Jewels Of The Public Domain Treasure Chest – The Cat And The Canary (1925)

I’ve mentioned before that quite a few years back I ran another blog, Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest. In it I tried to spotlight some of the real jewels that can be found in the Public Domain. It’s been quite a while since I’ve actually updated the site, but there’s quite a few pieces there that I still think are deserving of attention, so I thought I’d begin to spotlight some of them in a new occasional feature, “Jewels Of The Public Domain Treasure Chest”. For the most part I’m going to be running them just as they were posted then, except for – as I’ve done with this post – editing a bit of the grammar, fixing a couple of links, and adding a few more graphics just to make it fit in a little better with the other posts here. I hope you’ll enjoy this little blast from the past, and let me know what you think about it in the comments.

cc1aOk, gang, time to jump into the way-way-back machine and set the dial for 1927, and the American debut of famed German director Paul Leni who has just combined the expressionism movement of his home country with the burgeoning horror-comedy genre of this country to create what may be one of the most influential films of the mid 1920s, The Cat and the Canary.

Now I’ve made no bones before about my love for the so-called “old dark house” genre of films. I’ve used the analogy before, but in a lot of ways,  for me sitting down for one of these movies is like tucking into a favorite meal of… oh, go ahead and pick your own comfort food. It’s the kind of thing where it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve eaten it, no matter how well you may know the taste of it, that’s a large part of the enjoyment of it. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of thing that may bring back special memories, maybe from your childhood, maybe of a particular time with someone special, maybe of a place that you once visited and want to go back to. It’s the kind of thing you maybe keep in the back of your mind when you go to a new restaurant, something that even if you’re unsure of the menu, you know that you’re going to enjoy this particular dish. That’s how I feel about old dark house mysteries – they’re my fall back comfort food, because even when they’re not that great, there’s usually some aspect of them that I can enjoy.

cc3But if the old dark house mysteries are comfort food, then watching The Cat and the Canary was, for me, like going back to the place where it all started, finding that little English pub or off the byway place where your favorite dish was created. Or maybe talking to the great grandparent that first came up with the secret family recipe and realizing that all along there had been something missing. Like taking that first bite and realizing that no matter how many times you’ve had the dish, how many variations you’ve tried, there really is nothing quite like the original.Now I’ve made no bones before about my love for the so-called “old dark house” genre of films. I’ve used the analogy before, but in a lot of ways,  for me sitting down for one of these movies is like tucking into a favorite meal of… oh, go ahead and pick your own comfort food. It’s the kind of thing where it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve eaten it, no matter how well you may know the taste of it, that’s a large part of the enjoyment of it. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of thing that may bring back special memories, maybe from your childhood, maybe of a particular time with someone special, maybe of a place that you once visited and want to go back to. It’s the kind of thing you maybe keep in the back of your mind when you go to a new restaurant, something that even if you’re unsure of the menu, you know that you’re going to enjoy this particular dish. That’s how I feel about old dark house mysteries – they’re my fall back comfort food, because even when they’re not that great, there’s usually some aspect of them that I can enjoy.

cc2

Like I said at the first, the year is 1927. Carl Laemmle, one of the founders of Universal Studios, was reaching back to his home country of Germany to bring in new talent. One of those he invited to come direct movies for him was Paul Leni, who was already beginning to make a name for himself as he explored the boundaries of what was becoming known as the “expressionist” movement in film. Now, expressionism can and has been defined in many different ways, but basically it seeks to combine certain stylized visuals with the narrative structure of the film in a way that tends to affect the viewer not only mentally but emotionally. Sometimes this involves shooting a sequence with an odd camera angle. Sometimes it involves odd, often stylized and overpowering architecture. Sometimes it involves the superimposition of seemingly unrelated objects into the frame. Whatever form it takes, however, the effect is generally one of keeping the audience off-balance, and of trying to bring a more visceral feel to the proceedings. This is the influence that Leni was able to bring with him to Universal and to the beginning of what would be a long line of horror and horror-comedy films, and this influence can be felt from the very opening sequence of the movie.

