Of all the cinematic revelations I've experienced in the last two weeks, let me start with Margaret Sullavan. If you don't love old movies, your response to that name is likely to be, "Who?" And even if you do love old movies, as I do, your response is likely to be, "Oh … right. … I sort of know who she is. Unless I'm confusing her with Margaret O'Brien. Or Maureen O'Sullivan. Wait … who?"
All cinephiles are hostages to what we can and cannot see. The "everything" that we imagine is available on DVD is a tiny fraction of the "everything" that actually exists. The better part of whole genres, careers, and reputations often lies frustratingly out of reach. For several decades, Margaret Sullavan's name has survived—to the extent it has survived—because of just one movie, Ernst Lubitsch's classic 1940 romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner, in which she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart and to which she brought a kind of uniquely alert radiance; as David Thomson has written, she "seemed to listen to what was being said in a film, and to be changed by what happened."
Sullavan did not have the kind of longevity (she died in 1960 of a barbiturate overdose) or the vast body of work (she barely appeared in movies after 1943) that would inspire a DVD company to release a boxed set, so almost none of her best films have been available for years; she has, in effect, been scrubbed out of movie history. Until now. The recent launch of the Warner Archive Collection could well portend a revolution; it's DVD on demand, a way for Warner (and, one hopes, for every other studio) to make movies available without spending the $75,000 to $100,000 it costs to release an old title into an ominously contracting marketplace. Here's how it works: Go to the archive and browse the titles. Click on the ones you want, and for $19.95 apiece, they'll burn a DVD-R and ship you the movie in a standard plastic case with cover art. There are no extras except the trailer, if it's available; there isn't even scene-by-scene chaptering. But you will get the film, shown in the correct aspect ratio and with a picture and soundtrack of mostly high quality. Virtually none of the movies in this collection has been available on DVD before. Many never even made it to VHS.
So far, there are only 150 titles, but Warner plans to expand the archive by at least 20 selections a month, drawing from the 5,600-odd unreleased titles (including a huge number of vintage RKO and MGM movies) in its 6,800-film library. George Feltenstein, the studio's senior vice president for theatrical catalog marketing, says that orders for the films have already exceeded his expectations. When I asked him how many movies Warner ultimately hopes to make available, he replied without hesitation: "All of them. People have asked for these movies. Somebody wants to see the Lupe Velez Mexican Spitfire pictures. There are people who have been waiting for the Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell musicals that Busby Berkeley didn't make."
For movie lovers, this is heaven. Anybody can adequately take the measure of a century of film by leapfrogging across decades, countries, and genres from one masterpiece to another, and this is pretty much how we all do it, Netflixing our way through the Criterion Collection (great, but not for American movies) or checking off Oscar nominees from decades past (great, but only as a barometer of what people thought was great at the time). But movie history is also written in what happened between the great movies—in the ambitious and the mundane, the half-hearted and the forgotten, the unjustly overlooked and the justly dismissed.