Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria
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Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)

Jungle Book (1942)

It is interesting how inspiration can sometimes go in circles – or at least in spirals. Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, published in 1894, lent inspiration to Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote the first Tarzan book in 1912. Burroughs has said that Kipling was among his inspirational sources, and Kipling later admitted that Burroughs was a “genius among genii” of imitators (though, strictly speaking, Tarzan is more than just a Mowgli imitation). The Tarzan character was later changed, in both subtle and not so subtle ways, for the silver screen, and among those changes was the iconic vine swinging, allegedly invented by Frank Merrill and popularized by Johnny Weissmuller. Now, here comes the real inspirational loop, for when Jungle Book, one of the most classic of the film adaptations, was made in 1942, we suddenly see Mowgli swinging the vines from tree to tree, just like the Tarzan that was originally inspired by the book Mowgli.

(NB. Tarzan of the books finally did swing the vines, but not until 1948, in the final Tarzan book published during Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lifetime, Tarzan and the Foreign Legion.)

Patricia O'Rourke and Sabu in Zoltan Korda's Jungle Book (1942)

With or without vine swinging, Jungle Book is really a spectacular piece of film, though truth be told, it is not a very faithful adaptation of the literary original. It begins with a neat framing sequence, where an old storyteller somewhere in the Indian countryside tells the story of Mowgli. Then we see many scenes of nature, both beautiful and powerful. And at last, the story comes to Mowgli himself and his struggle for finding his place, among the jungle animals, but even more so among the humans. There is naturally also a romantic interest in the form of a young girl.

Mowgli was played by the actor simply named Sabu, who at this time was at the height of his career. Sabu had a very special screen personality, one that mesmerized and captivated the audience. But after he had served as a tailgunner in World War II, his career never quite got back on its feet, and this is therefore one of his rather few films as leading actor. If you are unfamiliar with Sabu, watching him is by itself worth the price of admission.

This film is best enjoyed because it combines the best of Hollywood and British film of the time. From the British, it has the attention to detail, the flowing dialogue, and that little something which I cannot quite put my finger on. From Hollywood, it has the lavish sets and the budget to truly make it rise above the average.

Sabu as Mowgli among the elephants in Zoltan Korda's Jungle Book (1942)

Jungle Book
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Year: 1942
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Director: Zoltán Korda
Stars: Sabu
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

The Lost World (1925)

Those of you who follow this blog may have (correctly) come to the conclusion that I like silent film. That is not only because many silents have considerable artistic merits, but also because they provide exciting insights into the history of cinema.

Take The Lost World, for example. It was a movie that truly rocked the young medium, and the repercussions of which you can still feel in the cinematic world today. What the big-budget, special effects-heavy adventure movie would have been without it we shall never know. Not the same, for sure.

Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Lloyed Hughes, Wallace Beery and Arthur Hoyt in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name, and tells the story of an expedition that set out to explore a hidden plateau where a scientist was recently reported to have found living dinosaurs. The scientist’s daughter joins the expedition, as does Professor Challenger; his first appearance in both written and cinematic form.

The Lost World is in many ways the archetypal exploration movie. I guess there may have been other similar films before it, but probably none were as influential as this one. The plot introduces us to a team of explorers, including a leader, a reporter, an expert and a woman. Through hardships and adventures they travel to a location that is distant, exotic and hard to find. Many of the plot elements and character archetypes in this film reappear in later films, such as Flight to Mars (1951).

This film is best enjoyed for the special effects, spectacular for their time. Even though the stop motion animation used was considerably improved by later filmmakers, one must really admire the craft and imagination that breathe life into the huge dinosaurs of the lost world.

Triceratops in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Harry O. Hoyt
Stars: Wallace Beery
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (580 M)

Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

There are quite a few old serials at the Internet Archive. The serial was a common cinematic genre from the 1910s through the 1950s. There were many different subgenres (western being, perhaps, the most common), but nearly all were focused on light entertainment with action and adventure a-plenty. Manhunt of Mystery Island (chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15) was no exception in this regard, although it was in some respects of higher quality than most.

Richard Bailey and Linda Stirling in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

The plot, in typical serial style, is basically simple, yet in some ways a bit silly. The scientist William Forrest has been captured by the evil Captain Mephisto, who wants to use Forrest’s invention for world domination. Captain Mephisto, a long-dead pirate, is in reality one of the heirs of Mystery Island, who by molecular transformation can change between his two roles. Fortunately, Forrest manages to get word to the mainland. His daughter, Claire, along with the crime-fighter Lance Reardon, travel to Mystey Island to find Forrest and thwart Mephisto. But Mephisto turns out to have both cunning and resources to set up his defences. And who is he really?

Modern Hollywood action aesthetics may owe a lot to the heritage from the serials, but in one respect at least, modern films are very different. The fight sequences are governed by a completely different set of standards. Today, we often see a lot of close-ups, fast cuts and techniques inspired by tae-kwon-do or karate. The serials apparently took their inspiration from boxing, street brawling and jujitsu, and additionally used long, carefully choreographed shots. Well, at least the more lavish serials, such as this one, had well-made choreography. In some serials, the fights mostly look sloppy, but here they are fascinating and well worth watching, even though they may become a bit corny at times.

