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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: Burt Lancaster: The Signature Collection



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#1 of 1 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

Ken_McAlinden

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  • Join Date: Feb 20 2001
  • Real Name:Kenneth McAlinden
  • LocationLivonia, MI USA

Posted December 17 2007 - 06:00 PM

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Burt Lancaster - The Signature Collection
The Flame and the Arrow (1950), Jim Thorpe: All American (1951), South Sea Woman (1953), His Majesty, O'Keefe (1954), Executive Action (1973)
The Films

The Flame and the Arrow (1950 – Warner/Norma F.R. - 88 minutes)

Directed By: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Virginia Mayo, Robert Douglas, Aline Mac Mahon, Frank Allenby, Nick Cravat

Lancaster plays Dardo Bartoli, a larger then life mountain man and crack shot with a bow and arrow in medieval Italy. He has little interest in the politics related to the Hessian occupation of his homeland as led by the oppressive Count Ulrich aka "The Hawk" (Allenby). He does not even object to his son's mother taking up with Ulrich. When Ulrich kidnaps his son, however, Dardo becomes his worst nightmare, leading a spirited Robin Hood-style resistance with a group of eccentric outlaws that grows to include the somewhat shifty former nobleman and tax scofflaw Marchese Alessandro de Granazia (Douglas). The stakes rise when Dardo and his men kidnap Ulrich's Niece, Anne (Mayo), and Ulrich responds by severely beating Dardo's messenger and close friend, Piccolo (Cravat) and threatening the random execution of villagers until Dardo surrenders.

While Lancaster had established himself as a star by 1950, his popularity and box-office clout were cemented when he defied common wisdom by reviving the swashbuckler genre with this film. Prior to World War II, films in the genre could be counted on for sufficiently high box-office numbers to justify their relatively high production costs. While there had been a few exceptions such as MGMs lavish 1948 adaptation of "The Three Musketeers", postwar films in the genre generally did not achieve that kind of consistent international box-office success. This was partly due to the closing off of European markets during the war as well as shifts in public taste.

Far from original, the film itself feels like something of a "greatest hits" assemblage of many of the action adventure films that had come before. Its main novelty came via the spectacular stunt work of Lancaster in concert with his co-stars, most notably his former acrobatic partner Nick Cravat as the mute Piccolo. As graceful and athletic as Errol Flynn had been in his prime, Lancaster's physical prowess and ability to perform his own stunts was unlike almost any leading man audiences had seen since the silent era. The resulting picture is a lot of spirited fun delivered with just enough of a wink to let audiences know that the filmmakers were in on the gag.

Jim Thorpe: All American (1951 - Warner - 107 minutes)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Thaxter, Dick Wesson, Jack Big Head, Suni Warcloud, Al Mejia, Hubie Kerns

Lancaster plays Thorpe in this sports biopic of the man sometimes billed as the "World's Greatest Athlete". After a prologue showing Thorpe as a youth growing up on an Oklahoma Indian reservation running remarkably fast and being encouraged to get an education by his father, the film cuts several years in the future to Thorpe's first day as a college freshman at the Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania. Uncomfortable in his new environment, Thorpe has difficulty fitting in until his athletic ability is discovered by Coach Glenn "Pop" Warner (Bickford). After being reluctantly convinced to compete in track and field events in which he excels, Thorpe convinces Warner to let him also go out for the football team, almost instantly turning them into a national collegiate powerhouse. After achieving national notoriety, the rest of the film follows the ups and downs of Thorpe's subsequent career, including the courting of his first wife, his winning of Olympic Medals for the pentathlon and decathlon only to be stripped of them when it is revealed that he played semi-professional baseball one summer, his stint playing Major League baseball, and his pioneering efforts as a player and organizer in the professional football league that would evolve into the modern NFL.

As sports biopics go, this is pretty standard stuff rendered professionally and competently under the guiding hand of Curtiz. While liberties are certainly taken with the facts and a layer of Hollywood gloss has been spread over the proceedings, the film does manage to at least hint at some of the darker elements of Thorpe's story, including the dissolution of his first marriage after a personal tragedy and hints of a problem with alcohol.

Lancaster is convincing as an athlete, which cannot be said for some of the extras on the film, but even with his hair darkened does not look like someone of Native American ancestry. The producers seemed to have their hearts in the right place, though, with Native American actors Jack Big Head and Suni Warcloud being cast in key supporting roles as two of Thorpe's college roommates. This goodwill is undermined somewhat by the continual stream of corny Indian jokes coming from Dick Wesson as their college buddy. Bickford makes an appropriately tough but paternal Pop Warner and Phyllis Thaxter brings a tinge of melancholy to the potentially thankless role of Thorpe's first (and, as far as the movie lets on, only) wife.

South Sea Woman (1953 - Warner - 99 minutes)

Directed By: Arthur Lubin

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Virginia Mayo, Chuck Connors, Barry Kelly, Hayden Rorke, Bob Sweeney, Leon Askin, Veola Vonn, Arthur Shields

South Sea Woman plays out in flashback during the court martial of Marine Sergeant James O'Hearn (Lancaster). O'Hearn is choosing to stand mute on several charges ranging from destruction of property to desertion. The mystery of why he refuses to speak in his own defense unravels as his trial proceeds with a number of witnesses both sympathetic and otherwise piecing together the events of the preceding months. These events begin with O'Hearn attempting to retrieve Private Davy White (Connors) from a Shanghai saloon which he refuses to leave without his fiancée, Ginger (Mayo). James, Davy, and Ginger subsequently find themselves separated from their division and stranded on the Vichy French controlled island of Namou shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Pretending to be deserters to avoid incarceration, they ultimately wind up hijacking a Nazi yacht and attempting to wreak some havoc on the Japanese fleet near Gudalcanal.

South Sea Woman has all the ingredients of an exciting wartime action buddy film, but it strays a bit too far into the realm of the absurd for it to work. The cast certainly seems game, but cannot overcome the ill effects of the plot jerking them around like idiot marionettes. Lancaster and Connors play off of each other well, especially when they are butting heads, and are two of the very few actors in 1950s Hollywood who could play a convincing physical threat to the other. As fun as Lancaster and Mayo were together in The Flame and the Arrow, the script for South Sea Woman creates no opportunities for them to display their on-screen chemistry, as she is engaged to his buddy for most of he running time and expressing her hatred for the meddling of Lancaster's character in their personal affairs. When she undergoes something of a romantic reversal, it comes too late in the film to be interesting or convincing. If nothing else, the film is a great example of Lancaster's movie star charisma as he takes a seemingly hopeless script and almost single-handedly makes it tolerable. In any case, a few months after this one, Lancaster would find much greater success in the role of a different Pearl Harbor-era Sergeant in From Here to Eternity.

His Majesty O'Keefe (1954 - Warner - 91 minutes)

Directed By: Byron Haskin

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Joan Rice, André Morell, Abraham Sofaer, Archie Savage, Benson Fong, Tessa Prendergast, Lloyd Berrell, Charles Horvath, Philip Ahn, Guy Doleman

The film finds Lancaster once again in the South Pacific playing Captain David O'Keefe. In the opening scenes, he is pitched overboard by his mutinous crew after driving them almost to the point of starvation in his search for an island with plentiful cocoanuts from which they can extract valuable copra oil. He washes ashore on the island of Yap where Alfred Tetins (Morell), an agent for a German company and the local natives nurse him back to health (waxing and oiling his chest while doing so if appearances are any indication). Ironically, the island is practically bursting with cocoanuts, but the natives have little interest in harvesting any of them, and Alfred has had little luck convincing them otherwise. O'Keefe senses an opportunity for great wealth, but struggles in his initial attempts to win over the Yap natives. After returning to China, securing a crew and financing, and acquiring a native bride (Rice) on a nearby island, he eventually stumbles on a scheme where he can help the natives of Yap secure large quantities of the sacred stone they call "Fey". This creates a schism in the island's culture with most of the natives willing to harvest cocoanuts in exchange for Fey and a small but determined minority rejecting the idea of any Fey not collected in the "old way". After he delivers his first large load of Copra, O'Keefe and the island begin to attract the attention of other interested parties who are more than willing to employ ruthless tactics to exploit the island's resources for their own gain.

While the film shows evidence of corners being cut such as some unconvincing fight scenes and a couple of shots of a ship in a Chinese harbor that are static matte paintings, its use of Fijian locations goes a long way towards giving it instant production values. Perhaps the film's greatest single accomplishment is its ability to feel like an epic over the course of only 91 minutes. The geographic and thematic scope of the plot is fairly huge, and it somehow manages to work subplots such as the romance between Lancaster and Rice into a larger narrative that plays like an elaborate parable of the hazards of international trade and exploitation. Lancaster's character arc is surprisingly well plotted out through a narrative that allows him to develop from a purely amoral capitalist motivated solely by greed to a sympathetic leader of men with a generous helping of leading man action sequences along the way.

Executive Action (1973 - Wakefield-Orloff/National General - 91 minutes)

Directed By: David Miller

Starring: Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan, Will Geer, Ed Lauter, James MacColl

Burt Lancaster and Robert Ryan play Farrington and Foster, the leaders in a cabal of ultra-right wing conspirators plotting the assassination of President John F. Kennedy circa 1963. They posit that the Kennedy family is positioning themselves as a dynasty that will control the oval office for more than two decades and use it to push an ultra-liberal social agenda. While their efforts to engender the support of a powerful politician named Ferguson (Geer) are not immediately successful, they do not let that slow their planning efforts down. Their plan involves the training of two teams of three shooters each, the re-routing of the President's motorcade in Dallas, and the identification of a patsy to take the fall. Once they identify Lee Harvey Oswald as such a patsy, they enlist a look-alike (MacColl) to engage in conspicuous and circumstantially incriminating activities in the months leading up to the assassination. When Ferguson is finally so outraged by Kennedy's policies on disarmament, his support for civil rights for African Americans, and, the final straw, his refusal to commit large scale American forces to Vietnam, he finally gives the conspirators the go ahead and their plans are set in motion.

After establishing himself as one of the top box-office draws through the 1950s, Lancaster began re-molding his career by mixing in more challenging and personally meaningful roles with his increasingly less frequent commercial offerings. Released almost exactly ten years after the Kennedy assassination, Executive Action was the first feature film to challenge the lone gunman theory of the Warren Report, beating Oliver Stone to the punch by a good eighteen years. The film is essentially a paranoid fantasy by ultra-lefty Hollywood liberals concerning the thought processes of ultra-right wing conservatives. I suppose when two of the film's collaborators are writer Dalton Trumbo and actor Will Geer, both victims of McCarthy-era blacklisting, one can forgive them a certain amount of paranoia. Depending on your feelings about the various posited JFK conspiracy theories, you can expect to find the movie either a groundbreaking challenge to the status quo of the Warren Report or an incredibly irresponsible bit of agit-propaganda.

Since no Hollywood studio was interested in going within a country mile of this material at the time, Executive Action was produced independently on a shoestring budget, and it shows. The film barely even tries to recreate the era of the events it depicts, with hairstyles, fashions, and automobiles all clearly out of the 1970s. The only authentic period scenes in the film are news clips of Kennedy and Oswald that are intercut with the film's narrative. The film does play a bit with this mixed media approach, using some newly shot black and white footage to muddle the line between the documentary and narrative elements. While the film has generally strong performances from most of the big name actors and supporting cast who manage to successfully negotiate some fairly clunky dialog, the guy they found to play Jack Ruby has to be one of the worst actors I have seen in a feature film. By far, the most unintentionally funny line in the film is when Lancaster's character says in reference to Kennedy, "If we could find some way to discredit him, believe me we'd have done it by now."

The Video

After the uniformly excellent video presentations from Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection, I was a little bit disappointed in the overall quality of these titles with the notable section of Executive Action.

The transfer of the Technicolor film The Flame and the Arrow appears to be derived from an element with excessively high contrast resulting in very little shadow detail.

The element used for the Jim Thorpe: All American exhibits heavy wear and tear and the transfer has noticeable high contrast edge ringing in several scenes.

South Sea Woman has heavy grain which the compression has difficulty rendering, resulting in some heavy artifacting. The film element used for transfer is not as worn as that for Jim Thorpe: All American, and contrast is as good or better, but it still has noticeable damage, including instances of both negative and positive scratches.

The presentation of the Technicolor film His Majesty O'Keefe is marred by on and off poor registration with light damage and noticeable but not excessive grain. There is no ringing along high contrast edges except for the color fringing in some of the poorly registered shots.

Despite its low-budget origins, Executive Action is the best looking production in this set. While there is a certain patina associated with the 1970s fim stock and fashions in production design and cinematography that will prevent it from looking even remotely modern, 1970s films on DVD looking like 1970s films is certainly not a bad thing. Colors and contrast are very strong and there is not even a hint of high contrast edge ringing. Other than some compression artifacts resulting from trying to reproduce the heavy grain patterns, the transfer is about as perfect as one could hope for.


The Audio

All of the films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks encoded at 192 kbps. The four 1950s films all feature very quiet tracks with decent fidelity and modest noise reduction artifacts audible with critical listening.

As with the video, Executive Action also has the best audio track on the set. While it is limited in its dynamic range, it has an audibly wider frequency range than the older titles.

The Extras

The Flame and the Arrow
=======================

So You're Going to Have an Operation 10:31 B&W 1950 Joe McDoakes comedy short starring George O'Hanlon. After a night of insomnia, leads to a late night eating binge, Joe's incredibly incompetent Doctor schedules and performs multiple surgeries to address his digestive complaint.

Strife with Father 7:15 1948 Robert McKimson Merrie Melodies Short. Beaky Buzzard is left as and egg at the doorstep of very proper English pigeons Monty and Gwendolyn. Once he grows up, Monty is convinced by Gwendolyn to teach the giant, ugly, introverted and none-to-bright Beaky to forage for barnyard fowls, much to the risk of his own personal safety.

Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and 31 seconds and is a fairly standard promo.

