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Monday, February 26, 2024

Useful Relic Format That is DVD


Digging For, and Finding, Disc "Extra" Gold

Once there stood mighty fortress that was DVD with extras and talkers and sometimes Easter Eggs, a bargain for modest price to have them. Blu-Ray buried a generation of these in the name of image improved but for most part not much else. I get out an old disc to always surprise of how much is there to enjoy, a couple returned to by sheer chance, years since exploring either, but glad to have done so. Was there really a time when Fox Video released all their Charlie Chan features and did them up deluxe, each box, as in seven boxes, with oodles of bonus content that carry 65-minute movies to a two hour finish? Here’s how excavating happens for me: a happenstance visit to Philo Vance via The Garden Murder Case, then the Kennel, the Dragon, and wanting more if not of Vance, then why not C. Chan whom I’d not called up since The Black Camel, only this time Sidney Toler rather than default choice Oland, thus Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, among best of Tolers, and more so a treat for Fox documenting the World’s Fair of 1939 in San Francisco where an entire island rose out of the bay thanks to man-effort and engineering, color home movies and testimony of those who recalled first-hand what creation was like. Segments being made in 2007 puts us sixteen years past ones who saw the real Treasure Island and were still around to speak of it. Then there was a wow of an extra comparing “Zodiac” villainy of the film with real-life Frisco serial killings a generation after. Chilling to contemplate are links suggested between the two.

So what influence led to retrieve of dust-laden Fall of the Roman Empire, Bronston behemoth of 1964 not consulted since 2008 when proud double-disc marched ways into household that till 2024 has watched Fall but once. Did its three hours daunt? Memory of the feature faded over sixteen years save much shooting in snow and honey of a
 chariot race plus duel to make Ben-Hur look like a Sunday surrey ride. Fall of the Roman Empire was owned in ’08 by “The Weinstein Company.” Is it still? Glory that was Rome looks still glorious here, what with production to take breath truly away. Why did I go see Duel of the Titans in 1963 and not this? Checked for Blu-Ray access in the US and found none. Lots from elsewhere Regions however, these clearly digging what once straddled the world and remains longest lasting of all civilizations. Picture looked fine on my standard disc, a cinch that newer ones, even if Blu, would lack all of bonus content this ’08 release has. Never knew a lot about Samuel Bronston, but experts taught me here. Bronston and bunch rebuilt Rome on Spanish plains, him fleeced a whole time by “assist” lining own pockets to tune of millions, Bronston fated to fall upon Roman sword that was fail of this most massive among his ventures. Each of what Bronston made had to be mighty hits in order to enable a next. In this case, it was El Cid to grease chariot wheels, always-threat a boxoffice reverse that would fell Bronston’s fragile empire. The producer was himself a sort of update Rome, doing one more as colossal which was Circus World, which like Roman Empire, also available off-shore only on Blu-Ray.

All Chans were not created equal, as neither are discs hosting them. I began Chan (Toler) in Reno and had a good time till the image froze around fifteen minutes in, not to regain footing and henceforth a coaster. Some DVD’s last, others not. Extras play fine, the feature lasting barely past the first murder. One that did play, until lights out dictated by me, was a cluck called City in Darkness, CC in Paris (again) but this time sans son, any of them, comic that was no relief enacted by Harold Huber who was test of endurance beyond mish-mosh of a story I could/would not follow. Always a bitter pill to concede failure at watching any feature, though preferable to taxing oneself past point of boredom. Don’t want to sour myself with Chan for after all there may be Monograms to cope with down the line. Does Sidney Toler please as substitute for Warner Oland? I say yes for recognition of large shoes former had to fill, as who really could be so graceful as true-life mystery that was Oland? There was something distinctly uncanny about this man so few seemed to know well. He came and went to work till one day he simply went and never came back. Do I go on a limb by declaring Oland second only to Shirley Temple as most valued Fox property? The Chan series always made profit, and he was principal reason for it, Oland loss like Will Rogers for leaving major hole in release schedules. Toler filled in, someone had to, but things would never be quite the same. Time answered the riddle of how long the series could last when Fox let it go in 1942, bargaining with Toler so he could carry Chan elsewhere.

