The Imperceptible Transmutations (1904)

aka Les transmutations imperceptibles
Article 4711 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-17-2014
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Magic trick short

A princely magician performs magic with a cardboard tube, making a dancing girl and a princess appear and disappear.

I wouldn’t exactly call the transmutations on hand here imperceptible, but I imagine Melies had to work hard to come up with a real variety of titles for all of the magic trick shorts he’s done. This one is fairly minor; it mostly consists of making the characters appear and disappear in the tube or making the dancing girl and the princess appear in each other’s place. It moves quickly and is very typical of Melies’s magic shorts.


Whimsical Illusions (1910)

aka Les illusions fantaisistes
Article 4710 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-16-2014
Directed by Georges Melies
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Magic short

A magician performs tricks.

When you consider the lovely hand-coloring here as well as the smoothness of some of the camera tricks, it’s a little tempting to see this one as one of Melies’s more accomplished efforts at the “magician doing tricks” shorts that made up a large percentage of his works. Nevertheless, I have to count myself among the disappointed as far as this one goes. This may largely have to do with the fact that this one is from 1910, and I was a little surprised that he was still churning out shorts like these at that late a date. Furthermore, I don’t really see him pulling off any types of tricks that I haven’t seen him try before. However, there is a bit of novelty in how he stages some of the tricks, such as the one where he makes Santa Claus appear… and then dismembers him. It’s probably that sequence that most sets this one apart from the pack.

I Love to Singa (1936)

Article 4709 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-15-2014
Directed by Tex Avery
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Tommy Bond, Johnnie Davis
Country: USA
What it is: Warner Brothers cartoon

A jazz-hating music-teaching owl discovers that one of his sons has an ear for jazz. He throws the child out, much to the distress of his mother. The child decides to audition for a spot on “The Jack Bunny Show”.

During the thirties, the Warner Brothers cartoon unit was still mostly in its formative phase, and there really aren’t a lot of memorable cartoons from the studio during this time. This is one of the most noteworthy exceptions, and I’m willing to bet a lot of you out there already have the title song running through your head. I think the sheer catchiness of the song is one of the reasons it works so well, as well as the fact that it’s a perfect choice for the story of this cartoon, which is a parody of THE JAZZ SINGER (the young owl’s name is Owl Jolson). I’m also willing to bet that when the title song stops running through your mind, you’ll also find yourself remembering the painfully shrill rendition of “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” that serves as the musical counterpoint to the main song. It’s only with this viewing that I realized that the cartoon was directed by Tex Avery, who was still developing as an animator himself; there’s a couple of gags here that hint at the later Avery style, but it’s one of his least wild cartoons. The only fantastic content is the talking/singing animals. Nonetheless, this is one of Warner Brothers’ true classics of this era.

Stalker (1979)

STALKER (1979)
Article 4708 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-14-2014
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Featuring Alisa Freyndlikh, Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy, Anatoliy Solonitsyn
Country: Soviet Union
What it is: Metaphorical Science Fiction

A writer and a professor hire a guide (called a Stalker) to lead them into a forbidden area known as the Zone, a place that is believed to contain a room that will grant each person’s innermost wish to them.

Since I’ve seen SOLARIS, I’ve encountered Tarkovsky before, and the two-and-a-half-hour plus running time of this one certainly gave me an idea of what to expect; that’s a pretty hefty length for a movie that mostly consists of three men wandering around a partially decayed urban environment being reclaimed by nature. I’m not surprised that some people find this one boring. However, at about the halfway point in this movie one of the characters begins musing about the nature of music, an art form that has virtually no contact with reality but still manages to reach the souls of men. That is perhaps about as good a metaphor as any to describe how this movie managed to fascinate and entrance me even when there was nothing I could point to on the surface was giving me cause for interest. Part of the appeal was no doubt Tarkovsky’s fascinating visual sense, especially in his use of shifting color palettes as the action moves from location to location. Furthermore, all of the locations are fascinating to look at, even if they’re certainly not pretty or beautiful in any conventional sense. I won’t pretend that I understood all of the subtleties of the dialogue or the motivations of the characters (and, given that this is a Russian movie on which I have to rely on translation into English, I may never pick up on everything), but there is enough here to get a sense of the sadness of human nature and the ultimate tragedy of the Stalker’s life. I was especially surprised when the movie managed to get a laugh out of me at one point (in a scene involving a telephone). Ultimately, I was fascinated by the movie, and I hope to be able to watch it again sometime now that I have an idea of what events it is leading up to; there appears to be a great deal of food for thought here.

I Haven’t Got a Hat (1935)

Article 4707 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-13-2014
Directed by Friz Freleng
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Joe Dougherty, Bernice Hansen
Country: USA
What it is: Cartoon

Several students perform for recital day in school.

The fantastic content here is the bare-bones cartoon one, in that the cartoon is full of talking and anthropomorphic animals. The cartoon was conceived as being something of an animated “Our Gang” series; as such, it only lasted a few cartoons before it was abandoned. It is, however, a watershed cartoon in the history of the Warner Brothers studio, in that it was the debut of the studio’s first real cartoon star, Porky Pig, here trying to recite “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere”. The other acts included a nervous kitten reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, a pair of twin puppies singing the title song, and an owl giving a piano recital that is undermined by a prank caused by Beans the Cat (the character the studio thought would be the break-out star). The cartoon isn’t bad, but it’s pretty ordinary, and it’s typical of their cartoons of the era. It’s the presence of Porky that makes it of historical interest.

Magnetic Umbrella (1911)

aka Le parapluie magnetique
Article 4706 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-12-2014
Director unknown
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Comic trick short

A scientist creates a potion that, when poured on an umbrella, causes it to influence objects and people when it is opened. A child runs off with the umbrella to test it.

