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“It’s always cause for celebration whenever a lost film has been found.” - Martin Scorsese

Right you are, Mr. Scorsese but then again, we've never found a lost Pauly Shore film. We have however, lost and found a film very much worth celebrating, one that stars two of the biggest names to come out of the silent era, Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson. Thought lost for over eighty years, Beyond the Rocks has been pieced back together and cleaned up for its debut on DVD by Milestone Film & Video. As a mere casual fan of the silent era, just seeing these two headliners billed on the same film was enough to peak my interest. As I tossed the disc into my DVD player, I couldn't help but wonder... how well does a film so old stand up against the test of time?

Beyond The Rocks
Feature
Miraculously well, if the test of time involves being hidden away in a musty film vault for eight decades. Unlike the digital world we live in today, films shot up until the mid 1950s were made using a nitrate cellulose film stock, one so flammable that it could it burst into flames should you happen to breathe on it after a spicy meal. If any given nitrate print survived catching fire over the years, it would be subject to an incredible decomposition process, one that amazingly, by releasing nitric acid, accelerated itself as it fell apart. There is virtually no way to preserve these prints, and only climate-controlled film vaults can slow their decomposition until they can be preserved digitally. I'd like to think that there are more gems out there waiting to be found, and that organizations like the Nederlands Film Museum will continue their preservation efforts in locating them.

Now onto the story, which is simply enough the timeless tale of love forbidden. Gloria Swanson is Theodora, the daughter of the respectable but financially challenged Captain Fitzgerald. Her two sisters of lesser beauty convince Theodora that the only way for their Papa to regain his riches is for her to marry a wealthy man. Theodora can't stand the idea of her poor father spending his remaining years impoverished, so she agrees to marry the shrewish yet wealthy Josiah Brown. What a sad situation for the glamorous Gloria Swanson to be thrust into, whoever will come to her rescue? In the first twenty minutes, Rudolph Valentino does twice, as the dashing Lord Bracondale. First, Theodora's rowboat capsizes and shortly thereafter, she falls off the side of a mountain - the latter fairly epic for a romantic picture of the silent era. Blatantly unhappy with her marriage to Josiah, Theodora begins seeing Lord Bracondale socially and not surprisingly, a romance blossoms. But as a married woman, what can Theodora do? Josiah is bound to find out, and what will happen once he does?

Director Sam Woods has crafted a highly entertaining romantic comedy, one that had no problem in keeping my attention. The same can't be said of many old silent era films, as some lose their magic as they age. In absence of the technological advantage (or disadvantage) we know today, these early pioneers of cinema had vivid imaginations as their single greatest tool. The film at times, dives into the imaginations of our characters. A great use of this imaginative device is to tell a story about a queen, one which mirrors Valentino's own predicament, where our lead characters assume dual-roles for the story-within-the story. Another fantastic use of the technique takes us back to Egyptian times to show us how the story would've ended had it happened during that time period as imagined by Josiah Brown. They're nicely edited into the present story, and lighten things up with the angst of our heroes love forbidden becomes too much.

Beyond The Rocks
It goes without saying that any good silent film has to have entertaining visuals, and Beyond the Rocks has fantastic sights to show you. The picture starts off on the scenic beaches of England's coast and then takes us to vast snowy mountains. Next we're off to beautiful gardens in Versailles, France before finally settling on a desert safari. Through cleverly executed backdrops and matte shots, the visuals are quite epic. The indoor sets featured here are very diverse in size, from a modest lower-class home to a monstrous mansion. This is not film afraid of moving the camera to tell its story, and it greatly enhances the viewing experience.

If I had to choose a complaint, it's that Swanson's wardrobe choices often stifle her beauty, and possibly performance. It's a shame for someone with such beautiful skin to be dressed in Eskimo threads, which Swanson does near the end. Another minor complaint is the ending. I've seen my fair share of chick flicks, but this one unquestionably takes the prize for sappiest ending, one that actually gave me a good chuckle. Without spoiling things, I have to wonder how older, more conservative audiences reacted to Beyond the Rocks. I can guarantee this kind of picture wouldn't have been welcomed by the Hays Office and their strict production code that would plague Hollywood years down the road. Even still, the ending far from ruins the picture and is if anything, unexpected.

