Vintage movies from the 1930s through the '90s on video this week
Posted May 14
More 1930s pre-Code Hollywood movies debut on DVD, along with new Blu-ray anniversary reissues of “Independence Day” and “Top Gun.”
“Forbidden Hollywood: Volume X” (Warner Archive, 1931-33, five discs, five films, three trailers). Five more engrossing pre-Production Code films have been collected for this final entry in this DVD series. (Though Warner Archive assures us that single-disc pre-Code films will still be released in the future.)
In 1930, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (now the Motion Picture Association of America) established the Motion Picture Production Code, but it was virtually ignored by the studios until it became mandatory in July 1934, forcing Hollywood into a two-decade season of movie censorship. But during that pre-1934 period — the pre-Code era — movies pushed the limits of violence and sex on the big screen.
Even so, the films collected here are generally very tame by today’s standards and would easily earn PG ratings. The best are “Guilty Hands,” with Lionel Barrymore as a district attorney who attempts to commit the perfect crime, and “The Mouthpiece,” about the rise of a sleazy lawyer (Warren William), loosely based on real-life attorney William J. Fallon.
But the other three are also good: “Secrets of the French Police,” with a gendarme and a thief joining forces to track down Anastasia, the legendary Russian grand duchess; “The Match King,” based on the true story of a ruthless businessman (Warren William) who corners the European market on the production of matches, and finally, Barbara Stanwyck in the tragic “Ever in My Heart,” which begins in 1909 as she happily marries an immigrant college professor, but when World War I breaks out he becomes a victim of anti-German sentiment and decides to fight for his homeland. (Available at warnerarchive.com)
“Independence Day: 20th Anniversary Edition” (Fox, 1996, PG-13, two discs, theatrical and extended versions, alternate ending, two audio commentaries, new/vintage featurettes, photo gallery, trailers/TV spots, bloopers). This new release is an obvious ploy to promote the upcoming sequel, “Independence Day: Resurgence” (there’s even a trailer included). But as alien-invasion films go, this is one of the best, with action, romance and humor to spare. The No. 1 box-office hit of 1996 stars Will Smith, along with Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Vivica A. Fox and Brent Spiner. (And all but Smith will be in the sequel, which opens June 24.)
“Top Gun: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray Combo Steelbook” (Paramount, 1986, PG, audio commentary, featurettes, music videos, TV spots). This one was the No. 1 hit of 1986, boosting Tom Cruise to superstardom and giving movies permission to shoot action sequences like video games. It's genuinely thrilling in the air but pretty sappy on the ground, not that fans care about such things. Future stars in the cast include Kelly McGillis, Meg Ryan, Val Kilmer, Anthony Edwards and Tim Robbins. And this edition is loaded with bonus features.
“City Heat” (Warner, 1984, PG, trailer).
“True Crime” (Warner, 1999, R for language and violence, featurettes, music video, trailer). These two Clint Eastwood crime pictures get Blu-ray upgrades, but one is certainly better than the other.
The weak link is “City Heat,” a Prohibition-era comedy with Eastwood and Burt Reynolds teamed as, respectively, a police lieutenant and a private eye. They investigate the murder of Reynolds’ partner in this very violent but only occasionally funny yarn. (Madeline Kahn as Reynolds’ girlfriend has nothing to do).
“True Crime” is better, an implausible but nonetheless compelling tale of an Oakland journalist, who is also a recovering alcoholic, assigned to cover the execution of a convicted killer. But after looking into the case, the reporter becomes convinced that the guy is innocent. What to do? Eastwood directed and stars, but James Woods steals the show as his boss, and Isaiah Washington is effective as the death-row inmate.
“Susan Slept Here” (Warner Archive, 1954, trailer). Even less plausible is this holiday comedy starring Dick Powell, who plays a 35-year-old screenwriter (although he was pushing 50 at the time), in his last movie role (and his only color film). Suffering from writer’s block since winning an Oscar, the Hollywood writer is surprised on Christmas Eve when a juvenile delinquent (22-year-old Debbie Reynolds as an underage teen) is placed in his care, which does not sit well with his fiancée (Anne Francis). It's narrated, believe it or not, by his Academy Award statuette. (Available at warnerarchive.com)
“Blondie of the Follies” (Warner Archive, 1932, b/w). No relation to the “Blondie” comic strip or subsequent films, this is a stirring, underrated pre-Code backstage musical with Marion Davies and Billie Dove (in her last film). They play Follies performers and BFFs — until Davies falls for Dove’s boyfriend (Robert Montgomery). It was billed as a comedy but is more of a drama with some humor. Most of co-star Jimmy Durante’s scenes were cut, but he has a hysterical bit with Davies as they spoof “Grand Hotel.” (Available at warnerarchive.com)
“The Films of Maurice Pialat, Volume 1” (Cohen, 1974-80, not rated but with sex and nudity, three discs, three films, in French with English subtitles, featurettes, trailers; eight-page booklet). Pialat was a French filmmaker (he died in 2003 at age 77) of the unsentimental “realist” school, striving to make movies that reflected real life, as demonstrated by these three melodramas.
“The Mouth Agape” (1974) is about how a husband and son react in a dysfunctional manner to the terminal illness that is taking their wife/mother; Nathalie Baye plays the son’s wife. “Graduate First” (1978) focuses on disillusioned teens in a suburban region that is plagued with unemployment, which drives them to aimless mischief. And “LouLou” (1980), the most famous of these, has a wife (Isabelle Huppert) leaving her husband (Guy Marchand) for a charming but loutish ex-con (Gerard Depardieu), a relationship that will not end well.
“Hired to Kill” (Arrow, 1990; R for violence, sex, nudity, language; audio commentary, featurettes, photo gallery, trailer). This ludicrous exploitation has Brian Thompson posing as a gay fashion designer on a photo shoot with a gaggle of gorgeous models, but they are actually his lethal mercenary team. Their quarry is a rebel leader in hostile territory. Includes Oliver Reed, George Kennedy and Jose Ferrer in support.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.