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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

Slap Happy, Hindle Wakes, and Leaves from Satan's Book
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

Some good silent movies have come out recently.  This month we look at Hindle Wakes, Carl Theodor Dreyer's second feature Leaves from Satan's Book, and some of the early volumes in the Slap Happy series.  But before we get to those and our table of upcoming and recent releases, here's the latest information on silent movies on DVD:

Some exciting news has come out about the re-release of the Treasures from American Film Archives boxed set.  The National Film Preservation Foundation has indicated that the new release of this important DVD set, which has been out of print since last fall, will included the book of notes that was included with the original release.  The book will be updated, and instead of a single volume, it will be split into four 32 page booklets that will be included as an insert with each DVD.  This will make it easier for libraries and rental stores to circulate the disc and associated information.  The "encore edition" of this set is scheduled to be released 5-10-05, and has a retail price of $69.95, a full $30 less than it originally sold for.  This is a great opportunity for people who missed it the first time around to pick up the set and save a great amount too.

Milestone will has pushed back the release date for the Mary Pickford film Through the Back Door.  Originally scheduled for April 5th, the disc is now scheduled for release on May 3rd.  Amazon and other on-line retailers are also listing May 3rd as the released date for a couple of Milestone's other Pickford releases, Suds and Heart O' The Hills.  We'll see if that comes to pass.

The first volume in the Slap Happy series, that I review this month, has been drastically reduced. To let people try the series out, the first volume has been cut from $19.95 to only $7.95. Shipping is a very reasonable $2 per order and the DVDs are avalible through the Slap Happy web site.

Upcoming Silent Moves on DVD
Title (* denotes new additions) Studio Release Date  MSRP   Buy at Amazon
Heart o’ the Hills (1919) and  M'Liss (1918) both w/Mary Pickford Milestone May 3,  2005 29.99
Suds (1920) and Birth of a Legend (1966)  featuring Mary Pickford Milestone May 3, 2005 29.99
Through the Back Door (1921) w/Cinderella (1915) both staring Mary Pickford Milestone May 3, 2005 29.99
*Treasures from American Film Archives (1893-1960) - Encore Edition National Film Preservation Foundation May 10, 2005 69.95 (not yet listed)
Dragon Painter (1919) w/ The Wrath of the Gods (1914) w/ Sessue Hayakawa Milestone May 2005 TBA (not yet listed)
Forgotten Films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle  Laughsmith Entertainment May 24, 2005 49.95
Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) Maurice Tourneur film staring Mary Pickford along with the 1978 documentary on Pickford, America’s Sweetheart. Milestone 2005 TBA (not yet listed)

Recently Released Silent Movies on DVD
Title (with link to review) Studio Releasae Date MSRP Buy at Amazon
Hindle Wakes (1927) Milestone March 12, 2005 29.99
Leaves From Satan’s Book (1920) Image March 5, 2005 24.99
Piccadilly (1929) w/Anna May Wong Milestone March 1, 2005 29.99 >
Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) Milestone March 1, 2005 29.99
Edison:  The Invention of the Movies (4 DVD set with over 140 early Edison films) Kino Febuary 22, 2005 99.95
The Cat and the Canary (1927) Image Febuary 1, 2005 19.99
Victory/Wicked Darling  Image January 25, 2005 19.95

Capsule Reviews
(click on the title to read the full review)

British films from the silent era don't have a very good reputation, with most of them being plodding, dull affairs.  Of course there are some exceptions, Hitchcock’s silent films spring to mind, but as a whole they pale in comparison to American and German films made at the same time.  That's why it was with a bit of trepidation that I popped Hindle Wakes into my DVD player.  This story about a young female mill worker who has a fling with the bosses son during a week's vacation, and therefore becomes a soiled woman, sounded like it had all the trappings of a sappy melodrama.  My initial misgivings couldn't have been further from the truth.  Not only was this a good movie, it was immensely enjoyable on several levels.

Fanny Hawthorne works in the large cotton mill in Hindle, like her father and most of the town.  Once a year the factory closes for a week (the ‘Wake’ of the title) and the employees all head off to some vacation spot to blow off some steam.  This year Fanny and her friend Mary go off to Blackpoole, but Fanny soon hooks up with the son on the mill owner, Allan Jeffcote, and ditches her friend to spend the week with Alan.

When it is discovered that Fanny has spent a week with a man, her family is thrown into turmoil.  How can they ever weather this tragedy?  Her parents think the best thing is to brow-beat Allan into marrying Fanny.  So the mill owner, Allan, and Fanny's parents all put their heads together to decide what Fanny's fate is going to be and who she will marry.  They didn't think that Fanny would have an opinion on the matter, but it turns out that she does.

Taken just at face value, Hindle Wakes is a well made and interesting film, but the movie also has some very interesting social commentary.  The Victorian ear had a double standard, where it is acceptable and even expected for a young man to have a weekend romance, but a woman who does the same is ruined.  This unfair social expectation is examined, and the film has some surprising things to say about it considering it was made in 1927.

Blade af Satans Bog (Leaves from Satan's Book - 1920) was director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s second feature film, but very ambitious in scope.  Patterned after Intolerance, this film also contains stories from four historical periods linked thematically.  Unlike Griffith’s film though, Dreyer chose not to cross cut between stories, which makes for a less confusing film.

Satan is the character who links the four stories.  The film starts with his fall from grace, as told through intertitles, and God's proclamation that he walk the Earth tempting humanity.  For each soul that turns from God, 100 years will be added to Satan's sentence, but for every person who resists his temptations, 1000 years will be removed.  Hoping to fail in his duties so that he may be admitted back into heaven, Satan tries to get men to betray what they hold most dear.  Satan tempts Judas during Christ's life, is a powerful member of the Church during the Spanish Inquisition, one of the ruling politicians during the French revolution, and a Russian monk during the 1918 Russo-Finnish war.

