Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Alice Guy Blaché at the Kennington Bioscope

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2021

Solax – The House Built by Alice Guy Blaché.

June 2nd at 7.30 p.m. and available until June 30th on Kennington Bioscope You Tube Channel.

Women and the Silent Screen’ is a conference held bi-annually in New York City. Number 11 this year was on line between June 4th and June 6th. A series of programmes had papers and discussion on the work and art of women film-makers in early cinema; the central theme this year was ‘Women, Cinema and World Migration’.

Before the Conference there was tribute screening to the important pioneer of early cinema, Alice Guy Blaché and this was made available on the Kennington Bioscope. Alice worked as a secretary at the firm of Gaumont, soon to be come the first major production company in the new cinema industry. She was a pioneer in making short narrative films as the Head of Production at Gaumont between 1896 and 1906.

In 1907 she married Herbert Blaché and the pair moved to the USA to work for Gaumont in that territory. In 1910 she, with partners, formed the Solax Film Company, a production company based first in an ex-Gaumont Studio in New York and then in a new production facility in the film town Fort Lee, near New York. She continued directing and producing films up until 1920.

The programme streaming on the Bioscope offers nine titles from her period at Solax. The titles included present Alice Guy as producer, writer and director. A number of archives have contributed including producing newly digitised versions. As can been seen the surviving information available varies. The Bioscope also  offers musical accompaniments streamed alongside the titles. The programme is in two parts and runs for nearly three hours. Programme notes are provided on the Conference web pages. The streaming includes introduction by the Conference organisers and the Bioscope.

Frozen on Love’s Trail. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 13:30 minutes. Source Archive: Eye Filmmuseum. Music: Costas Fotopolous.

An early western. The print transfer has Dutch title cards with English sub-titles provided. The alternative Dutch title was

‘Self-sacrifice of a redskin’.

Mary is the daughter of the commander of a military fort. Set in winter, one day she is given a lift into the fort by an Indian courier delivering mail with a four dog team. Clearly smitten the Indian offers  Mary a necklace but when an officer, Captain Black, intervenes she is shamed into throwing the necklace away. Later the Indian is sent with important mail over a difficult mountain route. Out riding, Mary has fallen from her horse and is found unconscious by the Indian. He wraps Mary in his great winter coat, straps her to the sledge and staggers in the cold back towards the fort. Overcome, he sends the dogs on with the sledge and Mary to the fort. A search party discovers her and the dogs; and later, the body of the dead Indian. Remorsefully Mary searches and finds the necklace she threw away; the final shot.

This film was shot during a snow storm in the environs of Fort Lee. The use of the exteriors is impressive; especially in a sequence as the Indian staggers across a bleak and snow covered landscape. The cinematography is predominately in mid-height long shot. There are a couple of camera movements during the rescue but these are like adjustments rather than proper pans. The print does have some flaws due to deterioration over the years. Whilst the European migrant characters have names, the Native-American is only ‘Indian’ [or ‘redskin’]. However, as is common in early western produced in eastern studios  the representation of the Native-American is far more sympathetic than in the later Hollywood examples of the genre. However, it is nearly always the case that a Native American sacrifices for a European and does not really posses proper autonomy as a character. The character was apparently played by a European actor, Bud Buster, with added make-up. One review describes the character as a ‘half-breed’, which fits the look on screen.

The Native American does come off better than the dogs. Their intelligent completion of the rescue does not seem to have been lauded by characters in the film; nor by reviewers later.

Two Little Rangers. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 14 minutes: one reel, 300 metres. Source Archive: Eye Filmmuseum. Music: Andrew E. Simpson. The transfer had Dutch title cards with English sub-titles provided.

This is an action packed western with a fairly complicated plot. The film opens in the postmaster’s store where ‘Wild Bill’ Grey overhears information about a gold shipment. The postmaster’s two daughters note Bill’s interest with suspicion. Back at his cabin Bill is revealed as a wife beater, interrupted in his violence by ‘kindly Jim’. This motivates Bill to seek revenge.

