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HTF DVD REVIEW: Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2



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#1 of 4 Ken_McAlinden

Ken_McAlinden

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Posted April 22 2008 - 06:45 AM

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Joan Crawford Collection, Vol. 2
Sadie McKee (1934), Strange Cargo (1940), A Woman's Face (1941), Flamingo Road (1949), Torch Song (1953)
The Films

Sadie McKee (1934 - MGM - 93 minutes)

Directed By: Clarence Brown

Starring: Joan Crawford, Gene Raymond, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold, Esther Ralston

In Sadie McKee, Joan Crawford plays the title character who grows up the daughter of domestics in the house of the rich and influential Alderson family. She has a friendly relationship with Michael (Tone), the leading son of the Alderson's, but this is tested when she hears the family gossiping about a recent scandal involving her boyfriend, Tommy Wallace (Raymond). Sadie believes the gossip to be largely a misunderstanding and flees town with Tommy hoping to marry him and make a fresh start in New York City. When a near-penniless Tommy runs out on her to take a showbiz gig, the initially devastated Sadie takes a job in a nightclub. At the club, she meets fabulously wealthy drunkard Jack Brennan (Arnold), who coincidentally retains Michael Alderson as his attorney. Michael disapproves of Sadie's relationship with Brennan, especially when it turns to marriage, and begins to suspect that she is cold-heartedly waiting for him to drink himself to death so she can inherit his fortune. Sadie must go to great lengths to demonstrate her devotion to her belligerent and self-destructive husband while still attending to unresolved feelings towards both Tommy and Michael.

Sadie McKee is a fairly standard mid-1930s melodrama complete with gratuitous musical sequences as was the rage back then. It does not really distinguish itself in any way other than as an example of the kind of film that Crawford could single-handedly carry during her first wave of stardom. It also has a slight tabloid cachet as an early pairing of Crawford with her soon-to-be husband, Franchot Tone. Arnold's take on the drunken millionaire is a bit hammy, though enjoyable, and the rest of Sadie's love "quadrangle" is strictly dullsville. Tone essays a typically thankless second banana and Raymond's Tommy is forced to split his time evenly between being illogical and ridiculous as dictated by the needs of the plot.

Strange Cargo (1940 - MGM - 113 minutes)

Directed By: Frank Borzage

Starring: Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Ian Hunter, Peter Lorre, Paul Lukas, Albert Dekker, J. Edward Bromberg

Clark Gable plays imprisoned convict André Verne who plots to escape from Devil's Island with a colorful and dangerous group of fellow prisoners including wife-poisoner Hessler (Lukas), double-crossing brute, Moll (Dekker), mentally disturbed coward, Flaubert (Bromberg), and the mysterious and charismatic Cambreau (Hunter). An earlier solo escape attempt ended with Verne captured after being ratted out by nightclub girl, Julie (Crawford). This results in a bipolar love-hate relationship which comes to a head when Julie is ordered off of the island by authorities and finds herself caught up with the escaped criminals. As they make their way through the jungle and cross the sea, they must evade capture by their pursuers including the ever ready to blackmail and betray civilian, M'sieur Pig (Lorre), but the greatest threat to the band of convicts' safety proves to be each other.

This film, the last on-screen pairing of 1930s MGM megastars Gable and Crawford, is as "strange" as its title suggests. While it works quite well as a prison escape action adventure with a dash of battle of the sexes romance courtesy of the two leads, it also adopts a curiously "new agey" spiritual tone. This is embodied literally in the character of Cambreau, who initially appears inside the prison without explanation and serves as something of a spiritual Jiminy Cricket for all of the escapees, helping them to reconcile with their maker when facing death, and steering them away from their inclinations towards particularly heinous actions. His exit from the film is nearly as inexplicable as his entrance, making him out to be a Christ-like figure. While the elements of spirituality seem more than a little forced and do not quite work in the context of the rest of the film, I suppose they allowed the filmmakers to get away with key characters engaging in more flagrantly unseemly actions than your typical production-code era protagonists. As long as they get a chance to repent and be punished, they can literally get away with murder in the film.

