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La Fille de Delft, Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on August 14, 2014

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

This film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in the programme of  ‘About 100 years ago 1914’. I first saw it in the Il Cinema Ritrovato 1995 retrospective of its director Alfred Machin. Happily we again had a black and white 35mm print from the Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique [the original release had also included a colour version]. And there was a lyrical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Note its English-language title is the non-literal A Tragedy in the Clouds [and a spoiler].

The film is set in Holland and makes extensive use of windmills, something of a Machin motif. The first part of the film centres on two childhood sweethearts, Kate and Jeff.  Kate is the daughter of a miller and Jeff is a shepherd boy. The young actors, presumably non-professionals, offer delightful performances with a rather naïve ambience. There is a village fete with a competition for the best-turned out flower cart – all pulled by dogs. Kate wins the prize, a flower in a pot. This is followed a by a celebratory dance: Kate and Jeff are spotted by an impresario who is taken with their performance.

Then the story turns darker. Kate’s father is killed when the mill is struck by lightning. After the funeral and mourning period Kate is recruited by the impresario to the Coliseum Dance School. As she leaves she gives Jeff the potted flower. At the dance school Kate causes, at first scorn, then admiration for her ethnic style of dance.

The film moves on and Kate is now a famous dancer and star. She returns to her hometown to perform. Jeff, now a man, calls at the theatre to see Kate. But she is taken up with her affluent admirers. There is a notable shot as Kate looks down through a window at Jeff outside and below: and then screws up his letter.

Later Kate is taken on a balloon trip by an admirer. Then a storm arrives with thunder and lighting. The balloon is truck by lightning, catches fire and falls to the ground. Kate is blinded in the accident. Deserted by her admirers, she returns to the village and her mother’s house. A title sums up the conclusion: “Love felt by simple people overcomes the hardest trials.”

The later part of the film is more melodramatic than the opening sequences. And the storm sequence uses some fine aerial shots but also relies on matte shots and effects. But over the film has a natural air, something Machin achieves in his fictional features as well as his documentaries.

The recurring motifs and tropes are noticeable. The mill, establishing both a region but also a dramatic situation – aerial machines – and a happy use of animals that develops throughout his career. Eric de Kuyper comments on the film and its motifs:

“But when it comes to windmills, Machin seems to say, things are different. Windmills aren’t like tulips, which spread across the earth in the opening sequences of La fille de Delft, to show audiences that we are in Holland. There are plenty of picturesque windmills in La fille de Delft (see p. 126) but their repeated appearance throughout the film strikes a mocking, jarring note when compared with the windmill that is struck by lightning and which leads to the death of the miller Petrus at the outset of the film. (The shot in which the miller is shown deep in thought in the twilight in front of the mill seems to prefigure the curse on the windmill. This same device of the windmill’s silhouette against a twilight sky is also used in Le moulin maudit. So Machin gives us no pretty sunsets, only twilights!)”.

(Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker, Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique, 1995). Le moulin maudit is a melodrama from 1909 involving revenge and tragic deaths. It was filmed with stencil colour like Maudite soit la guerre.


Posted in Belgium film | Leave a Comment »

Carbon Arc Screenings

Posted by keith1942 on July 24, 2014


Carbon arc

One of the treats introduced at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2013 was a screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini using a 1930s projector with carbon arc illumination. At one time this technology was the basis of nearly all cinema projection. The sparks jump between carbon rods and produce one of the brightest illuminations in cinema. I spoke to one projectionist who had suffered a slight eye flaw from their brightness. The technology required projectionists to check and maintain the gap between rods – and rods burnt ou relatively quickly. But the illumination is not only bright but produces an image that is fairly faithful to the original, including the distinctive colour palette.

The Ritrovato screenings start about 10 p.m. and the audience can enjoy the image, the atmosphere and the balmy evenings of summer. This year’s were packed, with other members standing round in the shadows. The screen is framed between trees and the projector not only illuminates this screening but also sends a small beam vertically up above the projector. There is a moment of anticipation as the projector is ‘fired up’ and then the audience swivels from looking behind to looking in front as the film image is revealed.

