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"The Music Man"Classic Movies Get Classic DVD Treatment

"The Music Man," "My Fair Lady" "Oliver!" "Rio Grande," "Sands of Iwo Jima" "High Noon"

By Jim Bray

Thanks to the DVD format, great movies have a chance to be great again.

Not only can a DVD offer the best picture and sound ever seen on home video, but the discs' high storage capacity also allows for extra goodies to be included, giving even more incentive to add the title to your collection.

Warner Brothers' "The Music Man" and "My Fair Lady," along with Republic Pictures' "Rio Grande" and "Sands of Iwo Jima" are perfect examples of how the medium can and should be exploited.

Music Man Marvelous...

1962's "The Music Man" is the brassy and exuberant movie version of Meredith Willson's classic Broadway musical about a "flim flammer" of a travelling salesman who cons an entire town into believing he's going to set up and train a boys' band. Robert Preston shines as "Professor" Harold Hill, and Shirley Jones brings grace, spunk, and wit to "Marian the Librarian," while the supporting cast (including Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Ron Howard, and "The Buffalo Bills" barbershop quartet) perfectly complement the stars.

It's hard to watch "The Music Man" without a smile crossing your face. The story, the songs, the performances, all make this one of the most enjoyable movie musicals ever.

One thing missing from the home video version - until now - was widescreen. This caused about half of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio picture to be cut off, leaving the Buffalo Bills as a barbershop trio and the big, widescreen production numbers looking like a made for TV movie (except that you just knew there was more to the shot if only you could see it).

Warner Brothers really pulled out all the stops with this new release, however. Not only is the movie restored to its widescreen glory, it's completely remastered as well. In fact, if it weren't for the fact that this looks like a 1960's-era movie, you could almost swear it was made today. There are a few shots in which some flesh tones seem a bit pasty, but they're by far in the minority, and on the whole, Warners has done a terrific job of bringing the picture into the 1990's.

Kudos for the audio, as well. While I'm not always a big fan of making changes to an original (which can be like painting a moustache onto the Mona Lisa), Warners has done an excellent job of having the soundtrack remixed into 5.1 Dolby Digital (from the original two channel stereo) - and it works. The change has the orchestra still filling the room as it always did, but now the voices emanate from the area of the TV screen (where they should) - unless they're singing multiple parts (in which case the people on the left come from the left, etc.) Bravo!

The restoration alone would be enough reason to jump for joy at this reissue, but there's more. Not only do you get such typical extras as chapter stops and fairly detailed cast/crew information, there's a half hour documentary on the making of the film, featuring Shirley Jones as narrator and including behind the scenes shots and commentaries from cast and crew members.

One rather strange occurrence is the appearance of Shirley Jones at the beginning of the film, before the movie actually starts. She gives a quick introduction to the film, which makes you think you've accessed the documentary instead of the film. You haven't, though, and after a couple of minutes the opening widescreen image appears and the stop motion animated credits begin.

I would rather have seen the movie begin by itself, with Jones moved back to the documentary, but it's easy to get around the introduction by going to the main menu. And, really - if that's the only thing about which I can complain regarding this most welcome special edition, then it's still a marvelous DVD achievement.

Pan and scan fans will be disappointed by this widescreen-only release, and Warners could easily have included both versions, one on each side (as they often do). Still, if they're only going to choose one version to release, they definitely chose the right one.

So sit down and get ready to be captivated all over again with this classic example of "Hollywoodized" Broadway musicals.

The Music Man, from Warner Brothers Home Video
151 minutes, widescreen (2.35:1)
starring Robert Preston and Shirley Jones, with Ronnie Howard, Pert Kelton, Buddy Hackett, Paul Ford, Hermione Gingold
Screenplay by Marian Hargrove, from the musical by Meredith Willson
Produced and Directed by Morton DaCosta

My Fair Lady a Fair Restoration

Wouldn't it be "loverly" to see Lerner and Loewe's classic retelling of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalian" transferred to DVD in its original cinematic glory? Well, "Just You Wait" until you see the job Warner Brothers did!

Seriously, this is actually a fairly straightforward transfer of the film as it was restored for a 1994 theatrical reissue. It isn't as good a restoration as The Music Man, but on the whole it's extremely satisfying.

My Fair Lady tells the tale of Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, who becomes the subject of a bet between pompous "phoeneticist" Professor 'Enry 'Iggins (Rex Harrison's Oscar-winning recreation of his stage role) and fellow linguist Colonel Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White). The bet: to transform Liza's ugly duckling into a swan fit to mingle with the upper crust of society.

Along the way, Liza (luminously played by Audrey Hepburn) who's treated like dirt by the haughty Higgins, blossoms like one of the flowers she used to sell, eventually falling in love with the hard-driving - and oblivious - professor.

For his part, Higgins considers Liza as merely a bet, a project, until late in the film when the transformed and confident Liza leaves him to his books and recordings - and he discovers to his chagrin that he's "Become accustomed to her face." This is about as close to a declaration of love this "ordinary man" who refuses to let a woman in his life can make, but it turns out to be enough. In an ending guaranteed to have feminists picketing the video store, Liza returns to Higgins who, in "gratitude," orders her to get him his slippers.

