Nancy Drew… Reporter (1939)

Back when I was a kid in Sweden in the 1970s, there used to be a famous series of books for kids. (In fact, that series was published for almost 100 years, and there were over 3,000 titles.) The backs were alternately green, for boys, and red, for girls. I mostly read the green ones, with Biggles as my big favourite. But on occasion I was attracted to one of the red books as well, and in particular the ones about Nancy Drew.

Nancy Drew, the famous girl detective, has made it to the silver screen on several occasions, but the early films from the 1930s are said to be the best. The only one available at the Internet Archive, and quite a gem at that, is Nancy Drew… Reporter.

Thomas Jackson and Bonita Granville in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

I will be the first to admit that my memories of those juvenile books are far too sketchy to allow any comparisons with this movie version, but whether true to the original stories or not, it cannot be denied that Bonita Granville’s interpretation of Nancy Drew is fresh, charismatic and full of vigour. Sure, she acts something of a spoiled brat, but does so with such charm that you have to forgive her. Her performance is very good for the most part, especially in the dialogues.

The story, briefly, is that Nancy has entered a competition for young people to write the best news story. In order to get the best opportunity, she steals a real reporter’s assignment, which gets her involved in a murder case. But unlike everyone else, Nancy does not believe that the one the police suspects convicted the crime. So with the aid of her sidekick and her lawyer father, she decides to try to find and frame the real killer.

There is a certain similarity between this film and Danger Flight from the same year. Although one is for girls and one is for boys, both were made for juveniles, and both talk to the kids instead of talking down to them. This is certainly not always the case with modern juvenile films.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a feel-good movie. This one provides exactly that, and does it well. Look for no deeper meanings. Nostalgic sentiments for Nancy Drew are not required, but may augment your experience.

Bonita Granville, Frankie Thomas and Larry Williams in Nancy Drew... Reporter (1939)

Nancy Drew… Reporter
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Year: 1939
Running time: 60 min
Director: William Clemens
Stars: Bonita Granville
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.8 G)

Downhill (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are only rarely the suspense filled thrillers that we are used to from his later works. There are many dramas and a few comedies. Some are interesting only for tracing Hitchcock’s development, but a few are genuinely good. One of those is Downhill.

downhill

Downhill was the second time – after The Lodger (1927) – that Hitchcock used Ivor Novello as his leading actor. Novello, at the time highly popular, also worked on the script. Some believe that the story reflects Novello’s attitudes towards women. He was apparently a homosexual, and the women in Downhill are for the most part treacherous, deceiving and seeking lust or riches. This is a pretty risqué story, even though some of the moral implications may seem very dated today.

Another important theme is that of friendship and trust. The friends Roddy (Novello) and Tim (Robin Irvine, also very good) go to the same school and are interested in the same woman. When Tim makes her pregnant, Roddy takes the blame and is consequently expelled from school and disowned by his father. This is the start of his moral and economic downhill ride in society, a ride which is sometimes depicted with brutal sincerity.

Hitchcock’s image compositions are terribly elegant, sometimes bordering on overdone. The influence from German Expressionism can be clearly seen (F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) was one of Hitchcock’s major sources of inspiration). In fact, had this film been made in Germany, I am sure it would have been considered part of the German Expressionism.

This film is best enjoyed if you do not expect a “regular” Hitchcock. Downhill is a good silent drama, and Hitchcock is experimenting successfully with visual elements that he were to re-use later in many of his thrillers. The theme of the falsely accused is also used to great effect here. But no thriller or horror elements are to be expected, so while the lover of silent cinema is likely to enjoy this, the casual Hitchcock fan may find it a disappointment.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill (1927)

Downhill
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (969 M)

The Phantom Fiend (1932)

Last week, I wrote about Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous silent film, The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog. Hitchcock was to return many times to the themes he started to explore in that film, but never again to that particular story. Others were to do so in his place, and it was remade in sound several times, the first as early as 1932, titled simply The Lodger. In America, it was released with the title The Phantom Fiend, and that version is available at the Internet Archive, as well as many other online movie sites.

Ivor Novello and Elizabeth Allan in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

Ivor Novello reprised his role as the lodger who may or may not be a serial killer in a foggy and shadowy London. The overall story is exactly the same as in Hitchcock’s version, but some details differ. One of them is that Novello invested some of himself into his character. This time, the lodger, just like Novello in real life, is a musician and a composer.

Director Maurice Elvey was no Hitchcock. Even though he does retain or copy some of the expressionistic elements of the original, his film is not at all as sinister or visually dramatic. But this version has other qualities. The added dialogue together with a very good script, co-written by Ivor Novello himself, gives this film much more depth in its character portraits, and the overall plot feels more rounded and developed than in Hitchcock’s version. Which version you prefer is a matter of taste. Personally, I like both, but of course Hitchcock is always Hitchcock.

Curiously, the endings are quite different in the two versions. One might argue that neither ending is entirely satisfactory, or that they complement each other. Either way, it is interesting to compare the two.