The Crimson Pirate (1952) Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and 47 seconds and is presented Windowboxed and in Color. It begins with footage of Lancaster as the title character shot specifically for the trailer.

Jim Thorpe: All American
==========================

So You Want to be a Paper Hanger is a ten minute and 37 second black and white George O'Hanlon "Joe McDoakes" short in which Joe's wife insists that he wallpaper their apartment in a matter of hours before a meeting of her Tuesday Bridge Luncheon Club. Joe enlists the help of his comically clumsy neighbor, Marvin, for help. It also features a Cameo appearance by Arthur Q. Bryan using his Elmer Fudd voice as a peddler who repeatedly interrupts them. It takes a slightly dark tone towards the end, which pays off in a surreal punch line.

Theatrical Trailers Presents a gallery of sports movie trailers running a total of 9:30 with the "Play All" option including Knute Rockne All American, Angels in the Outfield, Jim Thorpe -- All American, and The Winning Team. In the interest of truth and advertising, the makers of the trailer for "The Winning Team should be congratulated for kicking things off with the phrase: "Here Comes the Pitch". All of the trailers are in 4:3 video and all are windowboxed except for Jim Thorpe: All American.

Hare We Go is a 1951 Technicolor Robert McKimson "Merrie Melodies" short with Bugs Bunny joining Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World. He goes from the lucky mascot to a meal option as the voyage drags out and food and fresh water become scarce.

South Sea Woman
=========================

So You Want to Be an Heir is a 1953 George O'Hanlon "Joe McDoakes" short running nine minutes and one second presented in black and white 4:3 video. Joe is informed that he will inherit his grandmother's million dollar estate if he reaches her before she dies. Arriving at his home, he is greeted by a number of weird and creepy relatives (all played by O'Hanlon "Alec Guinness-Style") who seem all too willing to bring themselves one step closer to the inheritance by offing Joe.

Much Ado About Nutting is a six minute and 50 second dialog-free Technicolor "Merrie Melodies" short from 1953 directed by Chuck Jones. A squirrel becomes fascinated by a nut cart, and struggles mightily to crack the shell of the largest nut on the cart: a cocoanut.

Theatrical Trailer Running two minutes and 25 seconds, the trailer for South Sea Woman kicks off with a take-off on the Marine Corps Hymn ("From the Halls of Heroic Adventure…To the Shores of Exciting Romance…") before resolving itself into a standard narration and clips promo highlighting the best sex and violence in the movie.

His Majesty O'Keefe
======================

So You Want to Know Your Relatives is a 1954 "Joe McDoakes" short running ten minutes and four seconds presented in black and white 4:3 video. Proving to be the most magnanimous member of his local Good-Doers club, the members reward him for selecting him as the surprise "citizen of the week" guest on a radio show called "Know Your Relatives". When ambushed with the reality of his family's skeletons in the closet, things take a turn for the comical worse.

I Gopher You a 1953 Technicolor Friz Freleng "Merrie Melodies" cartoon short running six minutes and 55 seconds in which the excessively polite Goofy Gophers become agitated and the amazed when they find their vegetables confiscated by a produce company and transported to an enormous food processing plant.

Theatrical Trailer runs three minutes and twelve seconds and includes some newly recorded promotional narration from Lancaster emphasizing the exotic Fijian locations.

Executive Action
==================

November 22, 1963: In Search of an Answer is a ten minute and four second vintage promotional featurette presented in color 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. Burt Lancaster, Will Geer, Robert Ryan, Executive Producer Edward Lewis, Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Producer Gary Horowitz talk about their memories of the Kennedy assassination and how they came to be drawn to the project, in some cases overcoming some initial skepticism about the idea of a conspiracy.

Burt Lancaster Trailer Gallery Runs eleven minutes and 52 seconds if "Play All" is selected, and includes trailers for Seven Days in May, The Gypsy Moths, Executive Action, and Local Hero. All are presented in 4:3 full frame video except for Local Hero which is 16:9 enhanced widescreen.

Packaging

As with other recent "Signature Collections", the films are in standard Amaray-style cases with cover art tastefuly derived from original theatrical poster art. The DVD cases are bound together in a thin cardboard box with a glamour shot of Lancaster on the front cover and information about the films on the back. For some reason, Warner has neglected to offer chapter menus, although the films are encoded with chapter stops.

Summary

With the exception of Executive Action, the audio/video presentations of these films are a mild disappointment, mostly for reasons having to do with the conditions of the film elements used for transfer. Extras consist primarily of vintage shorts from roughly the era of the films and some theatrical trailers. Fans of Lancaster will relish the chance to add these films to their libraries, especially the fun swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow, the controversial Executive Action, and the somewhat underrated His Majesty O'Keefe.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA