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New DVDs from slick to schlock

"Titanic" leads off these latest home-video reviews, as it comes to DVD for the first time. . . . No, not that "Titanic." We're talkin' the black-and-white "Titanic" made in 1953, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. Now, they were movie stars!

"Titanic" (Fox, 1953, b/w, not rated, $19.98). This is the latest in the Fox Studio Classics series, and it's a fairly typical Hollywoodization of historical incidents, mixing bits of truth with a glossy soap-opera story. I find it amusing that young people diss films like this — simply because they're in black and white or the acting is a bit stagey or the special effects are somewhat primitive — and then defend the 1993 "Titanic," as if it's something more than a glossier soap opera with better effects.

Barbara Stanwyck has left her aloof husband Clifton Webb to sail back to America on the ill-fated ocean liner, with their young son and older daughter (Audrey Dalton) in tow. But Webb finagles his way aboard and tries to stop her, until she breaks down and gives him a piece of shattering information. A subplot also has the daughter being romanced by a less sophisticated young man (Robert Wagner), of whom Webb disapproves.

The extras include interesting audio commentaries, one by Time magazine film critic/historian Richard Shickel, and the other by Dalton and Wagner, along with a technician who seems a bit overly impressed by the water tanks used for the film.

Extras: Full frame, audio commentaries, documentaries, newsreels, audio essay, gallery, etc.

"Indiscretion of an American Wife"/"Terminal Station" (Criterion, 1954, b/w, not rated, $39.95). One of the things DVDs do best is compare alternate cuts of specific films, and this is a great example. "Terminal Station" was directed by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Vittorio De Sica ("The Bicycle Thief"). It's an English-language film with American-studio backing — and with that came American-studio control.

Both films are on this disc: De Sica's original film ("Terminal Station"), with deliberate pacing and a variety of minor characters, and the truncated U.S. version ("Indiscretion of an American Wife"), which was, as is shown in publicity materials, treated like an exploitation film.

The story has Jennifer Jones as a well-to-do American homemaker visiting her sister in Rome, where she has begun an affair with an American teacher (Montgomery Clift). The film begins as Jones reluctantly tries to break it off, but is torn by her feelings for Clift, who catches up with her at the train station. Richard Beymer (eight years before "West Side Story") plays Jones' protective young nephew.

De Sica's version also makes a character of the station, and though it is not in "real time," it feels like it, with frequent shots of clocks and genuine heat between the lead actors. The cut version trades ambience for a more hurried superficial feel.

Fascinating for film buffs, and "Terminal Station" is good for anyone who enjoys flavorful cinema.

Extras: Full frame, audio commentary, trailer, publicity, etc.

"Day of the Dolphin" (Home Vision, 1973, PG, $29.95). This is a curious choice for a "special-edition," as the film was not successful at the box office and critics over the years have generally dismissed it. But it's not without merit and has many enjoyable and distinguishing elements.

The story has a scientist (George C. Scott) and his team experimenting with dolphin intelligence; he even teaches them to speak and converse. Unfortunately, this soon gives way to a conventional and highly predictable government- paranoia/assassination plot that eventually loses its way.

There are some wonderful moments with the dolphins, however, bolstered by stunning cinematography and a nice score by Georges Delerue. The cast, led by Scott, is also good, with Trish Van Devere, Edward Herrmann, Paul Sorvino and Fritz Weaver. Although, with a script by Buck Henry and direction by Mike Nichols, it should have been better. And Henry as much as says so in the interviews.

Extras: Widescreen, interviews, dolphin trivia, text essay, etc.

"Chicago" (Miramax, 2002, PG-13, $29.99). Watching "Chicago" in a theater earlier this year made for a good night out at the movies. "Good" but not "great." So when it took home the best-picture Oscar this year, I really did wonder what I had missed.

Having watched it again on DVD, I get it. It's not that "Chicago" was the best movie of last year. It wasn't. But it was the best musical of last year. And, of course, it probably helped that it was the only musical of last year.

There are as many missteps as there are right moves in "Chicago." Sure, you've got Catherine Zeta-Jones and John C. Reilly, but you've also got Rene Zellweger and Richard Gere. Sure, you've got elaborate, well-staged musical numbers but you've also got quick-cut editing that gives the dance moves short shrift onscreen (not quite as bad as "Moulin Rouge," but bad enough).

But let's cut to the chase here. The question must be asked: Would this actually be the best musical of the year if there were competition for that title? Does it really rank with with such other best-picture winners as "West Side Story" or "An American in Paris"? Or with such non-Oscar-winners as "Singin' in the Rain" or "Oklahoma!" or (insert your favorite musical title here).

Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, audio commentary, deleted musical number, making-of documentary, trailer, etc.

"National Lampoon's Animal House: Double Secret Probation Edition" (Warner, 1978; R for violence, sex, nudity, language, drugs; $19.98). This often amusing, but more often raunchy and vulgar, frat film virtually created an entire genre, exemplified by everything from "Porky's" to "American Pie."

There's an array of future stars in the cast (John Belushi, Tim Matheson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen) and director John Landis demonstrates both his sense of comic timing and his penchant for carrying things too far. Some awfully funny moments alternate with poor-taste ones.

Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, making-of documentary, short video sequel, text commentary, credits, trailer, etc.

"National Lampoon's Vacation" (Warner, 1983; R for nudity, language, sex, violence, drugs; $19.98). To my surprise, I found this one much more bothersome than "Animal House," and with a lot fewer laughs. Perhaps I've seen it too many times in its edited TV form. And I think I've tired of Chevy Chase's incessant mugging.

Whatever. This time around, it was hard to laugh at the incest jokes or the drawn out set-pieces — from Chase's hike through Monument Valley to his sexual antics in the car — and especially his flirtation with Christie Brinkley. It all left a bad taste.

Fans may also be disappointed, since an alternative ending is discussed, and Chase even says he has a copy of it, but it's never shown here.

Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, new introduction, audio commentary, clips and interviews, photo gallery, trailer, etc.


E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com