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As of this writing, the Netflix Instant catalog boasts more than 10,000 titles available for online streaming — a number that, as per the official Netflix rhetoric, seems colossal. But the landscape of this digital paradise may not be quite so idyllic. As classic film enthusiast Jaime Christley reminds us, "If you're one of those crackpots who needs ready access to the wide, wonderful world of movies made before Star Wars, color television, or even pictures that talk, Netflix isn't much to look at."
Consider how the numbers break down. Unsurprisingly, a little over a third of Netflix's streaming titles are seasons of television. Even less surprisingly, more than 5,500 of the remaining 6,706 movies were made over the last 20 years. The site currently offers only 301 films made before 1959 — 73 from the '40s, 34 from the '30s, a handful of silent features, a few early shorts and serials. Online streaming may be the future of cinema. But what about cinema history?
This emphasis on contemporary media is no doubt a reflection of market demand; conventional wisdom suggests that the latest hits encourage new subscriptions, so it hardly seems fair to hold them accountable for failing a niche audience to whom they're not especially inclined to cater. The cinephile demographic is therefore resigned to seek out streaming content elsewhere. Fortunately, alternatives have emerged: Independent third-party startups like MUBI, Fandor, Warner Archive Instant, and Hulu Plus provide access to libraries of classic, foreign, and indie films in exchange for a modest monthly fee, while major pay-per-view services like iTunes and Amazon continue to position themselves as marginally more inclusive than their principal competitor. Here are a couple recommendations from one of our favorites.
In spring 2009, Warner Home Video launched the Warner Archive Collection, a "manufacture-on-demand" service that would release films otherwise unavailable on home video on made-to-order DVD-Rs. Previously, the Warner back catalog, which included titles originally owned by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and RKO Pictures in addition to its own substantial holdings, featured far more films than the studio could ever hope to release on DVD. The economics of an ordinary home video release make each run a matter of mass production and distribution: Only films whose demand numbered in the thousands would ever justify the expense of a single pressing, and the bulk of their titles from the '30s and '40s simply didn't qualify. The Warner Archive Collection would obviate this problem by reducing the minimum runs to zero. A given film wouldn't be pressed until it was purchased, which meant that Warner could make its most obscure properties available for public sale without any of the attendant risk.
It came as no surprise when, in April 2013, Warner Home Video announced its plans to expand the Archive Collection to the web, making many hundreds of its catalog titles available for online streaming; for a studio apparently eager to make classic films accessible at low expense, digitization seemed inevitable. At $9.99 per month, and with a catalog limited for now to a mere 400 titles, Warner Archive Instant may not seem like a bargain when compared to the more copiously populated Netflix Instant. The difference is that while Netflix remains fixated on the zeitgeist, Warner Archive Instant prefers instead to roam a less lucrative past, wandering long-forgotten vaults and gladly seizing whatever oddities it finds. Whatever your degree of familiarity with Hollywood history, the Warner Archive Instant is bound to yield something new.
Among the highlights are the nearly two dozen pre-code comedies and dramas steeped in provocative allure. I'm particularly fond of two: Jewel Robbery and Lawyer Man, from 1932 and 1933 respectively, both directed by William Dieterle and both starring the inimitable William Powell. Though both memorably animated by the vigor of their charming lead, the films in fact represent two sides of the same proverbial coin — one righteous and sincere, the other immoral and irreverent. That they should have been produced by the same actor-director team, only one year apart, makes them even more interesting considered as a pair than apart. The first (and better) of the two, Jewel Robbery, finds Powell starring as a genteel thief whose impeccable style and manner make him no less capable contending with the fairer sex than with the high-priced diamonds he deftly steals from them. The role asks that Powell be attractive, suave, and puckishly droll, and his performance feels as well-tailored as his luxury suits.
Powell, in other words, is a thief so charming you might not mind being his victim — and in fact this notion comes to form the inciting event. The ever-glamorous Kay Francis, with whom Powell had already been paired by '32 a half-dozen times (to great success), here plays Teri, a baroness fed up with her husband and yearning to be charmed by a rogue. Naturally, when Powell comes along, cleaning out the jewelry shop where Teri has been gifted a diamond ring, she readily submits to his spell, flaunting her intentions and, with a flourish of impassioned struggle, all but consummating the budding affair right there on the boutique floor.
As simple comedy, all of this is delightful; every tête-à-tête feels electric. But what's striking today is the candor. It's perhaps too easy to celebrate pre-code films as subversive for simply intimating violence or sex, but Jewel Robbery justifies the attention: The sexual chemistry between Powell and Francis makes it seem only natural that, mere moments after meeting, they should hop into bed together — what's surprising is that they quite literally do. The film bristles with the sorts of wrongdoings that, just two years later, would be banned under the Hays code: Crime is made out to be a joke, cops are made out to be fools, infidelity and premarital sex are openly embraced, marijuana is widely (and quite hilariously) consumed.
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