The Black Pirate (1926)

Through the Internet Archive, you can follow Douglas Fairbanks’ career pretty well. From one of his earliest bit parts in The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), through to his last leading role in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), you can follow almost every important turn of his rich and interesting life in Hollywood. Pretty much in the middle, you will find The Black Pirate, often considered to be one of his greatest.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate has all the trademarks of Fairbanks’ romantic adventure epics of the 1920s. There are splendid costumes, magnificent sets, swashbuckling action, breathtaking acrobatics. There are also most of the clichés you would expect from any good pirate movie. Hidden treasure, mutiny, cannon fire, walking the plank. Basically the same kind of stuff you will find in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, only Fairbanks did it first. And in some ways just as good. In fact, a few unique scenes have never (to my knowledge) been duplicated, such as the crew of seamen swimming underwater. Marvellous stuff!

The film, of course, was not created out of a vacuum. It has been said that Fairbanks was mainly inspired by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903; also available at the Internet Archive).

The Black Pirate was one of the first films to be entirely shot in colour, albeit a limited two-colour process. Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is black and white with some tinting. Also, the IA copy is cursed with a very bad score, consisting of random classical music.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of the pirate genre. The Black Pirate stands at the portal of everything that followed, and it is still good enough to compete with the best. If you care to spend the money, the DVD with restored colour is much preferable, but the IA copy is nevertheless enjoyable.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Albert Parker
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

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The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

Der letzte Mann (1924)

You know that book, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die? Here, let me tell you a secret: There are not that many movies you must see. If, however, there is a handful that you should see, then one of that handful is definitely Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh in English), directed by F. W. Murnau.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

In Der letzte Mann, Emil Jannings plays the aged but proud hotel doorman who is demoted to a lavatory attendant, because the young hotel manager thinks him unfit to continue the hard work as a doorman. Along with the previous job and the fancy uniform, the old man’s self esteem completely washes away, as does his social status in the neighbourhood where he lives. Jannings does a splendid performance, using his facial expressions and body language where the silent movie can support no dialogue.

Several sources claim that Murnau, similar to Chaplin years later in The Dictator, used the constructed language Esperanto in all signs in the film, in order to emphasize that the visual language of cinema is international. The ultimate source of this seems to be none other than Alfred Hitchcock (who was in 1938 to be perhaps the first to use a fictional movie language in The Lady Vanishes). Now, I would be the first to acknowledge that I am not an expert Esperanto speaker, but try as I may I cannot seem to find a single word in Esperanto in the entire film. In fact, I distinctly seem to spot a neon sign advertising “cigarettes”, which would be either English or French. So I think I can, until further information surfaces, state that this is a factoid. Shame, really, since as far as I know, no other silent feature-length movie ever used Esperanto either. Or any other constructed language, for that matter.

Speaking of visual language, much tends to be made of the fact that the entire story is told with only a single title card (similar to the somewhat later Chelovek s kino-apparatom). Now, this is a truth with some modification since there are some other written sequences, most prominently a letter in the first half of the film. Even so, the version at the Internet Archive should be perfectly watchable to anyone, even though it contains no subtitles. The written material is not essential for following the plot.

The English title The Last Laugh, incidentally, is unfortunate, since it puts focus on the film’s epilogue (after that abovementioned title card), which is truly absurd and more of a joke than part of the actual story.

The film is generally bundled together with the German Expressionism, and though there are certainly scenes with strong expressionist content, it should also be noted that it is not at all as thoroughly expressionistic as many contemporary films, including several of Murnau’s own.

This film is best enjoyed either if you care to analyze and marvel over each of the many technically advanced and tremendously effective shots (some, such as the sequence of shots combining to visualise a drunken stupor, are so brilliant that they have arguably not been equalled in the history of cinema), or if you just sit back and allow yourself to be immersed by one of the greatest cinematic masterpieces.

Emil Jannings in Der letzte Mann / The Last Laugh (1924)

Der letzte Mann
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: German (no subtitles)
Director: F. W. Murnau
Stars: Emil Jannings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack, 2 files (683 + 686 M)

Aelita (1924)

This week, I conclude my little “trilogy” of Mars-related films with the earliest of the lot, namely Russian Aelita (Аэлита), sometimes called Aelita – Queen of Mars. Even though it was made as early as 1924, it was not the first feature-length Mars film. That honour goes to the Danish film Himmelskibet (1918), but in many ways, the Russian film feels much more modern. For example, the Mars voyage is made with a rocket instead of a large bi-plane!

Yuliya Solntseva showcasing Martian fashion in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita was loosely based on a book by Aleksei Tolstoy. This may seem surprising to those who do not perceive Tolstoy as a science fiction writer, but that is because there were actually two writers by the same name (and also the even more well-known Leo Tolstoy). At any rate, though science fiction is somewhat thematically important to the plot, it is actually more about domestic life in the Soviet Union than about space travel and Mars. It holds many allegorical and propagandistic messages, and one of them seems to be that one should strive for the good of society, rather than useless stuff like space travel. The film has been accused both of being pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. At any rate, it is not quite as simple in this regard as it may at first seem.

For the modern viewer who expects a science fiction masterpiece (which it is, to some extent), the ending must be admitted to be somewhat anti-climactic and dissatisfying. Said ending does have several other qualities, however, and should not be entirely dismissed in terms of character development and bringing closure to some aspects of the story. I will not reveal the details in advance, but expect some abruptness in the final twists.

This film is best enjoyed for its groundbreaking and fantastic use of sets and costume. It has been strongly influential, directly and indirectly, on a large number of Western sci-fi films, including Flight to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Konstantin Eggert and Yuri Zavadsky in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Stars: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (712×520)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (988 M)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Arabian Nights. The very name suggests oriental mystery. Genies, flying carpets, tale-spinning princesses and giant rocs. The truth, though, is that the cultural fingerprint of the Nights is just as much a product of Western imagination as of Eastern. Even the first European translator, Antoine Galland, interpreted the original texts in his own ways, and added considerably from other sources. Thus, most of the well-known stories, such as those about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad, are not even part of the original collection.

The influence of The Arabian Nights on European culture during the past three hundred years has been tremendous, and early film makers were not late to catch on. On the Internet Archive can be found a delightful little French film from as early as 1902 titled Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The first feature-length production, however, was probably Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks, at the time, was the most brightly shining star in Hollywood, and had more or less single-handedly created the costume adventure genre, as it still appears in Hollywood. Already, he had played Zorro, Robin Hood and d’Artagnan in interpretations that continue to define them to this day. No mean feat, that.

Unlike previous cinematic attempts, Fairbanks’ version of The Arabian Nights did not follow any of the original tales exactly. Instead, Fairbanks and his writers took bits and pieces from various tales and stitched them together with other elements, most notably the ever-present Hollywood romantic drama as the core of the story.

By and large, however, Fairbanks was still true to the original themes. The thief, although far from typical, exists as a heroic character in at least one tale, and the story of the poor boy who becomes a prince is of course from Aladdin. Most other major plot elements can also be traced to Galland’s version of the work, and archetypal objects, such as the flying carpet, exist more or less within their original dramatic contexts.

In the years following immediately after its release, however, The Thief of Bagdad was less important as an interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Its immediate effect was to reinforce Fairbanks’ status as “The King of Hollywood” and, in particular, the master of the costume adventure.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent sets, Fairbanks’ cat-like athletics, and his powerful screen personality. It is literally cinematic history in the making, and thoroughly enjoyable at that.

Snitz Edwards and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 20 min
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)