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HTF DVD REVIEW: Stanley Kramer Film Collection



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#1 of 7 Richard Gallagher

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Posted February 10 2008 - 11:02 AM

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Studio: Sony/Columbia

Year: 1952-1967

Rated: Not Rated

Program Length: 515 minutes

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Ship of Fools); 1.33:1 The Member of the Wedding, The Wild One and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Languages/Subtitles: See Individual Listings Below


The Program

Stanley Kramer was one of Hollywood’s most important producers and directors of the 20th Century. Among his credits are such classic films as The Defiant Ones, On the Beach, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Sony has now collected five films produced and/or directed by Kramer: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Ship of Fools (1965), The Wild One (1953), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) and The Member of the Wedding (1952). It is an eclectic collection and effectively demonstrates the breadth of Kramer’s film work.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was extremely controversial when it was released because it focuses on an interracial romance, which was still a taboo subject in Hollywood in the late sixties. It does not hold up very well today, although it remains interesting as a social commentary on the times and is notable as the last screen teaming of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton), a young white woman from an upper-middle-class family, arrives unannounced in San Francisco with her black fiancée, John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Joey’s parents, Matt Drayton (Tracy) and Christina Drayton (Hepburn), are taken totally by surprise and are forced to confront their conflicting feelings about color and race.

Tracy and Hepburn are miscast here, looking more like grandparents than parents. This is particularly true of Tracy, whose health was failing and who died shortly after the film was made. Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her performance, was 60 years old when the film was made but was still at the top of her game. Sidney Poitier gives a typically solid performance. Katharine Houghton, incidentally, is the niece of Katharine Hepburn. Stanley Kramer produced and directed this film.

Ship of Fools was one of the more highly-honored films of 1965, garnering eight Academy Award nominations. Based upon a novel by Katherine Anne Porter, Ship of Fools features an all-star ensemble cast, including Vivien Leigh, Simone Signoret, Jose Ferrer, Lee Marvin, Oskar Werner, Elizabeth Ashley, George Segal and Jose Greco. Sometimes referred to as “Grand Hotel at Sea,” the film follows a diverse group of characters aboard an ocean liner bound for Germany from Vera Cruz in the early 1930s. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany and the Nazi belief in Aryan superiority is a central theme of the film. Ship of Fools, which was produced and directed by Kramer, benefits from a superb script by screenwriter Abby Mann.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a bit of a departure for Kramer, who produced the film. It is a surreal children’s movie written by Ted Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Tommy Rettig plays Bart, a young boy who would rather play baseball than take lessons from his piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (Hans Conreid). Bart has a dream in which "Dr. T" keeps 500 recalcitrant piano students locked up in a castle. During the dream Bart encounters many odd creatures and strange things. Co-starring are Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, a real-life married couple. The film was directed by Roy Rowland.

The Wild One is the first and arguably the best of the biker films. Based upon a riot which broke out in Hollister, California in 1947, it stars Marlon Brando as Johnny, leader of the Black Rebels. The iconic opening shot shows Johnny and his followers cruising down a lonely California highway, looking for kicks. They find their kicks in a small town which is hosting a motorcycle race. The Black Rebels try to enter the competition, but the locals refuse to let them participate. Tensions increase and things only get worse when a rival biker club, led by Chino (Lee Marvin), arrives in town. Mary Murphy co-stars as Kathie, a local girl who finds herself attracted to Johnny in spite of his destructive tendencies. Brando’s performance as the alienated and conflicted Johnny is unforgettable. In one scene a young woman asks, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Johnny just looks at her and laconically replies, “What do you got?” The film was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Lalso Benedek. The violence is tame by today’s standards, but this was a ground-breaking film.

The Member of the Wedding would seem on the surface to have very little in common with The Wild One, but in fact there is a common theme in that both examine the human need to be accepted and included by others. Frankie Adams (Julie Harris) is a 12-year-old tomboy who is gradually becoming aware of the fact that she will soon be turning into a woman. Her feelings are accentuated by the fact that her brother is going to be married, and she decides that she wants to be a member of the wedding party. Based upon a novel and play by Carson McCullers (author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”), the film was produced by Stanley Kramer and directed by Fred Zinnemann. Julie Harris received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

The Video

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

The anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is very satisfying. The images are mostly sharp and stable. Colors and fleshtones appear to be accurate. There is a moderate but appropriate amount of grain. Contrast is excellent. All in all, this DVD presentation of the film is very good.

Ship of Fools

The anamorphic 1.85:1 black & white transfer of Ship of Fools is problematical. I believe that this film was shown in theaters at 1.33:1, and indeed that is how the prior DVD release is presented. A direct comparison shows that the new transfer reveals a bit more information on the sides but has sacrificed a considerable amount of information at the top and bottom of each frame. There is a shot at 3:09 in which Tenny (Lee Marvin) walks past Glocken (a dwarf played by Michael Dunn) on the deck of the ocean liner. On the older DVD, Marvin turns to gawk at Dunn and Marvin’s face is immediately visible. In the widescreen version, Marvin’s face cannot be seen at all for two full seconds. It certainly appears that the shot was composed with 1.33:1 in mind. The new transfer also is a bit grainier than the earlier DVD. The picture is reasonably sharp and boasts good contrast.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

The 1.33:1 Technicolor transfer is very pleasing. The colors are vivid and stable and appear to have been accurately reproduced. Again, there is excellent contrast and grain is moderate.

The Wild One

The 1.33:1 black & white transfer is reasonably sharp and shows excellent contrast and black levels. There is a moderate amount of grain. I do not have the 1999 DVD release for comparison, but this likely is the same transfer. The opening and closing shots are terrific and I have never seen them look better.

