KING OF KINGS (CRITERION COLLECTION)

FRITZ LANG EPIC COLLECTION includes DIE NIBELUNGEN, METROPOLIS, SPIES, WOMAN IN THE MOON (KINO VIDEO) 

BUSTER KEATON COLLECTION includes THE CAMERAMAN, SPITE MARRIAGE, FREE AND EASY (WARNER HOME VIDEO)

Aficionados of the great silent screen classics have much to be thankful for this Holiday Season as Criterion, Kino, and Warner Home Video have released first-rate collections that encompass no less than eight pre-talkie delights, many of which include footage not seen in decades and most of which are in close-to-pristine condition.

Criterion's sublime KING OF KINGS double-disc set dazzles us with with new, restored digital transfers of both the 1931 112-minute general release version as well as the original 155 minute roadshow version that opened the new Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1928.

DeMille was, of course, the quintessential populist filmmaker/showman who was most concerned with producing mammoth blockbuster spectacles with the potential of entertaining  the largest possible audiences, sometimes mixing  overheated performances and gaudy special effects with generous helpings of sex and violence that threatened to overwhelm the material, all the while entrancing vast segments of the public. 

With the exception of a typically bombastic (but deliriously entertaining!) scene of fantastic destruction at its end, it must be said that DeMille's uncharacteristically subtle efforts here successfully combine reverence with showmanship to the the extent that this KING OF KINGS remains the the very finest depiction of the story of Jesus ever committed to celluloid. Its ability to please both the religiously devout as well as the general public is, to this day, simply unparalleled.

It certainly doesn't hurt that DeMille, who was chronically unable to direct actor's performances, usually leaving them to their own devices, hired two of the very best to play both Jesus (H.B. Warner) and Judas (Joseph Schildkraut). The truly amazing thing about Warner's performance is that though he embodies the serenely glowing effigy of stained-glass windows, plaster figurines, and a million dog-eared holy pictures, he somehow manages to do so without ever once becoming a one-dimensionally pious symbol, but instead imbues Jesus with a fully-realized flesh-and-blood humanity that makes it instantly understandable why huge masses would be drawn to Him. His is the finest delineation of Jesus ever seen on film. No less effective is Schildkraut, who never falls into the trap of judging his character, and so turns Judas into a fully three-dimensional, though ultimately pathetic character.

For my money, the original 155 minute roadshow is vastly preferable, but Criterion's full-screen black and white (with stunning 2-strip Technicolor sequences) transfers of both are nothing less than astonishing, possibly the finest of any silent film ever seen on home video. This KING OF KINGS is the perfect antidote for the many wishing to remove the bitter, acrid taste of this year's earlier Gibson gorefest  THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, and is infinitely more likely to convert, rather than repel, the unconvinced.

Those of us who are ardent fans of German silent cinema, and who were certain that Kino Video's earlier-in-the-year release of their mammoth F.W. MURNAU COLLECTION (which included NOSFERATU, THE LAST LAUGH, TARTUFFE, FAUST and TABU) would not soon be equaled are in for a pleasant and bracing surprise, for the astounding fact is that the same company's FRITZ LANG EPIC COLLECTION not only equals, but in some ways exceeds that ground-breaking box-set in both visual and content categories.

LORD OF THE RINGS fanatics will be spellbound by the similarly-themed DIE NIBELUNGEN (1924) which is almost certainly the technical and artistic pinnacle of the German silent screen achievements, and Kino has delivered a 2-disc behemoth which encompasses the virtually complete saga, consisting of SIEGFRIED (part one--143 minutes) and KRIEMHILD'S REVENGE  (part two--148 minutes). If you dote on larger-than-life heroic characters, dastardly villains, dragons, dwarves, goblins, and top-heavy heroines, DIE NIBELUNGEN is an absolute must-see and it's 100 minutes longer than any version previously seen in the U.S. 

Certainly everything that could be written has been written about Lang's legendary METROPOLIS (1927), so I will only say that this version is the only one to own, as it truly is the definitive version, at a length (124 minutes) over one third longer than any previous release.

SPIES (1928) is a mesmerizing concoction consisting of evil criminal masterminds, crafty undercover agents, hotsy-totsy dames, ample sex and violence and enough high-tech gadgetry to satisfy even the most sophisticated contemporary techno-geek. SPIES is, in a word, irresistible.

Even more so is WOMAN IN THE MOON (1929), which is for me the most deliriously entertaining of all the films included here. This is no Flash Gordon flight-of-fancy, for the technical aspects of this first lunar expedition seem incredibly authentic, so much so that it comes as no surprise that a decade later it would be the Germans who, through their development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, would terrorize vast portions of Europe. (Eventually, of course, those same German scientists would, for better or worse, become an integral part of the U.S. space program.) WOMAN IN THE MOON constitutes a fascinating early blueprint of what was soon to come.

Every single one of these full-frame black-and-white transfers are in fine shape, with METROPOLIS being the best of a very good bunch. Congratulations to Kino Video on this wonderful collection, which should appeal to a wide range of dedicated film fanatics.       

Last, but certainly not least , we take a much-needed silent comedy break courtesy of Warner Home Video and the "great stone-face" as the BUSTER KEATON COLLECTION makes its gratifying debut.

It's no secret that Keaton considered his alliance with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer the biggest disaster of his career and this particular collection provides ample proof of the truthfulness of that belated assessment, for as one watches all three films sequentially it becomes gradually apparent that one of the most phenomenal talents of all time is gradually being pummeled down to obscurity by an unfeeling and all-controlling corporate system. 

Keaton's first MGM silent, THE CAMERAMAN, while not in the same class as THE GENERAL (which was a financial failure) is nevertheless a rather promising beginning for Keaton, as he plays a tintype street photographer who tries his hand as a freelance newsreel cameraman in order to win the affection of a girl who works at a newsreel company. Some of Keaton's finest sequences enliven  the rather threadbare plot, and the Tong War segment holds its own with the most memorable of his great setups. 

SPITE MARRIAGE, on the other hand, in which a jilted and inebriated bride pops the question to Keaton (resulting in chaos), clearly is a step down as, despite the howlingly funny and perfectly-timed "putting the drunk bride to bed" sequence, it becomes increasingly clear that Keaton's flawless comedic instincts are being severely hampered by the studio. 

In FREE AND EASY, Keaton's first talkie, we are treated to the sorry spectacle of a previously freewheeling comedic genius being totally hamstrung by the pervasive and awkward stiffness that dominated  the first two to three years of the talking picture. What a shame that this utterly unique talent wasn't left to his own ingenious devices! 

The included Kevin Bronlow documentary SO FUNNY IT HURT: BUSTER KEATON AT MGM will be of interest primarily to those who haven't seen Bronlow's first Keaton documentary BUSTER KEATON: A HARD ACT TO FOLLOW, which brilliantly and comprehensively covered Keaton's entire career. The full-screen black and white transfers of all three Keaton films are very good and THE CAMERAMAN benefits from a snappily melodic newly-recorded score by Arthur Barrow. 

--DICK DINMAN 

 

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