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Public Domain Titles/Quality on DVD


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#1 of 92 Barrie Maxwell

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Posted September 19 2003 - 11:46 AM

For one of my forthcoming columns on the Digital Bits, I'd like to do a survey of public domain titles that are available on DVD. This will be in response to a number of requests that I've had for such information.

We all know that many of the public domain titles that show up on DVD are pretty bad-looking, but there are some exceptions from nearly every public domain specialist. Many of us have taken chances on a public domain title we like when it's been available at a cheap price. Sometimes we've been pleasantly surprised; sometimes we realize we should have known better. Please chime in with your own experiences as to specific public domain transfers that you've found to be particularly good or bad. Include the title of the film and the company that put out the DVD. I'll compile the results and include them in a future edition of Classic Coming Attractions at the Bits.

Thanks in advance for any help you can give,

Barrie

#2 of 92 Jo_C

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Posted September 19 2003 - 02:37 PM

I already wrote you an E-mail, but I think this is worth mentioning publicly.

Perhaps you should make reference to the most infamous of all public domain titles, Frank Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life".

Its troubled distribution history is very interesting, but here's the short version...it was originally released in 1946 by RKO Radio Pictures. The television rights were purchased by a company (I forgot its original name) that would ultimately become U.M. & M. TV Corp, and then NTA (National Telefilm Associates). NTA would acquire the original film elements, the original score, and the story on which the film is based ("The Greatest Gift").

In 1974 (this was under the old copyright law of renewal after 28 years), a clerical error at NTA caused the film to go into the public domain--which is how the film finally got its success after its initial box office failure. More and more stations started airing the movie, and it was only in the 1980s that the film finally became the classic it has become. Of all the substandard video versions that have been out (Prism Video did a horrible job with its transfer, by the way), only NTA/Republic's home video division has released the "official" version, taken directly from original film elements.

There have also been two colorized versions, both copyrighted by different entities (Republic being one). In the early 1980s NTA became Republic Pictures once again, and later in that decade released better video versions of the movie (especially on LD and DVD).

In 1994, in a landmark court case, Republic finally laid claim to the film (with their ownership of the chief film elements behind them), thus the film's copyright was reactivated. Today, only Republic has available video versions of the movie digitally remastered, and this is also why you don't see the movie on TV as much anymore (NBC currently holds the television rights under a deal with Republic).

Artisan (under a current output deal with Republic) distributes the film on video today, but other than that, the movie is now under the corporate hands of Paramount Pictures (whose mother company, Viacom, acquired Republic from Aaron Spelling in recent years), even though Republic today exists only in name as a separate video company.

A subject you might consider in your article.

#3 of 92 Patrick McCart

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Posted September 19 2003 - 04:48 PM

If it's by Kino On Video, Criterion Collection, Home Vision, Milestone Video, Film Preservation Associates/Blackhawk Films, All Day Entertainment, or a major studio... it's OK to buy.

By all means...get the Milestone Phantom of the Opera and Kino Metropolis, for example. Avoid the Madacy of the latter and the PD editions of Phantom (Milestone's is fantastic, Image has a bare-bones from 1997, and Kino will have an edition sometime).

#4 of 92 John Sparks

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Posted September 20 2003 - 03:33 AM

...and don't buy anything from "ALPHA VIDEO", it's all crap!!! Posted Image
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#5 of 92 Larry Sutliff

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Posted September 20 2003 - 03:34 AM

One very good pd title is Alpha's THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME(transfer is almost as clean as the Criterion). Most other Alpha titles are of variable quality; the Bela Lugosi films they offer are fairly good and watchable, but I'll be the first to admit that I'd replace them in a heartbeat if a more reputable distributor like Image re-released them with higher quality transfers.

#6 of 92 John Sparks

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Posted September 20 2003 - 04:04 AM

Navarre(REEL VALUES) put out on their triple feature DVD "Devil Girl from Mars", same as Images...how did they get it?

Navarre also put out "Most Dangerous Game", same as Criterions...how did they get it?

I do have to say that Navarre's "Rocketship X-M" is a good print and will give you the original version. Images' has the tinted Martian scenes, by way of Wade Williams vision.

What I'm getting at is, how do these two bit companies get away with ripping off prints from other companies???
...retired at last...and Ray Harryhausen at my side!!!

 

My equipment consists of:

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#7 of 92 Brian PB

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Posted September 20 2003 - 05:15 AM

I can vouch for VCI's release of Jean Renoir's 1945 film The Southerner. This was probably Renoir's best Hollywood film. The PQ is not perfect, but very watchable for such an inexpensive (SRP $9.99) release.

