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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

2003 - The Year of the Classics on DVD?

For much of DVD's relatively brief history, film lovers have lamented the slowness with which classic films (by which I generally mean films originally released prior to the 1960s) have been appearing. For every Thin Man (MGM) or Now Voyager (WB) or His Girl Friday (Columbia) or Citizen Kane (RKO) or Sullivan's Travels (Paramount), one can name dozens and dozens of films from the same era and from the same studio that show no signs of seeing the light of day. And that doesn't even take into account the numerous B films and series movies that are gathering dust. For every Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, or Bette Davis who at least have a representative if still unsatisfactory sampling of their films out on DVD, there's a Clark Gable, James Cagney, Errol Flynn, John Garfield, or Greer Garson for whom there's little of consequence available.

One might say that given time, we'll eventually see these films appear on DVD, but is that completely realistic? When DVD first arrived, it began with both a backlog of almost 100 years of films plus all the new films being made each year. It also arrived at a time of astonishingly rapid technological change. So how long does DVD have before something better (whether it be HD-DVD or something else) comes along, as it inevitably will? Another half dozen years? The point of this history lesson is that the end of DVD as we currently know it is probably on the electronic horizon and too few of the great old films have made it to the medium. Studios are re-releasing, needlessly, recent titles they already have made available. Yet, we keep hearing that many classic titles need complete restoration before they can be released. If the studios stick to that line, we'll never see those titles on DVD before the medium's replacement by something else. And guess which titles will make it to that new medium first? The most current, of course. As new media replace old, we won't be bemoaning the lack of pre-1960s films; it'll be the lack of pre-1970s and then pre-1980s. Then all you'll have available to the consumer will be product from the least-rich decades of film history.

Is there a glimmer of hope at all? Well, maybe. With DVD looking to celebrate its sixth anniversary in mid-2003 and many of the main titles of the past few decades already available on the medium, the major studios are starting to realize that their catalogues of classic films are relatively-unmined treasure troves. The successes of restored titles such as Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and Notorious as well as others seem finally to have convinced skeptical moneymen at the studios that there indeed are dollars to be made from titles dating from the Hollywood Golden Age of the 1920s to 1950s. Recent new-release announcements and rumors for 2003 from the majors and the main independents are already approaching 150 titles, the majority of which are concentrated in the first quarter of the year. If this is any indication at all, the year 2003 bids fair to be the best year yet for the release of classic films on DVD.

Let's start with the major studios and look at what they have planned for next year. I've stretched the classics definition to include some important 1960s releases.

Warner Brothers was the studio that first showed the way in the area of DVD, but for quite a while was criticized for its slowness in releasing catalogue titles. This was particularly disturbing because the company owns the video rights to all of the classic titles produced by MGM, RKO, Monogram (later Allied Artists), and of course its own WB studio productions. The current year has seen this logjam break up with a number of fine releases, many incorporating extensive restorative work. 2003 will start off slowly with the appearance of an early Katharine Hepburn film, Alice Adams (1935, RKO, directed by George Stevens), in January. The following month, things kick into high gear with five titles: Joan Crawford's Academy Award performance in Mildred Pierce (1945, WB); director John Huston's very fine adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage (1951, MGM, starring Audie Murphy); the life of Christ retelling King of Kings (1961, MGM, with Jeffrey Hunter); the fine Sidney Poitier drama A Patch of Blue (1965, MGM); and director Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963, originally a Columbia release). March offers Claude Lelouch's A Man and a Woman (1966), while April sounds like it will be musical month with tentative plans for four titles: Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940, MGM, with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing incomparably to Begin the Beguine); Kiss Me Kate (1953, MGM, the Cole Porter Broadway musical filmed with Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel); Les Girls (1957, MGM, with Gene Kelly); and Silk Stockings (1957, MGM, a musical remake of 1939's Ninotchka with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse). In May, expect High Society (1956, MGM, a remake of The Philadelphia Story with Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby); the very funny Father of the Bride (1950, MGM, with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor); and The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963, MGM, with Glenn Ford and Ronny Howard). WB has an agreement with the rights-holders to Charlie Chaplin's films to release all the Chaplin films over the next few years in newly restored special editions. June should see the first three of these titles: The Circus (1928), City Lights (1931), and The Great Dictator (1940). Otherwise, a number of other titles are reliably expected to appear during the course of the year. Most definite seem to be: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, WB, the Errol Flynn classic), likely in September; The Jazz Singer (1927, WB, the first sound feature with Al Jolson); King Kong (1933, RKO); The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, WB, starring Humphrey Bogart); Around the World in Eighty Days (1956, originally a United Artists release, starring David Niven); Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938, RKO, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant); and Top Hat (1935, RKO, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at their peak). House of Wax (1953, WB, Vincent Price in 3D) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944, MGM, with Judy Garland) were two films expected in 2002, so they now seem like pretty good bets for 2003. Other possibilities include a new release of Giant (1956, WB, with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean); a special edition of Casablanca (1942, WB); more vintage Fred and Ginger in Swing Time (1936, RKO); and latter-day Fred Astaire in Finian's Rainbow (1968, WB). And, oh yes, we may finally be getting our first taste of classic Looney Tunes, perhaps arranged in collections by individual character such as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, in late winter or spring.

One of the studios that has increased its reputation in the DVD community substantially in recent years is Twentieth Century-Fox. The big news from that studio is its new line of Studio Classics that will see newly restored films released each month on DVD. The program will begin in January with the appearance of new special editions of three titles already released in less-than-stellar versions - Best Picture of the Year Oscar winners All About Eve (1950), Gentleman's Agreement (1947), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Also available starting in January, as a mail-in offer, will be 1927's winner of a Best Picture Oscar for Artistic Achievement, Sunrise. February's offering in this new line will be a new special edition of An Affair to Remember (1957, an inferior remake of 1939's Love Affair, even if it does star Cary Grant). The remainder of the Studio Classics schedule known so far includes The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, directed by Robert Wise) in March; The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, with Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison) in April; Love Is a Many Splendored Thing (1955, glossy soap opera with William Holden and Jennifer Jones) in May; and The Song of Bernadette (1943, with Jennifer Jones and Vincent Price) in June. Other titles reliably expected to appear in 2003 as part of this line include: Anastasia (1956, with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner); The Big Trail (1930, early John Wayne in widescreen); Cavalcade (1933, Oscar winner based on the Noel Coward play); The Grapes of Wrath (1940, John Ford and Henry Fonda at their finest); Laura (1944, glorious looking film noir with Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney); My Darling Clementine (1946, Fonda and Ford reteamed in the Wyatt Earp retelling); and Viva Zapata! (1952, with Marlon Brando and Anthony Quinn). An announcement of the full year's Studio Classics releases may be available in February. March has two other offerings so far: Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959, enjoyable Jules Verne adaptation starring James Mason), and My Friend Flicka (1943, with Roddy McDowell). In May, Fox will have another wave of war classics that will include The Blue Max (1966, WWI in the air with George Peppard and James Mason); Henry Hathaway's The Desert Fox (1951, with James Mason as Rommel); the fine British drama Sink the Bismarck (1960, with Kenneth More); 13 Rue Madeleine (1946, some James Cagney at last from a major studio); and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957, with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr). Another 2003 offering that seems likely is 1954's Garden of Evil, a Gary Cooper western, and also possible are Heaven Can Wait (1943, directed by Ernst Lubitsch) and One Million Years B.C. (1966, with Raquel Welsh). Fox is also actively looking into the best way to handle its less-well-known catalogue items. For example, the company may have some interest in releasing a couple of Laird Cregar films - The Lodger and Hangover Square (a couple of Victorian London thrillers made in 1944 and 1945 respectively) - in 2003, but has not decided how best to package them.

Columbia has regularly dipped into its classic catalogue over the years, and for 2003, has already announced nine new titles for just the first two months of the year. For starters, January will see Humphrey Bogart well represented with Dead Reckoning (1947, film noir with Lizabeth Scott), The Harder They Fall (1956, the fight racket and Bogart's last film), and Sirocco (1951, gunrunning in Syria). Rounding out the month will be Pennies from Heaven (1936, minor Bing Crosby musical) and The Devil at 4 O'Clock (1961, with Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra). In February, we can expect the long-awaited Frank Capra film You Can't Take It with You (1938, Oscar winner for both Best Picture and Best Director); a compilation of Three Stooges highlights Stop! Look! and Laugh! (1960); and two Cary Grant films - Talk of the Town (1942, also with Ronald Colman and Jean Arthur) and Once Upon a Time (1944). In March, Columbia will give the already-available From Here to Eternity (1953, with Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift) a new release as part of its Superbit line. Other March releases are the awfully funny The Awful Truth (1937, with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne) and Born Free (1966, adaptation of Joy Adamson's book about Elsa the lioness) as well as its sequel, Living Free, which came out six years later. Further Columbia information for 2003 is sparse, but possibilities are A Matter of Life and Death (1946, from Powell and Pressburger) and In a Lonely Place (1950, with Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame). The appearance of at least two or three more Three Stooges collections of shorts during the course of the year is a given.

Universal has made some noises about dipping into its catalogue (which also includes the Paramount releases prior to 1949) more in the coming year. In January, we can look for Douglas Sirk's take on Imitation of Life (1959, with Lana Turner). In February, we start off with a two-disc double bill of Charlie Chaplin's last film A Countess from Hong Kong (1967, starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren) combined with another Brando film Bedtime Story (1964, also with David Niven), and two Rock Hudson double bills Come September (1961)/Send Me No Flowers (1964) and Man's Favorite Sport? (1964)/Strange Bedfellows (1965). February will also see Doris Day in the amusing The Thrill of It All (1963) and a Burns and Allen triple bill of early Paramount releases - Here Comes Cookie (1935)/Love in Bloom (1935)/Six of a Kind (1934). March is shaping up to be a good month for classics enthusiasts interested in musicals. Four double bills (a format that Universal seems quite enamored of) are planned: The Benny Goodman Story (1955, with Steve Allen)/The Glenn Miller Story (1954, with James Stewart) and three Bing Crosby musical duos all made for Paramount - Birth of the Blues (1941)/Blue Skies (1946, with Fred Astaire); A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949)/The Emperor Waltz (1948, directed by Billy Wilder); and Rhythm on the Range (1936)/Rhythm on the River (1940). Continuing in the musical vein, March should also see Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967, with Julie Andrews) and Sweet Charity (1969, with Shirley MacLaine). Beyond March, information is sparse indeed. One might speculate that Universal will return to its classic monsters, for instance. At least one thing is positive, and that's Universal's apparent openness to licensing its catalogue titles to other independent DVD releasers such as Criterion, VCI, and Kino. This will bear more fruit in 2003 (see below).

Among the major studios, information on any classics releases for 2003 is hardest to come by for Paramount, Disney, Artisan, and MGM. Paramount is supposedly working on releases of Wings (1927, first Oscar winner as Best Picture); The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944, one of the Preston Sturges masterpieces); and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968, with Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda). Meanwhile, it has announced three Elvis Presley films for January release on DVD - Fun in Acapulco (1963); Girls, Girls, Girls (1962); and Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966). In March, a release of the biographical film Fear Strikes Out (1957, with Anthony Perkins as baseball player Jimmy Piersall) is planned.

Disney's January offerings include The Absent Minded Professor (1961), The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968), and The Moon-Spinners (1964). A release of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, with Kirk Douglas and James Mason) appears likely in 2003 and late in year, we can expect four more Walt Disney Treasures tins.

Artisan's classic releases arise mainly by virtue of its control of the Republic Pictures library. On the plus side are four new releases planned for January. These include two John Wayne titles - Flame of the Barbary Coast (1945) and A Lady Takes a Chance (1943, with Jean Arthur); an excellent noir western directed by Raoul Walsh entitled Pursued (1947, originally a WB release); and Copacabana (1947, Groucho Marx solo plus Carmen Miranda). Also positive is a recent indication that Hallmark Entertainment whose releases are handled by Artisan will be making Laurel and Hardy sound shorts available on DVD, with the likely release date being mid-summer 2003. On the minus side is a recent statement attributed to Artisan that it has no interest in releasing any of the Republic serials on DVD at this time.

MGM has announced the British Women in Love (1969, starring Glenda Jackson) for March, but has traditionally been more active in this area, mainly by virtue of the United Artists component of its holdings. Meanwhile, the company has struck a deal with Disney to distribute a number of the latter's holdings previously handled by Anchor Bay, including some films originally produced by David O. Selznick. Although already available on DVD, films such as Rebecca, Spellbound, Notorious, Duel in the Sun, and The Garden of Allah may also start to appear under the MGM banner in late 2003.

We turn now to the independent DVD releasing companies such as Home Vision (and its Criterion Collection arm), Anchor Bay, Image, Kino, and VCI. Home Vision is kicking off 2003 in style. Through its own Home Vision Entertainment arm, it will be releasing two desirable British titles in January - I See a Dark Stranger (1946, WWII drama with Deborah Kerr) and Victim (1961, with Dirk Bogarde), and in February, Marcel Carné's Drôle de Drame (1937). Even better, its Criterion Collection component will have five classic titles in January and February. January will bring two releases through its arrangement with Universal - Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932, Paramount) and a double bill of The Killers (1946, with Burt Lancaster)/The Killers (1964, with Lee Marvin), as well as the excellent French film by Julien Duvivier, Pepe Le Moko (1937, with Jean Gabin). In February, there will be a reissue of Jean Cocteau's classic Beauty and the Beast (1946) and the first appearance of Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964).

Anchor Bay also starts off with a bang with a planned January release of a box set of Peter Sellers films. The titles are mainly from Sellers' earlier years and include Carleton-Browne of the F.O. (1959), Heavens Above (1963), Hoffman (1970), I'm All Right Jack (1959), The Smallest Show on Earth (1957), and Two Way Stretch (1960). Other titles planned by Anchor Bay for 2003 include Dark Eyes of London (1939, also known as The Human Monster, with Bela Lugosi); the classic chiller Dead of Night (1945); and The Queen of Spades (1949, with Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans).

Image Entertainment offers Humphrey Bogart in 1937's Stand-In (United Artists, with Leslie Howard) in January along with The Spaghetti Western Collection (Django [1966], Django, Kill! [1967], Mannaja [1968], and Run Man Run [1977]). The latter is being handled by Image on behalf of a relatively new DVD company, Blue Underground Inc. In February, Image has Fritz Lang's 1959 Indian Epic - The Tiger of Eschnapur/The Indian Tomb; Alexander Dovzhenko's Arsenal (1928); Michael Powell's The Edge of the World (1937); and The Cook and Other Treasures (Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in The Cook [1918] plus a couple of other shorts). The latter two titles are being released on behalf of Milestone Films. Image's four-disc box set of Sergei Bondarchuk's War and Peace (1965), originally planned for release this December, will now appear in 2003 although no specific date has yet been announced.

Kino's main new classic offering for 2003 is its February release of the newly restored Metropolis (1927, directed by Fritz Lang). Other Kino 2003 plans include: the original 2 ½ hour version of Fritz Lang's Spies (1927); Lang's The Woman in the Moon (1919) and Liliom (1934, with Charles Boyer); British noir They Made Me a Fugitive (1947, with Trevor Howard); Luis Bunuel's surrealist L'Age d'or (1930); Rene Clair's It Happened Tomorrow (1944, United Artists); Douglas Sirk's A Scandal in Paris (1945, United Artists, with George Sanders); three Erich von Stroheim films - Blind Husbands (1919), Foolish Wives (1922), and Queen Kelly (1928); Douglas Fairbanks in A Thief of Bagdad (1924); and new releases of Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera (1925) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

VCI is apparently planning to release the 1945 version of the Universal serial Secret Agent X-9 (1945) and Republic's Drums of Fu Manchu serial (1940) early in the new year.

All Day Entertainment has reported no new forthcoming additions to its Edgar Ulmer Collection as yet, but it does plan a release of Edward Dmytryk's 1949 British film Give Us This Day, also known as Christ in Concrete.

Terra Entertainment will release Mary Pickford's Little Annie Rooney (1925) in January.

Finally, there is the continuing saga of the Harold Lloyd films that are supposed to be coming to DVD. The last word on these is that their appearance is far from being a reality, so I wouldn't hold my breath for 2003.

So there you have it - a pretty impressive lineup of classic films in store for 2003 and the year hasn't even started yet. And I haven't even mentioned the many public domain specialists whose releases on DVD and DVD-R (the latter especially in the B-western and serial realms) are bound to swell the list of films, even if you have to separate the gems from the dross quality-wise. If these titles get the support in the marketplace that they deserve, maybe 2003 will end up being the turning point in seeing the relatively-untapped resource of classic films represented on DVD to the degree that it should have been all along.

Barrie Maxwell
barriemaxwell@thedigitalbits.com


Barrie Maxwell - Main Page


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