The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

I think I discovered the Internet Archive around 2006, about ten years after it was founded. Though there are many and varied media represented in the archive, I was always drawn to the Moving Images collections. In spite of the sometimes chaotic structure, the Internet Archive has provided me with a great many discoveries which I would never have made without it.

The comedian W. C. Fields is one of the many great actors that I would have missed if it were not for the Internet Archive. Several of his films are available for download, and perhaps the best of the lot is The Fatal Glass of Beer. I think it must have been one of the first ten-or-so films I downloaded from the Internet Archive, and probably more on a spur of the moment than anything else.

W. C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

Fields here plays the father of a prodigal son, Chester, who returns home after serving time. Chester regrets his bad ways and asks his parents’ forgiveness. The film centers around this story, but in spite of its short length, it manages to branch out into several more or less coherent subplots as well.

The film is perhaps best remembered for the recurring, and pretty funny, gag where Fields opens the door, proclaiming “It ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast.” whereupon he invariably gets a bucketful of fake snow in his face. But there are many other amusing moments as well, and the film deserves to be seen for its overall high level of humour.

The title, The Fatal Glass of Beer, refers to the glass that turned Chester into bad habits and made him a criminal. Unfortunately, it could also have referred to W. C. Fields himself, who was in the later parts of his career a heavy drinker. This got him into trouble, both with his employers and with his family.

This film is best enjoyed when put in a historical context. It is a parody of stage and movie melodramas with the same Yukon setting (Chaplin’s The Gold Rush comes to mind, although it was probably not one of the major influences). This explains many plot events, as well as Fields’ exaggerated melodramatic acting. Oh, and the ending is not bad, either.

W. C. Fields and Rosemary Theby in The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933)

The Fatal Glass of Beer
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Year: 1933
Running time: 19 min
Director: Clyde Bruckman
Stars: W. C. Fields
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (566 M)

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Nanook of the North (1922)

The documentary is an interesting genre. In a sense, it may be said to be the first film genre. Some of the very earliest surviving films, such as Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), were just brief snatches of reality, but already with Blacksmith Scene (1893) we see actors performing what may best be described as a forty-second drama documentary, and Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894) is an early example of the filmmaker tampering with reality rather than just recording it, as the “actor” Fred Ott is apparently putting snuff in his nose for the purpose of producing an effect on film.

Compared with the 19th Century efforts, Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North plays in a completely different league. It has been described as the first feature-length documentary, and as such it has had a tremendous impact on the entire genre of documentary film produced ever since. But in essence, it is just a very much more polished and sophisticated variant of what had already been done ever since the dawn of film.

Inuit eskimo in Nanook of the North (1922)

In Nanook of the North we are provided with some samples from the life of Nanook, an eskimo living in northern Canada. We get to see life in the igloo, walrus hunting, and various other activities in the life of Nanook and his family. All of it appears very genuine, but when you start to think about the lighting equipment that would be necessary to film inside an igloo, or the realism of bringing cameras along on a strenous and dangerous hunting expedition, you realize that many scenes must have been staged to a greater or lesser extent.

As a factual description of an eskimo’s life, Nanook of the North is about as flawed as any later documentary. Whether a wartime propaganda, such as The Fighting Lady (1944), or a modern political statement, such as The Corporation (2003), you can be sure that the film-maker has his own purpose, his own vision and his own ideological background, leading every step in the creative process. While few documentaries actually lie about factual matters, they are selective in what they show, and how they present their message.

Nanook of the North was the first “modern” documentary, and like any good documentary, it tries to impress upon the viewer its creator’s vision. But regardless of what shortcuts and stagings were made between takes, it succeeds in bringing the humans in front of the camera to life. The film begins and ends with closeups of Nanook’s face, and in between, Flaherty makes me feel that I get a glimpse of the soul behind that face. And perhaps, to some small measure, I do get such a glimpse, nearly 100 years later. Such is the power of good cinema.

This film is best enjoyed for its considerable artistic merits. Regardless of whether the film reflects any kind of truth or not, it is in its best moments breathtakingly beautiful. If you are interested in the history of documentary film, or if you are just looking for an fascinating cinematic experience, this is one you will definitely not want to miss.

Inuit eskimo paddling a kayak in Nanook of the North (1922)

Nanook of the North
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Year: 1922
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Robert Flaherty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×738)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.4 G)

The Battle of Russia (1943)

2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the October revolution in Russia, which led to the forming of the Soviet Union and 70 years of communist domination in Eastern Europe. During most of 2017, I will commemorate this by writing about several films with a Soviet connection. I started two weeks ago with Eisenstein’s Strike (1925). This week, I present to you The Battle of Russia, the fifth part of Frank Capra’s World War II series of propaganda documentaries Why We Fight.

A Soviet army marching in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

Last week, I wrote about The Battle of Britain, and I have also written previously about The Nazis Strike. These, along with the rest of the films in the series, are both very similar and very different from one another. Walter Huston’s excellent narration help to make them similar, as does the style of cutting and the similar looking animated maps and other graphics. Yet, each is uniquely woven around its fact content. In the case of The Battle of Russia, that fact content tells the dramatic, and often tragic, story of Hitler’s idiotic attack on the Soviet Union.

One reason why The Battle of Russia is interesting is that it was seemingly made with respect for the Russian nation and its people. Anatole Litvak, who was the main director (together with series director Frank Capra) was himself Russian. Thus, while the film is certainly propaganda to a large extent, it also shows a deep understanding of Russia and its struggle. It is probably significant that the title contains the word “Russia” rather than “Soviet”. I know next to nothing about Litvak’s background, but I am guessing, based on the film’s contents, that he was not a communist nor, for that matter, a believer in the idea of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Soviet is only mentioned in passing in the film and communism not at all. Mostly, it talks about Russia and the Russians.

