Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (1925)

It is very common in a movie to see a chess board, or two people playing a game of chess, and sometimes, such as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or the Bond film From Russia with Love (1963), there will be an entire sequence of chess with some importance to the plot. But it is very much less common to find an entire film, even a short film, entirely devoted to the theme of chess. It is therefore all the more fortunate that one of those few chess themed films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Шахматная горячка; Chess Fever in English) is simply excellent. And who would have guessed that Soviet film could actually be funny?

Vladimir Fogel and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

The film is about a man who is fanatically devoted to chess, and although he is deeply in love with his fiancée, his chess obsession constantly comes in the way of their love. The film was shot during a historically important chess tournament that was held in Moscow in 1925, and scenes from the actual tournament are incorporated into the film.

If you love chess, there is one more reason to watch the film, except the general chess theme. In the last three minutes, the contemporary chess World Champion and legendary chess grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca shows up in a minor but important role, playing himself. This alone makes the film worth watching, in addition to all its other qualities.

According to IMDb and Wikipedia, running time is 28 minutes, but the version at the Internet Archive (as well as two versions on YouTube) is only 19 minutes. I do hope the complete original is to be found somewhere.

If you enjoy chess, another short with that theme available at the Internet Archive is the nice Betty Boop cartoon Chess Nuts (1932).

Unfortunately, the copy of Shakhmatnaya Goryachka at the Internet Archive is in very poor condition and low resolution. In spite of that, I warmly recommend this splendid comedy. The film’s many positive aspects easily outshine the problems with image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by the chess enthusiast, but anyone should enjoy this light and original comedy. Even if you neither love nor hate chess, it works well as a metaphor for any other obsession in life.

José Raúl Capablanca  and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

Shakhmatnaya Goryachka
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Year: 1925
Running time: 19 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Nikolai Shpikovsky
Stars: Vladimir Fogel, José Raúl Capablanca
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (396×303, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg Video (86 M)

The Merry Old Soul (1933)

We continue our Short Film Month with a look at an old Disney character. Well, almost. The film is The Merry Old Soul and the character is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

A dentist and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

Oswald, so the story goes, was Walt Disney’s first important character for his animated films. But Disney was at the time working for Universal Studios, who therefore owned the character. When Disney and the studio failed to come to terms about the future of Disney and Oswald, Disney decided to leave Universal and create his own character (of very similar appearance), Mickey Mouse. The rest is, as they say, history.

But Oswald lived on, and prospered for a time. There were lots of post-Disney films with the character, and The Merry Old Soul is only one of them. In this film, Oswald has gone to the dentist with a bad toothache, but during the visit he hears a message on the radio that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald runs away to rally all the comedians in Hollywood to try to find a cure. The assembled host includes a great many Hollywood celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and even Greta Garbo! The whole affair eventually spirals out of control into a pie-in-the-face orgy.

If you are curious about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as a Disney character, a few samples are available at the Internet Archive, for example the nice short Oh Teacher (1927).

In later years, the Disney company has actually purchased the rights to Oswald, who is therefore once again a Disney character. Oswald has since made some appearances in video games, films and comics.

This film is best enjoyed for lovers of old movie stars. If that is your bent, then you are wont to get your satisfaction here, and it is quite a lot of fun to try to figure out who everyone is. In addition, though the animation is a bit simple at times, many of the gags are really good.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Ed Wynn in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

The Merry Old Soul
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Year: 1933
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Walter Lantz, William Nolan
Stars: Bernice Hansen (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (91 M)

Cops (1922)

The second entry in our ongoing Short Film Month is an example of Buster Keaton as a short film actor and producer in his film Cops.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton started producing, directing and writing his own films (often in collaboration with Edward Cline) around 1920. Before that, he had usually acted as a sidekick to “Fatty” Arbuckle in films like The Bell Boy (1918). In his own films, Keaton started experimenting with more sophisticated stories and stunts. In a historical retrospect, the short films of the first few years can be seen as preparation for the true masterworks that were to follow in the shape of his feature-length films, such as Our Hospitality (1923) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Cops is about a man whose girlfriend threatens to leave him unless he shows some initiative and starts a business. Chance throws him into the moving business, and from there on it is chaos. When Buster accidentally happens to throw a bomb(!) at a police parade, things quickly escalate into one of the most celebrated chase sequences in all of Hollywood history.

