JAYNE MANSFIELD COLLECTION (1956-1958). The popularity of this 1950s icon -- the blonde bombshell who occupied the level below Marilyn Monroe but far above Mamie Van Doren -- is based on her appearance in only two motion pictures, meaning that the third film in a box set devoted to her cinematic heritage is going to be filler. Happily, the folks at Fox's home entertainment division managed to pick a picture that isn't as celebrated as her two hits but holds its own for sheer entertainment value.
The Girl Can't Help It (1956) was instantly popular in its day, but over the decades it's developed a reputation more as a cult classic than a commercial hit. That's largely due to three reasons: the iconolatry of Mansfield; the risqué visual gags by director Frank Tashlin, a former cartoon animator-director; and the jaw-dropping collection of rock & rollers all gathered in one place. The plot is the least interesting aspect of the film: A former mob boss (Edmund O'Brien) hires a press agent (Tom Ewell) to turn his girlfriend (Mansfield) into a celebrity. What endures are the barrage of jokes built around Mansfield's formidable form (including the notorious scene in which a milk bottle blows its lid as Jayne walks by, gushing white liquid all over the place) and sizzling musical numbers by Little Richard, Fats Domino, the Platters and many others.
Tashlin and Mansfield teamed again the following year for Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957), and while the film lacks the musical revolution encapsulated by its predecessor, it makes up for it with a funnier storyline. Tony Randall, a better comedian than Girl's Tom Ewell, plays a TV commercial writer who's mistakenly pegged as the latest boy-toy of pampered movie star Rita Marlowe (Mansfield); the ruse ends up working wonders for his career on Madison Avenue, a plot development that leads to a number of hilarious digs at both television and the executive lifestyle. Henry Jones (also in Girl) steals scenes as Randall's coworker at the agency, while the film's final minutes include a wonderful cameo by a surprise guest star.
Mansfield's stay at the top was brief -- the period between Girl/Success and her 1967 death in an automobile accident (at the age of 34) consisted mainly of being mishandled by Fox, dealing with family problems and hitting the bottle (oh, yes, and turning down the role of Ginger in Gilligan's Island!). Yet for all its anonymity as one of her subsequent pictures, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (1958) is actually a charming comedy with plenty of choice moments. As a saloon owner who has no problem taking care of herself, Mansfield plays second banana to British actor Kenneth More, cast as a prim Englishman who journeys to the American West and gets mistaken for a cold-blooded gunslinger.
The DVD set includes 12 lobby cards reproduced in black-and-white -- a cheat, since the first two films are noted for their vibrant color schemes. Extra features on the various discs include audio commentaries by noted film historians, the A&E Biography episode Jayne Mansfield: Blonde Ambition and theatrical trailers.
All three films: ***
TOUGH GUYS COLLECTION (1935-1940). A year and a half ago, Warner Bros. released its Gangsters Collection, a to-die-for box set that included such classics as Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and White Heat. The stars celebrated in that compilation -- James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson -- return for an encore presentation, showcased in six more titles that helped make the studio arguably Hollywood's finest during the 1930s and 1940s.
A terrific piece of pulp fiction, "G" Men (1935) finds Cagney in his element as a fast-thinking, sharp-shooting street tough. The difference here is that the former Public Enemy is fighting with the good guys. Cagney's Brick Davis joins the FBI after his longtime friend gets murdered in the line of duty; his brash tactics initially irk his supervisor (King Kong's Robert Armstrong, a long way from Skull Island), but it's soon apparent that his methods produce results.
Like Cagney, Robinson also found himself switching allegiances, as the former Little Caesar sided with the law in Bullets Or Ballots (1936). Eddie plays Johnny Blake, a cop who goes undercover to bust open a racket run by Al Kruger (Barton MacLane). Blake's top priority is discovering the identities of the shady behind-the-scenes figures who are truly in charge, but his sleuthing is hampered by Kruger's right-hand man, a trigger-happy brute named Bugs Fenner (Bogart).
