Friday, March 25, 2011

BRENDA STARR, REPORTER

Based on the long-running newspaper comic strip originated by female cartoonist Dale Messick, the 1945 chapterplay, BRENDA STARR, REPORTER has just been released on DVD by VCI Entertainment. This is a pretty big deal for cliffhanger fans because, up until very recently, the Sam Katzman-produced, Columbia Studios serial was considered to be "lost."

Girl reporter Brenda Starr (Joan Woodbury) and her photographer sidekick Chuck Allen (Syd Saylor) become involved in a search for a stolen $250,000 payroll. What follows is the usual fast-paced cliffhanger nonsense as the plucky distaff journalist keeps finding herself in mortal peril at the hands of vicious gangsters and hardboiled henchmen. Fortunately, her boyfriend, police lieutenant Larry Farrell (Kane Richmond, SPY SMASHER) is usually able to extricate her from her predicaments just in the nick of time....

BRENDA STARR is fast-paced and engaging, with a twisty script full of thrilling escapes. The cast - all of them veterans of B-movies - is quite good. Even Saylor, as the obligatory comic relief, isn't as irritating as one might expect. Overall, it's one of the better Columbia cliffhangers, and a fun ride.

As I noted above, this serial was considered "lost" for years. Then, a single, time-ravaged print turned up in the hands of a  private collector, and VCI was able to get access to it. An extensive and painstaking digital restoration was attempted, and the result was this DVD.

At first glance, the results seem unimpressive - the whole thing looks distractingly grainy and out-of focus, with no depth-of-field and poor, almost non-existent, contrast. But frankly, this one needs to be graded on a curve. If you take a look at the "restoration comparison" feature on the disc, you'll see that the source print was so degraded and damaged that VCI's ability to make the film viewable at all must be commended. Considering how small an audience there is for these vintage cliffhangers, the company's choice to expend the effort (and pay the cost) of such an extensive, frame-by-frame remaster, is astounding and must have been a labor of love - love for classic cinema, in this case.

VCI's DVD includes all "13 spine-tingling chapters" on a single disc. As noted above, the 1.33:1 "full frame" transfer is not up to the company's usual standards (especially in comparison to their BUCK ROGERS and GREEN HORNET titles), and, in fact, chapters three and four are missing significant chunks of audio and video completely. But, in context, it's astounding that this serial exists in a  watchable form at all. The only extras are the aforementioned Restoration Comparison, a collection of film stills, and a liner note insert that explains the history of the serial and why it was "lost," why the company chose to release it, and a synopsis of the missing material.

Diehard serial collectors will probably want to pick up VCI's BRENDA STARR, REPORTER disc, regardless of its technical problems, simply because it is so rare. More casual fans should consider carefully; watching the 13 chapters requires a certain amount of patience and determination due to the poor visual presentation, but it is a fun chapterplay, with an appealing heroine, some genuine, old-fashioned thrills, and a great deal of charm.

BUY: Brenda Starr, Reporter (Serial 1945)