Fans still clamor for a lot of vintage movies that have never been released on DVD, and very high on that list is “Red Dust,” which finally arrives this week, along with a bevy of other golden oldies and a few Blu-ray upgrades. (Warner Archive titles are available at www.WarnerArchive.com.)
“Red Dust” (Warner Archive, 1932, b/w, $18.95). This pre-censorship potboiler focuses on top-billed Clark Gable as a hot-blooded rubber-plantation overseer in Indochina involved with second-billed Jean Harlow, as a street-smart, wisecracking loose woman. That is, until sophisticated — and married — Mary Astor catches his eye.
An excellent example of how a great script allows a film to depict obsessive passion without resorting to the graphic sex and nudity that is so prevalent today. There’s no doubt as to what is going on, and it’s portrayed in a very adult manner with witty dialogue, but it’s not anywhere near as offensive as it would be in a 21st century film.
It’s also a fine example of why certain stars are so beloved: Gable is at his most charming, Harlow is funny, smart and sexy, and their onscreen chemistry is palpable. The only drawback here is some of the racial stereotypes on display. Not to excuse such material, but when watching films this old it’s important to put them into historical perspective.
“Hold Your Man” (Warner Archive, 1933, b/w, $18.95). How big a star was Harlow? A year after “Red Dust” she co-starred with Gable in this comic melodrama and their billing was switched: She was first; he was second. This entertaining effort begins as a comedy and later shifts to drama as cynical Harlow teams up with con artist Gable for a few scams. After she’s incarcerated and sure that he’s forgotten her, Gable comes up with a few surprises.
“Sunset Blvd.” (Paramount/Blu-ray, 1950, b/w, $26.98, deleted scene, featurettes, photo galleries, trailer). Billy Wilder’s classic satire of the movie business is biting and very dark, and it resurrected the career of former silent star Gloria Swanson, thanks to her striking, unforgettable performance as the deluded Norma Desmond.
William Holden also scores as a failed screenwriter whom Norma manipulates into becoming her gigolo. Erich von Stroheim is wonderfully understated as Norma’s protective butler, and Cecil B. DeMille, Buster Keaton, Hedda Hopper and other screen legends appear as themselves, while Old Hollywood is as much embraced as it is skewered.
New among the copious bonus features is a deleted scene of a comic song that was thought to be too inside in its lampooning of the movie studios.
“Guys and Dolls” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1955, $34.99, featurettes, trailer; 44-page book packaging). Marlon Brando is an odd choice to play Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson but he pulls it off pretty well in this sprightly adaptation of the Broadway musical about a gambler trying to court a Salvation Army sergeant (Jean Simmons) who is trying to save him. A wonderful song score, Frank Sinatra is in top form, and Vivien Blaine and Stubby Kaye delightfully reprise their stage roles.
“Lili” (Warner Archive, 1953, $18.95). Enchanting tale of an orphan (Leslie Caron) who joins a carnival and charms everyone she meets, in particular a bitter puppeteer (Mel Ferrer) who expresses his feelings through his marionettes. Too bad she’s in love with the handsome magician (Jean Pierre Aumont) who is married to his assistant (Zsa Zsa Gabor).
“Ada” (Warner Archive, 1961, $18.95). Susan Hayward is a powerhouse in this timely story of political corruption and manipulation. She stars as a woman with a dark past who marries a Southern gubernatorial candidate (Dean Martin) in the midst of a dirty campaign. When he becomes governor but remains a puppet for private interests, she bulldozes the way toward reform.
“I Thank a Fool” (Warner Archive, 1962, $18.95). Hayward also stars in this contrived thriller as a former doctor who serves prison time for a mercy killing. When she’s offered a caregiver job by the lawyer that prosecuted her (Peter Finch) she is wary but takes it anyway, which leads her to the unraveling of a mystery.
“House of Dark Shadows” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1970, PG, $19.98).
“Night of Dark Shadows” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1971, PG, $19.98). These two theatrical films are derived from the popular gothic daytime-TV soap opera “Dark Shadows,” which is also the title of Tim Burton’s recent spoof. If you’ve seen Burton’s comedy, you’ll recognize the plot in “House,” as Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) seeks a cure for his vampirism. “House” is actually quite good. “Night” is less so, though fans won’t care. (Also on DVD, $14.96 each.)
“Perry Mason: The Original Warner Bros. Movies Collection” (Warner Archive, 1934-37, b/w, three discs, $29.95, six films). It’s hard to think of the intrepid defense attorney without envisioning Raymond Burr, who embodied the character on television from 1957-66, then in TV movies from 1985-93.
But in the 1930s, six theatrical features brought Erle Stanley Gardner’s character to life, with Warren William starring in the first four, then Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods, respectively, in the last two. All six are here, and though some are better than others, each provides a fascinating look at early Hollywood’s take on the crime-solving lawyer, and unlike the TV series, each film here is an adaptation of a Gardner novel.
“Seven Keys to Baldpate” (Warner Archive, 1929/1935/1947, b/w, two discs, $24.95, three films). Before creating Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers wrote a novel that provided the basis for these three films, all of which carry the book’s title and follow the template of an earlier stage adaptation by George M. Cohan. The comic mystery has a writer accepting a bet he can come up with a book in 24 hours, so he heads for a summer lodge closed for winter. He’s told he has the only key but six eccentrics consistently interrupt his work. Creaky by today’s standards but film buffs will enjoy all three.
“Four Movie Collection: Hollywood Hits: Shamus/Physical Evidence/The Anderson Tapes/Breakout” (Mill Creek, 1973-90, PG/R, two discs, $9.98). The first two films star Burt Reynolds: “Shamus” at the peak of his career and, on the downhill slide, “Physical Evidence,” this set’s only R-rated film. But neither offers much. “The Anderson Tapes,” however, has Sean Connery in his prime in a spiffy caper flick, while “Breakout” is a terrific action flick with Robert Duvall trying to prove he is innocent of a murder conviction with help from Charles Bronson.
“Four Movie Collection: Hollywood Hits: Hero/The Slugger’s Wife/Crazy in Alabama/I’ll Do Anything” (Mill Creek, 1973-90, PG-13, two discs, $9.98). These four are all minor comedies, the latter three very hit and miss, while “Hero” is an offbeat satire with an all-star cast led by Dustin Hoffman.