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Armchair Cinephile

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Films from the silent era give your ears a rest

Shhhhh ...

You say you like the holidays, but by the last few days your senses are completely overloaded? Say you could use a sensory-deprivation chamber, or at least some quiet? Have we got the thing for you: rare gems from the cinema's silent era, where even the musical score can be turned off.

Granted, you may not want to turn off the music. Many DVD producers, like the young company Flicker Alley, take special pride in their new scores. In Flicker's case, they are composed by renowned accompanist Robert Israel, an old-school organist who has written orchestral scores for the company's first two titles: Judex, a 12-part serial by French filmmaker Louis Feuillade (Les Vampires) that follows one of the cinema's first mysterious vigilantes as he balances a longstanding feud with a wealthy banker against his love for her daughter; and Garden of Eden, Flicker's first release, a comic romance from one of the early cinema's most accomplished directors, the aptly named Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front). Both films are stocked by Amazon.com, but if you have a hard time finding them try www.flickeralley.com.

In this Jesus-hungry year, the Criterion Collection gives us one of the earliest tellings of the Greatest Story Ever Told. It may not have quite the level of realistic gore found in this year's model, but you can't fault it for lack of production values, as it comes from the king of spectacular cinema, Cecil B. DeMille. The King of Kings is his 1927 rendition, equipped with early Technicolor magic and dignified title card prose (drawn straight from the Bible) in addition to the expected extravagance in set design. Criterion's double-disc package includes both the 112-minute version seen by the public and a special 155-minute version that was shown at the grand opening of the famed Grauman's Chinese Theater.

Scholars in the audience will flip over More Treasures From the American Film Archives, a three-disc set that, as you might guess, follows a box released a few years ago. This one boasts 50 short films, most of which have never been available. Not everything included is silent: Here we have the oldest existing sound film (from the Edison lab), and other firsts, like the earliest extant version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the first filmed performance by Martha Graham. Sprinkled among the other discs are avant-garde documentaries and Ernst Lubitsch shorts. As with Flicker's releases: If this is too esoteric for your local retailer, try Amazon.

Finally, for silent releases designed not for the pious or the scholarly, but for pure entertainment, there's Kino's Slapstick Symposium, a series of four individually sold discs that each focus on a single comedian or comic team. One of the releases is feature-length, more or less - Laurel & Hardy's 65-minute Flying Deuces - but the other three compile shorts from big stars Harold Lloyd and Stan Laurel to the more obscure Charley Chase.

Chase's name may not ring a bell, but his director's should: Leo McCarey, went on to classic comedies like The Awful Truth and Duck Soup; the pair collaborated on nearly four dozen shorts. The Laurel disc documents his little-known time as a solo performer, with more than a dozen films he made before teaming up with Oliver Hardy. As for the Lloyd disc, it's funny from the first frame: a drooling infant stares up into space through the comedian's trademark round spectacles. Lloyd was a huge star in his day, but hasn't been well represented in the video age compared to his contemporaries Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Kino's disc is a big step in the right direction - and, as with the rest of these titles, is a great way to calm down after a week or so of dealing with the extended family.

By John DeFore


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