Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Abwege / Crisis /|(The Devious Path), 1928

Posted by keith1942 on August 14, 2018

This film was part of the Weimar Programme at the 2018 Berlinale. It is a film directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst. He is one of the noted directors of the 1920s silent German films. His films frequently address the position of women and are downbeat often using the chiaroscuro found in Expressionist films. However, Pabst films are closer to the ‘street’ genre, relatively realist and set amongst the lower classes, even the lumpen proletariat. He had a particular command of continuity editing and his films are full of very effective transitions.

Abwege was made in between The Love of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney, 1927 ), a melodrama with a strong anti-Bolshevik plot and Pandora’s Box (Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929), Pabst’s most famous film with the iconic Louise Brooks as the ‘earth spirit’ adapted from the infamous plays by Franz Wedekind.

Abwege, which had a change of title just before release, was apparently made quickly. The Production Company Erda-Film GmbH, Berlin was part of Deutsche Universal-Film. [GmbH – Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung is German for “company with limited liability”]. This was the Hollywood studio’s investment arm in Germany. US capital had to bail out German film-making in the late 1920s after the crisis exemplified by the losses made on UFA’s Metropolis (1926). This film was a requirement to fulfil the quota obligations in favour of German productions.

Irene (Brigitte Helm) is married to ambitious lawyer Thomas Beck (Gustav Diessl). He neglects her and she is left alone at their affluent home [with servants] for much of the time. Her friend Liane (Herta von Walther) is a much more liberated woman with a free and easy life style. After a quarrel with Thomas Irene goes out into the Berlin night life [without wearing her wedding ring]. Pabst had a flair for depicting the decadent social life of Berlin [alongside his representations of the life of the poorer classes]. At the night club we see dancing, flirting, easy morals and drug taking. Dazzled and determined to exert her identity Irene first essays an affair with her and Liane’s friend, a painter,Walter (Jack Trevor). But he turns out to lack the backbone for an extra-marital affair. Then Irene takes up with a boxer but she narrowly avoids rape at his hands. Thomas, by this time, fully aware of Irene’s dalliances opens divorce proceedings. However, in a surprise twist, we get an upbeat romantic ending; though one that is as unlikely as those found in Hollywood studio films.

The screenplay from an idea by Franz Schultz and written by Adolf Lantz, Ladislaus Vajda and Helen Gosewisch, is excellent. The plot advances at a pace, the characters are well delineated and the film moves easily between the bourgeois world of Thomas Beck and the equally bourgeois but less respectable world of Berlin social life. Both the settings by Otto Erdmann and Hans Sohnle and the costumes (uncredited) are finely done. The cinematography by Theodor Sparkuhl captures these and the characters beautifully. There are some fine angles and dolly shots in the night-club sequences and what looks like a hand-held camera. The film was tinted for its release, a practice less common in this period but which works well. And Pabst himself, with Mark Sorkin, edited the film. The cutting between the different sets and the different spaces is really good and the film moves with a fine rhythm.

Brigitte Helm, who famously played Maria and her robotic alternative in Metropolis, is convincing as Irene and in the costumes and décor she looks exquisite. Gustav Diessl, who played a complete opposite Pandora’s Box, is good as the ambitious but negligent husband. He and Helm have some fine scenes where the marital conflict plays out, both suggesting the contradictory nature of their feelings. And I liked Herta von Walther as the world-wise Liane. All the cast enjoy the expensively styled costumes that adorn this privileged circle.,

The film remains less risqué than it seems and far more moral than most of the dramas that Pabst directed in the 1920s. In a sense the plot is a little tease that both panders to a voyeuristic interest in misbehaviour but finally returns to the moral fold of the bourgeoisie.

The film had been restored in the 1990s and now transferred to a 2K DCP. This was well done and the film looked great, even in this format. The tinting on this version was well judged, fitting nicely with the black and white cinematography and avoiding the over-saturated look sometimes found in tinted digital files.. The accompaniment was by a young pianist, Richard Siedhoff, making his first appearance at the Festival. He provided an excellent score and I am sure he will be back.,

Advertisements

Posted in German film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Pina Menichelli , ‘The apogee of the Diva film’.

Posted by keith1942 on August 10, 2018

Two films starring Pina Menichelli were screened at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato where we enjoyed this programme which included films and extracts also featuring Francesca Bertini and Lyda Borelli.

Pina Menichelli was born in Sicily into a theatrical family and started out in a stage career. She started in films in 1913 at the Roman studio of Società Italiana Cines. She achieved stardom in 1915 with the director Giovanni Pastrone in The Fire (1915, Il fuoco) for Itala. She became a popular actor both at home and abroad and her persona came embody the idea of the femme fatale. In 1919 she moved to Rinascimento Films and remained popular, despite the decline in the diva genre, until her retirement in 1924.

As is the case with other Italian films and other diva films, many are lost. We enjoyed two, an incomplete one-reel film and an incomplete feature, originally of 1800 metres.

The shorter film was from 1915, though there were not complete details. The Uncontrollable / Das Unbezwingliche was possibly a title made for Cines. It presented, alongside Menichelli, Augusto Poggioli (Mirko) and Roggiero Barni (Vilna). Both these actors also appeared in a film with Lyda Borelli in this period. The film might be the same as a title Adrift / Alla deriva from Cines, which could fit the plot and is listed with all three in the cast.

Pina is a gypsy who is an outsider in a hamlet or village. Near the opening we see her involved in a fight with another woman and the village women set upon her. She leaves with her brother, who is only seen briefly. She arrives at the estate of Vilna where she is taken on but it would seem soon ascends from servant to mistress. She comes into conflict with the steward Mirko, who both disapproves of her but he also worries about the effect on his master. Vilna seems to have a heart problem or other serious ailment. Pina’s ‘uncontrollable’ behaviour upsets him and he finally succumbs. We last see Pina once more ‘adrift’ in the countryside. Menichelli’s passionate portrayal occasions the comment ,

“She swallows flower because it is the most natural way to celebrate them. When eating an apple, she rubs it against her cheek like the caress of a lover.” (Andrea Menghelli in the Festival Catalogue).

The film follows the common conventions of the period but there are quite a number of mid-shots and close-ups of Pina. Menichelli is very effective as the truculent outsider but also as a peasant fatale. The film runs for eleven minutes, presumably at 16 fps. There are clearly missing shots but the bulk of the plot survives. The film, copied onto a DCP, had German titles with English translation.

The feature-length film was an Itala production and directed by Gero Zambuto with some input from Giovanni Pastrone. The film was adapted from a prose piece in three acts by the prolific French author Alexandre Dumas.

“At the end of World War 1, Itala Film adapted Dumas’ story, keeping the patriotic theme in the background to create a stage for the actress’s dramatic uninhibited ‘Menichelli’ mannerisms.” (Claudia Gianetto in the Festival Catalogue).

The film seems to follow the original plot but the emphasis has shifted. In the Dumas the central drama concerns an invention by Claude Ripert of

‘a vehicle able to exterminate in a few minutes thousands of men’. [plot summary].

In the film it is the infidelities of Cesarina (Menichelli) the wife of Claudio (Vittorio Rossi-Pianelli). The film opens at a party where Cesarina playfully provokes her circle of admirers. But Claudio is not only an inventor, he is a staid and moral husband. As the film progresses more and more of Cesarina’s infidelity come to light. There is an abandoned child, housed with a working class family, to whom Claudio gives support; though the child dies. There is a possible abortion. And late in the film Cesarina is planning to flee the marriage with a .lover. Menichelli is magnificently immoral. Man are their for her satisfaction. She treats her husband with contempt but when necessary vamps him.

