The Speckled Band (1931)

The early 1930s was an interesting time for Sherlock Holmes film fans, since there were no less than three actors playing the detective. Clive Brook (who does not seem to be represented at the Internet Archive) made two films in 1929 and 1932, and inbetween those, both Arthur Wontner and Raymond Massey debuted as Holmes within a month of one another in 1931.

Massey, in The Speckled Band, debuted not only as Holmes, but it was for a fact his first-ever appearance on film. And while Wontner’s Holmes (in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour and four more films) was competent but traditional, Massey’s performance still feels fresh and original.

Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Lyn Harding and Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson) in The Speclked Band (1931)

This was not only because of Massey’s youthful and vigorous acting, but also because of his surroundings and methods. His Holmes, in addition to his flat at 107(!) Baker Street, has a hyper modern office, complete with a staff of secretaries and a computer-like mechanical database.

The Speckled Band is an interesting and well-crafted film in many other ways as well. In acting as well as photography, many traces can be found from the silent era ideals. This is not at all a problem in this particular case. Especially Lyn Harding’s exquisite over-acting makes him one of the most formidable and enjoyable Holmes villains on the screen ever. The film’s editing is also somewhat ingenious. There is a wonderful sequence where Watson tells Holmes about the various persons connected with a certain case, and each person’s face appears ghost-like in the background, as if listening in on the conversation.

Unfortunately, the version of the film at the Internet Archive is heavily abridged (a full 40 minutes cut out of original 90!), and this is often painfully obvious. Many scenes are so heavily and poorly cut down that the dialogue and plot can be hard to follow. Also, sound and image quality are quite terrible. I have been unable to find a complete and restored version, so for the time being, we shall have to settle for this mutilated one. I find that the film’s many good qualities outweigh the various problems with the available copy.

If you find the dialogue difficult to follow due to the poor sound quality, there are also downloadable subtitles in various formats. I have not tested these, so I cannot guarantee that they are synchronized with the version of the film that I link to.

Another version of this Arthur Conan Doyle tale is available at the Internet Archive. The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) was part of the American TV series Your Show Time. Less than 27 minutes in length, it featured Alan Napier (who also played Batman’s butler Alfred in the classic 1960s TV series) in his only appearance as the great detective. This version may be preferable if you cannot stand the poor technical quality of Massey’s The Speckled Band, though it lacks the latter’s playfulness and originality.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Raymond Massey. Massey was a fantastic actor (as can be seen in classics such as Things to Come (1936) and Santa Fe Trail (1940)), and while The Speckled Band may not have been his best performance, it is nevertheless of more than merely academic interest.

Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson), Angela Baddeley and Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes) in The Speckled Band (1931)

The Speckled Band
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Year: 1931
Running time: 50 min
Director: Jack Raymond
Stars: Raymond Massey, Lyn Harding
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (576×392)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (421 M)

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Great Expectations (1946)

There is definitely a tangible difference between British and American film from the 1930s and 40s. A difference that can be seen in almost everly little detail. Cutting, acting, plotting, lighting, you name it. Which one you prefer is perhaps a matter of taste, but I personally have a very soft spot for the British variety.

Tony Wager in Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean’s Great Expectations is an excellent example. Based on the Charles Dickens novel of the same title (which is also available at the Internet Archive), it tells the story of young Pip. Orphaned and brought up by his brother-in-law the blacksmith, he eventually becomes the protégé of an anonymous benefactor, who helps to pay for his learning to become a gentleman in London.

In his childhood, Pip had come to Miss Havisham’s house to be the playmate of the haughty but beautiful Estella. When Pip, the adult gentleman, is called upon to visit Miss Havisham, he again meets Estella, and his youthful love for her is rekindled.

This is only a small sample of the wonderful story, which in turn is a shortened version of Dickens’ original. It is really a beautifully executed adaptation, and well deserving of the two Academy Awards it received.

This film is best enjoyed if you love old mansions and 19th century costumes. As a historical drama, it has few equals from its time.

John Mills and Valerie Hobson in Great Expectations (1946)

Great Expectations
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Director: David Lean
Stars: John Mills, Valerie Hobson
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (688×519)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.5 G)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Last week, I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog. Hitchcock was to return many times to the themes he started to explore in that film, but never again to that particular story. Others were to do so in his place, and it was remade in sound several times, the first as early as 1932, titled simply The Lodger. In America, it was released with the title The Phantom Fiend, and that version is available at the Internet Archive, as well as many other online movie sites.

Ivor Novello and Elizabeth Allan in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

Ivor Novello reprised his role as the lodger who may or may not be a serial killer in a foggy and shadowy London. The overall story is exactly the same as in Hitchcock’s version, but some details differ. One of them is that Novello invested some of himself into his character. This time, the lodger, just like Novello in real life, is a musician and a composer.

Director Maurice Elvey was no Hitchcock. Even though he does retain or copy some of the expressionistic elements of the original, his film is not at all as sinister or visually dramatic. But this version has other qualities. The added dialogue together with a very good script, co-written by Ivor Novello himself, gives this film much more depth in its character portraits, and the overall plot feels more rounded and developed than in Hitchcock’s version. Which version you prefer is a matter of taste. Personally, I like both, but of course Hitchcock is always Hitchcock.

Curiously, the endings are quite different in the two versions. One might argue that neither ending is entirely satisfactory, or that they complement each other. Either way, it is interesting to compare the two.

This film is best enjoyed in its original (and considerably rarer) British release. The American cut available at the Internet Archive is unfortunately compressed by almost a half hour, something which is painfully obvious on occasion. But if you do not have access to the original, then you can still enjoy this short version and Ivor Novello’s magnetic screen personality.

Ivor Novello playing the violin in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

The Phantom Fiend
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 2 min
Director: Maurice Elvey
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (600 M)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (1927)

I think it is safe to say that Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered today for his many suspenseful horror films and drama thrillers. His production of silent films is considerably less well-known, though some of them are not bad at all. In the 1920s, he was still perfecting his genius, but the fantastic storytelling skills can clearly be seen even in these early works. This is especially true of The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger was in fact the first film (as well as the only silent) in which Hitchcock developed his favourite theme: that of someone accused of a terrible crime and fleeing from justice. The police is investigating a series of murders in an area of London when a young man appears, seeking lodging with an elderly couple. The couple has a beautiful daughter, who is a perfect match for the muderer’s victims. They soon start to suspect that the young man may in fact be the killer, but they need evidence.

In my opinion, Hitchcock succeeds even better here than in many later films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or Young and Innocent (1937), in upholding the suspense. Up until a few minutes from the end, the audience is never quite sure whether the protagonist is guilty or not.

Of all the films in Hitchcock’s output, this is perhaps the one that most clearly shows his debt to German Expressionism. A few years previously, he had been present during the filming of the great expressionist F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Der letzte Mann (1924), and the influence can be clearly seen here.

The Lodger was not only Hitchcock’s first suspense thriller, but also the first film where he made his famous cameo appearance. The reason is said to have been that he had to fill in for an extra who did not show up. The cameo is so hard to spot that there is no way I would have seen it if I had not known beforehand where to look, but if you want some sport you can try to spot him for yourself.

This film is best enjoyed by Hitchcock enthusiasts who want to explore the master’s early work, but it has quite unfairly fallen into the shadow of Hitchcock’s later production. The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog has many good qualities, and is quite able to stand on its own legs. In the category of silent suspense thriller, it holds up well to the competition. In addition, this was without a doubt the peak of Ivor Novello’s short career in the movies. The film is worth seeing for that reason alone, since he was a fine and unique actor.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: Excellent; orchestral music synchronised with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

Scrooge (1951)

Christmas is rushing closer by the minute and the panic is definitely here. Bottle of spumante wine for mother-in-law, some nice book for daughter, no idea even what to get for wife (she claims she likes film, but never watches any, so DVDs are out of the question). And then we need to pack for the trip to the family, and we have not even had time to put up much in terms of decorations in our home.

