Topsy and Eva (1927)

Article 5357 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-29-2017
Directed by Del Lord, D.W. Griffith and Lois Weber
Featuring Rosetta Duncan, Vivian Duncan, Gibson Gowland
Country: USA
What it is: Famed drama recast as slapstick comedy

The St. Claire family buys two slaves who have been auctioned off when the original owners went broke. However, when a fire destroys his cotton crop and he can’t pay for them, the evil and vicious slave seller Simon Legree seeks to recover the slaves.

For the record, I’ve already covered one version of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN for this series; the ending of the story involves a miracle of sorts. The story was so familiar that I can’t really say I’m surprised that a slapstick comic version of the tale exists; though in some ways the story here is told straight, it’s primarily a vehicle for slapstick mayhem courtesy of Rosetta Duncan (a white woman) in the role of the young slave Topsy (a black character). It’s based on a Broadway version of the show that was a musical, much of which must have been lost in a silent movie. IMDB lists Lois Weber as one of the directors, though the trivia section says she refused to direct this one because it was “racially insensitive”. And in some ways it is; stereotypes abound, and Topsy herself comes across at times as a somewhat subhuman character. Still, I can’t help but be impressed at a few things; it’s one of the rare cases where we see Three Stooges-style slapstick taken on by a female (I can’t help but notice Del Lord listed as the director), and Topsy is openly insolent to so many of the white characters in the story that I’m sure some audience members of the time were taken aback; I’m sure the only way they got away with it is because she was being played by a white person in blackface rather than a black person. Oddly enough, the usual fantastic content in the story is soft-pedaled this time; all we see is Topsy praying and Eva reviving, which makes the miracle one that is only implied. Still, there are a few other touches of the fantastic. The opening scene has storks delivering babies, and there is a quick scene in heaven with black angels shooting dice. Still, the most interesting moment in this regard is a scene in a graveyard which plays like a horror comedy; Topsy passes through unaware that several slaves have buried themselves in the snow there, and when they dig themselves out, she thinks the dead are rising from their graves.

Three Little Wolves (1936)

Article 5356 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-28-2017
Directed by David Hand
Featuring the voices of Billy Bletcher, Pinto Colvig, Dorothy Compton
Country: USA
What it is: Disney Silly Symphony

The Big Bad Wolf and his three sons hatch a plot to catch the pigs by pretending to be Little Bo Peep and her sheep.

Lest we forget, one of Disney’s most famous shorts was THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, and I was rather surprised to find they also did one called the above title. I was hoping for an inversion of the original cartoon (with the pigs as the villains and the wolves as the victims), but this turns out to be more of a straightforward sequel which references the original by reprising the song. It borrows from a couple of other sources as well; you’ve seen the Bo Peep reference in the plot description, and the general plot owes quite a bit to the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!”. Like most sequels, it’s not the equal to the original, but it does have two highlights. One is the use of an elaborate machine called a “Wolf Pacifier”. The other is one of the rare times where Disney throws out a joke that totally blindsides me; it’s how the pigs react when the wolf (in his Bo Peep costume) locks them in his house and swallows the key. It’s actually a pretty risque joke for a post-code cartoon.

Transfigurations (1909)

aka Les transfigurations
Article 5353 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-23-2017
Directed by Emile Cohl
Cast unknown
Country: France
What it is: Partially animated silent short

A man with a “future-telling booth” allows customers to look inside to see how they or their loved ones will look in the future.

Despite the fact that the movie has a definite set-up, this is mostly an excuse for Emile Cohl to do what it is that he usually does – engage in stream-of-consciousness animation. Though he does mostly concentrate on changing human faces, he doesn’t limit himself to that; I don’t think anyone’s spouse is going to end up looking like a weather vane. Granted, most of the customers seem very unhappy with what they see in the booth; the only exception is the man who wants to see what his mother-in-law is really like, so the movie ends on a rather obvious joke. It’s pretty typical of the work of Cohl, and it’s a pretty fun short. I’m also not surprised that he had a short with this title; it describes most of his work.

Le tout petit Faust (1910)

Article 5348 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-18-2017
Directed by Emile Cohl
No cast
Country: France
What it is: The Faust story with stop-motion puppets

Faust makes a deal with the devil and tries to win the hand of Marguerite.

