49th Parallel (1941)

One of the first films made by the famous British team of writers/producers/directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (jointly known as “The Archers”) was the World War II propaganda 49th Parallel.

Finlay Currie, Laurence Olivier and Eric Portman in 49th Parallel (1941)

The film begins with a German submarine that tries to hide in Hudson Bay after being hunted by the Canadian navy. The submarine is eventually caught up with and sunk, but a small group of survivors start to make their long way across the enormous nation of Canada, trying somehow to find a way to neutral or allied territory.

The film has an interesting structure. It is basically a series of short stories, strung together by the evil protagonist in the shape of Leutnant Hirth. Hirth is well played (though not exactly delicately) by Eric Portman. As he and his small group of Germans go from one place to the next, they also move from story to story. And there is where we meet the true heroes, played by Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, and others. They are true-blooded Canadians, who stand up for their country, against oppression and tyranny.

49th Parallel in some ways forms an interesting counterweight to One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, Powell’s and Pressburger’s joint project from the following year. Both films share the theme of a crew that has lost their vessel and now have to make their way through enemy territory. The two stories share many similarities, but through the filter of propaganda they still emerge as completely different films. They are also very good, so I can only recommend that you download and watch both.

This film is best enjoyed for its powerful and well played drama. Even though Powell and Pressburger were yet to develop their true mastership in film making, we can already see many of the techniques that were to be used to make some of the best films in the history of cinema. 49th Parallel may not be quite up to that standard, but it is still excellent.

Peter Moore and Leslie Howard in 49th Parallel (1941)

49th Parallel
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 2 h 2 min
Director: Michael Powell
Stars: Laurence Olivier, Raymond Massey, Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (664×502, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

Ich klage an (1941)

Over 70,000 people were killed as a direct result of Hitler’s Aktion T4 in the early stages of World War II. Some were jews, but many more were mentally or physically handicapped children and adults that, so Hitler said, would have meant an unnecessary cost for the “Vaterland” in times of war. As terrible as it is to think about all that, there was one arguably good thing to come out of that terror, namely the propaganda film Ich klage an, financed and produced to gain popular support for governmental use of so-called euthanasia (mercy killings).

Paul Hartmann and Heidemarie Hatheyer in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Thomas Heyt is a medical doctor with a good career and a loving wife. But his life is turned upside down when his wife Hanna becomes the victim of severe, painful and potentially lethal mutiple sclerosis. Heyt seeks in vain for a cure, but Hanna’s condition becomes ever worse. She asks him to take her life before her pain becomes unbearable, which he eventually does. This, however, is not the end of the film, because Heyt thereafter has to stand trial for his actions, accused of murdering his wife.

When I first saw the film, I had no idea about its connection with Aktion T4. Nevertheless, I expected a propaganda film, but I was surprised to see how mild the propaganda is. So mild, in fact, that if it were not for its connections with Nazism, it could very well still be used to argue for voluntary euthanasia (and sometimes is, for that matter). The film does not in any way bring forth the subject of involuntary euthanasia that was actually the foremost purpose of Aktion T4, but it stays ethically within what several democratic countries legally allow today, apparently including the state of Oregon.

In an ironic twist of fate, the film came too late to save the project that had spawned it. In what has been described as the only successful popular protest against Hitler, public opinion was so strongly against the project that it actually had to be cancelled in 1941, only five days before Ich klage an premiered, heavily censored due to the criticism. (I am not sure whether the copy at the Internet Archive is the original or censored.) But even though Aktion T4 had been officially cancelled, Euthanasia according to the guidelines adopted by the project continued in many places throughout the war, killing tens of thousands more.

The available copy of this film has a unique feature, one that I have never seen before. The initial frames of the video file contain a slideshow with very interesting background information about Aktion T4 and about the film itself. If you have a player that can freeze the film on the first frame, and then step frame by frame, I can highly recommend these interesting slides, either before or after watching the film itself. The slides are pro-euthanasia, as is the film itself, but regardless of your own opinion on the subject, they provide a good historical background.

This film is best enjoyed in one of two very different ways. It can either be seen from a historical perspective, remembering that it comes from the same ideas and ideals that led up to the holocaust. Or it can be seen purely as a work of art: a film which, though controversial, is rich with excellent dramaturgy and acting. Indeed, these two perspectives may not be possible to disassociate entirely; they certainly complement one another and provide the watching with further depths.

Paul Hartmann in pro-euthanasia film Ich klage an / I Accuse (1941)

Ich klage an
Download link
Year: 1941
Language: German (English subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: Wolfgang Liebeneiner
Stars: Paul Hartmann
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (661 M)

Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

Superman (1941)

The story goes something like this: Superman, who had debuted a few years earlier published by National Allied Publications (later DC Comics), had become a major success, and the publisher was now eager to create an animated series with the character. They approached the Fleischer brothers, who headed one of the most successful animation studios at the time. The Fleischers, however, were not interested in doing action animation (they had mostly done comedy, such as Betty Boop and Popeye). But instead of declining the offer, they gave a ridiculous bid to make the series for $100,000 per episode. Even though this was negotiated down to half, they could not decline such a lavish offer, and so the Superman animated series was born.

