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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > History > India > Politics > Nature > Comedy > Slapstick > Silent Cinema > Soviet > Propaganda > Mack Sennett Collection, Volume One (1909 - 1933/all Flicker Alley Blu-ray)/Shiraz: A Romance Of India (1928/MVD Blu-ray w/DVD)

Around India With A Movie Camera (2017/Icarus DVD)/Charlie Chaplin's Circus (1928, 1969/Criterion Blu-ray)/Fragment Of An Empire (1929 w/DVD)/L'Argent (1928)/Mack Sennett Collection, Volume One (1909 - 1933/all Flicker Alley Blu-ray)/Shiraz: A Romance Of India (1928/MVD Blu-ray w/DVD)

Picture: C+/B/B- & C+/B/B/B & C+ Sound: C+/B-/B & C+/B/B-/B & B- Extras: C+/B+/B-/B-/B/D Films: B-/B/B-/B/B/B-

Up next are a huge amount of mostly silent films, all of which are have lucky to have survived for a number of reasons (unstable nitrate film, no film preservation at the time, censorship, copies worn out) and all of which should be rediscovered today. Some are known, but all should be.

We start with Around India With A Movie Camera, a 2017 compilation film by Sandhya Suri that covers 48 years of life and history in India (from 1899 to 1947) that includes some of the earliest surviving film footage of the country and much more, the way of life there (even when staged) and both international movie star Sabu and Gandhi are among those we see in this very compelling 72 minutes. Some will be surprised the footage exists, while others (especially those who are conned by the lie that HD digital video is somehow a step above film) will be shocked at the detail of some of these clips.

The cameramen and directors then wanted to make a record for people to see, but even they would be shocked that the footage has survived long after they have gone. Fortunately, it has and it should be added that India, especially in daylight, tends to photograph very well and always has. No wonder they have such a huge film industry now all their own. Everyone should see this film at least once.

Extras include a silent Home Life film (33 minutes), Indian Scrapbook film (11 minutes) and Scenes Of His Excellency The Viceroy's Garden Party at Belvedere (6 minutes, silent).

Charlie Chaplin's Circus (1928, 1969) is one of the comedy genius' funniest films and it is very seamless, but he made it at a very bad time in his life and the period was so bad, he pulled the film and tampered with it over the next few decades until he settled for a version that made him happy 41 years later!

Due to that and destroying all previous versions, the original is a lost film and that is a shame, because it might tell us some interesting things about his art, work and person we will never see or know and the addition of an opening song with vocal before going into title card silent movie mode does not totally ring true for me. With that said, his last silent-era film has The Tramp in top form with brilliant stunts, sight gags, suspense and great use of the title locale that he gets as much out of as possible. Viewed on its own without knowing about the delays and reediting, it fits in with his great work of the time and this restoration and rerelease by Criterion is yet another Chaplin gem they have done total justice to. It also shows once again how unstoppable and amazing his talent was.

Extras include an illustrated foldout on the film with tech info and an essay by critic Pamela Hutchinson, while the Blu-ray disc adds a new feature-length audio commentary featuring Charlie Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance, Interview with Chaplin from 1969, New interview with Chaplin's son Eugene Chaplin, In the Service of the Story, a new program on the film's visual effects and production design by effects specialist Craig Barron, Chaplin Today: "The Circus," a 2003 documentary on the film, featuring filmmaker Emir Kusturica, Excerpted audio interview with Chaplin musical associate Eric James, Unused cafe sequence with new score by composer Timothy Brock, and related outtakes with audio commentary by Chaplin historian Dan Kamin, Newly discovered outtakes featuring the Tramp and the bareback rider, Original recording of the film's opening song, "Swing, Little Girl," by Ken Barrie, Footage of the 1928 Hollywood premiere and Re-release trailers.

