Click here to learn more about anamorphic widescreen!
Go to the Home Page
Go to The Rumor Mill
Go to Todd Doogan's weekly column
Go to the Reviews Page
Go to the Trivia Contest Page
Go to the Upcoming DVD Artwork Page
Go to the DVD FAQ & Article Archives
Go to our DVD Links Section
Go to the Home Theater Forum for great DVD discussion
Find out how to advertise on The Digital Bits

Site created 12/15/97.

The Digital Bits logo
page created: 12/22/04

Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Classic DVD: A Report Card for 2004

If one peruses the studio classic releases of 2004, it becomes quite obvious that two things are occurring concurrently.

First, the vault doors are swinging open even more than in previous years, and second, all studios are not equal when it comes to tapping into the fruits of their Asset Protection Programs.

Ninth Place - MGM/UA

The studio with the least number of actual classic releases seems to be MGM/UA. Besides Merchant - Ivory's Wild Party and John Huston's Moulin Rouge, the schedule of high-end titles has been rather sparse. A number of Selznick productions, picked up from Disney, inclusive of Ruby Gentry, Made for Each Other, Intermezzo and Since You Went Away have been offered. While these are good quality, they are also sometimes imperfect for either the quality of the available transfer elements or a lack of follow-through toward getting things correct.

Another major title, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg didn't seem to rate an anamorphic transfer, leaving those with 16:9 monitors with two options for viewing, neither of which takes advantage of the quality of the film elements.

And with the James Bond films about to make their umpteenth appearance, now cleaned of detritus, the only question, as the rays of high definition begin to appear on the horizon is...

Who cares?

Eighth Place - Columbia

Sony's Columbia had a small offering of classics or pseudo-classics. Dr. Strangelove* was finally released from pre-print elements that had been properly restored and preserved, and as a quality anamorphic release.

Castle Keep, released earlier in the year in pan & scan, was quickly supplanted by a corrected disc. Certainly an oddball film, Castle Keep will not be to everyone's liking, but is worth a look, especially for the wide-screen cinematography of Henri Decae, who was responsible for Les Enfants Terribles and The 400 Blows.

They Came to Cordura* with Gary Cooper, an early CinemaScope production, was released at about the same time as Richard Brooks' 70mm Lord Jim* which was photographed by Freddie Young. Both warrant your attention.

Roman Polanski's Tess, photographed by Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet is a beautiful film, which oddly has scratches running through its first few minutes.

Paul Mazursky's Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice* probably looks its age because of fashion and make-up and hair styles, but holds up nonetheless as an interesting look back at the late '60s.

The Asset Protection Program at Columbia has been extremely busy, even if the output of classics does not appropriately reflect the fact. Beyond the cutting of original negatives for Seinfeld, and the overseeing of high definition transfers, a great deal has been going on behind the scenes which will begin to show up early in 2005.

Bitter Victory has been restored and returned to its original length; Major Dundee has been restored and will hit theatres April 8th, before hitting DVD sometime in May or June; Bunny Lake is Missing has been restored and is also coming to DVD; My Sister Eileen has been restored and will be released in 2.55:1 and in original 3 track stereo; The Violent Men in 2.55:1 and original stereo; American Madness; The Stranger Wore a Gun, The Prisoner (1955), and last but not least, Frank Capra's The Bitter Tea of General Yen.

It should also be mentioned that Sony's Digital Authoring Center played a major role, as they did with the first release, of The National Film Preservation Foundations' More Treasures from American Film Archives. Anyone with an interest in early American cinema needs a copy of More Treasures, all profits of which go to support film preservation.

Seventh Place - Universal

Universal released a limited group of classic DVDs. The earlier horror classics were re-packaged into handy, space-saving boxed sets, and several titles were added. For those who did not already own the Universal horrors classics, The Legacy Collections provided instant libraries and come highly recommended. The series was released in two waves. The initial titles included the Dracula*, Frankenstein* and Wolf Man* series, followed by The Creature from the Black Lagoon*, Mummy* and Invisible Man* series.

Van Helsing, one of the big amusement park ride films of the year was released in an odd way. If one enjoyed the film, and wanted additional information about effects and other elements, one was forced to purchase the Ultimate Edition... a three disc set, which also included the original Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolf Man. There was no two disc set offered - an odd marketing decision. Not so great for those who had already invested in the horror classics or Legacy sets, but a windfall for those who had not.

For me, the most interesting, and potentially important classic release of the year was Howard Hughes' 1930 Hell's Angels.

One of the most expensive and technically intricate films to be produced in the late silent and early sound era, Hell's Angels was released as an "also ran." With little publicity and even less interest or apparent care, the film was simply dumped into the marketplace as a quickie ten-dollar disc. With potential tie-ins to Martin Scorsese's Aviator, and the ability to make Hell's Angels something special, it simply seems that Universal's mind was in other areas.

NBC's Universal has such an extraordinary library, especially when considering the Paramount productions that I can't believe that they seem unable or uninterested in tapping the source. Mention should be made that two early Mamoulian films, Applause* and Love Me Tonight* were released late last year via Kino Video under license from Universal.

Sixth Place - 20th Century Fox

The news from 20th Century Fox has been positive. While there is no doubt that the major release of the year, in what many feel is within the "classic" category, are the Star Wars films, the real classic news was elsewhere.

Besides a package of WWII products, inclusive of Guadalcanal Diary, Halls of Montezuma, A Wing and a Prayer and others, we received a beautifully rendered Grapes of Wrath* as part of the Studio Classics collection. In addition to John Ford's Grapes, the collection added his My Darling Clementine* (in two versions), George Stevens' Diary of Anne Frank*, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (less the lyrics for the title song), Desk Set*, Alexander's Ragtime Band*, Zorba the Greek*, The Day the Earth Stood Still* and Three Faces of Eve*.

Fifth Place - Disney

Disney has the distinction of high quality releases, based upon a relatively small library from which they can draw; producing animated shorts until 1937's Snow White, and with only a handful of animated feature length films in the two decades thereafter, interspersed with the likes of 20,000 Leagues*, Song of the South and Treasure Island*.

And yet, Disney has made a superb representation for 2004. Not based upon quantity, but for the overall quality of their releases.

Although not actual "classics," the Disney organization considers all of its animated features just that. And although with very little bottle age, Aladdin* and Mulan* have been offered as beautiful packages, necessary for the library of anyone with children.

Alice in Wonderland*, Disney's 1951 release is a gorgeous DVD. Like the other true Disney classics, it has been cleaned and polished and is now a new product, looking not a bit as it did in 1951, but beautiful nonetheless.

Similarly, Mary Poppins* has just be upgraded, making the older release superfluous.

In the area of short films and documentaries, Disney also shines. My personal favorite is Walt Disney on the Front Lines*, a cornucopia of Disney's work toward the war effort during the 1940s. When I initially heard about this release, I feared that it might be sanitized. Fortunately, this was not the case, and our WWII enemies are still historically as they were sixty years ago.

Continuing with their Treasures releases, Disney held the quality of those that came earlier. One of the more frustrating points in the past has been the ability to view a series of films in any semblance of order. The folks at Disney Home Video have methodically brought together, in chronological order, more Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and most recently Pluto animated shorts in quality befitting their importance.

My one tiny gripe about Disney still continues. Apparently concerned about placing a proper copyright notice on their DVD packaging, they also continue to confuse the issue by annotating new DVD releases of older titles as "2004 Release." There is nothing inherently bad about making it known that you actually own classic films which were created before the release of the DVD.

Fourth Place - Criterion/Home Vision

The Fourth position doesn't go to a studio.

Since it created the first laserdiscs with additional content over two decades ago, the very independent Criterion Collection, along with its occasional partner Home Vision, has served up home video product against which all others have been judged.

It took the studios several years to realize that there was a market for high-end transfers in something called "wide screen," as well as a desire among the home video buying public to do more than simply view a film at home on their monitor.

A cursory look at the 2004 catalog releases from Criterion show that they have lost neither their quality nor their ability to compete in what is now a hugely competitive marketplace.

Almost the entire production output of Merchant - Ivory, which began in 2003, moved into 2004.

Luchino Visconti's The Leopard*, with a transfer supervised by cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, derived directly from the original large format Technirama (TLA) negative...

Sam Fuller's A Pickup on South Street*...

A special boxed set of the work of John Cassavetes, inclusive of Shadows*, Faces*, A Woman Under the Influence*, Killing of a Chinese Bookie* and Opening Night*, along with a superb documentary...

A new two-disc set of Fritz Lang's M*, newly restored and magnificently presented...

Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander*, offered in both a two disc as well as a five disc set, the latter inclusive of the original five hour television version... The five-disc set is streeting for about $45.

Two versions, roadshow and general release of Cecil B. DeMille's silent King of Kings* with two-strip Technicolor footage included...

Robert Altman's Short Cuts* in a two disc special edition at a street price of under $30...

Ozu's Early Summer*...

Renoir's The Golden Coach, French Cancan and Elena and Her Men*...

Two versions of The Lower Depths*... Renoir and Kurosawa...

Jean-Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman*…

Which is no where near their total annual release schedule...

Third Place - Paramount

Paramount is in a similar situation as Disney. With the exception of their silent library, the majority of their pre-1949 productions are owned by Universal, which seems to be doing little with them in home video.

So while Paramount has a superb library going back over half a century, they do not have the depth of other studios. While one might feel that their home video abilities may be limited by their lack of earlier sound product, one would not know it from their 2004 catalog of classics.

While somewhat off the beaten track, mention must be made of the high quality of Paramount's entire I Love Lucy series, based upon a massive archival restoration and preservation project that should get proper kudos. The Lucy series looks as good as it did over half a century ago and is highly recommended.

When it comes to feature films, Paramount shines.

There are only a handful of films that have been re-made by the original filmmakers.

Frank Capra's 1934 Broadway Bill, originally a Columbia production, is the earliest title to come from Paramount this year. Re-made in 1950 as Riding High by Mr. Capra, the rights ended up with Paramount, which released both films concurrently, adding two additional films to the Capra DVD legacy.

