The great movie tradition of adapting high-toned novels into star-studded vehicles gets an airing in Warner DVD's Literary Classics Collection, a group of six such pictures. It's a grab bag, but some of this stuff is unmissable. The best film in the box might be the 1937 version of The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope's buckle-swashing tale of a commoner (Ronald Colman) impersonating a lookalike king. This David Selznick production is one of those sparkling examples of the Hollywood heyday of the thirties, in which every cylinder is firing at full speed: buoyant script, luscious black-and-white photography (by the great James Wong Howe), exuberant swordplay, wonderful villainy (take a bow, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Raymond Massey), and a lovely damsel (Madeleine Carroll). John Cromwell directed, although others chimed in. As an adventure picture, it's just about flawless. On the flip side of the disc, the 1952 remake sticks closely to the original--and the formula still works, although the zest isn't quite there. Stewart Granger steps into Colman's shoes, with Deborah Kerr and James Mason in support. The 1948 version of The Three Musketeers is one of the lesser versions of that swashbuckler; Gene Kelly and Lana Turner leads the cast in a Technicolor-iffic but dramatically underwhelming effort. Raoul Walsh's Captain Horatio Hornblower (1950) delivers thoughtful seagoing strategies, as the British captain navigating gunships and political winds. The movie doesn't have the oomph of the usual Walsh action film, perhaps keyed instead to Gregory Peck's serious presence, but it has a gratifyingly intelligent forward motion. Plus, the Hornblower disc comes with "Captain Hareblower," a Warners cartoon with Bugs Bunny battling Yosemite Sam on the high seas. The shipboard morality play of Melville's Billy Budd is included here, in the classic 1962 adaptation by director Peter Ustinov (who also plays Captain Vere). Terence Stamp, in his film debut, is the innocent sailor Billy, and Robert Ryan etches one of the all-time portrayals of cold-eyed cruelty as the brutal master-at-arms Claggart. A great conversation piece in the era of the repertory house, the film holds up--and a commentary track with Stamp and Steven Soderbergh provides good stuff on the actor's career start. The 1949 M-G-M production of Madame Bovary might not please Flaubert purists, but it will impress auteurist fans of Vincente Minnelli. The tale of a wayward small-town wife is infused with Minnelli's swooning grasp of camera movement and décor, and a showpiece ballroom sequence out-duels any Max Ophuls film for swirling dance delirium. Jennifer Jones' alien presence might be a problem for modern viewers, yet her strangeness actually fits the character. This might just be the discovery of the set, which is otherwise filled out with a satisfying batch of vintage cartoons and short subjects. --Robert Horton
Rupert of Hentzau:
Why don't you let me kill you quietly?
Oh, a little noise adds a touch of cheer. You notice I'm getting closer to the drawbridge rope?
Rupert of Hentzau:
You're so fond of rope, it's a pity to finish you off with steel. What did they teach you on the playing fields of Eton? Puss in the corner?
Oh, chiefly not throwing knives at other people's backs.