Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

In a world where everything and everyone has to have its own special day, there is no reason why there should not be a dedicated Star Wars Day. And even though that day happens to be chosen because of a bad word pun, one day will do as good as any. So let us celebrate Star Wars by looking at one of George Lucas’ influences.

In the DVD Special Edition commentary to Star Wars Episode II, during the fight between Obi Wan Kenobi and Jango Fett, George Lucas said: “It turns into a kind of fun sequence with […] the cliffhanger part of it which, again, is in that old Saturday matinee serial aspect of this whole thing.”

Frank Shannon (Dr Zarkov), Carol Hughes (Dale Arden) and Buster Crabbe (Flash Gordon) in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

The serials to which Lucas refers were actually made for the most part before Lucas was even born. But in the 1950s, they were rerun on television. One of the more important of these serials is Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, or as it was known on TV, Flash Gordon – Space Soldiers Conquer the Universe.

Like many other serials of the time, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is not something you watch for the intricate and coherent plot. Nor are the actors at any time aiming for an Academy Award. I have a soft spot for Buster Crabbe, and he does a good job considering the circumstances, but Carol Hughes as Dale Arden is comically theatrical at times.

Below is a list of all the chapters, with links to the Internet Archive:

  1. The Purple Death
  2. Freezing Torture
  3. Walking Bombs
  4. The Destroying Ray
  5. The Palace of Horror
  6. Flaming Death
  7. The Land of the Dead
  8. The Fiery Abyss
  9. The Pool of Peril
  10. The Death Mist
  11. Stark Treachery
  12. Doom of the Dictator

If you prefer to not watch the entire thing, you can also find at the Archive a normal-length feature film edited from parts of the serial, titled The Purple Death from Outer Space.

This film is best enjoyed if you know your Star Wars. You will find lots of characters, situations and plot elements here that obviously inspired and influenced George Lucas in various ways. Emperor Ming the Merciless, for instance, has more than just a little bit of Darth Vader in him. Or the other way around.

Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe
Download link (first chapter)
Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 21 min
Directors: Ford Beebe, Ray Taylor
Stars: Buster Crabbe, Carol Hughes
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Stars Look Down (1940)

There is something about British film, and I just cannot seem to put my finger on what it is. For one thing, a film with such pronounced social relism as The Stars Look Down could never have been made by a major Hollywood studio. Just compare it with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath from the same year, which is an excellent film but much more romanticized.

Mine workers rioting in The Stars Look Down (1940)

But there is something else as well. Even when looking at a film such as Q Planes (1939), a film which is clearly influenced by Hollywood in terms of theme and dramaturgy, there is a kind of British fingerprint. It seems to me that there is something in the dialogue and body language of the actors, and it lies beyond superficial things like that lovely British accent.

But let us go back to The Stars Look Down. Davey lives in a small English town. He works in the coal mine, just like his father and his brother, but his sharp intelligence has earned him a scholarship at a university, and he starts to become politically active. Love gets in the way of his academic aspirations, but there are still important fights to fight for his fellow coal miners.

The Stars Look Down is not only a film about the hard life of the miners. It is also about the conflicts between family and career, between different social classes, and between profit and maximum welfare for all.

The edition available at the Internat Archive is, unfortunately, the American release, which has minor but unnecessary changes at the beginning and end, making it significantly more romanticized, melodramatic, even. Speaking of differences between British and American film.

This film is best enjoyed for its believable and warm portrayal of the lives of English miners. It handles all of its various themes well, and weaves them together into a balanced whole, but the beginning and end, which let us into the miners’ lives, are clearly the high points of a very good film.

Michael Redgrave in The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Michael Redgrave
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)

His Girl Friday (1940)

The first time I saw His Girl Friday it took me by storm. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The crazy story with the sudden twists and the machinegun dialogue both represented something new to me. It was the first time ever I saw a screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Screwball comedy, apparently, was entirely a product of the 1930s. Some film historians consider The Front Page (1931) to be the first screwball comedy. Incidentally, it was the first movie adapting the play which was also the source for His Girl Friday, which in turn premiered when the screwball comedy as a genre had only a couple of years left of its golden age.

