Bright Lights Film Journal

Blu-ray Review: Recent Silent Film Releases from Flicker Alley

Mabel Normand

Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Harry Langdon, W. C. Fields, Ben  Turpin – the gang’s all here.

Flicker Alley, a home video company founded in 2007, is not solely dedicated to silent film; they have, for example, issued a series of well-received Cinerama titles from the 1950s,1 not to mention a reconstruction of Clouzot’s unfinished 1964 film Inferno, but the bulk of their ever-expanding catalog are titles predating sound, a risky business model, for sure, but a gratifying one that I celebrate. For Flicker Alley devotees, the last seven years have been a wild ride of discovery, with obscure masterworks like Murnau’s Phantom (1922) and the Soviet-era comedy-thriller Miss Mend (1926) running in tandem with better-known classics like the Méliès shorts and the Douglas Fairbanks comedies. A high point for this reviewer was the release of two astonishing films by Abel Gance, La Roue (1926) and J’Accuse (1919).

While last year’s run of Cinerama films appeared to signal a trend away from the pre-sound era for the company, the issued discs for a sizable portion of 2014 have been silents or silent-era related. In March came The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), followed by We’re in the Movies, featuring two modest films, When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose (1983) and Palace of Silents: The Silent Movie Theatre in Los Angeles (2010). Both documentaries are windows on the fragility of silent film’s survival in post-WWII America, as a general indifference to the pre-sound era progressed slowly toward a more avid cultural embrace later in the century. If still a niche-based phenomenon, enthusiasm for silent film, fed by technical advancements in home video, continues to this day, and hand in hand with making an ever-increasing number of titles available to the viewing public are the curatorial efforts to restore and preserve them.

Silent Movie Theatre, Los Angeles, 1940s

Detailing the history of L.A.’s Silent Movie Theater, We’re in the Movies reveals that when the theater opened in 1942, its founder, John Hampton, was dependent on his collection of 16mm reduction prints, many of them from Universal’s Show-at-Home library. Today in the realm of silent film home video, we’re blessed with a growing number of digital transfers made from 35mm sources or even, in a few cases, from original camera negatives. Much of the small percentage of surviving silents, however, exist only in low-resolution, often heavily duped, reduction prints.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Virtually all Universal titles from the silent era, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, exist only in Show-at-Home prints, and Flicker Alley’s high-res edition of the Lon Chaney classic can improve upon Image’s 2007 “Ultimate Edition” DVD release only so much. On the Blu-ray’s case, Flicker Alley proclaims the print as struck in 1926 from the original negative – the same source, I’m thinking, as Image’s SD version. Any mention of “original negative” will make a silent film aficionado’s eyes moist, but Image’s Ultimate Edition merely claimed its transfer was created from an “original, multi-tinted print,” while leaving out any mention of source.

In terms of raising expectations among those who dote on silent films, Image, I think, trod safer ground in 2007 than does Flicker Alley in 2014 with its reference to an original negative. I’m sure we’ve not been misled here; the redoubtable David Shepard produced both editions (joined by Serge Bromberg for Flicker Alley).

While sharpness and range of detail improve incrementally with the Blu-ray, the fundamentally wretched state of the print does not. Running consistently throughout the length of the print are a myriad of scratches that give one the impression of watching the film through a rainstorm, yet this Blu-ray performs its format’s ongoing magic by simply making the experience more film-like. Somehow, by giving the scratches a close-knit reality with the grain, the high-def transfer makes them easier to forgive and the film easier to watch, and from there leaves us able to wonder about this hunchback or that hunchback, Chaney’s film or Laughton’s film (1939), or even Anthony Quinn’s film (1956). How many of us have their own private bell-ringer? I know I do.

Most recently, we’ve seen Flicker Alley’s simultaneous release of two box sets, one featuring all 12 films Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual, the other, a selection of 50 Mack Sennett comedies, ranging from 1911 to 1933, which advances several titles into the sound era and declares itself volume one.

