During the past year, the increasingly aggressive FoxVideo brought out batches of vintage movies starring Sonja Henie, Don Ameche and Shirley Temple, whose 1930s vehicles sold in the millions in video stores.
MCA Home Video added to its horror collection and its series of Marlene Dietrich classics. Paramount Home Video came up with a few oddball items ("Nijinsky," "Riding High"), while MGM/UA Home Video concentrated on Errol Flynn and Clark Gable oldies and British films from the 1960s.Many important films remain unavailable on tape or disc, including "Tobacco Road," "The Innocents," "Porgy and Bess," Laurence Olivier's "Othello," "Midnight," "The High and the Mighty," and even a few feature-length Disney cartoons, among them "Oliver and Company" and "The Black Cauldron."
But quite a few gaps got filled in 1994. These were among the year's most welcome video debuts:
- "Call Northside 777." The "Thin Blue Line" of its day, this fact-based 1948 thriller stars James Stewart as a newspaperman trying to prove that Chicago police framed a young man for murder. It was produced by Otto Lang, whose new autobiography, "A Bird of Passage," tells how he proposed the story to Darryl F. Zanuck and turned it into a critical-commercial hit. FoxVideo claims this is the most-requested vintage movie in the company's history.
- "The Charge of the Light Brigade" (1968). The late Tony Richardson's revisionist, Vietnam-era account of the Crimean War, with Trevor Howard, Vanessa Redgrave, John Gielgud and several animated sequences that look like political cartoons come to life. In her new biography, Redgrave writes in eloquent defense of this underrated satirical epic by her former husband.
- "Chimes at Midnight." Many of Orson Welles' movies are just beginning to surface. This 1966 production did play a few American theaters (it influenced both Gus Van Sant's "My Own Private Idaho" and Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V"), but this marks the first tape release of a version that's close to his original vision. The script is a collection of scenes from Shakespeare's Falstaff plays, starring Keith Baxter as Henry V, John Gielgud as Henry IV and Welles as Falstaff.
- "Desire." Ernst Lubitsch and Frank Borzage's stylish 1936 romantic comedy starring Marlene Dietrich as a European jewel thief and Gary Cooper as the American car designer she snags in Spain. MCA Home Video holds the rights to other unreleased Lubitsch comedies, including "Trouble in Paradise," "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" and "Angel."
- "The Knack, and How to Get It." Richard Lester directed this swinging-1960s comedy in the same style as his Beatles movies ("A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!"), although David Watkin's black-and-white cinematography gives it a gauzier quality. Rita Tushingham plays a new girl in town, and Michael Crawford is the klutzy boy who wins her. John Barry's snappy score is a far cry from his droning music for 1990s epics.
- "Nothing But a Man." A legendary, independently produced 1964 film about African Americans. Far more realistic about the entrenched prejudices of the period than even Sidney Poitier's gutsier Hollywood pictures, it stars Ivan Dixon as a self-doubting Alabama railroad worker who marries a sheltered Baptist minister's daughter (Abbey Lincoln). He immediately finds himself in opposition to his father-in-law's appeasing attitude toward whites.
- "Oklahoma!" (1955 roadshow version). Rodgers and Hammerstein's first musical was filmed twice: in a 70mm version that was photographed at 30 frames per second (and presented as a 1955 reserved-seat attraction) and in a CinemaScope 35mm version that was shot at the standard 24 f.p.s. (it was given a general release in 1956). Those who saw that original roadshow version maintain that it's the more fluid, spontaneous film. This year, for the first time, laser disc fans can compare the two side by side.
- "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Disney often said it would never happen, but the crown jewel of its animation library finally made it to video stores a couple of months ago. It's already sold 20 million tapes and will probably overtake Disney's "Aladdin" to become the all-time top-selling videotape. Cleaned up and digitally remastered, the 1937 movie probably didn't look or sound this good the day it opened. The deluxe $100 laser disc edition shows it off best.
- "Thieves Like Us." Robert Altman's most neglected great film is based on Edward Anderson's novel, which was inspired by the bank-robbing adventures of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The book was previous filmed as "They Live by Night" and it heavily influenced "Gun Crazy" and "Bonnie and Clyde." In 1974, Altman went back to the literary source of all these films, casting Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall as the doomed lovers.
- "Traffic." Almost a silent comedy, this is Jacques Tati's 1970 installment in his "Mr. Hulot" series, which reached its peak of art-house popularity in the 1950s with "Mr. Hulot's Holiday" and the Oscar-winning "Mon Oncle." This time he's a salesman who serves as an interpreter at an annual car exhibition in Amsterdam. It was the director's next-to-last film. He died in 1982.
Other good stuff that finally made it to video this year: "Broadway Bill," "Hot Millions," "In Old Chicago," "The Rains Came," "The Mortal Storm," "The Naked City," "Il Grido," "People Will Talk," "An Englishman Abroad," "Anna and the King of Siam," "I Was a Male War Bride," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "Hondo," "Il Bell'Antonio," "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness," the original Swedish-dialogue version of "Autumn Sonata," "The Fixer," "That Man From Rio," "Viva Maria!," restorations of "My Fair Lady" and "A Streetcar Named Desire," and the letterboxed editions of "Hud," "Brewster McCloud," "Lonely Are the Brave," "Once Upon a Time in the West" and "Dressed to Kill."