America's first movie "sweetheart" is profiled in a new documentary, leading these vintage titles in Blu-ray upgrades and DVD debuts.
"Mary Pickford: The Muse of the Movies" (Cinema Libre, 2012, $19.95, full frame, featurette, audio interview, text biographies, photo gallery). The story of Pickford, who became known as "America's Sweetheart," coincides with the development of cinema in the United States, as well as the cult of celebrity worship. And this fascinating collection of clips, interviews and narration by Pickford herself (gleaned from audio interviews, with actor Michael York filling in the gaps) is a first-rate examination of her life and the industry she helped create.
Pickford's rise initially seems unremarkable as she vacillates between large and small parts in early Nickelodeon and short films, but because she stands out in the crowd, and her acting seems more natural and accessible than those around her, she quickly gains a following and by 1914 is a huge star, rivaled in stature only by Charlie Chaplin.
Like Chaplin, however, she was more than merely an actor. Pickford also became involved in production, eventually forming United Artists with Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and her soon-to-be second husband Douglas Fairbanks. Pickford was also the first performer to have her name above the title and at one point commanded 50 percent of her films' revenues, as well as being a major player in the creation of the Academy Awards.
Film and history buffs will find much to enjoy, but the film is also highly entertaining for the more casual viewer.
"Crime Does Not Pay: The Complete Shorts Collection" (Warner Archive, 1935-1947, b/w, six discs, $39.95, full frame, 49 shorts, one bonus short, available at www.WarnerArchive.com). These propagandistic anti-crime two-reelers (about 20 minutes each) were shown in theaters between features over a dozen years beginning in the mid-'30s.
As the franchise title suggests, each is a compact story of a crime that does not go unpunished, often with a twist ending worthy of Alfred Hitchcock's later TV series. Today they may seem a bit old-fashioned and arch, but the crimes explored — from smuggling of illegal aliens to drunken driving — are remarkably in tune with our times. Later, in the '40s, they often dealt with World War II themes, such as Nazi spies.
Robert Taylor, an unknown at the time, stars in the first entry, and other up-and-comers who show up along the way include Laraine Day, Cameron Mitchell and Barry Nelson, along with many recognizable character players (including Mormon actor Moroni Olsen). And many soon-to-be-famous directors helmed episodes: Jacques Tourneur ("Cat People"), Fred Zinnemann ("From Here to Eternity"), Joseph Losey ("The Servant"), etc.
"Hoosiers" (MGM/Blu-ray, 1986, PG, $19.99, widescreen, deleted scenes, audio commentary, featurettes). Gene Hackman is superb (and everyone else is great, too) in this rousing slice-of-life drama set in the 1950s. True story of an over-the-hill coach hired to get a high school basketball team in shape, though the town is openly hostile toward him. Dennis Hopper also scores as the alcoholic father of an embarrassed player.
"Deliverance" (Warner/Blu-ray, 1972; R for violence, nudity, language; $34.99, featurettes, trailer, 44-page booklet packaging). Beautifully photographed (especially in this hi-def edition) but chilling tale of four Atlanta businessmen (Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty and Ronny Cox) taking a canoe on a river trip deep in the woods of Georgia when their lives are changed forever after an encounter with two despicable villains. The famous rape scene is still disturbing, as are the choices confronted by the protagonists.
"Meatballs" (Lionsgate/Blu-ray, 1979, PG, $14.99, widescreen, audio commentary, trailers). This summer-camp comedy is a run-of-the-mill farce basically adapted to the "Animal House" template, but what keeps it afloat is Bill Murray in his first starring role (while he was still on "Saturday Night Live"). He's frequently funny though the film itself is less so, but Murray's signature sardonic wise-guy character is already in full bloom.
"The Journey" (Warner Archive, 1959, $17.95, widescreen, trailer, available at www.WarnerArchive.com). Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr are reunited (after "The King and I") in this melodrama about Westerners fleeing Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Fine performances help, including Jason Robards (in his first film), Robert Morley, E.G. Marshall, Anne Jackson, Anouk Aimee and young Ronny Howard.
"Back From Eternity" (Warner Archive, 1956, b/w, $17.95, widescreen, available at www.WarnerArchive.com). Entertaining, soapy yarn about a plane's forced landing deep in a South American rainforest, where the passengers confront headhunters. Robert Ryan is the pilot, Rod Steiger a convicted killer, Anita Ekberg a call girl, with Gene Barry, Phyllis Kirk, Fred Clark, Beulah Bondi and, in her film debut, Barbara Eden.