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DVD Features: Discoveries and Disappointments


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One of the most delightful aspects of dvds seems to be the inclusion of extras such as behind the scenes featurettes, historical perspectives, and best of all, audio commentaries by knowledgable people. Of course, there are also dvds with extras that disappoint the eager classic movie fan.


Do you have any favorite dvd commentaries to recommend or dvd duds to warn others to avoid in the future? I'd really appreciate any comments that you might have about this topic. Here are two examples of some good, and not so good dvd extras that I've enjoyed:


A DVD Delight.

To me, for example, one of the best dvds to ever come out was The Adventures of Robin Hood(1938). It included a terrific audio commentary by Rudy Behler, behind the scenes footage and stills as well as alot of the wonderful costume designs of Milo Anderson, a short film about Errol Flynn and his nautical adventures and even a brief feature on Howard Hill, whose prowess with a bow was used throughout the film. And I haven't even mentioned the cartoons that are part of the package! Of course, it probably didn't hurt that this delightful movie is one of my lifetime favorites, either.


A DVD Disappointment.

Like most children raised in the sixties and seventies, I was eager to see The High and the Mighty after it had languished on the shelf for due to business disputes for years following the death of John Wayne, who was great in the movie. On the plus side, I roped in my family and friends to watch it with me and we laughed, cheered, and got choked up all the way through it, especially during the approach to San Francisco. The dvd transfer was clear and excellent, though having first seen the film in b&w, I'd no idea that the restored color would be so dazzlingly bright in that fifties way! That whistling theme of Dmitri Tiomkin was totally haunting and the featurette about his life work was very well done. I especially enjoyed the segment devoted to Ernest K. Gann, the author of the novel and screenplay. As a longtime aviation nut, I'd devoured his books as a teen, and treasure his autobiography, "A Hostage to Fortune".


However, when it came to the audio commentary, Leonard Maltin's meandering comments made me wonder if he'd prepared any notes for the commentary. He repeated what few facts he had mastered repeatedly, he interrupted the potentially interesting comments of William Wellman Jr. about his father more than once, and he neglected to mention much about such actors as Robert Newton and Jan Sterling. He seemed to have felt that the only film credit viewers would know or care about for Newton was as Long John Silver in the Disneyized version of Treasure Island in a tv series feature presentation that he'd seen as a kid. Hello, Leonard--ever hear of a little classic called Major Barbara(1941), or Odd Man Out(1947) or Oliver Twist(1948)?? And he never mentioned Jan Sterling's fine performance, among others, in Ace in the Hole(1951), which I consider pretty unforgivable. The inclusion of comments by Karen Sharpe who played the young woman who was returning on her honeymoon from Hawaii was probably based on the fact that a.) she was alive, unlike most of the cast, and b.) this seems to have been the highlight of her career. Lastly, on the positive side, I liked the observations of Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales and aviation expert Vincent Longo was very informative. But, heck, Mr. Maltin, do some real homework next time, will you?

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There are basically two kinds of audio commentaries: those were involved in with the movie and can expound on their memories about it; and those who weren't involved, and give their take on the film, be it academic, or from a chosen point of view (the psychologist's audio commentary on Spellbound, for instance).


My two favorite audio commentaries are Roger Ebert's Citizen Kane and director George Sidney's The Harvey Girls. Ebert's fascinating commentary is great at explaining the technical and thematic details of this classic. Mr. Sidney tells us about everyone we see on the screen -- right down to the extras.


I wish that the commentaries by people who were involved with the film would follow Mr. Sidney's example. So many go off on tangents, and I find myself talking to the screen, begging them to get back on subject ("Wait a minute, who's that actor playing the butler and how was he to work with?").


The worst commentaries are those that just follow the story line. The aforementioned Spellbound commentary was a waste of time. I didn't buy this DVD specifically because the commentary was so disappointing. She basically explains to us what would be obvious if we were watching without her babbling.

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John Frike's commentairies on the Judy Garland films are interesting (such as Meet Me in St. Louis, For Me and My Gal and Easter Parade). They are filled of behind the scenes and story info and Judy Garland Stories. He realy does his research.

The "All About Eve" commentary by Sam Staggs (Author of "All About 'All About Eve'" is also very insightful and well researched.

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The audio commentary to the disastrous Showgirls is hysterical! David Schmader both mocks and shows reverence for this unintentional horror movie. And keeping in the vein of kitsch, Patty McCormack and Charles Busch have an interesting conversation during The Bad Seed.


I was disappointed to discover that none of the movies included in the recently released Clark Gable Signature Collection feature an audio commentary. Though I suppose I only missed it on San Francisco. However, some of the movies do include nice short subjects.

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