Screens Armchair cinephile 

Reeling in the decades

Big anniversaries are always considered ample excuse for a new DVD edition of a film, but 20th Century Fox just hit an anniversary trifecta, in which three titles they could have promoted together anyway, as some of the most noteworthy musicals penned by Rodgers & Hammerstein, celebrate their 40th, 50th, and 60th anniversaries this year. Working backward through time, here are those titles and a few other birthday boys and girls:

First, a bit of a double fudge: Big Deal on Madonna Street: 20 Years Later (Koch Lorber) is something of a misnomer, as this sequel to the much better-known Italian caper film Big Deal on Madonna Street was made significantly more than 20 years after the first. So maybe it’s appropriate that there’s some confusion over whether 2005 marks two decades after the sequel’s release — the DVD package puts that at 1985 — or if the Internet Movie Database is correct in saying that I Soliti Ignoti Vent’Anni Dopo actually came out in 1987. Either way, the ever-charming Marcello Mastroianni returns as a reluctant criminal.

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Hopping back to 1965, we have Fox’s centerpiece, The Sound of Music. The hills are still alive for this chestnut, which lately has been celebrated with a flurry of “sing-along” performances in cities populated with a surfeit of Julie Andrews’ fans. Latching onto this fad, Fox provides a karaoke option here, in which the score plays sans vocals and the lyrics pop up as subtitles. A gallon of schnapps is not included with the package, but is recommended for any living-room “do re mi” action.

From 1955, Fox offers the less epic Oklahoma! for your musical pleasure, in which modest cowpokes rhapsodize about beautiful mornin’s and lovely lasses. Jazz fans in the room may at this point start playing a game — which standard did this Rodgers & Hammerstein play give to the jazz canon? That’d be “Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” a ditty that was good to everyone from Miles Davis to Wes Montgomery, while Sound of Music of course introduced “My Favorite Things,” which was charming enough in the film but became a religious experience in the hands of John Coltrane.

Also celebrating its 50th year: the original We’re No Angels (Paramount), starring Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray, and Peter Ustinov as fugitives who escape from Devil’s Island on Christmas Eve and take refuge with a small-town family. The plot mutated quite a bit in 1989, when Neil Jordan and David Mamet remade Angels with Robert De Niro and Sean Penn.

The last of Fox’s Rodgers & Hammerstein anniversary titles gives you the remake as a bonus feature, although lots of fans might prefer it didn’t exist: 1945’s State Fair, starring Jeanne Crain and Dana Andrews, is as corny as its title might suggest — and you don’t make a film less cornball by remaking it in 1962 with Pat Boone. At any rate, it’s the only musical Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote specifically for the movies instead of Broadway. (Jazz quiz extra credit: Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, and scores of other artists have had their way with “It Might As Well Be Spring.”)

Let’s detour from Broadway to the darker mood of 1945’s Scarlet Street (Kino). Smack in the middle of Fritz Lang’s American period, the film noir stars the great Edward G. Robinson as a middle-age cashier who is manipulated by a pair of sleazy young lovers. Kino, which has treated Lang well, just released Street alongside his 1950 House by the River.

We have to dive back into a lake of saccharine to find a recent release that can claim to be a “70th anniversary”: 1935’s Curly Top (Fox) is one of a half-dozen titles in the ongoing Shirley Temple Collection. In this one, the precocious actress plays an orphan adopted by a wealthy man who falls in love with her older sister.

Let’s cheat a bit, finally, and say that while Chu Chin Chow was released in 1934, it was surely still making its way to regional movie houses 70 years ago today. VCI, a company known for budget releases of cowboy-movie serials, dipped its toes in the archival realm for this double-disc, bonus-rich release that is less interesting for its cinematic value (being essentially a filmed play) than for the appearance of Anna Mae Wong, whose reputation has been growing lately.

DVD studios take note: There are only a few weeks left before 2006, and you can bet Fox is already prepping the “50th Anniversary” editions of two remaining Rodgers & Hammerstein favorites, Carousel and The King and I.

By John DeFore


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