The Lost World (1925)

Those of you who follow this blog may have (correctly) come to the conclusion that I like silent film. That is not only because many silents have considerable artistic merits, but also because they provide exciting insights into the history of cinema.

Take The Lost World, for example. It was a movie that truly rocked the young medium, and the repercussions of which you can still feel in the cinematic world today. What the big-budget, special effects-heavy adventure movie would have been without it we shall never know. Not the same, for sure.

Bessie Love, Lewis Stone, Lloyed Hughes, Wallace Beery and Arthur Hoyt in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World is based on the Arthur Conan Doyle novel of the same name, and tells the story of an expedition that set out to explore a hidden plateau where a scientist was recently reported to have found living dinosaurs. The scientist’s daughter joins the expedition, as does Professor Challenger; his first appearance in both written and cinematic form.

The Lost World is in many ways the archetypal exploration movie. I guess there may have been other similar films before it, but probably none were as influential as this one. The plot introduces us to a team of explorers, including a leader, a reporter, an expert and a woman. Through hardships and adventures they travel to a location that is distant, exotic and hard to find. Many of the plot elements and character archetypes in this film reappear in later films, such as Flight to Mars (1951).

This film is best enjoyed for the special effects, spectacular for their time. Even though the stop motion animation used was considerably improved by later filmmakers, one must really admire the craft and imagination that breathe life into the huge dinosaurs of the lost world.

Triceratops in Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (1925)

The Lost World
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Year: 1925
Running time: 1 h 16 min
Director: Harry O. Hoyt
Stars: Wallace Beery
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Soundtrack: Excellent; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (580 M)

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Tien shan gong zhu (1941)

The Internet Archive is an American site, and at times it shows. Some collections feature exclusively American material, and there is a considerable predominance of American films overall, not least fictional films.

But the site’s greatness reflects in those exceptions of interesting and sometimes hard-to-find international films that do exist. One good example is the Chinese film Tien shan gong zhu (铁扇公主), usually known in English as Princess Iron Fan (a direct translation of the title).

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu is loosely based on characters and situations from Chinese folklore and legend, such as the popular character Monkey King, who is one of the film’s main characters. In this tale, the Monkey King and his friends need to find a magical fan that can save a village from fire. Along their way, they encounter many creatures and demons.

The animation is a bit rough when compared with high-end American animation from the same time, such as Victory thruogh Air Power (1943) or the Superman series, but in its best moments it is reminiscent of early Disney animations, which is not bad. Just like in early Disney, there are often little amusing details to be found and enjoyed in the animation. The backgrounds are often of spectacular quality.

This film was made at a time when China was partly occupied by Japanese forces. The film also found its way to Japan, where it became very popular, so popular that it is said to have been a significant influence upon the anime that started to emerge later, in the 1950s and 1960s.

Far too often, non-American movies are hard to find without dubbing. Dubbing is often terrible, but in this case the soundtrack is the original Chinese. Fortunately, subtitles in English and some other languages are available.

Two versions of the film are available at the Internet Archive, and they are roughly equal in quality. The one mainly linked from this post is the one where you can find subtitles (also compatible with the other version), but the other one has the benefit of some image noise reduction and black borders from the original image have been cropped.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore classic animation outside America. It has unexpected qualities, and is particularly enjoyable for its burlesque imagination.

Tie shan gong zhu / Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Tien shan gong zhu
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Language: Mandarin Chinese (subtitles in various languages)
Directors: Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×416; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (396 M)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

So you thought that Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first Oz adaptation on film? Not even close! And it was not the first good one, either (even though it could arguably be said to be the best).

In fact, Oz film was incorporated into what has later been described as “a multimedia presentation” as early as 1908, and the first Oz film proper, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was released two years later. But the really interesting titles started to appear a hundred years ago, as three Oz films were released in 1914. The best of them is The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

On trial before Ozma of Oz and the Wizard of Oz in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

L. Frank Baum (the writer of the original Oz books) was very interested in the film medium, and he took an active interest in these productions, acting as writer and co-producer through his own short-lived production company. For fans of the original books, this makes the trio of films highly interesting. As an added bonus, they are actually very good for films that old.

