This wasn’t the column I started to write this week, but the constraints of time and other external forces play havoc with the best laid plans of mice and Ken. External forces in this case came in the form of a column by Anthony Kaufman from Moving Image Source decrying the lack of a titles available on DVD—titles that in many cases had in fact been available on VHS.
It’s a very interesting column, though it edges a little too far into the romance of esoterica for its own sake for my taste. Personally, I’m hard-pressed to get worked up about a dearth of available Lew Landers and Andre De Toth titles. I have a handful of Landers titles on hand—including his first effort, the 1934 serial, The Vanishing Shadow, which crops up at most horror movie conventions—most of which were gathered for reasons having nothing to do with Landers’ directorial skills. He’s a filmmaker whose work seems to me to be of interest solely based on some other factor. I own The Raven (1935) because it’s one of the original dozen Universal horrors and stars Lugosi and Karloff, not because Landers made it. (I might go so far as to say I have it despite Landers’ uninteresting direction.) The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) is on my shelves for Karloff and Peter Lorre. The Return of the Vampire (1944) is here because it stars Lugosi. Somewhere I have a VHS copy of Twelve Crowded Hours (1939), but that’s based on Richard Dix and a pre-Lucy Lucille Ball.
With De Toth my holdings are slimmer. I have Passport to Suez (1943) because it’s a pretty cool entry in the Lone Wolf series—and because I’ve amassed most of the series. House of Wax (1953) is here because you have to buy it in order to get Michael Curtiz’ Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). I simply don’t find either director of much interest, but that’s not the overall point of the article, because I was able to do what the article finds is increasingly hard to do—actually see a cross-section of these boys’ movies in order to arrive at that conclusion.
However, before subscribing to the argument being put forth with open arms, it’s as well to remember that a lot of this stuff isn’t dying with VHS. That’s a romantic notion that sounds better than it plays. Within the few titles listed here, it should be noted that Twelve Crowded Hours and Passport to Suez were never on VHS commercially. And The Boogie Man Will Get You has only become available as part of a Boris Karloff set on DVD, while The Vanishing Shadow has only made it to grey market DVD status and has never been available “officially” in any form. (The copyright may have lapsed on this one.)
The central argument is nonetheless sound. There are a lot of titles that used to be out there on VHS—and laserdisc, for that matter—that are not available on DVD. Many of these are not particularly obscure either. Horror fans have long wondered just when Universal is going to get around to bringing Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) to DVD. It was once available on VHS and laser. A. Edward Sutherland’s Murders in the Zoo (1933) and Victor Halperin’s Supernatural (1933) were both on VHS. There’s no sign of a DVD release, even though lesser titles from Universal’s holdings have made the transition.
The issue isn’t limited to old movies. Stephen Frears’ Sammy and Rosie Get Laid (1987) was a pretty big deal when it was new and made it to VHS and laser—and if you want to see it today, that’s what you’ll have to seek out. The same is true of Ray Lawrence’s Bliss (1985), though it can be obtained from Australia—properly letterboxed, as neither the VHS, nor the laser were—on a Region 4 DVD that includes both the theatrical print and a director’s cut. The problem, of course, lies in the fact that U.S. DVD players are designed to play only Region 1 encoded discs, and you need a so-called “region free” player to run the film.
Richard Lester’s How I Won the War (1967) had VHS and laser life, but an announced DVD release never happened—except in Region 2 and 4 releases, both of which seem to have gone out of print. Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) was announced a couple years back, but as yet has never seen any kind of release in any format. You might think that the former would be considered marketable if only for the presence of John Lennon in the cast. And the latter…well, really who doesn’t want to see a post-apocalyptic black comedy in which Ralph Richardson mutates into a bed-sitting room and Arthur Lowe turns into a parrot? Yes, you can get Lester’s two Beatles movies and The Knack and How to Get It (1965)—and if you haven’t you should—and most of his other films, but the two unavailable titles are key works in his filmography. While enjoyable, his Juggernaut (1974) is not a key work, but you can get it.
The situation with Ken Russell’s oeuvre is even bleaker. The Music Lovers (1970), The Boy Friend (1971), Lisztomania (1975) and Valentino (1977) all had VHS and laserdisc releases. Moreover, the lasers were all in the proper format. There’s no sign of DVDs. Both Savage Messiah (1972) and The Devils (1971) had VHS incarnations—even if The Devils VHS was cut and looked like…well, it didn’t look good. While there’s an OK bootleg of The Devils out there, there’s no official release of it and no release at all of Savage Messiah. Granting that some of these are not exactly mainstream titles by today’s standards (the line between art movies and mainstream was much less clear in the 60s and 70s), they are hardly obscure to the point of invisibility, though that’s what you might think if you went looking for them.
