twenty DVD gaps: part one

We love to videotape and film things because we get the impression that film is forever. We sure do have the advantage over previous centuries, we think, because we can capture moments and performances and great things on film. We think film will last forever—that we can always go back and see such-and-such film that we love.
We forget that film and video are not stable media, that they can degrade and crumble and die. We forget that companies often hold the rights to our favorite movie and those companies can whisk that videotape or DVD out of print in a minute, making it terribly difficult for you to see your favorite movie ever again.
Yes, we have digital media now and that’s wonderful. DVDs can last a lot longer than videotapes (if you don’t scratch or dirty them, that is). But so many movies still aren’t available on DVD, and their VHS versions are out of print, and you have to have a very good arthouse or revival theater in your neighborhood if you want to watch them. (Or you can throw yourself on the tender mercies of cable TV.) The quality of these remaining theater prints, and cable TV prints, is often terrible and you have to suffer through tons of splices and gaps.

Many of these hard-to-find movies are my favorite kind of movie: those delightful, witty, frothy, often surprisingly relevant, sometimes surprisingly naughty American movies from the 1930s. Part of the problem appears to be that RKO never had much interest in long-term film preservation, so it’s taking a lot of work to restore movies like King Kong or Bringing Up Baby to create a quality DVD. Part of the problem is a lack of commercial interest: it’s far more profitable to release even a failed TV series from the 1990s than it is to restore and release old Katharine Hepburn movies.
And there are some movies that aren’t currently on DVD because of legal issues—distribution rights, that kind of thing. It’s so frustrating for me to see that many movies I’d like to own on DVD are available in other regions but not in the US. It’s enough to make someone think very hard about acquiring a region-free DVD player.
So I’ve compiled a list of 20 gaps in the DVD market. This was originally a list of 20 movies I really wanted to see on DVD, but finding out that entire directors or actors are woefully underrepresented on DVD made me use categories for some of the list items, rather than single films.
Looking back at the list, I realize it’s rather heavily skewed toward movies written and directed by Billy Wilder, but what would you expect from me?
I was pleased to find out, in compiling this list, that a lot of movies I would have put on the list will be released soon on DVD. Slacker and After Hours will release in August. Forgotten Silver will release in October. Forbidden Zone will allegedly release later this year. Matewan, The President’s Analyst, and Junior Bonner released right after I started working on this. So there’s some hope. Perhaps I’ll check this list next June and it’ll be much smaller. Or so I hope.
Twenty Gaps in the Region 1 DVD Market
(or, a list of movies I am dying to rent/own on DVD and cannot)
1. “I never realized Katharine Hepburn was that young. And cute.”
That’s what my boyfriend said the other night after a double-feature of two movies not available on DVD, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby. She made some lovely, sweet, funny movies in the 1930s, several with Cary Grant.

  • Sylvia Scarlett— (1936)Because of Hepburn’s boy-drag, this has gained a cult following. I haven’t seen it and I’d like to, mostly as a curiosity.
  • Stage Door (1937)—One of the best casts of the 1930s. Ginger Rogers particularly shines. Full of wisecracks. Also one of my favorite movies ever. Available in Region 4 (Australia).
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)——I know. I know! According to a Boston Globe article, this movie is undergoing a much-needed restoration before DVD release. Considering the poor quality of the print we saw in the theater, I’m not surprised. Currently available in Region 2 (UK).
  • Holiday (1938)—This is a favorite movie of mine that holds up very well today, with excellent performances from Hepburn, Grant, Edward Everett Horton, and the rest of the cast. Sadly, no one seems to know about it and I believe it is one of the most underrated movies of the 1930s. We saw a beautifully restored print in the theater, so quality can’t be the reason this movie isn’t on DVD in the US. Available in Region 2 (UK).

2. Definitive noir. Can you believe that two of the best-known examples of 1940s film noir aren’t currently available on DVD? This is a real crime.

  • Double Indemnity (1944)—What’s frustrating is that this DVD was supposed to be released this very month, and at the last minute Universal announced the release would be postponed indefinitely. Best guess is that it’s a legal snafu: Universal leased the DVD rights to Image Entertainment, which released a DVD a few years ago (now out of print) that was apparently not top-quality. Universal may have had trouble regaining the rights. I’m extremely disappointed and hope this is all sorted out soon. Available in Region 2 (UK).
  • Laura (1944)—No clue why this movie isn’t available. I feel very lucky I got to see both these movies as part of an Austin Film Society series last year.

3. Ed Wood (1996)—This is most annoying. Disney has postponed the DVD release twice and in fact you can find some advance copies (for a high price) that are supposedly very good quality. No one knows why they’ve hedged on this and finally stalled indefinitely. One guess is that the popularity of Johnny Depp after Pirates of the Caribbean has made him a valuable commodity to Disney and no one wants to risk tarnishing this by releasing a movie where he runs around in angora sweaters and girly wigs. Grrrrrrr.
4. Safety Last (1923)— No Harold Lloyd silent features are available on DVD. Lloyd is one of the few actors to have bought the rights to all his starring films. If you visit the official Web site, you realize that his granddaughter is concerned with ensuring that only high-quality prints of his movies are screened. Perhaps the estate is being very particular about the quality of potential DVD releases, or perhaps they believe his movies should be seen only in theaters. This is frustrating, of course, but understandable. If you live in Austin, Alamo Drafthouse downtown is showing The Freshman on July 10; otherwise, you may be out of luck for the time being. (You can find a DVD of The Sin of Harold Diddlebock, Preston Sturges’ 1947 film starring Lloyd, but that’s not exactly representative of Lloyd’s body of work.)
5. “Oh, Freedonia, don’t you cry for me.” Warner just released a Marx Brothers boxed set, but that doesn’t include some of their earlier, even funnier films. These movies were once available on DVD in a boxed set but now they’re all out of print. I hope they’re rereleased soon because my taped-off-TV copies of Horse Feathers and Duck Soup are getting very shabby.

