeps her way through several men, discarding them like tarnished stepping-stones. Warner gives us both the censorable theatrical version and a restoration of the even more prurient original version. No, none of these Forbidden Hollywood films approach classic status. But fascinating, I suppose, is the operative word.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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