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MGM's Limited Edition Collection

MGM's Movie-on-Demand Program

Article by Stuart Galbraith IV

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has been a film company in inexorable freefall for almost half a century. The "studio," now in fact little more than office space in Century City, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last November and its future remains uncertain. In the very midst of these financial woes the company, via distributor Twentieth Century-Fox, launched a new DVD-on-demand program similar to Warner Home Video's "Archive Collection" and Sony's "Columbia Classics." But where those programs seem to be flourishing, MGM has had no better luck with made-on-demand DVD-Rs than with its new movies.

Initially, MGM partnered with Amazon.com, but soon after the program's launch last spring, MGM and/or Amazon quietly pulled the plug. The reason? They were besieged with customer complaints of defective discs and rotten video transfers. I experienced this myself with one of their titles, House of the Long Shadows, a 1983 horror throwback starring genre favorites Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing. For starters the transfer was unacceptably bad: full-frame when it should have been widescreen and extremely murky. It resembled the sort of video transfer one associates with the earliest days of VHS and bootleg videos. Worse, about 10 minutes into the movie the picture suddenly froze-up and the disc refused to play any further. I then tried the DVD-R on three different players and two computers but never made it past that ten-minute mark. In essence, I was now the proud owner of a very expensive beverage coaster.

MGM must lay claim to the poor transfer but the badly replicated, defective disc was apparently the fault of CreateSpace, the Amazon.com subsidiary contracted to fulfill actual orders. And, just as Universal Home Video never publicly admitted to its notoriously unreliable DVD-18s that drove customers positively batty around 2005, MGM has never officially acknowledged the problem and pretty much left customers SOL. (DVD Talk invited representatives from MGM and/or Fox to participate in this article but they declined.)

And then last fall, the manufactured-on-demand program was just as quietly re-launched - only now with a brand-new fulfillment company, Allied Vaughn, manufacturing its DVD-Rs. (Allied Vaughn also manufactures DVD-Rs for Warner Bros.)

But the problems continue. A two-part miniseries, The Murder of Mary Phagan, was released missing the final 18 minutes of Part One. And last month a big batch of titles, including Billy Two Hats, How I Won the War, Fort Bowie, Captive City and possibly others were shipped out with what appeared to be horrible, eye-straining edge-enhancement, but which reportedly was actually caused by a faulty transcoder at Allied Vaughn.

The company recently issued the following statement:

Allied Vaughn has recently become aware of reports where consumers are seeing an unusual amount of "ghosting" when viewing select MGM Limited Edition Collection titles on certain combinations of television screens, DVD players, and discs. Allied Vaughn has successfully identified the problem which causes the "ghosting" and has taken all necessary steps to correct this issue. The discs reporting the issue were made between March 15 and May 3, 2011. No product manufactured after May 25th, 2011 should exhibit this affect. ... Allied Vaughn stands behind the quality of the MGM Limited Edition Collection. Should a consumer experience excessive ghosting problems with those titles, we will replace that disc in accordance with our manufacturing warranty. Consumers may contact their retailer for replacement, or Allied Vaughn directly at 1-800-759-4087, ext 5, or via email at [email protected]

The current MOD programs by Warner Brothers, MGM/Fox, and Sony cater to a very specific demographic of movie collectors with generally higher standards in terms of things like picture quality and theatrical aspect ratios. Which makes it unfortunate that only a select handful of their titles are available for review. (To their great credit, MGM/Fox has provided far more MOD titles for review to DVD Talk than either Warner Bros. or Sony.) You'd think they'd be eager have DVD sites and high-profile reviewers like DVD Savant singing the praises of the many fine titles they are at long last releasing, but many of the MOD titles you've read reviews of came not through the usual channels but by others means. In some cases reviewers ordered and paid for a title out of their own pocket and reviewed it simply because they wanted to spread the word about some wonderful little movie its studio wasn't interested in promoting.

Warner Bros. and Sony have established websites promoting their titles and which provide detailed descriptions, allow customer reviews and in Sony's case even provide 90-second previews so that consumers can get a sense of what the video transfer looks like. But for now, MGM's MOD program exists in the Internet ether - there's no central website or "official" source of information about the quality of the transfers or information about the movies. Even finding the discs isn't easy; the main retailers seem to be Amazon and Screen Archives Entertainment. Both are selling MGM's discs for just under $20. (They're three cents cheaper at SAE.)

Of the three major MOD players (Universal, too, has gotten into the game, but gingerly, releasing just a handful of DVD-Rs via Turner Classic Movies) Warner Bros. offers the greatest number of titles while, based on limited personal experience, Sony's Columbia Classics have the most consistently good transfers, though Warner Archive titles are never less than serviceable and more and more are excellent.

