Fox Studio Classices Wrap-Up (US - BD RA)
Gabe checks out classics from John Ford, Elia Kazan, and Otto Preminger...
How Green Was My Valley
How Green Was My Valley is a perfectly fine film that has the unfortunate distinction of having beaten Citizen Kane, Suspicion, and The Maltese Falcon for Best Picture in 1942. If history teaches us anything, it is that an ‘unworthy’ Oscar winner is never forgiven. This unworthy win, Ford’s third as Director and first for Best Picture, came in the middle of a four-year run on Academy Awards, which included Grapes of Wrath, the most celebrated film in the collection. If I’m honest, I have to admit that, beyond Ford and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller’s sumptuous photography, I found How Green Was My Valley a patently uneventful film. It’s an enjoyable celebration of Welsh culture and a generally entertaining experience that lacks the weight of a focused narrative. Philip Dunne’s screenplay snags the big plot points from Richard Llewellyn’s book, concerning the trials and tribulations of a South Wales valley coal-mining community, without doing much to connecting them as part of a larger narrative structure, creating a melodramatic tapestry that I found quite numbing over the surprisingly reasonable 118-minute runtime (producer Darryl F. Zanuck had originally planned a four hour, Technicolor epic to compete with the likes of David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind). It feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of a much longer story. It all amounts to a gloriously staged and shot Hallmark special. There are allegories to be made to the then-current political climates, but Ford was rarely concerned with making social statements through his films. Or at least he constantly refused to acknowledge the possibility. Besides, most political meaning were washed in the scripting stage as conservative Zanuck and liberal Dunne apparently took efforts to avoid offending each other. This is a story being told and the subtext is found almost exclusively in imagery and affixed to characters, rather than the story’s place outside of the context of the film. But, boy golly, if it isn’t a pretty damn movie.
The full-frame, 1.33:1, 1080p black & white video continues the standard set by the other films in this apparently ongoing collection, along with the Fox/MGM Hitchcock and Billy Wilder releases. The image has been extensively cleansed of age-borne artefacts without risking the overall grain texture, which remains present, but consistently fine in structure. Details are very sharp, sharper than expected from such an old source and textures are impressive from front to back, thanks to the use of wide-angles. The blacks and whites are both very strong, as are the many fine gradations crafted by Ford and Miller’s wonderful light play (it’s unusual these days for the darkest shapes to be set in the foreground against progressively lighter middle and background elements). There are minor inconsistencies in sharpness and image depth throughout. Sometimes, the image after an angle change will appear slightly softer and over-blown, though rarely at the detriment of basic cleanliness/clarity. Compression and over-sharpening effects are never a problem.
This is the only one among the four films I’m covering here to feature a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix of an mono track, though the original mono is also found on the disc in a single-channel treatment (in the form of a compressed Dolby Digital track). The final effect of the 5.1 track is, if you’ll excuse the redundancy, mixed. How Green Was My Valley is basically a musical (the characters are given thematic reasons to sing, but otherwise express themselves in song throughout the film), so the stereo/surround enhancement is a welcome addition to Alfred Newman’s rich, theatrical score. The bulk of non-musical sequences are also evenly handled and mostly presented in the center channel alone with only minor ambient enhancements. However, when music and dialogue mix, there are noticeable phasing effects as the artificially separated tracks are forced to blend back together. Assuming the volume decrease and other minor compression side effects don’t bother you, I’d suggest sticking with the mono track. The extras include a commentary with actress Anna Lee Nathan and author Joseph McBride, Hollywood Backstories: How Green Was My Valley (24:30, SD), and a trailer.
Laura is the story of a detective who investigates a murder only to discover that the supposed victim is still alive. This elaborate, romantic, noir melodrama is among director Otto Preminger’s most influential films and a solid primer for the uninitiated to prepare themselves for his later films, specifically The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder, which are even better. Laura ended up losing more Oscars than it won – it was nominated for Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), and Best Adapted Screenplay, but lost all three to Going My Way – but was, in the long run, the more enduring film. Well, perhaps second most enduring, behind Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, which probably should’ve won. Laura did manage to take the Oscar for Best Black and White Cinematography for Joseph LaShelle gorgeous photography. Said gorgeous photography and some really strong supporting cast performances help cover the occasional inanity of the screenplay, which is so convoluted it isn’t exactly surprising to learn that three screenwriters worked on it (Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt) – four if you consider its original author, Vera Caspary. However, the florid plot-twists and sharp dialogue add a sort of trashy paperback edge to the otherwise handsome production and slow-burning pace. The wildcard is Vincent Price in his star-making performance as one of the key suspects in the murder. He’s not an immediate ‘screen-holder,’ rather, he creeps into the role with multiple colours to his character. It’s not easy to act as someone who isn’t very good at acting. Judith Anderson is also fantastic in a role that sometimes mirrors her star-making turn in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (it’s possible that Preminger hired her based on that performance).
