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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


Electric Edwardians, Swanson and Valentino in Beyond the Rocks, and German Expressionist films
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

After a rather dry first half of the year, some very good silent films have made their way to region one.  Milestone has released one of the more interesting discs in recent memory; Electric Edwardians.  These street scenes billed as 'local films for local people' were meant to attract people to fairs and traveling shows were very popular before the first World War and provide a window into a forgotten past.

Another Milestone release was on my most anticipated release list for a while:  Beyond the Rocks.  This film, thought lost for decades, is the only pairing of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in a film.  Featuring two stars was fairly rare in the silent days, and the discovery of this film was quite exciting.  Not only does this disc present the restored movie, but it has a wealth of bonus material including the hour long film The Delicious Little Devil staring Mae Murray and featuring Rudolph Valentino in a supporting role.

Kino has a pair of releases too, two wonderful German Expressionist films from the end of the silent era; Warning Shadows and Asphalt.  Both of these films were amazing to watch and come highly recommended.

The definitive version of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler is going to be released by Kino on July 18th.  This restored 270 minute version of the movie is 40 minutes longer than the one currently available, and will be released as a two disc set with copious extras including three featurettes on the making of the film.  I should have a review of this exciting set next month, along with my coverage of the San Fransisco Silent Film Festival.


Electric Edwardians

One of the most fascinating and surprising silent film to be released recently is the excellent Electric Edwardians The Lost Films of Mitchell and Kenyon.  Released by the good folks at Milestone, this 85-minute disc is a compilation of films recording daily life in turn of the century England.  Oddly engrossing and immensely fun to watch, these shorts showing people long dead and a lifestyle that no longer exists is a window into the past.

Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were a pair of entrepreneurs who found a way to make some money with a relatively new gadget, the film camera.  This pair would hire themselves out to traveling shows and fairs, go to a location where the show was going to be, and film the residents.  They filmed people at work and play, shopping downtown, going to school, or playing ball.  The films were then used to bring people to the show be it at a fair or the town hall.  Who wouldn't want to see themselves up on a movie screen along with their friends, neighbors, and relatives?

The movies included on this disc were filmed between 1900 and 1913, shown in various venues, and then forgotten.  In 1922, Mitchell and Kenyon packed their negatives into barrels and placed them under the floorboards of their Blackburn shop.  There they remained until 1994 when they were discovered when the building was being prepared for demolition.  A very luck find, since none of the 28 hours of film, over 800 rolls of nitrate negatives, that was discovered had been preserved in any film archive.

These slice-of-life films are fascinating.  Portraying everyday events, masses of people walking to work in a factory, children going to school, parades and the like, they show a lifestyle that no longer exists.  Since these films were mainly shown at fairs and in music halls, working class forms of entertainment, they focus on workers.  This is a segment of society, especially at the time, that was largely ignored.  These films are a rare opportunity to see how these people worked and lived.

The first comparison that springs to mind when watching these films are the similar movies that the Lumiere brothers created in France.  These Mitchell and Kenyon films are superior to the French product though.  Mitchell and Kenyon weren't just shooting film to have something to show, they were shooting people.  They wanted a lot of faces in their films, so more people would be tempted to go.  These masses of people, often encouraged to wave or act up, give the films a unique feel.  You can see how excited they are to be in front of a camera which brings the people in these films, long dead and buried, to life.

My favorite clips are the city street scenes where horse drawn trolleys would ferry people around the town and the sidewalks would be teaming with people.  There are also scenes of Boer War personalities, with maimed war heroes standing in front of the camera, posing as if to take a still picture, but not really sure what to do.  There's also a segment from a rugby game that Mitchell and Kenyon recorded, the first professionally filmed match.

Another scene that is striking has a 'church's lads brigade' drilling in uniforms.  It is rather sad watching these excited youths playing soldier knowing that many of them will go off to the horrors of WWI in a handful of years.

It was that conflict that would also kill off the demand for these 'local films for local people' as they were sometimes advertised.  With the coming of WWI, this type of film died out.  People just didn't want to see themselves on screen anymore.  They were more interested in being distracted from reality than confronted with it.

Audio/Video:

These films look very good.  The discovered negatives were restored by the British Film institute and look amazing.  There was some damage to the negatives, some scratches and dirt, but these didn't distract from the images significantly.  The contrast is very good and the image while not sharp isn't overly soft.

There is a music track provided by The Nursery, a Sheffield based musical combo.  The audio track fits the subject matter well, and there are not any sound effects.  (Which in this case is a good thing.)

