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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive


Reel Baseball and the 2007 SF Silent Film Festival
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

I recently got back from the SF Silent Film Festival and had a wonderful time once again.  It was a little hard making the travel arrangements fit into my schedule this year, but I'm really glad I did.  It was a fantastic event and everyone I talked to thoroughly enjoyed themselves.  You can scroll down to read my coverage of the event, or just click here.

Just before I left for the west coast Reel Baseball, a two disc set of baseball themes silent films arrived in my mailbox.  Not being a big sports fan, I was surprised at how entertaining and just plain fun this two disc collection is.  See my review later on in the column for a more details.

It looks like things are picking up as far as silent film releases are going.  As I mentioned last month, August 28th sees the release of D. W. Griffith's True Heart Susie staring Lillian Gish and on the same disc will be Hoodoo Ann featuring Mae Marsh and directed by Lloyd Ingram from a Griffith script.  That should be interesting.

October is shaping up to be a busy month.  On the 9th Image will be releasing the Lon Chaney classic Hunchback of Notre Dame.  This is being billed as the "Ultimate Edition."   The film has been restored and mastered in high definition and comes with some neat extras including a gallery of 3-D stills.

A week later Warners is releasing the Jazz Singer in a deluxe three disc package.   Bonus material includes a commentary from film historians Ron Hutchinson and Vince Giordano, a new 93-minute documentary feature, The Dawn of Sound, and four hours of Vitaphone shorts including performances by Burns & Allen, Baby Rose Marie, and Weber & Fields. It sounds like a fantastic package. (Thanks to Brendan C. for sending a link to the bonus features.).  It's interesting to note that Jolson is shown of the cover bent down on one knee, arms spread wide, but in silhouette.  I guess they didn't want to show his visage in black face make-up.

Also being released on October 16th is the third Treasures from American Film Archive boxed set.  This four disc set will focus on films with a social message and span the years 1900 to 1934.  The two previous sets were outstanding and I'm eagerly awaiting this release.

In other news, Film Preservation Associates, David Shepard's organization that has the Blackhawk Films collection, has signed a deal with Flicker Alley to distribute their films.  The inaugural release will be a two-disc set Discovering Cinema.  I should have more information about that set next month.


Reel Baseball

Without any big name films or even stars that are well remembered today, Kino's two-disc set of films about America's favorite pastime, Reel Baseball, might have flown under a lot of people's radar.  That's too bad because this set is one of the best compilations of silent films released in years.  The set boasts a wide variety of films, comedies, dramas, cartoons, feature movies, and short subjects.  The pictures are almost universally enjoyable and the image quality is excellent for movies this old.  The set has movies with John Bunny, the first international comedy film star, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, and Charles Ray, not to mention Babe Ruth, along with directors Francis Ford (John's brother) and Edwin S. Porter.  Not being a baseball fan, I have to admit that I didn't have high expectations for this collection, but it turned out to be one of my favorite releases, silent or talkie, for this year.

This two disc set contains 13 movies all together including two feature films.

Disc One:

Headin' Home (1920):  Who better to lead off a set of baseball movies that the Sultan of Swat?  This 1920 biopic pretends to tell the story of Babe Ruth.  Of course it's heavily fictionalized, showing Ruth living at home with his dear ol' mother and sister and whittling baseball bats from trees he chopped down himself.  (In reality, Ruth's parents sent him to an orphanage when he was seven and rarely saw him after that.)  This film, told by an old-timer in the stands watching Babe play, shows the Babe back in his hometown of Haverlock before he was discovered.  He is a baseball enthusiast, but just couldn't get the hang of the game.  He loved it, but wasn't any good.  Even during the big game against Haverlock's rivals, the Highlanders, "Nobody paid no more attention to Babe than to a No Smoking sign."  Things look desperate in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, and the hapless Babe Ruth up to bat...

