3.5 out of 5 stars

Universal Pictures was a more dominant studio in the silent era than it came to be in later years. True, its star was already beginning to wane after the departure of golden boy Irving Thalberg for MGM in the mid-1920s, but these three movies make it clear that, by the eve of the ‘talkies’, Universal was producing films which were just as sophisticated as those of the following two decades.

Indeed, The Shakedown (whose director, William Wyler, went on to be a big name), existed in both silent and sound versions, encapsulating an industry in transition. At roughly an hour each, they aren’t far off the B Movie runtime of later years, and all have complex plots with well-realised characters and distinct arcs. And they are all (especially Shakedown) confidently and interestingly filmed, clearly the work of professionals with long experience behind the camera.

The staginess and sometimes naive technical experiments of earlier decades have been left far behind too. Witness, for example, the first shots of Skinner’s Dress Suit, where we see a cup of coffee, a pile of toast, a timepiece showing a morning hour, then a hand pouring syrup… it all adds up to “breakfast”, expressed in utterly filmic language, not in transplanted theatrical technique.

Eureka Entertainment has brought together three very different pictures for this first set of Early Universal titles, as part of their ‘Masters of Cinema’ imprint, with Shakedown perhaps the most accomplished, even if Skinner is the most enjoyable. Complemented by excellent new original scores and commentaries, this box-set provides a compelling taste of an era when Hollywood was finally producing fully-fledged movie-making in the modern sense, hardly held back by the lack of sound.

Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926)

4 out of 5 stars

Skinner (Reginald Denny) can’t admit to his wife (Laura La Plante) that he hasn’t secured a raise at work, and she sets about spending hundreds of dollars they don’t have.

Comedy is often the genre that best overcomes the inevitable strangeness silent movies have for modern viewers, who are so accustomed to an ever-present soundtrack. And Skinner’s Dress Suit is a genuinely funny comedy. It’s predictable in plot terms but brought alive by exuberant performances from Reginald Denny and Laura La Plante, as well as a droll support cast—notable among them Skinner’s boss (E.J. Ratcliffe), tycoon Jackson (Lionel Braham), and his socially-climbing wife (Lucille Ward). Also in the cast is Hedda Hopper, later to achieve far more fame as one of Hollywood’s most powerful gossip columnists.

There’s some physical humour, but it’s essentially a film of wit rather than slapstick, with that wit extending to the intertitles too. And underpinning it, not so long before the Wall Street Crash and Depression made Skinner’s financial nightmare a reality for so many Americans, is perhaps a serious point about the perils of obsession with money and advancement. Almost everything in the film is about dollars or status.

Director William A. Seiter (who was married to La Plante, and who had a modest career in talking pictures later) is visually imaginative—capturing the mood of a party with a long pan across the legs of dancers, for example, but also frequently using close-ups on documents to conjure up the world of account balances and debts in which Skinner dwells. Leo Birenberg, meanwhile, contributes an excellent score that complements events as they transpire on-screen without trying to overtly paint them, and switches seamlessly from one to the next.

The technical quality of the 4K transfer varies a little as the film progresses, and there is some minor film damage, but nothing that detracts from the viewing experience.

USA | 1926 | 70 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)

The Shield of Honor (1927)

3 out of 5 stars

L.A’s first aeroplane-flying police officer (Neil Hamilton) works with his father (Ralph Lewis), a retired cop, and new love interest Gwen (Dorothy Gulliver), to solve a series of diamond robberies.

The Shield of Honor is certainly a product of its time, “respectfully dedicated to the American Police”, those “un-sung Knights of Today—wearers of the gleaming shield”. Indeed, it goes on at such length about the general wondrousness of police officers that one half-wonders whether director William A. Seiter (who made little after this) was hoping to have some peccadilloes overlooked.

It’s a bit of a disappointing movie in that there’s much less flying than the first minutes lead us to expect—perhaps a budgetary or practical issue?—and a good deal more sentimental business. The plot is far-fetched and Chandler (Nigel Barrie) is identifiable as the baddie from the moment we see him, thanks to his standard-issue baddie moustache and his description as having the “flawless exterior of a polished rhinestone.”

Still, there are things to like here, including a lavish opening sequence at a police parade, and a fine score by Alex Kovacs, with stirring martial motifs underlining the film’s presentation of the police as frontline soldiers in a war against crime.

The Shield of Honor hasn’t been available on Blu-ray before, so some issues with picture quality in the 2K restoration can be overlooked easily enough. It’s inferior to the other two movies in this package, with the dominant sepia-tone abruptly replaced by red or blue at some later points, but not so much as to seriously interfere with viewing.

USA | 1927 | 60 MINUTES | 1.33:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)

The Shakedown (1929)

3.5 out of 5 stars

Corrupt boxer Dave (James Murray) has a chance at personal redemption after meeting Marjorie (Barbara Kent) and her young son (Jack Hanlon).

From a film-historical point of view, the interest of The Shakedown (which was long believed lost, but then rediscovered in 1998), largely lies in its director, William Wyler. The man who would go on to make classics like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and Ben-Hur (1959) had, at this point, only recently started directing, and it was one of his first movies outside the western genre. (He also appears in a small role here, as does another great director of later years, John Huston.)

Wyler’s directorial talent is obvious already, especially in some action sequences where he conveys a real sense of space, movement and physical peril, and the editing by Richard Cahoon and Lloyd Nosler can be downright exciting too—such as during the climactic boxing match.

But an equal delight of the film is young Jack Hanlon. He was only just into his teens when The Shakedown appeared, and his acting career would span less than a decade, but he has so much cheeky screen presence that it’s a pity he never went on to become an actor as an adult.

Michael Gatt’s score is perfectly matched to the movie’s often serious tone, especially at its tenser, more foreboding moments, and there’s nothing to complain about with the 4K restoration. The Shakedown may seem a little melodramatic to the modern viewer (as The Shield of Honor certainly will, though Skinner’s Dress Suit less so), but it’s nevertheless melodramatic in an effective way, and often strikingly modern in its visual style—many moments could easily belong to the 1930s or even 1940s.

USA | 1929 | 70 MINUTES | 1.20:1 | BLACK & WHITE | ENGLISH (SILENT)

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early universal: volume 1
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Blu-ray Special Features:

  • 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from restorations undertaken by Universal Pictures (Skinner’s Dress Suit and The Shakedown restored in 4K, The Shield of Honor restored in 2K).
  • Audio commentary tracks on all three features. Contributed by David Kalat for Skinner’s Dress Suit, Jason A. Ney for The Shield of Honor and Nick Pinkerton for The Shakedown, these provide thorough and detailed backgrounds to the films.
  • Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the three films.
  • Limited edition O-Card slipcase.
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Cast & Crew

directors: William A. Seiter (Skinner) Emory Johnson (Shield) William Wyler (Shakedown)
writers: Walter Anthony, Henry Irving Dodge & Rex Taylor (Skinner) Leigh Jason, Emilie Johnson & Gladys Lehman (Shield) Charles Logue, Clarence Marks & Albert DeMond (Shakedown)
starring: Reginald Denny, Laura La Plante, Ben Hendricks Jr. & E.J. Ratcliffe (Skinner) • Ralph Lewis, Dorothy Gulliver & Neil Hamilton (Shield) James Murray, Barbara Kent & George Kotsonaros (Shakedown)