The Universal Vault: Ruggles of Red Gap

Following the tendentious example of the Warner Archive, Universal and MGM have quietly started their own DVD burn-on-demand services. With seemingly no publicity, a dozen MGM titles became available through Amazon‘s CreateSpace in December (press release here), with DVD-Rs including Sidney Lumet’s The Group (listed at $19.98, discounted to $17.99). Twenty-five Universal titles became available this month, with the same lack of advertising, and also made available through Amazon’s CreateSpace (press release here). Their titles include Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, Mitchell Leisen’s Death Takes a Holiday, Abraham Polonsky’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap, which I purchased at $20, only to have it fall to $15.99 a few days later. The whole MOD (movies on demand) process is highly controversial in the cinephile community, as it uses inferior media (burned DVD-Rs instead of pressed DVDs), generally charge a higher price, and take little care with the transfers (many are interlaced and non-anamorphic). The quality varies widely depending on the sources that are used, but the price point remains the same (I consult the Home Theater Forum and the Criterion Forum for reports on individual transfers).

On the other hand, many of these films would be impossible to see otherwise, as Dave Kehr’s review of early musicals available from the Warner Archive smartly attests. It’s clearly a way for studios to squeeze whatever money they can out of the DVD market before streaming takes over, for titles that would never turn a profit on a normal release. It’s understandable, but doesn’t make for great product. But I often can’t help myself anyway, and eagerly laid down the money for Ruggles, one of my favorite films, which I’ll pair with Criterion’s sure-to-be definitive release of McCarey’s transcendent Make Way For Tomorrow next month.

I already owned a French version of Ruggles, from BAC Films, so there was an easy comparison to make on how Universal fared here. And the answer is: not well. Universal clearly has superior material to work with, as the contrast is greater and the blacks deeper than the milky grays of the French release. With still images, the Vault edition wins out (BAC Films is top, Universal Vault is bottom). It’s sharper, and contains more room at the top and bottom of the frame:

Unfortunately, the transfer is interlaced, which makes it unwatchable on my computer (see combing in the image below), and of a lower-resolution on my progressive scan DVD-player. It’s truly a shame, because the material they’re working with is superb, and if they had the inclination to pay for a progressive transfer, it would be a beautiful DVD. But because it has been dumped into the MOD program, they used whatever old master they had on hand.

This is vexing, for it contains one of Charles Laughton’s greatest performances (and his own personal favorite) as the loyal British butler turned meek American individualist Marmaduke Ruggles. It’s a marvel of vocal and facial control – he delivers his dialogue in a honey-rich tone and sing-song delivery that he matches with cuckoo-clock eyes and an aw shucks smile. His posture arcs from deference to independence in McCarey’s swiftly orchestrated hour and a half, which swings from Laughton’s commanding recitation of the Gettysburg Address to Roland Young’s stuttering Earl seducing a lady with a bass drum kick. It’s hilarious and vulgar and sublime. The best America will ever have to offer.

If Universal had a better sense of their library, they could have easily licensed the rights to the film to the likes of Criterion or Kino, who could have put the time and effort into producing a superior DVD for this grievously underrated gem. But it airs on February 23rd at 8PM on trusty old TCM, so you can judge for yourself. Unless it happens to screen at a repertory theater near you, that’s how I would recommend watching it.

This is not to disparage all of the titles in the Universal Vault catalog, as with the Warner Archive, quality is going to vary wildly. The early word at the Home Theater Forum’s thread on the Vault Series (after you sift through all the fun carping about MOD itself) is that The Chalk Garden is non-anamorphic and interlaced, but  every other title has been received fairly well. The List of Adrian Messenger, The Brass Bottle, Gambit, Resurrection, and Kitten With a Whip were all confirmed as anamorphic (16×9) transfers with decent color and sharpness. House of the Seven Gables and the movie version of Dragnet have also received good reviews. I’d keep checking back there if there’s a title you’re interested in acquiring.

With the advent of these MGM and Universal MOD programs, burn-on-demand discs will the bane and blessing of a film lover’s existence for a few years to come. For every forgotten gem and historical oddity that these archives will unveil with crisp efficiency, there will be a marred masterpiece to keep the internet forums’ teeth gnashing. But we’ll keep buying and complaining, because there are no other (legal) options.

6 Responses The Universal Vault: Ruggles of Red Gap
Posted By Patricia : January 26, 2010 5:28 pm

A couple of summers ago the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran “Ruggles of Red Gap” in the afternoon and I was anxious to share it with my daughter. At every commercial break (oh, how I’ve been spoiled by TCM) the announcer intoned “We now return to “The Ruggles of Red Gap” – that would be an entirely different movie. Anyone for a sequel?

Posted By Patricia : January 26, 2010 5:28 pm

A couple of summers ago the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) ran “Ruggles of Red Gap” in the afternoon and I was anxious to share it with my daughter. At every commercial break (oh, how I’ve been spoiled by TCM) the announcer intoned “We now return to “The Ruggles of Red Gap” – that would be an entirely different movie. Anyone for a sequel?

Posted By Eric P : January 28, 2010 9:27 am

hey, for the interlaced stuff, download a program called VLC, it’s free and is available for windows or mac, you can filter out interlaced stuff using a variety of methods which look natural.

Posted By Eric P : January 28, 2010 9:27 am

hey, for the interlaced stuff, download a program called VLC, it’s free and is available for windows or mac, you can filter out interlaced stuff using a variety of methods which look natural.

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 28, 2010 9:35 am

Hi Eric. I actually use VLC and am aware that interlacing can be blended using it. What I was pointing out was that Universal should have produced a disc where this wasn’t necessary. Also, using de-interlacing tools on players tends to reduce the resolution and clarity of the image. So you’re right, that’s the only way to watch this disc, I just wish it wasn’t the case!

Posted By R. Emmet Sweeney : January 28, 2010 9:35 am

Hi Eric. I actually use VLC and am aware that interlacing can be blended using it. What I was pointing out was that Universal should have produced a disc where this wasn’t necessary. Also, using de-interlacing tools on players tends to reduce the resolution and clarity of the image. So you’re right, that’s the only way to watch this disc, I just wish it wasn’t the case!

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