Fridrikh Ermler's Fragment Of An Empire (1929) is a film that has not been seen much in recent decades, but at the time of its release, the film and its director influenced what became Soviet Cinema as much as any filmmaker there, including Eisenstein. A pro-Soviet propaganda film with some substance, a soldier suffering amnesia (Fiodor Nikitin, his fourth and final film for Ermler, whose relationship was strained at this point, all as silent cinema was coming to an end) has his condition as a result of WWI.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 will finally help him remember and be his salvation, but not before going through and does this in part with some very bold, stark moments with sometimes shocking and definitely intentionally provocative images and ideas that would still be shocking for any cinema when they are used to actually say something. Even if you land up not agreeing with the politics or find them trite and now passe as the USSR is gone, they were effective enough to support an empire that was growing then before it itself fragmented permanently in 1990.

Extras include an illustrated booklet including text credits, illustrations and the long, detailed essay "A Masterpiece in Soviet Cinema": A new booklet essay on the historical importance of this film in Soviet Cinema. The discs add Feature Length Audio Commentary: Commentary track featuring Russian film historian and curator Pater Bagrov and film restorer Robert Byrne on the collaborative efforts that went into preserving Fragment of an Empire, Restoring Fragment of an Empire: A demonstration by film historian and preservationist Robert Byrne on the film's restoration, "Notes On the New Score": A short essay by composers Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius on their new score for Fragment of an Empire, "Adapting Vladimir Deshovov": A short essay by composer Daan van den Hurk on his recent adaptation of Vladimir Deshevov's 1929 original piano score and a Rare Image Gallery: A slideshow presentation of vintage marketing materials, original poster artwork, and more!

Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928) is a darkly comical classic about greed, the bad side of human nature and at 150 minutes, a key silent cinema epic that takes us inside the world of big money and big business, complete with its portrayal of a stock exchange that is visually remarkable and was inspired by the actual 1882 collapse of a real bank, the Union Generale.

Pierre Alcover plays Nicolas Saccard, whose bad stock bets lead to disaster, but even in the face of total collapse, comes up with a grandiose scheme about an aviator (a bigger deal at the time, as the Martin Scorsese film on Howard Hughes also reminds us) that he'll back, but not just as a publicity stunt and celebration of technological innovation, but wi9th plans to take raw materials from a foreign country for next to no money and rebuild another fortune based on all the wrong things.

Lost as a complete film after its success for decades, it was remarkably reconstructed to its complete original form in the 1970s and that is the version that now survives. Guess there were some people who could not handle its honesty about greed and destruction, but it lives and is as relevant now as it ever was. I love the way it was shot (the Director of Photography Jules Kruger was the highest paid in French cinema at the time and you can see why here) along with solid editing and nice transition shots and fades.

Yes, it is a long film and that might be trying at times, but it is as key as any French silent films, including Children of Paradise and its arrival on Blu-ray is something to celebrate. Cheers to to all the other actors, who are really very good and effective here. Take the time to see this one and be surprised.

Extras include a Souvenir Booklet featuring an essay by Mireille Beaulieu and collection of unique photographs and promotional material recently discovered in Mrs. L'Herbier's collection, while the Blu-ray disc adds The Making of L'Argent (Autour de L'Argent): A pioneering documentary, directed by L'Herbier's assistant Jean Dreville, featuring incredible footage of the cast and crew during the actual production as well as the director's comments recorded later in 1971 (39 minutes), Photo Gallery with promo stills, posters and advertising to sell the film, The Two Restorations of Autour de L'Argent) runs five minutes and compares the 1971 version with the 2019 version and short film Prometheus Banker (aka Promethee Banquier): A perfect thematic complement to L'Argent, complete with new restoration, this short film by Marcel L'Herbier tells the story of a banker-seducing vampire (15 minutes).

Issued a few years ago, The Mack Sennett Collection, Volume One (1909 - 1933) is a fun, amusing and often funny collection of 50 live action comedy shorts the legendary producer/director at the great Keystone Studios was once the stronghold for most of the comedy talent in U.S. cinema of the time including Mabel Norman, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, Fatty Arbuckle, Ford Sterling, Billy Bevan, Mack Swain and before he left for a massive career on his own, Charlie Chaplin.

