A couple of classics from the silent era lead off movies that have arrived on DVD and Blu-ray this week.
"Wings" (Paramount, 1927, b/w, silent, $24.99). This World War I flyboy yarn — the first film to win the best-picture Academy Award — has two small-town rivals, one poor (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), the other wealthy (Richard Arlen), at odds over the same pretty girl (Jobyna Ralston). Meanwhile, Rogers virtually ignores the tomboy neighbor who loves him (top-billed, vivacious Clara Bow, famed as the "It" girl).
But forget all that on-the-ground soap-opera stuff, and especially the sometimes lame comic relief. Things really heat up after Rogers and Arlen join the Army Air Corps, become pals while enduring the arduous training (with young Gary Cooper as an ill-fated bunkmate) and ship out for Europe as combat pilots. (With Bow turning up as an ambulance-driving nurse!)
The exciting aerial sequences are still impressive after all these years — as directed by WWI flying combat veteran William A. Wellman — and no doubt account for the Oscar win.
The print has been painstakingly restored and includes tinting and flashes of color that replicate the 1927 original release. The DVD offers two musical options, an orchestral score (with sound effects) based on the film's original music by J.S. Zamecnik, and Gaylord Carter's equally delightful organ score. (BYU film archivist James V. D'Arc is among the historians interviewed in the making-of featurette.)
Extras: full frame, featurette (also on Blu-ray with two more featurettes. $29.99)
"The Squaw Man" (Warner Archive, 1914/1931, b/w, silent/sound, $19..95). Legendary filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille ("The Ten Commandments") so loved the story of this 1905 hit play that he filmed the melodrama three times. The first and last are collected here, the 1914 silent and 1931 sound versions. (He did a second silent version in 1918.)
The convoluted soapy story has an English aristocrat taking the rap for his cousin's embezzlement because he loves the thief's wife. He heads for the anonymity of the American West where he tangles with a villain, marries a Native American and has a child. Eventually, his name is cleared as his cousin dies, and his true love arrives in America to find him.
The silent was DeMille's first film, belied by some awkward staging (of course, narrative movies hadn't been around very long, either, and everyone was testing the waters). Dustin Farnum stars and it's more interesting now as a historical document than entertainment but offers an idea of what audiences flocked to in the early 1900s.
The talkie is a bit stilted and the very American-sounding Warner Baxter is miscast in the lead but the film gets better as it goes along. Charles Bickford, who would have a long career as a character player, shows up as the villain but it's Lupe Velez, in an understated performance as his Indian wife, who steals the show (despite speaking in pidgin English).
Extras: full frame, two films (available at www.WarnerArchive.com)
"The Whistleblower" (Fox/Blu-ray, 2011; R for violence, sex, nudity, language; $29.99). The fine central performance by Rachel Weisz drives this true story of the title character, an idealistic Nebraska cop who signs on as a peacekeeping adviser in post-war Bosnia. But she quickly runs into a sex-trafficking ring wrapped up in local police corruption that also seems to involve American soldiers and United Nations workers. Highly charged paranoia tale is bleak and unsettling but also quite engrossing.
Extras: widescreen, featurette (also on DVD, $22.98)
"Real Steel" (Touchstone/Blu-ray +DVD, 2011, PG-13, two discs, $39.99). Hugh Jackman is good in this guilty-pleasure action-oriented comedy-drama, a sort of boy-and-his-robot yarn set in the near future when boxing between humans has been outlawed and robots have become the ringside attraction. Jackman is a down-on-his-luck promoter who reconnects with his estranged son when the boy becomes attached to his latest 'bot and helps him make him a winner.
Extras: widescreen, Blu-ray and DVD versions, deleted/extended scenes, featurettes, bloopers, trailers (also on three-disc Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy, $44.99, and single-disc DVD, $29.99)
"Paranormal Activity 3" (Paramount/Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy, 2011; R for violence, language, sex, drugs; $39.99). Third in the film franchise about video-camera documentation of things that go bump in the night is more of the same, another "Blair Witch"-style horror yarn. The second film was a prequel and this one is a prequel to that prequel. Got it?
Extras: widescreen; Blu-ray, DVD and digital versions; R-rated and unrated versions, featurette (also on single-disc DVD, $19.99)
"Welcome to Hard Times" (Warner Archive, 1967, $19.95). Left-leaning symbolism permeates this anti-western tragedy as pacifistic residents of Hard Times allow a bully (Aldo Ray) to pillage, rape and murder, then literally burn down their town. In the aftermath, the ineffectual mayor (Henry Fonda) attempts to rebuild in partnership with a new barkeep (Keenan Wynn) and his saloon girls. But Fonda's woman (Janice Rule) only wants revenge against Ray, which poisons them both. (Filled with familiar character players in small roles.)
Extras: widescreen, trailer (available at www.WarnerArchive.com)