Sunday, January 15, 2006

GRIPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC

Once a year V.P in charge of DVD production Ned Price, and his colleagues at Warner Home Video get together with Turner Classic Movies to launch a ‘DVD Decision’ contest that anyone who has access to the internet can participate in. But prior to that, and in conjunction with Home Theatre Review, they generate an open dialogue for several hours on the net with anyone who loves films as much as I do. This sort of ‘shopping’ the consumer base for suggestions is, to say the least, an admirable gesture on the part of a big outfit like Warner Brothers Home Video. Not only does it allow the company to better tailor its roster of pending DVD projects, in order to increase their overall profit, but it gives the average consumer a sense that he/she is in the driver’s seat.

However, although Warner Home Video continues in the estimation of this reviewer to, arguably, continue to have its finger on the pulse of its market research, what they have been giving the average consumer on DVD of late hasn’t exactly been as diverse an investment from their illustrious film catalogue as one would perhaps hope for. But to understand Warner Home Video’s DVD output today, it is perhaps prudent, if ironic to first take a good look at the MGM Studios of yesterday.

PAST IMPERFECT: Part One
The Trouble with Movies as a Business…


Back in the early 1980s cable media mogul Ted Turner did a very blessed thing; he briefly acquired the rights to MGM’s beleaguered studio in totem that, for at least two decades prior, had been headed in slow decline toward financial oblivion. That ‘fade to black’ was made complete in the late1970s when Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian bought MGM and proceeded to dismember its illustrious past with all the tact, concern and preservation savvy of a buzz saw cutting into a snow pea.

To bolster revenues for his then fledgling hotel and casino franchise, Kerkorian sold MGM’s prized backlot to housing developers. That backlot was comprised of sets recapturing the essence from every conceivable architectural period of the 20th century, including fully functional structures where ‘The Andy Hardy’ series and ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’ were shot. He bartered away the riches of MGM’s prop and costume department to the highest bidder at a Sotherby’s auction.

Garbage bins were left brimming with discarded animation cells from classic Tom & Jerry cartoons, conceivably because Kerkorian could not see immediate resale value in them. Original sheet music with penciled notations by Jerome Kern, Max Steiner, the Gershwins and others, scripts with annotations from Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood, interoffice communications in the form of letters and memos between Irving G. Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer and so on – gone forever.

All this ruthless pillaging was done in service to Kerkorian’s lavish Vegas casino empire and his pending project for a hotel bearing the MGM logo and name. His issued statement in 1976 that MGM is a hotel company and a relatively insignificant producer of motion pictures was a bitter and tragic death knell to what had once been the most profitable and vital film studio in all of Hollywood – responsible for at least half of our collective memories, and, with a roster of talent once boastfully declared as ‘more stars than there are in the heavens.’

Charlton Heston once said in an interview, I know Kirk. He’s a great guy. But making movies isn’t what he does. It’s not what he’s interested in.” This reviewer’s rebuttal to that quote is, then why buy a movie studio and turn it into one’s personal garage sale?” Kerkorian’s pillaging effectively wiped MGM off the face of the entertainment map.

There is no MGM anymore. Although the lion periodically roars on the screen it no longer has a production company behind it. It is merely a ‘Leo for rent’ – a catchy and resilient logo, easily one of the most identifiable trademarks in the history of film, that today gets slapped for prestige sake onto many contemporary and independent productions. The studio facility – Culver City - is currently the property of Sony Pictures and, thanks to a recent merger, so is MGM’s library of post 60s films.

But back to Ted Turner; it is primarily because of his love of great movies that consumers and Warner Bros. today have the MGM library of classics from the 30s, 40s and 50s in tact. The reprieve was only partly philanthropic. Turner needed hours of programming to fill dead air on his cable network. Although the media mogul was much maligned for a time for his insanity in colorizing black and white movies (a move that rightly outraged film purists and the Hollywood community at large, so much that they filed a federal injunction to stop colorization from ruining cinema art), in Turner’s misguided zeal he did manage to save approximately 2000 vintage movies from becoming part of Kerkorian’s pick n’ save.

