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Back in the days when a night at the movies meant a whole package of entertainment, the studios cranked out dozens of so-called "short subjects" as light filler material. They generally purported to be educational and many of them gave a potted history of some historical figure or process, with an emphasis on wholesome pop facts and just a cursory nod towards accuracy. They were usually rather cheap and cheerful affairs too. Sons of Liberty is an exception – a short subject which, despite its brevity, has been produced with all the lavishness of an A-grade feature.
For its cast, Sons of Liberty does not utilize the front rank of Warner Brothers stars, but certainly picks from the cream of character players. The lead role is given great weight and dignity by Claude Rains, whose charisma stems not from forcefulness but from a calm, thoughtful composure. It's also nice to see this stock baddie in a heroic role for once. In this respect, it almost seems like a cheeky in-joke that perennial female villain Gale Sondergaard is cast as his wife, especially since her part is so small and doesn't really use her talents much. There are also brief appearances by Donald Crisp and Montagu Love, which like Sondergaard's are so short they seem to be more to add class than actual quality.
The director is Michael Curtiz, at the time one of the most highly regarded of Warner's team. Curtiz always packed a lot of information into the frame in order to quickly establish meaning and context, so in many ways he is ideal for the whistle-stop pace of the short subject. There's a bit of typical Curtiz arty symbolism going on here with the Claude Rains character being repeatedly associated with flames. A bit superfluous perhaps, but the linking motif at least allows for a bit of smooth flow as Curtiz works a candle or a lantern into the beginning or end of a shot, which is often the only bit of vibrant colour in the scene.
Ultimately however, Sons of Liberty cannot rise above its short subject roots. Its prime function is to inform rather than entertain, and so like all short subjects it crams in info rather than allowing scenes to play for drama or excitement. Just as one scene begins to build, we get a bit of voice-over narration skipping us on to something else. Pretty as it looks, and finely acted as it is, Sons of Liberty really looks a bit like a twenty-minute trailer for a full-length feature, which in no way makes it a substitute for the real thing.
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