X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)

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The Cameraman (1928)

In 1928, just before making his last silent films, Buster Keaton moved from United Artists to MGM, a move that in retrospect ruined his career. In a very short time, he went from making immortal silent classics like The General (1926) and Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) – films where he had total creative control – to acting in cheap comedies. In between, he got to do one single film for MGM in his own trademark style, The Cameraman.

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Camerman (1928)

Keaton plays a still photographer who wants to become a newsreel cameraman. He also falls in love with a secretary at MGM, so he spends the rest of the film trying to impress both her and his boss. Further complications involve an ill-tempered policeman, a gang-war in Chinatown and an organ-grinder’s monkey.

It is interesting to compare this film with Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Even though they are vastly different films, they give much information about what camerawork was like in the 1920s. Note, for example, how light the cameras were. With the coming of sound, cameras had to be made noiseless, so they became much heavier. The advanced camerawork of the 1920s was not to be seen again for many decades.

The Cameraman was co-directed by Edward Sedgwick, who went on to direct several Buster Keaton comedies. Since Keaton had by that time lost his creative control, quality varied wildly, but for instance Speak Easily (1932) is worth watching.

This film is best enjoyed for its high comic and romantic values. Perhaps to an even higher degree than other Keaton films, this one features some excellent acting. In some scenes, the acting is very low-key, very beautiful, and really more reminiscent of what would be typical in Hollywood ten or fifteen years later.

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

The Cameraman
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick, Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: High (960×720)
Soundtrack: Excellent
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

I must confess that before I first saw The Kennel Murder Case, I had never heard of the character Philo Vance, and even after seeing the film, it was years before I realized that this was a recurring and well-known character. Well, live and learn. One day I may actually read one of the original novels with the character.

Robert Barrat and William Powell in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The film begins at a Long Island dog show, where, amongst many other dog owners, Philo Vance and Archer Coe exhibit their dogs. The following day, Coe is found dead. The police suspect suicide, but Vance is convinced that the truth lies elsewhere, and cancels a planned trip to Europe in order to investigate the case. It turns out that Coe was not a very well liked man, and many have reasons for wanting to see him dead. Vance starts to investigate the case from many different angles.

The Kennel Murder Case appears to have been the fourth and final time that William Powell played the role of Philo Vance. At least one of the previous films, The Canary Murder Case (1929) is available from the Internet Archive. In addition, there are some old radio episodes available with Philo Vance.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of whodunnits. This is a thoroughly pleasant film with good actors, good photography, and just the right amount of plot twists. If you want to explore Hollywood film from the 1930s, this is a very good place to start.

Eugene Pallette, William Powell and Robert McWade in The Kennel Murder Case (1933)

The Kennel Murder Case
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Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 13 min
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: William Powell, Mary Astor
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (680 M)

Atlantic Flight (1937)

In one of my first posts on this blog, I wrote about the 1937 film Non-Stop New York, and how that film had been influenced by real-world events, namely the first commercial transatlantic roundtrip, made by pilot Dick Merrill.

Merrill became something of a hero and celebrity after his flight, and Non-Stop New York was not the only film based on his trip. In fact, Merrill starred in the film Atlantic Flight. Not only did he play the pilot Dick Bennett on a mission which is suspiciously similar to his own celebrated flight, but his real-world co-pilot played his fictional co-pilot as well, and they even used the same plane for some scenes. The character Bennett was perhaps named after the airfield Floyd Bennett Field, where Merrill landed after his return flight.

Dick Merrill as Dick Bennett in Atlantic Flight (1937)

Merrill actually made several transatlantic flights, and the first two are often confused with one another. The first was called the Ping-Pong Flight, because thousands of ping-pong balls had been crammed into empty spaces in wings and fuselage in order to make the plane float if it had to land on water. The balls were later sold as memorabilia. The second flight, Coronation Flight, was that first commercial roundtrip flight. The cargo was news photos of the Hindenburg disaster (going east) and George VI’s coronation (going west), allowing newspapers on both sides to scoop their competition, since photos could not be sent by cable back in those days.

