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What to Watch This Weekend
Six essential DVD and Blu-ray releases.
By Richard Brody
April 20, 2018
Lois Weber’s films are infused with a moral passion that’s matched by her forceful, fervently detailed artistry. Photograph Courtesy Milestone Film & Video
For every film that’s available to stream, there are many more, of equal merit, that aren’t accessible online. Some of the best movies of all time are still being released on disk only, whether DVD or Blu-ray, and my advice for enthusiasts who find something they like in those formats is: buy it, because what’s available to stream today may vanish from one or another Web site tomorrow. Here are five noteworthy recent disk releases.
“The Dumb Girl of Portici”
The rediscovery of the films of Lois Weber is long overdue, and it’s happening largely through the work of Milestone Films, which has released two of her earliest features, “The Dumb Girl of Portici” and “Shoes,” both from 1916, on DVD. A former street-corner preacher, Weber made films that are infused with a moral passion that’s matched by her forceful, fervently detailed artistry. “The Dumb Girl of Portici,” a historical drama set in seventeenth-century Naples (then under Spanish occupation), stars the majestic dancer Anna Pavlova (in her only dramatic film performance) as a young woman named Fenella who is mute. It’s a romantic melodrama involving an aristocrat in disguise, Fenella’s romance with him, and the uprising of the local population in opposition to the oppressions of Spanish overlords. The varied strands of Pavlova’s performance, with its blend of still theatrical ardor and operatic outbursts of rage, point toward the future of movie acting—no less than Weber’s dramatic vision points toward the future of the world at large. The action builds to revolutionary violence, which Weber (working with her husband Phillips Smalley) films with an utterly sympathetic yet nonetheless terrifying fury. As the First World War raged and old regimes tottered, Weber’s vision of justified uprisings and the unforeseen horrors that they promised proved prophetic.
In “Shoes,” Weber looks at intimate horrors at home, in a drama (based on a novel by Jane Addams) about a young shopgirl in Los Angeles named Eva Meyer (played by the sixteen-year-old Mary McLaren, Weber’s discovery) who, with her job as a salesclerk in a five-and-ten, is the sole support for her family. Weber is specific about Eva’s troubles: she’s paid five dollars a week; her shoes are falling apart, their soles replaced by cardboard, and a new pair costs three dollars; but her wages go almost entirely to pay for the family’s rent and food. Eva goes to work virtually barefoot, putting her health as well as her mental stability at risk, and when a middle-aged roué, a night club singer, flirts with her, she tries mightily to hold out against his promises of money (as it’s understood, in exchange for sex). Weber films largely on location in scenes of a grimly realistic specificity, from the routine of work to the family’s overcrowded, embittered, ramshackle apartment, depicting a domestic order that’s as oppressive and unjust as the public regime. (Weber’s filmography is, like that of many pioneering filmmakers, copious; I hope that her other surviving films will be similarly rediscovered and made available.)
Gloria Swanson and Tom Moore in a scene from Allan Dwan’s “Manhandled,” from 1924. Photograph from Everett
Allan Dwan, whose career ran from 1911 to 1961, is one of the greatest Hollywood directors, and his silent films are among the treasures of the era. The Blu-ray release, from Kino Lorber, of two of his films starring Gloria Swanson, “Manhandled” and “Stage Struck,” suggests the scope and the power of his artistry. “Manhandled,” from 1924, is a pure urban romantic comedy, a blend of a Horatio Alger tale and a cautionary fantasy of glamour, the subject of which is working women’s yearnings and prosperous men’s predatory schemes. Swanson plays Tessie McGuire, a salesclerk in the bargain basement of a department store, whose feisty attitude comes to the attention of the store’s frivolous young heir (Arthur Housman) whose friend Garretson (Paul McAllister), a novelist, is looking for a working-class subject. Tessie enters the beau monde of the posh arts, paid to pose for a sculptor (Ian Keith) who tries to rape her, hired as a hostess by a fashion designer (Frank Morgan—yes, the future Wizard of Oz) who tries to seduce her, all while her boyfriend, Jim Hogan (Tom Moore), a mechanic by day and a taxi driver by night, plots to make millions by inventing a fuel-saving device for automobile engines. Dwan (himself a former engineer who entered movies from the technical side, as an innovator in lighting) is a cinematic rationalist who links scientific dedication to virtue, but he looks empathetically at the temptations of easy money, filming workaday troubles with comedic flair, as in a subway sequence, showing Tessie struggling to get home from work, that’s an all-time anthology piece of bitter humor.
“Stage Struck,” from 1925, opens and closes with astounding original Technicolor footage. The beginning is a brilliant comedic misdirection: footage of Jenny Hagen, a celebrated actress with a lavishly colorful stage show—featuring her as Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist on a platter—cuts to black-and-white footage of Jenny Hagen, a waitress in a New Martinsville, West Virginia, working-person’s café, bearing a platter of beans and, absorbed in her glamorous fantasy, dropping it. The movie is a romantic comedy about Jenny’s love for the café’s star wheatcake-flipper, Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray), who’s crazy for actresses. Then a glossy and high-mannered stage star named Lillian Lyons (Gertrude Astor) arrives with a visiting Ohio River show boat and aims her seductive wiles at Orme—and, to compete for his affections, Jenny manages to find a way into the show. Dwan, filming on location, evokes a sort of sociology on the wing in his view of the varied, energetic worlds—the intrinsic dramas and comedies—of the lives of working people. Swanson’s superb physical antics include her efforts to thread the boisterous lunchtime crowd of factory workers while bearing high-piled trays of food; her closeups, in a mirror, practicing her correspondence-course acting lessons; and a climactic sequence, in the show boat’s theatre, featuring her rowdy tangle with Lillian.
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