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
Download link
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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The Flying Deuces (1939)

Before watching the film The Flying Deuces, I had no idea what the word “deuce” meant (except for the tennis term). I have now informed myself, and I know that it means “pair” or “two of a kind” or something of the sort. I still do not understand why the word “deuces” is in plural, but all the same I feel much better now.

Stan Laurel, Jean Parker and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces, plural or not, is mostly interesting because it is part of the Laurel and Hardy legacy. This famous pair of comedians (or deuces, maybe) hardly need any introduction, so I will just say that their presence in the Internet Archive is considerably smaller than for some of their contemporaries, such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. That is the main reason why it has taken until now for me to review one of their films, but also because those few feature films that can be found in the archive do not appear to be among their best.

The Flying Deuces is perhaps not their best either, but there are some really good scenes including an absolute classic just at the end. Some of the humour, however, feels very out-dated, especially some very long-winded chase scenes during the last fifteen minutes. But all in all, the film is a good introduction to Laurel and Hardy, and if you already like them, you will not want to miss this chance to see them do their usual routine in some pretty unique situations.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful timing and acting by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It is not without reason that these two have gone down as one of the best pairs of comedians in the history of cinema.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (528 M)

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)

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

Beat the Devil (1953)

Humphrey Bogart, while perhaps best remembered for romantic dramas like Casablanca (1942) or film noirs like The Maltese Falcon (1941), participated in a wide range of genres during his long career. One of his many lesser-known but excellent performances is in the thriller comedy Beat the Devil.

Marco Tulli, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Morley, Ivor Barnard and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

While perhaps not Bogart’s typical kind of movie, the character he plays in Beat the Devil retains many of the traits from his more famous roles. He is cool, callous, cynical and clever, yet somehow endearing. He is Billy Dannreuther, an American in Italy who has lost all his money and sees the opportunity to make more by joining four crooks in some shady land deals. They all travel by boat, hoping to get to British East Africa, but Destiny wills otherwise.

Gina Lollobrigida (who is still alive as I write this) plays Billy’s wife Maria in a marriage that appears to have very little love left in it. On board the ship to Africa, they meet with the Chelms, an English couple (Edward Underdown and Jennifer Jones). Billy and Maria each start to flirt with Mrs. and Mr. Chelms, respectively, which in turn leads to entaglements.

But in spite of all the other exciting and colourful characters, perhaps the most interesting of the lot is the band of four criminals played by two well-known and experienced actors (Robert Morley and Peter Lorre) and two that never achieved stardom (yet also very good). These four throughout most of the film appear as a single unit, almost as one character with four faces. The directing of their appearances is absolutely brilliant.

It has been said that Bogart himself did not particularly like this movie. Well, I like it, and I warmly recommend it to anyone who takes a fancy in the good old black-and-white classics.

This film is best enjoyed for its fantastic actors and characters, and their wonderful dialogue. The plot (to the extent that there is one) plays a very minor part in this movie.

Marco Tulli, Jennifer Jones, Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida in Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil
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Year: 1953
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Directors: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (856 M)

Won in the Clouds (1928)

Aviation film has a long history. One of the first films to use an aeroplane as an integrated part of the story was Dash Through the Clouds (1912), a trivial comedy which today is only worth remembering for the amazing Wright aeroplane which is its real main character. A long range of films, today mostly forgotten, followed during the rest of the silent era.

Almost the only one of the silent aviation films that is still remembered today is Wings (1927), but that classic (the first to win the Academy Award for best picture) is not available at the Internet Archive. Fortunately, there is another typical (though considerably less lavish) representative of the genre in the form of Won in the Clouds.

Al Wilson and his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in Won in the Clouds (1928)

I have previously stated that the late 1920s was a period of very high film-making standards. But of course, not every film can be innovative and ground-breaking. Won in the Clouds is not one of those films that will leave you deeply touched and perhaps even with a changed perspective on some aspect of life, such as Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927) or La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Fortunately, it has other qualities. Won in the Clouds is a good example of light entertainment of the kind that Hollywood has always done best. The story is a bit silly, but not as silly as many other films, both new and old. The acting is typical of the silent era. But most importantly, some of the stunts made in this film are absolutely spectactular. Not that they cannot be reproduced and improved upon with modern film-making techniques. It is just that when you see these stunts, you know that it has to be the real thing. There is little opportunity for trick filming, and no room for extreme safety measures. And there are definitely no stunt men.

The story is a fast-moving one involving diamonds, a crooked mine manager, cars, jungle animals, sick natives, romance, and, of course, aeroplanes. Unless you place too high demands on credibility, this is good entertainment.

With its African setting, Won in the Clouds definitely does contain some racial stereotyping. Racism can never be excused by the passage of time, but racism in popular culture is one source that can help us analyze the time and the culture that it mirrors. As such, it can perhaps also help us understand our own time and help avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful aeroplanes and neat stunts.

Grace James and Percy Hogan in Won in the Clouds (1928)

Won in the Clouds
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 52 min
Director: Bruce M Mitchell
Stars: Al Wilson
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (2.0 G)

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)