Film Reviews

Early Universal Vol. 2 – Blu-ray Review

Early Universal Vol. 2 is Eureka’s second collection of the studio’s films from the silent era, again bringing together three films: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916), The Calgary Stampede (1925), and What Happened to Jones? (1926), all with new restorations.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is the first feature adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic 1870 novel featuring the marauding Captain Nemo and his super-sub the Nautilus. In truth, it’s more of a mix of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and another of Verne’s novels, 1875’s Mysterious Island, with one plot involving Nemo and some shipwreck survivors on the sub, and another with a group of Union soldiers whose hot air balloon takes them to a, well, mysterious island. The two stories eventually converge with Nemo arriving at the island and confronting his sworn enemy.

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It’s a lovely film in places. The budget was huge for the day, with a then-astronomical cost of $500,000, and you can see where it went. Full-size boat mockups, a full-size submarine, intricate sets and costumes, and underwater filming; indeed it was the first-ever picture shot underwater. Unfortunately, there are some distasteful elements, not least Alleen Holubar as the Indian Nemo and “child of nature” Jane Gail, both made up in brownface.

Indeed, the picture somewhat captures Nemo’s aggravation against colonialism, although this does come across as hollow due to the awful physical representation of the character. But there is beauty to be found in the film, especially with Nemo’s “magic window” where the audience is treated to footage of the underwater world, including a coral reef, shipwrecks, and barracuda and sharks. One questions how viewers in 1916 would have reacted to see these wonders in their own wild kingdom.

The Calgary Stampede – named after the annual rodeo in Alberta, Canada – is a rousing western about a man named Malloy (the wonderfully named Hoot Gibson) who is trying to win the hand of Marie (the lovely Virginia Brown Faire). Of course, her father doesn’t think he’s good enough for her, especially because he doesn’t want “grandchildren with that Irish name”, and the whole thing blows up when an ex-con with a vendetta shoots Marie’s father. Who does everyone think did it? Malloy.

Maybe the strongest of the films, The Calgary Stampede doesn’t waste time and has a strong throughline full of romance, betrayal, and murder. The pacing is swift, but not at the expense of the emotional melodrama that characterises the film, and it’s quite a thrill in places, especially with Chris Tin’s propulsive score. It’s spectacularly evocative in places, with the opening sequence of buffalo prefiguring a wonderful later scene where the beasts of burden stampede across the plains towards our hero.

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Similarly to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the film has a brownface element with the actress Ynez Seabury made up as the Indigenous American Neenah, described in the credits as “half-breed”. She is also initially shown to be distrustful, although has a change of heart in the end. Nevertheless, the film itself is a great piece of entertainment.

What Happened to Jones? was the third adaptation of George Broadhurst’s 1897 farce, with the other two versions lost, and is a fine slapstick comedy. The film opens on the eve of the marriage of Tom (Reginald Denny) and Lucille (Marian Nixon), which sees Tom pulled into an evening game of poker by friend Ebenezer (Otis Harlan). The game gets raided by the cops, so the pair escape into the night, which is where the fun really begins.

Off they go into beauty parlours where they pretend to be ladies in the steam baths before inevitably ending up in drag, where they parade around the city streets with the boys in blue in tow. And of course, men try and pick them up before the police catch up, the pair stealing a horse-drawn milk cart to getaway. Of particular amusement is the maid Hilda, who catches the pair in their stolen garments, and who upon her open hand being filled with cash blurts “I ain’t seen nuthin’.”

Denny is particularly great throughout, whether being harassed into gambling or ending up dressed as the bishop for his own wedding. He and Otis Harlan (who voiced Happy in Disney’s 1937 animated extravaganza Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) make a fine pair, and their chemistry is at the centre of the film’s success. The film is also colour-tinted dependent on locations throughout, and it looks great.

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The three films all come from extensive new restorations from Universal Pictures and they look fantastic. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and What Happened to Jones? have been scanned at 4K, while The Calgary Stampede is at 2K, and it’s a joy to see these films like this. Of course, there are still scratches and parts where the elements don’t look their best, but considering these films are the best part of a century old, it’s astounding.

Each of the films has a sole bonus feature. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has an interview with Kim Newman on the film as well as the novel and how various adaptations have tackled Verne’s story, and he goes fairly deeply into the film as well as tropes of silent cinema in his usual infectiously enthusiastic manner.

The Calgary Stampede has an interesting audio commentary by film scholar Jason A. Ney that covers all aspects of the film, from the real-life effect buffalo hunting had on the US and Canada to the real Calgary Stampede. Ney has a likeable and informative style, and he easily juggles subjects while providing true context for the film. Especially welcome is a discussion about Seabury’s role and her career with ethnic roles, as well as the greater situation with casting in general.

Also given an audio commentary is What Happened to Jones? by film historian David Kalat, and it’s an excellent track. Kalat launches into a discussion about Reginald Denny and why he isn’t as famous as the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin while talking about his role in the 1966 Batman series, as well as how Disney designed Happy after Harlan’s portrait. Kalat is extremely entertaining and sounds informed without being overly dry.

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Early Universal Vol.2 is a wonderful example of Carl Laemmle and Universal Pictures’ silent work. With a thrilling sea adventure, a fine western, and a great slapstick comedy, there’s a great sense of variety, and all three pictures are entertaining in the least. With the fantastic picture quality, there’s never been a better time to dip your toe into the silent era.

Early Universal Vol.2 is out now from Eureka Entertainment.

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