Serebristaya pyl (1953)

aka Silver Dust
Article 4315 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-23-2013
Directed by Pavel Armand and Abram Room
Featuring Mikhail Bolduman, Sofiya Pilyavskaya, Valentina Ushakova
Country: U.S.S.R.
What it is: Satire

An American scientist develops a radioactive dust that he wants to test on human subjects. However, there are other parties interested in the dust as well…

To be perfectly honest, there’s no way I can give a fair review of this movie; the only copy I was able to find did not have English dubbing or subtitles. I’m not surprised I couldn’t find one in English. From the sources I checked, this movie was made by Abram Room to get back in the good graces of the Soviet government; some of his earlier movies made during WWII had a positive view of the United States, most likely because we were allies during the war. Once the cold war was fully underway, he had to redeem himself by making a movie in which the U.S. was portrayed as a menace, and this is the result. I don’t know if it ever got a release in this country, but I doubt it; its anti-American stance and its addressing of race issues would have made it unwelcome here. There’s not a whole lot I could get out of the film on my viewing under these circumstances; with the exception of a handful of scenes, the movie is extremely talky and conveys its story through dialogue rather than visuals. One reaction I did have was that it might have had a bit of trouble seeming real; the story takes place in the U.S., but despite the presence of English words and lettering on all of the sets, the locations never quite look authentic, and though this probably wouldn’t have bothered a Russian audience, I think it wouldn’t have passed muster with an American audience. Think of it as the Soviet flip side to the “Red Scare” movies made here in the fifties.

Sedmi kontinent (1966)

aka The Seventh Continent
Article 4310 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-14-2013
Directed by Dusan Vukotic
Featuring Demeter Bitenc, Karla Chadimova, Vanja Drach
Country: Yugoslavia / Czechoslovakia
What it is: Allegorical fantasy

Two children adrift on the ocean find their way to a magical land. When a third shows up, they build a paradise and summon the rest of the children in the world to the land as well. But how will the adults react?

Quite personally, I’m not a big advocate of the idea that children are naturally icons of angelic innocence who would create a paradise if taken away from the corrupting influence of the adults. Still, my application of that doubt to this film would be making the same mistake that the adults in this film make when they try to scientifically establish whether a chair with a girl sitting on it would float on water; it’s trying to add an absurd dose of reality to a world that is ruled by magic. And it is magic that infuses this film, so much so that in some ways it hardly matters that my copy of the movie is in Czech and has no English subtitles; I can sense the magic coming out of every frame and I respond to it. This is a truly astonishing fantasy; it’s whimsical and quite moving at times. It includes two flying birds made of paper, a forest grown from figures cut out of paper, a map with a hole in it that can be used to communicate with people across the world, a marching band of circus performers, and so on. No, I can’t say I understand it in its entirety, but I was hypnotized and charmed by this one. I’m beginning to believe that there’s something truly special about Czech fantasy cinema; I’ve seen so much great work from the country.

Sunnyside (1919)

Article 4304 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-5-2013
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Featuring Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Olive Ann Alcorn
Country: USA
What it is: Comedy

An incompetent and put-upon farmhand in a small town finds his small-town romance put into jeopardy when a city man turns up and threatens to steal her heart.

The fantastic content of this short is that at one point Chaplin’s character falls into a ditch and knocks himself unconscious. He dreams he is among a group of dancing wood nymphs. What this sequence has to do with the rest of the movie, I’m not sure, but then, the short really does have only the barest whisper of a plot; the city man doesn’t even show up until two-thirds of the way through the movie.

You know, sometimes I think that Chaplin’s strength wasn’t his comic inventiveness; in this short at least, the slapstick comedy that makes up most of the movie is pretty hit and miss. It’s when he probes the emotional depths of his character that he is strongest; the sequences surrounding his relationship with the woman he loves are the most interesting parts of the movie. There’s apparently some controversy about the ending; there’s obviously a dream sequence near the end of the movie, but whether it’s the final scene or the scenes right before it is ambiguous. I myself opted with the scenes before it as the dream sequence, though that may be simply because it’s the more conventional structure. All in all, this is a fairly average Chaplin short.

Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)

Article 4303 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 9-4-2013
Directed by Max Linder
Featuring Max Linder, Alta Allen, Ralph McCullough
Country: USA / France
What it is: Comedy

A rich and soon-to-be-married bachelor breaks a mirror, and then tries to avoid the seven years bad luck that goes with it. However, despite his best efforts, bad luck begins to dog him and threatens to hoodwink his upcoming marriage.

This isn’t the first movie I’ve covered from Max Linder, but the other one I’ve seen (AU SECOURS! from 1922) is more of a special effects showcase and doesn’t feel really representative of his work. So I consider this one a more authentic example of the Max Linder experience, and I found it charming, delightful and very funny. I’m especially taken by the creativity of some of his comic bits; for example, this is the movie that debuted the famous mirror gag in which one person has to pretend to be another’s mirror reflection, and it’s in fine form here. There’s a great sequence in a zoo where, on the run from the police, Max seeks refuge in a lion cage. He also engages in numerous disguises, and even manages to pull off appearing in blackface (using a stocking over his head rather than makeup) without the gag becoming offensive; he’s doing it to elude pursuit only and doesn’t engage in stereotypical behavior. Granted, the fantastic content is iffy; it consists of the “seven years bad luck” curse, and the presence of a palm reader at a couple of points in the story. Nevertheless, I’m really glad to have seen this one and had a chance to see a master silent comedian in top form.

Santa Claus (1898)

Article 4297 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-27-2013
Directed by George Albert Smith
Featuring Laura Bayley, Dorothy Smith, Harold Smith
Country: UK
What it is: Holiday trick short

Two children are tucked into bed on Christmas Eve. While they sleep, Santa arrives.

This is a pretty basic trick short, but I do admire the way it sets up some of its tricks. The scene begins in a well-lit room, and once the children are tucked into bed, the nurse turns out the light, and the background turns pitch black. This is just they type of background needed for the special effects at that time, and I admire the skillful way the preceding scene sets it up. The special effects include a shot of Santa on the roof preparing to come down the chimney, and when Santa appears in and leaves the room, he seems to come in out of and disappear into nowhere. There’s no real story; it’s just barely over a minute long. Still, it was early enough historically that the special effects would impress, and the short is simple and likable enough.

Slippery Jim (1910)

Article 4289 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-16-2013
Directed by Ferdinand Zecca
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Comic escape story

The police capture a pickpocket, but have trouble holding on to him, since he seems to get out of every restraint they put on him.

This short appears on a recent DVD of Houdini movies, not because Houdini appears in it, but rather because the short may have been inspired by Houdini, who performed in France around that time. The short actually shows how the pickpocket escapes from his various restraints, but you can rest assured that none of Houdini’s secrets were given away; Slippery Jim’s escapes are clearly impossible. I won’t reveal just how he does them, because that’s part of the comic charm here; it’s a genuinely funny film. The pickpocket also appears to have several other magical powers as well that come into play during the chase scene in the second half of the film, so there’s plenty of fantastic content to go around. This one is a lot of fun.

The Sealed Room (1909)

Article 4281 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-4-2013
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Featuring Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, Henry B. Walthall
Country: USA
What it is: Melodrama

A king builds a special room with only one entrance for his lover. When he discovers that she is unfaithful to him with a minstrel, he exacts a revenge.

Whatever you can say about D.W. Griffith, he was one of the first directors to really grasp some of the subtleties involved in making the medium work. My favorite moment in this short is a good example; the lover gives a sidelong glance to the minstrel at one point before turning her attentions to the king. Up to that point I hadn’t even noticed the minstrel, but I knew immediately what was going on behind the king’s back. I also knew exactly how the whole story was going to pan out, but then, I had a strong idea to begin with it; after all, the partial attribution of the story to Edgar Allan Poe combined with the fact that we had a room with a single entrance immediately had me on the alert for a variation on “A Cask of Amontillado”. However, Griffith wasn’t perfect, and I did find one goof in the story, and you’ll spot it too if you keep track of the location of the minstrel’s musical instrument. There are other story problems as well; I find it hard to believe that the lovers would be unaware that a wall was being built only ten feet away with only a curtain separating them, especially with actor Arthur V. Stevens chewing the scenery on the other side as well, but then, that’s what suspension of disbelief is for.