The New Old: Casablanca and Turner Classic Movies

Casablanca

Although it’s appeared a few times already on DVD and Blu-ray Warner Brothers has released yet another special edition of the 1942 classic Casablanca. It might seem unnecessary to some (especially those who bought the last Blu-ray, which isn’t all that old), everyone can rest assured that one of the greatest works in American cinema finally has a box set worthy of its reputation on its 70th anniversary. Furthermore, in a nice move by the studio, the package comes packed with a comprehensive history of the studio itself, making it almost invaluable to film historians as a reference material. It’s a damn sight better than any of the repackagings Universal has done for their 100th anniversary as a studio and the seemingly nothing that Paramount has done with the same milestone.

By now most film buffs should be familiar with the story of a man torn between doing the right thing, doing what’s right for his business, and the woman he pines for. Many are also probably familiar with the film’s production history and the organically grown phenomenon surrounding it becoming one of the most beloved films of all time. I’m not going to rehash the film since it’s something that should be experienced for itself, and with a new 4K digital transfer that doesn’t mute the black and white colour of the film and a remastered mono sound mix (to preserve the original presentation), there’s no time like the present. I’m basically just here today to nerd out about how great this set is.

In my defence, I did have something far more grand planned for this, but to go through this new box set would literally take days. There’s simply too much to take in, both with regard to film and history in general. It’s an admirably overarching set.

Aside from the wonderful film, the first disc of the blu-ray nicely recycles some older featurettes from the first blu-ray and DVD releases while adding just enough new things to not make it seem redundant. There’s a 90 minute film featuring Lauren Bacall (who also has an archival introduction on the disc) dishing on Bogart that’s been available since before the first DVD was even put out. Ditto “As Time Goes By,” a brief six-minute bit featuring the son of Humphrey Bogart and the daughter of Ingrid Bergman talking about how much the film meant to their legacies.

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The best featurettes, however, are two newer ones. There’s a 35-minute look at the genesis of the production and how no one involved with the film ever dreamed it would be as big as it got, and a 45-minute look at director Michael Curtiz, here referred to as “The greatest director you never heard of,” despite having crafted over 100 films in his time including the infamous money loser Noah’s Ark, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Sea Hawk, Mildred Pierce, White Christmas, and many other notables. These docs benefit from some great interviews with historians with interests close to the project, as well as talks with directors Steven Spielberg and William Friedkin, both of whom seem extremely animated and excited to be talking about Curtiz and his works.

Two classic commentaries carry over from the older discs, but they are among the best ever put to tape for these supplemental feature. On the first, and more entertaining one, Roger Ebert take a look at the film with a blend of personal, critical, and historical perspectives that stays on point without ever feeling meandering. On the second, Inside Warner Brothers author and film historian Rudy Behimer comes across as engaging, but more professorial in tone. Thankfully both tracks cover mostly different ground from each other and from the featurettes.

In the actual extras category, there are deleted scenes and outtakes that the sound has sadly been lost from, but the sequences seems to hold little value to begin with. There’s also audio tracks of studio recording sessions for the music, two radio broadcasts, the Looney Tunes cartoon parody “Carrotblanca” (which I remember seeing as a kid before The Great Panda Adventure), and perhaps even more bizarre, an hour long episode of the 1950s television show Who Holds Tomorrow?, brought to you by Chesterfield Cigarettes and General Electric. The show was a bit of an oddity since it took Warner Brother’s properties and created all new stories within the worlds of these characters with an entirely different cast. The show is pretty dreadful, but worth noting for an appearance from Fellini muse Anita Ekberg as a political refugee fake-Rick is looking to protect.

Also, in one of the nicer touches that Warner Brothers has been adding to some of their older catalogue titles, you have the option to watch the movie as if it were being presented at the time of it’s theatrical exhibition, with cartoons, trailers, and newsreels. The “Warner Night at the Movies” option for this disc includes the trailer for the Better Davis/Paul Henreid film Now, Voyager, news reels from the World War II effort in the states, a 20 minute short called Vaudeville Days (which is quaint in terms of how old and crappy it looks), and three lesser seen Merrie Melodies cartoons (“The Bird Came C.O.D.,” “The Squawkin’ Hawk,” and “The Dover Boys at Pimento University (Or The Rivals of Roquefort Hall)”).

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With all that on a single disc, it’s almost hard to believe that there would be enough material for a second Blu-ray. There isn’t a whole lot on Casablanca on the second disc, but the near entire history of Warner Brothers Studios finds a home in three separate feature length documentaries.