MGM continues to struggle here, too. The first wave back in the spring of 2010 consisted of full-frame letterboxed titles rather than 16:9 enhanced widescreen ones, though at least one title, The Best Man (1964) has since been remastered. Of the newer, 2011 releases, most of the widescreen titles are 16:9 enhanced but the transfers are inconsistent, partly because even some of these are nothing more that up-resolution jobs derived from flat 4:3 letterboxed transfers, and that's resulted in a strange softness and artifacting on those titles. (The 7th Dawn and The Satan Bug are two such examples.) Unlike Sony's transfers, which are amazingly pristine no matter the movie (even Jungle Moon Men!), some of MGM's discs are sourced from ancient transfers more than a decade old, some even prior to the advent of the DVD format itself.

Another problem is the residue of MGM's stubborn insistence during the 1990s and 2000s on releasing many 1950s and early '60s movies full frame, even though they were clearly meant for widescreen projection. (Usually 1.85:1 but sometimes anywhere between 1.66:1 and 2:1.) Back when I worked at MGM's Technical Services I discovered a memo erroneously instructing project managers to transfer most non-'scope movies at 1.37:1 full-frame because, supposedly, that's how they were projected in movie theaters well into the 1960s! I pointed out this was totally wrong, that as early as January 1953 movies were being cropped and that by early-1954 the vast majority of "flat" non-'scope movies were projected in some form of widescreen (1.66:1, 1.75:1, or 1.85:1 generally). I then spent several days at the Academy of Motion Pictures Art & Sciences Margaret Herrick Library documenting "official" aspect ratios for most of MGM's holdings from the period in question. Since then many of these titles have been corrected while others have not. It really all boils down to money. The studio isn't going to remaster a title solely to correct an aspect ratio issue if they have to do so at a loss.

On the plus side, MGM's labyrinthine film library of mostly cultish movies and a few long-lost gems has its advantages over, say, Sony's Columbia Classics, which is pretty much restricted to B-studio Columbia's generally bland output. Remember, MGM has very little of MGM left in it. Most of its holdings consist of movies originally released by United Artists, Orion Pictures, Avco-Embassy, and American International Pictures/Filmways, along with a smattering of other libraries including Atlantic Releasing, Nelson Entertainment, TransWorld, and The Samuel Goldwyn Company.

Also praiseworthy is that MGM has chosen to include a number of titles now in the public domain, such as the Boris Karloff "Mr. Wong" movies and Call of the Wild, an early-'70s adaptation of Jack London's novel starring Charlton Heston. Hopefully these will be high-quality transfers putting those hawked by myriad PD bottom-feeders to shame.

And, with 126 title now out or available for pre-order, one can see a tantalizing mix of unjustly ignored classics and near-classics (A Thousand Clowns, Dreamchild, Harry in Your Pocket), cult films (Burn, Witch, Burn!, Diary of a Madman, Old Dracula, Queen of Blood), intriguing obscurities (Cloudburst, The Witches, Flight from Ashiya), TV shows (Highway Patrol, Flipper) and TV-movies (Inherit the Wind).

Here's what some of our reviewers have to say:

The Ambulance A chattier-than-usual Eric Roberts anchors this preposterous thriller about a menacing ambulance and human trafficking ring. The film is all early '90s cheese, but the underlying concept is unnerving. Enough thrills and comedic moments to warrant a viewing, and the film receives a solid anamorphic widescreen transfer. (Will Harrison)

Billy Two Hats Gregory Peck starred in a number of classic Westerns but also a few offbeat ones, such as the fascinating adaptation of Theodore V. Olsen's novel The Stalking Moon (1968). Billy Two Hats (1974) falls into the latter category, a pursuit-of-the-bandits tale distilled to just six important characters, a film noteworthy less for its title character than for its attention to little details, its strong characters, an intelligent rendering of its simple story, and some fine acting by Peck especially. Billy Two Hats is presented in 1.78:1 format, approximating its original 1.85:1 theatrical screen format. The transfer is 16:9 enhanced, from what appears to be good film elements, with good color and detail but some copies, including the one we reviewed, had that transcoder issue that resembles extreme edge-enhancement. (Stuart Galbraith IV)

The Black Sleep Both prescient and a throwback to an earlier age, this is a wonderfully entertaining 1956 horror film with an all- (genre) star cast, including Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and big Tor Johnson. It's a lower-budgeted effort ($225,000, a 12-day schedule), uneven and somewhat marred by casting/character issues, but there's also a sincere attempt to make this a kind of spook show extravaganza. It delivers the goods despite a few dull stretches, and this obvious affection is conveyed to its audience. This DVD-R seems derived from an older full-frame transfer done about ten years ago. The film was obviously shot for 1.85:1 framing and its compositions are vastly improved when zoomed in on widescreen TVs. (Stuart Galbraith IV)

