Another week, another Hollywood studio throws open their classic film vaults to streaming.
Last week, 20th Century Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos announced that the studio would celebrate their 100th anniversary by releasing 100 classics to streaming platforms like iTunes, restored and in high definition. And yesterday, just about every film-centric site on the Internet discovered that Paramount Pictures had launched a YouTube portal offering what some described as “100 free classic movies!” Viva la Digital Revolucion!
Like everything on the Internet, this is kind of true and kind of not. So I’ve spent the last 24 hours investigating the The Paramount Vault, and here’s what I’ve learned.
Ten months ago (December 14, 2014, according to the About page) Paramount launched a YouTube page with a mission to explore “the vast landscape of cinema’s history.” Since then, the studio has posted 91 full length feature films originally released between 1941 and 2014, as well as dozens of sharable excerpts from iconic classics like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. While the service does not require a monthly subscription (like Netflix, Warner Archive Instant or other SVOD offerings) or a pay-per-view rental fee (like iTunes), the films do include commercials* – a fact that has gone largely unreported. (I guess “100 Free Movies” makes a catchier headline than “100 Movies with Commercials.”)
There’s an asterisk here, because simple ad-blocking software can eliminate YouTube commercials on the web and handheld devices. And best of all, when I play films from the Vault on my TV via the Roku streaming player, the commercials disappear, even without AdBlock. This puts The Paramount Vault in the unique position of being an advertiser-supported streaming service without ads, a category in which Paramount is likely to have little competition.
As for “classic” films, that’s a term that has launched more virtual fisticuffs than John Ford ever filmed, and I have no desire to re-start the debate. So here are the facts: currently, The Paramount Vault offers 5 films from the 1940s, 24 from the 1950s, and 13 from the ’60s. Since the just-published edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide suggests in its sub-title a definition of “classic” as pre-1965, that means it’s roughly a 40/60 split between “classic” and “contemporary” among the 91 films currently available on The Vault.
With all due respect to the 1970s, ’80s, or ’90s, many classic film fans may be wondering what happened to all the Paramount movies from the 1930s and ’40s. Wouldn’t it be great to see those early rarities streamed for free?
Sadly, that’s not going to happen, at least not from Paramount, because the studio sold nearly all of their pre-1948 sound films – more than 700 movies – to MCA in 1958. Four years later, MCA merged with Decca Records (primarily shareholder at the time of Universal Pictures) and the pre-1948 Paramount library soon became part of Universal, where it remains more than a half century later, still under-exploited by current ownership. (Thanks Comcast!)
While The Paramount Vault does offer a number of worthwhile classics, including films directed by Preston Sturges, Mitchell Leisen, Frank Capra, Nicholas Ray, and John Cassevetes, many are already available to Amazon Prime subscribers ad-free. (Note: if you don’t subscribe to Amazon you should; it’s a far better option for classic film and TV fans than Netflix, and it’s cheaper.)
To my eyes, the best thing about The Paramount Vault is that it demolishes the paywall behind which so many classic films are hidden nowadays by corporate rights holders. Simple, mainstream access is the best way for a new generation of viewers to discover old movies, and there’s no simpler or mainstream way to reach them than a platform that serves more than one billion active users each month, for free.
All of the 91 films in The Paramount Vault are listed below, but let’s start with three essentials I’ve watched (or re-watched) on the service in the last 24 hours, with thoughts about where and how I viewed them.
Update 10/10/15 – It seems the service is only available in the United States. Sorry, rest of the world!
DARK CITY (1950)
Platform I Watched On: YouTube iOS app
William Dieterle’s 1950 noir is best known as the film that launched the career of Charlton Heston. And bless his heart, Chuck emerges from the cinematic womb fully formed, already rocking the swagger that would define him until his “cold, head hands” actually turned cold and dead.
Shot by veteran Paramount cinematographer Victor Milner, who also served as D.P. on THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (also available from the Paramount Vault, despite its public domain status), DARK CITY is standard issue studio noir, elevated by an excellent cast of still-familiar faces.
Heston is joined by Ed Begley, Harry Morgan and Jack Webb as a motley crew of bickering, low-rent grifters, with Don DeFore as the dupe who finds himself on the wrong side of a rope. Viveca Lindfors is his widow, who ends up in a romance with Heston – awkward, considering Chuck’s culpability in her husband’s demise. Dean Jagger is the tenacious cop who chases Heston and his crew, while the victim’s brother (the brutish Mike Mazurki) pursues them with a different type of justice in mind. Entirely wasted here is beloved noir bad girl Lizabeth Scott (under contract to producer Hal Wallis), who spends most of the film inexplicably mooning over a self-involved Heston. (Avoid those guys, ladies!)
Olive Films has licensed DARK CITY from Paramount for home video release and I can’t imagine they’re thrilled about the studio streaming it for free, especially ten months after a Blu-ray release. But that’s their problem, not ours.
