The Jewels of Public Domain: A Tongue-in-Cheek "Tribute" to Unintentionally Funny Budget-DVD Peccadilloes
So okay, we've all seen them...the DVD super-bargain bins in Dollar Stores, Wal Marts, K-Marts, Marshalls and your local filling-stations. Some people, more than skeptical others, have found themselves at least marginally intrigued and befuddled by these obscure titles. You know the ones I am sure -- I am talking about the ones that cost one friggin' dollar to buy. How could you pass up a deal like that, right? "Alright, that's a hell of a bargain! What's the catch?" You get big-name stars on the cover, "catchy" titles, you buy them thinking that it's just gotta be good with (fill in the blank) starring in it, you eagerly plop the disc into your player...wait, where's (fill in the blank)? Hold on...is that him/her with the (fill in a physical feature the star does not currently possess)? Not only that, (fill in the blank) is in the movie for five lousy minutes, sometimes less. And...jeepers, this movie really sucks! The disc soon turns into a drink-coaster for your next cup of coffee, or (God forbid) a teething ring for your infant.
"public domain: a range of abstract materials — commonly referred to as intellectual property — which are not owned or controlled by anyone, indicating that these materials are therefore 'public property', and available for anyone to use for any purpose."
It's a game, folks, and it's easy to play. Not only that, but it's easy for video consumers to lose. This is how they play it: Find public domain titles that have fallen out of copyright and then check the cast-list to see if there are any recognizable names. If there are none, toss the title out the window because they're not going to put it out. If there are names, plaster a recent, flatly-lit, low-resolution image of the star on the front and bill him/her first. Hey, why not...make the actor's name bigger than the title text so they know you mean business. Like I said, people take these titles home thinking "With a star in it like this, it just has to be good because the star makes it good" and they all too quickly find out they have been winked in the hood (that's hoodwinked for those not acquainted with quasi-jive from bespectacled schlemeils). It's just one of the quandaries of a classically, traditionally star-driven American film market. The star sells the product. That is certainly how studios and film-financiers think, and it would be naive to believe that video companies think any differently, particularly these budget DVD companies. It is pretty simple to exploit the "star makes it" way of thinking. Here are a few notorious well-known budget-release companies for your records: Miracle, Digiview, Alpha Video (hey, at least they have cool cover-art), GoodTimes, United American Video/Sterling Entertainment, Platinum Disc Corporation, Westlake Entertainment Group and innumerable others. Needless to say, this sub-market is a whole world unto itself, so you have every right to be skeptical.
In some cases, the video distributor will completely retitle the film (without the permission of the filmmakers) to make their product more appealing to genre fans. There are many hilarious examples of this. I know of one case where a through-and-through no-holds-barred art film, a heady and surrealist experimental-film/comedy adapted from an avant-garde novel by Ronald Sukenick called Out (1982), inherited the generically lurid retitle Deadly Drifter. Not only that, but Danny Glover, who is featured in the film as a supporting player, is given first billing on the cover. I am friends with Out's director Eli Hollander, and he informed me that he considered suing to prevent his film from being released in this way. Here is another amusing example: the Peter Fonda-directed 1973 time-travel movie Idaho Transfer was oh-so-tastefully retitled Deranged for some budget releases. I guess the mention of Idaho doesn't have 'em lining up in droves. I wonder if Peter Fonda has sour potatoes about that retitle job. An Ernest Borgnine film originally titled Rain for a Dusty Summer (1971) was retitled Guns for the Revolution on video, even though there are really no guns and no revolution anywhere in sight within the movie itself. A well-known Sally Field TV film called Maybe I'll Come Home in the Spring (1970) was retitled Deadly Desires. The words "deadly," "seduction," "desire" and "danger" would seem to be a common thread for retitling, and are mixed and matched at will.
The other night, I had the incredible pleasure of seeing Ivan Passer's Born to Win (1971), starring George Segal, Paula Prentiss, Karen Black and a young pre-stardom Robert De Niro, on a new 35mm print at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This screening made for the true highlight of my movie-viewing month. This is ironic considering that I mentioned this film just last week in my post about the cinematic evolution of post-1950's New York City. Seeing a film print of this movie (which uses the 1970's Times Square location of the time like no other work has ever done) comes after multiple viewings of the film on a myriad of budget DVDs and VHSs taken from a muddy, faded, heavily edited public domain video print. The show sold out and the house was packed solid. Shortly after the screening, I spoke with one of the film's stars, my friend Karen Black, on the phone about the experience of seeing the film in its original form, with new, pristine negative elements, excellent sound quality and the scenes absent from all existing video prints...and this brought back some great memories for her. She was ecstatic to hear that it had been screened and she was reminded of the "new scenes" I told her about, which she had forgotten since the film's original release. Before Born to Win was shown, Ivan Passer's 1974 film Law and Disorder (1974) was screened. MoMA organized a small-scale retrospective of Passer's work, with his Intimate Lighting screened just the day before.
