Half-forgotten movies like Matilda (about a boxing kangaroo) linger tantalisingly in the memory

 Pat Henry, left, and Frank Avianca capture a boxing kangaroo in Matilda. Picture: Supplied
Pat Henry, left, and Frank Avianca capture a boxing kangaroo in Matilda. Picture: Supplied

Sometimes when I was young I saw a movie and for a long time it simply vanished. In the pre-digital days, if a film wasn't rereleased or came on TV and there was no information about it in the books I could access, it was just a strange memory.

Matilda (1978) was one such. I saw it on an aeroplane flying to the US but, although it was about a boxing kangaroo, it was no reason for patriotic pride. Matilda was a bizarre film as well as a terrible one. It boasted some top talent including producer Albert S. Ruddy, who won Oscars for producing The Godfather and Million Dollar Baby, director Daniel Mann (who had once made Oscar-winning films like Come Back, Little Sheba) and stars Elliott Gould and Robert Mitchum. But this story of a man in a bad costume - sorry, a pugilistic marsupial - was cheap-looking and definitely in the "what-the-hell-were-they-thinking? category).

A lot of films seem to have vanished - never released in any format, or out on VHS and then not on DVD or any other digital platform, existing only in the memories of those who saw them and in some vault somewhere.

At least it turned up in one of the Medved brothers' Golden Turkey Awards books, so I knew I wasn't dreaming. And, for some reason, Matilda was released on DVD a few years ago, so I got to catch up with it. And, yes, it's still remarkably bad.

Two other films I recall seeing when I was even younger: they might have been among my first outings to the cinema. Dunderklumpen! (1974) was a dubbed Swedish movie, a combination of live action and animation in which the title character, a cartoon giant, befriends some (real) children. I vaguely remember having a T-shirt transfer of it from a magazine that had an article about it. Apart from the look of the character I could only recall there was a forest and a river. Thanks YouTube for the reminder: it's weird. But then a lot of kids' movies are.

Even more obscure was another dubbed (I assume) European delight from the same year, Mad, Mad Adventures in Russia (the title I saw it under, there were several translations). I recalled the poster, with several caricatured people running from something and that it was some sort of heist/treasure hunt comedy with a lion and -again - a river. I never saw or heard anything about it again, but again, the internet has shown I wasn't crazy. But the movie - an Italian-Russian co-production - sort of is (again, thanks to YouTube, though only undubbed clips are available).

Then there were the sorts of movies that turned up as the second half of a drive-in double bill, like Superbug, the Craziest Car in the World (1975), a dubbed German comedy that was part of a series like Disney's Herbie films, except this was a yellow Volkswagen with the unfortunate name of Dudu. All I remembered about this one was that the car flew at some point like a helicopter. And YouTube has shown it should have remained a bad memory.

The fact that all these were European movies that were far from classics probably had a lot to do with their quick disappearance into obscurity here.

But it wasn't just those. Ginger Meggs (1982), made after another Australian comic-book character, Fatty Finn, came to the screen. But the latter was handled much more successfully. Both eventually came out on DVD but I haven't felt compelled to revisit either. Both did have pretty impressive casts and catchy theme songs though.

Ginger (Paul Daniel) hefts a ripe tomato which he plans to throw at Tiger Kelly (Drew Forsythe) in a scene from Ginger Meggs.

Ginger (Paul Daniel) hefts a ripe tomato which he plans to throw at Tiger Kelly (Drew Forsythe) in a scene from Ginger Meggs.

The Little Prince (1974) - Lerner and Loewe's last musical, ending a career that included My Fair Lady, Gigi and Camelot - turned up unexpectedly on a double bill with a Peanuts cartoon several years after its release date. I remember being bored by the film as a kid when I didn't think it decidedly peculiar (though I had enjoyed Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's novel). It also turned up on DVD for some reason and still seems very strange. The highlight is Bob Fosse's creepy Snake in the Grass number.

The first adaptation of John Knowles' A Separate Peace (1972) was a film I had wanted to see for years. A VHS copy turned up in a Chicago public library years ago when I was visiting so I finally got to watch it. It was badly acted but quite faithful to the rather downbeat book. Curiously, given Knowles' novel is something of a US high school perennial, it doesn't seem to have come out on DVD or elsewhere, though a later (better acted but looser) remake has. There are a couple of tantalising glimpses on YouTube, but that's all I have ever been able to find. I've never seen it turn up on TV listings.

A lot of films seem to have vanished - never released in any format, or out on VHS and then not on DVD or any other digital platform, existing only in the memories of those who saw them and in some vault somewhere. Films are a bit like record albums - as the format changes occur from vinyl to tape to CD to digital platforms, or video cassette to DVD to Blu-ray and so on - many titles seem to fall by the wayside even as new recordings and movies are made. Some do reappear, so we can always hope. And if we saw them once, long ago, we can try to keep our memories of them alive.

It would be great if all media - movies, recordings, books - could one day be available to everyone. Great, good, mediocre or bad, they're still part of our culture.

This story Remembrance of films long past first appeared on The Canberra Times.