Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Return of the Dollar DVDs!

Here are a few nuggets (some gold, some... other substances) that I've found over the last few weeks at my local Dollar Tree and 99 Cents Only stores.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (vol 1-3) - (Genius Entertainment) - This 1954 on-film TV series stars Ronald Howard (son of Leslie Howard) as a lighter, personable, if not downright flippant Holmes. The series' non-Doyle mysteries are original and fun, if not very complicated, and there is so much emphasis on comedy that the show is nearly a sitcom. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was shot in Paris and, rather inevitably, an entire episode is structured around the Eiffel Tower.

The Inspector General (1949) - (Treasure Box) - I'm not a big Danny Kaye fan, but this is a very pleasant little comedy just the same. Easily worth a buck for an incredible musical number in which, through the Miracle of Motion Picture Magic, Danny sings four part harmony with himself as three other characters.

The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery (1959) - (Treasure Box) - Stark, stylish, and unnerving example of late Noir, starring Steve McQueen as a teen trying to prove himself by taking part in a bank heist. Probably one of the best films I've seen yet on a dollar DVD.

Daniel Boone, Trail Blazer (1956) - (Dollar DVD) - Lon Cheney Jr. turns in a nice, if rather blurry (he was heavily on the sauce in 1956), performance as an American Indian in this awful, awful attempt to steal the thunder from Disney's entertaining Davy Crockett movies. There's even a scene where a bunch of clean-as-a-whistle Aryan pioneer kids sing a sugary "Ballad of Davy Crockett"-ish song about Daniel Boone, played here by a plank of weather-treated pine named Bruce Bennett. Lots of gruelingly unfunny comic relief.

The Big Trees (1952) - (Genius Entertainment) - The kind of moderately-budgeted programmers Kirk Douglas was making before he started making real movies like Paths of Glory. It's the 1890s and lovable conman Douglas is all set to screw some Quakers out of their lumber rights and cut down the beautiful old Redwoods they've been protecting to boot. The Love of a Good Woman sets him straight. Nice print. Nice trees.

Sisters Of Death (1977) (Dollar DVD) - One of my favorite cheapo DVD titles. A girl is killed during a sorority "cult" initiation rite and, several years later, the members of the cult are lured (stupidly) out to an old house where someone starts bumping them off. This silly and trashy drive-in whodunit features little gore and has the overall tone of an episode of Scooby Doo, Where Are You?. Claudia Jennings (1970's Playmate of the Year) died two years later when she fell asleep behind the wheel of her VW convertible. Former Mouseketeer Sherry Alberoni was the voice of Alexandra in Josie and the Pussycats.

Good Against Evil (1979) - (Dollar DVD) - Not a movie, but a failed TV pilot starring the strangely-monickered Dack Rambo. Some network genius's attempt to turn The Exorcist into a weekly adventure series. "Good Against Evil" sounds more like a placeholder than a title ("All right, we'll have to think up a real title once we go to series.."). Kim Catrall shows up in a small role as Dack's ex. Of course she gets top billing on the cardboard sleeve. I got suckered by assuming that this was a TV movie, but, dammit, it doesn't have an ending! The damn thing just dumps you at a bus stop, staring at some presumably evil black cat after 74 very uneventful minutes.

Seven Alone (1974) - (Treasure Box) - Supposedly true pioneer saga that reflects real life in that it meanders all over the place, things happen that don't mean much, unappealing characters crop up now and then, and it has a very unsatisfactory ending. After Mom and Pop Pioneer die (quietly and peacefully, family movie style), their seven kids, led by the almost preternaturally unpleasant eldest son John (Stewart Petersen) must forge on, hoping to reach the Oregon Territory as per their parents' wishes. Kit Carson (Dean Smith) appears a few times and adds just about nothing to the story other than the sneaking suspicion that he's starring in a somewhat more interesting movie just off-camera.

Embryo (1976) - (Genius Entertainment) - Rock Hudson's film career continued its downward spiral with this cheap, nonsensical, but entertaining sci-fi thriller. Hudson is believable in his role as a scientist who inadvertently accelerates the growth of a fetus, resulting in a full-grown woman (Barbara Carerra) in only four days. She has a thick Nicaraguan accent, clearly common to fetuses accelerated to adulthood in only four days, and a homicidal streak. Watch for Roddy McDowell and Dr. Joyce Brothers at a party. Muddy, washed out print exactly like the one they used when I saw this film as the Friday afternoon Million Dollar Movie on Channel 13 in the mid 80s.

Gang Busters (1952) - (Genius Entertainment) - TV version of radio's loudest crime drama (hence the phrase "to come on like gangbusters"). The forerunner of shows like America's Most Wanted, Gang Busters was hosted by series creator Phillips H. Lord who intones woodenly from behind a desk. The true crime dramatizations are like Dragnet without the wit, suspense, insight, or panache.

Dragnet (vol 1-4) - (Genius Entertainment) - The best crime drama of the 50s. Although Frank Morgan as Officer Bill Gannon is featured on the sleeves, these are episodes of the 1951-59 series, not the lame anti-hippie Dragnet 1967/Dragnet 1968 series Morgan appeared in. Sgt. Joe Friday's partners here are Sgt. Ben Romero (Barton Yarborough), Sgt. Ed Jacobs (Barney Phillips) and Officer Frank Smith (Ben Alexander), his best and longest running partner (1952-59). Webb is one of the unsung geniuses of television, almost single-handedly creating the adult crime drama with Dragnet. As series director, Webb tried to make the performances more lifelike by insisting that the actors read their lines cold from teleprompters and cue cards (like radio actors read from scripts). The point was to strip self-conscious acting from the performances, but the result was that peculiar rapid-fire dialogue the series became known for (and was mercilessly parodied for). Even the talkiest, most static episodes feature lots of interesting camera angles and setups to keep the show visually appealing (IMO, Dragnet was only outdone in this regard when Alfred Hitchcock Presents debuted in 1955). The series also broke with precedent by placing almost all of the emotional emphasis on the criminals and the victims rather than on the police. Sgt. Friday is less a human than a cog in the Justice machine, a cross between a cyborg, a career garbage man, and an angel of death. You don't want a visit from Sgt. Friday... ever.

Gabby (1940-41) - (Genius Entertainment) - After Max and Dave Fleischer produced and directed the world's second animated feature, Gulliver's Travels, in 1940, they spun off a number of the film's secondary characters into their own series. Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch, the spies, got a couple of cartoons, Twinkletoes the carrier pigeon got three, and Gabby the Lilliputian town crier got seven. Unfortunately, none of these characters warranted ONE cartoon between them. Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch and Twinkletoes aren't so much characters as interesting design concepts while lumpy, short-tempered Gabby, although a character, is unappealing in the extreme. Paramount was clearly pushing hard for the Gabby series. While Popeye languished in black and white in the 1940s, Gabby got Technicolor and lush watercolor backgrounds. The cartoons look excellent, only a notch below the Fleischers' Superman cartoons, but, damn, they're unfunny. They make me wish Dave Fleischer had taken animator/director Shamus Culhane's advice and built a series around Popeye's hamburger fiend sidekick Wimpy. Those couldn't have possibly turned out worse than these. This DVD features old UM&M and NTA TV prints of all seven Gabby cartoons, so the titles are mutilated by black bars (eliminating all references to Paramount), the prints are washed out and a hideous, eye-burning beet red is the most prominent color. You gets whats you pays for.


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