Early Universal Vol. 1: Skinner's Dress Suit/The Shield of Honor/The Shakedown (Limited Edition) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (20th September 2021).
The Film

Skinner's Dress Suit (William A. Seiter, 1926): As credulous as her husband Skinner (Rebecca's Reginald Denny) is deluded about his importance to the "nuts and bolts" firm at which he works as a clerk, Honey (The Cat and the Canary's Laura La Plante) pushes him to demand a raise from his boss McLaughlin ('s E.J. Ratcliffe) so that they can keep up with their neighbors whose higher paid husband can afford his own motorcar while it is a running bet among the locals whether Skinner will be able to hop the passing train at 7:32 every morning or walk to work and end up late. Skinner works himself up to ask for a raise only to incur the wrath of McLaughlin over an innocent prank by mischievous office boy Tommy (Arthur Lake aka Blondie's Dagwood Bumstead). Worried about disappointing his wife, Skinner tells her that he has been granted a ten dollar-a-week raise which immediately sets her mind working on how to spend it. Anticipating an additional $520 dollars a year, she spends it all on a new dress suit for her husband and a dress for herself, and intending to spend more on dance lessons for the social event of the season: a party given by the Colbys (Sunset Boulevard's Hedda Hopper and The Reckless Age's Henry A. Barrows) to welcome the town's new pastor.

With creditors writing and calling into the office constantly, Skinner hopes to save a little money by picking up some dance moves from footloose receptionist Miss Smith (Lady of the Night's Betty Morrissey), which Perkins takes for frivolity on Skinner's part. After Skinner and Honey make a spectacle of themselves around town with his newly-acquired dancing skills and finer clothes than he wears at the office, McLaughlin and business partner Perkins (Windjammer's Ben Hendricks Jr.) feel less guilty about laying him off when long-standing customer Jackson (The little Princess' Lionel Braham) refuses to renew his contract with them, suggesting that Skinner will land on his feet quickly with all of his apparent connections. With his wife buying more clothes for social engagements and refurnishing the house to host bridge parties, Skinner will need a different sort of fancy footwork to dodge his creditors, moving men, and his own tailor (The Rawhide Kid's William H. Strauss); but, if the clothes make the man, Skinner may just have a bit of luck coming his way.

Based on the short story by Henry Irving Dodge – originally published in serial before spawning a book series – and already filmed in 1917 – and later remade as Skinner Steps Out with Ratcliffe playing Jackson this time around – Skinner's Dress Suit is very much dependent on screwball comedy tropes already overly-familiar before the sound era, but beneath its surface hilarity is a remarkably mature look at the American middle class and its illusions and delusions. Skinner may be stretching the truth when he boasts to his wife of how important he is at work, but he also seems to believe he is better-regarded by his superiors who seem not to notice him unless he causes a stir, and he believes that he has been maliciously set up to be blamed for Arthur's prank (disregarding the notion that the younger man may be trying to alleviate his own sense of boredom and thinks as little about Skinner as his superiors). Honey may seem flighty and spendthrift, but her behavior is based upon the prevailing suburban concern of "keeping up with the Joneses" and the role of consumerism in the appearance of domestic bliss and aspiring towards upward mobility. This is highlighted in the Colby's soiree in which the intertitles note that the Skinners are not the only ones who feel compelled to attend even if they cannot afford to do so. The Skinners are so guileless in their "eccentricity" that they attract connections without trying, including the inadvertent aiding of another pair of social climbers skews Skinner's situation in his favor; as such, Skinner has only to not so much deceive his wife as to get her to go along with aspects of the illusion that in which she has already taken part. The ending may seem more cynical than cute to contemporary audiences; however, that's the case with many better-known examples of the screwball and romantic comedy forms.
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The Shield of Honor (Emory Johnson, 1928): On the day that young police officer Jack MacDowell (Batman: The Movie's Neil Hamilton) becomes part of the Los Angeles Police Force flying squad, his police force veteran father Daniel (Birth of a Nation's Ralph Lewis) turns sixty-five and learns that all members of the force his age are to be let go at half-pay. While Jack is discovering first love with Gwen (The Shadow of the Eagle's Dorothy Gulliver), daughter of prominent jeweler Matthew O'Day (The Chinese Parrot's Fred Esmelton), his father feels useless and unwanted in spite of his accomplishments ("medals cover your chest and break your heart underneath"). O'Day's firm has been the subject of a series of robberies and is being watched by the police. While they suspect O'Day's secretary Flora Fisher (Monkey Business' Thelma Todd), it is actually O'Day's partner Robert Chandler (Bab's Diary's Nigel Barrie) who has deployed his gang to steal back diamonds from the firm's client list, planning to fleece O'Day of twenty-thousand dollars for a fake deal with a nonexistent London firm. Jack's observation of Chandler's suspicious behavior is too vague to connect him to the crimes; but his father is about to get caught up in the middle of a heist when Chief Davison (Captain Midnight's Joseph W. Girard) takes pity upon him and gets him a job as night watchman at O'Day's, and Gwen is also put in danger when she drops by the firm on that fateful evening.

