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Chris Hicks: James Dean’s films receive gorgeous Blu-ray upgrades

Published: Friday, Aug. 28 2015 9:30 a.m. MDT

James Dean and Natalie Wood star in James Dean and Natalie Wood star in "Rebel Without a Cause," one of Dean's three starring movies before his death. All three have been upgraded to Blu-ray for the "James Dean Ultimate Collector's Edition" box set, now available. (Warner Home Video)

Can you name James Dean’s three starring pictures? If so, you’ll be interested in the new Blu-ray upgrades for each film, along with hi-def remasters of “The Right Stuff,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “The Bishop’s Wife” and “Billy Rose’s Jumbo.”

“James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1955/1956, PG/PG-13/G, seven discs, $99.99, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, featurettes, newsreels, trailers, screen/wardrobe tests; documentaries: “James Dean Remembered,” “American Masters: Sense Memories,” “George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey”; 48-page photo book; photo, memo and poster replications). The films, of course, are “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” both released in 1955, and “Giant,” released a year later, after Dean’s death.

And all three are masterworks. No need to expound much on them except to say that if you haven’t taken them in, each is a must-see, if only to discover why Dean is considered such an influential figure.

“East of Eden,” adapting the front half of John Steinbeck’s novel, was Dean’s first starring role and signaled a new era in movie acting. “Rebel Without a Cause” is, of course, his most iconic performance, and he’s amazing as a troubled teen trying to figure out his place in a topsy-turvy world. And “Giant,” sometimes referred to as the “Gone With the Wind” of Texas, is an oil-baron epic with Dean holding his own against Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, no small feat.

The documentaries are also fascinating; the George Stevens film was released theatrically in 1986, at which time I gave it a four-star review in the Deseret News.

And that’s what this set gets for Dean fans, as it’s loaded with bonus features and collectibles. But perhaps the best reason is that the movies have received pristine hi-def upgrades and look absolutely stunning. (Each film is also available separately in a book-packaged Blu-ray set, $27.98.)

“The Right Stuff” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1983, PG, two discs, $27.98, deleted scenes, audio commentaries, featurettes, PBS documentary: “John Glenn: American Hero”; 40-page book packaging). This epic three-hour-plus look at the beginnings of the U.S. space program is based on Tom Wolfe’s book and is told in tandem with the story of Chuck Yeager’s breaking the sound barrier. The film is funny, exciting and extremely entertaining.

Sam Shepard as Yeager and Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Dennis Quaid and Fred Ward as the most famous members of “The Seven” — the astronauts chosen for the Mercury Project — are all superb. Philip Kaufman’s direction falters occasionally as the film’s tone shifts here and there, but overall this is an amazing achievement and it looks fabulous in Blu-ray.

“The Comic” (Sony Choice, 1969, color and b/w, $18.95). Carl Reiner co-wrote and directed this vehicle for Dick Van Dyke, who plays a former silent-movie star whose narcissistic life is reviewed in flashbacks upon his death. Van Dyke and the rest of the cast (Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee, etc.) are very good, though the film is often downbeat and the lead character unlikable. Still, some wonderful moments, especially the faux silent films. This is its DVD debut.

“The Best Years of Our Lives” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1946, b/w, $19.98, introduction by Virginia Mayo, interviews with Mayo and Teresa Wright, trailer). One of the best movies ever made is this Academy Award winner about three returning GI’s who have a tough time adjusting to civilian life after years away fighting World War II. Great cast includes Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael and double Oscar-winner Harold Russell, as well as the aforementioned Mayo and Wright.

“The Bishop’s Wife” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1947, b/w, $19.98, trailer). Completely winning holiday comedy-drama is the story of an angel (Cary Grant) sent to Earth to help a minister (David Niven) who is ignoring his wife (Loretta Young) while attending to his churchly duties. Then the angel finds himself attracted to her. Great character players Monty Woolley, James Gleason, Gladys Cooper and Elsa Lanchester help move things along.

“The Beauty of the Devil” (Cohen/Blu-ray, 1950, b/w, $34.98, in French with English subtitles, featurette, trailers). Comic reworking of the Faust legend by filmmaker Rene Clair has Michel Simon as an aging professor whose workaholic life has deprived him of living. So he strikes a bargain with the devil (Gerard Philipe), agreeing to exchange his soul for youth, fame, riches and romance. Naturally, all does not go as expected for either party. Clair’s light touch results in a delightful reinterpretation of a familiar tale. (Also on DVD, $24.98)

“Funeral in Berlin” (Warner Archive, 1966, $18.95, trailer). Michael Caine stars as crook-turned-spy Harry Palmer, a sort of low-key anti-007 back when James Bond was taking the world by storm. In this solid second film in the Cold War franchise, which began with “The Ipcress File” (the best one; still not on DVD), Palmer travels to Berlin to facilitate the defection of the head of Soviet intelligence (Oscar Homolka). (Available at www.warnerarchive.com)

“Billy Rose’s Jumbo” (Warner Archive, 1962, $19.95, restored overture, Tom and Jerry cartoon: “Jerry and Jumbo,” 1933 b/w musical short: “Yours Sincerely,” trailer). Doris Day and Jimmy Durante star as daughter and father in this save-the-circus comedy-drama, based loosely on Rose’s 1935 Broadway extravaganza (which also starred Durante). Most of the Rodgers & Hart songs remain and Busby Berkeley’s choreography is terrific. Stephen Boyd is the guy trying to take over Durante’s circus, until he falls for Day, of course. Martha Raye adds wisecracks, Day is luminous and Durante is perfect.

“Kiss Me … Kill Me” (Sony Choice, 1976, $18.95). Fairly typical, if surprisingly gritty, ’70s TV movie stars Stella Stevens as an unlikely but winning investigator for the district attorney’s office looking into an unusual murder case. Cast includes Dabney Coleman, Bruce Boxleitner, Robert Vaughn and, of all people, Pat O’Brien.

“Babies For Sale” (Sony Choice, 1940, b/w, $18.95). Crusading reporter (Glenn Ford) goes after a baby-selling racket and winds up without a job after his editor is pressured. But that doesn’t stop him as he remains determined to expose the truth. Ford is very young in one of his earliest films. Hampered by the usual implausible plot points but sincere and well played.

“Air Hostess” (Sony Choice, 1933, b/w, $18.95). Overly familiar plotting grounds this otherwise interesting look at aviation in the early days of passenger airliners. But it’s worth sitting through the clichéd romance for the exciting stunt work during the climactic chase between a plane and a train! Nice performances from Evalyn Knapp and Thelma Todd.

“Made in Italy” (Sony Choice, 1965, $18.95, dubbed in English). Five-episode anthological Italian comedy-drama, with a variety of human stories played out by an all-star cast: Anna Magnani, Alberto Sordi, Virna Lisi, Sylva Koscina, Catherine Spaak, etc.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com Email: hicks@deseretnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company