The Speckled Band (1931)

The early 1930s was an interesting time for Sherlock Holmes film fans, since there were no less than three actors playing the detective. Clive Brook (who does not seem to be represented at the Internet Archive) made two films in 1929 and 1932, and inbetween those, both Arthur Wontner and Raymond Massey debuted as Holmes within a month of one another in 1931.

Massey, in The Speckled Band, debuted not only as Holmes, but it was for a fact his first-ever appearance on film. And while Wontner’s Holmes (in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour and four more films) was competent but traditional, Massey’s performance still feels fresh and original.

Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Lyn Harding and Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson) in The Speclked Band (1931)

This was not only because of Massey’s youthful and vigorous acting, but also because of his surroundings and methods. His Holmes, in addition to his flat at 107(!) Baker Street, has a hyper modern office, complete with a staff of secretaries and a computer-like mechanical database.

The Speckled Band is an interesting and well-crafted film in many other ways as well. In acting as well as photography, many traces can be found from the silent era ideals. This is not at all a problem in this particular case. Especially Lyn Harding’s exquisite over-acting makes him one of the most formidable and enjoyable Holmes villains on the screen ever. The film’s editing is also somewhat ingenious. There is a wonderful sequence where Watson tells Holmes about the various persons connected with a certain case, and each person’s face appears ghost-like in the background, as if listening in on the conversation.

Unfortunately, the version of the film at the Internet Archive is heavily abridged (a full 40 minutes cut out of original 90!), and this is often painfully obvious. Many scenes are so heavily and poorly cut down that the dialogue and plot can be hard to follow. Also, sound and image quality are quite terrible. I have been unable to find a complete and restored version, so for the time being, we shall have to settle for this mutilated one. I find that the film’s many good qualities outweigh the various problems with the available copy.

If you find the dialogue difficult to follow due to the poor sound quality, there are also downloadable subtitles in various formats. I have not tested these, so I cannot guarantee that they are synchronized with the version of the film that I link to.

Another version of this Arthur Conan Doyle tale is available at the Internet Archive. The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) was part of the American TV series Your Show Time. Less than 27 minutes in length, it featured Alan Napier (who also played Batman’s butler Alfred in the classic 1960s TV series) in his only appearance as the great detective. This version may be preferable if you cannot stand the poor technical quality of Massey’s The Speckled Band, though it lacks the latter’s playfulness and originality.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Raymond Massey. Massey was a fantastic actor (as can be seen in classics such as Things to Come (1936) and Santa Fe Trail (1940)), and while The Speckled Band may not have been his best performance, it is nevertheless of more than merely academic interest.

Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson), Angela Baddeley and Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes) in The Speckled Band (1931)

The Speckled Band
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Year: 1931
Running time: 50 min
Director: Jack Raymond
Stars: Raymond Massey, Lyn Harding
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (576×392)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (421 M)

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Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
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Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

The Nazis Strike (1943)

When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it became necessary for the government and military to explain to people in general just what the war was all about. Why they were fighting and who they were fighting. The assignment to create a series of propaganda films, collectively titled Why We Fight, went to Frank Capra. These classic films are all available at the Internet Archive, and today we take a look at the second of the series, The Nazis Strike.

Swastika over world map in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The film describes mainly Nazi Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia and Poland, and thereby the events immediately before and after the beginning of World War II. It does so mainly by using German news and propaganda films. Through ingenious editing and splicing the whole thing together with animations (mostly strategic maps) made by the Disney Studios, Capra puts the German material in a new light, turning the German propaganda into American propaganda.

But the most disturbing part of the film is the beginning, where Nazi methods of propaganda and infiltration are described. Most startling is, perhaps, a scene from a meeting of the Nazi American federation known as the German-American Bund (see image below). During the meeting, guards drag away and beat up a person who seems to a protester. Frightening parallels come to mind with today’s political realities.

The best versions of the films in the Why We Fight series can usually be found in the FedFlix collection, along with thousands of other films produced for the U.S. government. Not only military films with great historical value, but also films about energy, education, health and just about any other subject that a government could want to inform about.

Below follow links to the complete series Why We Fight.

  1. Prelude to War
  2. The Nazis Strike
  3. Divide and Conquer
  4. The Battle of Britain
  5. The Battle of Russia
  6. The Battle of China
  7. War Comes to America

I will probably write in more detail about a few of the others in the future.

This film is best enjoyed for its novel and beautiful turning German propaganda into highlighting the dangers of Nazism. For historical facts, this film, as all propaganda, should be used with considerable care.

Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund in Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike (1943)

The Nazis Strike
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Year: 1943
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×366)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

Our Hospitality (1923)

I happened to notice that it was almost a year ago that I last made a post about Buster Keaton. Too long, of course, so time to write a bit about Our Hospitality.

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923)

When Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) inherits his father’s old house, he travels from New York to the American South to take possession, only to find himself caught up in the middle of an old family feud. Naturally, he falls in love with the rival family’s daughter. This could have been a drama or a tragedy, but when Keaton is at large things get mixed and messed up plenty, especially when the daughter unknowningly invites him into their home, where her father’s and brothers’ gentlemen hospitality will not let them touch the last in the line of their hated rivals.

Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature film after Three Ages, and is sometimes mentioned as his first masterpiece. At any rate, it was the film in which he first perfected his unique story-telling formula, combining solid plots with meticulously planned slapstick choreography. This kind of movie would later culminate with The General (1926), a film with which Our Hospitality shares many themes.

Funny piece of trivia: Baby Willie McKay, in the beginning of the film, is played by Buster Keaton, Jr., Buster’s own baby son.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for some good laughs. Like most of Keaton’s 1920s comedies, this one still holds up very well indeed. The final scene is totally unforgettable.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge in Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Directors: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; piano music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (958 M)