I watched DARK CITY on my iPhone 6 – GASP! Yes, I watch movies on my telephone like a teenager – and the remastered transfer looks and sounds terrific. I started viewing at home using my WiFi, continued on my walk to the subway via AT&T’s cellular network, and finished at lunch (again on WiFi). Never did I experience even a hiccup in playback. There was one awkwardly inserted commercial every ten minutes with the option to “skip this ad” after three seconds (who doesn’t choose to press that button?) but, as stated earlier, AdBlock can whack those commercials faster than William Conrad and Charles McGraw.
THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK (1944)
Platform: YouTube.com on MacBook Pro
All things considered, writer/director Preston Sturges is probably my favorite filmmaker of all time. During an inexplicably prolific five-year period between roughly 1939 and 1944, Sturges made seven(!) of the most enduring comedies in Hollywood history including THE LADY EVE (1941), SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941) and THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942).
Perhaps the best of them is THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK, a wartime farce in which the delightful Betty Hutton (as small town party girl Trudy Kockenlocker) boosts the moral of a departing servicemen by allowing one of them to impregnate her. And she can’t remember which one it is. (I’m not making this up.) How Sturges and Paramount got this premise past the 1940s censors I don’t know, but I’m sure glad they did.
The great William Demarest plays Trudy’s dad, a blustery widower whose efforts to keep his daughter down on the farm go completely awry. The always-reliable Eddie Bracken (better in Sturges’ HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO, but still solid here) is the man who loves Trudy, but can’t go to war with the other guys because of a bad case of nerves. And much of the Sturges stock company shows up in supporting roles, including Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff hilariously recreating their parts from Sturges’ THE GREAT McGINTY (1940).
Unlike the rest of the Sturges canon, Paramount did not include MORGAN’S CREEK when they sold their library to MCA, owning in part to a remake in production at the time – 1958’s ROCK-A-BYE BABY with Jerry Lewis. While that ownership vaguery kept the film out of Universal’s Preston Sturges: The Filmmaker Collection box set fifty years later, it does allow it to featured here. I’m thrilled to see almost 10,000 views on YouTube in just three months, but I can’t imagine the folks at the Warner Archive Collection are happy about that. They released MORGAN’S CREEK on manufacture-on-demand DVD two years ago as part of a licensing deal with Paramount, and it’s still for sale. I’m no mathematician, but even I know that free is better than $19.99.
I watched THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN’S CREEK on my laptop and the commercial placement is roughly the same on the web as it is on iOS: a single ad inserted every ten minutes, with the option to skip.
MISSING IN ACTION (1984)
Platform: Roku 3 Streaming Player
Congratulate me! I’m no longer the only forty-something male movie fan in the world who’s never see MISSING IN ACTION. That travesty has now been rectified, thanks to The Paramount Vault.
Perhaps the prototypical Golan/Globus production from the legendary Cannon Films, MISSING IN ACTION stars Chuck Norris as a Vietnam vet who returns to the North Vietnamese POW camp he escaped from a decade earlier on a mission to rescue his comrades. Along the way he shoots some bad guys, blows some shit up, pilots a super cool boat, partners with M. Emmet Walsh, and takes off lovely Lenore Kasdorf’s shirt. Yes, it’s predictable and yes, Chuck Norris has the acting range of a dinner theater understudy, but MISSING IN ACTION knows exactly what you want it to be, and it delivers.
One of my biggest surprises about The Paramount Vault is their ability to put R-rated content on YouTube without any requirement for age authentication. I was under the impression that “adult content” was embargoed from the free content on the site, but Paramount’s transfer of MISSING IN ACTION appears to be unedited, with multiple nude scenes intact. (Not that a serious cinephile like myself pays attention to nude scenes, or bookmarks them for easy access later.)
I watched MISSING IN ACTION on my 50-inch Pioneer plasma HD TV via Roku, which allows me to easily “cast” a YouTube video from my computer to the streaming player. (You can also do the same thing with Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, or Chromecast, or use each player’s native YouTube apps.) The Paramount Vault transfers do not appear to be HD, but most are in the proper aspect ratio, and the image quality is far better than other YouTube content I’ve watched on my TV. (And everything I’ve watched so far as been close captioned, which I know is an important consideration for some viewers.)
Summation: If you’re a film diehard with a large physical media collection and subscriptions to multiple HD streaming services, The Paramount Vault may not be for you (at least for now). But if you’re a movie fan on a budget, someone looking for no-cost streaming options on the go, or a Twitter user who likes to live tweet with friends using free platforms, The Paramount Vault should be on your radar. There’s huge potential here and I’m keeping an eye on the service because most of the movies highlighted in the recently-posted sizzle reel are not even offered yet. Considering their high-profile nature – AIRPLANE, TITANIC, GREASE, STAR TREK etc. – I bet most will re-direct you to the main Paramount Movies YouTube page, where VOD rentals in HD cost $3.99.
Because in Hollywood, nothing is truly free.
Paramount Pictures Vault on YouTube – 91 films
Films included free w/ Amazon Prime are indicated in caps. Hotlinks take you to YouTube.
1940s – 5 films
The Devil and Miss Jones (1941, Sam Wood)
The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944, Preston Sturges)
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Lewis Milestone) AMAZON
Bride of Vengeance (1949, Mitchell Leisen) AMAZON
The Fighting Kentuckian (1949, George Waggner) AMAZON
1950s – 24
Dark City (1950, William Dieterle) AMAZON
No Man of Her Own (1950, Mitchell Leisen) AMAZON
Riding High (1950, Frank Capra)
Darling, How Could You (1951, Mitchell Leisen) AMAZON
Dear Brat (1951, William A. Seiter) AMAZON
Here Comes the Groom (1951, Frank Capra) AMAZON
Quebec (1951, George Templeton) AMAZON
The Stooge (1953, Norman Taurog) AMAZON
Thunder in the East (1953, Charles Vidor) AMAZON
Casanova’s Big Night (1954, Norman Z. McLeod)
Elephant Walk (1954, William Dieterle)
Forever Female (1954, Irving Rapper) AMAZON
Artists and Models (1955, Frank Tashlin)
Conquest of Space (1955, Byron Haskin)
Run For Cover (1955, Nicholas Ray) AMAZON
Man in the Vault (1956, Andrew V. McLaglen)
The Mountain (1956, Edward Dmytryk) AMAZON
Seven Men from Now (1956, Budd Boetticher)
Omar Khayyam (1957, William Dieterle) AMAZON
The Colossus of New York (1958, Eugene Lourie)
King Creole (1958, Michael Curtiz)
I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958, Gene Fowler)
The Space Children (1958, Jack Arnold) AMAZON
Don’t Give up the Ship (1959, Norman Taurog) AMAZON
1960s – 13
A Touch of Larceny (1960, Guy Hamilton) AMAZON
The Errand Boy (1961, Jerry Lewis)
On the Double (1961, Melville Shavelson) AMAZON
The World of Suzie Wong (1961, Richard Quine)
Escape From Zahrain (1962, Ronald Neame) AMAZON
A Girl Named Tamiko (1963, John Sturges) AMAZON
A New Kind of Love (1963, Melville Shavelson)
Come Blow Your Horn (1963, Bud Yorkin) AMAZON
My Six Loves (1963, Gower Champion) AMAZON
Paris When it Sizzles (1964, Richard Quine)
Crack in the World (1965, Andrew Marton) AMAZON
The Busy Body (1967, William Castle) AMAZON
The Deadly Bees (1967, Freddie Francis)
1970s – 5
Daisy Miller (1974, Peter Bogdanovich)
Shanks (1974, William Castle)
Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York (1975, Sidney J. Furie)
1900 (1977, Bernardo Bertolucci)
An Almost Perfect Affair (1979, Michael Ritchie)
1980s – 19
The Outsider (1980, Tony Luraschi) AMAZON
The Sender (1982, Roger Christian)
The Man Who Wasn’t There (1983, Bruce Malmuth) AMAZON
Man, Woman and Child (1983, Dick Richards)
Revenge of the Ninja (1983, Sam Firstenberg)
Love Streams (1984, John Cassavetes)
Missing in Action (1984, Joseph Zito)
Ninja III: The Domination (1984, Sam Firstenberg)
Sword of the Valiant (1984, Steven Weeks)
King Solomon’s Mines (1985, J. Lee Thompson)
American Ninja (1985, Sam Firstenberg)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986, Tobe Hooper)
American Ninja II: The Confrontation (1987, Sam Firstenberg)
Hot Pursuit (1987, Steven Lisberger)
Ironweed (1987, Hector Babenco)
Masters of the Universe (1987, Gary Goddard)
Appointment with Death (1988, Michael Winner)
American Ninja III: Blood Hunt (1989, Cedric Sundstron)
A New Life (1988, Alan Alda) AMAZON
1990s – 11
Flashback (1990, Franco Amurri)
Funny About Love (1990, Leonard Nimoy)
Hamlet (1990, Franco Zeffirelli)
Shadowhunter (1992, J.S. Cardone) AMAZON
There Goes the Neighborhood (1992, Bill Phillips) AMAZON
Bound (1996, The Wachowski Brothers)
Chameleon (1996, Stuart Cooper)
Rumpelstiltskin (1996, Mark Jones) AMAZON
Get Real (1999, Simon Shore)
In Dreams (1999, Neil Jordan)
Where’s Marlowe (1999, Daniel Pyne)
2000s – 11
Festival in Cannes (2002, Henry Jaglom)
The Reckoning (2002, Paul McGuigan)
Serving Sara (2002, Reginald Hudlin)
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2003, Mike Hodges)
The Chumscrubber (2005, Arie Posen)
Queer Duck: The Movie (2006, Xeith Feinberg)
Beneath (2007, Dagen Merrill)
Margot at the Wedding (2007, Noah Baumbach)
Circle of Eight (2009, Stephen Cragg)
The Loved Ones (2009, Sean Byrne)
Wrong Turn at Tahoe (2009, Franck Khalfoun)
2010s – 3
Born to Raise Hell (2011, Lauro Chartrand)
Ghost Team One (2013, Ben Peyser)
Turtle Power: The Definitive History of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014, Randall Lobb)