Wish I had lived more in a roadshow age. Saw some on two-a-day terms, mostly of musical bent, but what a treat The Fall of the Roman Empire would have been, surely balm for ages mostly young, talk in plenty giving way to action resplendent on scale movies had not so far touched. Don’t know how Bronston slept for pressure of finance and keeping massive force organized toward finish of undertaking that was Rome. One of disc interviews was a Bronston son who went to medical school rather than follow elephantine Dad footsteps. Offspring and wife visited massive forum sets, decorated inside and out, stunned as any civilian confronted by such effort. Imagine life as spawn off Olympian that was S. Bronston. And yet even gods do tumble, for Bronston went begging to Paramount for completion cash, giving up much to see over-bloated Rome through. Critics and much of viewership called Fall too much a downer, but let’s be fair, it wasn’t called Rise of the Roman Empire, even if maybe that should have been the concept and title. Taking three hours for a civilization to collapse was less burden at least than three centuries the real Rome took to fold, but what matter come 1964 with Paramount’s ill investment facing tepid turnstiles? Frustration for us is the monolith withdrawn from modern inspection, as with others of Bronston lineage. Fans call regular for US Blu-Ray release of Rome, Cid, Circus World, the spectacle-lot, but so far nothing. Maybe it needs the Cinerama restoration crew to pull these mastodons back from oblivion.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Zucker brothers (AIRPLANE!, THE NAKED GUN, BRAIN DONORS, etc.) visited my college campus near the beginning of their career, and spoke at one of my classes. They told a story about everybody in the industry closing doors to them because they were just kids with no credits. So they decided to invent their own credentials. They had letters of introduction printed on stationery reading "Samuel Bronkowitz Productions." Suddenly executives were listening to them. One said, "Is he still making movies?" Of course mistaking the letter as coming from Samuel Bronston. That got them into Paramount, and on their way.

Don't dismiss the Monogram Chans. THE CHINESE CAT has a great cast of familiar faces and striking photography by Ira Morgan; and both THE SHANGHAI COBRA and DARK ALIBI are excellently staged by Phil Karlson, then Monogram's most promising director. He was their go-to guy for establishing a new series or jump-starting an existing one.

8:31 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Have all the available Chans, and have gone through all the Fox entries at least twice; likewise the Motos. I remember when the boxes were a very big deal in some circles; the only other Chans on disc were some bare bones Monograms, fancily packaged by MGM as "Chanthology", and the only Moto available was the PD "Mr. Moto's Last Warning". There's also a "Volume One" of Michael Shayne still in print, four features in a slim package with extras suggesting it was meant to complement the Chan and Moto boxes.

Fox took extras pretty seriously, in some cases redeeming weak attractions. The Fox Laurel and Hardy features are made interesting by commentaries and bonus features (including a fun documentary about the real Sons of the Desert); the very mixed bag "O. Henry's Full House" includes a bio of the O. Henry and some silent shorts nominally based on his stories; and a double feature of misfired Jeeves movies (one with no Bertie Wooster!) is salvaged by enthused scholars talking about P.G. Wodehouse.

The Chan extras are big on context, praising "City in Darkness" for sounding a warning about Germany before Hollywood was really on board. The movie gingerly avoids mentioning Germany or the Nazis, but a contemporary audience couldn't miss it. Another disc has a bio of the Hawaiian police detective who inspired Chan: a bigger-than-life lawman armed with a bullwhip (How have we never gotten THAT movie?).

