There's More to Streaming Than Netflix

Mar 13, 2014 at 4:00 am
Jewel Robbery (1932)
Jewel Robbery (1932)

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 200 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.

And yet, for all its conspicuous transgressions, Jewel Robbery hardly feels weighed down by immorality -- the film is much too buoyant to sink under sin. The high spirits prove seductive, even infectious; the usual pat bit of moralizing at the end of the affair would have doubtless seemed disingenuous. More honest, I think, and more satisfying, for this affable criminal fantasy to carry on unimpeded. During the Depression, this sort of fun was dreamed up to invigorate America, a reverie to dispel sorrow. Today, its potency persists undiminished: The film delights as more than mere escapism.

It's tempting to think of Lawyer Man, in which Powell plays an unwaveringly moral attorney on a mission to combat corruption, as a sort of well-meaning corrective to the misdeeds promoted by Jewel Robbery, but in truth it seems unlikely. William Dieterle, a prolific director even by the standards of the period, directed 11 feature films between 1932 and 1933, so it's difficult to imagine the significance of any one looming over his conscience for long enough to do anything about it. (Powell starred in a further five films over the same two-year stretch.)

In any case, Lawyer Man presents a useful contrast. Powell's unbridled charisma has been marshaled in aid of the public good, which he serves by flamboyantly thwarting the conspiracies of politicians, businessmen, and other trusted members of public office -- all to the exaggerated chagrin of his superiors, who prefer the complacency of the blind eye. Whether he is grandly breaking the law or grandly upholding it, what becomes clear is that it's the grandiosity that matters most to viewers: The thing about Powell is that he proves a joy to watch whatever side of the moral line he happens to be on at the time.

Its subject naturally requires that Lawyer Man adopt a more overtly dramatic approach than Jewel Robbery, but that distinction ultimately seems rather negligible -- Powell and Dieterle can't seem to help themselves from indulging in the same jocose sophistication either way. Part of the appeal of their union in these cases is how offhand the efforts feel. Whether a result of their speed or prolificacy, both Lawyer Man and Jewel Robbery come off as "minor" films in the very best sense. Powell, of course, would go on to achieve stratospheric success only a few years later with the double-punch of The Thin Man in 1934 and My Man Godfrey in 1936, the two performances for which he remains best remembered. The reputation of Jewel Robbery likewise suffers in comparison to Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise, released the same year, which features both a similar premise and a co-star in Kay Francis. Jewel Robbery is not quite up to the standard set by top-tier Lubitsch (though what is?) and Powell, good in everything, is better in his best-known films.

But that's part of what I like so much about Warner Archive Instant: It presents minor alternatives no less enjoyable themselves for being lesser than canonical greats. One thing I fear we're losing in the rush to digitize is the abundance of good films that coexist alongside the truly great. These are the films whose legacies we need to fight hardest to preserve.