Scrooge (1935)

One year ago, almost exactly, I wrote about Scrooge (1951), one of the many cinematic interpretations of Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol. That version is only one of several available at the Internet Archive. Today, the turn has come to the very first sound version of the story, also titled Scrooge.

Oscar Asche and Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been filmed again and again. And quite often, the resulting product has been really nice. Hence, there are a good many actors that have made classic Scrooge interpretations. Alastair Sim in the 1951 version is certainly one, and Seymour Hicks in 1935 is another. Hicks is excellent as the miserly old money-lender, and he is among the very best in his terror of the ghost of Jacob Marley, as well as of the three spirits of Christmas. Like many other Scrooge actors, he lets himself be carried away, and is a bit too manic as the reformed kindly old man. But this is a minor problem and goes with the genre.

I find it difficult to choose between the 1935 and the 1951 versions. Both have good scripts and excellent actors. The former is a bit less advanced in terms of special effects (ghostly apparitions, and that sort of stuff), but since it cleverly avoids many of the technical difficulties, using instead simple means like shadows and good acting, this is not really a problem. The 1951 version is perhaps a trifle stronger in the camerawork, whereas the 1935 movie has many little humourous details. In the end, it may come down to technical aspects, and in that respect the 1951 version is blessed with a better copy at the Internet Archive. However, both are well worth watching.

The 1935 copy mainly linked to from this post is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but the download file is well over 3 GB in size. Fortunately, there is another version, made from the same source. Image quality is almost as good, and file size is much smaller. This is a good option if your bandwidth is limited.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of feel-good in your life, or when you just want to experience a good old classic British costume film.

Donald Calthrop, Barbara Everest and Philip Frost in Scrooge (1935)

Scrooge
Download link
Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Henry Edwards
Stars: Seymour Hicks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.7 G)

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Triumph des Willens (1935)

Last week I wrote about the American World War II propaganda film The Nazis Strike (1943), a film which made heavy use of the enemy’s own propaganda films, showing them in a very different light. One of the sources most prominently used in The Nazis Strike is Leni Riefenstahl’s classic Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) about the 1934 Nazi congress at Nuremberg.

Sieg heil! to Adolf Hitler and the swastika in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Riefenstahl had already made a similar film about the 1933 Nazi party congress, Sieg des Glaubens (1933), which is also available at the Internet Archive. I have not seen the older film (which is said to be of great historical value), but I have been told that Triumph des Willens is much more polished and better propaganda.

If you are interested in Riefentahl’s career, incidentally, you will also want to check out the silent film Der heilige Berg, where she participates as an actor before becoming a director.

I think Triumph des Willens has much to teach us about today’s political climate. It teaches us what can hide behind seemingly harmless rhetorics; it teaches us about the power of mass psychology; hopefully it also teaches us that in order to build a peaceful world, you have to look beyond your own borders and beyond your own social group.

This film is best enjoyed in small pieces. The entire film, with all the speeches by almost-forgotten Nazi officials, feels rather stiff today unless you have a strong interest in Nazi propaganda and ideology. But it is certainly both educational, and to some extent enjoyable, to watch some classic sequences, not least the beginning with Hitler’s flight to Nuremberg and ensuing triumphant motorcade. Another classic is Hitler’s concluding eight-minute speech, containing a lot of tosh about the superiority of the German people in general and its leaders in particular. If you have already seen The Nazis Strike, it is very interesting to watch this film to see the material in its original context.

Adolf Hitler: "We carry the best blood and we know this." in Triumph des Willens / Triumph of the Will (1935)

Triumph des Willens
Download link
Year: 1935
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 44 min
Director: Leni Riefenstahl
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (619 M)

The 39 Steps (1935)

About two thirds of Alfred Hitchcock’s production from the 1930s is available at the Internet Archive. There are also a handful of his 1920s silents, but only the rare oddity from later in his career.

Those 1930s films are an odd bunch. Some films, such as the historical drama Jamaica Inn or the comedy Waltzes from Vienna seem like very surprising choices of scripts and themes compared with the films that have become his true legacy. Others clearly point the way to his great Hollywood thrillers. This is especially true for The 39 Steps.

Robert Donat on a train in Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps is arguably Hitchcock’s best 1930s film. The production values are higher than his earlier productions and some of those immediately following, partly due to a higher budget. Hitchcock had a sometimes unfortunate love for sound stages, rear projections and scale models in favour of outdoor shoots, things which are far less conspicuous in this production.

Hitchcock here for the first time manages to combine two of his favourite themes: spies and the innocent man on the run. This is definitely an essential work in his career, foreboding many of the films to come. It is not known to me why this shift came about, but there can be no doubt that this was the kind of story that Hitchcock liked to work with.

The film is also famous for a segment where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (playing the hero and his very unwilling lady) have to make a getaway while handcuffed to one another. Even though this part of the film is little more than ten minutes in length, it feels much longer due to Hitchcock’s expert way of making the most out of the situation’s drama.

This film is best enjoyed with good image and sound quality. Several versions are available at the Internet Archive, and I haved naturally linked to the best one. When I first saw the film myself it was from a very poor quality DVD, which was not as enjoyable as I would haved liked. This version is much better and has actually helped to raise my esteem for this movie to even greater heights.

Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps
Download link
Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The term “cliffhanger” comes from the old movie serials, especially those of the 1930s through 1950s. Each episode always ended with one of the heroes stuck in an apparently impossible position, quite often seeming to die with no possibility of rescue. Then the next episode starts with a resolution where, lo and behold, the hero survives after all and can go on chasing the baddies.

I have seen a number of serials, maybe fifteen or so, and the first and only time I ever saw a cliffhanger where the heroes are actually hanging (and falling) off a cliff is in The Phantom Empire. It is much more common that the hero crashes a plane or a car, “cliffhanger” variations which are also used in that same serial.

Frankie Darro, Gene Autry and Betsy King Ross in a cliffhanger in The Phantom Empire (1935)

But The Phantom Empire’s fame does not rest in its possibly naming the cliffhanger gimmick (there were probably others before it anyway). The reason why it is exciting and to some extent unique is the peculiar blend between western adventure and science fiction.

In the serial, Gene Autry, who plays himself, owns the Radio Ranch. He makes daily radio broadcasts with music and live theatre, and he needs to continue making them, or he will lose his contract and cannot afford to keep the ranch. So far, nothing spectacular about the setup.

But then there is the team of scientists, who are secretly trying to locate the underground kingdom of Murania to rob its treasure of radium. Not to mention the Muranians themselves, a lost race of scientifically advanced cave dwellers who sometimes come to the surface just near Radio Ranch. And to top that off, Gene Autry is suspected of murdering a man and has to make his broadcasts in secret, or the sheriff will capture him.

As you can probably guess, the plot is not always logical or coherent. But compared with many other serials, it is fairly intricate, and even though it may seem inane at times, it moves along at a breakneck pace. This serial has much fewer choreographed fist fights than, for example, the Captain America serial, and the reason is that there is enough plot without those fights to fill up the episodes.

I think the reason why I find that sci-fi and western genre-crossing has such strong potential is that both (westerns, in particular) are genres that are very much stuck in their respective sets of clichés. When those clichés clash, the filmmakers are forced to be creative. This does not always lead to good film, but it often leads to thought-provoking and entertaining solutions.

I have searched at IMDb and other sites, and as far as I can figure, The Phantom Empire was the first ever cross between western and science fiction, at least on film. It was soon followed by some others, but over the past eighty years, there have been relatively few such films. Two other examples from the 30s are available at the Internet Archive: Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket.

Underground civilizations were not exactly a new idea when this serial was released. A hollow earth was suggested by Edmond Halley (for whom Halley’s comet is named) as early as 1692. Others expanded upon his theory, adding large polar openings from the outer surface, and an internal sun to warm and light the inner world.

The idea was used in fiction by several writers; among the immediate predecessors in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley. Technically speaking, The Phantom Empire is not a hollow earth story, since the setting is not a hollow earth but a gigantic cavern 22,000 ft. below the surface. It is clear, however, that it comes from the same tradition, and judging from the similarities of titles, the direct inspiration was perhaps the non-fictional work The Phantom of the Poles published in 1906 by William Reed.

If you find that watching an entire serial is a bit stiff, but are still interested in the story and production, this serial, like many others, was also released as a shorter feature version, which is also downloadable.

This serial is best enjoyed if not taken too seriously. It is fun, camp and wonderfully silly. To boot, The Phantom Empire, like many other western serials, contains some really nice horseback stunts.

Gene Autry, Dorothy Christy (as Queen Tika) and a robot in The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1935
Running time: 3 h 57 min
Directors: Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason
Stars: Gene Autry
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

I have previously written about Basil Rathbone, one of the most famous Sherlock Holmes actors. Rathbone’s immediate predecessor, Arthur Wontner, is not so well remembered today, and there are several reasons why. Wontner was a good actor, yet does not succeed as well as Rathbone in giving Holmes a distinct personality, and his balding head (poorly painted over) does not exactly help to maintain the image of the famous detective.

Still, Wontner made five Holmes films before Rathbone took over, and they were the last British Holmes productions for a couple of decades. One of the Wontner films is now lost, but the other four are all avaiable at the Internet Archive. For a true Holmes fan, these are of course a must, but even the occasional Holmes viewer will enjoy Wontner’s best, The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes.

Arthur Wontner and Ian Fleming in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

This film holds up well in comparison with many of the later Rathbone productions. The plot is a fairly traditional Holmes murder mystery, and in fact it is closely based on one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories.

Wontner as a Holmes actor must be put in perspective in order to be fully enjoyed. Compared with the Holmes of modern productions, he is old rather than young; well-mannered rather than rude; calm rather than energetic. I think that a more knowledgeable person than myself could probably present a timeline of Holmes films and TV productions, tracing how today’s interpretations gradually emerged through generations of actors.

The other Wontner films available at the Internet Archive are Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour (1931), The Sign of Four (1932) and Murder at the Baskervilles (1937).

This film is best enjoyed if you have a good sound system. If you watch it, do not let the extremely poor sound during the first few minutes put you off. It does improve after a while, but even then poor reproduction would make the dialogue hard to make out in places.

Arthur Wontner in The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935)

The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes
Download link
Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 19 min
Director: Leslie Hiscott
Stars: Arthur Wontner, Ian Fleming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: h.264 (466 M)