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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?

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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.

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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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Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Madame de Langeais’

Posted by keith1942 on December 24, 2018

This is one of the most interesting and pleasurable of Balzac’s novels. Jay Weissberg in the Giornate Catalogue notes comments on the several film adaptations;

Antoinette, Duchesse de Langeais is one of Balzac’s most bewitching characters, the representative par excellence of a profligate nobility reasserting its power and privileges under Louis XVIII.”

Antoinette and he lover Armand are both distinctive characters and the story and its social milieu are fascinating. The novella, [it is barely a full-length novel] is part of a trilogy that the author grouped under ‘Histoire des treize’ [History of the Thirteen];

‘loosely connected by recurring characters.”

But they are also connected by the central theme of frustrated passion and by a vivid portrait of upper-class Parisian life in the 1830s. The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations.

La Duchesse de Langeais, 1910 French film by André Calmettes: The Eternal Flame, 1922 American film by Frank Lloyd: Love (Liebe), 1927 German film by Paul Czinner: La Duchesse de Langeais, 1942 French film by Jacques de Baroncelli: Ne touchez pas la hache, 2007 French film by Jacques Rivette, [the last uses a line from the novel ‘Do not touch the axe’]. There was also a version by Rex, The Ultimate Sacrifice 1911 and a lost version by Carmine Gallone La storia dei tredici with Lyda Borelli and, noted by Jay Weissberg,

the most famous cinematic version … never got beyond the planning stage: Greta Garbo, directed by Max Ophuls.”

There are also two French television film adaptations. The roster of stars and directors speaks to the attraction of this novel. Jay also notes than several versions adhere to the tragic ending in the novel, but at least two change this for ‘happy endings’.

We were able to see two silent versions, the 1910 French version of about ten minutes and then the 1920s German version in a full-length feature.

The outline story involves the Antoinette, a Duchess through marriage, through the spouses live separately. She is a noted member of the aristocratic circle and a fashion leader. She practices coquetry but is careful not to step over the moral boundaries of married women. Armand is General in the French army. He led under Napoleon and after a period of adjournment is back in service. He is a rather taciturn character who has never had a serious romantic or sexual involvement. Antoinette practises her coquetry on Armand who succumbs. However, her refusal to consummate a relationship leads to estrangement. ‘Do not touch the axe’ is Armand’s warning to Antoinette when they meet at a ball. Soon the roles are reversed and Antoinette is the one seeking a serious relationship. When she fails she retreats to a convent. Now Armand’s passion is re-ignited and the finale occurs when he searches for his now lost love.

La Duchesse de Langeais was screened from a 35mm print. Only 171 metres survived of the original 215 metres. At 18 fps it ran eight minutes. Clearly this involved considerable compression of the source. Antoinette (Germaine Dermoz) meets the General de Meyran (The director, Andre Calmettes] at a ball where he spurns her initial advances. This leads to a breach and then her retreat to the convent. The finale, when the general breaks into the convent in an attempt to free and win Antoinette is close to the novel and the most dramatic sequence in the film. But, as with Balzac’s original, he is to late, and finds only Antoinette’s body awaiting a funeral. The leads are effective and the production is well presented; predominately in long shots with convincing sets. The final attempted rescue uses chiaroscuro and emphasises the sense of imprisonment and loss.

This early short version was followed by Liebe which Paul Czinner both scripted and directed. The plot is relatively faithful to the source novel and the changes are minor. Elizabeth Bergner plays Antoinette with, I thought, great skill and characterisation. The changes in the attitudes and behaviour of the Duchess as the story progresses are convincing psychologically and generate strong emotion late in the film. Hans Rehmann plays Armand, Marquis de Montriveau. I thought he was effective in portraying the taciturn and [to a degree] repressed character of the general. However, I did not feel that he was a successful when the character develops from a passion to genuine and powerful love.

Paul Czinner’s adaptation catches the novel with a fair degree of fidelity. It also achieves a sense of the psychology of Antoinette and Armand, which is important in the plot development convincing. The plotting has nice touches which bring out the characters. Thus on first meeting Antoinette a tile card informs us,

[she] ‘wears no gloves’. [so other women] remove theirs”.

When we watch the series of visits to Antoinette by Armand in pursuit of his initial passion there is a scene where she plays the piano. This is an important point as later in the convent it is when Armand hears an organ playing and recognises both the melody and the style that he realise he has finally stumbled on Antoinette’s hideaway.

In the later tragic sequence, when mischance leads to the lovers missing a tryst, Antoinette waits in the shadows and there is fine chiaroscuro as we watch the sad figure. This is where on of the minor changes from the novel occurs. In the source Armand fails to realise that a clock is running slow and arrives late. In the film a ‘friend’ of Armand deliberately changes the clock time when he realises Armand has an assignations. A nice touch bringing out the meanness of the social milieu. This is an aspect that is also pointed out in the balls that Antoinette and Armand attend.

The cinematography for the film by Arpad Viragh and Adolf Schlasy is excellent The interiors have atmosphere created by the lighting and the exteriors look naturalistic. The designers were Hermann Warm and Bellan with costumes by Ilse Fehling; this all appear realistic and add to the atmosphere in which the cast perform. This was a fine production to watch.

This screening was also from a 35mm print, which was about 200 metres shorter than the original. But I was not aware of gaps in the narrative. The print ran at 20fps for 106 minutes. And Günter Buchwald provided the accompaniment at the piano with an occasional flourish on the violin. There was an emotional point when Armand, punishing Antoinette’s coquetry, steps back from this for a moment. The violin points this up. And the piano was, clearly important in the moments in which Armand recognises the touch of Antoinette.
For me this was one of the high points of the Balzac programme. It was fine to watch and captured the ironic portrait from the pen of the author.

