The Merry Old Soul (1933)

We continue our Short Film Month with a look at an old Disney character. Well, almost. The film is The Merry Old Soul and the character is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

A dentist and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

Oswald, so the story goes, was Walt Disney’s first important character for his animated films. But Disney was at the time working for Universal Studios, who therefore owned the character. When Disney and the studio failed to come to terms about the future of Disney and Oswald, Disney decided to leave Universal and create his own character (of very similar appearance), Mickey Mouse. The rest is, as they say, history.

But Oswald lived on, and prospered for a time. There were lots of post-Disney films with the character, and The Merry Old Soul is only one of them. In this film, Oswald has gone to the dentist with a bad toothache, but during the visit he hears a message on the radio that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald runs away to rally all the comedians in Hollywood to try to find a cure. The assembled host includes a great many Hollywood celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and even Greta Garbo! The whole affair eventually spirals out of control into a pie-in-the-face orgy.

If you are curious about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as a Disney character, a few samples are available at the Internet Archive, for example the nice short Oh Teacher (1927).

In later years, the Disney company has actually purchased the rights to Oswald, who is therefore once again a Disney character. Oswald has since made some appearances in video games, films and comics.

This film is best enjoyed for lovers of old movie stars. If that is your bent, then you are wont to get your satisfaction here, and it is quite a lot of fun to try to figure out who everyone is. In addition, though the animation is a bit simple at times, many of the gags are really good.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Ed Wynn in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

The Merry Old Soul
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Year: 1933
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Walter Lantz, William Nolan
Stars: Bernice Hansen (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (91 M)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin (2005)

For the second time in the life of this blog, it is time for Short Film Month. The reason why I want to devote an entire month’s output only to short film is that I normally only write about feature-length films, or those that are slightly shorter, and yet there is so much short film on the Internet Archive that deserves to be highlighted. This time, I will begin with the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

Brick film is a genre which I must admit I know very little about. Yet, on a blog about the Internet Archive it deserves to be mentioned, because there is an entire collection of hundreds of these films. The basic idea is that you use Lego bricks for your sets, props and characters. Then you animate the film, one frame at a time. Most are made by dedicated amateurs, and most are short, typically from just a minute or two up to a quarter of an hour. The occasional exception, such as The Han Solo Affair, is completely professionally made, and more in the nature of a Lego commercial.

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is almost exactly an hour shorter than the version of Battleship Potemkin that I reviewed last week. The title, along with the tag-line “Star Wars meets Eisenstein meets Lego”, more or less says it all. The plot is condensed, but more or less intact. The film often balances on a fine edge between parody and homage.

If, like me, you think that The Star Destroyer Potjomkin is a good film and you want more of same, be aware that not all brick films are as good as this one. There are some shining examples of how this medium can be used to make good film, and then there are some really bad pieces, and most fall somewhere in between. I suggest you browse the above-mentioned collection and look carefully at the reviews. They will usually give you a pretty good idea of what you will experience, even though Internet Archive reviews in general tend to be a bit overrating.

This film is best enjoyed after you have already seen the original Battleship Potemkin, and the sooner after the better. The film’s greatest strength is its many elegant references to the original, especially in angles and image composition.

Lego in the brick film The Star Destroyer Potjomkin / The Star Destroyer Potemkin (2005)

The Star Destroyer Potjomkin
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Year: 2005
Running time: 11 min
Director: Karsten Köhler
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Quicktime (165 M)

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Imagine being kicked in the shin. Repeatedly, over and over again, for almost two hours. That is what it feels like to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special. I normally try to stay away from writing about bad movies on this blog (although on occasion I make an exception or two), but this is one you just need to experience because, you know, you have to see it to believe it.

Patty Maloney, Micke Morton, Paul Gale and Harrison Ford (Han Solo) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

Everyone knows that the first Star Wars film premiered in 1977. Less well known is that The Empire Strikes Back (1980) was actually not the second part of the saga. That honour goes to The Star Wars Holiday Special, which made its TV premiere for the Christmas season of 1978. Here, you will see Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels (C3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca) and James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader) reprising their roles from the first film. However, none of these are the main characters. Instead, the action centres around Chewbacca’s family – his father, wife and son – living in a tree house that would have made Johnny Weissmuller green with envy.

This is where the Holiday Special’s problems start. Through much of the film, these relatives just walk around, howling their lungs out in poor imitation of wookie language (which, embarrassingly, was created by Ben Burtt himself). The so-called story, about Chewie having to make it back home in time for celebrating the all-important Life Day holiday, is stupid enough in itself, but every step of the execution just keeps making it worse, and then worse again.