Ojo and his uncle live in poverty, so they decide to go to the Emerald City. Along the way, they witness a magician creating a girl from patches, and Ojo decides to insert some brains into the girl when no-one is watching. Then there seems to be footage missing (the film was almost double the length originally, according to Wikipedia), as Ojo’s uncle and some others become petrified for no apparent reason. Ojo and his friends must search the magical lands of Oz for a cure to the petrification. Their search will eventually lead to the Emerald City itself.

Baum’s Oz films were probably among the first to be made specifically as family entertainment. That means that the plots are fairly simple, there is a lot of slapstick comedy, and there are many actors dressed up as donkeys, apes and other animals.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is in many ways typical of films from the period before The Birth of a Nation (1915). Almost exclusively shot with a single stationary camera and simple (though well-made) special effects, such as double exposure or stop-motion. But where this particular film sticks out is in its effective use of acrobatics, especially by the title’s patchwork girl.

The other two 1914 Oz films produced by Baum, by the way, are The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. These are also good, but tend to be a bit slow and incoherent.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. Since none such is available at the Internet Archive, I suggest that you put on some upbeat instrumental music in the background. Unlike silent dramas or romantic comedy, this one is not terribly dependent on a score that adapts to the various moods in the film.

The Patchwork Girl meets the Scarecrow in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz
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Year: 1914
Running time: 44 min
Director: J. Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (785×576)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (521 M)

Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Last week I wrote about the original The Thief of Bagdad with Douglas Fairbanks. That film was remade in England in 1940. Well, not a remake, exactly, since there was very little left of Fairbanks’ story, but it shared the title and a number of central themes.

The 1940 movie did not stay very close to The Arabian Nights stories. It developed the fantastic characters (the thief, the sultan, the princess, the genie) and their surroundings (the architecture, the clothes, the magical objects), but wove these into completely new stories, not based on the original film nor the books.

The success was spectacular (it is still a magnificent film) and it opened the gates for a flood of imitators. In 1942 came Hollywood’s response, Arabian Nights (the second-ever Technicolor movie), and in 1944 there were two more. Through the rest of the 40s and most of the 50s, Hollywood released on average one new Arabian Nights film every two years, culminating in 1958 with Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. After that there were considerably fewer Arabian Nights movies from Hollywood for a while, which is ironic, considering that Harryhausen was the first one in eighteen years who actually offered something original to the genre.

Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Maureen O'Hara in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Typical of the kind was Sinbad the Sailor, the only one of these films that seems to exist at the Internet Archive. It follows the 1940 Thief tradition in that it uses some characters and themes from The Arabian Nights, but the stories told, indeed the entire storytelling strucutres, have nothing to do with the books.

Sinbad, who beside Aladdin is the most frequent Arabian Nights hero in the movies, tells the story of how he (once again) is about to embark on his previously unknown eighth voyage. (I wonder exactly how many eighth voyages of Sinbad there are.) In this telling, in accordance with the Hollywood Arabian Nights tradition, Sinbad is a thief and a swindler, rather than the peaceful merchant from the books. It all begins as he finds a ship adrift, the crew having been killed by poison in the drinking water. He and his sidekick Abbu take the ship to port, hoping to claim it as theirs. In the captain’s cabin they find an interesting chart and a medallion, and this sets them on the course for Alexander the Great’s(!) fabulous treasure. But others are also looking for the same treasure, including the beautiful woman Shireen.

Compared with The Thief of Bagdad (both versions), Sinbad the Sailor is cheaply made and does not really offer anything new. But it is still worthwhile if you are interested in Hollywood’s treatment of The Arabian Nights. Though cheaper, the sets share the fantastic and magical qualities of the older movies.

It becomes even more interesting because it features Douglas Fairbanks’ son, Douglas Jr., in the title role. Junior was not a bad actor and made a decent career, but he was doomed to act in his father’s shadow. Occasionally, as in this case, he was cast in an apparent attempt to reflect some of the light from his father’s greatest successes.

