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A House Divided USA 1931

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2016

house-divided-583x606

This was an early sound film from Universal Pictures. The original story was penned by Olive Edens and then scripted by John B. Clymer and Dale Van Every. The film was directed by William Wyler, working on only his second sound film. The finished film is dominated by Walter Huston as Seth Law. Seth is a boat owner in a small seaside village on the Pacific coast where they fish for salmon. Seth is a larger and life character who dominates the village. In an early bar scene we see Seth easily polish off  liquor, pick up the leading bar-room gal and then beat a rival in a brutal fist fight. Seth is a widower with a son Matt [Kent Douglass, later to become Douglass  Montgomery]. Matt is a far more sensitive character than his father, who despises him. The bar-room scene opens with Seth trying to teach his son to drink and pick up women. Matt resents his father, partly because of Seth’s treatment of his dead wife and mother.

The film opens with the funeral of the dead wife and mother. Boats land on a beach and then the funeral group, with the coffin, climb a steep path to a cliff-top cemetery. Following the funeral Matt wishes to leave to become a farmer but his father insists on him staying. Then Seth gets a response from a ‘ mail-order bride’ and promises to let Matt leave when he is married.

When the potential bride arrives it turns out to be a friend of the respondent, Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler). She is much younger than Seth and he offers to pay her return fare. She, coming from poor farming stock, opts to stay. Thus Seth marries her. On his wedding night the village celebration takes place alongside the docks, with a great bonfire and fireworks. Seth performs for the village with an energetic and bravura dance round the fire.

Whilst the marriage starts out as an necessary formality for conventions sake, Ruth gradually awakens desires long dormant in Seth. Meanwhile, Matt who has not left, has struck up a close friendship with Ruth. One night when Seth attempts to assert his conjugal rights Matt fights with him outside Ruth’s room. Seth is toppled down the stairs, injures his spine and becomes  a paraplegic. From then on Seth, an active and vigorous man, is struck down, having to drag himself round house and environs. These sequences are reminiscent of some of the films that featured Lon Chaney.

The relationship between Ruth and Matt develops but remains chaste. The pressures of her situation finally compel Ruth to attempt to leave in the Law boat. Caught in a storm, her boat is wrecked on rocks near the harbour. Seth, tied to a long rope, goes to her rescue. He perishes but Ruth survives and is rescued by Matt. The final shot shows them together at the regular trysting spot, a promontory below the Law house.

It is Huston’s performances that impresses in the film, both as the active but oppressive father: then as the frustrated invalid. But the supporting cast are also very good. And the melodramatic tale carries great conviction. The direction and production match this. Wyler exercises great control and the presentation is dynamic and condenses the story, only 70 minutes in running time. The cinematography is by Charles Stumar and makes fine use of chiaroscuro with some impressive night-time sequences. The father and son fight sequence, and the subsequent scenes with a cripple protagonist make good use of high and low camera angles. At times we are down on the floor with Huston. There are a number of special effects by that regular with the studios John C. Fulton. And the still early and rather primitive Western Electric sound systems is well judged in the hands of C. Roy Hunter.

One of the writing credits, for dialogue, goes to the young John Huston, son of Walter. He had already provided dialogue for the preceding Wyler film The Storm, (1930). His role in the film is intriguing. There are a number of sequences of conflict between the father Seth and the son Matt. How much did actual life feed into these? The basic plot is a familiar one and there is a variant in the later They Knew What They Wanted (1940).

I thought the film missed out on a possible trope. It could have ended, as it began, with the funeral of Seth, in the cliff top cemetery. This would have bought the story full circle and provided a visually impressive close to match the opening. We watched a good 35mm print at Il Cinema Ritrovato, though it was overly dark at times, possibly a dupe. The ratio was 1.20:1 with the early sound strip tightening the framing. The Festival Catalogue opined this is

‘arguably William Wyler’s first mature film’.

In fact, of those that I have seen, the silent Hell’s Heroes (1929) would equally deserve that accolade. In both films Wyler, with his production colleagues, demonstrates a mastery over the conventions of Hollywood studio drama.

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Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

Like the famous Hollywood feature, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this is a powerful and critical representation of the trench warfare in World War I. It is grimmer and more realistic than the US film, but both make use of the new sound technology. Westfront 1918 [as it is generally known] has been available in a 35mm print for years but now the Deutsche Kinemathek have revisited their negative copy and a positive copy held by the BFI. The result is a fuller film version with improved sound which was screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in a DCP format. The dialogue is in German and French and has English subtitles. It runs 96 minutes and is in the soon to be standard 1.33:1 ratio.

