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
Download link
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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Speak Easily (1932)

In the late 1920s, Buster Keaton had made a series of silents that are still considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever made. It culminated with The General in 1926, which was a marvellous artistic success, but a terrible commercial failure. The result was that Keaton lost the total artistic control he had previously enjoyed, and coinciding with the advent of sound film, he got a contract with MGM that he felt stifled his creativity completely.

By the time that he made Speak Easily in 1932, he was no longer directing, only acting, and to boot his marriage was going downhill along with his career. As a result, Keaton fell to heavy drinking, which cost him his job, his wife and most of his money. Eventually, he found new love and recovered from his bad habits, but by then it was too late to rescue his damaged career. Near the end of his life, however, he did make some fairly popular TV shows, and he had minor roles in a number of big movies.

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

It is easy to dismiss all of Keaton’s sound films as being of inferior quality. And while that is true compared with his best silents, they are not universally bad throughout. In fact, Speak Easily is a pretty neat little comedy. Keaton plays a professor who is badly in need of some friends and a change in life. When he learns that he has inherited a large sum of money, he leaves everything behind and jumps on a train in order to discover new things about himself and the world. It later turns out that there was no inheritance, but by that time he has already promised to pay for a mediocre travelling vaudeville company’s big break with a new show on Broadway.

For this film, and several others made around the same time, Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante, another well-known Hollywood comedian. It was competently directed by Edward Sedgwick, and the plot is well held together with nice dialogue and some good stunts, many of them created by Keaton himself. Fans of the Marx brothers will be able to recognize several stunts that were reused when Keaton was hired to create gags for A Night at the Opera (1935).

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about Keaton’s development after his silent period. Speak Easily may be nowhere near Keaton’s masterworks, but it is by no means bad. Keaton shows that he is a splendid actor, and the cooperation with co-star Durante works very well, even though they are basically two very different kinds of actors. Speak Easily is an endearing and enjoyable, albeit harmless, little comedy. Much better than the other Keaton soundies I have seen, such as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Li’l Abner (1940) (both available for download).

Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932)

Speak Easily
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Der heilige Berg (1926)

With the Winter Olympics in full swing, I wanted to try and find a film with a winter sports connection for this week’s post. That was harder than I had thought, but luck was on my side and the only feature-length film I found on that theme turned out to be really interesting.

Der heilige Berg (The Holy Mountain) is a German silent which is often mentioned as Leni Riefenstahl’s first film (as an actress). But Riefenstahl, quite frankly, was far better a director than an actress, and the film is interesting today mainly for other reasons.

Leni Riefenstahl in Der heilige Berg (1926)

The film is built around a very simple (and quite frankly somewhat far-fetched) plot about a love triangle where two friends, initially without realizing so, compete for the same woman (played by Riefenstahl). About the only strong part of the plot is the ending, which is moving (though a bit pathetic). But Der heilige Berg is not much about love and friendship anyway, nor about any specific characters.

This film resounds with two dominant chords, both vibrating with messages about nature. First of all about the wild, fierce and uncontrollable nature around us; especially the snow and the mountains, as contrasted by the sea. And second about human nature, more specifically it strongly romaticizes a physical ideal that lies close to the ideal of our own time. A sound mind in a sound body. That kind of thing. (The Nazis made this ideal their own, but director Arnold Fanck, though later forced to join the Nazi party, does not seem to have been a Nazi at heart.)

One section in the film shows a competition in Nordic combined, an interesting sport where ski jumping is combined with a cross-country ski race. The scenes from the competition are lengthy, but the interest is kept up all the way due to the excellent filming and the great variety of the scenes. It is also amazing to see what could be achieved even with the relatively primitive equipment they had available.

Der heilige Berg was made during the height of German Expressionism, and though it is sometimes cited as part of that movement, it is really much more strongly rooted in romanticism. There are touches of expressionism, such as in the exploration of the darkness of the human pshyche, but not at all as much in focus as in for example Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927).

This film is best enjoyed for its beautiful images and for its documentation of winter sports in the 1920s. Russian officials will be glad to know that it is free from any dangerous suggestions of homosexuality and thus perfectly safe to watch.

Nordic combination in Der heilige Berg (1926)

Der heilige Berg
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Year: 1926
Running time: 1 h 45 min
Language: German (English subtitles)
Director: Arnold Fanck
Stars: Leni Riefenstahl, Luis Trenker, Ernst Petersen
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (624 M)

Royal Wedding (1951)

There is something rather ridiculous about a royal wedding, such as Swedish Princess Madeleine’s last Saturday. Oh, not the wedding itself. I definitely endorse wedding as an institution and a tradition, and I also acknowledge anyone’s right to do it in pomp and style when the situation so requires. And I guess all the circus and media coverage around it is sort-of necessary as well.

The problem, rather, is that the occasion seems to be the signal for every single person in Sweden to have an opinion, whether warranted or not. The royalists, of course, tell us what is right and wrong, just as the anti-royalists tell us why it is all wrong. The newspaper editorials are full of opinions. The stand-up comedians cannot pass up on a chance for below-the-belt punches. And the Swedish tabloids are having a field day.

The film Royal Wedding, with Fred Astaire as the dancer Tom Bowen, has a lot less to do with royalty than the title may suggest. The film is set in 1947, with the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II) as a backdrop to the story.

Fred Astaire dancing with a hatstand in Royal Wedding (1953)

A tragic piece of trivia connected with this movie is that it marked the end of Judy Garland’s career at MGM. Due to mental illness and drug problems, Garland was often absent from rehearsals. As a consequence she was fired from MGM and made a half-hearted suicide attempt. She was replaced by Jane Powell in the role of Tom’s sister and dance partner Ellen.

Royal Wedding has been criticized for a stupid plot and bad dialogue. Well, that may be true, but is not of very much consequence. Quite frankly, I cannot think of a single musical that I would want to watch again because of the story. The point here is the music and the dancing. And with Astaire the dancing can only be top quality. The music is not bad either.

So, forget about the story and all the world’s royal weddings. Sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the all-time greatest artists of musical cinema. If you are unfamiliar with Astaire, you can do much worse than this for a first acquaintance.

This film is best enjoyed as a lesson in dancing creativity.

Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1953)

Royal Wedding
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Year: 1951
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Stanley Donen
Stars: Fred Astaire, Jane Powell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.9 G)