Tol’able David (1921)

I have long since lost count of the number of great films I would never have seen if it was not for the Internet Archive. Yet another in the long line is Tol’able David, a coming of age story with biblical motifs. It is set in West Virginia (in a fictional village, I believe), presumably some time in the 19th Century, although I have not been able to pinpoint the date or even decade.

Gladys Hulette and Richard Barthelmess in Tol'able David (1921)

Young David (a nice lad, but just “tol’able”, since he is not yet a man) grows up in a loving and pious family. They are tenant farmers, and they have a very good relationship with the neighbours, the Hatburns. David’s relationship is especially good with young Esther Hatburn. However, the happiness is about to be shattered. I do not want to spoil all the details of the evil that will befall David and his family, because I think the film benefits from watching it without knowing too much of the plot.

What I will say is that it is rare to find a film from the early 1920s that is so mature in its storytelling. Even though the ending is very Hollywoodesque, our hero’s road is uncommonly thorny, as his faith, love and courage are tested. This story is told to us by a number of really talented actors. Sure, they overact in typical silent style, but that is to be expected. They also show that they can be really subtle with their acting at times, as we feel their pain, joy, hate and love through the distance of time. Even though the age of nearly a hundred years can be felt, the film still has so many strengths that it is more than just watchable.

The Internet Archive copy of Tol’able David, unfortunately, does not feature a soundtrack. This is a film that I feel would benefit tremendously from a good score, but even as it stands, it is a very fine specimen from a time when the art of cinematography was undergoing tremendous development.

A few words deserve to be said about directory Henry King. When King directed Tol’able David, he had already been directing films for a few years, and he was to continue doing so for over 40 more years! At the Internet Archive, you can for instance find Lloyd’s of London (1936) and Hell Harbor (1930). While King may not have been a great artistic genius, he was definitely both talented and skillful. Tol’able David must have been one of his greatest achievements.

This film is best enjoyed because it is a classic that truly deserves to be remembered and cherished. If you like silent film, you are going to love this one for its drama and fine character portraits.

Walter P. Lewis, Ernest Torrence and Ralph Yearsley in Tol'able David (1921)

Tol’able David
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Henry King
Stars: Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (592×448)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

St Martin’s Lane (1938)

I wonder if I would have ever discovered Charles Laughton if it had not been for the Internet Archive (search this blog for “Laughton” and you will find a number of his many great performances). Sure, I would have seen a couple of his classics, such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and then I would have dismissed him as typecast. Typecast? Ha! Nothing could be more wrong.

Vivien Leigh and Charles Laughton in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane, also known as Sidewalks of London, is yet another example of Laughton’s versatility. Here he plays Charles, a “busker”, essentially a sort of street musician, making his living by playing for the people standing in line for the theatres along St Martin’s Lane in London. He discovers the young and talented Libby (Vivien Leigh) and not only makes her part of his act, but also gives her a place to stay.

Libby pays him back by saying good-bye at first opportunity for a break on the big stages, and as she goes on to ever greater fame, Charles sinks lower and lower into mediocrity and alcoholism.

Laughton and Leigh, and also Rex Harrison as Libby’s playboy sponsor, all make excellent performances, even though it is rumoured that Laughton and Leigh got on each others’ nerves during production.

This film is best enjoyed for the high-quality drama and acting. The story is good and captivating, but the ending is perhaps a little bit dissatisfying. Ah, well. This piece is still well worth watching.

Vivien Leigh in St Martin's Lane / Sidewalks of London (1938)

St Martin’s Lane
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 26 min
Director: Tim Whelan
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

Rembrandt (1936)

Alexander Korda was a very solid British director, perhaps best known for participating in the 1940 remake of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924), which is considered to outshine even the spectacular silent original, and which was a major source of inspiration for Disney’s Aladdin (1992).

In the 1930s, Korda made three films that are so thematically similar that they must be considered as a trilogy. The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) have already been reviewed on this blog, and the turn has now come to the third film, Rembrandt.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

All three films are biographies of various European personalities in the 16th and 17th Centuries, two historical and one fictional. All three can be traced in various ways to the reformation and counter-reformation, although admittedly this is a theme that does not shine through in the films. All three films also deal with lost loves and with the agonies of growing old.

Rembrandt begins with the death of famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn’s wife Saskia. The film then follows Rembrandt’s remaining life with its numerous sorrows, but most of all it is a powerful portrait of a strong and gifted artist, who at all costs stayed true to his own vision and character. When his friends implore him to paint nobles (who can pay good money) in the traditional style, Rembrandt prefers to develop his own personal technique on motifs of his own choosing. For example, he picks a beggar off the street and dresses him as a biblical king.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s exquisite performance as the famous painter. The film is well made overall, but the story lacks that extra edge that would have secured its place as a great classic, partly because it is a bit shattered and out of focus. As it stands, Laughton makes it well worth the effort of watching, but you may want to go for The Private Life of Henry VIII first, also with Laughton in the lead. Comparing these two films with one another will give a good picture of Laughton’s great versatility as an actor.