Superman in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

A pilot and eight subsequent episodes were produced by Fleischer Studios. Then Fleischer was reorganised as Famous Studios, who went on to produce eight more, for a total of seventeen. The Fleischer episodes are generally better and focuses more on science fiction, whereas those from famous contain much more war propaganda. All are worth seeing, though.

The series is the origin of many of the iconic characteristics of Superman. For example, it features the first ever costume change in a phone booth (along with many other inventive changes of costume); also, this is where Superman learned to fly (before, he could only jump very high); and even though it had been used before, I am guessing that this series is the reason why the “It’s a bird … (etc)” cry became famous.

It is not entirely coincidental that this series started the same year as the Adventures of Captain Marvel serial. Even though the Superman series is not a serial, it is clearly inspired by the same serial tradition, and the two superheroes were fierce competitors in the comic stands at the time.

One Internet Archive user has combined all the episodes into one feature film version. I have not seen that version myself, so cannot say if the image quality and resolution are good enough.

If you prefer to watch the episodes one at a time, I have collected links for the best version available for each:

  1. Superman
  2. The Mechanical Monsters
  3. Billion Dollar Limited
  4. The Arctic Giant
  5. The Bulleteers
  6. The Magnetic Telescope
  7. Electric Earthquake
  8. Volcano
  9. Terror on the Midway
  10. Japoteurs
  11. Showdown
  12. Eleventh Hour
  13. Destruction, Inc.
  14. The Mummy Strikes
  15. Jungle Drums
  16. The Underground World
  17. Secret Agent

This series is best enjoyed for its playfulness and its splendid, mood-setting images. It is true that, even in spite of the enormous budget, the animation is sometimes short of perfection and the stories are far from logical. Yet, every episode of Superman is packed with fun and action.

Superman and Lois Lane in the Fleischer cartoon series (1941)

Superman
Download link (complete series)
Year: 1941 – 1943
Running time: 2 h 0 min (complete series)
Directors: Dave Fleischer, Izzy Sparber, Seymour Kneitel
Stars: Bud Collyer, Joan Alexander
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium
Sound quality: Acceptable to good

Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

It is not so very many years ago that a new big-buget super-hero movie was a very special occurrence. Something to look forward to and be excited about. These days, it seems that a new one is released just about every other month or so, and I am starting to lose count of the number of X-Men movies. The latest super-hero flick is Man of Steel, just in time for Superman’s 75th birthday.

I am not really sure what all this says about our society. Why do we have this enormous urge, all of a sudden, to identify with flying men and women in tights? (Or body armour, as the case may be?) Or is it just that the new technology makes it possible to create believable-looking superpowers on screen? Well, maybe. But I have a feeling that it is also connected with the strong individualism that is so important in our society.

However, this is not the first period in history that super-heroes have been popular on film. Back in the 1940s, there were a number of movie serials based on popular super-hero characters, including Superman. (Some time I will tell you more about movie serials and their impact on popular culture, but for now let’s focus on the super-heroes.)

Tom Tyler in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

The one that started this wave of super-heroes was the twelve-part Adventures of Captain Marvel. It has often been praised as the best movie serial ever produced, and that may very well be correct (at least as long as we stick to soundie serials). The budget and production values were definitely higher than perhaps any other serial around that time, and the script was also uncommonly good. The serial, in fact, made Captain Marvel so popular that for a time it outsold Superman in the comic book racks.

The basic story is not much more complicated than other contemporary serials. A scientific expedition discovers an ancient scorpion statuette and a number of lenses that, when properly combined, produce a fearsome weapon. The scientists decide to divide the lenses between them, so that no one person may hold so much power, but one of them wants it all for himself and starts plotting against the others.

Meanwhile, Billy Batson, the expedition’s radio operator, stumbles upon an ancient man, Shazam, who gives him the power to become Captain Marvel whenever he utters this word “Shazam”. Along with the powers comes the task to make sure that the lenses do not fall into evil hands.

Adventures of Captain Marvel, of course, is not nearly as powerful and polished as Man of Steel. But it has a charm and playfulness that all the new movies lack, and the special effects, though relatively simple and repetitive, are well executed and perfectly adequate. If you are going to watch just one post-1930 serial, then this is the one.

This film is best enjoyed one episode a day, or less. More than that will quickly cause Billy Batson over-dose.

Frank Coghland Jr. in Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941)

Adventures of Captain Marvel
Download link
Year: 1941
Running time: 3 h 36 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: Tom Tyler, Frank Coghlan Jr.
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (630×480, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable