Rummaging Through Boxes, or, The Story (So Far) on How Warner Bros. is Packaging Its Past, One DVD Set at a Time
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
It seemed like a plum assignment: Take inventory of the DVD box sets that Warner Bros. was sending Cineaste 's way, and jot down a few observations for a web article. Soon, Lucy and Desi, Liz and Dick, Bette, and Marlon had all made themselves at home by my player.
But new houseguests kept coming.
The task I had been given was immediately complicated by the sheer volume of releases rushing down the pike, not one or two collections per month, but several, for all tastes. True to its scrappy roots, and its more recent history as the first distributor to embrace the decade-old format, the studio was turning up the heat, and fast. WB was rebuking, with a vengeance, its lazier Hollywood rivals, who are still content to squeeze out a vintage catalog release every few weeks or so, or milk a more modern-day hit just one more time (surely Fox's 20th Century legacy extends beyond Revenge of the Nerds: Panty Raid Edition). The largest film library in the world—which, thanks to mergers and acquisitions, contains not just Warner Bros. releases but MGM's pre-1986 titles, RKO and United Artists films, and more—has thrown open its doors, and is in unprecedented circulation.
I should point out that many of the boxed titles can be purchased singly. Individually is how the DVDs showed up in my inbox, piecemeal, as little bundles of screeners, one or two at a time and never in a box. (Still, stacked end-to-end, and rubber-banded by subject to keep them in some semblance of order, they would take up a whole shelf in my DVD drawers before my deadline obliged me to find some sort of endpoint for this survey.) But I had purchased some of the earlier box sets prior to this inundation, which began in earnest last year, and continue to do so. Free is always a nice perk, but WB makes their boxes very seductive to buy. Take, for example, the second in a series of Bette Davis releases; five films (the norm for these sets), and only one I'm indifferent to, the trifling, Davis-light The Man Who Came to Dinner, plus an extra disc of Davis and Joan Crawford dish related to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and an interesting 2006 documentary made up of footage taken from candid talk show and personal appearances (Stardust: The Bette Davis Story). Drop the seven-disc set into your online shopping cart and with discounts it's much cheaper to buy Bette in a box than it is to pick up her up one showcase at a time.
But there's more than money involved. It just feels, I don't know, more "cineastic" to buy by the box, more committed to movie culture, even if two or three of the titles in each (another norm) are B- or C-list. The Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 3 is an instance where the DVDs are only available by the box and not singly. Anthony Mann's gritty, documentary-style Border Incident , Nicholas Ray's melancholy masterpiece On Dangerous Ground , and John Farrow's indescribable, put-through-the-Howard-Hughes-ringerHis Kind of Woman are essential to me, and Lady in the Lake and The Racket pretty much shiny silver coasters, but I don't mind owning them all. Clearly WB, which wants us to keep coming back for more, isn't going to fill all its series volumes with gems; you'd exhaust the highlights of a particular career, and in time the genre holdings of the studio, pretty quickly that way. Parceling them out is more profitable, and I find that the rhinestones make the darkest gems in the film noir set glint much more brightly. Plus, as the studio switched to thinner-profile "slimline" cases for all its boxed titles sometime last year, all these sets, no matter what the diamonds-to-duds ratio is, take up that much less storage space—though if the present rate of release continues much longer, the number of cinephiles buying storage lockers and eventually second homes to accommodate them is likely to increase exponentially.
The packaging of the boxes, and the titles therein, is particularly noteworthy, and a real eye-opener for buffs. In housing the films in cases made up of the original poster art, WB has done something so simple as to be almost revolutionary. It amazes me that the major studios continue to market their DVDs with awful, poorly Photo-shopped pictures of their stars slapped on their packaging—even the newest movies are victim to this practice—when the ad materials are richer and so much more enticing. The pulpy Film Noir covers exude sex, sin, and scandal; The Racket, a silent film remake, creaked, but the taxi-yellow cover, and the punchy tagline ("Boldly Goes where the Senate Crime Committee Left Off!"), rocked. The bright and brassy cover art for the films in the Classic Musicals of the Dream Factory set has you humming even before the discs are sprung from the cases. The bait-and-switch that sometimes occurs when the content of the DVD proves DOA is completely forgivable, given the historical value and overall gorgeousness of the glossily replicated advertising. Clearly WB knows its audience is a cut above the average video buyer seeking the latest hit, and caters to us all accordingly. Flattery will get you everywhere.