Charles Laughton in Rembrandt (1936)

Rembrandt
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Year: 1936
Running time: 1 h 24 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: Medium (666×509, not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (814 M)

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)

Scrooge (1935)

One year ago, almost exactly, I wrote about Scrooge (1951), one of the many cinematic interpretations of Charles Dickens’ famous story A Christmas Carol. That version is only one of several available at the Internet Archive. Today, the turn has come to the very first sound version of the story, also titled Scrooge.

Oscar Asche and Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that has been filmed again and again. And quite often, the resulting product has been really nice. Hence, there are a good many actors that have made classic Scrooge interpretations. Alastair Sim in the 1951 version is certainly one, and Seymour Hicks in 1935 is another. Hicks is excellent as the miserly old money-lender, and he is among the very best in his terror of the ghost of Jacob Marley, as well as of the three spirits of Christmas. Like many other Scrooge actors, he lets himself be carried away, and is a bit too manic as the reformed kindly old man. But this is a minor problem and goes with the genre.

I find it difficult to choose between the 1935 and the 1951 versions. Both have good scripts and excellent actors. The former is a bit less advanced in terms of special effects (ghostly apparitions, and that sort of stuff), but since it cleverly avoids many of the technical difficulties, using instead simple means like shadows and good acting, this is not really a problem. The 1951 version is perhaps a trifle stronger in the camerawork, whereas the 1935 movie has many little humourous details. In the end, it may come down to technical aspects, and in that respect the 1951 version is blessed with a better copy at the Internet Archive. However, both are well worth watching.

The 1935 copy mainly linked to from this post is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but the download file is well over 3 GB in size. Fortunately, there is another version, made from the same source. Image quality is almost as good, and file size is much smaller. This is a good option if your bandwidth is limited.

This film is best enjoyed when you need a bit of feel-good in your life, or when you just want to experience a good old classic British costume film.

Donald Calthrop, Barbara Everest and Philip Frost in Scrooge (1935)

Scrooge
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Year: 1935
Running time: 1 h 18 min
Director: Henry Edwards
Stars: Seymour Hicks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×540)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (3.7 G)

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
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Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

Körkarlen (1921)

If you have been reading my posts about Ingeborg Holm (1913), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918) and Klostret i Sendomir (1920), then you know that I, along with many others, consider Victor Sjöström to be one of the greatest directors of the 1910s and early 1920s. Perhaps the peak of his creative period came with Körkarlen, best known in English as The Phantom Carriage.

Victor Sjöström and Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen is a many-layered story about alcoholism, poverty, death and humiliation, but also about love, faith and atonement. It often balances on a thing edge between realism and sentimentality, and mostly manages to stay clear of any excesses in either direction.

The story is based on a novel by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf (Nobel prize winner), and closely follows the original. At the core of the story, we find the Salvation Army sister Edit. She has been trying to save David from his sinful life in alcholism, but David has no wish to repent. That is when Death’s coachman (who drives around to collect the souls of the dead) steps in, and when David appears to die after a drunken brawl on New Year’s Eve, the coachman takes David on a journey through time and space to make him see the wrongs of his life.

The score of this version must be characterized as ambient. It is very mood-setting, but sometimes it seems to miss the mood a bit. On the whole, it works well, but I am sure better scores exist.

This film is best enjoyed as a true classic and an excellent example of Swedish film making around 1920. If anyone sees parallels with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, that is no coincidence (compare Scrooge (1951)). Lagerlöf said herself that the story was inspired by Dickens, though this is far more than just a cheap imitation. Körkarlen deserves to be enjoyed on its own merits.

Tore Svennberg in Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Körkarlen
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 46 min
Language: Swedish; English subtitles
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Victor Sjöström
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (480×360)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; partly adapted to the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.3 G)

The Little Princess (1939)

Only a handful of Hollywood actors from the 1930s are as well remembered today as Shirley Temple, the cutesey child actor, adored by everyone. At the ripe age of ten, Temple made the film The Little Princess. No-one knew it yet, but already her star was waning. The Little Princess was one of her last major successes.

Shirley Temple in The Little Princess (1939)

The Little Princess is basically the story of Cinderella, with a few twists thrown in. Shirley plays the girl Sara, whose mother is dead and whose father is going into war. He leaves her to a fine boarding school, where she quickly becomes the mistress’ favourite, and the envy of the other girls. She also gets a few friends among the staff. But things take a sudden turn for the worse when her father is reported dead. All her nice things are taken away, and she is forced to work off her father’s debts.

Today, The Little Princess may seem a bit overly cute and sentimental, and Shirley Temple may seem just a little bit too perfect with her smiles and mannerisms. Ah, but she is gorgeous at the same time. She basically makes the entire film, although several of the adult actors are also very good, and the whole piece is exquisitely well produced from beginning to end.

