If you love old movies you probably have shelves filled with favorites in every physical media format ever invented. But for every one beloved film in your personal collection, there are hundreds of other undiscovered gems languishing in studio vaults. These films exist, so they can’t be considered “lost,” but they may as well be, because they can’t be seen.
Case in point: the more than 700 pre-1948 Paramount films acquired by MCA in 1958 and controlled by Universal since the 1962 merger of MCA and Universal parent Decca Records. To date, fewer than 200 of them have been made available on DVD. Universal – now owned by Comcast – barely seems interested in exploiting even its own vast library, outside of endlessly repackaging a handful of iconic monster movies from the 1930s and ‘40s.
For instance: Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi is currently available at Amazon in no less than ten different DVD or Blu-ray releases. You may have the Definitive Collection, but what about the Legacy Collection? Or the Complete Legacy Collection? Or the Spotlight? The Essential? And what about the Deluxe Complete Definitive Essential Spotlight Edition with the commemorative wooden stake? (Okay, that doesn’t actually exist. But I might buy it if it did.)
Factor in digital distribution options, and you have a seemingly endless variety of ways to watch one iconic film, while the vast majority of Universal and Paramount’s combined output from the 1930s and ’40s remains interred in the Comcast Coffin.
“Stay tuned” for future plans regarding ways to “improve” access to the shared libraries, a Universal spokesperson told business columnist Michael Hiltzik in a recent edition of The Los Angeles Times. (I’m quoted in the article along with my friend Nora Fiore, who blogs as the Nitrate Diva.)
Universal’s plans may not yet be clear, but, happily, Paramount’s are. While the studio no longer controls their own output from the first two decades of the sound era, they do own a different, equally under-exploited library from the same period: the films produced and distributed by Republic Pictures. And some of those titles – most never before available on home video – are now available streaming.
In recent weeks, Paramount has quietly added 27 Republic releases to the Paramount Vault, a YouTube portal available on computers, handheld devices, and TVs. Paramount launched the streaming service in December of 2014 and had posted 91 full length feature films when I first wrote about it last October. Twenty-seven additional titles were added in November and December, including 23 produced by Republic and four additional, Republic-controlled rarities from British-National Films, Central National Pictures, Allied Artists and United Artists.
And good news for all you cord-cutters: the films on the Paramount Vault are free to watch for viewers in the United States. On mobile devices and computers, each movie includes a (skipable) 15-second ad every ten minutes or so. If you’re streaming on TV via YouTube on Roku (or similar streaming devices), you only have to watch a single pre-roll commercial – a small price to pay for free access to a rare film.
Formed in 1935 when Consolidated Film Industries owner Herbert Yates acquired and merged a handful of independent production houses, Republic was a “mini-major” nestled between Poverty Row and the Big Eight Hollywood studios. Between 1935 and 1958, the studio churned out nearly 1,000 feature films, from Westerns to crime pictures to broad musical comedies, most with B-level budgets and sensibilities. They were also one of the most prolific producers of serials, thanks initially to Yates’ acquisition of Monogram Pictures. (Monogram re-formed in 1937 and continued as an indie through the 1970s, after morphing into Allied Artists in the 1950s.
How Paramount came to control a library of films it neither produced nor distributed is a typically twisty tale of mergers and acquisitions. After television brought on a gradual slowdown in film production in the ’50s, Republic finally pulled the plug in 1958 and was sold. The studio lot was later bought by CBS and the library acquired by TV distributor National Telefilm Associates (NTA), which renamed itself “Republic Pictures” in the mid-1980s. In 1994, the rechristened Republic was acquired by Spelling Entertainment, then a subsidiary of Blockbuster (which was also a stakeholder in Republic). Blockbuster was acquired by Viacom later that year, and the Republic library came under the control of Paramount, which had been acquired by Viacom in 1993.
Got all that? Good. Now you can apply to business school.