A Woman's Face (1941 - MGM – 106 minutes)

Directed By: George Cukor

Starring: Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt, Osa Massen, Reginald Owen

In A Woman's Face, Crawford plays Anna Holm, a woman on trial for murder in Stockholm, Sweden. The trial is used to launch a series of flashbacks detailing how Anna, a woman whose face was heavily scarred in a childhood accident, was the ruthless leader of a group of grifters and blackmailers played by Reginald Owen, Donald Meek, and Connie Gilchrist. When visiting the home of adulterous blackmail target Vera Segert (Massen), Anna is surprised by the unexpected arrival of Vera's husband, Dr. Gustav Segert (Douglas). To her surprise, rather than calling the police to have her arrested for trespassing, Segert proposes a series of reconstructive surgeries to restore her face. Months later, with her face restored to the point that she looks … well … like Joan Crawford, she is enthralled by former criminal associate Torsten Barring (Veidt) to take a position under an assumed name as a governess to the grandson of his rich uncle, Consul Magnus Barring. Torsten's scheme involves Anna arranging for a fatal accident to befall the child making Torsten the sole heir of the Consul's position and wealth. Anna is surprised to encounter Dr. Segert at the Consul's home. With Barring an ever present reminder of her criminal past and Segert representing her unearned second chance, Anna must decide whether to go through with the homicidal plan.

This film, a remake of a 1938 Swedish film that starred a young Ingrid Bergman, is easily my favorite film in this collection and is a somewhat underrated entry in Crawford's film resume. Crawford hits all of the right notes in a part that seems tailor made for her. It is a meatier and less glamorous role than was typical of her tenure at MGM, and in some ways points the way to the kind of roles in which she would excel at Warner Bros. a few years later. The supporting cast is uniformly great with the possible exception of young Richard Nichols who gives one of those off-putting juvenile performances that threatens to ruin the picture.

Flamingo Road (1949 – Warner Bros. - 94 minutes)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Sydney Greenstreet, David Brian

In Flamingo Road, Joan Crawford plays carnival dancer Lane Bellamy. Lane has become tired of the nomadic carnival life, and decides not to move on when the carnival leaves a southern town just ahead of a police raid that would have shut them down for good. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with local deputy Fielding Carlisle (Scott) who helps her land a job at a local diner, much to the disapproval of the corrupt Sheriff, Titus Semple (Greenstreet). Titus has political ambitions and does not want Field, his hand-picked future front man, to strike up a romance with Lane that would jeopardize them. Titus conspires to drive Lane out of town and has her fired, arrested, and imprisoned. Once freed, the stubbornly defiant Lane eventually lands a job at a road house, where her fortunes are flipped when she meets high-level political boss Dan Reynolds (Brian), eventually marrying him and moving to a house in the elite Flamingo Road part of town. Her new station seems to place her out of the reach of lower level political operative Semple, but she underestimates both his spite and his ambition until he hatches a blackmail plot designed to bring down Reynolds and destroy her new life.

This film is saved from being just another sudsy melodrama by the incorporation of dirty behind the scenes political machinations into the mix with just a hint of southern gothic atmosphere to spice things up. Greenstreet is a fantastic villain, and is the key to the whole thing working despite a pair of not too interesting romantic interests for Crawford portrayed by Scott and Brian. In many ways, Scott and Brian's character feels like a couple of patsies from a noir film who would be in some serious trouble if Crawford turned out to be a true femme fatale. While not necessarily one of Crawford's best films during her Warner Bros. years, Flamingo Road is a solid star vehicle that keeps the audience interest even if it does not linger in the memory.

Torch Song (1953 – MGM - 90 minutes)

Directed By: Charles Walters

Starring: Joan Crawford, Michael Wilding, Gig Young, Marjorie Rambeau, Harry Morgan

In Torch Song, Crawford plays tough as nails aging Broadway diva Jenny Stewart who is in the midst of engineering her comeback if she can manage not to alienate everyone involved in the production. The key to the taming of this shrew may lie in the hands of blind pianist Tye Graham (Wilding), although he certainly has his work cut out for him.

