Thursday, April 03, 2008

dvd review: warner brothers gangsters collection vol.3

Hey, you mugs! You lookin' to blow your wig? You wanta place your peepers on a flick with some sweet tomatoes with long stems and a couple of torpedoes thrown in just ta make the joint swing? Hold da Amache- but the kibosh on the cabbage for now. Let me fill ya in first. I'm no chiseler, I've got da low down on what yer itchin' for. I've got the straight up and whether the pack is aces or not. So bend an ear brother, I'll tell ya if ya should make with the suds.

Ahem... excuse me. In all my excitement, I forgot myself. Perhaps I should just provide a translation. Let's see now...
Hello there! Would you like some fine entertainment? How about some exciting films with attractive long-legged ladies and some tough gentlemen who will provide exciting derring-do? Well, hold the phone and put away your money until you read my review. I will give you proper information about this DVD set, so that you can make an informed choice. I will let you know whether or not this new DVD set from Warner Brothers, The Warner Brothers Gangster Collection, Vol. 3, is worth adding to your home entertainment library. So check out my review and find out. I'll be straight with ya- natch! Aww, nuts.

The Hard Facts
Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Vol. 3
6 Discs in keepcases
Studio: Warner Brothers
Black and White
Full Screen
Original Studio: Warner Brothers
Release Date: 3/25/2008
Rated: NR
Stars: James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart
Directors: Various

This is the third installment in WB's Warner Brother's Gangster Collection series (you probably figured that when you noticed the phrase: "Vol. 3"). "But wait," you say, "I don't remember a Volume 2. How can that be." Well far be it from me to comment on your poor memory, or any other type of impairment that might have hindered you faculties, but it's no wonder you don't remember. It's because The Warner Brother's Tough Guys Collection from last year has been reissued and redubbed WB Gangster Collection, Vol. 2. Still with me? Good. Anyway, this installment of Gangster flicks include more raucous fun and humor- with the same "dese" and dose" attitude you've come to know and love.
In the 1930s, Warner Brothers was known for it's gritty dramas and gangster flicks that pushed the envelope. And audiences couldn't get enough of them. At the top of the batting order for Warners was Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney. Both had their breakout roles in recent years with 1931's Public Enemy (Cagney) and 1930's Little Caesar (Robinson). And while it was easy to come up with a plot for a regular gangster movie, Cagney's and Robinson's talents rose above the average picture. Audiences wanted to see these stars, and so they did all sorts of pictures at Warner's, but mostly with some facet of the “transgressive-type” personality that audiences had come to love. Even the gangster pictures had some sub-genres- comedies, etc. where even though the main character is a rogue, he's a lovable rogue. These characters didn't always rise to the level of anti-hero from film noir a decade or so later, but usually if our anti-hero was on the bad side, there was always someone who was really bad that our sorta bad rogue could take down.
Those types of gangster comedies take center stage in Volume 3, and we get a good look at some of Warner's other pre-code pictures, where things weren't always so nice and tidy, the vernacular was slightly shady, some of the girls weren't so nice, and not everybody got what was coming to them. To an audience living during the Great Depression, it must have been somewhat refreshing to not only see the little guy get even sometime, but also to not have to always stomach fairy tale endings. They knew all too well that although the movies were black and white, real life tended to be in shades of gray.

The Films:
Volume 3 includes six films, mostly from the early 1930s: Lady Killer, Picture Snatcher, The Mayor of Hell, Smart Money, Black Legion and Brother Orchid. Bonus Features will be listed after each film.

Lady Killer:
This 1933 film reteams James Cagney and Mae Clark, only two years after the blockbuster Public Enemy. Cagney is not a psychopathic killer here, but he retains the wiseguy attitude and endless energy. Cagney plays Dan Quigley, who gets fired from his job as a movie usher and soon falls in with a gang of small time crooks in New York. Quigley’s resourcefulness however turns the penny ante group into a gambling operation complete with a nightclub/hidden casino. Eventually the gang moves on to burglary, but one of them becomes more and more violent, eventually turning to murder. The gang splits up, and Quigley and gang girl Myra (Clarke) head to California where Dan is soon picked up and wrongly arrested for the murder back in New York. Instead of bailing him our, Myra skips with the money and the former leader of the gang, Duke. Dan eventually gets released and through a Hollywood-fable style discovery, gets a job in the movies. Dan becomes more and more popular in the films, becoming a major star. And now that Dan has turned his life around – the old gang comes back to “share” in his good fortune.

