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
Download link
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
Download link
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)

Zéro de conduite (1933)

Banned in its own time, but highly influential on later French (and international) film, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) is not to be missed.

Zéro de conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

The setting is a boarding school, where the teachers, or most of them, are pretty mean characters. The pupils decide to take matters into their own hands and revolt. This, of course, is a controversial theme, not least since Vigo takes the children’s side in the conflict. Even today, the notion of empowering children over adults may be found hard to swallow by some.

The film is in many ways experimental and a fore-runner in its use of techniques for visual composition and story-telling. The images may sometimes feel exaggerated, but the exaggeration is also a very conscious tool for directing the viewer’s focus.

The film, as it has been preserved to the world, is only a little over 40 minutes. I have read that it was originally intended to be significantly loger, but was cut contrary to Vigo’s wishes. This is sad, because one of the film’s major problems is that the story-telling feels a bit awkward at times. I think this could have been improved by a longer running time.

This film is best enjoyed by anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of French film. Or just watch it as a great comedy.

Pillow fight in Zéro de Conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

Zéro de conduite
Download link
Year: 1933
Running time: 41 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Vigo
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.0 G)

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

I must confess that before I first saw The Kennel Murder Case, I had never heard of the character Philo Vance, and even after seeing the film, it was years before I realized that this was a recurring and well-known character. Well, live and learn. One day I may actually read one of the original novels with the character.

Robert Barrat and William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The film begins at a Long Island dog show, where, amongst many other dog owners, Philo Vance and Archer Coe exhibit their dogs. The following day, Coe is found dead. The police suspect suicide, but Vance is convinced that the truth lies elsewhere, and cancels a planned trip to Europe in order to investigate the case. It turns out that Coe was not a very well liked man, and many have reasons for wanting to see him dead. Vance starts to investigate the case from many different angles.

The Kennel Murder Case appears to have been the fourth and final time that William Powell played the role of Philo Vance. At least one of the previous films, The Canary Murder Case (1929) is available from the Internet Archive. In addition, there are some old radio episodes available with Philo Vance.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of whodunnits. This is a thoroughly pleasant film with good actors, good photography, and just the right amount of plot twists. If you want to explore Hollywood film from the 1930s, this is a very good place to start.

Eugene Pallette, William Powell and Robert McWade in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The Kennel Murder Case
Download link
Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: William Powell, Mary Astor
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (680 M)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

A romantic comedy about a half-mad king who had his wives beheaded and divorced about as often as he changed his underwear? Sounds strange? Well, it is, but The Private Life of Henry VIII is also a splendidly amusing and well-made film.

Wendy Barrie (as Jane Seymour) and Charles Laughton (as the king) in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Henry VIII has gone down in history for several reasons, but in popular history he is perhaps best known for his six wives. They, and their relationships with the king, form the story of this film. Well, in fact the story is about five wives, and barely that, for the first one is entirely skipped over and the film begins as the second one is about to be executed.

Even so, one would think that an hour and a half would be too little time to tell the stories of five romances with any kind of depth, but an effective script teamed with Alexander Korda’s excellent directing and a brilliant Charles Laughton in the title role produced a film that neither feels rushed nor overstuffed.

One would perhaps also be tempted to think it would be hard to create an endearing portrait of someone who had two of his own wives put to death, but this film succeeds even at that.

This film is best enjoyed for the excellent acting and directing. As is often the case with “historical” films, several liberties and short cuts have been taken with facts of history.

Binnie Barnes (as Catherine Howard) and Charles Laughton (as the king) in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII
Download link
Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)

The Mystery Squadron (1933)

Today, the concept of movie serials is completely dead, but back in the beginnings of cinema storytelling, it was one of many formats which the pioneers experimented with. Even though some of the all-time greatest were made as early as the 1910s, this story-telling format lasted into the 1950s.

With the coming of sound, the serials had to be made cheaper, which in turn resulted in faster production, less original scripts, and more reliance on stereotyped characters and situations. Ironically, this may have resulted in a far more profound impact on modern-day popular culture, because those stereotypes were repeatedly projected onto the viewer’s conscience, and came to directly influence many of today’s iconic media phenomena, such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones and The Rocketeer.

The “Golden Age” of serials is generally considered to have started in 1936 with, among others, Ace Drummond. That serial is not one of my favourites, but it was probably inspired by one which came three years earlier, and which resembles it in many ways, The Mystery Squadron.

Bob Steele, Lucile Browne and Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron, like most sound serials, has a simple plot. The building of a dam is harassed by a squadron of fliers headed by The Black Ace (we would call them terrorists today). The pilots Fred and “Jellybean” are hired to put an end to the trouble. But who is The Black Ace?

Even though it is just as cheap and stereotyped as any 1930s serial, The Mystery Squadron has many fine characteristics to its credit. It still has some of the freshness and playfulness of the silent serials; it is fun, and no-one, including the actors, seems to take it seriously. The mystery of who hides behind the mask of The Black Ace is also uncommonly well made (for a serial) and adds to the excitement. To top it off, the serial has one of those rare female supporting characters who is headstrong and resourceful, and herself a good pilot. On several occasions, she is the one who saves the day. Strong female characters like this were much more common in the silent days.

It certainly has its share of faults, too. The actors are rotten (even by serial standards), there are some very cheesy special effects to compensate for expensive live flying sequences, and many cliffhanger resolutions (another serial hallmark) are very corny. Also, image and sound quality of the Internet Archive copy are not very good. Fortunately, any deficiences are easily compensated by the fact that you can play The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game.

The game is simple. Just look at all the twelve episodes in sequence. Drink whenever one of the following things occur:

  • Someone uses a secret passage at the tavern.
  • You hear the radio call “The Black Ace calling station A/B.”
  • Someone is accused of being the Black Ace.
  • A model plane (supposed to show a real plane) lands or takes off.
  • Someone fires a flash grenade to blind the heroes (drink double).

Note! I have not tried The Mystery Squadron Drinking Game myself, and I take no responsibility for any adverse effects, either to your health or your bar cabinet.

This film is best enjoyed if you are well stocked with alcohol.

Bob Steele and Edward Hearn in The Mystery Squadron (1933)

The Mystery Squadron
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1933
Running time: 3 h 50 min
Directors: Colbert Clark, David Howard
Stars: Bob Steele, Guinn Williams
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4