Like other parts in the series, The Battle of Russia is propaganda, and it must be used with caution for historical facts. I am guessing that most facts presented in the film are basically true, but on the other hand many things are left out.

This film is best enjoyed for its excellent use of a variety of film material. Everything from old Russian silent historical dramas to captured Nazi propaganda films are used to produce a living picture of how the Soviet Union and the United States became allies in World War II. This is doubly interesting when you consider the bitter enmity that was to replace this alliance only a few years later with the coming of the Cold War.

Soviet soldier with machine gun in Frank Capra's The Battle of Russia (1943)

The Battle of Russia
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Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
Stars: Walter Huston (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

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)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

The term “Mars curse” originally referred to a large number of failed Mars space missions, but has lately come to be more associated with a line of box office crashes for movies connected with the red planet. In reality, of course, the “curse” is just Hollywood’s lame excuse for a combination of bad movies and bad marketing. In any event, Ridley Scott’s The Martian now seems to have lifted the “curse”, so perhaps this opens the gates for more Mars films in the future?

The past has certainly seen its share, and the Internet Archive has a number of interesting movies with a Mars connection. I have written about several of them in the past, and will doubtlessly have reason to come back to others in the future. One of them happens to be a film which is thematically very closely related to The Martian, namely Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Paul Mantee in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

In this film, Paul Mantee plays the astronaut Cristopher Draper, who is stranded on Mars after a near collision with an asteroid forces him to abandon his spaceship. His only companion on the planet is the monkey Mona.

Scientifically, Robinson Crusoe on Mars was not terribly accurate even when it was made. This incarnation of the planet has the Martian version of aurora borealis, even though Mars has no magnetic field to produce such a phenomenon, and considerable volcanic activity. I find this easy to oversee with, as also with the nationalistic and religious fervour which sometimes shines through.

Throughout the first hour we follow Draper’s struggle for survival through a combination of luck and inventiveness (and a dose of divine providence). In spite of very slow pacing, this was the part I liked best about the film. Even though we know today that no-one could walk around on Mars in a t-shirt, taking the occasional sip from his oxygen tank, it is nevertheless fascinating to see how the protagonist manages to overcome what initially appears to be insurmountable obstacles. After that first hour the plot takes a sudden twist, unfortunately somewhat for the worse. The last part remains enjoyable, but is somewhat more taxing on the willingness to suspend disbelief.

This film is best enjoyed for the good camerawork and for several very nice matte paintings, combining to create a fascinating and partly alien Martian landscape.

The twin moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

Robinson Crusoe on Mars
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Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 50 min
Director: Byron Haskins
Stars: Paul Mantee
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Low (720×306; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.2 G)

Santa and the Three Bears (1970)

When Santa and the Three Bears was first offered as a Christmas special to various American TV networks, they declined, saying that it did not include an antagonist. This goes to show just how stuck people often are in the preconceived Hollywood notions of how a story is supposed to be told.

Santa Claus and the Three Bears (1970)

So there is no evil nemesis in Santa and the Three Bears. Just an old and kindly park ranger and a bear mother with her two cubs. The cubs learn about Christmas and want the ranger to tell them more about it. So they decide to wait up for Santa Claus, instead of going into hibernation. Sounds boring? It is not. Not unless you are absolutely allergic to a bit of sentimentality which, admittedly, this film has its share of.

The film is also filled with music. Original music, yet it fits perfectly with the Christmas theme. If you love Christmas music, then you are going to love the music for this film.

Santa and the Three Bears is certainly not the most polished piece of animation. It looks mostly like some low-budget Hanna Barbera cartoon. But that is easy to forget and forgive when the beauty of the story starts to kick in.

This film is best enjoyed while getting into the mood for the Christmas season, especially if you fancy the American variety of Christmas.

Santa Claus and the Three Bears (1970)

Santa and the Three Bears
Download link
Year: 1970
Running time: 46 min
Directors: Tony Benedict, Barry Mahon
Stars: Robert Hal Smith
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

In a recent poll about the worst ever Christmas movie, the Swedish film site Filmtipset nominated Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as one of the candidates. It is not the first time the film has been mentioned as one of the worst Christmas movies ever, or indeed one of the worst movies ever, period. Among many other accolades, the film currently holds 87th place on IMDb’s Bottom 100 list.

And, well, yeah, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a bad film and a true turkey. But is it really that bad? Read on and find out!

John Call, Victor Stiles, Donna Conforti, Bill McCutcheon and Leila Martin in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

The story is, it must be admitted, pretty inane. Martian kids are far too serious and just watch a lot of Earth television. After consulting a wise man, some Martians decide to kidnap Santa Claus from Earth, and they happen to bring a couple of Earth kids along as well. Santa agrees to help build a workshop for making Martian Christmas presents, but some of the Martians think that this is a bad idea, and want to close down Santa’s business.

So, if the story is that bad, and the special effects and sets are on par, then how come lots of people enjoy the film? The truth of the matter is that Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is an enjoyable film to watch not mainly because of its faults. After all, many films have been made that are infinitely worse than this one, and in most cases watching them is just painful. But Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, in spite of its many faults, also rests on a solid foundation of good. The pacing is adequate, and the actors do the best job possible with the material they have to work with (even though John Call as Santa Claus is a terrible case of bad casting). It is this foundation which makes it possible to enjoy the spectacularly bad qualities of the film rather than choke on them.

This film is best enjoyed with good company. Some nice chatting and commenting will not spoil this one. Quite to the contrary.

John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
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Year: 1964
Running time: 1 h 20 min
Director: Nicholas Webster
Stars: John Call
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (917 M)