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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

Cecil B. DeMille Double Features, The Unknown Chaplin and The Call of Cthulhu
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Cecil B. DeMille kept copies of all of his films in cold storage during his lifetime, preserving the nitrate film from deterioration.  His daughter donated this magnificent collection to the Eastman House film archive after his death.  Because of this, a very complete record of the influential director's films still exists.  Image, in association with Blackhawk films and David Shepard's Film Preservation Associates, have released several of DeMille's silent films on a trio of double feature DVDs.  This week Silent DVD looks at all three of these discs.

Another treat for silent film fans is the release of David Gill and Kevin Brownlow's 1983 documentary, Unknown Chaplin.  This is the first of their three documentaries on silent film comics and is a very entertaining look at how Chaplin crafted his films.

This time I also look at something a little different: a modern silent film.  The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society has faithfully adapted the author's most famous story into an independent movie.  The Call of Cthulhu is a very impressive short film, with the special effects, for the most part, being made using techniques employed in the silent era.  Ironically several sound features have been made from Lovecraft's work, but none of them work as well as this silent film.

As for upcoming releases, the first couple of months of 2006 are a little dry.  The only discs on the horizon are two compilations of Buster Keaton's sound work.  Columbia/Tristar is releasing The Buster Keaton Collection on March 7th which collects ten of Keaton's shorts from the 1940's.  Mackinac Media and Laughingsmith Entertainment, the companies who created the wonderful Fatty Arbuckle set last year, are putting out another compilation this time of Keaton's rarer promotional films, TV appearances and commercials.  The Industrial Strength Keaton is a two disc set that should be a lot of fun and is due out January 17th.

(click on the title for a the full review)

Cecil B. DeMille Double Features:

Image has released three DVDs each containing a pair of Cecil B. DeMille films on a single sided disc.  Each disc features a nice musical accompaniment, the majority of them preformed by the Mont Alto Orchestra, and a four page insert with essays about the films.  Unfortunately there are no extras on any of the discs.

Don't Change Your Husband/The Golden Chance

The first one contains Don't Change Your Husband staring Gloria Swanson and The Golden Chance.  It is the weakest disc in the series too.  These are two light comedies don't really offer much more than the average film of the time.  The picture quality is also only fair, being marred by too much edge enhancement.

Don't Change Your Husband:

Leila Porter (Gloria Swanson) is having a hard time with her husband James (Elliott Dexter).  They've been married a while and the spark has gone out.  He is a very successful industrialist and makes lots money, but he works all the time and he's also a bit of a slob.  He puts his feet up on the furniture and *gasp* likes to eat green onions.

One night when James is working late, Leila meets Schuyler Van Sutphen (Lew Cody).  He pays a attention to her and makes her feel important and basically woos her off her feet.  Leila decides that he's a much better husband and leaves the crass James.  When she discovers that Schuyler isn't being faithful though, James starts looking better and better.

I was interesting in seeing this movie since Lew Cody had a big part.  He would marry Mabel Normand in 1926 and stay wed to her until her death in1930.  Not many of his silent films survive and this is a rare chance to see him in his prime.

As for the film itself, it was good but not more than that.  The tone was light, but there weren't many actual jokes.  The plot itself is rather straight forward and it's easy to see what's going to happen just from the title.  The minute Schuyler appears on screen it's clear that he's a jerk, but Leila has to find that out for herself.  The film unfolds in a predictable manner.  A solid film, but not very memorable.

The Golden Chance:

Mary Denby (Cleo Ridgely) had the bad fortune to marry Steve (Horace B. Carpenter) who is a drunken lout and spends all of their money on booze.  In order to keep body and soul together Mary goes to work as a seamstress for the rich Mrs. Hillary (Edythe Chapman).   The Hillary's are throwing a fancy party in order to close a big business deal and when one of their guests cancel, Mrs. Hillary invites Mary so that the room will be filled.  Dressed to the nines in a fancy dress and wearing some of Mrs. Hillary's jewels, Mary is a stunning sight and catches the eye of Roger Manning (Wallace Reid) a wealthy industrious man.  Everything that her current husband isn't. They are both attracted to each other, but what can the married Mary do?