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Her Code of Honour, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 4, 2018

This was a film in the ‘John M. Stahl’ programme at the 2018 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It appears to be the earliest surviving feature directed by Stahl. It was produced by Tribune Productions, a Manhattan based studio in the late teens. The screenplay was by a woman writer Frances Irene Reels; she and Stahl were married. The Catalogue includes notes on the film by Charles Barr, partly taken from the chapter on the film in the book published to coincide with the retrospective, ‘The Call of the Heart’ (Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr, John Libbey 2018). The book uses part of the opening title of this film,

“When the call of the heart is heard all else is forgotten.”

In the film that ‘call’ initially affects Helen (Florence Reed), an US art student living in Paris in 1895. The ‘call’ that affects her is her passion for Jacques (Irving Cummings). In fact she learns that Jacques is a married man with a young son. But the ‘call ‘ is felt for Helen herself by a fellow expatriate Tom (Alec B. Francis). When Helen dies in childbirth, apparently with child by Jacques, Tom takes the baby home to the USA and raises her as his daughter, Alice (also Florence Reed).

The film cuts to 1918 and the adult Alice now begins a relationship with a young man Eugene (William Desmond). A letter from a her dead mother and a pair of rings left separately to the young couple bring back 1895 and the ghosts of the fatal events that occurred then.

The film fits into conventional romantic dramas of the period and also offers relationships and occurrences that are common in Stahl’s later films. The film is plotted so that neither the characters nor the audience know all the aspects of the events in 1895. So there is a mystery whose gradual solving enables a happy ending. This includes flashback late in the film which fills out what actually occurred in 1895.

Charles Barr in his article discusses the plotting and the style of the film,. He makes much of the setting in 1895, the year of the advent of Lumière cinema. I was not completely convinced by this. But he also discusses some key scenes in the film which demonstrate both the intricacy of the scripting and the intelligent but subtle direction by Stahl.

He also notes that Florence Reed acted in three film for John Stahl. One is lost, the other was The Woman under Oath (1919), which was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato earlier in the year. The two Festival s co-operated in this retrospective with Bologna screening sound films and Pordenone screening the silent films. What continues to puzzle me is why the silent The Woman Under Oath was only screened at Bologna and not as part of the silent film retrospective. If it had we could have compared both the films and the acting of Florence Reed.

John Stahl with Florence Reed and William Desmond on set

One character that Charles Barr does not mention is the dog, a collie cross. We meet him [male I think] early on in Tom’s household and he re-appears with Tom, Alice and with the young couple. A friend remarked that he was ‘a real family dog’. He is there at crucial moments in the plot: he is pawing at the door of Alice’s room as she opens her mother’s letter and also sees the ring. He is there barking at a wedding rehearsal and again as the couple are finally united, presumably signalling his approval.

The film is in many ways a conventional drama. Barr includes a comment by Bruce Babington, who

“refers to the elements of “coincidence, extreme narrative suppression, and revelations of buried family secrets” that are pervasive in early melodrama.”

But Barr also notes how the film fits into the film work of John Stahl. Helen meets the wife of Jacques,

“wife and mistress, their only meeting, one that is de-dramatised in content as in form: anticipating the “other woman” of later films like Back Street [1932]and Only Yesterday [1933].”

Her Code of Honour was scripted by Frances Irene Reels who was also Stahl’s partner; she died young in 1926. She is also credited as writer on four other films directed by Stahl: The Woman in His House (1920), The Song of Life (1922), The Dangerous Age (1923)and Husbands and Lovers (1924). The input by women writers is an important aspect of Stahl’s film output. Among these was Gladys Lehman who scripted Back Street and several other films: she worked in Hollywood from the late 1920s until the beginning of the 1950s. And Back Street was an adaptation of a novel by Fannie Hurst whose work was adapted for several of Stahl’s sound films. Whilst these films work within the limitations of the values of the time, Her Code of Honour being a good example, the focus on the position of women in both domestic and public life is one of the most interesting aspects of Stahl’s films.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive. It ran 65 minutes, apparently at 24fps. This seems rather fast for 1919 and it is a full-length print. I did not notice anything to suggest the film was running fast. The accompaniment was by Daan Van Hurk at the piano.

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Captain Salvation, USA 1927

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2018

This film was the opening ‘special event’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto this year.

The film was adapted from a novel by Frederick William Wallace. He was born in Glasgow, served in World War I and moved to Montreal in Canada. He became a published expert on the sailing ships which provide the setting for this novel published in 1925. The film was co-produced at M-G-M together with Cosmopolitan Productions, the latter was a foray into motion pictures by William Randolph Hearst.

The film opens in a small town of Maple Harbour, on the New England coastline. It is 1840 and the sailing ship ‘Lucy Foster’ returns. Practically all the inhabitants hurry to the harbour to welcome the ship and, at the tiller, Anson Campbell. Whilst Anson is clearly a skilled sailor he is actually returning from studies at a Theological College and is expected to become the pastor of the local church; a protestant or even Calvinist congregation. Among those greeting the ship are his uncle Peter Campbell, a worthy of the church, and his sweetheart, young Mary Phillips (Marceline Day).

After the reception at the harbour Anson and Mary slip away to a small wooden cabin along the seashore and under cliffs. Here they are greeted by Anson’s old friends and retired sailors led by Zeke Crosby (George Fawcett]. These opening scenes present the character of Anson, played with real charisma by Lars Hanson. There is also a sense of the demure Mary and of the religious tone of the village; exemplified by the conservative religious values of Uncle Peter.