Promoted as an "epic tale of the everyday hero in times of peace: the American Policeman," The Shield of Honor is a rather painless experience as one of Universal's "jewel" (or prestige) titles, starting out as a seeming in-depth look at the Los Angeles police force before quickly establishing that the elder MacDowell's decline is the melodramatic element while the love story provides moments of lightness, and the heist storyline goes for serial thrills from an aerial chase to a climactic conflagration, favoring escapism over emotional investment. Contract director Emory Johnson (The Phantom Express) experiments with some expressionistic touches as MacDowell the elder's self-image beings to crumble, and there are some noir-ish camera angles and a couple impressive camera movements that give verve to the criminal subplot. Although shot the same year as the technically innovative Wings, The Shield of Honor's airplane chase is achieve through some clever opticals and models, but the real excitement comes from the fiery finale before the conventional happy ending.
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The Shakedown (William Wyler, 1929): Hanging around the pool hall, dashing Dave Roberts (The Crowd's James Murray) has developed a reputation for being fast and strong. After boxer Battling Roff (Beggars of Life's George Kotsonaros) loses a bet that he can knock the other man off a handkerchief, he manages to get under the younger man's skin by making a pass at his girl. Roff's manager (Lights of New York's Wheeler Oakman) breaks up their public scuffle and suggests that they settle things in the ring, with most of the town betting on Dave who is knocked out during the first round. The whole thing turns out to be scam, with wholesome-looking Dave establishing himself ahead of the boxing act in new towns as the underdog in order to skew bets in his favor for a fight he is bound to lose. His manager thinks Dave needs to develop more of a following in the next town so he advises him to get a job rather than hang around bars, and Dave is soon working the oil wells and carrying on a daily flirtation with lovely greasy spoon waitress Marjorie (Indiscreet's Barbara Kent). When orphaned Clem (The General's Jack Hanlon) runs off with a stolen pie, Dave gives chase and manages to save him from being hit by a train; and the boy is soon glued to his side. Dave once again is challenged to a fight with Roff when he protects Marjorie's honor; and Clem is more than happy to help train Dave for the fight. The pseudo-family Dave has formed with Clem and Marjorie is threatened, however, when Clem gets into a fight with a boy who claims his father saw Dave box with Roff in another town and that he is a phony. Dave confesses the truth, disillusioning Marjorie, and he must choose between throwing the next fight and living or possibly dying in an attempt to beat Roff legitimately.

More of a melodrama than a boxing drama, The Shakedown's most notable aspect is that it is an early feature directorial credit for the great William Wyler (Ben-Hur) after half a decade of western shorts. The redemption of a shiftless man through a woman's love and a needy child was fodder for as many dramas as comedies during the period, and The Shakedown does not really distinguish itself dramatically, being more impressive for demonstrating that Hollywood already had the visual vocabulary for the boxing ring with ringside views, in your face close-ups of sweaty fighters being wiped down and hydrated, and the victorious final shot that would not only be a freeze frame in a modern sports film but would also swap the orphan for the girl. Elsewhere, Wyler and company demonstrate an impressive visual sense in contrasting cozy domestic spaces and industrializing landscapes (sometimes within the same shot), along with scenes that derive tension from characters moving through the depth of the composition like the early sustained shot in which Roff walks out of the pool hall to follow Dave's girl knowing that he will take notice (the creative thrust of the composition coming from Dave's movement pursuing Roff into the foreground), and impressive shot of a camera mounted above the hero as he makes his ascent to the top of an oil well. Stripped of its future Wyler associations, The Shakedown is a passable Universal programmer.
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Video

