- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2015

History remembers 1939 as the beginning of Hitler’s war on the world, the introduction of television and the debut of the vigilante Batman, but the year was also considered one of the most productive and successful for Hollywood studios.

Warner Bros. compiles a quintet of its finest films from the era in The Golden Year Collection — 1939  (Warner Home Video, Rated G, $69.96), a high-definition set sure to satisfy nostalgia buffs and cinema connoisseurs.

The collection consists of “Dark Victory,” “Dodge City,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Ninotchka” and “Gone With The Wind,” winner of many Academy Awards. The first four films are available for the first time in the Blu-ray format.

Here’s some specifics on three of my favorites from the collection:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame — Newly restored for this set, the movie adaption of Victor Hugo’s depressing novel features actor Charles Laughton’s incredible performance as Quasimodo, the disfigured bell ringer of Notre Dame who comes to the aid of Esmeralda, a gypsy wrongly accused of murder (played by a stunning, 19-year old Maureen O’Hara).

As one of the most expensive movies of its time, it offers an incredible reproduction of a village in the medieval city of Paris and the famed cathedral revealed in a very clean digital transfer.

I just wish the film had been in color back then and now to truly highlight director William Dieterle’s meticulous effort. Best extras includes a 12-minute overview of the production spotlighted by an interview with O’Hara.

Dodge City — Action star Errol Flynn stopped swashbuckling and strapped on a six-shooter for his Western genre debut as a settler so sick of the violence in his new cattle town that he becomes the sheriff. It’s an action-packed effort from “Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz.

A clean digital transfer from the original Technicolor source material presents a slightly muted color palette though sharp detail throughout as it highlights some beautiful outdoor locations, the gorgeous Olivia de Havilland (as our hero’s love interest) and the cowboy costuming.

Extras include critic Leonard Maltin’s “Night at the Movies” featuring a pre-film presentation that includes a vintage newsreel of the day, and a few shorts and trailer for the “Oklahoma Kid” along with an 8-minute look at the 1930s Western.

Ninotchka — Popular silent film star Greta Garbo cemented her successful transition to talkies with a satirical romantic comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Taking shots at communism and Stalin’s Russia, the plot finds a rigid Soviet envoy Nina Ivanovna Yakushova  (Miss Garbo) out to bring three thieves back to the Motherland who are enjoying Paris but, instead, Nina finds love with a too-relaxed Count Leon d’Algout (played by Melvyn Douglas).

The digital transfer is competent for the black-and-white release, though, Garbo’s knack for delivering a dead-pan insult coupled with a charming laugh will endear the film with home theater audiences forever.

Owners also get a sixth, DVD disk (boo, not in high-definition) in the collection featuring the 2009, roughly one hour documentary “1939: Hollywood’s Greatest Year” narrated by Kenneth Branagh. It’s loaded with insights from film historians and clips from hottest studios and stars of the day.

Finally, spread out over all of the disks are more than a dozen vintage cartoons and live-action shorts (also not in high-definition) including: the sobering “Drunk Driving,” a stern warning to alcohol lovers; “Sons of Liberty,” the Academy-Award Winner about the American Revolutionary Haym Solomon; “Old Hickory,” a 16-minute look at key moments in the life of Andrew Jackson played by Hugh Sothern; and the Looney Tunes classic “The Lone Ranger and Porky.”

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