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What’s New in Old Movies: April 2024

by Don Stradley

 

This month’s edition should be called “What’s New in REALLY Old Movies,” since we’re focusing on some titles from the silent era that are getting the physical media treatment.


Fans of “old dark house” thrillers are probably familiar with The Cat and the Canary (1927), a classic from director Paul Leni that seemed to inspire the entire “spooky house with a killer on the loose” genre. The folks at Eureka Entertainment are releasing a Blu-ray of this old chestnut as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Nearly a century old, The Cat and the Canary holds up better than you’d imagine.


It was based on a modestly successful Broadway play and was probably more of a hit on film than on the stage. Starring Laura La Plante and Creighton Hale, the movie’s mix of comedy and thrills cast a spell over critics of the day. The Brooklyn Times Union called it “the best mystery picture we have ever seen.” In fact, the movie’s original release was such a sensation that it inspired theatrical producers to mount the play all across the country, which amounted to a sort of The Cat and the Canary mania. 


It’s all about the relatives of an eccentric dead millionaire who gather at his creepy mansion for the reading of his will. There are mysterious happenings, rumors of a homicidal maniac who has escaped from a nearby asylum, and a menacing, clutching hand that keeps appearing, all of which thrilled audiences in the days of Babe Ruth and Clara Bow. Part of the film’s appeal was Leni’s German film style, which relied on plenty of shadows and angles, and not so many close-ups of the stars, as had become too common in American films. The Cat and the Canary was a smash for Universal, and though it was remade three times in the next few decades, it was the silent film from Leni that lived on in infamy. It was even nominated for the American Film Institute's 2001 list of the Top 100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies. 


The Eureka release includes a lot of special features – basically, a dozen or so talking heads putting in their two cents – but there is one nifty extra that might be worth a look, namely, a Lucky Strike cigarette ad from Paul Leni himself. (86 min, available April 23, 2024)


 

For the obscurists among us, Kino Lorber is putting out The Road to Ruin, one of the many films made in the 1920s focusing on the dangers of sex. It is volume 15 of a Kino series called Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, and it includes both the 1928 silent version, and a 4K restoration of the 1934 talkie remake. Listen, when it comes to warning parents about the perils of sex and jazz music, you can’t have enough remakes.


Both versions star Helen Foster as a restless teen whose need for love leads her into the abyss of alcoholism, marijuana, and pregnancy.  (By the time of the talkie version, Foster was pushing 30, but still playing a teenager.)  Anyway, it’s campy in a Reefer Madness sort of way. It’s also amusing to see the talking version, which is a frame-by-frame remake of the silent feature. You’ll also get to see a lot of young ladies playing strip poker and dancing in their underwear.


Newly restored from archival 35mm elements, this Blu-ray disc of The Road to Ruin is presented in cooperation with Something Weird, the estate of Dan Sonney, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. It also features a gallery of exploitation trailers, while the 1934 version features audio commentary from Eric Schaefer, who wrote a comprehensive book on the exploitation genre called Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films. (129 min, available April 23)


 

From Undercrank Productions comes volume five in their Accidentally Preserved series. The term “accidentally preserved” was coined by Undercrank Productions’ founder Ben Model in reference to silent films that exist only because copies were made on 16mm safety film in the 1920s and 1930s for the home movie rental market.  


This two-disc set features four titles, starting with Lorraine of the Lions (1925) starring Patsy Ruth Miller as a queen of the jungle type of gal. It’s basically the Tarzan story, with Edward Sedgwick directing for Universal. Sedgwick went on to be one of MGM’s most prolific directors, working behind the camera for many of Buster Keaton’s MGM talkies. Miller is probably best known for playing the gypsy girl in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (1923). 


On the same disc is a Mack Sennet comedy short called Love at First Flight (1928), following the antics of a long forgotten comic named Lige Conley. Though he bore a resemblance to Charlie Chaplin, Conley’s style was more in line with the meek Harry Langdon. Having started his career as a supporting player in Harold Lloyd comedies, he also borrowed a bit from the Lloyd playbook. He was always the straight-laced young man who found himself in outrageous, often hair-raising situations. Daphne Pollard plays Conley’s love interest, a dance instructor named Paula Polka.


Love at First Flight might be classified as an aviation comedy, since a good portion of the gags take place on an airplane. Upon its initial release it was notable for its Technicolor sequences, and a beach scene featuring the Mack Sennet Bathing Beauties. Moreover, the comedy was directed by Eddie Cline, known for directing several Buster Keaton shorts and some of W.C. Fields best features.

Disc two isn’t bad, either.  Hoofbeats of Vengeance (1928) stars equine hero Rex, King of Wild Horses, as a horse seeking revenge for his owner’s murder, while Belle Bennett stars in The Fourth Commandment (1927), a domestic drama involving an overbearing mother-in-law.  (207 min, Blu-ray, available April 9


 

From the reading room: For lovers of promotional movie art, you might like Rick Greene’s Promotional Pandemonium! - Selling Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to Depression-Era America: Book One – The Hal Roach Studios Features. Despite the cumbersome title it’s an intriguing collection of advertisements, movie posters, and lobby cards used to sell Laurel & Hardy movies. Granted, this is not a casual thing you buy to read on the commute to work. It’s a 494 page hardcover edition that is quite costly because of the amount of color pictures. Still, it’s an intriguing edition for anyone interested in movie marketing, and would make a lovely gift for any fans of the beloved comedy duo. The literature on Stan and Ollie is a rather overstuffed genre, but Promotional Pandemonium is a worthy addition. (BearManor Books, available March 28)

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