Originally staring Edna Goodrich, this film was half completed when the starlets alcoholism becime too much of a problem.  Arriving on the set drunk one day, DeMille fired her on the spot and shut down production.  He then went looking for another leading lady.  Eventually he settled on Cleo Ridgely, but by that time he had already started filming The Cheat.  In order to finish both pictures, he made The Cheat during the day and re-filmed The Golden Chance at night.

Cleo Ridgely retired the year after this film was made after she married her second husband, director James W. Horne.  It's a pity she did, because she does a nice job in this film.  Even with her good performance, this is still a melodrama.   The nicely appointed sets and fancy clothes that the characters wear can't make this film terribly interesting.  While the viewers who saw the movie on it's initial release were most likely carried along by Mary's plight, this reworking of the Cinderella story comes across as a bit trite and predictable for today's viewers.  It is competently made, it doesn't have the emotional punch that deMille's later films would have.

Why Change Your Wife/Miss Lulu Bett

This second disc is much better and has two entertaining films.  Why Change Your Wife stars Gloria Swanson and is directed by Cecil B. De Mille, while Miss Lulu Bett, based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play, is directed by Cecil's older brother William.  Both amusing and entertaining films about women who change themselves in order to get what they want out of life.

Why Change Your Wife?:

Cecil B. De Mille directed a good number of marital farces in his early career, and this is one of his best.  Gloria Swanson plays Beth "whose virtues are her only vices and who willingly gave up her husband's liberty when she married him."  She and her husband Robert (Thomas Meighan) are two different types of people.  Beth is bookish and thoughtful, and he's more interested in the creature comforts.  The result is that she ends up nagging him quite a bit.  One evening Robert stops off to get a present for Beth and he meets Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels), an attractive model who works for a clothing store.  Sally is more alive and exciting than his dull and staid wife, and Robert soon leaves Beth and marries his new flame.  Beth isn't going to take that laying down though, and fights fire with fire by becoming more glamourous and vivacious than Robert's new wife.

This was a funny movie.  This farce works very well with a good amount of humor and a fairly fast pace.  Even the intertitle cards are amusing and well placed.  I loved Sally's exclimation near the end: "Remember the Alimony!"

All three of the stars did a very good job with the material.  It was nice seeing Bebe Daniels, who was Harold Lloyd's leading lady in his early pictures and was even engaged to him for a while, in this comedy.  She does a fine job and the way she plays Sally adds a lot of comedy to the picture.

Though Daniels did a great job, Gloria Swanson really steals the picture.  Her transformation from frumpy old housewife to dazzling apparition is wonderfully fun.  Not only that, but she is very believable in the role.  When she's nagging her husband at the beginning, she doesn't come across as a stereotypical overbearing oppressive woman, just as a real wife.  (Not MY wife of course.)  An excellent performance.

Miss Lulu Bett:

This film was directed by Cecil B. De Mille's older brother William, and is one of only a couple of films that he made that still survives.  (The only other that I'm aware of is The Secret Game (1917) which is available on World War I Films of the Silent Era.)

Lulu Bett (Lois Wilson) is a spinster.  In her late 20's or early 30's, the timid lady has moved in with her sister, Diana (Helen Ferguson), and brother-in-law, Dwight (Theodore Roberts). In their home she cooks and cleans and keeps house for her room and board.  Little more than a slave, Lulu trudges through life until Dwight's brother Ninian (Clarence Burton) shows up one day.  Ninian takes a shine to the frumpy Lulu, and while they are at dinner, he pretends to marry the girl.  Dwight, seeing a way to get Lulu out of his house, declares that the gag wedding is binding, and he should know, he's a Justice of the Peace.  Ninian's happy with the situation and Lulu decides to go along with it to get out of her sister's household even though she doesn't love her groom.  Things turns sticky soon though.  No one realized that Lulu was the glue that keeps her sister's dysfunctional family going.  Without her, things soon turn to anarchy, with comic results.

Though William deMille (he always spelled the 'de' with a lower case 'd') was greatly overshadowed by him younger brother, this films shows that he was a talented director in his own right.  This dramatic comedy has a lot of charm to it, and it's presents a much more realistic look at life than Cecil's grand spectacles.