This is a fairly standard drama for the day, but it is still a lot of fun.  Ruth actually does a pretty good job in the film.  While it's obvious that he's not a professional actor, he manages to hold his own in the movie and just watching him on the screen is a treat.  The interesting thing about this film is the date, 1920.  That was Ruth's first season with the Yankees, years before he held the all time home run record, hit 60 hommers during the 1927 season, or made the famous called shot.  Even back when he was a star (the Yankee's paid $100,000 for his contract and extended a $350,000 loan) but it is fun watching this knowing that that George Herman Ruth would reach even greater heights.

This disc also has a Babe Ruth Kinogram that runs about a minute.  In it the slugger and his wife visit a man who makes pottery, and as the famous ball player takes his turn on the pottery wheel.

His Last Game (1909):  This is an interesting one reel short.  With one game left in the season, the pitcher from the local team, an American Indian, is approached by some gamblers and urged to throw the game.  When he refuses, things get tough and the pitcher ends up shooting the two gamblers.  Sentenced to death, pitcher gets a reprieve to play the final game of the season, and while he does, a judge learns of the extenuating circumstances of the deaths and orders a reprieve.  Will the letter granting the pitcher his life arrive in time?

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912):  This is another interesting one reel film directed by Francis Ford, John Ford's elder brother.  Harry is the star pitcher for his college team but when his uncle suffers some financial difficulty the money for tuition is no longer available.  The uncle arranges a job for Harry out west where he works as the paymaster for a ranch.  He earns the respect of the ranch hands after besting one in a fight, along with the affection of the owner's daughter.  When Harry gets stuck up bringing the payroll back from town however, his baseball skills come in handy.

Disc Two:

The Busher (1919):  Even if this film wasn't good, it would be worth watching just for the stars and personalities associated with it.  The film was produced by Thomas H. Ince, who along with D. W. Griffith and Mack Sennett formed Triangle Studios in 1915.  Four years later Ince had his partners buy him out and set up his own studio where he made many types of films but was most famous for the westerns he produced.  A significant player in Hollywood, Ince's career was tragically cut short in 1924.  He accepted an invitation to go on a cruse aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht one weekend along with Charlie Chaplin, Louella Parsons, author Elinor Glyn and others.  The weekend was cut short and Ince rushed to a hospital.  He was soon returned to his home where he died.  The cause of 42-year old Ince's demise a heart attack, while Hearst's papers said it was acute indigestion.  The rumor that has circulated ever since was that Heart caught Chaplin in bed with Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress.  Chaplin ran onto the deck, followed by Hearst who had a gun.  Hearst shot and missed the comic, hitting Ince instead.  This theory was the subject of Peter Bogdanovich's 2001 movie The Cat's Meow.

The entertaining and fun 55-minute movie features a trio of stars.  The hero is played by Charles Ray, an actor who gained stardom in the 1917 King Vidor picture The Crowd.  In that film he played a country boy who goes to the city with big dreams of striking it rich, only to fail miserably.  That was followed by several other films (The Busher included) where he played kind-hearted rural lads, most of them successes.  Growing tired of the same role, he broke from Thomas Ince who had produced most of his features and set up his own studio to make his own pictures with roles that weren't in the same mold.  He plowed all of his money into The Courtship of Myles Standish, which failed miserably and left him penniless.  Eventually he returned to Ince's studio, but with the executive's death in 1924, Ray found himself nearly unemployable and working for poverty row studios.

John Gilbert (billed as Jack) plays his romantic rival.  In a few years Gilbert would be the biggest movie star in the world.  He stared in King Vidor's classic WWI drama The Big Parade (1925), and was hand-picked by Lillian Gish to appear opposite her in La Boheme (1926).  He had a well publicized affair with Greta Garbo, and even planned to marry her.  She got cold feet at the last minute and left John at the altar, something that he never really recovered from.  Things started to go downhill from there.  Gilbert started drinking and to make matters worse he punched studio head Louis B. Mayer at a party when the exec made a disparaging remake about Garbo.  Mayer had it out for him from then on, and it is rumored that the powerful mogul purposely had Gilbert's voice tampered with in his first talkie (His Glorious Night (1929) the premier of this movie was parodied in Singin' in the Rain) in order to ruin the star's career.

