THE DVD SHELF: From Kurosawa to Capra, Schlesinger to Pasolini, an End of the Year Grab Bag

By Steven Suskin
23 Dec 2012

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Criterion has a sister label named Eclipse, which brings us low-priced DVDs of overlooked films without extensive special features and booklets. The newest in the series is Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures. Wicked melodramas they are, of a low but delectable fashion. The prize of the set is wicked, indeed: "The Wicked Lady." Margaret Lockwood — best remembered as the young heroine of Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes" — is the lady in question. Her girlfriend need only remark that it is too bad there aren't any dashing millionaires in the neighborhood other than her fiance; Lockwood's eyebrow raises, the closeup shows an icy hardening of her gaze, and within moments she steals the fellow. The same sort of sequence leads her to claim an abandoned wing of the manor — with a secret staircase to the garden — for her own; to take up the cloak of a highwayman, robbing coaches along the London road; and to start murdering people left and right.

Much of the fun comes with the entrance of an authentic masked highwayman, in the person of James Mason. The two of them act up a storm, until Lockwood sends Mason to the gallows. Seeing as how this is a wicked melodrama, he is duly hung from the gallows but survives, so Lockwood can shoot him in cold blood. This 1945 film from Leslie Arliss ain't art, but it was a major box office success and it's quite enjoyable. The set also includes "The Man in Grey," the 1943 hit — also with Lockwood and Mason — which started Gainsborough's run of melodramas; and the 1945 "Madonna of the Seven Moons," starring Phyllis Calvert and Stewart Granger.

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Finally, we have an interesting set of early films from TCM's "Collector's Choice Vault Collection," Frank Capra: The Early Collection [Sony]. Capra began his career in the mid-'20s writing silent comedies for Mack Sennett and directing comedian Harry Langdon to stardom. He joined Columbia Pictures in 1928, eventually helping move the studio from "poverty row" to first class rank with the 1934 Oscar-winning smash, "It Happened One Night." But that was already Capra's 19th film at Columbia.



The five-DVD box set in question includes four of the films he made with Barbara Stanwyck, developing her into a star. These include "Lady of Leisure" (1930, adapted from a David Belasco drama); "The Miracle Woman" (1931); "Forbidden" (1932); and the most interesting of the lot, "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933). This last was a melodrama about an interracial romance between a white woman and a Chinese warlord, which proved a difficult subject for the time. The first film to play Radio City Music Hall, it was unceremoniously yanked midway through its scheduled two-week engagement.

The Capra set is short on bonus features — the point, here, it to rescue these films from oblivion — but there are introductions from Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Michel Gondry.

The other title in the set is a Broadway-related novelty. Joe Cook was one of those stage comedians of the '20s who had musical comedies written around him. (Others in this category included W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and Bert Lahr.) One of Cook's musicals was the 1928 hit Rain or Shine, which ran 11 months. The movie rights were duly purchased, but by the time filming began movie musicals were in a slump. Thus, Joe Cook recreates his role in Frank Capra's "Rain or Shine" (1930), but the score — by Milton Ager, Owen Murphy and Jack Yellen — is cut altogether. The story is apparently changed as well; the plot is still built around a traveling circus, but the whole thing ends up in flames. Which would not have worked so well on stage.

Cook, though, is interesting to watch; a likable fast-talking hero whose straight-faced but overlong explanations turn to gibberish. His acrobatic background is in evidence; he does a nifty act with Indian clubs plus a pretty good — and funny — tight-rope walking stunt. He brought along his two stooges from the Broadway production. Tom Howard is a crusty old-timer, playing a country businessman who can't keep up with Cook's scams. The other fellow — playing a slow-witted rustic whose trademark is a slow wave of the hand — is a fellow named Dave Chasen. He stayed in Hollywood, and — at the urging of Capra and with financial backing from New Yorker editor Harold Ross — opened a chili joint in Beverly Hills. Chasen's went on to expand itself into an internationally renowned landmark, outliving its owner (who died in 1973) and closing in 1995.

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(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)