Silent Discoveries – ‘After Six Days’ & ‘Yesterday and Today’

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From VCI Entertainment comes the odd and only moderately interesting Silent Discoveries double feature, containing After Six Days, a 62-minute 1920 Biblical epic, and Yesterday and Today, a nearly hour-long 1953 documentary. As noted by VCI, the former was “Touted at the time as a ‘$3,000,000 Entertainment for the Hundred Millions,'” and this edition was made from the only complete copy known to exist, a mint 16mm print of the 1929 7-reel sound reissue. The second title here features actor, comedian, and famous vaudevillian George Jessel as he hosts a random assortment of clips from early silent film releases, most of which were, and are, rarely otherwise seen. Neither portion is particularly good, or even consistently entertaining, but both—and this is the reason the DVD is worthwhile—are unique and scarce, and are therefore significant entries into the growing library of archived films made available for mass consumption.

To start with After Six Days, this film is a precursor to the DeMille epics soon to follow and harkens back to the classics of silent Italian cinema like Quo Vadis? (1913) and Cabiria (1914). Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite have the visual scope to match its narrative ambitions. The Old Testament chronicle covers everything from “Adam and Eve to the days of Solomon,” and it does so briskly, arriving at Sodom and Gomorrah by the 10-minute mark. Directed and produced by Pier Antonio Gariazzo (11 directorial credits, this one his second to last) and Armando Vey (this his sole credit), After Six Days is a generally slipshod Italian feature.

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Whatever its budget may have been, much of it appears cheaply made. There are a few decent special effect shots—a giant sword-wielding God in the Adam and Eve sequence—and the depiction of the tower of Babel construction is a decently staged grandiose piece of filmmaking. But at other times, we see action carelessly repeated, still frames haphazardly inserted (which may or may not be the result of the film’s poor state of preservation), and certain sequences are downright paltry: the poorly executed parting of the Red Sea, for example. With English narration by Donald Douglas, After Six Days is an episodic Biblical greatest hits, showcasing many of the visual conventions we now associate with such films: the ornate sets, the clichéd costumes, the death and destruction of classic Old Testament yarns, and the now comic suggestion of what an orgy consists of.

Yesterday and Today, produced and directed by Abner J. Greshler and written by Jessel, is, as film historian Richard M. Roberts describes in his commentary track, a “compilation of compilations,” as much of the material was obtained from two separate British collections. Those British collections, as Roberts also humorously notes, managed to misidentify nearly every film shown: incorrect titles, actors, years of production, countries of origin, etc. Brought together for this 1953 assemblage, it seems no effort was made to rectify the errors even then, so they still stand. And that’s where Roberts comes in.

Clips are from such obscure shorts as Sneezing Powder, The Living Head, The Professor’s Mistake, Little Jimmy’s Nightmare, and Asleep at the Switch. No, scratch that. Thanks to the research of Roberts and his fellow historians, we find out those films are actually That Fatal Sneeze, The Mysterious Black Board/Knight, Liquid Electricity, Le Petit Jules Verne, and The President’s Special, respectively. If nothing else, these inaccuracies, the corrections, and even the times when Roberts himself is stumped, are testament to the fluid uncertainty of early film history, and the nearly limitless potential for the (re)discovery of cinematic treasures.

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In hosting the program, Jessel, who we find out apparently turned down the lead in the screen version of The Jazz Singer, which he played on Broadway, tries his best to be amusing, but much of that humor was lost, at least on me. For some strange reason, he frequently looks away from the camera when reading his cue cards (in sequences shot, surprisingly, by the great Stanley Cortez), and though he seems to genuinely believe that what he is recounting is “the story of the world’s greatest entertainment,” his narration falls flat. His quips range from jabs at Russia (this was 1953 after all), to off-color comments about the women shown in these turn of the century movies, to remarks about contemporaries Eddie Cantor and Bob Hope. Clips cover chapters of film history such as Edison and Méliès and Linder and Chaplin, and include newsreels highlighting fashion of the period and international dignitaries; there are also slapstick comedies, chase films, trick films, and a few early fantasy works.

Like most of the titles released by VCI, Silent Discoveries is a valuable asset in terms of film history, if not necessarily in quality film entertainment. But movies like these are important, and one hopes VCI and similar companies continue to make a name for themselves in this realm of uncommon motion pictures made readily accessible. Good or bad, these films at least need to be saved and, when possible, seen.


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