This last occurs when Cesarina’s latest lover is actually in the pay of a circle of foreign agents trying to steal Claudio’s invention. Cesarina is pressurised into attempting to steal the plans of the weapon, which Claudio claims

“aims to destroy war!”

Cesarina now vamps Claudio’s close friend and apprentice Antonino (Alberto Nepoti). Despite Claudio’s warnings Cesarina succeed. But, whilst stealing the plans from the safe,

“Cesarina is betrayed and unmasked by the light of a ‘damned moon’.: then Claudio stops her with a gunshot. Menichelli rewards us with a textbook ending; mortally wounded, she grasps the curtains sensuously before falling to the floor enveloped in their folds, as if wrapped in a funeral shroud.” (Festival Catalogue).

In fact this is not quite the ending. We see Claudio with Antonio return to the workshop, replace the rifle he used to shoot Cesarina, and apparently happily continuing with their research. Even by the standards of the conventional nemesis of an unfaithful wife this seems extreme. It would appear to be fuelled by the power of Menichelli’s portrayal of the amoral but passionate woman,

The film suffers from censorship: something that dogged a number of Menichelli films.

“In 1918 La moglie de Claudio (Claudio’s wife) was banned from cinemas b y the Italian Censorship Board because Menichelli was “troppo … affascinante!” (too fascinating!) in the film.”(from Redi, Riccardo (1999). Cinema Muto Italiano (1896-1930)).

Menichelli’s performance is powerful and is it emphasised by the frequent use of close-ups as she toys with the male characters. Our first look at Cesarina follows a dissolve from a spider; summing up her persona in one shot. At another point, after Claudio confronts her infidelity, Cesarina gloats,

“He didn’t even beat me.”

There is also a sub-plot, retained from the original.

“two characters, a Jew named Daniel, who has fixed idea to reclaim Jerusalem for his people, and the daughter of Daniel, Rebecca, a sort of mystical visionary .” [plot summary].

This seems to be an early example of Zionism working its way into literature: Eliot’s ‘Daniel Deronda’ (1876). In the film it suggests and undeveloped romance between Claudio and Rebecca.

The film was screened from a 35mm print, about 400 metres shorter than the original. This led to ellipsis in the plot where one had to surmise events. The print was tinted and a nitrate print with French intertitles had been used in completing the Italian intertitles: provided with an English translation.

Antonio Coppola provided the musical accompaniment. And the films enjoyed his dramatic but at times also lyrical piano playing.

Posted in Italian film | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Youth of Maxim / Junost’ Maksima, 1934

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2018

This film was part of the programme ‘Second Utopia: 1934 – The Golden Age of Soviet Sound film’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 32 edition . The Catalogue introduction did not explain the use of ‘Utopia’ but did offer the following;

“1934 was the first year of relative political freedom in the USSR and, consequently, a year of perfect harmony in the Soviet film history. Film-makers seemed to have finally obtained a balance between high artistic standards, the box office and the authorities.”

The quotation is possibly correct about the competing factors in film-makers. And 1934 was a year which saw a large number of films using sound effectively. As in China and Japan the switch to sound films came later than in the advanced capitalist countries in the west; silent films were produced right through the 1930s and silent versions of sound films were made as well. When sound installation arrived it appeared in the cinemas in major urban areas but more slowly in rural areas. Against that is the increasing influence of what was known as ‘Soviet Socialist realism’: a form that Jean-Luc Godard rightly dubbed a part of the ‘Hollywood-Mosfilm axis’. Such ‘realism’ relied predominately on continuity editing, linear narratives and key leading characters with a rounded psychology. However, not all Soviet films suffered from this conventionality. The Great Consoler (Velikii utesshitel, 1933) directed by Lev Kuleshov from a novel by O. Henry used somewhat primitive sound imaginatively and offered an eccentric narrative. Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs of Lenin (Tri psni o Leninye, 1934), [not in the programme], was produced in both silent and sound versions, and utilised the notable montage found in Vertov’s earlier films. Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy,1938) may have offered some of the traits of ‘socialist realism’ with its linear narrative and key leading characters but at the best moments in the film Sergei Eisenstein [the director] uses many of his varied ‘montage techniques’.

Happily this work, scripted and directed by Grigorij Kozincev and Leonid Trauberg, has as much eccentricity as in their FEKS (Fabrika Ekstsentricheskogo Aktera) films. The film was the first part of a trilogy following the career of a young militant who joins the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party [Bolsheviks] , his political development and his involvement in the proletarian struggles against the Tsarist autocracy.

The film opens with a prologue set in 1910 on New Year’s Eve and the film is introduced by the celebrations. At the same time revolutionaries are continuing their struggle whilst pursued by the Tsarist police. Here we meet two key characters, both at this stage unnamed; Polivanov (Michail Tarchanov), a leading revolutionary with several aliases; and Nataša/Natasha (Valentina Kibardina), a younger woman comrade.

With the main plot line we meet three comrades, Andrej (Aleksandr Kulakov), Dëma/Dyomo (Stepan Kajukov), and Maksima/Maxim (Boris Čirkov). The three live in a quarter of Petersburg and work in a nearby metal factory. Despite workers’ complaints the safety standards are lax and Andrej is injured at a machine and subsequently dies. Following another accident there is a large demonstration by the factory workers. Set upon by the police both Maxim and Dyomo are arrested. Later Dyomo is executed along with four other agitators. Maxim is imprisoned with Polivanov who begins his education in revolutionary theory and practice. A title informs the viewers that Maxim ‘went to University’.

Maxim receives a banning order covering major cities and urban centres. We next see him fishing on the bank of a river. In fact he is a lookout for a Bolshevik meeting in the woods. But the meeting is raided by police and soldiers. Polivanov, who leads the meeting and starts by reading a letter from Lenin, is wounded in the chase. But Maxim escapes and is hidden by railway workers. Later her rives at Natasha’s house where she is passing as an innocent young woman. With another comrade they prepare a leaflet. Maxim takes over the dictation of the leaflet, a demonstration that he has developed into a leading Bolshevik comrade. A following title informs the viewers

‘That is how Maxim’s youth finished’.

An epilogue follows and we see Maxim and Natasha hand-in-hand. Then he leaves on party work, striding out across an open landscape. The following two films in the trilogy, The Return of Maxim (Vozvrashcheniye Maksima, 1937) and New Horizons (Vyborgskaya storona, 1939), follow the later career of Maxim.

The film is an impressive tour de force though the style is uneven. The film displays the limitation of dealing with early sound. The sequences with extended dialogue are clearly shot in a studio with a fairly static camera and a pedestrian feel. This contrasts greatly with the other sequences of the film. There are numerous sequences shot on location, mainly in Leningrad. The prologue opens with a dazzling race by citizens celebrating New Year’s Eve and racing through the snow in horse drawn sledges. Several exhilarating tracks are followed by side on pans and the wholes sequence invokes a dynamic sense. The accompanying music, easily recognisable as by Shostakovich, adds to the air of exhilaration.

Other location work also opens up the film. There are sequences set in a factory which have the visual feel found in the classic silent films. There is an impressive open-air sequence for the funeral of Andrej. And following this there is the workers’ demonstration and the attack on this by mounted soldiers. This is an action packed sequence with real élan.

