Ten Warner Bros. Box Sets That Should Have Been

When Warner Home Video opted last year to drastically change its business model in terms of classic film releases in R1, the impact was most felt by those who had loyally been purchasing the studio's box sets across the better part of the decade. These bulky packages devoted to a star, director or genre typically contained five films or more at a fraction of the cost of buying each title individually. Wait long enough and you could usually find the sets discounted heavily at online retailers. (Indeed, Amazon.com is offering dozens of such bargains at this very moment.) The implementation of the Warner Archive's more expensive and lower quality DVD-R editions has largely replaced retail DVD releases from the WB's back catalog. A few sets and standalone films have trickled out in the past several months but it's been nothing like the golden age of 2004-08, and there's little reason to believe we'll ever see a return to that pace.

In short, it doesn't really seem like Warner Bros. had exhausted its potential possibilities for box sets. I came up with a neat ten choices that would have all been must-haves for my shelves, but this still feels like we're barely scratching the surface of those massive WB, MGM, and RKO vaults from which Warner Home Video can pick and choose. There's still time and a smidgen of hope for some of these to see the light of day in pressed and proper editions. (A fifth volume of film noir titles has been promised for two years now but remains unannounced.) So, while everyone continues to wait for The Magnificent Ambersons, Greed, The Wind, The Merry Widow, and Brewster McCloud, here are, depending on your perspective, some suggestions or, perhaps more likely, lamentations, in order of personal preference.

Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume Four (The Mouthpiece, Skyscraper Souls, The Match King, Employees' Entrance, The Mind Reader) - Part John Barrymore, part bull terrier, Warren William might be the most electrifying and potent movie star that few have bothered to remember. A collection of his signature films, none of which have found DVD releases, would do well to re-introduce William to those who haven't yet had the good fortune to catch a TCM showing or marvel at a repertory screening of the actor's work. These pictures let William be oily and power-mad in such a dynamic fashion that newcomers may wonder how they haven't heard about him earlier. Each one is blissfully pre-Code, often allowing William to shirk morality with a brazen focus on corporate greed that plays especially well to our modern cynicism. If WHV can devote a full release to director William Wellman as it did in Volume Three of the pre-Code Forbidden Hollywood series then a similar focus on the actor with the same initials wouldn't be an unreasonable stretch.

Nicholas Ray: Warner Home Video Directors Series (A Woman's Secret, Born to Be Bad, The Lusty Men, Party Girl, Wind Across the Everglades) - In the press release for its 2007 Stanley Kubrick releases, Warner Bros. announced the start of a "new series featuring influential films from some of history's greatest directors." This "Warner Home Video Directors Series" idea never went beyond the Kubrick set, however, and that stills stings a bit as a missed opportunity. Only rarely has the studio bothered to package movies around a director (Kubrick, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Ford, and Wellman all come to mind), but given the frequently held opinion that film is a director's medium, it's understandable to want auteur-driven sets that are maybe a tad less obvious. A package devoted to Ray might not make the most sense commercially but it would certainly help to plug a major gap in R1 DVD. So many of Ray's films have been inexplicably absent in his native country that it's starting to feel like some sort of cruel joke to those who greatly admire the romantic humanism of this chronicler of tortured souls.

Of the five unreleased titles that WHV likely controls, A Woman's Secret is merely a curiosity and Born to Be Bad is just a notch better. The real gem is The Lusty Men, a modern western starring Robert Mitchum as a displaced former rodeo champ who coaches Arthur Kennedy into becoming something his wife, played by Susan Hayward, hardly recognizes. You get the feeling that there's more of Nick Ray in this picture than in all but two (In a Lonely Place, Johnny Guitar) or three (Rebel Without a Cause) that he made. Party Girl, which did get thrown into the Warner Archive already, provides ample room for Ray to explore his preferred set-up of emotionally damaged lovers coming together while Wind Across the Everglades, a picture I'm not entirely sure WHV has the rights to, now looks like the beginning of the end for Ray's directing career. Personal troubles proved distracting during the production but the film still gives Ray plenty of opportunities to further his exploration of the American outsider on film.

Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 5 - (Cornered, Desperate, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Woman on the Beach, The Window, Armored Car Robbery, A Lady Without Passport, The Tattooed Stranger, Roadblock, The Phenix City Story) - Assuming that ten, rather than five, titles are in play like we had with 2007's Vol. 4 set, it's not too difficult to quickly think up a dozen or more deserving picks for inclusion. If they hadn't already been relegated to the Warner Archive I might have instead chosen The Bribe and Berlin Express, a couple of excellent noirs that highlight the importance of disorientation in that darkest of cinema styles. But since I have a few ounces of confidence that this box really will happen it seems best to imagine films not yet ghettoized by WHV. Getting pictures directed by the likes of Anthony Mann, Jean Renoir, Phil Karlson, Joseph H. Lewis and Richard Fleischer would give noirheads a major fix that they haven't had since, well, the last WB box set. I'd particularly like to see the two films starring Charles McGraw - Armored Car Robbery and Roadblock - get some deserved recognition here.

TCM Archives: King Vidor Silents (The Big Parade, The Crowd, The Patsy, Show People) - It's difficult to understand what the delay has been for bringing these pictures to DVD, particularly the first two which are so often included among the very best of silent cinema. There could be a hesitation on exactly how to market them since Vidor's name isn't necessarily a selling point even to many who regularly enjoy classic films. I've noticed that sets of older movies which might lack an obvious popularity frequently get branded with the "TCM Archives" banner, so that might've worked for this collection. Still, I sort of refuse to believe that a release with The Crowd and The Big Parade couldn't move enough copies to justify its existence. Both have been promised repeatedly from the WHV people, but my preferred scenario would also include a couple of silents Vidor directed starring Marion Davies. Even if she's an easy target considering how hands-on William Randolph Hearst was in steering her movie career, Davies could be a terrific comedienne and Vidor really got the best out of her. The Patsy was relegated to the Archive but Show People, a fairly biting Hollywood satire where Vidor plays himself and Charlie Chaplin cameos to get an autograph, is still in limbo.

Ginger Rogers: The Signature Collection (Vivacious Lady, Bachelor Mother, 5th Ave. Girl, Primrose Path, Once Upon a Honeymoon) - All of her teamings with dance partner Fred Astaire are available, but Ginger's solo work remains decidedly unmined in R1. She knocked around in several early '30s pictures with modest success before slowly taking off with the Busby Berkeley musicals 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 and her first pairing with Astaire - Flying Down to Rio, in which neither was the star. Rogers' home studio was RKO, and that's where she probably did most of her best work. Comedies like Vivacious Lady, Bachelor Mother, and 5th Ave. Girl are winning examples of the streetwise, somewhat cynical persona Rogers developed that still retains some of its edge and snap even today. Bachelor Mother, in particular, is one of the funniest films RKO made, also guided considerably by a young David Niven already sticking to his strengths. Primrose Path and Once Upon a Honeymoon both veer a tiny bit more dramatic and also give Rogers strong co-stars in, respectively, Joel McCrea and Cary Grant. Several of these can be had in R2 from the French label Editions Montparnesse and Once Upon a Honeymoon and 5th Ave. Girl have turned up in the Warner Archive. It wouldn't surprise me to see the other three follow suit in time. A disappointing fate.

TCM Archives: The Sydney Greenstreet & Peter Lorre Collection (Background to Danger, The Mask of Dimitrios, The Conspirators, Three Strangers, The Verdict) - A true odd couple of the screen, Greenstreet and Lorre seemed to share little more than a remarkable gift for screen presence. The former was English, quite large physically, and a latecomer to film, making his debut at the age of 62 as Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon. Lorre, a Hungarian, was diminutive in stature and in his mid-twenties when Fritz Lang's M gained international attention for the actor. Their best known pairings are probably Falcon and Casablanca, but Warner Bros. put them in another five pictures together without Humphrey Bogart (plus Passage to Marseille with Bogie). Of those, Background to Danger is a George Raft vehicle directed by Raoul Walsh and The Conspirators stars Hedy Lamarr and Paul Henreid. It's really the other three, where Greenstreet and Lorre were front and center, that warrant such a box set. The Mask of Dimitrios is delightfully strange and noirish while Three Strangers is a John Huston-penned tale of weary souls undone by their own flaws, a theme more familiar to Huston than director Jean Negulesco. The Verdict, which was Don Siegel's feature directing debut and can be obtained from the Warner Archive's burn-on-demand program, takes our duo to Victorian London for a murder mystery of guilt and vengeance.

