Cliff Aliperti writes about old movies at Immortal Ephemera where he also shares and sells vintage movie cards and collectibles. Cliff zeroes in on the star of Skyscraper Souls and Employees’ Entrance at WarrenWilliam.com.
Given the incredible wealth of classic movies released as MOD DVD-R’s over the past few years—with extra special thanks to the Warner Archive for leading the way—I almost feel like I’m whining with this contribution.
In fact, given the rules of the house, I don’t know how much bigger this list could actually be. There are many more movies of the 1930s and ‘40s commercially available today than there were back when I assembled my VHS collection in the 1980s and ‘90s.
I could conceivably create a very long list of pre-war movies that have never had a video release of any kind. But the fact that the following titles were actually available at one time makes their current MIA on DVD status seem more of an oversight than anything else.
The good news is that a few of these could arrive on DVD at any moment. Heck, I’m convinced that Warner Archive has only made Madame Curie (1943) available from the time I began putting my list together. And I know Blessed Event (1932) cannot have been available much longer than that.
Both of those held a place on my list until my final vetting of titles. Here’s what remains:
The Criminal Code (1931) - Features mostly forgotten Phillips Holmes wrongly convicted of a crime that lands him in warden Walter Huston’s prison. Holmes enters Huston’s confidence and manages to fall for the warden’s daughter, played by Constance Cummings, along the way. Holmes looks to be on his way to an early release until he unintentionally winds up on the scene for fellow con Boris Karloff’s revenge plot. Entertaining prison thriller.
Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933) - Both star Warren William and while I don’t know which one I watched first I do recall watching them back to back the first time I saw them. They were from a group of Forbidden Hollywood VHS tapes I’d grabbed back in my earliest eBay buying days. And what a find!
Warren William wasn’t an actor I knew until that night. He’d been there, in the background of The Wolf Man (1941) and incognito with clean upper lip in Cleopatra (1934), but it was discovery of these two pre-code titles that finally made me take notice. They sparked an obsession for more, a hunt which carried me to creating a separate tribute site for William in 2007.
Both movies feature William already at the top and waging war against the Great Depression to remain there.
Whether it be the survival of the skyscraper that carries his name in Skyscraper Souls or the continued profits of the mega-department store he runs with an iron hand in Employees’ Entrance, William’s characters will cross any boundary necessary to win the battle.
The two films are somewhat infamous for William’s characters chasing leading ladies, Maureen O’Sullivan and Loretta Young as strongly as he chases success, but Warren’s wolfish ways are really just yet another power grab for flawed characters who take drive and determination too far.
Ace of Aces (1933) - I have to confess I never had this one on VHS. In fact, I only saw it recently on TCM and was pretty surprised to discover that had ever even been issued in VHS format. I wouldn’t call Richard Dix’s sculptor a pacifist so much as say that he is too immersed in his own work to be much worried about a World War breaking out.
The delightful Elizabeth Allan of A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield (both 1935) plays Dix’s girlfriend, who is herself swept up in the war fervor and disgusted by Dix’s indifference. Shamed into service by Allan, Dix becomes a fighter pilot aiming for records as he develops a shocking bloodlust from the time of his first kill.
One of those early ‘30s gems that just feels different from anything else you’ve ever seen.
Cavalcade (1933) - I wonder how many other movies that won the Academy Award for Best Picture have never made it to DVD? History guides the fate of a British family headed by Clive Brook and Diana Wynyard from the turn-of-the-century through to the modern times of Cavalcade’s 1933 release date. While it often seems to rank towards the bottom of any list of beloved Oscar-winners it is certainly ripe for rediscovery by fans of Downton Abbey and will even provide a few familiar moments for fans of more direct descendant, Upstairs, Downstairs.
The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1934) - This is such an oversight that I’m almost sure there must be behind the scenes issues complicating a DVD release. A love story between Fredric March’s Robert Browning and Norma Shearer’s Elizabeth Barrett, featuring Maureen O’Sullivan as one of Shearer’s sisters. Despite all those pretty faces the one you can’t take your eye off of during this film is Charles Laughton as Barrett patriarch. So demanding is he that daughter Shearer (actually only 3 years younger than Laughton) has become bedridden by virtue of Laughton’s reign over the household which includes a startlingly possessive streak that even hints at incest.
Crime and Punishment (1935) - Perfect casting with Peter Lorre as Raskolnikov in the Doestoevsky literary classic adapted to the screen by Josef von Sternberg. It flopped then, but it sure is entertaining now. Includes one of Marian Marsh’s best performances as Sonja as well as the always strong Edward Arnold as Porfiry, the police inspector who haunts Raskolnikov over his murder of the old pawnbroker. Another touch of interesting casting with legendary stage actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell on the scene briefly as that nasty pawnbroker.
The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936)- This movie won three Academy Awards including Best Actor for Paul Muni. I avoided it for some time stubbornly deciding that a film about pasteurizing milk couldn’t be all that interesting. Well, that part of the story doesn’t even make the movie! Instead Muni’s Pasteur is an outsider battling the established medical community over germ theory in what turns out to a pretty inspiring story.
George Washington Slept Here (1942) - Hilarious movie starring Jack Benny and Ann Sheridan as a married couple moving from the city to the ultimate fixer-upper country home. With Charles Coburn as the cranky Uncle and Percy Kilbride of Pa Kettle fame as their inept handyman. Think Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) or The Money Pit (1986), but with Jack Benny doing his thing as the cherry on top.
I Married a Witch (1942) - How this delightful story starring two-time Oscar winner Fredric March and one of the screen’s greatest sex symbols, Veronica Lake, hasn’t made it to DVD I don’t know. Also featuring another Oscar-winner, Susan Hayward, early in her career, as March’s fiancé. A somewhat creepy opening features a witch trial before centuries pass and Lake, along with mischievous screen dad Cecil Kellaway, return to avenge themselves upon the ancestor of their accuser: March. The Rene Clair film is often cited as a direct influence on the popular television series Bewitched.
Abandon Ship! aka Seven Waves Away (1957) is one of the grittiest movies I’ve ever seen. Opening with a shipwreck survivors are gathered into and around a life boat captained by Tyrone Power. Problem is there’s just too many of them. Power’s old pal, an injured crew member played by Lloyd Nolan, warns him that he’s soon going to have to make some difficult choices. After spending about an hour meeting all of the survivors Power one-by-one dispatches several to their death for the overall good of those he deems worthy of survival. Shocking movie.
Honorary mention to Kevin Brownlow’s 13-part documentary Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), though that one has been spotted on YouTube lately so at least it can be seen. Made at a time when several silent film stars were still alive to serve as talking heads, it was responsible for introducing me to many of them for the first time.
While I’m at it, Brownlow’s recent restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927) would be something I’d snap right up as well!
Other than those last couple I wouldn’t be surprised to find any of these classic movie titles mentioned among the next batch of DVD releases. They’re coming so fast that I’m really getting spoiled!