Okay, so this isn't a '90's movie...

My Fair Lady won eight Academy Awards in 1964, including Best Picture and Best Director, and it probably deserved most of them - though I'd have picked Mary Poppins as Best Picture if I'd been asked. It's lavish and lush in the best Hollywood tradition, with a terrific cast and great songs.

The dual layer, widescreen DVD looks great for the most part, though I noticed some rippling of colors - mostly the browns of wood panelling and dark clothing. It's something only a video snob would notice, however, and didn't detract from my enjoyment of the film. The audio has been remixed into 5.1 Dolby Digital, and it sounds very good. As mentioned above, however, I think that Warners did a better all around job on The Music Man than with this film - but this is still a great disc!

DVD extras abound, including a fascinating duo of songs ("Wouldn't it be Loverly" and "Show Me") with Audrey Hepburn's un-redubbed voice (the final release used Marni Nixon to replace Hepburn's vocals). This left me in a real quandary: while Nixon's voice is clearly superior (she used to "dubble" for a variety of "non-singing" stars - including Natalie Wood in "West Side Story"), Hepburn does a pretty credible job on her own and I would have loved to see the whole film with her voice untouched.

Still, producer Jack Warner had his reasons and far be it for me to paint a moustache on the Mona Lisa..

Other DVD extras include audio play-by-play from art director Gene Allen, Nixon, and the film's restoration team, and their insights are, shall we say, insightful. There's also a "behind the scenes" documentary "The Fairest Fair Lady," and the standard cast/crew bios/filmographies, interactive menus, trailers, subtitles, and chapter stops. In all, it's another package that exploits DVD technology beautifully.

With a little bit of luck, you'll enjoy it, too.

My Fair Lady, from Warner Brothers Home Video
173 minutes, widescreeen (2.35:1, enhanced for widescreen TV's)
starring Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfred Hyde-White, Stanley Holloway, Jeremy Brett
Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, based on his and Frederick Loewe's musical, which is based on Pygmalion by G. Bernard Shaw
Produced by Jack L. Warner, Directed by George Cukor

Oliver! DVD, Glorious DVD!

Columbia Pictures' Oliver! won six 1968 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and it deserved them.

The musical is a bouncy and likable story "freely adapted" from Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist," and features wonderful performances, sets, production numbers, and more.

The DVD has been gloriously restored and mixed into Dolby Surround (not, alas, the Dolby Digital promised on the package and the menu - but that's okay) and it looks and sounds terrific.

The only real problem with the sound is the dubbed singing voice of Oliver himself, which was actually sung by Kathy Green, the musical director's daughter. It's a case of nepotism that should have been condemned, because it sticks out like a sore thumb and even threatens to spoil a marvelous production number like "Who Will Buy?"

Fortunately, even that voice can't destoy that number, which positively shines. Ditto, too, for "Consider Yourself;" both production numbers are energetic and beautifully staged with Onna White's choreography.

Ron Moody is outstanding as Fagin, the loveable felon and dubious mentor of the band of children. Oliver Reed is appropriately menacing as bad guy Bill Sikes, Shani Wallace is a very likable Nancy - and Jack Wild plays The Artful Dodger to the hilt.

The film deserves its place in movie history as one of the great movie musicals, and the DVD definitely does it justice. It's only in widescreen, our preferred version if we have to choose, and as mentioned Sony Pictures' restoration is first rate. You're even given the Overture, Entr'acte, and Exit Music, which is as it should be.

In a bizarre choice, Columbia chose to split the movie onto both sides of the DVD, which would have really rubbed us the wrong way if they hadn't done it at the most logical time: Intermission. As it stands, it makes a certain sense and also gives one the opportunity for a pee break without missing anything.

Then again, that's why there are "pause" controls....

Extras include a decent liner essay that includes a list of the film's awards, chapter stops, a photo gallery and a short (but pleasant) feature on the making of the film.

It's nice to see Oliver! receiving the loving treatment it deserves for this DVD release and, like the other musicals reviewed here, it's a film that belongs in the collections of Hollywood musical fans.

Oliver!, from Columbia Tristar Home Video
approx 153 minutes, widescreeen (2.35:1), Dolby Surround
starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild, and Mark Lester
Screenplay by Vernon Harris, from the musical by Lionel Bart
Produced by John Woolf, Directed by Carol Reed

Rio GrandeDuke DVD Duo Dynamite

"Rio Grande" and "Sands of Iwo Jima" have also received loving treatment in their transfer to DVD. Both have razor sharp black and white images and the packages say they're both in Dolby Digital audio.

The latter point seems rather pointless with monaural movies, however. This is okay, though; these movies remain in mono (as they should, and despite the AC-3 logo) - and the overall sound quality is fine for movies of this vintage.

Rio Grande is the third in director John Ford's "Cavalry trilogy," and is a terrific western yarn. John Wayne stars with Maureen O'Hara and both turn in credible performances. There's great chemistry between the two, who made this movie because John Ford wanted them for "The Quiet Man" and the studio forced him to do "Rio Grande" first.