Sennett also acted in some of the films and also wrote some of them, so he was the driving force in helping to build cinematic comedy and the proof is that many of these films are still very funny and authentically funnier than many 'comedies' we see all the time that fail, the work here is from an honest place about what is seriously funny and the people who made these films cared. Also, the last 5 shorts (staring in 1930) have sound and when I finished watching (save knowing the unfair fate Arbuckle suffered), I wondered why more of the talent here did not move on to greater success. This is a fun set everyone should try out once. I am amazed at how good some of these are.

Extras include another great 16-page full color booklet filled with rare images, production information, restoration notes, and Keystone - Sennett player biographies, New music scores from silent film accompanists Philip Carli, Ben Model, Dennis Scott, Andrew Simpson, and Donald Sosin, Audio Commentary tracks from noted comedy historians Brent Walker, Steve Massa, Richard M. Roberts, Stan Taffel, Sam Gill, Paul Gierucki, and others, Memorabilia Galleries featuring vintage lobby cards, glass slides, posters, scripts, studio photographs, The Mack Sennett Story by film historian Joe Adamson, and rare audio recordings and Long unseen rarities: newsreels, trailers, outtakes, Sennett-Color films, the dedication of the Mabel Normand soundstage, This Is Your Life Mack Sennett, and much more rare outtakes and silent clips!

Finally we have Franz Osten's Shiraz: A Romance Of India (1928) telling the amazing tale of how the legendary Taj Mahal was made, because one man loved a woman so much, he used his architectural talents to create what become one of the most iconic man-made structures in history. Taking place in the 17th Century (!!!) and using an all-Indian cast, it was shot on location and is remarkable in its naturalistic look, flow and use of the actors and country. Running 106 minutes, it has Himansu Rai as its lead, a huge star in that country's silent cinema and it takes its time to tell its story well.

It has a new score that is fine, but I like just watching it silent because the detail and smoothness of the editing is so compelling as it tells its story, once you get involved, it is hard to stop watching and I cannot believe the film looks this good considering its age. It took two cameramen to shoot the film (Henry Harris and Emil Schunemann), but it is all seamless and the film is a gem that tells a story that few people seem to know of these days considering the building is still talked about to this day. It is yet another silent gem that defies the stereotypes of silent films being boring and that reading title cards is somehow a 'burden' for a viewer.

Extras include a 2017 restoration demo (3 minutes) and 1944 Musical Instruments Of India film (12 minutes).

All the films featured on all these discs were shot in the original academy aperture of black style (aka narrow vision) 1.33 X 1 and for some of the films on our sole DVD, all of it originated on 35mm nitrate film, which has gun powder in it and can ignite just by becoming unstable. Water cannot put it out as it produces its own oxygen, so the fact that all these films survived is amazing and that they then had to be restored is pretty amazing. Sometimes they survive in dupe negative form, other older nitrate or acetate prints and restored versions are usually on polyester or Kodak's ESTAR photochemical film stocks for proper preservation.

The India DVD looks good for the format and pulls together many varied, usually black and white and priceless clips for its program. It is remarkable to see these rare moments in a country that only later gained its independence after being part of the British Empire for so long, but here it is. This is all well edited together. Old sound and new music is in lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix with obvious vintage, location mono sound.

The 1080p 1.33 X 1 black & white digital High Definition image transfers on all the Blu-rays can show the age of the materials used, but are far superior a transfer to all previous releases of the films where applicable and only Fragment has more scratches, softness and issues than the rest that hold it back, but even it looks good enough and is very watchable. This new scan is mostly from a 35mm nitrate print, but a little more work and footage was needed to complete what we get here.

Circus is a 4K scan from a 1967 35mm duplicate negative as set by Chaplin for what he considers the final and only cut. L'Argent is a 4K scan from, remarkably, its original 35mm nitrate negative (reconstructed and finally restored fully by the 1990s), while the Sennett are HD scans from various sources and Shiraz was restored by BFI from several sources.

All the Blu-rays have new music scores, save a new song on Circus that debuted in the late 1960s reissue, all in PCM 2.0 Stereo. Shiraz has its new music in a DTS-HD MA (Master Audio) 2.0 Stereo lossless mix. The 1.33 X 1 Fragment and Shiraz DVDs have lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks that are fine for what they are, but are no match for their Blu-ray counterparts and are only included for convenience.

- Nicholas Sheffo


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