Category: DVD Review

DVD Review: The Hildegard Withers Mystery Movie Collection

This DVD set brings viewers all six of the Hildegard Withers mystery movies that were released in the 1930s. The series began in 1932 with Edna May Oliver in the role of Hildegard Withers and James Gleason as Inspector Oscar Piper.  Oliver was succeeded in the lead role by Helen Broderick and then Zasu Pitts with Gleason continuing the whole run.

Each film was very much of its era. The acting from the supporting cast in the early films showed the struggle of many actors to adjust to the fact that talking films were different, so there’s a lot of over-acting. There’s also quite a bit of melodrama in the plots (although the ending to the first film The Penguin Pool Murders cut against that grain.) Inspector Piper is, in many ways, typical of movie police inspectors of the era. He always accused the right person of committing the crime because he always accused everyone of committing the crime.

The strength came down to the lead actress. Edna May Oliver elevated these films above the typical mysteries that dominated this era. Her take on Hildegard Withers was perfect. She was a proper middle-aged school teacher who was used to being listened to and commanded respect as she would speak to any man as if she were their stern school teacher rather than just a school teacher. She had both a sharp tongue and a sharp mind. Oliver’s delivery is a joy to hear.

At the same time, she had a streak of romanticism about her, as well as a caring nature. Oliver played great off Gleason as the two worked together to solve the case and were also gently competitive and even romantic.

Oliver was replaced by Helen Broderick whose one outing in, “Murder on the Bridal Path,” was fairly unremarkable. Zasu Pitts took over the role and the production took an interesting turn. Pitts was known for playing somewhat ditzy comedic roles and was also several years younger, so her Hildegard Withers is a much more flighty character than how Oliver played her, and Inspector Piper is actually the key figure in solving the case in Pitts’ first outing as Withers in, “The Plot Thickens.”

While I didn’t care much for Pitts’ first turn as Withers, her second (and last), “Forty Naughty Girls,” is actually pretty good. It’s about a murder at a Broadway play. Piper begins the investigation while the play is still going on. Withers smells perfume at the scene of the murder and goes and smells every woman on the stage in search of one that could provide a clue. The movie clocks in at just over an hour and the entire film is set in that one setting over the course of about an hour, so the movie goes along at an almost real time pace. While Pitts plays Withers a bit smarter, it’s still not at the level set by Oliver. It feels like Pitts is playing Pamela North from the Mr. and Mrs. North TV series.

Overall, the three Oliver films are very good and the others are okay for the most part. The more you enjoy films from the early to mid-1930s, the more you’ll get out of this set. My only complaint is that they didn’t get the rights to the Eve Arden Hildegard Withers telefilm for this set and include it in the release.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0


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DVD Review: The Saint, Set 1

The Saint, Set 1 collects six episodes from Roger Moore’s fifth’s season as the Saint, the first to actually be in color.

The Episodes glory in the Saint’s entry into the world of Color with one beautiful location after another. From Monte Carlo to Venice to Hamburg to Scotland, the series showcases the globetrotting nature of the Saint’s adventures, as well as the wide variety of forms they can take. In, “The Queen’s Ransom,” the Saint accompanies the American wife of an European king in returning a treasure to him and has to outwit a gang of International criminals in the process. In, “Interlude in Venice,” Simon helps out the naïve daughter of an American politician who is at risk of getting swept off her feet by a conman. In, “The Reluctant Revolution,” Simon is compelled to throw in with revolutionaries trying to overthrow a “Banana Republic.” In, “The Convenient Monster,” he encounters a woman who claims the Loch Ness monster is really out there in Scotland.

The variety of the Saint’s adventures is part of what makes the series a standout. The adventures range from straight up mysteries to spy and political thrillers. Through it all, future James Bond Roger Moore plays the Saint as smart, tough, and charming. He’s also joined by a solid guest casts in each and every story.

Overall, these episodes are marvelous and a great start to the Saint’s full color adventures.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Here Comes Cookie, Six of a Kind, Love in Bloom

George Burns and Gracie Allen won the hearts of millions by coming into their homes over radio and television for more than two decades. It’s often forgotten that the two also appeared in films in the 1930s. A 2003 DVD from Universal Home Entertainment collects three of these rare films.

Here Comes Cookie (1935): In this one, Gracie plays the daughter of a wealthy man who fears that his daughter’s beau is a fortune hunter, so he decides to leave everything to Gracie. Gracie gets the idea that her father wants the family to be as poor as possible. This is a screwball piece and Gracie has some good moments, though George is relegated to a bit role. The film is a fun screwball affair with some old vaudeville actors featured.

