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A Journey Back to Old-Time Action-Packed Matinee Fun

January 08, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back during the Golden Age of Hollywood, moviegoers would see a program consisting of a newsreel, coming attractions, a cartoon, a serial and a feature.

Universal's new and immensely entertaining "Universal Matinee" collection ($15 each) attempts to recapture those thrilling movie days of yesteryear.

The legendary movie cowboy Buck Jones and his faithful horse Silver are the stars of the new "Matinee" series.

Born in 1889, Jones was one of the most popular cowboy stars. An expert rider since his childhood, he appeared in Wild West shows and circuses before beginning his film career as an extra and a stuntman in 1917. Jones, who exuded a quiet strength in his films, reached star status within four years. His career was on the wane, though, when he tragically died in 1942 in a Boston nightclub fire while on a campaign tour to sell U.S. bonds.

The "Matinee" series is great fun. The newsreels are a hoot and so is Jones' serial "Gordon of Ghost City," in which he plays a hand who is hired by a wealthy rancher to rid his land of rustlers. "Law for Tombstone," one of the three full-length Westerns featured in the collection, is a modest but action-packed sagebrush saga from 1937. Jones, who also directed the opus, plays a hero with the terrific moniker of Alamo Bowie. The print looks great.

Even more enjoyable is the 15-part serial "The Green Hornet Strikes Again" ($10 each; $40 for the three-tape set) from 1939. Replete with gas ray guns, European spies, spine-tingling car chases, sinking ships, sabotage and cliffhangers galore, "Green Hornet Strikes Again" is the movie equivalent of a tub of buttered popcorn.

Warren Hull, later host of the '50s quiz show "Strike It Rich," is perfectly cast as millionaire newspaper publisher Britt Reid, who fights crime under the guise of the Green Hornet. Keye Luke plays Reid's right-hand man and scientific whiz, Kato, who also drives their souped-up car, the Black Beauty.

The serial has been digitally mastered from the archival fine grain prints. In 1966, Van Williams and Bruce Lee played Reid and Kato in the short-lived ABC series version of "The Green Hornet."

For vintage TV series aficionados, there's WinStar's collection of episodes of "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin" ($13 each).

The Western, which aired on ABC from 1954-1959, follows the adventures of plucky Rusty (Lee Aaker) and his trusty German shepherd, Rin Tin Tin. Rusty and Rinty were taken in by the members of the 101st Calvary after everyone else in their wagon train had been killed in an Indian raid. (Don't look for any politically correct portrayals of Native Americans.)

James L. Brown also stars as the kind, fatherly Lt. Ripley "Rip" Masters and Joe Sawyer plays the rowdy Sgt. Biff O'Hara. The series, created by Herbert B. Leonard, was directed by William Beaudine. The original Rin Tin Tin was actually a World War I hero and starred in many films in the 1920s. The TV Rinty was owned by Lee Duncan. Each tape contains two episodes.

After a three-year moratorium, MGM is bringing the 1961 Oscar-winning musical, "West Side Story," back at a new low price ($15). "West Wide Story" will also be available in the wide-screen format for the first time. MGM also is presenting several other classic musicals in wide screen ($15 each): 1954 's "Brigadoon," with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charrise; 1966's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"; the 1958 Oscar-winner "Gigi," starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jordan; 1967's "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," with Robert Morse and Michele Lee and the 1954 delight, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," with Jane Powell and Howard Keel.

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