When the postmaster sets out with the gold for the station he is accompanied by Jim and followed by Bill. The actions of the last are closely watched by the youngest daughter. Bill finds the postmaster alone and after a struggle pushes him over a steep cliff. Bill plants Jim’s knife at the scene and the  latter is arrested though innocent. However, the daughters suspicions lead to them following Bill and the older daughter finding and rescuing her injured father. Bill is pursued and wounded. Back at the store he confesses to the robbery and is forgiven by both the postmaster and Jim; he shakes hands with each in turn and then expires.

This is a really dramatic title and the the intensity is increased by the frequent use of close-ups, both revealing the emotions of the characters and showing important detail such as the knife or a clue of a piece of a torn shirt. The exteriors are impressive including the well-known Cliffhanger Point,  a sheer cliff overlooking the Hudson River. The acting is at times over-emphatic with Bill and the younger daughter in particular using melodramatic stances. The older daughter is played by a regular leading player with Solax, Vinnie Burns. She was noted for her stunt work and the rescue of the postmaster, involving a lasso down Cliffhanger Point is impressive.

This is the earliest example that I have seen of domestic violence in a plot. Countering the victim-hood of the wife is the dynamic actions of the daughters. They are smarter than the male posse when Bill flees justice. In the chase and fight with Bill the girls let off volleys of shots from six-guns and then set fire to the cabin in which he hides.

The tinting in the film survives including that of red when the cabin takes fire.

The Strike. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 11:10 minutes. Source Archive: BFI.  Music: Lillian Henley. Film Length 296.25 m (1 reel) (USA)

Set in a factory the lead character is Jack Smith, a union organiser. At the start of the film he is presented speaking powerfully to a meeting of the workers. He is supported by another character, not a factory worker, and labelled ‘Agitator. Jack visits the employer who dismisses the unspecified demands of the men. A meeting of workers outside is stirred up by the agitator and they stone the factory windows and then go on strike. A small committee of workers, at the instigation of the Agitator, plan to plant a bomb at the factory ‘at midnight’. Jack reluctantly draws the short straw.

Later we see him at home with his wife and daughter (Magda Foy). He conceals the bomb in a desk drawer and then leaves with the Agitator for a meeting. The Agitator carelessly flicks his cigarette end, missing the waste basket and a fire starts. At the meeting Jack addresses the workers. At home the wife puts the daughter to bed and then discovers they are both trapped in the bedroom by the fire. She is able to phone Jack with a telephone in the bedroom; a split screen shot. He leaves the meeting and races home. He is passed by his employer who drives him to his house and together they carry the wife and daughter to safety. The assumed explosion of the bomb is off-screen.

Next day, dressed in her Sunday best, the daughter brings a message to the employer from Jack.

“We’ve had enough of strike …… so let the whistle blow.’

The employer calls a clerk who is sent to sound the whistle. The employer leaves with the daughter, presumably to see Jack. The final shot is a close-up of the sounding whistle at the factory.

A ‘labour problem’ drama. Solax marketed it as “a big labor problem play, showing the human side of the employer,” Intriguingly there is an Australian film of the same title in the same year.

This is clearly a pro-capitalist and anti-worker property; likely reflecting that Solax itself was an example of commodity production and labour extraction. The pre-war years were a time of intense conflict between labour and capital. But the majority of violence was organised by the employer class, using vigilantes and the police in attempts to drive working class resistance away. Weighed in the Balance from the 1916 ‘Who’s Guilty?’ series has a rather different plotting of such violence.

In this version the workers, including Jack, are presented as suborned by an outside agitator; a trope that has had  a long life in mainstream film and on television.

The film offers a series of short scenes, both interiors and exteriors. The camera is predominately in long shot and mid-shot. Jack in particular is given to melodramatic gestures.There is tinting but, for example, the red at the fire sequence seems very muted.

A Man’s a Man. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 9.5 minutes, 300 metres.. Source Archive: GEM. Music: Andrew E. Simpson. A drama of social justice.

There are two men in this melodrama; a Jewish pedlar and a rich gentile ‘Joy Rider’. The latter carelessly knocks over the pedlar’s tray of goods and then runs down the pedlar’s daughter who is playing with other children in the street. In what is an immigrant urban area a mob gathers and proposes to lynch the Joy Rider. He seeks refuge in the rooms of the pedlar, whilst the daughter lies dying in the next room. Showing great humanity, the pedlar hides the Joy Rider and deflects the mob when they appear. Now the daughter has died and the pedlar sends the Joy Rider away, refusing his offer of money. A year later the two meet at the grave of the daughter. The now penitent rich gentile carries a bouquet for the grave.