Six of a Kind (1934): Like many of the Burns and Allen films, Six of a Kind is an all-star comedy. This one also features W.C. Fields and Charles Ruggles, along with Mary Boland and Allison Skipworth.

The plot involves a meek man (Ruggles) going on vacation unwittingly carrying $50,000 from his bank. George and Gracie sign on as travelling companions to share the ride. W.C. Fields comes into the story as a Sheriff and replicates a famous scene shooting pool from his Vaudeville days. Gracie has some hilarious lines, and George even gets a few laughs in as well.

Love in Bloom (1935): George and Gracie get the least screen time in the longest feature on the DVD. While they’re featured prominently in the credits, they have bit roles as the heroine’s brother and sister-in-law. The heroine (Dixie Lee) comes from a circus family and wants a decent, honest life, but struggles to escape her background even as she falls in love with a talented young singer/songwriter (Joe Morrison) and they go to work in a music shop on the strength of her salesmanship skills and his talent. The film is really a romance rather than a comedy and George and Gracie are pretty much side characters with them having a couple funny moments: one where Gracie tries to get out of a ticket and another where she tries to “sell” the music store to its owner. Beyond that, the movie is worthwhile when given a chance. Joe Morrison isn’t the best leading man but he’s got a good voice and Dixie Lee’s performance coupled with the old fashioned decency of the story, give it a certain charm despite its flaws.

Overall, the rare films on this DVD, while by no means in the same class as the greatest comedies of the era, are enjoyable. If you’re a fan of Burns and Allen, it’s a bonus as you get to see some of their work in films. However, to get acquainted with them at their best, their radio and TV performances are still the best bet.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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A Look at Elementary, Season One

The first season of Elementary finds a tattooed Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) living in modern day New York as part of his rehab from heroin addiction. Ex-Surgeon Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) has changed careers and is now a sober companion for recovering addicts and lands Holmes as a client. Holmes is called in frequently as a consultant for the NYPD in solving strange and unusual cases.

Probably the first thing to get out of the way is that this is Sherlock Holmes in name only. Unlike Sherlock, which seeks to bring Holmes into the twenty-first century and updates the character accordingly, Elementary changes almost every detail about Holmes other than his name and general methods, and a few personality quirks. You can’t change not only the period, but also the setting, the background of the character, but also the gender of Holmes’ assistant, and that character’s nature, personality, and potential and have something that can really be compared to Doyle’s originals. The series is least convincing when it tries to re-use names, concepts, quotes, and characters but in ways that have little relation to the original story.

The best way to enjoy Elementary is to enter it with no expectation that it will be anything like Sherlock Holmes and to enjoy it on its own merits.If it helps, take my wife’s joking suggestion and mentally rename him Bob.

The mysteries are well-crafted and engaging. The plots are clever, usually with Holmes reaching several mistaken solutions on the way. Sometimes, the actual solutions are quite shocking such as, “Child Predator,” but all really have a great deal of inventiveness, although it does seem that Holmes accuses way too many innocent people of murder in some of these episodes.

Elementary’s Holmes and Joan Watson both have histories that are slowly unraveled, with Holmes’ drug addiction and the events that surrounded it. While Elementary’s Holmes ends up on the side of the angels, he can go into some gray areas particularly as a matter of revenge.  Holmes tends towards arrogance, whicht makes him uncomfortable and awkward as he faces the world of drug rehab, which keeps forcing him into moments which cut against his pride.

Joan Watson is a bit of an enigma. Her career change from surgeon to sober companion was a come down in the world. She finds herself drawn into the world of criminal investigation. At the start of the season, she’s following him as part of the obligation to be in contact with him, but she becomes increasingly involved and engaged in the world of criminal investigations. She finds a new path through the course of the season and it’s very fun to watch.

The characters do work well together, and we learn quite a bit about them throughout the season. However, it’s very well balanced developed so that by the end of the season,  you have a sense that there are greater depths to explore. The supporting cast is understandably less explored. Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) has a few moments that reveal his differences with Holmes as well as his appreciation for him. Despite having an episode, in which he was accused of murder, Lieutenant Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) is mostly a functional role in this first season.

The series does have a bit of story arc in the second half of the season involving its Moriarty. It’s certainly not a bad arc, but I found myself unexcited by the ending which seemed to drag and not really end strongly.

Overall, this series is more like a non-humorous version of Monk than it is a proper Sherlock Holmes. It’s enjoyable for what it is,when it doesn’t halfheartedly try to be something it’s not.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: The Classic Comedy Team Collection

The Classic Comedy team collection offers viewers a chance to see three of the all-time best comedy teams in action: the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and Abbott and Costello. The films, rather than being public domain works, are rare films that were made by MGM. This is particularly notable for Abbott and Costello as most of their pictures were made with Universal.

