David O. Selznick left behind a legacy of handsomely mounted, literate films that pushed the limits of production values in a then-young art form called the motion picture. Kino’s The David O. Selznick Collection box set traces the producer’s career over a five-year period with these previously released editions of five of his films: Bird of Paradise, A Farewell to Arms, Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Star is Born and Nothing Sacred.
The David O. Selznick Collection: Bird of Paradise (1932), A Farewell to Arms (1932), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937)
Studio: Kino (originally produced by either RKO, Paramount or Selznick International Pictures)
Length: 82/89/102/111/73 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Languages: English 2.0 Mono
Film Release Dates: September 13, 1932/December 8/April 2, 1936/April 27, 1937/November 25, 1937
Disc Release Date: November 13, 2012
Review Date: December 9, 2012
The Golden Age of Hollywood may not have glittered as brightly had it not been for David O. Selznick. While the majority of modern moviegoers are likely to associate his name with Gone with the Wind, his 1939 magnum opus that remains his most popular and enduring film, it couldn’t have been possible without a prior track record of successful films. In five years, he worked his way up the ladder in Hollywood, to become the Head of Production at RKO, followed by a two-year stint with his own unit at MGM (whose boss, Louis B. Mayer, was his father-in-law). In 1935, his drive for higher production values and a desire for autonomy led him to start his own studio, Selznick International Pictures. This five-film box set traces his career from his RKO days to his initial success as an independent producer.
Bird of Paradise (1932)
Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) is a young man sailing to a Polynesian island with his friends (John Halliday, Richard Gallagher, Bert Roach, Lon Chaney, Jr.). As the men throw gifts to natives swimming in the water, Johnny spots a shark and tries to scare it away with a hook, but he slips and falls into the water. When Luana (Dolores del Rio), the beautiful daughter of the King (Napoleon Pukui), saves Johnny’s life, they fall in love only to learn her father has betrothed her to a prince. During their wedding, Johnny appears at the last minute to take Luana to another island. However, what seems like an idyllic life in this new surroundings may not last.
Efficiently directed by King Vidor, the film is a compelling pre-code melodrama with an exotic island setting that benefits from location shooting on Catalina Island and Hawaii. Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are an appealing enough couple, and though the film’s subject matter handles the lovers’ cultural differences with respect, merely being made in an era when interracial romance was, as one of the l. Benefiting from being made prior to 1934 allowed King Vidor to suggest nudity without actually showing it, leaving it to the viewers’ imaginations. Max Steiner’s score utilizes tropical motifs effectively. The film’s biggest set piece is an exciting whirlpool sequence that still holds up in the face of 80 years of technical improvements. Unfortunately, the film barely made back its $752,000 budget.
A Farewell to Arms (1932)
Lt. Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper) is an American ambulance driver for the Italian Army on the front lines of WWI. While he and a friend, Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), are caught in a bombing raid, they take shelter with a British nurse named Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). After Rinaldi and Frederic go on a double date with Catherine and Helen Ferguson (Mary Phillips), respectively, Catherine turns out to be more interested in Frederic. Military regulations forbid their relationship, but after Frederic ends up in the Milanese hospital where Catherine gets sent after Rinaldi finds out about it, they renew their love for one another. After Frederic goes back to the front, Catherine learns she is pregnant and leaves the hospital for Switzerland, writing letters to her lover all the while.
Ernest Hemingway was not a man to mince words, and he was not pleased with Frank Borzage’s romantic approach to the story. Nevertheless, Borzage imbues the film with a visual splendor, including an exciting fight sequence and a scene told shot from the point of view of Frederic’s bed. He also manages to extract fine performances from his cast; Gary Cooper is the perfect choice to capture Lt. Henry’s everyman qualities and his love for Catherine despite some of the things she does. Had the film been made two years later, Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H.P. Garrett’s screenplay would have had to make major concessions where the film’s third act plot twist and the issue of abortion are concerned. Charles Lang’s cinematography uses bold yet soft contrasts of light and dark to complement the lavish set design and lend an air of romance to the atmosphere.
The film received two Academy Awards (Best Cinematography and Best Sound) and two nominations (Best Picture and Best Art Direction). Selznick ended his career with a coldly-received 1957 remake starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones.
Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936)
After the Earl of Dorincourt (C. Aubrey Smith) disowned his son for marrying an American commoner (Dolores Costello), all his sons eventually died, leaving his estranged grandson Ceddie Errol (Freddie Bartholomew) as the only heir to his title. Ceddie and his mother, whom he simply calls “Dearest,” live a modest life in Brooklyn, where his friend, Dick Tipton (Mickey Rooney), is a bootblack. After the Earl’s lawyer tracks Ceddie down, he brings him and his mother to England, but only Ceddie stays at the castle because the Earl forbids the boy’s mother to live with them. Ceddie impresses the Earl by holding his own on theories of governance and pacifism, bonding with the staff on sight and even breaking through the old man’s seemingly impenetrable emotional shell. After Ceddie’s introduction to royal society, his position is threatened when an Minna Tipton (Helen Flint) claims that her son Tom (Jackie Searl) is the son of the earl’s eldest son.
Based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the film provides a talented young actor, Freddie Bartholomew, with the perfect showcase. His convincing yet genuinely heartwarming performance as the young lord makes the film, and he works exceptionally well with C. Aubrey Smith, a fine choice as the crotchety Earl. Mickey Rooney is effective in his small but vital role. When dealing with a sentimental story like this, one must keep in mind how much sentimentality the audience can take. John Cromwell’s sensitive direction guides the actors’ performances deftly, making their relationships credible.
A Star is Born (1937)
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) yearns to be a Hollywood actress. Despite her aunt (Clara Blandick) and father’s protestations, Esther’s grandmother (May Robson) gives her the money and the gumption to give it a chance. Though Hollywood work is scarce, Esther soon finds a friend in Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), an out-of-work assistant director. When they go to a concert, she encounters Norman Maine (Fredric March), a formerly prominent actor now struggling with alcoholism, making a scene. After she gets a job as a waitress, she sees him again and notices her, leading her to a screen test. Soon, she becomes “Vicki Lester,” landing the female leading role alongside Norman in The Enchanted Hour, which makes her dreams of stardom come true. Meanwhile, as Esther and Norman marry, his drinking continues to get worse despite his promises to change.
The impact of this story on audiences of the time was greater than it would be today. In the days before TV gossip shows, new media technology and changing social mores made celebrity scandal commonplace, studio bosses were able to keep its stars’ less savory behavior under wraps. And much has been written—even a book—about the film’s celebrated 1954 Judy Garland-starring musical remake (and its much less celebrated 1976 musical re-remake, not to mention Clint Eastwood’s planned re-re-remake that was supposed to star Beyoncé). this 1937 original still packs an emotional punch 75 years later. Janet Gaynor’s superb performance as Esther makes you really care for her and want her to become a star, while Fredric March proves equally adept at capturing Norman’s desperate decline. William A. Wellman directs the film with an efficient sheen that balances the script’s pathos enough to let Dorothy Parker’s notoriously acidic wit and bluntly honest view of fame shine through.
Nothing Sacred (1937)
At a charity event in New York, a man (Troy Brown) posing as an African nobleman is exposed as a fake when his wife shows up. Wally Cook (Fredric March), the newspaper reporter who staged the hoax, asks his boss Oliver Stone (Wally Connolly) to give him his old beat back after demoting him to the obituaries. He finds himself assigned to the sad story of Hazel Flagg (Carole Lombard), a factory worker in Warsaw, Vermont, dying of radiation poisoning, at least according to Dr. Enoch Downer (Charles Winninger). Having received a monetary settlement from her factory, she uses it on a stylish New York trip. The city gives her a hero’s welcome, going so far as to shower her with a ticker tape parade. While Wally sees her story as a chance to clear his name, the two of them start to fall in love.
A stingingly funny indictment of media hysteria that still rings true today, Nothing Sacred is one of the quintessential screwball comedies of the 1930s. Ben Hecht’s screenplay gives Carole Lombard and Fredric March a smartly constructed plot and a rapier wit to work with. They handle their roles perfectly, never hitting a false note. William A. Wellman’s direction handles the glossy production with restraint, letting the comedy shine through the lush sets.
All films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios in AVC-encoded transfers. Authorized by Selznick’s estate, the boxes state all the films are mastered from his personal 35mm prints, which were stored at the George Eastman House. As expected, Kino has transferred the prints “as is.”
Bird of Paradise:
The print used in this B&W transfer shows every day of its 80 years. Splice marks, dirt and scratches are plentiful. On the plus side, the film’s grain structure appears to be intact and the contrast is decent; blacks are dark and whites are bright without being blown out. The picture is sharp enough to reveal how many shots appear to be using diffusion filters.
A Farewell to Arms:
This print is a cut above most of the others. It starts out with some scratches, but it soon becomes much cleaner overall with consistent, natural grain patterns, rich blacks and grays, bright whites that never bloom. However, it still has some cue marks and missing frames.
Little Lord Fauntleroy:
The film starts with the Selznick International logo, which then fades out in a way that suggests the fade was video-generated. After that, the credits are unnaturally soft, but sharpness improves a bit in the main feature. Despite considerable dust, scratches and splice marks, the contrast is good, with inky blacks and fairly bright whites.
A Star is Born:
Shot in Technicolor, the transfer features a warm, subdued color palette. Contrast is high; blacks are extremely dark to the point where shadow detail is lost, especially in interior scenes. The level of sharpness varies from shot to shot, but the amount of fine detail isn’t nearly as much as an Ultra-Resolution transfer would have revealed. Moderate grain and dirt are present throughout, while splices, scratches and missing frames mar the picture on a couple of instances.
Long unavailable in any version even remotely resembling its 3-strip Technicolor cinematography, Disney performed an extensive restoration on this film in the 1990s. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the restoration has yet to see the light of day on home video. This dye-transfer print-sourced transfer sports subdued color with inconsistently timed fleshtones, fairly high contrast, average sharpness, and occasional dirt and scratches. It’s better than the two-color versions that used to circulate, but it still isn’t great.
All films are 2.0 LPCM mono.
Bird of Paradise:
The soundtrack is very shrill with constant distortions, pops and hissing. The noise spreads across multiple speakers. Bass becomes powerful in a scene where the natives beat the drums.
A Farewell to Arms:
The audio is clear but compressed and boomy, with sporadic pops and consistent crackling.
Little Lord Fauntleroy:
An average 30s mono track with as expected levels of distortion, compression and optical print noise.
A Star is Born:
This track has some pops and hisses with an average level of distortion and compression for the era.
This film’s mono track leaves a bit to be desired where dynamic range is concerned. There is distortion, but it doesn’t overwhelm the intelligibility of the dialogue.
All extras are 1080p.
A Star is Born:
—Still Gallery: 5 production photos and 11 lobby cards, one of which erroneously calls the film the first in Technicolor.
—Technicolor Wardrobe test (1:15)
All other films:
All films have 1080p trailers for Nothing Sacred, A Star is Born and Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.
Kino’s The David O. Selznick Collection chooses five fine films that demonstrate his knack for picking the best source material, his push for higher production values and his gift for picking ideal actors and directors for the source material. While these Blu-ray transfers put every bit of wear and tear of the prints on display, they are superior to the alternative: other public domain DVDs of even worse quality.