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Home Vision Entertainment presents
"Life is all dreams, Joe. Dreams and work. And that's all it is, so what can you do?"
DVD ReviewCarol Reed is one of England's most honored and celebrated directors—he was even the first to be knighted, an honor he received some 42 years before his contemporary, David Lean—but in the last five decades, many of his best works have been largely forgotten by the general public, and his name doesn't incite the same kind of passion from film nuts as the other big names of the era, including Lean, Orson Welles, Lawrence Olivier, and Billy Wilder. If it weren't for the wonderful Criterion release of The Third Man (featuring Welles' most brilliant moment on film—a speech about the invention of the cuckoo clock), many DVD fans would likely think of him as merely the director of the bloated 1968 best picture winner, Oliver!, a disservice to be sure (though Reed did pick up an Oscar for his work).
Thankfully, Criterion's sister company, Home Vision, is around to release "second tier" titles that might otherwise undeservedly gather dust on studio shelves. Reed's 1955 production, A Kid for Two Farthings, certainly isn't one of his best, but it's a unique work of magical realism that film buffs will probably want to see.
Joe (Jonathan Ashmore) is a working-class young boy living in London's East End in the 1950s. He's an unusually optimistic child, considering the rather bleak nature of his surroundings—his mother (Brief Encounter's Celia Johnson) works for Mr. Kandinsky (Jewish character actor David Kossoff), who is too poor to pay her much, or afford to purchase a steam press (he frequently kvetches about using an old-fashioned iron). Joe doesn't have any friends his own age, but idolizes local strong man, Sam (Joe Robinson), who dreams of one day winning the Mr. Universe contest so he can finally make some money and purchase a proper engagement ring for his fiancée Sonia (Diana Dors, known as the "British Marilyn Monroe"). He also has very bad luck with pets (his pet chickens keep dying) and patriarchal figures (his dad is off exploring Africa, as in, "Honey, I'm going to Africa to pick up some milk. I'll be right back!").
Joe would like nothing better than to help all his friends get what they want in life—a ring for Sonia, a pants press for Mr. Kandinsky, and for himself and his mother, his father's return—so when Mr. Kandinsky tells him a story about magical unicorns who grant wishes, he completely believes it and decides he'll use his pocket money to buy a unicorn. He happens to run into a swindler trying to pawn off a stunted, sickly, one-horned kid. Joe buys it and, just like that, all his wishes seem to come true, or at least, they come true from his perspective. Pressured by Sonia, Sam the bodybuilder abandons his career aspirations (even after he makes the cover of a weight-lifting magazine) to make some fast money boxing. He manages to pick a fight with the villainous Python Macklin (Primo Carnera) that he'll surely lose, but he makes enough to buy a cheap £4 ring. The prosperous shopkeeper down the street gets a new press and offers his old one to Mr. Kandinsky. Joe is convinced that his father's return isn't long in coming.
While Joe's childlike faith in wishes, and the fact that, in a way, his dreams actually do come true thanks to the presence of the unicorn (and a bit of melodrama at the end) make A Kid for Two Farthings feel a bit like a fairy tale, it is more or less grounded in the realism accorded to the rather bleak setting. There are always perfectly rational explanations for the granted wishes, and the audience is always aware of them, even if Joe isn't. Reed leaches the story of most any fantastical elements, filming in real, bustling, and often poverty-stricken London markets and on dingy, claustrophobic sets. A few scenes set at night have the shadowy, oppressive noir feel of The Third Man, as when Sonia leaves a rowdy bar at night and Python follows he home.
The cast is typically strong, full of skilled British character actors, save the young Jonathan Ashmore, who is suitably childlike and not a bit self-conscious in front of the camera (though he gets a bit shrill at times, prattling on about his "u-nicoooorn!"). The script is straightforward and fairly original, with some decent dialogue and nice character moments (particularly for Mr. Kandinsky, who keeps having to find nice ways to tell Joe his pets are dead). Reed, who also produced, keeps a handle on the tone, and consistently avoids being cutesy or maudlin. A Kid for Two Farthings is a perfectly decent family film: dated, but still worthwhile.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: Home Vision presents A Kid for Two Farthings in a dated but decent 1.33:1 transfer (the original aspect ratio). The color palette is a muted; the British production doesn't have the lurid tones of Hollywood's Technicolor heyday. But it's nevertheless fairly pleasing, though the black level isn't what it could be, and dark scenes regularly appear a bit muddy. The source print is in only fair shape, and shows frequent but excusable scratches and lines. There's quite a bit of grain, but it seems appropriate for a film of this vintage.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The original English mono track falls a bit short, and the problem is worsened by the lack of captions or subtitles. The sound is muffled throughout, and speech is sometimes very difficult to make out—the accented characters are almost impossible to understand unless you turn the volume way up. That, of course, introduces another problem. The airy mix sounds shrill and unsupported (particularly the high voice of the child star), and the score tinny and weak. You don't expect top quality from an obscure release, but I found this audio experience annoying and off-putting—not being able to understand all the dialogue does tend to pull you out of a film.
Audio Transfer Grade: C-
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Well, aside from a generous 22 chapter stops, there are no extras (unless you count an informative, somewhat overblown critical essay on the insert). Subtitles would have been very helpful, but alas, none are included.
I must praise Home Vision's designers for their delightfully kitsch-y use of Photoshop to create the DVD cover art. I can't decide which element I like best: the tiny, upside-down goat on the spine, or the oddly cropped, humorously positioned image of Diana Dors on the back.
Extras Grade: D-
Final CommentsCarol Reed's A Kid for Two Farthings is an admittedly minor entry in the director's résumé, but it's an engaging curiosity. The whimsical, fairy tale story contrasts with the undercurrent of poverty plaguing postwar London, making little Joe's optimism all the more innocent and precious. Home Vision's DVD presentation is bare-bones, but they have done a fine job with a title that would likely otherwise never come to DVD at all.
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