Bogart's also in the prison yarn San Quentin (1937), but the result is a couple of steps down from the cream of the Warner crop. Top-billed Pat O'Brien, who was extremely popular back in the day but now comes off as a stiff performer of limited range, stars as San Quentin's new yard captain, who ends up falling for the sister (Ann Sheridan) of one of the inmates (Bogie).
Based on a play co-written by Damon Runyon, A Slight Case of Murder (1938) is a frenzied screwball comedy reminiscent of the later Arsenic and Old Lace. Robinson plays Remy Marco, a successful bootlegger whose business flirts with bankruptcy once Prohibition is over and his rank beer is no longer the only one on the market. He retreats with his family to his country home, only to discover that he has to contend with a bratty orphan (Bobby Jordan of Dead End Kids fame), a roomful of dead gangsters, and a cop (Willard Parker) who wants to marry his daughter (Jane Bryan). After a slow start, this one takes off and never looks back.
A childhood favorite, Each Dawn I Die (1939) gets its juice from a smashing Cagney performance as well as a scenario that's as irresistible as it is unlikely. Cagney stars as Frank Ross, a journalist who's framed by corrupt city officials to take the rap for a DUI incident that leaves innocent people dead. Teaming up with a "lifer" (George Raft), Ross learns how to take care of himself, but the rigors of prison life eventually start to break him down.
Law and order are largely AWOL in City For Conquest (1940), an ambitious melodrama that can thank Cagney's presence for being included in this collection. The dynamic star here plays Danny Kenny, an ordinary joe content with the simple life: His only wishes are to be married to his childhood sweetheart Peggy (Ann Sheridan) and to watch his younger brother Eddie (Arthur Kennedy) succeed as a composer of majestic symphonies. But Peggy dreams of stardom while Eddie needs money to pay for his training; consequently, Danny realizes the best way to meet everyone's needs is to become a top-ranked boxer, a decision that leads to a Million Dollar Baby-like crisis. A young Anthony Quinn and Elia Kazan (before his directing career took off) appear in supporting roles.
As with the Gangsters Collection, viewers have the option of watching each film as part of a "Warner Night at the Movies," which (emulating the moviegoing experience from decades past) includes a vintage newsreel, a short film, a cartoon and a theatrical trailer before the main attraction. Other extras on each DVD include audio commentary by a film historian and a new featurette; five of the six discs also include a studio blooper reel, consisting of outtakes of Warner players (Bogart, Cagney, Bette Davis, many others) swearing, flubbing lines or playing on-set pranks.
"G" Men: ***1/2
Bullets Or Ballots: ***
San Quentin: **1/2
A Slight Case of Murder: ***
Each Dawn I Die: ***1/2
City For Conquest: ***
V FOR VENDETTA (2006). Like several other recent blockbusters (Batman Begins, for starters), this adaptation of an influential graphic novel can be viewed on two different levels. In one respect, it's a typical big-budget FX affair, not the sort that rolls off the assembly line but the type that shows that as much creativity as dollars went into every aspect of the production. Yet on another level, it serves as a wake-up call to Americans disgusted that their country has been hijacked by criminals, profiteers and warhawks. Set in an Orwellian England in the year 2020 (but packed with allusions to the United States of today), this finds a masked vigilante named V (Hugo Weaving) recruiting young Evey Hammond (excellent Natalie Portman) to help him in his battle against the fascistic ruling class. Brought to us by the same folks who delivered The Matrix, V For Vendetta is that rare blockbuster that's interested in words more than action. That's not to say the picture doesn't contain its share of explosive set pieces and dashing derring-do, but its import rests in the muddy waters it navigates and the difficult questions it ponders. Extras in this two-disc DVD set include a making-of featurette, a look at the film's futuristic look, a discussion of Guy Fawkes (the inspiration for the V character) and a piece on graphic novels.