The Artists: The Best of Kino's Silent Classics Vol. 1:
Providing an education on the early days of motion pictures in a handy box set, Kino is ready to help you bone up on some history. At just north of $100 for 7 movies, even the price is right. On the other hand, as this is one of those handy-dandy collections that represents previously released DVDs in their original packaging - and with one title now obsolete and out-of-date - you'll have to ask yourself if you aren't better off collecting individual titles and hunting for bargains. Gathered here, then, in full-size keep-cases and a newly minted cardboard slipcover, are these titles: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, (John Barrymore, 1920) Metropolis, (1927, the 124-minute version released in 2002) D.W. Griffith's Broken Blossoms, (Lillian Gish, 1919, Color Tinted) It, (Clara Bow, 1927) The General, (Buster Keaton, 1926, the 2-disc Edition from 2008) The Thief of Bagdad, (Douglas Fairbanks, 1924) and Blood and Sand (Rudolph Valentino, 1922). For some odd reason I'd rather see box sets with different packaging, either with slim cases or in a fold-out box, which I guess indicates something more like a reevaluation rather than simply a repackaging. With that, and the knowledge that Kino has since released a 149-minute edition of Metropolis incorporating previously lost footage, means serious movie purists might look at this set slightly askance, however those eager to begin a collection at the beginning will find this a good value.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: Director John S. Robertson adapts the Robert Louis Stevenson story with a very steady hand - too steady - rendering Barrymore's Dr. Henry Jekyll and his journey to Id-Town in straightforward manner, and minus some of the tension one expects from horror. Goaded on by Sir George Carew, Jekyll first becomes obsessed with a dancehall girl, later developing a nascent form of Viagra for himself so he can get up the nerve to start sexing dancer Gina. While hopped up, Mr. Hyde eventually tires of Carew's smarmy attitude, and we learn of the dangers inherent in releasing suppressed base urges.
Lacking the visual interest of Nosferatu for example, Jekyll & Hyde hinges on Barrymore's broad, yet pitch-perfect transformations - accomplished through pantomime alone - as well as his leering, creepy capering as Hyde. Remarkable for this unflinching portrayal of mutation, and Barrymore's performance, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is worth a viewing for scholars of horror, though not as thrilling as they might hope for.
Blood And Sand: Starring the quintessential Hollywood Heartthrob Rudolph Valentino as aspiring toreador Juan, the son of a destitute widow in Seville, Blood And Sand combines melodrama, Valentino sexiness, and plenty of stock footage of bullfighting which subs poorly for the star. As Juan's bull-killing skills bring him fame he winds up in a love triangle between his childhood sweetheart Carmen and wealthy widow Dona Sol.
Though at times slow, Blood And Sand delivers some high drama and serious troubles by its end. And of course there's Valentino, the original James Dean, who smolders on the screen, playing up his fiery character while commanding the screen. For a peek at the origins of the superstar, this is a good place to look.
'It': Of course for each male megastar, there should be a woman too, and Clara Bow was it. In fact she was It in this star vehicle that didn't necessarily coin the phrase "It Girl" but certainly launched it into perpetuity. Shop girl Betty Lou Spence (Bow) slings lingerie at a department store. (And if you want to know the draw of the movie, there it is.) Falling for the storeowner's boring son Cyrus Waltham, Betty Lou sets off a saucy Class Comedy. Her friends accuse her of being a hopeless climber. Cyrus sees the appeal, though, until Betty does something that rubs him the wrong way. If you're at all familiar with romantic comedies you probably aren't wondering if Betty Lou will be able to win back her man.
'It' is breezy, sexed-up, and looks fantastic. Bow puts the V in vivacious, (or something) attacking her roll with effortless, charming gusto. Everyone else nearly fades in comparison, but bolstered by fabulous photography and lots of witty banter, Bow and 'It' rush by in an entertaining, still-fresh way.
The General: Buster Keaton's hugely influential action/comedy/adventure hybrid truly cleared the way for genre blending in the cinema. Rushing forward like Johnnie (Keaton) Gray's treasured title locomotive, The General has just as much power to wow you now as it did 90 years ago. Chasing Union spies in this Civil War-set comedy adventure, Gray is in pursuit of his stolen Steam Locomotive. And his girlfriend, Annabelle Lee, but we know whom he truly loves. Epic adventure set at a breakneck pace follows, with astounding set pieces and incredible stunts performed by The Great Stone Face himself. The General sets a standard moviemakers are still trying to meet today - just check out Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol for a similar filmmaking dynamic. The General among all other Silent Movies, hasn't aged a bit.
Metropolis: In the (then) distant world of 2000, wealth-based class stratification is institutionalized. Under the title city underclass shlubs slave to keep the power running for surface-dwelling richies to enjoy. Burgomaster Joh Fredersen lords over everything while his son Freder decides to "join the 99%," swapping places with an underground worker, and falling for a freedom fighter named Maria (the strangely radiant Brigitte Helm). Joh brings mad scientist Rotwang in to create the iconic robot meant to bust up the revelation and restore the status quo.
So not only is Metropolis absolutely stunning visually, with lush photography, amazing production design, and endlessly influential set pieces, it's also disturbingly prophetic. You'd think that a 2-and-a-half hour silent movie might lag a bit, but with impassioned performances and assured pacing (and all that other awesome stuff previously mentioned) Metropolis has the power to keep you hooked. It's another masterpiece any movie fan needs to have tucked under his or her belt.
The Thief of Bagdad: Included for you fantasy lovers, is this early entry of a perennial subject, starring Douglas Fairbanks. Humble crook Ahmed (Fairbanks) falls in love with a princess. Concluding that he needs to better himself a bit to be in her class, Ahmed sets out on a quest to recapture an extraordinary treasure. A fantastic journey full of magic and incredible monsters follows. An evil Mongol prince, however, stands between Ahmed and his lady love.
Proving again that star power always rules the roost, this is a veritable vehicle for Fairbanks, who buckles swashes left and right in this Arabian adventure. Grinning and leaping, Fairbanks dominates the screen, not an easy task considering the monumental production design, which renders the movie literally larger than life. This outsize movie, at over two-hours-length, is so packed with spectacle time seems to fly by on a carpet.
Broken Blossoms: Lillian Gish plays Lucy Burrows, a literal waif clothed in rags, undernourished, and under the thumb of her abusive father who works a prizefighter. Lucy comes under the watchful, enchanted eye of Cheng, a Chinese immigrant acting as a missionary for the Buddhist religion. Cheng encounters mistrust and contempt, yet while working his straight job as a shop keep, he falls for Lucy's inner beauty, and wants to rescue her. His ministrations are not unappreciated by Lucy, however her father has other, more negative feelings, threatening her newfound happiness.
D.W. Griffith certainly has other, better known movies - and one hugely controversial movie - to his credit. Broken Blossoms touches the topic that got Griffith into trouble with The Birth of a Nation, but this time his look at racism more closely follows his conciliatory effort, Intolerance, but the movie is all about Gish, who milks pathos and redemption nicely, and Richard Barthelmess as Cheng, who brings subtlety and compassion to his portrayal. This movie would rank a bit lower on the interest scale for those just getting into silent movies, but as an inclusion for the towering presence of Griffith, it's a decent fit.
All seven films (and with a few exceptions most of the extras) come in full-frame, 1.33:1 ratio presentations. All of course feature those things we dinosaurs and cavemen remember to be part of movie watching. Film damage, speckling, flickering, soft details and even an at-times shuddering image will occasionally appear, but these are of course far from crummy prints. Save for possible Blu-ray editions sometime in the future, these movies look about as good as they're going to get, and will certainly please most cinephiles, though Blood and Sand looks rougher than the others.
With the exception of the 5.1 Audio Score available on The General, and also on Metropolis, all of these movies are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Audio, with music and dialog mixed approrpriat ... wait, these are silent movies! At any rate, the 5.1 Scores sound really great, while the 2.0 scores are less fantastic, but certainly nothing to complain about.
Each disc is pretty jam-packed with extras, too, meaning you are going to get your viewing dollar's worth. Jekyll & Hyde includes the silly, 21-minute Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, a 1925 parody starring Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy. There's a ten-minute excerpt from the 1920 Rival Version of Jekyll & Hyde and a three minute audio recording of The Transformation Scene from a 1909 performance of the play. A text-and-illustration Essay, "The Many Faces of Jekyll/Hyde" appears on disc, as well as text About the Score and text about The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that performed the score for this DVD release.
Blood and Sand delivers a 17-minute Filmed Introduction by Orson Welles which appears to be part of a special program on silent films. A six-minute Will Rogers Parody from 1924 is excerpted from one of his comedy films. There is the Original Theatrical Trailer, three-minutes of Footage From Valentino's [epic] Funeral Procession, an Audio Recording of the 'Love Theme', and a 1922 Essay, "Vicente Blasco Ibanez and the Novel" about the movie's basis. Valentino "Speaks" are screwy excerpts from Photoplay Magazine, and some text About the Score is also included.
'It' takes a different extras-tack with Clara Bow: Discovering the 'It' Girl, which, at a full hour, sadly features the narration of Courtney Love, but is otherwise worthwhile, with tons of Bow clips.
The General goes the full 2 Disc Edition route, packing on the extras. To start, you can choose from Three Different Audio Tracks including music by Carl Davis, performed by The Thames Silents Orchestra, and available in 5.1 or 2.0 Audio, a Robert Israel score, and a theater organ score by Lee Erwin. An 18-minute Video Tour of the authentic General presented in association with The Southern Museum is quite informative, as is a four-minute Tour of the Filming Locations presented by author John Bengtson. There is a minute of Behind the Scenes Home Movie Footage, an old two-minute Introduction by Gloria Swanson, a 12-minute Introduction by Orson Welles from that program, The Silent Years, and five-minutes of clips from Keaton and those famous trains on The Buster Express. Lastly, is a Photo Gallery.
Metropolis starts off with a 6-page Essay, "Notes on the Restoration" by Martin Koerber, who supervised this 75th Anniversary restoration. Next comes the 43-minute documentary The Metropolis Case, on the making of Metropolis, by Enno Patalas, which is essential for the budding film historian. An 8-minute look at The Restoration is fascinating, while five(!) Photo Galleries will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Twelve text cover director Lang, actors and others, while Facts and Dates presents such for the true completist. Oh yes, there is also an Audio Commentary by film historian Patalas.
The Thief of Bagdad starts with just a 5-minute Introduction by Orson Welles, before doling out 19 Minutes of Rare Outtakes, a one-minute Matte Painting Outtake, and an inspirational three-minute outtake from Paul Leni's Waxworks. A seven-minute Excerpt form Melies' Arabian Nights of 1905 takes you right back to the beginning of special effects, while text-based extras About the Score and Excerpts from the Souvenir Program more or less finish the disc.
Lastly, Broken Blossoms starts with a 12-minute Lillian Gish Introduction from The Silent Years, (I guess Welles was off that week) before giving us the Full Text of Thomas Burke's Original Story (charmingly titled "The Chink and The Child"). You can listen to a 1919 Recording of the song "Broken Blossoms" or read excerpts from Photoplay Magazine's story D.W. Griffith on Leading Ladies, or learn About the Score.
Presenting seven films that exemplify the silent era, The Artists: The Best of Kino's Silent Classics Vol. 1 not only gives you a crash course in early film history, it also literally has something for every taste. Though this collection may be one or two masterpieces short of a museum-quality collection, even the lesser films are still worthy of a watch or two, with moments of transcendence. If you're looking to flesh out your personal film library, this could be for you. If you (like me) are at all picky, you might not be enchanted by the fact that these are simply previously manufactured DVDs wrapped up in a new paperboard sleeve. (If I recall correctly, one of the films either had a broken seal, or wasn't even shrink-wrapped, though the entire package was.) Also, Kino has since released a newer version of Metropolis with even more footage added back, so if you're a completist or already own some of these releases, you'll think twice. On the whole, the collection is Recommended.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com