While the dual-format Chaplin at Mutual set certainly insures more units sold than the company’s edition of that aforementioned Soviet era comedy-thriller, its release is quite a bit more than a cautious marketing strategy. It could be, in some circles (like mine), the release of the year. Under the umbrella of The Chaplin Project, David Shepard of Blackhawk Films, Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films, and Gianluca Farinelli of Cineteca di Bologna have joined forces to meticulously assemble and restore the Chaplin Mutuals, some from multiple sources, with remarkable results. These films were made, after all, over a two-year period from 1916 to 1917, and, while I’m no Chaplin scholar, I would venture that no one alive today has ever seen them looking like this. If Chaplin’s films for Mutual constitute, as some commentators claim, some of his best work, the labors of The Chaplin Project and Flicker Alley have committed a monumental act of time-enduring film preservation.

A rare early color shot of Chaplin

Much of the footage sports incredibly tight resolution, as if coming from first-generation prints, while the image throughout is stable, the speed corrected, and all films fitted with new, appropriate, and sometimes quite lovely music scores, with a choice of either orchestral or solo piano arrangements. Presently, it all comes on Blu-ray and DVD spread over five discs and housed, along with a 27-page booklet, in a limited edition steel-case, an extravagance that, for once, feels appropriate. As an objet d’estime, sleek and chill, the metal-encased set feels sturdily righteous and honored in your hands – indeed, an apotheosis of home video’s ability to rescue, and make available to all, past cinematic greatness.

The enormity of Chaplin’s accomplishment at Mutual is underscored by the accompanying documentary, The Birth of the Tramp (2013), written and directed by Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. The film’s emphasis on Chaplin’s music hall origins – and his youthful experience as a music hall performer – gets to the bottom of his physical comedy, the wide range of skillfully executed shtick, such as the supernatural elegance, and hence otherworld hilarity, of Chaplin’s roller skating in The Rink.

Roller-skating acts had been popular in music hall; Charlie honed his skating abilities years earlier in such skits. Chaplin’s exquisite timing, which often cannily pauses post-gag for laughs, was clearly stage-bred. And how many of the films’ visual gags were imported from the boards? In the film One AM, Chaplin, featuring only himself, is a wealthy lushhound incapable of navigating all manner of physical objects as he returns, soused, to his manor. It’s a 27-minute drunk act, and, although drunk acts were a staple of music hall, vaudeville and ’50s variety hour television, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be found dated and unfunny nowadays. But Chaplin’s interactive routines with tables, rugs, clocks, and insouciant staircases – as if all of them have become sentient beings out to get him – are so funny the laughs nearly die in our throats.

Many of these bits of business came from his music hall days, but this accounts little for Chaplin’s virtuosity or that most mysterious x-factor, his magnetic persona, the tramp. In his Mutual comedies, Chaplin was actually often not a tramp but, variously, a fireman, a policeman, a stagehand, and so on, yet the mustache, eye makeup, baggy pants, and the distinctive walk are constants – he is, always, Charlie. But not Charles Chaplin.

When in the documentary’s vintage footage we glimpse the twenty-something actor being “himself” in a publicity film, it’s a familiar shock to see again the slender, diminutive figure sans Charlie’s accoutrements and makeup. Well dressed and handsome, he’s obviously aware of the documenting camera, in front of which he’s a gracious, if somewhat overly energetic, host to his invisible visitors in this contrived visit to his studio. Here Chaplin’s reflective eyes give off the quick-silver, self-aware intelligence of a newly arrived sophisticate who wishes to protect his inner life in the midst of celebrity tumult. He in fact looks somewhat embarrassed and loath to allow the camera to linger too long on his face, which resembles that of his tramp only when it breaks into that familiarly impish but simultaneous satyr-like grin. Otherwise, when you search Chaplin’s urbane face for signs of Charlie, you won’t find them.

