Hell’s Angels (1930)

Today, many people argue that the best thing about Hell’s Angels is the dramatic and well produced flight sequences. That may be true, but even though the film would have been pretty much forgotten without the airial stunts, the plot and character portraits hold enough interest to make the film worthwhile. One section of the film, as well as one special effect, are in colour. This was not unique for the time, but due to the high costs it was only seen in high-budget films, so this is another reason why the film remains special.

James Hall, Jean Harlow and Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

In Hell’s Angels, we follow the destinies of two brothers, Roy and Monte, during the course of World War I. Their personalities are extremely different, so there is plenty of room for conflict, and especially so when they start to compete for the same girl. Or perhaps it should rather be said that she makes them compete, for reasons known only to herself.

Hell’s Angels is an early sound film, and much of the silent aesthetics remain, for good and bad. Indeed, the film was first intended as a silent, and much material had to be reshot (with the female lead replaced) when the decision was made to produce a talkie. There are even some title cards left for translating the German airmen’s conversation, where subtitles would be the norm today. On the plus side, it is certainly refreshing to hear German spoken in the first place. Most Hollywood war films in the following seventy-plus years were to use English in place of foreign language dialogue.

If you are used to Hollywood film from the 1940s and 1950s, you will find that Hell’s Angels is surprisingly overt in terms of sexuality and strong language. This is because it was made in the period before Hollywood’s self-imposed production code was created. Indeed, the decades following the early 1930s were to become much more bland and boring in some ways.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of aviation or war movies. The aerial battles are truly spectacular, and there is plenty of the drama that only the backdrop of war can create. Hell’s Angels is a classic in its genre that is not to be missed.

Ben Lyon in Hell's Angels (1930)

Hell’s Angels
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Year: 1930
Running time: 2 h 11 min
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding, Fred Fleck
Stars: Ben Lyon, James Hall, Jean Harlow
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)

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
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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)

Jamaica Inn (1939)

Those who are used to Hitchcock’s Hollywood productions will find a great many surprises among the genres of his earlier films made in England. But although very different from his “classic” suspense thrillers, these films should not be dismissed off-hand. Many show excellent qualities and you can see Hitchcock perfecting his skills. The last film of any kind that Hitchcock made before moving to Hollywood was the historical thriller Jamaica Inn.

Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

The film centers around Jamaica Inn on the coast of Cornwall (a real place, apparently still in business) which is the base of operation for a band of cutthroats and plunderers, who lure ships to run aground on the rocky shores. To this accursed and feared place, young Mary (Maureen O’Hara) arrives to visit her aunt, who is married to the innkeeper. The plot thickens as one of the gang members (Robert Newton) is suspected of taking loot for himself. From there on it is a sometimes tight, sometimes slightly contrived plot of chases, changing loyalties and secret identities.

It appears that neither Hitchock himself nor Daphne du Maurier (who wrote the book upon which the film is based) liked the finished film. Certainly, it does have a number of shortcomings, but it is nevertheless worth watching. It has a dark and eerie tone which, coupled with some unexpected comic relief, gives the film a unique creepy feeling. Jamaica Inn may not be among Hitchcock’s greatest films, but regardless of what people say, it is far from one of his worst.

This film is best enjoyed as part of Hitchcock’s legacy, but another good reason is Charles Laughton who plays the bad guy. I have seen few films with Laughton, but I find that he is always excellent. Even though Maureen O’Hara (also good) may nominally be the protagonist, Laughton tends to take over and dominate the picture, all for the good. Other films with him at the Internet Archive include The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Captain Kidd (1945).

Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara in Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939)

Jamaica Inn
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Year: 1939
Running time: 1 h 39 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.5 G)

Charade (1963)

I cannot decide whether one should regret or applaud USA’s old copyright law. What it amounted to was that anything that did not have a copyright notice on it was not protected by copyright. So whenever someone forgot to put that fateful © in its proper place, that entire work automatically entered the public domain immediately upon publication. One of the victims of this was the movie Charade.

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in Charade (1963)

We are fortunate to have Charade in the public domain, of course, since it is a gem of cinematic art. Hollywood at its absolute best. Warm, well written, effective scenography, a brilliant score, and not least an excellent cast, spearheaded by Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, each doing his and her best to outshine the other. Also, it is filmed on location in Paris, which was unusual at the time.

On the flip side of that copyright coin is the fact that the big companies rarely care about public domain movies. They are hard to make money off, because anyone can go ahead and legally distribute any preserved or restored edition. Such as in this case, where a brilliant Blu-ray copy has been ripped and uploaded to the Internet Archive. In many cases, though, those nice copies never appear.

Speaking of copies, a perfect high-resolution Matroska file is available for download, but if 11.5 gigabytes put you off, you can go for the much smaller MP4 (H.264) file. Lower resolution, but still very nice quality.

This film is best enjoyed when you are unfamiliar with the plot. This interesting and funny story, with all its twists and corny characters, is a bit too complex to sum up in just a couple of sentences. Besides, it may be better to see it with as few preconceived notions as possible. Just sit back, relax, and allow yourself to be carried away. This is cinematic magic.

Cary Grant taking a shower in  Charade (1963)

Charade
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Year: 1963
Running time: 1 h 23 min
Director: Stanley Donen
Stars: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (1920×1038)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: Matroska (11.5 G)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believe in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 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)

The Pawn Shop (1916)

October is Short Film Month, and today we celebrate one of the most important short film creators ever, Charlie Chaplin. A good many of his shorts are available at the Internet Archive, and today’s pick is one of the best, The Pawn Shop (more commonly written togeter as The Pawnshop, but the version at the Internet Archive has the word split), which premiered exactly one hundred years and eight days ago.

Charles Chaplin and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

Chaplin had an amazing career in the movies. He began making film in 1914, and in that year alone acted in about 35 films, 20 of which he directed. The following year, he was down to 14 titles, almost all of which he directed. By 1916, production had gone down to 9, and he directed everything himself. Quite frankly, his first attempts were not always very funny, at least not a hundred years later, but already by 1916, every single one of his films ranged from hilarious or astonishing. Diminishing volume and increasing quality continued to go hand in hand, and when he made his masterpiece The Kid (1921), he was down to only two films that year.

Nothing needs to be said about the plot of The Pawn Shop. It is not very important, anyway. What matters are all the amazing stunts and gags.

The version I mainly link to from this post is a completely silent version, with no soundtrack. Another version with a good soundtrack exists at the Archive, but both the resolution and technical quality of that copy are really poor, so I recommend that you try the soundless one.

This film is best enjoyed as a brilliant and still very funny film, but it can also be seen together with some other Chaplin films from various years and production companies, as an illustration of how fast he developed, both as an actor and a director. I would recommend spending some time at the Internet Archive, searching out a handful of samples from each year during the 1910s. It is a highly rewarding experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment.

Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

The Pawnshop
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Year: 1916
Running time: 25 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (569×430, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (214 M)