Warner Archive: Classic Movie Stars Voice Rankin and Bass' The Wind in the Willows (1987)

It was the classic movie stars that drew me to the 1987 Rankin and Bass television version of The Wind in the Willows. Roddy McDowall, Jose Ferrer and Eddie Bracken as Ratty, Badger and Moley respectively? I knew it had to be good. And it is a lot of fun. With jaunty tunes, artfully executed animation and a polished voice cast in addition to those classic Hollywood names, this is an upbeat, fun film, and it's now available for the first time on DVD from Warner Archive.

If there's one thing that makes this version of the often-filmed 1908 Kenneth Grahame book special, it's the voice acting. McDowall, Ferrer and Bracken bring satisfying depth to their roles; you never get the feeling they're just coasting through some kiddie stuff. Seasoned voice artists Paul Frees and Charles Nelson Reilly are equally charming. Reilly is a perfect fit for the eccentric Toad; it's hard to imagine anyone else playing the character after hearing him do it.

I was also surprised by how pretty the animation was, especially for a television production. The images of the countryside were postcard scenic. It was an almost unnecessarily lush background, but I enjoyed the attention to detail. Because I was especially focused on the look of the film, I did notice an unusual difference between the wide shots and close-ups of the characters, the latter seemed fuzzier to me. That said, the film is in essentially good condition.

Though not terribly memorable, the songs were pleasant and somewhat catchy. They had a weirdly groovy sound which seemed more like the 60s or 70s than the early 80s (it was made a few years before it was broadcast). I liked that the actors did their own singing; I think the tunes might have sounded better than they really were because they were so expertly acted. Judy Collins does a beautiful job with the theme song, which perfectly captures the feel of the countryside in the film.

I enjoyed the high-spirited feel of the production. The characters are so lovable, even when they're being exasperating. There's no need for life-threatening conflicts or scary villains to keep it interesting. It made me realize how intense most films for kids have become. Even movies with a lot of heart, like Inside Out (2015), can still be so emotionally wrenching. It's nice to feel refreshed at the end of a family film, instead of being totally drained.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Singing, and Smelling, Along With Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory at SIFF Film Center

This weekend I had the opportunity to take my girls to a special SIFF screening of the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory sing-along, presented in Smell-O-Vision. We'd never seen the film in a theater before, and that alone was pretty astonishing, what with the enormous Oompah-Loompas and the chance to see Gene Wilder's mesmerizing baby blues up close. It was a fun showing though, with lots of special touches that gave it the feel of a community event.

As we entered the theater, we were each handed a bag with props to use during the film. With items including a scratch and sniff card, bubble gum, a party popper, gobstoppers, mini bubbles and a Hershey kiss, it was like getting a sack of party favors. We were told to wait for onscreen instructions as to how to use all these things.

My Smell-o-Vision card. Who wouldn't want to get a good whiff of Charlie's Grandpa Joe?

Before the movie began, we were treated to a short film about chocolate-making, made by the Hershey corporation. It was as mouth-watering as you'd expect, and dated enough to offer a few unintended laughs.

Then the main feature, which has got to be one of the most crowd-pleasing movies ever made. It's one of those rare films that truly has something for everyone: sharp satire for the adults, crazy moments for the kids and Gene Wilder for everyone. Part of the pleasure of seeing it with an audience was that you could sense how happy we all were to be there.

Getting all our props out in a timely way was a challenge, especially with one kid too young to read the onscreen instructions, but it was also a lot of fun. I still tear up thinking about how I felt watching Wilder sing Pure Imagination with a chocolate kiss melting in my mouth. The bubbles we blew, during the scene where Charlie and his Grandpa were soaring among bubbles themselves, lingered for a while afterwards, which seemed to fascinate a lot of the kids. There was a palpable feeling of wonder in the theater. It was a more moving experience than I'd expected.

If you are going to be in the Seattle area anytime over the next month, I recommend checking it out. Links below go to the schedule for Wonka and a few other audience participation events SIFF will be presenting over the next month.

Nov 26-Jan 3 | SIFF Film Center | Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory in Smell-O-Vision
Nov 26-Jan 3 | SIFF Film Center | The Princess Bride Quote Along
Fri Dec 25 | SIFF Cinema Uptown | Fiddler on the Roof Sing Along
Thu Dec 31 | SIFF Cinema Uptown | Moulin Rouge! New Year's Eve Sing Along

My kid is ready for more. She's dying to go to the Princess Bride Quote Along, and she's not going to have to work hard to convince me to take her.