When Turner’s broadcasting empire was acquired by Time/AOL, and hence Warner Brothers, Warner Home Video became the custodians of a rich cultural heritage dating all the way back to the dawning of motion pictures. This grand collection, coupled with Warner’s own body of filmic entertainment, and the acquisition of the old RKO/Selznick Studio libraries, has today made Warner Home Video the greatest archive of vintage American cinema in the world. They are, to put it bluntly, the top.

PAST IMPERFECT: Part Two
The Trouble With Movies As An Art…


Although the art of motion pictures is more than one hundred years old Hollywood’s concerted effort to preserve its own heritage is less than twenty. Not until the late 1980s, when VCRs and movie channels began proliferating cable stations did studios begin to realize that their celluloid assets might have viable staying power beyond the marquee of a local Bijou. The lucrative binge of the late 1950s to rent, or in some cases sell off, whole chunks of old film libraries had cooled by 1979, leaving the future of Hollywood’s past in a state of utter and total deterioration.

For executives, classic movies held little interest as anything more than teaching tools inside universities or as infrequent loan outs for late night television – neither particularly profitable. But by 1990 the cable, videocassette and Laser Disc revolutions, with their economic demands and rewards, had convinced studios of the prudence in preserving their own films. Independent archives, once struggling for cash, simply to maintain their private – and often bootlegged - collections, now found studios eager to invest their money and time in the preservation and reissue of their own art …imagine that.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, this renewed interest can be described as either “better late than never” or “too little, too late.” You see, all early black and white movies were shot on nitrate film stock. Nitrate produces a gorgeous image, largely because it contains actual silver content. Unfortunately, nitrate stock is also highly unstable and flammable. After a rash of nitrate fires in film vaults in the late 1940s, some studios began copying their history onto acetate-based safety film. In some cases however, they simply pitched their collections into the trash. Nearly eighty percent of film history has thus gone the way of the Dodo. This is one reason why many films like Frank Capra’s masterwork, Lost Horizon (1937) have no original camera negative from which future prints of the movie might be struck today.

Worse, the studio’s half-hearted attempts in the late 50s and early 60s to maintain collections of their old Technicolor films by transferring them to acetate was discovered in the late 1980s to have developed a pronounced color fading known as vinegar syndrome decay. Color Reversal Intermediate (CRI), a film stock that had earned the Kodak organization an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement in 1968, and had been touted as the protection element of the future, was widely panned in the 80s as being the most unstable preservation element yet developed.

Since the late 1980s, there has been considerable debate over how best to restore older films, particularly when the filmmaker’s participation is no longer available. The vast majority of film preservation and restoration today is achieved with photochemical techniques. When such techniques fall short, digital tools are utilized. But it’s costly to say the least, $30,000-$35,000 just to start, and that’s to say nothing of the man hours it takes to digitally remove tears, rips and scratches that time has added as its own artifacts against the art form. One of the universal dangers in overseeing a film restoration, as expert, Robert A. Harris has suggested is foist(ing) your own aesthetic sensibilities onto the work of art. Films are works of art, but they're not our works of art, and we need to guard against the impulse to make something better than it was. Restoration shouldn't be about making an older film more modern and it definitely shouldn't pander to the less demanding tastes of contemporary audiences just for the sake of making it more accessible to them.”

This opinion is shared by Fox film archivist and preservation expert, Shawn Belston who adds, “You can never really bring a film back to what it was originally. We don't have nitrate print stock any longer, black-and-white film has changed many times over the years, color intermediates have changed, and print stocks have changed. All you can do is use the gauge of today and do the best you possibly can.”

