of the Vault
Home Video’s on-demand DVD service has made hundreds of films
available for the first time—but quality control questions
it seems like Time Warner owns everything.
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
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
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
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
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
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.