The Fabulous Forties: 5 Short Films That Can’t Be Missed

Zero de ConduiteWho decreed that feature films run two hours? Though there may be some organic rationale based on how two hours fits into an evening’s entertainment, there’s no rule that I know of that requires 120 minutes. The very first movies ran about 60 seconds, depending on how fast the camera was cranked, because that’s how much film you could have before tension on the take-up reel would snap the film strip. Rapid technological advancements allowed for movies to get longer and longer and within fifteen years of those first efforts, the Italians were making hour-long movies. In America, the earliest movie producers (Edison, et. al.) tried to decree that all films be relegated to a single reel, which meant approximately fifteen minute runtimes. But they lost their battle and pretty soon, D.W. Griffith was making the three hour Birth of a Nation. In 1924, the outer limit may have been codified when director Erich von Stroheim wanted to release an eight-hour version of his movie Greed. His producer, Irving Thalberg, had the movie cut down to a little over two hours.

Since then, there have been plenty of experiments on length – there have been plenty of three-hour gems and plenty of 90-minute masterpieces – but the standard commercial vehicle has settled around that two hour mark. The standard short, which was very popular back in the ‘30s and ‘40s and is making a bit of a comeback today thanks to all the different modes of distribution, is under thirty minutes.

However, there are a handful of tweeners – movies that slot in between those shorts and the traditional feature film – that are well worth your time. Consider them like novellas. They can hold their own with any feature-length film. They aren’t any less complex or meaningful. They are just shorter. Here are five movies that run between forty and fifty minutes that any film fan should see. I call them the fabulous forties. You can call them whatever you like, but if you get the chance to see any of them, take advantage of it.

Sherlock, Jr. (Buster Keaton, 1924)

Keaton had achieved tremendous popularity in his comic short films, first as a sidekick to Fatty Arbuckle and later on his own, before diving into the world of feature films. Though some of his fans prefer the Civil War epic The General (1927) or his final great film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), these 45 minutes are as good as silent film comedy gets. Combining his brilliant physical gifts with a story lifted right out of the post-modern textbook, this is both great comedy and a great film.

Zero de Conduite (Jean Vigo, 1933)

One of the wittiest and most poignant of all student rebellion movies is made all the more poignant by the fact that Vigo would be dead in a year, a victim of tuberculosis at the age of 29. He had made two short documentaries prior to this and would make one feature (L’Atalante) after it. At 41 minutes, it is bursting with youthful energy and anarchy, with surrealistic touches throughout, a pompous dwarf headmaster and a magnificently absurdist climax. Many subsequent stories about school kids battling oppression owe a debt to Vigo.

The Steamroller and the Violin (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1961)

Much of the West assumed Soviet cinema essentially died when early pioneer Sergei Eisenstein passed away in 1948. Then this new filmmaker appeared on the international scene. Though Tarkovsky would become known for his long and deliberate epics like Andrei Rublev and Solaris, he made this 46 minute dreamlike film while pursuing his degree at the VGIK film school in Moscow. The mostly plotless drama revels in the wonder of its seven year old star Sasha as he shyly flirts with a little girl, watches a building being demolished, and stands up to a bully. His one-day friendship with Sergei, a brooding construction worker, forms the basis of another of the very best movies about childhood, regardless of length.

Simon of the Desert (Luis Bunuel, 1965)

At 42 minutes, this absurdist comedy was meant to part of a trilogy. But when Bunuel and his leading lady Silvia Pinal, could not find two other directors to join the project, they decided to release it as a stand-alone piece. From its opening sequence, in which the ascetic Simon moves from the pillar on which he has been standing for more than six years to a slightly taller pillar that has been donated by a rich man from the town, to the brilliantly transgressive climax, Bunuel packs the movie with all the sly perversion and irreverence that he had become famous for. One example: Pinal, as the Devil, trying to tempt Simon by posing as a schoolgirl brazenly revealing her garters.

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (Todd Haynes, 1988)

Todd Haynes (Brown University, ’85 – rah rah Brunonia) has forged a career as one of the most challenging American filmmakers of the last thirty years and his 1995 movie Safe remains one of the enduring classics of the final decade of the 20th century. The 43 minute Superstar quickly gained infamy and is now fairly difficult to see due to the unauthorised use of music from the popular ‘70s duo The Carpenters. The conception was astonishing. Haynes told the tragic story of Karen Carpenter’s rise and fall (she died in 1983 at the age of 32 due to heart failure associated with anorexia) using Barbie dolls in place of actors. He also mixes in elements of documentary to create a truly unique experience. The unauthorised music is necessary to keep the entire project from becoming frivolously morbid. Hearing the purity of Karen’s voice, from the hopeful We’ve Only Just Begun to the mournful This Masquerade, balances the superficiality of the dolls to create a powerful personal story as well as a treatise on the commodification of the female pop star that remains most relevant today.

There you go. Five fabulous movies. And the best part is you can watch all of them in about the time it would take you to watch Gone with the Wind.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

9 thoughts on “The Fabulous Forties: 5 Short Films That Can’t Be Missed

  1. I love the fact that you included Simon of the Desert here, Jon–that’s one of Bunuel’s underseen gems, in my opinion. It’s funny: So many shorts are great films, yet we’ve become used to the 1:30- to two-hour picture as the standard. Perhaps this list will go some what toward changing that in our minds.

    • Thanks Simon. Simon of the Desert is without question my top movie with Simon in the title. I think it would be very cool if there were more mainstream movies under an hour so they could show double features in a relatively short time span.

  2. Jonathan, great little group of films here (will have to check out that Tarkovsky one) and interesting subject. When I was writing my documentary anthology I noticed how so many of them are right around the 90 minute mark, which to me is the feature-length sweet spot anyway. What I want to know is why so many big Hollywood movies (esp. around Oscar bait season) feel they have to be like 140 minutes or not be taken seriously. Pul-leeze!

    • Thanks Rick. Run times keep inching up, for little obvious reason. I can see it for ar pictures or epics, but even regular comedies and dramas are getting longer. Stephen Hunter reviewed As Good as it Gets with the following opening — please explain how Casablanca manages to cram so much drama and humor and romance and everything else into about 1:48 while it takes As Good as it Gets 2:15 to tell its good, but modest, story.

  3. An unusually interesting list. Most lists include films that make me think, “Sure, great movie, but I already knew that.” This one really intrigues me!

  4. Good theme Jon, and the only one I have seen is ‘Zero de Conduite. Mind you, that was very good indeed. I always thought that cinema chains more or less decreed running times. It gave them the chance to show the programme three or four times a day, maximising profits. Longer films had intervals, which added the chance for sales of refreshments and brochures.
    With the advent of DVD and the Internet, running times have become largely irrelevant, so we might now all get the chance to view these classics, and future medium-length films too.
    (I only count four by the way…)
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. There have been different standards for presentation over the years. There are a fair number of low budget second features that run barely over an hour. But these days, 85-135 seems to be some sort of standard, with 120 still being the norm.

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