Specialty distributors haven’t given up on DVDs and Blu-rays. In fact, they seem to be busier than ever releasing rare films and archival oddities, faster than I can possibly review them. Here is a sampling of some goodies I’ve enjoyed recently.
As you probably know, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s career ground to a halt once he became the center of a headline-making scandal in 1921. This left half-a-dozen feature films on the shelf, most of which are considered lost. Fortunately, his first feature, The Round Up (1920) exists in a stunning 35mm print at the Library of Congress. Cinemuseum has just released a beautiful dual-disc set on DVD and Blu-ray with a first-rate piano score by Donald Sosin. The irony is that The Round Up was not only Arbuckle’s first starring feature: it was also his first major dramatic role. If you’re looking for typical roughhouse slapstick, you’ll have to look elsewhere. The star plays Sheriff Slim Hoover, who gets involved in the social misadventures in his community. Arbuckle treats his part with a light touch that suits him well. If your eyes are razor-sharp you may spy Roscoe’s pal Buster Keaton in a bit part as an Apache. It’s much easier to identify two future comedy directors in major roles: A. Edward Sutherland and Lloyd Bacon. (If you want a guide to all of this, you can listen to Richard M.. Roberts’ commentary track.) The Round Up was based on a play by Edmund Day and was directed by the prolific George Melford, who one year later made Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik. Accompanying the feature are restorations of two early Arbuckle shorts from 1913, A Bandit and Peeping Pete, with organ scores by Dennis Scott. There are also generous galleries of posters, photos, original pressbook materials, and a full-color booklet that reproduces some of this appealing artwork. I look forward to more such rarities from Cinemuseum.
Richard Barthelmess is the hero of the 1931 crime picture The Finger Points, released by Warner Archive…but it’s the presence of a young Clark Gable as a gangster that makes it worth a look. Fay Wray plays a reporter on the big-city newspaper that Barthelmess joins after making his reputation in Savannah, Georgia. Regis Toomey is a lighthearted newshound who pines over Wray, to no avail. The movie has interesting credentials: it was written by former journalist W.R. Burnett (whose Little Caesar kicked off the gangster cycle at Warner Brothers a year before) along with John Monk Saunders (who was then married to Wray) and Robert Lord. The best assessment I know is by William K. Everson, who screened The Finger Points at the New School in Manhattan in 1976. He wrote, “Based on the murder of reporter Jack Lingle, The Finger Points would probably have little reason for revival were it not for the self-assured performance of Gable. It’s no worse than many crime pictures of the period: talkative, devoid of physical action, their lack of pep underlined by the lack of a musical score and the acceptance of fluffed lines; but it is below the standards of most of the crime films of the period (The Public Enemy, Beast of the City)… It’s an interesting film to see, but not necessary one to remember, though it has quite a strong plot, an interesting cast and some traditional clichés of the period; when one sees the hero (or anti-hero) being measured for a suit for example, it’s a sure sign that he’s beyond redemption. John Francis Dillon, the director, did his best work in the very early 20s, concentrating on rather stagey material in the early days of sound, though his Clara Bow talkie, Call Her Savage, had a lot of verve.” An unusual and resonant note is struck when Barthelmess is beaten up by hoods and winds up in the hospital. When he returns to work he is confronted by bills he can’t afford to pay: X-ray photographs $50, Anesthetic $15, and a doctor’s Professional services $200. Imagine!
ClassicFlix continues to produce outstanding “special editions” of vintage films like Anthony Mann’s superior film noir Raw Deal. Their deluxe releases aspire to be as thorough as those of the Criterion Collection, and they are doing a great job. Because the film was directed by Anthony Mann as part of his fruitful collaboration with cinematographer John Alton, the quality of the print is crucially important. ClassicFlix boasts, “This restoration was sourced from a 35mm nitrate fine grain element we acquired from the British Film Institute. After performing a 2K resolution transfer, millions of instances of dirt and scratches were removed, along with density flicker, jitter and warps. After over 400 hours of digital video and audio restoration, ClassicFlix is proud to present this gripping and visually stunning film noir for your enjoyment.” The disc lives up to this claim in every way, and there are many enlightening extras: a discussion by noir experts Alan K. Rode (who produced the bonus material), Julie Kirgo and Courtney Joyner, a restoration demonstration, a featurette on underrated star Dennis O’Keefe featuring his son, and an informative commentary track by Jeremy Arnold. Max Alvarez contributes an excellent essay about the film in a nicely illustrated 24-page booklet. With two leading ladies (Claire Trevor and Marsha Hunt), a despicable villain (Raymond Burr), and a taut screenplay by Leopold Atlas and John C. Higgins (who cut his teeth on the MGM Crime Does Not Pay short subjects), Raw Deal is worthy of this elaborate presentation and is a pleasure to watch. (P.S. it’s only 79 minutes long.)
It’s the Old Army Game and Running Wild are two of W.C. Fields’ funniest silent features. Kino Lorber has accessed the Library of Congress’ beautifully preserved 35mm negatives and they look great. Both films were rarities when I was growing up. I was such a fan of Fields’ talkies that I couldn’t picture him without that distinctive voice and dialogue delivery. It turns out that he was a very expressive pantomime artist and these trim silent features are proof of his skill. It’s the Old Army Game draws on some of the Great Man’s tried-and-true stage material, like the sleeping-porch sequence he elaborated on in the 1934 remake It’s a Gift. Running Wild codifies his henpecked husband persona, and might be subtitled The Worm Turns. It was written and directed Fields’ friend, former cartoonist Gregory LaCava, and it is clearly the work of someone thoroughly at home with the mechanics of silent comedy. The added attraction in It’s the Old Army Game is the presence of winsome Louise Brooks as Fields’ daughter; she was then married to the movie’s director, A. Edward Sutherland. Both pictures have commentary tracks by James L. Neibaur, author of The W.C. Fields Films, with Donald Sosin providing music for Running Wild and Ben Model for It’s the Old Army Game. I never dreamt I’d live to see desirable silent films like this presented so well on DVD or Blu-ray. Thanks, as always, to Kino Lorber for coming through as always do.