Movies Till Dawn: In Glorious Black and White (and Orange and Blue), Part 2

12 a.m. – “Sherlock Holmes” – Adventure/Mystery

81x0cE98knL._SL1500_(1916, Flicker Alley) Before Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett, and more recently, Benedict Cumberbatch, William Gillette was the actor most associated in the public’s mind with portraying Sherlock Holmes, and this silent film, considered lost until 2014, was considered his only screen appearance in the role. The American-born Gillette adapted a stage play about Holmes from an original script by the character’s creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and performed it 1,300 times between 1899 and 1932; the play introduced many of the Sherlockiana that have become associated with the character over the last century, including the detective’s deerstalker cap, curved pipe and the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson.” This feature, produced and distributed by the Chicago-based Essanay Studios (which released many of Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedies), is essentially a filmed version of Gillette’s play, which borrows elements from several of Doyle’s stories, most notably “A Scandal in Bohemia.” That story’s femme fatale, Irene Adler, becomes the mild-mannered Alice Faulkner (Marjorie Kay), whose receipt of “indiscreet” letters from a European crown prince to her late sister makes her the target of the Larrabees, a husband-and-wife team of swindlers. Gillette’s Holmes thwarts the couple at every turn, prompting them to call in the consulting detective’s nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain), to aid in their scheme. The tall, craggy-faced Gillette (who was 63 at the time of filming) certainly looks the part, but his Holmes is more of a traditional hero than the cerebral and mercurial figure played by Rathbone, Brett and Peter Cushing; criminal justice for his Holmes is more a sacred duty than intellectual pursuit. He’s also essentially a solo act – Dr. Watson (Edward Fielding) spends his relatively few screen moments holding down the fort at 221B Baker Street – and even shows a tender heart in regard to Kay’s Alice Faulkner. Despite those differences, Gillette holds your attention throughout the nearly two-hour running time, and one is left wondering if his Holmes might have endured longer in the public memory had he made more films in the role; this three-disc Blu-ray/DVD presentation finally allows his portrayal to stand alongside the other, more widely known movie Sherlocks from the latter part of the 20th century.

The version of “Sherlock Holmes” featured on Flicker Alley’s set is one created specifically for French audiences by Essaney in 1919; it divided the seven-reel film into four chapters and added French intertitles translated from the original English print. According to the set’s extensive liner notes, this chapter division and the titles are the only difference between the 1916 feature issued in the States and this French version; the marvelous 4K digital restoration, orchestrated by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Le Cinematheque Francaise (where the print was found), resulted in two versions – a French-language edition with the original title cards and an English-language take with translated cards, both of which are featured in the set, along with the gorgeous original French color tinting scheme (coppery oranges and deep blues) and a new film score by Neil Brand, Guenter Buchwald and Frank Bockius. Bonus materials are plentiful and engaging, and include three Sherlock-related shorts (with new scores by Cliff Retallick) produced before Gillette’s film, including “A Canine Sherlock,” with Spot the Dog foiling bank robbers, as well as HD transfers of Fox Movietone Newsreels featuring Gillette and Conan Doyle (talking about his interest in spiritualism in a 1928 interview that, rather ghoulishly, was reissued after his death in 1930). There is also a wealth of Gillette-related material, including a reproduction of his stage play script, promotional photographs from the Broadway run of “Sherlock” and lobby cards from the 1916 film release.

