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Centennial Summer

by Shawn Stone on May 30, 2012

Universal 100th Anniversary Collectors Series, Paramount 100th Anniversary


Hollywood is old. Two of the earliest surviving studios, Paramount and Universal, turn 100 this year.

Universal Home Video is promoting its parent’s centennial with film restorations and ballyhoo. The ballyhoo takes the form of wrapping previous releases (Inglourious Basterds, The Breakfast Club and Animal House, among others) in special packaging. But they’ve also undertaken a series of impressive Blu-ray upgrades for select catalog titles and presenting them in fancy hardbound “digipaks” that will line up handsomely on your entertainment room shelf. (If you still have any such thing, that is.)

I looked at three of these collector’s editions: Lewis Milestone’s World War I epic All Quiet on the Western Front, Abbott and Costello’s eve-of-World War II military comedy Buck Privates, and the Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex comedy Pillow Talk. The restorations are gorgeous.

All Quiet has suffered quite a bit through the years—mostly at the hands of its owner, having been repeatedly cut for various rereleases—but the Herculean effort expended to restore the image quality to approximately what audiences saw in 1930 atones for many old sins. (There’s a handy featurette included showing how this was done.) The film is a powerful evocation of war with many arresting visual qualities; if you find, say, the occasionally ripe emoting of the young cast distracting, you don’t have the volume turned up to 11. Seriously: Like Black Sabbath or Wagner, you can’t experience All Quiet’s impact without the bombs being appropriately loud.

Buck Privates is nobody’s idea of a masterpiece, but it has some great vaudeville routines performed by a pair of old pros who mastered comic timing, and musical numbers that make the Andrews Sisters almost lovable. Using the peacetime draft law as the hook (yes, Virginia, everyone knew America would enter the war), Buck Privates offers a feeling of a specific time and place that’s striking.

Pillow Talk has aged pretty well. It’s almost as sex-obsessed as the typical contemporary sitcom, though like in most pre-1967 movies, the actors actually seem like adults. This candy-colored bauble about a handsome jerk (Hudson), an independent minded “good girl” (Day), a whiny, rich nerd (scene-stealer Tony Randall), and a wiseass, alcoholic maid (bigger scene-stealer Thelma Ritter) is completely ridiculous and great fun. And it looks a hell of a lot better than the previous DVD versions.

The three films have one thing in common: Each was an enormous moneymaker for Universal. Box-office gold seems a sensible criteria for celebrating one’s corporate success, and perfectly in tune with today’s obsession with box-office reports. (This Blu-ray series will continue through the year with restorations of Jaws, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Sting and The Birds.)

Universal may be a subdivision of a division of Comcast, but it has a founding figure who is still revered: Carl Laemmle. “Uncle Carl” is the subject of an admiring featurette about his enduring legacies: He established Universal City, the sprawling complex the studio still calls home; he authorized (albeit reluctantly) the lucrative cycle of horror films that gave the studio an identity and four enduring film franchises; and, in his private life, he was responsible for bringing hundreds of Jews out of Germany in the 1930s. The Laemmle featurette is included, oddly enough, not with All Quiet, which he presented, but rather the Pillow Talk and Buck Privates discs, two films made long after Laemmle lost the company.

The other studio celebrating a centennial this year, Viacom subsidiary Paramount, traces its corporate origins to the 1912 founding of Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players company. You won’t find a homey paean to “Creeping Jesus” Zukor on the discs embossed with Paramount’s 100th Anniversary logo, as there was nothing sentimental about the wily survivor who outlasted his rivals and lived to be 103.

Paramount doesn’t own a big chunk of its own library anymore (in one of those only-in-Hollywood ironies, Universal does), so its main centennial-celebration project is the restoration of William Wellman’s World War I epic Wings. The result is spectacular. The film is worthwhile, too, especially in its aerial battle scenes. As written, the human drama is a bit rote, but it’s effectively—and often movingly—realized by director Wellman.

Also lovely is Paramount’s centennial Blu-ray upgrade of Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. This is the movie with Grace Kelly and all that French Riviera scenery photographed in Technicolor and VistaVision (wonderfully rendered here in HD). As a drama, it’s fascinating how Hitchcock works against Cary Grant’s cooler-than-thou persona. Grant is a “retired” jewel thief accused of returning to his larcenous trade; as almost all of the other characters believe him guilty (and openly hate him), the opportunities to use his trademark charm are limited. And when he does turn it on, it has an edge that’s striking.

Anniversary or no, Paramount has few older titles coming to Blu-ray. There’s a restoration of Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire) on the way, however, that I hope will be worth the wait.