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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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
Download link
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 Ape Man (1943)

It is a shame that Bela Lugosi never got to act in a serious drama for a top director. I think he would have made a glorious performance. Instead, he was typecast as the monster or mad scientist in cheap B movies. Sometimes he was both, as in The Ape Man.

Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist in The Ape Man (1943)

The story of The Ape Man is absolutely ludicrous. Dr. Brewster’s experiments on a caged gorilla that he keeps in a secret room in his basement have gone all wrong. As a result he is turning into a gorilla himself, and the only way he can save himself is to tap people’s spinal fluid. The problem is that the procedure tends to kill the victims. Two newspaper reporters have a hunch that something is wrong and try to get a scoop, and at the same time the police are investigating the killings, as well as the disappearance of the Doctor.

This would seem to be a certain recipe for a disastrous movie, and it is if you try to take it seriously. Well, don’t. Let loose a bit and I think you will find this to be a little gem of a movie. The actors are actually quite good, not least Lugosi who is not so much threatening as he is tragic; hence my comment about serious drama in the beginning. Louise Curry and Wallace Ford (otherwise unknown names to me) also perform nicely as the two reporters.

The movie has several other qualities as well. The dialogue is good, not as stilted as it sometimes tends to be in similar movies, and the film’s duration of only slightly above an hour makes sure that you do not have time to become bored. The only major problem is sound quality, which is terrible on the copy I found. So bad, in fact, that it was sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, even though the actors spoke clearly enough.

Now, if you thoroughly enjoyed this film and want more of the same, try The Ape (1940) with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist who goes ape. Not quite as enjoyable as The Ape Man, but clearly a child of the same spirit. There is also The Gorilla (1939), which I have not seen, but wherein you will find both Bela Lugosi and yet another gorilla suit.

This film is best enjoyed all the way through to the end. There is a marvellous meta twist that puts everything on end and shows exactly how serious the producer and writer were about the story.

Ralph Littlefield as Zippo in The Ape Man (1943)

The Ape Man
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (694 M)

Zorro’s Black Whip (1944)

The movie serials of the 1930s through 1950s are very interesting. The plots tend to be formulaic, the acting is usually terrible, and the characters and situations reek of cliché. Yet they can be very entertaining, as long as you do not expect a terrible lot of originality. They are also interesting because of their role in shaping modern popular culture.

Among the clichés are heavily cemented gender roles. The earlier serials of the silent era, as well as some from the early 1930s, often contain strong female characters. Sometimes, the entire plot centered around a female heroine, such as in The Hazards of Helen, several episodes of which are available at the Internet Archive. (I may come back to that serial in the future.)

Linda Stirling in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

But by 1944, Zorro’s Black Whip, starring Linda Stirling as a female “Zorro” (though that name is never used in dialogue; she is known by the alias The Black Whip), was something truly unique. By that time, female roles in serials had been trivialized to love interests and kidnapping victims. Just what caused the degradation of women is unkown to me, though I understand that with the coming of sound film and a more commercialized movie business, all of Hollywood became more of a men’s playground. Perhaps World War II paved the way for at least this one return to a strong leading woman, but the world was not yet ready for more.

Of course, The Black Whip could not be made too strong and independent. To begin with, she could not create the secret identity herself. She inherited it from her dead brother, and throughout the serial has to pretend to be a man in order to continue her brother’s fight for freedom in 19th century Idaho. And while she turns out to be an expert with the whip and revolver, she naturally cannot fight with her fists, so she needs a strong and able sidekick, government agent Vic Gordon, to act as her proxy in this respect. Oh, and of course he is also her love interest. There can be no 1940s serial without romance. (Vic Gordon was played by George J. Lewis, who was to play Zorro’s father in the Disney TV series over a decade later.)

This serial is best enjoyed for its unusual gender roles. It is a nice and somewhat original take on the Zorro theme, though I would personally hold that the previous serial Zorro Rides Again is better. Especially the ending, which is the weakest part of Zorro’s Black Whip. All things considered, though, this is good watching, and if you like serials it is highly recommended.

Linda Stirling and George J. Lewis in Zorro's Black Whip (1944)

Zorro’s Black Whip
Download link (first chapter and links to the other eleven)
Year: 1944
Running time: 3 h 2 min
Directors: Spencer Gordon Bennet, Wallace Grissell
Stars: Linda Stirling, George J. Lewis
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (636×476)
Sound quality: Acceptable

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page was originally a Broadway play, which has been adapted for movies and television at least eight times (according to IMDb). The most famous version today is probably the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), but the first adaptation, and also one of the best, was The Front Page from 1931. Some also claim that this first adaptation was the first screwball comedy in the movies.

Mary Brian, Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

The story, briefly, is that the reporter Hildy Johnson is going to quit his job, get married to the girl he loves and move to a different city. But Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, wants to stop him and avoid losing his best reporter. He therefore tries to involve Hildy in covering one last story, the case of a man who is going to hang in the morning. But is the man guilty in the first place? As the story progresses, the two originally separate plots of Hildy’s resignation and the condemned man become increasingly entangled in a movie with many interesting twists.

The Front Page has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the remake His Girl Friday, perhaps because of the latter’s fantastic chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a chemistry that cannot be reached in the same way in The Front Page, where the story follows the original and has Hildy played by a man (Pat O’Brien, to be specific).

To let Russel play the originally male role was a stroke of genius, and allowed for some new plot twists in the remake, but it is a mistake to believe that this automatically makes the original into an inferior movie. It does not. It is just very different. And not only because of the sex change. The variations in the dialogue, the differences in photography and directing, and the equally impressive but very different actors make these two very different movies. Both are well worth watching and I would be hard pressed if I had to pick a favourite.

The Front Page was made when sound film was a fairly new invention. Fortunately, it uses many dolly track shots and other techniques that became rarer in the early 1930s for economic and technical reasons.

This film is best enjoyed when compared with its many remakes, and it shines quite brightly in that comparison.

Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

His Girl Friday (1940)

The first time I saw His Girl Friday it took me by storm. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The crazy story with the sudden twists and the machinegun dialogue both represented something new to me. It was the first time ever I saw a screwball comedy.

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

Screwball comedy, apparently, was entirely a product of the 1930s. Some film historians consider The Front Page (1931) to be the first screwball comedy. Incidentally, it was the first movie adapting the play which was also the source for His Girl Friday, which in turn premiered when the screwball comedy as a genre had only a couple of years left of its golden age.

His Girl Friday is the story of the female reporter Hildy Johnson, who is going to quit, get married and have a family (in The Front Page, Hildy is a man). Her editor and previous husband Walter Burns, however, has different ideas and does everything in his power to make her stay at the job and dump her kind but boring fiancé. This is played out against a plot involving a man who is falsely accused of murdering a police officer and sentenced to be hanged, a story which Hildy promises to cover, and into which she gets gradually more and more involved.

The title of this film sometimes creates a bit of confusion. I know I wondered about it for several years before I read somewhere that it has nothing to do with the day of the week. It is a reference to Robinson Crusoe’s Friday, apparently suggesting a female assistant. Even knowing this, the title is a bit strained. But who cares? It is catchy, original and easily recognizable. Not a bad thing for a classic film.

This film is best enjoyed when you have the time and energy to really focus on it. It is not a film for casual watching.

John Qualen and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

His Girl Friday
Download link
Year: 1940
Running time: 1 h 31 min
Director: Howard Hawks
Stars: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Cinepack (1.3 G)