Here are some golden oldies to be released Tuesday, led by a groundbreaking film that provided John Wayne with his first lead role nine years before he became a star with "Stagecoach."
• "THE BIG TRAIL: SPECIAL EDITION" (Fox, 1930, b/w, two discs, 19.98).
• "JOHN WAYNE: THE FOX WESTERNS" (Fox, 1930-69, b/w and color, five discs, $29.98).
"The Big Trail" was actually released a few years ago on DVD, but this is the first time the widescreen version has made it to home video.
And it's not simply a widescreen transfer of the same negative. "The Big Trail" was actually filmed twice, each scene being recorded in the square-ish format of the time, and then again in a new 70mm process called Grandeur, developed by 20th Century Fox.
Unfortunately, the technology was not adapted by enough theaters to make it financially sound in 1930, and widescreen filmmaking went by the wayside for more than two decades until CinemaScope (also created by Fox) became widely accepted.
All of this is a bonus for film buffs, but even without that history, this epic tale of a wagon train trekking to the Pacific Northwest is an eye-popping undertaking, an astonishing study in logistics (no computer-animation or matte paintings here) and it remains highly entertaining. (The smaller-screen version doesn't pack nearly the power of this one.)
Wayne is quite young but already charismatic and makes a fine lead character. But the film's acting by everyone is a bit broad. This was the beginning of the sound era, and primitive sound equipment caused the performers to exaggerate their voices (it would take a few years for motion-picture microphones to be perfected). But since so much of the film is visual the sound is not a huge distraction.
The featurettes are also quite good, chronicling the massive undertaking of choreographing and filming this amazing project.
The "John Wayne: The Fox Westerns" box set includes this edition of "The Big Trail" along with three Wayne reissues: "North to Alaska" (1960), "The Comancheros" (1961) and "The Undefeated" (1969).
• "FOX WESTERN CLASSICS" (Fox, 1950-54, b/w and color, three discs, $19.98). The three films in this set are all notable but the best is by far "The Gunfighter" (1950), with Gregory Peck as the world-weary title character who can't get away from up-and-comers challenging him. This is considered the first "adult Western," laying groundwork for "High Noon" and "Shane."
"Rawhide" (1951) is a crackling yarn with Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward thrown together at a stagecoach way station where they are terrorized by thugs (Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam, George Tobias and Dean Jagger). (Trivia note: The theme song was also used for "Brigham Young" a decade earlier, a film that also teamed Power and Jagger.)
"Garden of Evil" (1954) is the least of these but boasts a couple of riveting action sequences. The slow-moving yarn has three American fortune hunters (Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell) hired by a woman (Susan Hayward) to rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe), who is trapped in a Mexican mine. (Look for Rita Moreno, who sings two songs in the cantina.)
Extras: widescreen/full frame, featurettes, trailers, photo/ad galleries
• "THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA" (MGM, 1969, $14.98). Anthony Quinn stars in this overlong, meandering but enjoyable comedy about a small Italian village whose occupants attempt to hide a million bottles of wine from invading Nazis. Great cast includes Anna Magnani, Virna Lisi, Hardy Kruger and Giancarlo Giannini.Extras: widescreen