Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment’s “VOICE YOUR CHOICE” initiative made its debut with the Blu-ray release of Cavalcade in August of this year. The initiative allows viewers to choose which archival titles get released on Blu-ray, and December 3rd marked the premiere of the initiative’s first official wave of releases as eight Fox classics made their Blu-ray debuts. Over the course of the next two days, we’ll be providing coverage of these eight releases (in three installments) to help you decide which of these releases warrants your investment. While I would certainly recommend them all (and kudos to those of you out there who participated in the voting for a job well done!), there are indeed films in this wave that will appeal only to a certain audience. So they beg some discussion.
In this first installment, we’ll be looking at the three earliest films in the wave: Call of the Wild (1935), Jesse James (1939) and The Black Swan (1942).
Call of the Wild (1935)
Darryl F. Zanuck’s production of Call of the Wild, starring Clark Gable (Gone with the Wind), is incredibly loosely adapted from Jack London’s novel of the same name. Bearing little resemblance to the novel, which followed the life of a dog, the film focuses instead on one storyline from the book and even then takes great liberties with that narrative. The film follows a pair of prospectors who set off in search of a gold mine to which they found a map. Along the way they encounter some nefarious characters, buy a dog, and are joined by a woman played by Loretta Young.
Gable’s relationship with Buck the St. Bernard is terrific, and the film is further bolstered by the inclusion of an unlikely romance between Gable and Young’s characters—unlikely in that her character’s husband is only presumed dead. All-in-all, in spite of its differences from Jack London’s novel, Call of the Wild is an excellent romantic adventure. That is… until the film’s closing gag, the punch line of which hinges on the dehumanization of a Native American woman. But what can you do? It is a product of its time.
Special features: commentary by author Darwin Porter and the original theatrical trailer.
Jesse James (1939)
Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda star as Frank and Jesse James, the notorious outlaws of late-19th century Missouri, in prolific director Henry King’s Jesse James. Power and Fonda deliver powerful performances here, and John Carradine too is terrific in his handful of appearances as Bob Ford, the man who shot Jesse James in the back. To my mind, though, Fonda stands out head and shoulders above all others in this picture, as I’ve never seen him play such a rough-and-tumble character as Frank James. To see Fonda look at someone with genuine murder in his eyes is so deeply unsettling that I was convinced within fifteen minutes of the opening of the picture that it would be my favorite of the VOICE YOUR CHOICE winners.
Unfortunately, the film meanders horribly as the narrative progresses, and we spend enormous periods of time away from the James brothers. Not only does this leave us wanting so much more of Power and Fonda than we receive, it leaves the film with no clear protagonist. Still, what we’re given is a powerful exploration of how easily a man’s idealistic vigilantism can devolve into selfish criminality if left unchecked.
Special features: two related clip from Fox Movietone News and the original theatrical trailer.
The Black Swan (1942)
This is the second, and final, VOICE YOUR CHOICE winner to star Tyrone Power, who appears here alongside Maureen O’Hara. The Black Swan is a story of love and pirates set against the backdrop of Captain Henry Morgan’s assignment to Jamaica as Lt. Governor. Not only does the film feature some truly remarkable sea battles and accurate, lavish period costumes, it’s also the picture that led me to fully appreciate Tyrone Power.
Having previously seen a handful of Power’s films, I was never what you might call a “fan” of his work, and I wasn’t quite sure why. Watching The Black Swan, I realized it’s because Power didn’t have the same sort of aura that other stars of the era had. This is to say that, while Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant, for example, were great actors, they brought with them a persona that somehow transcended their work on any given film. Power, by contrast, seems to me to be more fully immersed in his roles. This is not to say that Bogart or Grant were simply phoning in their performances or anything of the sort, merely that it’s easier to forget your watching an actor perform with Tyrone Power on screen than it is with other Hollywood stars of the era… if that makes sense.
Additionally, The Black Swan is blessed with one of the most beautiful transfers of the bunch. (They’re all beautiful, and in fact nearly flawless, as the bulk of Fox’s archival releases have been, but The Black Swan is a standout example in no small part due to its Technicolor presentation.) It boasts deep blacks and vibrant colors, befitting a Technicolor transfer. And the grain structure of the film stock as presented here is almost hypnotic as it dances around your screen highlighted by the gorgeous pinks and blues of a Technicolor picture!
Special features: commentary by Rudy Behlmer and Maureen O’Hara herself (!) and the original theatrical trailer.
Stay tuned to FilmMonthly, because in tomorrow’s installment, we’ll be looking at the next three pictures chosen for Blu-ray release by Fox viewers (in chronological order), including The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), Carmen Jones (1954) and Desk Set (1957)!