Posted in: Blu-ray, by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

Silent Nights: Keaton and DeMille – DVDs of the Week

Chicago (1927) (Flicker Alley)

This is the first screen incarnation of the story of jazz baby murderess Roxie Hart, first created in a play by former crime reporter Maurine Watkins that hit Broadway in 1926. Ginger Rogers played her in the William Wellman-directed Roxie Hart, which took the sex and cynicism right out of it, and of course it was turned into the Broadway musical that was brought to the screen in the 2002 Oscar winner. This version, produced (and in part directed) by Cecil B. DeMille, had been all but forgotten in the meantime, at least until a print was found in Cecil B. DeMille’s private collection, but even after select festival showings it’s still largely unknown. Hopefully this Flicker Alley DVD release will help take care of that.

Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart
Phyllis Haver: Nobody jilts Roxie Hart

Former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty Phyllis Haver is Roxie, the bleached blond jazz baby of an unfaithful wife who plugs her wealthy lover (Eugene Palette) and tells her blindly adoring hubby Amos (Victor Varconi, an all-American type in the Joel McCrea mode) that it was burglar. Unlike future incarnations, this Amos is no sap, merely deluded by love, but his illusions are quickly shattered when he recognizes the dead man and finds one of her garters in his pocket. And as the press turns it into a front page scandal turned salacious soap opera, with Roxie as the willing star, the femme fatale playing the victimized innocent with all the subtlety of a second rate stage diva playing Victorian melodrama, Amos is the hero of the piece if only for his loyalty and sacrifice. Everyone else—from Roxie to the press to the assistant D.A.—simply uses the murder for their own notoriety with mercenary focus.

Equal parts salacious sex comedy, broad social satire and snappy indictment of tabloid reporting and the public fascinated by such sideshow attractions, this production harkens back to the sophisticated sex comedies that DeMille specialized in from the late teens to the early twenties. Apart from the sheer salaciousness of Roxie and her wanton ways, the film turns the jailhouse scenes, where Roxie is the reigning the cellblock celebrity, into a burlesque spectacle of leggy beauties in garter and lingerie, with girl fights in place of musical numbers. In place of the charming con-man of a celebrity shyster that the musical makes of Flynn is a veritable gangster who uses his influence to extort clients and criminals. Even the jurors are corruptible, too obsessed with Roxie’s leggy beauty and coy flirtations to concern themselves with such details as evidence or justice.

Though DeMille didn’t take credit (he only takes a “Supervision by” credit with Frank Urson as credited director), his fingerprints are all over the production, a handsomely mounted film filled with perfectly crafted imagery and scandalously salacious behavior. It takes some odd turns (a brazen theft feels out of place and was dropped in subsequent incarnations) but is otherwise perfectly cynical and marvelously entertaining. He was certainly a director who knew how to marry sex and showmanship and they come together perfectly here: he allows the audience to revel in the decadence before properly condemning it all.

The fictional Roxie Hart was based on a real-life Chicago murderess, or rather a few of them, though one in particular served as Watkins’ primary model: Mrs. Beulah Annon, a married woman who was cheating on her husband and shot her lover dead, telling her husband that he was a burglar. The truth quickly unraveled and she all but confessed, but the coverage gave her a notoriety fanned the flames of the pubic interest. Adding details from a few other cases and setting it against a backdrop of yellow journalism and sensationalism, it satirized the killer, the legal system and the media equally. That story is brought out in the supplements of the two-disc Flicker Alley DVD, in the original visual essay Chicago: The Real-Life Roxie Hart, an eight-minute original piece that features stills and reprints of original newspaper articles and an audio dramatization of an edited version of her testimony from the court transcript. The set also features two archival documentaries: the hour-long The Golden Twenties from 1950, produced by newsreel veteran Louis de Rochement, and the 1985 The Flapper Story, a half hour survey built around first-person remembrances with elderly women recalling their days in the twenties; their frankness is refreshing.

The Flicker Alley DVD, produced by Jeffery Masino and David Shepard, is mastered from a near-perfect archival print from the DeMille estate at 25 frames-per-second. Rodney Sauer (guided by the original cue sheet) prepared the compilation score that he performs with the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a lively small combo arrangement that serves the film well. Also features a booklet with essays on the real-life inspiration and background to the play, DeMille’s involvement in the production and notes on the score.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Kino)

Buster Keaton’s The General and Sherlock Jr. are consistently cited as Buster Keaton’s great masterpieces and I don’t disagree—Sherlock is one of the most cinematically inventive and visionary films of its era and The General simply a perfect piece of filmmaking—but there is more heart and affection in Steamboat Bill, Jr. Keaton stars as a college dandy (complete with absurd mustache and beret) who arrives in the deep south to see his father (Ernest Torrence, who perfectly exudes tough love and gruff affection), a crusty paddleboat captain with a warhorse of a ship threatened by a brand new competitor on river. Buster is, naturally, in love with daughter (Marion Byron) of his father’s nemesis, a modern moneybags determined to put Bill and his relic of a ship out of business.

Keaton vs. the hurricane

Steamboat Bill, Jr. features a spectacular hurricane sequence that leads to some of Keaton’s most inspired gags and dangerous stunts (a side of a house falls on our hero, who survives thanks to a well-placed window). But under the spectacle is a love between father and son that neither can express except through action and a nervous city boy who transforms from an oblivious klutz into a mechanical genius with a Rube Goldberg bent for mastering the mechanics of the riverboat in the midst of a storm. Funny, sweet and inventive, it’s one of the great silent movie comedies.

It was not uncommon for filmmakers to prepare to separate negatives of a film and Keaton did so with this version, using different takes or, in the case of elaborate stunts and special effects scenes, simultaneous takes from separate cameras. This new edition, on two-disc DVD and single-disc Blu-ray, features both. The familiar “Killiam” version, which has been in circulation for decades, includes a terrific piano score by William Perry (which I have loved since first hearing it during a college film class screening). It looks very good but the other version, mastered from a negative recently discovered in the Keaton estate archive, looks even better, thanks to superior source material, and it is presented with two different scores (a small combo score by the Biograph players and an organ score by Lee Irwin). A 13-minute “Visual Essay” on the production also offers a comparison between the two versions and the set also includes vintage recordings of the old folk song “Steamboat Bill,” which partially inspired the project.

Lost Keaton (Kino)

There are no lost masterpieces in this collection featuring the 16 two-reel comedies that Buster Keaton made for the bargain-basement Educational Pictures in the mid-1930s. Keaton lacked the time, the money and the creative control to develop the gags into the comic genius of his silent classics and veteran director Charles Lamont helms most of the shorts without any distinction. But they show Keaton approaching the sound short with a new character (named Elmo in most of them), adding a slow, sincere, somewhat hoarse voice to the stone face. Keaton is a comedy pro who rises above the material in film after film, whether it’s a pratfall or a deadpan double take, and some of his best are in “One Run Elmo,” which begins with hapless Elmo with a shack of a gas station on a deserted desert road who suddenly finds himself with a slick new competitor (across the street) and takes the competition to a baseball game. And “Palooka From Paducah” reunites the entire Keaton family vaudeville act for a hillbilly comedy with moonshine, dynamite and wrasslin’. These Keatons were never actually lost, but they look better than any previous release in Kino’s edition. Includes a musical montage of Keaton pratfalls and film notes by Keaton historian David Macleod.

See Dave Kehr on the Keaton releases for the New York Times here.

Cross-published with

Available at Amazon:
Chicago (1927)
Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Blu-ray]
Steamboat Bill, Jr. [Ultimate 2-Disc Edition]
Lost Keaton: Sixteen Comedy Shorts 1934-1937