Tuesday, November 14, 2023

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian Blu-ray from Undercrank Productions presents a double-feature of newly restored 7-reel comedies starring silent film comedian Raymond Griffith. 

A little background on Raymond Griffith. He was born in 1895 in Boston, Massachusetts and was raised by a theatrical family. Bby the time he was a toddler he was already performing on stage. Griffith unfortunately lost his voice at a young age—the result of a childhood bout of respiratory diphtheria and overworking his vocal chords. From then on he spoke in a hoarse whisper (think Jack Klugman post-cancer). While this sidelined his theatrical career, silent films gave Griffith a new opportunity to showcase his acting talents when his voice wasn't needed. Griffith was a natural comedian and worked with everyone from Mack Sennett to Cecil B. DeMille to Alice Howell. He went under contract with Paramount Pictures and starred in a series of film as a bon vivant character who donned a silk hat and a tuxedo with coattails. This gave him a signature look much in the vein of other silent film comedians.  Harold Lloyd had his glasses. Charlie Chaplin had his mustache and bowler hat and Buster Keaton had his stoneface expression. Raymond Griffith had his silk hat. When the industry transitioned from silent film to sound, his hoarse whisper prevented him from continuing his acting work. He did make one notable appearance in the film All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) as a dying French soldier. He shifted his focus to production and was an associate producer or producer throughout the 1930s working on films like Three on a Match (1932), Baby Face (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933.

While popular in his day, he's since become an obscure figure of the past. Much of his film work is lost which makes the release of this double-feature all that more special.

photo credit:  Museum of Modern Art Film Stills

The first film on the Blu-ray is Paths to Paradise (1925).  Set in 1920s San Francisco, the story follows two con-artists—played by Raymond Griffith and Betty Compson—who join force to steal a necklace. Their target is a wealthy man who plans to gift the necklace to his daughter on her wedding day. He's a bit too vocal about his prized possession telling everyone that it contains the largest diamond in the country. The story then follows the hijinks of the two con-artists as they attempt to steal the necklace and get away with it. 

It's a fun comedy made even more delightful with a cute dog who seems to be the only character who realizes what the con-artists are doing. The film does contain an unfortunate sequence set in Chinatown which features offensive language and actors in yellow face. A warning about this content is given before the start of the film. This is a seven-reel comedy missing its final reel. Information gathered from surviving stills as well as a continuity script is presented in several title cards, accompanied by the musical score, where the seventh reel be played.

photo credit:  Museum of Modern Art Film Stills

You'd be Surprised (1926) is a typical murder mystery set in a mansion. Raymond Griffith plays an overly dressed coroner who is called to investigate the murder of a district attorney. Like Paths to Paradise, this story is centered around a stolen necklace. Griffith's leading lady Dorothy Sebastian plays the district attorney's ward and she's the prime suspect of the murder. Griffith's character barely examines the body of the murder victim. Instead, he takes over the investigation when the bumbling cops can't seem to do their job. All of the action takes place in the living room of the mansion.

Unlike Paths to Paradise, You'd be Surprised is intact with all seven reels presented. This is the weaker of the two. Because it's so constrained and because the coroner character is constantly trying to do several things at once, it becomes overwhelming but not in a funny way. However, with that said it is fun to see Raymond Griffith in all his silk hat and tuxedo glory. All of the dinner guests are dressed to the nines which showcase the finer apparel of the era. Anyone into fashion history, specifically the 1920s, will want to check this one out for the eye candy.

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian Blu-ray contains the double feature as well as a twelve minute video essay about Raymond Griffith's life and career and narrated by film historian Steve Massa. They include musical scores performed by silent film accompanist Ben Model played on a pipe organ. Both films have been restored in 2k resolution from original 35mm nitrate prints from The Library of Congress' Paramount collection.

Raymond Griffith: The Silk Hat Comedian is available on Blu-ray wherever Undercrank Productions releases are sold. 

Thank you to Undercrank Productions for sending me a copy for review.

