It barely took a month before corporate America caved to the pressure of my blog. It was June 15 when I posted this blog, inquiring as to the whereabouts of a Barbara Stanwyck box set. While the relative lack of reaction to my post left me to think that my crack reporting skills on this critical topic had shocked all my readers into silence, it turns out that I had actually inspired them to go out and picket the studios and get some petitions signed. Now, barely a month later, Warner has issued this press release from July 23, announcing a Stanwyck signature collection coming out this October. The films to be included released are:

  • Annie Oakley (1935)
  • East Side, West Side (1949)
  • Executive Suite (1954)
  • My Reputation (1946)
  • To Please a Lady (1950)
  • Jeopardy (1953)

Barbara Stanwyck is probably my favorite classic actress, but I must confess that I have not seen any of these films. That is not to say that they’re bad. There’s a representative mix of genres here, including a sample of Stanwyck’s work in westerns (Annie Oakley) and film noirs (Jeopardy). Also, you have some real star power in here, with stars such as Clark Gable, William Holden, Van Heflin, Ava Gardner, and James Mason appearing in these films. In particular, Executive Suite looks like it might be a real winner, as it’s difficult to go wrong when you have Robert Wise directing a Ernest Lehman script. Certainly, a quick perusal of some of the bulletin boards from around the Net show that many people are euphoric over the news of this release.

I must admit, however, that I’m not completely sold. While I trust the word of other Stanwyck fans that these are good films, I can’t shake the feeling that this signature collection lacks some of the punch of some of its predecessors. Unfortunately, Warner’s more recent releases in the signature line have been veering in this somewhat watered-down direction. Nonetheless, at least Warner has tried to cater to classics fans the ways certain other ones have not (e.g., Paramount seems to care very little about its classics list).

All the same, this is good news to know that a Stanwyck collection is coming out. As I mentioned in my other blog, the rights to her films are scattered across numerous studios. On the one hand, this is bad, since it makes it so difficult to assemble a nice looking set. On the other, perhaps that means other studios will soon be following suit, which means that this Warner set coming out in October might be just the beginning. . .

The other night, I watched The Secret Love of Martha Ivers for the first time. It’s a 1946 film by legendary producer Hal Wallis with a fantastic cast – Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, a young Kirk Douglas, and last but not least, Barbara Stanwyck. Wallis wasn’t missing with many of his films during this time period, and he certainly didn’t miss with this one. It’s a mature, psychological, noiresque drama that draws one in with its well developed characters, who are portrayed skillfully by the film’s starring quartet. I would definitely recommend the film. I’m actually writing here, however, because the film reminded me of a question that’s been bothering me lately: Why haven’t they released a Barbara Stanwyck DVD box set?

By no means am I a frequenter of box sets. I tend to be too cheap. The appeal of these sets, however, certainly does not escape me, and a Stanwyck set would be one of those where I’d be tempted to actually purchase it. There’s something cool about getting a nicely-packaged, themed mini-library of movies with a single purchase. Classic film lovers, in particular, seem to enjoy them, and classics bulletin boards and blogs across the Web are littered with threads discussing the confirmed releases, rumored releases, wished-for releases, etc., of these box sets. Having perused some of these discussions before, I know that I am not the only one wondering why Stanwyck hasn’t gotten her own set yet. In fact, you’ll occasionally see people discussing a “rumored” or “promised” Stanwyck box set. In particular, there have been reports connecting Warner Brothers and its nice “signature collection” line of box sets with Stanwyck, but as of yet, nothing has materialized.

Well, I imagined this might have something to do with distribution rights, and this interesting review on the Cineaste website of the Warner box sets states as much. stanwyck.jpgStanwyck was famously independent in a period where studio heads were still calling the shots. As a result, the rights to her films eventually became scattered across multiple distributors. Thus, despite the appeal of such a box set, the associated legal and financial difficulties have probably scared away many a potential suitor.

I decided to look a little closer at the matter. To help figure this out, I recruited the help of the DVDFile website’s article on DVD distributors. Then, I looked at Stanwyck’s filmography – more particularly, at the list of her films currently available in DVD. Using Warner’s signature collection box sets as a model, I tried arranging a box set that would use 1 or 2 films considered outright classics, 1 or 2 solid but sometimes overlooked classics, and 1 or 2 lesser-known films (while these are sometimes just filler, they more frequently seem to be good films that just don’t seem to stand out on their own for whatever reason). I also tried, as the signature collections usually do, to show a range of genres and representative films. Doing so, I came up with the following list as a sample box set:

  • Double Indemnity
  • Christmas in Connecticut
  • Stella Dallas
  • Clash by Night
  • Forty Guns
  • Crime of Passion

Such a set has several solid films, represents Stanwyck in a variety of genres, and includes some of her most classic roles. Further, it leaves some of her other classic films (such as The Lady Eve) to highlight future box sets, since an actress like Stanwyck could certainly fill more than one quality set. So here’s the problem.  I selected these films based solely on what I believed would likely compose a good box set. Looking at the companies that appears to hold these rights, however, proves that such a set would be impossible. Looking at the different distributors for this set – Double Indemnity (Universal Studios), Christmas in Connecticut (Warner Home Video), Stella Dallas (MGM), Clash by Night (Warner), Forty Guns (20th Century Fox), and Crime of Passion (MGM) – shows how scattered these rights are. There are other studios too – Paramount, for example, distributes both The Strange Love of Martha Ivers and Sorry, Wrong Number.

The upshot of all this is that a Stanwyck box set is not impossible; it’s just a challenge. Warners has filled multiple well-balanced Bogart collections because it has almost all of his films. That’s not the case with Barbara Stanwyck. Her best films are scattered across the major studios. The good news is that Stanwyck did so many good films that this should not stop a set from eventually coming out. Reportedly, Warners has said that it has enough to films to fill multiple Stanwyck box sets, and I feel relatively certain that at least one will come out within the next couple years. The bad news is that the “dream” box set that some fans like to speculate on simply will never happen.