Life of an American Fireman (1903)

Article 4178 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 3-14-2013
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Featuring Vivian Vaughan, Arthur White, James H. White
Country: USA
What it is: Early action short

Firemen rush to put out a burning house and to save the residents inside it.

I found a copy of this movie on YouTube that ran eleven minutes, which I thought was curious because the movie itself is only about six minutes. I’m glad that I did, though; the eleven minutes consist of two different edits of the film. The cuts are identical until the final three minutes. The first one then shows a scene of the rescue of a woman and a child from within burning house itself, followed by the same scene reenacted from outside the burning house. The second version shows these two sequences edited together so it makes one continuous piece of action. Left to my own devices, I would have interpreted the two prints thusly; the first one was the unedited “raw” footage, while the second was what was actually shown to audiences. I remember seeing something similar with a short D.W. Griffith film at one time, only with the distinction that the unedited version of the film was nearly incomprehensible until you saw the edited version.

Well, I would have turned out to be wrong. If the notes and user comments on IMDB are to be trusted, than the first version was how it was first shown to audiences at the time; the second version was a reedit from three decades later to make it conform more with editing expectations at that time. Actually, I’m rather pleased by this discovery; I found the first version much more interesting because of the curious technique of showing the same scene from two different viewpoints.

As for the fantastic content, I find this somewhat ambiguous. The first scene shows a fireman dreaming of a woman and a child; they turn out to be the ones in the fire. This scene could have two possible interpretations; either the woman and the child are known to the fireman (possibly his wife and child), or the fireman has a premonition, the latter interpretation being the one that would yield fantastic content. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn’t do anything to clarify either of these interpretations, thus leaving us in something of a grey area.

Little Red Riding Hood (1922)

Article 4100 by Dave Sindelar
Directed by Anson Dyer
Cast unknown
Country: UK
What it is: Fairy tale

After dressing her daughter up in a red riding hood outfit, a mother reads her child the story of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which is reenacted via animation.

This is a partially live action/partially animated movie, with the animated sections using what looks like paper puppets. It’s a fairly straightforward telling of the story, but some of the details are a bit fun. In this version, we find out what was in Red Riding Hood’s basket (eggs and honey). We also know that it was Red Riding Hood’s trusty dog (who looks a bit like Bandit from “Jonny Quest”) who fetched the Woodsman to save Red Riding Hood. We also find out that it was all a dream, which was no doubt added to remove the trauma of the tragic devouring of the grandma (or the concept that she could emerged unharmed from the entrails of the wolf). Still, the oddest moment in this one was the appearance of what I can only describe as a mutant rabbit-squirrel, proof that the story takes place in a post nuclear holocaust world… or proof that the animators couldn’t make up their minds or didn’t know what a squirrel looked like. At any rate, here’s another movie saved from my “ones that got away” list, and is one of at least three versions that were made the same year.

El laboratorio del diablo (1904)

aka Les sept chateaux du diable, The Seven Castles of the Devil
Article 4099 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-6-2012
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Deal with the devil story

A poor man sells his soul for the chance to live in the seven castles of the devil, one for each deadly sin. Can a beautiful woman save him?

This variation on the Faust tale was pretty elaborate for the time, as it runs a good eleven minutes. It is, however, one of the more blatantly obvious imitations of Melies; much of the design is very similar to the work in the Melies films, and it also likes to bring things to a halt for scenes of dancing ballerinas, another of Melies’s quirks. This is not to say that the short is somewhat enjoyable; it’s entertaining enough, though it does get a little obscure at times. My favorite scene is in the castle of Gluttony, where huge amounts of food are thrown down the throat of a gigantic face. One interesting touch is that the various signs indicating the name of each castle change languages frequently, thus no doubt making the movie marketable to people of several nations. This is another one that ended up on my “ones that got away” list.

Love and Science (1912)

aka Amour et science
Article 4077 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-13-2012
Director unknown
Featuring Emile Dehelly and Renee Sylvaire
Country: France
What it is: Exploration of a common science fiction theme

The betrothed of a dedicated and obsessed scientist (who is working on a telephotophone) is angry at being snubbed when she comes to visit, so she exacts a revenge when the invention is finished and he calls her.

