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Screen Classics by Request
No doubt spurred by Warner Bros.'s successful Archive Collection, which now already boasts around 600 titles (mostly pre-1980 features from the Warner Bros., MGM, and RKO libraries), Sony Pictures has joined the increasingly popular movie-on-demand (MOD) trend with its "Screen Classics by Request" line, which debuted with 100 titles earlier this fall.

Like the Warner Archive Collection - and quite unlike MGM's disastrous, ultimately aborted first MOD roll-out, marred by poor transfers and unplayable discs - Sony's product looks as promising as Warner Bros.'s: new and, where appropriate, 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfers that look just great - of unjustly forgotten classics, long-buried gems, nostalgically remembered TV-movies, and ludicrous but much-desired cult films.

Like WB's program, Screen Classics by Request is a heady mix of cult favorites (Crash Landing, The 27th Day, The Interns), forgotten epics (Genghis Khan), Columbia series films (four "Jungle Jim" adventures starring Johnny Weissmuller), intriguing but largely forgotten gems (Mickey One, 10 Rillington Place), foreign films (Les voleurs, a.k.a. Thieves), good-to-indifferent TV-movies (The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, To Sir with Love II, Hart to Hart: Home Is Where the Hart Is) and bizarre, one-of-a-kind oddities (Birds Do It).

That many of these titles are less than acknowledged masterpieces of American cinema is beside the point. Somewhere out there, there's an audience for every one of these things. Maybe it's something they saw with their parents at the drive-in when they were children, some movie - maybe even a particular scene - that for one reason or another remained lodged in their subconscious all these years. Or perhaps it's a movie that caught the viewer off-guard, a "Late, Late Show" that took them by complete surprise, but stubbornly unavailable ever since. If you've spent the last 25 years looking for that obscure Soupy Sales movie about a NASA janitor that learns to fly like a bird, good news: your wait is over.

I recently discussed the program with Sony's Rita Belda:

DVD Talk: What determines which titles get a "regular" DVD release and which are targeted for "Screen Classics by Request" instead? For instance, I recently reviewed Hand in Hand (1960), a charming little film, but I was surprised to see that get a standard DVD release while things like Mickey One(1965) and Nightwing (1979), seemingly a bit more saleable, wind up here.

Rita Belda: Screen Classics by Request is an opportunity to bring classic deep catalog films to movie fans. We are opening our library up for consideration, so any title that has not otherwise had a DVD release is a candidate. In regard to standard DVD releases, we are always evaluating what films will do well in the marketplace, and that determination is the distinction between releasing strategies. Our goal in releasing Screen Classics by Request is to provide fans with access to films we have not otherwise been able to make available. Both Mickey One and Hand in Hand have been requested by fans, so that is definitely a factor, but the requests for Hand in Hand and our research on that specific title pointed to a wide appeal, that helped to bring that film in to the standard retail markets.

DVD Talk: Are you creating new masters for these titles when they warrant it? Or are you selecting titles based on preexisting masters?

Belda: Every title is evaluated prior to release to confirm it meets a certain standard of quality. If existing masters are not up to our standard, they are not released as part of this program. We may do additional digital restoration work, or in some cases, create all-new masters. Many of the titles have been chosen because they've been recently mastered and are of excellent quality, and will meet the expectations of the consumer.

DVD Talk: Will everything be presented in their original theatrical aspect ratios?

Belda: Yes.

DVD Talk: What are some of the unexpected problems you're running into, working with film elements that, in many cases, haven't been accessed much since their original release?

Belda: I wouldn't say that any problems are unexpected. The evaluation and mastering is supervised by the same team that is responsible for all of the film restoration and mastering of library titles, so it's rare for us to come across a problem we haven't seen before.

DVD Talk: Could these obscure films actually have elements in better shape simply because they weren't huge hits like, say, The Guns of Navarone and Bridge on the River Kwai, which were printed to death through the years?

Belda: Again, I'd have to say we have an extensive restoration and as a result, the films being released, whether on DVD, Blu-ray or as By Request titles, have all undergone film and digital restoration to some extent. That being said, each title brings its own challenges, and some titles require a bit more work than others, as a result.

DVD Talk: What happy discoveries are you finding, both in terms of elements and the films themselves? Any big surprises?

Belda: It is always fun to explore the less-well known films in the library, in part because of the surprises. Often, a film you've never heard of will turn out to be fascinating. A recent title that I was thrilled to discover was Ladies in Retirement (1941), starring Ida Lupino. In some ways, it reminds me a bit of Arsenic and Old Lace, in that it was based on a stage play with both comic and suspense elements, and the two ladies at the heart of the film are hilariously "tetched" as my grandmother used to say. The gothic feel of the film, however, and its wonderful cinematography also contribute to a rich atmosphere that pushes this into the territory of films like Night Must Fall and Spiral Staircase.

