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The Undesirable

(1914) ** Unrated
66 min. Olive Films. Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Mari J√°szai, Lili Berky, Victor Varconi.


Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pierce, Yankee Doodle Dandy, White Christmas, The Sea Hawk, Captain Blood, Angels with Dirty Faces, Dodge City... All of these classic films and more are the work of one Golden Age of Hollywood master: Michael Curtiz. But everyone has to start somewhere, and for Curtiz that was his native Hungary. Born Manó Kaminer, Curtiz worked under a number of monikers (Mihály Kertész, Michael Kertész, Michael Courtice) before settling on Michael Curtiz. Curtiz arrived in the U.S. in 1926, at the age of 39, and having already made over sixty features. One of the earliest of those features was The Undesirable, a silent film that self-describes as its outset as "A classical Hungarian peasant-play, written in 1880, in 4 acts."

The Undesirable introduces us to Betty (Lili Berky), a young Carpathian villager distraught at her father's deathbed. Except her "father" confesses he's actually her uncle and explains that Betty's mother Sarah (Mari Jászai) is serving hard time somewhere for killing Betty's father. Left alone in the world by her uncle's death, Betty drifts to the city in search of a vocation. She finds employment as a maid in the home of a dowager and her henpecked husband, but her true fate may lie with their strapping son Nick (Victor Varconi), as borne out by accelerated flirting. Meanwhile, Sarah wanders the earth in hopes of one day seeing her daughter again...

The story is a standard-issue theatrical melodrama, turned into a standard-issue silent-film melodrama. The overripe performances benefit from a bit of comic relief supplied by a clownish tramp, who does moustache twirling and a take to the camera as he's thieving. The Undesirable lines up archetype after archetype of silent-film, accumulating the impression of a parody despite practically being primary source material. Apart from some lovely location footage in the country, spectral visions of long-lost family members, and a handful of tinted scenes, the cheap-looking production lacks visual flair and lines up undistinguished performances on the way to a clumsy, half-hearted resolution.

And yet, to film historians and Curtiz fanatics, The Undesirable is a gift horse not to look in the mouth. Thought to be lost forever but recently discovered in the basement of New York's Hungarian House cultural center, Curtiz's film was returned to its country of origin, where it was welcomed as a national cultural treasure and subjected to an eight-month digital restoration process. The results are stunning, especially as complimented by a fine new score by Attila Pacsay. Even the casual viewer may find merit in this bygone example of popular entertainment and rudimentary silent-filmic storytelling. The Undesirable is not what one would call sophisticated, but it is a happily still extant example of what it takes to get to Carnegie Hall: practice.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 1/19/2016

Distributor: Olive Films

Olive Films deserves credit for putting out The Undesirable on Blu-ray despite its uphill battle for market share.  Given the 1914 film's provenance, Hungarian FilmLab's digital restoration proves remarkable: the image is pretty much spotless, with no evident print damage and little if any of the dust and dirt typical of films of this vintage. For all intents and purposes, this could be a newly struck print from 1914, and with its tightly resolved grain, it's difficult to imagine the film ever looking as good as this anywhere. The tinted scenes offer wildly rich hues, and contrast and black level are excellent in the black-and-white sequences that dominate. As for the newly recorded score, it sounds perfectly lovely in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, a fine compliment to the arresting picture quality of the feature. The disc, understandably, includes no extras. One can only hope more treasures from the silent era make their way to us in the coming years; here, Olive Films certainly proves itself worthy of their distribution.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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