Judge Clark Douglas plays both heroes and villains.
Our reviews of The Boston Strangler (published October 26th, 2004), Daisy Kenyon (published April 25th, 2008), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) (Blu-ray) (published October 3rd, 2013), The Grapes Of Wrath (published April 12th, 2004), The Grapes Of Wrath (published October 6th, 2010), Immortal Sergeant (1943) (published December 12th, 2013), Jesse James (1939) (Blu-ray) (published January 6th, 2014), The Longest Day (published June 19th, 2006), The Longest Day (Blu-Ray) (published June 6th, 2008), My Darling Clementine (published March 1st, 2004), My Darling Clementine (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published October 18th, 2014), and The Ox-Bow Incident (published November 11th, 2003) are also available.
A legacy of truly memorable motion picture performances,
Wouldn't it be wonderful if DVD and Blu-ray box sets could simply ignore copyright issues? Notorious and Strangers on a Train could have been included in that lavish Alfred Hitchcock box set. Never Say Never Again and the original Casino Royale could be included in the latest collection of James Bond movies. And the focus of today's review—The Henry Fonda Film Collection—could have actually included Fonda's very best films.
In fairness, The Henry Fonda Film Collection does offer some great stuff. The Grapes of Wrath and The Ox-Bow Incident deserve serious consideration whenever a list of Fonda's best films is being compiled. Still, a more accurate title for this one would be The "Here Are Some Henry Fonda Movies We Have the Rights To" Collection. This ten-film box set is mostly comprised of films worth watching, but it's hardly a definitive overview of Fonda's career, range or impact on the world of cinema. Imagine a collection that included The Lady Eve, Fort Apache, Once Upon a Time in the West, 12 Angry Men, Advise & Consent, The Wrong Man and On Golden Pond. Alas, none of those titles is to be found here.
For the most part, the collection spotlights a pretty small window in Fonda's career, featuring some of the films he made for 20th Century Fox between 1939-1947. After that, the film tosses out a couple of Fonda flicks from the '60s (one of which barely features the actor at all) and calls it a day. The film kicks off with Jesse James, a Tyrone Power vehicle that features Fonda as Jesse's brother Frank. The film is unfortunately best-known as the movie that inspired the American Humane Association to form a film and television unit. A horse was deliberately sent to its death as part of an extravagant stunt, which understandably led to a great deal of public outcry. Nonetheless, the film managed to receive a sequel: Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James. The latter film places Fonda in the starring role, but doesn't give him much of interest to do. With the notorious Jesse dead and Frank determined to reform his ways, we're mostly left with a sluggish courtroom drama that struggles to add some compelling fictional flourishes to Frank's life story.
Three of the seven collaborations between Fonda and director John Ford have been included. Drums Along the Mohawk is a startling, effective Revolutionary War drama that features one of Fonda's strongest early performances. It's hampered a bit by its very dated treatment of Native Americans (sadly, a common trait in Ford's earlier films), but otherwise it's yet another strong effort from one of the most fertile creative periods of Ford's career. Even better is the director's adaptation of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, justly regarded as one of the all-time great literary adaptations in spite of the fact that it makes some significant changes to the original novel. Like the novel itself, the film still feels as relevant and potent as ever. Finally, My Darling Clementine is simultaneously the most entertaining and most troubling of the Ford/Fonda collaborations, offering a rousing slice of entertainment while indulging some rather ugly social impulses (the fact that Fonda's Wyatt Earp regards Indians as second-class citizens is played for laughs, and the film's treatment of women is similarly unfortunate).
Elsewhere, the 1943 film Immortal Sergeant is a fairly standard war drama, hitting all the right notes but offering little that feels truly original (though Fonda and co-star Maureen O'Hara share some nice chemistry). The Ox-Bow Incident remains an often-overlooked classic, a strong and challenging film that confronts the notion of frontier justice in a powerful and provocative way. It's as memorable and gripping a film as 12 Angry Men, and its cool-headed approach permits it to stand in sharp contrast to many other westerns of the era. Daisy Kenyon is a strong noir from director Otto Preminger, though Fonda plays a supporting role (the title character is played by Joan Crawford, delivering one of her stronger performances). It's a character-driven film that benefits from psychological complexity and Preminger's stellar direction, and a nice change of pace from the period dramas that dominate the set.
Finally, the last two films of the collection lurch us forward into the 1960s. The WWII epic The Longest Day is notable for its staggering array of movie stars, but to be honest, it's more impressive on paper than it is as a cinematic experience. Once the thrill of, "Hey, look! It's Robert Ryan/Robert Mitchum/John Wayne!" wears off, you're left with a competently directed but undeniably overlong war movie that doesn't do much to distinguish itself from similar films of the era. Like most of the actors in the film, Fonda only appears onscreen for a few minutes, but he does make a significant impression in his turn as a general who wants to fight despite the fact that he could easily sit out the war in relative comfort. The set concludes with The Boston Strangler, a solid crime drama that was regarded as an exceptionally edgy film in 1968 but feels like a gentle double-sized episode of CSI these days. Tony Curtis does strong work playing against type in the title role, while Fonda brings his no-nonsense dignity to the film's protagonist.
Pretty much all of the DVDs included in The Henry Fonda Film Collection are simply repackaged versions of the previously-released discs (though new labels have been slapped on most of them for the sake of making them look new—a couple of dreaded "flipper discs" are left untouched for obvious reasons). Many of these discs have been reviewed on this very site, so I won't bore you with a detailed rundown of the transfers or special features—all of these are available individually and nothing has been changed (though some of these films are also available on Blu-ray, so it's disappointing that Fox passed on releasing a hi-def version of this collection). Unfortunately, that's not the only thing that makes this collection feel like a thoughtless rush job. The cardboard packaging (similar to what Fox offered for their Marilyn Monroe collection recently) is remarkably flimsy and does a poor job of holding the discs in place (by the time I received by review copy in the mail, the set looked fairly weathered, many of the discs were loose and some of them were scratched and scuffed). Fonda fans deserve better, and despite the high quality of some of the films included in this set, I can't quite bring myself to recommend such a poorly-packaged collection.
The films in The Henry Fonda Film Collection vary in quality, but there's plenty of value to be found among these ten features. Too bad Fox has treated this collection so carelessly.
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Scales of Justice, Drums Along The Mohawk
Perp Profile, Drums Along The Mohawk
Distinguishing Marks, Drums Along The Mohawk
Scales of Justice, Jesse James
Perp Profile, Jesse James
Distinguishing Marks, Jesse James
• Newsreel Clips
Scales of Justice, The Grapes Of Wrath
Perp Profile, The Grapes Of Wrath
Distinguishing Marks, The Grapes Of Wrath
Scales of Justice, The Return Of Frank James
Perp Profile, The Return Of Frank James
Distinguishing Marks, The Return Of Frank James
Scales of Justice, Immortal Sergeant
Perp Profile, Immortal Sergeant
Distinguishing Marks, Immortal Sergeant
Scales of Justice, The Ox-Bow Incident
Perp Profile, The Ox-Bow Incident
Distinguishing Marks, The Ox-Bow Incident
Scales of Justice, My Darling Clementine
Perp Profile, My Darling Clementine
Distinguishing Marks, My Darling Clementine
Scales of Justice, Daisy Kenyon
Perp Profile, Daisy Kenyon
Distinguishing Marks, Daisy Kenyon
Scales of Justice, The Longest Day
Perp Profile, The Longest Day
Distinguishing Marks, The Longest Day
Scales of Justice, The Boston Strangler
Perp Profile, The Boston Strangler
Distinguishing Marks, The Boston Strangler
• IMDb: Jesse James
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