Early Universal vol. 1

Their recent Blu-ray packages having taken a thematic approach, grouping films by actor (Karloff at Columbia), subject (the eco-horror double bill of Nightwing and Shadow of the Hawk and the complete collection of Inner Sanctum Mysteries) or director (Ishirō Honda’s Battle in Outer Space and The H-Man), instead they have taken a studio based approach with the double disc set entitled Early Universal vol. 1.

Comprising Skinner’s Dress Suit (directed by William A Seiter and originally released in 1926), The Shield of Honor (Emory Johnson, 1927) and The Shakedown (William Wyler, 1929), they area trio of monochrome silent films each running to about an hour, a society comedy, a police thriller and a sports drama, all accompanied by an audio commentary by an appropriate film expert.

Based on Henry Irving Dodge’s novel of the name, having previously been adapted in 1917 Skinner’s Dress Suit was already its second outing, starring Reginald Denny as the eponymous employee of the bank of McLaughlin and Perkins seeking a raise and Laura La Plante as Honey, his ambitious wife who is already spending the money on a new dress for herself and the titular suit for her husband.

Set in the leafy, sunny California suburb of Meadsville, the 4K restoration is visually perfect, focusing on the movement, Skinner running for the steam locomotive which serves as his commuter train, dancing lessons and blown papers in a tale whose moral is quite obviously to live within your means despite the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” as represented by the invitation to the big party – “nobody could afford to stay away, even if they couldn’t afford to go.”

With a rousing soundtrack, the premise of The Shield of Honor is somewhat more ambitious than the production can attain, the tale of retiring policeman Dan MacDowell (Ralph Lewis) and his son Jack MacDowell (Neil Hamilton, three decades later to rise to the rank of Gotham’s Commissioner Gordon), recently appointed as the first pilot in the LAPD’s flying division.

Caught in a tangle of jewel thieves and the daughter of a diamond merchant (Dorothy Gulliver), the promised aerial action is intermittent at best, though with different coloured filters to denote transitions between interiors, exteriors and day and night it is the only one of the three to play with the visual palette, and restored in 2K the finale is sufficiently kinetic.

Also restored in 4K, the opening scenes of The Shakedown use innovative camera shots, pulling back across a street as a crowd gathers and surges forward, anchoring it to a crane and hoisting it above a building site, but it becomes more conventional as it moves from streetfighting to the ringside in the company of Dave Roberts (James Murray), a ringer who plays the fall guy for “Battling Roff” (George Kotsonaros).

Inspired to reinvent himself as an honest man by a chance encounter on the rail tracks with street-savvy orphan Clem (Jack Hanlon) for whom he feels sorry, it is the simplistic and maudlin story of “a brave guy with a tunnel between his ears,” all the sadder for knowing the Great Depression was just around the corner and that neither Murray nor Kotsonaros would live to see the end of it.

Early Universal vol. 1 is available on Blu-ray from Eureka now



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