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RARE SILENT FILMS ON BLU-RAY AND DVD

First, I want to spread the word that the good folks at Film Preservation Society (www.filmpreservationsociety.org) are offering a Blu-ray copy of the 1925 Richard Dix comedy Too Many Kisses, which features the screen debut of Harpo Marx. The entertaining feature stars Dix, Frances Howard (later Mrs. Samuel Goldwyn), William Powell, and Harpo in a brief but memorable appearance. An original piano score has been provided by Harpo’s son Bill Marx, a Juilliard graduate who’s been a professional musician his entire life. Proceeds benefit the FPS, which has undertaken a massive project to restore all of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph shorts from the best available materials. You’ll see a sample (A Child’s Impulse, starring Mary Pickford) on the Blu-ray, along with The House That Shadows Built, a 1931 Paramount promotional film that features the Four Marx Brothers in a stage skit they later adapted for a scene in Monkey Business. You can pre-order the FPS Blu-ray right now and see a trailer from Too Many Kisses on their website. The rarely seen Paramount feature will make its public debut on TCM November 29.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Kino Lorber releasing a string of rare silent features made by Universal Pictures—especially considering that decades ago the studio burned all its silent negatives! In his exhaustive study of surviving silent films, David Pierce of the Library of Congress found documentation that in 1949 a studio executive confirmed that the company had no—repeat, no—silent shorts or features in its vaults. Really? Not even Foolish Wives or The Phantom of the Opera? Nope. They burned the entire inventory, claiming that “all of our silent negatives had deteriorated to such an extent that it became dangerous to keep them in our vaults.” [You can read David’s fascinating report in its entirety here: https://www.clir.org/pubs/reports/pub158/  ] If you’re wondering about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the negative and rights were sold to Carl Laemmle, Jr. when he was briefly attached to MGM in the 1930s.

In recent years Universal has been much smarter, piloting an ambitious restoration and preservation campaign for its own homegrown product as well as the Paramount Pictures library (1929-49) it owns. But in order to release John Ford’s Straight Shooting, William Wyler’s The Shakedown, the first adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and a trio of breezy comedy vehicles starring Reginald Denny on video, the company has turned to the Library of Congress and European archives for source material. Thank goodness for archives…and collectors. The Shakedown only exists because someone brought a 16mm “Show-at-Home” print to the Syracuse Cinefest some years ago and Paolo Cherchi Usai arranged to borrow it so the George Eastman Museum could make a 35mm blow-up.

The unqualified gem of the lot is Straight Shooting (1917), starring Harry Carey and Hoot Gibson. Given that most of his other silents are considered lost, it’s miraculous that John Ford’s first feature film should survive, and in such great condition. A complete 35mm print turned up in the Czech film archive, of all places. It also happens to be a first-rate Western that reveals, in nascent form, some of the thematic and visual ideas that Ford (billed here as Jack) would expand on and develop for the rest of his career. There could be no better guide to this turf than Joseph McBride, author of Searching for John Ford, who offers an insightful commentary. His counterpart, Tag Gallagher, contributes one of his distinctive video essays. The music score by Michael Gatt utilizes piano and guitar for a pleasing change of pace. And for good measure, there is an excerpt from a surviving fragment of Ford’s 1920 feature Hitchin’ Posts, provided by the Library of Congress.

McBride and Gallagher return on the Kino Lorber release of another early Ford Western starring Harry Carey, Hell Bent (1918), with music by Zachary Marsh. You can also hear a 1970 audio conversation between McBride and Ford. The only criticism I have of this early Western is that it’s not as good—or as emblematic—as Straight Shooting.