Not all the studio sequences have a static feel. There are a number of evening and night-time exteriors with a strong stylised lighting which offer an expressionist feel. And the location work and the studio sets are intercut for most of the film very effectively. For the majority of the film the muscular accompaniment is played on an accordion. This moves in and out of the diegesis. When diegetic the musician is part of the on-screen action and one could suppose that this might apply to all the accordion music in the film. And the characters break into song at several points in the narrative.

So this is an extremely well made film. Much of the style recalls the great work in Trauberg and Kozincev’s silent films, notably The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon , 1929). The cinematography by Andrej Moskvin is finely done. And this applies equally to the editing by Anna Ruzanova and the Design by Egenij Enej.

Trauberg and Kozincev’s script strikes a happy balance between the more avant-garde approach found in Soviet montage and the more conventional narratives that follow from ‘socialist realism’. Thus we have a linear narrative, but one which frequently slides away from the main plot line. Apart from the notable style in exteriors and some of the studio work we get sequences such as the when Maxim is photograph and measured by the prison authorities. The partly grotesque style imposed on Maxim recalls the eccentricity of FEKS from the 1920s.

It is also there in the catheterisation; M\maxim is played by Boris Čirkov who is something of a comedian. He brings a youthful jollity to his role which is shared by his two companions early in the film and later by Valentina Kibardina as Natasha. The Catalogue suggests that

The revolutionaries aren’t half as memorable as the policemen, stool-pigeon, prostitutes, jail guards”

Not exactly true but some of the more pedestrian scenes are those that present the political values upheld by the revolutionaries in the film. But overall the young Bolsheviks come across not just as heroes but recognisably sympathetic characters. Whilst the minor reactionary characters are interesting those from the upper echelons of the oppressing classes are rather like the villainous figures of the silent era.

The programme also included other films from 1934 including Čapaev (Chapaiev, 1934) which was a great success. The Catalogue notes

Junost’ Maksima came out just a few months after Čapaev. The film was very popular. But not quite as much as Čapaev. It was argued ,many time that, had it been released earlier, Junost’ Maksima would have gained firs place… Junost’ Maksima ended up being a complex, aesthetically challenging oeuvre. Too complex and challenging to reach the popularity of Čapaev.”

The last point is probably true but the fact that it was popular suggests a more complex interaction between films, audience, form and content that the debate on ‘socialist realism’ often suggests.

Posted in Early sound film, Soviet Film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Carbon Arc at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato

Posted by keith1942 on July 5, 2018

One of the real pleasures at this archive festival are the screening sin the Piazzetta Pasolini sourced from 35mm prints and projected from a 1930s Prevost 35mm carbon arc machine. There is always a great moment when the projectionist ‘fires up’ the machine and a shaft of light beams upwards into the night sky. The Piazzetta is full of light and shadows and then the image appears on the screen. This rare pleasure fills the courtyard with people, early ones sitting, later ones standing or using makeshift furniture.

This year we had three evening screening, attesting to the growing popularity of the event. The screening were part of a retrospective to the work of the cinema of Naples and the film-maker Elvira Notari. With her husband Nicola, and their company Dora Films, she was an important producer and director in Neapolitan silent cinema, working from 1910 right into the 1920s. Only three films and fragments survive from her output of about sixty films. The programme was also a tribute to Vittorio Martinelli who died ten years ago, a passionate student and writer on these films. As in earlier festivals the titles were accompanied by Neapolitan musicians. Making the events event a glorious brew of film, colour and music.

The opening event offered three films accompanied by Antonella Monetti (voice and accordion] and Michele Signore [violin and mandolin], a duo who had accompanied the films when they were screened at an earlier retrospective in Frankfurt. Antonella and Michele regularly accompany Neapolitan films and arrange the music, including traditional Neapolitan songs. We enjoyed the main feature Un Amore selvaggio (19120 which had fine tinting beautifully illuminated by the carbon arc light. The film is a rural drama about class conflict, involving a brother and sister who are increasingly at odds with the landowner for whom they work. There were two compilations of sequences from films by Notari which do not survive in a complete form. These were L’Italia s’è desta (1927) and Fantasia ‘e surdato (1927).

The second event offered a single title, a French film made by an a Russian émigré in Naples in 1925, Naples au Baiser de feu. The accompaniment was by Guido Sodo [Mandolin and voice] and François Laurent [], a duo I have heard before with pleasure. The film followed the doomed romance of a popular singer of the city, but whose life style inhibits his commercial success. The object of his desire is a bourgeois young woman who suffers from a frail constitution. The plot-line, which included a poor girl’s equivalent obsession for the singer, was conventional but done with aplomb. And the film intercut many sequences filmed in the city, including a major festivity. This was tangential to the story but presented Neapolitan life with interest.

I missed the third screening but a friend who attended said that he thought the film fine and really enjoyed the musical accompaniment. The films ere both title by Notari, Napoli sirena delle canzoni (1929) and ‘A Santanotte (1922). The musicians were a five-piece group E Zézi Gruppo Operaio. ‘A Santanotte was another melodrama in a print with the original colours reproduced.

In the 1990s there were several years where we had Neapolitan films with live music in one of the Cortile that are in a Palacio around the Pizza Maggiore.. I remember them vividly now and I am sure that will be true of these events in the Piazzetta. The only experience to rival it is the equally rare opportunity of watching surviving nitrate prints.

Posted in Italian film | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Asunder, Britain 2016

Posted by keith1942 on June 28, 2018

This is a compilation film which offers a distinctive representation of the North-East during World War I. The film’s centre is the Battle of the Somme which provided the key to funding of the production. The première was held in the Sunderland Empire Theatre in July 2016, one hundred years on from the battle. This included live music and [I assume] live commentary. The film marries archive and contemporary film footage with a narration composed of both individual records and media reports.

The film was directed by Esther Johnson, whose work crosses between art and documentary. The film was written by Bob Stanley, a musician, journalist and film-maker. The archive film was researched at the British Film Institute, the Imperial War Museum and at smaller archives in the North East. The voices of the film come from diaries, letters and oral records by a number of individuals living in the North East in or around Sunderland and Newcastle on Tyne. Some are war-time records, some looking back after the war. These were read on the soundtrack by Kate Adie. The media reports, from the ‘Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette’, are read by Alun Armstrong. They are arranged mainly in chronological order but at certain points the film changes to contemporary footage and voices.

I liked the film and found the interwoven stories fascinating. I was pleased that the film, in both black and white and colour, was in 1.33:1 so that the archive film footage was in its proper ratio. The contemporary footage, filmed digitally, fits this. The sound commentary by the two readers works well, interweaving official and public comments and reports with the personal and subjective.

The characters whose stories are woven into this chronicle include several woman, a suffragist and a conscientious objector. Thus whilst there is a certain amount of valorisation of the war there are also critical voices.

The editing for much of the film is excellent. There is cross-cutting between the official record and the subjective experience. And at certain points edits provide shock, pathos but also irony.

However there are also weaknesses in the way the film material has been used. Understandably there is little or no film of the ordinary people whose voices provide the narration. For much of the film the makers use ‘generic ‘ footage which fits the voices. Some of this is familiar from other compilations or from screenings of the actual titles; some of it is new and fresh. However, in the later stages there are a number of combined image and sounds which I thought a little anachronistic.

And there are two odd sequences in the centre of the film. Whilst we are watching and hearing the material on The Battle of the Somme there is a cut to several minutes of contemporary colour footage accompanied by a song. I think this is meant as a poetic counter-point but It seemed to me confusing. And shortly before this there was a sequence of shots which were repeated from earlier in the film and which [again] did not fit the narration. It was if a sequence had been transposed incorrectly, which may be to do with a transfer to DCP.

