Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has dipped into their vaults to offer fifteen classic titles on home video for the first time in their debut wave of Fox Cinema Archives releases. As the latest of many studios to offer film fans a chance to own some of the rarest films in existence through a manufactured-on-demand (MOD) line of DVDs, Fox has their work cut out for them, especially when competing with more established MOD lines like the Warner Archive Collection. As such, Fox has debuted their Cinema Archives with a series of forgotten films released between 1937 and 1958, featuring some of classic Hollywood’s greatest talents. And over the course of the next two weeks, we at FilmMonthly will be covering all fifteen titles of Fox Cinema Archives’ inaugural wave!
In this article, I will be looking at two very different pictures from the collection that focus on themes of aging, specifically the necessity of seeking out happiness, even in our later years. The first of these, 1942’s Life Begins at Eight-Thirty, stars Monty Woolley of The Man Who Came to Dinner (also 1942) alongside Ida Lupino, one year off of High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart. In this film, Woolley plays alcoholic Madden Thomas, former theatrical star turned washed-up alcoholic, whose crippled daughter (Lupino) and would-be boyfriend attempt to wean off the booze as they push him back into theater. Madden serves as a sort of proto-Arthur (of the Dudley Moore variety), only far more despicable and self-righteous. And that’s where the problem comes in with this picture. Although incredibly funny and charming, the other characters’ coddling of this irresponsible ass throughout the film can be aggravating as a viewer, especially during the melodramatic climax. That said, the film culminates in a satisfying conclusion, care of screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (The Grapes of Wrath (1940)). Admittedly, the narrative stumbles at points as the characters cling to their fond memories of a Madden long-gone– a Madden they hope will once again find the fame he once lost– but with Lupino in a lead role, a screenplay by Johnson, and direction by Irving Pichel (co-director of1932’s The Most Danegrous Game), Life Begins at Eight-Thirty is the perfect sort of obscure, big name-filled picture for Fox’s inaugural MOD wave.
In the second picture, Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951), Clifton Webb reprises his role as the irascible Lynn Belvedere, a character drawn from the same source novel as the Mr. Belvedere of 80’s television fame, for the third and final time. Prior to Rings the Bell, Webb played the role in Sitting Pretty (1948), adapted from Gwen Davenport’s 1947 novel Belvedere, and again in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) alongside Shirley Temple. Curiously, Ranald McDougall, who also penned Mildred Pierce (1945) and Cleopatra (1963), adapted the screenplay for Rings the Bell from Robert E. MacEnroe’s play, The Silver Whistle, which didn’t actually feature Lynn Belvedere as a character.
After becoming a nanny and attending university, we find Mr. Belvedere at the outset of Rings the Bell touring the nation as a self-help guru lecturing on the necessities of remaining youthful even in old age. Determined to prove his own theories outright, Belvedere ditches his road manager (played by Zero Mostel) in order to take up residence in a dilapidated home for senior citizens, despite being barely 50 himself. Rings the Bell is a feel-good picture that, admittedly somewhat problematically, portrays senior citizens as children at heart, who simply lack the ability to find joy in life or the incentive to express themselves. Webb and Mostel lead an all-around terrific comic cast in this incredibly funny picture that’s fast, smart, and never mean-spirited. Although the film makes perfect sense on its own, I do wish that the first two Belvedere films had been made available first.
As with all other MOD DVD lines, Fox manufactures their Cinema Archive releases from the highest quality source material, which is to say that the films have not undergone any sort of restoration. Life Begins at Eight-Thirty looks incredibly rough at times, with a considerable amount of scratching and debris, and a vertical blue line remaining to the immediate right of the image throughout the entire 4:3 film (assuming you’re watching it on a widescreen TV, and why wouldn’t you be?). Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell fares much better and looks rather spectacular, all things considered. Neither DVD’s audio suffers from any noticeable flaws. Of course, neither release offers any special features, but what MOD DVDs do?
I highly recommend Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell, but with a stellar cast and crew, Life Begins at Eight-Thirty too is well worth a look. Judging by these two titles alone, I’d say that Fox Cinema Archives will quickly prove itself to be an indispensable addition to the MOD DVD market. Stay tuned to FilmMonthly for Part Two of our coverage of Fox Cinema Archives’ First Wave of releases!