If I have one beef with the physical presentation, it's how the films are grouped in the boxes. I picked up The Marlon Brando Collection, and was baffled to find that The Formula, produced in 1980, was positioned before 1953's Julius Caesar. I quickly realized that the films were boxed alphabetically, and not chronologically, which offended my delicate cineaste sensibilities. Viewed alphabetically, the five films are a time travel experiment gone horribly wrong, with the bloated, out-of-it Brando pulling rank on the most exciting actor of his generation; the unwary might never get past The Formula, the newest film in any of the collections I viewed, and the worst, with Brando and George C. Scott plodding through murky Big Oil intrigue like two weary brontosaurs. I immediately reshuffled the discs, as any self-respecting movie lover should do, and watched them in date order, where they form an intriguing electrocardiogram of a career. Brando ("from T-shirt to toga," reads the box copy) more than holds his own against the likes of John Gielgud and James Mason in the formal surroundings of the Shakespeare adaptation. The Teahouse of the August Moon, where the actor turns Japanese, is an awkward attempt by the performer to fit into the Hollywood mainstream of the mid-Fifties, but Brando gives his uneasy, stereotyped role something of a pulse.1962's Mutiny on the Bounty has the actor literally at sea, trying to impose some personality on a heavy-duty epic typical of its time. John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye, from 1967, is a definite spike, one of the best and certainly the most unusual of the films Brando made in the wilderness years before The Godfather. Opposite a brash Elizabeth Taylor, he is constantly surprising as a career office wrestling with his submerged homosexuality. But the jolt wouldn't last. Finally, and sadly, comes the flat line of The Formula, and his immortal offer to Scott: "Milk Dud?"
The same holds true with the Classic Musicals set. The first up alphabetically is the remarkably astringent It's Always Fair Weather (1955), a movie that belies its title. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's followup to the New York-set On the Town puts that film's sunny-side up optimism aside for a far more cynical look at veterans who meet 10 years after the end of World War II, only to find that they have nothing in common except for blasted hopes and unfulfilled dreams. The underlying despair is set to zingy Comden and Green tunes and Kelly is sensational dancing on rollerskates, but despair it is. To watch it before its more simply pleasing, let's-put-on-a-show box mates sets up expectations for more of the same to come, which doesn't happen. To watch it at the end, in proper chronological order following Kelly's support of Judy Garland in 1950's Summer Stock, is to grasp the possibilities of musicals to tell more complex stories. You can also see how far Kelly had grown as an artist in the intervening years, which brought An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain to the screen.
So far I've dealt with externals. That the films are out at all, in good-to-exemplary condition, is reason enough to be pleased; Reflections is available, for the first time since the first week of its release, with Aldo Tonti's stylized gold-and-sepia cinematography intact (WB, upset with the unconventional look that accompanied the unconventional film, pulled it in favor of traditional Technicolor prints). The studio has gone the extra mile in supplementing many of them with commentaries and newly produced documentaries, then opened its vaults wider to accommodate period making-of documentaries and short subjects, trailers (another lost art), and delightful cartoons. A documentary made for the Film Noir set, Bringing Darkness to Light, is a decent clip job, handy for putting faces to frequent commentators like film noir historian Eddie Muller, but the gravy is several of MGM's Crime Does Not Pay shorts from the Thirties and Forties, with the prevailing social attitudes peeking out from under fictionalized real-life incidents. While rarely as deep as, say, a Criterion treatment, the extra material puts the films into sharper focus.
Some of the vintage material used as supplements can be found in rotation on Turner Classic Movies, where it shows up between film airings. To extend the branding of that invaluable resource, WB last December launched a TCM Archives series with the first in a series of Forbidden Hollywood boxes, centered on racy envelope-pushers like 1933's Baby Face , which has become synonymous with pre-Production Code hanky-panky. The box set offers two versions of Alfred E. Green's notorious film, a pre-censored version that WB still found too squeamishly sexual for wide release, and the real deal, a pristine print of this "unclean" feature discovered at the Library of Congress in 2004. The uncut Baby Face offers an additional five minutes of Barbara Stanwyck unrepentantly sleeping her way to the top of the office food chain, leaving a young John Wayne and a corpse in her wake, while the cut print nips and tucks her rise. A featurette detailing the exact differences would have been helpful, but here content is king, or queen.
A word about stars. Stanwyck went her own way in her career, but her roaming between studios makes her difficult to box in, in the DVD sense of the term. Stars like Bette Davis and James Cagney had their run-ins with the studio system but ironically their status as screen legends is sustained by their staying in place for so long, whether or not they were happy under Jack Warner's thumb. Thus far, though, only Hollywood royalty, including Gary Cooper and Katharine Hepburn, have gotten the deluxe treatment. Longevity alone isn't a guarantee: Stanwyck's husband, Robert Taylor, was contractually bound to MGM for more than twenty years, and made enough films there to keep WB's DVD production lines spinning for months, but his fallen star lacks the wattage to fire up a set. Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray devotees will have to hope that Taylor titles like Devil's Doorway and Party Girl are released on their own, or find their way into Western or future Film Noir box sets, respectively.
Put-out-to-pasture actors can brood around the campfire with A-list directors, as they occupy the same place in the WB DVD hierarchy. Outside of last year's John Ford, and John Wayne-John Ford, sets, WB has no respect for auteurs. Vincente Minnelli is everywhere in these boxes: segments of Ziegfeld Follies in the Classic Musicals set, Madame Bovary in the Literary Classics Collection , The Long, Long Trailer in The Lucy & Desi Collection , Home from the Hill in the Robert Mitchum Signature Collection , and The Sandpiper in The Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection . That's enough to fill an admittedly lukewarm box set all his own, and there are more compelling, as-yet-unavailable films, like Some Came Running and Two Weeks in Another Town , that could be bundled together. But the studio, savvy in so many ways, doesn't seem to realize that rabid movie buffs, the ones taking out subprime loans to finance their addiction, value star directors as much as stars, and would be just as inclined (maybe more so) to pick up a Vincente Minnelli Collection than Rat Pack Classics or Kirk Douglas Masterpieces sets.
Where directors do rate is as commentators. 1939's The Return of Dr. X, with a pasty-faced Humphrey Bogart no doubt wondering if his career was finished before its great renaissance, is the dog of the otherwise well-chosen Hollywood's Legends of Horror collection, which includes the uncut version of the delirious Mask of Fu Manchu and the spookily atmospheric Mad Love. But director Vincent Sherman, who contributed to a number of WB commentaries and documentaries before his death last year at age 99, is on hand to groom its coat. Sharp as a tack, and full of surprising stories even when he goes off track from the subject Sherman tells it like it is: "Bogie accepted the role, kept his mouth shut, and did the best he could with these corny parts," he says of Dr. X's return. Longevity does have its rewards, and the entertaining Sherman clues us in to life inside the studio system.
When not making films for Warner Bros., like the upcoming Ocean's 13, Steven Soderbergh referees commentaries for them. He and director Mike Nichols chew the fat over the Liz-and-Dick highlight Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an instance where I would recommend an individual rather than a box buy, unless watching the all-consuming offscreen love affair of its performers play out lifelessly over the course of the other three nondescript pictures appeals. Besides a little stargazing, the two get very specific over camera placement and pacing the stage-to-screen adaptation; Nichols also says the controversy over its salty language wasn't as big a deal as reported, and that the church officials who needed appeasing found it a very moral film. For the commentary that accompanies Billy Budd, part of the Literary Classics Collection, Soderbergh shares the mike with the star of his film The Limey, Terence Stamp, who made his movie debut in the Herman Melville adaptation. Stamp talks fondly of how his first director, Peter Ustinov, took him under his wing and gave him a life as well as a cinema education.
A funny thing happens during producer-director Sydney Pollack's commentary for The Yakuza, part of the Robert Mitchum set. Pollack, who had been detailing the gangster thriller's production in Japan, loses interest in the film, and his train of thought derails, as if he would rather be hanging out with his pal Frank Gehry, the subject of his last movie, or planning a sequel to The Way We Were—anything but yakking about The Yakuza. He tries to regain his enthusiasm, but seems dissatisfied with how the movie turned out, and can't fully bring himself to get back on its side. The idea of the film pleases him more than its realization, something most viewers will agree with. It's a poignant counterpoint to the many filmmaker commentaries that fall back on play-by-play descriptions of scenes that are self-evident on the screen or mere cheerleading with castmembers.
With so much material to explore, box buyers will make their own discoveries. I can make a few recommendations. The commentaries for the noir and horror films are consistently listenable, with Muller's particularly tangy; his talk on Otto Preminger's terrific Angel Face, which is part of the Mitchum box but could just as easily be cross-referenced in the noir one, makes for nice riffing on the stars, the director, and the ever-eccentric producer, Hughes. Thanks to a wealth of supplements, including a strong commentary by film studies professor Jeanine Basinger, I finally made it all the way through Sergeant York, the two-disc cornerstone of the Gary Cooper Signature Collection. Given its 1941 production I can understand its pro-interventionist slant, which doesn't sit too well this wartime, but York's hillbilly homelife always struck me as too Dogpatch and defeated me. There are plenty of other Howard Hawks films I'll revisit before I get to Sergeant York again; still, the DVD gives it greater context and eased my way through it. By contrast, the other highlight of the Gary Cooper box, The Fountainhead, has only a plain-wrap making-of to offer, and that is for the best. The thing speaks for itself, and you are free to read whatever you'd like into its irresistible crazy quilt of Ayn Rand philosophy, high-camp unbound passion, and phallic architecture.
If I had to pick one box that exemplifies the WB approach, it would be The Tennessee Williams Collection. That a writer, and a writer known from another medium, vaulted past many actors and directors to score his own box is novel enough; I can think of very few other collections devoted to scribes, other than writer-directors like Woody Allen. The irony is that Williams would have hated the attention. Biographer Donald Spoto noted that the playwright loved movies, but however much the screen rights lined his pockets disliked the ones adapted from his work, save for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, which is, natch, the bummer of this box set. Given how mangled the subtext of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was for the 1958 film version I can't blame him for trying to warn away customers lined up to see it, as Spoto says he did. But it's a movie-movie, pairing Paul Newman (who has a collection of fairly minor titles to his name) with Taylor, a reigning queen of WB box sets. Each film is fascinating for the ways in which the filmmakers grapple with the playwright's lyricism, grotesqueries, and humanism. A Streetcar Named Desire expectedly gets the two-disc treatment (signifying, correctly here, films of great importance) but Elia Kazan's teasing, funny, exasperating, and wrenching Baby Doll struck me as the most "Williams" of the titles. Carroll Baker's last, plaintive line, after a hard day and night tussling with Karl Malden and Eli Wallach ("Well, let's go in now. We got nothing to do but wait for tomorrow and see if we're remembered or forgotten"), is the very essence of the playwright, movingly distilled and affectingly spoken. (Baker and Malden, another spry near-centenarian, talk about the film in a featurette, and the actor provides commentary for Streetcar.) More than his hothouse Cat, Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth ratchets up the Southern Gothic to fever pitch; John Huston, meanwhile, mellows The Night of the Iguana. The author's own appearance in Tennessee Williams' South, a curious, affectionate portrait of the artist from 1973 that mixes in specially staged performance footage from Williams interpreters like Jessica Tandy and Maureen Stapleton, rounds out a flavorful and distinctive set.
As I implied at the beginning, I can only stop this piece, not end it. Warner Bros. has announced that 200 more catalog titles will be released this year; if they were all in boxes, that would work out to approximately 40 more sets to make way for (time to clean out the pantry—you don't need those cookies—and repurpose it as shelf space). The good or bad news, depending on how your storage and financial situation is, is that other studios are beginning to follow suit, and dusting off their libraries for sale. Like anyone who spends time among the boxes, I have quibbles, requests, and concerns. The libraries of Allied Artists and Monogram, which WB also controls, need more browsing. I'd drop confusing marketing hooks like Motion Picture Masterpieces and Literary Classics Collection, as the films inside are mostly the same ersatz genre, adaptations of chestnuts like A Tale of Two Cities and The Three Musketeers, and not always so masterful or classic. Why do some actors rate a mere Collection and others a Signature Collection, when there is no apparent difference between the two? When will other Hollywood MVPs, not to mention key directors, be tackled—I'd appreciate a John Garfield set, and for the fun of it a collection of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet co-starring credits like Three Strangers and The Mask of Dimitrios. Warner Bros. has put itself far ahead of the competition with its set approach. Now it's time to think outside the box.
All DVD box sets mentioned in this article are available from Warner Home Video, at http://whv.warner-bros.com. The ones highlighted follow. [As is my compulsion to do so, I arranged their contents chronologically, for easy repackaging when you get them home.]
Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory Includes Ziegfeld Follies, Till the Clouds Roll By, Three Little Words, Summer Stock, and It's Always Fair Weather.
The Bette Davis Collection Vol. 2 Includes Marked Woman, Jezebel, The Man Who Came to Dinner, Old Acquaintance, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (two-disc special edition), plus Stardust: The Bette Davis Story.
The Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection Includes The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (two-disc special edition), and The Comedians.
The Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 3 Includes Lady in the Lake, Border Incident, His Kind of Woman, The Racket, and On Dangerous Ground, plus Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light.
Gary Cooper: The Signature Collection Includes Sergeant York (two-disc special edition), The Fountainhead, Dallas, Springfield Rifle, and The Wreck of the Mary Deare.
Hollywood's Legends of Horror Includes three double feature discs, Doctor X/The Return of Doctor X, Mark of the Vampire/The Mask of Fu Manchu, and Mad Love/The Devil Doll .
Literary Classics Collection Includes The Prisoner of Zenda (1937 and 1952 versions), The Three Musketeers (1948), Madame Bovary (1949), Captain Horatio Hornblower, and Billy Budd .
The Marlon Brando Collection Includes Julius Caesar (1953), The Teahouse of the August Moon, Mutiny on the Bounty (1962, two-disc special edition), Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Formula.
Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection Includes Macao, Angel Face, Home from the Hill, The Sundowners, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys, and The Yakuza .
TCM Archives: Forbidden Hollywood Collection Vol. 1 Includes Waterloo Bridge (1931), Red Headed Woman, and Baby Face.
The Tennessee Williams Collection Includes A Streetcar Named Desire (two-disc special edition), Baby Doll, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana, plus Tennessee Williams' South.
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.com.
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Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.