Many thanks to SIFF for providing tickets to the film.

Quote of the Week: Julie Andrews on the Impact of Movies

Image Source

I'm realistic enough to realize that life is horrible and brutish for 

most people, so that what we do as entertainers can sometimes 
seem fairly frivolous. But because there is so much out there that 
is harsh, maybe it's not such a bad idea if we can try to soften it in 
whatever way we can.

-Julie Andrews

Quote Source

Images: Dorothy Malone, Kristen Wiig and Oil Wells

Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind (1956)

Kristen Wiig in The Spoils of Babylon (2014)

Flicker Alley: Chaplin's Essanay Comedies, 1915

In 1915, Chaplin spent a fruitful year developing his craft at Essanay Studios in Chicago. While this was a brief contract for the emerging star, wedged between his early Keystone comedies and the more richly diverse films to come, it was a significant period, because he started to explore all the elements that he would eventually combine in his greatest works. Now all fourteen of the Chaplin's Essanay shorts from have been beautifully restored and made available with three bonus shorts on a dual DVD/Blu-ray set from Flicker Alley.

It's always been interesting to me how an effective restoration can make a film more timeless. After all, there's nothing like a lot of scratches and burn marks to remind you that you 're looking at something with a few decades on it. Clean it up and you get closer to the people on screen. They may have longer skirts and crank up their cars to make them go, but they face the same fundamental issues that we do.

Chaplin close-up in A Woman

That feeling of being closer to the performers on the screen was what I found most striking about this collection. I'd seen many of the films before, but I'd never felt the connection I did watching these restorations.

Part of it is being able to really see the nuances of Chaplin and leading lady Edna Purviance's performances. They're funny enough in a broad way, but it's even more exciting to see the flickers of dread, amusement and annoyance in their reactions to the players around them. They are more subtle than the supporting players, who gesticulate and mug dramatically, as was the style common in film acting at the time. I think it is this restraint and sophistication that, much like Mary Pickford, makes them timeless as performers.

In some respects the improved image clarity can be a bit jarring. I found myself distracted by a few flies crawling on the table during a dining scene. I'm sure all those fake beards and giant greasepaint eyebrows were never meant to be seen with as much definition as on Blu-ray either. Sometimes part of the comedy is how crazy some of these guys look. But it's interesting to note that Chaplin and Purviance were also subdued in that manner. Edna's make up would work as well in a film made today, one hundred years later.

That crazy, painted on facial hair
But for the most part the sharper picture brings to life details that add to the humor, even among the bit players and extras. It was amusing to realize for the first time that an actress gives Chaplin the side eye after an interaction with him in His New Job (1915), and in at least a few instances it looked to me like an extra was laughing for real at some of Chaplin's antics.

Image quality ranges from good to remarkably sharp, depending on the mix of elements in the restoration. Scratches are the most significant remaining damage, and these never obscure the action. There are notes on the reels used and restoration process on title cards before each film. Even for those not interested in the particulars of film preservation, it's interesting to see how much goes into the restoration of a 20 minute short.

It's exciting to see Chaplin at work just a few years before his peak, where he created movies like The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). You can see him progress from slapstick and mischief, to tear-jerking pathos and a kind of humor based more on relationships than pranks. That last element has a lot to do with Edna Purviance, who became Chaplin's frequent leading lady at Essanay. Through his high regard for her, he finds more humanity in himself, which makes him so much more relatable to his audience. You can sense how amused they are with each other in shorts like A Woman, and that delight adds a dimension to the slapstick; it is as if they are inviting the audience to laugh along with them.

Purviance and Chapin laugh together in A Woman

The cross-eyed comic Ben Turpin is another great Chaplin partner during this period. He takes a lot of abuse from the comic, starting with Charlie's first Essanay film, His New Job, and part of the humor is that he never seems to aware enough to take real offense. They tumble around like boys on the playground, but with perfectly-timed precision.

Bonus features on the set include Triple Trouble (1918), a short constructed out of unused footage that Essanay edited together after Chaplin left the studio, without his permission, and much to his irritation. Also included is the DVD/Blu-ray premiere of Charlie Butts In (1915) and a restored version of Charlie Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen (1916). There's a new final shot in the set's never-before-seen restoration of Police (1916) and a great booklet with lots of behind-the-scenes images and an interesting essay by film historian and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance that provided a lot of useful background information on the films in the set and that period in the comic's career.

