In the play “Dark At the Top of the Stairs,” a man who sells saddles and other horse-powered carriage supplies finds himself out of a job in early 20th-century America. The fast-moving technology of its age has passed him by and the automobile is replacing the horse and buggy. In 1960, they made a good film adaptation of the play starring Robert Preston and Dorothy McGuire.

Something else is going the way of the buggy whip. Best Buy dropped selling DVDs and DVD players. According to an article in Forbes, DVD sales over the past two decades have plummeted 86 %, and with the fast-moving technology of our age, digitized streaming is the Model T Ford to the horse and buggy.

What most people do not think about — if they think about movies all that much anyway — is that the overwhelming majority, about 75 % of all films ever made, from the earliest silents to today, are gone. The bulk of the missing-in-action catalog comes from the early days when highly flammable and fragile nitrite film eventually turned to highly flammable powder. That is the reason all of the old Hollywood Studios of the golden era had their own water towers; their film libraries were powder kegs.

Now, instead of the threat from combustion, many films face extinction by attrition. Granted, “Plan Nine From Outer Space” should have been euthanized a long time ago, but at the risk of sounding like I have an aluminum foil hat on my head, and I am typing this from an undisclosed 1950s-era bomb shelter, there is another threat this sea change in technology poses. 

Digital technology is powerful now. I shudder to think what it will be like in the next five years and beyond. AI already gives us plenty of warning about how the truth can be spindled, folded, and mutilated by a series of zeroes and ones and create false narratives.

As the time when we must rely on those in control of digitizing films fast approaches, we must consider what may be left out or censored. They used to “edit for content” films that were shown on television after a theatrical run because what could be said and shown in a movie theater was not always acceptable for the standards and practices of network television.

Disney already puts “trigger” warnings on just about all their early animated films from “Snow White” to “Dumbo.” How much time do we have before films will be “re-imagined” so as to eliminate values the Church still adheres to but those in positions of power do not? DVDs sometimes come in edited form as well, but usually it is to add content, like a “director’s cut” on a bonus disc. But the content is almost always transferred onto a disc from the original negative, and what we get when we watch even dissimilar content, such as “The Song of Bernadette” or “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” is the original intent, for good or bad, of the creatives who made it. 

With DVDs on the endangered species list, the entire genre of religious-themed films may be at the mercy of a few very large companies that pull the streaming strings.

I understand I probably have an unhealthy attachment to old movies, and I have the DVD collection of these films to prove it. I also have almost 400 vinyl records, so being a bit of a luddite comes naturally to me, I guess. I could give my top 20 religious movies worth saving intact via DVD technology, but that would only generate a debate over what films I included or excluded. A good place to start would be the Vatican’s Pontifical Council For Social Communication which, in 1995, published a solid list of 45 worthy films to watch. Most of these films are still available on DVD, and once you have them, it is like having a copy of “Moby Dick” or “To Kill A Mockingbird” on your shelf.

Thankfully, and not without a little bit of irony, the same digital world that poses a threat to old films can, via online DVD catalogs, be used to accumulate a DVD library far beyond the worthy films listed by the Vatican. These films can be purchased for very little and the knowledge that you are seeing something untampered by streaming service hands with a possible agenda will be priceless.