Their romantic interest is Colleen Moore, who arrived in Hollywood in 1917 and was immediately put into films thanks to a relative who worked with D. W. Griffith.  Moore had the staring role in 1918's Little Orphan Annie, but bigger things were in store for her.  In 1923 she landed the role in Flaming Youth (unfortunatley now a lost film.)  She recreated herself for the part, bobbing her hair, wearing unbuckled galoshes, and playing the role with a light, carefree attitude.  The film was a hit as so was Moore.  The galoshes she wore 'flapped' around as she danced and people started calling Colleen and the women who imitated her style 'flappers'.   In the next few years her star continued to rise and in 1927 she was the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood.  Unlike her tragic co-stars, Colleen didn't spend her money.  She invested it.  In 1934, tired of the life of an actress, she retired and was able to live quite comfortably on the money she had made.  She even wrote two books on investing and married not one, but two stock brokers.

The movie itself?  It's the story of a bush-league pitcher Ben Harding, (Ray) who is in love with the local beauty Mazie (Moore) but is in competition for her affection with the rich banker's son Jim (Gilbert.)  When a professional baseball team, the Pink Socks, become stuck in town due to a broken train, Ray unknowingly asks the gentlemen if they'd be interested in playing a game of ball.  They choose up sides, and Ben becomes the star of the game, striking out the Pink Sock's star hitter.  This earns him a shot at the big leagues, but when he travels to the big city, he finds that he doesn't have what it takes.  Ben returns home in disgrace.  He's still the best pitcher in the area.  So when talent scouts for the majors attend the big grudge match between Ben's team and their rivals, he just might earn a second chance at being a star.

This is a light and amusing drama and the cast is wonderful.  Ray does a fine job as the country bumpkin, and it's easy to see why he was so popular in this role.  Moore and Gilbert are also good, but they don't shine in their smaller roles like Ray does.

Casey at the Bat (1899):  This is a fragment of a film that I suppose is loosely based on the famous poem.  It only runs a half a minute and features some baseball players piling on an umpire who made a bad call.

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906):  This is another fragment which runs for five minutes.  The Edison short directed by Edwin S. Porter tells a simple story.  The office boy is a big baseball fan and gets a stenographer to forge a letter from his mother saying that his grandmother has died.  Excused for the afternoon, the lad climbs a telephone pole and watches a ball game with a small telescope.  The game, shown through a circular matte to illustrate what the office boy is seeing, is an actual game between NY and Pittsburg.  This version of the short is arranged in a rather odd way.  There is a scene missing where the stenographer faints after the office boy's simple plot worked and gets escorted home by another office worker.  Later in the film there is a scene where the boss, having decided to attend the game himself, yells at the stenographer and the office employee.  At the end of the reel whoever edited this version places the scene where the boss finds two of his workers at the game and becoming irate.  As presented, this doesn't make a lot of sense.  Even so the film is easy enough to follow since the highlight is the baseball game itself.

Hearts and Diamonds (1914):  Who was the first comedian to become a movie star?  Before Keaton and Lloyd, before even Chaplin and Arbuckle, John Bunny was an international sensation.  The rotund man teamed up with the bean-pole thin Flora Finch in many of his shorts and the pair's movies were popularly referred to as Bunnyfinches and did very well for Vitagraph.  The actor was only in the movies for five years.  The stage actor started by getting $5 for a small part in a film in 1910.  By 1913 he was making $1000/week.  He died of liver disease in 1915 and in his obituary in the New York Times predicted that "The name John Bunny will always be linked to the movies."  Alas that was not to be the case.  Today he is nearly totally forgotten, even among silent movie buffs.  A good part of that is due to the rarity of his films.  Though by some accounts he made over 250 shorts over his five year movie career, only a handful of them exist today.  (Another one of his films, Her Crowning Glory (1911), is available in the excellent Treasures from American Film Archives collection.)