Body Slam Hal Needham's 1986 turkey could be accused of numerous cinematic crimes: filling the supporting cast with pro-wrestlers and expecting them to act, lacking any coherent narrative, or not having a clue what pro-wrestling is to begin with. However, the biggest crime is making TV's Dirk Benedict the leading man in a wholly tiresome cringefest. Only hardcore, old-school pro-wrestling fans will find Body Slam to be "so bad, it's good," everyone else will feel like they've been unfairly punished; the barely average, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and passable 2.0 English audio track don't help matters any either. Don't let the promise of rock-and-roll, pro-wrestling, and Charles Nelson Reilly fool you, Body Slam is as out of place in the entertainment category as John Cena would be in The Four Horsemen. (Nick Hartel)

Buried Alive This dopey thriller about a serial killer at a girls' correctional school is loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's short stories. The talents of Donald Pleasence and John Carradine are wasted in a movie barely worthy of daytime cable. The fullscreen transfer is unimpressive; barely a notch above VHS quality. (Will Harrison)

The Captive City Robert Wise's 1952 crime picture The Captive City is a cautionary tale. This B-movie with a message chronicles the story of a newspaper man (John Forsythe) who discovers the mob has worked their way into his town and doesn't rest until something is done about it, going all the way up the food chain to Washington D.C. and Senator C. Estes Kefauver. Sure, it's heavy-handed and sometimes clumsy, but it's also a quick ride that delivers solid punches where required. Just think, though, if more people had paid attention to The Captive City's rally cry to expose the mafia, we might never have gotten The Sopranos. I know they want me to think crime doesn't pay, but when it's put that way, it's hard not to root for the bad guys! (Jamie S. Rich)

Cohen & Tate Eric Red is likely best remembered for his solid scripts that were the basis for the classic horror films The Hitcher and Near Dark. In his 1988 directorial debut, Red saw his own vision of a crime thriller to completion, casting Roy Scheider and Adam Baldwin as mismatched mafia hitmen. Throw in a grating child actor and a movie that largely takes place in a car and Cohen & Tate turns out to be a trying, marginally effective film. Scheider is the highlight here, saddled with a very cartoonish Adam Baldwin and a very unsympathetic kid; Red has a few tricks up his sleeve, but not enough to make this a forgotten classic. Featuring a slightly above-average 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and a lackluster 2.0 English audio track, the DVD presentation of Cohen & Tate is as unspectacular as the film itself. (Nick Hartel)

A Cold Wind in August A relatively well-received exploitation number when released in 1961...and worth a look today. M-G-M, through their M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed through Warners' own M.O.D., the Archive Collection), has released A Cold Wind in August, the 1961 indie May/December sex drama starring wowzer Lola Albright and Scott Marlowe. Somewhat daring for its time, A Cold Wind in August wouldn't make a Sunday school teacher blush today, nor is it very successful in creating a truly believable romance between the supposedly 17-year-old Marlowe and the 30-something Albright. However...fans of this type of nostalgic exploitation will consider this much sought-after title quite a find in this bare-bones presentation. Despite the warning from M-G-M about the quality of the original materials, the 1.66 widescreen black and white transfer for A Cold Wind in August has been applied to a 16:9 palette (creating side-matting window-boxing if you're watching on a regular monitor), which looks terrific on a big, big monitor. (Paul Mavis)

Daughters of Satan During the 1960s and '70, producers of low-budget genre films sometimes shot their movies in the Philippines, where presumably these filmmakers could get more bang for their buck. A number of singularly Filipino horror movies emerged from this period, often starring American actor John Ashley and directed or co-directed by local helmer Eddie Romero. While undeniably cheap and even shoddy, they were also surprisingly effective: the early ones have fleeting if genuinely disturbing moments of shock and terror, while the later, more explicit ones are amusingly gory and over-the-top. Some of this same talent, though neither Romero nor Ashley, worked on Daughters of Satan (1972), a somewhat classier but also far less interesting horror movie starring a pre-Magnum, P.I., pre-Rockford Files, pre-everything Tom Selleck, here pitted against the Manila Assembly of Lucifer, so-called. The DVD-R is 16:9 enhanced widescreen and looks quite good for what it is. (Stuart Galbraith IV)

The Explosive Generation Why can't all the world's rebels be this well-mannered? M-G-M, through their M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed through Warners' own M.O.D., the Archive Collection), has released The Explosive Generation, the 1961 cult teen drama starring William Shatner, Patty McCormack, and Billy Gray. For a cheap-jack exploitation number marketed as a rabble-rouser, The Explosive Generation can be distressingly fair-minded when it comes to exploring both the generation gap between affluent California parents and their increasingly pissed-off offspring, and the sexual politics between horny boys and girls. But good performances and tight direction keep this (now) exercise in nostalgia interesting. The full-frame, 1.33:1 black and white transfer here benefits from your own cropping (as it was probably done in theaters) if you have that capacity on your big monitor. Cropped off at 1.78, it looks fine for framing (if a little tight at times, since it was probably at 1.66 in theaters), but that also bumps up the grain and video noise considerably. As for the image itself, it looks acceptable, considering the title, with a sharpish picture and an okay gray scale. (Paul Mavis)

Fort Massacre A modest but interesting Western, this 1958 release makes intelligent use of its limited budget, probably around $400,000-$500,000. Its story is taut and character-driven, and limited to about a dozen parts, mostly U.S. Cavalry trying to reach a distant rendezvous after barely surviving an attack by Apaches. The film stars Joel McCrea in one of his later-career roles while, conversely, this was the very first production of The Mirisch Company, soon to be the biggest and most successful outfit associated with United Artists. Presented in its original CinemaScope aspect ratio, the 16:9 enhanced transfer is fairly good. (Stuart Galbraith IV)

The Murder of Mary Phagan Based on a true story, this 1988 production was a very prestigious, two-part television movie. Top-billed Jack Lemmon had done very little television after becoming a film star in the late-1950s, though he did play James Tyrone Sr. in Long Day's Journey Into Night on television the year before. That adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play co-starred up-and-comers Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher, both of whom are also in this. Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain) is credited with the story and Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) wrote the score. Yet this 236-minute historical drama is a curious viewing experience. The subject matter is inherently interesting and multi-faceted, and there are plenty of potentially interesting, morally conflicted characters. The true story of the murder of Mary Phagan is significant in the social history of the United States and should not be forgotten but this TV-movie, for all its class, is singularly uninvolving and takes no chances. The otherwise fine transfer is missing the last 18 minutes of Part One so buyer beware! (Stuart Galbraith IV)

Not as a Stranger is a respectable first directing effort from Stanley Kramer, complete with a fine performance from Robert Mitchum as a young doctor who needs to learn that healing isn't just skill, but having compassion. The film has some nice touches, including a few visual flourishes and an all-around solid cast; the script, however, is lacking in brevity. Not as a Stranger is too conventional to be as long as it is. If there was a way to speed the story along a little more, it could be one hell of a medical drama rather than merely a so-so one. More drama, less mellow. Also starring Olivia de Havilland, Frank Sinatra, Lee Marvin, Gloria Grahame, and Harry Morgan's terrible Swedish accent. (Jamie S. Rich)

Queen of Blood In 1966 low budget studio AIP released Queen of Blood, an outer space adventure/horror flick that was made on the cheap by cobbling together the special effects shots from two Soviet films and crafting a new story around them. Given the films origins it will come as a surprise that it's actually pretty good. With some talented actors including Basil Rathbone, John Saxon, and a very young Dennis Hopper, the film overcomes its low-budget origins and ends up being an entertaining film. One of the initial MGMLimited Edition Collection titles, the anamorphic widescreen image is surprisingly good making this a strongly recommended film for SF fans. (John Sinnott)

Queen of Hearts 1989's Queen of Hearts is one of those rare films that succeeds in laying a simple tale of love and family told through the eyes and words of Eddie, the young son of two Italian immigrants in London, England. Headed by a standout cast of largely unknown actors, Queen of Hearts is never a bad movie, but only once or twice a truly great one. A product of a bygone era, where being good was good enough, it's a film that should please the less cynical moviegoer and makes for a solid, quirky family experience. While the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and 2.0 English audio track are quite passable, it's a shame this handsomely shot film didn't garner a better looking and sounding DVD. (Nick Hartel)

Return From the Ashes A beguiling, thoroughly strange 60s murder mystery that's most welcome. M-G-M, through their M.O.D. ("manufacture on demand") Limited Edition Collection (now distributed through Warners' own M.O.D., the Archive Collection), has released Return From the Ashes, the 1965 J. Lee Thompson-directed drama/thriller starring the powerhouse trio of Maximilian Schell, Samantha Eggar, and Ingrid Thulin. Slinky and darkly funny, Return From the Ashes enjoys being odd and off-center as it ping-pongs back and forth from its seemingly incompatible sub-genres (romantic comedy, murder mystery, adulterous sex drama...and Holocaust survivor film). One of talented, entertaining director Thompson's best films. Certainly there are some rough patches here and there in the anamorphically enhanced, 2.35:1 widescreen black and white transfer of Return From the Ashes, including some scratches and blemishes from the print used here, as well as some contrast fluctuation from time to time. Still, this looks quite good overall, with a sharpish image and deep blacks. A forgotten little gem that wasn't appreciated when it first came out, and one that needs re-discovering. (Paul Mavis)


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