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

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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?

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  1. Billy Wilder has been getting the DVD shaft. Not only is Five Graves To Cairo unreleased, but so is his noir classic (and movie I’d kill to see on DVD) Double Indemnity.

  2. Forget those – what about Lindsay Anderson’s If?

  3. There was a dubbed Italian comedy in the late 1960s called Man in Space that was one of the oddest things I’d ever seen up to that point. One of those Late Late Late show movies you’d only see once in your life. The plot was somehow a regular Italian slob got sent way into the future and wreaks havoc on their orderly society by simply behaving like any 20th Century Italian male would.

    If they put that out on DVD I’d be impressed. Not that I’m going to look for it.

  4. There’s a petition you can sign to get John Frankenheimer’s terrific Grand Prix on DVD.

    Vote early and often!

  5. What about Seconds?

  6. “Kind Hearts and Coronets” has been available on DVD for quite a while (2002 according to Amazon). So whatever does “long overdue” mean ?

    Check out the 5 DVD Alec Guinness Collection –
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B00006FMAX/reasonmagazinea-20/

  7. All at once, I feel really young.

  8. I don’t know how these decisions get made in the movie business, but other industries with “backlists” release oldies with no discernible pattern.

    It’s generally a labor of love and has to be sponsored and pursued with diligence by someone who has the spare time to get the project completed. Clearly, it’s no one’s priority.

    It’s time-consuming to track down who owns the rights to a given project, to clarify the licensing issues, and to get the parties to agree; and b) there’s “no” money in releasing oldies (relative to frontlist titles).

    The cultural-products industry is ripe for the picking by some energetic “Long Tail” entrepreneur.

  9. What of John Landis’ timeless classic, Schlock??

    ?Due to the horrifying nature of this film, no one will be admitted to the theatre.

  10. Hollywood’s head is firmly wedged up its ass. This should surprise nobody.
    There are vintage movie groups who file share. They take old tape or laserdisk versions of movies, clean them up, and make nice little DVD files of them. They show more love and respect for movies than the studios do.
    Hollywood can’t fall into the ocean fast enough.

  11. Wait. It is on DVD. Never mind.

  12. There’s a petition you can sign to get John Frankenheimer’s terrific Grand Prix on DVD.

    Grand Prix ISN’T out on DVD?!? That’s just crazy.

  13. The entire post is a joke right?

  14. I watched I Walk the Line on TV many years ago, expecting a Johnny Cash movie. Is there anything more disappointing than looking for Johnny Cash and finding Gregory Peck instead?

    Douglas: A remake of Seconds is supposed to be in production, and while that bothers me for all sorts of reasons, it does mean they’ll probably put out the original on DVD in hopes of fooling people into renting the wrong version.

  15. Mad Scientist-I signed the petition. In fact, I just purchased an Aussie DVD version of the movie, but found the format doesn’t work here. Much wailing and knashing of teeth. But the fact that GP is not on DVD here is damn near a crime against humanity.

    Also, when the hell will they bring out more John Sayles movies on DVD? Matewan is out, but the quality is said to be awful. The same is true of Brother From Another Planet.

  16. I bet IP rights factors in pretty heavy on why some stuff doesn’t get released.

  17. Holy cow, jf! I didn’t even bother checking on Double Indemnity because I figured it had to be on disk. Is there no end to the indignities heaped on Barbara Stanwyck? For all the hoo-ha about the great pre-code movies and how everybody loves them, you also can’t find Baby Face or Night Nurse. These are all movies in the Time-Warner library, so there’s no problem with ownership. WTF? I detect the shadowy hand of Robert Osborne.

    SM, you’re right. I don’t know why they’re rereleasing Kind Hearts, since the new version doesn’t seem to have any more extras than the old one.

    It’s generally a labor of love and has to be sponsored and pursued with diligence by someone who has the spare time to get the project completed. Clearly, it’s no one’s priority.

    Then why is every Ma and Pa Kettle film on DVD? Clearly, somebody’s putting out backlist material. Is there any chance they’ve painted themselves into a corner by raising expectaions for all kinds of extras? I could see somebody figuring you can’t just put out a bare-bones DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons after all this time. But then I’m not confident anybody in Hollywood knows what The Magnificent Ambersons is.

    Fletcher, Seconds is on DVD. And rightly so.

  18. Seconds is on DVD.

    Then I take it back: There’s no justification for the remake at all.

  19. Screw all that classic Hollywood crap. Where’s “The Turkish Wizard of Oz” DVD?

  20. Is Jodorowsky’s El Topo on dvd yet? I remember seeing that about ten years back: set in the Chilean desert, gay friars dancing together, out there searching…searching for something. It’s Brokeback Mountain with gauchos and friars.

  21. “Sergeant York” isn’t available on DVD because the liberal champagne-swilling Democractic-Party-donating Hollywood elite won’t let movies about great patriotic Americans be released!

  22. Budgie,

    El Topo, and Holy Mountain for that matter, are not officially available on DVD, but I’ve seen bootleg copies of them available. Somebody took the Japanese laserdisc releases and copied them to DVD.

  23. Cavanaugh, your film poseur credentials remain unblemished.

    You are complaining about Billy Wilder films unreleased on DVD, and you mention Five Graves To Cairo and NOT Ace In The Hole (AKA The Big Carnival)–WTF???? Did you knowingly try to choose esoterica over greatness, or did you just not know any better?

    And you can still conjure up the VHS of Five Graves–Ace In The Hole is not available in any format, except as bootlegs duped from broadcast.

