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September 21, 2021

13 Washington Square

13 washington square.jpg

Melville W. Brown - 1928
Kino Classics BD Region A

Curiosity got the better of me. I had never come across the name of director Melville Brown. I had seen Jean Hersholt in a few movies, but was more familiar with him through the honorary award names after him. Prior to watching 13 Washington Square, I viewed the handful of films directed by Melville Brown that are currently available on streaming platforms. It is safe to say that unlike some relatively unknown filmmakers from the silent or early sound era, film history will not require any revision with this restoration.

13 Washington Square can be enjoyed for its own modest merits. It is an entertaining film as long as one disregards its several implausible plot points. The story takes place in New York City at a time when being a member of "High Society" was newsworthy. As remote as it is for contemporary film viewers, films from the silent era through the 30s, trickling out after World War II, had stories about a more class conscious America. Here, the wealthy Mrs. De Peyster wants to stop her son, Jack, from marrying Mary, the daughter of a grocer. Aside from her personal sense of humiliation, the public news would cause her loss of her social status. Through a series of mix-ups, Mrs. De Peyster meets Deacon Pycroft, a gentleman burglar who has plans to steal her paintings by Peter Paul Rubens.

Confusion reigns with Mrs. De Peyster, her ditzy maid Matilda, Pyecroft, Jack and his fiancé, bumping into each other in the dark De Peyster mansion. As Matilda, shows her skills at physical comedy, bug eyed, knocking over kitchen supplies. There are chuckles with Matilda and Mary accidentally covered by large white cloths, ghosts as animated white sheets being corny but still amusing. It is possible that Matilda's propensity for malapropisms would have been funnier in a sound film that as titles.

Based on those early talkies that I have seen, Melville Brown never changed his style of filmmaking. Most of his shots are static full or medium of the actors. Where there is a stylistic flourish is that he will have the camera track out of a close-up to a more revealing shot of a character or a setting. In this film, Brown has a close-up of a newspaper article mentioning Mrs. De Peyster's planned trip to Europe. The camera pulls away to show that it is Jean Hersholt as Pyecroft reading the article. There is very little written about Melville Brown although a look at his filmography suggests a downward trajectory from Universal in the silent era, to programmers for RKO, ending up primarily at Monogram. The available films also suggest that Brown was typecast as a director primarily of romantic comedies.

The commentary track is by Nora Fiore, who also writes about film online as Nitrate Diva. She goes into how the film diverges from the novel and play that provided the source material. Also helpful is the information on stars Hersholt, Alice Joyce, ZaSu Pitts and the other supporting players. Fiore was also able to dig up a bit more information on Melville Brown and his career. Having also seen the available sound films, while Behind Office Doors(1931) is of interest, I prefer the funnier Lovin' the Ladies, especially for the use of blackout lighting and sound in the opening scene. The warm music track was composed by Tom Howe. The blu-ray is sourced from a 4K restoration made from two 16mm prints tinted in sepia tone.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 21, 2021 06:21 AM