As a frail, asthmatic boy who spent much of his childhood convalescing, Martin Scorsese famously discovered his love of cinema by watching “Million Dollar Movie” on New York television. In interviews, he has spoken of being introduced to Citizen Kane with the opening newsreel cut, or Powell-Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman in fuzzy black-and-white, or classics of the Italian neorealist movement chopped to fit 90-minute time slots, but being moved all the same.
I sometimes think about Scorsese’s childhood when I’ve caught myself bellyaching that 1.33:1 movie has been squished into a 1.85:1 frame on someone’s TV. Now that I’m an old fogey who requires perfect Blu-Ray clarity every time I sit down to watch a Bela Lugosi cheapie or a John Holmes porno, I sometimes think about the pre-video days, when the best options for owning your favourite movies included buying abbreviated 8mm versions or perusing any volume from Richard Anobile’s “Film Classics Library” (which reproduced hundreds of stills from famous films like The General, Psycho, and Frankenstein in book form).
Actually, I don’t have to think that far back. When I was 10 years old, I spent a long, painful summer saving my allowance so that I could afford (or at least pay halfsies with my dad on) my first DVD player. My life was permanently changed when I visited a friend’s house and discovered that his DVD copy of Armageddon contained not only the movie, but also such exciting bonus features as a theatrical trailer and the Aerosmith “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” music video, and I realized that VHS was for suckers. Once I finally had the player, I discovered that in those early days of the DVD format, there was a relative dearth of software that I could afford (Austin Powers retailed for $30 in those days — but lord knows I saved up for it) or even particularly desired (my very first DVD purchase: Arthur, starring Dudley Moore).
However, there was an area where my burgeoning cinephilia and my modest income intersected: the cheap DVD releases of public-domain classics released by companies like Front Row Entertainment, Madacy Video, Delta LaserLight, and Alpha Video. Before everything was available on the internet, stores bought these DVDs in bulk to fill their shelves. For a few years, they were important resources for those of us whose moviegoing horizons were limited to the local Blockbuster.
What follows is a rundown of some of the auteurs whose work I learned to love through garbage public-domain DVD releases:
Seldom has a filmmaker created an output so modest (13 completed feature-length films) but so difficult to get a handle on as Orson Welles. Still reeling from my first brush with Citizen Kane at age 12 and hungry for more, I quickly found that many of his key titles languished either in litigation (Chimes at Midnight, DVD debut: 2016) or studio vaults (The Magnificent Ambersons, DVD debut: 2012). A key Walmart discovery was Delta LaserLight’s “Hollywood Classics” set, featuring three public-domain Welles titles — The Stranger (1946), Mr. Arkadin (1946), and The Trial (1962) — inside a black box adorned with a stock shot of the Great Man chomping a cigar on the set of Casino Royale.
This collection occupies a special place in my heart because all three films are introduced by Tony Curtis. The late Mr. Curtis wears a bright white shirt and alarming black gloves, and generally gives the vibe of Goodfellas meets Liberace. Reading from a teleprompter, he is prone to awkward pauses and malapropisms, and one point saying “In this presentation, we’re featuring Orson Welles in one of his great films, Mistah Ark-uh-din.”
All of Chaplin’s pre-1918 work is in the public domain, and a good deal of his post-1918 output has spent some time in a legal grey area. My first exposure to Chaplin was via a four-VHS set featuring Tillie’s Punctured Romance, The Immigrant, A Burlesque on Carmen (the 44-minute extended version, cobbled together against Chaplin’s wishes), and The Gold Rush (assumed at the time to be in the public domain). Aside from Tillie’s (which is just too primitive), I was transfixed. The fact that The Gold Rush was derived from a murky, umpteenth-generation bootleg print and scored to an indigestible organ dirge only increased its appeal: it was a challenge to watch, which meant I had to work harder to appreciate it.
Despite its handsome packaging, Madacy’s ten-VHS Chaplin: The Collection was a grab-bag of uncontextualized Chaplinania, all scored to interchangeable Dixieland jazz: a French version of The Property Man (1914) titled Charlot garçon de théâtre shared a tape with an unwatchably murky Recreation (1914); Chaplin’s guest appearance in the Fatty Arbuckle vehicle The Knockout (1914) was paired with his contract-filling quickie A Day’s Pleasure (1919); early efforts Getting Acquainted (1914) and Mabel’s Married Life (1914) were joined by Charlie on the Ocean (1921), a newsreel about his trip to London; and Work (1915) featured narration and sound effects, from a failed ’60s TV series called Charlie Chaplin’s Comedy Theatre.
Madacy put most of their Chaplin content on DVD in various forms, including this two-disc “Hollywood Classics” release, whose features include paragraph-long biographies of two of Chaplin’s leading ladies and some trivia questions. As for the shorts, I spent a lot of time in my youth trying to decipher what the near-unwatchable images were trying to communicate, so revisiting them for this blog post was a deeply nostalgic experience for me.
Poor George A. Romero never thought to put a copyright notice on his Night of the Living Dead (1968), making it one of the most bootlegged movies of all time. In the ’90s and 2000s, you could hardly visit a gas station or a dollar store without seeing this foundational text of modern horror on a DVD/VHS rack. There have been some good-looking restored versions (notably the fully authorized “Millennium Edition“), but I retain a soft spot for Madacy’s “Hollywood Classics” edition, whose washed-out image and papery sound feel true to the film’s low-budget origins.
A 10-year-old boy is not the ideal audience for the gin-soaked vaudevillian whimsy of William Claude Dukenfeld, so the six public domain shorts on Madacy’s “Collector’s Choice Double [sic] Feature” mostly went over my head. I learned to love W.C. Fields in my teenage years when I saw The Bank Dick and It’s a Gift shortly after my grandfather’s death and realized that he and my grandpa were almost the exact same man. Fields doesn’t get talked about enough these days: his perversely long, drawn-out gags (I hesitate to say “anti-comedy”) ought to resonate with anyone who enjoys Norm Macdonald or Tim and Eric, and there’s something about his attitude that is distinctly Lebowski-ish. Alas, the wieners who write reviews of his movies on Letterboxd feel differently.
The public domain shorts on this volume also appear infinitely better-looking on Criterion’s out-of-print W.C. Fields – Six Short Films. Criterion, however, never thought to include a Fields trivia game. Point: Madacy.
Roger Corman rarely bothered to register his early films for copyright, making him one of the best-represented directors in the DVD bargain bins. I have a fond memory of strolling over to the local Hasty Market during my teenage years and finding a $3 copy of Creature from Haunted Sea (1961) and thinking what a lucky boy I was.
In the late ’90s/early 2000s, the only easy way to watch Metropolis (1927) was via Madacy’s “Hollywood Classics” version. I never managed to make it all the way through. I long ago gave away my copy to Goodwill, but thanks to a (now-defunct?) blog called The Public Domain Chronicles, you can enjoy screengrabs from some of the enlightening special features: