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DVD Review HTF DVD REVIEW: Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Ken_McAlinden, Dec 3, 2007.

  1. Ken_McAlinden

    Ken_McAlinden Producer

    Feb 20, 2001
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    Livonia, MI USA
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    Kenneth McAlinden
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    Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection
    Annie Oakley (1935), My Reputation (1946), East Side, West Side(1949), To Please a Lady (1950), Jeopardy (1953), Executive Suite (1954)

    Studio: Warner Bros.

    Year: 1935-1954

    Rated: Unrated

    Film Length: Various

    Aspect Ratio: 4:3

    Subtitles: English, French, English SDH

    Release Date: October 30, 2007

    Warner Home Video has afforded Signature Collection treatment to Barbara Stanwyck. While many of her iconic films were made for other studios, and a couple of her pre-code titles for Warner seem to be rolling out as part of their "Forbidden Hollywood" series, this collection pulls together four films she made for MGM in the late 1940s and early 1950s with one film each from 1930s RKO and 1940s Warner Brothers.

    The Films

    Annie Oakley (1935 - RKO - 90 minutes)

    Directed By: George Stevens

    Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Preston Foster, Melvyn Douglas, Moroni Olsen, Chief Thunderbird

    Annie Oakley tells the story of Annie (Stanwyck), a crack markswoman from the backwoods of southern Ohio (the borough of Brooklyn, Ohio if her accent is any indication). When Annie enters a shooting contest with egotistical Toby Walker (Foster), who has just signed a contract as a trick shot expert with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she matches him shot for shot. This impresses show producer Jeff Hogarth (Douglas) enough to have him encourage Buffalo Bill Cody (Olsen) to offer her a contract. After Toby gives her some tips on showmanship, Annie's popularity in the show begins to eclipse his own. A blossoming romance between Annie and Toby is complicated by their professional rivalry, Toby's blustery city-slicker front, and Jeff's own feelings for Annie. Fortunately, Chief Sitting Bull (Thunderbird) is around to straighten things out.

    This early entry in George Steven's feature directorial resume is a fairly amusing light entertainment for those with a taste for non-ironic cornpone Americana. Stevens and the cast hit just about the perfect notes to make the unambitious and heavily contrived plot work. I kidded Stanwyck's accent in my synopsis, but she creates such a likeable gee-whiz characterization for Annie, that it never really bothered me very much.

    Poor Melvyn Douglas never really presents much of a romantic rival to Preston Foster, but if the film had committed itself too heavily to the melodramatic elements of its plot, it would not have worked. Moroni Olsen and James Olsen are on hand primarily to offer up surprised or amused reactions to the goings on around them, and Chief Thunderbird offers skillfully performed, but politically incorrect, 1930s-style comic relief.

    My Reputation (1946 - Warner - minutes)

    Directed By: Curtis Bernhardt

    Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, George Brent, Warner Anderson, Lucile Watson, Eve Arden, John Ridgely

    My Reputation tells the story of the recently widowed Jessica Drummond (Stanwyck). Jessica finds it hard to adjust to life after losing her husband to a protracted illness. She maintains a brave front for her two boys, but after they leave to attend boarding school, she begins to feel overwhelmed living with only her maid in her swanky suburban Chicago home. She tries to pass her time doing charity work and dining with old friends, but constant reminders of her loss, indecent proposals from husbands of friends, and her overbearing mother who has been wearing widows' black for twenty five years, all add to her depression. On the spur of the moment, she accepts an invitation from longtime friends Ginna (Arden) and Cary (Ridgley) Abbot to join them on a vacation to Lake Tahoe. While there, she has a meet cute with Major Scott Landis (Brent) who helps her home after a skiing mishap, and they become friendly over the next few days. When Landis is subsequently stationed in Chicago, she begins a relationship that is complicated by the needs of her children, the realities of Landis' military life, and the disapproval of her mother and her gossipy circle of friends.

    Of all the films in this collection, My Reputation is the one for fans who like their women's melodrama straight with no winks or distractions. Filmed in 1943, and available exclusively to military audiences until 1946, its story of how a widow moves on with her life was a sadly relevant one for a nation at war. While the sudsy story drags from time to time, and George Brent is not exactly cut from the Clark Gable leading man cloth that his role seems to demand, the film is saved by an excellent performance from Stanwyck and extremely high production values.

    The sets look much more lavish than was typical for wartime productions, and cinematographer James Wong Howe makes them look ten times better still. Even if you are not a fan of melodramas, fans of classic cinema should see this film at least once just for the incredible lighting set-ups. There is one scene where Brent moves in to kiss Stanwyck in front of a fireplace, Stanwyck pulls away, and plays the rest of the scene in a medium close-up framed within Brent's shadow. It is a masterpiece of complimentary acting, directing, and camera technique in synergy with the emotional content of the script.

