Posted in: by Sean Axmaker, Contributors, DVD, Film Reviews

“The Letter” – Stage, Cinema and Jeanne Eagels in 1929

The Letter (Warner Archive)

The movies learned to talk in 1927, as they say, but it took a few years to find its voice. After all, it took more than thirty years of filmmaking to arrive at the storytelling grace and sophistication of Sunrise and Street Angel and The Crowd, a mode of filmmaking that came to an abrupt end with the arrival of sound. But it wasn’t simply a matter of adjusting to new technological limitations. The movies still needed to find its own, unique vernacular and way of speaking.

The 1929 version of The Letter, the first screen version of the W. Somerset Maugham play, is also the sole surviving sound-era performance by Broadway legend Jeanne Eagels. It’s not a particularly good film—the 1940 Better Davis version, directed by William Wyler, is far more compelling—but it is a revelation of a performance and an illustration of the challenges filmmakers faced in the early sound era.

Apart from a fluid (and wordless) opening that culminates in a camera creeping through the jungle bush to reveal a rubber plantation manor, it is a static production that stops to observe stiffly-staged scenes of actors frozen in stand-offs. Part of that is surely the demands of early sound recording, which was recorded directly on film with noisy cameras that were boxed up to blimp the sound. But it also suggests that director Jean de Limur (like so many directors at the time) looked to the stage for guidance in directing actors through the new dimension of sound.

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

Box Set Bonanza: Flynn, Novak, Kurosawa, Guitry & Walsh, plus Elvis at 75 – DVDs of the Week

What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.

Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)

The Story of a Cheat

How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.

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