The Three Stooges discs offer two films, Gold Raiders, and Meet the Baron. Both films are obscure. Gold Raiders is an extremely low budget 1951 Western  notable for being the only film made with Shemp, but  unremarkable otherwise. Meet the Baron (1933) is an interesting film for fans of 1930s entertainment as you get some great performers all in one film, including Edna May Oliver, Jimmy Durante, and Zasu Pitts,  who all had pretty good performances elsewhere. In fact, the Stooges barely feature. This is a film where the whole is far less than the sum of it’s part as it falls short under the weight of weak writing, as do many of the all-star comedies of that era.

Laurel and Hardy were past their prime but I found both of their war time films to be entertaining. Air Raid Wardens (1943) finds them taking on volunteer war work in an effort to help the country. It’s not only patriotic, but it was so hilarious, when I watched it while giving blood, it ended the donation because I was laughing so hard, the needle moved, so consider yourself warned. Nothing But Trouble (1944) offers a nice contrast between the Depression and World War II with Laurel and Hardy’s butler/cook team having left America in the 1930s when jobs were scarce and returning in the middle of war when demand for any job was high. The story features political intrigue and they find themselves in the middle of a plot to kill a pro-Democracy, football-loving teenage king. It’s not quite as good as Air Raid Wardens, but it’s funny and charming in its own right.

Abbott and Costello are the only duo to be at the height of their popularity and talent in this collection. Lost in a Harem (1944) finds them as magicians helping an Arabian prince regain his throne, and then, Abbott and Costello in Hollywood has them playing barbers who end up playing agent for a young star who is hated by a stuck up and egotistical actor determined to stay on top at all costs. Both films are great comedies with some classic sketches and I think they do a better job of balancing the pair vs. the romantic story line involving other actors, something Universal struggled with. Of the two, I like Abbott and Costello in Hollywood  the best. The film has hilarious madcap sequences, such as when Costello pretends to be a dummy on a movie studio set. For fans of old films, there are brief appearances by Lucille Ball, Mike Mazurki, and Rags Ragland, with Carleton Young making a very good villain.

Overall, this is an enjoyable DVD set. While the Stooges films are more curiosities, the Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello installments are delightful wartime entertainment.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

DVD Review: Torchy Blane Complete Movie Collection

Torchy Blane was the feature character in nine B movies released from 1937-39 starring Glenda Farrell in seven of the films, with the two other installments featuring Lola Lane and Jane Wyman. The character was also part of the inspiration for Jerry Siegel’s Lois Lane. All nine films have been released as a single set by Warner Archives.

Torchy was an intrepid female reporter solving crimes. I reviewed her first movie and I think the opening of her first movie, Smart Blonde really set the tone for the series. In it, she has a cab drive up to a moving train and jumps out of the cab and onto the moving train.

From the beginning, she established herself as a daring, clever no-nonsense reporter who manages to stay a step (or several steps) ahead of her boyfriend/fiancé Lieutenant Steve McBride (played by Barton MacClane in the seven movies starring Farrell) and his sidekick Gehagen (played in all nine films by Tom Kennedy.)

The idea of a female reporter being the girlfriend of a police detective was hardly original to this film series, but there was more done with it in Torchy Blane. As Torchy racked up a scoop in the first film, other reporters got jealous, with their bosses complaining to the police brass, who responded to their headaches by trying to frustrate her access to McBride. In another film, her fellow journalists decided to humiliate her by staging a hoax murder and getting her to believe it so that she would be embarrassed by having been duped. It’s rare for a movie from the 1930s to really explore the consequences of its premise and that’s one thing that sets the Torchy Blane film apart.

The films are a great mix of comedy, adventure, and mystery. Torchy’s intrepid adventures take her around the world, on a cruise trip, and even running for Mayor. Farrel and Maclane were usually more bit players and lacked the glamour of the A-list stars but that helps to make Torchy and Steve feel very realistic. Farrell is a delight to watch in each film as she’s always entertaining whether she’s playing an impish trick to get past the latest attempt by the attempt by the police to stop her from getting the inside dope, trying a daring stunt to thwart the bad guys, or delightfully worming another steak dinner out of Steve, she’s just fun to watch. Maclane was probably the weakest link in the series to start with but the character got better and by the end he was a step or two behind Torchy and would arrive in the end to help Torchy out. Gehagen is a lovable poetry-reciting goof whose rank on the police force appears to be Gehagen. The character is often Torchy’s unwitting dupe in whatever scheme she’s pulling to get her story.

The films have a great comic element but it’s rarely over-the-top or too absurd as many screwball comedies of the era. These are good, solid B films.