Luckily this collection contains a rare 'Bunnyfinch.'  In Hearts and Diamonds John Bunny is an old widower, Tupper, who sets his sights on a rich widow Rachel Whipple (Flora Finch) who is coming to town to check on her investments.   Figuring that the widow would be more attracted to a bachelor, Tupper sends his daughters off to a relative and sets about wooing Whipple.  While at a ball game the lady quips "I simply adore base ball players" (sic) and that gives Tupper an idea.  He sets out to recruit a team so that he can play on it too.

The interesting thing about this comedy is that there isn't a lot of slapstick.  Bunny was overweight and not athletically inclined like Roscoe Arbuckle so his films relied on situational comedy more than prat-falls.  Bunny is certainly exuberant in his role, and it is easy to see how film goers in the early part of the last century would become enamored of the actor.  It is interesting to note that one intertitle card reads "Bunny makes a star play" giving the actor's name, not his character's.  While some of the comedy doesn't work quite as well today as it once did, this film is still a highlight of the set.

One Touch of Nature (excerpt 1917):  The manager for the NY Giants, John J. McGraw, gets top billing in this comedy/drama.  McGraw hires a new ball player, Bill Cosgrove, who tears up the field in the early innings, but that all changes when his rich father shows up.  The elder Cosgrove, who has had a rocky relationship with his son since he married against his will, doesn't wave at Bill when he goes up to bat and that throws the younger man off his game.  It looks like the Giants will lose the game when it's the bottom of the ninth and Cosgrove gets one last chance at bat.  This is a fun film that recalls the innocence of an earlier day.  This is only the ending section of a longer movie, but it plays well as it is.  The plot is easy to follow and it doesn't seem like anything is missing.

Felix Saves the Day (1922):  A Felix the Cat cartoon, in which the mischievous cat has to win a baseball game for his team.  The neat thing about this short is the mixture of live action footage and animation.  A great cartoon.

Casey at the Bat (1922):  This is an early experiment in synchronized sound.  It features De Wolf Hopper reciting Ernest Thayer's famous poem.  The melodramatic and over-the-top performance is hard to hear in parts due to the primitive recording technology, but viewers can still follow the narrative.  Hopper became famous for this recitation.  A record he made of his performance even reached #3 on the Billboard charts.

Butter Fingers (1925):  A Keystone comedy staring Billy Bevan.  Bevan is the star pitcher for the local baseball team, but when he's threatened by an opposing team's tough guy he promises to lose the big game.  That's not as easy as it seems in a Mack Sennett comedy however.  The film is filled with the wild antics and crazy gags that made Keystone famous.

Happy Days (1926):  This short is based on the newspaper comic strip Winnie Winkle and features Ethlyn Gibson as the title character.  Ten Winkle shorts were made, all staring Gibson, between 1926 and 1928, and this is the second installment of the series.  Though the comic strip portrayed the trials and tribulations of a working woman, this short plays more like an Our Gang rip-off.  The Rinky Dinks, a group of kids who hang out in a home-made fort complete with a dog-powered automatic door are challenged to a baseball game by a rival team.  In a seemingly unrelated story-line Winnie gets the afternoon off and takes her ward to his dancing lessons.  Once there, someone slips a frog down the effeminate instructor's back with predictable results.

The DVD:


Audio:

The accompaniment was performed by David Drazin, David Knudtson, and Ben Model.  All of the audio tracks were piano or organ scores and they were scene specific and generally fit the titles well.  David Drazin's score to The Busher was the best score on the disc.  It is very good and lively, with the music complimenting the action on screen very well.  The other scores were fine.

Video:

The video quality varies, naturally, but all of the films look very good especially when their age is taken into account.  The masters look like they came from both 35 mm and 16 mm prints, and though all of the movies had some print damage it was always within acceptable limits.  The shorts generally were a little rougher than the two features.  The De Wolf Hopper Casey at the Bat short was lacking contrast and had washed out details, but that was the exception rather than the rule.  Overall the contrast and detail were both very good, and the print defects, while present, were never distraction.

