Imps, Gold Diggers and Roller Disco: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2015

Yes, it’s that time of year again. As 2015 draws to a close, everyone wants to let you know their favorite movies, TV shows and Tumblr posts of the year. Being a classic film blogger makes the task a little bit different. These sorts of lists focus on films that aren’t new at all, but are new to the author. I compiled one of these lists last year, and it’s time to do so again. Some of these films won’t come as surprises, seeing as I’ve gushed over them in previous posts. But since I don’t do many reviews on here, some of these haven’t been mentioned before.

The following ten films are presented in order of their age, and there is a recurring theme: three of them are musicals. Everyone needs to see more musicals, after all. Take a look, and maybe you’ll find some new films to love too.

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The Black Imp (1905)

In our last post about Santa Claus in early film, we touched about a common at the start of the century: the stop-motion camera trick. Accomplished through freezing a spot in the film and resuming the shot with new items in place, it was one of George Méliès’ favorite trick techniques. This short is all about that trick shot, and it’s played to perfection. The plot is simple enough: a devil-like figure wreaks havoc on a man through many tricks. Not only does he appear and disappear, but many other objects do as well. The highlight (seen above) involves a wealth of chairs popping up from every direction–and then going away just as quickly. At just over four minutes, the bit doesn’t overstay its welcome. Short and to the point, it is both a mesmerizing technical achievement and an amusing watch.

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

As mentioned in our holiday gift guide post, 2015 gave us a chance to see some previously lost films. Most notable of all is this Sherlock Holmes adaptation, one of great historical significance. It’s finally possible to see the legendary stage actor William Gillette play Holmes, and it is quite the treat. This may be a runaway candidate for best film version of a Sherlock Holmes story.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

Why The Phantom Carriage is such a fantastic film was covered in this review. The praises cannot be sung highly enough: this is a haunting, jarring film that will stay with you for a very long time.

Murder! (1930)

We touched on this Alfred Hitchcock film a bit earlier this year, when talking about the multiple language versions of early sound films. This is both a departure for Hitchcock and familiar ground all at the same time. A rare straight mystery, it also combines the common elements of dark humor, the wrong man and suspense-packed conclusion. It’s an under the radar Hitch film, but one well worth seeing.

Girls About Town (1931)

If any introduction was needed to some amazing Precode film personalities, this film would serve as an excellent choice. Kay Francis and Lilyan Tashman play two women with a goal of swindling lonely businessmen of their money. Of course, things get more complicated when one of them (Francis) falls in love with the one rube. With that combination, it’s both a light fun comedy and a heartbreaking tale at times. The two leads could not be better in their complementing roles. Francis plays all serious moments to the hilt, while Tashman provides a lively shot of humor.

Le Million (1931)

Directed by René Clair, this French musical just exudes joy and fun. The fact that it is an amazing technical marvel as well is an added bonus. From the very start, the film moves at a frantic fun pace that never lets up. Given that this is an early sound film, that makes the wild and rapid camera movements all the more impressive. It even has an almost operatic feel, with almost constant singing and with some form of a chorus present. The actual plot revolves around finding a million dollar lottery ticket, but that’s all secondary to the fun unleashed throughout.

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Man Wanted (1932)

That’s right, it’s another Kay Francis film. More than anything else, this year served as a great personal introduction to just how wonderful Kay Francis is. And this is most certainly a tour-de-force performance from her. In one of the most progressive films you can find from in this era, Francis plays a highly successful magazine editor who takes on a male secretary. Naturally, there’s romance involved, with some Precode activities thrown in too. Francis is again perfect in this web of romance and seduction, and delivers an all around memorable performance.

Down Argentine Way (1940)

This was also a year of discovering Carmen Miranda, and many of her films could have made this list. Down Argentine Way is special, though, thanks to an unbelievable cast of talented performers. In addition to the musical stylings of Miranda, there’s much else to enjoy. The Nicholas Brothers show why they are some of the best dancers ever to appear on film, even if they were sorely underused. The same can be said for Charlotte Greenwood, usually cast as second fiddle comedy. But her dancing is put on great display too. Throw in Don Ameche and Betty Grable, and this is musical gold.

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (1947)

The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (also known as Mad Wednesday) is another film reviewed here earlier this year. The final film of Harold Lloyd, and the only film he made after his initial retirement, it is a testament to his abilities. Just as adept at sound as he was in silents, Lloyd delivers a great screwball comedy with a trademark wild climax. Who knows what other work he could have done if he hadn’t retired?

Skatetown USA (1979)

One of these ten picks is not like the others (hint: it’s this one). How does a cheesy disco filled rollerskating movie make it on a list of genuinely great films? As I explained earlier this year, 2015 opened my eyes to the fun of the roller disco subgenre. Sure, films like this aren’t likely to win any awards, but they are incredibly fun. Of the bunch, Skatetown USA may be the most fun. It’s even lighter on plot than some similar films, but is even heavier on wackiness and out of nowhere surprises. The music and dance numbers are legitimately good, there’s a pretty impressive cast and there’s fun and weird things around every corner. Sometimes all you want is fun with a film. Skatetown USA delivers that in spades.

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Santa Claus in Early Cinema

For well over a century,  Christmas and Santa Claus has become a part of popular culture. Although the imagery and traditions can vary in different parts of the world, depictions of Santa are everywhere. This, of course, includes film, which has given us many iconic depictions of Santa (most notably Miracle on 34th Street and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer). But Santa has been seen in films perhaps earlier than most people would expect. In fact, Santa has been a part of the film world from the very beginning.

