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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


German Expressionism, Saved from the Flames, Dragon Painter
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Okay, I know I'm pretty late with this column.  At the beginning of the last installment, I said I'd have another one before Christmas, but that didn't come to pass.  Part of the reason was that things became hectic with holiday plans and visiting relatives.  The bigger reason was I wasn't able to get some of the screeners I was hoping would come in.  Fox didn't send out review copies to neither the big Ford at Fox boxed set, or the smaller themed sets.  I wasn't too surprised that the $300 set wasn't being sent out, but I was hoping to review the set of his silent films.  I also was hoping to get a copy of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection, but no luck so far.  I haven't given up, and with the large Ford set having just gone out-of-print, I may break down and just buy a copy.

I'm hoping to make that up with a large column this time around.  First there's a review of Kino's new German Expressionism Collection which features The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (a personal favorite of mine), Warning Shadows, The Hands of Orlac (which teams up the director and star of Caligari once more), and G. W. Pabst's Secrets of a Soul.  Next up is a wonderful collection of rare and early films presented by Lobster Films and Blackhawk and released by Flicker Alley, the aptly named Saved from the Flames.  Finally a vehicle for the first Asian star in America, Sessue Hayakawa, The Dragon Painter.  The latter comes on a jam-packed DVD with a lot of interesting bonus items.

Looking into the future there are some interesting releases scheduled.  Flicker Alley isn't resting on its laurels and plans to put out a massive five-disc 170-film collection of films by the French magician turned director, Georges Méliès.  The collection, Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema, is due out March 11th.

Kino also has a lot of silent films about to come out.  On April 8th, 2008 fans of early cinema and magic buffs will be excited to see the release of Houdini: The Movie Star.  This three disc collection will include all of Houdini's surviving movies including the serial The Master Mystery (1919) and the features Terror Island (1920), The Man from Beyond (1922), and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923).  There will also be films of Houdini's escapes, audio files, and much more.  retailing for a very reasonable $39.99, this should be a great collection.

A couple of weeks later Kino will dig into their library and release some silent films that they previously put out on video tape.  These will include:  Hypocrites (1915) and Catch (1916), The Ocean Waif (1916) with '49-'17 (1917), and The Red Kimona (1925).  That day will also see the release of the documentary Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982).

Not wanting to be outdone, the Criterion imprint Eclipse will release thier first set of silent films:  The Silent Ozu.  This three disc set will feature three comedies by the famous Japanese director:  Tokyo Chorus, I Am Born But..., and Passing Fancy.  It is scheduled to hit the shelves on April 22, 2008. 


The German Expressionism Collection:

Kino has released a nice collection of four films made in German at the height of the Expressionist movement:  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Warning Shadows, The Hands of Orlac, and Secrets of a Soul.  The first is the most well know Expressionist film, but the other three are also good examples of this style.  While the popularity of the movement itself died out by the 1930's, it's still influencing film makers today, and this set is a nice way to become acquainted with Expressionist films.

So, just what is an Expressionist film and why are they identified with Germany?  The term was first used to describe a style of painting, but quickly migrated to theater, film, sculpture, and even architecture.  Previous to its start, artists painted in a realistic style.  They tried to faithfully reproduce on canvas the physical appearance of the objects that they were painting.  Expressionists discarded this philosophy and instead tried to reproduce an artist's feelings and emotions about what he was seeing.  Paintings like The Scream are filled with powerful emotions have an intensity of feeling rarely captured in realistic paintings.

After WWI, the German film industry was going quite well, but money was still a problem.  With inflation running rampant in post-war Germany film makers found it hard to compete with the production values that the films from Hollywood exhibited.  (Though there are a few famous exceptions including Lang's Die Nibelungen.)  Instead, the German directors started to create their own style of film creation.  Embracing the Expressionist movement, they started making films that reproduced the emotions and feelings of the characters more intensely.  Playing with pacing, symbolism, set design, camera movement and especially lighting, they created stylized and surreal films that were very effective.  The most famous, quite justifyibly, is the lead film in this set; The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The Films:

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)

One of the best films to come out of the silent period, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari has been remade and reproduced several times, but the artistic gauntlet that it threw down at the feet of other filmmakers was never picked up.  No one rose to the challenge to be that daring, creative, and experimental in a mainstream film.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari stands alone as a unique and brilliant film that is still as powerful and awe-inspiring today as it was nearly 90 year ago.

