“Cartoon Roots,” “Classic Shorts,” Man With Movie Camera” top new DVDs & Blu-rays

Judy Garland, Patricia Palmer and Deanna Durbin on the set of Every Sunday (1936).
Judy Garland, Patricia Palmer and Deanna Durbin on the set of Every Sunday (1936).

It would be easy to miss “Cartoon Roots,” Tommy Stathes’ new release on his independent Cartoons on Film label, but this Blu-ray/DVD combo deserves attention from anyone interested in animation. It gets off to a rough start with racial stereotypes in “Lightning Sketches” (1907), but this collection is packed with gems that more than make up for it—including efforts by Max & Dave Fleischer, Walter Lantz, Paul Terry and other pioneers of the art form.

“Cartoons on Tour” (1915) and “Col. Heeza Liar, Detective” (1923) are early attempts to combine live action with animation, the latter especially well done. Mutt and Jeff are on view in “Fireman Save My Child” (1919), Koko the Clown in “The Circus” (1920), and Krazy Kat in “Scents and Nonsense” (1926); “Farmerette” (1932) offers an amusing Betty Boop knock-off. Steve Stanchfield did the admirable restoration; Robert Israel and Ben Model provide wonderfully entertaining new scores.

Warner Archive releases more must-have DVDs than this reviewer can keep up with, but “Classic Shorts from the Dream Factory, Vol. 2” is required viewing for vintage film fans. The terrific “Every Sunday” (1936), an apparent audition for two youngsters named Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin, is the best known film in this 3-DVD collection packed with forgotten treasures from the MGM vaults.

Highlights among the 36 short subjects include a very young Jack Benny in “The Rounder”; the singing Dandridge Sisters in “Snow Gets in Your Eyes”; “Streamlined Swing,” directed by Buster Keaton; and the Oscar-winning “Heavenly Music,” a mini-musical comedy about a swing bandleader trying to get into the Pearly Gates. Up-and-coming MGM players like Ann Rutherford, Lana Turner and George Murphy are featured, along with such beloved character actors as Billy Gilbert.

Dziga Vertov may be an obscure name even to aficionados of classic film, but his visually spectacular 1929 masterpiece, “The Man With the Movie Camera,” is unforgettable. The camera is an extension of the human eye in this documentary, in which it attempts to capture “the chaos of visual phenomena filling the universe.” Flicker Alley has recently released it on Blu-ray—where it can be seen in its entirety for the first time since its original premiere—along with other restored works by the filmmaker. “Man” features striking musical accompaniment by Alloy Orchestra.

Chances are you’ve never heard of “Death Kiss” (1932) but this Pre-Code whodunit from Poverty Row studio Tiffany (available from Kino on DVD) is highly watchable, and moves like greased lightning. Bela Lugosi (seemingly miscast as a studio head) is reteamed with “Dracula” co-stars David Manners and Edward Van Sloan; Vince Barnett supplies the comic relief. The erudite commentary track by Richard Harlan Smith is worth the price of the disc by itself.

Going solo at the Hollywood Fringe with Ethel Merman, Ina Ray Hutton and Ira Aldridge

Heard of Ira Aldridge? It matters not. “Bright Swords” exhumes the 19th century black actor and brings him vividly back to life, telling the story of how he took a fellow thespian’s advice when he was 17 and went to England, where he would not face racial prejudice. It’s well-acted by Ryan Vincent Anderson, who shifts credibly between Aldridge and a variety of supporting characters, making each unique; Jeffrey Wienckowski’s direction is first-rate, highly attentive and never arbitrary. If there’s a flaw it’s in Rick Creese’s script. This solo show is heavy on exposition, though some of it is by necessity, dealing as it does with a largely forgotten figure; the text is solid for the most part but ventures into the mundane at times.

Want to see a terrific show about a woman way ahead of her time, performed by an actress whose skills are as stellar as her energy level is high? Catch “Journey of a Bombshell: The Ina Ray Hutton Story,” Melissa Ritz’s one-woman show about the undeservedly obscure big band era luminary and TV pioneer. The exposition is kept to a minimum in the well-honed script; Ritz’s acting chops are equally sharp, crisply characterizing a variety of supporting characters, notably Ina’s mother and music publisher Irving Mills, whose genius idea it was to have Ina Ray front a band. Julie Kline’s attentive direction and Tony Coppola & Shelby Kaufman’s choreography add immeasurably to Ritz’s snappy stage presence.

It takes brass to write, produce and act in a one-woman show about a famous entertainer such as “Ethel Merman.” Unfortunately, Gaby Rey hasn’t quite got the brass or the sass to pull off this impersonation of the musical comedy legend. She has a pleasant singing voice which she wisely amplifies with a face mic, and she can certainly hold a note, but she lacks the lung power and the pizzazz of La Merman. Worse, the script is monotonous and heavily expository; Ethel’s outrage over Rosalind Russell being cast in the movie version of “Gypsy” (which she originated on Broadway to huge success) fuels the show’s best moment, but it doesn’t last long before returning to the mundane. The singular costume looks good on Rey but is all wrong for the show; the lack of a director credit on the program is telling.