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MIA: (l-r) Rock Hunter’s Jayne Mansfield; Ken Carter’s rocket car; Delphine Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman; Coal Black lobby card; Double Indemnity.

What You’re Missing
By Shawn Stone

There are plenty of great films available on DVD—but here are 10 that aren’t, and should be

The number and variety of classic films available on DVD is staggering. Just in the last two months, Warner Home Video released box sets of Greta Garbo flicks and Val Lewton horror classics; Paramount issued two long-unavailable John Wayne films; and Kino on Video offered up a set of Leni Riefenstahl’s mountain films. Next month, New Line Home Video will unveil a collection of Harold Lloyd’s silent comedies—something that seemed unimaginable not so long ago. And then there are the steady stream of recent film releases, available with fancy extras like deleted scenes and director commentaries.

There are plenty of interesting films still sitting on the shelf, however, and here are 10 of the best.

10. Star Wars (1977)

A long time ago, in a Hollywood far, far away, there was Star Wars. With impressive visuals and a simple narrative cribbed from Joseph Campbell, Akira Kurosawa and 1940s-era movie serials, Star Wars was good fun—the great popcorn movie Americans craved in 1977. Unfortunately, it no longer exists. In its place, filmmaker-god George Lucas offers Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope. This bastardization is plopped in the middle of a poorly developed multifilm space opera. Hopefully, Lucas will outlive his hubris and make the original available again someday.

9. The Gang’s All Here (1943)

You can have your Gone With the Winds and Wizards of Oz, but this is the great three-color Technicolor film. After years in the wilderness, Busby Berkeley—he of the geometric patterns of comely showgirls—was given a big budget to make a musical with Fox’s most interesting stars, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda. The result is a disorienting mix of the avant garde and the banal; the plot is dull, but the musical sequences are amazing. Miranda shines in the Freudian fantasia “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” with giant bananas one would never mistake for bananas. Faye is equally compelling in the erotically charged “No Love, No Nothin’,” about waiting for her man to come home from war. Even the dumbass song about polka dots is a psychedelic wonder.

8. Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943)

The title of this cartoon, a seven-minute, all-black parody of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, explains why it’s out of circulation. (It’s mostly all-black: While Vivian Dandridge—Dorothy’s sister—and other African-Americans did most of the voices, Mel Blanc is the villain and a couple of dwarfs.) Nasty stereotypes? You bet: Prince Charming, for example, is Prince Chawmin’, complete with zoot suit and dice for front teeth.Then there are the hired killers who advertise murder for $1, with “midgets 1/2-price” and “Japs free.” It isn’t for the tender-hearted, but it’s a prime example of the delirious, visually dazzling toons Bob Clampett made for Warner Bros. in the ’40s.

7. Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

One way to get away with making fun of America in the paranoid ’50s was to dazzle the yokels with really big boobs. So, former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin starred sad-sack Tony Randall with buxotic Jayne Mansfield in this eye-popping slapstick satire of status-seeking consumerism and the decade’s obsession with breasts. Herr Freud pops up in visual jokes all through the picture; look kids, watch Randall try to keep his pipe lit! Hey 20th Century Fox: Tashlin’s playful use of CinemaScope would look great in a new anamorphic transfer, hint hint.

6. The Devil at My Heels (1981)

Ken “the Mad Canadian” Carter, the Great White North’s version of Evel Knievel, is a forgotten man today. But his epic, five-year struggle to do one spectacular stunt—jumping a mile over the St. Lawrence River from Canada to the United States in a rocket- powered car—is chronicled in this terrific National Film Board of Canada-produced documentary. Carter is both a tragic and ridiculous figure. A poor kid from Quebec who lived in the slums and played with rats, Carter grew up to be a fearless (or stupid, depending on your point of view) stunt-car driver. His story takes Shakespearian twists and turns, with a double-whammy surprise ending. OK, VHS bootlegs of this are floating around; our friends to the north would do well to make this available legitimately.

5. Double Indemnity (1943)

Billy Wilder’s shocking tale of lust and murder is one of the few really famous 1940s films that’s still unavailable. Fred MacMurray is the sleazy insurance agent who cooks up a husband-murdering scheme with unhappy wife Barbara Stanwyck, only to be hunted down by his best friend, bulldog-like investigator Edward G. Robinson. MacMurray’s narration is the model for all subsequent film noir voiceovers, and Stanwyck oozes sex to a degree that’s almost hard to watch. Why is it MIA? Universal released what was generally derided as a piss-poor version in 1998, and subsequently pulled it from distribution.

4. Bedazzled (1967)

In 1966, Time magazine caused a stir with their cover “Is God Dead?” A year later, director Stanley Donen suggested that God, if not quite dead, was assuredly out to lunch in Bedazzled. Peter Cook is Lucifer and Dudley Moore is a tempted, suicidal shlub in this snarky Brit comedy (directed by the very American Stanley Donen). The setup is simple: Moore gets seven wishes in exchange for his soul, and Cook, the wryest of devils, gives him exactly what he asks for—if not precisely what he wants. In a typically droll scene, Cook’s Lucifer illustrates why he fell from heaven. “I’ll be God,” he tells Moore, “you be me.” He has Moore dance around him, singing hymns of praise. After a minute, Moore says “I’m tired,” and Cook shoots back, “so was I.” Bedazzled is available in Europe and New Zealand; what’s the hold-up?

3. I Am Suzanne! (1934)

German star Lillian Harvey, in her brief Hollywood sojourn, is Suzanne, an emotionally stunted dancer smothered by her imperious manager and adored by a self-absorbed puppeteer. It sounds silly, but it’s a compelling drama of a woman more exploited than loved by both men in her life, and how she comes into her own. Forgotten, underrated director Rowland V. Lee makes Suzanne feel more like a European art film than a Hollywood love story; the nightmarish dream sequence, in which Suzanne imagines herself tried, convicted and executed by puppets, is a scary tour-de-force. The film is unknown because only a couple of prints exist in archives (and private collections); like most Fox silent films and early talkies, its negative was destroyed in a notorious 1937 vault fire.

2. Die Bergkatze (1921)

You probably associate German expressionism with drama—doom, gloom, death and decay. Leave it to Ernst Lubitsch, the legendary director of great comedies, to use expressionism’s visual tropes to make a raucous slapstick comedy. Pola Negri is “the wildcat,” the sexy leader of a band of mountain cutthroats and robbers who falls in love with an oily, well-dressed Bavarian officer. The film is a visual stunner, with outlandish compositions and crazy frame-within-the-frame photographic tricks. It’s also a rather blunt satire of militarism, something that didn’t go over well in post-World War I Deutschland. Of all the films on this list, Die Bergkatze is arguably the funniest—and the least likely to get a DVD release.

1. Jeanne Dielman (1976)

Her groundbreaking early films don’t make for a breezy night at the movies, but it’s inexplicable that Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman has never been available on video. Delphine Seyrig is the title character, a Belgian widow and mother who doubles as a hooker by day. Over the course of three hours, we watch her (in excruciating detail) as she goes about her mind-numbingly boring routine: cook breakfast for her son, fuck the customers, bathe, do the marketing, cook dinner for her son, sleep and repeat. Little by little, however, this seemingly normal woman begins to crack apart. Much is made of Akerman’s radical critique of women’s place in society, which is powerful, but the thing really gets me about her films is the use of sound. Her ultra-realistic soundtracks make you feel like you’ve never seen a talking picture before; for weeks after watching her 1978 film Les rende-vous d’Anna, I listened—to everything—differently. Akerman’s been called (by J. Hoberman) the great post-’68 European filmmaker. Her work should be available.


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