Three Ages (1923)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about The Birth of a Nation (1915). Griffith was so upset about the charges of racism in that picture that he decided to make a new film about intolerance. The result, aptly named Intolerance (1916), is a majestic epic in its own right and almost as classic and famous as The Birth of a Nation. Like many other great classics, it is at the Internet Archive, free for anyone to download. No strings attached, not even any ads. Oh, someone has to pay for the server space and so on, but let us ignore that for the moment.

So there is such a thing as a free lunch. And yet, sometimes it comes at a price. The price you have to pay is that you get to see a lousy version of this timeless classic. The problems attached to it are not uncommon for IA offerings: The copy it was ditigized from is in bad shape and incomplete; there is no tinting; the resolution is quite low; and to top it off, there is no soundtrack. No, if you want to see a good film, I recommend that you find a good DVD edition and purchase it. Or download something else from the IA.

Three Ages, for instance. Intolerance was a financial fiasco, yet seven years after its release, it was still famous (or notorious) enough that Buster Keaton saw the value in making a parody of it.

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Unlike modern movie parodies, such as the Scary Movie series, Three Ages does not depend on familiarity with the original for full enjoyment. Essentially, it only borrows the form, but then Keaton tells his own story, without feeling that he has to mimick the predecessor.

Intolerance suffers from tendencies to be overloaded, confusing and hard to follow as it skips around between stories, sometimes without very clear connections. Three Ages, if anything, suffers from the opposite. It is almost too tidy and obvious, leaving very little for the audience to think about. Then again, this is comedy, not meant to be taken too seriously or to evoke any feelings beyond happiness and well-being. Fair enough. Take it for what it is.

For Three Ages does make you feel well. While far from Keaton’s best, it is yet a very neat little comedy, and extremely well-produced. And even though it lacks the epic grandeur of Intolerance, it is nevertheless majestic in its own right, with several impressive sets. And unlike the older film, this one can boast a number of brilliant Keaton stunts, for instance Buster riding in a car that falls to pieces (see above) or pole-vaulting from horse-back (see below). That alone makes it worth seeing.

This film is best enjoyed if you are already a Buster Keaton fan. If you are new to Keaton, it would be better to start with, for example, his masterpiece The General (1926).

Buster Keaton in Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages
Download link
Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (992 M)

Advertisements

Sherlock Holmes (1954)

Sherlock Holmes is really hot on cinema and TV these days. I guess it took off with the two Guy Ritchie movies a few years ago. Then came BBC’s Sherlock, and the Americans just had to follow that up with Elementary. The latest news is that there is going to be a new movie with Ian McKellen as Holmes.

It seems like we will have to wait a few more months for the third season of Sherlock, but Elementary starts up season two on Thursday. Of course, Elementary is nowhere near as good as Sherlock, but it helps to pass the time.

Or, by all means, take a look at what came before. Elementary, as it happens, is only the second American Holmes TV series. Already in late 1954 a series simply known as Sherlock Holmes began. It only lasted for a single season of 39 episodes, but many of those are really good.

Howard Marion Crawford and Ronald Howard in Sherlock Holmes (1954)

This is not the modern Asperger Holmes, nor is it the almost aristocratic Holmes as played by Basil Rathbone, nor Jeremy Brett’s nervous and over-active detective. This Holmes, played by a young Ronald Howard, is playful, curious about all things, and with a constant gleam in the corner of his eye. Of course, he can be very absent-minded and annoying at times. This is Holmes. But, by and large, he is relaxed and easy-going, as screen Sherlocks go.

Perhaps the best reason to watch this series is the excellent interaction between Holmes and Watson. The latter was played by Howard Marion Crawford, and is perhaps closer to Martin Freeman than to Nigel Bruce, in temperament if not in outward appearance. Archie Duncan is not quite so good as Inspector Lestrade, but you cannot have everything.

The sets are nice, and especially the Baker Street flat has many little details to discover. Like many American TV series from this period, it was actually shot in Europe. But not in England (which would seem to be the obvious choice) but in France, with British actors in the leading roles. This is interesting to keep in mind when watching, since it explains things like the many supporting characters with a French accent, whether warranted or not.

Below is a list of all episodes that can be found at the Internet Archive. Some are available in low resolution only; those I know about are marked in the list. For a complete episode guide, see for example Wikipedia.