1:30 a.m. – “The Phantom of Paris” – Suspense/Thriller

61GOuBR-nNL._SL1000_(1931, Warner Archives Collection) Viewers lured to this Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer talkie by the promise of its sinister title and source material by Gaston Leroux – who also wrote “The Phantom of the Opera” – may be somewhat dismayed to find instead a slight but energetic vehicle for silent film star John Gilbert. Gilbert plays Cheri-Bibi, a French magician turned detective featured in four of Leroux’s novels; here, the hero is sentenced to prison for the murder of a wealthy count (C. Aubrey Smith). The real culprit is world-class heel Ian Keith, who has framed Cheri-Bibi in order to marry the count’s daughter (Leila Hyams) – whose heart belongs to Cheri-Bibi, mais oui – and siphon her sizable fortune. With the help of his friend (Jean Hersholt), Gilbert escapes from prison and commences with a scheme to clear his name. The plan is fantastical to the point of being absurd (plastic surgery is a key element), and requires the audience, as well as nearly every character, to accomplish a Herculean suspension of belief, which topples the whole deck of cards; the cast, which includes Lewis Stone as Cheri-Bibi’s police nemesis, instead carries the picture. Lon Chaney, Sr., who rose to fame as Leroux’s Phantom, was originally slated to play Cheri-Bibi; with his death in 1930, the project eventually fell to Gilbert, whose career was in a tailspin due to a clash with MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and a rumor that his speaking voice was high and effeminate. That wasn’t the case, as evidenced here, but the damage was done, and his career withered away until his death in 1936. Hyams would co-star in both “Freaks” “Island of Lost Souls” the following year, while Hersholt, Stone and Smith would remain prolific character actors into the next decade. Keith, who was briefly considered to play Dracula for Universal that same year, reunited with Gilbert opposite Greta Garbo in “Queen Christina” (1933) before an eclectic career that encompassed everything from “Nightmare Alley” (1947) to “It Came from Beneath the Sea” (1955). Warner Archive’s DVD is full-screen.

3 a.m. – “Five Came Back” – Action/Adventure/Thriller

710luhSpnEL._SL1000_(1938, Warner Archives Collection) A transcontinental flight from Los Angeles to Panama City crashes in the jungles of the Amazon with two pilots and nine passengers aboard. The wreck provides the survivors with an ample opportunity to show their mettle – or failings – as they attempt to repair the plane before headhunters close in, but complications ensure that only five of their number is allowed to escape. Decades of plane crash and disaster films have blunted the full impact of this RKO production, but it remains a well-crafted and exciting B picture, buoyed by future A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Chief among the former is Lucille Ball, who drew critical praise as a passenger with a shady past, while director John Farrow and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo, Nathaneal West (“Day of the Locust”) and Jerome Cady (“Call Northside 77”) all rose to major studio work as a result of the film’s box office success (cinematographer Nicholas Murusaca never quite left the B-movie fields, but provided stellar work for Val Lewton and on noir like 1953’s “The Blue Gardenia”). The rest of the cast – B-movie stars like Chester Morris and Kent Taylor, and old pro character players like John Carradine, Joseph Calleia, C. Aubrey Smith (hello again) and Allen Jenkins – all lending solid support. “Five Came Back” would be remade twice: once in Mexico as “Los que volvieron” (1948), and then in 1956 as “Back from Eternity,” with Anita Ekberg in the Lucille Ball and Farrow again in the director’s chair. The WAC disc is taken from a terrific-looking 35mm print.

4:30 a.m. – “Jamaica Inn” – Adventure/Thriller

91iJun-j8FL._SL1500_(1939, Cohen Media Group) Alfred Hitchcock’s last British-made film (before departing for Hollywood that same year) is adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s historical novel, which has been maligned as one of the director’s subpar efforts since its release. Neither Hitchcock nor Du Maurier cared for the film, probably because of star and producer Charles Laughton’s insistence on shaping the final product to his own vision; though their clash may have resulted in an unsatisfactory production for Hitchcock and subsequently, many of his devotees, it’s certain not a disaster, and largely due to Laughton. As Sir Humphrey Pengallan, the jocular justice of the peace in a small coastal Cornwall town, Laughton gives an eccentric but amusing performance that, while out of step with the rest of the film – which concerns young Maureen O’Hara’s attempt to flee a band of cutthroats that deliberately wreck ships and steal their cargo – walks (or, in Laughton’s case, minces) away with every scene with lip-smacking, (prosthetic) eyebrow-waggling relish. O’Hara (whom Laughton brought to the picture and then cast in his 1939 take of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”) and a pre-Long John Silver Robert Newton are appealing heroes, the action setpieces are rollicking, and the supporting cast of rogues, which includes Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff from “The Most Dangerous Game”) and actor-playwright Emlyn Williams (who contributed to the script for Hitchcock’s 1939 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much”), are gleefully evil. “Jamaica Inn” also marked the screenwriting debut of Hitchcock’s longtime assistant, Joan Harrison, who collaborated with Sidney Gilliat, Hitchcock’s wife and collaborator, Alma Reville, and author J.B Priestley; Harrison would go on to earn Oscar nods for her adaptation of Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and “Foreign Correspondent.” Cohen’s 75th anniversary Blu-ray rescues the film from its fate as a lousy-looking public domain title with this gorgeous 4K presentation, which includes an informative audio commentary by critic Jeremy Arnold, and an interview with writer Donald Spoto about the film’s production issues.

