The Warner Archive: First Impressions

once-upon-a-honeymoon1

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 wichita1oddities. 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).

westbound1These 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 once-upon-a-honeymoon-4didn’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…”

once-upon-a-honeymoon-2This 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.

25 Responses The Warner Archive: First Impressions
Posted By Al Lowe : April 7, 2009 3:19 pm

I have three of three of those movies on VHS – Bohawni Junction, Mannequin and Along the Great Divide.

Spencer Tracy and Joan Crawford seem like an odd pair in Mannequin. There’s not the easy chemistry he had with Hepburn and she had with Gable. Someone has pointed out that Tracy was not a big star yet when he made this. That happened before the film’s release, with Captains Courageous. I would have liked to see Tracy co-star with Bette Davis more often; there apparently was some discussion of his doing Dark Victory with her but it never happened.

The plot of Along the Great Divide was used several times for episodes of the Warner TV series in the 50s. I saw it the other day on Cheyenne on the Encore Western Channel. I like it but then I like most of Raoul Walsh’s films. I thought Walter Brennan was particularly good.

I don’t remember much of Bohawni Junction except that Ava Gardner was very, very good and she seemed happy to be working with such a good director.

Posted By Al Lowe : April 7, 2009 3:19 pm

I have three of three of those movies on VHS – Bohawni Junction, Mannequin and Along the Great Divide.

Spencer Tracy and Joan Crawford seem like an odd pair in Mannequin. There’s not the easy chemistry he had with Hepburn and she had with Gable. Someone has pointed out that Tracy was not a big star yet when he made this. That happened before the film’s release, with Captains Courageous. I would have liked to see Tracy co-star with Bette Davis more often; there apparently was some discussion of his doing Dark Victory with her but it never happened.

The plot of Along the Great Divide was used several times for episodes of the Warner TV series in the 50s. I saw it the other day on Cheyenne on the Encore Western Channel. I like it but then I like most of Raoul Walsh’s films. I thought Walter Brennan was particularly good.

I don’t remember much of Bohawni Junction except that Ava Gardner was very, very good and she seemed happy to be working with such a good director.

Posted By s.w.a.c. : April 7, 2009 8:40 pm

Darn it all, they’re not available to us classic-film-starved Canucks!

Then again, one of my first choices would have been the less-than-classic camp take on the pulp fave Doc Savage. But I could really use a copy of Westbound, among others.

Posted By s.w.a.c. : April 7, 2009 8:40 pm

Darn it all, they’re not available to us classic-film-starved Canucks!

Then again, one of my first choices would have been the less-than-classic camp take on the pulp fave Doc Savage. But I could really use a copy of Westbound, among others.

Posted By Chris in Vegas : April 7, 2009 10:18 pm

What I still find both depressing and unbelievable is that there are films starring the likes of Cary Grant that aren’t available today. When a popular actor like him isn’t fully represented, what chance does an actor or director or studio who isn’t as well followed have?

I guess this is why I still have a VHS player, and a tape player, and… you get the point. By the time a lot of these show up on dvd, the next big technology will level the playing field again.

Posted By Chris in Vegas : April 7, 2009 10:18 pm

What I still find both depressing and unbelievable is that there are films starring the likes of Cary Grant that aren’t available today. When a popular actor like him isn’t fully represented, what chance does an actor or director or studio who isn’t as well followed have?

I guess this is why I still have a VHS player, and a tape player, and… you get the point. By the time a lot of these show up on dvd, the next big technology will level the playing field again.

Posted By Raquelle : April 8, 2009 11:05 am

I think the Warner Bros. Archive is going to revolutionize the DVD business and really going to expand the canon of films accessible to classic film fans like myself. Although, I wish they would be available on Netflix. I like to watch a film before I buy it.

Posted By Raquelle : April 8, 2009 11:05 am

I think the Warner Bros. Archive is going to revolutionize the DVD business and really going to expand the canon of films accessible to classic film fans like myself. Although, I wish they would be available on Netflix. I like to watch a film before I buy it.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 8, 2009 1:37 pm

Thanks for the info, Al. I think I might dip into the Walshes.

And s.w.a.c., I think Warner is working on international shipping. In a chat with the Home Theater Forum, a Warner rep said it should be happening “soon”. Whatever that may mean…

Chris, I agree. Blu-Ray is going to be far worse that Standard Def in the scope of their releases, because films without flawless mastering material will be much tougher to sell. Hopefully downloads will be the solution down the line…

Raquelle, I’m not as hopeful as you are, but I’d be happy to be wrong. ClassicFlix.com claims that they’ll have 115 of the Archive series available to rent. For some reason they cut off films made after ’69.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 8, 2009 1:37 pm

Thanks for the info, Al. I think I might dip into the Walshes.

And s.w.a.c., I think Warner is working on international shipping. In a chat with the Home Theater Forum, a Warner rep said it should be happening “soon”. Whatever that may mean…

Chris, I agree. Blu-Ray is going to be far worse that Standard Def in the scope of their releases, because films without flawless mastering material will be much tougher to sell. Hopefully downloads will be the solution down the line…

Raquelle, I’m not as hopeful as you are, but I’d be happy to be wrong. ClassicFlix.com claims that they’ll have 115 of the Archive series available to rent. For some reason they cut off films made after ’69.

Posted By Rick : April 8, 2009 7:45 pm

Have a feeling that Warners will be getting a lot of feedback soon, since initial orders from the “Archives” are starting to arrive in mailboxes. Like you, I went for a triple dip: Scaramouche (1923), The Big House and Wichita. Of the two early titles, Scaramouche looks fine (sounds fine too, with the rich TCM-sponsored music score), but The Big House was problematic, looking pretty fuzzy, like an old VHS. Closeups were okay, but group and long shots simply don’t have the quality you expect from DVD … and the prison riot scenes really NEED that clarity! Of course I’m comparing with other Warner DVDs (vintage MGMs from their Forbidden Hollywood and TCM Archives series, etc.), always a treat to see pristine quality prints (I have a video projector, so like to replicate a “theater experience”!). But apparently, some of the titles being offered in the Warner Archive are simply dusted from old video masters (replete with a long-abandoned Turner logo). Scaramouche was never issued on video before, so I guess it comes from a fresher source, and as you indicate, Wichita looks fine in anamorphic widescreen. There’s a review over at DVDTalk.com for Private Lives (1931), which appears to have the same issues as The Big House. Also notice that the Warner website has posted a disclaimer on all the Archive titles, noting that these films have “NOT been remastered or restored”, so I guess they’re aware of the issue. Of course I’m grateful that these titles are available, but feel that the price tag will probably deter me and many DVD collectors from spending too freely for titles which simply don’t have at least the quality standards that we’re used to. At any rate, my next order will probably avoid early 30’s titles until I hear more feedback (Bhowani Junction sounds like a good bet in widescreen!). P.S. Once Upon a Honeymoon was released as a Region 2 DVD in the U.K., and the quality looks about as good as the screen grabs you provided.

Posted By Rick : April 8, 2009 7:45 pm

Have a feeling that Warners will be getting a lot of feedback soon, since initial orders from the “Archives” are starting to arrive in mailboxes. Like you, I went for a triple dip: Scaramouche (1923), The Big House and Wichita. Of the two early titles, Scaramouche looks fine (sounds fine too, with the rich TCM-sponsored music score), but The Big House was problematic, looking pretty fuzzy, like an old VHS. Closeups were okay, but group and long shots simply don’t have the quality you expect from DVD … and the prison riot scenes really NEED that clarity! Of course I’m comparing with other Warner DVDs (vintage MGMs from their Forbidden Hollywood and TCM Archives series, etc.), always a treat to see pristine quality prints (I have a video projector, so like to replicate a “theater experience”!). But apparently, some of the titles being offered in the Warner Archive are simply dusted from old video masters (replete with a long-abandoned Turner logo). Scaramouche was never issued on video before, so I guess it comes from a fresher source, and as you indicate, Wichita looks fine in anamorphic widescreen. There’s a review over at DVDTalk.com for Private Lives (1931), which appears to have the same issues as The Big House. Also notice that the Warner website has posted a disclaimer on all the Archive titles, noting that these films have “NOT been remastered or restored”, so I guess they’re aware of the issue. Of course I’m grateful that these titles are available, but feel that the price tag will probably deter me and many DVD collectors from spending too freely for titles which simply don’t have at least the quality standards that we’re used to. At any rate, my next order will probably avoid early 30’s titles until I hear more feedback (Bhowani Junction sounds like a good bet in widescreen!). P.S. Once Upon a Honeymoon was released as a Region 2 DVD in the U.K., and the quality looks about as good as the screen grabs you provided.

Posted By Joe Dante : April 8, 2009 10:24 pm

Is it just my tv, or are we watching, on April 8, the first TCM broadcast of an anamorphically squeezed movie (LOVERS AND LOLLIPOPS) that can be unsqueezed on 16×9 tv screens?!
Is this intentional, and does it look squeezed on regular 4×3 monitors?
In any case it looks pretty darn good on my 16×9 Sony, and might be the answer to TCM’s reluctance to broadcast in HD (since so much of the library has yet to be upconverted).

Posted By Joe Dante : April 8, 2009 10:24 pm

Is it just my tv, or are we watching, on April 8, the first TCM broadcast of an anamorphically squeezed movie (LOVERS AND LOLLIPOPS) that can be unsqueezed on 16×9 tv screens?!
Is this intentional, and does it look squeezed on regular 4×3 monitors?
In any case it looks pretty darn good on my 16×9 Sony, and might be the answer to TCM’s reluctance to broadcast in HD (since so much of the library has yet to be upconverted).

Posted By Laura : April 9, 2009 11:43 pm

I watched PRIVATE LIVES earlier this week and was quite pleased with the quality, considering its 1931 vintage. There were a couple minor visual glitches, and yes, restoration probably would have sharpened up the images some, but on the whole I thought it was a very good print. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

There are definitely pros and cons to the program but on the whole, I join Raquelle in being an optimist about the Archives. The ultimate ability to own any desired film in their library is a dizzying thought…

Best wishes,
Laura

Posted By Laura : April 9, 2009 11:43 pm

I watched PRIVATE LIVES earlier this week and was quite pleased with the quality, considering its 1931 vintage. There were a couple minor visual glitches, and yes, restoration probably would have sharpened up the images some, but on the whole I thought it was a very good print. I thoroughly enjoyed watching it.

There are definitely pros and cons to the program but on the whole, I join Raquelle in being an optimist about the Archives. The ultimate ability to own any desired film in their library is a dizzying thought…

Best wishes,
Laura

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 10, 2009 10:02 am

Thanks for all the info, everyone.

And Joe, I didn’t see the broadcast myself, but from talking to someone who has, it appears that “Lovers and Lollipops” was squished in 4×3. I think they aired an anamorphic master without unsqueezing it for 4×3. So probably just a mistake and not an indication of future 16×9 screenings. I have not spoken with anyone from TCM about this, but this is my understanding of what happened.

And if you are the Joe Dante who directed the wonderful “Matinee”, among so many others, then many thanks for stopping by! I’m a great admirer of your work. And if not, thanks for reading anyway!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : April 10, 2009 10:02 am

Thanks for all the info, everyone.

And Joe, I didn’t see the broadcast myself, but from talking to someone who has, it appears that “Lovers and Lollipops” was squished in 4×3. I think they aired an anamorphic master without unsqueezing it for 4×3. So probably just a mistake and not an indication of future 16×9 screenings. I have not spoken with anyone from TCM about this, but this is my understanding of what happened.

And if you are the Joe Dante who directed the wonderful “Matinee”, among so many others, then many thanks for stopping by! I’m a great admirer of your work. And if not, thanks for reading anyway!

Posted By Kurt : April 13, 2009 1:50 pm

I am ecstatic over the new Warner Archive. What a brillaint concept. So far I’ve purchased four titles (Interrupted Melody, So This Is Love, Honky Tonk and This Woman Is Dangerous) and I’m anxiously looking forward to the next list of 20. My one disappointment is that the discs will not play on a machine that is a player/recorder. I feel that at $20 a pop they should play on all equipment. I understand that distributors are afraid of piracy but there are already sites on line where many of these titles are available for less having been burned from copies made off TCM. Folks willing to cough up $20 are true collectors and not terribly interested in making a killing in the mailorder DVD market. Oh well, at least I’m able to play them on another machine in what I now call my “Theatre East”

Posted By Kurt : April 13, 2009 1:50 pm

I am ecstatic over the new Warner Archive. What a brillaint concept. So far I’ve purchased four titles (Interrupted Melody, So This Is Love, Honky Tonk and This Woman Is Dangerous) and I’m anxiously looking forward to the next list of 20. My one disappointment is that the discs will not play on a machine that is a player/recorder. I feel that at $20 a pop they should play on all equipment. I understand that distributors are afraid of piracy but there are already sites on line where many of these titles are available for less having been burned from copies made off TCM. Folks willing to cough up $20 are true collectors and not terribly interested in making a killing in the mailorder DVD market. Oh well, at least I’m able to play them on another machine in what I now call my “Theatre East”

Posted By Kurt : May 17, 2009 1:01 am

Just read that TCM and Movies Unlimited are going to be selling the Warner Archive titles. Does anyone know if these will be the same “burned” DVD-R transfers or will they be professionally stamped discs?

Posted By Kurt : May 17, 2009 1:01 am

Just read that TCM and Movies Unlimited are going to be selling the Warner Archive titles. Does anyone know if these will be the same “burned” DVD-R transfers or will they be professionally stamped discs?

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : September 29, 2009 2:02 pm

[...] (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced [...]

Posted By TCM’s Classic Movie Blog : September 29, 2009 2:02 pm

[...] (1944) and Anthony Mann’s The Tall Target (1951). After my first purchase, documented here, I’ve tried to stay away from the service, what with its un-restored prints and overpriced [...]

Posted By Larry S : December 3, 2015 8:14 pm

Recently I have noticed many stereotype images and bad racial remarks about Native Americans in your programs and advertising for upcoming films . It seems that these remarks are increasing recently on TCM. Maybe some respect for the First Nations People would be the way to go.

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