The “telephotophone” in the description is an early version of what we would call the “videophone”, an extension of the telephone whereby you could see the person you’re talking with. What I found more interesting is that the movie deals with one of the common “mad scientist” cliches; think of all the movies you’ve seen where a scientist is so dedicated to his craft he has no time for his fiance/daughter/wife/etc. In this short, that cliche drives the plot, prompting the snubbed fiance to exact revenge by showing that she is with another man (actually, her best female friend in disguise) when the scientist tests his invention by calling her with it. Some of the plot developments are a little far-fetched, but I was nonetheless charmed by seeing the cliche given a front-and-center place in the story, which rarely happens. There are some interesting special effects as well; during the call we get a split-screen which allows us to see three scenes at once; the scientist testing his machine, the woman receiving the phone call, and the view that the scientist sees on his machine. It’s not a great short, but it’s an interesting one.

Luch smerti (1925)

aka The Death Ray
Article 3995 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-2-2012
Directed by Lev Kuleshov
Featuring Porfiri Podobed, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergei Komarov
Country: Soviet Union
What it is: Revolutionary melodrama

A death ray invention becomes a pawn in a battle between fascists and revolutionaries.

Before I start the review, I should point out that the first and last reels are missing from this movie, my copy has no background music on it, and what is left of the movie seems to be running at the wrong projection speed; the original movie ran 125 minutes, but mine clocks in 76. Given these circumstances, I’d expect the movie to be a little confusing and incoherent. Still, even given these setbacks, I’m still disappointed, because it feels even more confusing than necessary, what with its bewildering array of characters, its overly speedy action, its occasional overacting, and its multiple storylines. The Phil Hardy guide says that movie has the feel of having been improvised on the spot, and I tend to agree. This is not to say that there aren’t some moments of brilliance and some very striking scenes, not to mention some impressive stuntwork on occasion. Still, I find it hard to enjoy action sequences when I don’t really know what’s going on, and that problem pops up a lot here. Furthermore, I was disappointed by the use of the fantastic content; though the death ray probably comes into action in the final reel of the movie, that doesn’t change the fact that the movie mostly plays it as a Gizmo Maguffin; it’s something for the good guys and bad guys to fight over. Well, at least I got to see it with English subtitles, or else I would have been really lost. At any rate, I consider this one a mixed bag.

Lonesome Ghosts (1937)

Animated short
Article 3990 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-26-2012
Directed by Burt Gillett
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Pinto Colvig and Walt Disney
Country: USA
What it is: Spooky cartoon

Four bored ghosts decide to spice up their life by luring three hapless ghost catchers to their haunted mansion and having some fun with them.

It looks like this Disney cartoon may be one of the main inspirations for the movie GHOSTBUSTERS; Goofy even says “I ain’t scared of no ghosts!” at one point. The plot is simple enough; the three ghost catchers show up at the mansion and the ghosts terrorize them one at a time. The animation is excellent, as I would expect from Disney at this period. It’s a solid, amusing cartoon, but I must confess that for some reason, I rarely find myself laughing at the Disney shorts near as much as I do at the Warner Brothers shorts at their best; for example, during the sequence in which Goofy deals with a ghost who is pulling the old mirror gag on him, I found myself thinking how much funnier it would be if it had the timing of a Warner Brothers cartoon backed with the music of Carl Stalling. Still, this is a worthy cartoon. And I do need to remind myself that this one was made several years before Warner Brothers would hit their stride.

The Last Chase (1981)

Article 3952 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-9-2012
Directed by Martyn Burke
Featuring Lee Majors, Burgess Meredith, Chris Makepeace
Country: Canada / USA
What it is: Dystopian car chase movie

In the future, the world has run out of oil and a plague has destroyed a large portion of humanity. A former race car driver turned public transit spokesman turns rogue, rebuilds his race car, and, with the help of a young rebel, sets out on the road to escape from his oppressive society to a new community across the country in California. The authorities decide to enlist the aid of a former jet pilot to fly a fighter plane and destroy the car.

I thought the premise itself (a jet plane chasing a race car) was pretty silly until it became clear to me that the plane’s purpose was to destroy the car; at that point, I was able to accept the premise a bit more. However, the movie has other problems. The three villainous authority figures are more annoying than frightening, with George Touliatos in particular given to overacting on his big speeches. Furthermore, their characters seem utterly dim; if they couldn’t see that the pilot was an eccentric loose cannon who was more apt to sympathize with the race car driver than with the authorities (which I was able to tell immediately and which the race car driver figures out without even meeting him), then they show an appalling lack of character judgment. The character of the young rebel is very poorly thought out, and the movie has a bad habit of relying on dull and repetitive camera angles. Yet I think the movie’s biggest flaw is this; there’s something potentially incredibly visceral about the idea of a cross-country race; anyone whose seen VANISHING POINT knows what can be done with the idea. This movie never once taps into that sense, and the driving scenes are dull and mundane rather than exciting and thrilling. That problem alone is what really sinks this movie.