Turnabout North of the 49th

January 23, 2011 | By

'No screwball comedies for you!'

TCM’s salute to Hal Roach this month is a great intro to the producing force that brought Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy together to create one of the greatest comedy teams in film, not to mention countless other teams, troupes, and series that were released by various studios (mostly MGM) during Roach’s heyday, the 30s and 40s.

TCM, in effect, is one of the few – if not the main – source for classic Hollywood films that used to air in prime time and after hours on indie stations when they weren’t showing syndicated programs. Many film fans in a pre-home video era could see classics in second run theatres, 16mm rentals, or by staying up late at night to catch the huge variety of titles sold to TV back in the 50s in large packages.

In the present era, where so much product is out there and more old product had fallen into the public domain realm (well, sort of, considering copyright limits keep getting extended beyond reasonable periods) you’d think whatever is listed on TCM isn’t subject to rights issues between Canada and the U.S., but that ain’t so.

Most of the Hal Roach titles screening in January aren’t available to Canadian subscribers, and with few stations here showing old movies in such volume and variety, and so little classic films being released on commercial DVDs in North America by the major studios, Canadians are being left out.

Usually what happens is a substitute title is slotted where the problem title was supposed to be. TCM doesn’t change their ‘coming soon’ bumpers because the material ultimately comes from a main feed, and there’s no sense in changing all those bumpers for a market 1/10th of the States.

The most amusing example of a singular film that never makes it to air on TCM’s Canadian channel [TCM-C] is Carol Reeds The Third Man. Actually, many of Reed’s late forties/early fifties films get blocked, because there’s either no rights holder in Canada, or someone does own the rights, but is a pinhead for not being aware of their ownership and/or for not negotiating some agreement to permit said problem title to appear here.

Third Man as always been a headache on home video here because the DVD and Blu-ray were imports, and from the angle of the film’s last distributor, Criterion, the film had a limited availability because the Blu-ray went OOP within a few years of its release. The title is currently available on BR only, via Lionsgate (courtesy of their Canal Plus agreement), and Maple carries it domestically, but in terms of TCM-C, it’s blocked out.

This of course brings me to Hal Roach, whose films were primarily distributed by MGM as well as RKO – two libraries mostly owned by Warner Bros.

Or not.

Roach’s original Little Rascals shorts are distributed on home video by the Weinsteins, whereas the later forties shorts are via WHV on their Warner Archives on-demand brand. Most of the Laurel & Hardy feature films are available on DVD via KINO (who also have distribution in Canada), and some of those titles do appear on TCM-C.

The silent shorts are available from Image, but the sound shorts are apparently owned by Hallmark in the U.S., and to the immense annoyance of fans, the label’s done nothing with the films.

25-30 years ago, the sound shorts used to air on NBC’s Buffalo affiliate weekends, and I’d tape those beat-up 16mm shorts each week because they literally went through the A-Z catalogue of available titles, and the roster was considerable.

The only way to buy those shorts today are on Region 2 European DVDs, so this past Xmas I splurged about $35-40 on a complete set from Britain, courtesy of Universal. These shorts were part of TCM’s Hal Roach salute, but they were also blocked north of the 49th parallel, leaving Canadians out in the cold again.

Topper (1937) is probably my favourite comedy because years ago I rented it with my dad from the Fairview library on 16mm, and watched it endlessly. TVOntario also aired the film, in addition to the sequels Topper Returns (1941) and Topper Takes a Trip (1938) as part of Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies and Magic Shadows series.

The first and third films are available on DVD via Lionsgate in the U.S., and the third also came out solo via Image, but the second film is apparently in rights hell. All three films aired last week on TCM, but TCM-C blocked them.

TVO aired the films a few times when I was a kid, and 30 years later the movies are without an owner in Canada. Weirdly, one can see a scene from Topper in TCM’s Media Room gallery. You can glimpse it, but it’s still forbidden fruit because of rights mismanagement.

TVO also aired One Million B.C. (1940) with Victor Mature (“Loo-a-na!!!”) and silky Carole Landis, but that title is also part of the no-show rule, as are several series I’ve never even heard of, including the Thelma Todd-Patsy Kelly shorts, the Todd-Zasu Pitts shorts, and more painfully, something called Screen Directors Playhouse where major A-list directors (Leo McCarey, George Marshall, Ida Lupino, Fred Zinnemann and John Ford, to name a few) helmed episodes of this short-lived, 35-episode TV series.

Screening this week is Turnabout, a 1940 screwball comedy in which a bickering couple make a wish that’s granted by a Buddha-like statue in their bedroom, resulting in each person inhabiting the other’s body. I haven’t seen the film in maybe 30+ years, and it’s also being blocked in spite of being aired, er, 30+ years ago on TVO.

I did read the original novel by Thorne Smith (same author of the Topper novels), but it’s a terribly dated, awfully sexist artifact with a one great concept and one good paragraph about manicuring toes.

The programming switcheroo isn’t just native to Roach’s catalogue – the aforementioned Carol Reed films (several distributed by MGM) – are blocked, as are some odd pre-WWII Paramount titles owned by Universal, such as the classic Fredric March-Veronica Lake fantasy-comedy I Married a Witch (1942), which also aired a great deal on TVO when TV sets were made of bricks, people sat on piles of loose straw, and TV signals were broadcast using aluminum-coated fishing wire that received aural blips and bleeps from some big-mouth on the corner block, shouting into a wide-rimmed megaphone.

Which begs the question: exactly whom does the copyright rules serve when 60-70 years after a film’s release, it can’t be shown by what’s become the central specialty broadcaster of classic films?

And in the case of the Laurel & Hardy films, it’s even more daft that the American home video distributor is sitting on the catalogue as the North American fans of the iconic comedians age, and at this point have bought domestic grey market or legit releases from overseas. The fans sort of win in the end, while the U.S. owner snoozed, and lucked out.

That’s a case of owner apathy – which happens with equal banality in Canada when a rights holder blocks the release of a home video title with which they’re not doing anything themselves, or produce their own substandard edition – but in the realm of broadcasting, it’s a more cruel cheat because unlike a DVD or Blu-ray, you can’t ‘import’ a signal.

As much as I enjoy TCM, it is consistently disheartening when my eyes widen after spotting a particular title, and then get really small from a growing frown after checking the Canadian schedule and finding not Laurel & Hardy, but substitutes Wheeler and Woolsey (who are perhaps 1/100th as funny and L&H).

Copyrights should be set at 50 years after a piece’s release. You, the owner, have 50 years to make money, archive the best prints and transfers, and create a nest egg for future endeavors. After that, you must compete within the international public domain and prove to consumers your print is better than the others.

It’ll ensure the film doesn’t disappear into oblivion, is priced according to a fair market value ($10 versus $20-$30 as an on-demand import), and forces rights holders to manage and exploit their wares, because there’s nothing more frustrating for fans of any creative work than seeing it blocked, or breeding dust in a file cabinet.

As more classic, specialty and antique titles make their way to digital and on-demand formats with region-specific distribution channels, there is a trend underway that’s very disturbing: the trove of films that once glutted TV and later home video is being redirected into controlled venues that cost more than the product is generally worth.

And it will backfire once the fans willing to pay a premium have reached their own saturation and budgetary limitations.

There is a theorem in which the doubling of an item’s price might cost a vendor 50% of its clientele; the vendor still makes the same, but he’s pushed away clients who won’t come back, and will seek other and cheaper products.

The thrill of the search stems from hard work and discovery, not getting as far as the front door and finding it locked, with some partially hidden figure clearly asleep, and completely oblivious to your politely persistent knocking.

No one benefits from this silliness.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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