The Battle of China (1944)

In Frank Capra’s classic Why We Fight series, where he tried to explain to the American public why it is important to participate in World War II, the turn has now come to The Battle of China.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

Actually, there never was a battle of China as such. There were a great many battles fought in and around Chinese territory during as well as before World War II. And, unlike The Battle of Britain (which was also not a “battle” in the traditional sense), the term “The Battle of China” has not stuck in people’s conscience.

Ok, so the title is a misnomer. Big deal. The film is brilliantly produced, and while it does not exactly present any right out lies (that I can detect, anyway), it bends and omits facts to suit its purposes. The Chinese people in general and Chiang Kai-shek in particular are glorified to the heights of heaven. They are brave, strong and hard-working. They are a worthy ally to the American people.

Like other parts in the series, and like many other American propaganda films from the war, it does not shy away from presenting some of the cruelties of war, such as wounded soldiers, or even dead children. That may seem surprising, but was probably done because it would presumably strengthen the American people’s will to fight.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the other parts in the series, or if you want to watch an episode to see what it is all about. I know that many hold it as their favourite of the entire series, and I am not going to say that they are all wrong.

Frank Capra's The Battle of China (1944)

The Battle of China
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.9 G)

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The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Second World War saw on both sides of the conflict a considerable rise in the quality of its cinematic propaganda material. One of the driving individuals behind the American material was William Wyler, who in 1944 helped direct and produce both The Memphis Belle, about a B-17 Flying Fortress in action over Germany, and The Fighting Lady.

Curtiss SB2C Helldiver over USS Yorktown aircraft carrier during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady tells the story of an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. The ship is unnamed in the film, but most of the scenes were filmed on board the USS Yorktown. The film stresses the difference between the boredom of everyday routine, and the dangerous bursts of action during a battle. An effective and dramatic contrast is thereby reached, which together with authentic combat footage helps to make this one of the better American documentary/propaganda productions from the war years.

Typical of Wyler’s films, there is no attempt to hide the losses of human lives caused by the war. On the contrary, the US casualties are held up as tragic but also heroic. No doubt, this helped to strengthen home front morale, as long as the audience were also told that the terrible cost was paid back in full to the enemy.

If you like this sort of film, you may also want to take a look at Wyler’s Thunderbolt (1947), about the P-47 Thunderbolt and the action it saw during the campaign in Italy.

This film is best enjoyed for a better understanding of one of mankind’s most terrible conflicts ever fought, not forgetting that it is in many ways propaganda and not foremost a historical document.

Aircraft landing on carrier deck during World War II in The Fighting Lady (1944)

The Fighting Lady
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: Edward Steichen, William Wyler
Stars: Robert Taylor (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.8 G)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The border between fiction and reality is often a very thin one. Take the World War II film The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress for example. It is often labeled as a documentary, yet in many aspects, it is little more documentary than the almost entirely fictional Memphis Belle (1990), which it helped to inspire.

Captain Robert K. Morgan and Captain James A. Verinis before their B-17F Flying Fortress in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary, sure, but like any good documentary, it was made with a certain purpose. That purpose was home front propaganda (the plane and crew were used to sell war bonds after they returned to America). In order to achieve that propaganda, the important thing is the drama and authenticity. Actual facts will have to take a back seat, unless they can help to raise abovementioned drama and authenticity.

Certainly, the film does contain many documentary elements: much of it was indeed shot during live combat missions over enemy territory, and you can see that the crew members are real humans, not actors, in the ways that they react to the cameras. But it does not portray the plane’s final mission, as stated. The film was shot during a number of different missions, some of them made with other aircraft than the Memphis Belle. One of the cinematographers is said to have been killed during the filming when the bomber he was on board was shot down over France.

Another example of how the film skillfully mixes real and fictional elements is that all sound, including the crew members’ on-board dialogue, was recorded and added during post production. Some people find it fascinating that they show wounded and dead crew members (of other aircraft) in a propaganda film, but this was common during the period. That way, the courage of the fighting man is shown to be even greater, because the audience is made to realize that the hazards of combat flying are very real.

Perhaps I make it sound like I disapprove of all the short-cuts that directory William Wyler and his crew have taken in the production of this film. That would be far from the truth. The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a great film, captivating and inspiring, not in spite of the fictional elements, but perhaps moreso because of them. Without the fiction, the story would be bland and boring.

This film is best enjoyed for its large amount of actual combat footage and for its considerable story-telling qualities. For the historical facts, you need to go elsewhere, though as a documentary of a combat crew’s situation on board a B-17, the film does have many fine qualities.

B-17 Flying Fortress formation in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress
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Year: 1944
Running time: 43 min
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Eugene Kern (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)

The movie serials of the 1930s through 1950s are very interesting. The plots tend to be formulaic, the acting is usually terrible, and the characters and situations reek of cliché. Yet they can be very entertaining, as long as you do not expect a terrible lot of originality. They are also interesting because of their role in shaping modern popular culture.

Among the clichés are heavily cemented gender roles. The earlier serials of the silent era, as well as some from the early 1930s, often contain strong female characters. Sometimes, the entire plot centered around a female heroine, such as in The Hazards of Helen, several episodes of which are available at the Internet Archive. (I may come back to that serial in the future.)

Linda Stirling in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

But by 1944, Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling as a female “Zorro” (though that name is never used in dialogue; she is known by the alias The Black Whip), was something truly unique. By that time, female roles in serials had been trivialized to love interests and kidnapping victims. Just what caused the degradation of women is unkown to me, though I understand that with the coming of sound film and a more commercialized movie business, all of Hollywood became more of a men’s playground. Perhaps World War II paved the way for at least this one return to a strong leading woman, but the world was not yet ready for more.

