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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La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928)

So, here we go again. Another new year begins, along with the usual celebrations. A few close friends; good food and wine; some fireworks. It is at times like these that one should perhaps, at least for a minute, stop and think about life. About how fortunate we are to be born at a time and place where there is really very little to worry about. Jean Renoir helps us find that reflective mood, through his 1928 masterful adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl).

Manuel Raaby and Catherine Hessling in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

It was just before the great breakthrough of sound film, and the silent film medium was at its artistic peak. Europe was spearheading the development through filmmakers like Fritz Lang (e.g. Metropolis), Carl Theodor Dreyer (e.g. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc) and F.W. Murnau (e.g. Der letzte Mann). La petite marchande d’allumettes falls right into this tradition with its splendid use of composition, cutting, lighting and costumes.

I guess you know the story already from your childhood. A poor match girl goes out on New Year’s Eve to sell matches, even though her shoes and clothes are pitifully inadequate. When she fails to sell any, she lies down in the cold snow to dream about the toys she saw in a shop window. Renoir’s dream sequence bears traces of the German expressionism, which was extremely strong in Germany about this time.

This film is best enjoyed as a fine example of late 1920s European filmmaking. The film is short, but given the story it sets out to tell, it could not have been made much longer and still kept the interest up.

Jean Storm, Catherine Hessling and Amy Wells in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

La petite marchande d’allumettes
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Year: 1928
Running time: 32 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Catherine Hessling
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; harmonium music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: H.264 (189 M)

The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Even though Buster Keaton had an acting career of nearly 50 years, his greatest period can be narrowed down to only about six years, starting with Our Hospitality in 1923 and ending about 1929. One of the last great silent comedies with Keaton was Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the last silent he made for Universal Pictures, and the last film where he had almost total creative freedom.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

In this film, Keaton plays a young man who has been studying at college, and is now about to be reunited with his father, whom he does not really know. He is vain and foppish, and his father, the steamboat skipper, is annoyed by the difficulties he finds in teaching his son the trade of riverboat navigation. Things take a turn for the worse when the son falls in love with the daughter of the father’s worst competitor. Keaton uses this simple setup to create another of his great masterpieces.

The meticulously orchestrated and spectacular stunts (see for example the breakneck fall above) are, as in any good Keaton, the film’s trademark. Keaton’s perfect sense of timing, along with his fine acting skills, are the main reasons why this film still works today, almost ninety years after its release.

Unfortunately, the film was a box office bomb. It has gone down in history as a great classic, but was not received well enough by its contemporary audience, and this was the reason why Keaton fell out of favour with his employer.

This film is best enjoyed for one of Keaton’s best and most well-known stunts, as an entire building falls down around him. Keaton’s acrobatics, and this stunt in particular, has been cited as a major influence on Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who has frequently been compared with Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton and Marion Byron in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (808 M)

Won in the Clouds (1928)

Aviation film has a long history. One of the first films to use an aeroplane as an integrated part of the story was Dash Through the Clouds (1912), a trivial comedy which today is only worth remembering for the amazing Wright aeroplane which is its real main character. A long range of films, today mostly forgotten, followed during the rest of the silent era.

Almost the only one of the silent aviation films that is still remembered today is Wings (1927), but that classic (the first to win the Academy Award for best picture) is not available at the Internet Archive. Fortunately, there is another typical (though considerably less lavish) representative of the genre in the form of Won in the Clouds.

Al Wilson and his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in Won in the Clouds (1928)

I have previously stated that the late 1920s was a period of very high film-making standards. But of course, not every film can be innovative and ground-breaking. Won in the Clouds is not one of those films that will leave you deeply touched and perhaps even with a changed perspective on some aspect of life, such as Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927) or La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Fortunately, it has other qualities. Won in the Clouds is a good example of light entertainment of the kind that Hollywood has always done best. The story is a bit silly, but not as silly as many other films, both new and old. The acting is typical of the silent era. But most importantly, some of the stunts made in this film are absolutely spectactular. Not that they cannot be reproduced and improved upon with modern film-making techniques. It is just that when you see these stunts, you know that it has to be the real thing. There is little opportunity for trick filming, and no room for extreme safety measures. And there are definitely no stunt men.

The story is a fast-moving one involving diamonds, a crooked mine manager, cars, jungle animals, sick natives, romance, and, of course, aeroplanes. Unless you place too high demands on credibility, this is good entertainment.

With its African setting, Won in the Clouds definitely does contain some racial stereotyping. Racism can never be excused by the passage of time, but racism in popular culture is one source that can help us analyze the time and the culture that it mirrors. As such, it can perhaps also help us understand our own time and help avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful aeroplanes and neat stunts.

Grace James and Percy Hogan in Won in the Clouds (1928)

Won in the Clouds
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Year: 1928
Running time: 52 min
Director: Bruce M Mitchell
Stars: Al Wilson
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (2.0 G)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928)

Motion pictures today is very much a man’s world. Sure, there are many strong women in popular movies, but they are always sexy and usually there is also a strong man somewhere in the background to help out when needed.

This has not always been so, however. It may perhaps surprise some to learn that in the days of silent cinema, strong and independent female characters where not at all uncommon.

Renée Jeanne Falconetti (Maria Falconetti) in La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

With La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), director Carl Theodor Dreyer created a film which is so powerful, so naked and so immediate that it still, over 85 years later, will take your breath away.

The film was made in France, with actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti (usually credited as “Maria Falconetti”) in the title role, but the director is Danish, and it was also first screened in Denmark.

The director’s own copies of the film were destroyed by fire (a fate shared with many a silent film) and for many years only inferior copies, not approved by the director, were available. But in the 1980s, a single remaining original copy surfaced in Oslo, Norway.

In my opinion, there is only one problem with this film. Dreyer based the film very closely on historical transcripts of Joan of Arc’s trial, but gives us next to no background. In the beginning, only the title tells us who the central character is, and we are not informed of the place, the time, or any other characters. In a way, this beginning strengthens the force of the narrative, but since Dreyer binds himself to telling the story in strict linear fashion with no apparent deviations from actual historical events, the viewer is left even at the end with next to no knowledge of why anything in the movie happened in the first place. The viewing experience is totally dependent on whether you know the background or not.

In spite of this, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc is a must see for every cineast. It is one of the most important films in the history of silent cinema, and it is a powerful experience.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of International Women’s Day, the 8th of March every year.

Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc aka The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Language: French (no subtitles)
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Renée Jeanne “Maria” Falconetti
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Soundtrack: None
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)