The disruption to this almost idyllic situation comes during a great storm when a ship founders off the coast. The only survivor is Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke). She is immediately recognised as a ‘waterfront Jezebel’ by Peter. And the response of religious villagers is to shun her. Anson displays a different set of Christian values opining that

“you can’t judge this woman’.

He carries her to the cabin where he cares for her, with assistance from Zeke. Bess soon displays an attraction for Anson but their relationship is strictly platonic. However, Mary fails to recognise this and in a key scene returns her engagement ring to Anson. Anxious to avoid further complications to Anson’s life Bess decides to leave on a ship that calls in the harbour, ‘The Panther’. Anson goes on board to pay her passage and signs on as a crew member with the Captain (Ernest Torrance). Sure enough the Captain turns out to be the villain of the story. ‘The Panther’ is actually a convict ship carrying both male and female felons to salt mines on an Island in the South.

During the voyage the Captain attempts to molest Bess who makes the potent response,

“Ain’t I am right to my body.”

Anson vainly attempts to protect her and is chained below deck and brutally flogged. It also appears that the Captain intends to dump Bess and Anson on the island when the ship arrives. There is a dramatic fight between Anson and the Captain which ends up with them battling high in the rigging of the sailing ship. Anson wins but Bess dies.

The film then cuts to the return of the ship to Maple Harbour, renamed the ‘Bess Morgan’. This causes another contretemps with Peter. But Anson explains to him, Mary and the towns folk about |Bess death in a flashback. We see her ask Anson,

“ to pray for me …. [it is] brighter now you are praying.”

Standing over her body Anson prays, raising his eyes aloft,

“suffer her to come unto thee.”

and then closes her eyes. Predictably Anson and Mary are re-united and the ring is re-appears. More surprisingly Uncle Peter repents and confesses the error of his prejudices. The film ends with Anson and Mary at the tiller of the ‘Bess Morgan’ as it becomes the

‘first gospel ship’.

I have not been able to find anything on ‘gospel ships’, though there are several folk songs on this theme. I assume that they preach rather than trade. One hopes that the ‘Bess Morgan’ followed the theology of Anson rather than Uncle Peter.

This was a fine film to watch. The production is well done and the cast are fine, especially Lars Hanson and Pauline Starke. And the three ship-mates, led by Zeke, are entertaining. It was apparent from the use of the word ‘Jezebel’ that Bess would succumb at some point to moral closure. I thought this a particular shame because she was a much more interesting and vibrant character than Mary. But her death scene is especially well done.

One of the stand-out features of the film was the cinematography by William Daniels. The whole film looks good. Scenes set below deck have a a grim palette and there is excellent chiaroscuro. The final fight in the riggings between Anson and the Captain is exhilarating with splendid use of camera positions and shots. The editing by William Hamilton is also well done. The Catalogue notes that

“M-G-M clearly wanted this to be a prestige production. Assigning a crew of 75 and hiring the ‘Santa Clara’, an 1876 four-master ship, for the scenes at sea. Cedric Gibbons and Leo E. Kuter designed evocative sets for the seaside town of Maple Harbor, Massachusetts, and locations were filmed on Catalina Island.”

Jay Weisberg commented that

“[the film’s] relative obscurity [is] perplexing, especially given the praise heaped on it upon its release.”

He notes

“The Philadelphia Tribune’ was even more effusive:“one of the finest dramatic achievements of the year.””

This seems in part due to the influence of Scandinavian films and in particular one of the finest directors there:

“It was Phil Carli who first bought to my attention Stroström ‘s striking influence … Atmospheric coastal scenes boast meticulous attention to effects of light, and the sea’s presence is beautifully calibrated to elide with the emotional states of the characters.”

This may have been part of the inspiration for the fine score which Phil Carli composed to accompany the film: played under his direction by the San Marco Orchestra. It highlighted the dramatic scenes but never overpowered the film.

This was a screening worth waiting for. The film was original programmed for the 2017 Giornate but copyright issues [I think] led to the delay. The 35mm print sourced from Warner Bros. and the Packard Humanities Institute was worthy of the film and the music.

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‘The Parade’s Gone by …’

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2018

This year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto had the strongest programme for several years. Among the pleasures was this selection of six films:

“To honour the 50th anniversary of The Parade Gone By… we gave Kevin Brownlow carte blanche to select six films he wanted to see at the Giornate.” [Festival Catalogue).

The Programme notes included tributes to the book and to Kevin by a range of l8 luminaries from the silent archival and study areas. The major introduction was by David Robinson who remembered being asked by the Editor at Secker and Warburg to read and offer an opinion on the book. He added the other achievements by Kevin,

“There was much more to come. Winstanley, Hollywood, Thames Silents, Unknown Chaplin, and all the documentaries, Photoplay and all its restorations and productions and new books to go with them. In 1980, with the collaboration of David Gill and Carl Davis, Napoleon … gave back to audiences the long-forgotten thrill of a theatrical and orchestral performance of a “silent” film.

An Academy Award was the least tribute that Hollywood could offer to its great chronicler” (Festival Catalogue).

A more notable honour was the first Jean Mitry Award [1986] along with his collaborator David Gill. And as noteworthy have been the BBC radio dramas chronicling his work on Napoleon and his film Winstanley.

I remember reading the book in the early 1980s and then through the Hollywood series and the Thames Silents discovering the real and proper experience of watching [and listening] to silent film. I later enjoyed the further series The Other Hollywood, though unfortunately it was not given the space and resources accorded Channel 4’s Hollywood. I have on many occasions enjoyed the meticulous restorations of early film, and enjoyed the prints that Kevin has saved for posterity, including at the London Bioscope screenings.

