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Enjoy the Silents: Early Universal Vol. 1 on Blu-ray

  Universal is one of the longest running Hollywood studios in existence, and still around today. This means they have a back catalogue of countless films, including many silents from the nineteen-twenties and before, so Eureka have released the first volume of a trio of them on Blu-ray. They are a mix of genres, from the comedy of Skinner's Dress Suit to the adventure of The Shield of Honor to the sporting melodrama of The Shakedown, featuring audio commentaries on each. Let's take a closer look.

Skinner's Dress Suit (1926) is a social climbing comedy that featured Reginald Denny at the height of his leading man phase, alongside Laura La Plante playing his wife Honey, another big star of the silent era whose fame did not last into the next millennium. But back in the twenties (a century ago, that is) they were both a major draw, and this type of light, humorous vehicle where personal disaster seems about to strike only to be breezily averted was exactly what audiences wanted to see back then, a fantasy they could indulge in where nothing was out of the grasp of the modern couple if they had the luck of their essential decency on their side.

The plot had Honey demanding Skinner secure a raise at his job, whatever that is - it is not important to know what he does, merely that he does it. Skinner is reluctant to rock the boat, but it is implied his attractive wife will be very good to him should he return home a little better off than he left. However, his boss is an ogre and office pranks see to it that our hero messes up his working day sufficiently that the boss responds to his request with a resounding "NO!" (he gets a big intertitle to say so), and Skinner must return to Honey with the bad news. Except, of course, being a people pleaser, he does not tell her he did not get the raise, he tells her quite the opposite.

Honey is understandably delighted and begins spending the extra ten dollars a week pay, unaware it does not exist, blowing their savings on a new dress suit for her hubby which he can wear to the posh ball being held in their town. But Skinner is on the verge of losing his job... if this sounds like a sitcom plot, you're not far off, indeed it resembles the sort of thing one of the supporting cast, Arthur Lake, would make in the Blondie series of B-movies and radio shows (and eventually television). If you want to see the roots of the sitcom form, with the domesticity offset by social embarrassment and increasingly out of control situations, you could do worse than this - Denny is dapper, La Plante is bright as a button, and you can boo and hiss at future tyrannical gossip columnist Hedda Hopper as she appears as a boss's wife.

The Shield of Honor (1927), on the other hand, begins as a fawning tribute to the Los Angeles Police Department with not one but two opening captions telling us how wonderful they were and how the American people should be proud of them. Then we're on parade and father and son officers Dan McDowall (Ralph Lewis) and Jack McDowall (Neil Hamilton) are decorated, and Jack flies off in his plane with girlfriend and police chief's daughter Gwen (Dorothy Gulliver) for a little break from the hubbub so they can whisper sweet nothings to each other. So far, so safe and supportive, but there's a crime going on under their noses: a diamond smuggling ring.

This is led by interloper Chandler (Nigel Barrie) who is delineated as a villain by his little black moustache, a sure sign of a cad and a bounder: his one slip is when he says flying is too dangerous for him, but Jack finds Chandler's own plane at a small out of town airport and starts to put two and two together. As all this is going on - melodrama! Dan has been given compulsory retirement because he's sixty-five, and this turns him into a maniac for some bizarre reason, effectively ruining his birthday party with the family with his erratic behaviour. This may strike you as over the top, since he acts as if he's been given a date of execution rather than an opportunity to put his feet up.

It all works out as he gains a security guard job at the diamond company offices, as Chandler's plan unravels in a punchy thriller that packed in the action. Hamilton is still best known as Commissioner Gordon from the sixties Batman TV show, but look down the cast list and you'll see Thelma Todd as the conniving secretary of the gang, a change from her usual comedy roles. She would die in mysterious circumstances that were reputedly covered up by the Los Angeles Police Department this film is championing, which places a different view on the unironic heroics on display here, but that's something more appropriate for a James Ellroy novel than anything in The Shield of Honor. What you did get, its eccentricities aside, was a rip-roaring yarn with chairs broken over heads and planes brought down with thrown flares, plus the requisite race against time to save the girl.

The Shakedown (1929) was a breakthrough project for director William Wyler, who would go on to helm acknowledged classics such as Wuthering Heights, Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday and the multiple Oscar-winning Ben Hur in the fifties. Known as a perfectionist, to the extent of making his cast do around a hundred takes of a scene if he deemed it necessary, he was on nascent form on this one, not yet having the clout to put the cast and crew through those kind of paces, but some have discerned his growing talent behind the camera to be seen most clearly here, in one of the last of the silents before the talkies really took hold and revolutionised Hollywood.

Here was a boxing drama, with the emphasis on how corrupt the sport is, something many of the audience would have accepted but put their betting money down on fights anyway. This was very clearly cynical about what in other movies may have been depicted as a noble art of pugilism, as the lead was Dave Roberts, played by James Murray fresh off his critically acclaimed hit The Crowd, and he appears to be on the level as he steps in to defend a lady from a nasty piece of work boxer called Roff (George Kotsonaros, complete with authentic broken nose). An official fight is arranged and all expectations are that Dave will marmalise the bad guy, so of course the opposite happens.

This is because it is a fixed match, and Dave took a dive, indeed the whole thing is a fix from the poolhall opening to the last punch thrown, and he takes a cut from the suckers who bet and lost on him. Dave is obviously a man in need of reform, so he gets that through the love of a good woman (Barbara Kent) and a street urchin (Jack Hanlon) who believe in him and make up his mind to do something better with his talent and his life. This is especially poignant in light of Murray's real-life trials and tribulations, as he was unprepared for the success of these silents and by the sound era was struggling with alcoholism, living on the streets and begging for change as the Depression ground the world down. He was only thirty-five when he died, drowning in a harbour, accidentally or on purpose nobody knows. So remember him here, triumphant in character, it's corny but it's good.

[Here are the special features of Eureka's double disc Blu-ray release of these films:

Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures (Skinner's Dress Suit and The Shakedown restored in 4K, The Shield of Honor restored in 2K) | Skinner's Dress Suit - score by Leo Birenberg | The Shield of Honor - score by Alex Kovacs | The Shakedown - score by Michael Gatt | Audio Commentary tracks on all three features | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring new writing on the films included in this set.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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