There is actually one segment of the Special that is rather good (when compared with the rest). About halfway through, there is a ten-minute animated short film. The inclusion of this is incredibly silly, plot-wise speaking, but when seen in isolation, the animation (which is not in any significant way connected with the rest of the plot) has a number of redeeming features. Sure, the animation is a bit too cartoonish and the voice actors (also the original cast, as far as I can tell) certainly did not put their souls into the job. But on the other hand, and very much unlike the rest of the Special, it has a lot of nice Star Wars-esque alien planet environments. The story is simple but not bad. As an oddity under the Star Wars brand, this short is well worth exploring. Also, it is the first-ever appearance of Boba Fett.

Since The Star Wars Holiday Special has never been restored and officially released after the original airing, copies found online tends to be of really low quality. The main copy at the Internet Archive is the best I have seen, with almost-decent technical quality. There is also another version available, with worse quality, but on the other hand it comes with all the commercials from the original airing. They provide a welcome break from the inanities of the Special, and also add some unintended entertainment of their own.

This film is best enjoyed because you know that pain is your friend. Besides, what does not kill you will make you stronger. George Lucas has allegedly gone on record saying that, if he could, he would smash every existing copy of this film with a sledgehammer. This in itself is reason to watch it. Also, when properly applied it can actually be useful. Carrie Fisher has stated that she always puts this film on when she wants her late guests to leave the party.

R2D2, C3PO (Anthony Daniels), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978)

The Star Wars Holiday Special
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Year: 1978
Running time: 1 h 48 min
Director: David Acomba, Steve Binder
Stars: Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (597 M)

Freedom River (1971)

This Short Film Month of October continues with a more recent film than previous entries. This time we turn our focus onto a very short and at first sight insignificant little animation that turns out to have layers of depth and meaning in it. The film in question is Freedom River.

Boats and "Immigration" sign from Freedom River (1971)

Made in 1971, Freedom River has to be seen against the historical background of the Vietnam war, and all of the political awakenings and awareness associated with that time. Freedom River is not, strictly speaking, an anti-war film. It is critical to many aspects of American society at the time, and that is probably the reason why it has remained fresh for four and a half decades. Many of the political issues raised in the film are just as relevant today as they were then, and since the film stays with generalisations, without going in-depth on any one subject, it feels almost timeless.

Surprisingly little information is available on the Internet about this little gem of a film. Orson Welles narrated the only voice heard in the film, and you would think that his name alone would generate enough interest for this film to achieve a classic status, but apparently not. One surprising and interesting comment, however, can be found in the film’s user reviews section at the IMDb. Joseph Cavella, the film’s writer, has this to say about the production of Freedom River:

“For several years, Bosustow Productions, a small studio for which I wrote several films, had asked Orson Welles, then living in Paris, to narrate one of their films. He never responded. When I finished the Freedom River script, we sent it to him together with a portable reel to reel tape recorder and a sizable check and crossed our fingers. He was either desperate for money or (I would rather believe) something in it touched him because two weeks later we got the reel back with the narration word for word and we were on our way.”

The film is not without its faults. The animation is very effective, but perhaps overly simplistic at times. Also, there is an undercurrent of patriotism that seems to suggest that freedom and prosperity are inherent in the very land of America (although the actual place is not named). The film would, I think, have been even more powerful if it had acknowledged that humans alone can create a good society, and it could also have mentioned the problems brought upon the Native Americans by the white immigrants. But these are minor quibbles.

This film is best enjoyed as a political allegory for any time. Until we have truly achieved Utopia, this sort of commentary will always remain a reminder of what is important in life.

Beach and houses from Freedom River (1971)

Freedom River
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Year: 1971
Running time: 7 min
Director: Sam Weiss
Stars: Orson Welles (voice)
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (242 M)

Duck and Cover (1952)

“This is Tony, going to his Cub Scout meeting. Tony knows the Bomb can explode anytime, day or night, any time of year. He’s ready for it. Duck and cover!”

Oh, yeah. Those American kids of the 1950s were ready, all right. Thanks to governmental terror propaganda, every kid knew what to do when the Communists dropped the Bomb. After all, they were told what to do in the film Duck and Cover, part of our October Short Film Month spotlight.

Bert the Turtle and a monkey in Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover is part animation, part live action. It begins and ends with Bert the Turtle giving some sound advice about what to do when faced with an atomic bomb, or a monkey with a stick of dynamite. In between, a soothing voice tells us that everything will be allright if you take cover underneath your school bench, or behind a low wall, or just anyplace you can find.

Today, Duck and Cover may look silly and ridiculous, but it must be remembered that in the 1950s, the danger of nuclear war seemed very real, and probably was. Even though Russia and Communism are not mentioned, even indirectly, the film was nevertheless a tool for strengthening patriotic awareness.

The advice given, to duck and cover, may not be as inane as it seems at first glance. Even an atomic bomb will not kill every living thing within the blast radius, and the more cover you have, the better your chances of survival. The film only becomes ridiculous because it nowhere gives any hint of exactly how dangerous and terrible a nuclear explosion actually is. It gives the impression that if you just cover yourself with a picnic blanket, you might be perfectly safe.

Duck and Cover is not a great film by any standards. The animations in particular are cheap, and the rest is nothing special. So you do not watch this film on any cinematographic merits.

This film is best enjoyed for providing some amusing perspective on a world that was still a reality only thirty years ago. But if you think about it, the film can also be seen as a powerful allegory to some politicians’ solutions to today’s problems like climate change, migration or foreign wars. Just duck and cover, and everything will be all right. (And don’t forget to cover your head with that newspaper.)

Man hiding under newspaper when the Atomic Bomb strikes, from Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover
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Year: 1952
Running time: 9 min
Director: Anthony Rizzo
Stars: Robert Middleton (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (322 M)

Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Normally, I do not do short film on this blog, but because of the rich treasure of classic short films available at the Internet Archive, I have decided that October is Short Film Month. First out is the classic cartoon Der Fuehrer’s Face.

Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo, Benito Mussolini on bass drum, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Joseph Goebbels on trombone and Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

The beginning of the film cannot really be described any better than Wikipedia does it: “A German oom-pah band—composed of Axis leaders Joseph Goebbels on trombone, Heinrich Himmler on snare drum, Hideki Tōjō on sousaphone, Hermann Göring on piccolo and Benito Mussolini on bass drum—marches noisily at four o’clock in the morning through a small German town where everything, even the clouds and trees, are shaped as swastikas, singing the virtues of the Nazi doctrine.” There, the tone is set, and the rest of the film continues in the same crazy, satiric and nationalistic spirit.

Due to its propagandistic content, the film has not been released on DVD and Bluray as many times as most other Donald Duck films from the 30s and 40s, especially not in Europe. Still, some say it is one of the best. At any rate, there are many brilliant gags, and it is a film well worth watching.

The film has many neat little details. For example, in the image below, note how even the telephone poles (barely visible) are shaped like swastikas. Another detail, for anyone interested in how Disney cut corners in the war year animations, is when the band marches back across the screen just after the titles. The swastikas on the uniforms are mirrored, because the entire section is just mirrored from the first time they marched past.

Der Fuehrer’s Face received an Academy Award for best animated short. At least two other nominees from the same year can be found at the Internet Archive: the Tex Avery cartoon Blitz Wolf and George Pal’s Puppetoon Tulips Shall Grow. Both are excellent, and highly recommended.

This film is best enjoyed if you like the Disney shorts from the classic period. This is one you may have missed if you relied on the official collections from Disney.

A factory with swastikas in the Donald Duck film Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

Der Fuehrer’s Face
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Year: 1942
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Jack Kinney
Stars: Clarence Nash (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (76 M)

Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

My five-year-old daughter enjoys watching the 2015 TV series Thunderbirds Are Go. Little does she know, or care, that the original Thunderbirds series, and also a movie with the exact title Thunderbirds Are Go, are older even than her old dad.

Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)

The plot of the movie is about a spaceship that is sabotaged shortly after liftoff for the first planned mission to Mars. The spaceship crashes before reaching space, but the crew is rescued and a few years later a second attempt is made. This time, the rescue team Thunderbirds are called in to make sure that the crew is safe. They also employ the agent Penelope to ascertain that there is no sabotage this time.

Thunderbirds Are Go ia an animated film, mostly made with puppets and scale models. The scale models, in particular, are extremely detailed and imaginative! Spaceships, houses, cars, not to mention the base where the spaceship takes off for Mars. Those things are still impressive and well made when compared to what a similar production would look like today. At times, I feel myself completely blown away by the imagination and the attention to detail that lie behind this production.

The animation was made with a puppetry technique called supermarionation, which was used in all the 1960s Thunderbirds films and TV series, as well as in several other series made by the same production team. There is no facial movement, except for lip synch, and even though that synch is good, it can be a bit unnerving to watch those completely blank faces trying to express some kind of emotion. In fact, most puppet movements are a bit stiff at times, and unfortunately that is also true of the dialogue, and indeed of the entire plot.

Fans of Cliff Richard and The Shadows will not want to miss this one, since Cliff and the band appear as puppets, performing the song “Shooting Star” during an otherwise too long and somewhat absurd dream sequence.

The aspect ratio of this movie is a bit off, but if you have a good player, you can easily adjust that.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent scale models of buildings and vehicles, and for the music by Cliff Richard and The Shadows. Quite frankly, there is little else to enjoy about it, but those things go a long way.

Thunderbirds Are Go
Download link
Year: 1966
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: David Lane
Stars: Cliff Richard (singing)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×360)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (620 M)