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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Digging The Warner Archive (And I Do!)

Transition has long been a way of life in home viewing. For we who take video seriously, tumult might be a better word. I’m a slave to the next big thing and have been since 8mm entered my life forty-five years ago. Remember when laser discs were the living end? They ended alright, as most might be better employed for serving finger sandwiches or sausage balls (there’s an idea --- I might try it over Easter). To collect on DVD, DVR, etc. is to go dizzy whilst emptying your purse. Resourceful Warners found a new means for getting at mine, and again I’m their willing supplicant. WB’s Archive Collection is up, operative (sometimes barely, as the site can be sluggish), and visiting havoc upon collector VISAS nationwide (but not beyond as yet, their discs being unavailable overseas). As this thing’s gone on barely ten days, most reaction has been anecdotal and limited to forums and discussion groups. I’m sounding off on five that reached my door yesterday, having watched three so far. There's a $20 tag hanging off 150 titles presently available, but a coupon code saved me 25% and made my splurge easier to abide. By way of confession, I did use Ann’s name to order an additional five at the discount. That worked, but further attempts in the names of Mortimer Snerd, Rollo Treadway, and the Baron Meinster have been rebuffed (the coupon expired last night in any case). I'm confident that newly christened Warners Archive will work through its growing pains. Good (no, great!) is the fact they're giving us shows unreleased (and less likely to be) otherwise. What’s to become of conventional DVD and box packaging with retailers either closing or clearing shelves of this stuff? It won’t be long I’ll wager before all the companies are selling oldies Warner’s way. You order and they print. Yes, Warners is indeed using DVD-R for transfers, but mine played just fine yesterday, so maybe that technology has come to acceptable term of late. As to further confession, I’d emphasize here my near-total ignorance of disc authoring and wizardry applied to bit rates, progressive blah-blah, and single vs. double layering. Don’t bother trying to teach me either, because it’s hopeless (I wasn’t welcome at school science fairs even as a spectator).

Yes there are kinks, but I’m betting Warners will iron them out. Word is that’s already in progress. Quality thus far seems to be running hot and cold, according to customers who’ve posted about the Net. These DVD’s are pigs in pokes, but I’ve been lucky, for mine are tasty spare ribs worth the fifteen dollars I sprung for each. Rival companies must be observing closely. Sony is rumored to be preparing a similar service. I’d heard their entire library was transferred to HD format, so quality would likely be excellent. Certainly the Columbias they’ve leased for TCM broadcast look good. Burning-on-demand appears to be a wave of every distributor's future, but how many short seasons will pass before even that disappears in the wake of yet another mode of delivery? Why spend cash for what’s clearly a planned obsolescence? Warners will continue transferring to HD for television broadcasting if nothing else, and those will eventually be available for storage on our DVR’s (I’ve already grabbed a number of HD Warner features off Cinemax and HD Net Movies). Well, maybe WB knows, just as I know, that life is hardly worth living without The D.I. on my shelf and at the playing ready. What sense does it make for me to have bought Strange Interlude when I can be fairly certain of seeing it in high-definition within another five or so years --- but will I live that long? Collecting is all about that need for gratification right now. Remember when the Stooges were plunging downward in a plane and Joe Besser cried, I can’t die now --- I haven’t seen "The Eddy Duchin Story"! There’s as neat a summation of Warner’s customer base, for if we’ll traverse lakes of broken glass to get titles we want, surely we’ll empty bank accounts to custom order ones we’ve waited for longest, and with thousands of features (not to mention shorts) in the WB library, the sky itself is no limit. Here’s an idea for marketers, and speaking as a compulsive consumer badly in need of forcible intervention, I guarantee it will work. Offer subscriptions with discounts for minimum monthly buys. Since you’re planning to add (at least) twenty new titles every four weeks, give us a break in exchange for income we’d otherwise squander roofing our homes or keeping babies in milk. Hey, it’s worth that for cash off and The Adventures Of Quentin Durward!

