Academy Collection: The Envelope Please, Vol. 1 [DVD]
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A Star is Born came into being when producer David O. Selznick decided to tell a "true behind-the-scenes" story of Hollywood. The truth, of course, was filtered a bit for box-office purposes, although Selznick and an army of screenwriters based much of their script on actual people and events. Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, the small-town girl who dreams of Hollywood stardom, a role later played by both Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand in the 1954 and 1976 remakes. Jeered at by most of her family, Esther finds an ally in her crusty old grandma (May Robson), who admires the girl's "pioneer spirit" and bankrolls Esther's trip to Tinseltown. On arrival, Esther heads straight to Central Casting, where a world-weary receptionist (Peggy Wood), trying to let the girl down gently, tells her that her chances for stardom are about one in a thousand. "Maybe I'll be that one!" replies Esther defiantly. Months pass: through the intervention of her best friend, assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), Esther gets a waitressing job at an upscale Hollywood party. Her efforts to "audition" for the guests are met with quizzical stares, but she manages to impress Norman Maine (Fredric March), the alcoholic matinee idol later played by James Mason and Kris Kristofferson. Esther gets her first big break in Norman's next picture and a marriage proposal from the smitten Mr. Maine. It's a hit, but as Esther (now named Vicki)'s star ascends, Norman's popularity plummets due to a string of lousy pictures and an ongoing alcohol problem. The film won Academy Awards for director William Wellman and Robert Carson in the "original story" category and for W. Howard Greene's glistening Technicolor cinematography. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
This solid gangster flick from director Lewis Milestone was based on a stage play and earned a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. Louis Wolheim stars as Nick Scarsi, a tough-guy bootlegger with political connections that enrage a local police captain, McQuigg (Thomas Meighan). In order to get rid of his enemy, Nick use his influence to get McQuigg transferred to an out-of-the-way duty post, which only further inflames the determined cop's animosity. In the meantime, Nick's brother Joe (George Stone) is about to get himself in trouble with a beautiful singer, Helen (Marie Prevost), and Nick tries to prevent a match-up by humiliating her at a party. After Joe kills an innocent pedestrian in a car accident, he's arrested under a phony name. To get even with the brothers, Helen alerts the police that Joe is a big-time gangster's brother, putting Nick, who has also killed a police officer, at the mercy of McQuigg and a district attorney (Sam De Grasse). Tragically, stars Wolheim and Prevost would both be dead by the early 1930's, he of cancer and she of starvation and alcoholism. ~ Karl Williams, Rovi
Leo McCarey's classic tale of romance stars Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer as two strangers who fall in love on an ocean voyage. Charles Boyer is Michel Marnet, engaged to be married to Lois Clarke (Astrid Allwyn). Irene Dunne is Terry McKay, also engaged to be married, in this case to Kenneth Bradley (Lee Bowman). But when Michel and Terry meet aboard a ship, they fall instantly in love. In order to prove to themselves their love affair is not just a shipboard romance, they agree to meet six months hence on the top of the Empire State Building. If they still feel the same way about each other, they will bid adieu to their fiancees and start their affair anew. Six months later, they are still thinking about each other and proceed to their meeting at the Empire State Building. Michel awaits Terry's arrival, but Terry, on the way to their meeting, is involved in a terrible car accident, leaving her a cripple. Later, by a twist of fate, they are reunited and Michel vows to stay with Terry to help her walk again. ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi
The Front Page
This first of four film versions of the Ben Hecht/Charlrd MacArthur Broadway hit stars Adolphe Menjou as explosive Chicago newspaper-editor Walter Burns and Pat O'Brien as his star reporter Hildy Johnson. Hildy is on the verge of getting married and retiring from Burns' dirty little tabloid, but he agrees to cover one last story: the politically motivated execution of convicted cop killer Earl Williams (George E. Stone). Thanks to the stupidity of the police, Williams manages to escape, and Johnson hides the wounded fugitive in a rolltop desk in the prison pressroom. Burns enters the scene, senses a swell story (and also a means of keeping Johnson on his payroll), and conspires with Johnson to keep Williams out of sight until they can secure an exclusive interview. Burns will do anything to keep Johnson on the scene, including having the reporter's future mother-in-law kidnapped. Complicating matters are Johnson's fiancée Peggy (Mary Brian), Williams' girlfriend Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke), and the corrupt mayor (James Gordon) and sheriff (Clarence C. Wilson), who have railroaded Williams to the death house in order to win votes and are now trying to suppress the news that the governor has commuted Williams' sentence. The Front Page was remade by Howard Hawks in 1939 as His Girl Friday, with the symbiotic relationship between Burns and Johnson changed to a sexual one by transforming Hildy Johnson into a woman (played by Rosalind Russell) with Cary Grant as her old flame Walter. It was again remade by Billy Wilder in 1974 with Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett, and a young Susan Sarandon. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Director Roland West was a moody and mysterious Hollywood character, who insisted upon making his pictures in utter secrecy and filming only at night. This may explain the overall foreboding atmosphere of Alibi, West's first talking picture. Chester Morris portrays a ruthless gangster who must establish an alibi after pulling off a warehouse robbery. Regis Toomey and Pat O'Malley are the detectives assigned to get the goods on Morris. Full of vicious bravado when he's on top of a situation, Morris turns into a craven coward when he's trapped--but not before coldbloodedly gunning down true-blue policeman Toomey, who then launches into one the longest and most lachrymose death scenes in the history of movies. Alibi was based on the play Nightstick, written by John Wray, J.C. Nugent and Elaine Sterne. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
A Farewell to Arms
This first film version of Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms stars Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes. Cooper plays Lt. Frederick Henry, a World War I officer who falls in love with English Red Cross nurse Catherine Barkley (Hayes)-after first mistaking her for a woman of ill repute. Henry's friend, Major Rinaldi, is envious of the romance, and pulls strings to have Catherine transferred to Milan. When Henry is wounded in battle, he ends up in the very hospital where Catherine works. They resume the affair, which reaches an ecstatic peak just before Henry is returned to the front. The now-pregnant Catherine remains in Switzerland, sending letters by the bushelfull to Henry. But the jealous Rinaldi sees to it that Henry never receives those letters, leading Catherine to conclude sorrowfully that Henry has forgotten her. As the Armistice approaches, Henry makes his way to Switzerland, hoping to find Catherine. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi
Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller star in Anthony Asquith's and Leslie Howard's classic version of George Bernard Shaw's satiric comedy. Henry Higgins (Howard) is an upper class phonetics professor who encounters low-class guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle (Hiller) and bets his friend Colonel Pickering (Scott Sunderland) that he can pass her off as a duchess within three months. Pickering accepts Higgins' bet, with Eliza readily agreeing to the proposal, since she will get to live in Higgins' fancy home. Once in Higgins' house, Eliza is subjected to intensely repetitive phonetics lessons in an effort to transform her Cockney accent into the speech of proper English. Things are a bit rocky at first, with Eliza blurting out "Not bloody likely" at a tea party. But when Eliza is presented at the Ambassador's Ball, she is not only accepted as a princess but is the talk of the ball, everyone in attendance commenting on her charm, beauty, and poise. Relishing his success, Higgins abruptly dismisses her. But Eliza has fallen in love with Higgins and is aghast at her cursory treatment by him. She tells him, "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself. Now you've made a lady of me, I'm not fit to sell anything else." When Eliza leaves, Higgins realizes that he loves her too, but Eliza has announced to Higgins that she plans to marry high society playboy Freddie Eynsford-Hill (David Tree). ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi
The Private Life of Henry VIII
Charles Laughton became an international star by chewing both mutton and scenes in his Oscar-winning turn as King Henry VIII. Alexander Korda's British super-production also put the British cinema on the map, which, until this film, received precious little respect in the international film community. The film, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, details the private life of the famous British monarch. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is barely mentioned -- explained away by a prologue which states that she was "too respectable to be included." Henry then marries Anne Boleyn (Merle Oberon) but she is soon beheaded. His next wife, Jane Seymour (Wendy Barrie), dies during childbirth. His next wife is Anne of Cleves (Elsa Lanchester, in a prelude to her Bride of Frankenstein role), whom Henry reluctantly beds with his famous sigh, "The things I've done for England." They divorce and Henry next marries Katherine Howard (Binnie Barnes), who also finds herself beheaded when she has an affair with Henry's friend, Thomas Culpepper (Robert Donat). Finally, Henry is brought down to size with his final wife, Catherine Parr (Everley Gregg). ~ Paul Brenner, Rovi