THE WARNER ARCHIVE: FIRST IMPRESSIONS

April 7, 2009

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With services like Netflix, it feels like the whole history of cinema is available at our fingertips. This sense is false, of course.  As Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum have pointed out, of the 157,485 films listed in the American Film Institute’s Catalog of American Feature Films, only 5,884 are available on home video (this doesn’t even include the sorry state of foreign film distribution in the US). So while the advent of DVD has vastly increased the audience for classic film, where towns without a repertory theater can still watch Murnau and Hawks, the breadth has suffered. Which is why the advent of the Warner Archive is a such a cause for celebration.

The archive manufactures out-of-print titles on demand. This cuts out the cost of mass production and warehousing, while still allowing customers access to the product. According to Warner’s George Feltenstein, they have 6,800 films in their archive, and only 1,200 are on DVD (4,100 made it to VHS). Currently only 150 titles are available in the program, but each month around 20 more will be added to the list. It’s the brainchild of Feltenstein, the (deep breath) senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing at Warner. Long regarded as one of the best in the business at pushing classics onto home video, from the VHS and laserdisc days to the present, this latest initiative is possibly his greatest achievement yet. With DVD sales flagging, it’s a smart way to wring more revenue out of their archive, and with some success will hopefully urge other studios to offer similar programs.

The initial offering of films is a fascinating grab bag of Greta Garbo silents, Joan Crawford weepies, and brat pack oddities. I decided to buy three of the features, each at the $20 price point (most titles are also available for download at $14.95). I bought Leo McCarey’s 1942 propaganda-comedy Once Upon a Honeymoon, Jacques Tourneur’s 1955 ‘Scope Western Wichita (see right), and Budd Boetticher’s 1958 Westbound (to round out my collection of his Ranown series with Randolph Scott, image below). The films are burned and not pressed, meaning they are DVD-R’s and not finalized DVDs. This caused some concern as to their playability, and the packaging contains a warning that they might not work on some PCs. All three films played fine on both my standalone player and my Toshiba laptop (only very old systems would have a problem, I’d guess).

These discs are barebones, with no extras and the most basic of menus. Chapters are programmed every ten minutes regardless of the shot. The transfer quality, however, was high across the board, with Wichita looking especially sharp in its anamorphic transfer. Honeymoon showed some wear and tear in the original element, but only one sequence late in the film could be considered subpar. I was thoroughly satisfied with the quality overall, and will undoubtedly go back to the well for more. If any commenters would like to suggest other titles to consider taking a look at, let me know! I’ve got my eye on the two Cukors (The Actress and Bhowani Junction), the passel of Raoul Walsh’s (Along Great Divide, A Distant Trumpet, A Lion is in the Streets), and the smattering of Frank Borzages (Three Comrades, Mannequin, The Shining Hour).

Once Upon a Honeymoon is a delirious wonder of a film, a screwball anti-Nazi propaganda caper that still manages to be tremendously moving. It’s an improbable mix of comedy and tragedy, a high-wire act that teeters but never falls into camp. A failure upon first release, McCarey told Peter Bogdanovich that “I didn’t like it because the public didn’t like it.” Following the massive success of The Awful Truth (1937) and Love Affair (1939), the box office thud must have come as a shock, especially considering the quality of the material, and the presence of Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers at the top of their games. His populism can’t mask his pride though, as he admits one quote later, “I died laughing at the movie. The acting was too good.” There are any number of uproarious sequences to bear that out, including the one containing the top photo. This sequence finds Ginger Rogers speaking in an aristocratic accent, and going by the name Katherine Butt-Smith (“it’s pronounced Butte”, is the common refrain). Grant is a radio announcer, slumming as a reporter to get a scoop on her marriage to the Nazi Baron von Luber (Walter Slezak, in his first role in Hollywood). He poses as an Austrian fitter for Rogers’ wedding dress. Right before his entry though, Rogers calls her mother, and unveils her natural Irish-Brooklyn name and accent, Katie O’Hara. Her mother, none too pleased, laments her coming  nuptials, “You were doing so well in burlesque…”

This sets up one of the recurring motifs in the film, of Katie’s shifting identity, from Aristocrat/fascist to Working-class/Democrat. This is strung out throughout the film, culminating when she gives up her passport to her Jewish maid to ensure her escape.  Early on, the mode is still primarily comic, and Grant’s entrance sets forth another motif, that of the escalating sexual tension between himself and Ginger. Here it is figured in the measuring tape, hilariously manuevured by Grant into the most suggestive of shapes. His intent is clear very early on, and McCarey offers one of many self-reflexive jokes when Grant’s gropes cause Rogers to groan, “This is getting ridiculous”. And how! McCarey takes the sexualization of objects to another level later in the film, when Grant, about to leave Gingers’ train cabin, tells her how lonely he’ll be, “just me and my saxophone.” This innuendo is made literal later in the sequence, and Grant squeals on the horn while Rogers squeals with laughter with the Baron.

The film is layered with these kinds of motifs, brilliantly laid out in further detail by Robin Wood in a Jan.-Feb. 1976 article for Film Comment (“Democracy and Shpontanuity”, available at your local public library’s microfilm archive!). In any case, it’s an uproarious piece of work, and I haven’t even mentioned the Shakespeare-Irving Berlin quote-off. If, as Robin Wood said, that Rio Bravo justifies the existence of Hollywood, then Once Upon a Honeymoon justifies the existence of the WB Archive.

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