Extras:

This disc also includes a nice amount of bonus features.  Each film has a commentary by Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield.  She points out people in the film, including promoter Edison-Thomas, a shameless self-promoter who claimed to invent everything that Thomas Edison did.  (He later changed his name to Barnum.)  In the commentaries she quotes reviews of the films, as well as gives some history of fairground films and traveling shows.

Dr. Toulmin is also interviewed in the bonus section where she relates much of what is discussed in the commentaries.  There's also an essay about these films, Pictures of Crowd Splendour, that is read while scenes from the films are played.

Five additional shorts by Mitchell and Kenyon are also presented as well as a very nice featurette on the restoration process that last about 20-minutes.

Final thoughts:

This is an unexpectedly good disc. I wasn't expecting to be pulled in as I was, entranced by these images from a century ago, but I was.  Milestone has put out another excellent disc, with copious bonus features to accent the lovingly restored video.  Don't pass this by just because there isn't a storyline or major star. This is a very entertaining and enjoyable disc.  Highly Recommended.


Beyond the Rocks

In addition to the films of Mitchell and Kenyon, Milestone delivers another lost film this month.  One of the legendary lost movies, Beyond the Rocks is the only teaming of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino.  For decades it was thought to no longer exist, save for a one minute fragment that teased film buffs.  Then in 2003 the Nederlands Filmmuseum was given a large collection of nitrate film from a collector which contained the first two reels of the movie.  Searching through the rest of the collection took months, but they were able to find the other reels.  Restored by Haghefilm Conservation in cooperation with the Nederlands Filmmuseum, this long sought after film is now easily obtainable on DVD.

This melodrama has a typical plot for films of this type.   Young Theodora Fitzgerald (Gloria Swanson) is forced by her family to marry the rich, old, and unattractive industrialist Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder).  Though she doesn't love him, Theodora is determined to provide for her father's retirement.

While honeymooning in the Alps, Theodora slips and falls off a mountain but is rescued by the handsome and dashing Lord Hector Bracondale (Rudolph Valentino).  Hector and Theodora quickly fall in love, but the young bride cannot dishonor her husband and stays true to him.  Not willing to take no for an answer, Hector follows Theodora, first to Paris and then England, where he tries to woo her.  Josiah starts to suspect something is up but is willing to give his wife the benefit of the doubt.  That is until when the woman who is trying to marry Hector, Morella Winmarleigh (Gertrude Astor), intercepts a letter from Theodora that was meant for Hector and redirects it to her husband.  Reading the letter, Josiah realizes that his wife is in love with another but is willing to  sacrifice her happiness in order to honor her marriage vows.  After reading the letter, Josiah decides to go on a dangerous archaeological dig in North Africa, that sets up the resolution of the film.

I would love to say that this is a lost classic that every film fan should see, but realistically it isn't.  The plot, based on a novel by popular author Elinor Glyn (whose writings were adapted into It and several other Clara Bow films)  is too melodramatic, and some of the dialog and situations just come across as corny today.
 
The film does have some interesting parts, and there's certainly a good amount of globe-trotting done.  With the story taking place in all across Europe, and even in the Sahara, many viewers of the day were probably entertained by the exotic settings such as the palace at Versailles (though they weren't filmed on location, of course).  Today however, seeing London, Paris, and the Alps isn't the thrill it once was.

Even with a story that hasn't aged well, this is an enjoyable film to watch.  The stars are able to carry the film of the strength of their screen presence.  Swanson and Valentino were at the height of the careers when they made this film, and it really shows.  They have great chemistry together, whenever they are both in the frame, the movie suddenly becomes interesting.

Historically this is an interesting film too.  In the silent era, it was very rare for two silent to be in the same movie.  The philosophy at the time was why make one film with two stars when you can make two films and sell more tickets.  I'm not sure why these two were paired in this film, but they certainly work well together.
 
Audio/Video:

This film has been restored and looks fine overall.  There is some emulsion damage where the nitrate has decomposed, (sometimes to the point where the entire picture is obscured, though this only happens for a second or two each time it occurs) and dust specs are not rare.  The image also has a good amount of grain, though I expect some of what looks like grain is actually digital artifacts.  There are also several missing frames, which isn't surprising since there was only one print to work with.  On the positive side, the image is generally clear and the contrast is acceptable.  Some highlight as washed out, but the level of detail is generally very good.  Though not a perfect image, this film is easy to watch.

As far as the audio goes, there is an orchestral score by Henny Vrienten in stereo and a 5.1 mix that provides sound effects too.  I have to admit that I didn't care for either soundtrack. The scrore was much too contemporary sounding for my tastes, and was in a style that wouldn't have been heard back in the 20's.  I also thought it was a bit too over the top in places, growing and swelling with drama as Swanson is about to fall off of the mountain.  This telegraphing of emotions was worse than the typical Hollywood film, which is saying a lot.  The sound effects in the 5.1 mix I found to be too obtrusive, so I didn't care for that track either.  Subtitles are available in French and Dutch.

Extras:

Milestone has filled this disc with bonus material.  The most interesting item is the 1919 comedy The Delicious Little Devil staring Mae Murray and featuring Rudolph Valentino in a supporting role.  I actually enjoyed this hour-long film more than the feature.  Murray plays a young lady who needs to get a good paying job to support her family.  She gets a job dancing in a club by telling the owner that she's the notorious lover of a Duke.  While employed at the club, Murray falls in love with Valentino, the son of a rich industrialist.  Thinking that the girl is only after the family's money, Valentino's father lays a trap to reveal the dancer's true character.  A delightful romp with Mae doing a very good imitation of Mary Pickford throughout the film.  The film also features a score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra who do their usual excellent job.

Other extras include an introduction to the film by Martin Scorsese, a three minute look at how the audio track was scored, a six-minute look at the restoration of the film including before and after comparisons, a pair of Valentino trailers, and a still gallery.

But wait, as they say on TV, there's more!  Also included is a 20-minute Dutch TV program on the discovery of Beyond the Rocks (with English subtitles) which is interesting.  There's also a 55 minute audio interview with Swanson from 1955.  She talks about her whole life, including her time in the golden age of Hollywood hob-knobbing with the stars.

If you put the DVD into a computer equipped with a DVD-ROM drive, viewers can also access several documents including the original novel of Beyond the Rocks by Elinor Gly, press clippings, press kits, and more.
 
All in all this is a wonderful set of extra material.

Final Thoughts:

Though Beyond the Rocks isn't the classic many were hoping it would be, it is still a good film thanks mostly to the strength of Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino.  It's easy to overlook the melodramatic aspects of the film when they are on the screen.  The movie is never dull or dry, just a bit dated in parts.  Milestone has done a wonderful job with the DVD, with a large selection of extras that should easily push anyone on the edge into buying the disc.  Well worth a purchase, this gets a strong recommended rating.


Warning Shadows

An interesting experiment in narrative style, Warning Shadows is a German Expressionist film that deserves to be more widely known.  While The Cabinet of Dr. Caligary and Metropolis are justifiably famous examples of expressionist film, Warning Shadows comes very close to the standard those films set, telling a story where the visuals and what is included in the frame are just as important as the actions the characters take.

Told without intertitles (aside from the opening credits) the film is populated with nameless characters who's only identification is the role that they play; man, woman, youth.

A German count is insanely jealous of the attention four men are giving his attractive, young, and very flirtatious wife.  One evening the wife invites the four rivals for he affections to have dinner with her and her husband.  While she teases and flirts with the men, the count starts to boil.  When a strange little man shows up and offers to put on a puppet show with shadows, the Count agrees to let the traveling showman entertain the group, but he gets more than he bargained for.  While the guests watch the shadows dance across the wall, they become hypnotized and the men see what will happen they continue to peruse the count's wife.

While the story is rather simple, this film is a masterpiece of style.  From the opening credits were the shadow of a man's hands introduces the players to the final reel, the entire film is creatively staged and filmed.
Of course shadows are a technique used extensively in German Expressionism, are they are very important to this film and are used to good effect here.  The shadows cast upon the wall are often more important than the actors themselves, revealing a character's personality or thoughts.  The superimposition of the shape of a wolf's head over a man's shadow tells more about him than minutes of dialog could.

Director and cowriter Arthur Robison, an American working in Germany did a very good job crafting this film.  Though there are not titles, the action is fairly easy to follow.  There are a couple of segments that aren't as clear as they could be, but generally viewers will have no trouble following the story.

Even though Robison's direction is skilled, much of the credit for the movie's success has to be placed at the feet of  cinematographer Fritz Arno Wagner.  Responsible for the filming of the Fritz Lang films M and Spies, Wagner was also behind the camera (or more accurately next to it turning the crank) for F.W. Murnau's masterpiece Nosferatu.  He helps give this film the slightly eerie feeling it has by drawing the viewer's eye to the seemingly ever present shadows that are an integral part of the film.

A sadly neglected film in the US, this is the first time it has been released on DVD.  (I'm unaware of a VHS or Beta release too.)  The film is a triumph of style and a great example of an early psychological thriller.

