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HTF DVD REVIEW: Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection



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#1 of 8 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted August 28 2008 - 07:45 AM

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Errol Flynn: The Warner Bros. Western Collection
Virginia City (1940) / San Antonio (1945) / Montana (1950)/ Rocky Mountain (1950)

The Films

Virginia City (1940 – Warner Bros. - 121 minutes)

Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Starring: Errol Flynn, Miriam Hopkins, Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart, Frank McHugh, Alan Hale, Guinn Williams

Set in the waning days of the Civil War, Virginia City finds Errol Flynn playing Union spy Kerry Bradford. Bradford and his loyal sidekicks Swenson (Hale) and "Marblehead" (Williams) escape from a Confederate prison with intelligence about a plot to steal gold from Virginia City, Nevada and transport it across the country in a last ditch effort to finance the South's flailing war efforts. Bradford is sent to stop the plot from succeeding. The Confederate officer in charge of the plan is Vance Irby (Scott), who was the head of the prison where Bradford was held. Once the two men recognize each other, they both know the score, and the cat and mouse games begin as Irby redoubles his efforts and Bradford aggressively pursues him. A couple of wild cards in the deck appear in the form of Confederate spy Julia Hayne (Hopkins), who develops a mutual attraction with Bradford before either knows which side they are on, and a gang of bandits led by John Murrell (Bogart), who would just as soon have the gold for themselves.

Virginia City is the "marquee" title in this collection, representing Flynn and Director Curtiz near the end but also at the peak of their thorny but ridiculously fruitful string of collaborations through the late 30s and early 40s. Conceived as a quick, less expensive follow-up to the Technicolor Dodge City from the previous year, the film carries over most of the key crew members and a good chunk of the supporting cast, losing leading lady Olivia De Havilland and Technicolor, but adding the interesting combination of Randolph Scott and Humphrey Bogart with Miriam Hopkins as the female lead.

Hopkins never quite ignites the screen with Flynn the way Olivia De Havilland or even Alexis Smith could, which diminishes the impact of her choice between duty and love central to the film's plot. Fans of Bogart will get a kick out of his role, which serves the same purpose as most of his supporting gangster roles from the 30s, with about the same probability of surviving through the final reel, but has the added novelty of being performed with a dodgy Mexican accent. An extra layer of peculiar stems from the fact that per the script, Bogart's character is an ex-cavalryman named Murrell, so at what point someone came up with the idea of playing him as the Frito Bandito remains a mystery.

The production ran into troubles, many of which had to do with the fact that filming started without a finished script. While Curtiz did not quite thrive in this environment the way he would a couple of years later with Casablanca, he did manage to knock out a very entertaining action adventure western. Seams from the script troubles are evident such as how the exciting wagon-circling climax leads somewhat awkwardly into a court martial scene and an appeal to Abraham Lincoln, but the fast pace, outstanding action and stuntwork, rousing Max Steiner score, and high charisma of the cast go a long way to smoothing over these rough spots.

San Antonio (1945 – Warner Bros. - 106 minutes)

Directed By: David Butler

Starring: Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, S.Z. Sakall, Victor Francen, Florence Bates, John Little, Paul Kelly

Errol Flynn plays cattleman Clay Hardin who has a bone to pick with powerful business man Roy Stuart (Kelly). Stuart is the wealthy leader of a gang of rustlers who have been running the herds of legitimate cattlemen into Mexico, transporting them along the border, crossing back into the US, and selling them as their own. Hardin's previous confrontation with Stuart's men resulted in his being shot and run out of the country. While laying low in Mexico, Hardin has managed to collect evidence implicating Stuart in his gang's rustling activities. With the aid of loyal friend Charlie Bell (Litel) Stuart sneaks back into San Antonio by stowing away in the private coach of actress Jeanne Star, scheduled to be the featured entertainer at the Bella Union saloon owned by Stuart and his business partner Legare (Francen). Legal complications and the double crossing intentions of Legare make it questionable if Hardin will survive long enough to deliver the evidence to authorities.

San Antonio may fall short of "classic" status due to its overly familiar plot and the lack of the strong male supporting cast which was a trademark of Flynn's best pictures, but it still has a lot to recommend it. Alexis Smith's actress is a much more capable and active heroine than is typical for these films, and comic relief, which in previous Flynn vehicles would typically come from his male comrades, is provided here by the humorously double-speaking S.Z Sakall and the eternally peeved Florence Bates as Smith's management team. As mentioned, Flynn is a little shorted on the sidekick end of things with Litel playing things loyal but bland. As the central antagonist, Paul Kelly is also a bit bland, but Victor Francen picks up the slack as a much more flamboyant co-villain. The lavish sets, costumes, and action sequences provide a lot of production value for your movie ticket money, especially noticeable during any scenes set at the Bella Union Saloon or in the shootout inside the decimated shell of The Alamo.

Trivia note: In a likely gentle dig at frequent Flynn director Michael Curtiz, S.Z. Sakall, a fellow expatriate Hungarian, is twice given a line of dialog remarking on seeing an "empty horse" after Flynn's character abandons his horse to slip into a stagecoach window. While producing The Charge of the Light Brigade, Curtiz was reported to have uttered the command, "Bring on the empty horses", when calling for a group of riderless steeds to be releases. Actor David Niven was amused enough by this exclamation to use it for the title of one of his published memoirs.

Montana (1950 – Warner Bros. - 76 minutes)

Directed By: Ray Enright

Starring: Errol Flynn, Alexis Smith, S.Z. Sakall, Douglas Kennedy, James Brown, Ian MacDonald, Charles Irwin

In Montana, Errol Flynn plays Morgan Lane, a second generation sheep herder whose father was killed in a range war in Montana. Despite powerful cattle herders posting signs all over their territory letting sheepherders know that they will be shot on sight, Lane is determined to raise his flock in Montana and convince the cattle folks that sheep and cattle can share the same land. His chief obstacles are the Singletons and the Ackroyds, two of the largest cattle families that have muscled out most of their smaller competition to control the range. The range will be consolidated even further when Maria Singleton (Smith) and Rodney Ackroyd (Kennedy) are married. Lane employs several strategies at once, initially posing as a peddler to get close to the major players and charm Maria and ultimately forming a coalition of bankers and smaller ranchers who are being muscled out by the hot-headed Ackroyd to help his cause. When Ackroyd and Maria find out about Lane's maneuvers behind their backs, things take a turn for the violent.

Containing way more plot ideas than its 76 minute running time can contain, Montana shows signs of having been scaled back from a more ambitious scope at some point in its production process. That being said, this film, more so than any other in the box set, demonstrates how Flynn's charisma can almost carry a movie on its own. One can forgive a lot of herky-jerky plotting and underdeveloped subplots for the simple pleasures of seeing Flynn and Smith singing a charming duet together or Flynn negotiating his way through a number of potentially lethal situations with the cattle Ranchers' goons.

The cast helps matters as well. While Douglas Kennedy is a not-too-interesting one-note villain, Alexis Smith gives an entertaining take on the type of fiery redhead role at which Maureen O'Hara specialized in her films with John Wayne. S.Z Sakall employs less double speak than in San Antonio, but still manages to amuse. His best bit is a price negotiation with Flynn's sheepherding partners early in the film. Paul E. Burke entertains in a standard whiskered comic relief "Gabby Hayes"-type role. The climactic stampede sequence injects some much needed excitement and production value with a polished blend of location photography, stuntwork, and rear projection process shots typical of Warner films of the era.

Unfortunately, the final resolution of the conflict between Flynn and Smith's characters strains credulity beyond the potential for any amount of audience good will to compensate.