I was floored at seeing the print of Born to Win...absolutely floored. How much was lost in all the sub-par video versions of the film! I remember speaking with Karen's husband, Stephen Eckelberry, about how there are no decent video versions of Born to Win, which we both lamented to an equal degree. Every budget company has had a go at distributing Born to Win and it is hard to know which one is the best bet. The covers would have you believe that Robert De Niro is in the film's lead. On the front, they will plaster an image of De Niro taken so obviously from Goodfellas, Cape Fear (see the cover at the very bottom of this article) or Heat. And the descriptions would lead you to believe that De Niro's policeman character, who takes up about ten minutes of screentime, is the story's main figure and that George Segal's heroin-addicted hairdresser, the real main character, is a villain figure...and a supporting one at that. Born to Win has been retitled Addict for some video releases.
Are there other good budget titles out there, you ask? Are there good films that these budget companies got their hands on and marketed? Yes, yes, yes...and again, yes. You would never know it by how cheaply manufactured the products sometimes look, but there are great public-domain "budget" titles which, often through unfortunate circumstances, fell out of copyright and into public domain purgatory. Look at Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (1961) as a classic example. This is one of the great epic Westerns in movie history and, next to Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and My Darling Clementine, is certainly one of my favorite Westerns of all-time. You know, I actually feel like starting a scavenger hunt or something, the objective here being find as many public-domain budget DVD releases of One-Eyed Jacks as you possibly can. Trust me, there are literally tons and tons of them. How do you what the best one to purchase is? In this particular case, I can tell you that the DigiView release is the only letterbox DVD version I know of, but in most cases, short of buying all of them that are out there, you can never ever really be sure. Some titles in public domain I have bought copy after copy after copy of, in hopes that I'll find the best image and sound of a given title, only to be disappointed time after time. It's kind of a pastime of mine.
Another example of negligent budget-video-company conduct is a film I have grown to love. New German Cinema's Peter Lilienthal directed a 1982 film called Dear Mr. Wonderful, which was the first film that Joe Pesci made directly following his great success in Raging Bull. It is a quiet, intimate, deliberately paced drama -- a movie of heart that takes it time to tell a story with characters you really grow to care about. This is also a film I mentioned in my post last week about lost New York cinema. In a great deal of the cover art for the film, you will observe taglines that are so hackneyed, unimaginative and asinine that it's hard to know whether to buy the movie to watch it or to put its cover on the wall at a tongue-in-cheek exhibit about the undeveloped art of deceptive advertising. Take a look at these taglines and savor the schlock: "One man's dream...is another's NIGHTMARE!!!", "The mob wants his next act to be his last", "Life's a gamble" and numerous others. Needless to say, this is not a Mafia movie at all, nor do any Mafia members play major roles. They are simply background and the portrayal of any organized crime in the movie is strictly implicit. Oh, and just in case the consumer fears any boredom when viewing, the capitalized word "NIGHTMARE" is just as big as the damn movie-title text! Boy, is the purchaser going to be disappointed when they see the real film, which is about a Jewish family man, bowling-alley owner and would-be singer with pipe dreams of making the big time in Las Vegas, who ultimately must learn to live with what he has considering his lot in life. On some releases, the film has been retitled Ruby's Dream. One of my DVDs of this film, from Miracle, even has out-of-sync audio (out-of-sync by nearly five whole seconds). Taglines with budget companies are a funny business in and of themselves. For instance, a tagline for the aforementioned art film Out, a.k.a. Deadly Drifter, reads simply "An explosive plot against the government." Again, no "explosive plot" and no "government" in the film itself! The actual cover art featuring this tagline is below. This design is truly priceless.
Miracle's cover for Dear Mr. Wonderful features a photo of Pesci on the front clearly "borrowed" from Scorsese's Casino (a hard sell especially considering that Pesci sports a moustache in 1982's Dear Mr. Wonderful and does not have one at all in 1995's Casino). Also, consider the puzzling placement of a pixellated roulette wheel directly below Pesci's disembodied head. All of the pictoral elements look blended together by a myopic five-year-old honing his glaringly limited Photoshop skills. One of the covers of Dynamite Chicken (1971) features a grossly unflattering flashbulb image of Richard Pryor, blown up to such a degree of pixellization to reveal, up close and personal, a clearly MS-afflicted man with his mouth agape in what was undoubtedly a paparazzi capturing a candid photo of the comedian. Talk about unbecoming!
Okay, one more funny example, then I'll shut up. In 1969, an unknown Robert De Niro starred in an independent movie shot on Long Island called Sam's Song. The movie was never really released and fell between the cracks. In 1979, Cannon Films had a hot potato on their hands. They owned a film starring the then-unknown and now-megastar Robert De Niro. What do they do? They shoot banal, new, more action-driven material with piss-poor actors and use it to frame the old artsy-fartsy footage with De Niro. They retitle it The Swap, De Niro tries to sue Cannon to prevent the film from being released, but it gets out there anyway. That's not the end of the story. Budget video companies then retitile the retitle, naming it Line of Fire. This is an extreme case...a double-deception, if you will. And both version of the film (both the 1969 original and 1979 version of the film are available on budget releases) are pretty bad, with the 69 slightly bettering the 79. And then, of course, there are the priceless taglines: "De Niro is tough, cool...and an easy target for MURDER!!!" (again with the mega-capitalization, this time italicized, and the three exclamation points!!!), "Robert De Niro is murder on women, and they're murder on him!", "Never cheat the mob!" (again, using a would-be "Mafia hook" to sell a movie that has nothing to do with it), "Some answers are worth killing for..." and others. Please note that The Swap and Born to Win are often paired to make a "DVD Double Feature" package.
So what are some good titles from budget companies? There are a great deal of them, and ones that you will be shocked to discover have (or had) slipped into public domain. I'll name a few. Frank Capra's Meet John Doe (1940, which I used a clip of in my film A Trip to Swadades), Vittorio De Sica's Indiscretion of an American Wife (the 1953 Selznick recut of Terminal Station), Dennis Hopper's masterpiece Out of the Blue (1980), D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and Way Down East (1920), blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky's unjustly neglected Romance of a Horsethief (1971), Harvey Hart's thriller The Pyx (1973), Jeremy Paul Kagan's Patty Hearst-inspired drama Katherine (1974, starring Sissy Spacek), the fascinatingly bad The Driver's Seat (1973) starring Liz Taylor and Andy Warhol, the film version of playwright Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), Kinji Fukasaku's underrated all-star disaster movie Virus (1980, albeit often in painfully abridged versions), the Italian anti-war drama The Fifth Day of Peace (1969) starring Franco Nero, the 1970 spaghetti Western Death Rides a Horse (which has yet to see at least an adequate pan-and-scan of its 2.35 aspect ratio in America), the prescient sci-fi thriller Paper Man (1971), Tony Richardson's The Entertainer (1960) starring Laurence Olivier), the Barbara Stanwyck drama The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), among countless others. At one point, even Capra's all-time classic It's a Wonderful Life spent its time wallowing in the public-domain cesspool, but the copyright of that film was renewed not too long ago. Nevertheless, there are a great deal of films out there on this esoteric market that are worth the dollar or two you would spend on it. There are occasionally even inexplicable budget titles, like John Sayles' The Brother from Another Planet (1984), about which you wonder "How did that wind up in the bargain bin?"
I propose a retrospective screening series that would screen prints of the "hidden gem" public domain titles in an effort to show cinephiles that some of these forgotten films ultimately warrant second consideration and possibly new lives. They should be seen on their original print sources, no matter how bruised the elements are. I, for one, would relish seeing the breadth and depth of now-beloved cinematographer Michael Ballhaus' full and original compositions in Dear Mr. Wonderful or even rewatching Born to Win on the print I saw the other night. I cannot get that experience out of my mind. Like I said, it was like seeing that film for the very first time. I was sitting there audibly saying things like "Yikes" and "Wow" when scenes deleted from the DVD were playing out before me, and observing Jack Priestley's and Richard Kratina's incredible cinematography in its original glory. The cinematography was actually rightly labelled as underlit and clumsy when video critics saw the muddy, faded and darkened video prints. That film's feeling for New York and the 42nd Street of its day shone through on the 35mm print. There is, after all, something irresistible and right about light passing through celluloid. It's how everything shot on the medium is meant to be seen. Viewing Born to Win with an audience was also fascinating, in an effort to gauge how well it has aged. I am going to do what I can to spearhead a PaDHaG Print Screening (that is, Public Domain Hidden Gem Screening) here in New York. Kudos to MoMA for resurrecting Born to Win! Let us start seeing more screenings like this. There is an audience for them, as the packed house at the screening the other night proved. People were exiting the theater marvelling at how MoMA's screening was a far cry from the various video versions they had seen. I was one of them...and then I just realized that many in the audience must have unsuspectingly picked up the movie for cheap on budget video in the bargain bin of their local convenience stores only to be surprised at the film's worth, despite being misled and deceived by the tactics of the Budgeteers.