Tyrone Power: The Swashbuckler Box Set (1949)

As new video formats and delivery systems promise to dazzle and annoy us, the DVD industry enters its decadent era — ever more fabulous box sets cover ever more specialized areas of fan interest. For the sake of our sanity, not to mention column space, we’ll focus this special report on one or two items of outstanding interest within each loaded box.

Tyrone Power was a star in the “beautiful but dumb” mode, or at least “beautiful but bland”. It would be more generous to say most of his roles were dumb, but after the remarkable The Razor’s Edge (a hit) and the equally fine Nightmare Alley (a flop), 20th Century Fox pushed him primarily as a younger version of Errol Flynn. Tyrone Power Collection gathers five of these swashbucklers of diminishing returns, but it’s the first title that’s worth the whole set.

Blood and Sand, the 1941 remake of a Rudolph Valentino picture about a matador’s romantic triangle, is a perfectly realized Hollywood melodrama, thanks to director Rouben Mamoulian’s commitment to graceful choreography (both in front of the camera and with the camera), Technicolor at its most dazzling, and a dream cast that includes Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth, and supporting roles for Alla Nazimova, John Carradine and the doomed but brilliant Laird Cregar.

Cregar had the brand of magnetic, almost flamboyant naturalism, to speak oxymoronically, that we associate with Charles Laughton and Orson Welles. He rivets the attention because he seems always to be working on a level above, except in rare cases where his surroundings can match him. This is sometimes deemed “hamminess”, but he’s got an integrity that shows up the mediocrity around him. The heavy-set actor died at 30 as his career was starting in earnest with the Victorian noirs The Lodger and Hangover Square.

Power may have been moving into Errol Flynn’s swackbuckling territory, but Flynn kept busy during the same decade. Errol Flynn Signature Collection Volume 2 has two of the dashing scamp’s best vehicles. Adventures of Don Juan is a funny, self-aware Technicolor romp from a period (1948) when he was getting too old for such things and knew it. But possibly his greatest role, and reputed to be his favorite, was in Gentleman Jim.

It’s a period piece about the man who took the boxing championship from John L. Sullivan around the turn of the last century. Flynn has never been more magnetic and dynamic, with or without his shirt, and it’s a special surprise (given some of Flynn’s own proclivities) to see him wake up in bed with Jack Carson, lending top support as his buddy, both in longjohns and wondering what happened last night, they were so drunk. All support is tops, from Alan Hale’s cartoon Irish dad to William Frawley’s growling pussycat manager to, most of all, the sheer delight of Ward Bond as Sullivan, taking this character from a masterpiece of burlesque to, by sleight-of-hand in script and performance, the poignant secret heart of the movie.

Raoul Walsh’s direction is as light and sure-footed as Flynn in the ring, and if the bouts don’t reach for the beauty and mystery of, say, Body and Soul, they can’t be topped as a combo of action, vividly detailed byplay, and character. During the climactic bout, the witty montage work of Don Siegel conveys the idea that telegraphy could be used as a mass medium as effective as radio for informing the country, round-by-round. It’s co-written by crime pulpist Horace McCoy, who ensures this pic’s vivid ear for the vernacular.

Doris Day is often considered bland by modern hipsters, and it’s true that she was often smarter than the characters she played, which could call for her to be loud and insipid. But her persona was consistently independent and smart, usually holding a job and often as a single mother, and she was packaged as warm and sexy in her early career. That phase of Doris can be seen in The Doris Day Collection Volume 2.

Her film debut, the charming , Romance on the High Seas, was also the first of four films with director Michael Curtiz, who gave her the advice to be herself and ignore attempts to remake her. Two of their other films are here, too (My Dream Is Yours and I’ll See You in My Dreams), while her best film, Young Man with a Horn, shows its curiously submerged homo-erotic subtext in the “Volume 1” box.

The gem, however, is On Moonlight Bay, a genuinely funny and charming slice of Americana based on Booth Tarkington’s stories about the family of a mischievous boy named Penrod, circa World War I. Viewers probably aren’t used to musical comedies that are actually amusing, only those that pretend they’re supposed to be with contrived situations and broadly played nonsense, but this combines an intelligent, character-based script with routines that can make you laugh out loud. It hits all the right notes. (Unlike, say, the loud and dim-witted Lucky Me in the same box.)

The Alice Faye Collection showcases a wholesome, almost forgotten musical star who might be called the Doris Day of the ’30s and early ’40s. The biopic “Lillian Russell” exemplifies what Faye meant when she quipped that she starred with Don Ameche in six films where her voice was deeper than the plots.

The curious, perhaps sad fact here is that Faye is overshadowed in her own box set. It’s Carmen Miranda who grabs the eye in the lavish Technicolor of That Night in Rio and The Gang’s All Here. Today’s viewer is more interested in her uninhibited, English-mangling personification of America’s wartime Good Neighbor Policy, when we depended heavily on Latin American imports. She was one of the dizziest imports, and if her persona has gone through a phase that questioned her political correctness, it’s come back out again thanks to the dedication of drag queens and camp followers in general.

Busby Berkeley, desperate to prove he shouldn’t be sidelined by Hollywood, directed The Gang’s All Here as his most delirious concoction. Its famous banana number dares you not to find phallic intent, and the climax is a surreal bonanza of backwards-footage and light-show abstraction. The lack of window-boxing unfortunately cuts off the rim of marginal stars in the final shot, but an extra about Berkeley shows the same shot window-boxed.

RATING 6 / 10
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