6 a.m. – “The 1955 Rock ‘N’ Roll Revue” – Music/Comedy

Rock-n-Rhythm-Collectors-Set-3D-Cover-Art-transparent(1955, Film Chest) This public domain chestnut, originally titled “Harlem Variety Revue,” is a compilation of musical numbers filmed for television broadcast (as “Showtime at the Apollo”) in Los Angeles and New York and then stitched together with comedy and dance routines for theatrical release to cash in on the dawning rock and roll movement. The term applies loosely, at best, to many of the acts – there are jazz numbers by Duke Ellington (“The Mooche” and “The Hawk Talks,” with Willie “The Lion” Smith and Louis Bellson, who gets a knockout drum solo on the latter tune) and Lionel Hampton, doo-wop by the Clovers (with new vocalist Billy Mitchell on “Your Cash Ain’t Nothing But Trash”), blues by Big Joe Turner (“Oke-she-moke-she-pop”) with Paul Williams’ band, pop R&B by Larry Darnell and Ruth Brown and vocal jazz by Nat “King” Cole and Dinah Washington – but a case could certainly be made for performers like Turner and the Clovers as building blocks on which modern rock and roll would be built. The wraparound material features some fine tap numbers by class acts like Charles “Honi” Coles and Cholly Atkins and a parade of comics, including Mantan Moreland and Nipsey Russell; the whole affair is stitched together with “host” segments featuring Willie Bryant, who had worked as a producer, talent scout, comedian and bandleader since the ‘20s before helping to introduce R&B to white audiences as a DJ on New York radio. Bryant also served as emcee at the Apollo, often with his former comedy partner, Leonard Reed, who created the enduring “Shim Sham Shimmy” dance; the two are featured together in several well-worn skits with Coles and Atkins.

Film Chest’s two-disc set includes a second compilation film, “Rhythm and Blues Revue” (1956), which was originally titled “Basin Street Revue”; many of the performers featured in “Rock ‘N’ Roll” are showcased here, like Turner, Brown and Martha Davis, along with numbers by the great Amos Milburn (doing “Bad, Bad Whiskey”), Herb Jeffries, Cab Calloway (“Minnie the Moocher,” natch) and Sarah Vaughn. A second disc features the 1956 feature “Rock, Rock, Rock”; the story, about 13-year-old Tuesday Weld’s scheme to raise money for a prom dress, is completely disposable, but the lineup of musicians is outstanding: you get a lascivious Chuck Berry dominating the screen with “You Can’t Catch Me,” La Vern Baker, the Flamingos, Frankie Lymon (smirking knowingly as he lip-syncs “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent” with the Teenagers), and atomic-level rock and roll by the Johnny Burnette Trio (a powerhouse “Lonesome Train on a Lonesome Track”) and Jimmy Cavallo and the Houserockers. Alan Freed, who brought the acts from his package tour, oversees the whole thing, which was shot in just nine days by producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky, who later struck paydirt in England with horror portmanteau pics like “Tales from the Crypt” and “Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.” Oh, and that’s Connie Francis providing the singing voice for Tuesday.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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