For most of the film the music is appropriate and works well. The performers include the Royal Northern Sinfonia and two musical duos from the North East, Filed Music and Warm Digits. The musical interlude during the Somme is sung by the Cornished Sisters. They all perform very well.

The Webpages for the film list screenings across the country; I saw it at the Hyde Park Picture House. The director was there for a Q&A, but I missed some of this so I am not sure if she discussed the form of the film. On November 11th, the anniversary of the Armistice Day at the end of the war, there is another screening at the Sage in Gateshead with live musical accompaniment. This will likely be the best way of experiencing the art work but it is worth seeing in the DCP version if that is accessible

Posted in Archival compilations, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Within Our Gates, USA 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2018

Within Our Gates is a riposte to the racism and white supremacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is likely that Oscar Micheaux deliberately derived the title from a 1919 Griffith film, A Romance of Happy Valley, which contains the epigraph:

‘Harm not the stranger

Within your gates

Lest you yourself be hurt’.

This point is made in an article by J. Ronald Green in ‘Griffithiana 60/61’, a publication that accompanied the Giornate Festival of 1997, which saw the screenings of both the Griffith classic and the less well-known Micheaux film. Seeing the two films in succession demonstrated Micheaux’s success in confronting the pernicious arguments of the earlier film.

An important aspect of the rediscovery of Micheaux was a sense of the context for his film. Within Our Gates was produced for the US ‘race’ film market, and was therefore denied the resources and production values lavished on the Hollywood product, including Griffith’s epics. The dominance of these values, even today, makes Micheaux’s films appear inferior alongside those of Griffith. It is worth noting that at the 1997 Giornate, The Birth of a Nation received a full orchestral accompaniment, while Micheaux had to make do with a solo piano. But to appreciate Micheaux’s work it needs to be approached in the way one responds to an independent film. The emphasis is not on grandiose spectacle but intelligent and meaningful narrative.

The surviving print is incomplete and the film was frequently cut, sometimes by Micheaux himself, because the violence depicted in the lynching scenes sparked serious controversy. In Chicago the censors enforced cuts of 1200 feet, i.e. over an entire reel of the film. Moreover the source for the surviving print is a Spanish language version, so that the titles, translated into Spanish, have now been retranslated back to English. This apparently affects both the plotting and also the use of colloquial speech. One character’s name, Girdlestone, has changed to Gridlestone. It is also possible that some shots are in the wrong position, either through poor copying or carelessness in post production. This makes the plot somewhat difficult to follow at first viewing.

(Note: the contemporary terms for Afro-Americans citizens was Negro, or coloured, with more pejorative variations quite common. Negro was supposed to commence with a capital N, not to do so was considered demeaning by black people.)

The protagonist of the film is Sylvia Landry, a southerner. At the film’s opening Sylvia is in the north visiting her cousin, Alma. Alma, with the help of her other cousin, Larry, engineers the break-up of Sylvia’s engagement. Larry himself is involved in gambling and criminal activities. Sylvia now goes to work in a school for Negroes in the south, in the hamlet of Piney Wood. The school is clearly offering a path to betterment for poor Negro children, but it is almost bankrupt. Sylvia goes north again, to Boston, to raise money from wealthy benefactors. In Boston she meets a professional, modern minded Negro, Dr Vivian. Her rescue of a child from the path of an automobile brings her to the attention of wealthy Bostonian. Though a southern acquaintance schemes to prevent her funding a Negro school, the wealthy white woman provides the much-needed funds for Piney Wood and Sylvia returns to the school. There she turns down a proposal from its head teacher. Now Larry reappears and tries to blackmail Sylvia. To avoid more trouble Sylvia again travels to the north.

Larry is shot in a robbery. Dr. Vivian searching for Sylvia treats the dying Larry and then meets Alma. She tells him Sylvia’s story in a long flashback. We find Sylvia, not knowing her parentage, was raised by a black share-cropping family. The film illustrates the exploitation of black share-croppers. It also shows them victims of false accusations which lead to a lynching. This is intercut with an attempted rape. This is a powerful sequence of cross-cutting which provides the dramatic and critical heart of the film.

Some of the factors in engaging with the film are the conventions of the ‘race’ cinema. Whilst they follow the dominant Hollywood model in the main, the cultural opposition implicit in the films has an effect. Sylvia is introduced with a title card identifying ‘the renowned Negro Artist Evelyn Preer’. The predominantly segregated black audiences would have enjoyed a familiarity with her career and performances, probably completely unknown to equivalent white audiences.

A following title card then informs us that Sylvia is ‘typical of the intelligent Negro of our time’. Micheaux immediately offers a contrasting characterisation to those of Griffith and his Hollywood contemporaries. Micheaux also taps into the debates within the Afro-American communities of the time about their social values. Like many other successful Negroes (relatively speaking) Micheaux embraced the bourgeois values of the dominant society. His male protagonists tend to be self-made men. In several films they are either a homesteader or prospector, seemingly utilising Micheaux’s own earlier experiences. His arguments are for equality within the system. Dr Vivian clearly embraces the emerging imperial ideology of the USA. He proudly tells Sylvia of the Negroes’ role in the US adventures in Cuba and Mexico.

But Micheaux is not just a dissident black voice. A remarkable aspect of the film is the centrality and action of the heroine. In Griffith’s films women are idealised by men, saved by men and then married and protected by men. Sylvia travels, fundraises and fends off attacks on her own. She is an independent woman. Dr Vivian, a student of social affairs, persuades Sylvia to his point of view, but he does this through study and debate. Sylvia may be the victim of patriarchal violence, but she clearly confronts it.

It will be seen from the geographic plotting of the film that Micheaux also tackles the question of the South. Sylvia’s travels between North and South expose the particularly vicious nature of white supremacy in the southern states. However, Micheaux is also clear about the limits of northern liberalism. A wry intertitle reads:

‘At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.’

The performances and Micheaux’s mise en scène are predominantly within the conventions of the mainstream. The film offers an equivalent melodrama to Griffith. His contemporary Negro society has a fairly clear split between reputable and disreputable. Larry and his criminal associates are defined in anti-social terms, and receive the appropriate melodramatic punishment. Another aspect of Negro society is the religious trend. The Bostonian matriarch who opposes funding a black school proposes instead that money be given to a local minister and preacher. He preaches that Negroes should stay in their place and is clearly antithetical to the modern aspiring Negroes like Dr Vivian. He and his congregation are also characterised in the melodramatic performance similar to the Negroes in Griffith’s epic.

The plotting relies on melodramatic coincidences familiar from earlier film melodrama. Dr Vivian meets Sylvia when he sees her robbed in the street. And Dr Vivian rediscovers Sylvia through treating the fatally wounded Larry. At the climax of the film Sylvia learns about her parentage – “mixed race”. These characters are really melodramatic types rather than psychologically rounded individuals.

Visually the films share the style of earlier film melodrama. The staging is straightforward, with characters placed within simple changing settings. The standard shot is the mid-shot, with the action played straight to camera. The lighting is mainly naturalistic, but clearly limited. Because of this, many scenes have a low-key look. Micheaux’s choice of shots utilises a simple range and selection. He does use close-ups rather than the iris technique found in Griffith (iris shots tend to introduce or close sequences). He also follows the newly developed system of continuity, using shot, reverse shot and on- and off-screen actions matching.

