About Silent Movies: Which version should I buy?

It can be one of the most confusing aspects of silent film fandom: You have decided to plunk down some hard-earned coin for a silent movie and you are faced with rows and rows of choices and prices– and all for the same film! Which should you buy? Sure, you can read the reviews one by one but I am going to share a few hints that will make you a smarter shopper.

Popular and famous titles like Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera or Orphans of the Storm may have dozens of releases available but generally they fall into three categories. (I am covering discs for this section and will move on to streaming next.)

High-quality releases
High-quality releases

High-Quality and Official Releases: These releases are the highest quality and often the most expensive. It is the only way to legally obtain films that have not yet entered the public domain. Even if the film is in the public domain, high-quality and official releases often obtain the best possible print for maximum enjoyment. These films are (usually) restored, feature custom scores and other special features. Look for the logo of a major film studio or companies like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Image Entertainment, or Milestone Films.

DVD-R selections.
DVD-R selections.

Public Domain Vendors: These are folks who obtain public domain silent movie prints and release them on DVD-R. The companies are run by fellow fans and while they cannot afford to restore the films, they often release rare titles that the big boys won’t touch. The most famous vendor is probably Grapevine Video, which releases some really rare stuff. Reel Classic DVD is another choice, though I have not dealt with them before. Sunrise Silents and Unknown Video were excellent but are, sadly, out of business.

Note: Warner Archive straddles these two levels. They release films onto DVD-R format with no frills or extras.

Bargain releases are often anything but.
Bargain releases are often anything but.

Bargain Bin Releases: Just what the name indicate. These are cheap discs (usually under $10) of public domain films and the quality is usually atrocious! Battered prints, inappropriate (or absent!) music, everything at the wrong speed… There really is no worse way to see a silent film. Very rarely (even a blind pig gets a truffle) there will be a worthy release but not often. Just remember, you get what you pay for. (These companies love their box sets. If you see a box with famous films and a price that seems a little too low, the quality is probably going to be pretty poor.)

There is one more type of vendor to consider, one that it not worth dealing with.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

Pickup truck with motor running: There are fly-by-night operations that sell duped DVDs, recordings from TCM and other pirated or near-pirated goods. Generally it is a game of whack-a-mole between these sellers and the copyright holders. My philosophy is this: I buy legitimate copies so that I can support the folks unearthing and restoring silent movies. It’s just the right thing to do.

Leaving the Physical World behind…

Now let’s move on to the brave new world of streaming. There are a lot of different services and I won’t cover them all but here is a basic overview:

The big boys: Companies like Amazon and Netflix do offer to stream silent films. These are often a mixed bag of high-quality and bargain bin releases. To make matters worse, more than once the artwork of a high-quality release has been used for a bargain bin release. Disappointed does not begin to cover it.

Quality streaming.
Quality streaming.

The niche streamers: I like these. Companies that specialize in the old, rare and esoteric. Fandor (which I subscribe to and love) has partnered with Flicker Alley and Kino to stream some really gorgeous and rare stuff. Warner Archive Instant is a good concept (TCM on demand!) but as of this writing, they only offer six silent titles. Both services have free trials so I say try ’em both and see. Fandor is my pick for silents.

The freebies: These can be a great way to watch silent films without spending a dime. Plenty of films are in the public domain and are posted for all to enjoy. Archive.org features quite a few silent titles in the public domain for download and streaming. Youtube also has its share of silent films (though I would be careful about linking to them as some have pirated content).

Which version of "Caligari" is the best?
Which version of “Caligari” is the best?

I hope this saves you some headaches and guides you to the best possible viewing experience. Happy watching!

PS, I just realized how much I talk about copyrights and the public domain. I think this calls for an article…

In the Vaults #3: The Blood Ship (1927)

Status: Print, held by the Academy Film Archive, was missing one reel. The missing final reel was located and the complete film has been shown at festivals but has not been made available to the general public. Hint hint.

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It stars Hobart Bosworth, my absolute favorite old sea salt, and Richard Arlen, who provides the hubba-hubba.

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From the descriptions available, it sounds like it has everything a viewer could want in a seafaring adventure: Shanghaied crew, mutiny, ruthless captain…

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Bosworth is out to revenge himself on the nasty captain who framed him for murder and stole his wife and daughter. Arlen, naturally in love with said daughter, is ready to lend support. Sounds like some grade “A” tuppenny blood stuff!

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Reviews were very positive for this nautical yarn.

Motion Picture News was quite enthusiastic:

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A good old nerve-tingling title decorates this picture — the action of which lives up to its colorful moniker. The piece carries a wallop in the play of melodrama on the high seas. Before you are barely ready to say “Captain Kidd” it informs you that the clipper is a hell-ship the master of which has a habit of beating up his crews. As you can see, the story is a blood relative of Jack London’s “Sea Wolf,” though there are many marks of originality about it which sets it apart from the London opus.

The skipper has a “shanghai” complex. When a crew runs out on him after a punishing cruise he and his first mate (who registers an equally hard-boiled disposition) use strong-arm methods and shanghai enough sailors to run the ship. Of course, with such a background it is easy to guess that the motivation will concern a mutiny. It’s red-hot action which is served up here — and no mistake. The players entertain a deal of punishment from the brutal skipper before he is knocked for a row of anchors.

A love note punctuates the action to balance the hard moments — and Richard Arlen and Jacqueline Logan take care of it very romantically. But it is the melodrama which provides the real interest and suspense. Everything happens that could possibly happen during the voyage. So put it down as vigorous entertainment.