Another interesting aspect of this particular serial is the female sidekick, Claire Forrest (Linda Stirling). Far from the weak females of some earlier (e.g. Adventures of Captain Marvel) or later (e.g. Radar Men from the Moon) serials, Miss Forrest is a strong and self reliant character, who can fly a plane and fire a revolver, and even wrestle or kick a bit when the need arises. In fact, she saves the day on a number of occasions. Sure she faints or gets kidnapped every once in a while, but our male hero tends to pass out about as often as she does. She reminds me of the female “Zorro” in Zorro’s Black Whip from a year earlier. This is hardly coincidental, seeing as it is the same actress and the same co-director (Spencer Gordon Bennet). But it may also be a sign of the times that strong female characters rose up briefly. Women had taken a stronger position in society due to the war, which required many men to go overseas with the armed forces. However, there are many contrary examples of weak female leads from about the same time, and in any event the trend did not last very long. As far as I know, you have to go back to the early 1930s to find similar strong female characters in serials, and the serial as an artistic form was long since dead when the female hero made a real comeback in Hollywood.

One of the few really annoying things about the serials from the 1940s and 1950s is that there is basically no plot development. The first episode (usually about ten or fifteen minutes longer than the others) sets the stage and intruduces the characters, but thereafter things mostly follow the same pattern. Either the hero or the villain will make a move toward achieving his ends. Then the opponent will find a way to thwart him. The ensuing fight or chase will end with the mandatory cliffhanger, and when we have found out in the next episode how the hero rescued himself, everything is back to normal. I have sometimes compared it with a chess game, but in reality it is more like a tennis match without points, and especially with a 15-parter the whole thing becomes more like a transportation toward the inevitable final showdown in the last episode.

This serial is best enjoyed as one of the best of Hollywood’s soundie serials. The tempo is high, the chases and fights are entertaining, even the actors are pretty decent. But if you happen to skip an episode or two, you do not risk to miss very much of essence.

Linda Stirling, Richard Bailey and Kenne Duncan in Manhunt of Mystery Island (1945)

Manhunt of Mystery Island
Download links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15
Year: 1945
Running time: 3 h 39 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Yakima Canutt, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Richard Bailey, Linda Stirling
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (384×288)
Sound quality: Good

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Those who are used to Hitchcock’s Hollywood productions will find a great many surprises among the genres of his earlier films made in England. But although very different from his “classic” suspense thrillers, these films should not be dismissed off-hand. Many show excellent qualities and you can see Hitchcock perfecting his skills. The last film of any kind that Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood was the historical thriller Jamaica Inn.

Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

The film centers around Jamaica Inn on the coast of Cornwall (a real place, apparently still in business) which is the base of operation for a band of cutthroats and plunderers, who lure ships to run aground on the rocky shores. To this accursed and feared place, young Mary (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to visit her aunt, who is married to the innkeeper. The plot thickens as one of the gang members (Robert Newton) is suspected of taking loot for himself. From there on it is a sometimes tight, sometimes slightly contrived plot of chases, changing loyalties and secret identities.

It appears that neither Hitchock himself nor Daphne du Maurier (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) liked the finished film. Certainly, it does have a number of shortcomings, but it is nevertheless worth watching. It has a dark and eerie tone which, coupled with some unexpected comic relief, gives the film a unique creepy feeling. Jamaica Inn may not be among Hitchcock’s greatest films, but regardless of what people say, it is far from one of his worst.

This film is best enjoyed as part of Hitchcock’s legacy, but another good reason is Charles Laughton who plays the bad guy. I have seen few films with Laughton, but I find that he is always excellent. Even though Maureen O’Hara (also good) may nominally be the protagonist, Laughton tends to take over and dominate the picture, all for the good. Other films with him at the Internet Archive include The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Captain Kidd (1945).

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica Inn
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

Captain Kidd (1945)

Last week, I wrote about how Douglas Fairbanks defined the entire pirate film genre with The Black Pirate (1926). Having said as much, all pirate films are naturally not made from the same template. Though a number of clichés can certainly be found in Captain Kidd, the film also contains a number of original elements.

Randolph Scott in Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd is nowhere near as lavish and epic as The Black Pirate, yet it is well worth watching on its own merits. The plot is a bit too intricate to be described in just a few sentences, but rest assured that you will find both romance and adventure a-plenty. It involves the greedy and scheming pirate William Kidd (Charles Laughton), the greatest menace of the seven seas, and Adam Mace (Randolph Scott), a man who is out for revenge.

Captain Kidd has often been criticised for being historically inaccurate. That may well be the case, but it is totally beside the point. The film does make use of a number of historical names, places and ships, but the entire plot is just a wonderful fantasy, and it should be watched as such.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s acting. Even though Randolph Scott may nominally be the film’s hero, Laughton is definitely the main character. I did not clock, but I am sure he gets more screen time, and he is absolutely magnificent in his role. There is also a very good John Carradine in a minor role.

Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Stars: Charles Laughton, John Carradine
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (720×576)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M)