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Memory Lane is paved with hits

New releases feature some of yesterday's heroes: Bogart, Chaney and Astaire. And don't forget Jean Harlow.

November 22, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff writer

Humphrey Bogart, Lon Chaney, Fred Astaire and other superstars are on display in the latest batch of oldies-but-goodies recently released on DVD.

Bogart was considered one of the biggest stars of the 20th century; four of his films from Warner Home Video ($20 each) -- "They Live by Night," "High Sierra," "To Have and Have Not" and "Dark Passage" -- illustrate why. Each offers insightful "making of" documentaries featuring interviews with film historians Leonard Maltin and Robert Osborne and Bogart biographer Eric Lax.

Bogart is really just a supporting player -- he gets fourth billing -- in 1940's two-fisted melodrama "They Drive by Night," directed by Raoul Walsh. He and George Raft play independent truckers; Ann Sheridan and a scene-stealing Ida Lupino also star.

After Paul Muni and Raft turned down the part of aging gangster Roy "Mad Dog" Earle in 1941's "High Sierra," Bogart got the plum role and turned in one of his best performances, again directed by Walsh. Lupino and a young Joan Leslie play the women in his life.

"To Have and Have Not" from 1944 is Howard Hawks' crackling version of Ernest Hemingway's self-declared worst novel about a gunrunner who falls for a woman of mystery (Lauren Bacall). During production, the married Bogart fell in love with newcomer Bacall, 25 years his junior. They tied the knot the next year. This is the film in which Bacall seductively tells Bogey that if he needs anything, to "just whistle."

The couple teamed again for 1947's engrossing "Dark Passage," which was received negatively by both audiences and critics. He plays an escaped convict, wrongly sent to prison for the death of his wife, who undergoes plastic surgery to conceal his identity from the real killer.

Warner Home Video and cable's TCM kick off a new DVD line -- TCM Archives -- with an impressive two-disc set ($40) highlighting the career of one of the silent era's greatest film stars, Chaney, best known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces." The set includes fact-laden commentary from Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake.

In 1921's "Ace of Hearts," Chaney plays a lovelorn member of a secret group who choose people to assassinate they deem worthy not to live.

The touching 1928 melodrama "Laugh, Clown, Laugh," was one of his biggest hits at MGM. Chaney gives a multilayered performance as a circus clown who falls in love with the beautiful young woman (Loretta Young) he raised after he found her abandoned as a toddler.

The second disc features the deliciously lurid 1927 drama, "The Unknown," which was directed by Chaney's frequent collaborator, Tod Browning. Chaney has a field day as the evil Alonzo the Armless, who works in a traveling circus by throwing knives with his feet. A very young Joan Crawford stars as his sexy assistant.

Rounding out the disc are the acclaimed Kevin Brownlow documentary "Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces," which originally aired on Turner Classic Movies, and the 2002 photo reconstruction of Chaney and Browning's missing 1927 film, "London After Midnight."

Astaire teamed with Rita Hayworth for two films at Columbia Pictures; 1941's "You'll Never Get Rich" (Columbia TriStar, $20) was their first. The two make a great dance team in this minor but enjoyable musical, which casts Astaire as a theater director who is drafted into the peacetime Army. Hayworth is one of his show's dancers, with whom he falls in love. Cole Porter penned the score, which includes the Oscar-nominated "Since I Kissed My Baby Goodbye."

Walter Huston is at the peak of his powers as an actor in 1941's engrossing fantasy "The Devil and Daniel Webster" (Criterion, $40). Huston received a best actor Oscar nomination for his crafty performance as the wily devil who tempts a hard-working farmer (James Craig) trying to make an honest living. Bernard Herrmann won the Academy Award for his evocative score.

The film, directed by William Dieterle and based on the short story by Stephen Vincent Benet, was not a hit upon release and was pared more than 20 minutes in its various reissues. For this digital edition, the film has been restored to its 106-minute running time; the long-missing scenes add to the character development and flesh out the plot.

The DVD features a new high-definition transfer, rather dry commentary by film historian Bruce Eder, comparisons between "Devil" and the preview version of the film called "Here Is a Man," the Columbia Workshop's radio play of three Benet stories, photo and promotional galleries.

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