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The Lincoln Cycle/ The Son of Democracy, USA 1918

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2019

This cycle of films was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 devoted to the silent films of John Stahl. In fact his name appeared nowhere in the credits which recorded one Benjamin Chapin as writer, director and star.

“at the time of its release it was completely identified with Benjamin Chapin, a noted theatrical impersonator of Abraham Lincoln. …” (Richard Koszarski in the Festival Catalogue).

Whilst Chapin was planning his cycle through his own Charter Features Corp. D. W. Griffin’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ 1915 transformed the subject of the US Civil War and of Lincoln into major box office potential.

“Charter’s response was to advertise for additional technical staff, including “a Director of the most pronounced ability” to supplement Chapin’s existing unit. This seems to have been the moment Stahl came aboard, although Charter’s publicity arm, designed to focus all attention on Chapin, never admitted the fact.” (Festival Catalogue).

John Stahl, who entered the young film industry as an actor, had already directed one film, now lost, but uncredited. After this series he went on to direct nineteen features with credits as director.

Chapin had ambitious plans for the cycle.

“a sequential narrative whose structural complexity, he said, was modeled on Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’. The series of stand-alone subjects would not be linked chronologically like a serial, but thematically with all the episodes designed to address one central question: if Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president, what experiences acted to shape the development of his social, ethical, and political character.” (Festival Catalogue).

The cycle certainly did not match Wagner’s epic work. And Chapin did not emulate the long and arduous dedication to the work exhibited by Wagner, he was taken ill and died in 1918. But the cycle was already incomplete and unfinished and Chapin sold ten episodes to Paramount in 1917, who distributed them under the overall title The Son of Democracy. There was a reissue in the 1920s for the Education Market; apparently some packages had ten episodes, one eight and some titles were available individually. There are now two lost episodes with only eight surviving.

These were two reel films digitised and projected from a DCP, retaining the tinting of the originals. We watched them in the order that they had been distributed though they may have been filmed and completed in a different order in 1915 and 1916. The missing episodes were the eighth and ninth of the original ten part cycle.

We started with two episodes which are part of ‘My Boyhood’; both run running just on 25 minutes and accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano.

My Mother.

The title opens with Lincoln by a river notebook in hand.

A Flashback returns us to 1809. At this point the family, his mother Nancy, father Tom, young Abe and his sister Sarah, move from Kentucky to Indiana. In their rough cabin we see the mother reading from the New Testament in the family bible, ‘love one another’. Then a flashback within a flashback shows us the courtship of Tom and Nancy. Nancy make her husband promise to study and become literate. In the main flashback it is clear that Tom has not mastered literacy. So Nancy teaches young Abe. The family text for reading is Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrims Progress’. But Nancy is taken ill and she dies,

“Dear ones, goodbye.”

The film clearly intends to show Lincoln’s mother as the key influence on the young Abe and offers an emphasis on biblical morals. Starting with this episode sets down a particular marker for the cycle.

My Father

This title commences in 1861 with the President elect saying goodbye to ‘old friends’.

As so often he recalls a tale from his youth, ‘40 years ago’. At home Abe annoys his father with his constant reading.

Sent outside Abe becomes embroiled in a fight over a rabbit with his regular opponent, Hank Carter. In a nice background touch as Abe and Huck fight over the rabbit a young black boy makes off with the trophy. Abe receives a beating for the fight and his father takes the precious Bunyan and stashes it in a tree stump. But Abe’s literacy enable him to prevent his farther signing a fraudulent contract with Huck’s father. This and the memory of Nancy, [seen in a superimposition] makes the father relent and he fetches to book from the stump. A title informs us that Abe and his father

“reach an understanding.”

So this episode gives us the authoritarian father in contrast to the gentler and more educated mother. The Carters, junior and senior, are the regular villains of the piece. More affluent than the Lincoln’s, the son fights Abe whilst the father tries to exploit Tom and later a friend of Lincoln, Reverend Elkins.

The Call to Arms.

This episode ran 26 minutes and was accompanied at the piano by Gabriel Thibaudeau.

This episode opens in 1861 at the White House with his two sons, Willie and Ted who are scolded by their mother for being in wet clothes after bathing. Abe remarks,

“That reminds me.”

We see a brief flashback to one of Abe’s fights with another boy, Huck, He is reprimanded by his mother who raises the bible.

Lincoln now receives a delegation as the crisis with the Southern States mounts.

There is another brief flashback to Abe and his dying mother with his promise ‘never to fight’.

Back to 1861 and the South fires on fort Sumter.

“Union dissolved.” “Seven stars lost to the flag.”

A further flashback to Lincoln making an election address, holding up the Stars and Stripes and making a promise,

“Not one star shall be lost.”

Back in the present the President reads the ‘call to arms’ and cheering crowds respond.

There is now, [the only example in the whole cycle] a sequence from 1917. This is a newsreel of a ‘Wake Up America’ demonstration with Chapin dressed as Lincoln urging on the demonstrators.

This episode has more flashbacks than is the norm in the cycle, including the ones involving his now dead mother. These symbolise Lincoln’s struggle with the necessity of waging war.

The last sequence, effectively a flash-forward plays into the debate in the USA about involvement in the war taking place predominantly in Europe.

Then we had two episodes in a screening with Gunter Buchwald playing accompaniment at the piano.

My First Jury

It opens in the White House where Lincoln has to decide on an appointment in his Gentryville; the part of Illinois where the Lincoln’s lived for a time. The appointment is to the Post Office and the candidate is Billy Jinks. In Gentryville we see blacksmith Huck Carter [his childhood opponent as an adult] ‘cussing Lincoln’. Denver Hanks, who I think is from Lincoln’s mother’s family, writes to Lincoln recounting this. The letter motivates another flashback.

We now see a flashback to the young Abe. He and Huck regularly have fights.

On this occasion a young black boy, Jim, is chased accused of stealing a chicken belonging to the Carters. Abe proposes a trial; Huck is prosecutor and Abe defender. The jury consists of a cat, a donkey and a goat. Predictably Jim is found not guilty’. This provoke another fight between Abe and Huck whilst Jim escapes with the chicken, though he soon loses this.

In the present Abe writes back to Denver who reminds Huck of a piece of evidence, a sickle, still hanging in a tree from the earlier time.

Tender Memories

Running nearly 29 minutes.

The Civil War is under way and the White House is besieged with petitioners . Lincoln visits the front line. Here a skirmish occurs and two Union soldiers are shot. Lincoln comes on a soldier praying at a rough cross/grave. The scene is set at night-time and the fire and flares have red tints. Lincoln reassures a young soldier and tells him a tale.

A flashback takes us back to when Abe lost his mother. She is ‘laid to rest’ in the woods and Tom, Abe and Rash put up

“a rude cross”.

Then Abe writes to the Reverend Elkins to come and pray over his mother’s grave. This is delayed as the Reverend arrived during the fight between Abe and Huck and the minister left the scene. Later Abe is able to explain the fight and convince Elkins to pray at the grave.

At the end the soldier salutes Lincoln.

A further flashback expands on Abe’s letter. We see the family with the Reverend at the grave as all kneel and pray. Abe seems to see his mother, a superimposition..

She died in 1818 and the last shot is the grave

”grave as it is today”

with two children kneeling there.

Another double bill was accompanied at the piano by Donald Sosin.

A President’s Answer.

Running 24 minutes.

This opens with the White house which was the

‘same in Lincoln’s day” and filmed with “special permission.”

Now we encounter Huck again; now a Confederate agent recruiting for their army.

One of his targets is the son of Reverend Elkins and his wife David. Lincoln and an officer come across David, now a prisoner of the Union. In Gentryville Elkins reads of David’s capture as a ‘traitor’.

Selling his house he comes to plead his case in Washington. Edward Stanton, the secretary of war, argues against

“setting aside verdicts.”