Emile Cohl is a bit out of his usual element here in doing a five-minute adaptation of the first part of Goethe’s play with stop-motion puppets. I like Cohl, but I don’t think he was at his best with puppet animation; the movement seems pretty ragged to me. Nor does a five-minute condensation of the Faust story really do it justice, though we do have plenty of fantastic content, with Mephistopheles appearing and disappearing, and Marguerite eventually going to heaven. It’s probably best viewed as a curiosity, and it’s hardly Cohl’s best work.

The Tempest (1908)

Article 5337 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-5-2017
Directed by Percy Stow
Cast unknown
Country: UK
What it is: Silent Shakespeare adaptation

The survivors of a ship sunk by a tempest find themselves stranded on an island inhabited by a sorcerer, his daughter, and two mystical creatures.

I’m surprised I don’t have more of a working familiarity with the play that inspired this one; it is, after all, with the possible exception of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, the play of Shakespeare’s that has the greatest amount of fantastic content. However, every time I try to read it, I get lost in the language and lose the thread of the story. As a result, I actually got something out of this version; bereft of the language and shortened to twelve minutes, I came out of it with at least an outline of the story to help me when I tackle reading it again in the future. On its own terms, it’s not bad for what it is – an abbreviated “high points” summary of a familiar story, and it’s entertaining enough for its length. And of course, I couldn’t resist trying to match up the various characters with their equivalents in the science fiction classic modeled off the story, FORBIDDEN PLANET. All in all, I found this viewing quite useful.

Thiruneelakandar (1939)

aka Thiruneelakantar
Article 5326 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-21-2016
Directed by Raja Sandow
Featuring M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, Tirunelveli Paapa, “Yaanai” Vaidyanatha Iyer
Country: India
What it is: Mystical drama

A devout potter and his wife face trials in their lives.

Almost immediately after I consigned this to my “ones that got away” list and assumed this was one of the many early Indian movies that had been lost, I was pointed in the direction of a YouTube video of the movie. Unfortunately, it was in Tamil without English subtitles, and it appears to be one of those movies that is nearly impenetrable to me in that form; there’s very little action to speak of, and it’s mostly a series of long dialogue sequences between characters and the occasional musical number. Reportedly, this was very popular in India, and I imagine even if it were in English, I’m not sure I’d be able to penetrate Hindu spirituality enough to really appreciate this one. I do know part of the plot involves romantic entanglements (there are several scenes of women falling to the floors and crying), and there’s an overt comic character who looks a little bit like Jim Carrey. There is also definite fantastic content, though it seems to be quite a ways into the movie before it noticeably manifests itself to me. Of course, being from India, it’s long – it runs nearly two and a half hours, so I deserve some sort of endurance award for this one. Still, my inability to follow the story guarantees that I can’t really can’t pass any judgment on this one.

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (1937)

aka Skazka o rybake i rybke, The Fishmonger and the Fish
Article 5313 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-3-2016
Directed by Alexander Ptushko
Voice cast unknown
Country: Soviet Union
What it is: Animated fable

A poor fisherman catches a fish of gold that offers a ransom for its life, but the fisherman lets it go for free. However, when his wife hears, she berates the fisherman and demands he go back and ask the fish for a new wash tub. He does so, and the wish is granted, but the wife is still not satisfied and asks for more. Will she end up asking for too much?

The copy I found of this short had English subtitles, which I really didn’t expect, but I’m happy about it anyway. However, I’m not sure I would have really needed them; the story is familiar enough (I’m sure I saw a version in “Fractured Fairy Tales”) and is easy to follow. It’s a charming and rather sad version of the tale, and the puppet animation is quite good. It was directed by Alexander Ptushko, and to some extent, it appears that his career parallels that of George Pal’s; they both began with puppet animation, but moved on to epic feature work. Ptushko would go on to direct such films as THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON and THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE, two favorites of mine.

