Although he’s better known today for his humanitarian efforts in Hollywood – which include the formation of the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1939 and later a special Oscar Award which bears his name – Jean Hersholt was a reliable actor in both the silent and sound era of film. His best known roles are are Dr. Paul Christian on the radio (1937-1954) and as the grandfather in the Shirley Temple film Heidi (1937); one of his more rare leading roles is 13 Washington Square, an equally rare romantic comedy coming in at the tail end of the silent era. Now this rarity is making its home video debut courtesy of Kino.
The Production: 3.5/5
When Mrs. De Peyster (Alice Joyce) – a important New York aristocrat – learns of her son Jack (George J. Lewis) romancing grocer’s daughter Mary Morgan (Helen Foster), she first tries to separate them by taking him on a voyage to Europe to avoid further scandal and humiliation in New York society. However, when Jack manages to try eloping with Mary, his mother and the family maid Mathilde (Zasu Pitts) disguise themselves and try to beat them back home before they can cement their vows. But they also cross paths with the charismatic “Deacon” Pyecroft (Jean Hersholt), a con man who has the De Peyster home in his sights for robbing the family’s valuable paintings. All paths converge on the home where each party’s deceptions are revealed and resolved.
13 Washington Square may have faded from the public eye over the years, but the film does have a unique charm. On the surface, the movie – based upon the play by Leroy Scott – appears to be a romantic comedy, but the plot – adapted by Harry O. Hoyt and Walter Anthony – does contain elements of suspense, the “old dark house” element from horror movies and even a sprinkle of class conflict mixed in for good measure. And the action moves along briskly under the direction of Melville W. Brown, who manages to meld the disparate elements together into a cohesive whole in the brief running time. The only major demerit against the film – except for the fact that it was unavailable for a long time – is that the fun ends too soon. Now, 13 Washington Square should be seen as a hidden gem from the 1920’s, one whose mélange of elements and styles add, rather than detract, to the overall joy of this discovery.
As the meddling mother whose eyes are opened by her son’s romance, Alice Joyce has one of her best roles; she is best known today for her performance in The Green Goddess, the William Archer play adapted for film in 1923 and 1930 with George Arliss. Though she started out as a dramatic actress – best known for her performance in Erich von Stroheim’s silent epic Greed (1924) – Zasu Pitts shows why she became better known as a comedic actress with her hilarious performance as Mathilde, the family maid with a propensity for butchering the English language; she was originally cast as the mother in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but her scenes were reshot when test audiences laughed at her performance, cementing her path to becoming a full fledged screen comedienne. Jean Hersholt exudes a charm as the secretive and duplicitous “Deacon” Pyecroft while George J. Lewis and Helen Foster make for appropriately starry eyed lovers whose elopement could be derailed by the comedy of errors. Filling out the cast are Helen Jerome Eddy as Mrs. De Peyster’s niece, who finally gets the journey she hopes for at the beginning, Jack McDonald and Jerry Gamble as the newspaper reporters hoping to get the inside scoop on the elopement and Julia Swayne Gordon as the landlady Mrs. De Peyster and Mathilde encounter when trying to stop Jack’s elopement.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, taken from a 4K restoration performed by Universal Pictures. Film grain is faithfully represented, with fine details, gray scale and tinted scenes also faithfully represented as well; there are instances of scratches, dirt and dust present, but that’s to be expected of a film over 90 years old. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film is presented with a new musical score composed by Tom Howe, which is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. The music is strong and clear with great fidelity and no instances of distortion, crackling or hissing present.
Special Features: 2.5/5
Commentary by film historian Nora Fiore – Recorded for this release, Fiore talks about the film’s production history, the history of the cast and crew and the story behind the film’s source material.
Until now, 13 Washington Square was a neat little comedy with touched of elements from other genres that was unavailable for many years. Kino Lorber has brought this hidden gem out on a solid Blu-ray release with a great HD transfer and a informative commentary track as a bonus feature. Highly recommended and worth a spot on the shelf of silent movie fans.
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