Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X (originally titled Death in the Air) is in many ways a unique and interesting movie. Unfortunately, it is also rather bad. But keep reading and I will tell you why it is worth watching anyway.

Biplanes dogfight in Pilot X aka Death in the Air (1936)

The story in Pilot X involves aircraft being shot down by an unknown pilot. So instead of asking around at nearby airports, trying to find a pattern matching the shootings, the investigators decide to invite a number of potential suspects to a few days at a mansion. (Checking for alibis? Nah, why bother?) Of course, there is also a girl present. Otherwise, who would be the hero’s romantic interest? Eh? Anyway, things do not go exactly as planned, and instead the guests start to be shot out of the sky, one by one.

The mansion setting technically puts this film as a part of the mansion mystery subgenre. A few months ago, I wrote a bit about that genre’s origins in my post about The Bat (1960). It is a genre with a good deal of potential. The closed space and limited number of characters result in a heightened sense of suspense, increased by the knowledge that someone has committed a terrible crime and may do so again.

As mansion mysteries go, however, Pilot X is not very spectacular. In fact, the plot is quite silly (though the ending is nice) and the actors are far from stellar. But the presence of aircraft provide a nice twist. Normally, the killer would be someone with a knife, a gun or a bottle of poison (or all three, as in And Then There Were None (1945)), not as in this case a World War I biplane with machine guns. That, as far as I know, makes the film absolutely unique. I cannot think of another one quite like it.

Director Elmer Clifton was a B film director with small budgets and less talent. (His best effort, Captain America (1944), was co-directed with experienced serial director John English.) Pilot X is fairly typical of Clifton’s efforts, unfortunately. Had it been handled with just a touch more class and professionalism, it might have been a very neat movie.

This film is best enjoyed if you are attracted by the bi-plane dogfights and the original mix of aviation and mansion mystery. The flight sequences are not bad for a B movie, and occasionally showcase some really neat action.

John Carroll, Leon Ames, Henry Hall, Hans Joby, Gaston Glass, Pat Somerset, Wheeler Oakman and Reed Howes in Death in the Air aka Pilot X (1936)

Pilot X
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Director: Elmer Clifton
Stars: Lona Andre, John Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.2 G)

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The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

So you thought that Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first Oz adaptation on film? Not even close! And it was not the first good one, either (even though it could arguably be said to be the best).

In fact, Oz film was incorporated into what has later been described as “a multimedia presentation” as early as 1908, and the first Oz film proper, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was released two years later. But the really interesting titles started to appear a hundred years ago, as three Oz films were released in 1914. The best of them is The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

On trial before Ozma of Oz and the Wizard of Oz in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

L. Frank Baum (the writer of the original Oz books) was very interested in the film medium, and he took an active interest in these productions, acting as writer and co-producer through his own short-lived production company. For fans of the original books, this makes the trio of films highly interesting. As an added bonus, they are actually very good for films that old.

Ojo and his uncle live in poverty, so they decide to go to the Emerald City. Along the way, they witness a magician creating a girl from patches, and Ojo decides to insert some brains into the girl when no-one is watching. Then there seems to be footage missing (the film was almost double the length originally, according to Wikipedia), as Ojo’s uncle and some others become petrified for no apparent reason. Ojo and his friends must search the magical lands of Oz for a cure to the petrification. Their search will eventually lead to the Emerald City itself.

Baum’s Oz films were probably among the first to be made specifically as family entertainment. That means that the plots are fairly simple, there is a lot of slapstick comedy, and there are many actors dressed up as donkeys, apes and other animals.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is in many ways typical of films from the period before The Birth of a Nation (1915). Almost exclusively shot with a single stationary camera and simple (though well-made) special effects, such as double exposure or stop-motion. But where this particular film sticks out is in its effective use of acrobatics, especially by the title’s patchwork girl.

The other two 1914 Oz films produced by Baum, by the way, are The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. These are also good, but tend to be a bit slow and incoherent.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. Since none such is available at the Internet Archive, I suggest that you put on some upbeat instrumental music in the background. Unlike silent dramas or romantic comedy, this one is not terribly dependent on a score that adapts to the various moods in the film.

