Like most people, I assume, I've generally watched YouTube in dribs and drabs. I would type in a name and see what turned up under, say, Anita O'Day, or Katharine Hepburn, or Bruce Springsteen. It was only when I was commissioned by the Sydney Film Festival to write a piece about Deborah Kerr that I began to discover just how useful YouTube could be as a resource for hard-to-see films. I typed in "Deborah Kerr," and was surprised to see entire Kerr movies on the site: Hatter's Castle (1941), an early British film she made with James Mason, and The Proud and Profane (1956), a key Kerr picture that goes much further with the sexuality she only hinted at in From Here to Eternity. Most importantly, a Kerr fan had uploaded several of her television movies from the eighties, like Reunion at Fairborough (1985), which re-united her with her best co-star, Robert Mitchum, and even her last feature film, a modest vehicle called The Assam Garden (1985), which I'm not sure ever got a proper release in America.
It's probably difficult to say who owns the rights to Kerr's early British movies and late television work, but The Proud and Profane is a Paramount film, which means it most likely won't be shown on Turner Classic Movies (apparently Ted Turner has bought some Paramount features, but most of them are locked up and un-shown in the Universal vault). American Movie Classics used to show Paramount and Universal films in the eighties and nineties, while TNT, an earlier Turner channel with commercials, doled out MGM and Warner Brothers features. Unfortunately, most Paramount and Universal movies have been impossible to see on television for quite a few years now, which creates a huge gap for cinephiles. Unlucky for her, and us, Marlene Dietrich worked at Paramount in the thirties and Universal in the forties, so you don't see any of her movies on TV, and the career of her mentor, director Josef von Sternberg, is similarly all tied up.
After writing the Kerr piece, I started typing in titles to YouTube from a list I keep of unavailable films that I long to see. For von Sternberg, the holy grail for me was always The King Steps Out (1936), the only film of his I hadn't managed to see (excluding the few von Sternberg silents that are lost). He hated the movie and requested that it be omitted from any retrospectives of his work; consequently, two von Sternberg retros in New York, one at Film Forum and one at Museum of the Moving Image, played practically everything he made except for this one picture, a Grace Moore musical. After I typed in the title, I saw that there was a three-minute clip from The King Steps Out uploaded by a fanatical fan of Moore, an opera singer who had star vehicles built around her at Columbia. Though I found Moore pretty unbearable in One Night of Love (1934), which actually won her an Oscar nomination, I took a deep breath and wrote a plangent e-mail to this Grace Moore queen about how much I loved her work, and how I'd love to see The King Steps Out in its entirety. Two days later, I typed the title in, and there it was (finally!), in a ratty print, in ten-minute segments.
Watching any movie in a little YouTube box is a trying experience in general, but where else would I ever have seen The King Steps Out? Or the only gap I had in George Cukor's filmography, The Blue Bird (1976), a fairy tale financed by the Russian government. Who owns the rights to The Blue Bird? More importantly, who would ever put it out on a commercial DVD, or show it on television? For it really is as bizarrely amateurish as I'd heard it was, until Ava Gardner shows up toward the end, playing the concept of Luxury, reciting various forms of pleasure in her throaty voice. The film is god-awful for its first hour, but Gardner's segment is a key explication of Cukor's favorite theme, the glory of hedonism and the steep price it exacts. When you're considering artists like von Sternberg and Cukor, even their minor films, even their so-called "worst" films, have a great value to the connoisseur. In straitened circumstances, their basic qualities stand out in bold relief: von Sternberg can do nothing with Grace Moore, who manages to be both butch and coy when she isn't trilling another operetta clunker, but he paints with light, as always, and watching what he does with light in The King Steps Out is a keen pleasure, even on a tiny screen-within-a-screen on a computer. I wish you could see it as well, but it disappeared a few days after I watched it. Did some corporate minion get on the Grace Moore queen's case?
YouTube giveth, and YouTube taketh away; it's a real free-for-all, and it can never be contained. Steadily, we're working toward an ideal point when every extant film will be available to you, for a price; just look at the new Warner Brothers archive collection, which has made 150 library titles available to customers. There are minor movies on their list, but gems, too, like Coppola's The Rain People (1969), and key fill-ins like This Woman is Dangerous (1952), a Joan Crawford movie that hasn't played on television in years. I could buy or stream This Woman is Dangerous from the Warners Archive, but I already saw it, recently, on YouTube. Will it still be there on YouTube when this piece is published? Maybe, maybe not. Crawford always said it was her worst movie, just as Cukor and von Sternberg reviled The Blue Bird and The King Steps Out, but all three of these films offer insights into major movie figures and their often inventive responses to pressure, doubts or bad material.
If you want to look farther afield for MIA films, I have a few friends who swear by Torrent networks online, where all kinds of rare movies can be downloaded. While I have no experience with this yet, it sounds tempting, but also slightly treacherous. If you type a rare movie into Google ("+'carl dreyer'+two people+torrent"), you might be able to find a place to download it, but don't ever sign up for a site just to get a movie; some of these sites carry viruses. Pirate Bay is a good catalog of torrents, with a comments section that lets you know if the torrent is valid, and it's good to download Vuze, which allows you to easily open a torrent. Download times vary, but with Vuze some movies can be captured in an hour or so. Also helpful for really obscure titles is eMule, which allows you to search for films that might not have a torrent but still might be lurking on a hard drive somewhere on the web.
Gradually, YouTube and torrents and studio "DVR on demand" archives can fill in so many of our cinematic gaps, and this is only the beginning; we're on the verge of technological changes where no orphan film will ever be truly unavailable. Surely the first supposedly minor movies Douglas Sirk made at Universal in the fifties would offer insights into his body of work, so I'm always on the look-out for a MacDonald Carey fan who'll upload Mystery Submarine (1950) or a Linda Darnell enthusiast who will offer The Lady Pays Off (1950). And I'll be searching the web, daily if possible, for Vivien Leigh in The Deep Blue Sea (1955), Gérard Philipe in Le Diable au Corps (1947), Leo McCarey's scary-sounding My Son John (1952), Otto Preminger's collaboration with Elaine May, Such Good Friends (1971), and onward to a sort of completist nirvana.