Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

As far as I know, the first feature film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the 1920 film I wrote about last week. It was to be followed by many others, and one of the best is the first sound version, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March.

Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

This film starts with a very nice first-person sequence, where we get to follow Dr. Jekyll on his way to a lecture on his research. First-person narrative is not that common in modern film, but here it works since it is well made and later in the film it is just used frequently enough to make it a distinguishing feature of the film, without seeming intrusive or overused.

March plays the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde with a vigour and zest that is pure joy to behold. You can tell that he is having fun, and at the same time he is giving a completely professional performance. Not only March is excellent in his dual role, but many of the other actors are also very good, not least Miriam Hopkins as the fallen woman who tempts Jekyll, and thereby indirectly becomes the agent of her own destruction.

It is of course almost impossible to avoid comparing this version with Barrymore’s from 1920. Both actors make brilliant, and somewhat different interpretations. Personally, I prefer March as Jekyll but Barrymore as Hyde. The later film has some very nice special effects in the transformation, and is overall more impressive and more moody in its sets and lighting. Dr. Jekyll’s lab, in particular, is absolutely marvellous. The later film is also more specific and less Victorian in its attitude to Hyde’s atrocities. While still pretty tame compared with some modern movies, it is a good step forward, and quite more open in terms of violence and sexuality, in spite of being produced after the introduction of the infamous Production Code.

As you may guess from the above, I do have a preference for this version over the silent one, but both are very good, and both deserve to be seen on their own merits.

Several other filmed versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story exist at the Internet Archive. In addition to Barrymore’s 1920 version, two early shorts are of particular interest. They seem to be the two oldest surviving versions, one from 1912 and one from 1913. Of these two, the latter is definitely the better, although the older version naturally has a strong historical significance.

This film is best enjoyed for its mood and attention to detail. It is a good example of the films that were made just in the beginning of the sound era, and that retained much of the creativity and artistry from the best silents.

Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 36 min
Director: Rouben Marmoulian
Stars: Fredric March
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×542)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (975 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 weas 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 Merry Old Soul (1933)

We continue our Short Film Month with a look at an old Disney character. Well, almost. The film is The Merry Old Soul and the character is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

A dentist and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

Oswald, so the story goes, was Walt Disney’s first important character for his animated films. But Disney was at the time working for Universal Studios, who therefore owned the character. When Disney and the studio failed to come to terms about the future of Disney and Oswald, Disney decided to leave Universal and create his own character (of very similar appearance), Mickey Mouse. The rest is, as they say, history.

But Oswald lived on, and prospered for a time. There were lots of post-Disney films with the character, and The Merry Old Soul is only one of them. In this film, Oswald has gone to the dentist with a bad toothache, but during the visit he hears a message on the radio that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald runs away to rally all the comedians in Hollywood to try to find a cure. The assembled host includes a great many Hollywood celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and even Greta Garbo! The whole affair eventually spirals out of control into a pie-in-the-face orgy.

If you are curious about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as a Disney character, a few samples are available at the Internet Archive, for example the nice short Oh Teacher (1927).

In later years, the Disney company has actually purchased the rights to Oswald, who is therefore once again a Disney character. Oswald has since made some appearances in video games, films and comics.

This film is best enjoyed for lovers of old movie stars. If that is your bent, then you are wont to get your satisfaction here, and it is quite a lot of fun to try to figure out who everyone is. In addition, though the animation is a bit simple at times, many of the gags are really good.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Ed Wynn in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

The Merry Old Soul
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Year: 1933
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Walter Lantz, William Nolan
Stars: Bernice Hansen (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (91 M)

Menschen am Sonntag (1930)

If Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt is a film about the city where the people live, then Menschen am Sonntag is a film about the people that live in the city. Just like in the former film, Menschen am Sonntag shows us many street views of Berlin, but there is a big difference: Here there are practically always people in focus, rather than just rushing past. Another difference is that here we find little work or of night life, and much leisure time.

Christl in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday in English) focuses on a day in the lives of four young Berliners. The titles in the beginning very carefully point out that these four are not professional actors, but that they play themselves. According to Wikipedia, this appears to be correct, although the story around them seems to be entirely fabricated. Thus, the film becomes a fascinating mix between reality and fiction. It is hard to know where the one ends and the other begins. For example, is Erwin really married to the tired and quarrelsome woman whom we find in that role? Perhaps not, but what about the apartment where they live in the film? Is that his real-life apartment? We are never told.

The plot of the film is fairly simple. Wolfgang is out walking when he comes across Christl, a pretty girl who seems to have been stood up. He buys her some coffe and invites her to join him at the recreational area Nikolassee the next day, which is a Sunday. When they meet next day, each has brought a friend, and Wolfgang is immediately taken in by Christl’s beautiful friend Brigitte. The four of them swim, eat and go for a boat ride. By and by, Wolfgang is becoming more and more intimate with Brigitte, whilst at the same time trying to keep Christl in the dark.

Except for some domestic scenes at Erwin’s apartment, that is more or less everything that happens in this very unusual film. But no more is needed.

This film is best enjoyed as a slice of life from interwar Germany, shortly before the Nazis came to power. It is an excellent complement to Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt, from about the same time, since both films focus on the same city but from very different angles.

Wolfgang, Christl and Brigitte at Nikolassee in Menschen am Sonntag / People on Sunday (1930)

Menschen am Sonntag
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Year: 1930
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: H.264 (438 M)

Rembrandt (1936)

Alexander Korda was a very solid British director, perhaps best known for participating in the 1940 remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which is considered to outshine even the spectacular silent original, and which was a major source of inspiration for Disney’s Aladdin (1992).

