We Wish You a Silent Christmas

Faust (1926)

Fans of silent cinema might bug Santa for these.


Director: F.W. Murnau
Cast: Emil Jannings, Gosta Ekman
Distributor: Kino
Year: 1926
USDVD release date: 2015-11-17


Director: Charles Chaplin
Cast: Charles Chaplin
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Year: 1915
USDVD release date: 2015-11-17

Sherlock Holmes

Director: Arthur Berthelet
Cast: William Gillette
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Year: 1916
USDVD release date: 2015-11-10

Fans of that enduring and universal art form known as silent cinema (and isn't that everyone?) have a few new riches to treat themselves to on Blu-ray, this holiday season.

First up is F.W. Murnau's Faust, a monumental 1926 production full of effects and operatic gestures. Its ambitions are announced when it opens with three puppet Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through the sky as an enormous winged demon bargains with a shining archangel for the fate of Earth.

Emil Jannings, one of Germany's greatest silent stars and the first actor to win an Oscar, plays Mephistopheles, who tempts the bearded old alchemist Faust (Gösta Ekman) to sell his soul for power. One order of business is to become, young again and look like the Swedish matinee idol Fause once was.

Many critics have perceived a foreshadowing of Hitler's rise and fall in the film, and that's the convenient thing about cultural classics. Whether you look for subtext or not, Murnau's marshaling of UFA Studio's expensive resources is still darned impressive.

Having released this item years ago on DVD, Kino has gone to town for this Blu-ray upgrade, which is digitally restored in HD from 35mm prints to reconstruct the original German release as closely as possible and offers two scores: a piano score adapted from the 1926 orchestral arrangements and a new score played by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.

A bonus DVD contains a longer 1930 cut of the film reissued by UFA for sound theatres. Two extra are a one-hour making-of (and restoring-of) and test footage from Ernst Lubitsch's unmade Marguerite and Faust.

Flicker Alley has now completed a monumental 12-year Chaplin Project to restore Charles Chaplin's entire output of shorts from 1914 to 1917, when he developed rapidly into the world's biggest superstar. Their third and final volume is Chaplin's Essanay Comedies 1915, a five-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo comprising 15 films newly restored from many archival prints.

The Essanay Company hired Chaplin for an unheard-of star's salary of $1,250 a week plus a $10k bonus, for which he made 14 shorts and a cameo in one of Bronco Billy Anderson's westerns. They're all here, plus an extra movie assembled by Essanay from unused footage, plus alternate versions of two titles, and all explained in an excellent booklet by Jeffery Vance.

These are the first films in which Chaplin worked with leading lady Edna Purviance, and include The Tramp, which decisively defined the tramp persona to the extent of ending with his iconic figure walking down the road away from the camera, not having gotten the girl. Other titles include A Woman (Chaplin in drag), The Bank (a long dream sequence), A Night in the Show (a dual role), and Burlesque on Carmen in both Chaplin's original version and Essanay's expanded version, over which he sued the company. Although these films have circulated forever and in some cases are quite famous, they generally haven't looked this good in decades.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

What hasn't circulated in almost a century, presumed lost until rediscovered in 2014, is a major rescue: the 1916 feature Sherlock Holmes. It's the only filmed record of William Gillette, the foremost stage actor to play Holmes from Arthur Conan Doyle's day (even influencing him) until the talkie era. Gillette himself constructed the stage play and played it over a thousand times.

This Essanay production is the only film version, and a faithful one, showing that Gillette's story is hardly sensible. Director William Berthelet uses odd dissolves in the middle of scenes for emphasis. The restored image, derived from a French print, is amazingly clear with yellow and blue tints.

Aside from a lecture about the restoration, extras include three early Holmes shorts. Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900), the earliest known Holmes movie, is a trick film of less than a minute. A Canine Sherlock follows Detective Hawkshaw and his dog Spot. A 1913 Italian film, whose title means "Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes", uses a battery of effects in a dream story.

There's a newsreel piece with Conan Doyle (sounding a bit like Sean Connery and going on about spiritism) and raw footage of Gillette's private locomotive. The DVD on this Blu-ray/DVD combo adds a typescript of Gillette's play and his Essanay contract.


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