One of the reasons that I enjoy silent films, aside from the
artistry and wonderful stories that are exhibited in the best examples,
it gives us a window to the past. They
reveal details of how life was lived in the past that were so mundane
people didn't bother to record. Simple
things, like what was kept in an ice box or how traffic were regulated
cities are interesting facts that revel what American culture was like
One DVD that presents that look into the past better than
most is Flicker Alley's latest release Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the
High Seas. This disc, compiled with
help of David Shepard's Blackhawk Films and Lobster Films in France,
feature and four shorts (including one excerpted sequence from a longer
all dealing with life on board square-rigger sailboats, a type of ship
quickly being replaced with motorized vessels as these films were made,
virtually extinct today. These movies
are a wonderful look back in time in addition to being entertaining
their own right.
The Yankee Clipper (1927 - 81
is behind in shipping and international trade.
ships being faster, they are getting all of the good contracts. To compete on the international stage, an
American ship builder creates a sleek and sturdy vessel that he's sure
anything the British have. The ship,
named The Yankee Clipper, is led by a young captain, Hal Winslow
who would later go on to immortalize himself as Hop-Along Cassidy). Wilson takes
the ship to China
where the fastest English ship is also docked.
A powerful Chinese tea trader offers the entire American tea
whichever ship can make it to Boston
first. To add a bit of spice to the
competition, the captains both wages their boats as well.
Just before the race is about to start, Winslow is visited
by Lady Jocelyn Huntington (Elinor Fair, at that time married to Boyd
life) and her fiancée, the cowardly, selfish, and two-timing
villain John Miljan). Winslow had saved
the young lady from a mob of beggars (while Richard hid himself) and
to wish him luck competing against her father's boat.
Unfortunately the cannon that starts the race
sounds while she's on board and so she's trapped on the ship.
Jocelyn soon learns to hate Winslow who for not stopping the
ship and letting her get off and for the way he's rough with the
unbeknownst to the naïve girl are trying to have their way with
her.) But when the Yankee Clipper is hit
by a storm
that misses the British ship and the crew's water runs out, it looks
there's little hope that the American will win.
This was an impressive and
exciting sea picture. With a violent
storm, a mutiny, and a
nail-biting finish (okay, I was never in doubt about who would win...
end was still fun) it's a rollicking adventure.
One of the things that makes this picture so
impressive is that it was filmed on a real 160 foot wooden
vessel. The cast and crew filmed while
the ship was at seas off the California
coast for six weeks and that makes the production look very authentic. Sailors zip up the rigging on the masts,
raise and lower sails and do everything a real crew needs to do to tend
at sea. The scenes where the camera is
up in the rigging are quite eye-catching and really add a lot to the
The movie was produced by Cecil B. DeMille who was supposed
to direct it, but he was caught up with his film King of Kings and
direction over to Rupert Julian who had recently finished Phantom of
with Lon Chaney. He correctly pegged
that the real star of the picture is the ship and the sea and accents
aspects of the film with his direction.
The love triangle between Winslow, Jocelyn, and Richard is still
but it seems like an afterthought which is good. The
film could have easily turned into a
melodrama and Julian adeptly avoids falling into that trap (especially
melodramas were so popular at the time.)
The cast does a good job overall, but the script doesn't
really give them a chance to shine. Boyd
is rugged, manly, and upstanding, everything you want in a hero, but
to fade into the background a bit too easily.
She never stands out and aside from her beauty it's hard to
what Boyd sees in her. Frank Coghlan
also appears as a very young stowaway.
He's the comic relief for the film and does a great job
mood. His constant statements that he
hates women are very amusing (thought they're tinged with sadness; he's
orphan who was beaten by his aunt until he ran away) and the way he
with the captain and crew work much better than the romance plot.
Ship Ahoy (1928 - 9
This is an interesting short that details the transportation
of a load of wood up the northern sea coast by a large schooner. As the opening titles attest, there were few
jobs left for wind-powered boats at the time the film was made, and
(unnamed) vessel must have been one of the few still commercially
goods in the late 1920's. The film shows
the loading of the cargo, sailing up the coast, and life on board the
commanded by a grizzled old captain. A
The Square Rigger (1932 - 9
In the 1930's the polish Navy
would train their officer
candidates on an old sailing vessel to teach them both independence and
teamwork (ironically.) This film was
made for a Fox newsreel as part of their Magic
Carpet series, and is a sound film, though there is no narration
cards are present so that it could be shown in theaters that had not
conversion to sound.
It shows the Polish naval men performing all of the tasks
needed to keep such a ship running and on course as well as at rest and
play. It's interesting to note that they
climb up into the rigging barefoot. One
of the more amusing scenes shows the men crew singing "Anchor's Aweigh"
polish as they raise the anchor.
Around the Horn in a Square Rigger
(1933 - 16 min.):
One of the last cargos that were still carried by sail
vessels in the early 1930's was wool form Austrailia.
It was bulky and its transport was not time
sensitive so some square-riggers were still employed.
This is a document of one of the last great
sea races (though you really can't tell that it's a race from the film)
ships set sail from Australia fully loaded headed for England by way of
Horn (the southern tip of South America.)
The event was recorded by the ship's owner, one Alan Villers. He had hired a cinematographer to run the
camera but when he fell from the rigging and died, Villers took over
Down to the Sea in Ships
(excerpt 1922 - 10 minutes):
Made as an independent film by Elmer Clifton (who trained
under D. W. Griffith and worked on many of the great director's films
Birth of a Nation and Intolerance)
this feature captured the
lives and culture of the last of the New England
whaling communities. This excerpt is the
whale hunt sequence from the film, where a group of sailors get into
boats out in the middle of the sea (launched from a large square
rigger) and using
techniques that were pretty much unchanged from a century before, hunt
whales. The sequence is very exciting
and, while I was cheering for the whale, I have to admit that it took
a little guts to battle a 90 foot whale in such a small vessel.
While the sequence is very thrilling, they use hand-thrown
harpoons to spear the whales in boats much smaller than the whale
were segments that were obviously staged.
That was the philosophy of 'documentaries' at the time; make the
as exciting and thrilling as possible, and reality be damned. That's too bad, but it doesn't distract
much from the sequence.
All of these films are accompanied by original music created
for this disc (with the exception of the sound short which has the
soundtrack.) Dennis James wrote a nice
organ piece for the main feature that did a good job of capturing the
screen while still having that 'old time' feeling. He also accompanied Down to the Sea in Ships while Eric
Beheim played the organ during the shorts Around
the Horn and Ship Ahoy. All
were quality pieces of work.
This is a very nice looking disc. The
Yankee Clipper was pieced together from several sources most of
by the look of it though there are a few brief sequences that appear to
taken from 16mm reduction prints. In any
case I was impressed with the level of detail and amount of contrast
present. The nicely tinted image is very
clear and even small background details are strong.
The lines are sharp and the blacks are deep
without being crushed. There is a bit of
aliasing in the backgrounds but it is minor.
The shorts were equally impressive. There
were a few spots on a couple of them
and a slight bit of blooming here and there, but overall the contrast
excellent and so was the level of detail.
The only exception was Around
the Horn in a Square Rigger which showed
signs of deterioration. In addition it was
much softer and had less contrast than the other films.
It was still very watchable and an
interesting log of one of the last great sail voyages.
Overall quite an impressive looking disc.
As if that wasn't enough, there's also an audio interview with
Frank "Junior" Coghlan that was recorded in 2008 and lasts 7 minutes. He talks about getting his start in the
movies (his father was an actor and they spotted him on the set one day
him in a film) and then talks about the feature on this disc. He remembers a few details about the
production and its fun to hear him reminisce.
Filled with action, suspense, and just the right touch of
comedy, The Yankee Clipper is a
really good movie that is sure to appeal to silent film buffs,
who like to take a look into the past and see what life was like nearly
century ago. The shorts are a wonderful
bonus and entertaining in their own right.
Flicker Alley has released another excellent silent movie set