The film was directed by G. W Pabst and includes fine cinematography by Charles Métain and Fritz Arno Wagner. As with Pabst’s silent films the editing is fluid and follows a basic continuity and there are impressive tracking shots at the front. The sound is impressive for this early foray in the new technology and adds to the fierce brutality of the images. The noise of battle or of scenes away from the front is unrelieved by any accompanying music.

The film is adapted from a novel by Ernst Johannsen, and scripted by the author with  Ladislaus Vajda. The film has four protagonists serving on the Western Front in 1918. Their intertwined experiences are presented in an episodic fashion. Their experiences here are awful. At various stages they have to confront enemy attacks, bombardments [including at one stage by their own artillery], gas attacks and being buried alive when trenches collapse. There are several harrowing sequences in no-man’s land and memorable images of the wounded and the dead. Pabst and his team pull no punches in depiction the grim reality of modern warfare.

We also see the soldiers away from the front. One has an affair with a young French woman, which one imagines did not go down well in territories which had been part of the western alliance. Another returns home to find his wife is surviving through effective prostitution. These latter scenes hark back to the ‘street films’ of the 1920s.

Westfront1918_Foto

In some ways the grimmest moments are at the film’s ends. Here a wounded officer is taken past the grotesque corpses of battle and then to a field hospital where medical attention is basic and inadequate. What saves the sequence is a moment of compassion across the lines of conflict.

The film was successful on release though the Festival Catalogue includes a report by Siegfried Kracauer that

“Many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film.”

The Nazi response in 1933 was even more drastic, they banned the film as it

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

That and cutting the prints down [as with the UK release] meant that the surviving film for years was an incomplete picture. This restoration reveals what is one of the important films about the first World War. The fact that it is in DCP presumably means that it will circulate more widely. Perhaps someone will give us a double bill of the Pabst masterwork and All Quiet on the Western Front?

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, German film, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbass / Entuziazm: Simfoniya Dombassa USSR 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on June 21, 2016

Enthusiasm poster

This is a documentary film directed by Dziga Vertov with Elizaveta Svilova and produced by the All-Ukrainian Photo and Film Administration. This was a pioneering experiment by Vertov and his comrades in the new sound technology. It is important to set out the production and the aims of this film classic as there has been a recent tendency to overlook or downplay the central aspects of the film’s original origin and purpose. When the film was made it was in the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Since 1991, what was known as the Donbass area became part of an independent Ukraine. And in the last few years it has been the site of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. In 1930s the Ukraine was a constituent part of the Soviet Union. The film has been billed in some performances as ‘a Ukrainian Documentary’. Yet its production and rationale was part of the Soviet project of Socialist Construction. Indeed, Vertov and his comrades had done their earlier work in Moscow for Sovkino. And their filming in the Ukraine was part of the political movement across the Soviet Union.

I saw the film in a 35mm print at the Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2005. The preceding year had seen a major retrospective at the Festival of the work of Vertov and his comrades in the Factory of Facts. The 2005 screening was unusual as we had a sound film at a Festival of silent film. But Enthusiasm was a transitional film. We were fortunate that the print was the version restored by Peter Kubelka in 1972 and which came from the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum. Kubelka’s restoration was primarily concerned with restoring the sound track and its relationship with moving images. However, we are now also getting screenings with live musical accompaniment to a version of this film. As will be apparent in the extracts from Vertov’s own writings below the main rationale of the film was to develop the use of sound, especially actual sound in documentary film. The production used newly developed system for sound recording by Alexander F. Shorin.  So screening the film without its soundtrack is somewhat odd. Indeed, when the film was screened at the London Film Society in 1931 Vertov, who accompanied the film, “Insisted on controlling the sound projection.”

Enthusiasm is a paean to the five-year plan which was seen as the main weapon in the ongoing Socialist Construction in the Soviet Union. The Giornate Catalogue sets out the overall shape of the film:

“As a whole, the film has a tripartite or ‘three-movement” form, as Vertov himself indicated in various talks and articles from the period. Beginning with n overture (Reels 1 and 2) on the elimination of all the old detritus impeding full socialist construction (specifically religion, alcoholism, and various tsarist residues) the film moves into a long middle section (Reels 3 through 5) that passes through many of the stages of heavy industrial production, from the initial call to industrialize, through mining, smelting, and the emergence of iron itself, culminating (in  Reel 6) in  a final ,movement, where the products of industrialization flow back to the USSR (most notably to the countryside) and are celebrated.” (Michael Loebenstein, 2005),

The style and techniques of the film are familiar from the earlier works of the Kinocs: montage, noticeable camera angles, superimpositions, split screens, changing focal lengths….. The sound includes actual sound recorded with the images, and commentative sound, sometimes asynchronous in a form of sound montage. In Kino-Eye The writings of Dziga Vertov, edited by Annette Michelson and translated by Kevin O’Brien (Pluto press, 1984), there is a descriptive outline of the film by Vertov, Symphony of the Donbass (Enthusiasm),

” I       A church with crosses, chimes, double-headed eagles, the tsar’s monogram and crown, with anathema pronounced against the Revolution, the pope, a religious crusade, drunkenness, brawling, women weeping, idlers, unconsciousness, broken heads and the moaning of the wounded with ‘God Save the Tsar,’ old women in a state of addiction, religious icons kissed, ladies in coats of Persian lamb, crawling on their knees, and other such shades of the past.