The Member of the Wedding

This 1.33:1 black & white transfer is slightly grainier than the others in this set, but not excessively so. The picture is generally sharp, exhibiting excellent contrast throughout.

The Audio

All five films were originally recorded in mono, and that is how they are presented here. The audio is consistently crisp, and dialogue is always intelligible and free of distortion. Three of the films were made more than fifty years ago and the other two more than forty years ago, so there is nothing here which will tax your sound system.

Languages and subtitles are as follows:

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Languages: English, French, Spanish
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish

Ship of Fools

Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, French

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T

Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, French

The Wild One

Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, French

The Member of the Wedding

Languages: English, French
Subtitles: English, French

The Supplements

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner features an introduction by Karen Kramer, the widow of Stanley Kramer, and messages from Quincy Jones and Tom Brokaw which help to place the film into historical perspective. There is also a bonus disc which contains two “making of” featurettes entitled “A Love Story of Today” and “A Special Kind of Love.” The other featurettes are “Stanley Kramer: A Man’s Search for Truth,” which examines how Kramer believed in using movies to explore social issues of the day. Another extra shows Al Gore being awarded the “Stanley Kramer Award” by the Producers Guild in 2007, and there is also footage of Kramer accepting the Irving Thalberg Award at the 1962 Academy Awards. A gallery of still photos also is included.

The extras on Ship of Fools include an introduction by Karen Kramer and two featurettes. “On Board the Ship of Fools” features reminiscences by the cast and crew about Stanley Kramer and the making of the film. “Voyage on a Soundstage” is an examination of how the film was shot, with particular emphasis on Ernest Laszlo’s cinematography. There is also a photo gallery.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T has an introduction by Karen Kramer, a photo gallery and two featurettes. “Dr. T on Screen” includes interviews with Cathy Lind Hayes (daughter of Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy) and George Chakiris (who appears as a dancer in the film). Michael Feinstein discusses the film’s music in “A Little Nightmare Music.”

The Wild One features an introduction by Karen Kramer and an informative commentary by film historian Jeanine Basinger. A very interesting featurette about Hollister, California makes the case that the 1947 riot was not that big a deal and that it was blown out of proportion by the press. Residents of Hollister and bikers who were there in 1947 are interviewed. “Brando – An Icon is Born” includes interviews with Taylor Hackford, Dennis Hopper and Elizabeth Ashley about the cultural impact of Marlon Brando’s performance in the film. Archival footage of Stanley Kramer talking about Brand also is included.

Extras on The Member of the Wedding include an introduction by Karen Kramer and a commentary by biographer Virginia Spencer Carr. “The World of Carson McCullers” is a biographical featurette about the author, and “The Journey From Stage to Film” features Kevin Spacey, Virginia Spencer Carr and Karen Kramer talking about the challenges involved in turning a stage play into a feature film. Also included are a photo montage and a brief written note from Julie Harris.

The Packaging

There are six discs in all, one apiece for the films and a separate disc of extras for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The discs are layered in a three-section gatefold case which in turn is stored inside a slipcase.

The Final Analysis

My concern about the aspect ratio of Ship of Fools notwithstanding, this is an impressive box set. All of the titles except The Member of the Wedding are already available on DVD, but I do not believe that any of them include extras and some of the supplements on this set are very worthwhile.

Sony is concurrently releasing a 40th Anniversary DVD set of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. It contains the same material which is included in the Stanley Kramer Film Collection.

Equipment used for this review:

Toshiba HD-XA2 DVD player
Sharp LC-42D62U LCD display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable

Release Date: February 12, 2008

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Rich Gallagher

#2 of 7 Robert Crawford

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Posted February 10 2008 - 11:44 AM

In some cases, the better the transfer the more likely you'll see some film grain especially when it comes to dvds derived from HD transfers. People need to remember that when we get more catalog titles on HDM. We don't want the studios tweaking these releases to remove film grain.





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#3 of 7 Richard Gallagher

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Posted February 10 2008 - 01:51 PM

That's a good point. Grain doesn't bother me, but I know that there are a lot of people who want to see it commented upon.

Visually, the only thing about this set which I don't like is the framing of Ship of Fools. If it was intended to be shown 1.85:1, they did a poor job of framing the transfer.
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#4 of 7 Mike Frezon

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Posted February 10 2008 - 04:08 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher
Visually, the only thing about this set which I don't like is the framing of Ship of Fools. If it was intended to be shown 1.85:1, they did a poor job of framing the transfer.

Richard: you're not sure which was the original AR? Why do you think it was originally shown 4:3? Anyone?

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#5 of 7 Ken Koc

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Posted February 11 2008 - 12:04 AM

I worked at a theater in 1000 seat San Diego where SHIP OF FOOLS played. The aspect ratio was 1.85. The new transfer is unusually grainy. It must be because of the myriad of "process scenes" In comparison with other black and white 16X9 classic DVDs, the new transfer rather quite ugly.
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#6 of 7 RolandL

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Posted February 11 2008 - 05:51 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Richard Gallagher
All five films were originally recorded in mono, and that is how they are presented here.

I'll have to check when I get home but, I think The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was released in stereo sound and widescreen.

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#7 of 7 BillyFeldman

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Posted February 11 2008 - 10:36 AM

Ship of Fools was never shown in theaters full frame. It was framed for 1:85 and projected that way everywhere, at least in the US. It gets confusing when a reviewer puts "I believe that this film was shown in theaters at 1.33:1" in a review on a respected and knowledgeable website as it was not really possible and highly improbable that any film could be shown in Academy ratio in the mid-sixties in virtually any cinema - that kind of misinformation tends to propagate over the years. Otherwise, very nice review and I agree about the grain on Ship Of Fools. The Dr. T transfer is really lovely, and we are in agreement about the Guess Who's Coming To Dinner DVD, too - much improved over the last DVD.





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