While news articles report the decline of the once-robust DVD market, film buffs and collectors have occasion to rejoice. More rare, obscure, and once-unattainable titles are being released now than ever before, from the camp classic Cobra Woman with Maria Montez to Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, not to mention Wings (at last). No longer complacent about home video revenue, several major studios are licensing titles from their libraries to specialized distributors who are happy to reach a modest but loyal customer base.
Winner and still champion in this arena is Warner Home Video’s Warner Archive, which now offers more than one thousand titles, with new releases announced every week. Running the gamut from silent features to made-for-TV movies and miniseries, this program of DVDs-on-demand has been so successful that the company has veered from its original plan of issuing no-frills discs, from existing video elements, to remastering some titles for the first time in years, and adding video and audio extras to selected films. One recent highlight is the video debut of The Constant Nymph (1943) with Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine, which was rescued from longtime legal limbo earlier this year. Another is a documentary I wrote and narrated some years ago that I’m fond of called The Lost Stooges, featuring Moe, Larry and Curly when they worked at MGM, with and without Ted Healy—including some footage from feature-films even their staunchest fans may not be familiar with. I encourage you to sign up for the Warners’ e-mail newsletter which alerts you to tempting sales and specials. Go to www.warnerarchive.com.
Universal Pictures is about to celebrate its centenary with a series of reissues, mostly on Blu-ray, including All Quiet on the Western Front on February 14, which will include the recently-discovered silent version with a synchronized soundtrack. (Read my article about it HERE.) Universal has also released, without fanfare, a number of vintage titles exclusively through amazon.com, including the beloved Cobra Woman, in glorious Technicolor. Others in this series include some DVD debuts, and other films that have only been available as part of multi-disc collections, among them The List of Adrian Messenger, You Gotta Stay Happy, Death of a Gunfighter, Abbott and Costello’s It Ain’t Hay, Lady in a Jam, Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, and We’re Not Dressing, to name just a few. Universal continues to offer special packages in a tie-in with Turner Classic Movies, as well; recent entries include an Audie Murphy collection and a double-feature of Murder, He Says and Feudin’, Fussin’ and A-Fightin’. (Watch that Western musical and you’ll see Donald O’Connor walk up a wall and do a back-flip, four years before he did it so memorably in Singin’ in the Rain.)
Amazon.com also offers titles manufactured on demand from the MGM Limited Edition Collection, a fascinating hodgepodge of titles released mostly by United Artists in the 1950s and 60s. (I wrote about The Black Sleep and Park Row HERE.) In one of its many incarnations, MGM also acquired much of the American-International Pictures library, which enables them to issue The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover at this propitious moment. As Leonardo Di Caprio is a little young to embody the FBI director, Broderick Crawford was a bit too old in 1977—but he still has enough raw power to machine-gun his dialogue. The movie is cheerfully incoherent, though it does cover a lot of the same ground as the new Clint Eastwood film, and offers one of the most diverse cast rosters of its day, from Dan Dailey as Clyde Tolson to a young Rip Torn as an eager FBI agent, alongside Michael Parks, José Ferrer, Celeste Holm, Ronee Blakley, Howard Da Silva (miscast as FDR), John Marley, Raymond St. Jacques (as Martin Luther King), June Havoc, Lloyd Nolan, and Andrew Duggan (as Lyndon Johnson). It may not be great, but it ain’t dull! You can order it HERE and check out other titles from the MGM library as well.
Taking a page from Warners, Sony also has a Columbia Classics DVD-on-demand program, which has its own catalog pages at www.warnerarchive.com. But Sony has made two other significant licensing deals, with Twilight Time and Turner Classic Movies. The Twilight Time arrangement promises a new Blu-ray release every month featuring high-definition transfers and isolated music tracks, for soundtrack buffs. Already available: Mysterious Island, Fright Night, and Rapture. For more information, or to get on an e-mail list, click HERE.
TCM recently kicked off its new Sony lineup with an attractively packaged DVD box, The Jean Arthur Comedy Collection, which includes Adventure in Manhattan (1936), More Than a Secretary (1936), The Impatient Years (1944) and a Columbia quickie I’d never heard of or seen before, The Public Menace (1935). This breezy, instantly forgettable programmer about a newspaper reporter (George Murphy) and a troublesome woman (Arthur) hasn’t even turned up on TCM, although it will air early next year. Also new is Humphrey Bogart: The Columbia Pictures Collection, featuring four familiar titles—Tokyo Joe (1949), Knock on Any Door (1949), Sirocco (1951), The Harder They Fall (1956), and one “ringer,” the obscure Love Affair (1932), costarring Dorothy Mackaill.
Turner’s next two releases, due in early 2012, are all-new to Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III offers an interesting array of noirs from the Columbia library: My Name is Julia Ross (1945), Drive a Crooked Road (1955), The Mob (1951), Tight Spot (1955), and The Burglar (1957). I was especially impressed with The Mob (starring the great Broderick Crawford) when I caught up with it at a Noir City Festival a couple of years back.
Also on the Turner release schedule, I am proud to be hosting UPA Jolly Frolics, the first-ever collection of the UPA studio’s theatrical cartoon shorts—38 of them, all beautifully restored. Some, like the classic Gerald McBoing Boing, have been on video before, but most of the titles have not, like John Hubley’s Oscar-winning Rooty Toot Toot, plus Madeline, Christopher Crumpet, The Tell-Tale Heart, and many other gems, as well as the first Mister Magoo short, The Ragtime Bear. (The other theatrically-released Magoos will fill their own boxed set from Shout! Factory sometime next year.) Jerry Beck and I provide commentary tracks for a handful of the landmark titles.
I’m pleased to see that Sony is also leasing older titles to The Criterion Collection…and I can’t wait for the February release of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, which promises a bounty of bonus material, including a preview of a documentary about the making of the film, an exploration of Duke Ellington’s great score by jazz critic Gary Giddins, an interview with Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, a discussion of the director’s collaboration with graphic artist and title designer Saul Bass, a Preminger interview with William F. Buckley Jr. from the latter’s Firing Line TV series, and more.
Olive Films continues to license Paramount Pictures titles from the 1950s and 60s, with such titles as The Buccaneer, Boeing, Boeing, Alfredo, Alfredo, Agent 8¾, and such Jerry Lewis comedies as The Geisha Boy and Rock-a-bye Baby on its agenda.
Finally, Paramount has decided that it’s time to release one of its crown jewels: Wings, the first Academy Award winner for Best Picture, on Blu-ray January 24. (This is the last Best Picture winner to make its way to DVD or Blu-ray.) The film has never been out of sight—it was even released on videocassette years ago—but the studio has put a great deal of time and effort into this restoration, including sound effects by Oscar-winner and film buff extraordinaire Ben Burtt and an elaborate recreation of the Handschiegl color-stencil process that made the aerial combat scenes all the more exciting in 1927.
So much for the demise of DVDs!