Warner Bros (1975 / 2009), single disc, 1.85:1, 101 mins, Rated G, $19.98 (available online only from the Warner Archive Collection)
In the August of 2009, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment announced a somewhat groundbreaking new product line, the WB Archive Collection. The Studio has built up an impressive, if actually unwieldy, library of catalog titles, from the Warner Bros. Pictures they naturally own to the numerous buyouts of other output, most notably the immense number of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer classics through the acquisition of Turner Entertainment as well as those from RKO, Lorimar and various other smaller distributors including many independents. But what to do with all this content!? Turner Classic Movies provides at least one output for some of the more obscure titles in the line-up; titles that may have their fans but not the kinds of numbers clambering to own them and make a mainstream DVD release a moderate hit.
Step forward the WB Archives, where the current video masters for many of these films are dusted down and encoded using a propriety process to blank DVD discs, simultaneously providing fans with some of the hard to get titles they’ve been waiting patiently for and a way for the Studio to get some of their more requested (but way down the restoration line) titles out on disc (and bring in a little revenue on masters that would otherwise stay lined up on shelves). Some have bemoaned the lack of remastering, or the absence of extras, and especially the $20 price point. But I say “phooey!” to that: I remember a time back in the LaserDisc days when an average, no-frills disc would set one back almost twice that cost, without the anamorphic enhancement, or sometimes even the original aspect ratio.
So, for those that can deal with the fact that there is a cost implication to owning some rarities on DVD without any corner logos, and can appreciate that these are made to order discs, with fully printed packaging and, in many cases, the film’s theatrical trailer bundled in where available, the WB Archive Collection is for you. Serving up good quality prints that, while they may not have been restored to pristine condition, are still better than broadcast television or even LaserDisc, the series is proving to be a strong line for the Studio, who have even tackled the pricing issues by offering “two for one” deals, and the like, on themed collections (such as the Lex Barker Tarzans or a selection of MGM Silents). The collection is an eclectic assortment of old and new, and among the titles there are some that will probably temp hardcore cineastes…
Long before Indiana Jones, and even Superman for that matter, Kenneth Robeson’s Clark Savage Jr, better known as Doc Savage, fought for truth, justice and the American way in almost 200 pulp novels, paving the way for such later adventurers but becoming a forgotten character over time. Step forward producer George Pal who, three years before the Man Of Steel took reclaimed such heroes from the camp of the 1960s Batman and Saturday morning cartoons and gave them back dignity and respect, brought Savage to the big screen in a translation that rides a curious line between absurdity and a more sober take on the material. Even with the camp factor and mock-patriotism reasonably high, Pal’s production (co-written by him) remains surprisingly epic in scope. It’s also a surprising choice for director Michael Anderson, the British helmer behind a raft of very fine dramas including The Dam Busters, Yangtse Incident, Chase A Crooked Shadow and The Quiller Memorandum as well as a number of Hollywood spectacles such as Around The World In 80 Days, Orca: The Killer Whale and sci-fi staple Logan’s Run.
TV’s Tarzan Ron Ely stars as our titular hero, and movie-mad eyes may also spot Paul Gleason in an early role as Long Tom, one of Doc’s team, the Fabulous Five, based in a penthouse suite atop a city skyscraper. Savage has some great gadgets, all custom made for this picture, and the 1930s design is well in keeping with the golden age serials feel and he-man do good heroics. But despite the apparent sincerity, one is never sure if this is all being taken seriously or if it is all meant as one big tongue in cheek joke, from the sometimes over the top dialogue (“I’m glad you enjoyed your dinner…because it will be your last!” quips villainous Paul Dexler as Captain Seas, looking like an evil Jim Henson) to John Philip Sousa’s musical score. However, this is just what fans of the movie love about it, and regardless of its perception as a low budget outing, Doc Savage spreads that budget impressively, never flinching from bringing whatever is needed of Doc’s arsenal to the screen.
The result is a rarely seen but much loved comic book movie with reasonably strong thriller, mystery and adventure elements, and it is clearly the set up to launch a series of films: star Ely has confirmed a sequel was shot and the film itself ends with a card announcing to watch for Doc Savage: The Arch Enemy Of Evil. Unfortunately, poor box office for this first film meant a follow up was never completed, this film being the final entry in producer Pal’s long career, and its thunder was to be stolen by Superman: The Movie, ironic seeing as The Man Of Bronze was a major influence on the Man Of Steel, right down to each having an Arctic located Fortress Of Solitude as a private hideaway. The film is often derided nowadays for not being what it might have been, but while it’s not the more literal effort you might expect from Pal and Anderson, the influences on Indiana Jones and James Bond are clear, and there’s still lots of fun to be had!
