Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Most in need of a DVD release

Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Most in need of a DVD release-attachment0

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.

SHARE
About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

23 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: Most in need of a DVD release

  1. Dionysis

    “The problem…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.”

    DVD players sold in the country (the ‘region free’ players excepted) are coded to only play NTSC region 1 discs. However, it is quite easy to ‘hack’ most such players to allow them to play any region. I’ve done this with two of my DVD players. It’s simple, and took me about 30 seconds to convert. The codes are availabe for the various makes and models, and are pretty easy to find with a quick internet search.

    I have been able to purchase DVD titles from Europe, Asia and South America of films not available commercially in this country. Just last week I watched the region 2 issued The Quatermass Xperiment and Night of the Eagle, neither available on DVD in this country. Before I entered the hack code, trying to play another region disc would result in an error message saying ‘incompatible disc’.

  2. Jim Donato

    The one film I have always wanted more than any other on any home video format is Stanley Donen’s cliche-filled “Movie Movie.” I suspect music rights are what have conspired to keep that one off of home video for as long as it’s been with us, since the 2nd feature, “Baxter’s Beauties of 1933″ was filled with (great) faux show tunes. I waited for Beta. Laserdisc. DVD. I suppose it’ll never play in my home. What irks me is that I taped it off of the network debut and taped over it because I reasoned that the factory beta would come out and I wouldn’t have any ads cluttering it up. Mea culpa! Only showings of “The Hudsucker Proxy” come close to the density of cinematic cliche’s that unspool during the course of “Movie Movie” and we shouldn’t forget that Donen beat Tarantino and Rodriguez to the fake double feature brass ring by a good 30 years! Since it’s been 27 years since I’ve seen it, I’d really like to see it again to see if my memory holds up. But it was such a loving sendup of vintage A/B movies from poverty row to Hollywood that I suspect it would still work for me.

  3. Jim Donato

    My Homemade Standards Conversion tale:

    When I bought my DVD player in 2000 (a late adopter for once) I bought a hacked player that was region code and Macrovision free. At the time I had a multi-standard 27″ Sony monitor and I laughed with impunity at standards and region code limitations. Unfortunately, the Sony bit the dust a few years ago, leaving me unable to see my non-NTSC DVDs, since I could not afford a multi-standard monitor with my new Asheville salary. I can still play other region discs as long as they are NTSC. A friend has a player that will perform standards conversion so that a PAL DVD will play on a NTSC monitor, but the software hack does not perform a true standards conversion as NTSC is technically 29.97 FPS, resulting in the loss of sound sync within a minute or two.

    Fortunately, armed with a Macintosh and an outboard analog-to-DV converter, it’s possible to perform a standards conversion within the Mac. I purchased a Canopus ADVC-55 to convert my thousands of hours of video tape archive material into hundreds of hours of DVDs that I could access content from far more quickly. The ADVC-55 is a bus powered FireWire device that does a fine job at converting any analog video source poured into it via RCA or S-Video into DV format. There is a DIP switch on the unit that will switch conversion to either PAL or NTSC format DV. This is crucial to our game. Since my DVD player is multistandard in playback and is also region and Macrovision free it can input the PAL analog signal into the converter.

    This device, coupled with iMovie, bundled with every Macintosh sold, allows the user to import, digitize and edit video easily. The ADVC-55 inputs either PAL or NTSC DV into the Mac. It’s ALL DV to iMovie 2004-6. You edit it and it doesn’t care what system it’s in. It knows what the system is when you hook the ADVC-55 up to it and it begins receiving the signal.

    After digitizing has ensued, you then edit within iMovie. When editing is complete, the job is ported via a button to the other half of the DVD making equation, iDVD. The preferences panel in iDVD can be set to either write a PAL or NTSC DVD. Provided you have set the prefs in iDVD prior to importing your edited PAL or NTSC, video, you have the possibility of converting whatever format you edited in to the opposite format for DVD burning. NTSC video is burned to PAL DVD and vice versa. This is done in the DVD mastering process using Compressor and the results are flawless, apart from the slight loss of generation in going to analog and performing the conversion. Not to mention the compression tradeoffs inherent in using consumer grade video software solutions. If you can spring for Final Cut Pro this will not be a problem.

  4. Dionysis

    A title I would love to see on DVD (although it was on laserdisc, from which I dupped to a DVD-R) is Lonely are the Brave, one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, and Kirk Douglas’ (arguably) best film.

  5. Universal is the worst of the major studios when it comes to released product, so who knows when some of those classics you mentioned are coming out. At least they license their titles to Criterion… so maybe some of them will see the light of day.

    Here’s a few…

    SANTA SANGRE – On Anchor Bay in UK
    AFRICAN QUEEN – I have on Region 0 Korean
    THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS – this might have to do with the studio hunting down a more complete copy. This will come out.
    PENN & TELLER GET KILLED – I liked this one
    BARFLY – WAS out on dvd. With the Rourke revival it should be available again

    and thousands upon thousands more

    The best website for dvd codes is

    http://www.videohelp.com/dvdhacks

    Once you switch to Region 0, you can pretty much play anything… as long as your player can convert from PAL. We carry a few imports downtown, like the latest Studio Ghibli film TALES FROM EARTHSEA, a box set of cool 60s FANTOMAS films, etc.

  6. Ken Hanke

    Universal is the worst of the major studios when it comes to released product, so who knows when some of those classics you mentioned are coming out.

    This wouldn’t be such a big deal if Universal only owned Universal. Apart from the horror pictures (most of which are out and have been out many times), the John M. Stahl soaps, the James Whale non-horror films, and Deanna Durbin, most of their output from the “golden age” is pretty negligible. Unfortunately, they hold all those Paramount films, too. Just in the titles I mentioned that accounts for 11 of the movies.

