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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (Walt Disney Treasures)

(aka "The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh" or "Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow")

 

(James Neilson, 1963)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Walt Disney (Pinewood Studios, UK)

Disney DVD (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)

 

Disc:

Region: All

Runtime: 151 min

Chapters: 32

Size:

Case: Oversize DVD case in Disney Treasure Tin.

Release date: November 11, 2008

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 1.66:1

Resolution: 480p

Video codec:

 

Audio:

English 5.1 Dolby Surround; Original English Mono (restored)

 

Subtitles:

English SDH

 

Extras:

• Introductions by Leonard Maltin (2:42 & 3:08)

• Featurette Walt Disney: From Burbank to London (11:39)

• Featurette Dr. Syn: The History of The Legend (16:13)

 

 

The Film:

It must have been that 15 year period when I swore off TV that I missed this adventure originally produced by Disney in the UK for his Wonderful World of Color television show on NBC (having moved there from ABC for just that reason). In fact, Dr. Syn, in both this TV movie and the feature film cut that came out several years later, slipped under my radar altogether. The cool thing is that in this new DVD edition, we are able to see the TV version (some 53 minutes longer – and not a lame moment among them) in 1.66:1 as it was originally shot and a 5.1 mix created for this DVD. Both cuts of the movie are included on this 2-disc set, and one that I can recommend without reservation.

Dr. Syn: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, as it is titled on this DVD (and nowhere else to my knowledge), is based on the early twentieth century novels of Russell Thorndike and the film adaptation from 1937 starring the fabulous George Arliss in his final screen performance. The teleplay was written by Robert Westerby who is credited as one of those daring souls who gave Tolstoy a whack in King Vidor's 1956 War & Peace. The movie was directed by James Neilson, known primarily for American television westerns from Bonanza to Wagon Train to Have Gun Will Travel. It was produced at Pinewood in the U.K. with Disney financing, making use of some excellent British acting talent, with Walt in the not distant background. Among the actors: Patrick McGoohan (who is American by birth but raised in Ireland, by the way), Michael Hordern, George Cole, Geoffrey Keen Tony Britton and Kay Walsh. Paul Beeson's color photography is first rate, aided by his being able to shoot in the very locales where the story takes place.

 

 


Dr. Syn (McGoohan) is one of those dual personality figures of the period (in this case right before the American Civil War), like the Scarlet Pimpernel and Zorro who protect the poor against the excesses of the ruling classes – here represented by the relentless and far from stupid General Pugh (Keen). I gather from the featurettes included here that the Scarecrow was darker and something more of a villain or at least with a less tidy moral credo, but in any case he was a respected vicar by day and a smuggler by night – the proceeds going to help the needy.

Each of the television segments has an arc that settles matters for the moment only, inviting us to continue with the saga that, for the most part, centers around the family of Squire Banks. The squire himself (Hordern) is a vivacious character caught in the middle – wanting to do right by his tenants but feeling he must also uphold the law. He has a son we learn in the first episode who has been pressed into the Navy and hasn't been heard from for five years. His remaining teenage son (masterfully played by Sean Scully) is in league with the Scarecrow, unbeknownst to his father. (I like particularly there is no winking at the audience about this.) My only complaint about the teleplay is that the women, especially the adult daughter of Squire Banks, definitely take a back seat to the goings on. We seem to be more concerned with the other half of her love interest than her angst.

 

Image:

While the introductions and bonus features are presented in various formats, the television and feature film versions are both presented in 1.66:1, and are derived from the same remastered elements. (Keep in mind that viewers in 1964 would have seen a somewhat cropped version of this movie.) The image is lush with Technicolor renderings of day and night scenes with contrast always dead on, and shadows having just enough information to keep things lively. There is a certain amount of edge enhancement that we are aware of when the action slows down enough for us to notice – the only thing about the image that bears criticism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Audio & Music:

Disney was kind enough to present the television version in both a restored mono and a 5.1 DD. I found the 5.1 to be tastefully executed with plenty of spaciousness, especially for the music and the gunfire sequences. The music score by Gerard Schurmann is especially noteworthy, as many scores for British films are: they don't bring attention to themselves, yet support the drama perfectly. The title song by Terry Gilkyson (Thomasina, Swiss Family Robinson) is pure Disney and does sort of stick out a bit.

 

Operations:

The only thing missing from the DVD itself is the ability to play a seamless rendering of the three episodes without the default middle credits, previews and introductions by Walt. (All three such versions could be sorted out neatly on Blu-ray.) As for the box design, I have to say that these Walt Disney Treasure Tins are among the least user-friendly ideas to come along the home video front. At usual, you can take the enclosed DVD case out of the tin and file it. The problem with the tin is that it has no identification on the spine, so what are we to do with it? The subtitles, as is the case on all Disney DVDs I've seen so far, are yellow.

 

 

 

 

Extras:

In addition to Walt's introductions, Leonard Maltin is on hand to put everything in context in his brief intros. Elsewhere, the two short featurettes are totally worth the watch: chock full of history and information about the production, the novels on which this and other films about Dr. Syn are based, and an in-depth look at Disney's interest in making movies in the U.K. starting in the early 1950s.

 

 

Bottom line: 9
Strongly recommended for excellence of story and writing, execution of production and performance. Both featurettes are a valuable source of history and background. I can believe Maltin's assertion that great care was brought to bear in the restoration. It really
shows. This is a knockout DVD.
 

Leonard Norwitz
November 10th, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

Introduction: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.


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