by Allan Fish
Is there anything more frustrating in this God forsaken world than red tape, that seemingly endless commodity that allows bureaucracies, lawyers and even blood relatives of artists to stop movies being seen purely for the sake of money. In Britain I grew up with bans, some of them self-imposed, as with Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, while other films like Monte Hellman’s Cockfighter will never see the light of day in the UK due to the killing of animals during the film. But how many times do I look on film buffs’ innocent wish lists for releases on DVD and Blu Ray and I think to myself, “do you not realise this will NEVER happen. Such a person will not allow it.”
One particularly well known example is The Devils. As many doubtless know – and if you don’t, why not? – The Devils will never be seen on DVD or Blu Ray in the full director’s cut with the reinserted ‘Rape of Christ’ sequence because the killjoy right-wing idiots at Warner Brothers see it as their God given duty to keep the film in the archives away from impressionable minds. In the UK the BFI managed to wangle an agreement to get the full theatrical version at least released, but Warners blocked the director’s cut and even the theatrical release could only get a DVD (no Blu Ray). It’s a criminal shame, and yet The Devils is only the tip of the iceberg.
Take for example the legendary 1980 ITV series Hollywood which, through the tireless efforts of Kevin Brownlow, helped make silent films ‘hip’ again after decades of being seen as museum pieces. It’s a series that includes dozens of clips of rare Hollywood films of the 1910s and the 1920s, some of which at the time were in danger of being incinerated. Despite the series bringing these films to public attention again, when Network DVD tried to get Hollywood released on DVD it was made impossible by lawyers wrapping each and every clip in enough legal red tape as to make the Gordian Knot as easy to open as a toffee wrapper. Even though this series brought silent films back into vogue, the clips themselves cannot now be seen because of money issues so the series remains seen only via DVD bootlegs from past VHS and Laserdisc releases.
Then take the problem of rights issues around the world. Take for example the fate of RKO’s library of masterpieces from the 1930s and 1940. In the US they fall under the banner of Warners, and hence we have seen lovely Blu Ray restorations of King Kong and Citizen Kane. Yet one might ask why there have not been Blu Rays of the Val Lewton horrors, say, or Out of the Past, Farewell My Lovely and other noirs, or Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Or, most notably, the Astaire Rogers musicals. The answer is that the films probably couldn’t guarantee as many sales as behemoths like Kane and Kong, and any Hi Def restorations would only be able to be seen in the States. In the UK and most of Europe, the RKO films come under the banner of Universal. Universal may then get round to releasing some on Blu Ray, but then it’s often much later (Kane only just making it out recently). Remember Universal also have the rights to the Paramount library of the 1930s, 40s and much of the 1950s, and how many Paramount titles have Universal released on Blu Ray? Oh, they’ll give us Blus of Abbott and Costello, but Blus of real gold like W.C.Fields, the Marx Brothers, Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, de Mille or Von Sternberg? Not on your life. Even the Hitchcocks only got a release this year, but that was a mixture of Paramount and Universal and thus an easier pill to swallow. Note how Masters of Cinema licensed Double Indemnity and The Lost Weekend, Ruggles of Red Gap and de Mille’s Cleopatra, Paramount classics Universal had no interest in upgrading to Blu. If they can’t release Blus of Paramount stuff they have the rights to the world over, there’s no chance of Blus for RKO stuff that they don’t have rights to at home. And it can work the other way, too, so that Hellzapoppin will seemingly never be released in its native US due to some ill-defined legal quibble, but it is and has long been available on VHS and DVD in the UK.
Then there’s that other lot, supposedly ‘injured’ artists who feel films of their work have been either plagiarised or adapted against their wishes. Think of Fassbinder’s Jail Bait, which will not be released as long as writer Franz-Xaver Kroets is alive (he’s 66 as I write). Or the case of the Duvivier’s La Belle Equipe or better still, the missing Marcel Pagnol films, including masterpieces Angèle, La Femme du Boulanger and Harvest, which are blocked from release due to the kerfuffle that started up when writer Jean Giono took legal action against Pagnol and which has continued with typical stubbornness – a stubbornness our beloved site founder would applaud - among the heirs on both sides to the extent that no DVD or Blu Ray of either of that triptych seem likely before the next Mayan Long Count cycle reaches its end 5,126 years from now.
