In A World Where Neville Brand Is Better Represented Than James Mason, Survivors Will Envy the Dead


A.S. Hamrah sends in a tip about upcoming DVD releases, noting that this week's only back-catalogue release is Young Mr. Lincoln, a tie-in with either President's Day or Valentine's Day. ("This Valentine's Day spend some quality time with the young Railsplitter and the doomed Ann Rutledge!") Further details:

The only notable classic releases due in coming weeks I could detect were All the President's Men, Dog Day Afternoon (these are special editions with extras), The Passenger, and 5 early '30s Busby Berkeley musicals (long overdue). Network (special edition), Stalag 17 (special edition), Kind Hearts and Coronets (also long overdue), and Frankenheimer's I Walk the Line, to capitalize on the ongoing Johnny Cash revival. (He's not even in it but 5 of his songs are.)

No offense against Stalag 17, but this will be the third version of this film released on DVD, while Billy Wilder's wartime Five Graves To Cairo is still in limbo. So is Night of the Generals, possibly the greatest movie made about I'm sick of zis damn var-style disgruntled Nazis during the sixties.

I say this has gone far enough. It's time for our do-nothing congress to pass legislation requiring the studios to do a better job of exploiting their catalogues for DVD. I'm kidding, I'm kidding! But at this rate, my prediction that the DVD format will be extinct before the back catalogues are exhausted may be coming true:

What kind of world are we living in where Nicholas Ray's cautionary tale Bigger Than Life, a Gillespie favorite with James Mason as a mild-mannered schoolteacher driven mad by cortisone treatments, has never been available on any home-viewing format? Where is the DVD, or the VHS, or even the laserdisc, of the 1932 version of Madame Butterfly with Cary Grant as Pinkerton, Sylvia Sidney as Cho-Cho San, and a script by Joseph Moncure March? A world without a home video version of Ernst Lubitsch's last film, the sterling Jennifer Jones girl-plumber dramedy Cluny Brown, is what Krusty the Clown meant when he said "survivors would envy the dead."

I'm beginning to suspect nobody wants to make money on studios' back catalogues. How else do you explain that there are no DVDs of such nuggets of no-brainer marketability as Sergeant York, The Magnificent Ambersons, or the perfectly cast 1949 version of Madame Bovary (with James Mason re-enacting Flaubert's obscenity trial in a corny framing device)? Where is the Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin/Shirley MacLaine melodrama Some Came Running, or the Ronald Reagan anti-Klan picture Storm Warning—and for that matter why aren't the entire filmographies of both the Chairman and the Gipper on disk already? Think about how many sixties movies you've seen with the Strawberry Alarm Clock playing the band in some party scene, and then consider that you can't see Petulia, which features not only live performances by the Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin but speaking roles for Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. Nor can you find a DVD of another Richard Lester classic, How I Won the War—because of course there's no market for a movie that stars John Lennon.

I'm not really worried about this, because you can see most of the above movies if you really make an effort. But it makes me wonder how the business of DVD libraries works. If there were a blanket no-old-movies policy for DVD releases, I could understand why a beloved classic like Sergeant York isn't available. And it's possible that a problem picture like The Magnificent Ambersons has gotten stuck in a limbo of arguments over what extras to include and who should do the commentary track. But if you can't sell the DVD collection of Esther Williams' aquatic spectaculars (not one of which is on DVD), you're in the wrong business. I'm just not seeing a lot of logic in how the studios decide what gets out on DVD and what doesn't. (Does Universal really think there's a bigger market for the entire Ma and Pa Kettle series than there is for The Incredible Shrinking Man?) Is anybody out there familiar with how these decisions get made?