The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
Download link
Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

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Samsara (2011)

On the official website of the film Samsara, you can read: “SAMSARA is a Sanskrit word that means ‘the ever turning wheel of life’ and is the point of departure for the filmmakers as they search for the elusive current of interconnection that runs through our lives.”

If you are like me, you will want to enjoy this visual masterpiece without too many preconceived notions. You will want to stop reading here and skip directly to the download link. But of course, you are welcome to read on. I will not reveal too much about the contents.

African warriors in Samsara (2011)

For all intents and purposes, Samsara is a silent film. Sure, it does have a soundtrack, but that soundtrack does nothing more and nothing less than a good soundtrack for a silent film from the 1920s. There is no spoken dialogue or narration, nor any background sounds that I can remember. The soundtrack rests entirely on the music, partly original music composed for the film. Some of the tracks have lyrics, but those lyrics are not directly related to the images, as far as I can tell. For example, there is a Swedish lullaby early on, but none of the images it accompanies seem to be in any way connected with the theme or the words. And yet, the music works extremely well, producing an almost hypnotic sensation.

But the most memorable and powerful aspect of the film is the visual images, filled with vibrant colours. The photography is exquisite, and so is the cutting. The tempo is slow, yet many sudden twists mean that we have time to see images from many different countries and many aspects of both nature and human life. This is a film filled with contrasts. Peacefulness and hostility. Untouched nature and huge cities. Ancient history and modern technology. East and west. Life and death. Religion and … well, I am not sure there is a contrast to religion, but the religious motif is definitely there, and it is very inclusive in the sense that several different religions are represented, and none is shown to be more important than the others.

Samsara is, indeed, a turning wheel of life. If it has a weakness, then it is that it tries to say too much. There is not one message in this film, but many, and perhaps that means it is spread just a little bit too thin, sending its energy into many directions at once. But that is a minor quibble, because who said that good art always has to be propagandistic?

This film is best enjoyed as cinematic poetry. It can be analyzed and interpreted endlessly, but will it enhance the enjoyment of viewing? I doubt it, though meditating about the many wonderful pictures may give you some insight into the world we live in, or even into your own self.

Dancers in Samsara (2011)

Samsara
Download link
Year: 2011
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Directors: Ron Fricke
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×304)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.4 G)

Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Plenty of good old movies at the Internet Archive are practically forgotten today. Many deserve to be so, but others are better than their non-existing reputation would suggest. Murder in the Clouds is such a film.

Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds has a somewhat convoluted and improbable plot, yet not without a certain charm. Our hero is the hot-shot pilot “Three Star” (Lyle Talbot). He has been grounded for reckless flying, but gets another chance when an extremely important flight must be made, delivering a secret explosive device which can change the nature of warfare (someone invented the atom bomb that early?). “Three Star” is also in love with Judy (Ann Dvorak), whose brother is to be his co-pilot on the important flight. But of course, things happen; further entaglements involve friends who may not be who they seem, a mountain cabin and a fateful bar fight.

Compared with similar aviation B movies, such as Danger Flight (1939) or Q Planes (1939), Murder in the Clouds has much better flight sequences. There is a pretty ugly mid-air explosion, but otherwise the aerial scenes are both varied, elegant and well filmed. They were mostly shot at and around Grand Central Airport outside Glendale, California. The airport is long since gone, but the runway has been converted into Grand Central Avenue and some of the buildings also exist.

Ann Dvorak is mostly remembered today for her role two years earlier in the classic original version of Scarface. She was a good actress, and even though her initial shots in Murder in the Clouds are a bit too tightly strung, she improves as the movie rolls along, and is excellent for the most part.

This film is best enjoyed for the high quality aerial stunts.

Travel Air 4000 in Murder in the Clouds (1934)

Murder in the Clouds
Download link
Year: 1934
Running time: 1 h 1 min
Director: D. Ross Lederman
Stars: Lyle Talbot, Ann Dvorak
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (544×416)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (498 M)

Outside the Law (1920)

Crime, treachery, redemption, friendship, love. Those are some of the ingredients in the classic silent Outside the Law, directed by Tod Browning.

Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law (1920)

Browning has gone down in history for a handful of truly classic films, not least Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). But he made a number of other movies that deserve to be remembered, often working together with Lon Chaney. Outside the Law is an excellent example, not least because of Lon Chaney’s role.

Chaney, one of the greatest actors of silent cinema, especially in dramatic roles, is best remembered today for his horror pieces, but he is just as good here, playing a low-life gangster. Though Chaney is perhaps the best actor in the movie, the rest of the cast, not least Priscilla Dean, are also very good.

The copy available at the Internet Archive is not perfect. There are some defects from the aged film print, especially towards the end. For me, these are easily suffered when watching a good film such as this.

This film is best enjoyed in comparison with some of its contemporaries. D.W. Griffith was one director who dealt with some similar themes around the same time, but while Griffith and others tend to become overly sentimental and melodramatic, Browning has a much firmer grip on his drama. Sure, there is some melodrama at times, but no more than necessary to keep the plot on course.