These are random examples that are coming off the top of my head, but they’re not unique. The bigger picture isn’t just the lack of these titles. It’s far more than that. It’s the fact that making these titles unavailable is causing a younger cineastes to have a very skewed view of the history of film. Put simply, you cannot understand the various eras of movies without having access to a broader cross-section than is now available. There’s an irony in the fact that there is so much available today that was never available before, yet so much is vanishing from the scene at the same time. One of our local film groups recently ran Suri Krishnamma’s A Man of No Importance (1994). Where did it come from? From the laserdisc. Now, really, we’re talking a 1994 movie—even for the younger of us, that ain’t exactly ancient history.
Last night I exposed co-critic Justin Souther to his first dose of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In itself, there’s nothing shocking about someone who’s just 26 years old never having seen Laurel and Hardy. What’s deplorable is that I was only able to do this thanks to the Region 2 DVDs of the Boys’ films that are available from Great Britain. The short in question, Dirty Work (1933), showed up on some VHS compilatuons, but you won’t find it on DVD Stateside. I don’t even care if you like Laurel and Hardy, you’d be pretty far afield not to recognize them as major players in the history of the comedy film. And their short films are far and away their purest incarnation. Unfortunately, it seems that even the British sets—while available used—have gone out of print.
Someone recently referred to Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932)—once out on VHS and laser—as “being held hostage by Universal,” and that’s more or less true. It had been announced as getting the Criterion treatment several years ago, but that fell through after all the well-deserved complaints Criterion received about the excessive graininess of their release of Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934). When Universal brought out their budget-priced Marlene Dietrich “Glamour Collection,” they could have included it, but they didn’t. However, both it and Sternberg’s 1931 Dietrich film Dishonored—along with Rouben Mamoulian’s Song of Songs (1933) starring Dietrich—are available on Region 2 from Universal in Britain. Things like this make the claims that it’s too expensive to put these movies on DVD ring more than a little hollow.
Similarly, Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) made it to VHS, but is only now available on Amazon in “video on demand” format (supposedly the wave of the future, but until it can be easily burned to disc, I’m unconvinced). Last I knew, however, a DVD printing of the film was available from Amazon in France as L’extravagant M. Ruggles—and if I ever find out how much 19,99 Euros is, I’m buying the damned thing.
Despite the downbeat tone of Kaufman’s article, there are a few signs of improvment. Universal has figured out how to market some of their more obscure Paramount holdings (they own just about the entire Paramount catalogue from the beginning of sound through 1947) in “pre-code” collection form. (OK, they saw it was working elsewhere with old Warner Bros. and MGM titles.) As a result, we’ll soon be seeing their “Pre-Code Hollywood Collection.” That’s all well and good and it’s certainly great that this means Mitchell Leisen’s Murder at the Vanities (1934) will see something other than a VHS release, but that leaves so much that isn’t likely to find a DVD home out there—in many cases, much more important titles will be going wanting. And that’s partly due to the “collection” packaging mindset.
I was delighted a year back when a box set of Ernst Lubitsch musicals came out that included all of his Paramount early sound films that fit that description. The problem is that such a set omits Broken Lullably (1932) andDesign for Living (1933). The latter, happily, finds a home on Universal’s “Gary Cooper Collection,” but the former? There’s just no place to put it. On the bright side, Turner Classic Movies is running Broken Lullaby on April 26 at 8:00 p.m. (ET). Mark your calendar now.
With the Sternberg Paramount films stewn across a path of Criterion, British releases and Universal’s Dietrich collection, there’s really no place—maybe a future pre-code set—for his An American Tragedy (1931) to go. It’s not likely to make it as a stand-alone title and I’m not holding my breath for a Sylvia Sidney box set. We won’t even discuss the likelihood of ever seeing his Thunderbolt (1929), which is a great pity because it’s one of the first talkies to use sound and image to convey two things at the same time.
And what of Harry D’Abaddie D’Arrast’s Laughter (1930)? Again, pre-code might rescue this charming early talkie, but otherwise it’s doomed to oblivion—unless there’s a sudden cult for Nancy Carroll movies or Fredric March gets an upswing in popularity. It’s not just that this is a good film in its own right, but it’s part and parcel of a lot of early sound movies that need to be seen if only to disprove the myth that early talkies are all clunky and stagebound. In the same vein, there’s no DVD of F. Richard Jones’ Bulldog Drummond (1929), which is perhaps the most enjoyable and cinematic film of its year. Again, this one was on VHS and laser, but it’s now facing becoming almost unknown. You really don’t know what 1929 was capable of if you’ve never seen it. Yes, it’s that important.
With any luck, one of these pre-code sets will some day include Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933). It has the drawback of having no real name star to goose interest, which is probably why the inferior Four Frightened People (1934) was used as filler on a small DeMille collection from Universal, since that at least stars Claudette Colbert. But This Day and Age may just be DeMille’s most interestingly made film—and it probably is his most disturbing with its endorsement of torturing a confession out of racketeer Charles Bickford by lowering him into a pit of rats. Let’s just say it has to be seen to be believed.
The list goes on and on. I hesitate to even attempt to create a list of things I’d most like to see on DVD. No matter what I might put down today, I’ll remember more tomorrow. So I’ll leave it at the titles I’ve thrown out above—and, of course, invite readers to throw out some of their own.