THE DVD SHELF: "Raisin in the Sun," "12 Angry Men," "The Red Balloon" and John Adams

The DVD Shelf   THE DVD SHELF: "Raisin in the Sun," "12 Angry Men," "The Red Balloon" and John Adams
 
This month: the TV version of the 2004 revival of "A Raisin in the Sun" starring Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald; Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men"; the 1976 miniseries, "The Adams Chronicles" and more.
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That age-old question, the original or the remake, is brought to mind by the new DVD release of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun" [Sony]. This is the 2008 TV adaptation of the 2004 Broadway revival, which played a highly successful limited run at what was then called the Royale. A group of respected theatre names were in evidence, headed by Phylicia Rashad, umpteen-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald, and director Kenny Leon. The big deal, and the person who sold most of the tickets, was Sean Combs (formerly Puff Daddy/P. Diddy). Mr. Combs, who was not known for his acting, nevertheless turned in a creditable performance. This without obliterating the memory of Sidney Poitier, who starred in the 1959 Broadway production and whose performance remains vibrantly accessible in the 1961 film version.

The 2004 venture, which earned Tonys for Ms. Rashad and Ms. McDonald, was adapted as a television movie and telecast in February of this year. (Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who co-produced TV versions of Gypsy and Annie and the film versions of Chicago and Hairspray, were among the producers.) The stars of the revival recreated their roles with Mr. Leon making his film debut, the screenplay written by Paris Qualles (of TV's "Tuskegee Airmen" and "The Rosa Parks Story"). So what we got was the stage revival, opened up and revised for the small screen.

It is unfair and impractical to compare the 1959 production with the one in 2004; relatively few theatregoers can be said to have seen both, and those who did were about 45 years older when they saw the second (which, in itself, can make a difference). However, the 1959 production was pretty closely transferred to the screen. A different director, yes, but the seven main actors recreated their roles; the exception was the boy, who outgrew his role. The screenplay was written by Ms. Hansberry herself, which is to say that the changes were in the same voice — which makes a not inconsiderable difference between the 1961 and 2008 films.

I am not going to compare the two; people who have never seen nor read "A Raisin in the Sun" can watch this new version and understandably think, this is great and Lorraine Hansberry was brilliant. If you do sit and watch the two, that's another conversation. Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee are all at their best in a film that at the time was provocative and dangerous; a combination that is difficult to compete with. Either way, Hansberry's play was and remains a remarkable, memorable and important work of art. Special features include audio commentary by director Kenny Leon and a featurette, "Dreams Worthwhile: The Journey of A Raisin in the Sun."

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This question of comparisons can be applied just as well to 12 Angry Men [Fox]. Roundabout gave us an admirable stage version of Reginald Rose's jury-room drama during the 2004-05 season, which was strong enough to enjoy an extended run and a lengthy national tour. The original 1957 motion picture has now been re-released, and it is remains cracklingly good. (How this "collector's edition" of the 50-year-old movie differs from prior releases, I can't tell you; the bonuses this time around include "Beyond a Reasonable Doubt: Making 12 Angry Men" and an audio commentary.)

We might as well point out that it all started in 1954 on TV's "Studio One," with Robert Cummings in the pivotal role. Henry Fonda fell hard for the role, and determined to play it on the screen. When nobody would take the gamble on what was an understandably risky project, Fonda and author Rose decided to produce the thing themselves. They enlisted TV-director Sidney Lumet — who had never made a feature film, and who did not participate in the 1954 version — to make his big-screen bow. This was a major debut; Lumet did a totally remarkable, and fittingly claustrophobic, job. Altogether rivetting, dramatically stunning, and unforgettable.

The presence of Fonda was a given, naturally, and the only reason the film got made. He gives a typical Fonda performance, which is to say of the highest quality. (The only flaw in the film, perhaps, is that when Henry Fonda plays the lone juror holding out against conviction, it is a given — to anyone familiar with the work of Henry Fonda, and of course to anyone watching the film in 1957 — just who is going to be proven in the right.) Lee J. Cobb, the brilliant actor who in 1949 created the role of Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" (and who, by 1957, was blacklisted) makes a worthy foil as one of the most objectionable of the group. The same can be said for Ed Begley. But just about all of them, now famous or totally forgotten, are remarkable. Of especial interest, perhaps, is the non-assertive Jack Klugman as a young man from the slums, just two years before he stepped opposite Ethel Merman in Gypsy.

