James Stewart in a collection of eight TV movies and a miniseries about John C. Fremont lead these vintage titles now available on DVD at the Warner Archive website (www.WarnerArchive.com).
“Hawkins: The Complete TV-Movie Collection” (Warner Archive, 1973-74, four discs, $39.95, eight episodes). James Stewart stars in this series of eight feature-length TV movies as a country lawyer, creating the template Andy Griffith would follow a decade later with “Matlock.” But the antecedent is really Stewart’s cagey lawyer in the theatrical film “Anatomy of a Murder.” (This was his second TV series, after a one-season sitcom.)
Stewart plays Billy Jim Hawkins, a former prosecutor in rural West Virginia now working in Los Angeles, whose down-home “aw shucks” charm catches suspects off guard as he shrewdly unravels murder cases with help from his cousin, R.J. (Strother Martin).
These films (about 70 minutes each) are no great shakes, sort of run-of-the-mill mysteries that were common in dozens of 1970s series, but Stewart’s charm and humor come through to make them something special for fans. Guests include Bonnie Bedelia, Sam Elliott, Julie Harris, Tyne Daly, Lew Ayres, Teresa Wright and Pernell Roberts.
“Dream West” (Warner Archive, 1986, two discs, $29.95, three episodes). In the 1980s, Richard Chamberlain was known as “The King of the Miniseries,” as he starred in “The Thorn Birds,” “Shogun,” “Centennial” and this epic biography of John C. Fremont, the Army officer who, with Kit Carson, mapped the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
Fremont fought in the Civil War, was governor of both California and Arizona, a U.S. senator, ran for president and altogether had quite a remarkable life filled with ups and downs, many of them re-created here.
Filmed on location in several states, including Utah, this makes for a thoroughly entertaining adventure and features quite an array of stars and future stars: Alice Krige, F. Murray Abraham, Ben Johnson, Jerry Orbach, Rip Torn, Mel Ferrer, James Cromwell, Jonathan Frakes, etc.
“The Show” (Warner Archive, 1927, b/w, $18.95). John Gilbert is a sleazy carnival barker whose primary trick in the Palace of Illusions is his apparent beheading as he plays John the Baptist (called “Jokanaan”) to Renee Adoree’s Salome. When villain Lionel Barrymore tries to see Gilbert really lose his head by switching out his trick sword, Gilbert escapes and plots revenge.
Tod Browning directed this silent thriller with all the twisted verve he brought to many a collaboration with Lon Chaney, and later, “Dracula” and “Freaks.”
“World War III” (Warner Archive, 1982, $18.95, two episodes). This two-part miniseries is set five years ahead (1987) as a Soviet invasion is launched on U.S. soil to take over the Alaskan Pipeline and force America to end the 1980 Grain Embargo, leading to a face-off between the Soviet premier (Brian Keith) and the U.S. president (Rock Hudson). Meanwhile, troops battle on the ground, led by David Soul as an Army colonel. But can nuclear retaliation be far off?
Though laboring with a dated Cold War ethic and working on a somewhat lower budget than the show’s ambitions call for, this remains a fairly entertaining “What If?” melodrama with a “Fail-Safe” conclusion (apparently hoping for the sequel that never happened). Co-stars include Cathy Lee Crosby and Katherine Helmond.
“The Spanish Main” (Warner Archive, 1945, $18.95, trailer).
“Sinbad the Sailor” (Warner Archive, 1947, $18.95, trailer). These swashbuckling adventures, bathed in gorgeous Technicolor, both star vivacious redhead Maureen O’Hara, though she’s essentially reduced to the damsel in distress.
“Main” has a miscast Paul Henreid throwing himself into the role of a marauding pirate forced into a life of crime. And “Sinbad” is a comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as the brash pirate of the title, and he seems to be channeling his father’s silent pictures, right down to his very broad gestures. Anthony Quinn is more low-key than usual as the villain. But both films are handily stolen by Walter Slezak in support.
Fun for fans but not up to those starring Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn, or later, Burt Lancaster.