THE DVD SHELF: Cary Grant, Paramount Comedy and "Lady and the Tramp"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Cary Grant, Paramount Comedy and "Lady and the Tramp" This month’s column discusses a new five-DVD Cary Grant collection, two DVDs of old movie shorts (including appearances by the likes of Eddie Cantor, Robert Benchley and Alec Woollcott) and the animated "Lady and the Tramp."
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The Cary Grant Box Set [Sony] contains five comedies that you can more or less consider to be mini-classics, and which are quite impressive any way you look at them. Those who are familiar with and generally appreciative of Grant might be surprised by the set; these movies are not merely charming but, for the most part, very good and very funny.

Grant was another one of those struggling musical comedy performers who went west and found success. Way west, actually. He came to town from England in 1920 as Archie Leach, a 16-year-old member of the Bob Pender Troupe of comedians. The act was featured in Charles Dillingham’s Hippodrome extravaganza, Good Times, which ran 456 performances. His other Broadway experiences were not nearly so successful; he was one of those down-on-his-luck fellows hanging around with the similarly unsuccessful Moss Hart, as discussed in the latter’s memoir "Act One."

Archie Leach made his final Broadway appearance in Nikki, which lasted a month in the fall of 1931. He went off to Paramount in 1932 for the first of 70-odd films over 44 years. (Where the name Grant came from I know not, but his character in Nikki was named Cary.) Within a year he was a sought-after player, and by 1937 he was a full-fledged star.

The handsome five-DVD set is not as feature-crammed as some others that have come along, true; but do you want features or movies? Here we have "Only Angels Have Wings" with Jean Arthur; "The Talk of the Town" with Arthur (and Ronald Colman); "The Awful Truth" with Irene Dunne; and "His Gal Friday", the crafty Front Page remake with Grant battling Rosalind Russell. The highlight of the set is the long-awaited DVD debut of the 1938 Grant-Hepburn starrer, "Holiday." All five are worth your while, providing that you like nifty Hollywood comedies.

Viewers interested in pre-1930 comedy will be pleased with two compilations of shorts from the early days of talkies. These were mostly stage acts, with their origins rather obviously apparent. When talking pictures came in, the movies needed people who already knew how to talk. Comedy was king in Hollywood, but it was necessarily wordless. Vaudeville comedians knew how to get laughs with words, and that’s what Hollywood needed.

Cavalcade of Comedy compiles 16 Paramount shorts. The earliest, from 1929, features Broadway’s own Eddie Cantor. “Getting a Ticket” it’s called, showing Eddie driving a car, getting a ticket and demonstrating a song in his typical Broadway style, with hands-a-clappin’ and eyes-a-rollin’. Smith and Dale, the legendary comedy act that many years later inspired Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys, reprise their famous “What Price Pants?” George Burns and Gracie Allen are represented, as is an uncharacteristically madcap Bing Crosby and his polar opposite, Milton Berle. "Cavalcade of Comedy" also gives us the chance to see Lulu McConnell, featured comedienne in two of the first four Rodgers & Hart musicals, Poor Little Ritz Girl (1920) and Peggy-Ann (1926). She stars in a rather primitive 1930 effort entitled “The Introduction of Mrs. Gibbs.”

Of more immediate interest is Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin: The Paramount Comedy Shorts. Benchley was a familiar Broadway type; besides being an occasional actor, he was perhaps America’s drollest drama critic ever. (Fans of criticism will be glad to learn that all of Benchley’s reviews are now available at the touch of your mouse, on the endlessly fascinating eight-DVD set "The Complete New Yorker.")

Benchley made an enormous splash on Broadway with his “Treasurer’s Report,” a ten-minute sketch in Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue of 1923. This was duly filmed in 1928 – one of the very earliest all-sound pictures. Creakily old, but still pretty funny. A companion 1928 piece is included, “The Sex Life of the Polyp.” The other nine Benchley shorts are much more polished – coming from 1941-1942 – but slightly more formulaic.

The Benchley DVD includes two not-dissimilar pieces featuring humorist Donald Ogden Stewart. Stewart made his name as a Broadway comedy writer; he also, coincidentally enough, created the role of Nick Potter in the Broadway version of Holiday and – ten years later — was co-author of the screenplay for the Grant-Hepburn version. Stewart later won a screenwriting Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story." In 1950 he was blacklisted and stripped of citizenship, living out his days in England. While there, he served as ghostwriter for such films as Hepburn’s "Summertime" and Grant’s "An Affair to Remember."

Robert Benchley and the Knights of the Algonquin also includes the king of the Algonquin himself, Alexander Woollcott. Here he is, in a 1934 short entitled “Mr. W’s Little Game.” It is a rather pathetic attempt at humor – Alec sits at a table in a restaurant, playing a word game with a not-so-bright blonde and a helpful waiter (played by Leo G. Carroll). But here is your chance to see the pasty Alec himself, in the flesh as it were. * * * *

Somehow or other I’ve managed to go through my years without ever seeing Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp. Having just been reissued by Buena Vista in a typically-handsome two-DVD set, I thought I might as well take a look. It turns out to be a charming and funny tale, with some wry storytelling along the way. Yes, it’s a kid’s movie; but the comedy is knowing, the various dogs are amusingly cast, and there is plenty of humor seemingly aimed at the adults. Like Disney’s wolfhound, who keeps complaining about the Cossacks.

Unlike so many of the animated films of this type, "Lady and the Tramp" is not overrun with pleasant-but-extraneous songs. There are only a handful, written by Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee. They are generally fun, with one – “Bella Notte” – quite lovely all around. (This is accompanied by the title characters slurping spaghetti, by the way.) Ms. Lee also voices several of the characters; not the heroine, Lady, but including a street dog who seems to have seen at least one Mae West movie too many.

—Steven Suskin, author of the recently released “Second Act Trouble” [Applause Books], “A Must See! Brilliant Broadway Artwork,” “Show Tunes,” and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He can be reached by e-mail at Ssuskin@aol.com.