As an aside, I'll give a short list of films re-made in this manner, to which the HTF readers can provide additions.

The Ten Commandments - 1923 & 1956 - Cecil B. DeMille
The Man Who Knew Too Much - 1934 & 1956 - Alfred Hitchcock
The Marriage Circle & One Hour with You - 1924 & 1932 - Ernst Lubitsch
The Vanishing - 1988 & 1993 - George Sluizier
J'Accuse - 1919 & 1938 - Abel Gance

One of Brian DePalmas's best works is The Untouchables*, for which Paramount has created a special edition. Likewise, we now have beautiful anamorphic versions of Top Gun* a new special edition of Footloose* and a second special edition of DeMille's 1956 Ten Commandments*.

Mr. DeMille's Best Picture of 1952, The Greatest Show on Earth* received equally high-end treatment from the studio.

2004 was also the year of Jerry Lewis, and while many DVDs of his films were "bare bones" product, The Nutty Professor* stands out as a superb SE, with nine of his other films also released, spanning a period from 1951 through 1965. For the Jerry Lewis fan, Paramount has released a gift of a lifetime.

Other Paramount productions include a creation of what Orson Welles' It's All True might have been like had it been completed, as well as a wonderful library of VistaVision productions inclusive of Desire Under the Elms*, The Black Orchid*, Come Back, Little Sheba*, Last Train from Gun Hill* and The Rose Tattoo*.

In addition, from the pre-Vista era, we have the three-strip Technicolor Arrowhead*, Naked Jungle* and the beautiful black & white The Country Girl*.

Moving up several decades we have Day of the Locust*, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold*, White Dawn*, Heaven Can Wait*, and a film which I tend to use as a reference disc to exhibit the differences between older mono and '80s stereo audio - Rustler's Rhapsody.

Second Place

There is no Second Place.

First Place - Warner Bros.

There is not a doubt in my mind, or in that of a number of people with whom I discussed this column, that the top studio in the home video world for 2004 must be Warner Brothers.

In addition, there is so much of a spread between Warner and the next best, that there can not be a second place position.

Just look at the product that Warner Home Video has brought to the market place in 2004!

The Tarzan Collection*, comprised of all six MGM Tarzan productions.

The Alfred Hitchcock: The Signature Collection*. A veritable master's course in Hitchcock with re-packaging of two films (North by Northwest* and Strangers on a Train*) and brand new beautiful DVDs of six others: Dial "M" for Murder*, Stage Fright*, I Confess*, Foreign Correspondent*, Mr. and Mrs. Smith*, Suspicion* and The Wrong Man*.

Luchino Visconti's The Damned* and A Death in Venice*.

The Noir Collection*, comprised of beautiful new transfers of The Asphalt Jungle*, Gun Crazy*, Murder, My Sweet*, Out of the Past, and The Set-Up*.

The Martin Scorsese Collection* inclusive of a new transfer of Goodfellas*, Mean Streets*, After Hours*, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore* and Who's Knocking at My Door.

The Marx Brothers Collection*: Seven films - A Night at the Opera*, A Day at the Races*, A Night in Casablanca, Room Service, At the Circus, Go West and The Big Store.

The Cary Grant Collection*: Beautiful new transfers of My Favorite Wife*, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse*, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer* as well as Destination Tokyo and Night and Day.

The second collection of Looney Tunes - 60 of the greatest animated shorts ever made! (Thank you Warner Brothers, Turner and George Feltenstein)

Two excellent documentaries chronicling the career of George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey* and D-Day to Berlin*. More on Mr. Stevens in a future piece.

The Buster Keaton Collection: Three of Mr. Keaton's films from the MGM Archives - The Cameraman*, Spite Marriage* and his first talkie, Free and Easy*, packaged along with a documentary of the UK's Photoplay (that would be the Brownlow chap).

The That's Entertainment Trilogy*…

Musicals, inclusive of Damn Yankees*, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers* (in both flat and CinemaScope versions), as well as...

in my opinion, the second most important restoration of the year on DVD - Vincente Minnelli's three-strip Technicolor opus, Meet Me in St. Louis* as a very special Special Edition...

And to top this all off, in case no one noticed... a beautifully digitally restored DVD of the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1939 - Gone with the Wind*.

Need I say more?

Warner Home Video has proven, more than any other studio, that they want to provide the public with important films in high quality transfers with a myriad of extras, and all at a price that makes these purchases easy on the budget. They have also advanced the technology of film restoration, especially when oriented towards home video. In this regard, appreciation must be offered to Chris Cookson, Rob Hummel and Ned Price, without whom...

Warner Home Video has shown that they have a love not just for marketing and sales, but more importantly, for the cinema. There is no question that these people love film.


Warner Home Video is the king of the classic DVD world by a landslide. And with an extraordinary library behind them, and hints of what's coming our way in 2005, they may well continue to hold the title.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

CLICK HERE to discuss this interview with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum.

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

E-mail the Bits!

Don't #!@$ with the Monkey! Site designed for 800 x 600 resolution, using 16M colors and .gif 89a animation.
© 1997-2015 The Digital Bits, Inc., All Rights Reserved.