The Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Group has had a good idea. Good for the movie fan, good for them. First of all, they’ve thrown open the doors to their vaults to present the “Warner Archive Collection.” This is a cornucopia of cinematic treasures (and, inevitably, some dross) represented initially by 150 titles never before available on DVD. I’m particularly excited to see early George Hamilton flick Crime and Punishment USA (which includes a surprisingly effective performance from the tanned one as well as some great 50s footage of Santa Monica) and Budd Boetticher’s Westbound, one of his terrific collaborations with Randolph Scott, frustratingly long-unavailable.

The archive includes not just Warner pictures but also plenty from the RKO and MGM libraries they acquired, so there’s also the terrific atom-bomb thriller Split Second and the great Jacques Tourneur’s obscure Wichita, starring Joel McCrea. There’s also a handful of rare Garbo silents and, of course, a goodly clutch of Joan Crawford pictures – she started out at MGM and moved to Warners for Mildred Pierce (already available) – including Posessed, with Clark Gable, and the irresistible This Woman Is Dangerous. All this and less archaic stuff too – like Warren Beatty in Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down and Francis Coppola’s strange road movie The Rain People – and what’s more Warner’s promises to add 20 or so new titles each month.

The good idea as far as Warner’s is concerned is that they are trying out a selling technique which, to my knowledge, has never been so extensively applied. There’ll be no warehouses full of unwanted discs, destined for the wire baskets at Costco. There’ll be no discs in stores at all either, as they are available  only through the Warner Bros website. Actually, there’ll just be no discs at all, until an order is placed – it’s an experiment in on-demand, whereby each disc will be “pressed” as ordered, the packaging printed, and the whole thing shrink-wrapped and dispatched as required. To be more correct, however, the movies are not being pressed onto discs in the normal sense, but burned onto DV-Rs much as one would at home. Warners are being slightly roundabout regarding the technology they are using, but assure worried cinephile/tech geek enquirers that the process is a new one (developed presumably in partnership with technological bedfellows HP), superior to the process whereby one burns a disc on a home computer. Issues about the shelf-life of DV-Rs (as opposed to regular, commercial DVDs for pressing) are similarly obfuscated; fair, in part, as no-one knows the answer yet, but Warners steadfastly promises a superior product.

The bottom line is that this is a terrific archive of movies that is otherwise unlikely to have become available in any more conventional way. That they are priced at $20 per disc seems a bit rich, given the cut-down in overheads and the fact it’s not a “real” DVD (if one cares about such things), but I’ll pay $20 for Westbound no problem. Each title is also available as a digital download for five bucks cheaper; given that the packaging is minimal, if quite smart, this seems like a yet more desirable option, bypassing the hard copy shelf-life issue and presumably yet more profitable to Warner’s, thereby encouraging further releases. In whatever form they come, simply having access to so many long-unavailable titles is good enough for me, and I dearly hope its such a success that other libraries follow suit.

Somewhat randomly, Debbie Reynolds is the charming spokesperson for the initiative, and can be found reminiscing about Tony Randall and a giant hog in The Mating Game as well as wondering at the miracles of the digital age here.

image: Warner Bros