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

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27 Mar 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.


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.


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?"


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.


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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