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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Welcome back to another instalment of Silent DVD.  The last couple of weeks I've been working my way through two excellent collections of silent films that are both entertaining and interesting to watch.  The first is Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection, which gathers 17 of the shorts that the silent comedian made while signed with Mack Sennett in 1924 throug 1926 as well as his first feature that Langdon made, His First Flame and some of the sound shorts he made in the 30's.  It's a nice set the traces the evolution of a comic who was once considered Chaplin's equal.

The second is the astonishing Georges Méliès:  First Wizard of Cinema.  This amazing set collects 173 of the innovative directors movies, from his early actualities in 1896 through to his very last film, 1913's Voyage de la famille Bourrichon.  A truely impressive collection of historic and entertaining films.  Scroll on down to read my reviews of Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection and Georges Méliès:  First Wizard of Cinema.

There are some equally exciting sets that are coming out soon.  Just released is Kino's Houdini: The Movie Star three disc set.  Hopefully I'll have a review of that collection, which contains all of Houdini's films (as an actor) that still survive along with footage of actual escapes, soon.  The next installment of Silent DVD will also have a review of Eclipse's newest set, The Silent Ozu, by DVD Talk reviewer Jamies S. Rich.

There's another collection that I'm excited about too.  On July 22nd All Day Entertainment will release American Slapstick Volume 2.  This three disc set promises to be the perfect companion to the first American Slapstick release (reviewed here).  It will include a Harold Lloyd Lonesome Luke short, a collection of films by lesser known Hal Roach comedians including Snub Pollard and Paul Parrott, Charlie Chase's younger brother.  Speaking of brothers, there will be a trio of films by Syd Chaplin, Charlie's brother as well as movies staring Larry Semon, Billy Bevan, and more.  

As mentioned in the last column, Kino has more silent movie releases scheduled.  They are digging into their library to 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), The Red Kimona (1925), and the documentary Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter (1982).  These are all scheduled to come out on April 22nd.
 


Harry Langdon:  Lost and Found

There were three unarguable geniuses in silent comedy:  Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton.  They all started out in shorts and quickly graduated to feature films, something that was fairly difficult for silent screen clowns.  To keep an audience laughing through a 20-minute two-reeler was one thing, but to sustain that laughter for well over an hour was something all together.  There were many talented comics who never made the jump to features, and some that did, such as Larry Semon, soon found themselves back in shorts when their longer pictures bombed.

There was one other comic who had a string of successful features.  A man who was compared more than once to Chaplin and who Mack Sennett famously said was the best comedian he ever saw.  In his seminal book "The Silent Clowns", author Walter Kerr devoted three chapters to this performer, but today he's all but forgotten.  The man?  Harry Langdon.  While Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd have most of their films out on DVD, there has only been one disc devoted to Langdon (which contained his first three independent features:  Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants) along with a couple of shorts included in various collections.  This has been corrected with the release of Harry Langdon:  Lost and Found a magnificent four disc set that contains 20 of this forgotten clown's films along with copious supplemental material.

Harry Langdon had show-biz in his blood.  He ran away from home at the age of 12 to join Dr. Belcher's Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show (an experience that possibly provided fodder for his short Lucky Star included in this set) and was a seasoned and successful vaudeville actor.  He started in the movies rather late in his career, not making his first film until 1923 when he was nearly 40.  After a couple of quick shorts for producer Sol Lesser (both lost films), Mack Sennett bought Langdon's contract in 1924 and started him on his way to stardom.  By 1926 Langdon had developed his character, acquired a creative team that knew how to write and direct him (these included director Harry Edwards and writers Frank Capra (yes, the Frank Capra) and Arthur Ripley), and released a string of increasingly popular shorts.

As many other comics did before him, Langdon outgrew Sennett's studio.  In 1926 he signed a contract with First National and became an independent producer.  He took his staff of Edwards, Capra, and Ripley with him.  According to his agreement, he had to provide two features per year for three years and he would be paid a set amount for each one.  His first, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, was a big hit, but it was significantly over budget and so director Harry Edwards was fired.  The next film, The Strong Man, was directed by Capra and is considered Langdon's best.  It also did well at the box office.  With his third feature, Long Pants, (which also did respectable business at the box office) Langdon and Capra had a falling out.  Langdon fired Capra and decided to write, direct, and star in his films from then on, just as Charlie Chaplin had done.

Langdon's film career came crashing down as quickly it had risen.  His next three films were all flops and First National refused to renew his contract when it was up.  Unable to find other work, he signed on with Hal Roach and made eight sound films, none of which captured his earlier glory.  For a while he ended up making cheap two-reelers at Educational, as Buster Keaton also did, and then got a job at Columbia.  He also starting writing and penned Block-heads,Flying Deuces, and others for Laurel and Hardy, which only seems natural since Stan Laurel's character owes a lot to Langdon's.  Harry Langdon died in 1944.

The films in this set collect all of the surviving films that Langdon made while with Sennett from 1924-1926.  This is a unique and interesting group of films since it's possible to see Langdon's character evolve over time.  The first couple of movies are pretty standard Sennett comedies, relying on mechanical gags, animation, and bathing beauties to keep an audiences attention.  After those however you start to see something odd emerge:  a comedian who is not in a hurry.  As where other comedians were always rushing about, being chased by the police or frantically trying to get out of a jam, Langdon takes the opposite approach:  he slows things down.  You could almost describe him as a minimalist comic:  one who does nothing to get a laugh.

Part of comedy is the unexpected.... When something unusual happens it can be funny.   That's where Langdon lived:  in doing what the audiences didn't expect.  By the time he was making these shorts (1926-27) movie goers had come to fully understand slapstick comedy.  There were certain rules that were followed and viewers came to expect frantic action.  That's where Harry got them.  When stuck in the middle of No Man's Land, his shirt caught on some barbed wire, Harry finds a live hand grenade that's about to go off.  Instead of panicking the child-like Langdon doesn't even realize what it is, picks it up, and tries to use the grenade to free himself from the wire.   Langdon always had this look on his face like he didn't really know what was going on, as if everything was foreign to him.  It's this babe-in-the-woods who doesn't react the way he's expected to that makes his films so hilarious.

That's also his downfall.  Many modern audiences won't get Langdon's style since they aren't familiar with the slapstick conventions.  His lack of action can easily be confused for lack of comedy, but nothing could be further from the truth.  His carefully timed movements, jumping a split second after a car nearly hits him rather than before, are wonderfully humorous.

While I'll admit I was unimpressed with the first couple of shorts in this set, those that were done before Sennett really knew what to do with his new star, after Langdon teams up with director Harry Edwards on Luck of the Foolish things start to pick up considerably.    One of the highlights of the set is Feet of Mud.  This movie contains a couple of routines that are priceless including Harry fighting a mannequin and a scene where he tries to take a large push-broom onto the subway.

My favorite film in this collection however is Lucky Stars.  Told in a unique style the film is both interesting and funny.  Harry nods off while watching a movie in a theater and wakes to find the place empty.  Stumbling around he encounters three dangerous criminals who are trying to break into the theater's safe.  It looks like Harry's in trouble until one of the men (Vernon Dent who plays his foil in many of these films) recognizes him.  They were stationed in France together during the war, and the two men start to reminisce about their times together.  Told through flashbacks, the war scenes are really funny, especially Harry's reaction when Dent's French girlfriend greats him with a kiss.  The end was hilarious and satisfying.

The set ends up with a couple of shorts that Langdon made in the 30's.  It was great to see these, but honestly they pale in comparison to his other work on this set.  It would have been nice to see his last three features that he made for First National too, but I assume there's a problem with the copyrights.  Even without those, this is a very nice set that amply illustrates why Langdon was so popular in the late 20's.

This set contains the following films:

Disc One:

Picking Peaches Feb 3, 1924 • 21:30
Smile Please March 2, 1924 • 18:32
His New Mamma June 22, 1924 • 15:15
-Partial restoration using source material from Getty Images, Lobster Films, and David Kalat
The First 100 Years Aug 17, 1924 • 13:19
-Partial restoration using source material from Lobster Films
Luck o' the Foolish Sept 14, 1924 • 21:13
The Hansom Cabman Oct 12, 1924 • 19:25

Disc Two:

All Night Long Nov 9, 1924 • 19:29
Feet of Mud Dec 7, 1924 • 17:34
The Sea Squawk Jan 4, 1925 • 18:42
Boobs in the Wood Feb 1, 1925 • 19:52
His Marriage Wow Mar 1, 1925 • 20:39
Plain Clothes March 29, 1925 • 15:47
Remember When April 26, 1925 • 19:04
 

Disc Three:

Lucky Stars Aug 16, 1925 • 21:24
Saturday Afternoon Jan 31, 1926 • 27:12
Fiddlesticks April 1, 1926 • 19:55
Soldier Man May 1, 1926 • 31:13
His First Flame May 3, 1927 • 44:36
 -The first feature Harry Langdon made, but not released until after LONG PANTS

Disc Four:

Knight Duty May 7, 1933 • 21:03
Hooks and Jabs Aug 25, 1933 • 18:31
Love, Honor and Obey (the Law)  1935 • 21:31

The DVD:


This four disc set collects 20 Langdon movies (mostly two-reelers) and assorted bonus material (including a feature length bio-pic) on four DVDs.  These come in a very attractive hardcover DVD 'book".  There are two DVD on each side of the opened book, but two are on flip-up pages so the discs don't overlap.  (I hate that.)  There's also a nice 20-page booklet that includes ten essays on Langdon as well as a listing of the films in the set and credits.  This is a very attractive package that looks nice on a DVD shelf.