But it’s important to remember that they are still 58-63 minute, low-budget “B” films. So to enjoy them, you have to be willing to accept a few quirks such as policemen from the same department wearing uniforms that don’t match and the coroner being used as an escort for a witness to save budget on scenes. To embrace Torchy Blane, you have to accept Fly Away, Baby as a story of Torchy’s world tour even though that grand tour is told with stock footage and so-so soundstages. There are a few politically incorrect moments (although it’s very mild for the time) and anyone expecting a twenty-first century feminist will doubtless be disappointed in Torchy.

Yet, for my money, the Glenda Farrell films are wonderful, with the first four being my favorite followed closely by Torchy Runs for Mayor where Torchy fights her toughest battle against a corrupt political machine where she’s constantly abandoned and finds cowardice and calculation at every turn, until it’s clear that she’s the only one with the guts to stop them.

The Lola Lane film, Torchy Blane in Panama, is good as well. Lane had been part of the singing Lane sisters and would get a reputation for playing tough girls on screen and her performance of Torchy really showed that sort of toughness. I thought Paul Kelly was a disappointment as the replacement Steve McBride.

Jane Wyman in  Torchy Blane…Playing with Dynamite was a bit more problematic. Wyman would become a great Oscar-winning and Golden Globe winning actress, but she wasn’t that actress in 1939. She was only twenty-two when she made her sole appearance as Torchy (after appearing in a minor role in the first film) and she practically did a Glenda Farrell impression, wearing a blond wig for the role. The film’s plot really stretched believability even by B-movie standards with Torchy endangering lives by causing a near panic with a series of false alarms to get herself thrown in prison so she could reach a missing criminal. The film is rescued in the second half by some solid action and Gehagen’s comedy wrestling. It’s not a horrible film, and it’s enjoyable in its own right,  but it’s far from the best in the series.

Overall, the Torchy Blane Movie Collection is a must-see for fans of Detective B-movies. It’s a thoroughly entertaining nine hours that’s easily the equal of many better known series.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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DVD Review: Michael Shayne Mysteries, Volume 1

This two DVD collection collection collects four of the seven Michael Shayne films: Michael Shayne, Private Detective, The Man Who Wouldn’t Die, Sleepers West, and Blue, White, and Perfect. 

These are the cream of the series. Nolan plays Shayne with loads of light-hearted charm and street smarts. In general, the writing is solid as it avoids the flaws of other films in the series that have since been released as solo stories. The films are detective comedies but do a good job providing a great balance between detective story and comedy.

Each film is based on a different book. However, only one of those was a Michael Shayne book. The other three were from other detective writers. While the films have a light comedic touch to them, each is also influenced by its source material and so each feels a little different.

Michael Shayne, Private Detective is the only one based on an actual Shayne book, and it finds Shayne watching an underage heiress who has a bad gambling habit. Shayne undertakes to keep her safe but quickly finds himself mixed up in a murder.

In The Man Who Couldn’t Die, Shayne goes undercover as a woman’s new husband to help her find out the secret behind strange goings on at her father’s estate. This is an atmospheric “old house” mystery with lots of comic misunderstandings thrown in.

Sleepers West has Shayne transporting a key witness on a train where he runs into an old flame and her fiance, who has a secret. Shayne has to keep the witness safe from the mob and also ensure she makes it to the trial. This one becomes a little more drama than mystery towards the end, but has a positive message and a lovely performance by Nolan.

Finally in Blue, White, and Perfect, Shayne pretends to quit the private detective business for the benefit of his fiancee, but in reality he’s going undercover to investigate the theft of diamonds. However, he’s fired from the job after a complaint is lodged against him by the perpetrators (who he can’t prove are guilty), so he does the only sensible thing he can: tricks his fiancee into giving him a thousand dollars so he can book passage on a boat to Hawaii and follow the crooks across the sea,  intending to capture the crooks, claim the reward, and pay her back. This film is enjoyable, particularly for featuring future Superman star George Reeves as a Spanish/Irish mystery passenger, but it is probably a little too convoluted for its own good.

It’s worth nothing that the films all seem to have an obsession with Shayne being Irish, with the theme being an Irish jig and Shayne whistling Irish songs.

Beyond that, the films are incredibly entertaining. The DVD boxset contains a nice booklet, and the CDs are in two slip cases, each with gorgeous artwork related to the films. In addition, there are four mini-documentaries about the Michael Shayne books and movies that make for great viewing for the true mystery fan.

Compared to other mystery box sets, the current $9.99 price on this set is dirt cheap. The reason for the price is that 20th Century Fox packaged the set as a double-sided DVD which is generally a cheap option. That’s ironic because everything else in the set is quite exquisitely done. However, the result of this is that this is a great bargain for fans of classic mystery movies.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0

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