Fritz Lang: Warner Home Video Directors Series (Rancho Notorious, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) - There might be a better way to get these Fritz Lang films, including the last three he made in Hollywood, to R1 DVD but this seems to be the most convenient, if least likely. It's a complete mystery why a director of Lang's stature has managed to be so poorly represented in R1. If you exclude the Warner Archive DVD-R of Rancho Notorious, a full ten films of Lang's are still unreleased. WHV should control four of these. Lang's western starring Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Kennedy was given the cold shoulder of a purple underside but deserved better. It's a fine companion piece to Ray's Johnny Guitar and Fuller's Forty Guns in tweaking gender roles in the typically male-dominated genre. Moonfleet may seem atypical of Lang given its swashbuckling premise but the film has plenty of admirers. That leaves a pair of noir dramas, both released in 1956 and starring Dana Andrews. They're key works in the through line of Lang's career. It's interesting how, 25 years after M, he was still committed to exploring the psychology of guilt and its many permutations.

Edward G. Robinson: The Signature Collection (Five Star Final, The Hatchet Man, Tiger Shark, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, The Sea Wolf) - WHV has released a good number of Robinson starrers but they've usually hid behind the "Gangsters" umbrella, presumably because the studio thinks people are more likely to buy films associated with thugs and guns than ones starring the actor who often played those types of roles. If you try to come up with titles given the DVD treatment by the WB where Robinson appeared prominently but didn't brandish a gun or play a tough guy you'd be stuck. There are even more of the same not yet available on DVD but I'm more interested in seeing the non-gangster roles of Robinson find their way to viewers. Five Star Final is, to me, far more brutal than any of Robinson's more celebrated films. The Hatchet Man has Robinson stretching to play a Chinese hit man who kills his best friend but only after promising to take care of the man's daughter (Loretta Young). Both Tiger Shark and The Sea Wolf involve Robinson playing nautical captains but the two pictures stray significantly from each other. The former finds the actor in one of his more warmly sympathetic roles while the latter lets him be utterly cold and frightening. And in the interest of diversity, how about the picture where he plays the real-life doctor who devoted himself to finding a cure for syphilis. That would be Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, directed by William Dieterle and co-written by John Huston.

Jean Harlow: The Signature Collection (Red Dust, Hold Your Man, Bombshell, The Girl from Missouri, Riffraff) - Harlow didn't make a whole lot of films before dying at just 26 years of age in 1937, and some of her more notable ones actually have surfaced on DVD from Warner Bros. (Red-Headed Woman, Dinner at Eight, Libeled Lady), plus Platinum Blonde from Columbia. The most obvious holes are probably Red Dust and Bombshell, both directed by Victor Fleming. She's on fire as the odd woman out beside Clark Gable in Red Dust and excels at comedy with Lee Tracy in Bombshell. You could possibly quibble about what else to include among the MGM pictures she made, but Hold Your Man, also with Gable, and Riffraff, co-starring Spencer Tracy, seem like strong candidates. I think The Girl from Missouri, where Harlow was the lead, would then be preferable over The Beast of the City (which was an early Archive title) or one of her later pictures. Regardless, rumors indicated that a Harlow set was in the works for years and it never materialized. Here's hoping something still turns up.

James Cagney: The Signature Collection, Vol. 2 (Blonde Crazy, Taxi!, The Crowd Roars, The Oklahoma Kid, The Strawberry Blonde, Tribute to a Bad Man) - Until something changes my mind, I'll always point to the first (and so far only) Cagney box and the set devoted to Barbara Stanwyck as exhibits one and two in support of the greed and/or overconfidence which eventually resulted in WHV cranking up the Warner Archive. In both instances, someone at Warner Bros. deemed a handful of decidedly mediocre films as worthy of representing the star's work when much better alternatives remained in the vault unreleased. Cagney's situation is a bit tough because his most signature roles were included in other WB box sets. Still, plenty of prime Cagney hasn't come out yet, including the pre-Codes Blonde Crazy and The Crowd Roars, both also with Joan Blondell. Those could occupy the same disc or either could be paired with the 1932 gangster romance Taxi! co-starring Loretta Young. One option would be to include Howard Hawks' Ceiling Zero, but I had in mind the unique attempt to pair Cagney and Bogart in a western with a gangster plot - The Oklahoma Kid. That picture has some photography by James Wong Howe that really deserves a wider audience. Then show Cagney's comedy chops in The Strawberry Blonde, directed by Raoul Walsh and co-starring Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth. It and the later western Tribute to a Bad Man both got stuck in the Warner Archive but I think they show fascinating variations on the type of character we're most accustomed to seeing Cagney play.

Last updated: 02/05/2018 01:25:06

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