In a month when film awards are being announced and dispensed with reckless and increasingly tiresome abandon, it seems an appropriate time to harken back to those golden days when such awards were actually an accurate indication of a film's merit. Six Oscar-winning titles that have recently seen the light of day prove that there was a time when awards recipients were genuinely deserving of the honors bestowed on them.

In 1981 seemingly endless exposure to the trailers for CHARIOTS OF FIRE coupled with the constant assault on my ears of Vangelis' theme song every time I turned on the radio firmly convinced me to avoid the film at all costs. And I did. And I was wrong to do so, as Warner's two-disc Special Edition pointedly proves.

CHARIOTS OF FIRE perfectly captures, in sumptuously scrupulous and vivid detail, the zeal of post-World War I Britain and the relentlessly hard work, determination and ultimate glory of the Olympic games. As good as the actors, screenplay, costumes, production design, photography and music are, we here have yet another ridiculous example of a film that won an Academy Award for Best Picture (as well as Best Screenplay, Music, and Costume honors) yet failed to secure a win for director Hugh Hudson, who really deserves the lion's share of credit for the success and popularity that this upbeat and consistently entertaining film achieved.

This exemplary dvd release has been remastered to visual perfection in the 16x9 enhanced 1.85:1 format and the similarly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is powerful and thrillingly directional. If, like me, you previously avoided this fine film, purchase of this superb dvd edition will rectify that grievous miscalculation.

To some less imaginative film fans BROADWAY MELODY's primitive 1929 sound technology, lack of camera movement, clunky dancing, fruity singing and stiff and posey acting will relegate this first all-talkie musical to the "museum piece" bin, but the more open-minded, imaginative and forgiving will instantly realize that they have found  the perfect companion piece  second-feature to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (available from Warners in a stunning two-disc set).

Not only does BROADWAY MELODY introduce all but one of the great Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed songs reprised in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN but it actually displays graphic and hilarious evidence that SINGIN's satirical edge had its foot firmly planted in reality. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if BROADWAY's  three stars (Charles King, Anita Page, and Bessie Love) were, in real life, SINGIN's imaginary Don Lockwood, Cathy Selden and Lina Lamont.

Considering its age the full screen black and white image is in pretty good shape, and, more surprisingly, the monaural sound is quite robust.

Certainly Warner Brothers deserved its first Best Picture Academy Award for THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, a film that powerfully and unflinchingly depicts the many triumphs and tragedies of France's legendary champion of the oppressed and displays, for once, a performance by Paul Muni that never lurches into the actory theatrics that would mar some of his subsequent portrayals. But it is Joseph Schildkraut's Best Supporting Oscar turn as the wrongly convicted Captain Dreyfus that really supplies the heart and soul to this continuously engrossing  and literate biographical picture.

The black and white full screen picture, while adequate, displays occasional damage and fairly evident graininess, and, much to my surprise, the monaural sound is noticeably weaker than that of the earlier BROADWAY MELODY.

A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is considered by astute film fans to be writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz' (Best Direction and Screenplay Oscar-winner) "dry run" for his upcoming classic ALL ABOUT EVE (available in fine, restored shape courtesy of Fox Video). Indeed, similarities are evident in WIVES multi-flashback structure, and while EVE satirically skewers theatre, movies, and television, WIVES takes on small-town politics and class distinction as well as radio and its "commercialization" in a similarly caustic and verbose fashion, while at the same time focusing on the reactions of three young wives as they receive a letter from the town flirt revealing the fact that she has run off with one of their husbands ---- but which one?

While the performances of Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern as two of the reflective wives are everything they should be, both are hampered by the casting of dull Jeffrey Lynn as Crain's counterpoint, and the outrageous mis-casting of Kirk Douglas as Sothern's sensitive and bookish teacher husband, a role which a plainly uncomfortable Douglas manhandles in the muscular fashion that would prove far more appropriate in the following year's CHAMPION. (How different things would be if Mankiewicz had hired EVE's two leading men, Hugh Marlowe and Gary Merrill for the respective spouses!)

But it is the blunt and honest performances of Paul Douglas as a rough and somewhat crass industrialist and Linda Darnell as a presumed gold-digger that injects their segment with a pungency and punch that's somewhat less evident in the Crain and Sothern episodes and provides the film with the delicious sharp edge that sets it apart from most other domestic "dramadies" of that era.

Fox has done a good job on the transfer, especially considering the the fact that the original negative tragically no longer exists. The full -screen black and white image is sharp and mostly damage free and the monaural sound option is vastly preferable since A LETTER TO THREE WIVES is a dialogue-driven film.

Actresses who essay multiple roles in the same film (particularly if one of the characters is nuttier than a fruitcake) have historically run amuck with sometimes grotesque and self-indulgent displays of over-acting that amount to no more than hyper-active demonstrations of "acting exercises" that would enthrall only the least critical acting novice. The fact that Joanne Woodward was able to avoid even the slightest hint of the above in her interpretation(s) of a troubled housewife who discovers that  two additional personalities ( a vamp and an independent sophisticate) reside within her is reason enough to understand why she won the Best Actress Oscar for her efforts. But to me her most stunning accomplishment is her ability to create seamless transitions from one individual to another without once resorting to the grating and melodramatic contrivances that typically mar such efforts. And it must be said that the terminally underappreciated David Wayne as her dense husband displays great skill in that most difficult of all actor's challenges: playing down your intelligence. Since Lee J. Cobb's performance as the psychiatrist amounts to a carbon copy of his efforts in a similar role in 1948's DARK PAST his is perhaps the least interesting star contribution to this dark but still eminently watchable chronicle.

Fox's anamorphic wide-screen 2.35:1 black and white transfer is entirely reasonable as is the preferable monaural sound option that delivers the dialogue cleanly and without distortion.

Huge helpings of terrific music, dazzling special effects, exemplary animation and an absolutely sparkling central performance by Julie Andrews (Best Actress Oscar for her film debut) conspire to make MARY POPPINS one of the happiest "feel good" movies of all time and almost manage to disguise the fact that, at 139 minutes, there may possibly be slightly too much of a good thing. However it must be stated that Disney has released one of the most stunning dvd transfers ever. The bold colors leap off the screen without any hint of grain, blooming or distortion in this absolutely spotless anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer, and the newly enhanced 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack flawlessly enhances the enchanting, if somewhat overpowering, proceedings.

Editor's note: despite repeated requests for a review copy, we are unable to include 20th Century Fox's LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (Oscar winner: Best Color Photography), in time for this review. If and when we receive it we will endeavor to cover it in a future article.


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