Friday, November 21, 2008

DVD updates: boxed classics

On my recent visits to local music stores I’ve seen a series of box-sets by Sony Pictures, themed around famous male stars – James Stewart, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif among them. Three films in each package, cover price Rs 999. In certain circumstances I would be okay with paying that much for a three-DVD set, but I have a couple of reservations with this lot. First, most of the discs are bereft of special features, which is a real letdown when you consider that the internationally available versions of these movies have a wealth of carefully put together interviews and supplementary documentaries.

Second, the selection of movies appears to have followed a well-thought-out formula: combine one undisputed must-have from the actor’s filmography with a couple of films that are of indifferent quality (or hold a relatively unimportant place in his career). Thus the Brando set contains the early biker-gang classic The Wild One (in which the Young Mumbler famously snarls “What’ve you got?” in response to the question “What are you rebelling against?”) but also includes Arthur Penn’s uneven The Chase and the 1990s comedy The Freshman, in which Brando played a supporting role. (Note: The Chase is interesting in its own right for being an overlooked work by Penn, who was among the most interesting American directors working in the 1960s, and as the immediate precursor to the pathbreaking Bonnie and Clyde, but I doubt it could be placed on a list of the dozen most representative Brando films.)

For the movie buff, the rub is that if the one true classic happens to be a film that isn’t easily available elsewhere, you might end up buying the whole box-set for it. My own undoing was the Jimmy Stewart set, which I simply had to pick up for the sole reason that it includes the outstanding courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, which I’ve been trying to locate for ages. But the two other films on this set – the Western Two Rode Together and the witchcraft comedy (!) Bell, Book and Candle – are middling at best, and the experience left me feeling slightly cheated. How easily this set could have been redeemed if they had thrown in just one of Stewart’s Hitchcock thrillers, or the dark Westerns he made with Anthony Mann in the 1950s.

In this context an honorable nod to an earlier Sony Classics box-set that isn’t quite part of this series: the five-film Cary Grant Collection. What’s notable is that none of these films is less than a minor classic, and all of them are from Grant’s peak years: Howard Hawks’ breathless newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, Leo McCarey’s romp about marital mishaps The Awful Truth, George Stevens’ comedy about clashing ideologies The Talk of the Town (an earlier post on which here), the whimsical Katharine Hepburn co-starrer Holiday and the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings.

But really, Rs 1999 is too much to pay even for these gems; a screwball-comedy/Cary Grant hound like me might fall for it (and I did), but that price tag is hardly likely to lead new viewers to discover these films. So here’s my DVD box-set wishlist for Christmas: 1) Slash prices by at least 30 per cent, 2) Throw in an extra disc with a feature-length documentary on the actor, 3) Start a similar series for female stars, with Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck at the top of the list. Someone at Sony/Columbia, please get out that Santa costume.

P.S. A bonus attraction on the three-DVD sets is a collection of autographed postcards – mostly publicity stills – but these are curios at best: there’s a distinctly smudged, photocopied look about them. No substitute for good Disc Extras.

[I hope to do a longer post on Anatomy of a Murder soon but it will depend on free time, which has been non-existent lately. This post is a version of my films/DVD column for Business Standard.]


  1. I wonder what's the idea behind including middling films in exorbitantly priced DVD omnibuses.
    It is a raw deal for first time viewers given the price. Die hard fans familiar with the filmography of the actor will be annoyed by the selection of the films.

    Also, the prices have remained inexplicably high over the years notwithstanding the popularity of p2p software and the ever-increasing broadband penetration.

    Ideally a box set should include one undisputed classic (to attract the first time viewer) plus a couple of lesser known minor classics which will keep even the fans interested.
    Eg - Vertigo, You Can't take it with You and Winchester 73 :)

  2. Vertigo, You Can't take it with You and Winchester 73

    shrikanth: that's an interesting combination for Stewart, except that Vertigo (which I assume is the undisputed classic in this lot) isn't a particularly friendly film for the casual/first-time viewer. Rear Window might be a better selection in that sense.

    This could turn into an interesting game though. What would be your pick for three films (all of "minor classic to classic" status) that represent different stages in his career as well as different aspects of his personality? Without thinking about it long and hard, I'd go with Destry Rides Again (1930s, goofy, bashful early JS), It's a Wonderful Life (1940s, the onset of the dark side) and either Vertigo or Anatomy of a Murder (late 1950s, mature phase).

