Warner Bros (1959 / 2009), single disc, 2.40:1, 109 mins, Not Rated, $19.98 (available online only from the Warner Archive Collection)
In the August of 2009, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced a somewhat groundbreaking new product line, the WB Archive Collection. The Studio has built up an impressive, if actually unwieldy, library of catalog titles, from the Warner Bros. Pictures they naturally own to the numerous buyouts of other output, most notably the immense number of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics through the acquisition of Turner Entertainment as well as those from RKO, Lorimar and various other smaller distributors including many independents. But what to do with all this content!? Turner Classic Movies provides at least one output for some of the more obscure titles in the line-up; titles that may have their fans but not the kinds of numbers clambering to own them and make a mainstream DVD release a moderate hit.
Step forward the WB Archives, where the current video masters for many of these films are dusted down and encoded using a propriety process to blank DVD discs, simultaneously providing fans with some of the hard to get titles they’ve been waiting patiently for and a way for the Studio to get some of their more requested (but way down the restoration line) titles out on disc (and bring in a little revenue on masters that would otherwise stay lined up on shelves). Some have bemoaned the lack of remastering, or the absence of extras, and especially the $20 price point. But I say “phooey!” to that: I remember a time back in the LaserDisc days when an average, no-frills disc would set one back almost twice that cost, without the anamorphic enhancement, or sometimes even the original aspect ratio.
So, for those that can deal with the fact that there is a cost implication to owning some rarities on DVD without any corner logos, and can appreciate that these are made to order discs, with fully printed packaging and, in many cases, the film’s theatrical trailer bundled in where available, the WB Archive Collection is for you. Serving up good quality prints that, while they may not have been restored to pristine condition, are still better than broadcast television or even LaserDisc, the series is proving to be a strong line for the Studio, who have even tackled the pricing issues by offering “two for one” deals, and the like, on themed collections (such as the Lex Barker Tarzans or a selection of MGM Silents). The collection is an eclectic assortment of old and new, and among the titles there are some that will probably temp hardcore cineastes…
Despite his later billing as The Master Of Disaster, I’ve often compared legendary producer-director Irwin Allen’s career to that of Walt Disney’s. In action films, from competing as a purveyor of documentary nature films (and winning an Oscar for The Sea Around Us in 1953), Allen produced or directed (or both!) a number of high-gloss productions that were very Disneyesque in their approach (Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Five Weeks In A Balloon) and, of course, made as many waves as Uncle Walt in pioneering color TV shows, landing huge hits with Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants and The Time Tunnel. There was even an Allen theme park in the works at one point, echoing his reputation as a showman.
The Big Circus gives him an early chance to shine on the big CinemaScope screen, and boy does he do so, with a typically highly entertaining spectacle that recalls The Greatest Show On Earth and the real feeling of enjoying a visiting big top performance. The scale is as large as the cast: Victor Mature, Red Buttons, Rhonda Fleming, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre as well as first-class real life ring acts, in a story (by Allen too) of a three-ring circus struggling to remain fundamental in a modern world. Relying on his bank to secure his future, owner Hank Whirling finds himself saddled with a dour financial whiz-kid (Buttons) on his next tour. The depiction of circus life may be sanitized, but there’s a camaraderie among the family of performers and the occasional breaks to observe an act or two reveal some amazing and breathtaking acts, even if director Joseph Newman doesn’t always capture the action as compellingly as he might.
The story may be pure Hollywood schmaltz (of course, Buttons warms to the grease paint and sawdust, and we get the prerequisite suspenseful scene – a daring hire wire walk over Niagara Falls), but the dialogue is snappy and there are some great putdowns and comebacks between the characters. The kind of huge circuses as seen here are largely a thing of the past, giving an extra contemporary resonance to The Big Circus. In later years, after such other massive hits as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, Allen’s Master Of Disaster tag stuck for all the wrong reasons, as the genre sank into parodies of itself and unintentional howlers as The Swarm and When Time Ran Out, but with its mixture of spectacle, an intriguing saboteur in the midst subplot and glossy melodrama, The Big Circus stands up alongside the other small stable of family circus classics including The Greatest Show On Earth, Billy Rose’s Jumbo and, of course, Dumbo (a sentiment mirrored in the title song, penned by Disney soundtrack regular Sammy Fain).