His editing is the most distinctive use of technique. He parallels Griffith in his intercutting between characters and actions, both in order to generate drama and also to make comment. The manhunt and lynching is an incredibly powerful presentation. And the cross-cutting with an attempted rape in a different setting increases the critical power. This arrangement of cuts also presents the reality of lynching and murders for southern Negroes, and the rape and incest that accompanied this. Griffith’s inversion of the exploitation of black people after the Civil War is here re inverted by Micheaux, and he uses Griffith’s most notable technique to present his rebuttal.

Within Our Gates had a far more chequered career than The Birth of a Nation. Whereas the Griffith epic survives relatively unscathed, Micheaux’s riposte is heavily mutilated. This would seem to be a direct outcome of the dominance of Hollywood, and the oppressed cinema of the ‘race cinema’. Even so, it suggests a more complex audience experience in this period than might seem from the iconic status in which The Birth of a Nation is held.

Written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Book and Film Company

Existing print 5935 feet (six reels, originally seven or eight reels). Running time of 100 minutes at 16 fps.

Cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Charles D. Lucas (Dr Vivian), Jack Chenault (Larry Pritchard), Flo Clements (Alma Pritchard).

Note, this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’, Auteur 2014.

Posted in US pioneers | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

The 4th Nitrate Picture Show

Posted by keith1942 on June 1, 2018

This Festival was held between May 4th and May 6th at the George Eastman Museum in upper New York State. The Eastman Museum is now one of the few places where one can see 35mm film prints on the stock that was once the standard for cinema, the flammable and luminous nitrate. The Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.

Prior to the actual Festival, on the Thursday evening, we had a treat with a screening of Hamlet (1948) from a Library of Congress print. Lawrence Olivier’s film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s major masterpieces is a fine piece of work. He and his supporting cast are excellent. The play has been cut from its original length, but Olivier is a master of adaptation. The art design and cinematography are great to watch even though the technical standards of the period were more limited than now. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing the ghost of the dead king. The print showed up well on the nitrate stock. The frequent chiaroscuro looked good and the cast and their lighting had that silvery quality found on early stock.

As in previous years the actual programme was only unveiled on the Friday morning. This is one aspect of the Festival with which I have little sympathy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there [Greenwood Books]. I watch the weight of my cases before I leave England because I know I shall succumb to the temptations in an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.

The afternoon included two presentations. One was the annual James Card Memorial Lecture presented by Paul C. Spehr from the Library of Congress. James Card was the first curator of film at George Eastman and founded the collection there. Appropriately Paul talked about the history of archive collection at the Library of Congress. This has been a varied and at time haphazard affair. Early films were deposited [but not uniformly] on paper prints. And these were forgotten and only saved from decay in the 1940s. Even then whilst there was a copyright acquirement on film there was not a mandatory policy of collection. It is only in the last few decades that a mandatory deposit of film has become effective. So the Library’s collection, augmented in the 1990s by that of the American Film Institute, has some great films preserved but also lacks some key titles.

I should add that I retuned from Rochester via Washington DC. The Library of Congress has a memorial Mary Pickford Theater in it’s Madison building. I was fortunate that this was in a week in which one of the archive prints was screened, 711 Ocean Drive (1951). t is a delightful but small cinema on the third floor. And, as is usually the case, we veiwed a good 35mm print.

The first set of screenings at George Eastman were short films on nitrate. The programme commerced with Symphony of a City / Människor I stad (1947). This film, directed by Arne Sucksdorff, presented a day in Stockholm and the film won the Best Short Subject (One reel) at the 1949 Academy Awards. It was the Academy Award print that we viewed. We had enjoyed a Sucksdorff film in 2017, but that was a rural and night-time drama. This was a poetic treatment of the city, very much in line with the cycle of ‘city symphonies’ of the 1920s and 1930s. The film was in good condition with a rich contrast in the black and white imagery.

Father Hubbard’s Movietone Adventures: Lost Lake (1944). The ‘glacier’ priest’ was a member of the Jesuit Order who became famous for his explorations in Alaska from the late 1920s. He was a featured in several Fox Movietone shorts, a newsreel series that began in 1928. It used the Fox Movietone optical sound-on-film system. This later episode used Cinecolor, This was a subtractive two-colour system, one of a number of processes in the early development of colour on film. In this film Father Hubbard goes looking for a lost lake under an Alaskan glacier. With his companion the priest wends his way over ice and through crevasses, the latter seemed a rather dangerous route for exploration. Cinecolor produced fair results in bright colours like red but did not re-produce the whole colour spectrum. Whilst the expedition and commentary were conventional the print itself, from the Academy Film Archive, looked vibrant.

Lowell Thomas’ Movietone Adventures: Along the Rainbow Trail (1946). Another from the C20th Century Fox series, this time in brilliant Technicolor. Lowell Thomas was a long-time broadcaster who regularly narrated Fox Movietone shorts, He was also famous for his ‘discovery of T.E. Lawrence and, later in his career, his involvement in the development of Cinerama. The film includes ‘riding’ the rapids on the San Juan River in Colorado and then a hike to an impressive natural formation known as the Rainbow Bridge. Thomas’s narration is fairly conventional for the period but the landscape, especially the great red cliffs, looks impressive in Technicolor.

Our Navy (1918) was the only silent film in the programme and it was a pleasure to hear Phil Carli providing a lively accompaniment at the piano. This George Eastman Museum print was tinted and toned and in fair condition. There were some impressive shots of Dreadnoughts at sea but essentially it was a conventional display of the US navy and the film-maker’s patriotic zeal.

Let’s Go to the Movies (1949) was the first in a series by the Academy of shorts designed to celebrate the art and craft of motion pictures: we had a later film from the series in 2017. This film celebrated Hollywood films from the 1920s to the then present. There were clips of important films and stars, all designed to impress audiences at a time when the studios were facing severe problems.

The pick of the programme was Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) in a print from the Museum of Modern Art. Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. Made for the General Post Office, officially the film was an advertisement for the role of the service in trade. In Lye’s hands it became a dazzling tapestry of colours, full of symbolism and metaphor.. Lye worked from existing film stock, turning the footage into a montage of bright coloured fragments. The sound track offered vibrant dance music from the Lecuona Cuban Band. The nitrate print was in fine condition and provided one of the highlights of the weekend.

The Friday early evening screening is traditionally a foreign language print and we were treated to an early Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951). The US release had a changed title of ‘Illicit Interlude’, rather anachronistic: the Swedish title with ‘karlek’ suggests ”dear-play’. Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. The main character, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a star ballet dancer. Between flashbacks we see rehearsals, the ballet and post-ballet sequences of a performance of ‘Swan Lake’, [more on ‘play’). Her flashbacks concern a summer romance that ends tragically and the flashbacks are motivated by a diary record of the summer. However, the films ends with an upbeat finale in the present as Marie lays to rest the ghosts from her past. I think it is the first Bergman film with recognisable authorial narrative and characterisations. The majority of sequences were filmed in an archipelago over water and islands, and the dappled woods, sun-lit rocks and changing water hues were a real pleasure on nitrate. The print was from Kansallinen auidovisuaalinen instituutti {KAVI Finland]. The Brochure included several contemporary reviews of which my favourite was from the ‘New York Herald Tribune’:

“Some of the action and nuances of dialogue are a bit daring by American movie standards but the whole thing is played in such a frank and open-hearted manner that it never gives offence.” (Otis L. Guersey, October 27, 1954).

