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Unearthing Old Gems

Films by legendary director William Wellman are featured as well as stars Bob Hope and Laurence Olivier.

May 29, 1997|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several video companies have mined their vaults and come up with a rich selection of comedies, dramas and foreign films.

Kino's latest collection spotlights the legendary William Wellman, who directed the first Oscar-winning best picture, "Wings," as well as such renowned movies as "Public Enemy" "The Ox-Bow Incident" and "The High and the Mighty."

New from Kino are deluxe editions of two of Wellman's most famous films ($25 each), both of which were released in 1937: "A Star Is Born," the ultimate Hollywood story starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; and "Nothing Sacred," one of the zaniest screwball comedies ever made, starring Carole Lombard and March. Both of these gorgeous Technicolor films were mastered from 35mm material from the Selznick Archives. "Star" features a fashion show scene not included in the original cut and the "Sacred" tape includes the theatrical trailer.

Kino also is offering "Wild Bill: Hollywood Maverick" ($30), a terrifically entertaining documentary, produced by his son William Wellman Jr. and narrated by Alec Baldwin. The film, which was seen last year on TNT, offers an intimate portrait of this tough, temperamental director who made 76 films during his 35-year career. Included are clips, plus interviews with Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford and James Garner. To order any of the Wellman films, call (800) 562-3330.

Another Hollywood legend, Bob Hope, celebrates his 94th birthday today. To commemorate this event, MGM is serving up three comedies ($15 each) starring the beloved comedian. The less said about the dreadful 1967 Hope vehicle "Eight on a Lam" the better, but the other two films are fun.

Hope and Lucille Ball give rather subdued performances in the sophisticated 1960 comedy "The Facts of Life," which was deftly written by the team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. Nominated for five Oscars (it won for costume design), the comedy finds the two playing married friends who have an affair. Don Defore and Ruth Hussey play their spouses.

Though some of the jokes are politically incorrect by today's standards, the 1959 comedy western "Alias Jesse James" is a jolly hoot. Hope is perfectly cast as a nervous insurance salesman who makes a big mistake when he sells the notorious Jesse James (Wendell Corey) a huge life insurance policy. The finale features some very funny cameos. Rhonda Fleming also stars.

A very handsome Laurence Olivier turns on the charm in the rarely seen 1943 British comedy "The Demi-Paradise" (Hallmark, $15). Olivier plays a Russian nautical engineer who experiences culture shock when he arrives in England before World War II to sell his modernistic ship propeller. Slightly dated, but very sweet.

Though Charlton Heston is best known for his dramatic roles in "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur," he proves his mettle as a comedic leading man in the 1955 comedy "The Private War of Major Benson" (Universal, $15). Heston plays an outspoken Army major who is sent to a Catholic boys' school to whip the ROTC into shape. Remade in 1995 as "Major Payne."

A couple of pros, Paul Ford and Maureen O'Sullivan, sparkle in the fitfully amusing but antiquated 1965 comedy "Never Too Late" (Warner, $20). Ford and O'Sullivan, who starred in the Broadway production of "Never," play a middle-age couple who find their world turned upside down when they learn they're going to be parents again. Connie Stevens plays their grown daughter and Jim Hutton is her harried spouse.

Though it's not intentionally a comedy, there are plenty of laughs in the 1957 rock 'n' roll musical "Jamboree" (Warner, $20). The story about a singing duo who fall in love is dopey, but it's a kick to see performances by Paul Anka, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Slim Whitman.

For those connoisseurs of foreign cinema, Home Vision is offering four films ($30 each) from masterful Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi: 1952's "Life of Oharu," which won the Venice Film Festival's International prize; 1956's "Street of Shame," his final film about five Tokyo prostitutes; and "The 47 Ronin, Parts I and II"--from 1941 and '42--which is based on a famous Japanese legend about 47 samurai who avenge their master's death.

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