I LOVE classic movies. When a new one is released on DVD or shows up at the local rep theatre, my excitement is palpable. People always ask me if I have Turner Classic Movies in my cable selection and I tell them that if I did, I would never leave the house (the other side of that coin is that due to my…’involvement’ with a local video store that has one of the largest rental collections in Canada, from whom I receive free rentals, we only have basic cable, which doesn’t include TCM). Now, when I say ‘classic’, I don’t mean The Breakfast Club or Happy Gilmore. I don’t even mean The Godfather or Rocky. I mean black and white. I mean movies that are older than your parents (in some cases, your grandparents). I get all aflutter over movies with Errol Flynn, Jean Arthur and Cary Grant in them. I become giddy as a schoolgirl when I think of movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford and Preston Sturges. I actually know who Zasu Pitts, Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton are…and I like them! When I say, “They don’t make them like they used to”, I mean it. But my excitement came to a screeching halt a few weeks ago, thanks to an article in ‘Canada’s newsmagazine’, Maclean’s.
On August 6, Maclean’s published an article entitled “Say goodbye to big screen classics”, (http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/08/06/say-goodbye-to-big-screen-classics/) which espoused the theory that classic movies on DVD would become as rare as the dodo, or a Toronto sports team winning a championship. Through interviews with a smattering of highly placed studio execs, the story developed that studios, due to a downturn in sales, would be virtually discontinuing the release of classics, other than huge hits like The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With the Wind. Even a ’boutique’ distribution company like Criterion would be paring back their schedule with more of a focus on modern film. Well, I have a word or three to say on this…
I work in the trenches, retail trenches, that is. As the sole person in charge of the ordering for one of the largest video stores in Canada (8,000 titles for rent, 10,000 titles for sale when the average Rogers and Blockbuster carries 1000-1500), I have a daily view into the soul of the DVD consumer and most of the time I don’t like what I see. There has always and will always be crap. The term ‘B movie’ came from the time when you went to the theatre for the evening, and saw two movies, the ‘big’ title, an ‘A’ title and a lower budget (and usually quality) ‘B’ title. So yes, there will always be the Adam Sandler fan (don’t think he’s the first to make a fortune from lower-brow comedy…before him there was Chevy Chase, Jerry Lewis, Don Knotts, Lucille Ball, Arthur Lake (Blondie), Three Stooges and Fatty Arbuckle).
It seems clear to me though that the quality of these classics are much higher than what today’s studios are putting out. I don’t know if it’s the old studio ‘contract’ system which basically forced most actors and crew to appear in or work on whatever the studio heads told them to. There wasn’t any of the script readings by actors and agents to decide if the potential movie fit his or her image (the studio head told YOU what fit your image). You were on a weekly salary and you did what the bosses told you (which doesn’t sound all that different from my job, except for the pay scale). A real difference is that while the Warners, David Selznick and Harry Cohn were businessmen first, they knew and loved movies while today’s execs are mostly MBA graduates who think that the French New Wave is Depeche Mode. William Goldman famously said that in Hollywood, no one knows anything and that is more true today than ever.
Yes, I admit that there is some good stuff coming out of Hollywood today (this year alone we’ve so far had Up, (500) Days of Summer, Away We Go, Inglourious Basterds and District 9) but most of this is coming from independent filmmakers or those who work outside the system with that system’s blessing. I’ve already written a blog on the death of Hollywood (https://argento2665.wordpress.com/2009/05/30/the-blockbuster-and-the-death-of-hollywood/) so I don’t want to get back on that soapbox but I can’t help but think these issues are intrinsically tied together. If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it and if someone removes that history, we have nothing to learn from. Classic DVD’s are that history and I would hate to see a day when I’m forced to resort to trading with other movie buffs on the information superhighway for a fourth generation VHS dub of Sullivan’s Travels (a movie about movies that will change the way you think about movies). I fear though that day is closer than we all think.