In The Balcony
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Black Caesar

1973, Dir. Larry Cohen
Olive Films Blu-ray $29.95
DVD, $14.95

One of the best of the early ‘70s “Blaxploitation” films, movies starring and featuring music by soul brothers and sisters (and invariably produced and directed by honkies).

Ex-football-near-great (and martial arts badass) Fred “The Hammer” Williamson is a former shoeshine boy who claws his way up the Sicilian ladder in his Harlem neighborhood and creates his own Black Mob, eventually edging out the Don and his entire familia in a massive hit at a Southern California estate. It’s even harder to stay at the top than it is to get there, though, and – attacked while exiting Tiffany’s – the Hammer leads a pair of gunmen on a great, bloody chase across Manhattan culminating in a showdown with the racist cop who’s been after him since his shoeshine days.

Make no mistake, the Williamson character is no hero – brutal, selfish, mean, and not very supportive of his woman’s happiness. Pretty much, this is an updating of a ‘30s Warner Bros. gangster picture (mostly, yes, Little Caesar) and a damn good one. Million-dollar Dialog: Mafia Don, impressed by the Hammer’s can-do spirit: “Who says Spooks ain’t got ambition?” The soundtrack by James Brown is a classic and resulted in a top-40 album in 1973; the Blu-ray from Olive Films says “Music Edited for Home Video” but doesn’t explain what that editing is; Brown’s voice is all over this thing.

Million-dollar James Brown Lyric:“Look at me! You know what you see? You see a bad mother!”

Distributed in ’73 by American-International Pictures, later acquired by Orion, later acquired by somebody else, so the Blu-ray has got movie studio labels all over the packaging, not bad for a low-budget indie exploitation thriller. The (inferior) sequel was Hell up in Harlem.

Also available from Olive Films (same formats and price): Slaughter (1972) with Jim Brown in his first solo starring role after being “the tough, fast guy” in several films (and the Cleveland Browns). A better cast but a slightly lesser film; Brown’s family (in Cleveland!) has been, well, slaughtered, and Brown’s off to Mexico to get racist gangster Rip Torn and lovely Stella Stevens.

Billy Preston does the theme song; Slaughter’s Big Rip Off was the sequel, and the Hammer and the Brown went on to team up for a series of films, including Three the Hard Way.

Both films look phenomenal in HD without losing their low-budget luster; they still look like early ‘70s drive-in movies, only with pristine and gorgeous prints. Black Caesar is presented in 1.85:1, Slaughter is 2.35:1 ratio. Trailers are included. Hopefully, other Blaxploitation films are in the pipeline.

The Phantom of the Opera

(1925/29) Prod. Carl Laemmle
Dir. Rupert Julian (& a slew of others, uncredited)
Kino Lorber Blu-ray, $39.95

I dunno, if you asked me to a point to a film where nothing works except one solitary performance, I might well point to this, although the sets are very nice, too.

The newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer snapped up Lon Chaney, then a free agent (after completing The Hunchback of Notre Dame), for its first feature, HE Who Gets Slapped (one of Chaney's best pictures). Lon then signed with Paramount for what by all accounts was a weak melodrama, The Next Corner, directed by Sam Wood. And in the fall of 1924, it was back to Universal for a lavish production of Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera. A lot of money went into sets and costumes and Chaney, but alas, the director was Rupert Julian, who took the blame for what turned out to be a, well, uninspired mess. Chaney couldn't stand him, and the two men didn't speak on set, with Chaney reportedly directing his own scenes, which are, unsurprisingly, the only good scenes in the picture. Norman Kerry as the leading man looks ridiculous, possibly because throughout the various cuts of the film (more on that in a second) he kept going back and forth between being a romantic hero and being a lovesick moron. I like Mary Philbin as Christine very much. And the chandelier DOES fall, a nice bit of filmmaking.