Audio:

These films come with musical scores provided by the Snark Ensemble.  (With the exception of the feature His First Flame which has a piano accompaniment by Franklin Stover, and the Redwine Jazz Band who accompanied His Marriage Wow.)  A majority of the scores were written but two members of the Ensemble, Andrew Simpson and Maurice Saylor and were very good overall.  I found a couple of the choices a bit odd, such as the Theremin used at the beginning of Lucky Stars, but this was the exception rather than the rule.  The group also uses some electric instruments, which some purists object to, but I didn't mind.  Their sound is rather unique in that they employ some instruments (at various times) that you wouldn't expect to hear such as an accordion.  I would have gone for a more minimalist approach myself, but this works too. The scores did match the action on screen and did a good job of keeping the films lively and entertaining.  Some sound effects were added in some films, mainly bells and wooden claps, but these weren't overdone.  A nice set of music that does a good job matching the tone of these movies.

Video:

Since these movies have been digitally restored from original negatives and archival prints the full frame image looks very good, especially for films this old.  While the quality does vary some, generally the movies all have a good amount of detail, fine contrast and only minimal print damage (for 80 year old films.)  There are scratches and some dirt along with the occasional missing frame but these are almost never distracting.  There is a fair amount of digital noise and the films are generally on the soft side, but the set looks much better than I was expecting it to.

Extras:

The producers of this set managed to dig up a good number of extras to include.

The first disc starts off with a surviving fragment from Horace Greely, Jr. a short Langdon made before signing with Sennett.  There's also a pair of clips from Funny Mann, a syndicated show similar to Fractured Flickers where silent films are re-edited and put to music.  The clips present two Langdon shorts, His New Mamma (from show 4) and Luck 'O the Foolish (from show 68.)  There's also a Sennett short from 1927, Catalina, Here I Come.  In this film Sennett tries to mold Eddie Quillan into another Harry Langdon.  It's an interesting short and I'm glad they included it.

Disc two has a one-reel condensation of Remember When entitled Lost and Found as well as a photo gallery.  On the third DVD there's a one-reel digest version of Saturday Afternoon as well as a pdf copy of the press kit for Langdon's feature Heart Trouble.  This is viewable on a computer equipped with a DVD-ROM drive.

On the last disc there's a treasure trove of material.  First off is Lost and Found a 75-minute biography of Langdon that is very informative and well done.  Various film historians discus the baby-faced comic and his place in silent film comics.  It's a very good documentary, filled with astute observations about Langdon.  The only noticeable absence is a lack of footage from Langdon's three successful features Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, The Strong Man, and Long Pants.  Though much of the information is also contained in the commentaries this show would be a nice introduction to Langdon.

Next is a seven minute promo reel from 1929 that was never screened for the public where Hal Roach welcomes Harry Langdon to the "Lot of Fun".  Then there are two Langdon cameos in Voice of Hollywood (1930) and Hollywood on Parade (episode 4), as well a Langdon lip-synching to a song in Beautiful Girls.  Wrapping up the collection is a six-minute reel of Langdon home movies.

There are also audio commentaries to all of the films as well.  Richard M. Roberts is my favorite of the bunch, but Ben Model, Steve Massa, Bruce Lawton, Robert Arkus, David Kalat, Wayne Powers, Ed Watz, Ken Gordon, and Hooman Mehran also provide their thoughts (both solo and in groups.)  These were very educational, and though there was a fair amount of repetition between some of the commentaries they were all fun to listen to.  Not only were the supporting actors identified and discussed but there was a good deal of information on Langdon (naturally), who was really responsible for creating Langdon's personality, and they even found time to talk about the films too.  A fun set of commentaries all around.

Final Thoughts:

This is a great set.  Not only does it present the rarely seen films that Langdon made while at Sennett, but it also has some of his talkie shorts and ample bonus material.  Langdon was a wonderful comic, but he's not for everybody.  People who haven't seen a lot of silent comedies should probably work their way through Lloyd, Chaplin, and Keaton first in order to be able to understand Langdon's style of comedy.  For the many silent movie fans that are well versed in slapstick however, I heartily recommend this set.  Highly recommended.


