So many DVD releases, so few shopping days left before Christmas. And while single-disc movies are fine for casual acquaintances, lavish box sets are the way to go when it comes to the movie aficionados on your list. Here, then, is a quartet of recommended collections recently released on DVD.
THE PREMIERE FRANK CAPRA COLLECTION (1932-1939). One of the most beloved of all American filmmakers, Capra holds a legacy that owes a massive debt to his Christmas perennial, It's a Wonderful Life. That movie's not included in this five-title set (presumably, everybody already owns it, right?), but you do get an interesting mix of what detractors called "Capra-corn" and fans called delectable. American Madness (1932), starring Walter Huston, is the forgotten film in the collection, while the Best Picture Oscar winner You Can't Take It With You (1938), with James Stewart and Jean Arthur, is the overrated "classic" in the bunch. But you also get the irresistible It Happened One Night (1936), the first film to win all five major Oscars -- Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor (Clark Gable) and Actress (Claudette Colbert) -- as well as the charming Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the Gary Cooper flick for which Capra won the second of his three Oscars. Still, the gem in this collection is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), with James Stewart delivering one of his best performances as the naive idealist who makes it to the Senate, only to spend all his time battling corrupt politicians. This handsome box set includes a sixth disc containing the documentary Frank Capra's American Dream, as well as a 96-page booklet packed with stills and trivia.
PRESTON STURGES: THE FILMMAKER COLLECTION (1940-1944). Preston Sturges had over a dozen screenplays to his credit by the time he convinced Paramount Pictures to allow him to direct his own script for 1940's The Great McGinty. Sturges ended up winning a writing Oscar for that film, and he would subsequently emerge as one of the most renowned writer-directors of the 1940s until his career fizzled out at the end of the decade. This box set contains seven of his first eight pictures as a hyphenate (unfortunately, 1944's The Miracle of Morgan's Creek isn't included), and while not all the pictures are classics (despite its Oscar victory, The Great McGinty's rather slender), there are enough gems to make this worth a pickup. The screwball comedies The Lady Eve (1941), with con artist Barbara Stanwyck wooing naive Henry Fonda, and The Palm Beach Story (1942), with Claudette Colbert contemplating divorcing Joel McCrea, are delightful, but the four-star masterpiece in the set is Sullivan's Travels (1942), in which film director Joel McCrea disguises himself as a hobo in order to gather research to make a movie about common folk. The only extras in the collection are theatrical trailers.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR-RICHARD BURTON: THE FILM COLLECTION (1963-1967). Well, at least Warner Bros. isn't trying to push this off as a complete film collection. The famously combative couple (married, divorced, remarried, re-divorced) made 10 theatrical pictures together, yet because the flicks were for a wide swath of studios, only four were cleared to wind up in this set. No matter: Moviegoers can spend all day arguing over the relative merits and flaws of 1963's The V.I.P.s (for which Margaret Rutherford earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar), 1965's The Sandpiper (co-starring Charles Bronson) and 1967's The Comedians (a Graham Greene adaptation featuring Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov), but there's no mistaking 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as anything but a movie masterpiece. A landmark production that also marked the directorial debut of Mike Nichols (The Graduate), this blistering adaptation of Edward Albee's play sparked a hailstorm of controversy with its frank dialogue and adult themes. Taylor and Burton are sensational as Martha and George, whose bloody verbal battles are tumultuous enough to ensnare a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) who have no idea what sort of evening the older pair have in store for them. This earned Oscars for Taylor, Dennis, Haskell Wexler's cinematography, the art direction/set decoration, and the costume design; it's one of the Academy's black marks that Burton didn't cop the Best Actor Oscar for a career-best performance. The majority of the extras in this box set can be found in the two-disc Virginia Woolf pack, including audio commentary by Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, a separate commentary by Wexler, and a pair of making-of featurettes.
SUPERMAN ULTIMATE COLLECTOR'S EDITION (1978-2006). Where to start? First, there are the four theatrical films in the Christopher Reeve franchise, also available in the smaller box set, The Christopher Reeve Superman Collection. Yes, the movies get progressively worse, but Superman (1978) still ranks as the finest superhero flick ever made, while Superman II (1981) is a slam-bang sequel that captures the style of an actual comic book better than just about any other adaptation that comes to mind. Superman III (1983) is a disappointment, even with Richard Pryor prominently featured in a co-starring role, while Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), which appears to have been filmed for a buck fifty, is an embarrassment. The set also includes the never-before-seen Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, which contains some footage that's different from director Richard Lester's theatrical cut (Donner was the director of the original Superman and began shooting scenes for Part II before being fired). Finally, the set contains the recent Superman Returns (2006), a fine update with Brandon Routh as the new Man of Steel. Superman arrives in a four-disc edition, Superman II and Superman Returns are two-disc sets, and the other titles are single-disc offerings. Among the countless extras in the collection are audio commentaries, deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, the 1951 theatrical release Superman and the Mole Men (starring George Reeves), and 17 Superman cartoons from the 1940s.