Rocky Mountain (1950 – Warner Bros. - 83 minutes)

Directed By: William Keighley

Starring: Errol Flynn, Patrice Wymore, Scott Forbes, Guinn Williams, Dick Jones, Slim Pickens, Buzz Henry, Sheb Wooley, Chubby Johnson

In Rocky Mountain, Errol Flynn plays Confederate Captain Lafe Barstow, who is leading a group of eight soldiers on a secret mission from Robert E. Lee to assemble a group of Confederate-sympathizing outlaws for the purpose of opening up a western front in the war. Things go wrong from the beginning when only a single man (Petrie) shows up at their mountainous rendezvous spot, and he seems more like a squirrely criminal than a leader of a significant force. From their mountain perch, they witness a stage coach being pursued by a Shoshone Indian raiding party. The Confederates ride into the fray and drive the hostile Indians away, managing to save the coach driver, Gil Craigie (Johnson), and one of his three passengers, Johanna Carter (Wymore – who became Mrs. Errol Flynn between the time the film was shot and released). Events take a turn for the worse when they learn that Johanna's fiancé is Lieutenant Rickey (Forbes), a Union officer who they must take as a prisoner when he comes looking for her. The cherry on the lousy day sundae comes when they learn that Rickey's Indian trackers were actually Shoshone spies, one of whom escapes, giving away their location and assembling a war party for the purpose of attacking them.

While like Montana, Rocky Mountain was clearly produced on a smaller scale than Flynn's pre-war westerns, the filmmakers take their low-budget lemons and make lemonade. The film consists almost entirely of exteriors shot on location near Gallup, New Mexico. Veteran Warner director William Keighley and cinematographer Ted McCord integrate the landscape dramatically into just about every shot. By a combination of design and necessity (due to the terrain), the camera is frequently placed at dramatic angles shooting the actors from above and below, which combines with the high contrast black and white photography to create a noirish style, particularly during the heavily filtered day for night sequences. One such sequence on the eve of the Shoshone attack is so dark that it borders on playing in silhouette.

The unusual noirish look actually plays into the unconventional thematic nature of the film, which has a layer of existentialist hopelessness that you just do not see in other Errol Flynn westerns, not even when he played Custer in They Died with Their Boots On. The Confederate sympathizers for whom Barstow and his men are waiting at their remote mountainous rendezvous spot may as well be Godot, and the Shoshones can be viewed as a more action-oriented version of a Grim Reaper planning to engage them in an unwinnable game of chess. Flynn himself shades his performance with a certain world-weariness that was atypical of his previous seven westerns.

In addition to the heavy stylization and maximized use of location, the filmmakers also made the most of their low budget by pulling together a fantastic cast of supporting players, most of whom were as capable as stunt riders as they were as actors. This makes for some exciting action sequences, particularly the opening stage coach rescue and climactic battle. Notable among them are Slim Pickens and Sheb Wooley in their screen debuts, veteran western sidekicks Guinn Williams and Chubby Johnson, and Dick Jones who also appeared in a prominent supporting role in Virginia City when he was only twelve.

The Video

Virginia City features an outstanding black and white transfer with excellent sharpness, light natural looking film grain and infrequent damage. Quite a lot of effort appears to have been put into cleaning the film up in the digital domain.

San Antonio Features a very good video rendering of the Technicolor film. Film grain is moderate but natural looking. Slight mis-registration is noticeable, but is mild in the first reel, and negligible by the final reel. There are some instances in later reels where registration varies across the frame, suggesting that scenes were created from separation masters with variable shrinkage. Most of the above relates to the condition of the film element, and there are few if any issues with the video presentation and compression. Dark scenes, which were an issue with previous video versions I have seen, looked outstanding with excellent shadow detail.

The Technicolor hues of Montana are similarly well rendered, although the first reel seems to suffer from a bit more fading than the rest of the film.

Rocky Mountain does not produce quite the range of black and white contrast as Virginia City due to its cinematographic style, but it still has more than enough to convey the multiple night set scenes effectively including a super high contrast scene on the eve of an Indian attack that plays in almost complete (synthetic filtered "day for night") darkness. It suffers from some thin ringing along high contrast vertical edges most noticeable during daylight exteriors.

The Audio

All films are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks.

Virginia City has a very good mono track with excellent fidelity for a film of its era. Hiss is very light and noise reduction artifacts are occasionally noticeable, but are not obvious with casual listening.