Like many other silent films at the Internet Archive, the visually best version of Cops does not have a soundtrack. If that bothers you, there is also a version with a soundtrack, but considerably inferior image quality.

Below, I list other Keaton films at the Internet Archive from the same period as Cops. Technical quality varies.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent stunts.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Cops
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Year: 1922
Running time: 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (157 M)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin (2005)

For the second time in the life of this blog, it is time for Short Film Month. The reason why I want to devote an entire month’s output only to short film is that I normally only write about feature-length films, or those that are slightly shorter, and yet there is so much short film on the Internet Archive that deserves to be highlighted. This time, I will begin with the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

Brick film is a genre which I must admit I know very little about. Yet, on a blog about the Internet Archive it deserves to be mentioned, because there is an entire collection of hundreds of these films. The basic idea is that you use Lego bricks for your sets, props and characters. Then you animate the film, one frame at a time. Most are made by dedicated amateurs, and most are short, typically from just a minute or two up to a quarter of an hour. The occasional exception, such as The Han Solo Affair, is completely professionally made, and more in the nature of a Lego commercial.

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is almost exactly an hour shorter than the version of Battleship Potemkin that I reviewed last week. The title, along with the tag-line “Star Wars meets Eisenstein meets Lego”, more or less says it all. The plot is condensed, but more or less intact. The film often balances on a fine edge between parody and homage.

If, like me, you think that The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is a good film and you want more of same, be aware that not all brick films are as good as this one. There are some shining examples of how this medium can be used to make good film, and then there are some really bad pieces, and most fall somewhere in between. I suggest you browse the above-mentioned collection and look carefully at the reviews. They will usually give you a pretty good idea of what you will experience, even though Internet Archive reviews in general tend to be a bit overrating.

This film is best enjoyed after you have already seen the original Battleship Potemkin, and the sooner after the better. The film’s greatest strength is its many elegant references to the original, especially in angles and image composition.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin
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Year: 2005
Running time: 11 min
Director: Karsten Köhler
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Quicktime (165 M)

Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

Menschen am Sonntag (1930)

If Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is a film about the city where the people live, then Menschen am Sonntag is a film about the people that live in the city. Just like in the former film, Menschen am Sonntag shows us many street views of Berlin, but there is a big difference: Here there are practically always people in focus, rather than just rushing past. Another difference is that here we find little work or of night life, and much leisure time.

Christl in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday in English) focuses on a day in the lives of four young Berliners. The titles in the beginning very carefully point out that these four are not professional actors, but that they play themselves. According to Wikipedia, this appears to be correct, although the story around them seems to be entirely fabricated. Thus, the film becomes a fascinating mix between reality and fiction. It is hard to know where the one ends and the other begins. For example, is Erwin really married to the tired and quarrelsome woman whom we find in that role? Perhaps not, but what about the apartment where they live in the film? Is that his real-life apartment? We are never told.

The plot of the film is fairly simple. Wolfgang is out walking when he comes across Christl, a pretty girl who seems to have been stood up. He buys her some coffe and invites her to join him at the recreational area Nikolassee the next day, which is a Sunday. When they meet next day, each has brought a friend, and Wolfgang is immediately taken in by Christl’s beautiful friend Brigitte. The four of them swim, eat and go for a boat ride. By and by, Wolfgang is becoming more and more intimate with Brigitte, whilst at the same time trying to keep Christl in the dark.

Except for some domestic scenes at Erwin’s apartment, that is more or less everything that happens in this very unusual film. But no more is needed.

This film is best enjoyed as a slice of life from interwar Germany, shortly before the Nazis came to power. It is an excellent complement to Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, from about the same time, since both films focus on the same city but from very different angles.

Wolfgang, Christl and Brigitte at Nikolassee in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag
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Year: 1930
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (438 M)