Vintage movies galore have arrived on DVD this week, led by a pair of Ann Sothern comedies from her RKO ingénue days in the 1930s. (All of these Warner Archive and Sony Choice Collection titles are available at warnerarchive.com.)
“Smartest Girl in Town”/“She’s Got Everything” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1936/1937, b/w). Ann Sothern is perhaps best remembered for her 10 films in the 1940s “Maisie” franchise and her two hit TV sitcoms in the 1950s, “Private Secretary” and “The Ann Sothern Show.” But her bubbly personality and quick wit served her well in many memorable movies, from “A Letter to Three Wives” (1949) to “The Best Man” (1964) to “The Whales of August” (1987).
Here, Sothern plays the female lead opposite Gene Raymond in two hourlong RKO comedy programmers. “Smartest” is a mistaken-identity romance with gold-digger Sothern falling for wealthy Raymond but ditching him because she thinks he’s penniless. “Everything” has Sothern as a former rich girl, now broke, finding work as a secretary. Then her pals try to fix her up with the boss.
Sothern is sharp in both films, although Raymond is rather wooden. And for some reason, the best one-liners go to the seasoned supporting players: Helen Broderick (in both films), Eric Blore, Victor Moore and Billy Gilbert.
“Alamo Bay” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1985; R for violence, language, sex, nudity). A married shrimpboat fisherman on the Texas Gulf Coast and his mistress (played by real-life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan) find themselves in conflict over Vietnamese refugees that have moved into the area. Supporting characters played by nonactors are weak and the script has holes, but the strength of the subject matter and excellent performances by Harris, Donald Moffat, Ho Nguyen and especially Madigan make this one worth a look. (This film had its disc debut last year on Blu-ray on the Twilight Time boutique label.)
“Too Tough to Kill” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1935, b/w). This nifty little thriller has Victor Jory as a tough-guy foreman of a construction crew working on a tunnel with a looming deadline. Meanwhile, a rival company is trying to sabotage the effort, risking workers’ lives. The tight hourlong B-movie is a little lost gem that is especially gripping in its tunnel sequences.
“Lightning Guns” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1950, b/w). Typical, formulaic but entertaining entry in the Durango Kid movie series starring Charles Starrett. Smiley Burnett is his comic sidekick as they get involved in a land feud over a dam being built in the Piute Valley. It has a nice blend of action and comedy for fans.
“Sky Full of Moon” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1952, b/w, trailer). Carleton Carpenter stars in this romantic comedy about a modern-day cowpoke (circa 1952), naïve in the ways of the world, who heads to Las Vegas for a rodeo and falls for a casino girl (Jan Sterling). But she may not be as trustworthy as she seems. Light, easygoing with some interesting location footage of early ’50s Las Vegas.
“The Mayor of 44th Street”/“Radio Stars On Parade” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1942/1945, b/w). Two very odd gangster musicals, the first with George Murphy as an agent getting trouble from an ex-con and a teen gang, with Anne Shirley and the great Mary Wickes in support, and the second starring the comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney (sort of a low-rent Abbott & Costello), along with Frances Langford, eluding criminals while taking part on Ralph Edwards’ “Truth or Consequences” radio quiz show.
“A Slight Case of Larceny” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1953, b/w, trailer). Mickey Rooney and Eddie Bracken are hapless goofballs trying to make it rich with harebrained, get-rich-quick schemes in this farce about gas-station owners siphoning gas illegally to catch up with the competition in a price war. You’ve seen it all before, but Rooney and Bracken make an energetic team.
“Wildcat Bus” (Warner Archive/DVD, 1940, b/w). Weak crime flick about crooks stealing passengers away from a struggling bus line. But it does have Fay Wray as the daughter of the owner who investigates and helps bring the bad guys down. Wray, of course, gained fame as the main squeeze of “King Kong” (1933), and she grew up in Salt Lake City.
“Bait” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1954, b/w). A microbudget tale of two men (Hugo Haas, John Agar) in love with the same woman (Cleo Moore) as they all search for a lost gold mine. Haas also directed, and in both roles he never met scenery he couldn’t chew. Moore specialized in playing the femme fatale in many a B-movie noir during her brief 1950s career.
“Thunder at the Border” (Sony Choice/DVD, 1966, dubbed in English). One of the weaker entries in the “Winnetou” series of German films about the chief of the Apaches, based on the German novels by Karl May. Here, Winnetou (played, as always, by Pierre Brice) goes up against a vicious gang that has killed four members of his tribe. Rod Cameron fulfills the sidekick role in place of franchise regular Lex Barker.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." Website: hicksflicks.com