On the Wednesday evening we had La Princesse Mandane (1928), part of a retrospective of films directed by Germaine Dulac. The film was commercially funded and adapted from a novel by Pierre Benoit. Dulac, of course, is really thought of as an avant-garde filmmaker and an early example of a director who could be labelled ‘feminist’. I suspect it was the disparity between these two forms that made the film less than effective for me. It is well produced and there are some imaginative scenes, especially in a long dream sequence. However, this dream world runs for over 50 minutes of the films 74 minutes running time. I found it padded out with sequences that neither forwarded the narrative nor developed the characters. The Catalogue comments that “The image of the princess – the mise en scène of her femininity – is the object of a masculine fantasy….”

Which is accurate. But this did not seem to generate much critical interrogation of such a ‘male gaze’. Still this was a wonderful way to watch the film. And there was an excellent accompaniment at the piano by Stephen Horne, who added a few other instruments in his inimitable manner.

The Thursday evening saw us back in the courtyard for Sangue Bleu (1914), part of a programme of films directed by Nino Oxilia. But the focus of the film was the silent star and diva Francesca Bertini. She is certainly one of the three major artists of the Italian diva era. Here she was working for Celio Film, but she went on to produce her own films. As is the case in diva films, the mise en scène privileges the star, but also provides an opulent and dramatic range of settings as she emotes, most frequently in the tragic mode. The Catalogue comments that

“Elena (Bertini) appears / disappears, emerges / vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light…”

The plot, which is fairly conventional has an aristocratic wife and mother dumped by her husband and then misused and abused by a series of male characters. Meanwhile the princess struggles to retain and care for her daughter. This is great, over-the-top melodrama, which works partly because of the presence of Bertini. The accompaniment by Daniele Furiati matched the onscreen drama. And the ambience of the occasion was magical.


Posted in French film 1920s, Italian film, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

Maudite soit la Guerre / [Damn the War!], Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on July 10, 2014

Maudite soit la guerre still

This was a film programmed in ‘Lay Down Your Arms! Pacifism and War 1914 – 1918’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. A restored version of the same film was shown as part of a retrospective of the director Alfred Machin at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Before then Machin was an almost forgotten film pioneer who worked in the Belgium, Dutch and French film industries. That year we enjoyed some thirty films directed by Machin, from shorts to full-length features. Between 1908 and 1931 Machin directed, and often scripted, a wide variety of films that fell into many different genres and into both fictional features and documentaries. Eric de Kuyper produced a bi-lingual study of Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker [French and English], that was published by he Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique together with the Cineteca del Commune di Bologna, (1995).

Maudite soit le Guerre is an anti-war melodrama. Whilst the plot does not identify the countries involved the characters’ names, dress and setting suggest Belgium/France versus Germany. Adolph (Baert) comes to train as an aviator and becomes friendly with Sigismond and his family, and romantically involved with his sister Lidia (La Berni). Then war breaks out and the friends find themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Predictably they arrive at the same spot on a battlefield – an old windmill. Both die, but the film continues to the point where Lidia learns of the death of Adolph. The films end in a fairly downbeat manner.

Mariann Lewinsky, who programmed the 1914 series at the Festival, commented that in Machin’s films windmills often accompany death – as in this film. There was another example in La Fille de Delft (A Tragedy in the Clouds) a film directed by Machin in 1914. We also had an earlier example of the destruction of a windmill, where the mise en scène crossed over strikingly with Maudite …..

When I saw the film in 1995 it was restored to a 35 mm print, including the Pathé stencil colours, and the tinting and toning. It was the lustrous colours in particular that I remembered from then.

Nicola Mazzanti comments in the Festival Catalogue

… the chromatic composition of Maudite soit la guerre is constructed around the leitmotiv of two pastels, understated colours, the pink of the geraniums in the girl’s villa and the variations of brown (from terra die siena to ochre) of the uniforms and the battlefield, with the reds of the explosions providing the counterpoint.

For 2014 more digital work was done to ‘bring back the subtlety of those unbelievable pinks and browns’. Memory is not always reliable, but the DCP projected in the Piazza Maggiore looked rather as I remembered the 35 mm print. Unfortunately it did not run as smoothly as the celluloid. After about 40 minutes, as we started the final camera reel, the DCP ‘stuck’! The audience sat there uncertain. Gabriel Thibaudeau at the piano, who provided a fine accompaniment and who was approaching his climatic flourish, appeared stunned. Alas that was it for the evening. When I inquired later in the week it seemed that the digital box was still ‘stuck’. We may enjoy a repeat screening next year – can we revert to 35mm?