  • The Cocoanuts (1929)
  • Animal Crackers (1930)
  • Monkey Business (1931)—This is the one where they all imitate Maurice Chevalier.
  • Horse Feathers (1932)—Love the ending with Thelma Todd.
  • Duck Soup (1933)—How can this movie not be on DVD? Arrrgh.

6. Obligatory Billy Wilder bitching. Very few of his early directorial efforts are on DVD. I’ve never seen some of these movies and I’d love to … if only I could. MGM has a great DVD boxed set with many of his later movies. Can’t someone do an early Wilder boxed set? (And while you’re at it, include Double Indemnity too. Thank you.)

  • The Major and the Minor (1942)—Wilder’s first American movie as director.
  • Five Graves to Cairo (1943)—Dumb title. Interesting looking movie.
  • A Foreign Affair (1948)—Of all the movies on this list, this is one of the ones I want most on DVD. I love it so much, and my VHS copy is barely watchable anymore (the audio is too faint). It’s out of print on VHS, too. An excellent look at post-WW2 occupied Berlin, plus Marlene Dietrich, plus Jean Arthur singing the Iowa state song. And the line that generated uproarious applause when Austin Film Society showed this movie last year: “Don’t tell me it’s subversive to kiss a Republican.”

7. Gunga Din (1939)—Everyone’s always raving about the Golden Year of Hollywood, 1939. Here’s a well-known classic film from that year that I’ve never seen, no one ever seems to want to show in a theater, and is out of print on VHS. Damn it. Available in Region 2 (France).
8. The African Queen (1951)—Another movie it’s hard to believe isn’t on DVD. I read a New York Times article that said the distributors are looking for a better print than the one they have to create the transfer to DVD. That’s right, they’re striving for quality. Let’s all think that, anyway, although reviews of the Region 2 DVD claim the movie has been digitally remastered and looks good. Available in Region 2 (UK, Spain).
9. The Lubitsch touch. Ernst Lubitsch was one of the most well-known directors of his time. His sophisticated comedies, which managed to insinuate sexuality in ways the Production Code could not hamper, were quite popular. Now you can get Trouble in Paradise on DVD, but that’s about it.

  • Design for Living (1933)
  • Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938)—Scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. Smashing cast. I’ve been wanting to see this one.
  • Ninotchka (1939)—Scripted by Brackett and Wilder. Scheduled for 2005 release on DVD by Warner. Fiiiiinally.
  • To Be or Not to Be (1942)—Scheduled for 2005 release on DVD by Warner.
  • Heaven Can Wait (1943)—No relation to the Warren Beatty movie.

10. “Cary, this is a good chance to do Number Seven.” You can find Howard Hawks’ movies with Bogart, John Wayne, and Marilyn Monroe on DVD … but not his earlier movies. (Scarface (1932) is available on DVD but only as part of a boxed set with its remake.)

  • A Girl in Every Port (1928)—One of the few Louise Brooks talkies. Supposedly one of the earliest buddy movies.
  • Twentieth Century (1934)—Screwball comedy gone wild; a precursor to the romantic comedy film.
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938) (mentioned previously)
  • Sergeant York (1941)—Not a screwball comedy, but a good Gary Cooper movie.
  • Ball of Fire (1941)—Scripted by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. One of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck movies.

(Oh, and “Number Seven” was Hawks and Cary Grant’s code for Grant attempting onscreen to talk while a woman was talking. Which he did so beautifully.)
Part two of this list is here.

8 thoughts on “twenty DVD gaps: part one”

  1. You may want to invest in a multi-region DVD player instead of a region-free DVD player.
    If I remember correctly, region-free players set the default region to zero, thus allowing any DVD to played. But I’ve heard some DVD makers have gotten around that loophole.
    A multi-region player, though, allows you to set your player to a specific region. You may need to toggle between a region 2 disc and a region 1 disc, but it’s incredibly nice to have that capability.
    Expect to pay more though — my multi-region player cost $500. But when I watch my Shiina Ringo and UA DVDs on it, it was money well spent.

  2. I’m not trying to tempt you, but one option is to use your computer’s DVD player to play the alternate regions. There is even reasonably priced software (about $40?) that will allow you to change the region on your computer DVD player at will. This option is, of course, best if you have a laptop for easier viewing. Not owning a television, this is the only way I can see any movies at home. My collection is mostly a hodgepodge of US and UK releases.
    I’m curious why it should be unethical or unlawful to buy movies only available in other regions to watch. If I buy something only available in one place for my personal use in another country that I can’t get otherwise (like Lion Bars from the UK when I lived in the US or Skippy peanut butter in the US now that I’m living in the UK), how is that wrong?

  3. So it was … in Canada. Not in the US. But it’s still Region 1, so it’ll work here. I may be placing a large-ish order from soon.
    Tricia, I’ll have to see what my laptop DVD player can manage. Thanks for the advice! DVDs are supposedly region-encoded to protect against international video piracy and all that, but it’s downright ridiculous.

  4. I, too, am a great fan of Holiday! And so are, I’m glad to say, my kids — ages 19, 17, and 13. It’s truly one of the forgotten gems. Let’s start a Holiday groundswell! (It’s A Wonderful Life was once forgotten, and look what happened to it. Of course, the pendulum’s swung too far the other direction on that one.)

  5. As another Holiday fan, I say ‘hear, hear’ for the groundswell. We were able to pick up (from eBay) one of the copies of Ed Wood that got into circulation before it got pulled…it’s truly a shame that it hasn’t been made available in general release.

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