As far as I understand, the flight dramatized in the film is a mashup of the two flights, using dramatic elements from both. The purpose of the movie flight, however, is entirely original, involving bringing back a serum to save a person’s life. The film’s rather thin plot centers around this achievement.

It has often been stated as a fact that actual in-flight film from Merrill’s real flight was used in the making of the movie, but even if that is true, it is only a matter of a few seconds of film from the take-off and/or the landing. The rest is mostly model and studio shots, along with some stock footage. All in all, the flight scenes must be considered to be acceptable considering the film’s budget and production time, but they would not be reason by themselves to watch the film.

This film is best enjoyed for its connection with historic events. Frankly, it is not a good film, and Frank Merrill is terrible in his role, acting with the entire repertoire of a brick. Non-Stop New York, while also a B movie, is a far better movie, but Atlantic Flight remains an interesting film because it is much more closely interwoven with Merrill’s real flight. If you want even more of the real historical connection behind the film, the Internet Archive contains a Pathé news reel which not only covers the George VI coronation and the Hindenburg disaster, but also news about Amelia Earhart’s fateful last flight. Earhart went missing around the same time that Atlantic Flight was produced, and she used the exact same model aircraft (Lockheed Model 10E Electra) as Merrill did for Coronation Flight, though both planes had been considerably altered.

Lockheed Model 10E Electra in Atlantic Flight (1937)

Atlantic Flight
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Year: 1937
Running time: 59 min
Director: William Nigh
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Speak Easily (1932)

In the late 1920s, Buster Keaton had made a series of silents that are still considered by many to be among the greatest comedies ever made. It culminated with The General in 1926, which was a marvellous artistic success, but a terrible commercial failure. The result was that Keaton lost the total artistic control he had previously enjoyed, and coinciding with the advent of sound film, he got a contract with MGM that he felt stifled his creativity completely.

By the time that he made Speak Easily in 1932, he was no longer directing, only acting, and to boot his marriage was going downhill along with his career. As a result, Keaton fell to heavy drinking, which cost him his job, his wife and most of his money. Eventually, he found new love and recovered from his bad habits, but by then it was too late to rescue his damaged career. Near the end of his life, however, he did make some fairly popular TV shows, and he had minor roles in a number of big movies.

Buster Keaton, Thelma Todd and Jimmy Durante in Speak Easily (1932)

It is easy to dismiss all of Keaton’s sound films as being of inferior quality. And while that is true compared with his best silents, they are not universally bad throughout. In fact, Speak Easily is a pretty neat little comedy. Keaton plays a professor who is badly in need of some friends and a change in life. When he learns that he has inherited a large sum of money, he leaves everything behind and jumps on a train in order to discover new things about himself and the world. It later turns out that there was no inheritance, but by that time he has already promised to pay for a mediocre travelling vaudeville company’s big break with a new show on Broadway.

For this film, and several others made around the same time, Keaton was paired with Jimmy Durante, another well-known Hollywood comedian. It was competently directed by Edward Sedgwick, and the plot is well held together with nice dialogue and some good stunts, many of them created by Keaton himself. Fans of the Marx brothers will be able to recognize several stunts that were reused when Keaton was hired to create gags for A Night at the Opera (1935).

This film is best enjoyed if you are curious about Keaton’s development after his silent period. Speak Easily may be nowhere near Keaton’s masterworks, but it is by no means bad. Keaton shows that he is a splendid actor, and the cooperation with co-star Durante works very well, even though they are basically two very different kinds of actors. Speak Easily is an endearing and enjoyable, albeit harmless, little comedy. Much better than the other Keaton soundies I have seen, such as Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931) and Li’l Abner (1940) (both available for download).

Buster Keaton in Speak Easily (1932)

Speak Easily
Download link
Year: 1932
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Edward Sedgwick
Stars: Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (2.1 G)

Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Most Interet Archive films have found their way there because someone was careless about renewing copyright at some point. Or because they are very, very old.