The centrepiece of disc two would probably be the almost five hour long documentary You Must Remember This, written and directed by film critic and historian Richard Schickel and narrated by his own personal muse, Clint Eastwood. Originally crafted for PBS’ American Masters series in 2008, Schickel traces the history of the studio from incorporation, the studio’s first success with Rin Tin Tin and sordid pre-code films to their big budget blockbusters of today. While it feels constructed in bullet points for the most part – with particular attention paid to some films more than others with sometimes little critical reasoning given – the documentary is still fascinating and encompassing enough that film buffs will eat it up.

The other two documentaries are a bit drier, and cover a lot of the same ground. The 1993 documentary Jack L. Warner: The Last Mogul from director Gregory Ott profiles the famed studio head and his relationship to his family, but actual family member Cass Warner’s 2008 documentary The Brother’s Warner is a far more interesting and personal look at the family that created one of Hollywood’s longest lasting brands.

Also included in the limited edition box set are a replica of the French release poster for the film, a set of coasters from the various bars in the film, and a sixty page book of stills, schematics, props, and ad campaign materials. Oh, yeah, and there’s a DVD copy of the film. See as this set sells for well under $100, there’s no reason it shouldn’t replace the older editions of the films for completists.

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If this set tickles your fancy for old Hollywood, Warner Brothers and Turner Classic Movies have also just offered up a trio of four disc standard DVD sets in their Greatest Classics Series to appeal to tough guys and softies alike, each focusing on the work of a different notable actor: Doris Day, Katherine Hepburn, and Edward G. Robinson.

The Hepburn collection starts off with 1933’s Morning Glory, where she plays a struggling actress running afoul of a former starlet, a producer, and the entirety of show-biz. Also from 1933 is George Cukor’s adaptation of Little Women, with Hepburn in the lead as Jo. Cukor comes back to direct one of Hepburn’s biggest successes with her 1940 smash The Philadelphia Story, co-starring acting heavyweights Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. The best and most underrated of the set, however, would be Stage Door from 1937 with Hepburn playing another struggling actress alongside fellow sufferers Lucille Ball, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, and Ann Miller. Stage Door wonderfully blends the bitter with the sweet in one of the most sarcastic films of the era.

There aren’t a ton of features on the Hepburn set, despite each film getting its own disc. At least none of the discs have the same material in any way. Little Women has some notes on the work Cukor and Hepburn did together and some audio from the film’s scoring sessions. Stage Door has the short film “Ups and Downs” and a radio production featuring Ginger Rogers. The Philadelphia Story comes only with a commentary track from famed film historian and professor Jeanine Basinger, and poor old Morning Glory has nothing.

The Doris Day set kicks off with the film most likely to appeal to fans of the Casablanca featurettes. 1948’s Romance on the High Seas finds Day in a musical about a socialite caught in a web of romantic misunderstanding under the direction of Curtiz and the help of musical impresario Busby Berkley. Following that is her inexplicably lauded, but goofy take on Calamity Jane from 1953, her alluring, but oddly miscast role as a mob moll opposite James Cagney in 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, and the 1960 family comedy Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, where she was opposite David Niven.

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On this set, the latter gets the shaft on the features, while Romance comes with a short film (Let’s Sing a Song from the Movies) and a cartoon that really needs no introduction (“I Taw a Putty Tat”). Calamity Jane comes with a newsreel from the premiere, and Love Me or Leave Me comes with three short films (A Modern Cinderella, Roseland, and A Salute to the Theatres). It’s the weakest of the sets in terms of value, but the movies can be great fun if in the right mood for silliness.

For those who like their movies on the darker, nastier side and with a whole lot more in the special features department, the Greatest Gangster Films collection takes a look at famed tough guy Edward G. Robinson, beginning with the 1933 pre-code comedy The Little Giant with Robinson as a former bootlegger looking for a new life after his criminal enterprises have seemingly dried up. Bullets or Ballots from 1936 finds Robinson playing almost against type as a cop out to take down mob bosses, including one played by Bogart. Kid Galahad finds Bogart and Robinson teaming up a year later as rival boxing promoters vying for the affections of Bette Davis. Then there’s the matter of the deeply flawed and painfully unfunny 1942 heist film Larceny Inc., which places Robinson on a team of thugs trying to maintain a front business in order to tunnel under a neighbouring bank.

While the movies themselves aren’t really indicative of Robinson’s best work, all of them get the same Warner Night at the Movies treatment Casablanca had with different period shorts and newsreels. Also, every film has a commentary track. The Little Giant pairs film writer Daniel Bubbeo and Bullets over Hollywood writer John McCarty. NYU professor Dana Polan flies solo for Bullets or Ballots, and returns to team up with Harvard film historian Haden Guest on the commentary for Larceny, Inc. Kid Gallahad teams up cinematographer Art Simon with the late Robert Sklar in what has to be one of the last things he ever completed.

Now, there. That should keep you film buffs busy for a while there, see? Yeah? YEAH!

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