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THE DEATH OF VHS—AND WHAT WE’VE LOST

Amidst the various “in memoriam” pieces for 2016 one name was missing: not an actor or a filmmaker, but a format familiar to all of us–vhs. Several sources reported that the manufacture of videocassette recorders, or vcrs, was discontinued by Funai Electric of Japan, which sold its products under the Sanyo brand here in the U.S. Sales had dropped to 750,000 the previous year. That doesn’t seem like such a tiny number but it was small enough to discourage the company from continuing. With the demise of video recording devices comes the eventual extinction of the tapes they played. Most companies stopped producing commercial tapes in 2003.

That doesn’t mean that tapes have disappeared. Millions of people still own and use them. Like many of you, I recorded a lot of shows and clips on vhs over the years, and while I’ve transferred most of them to a hard drive, I’m reluctant to discard the originals. They constitute my first-hand source material.

Please understand, I’m not a Luddite. I stream movies, enjoy using my DVR and watch DVDs and Blu-rays on a regular basis. What’s more, statistics show that more titles were released through Movies on Demand programs by the major studios (Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and 20th Century Fox) than ever came out on vhs.

And yet…  Where is the equivalent of Republic Entertainment’s boxed set Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection, which offered 115 Max Fleischer cartoons on eight vhs cassettes? (It was also released on laserdisc.) Olive Films has released some fine Betty Boop DVDs but they constitute a fraction of what was produced. I know of ongoing efforts to release more of the Fleischer catalog, but nothing has happened yet.

Will we ever see the equivalent of Universal four-volume Swing: The Best of the Big Bands boxed set? This collection provided top-quality excerpts from Universal shorts featuring Tommy Dorsey, Benny Carter, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Nat “King” Cole, Stan Kenton, and countless other music giants. I would have preferred to see the complete short subjects from which these were drawn, but what’s here is pure gold. It only came out on videotape and never made it to disc. (Neither did Universal’s landmark early-talkie musical King of Jazz, which has now been meticulously restored in 35mm.)

In a galaxy far away from the big band era, there are many Star Wars devotees who cling to their vhs set of the original trilogy (including my interviews with George Lucas) because they are the only replicas of the films as they first appeared in theaters. All subsequent home video releases include Lucas’ visual-effects “improvements,” which some purists disparage or reject outright.

I, for one, will never part with my vhs set of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s Hollywood series for Thames Television, a stunning survey of the silent film era told through film clips and first-hand interviews. Apparently the expense and effort of clearing rights and inserting restored silent footage makes it unlikely that we’ll see this series made available again.

Speaking of silents, Paramount released a number of its A-list titles on vhs with original music tracks by the late, great theater organist Gaylord Carter. But The Covered Wagon, Old Ironsides, Running Wild, The Wind and The Wedding March were never reissued on disc. (Criterion did produce a great DVD set of Josef von Sternberg’s Paramount silent features—Underworld, The Last Command, and Docks of New York–but it’s now out of print.) The Sheik is newly available from Kino Lorber and several other W.C. Fields silent comedies are reportedly on their way. But back when videocassette recorders were still humming, you could purchase high-quality copies of such major MGM silent films as The Big Parade, The Crowd, and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.

In some cases the problem is strictly financial: DVD and Blu-ray demand a higher grade of pictorial quality than vhs did, which means someone must foot the bill for a new digital transfer from the 35mm original. The expense is considerable, and if a company doesn’t foresee sufficient sales that isn’t likely to happen.

There are scores of other titles that exist only on vhs (at least in authorized copies for the U.S. market) for a variety of reasons, including legal entanglements and sheer indifference. They range from Billy Wilder’s final film, Buddy Buddy (1981) to Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero (1936). The film that made Richard Farnsworth a star, The Grey Fox (1983) is a rarity even on vhs, which is also true for Richard Brooks’ Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) with Diane Keaton.

The same thing happened when 78rpm records were discontinued in favor of LPs and when vinyl albums were superseded by compact discs. A great many performances that weren’t best-sellers didn’t make the transition. One of my all-time favorite records, the Andre Previn Quartet’s jazz version of My Fair Lady, isn’t available on CD or on iTunes, so the album I’ve owned for decades is all the more precious to me.

The moral: don’t be so quick to throw out those tapes or deep-six your VCRs. Some day you may be grateful you held onto them.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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