DVD Talk: Film buffs have a tendency to have unrealistic expectations in terms of the commercial viability of classic (and especially cult) films. I'm sure there are tiny contingents out there clamoring for Birds Do It or Jungle Moon Men but, in terms of the program, what would constitute a successful title?

Belda: As the program is in its early stages, some of these marks are still to be defined.

DVD Talk: Which genres sell best?

Belda: Again, based on limited data (as the program is only a few months old), we are seeing success across genres. One thing seems to be clear, widescreen films, especially 2.35:1, 2.55:1, are doing particularly well, whether that is because of the chance to have films in their original aspect ratio, or because of the titles themselves, that is not entirely clear yet.

DVD Talk: Without getting into specific titles, are there any plans to release Columbia's two-reel comedies beyond the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton shorts already out on DVD?

Belda: There has certainly been discussion about this, but no specific plans as of yet - we'll of course have to tackle how to make these available in a way that makes sense, and provides consumers value.

DVD Talk: What about Columbia's serials? Classic shows from its television division?

Belda: Again, I wouldn't say that anything in the library is off the table; it is just a matter of when and how we might be able to do this.

DVD Talk: What are a few of the most frequently requested titles? And which title would you wish people stop asking about, as Sony has no rights (e.g., the "Blondie" film series)?

Belda: It is amazing how well fans know our catalog. We see requests for everything from television (for example, Hart to Hart) to the Columbia films of Jan-Michael Vincent, and more obscure films from the 30's and 40's. I love the enthusiasm of fans for their favorite films, but some requests come in for films that are not owned by Sony, for example, the films of MGM-UA, for which we no longer have a releasing partnership. Of course, we can only release the films for which Sony currently maintains rights.

DVD Talk: Anything else you'd like to say about the program?

Belda: As exciting as it has been to release these first 100 titles, we are looking forward to the upcoming additions to the program, as well as hearing from the fans who are getting to see favorite classics again, or discovering new favorites by taking a chance on them. We also are offering fans the opportunity to view clips from each film on our site, www.columbia-classics.com, where they can also get the most up-to-date information and purchase the discs directly.

DVD Talk: What titles are you personally most happy to see coming out?

Belda: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972) is a great, difficult film, darkly comic and touching. I also am excited to see some more obscure films from the World War II period available, because, on top of being nearly unknown films, they help to illustrate the history and politics of Columbia in the time period. Address Unknown (1944) and Counter-Attack (1945), for example, are both powerful films, wonderfully photographed and directed, but with something unique to say about their period in time. No Greater Glory (1934) is also an incredible, underrated film that needs to be re-discovered.



Some other highlights from the first wave (Click on the title to read the full review):

Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine

Local New York City anchorman Robin Stone (John Phillip Law) may have a lousy timeslot on International Broadcasting Network's afternoon schedule, but he does have something that attracts him to Judith Austin (Dyan Cannon), the hyper-sexed younger wife of IBN's CEO and Chairman of the Board, Greg Austin (Robert Ryan). Almost immediately, Robin is catapulted into the higher echelons of network programming, a move that rankles IBN's President and veteran backstabber, Danton Miller (Jackie Cooper). Determined to bring Stone down, Miller counters Stone's efforts for a primetime news show with a tasteless variety series starring crude stand-up comedian, Christie Lane (Shecky Greene). But Stone has more pressing problems than countering Miller's machinations, including managing his love affair with naive model Amanda (Jodi Wexler), understanding his friendship with gay photographer David Hemmings, and keeping a lid on his own strange, violent attitude towards women.

Jacqueline Susann and Valley of the Dolls fans have been waiting for this one for a long time...and they won't be disappointed with this stupendously atrocious 1971 adaptation of Susann's best-seller. Starring a stunningly unfathomable cast, with equally bewildering direction by Jack Haley, Jr., Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine contains moments of true-trash awfulness that you simply can't deliberately create. They're borne out of miscalculation and obliviousness and bad taste on a cosmic level, and without a shred of irony or facetiousness, on that level alone, Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine brilliantly succeeds. An absolute must-have for lovers of bad cinema. [Paul Mavis]

The Mad Room

26-year-old executive secretary Ellen Hardy is about to embark on the happiest period of her troubled life. Engaged to pampered rich boy, Sam Aller (Skip Ward), Ellen has negotiated the qualified acceptance for the marriage from her employer and future stepmother, Mrs. Gladys Armstrong (Shelley Winters), and is looking forward to settling down to a life of leisure. Unfortunately, Ellen's past has come back to haunt her; a letter from Toronto's "Hospital for Mental Ills" reveals that her younger brother and sister, George (Michael Burns) and Mandy (Barbara Sammeth), are ready to be released into her custody. As children, George and Mandy brutally murdered their parents, and Ellen was the only witness to the crime...but strangely, no one of the three can remember who actually did the killings. Forced to lie about her past, Ellen manages to talk Gladys into letting her strange siblings stay at her mansion...provided she'll allow George and Mandy the use of a "mad room" whenever the pressures become too great on their troubled minds.