Of course anyone can don the little mustache, the enhanced eyebrows, and the eyeliner and become nearly unrecognizable as an ersatz Charlie, but Chaplin’s creation is more than costume, makeup, and shtick with a cane. Throughout the Mutual films, Charlie Chaplin, the tramp – whatever we want to call him – is a varied, complex, fully realized human character that can be mournful, courtly toward women, and generous with feeling, but also self-destructive, mean-spirited, vindictive, and even violent. As evidenced on the Keystone shorts and these Mutual films, Chaplin, when donning tramp identifiers, taking pratfalls, and doing bits of business, is also acting.

It’s why seeing Charlie Chaplin impressions – or imitators from the silent era – can be so painful. I remember feeling anxiously dismissive, 50 years ago, of Lucille Ball doing a bit as the tramp on her TV show in which she was, suddenly, not funny. In Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), Gloria Swanson does a brief impression of Charlie for her kept man (William Holden), and it’s the most uncomfortable scene in a movie full of discomfiture. There’s a good reason why mimicking the tramp causes so much uneasiness. By isolating the character’s makeup, costume, walk, and routines, the performers reduce Charlie to a dimensionless hobo clown.

Clowns are defined by their makeup, their fright wigs, and their slapstick. They are meant to be opaque and dimensionless and are often unfunny and disturbing because of this. The American hobo clown is mawkishly sad and sentimental while he makes queasy humor out of poverty, but Charlie gives his tramp an emotional interiority. When the tramp is down and out – yet ruefully dignified – the gags and the interwoven sentiment feel earned; perhaps that’s because Chaplin, having experienced it himself, understood the degrading aspect of poverty.

Flicker Alley’s set displays Chaplin’s astonishing 18-month arc of creativity at Mutual, which perhaps reaches its zenith in The Immigrant (1917), his penultimate film for the company. Here the tramp seeks a new life in the US of A. The initial sequences onboard ship have their share of inspired gags, but the first of the film’s several dropkick moments comes when, as the boat enters New York Harbor and the immigrants spy the Statue of Liberty, an official brusquely ropes off the lot of them like farm animals needing to be corralled. There’s nothing funny about the tramp’s perplexed face as he reacts to the indignity.

Chaplin with Campbell and Purviance in The Immigrant

The calming presence of Edna Purviance, Chaplin’s constant co-star of this era, sets the tone of the film’s second half, in which, having found a coin on a NYC sidewalk, the penniless tramp feels enabled to buy a meal for the equally destitute Purviance, who’s become nearly incapacitated by hunger and grief for her dead mother. Entering a restaurant, they are served by a brutish waiter, played by the tramp’s mountainous adversary, the stalwart Eric Campbell. Dubbed the “Goliath” of the Mutuals, he does perhaps his best work here. When a customer refuses to pay his bill, the tramp watches in horror as his waiter pummels the patron senseless before throwing him out. As Campbell passes the tramp’s table, where Charlie has realized his coin is worthless, he throws a swaggering right hook through some hanging beadwork – it’s a deft bit of business that looks improvised.

Appearing in most of them, Campbell’s a defining element in the Mutual films, and Chaplin knew it. Tragically, Campbell died in a car accident just after the Mutual contract ended, canceling Chaplin’s plans to take him with him when the director managed to hook up with a new distributor. In the set’s second bonus film, Chaplin’s Goliath (1996), the Scottish documentarians wonder if Campbell’s influence held Chaplin back from the tramp’s increasing tendency towards a Pierrot-like sentimentality, which flowered in the features of the twenties. Maybe that’s raising Campbell’s importance a notch too high, but it remains a provocative thought.

Watching Flicker Alley’s companion release, The Mack Sennett Collection, is necessarily a more diffuse experience than one’s journey through Chaplin’s genius-infused Mutuals. For decades, well into the sound era, Mack Sennett manufactured comedies like Henry Ford did cars. On three Blu-ray discs, the farcical content of Flicker Alley’s set, dating from the year 1909 all the way into 1933, features a plethora of comic luminaries, along with some talent that doesn’t shine so bright.

