UNIVERSAL CINEMA CLASSICS (1930-1949). Two years ago, Universal Studios Home Entertainment debuted its Legacy Series, which featured classic motion pictures like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sting in deluxe DVD editions packed with extras. Now, the outfit has seen fit to offer a scaled-down version of this idea with the new Cinema Classics line, which offers the movies (sold separately) and not much else. The first wave includes four dissimilar titles, including two Best Picture Oscar winners (both of which were already available on DVD in previous incarnations).
Winner of two Academy Awards -- Best Picture and Best Director (Lewis Milestone) -- All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) has for three-quarters of a century remained one of the greatest war movies ever made. Or, more accurately, it's one of the greatest anti-war movies ever made, since this sterling adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel (with a script by heavyweights Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott) steadfastly avoids romanticizing combat in any way. Lew Ayres plays the green World War I volunteer who, along with his buddies, marches off to fight for the German fatherland and instead gets disillusioned by the brutal senselessness of it all. Although dated in some of its cinematic techniques, the film still carries a wallop, most notably in its stunning conclusion.
The matinee fodder Arabian Nights (1942) feels like the odd picture out, and not just because it's the only film in this quartet not to win any Oscars (though it did receive four nominations for various technical achievements, not least being its Technicolor-saturated cinematography). A mishmash of various like-minded fables -- Sinbad (played by Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame!) and Aladdin both appear as supporting characters -- this finds an outcast ruler (Jon Hall) attempting to reclaim his throne with the help of a dancing girl (Maria Montez) and an acrobat (Sabu). A gargantuan hit in its day, this inspired Universal to reunite Hall, Montez and Sabu in several more films. Oddly, all three met with tragedy in later years: Hall committed suicide at 64, Montez drowned at 39, and Sabu suffered a fatal heart attack, also at the age of 39.
Among fans of old movies, Going My Way (1944) arguably ranks as one of the most beloved, so label me a Scrooge for not completely succumbing to its charms. Winner of an overly generous seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), this musical-comedy-drama centers on the relationship between a young, hip priest (Bing Crosby) and the elderly, conservative Father (Barry Fitzgerald) he's come to replace as head of a struggling parish. Crosby is appealing, Fitzgerald is excellent (both men earned Oscars for their efforts), and the film is packed with amusing and even poignant interludes. Yet a romantic subplot and a trumped up role for opera star Risë Stevens pads the film out to a needless 126-minute running time. This was followed a year later by another huge success, The Bells of St. Mary's (pairing Bing with Ingrid Bergman), and later turned into a short-lived 1962 TV series with Gene Kelly and Leo G. Carroll in the Crosby and Fitzgerald roles.
Like Arabian Nights, The Heiress (1949) is finally making its DVD debut, and not a moment too soon. Director William Wyler's piercing adaptation of both Henry James' novel Washington Square and its subsequent stage version stars Olivia de Havilland in a superb performance as Catherine Sloper, a Plain Jane whose dowdy appearance and awkward social graces have kept men away until a dashing suitor named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) comes calling. Catherine's delighted that he professes to love her, but her cruel yet sensible father (Ralph Richardson) is convinced that the young man is only after her money. A favorite of -- as well as an influence on -- Martin Scorsese (yet just try to get many of his so-called "devoted fans" to even give it a sideways glance), The Heiress is a deft psychological drama powered by superlative performances from Miriam Hopkins (as de Havilland's well-meaning aunt), Clift and especially Richardson. Yet it's Olivia de Havilland (winning one of the film's four Oscars) who owns the picture -- her transformation from wronged wallflower to hardened heart is especially indicative of this actress' incredible range.
The only extras on each DVD are an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne and the theatrical trailer.
All Quiet On the Western Front: ****
Arabian Nights: **1/2
Going My Way: ***
The Heiress: ****
THE HOLIDAY (2006). Given its middling box office and blistering reviews, it's safe to say that this year-end confection earns my designation as one of 2006's most underrated films. It's a finely polished piece of romantic cinema, with a generosity of spirit so all-encompassing that it's easy to forgive its occasional excesses. Amanda (Cameron Diaz) and Iris (Kate Winslet) are both unlucky in love and seeking to get away from the heartbreak of their daily lives. Therefore, after hooking up through a "home exchange" web site, Amanda heads to Iris' quaint English cottage while Iris ends up at Amanda's luxurious Hollywood mansion. Initially, men are the farthest commodities from both women's minds, but Amanda soon gets intimate with Iris' brother (Jude Law) while Iris becomes acquainted with a film composer (Jack Black). Writer-director Nancy Meyers clearly writes from a privileged perch: Her characters tend to be perversely rich, impeccably groomed and fabulously good-looking. Yet because she has the ability to imbue these high-and-mighty figures with flaws and doubts and in the process make them recognizably human, it's always easy to warm up to her players. The Holiday is overlong by at least 15 minutes, but the appealing cast makes it easy to lose track of time -- all the more so while snuggling on the couch with that significant other. DVD extras include audio commentary by Meyers and a making-of piece.