White Zombie (1932)

I just had a look at the trailer for the latest zombie movie, World War Z. And you know what? It did not awaken even the slightest wish to actually see the film.

For decades, all zombie movies have been basically the same: Help! They are taking over the world! They are coming! Cut off their heads! Ow, it bit my leg! Help! The end.

The main development in the genre is that the old movie zombies, like those in The Last Man on Earth (1964), are very slow and not terribly scary, whereas the modern variety, in accordance with the movie audience’s demand for ever higher adrenaline kicks, are fast, furious and very dangerous. But the stories remain basically the same.

The very first zombie film, White Zombie starring Bela Lugosi, is something entirely different. Here we find zombies that are rooted in the Caribbean voodoo tradition, zombies that are not necessarily dead; only completely without wills and minds of their own.

Victor Halperin's White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie was made at a time when sound film was still a new medium. Sound quality was not very good, and neither actors nor directors had yet become used to the new dimension offered them. As a result, actors performed as though they were still in a silent, with overly theatrical gestures and poses. Some find this disturbing. I think it is charming.

Bela Lugosi is the only one in the film who manages to be theatrical and still seem at ease. He gives a magnificent performance, and in my opinion, he is even better here than in his iconic portrayal in Dracula (1931).

Compared with the modern zombie movie, White Zombie is very slowly paced, but its pacing is also very deliberate, and together with effective lighting and scenography creates a tension that is maintaned almost through to the end. In many ways, in fact, White Zombie is very much less clichéd than modern zombie movies. Being the first of its kind, it was not yet stuck in the conventions of the genre.

This film is best enjoyed just before a thunder storm, while the air is moist, warm and heavy.

Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Victor Halperin
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.6 G)

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

It is not so very many years ago that a new big-buget super-hero movie was a very special occurrence. Something to look forward to and be excited about. These days, it seems that a new one is released just about every other month or so, and I am starting to lose count of the number of X-Men movies. The latest super-hero flick is Man of Steel, just in time for Superman’s 75th birthday.

I am not really sure what all this says about our society. Why do we have this enormous urge, all of a sudden, to identify with flying men and women in tights? (Or body armour, as the case may be?) Or is it just that the new technology makes it possible to create believable-looking superpowers on screen? Well, maybe. But I have a feeling that it is also connected with the strong individualism that is so important in our society.

However, this is not the first period in history that super-heroes have been popular on film. Back in the 1940s, there were a number of movie serials based on popular super-hero characters, including Superman. (Some time I will tell you more about movie serials and their impact on popular culture, but for now let’s focus on the super-heroes.)

Tom Tyler in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

The one that started this wave of super-heroes was the twelve-part Adventures of Captain Marvel. It has often been praised as the best movie serial ever produced, and that may very well be correct (at least as long as we stick to soundie serials). The budget and production values were definitely higher than perhaps any other serial around that time, and the script was also uncommonly good. The serial, in fact, made Captain Marvel so popular that for a time it outsold Superman in the comic book racks.

The basic story is not much more complicated than other contemporary serials. A scientific expedition discovers an ancient scorpion statuette and a number of lenses that, when properly combined, produce a fearsome weapon. The scientists decide to divide the lenses between them, so that no one person may hold so much power, but one of them wants it all for himself and starts plotting against the others.

Meanwhile, Billy Batson, the expedition’s radio operator, stumbles upon an ancient man, Shazam, who gives him the power to become Captain Marvel whenever he utters this word “Shazam”. Along with the powers comes the task to make sure that the lenses do not fall into evil hands.

Adventures of Captain Marvel, of course, is not nearly as powerful and polished as Man of Steel. But it has a charm and playfulness that all the new movies lack, and the special effects, though relatively simple and repetitive, are well executed and perfectly adequate. If you are going to watch just one post-1930 serial, then this is the one.

This film is best enjoyed one episode a day, or less. More than that will quickly cause Billy Batson over-dose.