Wayne's performance shows that there's a lot more to him than just being a big lunk. Sure, he's tough, but he's also very human. O'Hara, for her part, is strong and sexy in her role as Wayne's ex-wife. The supporting cast is a who's who of actors well known to westerns, including Chill Wills, Ben Johnson, and Harry Carey Jr.

You may think you've seen this story a hundred times, but there's a lot more to this film than just your average formulaic western. And if you've seen this story a hundred times, it's because other, lesser entries ripped off John Ford.

Liner notes are reasonably generous, and there's a twenty minute or so documentary on the making of the film included on the disc as well. It's written and hosted by film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, and features insights and interviews by surviving cast and crew members along with John Wayne's son Michael.

You also get the theatrical trailer, and the disc also includes French and Spanish language tracks and captioning in English (with subtitles for French and Spanish).

As "Rio Grande" is to dusters, "Sands of Iwo Jima" is to WWII movies. The makers of "Starship Troopers" and "Saving Private Ryan," two of the best war movies of the 1990's, were obviously inspired by its gritty look at both the camaraderie and horrors of war.

Wayne plays Sergeant John Stryker, who's about as tough as nails as you'd expect John Wayne to be - except that here, too, Wayne takes the character beyond that stereotype. Over the course of the film, Stryker molds his squad of recruits into a fighting machine and takes them into action on two separate Pacific island assaults. As they are bloodied and bonded, the Marines grow as people and as soldiers - but perhaps no one grows more than Stryker himself.

Wayne was nominated for an Oscar for his turn as Stryker, though I must admit I thought he was better in Rio Grande. His supporting cast, which includes Forrest Tucker and John Agar, are well placed in "Sands."

The battle scenes are spectacular, not only for their special effects and staging, but for the great job the filmmakers did of including actual footage shot during the real Marines' assaults on the two islands. If you look closely, however, you can tell which shots are real: they're grainier than the studio-produced footage. The high resolution of DVD undoubtedly makes the differences more noticeable than usual, but it doesn't detract from the story.

Leonard Maltin is around again for a documentary on making "Sands of Iwo Jima," and as with Rio Grande's featurette, it's worth seeing. There's also the trailer, though liner notes are sparse. Language tracks are available in English and Spanish, and there's English captioning and French/Spanish subtitles.

If you want to see a couple of the best examples of the western and war movie genres the way Hollywood used to make them in its heyday, "Rio Grande" and "Sands of Iwo Jima," respectively, are excellent examples of the species.

They're also terrific examples of the DVD medium, released in all their full screen glory.

Rio Grande, from Republic Pictures
Approx. 100 minutes, Full Screen
Starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
Screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, produced by John Ford and Merian C. Cooper Directed by John Ford

Sands of Iwo Jima, from Republic Pictures
Approx. 105 minutes, Full Screen
Starring John Wayne, Forrest Tucker, John Agar
Screenplay by Harry Brown and James Edward Grant, Story by Harry Brown Produced by Merian C. Cooper,
Directed by Allan Dwan

High Noon High Drama

Stanley Kramer's dusty masterpiece has been given its DVD due, with a nice "making of" documentary and a digital remastering that conforms to the high THX standard of excellence.

High Noon was groundbreaking in that it told a more "adult" tale than the average oater of the time, and in how it unfolds in almost real time: the 90-odd minute running time is set over a 90-odd minute period of time ending just after "high noon."

Gary Cooper stars as our reluctant hero, free to leave town on his honeymoon but bound by his own sense of honor and duty to stick around, waiting to become a sitting duck for a baddie he sent up the river five years before - and who's comin' on the noon train, lookin' for his brand of justice. Cooper won the Oscar for his performance.

Grace Kelly plays his Quaker wife, married for about five minutes when he chooses duty over love. She's bound and determined to leave him on that same noon train but, well, you'll have to see for yourself how things turn out.

"High Noon" is a masterpiece in many ways, from its script and its performances to its overall mood and feel. As directed by Fred Zinnemann, it's the quintessential morality play, as the one decent man in town repeated turns to his friends and neighbors for help, only to have their backs turned on him - sometimes for what may seem to the "back turners" very good reasons. In fact, most of the townspeople aren't really bad; but they're weak, busy, or otherwise occupied.

Also in the outstanding cast are Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr. Henry Morgan, and Lee van Cleef.

The fullscreen, black and white DVD release looks and sounds as good as possible for a 1952 movie, and Leonard Maltin's 22 minute documentary does a nice job of putting the movie into its place in Hollywood history. Other extras include a special chapter stop that access the Oscar-winning song "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'," sung by Tex Ritter, English, French and Spanish subtitles, and English, French and Spanish language tracks.

High Noon, from Republic Pictures
Approx. 85 minutes, Full Screen, black and white
Starring Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr. Henry Morgan, and Lee van Cleef
Screenplay by Carl Foreman, Produced by Stanley Kramer
Directed by Fred Zinnemann


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Updated May 13, 2006