|_November 2003 _|
Patience is a virtue, and for those who were willing to wait for Warner Bros.’ recent 2-disc edition of The Adventures of Robin Hood, the rewards are finally available in a release that’s thankfully not rare, not numbered, not boxed in a custom limited-edition sleeve, and not destined for an Extra-Super-Special version six months down the line.
The way to do a release is to do it right: take the time to restore and assembled the best available elements, and pack a release with sufficient goodies, so that even the most militant fans will be happy.
One of the best Technicolor films, The Adventures of Robin Hood is a gem that benefits from several generations of kids who grew up watching this swashbuckling classic on TV. First there was the surprise it was made in colour; then watching the film’s breakneck pace on VHS without commercials. Now we have a version taken from the best elements with incredible sharpness, and explosive colours that frequently glow from the screen. Added to the mix is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music score, which the composer admitted ‘saved his life’. Originally uninterested in the project, his acceptance of the job in the United States helped save Korngold and his family from the invading Nazis, as WWII had stepped beyond the seething, scheming borders of Weimar Germany.
Previously available on a CD from the once-prolific Tsumani, the DVD presents Korngold’s complete score in an isolated mono track, with no sound effects whatsoever. Fans and scholars now have the chance to experience the composer’s symphonic vision with just the picture; the orchestra’s performance is truly energetic, and the isolated track reveals the composer’s wit through various nuances for onscreen actions, and a rich grasp of emotional subtext.
There’s also a 1938 radio broadcast, previously available on LP from Tony Thomas’ Delos label. Meant to publicize the film, this unique program used a live performance with Korngold and a decent-sized orchestra, performing key themes, with brief narrative and introductory words from the great Basil Rathbone (who played Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the film). (Though released on CD by Delos, the disc lacks “Requiem for a Cavalier” - an edited 25 minute audio track from a 1968 Canadian CBC radio documentary on star Errol Flynn, which was also broadcast by the BBC in England, and by ABC in Australia, in a longer 50 minute version.)
Another bounty are 16 minutes of 12 indexed film themes, composed by Korngold during his tenure at Warner Bros. Highly informal, the session shows the composer’s own deep affection for his creations, and it’s rather touching to hear Korngold humming in spots when his emotions can’t be bridled.
Packed with several documentaries, Korngold gets significant attention in the making-of doc (with a humorous analysis from John Mauceri), and Rudy Behlmer’s feature-length commentary track. Film music fans will also be delighted that orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer receives more than mere mentions for his extraordinary contributions to the film score.
In addition to vintage outtakes, behind-the-scenes footage, vintage short films, and a documentary on the development of Technicolor, there’s also 3 cartoons: “Katnip College,” and the immortal “Rabbit Hood” and “Robin Hood Daffy.”
Yankee Doodle Dandy, the second of Warner’s recent 2-disc special edition wave, also contains some audio outtakes and rehearsal performances, with star James Cagney performing solo works, and a few sets with his co-stars. Though the set lacks an isolated score, it does contain the same massive bounty of production and historical extras that cover the film, composer George M. Cohan; James Cagney; and just as important, the film’s position as a well-needed morale-booster after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Like Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Yankee Doodle Dandee andThe Adventures of Robin Hood are available separately, or in a special box set that adds the 1991 documentary, Here’s Looking At You, Warner Bros.
Part of an earlier wave of classics, Casablanca was also given the 2-disc treatment, and follows the same exhaustive template of goodies, offering some extra music not featured on the Rhino CD of Max Steiner’s classic score.
The CD itself was made up of tracks constructed with previously unavailable instrumental cues, and material taken from the mixed soundtrack (containing dialogue and sound effects).
The DVD contains 8 indexed tracks
Steiner himself gets some attention in the making-of documentary (from 1998) with Henry Mancini appearing by a piano, and explaining Steiner’s gift for organically incorporating song fragments into any given score, and making the results seem vital to a film’s characters.
All of the above sets contain vintage cartoons – something fans (particularly those who grew up watching the Bugs Bunny/Road Hour on TV) have wanted passionately in complete cartoon-only collections. Turner put together a series of heavy boxed laserdisc sets several years ago, which have become top collector items; the new 4-disc DVD set may not contain as many titles (there’s about 1,100 cartoons that were made), but film music fans will enjoy the added bonus of isolated score material on each disc.
In 1990 and 1995, Warner Bros. released two critically praised CDs as part of The Carl Stalling Project that spanned some of the best music written for the studio’s cartoons. Bugs Bunny On Broadway added a few sound clips and some original audio tracks with live performances at the Hollywood Bowl, but the DVDs offer a larger selection of complete scores that simply wouldn’t be economically feasible on CD.
Taking advantage of DVD’s gargantuan storage capacity, these original mono tracks are noticeably more quiet than their fully mixed counterparts, but they often exclude the vocal material from the characters – making a deeper examination of Stalling’s scoring nuances even more possible.
12 cartoons – more than 62 minutes worth of isolated score – are spread between each of the 4 DVDs, and disc 3 contains a featurette on Carl Stalling. “Whatever your life burden is,” explains Bruce Broughton in a separate featurette, “when you watch one of these things you just have to give it up for a few minutes.” The broad yet adult sensibilities of the Warner cartoons certainly set the template for Broughton’s own witty contributions for the Tiny Toons series, and author/historian Leonard Maltin cites the unique musical knowledge children acquired; of period songs and classical music, when a good chunk of TV time was spent with Bugs, Daffy and the hugely memorable roster of stock characters.
