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From Rover to Uggie: Dogs on Film

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2014

Blair as Rover

Blair as Rover

This was an illustrated talk that I presented at the Cinema Museum in London in late 2011. The evening was composed of both silent and sound films. However, the two key canine stars in the title both appeared in ‘silent movies’, though separated by over by over a 100 years. In fact, there were quite a few featured performers from the silent era.
In Rescued by Rover Cecil Hepworth’s dog, Blair played the canine hero. He tracks down a kidnapped child whilst the human members of the family indulge in grief and panic. Thus Rover set the pattern for a whole series of dogs who rescue the human characters from dire emergencies.
Another example was Rin Tin Tin in Lighthouse by the Sea (1924). In this drama Rin Tin Tin and his master, Albert, are set on by bootleggers. Albert is trussed up in the lighthouse. He manages to strike a match on the floor with his boot and Rin Tin Tin lights a rag soaked in kerosene, climbs up the lighthouse stairs and lights the lantern to summon help.
The distraught Pete in Dog Heaven (1927) attempts suicide because his master Joey has transferred his affections from his dog to a young girl. The method, hanging, is macabre but also very funny. A more affectionate owner is to be found in Tol’able David (1921). David and his Border collie play by a lake and in the meadow, whilst David tries to impress his sweetheart. The high point of the sequence is when the dog makes off with David’s trousers, who is then forced to return home wearing a barrel. Spoiler warning, there is a traumatic scene later in the film!
There is even more comedy in a scene from Our Hospitality (1923). Buster Keaton is caught up in a Southern feud. His best hope is to stay in the house of his enemies since the law of hospitality protects him there. He tries hiding his hat so he can remain, but his dog keeps bringing it back. The dog has already trotted behind the train that bought Buster South from New York. Despite this and in an early example of a fairly retrograde Hollywood convention, the dog disappears completely after this sequence.
David Locke, who was also in charge of projection, bought along an early Edison Dog Factory (1904). An ingenious inventor produces a machine which, in a reverse technique, when fed material like sausages churned out dogs at the other end. We had a Bonzo cartoon where this ingenious dog was faced with a problem of accessing food hidden away in the kitchen. And we had a Jerry the Tyke cartoon where his master and animator turned him into a cinema poster. Finally we had a C21st ‘silent’ film, with the now popular star, Uggie.

Uggie + george
All these extracts were made even more enjoyable by a lively piano accompaniment from Lillian Henley. Those who came along appeared to enjoy the show. So we have a sort of sequel, And the Award Goes to …. – Dogs, of course, Thursday April 24th, again at the Cinema Museum.

Posted in C21st silents, Hollywood, Silent Comedy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Chaplin Centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 1, 2014


On February 7th 1914 audiences had their first opportunity to se a new film creation – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’. The film was Kid Auto Races at Venice produced by Mack Sennett at The Keystone Film Company. It was Chaplin’s third film, but the second to be released and the one that introduced probably the most popular character in film history.

The anniversary one hundred years on will see any number of celebrations and revistings. Il Cinema Ritrovato at the Cineteca di Bologna has long had a special focus on Chaplin and this year will see a special conference with screenings at the end of June. That event precedes the annual archive festival in the city. Closer to home [mine anyway] the National Media Museum is featuring Chaplin in its annual International Film Festival [BIFF]. There will be a screening of two of the classic two-reeler and then one of my favourite features, Modern Times (1936).

Just to contexualise these: Chaplin had been raised in poverty and deprivation in London’s East End. He started in the British Music Hall at an early age and by 1908 he joined Fred Karno’s troupe, one of the most popular on the circuits. Another potential star in the troupe at that time was Stan Laurel. Chaplin toured the USA Vaudeville with the Karno troupe in 1911-12 and again in 1913. On the later tour he secured a contract with Keystone, part of the burgeoning industry in Hollywood and famous for their anarchic Keystone Kops. This move is symbolic of a wider transformation, as the years from 1914 [during World War I] saw the centre of world cinema move from Europe to the USA. And Chaplin was to become world cinema’s first superstar in that state’s film capital, Hollywood.

In just on a year Chaplin appeared in 35 Keystone comedies, mostly one or two reel films: a reel was a 1000 feet in length and ran for about fifteen minutes at a running speed of 16 frames per second. His popularity increased from film to film and in 1915 he moved to The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. He received an increase in salary and greater control over the films.  Up until the middle of 1916 Chaplin made fourteen films for Essanay. His style and screen persona became more established in this period. He shared the acrobatic dexterity and timing of many ex-vaudeville stars who worked in silent comedy. But he also had the distinctive character, immediately recognisable, usually down and out, disreputable but with an irrepressible manner. Chaplin bought a balletic grace to all his actions; he slowed down the comedy and lovingly exploited props and situations.

In May 1916 Chaplin moved again, this time to the Lone Star Mutual. Again he received an increase in salary, increased control over the films, and a specially equipped studio in which to work. The eleven Mutual two-reel comedies are considered some of the finest of Chaplin’s short films. At this stage he also developed a regular supporting troupe of craftsmen and performers. The main cinematographer was Roland Totheroh. And the two key performers were Edna Purviance, who usually offered romantic interest: and Eric Campbell, who was a large and threatening character, providing the main conflict with The Tramp.

BIFF is offering two of the Mutual classics:

Easy Street released January 1917. 23 minutes.

The Tramp is recruited by a Missionary (Edna Purviance) at a local reform centre into the Police Force. So Charlie is charged with cleaning up the title setting, a den of vice, violence and criminality. The main opposition comes from the ‘Scourge of Easy Street’ (Eric Campbell).

The Immigrant released June 1917. 24 minutes.

Charlie is one of the migrants arriving in the USA. Many in the audience would have experienced what the film burlesques. In New York for example the majority of Nickelodeons were in working class and migrant areas. Edna Purviance plays a fellow immigrant, whilst Eric Campbell is a less friendly aspect of their new society.

Both films rely on Tittle Cards [Intertitles] for plot information and dialogue. And as in 1914 the films have a live musical accompaniment, provided by Darius Battiwalla. Darius has established himself as a skilled and popular performer in the series of Silent Films with Live Piano at the Museum.

In 1917 Chaplin moved to First National [later part of Warner Brothers]. As his career had developed he had increasingly taken control of the production of his films. Now they also increased in length. His 1919 feature The Kid is six reels in length. It became one of his most famous and enduring films. It also made a star of the then only five-year old Jackie Coogan.

In 1919 Chaplin, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, set up their own distribution company, United Artists. The four names were the most famous and successful member of the Hollywood Industry. A competitor quipped, “So, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”  In fact their early years saw major successes, including Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (`1921), Pickford in Sparrows (1926), Griffith directed Broken Blossoms (1919) and Chaplin made The Gold Rush (1925).

Chaplin was a perfectionist and as his career developed and his control of the filming increased, he spent more and more time on achieving the exact effect. The Gold Rush was in production from December 1923 until May 1925. It also cost about $ 1 million but it took $6 million at the Box Office. However, his output of films slowed considerably. Then in 1927 commercial sound film arrived with Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer and Al Jolson’s famous line – “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” By 1930 most of the US Industry had changed over to a system that offered music, effects and (crucially) synchronised dialogue.

However, Chaplin [like Douglas Fairbanks] felt hat his art depended on the distinctive form of silent film.  In January 1931 he released City Lights, which relied on Title Cards and with the only concession to sound technology being a pre-recorded musical accompaniment.

Modern Times, released in January 1936 continued this trend. The film does have a soundtrack, which includes music, sound effects and the human voice – but little synchronised dialogue. And the film still relies on the Title Cards for much of the pilot and dialogue. In many ways it brings to summation Chaplin’s cinematic virtues: there is the Tramp character, irrepressibly anarchic. There is Chaplin’s sympathy with ordinary workers and the poor, strikingly in the film’s early scenes of mass production. There is Chaplin’s balletic grace in physical action, notably in the roller skating sequence. And there is his sentimental use of melodrama, in the relationship with the Gamine (Paulette Godard).

Chaplin’s later films used synchronised sound. However he fell foul or the FBI and the conservative elements in US society. Following Word War II he moved to Europe and it was only in 1972 that he received an Honorary Academy ward from Hollywood.

Note that the Museum is using digital versions of the Chaplin films. This means the films have been step-printed to bring them up to sound speed. This does produce occasional ‘ghosting’, frames carrying over rather than a clean cut. And I think that the films still run slightly fast in this format. Some of the sequences in The Immigrant are a shade fast, and the incomparable lamppost sequence in Easy Street seems to lack the precise timing it has on 35mm. However, for most of the screenings you forget this as gag follows gag and Chaplin displays his striking physicality.

Chaplin His Life and Work by David Robinson (1998) is the source for his work and career and Wikipedia has a detailed page on him.


Posted in Hollywood, Silent Comedy, silent comics | Leave a Comment »

Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2014


The feature:

This film contains one of the most famous images in all of Hollywood silent comedy – as The Boy attempts a daredevil climb up the exterior of a twelve-story city Department Store. The stunts and the staging are impressive and justly iconic. However, the whole film features a longer and more complex story with a satisfying resolution for fans. The characters have almost mythic titles, the Boy, the Girl, and the Pal. Characters’ names [those of the actors] do appear in the title cards. Essentially the film divides into three parts.

The film opens in the stereotypical small town of ‘Great Bend’. Here we meet The Boy and his sweetheart. In a classic US formula he leaves to make his fortune in the big city. His early days there involve some comic incidents as Harold tries to make his way whilst at the same time re-assuring his sweetheart in letters home. The gags play with the hustle and bustle of the city (unnamed Los Angeles]. One sequence follows Harold as he rushes to work using first a tram then more unorthodox transport. A recurring situation involves small jewellers where Harold buys a present for his girl. There is a less than sensitive use of stereotypes here with the character of the clearly Jewish shop owner.

In the central section Harold is working in a Department Store. This is a regular setting in 1920s films. Clara Bow’s great hit It! (1927) features her in a similar situation: intriguingly the rather different Soviet classic New Babylon (1929) uses a similar setting to far different purpose. With its kaleidoscope of goods and customers the Department Store seemed to typify the exciting new world of the ‘20s’. There are some familiar generic gags here, including the authoritarian FloorWalker. And then a little later there is the chaos of the sales season. There is also another unfortunate stereotypical joke, this time with an Afro-American janitor. He is reduced to the eyeball-rolling stereotype of the period.  Then Harold’s sweetheart comes to see him at his place of employment. There are some fine comic moments as Harold pretends to a higher status than he actually enjoys in the store.

It is Harold’s need to succeed and to please and impress his sweetheart that leads to the spectacular action of the last third of the film. Here the plot picks up on particular facets of the ‘20s’, ‘the human fly’. Just as the period was one of dizzying construction to ever-greater size and height, so humans with enough bravura made their mark on these new colossi. In fact, The Boy’s Pal is played by an actual ‘human fly’, whose stunts had impressed Lloyd. The film combines the thrills and spills expected in silent comedy with a series of great and developing gags. And through it all Lloyd’s Boy is driven on by his need to succeed. This comedy cleverly embodies a central tenet of the ‘American Dream’. It is likely that the combination of comedy and optimism accounted for it being one of the great comic successes of the 1920s.


Harold Lloyd

Lloyd was one of the three most successful and popular Hollywood comics of the silent era. “Harold Lloyd’s character, both on and off screen, typified optimism. Very much the embodiment of the concept of succeeding through confidence, hard work and determination. Lloyd was in a sense the most positive screen presence of the major silent comedians.”  (A-Z of Silent Film Comedy, Glenn Mitchell, 1998).  This would also seem to make Harold the most positive representative of the ‘American Dream’ in US silent comedy.

As with so many screen comics he started out in a stock repertory company. His first screen appearance was as an extra in an Edison Company film The Old Monk’s Tale (1913). He then worked first for Max Roach and afterwards Max Sennett. When Max Roach was able to start independent production Lloyd starred in a series of comedies as ‘Lonesome Luke’. Like many other would-be comic stars this was a variation on the character made famous by Charlie Chaplin. Roach produced about 100 short films in this series with great success.

Harold’s first role in the recognisable Lloyd character, with the familiar spectacles and straw boater, was the one-reel Over the Fence (1917). Hal Roach was instrumental in developing this new persona which moved away from the caricature associated with earlier comics and presented a recognisable young and ambitious hero. The new character was full of resourcefulness and determination, and also possessed a streak of ruthlessness. One aspect of Lloyd’s persona is a variation of the traditional character of ‘the trickster’. He is always coming up with unconventional and often illegitimate resolutions to problems. Examples of this recur throughout Safety Last.

One film, Look Out Below (1918) utilised the skyscraper as a setting: something with which Lloyd became famously associated. In another, Picture Show (1919) the stunts led to a hand injury and the loss of both a thumb and forefinger. Impressive and realistic-looking stunts were to be come a staple of the Lloyd’s film successes. As with other silent comics Lloyd was adept at stunt work and many of the spectacular feats in Safety Last involve him. There were, of course, safety precautions, usually just outside the line of the camera shot.

Lloyd was in the forefront of producing comic films of increasing length. Most silent comedies up until the early 1920s were one and two reel films. Projection speeds were gradually increasing in this period: originally a reel ran for fifteen minutes, by the early 1920s this had decreased to 12 minutes of less. In 1921 Harold Lloyd starred in Now Or Never, Among Those Present (1921) and Never Weaken, all three-reel films. This gave a running time approaching 40 minutes. A Sailor-Made Man ran for four reels. Whilst Grandma’’ Boy (1922) was five reels, reaching about an hour in running time. Both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were also moving on to feature length comedies, with developed narratives rather than the episodic plots that characterised early silent comedies. All three comics developed narrative construction and characterisation to support the increased viewing lengths.

All this time Lloyd was working for Hal Roach. Safety Last owes a lot to the input of Roach, one of the masters of the gag in silent film. In 1924 Lloyd set up the Harold Lloyd Corporation, though he retained the link with Pathé. His first feature was Girl Shy (1924). Later Lloyd moved to a distribution deal with Paramount, on eof the emerging Hollywood Majors.  All through this period Lloyd enjoyed great popularity and success. His last silent comedy was Speedy (1928) set around an old horse-drawn tram service in New York.