That Man is Pregnant! (1972)

aka The Broad Coalition
Article 5230 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-16-2016
Directed by Simon Nuchterm
Featuring William Reilly, Anita Morris, Sloane Shelton
Country: USA
What it is: Pregnant man comedy

A cop’s girlfriend becomes involved with a women’s liberation group, and it complicates his life. When he’s sent to infiltrate the home of the women’s lib group, he becomes an experimental subject for one of the residents…

This is the third comedy I’ve seen about a pregnant man for this series. Personally, I’m surprised there are so many. Sure, it does have a few comic possibilities, but I think a single episode of a thirty-minute TV sitcom would be enough to exhaust them; I don’t think the concept has enough going for it to fill a single movie, much less three. Maybe that’s why the pregnancy angle doesn’t come into play in the movie until it’s almost two-thirds over; up to that point, it’s mostly peppered with scenes with the cop and his girlfriend, the cop and his fellow cops, and the girlfriend and her friends in the feminist organization. I’m not surprised at the feminist angle in the movie; after all, the whole concept of a pregnant man seems like a feminist dream designed to cause a man to understand what a woman goes through. However, I’d hardly call this a feminist movie; the members of the women’s lib organization are portrayed to these eyes as buffoons, and the lesson they intended to teach is largely there to be exploded. I do somewhat admire (from a distance) the style of the movie, as it feels as if much of the dialogue is improvised in a Robert Altman style; unfortunately, it doesn’t do it very well and the end result is a mixture of the obvious and the merely odd. I wonder how many more of these movies I’m destined to see.

Topper (1979)

TOPPER (1979)
Article 5195 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-28-2016
Directed by Charles S. Dubin
Featuring Kate Jackson, Andrew Stevens, Jack Warden
Country: USA
What it is: Supernatural TV-Pilot comedy

Two fun-loving socialites die in an automobile accident, but they can’t go to heaven until they do a good deed. They decide to help a stuffy financial adviser to cut loose and have a good time.

The original had Cary Grant. This one has scenes in a disco. Okay, that’s a bit of a cheap shot from someone who hated the whole disco scene, but one of the lines from the movie during the disco scene is “Nobody comes here for sparkling conversation!”, and that’s an apt description for this version of the movie, though not the original. I don’t object to Jack Warden in the title role, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Roland Young; in fact, I don’t think there’s anyone in the cast I would prefer over the equivalent actor in the original. Nor is there wit in the script nor energy in the direction; this movie just seems to meander absent-mindedly through its plot. If there’s anyone here that stands out, I’d have to choose Kate Jackson; at least she seems to be trying to tap into the spirit of the original movie, and given that she’s one of the executive producers and was hoping this would make it into a series, that’s understandable. But the movie is glum and joyless. Fortunately, the original is still around, and it’s much easier to find than this forgotten remake.

Target… Earth? (1980)

Article 5167 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-26-2016
Directed by Joost van Rees
Featuring Victor Buono, Rick Overton, Isaac Asimov
Country: USA
What it is: Documentary?

A researcher aboard a space ship is tasked with understanding the Tunguska Event from 1908, its cause, and the effect it had on humanity.

This is not to be confused with the 1954 alien invasion movie from 1954 (TARGET EARTH) nor the investigation of alien presence movie from 1974 (UFO: TARGET EARTH). No, this is another example of a movie subgenre I’ve already encountered several times in this series; it’s an “aliens from outer space have visited us” documentary. If you’re not familiar with the Tunguska Event of 1908, it involves a huge explosion supposedly caused by a meteorite impact, only, since there was no impact crater, it is believed that the meteorite exploded above the ground.

I will admit to a certain fondness for this one, though not necessarily because it’s so convincing. Rather, I’m fond of the way it was so eccentrically staged. Rather than an earnest authority figure of sorts narrating for us, we get a fictionalized framing device in which a man named Homer the Archivist (played by Victor Buono) living in a spaceship is tasked with researching the event by his computer-with-an-attitude (voiced by Rick Overton). Buono waxes philosophic about human nature, banters with his computer, and talks to frogs. These scenes alternate with documentary footage, interviews, and some strange footage involving alien women aboard another spaceship. I’m not sure if it really works, but I will admit that Buono is very entertaining and has some great lines. It’s this truly strange framing device that instills what fun there is in this documentary. At any rate, I will say that this movie does earn the question mark in its title.

On a side note, you will see Isaac Asimov’s name in the cast list above; according to IMDB, he was one of the people interviewed. In truth, I did not see him; either I did not recognize him (though those sideburns are hard to miss) or he was on so briefly I missed it when I was out of the room for a second…or, he wasn’t in it at all. However, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle both appear, as well as Carl Sagan.