Trio of glamorous actresses + quintessential Hollywood filmmaker get DVD box set treatment: Carole Lombard & Mae West & Marlene Dietrich + Cecil B. DeMille
A trio of glamorous actresses and the man known as the personification of grandiose Old Hollywood filmmaking are getting the DVD box set treatment, courtesy of the usually neglectful Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
Universal, now a subsidiary of the multi-tentacled NBCUniversal, happens to own most of the Paramount library of the 1930s and 1940s. That explains why the studio has announced the release of four box sets spotlighting Paramount talent: The Carole Lombard Glamour Collection, The Mae West Glamour Collection, The Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection, and the glamour-suffused Cecil B. DeMille Collection.
The three “glamorous actresses” sets will be released on April 4. The DeMille set comes out on May 23. More details below.
Glamorous actresses' Carole Lombard set: Light comedienne helps to lift 'Love Before Breakfast' & 'True Confession'
The Carole Lombard DVD box set includes six titles from the 1930s: Man of the World (1931), We're Not Dressing (1934), Hands Across the Table (1935), The Princess Comes Across (1936), the Universal release Love Before Breakfast (1936), and True Confession (1937). Every one of them is worth a look, even if only for one reason: Carole Lombard herself, never one of the most glamorous actresses around, but definitely one of the brightest – and highest-paid – stars of the second half of the 1930s.
In movies since age 13 (A Perfect Crime, 1921), Lombard slowly progressed from bits and small parts to minor leading lady roles at the dawn of the sound era, when she was made up to look like RKO star Constance Bennett's twin.
One such minor lead was as a young American who, while on a visit to Paris, becomes romantically entangled with no-good faux novelist – and Lombard's off-screen husband-to-be – William Powell in Richard Wallace's (until spring 2006) hard-to-find drama Man of the World.
J.M. Barrie adaptation + formulaic comedies
Despite its stellar cast (see below), Norman Taurog's 1934 musical comedy We're Not Dressing, based on J.M. Barrie's class-conscious stage comedy The Admirable Crichton, is about as little known and as hard to find as Man of the World.
Mitchell Leisen's Hands Across the Table and Walter Lang's Love Before Breakfast are both formulaic, forgettable romantic comedies, of interest only because of Carole Lombard's presence. Not much better is Wesley Ruggles' intermittently amusing True Confession, in which Lombard plays – a tad too cutesily – a pathological liar who takes the expression “tongue in cheek” a tad too literally.
'Glamorous actresses': Carole Lombard DVDs
The Carole Lombard Glamour Collection: Directors & key cast members.
- Man of the World (1931).
Dir.: Richard Wallace.
Cast: William Powell. Carole Lombard. Wynne Gibson. Lawrence Gray. Guy Kibbee.
- We're Not Dressing (1934).
Dir.: Norman Taurog.
Cast: Bing Crosby. Carole Lombard. George Burns. Gracie Allen. Ethel Merman. Leon Errol. Ray Milland.
- Hands Across the Table (1935).
Dir.: Mitchell Leisen.
Cast: Carole Lombard. Fred MacMurray. Ralph Bellamy. Astrid Allwyn. Ruth Donnelly. Marie Prevost.
- The Princess Comes Across (1936).
Dir.: William K. Howard.
Cast: Carole Lombard. Fred MacMurray. Douglas Dumbrille. Alison Skipworth.
- Love Before Breakfast (1936).
Dir.: Walter Lang.
Cast: Carole Lombard. Preston Foster. Cesar Romero. Janet Beecher. Betty Lawford.
- True Confession (1937).
Dir.: Wesley Ruggles.
Cast: Carole Lombard. Fred MacMurray. John Barrymore. Una Merkel.
Glamorous actresses' Mae West set: Outraging prudes & censors
Like Carole Lombard, Mae West wasn't known as one of cinema's most glamorous actresses. Even so, like fellow early 1930s Paramount superstar Marlene Dietrich, West was known as a sex symbol, one whose taste in clothes (see above) was an intrinsic part of her screen persona, and one whose lines – and line delivery – contributed to the ratification of the Production Code in mid-1934, which in turn likely contributed to the demise of her Hollywood stardom.
The Pre-Code Mae West can be seen at her best in what is probably her wittiest star vehicle, Wesley Ruggles' I'm No Angel (1933), one of the five movies in The Mae West Glamour Collection.
In the subversive sex comedy, co-screenwriter West plays a philosophizing carnival performer who makes sure we understand that “it's not the men in your life that counts, it's the life in your men.” On a more personal level, she seduces rich dude Cary Grant after making sure he understands that “When I'm good, I'm very good. But, when I'm bad … I'm better.”
Sparkling bad girl-good girl combo
In the unfairly neglected Archie Mayo's Night After Night (1932), bad girl West and good girl Alison Skipworth are both fantastic; the former as an entrepreneur who understands that “goodness” will not get you very far, the latter as speakeasy owner George Raft's etiquette tutor who loses all sense of decorum after getting all boozed up.
Alas, Mae West makes an odd but not very entertaining couple with W.C. Fields in Universal Pictures' Edward F. Cline-directed comedy Western My Little Chickadee (1940). Alison Skipworth would have been a much better match.
'Glamorous actresses': Mae West DVDs
The Mae West Glamour Collection: Directors & key cast members.
- Night After Night (1932).
Dir.: Archie Mayo.
Cast: George Raft. Constance Cummings. Wynne Gibson. Alison Skipworth. Mae West. Roscoe Karns. Louis Calhern.
- I'm No Angel (1933).
Dir.: Wesley Ruggles.
Cast: Mae West. Cary Grant. Edward Arnold. Gregory Ratoff. Ralf Harolde. Kent Taylor. Gertrude Michael.
- Goin' to Town (1935).
Dir.: Alexander Hall.
Cast: Mae West. Paul Cavanagh. Gilbert Emery. Marjorie Gateson.
- Go West Young Man (1936).
Dir.: Henry Hathaway.
Cast: Mae West. Warren William. Randolph Scott. Alice Brady. Elizabeth Patterson. Lyle Talbot. Isabel Jewell.
- My Little Chickadee (1940).
Dir.: Edward F. Cline.
Cast: Mae West. W.C. Fields. Joseph Calleia. Dick Foran. Ruth Donnelly. Margaret Hamilton. Donald Meek.
Glamorous actresses' Marlene Dietrich set: German seductress in top hat & gorilla suit
Whether or not you buy into the “They don't make 'em like they use to” maxim, they sure as hell no longer make “glamorous actresses” like Marlene Dietrich.
Whether or not that's such a bad thing depends on your take on movie stars whose screen persona is to a large extent defined by how they look in evening gowns, top hat and tails, ostrich feathers, and gorilla suits.
Admittedly, Dietrich was quite a bit more than an exotic clotheshorse. A leading lady in German silents of the late 1920s (I Kiss Your Hand Madame, The Ship of Lost Men), she became an international star after seducing and abandoning middle-aged schoolteacher Emil Jannings in Josef von Sternberg's 1930 tragicomedy The Blue Angel.
Josef von Sternberg collaborations
The Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection doesn't include this particular German-made, Paramount-distributed classic, but it does feature (hopefully good prints of) three other Dietrich-von Sternberg collaborations: Morocco (1930), Blonde Venus (1932), and The Devil Is a Woman (1935); in addition to René Clair's The Flame of New Orleans (1941) and Mitchell Leisen's Golden Earrings (1947).
The epoch-making but now creaky Pre-Code drama Morocco was Dietrich's Hollywood debut, earning her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for looking androgynously alluring in top hat and tails, for kissing another woman in the lips, and for, pissing off feminists, running barefoot after Legionnaire Gary Cooper.
Blonde Venus stars the glam queen as a cabaret performer/devoted mom/reluctant adulteress who dons some pretty unusual costumes and wigs – including a blond Afro and a gorilla suit – in the memorable “Hot Voodoo” number.
Lastly, the box office flop The Devil Is a Woman put an end to Dietrich's professional association with von Sternberg.
Below-par René Clair & pierced-eared Ray Milland
Not helped by the casting of Bruce Cabot (King Kong) as Dietrich's leading man, René Clair's lethargic, uninvolving The Flame of New Orleans – a Universal Pictures release – is probably one of the director's weakest films.
Mitchell Leisen's Golden Earrings stars Dietrich as a Central European gypsy who helps British national Ray Milland to flee the Nazis by dressing him up in gypsy clothes and having his ears pierced.
'Glamorous actresses': Marlene Dietrich DVDs
The Marlene Dietrich Glamour Collection: Directors & key cast members.
- Morocco (1930).
Dir.: Josef von Sternberg.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Gary Cooper. Adolphe Menjou. Ullrich Haupt. Eve Southern.
- Blonde Venus (1932).
Dir.: Josef von Sternberg.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Herbert Marshall. Cary Grant. Dickie Moore. Gene Morgan. Rita La Roy. Sidney Toler.
- The Devil Is a Woman (1935).
Dir.: Josef von Sternberg.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Lionel Atwill. Alison Skipworth. Edward Everett Horton. Cesar Romero. Don Alvarado. Tempe Pigott.
- The Flame of New Orleans (1941).
Dir.: René Clair.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Bruce Cabot. Roland Young. Mischa Auer. Andy Devine. Laura Hope Crews.
- Golden Earrings (1947).
Dir.: Mitchell Leisen.
Cast: Marlene Dietrich. Ray Milland. Murvyn Vye. Bruce Lester. Dennis Hoey.
Cecil B. DeMille set: Four conventional 1930s epics + one bizarre drama
The Cecil B. DeMille Collection includes four of the director's biggest epics of the 1930s: The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cleopatra (1934), The Crusades (1935), and Union Pacific (1939), in addition to the unusual adventure drama Four Frightened People (1934).
Featuring the lovely Elissa Landi as a Christian heroine and an uncomfortable Fredric March as the Christian-convert hero, The Sign of the Cross is at its best when its focus is on pagan perdition: Claudette Colbert, not long before becoming the embodiment of glamorous American womanhood, is excellent as Ancient Rome's man-hungry, asses-milk-bathing Empress Poppaea, while Charles Laughton, not long before becoming an international star by way of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), is equally effective as a fey, gay Nero.
Versatile Claudette Colbert: 'Cleopatra' & 'Four Frightened People'
Starring Claudette Colbert in the title role, the Academy Award-nominated Cleopatra is a campy curiosity, while The Crusades and Union Pacific every so often offer dramatic and historical points of interest. Besides, the casting of Loretta Young in the former and Barbara Stanwyck in the latter is a definite plus.
A mix of adventure and psychological drama, Four Frightened People has the absurdist, over-the-top feel of a B movie from 1922, but with audible dialogue, an “A” budget, and top talent. It's surely Cecil B. DeMille's weirdest talkie and likely Claudette Colbert's weirdest movie altogether. That in itself makes Four Frightened People a must-see. Hopefully, the DVD will feature UCLA's first-rate restoration of the film.
Cecil B. DeMille DVDs
The Cecil B. DeMille Collection: Key cast members.
- The Sign of the Cross (1932).
Cast: Fredric March. Elissa Landi. Charles Laughton. Claudette Colbert.
- Four Frightened People (1934).
Cast: Claudette Colbert. Herbert Marshall. Mary Boland. William Gargan. Leo Carrillo. Nella Walker.
- Cleopatra (1934).
Cast: Colbert. Warren William. Henry Wilcoxon. Joseph Schildkraut. Ian Keith. Gertrude Michael. C. Aubrey Smith. Irving Pichel.
- The Crusades (1935).
Cast: Loretta Young. Henry Wilcoxon. Ian Keith. C. Aubrey Smith. Katherine DeMille. Joseph Schildkraut.
- Union Pacific (1939).
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck. Joel McCrea. Akim Tamiroff. Robert Preston. Lynne Overman. Brian Donlevy. Anthony Quinn. Evelyn Keyes.
See also: “The Most Important 'Religion Films' of All Time.”
Unearthing Universal's (& Paramount's) cinematic treasures: Pre-Code & Claudette Colbert rarities
For the most part, Universal's classic-movie DVDs come out with few, if any, extras. Yet the “glamorous actresses” and the DeMille box sets are most welcome, as they allow us to check out historically significant films that otherwise would have remained gathering dust – along with hundreds of other titles – inside some Universal vault.
Of particular interest would be Paramount's racy Pre-Code rarities starring the likes of Ruth Chatterton, Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, Phillips Holmes, Nancy Carroll, Fredric March, Tallulah Bankhead, Sylvia Sidney, Gary Cooper, William Powell, Fay Wray, George Raft, and Paul Lukas. Titles include Anybody's Woman, Sarah and Son, Street of Chance, Two Kinds of Women, My Sin, Laughter, Manslaughter, Broken Lullaby, The Devil's Holiday, Behind the Make-Up, Girls About Town.
Equally of interest would be the numerous Paramount-produced Claudette Colbert star vehicles of the 1930s and 1940s that have yet to be released on DVD, among them Secrets of a Secretary, The Wiser Sex, The Phantom President, Private Worlds, Tovarich, Zaza, Skylark, and Practically Yours.
Some of (most of? all of?) the titles listed above have never been released on home video either.
August 2018 update: Apart from low-quality bootlegs, most of the movies listed above remain as inaccessible today as they were when the “glamorous actresses” & Cecil B. DeMille DVD box sets came out a dozen years ago.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment website.
Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray True Confession image: Paramount Pictures.
Mae West and Edward Arnold I'm No Angel image: Paramount Pictures.
Marlene Dietrich Blonde Venus image: Paramount Pictures.
Charles Laughton The Sign of the Cross image: Paramount Pictures.
“Glamorous Actresses Carole Lombard & Mae West & Marlene Dietrich + Cecil B. DeMille DVD Sets” last updated in August 2018.