Fortunately I did have a fairly good memory from the 1995 screening. There is a scene where Lidia recognises a medallion given to Adolph. This was followed by a dream sequence, which had the finest use of colours in the whole film. And the ending is in a Convent. The film does develop as powerful anti-war stance, though it fails [as do most anti-war films] to address the actual circumstances of the 1914 conflict: [that is imperialist rivalry not events in Sarajevo].

I suppose the only positive aspect of a digital version is that it will probably circulate more widely. This is definitely a film to see when the opportunity arises. And Machin’s other works are also worth looking out for.


Posted in Belgium film, war and anti-war films | Leave a Comment »

An Italian Straw Hat / Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Rene Clair 1927

Posted by keith1942 on June 4, 2014


This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce from 1851.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema (Sight & Sound November 2013):

“Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.“

All of the director’s silent films were screened at the 2007 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a programme entitled René Clair: Le silence est d’or. The Festival Catalogue included notes on Clair and the films by Lenny Borger. He pointed out that for many years Clair’s reputation rested on a series of early sound films, including Le Million and A nous la liberté. Clair himself was often dismissive of some of his earliest films. In fact he developed his skills in a series of silent films which stand up very well today. Clair started out as a journalist, and then took up screen acting.  His first directorial outing was Paris Qui Dort (Sleeping Paris, 1924). Filmed in the summer of 1923 this is an early science fiction drama, running just over an hour. A mad scientist’s ray turns Paris into a frozen city of sleep. The only six characters awake embark on a surrealist trip round the city. The film is full and witty an innovative techniques and situations. It presents the delight of a young filmmaker with the magic of the new medium.

Entra'cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entra’cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entr’acte (i.e. intermission) is Clair’s famous film experiment from 1924. Clair was working as editor of the cinema section of the arts magazine Le Théâtre-Comoedia Illustré and was involved with avant-garde artists such as the Dadaists. The film was to fill the interlude in a new Ballet, Relâche, by Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Entr’acte, which runs for just on twenty minutes, is another ensemble of cinematic techniques, much of it down to the cinematographer Jimmy Berliet. The official plot has a group of mourners chasing a runaway hearse.

Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was released in 1925. It had been made whilst Clair was working on Entr’acte and produced by Films René Fernand. It was a fantasy film mixing comedy and melodrama. It is full of the recognisable techniques and tricks in Clair’s first two films. The plot is quite complicated but ends in another dramatic chase. The standout sequence is set in the Moulin Rouge where the fantasy elements commence. Designer Robert Gys created the setting with great skill in the studio. The Giornate screening used a British print from the National Archive, which, surprisingly, is longer than the surviving French print.

Le Voyage Imaginaire (1925) was commissioned by ballet impresario Rolf de Maré to star his lead performer Jean Borlin. Like its predecessors this is a fantasy film, this time with the hero’s fantasy in a dream form. The sets by Robert Gys were again impressive, but the film did not really work effectively. It flopped and undermined the growing reputation Clair had established with his first three films. It also closed off a film career for Borlin.

Clair was then recruited to work for Films Albatros and his first production for them; La Proie du Vent was both a critical and commercial success. This launched the partnership with producer Alexandre Kamenka and designer Lazare Meerson. The plot follows a fantastic adventure romance set in the sort of Mittel-Europe revisited recently in Grand Budapest Hotel.  The film also starred the British actress Lilian Hall-Davis.

Clair’s follow-up film was Un Chapeau de Paile D’Italie. His last silent feature was Les Deux Timides (1928). This was a comedy by one of the authors of The Italian Straw Hat Eugène Labiche. The C19th play focuses on two shy male protagonists pursuing romantic interests with difficulty. Clair updated the play to the present and added characters and additional scenes.

His last silent was a documentary short, La Tour (1928) of the Eiffel Tower.

