The First of the Few (1942)

As I have previously mentioned, it is 75 years ago this year that World War II began. One year later, the Germans were attacking in full force during the Battle of Britain, a battle which has been depicted in movies on several occasions. The battle ended on October 31, 1940.

The most important (or, at any rate, the most legendary) British fighter in that battle was the Spitfire. Spitfire was designed by R.J. Mitchell, who unfortunately did not live to see his creation in battle. His life and career inspired the film The First of the Few which was released in the middle of the war.

Leslie Howard as R.J. Mitchell in The First of the Few (1942)

The original title was inspired by a famous Winston Churchill quote. When the same film was released in America, it was unfortunately cut down and renamed to the bland Spitfire (that version is also available for download, though I strongly recommend the original).

The First of the Few, like many other films of its kind, is wartime propaganda, though its propagandistic elements do not disturb. It must be noted, however that like so many other historical dramas, this is not a good retelling of true historical events. Director and leading actor Leslie Howard chose to alter events and characters as it best suited the telling of his story.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of David Niven (who plays the fighter pilot Geoffrey Crisp) or if you like this kind of nice biographical pictures.

Supermarine Spitfire in The First of the Few (1942)

The First of the Few
Download link
Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 54 min
Director: Leslie Howard
Stars: Leslie Howard, David Niven
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (903 M)

Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

I guess you know the feeling. You watched a film and had very few preconceived notions, except you knew that some other people liked it a lot. And it blew you totally away, because it was like nothing you ever saw before, and like nothing you will ever see again. Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can Buy was like that for me.

Jack Bittner in Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

When I started to watch this film, I knew only that it was about some person creating dreams for others, and that it is something of a cult favourite. I had certainly not expected a surrealist artistic experiment, and if I did not know it was from 1947, I would never have believed it was older than 1965.

According to IMDb, the film cost only $25,000 and was shot in a Manhattan loft. Quite frankly, that shows at times. Many cuts, especially the hidden ones for special effects, look more like something from the early silent era, yet this is not disturbing. It blends with the film’s overall surrealism and becomes part of its identity and unique character.

In addition to the director, Hans Richter, many famous avant-garde artists and composers, such as Man Ray and Max Ernst, collaborated on the dream sequences. For this reason, each dream has its very own flavour, and fans of the film often cite their favourite dream.

This film is best enjoyed if you are in the mood for a surreal experience.

Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

Dreams that Money Can Buy
Download link
Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Hans Richter
Stars: Jack Bittner
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: h.264 (688 M)

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The term “cliffhanger” comes from the old movie serials, especially those of the 1930s through 1950s. Each episode always ended with one of the heroes stuck in an apparently impossible position, quite often seeming to die with no possibility of rescue. Then the next episode starts with a resolution where, lo and behold, the hero survives after all and can go on chasing the baddies.

I have seen a number of serials, maybe fifteen or so, and the first and only time I ever saw a cliffhanger where the heroes are actually hanging (and falling) off a cliff is in The Phantom Empire. It is much more common that the hero crashes a plane or a car, “cliffhanger” variations which are also used in that same serial.

Frankie Darro, Gene Autry and Betsy King Ross in a cliffhanger in The Phantom Empire (1935)

But The Phantom Empire’s fame does not rest in its possibly naming the cliffhanger gimmick (there were probably others before it anyway). The reason why it is exciting and to some extent unique is the peculiar blend between western adventure and science fiction.

In the serial, Gene Autry, who plays himself, owns the Radio Ranch. He makes daily radio broadcasts with music and live theatre, and he needs to continue making them, or he will lose his contract and cannot afford to keep the ranch. So far, nothing spectacular about the setup.

But then there is the team of scientists, who are secretly trying to locate the underground kingdom of Murania to rob its treasure of radium. Not to mention the Muranians themselves, a lost race of scientifically advanced cave dwellers who sometimes come to the surface just near Radio Ranch. And to top that off, Gene Autry is suspected of murdering a man and has to make his broadcasts in secret, or the sheriff will capture him.

