Laura La Plante and Slim Summerville in The Last Warning (1929)

Slapstick, Thrills, Spooks and Camera Tricks in the 9.5mm Format

Indie entrepreneurs Undercrank Productions and Grapevine Video keep old silent films preserved for new generations.

Today we celebrate not only the silent era, but the cutting-edge entrepreneurs of the 21st Century who make these films available to new generations via on-demand digital technologies.

Accidentally Preserved

Funded by Kickstarter, Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions puts out streaming titles and made-on-demand discs with his own piano accompaniment. PopMatters reviewed the previous volume of his Accidentally Preserved series, and now he’s back with Volume 4.

The theme this time is a forgotten film format: the 9.5mm home market run by a European company called Pathescope. This small gauge, with sprockets in the middle of the film between frames, was surpassed for home use by 8mm and 16mm, but proved popular in England and France for a few decades. In the case of most examples here, these versions are the only extant copies of films formerly distributed to theatres in 35mm. These unrestored items might be called gloriously ragged, though all are watchable without headache.

Two are cut-downs from features that climax with their heroes fighting the elements, respectively a forest fire and the raging ocean. The ten-minute version of The Ninety and Nine (1922), based on a popular stage melodrama, rushes through snippets of its romantic story starring Colleen Moore and Warner Baxter in order to concentrate on the scenes of the train, apparently a model, driving through the fire.

The two-reel version of J. Stuart Blackton’s Tides of Passage (1925) is more intriguing and picturesque. Mae Marsh stars in a thankless role as the simpering bride whose philandering sailor husband takes up with an island maiden and gets her pregnant before he dies. The impressive performance is given by Laska Winter, aka Winter Blossom, as the complex, committed, resentful, beautiful “other woman” who forges a relationship with the proper wife to raise the illegitimate baby. Talk about alternative households.

Winter played a variety of “exotic” roles in silent Hollywood. According to Jenny Cho’s Chinese in Hollywood, she was of French, Spanish, Irish and German descent and basically worked as a go-to gal for any ethnic parts where the studio was too lazy to look for authenticity. Whatever Winter may have been, the camera loves her strong presence. She’s in two famous movies: a minor role in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) and a larger one in Seven Footprints to Satan (1929).

The other films on this disc are slapstick comedies whose recurring themes are two men fighting over one woman, crazy driving in newfangled automobiles, and better living through impulsive violence. The most surreal and surprising humor occurs in the appropriately named Nonsense (1920), a plotless two-reeler of anarchic creativity starring Sid Smith and Jimmie Adams as “friends” who goad each other on a farm.

So do Ben Corbett and Pee Wee Holmes in a series of cowboy comedies represented here by the one-reel A Man’s Size Pet (1926), where a small black bear is the primary source of humor. Sometimes it’s a real bear, sometimes it’s a man in a suit, and sometimes the plot throws in an actual man in a suit wrestling with the bear, but only when the actual bear is a man in a suit.

The only other two-reeler is the British Walter’s Paying Policy (1926) with Walter Forde. The notes describe this future director as the British Harold Lloyd, which must be why he plays a tireless go-getter determined to best his rival in selling an insurance policy. Their one-upmanship and physical dexterities make an enjoyable film that also happens to be in good shape.

Both Bobby Ray in Meet Father (1924) and Glenn Tryon in The Wages of Tin (1925) are short dapper men who drive cars badly to impress their girlfriends, get the best of traffic cops, and knock out burly palookas in offscreen fights. The latter has the best-directed gags. One curiosity: if you choose “Play All Films”, it skips the Tryon picture, which can only be accessed through “Choose a Film”. So the total running time is longer than the two hours promised.

Another curiosity: this disc contains two live-action films by pioneering animators. The aforementioned Blackton created the earliest animations before making his career in straight drama, while Morning, Judge (1926) is one a series of live-action comedies by Max and Dave Fleischer starring pretty Peggy Shaw. She has little to do but wear a skimpy outfit as the plot focuses on firemen whose schtick is to smash everything to pieces and spray water on people. It was a living.

Grapevine Video

Extant since the VHS era in 1978, Jack Hardy’s Arizona-based Grapevine Video has just issued its first Blu-ray offering to go with its DVD-Rs. It’s one of three fantastical Halloween-themed releases that happen to be excellent examples of the work of important directors.

The Phantom Honeymoon (1919) is a strange and charming fantasy directed by J. Searle Dawley, a pioneering filmmaker best known for the one-reeler of Frankenstein in 1910, the same year he did a version of A Christmas Carol. IMDB reports that he billed himself as “the first motion picture director”, which isn’t accurate but fairly close in terms of American dramatic films. For example, he helmed the 1908 Biograph drama that featured the acting debut of D.W. Griffith, who would soon become the leading pre-Hollywood director of American films.

