The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Lost in the Stars? Not Now.
In an increasingly digitized and cross-referenced world, we may assume that everything is available all of the time, but that’s not always the case. I, naively it turns out, thought that just about every feature film legally available for home viewing was available in DVD format on sites like Netflix. But it turns out that as new digital formats demand a continual re-mastering of archival materials and have to reach a broad enough market to turn a profit, many of the feature films that were available as VHS tapes never survived into the DVD era. I found that out when I came across a recent article in the Kansas City Star describing the Warner Archive Collection, which for the past two years has made it possible for film buffs to purchase made-on-demand DVDs of movies that have long been out of circulation. Back in 2009, and around the time the market for DVDs of new films began to slump, the Warner Archive Collection began to make available custom DVDs of MGM, RKO, and Warner Bros. films that had been locked away in vaults for decades. These included silent movies from the 1920s, obscure melodramas like Chained (1934), starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable and The Learning Tree(1969), Gordon Park’s first feature film, which was among the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress in 1989 to be preserved in the National Film Registry for all time.
Clip of Chained (1934), courtesy of Warner Film Archive.
With 6,800 titles in its archive, but only 1,200 released since the DVD market began in 1997, Warner has plenty of material to work with. And soon other studios, including Universal and Turner Classics, followed suit, reviving classic horror films, bygone star vehicles, and cinema curiosities to niche audiences. Movies disappear for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, demands made by rights holders can keep movies in legal limbo and out of circulation for years. Movie stars, popular genres, cultural fantasies, and story lines can all fall out of favor. As tastes change, and once licensing or rental profits fall, studios lose their motivation to keep film history alive. But now that studios see new ways to monetize archives of old VHS master tapes by making custom DVDs and selling them directly to consumers, cutting out any middlemen, films long gone are no longer left for dead. If you ever wanted to watch Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis in the 1932 drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing or Ronald Reagan, playing Secret Service agent Brass Bancroft in B-movies filled with fistfights, car chases, train wrecks, and aerial stunts, now’s your chance.
Clip of Brass Bancroft of the Secret Service Mysteries, courtesy of Warner Film Archive.