Other favorite DVD extras: "Ben Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" each include the complete silent versions, looking good and fully scored. Some editions of "The Wizard of Oz" toss in the Larry Semon silent, a beautiful print of a career-ending failure. The two-disc edition of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" (the animated one, of course) features "One Hour in Wonderland", a 1950 Christmas day special, starring Uncle Walt himself. And back in the day there was Warner Night at the Movies, which would play shorts, trailer and cartoon before the feature in reasonable simulation of the old experience.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

While I'm a B-movie fan, the Monogram Chans have always been a slog for me. Only Mantan Moreland made me stay. Karloff's Mr. Wong pictures are tough, too. How can 65 minutes crawl by so slowly?

6:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Took a look at EL CID and FALL awhile back for the 2nd time (including the extras). Time well spent. I was under the impression FALL did well. It was CIRCUS WORLD that struck out. Those Chans are something else as was Warner Oland.

9:07 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

Have always been a fan of the Fox Chans. And those Fox box sets occupy a place of honor at my place. Most people seem to clearly rate Oland over Toler but I think they're both great. As a matter of fact, my favorite Chan picture is one of the Tolers, 1940's "Charlie Chan in Panama" - directed by Norman Foster, who also helmed my favorite Moto, "Thank You Mr. Moto"(1937).
Where Charlie Chan's eager beaver sons are concerned, I definitely prefer Victor Sen Yung over Keye Luke. Sen Yung's a tremendous asset in every Chan he and Toler are in. The guy's comic instincts were unfailing and the pair's screen chemistry was irresistible. Sen Yung was also extremely versatile. His work in William Wyler's "The Letter" that same year (playing James Stephenson's coolly strategizing junior law partner, always two steps ahead of the game) was the polar opposite of Jimmy Chan - and a performance of award worthy caliber.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

Remember when Bluray took a longer time to take off than DVD? I think it was because when you played a DVD on a Bluray player, the upscaling of the DVD made it comparable to Bluray. I will always prefer discs as viewing media as opposed to streaming sites. Once you buy a disc, you can put it on your shelf and view it when you wish. Titles on streaming services are not there forever and chosen by others for public viewership.
When I was a kid I watched the Toler Chans and I did not like Toler. He is not a good actor. However Mantan Moreland and Keye Luke always had me coming back. When I was later exposed to the Oland Chans, I truly enjoyed those.

9:41 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

While I really like the 20th Century Fox Chans with Sidney Toler, the real problem with him can be summed up in his first Chan movie, Charlie Chan in Honolulu - - There he is sitting with all of his "family" at the dinner table. All you can think is "Wonder who the real father is?" as Toler does not look like he belongs anywhere at that very large family table. Unlike Warner Oland, who looked the part (despite his nationality), Toler never looked close to Chinese. Never Ever.

10:45 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

I remember when the Fox Chans boxsets first came out, AMC hosted a panel discussion with some young, self-important Chinese nitwits who spent the whole time whining about stereotypes and the fact Charlie Chan was not played by a Chinese guy (like this never happened to any other ethnicity). Never once did anyone point out that the character of Charlie Chan was smarter than anyone else in the movie and the leading character. I suspect they never actually watched the movies.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Am I the only one who thinks Sidney Toler sounds like Charlie Chan in all his previous movies?

9:44 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Dipping into "Charlie Chan" by Yunte Huang. Fascinating and often entertaining, focusing mainly on whip-wielding cop Chang Apana (the model for Chan), novelist Earl Derr Biggers (creator of Chan), and portrayers of Chan; branching into history, sociology, true crime, and occasional memoir. The China-born author discovered the Chan novels as a struggling grad student in Buffalo, becoming a lifelong fan and tireless researcher.

This book is also a discussion of racial issues during the years of Chan's popularity. The author is neither a knee-jerk critic nor blind apologist, although viewing "Charlie Chan in Egypt" as subversively anti-imperialist seems a bit much.

Among other things, he describes how Charlie Chan movies were hugely successful in China, where viewers (and the government) were very sensitive about how Asians were portrayed in imported movies. While Warner Oland enjoyed a hero's welcome on a visit, friend and sometime costar Anna May Wong received a more mixed reception for playing "disgraceful" characters (to be fair, the only parts Hollywood offered).

3:43 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've always found it odd that Hollywood studios would stop producing anything - anything at all - while it was yet turning a profit (any profit ) - at the box office; Toler, who was very active in producing and managing theater and stage work when not acting before the cameras, saw how popular Chan still remained with the movie-going public and so worked to have the series continued by personally getting involved in buying the rights after Fox had decided to stop making Chan films...but again I ask - why did Fox stop doing something that was profitable?
Did Hollywood studios make a habit out of doing so? If they did, then it's no wonder at all that they all eventually went broke!

12:09 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Fox had been gradually discontinuing its "B" character and personality series: the Ritz Brothers in 1939, the Jones Family in 1940, the Cisco Kid in 1941, and finally Charlie Chan, Michael Shayne, and Jane Withers in 1942. Only Laurel & Hardy survived the purge: their films were immensely popular and too profitable to cancel.

2:16 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

After a few years Cisco Kid joined Charlie Chan at Monogram, played by Duncan Renaldo, Gilbert Roland, and then Renaldo again. Don't know if either actor followed Toler's lead in acquiring rights, but in an interview included on a DVD Renaldo claimed he prevented the Cisco Kid name being licensed for toy guns. Later, Michael Shayne had a brief run at PRC.

Mister Moto's exit was hurried along by two other factors: Peter Lorre's departure from Fox and WWII (while the movie Moto was variously an amateur, secret agent, criminologist, and member of the International Police, the literary Moto was always an agent of the Japanese government). In the 60s Fox released a low-rent Bond knockoff, "The Return of Mister Moto", starring a not-very-Asian Henry Silva.

I think the deal at Fox and elsewhere was that Bs needed to be VERY profitable -- and perhaps just as important, VERY predictable. They provided reliable revenue streams when almost everything else was a gamble; then came a point when they didn't -- at least, not enough for Fox. Chan, Cisco, and the Bowery Boys were decidedly cheaper and shakier in their Monogram years, but the lower budgets and residual name value made them profitable enough for a few years more.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Whatever their reason for dropping the series may have been, I'm happy Toler decided to pick up the ball and run with it as far as he did - and that he did so is proof that whatever Toler's portrayal of Chan may have lacked, the man himself nevertheless had good theatrical instincts.

3:19 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Yes, Duncan Renaldo bought the film rights to the Cisco Kid from Doubleday, O. Henry's publisher, in 1943.

One thing about Fox canceling the "B" pictures -- the studio might have continued making them if Darryl Zanuck hadn't been intent on making every Fox picture important. In 1943 Fox announced that it had a new "all A" policy -- no more "B" pictures. This backfired, and additional budget features were made (Laurel & Hardy and assorted one-shots, no series films) until the entire unit shut down in December 1944.

Likewise, the PRC Michael Shayne series might have continued, but the entire studio shut down in August 1947. It was absorbed by Eagle-Lion, although the westerns continued to be released under the PRC name.

4:12 PM  
Blogger PalaceTheatre said...


DON'T pitch a DVD that freezes up. Often the data can be retrieved and re-burned on
a blank disc. Basic freeware such as DVD Shrink can retrieve and DVD Decrypter can burn.
I've had to do this with DVDs from the library that were virtually unplayable due to
scratches. Another helpful hint is put a drop of olive or vegetable oil on the disc and polish it until shiny and clean.

6:38 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

Bonus features--sometimes quite extensive--and box sets were, at one time, one of the selling points of DVDs. Now, though, most people seem content to stream their movies, where they're lucky to get even a trailer. Same with CDs. At one time, elaborate packages, discographical data, and liner notes were the order of the day. These days, people download their music, and about the only bonus feature you get is a postage stamp-sized reproduction of the album's cover art.

One of our local stations had a late afternoon movie for years, and the Fox Chans were long-time staples there, so I grew up with them. They seem to have largely vanished, though. Glad I bought them when I could.

4:11 PM  

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