Sitting in a quiet garden, Francis (Friedrich Feher) starts to tell his friend about how his fiancée, Jane (Lil Dagover), went mad.  They had both experienced something horrible and tragic about a year ago when a carnival came to town.  In a flashback, Francis tells his friend about the awful events when Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) came to town with his attraction, a somnambulist, Cesare (Conrad Veidt).  Cesare is always asleep, even when he eats, and can only be awakened by Caligari.  When he does come out of his trance, he predicts the future, and his predictions often involve people dieing.

When his first prediction comes true and a man turns up dead, the police arrest a common thug and try to pin the crime on him.  Francis isn't sure they've got the right man however.  He's convinced that Caligari is behind the murders and that Francis may be next!

With this movie, director Robert Wiene created a masterpiece.  Not only is the story interesting and engaging, but nearly every shot in the movie looks like an Expressionist painting.   The sets, designed by Hermann Warn along with to painters, Walter Rohrig and Walter Reinmann, are filled with strange angles, triangular doors, and crooked roofs.  Complex and intricate architecture, odd stairways, and bizarre props such as giant stools near enormously tall desks all serve to give the film a unique look. The entire production feels like the dream of a madman.

Not only do the sets appear like Expressionist paintings, but the characters themselves do too.  The heavy, exaggerated make-up with sharp angular lines painted across the characters faces and the triangular costumes serve to accent the sets and props.   No film has ever captured insanity so well.

The lighting is very important in this film, and a key aspect to expressionist film.  The stark, harsh, shadow filled lighting gives all of the scenes a nightmarish quality.  The sets are painted with shadows which makes the movie even more eerie and otherworldly than it would have been otherwise.  In one of key and often imitated moments in the film, a murder is shown only as shadows on a wall.

Even without the stylized lighting and sets, the story itself tells a solid tale.  All too often avant garde films eschew narrative and plot for interesting visuals, but that's not the case here.  The murderous Ceasar and his puppet-master Caligari are eerie and fascinating creatures and the crimes they perpetrate are more than enough to keep a viewers interest.  The twist at the end also works quite well even today and is the capping masterpiece to the film.

The DVD:

This disc is the same as the earlier Kino release.

Audio:

This film has two musical tracks to choose from, one by Donald Sosin and a more modern track by Rainer Viertlock.  I wasn't overjoyed by either of the scores, too much synthesizer for my tastes, but I did appreciate Sosin's much more.  The latter track was too odd and strange for my tastes.

Video:

The first time I popped this version of Caligari in my DVD player, I was shocked.  The beginning sequence, where Francis is in the asylum telling his tale, looks absolutely wretched.  The detail is weak, the contrast is very poor, and there is more than a little film decomposition.   As soon at the narrative changes to Francis' home town however, things start to look much, much better.

For the bulk of the movie the contrast if good and the detail is acceptable.  In some close-up shots the level of detail is much better than I would have hoped.  There is some mild blooming on the highlights and some details are lost in dark areas.  The film is also tinted, following an early German print of the film.

Extras:

There is a good selection of bonus items on this disc.  First off is a 43-minute condensation of Robert Wiene's film Genuine:  The Tale of a Vampire another unique looking production.  There's also a film clip of Wiene working on his film I.N.R.I. in 1924, and a clip for Caligari with the original German intertitles.  Finally the disc has a very nice selection of production photos and advertising (some of which I've used to illustrate this review.)
 
 

Warning Shadows (1923)

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.

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

Reuniting the director and star of Caligari, Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt, are at the helm of The Hands of Orlac is an interesting psychological thriller.  While not as creative and stylized as Caligari, the movie about a pianist who is given the hands of a murderer after an accident has some interesting touches and effectively illustrates the torment that the lead goes through as he feels the compulsion to kill.

Retuning home from a concert tour, pianist Paul Orlac (Conrad Veidt) is in a train accident when the wrong switch is thrown.  His wife, Yvonne Orlac (Alexandra Sorina) rushes to the scene and discovers his still-living body and manages to get him to a hospital.  The doctor there saves his life but reveals that the musician's hands have been terribly damaged.  Pleading to save her husband's hands, the doctor transplants the hands of an executed killer onto the young pianist.