Unlike a number of the silent stars Lloyd did manage the transition to sound comedy. He made five sound features, though with decreasing success and then retired form filmmaking. He received a Special Academy Award in 1952 as a ‘master comedian and good citizen’. In the 1960s compilations of his silent comedies revived his popularity and he received a standing ovation at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

The film:

Hal Roach Studios. Distributed by Pathé Exchange, 1923.

Director Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Story by Hal Roach, San Taylor and Tim Whelan. Cinematography Walter Lundin. Art Director Fred Guiol. Titling H. M. Walker. Black and White, 7 reels.

Cast: Harold Lloyd – The Boy. Mildred Davis – The Girl. Bill Strother – The Pal. Noah Young – The Law. Westcott B. Clarke – The Floorwalker. Mickey Daniels – The Kid. Anna Townsend – The Grandma.

The print:

The recent screening at the National Media Museum used a 35mm copy of the original film. The print has an added soundtrack, which was switched off. A colleague who saw and heard this print thought the music track was not very good. Fortunately the Museum screening enjoyed the services Darius Battiwalla, providing live accompaniment on the piano.

Sound prints run at 24 fps. One of the projection team checked and found that Safety Last was shot at 22 fps, so this was the projection speed used in the screening. It looked just right and the print was in good shape.


Posted in Hollywood, Silent Comedy | Leave a Comment »

The Epic of Everest

Posted by keith1942 on January 8, 2014

An iris shot of Everest

An iris shot of Everest

This is a record of the 1924 British Expedition to Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan). The attempt failed but remained famous because of the death high on the mountain of two English climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The film records both the expedition to the mountain and the attempted ascent. The filming was undertaken by Captain J. B. L. Noel, using a specially adapted camera to film in the difficult conditions on the ground and on the mountain itself. Noel was only able to carry the camera up to the lower camps, but he recorded the climbs higher up by using a powerful telephoto lens.

Noel edited the footage and added explanatory title cards to create a documentary record of the expedition. He successfully recorded the journey of the expedition to the mountain and the grandeur of the ice fields at its foot and the steep snow and ice-bound slopes of the ascent. The title cards do more than explain. They provide a sort of commentary on the expedition and on its tragic conclusion. The commentary has a strong tone of orientalism about it. It also presents the expedition as a rather unique venture. Noel had in fact filmed an earlier expedition in 1922. But there is no mention of this in the title cards, suggesting that the expedition is a rather special, new type of venture.

Visually the film is impressive. This is scenery on a grand scale: the great mountain frequently dwarfs the British climbers and their laden Sherpas. The film certainly conjures up both the isolation and the impressive size and bleakness of Everest and the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

The bfi has restored the film and made it available around the UK. However, it seems that they have only distributed it in a digital format, a 2K DCP, running for 87 minutes. This did not seem to me to do due justice to the films visual qualities. Much of the footage has the sharper outlines found in digital formats. In fact the most impressive shots are those that were tinted, blue and orange. The tinting presumably softening the harder edges of the digital image. Moreover, the film has been step-printed to accommodate the projection speed of digital, 24-fps. Noel was using a hand-cranked camera and it appears that the filming rate varied from sequence to sequence. So in this presentation some of the movement is normal, but in other sequences the action is clearly speeded up.

I had in fact seen the film before, at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then we viewed a Nederlands Filmmuseum black and white 35mm print, which [in the record] ran for 110 minutes. This had English intertitles as in the bfi restoration. My memory is that the visual quality of the Nederlands print was fairly good. And I don’t remember there being sequences that appeared speeded-up. I don’t have a record of the projection speed, but given it was a 35mm print it may well have enjoyed varied projection speeds to accommodate the effects of hand cranking. The difference in running times would not be explained solely by differences in projection speeds. I did think that the bfi version felt rather compressed towards the end. There is a bfi WebPages on the restoration, however it does not mention the length or the frame speed. The digital version clearly had some step printing in it, though with the sequences at variable speeds it is difficult to gauge the ratio of extra frames.

It is a shame that the bfi are not offering a 35mm print on this occasion. They will presumably have struck one from the restoration. The modern 35mm projectors with which I am familiar can change projection speeds at the push of a button. Though it would require an experienced and attentive projectionist to perform the operation. It is now possible to transfer early film to digital at the appropriate projection speed. The specifications provided by FIAF for this range from 16 fps to 24 fps. Of course, with this particular film there would still be a problem with the projection speed because I don’t think variation within a feature is possible on digital. If I am wrong, someone please fill me in on this.

As it stands I did not feel this digital version did proper justice to Noel’s cinematographic feats in the most hostile of environs. The digital effect on the image seemed to me quite noticeable at times. And one of the sections which appeared too fast was a rescue incident and this subverted the intended tension of the sequence. The digital version also had a sound accompaniment, partly composed of electronic music and partly of Nepalese ethnic instruments. It did not work for me; the parts that I thought effective were actually traditional piano. The Ritrovato presentation had a small musical ensemble with a score composed by Willem Friede from the Rotterdam Conservatorium: as I remember it worked very well. Can we hope for a 35mm print circulating at some future date? This would also provide space for live accompaniments and musicians able to respond to the quality of the film.

Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Nosferatu, A Symphony of Horror (Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, 1922).

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2013

Nosferatu title

This film appears to be the earliest adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel. It was made out of copyright, with Dracula becoming Graf Orlok (Max Schreck), Jonathan remains but is named Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), Mina is changed to Ellen (Greta Schröder) and Van Helsing to the Professor (John Guttowt). The film does follow the book quite closely in parts, but changes not only the names but also the character of major figures. Orlok is the most distinctive characterisation of Dracula on film. And the resolution of the film is strikingly different. The role of the Mina/Ellen is transformed and “it is the woman who is the centre of the conflict” but in the film “the uses made of this insight are, however, quite different [from the book]”. (Robin Wood).

The Production Company, Prana-Film (Berlin) lost a copyright court case bought by the Bram Stoker’s widow. All copies of the film were supposedly destroyed, but fortunately one did survive.

The director F. W. Murnau is reckoned one of the outstanding filmmakers in German cinema and across international silent cinema. His later masterpiece The Last Laugh (Der letze Mann, 1925) is the film that embodied the German skills in the ‘unchained camera’ (entfesselte Kamera). And all his films, including Nosferatu, demonstrate the German prowess in the use of lighting, i.e. chiaroscuro effect. Murnau was recruited to the Hollywood’s Fox Studio later in the 1920s where he made one of the outstanding silent dramas, Sunrise (1928). Murnau clearly had a taste for what we call the gothic. Prior to Nosferatu he had directed The Blue Boy (Der blaue junge, 1919) about a nobleman inflicted by a curse: The Head of Janus (Der Januskopf, 1920) a variation on the Jekyll and Hyde story: and The Haunted Castle (Schloss Vogelöd, 1921).

