Movie Man: Films that aren't on DVD -- and how to get them

Will Pfeifer

With the release of “The African Queen” on DVD and Blu-ray last month, all of the American Film Institute’s “Top 100 Films” are now officially available on disc. Combine that with the thousands of other movies filling store shelves and Netflix queues, and you’d think every movie ever made was on DVD.

And you’d be wrong.

There are thousands of movies still unreleased on DVD, mostly forgotten films and oddball obscurities you’ve never heard of. But many of them are worth watching, and remain fitfully, frustratingly hard to see. Unless, that is, if you know where to look.

Here are four of my favorite unreleased movies, along with where you can get them. They’re not on the shelves of Best Buy, but they are surprisingly easy to find on that wonderful thing we call the Internet.

1. “Hellzapoppin” (1941) Inspired by a hit Broadway production, this showcase for comedians Ole Olson and Chic Johnson might be the craziest thing ever to come out of Hollywood. The “plot” is a nonstop barrage of visual jokes, bizarre wordplay, weird musical numbers and other bits of business. It’s all impressively insane, but the movie’s best scene arrives when a group of dancers burst on-screen and perform the most outrageous, athletic and flat-out impressive bit of footwork captured on film. (Watch it here)

Where to get it:

2. “Skidoo” (1968) As the 1960s drew to a close, director Otto Preminger (“Anatomy of a Murder,” “Laura”) helmed this piece of misguided grooviness. A retired gangster (Jackie Gleason) is ordered by a mobster named “God” (Groucho Marx) to get sent to prison and kill his old buddy (Mickey Rooney) to stop him from testifying. All that — especially Groucho playing God — would be strange enough, but “Skidoo” is layered with wacky subplots involving Gleason’s wife (Carol Channing), daughter and plenty of LSD. It’s not entertaining, but it is fascinating. You can barely believe it was actually filmed and released.

Where to get it:

3. “Night World” (1932) A year after he made movie history playing Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff played a nightclub owner in this forgotten drama. Like the same year’s blockbuster “Grand Hotel,” “Night World” combines several plots and characters into one fast-paced film. The female lead, coincidentally, is Mae Clarke, who co-starred with Karloff in “Frankenstein” (and is most famous as the recipient of Jimmy Cagney’s grapefruit in 1931’s “The Public Enemy”.

Where to get it:

4. “Gabriel Over the White House” (1933) This wild political fantasy (released just as Roosevelt was taking office) focuses on an apathetic president (the great Walter Huston) who becomes a new man after a car wreck and (possible) divine intervention. Seizing power, he executes mobsters, suspends Congress and threatens the rest of the world into signing a peace treaty. It’s one of the craziest, most entertaining political movies ever made.

Where to get it: Actually, this one has been released on DVD — sort of. Warner Bros. has made hundreds of its more obscure releases available on its Warner Bros. Archive site, where the discs are made one by one as they’re ordered. (The films also can be downloaded). There’s not much in the way of extras, but the prints are crisp and clean.

Go to and click on “Warner Archive.”

Will Pfeifer writes about DVDs for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. Contact him at or 815-987-1244. Read his blog at

But is it legal?

Here’s what John DeFore said in a 2006 article about bootleg movies: “Dealers proudly cite a chunk of copyright law called the Berne Act, which they interpret this way: As long as a movie hasn’t had a commercial release in America, it’s fair game. Given that a few of these enthusiasts have done business for years at the same Web addresses, perhaps Hollywood’s ‘cease and desist’-happy lawyers believe there’s something to the argument.”

Keep in mind, we aren’t talking about bootleg versions of Hollywood hits or movies already on legitimate DVDs. These are films that aren’t available otherwise. Most of the sites listed in this article stress the fact that their movies are “from public domain sources” and “if a film should become available domestically” they’ll stop selling it. And they all remember to include this bit of legal bulletproofing: “No rights are given or implied.”

Some movies you won't be able to find

Though it might seem like every movie is available if you know where to look, that’s not the case. Here are three films not expected on DVD anytime soon — if ever:

“Greed” — Warner Bros. has been working on a release of this 1924 silent epic directed by Erich Von Stroheim, but in this case I’m talking about Stroheim’s original cut, which was reportedly more than 10 hours long. The studio seized control of the film and re-cut it, and that original footage has been lost to the ages.

“The Magnificent Ambersons” — Like Stroheim, Orson Welles lost control of his second film (after 1941’s “Citizen Kane”), and the studio had it recut while Welles was out of the country. Supposedly there’s at least an hour of lost footage that no one has seen since 1942.

“The Day the Clown Cried” In 1972, Jerry Lewis directed and starred in this drama about a clown who befriends children in a Nazi concentration camp. The film was never completed and never released, and Lewis himself has the only copy — with no plans to finish or release it.

Make room in your collection

Some DVDs out Tuesday:

“Doctor Zhivago Anniversary Edition” — Director David Lean’s epic look at love and loss in revolutionary Russia gets the deluxe treatment for its 45th anniversary.

“Man Vs. Wild: Season 4” This collection includes the memorable episode where funny guy Will Ferrell accompanies Bear Grylls on a harrowing (and amusing) trip into the wild.

“Matinee” — John Goodman is excellent as movie producer Lawrence Woolsey in this Joe Dante-directed tribute to legendary movie producer and master of hype William Castle.

“Nine” — This big-budget, star-studded musical was considered an Oscar front-runner — until, that is, it opened to critical disdain and audience apathy. I can’t imagine it’ll look any better on the small screen, but if you’re a musical fan, give it a shot.

“Rock ‘N’ Roll High School” — Punk rock legends the Ramones co-star in this dumb-but-funny comedy about a student rebellion at Vince Lombardi High School.

“Tooth Fairy” — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays a hockey player turned tooth fairy in this family comedy that co-stars Julie Andrews and Ashley Judd.

And CDs:

The New Pornographers, “Together” — This alt-rock supergroup is one of the best-kept secrets in modern music.

Kidz Bop Kids, “Kidz Bop Dance Party” — Sorry, parents. Your never-ending nightmare continues.

Barbra Streisand, “One Night Only” — Recorded at New York’s legendary jazz club The Village Vanguard, this was Babs’ first club performance in almost 50 years.

Tony Bennett, “Sings the Ultimate American Songbook 2” — Wait, Tony. Does this mean the first “Ultimate American Songbook” wasn’t, strictly speaking, “ultimate”?