Lady Killer is a great flick, and is quite funny when it needs to be, and action packed when it needs to be. Cagney builds on his Public Enemy performance and adds more charm and verve to his role. His humor, his attitude, his constant energy makes the film so much more than the sum of it’s script and plot. Mae Clark is also great, and being an unabashed Mae Clark fan, I really wish she was in the film more. This one contains the second famous Cagney-Clark scene (after the grapefruit scene) in which Cagney grabs her by the hair and forcibly removes her from his apartment. Clark is no withering lily either. Her Maya is at times charmed by Dan, but she is also tough and subversive too. Buy Maya is nobody’s fool, she doesn’t really love Dan, but she can’t quite completely betray him either. The rest of the cast is good, especially Warners stalwart Leslie Fenton who turned a great performance as Duke. Great stuff- a great Warner’s gangster flick with lots of humor and action which goes at such a fast clip that there isn’t a single lull in the picture.
Bonus Features include: a great commentary track by Dr. Drew Casper, and Warner Night At the Movies 1933: Movie retrospective short: The Camera Speaks; Vintage newsreel; Musical short: Kissing Time; Classic cartoon: The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives; Trailers of Lady Killer and 1933's Footlight Parade.

Picture Snatcher
Cagney returns in another 1933 film as gang boss Danny Kean who decides to give it all up when he gets out of jail. A newspaper editor once offered him job once he got out, so Danny is set on being a newspaper reporter. But once he goes to get the job, the city editor (Ralph Bellamy in a good role) who is drunk and dispirited tells him the paper is nothing more than a tabloid looking for the next scandalous picture. When Danny overhears that the publisher is looking for a picture no one else can get, he goes out – gets the picture and then gets the job as a photographer. Danny improves in his job, weathers the amorous advances of the boss’s girl, and falls in love with the daughter of the cop who initially arrested him. One of the central events of the film is the execution of a notorious female prisoner. The paper wants a picture of the execution, but the police won’t allow a representative from their paper to witness the execution because of their reputation. Danny manipulates an invite into the execution and sneaks a picture of the gruesome event.

This part of the film is actually based on a real event. A New York Daily News journalist, Tom Howard snuck in a camera into the execution of Ruth Snyder, who had murdered her husband with the help of her lover. The paper printed the picture across the front page the next day. Ruth’s story not only partly inspired this film, but also the novel and film, Double Indemnity and partly inspired the films The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat. Picture Snatcher was a snappy film; fast paced and filled with action, gumption and humor.
Bonus Features include: Commentary by film historians Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta; and Warner Night at the Movies 1933: Vintage newsreel; Musical short: Plane Crazy; Classic cartoon: Wake up the Gypsy in Me; Trailers of Picture Snatcher and 1933's I Loved a Woman; and another trailer for Escape From Crime.

The Mayor of Hell
The third film starring Cagney makes him out to be a reformed gangster version of Father Flannigan. Several boys (similar to the Dead End Kids) get in trouble once to often and find themselves sent to a reform school run by a very sadistic and opportunistic warden. The boys discover the place is more like a prison than any kind of reform school. When a new deputy Commissioner Patsy Gargan (Cagney) arrives for an annual inspection, the warden correctly suspects that he someone who was appointed as a political favor, he isn’t too afraid of Gargan. But Gargan is no typical appointee, he is a reformed gangster who used to be like the very boys he sees incarcerated. When one of the boy is hurt attempting to escape, Gargan decides to do more than just inspect. The school nurse, who worries and cares for the boys, tells Gargan how the school should be run, giving him inspiration to run the school himself. Gargan sends the warden on an extended vacation and implements the reforms, which become successful. When the warden discovers the changes upon his return, he is determine to regain control and get rid of Gargan.
This film is sort of like a cross between Angels with Dirty Faces and Boys Town. It’s a bit much to swallow sometimes, but it is still very entertaining. The leader of the boys also bears an uncanny resemblance to Cagney, perhaps due to casting more than coincidence.
Bonus Features include: Commentary by film historian Greg Mank and Warner Night at the Movies 1933: Vintage newsreel; Musical short: The Audition; Classic cartoon: The Organ Grinder; Trailers of The Mayor of Hell and 1933's The Kennel Murder Case. Also included are bonus trailers of Crime School and Hell's Kitchen.

Smart Money
This time Edward G. Robinson is the lead in this 1931 gangster flick with flair; Cagney also appears in a supporting role as Robinson’s friend and right hand man. Robinson is Nick, a small town Greek barber, who has a special flair for picking horses, numbers and cards. He is always talking about getting into the big action in the big city, so his buddies stake him to 10,000 bucks and Nick heads for the big time. When he finds himself the victim of a scam, Nick exacts his revenge and eventually becomes one of the biggest racketeers on the East coast. The District Attorney soon sets his sights on Nick, but Nick seems too smart. It isn’t long before the DA thinks he has discovered Nick’s weakness and attempts to turn the screws.
Smart Money is a very entertaining film, but it seems to develop too long in the beginning and rushes toward the end. The Cagney character is toned down from his usual energetic self, and Robinson, as always commands the screen. Other character are underdeveloped, but it doesn’t take away too much from the film.
Bonus Features include: Commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini and Warner Night at the Movies 1931: Vintage newsreel; Musical short George Jessel and His Russian Art Choir and The Smart Set-Up; Classic cartoon Big Man From the North. Also includes a trailer of 1931's Other Men's Women.

Brother Orchid
Edward G. Robinson also stars in this 1940 film, leading an all-star cast that includes the lovely and very likable Ann Southern, Humphrey Bogart, Ralph Bellamy and Donald Crisp. Robinson plays gang boss Little John Sarto who desires to achieve “real class”. He leaves his gang and appoints his second as boss and then embarks on a long European vacation, sans his long-suffering girlfriend played by Southern. Thinking he can buy class, all Sarto ends up doing is loosing all of his money and coming home 5 years later, broke. When Sarto gets back, he expects to be greeted by his old gang with open arms, but his old second in command, Jack Buck (Bogart), has a firm grip on things and tosses him out on his ear. Seeking out his revenge, Sarto begins a rival gang and reacquiring his former territory. This doesn’t sit well with Buck, who then engineers a hit on Sarto. Although Sarto manages to survive, everyone believes he is dead. In reality, he was found by members of a monastery and nursed back to health. Sarto assumes the name of Brother Orchid and hides out among the monks and works with them growing their flowers for sale in the city.

Brother Orchid is very entertaining, and different for a gangster film. It’s really more of a comedy than anything else, with some real sentiment. Robinson’s Sarto character doesn’t really have an overnight conversion to the order, as someone might suspect. That’s something that cheesier, later Hollywood flicks would do. Sarto is more true to his character, but he still grows to respect the monks and their way of life. His eventual self-examination and realization that something needs to change comes gradually and is more believable. The cast is great as well, although Bogart’s second banana bad guy stuff is soon coming to an end by this time- and it’s beginning to wear thin. Thank goodness the studios came around during this time and realized he was destined for better things.
Bonus Features include: Commentary by Robinson Biographer Alan L. Gansberg and Bogart Biographer Eric Lax and, of course, Warner Night At the Movies 1940: Vintage newsreel; Musical short: Henry Busse and His Orchestra; Classic cartoons: Busy Bakers and Slap Happy Pappy; and Trailers of Brother Orchid and 1940's It All Came True.

Black Legion
Humphrey Bogart stars in this dark look at nativism during the 30s. Warner’s made this socially conscious drama in 1937 and based it on a real offshoot of the KKK: The Black Legion and a murder that brought the Legion to trial. Bogart is Frank Taylor, a family man and factory worker, who is passed over for promotion for a job he believes was rightfully his. The Frank Taylor we are introduced to is happy, hard working and easy going, but not getting the job sours his outlook on life. Things start to twist is views when a co-worker claims that the guy who got the promotion was only promoted because he is a “foreigner”. He introduces Frank to a secret society known as The Black Legion, who dress up in robes and hoods with skull symbols. The Legion uses terror tactics to drive off anyone who has foreign names, backgrounds or accents. Intially Frank is pleased when the Legion helps him drive his new supervisor out of town and he gets the promotion. But eventually Frank becomes more and more entangled with the Legion. His wife and neighbors notices changes in his demeanor and attitude, and when Frank loses his job, his life spirals out of control.

This seemed like an odd choice to include in this set, and I put off watching it until the last. However, I was taken by the grittiness and earthiness of the film and the message it gave. Warners specialized in these “urban social” pictures in the 1930s, and perhaps audiences saw more real life reflected in them than in other films. The film also takes an interesting approach and shows a scene where the real leaders of the Black Legion are wealthy racketeer-types who are making most of their money off of membership dues and uniform and pistol purchases. To them it’s all about the money. Perhaps that is the connection to the “gangsters” theme for inclusion in the box set.
Bonus Features include: a very good commentary by film historians Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide and Warner Night at the Movies 1937: Vintage newsreel; Musical short Hi De Ho with Cab Calloway; Technicolor historical short Under Southern Stars; Classic cartoon Porky and Gabby; and Trailers of Black Legion and 1937's The Perfect Specimen.

Bonus Features:
See individual films above for a listing of the bonus features. Just a small note: I really enjoy the Warner Night at the Movies and am encouraged to see them continue to bring interesting and great bonus shorts to include with the films. It really gives you a taste of the movie going experience and a snapshot of popular culture of that time. The only quibble I might have, albeit a small one, is that some of the newsreels are incomplete or lacking sound. I understand that they are dealing with existing footage issues and trying to make them relevant to the subject of the box set, but I believe I would prefer whole newsreels, rather than just relevant clips. It is less off-putting that way. Also- kudos for the excellent commentaries. Some of them were quite good, especially from the always excellent, entertaining and informative Drew Casper.

As we’ve come to expect from Warner Brothers, they take excellent care with their library of titles in bringing them to DVD. The audio is quite excellent and free of any pops or hissing on the films- except when it comes to the bonus features, particularly the newsreels which we’ve previously discussed. The prints are great and rich in black and white, shades and shadow. Lady Killer and most of the rest look crisp and fresh.

The Bottom Line:
Warner’s has had a lot to live up to with the previous two volumes in their gangster collection. They have hit it out of the park again. I really enjoyed all of the films and was surprised by a few, especially Black Legion which including a fantastic performance from Humphrey Bogart. My favorites of the set were Lady Killer and Brother Orchid – top rate flicks that everyone should see- and that center the entire set. Anyone who owns the previous two should have this on their shelf already. If you don’t, you have a great opportunity to make a serious contribution to your DVD library. In addition to picking up Vol. 3, WB has reissued the first two volumes at a great price! If you are into gangster films, do yourself a favor and pick them up. This set is highly recommended for them, classic film buffs and film history nuts alike.

Review Rating:
If we were to assign a grade to all of the films and features individually, they would earn the following:
Lady Killer: A+
Brother Orchid
: A+
Picture Snatcher: A
Mayor of Hell: B
Smart Money: B
Black Legion: A
Bonus Features: A+

Overall Rating:
Warner Brother’s Gangster Collection Vol. 3 is a MUST HAVE!
We give it 5 stars (Groucho glasses)

Stay tuned- we've got more reviews, news and other great stuff lined up. Don't miss it!

Oh, I know it's a penny here and a penny there, but look at me. I worked myself up from nothing to a state of extreme poverty.

Flo, sometimes you got me guessin' whether you're even a nitwit.

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