The late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor for Columbia Pictures and starred Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. The two leads and supporting cast were good but I was not convinced by the script. The Cary Grant character, Johnny, is supposedly a free-thinking individual immune from desires for wealth and status. The original play by Philip Barry seems to have had a darker tone,

“divorcee and infidelity, chronic drunkenness, self-destructive tendencies. (Patrick McGilligan, ‘George Cukor’, 1991).

All these crises are played down with comic eccentricity. Partly for this reason I found the Grant character unconvincing. Katherine Hepburn, who had played the role of Linda on Broadway, worked better for me. The film itself is well produced in terms of design and cinematography. The print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive was reasonably good. It was also tinted in a sepia tone, a rare technical finish. And the film did look good in the screening.

Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham.

“The novel’s title comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad, given in the book’s epigraph as: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to “enlightenment” is hard.” (Wikipedia).

The protagonist Larry has suffered a trauma through the death of a friend in World War I. He rejects the standard US pursuit of wealth and status to seek meaning in life. Along his odyssey he finds an answer in ancient Indian mystical philosophy: a point where the novel crosses over with James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizons’. The other main character provides foils for Larry’s ruminations and values.

The film starred Tyrone Power as Larry. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. I found him more convincing as a social outsider than Grant’s Johnny. His main foil is a New England snob, Elliott, who is also a Roman Catholic; played with a fine acerbic tone by Clifton Webb. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. The Indian visit seemed more like the Buddhist Monastery in the film of Lost Horizons (1937). But the film does retain much of Maugham’s cynical characterisation, despite the mysticism. Opposite Tyrone Power are the young Anne Baxter, Sophie  [sympathetic] and Gene Tierney as Isabel [manipulative and unsympathetic]. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film with a character that shared some traits with Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). The film was directed by Edmund Golding, an underrated director in Hollywood. He works well with actor and made several titles with Power. And he works well with the cinematography. There are frequent finely executed tracking shots which give the film an continuing flow as years and settings change. There was also good production design and a generally suitable score. This was Gene Tierney’s fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; [Leave her to Heaven, Laura (1944) and Night and the City (1950). Who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? The official explanation was given that because Tierney worked at C20th Fox she benefits from the extensive Fox Archive at UCLA. The flaw in the argument is that this well-preserved print came from the Academy film Archive.

Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks out front. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was absent in the meal breaks.

After lunch we enjoyed a print from the Narodni filmy archiv in Prague, Mlhy Na Blatech / Mist of the Moors (1943). This was a rural drama on fairly conventional lines.

“One of the most important components of the film is the nature, which ceases to be a mere stage for its plot – it serves almost as an autonomous plot agent.” (Festival Brochure).

This was true. The characters did not generate much concern for me, but the landscapes certainly held one’s attention . There were sequences where these landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate and shots of the lake covered in mist..

There followed an early Anthony Mann western, Winchester ’73 (1950). This is not Mann’s finest work but James Stewart, displaying the psychotic side of his character that was bought out in Mann’s films, is excellent. The film manages to include a shooting completion, Indians and cavalry, a bank robbery and an exciting finale. There are some fine landscapes and at the end an intense struggle between brothers on a steep cliff. It was some years since I had seen the film and I was surprised how much ammunition was expended in this struggle. One of the pleasures of the film is a cameo by Dan Duryea as Waco Jonny Dean, smoothly villainous. The one female part, with Shelley Winter as Lola, is not well written. The print came from the Library of Congress. It looked pretty good but did suffer from some warping which affected the focus.

The day ended with a real treat, a nitrate print of the marvellous Powell and Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948). I remember Ken Brownlow in a broadcast comparing silent film to ballet: this sound film is a tour-de-force of movement and colour. Apart from the brilliant ballet shot with great skills by Jack Cardiff, there are the pleasures of the acting/dancing with a terrific performance as a Svengali impresario by Anton Walbrook. The print was quite worn and the shallow focus was more noticeable than I remember. But the Technicolor was vibrant and the recurring tones set off the melodrama. In fact the projection relied on two prints, partly from a George Eastman Museum print, and for the final two reels a personal copy belonging to Martin Scorsese. The rationale for the change was a slight sound problems. I did think that the final two reels were of slightly better quality.

Sunday morning is usually the slot for a film noir, a genre which, with its chiaroscuro, suits the palette of nitrate. This year we had Cry of the City, a 1948 RKO film directed by Robert Siodmak. The film’s lead was Richard Conte as petty gangster Martin Rome. He is hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis, Lieutenant Candella, is played by Victor Mature.

“The principals are two men who had the same start in life – they were both of Italian parentage, came from poor families, and lived in the same rundown district; one made easy money the wrong way, the earned a small salary and did it the hard way …” (quoted in the Festival Brochure).

This is a conventional plot line, typical for crime stories of the period. The weakness is the casting of Victor Mature as Italian/|American, which he is palpably not. However he is good as a humane cop. Conte is standout as the gangster, exuding his regular charisma. The noir elements are only partially there. We have the victim hero, the world of chaos and the flashbacks. But there is not really a femme fatale though Rome does have an obsession that leads to his doom. The black and white cinematography by Lloyd Ahern is excellent and was striking in a good nitrate print.

The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov; he made several film in this genre; the most famous Volga – Volga (1938) was a personal favourite of Joseph Stalin. Moscow Laughs (Vesolye Rebyata, 1934) offers a plot which centres on an a musical shepherd who is mistaken for a famous visiting conductor. The film opens in Odessa and there are some well done set-ups and a fine travelling shot on a local beach. There is a splendid sequence where the animals invade a local bourgeois reception creating chaos: the sequence offers almost surreal incidents. Later the ‘conductor’ takes his orchestra to a Moscow theatre. The latter stages are rather hammy and a little clunky. This is not socialist realism: more like a embryo effort for a new genre.

“When the Muscovites produce a film which does not mention Dnieprostroy, [a reference to a major hydroelectric construction under the Planned economy], ignores the class struggle and contains no hint of editorial Marxism, it immediate becomes one of the great events ODF international cinema. “New York Times quoted in the Festival Brochure).

In fact the class struggle is in the film, but in a minor key. The review demonstrates how little comprehension US critics often bought to Soviet films. I did speculate that the chaos created by the animals in a mansion of the bourgeoisie was not only class revenge but a subtle critique of the downplaying of political struggle in socialist realism.

The print’s distinction was that the film was restored in 1958 on surviving nitrate stock, making it the most recent film on nitrate seen at the Festival. The restored print apparently followed the original closely but some of the sound track was re-dubbed. The print came from Österreichischen Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum] who have quite a collection of Soviet prints.

This bought us to the ‘Blind Date’ screening. With even more coyness than over the programme the title of this film is only revealed as it runs on-screen. To tantalise the audience a single still is included in the Brochure as a clue. I have consistently failed to guess any of these correctly. In fact, this year’s was a second attempt. The still had appeared in the Brochure of the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show, but not the film as it was replaced by Ramona (1928), a wonderful screening with live music by Phil, Carli. In fact, this turned out to be nearly as memorable.

There was a ripple of response when the shot/still appeared in an early scene, a hole waiting repair on an upside down curragh used by The Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous docudrama from 1934. This is an epic portrait of a small isolated community on the edge of the Atlantic. We saw the central family fighting the rough seas, fishing for giant sharks, and laying out sparse potato patches on the inhospitable terrain. This was a fine demonstration of the virtues of nitrate. The roaring seas, the glistening foam, the sun-lit cliffs and shadowed rocks all looked magnificent. It was a high quality print of a striking film. The print was gifted to the George Eastman Museum by the Flaherty estate in 1964. It would appear that this was a print that had not experienced the variable treatment in exhibition and looked really fine.