This film is best enjoyed in its original (and considerably rarer) British release. The American cut available at the Internet Archive is unfortunately compressed by almost a half hour, something which is painfully obvious on occasion. But if you do not have access to the original, then you can still enjoy this short version and Ivor Novello’s magnetic screen personality.

Ivor Novello playing the violin in The Phantom Fiend / The Lodger (1932)

The Phantom Fiend
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Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 2 min
Director: Maurice Elvey
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (600 M)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog (1927)

I think it is safe to say that Alfred Hitchcock is best remembered today for his many suspenseful horror films and drama thrillers. His production of silent films is considerably less well-known, though some of them are not bad at all. In the 1920s, he was still perfecting his genius, but the fantastic storytelling skills can clearly be seen even in these early works. This is especially true of The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger was in fact the first film (as well as the only silent) in which Hitchcock developed his favourite theme: that of someone accused of a terrible crime and fleeing from justice. The police is investigating a series of murders in an area of London when a young man appears, seeking lodging with an elderly couple. The couple has a beautiful daughter, who is a perfect match for the muderer’s victims. They soon start to suspect that the young man may in fact be the killer, but they need evidence.

In my opinion, Hitchcock succeeds even better here than in many later films, such as The 39 Steps (1935) or Young and Innocent (1937), in upholding the suspense. Up until a few minutes from the end, the audience is never quite sure whether the protagonist is guilty or not.

Of all the films in Hitchcock’s output, this is perhaps the one that most clearly shows his debt to German Expressionism. A few years previously, he had been present during the filming of the great expressionist F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Der letzte Mann (1924), and the influence can be clearly seen here.

The Lodger was not only Hitchcock’s first suspense thriller, but also the first film where he made his famous cameo appearance. The reason is said to have been that he had to fill in for an extra who did not show up. The cameo is so hard to spot that there is no way I would have seen it if I had not known beforehand where to look, but if you want some sport you can try to spot him for yourself.

This film is best enjoyed by Hitchcock enthusiasts who want to explore the master’s early work, but it has quite unfairly fallen into the shadow of Hitchcock’s later production. The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog has many good qualities, and is quite able to stand on its own legs. In the category of silent suspense thriller, it holds up well to the competition. In addition, this was without a doubt the peak of Ivor Novello’s short career in the movies. The film is worth seeing for that reason alone, since he was a fine and unique actor.

Ivor Novello and June Tripp in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger - A Story of the London Fog (1927)

The Lodger – A Story of the London Fog
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: Excellent; orchestral music synchronised with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

The 39 Steps (1935)

About two thirds of Alfred Hitchcock’s production from the 1930s is available at the Internet Archive. There are also a handful of his 1920s silents, but only the rare oddity from later in his career.

Those 1930s films are an odd bunch. Some films, such as the historical drama Jamaica Inn or the comedy Waltzes from Vienna seem like very surprising choices of scripts and themes compared with the films that have become his true legacy. Others clearly point the way to his great Hollywood thrillers. This is especially true for The 39 Steps.

Robert Donat on a train in Alfred Hitchcock's  The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps is arguably Hitchcock’s best 1930s film. The production values are higher than his earlier productions and some of those immediately following, partly due to a higher budget. Hitchcock had a sometimes unfortunate love for sound stages, rear projections and scale models in favour of outdoor shoots, things which are far less conspicuous in this production.

Hitchcock here for the first time manages to combine two of his favourite themes: spies and the innocent man on the run. This is definitely an essential work in his career, foreboding many of the films to come. It is not known to me why this shift came about, but there can be no doubt that this was the kind of story that Hitchcock liked to work with.

The film is also famous for a segment where Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (playing the hero and his very unwilling lady) have to make a getaway while handcuffed to one another. Even though this part of the film is little more than ten minutes in length, it feels much longer due to Hitchcock’s expert way of making the most out of the situation’s drama.

This film is best enjoyed with good image and sound quality. Several versions are available at the Internet Archive, and I haved naturally linked to the best one. When I first saw the film myself it was from a very poor quality DVD, which was not as enjoyable as I would haved liked. This version is much better and has actually helped to raise my esteem for this movie to even greater heights.

Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps (1935)

The 39 Steps
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (804 M)

Young and Innocent (1937)

One of Hitchcock‘s most common themes, and one which remained with him for almost his entire career, is that of an innocent man (or woman) who has to flee from the authorities in order to clean his name. There is also bound to be a bit of romance and love along the way. Hitchcock’s most famous movie of this kind was perhaps North by Northwest, but he used it many times, even in one of his early silent films.

Nova Pilbeam and Derrick De Marney in Alfred Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent (known as The Girl Was Young in America) is a typical example. Here we see young Robert who happens to be the first to find a murdered woman. It turns out that the murder was committed with a belt from a raincoat, just such a raincoat that Robert claims was stolen from him earlier. To make matters worse, Robert appears to have a motive since he had unfinished business with the woman.

