New DVDs 6-3-2008

That perfectly framed shot above is from Richard Fleischer’s “Mandingo,” which has just come out in a very watchable edition from an independent outfit, Legend Films , that’s begun licensing some of the Paramount library titles that Viacom-CBS-Paramount no longer seems interested in handling. They’ve announced 32 titles, among them “Money from Home,” the 1953 Martin and Lewis film that was mysteriously missing from Paramount’s excellent Martin and Lewis box sets (were these the last hurrah of Paramount’s home video division?).

And also out this week, from MGM’s suddenly revitalized DVD division, is Blake Edwards’ sublime “What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?” — one of the most perfectly constructed of Edwards’ films, and one of his darkest. More ruminations in the NY Times.

Still hard to say what’s going on with the Universal vault fire. I’ve heard theories ranging from major cover-up (an archivist from another studio asks why was Universal in such unseemly haste to assure its stockholders that nothing significant was lost, even though there was no time to make a thorough inventory), to “it’s no big deal” — that “only a few prints of older films were lost.” Nikki Finke is reporting that Universal lost “100 per cent of archived video prints kept in the so-called ‘video vault’ on the lot,” but also that “Universal has already committed itself to making new prints.” Good news, that, but Ms. Finke goes on to note that “Universal does have an extraordinary history as a leader in film preservation,” which makes one wonder where she’s getting her information. Perhaps GE-NBC-Universal will take this as a wake-up call and get its library in order. And perhaps, in the near future, pigs will fly.

Update:  Michael Cieply talks to Bob O’Neil, Universal’s vice president of image assets and preservation, in the New York Times:

Mr. O’Neil said the company planned to strike new prints of the films, which include classic works by directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, and many of Universal’s horror movies. But he said the process would be slow, given that only about a half-dozen film laboratories are equipped to work with the archived material from which the new prints would be taken.

16 comments to New DVDs 6-3-2008

  • mark Johnson - London

    Dave – I would like to draw attention to Robin Wood’s excellent chapter on “Mandingo”, in his very worthwhile book – Sexual Politics & Narrative Film, from 1998. Anybody interested in “Mandingo”, would be well advised to seek it out.

  • Herman Scobie

    I remember reading back in the seventies that Bergman entertained his cast and crew after a day’s shooting (not sure of what) with a screening of Mandingo. The report didn’t explain why it was selected or how the viewers responded. (Hey, Liv, look how Dick framed that shot!) Since Dino produced both Mandingo and Serpent’s Egg, perhaps that’s the connection.

    Mandingo may be the best of Fleischer’s post-1959 films, though I have a weakness for The Last Run, flawed though it may be. Fleischer comes off as wimp in Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, but he knew something about pacing, shot composition, and handling actors–though not Rex Harrison. Even Joan Collins is good in The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing.

    While Fleischer’s reputation seems to be on the upswing, what about, returning to Mandingo, James Mason? Has there ever been a more underrated, taken-for-granted actor?

  • There’s no question that Universal was spinning this like crazy and trying to keep the news that that the prints as well as video material had burned out of the media. I guess they knew that it would leak out soon but that the media wouldn’t make a big deal out of it if they didn’t, which is proving to be true. Look at how credulously the NY Times printed the Universal Music Group spokesman’s comment that only “a small number of tapes and other material by ‘obscure artists from the 1940s and ’50s,’ including the pop singers Lenny Dee and Georgie Shaw, had been damaged.” As if, like, WHEW! Is that all? What a relief! It’s just a question of whether the MSM’s emphasis on whether the theme park will open on time over the irreplaceable cultural loss is due to cluelessness or corporate logrolling.

  • nicolas saada

    I think that the best post 1959 Fleischer films are quite numerous. To me, his masterwork remains “the new centurions”in 1973 (one of George C scott finest performances), owned by Columbia, and I hope it will get a dvd release. “1O rillington Place” is impressive, and “Soylent Green” is depressively pertinent today. “The Last Run” is very good.

  • jbryant

    Other fine post-1959 Fleischers, IMO, include Barabbas, The Boston Strangler and Mr. Majestyk. Haven’t seen The Last Run, and I last saw The New Centurions upon its original release, so memory is hazy – but I do recall being quite jolted by certain scenes. Really looking forward to another look at Mandingo.

