I spent some more time last night with Warner's new ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN box set and feel I must say something about Gary H. Grossman's audio commentaries. Mr. Grossman is the author of Superman: Serial to Cereal, a book from the 1970s which I haven't read but which I believe to be the first book to cover the series in any depth. Therefore he has the credentials to provide this commentary and he brings a marvelously warm and expressive voice and ease of communication to the medium. So why does he bungle the job?
Grossman's commentary for "The Haunted Lighthouse" (featuring Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, pictured above) pretty much had me at wit's end. Not only does he build his entire talk around his boundless fascination with the idea that he still remembers the first time he saw this episode (at age four) as though it was yesterday, he speaks to his listeners like a kindergarten teacher -- as though he imagines us to be age four. It's very grating. When he does impart anything approaching technical information, it's usually to point out an actor's shadow on a cycloramic backdrop or some other "blooper," like Superman's costume drying right after he's gotten it wet. These points are not only insignificant but easily noticed, hardly requiring this sort of underlining. Still worse, when Grossman offers more substantial information, it tends to ring false. His account of what Steve Carr would have done as the show's dialogue coach isn't quite right. Carr wouldn't have told actors how to say their lines in a soundbooth; he would have run script lines with them in their dressing rooms during breaks in the shooting. During a climactic showdown between the Man of Steel and someone who tried to flatten him with a rock, Grossman interrupts a silent patch to issue a stunt man alert -- which is fine, but when the attacker rushes past Superman to fall off the cliff, there is a digital repair glitch which Grossman explains as a cut that allowed the filmmakers to reinsert Reeves back in the action. (Not so; you reinsert the actor before you call "action," not in the middle of a shot. Besides, this show isn't all that careful about keeping the face of George Reeves' stunt man off camera. Check out Superman's rescue of Lois and Jimmy in "Night of Terror" and you'll see what I mean.) Finally, when Jimmy Olsen's "real" Aunt Louisa enters the episode at the end, Grossman identifies the actress as Effie Laird. If he's correct, I'd like an explanation because Ms. Laird's name doesn't appear in the end credits and the accompanying featurette on Disc 5 identifies this lady as Maude Prickett.
While watching "The Haunted Lighthouse," you may notice what looks like segments of significantly poorer quality, where the crystal clear image suddenly turns flat and fuzzy. The longest of these few segments run from 14:16 to 14:57 and from 16:37 to 17:01. Here's an example:
People should know that the picture doesn't lose about 50% of its sharpness in these instances because these snippets survive only in degraded condition. Actually, this footage was degraded in post-production because it was double-printed with optical overlays of fog. (The shot starts out the way you see it above, then the fog slowly rolls in.) What's interesting about this footage is that the transition to these optical inserts was next to invisible when this program originally aired on TV and later in syndication, but with the non-optically-treated footage digitally restored, the difference between it and the optical footage is now literally glaring. Since these shots were intended to blend seamlessly with one another, they also give us a measure of how much the bulk of the program has been improved -- a kind of "before and after" illustration, so to speak.
This is the sort of helpful information the commentary could have used, as well as some general information about how this great program came to be produced and why the tone of these first season episodes are so different from that of later seasons. I can't say that Warner Home Video got the wrong guy for the job when they called Gary Grossman, but the evidence of his two commentaries shows that he charged into the task with far more enthusiasm than care. There are two more commentaries in the set by George Reeves biographer Chuck Harter, and I hope they take better advantage of the opportunity.
Interesting tid-bit: Check out the janitor's visit to Clark Kent's office in "Night of Terror," about 14m 40s into the episiode. When he leans a broom against the wall of the office, you can see the whole wall tremble -- it's not a solid wall at all, but some kind of stretched fabric! This is the sort of detail it was just about impossible to see in this program until now.
On a different note, here's a Video WatchBlog consumer alert from VW reader John Gentile of Jersey City, New Jersey:
"MGM quietly released the 1976 Canadian gem THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVED DOWN THE LANE recently, and even though the DVD box claims it's rated PG, I suspect that this was transferred from an R rated version from the vaults. First of all, Scott Jacoby drops the "F bomb" early on. Then, in a brief love scene, Jodie Foster's character disrobes (it's pretty clear this was a body double). The Vestron tape from the 1980s does not include these scenes, and is rated PG."
Along these same lines, I'll take this opportunity to mention that MGM's "Midnite Movies" release of Roger Corman's GAS-S-S-S! was also quietly restored for its DVD debut. When the film was being prepared for release by American International Pictures in 1971, they tampered with Corman's original cut, removing a couple of "F bombs" (which are actually uttered rather sweetly) and omitting some voice-overs by a omniscient offscreen character called God. Corman took the AIP's shanghai-ing of his picture so much to heart that he never worked for Arkoff & Nicholson again and started his own company, New World Pictures, to gain executive control over his own future product. GAS-S-S-S! still has some coherency issues, but it's far more comic and entertaining (almost Kurtzmanesque) and obvious as a career testament than was the previous VHS release from the 1980s. When I noticed that the movie had been released as Corman intended it to be seen for the first time, I notified Joe Dante, who brought the matter to Roger Corman's attention. He had not been notified of the restoration by MGM (who probably didn't know they were restoring it), nor did he know that his original cut had survived that long-ago night-of-the-long-knives in the AIP vaults. It was released on a two-fer disc with Barry Shear's WILD IN THE STREETS (1968).