With the long-awaited release of The African Queen on DVD this week, film buffs can check another prominent title off their want lists. That’s the good news…but there are still a surprising number of movies from every decade of the 20th century that aren’t commercially available.
The most surprising titles? Two winners of the Best Picture Academy Award—in fact, the only two not—
—available on DVD, even though they play on cable TV and turn up at revival screenings: Wings (1927), which won the very first Oscar, and which Paramount curiously refuses to release, and Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (1933), from Fox.
In other cases there are practical, even mundane, reasons for a film being “missing in action,” usually having to do with tangled rights, especially when the film is based on a play or literary property; this afflicts such varied and sought-after titles as Viva Zapata!, Hellzapoppin, and The Macomber Affair. Experience has taught us that when a studio, or producer, really wants to untie those knots it can be done: Warner Bros. recently freed up the Andy Griffith comedy hit No Time for Sergeants, which will be released in May, and last year negotiated a deal with the Ernest Hemingway estate for the John Garfield/Michael Curtiz remake of To Have and Have Not called The Breaking Point (1950). In the case of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, Universal retains all rights outside the United States but can’t release the film domestically!
More often, however, films sit in studio vaults because the people in charge don’t think there’s enough of an audience for them.
The list of unavailable titles ranges from box-office smashes to cult favorites, from the silent era through the 1990s. While writing my recently-published book Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, I was going to omit titles that readers couldn’t easily find. Then I decided that I would be doing people a disservice if I didn’t discuss such great films as King of the Hill (1993), a masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh that no one went to see when it was new, the British sleeper Queen of Hearts (1989), and Resurrection (1980) with Ellen Burstyn. (Since the book’s publication, Universal has launched a dvd-on-demand program with Amazon.com and released the latter title, thank goodness.)
If you have an all-region DVD player you have more options, given the ease of making overseas purchases online, but film buffs in any country who want to study—or simply enjoy—the complete works of Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, Otto Preminger, or Richard Lester have their work cut out for them. That’s one more reason some of the more obsessive among us have held onto our laserdiscs of certain titles—from Two Weeks In Another Town to the Criterion edition of Purple Noon.
As for the man who made The African Queen, John Huston, there are many holes in his DVD filmography, from his pet project Freud (1962), with Montgomery Clift, to A Walk with Love and Death (1969), which introduced the world to his actress-daughter Anjelica. Serious buffs would love to have copies of the first films that brought him attention as a screenwriter in the early 1930s, A House Divided and Law and Order, both of which starred his father Walter.
Any time a new movie platform is announced, for selling or streaming, someone says that before long customers will be able to order “any movie they want.” Somehow it never happens. Let’s hope studios realize there is interest in all sorts of films that are sitting in their vaults. Given all the new technologies, there is no reason not to make hundreds of dormant titles available—and profit from them.
What if we started with Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) and Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery (1933)?