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Westerns, Three Stooges on DVD

THE BIG TRAIL (1930) / FOX WESTERN CLASSICS (1950-1954). If the Main Library's summer film program of classic Westerns doesn't satisfy your yen for sagebrush sagas (see Movie Missives in this section), check out these four titles from 20th Century Fox's vaults. The Big Trail is given its own two-disc special edition, while three other oaters are packaged together in one box set.

After several years of bit parts, John Wayne landed the lead in The Big Trail, and while the film led to a string of top-billed roles in forgettable Westerns, it wasn't until John Ford's 1939 Stagecoach that The Duke became a bona fide movie star. Wayne is noticeably awkward with his line readings in this early talkie, but he already displays a commanding screen presence and easy rapport with the camera – while he was largely a right-wing racist and hypocrite in real life, there's never been any mistaking his rightful designation as a Hollywood legend. The story – about the members of a wagon train battling Indians, criminals and the elements as they make their way westward – is merely perfunctory, but director Raoul Walsh films the outdoors in all its majestic splendor, and the film was simultaneously shot for U.S. audiences in a standard 35mm print as well as in an expensive 70mm widescreen process known as Grandeur (both versions are included in this DVD). In addition, the movie was also filmed at the same time with different actors in German, Spanish and French!

An Academy Award nominee for Best Motion Picture Story, The Gunfighter (1950) has long been recognized as one of the seminal films (along with the string of Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborations) that signaled the maturation of the Western genre, taking it into more psychologically complex waters. Gregory Peck delivers one of his finest performances as Jimmy Ringo, a notorious gunslinger whose reputation as a quick draw hangs around his neck like an albatross. Riding into a dusty town with the hopes of reuniting with the woman (Helen Westcott) and son he left behind, the weary cowboy waits for her arrival in a saloon as various young bucks, eager to make a name for themselves, dream about being the one who can outgun the legendary outlaw. No less than John Wayne coveted the role of Jimmy Ringo and was reportedly upset when Peck won accolades for his work. For his part, Peck turned down the Gary Cooper role in 1952's High Noon because he was afraid he would be typecast in Westerns (Peck realized his mistake after Cooper won the Oscar, though he admitted that no one would have been better than Coop).

A vastly underrated Western, Rawhide (1951) benefits from both a taut scenario and a top assembly of actors. Tyrone Power, usually cast in period swashbucklers or war flicks, ably handles the role of Tom Owens, a worker at a stagecoach rest stop that's overtaken by escaped desperado Zimmerman (Hugh Marlowe) and his three accomplices. Zimmerman plans to rob the coach due to pull into the station the following morning; to coerce Owens into helping him, he threatens the life of the passenger (Susan Hayward) who's stranded at the stop with her infant daughter. Rawhide plays as much like a thriller as a Western, and character actor Jack Elam lands one of his best roles as the most evil of Zimmerman's crew.

I first saw Rawhide and Garden of Evil (1954) as a young boy and consequently have always held a soft spot for both of them over the ensuing decades. But while Rawhide lives up to my rose-colored memories, Garden of Evil does not. While hanging around a small Mexican village, three Americans (Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Cameron Mitchell) and one local (Victor Manuel Mendoza) are hired by a woman (Susan Hayward) to travel through hostile country and rescue her husband (Hugh Marlowe), who's been injured while searching for gold. With that cast and premise, this sounds like it can't miss, but after a promising setup, the movie never fully delivers on expectations. Still, it's never hard to watch the A-listers in their patented roles – Cooper as the voice of reason, Widmark full of wisecracks and wit, and Hayward exuding fiery independence.

Extras on The Big Trail include audio commentary by film critic/historian Richard Schickel, a revealing look at the Grandeur process, and pieces on Wayne and Walsh. Various extras on the titles in the Fox Western Classics collection include an audio commentary, making-of featurettes, restoration comparisons, and interactive pressbooks.

The Big Trail: ***

The Gunfighter: ***1/2

Rawhide: ***1/2

Garden of Evil: **1/2

The Big Trail Extras: ***1/2

Fox Western Classics Extras: ***

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: VOLUME TWO (1937-1939). The classic comedy shorts starring The Three Stooges have been available for years in a large number of DVD collections (some from less-than-reputable companies), but it wasn't until last year that Columbia Pictures finally began offering the films not only in digitally remastered prints but, even more importantly, in their original chronological order. The Three Stooges Collection: Volume One contains the first 19 shorts that Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard made from 1934 through 1936 (including the Oscar-nominated hospital gem Men In Black), and now here's the second volume, containing the 24 shorts made from 1937 through 1939. Some of the team's greatest works are featured in this compilation, including skits in which they portray bumbling exterminators crashing a ritzy party, bumbling detectives on the trail of a missing mummy, and bumbling janitors cast in an African safari film (Curly plays the gorilla while Moe and Larry are the missing links). This also contains my favorite moniker of any Stooge flick, as the 1936 melodrama Valiant Is the Word for Carrie finds its title borrowed – and mangled – to become Violent Is the Word for Curly. Stooge fans (and we know who we are) who've always appreciated the pure genius of a well-timed eye poke should snatch this up immediately; those who've never understood the appeal should, of course, steer clear.

There are no extras in the set.

Collection: ***1/2

Extras: *

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