And that isn’t the final frustration. Worse still are those roadblocks of art, the heirs to artists’ copyright. How many times has Beatrice Welles stopped planned restorations and showings of Orson’s masterpieces? Or think of Bresson’s Une Femme Douce and Four Nights of a Dreamer, still held on to by Bresson’s relatives desperate to grab what cash they can out of their forefather’s genius. Then there’s Jean Eustache’s son Boris, who refuses to let any Eustache film be restored and released on DVD unless he can have a whopping 50% of the takings. Eventually, he’ll lose those rights, but not for another 30 years, in which time we will doubtless still be circulating DVDRs of La Maman et le Putain taken from the old Artificial Eye VHS of the 1990s. At the other end of that spectrum, there’s the additional nepotism that allowed and allows Francis Ford Coppola to block releases and restorations of Gance’s full masterpiece Napoleon because his father’s score was only composed for the shorter version and he will not sanction Carl Davis’ vastly superior longer score for release. That’s nepotism gone insane.
It’s all just too ridiculous for words. Yes, authors have a right to protect their work, but I genuinely feel that once that author is no longer with us, while there perhaps should be some mediation between heirs there should be a proviso that allows them to not stymie the film’s possible release purely out of personal gain when protecting artistic integrity clearly has nothing to do with it. No film should be prevented from being released by the lawyers or heirs to an artist’s estate. We already have enough problems with the ineptness of studio home video marketing departments kyboshing releases of so many great films in favour of repackagings of earlier releases ten times over. Still we have no release of either the great 1936 or respectable 1951 versions of ShowBoat? Why do I think the racial angle has something to do with its absence which, after this length of time, should perhaps be described more as a suppression? Yes, the 1936 was a Universal film and the 1951 an MGM, but bearing in mind how MGM have released DVDs of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Gaslight and Waterloo Bridge in their earlier non-MGM/Warner versions, I think the whole rights issue is merely a smokescreen. MGM inherited the rights to the 1936 film when they bought the rights to make the 1951 film. That neither have surfaced is down to their obstinate reluctance for it to do so.
There are other sufferers, too. Why have a proper DVD or Blu Ray of the MGM silent classics The Crowd, Greed, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg or The Big Parade (which I’m told is due in 2013, but I have learnt to be cynical about such announcements) when we can have another 63½th anniversary release of The Wizard of Oz. Send Toto to the pound and stick Dorothy in the cooler for another 60 years, we can stand it. Sam alone has 37 editions of the over-exposed dinosaur. Instead let’s have Blus or DVDs if the prints aren’t quite up to it of films such as Alias Nick Beal (another Paramount hidden away by Universal), Borzage’s Man’s Castle and Little Man What Now?; or other pre-code classics like Blonde Crazy, Zoo in Budapest, The Bowery (doubtless also banned for its racial elements), Clara Bow’s Call Her Savage and Hoop-la, or heck, the Betty Boop pre-code cartoons.
Likewise let’s have some foreign maestros’ masterpieces acknowledged who so far have had no English friendly releases. Where are Oshima’s seminal quartet Death by Hanging, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, Boy and The Ceremony; where are ANY Yoshidas?; Rivette’s Out 1, La Religieuse, Noroit, Duelle, Le Pont du Nord and L’Amour Fou; Masumura’s The Most Valuable Wife, A False Student, A Wife Confesses, Seisaku’s Wife, Two Wives, The Wife of Seishu Hanaokai, The Hot Little Girl and Play it Cool (a collection could be called Yasuzo and His Five Wives); Ichikawa’s Punishment Room, The Crowded Streetcar, The Hole and Goodbye Hello; Muratova’s Short Encounters, Long Farewells and The Asthenic Syndrome; Renoir’s On Purge Bébé, La Chienne and Le Nuit de Carrefour; ANY Lav Diazs; Autant-Lara’s L’Auberge Rouge, Occupe toi d’Amélie, Douce and Le Rouge et le Noir; Cayatte’s Les Amants de Vérone and Justice est Faite; Berlanga’s El Verdugo, Placido and Bienvenido Mr Marshall; Audry’s L’Ingénue Libertine, Olivia, Huis Clos and Mitsou; Duvivier”s David Golder, Poil de Carotte, Un Carnet de Bal, La Fin du Jour, Panique and Voici le Temps des Assassins (leaving aside La Belle Equipe which will never be seen); Pabst’s Kameradschaft and Westfront 1918; Gosho’s Where Chimneys are Seen, An Inn at Osaka and An Osaka Story; l’Herbier’s El Dorado, L’Inhumaine and Le Diable au Coeur, Yoshimura’s The Ball at the Anjo House, Sisters of Nishijin and Niigata Bamboo Doll; Verneuil’s Forbidden Fruit, People of No Importance and The Sheep Has Five Legs; ANY Alan Clarke TV plays; the list is endless. Please, let us sort this omnishambles out, or I’ll set Malcolm Tucker on the lot of ‘em.