The set’s first three films date from Sennett’s years as actor, writer, and director for American Biograph, and, to remind us of where Sennett learned filmmaking, 1909’s The Curtain Pole lists D. W. Griffith as director, with Sennett having “written” its one-trick gag, a drunk’s (Sennett) misadventures with an oversized curtain pole, which, as he swings it this way and that on the street or from a carriage, incapacitates and angers half the citizens of a small town. The routine, often featuring tall step-ladders, was probably ancient in 1909, but Sennett wasn’t about to retire it. And for his Mutual production, The Pawnshop (1916), Chaplin works the gag with considerably more inventiveness.

Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett in an unidentified film

Chaplin makes few appearances in this set, having been the focus of Flicker Alley’s 2012, four-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Chaplin paid his cinematic dues at Keystone. He created the tramp simply because Mack Sennett (or Mabel Normand, who co-directed the film with Mack) ordered a fresh character from him to enliven Mabel’s Strange Predicament,2 but inevitably he would need to move on to greener creative pastures (and better pay than that offered by the stingy Sennett). With or without Charlie, Sennett was running a factory of sorts, issuing several titles a week to satisfy a hungry public; inspiration, ingenuity, and fresh avenues of comic business were never a guarantee. Thus, unsurprisingly, the selected 50 films vary in their ability to make us laugh.

Of course, it’s whatever presses your buttons, this matter of laughter, and Mabel Normand presses more than one of mine. On the set’s third film, A Dash Through the Clouds (1912), Mabel enters on a blast of fresh air as she ascends in a bi-plane – itself looking as if loaned directly from the Wright brothers – to come to the rescue of her philandering husband, who gets into some trouble with some Mexican toughs on Olvera Street. She’s packing a pistol, which she gleefully pops from the air to save him, but then, in the end, leaves hubby to his just deserts anyway, and goes off with the handsome aviator.

All of 19 years old in this film, Mabel was Sennett’s biggest draw until Chaplin eclipsed her a couple of years later. For the era, the lovely, diminutive Normand was something unique, and her public continued to adore her well into the twenties when she made a series of features for Sam Goldwyn and Sennett. Finally illness, scandal, and substance abuse shut down her career, leaving her to die of TB in 1930 at the age of 37.

Arguably, she had reached her peak with Mack Sennett in the years between 1912 and 1918. In her one- to two-reel shorts for Keystone, she melded her delicate beauty to an unerring, bursting-at-the-seams gift for improvisatory comedy. Deploying her large, lambent eyes for full flirtatious effect, Normand could take pratfalls or swing knockdown punches as good as the best of them (i.e., Chaplin). No one had seen anyone like her; female comedians of the day, who normally took the back seat to the funny men in early films, were never dazzlingly attractive and sexy like Mabel, but more likely overweight (or tall and gangly) and grotesque.

Mabel as a Gibson girl

While still in late adolescence, Normand had modeled for Charles Dana Gibson and made a few dramatic shorts under D. W. Griffith. But with Sennett, she found a lover and a rough-house métier; by circa 1913 she began conceiving and directing some of her films. Flicker Alley’s set certainly gives Mabel her due, but I yearn for more. Her work with Chaplin, which flourishes on the company’s Chaplin at Keystone set, is understandably not found here. Reportedly, she not only convinced Sennett to hold onto a still untested Charlie, but also mentored the former music hall star in the ways of filmmaking. Their work together brings out the best in each of them, even if Chaplin can’t help but be the headliner of each film.

In the current set, Mabel appears in five uproarious shorts from 1912 to 1913 (most of them only half a reel in length), but later on, we get a 30-minute effort, Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), one of her popular pairings with Roscoe Arbuckle, and, finally, the 1923 feature The Extra Girl. In some ways, what’s included in the set chronicles, or rather suggests, the arc from Mabel’s early triumphs to the beginnings of her decline, decidedly a more melancholy career arc than that of her erstwhile co-star, Chaplin.

 

Normand and Arbuckle in the opening title sequence of Fatty and Mabel Adrift

She’s at her fulsome-est, loveliest best in the earliest farces, in which her talent for quick-change facial expressions and razor-sharp physical timing is most in evidence. As the ’teens slouched toward 1920, the international moviegoing public demanded longer films, and Sennett obliged. His 1914 feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance,3 which starred Chaplin, Normand, and Marie Dressler was the world’s first full-length comedy, and, along with a titanic and bizarre performance by Dressler and a masterful one from Chaplin, captured Mabel at her absolute best.

Directed by Roscoe, Fatty and Mabel Adrift from 1916 is a leisurely affair that capitalizes comedically on the unlikely romantic alliance between the two physically disparate actors. In films like this, the pair became a huge box office draw. Normand is delightful here, but the comic situations lack the harder-edged delirium of the earlier shorts. The central, set-piece gag – in which Fatty and Mabel wake up to find their seaside cottage sinking in the middle of the ocean – is a well-engineered stunt with plenty of entertainment value, but, within it and the film, Mabel, as the softhearted wife of dunderheaded Fatty, has set aside the rambunctious eroticism of her earlier performances for a more placid sweetness.

Then we have The Extra Girl, an engaging, well-tooled dramatic comedy that also contains troubling glimpses of an unwell Mabel. From its initial scenes, we can see that a nearly 30-year-old Normand, as ingenue Sue Graham, plays young and can’t quite pull it off. The plot has Sue, after she wins a movie contest, leave her parents and boyfriend (Ralph Graves) in the Midwest to fulfill girlish dreams of stardom out in Hollywood, where a studio takes her on but, to her chagrin, only as a menial laborer.

In her early scenes, Mabel, sporting her characteristic long locks, is mostly her old ebullient self, but the Hollywood sequences capture her looking tired, if not somewhat ill. As her character labors in the studio’s wardrobe department, Normand has her hair pinned back, exposing her entire face, which often looks drawn and prematurely aged. Her eyes, which somehow appear smaller and limned with the effects of too much liquor and/or blow, no longer beam bathing-beauty exuberance. As early as 1916 she may have been symptomatic of the disease that would kill her, but by 1923, in order to work, she sometimes drank some kind of viscous opioid to counter the hemorrhaging. The sexy, raucous light has begun to dim.4 Although the star seems as full of willing gumption as ever, the film’s inability to freshen up Mabel’s appearance in these scenes makes this lightweight entertainment, happy ending and all, unintentionally sad.

Flicker Alley labels this set volume one, leading us to hope for more golden-era Mabel in succeeding5 sets. But whatever my own fascination with her, this volume is, of course, about much more than just Normand. Ben Turpin, one of Sennett’s brightest lights, is well represented by several shorts, including his broad, but very funny, lampoon of Erich von Stroheim’s sexual sadist from Foolish Wives (1922). In The Pride of Pikeville (1927), Turpin, as Baron Bonamo, is decked out in a fair approximation of Stroheim’s Prussian military uniform. Fleeing angry husbands in Europe, he sees his seductions go awry in bucolic America, forcing him into a shotgun wedding. In its burlesque of a recent film, Turpin’s two-reeler appears prescient of the movie-inspired skits from the ’50s TV variety program Your Show of Shows (1950-54), in which Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca (and company) satirized current films like From Here to Eternity (1953).

In the twenties, Sennett took on other extraordinary talent, such as Harry Langdon. Like Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon brought something new to silent comedy. Over 40 when he began with Sennett, Langdon’s persona was that of a strange, childlike man of undeterred innocence, whose reactions to a story’s ever-mounting series of dilemmas and disasters rely little on physical slapstick and the freneticism of farce. Situated in a pool of quietude as awfulness begins to erupt around him, Harry appears bemused by it all until, taking stock of circumstances, he suddenly registers alarm and hightails it.6 Threats can range anywhere from a pretty girl’s blandishments to a bully’s incipient violence.