Lois Wilson does a very good job in the title role, breathing life into the role when she's an unattractive scullery maid and a fashionable and independent woman.  Her transformation seem plausible and real.  She really makes the film.

Though the synopsis make this sound like a melodrama, the film is actually fairly light.  There are many comical moments to break up the drama, and these work well.  I especially enjoyed the daughter practicing piano after Lulu left.  A very enjoyable film.

Old Wives for New/The Whispering Chorus

The third (and final?) release in this series contains Old Wives for New and The Whispering Chorus.  Though made back to back, the pair of movies are very different in tone and style.  Old Wives for New, the later of the two, is DeMille's first romantic drama/comedy film and is historic for that reason though the film itself is fairly forgettable.  The Whispering Chorus however is a much better film which uses some innovative camera work to portray the inner voices of the main character.  This disc is definitely worth tracking down for this earlier film.

Old Wives for New:

This film is not only a comedy/drama, but also a cautionary tale for women.  As the introduction notes, the ladies "must remember to trim out 'Votes for Women" with a little lace and ribbon..."

Millionaire Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) is stuck in an unhappy marriage.  His wife (Sylvia Ashton) has gone to pot, spending her days sitting around the house and eating chocolates she's put on a lot of weight and doesn't have much in common with her husband.  While on a trip, Murdock meets Juliet Raeburn (Florence Vidor), and the younger and more lively woman is very appealing to the self-made man.  He divorces his wife and plans to marry the more attractive Juliet, but things take a turn for the worse when she is implicated in a murder.

Though considered very shocking in its day (Paramount head Adolph Zukor was opposed to releasing it until the reaction of test audience convinced him otherwise) it is very tame by today's standards.  It still works as a light distraction though it isn't one of DeMille's best films from the period.

Part of the problem is that the acting is just standard.  It seems that everyone is walking through their roles, and none of the characters really come to life.  The sets are also elaborately decorated, something that was a bit of a distraction.  I was often more interested in what items were displayed on a fireplace mantle than I was in the action that was taking place in the scene.

The plot is also needlessly complex.  DeMille would soon learn his lesson and start to pare his romantic comedy plot down quite a bit, but this one has several twists and turns that are not really needed.  (Including a section where Charles leaves Juliet and marries another woman only to have her dump him.)  While this isn't a bad film, it is one of DeMille's lesser works.

The Whispering Chorus:

After watching Old Wives for New, I wasn't expecting much from this film.  How surprised I was.  This movie is much more artful and edgy than just about all the other DeMille films.  I held my interest much better than the first film on this disc and was also more emotional.

John Tremble (Raymond Hatton) is an over worked and under-paid employee at a construction company who has trouble making ends meet.  He's not able to support his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and his mother, so he comes up with a plan and steals some money from his company.

John is afraid that his theft will be noticed when politician George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter)starts looking at the company's books.  To avoid capture, John fakes his death and starts a new life.  Jane in the meantime, believing her husband is dead, marries Coggeswell, who has become an important politician.

Things take a turn for the bizarre when John gets arrested for his own murder.  If he confesses to the lighter crime of theft though, Jane's life will be ruined.  Her marriage will be annuled and her unborn child will be a bastard.  To save his wife's dignity however will mean his death.

This was a very good film.  The narrative is quite unlike DeMille's more commercial romantic comedies, both in style and substance.  This psychological drama had a lot of atmosphere that made the film more intense, and the effects really added to the drama.  The superimposition used to illustrate the voices in Trimble's head worked very well, and the tinting, based on the original prints, also served to set the mood.  A very fine piece of work.  I'm surprised that this film wasn't the one that received top billing on this DVD.

The Unknown Chaplin:

Charlie Chaplin was, arguably, the greatest comic actor ever.  For years he was the highest paid performer in the world, and his 'little tramp character is still know all around the world.  There have been many books written and movies made about him, but the best is David Gill and Kevin Brownlow's 1983 documentary, Unknown Chaplin.  The first of three documentaries examining the biggest silent era comedians, this is an excellent look at Charlie Chaplin's films, and how he made them.