While still recovering in the hospital, Orlac starts seeing visions of the murderer whose hands he has acquired which disturbs him greatly.  Reading a description of the murder that his hands were supposed to have committed, Orlac discovers that a knife with an X on the handle was used to kill a shop keeper, a knife that has mysteriously appeared in Orlac's house.

Tormented by the murderous knife and fighting an urge to kill, Orlac can't sleep.  He vows to never touch anyone again with his criminal hands, and gives up playing the piano.  Of course Paul and his wife can't continue to live in a large house with servants when they have no income, and the creditors soon come knocking at the door.  Yvonne appeals to Paul's rich father to help them but is rebuffed, and when Paul finally goes to his father, he discovers the elder Orlac dead, killed with a knife with an X on the hilt and the executed murderer's fingerprints on the handle.

The plot to this movie would be copied and repeated several times, and this original version is very good in a lot of ways.  The film does an excellent job of showing Orlac's decent into madness and paranoia, and the mystery of his father's murder really propels the narrative.  Unfortunately the movie is slowly paced at the beginning and really drags in places.  Having seen Caligari which moves at a good rate several times, I have to wonder if the slow pacing was intended or if it was the result of the editor in charge of the restoration wanting to use every scrap of film that was available.  As it is, a lot of the scenes last too long and there are several clips that I would have eliminated altogether to quicken the pace.

The film does pick up pace quite a bit in the final reels when the conflict about the creditors and, ultimately, the murder take center stage metaphorically speaking, and even the early part has some interesting sections.  Veidt does a great job in the role, and it was fun to watch him on screen.  Unfortunately the same couldn't be said of Alexandra Sorina who horribly over-acted her part.  While Veidt did exaggerate his motions for effect, Sorina really went overboard acting more like Douglas Fairbanks in one of his action comedies, alternately waving her arms and crumpling into a cringing ball.  It's too bad, because a more sedated performance would have made the film much better.

While not as surreal and stylized as Caligari, the film's use of lighting, the barren urban setting for one section and the anti-hero at the center of the drama puts this firmly in the expressionist genre.
 


The DVD:


Audio:

While I'm sure many people will enjoy this stereo soundtrack, I actively disliked it.  The music, composed by Paul Mercer, consisted of piano, violin, viola, percussion, and some scant vocals.  Unfortunately Mercer uses a lot of discordant sounds and irritating noise-like tones to illustrate Orlac's madness.  Not only are these parts of the soundtrack not pretty, they distract from the film.  It's hard to get engrossed in the movie when your ears are cringing.  Aside from this stylistic choice that I didn't agree with, the musicians were all very capable and performed the music ably.

Video:

This movie was restored in 1995 by Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Fredrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung, and Deutsches Filminstitut.  In addition to this, some additional scenes were added by Bret Wood from a 16mm print that was found in the Raymond Rohauer Collection.  These additional scenes were sections not found in the FWMS restoration, naturally.  The 16mm sections were easy to tell, they had less resolution and were much softer, but they also had a bit more contrast.  The FWMS restoration was good, but there's only so much film restorers can do.  This print still had a lot of dirt and spots on the print and in one or two places there were sprocket scratches were the film had jumped the gear at some point in time.  The contrast wasn't wonderful, with dark areas losing a lot of detail and there was some minor blooming on highlights in a few places.  About average for an restored film of this age:  not great but not bad.

Extras:

There were some great bonus items on this disc, most notably a scene comparison.  Now my eyes usually glaze over on the storyboard to film comparisons that are included on some DVDs, but this was much more interesting. Scenes from the FWMS restoration and the Rohauer print are shown, either individually or side-by-side.  These were often from two different cameras.  In the silent era it was common to have two cameras cranking side by side: One film for the domestic release and one for foreign distribution.  In addition to the different angles and sometimes different takes, the scenes were often edited differently between the two prints with some middle sections of a single shot being removed in some instances.  I was also quite surprised to see that the camera were cranked at different speeds occasionally.  A scene would be lined up to start, and after a few seconds it would get out of synch.  Three extended scenes are compared with optional commentary.