In the 1930s, Korda made three films that are so thematically similar that they must be considered as a trilogy. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) have already been reviewed on this blog, and the turn has now come to the third film, Rembrandt.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

All three films are biographies of various European personalities in the 16th and 17th Centuries, two historical and one fictional. All three can be traced in various ways to the reformation and counter-reformation, although admittedly this is a theme that does not shine through in the films. All three films also deal with lost loves and with the agonies of growing old.

Rembrandt begins with the death of famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife Saskia. The film then follows Rembrandt’s remaining life with its numerous sorrows, but most of all it is a powerful portrait of a strong and gifted artist, who at all costs stayed true to his own vision and character. When his friends implore him to paint nobles (who can pay good money) in the traditional style, Rembrandt prefers to develop his own personal technique on motifs of his own choosing. For example, he picks a beggar off the street and dresses him as a biblical king.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s exquisite performance as the famous painter. The film is well made overall, but the story lacks that extra edge that would have secured its place as a great classic, partly because it is a bit shattered and out of focus. As it stands, Laughton makes it well worth the effort of watching, but you may want to go for The Private Life of Henry VIII first, also with Laughton in the lead. Comparing these two films with one another will give a good picture of Laughton’s great versatility as an actor.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

Rembrandt
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (666×509, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth (1931)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they immediately banned a number of films that they perceived as spreading “dangerous” propaganda. One of them was Niemandsland, known in English under different titles; the copy at the Internet Archive is called No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth.

No Man’s Land is set during World War I, and begins by telling the background stories of five different men of different nationalities. Stories that are perfectly everyday, until the men are drafted into World War I. These men come together when they seek cover in the cellar of a bombed-out house in the middle of no man’s land. They each have their own loyalties, and their own families back home, yet have to cooperate in order to survive.

World War I soldiers going over the top in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

The film sends a strong anti-war message. This may have been one reason why it scared the Nazis, but probably more importantly because one of the five men is a Jew, a Jew depicted as a perfectly normal and honest human being. Imagine the threat.

Just like last week’s Vampyr (1932), No Man’s Land is a film from the period just after sound film had broken through, and again an example of inexperience with sound technology. As a result, the poor sound detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of watching, though this film is still good enough that such a small detail can be overlooked.

I saw a comment somewhere on the Internet that this film is pointless, because five men cannot stop a war anyway. It takes the will of an entire civilization to do that. Well, that is exactly the kind of attitude that means war will never come to an end, because first and last, it always comes down to the individual. Sure, there must be powerful political leaders to sign the treaties, but they will never do it unless they feel popular demand behind them; they will never be elected in the first place unless the people support their opinions. So, yes, five men’s stand, or even one man’s stand, counts. Because as long as everyone sits on their behinds waiting for someone else to act, nothing is ever going to change.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm and deep humanism. The five men in the cellar all come through as living, three-dimensional characters. As a viewer, I care about each of them, and therefore the film’s message also comes through as meaningful and interesting.

Ernst Busch, Vladimir Sokoloff, Hugh Douglas, Georges Péclet and Louis Douglas in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth
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Year: 1931
Language: English, German, French, Yiddish
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Victor Trivas, George Shdanoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: Cinepack (517 M)

Vampyr (1932)

I think it is a fair statement that the modern horror genre was born out of a marriage between the German Expressionism's easthetics and Hollywood’s big-budget, mainstream storytelling tradition. For good or bad, that combination has dominated horror film world-wide ever since.

But there were certainly other directions it could have taken. And did, in some cases. Carl Theodor Dreyer showed us a glimpse of one possible influence of avant-garde thinking in the horror genre in his first sound film, Vampyr.

Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West) in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

In spite of the German language of this particular print, the film was produced in France. Like most French films from around this period, it has problems with the soundtrack, which is somewhat inexpertly dubbed afterwards. Look, for example, at Zéro de conduite (1933), which is even worse, and then compare with the Hollywood film White Zombie (1932). Even though the American film suffers from inferior recording equipment (compared with what would be the norm just a few years later), it sports sound recorded on location, perfectly synchronized with the images.

But that “perfect” sound comes at a prize. Another interesting comparison is how much more elegantly Dreyer was able to work with the light silent-era cameras that I assume he was still using. White Zombie, in comparison, is much more static and conventional in its imagery, and that is partly because they had to use heavier, sound-proofed cameras.

Dreyer sometimes inserts surrealistic elements, and even though the basic plot is fairly simple, he makes jumps that stretches the story’s credibility. The plot can therefore at times be difficult to follow, but that is a problem only if you expect a traditional story structure. This kind of avant-garde film is not one where comprehending is always the most important thing. Here, everything is designed to make you feel, rather than analyze. So let go your conscious mind, and allow your subconscious to guide the experience.

This film is best enjoyed for two reasons, both contributing to the tense atmosphere that is felt throughout. The first reason is Dreyer’s excellent use of camera, lighting and angles. The second is Wolfgang Zeller’s amazing score, in itself reason enough to watch the film.

Rena Mandel and Jane Mora in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932)

Vampyr
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Year: 1932
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Stars: Nicolas de Gunzburg (Julian West)
Image quality: Acceptable (poor in some scenes)
Resolution: Medium (574×434; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,018 M)