E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden and Martin Balsam are there as well; so, too, is John Fiedler, the character comedian best known as Vinnie, the thick-glassed cardplayer in Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" on stage and screen (and the voice of piglet in Disney's "Winnie the Pooh"). Just after "12 Angry Men," Fiedler gave a bruising performance as Mr. Lindner, the man from the welcoming committee in the stage and film versions of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." Which takes us full circle. Most haunting of the 12 angry men, perhaps, is Joseph Sweeney as the eldest of the jurors. The seventy-four-year-old Sweeney, a busy television actor at the time, is totally unknown to me; the record books show that he played Giles Corey, the friend of the hero who refuses to name names and goes to his death, in the original production of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible." What a performance Mr. Sweeney gives! But, all told, what a movie, this "12 Angry Men"!

I became a Francophile early on, when I saw David Merrick's brand-new Carnival at the age of eight. My sights were set on Paris several months later, when — for reasons unknown — I was taken to see a concurrent Merrick musical, Irma La Douce. ("Don't worry," as the narrator says, "quite suitable for the children.") The theatrical magic of Gower Champion was everywhere evident in Carnival. (Carrot Top and Horr'ble Henry, from the original production, are peering over my shoulder as I write this. Faded, alas; Henry's felt nose remains bright green, but his fur has turned into a pale peasoup. And Carrot Top looks — well, forty-something.) A very different sort of theatricality, with an emphasis on the inventive, was evident in every moment of Peter Brook's staging of Irma; and Onna White's choreography, too, with those dancing penguins. Irma takes place in the narrow backstreets of Pigalle, with the action centered around "the handiest hideout in Montmartre." This is the Paris which I fell in love with, some five years before I finally got there. And this is the Paris on display in Albert Lamorisse's 1956 classic, The Red Balloon [Criterion].

A 34-minute, nearly-wordless film about a boy and his balloon might not sound like something you'll want to run out and see. Trust me, "The Red Balloon" speaks for itself, with director Lamorisse eloquently conveying a world of meaning through pictures. He is greatly aided by a remarkable child actor, his six-year-old son Pascal. Mid-50s Paris is presented in gray and muted tones; Lamorisse knows how to use color, though, as per the title. (This is not Montmartre, actually, but Ménilmontant [Belleville].) The newly-restored print from the Criterion Collection, receiving its first DVD release, is almost startlingly refreshing to those of us who know the film through faded prints. No bonuses here, but "The Red Balloon" — without embellishment — is bonus enough. Lamorisse picked up the 1957 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. (This in the year of "Around the World in 80 Days," which also featured a balloon. Though not a red one). "The Red Balloon" is apparently the only short ever to win an Oscar outside of the Short Subject category; the second of only five foreign language films to win the original screenplay award; and the only dialogue-free film (other than a few incidental lines) to win since the talkies came in.

Here we are talking about the 1961 "Raisin in the Sun" and the 1957 "12 Angry Men," two remarkable films that are highly recommended. "The Red Balloon," which is just about as different as a film could be, fits right in with the two of them. One-of-a-kind, all right, and a treasure.

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John Adams — that obnoxious and disliked patriot from Massachusetts — is back in the public eye, thanks to the seven-part, nine-hour HBO miniseries "John Adams" (derived from David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001 biography). Acorn Media has understandably seized the moment to release the award-winning, thirteen-part, 13-hour 1976 PBS miniseries, The Adams Chronicles.

And an overflowing entertainment it is. George Grizzard plays the central role of John Adams; William Daniels, who gave an unforgettable performance as Mr. Adams in Broadway's 1776, takes the role of his son, John Quincy Adams, the sixth president. Prominent stage actors are very much in evidence, including Nancy Marchand, Pamela Payton-Wright, Leora Dana, Paul Hecht, Tom Aldredge, Alan Hewitt, Robert Symonds, Reid Shelton, George Hearn, Patricia Elliott, John Houseman, and even John Tillinger as George III. Fred Coe — of The Miracle Worker and Two for the Seesaw — directed and produced four episodes, and the unfathomably complicated job of costume design was undertaken by Broadway's own Alvin Colt, who died on May 4 at the age of 92. (Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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