WARNER HOME VIDEO:
Gatekeepers of the World of Entertainment

This may be an arguable point, but I will venture a guess that few stand in greater admiration of the preservation efforts put forth by Warner Home Video since 1997. Under Ned Price, Chris Cookson and Rob Hummel among others, the studio has really gone to town on its vintage films – releasing box sets and singles that, at least for the most part, stand head and shoulders above the rest of the crowd. But, in this same breath of conciliatory praise I will step onto a creative ledge and state that Warner Home Video has slipped from their once sterling assessment and appraisal of total commitment to DVD.

Restoration is costly – yes. But there’s simply no good reason to release movies which, for the most part, look terrible, on DVD. In this latter category there have been quite a few misfires from Warner ever since the studio decided to step up its number of releases. Perhaps the worst among these examples are the Lassie and Tarzan films. There have been other awful looking color and black and white transfers as well: Gaslight (with its easily removable edge enhancement), The Great Ziegfeld (with an extremely scratchy, and somewhat grainy looking print), Grand Hotel (an excessively grainy transfer), The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex, and, Dodge City (with their mis-registered Technicolor negatives delivering very blurry and distracting image quality), and, The Barkley’s of Broadway (with its contrast levels dropped too low).

In all cases, film grain has been present in varying degrees. And while many film purists will suggest that film is an organic substance, ergo grain is inevitable and, more to the point, acceptable, this reviewer would remind said purist that what is desirable on the big screen does tend to show rather poorly on the small screen in one’s living room. Coupled with television’s general inability to handle grain as anything but a shimmering and wobbly mess, today’s home theater buff would more than likely prefer a smoother more consistent looking DVD transfer that is more closely rendered to pristine video than time worn film.

In the past, Warner has proven it can do smooth when it wants to. Their DVD transfers on The Shop Around The Corner, 42nd Street, The Women, Captain's Courageous, The Champ, Mildred Pierce, The Thin Man, Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy – among others - are visions of loveliness that the studio can be proud of. My point is that these pristine efforts are more and more falling by the waste side in favor of some quickie releases with minimal restoration applied.

It may seem as though I’m picking on Warner Home Video needlessly. If that’s the general opinion, I reserve the right to state that Warner has proven time and again its commitment to DVD aficionados. But it can be better than what it currently is. They, themselves, are responsible for raising the bar of excellence, and I believe this standard now obligates them to maintain their initial level of consistency.

Some films need more work than others – I’ll buy that. So, instead of releasing 70 classics a year, release 50, but make them all sparkle like vintage champagne. As a reviewer and connoisseur I have no proof that Warner Home Video is currently involved in a sort of bate and switch policy on their classic film output, whereby they release box sets in which only half of the films included in them have been the recipients of a general clean up while others are simply slapped out in whatever quality they currently exist in to act as filler for the asking price of $59-$79 a box.. However, I believe, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, or in this case, the box.

Take, for example, the Doris Day Collection. Though Love Me Or Leave Me, Billy Rose’s Jumbo and Young Man With A Horn exhibit exemplary image quality, and Lullaby of Broadway isn’t too far behind (with the exception of some minor Technicolor mis-registration) Please Don’t Eat The Daisies, and, The Glass Bottom Boat are rather inconsistently rendered, with muddy colors, a barrage of age related artifacts and seemingly little restoration work done to merit their inclusion in what is supposed to be a definitive box of Ms. Day’s work. There is also a minor bone of contention on this reviewer’s part in featuring a box set without Ms. Day’s very first film, Romance on the High Seas conspicuously absent and in which Doris warbles the Oscar winning ‘It’s Magic.’

Remember that Warner’s Classic Comedy Collection gave us very handsome prints of Dinner At Eight, The Philadelphia Story and Stage Door. Yet, Bringing Up Baby was uncharacteristically soft and grainy looking, while Libeled Lady a vintage comedy was a complete mess. Although the contrast was lower than one would have liked, the image quality on To Be Or Not To Be was also below par.

In the case of Warner’s Controversial Classics box set, passable transfers on Blackboard Jungle, Bad Day At Black Rock and A Face in the Crowd were married to grainy and scratchy prints of Fury and I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The Errol Flynn box had fairly impressive offerings of The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood and They Died With Their Boots On, but gave us miserably mis-registered prints of The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Dodge City.

While The Bette Davis box reported to offer consumers a completely restored and remastered disc of Dark Victory – the overall improvement in image quality was marginal at best, with an overall soft looking image that occasionally wobbled or jittered from side to side. That same box set also gave us one of Davis’ least memorable programmers, The Star in a truly disappointing B&W transfer that was weak on all points of image quality.

In its latest offering, Astaire & Rogers Collection: Volume 1, the consumer gets very nice transfers of Top Hat and Swing Time, but rather disappointing image quality on Follow The Fleet (too grainy), Shall We Dance (poorly contrasted) and The Barkley’s of Broadway (low contrast levels and pasty colors). This latter title I believe illustrates the limited foresight of Warner’s current commitment to classics on DVD of late. In the earlier released That’s Entertainment! Box Set, the third installment in that series featured a completely cleaned up image of the main title sequence from Barkley’s that could have been easily lifted and reinserted into the Astaire/Rogers transfer. Instead, the Barkley’s main title is so full of muddy colors that it does not capture the essence of true Technicolor at all.

Similarly, Warner’s second volume of Film Noir delivers the RKO classic, Crossfire in an absolutely dismal image quality that exhibits dirt, grain, scratches, and a gigantic tear running down the middle of the screen during one scene. That box also brings me to my second bone of contention with Warner’s most recent roster of releases; their seemingly growing inconsistency in putting the right films in the right box set. For example: Film Noir Vol. Two contains Dillinger, a crime/gangster/detective thriller that is not part of the film noir canon.

The Joan Crawford Collection contains two previously issued single discs; Mildred Pierce and The Women, but the latter has had its original back cover art altered in favor of an image lifted off of a completely different movie. In general too, The Women is much more a Norma Shearer film vehicle or ensemble piece than it is a Crawford classic: and while we are on the subject of Crawford – she has at least fifty more movies in her canon that should have been considered for this compendium instead of simply tucking in Mildred Pierce and The Women – two titles made available to the consumer several years prior the release of this set. But the Crawford set is telling of the general decline in overall quality of DVD transfers. Only Mildred Pierce and The Woman appear in near pristine transfers. The other three films featured (Possessed, The Damned Don’t Cry, and, Humoresque) exhibit varying degrees of disappointing image quality: either overly contrasted, excessively grainy of riddled in age related artifacts that could have AND SHOULD HAVE been cleaned up.

The danger herein is that an unassuming consumer will naturally think that some of the films debated in this review will have simply faired better than others and accept the lack of quality as par for the age of the original film elements. This acceptance of ‘oh well, it’s an old movie, its going to look bad’ is, at least in part, a falsehood. I suspect that what happens most of the time in the executive decision making process behind these shoddy transfers is a reasoning away of quality artificially inflated by a film’s overall popularity; ergo, the studio already knows that certain classic films will sell on the merit of title alone. For example, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers will fly off the shelves because they’ve been absent on home video for quite some time, and never released to DVD.

But I remain at a loss to explain Warner’s up and down philosophy on quality in general. Grand Hotel as an example, looks quite awful – excessively grainy, poorly contrasted and decidedly unstable in its tonality and black levels; hardly up to the level of expectation for an all-star Oscar-winning Best Picture. If we were speaking of unfamiliar or obscure titles in film history then perhaps this oversight would not be so egregious. Yet, even today Grand Hotel has a large following. More to the point, as a work of art it has a decided place of importance in film history in totem. It was the first time ever that more than one star personage was inserted into a single production. Hence, it simply does not make good historical sense to commercially release Grand Hotel in its present deplorable condition - unless, of course, the executive philosophy is to go back and redo it at some later date, thereby making the DVD consumer re-buy its product.

Considering how rapidly films are deteriorating, this reviewer’s frame of mind is that time is of the essence, but, more to the point, that there is NO TIME like THE PRESENT. Finally, Warner is feverishly working its restoration efforts on three previously available Bogart titles: Key Largo, The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. While these revisions may indeed be applauded, it behooves this reviewer to state that while we are being inundated with multiple copies of certain films on DVD other major and important works have yet to see the light of day even once.

For example: it may surprise the consumer to note that only one film from Norma Shearer's illustrious tenure (*the actress once earmarked as 'queen of the lot' at MGM) is currently available on DVD from Warner Home Video: The Women. Such Shearer classics as The Divorcee, Romeo & Juliet, Marie Antoinette, The Baretts of Wimpole Street, Her Cardboard Lover, Idiot's Delight, Smiling Through and Riptide are no where to be seen.

There are no Esther Williams films currently available on DVD in which she swims – arguably her most winning asset. There are no Jane Powell or Mario Lanza musicals. Perhaps more consideration should be placed on getting as much of film history out there as possible, rather than simply re-issuing what is already available to the consumer in repackaged and with more, or in some cases, simply different extras. As example – Gone With The Wind will make its 4th DVD incarnation (3rd from Warner) on DVD later this month. Is that really a necessary reissue?

Films that fall into this ‘missing in action’ category may surprise you. In Warner Bros. cabinet of wonders they ostensibly include: David O. Selznick’s version of The Prisoner of Zenda, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Romeo & Juliet, Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, Nancy Goes To Rio, Red Dust, Test Pilot, Wonder Bar, In Caliante, Holiday in Mexico, Rosalie, May Time, Rose Marie, Journey for Margaret, Saratoga, The Merry Widow (1934), Rasputin and the Empress, Viva Villa!, Broadway Melody of 1936, Naughty Marietta, The Great Waltz, Pride and Prejudice, Waterloo Bridge, Rio Rita, When Ladies Meet, A Guy Named Joe, Bathing Beauty, On An Island with You, This Time for Keeps, Girl Crazy, Lost Angel, The Three Musketeers, I Dood It, Mrs. Parkington, Kismet (both musical and non musical versions), The Picture of Dorian Gray, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes, Words & Music, The Pirate, A Woman's Face, Reunion in France, Black Hand, Madame Bovary, That Midnight Kiss, The Student Prince, Luxury Liner, Quo Vadis, The Magnificent Ambersons, That Forsythe Woman, The Belle of New York, The Great Caruso, I Love Melvin, Lovely to Look At, Small Town Girl, Marjorie Morningstar, Easy to Love, Latin Lovers, The Glass Slipper, Lili, Executive Suite, Hit The Deck, The Swan, Invitation to the Dance, The Yellow Rolls Royce, Yolanda & the Thief, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry, Born To Dance, Little Nellie Kelly, The Telegraph Trail, Anthony Adverse, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Gentleman Jim, The Sisters, Juarez, The Old Maid, The Desert Song, The Male Animal, Watch on the Rhine, The Human Comedy, Rhapsody in Blue, Deception, The Two Mrs. Carols, Life With Father, Romance on the High Seas, Flamingo Road, Dream Wife, A Woman’s Face, This Is The Army, Meet John Doe, Royal Wedding and Topper.

Indeed then, it seems as though there is NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT.


(An important postscript to this article. Although "Meet John Doe" and "This is the Army" were both produced by Warner Brothers, and "Topper" was produced by Hal Roach at MGM, it is unlikely that any of these titles will ever surface under the Warner Home Video label, since their rights have fallen into public domain - a tragic circumstance that will more than likely prevent them from ever getting a proper DVD release.) To lodge your complaints, concerns and further interests in Warner Brothers and their DVD product, contact the studio at mailto:mwhvcustserv@emsi.echomail.com


@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).