Torch Song, Crawford's not quite triumphant return to MGM after seemingly running out of career gas at Warner Bros. and achieving a comeback success in the independently produced "Sudden Fear", is something of a glorious disaster. The film would have fit just as comfortably in one of last years "Cult Camp Classics" collections as in this Joan Crawford set. Crawford is playing what feels like a parody of herself, portraying Jenny as a bitch on wheels who treats her co-workers terribly, treats her fans like royalty, eats lobster for lunch, shows off her legs at every opportunity, and, most inexplicably, performs a blackface production number as the film's centerpiece. Crawford was planning on doing her own singing and dancing, but had been out of practice for so long that she could not muster her once adequate vocal chops, and was dubbed (with a badly matched voice). At times, she does not so much dance as move from pose to pose while others dance around her.

From a technical side, the film's flaws only seem to enhance its camp standing. Garish make-up, costume, and production design choices seem designed to make viewers' eyes hurt. There are lots of little gaffes such as an obvious continuity error in a scene where Crawford is attempting to light a cigarette while blindfolded. The cigarette and lighter, which are the focus of her action in the scene, actually switch hands from one cut to another. Like an omen of bad things to come, there is an egregious camera bounce during the crane shot zoom-in that introduces the "Two-Faced Woman" blackface number. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that director Charles Walters (who appears in the film as Crawford's dance partner in the first production number) did not like to sweat the "small stuff" … or say the words "Take two".

The music is something of a Frankenstein's monster assemblage of many songs that were initially intended for other productions. The "Two-Faced Woman" number, for instance, has Crawford lip-synching to an India Adams vocal track that was originally recorded for a Cyd Charisse routine cut from The Band Wagon. The cut Cyd Charisse number appears as an extra on the DVD release of The Band Wagon and is also featured along with a side by side comparison with the number from Torch Song in the compilation film That's Entertainment III.

The Video

All films except for Torch Song are presented in 4:3 black and white transfers consistent with their original theatrical presentations. I did not notice any significant edge ringing issues on any of the black and white titles.

Sadie McKee betrays its age somewhat, looking a bit softer and exhibiting more film element damage than the other black and white titles in the collection. Film grain occasionally results in digital compression issues, but nothing too noticeable unless the viewer is sitting extremely close to their screen.

Strange Cargo is a noticeable step up in detail and contrast from Sadie McKee, although it still has some noticeable speckling and scratches.

A Woman's Face receives the best video presentation of the black and white MGM titles, exhibiting less film element wear and tear than its predecessors in the set.

The transfer for Flamingo Road has some light speckling and some density fluctuations noticeable in the darkest scenes, all of which appear to be film element related, but it features excellent detail and is a more than acceptable video rendering of Ted D. McCord's beautiful cinematography.

Torch Song is presented in a color transfer that fills the entire 16:9 enhanced frame. Overall, it looks soft and grainy with somewhat unnatural color resulting in skin tones tilted towards brown and orange. There is very little visible film element damage although there are slight but noticeable fluctuations in density. There is little to no edge enhancement although there is some noticeable film element related color "fringing" along dark edges that has a similar effect.

The Audio

All of the films in the collection are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtracks. They generally improve with age, although they are all pretty comparable in terms of fidelity except for the oldest title, Sadie McKee, which sounds more pinched in its frequency response and flatter in its dynamics than the others.

The Extras

All of the extras are presented in 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated. Audio only supplements are all presented with chapter stops every three minutes, but for some reason pausing, rewinding, and fast forwarding functionality are not supported.