#8 of 92 Michael Elliott

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Posted September 20 2003 - 06:43 AM

I own over 50 Alpha titles and they aren't as bad as people say. The majority of the times (at least the past 5 months) they will use transfers from Image. Stuff like TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE and BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA are brilliant looking but they are from the Image release. Many times Alpha's versions are better than other releases. Their print of BLUEBEARD is better than All Day's. Their print of THE MANSTER is uncut, which isn't the case with the one by Retromedia. THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME is from the Criterion print, as is the Navarre version.

#9 of 92 Larry Sutliff

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Posted September 20 2003 - 08:44 AM

Quote:
Their print of BLUEBEARD is better than All Day's



I've heard that the Alpha BLUEBEARD wasn't that good. If it's better than the Ulmer Collection version, I may pick it up.

#10 of 92 Michael Elliott

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Posted September 20 2003 - 09:29 AM

I didn't do a side-by-side comparison but I actually sold the All Day version because I wasn't happy with the transfer. I then tried Alpha's and remembered it looking somewhat better. The Alpha version might be 1% better but there is a $15 price difference.

I think there is another PD company that released BLUEBEARD but I haven't seen this one.

#11 of 92 Larry Sutliff

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Posted September 20 2003 - 10:37 AM

Quote:
I then tried Alpha's and remembered it looking somewhat better.


I can get the Alpha disc for about four bucks, so it's worth that just to check it out. I sold my All Day version a few months back on eBay and now regret it. The Alpha DVD will be a cheap way to rectify that mistake.

#12 of 92 Gordon McMurphy

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Posted September 20 2003 - 11:15 AM

Is Night Of The Living Dead (1968 original) truly a PD movie? And how did that happen? Weird.

Which are the great PD movies? It's A Wonderful Life is one, what are some others?

Interesting thread.


Gordy


#13 of 92 Derek_McL

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Posted September 20 2003 - 11:30 AM

A worthwhile endeavour looking at all those public domain titles Barrie but if you include the silents there is a huge number of them. Everything made before 1923 is public domain I believe. As Patrick says Milestone, Image and Kino do good DVDs of the silents and Eureka in the UK have improved in recent times too from their ropey early efforts like that awfully slow Metropolis.

Apart from that most public domain outfits are hit and miss. Here are a few of my experiences with them on both sides of the Atlantic :

Stonevision in the UK :

released good DVDs of early Chaplin and Keaton but poor ones in a Hollywood classics series which are just about watchable : A Farewell To Arms (1932), Nothing Sacred (1937) and My Favourite Brunette (1947).

The Laureate Collection :

A pretty poor Royal Wedding (1950) which at least had an audio commentary and a revealing bit on the famous Astaire dance on the ceiling.

Also only a passable Charade (1963) which once again had at least the saving grace of plenty of extras including excerpts from Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn's first film appearances.

An excellent Meet John Doe (1941) with good picture quality, this time the commentary includes interview material with Frank Capra also quite good featurettes on Capra, Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper.Adding to this good value disc two Lux radio theatre adaptations : For Whom The Bell Tolls with Cooper and Sorry Wrong Number with Stanwyck.

Marengo Films :

A double feature of Errol Flynn/ Randolph Scott which pretty much sums up many of these companies : one excellent transfer of Santa Fe Trail and a very poor one of Abilene Town.

Navarre Reel Values Triple Features :

Great value these even if the transfers aren't always great ; best one I've got is a Triple Feature of swashbucklers/adventure films :

The Iron Mask (1929): a few blown out highlights but not bad narrated version by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr.

The Black Pirate (1926): same transfer as the much more expensive Kino but this is in black and white (not two colour Technicolour)and has a canned orchestral soundtrack.

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) : alright version of common PD title.

I've got another set The Eagle (1925) / The Lost World (1925) / The Lodger (1926).

The Eagle (1925) is pretty well represented here considering its taken from a 16mm print and according to silentera.com its presented at the right speed which it isn't in the Kino edition. The music here is more appropriate than usual for a cheap PD silent.

The other two films aren't as good particularly The Lodger (fans of The Lost World can at least get a much better version). All DVDs of Hitchcock's first thriller (at least those I've heard of) have apparently been derived from a poor 16mm print.

#14 of 92 Michael Elliott

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Posted September 20 2003 - 11:58 AM

HERE is a review thread we started over at Maniacs to keep up with all the releases.

