You want to know something? It's an obscenely great time to be a classic movie fan. Especially if you're a young classic movie fan, something that I am, and something that it seems is growing in numbers every day. Young people—mostly 20 somethings—who are passionate about classic films, and realize that they are important, and must be shared with others. It's easy for us to take for granted how spoiled we are. We can access virtually any movie we want to. We can get a DVD, we can go to Netflix, we can rent it on iTunes, we can spend a day watching them on TCM. It's truly an embarrassment of riches.
But what for those movies that have fallen through the cracks? Those obscure gems, cult classics, and forgotten favorites that never managed to hit home video in the days of VHS? There is a facet of hardcore movie lovers who want to own as much as possible. But home video is a business, and the mega chains aren't going to stock the odd titles that only hardcore fans are going to buy. But what to do? Enter the good people at the Warner Archive Collection, a little side street of Warner Home Video. The Warner Archive Collection is akin to having a buddy with the keys to the vaults.
Warner Archive makes DVDs on demand of treasures in the Warner Brothers vaults, which includes the catalogs of RKO, and most of MGM's classics to name a few. It's not just some old tape slapped onto a disc someone burned on their Mac. They go to great lengths to make sure each release is up to par—it might not be blu-ray quality, but it's going to be better than VHS. What is most impressive of the Warner Archive, is the depth to which the offerings go. Out of Print DVD titles, rare television series, and box sets of some of those wonderful shorts series that you see between films on TCM.
One such series is the Joe McDoakes shorts that were made between 1942 and 1956. I'd seen the occasional short on TCM, and a handful were released as bonus features on various films Warner Brothers had issued on DVD. For years I kept wishing that somehow, a complete collection of them could be released. That was one of the first titles Warner Archive issued, a six disc set that contained all 63 shorts. Since then I've picked up several more goodies, and I keep a list of other titles I want to add to my collection.
I have from them the 1965 teeny movie “Get Yourself a College Girl”, which has an amazing line up of musical artists from the period, and a proto-feminist message (YouTube it and see the trailer—words don't do it justice). Then there's the wonderful low budget horror/drive in grade flicks, do you recall last week's talk of “The Hypnotic Eye”? Yep, that's one you can get from Warner Archive—and trust me—it's OUT THERE!
Some of the best flicks I've ordered from the Archive are movies that I had never heard of, but the combination of who is in them, and who is behind the camera, were too good to resist (I should state these are movies where your love of them is wholly dependent upon your love of certain types of films—much like we talked about last week—there's a theme going on!). Two shinning examples come to mind, and both are films I can highly recommend to the more adventurous of you out there.
Does the name William Conrad ring a bell? If you're of a certain age, you might recall him from such series as “Jake and the Fat Man” or “Cannon”, but if you don't know that name, let me fill you in. He was one of those revered voice actors during the golden age of radio, did a ton of work, most notably as Matt Dillon on the original radio version of “Gunsmoke”. However, Mr. Conrad's biggest contribution to pop culture, would be as the narrator on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Yet it seems that during the mid 60s, Mr. Conrad had a production unit at Warner Brothers, producing and directing a few films. 1964's “Two on a Guillotine” would be one of these films, and it has a rather bizarre cast. Connie Stevens, Dean Jones (Pre-Love Bug), and Cesar Romero (Pre-Batman). The story is one of those old chestnuts: Magician dies, leaves it all to his estranged daughter, on the condition that she spends seven nights in the creepy old house he lived in. They emphasize that by having a skeleton hit ole Connie when she presses what she thinks is a light switch. It's just this side of being camp, but if you're a fan of William Castle's work, it's very much worth checking out. Be sure to look out for Conrad's Hitchcock moment, when he appears as a funhouse visitor.
Topping them all, and one of those movies that I wouldn't suggest to just anyone, is 1971's “Pretty Maids all in a row.” Where to begin with this one? Let's look at the cast: Rock Hudson, Angie Dickinson, and Telly Savalas. It was written by this little fellow you might have heard of, he didn't do much, Gene Roddenberry. If that's not enough, it was directed by Roger Vadim, who made “Barbarella.” Now, before I describe the plot of this film, allow me to remind you, and to keep in mind, that thought it sounds like a late 70s Roger Corman film, it's a major picture made by MGM. It's also the kind of film that no studio would even dare make today.
The film centers around the student life at Oceanfront High School, focusing around young lad Ponce De Leon Harper. Rock Hudson plays the school's football coach/guidance counselor/psychologist Mr. McDrew—whose nick name is “Tiger”. Angie Dickinson is the sexy substitute teacher Ponce has his eyes on, and Telly Savalas plays the police captain (essentially playing Kojak before Kojak). But why are the police in this film, you may be asking?
Well, it turns out that ole Tiger, who is married with a child, is having multiple affairs at the school—with some of the female students. However, when the young students get too attached to him, he simply kills them. Yes. It's a black comedy/sex comedy/serial killer movie. Oh, and it has a theme by The Osmonds, as if it wasn't out in wacky land enough already. This is one that I can say is worth watching, if you want to see something that you won't believe was actually made while you watch it. It's not a bad film, I liked it even, but it's hard to pin down as it's just....well....interesting.
These are a few examples of what you can find in the Warner Archive Collection, take a gander for yourself. You never know what you'll come across, be it a movie that you just absolutely have to see, or perhaps a lost favorite that you didn't know was out there. Fire up your web tuner to www.warnerarchive.com and have at it! If all else fails, just confound friends and family with “Pretty Maids all in a row.” See you next week, follow me on Twitter @ThatAndyRoss