Transformed (not gradually, but in a revolutionary leap, with an explosion of crowns, crosses, icons, etc., with the shades of the past executed by the hurricane blaze of socialist factories),

into a club for factory youth with red stars, a revolutionary banner, with pioneers, Komsomols, a radio fan listening to the march,…”

Vertov’s writing also include a description of the Sound March (FROM THE FILM SYMPHONY OF THE DONBAS) which he constructed with  composer Timofeev,

“I         A clock is ticking.

Quietly at first. Gradually louder. Louder still. Unbearably loud (almost like the blows of  a hammer). Gradually softer, to a neutral  clearly audible level. Like a heart beating, only considerably stronger.

Footsteps approaching, climbing a staircase. They pass. The sound dies away. A clock is ticking. Again approaching footsteps. They come close. Stop. The clock ticks, like the beating of a heart.

The first sound of a tolling church bells. The reverberation dies out, giving way to the ticking of a clock. The thirds stroke of a church bell, gradually expanding into a feast-day carillon.

Fragmenting of the church service (the better known motifs) are commingled with the sound of the bells. The chimes, mingled with the motifs from the service, cannot maintain a solemnity for long. A note of irony appears. The solemnity is continually undercut. The religious motifs seem to dance about.

For a moment or two the sound disappear, replaced by the ticking of a clock, then once again waves of sound quickly begin to rise. A long, powerful factory whistle bursts in to meet and intercept them. After the first whistle, a second, then a third, sunder the music and the tolling. As if frightened, the sound slow down and come to a halt. Freeze. The church bell tinkles a last two times. All is quiet.”

Enthusiasm still

The ” radio fan listening to the march.” is an important image. In fact, almost immediately in the finished film, we are presented with a young women [from the Komsomol] wearing earphones and listening to a radio receiver. We return to her several times in the opening of the film. This brings a note of reflexivity into the film, a strand that is so important in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom, 1929). Another sequence, even closer to usage in Man With a Movie Camera, is when we see the conductor, standing before the microphone, raising his baton to conduct the performance of the music that we hear on the soundtrack. Both point up another important strand in that film and across the work of Vertov and his comrades, the emphasis on radio. Alongside cinema this was the great new technology that provided a medium for the revolutionary contact with the mass of working people. it was especially important in working the peasants, where even as the Soviet Union developed its transport and electric power networks, was still often in less accessible places.

But the central message of the film is the first of the Soviet Union’s five year plans. Among the many sequences we see a number of groups of workers commit themselves to achieving and even overachieving the plan. Importantly many of these are ‘shock workers’, bought in to tackle, develop and increase production. These are the ‘enthusiasts’ which gives the film one of its titles. Unlike the earlier Man With the Movie Camera this film addresses the political line fairly uncritically. In fact the whole implementation of this plan was problematic, especially in the Ukraine, where there were unforeseen consequences, resistance and often silent opposition. The film features  a number of sequences of mass rallies, both by advanced workers and by masses of workers and the general populace. One can discern [read in?] a less committed participation in the latter scenes.

Looking back it is apparent that the emphasis in the plan and its successors was on technology and especially heavy industry. One criticism of the Bolshevik political line, especially in this period, is what is known as the ‘theory of productive forces’. This line varies from the main thrust in  Marx’s writings where the forces of productions can be seen to include not just technology but the social relations between the people using that technology. In Enthusiasm the emphasis is on workers’ and people’s behaviour but not on the underlying social relations. The film opens with the condemnation of religion, alcoholism and ‘other capitalist detritus’. But the organisation of labour power under capital is not addressed. In the sequences where the ‘shock workers’ address or are addressed the emphasis is on ‘working harder’, including Saturday working.