The Sadie McKee disc contains the following extras:
  • Goofy Movies Number Four is a nine minute and 19 second short subject from 1934 narrated by Pete Smith that presents a mock "day at the movies" series of clips with wry narration.
  • Toyland Broadcast is a 1934 Harman/Ising short from the "Happy Harmonies" series. The video presentation of this two-strip Technicolor short looks very clean in terms of source flaws, but suffers from some obvious digital video noise reduction artifacts.
  • The Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and eleven seconds. It emphasizes the film's literary origins by beginning with a staged sequence of author Vina Delmar "writing" and sending her manuscript off to Liberty magazine followed by a headline about MGM buying the film rights. After this prologue, it settles into a pretty standard promotional piece with clips from the film.
The Strange Cargo disc contains the following extras:
  • Gable and Crawford is a newly produced featurette presented in color that runs thirteen minutes and 42 seconds. It looks at the personal and professional relationship of the two MGM megastars from the first of their eight pairings in Dance Fools Dance through Gable's death in 1960. On-camera comments are provided by Authors and Historians Richard Barrios, Warren G. Harris, Jeanine Basinger, Neil Maciejewski, Molly Haskell, and Crawford's daughter Christina Crawford.
  • More About Nostradamus is a ten minute and 54 second short from 1941 that consists of narration over dramatic re-enactments of events in the life of the 16th century spinner of prophesies, re-enactments of posthumous events he predicted, and newsreel footage of more recent events. The short winds up on a note of propaganda suggesting that Nostradamus predicted that the US would intervene in World War II and would be victorious.
  • The Lonesome Stranger is a 1940 Technicolor Hugh Harman MGM cartoon that parodies the Lone Ranger. It runs nine minutes and 15 seconds. The diminutive title character and his horse, Sliver, take on three grossly caricatured Mexican banditos. "Yoo Hoo, Sliver!"
  • The Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and 32 seconds and is a standard titles and clips promotional spot with no voiceover narration.
The A Woman's Face disc contains the following extras:
  • You Can't Fool a Camera is a 1941 ten minute and fourteen second short from the Romance of Celluloid series that looks at the development of motion photography, focusing mostly on the experimental work done with multiple still cameras by Eadweard Muybridge in the 19th century before rocketing forward to the early 1940s to show MGM cinematographers and directors at work on set including Joseph Ruttemberg, Ray June, Karl Freund, Robert Planck , George Folsey, William Daniels, Mervyn LeRoy, Norman McLeod, and Clarence Brown.
  • Little Cesario is a 1941 Technicolor Rudolf Ising MGM cartoon about an undersized alpine rescue St. Bernard who finally gets his chance to save somebody – with great difficulty
  • 4/19/1942 Screen Guild Playhouse Broadcast w/Bette Davis is a highy abridged radio version of the film starring Bette Davis in Crawford's role. Conrad Veidt and and Ossa Massen reprise their roles from the film, and Warren William also appears.
  • 11/02/1942 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast with Ida Lupino runs 57 minutes and 33 seconds presents another, less abridged radio program with Lupino in the title role. Brian Ahern also appears, and Veidt once again reprised his role.
  • The film's Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and 54 seconds, and strongly emphasizes the pedigree of the cast and crew.
The Flamingo Road disc contains the following extras:
  • Crawford at Warners is a newly produced twelve minute and seven second featurette presented in color. It traces Crawford's career after leaving MGM and signing with Warner. It covers her initially rocky start and her competition for parts with Bette Davis and Ida Lupino up until her Oscar-winning breakthrough in Mildred Pierce. It then shows how her roles evolved from acting showpieces the likes of which she rarely had during her MGM days to persona-dominated performances which would be come the hallmark of her later career. Along the way, her roles in such films as Humoresque, Possessed, It's a Great Feeling, Flamingo Road, The Damned Don't Cry, Goodbye, My Fancy, and This Woman is Dangerous are discussed as well as her post-Warner comeback in the independently produced Sudden Fear. Commentators include Barrios, Haskell, Basinger, Christina Crawford, and author/columnist Bob Thomas.
  • Curtain Razor is a Technicolor 1949 Friz Freleng-directed Looney Tunes cartoon running seven minutes and fourteen seconds. It features Porky Pig as the head of a talent agency auditioning various bizarre and humorous acts for his show.
  • 5/26/1950 Screen Directors Playhouse is a highly abridged radio adaption of the film featuring Crawford, David Brian, and director Michael Curtiz.
  • The Theatrical Trailer for Flamingo Road runs two minutes and is a fairly standard promo.
The Torch Song DVD contains the following extras:
  • Tough baby: Torch Song is a newly produced featurette running eleven minutes and 55 seconds and presented in color. It discusses Crawford's return to MGM and the circumstances surrounding the making of this not very good, but oddly compelling cult musical. Topics include the film's initial conception as a low-budget vehicle for Lana Turner as well as its Frankenstein's monster-like assemblage of abandoned songs from other musicals. One specific example that is highlighted is the aforementioned "Two-Faced Woman". Commentators include Barrios, Basinger, Haskell, Christina Crawford, Thomas, Crawford super-fan Neil Maciejewski, and Crawford's friend Herbert Kenwith. Sadly, Kenwith, a notable television director, subsequently passed away only a month before this DVD package was released.TV of Tomorrow is a very humorous Technicolor Tex Avery MGM cartoon from 1953 running seven minutes and six seconds. It consists of a series of blackout gags looking at comical "advances" in TV technology.
  • Jimmy Fund PSA is a three minute and 31 second charity spot featuring Crawford soliciting funds for the jimmy Fund child cancer center in Boston. It was produced to be shown in theaters throughout New England in the early 1950s.
  • Joan Crawford Recording Sessions is an audio-only feature that runs 31 minutes and four seconds. It contains no less than 24 takes of various lengths of Crawford essaying the song Follow Me. It is presented with 13 chapter stops occurring approximately every three minutes and not aligned with any particular takes. As with other audio features in this set, the user is locked out of the ability to rewind or fast-forward the track. It includes instances of between take studio chatter showing Crawford occasionally getting frustrated. A number of the last few takes feature Crawford being coached on singin the single word "Me" at the end of the song. Ultimately, Crawford's vocals were not used in the film.
  • The Theatrical Trailer for Torch Song runs a lengthy three minutes and 27 seconds and certainly does not shy away from showing the elements that would make Crawford's "…First Technicolor Triumph" a campy cult classic with numerous "Two-Faced Woman" clips and promises of "Crawford as You Always Remembered Her" (not quite) and "Crawford as You'll Never Forget Her" (more accurate).
Packaging