cc6The film opens with what could have been a fairly standard sequence, as we are given the history of one Cyrus West, a millionaire who is approaching death. West lives alone in a huge mansion with only his caretaker, the ironically-named, ever-frowning Mammy Pleasant for company. However, as news of his impending death spreads, we are told that he is descended upon “like cats around a canary” by his greedy family who attempt to drive him insane. Interspersed with this narrative are scenes of West, flailing about the screen, but instead of being shown how his family is treating him or perhaps seeing him lying on his death bed, he is instead superimposed upon a model of his towering mansion, which instead of providing space and refuge seems instead to imprison and confine the old man. Then as the narrative goes on to tell of the medicines and potions he is taking, the towers of his mansion are slowly echoed and replaced by the bottles containing those potions. And still the old man is trapped, and his growing despair and desperation is made evident. Meanwhile, behind the bottles, we have another superimposition of menacing black cats, towering over both the bottles/mansion and the man. Yes, it is, perhaps a bit too spot-on literal, but there is a power to it, nonetheless.

cc5Finally the old man passes, slumping into his chair, and we see, coming slowly into focus, an envelope, and written on the outside of it is “Last Will and Testament of Cyrus West. To be opened twenty years after my death”.  This scene then fades back to show us just the mansion and then a furred, long-clawed hand enters the frame and picks up another envelope reading “This envelope is never to be opened if the terms of my will are carried out.” The clawed hand replaces the envelope, the scene fades, and a card tells us “and for twenty years, it was said, the tormented ghost of Cyrus West wandered nightly through the deserted corridors”, at which point, we the viewers become the ghost himself, wandering the hallways of the mansion, ever vigilant. Another card appears: “But on the night when the will was to be read, there was something more tangible than a ghost in the house”, and though we go back to the same first person perspective, wandering through the hallways, this time our way is illuminated by the beam of a flashlight. It falls upon a safe which is opened by a gloved hand, and we see one of the envelopes being replaced in the safe. It is only after this opening mood setting five minutes that we see the first of the participants in our drama-to-come, and the mayhem, murder, and accusations begin.

Ok, enough of me telling you about it, instead, here’s a very short scene which shows not only the exterior of the mansion and the creepy clawed hand I mentioned above menacing our sleeping heroine, but also the sometimes innovative use of even the intertitles. I do think in this version the atmosphere is somewhat undercut by the score, but it was, unfortunately, the best that I could find.

Ok, let’s take a look at the skinny for this flick, shall we?

Title: The Cat and the Canary
Release Date: 1927
Running Time: 82 min
Silent
Tinted Black and White
Stars: Laura La Plante, Forrest Stanley, Creighton Hale
Directed by:  Paul Leni
Produced by:  Paul Kohner
Distributed by:  Universal Pictures
Adapted from the 1922 play by John Willard

The Cat and the Canary is available to watch for free or as a free legal download here.

Building a Better War Through Propaganda – The Fighting Lady (1944)

***SPECIAL “GUEST BLOGGER” NOTE*** I suppose you could consider this a late Memorial Day Post. I had not really planned to do anything special for the day, but when I was looking at a couple of other things, I was reminded of this post that I did a while back. However, due to an extended work schedule and other things going on yesterday, I didn’t get a chance to get this up. Still, it seemed worth a revisit, so here it is. First, however, let’s get the usual “guest blogger” boilerplate out of the way for new visitors:

A couple of years ago, under the guise of “Professor Michael Damian”, I was writing and running a blog called “Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest” in which I attempted to highlight movies that were available for free legal download, streaming, remix, what-have-you, thanks to the Public Domain. The site hasn’t been updated for awhile now, but if you like what you’ve read here so far, or if you enjoy this post, or have an interest in the public domain or even just want to check out some really good (and, admittedly, some not-so-good) free movies, I encourage you to go check it out.

