The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

Article 4223 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-8-2013
Directed by Charles Reisner
Featuring Conrad Nagel, Jack Benny, John Gilbert
Country: USA
What it is: Musical and comedy revue

Jack Benny and Conrad Nagel host an assortment of musical numbers and comic bits.

As an artifact of the early sound era, this is worth catching. There’s a lot of novelty value in seeing scenes such as Joan Crawford singing and dancing, Laurel and Hardy interacting with Jack Benny, John Gilbert and Norma Shearer performing “Romeo and Juliet” under the direction of Lionel Barrymore, etc. However, it really does require that bit of patience that is always necessary for an early talkie, and if you’re not particularly partial to the music of the era, this two-hour movie can prove a bit of a slog. The best musical numbers are the ones that use strong visuals; the opening number plays around with reverse photography to good effect, and the big production number of “Singin’ in the Rain” (with rain falling all about) is pretty interesting. The comedians aren’t really at their best here, but as a respite from the music, they’re more than welcome; I like Laurel and Hardy even when they aren’t at their best, and watching Buster Keaton as a dancing princess trying to convince us that a string of sausages is a deadly snake is a vision to behold. Given the revue nature of the movie, it’s probably no surprise that the movie wanders into fantasy occasionally; we have at least three scenes involving performers looking like they’ve been reduced to Lilliputian size. Still, the main appeal to fans of the fantastic is the musical number, “Lon Chaney Will Get You if You Don’t Watch Out”, which involves a number of dancers coming out in monstrous makeup; this would be the scariest scene if the movie didn’t also contain a sequence in which Marie Dressler appears as a four-year-old girl (and dressed accordingly).

The Mysterious Knight (1899)

aka Le chevalier mystere
Article 4222 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-7-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Featuring Georges Melies
Country: France
What it is: Magic trick short

A man in medieval costume performs tricks with a head he’s drawn on a blackboard.

How mysterious is he? Well, if you’ve read the description above, you’ll know he does magic tricks, which may be a bit unusual for a knight, but par for the course in a Melies trick short. I’m not even sure if the knight is Melies’s character, but if it isn’t, than the knight must be the decidedly feminine character who eventually appears from the head, and I find that even less likely. This is pretty standard Melies stuff, but I do like the bit where he pushes the head through a sword and then has a conversation with it (the head, not the sword). Beyond that, I also liked the background scenery, which isn’t being dismissive; Melies put as much effort into the set as he did into the special effects, and that does add interest factor to his shorts.

Mysterious Cafe (1901)

aka Mysterious Cafe, or Mr. and Mrs. Spoopendyke Have Troubles with a Waiter
Article 4221 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-6-2013
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith
Cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Slapstick trick film

A married couple has to deal with strange goings-on at a cafe.

Basically, this is a variation on one of the more common Melies motifs; it’s a “mysterious inn” trick film set in a diner. These are films where chairs and tables disappear, reappear, and move around on their own, much to the chagrin of any occupants trying to use them. If there’s anything that sets this one apart from the pack, it’s that the diners are obviously knockabout comic characters; rather than just passively allowing themselves to be victims of the furniture, they put the blame on the waiter and beat him up. It’s pretty primitive, but at least it offers some variety to the mix.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)

Article 4220 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-5-2013
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Featuring J. Stuart Blackton
Country: USA
What it is: Early animation

An artist draws several figures on a blackboard which come to life.

Here’s another example of early animation, with chalk and blackboard being used to animate several images. It’s a simple but fun little trick film. We see him draw the first character, but from then on the characters appear seemingly without human involvement. My favorite sequence uses backwards film, as two partially erased faces come back to vivid clarity, only to vanish into the chalk of the artist. It lacks the stream-of-consciousness feel of Emile Cohl, but it’s well-conceived and well-rendered. This one is a lot of fun.

Hasher’s Delirium (1910)

aka Le songe d’un garcon de cafe
Article 4219 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-4-2013
Directed by Emile Cohl
No cast
Country: France
What it is: Animated weirdness

A man sees the food on his plate turn into abstract images before he begins to mutate himself.

I found this listed in the Walt Lee guide, where it is given the year of 1906. The fact that it is also listed as being from Gaumont and being animated made me decide that the year is wrong, and that this movie from four years later is the one in question. It’s typical Cohl; it’s basically abstract shapes morphing into scary faces and other things, all designed to baffle the “hasher”; I assume that’s who the observer is supposed to be. It’s only about two minutes long, so it serves as a decent introduction to his work.

A Very Honorable Guy (1934)

Article 4218 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-3-2013
Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Featuring Joe E. Brown, Alice White, Robert Barrat
Country: USA
What it is: Runyonesque comedy

Due to a run of bad luck, a well-intentioned but unlucky man of integrity loses everything and finds himself owing a debt to a loan shark that he won’t be able to pay. He decides to sell his body to science with the hope that the money will help him pay off his debts and allow his last month on Earth to be comfortable. Then he suddenly becomes lucky…

This is a fairly amusing comedy based on a Damon Runyon story and is filled with the type of characters and ambiance that you would expect from a Damon Runyon story. If there’s any one thing I really got out of this one, it was that Joe E. Brown was actually a very good actor. Yes, he was playing a certain stock character most of the time, and he was always a bit upstaged by that memorable face of his, but he did tap into the feel of the movies he did and made sure his character fit into the general mood of the picture; here, for example, he comes across as quite Runyonesque, which wasn’t the case in the other movies I’ve seen of his. Overall, I was quite entertained by this one, though there are times where the plot contrivances are a little too forced.

However, there is a secondary issue here as far as the fantastic content goes. The Don Willis guide mentions a plot element about a scientist experimenting with rejuvenation, which would qualify the movie by making it at least marginally a piece of science fiction. The Walt Lee guide consigns it to the Exclusions list; it lists the same fantastic content, but places a question mark after it. In this case, the Walt Lee guide had the correct instincts. There is one doctor in the story (the one who purchases Joe E. Brown’s body), but he never mentions anything about experiments with rejuvenation, and only seems interested in Brown because of the shape of his head. The closest the movie comes as far as any fantastic content goes is that one of the characters is revealed to be quite mad, and since this is demonstrated in a comic rather than horrific way, it’s really too marginal to consider. Therefore, this is another of the false alarms, and really doesn’t qualify.

My Boy Johnny (1944)

Article 4217 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-2-2013
Directed by Eddie Donnelly
Voice cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Terrytoons wartime cartoon

This short takes a hopeful look at the time when the boys come back from the war, and the type of world that will follow in its wake.

Despite the racial stereotypes and propaganda so common to the era, there is something quite fascinating about the wartime cartoons that were produced in the early forties; they capture the spirit of the era in a way that is rather engaging. This one taps into what was no doubt one of the most resonant themes of the era; it deals with that giddy sense of anticipation of the day the war is over and the boys return home. Because of the subject matter, I found myself wondering if there was really going to be much in the way of fantastic content, but there’s actually plenty; some of the returning soldiers are anthropomorphic animals, and about half of the cartoon envisions the technological advances that will follow in its wake (including a “house of the future” segment). It does idealize things quite a bit, but that was probably very much in the spirit of the time. The short was an Academy Award nominee for best animated short subject, and I actually felt a little sad to see that it didn’t have enough votes on IMDB to generate a rating, meaning that the cartoon seems to be largely forgotten. Actually, I think it’s one of the better Terrytoon cartoons I’ve seen.