Video
There are several things to consider when judging the video quality of Beyond the Rocks. I cannot grade this film objectively against today's titles, because it would be grossly unfair to give a low rating to such a great restoration effort. The picture contains film scratches, jumps in the action, and features strong image deterioration in several shots. Even so, all things considered, Beyond the Rocks looks absolutely exquisite for it's age, and all companies involved in the restoration process should be very proud of their achievement. Some ‘silents’ have such poor quality that watching them is a chore, subject matter aside, but this isn't one of them.

Audio
Anyone who's seen a silent film knows that they're not entirely silent, and most often feature an accompanying score. Beyond the Rocks has been fitted with an orchestral score by composer Henny Vrienten as well as added sound effects such as crowd sounds, gunshots, and horse galloping. The score is quite beautiful, never detracting from the images on screen. It acts as a sort of narration and fits in well. The effects mix can be a little jarring when you're watching a silent film and suddenly hear synchronized sound. They detract a little, but are also amusing in those moments when you don't expect them. I listened to the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 orchestral track and was wholly satisfied. The score comes through nicely and I have no complaints in this department. Still, it's kind of ironic to be commenting on the audio quality of a silent film DVD.

Beyond The Rocks
Extras
To start things off, how about a feature-length silent film starring Rudolph Valentino and Mae Murray, The Delicious Little Devil? This is another restored gem released by Milestone Film & Video which, for its age, looks fantastic, though a little more deteriorated than Beyond the Rocks. The story is somewhat similar to Beyond, only without all that messy drama to get your spirits down. More comedic than anything else, this picture features several humorous dance sequences to please your eyes. The accompanying score is also a perfect fit, making this a grand supplement.

Next up is an extremely insightful three-minute bit on scoring the film with composer Henny Vrienten. The piece is filmed in cinéma vérité, and lets the footage tell the story rather than resorting to talking heads. Interestingly enough, the score was recorded one instrument at a time, and the footage shown is of the individual recording sessions. It's a shame this feature couldn't have been longer as again, it was great insight into the scoring process of film, silent or not.

'The Restoration of Beyond the Rocks' is a six-minute look at the painstaking process of cleaning up the original print. For anyone who cares about such information (I certainly do), this is another fascinatingly informative feature. It's chock full of restoration photographs and video, and tells of the problems that digital restoration can bring about. Strangely, in one scene, automated dirt removal led to a dog being erased from a shot.  

Another substantial supplement is a twenty-minute featurette shown on Dutch television (English subtitles added) on the discovery of the film.  If you want a portion of the score that originally accompanied the film, you can find it here.  We're taken to the vault that the print was found in and shown how the film looked before being digitally restored. The print technicians are absolute magicians for being able to find any semblance of an image in this worn-down celluloid. I'm overusing the word insightful in discussing the supplements for Beyond the Rocks, but it's so incredibly fitting. For those who've never seen a film vault or print restoration taking place, this is a great supplement. Also included are two trailers for Rudolph Valentino films, The Sheik and Il Giovane Rajah, both of which are without audio.

A feature length 'commentary' of sorts is included by way of a wire recording of actress Gloria Swanson in what sounds to be her declining years. The commentary doesn't have much to say about Beyond the Rocks, but rather about Swanson's life stories. Some of the topics she discusses are rather bizarre, including a strange sexual fixation with her father, but her commentary moves her on to other territory, thankfully. I'm sad to report that I found this extra to be a complete chore to sit through. Perhaps fans of Mrs. Swanson will find it more enjoyable. Rounding out the disc is a very extensive photo gallery for Beyond the Rocks including a lost scene, publicity materials, and on-set photos. A smaller gallery for The Delicious Little Devilis also present.

Beyond The Rocks
Overall
Beyond the Rocks is a glowing testament to why this forgotten genre is still cherished today. The filmmakers’ inability to produce synchronized sound may seem like a handicap at first, but is actually a fabulous enabler for highly-emotive performers and audiences with vivid imaginations. Valentino and Swanson are as good here as they ever were (which is saying quite a bit). This disc looks and sounds better than anyone could expect it to, and it's overflowing with supplements, all well produced. If you're a fan of the silent era, this is not a title to pass up. If you're curious about silent films in general, then this is a great film to test the genre by.


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