Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

The Internet Archive may be an absolutely fantastic site. Scope and depth are both tremendous, but they come at a price. The problem is finding what you are looking for. Or, sometimes, trying to determine which one of several available versions is the best. With the popular films, it is not unusual to find anywhere between five and ten different uploads. There is next to no information about source or resolution, and unfortunately the quality claims made by the uploaders do not always hold up to scrutiny.

Gulliver’s Travels is a good case in point. This is a classic animated adaptation created by Dave Fleischer, who had previously done Betty Boop and Popeye, and who was to participate in the creation of the Superman animated series. Gulliver’s Travels was one of only two feature films he made.

Gulliver (Sam Parker rotoscoped) in Lilliput from Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Jonathan Swift’s original Gulliver’s Travels contained four parts, but this film only covers the first part, about the adventures among the Lilliputians. To some extent it follows the original plot, in that Gulliver is shipwrecked on the island Lilliput. The inhabitants are first suspicious and try to tie him down, but when he intervenes on their behalf in a war, they treat him with friendliness. There are some changes in the overall plot, but the main difference is an added plotline about a romance between a princess of Lilliput and a prince of the rival Blefuscu kingdom.

Obvious influences in the production are not only Fleischer’s previous short films, but also Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Many of the ordinary townspeople look more than a little like one of the dwarfs, and the Lilliput princess is more akin to Snow White than to Betty Boop.

Nine uploaded versions are known to me, not counting the original theatrical trailier. More may exist, as I have not searched all possible misspellings.

The trick is finding the best version. One thing you may want to compare between versions is length. In the case of Gulliver’s Travels, two variants of different lengths exist. One is about 72 minutes and one about 76. Assuming that we want only the more complete version, we can immediately dismiss three versions (1, 2, 3).

File size is another indication, but also tricky. Internet Archive’s classic interface (still available at the time of writing) had immediately available facts about this, but the new interface requires that you click “Show All” in order to get this important piece of information. File size depends on a number of factors and large size is no guarantee for a good copy. However, as a rule of thumb, a good copy of a feature-length film will not fit into less than, say, 500 MB, and even then it may be fairly heavily compressed, which may cause all sorts of weird artifacts in the images. Another two versions (1, 2) fall slightly below this limit, and are indeed of such low resolution that pixels are clearly visible when watching.

Next, it is a good thing to look at the comments for the remaining versions. Here we can find information that two more versions (1, 2) are “digitally restored,” but in a way that creates a fake widescreen (the original was in 4:3 ratio) by cropping and stretching the image. Also, the images have been blurred, so that many details are smeared. I nevertheless did download these versions to look for myself, and though the information is correct, the colours and sound of these versions are far superior to any other I have seen. So you may opt for one of these, if you do not care that you will miss some details from the original version.

Two versions remain, and now we are down to downloading and looking at them in order to judge which is best. They are about equal size, but it turns out that one has lower resolution. Thus, my own choice is definitely the final one. This one is not perfect. It has visible scan lines, sound could be better and it is pretty dark. So someone else may have another favourite.

While on the subject of Gulliver adaptations, there is another one at the Internet Archive that I also want to mention. Georges Méliès was a pioneer of cinematic special effects. Many of his films are available for download (I counted 88 at one point), but many are also of very low quality. One that is fairly good, however, is his version of the Gulliver tale, Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (1902). Beautifully hand colorated, this one is not to be missed if you have an interest in early literary adaptations or in early special effects.

The 1939 film is best enjoyed as close to the original as possible. Finding the best possible version at the Internet Archive can be hard work. Or you can just go to this blog. I always try my best to do the job for you and link to the most watchable version.

Gulliver's (Sam Parker) hand with  Princess Glory of Lilliput and Prince David of Blefuscu in Gulliver's Travels (1939)

Gulliver’s Travels
Download link
Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Dave Fleischer
Stars: Sam Parker, Pinto Colvig, Jessica Dragonette
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (734 M)

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Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

It is perhaps tempting to believe that the idea of putting Sherlock Holmes in a contemporary setting is a recent idea. Not so. That gimmick has been used at least since the 1940s, when the American producers of new Sherlock Holmes films deicded to enlist Holmes and Watson for the ongoing war effort. In Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, as well as several other films from the war years, they help fight Nazi spies in England. This in spite of the film being based on an original Arthur Conan Doyle story.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson and Dennis Hoey as Inspector Lestrade in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1945)

The film begins in Switzerland, where an inventor has constructed a new revolutionary bomb sight. He wants to offer it to the English government, but the Nazis are wise to his intentions, and so the chase begins. The rest of the film depicts the efforts by both sides to gain control of the inventor and his plans. Professor Moriarty naturally turns out to be the leader of the Nazi spies, and the thing turns into a battle of wits between the two master minds.

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was Basil Rathbone‘s fourth Sherlock Holmes film, but only his second by Universal Studios (the first two were made by 20th Century Fox), and the oldest of his Sherlock films available at the Internet Archive.

Fans tend to be divided regarding Nigel Bruce as Doctor Watson. Many see him as the classic Watson, but others, myself included, think he is way too thick-headed, contributing very little beyond cheap comic relief. Still, it must be admitted that Nigel Bruce was a competent actor, and he did the best he could under the circumstances.

This film is best enjoyed because of Basil Rathbone’s usual excellent performance. His Sherlock is possibly the coolest and most laid-back. As much as I enjoy Jeremy Brett or Benedict Cumberbatch, Holmes on screen does not get more classic than this. As an added bonus, Lionel Atwill does a very sinister Professor Moriarty.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes and Lionel Atwill as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943)

Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 8 min
Director: Roy William Neill
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (656×496)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.2 G)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.

Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.

Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.

The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.

The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.

This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
Download link
Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)

Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
Download link
Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)