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Photoplay liked the film but felt it was too brutal:

A real he-man picture and this is one time we feel the ladies will like to be excused. (Editor’s note: This lady will be staying, thank you very much.) A picture that is well- produced and directed; filled with splendid performances; but its story is one of mutiny, brutality, murder and a girl. Too gruesome for real enjoyment. Hobart Bosworth, Jacqueline Logan and Richard Arlen are in the cast, with Bosworth giving one of the finest performances of the month.

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The New York Times liked what it saw:

Vivid characterizations give vitality to “The Blood Ship,” at the Roxy this week. It’s a story of mutiny, murder and men, with a lone girl among them.

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The original 1922 novel by Norman Springer is in the public domain and may be downloaded from several sources. Until the film is released to the viewing public, that is about as close as we can get to it.

Richard Arlen. Hubba!
Richard Arlen. Hubba!

Lost Film Files #8: Merton of the Movies (1924)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Harry Leon Wilson is not well-remembered today but he was a popular writer in the early 20th century. He wrote zany, breezy comedic novels that often involved a cripplingly eccentric hero who must be rescued by a sensible and maternal young lady. Wilson’s novels are goofy and cute and they make great reading.

The 1919 novel Merton of the Movies is probably Wilson’s best remembered story. It tells the tale of Merton Gill, a movie struck lad who arrives in California determined to be a great actor. With the help of a spunky young comedienne named Flips, he breaks into pictures. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is terrible. So bad, in fact, that he is unwittingly creating comedy gold.

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In 1924, Paramount adapted the novel into a film starring stage actor Glenn Hunter as Merton and Hollywood veteran Viola Dana as Flips.

Here is what Photoplay had to say:

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HARRY LEON WILSON’S superb satire of movieland has reached the screen minus a considerable measure of its tang. James Cruze’s version avoids the biting satire and centers upon the pathos of the dreaming small-town boy who wanted to do better and bigger things on the screen. The adaptation follows Merton Gill from Illinois to Hollywood, traces his tragic collision with the world of celluloid make-believe, and reveals his ultimate success — as a burlesque comic foil for a cross-eyed comedian. In this the screen “Merton of the Movies” is pretty satisfying. But you will miss the pointed satire of filmdom. You will resent, too, the making of Flips Monlague into a soubrette, although Viola Dana has a good moment or two. We would rather have had Charlie Ray as Merton than Glenn Hunter.

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The New York Times was considerably more enthusiastic, naming Merton as one of the top ten films of 1924, along with such titles as The Sea Hawk, The Thief of Bagdad, He Who Gets Slapped and Beau Brummel.

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The book was adapted as a pre-Code comedy in 1932 and again in 1947 as a Red Skelton picture. The Marion Davis vehicle Show People also owes a lot to Merton, albeit with reversed genders.

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Now seems to be the time to ask everyone for the requisite attic checking. This film looks like a ton of fun.

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Lost Film Files #5: The Great Gatsby (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost except for the fragments found in the film’s trailer.

This is the very first film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, filmed a mere four years after it was written. No need to make this a costume picture. The twenties were roaring away as the cameras cranked.

1926 was a banner year for silent film and The Great Gatsby, while praised, seems to have been a bit lost in the shuffle of Beau Geste, Old Ironside, What Price Glory, Night of Love, Flesh and the Devil… 

Here are some vintage reviews:

Photoplay particularly praised Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the great war’s aftermath presented unusual film difficulties. Herbert Brenon, the director, has managed to retain much of the feeling of the story. Gatsby comes out of the war to achieve a fortune unscrupulously. He falls, of course, in the end, finding that happiness can’t be won that way. Lois Wilson runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems.

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The distributor magazine Motion Picture News had this to say:

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Every good job has been done by this picture — an adaptation of the novel and play. It offered material which necessitated the intelligent handling of characterization so as to keep its spirit intact. In other winds, it depended upon the director emphasizing the central figure as he was emphasized in the novel and play to approach a “nearly perfect gentleman.” This Herbert Brenon has done and so well has Warner Baxter responded that his performance is quite the best of his career and one of the best of the season.

A tragic figure is Gatsby, a product of the gutter who comes up in the world and tries to assume the culture which only goes with long-established generations of ancestry. The manner in which Brenon works is in showing the mute pride and helplessness of the man in attempting to “belong.” Of course, Baxter has his work cut out for him, too.

It’s a sophisticated story, told with first-rate lights and shadows. The spirit of the original is there with plenty to spare. It has its dramatic moments, its romantic scenes, its contrasts and conflicts. And it is splendidly acted by every member of the cast, including Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Hale Hamilton, and Georgia Hale.

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You read that cast right. William Powell, Lois Wilson, Georgia Hale…

The New York Times felt that something was missing from the final product:

The screen version of “The Great Gatsby” is quite a good entertainment, but at the same time it is obvious that it would have benefited by more imaginative direction. Although Mr. Brenon has included the tragic note at the end, he has succumbed to a number of ordinary movie flashes without inculcating much in the way of subtlety. Neither he nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters.

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Zelda Fitzgerald was even less happy with the film (she and her husband walked out):

“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

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Unfortunately, we will never be able to judge for ourselves. The Great Gatsby is one of the more sought-after lost films of the silent era. It is a shame that it is gone since it would have provided a unique perspective on the novel, as played by the men and women who made up that Lost Generation.

Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks

Note: This article covers the origins of the trope, how it erroneously became associated with silent films and why the myth persists. For more details on the actors involved, the Snidely Whiplash connection and examples of this trope subverted, check out my follow up article. You can also check out real footage and vintage images in my video response.

Continue reading “Silent Movie Myth: Tied to the Railroad Tracks”