A Nightmare (1896)

A NIGHTMARE (1896)
aka Le cauchemar
Article 4232 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-18-2013
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Very early trick film

A man dreams that a beautiful woman appears on his bed… but she turns into a minstrel and then a clown, and then things get weird.

One of Melies’s common motifs was of the innocent bystander (or, in this case, bysleeper) who is befuddled and put out by the transformations made possible by the use of special effects. This may be the first such example of this type of movie, as our sleeper is startled by the sudden appearance of a beautiful woman, who suddenly turns into a minstrel singer, and then a clown. Then the moon tries to eat his arm, so the sleeper has to punch the moon back to its proper place in the sky. It’s simple and short, and sets a template that he would return to several times. As such, it is historically one of his more important films, and it is quite entertaining in its own way as well.

Kaliya Mardan (1919)

KALIYA MARDAN (1919)
aka Kalia Mardan
Article 4231 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-17-2013
Directed by Dhundiraj Govind Phalke
Featuring Neelkanth, Mandakini Phalke
Country: India
What it is: Hindu mythology

The childhood of the Hindu deity Shree Krishna is portrayed.

Shree Krishna is one of the avatars of Vishnu, and is often portrayed as a flute-playing child and a prankster. For most of this movie, that would have been the sole fantastic content I would have found, but near the end, Krishna does battle with a giant underwater snake, and that serves as definite fantastic content for one who has no idea who Shree Krishna is. Granted, I don’t have the background to fully appreciate all of this episodic movie, but I will make certain observations. One is that much of the movie’s appeal is due to the performance of Mandakini Phalke (the director’s eight-year-old daughter) as Shree Krishna; she is so expressive and energetic she is fun to watch. I was also curious to see how a Indian cinema (which is replete with music and dancing) would fare in the pre-sound era. Well, it may be a silent movie, but I suspect if any culture would definitely have had music playing during their silent movies, it would be Indian culture. And the movie is filled with opportunities to do so, as we have Krishna playing the flute during one scene, as well as quite a bit of dancing. Even when the dancing is not explicit, much of the movement has a certain rhythmic, musical quality. Again, cultural differences hamper my ability to fully appreciate the movie, but I do think this makes for interesting viewing.

The Magic Beans (1939)

THE MAGIC BEANS (1939)
Article 4230 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-16-2013
Directed by Lester Kline
Voice cast unknown
Country: US
What it is: Cartoon fairy tale pastiche

Jack trades the family cow for a handful of Mexican jumping beans that grow into a giant beanstalk.

This cartoon sat on my hunt list for years and almost ended up on my “ones that got away” list, but I finally found a copy. I’m not quite sure what to make of it; it doesn’t quite work and it’s somewhat off-kilter. The humor feels rather self-conscious, even when it makes an unexpected turn into Tex Avery-style humor at the very end. Still, it manages to give off an interesting vibe that is somewhat unlike that I get from the other cartoon studios of the period (this one is from Walter Lantz, by the way). On a side note, and bearing in mind the cartoon I covered yesterday, I did find it interesting that Jack and his mother were anthropomorphic mice; given that tidbit of information, you should be able to figure out what the giant is going to be.

The Night Watchman (1938)

THE NIGHT WATCHMAN (1938)
Article 4229 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-15-2013
Directed by Chuck Jones
Featuring the voices of Mel Blanc and Margaret Hill-Talbot
Country: USA
What it is: Animated lesson in bravery

A young cat must take over his father’s night watchman duties in the kitchen due to the latter’s illness. There he encounters a gang of tough, bullying mice. Will he be brave enough to face them down?

Let’s face it; in animated cat-and-mouse stories, cats are rarely the heroes; they’re mostly portrayed as scary monsters terrorizing these cute little mice. Occasionally, it’s been pointed out to me that in real life, people would probably prefer to have a cat around than to have their homes overrun with mice. Well, here’s an example that reverses the usual animated approach; the cat is the sympathetic character, and the mice are ugly and brutal, and you’re looking forward to the moment when the cat gains the courage to give them their comeuppance. Granted, in order for this to work, the mice have to be bigger than the cat (which they are), which, come to think of it, is why mice are usually the more sympathetic characters in these cartoons, because they’re the tiny ones. This is a typical example of early Chuck Jones, with more of an emphasis on whimsy than outright humor; in fact, the cartoon emphasizes the story over the bits of humor that do appear. This is still not the Warner Brothers animation department at its best, but one can definitely see an improvement over the revue-styled entertainments they churned out only half a decade earlier.

The Night Before Christmas (1905)

THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1905)
Article 4228 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-13-2013
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Christmas tale

Santa prepares for his yearly journey, and so do the children waiting for him.