Harry Langdon caught in the middle

In Saturday Afternoon (1926) – written by future director Frank Capra – Harry struggles haplessly under the stay-at-home strictures imposed by his harridan of a wife, but then becomes a victim of his buddy’s ill-advised plan of a freewheeling afternoon cavorting about town with a couple of chippies.7 Langdon’s evil genius is played by the wonderful Vernon Dent, a pairing that reminds one of Laurel and Hardy. In their films, Stan Laurel’s character feels inspired by Langdon’s, and you could even say that Paul Rubens’ 1980s creation Pee Wee Herman is a direct descendant of Harry’s.

Fields in The Dentist

Flicker Alley ends the set with two W. C. Fields shorts, which also point to the future, but one that ended when the great comic died in the ’40s. Fields’ eccentric character, which was uniquely misanthropic, drunken, and mean yet somehow redemptively hilarious left no room for imitation or absorption into the entertainment zeitgeist, as did Langdon’s character.8The Dentist (1932) and The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933) are among Fields’ earliest sound films and feature re-creations of skits performed in the twenties on Broadway, much in the same manner as Chaplin bringing his musical hall routine into his films. Because of Fields’ resurrection as a cultural icon in the ’60s, these two films have never since been out of circulation, but none of us watching campus or rep house screenings back in the day could have imagined their restored state here.

Special features for the Sennett set, mostly grouped at the end of each disc, are bits and pieces of Sennett ephemera, such as outtakes and rushes, film of Mack on TV shows, and a newsreel outtake showing a Keystone Kops reunion in 1962. A 26-page booklet details each film, with cast listings, synopses, and sources for all restorations.

We’re In the Movies: Palace of Silents and When You Wore a Tulip and I Wore a Big Red Rose. USA/2010/217 min./Color and B&W/Sound. 1.77:1 and 1.33:1 aspect ratios.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame. USA/1923/110 min./B&W and tinted/Silent, with orchestral score arranged by Donald Hunsberger. 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Chaplin at Mutual. 12 films. USA/1916-17/B&W/Silent, with choice of orchestral scores or solo piano improvisations.

The Mack Sennett Collection, Volume One. 50 films. USA/1909-1933/16hr., 45min./B&W and tinted/Silent, with solo piano scores/Sound. 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

All titles released by Flicker Alley in 2014.

  1. As I write this (8/31/14), Flicker Alley has announced more Cinerama titles to be released later this year. []
  2. This film appears in Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone set. []
  3. Included in Flicker Alley’s Chaplin at Keystone. []
  4. The Extra Girl was released just before many theaters across the country began to ban Mabel’s films in reaction to her involvement in the Desmond Taylor murder case in 1922. She was the last to see Taylor alive, was briefly considered a suspect, but was ultimately cleared of suspicion. But this and other future scandals helped drive her career to earth. []
  5. A joyous example of Normand from 1914 as both star and director has surfaced in a 2013 DVD from the National Film Preservation Board, American Film Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive. Won in a Cupboard (originally, Won in a Closet) had been considered lost, but was received recently at the archive as a 35mm nitrate print. In spite of some degraded footage, the print is remarkably crisp and detailed and Mabel is in classic form. []
  6. Langdon’s propensity to suddenly make tracks is funny because it shows him bursting out of his default position of stasis. Buster Keaton, too, is funny whenever he breaks out of his stillness to sprint, quite athletically, down the street. Characteristically, though, Langdon’s abrupt flight is more like that of a little boy, who comes to a split-second realization that he shouldn’t have disturbed that wasp nest. []
  7. The source material for the later Sennett comedies, like this one, is often in great shape. One of the pleasures of Saturday Afternoon is its window on the LA of the twenties, as the film has extensive location work in the city’s residential areas. []
  8. Or lend an example for future comics, as Normand did for future women entertainers and actresses, who found they could be both beautiful and funny. Carole Lombard, a glamorous actress who achieved major stardom in the ’30s, was a gifted comedienne. She can be seen as a very hot 19-year-old in Run, Girl, Run (1928) on disc 3 of the Sennett set. []