Priced to Own: Under Full Sail

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04/14/2009 1:30 PM |

Priced to Own is Cullen Gallagher’s new DVD column, to run every Tuesday.

Flicker Alley, over the past several years, has emerged as one of the premier DVD labels, consistently offering hitherto unavailable gems from the unjustly inaccessible vaults of cinema past. With restorations and bonus features that give Criterion a run for their money, Flicker Alley’s current lineup boasts such titles as Reginald Barker’s The Italian, F.W. Murnau’s The Phantom, and a healthy platter of Douglas Fairbanks delights. Their latest, Under Full Sail: Silent Cinema on the High Seas, lives up to their already high standard.

DVD producers David Shepard and Jeffrey Masino have arranged the set like an old-fashioned movie program, offering a feature film, The Yankee Clipper (1927) as well as several newsreels that pay tribute to the romantic yesteryears of the seven seas. As an added bonus, there is also a fond remembrance by Yankee Clipper co-star Frank "Junior" Coghlan — who appeared in the film as a child — as well as an excerpt from the-hard-to-come-by early Clara Bow vehicle Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), in which the cameramen engage in an actual whale hunt.

Taking over at the helm for a preoccupied Cecil B. DeMille, The Phantom of the Opera (1925) director Rupert Julian directed the 19th century high-seas spectacle The Yankee Clipper. William Boyd, known for his cowboy roles, here plays Hal Winslow, an American captain in China vying for their tea trade who also happens to fall in love with Jocelyn (Elinor Fair, the real life Mrs. Boyd), the daughter of his British rival, Lord Huntington. Racing from China to Boston, Winslow risks not only his claim to the tea trade, but also control of his vessel — the newly conceived clipper ship. Shot abroad The Indiana, an actual clipper from the mid-1850s, the action sequences (particularly the typhoon scene) have an authentic excitement to them.

While we can praise Julian for his skilled recreation of the international voyage, amateur filmmaker Alan Villiers was able to one-up the Hollywood craftsman. An actual seaman, Villiers himself filmed Around the Horn In a Square Rigger (1933) after a hired cameraman took ill and was unable to complete the journey. Recording an 83-day trip from Australia to Europe, the documentary has not only the unpolished feel of a home movie, but also its intimacy and casualness. Intuitively knowing where to film, Villiers captures action as no Hollywood production could. Watching the sailors scale the ship, there is no doubt that the waters beneath them aren’t a cleverly disguised superimposition. More thrilling than that, however, is Villiers’ almost geometric eye for composition, which pushes the formal rigor of the sails to the point of abstraction. The epitome of his unconsciously experimental mise-en-scene is a portrait-shot of the captain’s daughter, caught seemingly unaware, and filmed at a completely vertical 180-degree angle. Staring up at her from below, Villiers’ shot is spatially disorienting, offering no clues as to her position on the ship. Instead, we see only the contours of her face, partially obscured by a taut, stocky rope that bisects the screen, and set against a background of successive "Vs" formed by the intersection of the sails. The convergence of lines recalls Kandinsky, and as the wind rushes through her hair we think briefly of Dita Parlo in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante — but then the shot is over, an ephemeral but unforgettable few seconds.

Worth noting is that all of the films in the collection feature new scores by Dennis James, who performs on a vintage 1928 Wurlitzer pipe organ located at the Paramount Theater in Seattle, WA.