    I’m particularly big on Fleischer’s gritty 1973 crime thriller, The Don is Dead. In many ways it’s a Godfather knock-off, but it’s elevated by an unpredictable plot, rich visuals that seem to cross a blaxploitation quickie with Gordon Willis earth tones (courtesy of DP Richard H. Kline), and cliche-transcending action scenes, including a brilliantly staged shoot-out.

    Re other Legend releases: Anyone know how their Most Dangerous Game stacks up to Criterion’s? The B&W version of course – I couldn’t care less about the colorized one. And how is that late period Phil Karlson – 1975’s Framed?

  • A very underrated Fleischer film is “The Spikes Gang” from 1974. One I’d very much like to see is 1983’s “Tough Enough”–the premise doesn’t sound like much, but with a cast including Dennis Quaid, Stan Shaw, Pam Grier, Warren Oates and Bruce McGill, how bad could it be?

  • The idea that the Universal archives has lost countless negatives and other materials is just heartbreaking. Of course, they’re trying to spin it, but i think that the situation is really dire. Already, programmers have been alerted that Universal titles that they have booked will not be available, and no one has been told when these titles will be back in circulation.

    Not meaning to be pessimistic, but it does seem as if the damage is more extensive than has been reported.

  • seanflynn

    This is the first time I’ve heard negatives were lost. Don’t most studios store them in an underground mine in (if I remember correctly) Kansas?

  • Kent Jones

    Daryl, there were no negatives lost. They’re elsewhere, thank God. They were prints in circulation. Many of us have been affected. (I’m doing a William Holden show in July and BREEZY and STREETS OF LAREDO were both coming from Universal. We’ll probably be able to find a print of the latter from another source, and the print of BREEZY had already gone out for another booking, so it’s safe.) The big question, as Dave points out, is what now? Are they going to make replacement prints? If so, at what pace?

  • Fleischer was no slouch with special effect extravaganzas–see 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

  • This may be a left field question and possibly expose my ignorance about the movie industry, but why was there a video vault (containing film prints) doing in such close proximity to movie sets and theme parks? One would think you’d want those in some kind of sealed vault underground.

  • Correction: This may be a left field question and possibly expose my ignorance about the movie industry, but why was there a video vault (containing film prints) in such close proximity to movie sets and theme parks?

  • seanflynn

    Yours is a good question, but an equally good one is the overall question of fire safety at all studios. We get heavy winds in LA (that and our being in the desert make us very fire-damage prone), and all the studios have varying degrees of wood-frame structures tightly grouped together.

    Historical note – film prints of course were made of nitrate, which was extremely flammable, until the early 1950s. And in most cases (NY was an exception) in about 40 cities around the country where the studios had distribution offices, they also stored their films. As a result, the industry became very safety conscious. And cities also took notice – I knew this from Chicago, where there were still vestiges as late as 1976 of distributors being located on the fringes of downtown in no-man’s-land places because they were too dangerous to be where most people worked.
    (NY’s prints were stored in Fort Lee, NJ).

    The irony is that is prints were still nitrate, they likely would have been in less danger since Universal would have stored them better.

  • jbryant

    The Universal fire has indefinitely postponed scheduled screenings at L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema of Prince of Darkness, Sudden Death and Bride of Chucky. An American Cinematheque screening at the Aero Theatre of Eastwood’s Breezy is still scheduled for June 8 (probably the other booking Kent Jones referred to).

  • More unfortunate news is sure to seep out from the Universal Archive fire story. A friend who works at a preservation/restoration lab in Hollywood reports to me that he regularly picked up and dropped off prints on which the company worked directly at the building that burned.

  • dr. giraud

    I regularly attend an upstate New York (Capitolfest in Rome, N.Y.) film festival that features 35mm prints of silents and early talkies every August. I wonder what the chances are that the pristine Universal studio print of James Whale’s A Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) was “out on a booking” when the fire happened? Yes, they’ll make new prints of films by Lubitsch and Sturges, but more obscure titles? We’ll see.