As you can probably guess, the plot is not always logical or coherent. But compared with many other serials, it is fairly intricate, and even though it may seem inane at times, it moves along at a breakneck pace. This serial has much fewer choreographed fist fights than, for example, the Captain America serial, and the reason is that there is enough plot without those fights to fill up the episodes.

I think the reason why I find that sci-fi and western genre-crossing has such strong potential is that both (westerns, in particular) are genres that are very much stuck in their respective sets of clichés. When those clichés clash, the filmmakers are forced to be creative. This does not always lead to good film, but it often leads to thought-provoking and entertaining solutions.

I have searched at IMDb and other sites, and as far as I can figure, The Phantom Empire was the first ever cross between western and science fiction, at least on film. It was soon followed by some others, but over the past eighty years, there have been relatively few such films. Two other examples from the 30s are available at the Internet Archive: Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket.

Underground civilizations were not exactly a new idea when this serial was released. A hollow earth was suggested by Edmond Halley (for whom Halley’s comet is named) as early as 1692. Others expanded upon his theory, adding large polar openings from the outer surface, and an internal sun to warm and light the inner world.

The idea was used in fiction by several writers; among the immediate predecessors in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley. Technically speaking, The Phantom Empire is not a hollow earth story, since the setting is not a hollow earth but a gigantic cavern 22,000 ft. below the surface. It is clear, however, that it comes from the same tradition, and judging from the similarities of titles, the direct inspiration was perhaps the non-fictional work The Phantom of the Poles published in 1906 by William Reed.

If you find that watching an entire serial is a bit stiff, but are still interested in the story and production, this serial, like many others, was also released as a shorter feature version, which is also downloadable.

This serial is best enjoyed if not taken too seriously. It is fun, camp and wonderfully silly. To boot, The Phantom Empire, like many other western serials, contains some really nice horseback stunts.

Gene Autry, Dorothy Christy (as Queen Tika) and a robot in The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1935
Running time: 3 h 57 min
Directors: Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason
Stars: Gene Autry
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Wolf Blood (1925)

It is only natural, I suppose, that a whole lot of “firsts” of cinematic history came into existence during the silent era. Many of these are little more than historical curiosities, such as the first Frankenstein film from 1910.

Occasionally, however, such a film turns out to have interesting qualities in addition to just being first, and one such is Wolf Blood, the first feature-length werewolf movie (and the oldest preserved of any length).

George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton and Raymond Hanford in Wolf Blood (1925)

The film is set deep in the Canadian forests, where two competing lumber companies fight for control of the best timber. Dick Bannister is the local boss of one company, and when one of the employees is shot, he asks the female owner Miss Ford to come to the site for a first-hand experience of the situation. She does so, bringing her fiancée along for the ride. In spite of this, Bannister and his employer feel a mutual attraction, gradually deepening as the film progresses.

Bannister is wounded in a fight and the fiancée, a surgeon, is forced to perform a blood transfusion using a wolf’s blood to save Bannister’s life. This in spite of the risk that the animal’s savage characteristics may transfer to the victim. Miss Ford nurses him to health, but are the rumours true that he is now part-wolf, terrorizing the camps?

Wolf Blood is slow-moving and not very exciting in terms of adventure or horror. Its qualities lie elsewhere.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm, humane drama and nice character portraits. There is also a lot of fascinating forest scenery and film of what is probably genuine lumberjacks at work. The werewolf theme is relatively low-key, and it was probably not an inspiration to The Wolfman (1941), the film that really made the werewolf into one of the legendary Hollywood monsters.

George Chesebro chasing a wolf in the werewolf film Wolf Blood (1925)

Wolf Blood
Download link
Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Directors: George Chesebro, Bruce Mitchell
Stars: George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical and jazz music partly synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (699 M)