2020 has been generous with many things we’d just as soon have missed. One bright spot, however, is the virtual avalanche, the cataract, the tsunami of classic cinema history continually emerging on Blu-ray from so many directions! It’s impossible to keep up, but we try, we try. We’d rather splash about in excess than find ourselves parched in a vast emptiness.
Any list must be hopelessly incomplete and can only hint at the riches out there, which refute any argument that streaming is replacing physical media. Many of us will always want to hold the blessed object in our flippers, especially if it comes with all kinds of nifty extras that we may or may not appreciate. Here then is a reasonably rambling survey of some of the year’s Blu-ray highlights for classic film buffs.
10. The Jewish Soul: Ten Classics of Yiddish Cinema (Kino Lorber)
Produced as a crowdfunding project in cooperation with Lobster Films in Paris, this five-disc set provides digital restorations of ten Yiddish-language films dating from 1935 to 1950. The intention here is representational. Not all are masterpieces, so stiff stagey melodramas are mixed with more stylish and emotionally engaging items. What they have in common is language and culture. As Serge Bromberg, chairman of Lobster Films writes in the booklet, “these films offer a precious journey through time and into a lost world”.
At the high end are the ghostly and sometimes beautiful Polish drama The Dybbuk (Der Dibuk, 1937, Michał Waszyński), Aleksandr Ford‘s lyrical documentary Mir Kumen On (1935), Edgar G. Ulmer’s American Matchmaker (1940), Max Nosseck‘s Overture to Glory (1940) and Maurice Schwartz’s Tevya (1939), based on the Sholem Aleichem tales that birthed the play and film Fiddler on the Roof. The films by Waszyński and Ford, a crucial Polish filmmaker, will make you wish to see everything they directed.
In his notes, historian Allen Lewis Rickman is frankly less impressed by the aesthetics of the other low-budget US dramas in the set, and it’s hard to argue with him, though all show value as social-historic artifacts based in the Yiddish theatre.
There remain plenty of uncollected and unrestored films to make up another set, including three more Ulmers and Yidl mitn Fidl (1936, Joseph M. Green), a Polish-shot musical with Molly Picon giving a cross-dressed performance anticipating Barbra Streisand’s Yentl (1983). Let’s cross our fingers.
Nor is this the only release of relevance to Jewish culture and representation on film. Flicker Alley’s The City Without Jews (Die Stadt ohne Juden, 1924, H.K. Breslauer) (reviewed here) reconstructs a crucial Austrian silent of satirical yet strangely prophetic content. Another silent classic, Paul Wegener’s 1920 version of the oft-filmed The Golem (Der Golem), offers another powerful fantasy myth like The Dybbuk that also happens to be an important early horror film.
9. The Bolshevik Trilogy: Three Films by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Flicker Alley)
This essential set of silent classics actually contains four films by
Vsevolod Pudovkin, whom we described in our essay, “Pudovkin Makes the Revolution Human: The Bolshevik Trilogy” as applying the Soviet cinema’s creative editing techniques more to the service of the human heart than to “the masses”.
The satirical short
Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka, 1925) serves a jolly diversion, while the simple emotional drama Mother (Mat, 1926) tries to resurrect triumph out of tragedy. The End of St. Petersburg (Konets Sankt-Peterburga, 1927) is a surprisingly subdued take on the October Revolution, while Storm Over Asia (Potomok Chingiskhana, 1928) finds the revolutionary story somewhat distracted by Pudovkin’s interest in exotic fable. The climax is a dizzying explosion of edits.
8. Bonanza of Bodacious British Beauties
2020 witnessed a steady flow of British classics arriving on Blu-ray. As we wrote in “Old British Films, Boring? Pshaw!“, it becomes impossible to sustain the notion that British films are staid, stuffy, and stodgy when confronted by so many dazzlers.
We’re especially delighted by the hair-raising antics of Brighton Rock (1948, John Boulting), The Queen of Spades (1949, Thorold Dickinson), Seven Days to Noon (1950, John and Roy Boulting), An Inspector Calls (1954, Guy Hamilton), The Night My Number Came Up (1955, Leslie Norman), The Flesh and the Fiends (1960, John Gilling) and The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961, Val Guest).
These titles all hail from Kino Lorber, while Film Movement Classics offered the box sets Their Finest Hour: 5 British WWII Classics, which includes the specially wonderful Went the Day Well? (1942, Alberto Cavalcanti), and Alastair Sim’s School for Laughter, which includes the Ealing thriller-comedy Hue and Cry (1947, Charles Crichton).
That’s not all. Cohen Film Classics launched a 4K restoration of Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951, Albert Lewin), a strange romantic fantasy in retinal-damage Technicolor starring Ava Gardner and James Mason. Just for luck, the package tossed in Lewin’s long-unseen The Living Idol (1957), another colossally strange exotic mish-mash. Who could pass this up? And why would they?
7. Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture (Kino Lorber)
As an instructive example to wayward youth on the perils of indulgence in what ain’t good for ya, Kino Lorber collaborated with Something Weird Video to issue seven volumes (so far) of over-stuffed discs under the rubric of Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture. Perhaps they thought they could stop any time they wanted, that they had it under control, that just one more wouldn’t hurt. Alas, we’ve found the series as addictive as potato chips and just as crunchy.
As we explained about the first exciting volumes in “Sex! Drugs! Volleyball! Dark Secrets of American Morality EXPOSED in Exploitation Films”, exploitation films were made by independent mavericks who chose their subjects according to the Production Code’s list of off-limits topics. These subjects included drug abuse, “sex hygiene” (or hijinks), nudism, the birth of babies, medical footage, and controversial issues like eugenics.
This procedure meant the producers weren’t getting competition from the mainstream studios and could provide a genuinely alternative subject matter. At the same time, it put them at peril of battling local censor boards. Sometimes they bypassed regular exhibitors and hired a hall for special “Adults Only” screenings for “educational” purposes, complete with lectures by “experts”. Sometimes they sold prints to distributors on what was called a “states’ rights” basis, again bypassing regular theater chains.
The resulting films aren’t only illuminating in terms of the social values they expose and exploit. Sometimes they’re even reasonably good, or at least unusual, and they provide blueprints for topics that eventually entered the mainstream. They are, if not the evil twin to Hollywood’s commercial cinema, at least the socially unacceptable twin who tracks mud on the divan and drinks all your liquor while emitting rude noises.
6. Laurel & Hardy: The Definitive Restorations (MVD Visual)
This four-disc set offers 2K and 4K restorations of 16 short talkies, one silent short, and two of the comedy duo’s most hilarious features: Sons of the Desert (1933, William A. Seiter) and Way Out West (1937, James W. Horne). The package offers various extras and oodles of informative commentary. In short, it’s essential, and most of all funny.
As we wrote about these geniuses of everyday chaos in “Laurel & Hardy’s Genius of Everyday Chaos“, “they come across as hapless man-children, creatures of the id who imagine they’re more sly and competent than they are. In other words, they’re the opposite of the idealized embodiments of masculinity seen in male cinema heroes.”
With further startling perspicacity, we observed that “this type of physical comedy, in which they interact with unnecessary complication and protraction and slapstick business while performing something that should take a few moments and has little or nothing to do with any plot point, is one the duo’s specialties. They can spend minutes on the most inconsequential business, such as opening a door or window. They convey human absurdity and puncture the dignity of all around them just by their bumbling presence.”