Frank Coghland Jr. in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Adventures of Captain Marvel
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Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 36 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr.
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (630×480, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Royal Wedding (1951)

There is something rather ridiculous about a royal wedding, such as Swedish Princess Madeleine’s last Saturday. Oh, not the wedding itself. I definitely endorse wedding as an institution and a tradition, and I also acknowledge anyone’s right to do it in pomp and style when the situation so requires. And I guess all the circus and media coverage around it is sort-of necessary as well.

The problem, rather, is that the occasion seems to be the signal for every single person in Sweden to have an opinion, whether warranted or not. The royalists, of course, tell us what is right and wrong, just as the anti-royalists tell us why it is all wrong. The newspaper editorials are full of opinions. The stand-up comedians cannot pass up on a chance for below-the-belt punches. And the Swedish tabloids are having a field day.

The film Royal Wedding, with Fred Astaire as the dancer Tom Bowen, has a lot less to do with royalty than the title may suggest. The film is set in 1947, with the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) as a backdrop to the story.

Fred Astaire dancing with a hatstand in Royal Wedding (1953)

A tragic piece of trivia connected with this movie is that it marked the end of Judy Garland’s career at MGM. Due to mental illness and drug problems, Garland was often absent from rehearsals. As a consequence she was fired from MGM and made a half-hearted suicide attempt. She was replaced by Jane Powell in the role of Tom’s sister and dance partner Ellen.

Royal Wedding has been criticized for a stupid plot and bad dialogue. Well, that may be true, but is not of very much consequence. Quite frankly, I cannot think of a single musical that I would want to watch again because of the story. The point here is the music and the dancing. And with Astaire the dancing can only be top quality. The music is not bad either.

So, forget about the story and all the world’s royal weddings. Sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the all-time greatest artists of musical cinema. If you are unfamiliar with Astaire, you can do much worse than this for a first acquaintance.

This film is best enjoyed as a lesson in dancing creativity.

Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1953)

Royal Wedding
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Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Stanley Donen
Stars: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.9 G)

Dark Journey (1937)

Sweden is a small country, at least in terms of population, and very much less significant than we would perhaps sometimes like to think ourselves.

As a Swede, it interests me very much to see how foreigners’ prejudices about us are reflected when Swedes or Sweden are mentioned in popular media. Not only is it amusing to see what others think about us; it is also sobering to realize that our own prejudices are probably quite as gross and exaggerated.

Sweden is quite often mentioned in foreign movies (an entire web site, Alla Talar Svenska, is devoted to the subject). In fact, if we had to give out all the Nobel prizes that have been awarded in movies, the Nobel committee would go broke in a matter of minutes. But it is rare indeed to find a foreign film where most of the action is set in Sweden. British Dark Journey (1937) is such a film.

Vivien Leigh in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey was made at a time when Europe was preparing for the coming World War II. The dark clouds were plainly visible, yet it would not do to openly criticize a foreign power. But it was perfectly acceptable to make a historical movie, so several World War I dramas were made around this period. Thus could the Germans be made the enemy without actually pointing a finger.

Vivien Leigh, before she became famous in Hollywood, plays French girl Madeleine who owns an expensive clothes shop in Stockholm. She meets Conrad Veidt who plays a German agent on a mission for his country. In spite of their countries being at war, the two start to fall in love. Entaglements ensue, both at the personal and international levels.

Dark Journey is not a remarkable film by any means, but it is not bad either. From what I can tell, several sets and situations actually reflect what upperclass Stockholm might have looked like in the 1910s (though except for some mood-setting shots of Stockholm just at the beginning, nothing is filmed on location). The actors deliver what they are expected to, and the story is original enough to keep the interest up all the way to the end. The best thing about it may be the excellent soundtrack by Richard Addinsell. Too bad this was probably never released on record.

This film is best enjoyed with a few glasses of ice-cold punsch, a Swedish liqueur which was popular at the time when this movie is set. As far as I can remember, “Skål!” is the only Swedish word spoken in the film.

Vivien Leigh and Conrad Veidt in Dark Journey (1937)

Dark Journey
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Victor Saville
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Vivien Leigh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×616)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)