    East Side, West Side (1949 – MGM - 108 minutes)

    Directed By: Mervyn LeRoy

    Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, James Mason, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner, Cyd Charisse, Nancy Davis

    East Side, West Side concerns Jessie Bourne (Stanwyck) and her Wall Street financier husband Brandon (Mason). Brandon is a natural charmer and reportedly reformed philanderer. His efforts to do right by Jessie after past indiscretions are hampered by his tendency to enjoy dancing a bit too close to temptation's flame. This is illustrated clearly one evening when he stops on the way home from work at a Manhattan night club for a drink and has flirtatious conversations with both young and idealistic Rosa Senta (Charisse), and his predatory former mistress, Isabel Lorrison (Gardner). After a photograph of Rosa and Brandon appears in the next morning's paper, Rosa contacts Jessie, assures her that nothing improper happened, and enlists her help explaining the situation to ex-cop and intelligence operative Mark Dwyer (Heflin), a man recently returned from Europe who she has been in love with since she was a child. Isabel continues to pursue Brandon, and Brandon finds her frustratingly difficult to resist. Meanwhile, Mark seems more interested in the unhappily married Jessie than in Rosa who he still sees as the young kid from his old neighborhood. Events lead up to a murder in which a number of the main players become suspects.

    At its heart, this film is another fairly standard romantic melodrama although as the synopsis above indicates, it has been jazzed up with a bunch of complications. While the murder mystery element sounds intriguing in theory, the half-hearted execution and resolution leave a lot to be desired. The film's heart is clearly in the intersecting romantic triangles, and these are the aspects that work the best. In addition to ensuring that the film has a brunette hotness factor that is off the charts, Ava Gardner and Cyd Charisse, also create well-drawn characterizations that serve the story well until one is killed off and the other seemingly forgotten. One frequently gets the impression that the Production Code is preventing the story from going in the direction it naturally wants to go, but Stanwyck, Mason, and Heflin manage to convey enough unspoken desire in their performances to make the story almost work.

    Sharp-eyed viewers should keep an eye out for future TV stars William Frawley and William Conrad in supporting roles.

    To Please a Lady (1950 - MGM - 91 minutes)

    Directed By: Clarence Brown

    Starring: Clark Gable, Barbara Stanwyck, Adolphe Menjou, Will Geer

    In To Please a Lady, Clark Gable plays daredevil open-wheel racer Mike Brannan. Brannan's reputation for recklessness leads to on-track accidents and a villainous reputation among racing fans. Stanwyck is Regina Forbes, a poison-quilled newspaper columnist who all but accuses Brannan of murder in one of her columns which results in his being banned from the midget car racing circuit. Regina checks back on Mike several months later and discovers he is driving in a dangerous stunt show. Despite her reputation for cold-bloodedness and the disapproval of her editor (Menjou), Regina finds she is falling for Mike, and begins a clandestine relationship. Mike uses the money raised through the stunt show to purchase a stake in a car owned by Jack Mackay (Geer) and enters the Indycar circuit. He qualifies for the Indianapolis 500 after a successful season, but the more he races, the more Regina becomes concerned that he is the reckless monster she described in her earlier column.

    This is easily the worst film in this DVD collection, and it really only has two things going for it: stars and cars. The racing scenes have some impressive stunts and some more carefully planned than usual rear projection work, and it is exciting to watch for fans of the history of the sport. The story is beyond clichéd, however, and the dialog is just plain awful. Probably the most hilarious/offensive scene to modern audience involves Gable slapping then kissing Stanwyck, which instantly results in her dropping her proto-feminist hard-boiled columnist front and swooning like an infatuated schoolgirl, inclusive of sneaking behind the backs of the "adults" so she can meet up with him for subsequent dates. Without giving away too much, the film draws a parallel between Mike and Regina's mutual professional recklessness that makes the actions and conclusions of Regina at the end of the film unintentionally disturbing and subversive. Somehow, Gable and Stanwyck manage to negotiate all of this ridiculous drama without soiling their reputations too badly, but it takes all of their combined star charisma and accumulated cinematic good will to do so.

    Jeopardy (1953 - MGM - 69 minutes)

    Directed By: John Sturges

    Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan, Ralph Meeker, Lee Aaker

    In Jeopardy, Helen Stilwin (Stanwyck) is traveling on a fishing trip in the Baja area of Mexico with her Husband, Doug (Sullivan), and her son, Bobby (Aaker), when calamity strikes. Doug falls through the rotten planks of a jetty and finds himself pinned between a large wooden beam and the rocky ground. Unable to move the beam, Helen must race to find help and/or some rope in order to dislodge the beam and free Doug before the tide comes in and drowns him. What she finds instead is Lawson (Meeker), an American fugitive who is on the run from the Federales. Lawson is more interested in using Helen and her car to evade capture than in saving her husband, requiring Helen to think fast and make some tough decisions before time runs out.

    Made by John Sturges shortly before he discovered big budgets and CinemaScope, Jeopardy is an effective potboiler that plays like an above average B-Picture with an A-leading actress. In the initial set-up scenes, Stanwyck seems like she is being wasted in the role of a semi-incompetent spouse, but as soon as she is contending with Meeker, her performance and the movie both get a lot more interesting. At that point, the simple and suspenseful plot set-up is shifted a few degrees into film-noir territory with Meeker's character delivering lines such as "I like cheap perfume. It don't last as long but it hits harder".

    The film wisely errs on the side of efficiency by lasting less than 70 minutes, resulting in a tense, fast-moving drama that moves along on rails without stretching its straightforward plot too thin. The scenes between Barry Sullivan and Lee Aker, while not as interesting as the ones between Stanwyck and Meeker are just frequent enough to ensure that the audience never loses track of what is at stake for Stanwyck's character. Sullivan is at his best in these scenes, playing a man trying to tell his son what he knows could be the last things he ever says while simultaneously trying to be comforting and reassuring.

    Executive Suite (1954 - MGM - 104 minutes)

    Directed By: Robert Wise

    Starring: William Holden, June Allyson, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederick March, Walter Pidgeon, Paul Douglas, Louis Calhern, Shelley Winters, Dean Jagger, Nina Foch

    Executive Suite tells a tale of succession in the corporate world after the unexpected death of the CEO of the Tredway Furniture Corporation, Avery Bullard (played in the opening scenes, in a clever conceit, by you the viewer through the use of subjective camera). Since there was no executive vice president, there is no clear heir among the company's vice presidents and board members. Vice President and Controller Loren Shaw (March)aggressively maneuvers to line up votes with tactics that include acting like he already has the job, blackmailing Sales Vice President Josiah Dudley (Douglas), bribing Board Member George Caswell (Calhern), and sweet talking major stockholder and psychologically unstable rejected lover of Bullard, Julia Tredway (Stanwyck). Youngest board member and Research and Development Vice President McDonald "Don" Walling does not want to see the company fall into the hands of Shaw, whose purely bottom line business philosophy will result in lower quality merchandise and demoralized employees. Unfortunately, the two most likely alternatives, Manufacturing Vice President Jesse Q. Grimm (Jagger) and longest standing Finance Vice President Fred Alderson (Pidgeon), are too close to retirement to want to accept the position. Out of necessity Don finds himself a reluctant candidate for CEO, but his peer's concerns about his inexperience, his politically indelicate manner, and his wife's concerns about the effect the job would have on their family present obstacles nearly as formidable as Shaw.

    This is very much a William Holden film with Stanwyck as part of a large, balanced, ensemble cast. Unfortunately for her, the part of the suicidally depressed major stockholder and spurned lover of the departed CEO is one of the weaker elements. She is required to violently shift between underplayed observer and near-hysterical woman scorned with implausible frequency. Fortunately for the audience, the rest of the ensemble comes off great and the film is very entertaining. At no point does the viewer feel like they are watching a morality play about corporate ethics, although all of the elements are certainly present.

    In an interesting choice for a big-budget MGM film, director Wise completely eschews the use of underscore, occasionally filling the soundtrack with the ambient sounds of the hustle and bustle of life outside the boardroom instead. This approach relies on the actors and the tightly constructed Ernest Lehman script adapted from the Cameron Hawley novel to lead viewers through the appropriate emotional beats. This was a pretty significant vote of confidence on the part of Wise for Lehman, for whom this was his first produced screenplay, but it pays off remarkably well and proved to be the first in an uninterrupted series of classic Lehman screenplays throughout the 1950s.

    The Video

    I will start off by saying that all of the 4:3 black and white presentations of the six films on this set are of very high quality with film-like transfers and natural grain. For those interested in splitting hairs, here are the details:

    Annie Oakley, the only film in this collection from the RKO library, is a little bit softer than the other titles in the collection with the most prevalent, although not excessive, grain. It also suffers from sporadic dropped frames. There appear to be no video related issues other then minor compression artifacts noticeable in some of the grainiest scenes.

    My Reputation, the only film from the classic Warner Bros. library, is the best transfer in the set and looks to be derived from an element very close to the original negative. As much as I gushed about the James Wong Howe cinematography in my discussion of the film, equal praise should be directed towards its presentation on this disc. It is simply outstanding in its detail and depth of contrast.

    East Side, West Side presents a very good picture with infrequent light element wear such as speckling. It is a bit grainier than My Reputation, probably due to the element being a bit further removed from the negative, but still very impressive.

    To Please a Lady is the grainiest of the MGM library films in the collection, although not as grainy as Annie Oakley. This leads to some compression artifacts noticeable in some of the brighter areas of the screen.

    Jeopardy appears to be derived from a very clean film element and despite being encoded on the same dual layered disc, is free of the compression issues that were evident in To Please a Lady. Overall it is comparable in quality to East Side, West Side

    Executive Suite exhibits light grain and mild speckling suggesting it is derived from an element that has been printed a bit more than those for other MGM titles in the set, but detail is very good. Video artifacts are rare, although I did notice a couple of very minor instances of jagged lines on diagonal high contrast edges.

    The Audio

    All feature films in Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection are presented with Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtracks encoded at 192 kbps.

    Annie Oakley, the oldest title in this collection by more than a decade, has the most limited frequency response, and offers a very quiet track with little background noise.

    The track for My Reputation exhibits excellent audio fidelity with extremely low level background crackle characteristic of optical mono sources.

    The track for East Side, West Side exhibits more audible hiss than the other titles in the collection, but in many ways outshines them in terms of fidelity and dynamics, probably due to the relative lack of noise reduction artifacts.

    The soundtrack of To Please a Lady has very low level hiss with a slightly harsher sound than other titles in the collection due to mild but noticeable distortion.

    Jeopardy features a very quiet track with barely perceptible noise. This is accomplished without adding significant noise reduction artifacts, making this one of the better audio presentations in the collection.

    Executive Suite features another very strong track with very little audible hiss or crackle.

    The Extras

    All of the extras on Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection are presented with Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio.

    Special features on Annie Oakley include:
    • Main Street Follies - A 1935 black and white Vitaphone musical short featuring rubber-legged dancer Hal LeRoy running 21 minutes and sixteen seconds. A writer is ordered by his tyrant producer to spy on a competitor's show starring LeRoy. After failing to do so for two weeks, he makes up a description of it out of whole cloth, with each segment he describes illustrated by a production number starring LeRoy.
    • Into Your Dance - A 1935 2-strip Technicolor Friz Freleng "Merrie Melodies" short running seven minutes and ten seconds. Set aboard "Captain Benny's" Showboat featuring an orchestra leader who looks like a prototypical Porky Pig, after some standard orchestra and conductor gags, various comical participants in an amateur night show perform, much to Captain Benny's frustration.
    Special Features on My Reputation include:
    • Jan Savitt and His Band - A 1945 black and white Warner-Vitaphone short featuring violinist and band leader Savitt running ten minutes and eight secinds. After a brief introduction explaining how Savitt blended his symphonic background with popular music when creating his band, we are treated to a handful of staged performances by them in rehearsal, night club, recording studio, and radio broadcast settings. One of the songs features vocalists Shirley Van and Robert Arthur singing "Some Sunday Morning" and the fourth number features Helen Warren singing "Dearest Darling". The final beach-set number features an acrobatic routine by the Lipham Children.
    • Daffy Doodles - a 1945 Robert McKimson Technicolor Merrie Melodies short running seven minutes and ten seconds. Daffy Duck is a renegade graffiti artist drawing moustaches on every publicly displayed picture he can find, and Porky Pig is a police officer trying to apprehend him. For some reason, the right 15% or so of the screen is blurry through the whole presentation
    • 7/7/1947 My Reputation: Screen Guild Playhouse – An audio-only feature running 30 mintes and 12 seconds. This is a heavily abridged "Lady Esther Screen Guild Players" radio adaptation of the film starring Alexis Smith and Wayne Morris. Smith fares well, but Morris always sounds like he is seeing his lines for the first time. This and the other two radio adaptations in this DVD collection are presented with the fast forward and rewind controls unusable, but with chapter stops every three minutes.
    • 4/21/47 Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast – An audio-only feature running one hour and 21 seconds. Hosted by William Keighley, this adaptation features Stanwyck and Brent re-creating their roles from the film and is presented complete including all of the Lux soap commercials.
    • Theatrical Trailer - runs one minute and seventeen seconds. It starts out with a shot of an opening book labeled the "Diary of a Free Soul" suggesting the events depicted are from Stanwyck's character's diary, but then evolves into a standard text over film clips promo.
    Extras on East Side, West Side include:
    • Stuff for Stuff - a 1949 short from MGM's "Passing Parade" series running ten minute and 40 seconds, It looks at the history of how global manufacturing and trade affect prosperity and peace ending with a plug for the Marshall Plan and the United Nations.
    • Counterfeit Cat a typically zany 1949 MGM cartoon from Tex Avery in which a cat disguises himself as a dog in able to get past another dog who is guarding a pet bird.
    • Theatrical Trailer runs two minutes and 27 seconds. It emphasizes the literary origins of the film with separate narrators describing the film as a woman's story and a man's story.

    Extras on the To Please a Lady/Jeopardy are split over menu screens for each film on the double feature disc. From the To Please a Lady menu, the only extra is:
    • Theatrical Trailer - Running two minutes and two seconds, it is a pretty standard promo emphasizing the stars and cars.
    From the Jeopardy menu, the following special features are included:
    • 3/15/53 Lux Radio Theater Broadcast - A 48 minute and 33 second radio adaptation featuring Stanwyck. It has some very noticeable distortion and awkward edits removing all of the introductions and Lux soap commercials. The straightforward and exciting plot of the film lends itself to a one hour radio drama as well or better than a high-profile feature film, so this adaptation plays particularly well.
    • Theatrical Trailer - Runs two minutes and 51 seconds and gives away most of the best twists in the film. It has a great 1950s-style overdramatic baritone narration, though, with a somewhat lurid marketing hook emphasizing Stanwyck's character's willingness to do anything to save her husband if you know what I mean and I think you do.

    Extras on Executive Suite include:
    • Commentary by Oliver Stone – Stone offers an enthusiastic commentary on the film, talking at length about how the film reflects its times as a turning point in post depression American business. Having grown up in the 1950s with a stockbroker father, Stone has a particular affinity for this film. He talks a little bit about how he addressed similar themes in Wall Street, and at one point, he also draws a parallel between the passing of the company CEO without identifying a clear successor and the passing of Alexander the Great. Most of his time, however, is spent offering notes on the cast and filmmakers (we even hear him rustling the papers of his notes as he lists some extensive credits for some of the actors). He runs out of gas towards the end largely due to his enthusiastic desire to make his major points about the film, its themes, and its characters up front, but it is still a worthwhile listen. He makes a good point while discussing William Holden that while people generally associate 1950s acting with the rise of method actors in general and Marlon Brando in particular, the public at the time was equally or more enamored of leading men along the lines of Holden and Burt Lancaster, who embodied a form of the era's masculine ideal.
    • Out for Fun - A 1954 black and white short in the "Pete Smith Specialty" series running nine minutes and 26 seconds. It features Dave O'Brien as a man pursuing various forms of recreation including Golf, Duck Hunting, and Model Airplanes with a comical lack of success commented on via narrator Smith.
    • Billy Boy - A 1954 Technicolor MGM Tex Avery short running six minutes and four seconds in which a laconic wolf farmer tries to deal in increasingly extreme ways with a problematic baby billy goat who is eating everything in sight.
    • Theatrical Trailer - A promo that emphasizes the large ensemble cast with a syrupy underscore that changes the tone of the scenes dramatically versus the music-free film.


    The DVDs are packaged in standard-sized Amaray-type cases with cover art derived from original theatrical poster art. To Please a Lady and Jeopardy are presented as a double feature encoded on separate layers of an RSDL DVD-9 disc. Neither film spans both layers, so it is unclear why the disc was authored as an RSDL rather than a standard dual layer disc. The five cases are in turn enclosed in a thin cardboard box with a glamorous studio photograph of Stanwyck on the cover.

    In an interesting touch, the disc menu for Executive Suite, like the film itself, contains no music. Instead, it is accompanied by various exterior street sounds. It is very loud compared to the film, though, which can be a slight annoyance when moving between the two.

    All of the titles are available individually outside of the box.


    While I personally would consider "Executive Suite" to be the only flat-out classic in this collection, the closest thing to a bad film in Barbara Stanwyck: The Signature Collection is To Please a Lady, which has enough star power and racing action to at least make it watchable. Audio and video quality is above even Warner Home Video's usual high standards for their catalog titles. Extras are limited to vintage trailers, short subjects, and cartoons with the exception of a decent audio commentary from Oliver Stone on Executive Suite.

  2. Bill Parisho

    Bill Parisho Stunt Coordinator

    Jan 16, 2004
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    While all of the titles in this collection seem interesting, no question about it, Executive Suite is the classic in the bunch. The first time I saw this movie, I was hooked. And I only saw it for the first time a year ago! And that was on television!

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