The Festival Brochure includes details of the prints including the shrinkage. It is now reckoned that nitrate prints have a longer shelf life than acetate prints, whilst comparatively digital dies in childhood. But nitrate prints do shrink over time; it is reckoned that once shrinkage reaches 1% projection becomes extremely difficult or impossible. However, Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo had a shrinkage 1.15% and looked fine when projected. This is one of the difficulties faced by the projection team who also work with Projectors that contain safety features in case of fire. So there was frequent applause for the team during the Festival. We also had digital sub-titles for several films but I thought the Museum has not yet mastered the technology as on several occasions the English titles went out of sync with the foreign dialogue. Not a serious problem.

We had a full and rewarding weekend. Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 3rd to May 5th. This means it will fall on several important birthdays, notably that of Karl Marx. I suggested that a good title for next year would be Fame is the Spur (1947), a film by the Boulting Brothers which includes a rare feature, a photograph of Marx on the wall of a Manchester bookshop. Or there is May 3rd, the birthday of Mary Astor. It would be great to have a nitrate print of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or even Red Dust (1932).

Posted in Archival issues, Nitrate film | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ménilmontant, France 1926.

Posted by keith1942 on May 29, 2018

This title was screened at e Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 in ‘The Canon Revisited’. We watched a DCP sourced from a 35mm distribution print. The film had been re-edited by a distributor adding intertitles in the 1928: we saw the original version without intertitles. And alternative title translates as ‘The Hundred Steps’.

The film is an early example of what became known as ‘French impressionist film’. The actual story is conventional and melodramatic. Two sisters who move from a rural town to Paris are the objects of passion by a young ‘Lothario’. This results in one sister becoming pregnant and the other falling into prostitution. Late in the film the two separated sisters meet in the streets, both sad victims.

There is a definite cross-over with D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). In fact some critics compared the performance of the younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaia) to that of Lillian Gish. She also plays in a Griffith-type sequence, when pregnant and starving she is given dry bread by a tramp sharing a park bench.

What made the film stand out was the style, which features many of the techniques that became common in impressionist films.

There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary like impressions …, of classical continuity editing.” (Richard Abel quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The director, Dimitri Kirsanoff, seems to have done much of the hand-held camera work, which is another feature of the film. There are frequent scenes set in actual Paris streets, often after rain, or doused by the production: glistening cobble stones that must have looked great on nitrate.

Kirsanoff was Estonian who migrated to Paris. His father died in the Russian Revolution which seems to have darkened his views. He disliked ‘Potemkin’ but rated Stroheim. His helpmate was the film’s leading actor, Nadia Sibirskaia (originally a Breton Geneviève Lebas). They acted together in an earlier of his films, L’Ironie du destin (1921), now lost. Whilst Ménilmontant was a success after a screening at the avant-garde venue Théâtre du Vieux Colombier Kirsanoff’s career was caught between the conflicting pressures of commercial demands and avant-garde values. He made several more films but failed fine a niche in which to work consistently.

This title was screened in a double bill with Louis Delluc’s Fièvre (1921). The Catalogue offered the legend that Ménilmontant was transferred to digital at 18 fps and looked fine. Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco provided piano accompaniments to the films; both played music that was appropriate and set off the tenor of the titles.

I was able to revisit the film in May when it was screened from a 35mm print. The print was fine but the accompaniment was a problem. There was a piano, which offered sparse accompaniment which suited the film. However the dominant sounds were pre-recorded sounds and live Foley sounds. The pre-recorded sounds including rain and street noises. The live Foley offered aural representation of actions on screen. The nadir of this was when the sound of the munching of bread on the park bench was recreated. It is recorded that some silent screenings used sound machines and similar. But I cannot believe that such literal sound recreation happened for avant-garde films and/or at the Colombier. What made the practice even odder was that the afternoon of films opened with silent Laurel and Hardy titles: a pair of comics where live Foley sound could have been a successful addition.

So this is a rare occasion for me where digital trumps ‘reel’ film.

Posted in French film 1920s | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Anna-Liisa, Finland 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 27, 2018

 

This title was screened in the Scandinavian Cinema programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017. It was the only Finnish film and these are relatively rare anyway. It was, for me, the best early Finnish film that I have seen. It was adapted from a popular play by Minna Canth first produced in 1895. The production was from Suomi-Filmi OY, and the comments in the Festival Catalogue notes that,

“Canth was a pioneer of realism on the Finnish stage and a committed participant in the debates on women and the institution of marriage that raged across the Nordic countries in the 1889s and 1890s. Her strong stance against the oppression of women and the poor made her work controversial, but when the film was made, Canth was recognised as the most popular and prolific Finnish-language dramatist. Adapting one of her plays was therefore a logical choice for a film company wanting to make Swedish-style national film based on a distinguished literary work.”

The titular character Anna-Liisa (Helmi Lindelof) belongs to a well-to-do farming family. She is engaged to a wealthy neighbour Johannes (Emil Autere), But a dark secret from her past disrupts her life and the planned nuptials. Some years earlier she had a brief affair with a labourer on the Kortesuo farm. This resulted in an illegitimate child which she killed. The father, Mikko (Einari Rinne) has moved away but now, affluent after working in a logging firm, is returning and himself wishes to marry Anna-Liisa. He is supported by his mother Husso (Mimmi Lähteenoja) who still lives and works on the farm. Anna-Liisa, not wishing to marry Mikko and attempting to keep her secret is caught in a traumatic series of events.

The drama and the cast are portrayed very effectively. As the conflicts increase the film generates both violence – between Johannes and Mikko – and trauma, between Anna-Liisa and her family. The plot is filled out with flashbacks which present quite lyrical scenes of young romance but also darker events that have an almost noir quality.

The original play was set in interiors at the Kortesuo farm but

“The film effectively opens up the play, moving quite a bit of the action outside and adding little vignettes of Finnish rural life, including a shot of Johannes merging from a sauna and a scene of Mikko among his fellow log-rollers, visualizing an important type in Finnish films, the virile but loutish lumberjack.”

The latter emphasizes the contrast between the two suitors. And the filming emphasises the contrast between interior and exterior. The former were photographed by Kurt Jäger and the latter by S. J. Tenhovaara. This may explain the shooting schedule which was divided between summer and winter. The interiors make effective use of the placing of characters and, at the dark moments, of shadows. The exteriors include a number of lyrical scenes which recall those that grace Swedish films.

Several of these occur in flashbacks which fill out past events in the story. In one such sequence Mikko is sitting on the bank near the logging camp , smoking and remembering. The flashback opens at an open-air dance. Mikko sits on a swing as the sun sets over the nearby lake. Then he and Anna walk down to the a boat on the lake. The scene has a blue tint for evening. They cross the lake and walk into the woods. Cutaway shots how us reeds and trees, a bird in an iris shot and the boat drifting on the water. Mikko and Anna sit beneath a tree and then lay back and embrace. An ellipsis presumably covers coitus. The flashback ends as Mikko rises, returns to the camp and then sets out to make his claim for Anna-Liisa.

Later in the film there is a much darker flashback. This is motivated by Husso reminding Anna,

‘The night you came to me..’

To which Anna replies,

‘I was a child at the time’.

Then the flashback opens in dark night as Anna-Liisa staggers out into the farm. She runs to Husso’s house and knocks on the casement widow. By the time Husso opens the door Anna-Liisa is prone on the ground, she whispers,

‘Help me’.

Then two women go into the woods where the child [we realise it is dead] is buried beneath a tree. The sequence is all chiaroscuro. The flashback ends and Husso comments,

‘No one has a clue’.

There follows an exterior scene where Anna-Liisa attempts suicide but is saved by her father. And then the violent confrontations, with an intense and closely focused interior and the physical conflict between Johannes and Mikko in an exterior.

The working out of the plot in this way develops a powerful drama. The central focus on infanticide is interesting. This occurs in several Swedish films. Several of Victor Sjöström’s films deal with both illegitimacy and cross-class romance: Ingmarssönerna (1919) includes infanticide with the consequent scandal and punishment.

 So I wonder whether there was an influence. As well as the issue of women’s’ oppression the question of sex and illegitimacy appears to have been a potent issue in this period in Scandinavia. Whilst Anna-Liise’s plight is treated sympathetically the story emphasises the moral dimension at that time, Anna-Liisa repents and at the conclusion accepts that she will face punishment for her crime. It is redolent of the morals that when the birth and death of the child becomes public knowledge not one character asks,

“who was the father?”

The film was screened from a DCP, and like the other Scandinavian titles in the programme, this was a transfer of high standard preserving many of the cinematic qualities of the original.

The Catalogue notes included information regarding the restoration and transfer which provide interesting detail.

”A new digital restoration based on a duplicate positive was carried out by KAVI (The National Audiovisual Institute, Helsinki) in 2013. The material was scanned at 2K but because of the frame-line issue sin the first-generation material the image had to be scanned twice; the best alternative was selected scene-by-scene. The restoration was conducted using DaVinci Revival and PFClean software programmes. Almost all the scenes have been stabilised, and flicker, dirt, scratches, tears, splices, and all manner of patina have been removed when possible. Contrast has been corrected, and colour has been added according to original model using DaVinci resolve software, the DCP has a colour solution similar to tin ting.”

DaVinci and PF Clean are standard software packages used in the film industry. They offer functions for repair, grain manipulation and colour manipulation, The tinting equivalent in this screening was pretty good and avoided the over-saturation that is often a problem. And whilst the frames were fairly clean they avoided the patina that sometimes arises from repair work. As with other presentations at the Giornate the film was recorded as transferring at 20fps, but I am not sure is this was a definite transfer rate or an equivalent with some step-printing.

The screening also benefited from Gabriel Thibaudeau’s piano accompaniment. He has a lyrical style that was especially pleasing with the visually lyrical sequences in the film.

 

NB The Catalogue notes were the work of Magnus Rosborn, Casper Tybjerg and Antii Alanen.

Posted in Literary adaptation, Scadinavian film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

The World and it’s Woman, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2018

Geraldine Farrar with Frank Lloyd

This was a title screened in the ‘Red Peril’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate3 del Cinema Muto. It was an example of ‘anti-communism’ even more virulent than the companion The Right to Happiness [also USA 1919]. Wikipedia quotes Murray B Levin on the ‘red scare ‘ in the USA between 1917 and 1920;

“a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of life.”

The film was directed by Frank Lloyd for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. It starred Geraldine Farrar. She was an established opera diva who made her screen debut in Cecil B. De Mille’s Carmen (1915). The Festival Catalogue notes that

“By the time of The World and its Women, her fifth picture for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, Farrar’s salary was among the highest in the industry: according to Goldwyn papers at the Margaret Herrick Library, she received $150,000 for four months of shooting, while her co-star husband Lou Tellegen earned a modest $600 per week (reportedly the borzoi hound made $50 a day). “ (Antonia Guerrero and Jay Weisberg).

In fact the borzoi hound was likely the most over-paid merely lying gracefully on the floor and interjecting a yawn at one point and offering a dainty paw. The hound was accompanied among the supporting cast by a number of exiled Russian aristocrats presumably still seething from the loss of their ill-gotten wealth.

The film opens before World War I in Tsarist Russia where US engineer Robert Warren (Edward J. Connelly) is managing the oil fields of for Prince Michael Orbeliana (Alec B. Francis). Warren’s daughter Marcia (May Giraci) is friends with the prince’s son, Michael ((Francis Marion). Marcia reads to the young prince from Cinderella and he replies that one day

“I will marry you.”

We also see Mary playing and singing for her father. But he dies when his investments are lost.

As an adult Michael (Lou Tellegen) marries Baroness Olga Amilahvari (Naomi Childers) , an advantageous match. Olga is actually the object of love by another aristocrat Count Alix Vronassof (Arthur Carewe), but he is poor and not a suitable suitor. Marcia (Geraldine Farrar) herself is the object of passion by Peter Poroschine (W. Lawson Butt), not an aristocrat. Marcia debuts at the Imperial Opera to great acclaim. The Tsar is there, as is the Tsarina and a monk, not [I think] identified. Now a romance develops between Michael and Marcia.

The war arrives and Michael, among others, marches of to war to the tumult of cheering crowds. But among the troops are ‘sneaking elements’, including Peter. He is assisted by a erstwhile friend of Marcia, Erina..

We move onto 1917 and the increasing agitation and rebellion among working people and peasants. The developing revolution is represented negatively Among the titles we get are,

“reign of terror in Petrograd’

‘even the whip of the Cossacks was better’

And Red Guards are shown shooting civilians in the street: Eisenstein’s depiction in October (1928) of Czarist troops shooting civilians in the street is historically more accurate.

Prince Michael and Princess Olga

Alix and Olga perish in an attack on their estate by peasants. Michael leaves Petrograd is trying to protect his his estates in Galicia. Mary works in a centre for orphaned children. But Peter is is active at the ‘Red HQ,

‘a den of terrorists’.

Here we also see a poster advocating ‘the nationalisation of women’, one of the more scurrilous slanders in the US media at this time.

So Peter and Erina come to see Mary and he offers to spare Michael, now returned, for her ‘favours’. This leads into the most exciting sequences of the film. There is a violent ‘catfight’ between Marcia and Erina. Marcia escapes, first through a window and then across a roof. Michael and Serge fights, another brutal contest. Michael succeeds and as Red Guards batter down the door he and Marcia escape.

The film now cuts to Archangel where allied warships, [British, French and US] lie off-shore; part of the invasion of the Young Soviet Republic. One of the few historically accurate depictions in the film using inserted ‘actuality’ footage. Michael and Maria cross sand-dunes to a US soldier and safety. Aboard a ship they flee and Mary will

“become his wife”.

We saw the film in a Belgium print which was tinted and toned: the French and Dutch titles were translated. The character’s names were different in this print. Mary was Marcia, Michael was Boris and Peter was Serge. This print apparently also added to the titles. So Erina was Irina and

“[The Belgium print’s intertitles call her “the Théroigne of Bolshevism” in reference to the French Revolution’s Anne-Théroigne de Méricourt, a rabble rouser born on what is now Belgium territory.]” (Festival Catalogue: Anne-Théroigne more accurately was a victim of male violence in her working life and a powerful fighter for woman’s rights during the French Revolution].

This film’s original title was The Golden Voice. The changed title seems odd but the Catalogue suggests

The Woman has survived her World.”

A narrative that crosses over with Ayn Rand’s ‘We the Living’ (1936).

John Sweeney provided the piano accompaniment. The digital version was, according to the Catalogue, transferred at 18 fps. However, apparently the ‘New Verdi’ projectors only run at 24fps or above?

Posted in Hollywood, Silent Stars | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »