St Martin’s Lane (1938)

I wonder if I would have ever discovered Charles Laughton if it had not been for the Internet Archive (search this blog for “Laughton” and you will find a number of his many great performances). Sure, I would have seen a couple of his classics, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and then I would have dismissed him as typecast. Typecast? Ha! Nothing could be more wrong.

Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane, also known as Sidewalks of London, is yet another example of Laughton’s versatility. Here he plays Charles, a “busker”, essentially a sort of street musician, making his living by playing for the people standing in line for the theatres along St Martin’s Lane in London. He discovers the young and talented Libby (Vivien Leigh) and not only makes her part of his act, but also gives her a place to stay.

Libby pays him back by saying good-bye at first opportunity for a break on the big stages, and as she goes on to ever greater fame, Charles sinks lower and lower into mediocrity and alcoholism.

Laughton and Leigh, and also Rex Harrison as Libby’s playboy sponsor, all make excellent performances, even though it is rumoured that Laughton and Leigh got on each others’ nerves during production.

This film is best enjoyed for the high-quality drama and acting. The story is good and captivating, but the ending is perhaps a little bit dissatisfying. Ah, well. This piece is still well worth watching.

Vivien Leigh in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Tim Whelan
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

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Körkarlen (1921)

If you have been reading my posts about Ingeborg Holm (1913), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918) and Klostret i Sendomir (1920), then you know that I, along with many others, consider Victor Sjöström to be one of the greatest directors of the 1910s and early 1920s. Perhaps the peak of his creative period came with Körkarlen, best known in English as The Phantom Carriage.

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen is a many-layered story about alcoholism, poverty, death and humiliation, but also about love, faith and atonement. It often balances on a thing edge between realism and sentimentality, and mostly manages to stay clear of any excesses in either direction.

The story is based on a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel prize winner), and closely follows the original. At the core of the story, we find the Salvation Army sister Edit. She has been trying to save David from his sinful life in alcholism, but David has no wish to repent. That is when Death’s coachman (who drives around to collect the souls of the dead) steps in, and when David appears to die after a drunken brawl on New Year’s Eve, the coachman takes David on a journey through time and space to make him see the wrongs of his life.

The score of this version must be characterized as ambient. It is very mood-setting, but sometimes it seems to miss the mood a bit. On the whole, it works well, but I am sure better scores exist.

This film is best enjoyed as a true classic and an excellent example of Swedish film making around 1920. If anyone sees parallels with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is no coincidence (compare Scrooge (1951)). Lagerlöf said herself that the story was inspired by Dickens, though this is far more than just a cheap imitation. Körkarlen deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits.

Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

D. W. Griffith seems a very peculiar character in retrospect. Already an experienced director, he went ahead in 1915 and created one of the greatest classics in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. Though a great financial success, it was justly criticized for racism and falsifying history. So the next year, he made Intolerance, allegedly in response to his critics of the former film. This was another majestic classic, but as for the response over the previous film, it falls flat.

So Griffith could have gone down in history as a racist film maker, but then in 1919, he made yet another of his greatest classics, Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl. Here we find a direct and unequivocal statement against racism and intolerance. Hard to tell what Griffith really thought on the subject; the films are his legacy and still deserve to be watched.

Richard Barthelness and Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms tells the story of poor Lucy, whose father is a brutish and alcoholic boxer. He beats her for any poor excuse and forces her to do all the menial tasks in the household. But then she meets a young Chinese. He is also lonesome and disheartened, and they find that they are soulmates, able to lift each other to happiness neither thought possible. Fortune cannot hold forever, of course, though I will not reveal the ending here.

Lilian Gish, one of Griffith’s favourite actors, plays Lucy. Gish is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest actresses of the silent era. Well, I am not entirely convinced, but she certainly makes a fine portrait in this particular film. In a time when overacting was the norm, Gish did it more than most. She had a pronounced flair for acting miserable, distressed or frightened, and in this film she has little reason to do anything else. In particular, there is a famous scene where she hides in a closet, while her raving father breaks down the door with an axe. This was the kind of scene where Gish absolutely excelled.

Artisitically, Griffith was perhaps at his peak here. He had a few great films ahead of him, but by the mid 1920s, it became steadily clearer that the man who once revolutionized film making had failed to stay ahead of the pack. Hence, you will find that in some ways the film has not aged well. Even so, its classic status cannot be denied.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for tragedy. This is not a feel-good movie.

Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
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Year: 1919
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (493 M)

A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born is a film which should not be good. But it is.

The theme seems to be a perfectly hopeless one. Country girl goes to Hollywood, hoping to be a star of the movies. She succeeds. End of story. I mean, anyone knows that it is practically impossible to break into stardom without contacts, so a film with some big star (Janet Gaynor) pretending to struggle just has to be ridiculous, right? Indeed, much of the film is melodramatic, sometimes bordering on the pathetic.

Adolphe Menjou and Janet Gaynor in A Star is Born (1937)

So this could have been a disaster, but it is saved by mainly three things. First, the acting and directing are excellent. Gaynor succeeds in making the country girl in the big town believable (though a bit of an accent in the beginning would not have hurt), but above all Fredric March is brilliant as the leading male. The supporting cast is also very good, not least Adolphe Menjou (above) as the fatherly producer.

The second reason is the script. Witty, elegant and nicely paced, there are few dull moments here. In a lovely meta gimmick, the film even begins by zooming in on the first page of its own script.

Third, and perhaps most important: Beneath the melodramatic surface lies some real drama. This is most obvious in March’s exquisite portrayal of an alcoholic who has just passed his peak and is going downhill without even realising it.

The film has been remade at least twice. The 1954 remake with Judy Garland is also said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are into 1930s Hollywood celebrities. There are many inside jokes and references to actors and directors.

Janet Gaynor with an Oscar and Fredric March at the Academy Awards in A Star is Born (1937)

A Star is Born
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 51 min
Director: William A. Wellman
Stars: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)