MODs of the Week: Tarzan! The Falcon! Hudsucker on Blu-Ray! And More!
Hot on the heels of Warner Archives' three-disc Philo Vance Murder Case Collection comes another set of vintage screen mysteries, this time devoted to The Falcon, who was originally envisioned as a shadowy freelance crime fighter in stories by the pseudonymous Drexel Drake (or Michael Arlen, depending on which story you follow). In 1941, the character was refashioned for the screen by RKO as a roguish swell in the vein of Leslie Charteris' The Saint, whose own popular series for the studio, starring George Sanders had wrapped that same year. Sanders was quickly snapped up to play the Falcon for three pictures before bowing out of the franchise, which was then assumed by his real-life brother, Tom Conway (Cat People, 1942) who was made the original Falcon's sibling (before taking the whole thing full circle by voicing the Saint on radio in 1951). Conway's Falcon was suitably urbane, if lacking Sanders' charmingly droll self-amusement, and acquitted himself well to nine pictures between 1943 and 1946, six of which are collected in the remastered Falcon Mystery Movie Collection, Volume 2 (the first three Falcon films with Conway, along with Sanders' efforts, are featured in WA's Falcon Mystery Movie Collection, Volume 1). For those who remember whiling away a Saturday afternoon with pics like these on UHF broadcasts (or in theaters), the Falcon films virtually define the term "programmer": fat-free, no-nonsense crime thrillers anchored by a pre-ordained amount of suspense, light comedy (courtesy Edward Brophy and several other actors as the Falcon's rough-hewn sidekick, Goldie Locke), a glitzy location and a dash of sex appeal in the form of Barbara Hale, Rita Corday, Martha Vickers and other second-string starlets. There are flashes of bargain ingenuity along the way - Gordon Douglas and Joseph H. (Gun Crazy) Lewis, who helm The Falcon in Hollywood (1944) and The Falcon in San Francisco (1945), respectively, work their signature brand of under-the-radar sleight of hand, and Elisha Cook Jr. steals the show (again) in The Falcon's Alibi (1946) as a nervous hotel DJ trying to rein in his torch singer wife (Jane Greer). The other three movies in the set - The Falcon Out West (1944), The Falcon in Mexico (1944) and the last film in the series with Conway, The Falcon's Adventure (1946) - offer equally suave-on-a-budget pleasures.
Speaking of familiar franchises, Warner also has The Tarzan Collection Starring Jock Mahoney and Mike Henry, a five-disc set of '60s-era adventures featuring stuntman Mahoney and former pro footballer Henry as decidedly mod Lords of the Jungle. The five films included in the set (all previously released by WA) follow the updated formula established by producer Sy Weintraub, who took over the series in 1958, with Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1958) - a modern setting, exotic location shoots, and a tougher, less innocent Tarzan with a broadened vocabulary, no Jane or Boy to speak of, and some swanky sartorial choices. Brawny Western regular Mahoney replaced sword and sandal star Gordon Scott as the ape man for Tarzan Goes to India (1962) and Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963), but was forced to drop out of the role after taking an ill-advised swim in a polluted river while filming in Thailand. He subsequently contracted amoebic dysentery and dengue fever, losing significant weight and strength which hampered his career for years. Weintraub then hired Henry - better known the following decade as Jackie Gleason's dimwitted son in Smokey and the Bandit - for Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966), Tarzan and the Great River (1967) and Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968), all shot back to back in Mexico and Brazil, respectively. Henry was an even less emotive Tarzan than Mahoney, and shared his predecessor's spate of bad luck by suffering a bite to the face from the chimp playing Cheeta in The Great River, but his entries in the series take some enjoyably campy cues from the James Bond series, with Tarzan manning a machine gun and wearing a neatly tailored suit. Olympic champion Rafer Johnson also appears as the villain in Great River and Jungle Boy, where he is opposed by his real-life brother, Ed Johnson. Fans of '70s coming attractions will also note the presence of Ron Gans, the basso-voiced pitchman for dozens of releases from Roger Corman's New World Pictures, in Jungle Boy. Henry later split the series as well, prompting the hire of Ron Ely for the Tarzan TV series. None of the five pictures featured in this set will replace Johnny Weismuller's best efforts, but the quintet collected her are fizzy jungle adventure fun set against some striking backdrops.
Elsewhere, WA offers The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the Coen Brothers' cute but slight tribute to screwball comedies as the third release in their Blu-ray MOD line. Tim Robbins stars as a minor cog at an imperious company who rises up the corporate ladder on the strength of his invention - the hula hoop - and Paul Newman in a devilish turn as his would-be benefactor. Initially penned by Joel Coen and Sam Raimi during the making of the latter's feature debut, The Evil Dead (1981), it's a gorgeous looking toy train, filled with exacting period detail, but there's no substance behind the abundance of style, only carbons of period performances (most notably Jennifer Jason Leigh's overly mannered turn as a reporter with the clipped speech patterns of a young Katharine Hepburn), which makes it difficult to connect to the picture beyond a superficial level. A likable trifle, on par with the Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty (2003) or Burn After Reading (2008), but a trifle nonetheless.
Those seeking the genuine screwball article are directed to Preston Sturges' Unfaithfully Yours (1948), which returns to DVD via Fox's Cinema Archives MOD series. The wry black comedy stars Rex Harrison as an orchestra conductor whose paranoia over alleged canoodling by his much younger wife (Linda Darnell) leads to an elaborate murder scheme. A critical success but a box office flop, the picture is a touch darker than Sturges' previous work, but also features sharp performances by Rudy Vallee as Harrison's brother, comic legend Edgar Kennedy as a detective on Darnell's trail, and a gallery of Sturges' stock players, including Lionel Stander, George Melford, Al Bridge and Frank Moran. Though it lacks the bells and whistles of the 2005 Criterion release, it's a worthwhile addition to any classic comedy fan's collection. Fox's current slate also offers such comedy titles as The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947), a Betty Grable comedy about the women's suffragette movement that features songs by George and Ira Gerswhin, as well as a letterbox print of The Marriage Go Round (1961), with James Mason as a college professor selected by a statuesque Swedish gymnast (Julie Newmar) as her mate, much to the consternation of his spouse (Susan Hayward).