It’s a depressing fact that a great many of the films produced during the silent era have been lost. Not only have masters and prints been destroyed, gone missing or disintegrated over time, but critics and distributors tend to keep most of their focus on big-name directors and stars from the era, such as Lang, Murnau, Chaplin and Keaton. As such, there’s a huge chunk of cinematic history that is either gone forever or is at least hard to come by for anyone without access to studio vaults or historical archives.
Hoping to remedy the latter, comes Eureka. They’ve always been one of the relatively few UK labels that have continued to release silent films on Blu-ray but, like the others, they do largely stick to the cast-iron classics. For this and another set to follow in October, however, Eureka are collecting a trio of lesser-known silent films (one admittedly by a big-name) from the vaults at Universal and releasing them in a Blu-ray set entitled Early Universal Vol. 1 under their illustrious Masters of Cinema banner.
Being a fan of the label’s silent output, I took a look at the set and my review follows. I’m covering the films in the order in which I saw them, in case anyone’s wondering.
The Shield of Honor
Director: Emory Johnson
Screenplay by: Leigh Jacobson & Gladys Lehman
Story by: Emilie Johnson
Starring: Neil Hamilton, Dorothy Gulliver, Ralph Lewis, Nigel Barrie, Harry Northrup, Claire McDowell
Running Time: 63 min
First up is The Shield of Honor. It was directed by Emory Johnson, who was famous back then for making films about heroic people in public positions – policemen, firemen, postmen etc. The LAPD had a terrible reputation at the time, with incompetence and corruption making headlines. So, this film, which celebrates the efforts of the LA police force, acted as some form of promotional tool for them.
The film focuses on a father-and-son pair of policemen. Dan (Ralph Lewis) is celebrating his birthday, only to learn that, due to his age, he is being forced into retirement. He can’t bear the fact he won’t be a policeman anymore and hides this from his family for a short while. His son, Jack (Neil Hamilton), is in his prime though and has just been assigned as the first officer in a newly established flying police force.
The pair attempt to foil a continuing series of jewel robberies, with Dan being given a night watchman job at the jewellers that’s been at the centre of it all. His work is secretly providing the police with a semi-undercover eye on the shop, which they believe is housing an inside man who’s masterminding the robberies.
1927 was a landmark year in cinema with numerous groundbreaking classics upping the standards and possibilities of the medium. Most importantly, it saw the introduction of sound to films. Shield of Honour, however, was very much a generic money earner that did little to advance the art of cinema, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth your time.
I enjoyed the film a great deal, in fact. Like the rest of the titles in this set, it runs around the 1-hour mark, which some might feel shortchanged by but, personally, I find it’s the perfect length for a simple, fun bit of entertainment like this.
The story and characters are very straightforward, but there’s no flab in this lean, taut, action-orientated movie. There’s a love interest thrown in and a fair amount of sentimentality, but these elements are effectively integrated into the plot without slowing things down.
The set pieces are very good for the era too, with an explosive finale that remains thrilling almost 100 years later.
The Shield of Honor is not a film to analyse too deeply, to be honest, which might explain why it doesn’t get an essay in the booklet, but I thought it was a rip-roaring slice of all-round entertainment. Taut and slickly produced, it’s an unpretentious little gem from the silent era.
Director: William Wyler
Story by: Charles A. Logue, Albert DeMond (titles)
Starring: James Murray, Barbara Kent, Jack Hanlon, George Kotsonaros, Wheeler Oakman, Harry Gribbon
Running Time: 65 min
The Shakedown opens with Dave Roberts (James Murray) impressing local folk in and around a pool hall with his fighting abilities and chivalrous defence of a young woman, knocking out unbeaten boxer ‘Battling Roff’ (George Kotsonaros). The altercation gets the pair in the ring for an official bout and surprisingly, the handsome young Roberts is defeated, much to the disappointment of the local folk betting on him to win.
We soon learn, however, that it was all a ruse. Roberts and Roff were in cahoots, putting on a show for the town and rigging the fight to earn them and their manager (Wheeler Oakman) a lot of money.
The manager isn’t satisfied though and asks Roberts to do more character building next time around, getting a real job in town and saving someone’s life, if possible, to become a real hero.
