Restoring highlights of bygone eras

Times Staff Writer

The comedy shorts "The Cook" and "A Reckless Romeo" have been the Holy Grail to movie buffs, especially fans of silent film comedians Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and Buster Keaton.

They top a list of older titles that have been released on DVD -- and, in some cases, on VHS as well -- in recent weeks.

Neither "The Cook" nor "A Reckless Romeo" (which was also known by the title "A Creampuff Romance") has been seen in this country for almost eight decades, and both had long been considered lost.

That is until 1998, when the 1918 Arbuckle-Keaton comedy "The Cook" was discovered in the Norsk Filminstitutt in Norway among a bevy of unidentified nitrate prints. The print of "The Cook" was incomplete. So was another one discovered last year by film archivist Jon Gartenberg at the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. The Dutch print contained 600 more feet of different material -- about eight extra minutes -- than the Norwegian version. (Also found in the Norsk Filminstitutt treasure trove was the 1917 Arbuckle comedy "A Reckless Romeo.")

Milestone Film & Video combined both versions of "The Cook" and released the comedy on DVD and VHS ($25 for both formats) last week. Also featured on "The Cook and Other Treasures" are "A Reckless Romeo" and a 1920 Harold Lloyd short, "Number, Please?"

Neither "The Cook" nor "Reckless Romeo" will disappoint fans who have waited anxiously to see them, especially the slapstick delight "The Cook." Arbuckle and Keaton display the crack comedy timing of Laurel and Hardy with an ease and grace during their slapstick sequences that has never been equaled.

Arbuckle plays the head chef at a cafe and Keaton is his athletic, dexterous waiter. Mayhem breaks out when Keaton tries to stop a drunken customer from annoying the cafe's pretty cashier. The film also stars several members of the Arbuckle repertoire of actors including lanky Al St. John. Almost stealing the movie with his terrific comedic acting chops is Luke the dog, Arbuckle's own pet pooch, who also comes to the aid of the cashier.

In "A Reckless Romeo," Arbuckle plays a married man whose wandering eye gets him into trouble with his wife and mother-in-law.

Combining both the Norsk and the Filmmuseum copy of "The Cook" into one seamless movie took several months, says Milestone President Dennis Doros. Adding to the confusion was that there is still footage missing from the original and the footage they did have was out of sequence.

"Something had to give us guidance," says Doros. "A friend of ours found the original press kit at the Library of Congress and in it was the original synopsis. Then when we got into the editing suite, things fell exactly into place."

Almost complete

Though Fritz Lang's extraordinary 1927 German classic, "Metropolis," hasn't been missing, existing prints of the influential fantasy thriller have been truncated and in generally poor shape. In fact, the film was cut by a quarter after its initial release in Germany. And though no one has yet found the excised footage, Kino's DVD ($30) and VHS ($25) release of "Metropolis" is considered the definitive restoration. Archivists spent three years restoring the film using prints, duplicate negatives and camera originals assembled from around the world. And by using digital technology, the 1,257 scenes were cleaned of scratches, tears and contrast problems. Written summaries of scenes still missing are interspersed into the film so one can get the flavor of Lang's original concept.

Criterion's lovely digital edition of "Beauty and the Beast" ($40) features a new high-definition transfer from the original restored French negative of Jean Cocteau's magical 1946 version of the LePrince de Beaumont fairy tale. The original soundtrack was also restored using digital and audio tools.

This version also features the original title sequence, which shows director Cocteau and star Jean Marais and the actor's dog in a classroom and writing out the titles on a blackboard. The DVD also features an interview with the great cinematographer Henri Alekan and a nostalgic documentary produced in the mid-'90s that visits the virtually unchanged locations from the movie, a reprint of the fairy tale, behind-the-scenes stills, the original trailer, a look at the film's restoration, and two rather dry but informative commentary tracks -- one featuring the late film historian Arthur Knight and the second with writer-cultural historian Sir Christopher Frayling.