Extras:

The only extra in an interesting essay by Rob Edelman.

Final Thoughts:

This is just a fun set and actually easier to watch than most two disc sets.  Kino's Slapstick Symposium series, while very good, get a little old when you watch them straight through.  That's not the case with this set.  I screened it over two days and could have done it in one if I only had the time.  The mixture of styles and lengths works very well and each movie has something to recommend it.  With a retail price of $29.99, this is a steal.  Highly Recommended.


The 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival

July 13-15, 2007 saw the 12th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival return to the Castro Theater, a restored old style theatre in downtown San Francisco.  I attended for the fourth year in a row, and enjoyed myself immensely once again.  Regular readers of this column are probably tired of my touting the advantages of seeing restored silent movies on the big screen with live music and an appreciative audience, but watching a DVD at home doesn't come close to the experience, no matter how impressive your playback equipment is.

The line-up for this year was a little different than the previous festivals that I've attended.  Usually they screen a big-name silent film one evening, Charlie Chaplin's The Circus, The Big Parade, and Pandora's Box have headlined in previous years.  This time there wasn't a large, notable 'name' film.  Instead they had some lesser known movies from famous directors.

The live music, which accompanied every film and short, was once again top notch.  The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, one of my favorite groups that work with silent movies, accompanied two films and received the festival's only standing ovation after Beggers of Life.  Making his first appearance at this event was pianist extraordinaire Stephen Horne.  The music he played to A Cottage on Dartmoor was amazing a really added a lot to that suspenseful film.

Each feature film that was presented this year opened with a short.  The shorts were all from 28mm films that had recently been preserved.  There was a travelogue to a vacation destination in New Mexico and one to Egypt, an illustration on how a cowboy makes a lariat (out of horse hair it turns out), and a couple of light comedies.  There was even a rare Lonesome Luke short screened staring Harold Lloyd before he came up with the 'glasses' character that we're all so familiar with.

This year the event opened with Ernst Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg staring heart-throb Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer and ended with The Godless Girl, Cecil B. DeMille's last silent movie which was also the movie he made after King of Kings.  In between there were an astounding array of movie.  While I won't bore you with a synopsis of every film, I feel compelled to mention some of the more entertaining or unusual movies.

The Saturday morning selection of shorts is always a favorite presentation of mine, and this year was no exception.  This time attendees were treated to an assortment of Hal Roach comedies that kept the audience laughing for nearly two hours.  These one and two reel films featured Charley Chase, Arthur Stone, Fay Wray, and Ernest "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison.  This was a great collection of films to start off a long but enjoyable day of silent film.

Saturday afternoon featured one of the more interesting films of this year's event, Maciste.  Steel worker-turned actor Bartolomeo Pagano had a role in the Italian epic Cabiria (1914).  He played a muscular Nubian slave, Maciste, and nearly stole the picture with his strong-man feats.  Knowing a good thing when they saw it, the producers quickly hired Pagano to star in a film reprising the role.  This first film, simply entitled Maciste, was a hit and started a string of Maciste pictures.  Pagano was in nearly 30 himself, and after his death in 1928 the series continued with other actors playing the part.

Based on this first film, it's easy to see why the series was so popular.  This was a non-stop action film with helpless damsels, cruel villains, exotic traps, and plenty of fighting.  Like the modern day super-hero films, Maciste was short on plot but long on adventure and Pagano's stunts were just plain fun.  In one scene he's tied up, hands and feet, and needs to escape before the villains return.  Using his teeth, he picks up a table and places onto of another one.  Climbing to the top, Maciste then pounds through the ceiling with his head, and climbs through to the room above.  A bit over the top?  Certainly.  Exciting and fun?  Definitely.

