The Pre-1920s List (Decade Project Vol. 4)

An ongoing survey of the Criterion Forum membership to create lists of the best films of each decade and genre.
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denti alligator
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#76 Post by denti alligator » Fri Apr 07, 2017 11:06 am

Tommaso wrote:Almost anything by Belgian composer/pianist Wim Mertens has served me well.
I think he actually has a piece for Land Beyond the Sunset.

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Tommaso
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#77 Post by Tommaso » Fri Apr 07, 2017 11:14 am

Indeed, and for Louis Delluc's "La femme de nulle part" (1922). Both pieces are on his "Epic that never was"-Album.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#78 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Apr 07, 2017 5:32 pm

I've just noticed that the 1919 William S Hart film Wagon Tracks is out from Olive on blu, and only $11.99 on Amazon right now- I'm picking it up, just based on how much I enjoyed Hell's Hinges.

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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#79 Post by knives » Sun Apr 09, 2017 9:05 pm

L'Inferno
Liguoro and company seem to assume a greater deal of familiarity with the text than I have. It's clear the movie is working with some of the political and religious concerns and ironies of the original text, but they are doing it with such knowing that most of it is impossible to pick up at least for me. That sort of turns this into an encyclopedia of torture which is definitely not what the film seems to want to be conveying. I can't claim this is a matter of the film's brevity as it does a wonderful job in Dante's characterization portraying him as an egotistical, wimpy, intellectual. It's broad, but mostly effective. The aesthetic though is entirely effective at least in part as what a surprise it comes as. I was expecting this to be in the vein of Melies, set bound and beautiful in its artifice. Instead this plays out in relation to Lumiere utilizing the world as found to give a sense of the horrors witnessed. In the use of a mountainous land and some of the blocking this reminds me of Pasolini, particularly his Oedipus Rex, giving a stark earthiness rather than anything necessarily fantastic. It's well known that Straub and Huillet are/were fans of this era, but this tight connection makes me wonder if he too as part of his larger sense of primitive nostalgia was a fan of early cinema or at least saw this film.

An Incoherent Excursion a.k.a. Travelers' Nightmare 1909
I generally find de Chomon to be a rather weak filmmaker for the era, but this was just a brilliant way to engage with the norms of the day building something that still has a decent amount of shock value. There's a certain sense of foreboding and grotesque that reminds me of Un Chien Andalou particularly in the opening sequence featuring a picnic where all the food has turned into various vermin. The structure of the film goes well beyond the sort of harassing gags of the time that When the Clouds Roll By parodied instead pushing it into an abnormal surrealism that feels academic even if it probably was not intended as such ala Keaton.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#80 Post by matrixschmatrix » Mon Apr 10, 2017 2:34 am

Sealed Orders aka The Mysterious X

The plot of his movie is kind of goofy melodramatic piffle- it's so shockingly of a pre-WW1 aristocratic mindset that I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't a period piece, and the only choice the theoretical lead makes is that he'd rather be shot than have his buddies think he was a cuckold- but my god, is it effective. In a pattern that's held for several of the movies I've watched for this project, the first half (or two thirds, really) is somewhat slow going, getting all the pieces into place- thought it establishes character nicely for the two people who actually do make meaningful decisions in this, the wife and the son- such that we've got a perfect set up, the heroic, hardass father about to be shot for treason he didn't commit, the wife tearing through enemy lines to try to find the evidence that will save him, and the son Metal Gear Soliding into the prison where he is held so he can see his father one last time. And the actual execution of this is wonderful. The scene that sticks out to me most is the effect of electric words being written atop phone lines, so we know exactly where the communication was cut off, but it is full of moments like that- some of which, like the wife darting behind lines of men engaged in recognizable trench warfare in pursuit of the evidence that will vindicate her husband, almost play like jokes. After all, how much could one life matter in the midst of what we know happens in WWI? Yet, the effect is still a heightening one, and it lends a touch of surreality to the proceedings, a sense that perhaps the movie itself knows how outmoded the storytelling style its engaged in would be due the very war it was depicting.

The performances are pretty excellent throughout, too- enough so that I'm again annoyed by the stereotype of hysterical overacting in silent film, which doesn't seem to have been particularly apt even in the earliest days of feature length movies. Christensen gives himself a role in which his character refuses to react to almost anything, but allows hints of pain and betrayal to shoot through his eyes when he is being falsely accused, and makes his posture the ramrod straightness of a man who can't show anything when he's confessing to it. There are a few really beautiful moments of kid stuff with the sons- the younger son playing with makeup in the mirror is a sweetly real moment, and played totally naturalistically, and the elder son's seemingly sudden transformation from an idle boy to a young man dealing with a very adult world feels believable because the actor has the plasticity of an adolescent built into his performance, where both modes feel authentically him (and one gets the sense that he might go back to goofing off with a dog the day after the events of the movie end.) The central performance, though, the wife, has some real moments to play- she has to convey a woman who is tempted to an affair, but would never actually go through with it, but also isn't willing to reject her suitor, but also loves her husband enough to risk her life for him, and on and on- she even gets to play a few Godfather hugging-a-loved-one-while-signalling-over-their-shoulder beats. It works, too- as much as the situation looks ridiculous when she's running around behind squads of troops shelling one another, she never does, and her sense of anguish helps amplify the undercurrents behind Christensen's blankness.

I was annoyed by the treatment of the intertitles on the DFI disc- the letters back and forth, the shape of words and the media on which they were written, is a key element of the movie, and for the most part, this release just slaps big, ugly Powerpoint looking titles over them; one wonders how much harder it would have been just to use a smaller font on the bottom part of the screen. I think if I watch this again, I'll probably just watch it in Danish and assume that my memories will be good enough to remember what's being said to whom.
Last edited by matrixschmatrix on Sun Aug 27, 2017 2:18 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#81 Post by matrixschmatrix » Tue Apr 11, 2017 12:46 am

Wagon Tracks

This never quite reaches the heights of Hell's Hinges (but what does?) but is extremely worth watching all the same. The three years make a remarkable difference in a number of ways- the acting is subtler, with somewhat less archetypal characters, the filmstock seems more sensitive, and the outdoor photography is much crisper and clearer in general- though this, too, relies a lot on tinting, to good effect. I've never really seen the virtue of tinting before, but damned if this project isn't selling me on it- one of the best effects in the movie, a mirage of a water hole, is achieved by superimposing a blue tinted scene of water over the orange tinted desert, and it comes across instantly.

The plot is a bit more nuanced, too- here, Hart is playing a straightforwardly good man, whose brother is killed- and an innocent woman is set up to think she did it, instead of her fully Snidely Whiplash looking brother. Hart finds out it was either the brother or his toadie, the girl's fiance, and winds up getting the truth out of them with a long, waterless trek through the desert that prefigures The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly- though here, the overtones of sadism aren't really there, as Hart does not give himself an out, and fully suffers with them. While they're away from the wagon train Hart is leading, a member of train rather casually guns down a guy from a tribe who appears to live near the water hole, and a life is demanded of the train in exchange. Since, of course, the simple justice of giving them the dude who actually did the murder is literally never even considered, various contretemps must be spun out until the Snidely Whiplash-esque brother manages to run away directly into the tribe, while Hart is thwarted in an attempt to martyr himself.

That said, the character Hart is playing is interesting- he's actually a more soft, almost feminized figure that almost any Western hero I can think of. The scene where he discovers his brother is dead- played against the brother's lifeless body lying under a sheet- is surprisingly lengthy for a movie that barely breaks the 60 minute mark, and it really makes you feel Hart's grief- and Hart weeps openly, and not even in the sort of dignified, a single tear running down one cheek way that fits more closely into the macho ethos, but in childlike, dissolute way. On the trail, he demonstrates his virtue first not through feats of strength or masculine courage, but in sharing his water in a time of scarcity with his horses and dogs, in way that recalls The Flowers of Saint Francis- the effect being not of a strong man who can stand privation, but of a gentle one who considers them his equals. He's even shown cradling a child, and talking shop with the child's mother. Then too, he doesn't get the real facts out of the sister by confronting her or attacking her- indeed, obsessively driven though he is to prove that his brother was killed in circumstances other than the unpleasant ones engineered by the killer (who concocted a story that Hart's brother had been assaulting her when he was shot) he actually comforts her, and tells her not to think too much about it. The contrast makes his hardness in his sojourn through the desert the more striking, and it creates a complex figure, one who is willing to resort essentially to torture to get a confession, but to do so in a way that suggests perhaps that it is the process of very direct and simple thought rather than of malice or cruelty- he does it because it's what he thinks to do, and it seems moral because he's punishing himself alongside them.

The business with the tribe is unfortunate, for a number of reasons- one of which is just that the whole last act spends a lot of time trying to create tension by cutting to them dancing around a fire, and at least to my eyes, fails utterly to do so. The moral dilemma is at least sort of interesting- Hart has proven his case to his and his compatriots' satisfaction, and presents his initial idea of giving the killer over to the tribe as ceding his right to kill the man himself, this sacrificing his vengeance. He is moved by the sister's intercession to give the man an out of suicide (he movie suggests that to be given to the tribe would mean being burnt at the stake), which sets up the whoops the brother ran away in the wrong direction ending, which doesn't actually make a whole lot of sense. At any rate, the whole episode feels a bit like the movie casting about for an ending that won't feel like an anti-climax after Hart essentially carries the two men back out of the desert and lessens the work as a whole- but it's nonetheless a very worthwhile work, and the print looks pretty remarkable in Olive's release.

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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#82 Post by knives » Thu Apr 13, 2017 12:58 pm

This is for the whole Kino A Christmas Past set which is about the sort of weird collection of very different hardly connected movies you'd expect from such a set. The first two films are rather simple showing the pull between actualities and fully staged films that went on for a surprisingly long time. Unsurprisingly DW Griffith's A Trap for Santa is the first film of serious interest in the set. It's an absolutely miserable melodrama of poverty and broken homes. I have to imagine this is still relatively early in his career since that misery is so roughly done versus what else he would do even in the same year that speaks of an artist still finding their grounding. It also highlights really well his need to expand into features. Even at 16 minutes this feels too short with a lot of story details unaccounted for. Just doubling the length might have made this a great (though the acting of the mother keeps it far from masterpiece level in any case). A Christmas Accident plays up the miserableness, and also lacks any suggestion of snow or other stereotypical christmas things, in a way that makes me think that before a lot of modern conveniences this must have been a dreaded holiday. It's less an articulate film than Griffith's, but somehow despite being much crueler that miserablism actually works well and makes a sort of sense of the whole.

While still not really recognizable as Christmas movies the next batch at least has a familiar tone being light comedies mixed in with other genre effects. The Wrong Santa, apparently the last in a series, is a low rent American variation of the sort of mystery film that was popular at the time. The lead if incredibly stupid which adds to the fun, thought the dirty exterior portions that have this sense of being unprepared is the best part of the film. It also transitions rather perfectly into the next film, a South Park predicting romance written by the director of The Jazz Singer. It suggests the sort of miserablism of the earlier films given the social strata being an important part to the plot, but director Will Louis plays this fairly lightly giving a much more mature film in the process (as I suppose should be expected by 1915). It deals in an honest way without hysterics class resentment which I think is actually an underplayed way to tackle class as an issue. This is easily the highlight of the set.

The set ends on a pair of adaptations. Dawley does his typical thing on A Christmas Carol which is the perfect sort of story for this type of hyper-abbreviated adaptation not missing a beat in its short ten minutes. It's fun in part due to the familiarity of the story making me wonder how contemporary audiences handled it. Finally is a very Porter The Night Before Christmas. It is a fairly literal adaptation, though with a Santa starring prologue and some cheeky takes on certain lines. It's a cute enough film.

As a related PS there's a pretty decent George Albert Smith movie called Santa Claus which isn't on the set that's worth checking out.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#83 Post by Red Screamer » Tue Apr 18, 2017 9:33 pm

I also dug Filibus, so I'll join the chorus. Thanks for the rec!

Grand Display of Brock’s Fireworks at the Crystal Palace (George Albert Smith, 1904) A vividly hand-painted document of a ginormous fireworks show, rejecting categorization into the Lumière-Méliès/actuality-fantasy dichotomy. The rooster and firemen segments are particularly astonishing. Available here

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#84 Post by zedz » Tue Apr 18, 2017 10:33 pm

That was exquisite! Thanks for posting it.

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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#85 Post by knives » Tue Apr 18, 2017 11:19 pm

I'm still not sure how to feel about Smith, but that was very good in a way reminiscent of Norman McLaren.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#86 Post by swo17 » Wed Apr 19, 2017 12:01 am

Yes. And for some reason that reminds me that I wanted to share this Mitchell & Kenyon film Nottingham Tram Ride, which is way trippier than anything on the BFI DVDs.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#87 Post by Saturnome » Wed Apr 19, 2017 2:37 am

Woah, was some kind of motion tracking used? It strangely feel a lot more 3-dimensional that way. There's another version here that seems a lot more normal (well, except for the presence of a mouse cursor in the image)

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#88 Post by Tommaso » Wed Apr 19, 2017 8:35 am

Saturnome wrote:Woah, was some kind of motion tracking used? It strangely feel a lot more 3-dimensional that way. There's another version here that seems a lot more normal (well, except for the presence of a mouse cursor in the image)
Yeah, there's definitely something wrong in terms of motion with the version swo posted, and not just that it runs way too fast. Otherwise, the 'trippiness' may also be explained by the extreme compression artefacts. The 'more normal' version - mouse cursor or not - is certainly the one to go for here. Can we be sure that this is a Mitchell & Kenyon film? I can't find it at imdb (not that this says much), and they were not the only people who filmed such tram rides at the time. In any case, as fascinating as always, though my Mitchell & Kenyon vote will again go to Panoramic View of the Morecambe Sea Front (on the "Electric Edwardians" set, and also on youtube, though unfortunately only a version with the audio commentary on so that you can hardly hear the In The Nursery soundtrack which has great part in the sublime effect that film always has on me. )

And many thanks, Superswede, for that Fireworks film. Feels like an abstract film experiment from the 1920s much rather than the filmed representation of something actually happening. Amazing use of colours. Great stuff, and totally enchanting.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#89 Post by swo17 » Wed Apr 19, 2017 10:23 am

I sought out the film because zedz had mentioned it during the last round, and I too was incredulous of the effects being authentic, but he claims that he saw it screened that way in a theater (presumably not in 1902, though you never know with him).

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#90 Post by matrixschmatrix » Wed Apr 19, 2017 11:14 pm

The Spiders

These two are far from perfect- the second half is significantly less compelling than the first, the lead only gets a few moments where he's a particularly compelling character, and there isn't always that much a sense of a chess game with both sides making moves so much as just one damn thing after another- but this is very much a Fritz Lang series in a way Harakiri wasn't, and the highlights are remarkable. There are Langian touches in the gadgetry- I liked the mirror that turns into a sort of camera that Lio Sha uses, but there are a few neat things like that- the kinkiness, with Sha in particular showing a kind of pre-Marlene femdom-ish presence with accompanying excellent fashions, and a general strain of sexuality in with most of the exoticism- the visual wit, such as the message in a bottle that starts the first half being mirrored by our heroes in a similar sort of bottle at the end of it- and the utter coldness of it, particularly the ruthless way the first half ends. The Fantomas legacy is quite clear here, particularly in the second half, with hypnosis and disguise and shifting identities coming to the fore, but already Lang's special interest in evil, omniscient organizations is showing itself, and the overall effect is far more real and less dreamlike than Fantomas generally was, even with the lost tribes of Incas and magic diamonds that will free Asia.

Speaking of which- the racism in this is, pretty bad, but also makes one wonder if it's intrinsic to the format; later adventure serials generally have to come up with a reason why it's a good thing that a white dude is wandering around the world plundering native lands and reinforcing colonialism, but here it seems to be more or less assumed that we're already on board, to the extent that we're apparently meant to be against freeing Asia from colonialist rule. Mostly, it seems like it gives Lang an excuse to indulge his taste in exoticism, with lots of fancy costumes and imported artwork and things in the evil dens, but also a fascinating troll's marketplace from Hellboy 2 scene in a parallel, lawless Chinatown beneath Chinatown. One could imagine that, with a different viewpoint- namely, one which assumed that the viewer likes all these lost tribes and secret marketplaces and things- it would spend more time with them and give them a bit more individuality amongst the dwellers there. As is, they're more or less all pure stereotype, albeit in many cases ones with lovingly detailed costuming amidst lovingly detailed set design.

At any rate, these are well worth watching, and might well make my list, despite my reservations- I think they're essential viewing in terms of Lang's filmography as a whole, but they're also just kind of neat on their own terms. How could I refuse a movie where a guy jumps off horseback onto a line trailing from a hot air balloon in the process of taking off?
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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#91 Post by knives » Wed Apr 19, 2017 11:22 pm

I actually suspect Lang was for the people we see given his stated fetish for Asian culture. He is just lazily stating that love in a way that doesn't challenge the colonial orthodoxy of the time. Perhaps even the films are treating free state movements the same same way pro-EU groups treat Brexiters. That doesn't make Lang 'right', but it also doesn't leave the film as black and white racist.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#92 Post by matrixschmatrix » Wed Apr 19, 2017 11:37 pm

I had always assumed that his later relative sophistication came about when doing research for these things, which he obviously did a fair amount of- I feel like there's an iterative effect, where wanting to be accurate leads you to do more research, which leads you to knowing more about the various cultures and having greater understanding and sympathy for them, which leads to wanting to be realer and more accurate still. I will say that, for extras at least, Lang appears to have preferred to avoid black- or yellow-face, though the effect is that the white actors playing nonwhite roles wind up looking all the more ridiculous.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#93 Post by knives » Thu Apr 20, 2017 12:04 am

I have to assume you are correct, but from interviews it seems like many Germans of his generation, Brecht had this a fair amount as well, he developed a lot of ideas about art out of seeing Asian art, particularly Chinese opera and Japanese shadow plays. I remember reading that he made Harakiri exclusively out of a love for Japanese art which of course pre-dates this. To play with what you have already said the start of the effect is a genuine love for the cultures which lead to wanting to depict them in as accurate a fashion as possible (Lang's stated preference for realism probably aided with this) with an evolution in depiction in general aiding in his progress of depiction.

All that said my original post was intended to figure out how the film's pro-colonial stance fits in with Lang's adoration which is a bit separate from depiction in itself.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#94 Post by zedz » Thu Apr 20, 2017 6:28 pm

swo17 wrote:I sought out the film because zedz had mentioned it during the last round, and I too was incredulous of the effects being authentic, but he claims that he saw it screened that way in a theater (presumably not in 1902, though you never know with him).
Yeah, it was part of an archival collection (not specifically Mitchell & Kenyon) screened sometime around 2006. A great film I was surprised never made it to any of the M&K discs. Definitely one of the more striking 'phantom ride' films, perhaps because in a certain sense you're watching the vehicle that you're on (since there are two trams travelling in sequence). Billy Bitzer's amazing 1905 Interior N.Y. Subway, 14th St. to 42nd St. has an even more pronounced self-reflexive aspect, as well as being a semi-abstract reflection on projected light.

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#95 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Apr 23, 2017 3:05 pm

Before I import it- does anyone know if the Lobster blu of J'accuse has English subs?

Actually, while I'm asking, does anyone have a recommendation for any of the following? I can only find them on youtube or expensive and dodgy looking out of print dvds

L'enferno (1911)
Ma l'amor mio non muore... (1913)
Rapsodia Satanica (1917)
True Heat Susie (1919)

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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#96 Post by knives » Sun Apr 23, 2017 3:57 pm

I asked about two of those here. For True Heart Susie the OOP Image disc is best, but Flicker Alley reproduced it as a DVDR recently.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#97 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Apr 23, 2017 4:22 pm

Thanks, I don't know how I missed that. I'm traveling to Europe this summer, and hoping I'll stumble across a few of these since we'all include the Murnau stiftung and Swedish film museum in our travels- frustratingly, I can't even figure out how many of the early Sjöström movies are lost, much less if there are dvds of them.

Kink has been an amazing resource- I think fully 80% of what I've got in my to watch or en route piles is from them, though in cases like the Gaumont Treasures set it sounds like they're a second best option (albeit the only English friendly one).

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knives
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#98 Post by knives » Sun Apr 23, 2017 5:30 pm

What's kink?

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#99 Post by matrixschmatrix » Sun Apr 23, 2017 5:36 pm

Haha, Kino, autocorrect got me

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Re: Pre-1920s List Discussion and Suggestions

#100 Post by JAP » Sun Apr 23, 2017 6:36 pm

matrixschmatrix wrote:Before I import it- does anyone know if the Lobster blu of J'accuse has English subs?

Actually, while I'm asking, does anyone have a recommendation for any of the following? I can only find them on youtube or expensive and dodgy looking out of print dvds

L'enferno (1911)
Ma l'amor mio non muore... (1913)
Rapsodia Satanica (1917)
True Heat Susie (1919)
Lobster's dual-format J'Accuse only has french intertitles.
The Cineteca di Bologna released in 2013 Ma l’amor mio non muore! as an english friendly DVD/booklet, also available on Amazon.it.

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