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Chris Hicks: 1939 classic movies receive Blu-ray upgrades this week

Golden oldies earn Blu-ray upgrades this week, led by “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Dark Victory,” “Dodge City” and “Ninotchka.”

“The Golden Year: Five Classic Films from 1939” (Warner/Blu-ray, 1939, color and b/w, six discs, five films, documentary: “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year,” audio commentary on “Dark Victory,” featurettes, trailers, short films, cartoons). It is generally acknowledged that 1939 was a watershed movie moment, a 12-month period in which more great classic films were released than any other single year in film history. Certainly an arguable declaration, but what’s not arguable is the standing of the five films collected here, four of them on Blu-ray for the first time. (Each title is also available separately.)

But since “Gone With the Wind” has been on Blu-ray for six years now, another 1939 film worthy of the upgrade might have been a better choice — “Of Mice and Men,” perhaps, or “Wuthering Heights”? But let’s not quibble. It’s great to see the four that are new to Blu-ray in such lustrous disc editions:

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Charles Laughton is magnificent as cathedral bell-ringer Quasimodo, and Maureen O’Hara is stunning as Gypsy girl Esmeralda. Many critics feel this lavish black-and-white production is even better than Lon Chaney’s silent original.

“Dark Victory.” Bette Davis scored her fourth of 11 best-actress Oscar nominations (she won twice) for her stunning portrayal of a spoiled heiress diagnosed with a brain tumor. Davis is the reason to see this black-and-white classic, but the supporting cast — Geraldine Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, etc. — is also quite good.

“Dodge City.” Wonderfully realized in early Technicolor, this was Errol Flynn’s first Western. He’s an Irish cowboy leading settlers into the title town where he witnesses lawlessness firsthand and reluctantly agrees to become sheriff. This one laid out the template for many to follow. Co-stars include Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan and Alan Hale.

“Ninotchka.” Billy Wilder was one of the screenwriters of this black-and-white Ernst Lubitsch comedy, and though the political implications are dated and may be lost on modern audiences, this tale of a rigid female Russian envoy (Greta Garbo) in Paris who is slowly seduced by Western freedoms — and a Western playboy (Melvyn Douglas) — is still funny.

“Apollo 13: 20th Anniversary Edition” (Universal/Blu-ray/Digital, 1995, PG, audio commentaries, featurettes). Ron Howard’s excellent retelling of the Apollo 13 space mission remains a thrilling true-life adventure, with Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon terrific as, respectively, astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert. Also great are Ed Harris, leading ground control, and Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s wife. And this Blu-ray upgrade is gorgeous.

“Spider Baby or, the Maddest Story Ever Told” (Arrow/Blu-ray/DVD, 1968, b/w, alternate opening, extended scene, audio commentary, featurettes, photo gallery, trailer, short film: “The Host”; booklet). Weird, strangely amusing and very dark low-budget horror comedy about a family of loony inbred cannibals. Campy character-driven yarn is sort of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” meets “The Addams Family,” minus the former’s on-screen gore. Notable for an uncharacteristically sympathetic performance by top-billed Lon Chaney Jr. as the family’s chauffeur/protector.

“The Last Unicorn: The Enchanted Edition” (Shout!/DVD/Digital, 1982, audio commentary, featurettes, storyboards, trailer). Animated feature based on the Peter S. Beagle novel about the various adventures of a unicorn searching for others of her kind that have been spirited away by the demonic Red Bull. Nicely told children’s story with an excellent voice cast led by Mia Farrow and including Alan Arkin, Jeff Bridges, Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lee.

Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at hicks@deseretnews.com.