DVDs for 7/7/09 – John Barrymore, Gary Cooper and Edward Woodward as a spy John Le Carre could have created

Camilla Horn and John Barrymore
Camilla Horn and John Barrymore whip up a Tempest
He was called “The Great Profile,” elevated as the great lover of the silent screen and held up as the greatest actor of his generation. In retrospect he left behind his share of hammy performances and lazy mugging, but when he was at his best, John Barrymore was a shining star of the silent screen. Kino has collected four Barrymore silents in The John Barrymore Collection, three of them new to Kino (but not necessarily new to DVD). The highlights come via the Killiam Collection, complete with the original seventies-era piano scores by William P. Perry recorded for repertory showings. The Beloved Rogue features Barrymore in swashbuckling form as François Villon, “poet, pickpocket, patriot” (as his introductory title card identifies him), a hard-drinking gadabout who satirized the King (Conrad Veidt, making his Hollywood debut in a comically gnarled performance) in his poetry but loved “France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively.” The famed Shakespearean stage dramatist has a tendency to twist face into a clownish curl to play 15th century poet as a fun-loving fool and drunkard, parading about with his drinking buddies and playing the king of the beggars of Paris. But he also throws himself into the swashbuckling scenes, leaping across roofs less like an action hero than a child of the streets who hasn’t quite grown up, and tones himself down for romance with Marceline Day, the king’s ward. Alan Crosland previously directed Barrymore in Don Juan, one of another of his best silent films, and William Cameron Davies creates the lavish sets.

I’m even more partial to Tempest (1928), not a version of the Shakespeare play but a tale of a peasant soldier (Barrymore) in love with a princess (Camilla Horn of Faust, whose eyes burn with a mixture of haughty arrogance and guilty desire) in World War I Russia. Barrymore gives one of his most restrained performances as the tormented soldier whose hatred of the aristocracy is systematically stoked when he’s put through a living hell for his temerity at falling in love with a high-born beauty. The aristocracy systematically keeps the lowly peasant class its place until the revolution turns the tables, at which point the film tries to cast the Red Menace as the villain. It’s a hard sell given the brutality and contempt of the ruling class, but in a manner that suggests director Sam Taylor studied the works of D.W. Grifffith, he portrays the aristocrats as beautiful people tormented by the ugly peasants who take their revenge with a vengeance. In this new paradigm, Barrymore rejects class politics to save his fair aristocratic love from the grimy hands of the dark, unwashed proletariat brutes. Director Sam Taylor directed some terrific Harold Lloyd comedies before making this historical romantic drama, but he guide this gorgeous costume drama like he was a master of the epic form, and William Cameron Menzies once again contributes great sets. The box set also features the 1922 Sherlock Holmes and the previously released 1920 Dr Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, and the discs are also available separately. The films are preserved rather than restored but look fine and The Beloved Rogue is tinted.

Hollywood adventures don’t come more rousing than the 1939 Beau Geste. Gary Cooper, Ray Milland and Robert Preston are the boisterous Geste brothers, orphans raised by a society lady as gentlemen with a sense of playful camaraderie and undaunted chivalry. Their sense of honor and sacrifice inspires all three of them take the blame for a jewel theft and run off to join the French Foreign Legion, which they do so in order of age (Coop as the eldest, Preston as his partner in trouble and Milland as the loyal little brother in love with their adopted Auntie’s lovely female war, Susan Hayward). Together they square off against a brutal sergeant (Brian Donlevy). The story is irresistible from the prologue, where a squad of legionnaires arrives at an isolated outpost to find a mystery – a deserted desert fort filled by dead men slumped at their posts, a disappearing scout, a confession and a sudden fire that engulfs the haunted fort – that hangs over the adventure like a dark shadow of doom. The action set piece, an attack on the fortress by an Arab army, is a magnificent reworking of the frontier movie Indian attack of a cavalry fort dropped into in a North African setting. The characters are hearty creations and the muscular direction by William Wellman keeps the film briskly moving along. This is the great romantic adventure of hard men, loyal comrades and the fraternal love and sacrifice of brother who risk everything to protect each other and it’s one more exhibit in the case for William Wellman as the most underrated director of the thirties.

If you can’t get enough of the Coop, the Warner Archives offers even more, including the Howard Hawks World War I drama Today We Live, an unexpectedly compelling drama of love and war co-starring Joan Crawford as the British girl that American Coop falls in love with and Robert Young as the boy next door who adores Crawford. This is adult romance in the best sense of the term, a sophisticate drama with distinctive dialogue by author William Faulkner and terrific performances from Franchot Tone (as Crawford’s protective brother) and Roscoe Karns (as Coop’s loyal American buddy). Again, this is a preserved film, not a restored one. The print is used and worn, with speckles and scratches, and crackles on the soundtrack. But it’s been well transferred also and well mastered and the DVD-R discs serve the purpose well until a genuine restoration can be undertaken. There are five more Cooper classics available in the last batch of releases, including Saratoga Trunk (1946) with Ingrid Bergman and the 1950 Bright Leaf, with Cooper as an aspiring tobacco magnate whose drive for success of powered by his drive for revenge against an arrogant aristocrat. The visionary accomplishment of this southern Citizen Kane, which may have seemed heroic in 1950 but is rather dubious from today’s vantage point, is the mass production of cigarettes via a machine that makes it “the cheapest habit in America.” Warner house director Michael Curtiz helms the handsome production and Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal co-star. The Warner Archive Collection is available exclusively from the Warner website.

In the classic British TV spy series Callan, Edward Woodward is an intelligence agent with a conscience, a ruthlessly effective spy when it comes to enemy agents and fellow operatives and a moral streak when it comes to civilians caught in the crossfire. It’s a morally murky world more in tune with the sensibility of The Prisoner and the novels of John Le Carre than James Bond. “Set 1” is actually the third season of the series (and the first in color). It opens on Callan recovering from gunshot wounds that nearly killed him and returning to his unnamed super-secret intelligence section, where the fierce internal politics are almost as dangerous as the field assignment. The 1970 production is shot on video but the scripts are sharp enough to get past the distracting video quality. The box set features nine episodes.

For the rest of the highlights (including the new release Push, the Blu-ray debut of The Deep and the classics Lonely are the Brave and the 1944 Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), 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.

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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