Saturday, Mar 17, 2018
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Mr. Capra goes to school

When I was in elementary school, my fourth-grade class would plead with our teacher to drag out what we called, “the Capra,” i.e. these deteriorating old animated educational films we identified by the man whose name went above their titles: Frank Capra.

This man, we soon learned, arrived on a boat from Sicily. He arranged pratfalls for silent movie comic Mack Sennett; he later became one of America's most beloved sentimentalists, director of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Meet John Doe, and It's a Wonderful Life; he even made those ubiquitous World War II rallying films, Why We Fight.

Capra was America's celluloid answer to Norman Rockwell - and arguably remains so in the popular imagination. But to three generations of schoolchildren, or at least to me, anyway, Frank Capra knew Eddie Albert - THE Eddie Albert! And Eddie Albert appeared in one of the four educational films that Capra wrote, produced, and mostly directed. Eddie acted opposite a grumpy (and animated) Mr. Sun. Other films featured scientists trading quips with a transparent Greek who called himself Hemo the Magnificent; I vaguely remember one installment with an Edgar Allan Poe puppet espousing the secrets of molecules.

This was weird stuff. (Then again, movies and television shows for kids always seem alien a generation later.) But sound familiar, baby boomers? Made in the mid-'50s on commission from AT&T, and stamped with approval from Bell Science, these shorts became the last significant output of Capra, whose career had never quite recovered from the box office failure of Wonderful Life. In recent years they've been little seen, a curious footnote to movie history.

But because no Hollywood trivia are too small to be repackaged on DVD, on Tuesday Image Entertainment will release all four installments of Frank Capra's Wonders of Life on two DVDs. Each disc ($14.99) contains two films, with Our Mr. Sun and Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays on one DVD, and Hemo the Magnificent and Unchained Goddess on the other.

Even more curious and surprising is how entertaining these films remain. The animation suggests the line drawings of Al Hirschfeld by way of the brightly cololored fluidity of those old Disney shorts that once played Sunday night television. The humor is surprisingly sarcastic - the sun is an egomaniac, still mad that a Greek scientist removed his mystery when he pointed out the sun is neither a person nor a god.

Most importantly: Their lessons, fundamentals on how biology, astronomy, and weather work, are clear and charming - or at least they were for Steven Spielberg.

Remember that goofy animated film in Jurassic Park? The one explaining the pseudo-science that Spielberg used to reconstruct the genetic code of a T-Rex? Spielberg was remembering his childhood. And the slow-school-day films of Frank Capra.

eHow many classic movies allow a superstar the chance to beat down his mustache-twisting oppressors with a dead deer? Just one (I think. Don't hold me to that): Warner Bros.' 1938 Technicolor blockbuster, The Adventures of Robin Hood (Warner Home Video, $26.99), but The Rock and his burgeoning action career might want to take note of Errol Flynn's creative use of road kill. It is an action hero technique just itching to be rediscovered. As is the movie, which gets a seriously impressive two-disc treatment by its understandably fawning studio. Here is the best of their legacy and Warner, like Disney, instinctively understands that DVD can be a place for posterity to take root with another generation. How else do you explain the inclusion of the absorbing hour-long documentary Glorious Technicolor - a lesson with tangential relation to the movie itself but supreme importance to movie history?

My next fave extra is The Cruise of the Zaca, a kind of pre-Barbara Walters attempt at promotion with Flynn inviting us on a boat trip. Basil Rathbone's on-set home movies of the production are fun; so is the inclusion of two Robin Hood-y Looney Tunes shorts. Breakdown of 1938 is the annual blooper reel that played at the Warner Christmas party. But call me a trailer junkie: I couldn't get enough of this edition's 11 vintage Flynn previews.

Ditto for Warner's two-disc edition of its seminal 1948 Humphrey Bogart adventure, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ($26.99), which has a terrific commentary track from the biographer Eric Lax and 12 Bogart trailers (all with that scratchy feel of an old pulp book cover), along with that classic Bugs Bunny short with the great “Badges? We don't need no stinkin' badges” line.

John Huston: The Man, The Movies, The Maverick (1989) is a fine two-hours-plus portrait of the artist as a talented madman. If you ignore the unblinking creepiness of host Leonard Maltin, check out “Warner Night at the Movies,” a video option that delivers newsreels, cartoons, trailers, short films, then the movie itself - pretend you spent only a dime on your home theater set-up and the illusion is complete.

Both Warner special editions are available Tuesday, and among the most generous DVD releases of the year.

eNEW ON VIDEO: A Mighty Wind (Christopher Guest goes the mock-umentary route again, this time with bland results; the target is folk music, but a few touching performances aside, it's mostly a misfire); Holes (Certain to have a long life on video: it's an ambitious take on the modern junior high reading list favorite about boys at a desert prison camp; parents who whine there's nothing for the family, take note); Daddy Day Care (Also for the whole family, if your family can't get enough Pluto Nash; Eddie Murphy sinks into a kiddie movie morass with this witless comedy; the title is the plot); The Shape of Things (Neil LaBute returns to the scabrous relationship drama, and gives creepy meaning to “I love you just the way you are”).

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