Before 'House,' Hugh Laurie was hilarious
By G. Michael Dobbs
A classic western, a disturbing documentary and a great British television series are featured in this week's DVD review column.
The Town That Was
I had heard of Centralia, Penn., but didn't know much about it other than it had been abandoned because of an underground coal fire, but this documentary filled me in on more than just this ongoing tragedy.
"The Town That Was" details not just the fire in the veins of coal running under the town, but the lives of the 11 people who still call the town their home and their hopes that one day people might return.
In 1962, the Centralia Fire Department performed a controlled burn at the town dump, which was near the cemetery, prior to the Memorial Day ceremonies. The problem with this routine event was that a vein of coal running under the dump caught on fire. Despite numerous attempts to stop the blaze, eventually the state of Pennsylvania bought the townspeople out - all but 11 whose homes have now been legally condemned, but haven't been forced to move.
The film addresses the connection between the people and the land as well as the overall redevelopment problems that face this coal producing area.
It's a solid informative look at an American story most of us don't know much about.
As part of Paramount's centennial collection, the studio has released a two-disc DVD set of the Howard Hawks western "El Dorado," which starred John Wayne and Robert Mitchum.
Hawks was one of the American cinema's great directors, whose films include the original "Scarface," "His Girl Friday," "Ball of Fire," "Red River," "The Big Sleep" and "To Have or Have Not." He didn't specialize in one genre and seemed comfortable going from gangster film to comedy to western.
His films have become known for overlapping of dialogue, which creates more realistic performances and for his female characters who were seen as feminists before the label was coined. His films frequently have themes of male camaraderie.
"El Dorado," which was an unofficial remake of Hawks' own "Rio Bravo," starred Wayne as a gun for hire who aids his friend Mitchum in defeating an evil rancher. Mitchum's character is the sheriff of the town and is normally a man with which to be reckoned, but he has become a drunk due to a love affair gone badly.
Toss in two strong female characters, an inexperienced kid (played by a very young James Caan) and a grizzled deputy and you have the makings of a classic western.
I liked the film a great deal, but then I appreciate John Wayne for what he was - a movie star who sometimes rose to the occasion of being an actor. Stars were often cast according to their image and when Wayne was able to escape that he turned in some solid performances. This is one of those times, as Wayne plays a gunslinger with a conscience and a code of ethics.
The second disc has an entertaining and informative look at the making of the film and Hawks' career as well as a personal remembrance of Wayne by veteran movie producer A.C. Lyles.
Wayne fans, as well as those who enjoy Hawks' films, shouldn't pass up this new release.
P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves & Wooster: The Complete Series
For Americans who have only seen Hugh Laurie as the anti-social Dr. House, this new set of British comedies based on the stories of P.G. Wodehouse will be a revelation.
Before becoming known as a dramatic performer, Laurie was well known as a comic actor who excelled in playing, well, idiots, and this is one of his best turns.
Laurie is Bertie Wooster, an upper class twit whose inherited income allows him to live the high life. Stephen Fry is Jeeves, his oddly devoted butler. Smart, diplomatic and sophisticated, Jeeves is everything Bertie is not. He is also not a member of Bertie's privileged class.
Set in the 1930s in Great Britain, the 45-minute films are drolly funny with Jeeves, who is professionally devoted to his employer's well being, rescuing Bertie out of a variety of bad situations. The two actors play off of each other perfectly and both add a lot of humanity to their respective characters.
The four seasons of the program are presented on eight discs and my wife and found that viewing one episode would lead to another. This set is highly recommended.