  1. The Case of the Cunningham Heritage (low res)
  2. The Case of Lady Beryl
  3. The Case of the Pennsylvania Gun
  4. The Case of the Texas Cowgirl
  5. The Case of the Belligerent Ghost
  6. The Case of the Shy Ballerina
  7. The Case of the Winthrop Legend
  8. The Case of the Blind Man’s Bluff
  9. The Case of Harry Crocker
  10. The Mother Hubbard Case
  11. The Case of the Red Headed League
  12. not available
  13. The Case of the Split Ticket
  14. The Case of the French Interpreter
  15. The Case of the Singing Violin
  16. The Case of the Greystone Inscription
  17. The Case of the Laughing Mummy
  18. The Case of the Thistle Killer
  19. The Case of the Vanished Detective
  20. The Case of the Careless Suffragette
  21. The Case of the Reluctant Carpenter
  22. The Case of the Deadly Prophecy
  23. The Case of the Christmas Pudding (low res)
  24. not available
  25. not available
  26. not available
  27. The Case of the Perfect Husband (low res)
  28. not available
  29. not available
  30. The Case of the Eiffel Tower
  31. not available
  32. not available
  33. The Case of the Baker Street Bachelors
  34. The Case of the Royal Murder
  35. The Case of the Haunted Gainsborough
  36. The Case of the Neurotic Detective
  37. The Case of the Unlucky Gambler
  38. The Case of the Diamond Tooth
  39. The Case of the Tyrant’s Daughter

I wish I could make a perfect guide to all the episodes, including tips for which ones are worth seeing and which are not. However, I have not seen some of them for several years, so the best I can do is to say that a few good ones are episodes 1, 9 and 39. If you like those, you might as well go through the rest as well. In my opinion, a handful of clunkers can be tolerated for the greater good.

This series is best enjoyed if you prefer your Holmes in the original 1800s setting. Horse-drawn carriages, starch collars and gas lamps. Not to forget the deerstalker hat. Great stuff!

Ronald Howard and Howard Marion Crawford in Sherlock Holmes (1954)

Sherlock Holmes
Download link (episode 1)
Year: 1954
Running time: Approx 27 min per episode
Directors: Jack Gage, Sheldon Reynolds, Steve Previn
Stars: Ronald Howard, Howard Marion Crawford
Image quality: Acceptable for most episodes
Resolution: Low to medium
Sound quality: Acceptable for most episodes

Freaks (1932)

Horror is a peculiar genre of film. Like crime and thrillers, its basic motivation is human fear, but unlike any other genre, it derives that fear from our loathing of the abnormal and unknown.

With Freaks, director Tod Browning has created a film that is like no other, nor will there ever be one like it. Browning assembled for his production a number of real freaks. Coneheads, dwarfs, a man without arms or legs, the human skeleton, the person who is half man and half woman, and several others. But instead of making this abnormality fearsome, Browning turns everything around and shows the freaks in a sympathetic light. Not making us feel sorry for them or making them ridiculous, but making them actually come through as real people.

Wallace Ford in Freaks (1932)

Freaks is commonly categorized as a horror movie. In this film, however, the monsters are the ones with human emotions, while the normal humans are the monsters inside. Herein lies the real strength of Freaks – it does not exploit the freaks as such. It depicts them with love and affection. Ironically, it shows the freaks as being part of a circus, a travelling freak show, so the horror element is still there but from a reverse angle and cast in a revealing light.

The movie begins as the midget Hans falls in love with a normal woman, the trapeze artist Cleopatra, and abandons his fiancée Frieda. But does Cleopatra really love him, or is she just after the money he inherited? Browning plays out his drama upon this conflict, but the important thing here is not really the plot. Rather it is about emotions, reactions and attitudes.

For an early sound film, Freaks is uncommonly advanced in visual terms. The camera often comes down to the level of the smaller freaks, and there are several effective dolly track shots, a technique which became less common with the heavier cameras necessary for making sound film.

Freaks was controversial when it was made. It was banned in several countries, and it caused Browning’s career to go downhill. It was also cut with almost a half hour. The original version was publicly screened, but is now considered lost.

This film is best enjoyed when your world needs to be turned upside down for a while.

Tod Browning's Freaks (1932)

Freaks
Download link
Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (697 M)

The Bell Boy (1918)

Poor Roscoe Arbuckle! Not only did he have to live with the screen name “Fatty,” which he hated, he was also falsely accused of causing a woman’s death by raping her. And even though he was completely cleared of all charges, his acting career was in ruins. In the end, of course, he did not live at all. He died about 80 years ago from a heart attack, only 46 years old.

Before that fateful rape trial, Arbuckle had been the leading comedian in Hollywood. He had acted against both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton before either of them was famous. In fact, he was the one who discovered Keaton and made his career.

It is easy to understand how he came to be known as “Fatty”. His bulk was considerable, but in spite of it he was extremely agile and athletic. These were the days when stuntmen were very rare indeed (in comedies, they almost did not exist). In fact, some of the stunts that were made back then could probably not be duplicated today. They were simply too dangerous.