My first screening out of the box was The D.I. Well, of course. That’s been a favorite since discovering it syndicated around 1972. I’d just turned eighteen, and could observe miseries among recruits on Parris Island without fear of being drafted to some such place myself, the Viet Nam threat having subsided enough by then to remove threats of conscription. Jack Webb’s mode of verbal attack briefly became my own. Well, pardon me while I jump up and click my heels was among sarcasm applied on freshman halls just prior to being tossed clothed into showers in retaliation for same. It’s amazing how many classmates were familiar with location and burial of a sand flea as depicted in this timeless 1957 classic. The D.I. delivers just for letting us hear Jack Webb bark out dialogue. A Dead Marine Is Never Sorry --- A Dead Marine Is Just Dead! Do they actually teach that in the Corps, or was it merely Jack’s philosophy? He’s fabulous in this, and might rightfully have sued Stanley Kubrick had he lived long enough to see how that director pillaged The D.I. for Full Metal Jacket’s opening hour. Webb had Marine cooperation for filming (note honorary Corps membership he’s receiving here), though most of The D.I. got done on sound stages in that stripped-down way he’d perfected with Dragnet. There’s a dress shop set so austere as to have come out of a quick assembly kit, yet somehow all this befits Warner’s no-frills DVD packaging (there was a wonderful trailer Webb appeared in and narrated, unfortunately not included). Quality is OK on their widescreen presentation (the pic was originally 1.85 --- seeing it that way was a first for me). Contrasts are grayish at times, which took me back to a few 16mm television prints in collecting past, but overall I was satisfied. When would anyone get round to remastering, let alone restoring, such a minor titles as The D.I.? It’s been off TCM along with many other post-48 Warners for having been long-term leased to satellite stations no longer interested in running it. For all that latter-day invisibility, The D.I. was a profit-getter in 1957 with negative costs of just $628,000 and domestic rentals topping $2.4 million (foreign was a much lower $200,000 --- this wasn’t their armed forces after all). Profits were $1.3 million, the last real hit Webb had as a producer/director (1959’s --30 — ended with minimal profit of just $13,750). There’s much more about The D.I. and how it came to be in Michael Hayde’s excellent My Name’s Friday, which covers Jack Webb’s life/career and is essential reading.

Next was Strange Interlude (excellent DVD quality here). This was long reputed to have bombed when released in 1932. Actually it made profits of $90,000, less than usual for stars Norma Shearer and Clark Gable (the Grauman’s Chinese opening was accompanied by Disney’s short subject premiere of his first Technicolor cartoon, Flowers and Trees). Strange Interlude enjoyed prestige via Eugene O’Neill having written the source play, which used soliloquies to let us know what characters were thinking as opposed to what they were saying. It may have worked onstage, but with actors here registering expressions to reflect those thoughts, the whole thing smacks of broad silent era gesturing made to compensate for lack of spoken dialogue. To have employed such technique in a modern play was boldly experimental. Transporting it to movies was ill advised. We examine screen actors too closely for them to get away with mugging in sync to words read off-camera. Groucho Marx might have put MGM on notice (had they chosen to listen) spoofing Strange Interlude two years prior in 1930’s Animal Crackers, wherein he confided nonsense thoughts to the movie’s audience and credited O’Neill’s play for giving him impetus to do so. The casting’s a little whacked in Strange Interlude, with Clark Gable misapplied to a passive part unbecoming a he-man image in emergence, leaving Norma Shearer in firm control of the narrative and assorted weakling males in her character’s orbit. The film does take precode initiative by dealing with a subject far more taboo in today’s sensitized filmmaking. The notion of inherited insanity is one seldom addressed anymore. Maybe that’s why Strange Interlude fascinates me so. Families keeping one of their own locked upstairs and fearing possibilities of recurrence should sane members procreate is a topic few movies go near (King’s Row and various Jane Eyres come to mind among later tries). With social/political Production Codes so strictly (if unofficially) enforced today, it’s unlikely we’ll see another like Strange Interlude.

The Adventures Of Sir Walter Scott’s Quentin Durward has a title unwieldy enough to have likely sunk the enterprise in 1955 (mostly it was shortened to simply Quentin Durward), or maybe patrons were tired of Robert Taylor in period costume. Either way, there was $908,000 lost against dreadful domestic rentals of just $693,000 (foreign had come to a partial rescue with $2.1 million). After profits taken by Ivanhoe ($3.3 million) and Knights Of The Round Table ($2.4), this was a shocking indication of changed (and suddenly so) audience tastes. Was tide so quickly going out on swashbuckling adaptation of Sir Walter and kindred scribes? His name was prominent on Durward ads, probably as much for his (and Metro’s) previous Ivanhoe hit. All three Taylor pageants (and I don’t include Quo Vadis among these) were directed by Richard Thorpe, enough in itself to consign them to critical non-personage, as Thorpe remains MGM’s staff director least likely to be rehabilitated (I even mistakenly typed his name in lower case just now --- or was it mistakenly?). It seemed enough in the fifties to shoot these in Cinemascope and use real European castles for backdrops. MGM was selling travel exotica at least as much as costumes and literary pedigree. Handsome presentation was first and surely foremost. A Richard Thorpe could at least deliver that and maybe the rest would sort itself out. I shouldn’t enjoy such stolid things, yet I do. Robert Taylor impresses me for punching his MGM clock and playing costume heroes straight (though not without humor). He’ll not rob us of what little romance was still possible by the mid-fifties in pictures already looked upon as old-fashioned, and won’t play down to the material the way other late term swordsmen often did. Quentin Durward does acknowledge a cynicism gnawing away at noble gesturing and Taylor’s positioned as out-of-touch with changing Middle Ages. The actor and his studio were themselves of a vanishing mindset by 1955 when Quentin Durward tanked. There’s wistfulness and onscreen regret for passing ways (and an especially nice bonus of Taylor briefly playing opposite Ernest Thesiger). Warner’s Archive Collection DVD of The Adventures Of Quentin Durward is outstanding, with first-rate picture and directional stereo sound.

All told, I’m happy with my Warner Archive purchases and will doubtlessly buy more. I have a feeling this concept will work and that Warners will be responsive to consumer’s suggestions and concerns. Selling movies on demand is the likely future of (vintage) DVD, and it looks to be a bright one. Thanks Warners.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I ordered a few from the new 'concept' as well, and as soon as I can free up a few prime-time hours, my wife and I shall be attending Hank 'Whip' Whirling's THE BIG CIRCUS---it's the biggest show on Earth, you know.

8:45 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thanks for the firsthand report, John. If someone at Sony reads this, I hope it will be noted that there's a vault full of Columbia two-reel comedies and serials that we'd love to see on DVD-R. We appreciate your consideration.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Thanks for yet ANOTHER plug for My Name's Friday, John! I just wish I'd known you back when I was writing it. I'd have bet the mortgage money that -30- (1959) didn't turn any semblance of profit, and I think I wrote as much.

I'm looking forward to meeting you at Cinevent - be sure to bring your copy of MNF, so I can sign it. And for attendees interested in their own signed copies, I'll probably lug a half-dozen or so with me. I'm usually in the big dealer room seated beside Martin Grams Jr., when I'm not spending myself into a stupor. Or, of course, when the Saturday morning cartoons or L&H shorts are running.

On to the topic at hand. I'm guessing from your write-up that these discs contain nothing in the way of "extras." I'd expect the omission of commentary and mini-docs, but it'd be nice to have the trailer and a relevant short or two. Especially when you consider that WB does provide them in standard releases that usually end up costing far less per show, even when purchased in brick-and-mortar stores.

5:54 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Thanks for the write-ups. I'm trying to figure out which titles are worth buying now rather than waiting for them to show on TCM.

11:44 PM  
Anonymous Richard Schilling said...

Thanks for the reviews, especially of Quentin Durward. Now that I have a trustworthy first review I plan on purchasing that soon.

I just received my box of films, Norma Shearer's We Were Dancing is on screening at my house this weekend, as is Clark Gable and Myrna Loy in Men In White.

Personally I think this Warners Archive program is one of the most welcome events in a long time. Since new releases will come out each month, I also feel like it would just be easier if my employer just transfers a portion of my salary each month to Warners.

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warner's strategy somehow feels more like an intermediate stage between (online) video on demand and the "classic" way of discs (being produced and sold like books).

Why this sounds great to a certain extent, the downside (at least to me) is the question of quality and extra material.

While the former may be acceptable - as long as you get a rare movie/serial that would else be considered to be not worth a release - the latter is somehow a serious problem.

You started your (fantastic) article with a little retrospective on the laserdisc. While this media was first of all a big advance in video quality (although being clumsy in size and rather expensive) it also offered the option of bonus material in a way that VHS could not provide.

To me as a film collector (which is in some ways opposed to a LD/DVD-collector) this was the main reason to buy laserdiscs in the first place!

You could already get the director's cut of one movie on VHS, no problem there. But not with an audio commentary or a isolated score-track.

Many consider featurettes and trailers to be worthless "filler material" but if you take a look at the Criterion Collection's LDs you (sometimes) got a complete package of material covering all aspects of the production.

With the advent of the DVD the same factor also came into play. A better quality (although compressed and encoded) AND bonus material being combined with the film itself.

While some say the size of the discs was the major factor in the success it's also obvious that without the extra material offered one major aspect would be missing.

And don't forget how most websites complain about a release if it doesn't contain any extras (check out the reviews at dvdtalk for example)!

Those "plain vanilla" releases almost never sell as good as compared to a full blown special edition.

But now Warner has started a service that is basically a "plain vanilla" delivery. You get the movie and that's it. Fans and collectors will enjoy that quite a lot, just to get their hands on the rare films offered.

But if this became the standard, we would most certainly miss out on a lot of background information that's (at least to me) sometimes even better than the film in question!

Thus, Warner should better get the impression that they now have a way to determine what movies/serials would sell good as a "official" release - but not to switch all of their output to this way of operation.

Just my two cents.


3:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


In addition to Groucho's spoof of "Strange Interlude" in "Animal Crackers" Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett did a parody of it in the 1932 Fox picture "Me and My Gal". And of course, there was also the 1932 Hal Roach Taxi Boys short "Strange Innertube". Nothing in that short had anything to do with "Strange Interlude" but it was clear what inspired the film's title.

4:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Bolo, I heard "The Big Circus" was a particularly nice transfer. Did you find it so?

Scott, those Columbia shorts and serials are big wants for me too. They'll probably be along eventually, assuming Warners does well with their program, which I understand they are.

Michael, there are trailers on several Archive discs I bought, but no extras otherwise. Just as well, as I don't care so much about those as I do about having the features. Look forward to seeing you in Columbus.

Matt and Richard: The Archive discs do look better than TCM broadcasts, especially the scope titles, which are all anamorphic transfers from what I understand.

Zar, I didn't intend to dismiss the old laser discs so casually. I've kept a number of them so far unreleased on DVD and they still look fine.

Thanks Rich for the further examples of "Strange Interlude" references in other movies. It's been years since I saw "Me And My Gal", but I do remember that gag you mentioned, as it was a good one.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My first purchase from the WARNER ARCHIVE was THE BIG CIRCUS, WICHITA and WESTBOUND.

CIRCUS and WICHITA, both ALLIED ARTISTS releases and anamorphic, and WESTBOUND, a WB release and 1:85.

I surfed through the two westerns, nd they are stunning.

My wife and I attended THE BIG CIRCUS last night, which has been a perennial favorite of mine since its 1959 release, and it is, indeed, a pip. Zach Colino's walking Niagara Falls on that slick tightrope made me a nervous wreck all over again (even with the process screen).

9:22 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

The idea of "inherited insanity" was also one addressed in another '32 drama, "A Bill of Divorcement". Why does that seem to be a theme that resonates for me? (Uh-oh!)

5:59 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


Your wonderfully-evocative masthead for today, of Wilder,Lanza, and Warner, only underscores the rich melding of cultures that existed in Hollywood at that time: Vienna, Roma, and Burbank-a.

1:41 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Screened my WARNER ARCHIVE copy of WESTBOUND last night with Randolph Scott. Randy NEVER disappoints, and neither did the DVD.

8:38 AM  
Blogger JAMES said...

Thank you for introducing me to the WB archives site. I ordered six pics on Monday and received them by UPS on Thursday. Fast.
Transfers beautiful, great sound, wide screen and stereo where required, trailers on the MGM pics. I chose INTERRUPTED MELODY, PAINTING THE CLOUDS WITH SUNSHINE, SO THIS IS LOVE, THE MATING GAME, THREE SAILORS AND A GIRL, YES GIORGIO.

12:44 PM  

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