This is another top of the line 1.33:1, 1080p transfer for Fox. It appears they’ve spent considerable effort restoring this image, which shows almost no signs of print damage or even signs of print damage having been removed. The chemical/digital scrubbing is a bit overzealous at times, but there’s little sign of what we’d assume was DNR enhancement (it’s always difficult to tell with a black and white image) and overall grain appears natural. Details are sharper than a DVD could manage without notable edge haloes, though they are still limited by the aged format. The problem with the image is that whole thing has been lightened up perhaps a hair too much, at least more so than the last time I saw it on television (I believe in HD, if memory serves). This doesn’t damage the purity of the blacks all that much (some are a bit soft) or cause the whites to blow out a lot, but it does make for some overly harsh contrast levels. The grey levels are appropriately grey, however, without an accidental influx of blue or green.
This dialogue-heavy, mono audio is presented in single track (1.0) DTS-HD Master Audio and sounds plenty clean, without any noticeable pops or high-end distortion. The volume levels are a bit uneven and it’s surprisingly difficult to tell the difference between narration and basic speaking, but there are no issues with the nominal sound effects. David Raksin’s musical score sits very low on the track when rolling under dialogue, but is always clear enough to absorb the melody. The music is, however, the one element on the track that suffers the most obvious distortion hiss and shows signs of minor track clipping – it seems a few split seconds of the original sound went missing during restoration. The extras include an extended version of the film, an audio commentary with David Raksin & Jeanine Basinger and a commentary with critic/historian Rudy Behlmer (both available on the theatrical version only), Biography: Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait (44:10, SD), Biography: Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain (44:00, SD), The Obsession (12:40, SD), a deleted scene with optional Behlmer commentary (the same one that was reinstated for the extended version, 2:40, HD), and a trailer.
This story of a widowed journalist who pretends to be Jewish to effectively write about antisemitism at the risk of his relationship with a divorcee was another big Oscar winner for Fox. Besides winning the 1948 Best Picture award, director Elia Kazan took home his first Oscar for Best Director (he’d win again for On the Waterfront) and Celeste Holm, who steals every scene she’s in with her rapid-fire tongue, won her only Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (she was nominated two more times for Come to the Stable and All About Eve). Star Gregory Peck was also nominated, but lost to Ronald Colman ( Double Life). Gentleman’s Agreement predates the director’s best work, but, with the era’s dramatic conventions in mind, is still a strong showing. Kazan’s trademarks can be seen struggling to life in their prenatal state. Though stilted by heavy-handed morals and expositional dialogue that refuses to place any of the politics into the subtext (if you listen closely you can almost hear the cast tripping over their soap boxes), it’s a surprisingly honest film and attempts to treat its somewhat sensationalistic plot (which has been recycled in one form or another for laughs, rather than tears) as realistically as possible, at least within the period’s parameters of etiquette. Kazan and writer Moss Hart (working from Laura Z. Hobson’s book) are also very smart to keep the entire film anchored to Peck, never allowing the audience to see the story from an outside point of view (there’s only one scene that goes on without him and it’s still entirely about him). This way, we’re forced to absorb every dirty look and snide remark along with him without the benefit of context. His paranoia is ours. For the most part, Kazan’s direction is visually standoffish. He’s content to let the story play out in plainly handsome fashion, but, every once and a while, he sneaks in a camera move in for potent dramatic emphasis.
