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Shakedown, The

Kino // Unrated // July 28, 2020
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted August 27, 2020 | E-mail the Author
Made at the cusp between the end of the silent film era and the dawn of talkies, The Shakedown (1929) is a boxing melodrama directed by William Wyler, making one of his first important films after mostly churning out short Westerns for Universal. Many classics including Dead End (1937), Jezebel (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), Detective Story (1951), Roman Holiday (1953), Friendly Persuasion (1956), and Ben-Hur (1959), still lay in his future.

With the coming of sound, Universal junked most of its silent film holdings. The Shakedown was among the hundreds of silent titles considered lost until a 35mm dupe negative was discovered, and it's presented here in a new 4K restoration financed by Universal. The surviving elements show their age and, as a movie, The Shakedown isn't a lost masterpiece, though it is entertaining and, in its way, impressive as the kind of well-made program picture with the kind of visual flourishes the early days of talkies suddenly ground to a halt with its early, restrictive technology.

The Shakedown was apparently also released as a part-talkie, with major dialogue scenes reshot for sound. However, that version was probably only shown in larger cities, in theaters able to afford the silent-to-sound transition. Kino's new Blu-ray is of the silent version, which likely saw a wider release.

In a typical American town, handsome Dave Roberts (James Murray) witnesses a man (George Kotsonaros) accosting a young woman. Dave rushes to her defense, knocking down the imposing masher, who turns out to be a professional boxer known as "Battling Rolf." His manager (Wheeler Oakman), impressed by Dave's amateur skill, invites him to their upcoming event, offering $1,000 to any man that can beat the unbeatable Battling Rolf. Encouraged by a growing crowd of supporters, Dave agrees to take him on. At the match, a huge crowd, most of whom have placed bets, rallies behind Dave who, despite giving it his all, is soon defeated.

Now comes the movie's first surprise: it's all a racket, with the manager, Rolf, and even Dave conmen traveling from town-to-town with wholesome-looking Dave actually the shill, ingratiating himself with the locals in the weeks prior to the match.

Moving on, Dave goes to work at an oil rig, where pretty Marjorie (Barbara Kent) operates the local canteen. (Among the visual flourishes is footage of actor Murray dangerously riding the cable to the top of the rig, the camera peering down as he's whisked high up.) Dave also meets freckle-faced orphan Clem (Jack Hanlon), a tough-talking, younger version of Dave, who gradually comes to look upon Dave as a father figure. These burgeoning relationships make him question his involvement in the grifters' game.

The Shakedown plays rather like the missing link between Chaplin's landmark The Kid (1921) and King Vidor's later The Champ (1931). Though borderline corny and unapologetically sentimental, the relationship between Dave and Clem, the heart of the film far more than Dave's relationship with Marjorie, exhibits honest emotion, and both Murray and child actor Hanlon are excellent in their roles.

Though all but forgotten today, James Murray was plucked from obscurity by Vidor to star in one of the greatest of all silent films, The Crowd (1928). Murray followed that success with a tiny handful of films, but alcoholism destroyed his career, and he drowned in what was either an accident or suicide in 1936 at the age of 35. Hanlon debuted in Buster Keaton's The General and appeared in several silent Our Gang shorts, eventually retiring in 1933, though, unlike Murray, Hanlon lived to the ripe-old age of 96, passing away in 2012. He died just a year prior to female lead Barbara Kent, who died in 2011 at 103.

An incidental point of interest in The Shakedown is that 1) Clem and Dave's "trainer," con man Dugan (comedian Harry Gibbon) in their mutual dislike, constantly make faces at one another; and that 2) during the climatic bout between Dave and Battling Rolf, the Manager conspires with the time-keeper to delay the start of the next round, prompting Clem to slingshot hard candy at the bell, causing it to ring. In the early Three Stooges comedy Punch Drunks (1934), during that short's climatic boxing match, a young boy (Harry Watson) throws gumballs as the timekeeper's (Arthur Housman) bell in the same manner, and the two make faces at one another. Clearly the Stooges and/or writer Jack Cluett remembered The Shakedown and reworked it into a running gag.

William Wyler himself makes a cameo appearance, as the man holding the "Round 3" card during the match, and reportedly future director John Huston is in there somewhere, too, though I didn't spot him.

Video & Audio

Presented in its original black-and-white, standard (1.33:1), The Shakedown looks good, not great, with the image reasonably good most of the time, if with signs of age and wear. A new but vaguely period jazz score is provided by composer Michael Gatt, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo. A region "A" encoded disc.

Extra Features

Supplements include an audio commentary track by Nick Pinkerton and a booklet essay by Nora Fiore, both good researchers.

Parting Thoughts

Still enjoyable, The Shakedown is an interesting artifact, pretty good on its own terms, and its rediscovery is most welcome. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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