Criterion has also just released on DVD ($40) another great film from 1946, Robert Siodmak's riveting film noir "The Killers" based on the short story by Ernest Hemingway. Nominated for numerous Academy Awards, the atmospheric downbeat drama features Burt Lancaster in his film debut, as well as Edmond O'Brien and Ava Gardner.

The two-disc DVD set includes a lovely new digital transfer, the 1949 "Screen Directors Playhouse" radio adaptation with Lancaster and Shelley Winters, Stacy Keach reading the original Hemingway story, production and publicity stills, and Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky's 1956 student film version.

The set also features the gritty 1964 version of "The Killers," directed by Don Siegel, who coincidentally had been hired to direct the 1946 version. Siegel ended up not doing the Lancaster version because of contract problems.

His adaptation was produced as the very first movie made for TV but was considered too violent for the little screen. Stars Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, John Cassavetes, Clu Gulager and Ronald Reagan -- as a bad guy -- are at the top of their game in Siegel's sadistic but juicy version. Besides a new digital transfer, the DVD features an interview with Gulager, production and publicity stills, cast and crew bios and an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien.

Though Columbia TriStar states that its digital edition of the 1938 best picture winner, "You Can't Take It With You"($30) features digitally mastered audio and video, the print used for the transfer is in dire need of restoration. So it's a very uneven viewing experience. Some scenes look OK; others show the wear and tear of the ages. The transfer is certainly not up to the quality of the other Columbia DVD releases of director Frank Capra's films, such as "It Happened One Night" and "Lost Horizon." It's probably best just to rent this and wait to see if a better version is released at a later date.

Ditto the entertaining little 1937 Hollywood comedy "Stand-In" (Image, $30). This farce starring Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Joan Blondell is a lot of fun, but the transfer leaves a lot to be desired. Buyer beware as far as purchasing this one.

Warners, though, has beautifully restored three classics ($20 each) for their DVD releases: "Mildred Pierce" (1945), "A Patch of Blue" (1965) and "The Red Badge of Courage" (1951).

Joan Crawford received her only best actress Oscar for "Mildred Pierce," a pulp-fiction wallow based on the novel by James M. Cain. Crawford is perfectly cast as a single mother working as a waitress who, through steely determination, opens a series of successful eateries. But wealth doesn't bring her happiness because her teenage daughter (a wonderful Ann Blyth) is a terror and her new husband (Zachary Scott) is a sleazy weasel.

Michael Curtiz directed this film noir with great style and panache. The DVD also features a nifty documentary on Crawford that originally aired on Turner Classic Movies.

Veteran British director Guy Green serves up lovely, civilized commentary on disc of his exquisite "A Patch of Blue," one of the first studio movies exploring interracial friendship between a man and a woman. Sidney Poitier plays a compassionate young African American who befriends a white blind girl (Oscar-nominated Elizabeth Hartman) he finds stringing beads in the park. Shelley Winters, in her Oscar-winning role, is harrowing as the girl's abusive mother.

World War II hero Audie Murphy and renowned war cartoonist Bill Mauldin, who died last month, are perfectly cast in John Huston's lyrical 1951 version of Stephen Crane's antiwar story "The Red Badge of Courage." Murphy plays a young soldier fighting for the North during the Civil War who must confront his fears of battle and death.

The New Jersey-based Ergo Media has released four well-known titles ($40 each) of pre-World War II Yiddish cinema: "Yidl Mitn Fidel," "Mamele," "A Brivele Der Mamen" and "Der Purimshpiler." They were all filmed on location in Poland between 1936 and 1938 and directed by Joseph Green ("The Jazz Singer").

The best known of the quartet of releases are "Yidl Mitn Fidel" and "Mamele," which both star the petite dynamo Molly Picon. Though the production values of these films aren't great, the films ooze charm and Picon (who may be best known to American audiences as Yente the matchmaker in the 1971 film version of "Fiddler on the Roof") is a delight.

The prints used for the DVD transfers, though, are a mixed bag in quality and oftentimes the subtitles are hard to read. These collectors' editions all include introductions by Jewish film historian Eric Goldman, a photo gallery and vintage audio interviews with Green and Picon. To order these films call (800) 695-3746 or go to www.jewishvideo.com.

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