Roscoe Arbuckle in The Bell Boy (1918)

Arbuckle mostly made short films. Today’s offering was his second longest at only 28 minutes. The Bell Boy is typical of the kind of comedies that Arbuckle produced. Fast slapstick without too much story or character development to get in the way of anything important. The slapstick is often extremely well timed, and partly because of that most of the humour has survived the test of time and still feels fresh and alive today. There is also a fair amount of crazy humour that you would perhaps not expect in a film from this period. A few jokes do fall flat before a modern audience. But almost 100 years later, that is easy to forgive.

Apart from the comedy, the main reason why I enjoy watching these old films is that they allow you a quick trip back in a time machine, letting you see things like horse-drawn trams filmed at a time when they were actually in use. Wonderful stuff!

This film is one of about ten that Arbuckle made together with Buster Keaton and Al St. John. This was a very well-matched trio, not least because all three were excellent at making acrobatic and difficult stunts. See in particular the magnificent “dinner table vault” at 13:10. Keaton, of course, became one of the best comedians of the 20s (some say the best). St. John never went on to stardom, but had a decent career as a B western sidekick in the 30s and 40s. Many of his westerns can be found at the Internet Archive. Billy the Kid in Santa Fe (1941) is a typical example.

The Bell Boy lets you enjoy this magnificent trio doing what they do best. If you want an introduction to silent slapstick comedy, then this is it! The Internet Archive version, unfortunately, contains no soundtrack. This may deter some, but I actually prefer no soundtrack to a poor one.

This film is best enjoyed whenever you feel depressed. Or happy. In fact, anytime.

Al St. John, Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, and Buster Keaton in The Bell Boy (1918)

The Bell Boy
Download link
Year: 1918
Running time: 28 min
Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle
Stars: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (185 M)

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

D. W. Griffith’s classic The Birth of a Nation holds a very peculiar position in the history of cinema. On one hand, it is celebrated as a milestone of cinematic storytelling, and a majestic epic. On the other, it is looked down upon for its racist content.

Last week, I wrote about The Klansman (1974) and its roots in the civil rights struggle. The Birth of a Nation describes the beginning of that struggle. Interestingly, it was based on a novel titled “The Clansman” and that was also the film’s title at the first screening. Whether the makers of the 1974 movie consciously referenced this or not, I do not know, but it seems appropriate, considering that in many ways The Birth of a Nation is The Klansman’s distorted hall of mirrors reflection.

The Ku Klux Klan prepares the lynching of a black man in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The first third of the film tells the story of two families, one from the North and one from the South, and how the sons of each fight the war. Griffith’s primary message with the film (rarely mentioned today) was anti-war, and that the (white) people of the North and South must stand united in peace.

The rest of the film deals with the Reconstruction Era during the twelve years after the war. We follow the same characters as in the first part as they struggle for or against the rights of the former slaves in the new order. This is where Griffith became controversial (even back when the film was first released) because he openly blames the blacks and their political supporters for all the problems that the South had to see.

It is easy today to condemn Griffith’s portrayal of post-war South, but it must be remembered that the movie was made less than forty years after Reconstruction Era ended. It was still a period in living memory, and a period that caused many dramatic changes in a society that was already badly burned by four years of brutal war. Certainly, many of the changes during the Era caused grief and it is understandable that, even four decades later, it was easier to blame the problems on the aspect of race, rather than deal with the real matters, which were far more complex and difficult to change.

Several films were made as a direct response to The Birth of a Nation. One of the more interesting (though considerably more restricted in its visual language) was Within Our Gates (1920), the first feature film made by an African American director.

For my own part (being a European) I knew very little about the period following the Civil War before I watched this movie. And while the movie itself did not really help much in terms of learning the true events, it nevertheless prompted me to look up some facts on the Internet. Very informative, indeed.

The Birth of a Nation suffers considerably from the fact that all blacks are played by poorly made-up whites. See for instance the image below, where the face is blackened, but the arms and chest remain white.

But in many ways, the film is still powerful and captivating. Especially the mass battle scenes are impressive. The film was in many ways a forerunner to the giant leaps that film-making was to take in the years to follow, and even though it does not reach up to the standards of the best films from the 1920s, it looks extremely impressive when compared to any other film from earlier or about the same time.

There are two versions of the film at the Internet Archive. One is incomplete (the first 45 minutes only) but is of superior image quality and soundtrack to the version otherwise linked from this post.

This film is best enjoyed if you know something about the historical background against which it is set. I would encourage you to look up some facts about the Reconstruction Era before watching the movie.

Racial tension in The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The Birth of a Nation
Download link
Year: 1915
Running time: 3 h 0 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Mae Marsh
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly illustrating the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (1.5 G)