But there are also films that are there because the copyright holders made a deliberate choice to distribute them that way, being more interested in giving the film as wide a distribution as possible than in making money from it, or because they make money in ways other than traditional distribution channels.

These films are sometimes made by amateurs (that holds true especially for many short films, often of mediocre quality, but occasionally a diamond in the rough), but a number are completely professionally produced. One of these is the animated feature Sita Sings the Blues.

Sita and Rama in Ramayana section of Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues tells the autobiographical story of how the animator Nina lost her boyfriend, home and cat, all at once, and parallels that storyline with the old Indian mythological Ramayana epic about the goddess Sita and her husband Rama.

This film is not only very good, it is also innovative on several levels. Most immediately noticeable is the mixing of at least five distinctly different animation styles, each setting the mood for a certain part or aspect of the story. Underlying the animation is also the interesting fact that it is largely animated in Adobe Flash.

In some ways, the storytelling of Sita Sings the Blues is very similar to that of Three Ages, which I wrote about last week. But where the latter movie has three parallell storylines, Sita Sings the Blues has only two traditional ones, with a third layer consisting of three shadow puppets commenting upon the events and characters in the Sita segments. This last layer is perhaps the weakest in terms of maintaining the tension of the plot, yet it is also very powerful in its own way.

One final thing which must be mentioned is the music, performed by the 1920s jazz singer Annette Hanshaw. Combining these old songs with the ancient story and the modernistic animation is a stroke of genius. The banality of the words amplifies the depth of the double plot.

This film is best enjoyed together with someone you like.

Nina Paley in Sita Sings the Blues (2008)

Sita Sings the Blues
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Year: 2008
Running time: 1 h 21 min
Director: Nina Paley
Stars: Annette Hanshaw, Reena Shah, Nina Paley
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1080)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (4.1 G)

Non-Stop New York (1937)

On this day in history, exactly one hundred years ago, Igor Sikorsky braved the dangers faced by every early airman and made the world’s first flight in a four-engined aircraft. At the time, many people did not believe the news, thinking that an aircraft of such dimensions (27 m wingspan) could never get off the ground. But Sikorsky’s plane proved its worth, and eventually developed into just about every heavy passenger and cargo aircraft known to the world. (Sikorsky’s was a bi-plane, but otherwise the basic design still holds.)

Exactly twenty-four years later, the world’s first commercial transatlantic roundtrip was in its final phase (completed on May 14, 1937). That event probably helped to inspire the movie Non-Stop New York, which reminds us that Sikorsky’s design is not the only possible solution. At least not in the imagination of film-makers.

Non-Stop New York is a fairly straight-forward thriller, quite light and typical of the 30s. The plot is simple (but not stupid, mind), the dialogue is well-paced and the actors are good. In particular Anna Lee shines in the leading role. What sets it apart, however, is a touch of science fiction. The film is set two years into the future (1939), because the plot leads up to a transatlantic passenger flight which is the setting for the second half, and transatlantic passenger flights just did not happen in 1937. (Actually they did, with rigid airships, but the Hindenburg disaster that same year probably did not inspire the script writer to use that kind of vehicle.)

Robert Stevenson's Non-Stop New York (1937)

Notice how the shadows in the above image fall differently on the plane and on the ground.

In one respect the film was rather prophetic, because the world’s first transatlantic passenger flight was indeed made in 1939, but the design and scale of the movie’s aircraft came to surpass reality by far. The plane in the movie has spacious cabins, a bar, dining room, and even an outside observation deck! Its interior reminds more of a miniature ocean liner than an airplane.

But while there is a touch of sci-fi, it is no more than a touch. In terms of mood and intent, this is a pure romantic thriller. As such, it stands on its own and is well worth watching. The curiosity factor is just an added bonus.

This film is best enjoyed in anticipation of a long flight, to get in the right mood.

John Loder and Anna Lee in Non-Stop New York (1937)

Non-Stop New York
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Year: 1937
Running time: 1 h 37 min
Director: Robert Stevenson
Stars: Anna Lee, John Loder
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×528)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (690 M)