So I waited with anticipation to see the selection that Kevin chose. Happily five of the six were on 35mm. Given the subject of the celebrated book these were all titles from Hollywood Studios. But they offered a varied selection of genres, stars and craft people and of styles and techniques.

The Covered Wagon, 1923 from Famous Players-Lasky, is a seminal example of the early western. The director was James Cruze, whose parents had been part of the Mormon trek into Utah. And the craft team included Karl Brown on cinematography and Dorothy Arzner as editor. The cast included major players and actual cowboys and Indians. This was an epic film though the surviving version is two reels shorter than the original. Kevin notes that

“it was the first western to be taken seriously by historians,”

I was disappointed though to read that

“almost never in the history of western migration did an Indian war party descend upon a circle of covered wagons.” [Quoted by Kevin).

Shot mainly in Nevada and Utah what stood out in the film was the visual presentation and the impressive settings and landscapes.

The Covered Wagon (1923)
Directed by James Cruze
Shown from top: J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson

 

Captain Blood, from the Vitagraph Corporation of America in 1924, was also shorter than the original by about 2,000 feet. Even so it ran just on two hours with a plot line not dissimilar to the later Warner Bros. Version; both were adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini. The studio planned

“a rip-snorting, rapid-fire melodrama that will please any red-blooded audience.”

In fact I thought the film more stately that dramatic. There are some well-staged action sequence. The film used actual square-riggers and miniatures and some of the editing between these made the effects somewhat obvious. And the titles use of ‘Irish colloquialism’ for Peter Blood [originally a Irish physician] seemed quaint. But it worked well overall as it did on release, becoming the highest grossing picture produced by Vitagraph.

 

Smouldering Fires was the one film on a DCP. It was taken from a 16m print in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The film was produced by Universal-Jewel [the company’s prestige productions] in 1925 and directed by Clarence Brown. Kevin in his notes noted the influence of Maurice Tourneur and Ernst Lubitsch,

“The title suggests a Drury Lane melodrama, but the film turned out to be if not quite a feminist film, at least an intelligent, poignant and beautifully filmed story about a 40-year old woman who inherits a factory from her father.”

The early scenes where Jane Vail (Pauline Frederick, excellent in the part) dominates her factory managers were a delight. Then Jane is taken with a young foreman, Robert (Malcom McGregor) who attracts her attention and then her emotions. Rather predictably Robert then falls for the younger sister Dorothy (Laura La Plante). This part of the drama seemed rather conventional but the three leads are good and we actually get to see an outdoor expedition in Yosemite. O also thought that Tully Marshall as Scotty and Wanda Hawley as Lucy were excellent in their supporting roles. The film also has a nice turn in irony.

Smouldering Fires (1925)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Shown at right: Pauline Frederick

 

The Home Maker was also Universal-Jewel from 1925. The director was a name new to me:

“The director of this picture, King Baggot, was responsible for two of the worst silent pictures I’ve ever seen – Raffles (1925) and Down the Stretch (1927). How can the same man possibly have made one of the best?”

Part of the reason may be the original novel by Dorothy Canfield and the adaptation by Mary O’Hara which follows the book closely. Kevin also notes that Baggot had an alcohol problem which may have affected some of his work. Seemingly not on this picture. Alice Joyce, a fine actress, plays Eva Knapp imprisoned at home with growing children whilst her husband Lester (Clive Brooks in a rather untypical role] is less than successful at his office job. His situation leads to depression and an unsuccessful suicide. But his subsequent incapacity finds Eva going out to work and becoming a higher earner in a department store whilst Lester finds hitherto hidden paternal virtues. Thus the whole family find an improved way of life: one that rests, as we learn, on a dubious moral decision. I agreed with Kevin, as did many of the Giornate audience about the quality and interest of this film. I was, though, less convinced by the situation but the sterling cast certainly make their characters convincing.

The Home Maker (1925)
Directed by King Baggot
Shown from left: Maurice Murphy, Julie Bishop, Clive Brook, Alice Joyce

 

The Enemy from M-G-M in 1927 enjoyed the services of Fred Niblo as director and Lillian Gish as star. The film as it survives is missing the last reel but whilst the end is not necessarily predictable the judicious use of stills and titles is sufficient. Lillian’s Pauli is the daughter of an Professor in Vienna (Frank Currier) ; we are familiar melodrama territory here. Pauli marries her sweetheart Carl (Ralph Forbes) just before he leaves for the front in 1914. Most of the film is set on the home front as shortages increase. Pauli and her father suffer more because he holds pacifist views. The melodrama here is conventional but seeing Lillian Gish actually play a woman reduced to prostitution is definitely a one-off. Technically the film has some splendid sequences with dissolves and superimpositions. The domestic scenes are well handled. But there are probably two many similar scenes of troops marching off to war though, noticeably, the civilians become less and less enthusiastic.

 

Then we had The Mating Call (1928) from Paramount Pictures and also directed by James Cruze. The film was adapted from a novel by Rex Beach. The story offered a rather unusual situation. Leslie Hatton (Thomas Meighan) returns from the Western Front in 1919 to find his sweetheart and wife [as the thought] has had the marriage annulled and re-married. In this complicated situation Leslie gets himself a ‘mail-order wife’; though he actually finds her by going to Ellis Island and selecting a young woman from among the immigrants, Renée Adorée as Catherine. What develops much of the drama is a secret vigilante group who rides round in black hoods terrorising people who are thought to break the conservative moral code of the small town. [They are not the Ku Klux Klan as some reviews suggest]. The direction is good and the two leads are excellent. The vigilantes seem rather cack-handed but they do help develop the drama. Some of the continuity is eccentric, Catherine insists on her parents accompanying her to Leslie’s farm but after one shot of them hoeing a field they disappear.

 

All but two of the titles were new to me. As one expects from Kevin the prints were of good or even outstanding quality. Several of the accomplished team of musicians took turns to provide musical accompaniments. It did seem a worthy tribute to one of the most respected and accomplished ‘keepers of the flame’ of our surviving heritage from early cinema,

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Honoré de Balzac in early films.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2018

This was one of the programmes in an impressive Giornate de Cinema Muto, 2018. Audiences enjoyed a series of adaptations from the work of the great French novelist; what higher praise can there be than that both Frederick Engels and Karl Marx revered his works. There was a full and really informative introduction in the Festival Catalogue by Anne-Marie Baron. She wrote,

Cinema, searching for storylines and legitimacy, embraced Balzac from the outset, just as it did the Bible. [Both offer a great treasure trove of dramatic stories]. The Comédie humaine was a true goldmine, containing all the ingredients for success: dramatic events, emotions, and a sharp-eyed look at society. There were also decidedly commercial reasons for producing these scenarios – Balzac was widely read, and his cachet elevated the level of popular entertainment.”

The opening screening offered three one-reel films from 1909. In this period the large and complex novels were reduced to bare outlines. These three had slightly more body as they were adapted from a 1831 short story by Balzac, ‘La Grande Bretèche’. The basic story is well known, one of macabre revenge on illicit lovers. In the original story characters and their actions are recounted by four narrators, three in flashbacks, explaining events in the past which occurred a now-ruined mansion, its name the title of the story.

1909 was the year when everyone was scrambling to adapt Balzac’s short story “La Grande Bretèche” for the screen. The Italians got there first in July with Spergiura! (Literally “Swear that!”) … “ (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

The film was produced by the Ambrosio studio, directed by Luigi Maggi and adapted by Arrigo Frusta. The film was shot on a real location, the Villa della Regina in Turin.

No more sunbeams and mirrors, painted backdrops, no more windows and doors made of stage flats; but real rooms, windows with glass, genuine columns, tiled pavements, polished floors. And real furniture, gilded, and silk curtains, and expensive rugs, luxury, a never before seen display …. (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The settings of the film are impressive. However the intertitles are missing so one had to infer some of the plot from what was depicted. We see first the Bianca Maria (Mary Cléo Tarlarini) on a balustrade whilst a young officer of the Dragoons (Alberto A. Capozzi) stands below her making passionate gestures. The balustrade leads to a grand staircase into the grounds of the mansion. Here we see the Marquis Croixmazeu (Luigi Maggi) carrying a bouquet for his wife. He apparently does not see the Dragoon. There follows a letter sent by Bianca to her lover. He visits her in her boudoir. A servant, spying the couple, rides to his master with the news of the illicit affair. Both return to the mansion. Warned by her maid Bianca hides her lover in a walled closet. When the husband enters he finds his wife standing before the closet. He demands she takes an oath that there is nobody in the closet, which she does at a prie dieu. Despite this the husband locks his wife’s room and goes to fetch two workman. They are ordered to brick up the closet, sealing in the Dragoon. We see a shot of the unfortunate officer as he realises what is happening and sinks to his needs. The appalled wife collapses, she may even have died from shock.

The film only runs for twelve minutes but the story is presented with real style. Apart from the impressive sets there is a build-up of tension as the film cuts between settings when the servant fetches the master and their return. The scene where the servant informs the master of the dalliance has a red tint, presumably metaphoric. And at the wife’s oath,

the tableau (in extreme close-up) of the swearing hand was a new thing” … (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche (also titled ‘Immured’] was produced by Les Films d’Art [part of Pathé] and directed by André Calmettes. They were also the company and director of the ‘ground-breaking’ L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908). The screenplay was by Paul Gavault,

the French version … takes a less censorious approach to the adulterous couple than either the Italian or [American [USA] versions. …

In keeping with Pathé’s aspirations towards prestige, the actors elected were taken from the top theatre companies … (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche

In this version the married couple are Monsieur de Merret (André Calmettes) and |Madame de Merret (Véra Sergine) and the lover is Comte de Férédia (Philippe Garnier). After our initial sight of the characters a month passes, and the Comte visits Madame. A maid informs the husband and a title informs us of ‘The Revenge’. On this occasion the husband requires the wife to swear on a crucifix. The husband now orders workman to brick up the closet where the Comte is hiding. The wife tries to bribe the workmen to break the wall but then husband sees that it is finished. Later the wife vainly tries to smash the brickwork whilst the imprisoned Comte kisses a locket with the wife’s portrait. He endures his death throes whilst in the room the wife collapses and is laid on her bed by the husband and the maid, still holding the crucifix.

This film is the closest to that part of Balzac’s story of the events that occurred in ‘La Grande Bretèche’. It is also the most horrifying,. The cutting between the husband, the wife and her lover builds up the tension and the final death throes of the Comte are vividly portrayed. The print was about a hundred metres shorter than the original release. The plot is quite clear but presumably in its original form the paroxysms of jealousy and despair were even more fully played out.

The Sealed Room USA.

As Jay Weisberg notes this Biograph production did not credit Balzac for the source story. Directed by D. W. Griffith the film makes considerable changes and, as in the other versions, concentrates on the events in the past in the mansion, here more like a castle. In fact the film uses only interiors as settings. The king (Arthur Johnson) has a ‘favoured one’, (Marion Leonard). However, she is soon in the arms of an Italian troubadour (Henry B. Walthall). In his revenge the king has both the lovers walled up in a small ‘new room’ built for the favourite. He also forces the hesitant workmen at pistol-point to complete the work. Whilst the king gloats outside we see the interred couple become hysterical with the troubadour apparently turning on the woman as they expire.

