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)

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)

The Lost World (1925)

Those of you who follow this blog may have (correctly) come to the conclusion that I like silent film. That is not only because many silents have considerable artistic merits, but also because they provide exciting insights into the history of cinema.

Take The Lost World, for example. It was a movie that truly rocked the young medium, and the repercussions of which you can still feel in the cinematic world today. What the big-budget, special effects-heavy adventure movie would have been without it we shall never know. Not the same, for sure.

Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Lloyed Hughes, Wallace Beery and Arthur Hoyt in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name, and tells the story of an expedition that set out to explore a hidden plateau where a scientist was recently reported to have found living dinosaurs. The scientist’s daughter joins the expedition, as does Professor Challenger; his first appearance in both written and cinematic form.

The Lost World is in many ways the archetypal exploration movie. I guess there may have been other similar films before it, but probably none were as influential as this one. The plot introduces us to a team of explorers, including a leader, a reporter, an expert and a woman. Through hardships and adventures they travel to a location that is distant, exotic and hard to find. Many of the plot elements and character archetypes in this film reappear in later films, such as Flight to Mars (1951).

This film is best enjoyed for the special effects, spectacular for their time. Even though the stop motion animation used was considerably improved by later filmmakers, one must really admire the craft and imagination that breathe life into the huge dinosaurs of the lost world.

Triceratops in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Harry O. Hoyt
Stars: Wallace Beery
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (580 M)

Strike (1925)

Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature-length film, Strike (known as Stachka or Стачка in Russian), showed that the legendary director had already at that time formed most of those ideals that were to follow him through much of his career. And while it may not be as refined as some of his later works, it is just as powerful, poetic and artistic. Strike deserves to be seen for reasons beyond historical curiosity.

Workers in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike tells the story of a pre-revolution strike at a factory (apparently based on true events) and its voilent resolution. We get to follow the workers as their dissatisfaction with the poor and greedy management explodes into action, when one worker hangs himself because he has been falsely accused of theft. The workers unite in their demands for better conditions, but the managers plot to either force them back to work, or get rid of them once and for all.

One of the things that is typical about Strike, and that sets it appart from the Hollywood norm of story-telling that we are used to, is that there is no main character. Focus is always on the group, and even when individuals do emerge out of the formless mass of strikers (constantly running around from one place to another), they are not proactive in the way that you would expect your standard Hollywood protagonist to be. Rather, they react to things that happen around them, and they act together with the group. You could perhaps call them catalysts, sparking the fire in others to act in concert. This theme of cooperation permeates the film to the extent that one could probably write a book about it.

Another of Eisenstein’s identifying traits is the way he uses metaphor in his images. Some would perhaps say that he is too obvious when he interfoliates cuts with animals and with humans, thereby giving the humans animal characteristics. But to me, this is enormously powerful. Even more so, since this technique is practically never used in Western film, neither contemporary nor modern.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and emotional ending. As the military move in on horseback and massacre the strikers, Eisenstein interleaves cuts of cattle being slaughtered, and of laughing capitalists, fat and lazy. Regardless of whether you agree with the underlying ideology, this is truly effective and artistic film.

Revolutionary leader in Strike / Stachka / Стачка (1925)

Strike
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Language: Russian (English subtitles)
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; perfectly synchronized music and some sound effects
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (685 M)

Wolf Blood (1925)

It is only natural, I suppose, that a whole lot of “firsts” of cinematic history came into existence during the silent era. Many of these are little more than historical curiosities, such as the first Frankenstein film from 1910.

Occasionally, however, such a film turns out to have interesting qualities in addition to just being first, and one such is Wolf Blood, the first feature-length werewolf movie (and the oldest preserved of any length).

George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton and Raymond Hanford in Wolf Blood (1925)

The film is set deep in the Canadian forests, where two competing lumber companies fight for control of the best timber. Dick Bannister is the local boss of one company, and when one of the employees is shot, he asks the female owner Miss Ford to come to the site for a first-hand experience of the situation. She does so, bringing her fiancée along for the ride. In spite of this, Bannister and his employer feel a mutual attraction, gradually deepening as the film progresses.

Bannister is wounded in a fight and the fiancée, a surgeon, is forced to perform a blood transfusion using a wolf’s blood to save Bannister’s life. This in spite of the risk that the animal’s savage characteristics may transfer to the victim. Miss Ford nurses him to health, but are the rumours true that he is now part-wolf, terrorizing the camps?

Wolf Blood is slow-moving and not very exciting in terms of adventure or horror. Its qualities lie elsewhere.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm, humane drama and nice character portraits. There is also a lot of fascinating forest scenery and film of what is probably genuine lumberjacks at work. The werewolf theme is relatively low-key, and it was probably not an inspiration to The Wolfman (1941), the film that really made the werewolf into one of the legendary Hollywood monsters.

George Chesebro chasing a wolf in the werewolf film Wolf Blood (1925)

Wolf Blood
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 7 min
Directors: George Chesebro, Bruce Mitchell
Stars: George Chesebro, Marguerite Clayton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (400×304)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical and jazz music partly synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (699 M)

The Gold Rush (1925)

A friend of mine remarked the other day that I practically only write about films that she has never heard of before. I think it was meant in a positive way, but I suppose all the obscure titles may turn others off.

The main purpose of this blog is to make people aware of the good stuff available at the Internet Archive, and also to make such good stuff easier to find. Since the classics available from the IA are frequently listed on other blogs, I guess I have subconsciously avoided them in favour of less known (yet often equally interesting) alternatives. Ah, but I ramble. Let me see if I can somehow get back on track.

Yesterday, it was exactly 100 years ago that Charlie Chaplin debuted in his first film role, Making a Living. It is not a bad film for a first, but Chaplin’s greatest achievements still lay some years into the future.

The Gold Rush, for instance.

Chilkoot Pass in Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925)

An absolutely marvellous film from the heyday of the silent cinema, The Gold Rush often appears on lists of the best films ever made. By the time of its production, Chaplin had developed his sense of timing to near perfection. He had also learned the difficult task of good storytelling, although his method was unusual in that there was no real script, only a skeletal storyline from which each scene was improvised and gradually refined.

Much has been written about the production of this film, and here I will only touch briefly upon two of my favourite scenes. The first is just at the beginning, when hundreds of extras make their laborious ways up the Chilkoot pass. One of the most magnificent scenes in the history of silent cinema. The other is when Chaplin and his companion, both near starvation, share one of Chaplin’s shoes for their dinner. Apparently, the shoe used for filming was made of liquorice and caused Chaplin a bad case of diarrhoea.

As is the case with many famous silents, The Gold Rush has been released with a large number of different scores, including one that Chaplin composed for the rerelease of the film in the 1940s. I remember when I first watched the film myself (probably in the mid eighties), and the score was just random classical music. I found it so disturbing I had to turn it off.

The experience will be similar with the version I mainly link to from this post, since it contains no score at all. The image quality, however, is very good. On the other hand, there is another version with inferior image quality (though still acceptable) and Portuguese subtitles, but an excellent piano score. You will have to decide which one you prefer.

This film is best enjoyed as an introduction to silent film. If you have never seen a silent before, this is the perfect place to start.

Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain in The Gold Rush (1925)

The Gold Rush
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Georgia Hale
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None (in this version)
Best file format: MPEG4 (708 M)