Posted by David Kalat on December 29, 2012
It is customary at year’s end to publish various “Best of” lists, to sum up The Year That Was as only a list can. In that spirit, I offer up my own Best Videos of 2012. These are the discs that genuinely made my heart flutter and my pulse quicken, which I purchased the instant I heard they existed and watched the instant they arrived. This is not so much a Best Of list as it is a tour through the inside of my head:
BUSTER KEATON AT MGM TRIPLE FEATURE
The three titles on this set are: Parlor Bedroom and Bath, Speak Easily, and Passionate Plumber. In other words—2/3 of this set has been available before in wretched quality PD editions and 100% of the set consists of movies that even Buster’s fans thinks he shouldn’t have made. And I’m picking it as my Best of 2012.
But that’s the genius of Warner Archive—the DVD market is collapsing at large, and even archival releases of this highest profile have trouble. There’s no way the mainstream marketplace would support this—even among the natural audience for archival releases, these movies are hard to sell. But thanks to Warner Archive’s oblivious disregard for market realities, people like me who enjoy even Buster’s rougher outings can enjoy a beautiful print of Passionate Plumber, in all its gonzo glory. (For the record—the rest of Buster’s MGM talkies are also available from Warner Archive as well, in individual editions).
THE VITAPHONE COMEDY COLLECTION VOLUME ONE 1932-1934
What this is, y’see, is 352 minutes of comedy shorts starring either Roscoe Arbuckle or Shemp Howard. I’d seen some of these on appalling bootlegs before but getting this in a proper DVD (thanks Warner Archive, yet again!) means I now own this:
Yes, that’s Jimmy Stewart, on the start of his Hollywood career, when no one yet realized his prospects and figured the best thing to do with this gangly stutterer was to drop him into a slapstick two-reeler so he could get slapped around by a Stooge!
Speaking of Stooges:
THE THREE STOOGES: RARE TREASURES FROM THE COLUMBIA PICTURES VAULT
This has been available before, as a bonus disc included in a Three Stooges box set, but because most Stooge-maniacs bought the individual sets as they came out, and didn’t feel like double-dipping, there was strong clamoring for a standalone release, which Columbia finally granted this year.
Now, there have been collections before that billed themselves as Three Stooges Rarities or some similarly phrased notion. Most of those previous collections focused on the usual suspects of the Three Stooges’ public domain shorts—the exact opposite of rarities. Well, take note: when Columbia says this is a set of rarities, they mean it.
Most of this material will be absolutely new to even the most ardent and hardcore Stooge-a-phile. There are lots of solo shorts with Shemp (there’s no overlap with the Vitaphone set—Shemp was a prolific comedian who made solo shorts for more than one studio), solo shorts with Joe Besser and Joe DeRita, cartoons in which Stooge caricatures appear, and a brace of feature films.
CHARLIE CHASE SHORTS VOLUME 1
Well, this is cheating. It wasn’t even released in 2012 at all—it comes out next week. And Sony doesn’t seem to be able to spell Charley Chase correctly. But indulge me—and let me tell you the story behind this.
Back in 2008, I was producing a box set of Chase’s early comedies, and I was trying to coordinate the efforts of several different media companies so that we together, collectively, presented the bulk of Chase’s extant body of work to the public and with a minimum of double-dipping and overlap.
The original plan was this: I was producing Becoming Charley Chase, a 4 disc set that focused on Chase’s earliest films. Then, between them, Milestone and Kino were going to present Chase’s 2 reel silent shorts from Hal Roach. The talkie Hal Roach shorts were intended to come out courtesy Serge Bromberg, and the Columbia talkies were going to come from Columbia/Sony.
But it all fell apart. I got Becoming Charley Chase out, and Kino produced two sets of Hal Roach Chase silent shorts, but Milestone’s Cut to the Chase got stalled for years thanks to the untimely death of Rusty Casselton, and only just arrived in stores this year (and with an unfortunately heavy overlap with Kino’s sets). The Hal Roach talkies are MIA. And when Sony’s DVD release of Buster Keaton’s Columbia talkies sank like a rock, the corporate support for continued comedy sets evaporated.
Then a miracle happened—some Chase shorts were scheduled to be screened at Cinecon, and Sony was obliged to strike new prints to accommodate the rental. As routine archive policy, when the materials were accessed to make the prints, digital copies were mastered as well. So Sony found themselves with digital masters of several Chase shorts which they’d already paid for—making MOD discs available through their website didn’t take any extra effort or expense, so it was really a no-brainer.
There are still Chase Columbias waiting to see the light of day, and the Hal Roach shorts haven’t been officially released on home video ever in any format, but we can grateful for what we have (and hope that sales of the various Chase sets currently available help prove the viability of future releases)
BUGS BUNNY SUPERSTAR
Here’s another Warner Archive argument-ender.
On paper, this may sound enticing: Orson Welles narrates a documentary about the origins of the Looney Tunes, with archival footage from behind the scenes at Termite Terrace laced between selected Warner Brothers cartoons. But in practice even I’ll admit this is slapdash—it seems like a half-finished documentary narrated by Friz Freleng ran into some kind of production difficulty and Orson Welles got roped in to add some additional framing narration to spackle over the gaps. Which is actually kind of appropriate, when you think about it, given Welles’ own history with unfinished films and the haphazard air at Termite Terrace. Still, this is a bit of a missed opportunity. Serious cartoon fans will already have these shorts in other collections (maybe even Blu-Ray), and will probably find the behind the scenes material unsatisfying—it’s a long tease, an appetizer to a menu never served.
That being said, I have powerfully vivid memories of my parents taking me to see this when I was a small child. I thought it might have been a dream, or a badly remembered experience of some other experience, until I got this disc and was overwhelmed by nostalgia.
Like the Buster Keaton set above, this is Warner Archive marketing something that probably I alone care that much about. In any business model other than MOD (Made On Demand) DVD, it wouldn’t make any sense.
JOLLY FROLICS COLLECTION
Speaking of cartoons, UPA Studios had the distinction of making high-art ‘toons that won awards and influenced others, but weren’t the laugh-getting trendsetters of Warner, MGM, or Disney. Their influence is palpable—you can see the moment in Looney Tunes when suddenly the artists loosened up and started making more abstract backgrounds, to compete with the UPA upstarts—but they’ve never been Boomerang mainstays. In fact, for a too long, they’ve been out of public view altogether—until TCM brought out this sumptuous box set, with bonus material by Leonard Maltin and Jerry Beck (who are precisely the two people who should have been tapped to do this—nailed it).
RUGGLES OF RED GAP – MASTERS OF CINEMA BLU RAY
Lord love Masters of Cinema. If you live in the US and don’t have region-free capabilities, then you may not know of them—I know they’d be annoyed at being called the UK version of Criterion Collection, but that’s the most efficient way of describing them. Ruggles is one of my favorite screwball classics, and features one of the best single scenes in all of talkie comedy.
I’ve run this clip before, and I promise I’ll run it again some day. Here you have one of the great screwballs, directed by Leo McCarey at the height of his powers and an all-star cast, and then all of a sudden supporting players Roland Young and Leila Hyams for no apparent reason commandeer the stage and steal the show.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS – OLIVE BLU RAY
I’ve been giving a lot of love to Warner Archive this week, but there’s another label that deserves attention. In case you haven’t heard of them yet, Olive Films is an indie label focused on bringing the best of arthouse, foreign, and archival films to Blu-Ray (and DVD). Plus, they’re based in Illinois—go home team! They are what I wanted All Day to be—expect they appear successful, rather than ramshackle. They have a fabulous, eclectic catalog—to quote my daughter, “I want these things in my life.”. I still treasure my DVD edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers—it was signed by Kevin McCarthy—but it’s gonna spend the rest of its existence on the shelf because I’ll be watching this gorgeous high-definition version instead.
BOUND BLU RAY
Just because most of the things on this list are black and white oldies doesn’t mean my tastes are limited to that. In fact, Blu-Rays of more recent movies are a better use of the format. And there aren’t many filmmakers more aware of the intricacies and textures of modern cinema than the Wachowskis.
I first saw Bound on laserdisc, and have been patiently waiting for it to show up on DVD, but for some reason this fun early work by the makers of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas became as obscure as some of the lost treasures of the 1920s and 30s I’m usually hunting. Its appearance on Blu-Ray is way overdue, and very welcome. Jennifer Tilley plays a mob wife who starts to scheme against her dangerous spouse once she strikes up a lesbian affair with handy(wo)man Gina Gershon. It’s got the attitude of a 1940s film noir but handles content no 40s film would have dared, and does so with absolute swaggering confidence.
GOJIRA – CRITERION BLU RAY
OK, maybe it’s a bit egotistical to call this out as a “Best of” when I worked on it, but so what? My friends at Criterion completely killed with this one, and I’m super-proud of having contributed to this definitive presentation of such an important, influential, and beloved film. And, just as an aside, I used to say that my commentaries on this set represented my “retirement” from the audio commentary business. But I may just be getting back in the game for one last big score—keep watching this space through 2013 for details.
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