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)

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The Black Cat (1941)

Last week, I promised that this week would feature a Sherlock Holmes tie-in. Unfortunately, the intended film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924) starring Buster Keaton, turned out to be of much poorer technical quality than I remembered, so I have decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I will recommend a film that I discovered recently quite by accident. I was looking for the film The Black Cat from 1934, but by mistake I downloaded The Black Cat from 1941 instead. An easy mistake to make, considering that Bela Lugosi acts in both films. That mistaken download turned out to be a stroke of luck, since the 1941 film is really nice. It is also an example of a pretty unusual genre crossing, being perhaps best classified as a mansion mystery horror comedy.

Gail Sondergaard and Basil Rathbone in The Black Cat (1941)

Finding the right pictures to go with these blog reviews can sometimes be a lot of trouble. In this case, the problem is the opposite one: How can one choose between so many good options? Each scene is so well composed that there is almost always a frame that can be used for a good illustration. These exquisite compositions contribute to the many good qualities of the film.

Nominally, the protagonists of this tale are Gilmore Smith (Broderick Crawford), a real estate broker who tries to solve the mystery of a murdered old lady, and his comic relief Mr. Penny (Hugh Herbert). But the real stars are Basil Rathbone and Bela Lugosi. Now, I cannot say that either of them makes his best on-screen performance. Rathbone, in fact, looks distinctly uncomfortable and appears to not want to be in this picture at all. He may have already got stuck in the Sherlock Holmes typecasting and perhaps thought he deserved better than this. (In a sense, he did.) Bela Lugosi, on the other hand, is excellent as the Hispanic gardener, but he is given far too little screen time.

This film is best enjoyed when you need some light entertainment and do not want to think too much. The mystery story is pretty thin and will not stand for any deeper analysis, and it must be admitted that some of the humour has not really stood the test of time. But the dark mood, the attention to detail in the imaging, and the many crazy characters (several of them really well played) combine to make this film well worth a watch.

The Black Cat (1941)

The Black Cat
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Year: 1941
Running time: 1 h 10 min
Directors: Albert S. Rogell
Stars: Basil Rathbone, Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×490)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (418 M)

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)

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

The Hands of Orlac (1924)

The classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), which I wrote about last week, was to my knowledge the first cooperation between director Robert Wiene and actor Conrad Veidt. Four years later, they were to repeat the success in The Hands of Orlac (originally titled Orlacs Hände).

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

Even though both films are firmly rooted in the German Expressionism, The Hands of Orlac, when compared with the earlier film, is in many ways very different. Take Veidt’s role for starters. He is the protagonist, and he is a good person at heart. But he is also somewhat weak, perhaps even cowardly. When he loses both his hands in an accident, and his career as a concert pianist is threatened, his doctor decides to graft a new pair of hands, a pair that previously belonged to a convicted murderer. When confronted with this, Orlac fears that the evil in these hands will take over his mind. This fear, that body parts from another entity will infect the new host with the mind of the old one, is a theme that can be seen in many later films, such as Wolf Blood (1925) and Frankenstein (1931).

The scenography is also very different when compared with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In the earlier film, the surroundings were nightmarish, bent and twisted, filled with dramatic shadows. Here, the nightmare and the shadows remain, but the rooms are gigantic, with straight, looming walls and pillars, and with very few decorations. This creates an image of small and powerless characters, desperately trying to grasp control from a relentless world. So again, Wiene has created a dramatic masterpiece, but the drama is achieved with different means.

This film is best enjoyed when you want to explore the themes that lead up to the great Hollywood horror films of the early 1930s. It is definitely an important part of that legacy.

Conrad Veidt in The Hands of Orlac / Orlacs Hände (1924)

The Hands of Orlac
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Year: 1924
Running time: 1 h 53 min
Language: English
Director: Robert Wiene
Stars: Conrad Veidt
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (608×464)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Cinepack (1.1 G) or Matroska (1.1 G)

Our Hospitality (1923)

I happened to notice that it was almost a year ago that I last made a post about Buster Keaton. Too long, of course, so time to write a bit about Our Hospitality.

Buster Keaton in Our Hospitality (1923)

When Willie McKay (Buster Keaton) inherits his father’s old house, he travels from New York to the American South to take possession, only to find himself caught up in the middle of an old family feud. Naturally, he falls in love with the rival family’s daughter. This could have been a drama or a tragedy, but when Keaton is at large things get mixed and messed up plenty, especially when the daughter unknowningly invites him into their home, where her father’s and brothers’ gentlemen hospitality will not let them touch the last in the line of their hated rivals.

Our Hospitality was Keaton’s second feature film after Three Ages, and is sometimes mentioned as his first masterpiece. At any rate, it was the film in which he first perfected his unique story-telling formula, combining solid plots with meticulously planned slapstick choreography. This kind of movie would later culminate with The General (1926), a film with which Our Hospitality shares many themes.

Funny piece of trivia: Baby Willie McKay, in the beginning of the film, is played by Buster Keaton, Jr., Buster’s own baby son.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for some good laughs. Like most of Keaton’s 1920s comedies, this one still holds up very well indeed. The final scene is totally unforgettable.

Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge in Our Hospitality (1923)

Our Hospitality
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Directors: Buster Keaton, John G. Blystone
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; piano music
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (958 M)