Roberts gets his chance when he catches young Clem (Jack Hanlon) stealing a pie from his sweetheart Marjory’s (Barbara Kent) cafe. Roberts chases the boy across town, ending by the railway tracks where the man saves Clem from being run over.
Unfortunately, no one sees this act of heroism, but Roberts does take pity on Clem, who is a homeless orphan, and takes him under his wing. Clem believes Roberts is a clueless goodie-two-shoes and tries to teach him to grift and fight, whilst Roberts, who obviously sees some of himself in the boy, attempts to straighten Clem out.
This new development, alongside a burgeoning romance with Marjory, cause Roberts to reconsider his dishonest way of living, whilst his forthcoming bout with Roff draws ever closer.
Like The Shield of Honor, The Shakedown was another mid-budget, fairly generic release for Universal but, once again, I found myself enjoying the film a great deal.
The Shakedown is not without pedigree either. It was directed by the great William Wyler before he became a household name. In 1925, he was the youngest director at Universal, likely getting the job through his mother being a cousin of Carl Laemmle, though he started out in the distribution arm of the studio. By 1929 he’d already directed dozens of shorts and a few features, largely westerns. So, he was fairly experienced by this point, though was far from the powerhouse Oscar-winner he’d later become.
Wyler is often thought of as an ‘actor’s director’ but was also famous for his deep-focus work, aided by regular cinematographer Gregg Toland. This early film though, shot by Jerome Ash and Charles J. Stumar, already demonstrates that style and features numerous other impressive visual flourishes. There’s a wonderful track back in the opening scene for instance, and a showstopping shot mounted on a crane pulling our star up into the heavens to work on a large building.
The boxing scenes are very well put together for the time too, with some punchy editing (please excuse the pun) and believable in-the-ring footage. These scenes are slightly sped-up at times which mars their naturalism, but it was par for the course in those hand-cranked days.
The film was shot silent but some sound sections were produced afterwards to make a silent-talkie hybrid version released simultaneously with the silent one. The hybrid hasn’t survived though, which is why the version here is silent. Having been unimpressed by a couple of those ‘semi-talkies’ before though I’m happy to have the fully silent version here. The film in general was considered lost for a long time but a 16mm print was found (explaining why it looks softer here on disc than the other titles).
The film is rather sentimental, with the relationship between Clem and Roberts adding a healthy dose of saccharine to proceedings. However, I must admit I found it all very effective, helped by a good amount of humour.
Also aiding the success of the film are the performances of Murray and Hanlon. They’re both pretty natural, in comparison to most actors of the time, and have quite a nice chemistry together. The face-pulling antics between Hanlon and Harry Gribbon are perhaps overplayed though. The latter was famous for his facial contortions, which is likely why they were given so much screen time.
Once again then, The Shakedown might not match the work of Murnau or Lang from the era but, for a classic piece of movie entertainment, it’s hard to fault. With some nice camera work added to the enjoyable drama on screen, it’s top-notch stuff and a strong sign of what was to come from its director.
Skinner’s Dress Suit
Director: William A. Seiter
Based on a Novel by: Henry Irving Dodge
Starring: Reginald Denny, Laura La Plante, Ben Hendricks Jr., E.J. Ratcliffe, Arthur Lake, Hedda Hopper, Lionel Braham
Running Time: 76 min
The final film in the set (or at least the last one I saw) is Skinner’s Dress Suit. It sees Reginald Denny play the titular character, a middle-management type who’s happily married to Honey (Laura La Plante) and lives a pretty average life.
Honey thinks Skinner’s boss should better appreciate him though and urges her husband to ask for a raise. Not helped by a few unfortunate incidents in the office, the request is soundly rejected, but Skinner can’t bear to tell Honey. So, he lies and tells her he will be getting an extra $10 a week (quite a bit back then, I imagine).
The lie backfires, however, when Honey starts frivolously spending their non-existant extra funds, starting with the titular dress suit.
This particular purchase (or rather rental, as Skinner can only afford to pay by credit) ends up being quite fortuitous though. Honey convinced Skinner the suit was needed to allow them to attend an exclusive party at the Colbys’. Once there, the couple impress the wealthy patrons at the do with their dance moves (“The Savannah Shuffle”). Everyone at the party, including Skinner’s boss, delight themselves in learning the moves from our protagonists, helping them move up in the world.