The Patchwork Girl meets the Scarecrow in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz
Download link
Year: 1914
Running time: 44 min
Director: J. Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (785×576)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (521 M)

The Air Force Story (1953)

Did I mention that the Internet Archive is an amazing resource? In addition to the thousands of freely and legally downloadable fictional films (I am only scratching the surface in this blog), there are also thousands of documentaries, propaganda, instructional films and other historically interesting items made available by the American government. These include some true classics, such as the Why We Fight series from World War II, but also a good number of lesser known jewels. Today, we take a look at The Air Force Story, a history of the US Air Force produced early in the Cold War.

Boening B-17 Flying Fortress bombers during World War II in The Air Force Story (1953)

There is very little information available about this series of films. No information, not even year of production, is given in the films themselves, except that the music is played by The Air Force Band (which apparently had a male choir as well). The descriptions at the Internet Archive only give keywords for the contents, and the year of release as 1953.

For anyone interested in the history of aviation, though, the series is a gold mine. Here you will find information about and spectacular film sequences of classic military aircraft such as DH-4, JN-4 “Jenny”, B-17 Flying Fortress (image above), P-38 Lightning, B-29 Superfortress and B-36 (image below). Just to mention a handful.

The Air Force Story is at times almost ridiculously detailed, especially the chapters dealing with World War II. When I started watching the series, I thought I was only going to see a handful of chapters; the early ones, the final ones, and some samples from the war years. But the more I saw, the more fascinated I became, and I ended up watching the entire 26(!) episodes.

It is very interesting to watch some of the later episodes after first having watched Victory Through Air Power, since that film describes many of the tactics that were actually used in the war.

The propaganda, fairly light in the early episodes, becomes more and more pronounced the closer one gets to the “present” (i.e. 1950s). Near the end, it actually becomes quite embarrassing, as Hiroshima was said to be a military target (about 50,000 dead civilians as a direct result of the blast and fire).

Here is a list of all the chapters, and links to the Internet Archive for each.

  1. The Beginning
  2. After the War, 1918 – 1923
  3. Struggle for Recognition, 1923 – 1930
  4. Between Wars, 1930 – 1935
  5. Air Power Advances, 1935 – 1937
  6. Prelude to War, 1937 – 1939
  7. The Air War Starts, 1939 – 1941
  8. The Drawing of the Battle Lines, December 1941 – April 1942
  9. The AAF Fights Back, April – July 1942
  10. The Tide Turns, June – December 1942
  11. North Africa, November 1942 – May 1943
  12. Global Operations, 1943
  13. Expanding Air Power, June 1943
  14. Schweinfurt and Regensburg, August 1943
  15. Two Years of War, September – December 1943
  16. Maximum Effort, October 1943
  17. Road to Rome, September 1943 – June 1944
  18. Prelude to Invasion, January – June 1944
  19. D-Day, June 1944
  20. Ploesti, March – August 1944
  21. Superfort, August 1943 – June 1944
  22. Victory in Europe, June 1944 – May 1945
  23. Retreat and Advance, June 1944 – March 1945
  24. Air War Against Japan, 1944 – 1945
  25. A New Air Force, 1945 – 1947
  26. Cold War, 1948 – 1950

Even for an aviation nut like myself, watching the entire series will become tiresome after a while. There is a lot of reiterated propaganda, and some episodes contain relatively little information. If you just want to watch a few parts, I would recommend 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 19 and 26 for starters. Most other episodes have something to offer, however, and especially if you are interested in World War II.

As if the original 26 parts were not enough, there is also an Air Force Story, Volume 2 from a few years later (chapters 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8; chapter 2 appears to be unavailable). I have not decided whether I will watch that, too.

This series is best enjoyed if you are interested in military history. It must be remembered at all times that this is propaganda, but though some details may be left out or exaggerated, the overall story reflects true events, and it is told in an interesting way. Most important, however, is the huge amount of unique film material used for the series, much of which is publicly available nowhere else.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker bombers during the Cold War in The Air Force Story (1953)

The Air Force Story
Download link (Chapter 1)
Year: 1953
Running time: 6 h 10 min
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2