Anyway, from time to time, when it’s relevant or when I’m under a kind of time crunch, or maybe just when the fancy strikes, I’ll be re-presenting some posts that originally appeared there. The post below first ran there a couple of years ago, on June 17, 2010. At first I considered rewriting or editing this some for its presentation here, but ultimately decided, for better or worse, to just let it stand on its own, as is, though I have changed/updated some of the links so they will work properly. I hope you enjoy this little blast from the past. ***END NOTE***

Today we shift focus to a different, though no less fascinating, type of feature: the propaganda film. Governments, and especially the military have used various forms of propaganda probably ever since Kulano of the Shell Tribe called the inland tribe they were fighting “squirrelly little tree climbers who are afraid of the water” and said therefore that they would be easy to defeat.

So what exactly is “propaganda”? Well, in his book Film Propaganda and American Politics, author James Combs describes propaganda as material produced by governments or political groups designed to “sway relevant groups of people in order to accommodate their [the government’s] agendas”. In other words, propaganda, and specifically for our discussion propaganda films, are movies, either documentary or fictional, which are designed not only to present a particular point of view, but to persuade the viewer of the rightness of tht point of view or outlook. For a current example, one could point, say, to the films of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or Al Gore as propaganda. No, they are not produced by the government, but they definitely have a particular point of view, and though the use of select footage and interviews, are designed to persuade the viewer that that point of view is the only “correct” or “intelligent” one.

nips1A couple of weeks ago, in an article I wrote for Blogcritics.org, I discussed the use of characters from popular fiction to promote the war effort during World War II. Characters as diverse as Bugs Bunny, Tarzan, Superman, and even Sherlock Holmes were all used to promote different aspects of the war against the Axis powers, whether it was conservation/recycling, the need for vigilance on the homefront, the superiority and fighting capability of the Allied forces, or even the dehumanization of the enemy. (The last being an especially popular tactic in cartoons of the day as animation made it easy to over-exaggerate certain physical or stereotypical qualities of the enemy, thereby making them seem less like “us” and even more alien and therefore easier to kill in battle. For an actually fairly restrained example, see the picture at the left.)

Famous characters were not the only ones called upon to contribute their talents to the government’s propaganda efforts during the great war. On both sides of the conflict, all-star directors were also expected to bring their expertise to bear in the creation of films designed either to convince viewers of the rightness of the cause and the superior military might of their respective countries. In Germany, Leni Riefenstahl was busy creating Triumph of the Will, long considered one of the greatest propaganda films of all time, while in America Frank Capra (with the aid of the Disney studios) was making his seven-part propagandistic blockbuster Why We Fight which was first commissioned to show to U.S. soldiers to explain the necessity of going to war against the axis, but was later also used to convince the American people not only of the rightness and validity of the U.S. joining the fray but early intervention was the only way to keep the war from coming to America’s shores. As a matter of fact, the last film in the series is titled “War Comes to America”, and spells out in dire terms the consequences to America of an Axis victory:

German conquest of Europe and Africa would bring all their raw materials, plus their entire industrial development, under one control. Of the 2 billion people in the world, the Nazis would rule roughly one quarter, the 500 million people of Europe and Africa, forced into slavery to labor for Germany. German conquest of Russia would add the vast raw materials and the production facilities of another of the world’s industrial areas, and of the world’s people, another 200 million would be added to the Nazi labor pile.

whywefight1Japanese conquest of the Orient would pour into their factory the almost unlimited resources of that area, and of the peoples of the earth, a thousand million would come under their rule, slaves for their industrial machine.

We in North and South America would be left with the raw materials of three-tenths of the earth’s surface, against the Axis with the resources of seven-tenths. We would have one industrial region against their three industrial regions. We would have one-eighth of the world’s population against their seven-eighths. If we together, along with the other nations of North and South America, could mobilize 30 million fully equipped men, the Axis could mobilize 200 million.

Thus, an Axis victory in Europe and Asia would leave us alone and virtually surrounded facing enemies ten times stronger than ourselves.

The film then ends with images of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, showing that even as the U.S was honorably negotiating with them, the “treacherous Japs” were plotting to attack us on our own soil. Of course, this idea is the same that fueled the propaganda of a more recent administration who more simply put it “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Let’s face it, kiddies, good propaganda never dies.

