The holidays are here once more, resulting in a cascade of interesting and intriguing titles. So much so that the discussions are necessarily briefer than usual.
Leading the pack are two Blu-rays from the Criterion Collection. Ask me to name my favorite films of all time, and "Modern Times" (1936) makes the list. Two Chaplin titles are on that list, actually, the other being "City Lights"; with two earlier efforts — "The Kid" and "The Gold Rush" — on the related and somewhat lengthy list of films I most want to see on Blu-ray.
Modern Times [Criterion] was about just that, in any number of ways. Modern in dealing with the machine age; Charlie is a mass production worker in a monster of a modern-day factory, patterned on Henry Ford's automobile assembly line. Hence the most familiar scene from the film, or at least the iconic still: Charlie threaded through the gears of an enormous machine, his two little wrenches tightening two little nuts. Charlie the worker does, in fact, go nuts; the repetitive motion of tightening those nuts becomes uncontrollable, and woe betide any buxom matron who comes by with buttons on her dress. Modern times — circa the middle of the Great Depression — continue to intrude, with strikes, communist protests, hungry people stealing bread, and more.
But Chaplin was a filmmaker, the greatest and most successful of modern and all times. The greatest of the silent era, at least, and for him one of the major elements of modern times was the arrival of talking pictures in 1927. Chaplin's worldwide popularity was due in part to the silence of his character, the tramp; a veritable Everyman. For "City Lights," in 1931, he simply ignored sound; audiences, who until recently had never heard the screen talk, happily bought into the conceit that Charlie's new film was (virtually) silent. Five years later, though, the notion of a silent film was decidedly outdated and old-fashioned. So, part of the modernity of "Modern Times," along with machines and strikes, had to be the inclusion of sound. Leave it to Chaplin to find ways to add sound, and dialogue, without having any character actually speaking. And while there had always been musical accompaniments for Chaplin silents, "Modern Times" used music as a major element; the main theme, which Chaplin theoretically wrote, was strong enough to find future life as the pop standard "Smile" (as in "Smile, though your heart is breaking"). We say theoretically because while Chaplin wasn't strong on sharing credit for anything, he had a 23-year old assistant named David Raksin whose job was to "take down" whatever Chaplin might hum and turn it into a masterpiece. In any case, the theme plays an important part in the film, especially in the final scene; what need words when the music swells? "Modern Times" looks very good on Blu-ray, although it's fair to say that the most recent DVD restoration was notably good. Bonuses include two documentary discussions of the film; another centering on visual and sound effects; two cut sections; a 1992 interview with the aforementioned David Raksin; the 1916 two-reeler "The Rink," which can be compared to Chaplin's skating exhibition in the department store section of "Modern Times"; and an 18-minute home movie shot by Alistair Cooke on a 1933 weekend yachting excursion to Catalina with Charlie and Paulette Goddard.
The other glimmering present from Criterion is one of the most remarkable, powerful and unusual films in the archives. Charles Laughton was a one-of-a-kind actor, or as close to one-of-a-kind as you're likely to stumble across. Late in life he saw fit to direct a film — his one and only foray into the field — and came up with The Night of the Hunter [Criterion].
Words can't begin to describe this film; you really need to see it. This is a Depression-era tale set in Appalachia about an itinerant preacher (Robert Mitchum) — the words love and hate are tattooed on his fingers, if that gives you an idea — who marries the widow (Shelley Winters) of a bank robber and terrorizes her children, the better to find the hidden money. They flee and seek protection from a strong-willed woman (Lillian Gish), who proves to be a match for the preacher. But a description can only hint at the marvels of this movie, which has the feel of a German expressionistic film of the 1920s translated to Appalachia via 1955 Hollywood. Screenwriter James Agee, from Tennessee, and director Laughton, from Yorkshire, plus Hollywood movie star Mitchum at his grittiest, Actors Studio-sexpot Winters at her best, and silent film legend Gish at her strongest. Anyone familiar with this movie is likely to immediately say that those countless haunting images captured by cinematographer Stanley Cortez must look remarkable on Blu-ray. Shelley's final image, anyone?
Bonuses include a new documentary with interviews; a clip from the "Ed Sullivan Show" with cast members performing a scene deleted from the film; an archival 15-minute documentary about the film; and the full-scale documentary "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter.'" Filled with outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage and more, this last runs two-and-a-half hours — an hour longer than the film itself — and makes a fascinating supplement to a fascinating film.
But the bonuses are merely dressing compared to "The Night of the Hunter" itself. If you haven't seen it, grab it. And if you have seen it, isn't it time to watch it again? Haunting, frightening, beautiful, and unforgettable.