His Girl Friday is the story of the female reporter Hildy Johnson, who is going to quit, get married and have a family (in The Front Page, Hildy is a man). Her editor and previous husband Walter Burns, however, has different ideas and does everything in his power to make her stay at the job and dump her kind but boring fiancé. This is played out against a plot involving a man who is falsely accused of murdering a police officer and sentenced to be hanged, a story which Hildy promises to cover, and into which she gets gradually more and more involved.

The title of this film sometimes creates a bit of confusion. I know I wondered about it for several years before I read somewhere that it has nothing to do with the day of the week. It is a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, apparently suggesting a female assistant. Even knowing this, the title is a bit strained. But who cares? It is catchy, original and easily recognizable. Not a bad thing for a classic film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have the time and energy to really focus on it. It is not a film for casual watching.

John Qualen and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 31 min
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.3 G)

Gaslight (1940)

Hollywood has a long history of taking some of the best European movies and remaking them for the domestic American market, usually also exporting the film to the country of origin, and many times resulting in the remake being seen as the “real” version.

Gaslight is a good example. Based on a stage play, this exquisite little British mystery takes place in a London house where a murder has been committed. A married couple move in after several years, but something is not right. The husband tries to make his wife believe she is insane, and he is hiding a terrible secret. A police investigator starts looking into the case, but will he find the truth in time?

Diana Wynyward and Anton Walbrook in Gaslight (1940)

It took only four years for it to be remade, and today it is mainly the remake that is remembered and considered a classic. In fact, MGM so much wanted their version to be the “proper” one that they included a clause in the contract that all copies of the original should be destroyed. Fortunately, they did not succeed. The 1944 remake is also available at the Internet Archive, but has very low resolution, so I must recommend the original foremost, if the IA is your only source.

It is an interesting and educational prospect to watch these two films back to back (preferably, I think, starting with the remake). They are respectively excellent examples of British and Hollywood 1940s productions, and even though the basic plot is the same, the two movies are very different. Not only in the details, but also in the entire build-up of the plot and the interplay between the main characters.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the Hollywood remake is uncommonly European. Not only does it retain its London setting (something rather unusual for Hollywood remakes), but it also has a British director, a French leading male, and a Swedish leading female.

The original is best enjoyed on its own merits. In spite of what I said about comparing the two versions, the original stands perfectly well on its own, and is in some ways the better of the two.

Anton Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in Gaslight (1940)

Gaslight
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Thorold Dickinson
Stars: Anton Walbrook, Diana Wynyard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×400)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (701 M)

Beyond Tomorrow (1940)

Christmas is a time of year when everyone is expected to feel good, to socialize with family, and to relax from the pressure of everyday life. In reality, for many people it tends to be the other way around.

Beyond Tomorrow is in many ways a typical Hollywood feel-good movie. But at the same time it touches upon many serious topics. The social demand of being surrounded by good friends around Christmas time, for instance. So what do you do when your invited Christmas dinner company does not turn up? The three old and rich industrialists George, Allan and Michael are the victims of such a calamity, and they decide to play a little game. They each toss out a wallet with money and a business card, and make a bet of whether anyone will turn up to return one of the wallets in time for dinner.

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Two persons, the Texan Jim and the child nurse Jean, do arrive at the door to return two of the wallets. Thus begins Beyond Tomorrow, and thus begins the love story between Jim and Jean. Needless to say, there will be many trials to test their true love before we arrive at the inevitable happy ending.

In all honesty, Beyond Tomorrow is a very, very sentimental film. Almost sentimental to a fault. But at the core of that sentimentality there is also an earnestness about the themes that are treated. About loneliness, about friendship, and about death. I think that this earnestness is what, after all, saves Beyond Tomorrow from turning pathetic. To top that, the actors are very good, especially Harry Carey, Aubrey Smith and Charles Winninger as the three old men.