Murnau relied upon a very skilled production team. The German film industry, dominated by the giant UFA studio, was the most technically advanced in Europe. Their films generally offered high production values, often approaching those of the emerging Hollywood Majorsollywood majors. . . And their technical expertise was at the cutting edge of film in this period. The producer of the film Albin Grau worked on the script and production design. The scenario was mainly credited to Henrik Galeen. He had scripted and co-directed the 1913 Der Golem. And the cinematography was by Fritz Arno Wagner. Wagner had worked with Murnau on The Haunted Castle, and he later worked on another expressionist classic, Schatten (Warning Shadows, 1925).

The film is notable not only for its cinematography but also for the editing. The crosscutting draws parallels across the story. And it uses special effects of the time: speeded-up action at one point achieved by under cranking the camera: stop-motion techniques at another: and using the negative film to reverse white and black in a sequence. The film was shot both in the German studio and in several locations including the Baltic cities of Wismar, Rostock and Lűbeck and in the Upper Tatras Mountains in Czechoslovakia. Murnau uses recurring motifs across the film, framing characters in archways, windows and behind bars. And he suggests doubling through the use of mirrors.

The film references both Expressionism and German Romanticism. The characterisation of Orlok recalls Cesare [Conrad Veidt] in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari, 1919). Whilst it does not use the artificial sets of the earlier film, there is the similar use of chiaroscuro and the dark and abnormal settings. Murnau consciously used the approach of a romantic painter like David Friedrick. The arch was a particular symbol in such romantic work. And the scenes of Ellen waiting by the seashore recall romantic paintings.


This restored version from 2007 includes the original tinting added to the black and white film stock. Blue is used for night, and degrees of yellow are used for daytime or internally lit scenes. The title cards have been reproduced in the original gothic script. This version is taken from several surviving prints and it is apparent. Moreover, a number of the original title cards which feature are off-centre and the subtitling overlaps these. And, particularly in the later stages, the film seems overly dark. On its release the film enjoyed a specially prepared accompanying score by Hans Erdmann. When it was screened at the National Media Museum we had an excellent live accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla, bringing out the unheimlich [uncanny and creepy] quality

The film has been re-issued by the British Film Institute as part of their Gothic retrospective and it was screened at the National Media Museum as part of their Euro-Gothic series [[not really a recognisable genre]. The BFI Gothic project revisits what is one of the most potent areas of cinema. However, this is also an area that is tricky to define exactly. The Museum’s series of Euro-Gothic includes films that deals with a witches coven: zombies: a mad doctor: and [this film] a vampire movie.

The roots of these genres lie in the English Gothic tradition. David Punter, un The Literature of Terror (1980) defines the classic gothic literature in this way: “an emphasis on portraying the terrifying, a common insistence on archaic-settings, a prominent use of the supernatural, the presence of highly stereotyped characters and the attempt to deploy and perfect techniques of literary suspense ….’Gothic’ fiction is the fiction of the haunted castle, of heroines preyed on by unspeakable terrors, of the blackly lowering villain, of ghosts, vampires, monsters and werewolves.” This literary genre, which he places between the 1760s and the 1820s, is most famously associated with Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto 1764) and Mrs Radcliffe (The Mysteries of Udolpho 1794). In 1817 by Lake Geneva a famous house party produced two of the most famous variants on the Gothic. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley came up with the story of Frankenstein – or the Modern Prometheus (1818). Lord Byron and his physician Polidori told tale about a Vampyre. The latter was developed by writers like Sheridan LeFanu and then Bram Stoker produced what seems to be the definitive version with Dracula (1897). Another strand is in a novel like Robert Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886).

Early cinema made frequent use of both C19th literature and drama. And there were innumerable theatrical versions of the classic literary gothic tales. Edison in the USA made a version of Frankenstein in 1910: and there is a 1915 version titled Life Without Soul. There are versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1908 (USA), 1910 (Denmark), 1912 (USA) and 1913 (UK). Häxan (Witchcraft through the Ages) was produced in Sweden in 1921.

German culture and film had a particular penchant for a type of gothic. The C18th Romantic Movement marvelled at nature but also had a religious or pantheistic aspect. The latter lent itself to the use of magical or supernatural elements. The most influential writer in terms of gothic was E.T.A. Hoffman. His first collection of stories was Fantastic Pieces in Callot’s Style (Fantasiestücke in Callots Manier, 1814-15, the title after a C17th French engraver of grotesque pictures) was full of gothic tropes and tricks.

The romanticism fed into the C20th movement of Expressionism. Reacting against forms of realism, the members used large almost abstract shapes, with bright unrealistic colours. There were also element of the grotesque. One member, Franz Marc declared, “art is nothing but the expression of our dreams.” Theatrical expressionism used forceful characterisation along with highly stylised sets. The expressionists were radical and modernist, but there was also a fear of what change might unleash.

Expressionism became a force in German cinema after the ‘changes unleashed’ in World War I. One factor was theatre personnel familiar with expressionism who moved to working in the film industry. The key film is The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. It exemplified expressionism on film. Visually it utilised abstract and stylised settings. The acting was both stylised and heightened. Settings and characters employed the exaggerated and the grotesque. The most notable aspect of the style was the use of chiaroscuro, or light and shadow. This combination also gave the films a strong gothic sense. Caligari and its successors gave German film reputation for distinctive and skilful imagery.

The expressionist films of the 1920s were not totally new. There had been earlier films with these tendencies. In particular there should be noted The Student of Prague (Der Student von Prag, `1913) a film about a doppelgänger or shadowy double. The film uses elements from the tales of Hoffman. And there is The Golem (Der Golem, 1913) where a man-made figure is bought to life and used to wreak havoc. Unlike Expressionist art many of the films hark back to the past and take on the gothic milieu. Thus Nosferatu combines gothic elements with Romantic imagery and with Expressionist techniques.

David Punter attempts to formulate a more general view of gothic literature, which is seen to include North American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and modern writers like Angela Carter. He emphasises that it is [in opposition to realism] a non-realist genre. He posits three general characteristics – paranoia, the barbaric or fear of the past, and breaking taboos. The film is clearly non-realist and all three chracteristics are central to Murnau’s Nosferatu. There is increasing paranoia for nearly all the characters as the film develops, and frequently for the cinema audience as well. The film is soaked in period detail, which becomes more menacing as the tale runs its course. And breaking a taboo is central to the film and to the striking climatic scene as Orlok visits Ellen.


Even allowing for the developments in style and technique since the silent era the film remains the most potent expression of the dark, threatening and sexual disturbance in the Stoker novel. At the time there was an air of mystery around the central character of Orlock and the actor who played him. This has been pick up in the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire. Writer Stephen Katz and director Elias Merhige play with the notion that Max Schreck was a real vampire. That an effective drama can be made of this myth speaks to the continuing fascination and influence of one of the most famous of silent films.

Posted in German film, Gothic film | Leave a Comment »

32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto

Posted by keith1942 on October 29, 2013

Felix The Cat Trips thru Toyland US1925

Felix The Cat Trips thru Toyland US1925

The Pordenone Silent Film Festival this year ran from October 5th to 12th. It was not the strongest programme of recent years, but [as always] there were opportunities to see classic films and to make delightful surprises. It was also a very full programme, so it was quite an intense week of viewing. A day started at 8.50 a.m. but as an incentive there was an early attraction with Felix the Cat (Otto Messmer, 1924 – 1928). A day ended with Ko-Ko the Clown (Max Fleischer, 1923 – 1927), though with not quite the panache of Felix. The alternative attraction of open-air bars and restaurants were weaker this year, as the weather was the most inclement I can remember. Most days there was some rain: the occasional sunshine was weak and the temperature generally rather chilly for this time of year in Italy. However, there were a lot of familiar faces, as well as new enthusiasts, so the warmth of the socialising made up for the weather.