Suitably creepy and atmospheric, The Mad Room, from Columbia Pictures in 1969, may not shock today's viewers who are accustomed to outsized violence and gore, but it's an excellent example of those female star-driven "Grand Guignol" suspensers that entertained audiences back in the 1960s. With a strange, weird artificiality to its mise-en-scene, The Mad Room creates a hard-to-pin-down pull that's fascinating, one that is aided no doubt by two terrific performances by the delightfully forceful Shelley Winters and the always underrated Stella Stevens. An unexpected winner with yet another pristine transfer from Sony's Columbia Classics line. [Paul Mavis]

Otley

In 60s "swinging London," Notting Hill antiques scrounger and petty thief Gerald Arthur Otley (Tom Courtenay) has finally run up against it, with no money in his pockets and no bed to sleep in. A chance meeting with an acquaintance, though, provides a temporary place to flop...as well as the beginnings of a waking comedic nightmare of espionage and murder as the hapless Otley is drawn into double and triple cross plays with the likes of the mysteriously kind assassin Leonard Rossiter, and mysteriously beautiful secret agent, Romy Schneider.

Director Dick Clement, working from his and Ian Le Frenais' adaptation of Martin Wadell's novel, have concocted a delightful shaggy-dog spy story in this largely overlooked comedic gem from Columbia Pictures in 1968. Featuring one of Tom Courtenay's more breezy, funny performances, Clement conjures up an off-kilter, sly little spy flick that smartly jumps between Bondian hijinks and Alfie-like British working-class comedies. Oblique and sideways-funny, Otley is a scruffy charmer that deserves to be rediscovered...which shouldn't be too hard, considering Sony has now made it available in a pristine widescreen transfer for their new mail-order Columbia Classics line of press-on-demand library titles. [Paul Mavis]

The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock

In comedy terms, The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959) is an almost complete failure. It tries hard to be funny - too hard, in fact - but that doesn't take away from its significance in film comedy history: it turned out to be the last film of Lou Costello, his only feature without longtime partner Bud Abbott, whose 20-year partnership Lou dissolved a short time before.

The picture is an unfunny blend of several genres: science fiction/fantasy, family film, Preston Sturges-esque satire of small town mores. (Lou's character is more of a Sturges-conceived Eddie Bracken type than Costello's usual screen persona.) Overall, it's a lot more like Disney's later The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) than any Abbott & Costello movie, minus that film's considerable charm. Nevertheless, its release as a DVD-R, movie-on-demand title, looks just as good as a regular DVD, is in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, and includes a trailer, also enhanced, as an extra. [Stuart Galbraith IV]

12 to the Moon

Though its lunar expedition storyline is routine, hitting the usual clich├ęs one-by-one (introduction of the crew, meteor shower, etc.) in fact 12 to the Moon (1960) is quite odd; its dozen characters may be shooting for the moon, but its writer and director clearly were aiming for the stars. If Stanley Kramer at his most pretentious were reduced to making a low-budget sci-fi film, the result might be something like this. It's a truly terrible movie, but it's also one I've wanted to see for years and am delighted I finally have.

Presented in 16:9 enhanced widescreen in a pristine transfer on a DVD-R, 12 to the Moon looks just great. The movie may stink, but this surely is the way to see it. A 16:9 enhanced widescreen trailer is also included. [Stuart Galbraith IV]

The 27th Day

In The 27th Day, five people, from all over the world, are taken aboard an alien spacecraft and are each given something that is very dangerous: a sealed box containing three vials, each one of which is capable of killing every human in a 3,000 mile diameter. By simply speaking a longitude and latitude every man, woman, and child will instantly die, but the flora and fauna will remain untouched. Together the vials can destroy everyone on Earth. The vials will become inactive in 27 days, but can these five people stave off global annihilation for that long?

A cerebral film that gets a lot of things right on a tight budget, the creators stayed away from monsters that always look cheap and instead concentrated on the impact of an ultimate weapon on Earth. Filmed in 1957 at the height of the Cold War, the film is a product of its time and while it does have some stereotypes it manages to avoid them for the most part. The only thing the really mars film is the rather contrived and finale. The Columbia Classics disc presents this largely overlooked film with a very nice widescreen anamorphic image that looks excellent. [John Sinnott]

Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is on sale now.

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