Another towering figure of Hollywood’s golden age was director William Wyler, who got his start thanks to Universal founder Carl Laemmle’s famous penchant for hiring relatives. Wyler was a cousin who worked his way up the ladder at Universal and earned his stripes as a director. By the time of The Shakedown (1928), in the final days of the silent era, he was a young veteran, full of youthful enthusiasm and ideas. He uses point-of-view camera positions, not just to show off but to add vitality to a formulaic story. James Murray (the ill-fated star of The Crowd) and Barbara Kent star in this slickly made yarn about a guy who works a “long con,” getting local yokels to believe that he’s an amateur pugilist when in fact he’s part of a gang that fleeces suckers out of their hard-earned cash. Wyler gets good performances from his actors and stages the key scenes for all they’re worth. Nick Pinkerton adds a commentary track and Nora Fiore an essay in an accompanying booklet. Unseen for more than half a century, The Shakedown is no classic but it’s entertaining and a mark on the plus side for young Wyler, who appears in an amusing cameo holding a ring card at the climactic prizefight. (Universal had Wyler shoot a sound sequence so they could advertise the film as a “part-talkie” but—perhaps fortunately—that reel no longer survives.)

It’s not a typo: Universal produced a feature-length version of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in 1916, and the new DVD/Blu-ray release is a 4K transfer of the surviving material. Luckily for us, silent film historian Anthony Slide delivers a highly informative commentary track that tracks the careers of underwater-photography specialists Ernest and George Williamson. Indeed, it is their work that makes this release so intriguing, not the hackneyed mishmash of Verne’s famous story and The Mysterious Island. Alan Holubar, then a prominent actor about to turn director, and Jane Gail star. The music score is credited to Orlando Perez Rosso.

Reginald Denny isn’t much remembered today but Kevin Brownlow’s vital book The Parade’s Gone By pays him proper tribute. He was an expert farceur who starred in a series of breezy comedies for Universal in the 1920s, three of which have been restoredThe Reckless Age (1924), Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926), costarring the lovely Laura La Plante, and What Happened to Jones? (1926). All of them are enjoyable, all the more so with Anthony Slide’s witty commentary tracks and music by Jake Monaco, Leo Birenberg, and Anthony Willis. Denny might have gone on making these neatly plotted comedy-of-error vehicles playing the all-American male but talkies instantly revealed that he was British.

Finally, the actor most closely associated with Universal Pictures of the 1920s, in retrospect, is Lon Chaney, who starred as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Erik the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera. Before he ascended to that level of stardom he was a hard-working character actor who first teamed up with director Tod Browning for The Penalty (1920), followed by Outside the Law (1920). Although he plays two parts (a tough underworld character and a Chinese man who barely figures in the plot) Chaney is not the focus of attention here: this is a crime story featuring Universal star Priscilla Dean and Wheeler Oakman. Chaney completists will want to see it, of course, especially as the Kino Lorber release has been restored and includes two versions of the climax. The 4K restoration was conducted by Universal from a 35mm safety dupe negative preserved by the Library of Congress. I found it unremarkable except for its place in the careers of Chaney and Browning, who reunited more profitably at MGM in the mid-1920s. Anthony Slide can be heard on the commentary track, with music by Anton Sanko. Incidentally, Universal reissued Outside the Law in 1926 and gave Chaney top billing.

Kino has also announced a brand-new Tod Browning/Priscilla Dean double-feature: Drifting, which costars Wallace Beery and Anna May Wong, and White Tigerwith Beery, Matt Moore, and Raymond Griffith, both from 1923. Drifting is presented in a 4K restoration of a digital copy of a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum, reconstructed in collaboration with Gosfilmofond of Russia, Hungarian National Digital Archive and Film Institute. Drifting includes an audio commentary by film historian Anthony Slide and music by Philip Carli. White Tiger includes audio commentary by film historian Bret Wood and music by Andrew Earle Simpson. Also included is a fragment of the “lost” Tod Browning/Priscilla Dean film The Exquisite Thief.

I shouldn’t fail to mention two other important films by Paul Leni that were digitally restored by Universal and released by Flicker Alley: The Last Warning and The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt. They too are worth checking out at www.flickeralley.com.

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