Of course, The Black Whip could not be made too strong and independent. To begin with, she could not create the secret identity herself. She inherited it from her dead brother, and throughout the serial has to pretend to be a man in order to continue her brother’s fight for freedom in 19th century Idaho. And while she turns out to be an expert with the whip and revolver, she naturally cannot fight with her fists, so she needs a strong and able sidekick, government agent Vic Gordon, to act as her proxy in this respect. Oh, and of course he is also her love interest. There can be no 1940s serial without romance. (Vic Gordon was played by George J. Lewis, who was to play Zorro’s father in the Disney TV series over a decade later.)

This serial is best enjoyed for its unusual gender roles. It is a nice and somewhat original take on the Zorro theme, though I would personally hold that the previous serial Zorro Rides Again is better. Especially the ending, which is the weakest part of Zorro’s Black Whip. All things considered, though, this is good watching, and if you like serials it is highly recommended.

Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

Zorro’s Black Whip
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 2 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (636×476)
Sound quality: Acceptable

Captain America (1944)

The latest Captain America movie is currently making its rounds all over the world. I have not yet decided whether I will see it or not. If you are like me, a bit fed up with all the superhero hype, you may want to consider a classic movie serial instead. Such as the first screen appearance of Captain America from 1944.

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In this version of the character, Captain America’s alter ego, instead of being super-soldier Steve Rogers, is district attorney Grant Gardner. Exactly why Gardner sometimes hunts criminals in his suit and sometimes as a masked vigilante is not very clear. It seems to be no more than a matter of effect, since he does more or less the same things. But the most glaring difference between the Captain of the comics and the Captain of the serial is that this one has no shield!

Captain America is a fairly typical serial in the sense that it seems to have been made quickly. Little effort was wasted on the script, and the only acting they invested any real energy into is the spectacularly choreographed fights.

The story is simple: A crook who calls himself The Scarab wants more power and money, and he also wants revenge on some scientists (his motives are rather vague and seem to shift from one episode to the next). In a vaguely chess-like fashion (and very typical of such serials) each of the two opponents tries to out-guess the other’s intentions.

It is hard to imagine that anyone, including directors, actors and audience, took this short and slightly flabby hero seriously even when he first appeared in the theatres. To me, that is the reason why the Captain America serial still entertains. Because it is fun, camp and cult. Not as fancy or well-produced as the three years older Adventures of Captain Marvel (which was an obvious inspiration for this one), it still has its own sparkling energy and a good dose of humour.

This film is best enjoyed if you are not too peculiar about producers messing around with the details concerning your favourite superhero. Like any serial, Captain America should be viewed one episode a day, or less. There is too much repetition beween episodes — most of the cliffhangers involve the hero running or jumping from an exploding or falling building — to enjoy watching them in immediate succession.

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Captain America
Download link (first chapter and links to the other fourteen)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 52 min
Directors: Elmer Clifton, John English
Stars: Dick Purcell
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4

Nabonga (1944)

Last week, I wrote about Tarzan actor Buster Crabbe playing the second fiddle to Johnny Weissmuller. This week, it is Crabbe’s turn to play the lead, and his sidekick is a very interesting actor named Prince Modupe. If not for these two actors, the B-movie Nabonga would have been easily forgotten.

Prince Modupe and Buster Crabbe in Nabonga (1944)

Every once in a while, one of the Tarzan actors would turn out to actually have an acting talent, and would go on to make a decent acting career. Crabbe was one of these. Like Weissmuller, he was an Olympic swimming gold medalist. He made his Tarzan appearance in a 1933 serial, Tarzan the Fearless. The serial is now lost, but a feature film version remains. Interestingly it was produced simultaneously with Weissmuller’s first Tarzan for MGM, due to conflicting contracts (somewhat similar to the situation with James Bond in the 1960s). Crabbe followed a long tradition of Tarzans recruited for their physique rather than any actual acting talents. Indeed, his Tarzan role did not allow for much acting on Crabbe’s part.

This is where history loops back, because the story of Nabonga centers around the girl Doreen (played by Julie London) who is stranded in the jungle and raised by her father and a gorilla. It is clearly inspired by the story of Tarzan, and undoubtedly made to capitalize on the Tarzan films (still with Weissmuller in the lead at this time). So Crabbe comes back to the Tarzan theme, but from the opposite direction, so to speak, as the romantic interest of the female “Tarzan”.

Prince Modupe plays Crabbe’s sidekick Tobo. At a time when black people generally were subject to simplified stereotyping, Modupe managed to play roles where he actually appeared as a human, not as a stupid native or savage or servant. Born in French West Africa, Modupe’s village had very little contact with white people, yet young Modupe (“Prince” was originally his royal title, apparently) managed to get a European education and later worked in the US as a writer, composer, producer and actor. Beyond that, I was able to find very little information on the Internet, but this is one personality whom I would love to find out more about.

The nice chemistry between Crabbe and Modupe lifts this film from the turkey pit and actually makes it enjoyable, at least in part.

One more actor deserves to be mentioned, namely Ray Corrigan. The guy in the gorilla suit. The suit was apparently Corrigan’s private property, and some periods of his career he specialized in gorilla roles.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of National Gorilla Suit Day, which is on Friday, January 31. National Gorilla Suit Day was first conceived as a joke by Mad Magazine artist Don Martin, but is today celebrated every year by fans of Martin and fans of gorilla suits alike.

Buster Crabbe, Julie London and Ray Corrigan in the gorilla suit, in Nabonga (1944)

Nabonga
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×528)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)