Monday, August 23, 2010

The films I most wish had never fallen into the public domain


I came late and grudgingly to the DVD revolution, not so much striding boldly into the future as bowing grumpily to the inevitable. (I appreciate you can fit more of 'em on a shelf but my heart will always be with those big sexy tapes.)
History will recall DVD, in fact, as the last big new thing in technology that I was ever suckered into rearranging my life for. I don't care what they come up with next: I'm sticking to what I've got. I'm halfway through my life now anyway, and everyone knows that CD's will never replace wind-up gramophones in the long run.
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By the time I started buying discs the market was already up and running to capacity, and I just loved the fact that there were so many old classics to be found at near-giveaway prices.
What I soon discovered, of course, was that the condition of the movies more than reflected the generosity of the price ticket, which came as a bit of a shock.
Like many, I had bought all that buckwheat with which the format had been launched - you remember it all, I'm sure: that a poor quality DVD is a contradiction in terms, that the very process of transferring film material to disc is an act of aural and visual restoration, that the quality is so sharp you can not only see and hear pins drop but smell them too, that every time you buy one God puts another sunbeam in the sky, and so on. I had no idea that it was even possible to simply copy an old tape onto a disc using technology every bit as low-tech as I used to make tape to tape copies, though it was soon obvious that that was what had happened with a lot of the discs I was buying. In many cases they had not only been mastered from old tapes but from tapes that had been kept at the bottom of someone's swimming pool.
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The problem was copyright, or rather the lack of copyright.
Films that had fallen into public domain were free to manufacture, and anyone capable of producing a few hundred discs and printing a sleeve could be in the distribution business. At the time I was just so glad to finally see these films that I didn't let the quality bother me too much. Besides, I was also buying even less legit versions of far rarer films from mail order suppliers, and these were frequently of such appalling quality - multi-generation copies of video recordings of 16mm projections - that these semi-official titles seemed near-perfect in comparison.
Now though, I'm more picky, and the quality of some of these discs seems in many cases just not good enough to watch.
I'd be happy to pay a little more for a better quality issue, though - and that's where we see the real problem. In most cases whatever market might have existed for the film in question has been killed stone dead by the cheapjacks. Putting out old movies is chancy. Rewards are minimal. And if the potential purchaser already has a choice of a hundred pocket money versions, how many are going to shell out bigger bucks for better quality? On Pot o'Gold for Chrissakes?
So the wide availability of a public domain title actually makes it vastly less likely that we'll get anything better.
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Not in every case: the accident of public domain status is no indicator whatever of quality, and a few of these films retain a sufficiently high reputation as to justify distributors offering the choice: you can pay £15 for a shiny, top quality His Girl Friday or £2.99 for one that gets the essence across but looks like it was photographed through the window of a fish and chip shop, with the microphone next to the deep fat fryer. (Personally, I have the pucker Columbia Classics disc in the Elstree Hill packaging: it's nicer.)
The same goes for Orson Welles's The Stranger, the Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and My Man Godfrey. If you want to lech over Jane Russell in The Outlaw, you can either shell out pence for any of the currently available discs, and get the perhaps effective sensation of peeping on her through net curtains, or go searching for an old Video Collection tape: the last time the film appeared, in Britain at least, in even vaguely pristine form.
Likewise with a little perseverance, and the stamina to resist all DVD's calling themselves The Evil Mind, you should eventually be able to locate one of the old British video tapes, correctly titled The Clairvoyant, that give you the full effect of Fay Wray doing her mindreading act in one of the most heart-stopping costumes and hairdos of her career. ("I have a very pretty thing here. Can you tell me what it is?")
And of course, crappiness is not guaranteed with a public domain release: the distributors don't care, but they don't actually want to upset you; they just release whatever they get hold of. So the relative quality of a title does vary throughout the public domain sector. With a bit of trial and error I found more than watchable versions of The Kennel Murder Case, Lady of Burlesque and the Ritz Brothers' version of The Gorilla, though the copies of each that I started with were among the worst I'd seen of anything.
There should be a website, 'PublicDomainWatch', or something, where we consumers swap horror stories and point each other to the best and worst existing editions of a particular film.
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So this is the two-edged sword of public domain: it means that we have some sort of access to films that we might never have seen at all - but heaven help us if we ever fall in love with any of them.
What follows are the films I most fell for that are least capable of loving me back, and that I most wish some suicidal distributor would waste money issuing in proper restored form, just for me.
Each is obtainable in a seemingly infinite number of editions so inadequate they seem not so much like movies as dreams of movies, or memories of movies, or movies watched illicitly through the windows of neighbours' houses; movies at one removed, movies on which I can only eavesdrop, but which, even in the cruddiest condition imaginable, convey as much to me as if I was watching them for the first time, in a packed house, in 1934, or 1943, or 1931... or... or... or...

The Front Page (1931)
Another Lewis Milestone milestone in the wake of All Quiet: the talkie of the play that invented the talkies. Was ever a better cast assembled for a single film? One of the most important films ever made, and only a pristine restoration will be enough to stop people yammering about how it's good but His Girl Friday is better. No way. His Girl Friday is just lovely, but this is American history photographed in flashes of lightning, every bit as much as Birth of a Nation. It's also funnier than Birth of a Nation, a film which, for all its points of interest, doesn't have Frank McHugh in it.
But I've never found this in any condition better than terrible.
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Rain (1932) and Of Human Bondage (1934)
The first seemed an unusual departure for Joan Crawford on release and audiences stayed away; now of course it's more like a presentiment, and the negative reputation it retains is completely unjustified. Joan is ably complemented by Walter Huston, the greatest actor in talkies at the time, and Lewis Milestone is still restlessly pushing the limits of talking cinema, and building up the reputation as one of the true thirties masters that for some reason he doesn't have.
Bondage, by contrast was a success, and catapulted Bette to stardom, overshadowing Leslie Howard's fine study in self-abasement. But the films make for a natural double-bill: they have early fireworks from Bette and Joan in common, they have their air of sexual cruelty in common, they have Somerset Maugham in common. And of course they have only being available in dodgy public domain editions in common. I've found fairly watchable versions of these, but nothing you could confuse with a truly first class transfer.
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Our Daily Bread (1934)
A breathtaking masterpiece. The best version I've found is okay-ish on the eye, but spoiled by that most weirdly ubiquitous giveaway indicator of public domain status: a constant noise exactly like dripping rain outside the studio on the soundtrack. What causes this I've no idea, but start the film with an empty bladder or you'll be stopping it every fifteen minutes to answer the call, which does tend somewhat to disrupt the poetry and majesty of Vidor's greatest achievement in the talking era.
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The Strange Woman (1943)
Strange woman, strange movie! How I long to see it gleam! And to think I only got it because it was in a 50 film cheapo box set!
Edgar Ulmer's in the chair, so you know it's going to be weird, but it's really good: one of his very best. This is like a British Gainsborough melodrama but even more so: Hedy Lamarr breaks hearts and heads on so ruthless a pursuit of personal gain she makes the bitchiest bitches of Davis, Crawford, Hopkins and Stanwyck, to say nothing of Margaret Lockwood, look like Olivia de Havilland tending the wounded.
If you ever feel yourself entertaining the notion that Hedy didn't have the chops to play Scarlett O'Hara, watch this and don't let me catch you saying anything so silly again.
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Indiscreet (1931)
The first time I ordered this I got that glossy Sunday afternooner with Cary and Ingrid. Right title, wrong film. Next two tries got me the right film, but with such smudgy visuals and tinny sound as to make it almost unwatchable. That I say 'almost' is tribute to the film itself: imagine a DeMille and Swanson silent in sound... or imagine Swanson in Madam Satan, if you like, then add Monroe Owsley... and you have this piece of pure froth. Gloria is so haughty when she's talking! I wish she'd made a million talkies like this - or that someone would just issue a decent print of this one...
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The Greeks Had a Word For Them (1932)
The saddest of all. I know I'm going to love this, but I can't prove it. If you think you don't know it, that's because it's invariably issued with a tv era retitle: Three Broadway Girls. It's gold-diggers and sugar daddies and chorus girls and Joan Blondell and I'm sure it's a delight. Alas, I've never got all the way through it.
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Do you have any public domain experiences to share?
And needless to say, if any reader knows where I can get a really good edition of any of these, do please get in touch...