This film is best enjoyed for the colourful and interesting characters, which make up for the sometimes rather thin plot.

The Arabian Nights, as seen in Sinbad the Sailor (1947)

Sinbad the Sailor
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Year: 1947
Running time: 1 h 38 min
Director: Richard Wallace
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: h.264 (688 M)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Arabian Nights. The very name suggests oriental mystery. Genies, flying carpets, tale-spinning princesses and giant rocs. The truth, though, is that the cultural fingerprint of the Nights is just as much a product of Western imagination as of Eastern. Even the first European translator, Antoine Galland, interpreted the original texts in his own ways, and added considerably from other sources. Thus, most of the well-known stories, such as those about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad, are not even part of the original collection.

The influence of The Arabian Nights on European culture during the past three hundred years has been tremendous, and early film makers were not late to catch on. On the Internet Archive can be found a delightful little French film from as early as 1902 titled Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs.

Douglas Fairbanks and Julanne Johnston in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The first feature-length production, however, was probably Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad. Fairbanks, at the time, was the most brightly shining star in Hollywood, and had more or less single-handedly created the costume adventure genre, as it still appears in Hollywood. Already, he had played Zorro, Robin Hood and d’Artagnan in interpretations that continue to define them to this day. No mean feat, that.

Unlike previous cinematic attempts, Fairbanks’ version of The Arabian Nights did not follow any of the original tales exactly. Instead, Fairbanks and his writers took bits and pieces from various tales and stitched them together with other elements, most notably the ever-present Hollywood romantic drama as the core of the story.

By and large, however, Fairbanks was still true to the original themes. The thief, although far from typical, exists as a heroic character in at least one tale, and the story of the poor boy who becomes a prince is of course from Aladdin. Most other major plot elements can also be traced to Galland’s version of the work, and archetypal objects, such as the flying carpet, exist more or less within their original dramatic contexts.

In the years following immediately after its release, however, The Thief of Bagdad was less important as an interpretation of The Arabian Nights. Its immediate effect was to reinforce Fairbanks’ status as “The King of Hollywood” and, in particular, the master of the costume adventure.

This film is best enjoyed for the magnificent sets, Fairbanks’ cat-like athletics, and his powerful screen personality. It is literally cinematic history in the making, and thoroughly enjoyable at that.

Snitz Edwards and Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

The Thief of Bagdad
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 20 min
Director: Raoul Walsh
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (629 M)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon, one of the pioneer adventure and science fiction comic strips, debuted 80 years ago tomorrow. The strip, famous for its powerful and detailed art, as well as its fantastic monsters and unexpected plot twists, has been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.

One of the better such adaptations, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, is available for download from the Internet Archive. It was originally conceived as a live action movie in the late 1970s, but it was decided that it would cost too much to make and was redressed as an animation instead. That animated movie, in turn, was converted into a Saturday morning cartoon series, and the finished movie lay waiting for three years until it was finally aired in 1982.

Thun, Flash Gordon and Barin in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

The basic plot is familiar to all who know their Flash Gordon. Flash, a world-famous athlete, is travelling in a plane with reporter Dale Arden as they are hit by a meteor storm. The plane crashes, but the two are rescued by half-mad scientist Dr. Zarkov. Zarkov takes them aboard his spaceship and they all fly to the planet Mongo where they have to save the Earth from the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Overall, this particular film follows the plot closer than most (certainly closer than the 1980 live action feature, the only redeeming qualities of which are Queen and Max von Sydow). An added subplot about Hitler’s connection with Ming neither adds nor subtracts anything substantial.

The strength of this film is its script. It pulls off the balance between faithfulness to the source material and the different requirements of the film medium in an excellent way. The pacing is just right and the characters are good. I am not all that fond of the animation, though, which is in the style of the Saturday morning cartoons it was later turned into. But if you enjoy that kind of stuff then the animation is decently well made. Me, I would have preferred a much more realistic style, similar to Alex Raymond’s art on the original strip.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Flash Gordon, but anyone who likes some good escapism should find this to their taste.

Flash Gordon battles Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All
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Year: 1982
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Stars: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (1.6 G)