The Sealed Room

This seems to be the most sadistic of the film versions. It is also the most melodramatic with the actors declaiming their actions and the shots mainly tableaux style with none of the dramatic cross-cutting of the European versions. The continuity seems a little lax. We see the Troubadour’s guitar outside the room, a clue for the King; but then he also has a guitar in the room with his lover. Both sets are strewn with flowers, which may be a metaphor of sorts.

This title was screened from a DCP, a copy of a 16mm version, itself a copy of a Paper Print survival from the period. Both European titles were on 35mm prints and were tinted. All three titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano. His accompaniment increasing in dramatic flourishes as the melodrama on screen increased.

What is noticeable about all three versions is that they have a more moral tone than in Balzac’s original story. Jay Weisberg comments in the Festival Catalogue,

To the modern reader, Balzac’s refusal to condemn feels revolutionary, yet this was the quality that made many Victorians deeply uncomfortable, such as Margaret Fuller, writing in 1845, “he has no hatred for what is loathsome, no contempt for what is base, no love for what is lovely, no faith in what is noble. To him there is no virtue and no vice.”

The writer of this quotation clearly did not engage with the depth and complexity of Balzac’s writings. In the films his particular social commentary is lost due to the reduction of this story [and similarly in other adaptations] to a single narrative voice in linear fashion. Much of the complexity of ‘La Grande Bretèche’ stems from the main narration, by a Doctor, which then includes three other narrations as part of a flashback. The distance created has a quality later associated with Brecht.

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New Approaches to Silent Film Historiography: Technology, Spectatorship and the Archive

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2018

This was a two day conference organised by Laurence Carr, Luca Antoniazzi, Agata Frymus and Daniel Clarke. The four are Post-Graduate students in the School of Media and Communications at Leeds University. They are either working on their Doctorates or have already successfully completed them. The Conference was also supported by the Universities of Sheffield and York. The School is sited in the Clothworkers’ Building North on the main campus. And the site includes a small cinema [Philip Taylor] which means good projection of materiel and comfortable seating. A minor point is that the University Campus map takes more skill than I possess.

The conference was divided into a series of sessions with several speakers presenting papers with time for questions and comment. The presenters ranged from fully-fledged academics, archivists, graduate students and people working in this field of cinema studies. There was a wide spread of interests, knowledge, skills and experience which made for a full and fascinating study.

The opening panel was ‘Archives and Restorations’.

Fumiko Tsuneishi from Filmarhiv Austria talked about restoring The City Without Jews (1924). The film was an adaptation of a novel by Hugo Bettauer. The book is a satirical treatment of a drama set round the expulsion of Jews. The film changes the setting from Austria a to ‘Utopia’ and provides a less downbeat ending.

The archive worked on two surviving prints, one Dutch and one French. A particular focus was recreating the tinting and toning of the original film which utilised 12 colour patterns. Fumiko displayed examples of these, both in the surviving prints and in the restoration. The restoration used the new digital technologies with impressive results. However it was revealed that the funds available did not extend to a 35mm print of the final version which, at present, is stored on magnetic tape.

Clément Lafitte is an independent film archivist. His projects was ‘an attempt to resuscitate fragments of a lost film. This is Âmes de Fous by the well-known avant-garde film-maker Germaine Dulac. Dulac was a very active film-maker, making both avant-garde and relatively commercial films and also involved in production, journalism and photography. Âmes de Fous was a commercial melodrama and Dulac’s first successful film. The film comprised six episodes running about three hours but is now lost. However the EYE Filmmuseum found five fragments which were restored in 2018.

The original serial was a contemporary drama in which the daughter of a Marquis is preyed upon by charlatans. She is committed to an asylum, escapes, becomes an exotic dancer and passes for a ghost in the quest to recover Château and fortune. The film apparently included symbolist and exotic elements. It clearly fitted the pattern of French serials of the period. The ‘reconstruction’ was a novel experiment. The fragments were combined with surviving stills and a illustrated publicity booklet and the script. This combination was delivered by the archivists in a presentation of images, voices and music at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018. Whilst not complete this ‘version’ offered a fascinating glimpse in to one early film.

Enrique Fibla-Guiterrez from the Catalan Film Archive talked about his research into a collection of amateur film. This seems to be a developing area in research and archival work. The Catalan Archive has a collection of about 5,000 titles. Enrique has been cataloguing and digitising films made in the 1920s and 1930s. The was an extensive amateur film movement in this period. The Pathé Baby 9.5 camera and projector as as as Cine Kodak became available in the 1920s. The practitioners were predominately from the industrial bourgeoisie, those with sufficient means to take up an expensive activity. This was a fairly large movement. It was connected to a Catalan Excursion Club. There were sufficient people involved for there to be a Cinema Amateur journal, a specialist shop in Barcelona and in 1935 the holding of the Intentional Amateur Film Congress.

Their product was not just home movies. In parallel with excursions they made film records of the culture and traditions of Catalonia; tying into an already existing indigenous Catalan movement. It was as yet too early to comment on amateur film during the Civil War though there are examples of this.

Panel 2: Silent Film and Aesthetics.

Gillian Anderson is a musicologist and conductor who has been involved in providing music for a number of resorted silent films; she talked via video link. When the Museum of Modern Art produced a restoration of the Mary Pickford film, Rosita 1923, Anderson worked over the surviving fragments relating to a lost score by Louis F. Gottschalk. She then produced an orchestral score to accompany the film at a screening at Venice Film Festival. She illustrated her points by playing [on video] an extract as silent and them with the accompanying music. This was the example for her contention that what is often overlooked is

the importance of the reconstitution of the original scores, which are often the ignored but missing 50% of a moving picture.”