#15 of 92 Larry Sutliff

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Posted September 20 2003 - 02:19 PM

The Roan Group used to put out some very well done transfers of pd horror flicks. They probably had the best copies available of many Poverty Row Horror films. The horror titles include THE DEVIL BAT, DEAD MEN WALK, KING OF THE ZOMBIES, REVOLT OF THE ZOMBIES, THE GORILLA(1939), NABONGA, THE APE, THE BAT, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE HUMAN MONSTER, BOWERY AT MIDNIGHT, THE CORPSE VANISHES and a few others. Roan also made available pristine copies of Grade A classics like Lubitsch's THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, the 1931 version of SVENGALI and the 1934 Michael Curtiz Philo Vance classic THE KENNEL MURDER CASE.

#16 of 92 Damin J Toell

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Posted September 20 2003 - 05:21 PM

Quote:
Is Night Of The Living Dead (1968 original) truly a PD movie? And how did that happen? Weird.


Yes, NOTLD is really in the public domain. Here's how it happened: at that time, in order for a work (a film, a book, etc.) to be under copyright, it had to be released with a copyright notice in place (e.g., © 2003 Damin J. Toell). If the copyright notice was missing, the work was automatically put into the public domain. It was a fairly harsh result, and after some changes in US law as well as international treaties, it's no longer the case.

Anyway, when NOTLD was cut together and titles were placed over the opening sequence, it had the title Night of the Flesh Eaters. As was the custom at the time, the copyright notice was placed directly under the title (the current custom is to put it at the end of the closing credits). The distributor decided to change the title of the film and so they replaced the Flesh Eaters title card with the Living Dead one. When they did so, however, they neglected to put the copyright notice back in. The film was released without a copyright notice, and went into the public domain. Some distributors apparently noticed this a few years later, and the film has been properly treated as a public domain work ever since.

Sucks, don't it?

DJ

#17 of 92 Bill Burns

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Posted September 20 2003 - 05:50 PM

Note that House on Haunted Hill is available from Warner Bros. in a lovely 16x9-formatted edition (Roan's is 4:3 letterboxed). Roan's disc also includes The Bat on the flip, but PQ is poor; Anchor Bay has a stand-alone release for this title which I have yet to see, but which I believe to be full screen 4:3; Roan's, fuzzy image aside, is matted).

Barrie -- there have been some disturbing reports of motion blur on the new Milestone Phantom ('29 version, not the '25). This is either due to a PAL conversion or some bizarre anomaly involving tape speed corrections (more can be found on this thread). Fans of the re-edited and re-released '29 might be better served by the earlier David Shepard edition from Image, though the Milestone does re-synch the original Vitaphone discs to the picture as an added, and significant, incentive. I've seen Shepard's (issued through Image), and it's excellent, but I have yet to see Milestone's (or rather Photoplay's, issued by Milestone through Image). Kino reportedly has an edition of the '25 version in the works, as well (see the above link).

I'm absolutely mesmerized by the quality of Roan's Dick Tracy Collection. It includes commentaries, a radio show, radio spots ... and fantastic, clearly film-sourced transfers of at least three of the four films (Dick Tracy vs. Cueball won't play for me due to scratching imparted at the factory). These look fantastic -- no equivocation (well, there might be some mild edge enhancement -- I don't recall, but contrast range and fine detail are excellent). My only complaint is in the presentation style: the two discs are flippers (one side for each film), and because of this the above-mentioned side with DTvC was scratched and won't play. Posted Image DVD-9s all the way, guys. But the set is still fantastic for fans.

Other Roans come and go. Behind Office Doors, Svengali, and That Uncertain Feeling are all a bit soft with "plugged up" contrast levels that never sparkle and lack shadow detail. They're still good and very watchable, better than what you'd expect from PD-land, but not as good as Roan's best. Lonely Wives (what a title! No, it's not the kind of movie you think -- it's part of their pre-code Hollywood line) suffers similarly, but goes one further with analogue tape glitches. Blech. Those were the straw that broke this camel's back, but the other titles I've mentioned hold up well enough. The Bat, by comparison, is much worse, and a few of their other pre-code titles, such as Kept Husbands, Of Human Bondage, and Millie -- all one set -- are fair-to-middling, with generally weak contrast and heavy damage, though another disc, Bird of Paradise and The Lady Refuses, takes the cake for frame damage and weak contrast in the latter title, which is so badly damaged and faded in spots that it's nearly indecipherable ... Bird of Paradise is sepia-toned and windowboxed, and looks a fair bit better, though contrast is still very weak.

And so on. The Roans are a mixed bag. I've read very good things about their classic serial offerings, though, particularly over on the Serial Squadron website (which I've only perused a couple of times, I must say), but for the best that Roan has to offer on DVD, you can't go far wrong with The Dick Tracy Collection.

The worst PD title I've ever seen is/was UAV's Royal Wedding. While not PD, Artisan's The Fighting Kentuckian is a close second. Just unwatchable.