Skinner enjoys this newfound success, but the pay raise still alludes him, meaning the bailiffs and debt collectors are not far behind. Can he fix the problem before Honey finds out?
This was actually the second of at least three adaptations of the ‘Skinner’s Dress Suit’ story by Henry Irving Dodge. The British born Denny was very successful back then too and this is considered one of his best films and one of the best light comedies of the era. As such, this was the title I had the highest hopes for in the set (added to my love of silent comedy). However, I was somewhat disappointed.
I think much of my problem with the film was not with how well it was made though, but simply that the style didn’t suit my tastes. Skinner’s Dress Suit is what most would call a ‘light comedy’. By this, I mean a comedy that is quite cheerful, inoffensive and elicits chuckles rather than side-splitting laughter. It’s this latter statement that bothers me. If I’m watching a comedy I want it to be very funny, not just mildly amusing. As such, I found the film a little on the dull side, with several sequences feeling a touch drawn out.
Saying that, the film is nicely constructed though, with a lean, well-crafted story that ties up neatly by the end. The humour is often quite refined too with a number of timeless jokes that still crop up in comedies close to a hundred years later. For instance, the classic gag of having an authority figure behind someone while they make a fool of themselves, for instance, is used a couple of times.
As mentioned, Denny was quite the star back then, but I must admit I didn’t find him the most effective of comic leads. He’s a decent actor and his chemistry with Laura Laplante, with whom he’d made numerous films together, is highly effective. However, he doesn’t have the skills of legends such as Keaton, Lloyd or Chaplin in making you laugh through their antics. He’s much more of a straight man.
The direction was less inspiring than in the other films in the set too. The production design is decent and there are one or two nice visual gags, such as the introduction of the dress suit leading us to realise Skinner doesn’t have his trousers on. However, for the most part, it’s stylistically rather bland.
Perhaps I’m unfairly judging Skinner’s Dress Suit against the greats, as I don’t have much experience with other silent comedies, but this never truly took off for me. It’s pleasant enough and its story is neatly put together, but it’s never laugh-out-loud funny and is quite blandly presented. As such, it was the only disappointment in the set, in my opinion, but still worth a watch.
Early Universal Vol. 1 is out on 13th September on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The Shakedown is quite soft, due to the only available copy being a 16mm print, but it looks pretty good, all things considered. The other two films look sharper and though exhibiting the usual wear and tear of films from that era, they look remarkably detailed and clean for such little-seen titles. The scores all come through nicely too and are all enjoyable tracks that complement the films very well.
The 2-disc Blu-ray set includes:
– Limited Edition O-Card slipcase
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures (Skinner’s Dress Suit and The Shakedown restored in 4K, The Shield of Honor restored in 2K)
– Skinner’s Dress Suit – score by Leo Birenberg
– The Shield of Honor – score by Alex Kovacs
– The Shakedown – score by Michael Gatt
– Skinner’s Dress Suit – Brand new audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat
– The Shield of Honor – Brand new audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney
– The Shakedown – Audio commentary by film writer Nick Pinkerton
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by critic Richard Combs and film writer Andrew Graves
Jason A. Ney’s Shield of Honor commentary tells some fascinating stories about those involved in the film and the police force at the time as well as pointing out some of the techniques used to deliver the film’s story. It’s a wonderful track that’s been incredibly well researched.
Nick Pinkerton’s commentary on The Shakedown provides another deep dive into the histories of those involved, as well as some appreciation of the film itself. It’s another decent track on the set.
David Kalat’s Skinner’s Dress Suit commentary is honest about how the film won’t have you rolling in the aisles but goes some way to explain why it’s still a strong piece of filmmaking and well worth your time. He also gives an argument as to it being an example of slapstick, not just light comedy. As ever, his theses go into considerable detail and are enjoyably delivered with great passion and intelligence.
The booklet also makes a good case for why I should show a bit more respect and attention to Skinner’s Dress Suit (helping me boost its rating up half a star here). Strangely, there’s no essay on The Shield of Honor though, only two apiece for the other pair of titles.
Overall, it’s a wonderful package that hopefully does good business despite the less well-known nature of the films included. I’m certainly looking forward to Vol. 2, which is coming in October.