The outstanding section of the programme was Ukraine: The Great Experiment. In the late 1920s the relative autonomy afforded the Ukraine within the Soviet Union also applied to its film body, VUFKU [All-Ukrainian Film Committee}. This enabled a series of avant-garde and politically complex films to be produced; both by Ukrainian filmmakers and by ‘exiles’ from the centre like Dziga Vertov. We were treated to nine features from this period, including famous classics directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Arsenal (1929) and Earth (Zemlya 1930). But what was such a treat was the quality of the other [to me unknown] Ukrainian films. There was exciting use of Soviet montage and powerful dramatic stories and characters. And in a period when filmmakers working in Moscow were finding their horizons shrinking the politics of these films were critically exciting. Two films in particular impressed me. Two Days (Dva Dni 1927) directed by Heorhii Stabovyi and photographed by Danylo Demutskyi. This was a father / son story set during the 1917 – 1921 Civil War. It had great intensity and a combination of montage and expressionist lighting which was immensely powerful.  The second was the most entertaining of the new films this year, The Self-Seeker (Shkurnyyk 1919). It was directed by Mykola Shpykovskyi, who earlier was the screenwriter and co-director [with Vsevolod Pudovkin) of Chess Fever (Shakhmatnaya goryachka, 1925). Sequences in this film are just as funny as the earlier classic short. The Self-Seeker of the title in a petit bourgeois caught up in the Civil War conflict. But the star of the film is an unaccredited camel, a great performance and an inspired metaphor for the period.

We also had a both a Ukrainian film and a film set in the Russian federation, Turksib (1929) directed by Victor Turin. The latter records the construction of the Turksib – Siberia railway. It make impressive use construction images and of montage. However, I think it lacks the poetry of Mikhail Kalatosov's Salt for Svanetia (Jim Shuante 1930). Turksib was though the Soviet film that had the greasiest influence on the British documentarists in the 1930s. There were other Soviet films, always a good sign. We saw both the 1920 film version of Gorky’s Mother (Mat, an incomplete film) and the more famous version from 1926 directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. The two versions took rather different approaches to adapting the classic novel, expressing the different social contexts of 1920 and 1926. And we had a programme of Soviet Animation. The range of subjects and styles was impressive. There was Pochta (Post, 1929) a film adaptation of a famous poem about the postal system. This was an avant-garde film which later had a soundtrack added [now lost]. Vintik-Shpintik (The Little Screw 1927) was a delightful political parable about socialist co-operation. And there was Samoyedskii Malchik (Eskimo Boy, 1928, but incomplete) a tale of teenage daring and overcoming archaic traditions.

Mother USSR 1926

Mother USSR 1926

Another fine section of the programme was Sealed Lips: Sweden’s Forgotten Years, 1925 – 1929. The most praised of the Swedish filmmakers in the silent era, Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, left for Hollywood in 1924. This retrospective focussed on the work of directors who continued in the Swedish film industry at a time when it was making strenuous efforts in the international film market. The most famous of these is Gustaf Molander whose 1927 film Sealed Lips (Förseglade Läppar) contributed the title of the programme. The film’s plot bears some resemblance to the later Intermezzo (1936) though it is more melodramatic d includes a convent setting. There were projection problems with two of the 35mm prints: unfortunately this included Flickan I Frack (The Girl in Tails, 1936). Directed by Karin Swanström, an actress and filmmaker, it had a feminist story line, which seems quite contemporary. There was some striking location sequences across the films: examples of Swedish cinema’s ability to use natural setting and landscape to great effect. The final film in this programme was really interesting, the Swedish version of the British/Swedish co-production A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929), titled Fängen N:R 53 (Convict 53). This version is remarkably different from the UK release, which has a famous sequence set in a cinema screening a ‘talkie’ and using a now lost early experiment in sound. The Swedish print eschews any use of the newly arrived technology, and follows a linear plot without flashbacks. It seems unlikely that the British director Anthony Asquith was responsible to the Swedish version, but it was not clear from the notes who might have been.

Special Events including the opening film, Blancanieves (2012), that is, a C21st Silent). Also the closing film Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), accompanied by a score by Carl Davis. This is not Lloyd’s best film, though it has some very funny sequences, which work well with an appreciative audience. But it does have a very conventional ending which subverts any satirical intent. Notably Harold ignores the sensible advice of his girlfriend Peggy (Jobyna Ralston). The most publicised special event was the premiere of a long-lost film made by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Co. Too Much Johnson (1938). This was made up of three short sequences which were designed to accompany a performance in 1938 of the play of the same name. Unfinished and never seen this was a unique event. The actual film was interesting rather than impressive, but it does prefigure some of Welles’ later cinematic work. A sequence among a pile of wooden crates could be related to both Citizen Kane (1941) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947). It would be most interesting to screen the films as part of a performance of the original late C19th play.

Joseph Cotten in Too Much JohnstonUS 1938

Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnston US 1938

The most distinctive event was a performance by a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka. The Benshi accompanied silent Japanese film with a dynamic narration, [usually without any title cards]. Ichiro accompanied three films: a shortened version of a samurai feature Chikemuri Takatanobaba (Blood-Splattered Takanobaba, 1927). Chokon (Unforgettable Grudge, 1926) survives only in one reel. This depicts a desperate fight by samurai  Kazuma whilst his younger brother flees with the heroine Yukie. There were some noteworthy camera shots, including one that seemed to prefigure Mizoguchi: I thought of Sansho the Bailiff  (Sansho Dayu, 1954), my friend of The Crucified Lovers (Chikamatsu Monogatari, 1954). The feature was Otome Shirizu Sono Inchi Hanamonogatari Fukujuso (The Scent of the Pheasant’s Eye 1935). The title scent of the pheasant’s eye comes from a plant, which symbolises the intense relationship between a pair of sisters-in-law. The film is taken from a story by a lesbian writer, Nobuko Yoshiya, involved in a contemporary feminist movement. Whilst the feelings between the two women are suggested rather than made explicit the mise en scéne and the characterisation by the two actresses [Naomi Egawa as Kaoru and Mitsue Hisamatsuas Miyoko] generates a strong sense of passion.

Ichiro’s narration bought a similar dynamism to the accompaniment, which also featured John Sweeney on the piano. The films had English subtitles, since trying to translate a Benshi would seem an intimidating task. It takes a little while to adjust to this rather different approach to ‘silent’ film, but it brings a powerful new dimension.

Pheasant's Eyes Japan 1935

Pheasant’s Eyes Japan 1935

The Canon Revisited, now in its fifth year, featured the aforementioned Mother and Turksib. There was also the Paramount 1928 feature, Beggars of Life, directed by William Wellman. We were more fortunate that UK audiences, as we had the George Eastman House 35mm print. The film stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, all ‘on the road’ or the rail. Wellman had experiences similar to those of the ‘road kids ‘ in the film. There is a strong social context, as in Wellman’s later sound film Wild Boys on the Road (1933). And there are some fine open-air sequences, and a powerful if predictable ending.

