A nice group of interesting, little-known and forgotten films are filtered amongst the more familiar titles of this month's 'Best of' DVD recommendations. A smattering of recent theatrical films, lots of classics and TV on DVD also made the cut. As always, everything on this list is recommended—or it wouldn't be here—but standout titles are given a little more 'oomph,' as is my wont.
For starters, I want to mention the amazing job that Warner Bros. has done with The Petrified Forest ( 1936 ) , which many film experts consider one of the earliest examples of 'film noir.' This release, part of Warner's 'Gangsters Collection' series ( other titles include White Heat, The Public Enemy and Little Caesar ) features a new transfer that's the best version of the film I've seen and stars Leslie Howard and über diva Bette Davis in one of her early, charming performances. It's most renowned ( and rightfully so ) for making Humphrey Bogart as gangster Duke Mantee into a star. A practically encyclopedic film commentary is offered by film historian Eric Lax, along with assorted other extras, the best of which is something called 'Warner Night at the Movies,' which recreates what film audiences at the time would have seen before the film. A vintage trailer, newsreel, short subject, and cartoon are added to the disc before the feature—a delightful programming idea for classic cinema fans.
Fox released three more titles in their Studio Classics series ( one of my favorites ) in February and two winners out of the three are pretty good odds. A Letter to Three Wives ( 1949 ) won Joseph Mankiewicz the Best Screenplay Oscar and is considered by many to be a warm up for his All About Eve ( also available as part of this series ) the following year. Mankiewicz beautifully directs this comedy-drama set in the suburbs about a woman ( voiced by the superb Celeste Holm ) who claims to have run off with the husband of either Ann Sheridan, Jeanne Crain or Linda Darnell. The little remembered Darnell is at her height and the disc includes her episode of Biography and several other extras. Leave Her To Heaven ( 1945 ) stars Gene Tierney as the murderous Ellen, who will stop at nothing to keep hunky husband Cornel Wilde focused exclusively on her. A terrific thriller, another great transfer ( this one in color ) from Fox and good extras make this a welcome edition to the series. Return to Peyton Place ( 1961 ) is the so-so addition but though this sequel to the 1957 monster hit substitutes Eleanor Parker for Lana Turner and Carol Lynley for Diane Varsi, it adds marvelous Mary Astor in one of her last great performances and now, thanks to claims by Esther Williams in her memoirs that star of the film Jeff Chandler was a transvestite, we can imagine him relaxing in his dressing room between takes in drag.
Columbia has released a pair of little-known Jack Lemmon films that are not quite classics but nevertheless are each diverting on their own and make for a nice winter's eve double feature. Lemmon co-stars with Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett in the musical My Sister Eileen ( 1955 ) , which they rushed into production after Rosalind Russell had such a triumph with Wonderful Town on Broadway. Alas, this version does not include the Berstein-Comden-Green score but the substitute songs and dances do offer up a dizzy conga line all its own and a delightful turn by 'Robert' Fosse as the soda jerk. Lemmon also pairs up nicely with Doris Day in the small town, Capraesque comedy It Happened To Jane ( 1959 ) , in which Day battles meanie tycoon Ernie Kovacs. Neither disc has extras.
Finally for the classics crowd, Paramount has released two feature-free but obscure comedies that have been eagerly requested on DVD. Tony Randall and family ( Janet Leigh plays the wife ) are forced to live in an under-the-sea-house for sitcom reasons ( natch ) in Hello Down There ( 1969 ) that also features a groovin', fruggin' band led by adolescent Richard Dreyfuss, while Shirley MacLaine adds daffy fizz and Dean Martin his superb straight man skills and killer timing to the forgotten but delightful All In A Night's Work ( 1961 ) . It's steeped in fun '60s space-age bachelor pad anarchism's and features a wonderful background score by one of my favorite film composers, Andre Previn.
Enough of the old stuff, you say. OK, but everything old is new again in Miramax's wonderful Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez-Susan Sarandon crowd pleaser Shall We Dance? ( 2004 ) This very broad romantic comedy used Gere and Lopez perfectly ( though more Sarandon would have been nice ) and was one of my favorite movies last year. The over-the-top supporting cast is hilarious and the disc is a winner with everything you'd ever want to know about ballroom dancing, the usual assortment of extras and some beautiful shots of the Chicago skyline. Plus a nice gay subplot that reveals itself at the fade-out.