This full-frame, 1.33:1, 1080p black & white transfer clocks in perhaps a smidge below the Fox standard. Details, though limited by the use of soft focus and shallow backgrounds, are sharp enough to reveal the tiny wrinkles in Dorothy McGuire’s face -– something I really don’t expect from the glamour girls of the era (I mean this in the most positive possible sense). Grain is consistent and usually fine in size (there are more chunky bits here than some similar transfers), the deepest blacks are brilliantly deep without losing definition, whites are clean, and gradations are pretty smooth, assuming the lighting isn’t set too low. Assuming the footage I’m seeing on the standard definition special features is accurate, there was actually quite a bit of work to be done in terms of deleting print damage artefacts. Besides some minor chemical or water damage during some scenes and minor edge haloes and other sharpening effects, this print is plenty clean, especially in comparison to those seen in the disc’s special features. There is a bit of a low-level buzz throughout this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound, but the overall sound floor is set low enough that you’re going to have to stick your ear against a speaker to really care. Alfred Newman did write some music for the film, but it doesn’t crop up very often and sound effects are limited to not a lot more than footsteps, so the dialogue is really all I have to judge this track on. It sounds fine. The extras include commentary from critic Richard Schickel with actresses Celeste Holm and June Havoc, Backstory: Gentleman’s Agreement (24:30, SD), two Movietone News items (1.40, 1:00, SD), and a trailer.
Wild River was made after Elia Kazan’s notorious testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and became somewhat lost among his more celebrated post-HUAC features, like On the Waterfront, East of Eden, and A Face in the Crowd. Frankly, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with Wild River until I watched it for this review. Having been released in a later point in his career, this story of a Tennessee Valley Authority administrator who comes to a small town trying to enforce a land-clearing so that a damn can flood a valley is more along the lines of what I expect from Kazan. It also fulfills many of his most common tropes, specifically those found in Gentleman’s Agreement, including widowers, abandoned houses with uncomfortable memories, and impossibly nice leading men finding themselves thrust into environments they don’t understand for the sake of a new job in a new town. Wild River is another socially conscious story that sets young idealism against old indomitability that can be read as a metaphor for something in the then-current political climate. Kazan and cinematographer Ellsworth Fredricks begin the film with some handsome, John Ford-worthy compositions that scream ‘post-war Hollywood,’ but this turns out to be a first act smokescreen to ease the 1960 audience into some pretty rough thematic territory. Montgomery Clift is utterly charming, but I never found myself buying his romance with dour space-case Lee Remick. Their romance is merely an excuse to pursue the more interesting social issues and slows the film to a crawl anytime the plot is forced to focus on them.
Wild River was shot in CinemaScope and is presented here in 1080p, 2.35:1 video. This is another gorgeous Cinemascope transfer for Fox, following stuff like How to Marry a Millionaire and The Seven Year Itch. According to the box art, none other than Martin Scorsese spearheaded the restoration for this release. These Technicolor hues are natural and lush, detail levels are sharp enough to count the notches in a background tree, and contrasting elements are very tightly separated. At worst, things are perhaps a bit over-lightened, causing the highlights to blow out a bit and blue skies appear more white. There also appears to have been DNR enhancement applied to the print, but there is no problem with waxy effects or lacking texture. There’s also plenty of fine grain still visible. There’s close to nothing in terms of print damage artefacts to note or even signs that damage has been fixed and, aside from some minor blooming along vibrant edges, there’s nothing really to report in terms of digital artefacts, either.
Imdb.com lists a four-track stereo option among the film’s original release sound specs, which was a pretty common alternate option for CinemaScope releases at the time. Fox has chosen to present this DTS-HD Master Audio track in 2.0 mono, either because this track doesn’t actually exist, they couldn’t find the material, or they know Kazan preferred the single-channel sound. Whatever the reason, there’s really nothing to complain about here. The dialogue is clear and consistent in terms of volume. The natural ambience is layered nicely, without any major hiss or crackle, and Kenyon Hopkins’ bluesy score is rich and clean, though perhaps a little thin, thanks to the compacted nature of the single-channel treatment. Extras include a commentary with critic Richard Schickel and a trailer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 5th February 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS- HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono English, DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Cast, Crew, and Author Commentaries, Hollywood Backstories: How Green Was My Valley, Biography: Gene Tierney: A Shattered Portrait, Biography: Vincent Price: The Versatile Villain, The Obsession, Delted Scene (Laura), Backstory: Gentleman’s Agreement, Movietone News, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: John Ford, Elia Kazan, Otto Preminger
Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O'Hara, Anna Lee, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall, Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Drama, Film-Noir and Musical
Length: 433 minutes