Duck and Cover (1952)

“This is Tony, going to his Cub Scout meeting. Tony knows the Bomb can explode anytime, day or night, any time of year. He’s ready for it. Duck and cover!”

Oh, yeah. Those American kids of the 1950s were ready, all right. Thanks to governmental terror propaganda, every kid knew what to do when the Communists dropped the Bomb. After all, they were told what to do in the film Duck and Cover, part of our October Short Film Month spotlight.

Bert the Turtle and a monkey in Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover is part animation, part live action. It begins and ends with Bert the Turtle giving some sound advice about what to do when faced with an atomic bomb, or a monkey with a stick of dynamite. In between, a soothing voice tells us that everything will be allright if you take cover underneath your school bench, or behind a low wall, or just anyplace you can find.

Today, Duck and Cover may look silly and ridiculous, but it must be remembered that in the 1950s, the danger of nuclear war seemed very real, and probably was. Even though Russia and Communism are not mentioned, even indirectly, the film was nevertheless a tool for strengthening patriotic awareness.

The advice given, to duck and cover, may not be as inane as it seems at first glance. Even an atomic bomb will not kill every living thing within the blast radius, and the more cover you have, the better your chances of survival. The film only becomes ridiculous because it nowhere gives any hint of exactly how dangerous and terrible a nuclear explosion actually is. It gives the impression that if you just cover yourself with a picnic blanket, you might be perfectly safe.

Duck and Cover is not a great film by any standards. The animations in particular are cheap, and the rest is nothing special. So you do not watch this film on any cinematographic merits.

This film is best enjoyed for providing some amusing perspective on a world that was still a reality only thirty years ago. But if you think about it, the film can also be seen as a powerful allegory to some politicians’ solutions to today’s problems like climate change, migration or foreign wars. Just duck and cover, and everything will be all right. (And don’t forget to cover your head with that newspaper.)

Man hiding under newspaper when the Atomic Bomb strikes, from Duck and Cover (1951)

Duck and Cover
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Year: 1952
Running time: 9 min
Director: Anthony Rizzo
Stars: Robert Middleton (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (322 M)

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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
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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
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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)

The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

One of the many genres that can be found at the Internet Archive is educational films. Most of these are quite old, and some are terribly outdated. Two examples of outdated but extremely interesting (not to mention amusing) films are Duck and Cover (1951) and Destination Earth (1956). But like most other educational films, those are too short to be relevant for this blog.

Better, both in terms of length and fact content, is one of the films that was produced as part of the classic The Bell Laboratory Science Series. The series consisted of nine different educational films on scientific topics that were tremendously popular and influential in the 1950s and 1960s. The one that has been chosen for today’s post is The Alphabet Conspiracy. The choice was made not only because it has aged with reasonable dignity, but also because the film very neatly ties in with characters from Alice in Wonderland. Throughout the film, the Mad Hatter and Jabberwock run around trying to devise a scheme to kill the alphabet (hence, the title of the film).

Dr. Frank Baxter, Cheryl Callaway, Dolores Starr as Jabberwock and Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy is an old film and linguistics is an evolving field of science. Hence, some parts are a bit quaint or even outdated. For example, the part about baby language acquisition is not consistent with modern views. But unlike the above-mentioned short films (which are perhaps bordering on propaganda), The Alphabet Conspiracy was firmly grounded in the science of its day. Even now, it is not laughable. Just a bit old.

But even while care must be taken with the fact content, perhaps the content is not what is most important anymore. Far more interesting is the dramatic structure, including the fantastic sets, the nice animations, the literary characters, the neat dialogue and the slow-moving but effective cutting. In these respects, The Alphabet Conspiracy outshines most of its contemporary competition, and even most present-day educational films. I work as a teacher. I know these things far too well.

Several other films from the same series are available at the Internet Archive. Those I have been able to track down are Our Mr. Sun (1956), Gateways to the Mind (1958) and Thread of Life (1960). The one I had most wanted to see, however, is not there, namely The Restless Sea (1964). It is the last film in the series, and it has Walt Disney as host.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to learn some basic facts about linguistics, or if you just want to enjoy the nice Alice in Wonderland references, or the fine animations. Or if you simply want to admire some classic, not to mention classy, educational material.

Dolores Starr as Jabberwock, Hans Conreid as Mad Hatter, Dr. Frank Baxter and Cheryl Callaway having a tea party in The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959)

The Alphabet Conspiracy
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Year: 1959
Running time: 52 min
Director: Robert B. Sinclair
Stars: Frank C. Baxter
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.9 G)

College (1927)

There can be no doubt, in my mind at least, that Buster Keaton was the master of comedy in the 1920s. Sure, Chaplin and Lloyd were also brilliant, each in his own way, but none of them reached Keaton’s levels in terms of perfection, athleticism and timing. He was, simply put, damn funny.

Lucky for us, then, that practically all of his best films are available at the Internet Archive. One good example, and one of my personal favourites, is College.

Buster Keaton playing baseball in College (1927)

Keaton here plays the bookworm Ronald who really wants to study to perfect his life, but the girl he falls in love with will only accept him if he joins the college with the best athletics, and proves that he can handle sports as well as books.

If you watch this film because you are interested in sports in the 1920s (not a very bad reason) then you will have to wait a while before the real athletic action starts. But it is worth the wait!

In addition to the sports, there are some absolutely wonderfully funny scenes with Keaton as a bartender. Well worth watching for those alone.

If you cannot stand silent film without a soundtrack, there is another copy with a piano score (not sure how good it is) but considerably lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed by any fan of silent film in general or Buster Keaton in particular. Keaton really shows how to make a perfect comedy here.

Buster Keaton failing at the pole vault in College (1927)

College
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Director: James W Horne, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPG4 (933 M)

The Stars Look Down (1940)

There is something about British film, and I just cannot seem to put my finger on what it is. For one thing, a film with such pronounced social relism as The Stars Look Down could never have been made by a major Hollywood studio. Just compare it with John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath from the same year, which is an excellent film but much more romanticized.

Mine workers rioting in The Stars Look Down (1940)

But there is something else as well. Even when looking at a film such as Q Planes (1939), a film which is clearly influenced by Hollywood in terms of theme and dramaturgy, there is a kind of British fingerprint. It seems to me that there is something in the dialogue and body language of the actors, and it lies beyond superficial things like that lovely British accent.

But let us go back to The Stars Look Down. Davey lives in a small English town. He works in the coal mine, just like his father and his brother, but his sharp intelligence has earned him a scholarship at a university, and he starts to become politically active. Love gets in the way of his academic aspirations, but there are still important fights to fight for his fellow coal miners.

The Stars Look Down is not only a film about the hard life of the miners. It is also about the conflicts between family and career, between different social classes, and between profit and maximum welfare for all.

The edition available at the Internat Archive is, unfortunately, the American release, which has minor but unnecessary changes at the beginning and end, making it significantly more romanticized, melodramatic, even. Speaking of differences between British and American film.

This film is best enjoyed for its believable and warm portrayal of the lives of English miners. It handles all of its various themes well, and weaves them together into a balanced whole, but the beginning and end, which let us into the miners’ lives, are clearly the high points of a very good film.

Michael Redgrave in The Stars Look Down (1940)

The Stars Look Down
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Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 34 min
Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Michael Redgrave
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (700 M)