Silent DVD Archive
Fractured Flickers and the Girl with the Hatbox
A shorter column this time around. Since there haven't been many high profile silent movies released in DVD in the last month or so, I thought I'd look at a couple of items that silent movie buffs might have missed. The first is The Girl with the Hatbox, a comedy from Russia by Boris Barnet which gives an interesting look behind the Iron Curtain in the early days of communism. It appears along with Barnet's early sound film Outskirts. Both of these are very good, if different, films and well worth checking out.
Next is a series that I really enjoyed that some of you may hate: Fractured Flickers. This syndicated show created by the same team who brought you Rocky and Bullwinkle features edited silent movies with humorous voice overs. Sort of a silent movie precursor to Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show doesn't take itself seriously at all, and some of their spoofs are truly classics.
I've also included a list of upcoming silent movies that have been scheduled for release. There are some interesting discs that are scheduled including a series of Mary Pickford films, the Keaton MGM movie set, A tentative Arbuckle set, and Criterion’s release of King of Kings. I’m looking forward to a lot of these.
The next installment of Silent DVD will have a look at the 1920 Carl Theodor Dryer comedy (!) The Parson’s Widow.
When people discuss Russian film makers, Eisenstein and Tarkovsky are the directors most often mentioned. The Soviet Union had many good directors, of course, it is just that historically, its been hard to see their films here in the United States. The advent of home video has eased that situation somewhat, and the success of the DVD format has lead to a lot of foreign films becoming available to the casual fan. Image, in association with film preservationist David Shepard and Blackhawk films, has brought two films from the Russian director Boris Barnet to DVD: The early sound film Outskirts (1933) and the silent comedy The Girl with the Hatbox (1927.)
Set in and around a shoe factory in a small town, Outskirts is a slice-of-life drama about Russian life before and during WWI. There are little vignettes of life in the factory and around the city. The scenes start of with a light tone, one worker uses the chaos when the police break up a strike to pick up a girl, but they get darker as the movie goes on. When the war with Germany breaks out, many of the factory workers enlist in the army. The war is not as easily won as most of them assume it will be, and life in the trenches is much more harsh than in the shoe factory. When a German shoe maker is captured, the narrative follows him back to the town and the POW camp located nearby. Life in the little town has changed, and not for the better. When the Russian Tzar abdicated in 1914, that brings even more changes to the small city and the soldiers fighting for it.
This was a good film. It presented a very interesting look at Russian existence during the first World War. The main focus is the people, and how the changes taking place in the world effects this little village. People who only wanted to make shoes, end up fighting far from their home for reasons that they don’t understand. As one villager says near the end of the movie: “Explain to me, we don’t want to fight, and they don’t want to fight, but it’s been three years that we’ve been fighting.”
There are several interesting scenes in this film that really make it worth viewing. After the Tzar steps down, the shoe factory becomes automated. The workers no longer nail the shoe soles on by hand, but have loud machines that preform the task in a fraction of the time. These machines running are cut into scenes of machine guns firing on the front.
The trench warfare sequences were very good to. It is reminiscent of, though not nearly as powerful as, All Quiet on the Western Front. Another powerful scene in the film occurs when a solider doesn't go over the top because he has a horrible tooth ache. His commanding officer drags him through the trenches and holds him up over the edge while the young man screams.
This movie looks like it was filmed silently and dubbed afterwards. There are few background noises, and those that are included don’t sound natural. Even so, this doesn’t distract from enjoying the film.
Girl with the Hatbox:
This early Russian comedy is much lighter in tone than the first feature, and surprisingly amusing. Natalya is a hat maker who lives with her grandfather in the rural countryside. Every week she travels to Moscow to sell her hats to a particular store. The store owners have Natalya registered as living in one of the bedrooms in their house, so that they can use it as an office. This arrangement works out well until Natalya runs into a poor student, Ilya, sleeping in the train station. He can’t find any apartments for rent, and is forced to sleep where ever he can find the space. Natalya feels sorry for him and comes up with a bright idea: they will claim to be married so that he can live in her room in the hat shop. Well, as you can imagine, that doesn’t go over well with the shop owners. They don’t like having a strange man living with them and stop buying Natalya’s hats. Instead of paying her for the last delivery, they give her a lottery ticket instead, which she leaves with Ilya. But when the ticket turns out to be worth 25,000 rubles, there’s a mad dash to try to get the slip and the fortune it represents.
This was a very enjoyable movie, though very different from Outskirts. The pacing and situations were very reminiscent of American comedies of the time. Aside from some of the Russian references, it could have been filmed in the States.
There was a little slapstick, a few word jokes, but mainly it was a situational comedy. Most of the jokes worked well, and the movie had a lot of laughs. The troubles poor Natalya’s grandfather has to go through to get a paper made me laugh out loud, and scene with Natalya and Ilya in front of the Housing Committee were also funny.
Another thing that I enjoyed about this movie was seeing what life was like in Moscow over 80 years ago. The idea of having a government official come into your house and tell you who would be living with you (rent free) almost inconceivable. These authorities were not portrayed as evil or mean, just people doing their jobs. It was also interesting to note that the shop owner was using an abacus to balance the books.
One thing about the film that I didn’t like was that the framing is rather odd. The tops of heads are cut off frequently, and you often can’t see the speaker’s eyes because of this. I’m not sure if it is an error with the print or the way the movie was filmed, but it did give the film a rather amateur feel to it. Aside from that single issue, Barnet does a good job, creating some interesting scenes by mounting the camera on a train, or by playing with the focus. In one interesting experiment he has two people talking, one in the foreground and one in the background. Both can’t be in focus at the same time, so he focuses on one individual and then cuts to the same shot, but with the other person in focus. The effect was a little jarring, but it was an interesting idea, and something I hadn’t seen before.