Early Cinema was represented in two programmes. The Joly-Normandin camera system was patented in 1896. Its distinctive feature was five perforations per image. A whole series of films were produced for the system between 1896 and 1898, since it could only project its own films. We watched over fifty short films from different European archives, all on 35mm. This was also true of a selection from The Corrick Collection from the Australian Film Archive: all relatively short films.

Another discovery [for me] were the films of Gerhard Lamprecht. Filming in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s his features relied on a form of realism and ‘curiosity and human interest’. Childhood and poverty are recurring themes in his films. Thus Die Unehelichen (Children of No Importance, 1926) follows the travails of ‘illegitimate children’ forced into care and foster homes. Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928) deals with the circumstances that force a woman into prostitution. Menschen Untereinander (People Among Each Other, 1926) has the interesting trope of a number of different apartments and residents in a Berlin building. The films are well made with a strong sense of sympathy for the characters caught in poverty and deprivation but the stories do feel overdetermined. And another problem is the recurring victim-hood of women characters. Even in the relatively upbeat People Among Each Other it is the unsympathetic landlady who endures the closing humiliations.

Less successful was a tribute to the Czech actress Anny Ondra; best known for her lead roles in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Manxman (1928) and Blackmail (1929). We saw a selection of her early films produced by the Czech film industry, where she became a star before moving into other European productions. The films had rather undeveloped production values and problematic continuity. Any Ondra’s screen presence was not helped by her wearing ‘Mary Pickford’ style ringlets. There was one moment when the star quality apparent in the Hitchcock films appeared momentarily, but overall we were puzzled about Ondra’s ‘stardom’.

I have to confess that I saw only a little of Mexico: Records of Revolution. The programme was predominately actualities of places, peoples and events in two decades of revolutionary change, [1896 into the teens of the C20th]. However, the early programmes relied on film that was probably not well preserved. All the material I saw had been copied onto DCP, and generally lacked definition and contrast. The whole question of digital versus celluloid continues to be a problem for presenting early film. Peter Rist [of Concordia] reckoned that this year about 60% of the programme was on film. However the digital presentations included quite a substantial number of the features. Pordenone and most of the Archives have now implemented the FIAF specifications on frame rates, which means there was little sign of step printing. However, uniformly the archives were using 2K DCP. Gauging quality is tricky, because the varying factors include the state of the original, the restoration or re-printing process and then the digital transfer. However, having seen an amount of digitally transferred material I think 2K lacks the dynamic contrast of good quality 35mm. There were a number of screenings, especially when the films [like the Soviet features] used extensive chiaroscuro, where areas of the image lacked definition and contrast. It is to be hoped that archives will move onto 4K or above sooner rather than later.

One of the pleasures of Le Giornate is the musical accompaniment. We were missing a couple of the regular accompanist this year, but the main stalwarts of the team were there: Neil Brand, Frank Bockius, Gunther Buchwald, Antonio Coppola, Stephen Horne, John Sweeney and Donald Sosin. . All have developed differing styles but are equally capable of accompanying the films, adding to the story and emotions without distracting from the film itself. This is not a skill that is mastered by all musicians. We also had some new accompanist, including two who had matriculated from the Festival’s Master Class. There were also several visiting musicians who accompanied particular films. I especially liked Marcin Pukaluk’s sound accompaniment to Shkurnyk  and The Port Mone Trio accompaniment to Khlib (Bread, 1930).

The other essential ingredients are the translations of the many different languages on title cards. For the last few years Le Giornate has used digital projection. It seems archives send in DVD copies before the festival and these form the basis for the digital titles. This year it seems that there was a mishap when the wrong DVD was sent for Der geheime Kurier (1928, translated as The Mysterious Messenger) a rather free adaptation of Stendahl’s Le Rouge et le Noir, starring Ivan Mozhukhin. So all we saw was a brief explanatory title but no translation of the German.  However, two festival regulars came to the rescue. Caspar Tybjerg and then Gerhild Krebs [for the bulk of the film] provided an in-auditorium translation as the title cards came and went. This was much appreciated by those of use who are less linguistically skilled. I should also pay a tribute to the Festival interpreter, Margherita Roncaglia. She translates the various speeches and addresses directly and with despatch. And she appears unfazed even when the occasion gets the better of someone and they present her with large blocks of translation.

There was, of course, a lot more than this. This can be seen in the online edition of the Festival Catalogue.

Stills courtesy of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and the contributing Archives.

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Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2013

This was one of the features from the retrospective of Ol’ga Preobraženskaja and Ivan Pravov at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. This Soviet film was both a children’s melodrama and a canine odyssey. I was impressed, as apparently was Ian Christie, who exclaimed ‘excellent’ as he left after the film.
The film was adapted from a story by Anton Chekhov of the same name. The title is the name of the dog who goes astray in the story and who is its main focus. Chekhov describes the dog thus:” A YOUNG dog, a reddish mongrel, between a dachshund and a “yard-dog,” very like a fox in face,…” In the film Kaštanka is a terrier, of the border variety: slightly confusingly the Russian title cards were translated at this screening consistently as ‘mutt’. Whilst the plot relating to Kaštanka is retained in the film the point of view is changed from the dog to that of his owner Fedjuška, son of the carpenter Luka. Most of the film is taken up with the misadventures of Fedjuška, plotting added to that of the written story. Kaštanka and Fedjuška are parted at a Moscow market. Kaštanka, after various travails, is taken up b the clown Georges, a relatively benign and comfortable existence. Fedjuška, out at night searching for Kaštanka, falls in with petty thieves and is forced to become a street performer. Predictably boy and dog are reunited at the resolution. The penultimate sequence is set in a circus, an important setting in early Russian and Soviet films. The sight of his lost pal leads Fedjuška to excitedly call his name. And the dog is then passed from hand to hand by the audience to his welcoming owner. A sequence that recalls similar shots near the end of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate.
The cast are very good and were praised by critics at the time, as was the cinematography. One of the film’s virtues is in the depiction of ordinary working life. The film opens with a series of scenes introducing the main protagonists. These include ‘at home’ evenings with Luka, Fedjuška and Kaštanka with neighbours. There is a warm realism about these scenes. When the story moves into the travails of [in particular] Fedjuška the visual tones changes dramatically. The sequences in a doss-house where Fedjuška is kept captive have an expressionist feel to them. The Festival Catalogue noted that the ‘atmosphere and aspect recall Gor’kij (his drama The Lower Depths) more than Čechov.’ The street scenes of searches, first by Fedjuška and then Luka, are also extremely effective. The film develops a real melodramatic tension and release in its final reel.
Ol’ga Preobraženskaja worked in the specialised genre of children’s’ films in the early part of the 1920s. Apart from the quality of the direction of technical aspects she also seems to have been good with children and animals. Jura Zimin as Fedjuška had already worked with Preobraženkaja on another children’s film Fed’kina Pravda (1925). Jackie, who plays Kaštanka in the film, was a real hit with the public. Apparently he became a ‘full-fledged film star’ in the Soviet Union, eclipsing his Hollywood rival Rin Tin Tin.
Jan Leyda, in Kino A History of Russian and Soviet Film (Third Edition 1983) suggests that the film was well received. However, the Catalogue makes the point that whilst it was approved for both national and international release in 1927, in the 1930s it fell foul of changed times. It notes “the decision by the central Committee in charge of film censorship to ban the film for minors in 1932 for its lack of pedagogical value (“the underclass” [one expects the Soviet censors would have use the more accurate appellation of lumpen-proletariat] is portrayed as evil, lacking in class consciousness and social awareness.”).” By 1927 Preobraženskaja and Pravov had moved onto mainstream adult features with the very successful Baby Rjazanskie (The Women of Ryazan). In that production changes were required both at the stage of scriptwriting and of post-production.

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Hitchcock’s Nine Silent Films

Posted by keith1942 on September 9, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville at work

Alfred Hitchcock directed ten films before the arrival of sound, [including a silent version of the 1929 Blackmail]. Charles Barr discusses these in detail in his excellent English Hitchcock (Movie 1999). And in 2012 the British Film Institute proudly announced the restoration of these nine surviving films, including making them available on both 35mm and DCP formats. In the case of some of these films this meant the feature became a new viewing experience: The Pleasure Garden (1926) now has a coherent plot and takes on the status of a masterful debut for the young director. I have actually seen this film in both the DCP and 35mm versions and I am quite sure that the 35mm print gives greater quality and a better presentation for the film.

However, I have found it extremely difficult to actually see these films in their original format of 35mm. I have asked exhibitors on the occasion of seeing a digital version and it seems that the 35mm format is not available, certainly most of the time. However, the 35mm prints have been seen at several Film Festivals overseas. Il Cinema Ritrovato featured all nine, all on 35mm. At the first screening, The Pleasure Garden, we were informed that “the BFI really wanted to show the films in 35mm” at the Festival. Given the BFI and the National Film Archive are mainly paid for out of the pockets of ordinary British taxpayers I think the BFI needs to review its priorities.

Despite the frequent claims of many distributors and of digital manufacturers there is not an equivalence between 35mm and DCP’s. In the case of modern films, especially when filmed on digital, the benefits are often with digital projection. But for older classics, shot on celluloid and within the technical parameters of that format, it is a different matter.

Early films were predominantly shot in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, though often also in slightly different ratios, for example 1.20:1. 35mm projector have removable plates and when handled by experienced technical staff, it is relatively simple to get the right ratio on the screen. Digital packages come with this function ‘baked in’, i.e. set already in the folders. In fact the image is projected in a 1.85:1 image with masking either side of the frame. However, this masking lacks the density of the projection plates, and unless the blacking masks the frame this can be quite noticeable. Moreover, the ratios are not always correct [though I think the bfi prints are]: I have seen a number of digital projections where the image is slightly cropped – I suspect they sometimes use the standard sound ratio of 1.37:1 instead of 1.33:1, [there is a similar problem with the masking in some cinemas].

Another function ‘baked in’ the folder is the frame rate. When theatrical digital exhibition was introduced the standard rate was 24 fps with no provision for slower rates. But early film was most commonly projected at slower than 24 fps: this can be as low as 16 fps. For 35mm projection the technical staff can set the frame rate. I have been to screenings where the projectionist trailed the print before settling on a rate that looked correct, say 20 fps. There are a couple of ways of ‘adjusting’ digital versions to take account of this. The most common is ‘step-printing’, adding extra frames to allow the faster rate. I have seen projections of Hitchcock’s silent films at rates varying between 18 and 22 fps, which means adding up to six frames for every projection second of the print. FIAF has now introduced specifications for slower rates, between 16 and 24 fps. And it seems that the manufactures have agreed to provide either hardware or software in order to implement these. The problem is, how long will such a transition take. Even at Festivals in 2013 we are still getting DCP versions running at 24 fps.

Then at present nearly all these transfers to digital are being done for 2K packages. There is a lot of argument about what quality approximates to good 35mm projection. However, my experience and readings convince me that it needs to be at least 4K. It is not just pixels versus film grain: there is colour range and resolution and the dynamic contrast. Moreover, whilst this does not apply to the bfi distribution, exhibitors can [and frequently do] use DVD or Blu-Ray for digital screenings. The increasing tendency to less and less information about the formats being used aggravates this.

It is mainly people who patronise UK screens who have funded the BFI and its National Archive. I can understand the kudos for the bfi in screening mint 35mm prints of acknowledged quality films at Festivals. But I do think UK audiences deserve better. I am sure some one will say [or at least think] that the majority does not notice the difference. I am not convinced this is true, but surely to the extent that some people do not discriminate then they are entitled to the opportunity to develop such discrimination. In other areas of the arts there are powerful tendencies for the experience of the actual art object, as originally intended. This is true at the current Promenade Concerts and at galleries like the Tate Modern. It also true in Leeds at the Town Hall concerts and at the Henry Moore Institute, though [unfortunately] the local Assembly Rooms offer live music and DVDs on occasions. I would like the former to be the same for Alfred Hitchcock.

Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

Alan Dwan – The Noble Primitive

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2013

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

The title is the description given to this long-serving Hollywood director for a retrospective at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Dwan worked as a film director in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961 where he worked on hundreds of features. As was often the case in Silent Cinema Dwan progressed to direction partly by accident. Working as a scenario writer in Chicago for the American Film Manufacturing Company he was sent o the newly founded and developing colony of Hollywood. He found a production crew but no director. So began his career.

The retrospective started with four very early one-reel westerns [all 1912], together with a fragment. Presumably they all involved a regular team for production. Certainly Dwan had a stock company of actors – J. Warren Kerrigan, Pauline Bush, and Jack Richardson in the leads with supporting actors. The plots are simple and easily recognisable in the genre. And they mainly rely on title cards that explain the characters and actions depicted on screen.

What strikes one are the women characters: ‘with Bush as the first representative of Dwan’s distinctively self-reliant women, whose unshakeable confidence in matters erotic and romantic is played in contrast to convoluted, inter-generational conflicts among male characters.’

Thus in both The Ranch Girl and Maiden and Men we have ranches run by women.

It should be noted though that these strong female characters are presented within the contemporary social limitations for women. The Maiden and Men has a sort of Madame Bovary style story where a young girl is cured of the influence of romantic literature. The film avoids the bleak ending of the French novel. And in the longest film in this programme, The Thief’s Wife is ‘saved’ from her criminal husband by the town Sherriff.

The ‘intergenerational’ conflicts are notable and effect both men and women. So in the Maiden and Men the central characters are a father and daughter. In Man’s Calling it is a father and son. The latter film has an intriguing use of religion, personified by Friars, presumably Franciscans.

The other striking feature of these early westerns is the style. Dwan has a great liking for framing shots: doorways, windows, barns and so forth. Several people at the Festival suggested that both his style and plotting had some influence on the early John Ford. There is certainly one shot which is prescient of the great closing frame in The Searchers. In The Thief’s Wife, as well as the framing, there is notable use of deep staging. At one point the wife and the sheriff stand by a door in the foreground, whilst in deep background we see the Posse and the pursued husband.