Lon Chaney in Outside the Law (1920)

Outside the Law
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly synchronized with the images; partly silent
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (600 M)

Zorro Rides Again (1937)

There is a strong link between the characters of Zorro and Batman, a link that I have a feeling has not yet been thoroughly explored. I will come back to that link later on.

Zorro Rides Again was the first (and best) of three serials based on the Zorro character. All three are available from the Internet Archive, and I may quite possibly return to the other two in the future.

Duncan Renaldo and John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

This version does not try to be very creative with the Zorro character. It is not a reboot per se, yet largely builds its own background and characters; still everything pretty much remains from earlier versions. The main character is the original Zorro’s great grandson James Vega, and when he arrives to help protect a railroad construction plagued by a villainous terrorist called El Lobo, great hopes are placed on him. But like his forefather, he pretends to be a foppish dillettante by day, only to change into Zorro’s costume by night. All the old attributes are here. The only thing missing is the black cape.

Bob Kane and Bill Finger, Batman’s creators, drew inspiration from many sources and characters when creating Batman. One of them, The Bat, has already been covered in this blog. Other sources have been reported to include Sherlock Holmes and The Phantom. Kane has reportedly said that one of his sources was the film The Mark of Zorro (1920). There is no reason to doubt the truth of the statement, of course. Douglas Fairbanks’ Zorro film has been tremendously influential on a number of levels, not least for the Zorro character himself.

Yet I think we should not dismiss Zorro Rides Again. Admittedly, it may not be as elegant or ground-breaking as The Mark of Zorro, but there are two reasons to believe that it may have left an impact on Batman. To begin with, it was released only two years prior to the first published Batman story, so the timing is much better than for the considerably older Fairbanks film. But even more to the point, Zorro Rides Again may have been the first use of Zorro’s underground cavern hideout, and thus not only provided inspiration for many Zorro incarnations to come, but potentially served as a model for the Batcave.

So my bottom line is that while The Mark of Zorro may have been the main inspiration going from Zorro to Batman, Zorro Rides Again may well have stimulated Kane’s interest in the Zorro character, and it probably also contributed some small pieces of inspiration itself.

This serial is best enjoyed if you enjoy serials in general or if you want an introduction to the genre. It is a good representative with a lot of nice action and fancy stuntwork. The plot may be stupid at times, but it is never dull. The actors … well, you never watch serials for the actors, anyhow.

John Carroll in Zorro Rides Again (1937)

Zorro Rides Again
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1937
Running time: 3 h 34 min
Directors: John English, William Witney
Stars: John Carroll
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable

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
Download link
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)

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Depending on what sources you care to trust, the masked hero Zorro turns 95 either tomorrow or nine days ago. And while he would seem to be as vital as ever, he would probably not have become famous at all, if not for the film The Mark of Zorro.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Robert McKim as Capitán Ramón in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Zorro was the brain child of one Johnston McCulley, who invented the character and wrote a series of stories about him. But McCulley’s first story, quite frankly, was not very good, nor very interesting. His Zorro was just another masked Western hero, interesting only because of the catchy name (which was not originally in the title of the first story) and the secret dilettante identity (which, frankly, was not very well handled). The trademark Z, carved in the opponent’s flesh, was only added as a throwaway gimmick towards the end. Today, the story feels stale, not only becuase the writing was awkward even by pulp standards, but moreso because it reeks with sexism, racism and lack of historical accuracy.

No, Zorro would have been quickly forgotten, if it was not for Douglas Fairbanks. He was already a popular star in comedies (see my review of The Nut for more information), but wanted more. He was looking for a good franchise to turn into an adventure movie, and found what he was looking for in Zorro.

In adapting the story, Fairbanks changed the title to put focus on the hero and his signature. He also introduced many other dramatic improvements, such as: the black hat and cape; Don Diego’s horseback and fencing skills can be kept secret since he just returned from a long visit to Spain; the underground secret hideout (which was later to become the inspiration for Batman’s cave); the faithful servant who knows the secret; just to mention some of the changes that have come to stay with the character. And, to top it all off, he added his own set of acrobatic stunts and coreographed fights, something which has become characteristic of the entire adventure film genre.

Adventure movies had already existed for some years, especially within the Western subgenre. But the action in those movies was fairly simple, usually taking the shape of gunfights, fistfights or chases with relatively simple stunts and choreography.

In the comedies, on the other hand, geniuses such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had started to experiment with more advanced stunts, using complex choreography and trick filming, among other things.

Douglas Fairbanks merged the two genres, and threw in his own magnetic screen personality as a bonus. This proved to be enormously successful, and has basically shaped the entire motion picture industry into what it is today.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance. The Mark of Zorro has had a tremendous impact upon Hollywood filmmaking. It has more or less by itself defined the entire romantic adventure subgenre, a genre which has not significantly altered during the past 94 years since its origins.

Douglas Fairbanks as Zorro and Marguerite De La Motte as Lolita Pulido in The Mark of Zorro (1920)

The Mark of Zorro
Download link
Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Fred Niblo
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.3 G)