If you’re a classic film fan, you may recognize Republic as the studio that made John Ford’s THE QUIET MAN (1952) with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in glorious Technicolor. But that Oscar-winning high-water mark was the exception. The rule at Republic was quickly produced genre fare, usually in black-and-white, with predictable profitability. And, while you’ll never find a cash cow like THE QUIET MAN for free on the Paramount Vault, Republic’s ANGEL AND THE BAD MAN (1947) with John Wayne and THE FIGHTING KENTUCKIAN (1949) with Wayne and Vera Ralston (aka Mrs. Herbert Yates, ahem) are streaming, despite recent Blu-ray releases from Olive films. (Two other recent adds to the Vault are also on Blu from Olive, 1955’s TRACK THE MAN DOWN and 1947’s CHRISTMAS EVE, which came out this week.)
If, like me, B-movies have a special place in your heart, you’ll eat the Republic selections on the Paramount Vault up with a digital spoon. The offerings include Westerns, war pictures, crime films, B-musicals, a “Hillbilly” comedy with cornpone radio comedian Judy Canova, and even feature film re-edits of two of the studio’s most popular serials. I’ve watched seven of the films in recent days and was delighted by both the diverse selection and the quality of the transfers. (I hope to post a review of one or two in the near future).
With only four of the 27 new titles on the Paramount Vault also available on DVD or Blu-ray, collectors will undoubtedly be disappointed. But, as one of the the only major studios without a manufacture-on-demand label, Paramount seems to have decided that making money on ad-supported streaming is better than having obscure films gather dust. I agree with that strategy wholeheartedly. And if you really must have a physical copy, you can always save the media to your desktop via a free YouTube video downloader and burn a copy to a DVD-R.
As business paradigms and delivery methods evolve, one thing remains constant: access is key to keeping classic film alive for current fans and relevant for a new generations of viewers. And if new media initiatives like the Paramount Vault and Fox’s Century of Cinema on iTunes prove successful, perhaps Comcast will take notice and crack open the vaults to the long-unseen Paramount and Universal titles. In the meantime, I’ll be watching Judy Canova in PUDDIN’ HEAD (1941) – along with the more than 2,700 other people who’ve enjoyed it in just the last two months.
To access the Republic titles on the Paramount Vault, visit my YouTube playlist or click the links below. For my October, 2015 article (which includes links to all the films on the service), click here.
Republic Pictures on the Paramount Vault – 27 films
Links take you to YouTube. Unless indicated, these films are unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray.
1930s – 1 film
Pride of the Navy (1939, Charles Lamont)
1940s – 18 films
Laugh it Off (1940, directed by John Baxter, produced by British National Films)
Barnyard Follies (1940, Frank McDonald)
Gangs of Chicago (1940, Arthur Lubin)
Puddin’ Head (1941, Joseph Santley)
Remember Pearl Harbor (1942, Joseph Santley)
Stagecoach Express (1942, George Sherman)
The Man from the Rio Grande (1943, Howard Bretherton)
O, My Darling Clementine (1943, Frank McDonald)
Tahiti Honey (1943, John H. Auer)
Jamboree (1944, Joseph Santley)
Rosie the Riveter (1944, Joseph Santley)
Mexicana (1945, Alfred Santell)
The Phantom Speaks (1945, John English)
The Trail of Kit Carson (1945, Lesley Selander)
Angel and the Bad Man (1947, James Edward Grant) On Blu-ray
Christmas Eve (1947, Edwin L. Marin – United Artists) On Blu-ray
Train to Alcatraz (1948, Philip Ford)
The Fighting Kentuckian (1949, George Waggner) On Blu-ray
1950s – 6
The Golden Gloves Story (1951, Felix Feist – Central Nat’l Pictures/Eagle-Lion)
Million Dollar Pursuit (1951, R.G. Springsteen)
Track the Man Down (1955, R.G. Springsteen) On Blu-ray
Zanabuku (1956, Lewis Cotlow)
Satan’s Satellites (1958, Fred C. Brannon)
New Orleans After Dark (1958, John Sledge – Allied Artists)
1960s – 1
Cyclotrode X (1966, Fred C. Brannon)
1990s – 1
Betty Boop Confidential (1995, compilation)