This three part series, each installment running about 50 minutes, gives a rare look at how Chaplin made his films.  Before this documentary was released, no one really knew what Chaplin's process was.  Using reels and reels of Chaplin outtakes that Raymond Rohauer had squirreled away and hidden from the world, as well as his studio's records, David Gill and Kevin Brownlow were able to recreate how this comic genius came up with his ideas.   Working without a script and just waiting for inspiration to strike, Chaplin would try many different scenes and gags before he came up with the one that was just right for a film.

Using two of his Mutual films, The Cure and The Immigrant, as examples the series shows how Chaplin would start with just a seed of an idea and play with it until he could create an entire scene. Chaplin's genius is that he made it look so easy in the finished product.  The weeks and months of agonizing are all missing, and all that's left is a gorgeously constructed comedy.

The series also discusses his later films, the bulk of the second episode is taken up by his filming of City Lights.  It has interviews with Jackie Coogan who played the title role in The Kid, Lita Grey who was also in The Kid, Virginia Cherrill who was the female lead in City Lights, and Georgia Hale who stared in The Gold Rush.  Their comments about how Chaplin worked and what he was like on the set were interesting and insightful.

The series also examines how Chaplin would rework an idea years, sometimes decades, later.  When something didn't quite fit into one movie, he would revisit the idea in a later movie.  There are several extended scenes that were left on the cutting room floor, including a long segment from his aborted film The Professor.  This movie was to feature Chaplin in a role other than that of the Tramp.  He would later change the character around a bit and used him in Limelight.

One of the things that was particularly refreshing about this documentary was that they concentrated on how Chaplin crafted his films and brought his ideas forth in film.  His often sordid personal life wasn't the focus, or even mentioned.  They talk with Chaplin's second wife, Lita Grey, but the clips that were limit her comments to working on The Gold Rush and in The Kid, and doesn't mention their acrimonious divorce or his many infidelities.

There is a wealth of information included in this documentary, and it is very entertaining too.  The sequences that Chaplin discarded are more entertaining than the gags that many comedians left in their movies, making this a fun documentary.  The rare clips are a wonder too.  I was particularly interested in seeing some of the footage of City Lights that Chaplin reshot with Georgia Hale after he fired Virginia Cherill.  (The film was so far advanced that he had to re-hire Cherrill, at double pay, and Hale's scenes were never released.)  A truly great documentary.

The Call of Cthulhu:

H. P. Lovecraft was a very influential author, and though he never achieved commercial success in his lifetime, his writing still inspires authors to this day.  His stories were often written in a rather obtuse style, using antiquated spellings and words unfamiliar to the general public, but have a wonderfully eerie sense of foreboding with indescribable horrors lurking around every corner.

Because of the style of his writings and the way the stories unfold, there hasn't been a movie based on Lovecraft's works that really captures the feel and tone of the original.  Until now that is.  The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society, has faithfully adapted one of Lovecraft's most famous (and best) works, The Call of Cthulhu.  Always considered one of his stories least likely to be able to be brought to film, the fact that an entertaining, engrossing and accurate adaptation was made is fairly astounding.  The fact that this small group of enthusiastic fans has been able to craft such a quality film with a minuscule budget is amazing.  This film looks and plays much better than it has any rights to.

One of the keys to the film's success is that the creators took an unusual approach to the production: the made it a silent black and white film.  This little trick worked wonderfully, and using techniques and special effects that were employed in the silent era, this group has created a film that is definitely worth viewing.

This convoluted story starts with a dying man begging the executor of his will to destroy some documents and papers that the ill man discovered years ago.  Told through a series of flashbacks, three at first seemingly unrelated stories are told concerning a man with horrible nightmares, a cult in the bayous of Louisianana, and a ship found in the South Pacific with only one crewman alive.  When these stories are put together however, they reveal the existence of an ancient evil that still lives and is trying to consume the earth.

The scope of this story, with settings all over the world and a climax that involves the battle between a large steam ship and a giant monster, is rather large but this film manages to pull it off quite well.  Credit for this goes to writer Sean Branney and director Andrew Leman who manage to use ingenuity and creativity, along with a lot of sweat and work, to make their production look much more elaborate than it really is.  For a more detailed analysis of the film, check out my full review.

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


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