Marx proposed that there were three key divisions in society: that between town and country, that between the manual and intellectual labour and between men and women. The film certainly addresses the first and to a degree the last. But there is little on the second. In fact in several sequences there is a clear division between the ordinary workers performing or preparing for manual labour and the leading elite, who seem involved in intellectual or bureaucratic labour. But these divisions are addressed in the earlier Man With the Movie Camera.

enthusiasm-ORIGINAL

Whilst Enthusiasm enjoyed positive responses abroad it came in for much criticism at the time, both within and beyond the Soviet Union. Some Soviet criticism was political, some addressed the film’s ‘unconventional’ form and technique: at least unconventional in comparison with the developing line for ‘Socialist realism’. The film also suffered from production problems, possibly due in part to political opposition. And it seems that the surviving film was reduced to 1800 metres. Apparently Vertov had enough material for a film over 3,000 metres. Some of this was to have dealt with cultural and leisure aspects: an omission of issues which are extremely important in the political presentation in Man With a Movie Camera. Vertov’s career suffered as ‘Socialist realism’ became the main conventional film form. By 1939 he would write,

“I run my legs off, proposing one thing, then another.

And the audience watches and listens. And remains silent.

And I feel as if I’m way at the bottom.”

And Enthusiasm was forgotten, only to enjoy renewed interest in the 1960s. In 1972 the Osterreichisches Filmmuseum received a copy of the film from Gosfilmond. However, the soundtrack on the print appeared to be ‘out of sync’ with the image. It is thanks to Peter Kubelka that we can now enjoy a print in which the sound ‘actual and commentative’ is placed in correct relationship to the image.

Finally I feel impelled to comment on one line in some publicity for a screening, “Dziga Vertov’s avant-garde black and white film glorifies the Communist illusion…” In a decade in which we suffer the latest crises of capitalism this seems a bit rich. It demonstrates a lack of understanding of the context for the film and its subject. Vertov’s, and his comrades’, film work demonstrates an understanding and commitment to the liberation of the working classes. That is as relevant now as it was in 1931. The politics of the film are as important just as the soundtrack is important. One hopes that screenings of the film will allow audiences to enjoy and engage with the film in that way.

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

The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

A Florida Enchantment USA 1914

Posted by keith1942 on May 13, 2016

florida enchantment

I saw this film as part of a programme of films titled ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ at the Film Society Lincoln Center. I had not been aware of the title before but apparently it is fairly well known. Vito Russo discusses it in The Celluloid Closet (1981). It turned out to be an entertaining and intriguing screening.

The film was directed by Sidney Drew who also starred. I had seen two of his films before at the 2014 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, Boobley’s Baby and A Case of Eugenics (both 2015). The film is based on a C19th novel and theatrical adaptation [the latter now lost].

Lillian Travers (Edith Storey), a northern heiress takes a visit to Florida along with her fiancée Dr. Frederick Cassadene (Sydney Drew). The ‘enchantment’ arises when Lillian eats a seed that she finds in an old chest. The seed’s magical properties turn Lillian into a man, Lawrence. The film then exploits Lawrence’s actions especially ‘his’ vamping of the women in the social circle. Later in the film Lillian gives Frederick a seed and he turns into a women.

So the plot involves cross-dressing, gender and sexual re-orientation and possibly bi-sexuality. Russo makes the point that

“In both cases it’s a male view of the sexes that dominates the impersonation.”

In the lead role Edith’s cross-dressing and male impersonation is quite subtle and delightfully ironic, However, Drew’s impersonation is over-the-top and full of ‘eye-rolling’ actions.

Moreover, in the conventions of the period, Lillian’s black maid, who also undergoes a transformation, is a black-face actor, also with an amount of eye-rolling action. The full implications of these transformations are avoided with Lillian waking from a dream and all the unconventional behaviour safely tucked away. Though presumably Freud or a disciple, if they saw the film, would have had a field day of analysis.

The Giornate Catalogue for 23014 commented on Drew’s film work

‘Although they wrote and directed their films together, in interviews Drew gave his wife his wife credit for the tone of the material’.

This was Lucille McVey, his second wife, who seems to have married in July 1914. She is not credited in any source I have seen for this film except as part of the cast as ‘Mrs Sydney Drew’. However, Drew’s first wife, Gladys Rankin, also wrote plays, rewrote their vaudeville acts and worked with Drew at Vitagraph. And the writing credits include one Marguerite Bertsch. What is interesting is that all three films that I have seen feature issues that are generally seen as ‘women’s issues’: a baby, eugenics and the cross-dressing in this film. So whilst A Florida Enchantment does seem to feature a male viewpoint the basic plot tends to subversion of masculinity. It would be nice to pin down the contribution of these women.

