A Diary for Timothy (1945)

It is 1945. The tide of war has finally turned in Great Britain’s favour. The Germans are retreating on all fronts, and victory is now more than just a vague dream. But many cities in southern England are in ruins, and the V2 rockets are still a very real threat. It is into this world that Timothy is born. As a tribute to him, director Humphrey Jennings tells the story of A Diary for Timothy.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

I am not sure if Timothy actually existed, but whether he did or not is of minor importance. In this film, the infant baby is a storytelling device, and an effective one. Though the film is not really about Timothy, or his mother, the film repeatedly returns to them and their home in Oxfordshire.

But the stories told in this film are about other people. About the Air Force pilot recovering from his wounds. About the coal miner doing his best to produce as much coal as possible for the war effort.

This is pure propaganda, and well made. It stresses how both military and civilian personnel must work together to take Britain through the war. As a factual documentary, A Diary for Timothy has very little to offer, even though many factual events are doubtlessly recorded.

This film is best enjoyed for its effectively woven image of a strong and resilient country. A country that will not give in, no matter what. Additionally, it is interesting because of its narration, written by famous author E. M. Forster.

A Diary for Timothy (1945)

A Diary for Timothy
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Year: 1945
Running time: 37 min
Director: Humphrey Jennings
Stars: Michael Redgrave (narrator)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (768×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

If you have a soft spot for British mystery films, then you will not want to miss The Case of the Frightened Lady. It is a delightful, albeit fairly conventional, mansion mystery, complete with a serial killer, Scotland Yard detectives and a sealed room.

Helen Haye and George Merritt in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

In The Case of the Frightened Lady we meet the elderly Lady Lebanon and her son, Lord Lebanon, the last in the line. Being suitably strong-willed, the Lady is set on having her son marry his cousin and secretary, Miss Crane. The young Lord, however, has other plans. As befits a good mystery, they are surrounded by a cast of strange characters, such as the two footmen who appear more like gangster thugs and the family doctor who definitely is involved in some shady business. And what about the architect, called in to plan some well-needed renovation?

The actors perform well, especially Helen Haye (not to be confused with American actress Helen Hayes, who has performed in a number of similar roles) as Lady Lebanon. George Merritt as the Scotland Yard inspector is also good, and Ronald Shiner is nice as the mandatory comic relief sidekick, possibly inspired by Nigel Bruce, who had premiered as Dr. Watson the year before.

This film is best enjoyed if you are willing to sacrifice credibility on the altar of entertainmet. The plot is definitely convoluted at times, not least so the ending, but it is told in a thrilling and involving way. Even though you may at times suspect the true killer, you will want to keep watching in order to find out the motives and all the background details.

Helen Haye and Penelope Dudley Ward in The Case of the Frightened Lady (1940)

The Case of the Frightened Lady
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 17 min
Director: George King
Stars: Marius Goring
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (560 M)

Three Songs About Lenin (1934)

Vladimir Lenin was the leader of the Soviet Union for only six years before he died. Ten years after his death, the Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov made a spectacular propaganda film, celebrating the great leader: Three Songs About Lenin (Три песни о Ленине or Tri pesni o Lenine in Russian).

Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

As the title implies, the film is based upon three songs. Those songs were, so we are told, written and sung by anonymous Russians in their great love for their lost leader. I have no idea if this is true, but considering the naivete of the lyrics, it just may be. Unfortunately, we hear very little (perhaps nothing) of the original music of those lyrics. The lyrics themselves are presented as intertitles, to the background of a musical score that mostly consists of classical music by Russian composers. In my mind, this produces a somewhat jarring discord. I would much rather have listened to a score based on Russian folk music, which would have made the images come to life in a much more powerful way.

Each song expresses its own theme and its own message about Lenin, but today those messages are subservient to the means of expression. Vertov skillfully achieves a mixture of sentimentality and pride by interweaving images of nature, cities, factories, Lenin himself (from archive footage) and not least fascinating images of people.

This is the second film I have seen by Dziga Vertov, after (Man with a Movie Camera (1929)), and I guess comparison is inevitable. The older film is a playful avant-garde experiment, full of surprises and amusing banalities. Three Songs About Lenin, in contrast, attempts to be much more serious, but because of the heavy propaganda, it has aged much more rapidly, even though it was made five years later. Also, even though it was made well into the sound era, Vertov seems unable to let go of the silent era conventions. He does include a handful of monologues, but instead of using voice-over narration, he sticks to intertitles, which break the flow of the narrative.

The film was apparently re-edited in the 1960s. I suspect that the version available at the Internet Archive is that edited version.

Three Songs About Lenin certainly has its share of weaknesses. If you want to start exploring Soviet cinema, there are better places to go. But it has strengths, too.

This film is best enjoyed for its cleverly woven tapestry, partly made of archive footage, partly of scenes shot especially for this film. The propagandistic themes and symbolism are effective and powerful, and I am sure one could spend a lot of time exploring the depths of Vertov’s artistry in its better moments.

Vladimir Lenin double exposure in Three Songs 
About Lenin / Three Songs of Lenin / Tri pesni o Lenine / Три песни о Ленине (1934)

Three Songs About Lenin
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Year: 1934
Running time: 58 min
Language: English/Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Dziga Vertov
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (549×412)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)

We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The submarine film is an interesting genre, and We Dive at Dawn is a good representative. Here you will find everything to be expected from a good submarine film. The closed spaces, the comradeship and conflicts among the crew, the sounds of machinery and exploding depth charges, the excitement of the hunt and the tense waiting as the hunter turns to prey.

John Mills and Reginald Purdell in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

The British submarine Sea Tiger has just come back after a long time at sea. We get to see the various crew members as they go ashore for a presumed lengthy leave, but we barely get a glimpse of their private troubles before they are ordered back to ship for another important mission. As the somewhat disheartened lot take their vessel out again, they are told that they are going after the German battleship Brandenburg, as they should be able to catch up with her before she enters the Kiel Canal in northern Germany.

But when they take aboard some Germans from a rescue buoy, they learn that the Brandenburg is farther ahead than expected, and they will not be able to catch up. The ship’s captain (John Mills) then makes the decision to enter the Baltic and search for the German battleship there. But the decision is a foolhardy one. Not only because the Baltic is full of German ships, but also because they are running low on fuel.

Judging by its looks, We Dive at Dawn was a pretty cheap film. The submarine interiors look convincing enough to my untrained eye, but many small details, such as John Mills’ fake stubble, lack the attention which marks a really well-produced film.

Nationalism and propaganda naturally lurks in the background of a wartime production such as this. But it is never allowed to surface (pun intended) in the same way as in, for example, In Which We Serve (1942) or One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942).

This film is best enjoyed if you like either submarines or British 30s/40s films. Though not the best representative of either category, We Dive at Dawn nevertheless has enough good qualities to satisfy your hunger for more of those kinds of films. The story, while a touch on the sentimental side, is good and the actors are adequate.

Turkish S class (Oruç Reis class) submarine P 614 in We Dive at Dawn (1943)

We Dive at Dawn
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Anthony Asquith
Stars: John Mills
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (700 M)

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
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Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)