    And to the other posters–Double Indemnity was available, but is now OOP while it is being redone, a common procedure. But since it is on TCM like once a month (or so it seems), you have to be blind not to see it.

  24. Aren’t Ma & Pa Kettle in the public domain?

  25. Speaking of “no market for a movie that stars John Lennon”, I can somewhat understand The Beatles’ reluctance to release Let It Be on DVD, but Help!? Are they waiting for all of The Beatles to die, or just all of their early fans?

  26. “Are they waiting for all of The Beatles to die,”

    Why am I now picturing McCartney decapitating Ringo with a sword and shouting, “There can be only one!”?

  27. Someone needs to nudge the studios to finally release Beau Geste on DVD. I’ve been waiting forever.

  28. Then why is every Ma and Pa Kettle film on DVD?

    Ma and Pa Kettle films are on no-frills six-movies-per-double-sided-DVD sets. After a similar Abbott & Costello set was fairly popular, Universal realized there was money to be made in themed sets of classic comedies or film series (where the logic was that while you wouldn’t buy a DVD of _Airport ’79_, you’d pay a couple of bucks more than you would for _Airport_ to get all the Airport movies).

    In the case of Warner-owned classics (like _Ambersons_, I think), they have high standards for film source and will delay a release until they find something that won’t look like crap on DVD.

    There’s also just the matter of if you release too much backstock at once you end up competing with yourself.

  29. >>There’s also just the matter of if you release too much backstock at once you end up competing with yourself.

    Competing for the 15 people in America who want to see old movies? or, God forbid, old *foreign* movies?

    Please. It’s inertia, ignorance, greed, and the American love affair with the new. Plus, there are some very perfectionistic directors (like Scorsese, who took forever to get it together to release The Last Waltz, and Bergman with Fanny and Alexander–both worth waiting for, by the way…).

    Ace in the Hole: can’t find it anywhere.

  30. Double Indemnity was available, I got it from Netflix last year. But I checked their site again and now it’s “upcoming”. Gobs of the old DVD’s are on ebay.

    Several titles in Tim’s post are available on DVD in Europe. Get a region-free player already.

  31. Someone needs to nudge the studios to finally release Beau Geste on DVD. I’ve been waiting forever.

    What about “The Last Remake of Beau Geste?”

    And Russ 2000 is right — if you’re a film fanatic, then there’s no excuse for not owning a multi-region dvd player. How else would I ever watch all my ultra-violent 1970s Italian cop films?

  32. I believe that “Urgh! A Music War” has still not been released on DVD.

  33. What the movie archive biz needs is someone like the fanatic who started Bear Family Records in Germany. I would imagine that dealing with Hollywood in trying to get good stuff from the past released would be even more insanity-inducing than dealing with the record industry, but maybe there’s someone out there just crazy enough to try it. It sure ain’t me, though.

  34. I agree entirely about Stanwyck. In addition to Baby Face and Night Nurse I would add All I Desire , a Douglas Sirk film that deserves at least as much attention as All that Heaven Allows . I was also going to agree with Ace in the Hole over Five Graves to Cairo (reading comments from the bottom up), but then I reached the Double Indemnity shocker.

    Also, for whoever asked, the Matewan DVD is atrocious. But I do wonder if the trouble there has to do with Sayles and some aspect of his distribution deal.

    Might as well also put in my vote for Otto Preminger’s Angel Face , and, just to show that it is not just “old timey” films that get overlooked, Greg Mottola’s The Daytrippers .

    Anon

  35. Budgie,
    I recently heard that Jodorowsky had officiated at Marilyn Manson’s wedding. I haven’t even heard his name since Santa Sangre.
    My vote for “Must be released on DVD immediately” is Ken Russell’s “The Devils Of Louton”

  36. Many of the films not available on DVD are available on Turner and Fox and other movie channels. This surely means the studios are getting paid for their backstock – and the cost of sending a print to a TV station is probably a lot less than doing the work to get a DVD made. If studios keep a backlog of movies ONLY for the movie channels, they get revenue at low costs. In a word, profits. They make money. If they released everything on DVD, perhaps the demand for movie channel viewing would go down (or at least the price might, considering the competition), and thus a source of easy revenue would go bye-bye. Why would any studio do that? (Actually, if DVD sales of backstock CONSISTENTLY yielded more revenue, there’d be a lot of incentive for a studio to do this. But I bet DVD sales are a lot like movie runs: some make money, many don’t.)

  37. My kingdom for a “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” DVD. Without that show, “Ally McBeal” could never have happened. OK, bad example. Without that show, “Maloclm in the Middle” could never have happened. Better.

  38. I’d love a Parker Lewis Can’t Lose DVD set, and Dinosaurs, as well. Even though lots of the script was lefty nonsense, it was still a great show. Also, I had read that High Anxiety and Silent Movie were not yet on DVD, but that may have since changed.

  39. I just picked up a Vincent Price double-pack of The Haunting of Hill House and The Last Man on Earth on clearance for $4, as a data point.

  40. I’m still waiting for From Beyond starring Jeffery Combs!

    And how many movies has Christopher Lee starred in?

  41. Might as well also put in my vote for Otto Preminger’s Angel Face…

    There’s now what seems to be a quasi-bootleg of Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing out there. I haven’t ordered it yet because I’m concerned about the picture quality. But yeah, come on, DVD fairies! Otto Preminger was more than Anatomy of a Murder and the second-best camp-era Mr. Freeze!

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