DVDs for 4/7/09 – Pre-code Paramount and Paper Chase

Universal Home Video is plunging into the sex, sin and bathtub gin of pre-code Hollywood films with their answer to the “Forbidden Hollywood” series from Warner. The Pre-Code Hollywood Collection is from the “Universal Backlot Series” but is actually a collection of Paramount films (Universal owns the rights to the early Paramount catalogue), a studio with a more elegant and opulent touch (it was the studio of Lubitsch, Sternberg, DeMille and Leisen, after all).

Backstage at the Vanities
Backstage at the Vanities

I didn’t have a chance to explore all of the films in the set, but I absolutely loved Mitchell Leisen’s 1934 Murder at the Vanities, a combination backstage musical, showbiz comedy and murder mystery, all with the sex and smart-alecky attitude and snappy pace of the best pre-code studio pictures. Leisen did his apprenticeship as costume designer and art director, working on Douglas Fairbanks spectacles and mentoring under Cecil B. DeMille as transformed himself from silky sex comedy director to epic filmmaker and king of the spectacle. Leisen is much more fun to watch than his mentor and Murder at the Vanities is a fast-moving, fast-talking, sexy little entertainment. Also features Dorothy Arzner’s 1932 Merrily We Go to Hell. Arzner was the rare career woman director in the Hollywood’s early sound era and the film is smart and sharp and clever, and daring in its open acknowledgment of extramarital affairs and New York society decadence.

Cleopatra – 75th Anniversary Edition is a companion release, but it’s really something of a stiff compared to the snappy entertainments of the box set, where the longest film runs under 90 minutes.

Cecil B. DeMille is the epitome of the Hollywood director as spectacle showman and Cleopatra is his follow-up to Sign of the Cross: all production value and no style. Cleopatra’s Egyptian entertainments become the forerunner to the Goldwyn Follies, with showgirls in revealing costumes prancing through absurd set pieces, battles scenes are spiced up with lavish miniatures and grotesque death scenes.

“You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.” The beloved series The Paper Chase debuts on DVD with the complete first season this week. John Houseman reprises the role that won him an Oscar: professor Charles W. Kingsfield, “the greatest professor of contract law in the world,” and James Stephens takes the role of first year law student James T. Hart (played by Joseph Bottoms in the film). The show has a particularly interesting history. Developed for TV by James Bridges, who directed and scripted the 1973 feature (adapted from the novel by John Jay Osborn Jr.), it was passionately loved by low-rated on its one and only season on CBS. PBS kept the show alive in reruns and Showtime revived the series (with most of the original cast intact, including Houseman and Hart) in 1983, where it ran for three more seasons and became the forerunner to the kinds of shows that HBO and Showtime are now famous for.

A new collector’s edition of No Country For Old Men comes out on a three-disc DVD and a two-disc Blu-ray. New to both releases is Josh Brolin’s cheeky Behind the Scenes of No Country For Old Men, a wryly funny featurette subtitles “an incredibly unauthorized documentary” that “exposes” the intimidating tactics of those nasty Coens, and a “Timeline” featuring over five hours of video and audio interviews with the directors and actors. Collected from special screenings, TV programs and radio interviews, you won’t find a bigger collection of Coen Bros. interviews in a single package.

For the rest of the highlights (including the Oscar nominated Doubt and Goldfinger on Blu-ray), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.

See also my feature review of Doubt on Parallax View here.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I'm a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I've written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View. I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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