Movies Till Dawn: From Long Ago

*indicates that this title is also available to view, rent, or purchase on various streaming platforms.

Tom Mix: Sky High/The Big Diamond Robbery” (1922/1929, Undercrank Productions*) Two adventures featuring Tom Mix, a Western star of the silent era whose vast filmography exists today as only a handful of titles. “Sky High” benefits greatly from action sequences filmed on location at the Grand Canyon (including one hair-raising aerial stunt) and a relatively prescient take on immigration issues (Mix’s Border Patrol agent battles traffickers smuggling Chinese workers into the States via Mexico). “Diamond Robbery” – Mix’s final silent feature – moves him to the big city to track down the thieves who took a diamond belonging to speed-loving Kathryn McGuire (who co-starred in several Buster Keaton comedies). The stunt work, much of which is done by the then-49-year-old Mix, is again the key selling point; the Blu-ray features crisp 2K restorations by Undercrank Productions from archival 35mm prints preserved by the Library of Congress and Lobster Films and new organ scores by label chief/historian/preservationist Ben Model.

End of the World” (1931, Kino Lorber) The appearance of a world-wrecking comet divides global society into opposing factions, with the scientific-religious communities personified by actor Jean (director Abel Gance) and free thinker Martial (Victor Francen) and the military-industrial-financial complex anchored by Samson Fainsilber’s oily (and barely-coded Jewish) Schomburg. Wildly ambitious French science fiction parable by Gance (his first sound effort) and writers including astronomer Camille Flammarion had an original running time of over three hours before Gance’s investors edited it down to a 95-minute version long on spectacle and short on cohesion (which failed miserably upon release). What remains, as evidenced in Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray, underscores Gance’s impressive grasp of cinematic language through editing, camera angles and impressive visual effects that became prevalent in the years that followed, as well as its hopeful tone of world peace through global unification and spiritual focus. Unfortunately, its merits are also outdone at times by a convoluted premise made exponentially more difficult to follow by the drastic edit and semi-hysterical elements (Gance did himself no favors by showing Jean playing Jesus in a stage play). Kino’s subtitled Blu-ray features an impressive 2K restoration (for a 92-year-old film) and a featurette with a quartet of historians discussing the film’s troubled production and the extensive missing (and lost) footage.

Anna May Wong Collection” (1938-39, Kino Lorber) Trio of black-and-white titles, all released by Paramount and starring Santa Monica-born actress Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star. Though greater fame and choice parts eluded her throughout her career (she was famously turned down for the lead in a 1935 adaptation of “The Good Earth), she sought to play roles outside the Asian stereotypes put forth by the film industry and earned an enduring fan base as well as lasting critical appreciation. The three films included in the KL Studio Classics set – 1938’s “Dangerous To Know,” along with “Island of Lost Men” and “King of Chinatown” – were lower-budgeted titles Wong used to complete her contract to Paramount, but allowed her more complex characters than bigger studio product: she’s a doctor in “Chinatown,” an adventuress of sorts in Kurt Neumann’s “Lost Men,” and the savvy (if doomed) mistress of gangster Akim Tamiroff in Robert Florey’s “Dangerous.” Wong is a compelling presence in all three films, even if she has less dramatic material to shoulder than her male co-stars (she’s almost an afterthought in “Dangerous) and has to share the screen with yellowface turns by Anthony Quinn and Sidney Toler; the three titles in the collection are a solid introduction to Wong’s work, which is only now receiving greater attention (including her depiction on US currency in 2021). The KL set features commentary on all three films as well as original trailers.

Cinema Gems from the Vault of Dr. Film” (2023, Dr. Film) Scrapbook-styled collection of lost and/or forgotten animation from the collection of historian/preservationist Grayson, a.k.a Dr. Film, and others. While some of the titles featured on the disc are good-natured ephemera – a drive-in intermission reel, a Pathe News reel on the elaborate Gingerbread Castle, a fairy tale-themed children’s attraction (now abandoned) in New Jersey – others have considerable cultural significance, including several prehistoric-themed silent shorts and a demo film, “Creation,” all featuring the stop-motion special effects work of Willis O’Brien (“King Kong”). “Monsters of the Moon” is a trailer constructed from fragments of a primitiv, independently produced science fiction thriller and presented by Forrest J. Ackerman (“Famous Monsters of Filmland”) at a 1940 fan convention. The disc’s intent seems to be an attempt to evoke the wonder these projects hoped to generate in their original release, and in that regard, it’s successful.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946, Kino Lorber*) As is often the case, a simple act of cruelty has a lasting and devastating effect on the lives of everyone it impacts; here, it’s the venal behavior of wealthy Mrs. Ivers (Judith Anderson) that prompts her niece and ward, Martha Ivers to kill her, and binds her irrevocably to weak-willed Walter O’Neil (whom she marries) and Sam Masterson (who is forced to leave town) while an innocent man is hanged for the crime. Years later, the miserable lives of adult Martha (Barbara Stanwyck) and Walter (Kirk Douglas, in his film debut) are upended when Sam (Van Heflin) returns to town, bringing with him the possibility that the truth about their crimes will be revealed. Briskly paced melodrama-noir benefits greatly from the wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera (director Lewis Milestone, writers Robert Rossen, Robert Riskin, and John Patrick, who netted an Oscar nod for Best Original Story) and its gloomy ruminations on the sins of the past and their inexorable drag on the present. Kino’s Special Edition Blu-ray features a 4K restoration, which does much to highligh Victor Milner’s cinematography, as well as commentary by historian Alan K. Rode.

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 Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, 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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