As for this 1919 feature, it begins with an elderly gentlemen (Leon Dadmun) traveling with his two nieces, like the original Dr. Who. This man is a famous debunker of ghosts. When he spends the night at a haunted castle, a be-turbaned Indian servant (Harry Guy Carleton) tells him a tale in flashbacks of a beautiful young couple’s marriage doomed by a racist threat that’s unintentionally revealing of their social milieu. Their strange end isn’t the end, for this is indeed a ghost story; there’s even a ghost automobile, which must be some kind of first.

In accordance with most early features, Dawley doesn’t move the camera but stages everything in elegant, layered compositions, all edited fluidly with discreetly placed close-ups amid the carefully lighted depths of field. The only aesthetic flaw is a sequence that can’t decide if it’s day or night. The tone balances the light, the fearful, the morbid and finally even the saucy and unreal, keeping viewers off-balance as the story unfolds in past and present. Margaret Marsh and Vernon Steel are attractive leads.

The flawed, sometimes jumpy print, even lacking opening titles, is only tolerable, and I’m not sure its Blu-ray presentation gains anything over the DVD version.

The two-part French thriller The Mystery of the Eiffel Tower (1927), presented here in a fair unrestored print with Dutch titles and English subtitles, belongs to imaginative director Julien Duvivier, who delights in fresh angles and technical tricks. The story is clearly inspired by similar German thrillers of Fritz Lang, and since Lang was inspired in turn by the French serials of Louis Feuillade, whom Duvivier had assisted, it comes full circle.

Félicien Tramel has a dual role as phony twins. The portly, balding, mustachio’d gentlemen play Siamese twins in a stage act. One pretends to be the other in order to claim an inheritance, and then the impostor hires the real legatee to masquerade as himself in order to draw fire from a criminal gang called the Ku-Klux-Eiffel (complete with hoods) who want to steal the estate.

The true inheritor then participates in a breakneck adventure that ends on the Eiffel Tower, where the gang broadcasts coded messages to their members amid futurustic television gadgetry. Along for the ride are a pretty damsel (Régine Bouet), her plucky kid brother (Jimmy Gaillard), and a disguised criminal mastermind (Gaston Jacquet).

It’s wonderfully absurd and fast-paced, its aesthetic tricks mirroring the fun of a story in which the hero intially refuses to take the danger seriously because he believes it’s a prank. This film is dedicated to ingenuity and the modern ’20s obsession with speed. Aside from the technical trickery of the doubling, Duvivier loves to mount the camera in speeding cars and even on an airplane. His career evinces a love of cinema’s plastic and kinetic possibilities; more of his prolific output should be available.

Imported German director Paul Leni had made a splash with the 1927 picture The Cat and the Canary, a visually vivid “old dark house” spoof anchored by a natural and delightful performance by Laura La Plante. Two years later, Leni and La Plante reunited for The Last Warning (1929), if anything a more visually audacious movie.

Leni loved to move the camera — under curtains, through doors, down trapdoors, swinging on ropes — and great cinematographer Hal Mohr was there to realize his conceits. Leni indulges in abstract montages conveying the splash of Broadway — there’s even a “cubist” portrait of Josephine Baker, complete with flash of breast. He even loved playing with the title cards in witty ways, having them move and blur and double. He was an exuberant, creative stylist who would, alas, be dead of sepsis by the end of the year.

As for the story, this time it’s about an “old dark theatre” in parody of Phantom of the Opera. In the opener, an actor dies mysteriously in the middle of a performance, and soon the body disappears in the course of a single shot. A few years later, the abandoned and cobwebbed theatre is re-opened by a new producer (Montagu Love), with everyone recalled to re-enact the fateful play.

Leni grasped the magic balance between absurdity, comic relief, and occasional moments of spookery handled with flair, as in his variation of the already cliched “body falls out of the closet” routine. He directed his cast to act in precise, vivid ways just on the far side of parody, a kind of outsize playing that wouldn’t fly in talkies. La Plante doesn’t have much to do this time besides moon over dashing co-star John Boles while gasping and wringing her hands, but she does all that well, and it comes across on this tinted print. Perhaps this is the one that could have best stood a Blu-ray presentation.

All three films are graced, if that adjective is appropriate, with new “old-timey” organ scores by David Knudtson. They’re functional and miss many obvious visual cues, like screams and gongs.

As long as outfits like Undercrank and Grapevine keep chugging along with new developments in social media, the lost art of silent cinema won’t be so lost to fresh generations of cinematic spelunkers.

RATING 5 / 10