The audio for San Antonio is noisier than Virginia City, carrying a noticeable amount of "crackle" indicating a likely optical audio track source, but it is not excessive or distracting.

Audio tracks for Montana and Rocky Mountain are similar in quality to Virginia City if not a little better in the fidelity department with even fewer noticeable noise reduction artifacts.

Extras

All video extras are in black and white 4:3 video with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound unless otherwise indicated below:

Virginia City includes a screen specific audio commentary from historian Frank Thompson. His comments are thorough and well-researched, and he only repeats himself a couple of times. He does run out of things to say as things progress, only chiming in infrequently during the film's final two reels. One slight inaccuracy is that he suggests that Virginia City is a rare Flynn Western where his non-American accent is worked into the plot. In fact, it is addressed in at least half of the westerns in which Flynn appeared, usually tagging him as Irish, although he got to be Australian in Montana. The disc also includes a vintage behind the scenes promotional featurette called The Light Brigade Rides Again (5:13) which is essentially an extended trailer for the 1936 film The Charge of the Light Brigade, but is of interest since it features footage of Flynn and Curtiz on set and was not included on the DVD release of that film last year. The original theatrical trailer for Virginia City (1:59) is a standard effort with enthusiastic voiceover accompanying film clips. Finally, the "Warner Night at the Movies" feature is a collection of an hour of vintage 1939 material including:
  • Theatrical trailer for "Dispatch from Reuters" (2:29)
  • Newsreel footage of Admiral Byrd's expedition to the Antarctic (2:17)
  • A Technicolor musical short called Cinderella's Feller which uses the classic Cinderella story to give several juvenile stars, including Juanita Quigley and Scotty Beckett, a chance to participate in singing and dancing production numbers (19:30)
  • Another Technicolor short called The Flag of Humanity tells the story of Clara Barton and the American Red Cross through narration and dramatic reenactment (19:28)
  • A Tex Avery-directed Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon entitled Cross Country Detours consists of a series of spot gags involving various scenic US locations (9:39)
  • A Friz Freleng-directed Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon entitled Confederate Honey spoofs on Gone with the Wind with Crimson O'Hairoil being romanced by Confederate soldier Ned Cutler as played by Elmer Fudd. It includes a number of celebrity caricatures (7:03)
San Antonio comes with the film's original Theatrical Trailer which is a standard hyperbolic narration over film clips piece (2:04). The "Warner Night at the Movies" feature is a collection of 54 minutes of vintage 1945 material including:
  • "The Corn is Green" Theatrical Trailer (1:37)
  • Newsreel footage announcing the passing of General George S. Patton with lots of historical footage of him in a retrospective of his career (1:52]
  • Frontier Days is a Technicolor short with narration over staged footage looking at the territory between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains in the 19th century and the western migration that changed it. It uses this historical setting to tell a quick tale of law men (and woman) against a group of cattle rustlers and train robbers known as "The Stacey Gang". My favorite part is an unintentionally funny moment during a gunfight on a train car where one of the lawmen takes cover behind a two inch pole while firing off a couple of shots. There's a good deal of old fashioned misogyny in the condescending way the Sheriff treats the daughter of his deceased predecessor.(17:05)
  • Peeks at Hollywood Uses the framing device of prospective starlets using a telescope at the Griffith Observatory in Hollywood as a launching pad for looking at the world of terrestrial Hollywood Stars including Arthur Lake and Errol Flynn among others (8:53)
  • Story of a Dog is a piece on the screening and training of dogs to work with the US Coast Guard with a first person narrator taking on the role of a dog as he progresses through the program (10:05)
  • A Tale of Two Mice is a Technicolor Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin featuring two mice that are caricatures of Abbott and Costello scheming to get some cheese that is guarded by a cat(7:30)
  • Wagon Heels is a Technicolor western-set Merrie Melodies cartoon directed by Bob Clampett in which Porky Pig faces off against the "Mighty Redskin Injun Joe the Super Chief".(7:09)