The discs are packaged in a five-panel digipack with a glamorous close-up of Crawford on the front and various black and white images from the included films adorning the packaging and disc art. These are set against lavender-highlighted background colors. A partially transparent slipcover holds the digipack together with text overlaying the front and back cover images. Original promotional art is not used on the discs or packaging, but it is used as the basis for each film's DVD menu screen.

Summary

For their second go at a Joan Crawford Collection, Warner has bundled a collection of lesser known but interesting Joan Crawford films making their DVD premiere into an attractively priced package. All are presented with very good audio and video quality except for Torch Song which has heavy grain and a wonky color scheme that may or may not be by design. In addition to the expected vintage shorts, cartoons, and trailers, extras also include a handful of short documentaries covering Crawford and Gable, Crawford at Warners, and the glorious debacle that is Torch Song.

Regards,


[PG]118874401[/PG]
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 4 Junior_V

Junior_V

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Posted April 22 2008 - 09:01 AM

This is a good collection and the wait was PAINFULL! 3 YEARS!Posted Image

I agree with people that the packing is tacky, but im happy to have the movies atlast. BUT, i would not mind if they re-packed like they did with Bette Davis vol 1 & 2. The three Bette collections looks great in the bookshell together.

2 more years till we get vol.3Posted Image

#3 of 4 Brian Saur

Brian Saur

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Posted April 22 2008 - 09:28 AM

Very cool! nice to see Strange Cargo finally make it to dvd! I am a big fan of that film...
DVD wish list: One Way Passage(1932), History Is Made at Night(1937), Phantom Lady(1944), Ride the Pink Horse(1947), Who's Minding the Mint?(1967), A New Leaf(1971), The Outfit(1973), The Gravy Train(1974), Buster & Billie(1974), Baby Blue Marine(1976), Deadly Eyes(1982), What Happened Was(1994)

#4 of 4 Corey

Corey

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Posted April 22 2008 - 03:18 PM

A long 2 years for volume 3. I hope Today We Live is in Cooper Vol 2.
Corey's most wanted R1 dvds:

Little Darlings (1980), My Cousin Rachel (1952), The Deep Blue Sea (1955), The White Cliffs of Dover (1944), Born to Be Bad (1950), Ivy (1947), Reckless (1935), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), The Barretts of Wimpole Street