Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 4, Number 6: May 2004


Offtopic Perspective

Staying on the Treadmill

Walt Crawford

That’s not a metaphor for working hard or meeting my writing commitments. It’s a literal title for a personal commentary that’s entirely “off topic” for Cites & Insights—the kind of thing I might write about in a weblog, if I had a weblog. Feel free to skip it.

This is an absurdly long anecdote, because—well, just because. It’s about a lazy middle-aged person trying to maintain enough motivation for regular exercise, both for cardiovascular health and to remain among the 33% of American adults who aren’t overweight. I enjoy walking and can walk five or ten miles with no real difficulty—but that takes too much time on weekdays and is rough in inclement weather. So, years ago, I acquired a rowing machine, using it in front of the TV for 15 or 20 minutes a day, 4 or 5 days a week.

It helped in terms of lung capacity (I don’t get out of breath at the top of a hill any more), but it wasn’t burning many calories—I could barely work up a sweat. After a while, I got rid of the rowing machine and purchased an inexpensive stair-climbing/stepping machine. That worked better for a few years: By steadily increasing the friction settings on the pistons, I could work up a sweat and burn a few calories, and by adding a boombox I could listen to Marketplace while exercising. I burned through three pulleys on the stepper, but eventually got really bored with it as well.

When I found I was dropping to three exercise days a week and finding excuses to avoid those, I talked it over with my wife. I knew a good treadmill was the best long-term solution and that it suited my style, since I do enjoy walking. We found a good midrange (i.e., $1,000) treadmill and installed it in the garage, passing the stepper on to someone else.

First I figured I’d read while walking. That worked—badly. You move too much to read effectively (or at least I do). My standard workout was and is about 20 minutes at 3.6 miles per hour (which turns out to be my normal walking speed), on a 4% to 5% incline: Not strenuous, but enough to make a difference if I do it at least four or five days a week. I needed something to motivate me to stay on the treadmill.

Enter the Old Movies

Now we combine a stream from a few years back, when I wrote about a fledgling magazine in DVD form, InsideDVD. Each issue was a double-sided DVD with a full-length motion picture on one side, magazine features on the other. I subscribed out of curiosity. The magazine led a fitful existence for some time, then merged with an awful fanboy print movie magazine. In all, eleven issues emerged over several years before it fell apart completely. The merged publication offered a great incentive: A 40-movie DVD “starter pack” free with a $50 renewal or subscription. Eventually, the box arrived—ten thematic doublefold cardboard sleeves in a box, each sleeve having two double-sized DVDs.

Additionally, Treeline Films released “50 Movie Pack Family Classics,” 50 movies on a dozen double-sided two-layer DVDs. I saw it at $40, then $30, but didn’t buy—then Rite-Aid offered it, for one week only, at $19.95. Well, what the heck. I saw there were five duplicates from the 40-pack, but that still left 45 new movies. So here I am with 85 old movies and no real time to watch them.

“You know, if I had a little TV and DVD player out in the garage, I could watch the movies 20 minutes at a time while walking on the treadmill. I bet that would keep me motivated!” Lo and behold, late last fall, Circuit City had a two-day sale: A special purchase of Apex 13" color TVs with DVD player built in, $90 total.

It worked. I started exercising more regularly, five or six days a week. With pictures I didn’t care for, viewing in 20-minute chunks made them more palatable. With good pictures, I had real motivation to keep exercising: What would happen next?

There was one more problem, as I realized when I moved beyond the first pack (all silent movies). Between the treadmill itself and my fast, heavy pace, it was difficult to hear dialogue over the noise of exercise, particularly since the soundtracks on damaged old prints weren’t great to begin with.

For another $40, I added an over-the-ear set of wireless headphones with a sleek little radio-frequency stereo transmitter. Problem solved. The headphones muffle the treadmill noise and give me fully audible soundtracks without blowing out the TV speakers.

When I’m not on the road now, I always exercise at least six days a week, sometimes seven. When I run out of the 85 movies (in about a year, since I’m halfway through the first box and watch about 1.5 movies a week this way), I’ll find more big boxes of old movies at good prices or other things to watch. Going through the multiple commentary tracks on the first Lord of the Rings four-DVD edition: That’s something like 14 hours (42 days) right there! And there’s always the public library…

What movies have I watched, and how good were they? I thought you’d never ask. You might find this relevant. While Total Movies & Entertainment (the merged publication) is gone, they must have shipped 10,000 or 20,000 of those 40-movie boxes. I wouldn’t be surprised if boxes appear on EBay from time to time, although I didn’t find any in a quick search. Is the set worth $20? Probably. $40? That depends on your taste in movies and whether you can cope with the variable-quality prints.

Here, then, my personal take on what I’ve watched so far, which is the first four packs and the first three movies on the fifth. I may add more brief “reviews” in later issues. I may not.

Quick Comments on the First 18 Movies

In all cases, assume that the prints (video and sound quality) are viewable but not pristine quality unless I mention otherwise. A word or three may be missing due to patches. Almost every movie comes with four chapter breaks, assigned fairly arbitrarily based on length. Some information comes from IMDB, since I didn’t copy things down while watching the movies. Timings are taken directly from the DVDs. I don’t know most classic cinema; excuse my ignorance.

I’ve organized the movies as they are in the box: By supposed theme.

Classic Movie Masterpieces

Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin), 1925, Russian, B&W, silent with dedicated orchestral score and some Russian narration, 1:06.

A classic, more drama than propaganda, with a more-than-adequate print.

The General, 1927, Buster Keaton, B&W, silent, 1:40.

I don’t know much of Keaton’s work, and was expecting something more obviously humorous, but this is well-acted and distinctly worth watching—even if the “gray” leaning of some early moviemakers, when it comes to the Civil War, was pretty evident. Adequate print.

Intolerance, 1916, B&W, silent, D.W. Griffith (director, writer), Lillian Gish and a cast of (literally) thousands, 2:42.

Admittedly a poor print, but if this is Griffith’s masterpiece, it’s for reasons I missed, other than sheer magnitude of effort. “Interminable” seems like a better name; I never did discover a coherent plot. It lasted 162 minutes; it seemed like an eternity.

Classic Tales

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920, B&W, silent with wholly-unrelated pipe organ music, John S. Robertson (dir.), John Barrymore, Nita Naldi, 1:22.

Poor to very poor print, great performance. I’d like to see this one in a restored version.

Scrooge, 1935, B&W, Henry Edwards (dir.), Seymour Hicks, 1:00.

The first true sound film in the set, but the print is so bad that I found it unwatchable.

A Farewell to Arms, 1932, B&W, Frank Borzage (dir.), Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, Adolphe Menjou, 1:18.

The print varies from mediocre to very poor—but the movie itself is excellent, and thoroughly enjoyable in spite of the print.

Cyrano de Bergerac, 1950, B&W, Michael Gordon (dir.), Jose Ferrer as Cyrano, 1:52.

The highlight of the four-pack: A superb performance in a well-staged rendition of the tale. Mediocre to poor print (and, oddly, with Ferrer’s credit clipped off at the start), but good enough so it didn’t much matter. High on my list to watch again.

Comedy & Romance

Road to Bali, 1952, color, Hal Walker (dir.), Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, cameos by Bob Crosby, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Jane Russell, 1:31.

Color! Sound! Comedy! The first Road picture I’ve ever seen. As I expected, lightweight—and quite enjoyable. The print was good enough to stay out of the picture’s way.

Africa Screams, 1949, B&W, Charles Barton (dir.), Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Clyde Beatty, Frank Buck, Max Baer, Buddy Baer, Shemp Howard, Joe Besser, 1:19.

I tend to think of Abbott & Costello as over-the-top comedians. This relatively low-key movie—certainly comedy, but mostly not scenery chewing—was a pleasant surprise. (Yes, even with two of the Three Stooges playing smaller parts.) Decent print.

At War with the Army, 1950, B&W, Hal Walker (dir.), Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Polly Bergen, 1:32.

Early Martin & Lewis, with Jerry Lewis a little less extreme than in some later pictures. Well done. The print is scratchy but watchable.

The Pajama Game, 1957, color, George Abbott & Stanley Donen (dirs.), Doris Day, John Raitt, Eddie Foy Jr., 1:41.

Remember “Hernando’s Hideaway”? It’s from this movie. Not a great musical, but a good one, and Doris Day does a fine job. Acceptable print.

Crime

Dressed to Kill, 1946, B&W, Roy William Neill (dir.), Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, 1:08. (The last Rathbone/Holmes movie.)

Fair print quality, and Rathbone as Holmes is as good as you might expect. A pleasure.

The Kennel Murder Case, 1933, B&W, Michael Curtiz (dir.), William Powell as Philo Vance, Mary Astor, 1:13.

Decent print, good story, acting appropriate for the genre. Another pleasure.

Dick Tracy, Detective, 1945, B&W, William A. Berke (dir.), Morgan Conway as Dick Tracy, Anne Jeffreys as Tess Truehart, Mike Mazurki, 1:01.

I’d never seen any of the 1940s Dick Tracy movies, and was pleasantly surprised that they’re not cartoons-on-film. At least this one wasn’t. Decent print. Certainly not a classic, but better than I expected. If you think of it as an early b&w TV series episode, it’s just fine.

Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, 1947, B&W, John Rawlins (dir.), Ralph Byrd as Dick Tracy, Boris Karloff as Gruesome, Anne Gynne as Tess Truehart, 1:05.

Boris Karloff in a one-hour Dick Tracy flick? Yes, and he does a fine job. The print’s fairly good, the acting’s appropriate.

Famous Directors, Cult Classics

Meet John Doe, 1941, B&W, Frank Capra (dir.), Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward Arnold, Walter Brennan, Spring Byington, James Gleason, Gene Lockhart, Regis Toomey, 2:02.

Great cast, great story, pretty good print, and Capra’s social-consciousness direction. I can’t think of much bad to say about this movie. I’ll certainly watch it again, probably more than once.

His Girl Friday, 1940, B&W, Howard Hawks (dir.), Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, 1:31.

One of several film adaptations of “The Front Page,” this is another thoroughly enjoyable movie with a strong cast. The style is sometimes a bit frenetic, but Hawks presumably considered that appropriate for the story. Fairly good print, another sure repeat.

The Stranger, 1946, B&W, Orson Welles (dir.), Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, 1:35.

I’m really not a film scholar: I’d never heard of this movie. Enthralling, with Orson Welles very Orson Welles-ish as a post-war Nazi hiding in America, Loretta Young fine as his new bride, and Edward G. Robinson excellent as an agent of the war crimes tribunal. Good to very good print.

There’s More

Enough for now. After a little more writing and some household chores, it’s time for the third quarter of Beat the Devil, last of the “Famous Directors, Cult Classics” group.

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 4, Number 6, Whole Issue 49, ISSN 1534-0937, is written and produced at least monthly by Walt Crawford, a senior analyst at RLG. Opinions herein do not reflect those of RLG. Comments should be sent to wcc@notes.rlg.org. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2004 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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