    Further on Movie, Movie, looking at the credits, my guess is that its scarcity has to do with it having been originally released by ITC. So many movies that came out through short-lived releasing companies have just become so much collateral that gets traded around from company to company in large packages where individual titles are more or less just lost.

    And I have to say that after reading all the information on making a player region free, I think I’ll stick with buying them. At least I understand how to place an order!

  7. Jim Donato

    Wow! Thanks for that tip about Amazon DE! I never saw “Movie Movie” in the theatre but conceptually, given the period recreated, “Movie Movie” should be shown in Academy Ratio, with no need for clumsy panning & scanning. It’s only 8 Euros too, with used copies going for < 1 Euro. Now if I can only figure out how to buy via the Amazon DE shopping cart and sort out the shipping, I’m there! There may be other venues for purchase that don’t have as many barriers.

    I’ve seen audio lose sync on a converter model DVD player that performed standards conversion. The video gets accurately downsampled, but the audio lags behind due to the difference between 25 and 29.97 FPS. Does anyone else have better experiences they’d like to share on this topic, which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve strayed quite a bit off of.

    In closing I’ll also cast a vote for “Penn & Teller Get Killed.” I was indifferent to them for years until the title of that film caught my interest. The movie knocked me out! At least I still have my laserdisc. What I’d like to see is a nice online laserdisc database with data on which movies are still not on DVD akin to that’s available for record collectors on discogs.com. Any coders out there willing to pick up on it? I’ll design the UI.

  8. Zigopolis

    I’m still waiting for The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu to come out on DVD. My VHS tape of it kicked the bucket over a decade ago…

  9. Ken Hanke

    My VHS tape of it kicked the bucket over a decade ago…

    And you’re complaining?

  10. Ken Hanke

    I’ve seen audio lose sync on a converter model DVD player that performed standards conversion. The video gets accurately downsampled, but the audio lags behind due to the difference between 25 and 29.97 FPS. Does anyone else have better experiences they’d like to share on this topic, which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve strayed quite a bit off of.

    I’ve never had a problem with the remonkeyed model I purchased, though I am thinking of replacing it. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it strikes me that it’s foolish not to (God forbid) move on to Blu-Ray. No, I’m not going to start replacing titles, but when new things come out, it seems kind of foolish not to go for it. If I’m going to make the move, though I might as well get a region-free player.

  11. Ken Hanke

    You know that Lisztomania is being released, right?

    No, I didn’t. I’d feel better about this in Region 1 — and with a little more technical information like 2.35:1 and anamorphically enhanced, etc. Still, I’m glad to see it coming out at all.

  12. Kevin F.

    There will be some extras as well (Iain Fisher’s site claims there will be a commentary track, and I know that there will be liner notes). But, at this point, even a bare-bones R2 release (as with VALENTINO) is better than nothing.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I never saw “Movie Movie” in the theatre but conceptually, given the period recreated, “Movie Movie” should be shown in Academy Ratio, with no need for clumsy panning & scanning.

    I’ve thought about that and while it sounds reasonable in itself, the problem is that if it was in 1.37:1 it would automatically be cropped to 1.85:1 on a modern screen. I can’t determine what it was shot in, but it is indeed possible that all that would happen in a full-screen presentation is that you’d gain top-to-bottom information (fine as long as things like stray microphones don’t wander into the frame).

  14. Ken Hanke

    There will be some extras as well (Iain Fisher’s site claims there will be a commentary track, and I know that there will be liner notes). But, at this point, even a bare-bones R2 release (as with VALENTINO) is better than nothing.

    You sound like you have some inside information! Do you have the R2 Valentino? I have the old regionless copy — as well as my DVD-R — and it’s P&S;. Is the R2 1.85:1 and anamorphic?

  15. TonyRo

    Here’s what sucks. Reading tons of books and articles praising Satyajit Ray and never finding ANY of his movies in the US. The World of Apu? Abhijan?

  16. Ken Hanke

    I don’t remember what format it was in, but World Cinema ran Pather Panchali back in 2006. It does look, however, if you need a region-free player to get it — and the rest of the Apu trilogy — on DVD, since the UK seems the best source.

  17. Sean Williams

    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.

    Congratulations, sir: not even I could have come up with a worse pun!

    As to titles in need of a D.V.D. release, what about Weir’s Plumber?

  18. Ken Hanke

    As to titles in need of a D.V.D. release, what about Weir’s Plumber?

    I give up. What about it? Actually, I don’t know. I saw it once long, long ago on PBS and remember very little about it.

  19. Pablo Manzano

    And what about these Lubitsch silent films?:

    -Forbidden Paradise
    -Three Women
    -Rosita
    -So this is Paris

    All of these exist (others, like Kiss Me Again, are considered lost), and, allegedly, they are important works. Why aren’t they released?

  20. Ken Hanke

    All of these exist (others, like Kiss Me Again, are considered lost), and, allegedly, they are important works. Why aren’t they released?

    Back in the days of collecting movies on film, Forbidden Paradise was readily available, but — and this is a key point — back then we were okay with getting a silent film with no music track. (“And we were glad to have it,” said curmudgeonly movie collector, eyeing his old Kodak Pageant with pride.) That won’t fly today. Even an organ or piano score isn’t generally enough, so films like these tend to languish unseen. The amount of interest in movies like this make it an untenable proposition to score them and put them out. TCM has scads of things that never get shown because they aren’t going to run two hours of movie with no soundtrack. (I have seen this happen accidentally a few times.)

    At least The Marriage Circle is or was available (it’s still available, even though out of print) and Lady Windmere’s Fan (which used to be run to death on PBS when PBS was NET) is part of a box set of PD esoterica.

    But more becomes available all the time, so who knows? These may show up outside of archives and museums yet.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.