News Column

DVD collection of salvaged silent films includes some gems

October 17, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 17--New technologies can add untold possibilities to an art form, but, conversely, the lack of technology also can have value. Had the development of sound technology taken place in tandem with that of the motion picture, for example, we wouldn't have the wonders of the silent cinema.

On the other hand, thanks in part to today's film preservation technology, silent films once thought lost or irreparably damaged are living on. That and the spirit of cooperation between national film archives are responsible for conjuring seemingly out of nowhere this marvelous medley of rare and lost-no-longer films.

"Lost and Found: American Treasures From the New Zealand Film Archive," released by the National Film Preservation Foundation and salvaged through the work of several archives from nitrate prints in the New Zealand archive, packs onto one disc 3 1/4 hours of silent films of many types: features, short subjects, documentaries, cartoons, newsreels and serials, mainly from the 1920s. In short, imagine yourself back in one of the nickelodeons of yore.

The major finds include previously lost works by John Ford, Mabel Normand and Alfred Hitchcock.

Ford's 1927 "Upstream" is for me the highlight of the set. What a great concept: a comedy set in a theatrical boardinghouse peopled by between-gigs thespians. Ford's genius for animating and vividly individualizing entire ensembles of actors is already in full bloom in this richly observant gem, which also constitutes a warm tribute to the acting profession at a time when vaudeville was being eclipsed by the medium at hand. The main story is a disposable, barely fleshed-out romantic triangle, but not for the first time Ford is an alchemist, turning dross into gold.

Hardworking Hitchcock took on a variety of jobs, including screenwriter, editor and production designer, in "The White Shadow" (1924). He was everything but director, a role filled by Graham Cutts.

But this rich and strange film, casting Betty Compson as twins who both have designs on Clive Brook, is a tantalizing glimpse at Hitchcock at the very beginning of his film career, even though there's very little "Hitchcockian" about it, and only the first half exists; a postscript fills in the blanks.

As for Normand, those who admire her beauty, energy and comedic gift as an actress may be surprised to find that she was also one of the first women directors. "Won in a Cupboard," a Keystone comedy from 1914, is a maelstrom of slapstick, yet features some surprisingly felicitous technical feats, including split-screen tracking shots of Mabel and her boyfriend that merge into a single shot as they meet and embrace.

Also included are a 1923 Terrytoons cartoon from the early animator Paul Terry; a short film, "The Love Charm," shot in two-color Technicolor by Oscar-winner Ray Rennahan, who would earn two Oscars for his work with the process, including one for "Gone With the Wind"; the whirlwind comedy "Andy's Stump Speech" (1924), a wacky, adept translation of the venerable comic strip "The Gumps" into the film medium by the prolific director Norman Taurog; an episode from the 1914 Edison serial "The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies," centering on a plucky newspaper reporter who not only gets the story but solves the crime; and several other delights.

Keep in mind that a majority of the films produced in the silent era remain lost, so finds of this caliber not only offer entertainment and artistry, but also the hope that more are out there, and that film archives around the world are tracking them down.

Contact Tony Lucia: 610-371-5046 or tlucia@readingeagle.com. And visit his blog, "Tony Lucia's Movie House," at http://blogcenter.readingeagle.com/tony-lucias-movie-house/.

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(c)2013 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.)

Visit the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) at readingeagle.com

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