This movie was just recently consigned to my “ones that got away” list, but almost immediately someone was able to supply me with a copy. When I first entered it on that list, I found myself wondering why anyone would want to make an umbrella magnetic. After having seen the short, I know the answer; since an umbrella has two states (closed and open), it gave the object a metaphorical “on/off” switch. Now my question is why the word “magnetic” is used at all. Magnetism implies that it will attract objects to it; when the umbrella is “on” here, it instead makes all surrounding objects and people move around wildly at an exaggerated pace, which, while interesting to look at, is hardly magnetic. That being said, the speeded-up special effects make it fun to watch, though the story is pretty common for these types of shorts. It’s always nice to have a rarity like this show up.

Robot Holocaust (1986)

Article 4705 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-10-2014
Directed by Tim Kincaid
Featuring Norris Culf, Nadine Hartstein, J. Buzz Von Orsteiner
Country: Italy / USA
What it is: Awful sci-fi epic

After the Robot Holocaust, humanity is enslaved by an evil being known as the Dark One. A band of fighters decide to invade his power station and defeat him.

One of the biggest factors that played into whether a movie would be given the MST3K treatment was the affordability of the movie; that’s why they did so many public domain offerings. What does it say for this movie that it became affordable enough for them to use a mere four years after its release? Yes, it’s atrocious; it’s devoid of suspense, the action scenes are embarrassing, the script is a compendium of poorly-executed cliches, and the characters fall into one of two categories – devoid of personality or actively annoying. There is, however, one element of this movie that makes it stand out from the crowd, albeit not in a good way, and that is the awesome ineptitude of Angelika Jager’s performance as the Dark One’s female henchman, Valaria; she makes the rest of the cast look good, and they aren’t. It’s really hard to decide what aspect of her performance is the worst; her body language is twitchy, unmotivated and inappropriate, her facial expressions give us the impression that she’s trying to look hot in a model session for some fashion magazine, and her poorly-enunciated line deliveries come across as if she’s trying to project a stylistic and aggressive boredom. Throw in a pathetic comic-relief robot and some horrible special effects, and you have a stinker of the first class.

War of the Wizards (1983)

aka Phoenix
Article 4704 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-9-2014
Directed by Sadamasa Arikawa and Richard Caan
Featuring Richard Kiel, Charles Lang, Betty Noonan
Country: Taiwan / USA
What it is: Epic fantasy

A fisherman discovers a bamboo book and a magic vessel that gives him great wealth. This makes him the target of assassins and wizards who want his secrets, and he finds himself facing off against a powerful sorceress.

Though it’s hardly a classic, I found this ambitious-but-primitive fantasy from Taiwan to be amusing and fun. Part of the reason it works is that the running time is short enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome (it comes in at about seventy minutes) and it’s laced with a great deal of humor; my favorite scene has our hero facing off with a succession of assassins at a restaurant who are too busy killing each other to do him much damage. There’s a giant bird, various magic users, a giant stone creature, a magic sword, and Richard Kiel (fighting with iron hands at one point) to add to the mix. The special effects are of the bargain basement variety, but somehow that adds to the charm of this one. For some reason, IMDB doesn’t mention any of the Oriental cast members, but I suspect it may have another title listing somewhere else there. All in all, this is a silly but harmless piece of nonsense.

Horton Hatches the Egg (1942)

Article 4703 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-8-2014
Directed by Robert Clampett
Featuring the voices of Sara Berner, Mel Blanc, Robert Clampett
Country: USA
What it is: Animated Seuss adaptation

A lazy bird asks an elephant to sit on her egg while she goes on a short vacation, and the elephant agrees. She stays away for a year while the elephant remains faithful to his task.

This is a bit of a rarity for the Warner Brothers cartoon department; they rarely did (straight) adaptations of books, and this version of the Dr. Seuss classic is fairly faithful to the source. It’s also fairly long for one of their cartoons, running just short of ten minutes. It does have several Warneresque touches, such as the fact that the lazy bird imitates Katherine Hepburn and a fish resembling Peter Lorre shows up at one point. It’s very well done, and if you’ve seen it as a kid, you will no doubt remember Horton’s rendition of “The Hut-Sut Song”. Dr. Seuss would go on and work with Warner’s animation department more extensively with the “Sgt. Snafu” cartoons for the military.

The Hope Diamond Mystery (1921)

Article 4702 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-7-2014
Directed by Stuart Payton
Featuring Grace Darmond, Harry Carter, George Chesebro
Country: USA
What it is: Serial thriller

A criminal mastermind has his eye on stealing the famous Hope Diamond, which is also believed to be cursed so that it brings ill fortune on all of those who possess it.

This serial has two particular points of interest. Firstly, it is one of the very few silent serials that exists in its entirety, with no episodes or reels missing. Secondly, it features Boris Karloff in one of his earliest films, and his parts are significant and pivotal; he appears in every episode of the serial. As you will notice, I wrote “parts” instead of “part”; that’s because most of the major players in the serial had dual roles. The serial starts out in the present, then switches to four hundred years prior for several episodes (hence the dual roles), and then returns to the present.

Unfortunately, I’m not particularly impressed with the serial. The acting isn’t at fault (and Karloff does a good job); it’s unfortunately cursed with a muddled script and terrible editing. At times it feels like several writers were working on it at once without communicating to each other; it’s hard to fathom what the characters are trying to do half the time. For example, it takes great pains to establish that the villain has a hypnotic hold over the heroine of the story, and then uses that power in the most pointless way possible until the final episode of the story. New characters pop up awkwardly and are sometimes poorly integrated into the story. In fact, only the episodes that take place in the past appear to be designed to tell a coherent story; the rest feels like it’s just marking time until the final episode. I suspect Karloff completists will appreciate this one best; however, the serial is poorly done.