October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

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The Pleasure Garden (1925)

There can be no doubt that Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most influential directors of all time. Many also hold that he was one of the greatest. His true greatness is most obvious in his many classic Hollywood productions from the 40s through the early 60s. (He also made a handful of films in the late 60s and 70s, but those are not among his best efforts). Before Hollywood, however, Hitchcock had already been directing films for 15 years! Those films, almost half of his total production, are often overlooked, in some cases for good reasons.

Among those rarely seen early films is his very first attempt as a director (except one short and one unfinished film, both lost), The Pleasure Garden. Considering Hitchcock’s enormous influence, this is a film that should have a significant historic value, in spite of any cinematographic shortcomings.

Carmelita Geraghty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The plot is pretty standard fare for silents of the time. Jill has come to London to seek her fortune as a dancer. She meets Patsy, who works at a theatre called The Pleasure Garden. Patsy helps her get a job and lets her stay at her appartment, but later, when Jill has become a star, she will not return Patsy’s favours. The plot is complicated by two men. Hugh is Jill’s fiancé and Levet is attracted to Patsy. However, there is also an attraction between Patsy and Hugh.

The copy at the Internet Archive is apparently some 15-20 minutes shorter than the original film (which has been restored in recent years). I have not seen the longer version, but I suspect that a longer film allows for some more depth to a story that in the present form is a bit hard to follow at times.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. Sure, you can see some interesting scenes that suggest the great things that were to come (especially in the beginning), but Hitchcock at this point is no better than several other contemporary directors, and the script is not really good enough to maintain interest all the way to the end.

Miles Mander, John Stuart and Virginia Valli in Alfred Hitchcock's The Pleasure Garden (1925)

The Pleasure Garden
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Year: 1925
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Virginia Valli
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×386)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; organ music partly adapted to the images
Best file format: Ogg Video (255 M)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is arguably one of the most popular, or at least well-known, pieces of literary fiction ever written. The original story is available at the Internet Archive (link above; and you can also get it in Esperanto), and there are of course lots of other texts related to it, and also a number of film adaptations.

Far from the first, but the first that became a hit and a classic, was the famous 1920 adaptation Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with John Barrymore in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde.

John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Most film adaptations, this one included, are actually not based directly on Stevenson’s story, but on a stage play that premiered in 1887, only a year after the story’s first publication. The play took several liberties with the original, adding and deleting characters and subplots.

There is one problem in particular with adapting the original story. The story builds on the suspense of not knowing that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same, but today every school child knows this even before they have ever read the story. Therefore, the adaptation must rest on other dramatic effects, such as the physical transformations, or the cruelty of Mr. Hyde. The stage play took care of all this, and added a bit of romance as well, which is the reason why it has remained the basis for Hollywood’s treatments of the story.

The copy I link to does not have a soundtrack. Other versions at the Archive do, but none of them is really very good, and they are all of inferior image quality. Therefore, I prefer this one.

This film is best enjoyed for Barrymore’s exceptional performance. Sure, some of Hyde’s vices feel a bit aged by toda’s standards; as Victorian as the original story itself. But even so, Barrymore works perfectly in the dual role, both as the smooth and elegant gentleman and as the degraded brute.

John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: John S. Robertson
Stars: John Barrymore
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (705 M)

Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (1925)

It is very common in a movie to see a chess board, or two people playing a game of chess, and sometimes, such as in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) or the Bond film From Russia with Love (1963), there will be an entire sequence of chess with some importance to the plot. But it is very much less common to find an entire film, even a short film, entirely devoted to the theme of chess. It is therefore all the more fortunate that one of those few chess themed films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Шахматная горячка; Chess Fever in English) is simply excellent. And who would have guessed that Soviet film could actually be funny?

Vladimir Fogel and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

The film is about a man who is fanatically devoted to chess, and although he is deeply in love with his fiancée, his chess obsession constantly comes in the way of their love. The film was shot during a historically important chess tournament that was held in Moscow in 1925, and scenes from the actual tournament are incorporated into the film.

If you love chess, there is one more reason to watch the film, except the general chess theme. In the last three minutes, the contemporary chess World Champion and legendary chess grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca shows up in a minor but important role, playing himself. This alone makes the film worth watching, in addition to all its other qualities.

According to IMDb and Wikipedia, running time is 28 minutes, but the version at the Internet Archive (as well as two versions on YouTube) is only 19 minutes. I do hope the complete original is to be found somewhere.

If you enjoy chess, another short with that theme available at the Internet Archive is the nice Betty Boop cartoon Chess Nuts (1932).

Unfortunately, the copy of Shakhmatnaya Goryachka at the Internet Archive is in very poor condition and low resolution. In spite of that, I warmly recommend this splendid comedy. The film’s many positive aspects easily outshine the problems with image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by the chess enthusiast, but anyone should enjoy this light and original comedy. Even if you neither love nor hate chess, it works well as a metaphor for any other obsession in life.

José Raúl Capablanca  and Anna Zemtsova in Shakhmatnaya Goryachka / Шахматная горячка / Chess Fever (1925)

Shakhmatnaya Goryachka
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Year: 1925
Running time: 19 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Directors: Vsevolod Pudovkin, Nikolai Shpikovsky
Stars: Vladimir Fogel, José Raúl Capablanca
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Low (396×303, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Good
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Ogg Video (86 M)

Cops (1922)

The second entry in our ongoing Short Film Month is an example of Buster Keaton as a short film actor and producer in his film Cops.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Buster Keaton started producing, directing and writing his own films (often in collaboration with Edward Cline) around 1920. Before that, he had usually acted as a sidekick to “Fatty” Arbuckle in films like The Bell Boy (1918). In his own films, Keaton started experimenting with more sophisticated stories and stunts. In a historical retrospect, the short films of the first few years can be seen as preparation for the true masterworks that were to follow in the shape of his feature-length films, such as Our Hospitality (1923) or Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).

