DVD boom may save old films

Despite DVD's saturation as an entertainment medium, many classic movies are still unavailable on disc. If you want to watch 'The African Queen,' for example, you'll have to catch it on TV or track down a VHS copy (assuming you still even own a VCR).

Just a few months ago, Toronto film buff and blogger Barrie Maxwell got to spend some time with his favorite triple threat – a singer, a dancer, and an actor. You know, James Cagney.

Maybe you only think of him as a bad guy who smashed half a grapefruit into his girlfriend's face. But a new boxed set features five of his lesser-known movies, many of them on DVD for the first time, and sets the record straight about Cagney's multifaceted talents.

The set offered "an opportunity to visit old friends" on DVD, says Mr. Maxwell – something that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago. Film aficionados have long wondered whether little-remembered films would be destined to forever languish in Hollywood's vaults while studios focus on third-time DVD reissues of, say, "Showgirls."

Now, as outdated VCR players begin making their way to antique store shelves, the dams are breaking. After years of concentrating largely on well-known classics, studios are releasing hundreds of pre-1970 movies on DVD annually, creating a windfall for fans of everyone from Joan Crawford to Charlie Chan.

"If you're a film buff like myself, it's the best of times," Maxwell says. "The true collectors, they're in their element."

Just within the past few weeks, studios have released a number of significant old movies on DVD for the first time, including 1951's "Ace in the Hole," Billy Wilder's scathing look at newspaper sensationalism, and 1950's "Caged!," a gripping women's-prison drama. Also on tap: Kenneth Branagh's celebrity-studded 1996 "Hamlet" and the first talkie of all time, 1927's "The Jazz Singer."

Lesser-known films noirs, musicals, and cult classics – "Trog," anyone? – are also appearing in stores, and nearly every winner of an Academy Award for Best Picture is now available.

Why the bonanza? Two factors at play: viewers are willing to spend cash and the fact that DVD is here to stay.

Before around 2004, Warner Bros waited to release many movies on DVD because it wanted to make sure the technology wouldn't fade out, says studio executive George Feltenstein. Now, the studio is working to "carefully mine our vaults and restore, remaster, and lovingly release anywhere from 150 to 200 [pre-1970s] movies a year," he says.

There are plenty of buyers too. Consider these numbers: While all of Netflix's 100 most-rented movies are recent releases, more than 80,000 subscribers have given ratings to "The Lost Weekend," the Ray Milland classic about alcohol abuse. And DVDs of the "Thin Man" comedy series from the 1930s and 1940s have sold more than a million copies, according to Feltenstein.

Still, there are literally thousands of movies – good, bad, and in-between – that have yet to make it to DVD. According to Mr. Feltenstein, the unreleased films at Warner Bros alone feature stars such as Gene Kelly, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Errol Flynn. "I'm just scratching the surface," he says.

In fact, Warner Bros, which has the largest movie catalogue of any studio, has only released about 1,400 titles on DVD out of 7,000 total in its library. In earlier years, 3,500 made their way to VHS.

Some movies are tangled up in ownership disputes. Others have poor prints, like 1951's epic "Quo Vadis," which Feltenstein said could need more than $500,000 worth of rehab before its release.

Music rights are a common hurdle: The release of the classic "Annie Get Your Gun" was delayed for 27 years because of legal battles over its songs. Some classic films, like "The African Queen" (No. 17 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 films of all time), haven't been released to DVD for reasons that aren't publicly known. Others, like the Hitchcock thriller "Notorious," were available for a few years as DVDs but are no longer sold. Many more, among them the 1940 comedy "Granny Get Your Gun," aren't even available on VHS.

Plenty of movies haven't made it to DVD because they aren't famous, an irony because their lack of availability makes them obscure, says film historian and author Richard Barrios. "A lot of them are real classics," says Mr. Barrios, who'd like to see the studio versions of two operas – "The Merry Widow" and "The Desert Song," which have both been filmed three times – appear on DVD.

What's next? More of the same, especially new boxed sets, which are revitalizing interest in genres such as films noirs, musicals, and even Esther Williams movies.

"We have a mission to convert more of the unconverted," Feltenstein says. "We have generations of young people who don't know some of these films. We have to make them get excited about them."

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Notable movies not on DVD ... yet

• “Wings” (1927): Best Picture winner about World War I aviators. Paramount hopes to release it at “some point.”

• “Cavalcade” (1933): Best Picture winner about an English family over several decades. Fox promises it early next year.

• “Song of the South” (1946): The Disney animated film is plagued by racial stereotypes. Touchy content may doom this one forever.

• “The Magnificent Ambersons” (1942): Famously truncated Orson Welles would-be masterpiece. Warner Bros. has no estimated date for release.

• “The African Queen” (1951): Bogie, Hepburn, and a boat make movie magic. Paramount won’t disclose reason for delay.

• “Quo Vadis” (1951): Star-studded epic tale of Rome during the time of Nero. Film prints need work. Warner Bros. says it’s not fiddling on this one; look for it in 2008 or 2009.

• “The Boys in the Band” (1970): Landmark film explores gay themes. Music rights might be an obstacle.

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