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)

La petite marchande d’allumettes (1928)

So, here we go again. Another new year begins, along with the usual celebrations. A few close friends; good food and wine; some fireworks. It is at times like these that one should perhaps, at least for a minute, stop and think about life. About how fortunate we are to be born at a time and place where there is really very little to worry about. Jean Renoir helps us find that reflective mood, through his 1928 masterful adaptation of H.C. Andersen’s La petite marchande d’allumettes (The Little Match Girl).

Manuel Raaby and Catherine Hessling in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

It was just before the great breakthrough of sound film, and the silent film medium was at its artistic peak. Europe was spearheading the development through filmmakers like Fritz Lang (e.g. Metropolis), Carl Theodor Dreyer (e.g. La passion de Jeanne d’Arc) and F.W. Murnau (e.g. Der letzte Mann). La petite marchande d’allumettes falls right into this tradition with its splendid use of composition, cutting, lighting and costumes.

I guess you know the story already from your childhood. A poor match girl goes out on New Year’s Eve to sell matches, even though her shoes and clothes are pitifully inadequate. When she fails to sell any, she lies down in the cold snow to dream about the toys she saw in a shop window. Renoir’s dream sequence bears traces of the German expressionism, which was extremely strong in Germany about this time.

This film is best enjoyed as a fine example of late 1920s European filmmaking. The film is short, but given the story it sets out to tell, it could not have been made much longer and still kept the interest up.

Jean Storm, Catherine Hessling and Amy Wells in The Little Match Girl / La petite marchande d'allumettes (1928)

La petite marchande d’allumettes
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Year: 1928
Running time: 32 min
Language: French (English subtitles)
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Catherine Hessling
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; harmonium music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: H.264 (189 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)

Aelita (1924)

This week, I conclude my little “trilogy” of Mars-related films with the earliest of the lot, namely Russian Aelita (Аэлита), sometimes called Aelita – Queen of Mars. Even though it was made as early as 1924, it was not the first feature-length Mars film. That honour goes to the Danish film Himmelskibet (1918), but in many ways, the Russian film feels much more modern. For example, the Mars voyage is made with a rocket instead of a large bi-plane!

Yuliya Solntseva showcasing Martian fashion in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita was loosely based on a book by Aleksei Tolstoy. This may seem surprising to those who do not perceive Tolstoy as a science fiction writer, but that is because there were actually two writers by the same name (and also the even more well-known Leo Tolstoy). At any rate, though science fiction is somewhat thematically important to the plot, it is actually more about domestic life in the Soviet Union than about space travel and Mars. It holds many allegorical and propagandistic messages, and one of them seems to be that one should strive for the good of society, rather than useless stuff like space travel. The film has been accused both of being pro-revolutionary and anti-revolutionary. At any rate, it is not quite as simple in this regard as it may at first seem.

For the modern viewer who expects a science fiction masterpiece (which it is, to some extent), the ending must be admitted to be somewhat anti-climactic and dissatisfying. Said ending does have several other qualities, however, and should not be entirely dismissed in terms of character development and bringing closure to some aspects of the story. I will not reveal the details in advance, but expect some abruptness in the final twists.

This film is best enjoyed for its groundbreaking and fantastic use of sets and costume. It has been strongly influential, directly and indirectly, on a large number of Western sci-fi films, including Flight to Mars and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe.

Konstantin Eggert and Yuri Zavadsky in Aelita - Queen of Mars (1924)

Aelita
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Yakov Protazanov
Stars: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (712×520)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (988 M)

Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

I guess you know the feeling. You watched a film and had very few preconceived notions, except you knew that some other people liked it a lot. And it blew you totally away, because it was like nothing you ever saw before, and like nothing you will ever see again. Hans Richter’s Dreams that Money Can Buy was like that for me.

Jack Bittner in Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

When I started to watch this film, I knew only that it was about some person creating dreams for others, and that it is something of a cult favourite. I had certainly not expected a surrealist artistic experiment, and if I did not know it was from 1947, I would never have believed it was older than 1965.

According to IMDb, the film cost only $25,000 and was shot in a Manhattan loft. Quite frankly, that shows at times. Many cuts, especially the hidden ones for special effects, look more like something from the early silent era, yet this is not disturbing. It blends with the film’s overall surrealism and becomes part of its identity and unique character.

In addition to the director, Hans Richter, many famous avant-garde artists and composers, such as Man Ray and Max Ernst, collaborated on the dream sequences. For this reason, each dream has its very own flavour, and fans of the film often cite their favourite dream.

This film is best enjoyed if you are in the mood for a surreal experience.

Dreams that Money Can Buy (1947)

Dreams that Money Can Buy
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Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Hans Richter
Stars: Jack Bittner
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: h.264 (688 M)