Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria
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Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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Under the Red Robe (1937)

It seems to me that there is often something special about films set during the period of king Louis XIII (with Cardinal Richelieu in the head of government). I guess it is the gilt from The Three Musketeers, with all of its nice adaptations, that rubs off a bit. One such film that can be found at the Internet Archive is Under the Red Robe.

Conrad Veidt in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

This romantic adventure finds the swordsman Gil de Berault in trouble. He is in danger of being executed for duelling, but the sly Cardinal Richelieu gives him an opportunity for pardon if he can find and capture a rebellious protestant. de Berault eagerly sets off to do the task, but as the plot progresses, he is about to find obstacles he had not anticipated.

The director of this typical genre piece was Victor Sjöström (sometimes called “Victor Seastrom” in Hollywood, as also in this British production). Sjöström started making film in Sweden, where he directed simple melodramas in the early 1910s. He quickly moved to more advanced topics, and made several timeless classics, such as The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and The Phantom Carriage (1921). Sjöström was recruited to Hollywood, where he also made several very good silents, but in the early 1930s, he moved back to Europe. He still acted and produced films, but for some reason he directed very few of his own in the sound era. Under the Red Robe, his last film, is nowhere near as groundbreaking as some of his classic works, but it is a nice piece of craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, the copy at the Internet Archive is pretty blurry in places, and contrast is poor overall. I know of no better online version, however.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a fan of either Conrad Veidt (de Berault) or Raymond Massey (Richelieu). Both are very good, even though I think Massey (always an enjoyable and dedicated actor) perhaps overacts a bit at times. The female lead, Annabella, is given first billing in the credits, but even though she is also good as the sister of the religious rebel, she is mostly forgotten nowadays.

Conrad Veidt and Annabella in Victor Sjöström's Under the Red Robe (1937)

Under the Red Robe
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Conrad Veidt, Annabella
Image quality: Acceptabe
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (577 M)

October 1917 (1928)

Tomorrow, it was exactly one hundred years ago that the Russian October revolution started (Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time; hence the confusion about the specific month). That was the final stage of the Russian revolution, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and, some forty years later, to the Cold War. And even though the Soviet Union has since been dismantled, it is no great exaggeration to say that those events still contribute to shaping the world into what it is. The most famous film about these events is Sergei Eisenstein’s October 1917, perhaps more commonly known as October: Ten Days that Shook the World, or in Russian Октябрь (Десять дней, которые потрясли мир).

The cruiser Aurora in Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

A great many of Sergein Eisenstein’s films are connected, one way or another, with the causes and effects of the Russian revolution. Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925), for example, deal with events that in the official communist history writing are essential steps on the way to the forming of the Soviet Union, while films like The General Line (1929) detail the wonders that the revolution led to. October 1917 is the essence and the focal work of these two themes, as it deals directly with the revolution itself, and the events surrounding the Bolshevik uprising.

I am sure that a historian would have much to say about the plot of the film. Like any other Soviet film dealing with history or communism in any way, the historic events have naturally been adapted to fit into the communist ideological perspective. The first Russian revolution, the February revolution (which, for the same reasons, was in March, Gregorian time), is briefly depicted, then the depravity and corruption during the next few months, as the new government turned out just as bad as the Tsarist regime. Then, after Lenin has convinced the Bolsheviks that action is necessary, the events during the night between October 25 and October 26 are told in some detail. We see how the cruiser Aurora moves up to the place where the cannons could be fired as a starting signal. We also see how the cossacks and the female Death Squadron are won over to the just cause, and many other key events.

This film is best enjoyed for Eisenstein’s artistic and skillful telling of a story, whether historically accurate or not. His amazing cutting and use of imagery and metaphor must be experienced by anyone who has the least interest in cinematic history. And though I would recommend Battleship Potemkin first if you want to watch just one Eisenstein film (especially considering how much better that Internet Archive copy is), October 1917 is should also be on your to-see list.

