X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)

The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
Download link
Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

The Pawn Shop (1916)

October is Short Film Month, and today we celebrate one of the most important short film creators ever, Charlie Chaplin. A good many of his shorts are available at the Internet Archive, and today’s pick is one of the best, The Pawn Shop (more commonly written togeter as The Pawnshop, but the version at the Internet Archive has the word split), which premiered exactly one hundred years and eight days ago.

Charles Chaplin and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

Chaplin had an amazing career in the movies. He began making film in 1914, and in that year alone acted in about 35 films, 20 of which he directed. The following year, he was down to 14 titles, almost all of which he directed. By 1916, production had gone down to 9, and he directed everything himself. Quite frankly, his first attempts were not always very funny, at least not a hundred years later, but already by 1916, every single one of his films ranged from hilarious or astonishing. Diminishing volume and increasing quality continued to go hand in hand, and when he made his masterpiece The Kid (1921), he was down to only two films that year.

Nothing needs to be said about the plot of The Pawn Shop. It is not very important, anyway. What matters are all the amazing stunts and gags.

The version I mainly link to from this post is a completely silent version, with no soundtrack. Another version with a good soundtrack exists at the Archive, but both the resolution and technical quality of that copy are really poor, so I recommend that you try the soundless one.

This film is best enjoyed as a brilliant and still very funny film, but it can also be seen together with some other Chaplin films from various years and production companies, as an illustration of how fast he developed, both as an actor and a director. I would recommend spending some time at the Internet Archive, searching out a handful of samples from each year during the 1910s. It is a highly rewarding experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment.

Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

The Pawnshop
Download link
Year: 1916
Running time: 25 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (569×430, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (214 M)

Pygmalion (1938)

There is an eternal controversy regarding the ending of Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion and its various incarnations, apparently ever since its London premiere in 1914. This controversy is most frequently mentioned, and most glaring, in connection with the musical version My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964), but can also be seen in the 1938 film adaptation of the original play, as well as in a previous Dutch adaptation, unfortunately not available at the Internet Archive.

Scott Sunderland, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller as Colonel Pickering, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938)

The story of Professor Higgins and his pupil Eliza has become so well-known during the past hundred years that it barely requires an introduction. But just to be on the safe side, the film begins as one Colonel Pickering, returning to England, comes across Professor Henry Higgins (an expert in dialects and phonetic variations) as the latter is taking notes on the speech of a flower girl. The two fast become friends, and enter a bet that Higgins could teach the cockney-speaking girl to pass for a well-bred lady, just by teaching her manners and good pronunciation. This he sets out to do with great determination. The film for the most part stays very close to the original play. Shaw himself adapted the script for the screen, adding some scenes and characters that since have sometimes been used in new productions of the play as well.

The above-mentioned controversy, it should be pointed out, is not in the tension between a happy versus unhappy ending. Shaw’s intended ending is indeed very happy for everyone involved. Higgins has made Eliza into an independent person, one who can logically no longer remain with her “creator”, or her independence no longer has any real value. The controversy is rather as to whether she should remain with Higgins or go out in the world and stand on her own two feet.

But the romantic movie-making tradition, passed down in the 1920s from Hollywood to British film, prescribes that a dramatic build-up with two opposite-sex characters demands closure where they fall in love, and implicitly live happily ever after. Shaw’s film script indeed had no such closure originally, but the studio insisted that it could not end thus, and forced a late rewrite. I shall not here go into the details of that ending so as not to spoil it for you entirely.

Speaking of strong language, no-one is likely to be shocked today by the use of the word “bloody” in a film. But both when the play premiered in 1914 and when the film did so in 1938, this word was highly controversial. In fact, that single word alone helped to draw an audience to the theatres.

This film is best enjoyed if you have previously only seen My Fair Lady, or if you are somehow entirely unfamiliar with this entire story. With the debatable exception of the ending, it is an excellent film, and it is a good representation of this modern classic. Both Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza are excellent.

Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1938)

Pygmalion
Download link
Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Leslie Howard, Anthony Asquith
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Zéro de conduite (1933)

Banned in its own time, but highly influential on later French (and international) film, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct) is not to be missed.

Zéro de conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

The setting is a boarding school, where the teachers, or most of them, are pretty mean characters. The pupils decide to take matters into their own hands and revolt. This, of course, is a controversial theme, not least since Vigo takes the children’s side in the conflict. Even today, the notion of empowering children over adults may be found hard to swallow by some.

The film is in many ways experimental and a fore-runner in its use of techniques for visual composition and story-telling. The images may sometimes feel exaggerated, but the exaggeration is also a very conscious tool for directing the viewer’s focus.

The film, as it has been preserved to the world, is only a little over 40 minutes. I have read that it was originally intended to be significantly loger, but was cut contrary to Vigo’s wishes. This is sad, because one of the film’s major problems is that the story-telling feels a bit awkward at times. I think this could have been improved by a longer running time.

This film is best enjoyed by anyone who has the slightest interest in the history of French film. Or just watch it as a great comedy.

Pillow fight in Zéro de Conduite / Zero for Conduct (1933)

Zéro de conduite
Download link
Year: 1933
Running time: 41 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Vigo
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×576)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.0 G)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Even though Buster Keaton had an acting career of nearly 50 years, his greatest period can be narrowed down to only about six years, starting with Our Hospitality in 1923 and ending about 1929. One of the last great silent comedies with Keaton was Steamboat Bill, Jr. It was the last silent he made for Universal Pictures, and the last film where he had almost total creative freedom.

Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

In this film, Keaton plays a young man who has been studying at college, and is now about to be reunited with his father, whom he does not really know. He is vain and foppish, and his father, the steamboat skipper, is annoyed by the difficulties he finds in teaching his son the trade of riverboat navigation. Things take a turn for the worse when the son falls in love with the daughter of the father’s worst competitor. Keaton uses this simple setup to create another of his great masterpieces.

The meticulously orchestrated and spectacular stunts (see for example the breakneck fall above) are, as in any good Keaton, the film’s trademark. Keaton’s perfect sense of timing, along with his fine acting skills, are the main reasons why this film still works today, almost ninety years after its release.

Unfortunately, the film was a box office bomb. It has gone down in history as a great classic, but was not received well enough by its contemporary audience, and this was the reason why Keaton fell out of favour with his employer.

This film is best enjoyed for one of Keaton’s best and most well-known stunts, as an entire building falls down around him. Keaton’s acrobatics, and this stunt in particular, has been cited as a major influence on Hong Kong star Jackie Chan, who has frequently been compared with Buster Keaton.

Buster Keaton and Marion Byron in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (808 M)