Looking for something new to watch (for obvious reasons)? Maybe you want to supplement your fabulous at-home silent film festival? I’m happy to announce that the inimitable Undercrank Productions has delivered yet again with their new release–The Douglas MacLean Collection, funded by fans on Kickstarter (like me!).
If you’ve somehow missed out and aren’t familiar with Undercrank Productions–a sad thought–they specialize in rare (oftentimes extremely rare) collections of silent films starring forgotten names like Marcel Perez, Alice Howell, and Musty Suffer. DVDs are both produced and scored by the hardworking silent film historian/accompanist Ben Model, and they feature fabulous case artwork by Marlene Weisman. Their website states: “Undercrank Productions is quite literally a ‘collector’s brand’ as most of our releases are funded by silent film fans.”
I can personally vouch for what a good job they do with these crowdfunding projects–it’s clearly explained exactly how the funds are used for DVD production, and Model sends out regular updates about each projects’ progress. It’s all very professionally done.
The latest Undercrank release features the very forgotten Douglas MacLean, a charming “light” comedian who Model describes as “one of the comedians you went to see while waiting for Buster or Harold to come out with a new picture.” Advertised as “The Man With the Million Dollar Smile,” MacLean could be counted on to star in peppy, crowd-pleasing features throughout the 1920s–23 to be exact. Of those features, only two survive: One a Minute (1921) and Bell Boy 13 (1923). And happily, those are the two we get to enjoy on The Douglas MacLean Collection.
In One a Minute, MacLean plays a young man who inherits a small-town drug store that’s struggling to keep up with the times. Deciding he needs to boost sales fast, he creates a harmless “powder” based on his father’s “secret formula” and markets it as a cure-all called Knight’s 99. He claims that the powder has a secret ingredient–but what is it? And is he really scamming the public, as we’re assuming?
Marketed with the tagline “More Laughs Than a Bellboy Has Buttons,” Bellboy 13 has MacLean playing the nephew of a wealthy broker. When MacLean wants to marry an actress, his uncle disapproves and disinherits him. When his girl finds out, she insists that the young man go find a job and get back into the uncle’s good graces. Naturally he ends up working as a lowly bellboy. One sequence involving building ledges is very much in the vein of Harold Lloyd’s thrill comedies–I gotta say, those kinds of scenes always make me sweat!
Ever the optimistic go-getter, Douglas has a sunny appeal and optimism that’s very refreshing nowadays (it’s hard not to compare him to Fairbanks Sr.–especially since they look like they could be cousins!). Both of his features have charm and memorable moments, but I think One a Minute is my favorite thanks to the gorgeous quality of the print. It looks like it was never put through a projector! I get so busy looking at all the little details I almost get distracted from the story. It’s just…wow, my friends.
Model’s organ scores, of course, fit the films to a T. If you, like me, get awfully tired of those “modern” scores that pair droning synthesizers with jolly Jazz Age features because Artsiness and Stuff, fear not, for you are in good hands here. Model has the deep respect for the films and their makers that goes hand in hand with creating appropriate scores, and these restorations are all the better for it. I often think that if the original filmmakers could look down and see how well some of their silents are being restored and presented, they’d be just thrilled (and maybe a bit bowled over!).
Now, I have to tell you about the bonus short–for it’s surely one of the greatest DVD extras we never knew we needed. It’s a little “actuality” called A Trip Through the World Greatest Motion Pictures Studios (1920), and it gives us a thorough look at every aspect of Thomas Ince’s famed studios, where MacLean was contracted for a time. We see a little bit of everything, from shots of carpenters building sets to seamstresses making alterations in the wardrobe department to editors examining reels of film. (Ince’s studios were touted for being the first to have their own filmmaking and printmaking facilities–everything all in one location.) Actors like MacLean make cameos, of course, and we even see artists creating title cards! It’s a lovingly shot and well paced treat, just the thing for a silent film enthusiast’s collection. It would be great to see it playing at a festival one day as a pre-feature appetizer (hint hint, festival organizers!).
I’m happy to have Douglas on my movie shelf–truly does my film collection grow more comprehensive with each Undercrank release. And I’m looking forward to revisiting these charming films in the future! The Douglas MacLean Collection is available on Amazon at a beautifully reasonable price (under $20!) and other online markets. Check it out, my friends!