Vintage films - from a silent screen classic to some of the best romantic comedies of the 1950s - highlight this week’s DVD releases.
“The General” (1926): Buster Keaton’s silent Civil War action-comedy about a Confederate railroad engineer who chases after a locomotive abducted by Yankee spies is out in a visually stunning two-disc edition from Kino International ($29.95, not rated). The high-definition print cleans up and corrects some deterioration in the original film negative.
Many movie experts, including Orson Welles in an introduction to this film on the DVD, have noted that Keaton’s imagery more closely resembles the renowned Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady than any other film about the period. Concentrating on the railroad chase and a battle between Union and Confederate forces, Keaton avoids any references to slavery in his film. In some ways this makes “The General” more watchable today than either “The Birth of a Nation” or “Gone With the Wind,” where racist portrayals of African-Americans severely mar both films.
Keaton’s visual humor makes “The General” such a joy to watch more than 80 years after its release. The actor known as the “great stone face” engages in one daring and inventive gag after another, doing his own amazing stunts while riding on top, in the back and on the sides of a speeding locomotive.
The DVD comes with three musical scores to choose from, a history of the actual locomotive (known as “The General”) used in the movie, a tour of locations in Oregon (!) where the film was shot, a very funny montage of scenes from throughout Keaton’s career involving trains and trolleys, and more.
The Paramount Centennial Collection is a new line of DVDs featuring classic films which have been digitally mastered and restored and released with abundant bonus features about their stars and the making of the films. The first three titles, all from the 1950s, are two-disc editions accompanied by an 8-page booklet, available for $24.99 apiece. They include:
“Roman Holiday” (1953): William Wyler directs Audrey Hepburn, an Oscar-winner in this, her first starring movie role, as a European princess who tires of the regimentation and responsibilities of her royal life and sneaks away during an official visit to Rome. Gregory Peck costars as an American reporter who becomes her guide, protector and more. One of the bonus features is a short documentary on blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for “Roman Holiday” while using the name (or “front”) of his friend, Ian McClellan Hunter.
“Sabrina” (1954): Billy Wilder’s adult romantic comedy is about two very rich brothers (Humphrey Bogart and William Holden) who both fall for their chauffeur’s daughter. And since she’s played by Audrey Hepburn, it’s easy to understand why.
“Sunset Blvd.” (1950): There is both romance and some very dark comedy in Billy Wilder’s masterpiece, but it’s no romantic comedy. Perhaps the best inside-Hollywood movie ever made, it stars William Holden as a struggling screenwriter who gets involved, in more ways than one, with a former silent screen star (played by Gloria Swanson, a former silent screen star) who dreams of a comeback after being out of the movies for more than 30 years.
“The Chronological Donald, Volume Four” (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, $32.99, not rated): The eighth wave of “Walt Disney Treasures” - a series of two-disc, specially packaged collections of classic Disney features and shorts - carries the story of the irascible but lovable Donald Duck from 1951 to 1961. Donald stars in 31 cartoons assembled here, including the 3D animated short “Working for Peanuts” from 1954.
Bonus features include audio commentaries by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck, a look at Donald’s life in comic books, and a documentary, “The Unseen Donald Duck: Trouble Shooters,” featuring storyboards from an unproduced cartoon.
Finally, “Warner Bros. Classic Holiday Collection Volume 2” (Warner Home Video, $29.98, not rated) packages four Christmas-oriented family films from the 1940s and ‘50s. These include: “All Mine to Give” (1957), the story of six pioneer children who celebrate Christmas following the death of their parents; “It Happened on 5th Avenue” (1947), a comedy about homeless people taking over a mansion while the owners are out of town for the holidays; “Holiday Affair” (1949), a romantic comedy starring Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum and Wendell Corey, and “Blossoms in the Dust” (1941), the true story of a woman (Greer Garson) who set up a home for orphans in Ft. Worth, Texas.