Hitchcock’s way of telling the story is typical. There is never any doubt about where our sympathies are supposed to lie, just as there is never any real doubt that the ending will be a happy one. So very soon after the film has begun, we know pretty much how the story will end. And even so, Hitchcock manages to enthrall us, and makes us stay spellbound right up to the very end.

The excitement in this kind of Hitchcock story stems not from the uncertainty about the ending, as in a good whodunnit, but in what way we are going to get there. Our protagonist is placed in a seemingly endless series of predicaments, each of which seems nearly without escape. Thus, Hitchcock manages to build simultaneously upon our inherent demand for security and our wish to be excited and just a little bit terrified.

It is interesting that the novel upon which Young and Innocent was based is originally a whodunnit, but Hitchcock took away and added elements until he had the story he was interested in telling.

There is a clear relationship between this “falsely accused” subgenre and the road movie genre, since the plot often involves the protagonist fleeing from place to place, trying to pick up clues or just staying one step ahead of his hunters. However, unlike a proper road movie, there is rarely much real character development evident in Hitchcock’s protagonists.

This film is best enjoyed for Hitchcock’s masterful storytelling techniques, not least the wonderful dolly tracking sequence through the ballroom and onto extreme closeup on the face of a band member. Brilliant and elegant.

George Curzon in Alfred Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937)

Young and Innocent
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Nova Pilbeam, Derrick De Marney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

The Phantom Empire (1935)

The term “cliffhanger” comes from the old movie serials, especially those of the 1930s through 1950s. Each episode always ended with one of the heroes stuck in an apparently impossible position, quite often seeming to die with no possibility of rescue. Then the next episode starts with a resolution where, lo and behold, the hero survives after all and can go on chasing the baddies.

I have seen a number of serials, maybe fifteen or so, and the first and only time I ever saw a cliffhanger where the heroes are actually hanging (and falling) off a cliff is in The Phantom Empire. It is much more common that the hero crashes a plane or a car, “cliffhanger” variations which are also used in that same serial.

Frankie Darro, Gene Autry and Betsy King Ross in a cliffhanger in The Phantom Empire (1935)

But The Phantom Empire’s fame does not rest in its possibly naming the cliffhanger gimmick (there were probably others before it anyway). The reason why it is exciting and to some extent unique is the peculiar blend between western adventure and science fiction.

In the serial, Gene Autry, who plays himself, owns the Radio Ranch. He makes daily radio broadcasts with music and live theatre, and he needs to continue making them, or he will lose his contract and cannot afford to keep the ranch. So far, nothing spectacular about the setup.

But then there is the team of scientists, who are secretly trying to locate the underground kingdom of Murania to rob its treasure of radium. Not to mention the Muranians themselves, a lost race of scientifically advanced cave dwellers who sometimes come to the surface just near Radio Ranch. And to top that off, Gene Autry is suspected of murdering a man and has to make his broadcasts in secret, or the sheriff will capture him.

As you can probably guess, the plot is not always logical or coherent. But compared with many other serials, it is fairly intricate, and even though it may seem inane at times, it moves along at a breakneck pace. This serial has much fewer choreographed fist fights than, for example, the Captain America serial, and the reason is that there is enough plot without those fights to fill up the episodes.

I think the reason why I find that sci-fi and western genre-crossing has such strong potential is that both (westerns, in particular) are genres that are very much stuck in their respective sets of clichés. When those clichés clash, the filmmakers are forced to be creative. This does not always lead to good film, but it often leads to thought-provoking and entertaining solutions.

I have searched at IMDb and other sites, and as far as I can figure, The Phantom Empire was the first ever cross between western and science fiction, at least on film. It was soon followed by some others, but over the past eighty years, there have been relatively few such films. Two other examples from the 30s are available at the Internet Archive: Ghost Patrol and Sky Racket.

Underground civilizations were not exactly a new idea when this serial was released. A hollow earth was suggested by Edmond Halley (for whom Halley’s comet is named) as early as 1692. Others expanded upon his theory, adding large polar openings from the outer surface, and an internal sun to warm and light the inner world.

The idea was used in fiction by several writers; among the immediate predecessors in the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s were stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ralph Milne Farley. Technically speaking, The Phantom Empire is not a hollow earth story, since the setting is not a hollow earth but a gigantic cavern 22,000 ft. below the surface. It is clear, however, that it comes from the same tradition, and judging from the similarities of titles, the direct inspiration was perhaps the non-fictional work The Phantom of the Poles published in 1906 by William Reed.

If you find that watching an entire serial is a bit stiff, but are still interested in the story and production, this serial, like many others, was also released as a shorter feature version, which is also downloadable.

This serial is best enjoyed if not taken too seriously. It is fun, camp and wonderfully silly. To boot, The Phantom Empire, like many other western serials, contains some really nice horseback stunts.

Gene Autry, Dorothy Christy (as Queen Tika) and a robot in The Phantom Empire (1935)

The Phantom Empire
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1935
Running time: 3 h 57 min
Directors: Otto Brower, B Reeves Eason
Stars: Gene Autry
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable