marxbrosbdThe Marx Brothers Silver Screen Collection (Universal, Blu-ray) presents the respective Blu-ray debuts of five classics films starring the four original Marx Brothers: Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo.

They made their film debut in the cinematically stiff but comically anarchic adaptation of their stage hit The Cocoanuts (1929), a satire written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, set amidst the Florida land boom. Groucho is the manager of a bankrupt hotel hoping to sucker a wealthy matron (Margaret Dumont, Groucho’s favorite foil — she’s been dubbed “the fifth Marx Brother” by fans) when a pair of incompetent con men (Chico and Harpo) upset his ploy. Groucho conducts his classic land auction sequence. Hooray for Captain Spaulding in Animal Crackers (1930), their second feature (also from a hit Broadway play created for them by Kaufman and Ryskind), a madcap mystery starring Groucho as an African explorer on the trail of a painting stolen from society matron Dumont. Both of these were shot in New York by directors with no feeling for the Marx Brothers’ brand of absurdity and the comedy fights to escape the plodding direction – and wins.

For Monkey Business (1931), however, they headed to Hollywood and found a more sympathetic director in Norman Z. McLeod. The boys stow away on a trans-Atlantic ship, sneak through customs with Maurice Chevalier’s passport (their quick succession of garbled impersonations is classic), and raise havoc on Long Island high society. Thelma Todd replaces Dumont as Groucho’s foil in this, their first screen original, and in Horse Feathers (1932), a shaggy college comedy with Groucho as the new president of the college with an unusual approach to education (“I’m against it!”) and Chico and Harpo as the ringers he hires for the football team – the wrong ringers, in fact.

The set saves the best for last: Duck Soup (1933). “To war, to war, we’re going off to war” sing the merry citizens of Fredonia as the diplomatic skills of Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho) sends the country to certain doom. Leo McCarey’s sharp-as-a-knife satire of modern diplomacy and international relations was edgy even for the Marx Brothers, but their irreverence and insanity makes it all work. A little too much for depression era audiences, it marked the last appearance of Zeppo and the Brothers’ last film for Paramount. Relocating at MGM, their comedies became more linear, less surreal, and more commercial. Duck Soup is the Marx Brothers at their peak: wild, unpredictable, anarchic.

This set marks the respective Blu-ray debuts of all five features, which unfortunately have not been well-preserved over the decades. As such, you should not expect a significant leap from the previous DVD release. The Cocoanuts is the most problematic, an early sound feature where the original elements are gone and the existing prints are worn and damaged. The increased clarity of the HD mastering helps see through the damage, and new audio restoration helps clean up sound that was problematic when it was released in 1929, but unless new, better elements are discovered, this may be the best we can hope for. The later films look better and Duck Soup has received the most loving care in repairs and restoration. All are sharper and clearer and show more detail than the previous DVD masters, and for that it’s worth the upgrade.

New to this release are commentary tracks for all five films—film scholar Anthony Slide on The Cocoanuts, film historian Jeffrey Vance on Animal Crackers, Marx Brothers historian Robert S. Bader and Bill Marx (son of Harpo Marx) on Monkey Business, film critic F.X. Feeney on Horse Feathers, and film historian Leonard Maltin and Bader on Duck Soup—and the feature-length documentary The Marx Brothers: Hollywood’s Kings of Chaos, plus a booklet with an essay by Bader. Carried over from the earlier DVD are clips from The Today Show featuring Harpo (from 1961), Groucho (1963), and Harpo’s son William Marx (1979), who shows rare home movies of his father.

scandalluredA Scandal in Paris / Lured (Cohen, Blu-ray) – Douglas Sirk was a German-born filmmaker who fled Europe for Hollywood during World War II and created a magnificent series of sophisticated melodramas with social commentary slipped into the glossy soap opera but he spent years working his way up from B movies and studio programmers. This disc presents two of his early American pictures, where he brought wit and sophistication and an eye for visual invention to a pair of low budget period pieces with Gothic flair and starring George Sanders. In A Scandal in Paris (1946) he plays suave con man and criminal mastermind Vidocq (George Sanders) with mix of bemusement, blasé, and aristocratic poise. It’s based on the (highly dubious) memoirs of the real life rascal turned lawman in 19th century Paris and he narrates his tale of working his way up to chief of police of Paris while continuing his life of crime, until he falls in love is tempted to go straight. Sirk’s continental wit and playfulness and Sanders’ droll delivery and impeccable manners add a knowing wink to the production. The sumptuous sets are cramped but richly dressed with the merest suggestion of a world outside the frame, giving it the feeling of a miniature. The great Eugen Shuftan gave uncredited assistance to the lovely cinematography.

George Sanders in 'A Scandal in Paris' - Photo credit: Cohen

George Sanders in ‘A Scandal in Paris’ – Photo credit: Cohen

Lured (1947) stars Lucille Ball is an American showgirl in London persuaded by Scotland Yard to act as bait to catch a suspected killer who lures his victims through personal ads and Sanders is a theater producer who becomes a suspect. He’s the cultured ladies man and she’s the brash, worldly American who simultaneously abandons and encourages him. Sirk makes the most of his limited budgets with elegantly drawn set pieces and moody fog-drenched night scenes (this is London after all) in this stylish Victorian melodrama/murder mystery, a witty cat-and-mouse game played with both the audience and the target. Boris Karloff gets to show off his knack for comedy in his small role as a suspect.

A Scandal in Paris is mastered from a new HD transfer from an archival 35mm interpositive and features commentary by Wade Major. Lured is mastered from a new restoration from 35mm nitrate and 16mm safety material and features commentary by Jeremy Arnold. Both films look fine but show some damage and reveal sequences rescued from lesser sources.

gregorypeckcentGregory Peck Centennial Collection (Universal, Blu-ray) – Gregory Peck delivers one of his greatest performance in To Kill a Mockingbird (1963), a classic that seems to actually improve with the years. Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of the single father who risks alienation within his community to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small Southern town. Horton Foote adapts Harper Lee’s novel with sensitivity and grace, capturing nuances and subtleties without letting us forget that we’re seeing this unfold from a child’s perspective. The film also marked Robert Duvall’s screen debut (who won his Oscar twenty years later in another film from a Horton Foote script). An unforgettable film that captures the sensations of summer, the imagination of childhood, the scary reality of the adult world just on the other side of adolescence, and one man’s struggle for justice in the face of hateful contempt.

The original Cape Fear (1962), a thriller about an ex-con (Robert Mitchum) who hunts down the lawyer (Peck) whose testimony sent him to jail and exacts his revenge on Peck’s innocent family, is not really a film noir but it is a dark, edgy thriller that still causes chills today, due in large part to a script ripe with suggestion and an eerily charismatic performance by Mitchum that brings those suggestions to life with a smirking sneer and a nasty stare. Polly Bergen, Martin Balsam, and Telly Savalas co-star, and Lori Martin acquits herself well in a role that director J. Lee Thompson wanted Hayley Mills for. It was Peck’s first film as a producer and he chose top-notch material (the novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald) and a good journeyman director (Thompson) who did the best work of his career.

The two-disc set basically repackages the previously released Blu-rays in a new edition with all the same supplements. To Kill a Mockingbird features commentary by director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan Pakula, the feature-length documentary A Conversation with Gregory Peck (1999) by Oscar winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, and the making-of documentary Fearful Symmetry, plus Gregory Peck’s acceptance speech for his Academy Award for Best Actor and his speech accepting the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, his daughter Cecilia Peck’s speech at the Academy Award tribute to Gregory Peck, an interview with co-star Mary Badham, and the trailer. Cape Fear includes the 30-minute documentary The Making of Cape Fear. Also features bonus Ultraviolet Digital HD copies of both films and a collection of six postcard reproductions of poster art and stills.