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The small, but thriving home-video market for silent films is growing steadily. Major companies such as MGM-UA, HBO, CBS-Fox and Paramount continue to release them, upgrading a market that was once overrun by shoddy product.

Silent films are for specialized tastes, appealing mostly to film buffs, historians and collectors. The silent-movie fan is generally older and sophisticated - attracted by the simplicity and the sense of history inherent in these movies.The average movie fan, looking for weekend's entertainment, isn't likely to rent a silent movie. First of all, most of today's fans are unfamiliar with the movies and stars of the silent era. Also, watching these venerable oldies requires patience. In silent movies, which became obsolete when sound debuted in the late 1920s, action scenes alternate with title-frames bearing quotes or explanations of the action. In some ways, watching a silent movie is like watching a crude, subtitled foreign movie.

For modern audiences, another drawback to these films is the stylized acting. Without the luxury of words, actors in those days had to resort to operatic excesses to convey emotions.

Home video has been a boon to silent films, which are rarely shown on TV or theaters and were becoming more and more obscure. But when the home-video boom started in the early '80s, a silent-movie revival began that has been slowly building momentum ever since.

In home-video's infancy, some small companies released silents - which were attractive because many of these films were in the public domain, allowing these companies to avoid massive rights fees. However, some of those outfits, duplicating from substandard prints, have sullied the silent-film market with inferior product.

"Fans are never sure what they're getting when they buy certain silent films," said HBO's marketing director Steven Zales. "Some videos were made from 10th generation prints and turned out faded, blotchy and fuzzy, with bad sound tracks. Some of these are real cheap, like $10, so people buy them - but they're ultimately disappointed.

"The only way you can be sure you're seeing something approximating what the fans saw back in the silent era is to get a video made from a restored original print."

Silents cost in the $10-$40 range. The buffs know that inexpensive movies released by obscure companies are often inferior and that, in general, the films in the best condition come from the major companies, which can afford to restore battered old prints and add classy sound tracks.

Films released by the big companies, however, are often the most costly, falling in the $30-$40 range. There are exceptions, though, like Paramount's "The Covered Wagon," a 1923 Western classic due out May 10 for $14.95. But the silents buffs usually do not mind spending more for quality.

Silents are not big moneymakers. If a video company sells 5,000-10,000 copies to retailers and distributors, that's commendable. "At $29.95 retail, you need to sell a minimum of 5,000 to make back costs," explained George Feltenstein, MGM-UA's director of select marketing. "The nice thing about silents is that they sell consistently over a long period of time. It's not like the current rental hits, which are here today and gone a few months later."

Finding silents is often not easy. Many video stores, geared to current movies, don't carry them. The bulk of the silent-movie business is done through mail order companies - such as Home Film Festival, Movies Unlimited and Video Yesteryear. HBO's Zales said mail-order sales account for 60 percent of his company's business.

The video stores that do carry silents usually do not have a big selection. Many video stores don't stock silents released by the small, independent companies, which don't have the clout or resources needed for wide distribution.

The most marketable silents are still the comedies featuring greats such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. They specialized in visual humor that's virtually timeless. For instance, Chaplin's first feature-length comedy, "The Kid" (CBS-Fox, 1921), is funnier than many modern comedies.

The future for silents on home video is rosy. MGM-UA's Feltenstein, for instance, said that his company has plans to release many of the 200 silents in its vaults.

Fortunately for silents buffs, many of the best films are already out in the home-video market. But while there are plenty of movies out starring famed comedians, there aren't enough featuring dramatic stars like Rudolph Valentino. The greatest of all the silents - and possibly the most influential film ever made - director D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" is available on home video (Video Yesteryear, 1915).

The list of silents in the home video market includes "The Crowd" (MGM-UA, 1928); Chaplin's "City Lights" (CBS-Fox, 1931); "The General" (HBO, 1927), with Buster Keaton; "The Eagle" (HBO, 1925), starring Rudolph Valentino; Chaplin's "The Gold Rush" (Video Yesteryear, 1925); "Greed" (MGM-UA, 1924); "Wings" (Paramount, 1928); "Ben Hur" (MGM-UA, 1927); Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (Cable, 1926); and "The Thief of Bagdad" (HBO, 1924), starring Douglas Fairbanks.


Q: If I lost a videotape that I'd rented, what would it cost to replace it?

A: That depends on the title. Many movies that once cost $89.95 (suggested retail) are now less than $25. You would have to call the studio that markets the cassette to find out its current price. But try offering to replace the tape at the wholesale price, which is what the dealer would pay for a new copy. - Andy Wickstrom (Knight-Ridder)


HEARTS OF FIRE - Not only is this arguably the worst rock 'n' roll movie of all time, but easily the worst Joe Eszterhas screenplay ever - what better recommendation could a slap-happy masochist need for a hoot-filled night around the video camp "Fire"? If Bob Dylan is slightly credible as a washed-up rocker, try to picture blank, tuneless Rupert Everett as a Time magazine cover superstar whose awful techno-pop inspires New Kidslike hysteria, or Fiona as the 18-year-old airhead discovery - coveted by them both - who, magically, draws screaming sellout crowds to her very first concerts. Dylan gamely enunciates his lines but it's clear from his dazed look that he already realized what an incalculably embarrassing career choice he'd made. Warner Home Video. $89.95. - Chris Willman (Los Angeles Times)