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DVD Review: Old Ironsides (1926)

One of the frustrations regarding the 1926 silent epic “Old Ironsides,” now available on blu ray from KINO, is the exclusion of Dorothy Arzner from the credits. Working very closely with director James Cruz and the screenwriters, Arzner was responsible for the scenario as well as a great deal of the movie’s authenticity. It would be the last film she worked on before becoming a director herself.

Aside from that, however, the film itself is a massive, wonderful production about the sea and its pirates. With romance, humor, adventure and action, “Old Ironsides” has retrained its entertainment value into the 21st century.

Charles Farrell is a farm boy who decides to join the government’s fight against sea pirates by boarding the USS Constitution. He gets drunk and finds himself on a merchant ship where he meets the owner’s pretty daughter, played by Esther Ralston. This ship soon finds its way into the middle of the pirate war.

The director of “Old Ironsides” is James Cruze, who gets far too little attention in comparison to other filmmakers from the same era. Cruze has a particularly brilliant visual sense, his establishing shots being especially impressive. Long, affectionate close-ups of handsome Charles Farrell alternate with medium shots of a fidgety, snarling Wallace Beery. The shot of Farrell reading a posted flyer about the opportunity to go away to sea is beautifully framed, showing the actor with his back to the camera in a medium shot that fills its negative space with an open field. Cruze then cuts to a close-up of Farrell making his decision to run off to sea. This comes early in the film, establishing the character Farrell plays, as well as a portion of the narrative, and is one of the entire production’s most striking sequences. Contrast this with the scenes on the ship, the close quarters crowded with men in tighter medium shots. Each of these is equally effective.

Cruze balances the comical elements provided by Beery and George Bancroft with the romance between Farrell and Esther Ralston and the film never seems to be uneven or disjointed. The rocking of the ship, the action within the frame, the windy, violent episodes, and the shots bathed in fog, are all masterfully filmed.

Perhaps the fact that so many of Cruze’s silent films are inaccessible is a reason why he isn’t better remembered today. Or it could also be that “Old Ironsides” was so expensive of a production, it did not make enough money back to justify the extended costs. Cruze finished out the silent era doing lower budget movies and his transition to sound was effective but unremarkable. One of the most intriguing aspects of his directing career is in regard to the several Fatty Arbuckle features he helmed for the comedian in 1921. Only “Leap Year” is readily available, and it shows that Cruze had a real understanding of how to best use Arbuckle’s formidable talents. Of course the fact that intriguing films like “Gasoline Gus” and “Fast Freight” were banned due to the scandal involving Arbuckle is part of why these features are today inaccessible. A moving footnote: when Arbuckle was found innocent, Cruze offered to direct him in his comeback movie for free. Sadly, Arbuckle remained off screen for several more years.

Along with the aforementioned actors, it is interesting to see boxer George Godfrey in the role of the cook. The same year this film came out, Godfrey won the World Colored Heavyweight Championship, a title he would hold for two years, regain in 1931 for another two years, and once again regain in 1935 for still another two years. Godfrey only appeared in a handful of films.

KINO’s presentation is outstanding: a 2k scan from 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress. Kudos to Rodney Sauer, who has beautifully adapted the score from the film’s New York premiere, and performs it on piano. There is nothing more disconcerting than inappropriate music tacked on to a silent film, but Sauer is an expert accompanist and hits all the right notes in support of this feature. His music augments the film perfectly and is among the real highlights of this blu ray release. Special recognition should also go to Tony Roan’s thoughtful, enlightening commentary track, and the interesting, informative booklet by Peter Labuza.

The blu ray is available here: Old Ironsides

James L. Neibaur
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