Friday, July 29, 2005

Entertainment for Cheapskates

While the Prelinger Collection has been pretty stagnant for almost a year, has recently pulled out all the stops in updating their feature film collection. Over the last few weeks, dozens of free PD features and shorts have been added to an already impressive list, further helping to take the sting out of not having the money to blow on satellite or cable TV. Here are a few of the most noteworthy recent additions.

A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor: Eddie Cantor, one of America's greatest comedians, is sadly neglected today despite the sizable legacy he left behind. The goggle-eyed, wispy-voiced Cantor, like most vaudeville comics of his era, dabbled in just about everything and was successful at most of it, enjoying a lengthy career in radio, TV, and film. A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor is a groudbreaker. It's Eddie's very first film, and it's also a De Forest Phonofilm, one of the very first sound-on-film talkies, produced years before Al Jolson and The Jazz Singer. I had been aching to see one of the De Forest films ever since I read Walter Kerr's comments on them in The Silent Clowns, and this, a genuine record of Eddie's song-and-patter vaudeville act, is no disappointment. His self-depreciating humor and perky songs still wear well today and De Forest's early optical soundtrack reproduces all of it with what sounds like higher fidelity than most talkies of 1929-1931 vintage. It's remarkable to think of the other performers whom we could have gotten a glimpse of in their prime if they had similarly signed with De Forest in 1923. The Four Marx Brothers had only recently begun to finalize their now-famous stage characters. John Barrymore was making waves with his legendary performance as Hamlet. How about W. C. Fields? Gallagher and Shean performing their signature song? A pre-Sennett Harry Langdon doing his famous chauffeur routine?

Now You're Talking: The Fleischer Brothers, Max and Dave, made this animated instructional short for Bell Telephone in 1927, an interesting and entertaining record of how pre-dial Western Electric candlestick phones were used (and abused). While such handy phone tips as "pick up the phone when it rings" and "use the phone book to look up numbers you can't remember" may seem rather obvious to we who live in the far-flung future, they may not have occurred to a people still terrified by steam power and chewing gum, and who thought automobiles were pulled by invisible horses. And who knew there was a late 20s fad for attaching useless gizmos to phones? Gizmos that made your phone explode, no less! Incidentally, this short was made the same year that Western Electric introduced the #202 desk phone, the first phone with both a dial and a proper handset, which ultimately made the old candlestick phone w/subset box obsolete.

The Fleischer Brothers' animation was easily the most engaging and attractive of the silent era, due in no small part to animator Dick Heumer's remarkable inking skills, and Now You're Talking is a beautifully preserved example of the studio at its pre-sound creative peak. also has a nice print of Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, a 1924 Ko-Ko Song Car-Tune also produced by the Fleischers. Although it's apparent that the Inkwell Studios used these "bouncing ball" shorts as budget-saving fillers (even the bouncing ball itself was live action), it's fun nonetheless. Strangely, there is absolutely no war imagery in this short.

The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (both 1920): Two cornerstones of silent German Expressionist horror cinema, both available in good prints with musical accompaniment. I think a Tim Burton remake of Dr. Caligari with Johnny Depp as Cesare the Somnambulist is something of an inevitability. The Golem isn't quite as much fun (in fact, it drags a bit), but is worth watching for the sets and Paul Wegener's performance as the Golem, cues from both being later taken by director James Whale for Frankenstein (1931). This was Wegener's third and final film appearance as the Golem, the first two films being The Golem (1914) and The Golem and the Dancer (1917).

War Babies (1932): A horror film of a different kind. War Babies was one of a series of "Baby Burlesks"; comedy shorts featuring infants and toddlers acting out parodies of contemporary hit films. This grotesque series was a close cousin to the MGM Dogville shorts which featured trained dogs acting out parodies of current MGM features, except the dogs got to walk away with their dignity intact. Shirley Temple started her film career in these things, playing.. god help us.. the Baby Burlesks' regular "femme fatale". Unfunny and obnoxious, exploitative in the extreme, and utterly excruciating in every conceivable way. In some states, I think you can get arrested for having a copy of this on your computer. Enjoy!

The Lost City (1935): In 1913, Harry Revier and J. J. Burns converted a barn in Hollywood into the farming community's very first motion picture studio. Cecil B. DeMille directed The Squaw Man at the Burns and Revier Studio and Laboratory later that year before signing a long-term lease on the property. Harry Revier turned to directing himself by 1916, but was never much of a success in the town he had helped to create. In 1935, he directed this berserk 12-chapter serial to compete with the first wave of science fiction serials being released by Mascot, Republic, and Universal (specifically, Undersea Kingdom, The Phantom Empire, and Flash Gordon) and while The Lost City may not have the production values of those better-known serials, it makes up for it in sheer outrageousness. Among all of the shrieking natives, devious Arabs, and Noble White Men are some pretty fascinating performers, chief among them the out-of-control William "Stage" Boyd who drank himself to death after The Lost City was in the can. Silent comedians Milburn Moranti and Billy Bletcher also appear in sizable roles. Moranti was most famously teamed with comedienne Gale Henry in over a hundred shorts made between 1915 and 1920, but continued to appear in Westerns until 1951 (following a career path similar to that of Al St. John). The 5'2 Billy Bletcher, best remembered as the booming voice of The Big Bad Wolf, Peg-Leg Pete, The Pincushion Man, and dozens of other cartoon heavies at every animation studio in Hollywood, chews the scenery wonderfully as dwarf henchman Gorzo. Harry Revier wrapped up his directing career in 1938 with the unsettling Child Bride.


Post a Comment

<< Home