1929 onwards saw the arrival of the news sound cinema. Alexandre Kamanka’s Albatros Film was a casualty as the producer re-joined forces with his erstwhile Russian colleagues at the Billancourt Studio. Clair went to work at the Tobis Paris Studios, part of a conglomerate involving the Tobis and the Klangfilm Sound Companies. He retained the services of Art Designer Lazare Meerson and directed some of the outstanding early sound films including A nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931) and Le Million (1931).



An Italian Straw Hat follows the travails of Fadinard (Albert Préjean) on his wedding day. An accident with the Italian straw hat of Anais Beauperthuis (Olga Tschekowa), caught in a compromising position with her lover Lieutenant Tavernier (Vital Geymond), upsets the carefully planned celebratory events. Fadinard, a bourgeois, is joining hands with Hélène, daughter of petit bourgeois Yvonneck. The comedy opens in the Yvonneck home, and in increasingly farcical situations, takes in the streets, Fadinard’s apartment, the Town Hall, and the home of Beauperthuis. Some of the comedy is delicate and recurring, two important props are a pair of gloves and a pair of shoes. Family, guests and others are often subject of misapprehensions and, importantly, not all of these are dispelled by the resolution. The actions involving the Lieutenant become increasingly bizarre and the coup de grace is presented with great flair.

Clair and his production team appear to have caught the milieu of the 1890s with real skill. What adds immeasurably to one’s pleasure is that the film recreates the sense of the cinema of the 1890s as well. Most of the exteriors are actually studio based, but are extremely convincing. The seemingly random passing dogs, ubiquitous in early film, contribute to this sense of authenticity. Once the straw hat has suffered its fate the comedy develops and becomes ever more emphatic.

The film was screened in a fairly good 35mm print recently at the National Media Museum. We enjoyed a fine accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. The print, from the British Film Institute archive, was 6,626 feet whilst the original release was 7,320 feet in length. The projection speed for the film’s premiere was recorded, 19 fps. This gives about eleven minutes difference in running times between the two versions. Apparently the UK release in 1930 had about a reel removed. There does not seem to be a record of what was cut, and not all the elisions in the film are clear. There are though two noticeable differences. During the ceremony of the Town Hall Fadinard imagines the Lieutenant wreaking havoc in his apartment. About half of this sequence is missing, the most dramatic part where Clair uses stop-motion effects: also seen in his earlier experimental films. Later when Fadinard visits Monsieur Beauperthuis he recounts the original accident, presented visually as a melodramatic stage version. All of this has been removed. In both cases the UK distributor seems to have removed the most unconventional treatment in the sequences. They presumably thought even then that English audiences like their ‘realism’. Darius also noticed that a couple of title cards were missing in the shorter version. These also relate to the sequences at the apartment of Monsieur Beauperthuis. In this case the distributor appears to have misunderstood the visual signal Clair adds for the audience at this point. In fact one can work out the sense of the sequence from the remaining visual sign. One other brief scene cut is an image of a priest and marital couple as Fadinard explains his situation to the Lieutenant. The oddity here is that there are two such inserts, but only one has been removed.

The continuity of the film remains in the shorter version, as does most of the comedy. Unfortunately the two main sequences that have been cut, Fadinard’s imaginings at the Town Hall and his presentation of Monsieur Beauperthuis, are among the highlights of the film. However An Italian Straw Hat remains one of the finest of the silent era’s comedies. It is certainly equal to the great filmic comedies made in Hollywood in the 1920s. Clair has a great comic touch and his filmic style, together with excellent production support, is always a pleasure. Whilst this film is the peak of his work in the 1920s the other features from that decade are certainly worth seeking out.

Posted in French film 1920s, Silent Comedy | 2 Comments »

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.


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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.



The Epic of Everest was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014 in the ‘Recovered and restored’ section. The film was screened in a 35mm print at 20 fps. The Catalogue notes that “The prints were scanned at a resolution of 4K using a wet gate to eliminate scratches and a novel technique was developed to scan selected scenes using individual colour LED’s to compensate for deterioration of the blue toning and the severe mould damage.” There was no mention of variable camera speeds, which certainly seemed the case when I saw the digital version and which affected the step printing for the DCP.

This is another example of the BFI transporting 35mm prints thousand of miles for a Festival, whilst they seem unwilling to transport the film a couple of hundred miles for indigenous audiences. And I am pretty sure that the DCP circulated in the UK was only 2K.

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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