Dwan continued as a master of style and of the western in his later career. The festival also screened the only surviving reel, the opening, of Frozen Justice (1929). Set in the gold rush town of Nome in Alaska the film opened with an impressive tracking shot along a side walk, passing but also pausing before saloons, storefronts and alleys: finally entering a saloon and finishing with dolly shots as the girl singer starts to serenade customers.

Dwan’s silent and sound output included more westerns and the impressive swashbucklers starring Douglas Fairbanks Senior. Late in his career he directed Silver lode for Pinecrest Productions. Starring John Payne this is not only a fine western but also a fairly clear parable on the ongoing McCarthyism of HUAC, from which Hollywood in particular suffered.  The Catalogue quoted Peter Bogdanovich on this filmmaker, commenting ‘The films are about the lives of simple people and their innocence, ordinary and dignified lives reflected with a “profound sense of the essential indomitability and deathlessness of the human spirit.”

Quotations from Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue – programme notes by Dave Kehr and Peter von Bach. Stills courtesy of the Festival.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, US pioneers, Westerns | Leave a Comment »


Posted by keith1942 on August 19, 2013


This 2011 Spanish film is what is called a ‘21st century silent’ and I think it is the best example I have seen of this approach. Shot on Super 16, in black and white and 1.33:1 ratio, it is circulating in the DCP format and in the UK with English-language title cards. It seems the distribution re-creates the mode of silent exhibition with the title cards translated appropriately for each territory: with added subtitles for onscreen language. The latter also explain some particular actions or objects, such as bull-fighting terms, in the film. The film takes the Grimm Brothers fairy tale [titled Little Snow-White] and re-interprets and repositions it as a melodrama set in 1920s Spain. In an excellent review in Sight & Sound (August 2013) Mar Diestro-Dópido comments, “Unlike The Artist’s nostalgic facsimile of a generic, homogenous silent era, however, Blancanieves, was never imagined as a reproduction of that fertile period of film history, but rather as a reinterpretation of it, and a meditation on the origins of film language itself.” Indeed, the silent era was a much richer and varied area of art than a silent pastiche like The Artist suggests. And the review goes on to point out the rich variety of influences from the period that inform this film: Soviet montage, German expressionism, Hollywood Melodrama and [from the limited range I have been able to see] the Spanish silent film itself.

The fairy tale in question is commonly known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The transfer to Spain has transformed the plot into one in which bull fighting is the central focus. At the start of the film we meet Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a famed matador. An accident in the bullring and the death of his young wife Carmen (Macarena Garcia) lead to his marriage to Encarna (Maribel Verdi). Encarna is the ‘wicked stepmother’ of the tale and her victim is Villalta’s daughter Carmencita (also Macarena Garcia), later renamed by a company of bull fighting dwarfs as Blancanieves. The bullfighting arena provides both the dramatic opening and climatic finale of the film. In between the film cleverly reworks the oedipal drama of the fairy tale.

The opening sequence of the film captures the flavour of the silent mode as a series of shots present the empty street of Seville and then the La Colosal bullfighting ring of Seville. The latter relies, as do a number of the settings in the film, on the use of CGI: noticeable but effective enough not to interrupt the developing drama. As in later sequences the filmmaking combines a range of shots including extreme close-ups. There are also recurring and dramatic overhead shots, and at least two 360% dollies, which were probably not technically feasible in silent era. The editing ranges between rather conventional cuts to forward the drama: dramatic cuts that suggest parallels and metaphors: and several short sequences where a torrent of images produces the ‘pathos’ discussed by Eisenstein in relation to Potemkin.

The film is full of motifs and metaphors. The most notable is that of the bullfighting ring: the film uses not just the traditional figures of the matador and picador, but the cape and sword, and [of course] the bull. Dialogue on a title card or specific subtitles explain technical terms. Other motifs and tropes include references for the country and period: there is a knowing scene where Encarna is interviewed and poses for a contemporary fashion magazine, Lectura. Suggestively the vast and dark mansion of Villalta offers a range of gothic references. There is one bizarre sequence, which carried no explanation: family and fans pose with the corpse of Villalta dressed in his Matador finery. This photographic ritual, known as post-mortem photographs, was apparently popular in Victorian times and hung on over into the C20th.

The film is also full of humorous touches: there is a really good in-joke with the company of dwarves, six in number. Encarna enjoys a relationship with the family chauffeur, and there are some witty sequences involving them. The chauffeur in his uniform also suggests an acerbic comment on the post-1920s Spain with its fascist/Franco rebellion and dictatorship. Carmencita has a pet cockerel, Pepé. He is a delightful character, though I should warn viewers that he meets a sad end.

The sound track uses a combination of orchestral and flamenco music. There is a flamenco singer at several points, in one case motivated by the onscreen plot. There are also a range of recorded noises, including clapping and castanets: all would have been possible with the sound technology cinemas in the silent era.

I thought the performances were really good. The melodramatic edge found in silents is there, whilst at the same time avoiding for the most part the sometimes declamatory style. When this appears it offer mainly witty moments in a sometimes dark story. Maribel Verdú as Encarna is particularly wicked and effective. Macarena as both Carmen and Blancanieves is suitably youthful and naïve. Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s character requires a very restrained almost passive performance, but which he does well. The dwarfs are both engaging and offer varied characters, partly recognisable by their clothing: though the one occasion when all their names appear was too short foe me to catch them all. The key character is Rafita (Sergio Dorado) who rescues Carmencita at a crucial point in the plot. The other key member is an elderly dwarf who resents Blancanieves and is antagonistic to her for much of the film. An added pleasure for me was Angela Molina as Dona Concha, the grandmother.

Finally in what is a brave and imaginative change the film offers a beautifully downbeat ending, which also references Todd Browning. This is where the film is at its most expressionist. And the sequence is presented in a finally judged balance between the tragic and the ironic. There are a couple of earlier sequences where I felt that the film did go slightly over the top. There is the coal shed where Blancanieves is housed by her stepmother: really the darkest and grimmest vestibule I have seen in many movies. And the poisoned apple [retained from the fairy tale] is emphasised by the use of CGI: I felt over-emphasised. But in the main this is a delightful 105 minutes. I have seen a number of C21st silents, mainly shorts but also including two features – and this is the best.

The film was the major feature in the opening evening of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013. We saw the Spanish language version with digital titles in English and Italian. There seemed to be a number of minor differences in this version. There were onscreen titles in Spanish to accompany the songs. The explanatory titles for bull-fighting were absent. Intriguingly I am pretty sure one short scene was missing. This during the First Communion sequence for Carmencita. In the English-language version there was a scene in the town square when our heroine glimses a motor car which might belong to her father. I assume this was added to make sure audiences understood what the young girl was experiencing at this moment. Apparently the screening was preceded by a small protest from animal rights activists. Seems they have not seen the film: we don’t see humans killing bulls, we see bulls goring and killing humans. In fact the star bull, Satan, is ‘pardoned’, a mercy regretted by at least one character.

Posted in C21st silents, Spanish silents | Leave a Comment »


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