The Trail of the Octopus (1919)

THE TRAIL OF THE OCTOPUS (1919)
Serial
Article 4141 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-28-2013
Directed by Duke Worne
Featuring Ben Wilson, Neva Gerber, William Dyer
Country: USA
What is is: Wild silent serial

A private detective investigates attempts by criminals to get a hold of an Egyptian artifact known as “The Devil’s Trademark”.

When I was a child and first heard about movie serials, I thought they sounded nifty. When I was an adult, and first saw one, I was promptly underwhelmed, and I’ve never quite overcome that feeling. I’ve had to see lots of serials for my project, and though I’ve come to terms with my reduced expectations, I never quite warmed to them. I did start to suspect, however, that the form may have been in something of a decline during the sound era, but most of my encounters with serials during the silent era were either non-representative (I’ve seen some impressive French serials, but they’re something of a different animal from the American ones), incomplete (most silent serials are missing most of their episodes), or were in pretty decrepit shape.

Well, with this one, I’ve finally had a chance to see a silent serial that is mostly complete (there’s one episode in the middle missing, and a few stray moments of missing footage throughout the rest), is in excellent shape (thanks to Serial Squadron), and has a fine score. It’s also heavy on the fantastic content (what with ancient Egyptian cursed artifacts, hypnotism, disembodied floating eyes, machine-enhanced astral projection, comets diverted from their course to crash into the Earth, a mysterious masked villain, an evil Oriental genius, an ape man, etc), and it trots through its various plot elements with a sort of reckless abandon. No, it doesn’t always make sense, and I suspect certain plot changes were made midstream, but that doesn’t matter because of the energy and sense of fun to the whole affair. At least one of the central mysteries is never resolved (possibly due to the fact that a few minutes of crucial footage are missing from the final episode and no known plot synopsis exists of the missing scene), and the title turns out to be only a metaphor trotted out in the final episode. Oh, it’s pretty silly, but I don’t think I’ve ever had quite as much fun with a serial before.

Hot Dog (1930)

HOT DOG (1930)
Article 4140 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-27-2013
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Voice cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Cartoon

A car-driving dog tries to pick up girls, and finds himself arrested and on trial for abducting one.

Some of the early Fleischer talking cartoons (or Talkartoons, as they were called) weren’t really that good, but if this one is any indication, they were weird and a little racy. In this one, an early version of Bimbo the dog makes passes to women on the street (most of whom look like they’re women of the night, or at the least, not very fussy), but is repeatedly turned down. The one exception is a woman so ugly, he retreats. Eventually he abducts a woman (by having his car scoop her up in one of its seats) and begins trying to kiss her. The cops catch him and he goes to trial, where his testimony consists of a banjo solo. There’s lots of weird cartoon imagery (such as one of the women spontaneously sprouting roller skates) which, surreal as it is, is hardly funny, and the whole thing ends up more warped than fun. Still, it is interesting to see some of the touches that they would improve on over the years.

Hooligan Assists the Magician (1900)

HOOLIGAN ASSISTS THE MAGICIAN (1900)
Article 4139 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-26-2013
Directed by Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton
Featuring J. Stuart Blackton
Country: USA
What it is: Comic magic trick movie

Happy Hooligan comes on stage while a magician is performing a trick with barrels, and soon finds himself dealing with more than he bargained for.

Happy Hooligan was a popular comic strip character of the time, and he was featured in several movies. From what I can tell, he’s your basic clown, and most of this movie is a mixture of Melies-style magic tricks and clown shenanigans. It’s competent and mildly amusing, but nothing really special.

The Hilarious Posters (1906)

THE HILARIOUS POSTERS (1906)
aka Les affiches en goguette
Article 4138 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-24-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Comic trick film

The characters in a wall of posters come to life and torment some local policemen.

I get the impression from the title that this is supposed to be one of Melies’s funnier shorts. Sadly, it doesn’t really work all that well on that level; the comic bits are dull, unfocused and vague. Quite frankly, I find the special effects the highlight here, especially when the posters first come to life; the way the various posters look like they would have to inhabit the spaces of the other posters in order for the actors to fit into them makes for a bit of an interesting puzzle in trying to figure out how the effects were done. It might be a bit more amusing if you can read the French writing on the posters themselves, but I’m out of luck there. It’s not one of Melies’s best, but it has points of interest.