In addition to that there is a text piece on the restoration, film notes by John T. Soister, an image gallery, and the trailer for Mad Love, a 1935 remake of the film staring Peter Lorre.
 
 

Secrets of a Soul (1926)

The final movie in this set is the weakest, but it has some interesting aspects that make it worth viewing.

The Kulturfilm Abteilung branch of UFA, the German film studio, was charged with making films that would appeal to a more high-brow audience; films aimed at an academic and more cerebral audience.  In the mid-20's the science of psychoanalysis was still very new and relatively unknown to the general populace, and Kulturfilm head Hans Neumann thought the subject would be the perfect subject for a movie.  He wanted to get the science right, so he approached Sigmund Freud and asked that he be technical advisor.  Freud turned him down instantly, since he felt that psychoanalysis was much to abstract to be accurately portrayed in a film, and that they only wanted his stamp of approval, not his input.  Not deterred, Neumann went to people in Freud's inner circle and finally convinced Dr. Karl Abraham to help with the project.  This ended up causing a rift between Abraham and Freud especially when UFA leaked a story that Freud approved of the film and some news stories even said that he was directing it!  UFA promised to issue a retraction, but they were very slow in doing so causing Freud to issue his own statement distancing himself from the project.  It seems that studios back then were as sly and conniving as they are now.

Billed as a "psychoanalytical thriller", the film has more psychoanalysis than thrills.  When Martin Fellman (Werner Krauss) is trimming the hair on the back of his wife's neck (Ruth Weyher), he hears a cry of "HELP!" as a neighbor is murdered, causing him to nick his wife slightly.

In the days that follow, Fellman starts to act strangely.  He's terribly afraid of knives and sharp instruments and starts to feel compelled to kill his wife!  He has strange nightmares and has trouble sleeping.  At the same time an old friend of both Martin and his wife's arrives from out of town, but Martin's phobias and compulsions start to ruin the visit.  When Fellman encounters a psychoanalyst (Pawel Pawloff), he starts to undergo therapy.  Slowly, after describing his nightmares and his past, Fellman starts to discover what's really causing these unusual reactions and when the root is finally discovered, he is cured.

Viewed today, the film is pretty lackluster.  The acting is stilted and unimpressive and the plot creeps along.  Even worse is the resolution, where just talking about an event in the past miraculously causes the disease to disappear.  As presented in this film, psychoanalysis bears more than a little resemblance to Scientology, where they similarly preach that forgotten events in the past can cause all sorts of ailments.

The highlight of the film is the dream sequence that is very interesting and quite impressive.  The use of double exposures and very surreal images are used to create an intense and visually striking trip into a neurotic man's nightmare.  The film is worth watching for that sequence alone.

The DVD:


Audio:

This disc comes with a piano score by Ekkehard Wolk which I quite enjoyed.  He wasn't trying to make the music dominate the scenes as in The Hands of Orlac, but to supplement the action on screen.  A nice and appropriate score.

Video:

This is one of the better looking films in this set.  The level of detail is very strong and the contrast is good.  There is some blooming of white objects, especially the wife's dressing gown at the beginning, and there was some dust and spots on the print used, but overall it is a solid looking film.

Extras:

The only bonus item is text piece on the film that is illustrated with production stills.
 

Final thoughts on the set:

This is a good introduction to German Expreessionist film.  While these (with the exception of Caligari) aren't necessarily the best know Expressionist films, they do illustrate the techniques and style used by this short-lived film movement.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is mandatory viewing for any student of film, and the other selections are strong too.  If you don't have any of these films in your library, the set is highly recommended.  All of these films are also available separately for those who already have the two previously released movies.


Saved from the Flames:


Serge Bromberg started Lobster Films in 1985 in Paris and since then, along with associate Eric Lange, they've been scouring Europe looking for, and preserving, silent features and shorts and other old film. They have been so successful in their endeavors that M. Bromberg now showcases their discoveries twice a year in a performance he's dubbed Retour de Flamme (Back from the Flames.) (He also presented a version of the show at last year's SF Silent Film Festival.) Most of the films screened at these presentations are transfers from the only existing copy but they aren't only rare, they are entertaining. In region two a series of Retour de Flamme DVDs have been released (they are up to volume six I believe), and at long last some of these rare films have made it to region 1. M. Bromberg has partnered with David Shepard and Blackhawk Films' impressive library of rare movies to create a wonderful three-disc set entitled Saved from the Flames. Released by Flicker Alley, the set is filled with 54 funny, interesting, amazing and very rare films.

Collections of early films, while they are all different, often include the same handful of famous movies. While this set does include Exiting the Factory and Arrival of a Train two of the earliest films projected for an audience, the versions included here are rarely shown alternate takes of these important film. One of the reasons this set is so new, is that many of these films were made in Europe. There's a good possibility that many of them never made it across the Atlantic for exhibition, which explains why they never turn up in collections assembled in the US.

The movies are arranged by theme, with each program making for a nice chunk of viewing.  The first disc includes:  New Beginnings - films before 1910 including some early sound experiments; Magical Movies - Melies-like trick films including Pathe's remake of Melies incredibly popular A Trip to the Moon entitles An Excursion to the Moon; Seeing the World - with movies of the Paris flood of 1910, a Paris fashion show (in color) from 1927, and a sound film of Lindbergh taking off on his famous flight to Paris.

Disc Two is the most entertaining and has: Laughing like We Used To - an uproariously funny theme including the very bizarre Dancing Pig, the surreal Artheme Swallows his Clarinet, and a Stan Laurel short, The Pest; Drawings and Models - a group of vintage cartoons including early Technicolor and Cinecolor shorts, a sing-a-long, and a Ko-Ko the clown short; Grace Notes - featuring early sound films with appearances by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

The final disc wraps up the show with:  Presuade Me - commercial films shown in theaters and to exhibitors including an MGM Promo reel with Laurel and Hardy, a George Pal stop-motion animated cartoon for Phillips Raido of Holland, and an appearance by Jacques Tati; and Tell Me a Story - narrative films with D. W. Griffith's For His Son, the Thoman Ince production The Heart of an Indian, and a Lois Weber short.  The set wraps up with Stolen Kisses, a short reel of film that was censored out of other movies.  This is three and a half minutes worth of film that the powers that be determined were to wild for audiences to ever see.  A fitting end to a great set of shorts.

This is a truly wonderful set.  I really enjoy early short films, but even I will admit it's hard to watch a whole disc of Keystone shorts in one sitting.  With a nice mix of short and medium film and some truly enjoyable movies these discs just seemed to fly by (though I did limit myself to one disc per day.)  My only regret is that there isn't more.  The region two Retour de Flamme series has a chapter of a silent serial on each disc, and I would have loved to see at least the first one here.  Hopefully there will be more similar sets released in the future

The DVD:


Audio:

Most of these films are silent and are accompanied by piano music.  The names will be recognizable to many silent film fans:  Rodney Sauer, Donald Sosin and Eric Beheim to name but three.  These tracks fit the movies well and sound very good.  The early sound films are naturally of a low-fi quality and a bit scratchy, but that's to be expected.

Video:

The video quality varies from film to film but overall I was very impressed.  None of the movies were in horrible condition and some of them looked quite striking.  In general the contrast was fine and the level of detail adequate.  Of course these can't compare to the latest Hollywood blockbuster in terms of image quality, but fans of old film will find this collection very pleasing.

Extras:

There are no extras...the main features are good enough.  If they wanted to, they could have included some of these films under a "bonus feature" link from the main menu but what's the point?

Final Thoughts:

This is a magnificent collection.  Not only are these films rare and unusual, but they are fun to watch also.  The Dancing Pig is a family favorite around my house, with kids laughing because "it's just so strange."  There are a lot of historical films too, and hearing President Coolidge's stilted and dragging speech when he welcomed Lindberg home makes me wonder how successful he would be as a politician today.  Entertaining and rare films, this is a must buy.  DVDTalk Collector Series.
 


The Dragon Painter:


Milestone doesn't put out a lot of DVDs, but when they do release a title it's usually something to take notice of.  Two of their most recent titles have been Killer of Sheep and I am Cuba, both of which earned the coveted DVDTalk Collector Series rating.  Now they've released an important silent film that is both historic, in that it's the first film to accurately present Japanese culture to American audiences, and entertaining:  The Dragon Painter.