The screening used a 16mm print which had a pretty good image. The filming was typical of the period. The settings were recognisably studio sets though there were some nice location shots. It was in the ‘second’ screen at the centre, a well appointed auditorium, spacious and comfortable. This meant however that there was no musical accompaniment and we watched the film in full silence. The film ran jus over 60 minutes. I did think that it ran slightly faster than the norm. Afterwards the manager advised me that they did not have a variable speed projector and had to run the film at 24 fps. IMDB gives the length as 1500 metres, which at 16 fps, the likely speed for that period, would give 80 odd minutes. However, I suspect that the running speed was not 24 fps as the film did not seem to be 8 fps faster. Perhaps it ran at 18 fps or 20 fps; the former is a standard setting on 16mm projectors.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Literary adaptation, US pioneers | 2 Comments »

Cottage Road Cinema 1912 – 2012 centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2016

 

_61836828_cottagerdLeeds has two vintage cinemas plus several in nearby towns. The oldest surviving and active venue in Leeds is The Cottage Road Cinema which opened on 29th July 1912. It is situated in the Leeds suburb of Headingley and when it opened there were about twenty-two film theatres in the city. By the height of the sound era the city had sixty-eight cinemas. Now the Cottage remains one of only two traditional cinemas in Leeds. The Cottage has a digital projector but still retains one 35mm projector with a tower. The auditorium is long and relatively narrow, rather like a tube. It seats over 400. There is a fairly large screen. And now the cinema has surround sound.

Its 100th birthday was celebrated on the last Sunday in July 2012 with the erection of a ‘Blue Plaque’ and a special ‘classic’ screening. The event was assisted and supported by the Far Headingley Village Society who also produced an illustrated history of the cinema by Eveleigh Bradford. The event was opened by the current proprietor Charles Morris, who owns and runs a chain of six independent cinemas in Yorkshire and Cumbria, Northern Morris Associated Cinemas. It is a sort of antique cinema ‘Roadshow’: The Plaza, Skipton and The Rex, Elland both also opened in 1912, [though only the Cottage and The Plaza have been exhibiting continuously]. And then the Picture House in Keighley had its own anniversary during 1913. The celebration at The Cottage also included short speeches from the staff and the Society, ending with a celebratory poem for the Centenary. The actual screening commenced with a selection of Cinema advertisements from the 1950s and 1960s – including familiar names like Omo and Persil, but with a variety of other firms, including local businesses and holiday resorts. There were also Ministry of Information shorts from the 1940s, featuring the Crazy Gang and Charlie Chester. And some more recent adverts parodying film s like High Noon and Zulu. The patina of time gave these shorts clips an attraction and humour that contemporary clips lack.

Cottage blue plaque

The main feature was the 1967 black and white comedy The Smallest Show on Earth. This is a comic paean to the days when going to the cinema was the main [even only] way to enjoy film. It also celebrates the traditional style cinema, both in terms of technology and also in positioning of the audience. So while not as old as the cinema it was an appropriate feature for the occasion. In fact is includes a brief sequence where we watch the screening of an old silent movie, one that I assume was actually screened at some point at The Cottage.The screening had an intermission halfway through the film, a traditional device in cinemas to bump up sales of soft drinks and ice creams. However, given the plot line of the feature this seemed quite appropriate. The screening of a worn but fairly good 35mm print was fine.

A great evening. The whole event was enjoyed by an almost capacity house (it seats 468), who applauded the introduction, applauded the advertisements, and finally applauded the feature. Hopefully the Cottage Road Cinema will survive to add to its long career. It is still going in 2016. The most recent archival screening was Casablanca on 35mm. This film was preceded by classic adverts from the owners collection along with some Ministry of Information shorts from the 1940s and 1950s. Taking advantage of digital technology the staff screened the projectionist setting up the 35mm machine and starting the film screening.

There is more on the Cottage Road Cinema WebPages.

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

This film, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of England’s premier playwright, was screened at the Barbican on April 10th. I have just read J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ so I was struck by the brutalist architecture of this complex. Inside, for Screen 1 in the main building, one enters a vast cavernous hall: it feels like the sort of entertainment space one would find in Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The cinema itself is down in the lower basement. It is spacious with a notable rake and, happily, has good quality 35mm projection. The print we viewed was from the UK National Film Archive and is a copy of the version prepared for release in the USA, shorter than the original German version.

The film was directed by Peter Paul Felner who also wrote the screenplay with Pietro Aretino. The source is not Shakespeare’s play but an earlier version which was also a source for Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a story by Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone, which appeared in 1558. Felner seems to have worked some of the Shakespearean version in to the film but judging by the characters and plot it is closer to that of Fiorentino. The opening credits is for Fiorentino’s work but there is also a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. There are parts of the film that are close to the Shakespeare play and others that differ.  The characters appear to have the names used in the Fiorentino version: but the original German language titles may have been different. The collected plays include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ under the comedies, and parts of this film are played in that tenor.

