Silent DVD Archive
Little Lord Fauntleroy, Piccadilly, Lon Chaney and Paul Leni
Well, the after Christmas lull in silent movie releases seems to be over. With several titles having come out so far in 2005, and many more on the way, it’s looking like this year will be a good one for silent movie fans. This month five movies on four DVDs are review.
But before we get to those, there are a couple of new discs in the pipeline, and a price decrease on a great boxed set. Taking the latter first, the out-of-print Treasures from American Film Archives set is being reprinted, and at a reduced price. Originally this impressive set of rare films retailed for $99.95, but when it gets released again on May 10th, the retail price drop to $69.95. The contents of the new edition, which will bear the label “Encore Edition” on the cover, seems to be identical to the original release. The first editions did include a 150 page book with notes and credits for the films. I haven’t been able to determine if the book will be included in the encore edition or not. As I find out more, I’ll let you know.
One DVD featuring silent films slipped by me somehow. (It’s actually not that difficult.) The Cameraman's Revenge & Other Fantastic Tales was released on January 4th of this year. It features six animated shorts by the stop-motion pioneer Ladislaw Starewicz, done between 1912 and 1958. Starewicz was a Russian of Polish origin who relocated to Paris in the early part of the 20th century where he turned stop motion animation into an art form. His early experiments in animation are wonderful to watch. The films I’ve seen are very rich and detailed, with elaborate sets. I’ll try to obtain a copy for a full review.
Another upcoming disc that you’ll want to take note of is The Olive Thomas Collection. Milestone is going to release this package on April 26th, and it should be interesting. Olive was one of the most popular movie stars in the teen’s and early 20's, though she’s hardly known today. This set will include The Flapper, probably her most famous film, and a documentary entitled Olive Thomas: Everybody’s Sweetheart.
First up is a review of one of the classic haunted movies; Paul Leni’s The Cat and The Canary. Leni was a German director who was hired by Universal in 1926, and though his movies are just as strong as the other prestigious German directors, today he is largely forgotten. Much of this has to do with his limited output. He only made for films in America, and tragically died of blood poisoning in 1929.
The Cat and the Canary was Leni’s first American film, and it set the tone for haunted house movies for decades to come. A young woman will inherit a fortune if she can prove she’s sane, but she has to spend the night in a spooky old house first that is filled with jealous relatives, one who wants her dead.
With bodies falling out of closets, secret passages, and disappearing corpses this movie contains all the elements of haunted house movies that will eventually become cliches. They don’t seem trite in this movie however, they are used to great effect. Leni was a master at creating atmosphere, he started out as a set designer, and he works his magic with this film. The images of curtains billowing the length of a deserted hall or the shadow of a maniac’s hand passing over the face of a young girl all serve to give the film a chilling aspect.
The movie holds up to the test of time very well. The acting is solid without being overdone and the story, though not as surprising as it must have been in 1927, is still interesting. There is a bonus short included with the disc, Harold Lloyd’s hilarious Haunted Spooks.
A double feature of Lon Chaney films has also come out. Victory and The Wicked Darling are a pair of melodramas that have Chaney in more minor roles. The former, directed by Maurice Tourneur, is based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. A man has decided to remove himself from society and lives on a deserted island in the south Pacific. Thing turn bad when a group of thugs, including Chaney, hear a rumor that the man is hiding a fortune on his island and arrive to steal it.
Chaney does a great job with his make up in this film, he’s almost unrecognizable. Though his part is small (he gets 5th billing) Chaney steals every scene that he’s in. His character’s harsh cruelty is memorable. Though the rest of the movie is a little weak, the film is worth watching for Chaney’s part.
The Wicked Darling is a film that was thought lost for many years. A vehicle for early Biograph star Priscilla Dean, this melodrama is rather staid by today’s standards and not very engaging. Dean plays a young thief who decides to go straight after meeting a wonderful man. Her old crony, played by Chaney, won’t let her off the hook so easily though, and threatens her new found love.
There is only one surviving print of this film, found in the Netherlands Filmmuseum, and it has been badly damaged over time. The film is scratched and dirty, and there is significant damage caused by mildew. While there are no better copies, this print does look pretty poor.
Milestone is quickly becoming my favorite publisher for silent films. They have put out several high quality silent films in the past couple of years, and I always look forward to their next release. They’ve released a pair of DVDs recently that are both outstanding.
Next up is a wonderful movie featuring Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American film star. Though she had a lot of screen presence and could look achingly beautiful, because of her oriental heritage Anna usually ended up in movies with an Asian theme. One of the few films that didn’t fit this mold was her last silent film, the British 1929 movie Picadilly. Often cited as her finest work, Milestone has released a new 110-minute restoration of this film that incorporates several scenes that have been missing for decades.
Valentine is the owner of a popular club in London. When one of his star dancers quits, attendance drops off dramatically and Valentine looks for a new act. He spots a dishwasher (Anna May Wong) dancing in the scullery and grooms her as his next big act. Valentine’s current star and lover doesn’t like this new girl though, and a classic love triangle develops in some unexpected ways.
For a drama that was made in the teens, this film holds up surprisingly well. Many dramas of the time degraded to melodrama with clearly delineate good and evil characters. Not so with this film. The reasons behind some of the action is ambiguous and your not sure if some characters are manipulating other or not. Much of that has to do with Wong and her strong screen presence and the subtle way she plays her role. A film that was much better than I thought it would be, and well worth checking out. This fine looking DVD also has a good number of extras included.
Milestone has also scheduled a series of Mary Pickford films to be released over the course of 2005. The first DVD in the series is Little Lord Fauntleroy, and if it is any indication, it should be a great group of discs.
Mary plays the double role of both Cedric, the little Lord, and his mother ‘Dearest.’ They live in the slums of New York City, but that changes when Cedric discovers that he’s the only heir to the Earl of Dorincourt, and that he’s now Lord Fauntleroy. The two travel to England where Cedric charms his way into the crotchety old aristocrat’s heart.
This is a film that Pickford made at the height of her career, and is fairly typical of her string pictures. It is a light comedy, with some dramatic overtones. Little Lord Fauntleroy is just a fun movie. Mary Pickford’s Cedric is an infectious character who brightens up the screen whenever he (she) is on it. Though Pickford doesn’t make a convincing boy you soon get over that and just enjoy the picture. The 35mm print that was used is very good, with some minor scratching and dirt, but still impressive for a film that is nearly 85 years old. Milestone has done another fantastic job with this disc.
That's it for this month. Next time I should have reviews of a couple more Mry Pickford films, Through the Back Door and Cinderella, as well as Carl Theodor Dreyer's Leaves from Satan's Book. With a little luck, there will also be a review of Hindle Wakes, a film by prolific British film director Maurice Elvey.
Comments? Suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail.
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