The Dragon Painter was made in 1919 and stars a very young Sessue Hayakawain who would later go on to be nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his magnificent portrayal as Col. Saito,  the prisoner-of-war camp commandant, in The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Even though he is largely forgotten today, at this point in his career Hayakawain was one of Hollywood's top leading men.  He turned down the role of The Sheik before it was offered to Valentino and played opposite such stars as Blanche Sweet and Florence Vidor as well as working with Frank Borzage (when he was still acting, before he went behind the camera) and Noah Berry.

Discovered by Thomas Ince, Hayakawain's career quickly blossomed.  His success in the 1914 films The Tycoon and The Wrath of the Gods made him an in demand actor, the first Japanese-American movie star.  His exotic good looks assured that he would have work, but he didn't like the roles he was getting; he would often play characters that seduced women and were then killed off at the end.  Tired of playing in formulaic stories, Hayakawain formed his own production company, something that only the biggest stars could manage in those days.  Along with his wife, actress Tsuri Aoki and director William Worthington and some capital from a college friend he formed Haworth Pictures Corp.

Now Hayakawain was able to make the kinds of movies he wanted; ones that portrayed the Japanese in a realistic, if somewhat idealized light.  The buck-toothed coolie was gone and instead Japanese customs and culture were portrayed in a sympathetic light.  Hayakawain was involved in many aspects of his films creation, from picking stories to adapt to the supervising the final editing.

One of the films Hayakawain made at Haworth was The Dragon Painter, based on a novel by Mary McNeil Fonollosa (which is available as a DVD-ROM feature on this disc.)  The plot revolves around a crazy hermit, Tatsu (Hayakawain) who is convinced that his true love has been captured by a dragon.  He lives in the mountains, painting dragons day after day waiting for hos princess to return.

One day a man from the city discovers some of Tatsu's discarded works.  Recognizing the talent, he's sure that the master Indara (Edward Pell Sr.) will want the artist as a pupil.  Indara has not found a suitable heir to learn his secrets, and Tatsu seems to have the prerequisite talent.  To get him off the mountain, Tatsu is told that Indara knows something about his fiancée.  When he arrives at the master artist's home however, the hermit discovers more than he was hoping for:  He's sure that Indara's daughter Ume-Ko (Tsuru Aoki) is his lost love.

This is a beautiful movie that is enthralling to watch.  The mountain scenery, especially the waterfall the Tatsu constantly paints is just lovely.  Filmed in Yosemite, the cinematographer made good use of the natural beauty of the area.

It's also easy to see why Hayakawain was a star.  He gives a mesmerizing performance and steals the movie.  His acting is rather restrained and he plays the slightly mad hermit wonderfully.  Aoki does a good job too, but her real-life husband is clearly the star.

The DVD:


Audio:

The film is accompanied by an ensemble score written by Mark Izu.  It fits the movie well, accenting the emotion of the film without overpowering or distracting from the visuals.  The audio quality is excellent.

Video:

The tinted 1.33:1 windowboxed image looks pretty good overall.  This film was considered lost for many years until a single copy was discovered in France.  There is some damage to the print, scratches, dirt and a missing frame or two, but these aren't extreme.  The contrast is good and the level of detail is excellent for a film that's 85+ years old.  Aside from a few sections that are damaged particularly bad, this is a nice looking film.

Extras:

Milestone includes a lot of wonderful extra material on this disc.  First off is The Wrath of the Gods, the 1914 feature film that made Sessue Hayakawain a star.  In addition to that there's a comedy short from 1921 featuring Hayakawain, Charles Murray, and Roscoe Arbuckle, Screen Snapshots No. 20.  This wasn't too impressive; the three just goof around in from of the camera for five minutes.  There's also a still gallery.

That's not all however.  Viewers with a DVD-ROM equipped computer can access a wealth of information as .pdf files.  There's Mary McNeil Fonollosa's original novel that the feature film was based on, an essay on early Asian films by historian Brian Taves, the original script for Wrath of the Gods, and a short piece on how to build a movie volcano.  (Which uses vinegar and Baking Soda with food coloring.)

Final Thoughts:

This is a great package.  The Dragon Painter is a wonderful film that has an important place in film history, and shows Sessue Hayakawain at the height of his stardom.  The fact that there is a second feature, a short, shooting script and an entire novel included on this disc makes it even more attractive.  This disc is highly recommended.
 
 



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