This film is best enjoyed if you want to discover Shirley Temple, arguably the most celebrated child star in all of Hollywood. If you like this film, there is a good chance that you will also like Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), also available at the Internet Archive. Though Shirley Temple is not in that one.

Anita Louise and Shirley Temple in The Little Princess (1939)

The Little Princess
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 33 min
Director: Walter Lang
Stars: Shirley Temple
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (653×446; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.1 G)

Pygmalion (1938)

There is an eternal controversy regarding the ending of Bernard Shaw’s classic play Pygmalion and its various incarnations, apparently ever since its London premiere in 1914. This controversy is most frequently mentioned, and most glaring, in connection with the musical version My Fair Lady (filmed in 1964), but can also be seen in the 1938 film adaptation of the original play, as well as in a previous Dutch adaptation, unfortunately not available at the Internet Archive.

Scott Sunderland, Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller as Colonel Pickering, Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (1938)

The story of Professor Higgins and his pupil Eliza has become so well-known during the past hundred years that it barely requires an introduction. But just to be on the safe side, the film begins as one Colonel Pickering, returning to England, comes across Professor Henry Higgins (an expert in dialects and phonetic variations) as the latter is taking notes on the speech of a flower girl. The two fast become friends, and enter a bet that Higgins could teach the cockney-speaking girl to pass for a well-bred lady, just by teaching her manners and good pronunciation. This he sets out to do with great determination. The film for the most part stays very close to the original play. Shaw himself adapted the script for the screen, adding some scenes and characters that since have sometimes been used in new productions of the play as well.

The above-mentioned controversy, it should be pointed out, is not in the tension between a happy versus unhappy ending. Shaw’s intended ending is indeed very happy for everyone involved. Higgins has made Eliza into an independent person, one who can logically no longer remain with her “creator”, or her independence no longer has any real value. The controversy is rather as to whether she should remain with Higgins or go out in the world and stand on her own two feet.

But the romantic movie-making tradition, passed down in the 1920s from Hollywood to British film, prescribes that a dramatic build-up with two opposite-sex characters demands closure where they fall in love, and implicitly live happily ever after. Shaw’s film script indeed had no such closure originally, but the studio insisted that it could not end thus, and forced a late rewrite. I shall not here go into the details of that ending so as not to spoil it for you entirely.

Speaking of strong language, no-one is likely to be shocked today by the use of the word “bloody” in a film. But both when the play premiered in 1914 and when the film did so in 1938, this word was highly controversial. In fact, that single word alone helped to draw an audience to the theatres.

This film is best enjoyed if you have previously only seen My Fair Lady, or if you are somehow entirely unfamiliar with this entire story. With the debatable exception of the ending, it is an excellent film, and it is a good representation of this modern classic. Both Leslie Howard as Higgins and Wendy Hiller as Eliza are excellent.

Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard as Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion (1938)

Pygmalion
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Leslie Howard, Anthony Asquith
Stars: Leslie Howard
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×576)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (698 M)

Downhill (1927)

Alfred Hitchcock’s early films are only rarely the suspense filled thrillers that we are used to from his later works. There are many dramas and a few comedies. Some are interesting only for tracing Hitchcock’s development, but a few are genuinely good. One of those is Downhill.

downhill

Downhill was the second time – after The Lodger (1927) – that Hitchcock used Ivor Novello as his leading actor. Novello, at the time highly popular, also worked on the script. Some believe that the story reflects Novello’s attitudes towards women. He was apparently a homosexual, and the women in Downhill are for the most part treacherous, deceiving and seeking lust or riches. This is a pretty risqué story, even though some of the moral implications may seem very dated today.

Another important theme is that of friendship and trust. The friends Roddy (Novello) and Tim (Robin Irvine, also very good) go to the same school and are interested in the same woman. When Tim makes her pregnant, Roddy takes the blame and is consequently expelled from school and disowned by his father. This is the start of his moral and economic downhill ride in society, a ride which is sometimes depicted with brutal sincerity.

Hitchcock’s image compositions are terribly elegant, sometimes bordering on overdone. The influence from German Expressionism can be clearly seen (F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924) was one of Hitchcock’s major sources of inspiration). In fact, had this film been made in Germany, I am sure it would have been considered part of the German Expressionism.

This film is best enjoyed if you do not expect a “regular” Hitchcock. Downhill is a good silent drama, and Hitchcock is experimenting successfully with visual elements that he were to re-use later in many of his thrillers. The theme of the falsely accused is also used to great effect here. But no thriller or horror elements are to be expected, so while the lover of silent cinema is likely to enjoy this, the casual Hitchcock fan may find it a disappointment.

Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill (1927)

Downhill
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Year: 1927
Running time: 1 h 22 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Ivor Novello
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (560×416)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (969 M)