(There’s a classic Ben Webster CD, featuring a Bossa Nova rendition of “I’m Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover” which in and of itself is very goofy; but the image that made me laugh aloud is Daffy Duck blissfully humming the tune as chaos – often a solid anvil – was ready to fall from the sky and turn our cynical hero into a wheezing fowl accordion. Maltin’s right about this latent recognition, but the images that inspired the song’s composer are nowhere nearly as funny as the Warner Bros. interpretation.)
While major Hollywood studios have done some remarkable work in restoring and presenting their classics to the movie fan and collector market, smaller labels such as Criterion and Rusico (Russian Cinema Council) have taken advantage of extant archival materials and more or less done the impossible: collate the disparate elements from different countries into one distinguished release.
Winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive cinematic mounting of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1968) was recently released by Rusico via its American distributor, Image Entertainment, in a 4-disc set.
Though taken from the best surviving elements, the people at Mosfilm discovered there wasn’t a complete print of the film in one locale; after the fall of the Soviet Union, pieces were literally resting in different cities. Gathering the elements together, the state-owned film studio spent $80,000 U.S. restoring the film to its original length, and upgraded the audio elements into a really crisp Dolby 5.1 surround mix.
The picture elements aren’t in the best shape – often they lack a superior sharpness, and a dark fog discolours the edge of the frame in spots – but the transfer is superior to the older VHS and full-screen DVD releases.
The real treat for film music fans is the opportunity to hear one of the longest scores written for a film by a composer pretty much unknown outside of Russia; certainly in terms of his film work. Having scored Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) and Andrei Rublev (1969), Vyacheslav Ovchinnikov was still a student in his mid-twenties when he was given the chance to score one of Mosfilm’s grandest productions.
Little of Ovchinnikov’s film work exists on disc. In addition to Japanese CDs of the aforementioned Tarkovsky works, his magnum opus for War and Peace was released in the West on a dreadful concept LP by Capitol Records. Poorly engineered, the LP attempted to distil the film’s length and scope via short score excerpts and waves of sound effects; as a testament to the composer’s skill, it’s utterly useless.
That’s where the DVD comes in, showcasing the score in Dolby 5.1, and adding, among the vintage and more recent featurettes and interviews on Disc 4, a 33-minute interview with the composer. A very round man with a sharp, self-critical tongue, Ovchinnikov describes his early years of desperation under the Communist system which forbade foreign travel, and the early film assignments that saved his life from abusive bouts of alcohol consumption. “Great directors have to be great showmen,” explains the composer, and “Cinema is not an art, but a kind of show.”
The enormous canvas of War and Peace may have been Ovchinnikov’s greatest cinematic work, but it drained his energies, and left concert works in progress resting idling in the background. Though he was offered the chance to score Tarkovsky’s Solaris, the composer declined the assignment, and ultimately returned to his concert projects, leaving an indelible mark for future composers.
Ovchinnikov does cite a passage from Andrei Rublev which was ultimately used in Solaris during some the ocean shots, but there’s no mention of its use by Eduard Artemeyev, Solaris’ formal composer.
Another a lesser-known but highly skilled composer, Artemeyev appears in a half-hour interview segment in Criterion’s 2-disc set that’s of great interest to Tarkovsky fans. Painting a vivid portrait of an artist whose own peculiar sensibilities have made some of his works less than accessible to average filmgoers – Solaris is 3 hours long – the director engaged Artemeyev with the following guidelines: “I don’t need music in my film. I need a person to orchestrate the sounds of Nature. I need a composer’s ear and a composer’s hand to organize the sounds surrounding us according to the laws of music.”
A rabid fan and collector of anything Bach, Tarkovsky asked his composer to interweave works by Bach with a broad ambient forest, though Artemeyev ultimately chose to write an original theme. Taking a nod from Bach’s cantus firmus – where Bach used Gregorian chants as the structural foundation - Artemeyev used Bach’s work for a new foundation, and built his own theme around it.
‘A mass of sound coming from nowhere and disappearing to nowhere’ is how Tarkovsky described the film’s aural design, and though devised in 1972 with pioneering electronic instruments, the sound of Solaris is still a masterful chore that fortifies the film’s capacity to lull viewers into the kind of restive state which ultimately dooms the will of the film’s characters.
Like Rusico, Criterion has assembled a mass of extras to support the importance of Tarkovsky’s remarkable film, using some of the interview segments that originally appeared in Rusico’s own NTSC disc of Solaris. While that release boasted a re-channeled Dolby 5.1 mix, Criterion’s disc uses a new film transfer, with a mono mix of the soundtrack.
For admirers of neglected Russian film composers, both Solaris and War and Peace are worth seeking out; if not for the films themselves, then certainly for the wealth of archival information that’s deeply engaging.
Next installment: A mix of classics, oddities, and blockbusters.
Mark R. Hasan (2003)
Site designed for 1024 x 768 resolution, using 16M colours, and optimized for MS Explorer 6.0. KQEK Logo and All Original KQEK Art, Interviews, Profiles, and Reviews Copyright © 2001-Present by Mark R. Hasan. All Rights Reserved. Additional Review Content by Contributors 2001-Present used by Permission of Authors. Additional Art Copyrighted by Respective Owners. Reproduction of any Original KQEK Content Requires Written Permission from Copyright Holder and/or Author. Links to non-KQEK sites have been included for your convenience; KQEK is not responsible for their content nor their possible use of any pop-ups, cookies, or information gathering.