Flowers and Trees (1932)

FLOWERS AND TREES (1932)
Article 4137 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-23-2013
Directed by Burt Gillett
No voice cast
Country: USA
What it is: Disney Silly Symphony

Two young trees strike up a romance, but a jealous tree stump, angry at having been rejected, sets fire to the forest.

This is a Disney short from the era when they were the dominant force in cartoon shorts. This was the first three-strip Technicolor cartoon and it netted Disney the first of his 32 Oscars. It’s a charming piece of whimsy, with dancing anthropomorphic trees and flowers filling up the screen. The story is simple, but the story isn’t really the point; it’s the excellent and innovative animation that makes this one, as well as its fine use of music.

Le rituel des Musgraves (1912)

LE RITUEL DES MUSGRAVES (1912)
aka The Musgrave Ritual
Article 4136 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-22-2013
Directed by Georges Treville
Featuring Georges Treville and Mr. Moyse
Country: UK / France
What it is: Sherlock Holmes mystery

Sherlock Holmes is called in to investigate the disappearance of a butler and a precious jewel. The solution to the mystery is tied to a strange family ritual.

This Sherlock Holmes mystery really only falls marginally into the realms of the fantastic, and that is because the solution of the mystery involves the death of a character by a specific means; without giving away the solution for those not familiar with a story, let’s just say that it’s related to a type of death that Poe was fond of dealing with. This short is more or less faithful to the original story, though not slavishly so; it changes a few plot details, at least partially due to the fact that they would have been clumsy to deal with in a short silent movie. Treville definitely looks the part of Holmes, and does well enough in the role, given the limitations of the production. All in all, this is not a bad adaptation of the story.

Gekko Kamen (1958)

GEKKO KAMEN (1958)
aka Moonlight Mask
Article 4135 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-20-2013
Directed by Tsuneo Kobayashi
Featuring Sen Hara, Mitsue Komiya, Hiroko Mine
Country: Japan
What it is: Masked hero hijinks

The evil Skull Mask is after the plans for a new bomb, but runs into resistance from a hero called Gekko Kamen, aka Moonlight Mask.

From what I gather, the whole “Gekko Kamen” movie series is pretty confusing, but the one I’m watching is an American welding of the first two Japanese movies into one. That’s ideally, of course; the fact of the matter is that I couldn’t find the American version, but I did get hold of the two Japanese movies that were welded together, and given that these two movies are 51 minutes each, and the American version was timed at 102 minutes, I’m guessing little was cut. And, as you might guess, the version I saw was in Japanese with no English subtitles.

So, what’s it like? Well, I’d say it’s similar to PRINCE OF SPACE, INVASION OF THE NEPTUNE MEN, or the various Starman/Super Giant movies. It certainly beats all three in terms of its production values, and, taking into account the language barrier on this one, I’d rate it better than the two movies listed above, but I would have to say it lacks some of the energy and outrageousness that makes the Starman movies work for me. It’s hard to say whether the heroes and villains have superpowers; Gekko Kamen is either bulletproof, or he’s unflappable in the face of henchmen who have the targeting ability of Imperial Stormtroopers. He does seem to be able to vanish pretty efficiently. As for the villain, he blows fire on a couple of occasions. Some of the fight scenes suffer from the pulled punch syndrome of the Starman movies (where you watch them in full confidence that no one is getting hurt), but some of the stunt work is impressive, and an extended scene where everyone is chasing after a bag is a lot of fun. The two movies edit together very well, since the first ends in a cliffhanger resolved by the second, so the movie can be easily seen as a single story. However, it is convenient to split them into two movies in one way; I realized how much more fun the first one was than the second, since all the most interesting scenes (from a visual sense) occur there. Granted, that judgment might change is I could see them with subtitles, but even with the language barrier, the action seems pretty straightforward.