One of the best films screen this year was Beggars of Life staring Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, and Richard Arlen.  This William Wellman film about a pair of hobos on the run from the law was quite impressive.  Brooks, who plays a young girl, Nancy, who kills her adopted father when he tries to rape her, did a fantastic job in the movie.  She teams up with a drifter Jim (Arlen), dresses as a man, and tries to flee to Canada.  On the way they meet a gang of unruly hobos lead by Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) who discover Nancy's secret and decide to keep her for themselves.  The lawlessness and desperation of the homeless men is nearly tangible in this powerful and emotional movie.  The Mont Alto Orchestra did a magnificent job with the score and succeeded in making the drama even more intense.

Winner for the most energetic and lively presentation goes to Serge Bloomberg from Lobster Films.  He presented a collection of films that his company had recovered over the last few years, Retour de Flamme (Saved from the Flames.)  Not only were the films entertaining, but M. Bloomberg was very entertaining with his introductions.  He joked and played with the audience and at one point he even set fire to a strip of nitrate film just to show how flammable it is.  (It was certainly bright as it quickly burned.)  Accompanying the films on piano himself, M. Bloomberg presented some of the more entertaining and bizarre shorts that I've seen recently.  The Dancing Pig featured someone in an impressive 7-foot tall pig costume dancing with a ballerina.  That's not something that you see everyday.  With movable eyes, lips, and even a tongue, the costume was much more advanced than I would have though possible for that time.  The one film that everyone was talking about afterwards was Artheme Swallows His Clarinet.  It starts off as a typical comedy short, with a man getting into trouble playing his clarinet and making people dance.  It turns into a surreal farce when the hapless Artheme causes some workmen who are raising a cabinet to dance.  It falls on the musician and drives the clarinet into his mouth and out the back of his skull.  The rest of the film, sadly incomplete, involves Artheme trying various ways to remove the instrument from his cranium.  Outrageous and outlandish but also very funny and bizarre.  The entire production was filled with clever, amusing, and interesting shorts all of which have been recently discovered.  It is easy to see why the Retour de Flamme production that M. Bloomberg presents in Paris twice a year is such a popular event.

Another unknown film that was excellent is A Cottage on Dartmore.  Directed by Anthony Asquith (who would later direct the hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest) is a suspenseful film that was introduced as a "proto-film noir".  It has much of the dark atmosphere and tension that noir films are known for.  As Eddie Muller from the Film Noir Foundation commented in his introductory remarks, this would probably be a much better know film if the title wasn't so bland.  If it had only been named "Straight Razor to the Throat" people would have spent more effort seeking it out.

The plot told through a flashback, involves a barber's assistant, Joe (Uno Henning) who is in love with the manicurist where he works, Sally (Norah Baring.)  Sally isn't really that interested in Joe however so she kindly resists his gentle advances.  When Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), a farmer from Dartmoor, starts getting his nails done just so he can spend some time with Sally, Joe gets jealous.  He follows them out to the movies, and when Sally comes into work one day sporting an engagement ring, Joe can't take it any more.  Unfortunately Harry walks in at that moment and asks Joe for a shave.  In one of the more suspenseful scenes in silent movies, Joe places a straight razor against his rival's throat.

This is a movie that needs to come out on DVD.  It has a lot of the trademarks that would later be identified in noir films and is very gripping.  If it is ever released to the home market in region one, I truly hope that Stephen Horne provides the accompaniment.  His playing was magnificent and the score he came up with meshed perfectly with the movie.  He was truly inspired with the theater scene too.  At one point Sally and Harry go to the movies, followed by Joe.  They laugh and cheer to a silent short, and then a talkie comes on.  When it does, Horne stopped playing his piano.  That simple act really brought home how talkies were a step backwards in many ways.  As the musicians on the screen took a break, the excitement died down, and so did the amount of entertainment.  Mimicking this effect in the Castro was brilliant.

There were several more movies shown, and all of them had something interesting to offer the viewers.  Once again the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has shown that it is the premier venue for seeing silent movies in the US.  An absolutely wonderful weekend, every silent film buff owes it to themselves to make it out at least once.  They'll be showing films again in mid-July of 2008, start making plans now.



Comments?  Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.

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