Capra was not the only filmmaker called into the service of his country at the time, of course. Other notable directors who lent their talents were John Ford, John Houston, William Wyler, and the director of today’s feature, noted photographer and Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit Edward Steichen who spent months aboard the USS Yorktown documenting the lives and heroic deeds of the brave men who manned this great ship.(The ship, and most of her crewmen, are never actually identified by name, due to wartime security restrictions, thus, she is simply called The Fighting Lady. It was only after the end of the war that the ship in question was officially identified as the Yorktown.)

fightinglady3The film opens slowly, exploring the lives of these men as they go about their day-to-day duties as the ship sails through the Panama Canal and on into the Pacific Ocean. The emphasis here is on the mundanity of the shipboard life, and quite often we are reminded (in a voice-over by narrator Robert Taylor) of the saying that 99% of war is waiting. The waiting does not last forever, however, and it is not long before we get to see the ship and her crew in action at Marcus Island. This, and the subsequent battle scenes (especially those filmed at what was to become known as the “Marianas turkey shoot”) is where the film truly begins to take off, as the Technicolor photography brings the dogfights and ship-to-air fighting a spectacular brilliance. It’s easy to see why the government wanted the most skilled directors and photographers (many of them enlisted men who went uncredited for their part in the filming for years afterward) involved in a project like this. The battle raging all around them, these men, just like their comrades manning the guns or working the take-offs and landings of the airplanes, stood their ground and provided a document of the war like few others, including some truly spectacular footage taken by cameras actually mounted on the cockpits of fighter planes in the air. There is even footage of some spectacular crashes as the planes try to return to the ship once the fighting has ended.

Nor does the film forget to remind the viewer of the cost of war even as it celebrates the victory at the Turkey shoot” and shows the sailors and airmen painting battle flags and war markings on the ship and planes, counting the number of enemies downed, it also shows us the flag-draped bodies of those lost by our side, letting the viewer know the fates of some of the ones met earlier, and even giving us a glimpse of a twenty-one gun salute and burial at sea.

Here’s a section from the middle of the film showing some of the fighting and its aftermath:

And the skinny:
Title: The Fighting Lady
Release Date: 1944
Running Time: 61min
Color

The Fighting Lady and many other World War II propaganda films including Capra’s Why We Fight are available to watch or download for free here.
It’s also available for purchase on DVD from Amazon: The Fighting Lady Deluxe Edition Featuring USS Yorktown.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian

Kung Fu Krazy Fest – The Street Fighter (1974)

***SPECIAL “GUEST BLOGGER” NOTE*** I haven’t done this for awhile, but today seemed like a good day for it. What follows is actually a reprint, of sorts. A couple of years ago, under the guise of “Professor Michael Damian”, I was writing and running a blog called “Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest” in which I attempted to highlight movies that were available for free legal download, streaming, remix, what-have-you, thanks to the Public Domain. The site hasn’t been updated for awhile now, but if you like what you’ve read here so far, or if you enjoy this post, or have an interest in the public domain or even just want to check out some really good (and, admittedly, some not-so-good) free movies, I encourage you to go check it out.

Anyway, from time to time, when it’s relevant or when I’m under a kind of time crunch, or maybe just when the fancy strikes, I’ll be re-presenting some posts that originally appeared there. The post below first ran there a couple of years ago, on August 31. 2011. At first I considered rewriting or editing this some for its presentation here, but ultimately decided, for better or worse, to just let it stand on its own, as is, though I have changed/updated some of the links so they will work properly. I hope you enjoy this little blast from the past. ***END NOTE***

Streetfighter1It’s really part of the nature of this blog that most of the time I’m writing about “classic” films – older, black and white, even silent-era movies that have moved into the public domain because of the time that they were created. And since, due to the changes made in copyright law over the years (especially since the late 70’s) no new movies (or books or music or anything else for that matter) will enter the public domain until at least 2019, it’s likely to be that way for awhile. Still, there are some more recent films that over the years have in various ways “slipped through the cracks” and made their way into the public domain, and some of those movies could even be considered modern-day classics. Such is certainly the case with today’s entry, the rousing Sonny Chiba martial-arts flick The Street Fighter.

Actually, The Street Fighter is notable for a number of different reasons. Though it was not Chiba’s first movie, (he had been making science fiction and crime films and appearing on television in his native Japan for at least a decade before) it wasn’t until this film that he became an internationally known superstar. The film also gained notoriety because it was the first movie to garner an X-rating from the MPAA solely because of its violence. It is also noteworthy because of the number of spinoffs and sequels that it spawned.

1974 was, of course, just the right time for Chiba to make his mark in the US. Bruce Lee had just made a huge splash in the American market with Enter the Dragon, and American cinemas (and moviegoers) were eager for more. This was also a time when the so-called “exploitation” and “grindhouse” films were at their peak, so the atmosphere was ripe for Chiba’s brand of two-fisted (and two-footed) action.

Chiba was not however, merely a Lee clone looking to cash in on the times. No, there was something that definitely set him apart from many of the other martial arts stars of the time. Whereas Lee brought a certain tightly contained elegance to his on-screen fighting style, and fellow fan-favorite Jackie Chan brought a definite sense of comic playfulness to his film persona, Chiba’s style showed much more of a barely restrained fury. There is something in his performance as Terry Tsurugi that suggests whenever he cuts loose in the film not only are his enemies in danger, but everyone around him might be as well. As a matter of fact at one point in the film, one of the other characters calls him “an animal”, and Chiba, at that moment all snarls and growls does absolutely nothing to contradict her assessment.

streetfighter2It is also this animalistic fury that gained the film it’s second bit of noteriety. Containing scenes such as one in which Chiba castrates a rapist with his bare hands and another which shows Chiba striking a blow to an opponent’s head and then quickly cuts to an x-ray like shot of the opponent’s skull being completely shattered before showing the audience the devastating effect of the blow with the man on the floor with blood gushing from his mouth (actually quite an interesting stylistic decision by the filmmakers), the film was, as noted, given an X-rating on its first review by the MPAA. Subsequently, a full 16 minutes were cut from the film in order to finally garner it an R. Fortunately, those scenes have been restored to the film, and it is now available in an uncut “unrated” version, but those scenes are somewhat noticeable in this version as they were dubbed into English at a different time using different actors. Still, that’s a small price to pay to see Chiba’s full fury unleashed.

Of course, fans of the genre can (and do, I’m sure) argue over whether the inclusion of those scenes upon its initial release would have made the movie more or less popular with American moviegoers, but one thing that definitely cannot be denied is that the film was a definitive success. As a matter of fact, it was so successful that it not only spawned two direct sequels, Return of the Street Fighter and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge, but a four film mostly in-name-only spin-off Sister Street Fighter series.

So, let’s quit talking about all the action in the film and take a look at some of it, shall we?

And here’s the skinny:
Titile: The Street Fighter
Release Date: 1974
Running Time: 91 minutes
Color
Starring: Sonny Chiba
Directed by: Shigehiro Ozawa
Distributed by: Toei Company (Japan), New Line Cinema (US)

The Japanese version of The Street Fighter (with English subtitles) is available to watch or download for free here. There is also a dubbed version here. (Fair warning: the dubbed version is not downloadable.) It is also available on DVD from Amazon.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian

Giant Turtle Terror – Gammera the Invincible (1965)

***SPECIAL “GUEST BLOGGER” NOTE*** What follows is actually a reprint, of sorts. A couple of years ago, under the guise of “Professor Michael Damian”, I was writing and running a blog called “Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest” in which I attempted to highlight movies that were available for free legal download, streaming, remix, what-have-you, thanks to the Public Domain. The site hasn’t been updated for awhile now, but if you like what you’ve read here so far, or if you enjoy this post, or have an interest in the public domain or even just want to check out some really good (and, admittedly, some not-so-good) free movies, I encourage you to go check it out.