The first section of the film is fairly weak, but the movie grows in strength as it progressed.  Even with its flaws, this early Dreyer film is still very interesting.  It shows his almost innate ability to compose attractive images within the limits of the frame.  He would become more adept at this as his body of work progressed, but even in this early film you can see his talent at composition.

Though this film isn't the grand spectacle he was hoping for, Dreyer did a wonderful job with it.  His use of the film frame and style of story telling make this a movie interesting and attractive to watch.

We end this month's column on a lighter note as we turn from fallen women and Satan's evil to silent comedies.   While most silent film buffs know of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, many would be hard pressed to name other comedy starts from Hollywood's golden age.  Yet there were thousands of comedy shorts made in the early years of the 20th Century, and hundreds of comedians worked on them.  Just about all of them are now forgotten, but there is a series that does remember:  Slap Happy.

Slap Happy is an exhaustive 30 episode series that searches out the forgotten comics and studios of the silent era and gives them a moment in the spotlight again.  More than just a documentary though, these shows present extended clips from silent shorts in addition to background information about the stars.  This lets you see for yourself how funny and creative many of these forgotten silent clowns were.  It also gives you the background on these forgotten stars; how they got their start, who they worked with, how popular they were, and often why their star faded.

Though this series is very informative, the strength of this show is the rare clips that they've chosen to fill out the half hour.  Some of the clips only last a few seconds, but the majority of them are minutes long, some going on for five minutes or more.  This really gives viewers the chance to see how gags were set up and executed, as well as how the comics progressed on to the next gag.  By cutting out the plot points of the shorts, as well as the minor gags, Slap Happy is able to present the funniest parts of the shorts as well as being able to give a good overview of an artist's work through several shorts.

One of the things I really like about this series is the fact that there is only sparse narration.  The narrator gives the background of the comic who is on the screen, sets up the piece, and then falls silent.  This lets the viewer concentrate on the comedy on screen, instead of having to process a lot of information.  There is even an option to view the shows without any narration at all.

First airing in 2001 on PBS stations in the US, each 30 minute episode is a joy to watch.  Now executive producer Larry Stefan has released all thirty episodes in a  10 DVD-R set, sold through the Slap Happy web sight.  The image quality on these is truly amazing, especially when you consider that the vast majority of these films have been ignored for over 80 years.

All of the volumes that I've seen have been a joy to watch.  They include:

Volume One starts off with 3 Funnymen:  Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, and Lloyd Hamilton were all very popular comics in the 20's though they are forgotten today.  This episodes lets a new generation discover how talented they were.

The Fun Factory looks at the mayhem and hi-jinx that were filmed at the Mack Sennett studios.  This show quickly traces Mack's start and then launches into some of the wild comedies he made.  Sennett’s style that was long on action and short on plot was just what the public was looking for, and his studio quickly became a powerful producer of one and two reel comedies.  Through the clips in this show, you'll see the reason his studio was so famous.

The first volume finishes up with Great Gags: a look at some of the innovative gags that were so common in silent comedies.

Volume Three begins with a look at the Al Christie Studios, the third biggest comedy factory after Mack Sennett and Hal Roach.

Next up is an overview of the Supporting Comics, the heavies who helped the stars get lots of laughs.  Ironically though their names were never as famous as the comedians they assisted, these talented actors would often have much longer careers than the stars.

Larry Semon finishes off this volume, with his fast and frantic, well choreographed shorts.  His popularity nearly rivaled Chaplin's in the 20's, but as tastes in comedy changed, his career faded.  This episode includes some great comic gags and is guarenteed to amuse.

Vaudeville Greats starts off volume four, and talks about the early theater; Fred Karno’s famous acting troupe, which was the training ground for both Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, and Zigfield’s Follies.  The highlights of this show are several examples of vaudeville acts that were filmed.  W. C. Fields juggling acts (Fields first gained fame as a comic juggler) as well as some of Will Rogers roping tricks. amoung others, are shown.

Next up is Educational Films, a history of the instructional movie company that branched off into comedies.  Artists mentioned include Al St. John who was a member of Fatty Arbuckle’s production company and later became a standard comic relief character in dozens of Westerns in the 50's as 'Fuzzy' St. John.  He joined Educational in 1924 and stared in a series of amusing shorts, clips of which are shown.   One clip that was great to see was Clyde Cook’s Misfit.  Thought released through Educational, this short was filmed at Buster Keaton’s studio using Keaton’s gag writers and supporting cast.  It has the same acrobatic and creative stints that fill Keaton’s shorts and has that Keaton feel.  A delightful find.

Charley Chase is profiled in the last episode on this disc.  Chase was a very talented comedian who worked at various times as an actor, a writer, and a director, always with comic results.  Working both at Sennett and Keystone, Chase put his mark on many a film.  This episode showcases several of Chases films, both as director and actor.  It also covers comedian James Parrott, Charlie’s brother.

Finally there is the Slap Happy Movie, a delightful compilation of the best parts of the series.  This 90-minute feature gives a surprisingly comprehensive look at silent one and two reel comedies.  Though not as thorough as the series, of course, the film gives a good overview of the genre, and is a great item to purchase if you aren't sure if you want the entire series.

Overall the Slap Happy Collection is a great set of DVDs.  It is sure to please students of early cinema with the amount of rare footage that is contained, the susicnt information about this era, and the great number of laughs that contained in these shows.

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


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