Hard to see outside of collector's screenings and bootleg VHS, Skinner's Dress Suit was restored by Universal in 4K from a 16mm tinted print owned by UCLA, a 35mm nitrate print from the Belgian Cinematek, and a 16mm master positive from the Library of Congress, premiering on Blu-ray last year as part of Kino Lorber's Reginald Denny Collection (What Happened to Jones? will be included in Eureka's Early Universal Vol. 2). Apart from the credits which might have been not digitally-recreated but replaced with clean still frames of each card, the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen image looks remarkable clean and crisp at times while reel changes bear vertical scratches and some degradations of sharpness and clarity are presumably the insertion of 16mm material.
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The Shield of Honor was restored in 2K from two 16mm elements and is the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen image is the least impressive technical restoration in the set; however, the effects opticals and some of the more noir-ish shots are still impressive even if the grain is noisy, the highlights are not quite as detailed, and the tinting sometimes makes the night scenes murky. The Shakedown's 4K restoration of a 35mm dupe positive premiered last year stateside from and Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.33:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer is the best-looking restoration in the set. While there is the occasional shot whose clarity is undercut by fluctuations in density, sharpness and detail in the depth of the compositions and the boxing ring close-ups is impressive for a film of this age.

Audio

Unlike some recent Eureka and Kino silent restorations, the scoring choices of all three films in this set are very suited to the material. The LPCM 2.0 stereo Leo Birenberg score on Skinner's Dress Suit succeeds not only in underlining Denny's comic and dance choreography, but in doing so in a restoration in which frames may be lost here and there. The LPCM 2.0 stereo Alex Kovaks score on The Shield of Honor captures the serial thrills while the Michael Gatt scoring on The Shakedown manages to support the melodrama and the fighting scenes without seeming maudlin or bombastic. All three films appear to have original intertitles.
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Extras

The only extras in the set are audio commentaries for each film. Skinner's Dress Suit has an audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat who distinguishes the film genre as a "light comedy" rather than a "screwball comedy" noting the commonalities of both while also noting the film's sexual maturity and how the production code censorship degraded certain aspects of the romantic comedy form into the separate bed sitcoms of yesteryear and what they are today. He also discusses the careers of LaPlante and Denny, noting that British actor Denny's image was transformed from the American everyman into a character actor with the arrival of the sound era. The Shield of Honor has an audio commentary by professor and film scholar Jason A. Ney who contrasts the image of Los Angeles police force as portrayed in the film by director Emory Johnson whose early career was marked by a number of films vaunting heroes in professional services and the real police force of the twenties marked by corruption and a changeover of eight police chiefs before widespread reform that would come shortly after the film. The Shakedown carries over the Kino Lorber audio commentary by film writer Nick Pinkerton who notes that the film is a combination of genres – the boxing movie and the grafter movie – and discusses Wyler's evolving style, concerns of the film and others of the time with the fragmenting of the domestic space by the industrial – demonstrated visually in the film – and the sad ending of alcoholic Murray in spite of an attempt by director King Vidor to revive his career.
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Packaging

The first 2,000 copies come with a Included in the case is a limited edition O-Card slipcase and a 27-page collector's booklet featuring writing by Richard Combs and Andrew Graves, although curiously they both only write about Skinner's Dress Suit and The Shakedown with nothing for The Shield of Honor. In Combs' "Mapping the Body: Skinner’s Dress Suit", the author explore the way in which director Seiter uses clothes and body language to depict on a film a "sexual romance" while in "Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926)", Graves discusses the comic chops of star Denny. In "These Three: The Shakedown", Combs discusses the "Wyler look" in terms of the film and his adeptness at directing actors – also noting here that the film was released as a "part talkie" although those materials are apparently lost – while in "The Shakedown (1929)", Graves notes Wyler's turn with his last three silent era films from the two-reel and feature western to comedy and domestic drama.

Overall

Although the three films in Early Universal Vol. 1 vary in quality and entertainment value, it is not a "mixed bag" but rather part of a multi-set survey of the storied studio's beginnings as it tries to gets its footing and find an audience alongside its rivals Paramount and MGM.

 


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