This is a must-have for Chaplin fans, and a great introduction to his early work. If the reception in my house is any indication, it's also a perfect way to introduce kids to Charlie Chaplin and silent comedy in general.

Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the set for review. It can be purchased here.

Warner Archive: Twice Upon a Time (1983)

With lackluster initial box office and discord between co-writers and producers Bill Couturié and John Korty (who also co-directed with Charles Swenson), the animated fantasy Twice Upon a Time has been in need of a release do-over for quite some time. Produced by George Lucas' Lucas Films and Korty Films in partnership with The Ladd Company, it has slowly built a reputation on video and television, but has never been widely known. Now in a new release from Warner Archive, this quirky, one-of-a-kind film can be seen in two versions: one a PG-rated edit meant for mature audiences, the other unrated, but geared towards children and families.

Korty intended for the film to be enjoyed together by people of all ages, a formula more common today in animation today. In an interview promoting Twice he said, "I…wanted it to include the message that reality is not so bad after all and that what you need to stay sane in this world is some combination of
fantasy and reality."

While Couturié may have agreed with this sentiment, he felt the need to make the film a bit more adult when he observed college-age kids walking out of screeners. He had several lines rewritten and recorded without notifying Korty. It was only at the premiere of the film that the co-director realized what had been done, and he was understandably furious. So were parents who took their children to the film, only to hear the villain crack jokes about his minions sticking it to their wives after their villainy was done. In response to the complaints, the film was pulled from distribution in multiple theaters.

Overall, the story of Twice Upon a Tale is actually fairly innocent, and both versions are for the most part pretty tame. The heroes are Ralph the Multi-Purpose Animal (sort of like the shapeshifters in True Blood, but more cuddly) and Mumford, his top-hatted pal who only speaks in sound effects. The pair meet a blunt-speaking Fairy Godmother (she prefers to be called FGM) from the Bronx, who tasks them with stopping Synonimous Botch, a mustachioed creep who plans to stop time so that he can conquer the world.

Botch is also big on scattering nightmare bombs among humans. He captures the bringers of good dreams: elf-like Greensleeves and his purple, blobby Figmen of Imagination and deploys threatening ravens to distribute the bad dreams. Even though Ralph and Mumford have no idea what humans are, the FGM makes them feel sorry enough for poor mortals to save them and time. They are helped by aspiring actress Flora Fauna, ridiculous superhero Rod Rescueman (a great lampoon of silly hero stereotypes) and Scuzzbopper, Botch's resident screamwriter who bails when the villain destroys his novel-in-progress.

John Korty is perhaps most beloved for the animated sequences he created for television shows Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and you can see a lot of the quirkiness from those shorts here. As dopey and corny as the characters can be, there are lots of clever asides and goofy moments. Not laugh-out-loud, but the kind of humor that makes you smile to yourself.

The film is animated with a multi-layer technique called The Lumage Process, in which hand-moved images are manipulated across different backdrops. Here it includes photography, video and richly-colored illustrated settings. I still don't entirely understand how the technique works, but the effect is a bit like 3D; there's depth to the images, making them seem real at times. Some of the sequences, like a nightmare scene where office supplies become deadly are quite inventively staged and animated.

Dawn Atkinson's score plumps up the film, making the action feel bigger and more grand than it really is. The same cannot be said for the pop songs on the soundtrack, by musicians Bruce Hornsby and Maureen McDonald (whose three tracks are produced by her brother and former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald). While the tunes aren't too bad, they date the film and seem out of place in style if not sentiment.

The disc includes the PG and unrated family-friendly versions of the film, a trailer and a commentary track with director John Korty and collaborators John Baker, Harley Jessup, Brian Narelle, Will Noble, Henry Selick, and Carl Willat.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive: Volume 9 of Forbidden Hollywood

It's hard to believe that Warner Archive has just released volume 9 of Forbidden Hollywood, and encouraging that the series still offers high quality films. This time around, the collection has a more sober, socially conscious tone, though since this is the pre-code era, everyone still manages to squeeze in a little fun.

Big City Blues (1932) stars Eric Linden as Bud Reeves, a naïve, but determined small town boy who sets out for New York when he is given a small inheritance. There he is greeted by his older cousin Gibby (Walter Catlett), a dubious sponsor who is eager to help himself to his country cousin's cash.

