The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

One of the many genres that can be found at the Internet Archive is educational films. Most of these are quite old, and some are terribly outdated. Two examples of outdated but extremely interesting (not to mention amusing) films are Duck and Cover (1951) and Destination Earth (1956). But like most other educational films, those are too short to be relevant for this blog.

Better, both in terms of length and fact content, is one of the films that was produced as part of the classic The Bell Laboratory Science Series. The series consisted of nine different educational films on scientific topics that were tremendously popular and influential in the 1950s and 1960s. The one that has been chosen for today’s post is The Alphabet Conspiracy. The choice was made not only because it has aged with reasonable dignity, but also because the film very neatly ties in with characters from Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the film, the Mad Hatter and Jabberwock run around trying to devise a scheme to kill the alphabet (hence, the title of the film).

Dr. Frank Baxter, Cheryl Callaway, Dolores Starr as Jabberwock and Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy is an old film and linguistics is an evolving field of science. Hence, some parts are a bit quaint or even outdated. For example, the part about baby language acquisition is not consistent with modern views. But unlike the above-mentioned short films (which are perhaps bordering on propaganda), The Alphabet Conspiracy was firmly grounded in the science of its day. Even now, it is not laughable. Just a bit old.

But even while care must be taken with the fact content, perhaps the content is not what is most important anymore. Far more interesting is the dramatic structure, including the fantastic sets, the nice animations, the literary characters, the neat dialogue and the slow-moving but effective cutting. In these respects, The Alphabet Conspiracy outshines most of its contemporary competition, and even most present-day educational films. I work as a teacher. I know these things far too well.

Several other films from the same series are available at the Internet Archive. Those I have been able to track down are Our Mr. Sun (1956), Gateways to the Mind (1958) and Thread of Life (1960). The one I had most wanted to see, however, is not there, namely The Restless Sea (1964). It is the last film in the series, and it has Walt Disney as host.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to learn some basic facts about linguistics, or if you just want to enjoy the nice Alice in Wonderland references, or the fine animations. Or if you simply want to admire some classic, not to mention classy, educational material.

Dolores Starr as Jabberwock, Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter, Dr. Frank Baxter and Cheryl Callaway having a tea party in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy
Download link
Year: 1959
Running time: 52 min
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Stars: Frank C. Baxter
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Outside the Law (1920)

Crime, treachery, redemption, friendship, love. Those are some of the ingredients in the classic silent Outside the Law, directed by Tod Browning.

Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law (1920)

Browning has gone down in history for a handful of truly classic films, not least Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). But he made a number of other movies that deserve to be remembered, often working together with Lon Chaney. Outside the Law is an excellent example, not least because of Lon Chaney’s role.

Chaney, one of the greatest actors of silent cinema, especially in dramatic roles, is best remembered today for his horror pieces, but he is just as good here, playing a low-life gangster. Though Chaney is perhaps the best actor in the movie, the rest of the cast, not least Priscilla Dean, are also very good.

The copy available at the Internet Archive is not perfect. There are some defects from the aged film print, especially towards the end. For me, these are easily suffered when watching a good film such as this.

This film is best enjoyed in comparison with some of its contemporaries. D.W. Griffith was one director who dealt with some similar themes around the same time, but while Griffith and others tend to become overly sentimental and melodramatic, Browning has a much firmer grip on his drama. Sure, there is some melodrama at times, but no more than necessary to keep the plot on course.

Lon Chaney in Outside the Law (1920)

Outside the Law
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly synchronized with the images; partly silent
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (600 M)

Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

One of the reasons for starting this blog was to help cinema enthusiasts find some of the good stuff that can be legally downloaded from the Internet Archive. The site itself provides very little help in this regard. Many of the collections are not well organized (the word “chaotic” sometimes comes to mind), and the user rating system works poorly.

Some lists of good stuff at the Archive already existed before this blog. But I felt that they mostly reiterated the same films and missed many highlights. One of the films that will frequently be found on other people’s lists of good films at the Internet Archive is My Man Godfrey.

William Powell in My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey is a classic, a screwball comedy of the best and finest material. The story, briefly, is that two upper-class sisters try to find a homeless man (or “forgotten man”, which is the term used in the film) in order to present him as a sort of winning trophy in a “scavenger hunt” competition. They find Godfrey, but he is not going to be anyone’s trophy just like that. He ends up becoming the butler in their somewhat dysfunctional family, but behind his surprisingly efficient butler mannerisms he hides a secret.

For a screwball, My Man Godfrey is somewhat toned down. It is not as wild and crazy as some, but focuses more on psychological aspects. This is perhaps the reason why it has become so popular. It is very, very funny, but it also has a lot of depth below that well-polished surface.

This film is best enjoyed for the excellent script (they don’t do them like this any more), although acting and camerawork are not far behind.

William Powell and Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey
Download link
Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Gregory La Cava
Stars: William Powell, Carole Lombard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (908 M)