Great Films You Can't Find on DVD

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by Leonard Maltin
March 24, 2010 4:00 AM
9 Comments
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With the long-awaited release of The African Queen on DVD this week, film buffs can check another prominent title off their want lists. That’s the good news…but there are still a surprising number of movies from every decade of the 20th century that aren’t commercially available.

The most surprising titles? Two winners of the Best Picture Academy Award—in fact, the only two not—

—available on DVD, even though they play on cable TV and turn up at revival screenings: Wings (1927), which won the very first Oscar, and which Paramount curiously refuses to release, and Noel Coward’s Cavalcade (1933), from Fox.

In other cases there are practical, even mundane, reasons for a film being “missing in action,” usually having to do with tangled rights, especially when the film is based on a play or literary property; this afflicts such varied and sought-after titles as Viva Zapata!, Hellzapoppin, and The Macomber Affair. Experience has taught us that when a studio, or producer, really wants to untie those knots it can be done: Warner Bros. recently freed up the Andy Griffith comedy hit No Time for Sergeants, which will be released in May, and last year negotiated a deal with the Ernest Hemingway estate for the John Garfield/Michael Curtiz remake of To Have and Have Not called The Breaking Point (1950). In the case of Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin, Universal retains all rights outside the United States but can’t release the film domestically!

Nick Adams and Andy Griffith in the smash-hit No Time for Sergeants (1958), based on the Broadway play that helped make Griffith a star.

More often, however, films sit in studio vaults because the people in charge don’t think there’s enough of an audience for them.

The list of unavailable titles ranges from box-office smashes to cult favorites, from the silent era through the 1990s. While writing my recently-published book Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, I was going to omit titles that readers couldn’t easily find. Then I decided that I would be doing people a disservice if I didn’t discuss such great films as King of the Hill (1993), a masterpiece by Steven Soderbergh that no one went to see when it was new, the British sleeper Queen of Hearts (1989), and Resurrection (1980) with Ellen Burstyn. (Since the book’s publication, Universal has launched a dvd-on-demand program with Amazon.com and released the latter title, thank goodness.)

If you have an all-region DVD player you have more options, given the ease of making overseas purchases online, but film buffs in any country who want to study—or simply enjoy—the complete works of Billy Wilder, Robert Altman, Otto Preminger, or Richard Lester have their work cut out for them. That’s one more reason some of the more obsessive among us have held onto our laserdiscs of certain titles—from Two Weeks In Another Town to the Criterion edition of Purple Noon.

As for the man who made The African Queen, John Huston, there are many holes in his DVD filmography, from his pet project Freud (1962), with Montgomery Clift, to A Walk with Love and Death (1969), which introduced the world to his actress-daughter Anjelica. Serious buffs would love to have copies of the first films that brought him attention as a screenwriter in the early 1930s, A House Divided and Law and Order, both of which starred his father Walter.

Jackie Cooper and Wallace Beery in the boisterous comedy The Bowery (1933)

Any time a new movie platform is announced, for selling or streaming, someone says that before long customers will be able to order “any movie they want.” Somehow it never happens. Let’s hope studios realize there is interest in all sorts of films that are sitting in their vaults. Given all the new technologies, there is no reason not to make hundreds of dormant titles available—and profit from them.

What if we started with Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud (1970) and Raoul Walsh’s The Bowery (1933)?

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9 Comments

  • john b. kelly | April 12, 2010 11:28 AMReply

    I would love to see a restored dvd print of the 1926 silent Beau Geste , which Ronald Colman, its star, considered his best film. There are many fine organists who could do justice to this film with an appropriate score.

  • Rob J | April 12, 2010 1:36 AMReply

    Hard to believe that a demented masterpiece like "Hellazapoppin'" is not available in the US.

    I found a copy on DVD only a couple of weeks, and although it has been many years since I watched it, there is no doubt of
    its' influence on comedy shows and films on both sides of the Atlantic in the last seventy years. I was still laughing my head off at some of the skits !

    No Naked Gun, No Airplane, Monty Python, SpongeBob Squarepants, Mel Brooks, The Mighty Boosh.

    If you think that the above were known for their cutting edge comedy, "Hellazapoppin" did it first and it still remains the best....

    Get the marvellous Criterion to reissue it. You won't be sorry.

  • Kerr Lockhart | April 9, 2010 11:46 AMReply

    I ditto Mr. Fontanelli's comments on L&H, although I also acquired copies from "other sources." My most desired titles on DVD: A THOUSAND CLOWNS, THE WRONG BOX, and Danny Kaye in WONDER MAN. Also a nice annotated box set of the UPA cartoons distributed by Columbia.