    Or how about contrasting a "romantic film" like Vertigo with a romantic film like The Shot Around the Corner? Actually, there are too many great movies in his filmography - we need at least 5-6 films in the set!

  3. I meant "The Shop Around the Corner" of course!

  4. I guess Stewart once said that a typical James Stewart film must involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully. That pretty much sums up his screen personality, across different periods.

    Keeping this in mind, I'd pick The Shop around the corner, It's a Wonderful Life and Rear Window. He plays himself in all three films. Yet, there's great variety on offer. Lubitsch, Capra and Hitchcock - three contrasting directorial styles.

    Alternatively, one can have a collection comprising of atypical films where the actor contradicts his screen persona.
    Eg - Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder and The Philadelphia Story. Stewart is unusually aggressive and is anything but laidback in these films.
    A similar set for Grant would be -
    Only Angels Have Wings, Penny Serenade and Notorious. Three excellent dramatic performances from an actor who is often unfairly labeled as a screwball comedy specialist.

  5. I guess Stewart once said that a typical James Stewart film must involve the triumph of the underdog over the bully. That pretty much sums up his screen personality, across different periods.

    How about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

  6. Not that there's anything wrong with being labeled a screwball-comedy specialist, of course - it's one of the most difficult acting jobs and Grant's comic timing in his best roles is peerless. I was watching Holiday some time ago and was staggered by his seeming effortlessness in some scenes - and that isn't even among his best-known films.

    About Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder...I'd say he was deliberately, almost theatrically laidback (using his patented "aw-shucks" persona in a calculated way to catch his courtroom opponents off guard). It really is a very interesting inversion of a familiar screen persona, and more layered in some ways even than Vertigo.

  7. shiny tiny satellite: if you were to choose one definitive Stewart film from the 1930s, you'd have to take Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But having that as well as It's a Wonderful Life and Rear Window in a single box-set (along with the supplementary disc I asked for) would be greed taken to unreasonable extremes!

  8. How about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?

    shiny satellite: Mr Smith is the definitive early Stewart as J'wock said. But I don't think it is as good a film as 'The Shop...' which is an extremely nuanced movie that works at many levels.

    J'wock: Yes. He is laidback in some scenes in Anatomy. But his menacing style of interrogation is anything but the Stewart we're used to. Also, it is interesting to find Stewart, a creature of Hays code Hollywood, starring in a movie that probably marked the beginning of the end of the Production Code.

  9. But why buy DVDs at all. Why not just download it all over the internet. ;)

    I can relate to the gesture of buying DVDs of independent films. They need the money and the support. But when it comes to studio financed films - as the ones being talked about here - screw the studios is what I say.

  10. Arfi: because I don't have a super-fast Net connection and because, until very recently, I had a laptop that was very creaky and not conducive to downloading large files.

    Also, do you get special features like audio commentary online?

  11. was interested to see you mention 'anatomy of a murder'. i saw it recently on VCD in delhi stores and was intrigued. very solid cast, with Stewart, George C Scott and Ben Gazzara, direction by Otto Preminger, whom i'd heard of but never seen, and music, very surprisingly, by duke ellington...

  12. There is much to be said about this movie.I would like to specially mention George C. Scott's Claude Dancer.He was so good in this movie,his first,that I was surprised he was nominated for the Oscars.He nails his role so effortlessly that he doesn't seem to be acting at all,and his acting style is markedly different from other actors of his time.I don't know how to categorize it.I wish he had done more movies.
    By the way,I am not a big fan of James Stewart.There is something irritatingly avuncular about his voice.:)

  13. Yes, a good connection and a reliable machine do make these explorations easier.

    As for the special features, I think it's harder to locate them but some people do share those too.

    Anyways, it's also got to do with how much time you have at hand. :)

  14. Exorbitantly priced DVD's are themselves providing fodder to piracy. Its quite amusing when you hear the Film industry being vocal about piracy and the pleasure one gets from buying genuine copies.

    It is all a big farce , why would people not buy good pirated stuff from a palika bazar or thereabouts then spend 1000 rupees on a pack of three DVD's out of which only one is worth watching? Getting good world cinema DVD's are anyways hard and when you do find something worthwhile , the pleasure is ruined by farcical prices and by including 'freebies' that you mentioned.