The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Pygmalion (1938)

There is an eternal controversy regarding the ending of Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion and its various incarnations, apparently ever since its London premiere in 1914. This controversy is most frequently mentioned, and most glaring, in connection with the musical version My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964), but can also be seen in the 1938 film adaptation of the original play, as well as in a previous Dutch adaptation, unfortunately not available at the Internet Archive.

Scott Sunderland, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller as Colonel Pickering, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938)

The story of Professor Higgins and his pupil Eliza has become so well-known during the past hundred years that it barely requires an introduction. But just to be on the safe side, the film begins as one Colonel Pickering, returning to England, comes across Professor Henry Higgins (an expert in dialects and phonetic variations) as the latter is taking notes on the speech of a flower girl. The two fast become friends, and enter a bet that Higgins could teach the cockney-speaking girl to pass for a well-bred lady, just by teaching her manners and good pronunciation. This he sets out to do with great determination. The film for the most part stays very close to the original play. Shaw himself adapted the script for the screen, adding some scenes and characters that since have sometimes been used in new productions of the play as well.

The above-mentioned controversy, it should be pointed out, is not in the tension between a happy versus unhappy ending. Shaw’s intended ending is indeed very happy for everyone involved. Higgins has made Eliza into an independent person, one who can logically no longer remain with her “creator”, or her independence no longer has any real value. The controversy is rather as to whether she should remain with Higgins or go out in the world and stand on her own two feet.

But the romantic movie-making tradition, passed down in the 1920s from Hollywood to British film, prescribes that a dramatic build-up with two opposite-sex characters demands closure where they fall in love, and implicitly live happily ever after. Shaw’s film script indeed had no such closure originally, but the studio insisted that it could not end thus, and forced a late rewrite. I shall not here go into the details of that ending so as not to spoil it for you entirely.

Speaking of strong language, no-one is likely to be shocked today by the use of the word “bloody” in a film. But both when the play premiered in 1914 and when the film did so in 1938, this word was highly controversial. In fact, that single word alone helped to draw an audience to the theatres.

This film is best enjoyed if you have previously only seen My Fair Lady, or if you are somehow entirely unfamiliar with this entire story. With the debatable exception of the ending, it is an excellent film, and it is a good representation of this modern classic. Both Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza are excellent.

Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1938)

Pygmalion
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Leslie Howard, Anthony Asquith
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Zéro de conduite (1933)

Banned in its own time, but highly influential on later French (and international) film, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) is not to be missed.

Zéro de conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

The setting is a boarding school, where the teachers, or most of them, are pretty mean characters. The pupils decide to take matters into their own hands and revolt. This, of course, is a controversial theme, not least since Vigo takes the children’s side in the conflict. Even today, the notion of empowering children over adults may be found hard to swallow by some.

The film is in many ways experimental and a fore-runner in its use of techniques for visual composition and story-telling. The images may sometimes feel exaggerated, but the exaggeration is also a very conscious tool for directing the viewer’s focus.

The film, as it has been preserved to the world, is only a little over 40 minutes. I have read that it was originally intended to be significantly loger, but was cut contrary to Vigo’s wishes. This is sad, because one of the film’s major problems is that the story-telling feels a bit awkward at times. I think this could have been improved by a longer running time.

This film is best enjoyed by anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of French film. Or just watch it as a great comedy.

Pillow fight in Zéro de Conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

Zéro de conduite
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Year: 1933
Running time: 41 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Vigo
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.0 G)

Beat the Devil (1953)

Humphrey Bogart, while perhaps best remembered for romantic dramas like Casablanca (1942) or film noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941), participated in a wide range of genres during his long career. One of his many lesser-known but excellent performances is in the thriller comedy Beat the Devil.

Marco Tulli, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

While perhaps not Bogart’s typical kind of movie, the character he plays in Beat the Devil retains many of the traits from his more famous roles. He is cool, callous, cynical and clever, yet somehow endearing. He is Billy Dannreuther, an American in Italy who has lost all his money and sees the opportunity to make more by joining four crooks in some shady land deals. They all travel by boat, hoping to get to British East Africa, but Destiny wills otherwise.

Gina Lollobrigida (who is still alive as I write this) plays Billy’s wife Maria in a marriage that appears to have very little love left in it. On board the ship to Africa, they meet with the Chelms, an English couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). Billy and Maria each start to flirt with Mrs. and Mr. Chelms, respectively, which in turn leads to entaglements.

But in spite of all the other exciting and colourful characters, perhaps the most interesting of the lot is the band of four criminals played by two well-known and experienced actors (Robert Morley and Peter Lorre) and two that never achieved stardom (yet also very good). These four throughout most of the film appear as a single unit, almost as one character with four faces. The directing of their appearances is absolutely brilliant.

It has been said that Bogart himself did not particularly like this movie. Well, I like it, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who takes a fancy in the good old black-and-white classics.

This film is best enjoyed for its fantastic actors and characters, and their wonderful dialogue. The plot (to the extent that there is one) plays a very minor part in this movie.

Marco Tulli, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil
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Year: 1953
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Directors: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (856 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
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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)

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page was originally a Broadway play, which has been adapted for movies and television at least eight times (according to IMDb). The most famous version today is probably the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), but the first adaptation, and also one of the best, was The Front Page from 1931. Some also claim that this first adaptation was the first screwball comedy in the movies.

Mary Brian, Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

The story, briefly, is that the reporter Hildy Johnson is going to quit his job, get married to the girl he loves and move to a different city. But Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, wants to stop him and avoid losing his best reporter. He therefore tries to involve Hildy in covering one last story, the case of a man who is going to hang in the morning. But is the man guilty in the first place? As the story progresses, the two originally separate plots of Hildy’s resignation and the condemned man become increasingly entangled in a movie with many interesting twists.

The Front Page has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the remake His Girl Friday, perhaps because of the latter’s fantastic chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a chemistry that cannot be reached in the same way in The Front Page, where the story follows the original and has Hildy played by a man (Pat O’Brien, to be specific).

To let Russel play the originally male role was a stroke of genius, and allowed for some new plot twists in the remake, but it is a mistake to believe that this automatically makes the original into an inferior movie. It does not. It is just very different. And not only because of the sex change. The variations in the dialogue, the differences in photography and directing, and the equally impressive but very different actors make these two very different movies. Both are well worth watching and I would be hard pressed if I had to pick a favourite.

The Front Page was made when sound film was a fairly new invention. Fortunately, it uses many dolly track shots and other techniques that became rarer in the early 1930s for economic and technical reasons.

This film is best enjoyed when compared with its many remakes, and it shines quite brightly in that comparison.

Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

Speak Easily (1932)

In the late 1920s, Buster Keaton had made a series of silents that are still considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever made. It culminated with The General in 1926, which was a marvellous artistic success, but a terrible commercial failure. The result was that Keaton lost the total artistic control he had previously enjoyed, and coinciding with the advent of sound film, he got a contract with MGM that he felt stifled his creativity completely.

By the time that he made Speak Easily in 1932, he was no longer directing, only acting, and to boot his marriage was going downhill along with his career. As a result, Keaton fell to heavy drinking, which cost him his job, his wife and most of his money. Eventually, he found new love and recovered from his bad habits, but by then it was too late to rescue his damaged career. Near the end of his life, however, he did make some fairly popular TV shows, and he had minor roles in a number of big movies.

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

It is easy to dismiss all of Keaton’s sound films as being of inferior quality. And while that is true compared with his best silents, they are not universally bad throughout. In fact, Speak Easily is a pretty neat little comedy. Keaton plays a professor who is badly in need of some friends and a change in life. When he learns that he has inherited a large sum of money, he leaves everything behind and jumps on a train in order to discover new things about himself and the world. It later turns out that there was no inheritance, but by that time he has already promised to pay for a mediocre travelling vaudeville company’s big break with a new show on Broadway.

For this film, and several others made around the same time, Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante, another well-known Hollywood comedian. It was competently directed by Edward Sedgwick, and the plot is well held together with nice dialogue and some good stunts, many of them created by Keaton himself. Fans of the Marx brothers will be able to recognize several stunts that were reused when Keaton was hired to create gags for A Night at the Opera (1935).

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about Keaton’s development after his silent period. Speak Easily may be nowhere near Keaton’s masterworks, but it is by no means bad. Keaton shows that he is a splendid actor, and the cooperation with co-star Durante works very well, even though they are basically two very different kinds of actors. Speak Easily is an endearing and enjoyable, albeit harmless, little comedy. Much better than the other Keaton soundies I have seen, such as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Li’l Abner (1940) (both available for download).

Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932)

Speak Easily
Download link
Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)