The timing in the United States worked out perfectly. By the time the first films were being created, many of the conventional features of Santa had already been established. Thomas Nast’s first familiar drawing appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, and his drawings continued to popularize Santa imagery in the ensuing decades. Although the 1930s Coca-Cola ads provide an even more familiar Santa look, Nast helped give us a lot of Santa we know decades earlier.

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By the time the film world was only a decade old, Santa was already a fixture on the screen. And some of cinema’s heaviest hitters were in on the act from the start. The director of Santa’s first film portrayal in Santa Claus Filling Stockings (1897, Biograph) has been lost to the ages, but the 1898 film Santa Claus is notable for a number of reasons. Directed by early pioneer George Albert Smith, it’s not only an early portrayal of Santa but an example of Smith’s impact. Multiple exposures to “insert” someone into a scene were one of film’s earliest special effects, and Smith was one of first to use it (along with George Méliès). In this short scene, Santa appears first in a bubble, presenting him outside on the roof, before popping into the children’s room to drop off presents. By shooting this way, Smith portrays parallel scenes that eventually converge. As for Santa, the look is a little different. The Santa here is clad in what is essentially a hooded robe, and is much thinner than he would later be. These differences could be attributed to this being a British production.

Smith was far from the only notable early director to take on Santa Claus. Edwin S. Porter, known now mostly for The Great Train Robbery (1903), made two such films for Edison’s company. This included the first film adaptation of The Night Before Christmas in 1905, complete with intertitles from the written story. Telling a now familiar tale, Porter also used another common film technique at the time. Santa waves one hand and a fully decorated tree appears in the room. Most often used by Méliès, this technique involved essentially “freezing” a scene and the actors in place and ending filming. Filming resumes once the new object is in place, and when spliced together, it appears that the object has jumped right into the scene.

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Porter’s next film, A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus (1907), and D.W. Griffith’s A Trap for Santa Claus (1909) both represent a shift in the Santa narratives. With the mythology well established on the screen, the stories began to advance and build upon the knowledge of the character. The latter Porter film involves a boy trying to convince a girl that Santa does exist, a common theme that exists in Christmas films to this day. A sort of gamesmanship exists in the plot too, seeing if Santa can be caught and seen. Santa’s look here is still slightly different, sporting something resembling a wizard’s hat.

Griffith’s film takes the game of catching Santa and adds a further level of complexity: that sometimes the person in the suit isn’t Santa at all. Certainly the most complex plot in a Santa film to that point, there’s a lot going on. The children decide to set up a plot to catch Santa. The man who enters the house isn’t Santa, but rather their long gone father  who is seeking to rob the home. Their mother takes pity on the man and lets him dress as Santa to surprise the children. Robbery is also a theme in the 1914 The Adventure of the Wrong Santa Claus, where a robber attempts to gain access to homes by dressing as Santa.

Examining these early films goes a long way to not only understand how Santa Claus in media has evolved, but how film technology and techniques evolved. Early special effects were perfect for these kind of stories involving a mythical figure. And the films followed the general trajectory of these earliest films: the products were first more simple in plot and shorter in length. As time went by, plots in general became more layered and complex, just like these Santa films. Perhaps, then, we can see not only the evolution of Santa stories through these films, but the evolution of film as well.

A Classic Film Fan’s Holiday Gift Guide

With the holiday season fast approaching, there’s plenty of shopping to do. And while there’s always a wealth of classic films on DVD to purchase, there were a number of fantastic new DVD/Blu-Ray releases. On top of that, one site is offering a steal of a sale right now. Here’s a list of some of the classic film releases for that special person in your life, or yourself:

Kino Lorber Silent Film Sale (through 12/06)

As of this writing, there is only one more day to capitalize on an amazing silent film sale at Kino Lorber. In addition to plenty of single film DVD releases, the biggest bargains are the boxed sets. These include Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection, Edison: The Invention of the Movies, German Expressionism and Gaumont Treasures. Also recommended is the innovative and engrossing French serial Fantomas.

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Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Regular viewers of TCM may have seen the television debut of this previously lost film. Either way, this is one well worth picking up, if only  for the historical reasons. William Gillette, who played Sherlock Holmes on stage countless times, plays him on film for the only time. Gillette’s portrayal also led to many of the physical traits commonly associated with Holmes. The print survives in a nice condition, making this DVD/Blu-Ray all the more worthwhile.

Accidentally Preserved Volume 3

Ben Model has done it again, producing and scoring long lost silent films. There are plenty of silent comedy shorts to be seen here, some of them with notable but forgotten stars of the era. This includes the then popular duo of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew and a young Billy Barty. The world of silent comedy is much bigger than is generally known, and this provides a look at some forgotten stars.

The Marcel Perez Collection

Speaking of forgotten silent comedy stars and Ben Model, this is another gem of DVD scored by him. Born in Spain, Perez was an international star and director of around 200 shorts. Now forgotten, this DVD of ten shorts is an introduction to one of the first non-U.S. based silent comedy superstars.

Forbidden Hollywood Volume 9

The long running series of Pre-Code films has another hit, this one with five films in all. There are plenty of big stars to be found in these films, including Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Myrna Loy, Ann Dvorak and Richard Dix. The full list of films: Big City Blues, Hell’s Highway, When Women Meet, I Sell Anything and The Cabin in the Cotton.

House of Mystery

Fantomas is far from the only stellar French serial out there. House of Mystery was lost to time, but thanks to a great looking DVD release, the ten part serial can be explored again. With plenty of fast-paced action, emotion and stunning visuals, this is a must-see.

The Apu Trilogy

Often heralded as the height of Indian cinema and some of the greatest films of all time, the award winning series has finally gotten a Criterion release. With that great treatment, there is now a chance for even more people to see a landmark piece of cinema.