Thursday, November 29, 2007

Laughing Gravy's Notable DVD Releases of 2007

Back in October we interviewed Cliff Weimer, better known to fans of his wonderful website In The Balcony as Laughing Gravy. (What some of his loyal readers may not know is that Cliff has also been known to operate in the shadowy guise of The Grand Slitz of Sunev. Sorry, Cliff, if we’re putting your loved ones in jeopardy by revealing your secret identity. Perhaps you should have thought of that before embarking on your nefarious triple life.) We proudly announced at the time that LG has agreed to become a regular contributor to The Bijou Blog. This is his first guest post, a delightful and highly personal look back at the year’s notable classic film DVD releases, just in time for your holiday shopping. Thanks for a great job, Cliff!

For my first offering to Matinee at the Bijou, which has quickly become one of my favorite classic movie sites, I’ve been asked to point out the best classic movie DVD releases of the past year. To give it a twist, though, I’m going to spotlight mainly those smaller releases from companies with a small profit margin who release these things for the same reason we watch ‘em: because we LOVE them. These “labors of love” often feature films that nobody else would even think of releasing, meticulously compiled, restored, and even offering extensive bonus material. They are worthy of our support, and let’s show them some love as we build our own in-home Matinee at the Bijou library and await the return of this great show to television.

At, we always begin our shows with a cartoon, so we’ll start there. Thunderbean Animation has given us a series of DVDs compiling rare 1930s animated frolics, mainly from the Van Beuren Studio. This year’s Complete Animated Adventures of the Little King ($14.95) is their finest offering yet, with all 12 cartoons in the 1933-1934 Van Beuren series (released by RKO), most unseen in decades, plus two “prequel” cartoons featuring Sentinel Louie and the Max Fleischer revival, Betty Boop and the Little King (1936). The cartoons are filled with gags and weird animation effects; I especially love the jazz-filled 1933 mini-musicals On the Pan and Marching Along, the latter of which is an operetta about the National Recovery Act! Thunderbean has even added extensive liner notes about the cartoons and Little King creator Otto Soglow. The cartoons were compiled from the finest 35mm and 16mm elements that could be located, with as many as four different prints from around the world used to restore each cartoon. Thunderbean deserves major accolades for this one.

Next comes our short subjects, and now we turn to Looser than Loose Publishing, a small New Hampshire company that specializes in rare silent and early sound films. In 2007, they released a 2-disc collection with great prints of six especially hard to find 2-reelers, Selected RKO Shorts ($24.99). You’ll find early offerings with star comics who would go on to long series at the studio, Edgar Kennedy (Quiet Please, 1933) and Leon Errol (Fixing a Stew, 1934, directed by legendary gagman Al Boasberg), plus Tom Kennedy and Billy Bletcher in Cracked Shots (1934), “Big Boy” Williams and Grady Sutton in the funny gangster spoof The Undie World (1934), and a very young Ginger Rogers in A Quiet Fourth (1935). Best of all, though, and one of the best and most entertaining shorts I’ve ever seen, the musical drama Melody in May (1936). Songstress Ruth Etting hides out in Nowheresville to escape the pressures of her singing career, but ends up befriending timid Frank “Junior” Coghlin from his cruel classmates. This is one of the few shorts we’ve ever shown that the audience demanded we show again immediately! Don’t miss it.

Okay, now we come to this week’s exciting cliffhanger, and I’m proud to point a serial spotlight at Restored Serials. Through a painstaking process called “Super Restoration”, vintage serials are cleaned frame by frame and digitally transferred, allowing old, public domain material to shine anew. So far, because of the mammoth amount of work entailed to clean and transfer each serial (remember, a 15-chapter serial can be as long as 4 or 5 B-features), only one has been completed so far, and it’s a beaut: the 1940 Columbia mystery thriller The Green Archer ($19.95) starring Victor Jory, Iris Meredith, and James Craven. Fifteen episodes of action, adventure, and fun in a haunted castle (in Southern California, yet) filled with gangsters. Directed by James W. Horne, veteran of Laurel & Hardy and Buster Keaton comedy classics, so the action is both furious AND fun. I had seen this serial previously more than once, and it looked better than new in the restored edition. Guaranteed to supply 15 weeks of laughs and adventure.

We’re up to our feature presentation, and this was a tough one. Among the smaller companies, Grapevine Video gave us numerous worthy contenders with rare B movies of the 1930s, and moving up the ladder VCI Entertainment released so many wonderful western, musical, science-fiction and noir double features from the Lippert vaults I can scarcely keep up with them all. As for the larger companies, Warner Bros. (particularly with their Film Noir Vol. 4 collection of ten essential crime films) and Criterion (loved the Sam Fuller: Early Years boxed set) continued to do their usual outstanding work. But I kept coming back to one release that especially pleased me; I’ve been hounding Columbia for years to pay more attention to the vintage films in their vaults and to consider adding serial chapters, cartoons, and short subjects to their DVD releases.This year, with the company’s home video department run by Sony, fans of classic films finally have somebody in our corner, and the first result exceeded even my expectations: Sam Katzman: The Icon of Horror Collection ($24.96)

For four decades, “Jungle Sam” Katzman was known for producing profitable films on a low budget (and yes, for cutting corners and often putting out shoddy product to ensure his pictures finished in the black no matter what), and the very fact that Sony named a boxed set after him shows that they understand their market for these types of films. Not only does the 2-disc set include four irresistibly loony low-budget sci-fi films of the 1950s, The Giant Claw, Creature with the Atom Brain, The Werewolf, and Zombies of Mora Tau, with such genre favorites as Richard Denning, Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Allison Hayes, and Gene Roth, but you’ll find a Mr. Magoo cartoon, an episode of the 1951 serial Mysterious Island, and the hilarious 1936 comedy short Midnight Blunders with Tom Kennedy & Monte Collins, plus trailers. It’s Matinee at the Bijou in a box, and highly recommended.

It was a great year for vintage releases, and a special nod goes to Warner Bros. for restoring and releasing the original Jazz Singer in a 3-disc set packed with bonus Vitaphone featurettes, a five-film Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland collection, and numerous other vintage film releases packed with short subjects and cartoons. It’s a wonderful feeling to watch a DVD presentation and think, “The folks who made this obviously love old movies as much as I do.”

In Wednesday's upcoming Mini-Matinee we'll be featuring selections from Laughing Gravy's year-in-review,including The Little King in "A Christmas Night", an exciting cliffhanger from The Green Archer, and a terrifying trailer for The Giant Claw.

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