Sergei Eisenstein's October 1917 / October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928)

October
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Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 42 min
Language: English
Director: Sergei Eisenstein
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (689 M)

The Night America Trembled (1957)

H. G. Wells’ groundbreaking 19th Century science fiction novel The War of the Worlds is fascinating, not only in itself, but just as much because of all the adaptations and sequels it has spawned. Not only has it resulted in six feature films (the 1953 version is a classic), an infamous TV series, an amazing music album by Jeff Wayne and countless comic adaptations. Perhaps most well-known of all is the 1938 radio dramatization by Orson Welles, an adaptation that allegedly created mass panic (historical consensus nowadays seems to be that it was not quite as bad as all that). Today is the 79th anniversary of that broadcast.

Panic or no panic, the radio drama, together with the events following, has itself been adapted on numerous occasions. Perhaps the first such adaptation was an episode of the CBS TV series Studio One, titled The Night America Trembled.

Warren Beatty and Warren Oates in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

After a brief introduction, the episode begins with a car racing along a deserted highway. We hear the radio. A voice is talking about the ongoing invasion. The car takes another bend, but too fast. A crash, then everything goes silent. All we see is a spinning wheel.

Through the rest of the episode, we get to follow a number of different people. We see and hear their reactions, and we also get to follow important events in their lives, as they play out to the background of, and sometimes augmented by, the radio.

The cast of this adaptation of an adaptation contains several young actors who would later rise to various levels of fame, not least Warren Beatty and James Coburn. Orson Welles, who both directed and played the main character in the original play, is here played by Robert Blackburn. However, Welles is not once mentioned by name.

In addition to The Night America Trembled, the Internet Archive contains several interesting subjects connected to The War of the Worlds, although not so many on film. A short selection: The original novel The War of the Worlds is a must read; there is also a LibriVox recording. Edison’s Conquest of Mars was one of the first sequels, though truth be told it is a pretty terrible read; again there is a LibriVox recording. Mercury Theatre on the Air: The War of the Worlds is Orson Welles’ original radio play, well worth listening to, and a Universal Studios newsreel from the day after contains some snippets from a press conference with Orson Welles; in itself a classic. Another radio drama is based on the 1953 movie, and with the same principal actors. You can also read the comic adaptation in Classics Illustrated (1955); one of the classic comic versions. Then there is a 1984 video game based on Jeff Wayne’s musical version – expect neither breathtaking graphics nor perfect surround sound. And there is more. Much more.

This episode is best enjoyed perhaps not foremost for its description of Welles’ radio drama and its consequences – as a historical documentary it is sorely lacking. It is much more interesting because it reflects a willingness in society to believe that things are generally much worse than they really are. Many politicians built their careers on this phenomenon, and so to some extent did Orson Welles. In addition, though the technical quality of the available copy leaves something to be desired, the drama is pretty well produced. It will hold your attention for an hour’s entertainment, and it is an excellent example of 1950s American television.

Alexander Scourby and Robert Blackburn (as Orson Welles) in Studio One: The Night America Trembled (1957)

The Night America Trembled
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Year: 1957
Running time: 59 min
Director: Tom Donovan
Stars: Edward R. Murrow
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (320×240)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (247 M)

The Invaders (1912)

In my review of Ingeborg Holm (1913), I suggested that it is hard to find good feature film older than that, but during the early years of the 1910s, many good films were created that do not quite qualify as a “feature” by modern standards, yet are long enough to tell a reasonably complex story and helped to pave the way for future film makers. The Invaders is one of those films.

Francis Ford and William Eagle Shirt in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders, which has been called “cinema’s first great Western epic”, starts with a peace treaty being signed by a U.S. colonel and a Sioux chief (both fictional, as far as I can tell). This gives the Indians the rights to their own land. The treaty, however, is soon broken. Some white people are killed by the Indians, and all of a sudden the war is in full swing.

The film contains many great battle scenes, and though they were dwarfed by D.W. Griffith’s great epics a few years later, they are still very impressive for this time.

