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To Martin Scorsese, the Criterion Collection, and Anyone Else Who'll Listen: More Public Domain Classics Worth Saving

Posted: 06/27/2010 2:24 pm

With the passing of British filmmaker Ronald Neame, I decided to revisit the classic Archers' film One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1941).

Here is an historic film, released when the Brits were at their lowest ebb in the war, and due to its public domain status, it is only available in a muddy print, with the sound so muffled you can scarcely make out the dialogue.

For those who love and value great film, this is a disgrace, an atrocity, a defiling- something like spraying whipped cream on the Mona Lisa.

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: thank God for the Criterion Collection. They have led the way in restoring great public domain titles to their proper condition. Among the films they've rescued from the dustbin of history: Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938), the screwball classic My Man Godfrey (1936), and Stanley Donen's chic romance thriller Charade (1963), which, incidentally, will soon make its debut on blu-ray.

Though sometimes I'm mystified by the titles they choose to release (witness Vittorio de Sica's misfire, 1953's Indiscretion Of An American Wife ), by and large they are the most prominent players out there rescuing important classics from the degrading purgatory of public domain status. I'm certainly looking forward to seeing their spruced-up version of another heretofore badly treated chestnut, Carol Reed's Night Train To Munich (1940).

In today's Hollywood, a factory mostly bent on pumping out formulaic junk for our kids, I'm also grateful for the presence of Martin Scorsese, a working director with a profound reverence for the history of the medium, and those rare titles from the past which showcase film as our most potent art form. Though his invaluable restoration work currently focuses on neglected foreign titles, I know he has every bit as much heart for outstanding English-language features from the thirties, forties and fifties. (I dearly hope he reads this.)

The fundamental truth here is glaringly obvious: with so many bad or indifferent films available on quality DVD releases, the idea that simply by virtue of public domain status, a timeless gem like Aircraft can only be seen on a shoddy print that insults the memory of its creators, is nothing short of tragic.

Quite simply, it's not enough to revere the best of our film heritage -- we must work to protect and preserve it.

With that in mind, I've compiled my own short list of public domain titles that I'd like to see brought back to their original glory.

The Front Page (1931) -- Early talkie about wise-cracking newspaper reporters stars a young Pat O'Brien, Adolphe Menjou, and a host of colorful comic character actors from the dawn of sound. Overshadowed by its remake His Girl Friday (1940), this picture stands smartly on its own.

The Kennel Murder Case (1933) -- William Powell unconsciously prepared for his Nick Charles persona playing suave detective Philo Vance, who investigates a suspicious death among the dog show crowd in Long Island. Co-starring the stunning Mary Astor, this entry was directed by
Casablanca helmer Michael Curtiz.

Nothing Sacred (1937) -- Inspired vintage screwball comedy (in early technicolor, no less) concerns reporter Fredric March taking on a human interest story, covering the final months and days of a lovely young woman (Carole Lombard) supposedly stricken with radium poisoning. March and Lombard are fabulous. (Note: current public domain release pairs this with another Technicolor March classic from the same year, A Star Is Born , yet another terrific movie overwhelmed by its glossier musical re-make nearly two decades later.)

Love Affair (1939) -- The original version of An Affair To Remember (1957), famously directed by the same man, comic genius Leo McCarey, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr roles. Though some may disagree, I think the first outing is the better film.

Meet John Doe (1941) -- Naive but good-hearted Gary Cooper becomes a pawn in an elaborate ruse to further the political ambitions of ruthless Edward Arnold in Frank Capra's poignant ode to populism. Barbara Stanwyck scores as Coop's love interest, and the portly Arnold is wonderfully loathsome.

Life With Father (1947) -- Beautifully mounted adaptation of long-running play about a large, affluent family of red-headed boys growing up in fin-de-siecle New York City, presided over by their gentle mother (Irene Dunne), and overbearing father (William Powell, who steals the film).
Nostalgic, colorful, and droll, the film also features an early juvenile turn by a raven-haired beauty named Elizabeth Taylor!

D.O.A (1950) -- One of our finest, most inventive noir entries features Edmond O'Brien, a man who has ingested a fatal but slow acting poison, investigating his own murder. Brisk and taut, this winner actually looks better than most public-domain victims, but still, I think there ought to be a first-class rendering of this sublime puzzler.

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