Anyway, from time to time, when it’s relevant or when I’m under a kind of time crunch, or maybe just when the fancy strikes, I’ll be re-presenting some posts that originally appeared there. The post below first ran there almost three years ago, on March 9th, 2010. At first I considered rewriting or editing this some for its presentation here, but ultimately decided, for better or worse, to just let it stand on its own, as is. I hope you enjoy this little blast from the past. ***END NOTE***

gammera2“Oh, no! They say say he’s got to go! Go, Go Gammera!”

Yeah, it really doesn’t have the same panache as the Blue Oyster Cult original, does it, Kiddies? But that’s ok, because the giant monster in question today gets his own rock anthem right in the middle of his first movie. Even his giant lizard predecessor had to wait more than 20 years for that.

Daikaiju Eiga  – that’s the Japanese term for the type of movie (giant monster) that we’re looking at today, and since that’s where the best ones come from, it seems only appropriate to give them their correct name. Of course, considering what we’ve done to the actual movies, simply ignoring the Japanese term would seem only a minor slight.

Toho films began the tradition, of course, with their 1954 release of the original Gojira, which came to America in the form of Godzilla. Unfortunately another trend was also begun once it reached our shores. Believing that American audiences wouldn’t want to watch a film either with subtitles or where there were very few American actors for them to relate to, the film was not only dubbed into English, but it was heavily re-edited, with scenes moved around, many of them pulled, and new scenes were added starring Raymond Burr. Unfortunately between bad translations and terrible editing, (and an attempt to both appease and appeal to American audiences) much of the original meaning and subtext of the film was lost. Still, it was a hit both there and here, and this treatment became the trend for all subsequent Japanese monster movies brought to America.

gammera3As noted, Gojira (or Godzilla) first appeared in 1954. 11 years later, when the daikaiju eiga craze was really hitting its stride, Toho’s film studio rival, Daiei, decided to jump on the bandwagon and create their own giant critter. Now I’m not going to speculate on what the person who first proposed that they combat the big G. with a giant turtle was thinking, but fortunately they figured out some pretty neat ways to trick him out so that he could become a formidable foe for the forces that would soon be arrayed against him. First off, instead of “Atomic Breath”, they gave him fire breath. But this creature not only breathed fire, he could eat it. As a matter of fact, as the movie progresses, we find out that he is made of different stuff than those of us with lungs, and the big lug actually needs the flames as fuel to survive. More than that, though, Daiei also provided their Big G with a power that Godzilla would never get. When he pulled his head and legs into his shell, the giant turtle was able to shoot flames from his “port holes” and fly! Certainly helpful for an animal that otherwise has no way to get off his back, as the military soon finds out.

gammaera1Of course, upon his arrival in the US, Gamera (the Japanese name) was given a pretty complete makeover. An extra “m” was, for some reason, added to his name. Another pretty atrocious dubbing job was done. And again, scenes were cut, recut, and added, so that the movie once again bore little resemblance to what it had once been. Nonetheless, the film proved successful in both its Japanese and American versions, and Daiei went on to bring him back in a film a year until 1971, when Daiei went into bankruptcy. (The first was actually the only one released to American theaters, the rest were packaged for Television by American International.) Since then, there have been a couple of attempts at revivals, though they have proved less successful.

Here’s a short clip showing the monster’s initial emergence from his icy tomb and a bit of the American footage that was inserted.:

(Just a note: it is only the American version which was never properly copyrighted and is now in the Public Domain. The original Japanese version is still under copyright, and Shout factory has announced that they have licensed it and will be giving the film its first American DVD release on May 18th.)

Now for the Skinny:
Title: Gammera the Invincible
Release Date: 1965
Running Time: 86min
Black and White
Starring: Gamera, Brian Donlevy, Eiji Funakoshi
Directed by: Noriaki Yuasa
Produced by: Hidemasa Nagata, Yonejiro Saito, Masaichi Nagata
Distributed by: Daiei

Gammera the Invincible is available to watch or download for free here.
It’s available on DVD from Amazon: Gammera the Invincible.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian