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Classic movies made to order

Among the initial Warner Archive offerings is the 1987 ''Orphans'' with Albert Finney (left) and Matthew Modine. Among the initial Warner Archive offerings is the 1987 ''Orphans'' with Albert Finney (left) and Matthew Modine.
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 28, 2009
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Bless you, George Feltenstein. His title may be on the dull side - senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video - but any classic movie freak who has followed the home-video business over the past couple of decades has much to thank him for.

For one thing, Feltenstein's a fellow traveler; loves old movies, always has. He spent a decade at MGM/UA Home Video putting the studios' crown jewels onto VHS and laserdisc, then came over to WB and has been pouring the legendary vault - which includes not just Warner Bros. classics but the RKO and pre-1986 MGM library as well - onto DVD. He's forward-thinking, embracing Blu-ray with a vengeance: this year such four-star specials as a cleaned-up "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" and a fully restored "North By Northwest" come to the format.

That's great, but the Warner Archive Collection (www.wbshop.com), which Feltenstein launched this week, is a technical breakthrough that may turn out to be revolutionary. What's the Warner Archive Collection? Essentially, a website that enables point-to-point DVD manufacture - micro-releasing, if you will. Until now, Warner Home Video has given a proper DVD release to about 1,200 titles from its library but no more because: A) with DVD sales declining, there's not a whole lot of demand for, say, the 1938 James Stewart/Margaret Sullavan romantic drama "The Shopworn Angel"; and B) there isn't enough room on retail or library shelves to hold an entire archive.

But what if you could order "The Shopworn Angel" online and have Warner Home Video burn and send you one copy? Or the Greta Garbo silent classic "Love," or Francis Ford Coppola's pre-"Godfather" gem "The Rain People"? That's what the Archive Collection is: 150 movies never before on DVD available for $19.95 on DVD or $14.95 as a digital download. The corporate announcement confirms that the collection will add 20 titles per month and stand at more than 300 by year's end. The bigger vision, one that's well within reach, is to eventually make the entire Warner library - including films and TV shows - available to the public.

This is sheer genius. Warner has figured out a way to open the vault with minimal overhead and maximum satisfaction to the individual movie collector. The launch of the archive brings us several steps closer to the home omnitheater ideal, in which any movie that has ever been made can be drawn down and seen. It's a librarian's dream, or a historian's, or a film lover's.

Are these the greatest movies ever made? Nope; otherwise they'd get the standard mass release. But some of the archive's initial offerings are quite a bit better than good - Frank Borzage's "Three Comrades" (with the enchanting Sullavan again); the opulent silent "Scaramouche" with Ramon Navarro; the twisty 1987 stage adaptation "Orphans," with its big acting from Albert Finney and Matthew Modine. Clark Gable fans especially get to rejoice, as a lot of his early MGM work ("Possessed," "Men in White," "Dance Fools Dance") is now available on DVD, as is the fascinating 1949 obscurity "Lost Boundaries," based on the true story of a New England African-American family that passed for white. You can vote at the archive site for films you'd like to see added to the list, too.

All in all, it's a signal development in film access and preservation that should be emulated - and quickly - by those companies who hold other major libraries. Thanks, George - you just gave us the future of the past.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movies.

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