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Super Silents: Early Universal Vol. 2 on Blu-ray

  To follow up the success of Eureka's Masters of Cinema release of Universal silents, a second batch has been prepared for all those silent movie fans, going even further back into the past than Volume 1 for its first selection. All three of these films have been specially restored as part of the studio's programme of preserving its long history.

Going from earliest to most recent, we start with the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of the first megaproductions and one that naturally, failed at the box office as it had been too expensive to recoup its budget, an issue that can still afflict movies over a century later. The big selling point here was that it presented the world's first underwater footage in a motion picture, the sort of documentary clips that are ten a penny in today's TV nature shows, but back then proved beyond the means of the technology. So pleased were the producers with these innovations that they had the Williamson Brothers who devised it appearing at the start of the film to salute the audience, yet neglected to mention the names of any of the cast we were about to watch.

Any version of this Jules Verne bestseller needs a strong Captain Nemo, so what they did here was assemble a script that took in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and wedded it to the sequel, Mysterious Island, which had rebooted Nemo as an Indian character fighting against the British Empire, whereas in the original book his origin had been left an enigma (literally, Captain No-one). This revision has been adopted in more recent variations on the character, but does not necessarily negate, say, James Mason's classic performance in the Disney epic, since it could be reasoned they were ignoring the sequel book. However, making it problematic to modern eyes was casting Allen Holubar, a white guy, and slathering him in brown makeup for Nemo; it's a bit of an obstacle now.

Not only that, but his character now has a daughter who was abandoned on the island after a past crisis invented for this version, and she was covered in brown makeup too as some sort of wild girl archetype who of course is tamed by the decent, white, American hero. Submarines like Nemo's Nautilus were hitting the headlines at the time, this being made mid-First World War, but not in a good way for the anti-German forces. Nevertheless, there was a sense of cash-in about the undersea vehicle in this, despite the nineteenth century setting, though war does not feature as the main theme, as a more personal vendetta dominates, again not one from Verne. What was pleasing, were the leaps and bounds this made in getting to the big screen, many of the aspects we take for granted now in their infancy back then, and genuinely captivating. That and the octopus.

Next up, we go way out West, or rather, way up North to Canada for The Calgary Stampede, a blockbuster from 1925 that really did make its money back, as well as a healthy profit to boot. The star was Hoot Gibson, a forgotten figure now but in his heyday, basically the immediately post-WW1 years, he was a huge draw, second only to Tom Mix as the best-loved silent Western celebrity. Celebrity is the operative word here, for he did not merely stick to the movies, a man of action in real life, he staged rodeo shows with himself as the main attraction, his speciality the Roman style of riding horses, meaning riding two horses at once by standing with one foot on each of their backs and holding their reins together. Naturally, it was a skill he was keen to exhibit in this item.

Therefore the screenwriters devised a plot where Hoot would be torn apart from his true love thanks to a villain murdering his prospective (and extremely reluctant) father-in-law and pinning the blame on our hero. There's only one thing for it, scarper and stay a free man, one step ahead of the Canadian Mounties, joining a rodeo as a general dogsbody all the while champing at the bit to join in with the actual performance rather than peeling potatoes. If he makes any indication of his great ability with horses, the Mounties will swoop and he will be done for, since there's no proof he is telling the truth. Or so he thinks, as he doesn't know that the villain's Indian girlfriend witnessed him murdering the old man, yet has been sticking up for her beau instead of coming clean.

Now, we were edging back into problematic territory in that the Native Canadian character was not to be trusted, and you should see the bizarre manner in which the intertitles author wrote her dialogue to indicate, shall we say, an accent, but really this movie was an excuse to get Hoot in the saddle, or indeed saddles, and displaying the talents his fans loved. It's difficult to envisage him as a pin-up, mind you, despite his remarkable physicality he was a somewhat plain-looking gentlemen with soft, pudgy features and physique, belying his impressive strength and technique with the gee-gees. Still, if it is a little comical to see someone who would be a stuntman at best in the modern age essaying the role of romantic lead, once he's in action you can well understand the attraction, an unpretentious man's man who could put his money where his mouth was and ride like the wind.

The year later Reginald Denny was starring in one of his hit comedies, What Happened to Jones, a million miles away from Hoot's endeavours and appealing to a more sophisticated audience, even as it relied on the tropes of farce to carry the humour. Denny had a film on the first volume of these silents, Skinner's Dress Suit, but that was more a comedy of manners with its aspirational subject matter and social embarrassment as the main threat to happiness. This on the other hand, was a lot more knockabout and probably translated Denny's appeal better to an audience in the following century as it demonstrated his knack with a deft comedy approach that essentially saw him playing around three different characters, or personas, anyway, in the same hour of utter madcap.

The plot had Jones (Denny) getting married to well-to-do Marion Nixon the next day, so he needs an early night to prepare. His friends have other ideas, however, and grab him for a poker game which he only agrees to because he has such a strong hand. Unluckily for our protagonist, he is spotted by the police who do not take kindly to gambling going on under their noses, and from here he somehow ends up dressed in women's clothes alongside his short, portly pal (Otis Harlan, voice of Happy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) in an exclusive women's health spa - cross dressing in public is also illegal, it appears. As if that were not ludicrous enough, the next day he ends up in bishop's attire at his friend's house, on the way to officiate at his own wedding. Get out of that.

Denny enjoyed his major success with comedies like this, as while he remained a celebrity after sound came in, his crisp English accent ensured he could not play American characters anymore, and supporting roles began to dominate his career, some in comedies, but not all. So appreciate him here, obviously having a whale of a time with a perfect part to illustrate his comic prowess, and if overall What Happened to Jones was not as hilarious or stunt-filled as the more famous Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd hits of this era, it was a general sense of witty good humour that nevertheless generated some genuine, well-earned laughs. The other recognisable performer was probably Zasu Pitts, who played the dim maid, already forging a career as pixilated comic foils, but mostly this fine cast has been relegated to the mists of times past. You could observe that for all the stars on this set, but here is a way of remembering them, when many of them were some of the most famous performers in movies.

[The special features on the Early Universal Vol. 2 Blu-ray set are as follows:

Limited Edition O-Card Slipcase [First Print Run of 2000 Copies Only] | 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and What Happened to Jones? restored in 4K, The Calgary Stampede restored in 2K) | 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - score by Orlando Perez Rosso | The Calgary Stampede - score by Chris Tin | What Happened to Jones? - score by Anthony Willis | 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea - New video appreciation by author / critic Kim Newman | The Calgary Stampede - Brand new audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney | What Happened to Jones? - New audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat | PLUS: A Collector's Booklet featuring new writing on the films included in this set.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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