Vintage film fans will enjoy a new collection of Barbara Stanwyck movies, all of them new to DVD, and some new to home video.
"The Barbara Stanwyck Collection" (Universal, 1937-56, b/w, three discs, $49.98). Stanwyck could play tough, and she could play gentle. She was an expert at both melodrama and comedy, but the characters she created were always strong, and her appeal was evident from her earliest films at the beginning of the sound era.
"Internes Can't Take Money" (1937). This is the first film taken from the Dr. Kildare books by Max Brand, but it is unrelated to the movie series that followed with Lew Ayres, Lionel Barrymore and Laraine Day. Here, Joel McCrea plays the young doctor, who falls for a destitute bank robber's widow (Stanwyck) trying desperately to find her baby, apparently placed in a New York orphanage — but which one? In their third film together, the two stars have great chemistry, and the film has a strange art deco visual style, especially in the hospital scenes.
"The Great Man's Lady" (1942). This is the fourth of six films in which Stanwyck and McCrea co-starred. Here, she's a 100-year-old woman (with great makeup) relating the story of her scandalous life to a young biographer. The flashbacks begin when she's a teen in the untamed west and marries ambitious McCrea, who builds a city and becomes a tycoon but loses his wife to Brian Donlevy along the way. Never quite the epic the filmmakers intended, but the stars give it life.
"The Bride Wore Boots" (1946). Stanwyck is a horsewoman, but hubby Robert Cummings hates horses, which causes a rift. Then he finds himself pursued by a neighbor (Diana Lynn). Divorce ensues, though there's little doubt that they'll be back together by the fadeout. That's about all there is to this comedy, which is the weakest film in the set. Robert Benchley's presence helps a bit. That's young Natalie Wood as Stanwyck and Cumming's young daughter (one year before "Miracle on 34th Street").
"The Lady Gambles" (1949). Not to be confused with Stanwyck's "Gambling Lady" of 15 years earlier. One of the star's most complex and downbeat roles has her as a self-destructive woman whose sister enables her weakness for gambling. Supportive but frustrated husband Robert Preston tries to help, even as she repeatedly spins out of control. Strong stuff for the late '40s, and it still packs a punch. Robert Preston is very good as her husband. Look for Tony Curtis (billed as "Anthony") in a bit part as a bellhop.
"All I Desire" (1953). Set in 1910, this soap opera was directed by Douglas Sirk just as he was hitting his stride ("Magnificent Obsession" would come the next year). Stanwyck is great as an actress who abandoned her family a decade earlier to pursue her career and now begins to wonder if that was the right move. Invited back to town by her daughter who has a role in a school play, Stanwyck's arrival naturally opens old wounds and sets off a series of confrontations. Richard Carlson, Maureen O'Sullivan and Lori Nelson co-star.
"There's Always Tomorrow" (1956). Sirk also directed this one (between "All That Heaven Allows" and "Written on the Wind"), another stylish sudser as Stanwyck is re-teamed with Fred MacMurray in the last of their four films together. But surprisingly, the focus is on him instead of her; he's a husband who's feeling neglected by his wife (Joan Bennett) and their children, so when an old girlfriend (Stanwyck) looks him up, they rekindle their desire. One of the few movies Sirk would make about middle-class suburbia instead of upscale powermongers, and the stars are more than up to the task.
Extras: full frame, six films, two trailers
"A Voyage Round My Father" (Acorn, 1982, $29.99). Laurence Olivier is expectedly brilliant as an aging barrister who has gone blind but refuses to acknowledge it, even as his son (Alan Bates) helps him find the courtroom. Bates wants to be a writer, but he dutifully follows his father into law, and their conflicts here are universal, funny and sad.
Nicely opened up from the play, if a bit too low-key at times, this study in human relationships offers both stars terrific roles, and they run with them.
Extras: full frame, text biographies, trailers
"The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" (Sony/Blu-ray, 2009, PG-13, $34.95). Filmmaker Terry Gilliam's latest fantasy is a dark, bizarre tale of a traveling theatrical show headed by the title character (Christopher Plummer), who years before made a pact with the devil (Tom Waits) that now puts his teenage daughter in peril. When Parnassus rescues a con artist (Heath Ledger) who then joins the troupe, he realizes this might be just the guy to help him out of his dilemma.
Ledger died while this film was in production, so his scenes in Parnassus' "imaginarium" are played by Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell — and these sequences are so vivid and colorful and eye-popping (especially in Blu-ray) that they make the film worth seeing.
Extras: widescreen, deleted sclene, audio commentary/introduction (by Gilliam), featurettes, trailers (also on DVD, $28.95)
"Five Minutes of Heaven" (IFC, 2009, $19.98). A true story about two middle-age men in Northern Ireland facing up to a moment in the past that changed their lives. A 16-year-old boy killed a 19-year-old as reprisal for IRA attacks. Now, 30 years later, the shooter (Liam Neeson, nicely understated) and the victim's younger brother (fiery James Nesbitt) will meet on a TV show. But will it lead to reconciliation or revenge? A real acting showcase, if not completely satisfying.
Extras: widescreen, featurette, trailer
"Pride and Prejudice" (A&E, 1995, two discs, $39.95). In an unusual move, A&E takes is all-time best-seller, which was released last year in Blu-ray, and digitally restores it for a high-quality standard DVD release.
This is the faithful-to-the-book miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, which most aficionados consider the definitive version. Jane Austen fans without Blu-ray players, rejoice.
Extras: widescreen, six episodes, featurettes