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Not all bargain DVDs are made equal

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

Have you had this moment of doubt? You're in a store and a DVD featuring an older film beckons you from the rack. The cover is attractive and the price is too, but will this play in your machine? Will the print be good enough to watch? Or will it wind up being a coaster?

Welcome to the world of public domain films on DVD. These are older films whose copyright has expired. That means that anyone with a 16mm or 35mm print can legally make copies for sale of the film. If the distributors alter the film in some way, such as adding additional sound effects or a new musical score, they can copyright their version.

The problem has been that too often the prints used by company have been copies of copies and have looked and sounded lousy. Sometimes the transfer from print to DVD has been less that perfect as well.

Public domain films are nothing new in the home video arena. There were plenty of public domain films on VHS, but there are now several firms that specialize in these films.

And when a DVD is being sold for less than $10, the temptation is too great not to give in and take a chance.

Here's a look at some of the some of the more prominent (and reliable) public domain companies:

The Roan Group

This company achieved prominence years ago with its restoration efforts of films such as White Zombie with Bela Lugosi and The Most Dangerous Game with Joel McCrea, two movies that were offered by many labels.

The difference was that the Roan Group went the extra mile in actually finding pristine prints and transferring them with care.

The same applies today. Roan DVDs are undoubtedly one of the safest bets in the public domain world in terms of image and sound.

If you go to their on-line store at, you see some great films at very reasonable prices, many under $10 and many are double features at that price.

Being a horror film fan, my Roan disc of two classic Vincent Price films, The Bat and House on Haunted Hill is just about perfect. I also have enjoyed Roan releases that feature "Pre-Code" movies those major studio Hollywood films that are surprisingly spicy because they were made in the early 1930s before the self- censorship code came into effect.

Roan is also one of the best sources for classic movie serials.

Another distinction is that Roan will put extras onto their DVDs as well, something other companies don't.

VCI Entertainment

VCI's DVDs frequently are featured in this column and for good reason. The company which built a base of fan support on presenting classic B-westerns from the 1930s and '40s has greatly expanded its catalog and is another label that is very consistent in its quality.

Most recently VCI released Chu Chin Chow, a rare British musical, and gave it a presentation that matched any major studio release. The company has also brought back non-public domain obscurities such as the barely animated cartoon Clutch Cargo and the Jay Ward the producer of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons television series Fractured Flickers.

The company's DVDs are always sharp and clear and frequently feature extras as well.

New releases from the company include two serials new to DVD, Captain Video and Riders of Death Valley. The price range is generally from $9.99 to $14.95

For their full catalog, go to

Alpha Video/

I'm been finishing a book on Tom Tyler, an actor best known for his work in Westerns and serials, and this label has been invaluable to me. I've bought five of Tyler's B-westerns from this company and all have been watchable.

Now, "watchable" is a term worth explaining. Some prints of public domain films are so damaged with age and have scenes missing or are scratched beyond recognition. Other problems include using non-original prints that have lousy contrast they are either too dark or too light.

The five DVDs I've bought from are a mixed lot. All are from 16mmm prints that were originally sold to television stations back in the 1950s. Some have their original titles and the companies that bought the films for television have altered some. Some have scratches and cuts, while others are pristine.

All in all, I'll buy more from this company, especially since the price is $25 for five DVDs when you order from their catalog or web site at

Digiview Productions

Okay, here are the real bargain DVDs only $1 each at the Wal-Mart. But are they worth a dollar?

Well, yes and no. It depends on your level of film mania (mine is off the charts, just ask my wife) and what you will endure watching.

I've picked up a number of their animated titles as they have featured some cartoons from the 1920s and '30s that have not been widely released on the DVD format. Generally for $1 you'll get about an hour of cartoons and the print quality can vary in the same collection from archival quality to a fairly washed-out duplicate with inferior sound.

On the other hand, a Lone Ranger collection I picked up had three episodes that were completely consistently watchable. And their version of Bela Lugosi Meet a Brooklyn Gorilla ( a "comedy" with a pair Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis impersonators) is a beautiful print of a terrible film.

So with this company, it's a crapshoot. You might get something worth watching or you might get that coaster for your coffee table.

Unlike the other companies, Digiview only sells to the public through retail outlets.