An uncommon number of rare and significant silent films have made their way to DVD and Blu-ray in recent months…and I want to spread the word about them.
On the documentary front, Milestone has issued a valuable two-disc set called The Champion: A Story of America’s First Film Town. That would be Fort Lee, New Jersey, where filmmaking flourished in the earliest days of motion pictures. The bittersweet story is presented by Marc J. Perez in his 35-minute documentary, with important contributions from such scholars as Richard Koszarski and loyalists like Tom Meyers, who has spent years trying to gain recognition for the city’s cinematic history. The documentary is accompanied by a number of interesting films: three shorts made at the Champion studio from 1910 to 1913, an early documentary short about Fort Lee by Theodore Huff and Mark A. Borgotta, a feature called The Danger Game starring Madge Kennedy, an early Mack Sennett comedy short, and a 31-minute version of Robin Hood released by Éclair America in 1912. Music for these films is provided by Donald Sosin, Rodney Sauer, and Ben Model. What an important contribution to our understanding of early film history. www.milestonefilms.com
John Bunny: Film’s First King of Comedy is another noteworthy documentary about the largely-forgotten man who can rightly claim the title Tony Susnick has given him in his documentary, from . I knew of Bunny but not much about him until I watched this 41-minute film and the four accompanying short subjects in which he stars (all of them preserved by the Library of Congress). Bunny was a rotund man with a bulbous nose who might have sprung from the illustrations in a Charles Dickens novel; indeed, he starred in an adaptation of Dickens’ Pickwick Papers before his untimely death in 1915. One of Susnick’s chief sources is silent-comedy scholar Sam Gill, who not only appears in the documentary (along with Steve Massa) but holds forth for another fascinating half-hour.
Kino Lorber has been issuing a steady stream of first-class silent features, including Variété, or as I knew it from its American version, Variety (1925). This beautiful restoration was undertaken by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung Foundation and the Filmarchiv Austria, making use of material from around the world including The Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art. I hadn’t seen E.A. Dupont’s film since I owned an 8mm print as a kid, but I was enthralled when I saw the new print at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival two years ago. Emil Jannings and Lya de Putti star in this tale of jealousy and revenge in the world of circus and show business. I’m happy to report that the Kino disc includes the magnificent score I heard in San Francisco, composed and performed by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra. What a treat it is to experience the film—with its big emotions—accompanied by a such a rich music track. There is also a 7-minute featurette about the film scoring program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. (You can also try a 2015 score performed by the Tiger Lilies, if you prefer.) This generous Blu-ray includes a second German feature starring Emil Jannings as Othello (1922) with his Variety costar Lya de Putti.
Beggars of Life (1928) is another important silent film that isn’t as well-known as it ought to be, because only a few 16mm prints survived–one in the collection of the late William K. Everson, another acquired by George Eastman House’s curator James Card back in 1950. In recent years his successors decided to try making a 35mm blowup and it turned out surprisingly well. (It, too, was shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.) Louise Brooks, Wallace Beery, and Richard Arlen star in this starkly compelling story of hobo life based on the best-selling novel by famed hobo-author Jim Tully. (For more about Tully, see my 2012 column printed below.) This fascinating slice-of-life features period music performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and it’s well worth seeing—and owning. www.kinolorber.com
Silent-film pianist Ben Model has been busy releasing silent rarities on his Undercrank Productions label. Drawing largely on 35mm prints preserved by the Library of Congress, he has expanded our knowledge of Marion Davies by releasing three of her little-known features: The Bride’s Play (1922) and Beauty’s Worth (1922), which are light, likable vehicles for the appealing actress, and When Knighthood Was in Flower (also 1922), an elaborate costume picture which propelled her to stardom in the role of Mary Tudor. Undercrank’s notes indicate, “For period authenticity, no expense was spared on the production’s costumes, armor and tapestries or on Joseph Urban’s huge, lavish sets. The film is presented here in a brand new restoration, with a new theatre organ score by Ben Model. The film was scanned from an original 35mm nitrate print preserved by the Library of Congress, its color tints have been reinstated and the hand-colored sequence has been digitally replicated. This is the first time the film has been seen as it appeared in the 1920s.”