Georges Méliès:  First Wizard of Cinema

Wow!  That was my first impression when I opened up the box containing Georges Méliès:  First Wizard of Cinema, a thick boxed set with five DVDs of Méliès films!  Flicker Alley in association with David Shepard and Blackhawk Films has scoured the globe to put together an amazing collection of 173 films that Méliès made between 1896 and 1913.  All told, films from seventeen archives and collections were used making this as near a complete collection of existing Méliès works as were ever going to see.  It seems almost impossible to have this many of his films together at one time.  A truly unprecedented endeavor, Flicker Alley has spared no expense in making this a truly collectible item.
 
 

George Méliès accompanies three of his heads on the banjo.
George Méliès started life as a magician.  He owned the Robert-Houdin theater in Paris, started by the famous prestidigitator whose name it bears (and whose name a young Erik Weisz would adapt for his stage name:  Houdini), and preformed there regularly.  In April of 1896 Méliès started incorporating movies into his theater's program of evening entertainment after buying a projector from England.  (Attempts to purchase cameras and projectors from the Lumiere Brothers, the first to screen movies in France failed.)  Later that year he started making movies himself, filming outdoors.  When the fickle elements became too much trouble, the young magician constructed the world's first movie studio, which was completed in 1897.

About this time a serendipitous accident occurred that would influence the rest of Méliès film career.  While he was filming candid life scenes outside of Place de l'Opera in Paris, his camera jammed for a moment.  When the problem was fixed he continued shooting.  After developing the film and screening it Méliès discovered something that must have been amazing to him:  a trolley in the background instantly turned into a bus.  He had accidentally stumbled upon trick photography and many of his films afterwards would use such manipulation to make some amazing films.

The set starts off with his first film, a short actuality, Playing Cards (1896), and ends with his final effort, 1913's The Voyage of the Bourrichon Family.  In between are over 170 amazing films of all types.  Even when seen today these films are both imaginative and pioneering.  It's impossible to determine what the audiences of the 1890's and early 1900's thought of his magical fantasies, but they couldn't have been any less impressed than viewers of today.

One of the things that these films all show is Méliès vast imagination.  At the time that he bought his first camera, movies were only used to document life.  A train pulling into a station, a lady dancing on a stage, and the recording of firemen rushing to a fire were typical films of the time.  Méliès first film, Card Party, was in that vein, a group of friends playing cards and talking about stories in a newspaper, but he had soon expanded the medium far beyond that.  In the third film in this set he's making a woman disappear, turn into a skeleton, and then reappear by simply stopping the camera. In the fourth film, A Nightmare, he's firmly embraced the fantastic, having a man be tormented by a giant moon that tries to eat him.  This short was made in the same year as Card Party.  It is simply astonishing to see how far Méliès progressed in just a few short months.

Viewing these films it soon becomes apparent that Méliès never stopped trying to top himself.  Though he (and other filmmakers who copies him) gets a lot of use out of stopping the camera and rearranging the sets, he wasn't satisfied with just that gimmick.  He came also used multiple exposures, moving backgrounds, masking, and other in-camera techniques for creating magical images.  A lot of these shorts are surreal; with devils and demons instantly appearing and disappearing, people spontaneously walking up walls or ripping off their own heads, and size is only temporary.

Though he's best known for his dream and magical fantasies, Méliès also made historical dramas, comedies, adaptations of popular fiction, and reenactments of famous events.  These are all presented in this collection and it's easy to tell that they are Méliès' work.  All of his films have a certain flavor, with intricate backgrounds, large sets, and breakneck action.  It was certainly the hectic pace, with one amazing thing happening after another, and large elaborate sets which enticed viewers around the turn of the century.

It's also what led to his ruination.  The later films presented in this collection form the early teens are still inventive and clever, but they don't differ significantly from his work a decade before.  Conquest of the Pole (1912), Méliès last great film, illustrates this point.  It's an entertaining and creative film that is a lot of fun.  A group of scientists debate the best way to get to the North Pole and several expeditions are launched including ones by car, balloon, and plane.   The latter is the only one to make it to the Arctic where the explorers have some adventures including being attacked by an ice giant and getting stuck to the "Magnetic Needle Axis of the Pole."  Like his other movies, and this one bears a close resemblance in structure to A Trip to the Moon (1902), the special effects trump the story.  In this case the bizarre cars that try to drive to the pole and the constellations that the plane flies by are all interesting to look at, but they don't advance the story and are on screen for too long.  The film didn't do well at the box office and one has to imagine at least part of the reason is that people had seen it all before.

 Borrowing money to upgrade his studios Méliès became heavily in debt.  Though his last films were longer, the times had passed him by.  Audiences wanted longer narratives and fewer gimmicks.  When his films stopped making money and his notes were called George Méliès was forced to leave the industry that he helped to create.

It has been said that Méliès made over 500 films during the course of his career, but it's astounding that this many still survive.  Over the years several large caches of his films have been destroyed or disposed of, making most of his work lost to time.  It's sad to hear but in 1917, at the height of WWI a collection of his films were discovered in the Passage de l'Opera which was being occupied by the military.  They melted the celluloid in order to extract the silver content and fashioned the rest to boot soles for the fighting soldiers.  Six years later his theater was demolished and the films stored their sold be weight.  Finally in 1924 Méliès himself burned his collection of his works to make more room for his family in their small apartment.

But time has not claimed all of his films and these 173 movies are a good look at what the French magician was capable of.  Entertaining, fun, and whimsical, these films are well worth watching.  Having said that they go down best when viewed a few at a time.  Screening an hour's worth of these films can get a bit monotonous, though a few shorts every evening keeps them fresh and enjoyable.

The DVD:


This 173 (!) film set comes on five DVDs which are housed in a fold out book which comes in a slipcase.  There is also an informative 36-page booklet included with the set.  More details on the booklet are in the 'extras' section.

Audio:

All of these films are with music preformed by some of the most noted names in silent film accompaniment.  Eric Beheim, Brian Benison, Frederick Hodges, Robert Israel, Neal Kurz, The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra,  Alexander Rannie, Joseph Rinaudo at the Fotoplayer, Rodney Sauer, and Donald Sosin all contribute pieces.  Being a critic, I hate to say that they were all good, but I can't recall a single theme that was distracting or didn't make the film more enjoyable to watch.  I really enjoyed all of the scores.  Pieces that stick in my mind include Mont Alto's accompaniment to The Conquest of the Pole and the music for The Good Shepardess and the Evil Princess played by Donald Sosin.  Of course these stick out because they are longer pieces and were on the last disc.

Some of these films also have narration, in English, which was written by Méliès and was intended to be read aloud during the screening of the films.  Serge Bromberg (of Lobster Films) and Fabrice Zagury provide the voices and they both do a splendid job.  This narration (over music) is very important and several films would be unintelligible without it.  In the Skipping Cheeses, for example, a woman dressed in a white apron and white sleeves gets on a trolley.  It's only through the narration that we're told she is wearing the traditional outfit of a cheese-seller, and that her wares are very malodorous.  Without that information the rest of the film makes no sense.

Video:

The quality of these films varies quite a bit, which is only natural given the large number and age of these movies.  It's amazing that these survive at all, and so every print is special.  What's more, a good selection of these films are hand tinted and the colors are strong and solid making those films even more amazing to watch.  There are a variety of defects that are apparent over the course of the set natuarally, but none of the films are unwatchable and many of them look excellent.  The average presentation in this set comes with some light scratches and possibly a missing frame.  The contrast is a little weak, and whites and dark areas tend to hide details.  This is an amazing set overall and the video quality is just fine.

Extras:

The set starts out with a nice featurette:  Le Grand Méliès.  This 1953 French film, which runs about 30 minutes and is narrated in English, is an enjoyable if somewhat idealized look at the life of the innovative film-maker.   It includes an appearance by his wife, who started in many of his early films, and the role of Méliès himself is played by his son, Andre.  There are some interesting examples of magic lantern slides that Méliès drew and presented at his theater where he also appeared as a magician.  The movie also recreates Méliès filming some of his shorts as well as featuring vintage clips.  This is a nice introduction to the man and his legacy.

There is also an informative 36-page booklet with essays on Méliès, stills from his films, and a thorough listing of the movies in this set.  This list not only contains the titles, but also the catalog number of the movie, the production year, run time, and even the genre of the movie; an excellent reference for both the casual viewer and the serious film scholar.  This is attention to detail is what makes this such a wonderful collection.

Final Thoughts:

Run out and buy this collection.  It isn't going to be in print forever, and wouldn't you rather buy it now and support the publisher than pay twice as much a few years from now on e-bay?  Watching the films creates the same sense of wonder that audiences must have felt a century ago.  Even when seen today these films are both imaginative and pioneering.  Flicker Alley, David Shepard, Jeffrey Masino and everyone else who had a hand in the production of this amazing set did a magnificent job.  This set belongs in the DVDTalk Collector Series.



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