Given the preponderance of Alpha titles, I'd love to find a rundown of just what's good and what isn't, title by title, with specific quality parameters (does contrast range/fine detail equal or exceed, say, The Thin Man, or is it in the Stagecoach range, or ... and so on. Comparative thoughts, in other words), with "studio quality" a factor in the rating (does it fall below, equal, or exceed what you'd expect from a studio for an unrestored title).

Most importantly of all, though, in making any list of titles offered by PD companies, Barrie, I'd strongly urge you to research just which titles are offered in violation of copyright, so that those customers who treat the laws that protect artists and the companies who represent their work with deep respect (everyone here, I trust) may avoid them. Robert Harris has mentioned that one or two Laserlight Hitchcock titles, for instance, are offered in violation of international copyright laws. This is very important information for those of us who wish to make our purchases in an ethically informed manner. Any transfer copied from an existing DVD (anyone stealing a Criterion transfer, for instance, as suggested earlier) is violating copyright, because even if the film itself is PD, specific masters and/or transfers (on which companies may have worked very hard, and into which they may have invested good money) may themselves be copyrighted.

“That line was screwy.”

- Outtake
Warner Bros.' Breakdowns of 1938

#18 of 92 Michael Elliott

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Posted September 20 2003 - 06:20 PM

Quote:
This is very important information for those of us who wish to make our purchases in an ethically informed manner. Any transfer copied from an existing DVD (anyone stealing a Criterion transfer, for instance, as suggested earlier) is violating copyright, because even if the film itself is PD, specific masters and/or transfers (on which companies may have worked very hard, and into which they may have invested good money) may themselves be copyrighted.


Maybe you can answer my question. This here is the biggest topic over at Maniacs and no one seems to know the answer.

If Alpha took their transfer from the Image DVD, why doesn't Image simply make them take it off the market? Every PD company has used Anchor Bay's transfer of SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA yet AB hasn't done a thing about it. Madacy used a print from a Synapse release and nothing was done. Another popular source for these PD companies is getting a LD release from overseas. Brentwood did this with HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK (later released by Shreik Show) and SLAVE OF THE CANNIBAL GOD (later released by Anchor Bay). THE STREET FIGHTER series is another popular thing for PD companies.

If we were to call these bootlegs then why are they being sold everywhere? Why aren't they taken off the market? Both Brentwood and Alpha has had to recall discs but it was because the film actually had a copyright. Nothing has been done about them taking transfers from other DVDs and the studios know this is going on. When they are asked about it they never give a comment.

Couldn't any company use that "copyright" of them working on the transfer or spending their own money? I mean, if Alpha took the print from a no-name VHS label, could that label turn on Alpha since they spent money? If Alpha was going to "steal" a print, they would certainly take a look at two or three versions and release the best one. The three prints they looked at certainly had money spent on them by someone so how could this continue?

#19 of 92 Bill Burns

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Posted September 20 2003 - 06:22 PM

Oh, and speaking of the Roans, their collection of the Mr. Wong films seems to be in short supply. Amazon is listing a new box from an undetermined company for a much cheaper price, and clicking on the image reveals that it's presented "in association with the National Film Museum":

Mr. Wong, Detective: The Complete Collection

If anyone knows anything about this new collection, how it compares to Roan's old collection, who exactly publishes this new collection ... any and all info would be greatly appreciated. Posted Image I can't seem to locate it on other major e-tailer sites, only Amazon. The price is certainly right! Nearly a third the MSRP of Roan's. If you have a chance to review it, Barrie, that would make a great addition to your upcoming article -- boxed sets of classic film series' are few and far between.

“That line was screwy.”

- Outtake
Warner Bros.' Breakdowns of 1938

#20 of 92 Bill Burns

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Posted September 20 2003 - 06:29 PM

Michael -- I'm more familiar with print copyright law than anything else, and I'm not an expert in that, so I'd better leave your question to others. However, I imagine a part of the reason the Laserlights and their like remain on the market is the expense involved in litigating copyright infringement -- if the smaller companies, like Criterion, went to the pains of suing every upstart who swiped one of their transfers, they'd have little or no money to put into new product. When judgments are made in their favor, the process of collecting damages can be unending, to say nothing of enforcing a recall of discs still on the market.

I'm inclined to think the volume of offenders is the singlemost cause of the problem's perpetuity (not unlike music swapping on-line), but again I'm sure others better versed in the letter of the law will be able to answer your question more completely (and expand on or correct what I've said). Posted Image

“That line was screwy.”

- Outtake
Warner Bros.' Breakdowns of 1938


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