The Merry Old Soul (1933)

We continue our Short Film Month with a look at an old Disney character. Well, almost. The film is The Merry Old Soul and the character is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

A dentist and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

Oswald, so the story goes, was Walt Disney’s first important character for his animated films. But Disney was at the time working for Universal Studios, who therefore owned the character. When Disney and the studio failed to come to terms about the future of Disney and Oswald, Disney decided to leave Universal and create his own character (of very similar appearance), Mickey Mouse. The rest is, as they say, history.

But Oswald lived on, and prospered for a time. There were lots of post-Disney films with the character, and The Merry Old Soul is only one of them. In this film, Oswald has gone to the dentist with a bad toothache, but during the visit he hears a message on the radio that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald runs away to rally all the comedians in Hollywood to try to find a cure. The assembled host includes a great many Hollywood celebrities, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, and even Greta Garbo! The whole affair eventually spirals out of control into a pie-in-the-face orgy.

If you are curious about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as a Disney character, a few samples are available at the Internet Archive, for example the nice short Oh Teacher (1927).

In later years, the Disney company has actually purchased the rights to Oswald, who is therefore once again a Disney character. Oswald has since made some appearances in video games, films and comics.

This film is best enjoyed for lovers of old movie stars. If that is your bent, then you are wont to get your satisfaction here, and it is quite a lot of fun to try to figure out who everyone is. In addition, though the animation is a bit simple at times, many of the gags are really good.

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Ed Wynn in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in The Merry Old Soul (1933)

The Merry Old Soul
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Year: 1933
Running time: 8 min
Directors: Walter Lantz, William Nolan
Stars: Bernice Hansen (voice)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (91 M)

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)

Captain Kidd (1945)

Last week, I wrote about how Douglas Fairbanks defined the entire pirate film genre with The Black Pirate (1926). Having said as much, all pirate films are naturally not made from the same template. Though a number of clichés can certainly be found in Captain Kidd, the film also contains a number of original elements.

Randolph Scott in Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd is nowhere near as lavish and epic as The Black Pirate, yet it is well worth watching on its own merits. The plot is a bit too intricate to be described in just a few sentences, but rest assured that you will find both romance and adventure a-plenty. It involves the greedy and scheming pirate William Kidd (Charles Laughton), the greatest menace of the seven seas, and Adam Mace (Randolph Scott), a man who is out for revenge.

Captain Kidd has often been criticised for being historically inaccurate. That may well be the case, but it is totally beside the point. The film does make use of a number of historical names, places and ships, but the entire plot is just a wonderful fantasy, and it should be watched as such.

This film is best enjoyed for Charles Laughton’s acting. Even though Randolph Scott may nominally be the film’s hero, Laughton is definitely the main character. I did not clock, but I am sure he gets more screen time, and he is absolutely magnificent in his role. There is also a very good John Carradine in a minor role.

Captain Kidd (1945)

Captain Kidd
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Year: 1945
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: Rowland V. Lee
Stars: Charles Laughton, John Carradine
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (720×576)
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: DivX (700 M)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The border between fiction and reality is often a very thin one. Take the World War II film The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress for example. It is often labeled as a documentary, yet in many aspects, it is little more documentary than the almost entirely fictional Memphis Belle (1990), which it helped to inspire.

Captain Robert K. Morgan and Captain James A. Verinis before their B-17F Flying Fortress in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a documentary, sure, but like any good documentary, it was made with a certain purpose. That purpose was home front propaganda (the plane and crew were used to sell war bonds after they returned to America). In order to achieve that propaganda, the important thing is the drama and authenticity. Actual facts will have to take a back seat, unless they can help to raise abovementioned drama and authenticity.

Certainly, the film does contain many documentary elements: much of it was indeed shot during live combat missions over enemy territory, and you can see that the crew members are real humans, not actors, in the ways that they react to the cameras. But it does not portray the plane’s final mission, as stated. The film was shot during a number of different missions, some of them made with other aircraft than the Memphis Belle. One of the cinematographers is said to have been killed during the filming when the bomber he was on board was shot down over France.

Another example of how the film skillfully mixes real and fictional elements is that all sound, including the crew members’ on-board dialogue, was recorded and added during post production. Some people find it fascinating that they show wounded and dead crew members (of other aircraft) in a propaganda film, but this was common during the period. That way, the courage of the fighting man is shown to be even greater, because the audience is made to realize that the hazards of combat flying are very real.

Perhaps I make it sound like I disapprove of all the short-cuts that directory William Wyler and his crew have taken in the production of this film. That would be far from the truth. The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress is a great film, captivating and inspiring, not in spite of the fictional elements, but perhaps moreso because of them. Without the fiction, the story would be bland and boring.

This film is best enjoyed for its large amount of actual combat footage and for its considerable story-telling qualities. For the historical facts, you need to go elsewhere, though as a documentary of a combat crew’s situation on board a B-17, the film does have many fine qualities.

B-17 Flying Fortress formation in The Memphis Belle - A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)

The Memphis Belle – A Story of a Flying Fortress
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Year: 1944
Running time: 43 min
Director: William Wyler
Stars: Eugene Kern (narration)
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.3 G)

The Iron Mask (1929)

Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers has become one of the most popular stories to adapt onto the silver screen. By 1920, there had already been a number of adaptations. Douglas Fairbanks took film swashbuckling to new heights with The Mark of Zorro, and he was to follow it up in 1921 with The Three Musketeers, which became the first classic film of the tale.

