Even at 100, Cary has never looked better

Times Staff Writer

This year marks the 100th birthday of one of Hollywood's most enduring superstars -- Cary Grant. And Fox Video is celebrating the former Archibald Leach's centenary with the DVD release of four films he made for the studio.

They are among a torrent of vintage flicks released recently on DVD -- some good, some great and one that ranks as a masterpiece of the 20th century.

Grant really hadn't developed his suave, sophisticated and sexy persona when he made 1934's "Born to Be Bad" ($15, as are all four films). In fact, he played the male ingenue supporting one of the best-known actresses of the day, Loretta Young. In this potboiler, she's an unwed mother working as a paid escort. Grant is the wealthy owner of a dairy who, through a series of circumstances, wants to adopt Young's child because his wife can't have children. Grant tries his best, but he's hogtied by the silly role.

By the time he made "I Was a Male War Bride" in 1949, Grant had been a major Hollywood player for more than a decade -- an actor who was debonair but willing to make a fool of himself for a laugh. "Male War Bride" teams Grant with Howard Hawks, who had directed him in three classics: 1938's "Bringing Up Baby," 1939's "Only Angels Have Wings" and 1940's "His Girl Friday." Grant and costar Ann Sheridan have a nice rapport and Hawks cooks up plenty of gags for his two stars, but the film drags in the middle. Though this is the movie in which Grant appears in drag, it isn't until the last half-hour that he dons a skirt, hose, heels and a wig made from a horse's tail.

Probably only hard-core Grant fans have heard of 1951's "People Will Talk," which bombed when it was released. And that's a shame. It's not a perfect film but definitely one worth watching. Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz of "All About Eve" fame, the comedy-drama casts Grant as an idealistic and mysterious gynecologist who teaches at a university and runs a clinic. Jeanne Crain plays a pregnant patient whom he marries and Finlay Currie is the curious, childlike man who works as Grant's servant.

Grant made two of his best films from the latter part of his career with director Stanley Donen: 1958's "Indiscreet" and 1963's "Charade." The two collaborated for the first time with 1957's romantic comedy "Kiss Them for Me," which is nowhere near the quality of their subsequent projects. Grant, Larry Blyden and Ray Walston play World War II Navy heroes on a four-day leave in San Francisco. Jayne Mansfield, who shares billing with Grant, seems to be in the film just for marquee value, and the era's top supermodel, Suzy Parker, makes her film debut as the woman Grant falls in love with. Parker, though beautiful, was no actress. The comedy isn't very funny, but Grant manages to give a deft portrayal of a man who covers his anger and sadness about the war through a devil-may-care attitude.

Choice material

Last year, Warner Home Video gave film buffs the chance to vote on the Internet for which films they wanted to see released on DVD. And recently, Warner brought out six viewers' choice titles ($20 apiece).

Among the highlights is a double feature of two adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic book of the battle between good and evil, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Fredric March received his first best actor Oscar for his daring performance in the 1931 version directed with visual flair and panache by Rouben Mamoulian. Ten years later, the always-watchable Spencer Tracy played the good doctor in a classy but rather staid take on the Stevenson story directed by Victor Fleming. This version also stars Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman.

The disc includes acerbic commentary on the 1931 version by historian Greg Mank. And though the disc reinstates several scenes that had been excised when the '31 adaptation was re-released, the film material from which the DVD transfer was made is deeply flawed.

Film noir fans are in for a treat with 1946's "The Postman Always Rings Twice," adapted from the bestseller by James M. Cain. A delicious melodrama of lust, murder and revenge, "Postman" stars two of the sexiest stars of Hollywood's golden era, John Garfield and Lana Turner, as the illicit, murderous lovers. The disc includes an introduction to the film by USC professor Rick Jewell and the Turner Classic Movie documentary "The John Garfield Story."

Rounding out the Warner titles are 1960's "Where the Boys Are," 1962's "The Days of Wine and Roses" and 1975's "The Wind and the Lion."

Hail Columbia

Like Warner Bros., Columbia TriStar has also been diligent in releasing vintage films from the studio vault. Because Columbia is restoring all its films, more often than not the movies look great on DVD. And the 1954 black-and-white comedy "It Should Happen to You" ($25) is no exception. This sweet little comedy reunited actress Judy Holliday, director George Cukor and writer Garson Kanin. The trio had scored a major success in 1950 with "Born Yesterday," for which Holliday won an Oscar as a not-so-dumb blond. In this comedy, Holliday plays a young woman in New York who makes a name for herself when she rents a huge billboard and plasters her name on it. Though she becomes an instant celebrity, she realizes fame isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

The film is also known for Jack Lemmon's delightful screen debut as a caring young documentary filmmaker who falls for Holliday.

Jean Renoir said that he wanted to make a pleasant comedy when he wrote and directed the 1939 film "Rules of the Game" (Criterion, $40), the last project he undertook in his native France before he came to Hollywood when war broke out in Europe. But critics and audiences hated the film when it premiered in Paris. In an interview that appears in the compelling two-disc DVD set, Renoir said he believed, and still believed decades later, that society was rotten to the core and that audiences and critics didn't want to know that back in 1939.

"Rules of the Game" is now considered one of the greatest films of the 20th century -- an exhilarating and demanding viewing experience that revolves around a gathering of the rich and famous at a country estate of a shallow marquis (Dalio).

The digital edition features a new transfer with restored image and sound -- the original negative was destroyed in a bombing raid during the war -- a 1950s introduction by Renoir, a comparison of the 81-minute version of the film and the 106-minute reconstructed version from 1959, commentary by scholar Alexander Sesonske read by Peter Bogdanovich and select commentary by Renoir historian Christopher Faulkner. The second disc includes two documentaries on Renoir, a look at the reconstruction of the film and a new interview with Renoir's son, Alain, as well as a 2003 interview with the set designer, Max Douy.

Short of wonderful

And finally, Disney is offering a two-disc set of "Alice in Wonderland" ($30), the studio's ambitious 1951 animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll's beloved story. Though the family film contains many beautifully animated and inventive sequences, it lacks the humanity and warmth that are hallmarks of such Disney classics as "Snow White" and "Bambi."

The two-disc digital edition, which features an all-new transfer of the remastered, restored film, is filled with enough extras for children and their parents. The first disc is mostly for the kiddies with a virtual Wonderland Party, an animated Mickey Mouse short, a game, two singalongs and "I'm Odd," an unused song from the film.

The second disc is for the child at heart. It features Disney's first TV show, telecast on Christmas Day in 1950, promoting "Alice in Wonderland"; an excerpt from the 1951 "The Fred Waring Show" featuring characters and songs from the film; Walt Disney's original introductions to the film when it aired on TV in the mid-'50s and the 1960s; three featurettes examining deleted material; and art galleries.

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