The casting is variable. Henny Portman is The Lady of Belmont [Portia] and she is not exactly the type for this women who has so many suitors. She is better when disguised as the young lawyer {Balthazar] for the trial scene. Harry Liedtke is Giannetto (Bassanio) and Carl Ebert is Ansaldo (Antonio), they are passable rather than engaging. The stand-out performance is Werner Krauss as the Jew of Mestri, Mordecai. He combines the angry responses to prejudice with the growing malevolence directed especially against Ansaldo.   Lia Eibenschütz  as Rachele [Jessica, the Jew’s daughter] is also very good.

Fiorentino’s version and this film appear to provide greater emphasis on the manner in which the Jew is the subject of prejudice and mistreatment. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock is already prejudiced against Antonio. But in this version there is an important sequence when Mordecai sends his wife to collect debts owed to him by Giannetto. She finds Giannetto passing with friends, including Ansaldo. They roundly abuse her. As a consequence she suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. In the following sequences Mordecai mourns his wife and vows vengeance. Thus we get the Bond with Ansaldo and the ‘pound of flesh’.

There is more space devoted to his daughter Racele than in the play. She is wooed by Lorenzo (I missed his name in this version) who is something of a fancy man. Mordecai meanwhile has arranged a union with the son of a friend. So there is drama round Racele’s unwillingness to join this union.

The trial sequence is very close to that in Shakespearean’s play and it is followed by the re-union of Giannetto with The Lady of Belmont, of Ansaldo with the Lady’s assistant and confidante and of Lorenzo with Racele. We again see Mordecai in the streets, bitter and frustrated by the loss of his suit, his monies and his daughter. The final moment of the film also differs from the Shakespeare play. In a powerful final shot we get a close-up of Mordecai [an iris shot], which can be read different ways depending how you interpret Krauss’s characterisation. I tended to see this as sympathetic. The longer German version may generate a different feel

One of the cachet’s of the film is that it was filmed on location in Venice. It is well served by the excellent cinematography by Axel Graatkjær and Rudolph Maté. One thing I noted that was that the crowd scenes in the streets of Venice were running slightly faster than the rest of the print. This could have been a different cranking rate in exteriors, but it seemed quite consistent across sequences. So I think it was shot to run slightly faster in order to generate drama.

I found the trial sequence impressive. There is a volatile crowd of onlookers, who become excited and vocal. In front of this the young lawyer, Mordecai and Ansaldo play out the famous dramatic scene.

The print we enjoyed was of pretty good quality. It was projected at 19 fps, running for 78 minutes. This would be about 1700 metres. However, Wikipedia suggests that the original version was at least two reels longer, about 220 metres: IMDB has even longer at 2800 metres. It is possible as there were parts of the film that seemed undeveloped. This is true regarding the death of Mordecai’s wife, some of the street sequences, scenes on the ‘Il Ridotto’ involving the Jewish financial community, the plotting of the affair between Racele and Lorenzo and also some of the plotting around the wooing of the Lady of Belmont. It may be that what is missing includes scenes that are closer to Shakespeare.

We also enjoyed an excellent accompaniment by Stephen Horne. He likes to accompany with multi-instruments: so we had the piano keyboard and strings; a flute, an accordion, a xylophone and a hand-held harmonium.

 

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Unexpected Eisenstein

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

This is an exhibition at the Grad Gallery (Russian Art and Seeing) in Little Portland Street, near Oxford Street in London. The exhibition is sponsored by the Kino Klassika Foundation and curated by Ian Christie with the Exhibition Design by Calum Storrie and Katya Sivers. It is a small exhibition but very well researched and designed. I spent over an hour there and could have lingered longer if I had the time. The exhibition is themed around Sergei Eisenstein’s visit to London in 1929, part of a longer tour which took in Europe, the USA and [famously] Mexico.

The entrance contains a semi-circle of screens playing video film extracts: from Eisenstein’s classics Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin 1925) and October (Ten Days that Shook the World 1928): offering comparison between Alexander Nevsky (Aleksandr Nevskiy 1938) and the British Henry V (The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France 1944): and a montage of photographs, stills and clips around Eisenstein’s visit. You can spend quite a bit of time enjoying these stimulations.

The main exhibition consists of seven display tables. This are predominantly sketches and drawings by Eisenstein. And each table also has a wall mounted frame that explains background or context. Table one cover some early Eisenstein drawings for a possible production around the detectives Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carter, [the latter US character was extremely popular on film in this period]. Then on two we have designs for a production of ‘Macbeth’ in 1922. One is struck by the influences, especially cubism and constructivism. Those of Lady Macbeth are really powerful and struck me as suitable for the later Shostakovich opera, ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’.

