The Flying Deuces (1939)

Before watching the film The Flying Deuces, I had no idea what the word “deuce” meant (except for the tennis term). I have now informed myself, and I know that it means “pair” or “two of a kind” or something of the sort. I still do not understand why the word “deuces” is in plural, but all the same I feel much better now.

Stan Laurel, Jean Parker and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces, plural or not, is mostly interesting because it is part of the Laurel and Hardy legacy. This famous pair of comedians (or deuces, maybe) hardly need any introduction, so I will just say that their presence in the Internet Archive is considerably smaller than for some of their contemporaries, such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. That is the main reason why it has taken until now for me to review one of their films, but also because those few feature films that can be found in the archive do not appear to be among their best.

The Flying Deuces is perhaps not their best either, but there are some really good scenes including an absolute classic just at the end. Some of the humour, however, feels very out-dated, especially some very long-winded chase scenes during the last fifteen minutes. But all in all, the film is a good introduction to Laurel and Hardy, and if you already like them, you will not want to miss this chance to see them do their usual routine in some pretty unique situations.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful timing and acting by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It is not without reason that these two have gone down as one of the best pairs of comedians in the history of cinema.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (528 M)

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Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war (1937)

There is a lot of German film at the Internet Archive. There are German wartime newsreels, silent classics from the German Expressionism and World War II propaganda such as Kampf um Norwegen, just to mention a few important categories.

Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war, this week’s film, has nothing to do with wars nor expressionism, however. It is a very refreshing mystery comedy, and as the title implies there is also a Sherlock Holmes connection.

Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann in Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war / The Man who was Sherlock Holmes (1937)

The film begins with two persons, dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, stopping a train in the middle of the night in order to get on board. We soon find out that they are not the famous detective and his companion at all. Exactly what they are after is something we are not told at this point, but everyone fall for their ruse. The train personnel do everything they can to help them, while a couple of criminals on board bolt for the woods, just in case, leaving their baggage behind. “Watson” and “Holmes” soon encounter a couple of very nice women in the next compartment and promptly develop a romantic interest.

This beginning may sound a bit convoluted, and I guess it is. And even while the rest of the film follows the same pattern story-wise, it is made with such charm and skill that I am drawn into the fiction without reservation or hesitation.

The Sherlock Holmes fanatic will be disappointed to learn that the “real” Holmes never shows up in this film, but as a consolation, there is a fictional Arthur Conan Doyle who appears briefly on a few occasions.

The film is set largely in and around the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. In addition to the themes of fake identities and romance, we find elements such as rare postage stamps, forgery and a strange inheritance. The whole thing ends with a trial in a gigantic courtroom. A worthy conclusion of a film that, all things considered, must be said to be well worth a watch.

There are no subtitles for this film, so stay away unless you know German.

This film is best enjoyed for the brilliant actors. Hans Albers is often recognized for his excellent portrayal of the fake Holmes, but Heinz Rühmann is perhaps even better as his equally fake Watson sidekick.

Hans Albers in Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war / The Man who was Sherlock Holmes (1937)

Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war
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Year: 1937
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Director: Karl Hartl
Stars: Hans Albers, Heinz Rühmann
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (701 M)

The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

I think I discovered the Internet Archive around 2006, about ten years after it was founded. Though there are many and varied media represented in the archive, I was always drawn to the Moving Images collections. In spite of the sometimes chaotic structure, the Internet Archive has provided me with a great many discoveries which I would never have made without it.

The comedian W. C. Fields is one of the many great actors that I would have missed if it were not for the Internet Archive. Several of his films are available for download, and perhaps the best of the lot is The Fatal Glass of Beer. I think it must have been one of the first ten-or-so films I downloaded from the Internet Archive, and probably more on a spur of the moment than anything else.

W. C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

Fields here plays the father of a prodigal son, Chester, who returns home after serving time. Chester regrets his bad ways and asks his parents’ forgiveness. The film centers around this story, but in spite of its short length, it manages to branch out into several more or less coherent subplots as well.

The film is perhaps best remembered for the recurring, and pretty funny, gag where Fields opens the door, proclaiming “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” whereupon he invariably gets a bucketful of fake snow in his face. But there are many other amusing moments as well, and the film deserves to be seen for its overall high level of humour.

The title, The Fatal Glass of Beer, refers to the glass that turned Chester into bad habits and made him a criminal. Unfortunately, it could also have referred to W. C. Fields himself, who was in the later parts of his career a heavy drinker. This got him into trouble, both with his employers and with his family.

This film is best enjoyed when put in a historical context. It is a parody of stage and movie melodramas with the same Yukon setting (Chaplin’s The Gold Rush comes to mind, although it was probably not one of the major influences). This explains many plot events, as well as Fields’ exaggerated melodramatic acting. Oh, and the ending is not bad, either.

W. C. Fields and Rosemary Theby in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

The Fatal Glass of Beer
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Year: 1933
Running time: 19 min
Director: Clyde Bruckman
Stars: W. C. Fields
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (566 M)

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)