Another important factor is the camerawork. Long distance unmoving camera was the norm at this time, and while that is common in this film as well, we see several scenes when the camera breaks free of its limitations, either panning or showing details in close-up. While not very spectacular today, it must have been effective for the audiences of the day.

This film is best enjoyed not only because it is a good film for its time, but also because it treats the Indians in a much more respectful manner than many later Westerns, especially during the sound era. These Indians, evidently played by real Sioux, are actually portrayed as people, with humans rights and human feelings.

Francis Ford and Ethel Grandin in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders
Internet Archive page
Year: 1912
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Francis Ford, Thomas H. Ince
Stars: William Eagle Shirt, Francis Ford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (651×498; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

The Flying Deuces (1939)

Before watching the film The Flying Deuces, I had no idea what the word “deuce” meant (except for the tennis term). I have now informed myself, and I know that it means “pair” or “two of a kind” or something of the sort. I still do not understand why the word “deuces” is in plural, but all the same I feel much better now.

Stan Laurel, Jean Parker and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces, plural or not, is mostly interesting because it is part of the Laurel and Hardy legacy. This famous pair of comedians (or deuces, maybe) hardly need any introduction, so I will just say that their presence in the Internet Archive is considerably smaller than for some of their contemporaries, such as Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. That is the main reason why it has taken until now for me to review one of their films, but also because those few feature films that can be found in the archive do not appear to be among their best.

The Flying Deuces is perhaps not their best either, but there are some really good scenes including an absolute classic just at the end. Some of the humour, however, feels very out-dated, especially some very long-winded chase scenes during the last fifteen minutes. But all in all, the film is a good introduction to Laurel and Hardy, and if you already like them, you will not want to miss this chance to see them do their usual routine in some pretty unique situations.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful timing and acting by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. It is not without reason that these two have gone down as one of the best pairs of comedians in the history of cinema.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)

The Flying Deuces
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 3 min
Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×546)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (528 M)

Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war (1937)

There is a lot of German film at the Internet Archive. There are German wartime newsreels, silent classics from the German Expressionism and World War II propaganda such as Kampf um Norwegen, just to mention a few important categories.

Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war, this week’s film, has nothing to do with wars nor expressionism, however. It is a very refreshing mystery comedy, and as the title implies there is also a Sherlock Holmes connection.

Hans Albers and Heinz Rühmann in Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war / The Man who was Sherlock Holmes (1937)

The film begins with two persons, dressed up as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, stopping a train in the middle of the night in order to get on board. We soon find out that they are not the famous detective and his companion at all. Exactly what they are after is something we are not told at this point, but everyone fall for their ruse. The train personnel do everything they can to help them, while a couple of criminals on board bolt for the woods, just in case, leaving their baggage behind. “Watson” and “Holmes” soon encounter a couple of very nice women in the next compartment and promptly develop a romantic interest.

This beginning may sound a bit convoluted, and I guess it is. And even while the rest of the film follows the same pattern story-wise, it is made with such charm and skill that I am drawn into the fiction without reservation or hesitation.

The Sherlock Holmes fanatic will be disappointed to learn that the “real” Holmes never shows up in this film, but as a consolation, there is a fictional Arthur Conan Doyle who appears briefly on a few occasions.

The film is set largely in and around the 1910 World’s Fair in Brussels. In addition to the themes of fake identities and romance, we find elements such as rare postage stamps, forgery and a strange inheritance. The whole thing ends with a trial in a gigantic courtroom. A worthy conclusion of a film that, all things considered, must be said to be well worth a watch.

There are no subtitles for this film, so stay away unless you know German.

This film is best enjoyed for the brilliant actors. Hans Albers is often recognized for his excellent portrayal of the fake Holmes, but Heinz Rühmann is perhaps even better as his equally fake Watson sidekick.

Hans Albers in Der Mann der Sherlock Holmes war / The Man who was Sherlock Holmes (1937)

Der Mann, der Sherlock Holmes war
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Year: 1937
Language: German (no subtitles)
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Director: Karl Hartl
Stars: Hans Albers, Heinz Rühmann
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (701 M)