The Bowery Boys, James Stewart times three and Peter Lorre lead off these vintage movies arriving on DVD for the first time, along with a couple of Blu-ray upgrades. (All Warner Archive titles are online exclusives at www.warnerarchive.com.)
“The Bowery Boys: Volume Three” (Warner Archive, 1948-57, b/w, four discs, $39.95, 12 movies). The third collection of Bowery Boys B-movies, again out of chronological order, includes eight features starring Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, and four from the tail end of the series after Gorcey had departed. The various comedies have the hapless gang spoofing Westerns, heading to Las Vegas and becoming “Spook Chasers” (not to be confused with their “Spook Busters” film 11 years earlier). Mostly wheezy entries but with enough successful gags to please fans.
“Vivacious Lady” (Warner Archive, 1938, b/w, $18.95, trailer). Funny comedy with a wonderful cast has Ginger Rogers as a sexy nightclub singer and James Stewart as a button-down botany professor who meet and marry literally overnight. But then he’s too chicken to tell his conservative parents (Charles Coburn, Beulah Bondi). Witty screwball farce holds up quite well.
“No Time for Comedy” (Warner Archive, 1940, b/w, $18.95, trailer). This comedy doesn’t hold up quite as well but it does have some laughs. Stewart and his wife (Rosalind Russell) have had great success as comedy playwrights, but he yearns to churn out a serious drama, with encouragement from a home wrecker. Naturally, Russell attempts to sabotage the effort. Charlie Ruggles and Louise Beavers lend able support.
“Of Human Hearts” (Warner Archive, 1938, b/w, $18.95). In this pioneer drama, Stewart resents the pious work of his preacher father (Walter Huston), who serves the poor in an Ohio community. Eventually Stewart leaves home, goes to medical school and becomes a surgeon during the Civil War, but in so doing neglects his mother (Beulah Bondi) who has spent her life trying to mend fences between father and son. Charles Coburn and John Carradine lend support.
“The Beast With Five Fingers” (Warner Archive, 1946, b/w, $18.95, trailer). Wonderfully campy horror yarn has Peter Lorre being stalked by a disembodied hand that is bound and determined to strangle him. The soap opera plot that surrounds his story, and some broad humor by J. Carrol Naish, mute the experience a bit, but this is prime Lorre at his maddest.
“Nightmare Honeymoon” (Warner Archive, 1974, $18.95, two alternate versions, trailer). Horror revenge yarn has Dack Rambo as a newlywed whose wife is raped by a psycho (John Beck), which sends him on a quest for revenge. Plot twists aplenty give this one a lift. Originally rated PG, though the two versions here are an unrated theatrical cut and another that was toned down for commercial television.
“Notting Hill” (Universal/Blu-ray, 1999, PG-13, $19.98, deleted scenes, audio commentary, featurettes, music videos, trailers). Cute romantic comedy benefits from charming performances by Hugh Grant as an English specialty-bookstore owner and Julia Roberts as a movie superstar trying to ground her life. They are aided by solid chemistry, a fine supporting cast (watch for Hugh Bonneville, now on “Downton Abbey”) and a witty script, despite the presence of a few unnecessary crude gags (courtesy of Grant’s sidekick, Rhys Ifans). Nice Blu-ray upgrade.
“High Plains Drifter: 40th Anniversary Edition” (Universal/Blu-ray, 1973; R for violence, sex, language; $19.98). With its outdoor locations, this Clint Eastwood Western (he also directed) really benefits from Blu-ray, though there are no bonus features. Eastwood’s nameless character seems related to the “Dollar Trilogy” role that made him a star, a gunslinger hired to protect some frightened townfolk. Heavy reliance on humor may have you wondering if this isn’t intended as a spoof of Eastwood’s earlier films.
“Les Miserables” (itv/Timeless, 1978, $9.99). British TV version of the oft-filmed Victor Hugo tale is a very good one, thanks to lavish production values and excellent performances by stars Richard Jordan as Jean Valjean and Anthony Perkins as Inspector Javert. Good supporting cast includes John Gielgud, Flora Robson, Claude Dauphin and Ian Holm.
“The Gambler” (aka “Kenny Rogers as The Gambler,” Timless/Blu-ray, 1980, $24.97, Blu-ray and DVD versions). Country singing star Kenny Rogers parlayed his late 1970s hit song into a string of TV Western movies, starting with this one, in which he brings charm to the title role of a veteran gambler who takes a rookie (Bruce Boxleitner) under his wing as he sets off to see his son for the first time. Blu-ray upgrade nicely accentuates the outdoor locations.
“Love and Bullets”/“Russian Roulette” (itv/Timeless, 1979/1975, PG, $9.99, two movies). The first has detective Charles Bronson protecting Jill Ireland, who is to testify against mob boss Rod Steiger. Not great, but it would have helped if the European locations were in the original widescreen format instead of this cropped full-frame version. The second film is a conspiracy thriller with George Segal as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer trying to head off a plot to assassinate the Russian premier.
“Western Film Collection” (MGM/Timeless, 1956-73, PG, $6.95, four movies). Two TV movies, “Yuma,” with Clint Walker, and “Pioneer Woman,” with Joanna Pettet, William Shatner, David Janssen and a very young Helen Hunt, are enjoyable, typical Western fare. “Gunslinger” is an offbeat tale of a saloon-mistress hiring the title character to get a female marshal (Beverly Garland) out of the way of her evil plans. And “Man of the East” is an amusing dubbed Italian comedy with Terence Hill (“My Name Is Trinity”) as a fish-out-of-water Brit trying to become a cowpoke.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." His website is www.hicksflicks.com