Watching Old Movies: The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)

1926

 

Highest Grossing Film: Aloma of the South Seas- $3,000,000

What happened this year?

Some interesting stuff. PCP was invented, Britain was put under martial law because of a coal miners strike, Agatha Christie very briefly went missing, Winnie the Pooh was published, there were multiple assassination attempts made against Mussolini and Harry Houdini died. …Or did he? (Yes. Yes, he did.)

That said, one of the smaller stories that I liked was that Ireland set up the wonderfully named Committee on Evil Literature. In case you couldn’t guess, the committee was basically just formed to ban books that offended 1920’s sensibilities, but I still really love that name. It makes them sound like a secret cabal of book-themed supervillains. Maybe they should’ve teamed up with that death ray guy from a few years back.

Famous birth-wise, we’ve got Leslie Nielsen, Jerry Lewis, Hugh Hefner, Queen Elizabeth II, Harper Lee (of ‘wrote To Kill a Mockingbird’ fame), David Attenborough, Don Rickles, Marilyn Monroe, Mel Brooks and Fidel Castro. So yeah, important big year. That said, is it weird that the one I cared most about was Mel Brooks?

Anyway, time for the movie itself. And this one actually has a fairly interesting story behind it. Not only is the world’s oldest surviving feature-length animated film (suck it Snow White), but it also took 3 years to complete and was even directed by a female director (Lotte Reiniger). And, since I’m a big animation fan, I figured I might as well check out…

 

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

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Plot:  Based on stories from “The Arabian Nights.” A wicked sorcerer tricks a weirdly gullible sultan into letting him marry his daughter and then kinda tricks the girl’s brother, Prince Achmed, into riding a magical flying horse which carries him far far away. (Honestly, it was mostly Achmed’s own fault, but I digress). The heroic prince is able to subdue the magical horse, which he uses to fly off to many adventures, including kissing a bunch of girls, kidnapping a princess and a rather racially uncomfortable one in China that we don’t like to talk about. While travelling, he falls in love with the beautiful Princess Peri Banu (hence the aforementioned kidnapping), and must defeat an army of demons to win her heart. Also Aladdin is there for some reason.

Trivia: Lotte Reiniger cut figures out of black cardboard with a pair of scissors, and joined movable parts with thread in order to animate them. From 1923-26 about 250,000 frame-by-frame stills were made and 96,000 were used in the film.

Helped Inspire: More than you’d think. For one, it beat Disney’s The Sword in the Stone to the ‘shapeshifting wizards battle’ thing and Disney’s Aladdin to… the whole Aladdin story thing. Rebecca Sugar even named it as a direct influence to a few Steven Universe episodes.

 

 

My Thoughts:

Okay, those of you who know me probably know that I love animated movies. I think it’s a tremendous medium with almost unrivalled potential for inventive storytelling and am rather disappointed at how its mainstream presence in the US is more or less delegated to kids films. So I was naturally intrigued to see how the oldest surviving animated film in existence held up.

And the answer? Surprisingly damn well, to be honest.

As opposed to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which was fully animated via a cel-shading process (and was the first of its kind in this regard) this movie uses shadowy cutouts, animated through stop motion and it honestly looks really good. The animation is smooth and the cutout style really creates a unique and sometimes haunting style that I’ve honestly not seen in any other animated movies to date. And it genuinely holds up to a startling degree. Seriously, I’ve seen actual modern theatrically released animated movies that don’t even begin to look as good as this does and this was made in the 1920’s, for god’s sake.

And it’s not just the animation, but the direction as well that stands out. Being a silent movie, obviously, the film has very little dialogue or narration and thus mostly relies the visuals to tell the story, which itself only compliments the strengths on animation. And the movies does a great of capturing the appropriate tone for each moment or scene, be it action, fear, awe or whatever. Seriously, the movie can be downright haunting at times, with the scene of Aladdin finding the genies in the lamp being a standout, or the shapeshifters battle (which I’m fairly confident The Sword in the Stone ripped off, fyi).

The story itself is a bit basic. It’s a mix of Aladdin and another of the tales from the 1001 Nights (although honestly, the Aladdin stuff kinda comes the hell out of nowhere). It also shows its age a little, with more than a few story aspects that are a little… problematic in modern times. (Such as the main romantic subplot being initiated by the protagonist effectively kidnapping the girl, the harem scene and the… let’s call it ‘racially awkward’ scenes in China. But the story itself also carries a fun sense of timelessness and, even with those few problematic elements, rarely feels dated in any way.

As it is, this movie really wasn’t what I was expecting from the oldest surviving animated film and I mean that in a mostly positive way. In spite of its age, the animation holds up really well and it’s a genuinely quite enjoyable movie. Hell, polish up the quality of the film a little (and remove some of the problematic elements) and it could easily be released today, that’s how well it holds up. So I’d definitely recommend giving it a try if you’re interested. That said, it’s not perfect, so for now, I think I’ll give it an A-

(Side Note: Avoid the version of the movie which adds an annoying woman narrating and explaining everything that happens onscreen. I tried watching that version and ended up muting it after about 10 minutes.)

 

Rankings:

  1. Battleship Potemkin- A+/A
  2. Sherlock Jr- A
  3. The Adventures of Prince Achmed- A-
  4. Nosferatu – B+
  5. Safety Last – B+
  6. The Goat (1921) – B+
  7. The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) – B-/C+

 

Anyway, next time is 1927 and a movie I’ve been wanting to check for quite a long while now. I won’t make it too obvious but needless to say, if you know anything about which movies came out that year, this won’t be too difficult to guess.

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