This is a charming little Christmas short, alternating scenes of Santa preparing for his journey and scenes of a family preparing for Santa’s arrival. It’s simply conceived; we see scenes of Santa feeding the reindeer, making toys, and checking his naughty/nice list mixed with scenes of the children hanging up their stockings, trying to sneak out of bed, and having a pillow fight. The best scene in the short is a continuous special effects shot of Santa and his reindeer trotting through the landscape on their way to deliver the presents. The scene also answered a nagging question I had. If Santa doesn’t have any help (he’s seen working alone in each of his scenes), how can he possibly get all the work done in time? Well, the answer is simple. During the delivery sequence, we see Santa bypassing several places (including a whole city) without stopping or even slowing down. I can only conclude from this that there were a lot more naughty children than nice ones on this particular year, thereby making it unnecessary for him to employ the extra elf help that is his wont. And, considering that he makes toys the old-fashioned way, it’s good that he has enough magic to decorate the whole tree with a sweep of his hand; the last thing I wanted to see was Santa spending ten minutes hanging tinsel.

A Page of Madness (1926)

A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)
aka Kurutta ippeji
Article 4227 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-12-2013
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa
Featuring Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa, Ayako Iijima
Country: Japan
What it is: An encounter with madness

A man takes a job at an insane asylum in the hopes that he can free his wife from it.

From what I gather, very little Japanese silent film is extant, and now I’ve seen two from the era in the same week. Furthermore, they’re both by the same director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, and if these movies are any indication, he was a definite cinematic genius; this one is even more breathtaking stylistically than JUJIRO. According to IMDB, this was made on an extremely low budget; if so, it shows just how much can be done on a tiny budget with creative editing and innovative camerawork. The plot itself is a bit obscure at times, partially due to the fact that there are no subtitles, and partially because the style of the piece (which occasionally puts us in the position of seeing the world through the eyes of the madmen) often leaves us unsure of what is real. From a story perspective, I’m not sure it can be called a horror film, but because of the way madness pervades the film, it becomes one anyway. At any rate, this is one genuinely unsettling cinematic experience.

Neptune’s Daughters (1900)

NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTERS (1900)
Article 4226 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-11-2013
Director unknown
Cast unknown
Country: USA
What it is: Trick dance short

Ghosts turn into dancing girls who ply their trade while superimposed over a ship.

Back when I saw DAVEY JONES’ LOCKER (which consisted of footage of a dancing skeleton superimposed over a ship), I was mostly taken by the pointlessness of the exercise. This one manages to be even slightly less interesting. According to IMDB, it was edited from another short called BALLET OF THE GHOSTS by superimposing the ship image with that one. Let’s write it off as another dancing girl short, and move on, shall we?

Kaibyo Okazaki sodo (1954)

KAIBYO OKAZAKI SODO (1954)
aka Ghost-Cat of the Okazaki Upheaval
Article 4225 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-9-2013
Directed by Bin Kado
Featuring Takako Irie, Yoshitaro Sadato, Michiko Ai
Country: Japan
What it is: Ghost-cat antics

A woman is murdered unfairly. Her ghost-cat appears to take revenge.

This is my third encounter with the ghost-cat movies of the fifties from Japan. Like the others, I once again find myself without subtitles to help me sort out the action (hence my vague plot description). Still, I do have to admit one thing; none of the three that I’ve seen have impressed me as being special in any way, and I’m beginning to get the feeling that they were churned out in much the same fashion as “old dark house” movies were during the thirties. There are no floating heads this time, but we do have the ghost-cat using her magic powers to make another woman do gymnastics, which I saw in one of the other films. Still, there’s really not much action with the ghost-cat; most of the movie seems to be a melodrama somehow involving some romantic triangles and a kidnapped child. Also, since this is a period piece (like the others), I have trouble telling a lot of the characters apart; all of the women have the same long hair piled up on their heads, and all the men have variations of male-pattern baldness with ponytails (if you’ve seem some of these movies, you know what I mean). I somehow get the feeling that if I ever develop a favorite among these movies, it’s going to be the one that actually has English subtitles; for now, I get this strong sense of sameness from these movies.

Crossroad (1928)

CROSSROAD (1928)
aka Jujiro
Article 4224 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-9-2013
Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa
Featuring Akiko Chihaya, Junosuke Bando, Yukiko Ogowa
Country: Japan
What it is: Nightmarish tragedy

A young man’s infatuation leads to his blindness and belief that he has committed murder. His sister must care for him, but finds herself blackmailed by a fake policeman in order to get favors from her.

This movie is listed in the Walt Lee guide, but the elements it lists for its fantastic content seem vague and inconclusive, and other than a surreal descent into madness near the end, I don’t think it really qualifies. Nevertheless, it is a gripping, intense, and tragic film that becomes positively nightmarish at times. It’s a meditation on obsession, desperation, and the cruel twists of fate. The title seems metaphoric; at the end, a character stands at the crossroads, but one wonders if there’s any path that can be taken that will really make a difference. The copy I found of the movie is unfortunately without a score, but even with that, the movie has a real fascination. It’s certainly one of the most powerful movies I’ve seen in some time.

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

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).