Well, that is the way it goes, but in the middle of that rush, what could possibly be better than to grab a mug of mulled wine and sit down in front of a nice old film. A film like Scrooge.

Alastair Sim and Francis De Wolff in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge, sometimes released with the title A Christmas Carol, is a breathtakingly beautiful film. The actors are good, and Alastair Sim in particular is marevellous as the aging miser who is reformed through divine intervention. Special effects are simplistic, but that is not really a problem. Dobule exposure and effective lighting go a long way when it comes to creating ghostlike gosts.

Charles Dickens’ classic tale has been filmed a great many times, and many of the versions are good. The versions available at the Internet Archive are too many for me to list them all, but I would like to mention just two short silents. The very first film adaptation of the story, Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901) is available. Like many early literary adaptations, it requires a good deal of knowledge about the original, or it will be completely impossible to comprehend. It is a truly historic film, especially considering that it has been said to be the first film with intertitles, and anyway it is only about three and a half minutes long. The other interesting silent is a really good ten-minute adaptation from 1910, titled simply A Christmas Carol. That one is a small masterpiece in compact story-telling and well worth the ten minutes it takes to watch it.

The 1951 film is best enjoyed around Christmas time, to get in the right mood. Pathetic? Why, certainly, but just a wee bit, and not so much as to ruin it.

Alastair Sim, Olga Edwardes and Brian Worth in Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge
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Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst
Stars: Alastair Sim
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (978×720)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.0 G)

The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The hero who pretends to be a rich, useless fop by day, transforming himself into a vigilante fighting for justice by night is an important character template in modern popular storytelling. Batman and Zorro are perhaps the best known examples, but years before they were conceived, The Scarlet Pimpernel was perhaps the first popular hero to hide behind a secret identity.

Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is the alter ego of the English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney in a play and novel from the early 20th century. Blakeney is secretly critical of the events in France, where many of his friends are being executed without proper trials and for no other reason than being nobles. As The Scarlet Pimpernel, he therefore leads a band of resistance fighters who try to rescue the victims of the cruel tyrant Robespierre.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was popular almost from the start, and many film adaptations have been made. One of the most popular (and the first with sound) was the 1934 British The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard in the title role.

I have seen none of the other film versions of this character, but I am guessing that most are considerably more focused on the action. In the 1934 version, the drama is set first, and much is made of Howard’s excellent ability to switch between his character’s real self and the dandy he plays in order to avoid suspicion. The character’s wit and intelligence are also prominent.

This film is best enjoyed for Leslie Howard’s performance. Though it is a well-made costume piece, the historical aspects are by themselves not enough to raise the film above average. Howard’s acting, along with the exciting and amusing story, elevates this into a classic masterpiece.

The guillotine in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934)

The Scarlet Pimpernel
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Harold Young
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)

The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

Douglas Fairbanks was, first and foremost, an actor of the silent era. Like many other major silent stars, he failed to make the transit to sound film. He made only a handful of talkies, and it is symptomatic that his very last one, The Private Life of Don Juan, was filmed and produced in England.

Merle Oberon and Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan was directed by Alexander Korda, and is typical of Korda in the sense that very little can be taken for granted. Korda makes effective use of shadows and angles, and even though some scenes may be a bit overworked, they are nevertheless excellent examples of film artistry that can be reproduced in no other medium.

The story, briefly, is that the aging Don Juan is returning to Seville, but a young admirer and impersonator is killed, leaving everyone to believe Don Juan dead. The aged womanizer sees his chance to lead a life in peace, but finds that he can never quite live up to the legend of himself.

The film’s title was probably an attempt to capitalize on the previous year’s success with The Private Life of Henry VIII, also directed by Korda.

This film is best enjoyed for Douglas Fairbanks in his very last role. Talking or silent, Fairbanks still in his, relatively speaking, old age of 51 had enormous sex appeal and he could do acrobatics and stunts that most men half his age would envy him. He also showed his great qualities as an actor, and that he could handle spoken dialogue just as well as the exaggerated body language of a silent.

Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934)

The Private Life of Don Juan
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Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 27 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)