The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Those who are used to Hitchcock’s Hollywood productions will find a great many surprises among the genres of his earlier films made in England. But although very different from his “classic” suspense thrillers, these films should not be dismissed off-hand. Many show excellent qualities and you can see Hitchcock perfecting his skills. The last film of any kind that Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood was the historical thriller Jamaica Inn.

Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

The film centers around Jamaica Inn on the coast of Cornwall (a real place, apparently still in business) which is the base of operation for a band of cutthroats and plunderers, who lure ships to run aground on the rocky shores. To this accursed and feared place, young Mary (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to visit her aunt, who is married to the innkeeper. The plot thickens as one of the gang members (Robert Newton) is suspected of taking loot for himself. From there on it is a sometimes tight, sometimes slightly contrived plot of chases, changing loyalties and secret identities.

It appears that neither Hitchock himself nor Daphne du Maurier (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) liked the finished film. Certainly, it does have a number of shortcomings, but it is nevertheless worth watching. It has a dark and eerie tone which, coupled with some unexpected comic relief, gives the film a unique creepy feeling. Jamaica Inn may not be among Hitchcock’s greatest films, but regardless of what people say, it is far from one of his worst.

This film is best enjoyed as part of Hitchcock’s legacy, but another good reason is Charles Laughton who plays the bad guy. I have seen few films with Laughton, but I find that he is always excellent. Even though Maureen O’Hara (also good) may nominally be the protagonist, Laughton tends to take over and dominate the picture, all for the good. Other films with him at the Internet Archive include The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Captain Kidd (1945).

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica Inn
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believe in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

Freedom River (1971)

This Short Film Month of October continues with a more recent film than previous entries. This time we turn our focus onto a very short and at first sight insignificant little animation that turns out to have layers of depth and meaning in it. The film in question is Freedom River.

Boats and "Immigration" sign from Freedom River (1971)

Made in 1971, Freedom River has to be seen against the historical background of the Vietnam war, and all of the political awakenings and awareness associated with that time. Freedom River is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film. It is critical to many aspects of American society at the time, and that is probably the reason why it has remained fresh for four and a half decades. Many of the political issues raised in the film are just as relevant today as they were then, and since the film stays with generalisations, without going in-depth on any one subject, it feels almost timeless.

Surprisingly little information is available on the Internet about this little gem of a film. Orson Welles narrated the only voice heard in the film, and you would think that his name alone would generate enough interest for this film to achieve a classic status, but apparently not. One surprising and interesting comment, however, can be found in the film’s user reviews section at the IMDb. Joseph Cavella, the film’s writer, has this to say about the production of Freedom River:

“For several years, Bosustow Productions, a small studio for which I wrote several films, had asked Orson Welles, then living in Paris, to narrate one of their films. He never responded. When I finished the Freedom River script, we sent it to him together with a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a sizable check and crossed our fingers. He was either desperate for money or (I would rather believe) something in it touched him because two weeks later we got the reel back with the narration word for word and we were on our way.”

The film is not without its faults. The animation is very effective, but perhaps overly simplistic at times. Also, there is an undercurrent of patriotism that seems to suggest that freedom and prosperity are inherent in the very land of America (although the actual place is not named). The film would, I think, have been even more powerful if it had acknowledged that humans alone can create a good society, and it could also have mentioned the problems brought upon the Native Americans by the white immigrants. But these are minor quibbles.

This film is best enjoyed as a political allegory for any time. Until we have truly achieved Utopia, this sort of commentary will always remain a reminder of what is important in life.

Beach and houses from Freedom River (1971)

Freedom River
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Year: 1971
Running time: 7 min
Director: Sam Weiss
Stars: Orson Welles (voice)
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (242 M)

Duck and Cover (1952)

“This is Tony, going to his Cub Scout meeting. Tony knows the Bomb can explode anytime, day or night, any time of year. He’s ready for it. Duck and cover!”

Oh, yeah. Those American kids of the 1950s were ready, all right. Thanks to governmental terror propaganda, every kid knew what to do when the Communists dropped the Bomb. After all, they were told what to do in the film Duck and Cover, part of our October Short Film Month spotlight.

Bert the Turtle and a monkey in Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover is part animation, part live action. It begins and ends with Bert the Turtle giving some sound advice about what to do when faced with an atomic bomb, or a monkey with a stick of dynamite. In between, a soothing voice tells us that everything will be allright if you take cover underneath your school bench, or behind a low wall, or just anyplace you can find.

Today, Duck and Cover may look silly and ridiculous, but it must be remembered that in the 1950s, the danger of nuclear war seemed very real, and probably was. Even though Russia and Communism are not mentioned, even indirectly, the film was nevertheless a tool for strengthening patriotic awareness.

The advice given, to duck and cover, may not be as inane as it seems at first glance. Even an atomic bomb will not kill every living thing within the blast radius, and the more cover you have, the better your chances of survival. The film only becomes ridiculous because it nowhere gives any hint of exactly how dangerous and terrible a nuclear explosion actually is. It gives the impression that if you just cover yourself with a picnic blanket, you might be perfectly safe.

Duck and Cover is not a great film by any standards. The animations in particular are cheap, and the rest is nothing special. So you do not watch this film on any cinematographic merits.

This film is best enjoyed for providing some amusing perspective on a world that was still a reality only thirty years ago. But if you think about it, the film can also be seen as a powerful allegory to some politicians’ solutions to today’s problems like climate change, migration or foreign wars. Just duck and cover, and everything will be all right. (And don’t forget to cover your head with that newspaper.)

Man hiding under newspaper when the Atomic Bomb strikes, from Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover
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Year: 1952
Running time: 9 min
Director: Anthony Rizzo
Stars: Robert Middleton (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (322 M)