So, nobody at Universal seemed to think it was a very good picture, and they previewed it in L.A. and the audience reaction was that the film stunk when Chaney wasn't onscreen. Due to the nature of the Phantom, naturally, he was off-screen a LOT. So, they brought in the guys who were making cheap but profitable Hoot Gibson westerns to re-do the non-Chaney bits, and they pretty much rewrote the film, which looked much different when it had its exclusive four-week "world premiere" showing in San Francisco in April. Audiences reported that the film STILL stunk when Chaney wasn't onscreen, and so director Eddie Sedgwick came in to work on it some more, and he actually brought back Chaney (who had to be rented from his new home, MGM) to shoot a new climax. The third version of the Phantom played the Astor Theatre in New York, quite a showcase, and was profitable, although audiences reported that the movie stunk whenever Chaney wasn't onscreen.

There are a few 2 Technicolor sequences in the film, very impressive, particularly Chaney as the Red Death. In any case, the film was a rousing success, and Universal hoped to produce a sequel. With the debut of sound, however, and with Chaney one of the big box-office stars of the day, the studio decided to reissue Phantom with synchronized effects and new dialog sequences; Chaney was, of course, unavailable, but Kerry and Philbin weren't. The new "talkie" version was released about the same time as a new silent 1929 cut intended for foreign release, made up of alternate takes and different camera angles. It’s this alternative silent Phantom that we’re most familiar with as The Phantom of the Opera, as it came down to us in the best shape (it's the one, for example, that Milestone uses, and it stinks when Chaney is offscreen, in case you're wondering).

The 1925 general release version, nearly complete, would be lost except for a few battered "show at home" prints Universal sold in the 1930s and which still survive. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray features the 1929 silent version (with color sequences) archival 35mm elements, with choice of three scores and commentary by Jon Mirsalis; the 1925 original final cut (in the best elements that could be found) and excerpts from the lost 1930 sound version. Created wih the asiane of the Library of Congress and Lobster Films, Kino presents the ultimate edition of Phantom of the Opera, which despite its shortcomings (it stinks when Chaney is off-screen) is well worth having.

W.C. Fields Comedy Essentials Collection

Universal DVD, $99.98

We’re a little prejudiced here: we consider William Claude Dukenfield (1880-1946) the funniest man who ever lived, and not just the funniest movie man; very likely, he’s the funniest any man ever got, or will get.

The world’s greatest juggler in vaudeville (oh, my, what he could do with a gaggle of cigar boxes) who recognized that funny patter made the juggling even more impressive. He became a star of the annual Ziegfeld Follies beginning in 1915, and starred in a hit Broadway show, Poppy, in 1923. He made several silent films, including a version of Poppy called Sally of the Sawdust; by the time talkies came around, his film career was at a standstill; he made his sound debut in a cheap 2-reel RKO short that captured one of his old routines, a golf act with an annoying caddy. After being teamed with fellow “old-timers” Leon Errol and Ford Sterling in the all-but-forgotten Her Majesty, Love (1931) for Warner Bros., Fields talked himself into a contract with Paramount, and that’s where our Essentials Collection picks up his story (the Paramount films of the 1930s are now owned by Universal). Most of these were available on DVD already, but scattered amongst several releases; this gathers 18 of his 20 starring roles together in one 5-disc box.

Million Dollar Legs (1932) is a surprisingly good spoof of politics and political rivalries, odd
ly overlooked these days while the similar Duck Soup (1933) with the Marx Bros. is revered. Fields is the President of a small European country of men who all boast super strength (the women are all named Angela) that decides to complete in the Olympics. You’ll never get the Klopstokian Anthem out of your head. Fields was next assigned If I Had a Million, an all-star vignette movie headlined in various sequences by Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton. It’s minor Fields, making its U.S. DVD debut here.

While Paramount decided what to do with him next, he strolled over to Mack Sennett for four brilliant shorts (including The Fatal Glass of Beer and The Dentist) that did much to draw attention to his skills as a funnyman; alas, they’re not included here, but there's a nice old Criterion release of it.