Table three consists of erotic drawings around the notorious affair between the poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine. This occurred in London in the 1870s, so there is a connection. Eisenstein’s erotic drawings are a cause celebre: especially the later ones that he drew in Mexico and which were confiscated by US customs. Probably better there that in the USSR.

Table four is based on Alexander Nevsky. The wall frame includes the drawings showing the interaction between the images and the musical score by Prokofiev. These were included in Eisenstein’s’ The Film Sense (1943). There is also the intriguing story of a radio production based on the film and the music by the BBC in 1941. This was an event which led to the influence of Olivier’s film of Henry V.

Table six concerns Eisenstein’s childhood. There are early drawings, in particular a beautiful detailed and picaresque depiction of a queue. The notes record his admiration for the French artist Daumier, a favourite also for me.

Table seven has the drawings for Ivan the Terrible. Here there are sketches for a sequence involving Queen Elizabeth of England, another London Connection. This was never filmed but explains the comparison in the video display between this film and Orlando, [which follows].

There was also a wall-mounted monitor playing a short film by Mark Cousins on Eisenstein and D. H. Lawrence, the really great if sometime reactionary English novelist. And there is also a film by Derek Jarman Imagining October (1984).

The final piece in this exhibition was an audio recording available on MP3 players. The idea was to listen to the soundtrack, first watching the video displays and then taking a walk round the local area. We missed out the latter part when it started raining. The track,’ Eisenstein’s Circle’, comments on some of the London connections. But the bulk offers suggestive comments on the use of geometric symbols in Eisenstein’s’ work – circles, triangles and parallel lines. This was really interesting and I enjoyed it even without the walk round the vicinity.

This is a really stimulating exhibition, [it’s on until April 30th]. It is good to be reminded of Eisenstein’s artistic genius beyond cinema. And the London connection is fascinating. Connected with this is an event at the Regent Cinema in London around Eisenstein’s never completed ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) on April 24th.

 

 

Posted in Film Exhibitions, Soviet Film | 1 Comment »

The Artist France 2011

Posted by keith1942 on April 6, 2016

tThe Artist

The Leeds International Film Festival (where I first saw the film) in its Catalogue quoted the director:

 “what I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is – a show. I’m interested in the stylisation of reality, the possibility of playing with codes.”

Hazanavicius seems to have succeeded, the film has had very good responses at the Cannes Film Festival and generally in France: the audience in Leeds at a sell out performance at the Hyde Park Picture House clearly enjoyed the film, there was lot of laugher and a burst of applause as the end credits played out. I was less enthusiastic. This is a pastiche, as the director openly admits: probably my least favourite film form after pornography. I have read and heard differing opinions and I suspect that people’s enjoyment will depend on their knowledge of and acquaintance with the Silent Cinema, which the film attempts to recreate.  For me it was just ‘off-kilter’, that slight exaggeration which is so common in pastiche.

The basic plot is familiar, going back to the 1932 film What Price Hollywood! However, in keeping with the director’s interests in film language, codes and genres, there are sizeable chunks of plot that reminded one of Citizen Kane (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Most of all, because it is a romantic comedy, there are frequent references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). I saw this film again when the National Media Museum screened both films in a double bill. The size of the debt of the later to the earlier film was obvious.

The film was shot on 35 mm colour stock and then converted to black and white: it uses title cards for dialogue and plot information and there is an accompanying music track. At times it is very inventive, one pleasure is the use of sound rather than music for particular sequences. However, the cinema screening uses the DCP format, and I found the transfer to this retained the harder edges of that format, so that the black and white cinematography looks far too sharp for most examples of silent film. Likewise the acting, which is pretty effective, is just a shade too mannered. The film is set at the end of the Silent Era in the late 1920s and by this time Hollywood had developed an acting style that was less melodramatic and appeared more naturalistic. However, the major weakness for me was the accompanying music. This is not in the contemporary style, but neither is it in the style of 1920s accompaniment: in fact it reminded me most of 1950s radio music, rather anachronistic. The best musical moments were when the film used original recordings: an Ellington number, a 1930s rendition of ‘Pennies From Heaven’, and also at one point a solo piano.

One of the most popular aspects of the film was the supporting character of Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who is the companion of the hero. This is the best performance in the film and is a stand-out, even for one like myself who has enjoyed hundreds of canine performers. There is a conventional last minute rescue done with real élan and, amusingly, involving nitrate film. There is also a tragic scene, actually part of a cinema screening, where Uggie displays great pathos.

Uggie

As you might expect there are numerous references to the characters of the Silent Cinema and to its films. Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks all get a nod: the last-named actually has his The Mark of Zorro (1920) excerpted in this film. And there are comic routines modelled on gags from the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In that sense the film is well researched, and the design of settings and costumes and props is very well done. In fact, so much is familiar that one cannot remember all the references, which I assume, are intended. We are in the transition from the Silent to the Sound era in Hollywood, and this aspect is well reconstructed and dramatised.

The film was generally successful and some critics commented on a possible ‘revival of interest in early cinema’. My major reservation is that, as with the use of early film on television in the 1960s and 1970s, the film will shape people’s expectations of the experience of silent film viewing as less than accurate. And since we live in decades where it is easier to see early film classics than in the past that might be a hindrance and a pity.

Black and white, 100 minutes, with title cards and some English subtitles. Screenwriter and director: Michael Hazanavicius. Cinematography: Guilaume Schiffman. Music: Ludovic Bource.

From my original LIFF review.

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The Hyde Park Picture House in 1915

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2016

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

Monday, 2nd November 1915 the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds opened for its second year of business. Already in the first twelve months of film entertainment it had successfully established itself. The log books, donated to the West Yorkshire Archive Service in 2015, record the box office takings. Weekly attendances were now regularly over 2,000. At a Bank Holiday they could exceed 3,000. And the same happened when there was a really popular film. So the log books record key titles, and Charlie Chaplin had already registered with his amazingly fast rise to fame and stardom.

On the Thursday of that week in November 1915 another popular title opened at the cinema: The Exploits of Elaine (Pathé USA, 1915). The Exploits of Elaine was a serial, with fourteens separate episodes. The Hyde Park appears to have screened the separate episodes weekly, as part of the second programme of the week opening on Thursdays: presumably  as the box office increased towards the weekend.

Serials were immensely popular in this period and were produced by a number of different film industries. The French were leading exponents, most famously with Fantômas (Gaumont, 1913). This was so popular that it ran through five episodes, each over an hour in length. And the characters returned later in sound versions. Like many of the serials the original property was a comic book. Fantômas was a master criminal, hunted through the episodes by Inspector Juve. The staples of this and other serials were criminals, detectives, sometimes spies, disguises, adventures, chases, mysterious events, and cliff-hanging endings.  Over a hundred were produced in the USA alone in the silent era, and a number of the key characters also re-appeared in later sound versions. There was a serial produced in Mexico, The Grey Automobiles (El Automóvil Gris, 1919): based on actual criminals and police corruption. The entire serial was screened at this year’s Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Elaine poster

The Exploits of Elaine followed on from an earlier Pathé serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914) which enjoyed the billing –

“Thrilling, Terrifying, Titanic, Terrific, The Death Defying Sensation, Pearl White.”

The star, Pearl White, returned as Elaine. One description offers the ‘damsel in distress’ genre. However, this does not really do the films justice. Pauline, and then Elaine, were constantly in danger, usually from the cliff-hanging ending. And both heroines were assisted by an authoritative male who frequently rescued them. However, they performed many of the action and stunts and were quite capable of confronting their adversaries: in Elaine’s case a mysterious villain known as ‘the clutching hand’. The stunts were often ‘real’ and involved the heroines in fights, explosions, train and aeroplane acrobatics, and exposure on cliffs and over torrents. Like many other serials Elaine’s adventures were taken from a book, a scientific mystery series. Elaine proved as popular as her predecessor Pauline and there were two subsequent serials. A sense of the plotlines can be gained from some of the Chapter Titles:

“1. The Clutching Hand

2.The Twilight Sleep.

3.The Vanishing Jewels

4.The Frozen Safe.

5.The Poisoned room. and so on ….”

Again the French were also pioneers, Gaumont had Les Vampires (1915 – 16) with its black-clad heroine Musidora. The influence and popularity of these serials was widespread. Pauline was an influence on a famous and popular dare-do heroine in Hindi Cinema, Fearless Nadia. She wowed audiences from the 1930s to the 1950s and was the equal of her predecessors in taking on villains and coping adventurously with adversity.

Both Pauline and Elaine appeared in short episodes, usually one reel running for about fifteen minutes. Fans who saw A Night at the Cinema in 1914 will have seen an episode of The Perils of Pauline, with a climatic ending in a quarry. The popularity of this serial and other films demonstrates that in Leeds, as nationally, even at this period the burgeoning US industry was already developing the dominance.

Originally posted for the HPPH centenary. Note, the cinema’s anniversary was traditionally thought to be November 7th but the log books revealed it opened on November 2nd 1914.

Posted in Early cinemas, French film 1920s, Hollywood, Silent Stars | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

 
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