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)


Goliath and the Vampires (1961)

The Internet Archive is truly a place for discovery and learning. Like when I wrote about Cabiria last week, and discovered not only that the Italian hero Maciste originated in that film, but also that he was the star of over 50 more films, half in the silent period, the other half during just a few years in the early 1960s. A handful of those 1960s films can be found at the Internet Archive, including what is said to be one of the best Maciste films, Maciste contro il vampiro. As was so often the case with the Maciste films, the hero was renamed for the US version, which is titled Goliath and the Vampires. Utterly illogical, since a generous count reveals but a single vampire in the entire film.

Gordon Scott in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Even though I can find no information that a longer version of the film exists, there are several illogical jumps in the plot. I conclude that the film was probably very badly cut, and perhaps not all that well written in the first place. But that matters little, for the plot is no reason to watch this film. It is pretty standard genre fare, even in its best moments. Maciste/Goliath, after having saved a boy’s life, returns to his home village, only to find it burned and the people massacred. Maciste swears revenge, and he also wants to rescue his fiancĂ©e who was kidnapped along with some other women.

Italian films from this period are always dubbed. The heroes, and sometimes other important characters, were played by American B actors, whereas most supporting roles were played by Italians. Therefore, you can see that the lip synch of Gordon Scott is actually pretty good (I have no idea if that is his own voice or someone else’s), whereas most other actors, although acceptable, are much more obviously dubbed. In an Italian version of the film, it would have been the other way around, of course.

It must be admitted that Gordon Scott is splendid in the role of Maciste/Goliath. Even though he may not have been a great character actor, he had a decided knack for striking heroic poses, he knew how to deliver his lines fluently and he had a spectacular body. It is no wonder he had been cast as the eleventh Tarzan a few years earlier. In fact, Goliath and the Vampires was his first role after the Tarzan films.

This film is best enjoyed as a representative of a time and place. Italy in the 1960s was the source of a tremendous amount of films trying to mimic various Hollywood genres. Even though they did not quite succeed, they did manage to produce something very unique and interesting. The sword-and-sandal films, as the spaghetti westerns that were to come later, is one example of this.

Leonora Ruffo, Gordon Scott and Jacques Sernas in Goliath and the Vampires / Maciste contro il vampiro (1961)

Goliath and the Vampires
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Year: 1961
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Sergio Corbucci, Giacomo Gentilomo
Stars: Gordon Scott
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×386)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (554 M)

Black Fist (1975)

Exactly 40 years ago last Saturday, Bruce Lee passed away. In retrospect, Lee’s sudden and dramatic death (he died unexpectedly just after the completion of his first Hollywood production, Enter the Dragon) immediately gave him a “legend” status. No-one can tell, but perhaps Lee would not have achieved the huge fame that he did had he lived on. Such is the irony of stardom.

Bruce Lee’s death opened the doors for a flood of imitators. Many were Chinese, picked because they looked vaguely like Lee and could imitate some of his body language. Their acting was almost as mediocre as their kung fu, and most were quickly forgotten. For some embarrassing examples, take a look at the so-called “documentary” The Real Bruce Lee (1979). Just don’t come and say I did not warn you.

Bruce Lee’s rising popularity in the early 1970s coincided with the emergence of the blaxploitation movement: movies which were made to appeal to a black audience. The heroes and most of the cast were coloured, and many whites in supporting roles were either crooked or incompetent. (The money made from these films went directly into the pockets of the white financers, of course.)

Richard Lawson in Black Fist (1975)

It was not a far leap for these two genres on the rise to merge, and a number of blaxplo martial arts films were made as a result. One good example is Black Fist. The story is about the young streetfighter Leroy, who starts to participate in illegal fights for money. The fights allow him and his girfriend a life in luxury, but he soon finds that the crime boss and the cops will not let him have his success without paying the price.

This movie is not worth watching because of the martial arts (the fight coreography is almost laughable in some moments, brutally unsophisticated in others), but because it delivers everything you would expect from a good blaxploitation: close-ups of the shady aspects of society, dirty 70s street slang, funky music, and a total lack of sentimentality that almost hurts.

The best thing about Black Fist is that, even though it is a child of the Bruce Lee boom, it does not try to copy the master. Therefore, it is a much better film than many of the Hong Kong “bruceploitation” movies.

This film is best enjoyed on your mobile phone or iPad, since the resolution of the best copy on the Internet Archive is inadequate for viewing on a large screen.

Carolyn Calcote and Philip Michael Thomas in Black Fist (1975)

Black Fist
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Year: 1975
Running time: 1 h 32 min
Directors: Timothy Galfas, Richard Kaye
Stars: Richard Lawson
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (416×320)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (699 M)