Unarguably, one of the things DVD has way over VHS is its compression. Far more discs fit in any given space than cassettes – allowing producers to create compact yet extensive homages to filmmakers or genres. A welcome addition to this group arrives this week in the form of the Stanley Kramer Film Collection. We’ll now take a moment for average film-goers to say “who?” and film-lovers to go “ahhhhh!”
For the a.f.g.’s amongst you, Kramer was a true maverick-altruist among those about whom the great comedian Fred Allen once said: “You can take all the sincerity in Hollywood, place it in the navel of a fruit fly and still have room enough for three caraway seeds and a producer’s heart.” Kramer’s filmography was chock-ablock with socially-conscious challenges which were as ground-breaking as they were entertaining. As producer and/or director, he constantly strove to do both the right and best thing, including breaking the iron rule of the blacklist and rampant racism.
Amongst his classics not in this six-DVD set are The Defiant Ones, Death of a Salesman, High Noon, Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Caine Mutiny, and (arguably) It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. This collection, however, features some of his rarer (The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T), most influential (The Wild One), heartfelt (The Member of the Wedding, and ambitious [Ship of Fools)] efforts — culminating with the 40th Anniversary release of his last great masterpiece Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The latter film has a special edition disc of its own, featuring deserved kow-tows from Steven Spielberg, Quincy Jones, Tom Brokaw, Alec Baldwin, and many others. It also has a two-part “making of:” one for the daring interracial romantic comedy-drama itself, and one just on its final pairing of Katherine Hepburn and the dying Spencer Tracy (when the cast and crew recount his final day on the set, delivering the film’s final speech just a fortnight before he passed away, I’ll defy you not to be as misty-eyed as they are).
This disc also contains a doc on Kramer’s life and career as well as a clip from two award presentations. The packaging hints that you then move back in time to discover Kramer’s pride and audacity, which came, as Disney suggested, with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Each of the other four films has its own photo gallery, an introduction from Kramer’s wife (and reputation caretaker), Karen, and at least two fascinating docs: one on the making-of, and the other on the film’s most notable aspect.
For Ship of Fools, it’s on the cinematographer’s challenge dealing with a movie on the high seas that was 100% studio-bound. For Member of the Wedding, it’s the story of the book’s author and how the novel went to stage and then screen. For The Wild One, it’s all about star Marlon Brando, natch. And for Dr. T – the cult film boasting a script from the man who became Dr. Suess – it’s a great featurette on Columbia Studio’s A-picture music department (which makes an excellent bookend with the doc about Columbia’s B-film music department on the colorized “Ray Harryhausen Presents” DVDs).
There’s also special drips and drabs here and there (including a very odd “Note from Julie Harris” — the star of …Wedding – which is simply that: about twenty-five typed words simply acknowledging that she was, indeed, the star of the play and movie). In addition, only two films have audio commentaries (Wild One and Wedding) and both are by authors-slash-experts-slash-professors rather than cast or crew members (not that there’s anything wrong with that … considering that I, too, am an audio commentating author-slash-expert-slash-professor). It’s a very cool, very interesting, very enjoyable package that puts Kramer in his rightful place as one of the first, if not the first, great independent producer/director.
And speaking of Ray Harryhausen (how’s that for a tenable transition), it’s fun to consider what he would have made of the 1954 Gold Key “Indians-versus-dinosaurs” comic book Turok, Son of Stone. Well, actually no, because what he did make of it was his 1969 flick,The Valley of Gwangi, only with cowboys fighting dinosaurs. Turok need not be miffed, however, since his legend only grew – through forty years of comics from nearly a half dozen publishers, and then a resurrected career in video games.
But now, finally, he has a movie of his own, which neatly, though not always nimbly, melds his many incarnations. Turok Son of Stone, is, to my knowledge, a direct-to-DVD release – a 2-D animated film financed by The Weinstein Company. It’s surprisingly (and perhaps refreshingly) violent considering its blocky, retro, Saturday-morning-esque design and animation style. It’s also consistently entertaining, thanks to the best efforts of Turok-lovers in the cast and crew (actor Adam Beach, ex-Disney producer Tad Stones, et al).
But do I concentrate on the film? No, I do not concentrate on the film. I’m the special feature guy, and this DVD has “Totally Turok,” a welcome doc on the character’s entire history (although they skip over his videogame presence neither nimbly or neatly), as well as his transition to plastic cels. It’s all pretty much “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with Mr. In-between” here and on the audio commentary, which boasts a bunch of producers and directors congratulating each other on making a future cult classic that looks like a kiddie film but acts like Bakshi.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.