The audio track for Outskirts is a little muffled and very flat, but that is to be expected with a film this old. There is not much distortion and very little hiss. Overall it sounds very good for a film of this age. This movie has optional English subtitles.
Unfortunately, the silent film The Girl with the Hatbox has the English translations of the intertitle cards burned into the print. They are not removable. This should only bother people who can read Russian though. The musical accompaniment was created by the Gorky Studios in 1968, and has some hiss, a few dropouts, and other minor defects associated with older audio, but does an acceptable job.
Both of these movies looked very good considering their age. Outskirts has some scratches and dirt, but looks very good for a film from the early 30's. The contrast is very good, and the detail is excellent.
The Girl with the Hatbox was a little worse off, but still looked fine. The contrast wasn’t as good as I was hoping, and a lot of details were lost in black areas. Many dark figures had a slight black halo around them, but this wasn’t distracting. The image was generally sharp and clear, and looked good for a film so old.
There were no extras included on this disc.
These are two very good movies, though they had very different tones. The Girl with the Hatbox is a funny film that has the feel of an American comedy, but also offers an interesting look at life in Moscow soon after the revolution. Outskirts is an excellent film, examining the effects of war and the revolution on a small Russian village. Together they make an excellent package that is sure to delight film buffs. Highly recommended.
Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the creators of Bullwinkle the Moose, George of the Jungle, and Dudley Do-Right, among many others, had several cartoon programs, but only created one live action show: Fractured Flickers. This weekly half hour parody of silent movies aired in 1963 and only lasted one season of 26 episodes. But it is still mentioned in silent film circles, often fondly and sometimes with disdain, but the show certainly made an impression. Now VCI has gathered the complete series and released them on a three DVD set.
Fractured Flickers was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 of the sixties. Like Woody Allen would do a few years later in What’s Up Tiger Lily?, the idea was to take old silent movies (licensed from the controversial Raymond Rohauer) reedit them, and then add voices and sound effects to turn the work into a new comic skit. The result was always outrageous and often hilarious. Douglas Fairbank’s Mark of Zorro became The Barber of Stanwick, with Fairbanks playing Zeke the barber who would carve his initial in all of his costumers. “The only place in the world where you can get your hair cut and face disfigured at the same time.” Valentino’s Blood and Sand was changed to Death of a Traveling Salesman. In probably the most uproarious fracture that they ever came up with, The Hunchback of Notre Dame turns into Dinky Dunstan, Boy Cheerleader.
The program was hosted and dubbed by Jay Ward players from his previous series. Hans Conried was the host in addition to doing some of the voices, and he was joined in the dubbing studio by Bill Scott, Paul Frees and June Foray, all voices that you’d recognize from other Jay Ward Productions.
Conried was the prefect person to act as host of the wacky show. He looked dignified, but his demeanor and attitude lets the audience know that nothing should be taken seriously. In the opening show he invites viewer to take a trip “down memory lane, with ax and crowbar.” And that’s what the show did each week.
The typical show consisted of a major movie being ‘fractured’ a couple of shorts, and an interview with a star. All crammed into half an hour. As you would expect from the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle and George of the Jungle, there are a lot of jokes wedged into each show. The show would open with a different one liner, (“Tonight’s program is brought to you by the makers of...mistakes.”) and after the credits Hans would appear for one last zinger. (“The biggest waste of time since the Bullwinkle show.”) In between, it was constant mayhem.
Even the short interviews were comic gems. While most comedy shows would have an interview segment in an attempt to raise the level of the show and add a touch of class, Ward and Scott did the opposite. They often used the guests to make fun of the show. When Fabian was on, Hans explained that the concept of the show was to reedit silent movies and add amusing dialog to which the teen star asked “Why?” The show never took itself seriously either. The famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was interviewed as an “expert in pantomime” since she could hold an audience's attention without saying a word.
Some people don’t like the show because they take serious and artistic films and use them to create crass humor. While I can see these critic's point I don’t agree with it. As a fan of silent movies I don’t think that adding humorous dialog to a film lessens the quality of the original to any degree, and may even spur someone to search out the original.
The only qualm I have with the show, is I feel the quality of the production went down after the first dozen or so shows. While the program was still funny, I didn’t think there were as many belly laughs as the program progressed. Whether this was due to running out of ideas, a tighter production schedule, or the fact that they had already spoofed the best material is anyone’s guess. The latter half of the show was still funny, just not as uproariously so as it started out. In any case it’s still fun to see how many movies, shorts, and stars you can identify.
The entire 26 episode series comes on three DVDs which are housed in a double width Amaray case. There is an insert listing the episodes (by guest interview) and a text piece on Jay Ward and Bill Scott which ironically doesn’t mention Fractured Flickers at all.
The mono audio track is sufficient, though it’s not outstanding. The dialog and sound effects are clear and easy to hear though the audio is very flat, as you’d expect from a 60's TV show. There is a little bit of hiss, and some distortion in a couple of places, but this shouldn’t stop anyone from purchasing the set.
The black and white image looks pretty good taking into consideration the age of the show. The host segments have a good amount of detail, but there isn’t a lot of contrast. Host Hans Conried’s black jacket shows no texture and often seems to merge into the background creating a ‘floating head’ effect. The old silent movies vary quite a bit, with most of them being scratchy and faded but still watchable. This is about as good as this show is ever going to look.
The only extras are text biographies.
I found myself laughing a lot while watching this show. It is
wonderfully irreverent, and should appeal to fans of Mystery Science
Theater, Kung Pow, and other such titles. It is great to have
the entire collection in one set. Highly Recommended.
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
The 2013 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
The 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Douglas Fairbanks - A Modern Musketeer
The General - Kino's Ultimate 2-Disc Edition