Elkins visit his son and encounters Lincoln in the garden.

A flashback shows us Abe and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, a present from the Parson. And we see his prayer over the grave of Abe’s mother.

Despite the argument of Stanton Lincoln releases David into the custody of his parents.

Native State.

Running just on 30 minutes.

This title opens in 1863 and secretary Stanton has decreed the confiscation of enemy property: including the home of supporters of the Confederacy in Washington. One of these is the grandson of Daniel Boone who is to be evicted. Out in his carriage with his son Lincoln passes the house where the now blind old man is sitting as the house is emptied. Lincoln sits on the bench beside the old man who swears

“vengeance on Lincoln.”

Lincoln writes a note to Stanton and we enter a flashback.

Lincoln’s grandfather Abraham has joined Daniel Boone in Kentucky where fighting goes on with hostile Indians. His father, then a young Tom, finds his sister Dot is missing. He finds her in the woods but both are captured by an Indian, Crow Eye. At the Indian camp there is debate as to what to do with the c children. Sympathetic Indian squaw, Fawn, takes the children away. The trio are menaced by a wild cat. But Abraham, searching for the c children with Boone, shoots the animal. Fawn is allowed to leave.

When the flashback ends Lincoln orders the Officer to leave and countermands the order of eviction. Informing Boone of this they shake hands and Lincoln leaves.

So the final surviving episode of the cycle, accompanied at the piano by Daan van den Durk.

Under the Stars

Running 27 minutes.

The stars in the title refer to the flag; the issue, discussed at a White House cabinet meeting, is whether Kentucky, a slave state, will join the Confederacy. There are cuts between a series of scenes: the cabinet discussion: the meeting of the Kentucky State caucus: Lincoln playing with his son in the White House garden: and Lincoln with Colonel Homes, an emissary from Kentucky.

So that “Kentucky is saved for the flag” Lincoln sends a letter to the Kentucky leaders recounting another of his tales from the past.

In a flashback we again encounter the Lincoln family in the times of the grandfather Abraham. The family move from Virginia to Kentucky. They set up in a cabin near a fort where is seen Daniel Boone.

After a dispute over a dead deer ‘hostile ‘Indians’ attack the cabin. Then Abraham is killed by an arrow in the back. A rescue party from the fort, including Daniel Boone, find the young Tom by the body of Abraham.

In the present Lincoln concludes

“[He] gave his life to place the star of Kentucky in the flag.”

The title ends with the Kentucky State Assembly approving neutrality in the war.

Richard Koszarski, in his article in ‘The Call of the Heart – John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ (2018) has brief plot outlines for the missing episodes.

‘Down the River’

The Mississippi in the olden days was infested by bands of slave-dealers who seized free negroes and sold them into slavery. While floating with the tide down the river on a long raft with a load of goods, young Lincoln becomes the central character in a contest of craftiness and violence with the worst of these gangs who have stolen a free negro from New Salem, a little black urchin, cause much excitement and furnish the side-splitting fun of this picturesque romance of the Mississippi.

“Ninth Chapter                                          ‘The Slave Auction’

This shows the slave center at its worst. Here young Abe is at close quarters with the band of slave-stealers. To save the free negroes, he again becomes the main figure of a drama of plot and counterplot, suspense, excitement and humor in their highest form. In the very shadow of the auction block a voodoo fortune-teller prophesies that he will become President, that he will be the leader in a great war and that through him will slaves be freed. Lincoln fails to save the free negroes and in righteous wrath he vows,

“I I ever get a chance to hit slavery, I’ll hit it hard.”

Both the voodoo woman’s vision, and young Abe’s pledge come true, for, in thirty-one years, Lincoln, as President, signs Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery for ever.”

These synopsis are marketing material and do not really offer a sense of the treatment. Does either episode use flashbacks in the manner of other episodes? In fact they seem connected in a linear story that is different from the rest of the cycle. It is not clear if the mini-narrative consciously illustrates from Lincoln’s experience; is he recalling events in some situation. The resolution of ‘The Slave Auction’ does suggest the events recounted offer an explanation of a central part of Lincoln’s project. It is also intriguing; why are these two episodes missing? I have not seen any explanation of this. It seems that they were omitted in some releases of the Education version in the 1920s. If so it suggests a value-laden decision. The Hollywood studios were prone to omit material on the ‘Jim Crow’ culture of the South and its antecedents because of fears of effects on box office.

Noting that reservation the surviving overall cycle remains an impressive work. It would seem that Chapin is important in the development of the project. However, it is also clear that Chapin deny proper credits to his collaborators and critics have to surmise their input.

Richard Koszarski, in the Festival Catalogue, has provided some of the cast and craftspeople involved. Chapin played Lincoln, his father Tom and his grandfather Abraham. Lincoln as a boy – Charlie Jackson. Nancy Hanks, the mother, Madelyn Clare. Other cast members included Alice Inwood, Florence Short, Joseph Monahan and John Stafford. These names were revealed by Stahl when he publicised his own role as director.

There seem to have been a number of writers who contributed to the screenplays: Paul Bern, Monte Katterjohn, William B. Laub and Donald Buchanan. There were at least three cinematographers who worked on the cycle: J. Roy Hunt, Harry Fischbeck and Walter Blakely. The production was filmed in 19125 and 1916 on the East Coast Studio. Visually the film is conventional relying mainly on mid-shots and long shots. There are frequent use of the iris to focus on a character, prop or detail. The editing is excellent, though not credited. The entrance and exit to the flashbacks is well judged and produce a fairly complex narrative for the period.

It is difficult now to determine whose influence produced what in the cycle. Chapin clearly bought an overall vision to the series of films. Richard Koszarski makes some comments on the possible contributions of both Chapin and Stahl.

“Many events depicted do not recall any of Chapin’s theatrical productions, especially the emphasis on young Abe’s relationship with his mother in the first episode, or the continuing concern with slavery and racial injustice seen in My First Jury, Down the River and the Slave Auction … last two episodes unfortunately missing) … [it] focuses instead on his [Lincoln] sense of patriotism and justice and refers to the rebels as traitors, an unusually blunt position noted with surprise by reviewers.”

The synopses for the missing episodes suggest a different treatment in My First Jury from the two later films. And the emphasis on patriotism may well have been because of contemporary issues, including that of war, where Chapin takes a pro-entry position. And perhaps the blunt condemnation of the Confederacy, like the issue of slavery, was a factor in the missing episodes being excluded.

On the narratives Koszarski writes:

“Even more striking is the way in which the Cycle uses memory. The film incorporates flashbacks as a basic structuring device illustrating how formative experiences shape our entire character …..”

He notes how some instances, such as the fights with Huck Carter, are presented more than once and with different footage. And he also raises the way character is presented; the importance Nancy, Lincoln’s mother. He wonders regarding the issue of slavery, noting that this is an issue [like motherhood] which is not found in the theatrical productions by Chapin that proceeded the films.

One can also speculate about what was bought to the series by the team of writers used by Chapin. Paul Bern was a noted, writer, director and producer whose credit includes the memorable Grand Hotel (1932). Monte Katterjohn was an experienced film script writer hose most famous credit is the 1921 The Sheikh. William B. Laub was another writer, here at the start of his career. A number of his credit are period dramas. Donald Buchanan was similar, starting out writing stories for films and progressing to script writing.

Like the surviving reels the queries on authorship are more questions than answers. But the production teams produced a fascinating exploration of Lincoln and his position in US culture. This was the period that followed the elevation of Lincoln to his status as the greatest US President. Chapin’s career, on stage, on film and as a public figure testify to the centrality of the figure to the US history. Following the cycle through the week of Le Giornate was a rewarding experience.

Note, the version at Le Giornate was transferred from the prints held at the Packard Center of the Library of Congress. There were safety prints from the Education Version. Thank you to Zoran Sinobad for the information,.

