After its World Premiere in Venice and North American Premiere at Telluride, the Martin Scorsese/Kent Jones documentary A Letter To Elia will debut on the PBS series American Masters on October 4. The hour-long documentary chronicles the life and career of director Elia Kazan. Just as that was being announced, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment revealed the doc will be featured in a DVD gift box set of 15 Kazan films that include On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire and Gentlemen’s Agreement. The set hits the streets November 9. The fascinating film was shown Saturday and repeated yesterday, and received enthusiastic response from the cinephiles gathered at Telluride. That included director Alexander Payne, who told me it was his favorite film at the fest (at least up to that point). Scorsese said he and Jones spent many years on the project, “looking at the films, talking about them, looking at the life, the fame, the infamy, and finding the tone, the balance that felt right for this picture.” From an awards standpoint, the PBS airing, and the upcoming launch of his HBO series Boardwalk Empire (debuting September 19th) put the perennial Oscar nominee and winner (The Departed) a hot prospect for next year’s Emmys. He adds that he’s very excited to also have the doc included in the DVD collection, particularly because five of the films have never before been released on DVD: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (1945), Viva Zapata (1952), Man On A Tightrope (1953), Wild River (1960) and America, America (1963.)
The latter film, set in the late 19th century, concerns a young Greek immigrant’s dream of coming to America, based on the experiences of Kazan’s uncle. It earned 4 Oscar nominations for 1963, including Best Picture, Director and Screenplay for Kazan and Best Black And White Art Direction which it also won. Earlier this summer the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced it would help fund a long-overdue restoration through Scorsese’s Film Foundation. When American Cinematheque screened the classic and Q&A with its star Stathis Gialellis and Cinematographer Haskell Wexler in February, the print came from Scorsese’s personal collection. Apparently, decent prints aren’t easy to find. But what’s really shocking, considering its Oscar pedigree, is that the film has taken this long to get to DVD. Researching this today I discovered that, other than 1965’s UA comedy A Thousand Clowns, America, America rather incredibly remains the only Best Picture nominee never released on a commercial DVD somewhere in the world since at least 1944 when the Academy moved from 10 to 5 nominees. That’s just two movies out of 330 nominees (!) But for such a landmark film from a major multi-Oscar winning figure, it’s doubly stunning and frankly outrageous.
Instrumental in righting this wrong is 20th Century Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos, whose own Greek heritage makes the film a personal favorite. A couple of years ago when he mentioned to me that Fox was planning a major DVD collection of Kazan films, Gianopulos expressed frustration with the problems of untangling the rights with America, America. The film was originally released by Warner Bros, but for several years had been in the hands of the New York-based production and distribution company Castle Hill. Castle Hill’s founder Julian Schlossberg had been a producers’ rep for Kazan. He also handled distribution duties on two other Kazan movies first released by Warners, A Face In The Crowd and Baby Doll (both included in the DVD set). But when I ran into him at the MPTF’s pre-Emmy party Gianopulos was beaming when I asked him again what was happening with his marathon quest to snag America, America for the set. He said it turned out the ball was ultimately in Warners court, so he simply called them, and they cleared the movie for its inclusion in the Kazan DVD collection leading to today’s announcement.
All’s well that ends well. Now is there anybody out there who wants to put out a DVD on A Thousand Clowns?