Silent DVD Archive
Romance of the Western Chamber
Things have been unusually quite on the silent film front so far this year (no pun intended.) When Silent DVD first started, I had planned on reviewing some of the older silent released on DVD during such dry periods. Instead I've spent the last few months renovating a house that my wife and I bought and moving, which is a nightmare when you're a pack rat like myself. Now I'm nearly settled, (the finishing touches on the library should be completed in a week and then I can finally (!) unbox my DVDs and books) so hopefully this column will start to come out a little more regularly from here on out.
This month I have a look at the only silent movie DVD that I've acquired in 2007 so far, 1927's Romance of the Western Chamber. This is an interesting film which was made in Shanghai, but will only have limited appeal.
In the interest of completeness, there have been a couple of early movies that were released this year. On February 13th, Passport Video released a pair of 5 disc DVDs set featuring silent stars. Smiles & Spectacles - The Harold Lloyd Treasury includes:
All Aboard (1917)
And the Gloria Swanson Collection which includes:
After the less than stellar job they did on Comedy Legend - Buster Keaton, I haven't bothered to track these down.
On April 3rd, Kino released Reel Baseball a two disc collection of silent films that are all related to baseball, at least tangentially. This collection includes Headin' Home (1920) a 73-minute movie featuring Babe Ruth, and an early sound film showcasing DeWolf Hopper reciting Casey at the Bat. I'll try to get a copy of that for the next column.
The only DVD of interest on the horizon is Harold Lloyd's World of Comedy which Telavista will release on June 5. This movie is a compilation of clips from Harold Lloyd's biggest films that Harold himself produced in 1962. It was the only source for people to see any part of Lloyd's films for years, and spawned many silent movie fans. I'll try to get a copy for review.
Also, don't forget that July 13-15 is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, held once again at the Castro Theater. The program has just been announced and it looks like it will be a wonderful event. The films to be screened this year are:
Friday, July 13
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) with Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Saturday, July 14
Hal Roach: King of Comedy (1924-29): An assortment of shorts including Fast Company (1924) Directed by Robert F. McGowan with Our Gang, Just a Good Guy (1924) Directed by Hampton Del Ruth with Arthur Stone, The Boy Friend (1928) Directed by Fred Guiol with Max Davidson, and Movie Night (1929) Directed by Lewis R. Foster with Charley Chase.
The Valley of the Giants (1927) staring Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon, directed by Charles Brabin
Maciste, an Italian film from 1915 staring Bartolomeo Pagano and Ada Marangoni and directed by Luigi Romano Borgnetto
Camille (1921) featuring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino driected by Ray C. Smallwood
Beggars of Life (1928) with Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, Louise Brooks, Edgar 'Blue' Washington and directed by William A. Wellman
Sunday July 15
More Amazing Tales from the Archives
Retour de Flamme (Saved from the Flames) (1900-28) A treasure-trove of French rarities by George Méliès, Gaston Velle and Ferdinand Zecca plus surprise extras! Presented by Lobster Films.
Miss Lulu Bett (1921) with Lois Wilson, Milton Sills, Directed by William DeMille
A Cottage on Dartmore (1929) Uno Henning, Norah Baring, Hans Schlettow directed by Anthony Asquith (A British suspense film from the director of The Importance of Being Earnest...I'm looking forward to it.)
And rounding out the festival is The Godless Girl (1929) with Lina Basquette, Marie Prevost, James Duryea, Noah Beery, Eddie Quillan and directed by Cecil B. DeMille.
Another great line up. I strongly encourage fans of early cinema to attend if at all possible!
Cinema Epoch, in association with Koch Entertainment, brings a rather rare item to DVD; a silent movie from China. Romance of the Western Chamber was made in Shanghai in 1927, and is based on the play of the same name that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty (1234-1368). It's short, lasting only 42 minutes, but has some interesting aspects including some martial arts fighting and a large scale battle. While the subject matter and film language used is a little bit too far removed to connect closely with today's audiences, the movie is still a rare look into the type of entertainment that China was producing in the days before sound.
In ancient China, a young scholar named Chang Kung is on his way to the capital to take the imperial exam. He stops at a temple to rest and study for the night where he meets Ying Ying, the beautiful daughter of the late Prime Minister. He is immediately smitten by the young beauty, but he can do nothing about it since they are from different classes.
The bandit king Sung Fei Fu hears about Ying Ying's beauty too, and decides to have her for himself. He calls together his bandit horde and sets out to attack the temple. Once there he demands that the priests turn over the young girl or he will burn the temple to the ground.
Inside everyone is panicking. Madam Cui, Ying Ying's mother, proclaims that she will give Ying Ying's hand to whoever can defeat the bandit army. This is all Chang needs to hear. He hatches a plan that just might save all of their lives.
This was an enjoyable movie, but more for the historical aspects than for the story itself. There were several scenes that, due to cultural differences, seem strange today. When Ying Ying's mother tells Chang to be sure to pass the imperial test he's been studying for, the young woman looks inexplicably sad. There are sections at the beginning with a monk staring at the young scholar that I watched a couple of times and still couldn't make out what the director was trying to say. The ending was also a little odd.
There are only a few of these instances however, and the movie is generally very easy to follow. Of course, being only 42 minutes long, there's not any time for character development or even personalities to be revealed. Because of this the film doesn't hold much emotional impact, at least to these western eyes. It's hard not to think of how Mary Pickford would have played the role of Ying Ying, filling the young noblewoman with sympathy and warmth, as where in this film the actress makes the character aloof. (Which is a much more accurate portrayal, but it still makes it hard to understand why Chang falls for her.)
The most interesting aspect of this film is the battle scenes. While they don't have the polish that later Chinese films would have the way they depicted battles with swords and pikes worked well. For some of the large battle sequences images of groups of men fighting were superimposed over each other (most assuredly done in the camera). This was an effective and inexpensive way to create a feeling of chaos and confusion that these battles had. It worked very well. The section where a messenger leaves the temple and fights several guards with a bo staff was fun to view too. It didn't have the quick cutting and close-ups that would later make Kung-Fu movies so much fun to watch, but for the time it must have been impressive.
This disc features an orchestral score composed by Toshiyuki Hiraoka. While this score was pleasant to listen to and was scene specific but didn't add much emotional impact to the film. The music for the action sequences weren't very energetic or rousing, and the rest of the score, while not quite bland, wasn't inspiring.
The intertitles were originally in French. At a later date Chinese script was superimposed under those. There are optional English subtitles too, which appear underneath the French and Chinese.
The full frame video was about average for an unrestored film from the 1920's. The image was soft, and the highlights were washed out in several places. The contrast was generally good however and there was a fair amount of detail. The beginning of the film has several missing frames some significant print damage, but this only last for a minute or two.
There are a couple of problems with the disc however. The framing is off a little, some of the image on the left side has been cut off. This means that some heads are cut off on that side and that people aren't centered in the frame as the director probably intended.
The film also looks like it is being shown too fast. People's movements, whether riding on horses or just walking about, seemed too rapid. During the fight scenes this is very noticeable and they seem almost comic, undoubtedly not the reaction the director was hoping for.
There are no extras.
This is a nice film, though the main appeal is historical rather than as entertainment. The style is a bit stilted but the action scenes were fun and worth watching. The print itself could have used some restoration but it is watchable. This would make a good rental.
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
The 2009 San Francisco Silent Film Festival
Douglas Fairbanks - A Modern Musketeer
The General - Kino's Ultimate 2-Disc Edition
Kino's Slapstick Symposium Wave Three