Speaking of Charles Laughton, the British actor established himself as the master of film grotesques in 1933 with "The Private Live of Henry VIII"; this Alexander Korda production was handsomely remastered for DVD as part of Criterion's low-priced Eclipse series, and reviewed in this column last fall. Laughton's animalistic performance in the banquet scene is so striking that we can readily understand why the folks in Hollywood decided for the first time to give a Best Actor Oscar to a foreign actor in a foreign film. M-G-M quickly snatched up Laughton for a parade of similar grotesques, including fellows like Javert in "Les Miserables," Quasimodo in "Hunchback of Notre Dame," and good old Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty [Warner]. This 1935 film was one of those massive M-G-M spectacles, produced by Irving Thalberg with great attention to detail, costs be damned. Charles Laughton as Bligh; Clark Gable — with mustache removed — as Fletcher Christian; Franchot Tone as midshipman Roger Byam, who tries to stop the mutiny. All three received Best Actor nominations; Gable and Laughton presumably canceled each other out, allowing Victor McLaglen to win for "The Informer." But "Mutiny on the Bounty" took the Best Picture Oscar and remains a rousingly entertaining two-hours' worth of high entertainment. We have had superspectacular, big-budget remake pics over the years — including an overblown 1962 M-G-M remake of this same "Mutiny," with Marlon Brando at the helm — but few of them look better than this one. And the Blu-ray process does the film full justice. Hi-Def picture, Hi-Def sound, in a Blu-ray digibook. *
With Elf The Musical happily entertaining the crowds at the Hirschfeld, New Line has seen fit to release what they call the Elf "Blu-ray Ultimate Collector's Edition," one that is "stuffed with ginormous fun." I myself rather enjoyed the Broadway version, despite a lackluster showing from the songwriters, and am pleased to recommend it to general audiences. (Those who feel that a sweetly sentimental holiday story will leave them feeling grumpy are probably right, and are hereby excused.) That said, "Elf" the motion picture is superior to the musical and recommendable without qualification. Will Ferrell, as Buddy the Elf, is a master comedian; he would make "Elf" watchable even if the rest of the movie wasn't. Watchable, that is. But there are fine performances all around, starting with Bob Newhart as Papa Elf and Ed Asner as Santa. (These two roles are combined in the musical and played by George Wendt; Newhart is especially missed.) James Caan as the father, Zooey Deschanel as the girl, Mary Steenburgen as the step-mother; all give lovely performances, making "Elf" a fine and funny film with enough sophisticated humor to please even those who are irremediably grumpy at the approach of Black Friday and White Christmas. New Line puts this "Elf" release in a collectible can, as they say. Included are the Blu-ray disc (first released in 2008); a CD with five selections from the soundtrack (including Louis Prima's "Pennies from Heaven" and Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby"); two pages of adhesive holiday gift-tags with Ferrell's photo; and an oversized refrigerator magnet. Oh, and there is a 14-inch-plus holiday stocking, in yellow, that you can hang from your mantel. If you have a mantel.
Enough has been said about the numerous celebrations of Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday to make any more discussion superfluous. High among the festivities were not one but three major benefit birthday concerts in Manhattan last spring, which competed for the same audiences and the same performers. One of them, the New York Philharmonic's affair, is now commercially available. Sondheim! The Birthday Concert [Image] features as fine a roster of Broadway stars as you are likely ever to see in one place at one time; rather than list 'em all, it's simpler to say that it has just about every extant Sondheim star you can think of except Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, and Len Cariou. Lonny Price directed, Paul Gemignani was musical director, David Hyde Pierce served as host, and the program is full of highlights. (Of course, given the talents involved you would expect it to be full of highlights.) Let us note that this concert was telecast on PBS stations as a Thanksgiving special, although in some markets it was interspersed with endless pledge breaks and in others significant sections were cut. "Sondheim: The Birthday Concert," available on both DVD and Blu-ray, runs a full 116 minutes. *
And what would the holidays be without a package from Disney? And some package it is. Fantasia has been re-released, now in high definition Blu-ray. And Walt's one-of-a-kind 1940 extravaganza of music and color is custom-made for high definition, don't you think? Disney has put it in a four-disc combo pack, bundled with "Fantasia 2000" (which isn't quite the classic that the original — made under Walt's personal supervision — is). The two included Blu-ray discs are loaded with extras, as one would expect from Disney; the final two discs are DVD versions of the "Fantasia" and "Fantasia 2000," without the array of bonuses. Disney is also selling the two DVDs as a package, without all those bonuses, at a slightly lower price than the four-disc Blu-ray set.
Also from Disney comes The Boys: The Sherman Brothers' Story. This is a documentary about the brothers Richard M. and Robert B., Walt's in-house songwriters — his only in-house songwriters ever — known the world round for "Mary Poppins" and that fiendishly irrepressible song written for the 1964 World's Fair, "It's a Small World." (They are also the composer-lyricists of the stage musicals Over Here! and Busker Alley, although those songs never made anyone's hit parade.) Of what interest can a documentary about two Disney writers be?
Well, let us say from the start that the brothers make it very interesting in spite of themselves. It turns out that the guys don't like each other; so much so that Jeffrey Sherman and Gregory Sherman, the film's director/producers and the sons of Robert and Richard respectively, grew up virtually separated from each other. That's right. While their fathers continued collaborating on films and shows, the families were forcibly kept apart; at openings, they would literally be seated on separate sides of the theatre. (Upon the death of their father, Tin Pan Alley composer Al Sherman, the brothers held separate receptions at their respective houses — with the other side excluded.)
The two sons of the two songwriting brothers broke the ice at the 2002 London opening of the stage version of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, finding that they had a lot in common (no foolin'!), and prevailed on their respective fathers to allow this unconventional family portrait. On-screen interviews come from folks like Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Hailey Mills, Angela Lansbury, Stephen Schwartz, Sheldon Harnick, Tony Walton, Roy Disney, and quite a few appearances by Ben Stiller. (Why Ben Stiller? Turns out he's one of the executive producers.) So, here for the holidays is a family film from Disney, but not the sort of Disney holiday family film you might expect.
(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 writes Playbill.com's popular Shelf Life and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)
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