I love early cinema for a lot of reasons: you can see filmmakers creating the language of film as time goes on, the movies themselves can be magnificent, and the creativity is often astounding, just to name a few. One of the main things that draws me to the early days of film is that it's a window on the past. No only can you see monuments places that no longer exist, but movies have often documented a way of life that has largely disappeared. It's amazing to see just how people lived a century ago: what they put in an ice box, how they dressed, and what social customs they embraced. For others that enjoy the historical aspect of movies Flicker Alley, in association with Blackhawk Films, has just released a wonderful collection - We're in the Movies. This set includes a pair of documentaries (When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose about the creation of an itinerant film, The Lumberjack, and Palace of Silents a look at the history of a silent movie theater that opened in Los Angeles in 1942) as well as five shorts. It's a great collection that's well worth seeking out.
When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983):
In the early days of the movies, there were a group of filmmakers with an entrepreneurial spirit who would travel the country and make movies in small towns, for a fee. They would cast local members of society and often include scenes where all of the children in the town paraded past. They'd then partner with the local cinema to show the movie. Who wouldn't come out to see their child, and town, on the big screen?
This first feature was made in 1983 by a young filmmaker named Stephen Schaller. He managed to not only track down the only exist copy of an itinerant film made in Wausau Wisconsin, but was able to find some people who appeared in the film and several others who remember when it was filmed and even seeing it on the screen. This movie was a little different from the typical itinerant film. The Lumberjack, as the movie was titled, was intended for wider distribution and its purpose was to advertise the town.
The plot is simple, a girl meets the foreman of a lumber mill while on a tour and the two start to date. They agree to meet on a couple of afternoons and travel around to the city's main attractions: the downtown area, a weekend festival complete with boat races, and the granite quarry (he's obviously quite the lady's man!)
It was an interesting tour, especially for anyone who was at least a casual viewer of 60 Minutes in the 70s. At that time the Wausau Insurance Group advertised every week and ended each ad with a shot of the Wausau train depo... the one thing that's not featured in the film.
This documentary visits the places where the film was shot, talks to the people who remember it, and discusses the impact (or lack thereof) that it had on the town. Stephen Schaller finds out what happened to the couple featured in the film (they were married in real life) and their son remembers being ordered to attend a rare screening of the film in the 30's and not liking it at all (he was more into westerns at the time).
This documentary is filled with people who are no longer with us, and it's great that Schaller had the drive to make it when he did. The only real complaint I have is that The Lumberjack is tucked away in the extras. I would have like to have seen that first, before the documentary that chronicles its creation.
Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles (2010):
This documentary traces the history of not a person or film, but of a theater. It chronicles the inspiring, sad, and tragic story of the theater through the eyes of fans and employees and turns out to be stranger than any fiction.
In 1942, a man by the name of John Hampton and his new bride Dorothy built The Silent Movie Theater on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angles. Devoted to running only silent films, the small 150 seat theater screened some of the best films from the early days of cinema, mostly from prints from Hampton's own growing collection.
The theater became an institution and hangout for movie buffs, but as the years progressed it struggled to keep its doors open. Finally in 1979 Hampton closed the theater due to his failing health.
What normally would have been the end of the story in only the halfway point however. Enter Lawrence Austin, a friend of the Hamptons who reopened the theater in 1991 after John passed away, and with Dorothy's blessing. That's when the rumors started to fly. Was Austin a showman or a con man? Was he cheating Dorothy out of her share of the profits? The tale gets as tangled as an old film noir thriller and eventually ends up in a real life murder.
This Blu-ray/DVD combo pack arrives in a single-width clear Blu-ray case with double-sided cover art.
As with all of the Flicker Alley releases that I've seen, the image quality is very good. The films are presented in anamorphic widescreen with the 1.33:1 When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose being pillarboxed. This film, being created in 1983, isn't as sharp and crisp as Palace of Silents, but it still looks nice. I can't really complain about either movie, or the selection of vintage films that are included as extras.
The audio on both movies was clean. It was easy to hear the dialog and audio defects weren't present.
This is where this collection really shines. A lot of extras are just fluff or filler, but Flicker Alley (like Criterion) goes the extra mile to track down quality bonus items. This set includes a wonderful collection of six short films from the early days of cinema.
First up is The Lumberjack, the film that is discussed in When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose. It's a very nice, simple look at Wausau WI from 1914. The image is good and it's a wonderful look back in time.
The same can be said for Huntingdon's Hero, another local film. This talkie has a bit more a plot than The Lumberjack, including some really bad jokes, and features some placement of a local car dealership as well as the radio station.
There's a third movie made by itinerant filmmakers, The Kidnapper's Foil. This was created by Melton Barker, who would travel from town to town filming the same script again and again filling the roles with locals each time. In the included booklet, film historian and preservationist David Shepard says that Barker made the film between 150-200 times over a nearly forty year period. The sound on this version, filmed in Corsicana, Texas, is a bit muddled, but the charm of the film still shines though.
If that was all of the extras, I'd be happy. But there's more. Also included on the disc is a trio of very short (3-5 minutes each) silent films chronicling life in the rural Appalachian Mountains. The films, In the Moonshine Country, Mountain Life, and Our Southern Mountaineers, all show a way of life that largely doesn't exist now. From making soap to tanning leather and making hooch, these shorts give a quick glimpse into a forgotten part of America.
There is also a very interesting 12 page booklet with essays and images about the movies included in this set.
The two main features were very good, but the five shorts are great too. Taken together this is quite a package. It's aimed at a niche, history buff audience, but those who enjoy these types of films will really appreciate this enjoyable set. Recommended.