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.
Separating the treasures from the trash in the first batch of Warner titles, which range chronologically from 1923's silent Scaramoucheto the 1987 Alan J. Pakula film Orphans, requires some patience. (You'll want to keep IMDB.com open while you browse.) First, the big news: The studio has, in this first round, included 15 Clark Gable movies and 13 Joan Crawford movies. For anyone who wants to understand what made Gable such a big star that nobody blinked when he was cast in Gone With the Wind, these titles alone would make the archives an essential supplement to film scholarship. As for Crawford, the new releases confirm that her reputation as a mannered camp gorgon, while fully earned, is also unfairly incomplete: You can now go all the way back to the 1927 silent Spring Fever and proceed forward to discover that Crawford was, in the first 20 years of her career, a riveting star and, at times, even an OK actress. The films offered here allow you to watch her strut through comedies, romances, and random insanities like Ice Follies of 1939 at the top of her self-assurance, with a determination that had not yet curdled into grotesquerie.
Keep digging and you'll find a combination of the sublime (three films directed by the recently rediscovered '30s melodrama master Frank Borzage); the ridiculous (it's hard to believe that anybody was pining for Luciano Pavarotti in 1982's kitschy Yes, Giorgio!, but someone somewhere is probably shrieking with delight); and, in many cases, the gratifyingly weird, including a large portion of the hitherto-unrecalled directorial oeuvre of William Conrad, better known as the portlier half of Jake and the Fatman. I watched a dozen Archive movies I hadn't seen before, and even those that weren't very good (OK, weren't any good) scratched an itch or satisfied a curiosity. 1968's Countdown may be a dull moon-landing thriller in which the sets look like they're made out of spray-painted Styrofoam and pressboard, but it's also a chance to see Robert Altman's only completely by-the-book studio film. Made two years before M.A.S.H. (so this is what he was rebelling against!), the film also boasts James Caan and Robert Duvall, together four years before their dual breakthrough in The Godfather. The Defector (1966) is a run-of-the-mill Cold War spy drama set in East Germany, but, more significantly, it's a showcase for the final performance of Montgomery Clift, whose skeletal physique and haunted countenance give the movie a painful valedictory gravity. And An Enemy of the People (filmed in 1976 but not released until 1981) is your only shot to see Steve McQueen interpret Ibsen. Having watched the movie, I now know why. Still, I wouldn't have missed a minute.
Almost every film I viewed colored in my understanding of an actor, director, or era. Payment on Demand(1951), whose working title was The Story of a Divorce, is a standard punitive weepie about a wife whose relentless ambitions for her husband eventually destroy her marriage. Standard except for the fact that the wife is played by Bette Davis, who, late in the movie, tears into the self-lacerating second-rate dialogue as if it were first-rate, because that was her job. And in doing so, she makes it first-rate, and opens a window on a moment when movie stars knew they were being paid to sell pictures in every scene, not just at a press junket months later.
By shopping with a combination of adventurousness and research, you will, more than once, chance upon not just goodness but greatness. Which brings me back to the extraordinary Margaret Sullavan, who could apparently shift almost seamlessly from breezy romantic comedy to light tragedy within the same movie. The Archive Collection has spotlighted her in three films, including Frank Borzage's excellent, insanely plot-packed drama The Shining Hour, which also features Crawford, Hattie McDaniel, Robert Young, dialogue by Ogden Nash, a bitter spinster, a dance number, and a huge fire—all in 78 minutes. But her greatest work comes in Borzage's Three Comrades (script by F. Scott Fitzgerald, with dialogue that actually sounds Fitzgerald-ian). It's about three German soldiers, their lives after World War I, and the woman one of them loves. Sullavan received a best actress nomination for this film, probably for (spoiler) one of the most irresistibly over-the-top death scenes in the 1930s canon. But it's her gentle, bemused underplaying up to that point that will stay with you, as well as the movie itself, which unfolds with a mature, thoughtful attention to its characters that marks it as one of the period's best, gentlest melodramas, richly deserving of a fresh look.
There is a particular kind of movie buff who likes to go deep, who prints out Turner Classic Movies' schedule (where you can see some of these movies) two months in advance, who will DVR a film based on the tiniest sliver of hope. (I admit to once hitting "Record program" based on an on-screen description for a movie that read, in its entirety, "1940. ***. A jealous woman destroys her family's …" Her family's what? Fortune? Hopes? Rec room? I didn't care—I was on board.) For them (for us), the Archive Collection is dangerous turf. Glass-half-empty types will complain that these movies, most of which represent gambles on the unknown, can't be rented, only purchased. But $19.95 is about what it'd cost you and a friend to take a chance on a film in a revival house, and revival houses, as you've probably noticed, are even harder to find than these movies have been. Besides, small luxuries in the absence of big ones make enduring a recession a lot easier. At least, that's my rationalization for the fact that I will be revisiting the Archive Web site until the good folks at Visa break down my door and stop me.