This film is best enjoyed when you feel a bit down and need to be reminded that there is a purpose to everything and that every good story has a happy ending. Unless, that is, you happen not to have a soul…

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Beyond Tomorrow
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Richard Carlson, Jean Parker
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (498 M)

Santa Fe Trail (1940)

It is really the most absurd sensation to watch an old film with Ronald Reagan and ponder that a few decades later, this was to become the president of the United States. But there it is, and when the film in question deals with important events in American history, that absurdity increases.

In Santa Fe Trail, he plays a young George Custer (yes, the George Custer of Little Big Horn) alongside the film’s leading male Errol Flynn as “Jeb” Stuart (another famous American general). And between them, in that eternal Hollywood love triangle, stands Olivia de Havilland, the only leading actor to play a fictional character in this film.

Ronald Reagan as George Custer, Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn as J.E.B. "Jeb" Stuart in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

There are more than just a few parallels between this film and The Birth of a Nation from 25 years earlier. In terms of chronology, Santa Fe Trail describes the events leading up to those depicted in the older film. Both films also feature many historical persons, casting them in a sympathetic light or lack thereof depending on what fits the film’s message. And even that message is partly the same: that the African Americans and their supporters were the ones responsible for the American Civil War, even though Santa Fe Trail is not quite so open and outspoken about it, trying to hide its racism behind double meanings and generalisations.

So this film should not be seen as a history lesson. In terms of historical accuracy, it is standard Hollywood nationalistic nonsense, or worse, and when that nationalistic nonsense is delivered with an Australian accent, it tends to become a bit silly at times. Indeed, Flynn is not making his best role here, though his natural charm shines through as always.

But of course, this movie has a number of good sides, or there would be no reason to report it here. There are many things to recommend it. Lighting and camerawork show excellent craftsmanship, and the actors are good overall. And better than all the rest put together is an absolutely brilliant Raymond Massey as John Brown. Massey delivers every line with just the perfect touch of madness.

This film is best enjoyed if you can see past its shortcomings and enjoy it as a typical period piece with some very interesting actors at the height of their careers.

Raymond Massey as John Brown in Santa Fe Trail (1940)

Santa Fe Trail
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 49 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Erroll Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ronald Reagan, Raymond Massey
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

We Swedes are mainly envious of Norwegians for two reasons. One is their oil. The other is the obvious pride and joy that they show every May 17th, their National Day.

The reason, of course, why they celebrate with so much more abandon than we will when our turn comes in a couple of weeks, is that they had to fight for their freedom. Sweden has been more or less independent for the past 1000 years or so, and we have not even been at war since 1814, when we forced Norway into the so-called union between the two countries. The Norwegians only gained independence from Sweden in 1905.

And even then, their troubles were not over. In April 1940, Germany attacked with no previous provocation. After a short campaign, Norway had to surrender after two months and remained occupied until the end of the war in 1945.

One of the nice things about the Internet Archive is that it is not restricted to American films. Thus, while the World War II propaganda has a large predominance of American and Allied material, you can also find a good share of the Nazi perspective. One such German propaganda film is Kampf um Norwegen, which tells the German story of the campaign against Norway. The film has an interesting history. For some reason, it was never released in Germany and was believed lost until a copy turned up at an Internet auction in 2005.

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

As a historical document, the film is of course as questionable as any war-time propaganda. The events shown are basically truthful, as far as I can tell with my limited knowledge about the invasion, but everything is told from the German point of view and giving German reasons for the events.

Even so, the film is still very significant today, for at least two reasons. One is that it contains unique photography from the war, much of it dramatic. The other is that it may serve to broaden our perspective not so much of the conflict in question but of propaganda in general. Even though this film is light when compared with other war-time propaganda, I nevertheless believe that it can teach us a number of valuable lessons.

The film is entirely in German and there are no subtitles. But even if you do not understand German, it should be relatively easy to understand what is going on by looking at the pictures. The documentary film sequences are also interrupted by excellent map animations showing troop movements, and which will facilitate comprehension a good deal.

It is possible that this film is best enjoyed when seen together with its American counterpart, Divide and Conquer, Part I (1943), which is actually worse in terms of propagandistic content.

Kampf um Norwegen (1940)

Kampf um Norwegen
Download link
Year: 1940
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Directors: Martin Rikli, Werner Buhre
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×512)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)