Her contention led to some discussion. I queried her idea of how important such scores were. They certainly accompanied ‘roadshow’ versions of important films. But for large numbers of screenings and audiences the experience would have been live improvisations or the used of standard arrangements; and in some cases a silent projection. Presumably this is an issue that will continued to be debated. One minor point, I thought that the frame rate on the excerpt we saw was too fast. It was apparently set by MOMA; it was more noticeable in the silent version.

Lawrence Carr discussed the issue of ‘implied sound’. This is a new development, essentially what can we gauge about audiences assumptions of sounds, unheard but suggested by the presentation of the narrative. He used as examples the original silent version of Metropolis |(1927) and the version produced in 1984 by George Moroder with added sound and music. The obvious examples he addressed were scenes containing factory sounds and the factory hooters. But he went on to talk about the scenes when the lower parts of the city flood and the children have to be evacuated. As he argued Fritz Lang’s [and Thea von Harbou’s] version of the film offers a sophisticated implied aural experience; think about the ‘Tower of Babel’ sequence or ‘the ‘mediator between heart and head’. Whilst Moroder’s use of sound and music offers an intriguing variation it doe so at the price of much of the originals subtle suggestions. Of course, presentations in the silent era often actualised implied sound in the music or through the use of sound effects. But for may screening s this would not be the case and as Metropolis suggests there were complexities that these add-ons would not address. I shall have another line of thought now when watching silent films.

Liz Watkins from the University of Leeds looked at the actual practice of public presentations of early Scientific Expeditions to the Arctic. These were often combinations of lecture, lantern slides and film, together with promotional material and media reports. She has looked at a range of sources about the materials used in these. They illuminate the developing strategies of public presentation and help clarify the influence of particular technologies; for example the use of Autochrome by Herbert Ponting or of Tri-colour by Frank Hurley. And examining the exact form and content of these exhibitions brings out a set of cultural values inscribed in them. Two central ideas were ‘heroism’, embodied in male characters such as Captain Scott or Ernest Shackleton; and ‘widowhood’, the role assigned to the women and families left behind. The latter construct was complicated by the competing value of the period, women’s suffrage.

Irfan Shah, an independent writer and curator, talked about the film work of the Leeds-based pioneer Louis Le Prince.. He has researched the surviving materials from Le Prince’s work in 1888/89, including three film fragments – Roundhay Gardens, Accordion and Leeds Bridge – together with surviving accounts of Le Prince. This suggests that in their initial life his films were probably somewhat different from how they now appear as archival objects. The surviving copies were made from the original paper prints in 1900/01 when there was a court case over Le Prince’s patents; these were later transferred to glass plates. Irfan’s work offers a different strategy for ‘reading’ archival film records. He also mentioned some plans for presentations at the coming Leeds International Film Festival. [Meanwhile visit the Louis Le Prince Leeds Trail].

Panel 3: Silent Film Exhibition

Peter Walsh from South West Silents talked about seven years experience in presenting silent films and some of the conclusions the work had suggested. He pointed out how some few popular titles from early cinema often dominated exhibition, a prime example being Nosferatu (1922). He talked about how South West Silents had worked to broaden the range of titles and events, one example being the Mitchell and Kenyon archive which had interested varied audiences. He commented that one aspect of this was the way the films related to what might be termed personal histories, places and people familiar to audiences. This issue returned later in the final ’round table’.

Richard Brown an Independent Film Historian talked about his research into the records that survive from the Picturedrome cinema in Huddersfield., These are lodged at the Insight Archive at the Bradford Media Museum. They include both minutes and accounts.

The Picturedrome was a ‘second-run’ cinema, which meant that it was behind major venues in Leeds and Keighley in obtaining titles. The cinema had been converted from two shops to produce an auditorium. The records suggest that the standards at the cinema were not high: there were records of both the manager and the projectionist being absent when problems arose. The cleaning was ‘not satisfactory’ and the title of ‘flea-pit’ was probably literal.

But the records suggested that even though the cinema came down the rankings it was not just subject to the distributors. Richard showed charts of the bookings and the rates charged. These seemed quite variable in the 1920s, from standard thirty three and a third, to shared terms with a guarantee, average £85; to a flat rate, say £100 for a six day booking. Yet on occasion when films did not generate a large box office or when the management complained about the quality of the print they were sometimes able to negotiate a reduction. And there were also occasions when success led to bookings being extended to two weeks.

This suggested that distributor dominance in this period has been over emphasised. The displayed charts showed quite a range of distributors. Something that changed when sound arrived and the distribution market was for a period dominated by about three main companies. The records also indicated that Picturedrome, which installed the British Talking Pictures system had a number of problems with the new technology and did not necessarily enjoy an increase in audiences. This suggested a more variable picture than in the existing histories.

Mario Slogan from Ghent University discussed the ‘lecturer experience’, a common format in early film. For early audiences this was a familiar technique, one found in the Lantern Slide format as well. There has been debate as to what extent such a lecture can be seen as ‘extra-textual’. Mario suggested that it could offer an ‘intertextual’ element that might differ from a silent or musically accompanied form. Examples included a transcript of a Berlin performance of Othello in 1912 and Mario’s performance of another recorded lecture for Faust from 1911.

Chris Grosvenor from the University of Essex talked about an interesting new phenomenon, crowd-funding for silent film restorations. An online programme, ‘Kickstarter’, provides a forum for launching crowd-funding campaigns. The programme has been used by a number of individuals and groups to raise the funds for particular restoration projects. These often focus on titles that are overlooked or obscure. The career and films of Marion Davies has benefited from this; ‘hen Knighthood Was in Flower from 1922 is a title that has re-surfaced on home video after a campaign by Ben Model. Chris had identified nine such projects to date.

Keynote!

Kieron Webb from the British Film Institute offered personal insights from his involvement in a range of restoration projects. He was impressed by the developments enabled by the new digital technologies though he also saw the merits of being able to restore onto 35mm prints. There was the Chaplin Keystone project in 2004, still mainly using traditional methods like a web gate printer. More recently Friese-Greene’s The Open Road (1924 – 26) might be termed a reconstruction or even simulation on the basis of the digital input. But this had enabled restoration work in the colour palettes in the film. The use of digital technologies on colour were also important in the recent BFI work on Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a film that contained 10 different tints and innumerable colour changes. Here we got to see one of Kevin Brownlow’s comments on a shot chart; he does have a high level of discrimination in terms of film. And Kieron also talked about The Pleasure Garden from the series of nine Hitchcock’s Silents: a work that transformed our sense of the film.

………….

Wednesday.                              Keynote 2.

Lawrence Napper of King’s College, London addressed ‘History, Lies and the Digital Archive’. He started out with a quote from a BBC broadcast ‘Reith lecture’ in which a historian of the World War I described the British film The Battle of the Somme as ‘mainly filmed in Hyde Park. Lawrence went on to demonstrate with detailed reference and illustrative clips that the great part of this film was actuality footage. The reconstructed sequence in the film amount to three clips running slightly over one minute. He also commented that the historian’s claim that the film ‘horrified’ audiences in 1916 was a misnomer. Here he referenced accounts from the period.

So how did an experienced historian get matters o wrong. Lawrence argued that even now the historical discourse often fails to treat film as a bona fide historical source. He cited perceptions of technology, style and genre. I think one could add the sense that film constitutes ‘entertainment’ rather than the variety of actual forms that exist. I also noted that the historian in question seemed to give more credence to the photographs of the US Civil War: was this the different media or the different war? At a separate point in the conference Kieron Webb had recounted attending a ‘Conservation’ conference where the two missing areas were photography and film.

Lawrence went on to discuss audience responses to film such as The Battle of the Somme. And he introduced a parallel example of sound reconstitutions of the West Front on gramophone recordings of the same period. He suggested that both could be treated by some in the audience as as ‘objects of remembrance’. This introduced a forthcoming filmic event. Peter Jackson’s ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ which is premiering at the London Film Festival. It combines digitised footage from film records with recording of veterans made for radio and television. Even before it is seen the work has become a subject of controversy., partly because of ‘colouring’ effects. It certainly raises issues about what is acceptable in reworking archive materials.

There is further discussion to be had on what exactly any of the instances Lawrence discussed relate to the concept of ‘lies’ or its equivalents.

Panel 6: Silent Film and Women.

Jennifer Voss from de Montfort University is working to ‘uncover women’s’ experiences in early Hollywood’. She has looked at fan magazines, scrapbooks and clippings for material on stars, in particular on Clara Bow. She has been using an online digital resource, Lantern.mediahist.org.

Clara Bow had a rapid rise to stardom but problematic experiences as a major studio asset. Jennifer trawling of both fans letters and the star’s own later recollections suggest more of a challenge to the studio treatment than is found in the ‘official’ star biographies.

Lies Lanckman from the University of Kent was using similar resources to to look at the career of another major star, Norma Shearer. In particular she has identified lost films such as The Snob (1924) or The Demi-Bride (1927) and studied the responses of fans at the time. This brings out aspects of the lost work which enable a fuller picture of the film and the place in a star career.

Agata Frymus from Ghent University focused on black women in the audiences in Harlem in the 1920s. Using a variety of printed and written sources she was able to map the cinemas operation in the neighbourhood and the way that black girls and women used these venues. She placed the topic with the issues of segregation and black migration in the period. There was also the cultural milieu in black communities, partly shaped by discourses of uplift and high culture. Also in this period there was black film production for the ‘race cinema’. In the case of Harlem it seems that such films were special events at cinemas which exhibited the mainstream films of the day.

Lucy Moyse Ferreira from Central Saint Martins has discovered a short fashion film made in 1927 by the designer and artist Sonia Delaunay. Lucy was till researching the provenance of the film and the format used, the Keller-Dorian colour system. But the film offered a distinctive presentation somewhat different from the fashion films of the period which were themselves popular items. Delaunay seems to have commissioned or produced the film herself. It offers a stance that emphasises art and design in a distinctive manner.

The question and answer that followed the papers stressed the way that digital sources were offering new avenues for exploring early film history.

Audio-Visual Heritage round table.

Led by Luca Antoniazzi with Tony Booth of the National Science and Media Museum, Simon Popple of the University of Leeds and Kieron Webb.

The participants talked about the collections at their institutions and then on the impact of digital technologies. The view of these were generally positive but there were some worrying comments regarding storage: essentially given the short shelf life and changing technologies there is pressure to constantly have to update the form in which archival material is stored. There no longer seems a uniform commitment to rely on actual film storage [nitrate or acetate], which does have a long shelf life and relatively permanent reproduction.

I raised the question of the language and practice of exhibition relying on digital formats. This was not really taken up but I shall return to this in a later post.

The conference wound up but Luca stated their intention to arrange a conference on issues regarding silent film and archiving in 2019. This was a positive two days with an amount of interesting and frequently new material. The presenters mostly stuck to their timings, a virtue more often honoured in the breach than in the observance in academia.

The organisation worked fine and the Philip Taylor cinema was a good venue and we had some really interesting and fine looking visual material. The organisers plan to publish at least some of the papers that were presented at some point in the future.

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