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #4 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Piccadilly (1929) Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Jameson Thomas and Anna May Wong in Piccadilly (1929)

Directed by E.A. Dupont, Piccadilly (1929) stars Anna May Wong as Sosho, a beautiful young woman who works as a dishwasher at the Piccadilly nightclub in London. Piccadilly is run by Valentine Wilmot (Jameson Thomas), a man as keen on making his business a success as he is seducing his leading lady. He's fallen for his star talent Mabel (Gilda Gray), a dancer who, along with her dancing partner Vic (Cyril Ritchard), entertains Valentine's eager crowd. Mabel is caught in a love triangle between Valentine and Vic. Valentine gets rid of the competition by firing the dancer and making Mabel dance solo. But now that Mabel is no longer forbidden fruit, Valentine completely loses interest. He turns his attention to Sosho (Wong). He spots her dancing on a table in the dishwashing room and fires her for goofing off. However, he soon re-hires her as an exotic dancer. Sosho comes to realize that the power dynamic in their working relationship has shifted. She's in control. Sosho takes great care to seduce Valentine, to get him to spend money on an elaborate costume for her and to hire her boyfriend Jim (King Hou Chang) as a musician. Mabel, however, is not about to let another woman steal her spotlight and steal her man. A new and even messier love triangle emerges and quickly starts to spiral out of control.

Piccadilly was released at a pivotal point in Anna May Wong's career and the film industry as a whole. Wong was frustrated with the lack of opportunities in Hollywood and by the time she had been cast in Piccadilly she was exclusively making films in the UK and Germany. Anti-miscegenation laws in the US prevented her as an Asian-American actresses from getting leading lady roles. In this British production, while she's not top billed, she is a central figure and carries on an affair with a white man. 

As talking pictures became increasingly more popular, silent films like Piccadilly were on their way out. There was a lot of pressure in the industry to retrofit silent films with talking sequences in order to capitalize on the craze. They added a five minute all-talking prologue to Piccadilly which sets up the movie as a flashback. It features Jameson Thomas as Valentine Wilmot, now running a beer shack after the scandal ruined his career. His conversation with a customer sets up the story to follow. It's incredibly boring and stilted and adds nothing to the story. Lucky for us, Piccadilly is still shown to modern viewers in its original form with the talkie add-on as an bonus feature.

Piccadilly was successful enough to serve as a springboard for Anna May Wong to return to her Hollywood roots. It helped her get a contract with Paramount studios which lead to her best-known role opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932). Wong is so dynamic in 

I enjoy Piccadilly mostly for Anna May Wong's performance. She’s so dynamic and enchanting in this film. I'm intrigued by how her character Sosho recognizes her worth and her power because this mirrors Anna May Wong in real life. She knew she had what it takes to make it as an actress and really leveraged that as best she could even though she lost out on so many opportunities because she was Chinese-American. 

The dance numbers in this aren’t great. Gilda Gray’s dance numbers really show that she wasn’t much of a dancer. Wong’s dance number is meant to be exotic. The dancing here is not an athletic feat. It’s supposed to titillate and tantalize. Wong draws attention to her body by swaying her hips and using seductive arm movements.

Piccadilly was released last month by Kino Lorber in collaboration with The Milestone Company and the BFI. This Blu-ray includes a beautifully restored and remastered print from the BFI. I love how the restoration really enhances the sepia tones and the blue tint used throughout the film. My only complaint about this edition is the musical score which doesn't really seem to suit the film, especially when it comes to the dance sequences.

Extras on this disc include the talkie introduction, a documentary on the making of the score, a panel discussion at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival about Anna May Wong. I enjoyed listening to the audio commentary by film historian and critic Farran Smith Nehme who offers a lot of biographical information on the different players involved in Piccadilly.


Piccadilly (1929) is available wherever Kino Lorber Blu-rays are sold.

I share more thoughts about the film and the Blu-ray on episode #3 of The Classic Movie Roundup on YouTube. Watch here:

Thank you to Kino Lorber for sending me a copy of this Blu-ray for review!

Thursday, November 9, 2023

George Hurrell's Hollywood by Mark A. Vieira

George Hurrell's Hollywood
Glamour Portraits 1925-1992
Revised Edition
by Mark A. Vieira
Foreword by Sharon Stone
Running Press
September 2023
Paperback ISBN: 9780762484607
406 pages

"The dreamlike world of silent pictures had created a stary system based on personalities who were bigger than life. The naturalism of talking pictures diminished them. If the star system was to survive, the studios would have to enlarge them again. Along came Hurrell, who adapted his technique to this purpose…. In the process, Hurrell perfected a photographic idiom: the Hollywood glamour portrait." — Mark A. Vieira

A George Hurrell portrait is something truly special. Some of the best photographs of movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood—Norma Shearer, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Ramon Novarro, Jean Harlow, Robert Montgomery, Carole Lombard, Mae West—were shot by George Hurrell. He captured the glamour of the industry in its heyday and showcased his subjects at their very best. These dreamy, sexy portraits helped elevate the subject in the public's esteem. In many cases, a Hurrell portrait, often used to publicize a new film, transformed careers. For example, an important photo shoot with Norma Shearer helped the actress convince her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, to cast her in The Divorcee (1930) ushering her into a new phase in her career. Hurrell's photoshoot with Jane Russell for Howard Hughes' pet project The Outlaw (1943) catapulted Russell into fame well before the film was even released to the public. George Hurrell worked with MGM and Warner Bros. and as an independent contractor worked directly with stars or did freelance for other studios like Columbia and RKO. 

Once the studio system began to wane and glamour portraits fell out of fashion, Hurrell struggled to find steady work. Times were changing and so was the technology used in photography. Hurrell's work suddenly became old-fashioned. However, towards the end of Hurrell's life, a new appreciation of his early work led collectors and other photographers to gather and share his work. Hurrell enjoyed a legacy tour which saw his portraits in books and in traveling museum exhibitions. Throughout the '80s, Hurrell was photographing new talent—musicians, comedians, actors—in an era that was far cry from the one he started in during the 1920s. Hurrell worked up until he died in 1992 with his final celebrity subject being actress Sharon Stone.

George Hurrell's Hollywood: Glamour Portraits 1925-1992 by Mark A. Vieira is a fitting tribute to an artistic genius. This book was originally published in 1997 as Hurrell's Hollywood Portraits and then republished as George Hurrell's Hollywood in 2013. Running Press has released a revised and expanded paperback edition which includes 50% more photographs than the 2013 hardcover. Also Mark A. Vieira, a film historian and photographer who first met George Hurrell in 1975, restored every photograph found within the new edition. If you haven't gotten the book yet, please make sure you get the paperback. And if you have the hardcover, now is the time to upgrade!

This book is absolutely stunning. The photographs are presented at their best and many take up an entire page. Joan Crawford fans will be particularly interested because she was Hurrell's most photographed subject—they did 33 photoshoots together—and lots of those photos are found within. It's a sturdy paperback and while it is on the heavier size I found that it holds quite well. Because the spine and the signatures are one big block, this is one of the few photography books that I think could stand up on a shelf without the heavy pages pulling from the spine.

In reading the book, I was particularly interested in learning how Hurrell built his network of contacts, how he worked within the studio system and the techniques he developed to showcase his subjects at their best. While there is a bit of biographical information on Hurrell in order to place the timeline in context, the focus of the book is really his career.

“You can’t work with a person and be exactly cold-blooded because there’s got to be a rapport, there’s got to be that quality, that something that rings between the two of you. If it doesn’t, well, you might as well quit and go home.” — George Hurrell

Some interesting facts from the book: 

  • Hurrell advanced his career through connections. A photo shoot with a wealthy socialite led him to meet Ramon Novarro who introduced him to Norma Shearer which led to a contract as a studio photographer at MGM.
  • Hurrell mostly shot in black-and-white but also photographed in Kodachrome and Warner Color.
  • He shined a spotlight on the part of the hair. “The placement of the boom light so that it shone down from behind, or down the part in the subject’s hair, on onto the cheekbones”
  • This had the effect of giving the subject's face a lot of dimension. In retouching, he would add a tiny dot in order to make the eyes pop more and liven the face in the final portrait.
  • Used the color white to great effect. Actresses wore white dresses. Subjects would be photographed against a white wall.
  • He would play music and use sexy talk to get his female subjects in the mood. Olivia de Havilland was having none of this and did not enjoy working with Hurrell.
  • Vieira refers to Norma Shearer as Hurrell's patron and Joan Crawford as his muse.
  • Worked with Greta Garbo. In one photo shoot, he pretended to trip over something in order to get a reaction out of her. When it did, Garbo's more expressive looks translated well on camera. She later became his landlord when he rented out new studio space for his photography.

George Hurrell's Hollywood was recently selected as one of The Hollywood Reporter's Top 100 Film Books of All Time.

I discuss the book at length on episode #2 of The Classic Movie Roundup. Watch here:

Thank you to Running Press for sending me a copy of George Hurrell's Hollywood for review!

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