Montana includes three two reel shorts from 1943 identified as "Santa Fe Trail westerns". Unfortunately, these shorts have nothing to do with the Errol Flynn western named Santa Fe Trail which I had hoped would be rescued from public domain purgatory by this box set. They instead are a series of low budget (action set-pieces frequently use generous amounts of "borrowed" footage), fast paced, surprisingly violent western dramas starring Robert Shayne. Titles included are:
  • Oklahoma Outlaws in which Shayne and his father must contend with a group of Sooners who took over the vice markets in Tulsa after the Oklahoma land rush of 1893. (19:51)
  • Wagon Wheels West features Shayne as a grown man who as a child witnessed his trader father get swindled and murdered by a crooked businessman. He returns to the town where it happened with a Marshal's badge to bring the criminal to justice. The sudden barn dance at the end of this one is unintentionally hilarious.(17:28)
  • Gun to Gun features Shayne as the orphaned ward of a wealthy Mexican land owner, Don Diego, who fights back when local businessmen try to muscle the kindly Don out of his land. (17:34)
Also included is the film's original Theatrical Trailer which promises a "Gateway to a Different and Thrilling Realm of Adventure" (2:22). Finally, the "Warner Night at the Movies" feature is a collection of 21 minutes of vintage circa 1949 material including:
  • "Chain Lighning" Theatrical Trailer (2:09)
  • Newsreel footage of a "plague" of frogs in Paris, France(:32)
  • So You Want a Raise is a George O'Hanlon "Joe McDoakes" short in which Joe, goaded on by his wife, Alice, attempts to extract a raise from his boss with increasingly disastrous consequences (10:50)
  • It's Hummer Time is a Technicolor Robert McKimson-directed "Merrie Melodies" short in which a cat unsuccessfully attempts to capture an elusive hummingbird but finds himself instead repeatedly running afoul of a bulldog who subjects him to several creatively named progressively more painful methods of punishment.(7:03)
Rocky Mountain comes with an audio commentary from Flynn biographer Thomas McNulty. While he occasionally comes across a bit unpolished as if he is reading his notes from a sheet of paper, they are some pretty thorough notes with few dead spots through the film's running time. In addition to screen specific information about the film's production, he also offers up observations about Flynn's life and career, Hollywood and western conventions, and technical information such as how the Warner sound department created distinctive gunshot effects. He owns up to being a bit biased in his admiration for Flynn, which helps statements such as calling They Died with Their Boots On "one of the greatest films ever made", go down a little easier. When he is operating off-script, he tends to repeat certain facts and observations, such as the fact that Flynn and Wymore married and the observation that Slim Pickens has a great voice for westerns. Were I not opposed to conspicuous consumption of alcohol, I would suggest that these statements could be incorporated into an audio commentary drinking game. Posted Image Kidding aside, it is difficult for a non politician to speak continuously for 82 minutes about anything, and this is an extremely informative and worthwhile commentary for fans of Flynn and/or the film. Also included are three more entries from the Warner "Santa Fe Trail" series of western two-reeler shorts. The shorts, all from 1944, are as follows:
  • Roaring Guns stars Robert Payne and is directed by Jean Negulesco. It involves conflict between pioneer farmers and hydraulic gold miners eroding their land in 1877 California (19:10)
  • Wells Fargo Days is in two-strip "Cinecolor" and stars Dennis Moore as a "Man from Tascosa" who makes an effort to turn away from his violent ways until the Wells Fargo agent who befriended him is shot in a robbery (20:27)
  • Trial by Trigger stars Robert Payne as a California logger who must fight to protect his passel of redwoods from a powerful Midwestern lumber company's strong-arm tactics (21:24)
Also included is the film's Theatrical Trailer, which includes a snippet of just about every action scene in the film that does not reveal how it ends and plays up Patricia Wymore as the next big thing (2:31). Finally, the "Warner Night at the Movies" feature is a collection of 22 minutes of circa-1950 vintage shorts as follows:
  • "The Breaking Point" Theatrical Trailer (2:16)
  • silent Newsreel footage of record floods in the American west (2:11)
  • So You Want to Move is a George O'Hanlon "Joe McDoakes" short in which Joe's wife, Alice, goes away to WAC camp leaving Joe alone to deal with moving to a new house three blocks away. Mayhem ensues when Joe enlists his neighbor's help to get it done on the cheap (10:44)
  • Two's a Crowd is a Technicolor Chuck Jones-directed "Merrie Melodies" cartoon in which Claude the Cat tries to permanently evict the newest resident of his home, a puppy with a propensity for sudden yapping. The result is a lot of cat pain and property damage.
Packaging