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The President/ Præsidenten, Denmark 1919

Posted by keith1942 on September 12, 2019

Screened at the 2019 Il Cinema Ritrovato, The Catalogue places this film in the programme of 1919; one of the titles already familiar to many in the audience.

“1919 was the year of the directorial debut of the man who was to become the greatest international name in Danish cinema.  Carl Th. Dreyer had worked for Nordisk Films Kompagni for six years, first as a script consultant and writer of intertitles, then as a scriptwriter. He had worked on some 20 projects and had also tried his hand at editing.” (Dan Nisen).

After this apprenticeship Dreyer had many of the skills required to take up direction with this his first feature. Dreyer adapted the story from a novel by the Austrian  writer Karl Emil Franzos. Nissen explains that,

“Dreyer had worked on the script  and had cut away all the political and social material from the novel, which dealt quite  a lot with class structure and the political situation in Austria.”

The former aspect means the film is predominantly a personal drama. I found the plotting rather more conventional than the later features by Dreyer. But the design, visualisation and performances are of the same recognisable quality.

“What interested Dreyer was the story of three men of different generations, failing to fulfil their responsibility toward women of a different class, bearing their children.”

The film opens with Karl Victor (Halvard Hoff) and his farther Victor von Sendlingen (Elith Pio). They are at the gates of a ruined castle, once the domain of the Sendlingen family. The father tells his son;

“I die a wretch.”

In a flashback he explains how his own father made him marry a r girl whom he had made pregnant.

“no good ever comes from such an alliance.”

and he makes his son swear never to marry a commoner.

The films now moves forward three decades and Karl Victor is the President [senior judge] of the town tribunal. He is highly respected. This is demonstrated by a celebration I have never seen awarded a judge on film; the town people march in a torch lit procession to the unveiling of a bronze head of Karl Victor. His best friend is a lawyer, Berger. To Him Victor confesses that he cannot try an upcoming case because the accused is his illegitimate daughter, Victorine. He fathered her in a relationship with the governess of the children of his uncle. When he proposed to marry the pregnant young woman his uncle reminded him of the oath extracted by his father. Later, as a young woman, Victorine worked as a governess and was herself seduced by the young son of the family. She is now on trial because her baby died and she is accused of infanticide.

Berger unsuccessfully defends Victorine. Under sentence of death she is secretly released by Victor who flees the town with his daughter and two faithful servants. Three years later Berger comes across Victor, now under an assumed name.

Victorine is to be married. After the wedding Victor returns to his old t won and offers himself for trial. His successor refuses the offer on the grounds that it would undermine faith in the judiciary. Returning to the ruined family castle Victor jumps / falls to his death.

I have e not read the original novel but the plot presented by Dreyer is interesting among other ways in comparison with the film by Alfred Hitchcock from 1929, The Manxman. This film was adapted from a novel by Hall Caine. There are quite a few differences in the plot from the Dreyer work, but it shares the situation of a young woman on trial for infanticide and with the judge the man involved in her pregnancy and situation. The Hitchcock goes for the full-blooded melodrama of a confrontation in the court room. Dreyer, by contrast, adopts a far more restrained presentation, with the secretive escape. The Manxman’s sequence take place in the full light and public glare of the court room. The Dreyer has the quartet, surreptitious leaving by night, in scenes full of shadows and dark corners.

This seems to me to fit into the characteristics way that Dreyer treats people and their situations. He focuses on the way that people face the contradictions of life, often with an intensity rarely found d in cinema. Præsidenten is an early film and does not achieve the intensity of later works by Dreyer. I thought at times that the narrative was treated in  rather conventional manner. In an early scene a young woman plays with a puppy and a kitten. This trope appears later in the film. And the mise en scene is often not as sparse as in later films. I did find that the opening and closing sequence at the ruined castle had the power that Dreyer develops  as he grows more experienced.

The screening presented a restoration which had used newly discovered records of the tinting and toning for the film. This was a fine 35mm print and the tinting and ton tinting was very well done; avoiding the over-saturation that sometimes mars modern examples of the technique. And the film benefited from a  fine and lyrical accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. The opening, as we encounter the ruin for the first time, struck a fine, plaintive tone.

 

 

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Twin Kiddies, USA 1916.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2019

Fay, Grandfather and son

This film was screened in ‘Soul and Craft: A Portrait of Henry King’ at the Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019. King started out as an ac tor in Hollywood in 1913. He progressed to director and worked on over 100 films up until his last in 1962. For most of his career he was based at the Fox Studio. Many of his best films fir into the category of ‘Americana’ and he was adept at portraying typical figures from US culture and storytelling. He generally retained supervision over the editing of the productions so that most of his films are what we would today term ‘director’s cuts’.

This title has a fairly conventional situation: two children who look identical leading to adults mistaking one for the other. The two children are Bessie and Fay, both played by Marie Osborne. We first meet Fay, the young child of the Van Loan household. This is an affluent house hold in a large mansion with a team of servants. The head of the household is William Van Loan (Daniel Gilfether) who is the owner of the Powhatan mine and who lives with his adult son Baxter (R. Henry Grey), father of Fay. She is a spoilt child and neither the family nor her governess (Mignon le Brun) exercise much control over her. We see her playing with her pet dog and irritating both family and servants. Her sympathetic friends are her grandfather and the butler, Spencer (Edward Jobson).

Bessie is the daughter of Jasper Hunt [Henry King himself]. He appears to be a widower and the household and Bessie are cared for by the housekeeper Mrs Flannigan (Ruth Lackaye). Jasper is the manager at the Powhatan mine and we learn that there is a dispute between the workers and the overseers over an insufficiency of roof props in one mine shaft.

Van Loan senior visits the  Mine with his family. Fay is taken by her governess to an open-air site with a lake. It is here that Fay and Bessie meet and in their games change dresses. Mistakenly each child is taken back to the wrong household. Somewhat implausibly neither household notices the mistake, not even Spencer or Mrs Flannigan. Jasper and Mrs Flannigan think that Bessie [Fay[] is ill. The Van Loan household are puzzled by Fay’s [Bessie]

“sweetness and obedience.”

The discovery of the truth coincides with the collapse of the suspect tunnel at the mine. The children and families are re-united. It emerges that the two girls are twins, separated due to an arranged marriage; a frequent plot device in early cinema. So Bessie gets a sister and a new doll: Fay becomes a well-behaved child: and Jasper is promoted to manager: [I think either my notes or a title here or earlier was in error].

Marie Osborne is excellent as the two young girls. She is reckoned to be Hollywood’s first child star and successfully made 29 films up until 1919. She had a later minor career as an adult. The cinematography by William Beckway is fine and there is some good use of exterior locations. The common change in mid-shots to ‘close-ups] is by use of an iris. The film is well edited and the cutting between the two families, the two homes and the mine works well. The plot is fairly conventional and the sub-plot relating to the mine is not really integrated into the story line. Perhaps the producers wanted to pad the story out into a four reeler.

The print was of  fair quality. The production company Balboa Amusement sold out toe Pathé and we had a French Cinémathèque print with Desmet colour for the tinting; [one exterior scene set in the evening had green tinting].  Maud Nelissen provided a suitable, at time chirpy, accompaniment.

 

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The Story of a Boy / Historien om en gut, Norway 1919

Posted by keith1942 on August 20, 2019

An attempt by Esben to escape

This film was part of ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 1919’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato and in a Chapter entitled ‘Independent Cinema’. This rare term in relation to early cinema referred to

“showing film from countries that were not the key players in silent film production in 1919.” (Karl Wratschko in the Festival Catalogue).

So whilst Scandinavia was one of the most impressive sites of film-making at this time Norway was not in the forefront. The introductory talk mentioned only ten productions in the territory in this decade.

The Catalogue notes also note that

“Most of the time independent films were obliged to work with a limited budget, which often meant shooting outdoors. In those movies actors are recorded on location in a frame filled with natural details and snippets from daily life.”

