Chris Hicks: Oft-requested 1936 'Show Boat' leads bevy of vintage titles new to DVD
Some really terrific vintage movies have finally made their way to DVD, led by the 1936 version of "Show Boat" and the first teaming of Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. (The Warner Archive and Sony Choice Collection titles below are available at warnerarchive.com.)
“Show Boat” (Warner Archive, 1936, b/w, $18.95). If you are familiar with the title, you’re probably thinking of the color 1951 film with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ava Gardner. And that’s a good one. But this 1936 black-and-white version is equally entertaining, maybe even better, with the great Paul Robeson putting all his heart into “Old Man River,” as well as torch singer Helen Morgan in her final film singing emotional renditions of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” and “My Bill.”
Having those two talents on hand is enough to make this version a keeper, but in addition there’s Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winniger, Hattie McDaniel (three years before her Oscar win for “Gone With the Wind”) and a fine array of character players.
Based on the 1927 Broadway hit by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, which was itself based on an Edna Ferber novel, the film spans 40 years beginning in the late 1880s with 18-year-old Magnolia (Dunne) working on the family’s Mississippi show boat when she meets roguish gambler Gaylord, whom she marries. But hard times are ahead. A secondary plot has the mixed-race Julie (Morgan) passing for white with a Caucasian husband who leaves her. All of which was heady stuff in the 1930s, and the film still feels relevant.
“The Lady in Question” (Sony Choice, 1940, b/w, $18.95). Uneven little comedy-drama marks the first of five films in which Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford were paired, but they aren’t the stars here. Forgotten character actor Brian Aherne gets top billing as a juror largely responsible for acquitting Hayworth of murder. She then takes up with Aherne’s son, played by Ford. Some bright moments, foreshadowing “Gilda” six years later, which made them a top box-office team and pushed Ford to A-list stardom.
“What Price Hollywood?” (Warner Archive, 1932, b/w, $18.95). The quintessential behind-the-scenes Hollywood soap opera, provided story elements, plot devices and character templates for countless subsequent films, especially “A Star Is Born.” Constance Bennett (sister of Joan) stars as a waitress taken under the wing of an alcoholic Hollywood director, earning a screen test and studio contract, eventually suffering the trappings of fame.
“The Oklahoma Kid” (Warner Archive, 1939, b/w, $18.95, trailer). James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart leave behind their urban gangster personas to star in wait for it a Western. That’s right, Jimmy and Bogie riding the range — and they handle themselves very well. The plot is standard-issue cowboy fare, as the rascally Oklahoma Kid (Cagney) robs the much nastier villain Whip McCord (Bogart, dressed in black). So Bogart gets revenge by framing Cagney’s father for murder. (Cagney’s “Here Comes the Navy” and “Winner Take All” are also new to DVD.)
“I Am the Law” (Sony Choice, 1938, b/w, $18.95). Routine crime melodrama gets a lift from Edward G. Robinson, when he was young and at the top of his game. Robinson stars as a New York law professor appointed as a special prosecutor to clean up city corruption, but he’s out of his depth until he recruits his students to help. It's snappy and well-paced.
“The Vitaphone Comedy Collection, Volume Two: Shemp Howard (1933-1937)” (Warner Archive, 1933-37, b/w, two discs, $24.95, 21 shorts). This second collection of early-sound Vitaphone films is comprised of 21 two-reel shorts (roughly 20 minutes each) starring Shemp Howard, who, before and after this period, was one of the Three Stooges (brother of Moe and Curly Howard). Silly skit-driven shorts are products of their era and some work better than others. But Stooges fans in particular will be interested in seeing the evolution of Shemp’s comedy style as he rises from bit parts to starring roles. Included are his “Joe Palooka” shorts.
“The First Time” (Sony Choice, 1952, b/w, $18.95). This domestic comedy stars Robert Cummings and Barbara Hale, who would both find greater stardom on television than in movies (he had several popular sitcoms, she was Della Street on “Perry Mason”). They make an appealing couple as harried first-time parents, with good support from a cast of familiar character players, led by Jeff Donnell and Bill Goodwin.
“Samson and Delilah” (Paramount/Blu-ray, 1949, $22.98, trailer). One year after its DVD debut, this Cecil B. DeMille epic that kicked off the biblical-movie craze of the 1950s gets a Blu-ray upgrade, and it does look gorgeous. The movie itself is a bit hokey, a warm-up for DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” still six years away. But Victor Mature is well cast as Samson, and though a bit too old, Hedy Lamarr is a fetching Delilah. Angela Lansbury co-stars. And these days you are not likely to see anything like this respectful credit: “Based upon the history of Samson and Delilah in the Holy Bible, Judges 13-16."
“Rings Around the World” (Sony Choice, 1966, $18.95). Here’s one for circus buffs. Don Ameche hosts this spinoff of his TV documentary series “International Showcase,” which had him touring the world to film unique performances, many episodes focusing on the great circus acts of Europe. Included here are trapeze, juggling, balancing, sword, archery and high-wire artists, along with lions, horses, elephants, tigers and yes, clowns.
“The Crimson Blade” (aka “The Scarlet Blade,” Sony Choice, 1964, $18.95). The British Hammer Studios, which specialized in horror, also produced a number of swashbucklers, including this one, set during the English Civil War. It’s action-packed with an interesting story but is hampered by lead performers who are never as charismatic as the villains, especially young Oliver Reed.
“The Visitor” (Drafthouse/Blu-ray, 1979, R for language and violence, $29.95, featurette, trailer; 16-page booklet). Calling this metaphysical sci-fi/horror fantasy “bizarre” doesn’t begin to cover it. A gender-reversed riff on the second “Omen” film, an 8-year-old girl with supernatural powers plots to destroy the world while a mystical alien (John Huston) tries to stop her, though he takes his time. Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters and Sam Peckinpah co-star, with Lance Henricksen as a sinister figure romancing the girl’s mother. In a framing device, Franco Nero is a blonde, blue-eyed Jesus telling the story to bald children. (Also on DVD, $27.95)