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not all great DVDs are in 5.1

Silent DVD Archive

Treasures III, A Cottage on Dartmoor, and Valentino
A column on the world of early cinema by DVDTalk reviewer John Sinnott

After a quiet start to the year, the end of 2007 is becoming filled with great silent film releases.  In this column I have reviews of Anthony Asquith's excellent thriller, A Cottage on Dartmoor, a quartet of Valentino films, and a pair of documentaries on early experiments with color and sound.  The highlight of this column is the third release from the National Film Preservation Foundation, Treasures III:  Social Issues in American Film.  If you enjoyed their first two releases you'll be happy to know that this one is just as good.

With so much new product coming out, I'll have another column up next week.  That will include reviews of The Jazz Singer, the movie that spelled the doom of silent cinema, and First Kings of Comedy Collection.  The latter includes two of Robert Youngson's silent film compilations The Golden Age of Comedy and When Comedy Was King.  It's been years since I've seen these and I'm interested to see how well they stand up, now that silent comedies are readily available to the home market.  With a little luck I'll have a review of Hunchback of Notre Dame Ultimate Edition too.

There are a few other discs that are being released over the next few months.  Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin is coming out at the end of this month in a two-disc set from Kino.  On November 20th, Kino will also release a two-disc edition of the horror classic Nosferatu.  (Too bad they couldn't have released that in time for Halloween.)  The biggest news is the giant John Ford set, Ford at Fox which is coming out on December 4th.  This mammoth 21-disc set will include five of Ford's silent films:  Just Pals, Four Sons, The Iron Horse, Hangman's House, and Bad Men.  For those who baulk at the $300 retail price that this set carries, Fox was nice enough to release just the silent films together under the banner John Ford's Silent Epics.  It has a MSRP of $50. (Thanks to Damifino for giving me the heads up on the Fox sets!)

This week's reviews:
(click on the title to read the full review)

A Cottage on Dartmoor

Directed by Anthony Asquith (who would later direct the hilarious The Importance of Being Earnest), A Cottage on Dartmoor is a suspenseful film that is an early forerunner of film noir, a proto-film noir if you will.  It has much of the dark atmosphere and tension that noir films are known for.  As Eddie Muller from the Film Noir Foundation commented in his introductory to this film at the 2007 SF Silent Film Festival, it would probably be a much better know film if the title wasn't so bland.  If it had only been named "Straight Razor to the Throat" people would have spent more effort seeking it out.

The plot, told through a flashback, involves a barber's assistant, Joe (Uno Henning), who is in love with the manicurist where he works, Sally (Norah Baring.)  Sally isn't really that interested in Joe however so she kindly resists his gentle advances.  Harry (Hans Adalbert Schlettow), a farmer from Dartmoor, has also noticed Sally and he starts getting his nails done just so he can spend some time with the attractive girl and Joe gets jealous.  He follows them out to the movies, and when Sally comes into work one day sporting an engagement ring, the barber gets so enraged that he's about to burst.  Unfortunately Harry walks in at that moment and asks Joe for a shave.  In one of the more suspenseful scenes in silent movies, Joe places a straight razor against his rival's throat...

This movie has a lot of the trademarks that would later be identified in noir films.  There is a lot of sexual tension, a love triangle, and dark, stylized lighting especially at the beginning and end of the movie.  Most of the story, as already noted, is told through a flashback.  It's also very gripping and one of the most suspenseful silent films that I've seen.  If this was made in the 40's, there's no doubt that it would be known as an excellent noir.

Asquith crafts a wonderful film.  He uses shadows and lighting very effectively to create a mood and the shots he sets up and often beautiful.  He also has some very nice edits that help move the film along while creating some interesting images and comparisons.  In one such scene an escaped convict has been seen running across the countryside and finds a pond of water.  He stops and kneels down, drinking the water from his cupped hands.  The camera focuses on the small waves in the pond, and then pulls back to revel the wavy water from a bathtub that a baby has just been pulled from.

The acting is very good also.  Filmed at the end of the silent era, Henning and Baring are both restrained in their roles but really bring their characters to life.  Especially Henning who has expressive eyes that reveal exactly what he is thinking.

Treasures III

The National Film Preservation Foundation has put together another excellent set of movies from American film archives.  This third set, Treasures III:  Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934 features 48 movies that deal with life in America.  It's a great set filled with many rarities, from the first gangster movie and King Vidor's earliest surviving film to Paramount's and Cecil B. DeMille's last silent pictures.  There are movies directed by D. W. Griffith, William Desmond Taylor, and Lois Weber as well as pictures featuring Mary Pickford and Richard Dix.  There are newsreels, cartoons, features, and shorts, all of which deal in some way with some of the social problems in America at the time.  From the women's suffragette movement to the plight of orphans and the problems of loan sharks in big cities, these films offer a look back into the past when America was a very different place.

Anyone who is interested in early film or American history should run out and buy this set.  Like the two previous collections, this group of 48 movies is a must have.  Highly Recommended.

Valentino:  Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film

Even 80 years after his death, Rudolph Valentino is still a household name, a person that symbolizes sex appeal and animal magnetism.  When many of his contemporaries have been long forgotten, Valentino still endures.  The fact that he only made a handful of films before his untimely death only adds to his mystique.  Flicker Films has put together a very impressive collection of the star's work and released it on DVD.  Valentino:  Rediscovering an Icon of Silent Film is a two disc set the presents four films:  The Young Rajah (1922), Stolen Moments (1920/ reedited in 1922), A Society Sensation (1918/ reedited in 1924), and Moran of the Lady Letty (1922). The first two of were were previously considered lost, and though one is a heavily edited version released after Valentino hit it big and the other is a reconstruction using stills in place of the missing footage, they're still worth watching.  In addition to these rare films there is an incredible amount of bonus material including stills, songs about Valentino, and several shorts.

Discovering Cinema

These two hour-long documentaries made by Lobster Films in 2004 are sure to be of interest to silent film fans.  The first presentation, Learning to Talk, examines the myriad of methods that were attempted to achieve synchronized sound, some of them rather bizzare.  Movies Dream in Color looks at the difficult paths that were explored while attempting to create realistic color movies.  These are two excellent shows, but what's more impressive are the copious bonus features that are included on each disc.  They include many examples of the various technologies discussed and are a real treat to see.  One of the highlights is the complete short La Cucaracha, the first commercially released live action movie shot with three-color Technicolor.  There's also an early Technicolor test that includes color footage of the Marx Brothers on the set of Animal Crackers.  On the sound disc there's a trailer for The Jazz Singer, a ten minute interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, as well as an early sound short that's a favorite among early film buffs; Guy Visser and his Singing Duck.

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


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