Cops is about a man whose girlfriend threatens to leave him unless he shows some initiative and starts a business. Chance throws him into the moving business, and from there on it is chaos. When Buster accidentally happens to throw a bomb(!) at a police parade, things quickly escalate into one of the most celebrated chase sequences in all of Hollywood history.

Like many other silent films at the Internet Archive, the visually best version of Cops does not have a soundtrack. If that bothers you, there is also a version with a soundtrack, but considerably inferior image quality.

Below, I list other Keaton films at the Internet Archive from the same period as Cops. Technical quality varies.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent stunts.

Buster Keaton in Cops (1922)

Cops
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Year: 1922
Running time: 18 min
Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (157 M)

Bronenosets Patyomkin (1925)

I have loved silent film for nearly forty years, ever since I saw a series of Chaplin films on TV. But it was not until about half a year ago that I watched my first silent with live accompaniment – which is of course the way they were meant to be seen. The film was one of the greatest of all silent classics, Bronenosets Patyomkin (Броненосец Потёмкин), best known in English as Battleship Potemkin.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

The scoring of silent films on the Internet Archive is rarely unproblematic. Even though the films themselves have often fallen into the public domain, and therefore can be freely uploaded to the archive, this is not necessarily the case with the music. For many commercially released silents, a new score has been composed; often the original music has been lost, if there even was an official score in the first place. And even when the music itself is free, the performance as such may be copyrighted. If these things bother you (I have no idea if the excellent score for this particular edition is copyrighted or not), then you are in luck, because the Internet Archive contains many examples of groups or individuals who make it their hobby to produce new free scores for old films. These are, of course, of wildly varying quality, but for this particular film, a pretty decent one exists, created by a group called Apskaft. Their version, unfortunately, suffers from inferior image quality, but you cannot have everything.

Battleship Potemkin tells the story of how the crew of a Russian battleship revolt against their cruel officers when several crew members are ordered shot after refusing to eat bad meat. The film was released the same year as director Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film, Strike, but already we see Eisenstein perfecting his craft, progressing into the halls of the greatest cinematic artists of all time. There is a reason why this film is often mentioned when the greatest films ever are discussed. Among many other things, Eisenstein shows excellent technique in composition and cutting, and there are also many facial close-ups, for great effect.

This film, of course, cannot be discussed without mentioning the Odessa stairs, one of the most famous scenes in all of cinematic history, and a favourite example for film theoreticians. It is a bit unfortunate that this scene has been so over-analyzed, because it really deserves to be seen with fresh eyes. I will therefore say nothing substantial about it, and if you happen to be among the lucky few who are unaware of what it is, then you will be able to enjoy it in full, without preconceived notions.

The ending of the film is typical of how propaganda film is tweaked in order to create a mood and serve a political lesson, rather than try to tell any kind of truth (Hollywood, by the way, does this all the time in order to make historical events fit better with what the producers and writers perceive the audience wants, and the messages they wish to convey). In the film, the battleship sets course straight for an armada of ships sent by the government to force the mutineers to surrender, but instead the Potemkin makes the entire armada change sides without firing a shot. In reality, only a single ship sided with the Potemkin, and both crews eventually had to give up.

This film is best enjoyed with live music, the way I had the fortune of watching it. But if you cannot get that, the music for this version, or for the other version mentioned above, will do very nicely. A good score definitely adds another dimension to silent film, and I actually prefer no sound at all to a poor score.

Sergei Eisenstein's Броненосец Потёмкин / Bronenosets Patyomkin / Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Bronenosets Patyomkin
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (928×738)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

To document a single day in a big city, without doing so through the viewpoint of a single protagonist, would perhaps seem like a pretty rotten idea. Yet that is what the film Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (Berlin: The Symphony of a Metropolis) sets out to do. And thanks to the excellent filming and cutting, there is not a single dull minute in it.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

In fact, it is not entirely correct to say that there is no protagonist in the film. The protagonist is the city itself. All the people we see are deindividualised and impersonal, but they are part of the larger entity and organism that makes up the city they live in. You can choose to see the people as the air that the city breathes.

The film is subdivided into five acts, each of which deals with a particular part of the day. For example, the film begins with a train moving into the city, and through the eyes of people arriving with that early morning train we see the city slowly waking up. Another act deals with people going to lunch, and in one of the film’s many instances of dry humour, the lunching Berliners are shown interfoliated with animals at the Berlin Zoo, also eating their lunches.

As a piece of trivia for Charlie Chaplin fans, Chaplin’s legs can be seen briefly, as a cinema audience watch The Gold Rush, and the lower part of the screen is captured in the film.

The copy at the Internet Archive is not subtitled, but that is not a problem. Except for a few street signs and title cards announcing when the various acts begin and end, the only language you will find is the visual language of film itself. Director Walter Ruttmann wisely decided to tell the story entirely through images, with no help of words.

This film is best enjoyed as a one-way time machine. In its own time, I suppose the film was mostly conceived as a work of art. But today, you get to see the fashion, architecture, cars, trams, horse-drawn carriages and a myriad other everyday aspects of life in Berlin as it was 90 years ago. This is especially interesting when you consider that only a few years later, the Nazis were to take over, and in less than 20 years, most of the city would lay in ruins. The film allows us, for a brief hour, to take part in the lives of people who are no longer living, and to breathe with a city that is now a totally different entity.

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927)

Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Language: No title cards
Director: Walter Ruttmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (672×508; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (432 M)