Gibby introduces him to his friends, which ends up being big trouble for Bud. The exception is the essentially decent Vida (Joan Blondell), who so lights the young man's fire he appears to lose his virginity the first time he lays his eyes on her. A big party turns bad, and Reeves finds himself in one nightmarish situation after the other. It's basically the pre-code version of After Hours (1985).

This is a pretty cringe worthy film. Though it's played for laughs, it's painful to watch Gibby constantly take advantage of Bud, and the characters make so many bad decisions you want to bite a rock. It's also disconcerting the way the tone abruptly shifts, from naughty comedy to high tension drama. Big City Blues has its moments though: some snappy dialogue, a couple of heartfelt moments, and the amusingly young and clean-shaven Humphrey Bogart in a small role. It is also once again clear that Joan Blondell could do no wrong.

Hell's Highway (1932) certainly doesn't suffer from shifts in tone. It is bleak from beginning to end, though a thread of dark humor keeps it entertaining. Richard Dix is a career convict on the chain gang, and one of the few prisoners to be respected by the otherwise brutal guards. He makes plans to escape, but cancels them when he realizes his younger brother is a recent arrival at the camp. A murder, and outrage over the inhumane treatment of the guards leads the prisoners to riot, forcing an audience for their grievances.

Though the film is serious in its indictment of the prison system, the banter between a cast of eccentric characters adds just the right hint of humor. Music and illustrations are used to interesting effect, making the story bearable, but never lessening the impact of the message. Butter-voiced Dix fits this milieu perfectly, as a man who commands respect despite his flaws, and partly due to his own ability to laugh at the insanity of it all.

Cabin in the Cotton (1932) featured over-the-title billed Richard Barthelmess, but everyone remembers it for featuring a sexy Bette Davis, with bleached-blonde hair floating over her head like a halo, breaking out of those early drab sister roles as the daughter of a plantation owner.

It's a soberly wrought drama about trouble between landowners and cotton pickers, and it explores loyalty and social justice in a surprisingly complex way. The message doesn't stick though. All you remember is Davis singing Willie The Weeper and dropping trou for a stunned Barthelmess on a Sunday afternoon. The poor guy just can't handle all that blonde sizzle. The same holds true for the actor, who seems too sensitive, maybe even fragile, for the bold new age of talkies. His sloop-shouldered humility works well for the role though.

Everyone is thinking about sex in When Ladies Meet (1933). When a character quips, "you know better than I do how sticky you are," everyone knows exactly what he means. But it is most admirable for the honest way it approaches romantic fidelity and love.

Robert Montgomery pines for novelist Myrna Loy, who dismisses him in favor of her married publisher (Frank Morgan). One weekend, as the illicit pair have a rendezvous under the cover of work at a socialite's (Alice Brady) country home, Montgomery arranges for Morgan to return to town and for Loy to meet Ann Harding, the publisher's wife. He neglects to tell Loy who she really is though. The women become fond of each other, but Harding receives a jolt when she realizes she is talking to her husband's current paramour, the one she fears might be the woman to take him away from her.

This a great showcase for strong performances from Myrna Loy, Robert Montgomery, Alice Brady and Frank Morgan. They play slightly skewed versions of their pre-code personas, the same characters, but all of them a bit more self-aware. Brady is especially savvy to the fact that she is seen as an airhead, and doesn't seem too eager to let her intelligence be known. As another female character says, "it certainly doesn't pay to be too capable," especially for women in that era.

As good as the rest of the cast is, Harding easily steals the movie. The stage origins of the dialogue are clear; everyone is spouting well-honed ideas and not a bit of it seems real. Except for Harding that is. When she talks about "the ghastly job of living together," it sounds especially honest. She has a way of acting that, while still clearly being a performance, feels genuine.

Though actually a post-code film, I Sell Anything (1934) still has a bit of that anti-establishment glee that characterized the era. It stars Pat O'Brien as Spot Cash, the lead auctioneer at a shady, storefront auction house. He thinks that he has tricked a socialite (Claire Dodd) into paying too much for a buckle, only to find she has pulled a fast one on him. And it isn't the end of her schemes either.

Someone neglected to tell Spot that Claire Dodd always means trouble, which everyone else can see in her cat-that-ate-the-canary smirk. He's also predictably blind to the charms of Ann Dvorak, who once again is the loyal gal pal who waits patiently to be noticed.

Everyone in the cast could and would do better, but it's amusing to hear O'Brien race through his sales pitches and auction patter. Spot is creative and very convincing. You do believe that he could sell anyone anything.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs, though limited initial sets will be pressed. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
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