The version of The Three Musketeers available at the Internet Archive, unfortunately, has fairly poor image quality and has no soundtrack. But before the 1920s was over, Fairbanks had made a sequel, The Iron Mask, which is just as good.

Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan and Marguerite De La Motte as Constance Bonacieux in The Iron Mask (1929)

In The Mark of Zorro, Fairbanks had introduced the world to the swashbuckling adventure romance genre of film. It was still pretty rough by modern standards, but with The Three Musketeers he really broke new ground. This type of film, with a historical setting, lavish costumes and majestic sets, was something he would continue to do until the end of the silent era, after which he more or less gave up on film making. Some of his great movies include Robin Hood (1922) and The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

The Iron Mask was to become his last silent film, and one of the last major silent productions of any kind. Though it was made mainly as a silent, there were originally a couple of talking sequences and a score with synchronized sound effects. However, the original score has never been completely restored, and the version at the Internet Archive, along with several similar ones, is effectively silent, with a soundtrack of classical music. (A version with partly restored soundtrack was released on DVD some years ago.) Yet another version was released in 1952; it was somewhat cut, but with an added introduction and a narrative track by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. That version is also available from the Internet Archive, but I personally do not like the narration, so I prefer the original, even without the sound.

The Iron Mask, along with Fairbanks’ other adventure films from the 1920s, still hold up well. Not only are they impressive in scope and well produced, but Fairbanks was also a good actor, and his athletic stunts continue to amaze almost 100 years later.

A curious and little-known fact is that The Iron Mask was in fact the third time that Douglas Fairbanks played d’Artagnan. In addition to The Three Musketeers, he also played the French adventurer in a brief prelude to the 1917 comedy A Modern Musketeer.

This film is best enjoyed after having first seen The Three Musketeers. Fans are divided regarding which is the better film. I personally prefer The Iron Mask.

One for all and all for one: Tiny Sandford as Porthos, Douglas Fairbanks as d'Artagnan, Leon Bary as Athos and Gino Corrado as Aramis in The Iron Mask (1929)

The Iron Mask
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Year: 1929
Running time: 1 h 41 min
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.1 G)

Robin Hood (1922)

The origins of the Robin Hood legend goes back to mediaeval times, and is shrouded in the veils of time. Robin may or may not have been a historical person, and he may or may not have been a rebellious fighter for the justice of the poor. Side characters such as Little John and Will Scarlet may or may not have been part of the original story, whereas Friar Tuck, Alan-A-Dale and Lady Marian are probably later additions.

By 1922, Douglas Fairbanks was making great leaps in the advancement of filmmaking. Two years before, he had made The Mark of Zorro, the first true romantic adventure movie, and in 1921 he followed it up spectacularly with The Three Musketeers. This year it was time for the making of the next classic movie adventure, Robin Hood.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

While Fairbanks’ Robin Hood was not the first screen version of the character, it was the first feature-length film, and it seems to have been an important step in bringing together many of the characteristics of the modern Robin Hood.

Many accounts associate Robin Hood with Robert of Locksley, a historical character, though it is by no means proven that he has any real connection with the Robin Hood of legend. The early accounts are in agreement, however, that Robin Hood was a yeoman, a free man below the nobility in status. Fairbanks, however, makes Robin into one of King Richard’s most trusted advisers, before voluntarily becoming an outlaw in order to better be able to rebel against Prince John. In this version, Robin Hood is the Earl of Huntingdon, an identity that was ultimately derived from a 17th century play.

One of the most influential Robin Hood tales in popular culture is Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe. Fairbanks shows that he is influenced by Scott’s work, not only by the Lionheart connection, but even more clearly by having King Richard appear as an anonymous knight after his return to England.

Robin Hood remains an excellent picture, over 90 years after its premiere. The sets are splendid and majestic. In fact, the mediaeval halls and castles were never so spectacular in real life as they are in Hollywood. Fairbanks weaves legend and fairy tale, and he does so with an elegance that few later Robin Hood accounts can match.

This film is best enjoyed for Fairbanks’ athletic version of Robin Hood. There are a good many nice stunts, especially towards the end of the movie.

Douglas Fairbanks as Earl of Huntingdon and Enid Bennett as Lady Marian in Robin Hood (1922)

Robin Hood
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Year: 1922
Running time: 2 h 12 min
Director: Allan Dwan
Stars: Douglas Fairbanks
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.7 G)

The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

A romantic comedy about a half-mad king who had his wives beheaded and divorced about as often as he changed his underwear? Sounds strange? Well, it is, but The Private Life of Henry VIII is also a splendidly amusing and well-made film.

Wendy Barrie (as Jane Seymour) and Charles Laughton (as the king) in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Henry VIII has gone down in history for several reasons, but in popular history he is perhaps best known for his six wives. They, and their relationships with the king, form the story of this film. Well, in fact the story is about five wives, and barely that, for the first one is entirely skipped over and the film begins as the second one is about to be executed.

Even so, one would think that an hour and a half would be too little time to tell the stories of five romances with any kind of depth, but an effective script teamed with Alexander Korda’s excellent directing and a brilliant Charles Laughton in the title role produced a film that neither feels rushed nor overstuffed.

One would perhaps also be tempted to think it would be hard to create an endearing portrait of someone who had two of his own wives put to death, but this film succeeds even at that.

This film is best enjoyed for the excellent acting and directing. As is often the case with “historical” films, several liberties and short cuts have been taken with facts of history.

Binnie Barnes (as Catherine Howard) and Charles Laughton (as the king) in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

The Private Life of Henry VIII
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Year: 1933
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Charles Laughton
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack (863 M)