Audio/Video:

This film has been restored by Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, the Cinematheque Francaise and the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung using two main sources, an original tinted French print from Cinematheque Francaise, and a dup negative held by the Museum of Modern Art.  The editing of the film was based on an examination of all existing prints of the film.  Though the French print had intertitles in the film itself, this restoration has left them out as the original German release was title-less.

The full frame black and white tinted image looks good, especially for a film this old.  There is still a fair amount of print damage, scratches, spots, and dirt, but that isn't unusual.  The contrast is pretty good overall, though some scenes are a bit too bright causing details to be lost in the highlights.  The tinting scheme works well and isn't intrusive.  Overall a very nice looking film.

The music for the soundtrack composed and performed by Donald Sosin.  The track, piano with a few sound effects added, is scene specific and compliments the film very well.

Extras:

Unfortunately there are no extras on this disc.

Final Thoughts:

A wonderful film that deserves more attention. Fans of German Expressionist film will love it.  Highly Recommended.


Asphalt

As if those three offerings weren't enough, Kino release yet another outstanding example of silent German cinema; Asphalt.  Made at the height of Ufa's power, this wonderful film is carefully directed and wonderfully filmed.   This film is a testament to director Joe May's talent and a true classic.

Set in Germany between the two world wars, the movie takes place in Berlin, a hustling and vibrant city.  In this crowded and busy town lives Else (Betty Amann), a very attractive lady who is also a jewel thief.  After stealing a diamond and nearly getting away, Else uses her feminine wiles on the
young policeman who nabs her, Albert Holk (Gustav Fröhlich of Metropolis fame.)  Giving him a sob story about how poor she is, Albert follows Else back to her apartment where she seduces him with only a little trouble.

Albert quickly falls in love with the crooked Else, but there's something she hasn't told him: she's already involved with someone else.  Her lover, Konsol (Hans Schlettow), is in Paris planning a bank robbery.  When he returns to Germany unexpectedly and find Else and Albert together, things rapidly spin out of control and someone ends up dead.
 
Director Joe May, who is probably best known in the US for directing The Invisible Man Returns, (or possibly The Indian Tomb) really went all the way with this production.  Impeccably directed at every turn this film is a wonderful example of silent narrative, using the camera to tell a story instead of lengthy dialog.  From the opening montage that was obviously influenced by Russian cinema of the time to the sexuality of the seduction scene and even the slightly melodramatic conclusion, May has used the camera with skill and finesse.  He used unusual angles and lighting as well as letting the camera move in order to create a wonderful looking film.

The argument could (and probably has) been made that this is a proto-noir film.  It certainly has many of the traits of that American genre, with a femme fatal who corrupts an innocent, heavy shadows and rain slicked streets.  There's a good deal of tension in the film too, with the viewer knowing what type of woman Else is, and the poor Albert falling in love with her.

Betty Amann is excellent as Else and manages to create a character who changes in a believable way over the course of the film.  She starts out as a hard street-smart tough dame, but through Albert's feelings for her she becomes a caring person.

Gustav Fröhlich also does a good job as the attractive if naive officer Albert.  His reactions and the way he treats Else are what drive a large part of the film and the movie wouldn't have worked as well in the hands of a lesser actor.

While the story is simple and straight forward, it is told well and there are some nice aspects to it.  The gorgeous cinematography and excellent direction are what really makes this film.  A movie that stands up well alongside the works of F. W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, Kino has done a great service to silent film fans by releasing this DVD.

Audio/video:

This film hasn't been seen in such a complete form since its first release.  The original negative of the movie has been lost and all of the existing prints had been heavily edited for foreign release.  In 1994 however, a nearly complete copy with German titles was discovered in Moscow.  This print was used as a basis for this restoration.

The full frame black and white image is good, though not as sharp as the Warning Shadows.  The picture is fairly soft, and the highlights tend to get lost in the brighter scenes.  There is a bit more grain than I was expecting too.  The print was fairly clean, with some dirt and spots but they aren't overly abundant.

The orchestral score was composed by Karl-Ernst Sasse and works very well with the film.  I always enjoy silent films accompanied by full orchestras and this stereo soundtrack made the film even more enjoyable.

Extras:

Alas, there are no extras.

Final Thoughts:

This film illustrates the many virtues of German cinema in the late silent era.  Filled with interesting shots and wonderfully composed frames, this simple story of a girl-gone-bad and the innocent she tries to take with her is a treat to watch.  This is another disc that silent film fans should make a point of seeking out.  Highly Recommended.



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