Film History On A Platter—DVD reviews

If you believe major studio spokespeople, the DVD business is dying, to be replaced by downloading and cloud storage of films and TV shows. But the business-related news stories that repeatedly state these facts don’t take account of smaller companies like Criterion, Flicker Alley, and Kino that cater to film buffs and still provide a valuable product that can’t be replicated online.

The recent Criterion release of People on Sunday (1929) is a perfect example. This legendary German silent film was made on a shoestring by a collective that included such future directors of note as Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder, and Fred Zinnemann, as well as cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan. It is a beguiling (and utterly disarming) film about four acquaintances who escape from the city to enjoy a—

—day’s outing in the country. By using amateurs for its leading players, and interspersing staged scenes with casual footage of life in and around the city, the filmmakers create a snapshot of life in and around Berlin just before the Depression, and the rise of the Nazi party, changed everything.

Criterion has made a high-definition transfer of a print restored in conjunction with the EYE Film Institute Netherlands. One can choose from two musical scores, a modern version by Elan Kals-Chernin, played by the Czech Film Orchestra, and a period-style score prepared by Rodney Sauer from silent-film cue sheets and popular songs of the period, performed by his Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

There is a documentary made in 2000 by Gerald Koll in which one of the “stars,” Brigitte Borchert, and Robert Siodmak’s brother, screenwriter Curt, are interviewed. And, as a special treat, Criterion has included a rare 1931 short-subject called Ins blaue Hinein, running 36 minutes and directed by Schüfftan, which recaptures the spirit and milieu of People on Sunday quite nicely.

Film scholar Noah Isenberg provides a clear-eyed look at the making of the film—about which its participants disagreed over the years—and its significance. Two newspaper articles written by Billy (then Billie) Wilder at the time of the film’s release and a reminiscence by Siodmak years later complete the booklet, which is filled with evocative photographs from the movie.

Criterion has also issued a definitive release of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 heist thriller The Killing with a similar array of extras, including a new interview with its producer, James B. Harris, and from a French television archive, two fascinating conversations with its star, Sterling Hayden. There are other goodies, an informative booklet, and as the ultimate extra another entire feature film: Kubrick’s lesser-known 1955 release Killer’s Kiss.

As a sequel to its three-disc release Saved from the Flames, Flicker Alley has issued Wild & Weird, an enjoyable collection of odd and unusual shorts, mostly from the silent era, accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra. Selections include Edwin S. Porter’s Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, the incredible early trick-film The Red Spectre, The Thieving Hand, Princess Nicotine, the unforgettably absurd French comedy Artheme Swallows His Clarinet, Ladislas Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge, Winsor McCay’s The Pet, and the famous avant-garde short The Life and Death of 9413, A Hollywood Extra, made by Robert Florey, Slavko Vorkapich, and Gregg Toland, among others. Longtime film buffs will know most of these already, but the print quality is exceptional and the Alloy accompaniment unique.

I haven’t had time to fully explore Kino’s new release Buster Keaton: The Short Film Collection, which is available on Blu-ray and standard DVD, but just on the face of it this is an exciting release, gathering all of Keaton’s solo starring two-reelers of the 1920s, some in newly-found, improved prints, all retransferred in high definition. The set offers visual essays by a number of Keaton experts, a number of brief alternate or deleted shots from The Goat, The Blacksmith, and The Balloonatic, four featurettes spotlighting Keaton locations by that master sleuth John Bengtson, and much more, including two rare silent shorts, Carter DeHaven’s Character Studies, which features cameos by his comedy-star friends, and Seeing Stars, a behind-the-scenes release from 1922 with footage of Chaplin and Keaton, among others.

While I’m at it, I was remiss in not reviewing Criterion’s release of The Great Dictator, which has too many extras to enumerate, among them Kevin Brownlow’s terrific documentary The Tramp and the Dictator, a barbershop scene Charlie shot but deleted from Sunnyside in 1919 and a not-dissimilar one performed by his half-brother Syd in the 1921 film King, Queen, Joker. The accompanying booklet includes wonderful artwork by Al Hirschfeld and Chaplin’s rebuttal to the film’s critics, originally published in The New York Times. I was especially impressed by Cecilia Cenciarelli’s visual essay about Chaplin’s longtime fascination with Napoleon Bonaparte and how, in an indirect way, it led to him making The Great Dictator. And although Brownlow makes use of the material in his documentary, it’s fascinating to watch Syd Chaplin’s vivid color home-movie footage of that film in production, uncut and uninterrupted.

This is film scholarship at its finest, offering fans and students an opportunity to better appreciate the work of great performers, writers and directors. And since the majors studios have largely abdicated their role in documenting movie history (which they did quite well during the heyday of the DVD) we are all the more indebted to the individuals and entrepreneurs at Criterion, Flicker Alley and Kino who are staying the course.

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June 2024