  • www.oscarmovs.com | April 7, 2010 12:37 PMReply

    I heard in December, 2008 that Fox was restoring Cavalcade, but now its april, 2010 and still no sign... though a rumor is that it may come out later this year.

    Paramount has taken there sweet time releasing Wings, and since they won't, I had to make my own copy of the film, a 3-disc set with bonus features. Paramount certainly won't put the work into their set that I put into mine. Not to be egotistical, but if Paramount put only a making of on The African Queen, then for sure they won't do Wings right. I found an Episode of "Petticoat Junction" where the two stars of Wings visit the clan of "Petticoat Junction" for a Wings movie premier, 40 years too Late. It is a wonderful episode that connects with the film, and even has Paramount Studios in the episode! But why would they want to include THAT on the Wings dvd??? What Value could THAT possibly have???

    Here is the list of Bonus features on my DVD set:

    * An 8 page booklet

    DISC 1
    * Original Movie (2:18:00)
    * Introduction by TCM host Robert Osbourne
    * Parting Thoughts with Robert Osbourne
    * 1970's re-issue Theatrical Trailer
    * Awards

    DISC 2
    * Alternate footage
    * Making of Wings: (a 30 minute documentary on the making of the film with interviews with Director William A. Wellman, rare clips and much more.)
    * Petticoat Junction Episode 6.06: "Wings"
    * Warplane: A History of Airplanes of WW1
    * Clara Bow Newsreel Clip
    * Jesse L. Lasky This is Your Life Clip
    * Movie Poster Gallery

    DISC 3
    Biographies:

    * Will Bill: Hollywood Maverick
    * America's Boyfriend: Charles Buddy Rogers
    * A Great Character: Richard Arlen
    * Clara Bow: Hollywood's "It" Girl
    * One of the Greatest: Gary Cooper

    I think it's impressive what I was able to do with the internet and a computer. Much better than what Paramount will do. No, the quality of the images ins't top notch; it's what's there vs. what won't be there.

    It was wonderful to finally get African Queen on Video, sad that for all the time they took they couldn't even put a lousy trailer on it.

    Song of the South is one that should be on DVDl I don't see why it can't be; If Leonard Maltin introduces this film properly, and one of the bonus features is a round table discussion with several prominent African Americans (say, Rev. Jesse Jackson, for one), and really, really make the DVD a classy set, then what would be wrong with that?

    Keep up the great work, Leonard.

  • Richard Simonton | April 4, 2010 10:36 AMReply

    I got Hellzapoppin on DVD from England and Cavalcade from China, apparently official releases. Also VHS of Song of the South from England. I've heard that codes are listed online that can be entered via the remote control to disable the region restrictions in most American DVD players, but I haven't tried it, since region-free DVD players for $69 can play discs from anywhere in the world, converting to NTSC as necessary. Worth it just for Hellzapoppin alone.

  • Greg Hatfield | March 27, 2010 2:58 AMReply

    Of course Warners has been saying that The Magnificent Ambersons would be out "soon". You're right to say that we should hang on to our laserdiscs, especially this one from Criterion.

  • Zack | March 27, 2010 2:53 AMReply

    Hey Leonard! I enjoyed this article very much, and I hope to see some of these films remastered and out soon. I was wondering about your opinions on Disney's "Song of the South," a movie also never released on DVD (or even video).

  • Mike Fontanelli | March 24, 2010 11:57 AMReply

    Laurel and Hardy are the most shamefully under-represented artists on DVD, but at least fans have the option of buying a region-free player and acquiring the 21-disc UK box set (like I did). But what about "Stranger on the Third Floor" with Peter Lorre? "Porgy and Bess" with Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier? "Jimmy the Gent" with James Cagney? "Mississippi" with W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby? Or even George Pal's Puppetoons? I'm still waiting for the silent Our Gang comedies to appear some day. They were announced by Laughsmith Entertainment, but have since mysteriously disappeared from their website. What happened?

  • RJ Cutler | March 24, 2010 7:09 AMReply

    And for fans of great documentaries, David Van Taylor's DREAM DECEIVERS is one of the best verite docs ever made and tragically you cannot get it on DVD. It tells the story of the Reno, Nevada trial in which Judas Priest was accused of being responsible for a teen suicide, and it's powerful, emotional, and poetic in a thousand different ways. An AMAZING film, it won a Distinguished Achievement prize from the International Documentary Association. Here's the rave from Entertainment Weekly: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20229558,00.html

    Leonard, can you help bring this film to DVD?

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