This title is a good example of both of these comments. However, it only survived in an incomplete form. The version screened was 987 meters which gave 54 minutes at 16 fps. It is reckoned that about a third of the original film is missing, something like 500 meters; about 30 minutes.

However, the truncated version made narrative sense with sufficient inter-titles and presented a seemingly complete story.

The film opens with a title card,

“Wrongfully convicted.”

Esben is a thirteen year old boy. We see him first at home at breakfast time in what seems to be a substantial middle-class household which includes servants. Then he  is involved in a fight at school. His opponent, the ‘prankster’, seeks revenge by stealing the watch of the class teacher and secreting it in  Esben coat.

Questioned by the Principal Esben denies the accusation. But when the teacher uses his cane,

“An excellent educational method”

Esben confesses. Fearful of the consequences, instead of going home Esben sells his school books  in a shop, and some of his school clothes in a second-hand store. He takes  a skiff on the river and then sneaks on board a sailing vessel. Meanwhile his parents discover his absence and the accusation of theft. Whilst the mother wants to find her son the father brandishes a whip with which

“he will teach him a lesson.”

Esben hides in the hold but, ill from malnutrition, he is discovered by the crew. The Captain of the brig. Bella Rosa, has already established his character when we see him alone in his cabin drinking. He decides Esben will serve punishment through working and immediately sends Esben up into the rigging. Esben falls and is only saved by a sympathetic sailor.

Back at the school another boy has exposed the lies and theft of the prankster. The principal and the parents learn how Esben sold his possessions. The mother distraught faints.

Esben is able to escape from the brig and lands on shore. He survives on the countryside and then at a farm gets work for ‘bed and breakfast’. His task is minding the goats. The daughter of the farm becomes friendly with Esben but when a goat is lost Esben is summarily sacked.

Meanwhile we see Esben’s school mates reading of his being missing in a newspaper. The father offers  reward; we see him in his office, obviously a professional of some standing. The reward leads to a stranger attempting to obtain money with false information.

Esben’s next adventure is in a logging yard where he narrowly escapes attack by the guard dogs. However, in escaping, he falls in with a criminal gang who propose to train him a s pickpocket. When he escapes from here they pursue him and there is a long chase over gardens, walls, rocks and a river. Esben is then rescued by a group of Boy Scouts who also assist the police in arresting the gang. So Esben returns home in the uniform of the Boy Scouts. He is embraced by his mother and then by the father, who relents from punishment.

The narrative of a boy unjustly accused and running away is familiar and conventional. This does have distinctive features like the selling of the boy’s school books and the positive role played by the Boy Scouts. The latter presumably represent certain values; the movement was only a decade or so old and inculcated fairly traditional values among young men. It also offered a particular feel for nature and the great outdoors.

The film combines studio sets and natural locations. The former, as in the ship’s hold, are rather obvious. The latter provide that sense of natural place and detail noted by the Catalogue. The cinematographer, Carl Alex Söderström, worked on three productions by the director and here makes effective use of the countryside.

The director, Peter Lykke-Seest, was a writer of fiction and poetry. He started writing film scripts in the 1911, for film-makers in both Denmark and Sweden. In all he wrote 21 screenplays, some directed by prestigious names such as August Blom, Victor Sjöström and Maurice Stiller. In 1916 he set up the film company Christiania Film Co. with a studio in Oslo. He produced  nine films up until 1919 both writing and directing most of the titles.  This is the title is the only one to survive. Like two others in the series the protagonist is a child and here played by the director’s son, Esben.

So this was a film worth catching with a reasonably good print, an interesting introduction by Erik Frisvold Hanssen of the Library of Norway and a good accompaniment by Donald Sosin.

 

 

 

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The Mask and the Face / La maschera e il volto, Italy 1919

Posted by keith1942 on August 6, 2019

Savina, Paolo, Marta, Luciano

This film was part of the programme ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 1919’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The programmers, Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratchko, commented in the Festival Catalogue:

“1919 is the first year of the A Hundred Years Ago strand for which a certain canon exists … [ Stroheim, Gance, Dreyer ..] we decided, as in every year since 2004, to go on a pilgrimage to the archives and view as many films from 1919 as possible.”

So this title from Italy is not a masterpiece though it is a very interesting film. The director, Augusto Genina’ is an important film-maker from the period. The story is adapted by Luciano Doria from a play by Luigi Chiarelli.

“… a three-act play … first staged in 1916 – a resounding success that gave birth to a new national theatrical movement: ‘grotesque theatre’, which staged the exasperation of bourgeois comedy.” (Andrea Meneghelli in the Festival Catalogue).

Apparently the film, the first of several adaptations, plays down the ‘grotesque’ elements.

Savina Grazia (Italia Almirante Manzini) is married to jealous husband Paolo (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli). His possessive actions drive her into an affair with Paulo’s close friend Luciano (Ettore Piergiovanni). Luciano is a lawyer and himself engaged to Marta. Paolo, at a social, boasts that if his wife is unfaithful he will kill her lover, unaware that this is actually Luciano. An important sub-plot, only partially explained, presents a couple of a boat on the nearby Lake Como. The couple never leave the boat and Paolo’s friends believe that

“Her husband is a terrible Othello.”

Paolo’s violence leads to Savina fleeing the house. To maintain face Paulo falsely claims to have killed her as a matter of honour. Luciano, who believes this, defends Paulo against a murder charge and achieves an acquittal. Now the body of a woman is found floating in the lake, decayed beyond recognition; possibly that of the woman on the boat. But everybody assumes that it is the body of Savina. This sets up the story for a complicated but upbeat ending. Here Genina’s ending is more in line with traditional social comedy than the ‘grotesque theatre’.

The film is entertaining and well performed by the cast. The style is fairly conventional for the period but there are some excellent location sequences. This balances some of the interiors which are somewhat theatrical in their staging. The print was in good condition though it was slightly shorter than a recorded length for the original: there were a couple of scene changes that were a little abrupt. But the image quality was fine. There was a nicely appropriate accompaniment by Daniele Furlati.

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Fante-Anne / Gypsy Anne, Norway 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2019

Jon with the adult Anne

This title was screened at the 2017 Giornate del Cinema Muto in the Scandinavian Cinema programme. The film stood up well in a strong collection. It was the earliest example of a feature length Norwegian production with an indigenous narrative and a strong rural focus. It was adapted from a short story by the writer Kristofer Janson. A C19th writer and minister who wrote popular rural dramas; he had worked in the USA amongst Norwegian-Americans. This added a US audience to that at home and the director, Rasmus Breistein accompanied a tour and the films with a fiddle.

Breistein was a pioneer in the Norwegian film industry which, up to this point, had not really produced films that reflected Norwegian life and culture. Breistein would go on to direct films in Norway right up until the 1950s. His more famous silent is The Bridal Party in Hardanger / Brudeferden i Hardanger (1926),

This film opens with two ‘foster siblings’; Anne who is ‘a wild one’ and Haldor who is ‘more tranquil’. We see several scenes where Anne leads Haldor into more adventurous escapades and for which he is punished. Spying on a romantic couple motivates Anne to take Haldor to a small waterfall and encourage him to act romantic with a kiss. And the final event is in the creek, off-limits to the children, and into which Haldor falls. When his mother sees his state she complains that Anne should

“’never allowed to stay here.”

The listening Anne runs to her adult friend, Jon, a labourer on the Storlien farm. He explains Anne’s history which we see in flashback. A wandering woman with child is refused help at the farm. But the next morning Jon finds the dead woman and her surviving child in the barn. Thus Anne came to stay on as an ‘adopted’ sister to Haldor. Anne cries as Jon comforts her. The sequence ends with an iris shot of Jon. A title follows with a comparison of the children to ‘the prince and Cinderella’ but notes the

‘she’ has to ‘stay in the cottage’.

An ellipsis of several years follows.

The ‘adult’ section of the film opens with an iris shot of a tolling bell and then a cut to Anne happily pulling on a bell rope. This has no plot significance but presumably establishes that Anne remains a ‘wild spirit’. There follows a long shot of two men in a field, the adult Haldor and Jon. They are identified by further shots, first of Haldor in a long shot and then of Jon. But Jon, it what is presumably a sign to the audience of later developments, is presented in the foreground with Haldor in the background. And this follows the privileging shot of Jon at the end of the childhood sequence.

A long section has sequence of Anne working up the hillside at the summer farm tending for goats and cows. Both Haldor and John visit Anne. Jon makes a rather shamefaced proposal which Anne deflects. She is really in love with Haldor which is apparent on his visits. And we also see her in the village and the couple attending an open-air dance. Here the character of the two suitors is emphasised. Haldor gets in to a fight with another young man who has the temerity to dance with Anne. This is intercut with a shot of Jon and home with his mother and reading

“his collection of sermons.”

Village gossip about the romance between Haldor and Anne comes to the ears of his mother. She retains her old disdain for Anne and questions Haldor whether he should

“marry a girl of unknown origin.”

She suggests a local girl Margit whose family is

“rich and respectable.”

In fact, Haldor has already proposed to Anne. But he backtracks and stats to woo Margit. We see her visit his mother and inspect a new house which Haldor, as the

“richest bachelor in the village”

is building for himself and now his new bride.

Matters now come to a head. Haldor and Jon drop in at the summer farm whilst on the hill gathering moss. They do not see Anne but she overhears their conversation as Jon upbraids Haldor for his cavalier treatment of Anne. This scene is cut relatively fast and combines mid-shots and iris shots of the trio, including Anne listening at a door. Later Haldor returns home whilst Jon stays on the hillside with a lame horse. Fired by what she has heard Anne slips down the hill and waits till late. Then she creeps in to Haldor’s unfinished new house and set fire to kindling. The fire of the house is hot in red tints. Then we see the fire from afar as viewed by Jon descending the hillside. He finds Anne who is creeping back to the summer arm. Panicking she tells him

”if you say a word …. in the waterfall.”

There is another ellipsis and we find ourselves outside the local Court house where the villagers gather for an investigation into the fire. After another witness Anne is questioned by the recorder [magistrate]. She is cheeky in her responses and denies nay knowledge of the fire. The Jon is called forth. Passing Anne who gives him a terrified look he stands and confesses that he started the fire, suggesting jealousy as a motive. He is bound over and sentenced to prison.

The following scene sees Jon come to say goodbye to his mother. But Anne is already at the hut, having confessed to his mother. When Jon sees Anne he tells her that he believes that he can cope with prison better then her and it would likely have an adverse effect on her. The accompanying policeman has not seen Anne and he takes Jon away to begin his prison sentence.

Anne runs across the hills and is seen standing outside the prison as Jon is led in. Anne stays in town and obtains a job as a nanny. When Jon is released he is met by Anne who take shim to his mother. He says that he will

“go to America … if you and mother join me.”

Anne;’s acceptance is signalled as she shakes Jon’s hand. We last see them in a reverse shot as they stand at the rail of the ship,

“three happy people.”

Off to the USA ..

“a place without prejudice.”

The cast of the film perform well. Anne Nielsen is convincing as the adult Anne. Eino Tveito’s Jon is a serious character and presents the restraints that follow from his working status. He does not age in the move from childhood to adult world, but in both he seems a paternal figure. It is noteworthy that at the film ‘s resolution we have a feel of comradeship between Anne and Jon with their handshake rather than a more conventional romantic tone.

It is this style of treatment that contributes to the film’s achievement of a realist feel.

“The film’s authenticity in its treatment of environment and character remains striking, as does its beautiful cinematography, and is all the more impressive considering that the vast majority of those involved in the production were making films for the first time. But the director, the cinematography, and the actors all had a solid base in Norwegian music, literature and peasant culture.” (Festival Catalogue).

Gunnar Nilsen-Vig is credited with design, cinematography and editing. So his input is an important aspect of the final film. Visually the film has an impressive look and contributes to the feel of authenticity. There is amount of iris shots, common in this period. This is particular so in the dramatic sequences. However, such shots also privilege certain characters like Anne and Jon who enjoy the majority of these.

This is an interesting and convincing drama. The catalogue notes the influence of Swedish films and I was struck by some crossovers between this film and Victor Sjöström’s Ingmarssönerna (Sons of Ingmar but Dawn of Love in Britain, 1919). However, in that film it is the women who goes to prison, making the latter a more subversive narrative. Still, Anne is a strong women who eventually finds her way in life.

Director and scriptwriter, Rasmus Breistein. Based on a short story by Kristofer Janson (1878). Cinematography, design and editing; Gunnar Nilsen-Vig.

Cast: Anne Nielsen – Anne. Einar Tveito – Jon. Lars Tvinde – Haldor. Johanne Bruhn – mother of Haldor. Henny Skjønberg – mother of Jon. Edvard Drabløs – magistrate. Dagmar Myhrvold – mother of Anne.

Kommunernes Filmscentral.

DCP from 35mm, 75 minutes transferred at 15 fps. Tinted. Titles, Norwegian, English sub-titles.

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The Fifth Nitrate Picture Show

Posted by keith1942 on May 21, 2019

The weekend this year ran from Friday May 3rd to Sunday May 5th. We missed out on a Thursday night treat as the George Eastman Museum was celebrating Julia Roberts and [I am pretty sure] she was never filmed on nitrate. Prior to the weekend, in a first, a cryptic pitch from the Museum hinted at some of the delights:

“There will be at least one Academy Award Winner for Best Picture

A film directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Jon Barrymore will be present on our silver screen

And, we’ll have every genre from mysteries and romance to westerns and film noir to comedy and cartoons! “

On our journey down we produced a list of potential titles. The only success was the Hitchcock title which Peter Rist had seen before and which he knew was a print at the Museum

The programme was announced Friday morning at 8.45 a.m. We were still enjoying a fine breakfast before walking up to collect a programme. Initially I wondered whether this would be a good year but it turned out to be excellent, with both interesting and entertaining films and generally good quality prints. We had enough time to walk in to town and visit the Greenwood Bookshop, a recommended stop for anyone visiting Rochester. We fortunately also had time to visit the Memorial Museum of Fine Art. This featured an installation by Isaac Julien celebrating Frederick Douglas. Douglas is buried in the city. This was a splendid feature. Ten screens, of varying sizes, displayed video films dramatising important events in the life of Douglas. It was very well set out; one could follow key screens and still be aware of the other screens and how the representations moved around these. I only had time for one viewing, [it runs half-an-hour], so I hope it will be seen in Britain at some point.

Friday afternoon started with two talks in the series ‘Keepers of the Frame’. David Russell from the Imperial War Museum delved into the history of that Institution and his own archival experiences to offer insights in to working with nitrate, especially the most important issue of preservation. He downplayed the hazards of the format though he stressed the problems of finding and keeping good copies. Elaine Burroughs followed presenting the James Card Memorial Lecture. She talked about her experiences at the British Film Institute and also with FIAF [International Federation of Film Archives]. She had some startling clips illustrating nitrate’s inflammability. So we enjoyed ‘Mr Ice’ and M/s Fire’; rather like the bout in The Black Dahlia (20026).

The programme of films followed the patterns set in earlier years. So the first session was devoted to shorts.

Battle of Midway (USA 1942), an 18 minute colour print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome it was released in a 35mm Technicolor print. Commander [John] Ford supervised the filming. And well known actors, Ray Milland, Donald Crisp and Jane Darwell read the commentary. This is very much from the US side though it shows the casualties and wreckage of the US forces. There is some fine aerial cinematography. But the tone, as is the wont in US war movies, is stentorian.

