This is actually WB's third set of "Leading Ladies" box sets, the first two being "The Best Leading Ladies" and "The Leading Ladies." I have to admit that the movies in this newest set aren't quite of the same high quality as in the first boxes, but they still hold their own. Let me tell you about four of the five movies (all of them available separately as well as in the box) and go into more detail on the fifth.
Taking the movies chronologically, the first is "I'll Cry Tomorrow" (1955), the biopic of singer and actress Lillian Roth, who rose to fame in the 1920s and 30s and faced a devastating bout with alcoholism. I remember seeing this one, directed by Daniel Mann and co-starring Richard Conte, Eddie Albert and Jo Van Fleet, on TV quite a long time ago and finding the performance of leading lady Susan Hayward a knockout (she not only acts but apparently does her own singing). However, the film itself seemed rather melodramatic and gloomy to me. No doubt, though, it is one of the standouts of the set. 7/10
"Up the Down Staircase" (1967), about a new teacher in her first teaching job, coincidently came out the year I started teaching, and I eagerly read the novel by Bel Kaufman and watched the movie. It was quite good for its day, and the school at which I did my student teaching had reminded me of the one in the movie. (There was a line painted down the center of each hallway, and the school administrators expected everyone to walk to the right of it.) Yes, the plot fills "Up the Down Staircase" with the usual, maybe clichéd, problems a first-year teacher might face, but the movie remains convincing. And it's a darn-sight better than those fantasies like "To Sir, with Love," "The Substitute," or "The Principal." Directed by Robert Mulligan and produced by Alan J. Pakula, and starring Sandy Dennis as the beleaguered teacher in a tough school, "Up the Down Staircase" is still persuasive, and it's exceptionally well acted. 7/10
"Rich and Famous" (1981) is a movie I could not watch again. Even though George Cukor directed it and it stars Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen, the film is depressingly somber and pretentious. It's only claim to fame these days is that it features the acting debut of Meg Ryan as a rebellious teenager. And that's not saying a lot. 4/10
"Shoot the Moon" (1981), I have to admit, I liked mainly because of the location shooting in and around San Francisco and Marin County, near where I live. The story, involving Diane Keaton and Albert Finney as an affluent couple about to divorce, left me rather cold, however. Director Alan Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman leave the film's substance up the actors, who try valiantly but can't do very much with a script that really doesn't say very much. 5/10
OK, that left me with the only film I hadn't seen before, "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" (1966). Produced and directed by Fielder Cook, who did mostly TV things (helpful, given that the story started out as a TV episode that he had directed five years earlier), and starring Joanne Woodward, Henry Fonda, and Jason Robards, the subject matter of this Western is the lightest of any in the box set, yet it's a pleasant surprise.
The story's premise is almost ludicrously simple. It revolves around a single poker game. Not only a single game but a single hand. Here's the deal: Once every year for sixteen years a group of five of the richest men in Texas get together to play a high-stakes poker game in the back room of a Laredo hotel, a game that usually goes on for several days and one for which they will drop everything to play. This year, though, a new man shows up. Meredith (Fonda), his wife Mary (Woodward), and their young son Jackie (Gerald Michenaud) are a poor family traveling through town on their way to a new little ranch they've bought, when their wagon breaks down. Waiting for the local blacksmith to fix a wheel, the family check into the hotel for the night. Meredith, a former compulsive gambler, cannot stop himself from wanting to watch the big game, and you can guess the inevitable outcome. He persuades the gamblers to allow him to participate, and he risks his and his wife's entire life savings on the game. Then he has a heart attack during play and must turn over what he thinks might be a winning hand to his wife, who knows nothing about poker.
And that's about it. Yet the cast is so good, you can't help following every detail. Not only are Fonda and Woodward good, but there is a supporting cast whose faces, if you are old enough, you will recognize instantly. Jason Robards, Kevin McCarthy, Charles Bickford, Robert Middleton, and John Qualen play the rich gamblers. Paul Ford plays a cantankerous old banker. Burgess Meredith plays the kindly town doctor. There's even a bit part played by Chester Conklin, a fellow whose Hollywood career started in 1913. These colorful, well-known character actors could make the telephone book come to life.
Although you don't have to like poker to like the movie, you might have to have a certain tolerance for TV-type movies. This one was made for theatrical release and did fairly well at the box office, but it has a made-for-television feel about it. The filmmakers shot most of it on a soundstage simulating the confines of the hotel, so it seems a bit claustrophobic. Beyond the actors' salaries, the production costs were probably minimal. It looks like an episode from the old "Gunsmoke" series. The musical score also has the feel of television, unmemorable stock snippets of melodramatic tunes. And despite the period 1880s setting, the actors betray the 1960s by their costumes, men's haircuts, and women's hair styles.
But the most frustrating thing in this otherwise clever and witty piece of writing is the padding. As I said, it started life as a one-hour TV episode, "Big Hand in Laredo," which probably only lasted forty-five minutes with commercials. So the screenwriter, Sidney Carroll, for this nine-five-minute movie version of his own television script, literally padded it out with another forty minutes or so of material, and it shows, especially at the beginning and the end.
Yet the film works despite the handicaps. "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" is a charmer.
All five of the films come in 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratios, and all are in color except "I'll Cry Tomorrow." The color and definition in "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" are indicative of the rest of the set. Its Technicolor is good, helped in its natural tones and deep richness by a high bit rate and an anamorphic transfer. The film's outdoor opening shot is rather grainy, but don't let it worry you. Things clear up considerably once the picture gets underway. The object delineation is fine, if a tad soft, and the film itself betrays no obvious signs of age.
The films all carry a standard 1.0 monaural soundtrack of the day, processed in Dolby Digital. It's good mono sound, although a touch hard. The main thing is that it's clean and quiet. As the card game in "A Big Hand" heats up, you don't care much what the sound is like because you don't even notice it.
Among the extras scattered around on the discs, you'll find an audio commentary by director Alan Parker and screenwriter Bo Goldman on "Shoot the Moon"; a vintage newsreel and TV excerpts on "I'll Cry Tomorrow"; several vintage short subjects; a few theatrical trailers; English as the only spoken language; English and French subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Specific to "A Big Hand for the Little Lady," you'll find twenty-one scene selections and, uh, twenty-one scene selections. Yeah, well, that's all that's on the disc.
With the "Leading Ladies Collection," Volume 2, you get a varied assortment of films, some good, some not as good. If you're a fan of any of the actresses, naturally you'll want either the whole box or the individual title of your choice. But, as I say, I found "I'll Cry Tomorrow" and "Up the Down Staircase" the prestige items, with "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" a pleasing find.