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DVD DISCOVERIES: FLEISCHER, FAIRBANKS, JOSEPHINE BAKER AND MORE

Even as studios and streaming networks try to eliminate “physical media” from the scene, a handful of hardy individuals are making rare and desirable material available on Blu-ray and DVD—some of it for the first time.

 

Our survey begins with the latest release from Steve Stanchfield’s Thunderbean Animation FLEISCHER RARITIES. This wide-ranging collection includes silent educational shorts, advertising cartoons, two installments of a clever series called Inklings, early bouncing-ball singalongs from the silent era, Let’s Sing with Popeye, a two-color musical short I’m inexplicably fond of called Dancing on the Moon, and a pair of Betty Boop shorts. I also enjoy the Screen Song called This Little Piggy Went to Market (1934) with radio crooner Singin’ Sam because the framework is a satire of newsreel theaters and the newsreels they showed in the 1930s. Some of these have turned up in other compilations but the truly rare items and a collection of miscellany (production artwork, a poster gallery, live-action appearances, etc.) more than compensate. Learn more at www.thunderbeananimation.com

 

DOUGLAS FAIRBANKS IN ‘THE HALF BREED’ AND ‘THE GOOD BAD MAN’

These two rare Fairbanks features from the teens have been meticulously restored and show off the star at his best—both literally (he’s practically naked in The Half-Breed) and figuratively (his personality leaps through the screen even after a hundred years). Doug is in the capable hands of director Allan Dwan in both pictures and photographed by the talented Victor Fleming, who would soon launch his own directing career. Amazing Western vistas with action taking place in every corner of the frame are one outstanding aspect of The Good Bad Man, a highly satisfying Western with winsome leading lady Bessie Love. With vivid piano scores by Donald Sosin and commentary tracks by Fairbanks expert Tracey Goessel and restoration guru Robert Byrne, this disc from Kino Lorber gives silent film buffs more than their money’s worth.

 

LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE (1918) is Colleen Moore’s earliest starring movie to survive, and would be of interest if only for that. But there are other reasons to seek out this dramatization of James Whitcomb Riley’s famous poem. For one thing, Riley himself appears on camera, entertaining children with his saga of his plucky heroine. She warns her young charges, “The Gobble-uns’ll git ye—ef you don’t watch out!” This cues a series of scenes that feature impressive make-up and costumes along with primitive visual effects. Students of horror films should be aware of the goblins who materialize throughout this picture. In some cases they are reminiscent of characters and effects introduced by George Méliès years earlier; others offer fresh ideas and execution. The film ends somewhat abruptly, but stands as a kind of time-trip back one century. We applaud the efforts of Eric Grayson, who mounted a Kickstarter campaign to finance this ambitious restoration, utilizing five separate prints (some at the Library of Congress) and recreating the original tints. Bonus features include a commentary and booklet essay by Grayson, readings from Colleen Moore’s biography, and historical performer Glory-June Greiff delivering some of Riley’s poems on a stage where he once stood. This DVD/Blu-ray combo is the kind of grassroots project worth supporting. Incidentally, the famous comic strip created by Harold Gray in 1924 (and the movies and Broadway musical that followed) bears only scant resemblance to the poem that ostensibly inspired it. Available at Amazon.com.

 

THE COMPLETE HAL ROACH THELMA TODD-PATSY KELLY COMEDY COLLECTION from ClassicFlix makes these hard-to-find two-reelers available at last in a two-disc set that boasts excellent picture and sound quality. These  21 shorts followed a similar series Roach produced with Todd and ZaSu Pitts. Both pairings were effective, although the comedy pioneer’s effort to create a female Laurel & Hardy fell far short of his goal. Beautiful Thelma plays a perpetually exasperated straight-woman to the raucous Patsy, who’s forever getting the two of them in trouble. I would not use the word “hilarious” to describe these comedies, as the distributor does, but I enjoy watching them all the same because I like the two stars so much. What’s more, I love to immerse myself in the world of Hal Roach comedies: I hear familiar music, see recognizable faces (Don Barclay, “Tiny” Sandford, Harry Bowen, and Charlie Hall, to name a few) and enjoy the ambience, even if the comedy quotient is uneven, and often strained. Following Thelma Todd’s untimely death in 1935, Roach completed the season with Pert Kelton and Lyda Roberti filling in for her with Patsy Kelly; all three of those shorts are also included here. Hal Roach short-subjects have gotten a bum rap on home video for years; this welcome two-disc set goes a long way to make up for that.

 

THE FRENCH WAY is a genuinely rare feature starring the inimitable Josephine Baker. Filmed in 1940, it wasn’t released in France for five years  and only made its way to the U.S. in 1952, cut by several minutes. It is this 74 minute version that archivist Jeff Joseph recently discovered, and he has done us all a favor by making it available. That’s not to say that The French Way is a major discovery; in fact, its simplistic story is only tolerable because Baker lights up the screen, especially when she sings. She may not be youthful, or sporting a skirt of bananas, but her charm is intact, and all the more captivating because she doesn’t seem to be making an effort. This is the working definition of “charisma.” The French Way is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.com.

 

Flicker Alley has rereleased Harrison Engle’s first-rate documentary THE INDOMITABLE TEDDY ROOSEVELT (1983) on Blu-ray. Engle went back to original source material to create the best images possible for this new edition of his highly-praised film, narrated by George C. Scott. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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