Film Review: Early Universal Volume 1

Reviewer: Mark Clegg

Directors: William Wyler, William Seiter, Emory Johnson

It’s been nearly a century since Al Jolson stated that “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” and introduced synchronised sound to mainstream cinema in The Jazz Singer. Countless other cinematic innovations have followed including colour, widescreen formats, 3D and computer imagery, but sound added to the moving pictures remains the most important. Prior to this innovation, countless silent movies and shorts were made, and yet apart from the works of certain comic actors (Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Keaton & Lloyd) and the odd iconic image from early horror and fantasy films (The Metropolis robot, the creeping shadow in Nosferatu or the unmasking of The Phantom of the Opera) very little has survived into modern popular culture. Eureka Video and Universal Pictures attempt to redress the balance somewhat with this handsome package of three obscure but worthy silent movies that sit mainly within the genre of drama, but with a healthy dose of comedy in each.

The Shakedown (1929)is an early work by prolific director William Wyler whose career would reach into the 1960s, with three Oscars and a plethora of classic movies on his resume including Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, Mrs Miniver, Funny Girl and Wuthering Heights. The story, like the other two in this set, is quite simple and takes the form of a pretty standard “conman gets his foot caught in the door by the love of a woman in a small town” sub-genre. However Wyler’s direction stands out throughout with some really interesting shots that could not have been easy to pull off with the technology at the time including a downward angle above an ascending and descending pulley attached to the side of an oil platform, and a sequence involving two trains. The main draws here are the performances and the emotion that Wyler manages to ring out of such a rote situation and all done (save the occasional title card) in pantomime. While his performance is rarely subtle, James Murray brings real pathos to his conflicted trickster who must choose between throwing a boxing match or the love of his girl and the respect of a plucky orphan boy who has latched on to him. Barbara Kent is the love interest with little to do but look either worried or adoringly at her man, but the real standout is Jack Hanlon as the hilariously scrappy orphan Clem, and his face-pulling battles with Harry Gribbon’s shady promoter.

Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) is broader than The Shakedown and would probably be best described as a light comedy. Downtrodden clerk Skinner (Reginald Denny) pretends to his wife (Laura La Plante) that he has been given a big raise in order to avoid disappointing her. Predictably this triggers a spending spree by his wife starting with the titular garment, and Skinner finds himself getting buried in debt as he tries to hobnob with the local high society. There are some fun sequences here particularly when the central couple introduce a new dance to a swanky party, but this is otherwise unremarkable. An interesting presence here is infamous gossip columnist and driving force behind the Hollywood blacklisting of suspected Communists Hedda Hopper playing a supporting role.

The third and probably quaintest is The Shield of Honor (1927) which begins with a chest-thumping dedication to the Policemen of America and then spends its entire runtime showing the audience what a great bunch of chaps they all are. Starting with a police parade, it hilariously almost comes across as a propaganda film, before settling into a tale of father and son cops who are respectively being forced into retirement and being made LAPD’s first flying policeman! There are shenanigans with a gang of jewellery thieves, and the presence of many of the staples of early cinema: a supportive wife/mother, a doe-eyed ingénue, a cheeky younger brother comedy relief, a jolly and trusting businessman with a clearly villainous second-in-command, a burning building, and of course a faithful dog. The plot offers no surprises, although it is easy to be unfairly cynical nearly a century’s worth of cinematic storytelling later, but the film includes some good shots of biplanes flying (both real and pretty good models). This particular film differs from the other two with the use of colour filters: sepia most of the time but with blue denoting darkness, and red when the flames enter the narrative near the end.

Even though all three movies have the inevitable minor lines, scratches and the odd section of missing frames, the 4k restoration does a good job at polishing them up (although The Shield of Honor is only in 2k). The scores are also well presented, particularly The Shield of Honor’s which is fully orchestrated (the other two are both accompanied by string combos) and add enormously to both the narrative and the vintage quality of each movie. This set is limited to 2000 copies, includes a booklet and each film is accompanied by a commentary by a different film historian or writer (not available for review).

None of these films offer anything that will rocket them to the status of ‘lost gem’ but as curios from a long distant time and as examples of early innovation they have a lot to offer.

Early Universal Volume 1 is Released on Blu-Ray on 13 September

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