Undercrank has also released three extremely RARE LON CHANEY TITLES just in time for Halloween. This project was supervised by Chaney scholar (and silent-film accompanist) Jon Mirsalis, who believes, like many others, that a glimpse of Chaney in one of his unique character makeups is always worth seeing, even if his screen time is brief and the surrounding film is nothing special. I happen to agree and had a good time watching the actor play a grizzled backwoodsman, a learned doctor, and other such figures in A Mother’s Atonement (1915), If My Country Should Call (1916), and The Place Beyond the Winds (1916), which all appear on a disc called Before the Thousand Faces. These feature films are incomplete and suffer from nitrate deterioration, but they offer us tantalizing views of Chaney when he was a busy character player. Another fine accompanist, Andrew E. Simpson, provides organ scores for a disc featuring two more obscure silents: Whispering Shadows (1921) , a dramatic love story and The Devil’s Assistant (1917), which features incredible imagery of Hades. www.undercrankproductions.com
It seems as if silent films are flourishing on Blu-ray and DVD, and I for one couldn’t be happier. I would encourage all these distributors (and others) to keep ‘em coming.
HOLLYWOOD’S HOBO IN RESIDENCE – originally published in 2012
Had I not been lucky enough to see William Wellman’s 1928 silent film Beggars of Life years ago, or read the works of Gene Fowler, I might not know about Jim Tully, the scrappy Irish-American who became celebrated for writing about the subject he knew best: the hardscrabble life of an orphan turned boxer turned “road kid.” His most successful book (an autobiography in novel form), Beggars of Life came to the screen with Wallace Beery, Richard Arlen, and Louise Brooks in the leading roles…and ironically, the onetime hobo spent the last twenty years of his life in Hollywood, paying the bills by writing first for Charlie Chaplin, and then for a variety of fan magazines and other publications about the denizens of Tinseltown. (He also wrote one of the earliest Hollywood novels, Jarnegan, inspired by his friend, director James Cruze.)
Now, after twenty years of research, Paul J. Bauer and Mark Dawidziak have completed their empathetic and highly readable biography, Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler (The Kent State University Press), with a foreword by a fellow student of American letters and lore, Ken Burns. Bauer is the proprietor of Archer’s Used and Rare Books in Kent, Ohio (www.ArchersBooks.com) and Dawidziak is the longtime television critic and columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I’m sure their labor of love will spark renewed interest in Tully and come as a revelation to many readers. (I’ve been talking to friends about the book for the past few weeks, and no one I’ve mentioned it to has ever heard of him.)
The great essayist and editor H.L. Mencken wrote, “If Tully were a Russian, read in translation, all the Professors would be hymning him. He has all of Gorky’s capacity for making vivid the miseries of poor and helpless men, and in addition he has a humor that no Russian could conceivably have.” Contemporary author and filmmaker John Sayles says, “Jim Tully stands out in American literature as one of the few realist writers who did not just visit the rougher environs of human experience for material, but was fully of those depths… That Tully wrote at all was a miracle; that he wrote so well is a gift to the world.”
The Hollywood connection is a particularly odd and interesting one; reading this book made me want to look up some of the scores of star and director profiles Tully churned out in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s. His first sponsor in Hollywood was Rupert Hughes, who introduced him to Chaplin; the comedian kept him employed for about a year doing odds and ends, including ghost-writing some magazine stories and sitting in on script meetings for The Gold Rush. The chapter on this experience offers some fresh insights into Chaplin’s m.o. Elsewhere in the biography you’ll find interesting stories involving everyone from John Gilbert to W.C. Fields.
But the best reason to read Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler is to acquaint yourself with a genuine American original, a man of many facets and flaws, but a fascinating character at every turn.