CORRIDOR of MYSTERY
VOL. 3, No. 30
Mystery of the Missing Videos
Biff Elliot as Mike Hammer
in the 1953 "I, the Jury"
Why are so many great
mysteries not on video?
By RON MILLER
If you're a serious student of mystery, it's very frustrating to discover that so many of the classic mystery movies you'd like to see simply aren't available on video or DVD--and, for that matter, never have been available.
For example, I'd love to see that great character actor Edward Arnold as Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe and loveable Lionel Stander as his sidekick, Archie, in "Meet Nero Wolfe," which Columbia released in 1936. Sorry, it's not available. Nor is the second Nero Wolfe film: "The League of Frightened Men" (1937) with Walter Connolly as the corpulent sleuth.
And it's been more than 40 years since I saw the 1932 "Arsene Lupin" with John and Lionel Barrymore in the popular MGM film about the debonair French jewel thief. I may have to wait another 40 for it to come out on video. Ditto for "Enter Arsene Lupin" (1944) with Charles Korvin and Ella Raines.
How about the 10 films in the "Crime Doctor" series? I saw most of these films when they first came out between 1943-49, but I was a kid and can't remember much of anything about them except that I thought Warner Baxter as the amnesia-clouded Dr. Ordway was sensational. Not on video or DVD.
Though the reviews from 1940 weren't very nice, I'd still like to see Robert Montgomery as Lord Peter Wimsey in "Haunted Honeymoon," the MGM movie version of Dorothy L. Sayers' final Wimsey novel, "Busman's Honeymoon." Not on video.
Does anyone remember "The Lone Wolf" movies? There were several silents, several early talkies and 15 other films between 1935-49 about Louis Vance's Michael Lanyard, the jewel thief-turned hero. To my knowledge, none are available on video.
I'm one of the few who has a copy of "The Black Camel" (1932), the earliest Charlie Chan movie to ever come out on video. (Sadly, it's no longer available.) It stars Warner Oland as Chan, features Bela Lugosi as a mind reader and Robert Young as the boy ingenue. Based on one of Earl Derr Biggers' six Chan novels, it's one of the best in the long series. Four of the early Warner Oland Chans are believed lost and Fox has not seen fit to release "Behind That Curtain" (1929) on video. The first three Chan movies, which starred two Japanese actors and a Korean as the Chinese detective, have never been available and may be lost.
As far as I can tell, only one of the eight Mr. Moto mysteries Peter Lorre made for Fox is available on video: "Mr. Moto's Last Warning" (1939). I think that happened because the film's copyright accidentally lapsed, putting it into the public domain.
I don't think any of the 12 Michael Shayne mysteries with Lloyd Nolan as the tough gumshoe are available on video or DVD. I'm also sure only one of the six Perry Mason mysteries made by Warner Bros. in the 1934-37 period is out on video: "The Case of the Lucky Legs" with Ricardo Cortez as a hard-drinking Perry.
Though the all-time best Sherlock Holmes movies in the long Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series once were available on video, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," both released in 1939, currently are off the market. I've heard that the supposedly "lost" silent version of "Sherlock Holmes" with John Barrymore as the great detective has been found and restored, but I haven't found it for sale anywhere yet.
The original 1953 version of "I, the Jury," the first Mike Hammer movie, is not available on video. Originally released in 3-D by United Artists, it's a much underrated film, mostly because leading actor Biff Elliot was miscast as Hammer, I saw it in a rare 3-D revival not long ago and loved it better than when I first saw it in 1953.
Mickey Spillane's non-Hammer mystery, "The Long Wait" (1954), starring Anthony Quinn, is also a no-show on video. Another Spillane-related film I'd also love to have in my collection is "Ring of Fear," the 1954 CinemaScope mystery set in the Clyde Beatty circus--with Beatty playing himself and the then very hot mystery author Spillane playing the tough guy hero. Sorry, no video.
To my knowledge, none of the 1930s British Hercule Poirot films are available on video, although I recently acquired the first Peter Wimsey movie--a British talkie from 1935 called "The Silent Passenger" with an insufferable Peter Haddon as Wimsey. You can order this from Movies Unlimited, the huge video warehouse.
Most of the Ellery Queen mysteries from the 1930s and 1940s are not available. I think this is the only one that is: "The Mandarin Mystery" (1937) with Donald Cook as Queen. I believe only one of the 14 Philo Vance mysteries made between 1929-47 is available. Fortunately, it's a pip: "The Kennel Murder Case" with William Powell as Vance, directed by Michael Curtiz ("Casablanca").
"No Man of Her Own," the great Barbara Stanwyck film based on Cornell Woolrich's classic noir mystery "I Married A Dead Man," isn't available on video. You'll have to settle for the 1982 French remake "I Married A Shadow" or the 1996 American rehash "Mrs. Winterbourne." Another classic noir film, the 1932 "Payment Deferred" with Charles Laughton (based on C.S. Forester's novel), also is unavailable.
And wouldn't you love to see the 1941 "Mr. and Mrs. North" with Gracie Allen? Sadly, the film version of the famous radio mystery series isn't available on video.
Why are all these classic mysteries still buried in the vaults while video stores are jammed with repulsive direct-to-video junk? In many cases, the original films either don't exist anymore or exist only in the form of inferior 16mm. prints originally made for TV syndication. They've been chopped up and re-edited so often that they may be better off buried.
However, lots of films languish in vaults because either the studios don't see the economic potential in them or they haven't yet figured out a way to market them. The original Fox studio--before it became 20th Century Fox in the mid-1930s--is a storehouse of many great films waiting to go on video. Likewise, Columbia's vaults have many treasures yet to be released.
Another problem is the notion that only old people care about these films. Many video companies don't believe older customers buy enough video product to make them worth courting as a market. Nobody seems interested in the mystery buff marketplace, but somehow a few elusive titles still pop up now and then.
Meanwhile, we can just hope Turner Classic Movies (TCM) or the Fox Movie Channel schedules some of these films in the wee hours of the morning, so we can make our own taped copies for our mystery collections and preserve them until somebody has the good sense to make professional copies for us to buy.
© 2002 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is © 2001 by Jim Hummel.
Ron Miller is the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series and the "Case Book" column on the official PBS Mystery! website. This fall he'll teach "The World's Greatest Detectives" at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, and two courses, "A Century of Horror" and "Alfred HItchcock: Man of Mystery," at Whatcom Community College, also in Bellingham.
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