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Out of the Vault

Warner Home Video’s on-demand DVD service has made hundreds of films available for the first time—but quality control questions linger

By Shawn Stone

Sometimes it seems like Time Warner owns everything.

Other conglomerates have substantial film libraries, but thanks to corporate consolidation, Time Warner has the biggest of them all. From Rin-Tin-Tin to George Clooney, TW owns a big chunk of American film history. Allowing for exceptions, they own the complete Warner Bros. and RKO libraries, MGM from 1924 to 1984, the Monogram/Allied Artists library, and the properties of shorter-lived outfits like Lorimar and National General.

The problem with owning that much is that it’s hard to figure out what to make available, or how. One answer has been cable, via Turner Classic Movies. Another is Warner Home Video. But DVD mastering is expensive, and many of the titles would never recoup their production costs.

Enter the new Warner Archive DVD-on-demand service. For $19.95 each, you can get a burned-on-demand, no-frills DVD. (DVD-R, to be picky, though my RCA player reads these discs as DVDs.) A digital download version is $14.95. There are no extras, except a theatrical trailer (sometimes) and chapter stops at 10-minute intervals.

The DVDs are not progressive scan. They are interlaced. This is a technical deficiency that generated a firestorm of complaints from collectors with expensive equipment. Film buffs, who’ll put up with anything to obtain a rare title, have complained less.

The 222 titles available are a motley lot, but dear to those who’ve been pestering WB to release them. Current top sellers include a set of 1930s musicals starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and Richard Rush’s gloriously vulgar 1973 buddy cop movie Freebie and the Bean, with James Caan and Alan Arkin. You can also get Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony, the cult item Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, silent swashbucklers with John Barrymore, and assorted oddities from Katharine Hepburn’s early career.

You must buy them online at the Warner Archive site (wbshop.com), which is user-unfriendly. (If you have a slow Web connection, God help you.) The search function problems are being worked out, though: On a recent visit, I called up the titles by decade, and the 1986 Kristy McNichol thriller Dream Lover was not among the films of the 1920s anymore. There is a synopsis and brief clip for each film; the latter gives a good impression of the quality of the video.

Or you can nose around the various home video blogs and forums for a list of what’s available, and then visit the Warner Archive site. (Another reason to check the blogs: You’ll find info about “secret” discount codes.)

I decided to buy four DVDs. But which four? I wouldn’t mind owning, oh, maybe a third of what they’re offering. After kicking around different combinations of films and themes—Roy Del Ruth musicals? Randolph Scott and Joel McCrae Westerns?—I picked four films about women dodging conventional mores.

The discs arrived by UPS in a few days, much sooner than the promised delivery date. Packaged like commercial DVDs, none of the discs were loose in their cases, and the cases were undamaged.

First up, Francis Ford Coppola’s moody road movie The Rain People (1969). Unhappily married Natalie (Shirley Knight) ditches hubby and hits the Interstate, meeting a brain-damaged athlete (James Caan) and a macho cop (Robert Duvall) along the way. It’s dark, intimate stuff, and very French New Wave-influenced with its flashbacks and refreshing sexual frankness. The image quality is very nice. Rain People had been mentioned as a “real” 2009 release, but the DVD market went south and, so, here it is.

Next: Robert Ellis Miller’s Sweet November (1968), about a kook who takes a different boyfriend every month. (“Kook” is the ’60s version of “pixie girl.”) There’s an appealing disjointedness in having what is, essentially, a 1940s-style weepie built around Sandy Dennis, that most endearingly twitchy of method actresses. Dennis has an emotional strength that makes her fierce independence believable.

The image quality is nothing special, unfortunately, due to a drawback of the Warner Archive economic model. No new digital master is made for these releases; they use what they’ve got. In the case of Sweet November, it’s a video master from the ’90s. (You can tell by the vintage of the tacked-on logo.)

The last two films are silents. Both The Single Standard (1929, with Greta Garbo) and Souls for Sale (1923) survive in scratchy, rot-damaged prints. But Souls for Sale is from a bright new transfer made for Turner Classic Movies in 2006, while The Single Standard looks good only in comparison to an old VHS I taped off TCM 15 years ago.

The films themselves? Souls for Sale is one of those exposés Hollywood does periodically to reveal how big-hearted and wonderful Hollywood really is; lovely Eleanor Boardman suffers nobly in the lead, and there are fun cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Erich von Stroheim. The Single Standard is more interesting, with young, rich and beautiful Garbo trying to live a sexually liberated lifestyle—and getting away with it for a while, at least.

Eventually, say the folks at Warner Home Video, they will make everything they own available. And they say they’re working on the scan issues that pissed off the high-end users.

I just want to know when I can buy Rin-Tin-Tin’s epic adventure Tracked by the Police.


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