He went back to Paramount for International House (1933), another all-star film. Fields got the only positive reviews in it, which allowed him to coerce the studio into giving him a starring role in the next one, Tillie and Gus, a very funny riverboat comedy that teamed him with Alison Skipworth (for the second time) and Baby Leroy. A couple of all-star misfires followed, with again Fields gaining the only good notices: Alice in Wonderland has Fields as Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper as the White Knight, and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle(!); Six of a Kind put the spotlight on George Burns and Gracie Allen, but Fields walked off with the film as a Sheriff called Honest John. Even Fields, alas, couldn’t save Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch; he probably knew that, and made sure he’s barely in it. ZaSu Pitts stars.

Just when you thought Fields was going to be kicked around with minor roles in all-star Paramount films for the rest of his life came the comic breakthrough: You’re Telling Me! is a remake of one of his silent pictures, and a very good one: Fields is an eccentric inventor with a horrible, horrible family. “W.C. Fields is back on the job of splitting sides,” Newsweek raved. “Everything he does is funny,” bleated the Literary Digest. And so on to the best Fields film yet, The Old-Fashioned Way, dropping Bill back into the 19th century and a touring company of The Drunkard. Even better was his next one, the first Fields film everyone considers a comic masterpiece, It’s a Gift. After tangling with a blind customer named Mr. Muckle, Fields uproots his horrible family and heads for a new purchase: an orange grove in California. Absolute non-stop laughs.

After Charles Laughton turned down the role of Micawber, MGM rightly borrowed the only actor who could do the role justice: W.C. Fields was terrific and very proud of his performance in the lavish 1935 version of David Copperfield, but that’s now owned by Warners and you’ll have to buy THEIR DVD to get it. Sorry.

Back at Paramount, Fields co-starred with Bing Crosby in the wonderful Mississippi (1935), back again as a riverboat captain; lies to his boss to go to a wrestling match in the screamingly funny Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935); and fashioned a remake of his old Broadway classic, a new version of Poppy (1936). On a roll and, although not making "good" movies but certainly making funny ones, Fields was turning out one gem after another; alas, the years of drinking had caught up to him, and Fields (in his late 50s, after all) was off-screen for two years recovering before he was able to nab one last Paramount starring role, The Big Broadcast of 1938, memorable today as the feature debut of both Bob Hope and his song Thanks for the Memory but really only funny when Fields is around.

MGM wanted him to star as The Wizard of Oz, but Universal, of all studios, had a better offer: four films to be written and starring Fields, who would have control over choice of directors, too. It was an offer too good to pass up, of course, and the four starring films are among the best and daffiest any comedian ever made.

You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939) is a circus picture that teams Fields with Edgar Bergen and his precocious dummy, Charlie McCarthy, with whom Fields had a famous (and funny) running radio feud; next is perhaps Fields most famous and best-remembered movie, My Little Chickadee (1940) with Mae West; it’s the only West film of any accomplishment after the censors got hold of her. The Bank Dick (1940) is acknowledged by most to be Fields’ best and funniest film, as it finally dispenses with co-stars and lets him run rampant on the set and in the plot. Fields is a hapless town drunk who becomes the Bank guard (and a movie director). Personally, here in the Balcony we prefer his next film, which also turned out to be his last starring role: Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), with Bill attempting to sell a very silly script to Esoteric Pictures’ head Franklin Pangborn.

That’s eighteen movies in this collection (all of Fields sound films to that time, minus the one for Warners and the one for MGM), and even at a hundred bucks, that’s not very expensive. These appear to us to be the same print materials as the earlier releases. The 18 films are spread across five single-sided DVDs. There’s a bonus documentary, too.

After these films, Fields wasn’t well enough to carry a film by himself; he appeared in all-star films during the war for Fox (Tales of Manhattan, 1942); Universal (Follow the Boys, 1944); United Artists (Song of the Open Road, 1944, and Sensations of 1945). He died on Christmas Day, 1946.

One of the great legends of the Silver Screen, W.C. Fields and his bad attitude were revered on college campuses in the ‘60s and ‘70s; we saw his films several times at revival theatres, and he was every bit as famous and loved as the Marxes or Laurel & Hardy. Time and political correctness has varnished his luster, but hopefully this boxed set will help restore some of his reputation. It’s the best DVD boxed set of the year.


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