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
Download link
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
Download link
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
Download link
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)

The Black Pirate (1926)

Through the Internet Archive, you can follow Douglas Fairbanks’ career pretty well. From one of his earliest bit parts in The Martyrs of the Alamo (1915), through to his last leading role in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934), you can follow almost every important turn of his rich and interesting life in Hollywood. Pretty much in the middle, you will find The Black Pirate, often considered to be one of his greatest.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate has all the trademarks of Fairbanks’ romantic adventure epics of the 1920s. There are splendid costumes, magnificent sets, swashbuckling action, breathtaking acrobatics. There are also most of the clichés you would expect from any good pirate movie. Hidden treasure, mutiny, cannon fire, walking the plank. Basically the same kind of stuff you will find in the latest Pirates of the Caribbean, only Fairbanks did it first. And in some ways just as good. In fact, a few unique scenes have never (to my knowledge) been duplicated, such as the crew of seamen swimming underwater. Marvellous stuff!

The film, of course, was not created out of a vacuum. It has been said that Fairbanks was mainly inspired by Howard Pyle’s Book of Pirates (1903; also available at the Internet Archive).

The Black Pirate was one of the first films to be entirely shot in colour, albeit a limited two-colour process. Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is black and white with some tinting. Also, the IA copy is cursed with a very bad score, consisting of random classical music.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of the pirate genre. The Black Pirate stands at the portal of everything that followed, and it is still good enough to compete with the best. If you care to spend the money, the DVD with restored colour is much preferable, but the IA copy is nevertheless enjoyable.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate (1926)

The Black Pirate
Download link
Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Albert Parker
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor; random classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

This week, the new Tarzan film The Legend of Tarzan is scheduled for its worldwide premiere. While a new Tarzan film used to be a common occurrence (in the 1930s and 1940s there was usually a new one every year), they have not exactly been as common lately. In fact, the latest live action Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Lost City, a pretty bad flick from 1998.

The Internet Archive has a little over half a dozen Tarzan films and serials, but truth be told, most are not good. One of the better is the serial Tarzan the Tiger (episodes 1–7 and 8–15).

Frank Merrill in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger was made just as the silent era was swiftly marching towards its own grave. This serial is an example of a blend that was relatively common around this time. It is essentially silent, but it has a synchronized soundtrack, including some (pretty annoying) sound effects and also the first-ever recorded version of the Tarzan yell. It was, however, a far cry (pun intended) from the later Weissmuller version.

This was the last silent Tarzan, and it marked the end of the first period of Tarzan films also in another way. Starting with the first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Tarzan films had always been based, more or less faithfully, on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books. But with the first true Tarzan sound film, The Ape Man (1932), the stories were original ones, created directly for the movies. Also, the characters and their surroundings changed from the novels, introducing for example the ape Cheeta (who is not still alive, by the way; that is just a myth) and the famous tree house.

But Tarzan the Tiger was still very much rooted in the original Tarzan novels. It has been too long since I read the novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, upon which the serial is based, but my recollection is that the serial follows the original plot fairly well. The traitorous Arnold Werper is there, as is the slave trader Achmet Zek. And most importantly, the jewels of Opar, which everyone wants, and on which the amnesiac Tarzan is positively hung up. If nothing else, the serial is definitely made in the book’s spirit.

With that novel, Burroughs started experimenting with a new plot format, one which involves switching from one character’s point-of-view to another’s and with frequent cliff-hangers. I call this type of novel “the jungle romp”, since it has a number of characters running circles in a jungle, alone or in small groups. They are often completely lost, but in the end they miraculously find one another (and the treasure) in just the nick of time. It is plain that this is a formula which would easily lend itself to the serial style of story telling.

The Jewels of Opar was also Burroughs’ first novel where he used the amnesia cliché. Many critics have said that Burroughs overused amnesia in his plots: it was used several times in the Tarzan series of novels, for example. But in this first, Burroughs was still experimenting, and it actually helps to lift the story and make it more interesting.

Frank Merrill, like so many other screen Tarzans, had a background as an elite athlete. He had been a nationally top-ranking gymnast, and it shows. In terms of physical appearance and ability, he made a splendid ape man. His acting talent was somewhat less splendid, but his over-acting is actually unintentionally funny and helps to raise my level of enjoyment another notch.

The version found at the Internet Archive is, unfortunately, very dark and generally of poor quality. I am not sure if restored versions are available on dvd, but all the versions I have seen on the Internet are like this one, or worse.

This serial is best enjoyed for an abundance of action and sudden plot twists, just like any good serial. On the other hand, one should not expect too much of the acting or scenography.

Frank Merrill and Natalie Kingston as Tarzan and Jane in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger
Download links: 1–7 | 8–15
Year: 1929
Running time: 4 h 28 min
Director: Henry MacRae
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX

The Black Book (1949)

This week’s film is best known as Reign of Terror, and it is so listed at the Internet Archive. However, it was also widely distributed as The Black Book, and it is that title which is used on the actual copy at the archive.

Robert Cummings in The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The plot of this film is fairly intricate; perhaps at times too much so, as rather too many things are left unexplained or unresolved. D’Aubigny is sent to Paris in order to thwart Robespierre, who is executing his political enemies one by one, as well as some friends, for whom he no longer has any use. Robespierre plans to make himself dictator, but he has lost his Black Book, with the details of those he wishes to execute. It must be found, or all is lost. He gives the mission to judge Duval, but Duval has been killed by D’Aubigny, who now impersonates him. Does this seem a bit overworked? It is only the beginning, and simplified, at that.

The actors are all good, and some are excellent. My personal favourite is Arnold Moss as chief of Robespierre’s secret police.

Made shortly after World War II, I cannot entirely escape the suspicion that the film may have been partly a political comment on Hitler and Mussolini. The European setting and Robespierre’s greed for power seem to suggest as much.

The Black Book was made at the height of the Film Noir movement. It uses much of the typical lighting and camerawork of Noir, and the protagonist is also in many ways your typical cynical and streetwise guy. The historical setting, however, makes this a sort of genre blend, and it is not always classified as a true Noir.

This film is best enjoyed as long as one does not try to analyse too much. The story twists along at a good pace and excitement is always kept up. Just sit back and allow yourself to get carried away.

The Black Book / Reign of Terror (1949)

The Black Book
Download link
Year: 1949
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Anthony Mann
Stars: Robert Cummings
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.1 G)