Being “manufactured on demand” titles, it’s understandable that the Warner Archive discs would be bare-bones, generally lacking subtitles and all using the same themed main menu, but occasionally they surprise with an added trailer here and there. Each disc opens with a sixty second promo for the Archive Collection concept, highlighting among some of the films available in the ongoing series. The discs are not chapter indexed but the films can be skipped through at ten minute intervals, so it’s easy enough to bookmark the nearest point to favorite scenes.
If there’s one area where the WB Archive Collection doesn’t quite shine as bright as their more commercially promoted cousins, it’s in the packaging. Not that there’s anything wrong in the artwork itself: though there’s a basic design template for these releases in place, each title retains their original logos and poster or publicity images, while the synopses and info on the back are tailor made, so while they all feel uniform, each is different. The lack of enthusiasm comes with the cases themselves, the sleeves being inserted into what can feel like second hand cases; bulky low cost versions of a regular keepcase that don’t come shrinkwrapped, which kind of spoils the excitement. I’ve instantly swapped these cumbersome cases for a clean set, but really these should feel “newer” than they do, especially for the price. Although the discs are not quite of the DVD-R variety (Warners say they use specific discs and software that make them more robust than home-made creations), the color surface print is as good as any commercial release, adding to the authenticity of these basic but official releases.
In terms of images, Warners has been very honest and very clear about the sources for these releases: no new restoration or remastering has been done and these are basically the current video masters for these titles. On closer inspection, one can see that a little care has been taken (what would be the point of simply reusing decades old transfers and asking us to pay for them?) and the results are pleasing. It’s obvious these are also new transfers of existing prints, since each film is presented in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced in 16:9 where appropriate, a presentation that itself would require new transfers as opposed to the TV and LD copies of old. The format can change between titles, with some progressively transferred while others can be interlaced, but the effect is the same: very good versions of otherwise hard to find movies. I was particularly impressed by the stability of the elements used and the solidity of the coloring. Despite a few nicks and flecks here and there, these are the best I’ve ever seen any of these titles looking on my display.
As with the image, Warners have been fortunate in sourcing very good audio for the tracks included on these discs. Considering that these masters have been either used for TV or LaserDisc transfers in the past, or have been newly minted for future use, one can feel safe in the knowledge that the mixes offered are well up to the Studio’s stringent quality levels. Rest assured that Warners hasn’t just simply used the nearest old print with a scratchy, humming soundtrack: these are all again as good as can be expected without going the whole 5.1 remix or restoration route. Due to their age, most of the tracks are in their original mono configurations, but are all direct sounding and clear. Surprisingly, The Big Circus comes loaded with a stereo track, though its certainly a product of its time and the wideness of the separation might come over as too forged to modern ears.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
There really isn’t anything to worry about in going ahead and making some choice picks among the many titles already available and those being added each month. We’ve all had commercially pressed discs go wrong on us, and the worry about the DVD-R type discs here can’t be said to be warranted: each title played fine in the three or four different machines I tested them out on. With surprisingly better than expected audio and video qualities, and even a trailer often thrown in, the slightly high pricing is an issue, but will probably be overlooked by those that understand this is a decent effort from the Studio to get more films out into the marketplace, and the only genuine way for fans to own these titles. I’m a supporter, with another selection of titles already on my wish list, and a request for the likes of Hot Millions (starring Peter Ustinov), The Little Hut (featuring David Niven), and George Pal’s vastly underrated supernatural thriller The Power (directed by Byron Haskin) to be pulled from the archive and made available on disc. Keep collecting!
Preview and purchase The Big Circus
and many others directly from the online store at WB ARCHIVE COLLECTION