The expert and evocative set-up for The Village ( 2004 ) from Touchstone just emphasized the ho-hum surprise ending in this not quite on-target thriller from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan. But a reappraisal of the movie via this Touchstone disc gave me a greater appreciation of the film. I also really enjoyed the featurette on the beautiful music score by James Newton Howard and interviews with the cast that includes out lesbian Cherry Jones.
There is much more of the incredible acting dynamo that is Cherry Jones in Cora Unashamed, a beautifully written and acted interracial story from PBS Pictures that also stars Regina Taylor. Based on the Langston Hughes short story, this is the first in a series of PBS films and documentaries to be distributed by Paramount. Echoes from the White House, a very entertaining, 200-year anniversary tour of the first residence, appropriately narrated by the Martin Sheen, is another recent release.
TLA brings us the DVD of the delightful Irish queer dramedy, Cowboys and Angels ( 2004 ) that adds a nifty commentary and some deleted scenes while Wolfe Video offers showtune queens a little slice of heaven with their zany, campy release of the Dutch Yes Nurse! No Nurse! ( 2002 ) . Though the disc doesn't have any extras, the film's wacky storyline ( which has shades of Hairspray ) , bouncy musical numbers and eye-popping colors are a lot of fun.
Just in time for Be Cool, the sequel to 1995's Get Shorty, MGM has released a wonderful two-disc Special Edition of the John Travolta-Gene Hackman-Danny DeVito black comedy about a gangster turned movie producer. I was thrilled to at last see the graveyard sequence ( which has a funny bit by Ben Stiller ) and tons of other goodies, but it also made me realize how much I miss Rene Russo ( hurry back! ) and loved Bette Midler's supporting, funny work here. MGM also released the little seen but nice dramedy Kiss the Bride ( 2002 ) from writer-director-co-star Vanessa Parise last month, a sisterly variation on Mystic Pizza and My Big, Fat Greek Wedding that features a lesbian character played by Alyssa Milano and the dreamy but underused Johnathan Schaech.
Martin Scorsese doesn't have his Best Director Oscar yet and after seeing MGM's terrific boxed set that collects four of his movies, you'll be scratching your head at the oversight. A Special Edition of New York New York ( 1977 ) with Liza Minnelli at her second best ( after Cabaret ) and a masterly performance by Robert DeNiro as her talented but sadistic husband is reason enough to add the set to your collection. Finally, this much-maligned but fascinating mixture of studio artifice and hard-edged realism is available on DVD in this beautiful transfer. The inclusion of a new, SE of Raging Bull, The Last Waltz and Boxcar Bertha ( with a pre-Beaches Barbara Hershey ) in the set are big bonuses. I'd like to have had a Liza commentary track or a making-of documentary, however.
That goes double for Warner's release of a Special Edition of The Bodyguard ( 1992 ) , which does include a brand new making-of documentary but only includes archival interview footage of star Whitney Houston. New reminiscences of Kevin Costner and others are included as is Whitney's 'I Will Always Love You' video, but her absence from a Special Edition version of her movie debut, a personal triumph for Houston, seems odd.
TV on DVD: Though I'm not a big TV show watcher, who's not ready to make an exception for the Queen of Comedy? And Paramount has just released I Love Lucy—The Complete Third Season on five discs. They've done a fabulous job with this set, which includes the show's restored animated opening, lost scenes, etc. 'The Charm School,' a camp classic and one of my all-time favorite episodes, is also included. Lucy and company hit Hollywood next, and I can't wait.
Finally, I was pleased to discover Fox's strange, wonderful series Wonderfalls, which I never saw ( apparently, few others did either ) . This three-disc set includes all 13 episodes of the quirky show ( only four were aired ) in which Jaye ( Caroline Dhavernas ) is commanded to intercede in the life of total strangers by inanimate objects. Kate Finneran plays Jaye's sister who comes out as a lesbian in the first episode wherein a lovely subplot develops between she and the marvelous Diana Scarwid and William Sadler, who play the parents. Smartly packaged with nice bonuses, this set easily proves that some television shows are just too good for … television.