Being “manufactured on demand” titles, it’s understandable that the Warner Archive discs would be bare-bones, generally lacking subtitles and all using the same themed main menu, but occasionally they surprise with an added trailer here and there. Each disc opens with a sixty second promo for the Archive Collection concept, highlighting among some of the films available in the ongoing series. The discs are not chapter indexed but the films can be skipped through at ten minute intervals, so it’s easy enough to bookmark the nearest point to favorite scenes.
A nice surprise is the inclusion of the film’s original theatrical trailer, which doesn’t seem to be as free of a slight audio glitch as it was on a George Pal documentary disc issued by Image Entertainment, though this is a very small nitpick, and other than that, the 4:3 “fullframe” open matte preview is satisfactory in presentation and very welcome.
If there’s one area where the WB Archive Collection doesn’t quite shine as bright as their more commercially promoted cousins, it’s in the packaging. Not that there’s anything wrong in the artwork itself: though there’s a basic design template for these releases in place, each title retains their original logos and poster or publicity images, while the synopses and info on the back are tailor made, so while they all feel uniform, each is different. The lack of enthusiasm comes with the cases themselves, the sleeves being inserted into what can feel like second hand cases; bulky low cost versions of a regular keepcase that don’t come shrinkwrapped, which kind of spoils the excitement. I’ve instantly swapped these cumbersome cases for a clean set, but really these should feel “newer” than they do, especially for the price. Although the discs are not quite of the DVD-R variety (Warners say they use specific discs and software that make them more robust than home-made creations), the color surface print is as good as any commercial release, adding to the authenticity of these basic but official releases.
In terms of images, Warners has been very honest and very clear about the sources for these releases: no new restoration or remastering has been done and these are basically the current video masters for these titles. On closer inspection, one can see that a little care has been taken (what would be the point of simply reusing decades old transfers and asking us to pay for them?) and the results are pleasing. It’s obvious these are also new transfers of existing prints, since each film is presented in its original aspect ratio, and anamorphically enhanced in 16:9 where appropriate, a presentation that itself would require new transfers as opposed to the TV and LD copies of old.
The format can change between titles, with some progressively transferred while others can be interlaced, but the effect is the same: very good versions of otherwise hard to find movies. I was particularly impressed by the stability of the elements used and the solidity of the coloring, and one of the best prints of the WB Archive titles is easily Doc Savage. Despite a few nicks and flecks here and there, these are the best I’ve ever seen any of these titles looking on my display.
As with the image, Warners have been fortunate in sourcing very good audio for the tracks included on these discs. Considering that these masters have been either used for TV or LaserDisc transfers in the past, or have been newly minted for future use, one can feel safe in the knowledge that the mixes offered are well up to the Studio’s stringent quality levels. Rest assured that Warners hasn’t just simply used the nearest old print with a scratchy, humming soundtrack: these are all again as good as can be expected without going the whole 5.1 remix or restoration route. Due to their age, most of the tracks are in their original mono configurations, but are all direct sounding and clear, and especially impressive is The Man Of Bronze’s exuberant track in keeping with the film’s high energy.
Cinematic Classic or Faded Print?
There really isn’t anything to worry about in going ahead and making some choice picks among the many titles already available and those being added each month. We’ve all had commercially pressed discs go wrong on us, and the worry about the DVD-R type discs here can’t be said to be warranted: each title played fine in the three or four different machines I tested them out on. With surprisingly better than expected audio and video qualities, and even a trailer often thrown in, the slightly high pricing is an issue, but will probably be overlooked by those that understand this is a decent effort from the Studio to get more films out into the marketplace, and the only genuine way for fans to own these titles. I’m a supporter, with another selection of titles already on my wish list, and a request for the likes of Hot Millions (starring Peter Ustinov), The Little Hut (featuring David Niven), and George Pal’s vastly underrated supernatural thriller The Power (directed by Byron Haskin) to be pulled from the archive and made available on disc. Keep collecting!
and many others directly from the online store at WB ARCHIVE COLLECTION