His Girl Friday (1940)

The first time I saw His Girl Friday it took me by storm. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The crazy story with the sudden twists and the machinegun dialogue both represented something new to me. It was the first time ever I saw a screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Screwball comedy, apparently, was entirely a product of the 1930s. Some film historians consider The Front Page (1931) to be the first screwball comedy. Incidentally, it was the first movie adapting the play which was also the source for His Girl Friday, which in turn premiered when the screwball comedy as a genre had only a couple of years left of its golden age.

His Girl Friday is the story of the female reporter Hildy Johnson, who is going to quit, get married and have a family (in The Front Page, Hildy is a man). Her editor and previous husband Walter Burns, however, has different ideas and does everything in his power to make her stay at the job and dump her kind but boring fiancé. This is played out against a plot involving a man who is falsely accused of murdering a police officer and sentenced to be hanged, a story which Hildy promises to cover, and into which she gets gradually more and more involved.

The title of this film sometimes creates a bit of confusion. I know I wondered about it for several years before I read somewhere that it has nothing to do with the day of the week. It is a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, apparently suggesting a female assistant. Even knowing this, the title is a bit strained. But who cares? It is catchy, original and easily recognizable. Not a bad thing for a classic film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have the time and energy to really focus on it. It is not a film for casual watching.

John Qualen and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 31 min
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.3 G)

Four O’Clock (1957)

Today, Alfred Hitchcock is probably best remembered for his fantastic Hollywood films, although he had a long history before that as a director in Europe, and towards the end of his career, he produced and hosted a couple of popular TV series. In fact, back in the late 1950s and a couple of decades to come, Hitchcock was probably more associated with his TV appearances than with his movies.

One of those TV series was Suspicion, and Hitchcock directed the premiere episode Four O’Clock himself.

E.G. Marshall in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

E.G. Marshall plays a watchmaker who has concluded that his wife is having an affair, and he plans revenge. The episode begins as he tests a timer for an explosive device in his shop. He then plants a bomb and sets the timer in his own basement, making sure that no suspicion must fall upon his own person. But then things start to go wrong …

Four O’Clock is excellent in every aspect. It is tense, psychologically interesting, dramatic, full of nice twists, and with an ending that I, for one, was totally unable to predict. Hitchcock shows that even with a much smaller budget than his lavish Hollywood movies, he can still create a little masterpiece.

Suspicion is not so well remembered today as Hitchcock’s other TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which featured Hitchcock’s iconic caricature image, and which had every episode hosted by “Hitch” himself. Two episodes (The Cheyney Vase and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) of that series are available at the Internet Archive, although neither was directed by Hitchcock.

This episode is best enjoyed alone and late at night.

E.G. Marshall and Nancy Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock's TV series Suspicion: Four O'Clock (1957)

Four O’Clock
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Year: 1957
Running time: 48 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: E.G. Marshall
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (576×432)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (350 M)

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is a film which should not be good. But it is.

The theme seems to be a perfectly hopeless one. Country girl goes to Hollywood, hoping to be a star of the movies. She succeeds. End of story. I mean, anyone knows that it is practically impossible to break into stardom without contacts, so a film with some big star (Janet Gaynor) pretending to struggle just has to be ridiculous, right? Indeed, much of the film is melodramatic, sometimes bordering on the pathetic.

Adolphe Menjou and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born (1937)

So this could have been a disaster, but it is saved by mainly three things. First, the acting and directing are excellent. Gaynor succeeds in making the country girl in the big town believable (though a bit of an accent in the beginning would not have hurt), but above all Fredric March is brilliant as the leading male. The supporting cast is also very good, not least Adolphe Menjou (above) as the fatherly producer.

The second reason is the script. Witty, elegant and nicely paced, there are few dull moments here. In a lovely meta gimmick, the film even begins by zooming in on the first page of its own script.

Third, and perhaps most important: Beneath the melodramatic surface lies some real drama. This is most obvious in March’s exquisite portrayal of an alcoholic who has just passed his peak and is going downhill without even realising it.

The film has been remade at least twice. The 1954 remake with Judy Garland is also said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are into 1930s Hollywood celebrities. There are many inside jokes and references to actors and directors.

Janet Gaynor with an Oscar and Fredric March at the Academy Awards in A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: William A. Wellman
Stars: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

The Golden Age of Swedish cinema came quickly and went away quickly. Except for Ingmar Bergman (who decades later appeared as something of an isolated phenomenon) it lasted only a very brief period of about four years, towards the end of and just after World War I. During those short years, Swedish-produced films, helmed by the directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, were praised by critics and became international block busters. Time and time again. Not only that, but they became tremendously influential on contemporary film-makers all around the world.

Perhaps even more spectacular is that most of those films have withstood the test of time and still feel interesting and relevant today. They impress, both by their advanced imagery and their competent story-telling. Sjöström and Stiller worked in many different genres, and for the most part they based their films on prestigious literature.

Victor Sjöström and Edith Erastoff in Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru aka The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

As far as I know, nothing by Stiller is available at the Internet Archive, but a good selection can be found across Sjöström’s career. One of Sjöström’s first international successes was Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru, known in English as The Outlaw and His Wife.

Sjöström often played the lead in his own films. Here, he plays the fugitive Ejvind, who falls in love with the rich widow Halla, played by his future wife Edith Erastoff, pregnant with their first child. Some have said that their real love shines through in their acting.

Unfortunately, the version at the Internet Archive has only English title cards, not the original Swedish ones.

After the peak of the Swedish golden years, Sjöström and Stiller both went on to international careers. Sjöström’s was successful but short, and he made few films after the silent era. His final one as a director was Under the Red Robe (1937), but he continued as a producer and a celeberated actor in his native Sweden for two more decades after that.

This film is best enjoyed for its use of forces of nature as an integrated story element. Sjöström was a pioneer in this.

Edith Erastoff in Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru aka The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

The Outlaw and His Wife
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Year: 1918
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; synthesized score partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (939 M)