All films are encoded on dual-layered DVD-9 discs that are packaged in standard Amaray cases with cover art derived from vintage promotional art for the films. The discs are in turn packaged in a thin cardboard case with a cover image consisting of a half-close-up of a "cowboyed-up" Flynn with his signature colt pistol in frame. Menus are arranged sensibly with the "Warner Night at the Movies" selection available from both the main menu and special features menu. At the time of release, the titles in this set are not being made available separately.

Summary

Warner once again does justice to one of its signature stars with a well-produced box set containing half of Errol Flynn's western output, all on DVD for the first time. Audio and video transfers are very good across the board, and the generous extras include two very informative commentaries as well several vintage featurettes.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#2 of 8 OFFLINE   CineKarine

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Posted August 28 2008 - 08:12 AM

Great review! I can hardly wait to get my set!!! Posted Image
I especially love Virginia City and San Antonio.

On a musical note: As long as Alexis Smith's vocals were dubbed in both San Antonio and Montana (by Bobbie Canvin in the former and by Bonnie Lou Williams in the latter), I wish they had opted to do the same thing for Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. As much as I love her work as an actress, she was no singer, and her one song in this film is definitely the low point of this otherwise immensely entertaining movie!
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#3 of 8 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted August 28 2008 - 08:31 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by CinéKarine
Great review! I can hardly wait to get my set!!! Posted Image
I especially love Virginia City and San Antonio.

On a musical note: As long Alexis Smith's vocals were dubbed in both San Antonio and Montana (by Bobbie Canvin in the former and by Bonnie Lou Williams in the latter), I wish they had opted to do the same thing for Miriam Hopkins in Virginia City. As much as I love her work as an actress, she was no singer, and her one song in this film is definitely the low point of this otherwise immensely entertaining movie!
Since you mentioned it, as charming as the musical number is in Montana, I think the scene might have worked even better if they let Smith do her own singing or they at least dubbed her with someone less polished that would blend better with Flynn's unprofessional but authentic sounding voice.

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA

#4 of 8 OFFLINE   John Hodson

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Posted August 28 2008 - 09:22 AM

A quick warning to UK purchasers of the R2 set; Warners PR people actually issued a press release which was a virtual cut and paste of the R1 release, when in fact the UK box will only be a three disc set and will exclude Virginia City (it's not known at this stage whether there will be any extras).

Consequently, some etailers are mistakenly showing this as a four disc set, some as a three; it is cheap (under £10 in some cases), but my order for the R1 collection is in.

Excellent work Ken; I can't wait.
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#5 of 8 OFFLINE   Robert Crawford

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Posted August 28 2008 - 09:35 AM

Thanks for the great review. I watched Rocky Mountain yesteday and thought the dvd presentation was excellent. I'm half way into watching it again with the audio commentary. Once that's done then Virginia City is up next for me.





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#6 of 8 OFFLINE   Russell G

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Posted August 28 2008 - 10:02 AM

Great review as always, can't wait for this one to arrive with the other western set! Posted Image

#7 of 8 OFFLINE   AL KUENSTER

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Posted August 28 2008 - 11:32 AM

Thanks Ken, your reviews as always are much appreciated. Another purchase for me.
Al Kuenster

#8 of 8 OFFLINE   Ken_McAlinden

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Posted August 28 2008 - 11:01 PM

Note: I just noticed that my text from the audio section had been garbled and truncated as originally posted and fixed it. One of these days I really need to learn how to use a word processor properly. I am failing Cut and Paste 101. Posted Image

Regards,
Ken McAlinden
Livonia, MI USA