Swooner Crooner, (USA 1944), was one of several colour animations, this by Frank Tashlin. This was also from the Museum of Modern Art. Running seven minutes it shows a battery of hens being encouraged to increase egg production. The hens are clearly stand-ins for the female work force in World War II, demonstrating the changes in representations between then and now.

Tulips Shall Grow was another war-time colour animation, (USA 1942), this time from the hand of George Pals. The print and the Technicolor were in fine condition , in a Library of Congress print. The plot involves a young Dutch couple who suffer when the ‘army of Screwballs’ invade. But ‘Mother Nature’ provides a catalyst for resistance and victory over the invaders. These were cartoon variations on thinly disguised allies and Nazis.

‘When Tulips Bloom’

Looking at London (USA 1946). This was a Fitzpatrick Travel Talk, running 10 minutes and in Technicolor, also from the Library of Congress. The film presents London post-war including the effects of the German bombing campaigns. Somewhat scratched the film seems rather bland compared with the documentaries and newsreel from the war years.

Gardens of the Sea (USA 1947) and Landscape of the Norse (USA 1947) , both from the Academy Film Archive, were both documentaries studying places overseas; not one of the strongest suits of US cinema. The Australian coral reefs look good in the title’s Cinecolor and are a pleasure. The exploration of Norway picks up when the film travels to the northern reaches of the country. Both prints were from the Academy Film Archive,.

The Cobweb Hotel (USA 1936) was a delightful animation in colour from David Fleischer provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The sardonic tone as flies battle to escape the malevolent designs of a spider are very entertaining.

Finally The Temperamental Lion (USA 1939) was a colour animation which offered rather conventional plotting. It has been preserved by the Chicago Film Society. Unfortunately it seemed to be a warped print which meant that the focus came and went. This last screening demonstrated the ageing faults that the projection team had to tackle in presenting the titles. All had some level of shrinkage and several had suffered damage to the edges and sprocket holes.

The evening meal break offered both the excellent Museum bar and [an innovation from 2018] food wagons by the entrance. If you were energetic you could also walk to a nearby restaurant, though these are at least ten minutes or more away.

The early evening programme was Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930). The screening was from a George Eastman print which they acquired from the legendary Henri Langlois and it was in reasonable condition. This is an undoubted classic and a fine example of surrealist film. It is longer and more complex than Un Chien Andalu (1929), partly because it has both title cards and recorded dialogue, plus recorded music and effects. Sex, violence, satire, subversion and sardonic humour engage one for just over an hour. I especially like the giraffe flying out a window, the cow on the bed, and a familiar figure with hitherto suppressed biography. The Catalogue recorded the disruptions to the original screening and also a fine example of right wing anger and bile:

“All those who have safeguarded the grandeur that is France, all those, even if they are atheists, who respect religion, all those who honour family life and hold childhood sacred, all those who have faith in a race which has enlightened the world , all those sons of France whom you have chosen to defend you against the moral poison of unworthy spectacles appeal to you now to uphold the rights of the censor.” (In ‘Le Figaro’, December 13, 1930).

If I did not already know the film I would have rush to see it.

The evening ended with The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949). This was the last major title directed by Preston Sturges in Hollywood. The print from the Museum of Modern Art was in good shape and the Technicolor format offered bold and vivid colours. The ‘Blonde’ (Betty Grable) is a western ‘sure shot’ whose main problem is her unfaithful boyfriend Blackie (Caesar Romero). The action tends to slapstick but is done with real panache. The climatic sequence is a lengthy gun battle full of witty visuals. The audience went to bed full of humour.

Saturday morning opened with the 1947 Nightmare Alley. This was a print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It was a pleasure to watch:

“The blacks are saturated to give the eerie feeling of night shadows and life on the dark side.”

Generally seen as a film noir the film lacks the flashbacks and confessional mode of the genre. And the femme fatale in this story is an overweening ambition embodied in fake spiritualist Stanton ‘Stan’ (Tyrone Power). In 2018 we had a fine Tyrone Power film, The Razor’s Edge (1946) adapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham. Both these films were directed by Edmund Goulding, a Hollywood talent that deserves greater recognition. This film also has fine black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes. The ‘Variety’ review (October 15, 1947)commented

“Despite the grim realism of its treatment, it has all the shuddery effect of a horror yarn”

The afternoon started with a short film by Arne Sucksdorff from the Swedish Film Institute / Svenska Film Institute, Strandhugg (‘Forays’, 1950). The print was in excellent shape and Sucksdorff’s films offer fine black and white cinematography. Two earlier Picture Show were graced by his work and this 15 minute film offers poetic sequences of the seaside.

 

The feature in this session came from the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland / Kansallinen audiovisualinen institutti: People of the Summer Night / Ihmiset suviyössä (1948) was directed by Valentin Vaala. Vaala made 44 films in a long career but this is reckoned to be his finest. It is adapted from a novel by Frans Eemil Sillanpää’s (1934). Set over one night in a small rural community we watch various relationships and actions among local people; these include birth, death, and conflicts fuelled by alcohol. There also seems to be a implicit gay character. The cinematography by Eino Heino is excellent. The film offers a ‘warm-hearted and sensitive’ evocation of the ordinary but compressed for dramatic purposes.

Late afternoon offered a Cinecolor western, The Nevadan (1950). Cinecolor was a two colour subtraction system, cheaper and quicker to process than Technicolor. Not that many features were filmed in the process which offered especially vibrant orange, red, blue and green.

“Ruggedness and realism, plus the employment of Cinecolor photography, have established several cuts above average westerns the sagebrush sagas produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott.” (‘Boxoffice’, January 14 1950).

This is typical Scott hero. Upright and stalwart, as he outmanoeuvres and outguns the villains led by George Macready. And there is the young Dorothy Malone, not just a romantic interest, but involved in the action. The print from the Austrian Film Museum had quite a lot of scratches and noticeable splices but the colour was excellent.

Rebecca (1940) ticked an Academy Award winner, a Hitchcock film and a mystery movie. This was a George Eastman print in pretty good condition. There is some fine cinematography by George Barnes and a great score by Franz Waxman. I find that the first part of the film is really good as we encounter [through the eyes and ears of the unnamed heroine) the titular dead character. But once the past is revealed I think the film becomes less interesting and dynamic. The screening included a set of screen tests. Those with Joan Fontaine wearing possible costumes were poor; she had a high temperature and the costumes were clearly inappropriate. But the following two, with Nova Pilbeam and Anne Baxter, demonstrated how apt was the casting of John Fontaine.

The Sunday opened with a classic film noir, Dead Reckoning (1947). This was a Library of Congress print with signs of wear, both on the emulsion and on the sound track. However, it still showed off the qualities of this black and white film. The movie has all the characteristics of a noir thriller; the confessional mode, flashbacks, the world of chaos into which the hero falls, night and chiaroscuro and a femme fatale. But I did not find it had a strong noir feel. This is mainly because the fatale, ‘Dusty’ (Lizabeth Scott] seems more like the scheming female of private eye films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941). And Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Rip’ is in the mould of the same private eye.

The afternoon offered a John Barrymore film, Counsellor at Law (1933), finely directed in an adaptation from Elmer Rice’s play by William Wyler. The print was from the UCLA Film and Television Archives in very good condition. The early sound track apparently needed adjustment from time to time by the projectionists. Rice was Jewish, a socialist and had legal training; all of which fed into the play and the film. Rice also wrote the screenplay and apparently Wyler referred frequently to the original play during production. Barrymore is excellent as a shyster Lawyer George Simon, originally from the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. The film [and play] follow his Machiavellian manoeuvres when a past case returns to haunt him. The pace and the dialogue are crisp and sharp; Isabel Jewell as telephonist Bessie is a delight. And there is one memorable scene when Simon agrees to defend the son of an old Jewish neighbour, Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman). Harry is a communist and in a terrific sequence turns on Simon who he denounces as a class traitor. Even though this is pre-code Harry later dies from injuries sustained from the New York police. Sherman was a target of HUAC in the 1950s, suspected of real-life communism.

Then to Blind Date. I find the mystery rather coy but this year the title was worth a wait, Gone to Earth (1950). The clue was a shot of the wedding cake after Hazel’s (Jennifer Jones) marriage to the Reverend Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). In the adaptation of a novel by Mary Webb Hazel,

“as she races barefoot across the Shropshire fields, her hair streaming behind her, like some mystic being from a quaint old folk tale …..” (‘Picture goer’ October 21, 1950)

is caught between the religious but liberal Edward and the sexy but brutal Squire ‘Jack’ (David Farrar). Rather than a triangle this is a square, including Foxy, a young vixen [unfortunate not credited]. Jennifer Jones is miscast as this wild country spirit but she gives her performance real panache. Cusack is grave and convincing and Farrar probably had the female audience swooning with desire. Hugh Griffith watches balefully in an oddly bizarre performance as Andrew Vessons, manservant.

‘Whose cake?’

The print was from the George Eastman Museum, a donation by the Selznick family. Fortunately it was the British print not the shorter US version titled The Wild Heart. Watching it fitted the comment in ‘The Spectator’ (September 29, 1950);

“Beautifully coloured, it is as lively a film to look at as I have ever seen, and when the direction deigns to be mobile it is infinitely rewarding.”

The directors were those idiosyncratic romantics, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

So this was a rewarding weekend filled full of cinematic pleasures. The organisers and volunteers got a deserved ovation at one point. And, in a habit that is distinctive to George Eastman, the audience were also invited to applaud the projectionists who work overtime to presents these old and often delicate prints. One of the problems they encounter is the shrinkage of prints, a standard difficulty with nitrate. It is reckoned that once pass 1% screening becomes really difficult. However, two of the best looking titles of the Weekend, Strandhugg and Gone to Earth, both had 1.05%. I have noted the origins of the prints and many of these were introduced by members of the particular archive. We also had introduction from George Eastman staff. In previous years speakers have focussed on the history of the print in question. This year they tended to talk about the ‘values of ‘reel’ screenings’; I do prefer the print detail.

 

Punters who would like to see a whole programme of the original cinema format should note that next year the Picture Show Weekend is later, June 4th to 7th 2020. We were advised that Yuri Tsivian is on a mission for the Museum scouring European Archives for Nitrate Prints. Perhaps Sergei Eisenstein, Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir?

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

The Parson’s Widow / Prästänkan, Sweden 1920

Posted by keith1942 on April 25, 2019

This title was part of the programme, Swedish Challenge: the quality of Scandinavian cinemas in this period meant there was never a challenge in enjoying the films. This is one of the earliest films of Carl Theodore Dreyer that I have seen. Here he is working for AB Svensk Filmindustri. Of his titles that I have seen it has the most light-hearted story. The film is set in C17th Norway and adapted by the director from a short story by Kristofer Janson. The basic plot follows the efforts of theologically trained Söfren (Einar Rød) to obtain a parish incumbency. He needs a stable income so that he can marry his sweetheart Mari (Greta Almroth). However, obtaining a benefice rendered vacant by the death of the incumbent he finds that the rules require him to marry his predecessor’s widow.

The film is divided into five acts. It opens with Söfren and Mari in a verdant setting, the young lovers. We then follow an extended sequence where Söfren must compete with two rivals for the vacancy. Söfren comes from a poor family and so the living is essential if he is to merry Mari. His rivals, Olev and Kurt, are both from more affluent families. We watch as in delightful comic modes the film shows us the travails and successes of the contest. Söfren is not above sabotaging his rivals. But they lack the dynamism that Söfren brings to the exemplar sermon which is judged by the congregation. All three have to preach to a congregation that fills the small church. In delightful scenes, that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Life’s Little Ironies’, Olev and Kurt lull the audience to sleep. Söfren, with a brand of bravado, keeps them wide awakes. These scenes in the church are intercut with shots of Mari as she wait in trepidation for the outcome. All through the film Dreyer has nicely judged counterpoints between the dramatic and the comic. Once Söfren is successful and wins the vacancy he discovers the catch; having to marry the widow of the deceased parson. Uncertain, Söfren goes to the parsonage and succumbs to the pleasures of the food and wine that are his new lot. As Mari remarks later, he has ben ‘bewitched’ [through physical pleasures] by the widow. The rest of the film follows as Söfren adapts different stratagems to inveigle Mari into the household [as his sister] and in a more sardonic tone, to remove the widow he has married.

There are a couple of ‘accidents’ but, this being a comedy, no fatalities. And towards the end of the film we are shown a more sympathetic side of the widow. Her memories of her own romantic youth and the impediments that she encountered point the way to a solution of the predicament. This sets up a satisfying and happy resolution.

The film is beautifully handled with many of the stylistic characteristics of Dreyer on show.

Dreyer emphasises ethnographic realism throughout his film. He shot the whole film in real 17th-century houses at Maihagen, an open-air museum near Lillehammer, not just the exteriors but the interiors too, despite the considerable logistic al difficulties this entailed.” (Notes in Festival Catalogue).

Extras were played local people in the area.

Geroge Schnéevoigt

Visually the film is a real pleasure. The interiors are convincing and the exteriors have that sense of authentic nature that graced Scandinavian cinema in this period. The cinematography, by Geroge Schnéevoigt, is very fine. Dreyer himself both scripted and edited the film. The cast are equally good. Einar Rød’s Söfren offers a rather passive lover which assists in much of comic business: a man clearly out of his depth away from the pulpit. Greta Almroth is the somewhat long-suffering fiancée facing the travails with patience. I had previously seen her in Victor Sjöström’s The Girl from Marsh Cottage / Tösen frân Stormyrtorpet (1917) where, as Helga, moral issues stood between her and happiness. She has a delightful screen presence. The widow is played by Hildur Carlberg who give the change in character of the woman real conviction .

The film has been restored and transferred to a DCP with a frame rate of 18 fps. Not a fan of digital transfers this look really good, one could imagine one was watching a 35mm print, including the tin tin g and toning. The Scandinavian archive do seem to set the quality standard for working with digital. John Sweeney added to the pleasures with a fine accompaniment.

Posted in Scadinavian film, Silent Comedy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Pordenone’ ‘Verdi’.

Posted by keith1942 on January 13, 2019

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto has offered an entrée into silent film since 1982. I was happy to go along for the first time in 1993 and[ fortunately] I have been able to attend every year since. In the early years we watched almost the entire programme in the old Cinema Verdi.

“From 1985 to 1998, the festival’s venue was the Cinema Verdi in Pordenone, a picture palace from the great post-war era of Italian cinema-going.”

The auditorium seated just over a 1,000 in a ground floor and a balcony. There was a proper projection booth with twin projectors and an ample and large screen. The downstairs seating was fine with good views of the screen from just about all the seats. The same was true of the balcony but the wooden seats could feel rather hard after several titles; cushions were advisable. On either side of the proscenium were two small balconies. It was from these that one of the great accompaniments was heard at the Festival. In the closing scene of Hell’s Heroes (1929) Charles Bickford staggers down the high street of a small western town. He is dying and clutching a small baby that he has saved and carried across the desert. The whole town is in the local church and as Bickford and the baby stagger through the porch, a choir, sited either side of the proscenium, burst into ‘Silent Night’ in the darkened auditorium. Was there a dry eye in the house.

“Following the local authorities’ decision to demolish the Verdi, in 1999 the Giornate moved to the Teatro Zancanaro in Sacile (15 km from Pordenone), a well-equipped modern auditorium behind the older facade of a theatre which has been presenting films since 1911.”

The Zancanaro was a fine venue but seated under 900. And in these years the Festival was expanding; as it had done continuously since its inception. There were additional screening of titles in the nearby Ridotto.; a hall rather than a cinema. The chairs were hard but the screenings were fine. It was there that I witnessed an impressive translation. We had a print on Stiller’s Gösta Berlings saga, 1924) but without English sub-titles. A member of the Festival audience [whose name alas I do not have] sat by the pianist and for over two hours translated the Swedish title cards.

“The Teatro Comunale “Giuseppe Verdi” of Pordenone rises on the ashes of the Cinema Teatro Verdi, closed on June 30, 1999 and subsequently demolished. In October 2007 the festival moved back to Pordenone and to the new Verdi theatre.”

The Festival has continued to have a screening at the Zancanaro on the Friday evening preceding the main programme. In Pordenone most of the screenings are in the new Verdi, with a few screening s[including Saturday morning when the orchestra rehearse for the final gala] in the Cinema Zero.

There were problems with the design of the new Verdi building, an opera and event venue rather than specifically for cinema. Apparently the sight lines were not good for all seats and the projection booth was inadequate. The move, planned for 2006, was delayed for a year. And the Festival has continued in this venue since 2007. The interior of the auditorium has steps by the side doors and there has been a few stumbles and an accident. So a dedicated band of ushers who assist people with torches to their seats. They are fine. Unfortunate some of the actual audience members also use their mobile phones as torches and quite a few of them do not realise that it is better to hold this at knee level rather than wave it about. There are three balconies. The first has some seats cordoned off because they are in front of the projection booth. The upper two are steep. There are quite a few seats on the ground floor and in the upper balconies where the sight lines are not good. I really did prefer the old Cinema Verdi.

ground floor and screen from balcony

The new Verdi seats just under 1,000 and that is the average number of registered guests in the last three years. And there are the local citizens who attend many of the screenings. So the last couple of years has seen queues forming, often 30 minutes or more before the next session stars. Fortunately rain is not frequent in Pordenone and even in October the temperature in the evening is mild. For many the queue if because they wish to sit in particular area. But for major titles it is just to ensure you can sit and watch the film.

There is a small Ridotto or rehearsal hall which is mainly used for the Master classes for aspiring silent film accompanists. But the hall was the venue for a striking commemoration. Celebrating the trail blazing FIAF event of 1981 which offered an in-depth study of early cinema. In this event we watched selection of some of the important material from that occasion, happily still on 35mm.

The Cinema Zero is fine but much smaller. It used to have a ground floor and balcony, the latter with the better sat. It was redesigned a year or so ago. And now there is one rake, with a separation aisle and standard comfortable seats throughout. However, it was just point this that the cinema went ‘all digital’. I remember passing a forlorn and abandoned 35mm projector outside the rear of the building.

Because of its design the Verdi has three floors of lobbies. One with a small coffee bar. It is here that the Festival places small exhibitions coinciding with a particular programme of films. And there are also a set of book and merchandise stalls. A good place for uncommon books and a wide variety of videos.

There is a large screen in the proscenium, 12 metres wide and 6 metres high. For screening sin the silent ratio of 1.33:1 this reduces to 8 by 5 metres. The projection booth in the Verdi is at the rear of the lower balcony and slightly off-centre. I had the chance to visit this and chat briefly to some of the projection team. The booth is fairly cramped. It should be noted that these days about half of the Festival programme is on 35mm prints, the rest on digital formats. So every day the team have a stack of 35mm reels to bring up, store, project and then move for the next batch.

There are two 35mm projectors, Cinemeccanica ZX8000H. Designed for a large screen the have a complete range of frame rates below 24 fps and the team also have a complete set of plates for the different aspect ratios. One year we had a film in academy ratio fired up in standard widescreen when the plates were confused. But this was a rare aberration. The team have a high standard of projection including getting the focal length right nearly always.

The digital projector is a 2k Christie DCP machines. These are fairly widely used projectors. However, 2K DCPs are not really equivalent to 35mm. There is a debate about just where the equivalence between digital and film falls. But all the sites I have visited reckon that 2K is not equivalent. Unfortunately despite the fact that 4K DCP is an available format; and that digital cameras are now available at 6K, most institutions including many archives still mainly use 2K. In addition the Christie only has standard frame rates, 24fps, 25fps and 48 fps. There are agreed specifications for lower frame rates but [like 4K]these have very little availability.

Fortunately the ratio of film to digital has settled over the last couple of years around 50/50, I hope this will continue, However, the omens are not propitious. At a conference in 2018 an archivist from the Austrian Film Archive explained that the master of a new restoration was on tape and the funds were not available for a film master. I wonder, just as we have lost the old Verdi, whether the current far too rapid changeover of formats may not lead to lost films. Thus repeating the sad loss when sound replaced silent.

 

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Early film screenings in 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2019

Brüder, Deutschland 1929, Regie: Werner Hochbaum

The Sight & Sound new double issue has a lot of space devoted to the ‘top films of 2018’. Alongside this are lists of commendations of titles from particular territories or genres and one devoted to ‘five silent films to see’. This followed an article on the silent films that were accessible in 2018. There were some I saw and some I missed. But the article, like to list of titles, did not inform the reader of how and where the writer saw the titles. There were some comments on the non-silent Peter Jackson’s ‘rip-off’ from the Imperial War Museum materials. These were rather muted and those in the Silent Cinema London Blog were much more to the point.

In both cases there must be question regarding the format and the screening. In Britain most of the titles from the silent era come round on digital, and 2K DCP at that. No-one in Britain seems to have yet taken the trouble to follow the specifications for frame rates below 24 fps, most common in the silent era. So these titles must be step-printed to some degree.

And 35mm prints are not necessarily better. We had The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in Leeds from a 35mm print and with a very good musical accompaniment. But the print was a sound version and the image was noticeably cropped because of the change in ratio. Some of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival screenings were on 35mm but I only caught those in Leeds. Apparently part of the funding for this Festival comes for musical accompaniment. I assume this was the reason for experimentation. In this case the French film Ménilmontant 1926) on film but accompanied by Foley sound effects. This was not only bizarre but ruined the screening of the film. However, I am still able to travel and I was able to enjoy some fine quality films in good 35mm prints and screened and accompanied with due regard as the how films were presented in the earlier era.

The Berlinale had this very fine retrospective of Weimar Cinema. The whole programme was magnificent and even the digital transfers were well done. But the high point for me was:

Brüder / Brothers, Germany 1929 with a passionate accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

The Nitrate Weekend at the George Eastman Museum offered only sound features but included some pretty early prints. The Festival came to a fine climax with

Man of Aran, Britain 1934 with a well preserved print held by the Museum

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered what I thought was the strongest programme for several years. One of the real pleasures was series of film adaptation from the novels of Honoré de Balzac. One of the fine titles was;

Liebe, Germany, 1927. This was a well done adaptation of a fine novel with an impressive characterisation of the heroine by Elisabeth Bergner.

Le Giornate offers both 35mm and digital transfers, the latter of varying quality. But we had several of the latter that were very well done. Pride of place must go to;

Lasse Månsson fra skanne / Struggling Hearts, Denmark 1923. Set in the 17th war between Denmark and Sweden this transfer from 35mm looked excellent. The DCP was from the Danske Filminstitut. In other years there have been equivalent transfers from the Svenska Filminstitutet. The Scandinavian seem to have mastered this process.

The great beacon in Britain must be the Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. If I was richer I would move closer. Late in the year we had their fourth Silent Film Weekend. There was a rich variety of titles and music. My standout was;

Turksib, USSR 1929. The film alternates scenes of idyll with driving montage, well set up by the accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis.

There were many other fine prints, screenings and accompaniments. So this remains a good time to enjoy early films. However, Britain is not the best place to do this.

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