THE DVD SHELF: "Upstairs, Downstairs," "Sweet Smell of Success," "Tangled," "Topsy-Turvy," "Dennis the Menace"

By Steven Suskin
March 27, 2011

We screen the iconic television series "Upstairs, Downstairs"; the legendary film "Sweet Smell of Success"; Disney's new musical "Tangled," plus an enhanced release of "Bambi"; Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy" and much more.



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The time is ripe to plan a trip to 165 Eaton Place. You will need sufficient time to make the complete journey — 57 hours or so, in fact — so you might want to arrange your viewing schedule carefully. But Acorn Media has brought us the ground-breaking Upstairs, Downstairs, complete, in a 40th Anniversary box set. Five seasons, 68 episodes, with enough backstairs drama to keep us occupied for — well, 57 hours. On 21 discs. With no less than 25 hours of new bonus material.

I must admit that I am a newcomer to the Bellamy household, having been in a non-television mode when the series first started airing in 1971, winning numerous BAFTA and Emmy Awards. Watching it now, I was instantly wrapped up in this world devised two fine actresses, Jean Marsh (who played Rose) and the great Eileen Atkins. The latter did not appear in the series; by the time it got underway, she was starring in Robert Bolt's Vivat Vivat Regina in London and New York. (Parenthetically, I was fortunate enough to work as a teenaged production assistant on the Broadway Vivat, and yes — Eileen was superb as Elizabeth.) The involvement of March and Atkins, I suppose, is responsible for the literately theatrical quality of the "Upstairs" setup — and the initial decision to accentuate the below stairs characters.


 Ms. Marsh is joined by Gordon Jackson, Pauline Collins, David Langton, Rachel Gurney, Angela Baddeley, Simon Williams, and more. It will take a while to get through the five seasons of "Upstairs, Downstairs," but this Eaton Place manse is an especially rich address.

A "new" season of "Upstairs, Downstairs" — three one-hour episodes set in 1936, with Ms. Marsh and (now) Dame Eileen in the cast — was made by the BBC in 2010. This is not included in the box set, but will be telecast in the United States beginning in April.
 

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Viewers have an immense treat in store with The Sweet Smell of Success [Criterion], now on Blu-ray. This is a bracingly good film from 1957, directed by Alexander MacKendrick and written by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman (based on Lehman's story). Add to this the photography by James Wong Howe and the music by Elmer Bernstein, which help draw a picture of the seamy side of Times Square circa 1957 that has seldom been equaled. There is plenty of Times Square location filming, with the Brill Building, at 1619 Broadway, prominent. There is also the use of a theatre — backstage, interior and exterior — that I can't identify. (There is a projection booth, but it seems to be a converted legit house.)

Burt Lancaster, who coproduced, plays gossip columnist J. J. Hunsecker (patterned on Winchell); Tony Curtis is hungry press agent Sidney Falco, selling out for a scoop. Both are good, with Curtis giving what might be his best performance. There are several memorable supporting performances, by Marty Milner as the musician Steve Dallas; Barbara Nichols as Rita, the cigarette girl; Jeff Donnell as Sally, Falco's secretary; Joe Frisco as vaudeville headliner Herbie Temple; and Lurene Tuttle, in the tiny role of the wife of a slimy columnist.

Theatregoers might well be familiar with the Marvin Hamlisch/Craig Carnelia/Nicholas Hytner musicalization, an interesting but flawed 2002 attempt with John Lithgow and Brian D'Arcy James in the leads. Watch the film and you'll see a textbook case of "if you can't do it better, why do it?"

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Disney released their 50th animated feature over the Thanksgiving holiday, a retelling of the Rapunzel story called Tangled. This turns out to be one of the mouse's happiest outings in years; humor, imagination, and a songs from Alan Menken (of "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" et al). And Donna Murphy singing away as the evil mother/witch, too! In this telling, Rapunzel flees the castle — gold tresses trailing far behind her — with a bandit named Flynn (as in Errol, no doubt). Suitable for children but plenty suitable for adults; enjoyable for all. "Tangled" doesn't reach the heights of "Snow White" or "Pinocchio"; but is it fair to measure a modern-day entertainment against Walt's own personally-supervised classics? The new film is very nice, though. Mandy Moore and Zachary Levi voice the leads, with Ms. Murphy stirring up trouble and plenty of laughs.

(People will inevitably think of "Tangled" as potential Broadway fare, and that's fair enough. Menken is in a good musical mood, and Glenn Slater's lyrics are happily somewhat stronger than in Love Never Dies and the stage version of The Little Mermaid.)

"Tangled" has been released in a 2-Disc Blu-ray/DVD set that is chockful of extras, in typical Disney fashion; these include the inevitable "Untangled: The Making of a Fairy Tale" and several deleted scenes. These include an early try at the robber's tavern scene — "The Jaunty Moose," they call it — that though unfinished is quite a lot of fun. Film is also available on a single DVD, and in an "Ultimate 4-Disc Disney Blu-ray Combo Pack" which I did not review but adds a 3D Blu-ray and a digital copy. In any dimension, "Tangled" is pretty good.

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Speaking of Disney classics, Bambi now joins its cousins with an enhanced, high-definition "Diamond Edition" on Blu-ray. "Bambi," from 1942, was the fifth full-length animated feature in Disney's string (following "Snow White," "Pinocchio," "Fantasia" and "Dumbo"). And the end of that era, methinks; the next big releases — "Alice in Wonderland," "Peter Pan," and "Cinderella" — are more polished and less magical. In my opinion, anyway. "Bambi" remains a lovable classic, with fine performances from Thumper the Rabbit and Flower the Skunk.

Blu-ray bonuses include the documentary "Inside Walt's Story Meetings — Enhanced Edition"; a rather interesting piece on the multi-panel camera Disney's technicians devised to conquer perspective (and other) problems, with Walt himself demonstrating how it works; four deleted scenes, pencil-drawn but with fully recorded dialogue and music; and a deleted song. "Twitterpated" it's called, apparently by Helen Bliss, Robert Sour and Henry Manners. Sung here with a piano accompaniment in what is clearly not a 1942 recording, it's catchy.

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The 1986 coming of age tale Stand by Me [Columbia/Sony] turned Rob Reiner from an iconic sitcom-actor-who-directs into a top-notch director who used to be an actor. This film about friendship and growing up was derived from the Stephen King novella "The Body." Taking place in small-town Oregon over Labor Day weekend, 1959, Reiner and his associates impressively evoke the time, the place, and the feeling of Eisenhower-era adolescence. Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman and Jerry O'Connell play the boys, and memorably so; Kiefer Sutherland is there too, as a threatening bully. The 25th anniversary Hi-Def Blu-ray includes Rob Reiner's audio commentary (as on the prior DVD release), plus a new picture-in-picture video commentary with Reiner, Wil Wheaton and Corey Feldman.

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An even more stunning coming of age story, in French, is Louis Malle's 1987 Au Revoir Les Enfants [Criterion]. This beautiful and wrenching film remains as striking as ever; the newly restored digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Renato Berta, only adds to the film's allure. Malle told a tale of his 11th year, in a Catholic boarding school in occupied France (circa 1943). Not the sort of Catholic boarding school we hear about all too often these days, but a school led by a heroic priest with morals and principles. What an exquisite — and provocative — film this is. Bonuses include video interviews with Candace Bergen, Malle's widow, and his biographer Pierre Billard; audio excerpts from a 1988 AFI interview with Malle; "Joseph: A Character Study"; and the 1917 Charlie Chaplin short "The Immigrant," which Malle features in the "movie night" section of his film.

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The Criterion Collection also brings us a Blu-ray fest for Savoyards, giving us two views of The Mikado. Mike Leigh's 1999 film Topsy-Turvy is a fine slice-of-strife view of the partnership of Gilbert & Sullivan, centering on the production of their 1885 super-smash about those gentlemen of Japan, a wand'ring minstrel, and the Lord High Executioner. "Topsy-Turvy" is well told and acted, and vastly enjoyable — even to folks with little interest in Gilbert, Sullivan, D'Oyly Carte and the others. By placing "The Mikado" as the show-within-the-show, Leigh benefits not only from the association with a still-familiar classic but from that operetta's colorful trappings (which earned two Oscars, for costume design and makeup).

Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner play G. & S., respectively, and Timothy Spall and Lesley Manville lead the rest of the troupe. The director-approved Blu-ray special edition inclues a new digital transfer; audio commentary from Leigh; a new video conversation with Leigh and his musical director; and Leigh's 1992 short film "A Sense of History," written by and starring Broadbent.

Speaking of The Mikado, Criterion gives us that as well. This is the fascinating if problematic 1939 version, produced with the participation — and incorporating elements — of the D'Oyly Carte Company. Victor Schertzinger directs; while he was an all-round hand in Hollywood, he is best remembered as composer of two very good songs, "I Remember You" and "Tangerine" (both with lyrics by Johnny Mercer).

Prime among the assets of this Mikado are the D'Oyly Carte trappings (filmed in vibrant, early Technicolor) and members of the troupe. Martyn Green, who entered the lists in 1922, had now graduated to the principal comedian roles. Here he is, as Ko-Ko, preserving the authentic G&S tradition. Also on hand is veteran Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah. Conversely, American radio singer Kenny Baker is shoehorned in as Nanki-Poo, presumably to help draw in U.S. audiences. He's not bad, exactly, but he certainly does stand out among the others.

Yes, it is great to have Green in his prime; but what kind of Mikado is it in which they cut Ko-Ko's "I've Got a Little List"? Yes, that's right; the song is gone, along with other important sections. This manages to cut the film down to a brisk 91 minutes, but at what cost? Geoffrey O'Brien's incisive essay in the liner notes suggests that the song was cut not due to length but because of satiric jabs within the filmed number referring to Hitler and Neville Chamberlain, which by the time of the release was no laughing matter.

So what we get in this especially colorful Blu-ray release is a Mikado that is at one and the same time historically authentic and damagingly incomplete. It does, though, give us something of an idea of the traditional D'Oyly Carte production of The Mikado — and the estimable Martyn Green, too.

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Some folks had "Leave It to Beaver" or "Make Room for Daddy," others had "The Brady Bunch" or "Happy Days." That is to say, the sitcom featuring child actors that came on when you turned six or seven, and thus could be considered your TV show. Mine I had all but forgotten, but here it is on DVD: Dennis the Menace: Season One [Shout Factory]. Jay North starred as that bundle of trouble, back in the days when a troublesome youth wasn't the same as a troubled youth; and back when a season, in sitcom parlance, meant 32 episodes. This was 1959-1960; the show continued through 1963. North is supported by Herbert Anderson and Gloria Henry, as his long-suffering parents; Joseph Kearns, as good ole Mr. Wilson; and Billy Booth and Jeannie Russell as the supporting kids. Watching the second episode, though, I picked out an astoundingly cute five-year-old — uncredited, but quite obviously Ron Howard. He appeared in several early episodes before he finally met Andy Griffith, and went on to stardom.

How is "Dennis the Menace," after all these years? Funny. The comedy is manufactured, needless to say; but the kid is charming, and it is all very good-natured. My 11-year-old, after the first disc, said "this is funnier than 'Tom and Jerry.'" So there.

North, with his startling blond cowlick, started the series when he was eight and is now reportedly a 59-year-old corrections officer in Florida. I hadn't thought of him in years and years — I mean, why would I? — but he surfaced in Michael Gregg Michaud's biography of Sal Mineo (which I recently reviewed for Playbill's "Book Shelf" columnhttp://www.playbill.com/features/article/146011-TEH-BOOK-SHELF-Holiday-Roundup-of-Theatre-Books-Fit-for-Gift-Giving). Which sure is an uncomfortable place to encounter Dennis the Menace.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released Updated and Expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" 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.)

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