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Fox Home Entertainment presents
"Way up north......"
DVD ReviewNorth to Alaska marked an anniversary of sorts for John Wayne and a return to the studio that gave him his first major starring role. At the dawn of the sound era, the fledging Fox company gave the young whippersnapper a series of minor roles in mostly forgettable films. Then in 1930, director Raoul Walsh cast Wayne as wagon train scout Breck Coleman in The Big Trail, an epic Western that flopped miserably at the time of its release but has since gained legendary status. It would take nine years before the actor would secure a role of equal stature, but from 1939's Stagecoach onward, Wayne became nothing short of an icon. Many of his classics remain big favorites on the movie channel circuit with a few elusive titles ranking amongst the most anticipated on DVD (The High and The Mighty, anyone?)
In this 1960 classic, Duke plays Sam McCord, an Alaska-based gold prospector who's just struck it rich with partner George Pratt (Stewart Granger) and his kid brother Billy (Fabian). Upon returning to Nome and cashing in part of their findings, George makes plans for a long standing dream of building a honeymoon cabin for his steady honey Jenny (Lilyan Chauvin) who stayed behind in Seattle. Since Sam has to make a stop in Washington to pick up some mining equipment for future plans, Pratt entrusts him to bring her back on the return trip. But before McCord can get the good news out of his mouth, he learns that Jenny has up and married the butler of a family she works for.
Disenchanted with the fickle nature of the opposite sex ("I haven't come across a woman as reliable as a horse," Sam chortles), he goes out on a bender at the local Hen House saloon, making merry with a chorus of dancing girls. By night's end, he's even managed to charm the establishment's gold diggin' madame, Angel (Capucine) and talking her into becoming the equivalent of Jenny's replacement, or at least that's what he thinks he's doing.
On the return journey to Alaska, when it becomes apparent that he's become the apple of Angel's eye, Sam clears up the situation by explaining George's predicament. It comes as no surprising that Angel leaves in tears, but eventually consents to give things a try. Not entirely convinced she's shaken him off, McCord asks the ship's captain to make sure she doesn't disembark, but Angel is a few steps ahead of him as far as her game plan goes.
Romantic problems are the least of Sam's worries once back in Nome as it turns out a few changes have taken place in his absence, not the least of which involves sneaky claim jumpers and cross-filers attempting to encroach on his territory. Frankie Canon (Ernie Kovacs) is chief among the baddies, a slick con man that Sam managed to weed out before heading to Seattle. Unfortunately, several of the townspeople weren't as bright or quick to catch on, including Peter Boggs (Mickey Shaughnessy), the town drunk, who Canon employs in a scheme to maneuver himself in a position to take away all that Sam and George have worked for.
Hilariously delightful and endearing, North to Alaska is one of John Wayne's best films and ample proof that he could be as comfortable dispensing one-liners as brandishing his fists. Skillfully balancing the feel of typical Westerns with just the right doses of slapstick comedy and heartening romance, it's a movie that has a little something for everyone. It is also notable for its unusual and inspired casting choices, including groundbreaking comedian Ernie Kovacs in one of his few acting roles before his untimely death; the bewitching Capucine with her Ingrid Bergman-esque smolder; English actor Stewart Granger (one of the best on-screen partners the Duke ever had); great bits by Mickey Shaughnessy and Kathleen Freeman (queen of the character actresses); and late-1950s teen idol Fabian (who's actually not bad as comic relief, but I'd advise having a remote handy during his obligatory song).
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Shinier than a pair of freshly polished spurs, this grade A transfer taken from an almost perfect source print makes this one of the best John Wayne DVDs on the market today. Beautiful, natural color representation, perfect black levels and nary a trace of edge enhancement that I could see. If not for a slight lack of sharpness, I'd give this a perfect grade, but it is still a fantastic job from the mastering techs at Panasonic MDMC. Kudos to Fox for going the extra mile in giving a budget title the dual layer treatment which makes for a much smoother look.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: Equally impressive is the imaginative 4.0 mix taken from the same source materials that graced the film's original run (in movie palaces blessed with high end sound, that is). From Johnny Horton's opening theme song, where it sounds like you're in the middle of the recording studio, we're talking pristine, pilgrim. Everything from the well-done directional dialogue to the multi-speaker spread of Lionel Newman's whimsical score is nothing short of excellent. Cool use of surrounds, too—in fact, during one of the film's wacky bar brawls, the aural effect from the back of my listening area was so lifelike, I cranked my rear speakers down just to make sure that the backing orchestra hadn't come back to life next door; I mean, it's that good.
Audio Transfer Grade: A
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Comancheros, The Undefeated
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:59s
Extras Grade: D+
Final CommentsOne of John Wayne's best forays into comedy gets top of the line treatment. An absolute must for Duke lovers and a definite rental suggestion if you're in the mood for a classic Western that's light on the shootin' and heavy on the ticklin'.
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