There are other film versions of the basic plot; but the ethnic dimension adds interest to the film. The characters are to a degree stereotypical in their representation. The conflict and the emotions are rendered in stark opposition. The tinting of the film survives. The final shot seems cut off and too short for full impact.

Starting Something. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1911). running time: 10:30 minutes, 300 metres. Source Archive: Library of Congress/Lobster Films Collection. Music: John Sweeney. A suffragette comedy.

This is a knockabout farce and the suffragette theme is more a plot device than a central focus. The opening scene is missing but explanatory titles inform us that Jones and his wife indulge in cross-dressing. The situation is exacerbated by Auntie; clearly the suffragette character dressed in masculine wear. She also suggests to the wife that Jones needs mental treatment with hypnotism. A suggestion of poison leads to chaos involving Jones, Auntie, a servant, a policeman and, finally, the wife.

Pathé Frères appear to have borrowed heavily from the plot in a film of the the same title in 1913. And the Solax production likely borrowed plot from an earlier Gaumont title directed by Guy in France; The Consequences of Feminism / Les résultats du féminisme (1906) and running only seven minutes. It seems that both films feature the same male lead, unidentified. This probably also explains the knockabout quality; the film feels like an earlier slapstick comedy. The production was shot at the Gaumont Flushing studio in Queen’s Borough; before the move to Fort Lee.

Part 2.

The latter title and the final four titles were all provided by the Library of Congress. And at the start of the second part there is a short video presentation by staff there. This includes the archive at Culpeper in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills. The staff talked about preserving and restoring Alice Guy titles. And there is footage of the digital equipment and processes involved in transferring titles for on line use.

The Sewer. Directed by Edward Warren (Solax, USA, 1912). Produced with scenario by Alice Guy Blaché. Set design by Henri Ménessier. Running time: 18:40 minutes. Source Archive: Library of Congress. Music: John Sweeney. A crime drama.

Edward Warren was a US actor and director who started out with Solax and made films between 1912 and 1920. Henri Ménessier worked for Gaumont in France and then was sent to the US studio. He later worked with French film-makers in the USA, Albert Capellani and Léonce Perret. The notes on this title refer to its high production standards, quoting a US review:

“Every foot of the film brings a new thrill. In the long weeks of preparation, real sewers, manholes, rats, traps, switches, pulleys, divers and dens, mannikins and other contraptions used in the underworld, were gotten together with utmost care and attention to detail.”

Unfortunately the surviving print has suffered some serious deterioration and there are missing sequences described in this restoration by titles.

The film opens with wealthy philanthropists Mr and Mrs Stanhope distributing largesse to the needy at their home. They are visited by Herbert Moore who pretends to be a charity official but who is really a member of a criminal gang. We next see the gang at their hideout. They are teaching to young boys to pick pockets. This scene and a subsequent burglary are clearly modelled on Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Oliver Twist’; and the key young boy is called Oliver [Magda Foy playing a male part].

When the gang attempt to burgle the Stanhope’s Oliver is caught by the husband. However, moved by pity at this state he lets Oliver go. Back at the hideout the gang develop another plan which is overheard by Oliver.

When Mr Stanhope calls he is quickly seized and tied up. Then he is forced to sign a cheque for the gang and dropped by a trapdoor into a basement cell. But Oliver has secreted a note in his pocket with a key to a hidden door. He has also included a coin, made up as a mini-saw which Stanhope found on him in the earlier burglary.

Stanhope now has to escape via ‘the sewer’ of the title. This is an impressive sequence and, fortunately, there is no deterioration in the image. Menessier’s design captures the dank gloom and almost noir quality as Stanhope struggles through the underground passages. The gang are seized and the Stanhopes adopt the two boys.

Cousins of Sherlocko. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1913). running time: 12 minutes. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: Colin Sell.

Mistaken identity leads to a criminal investigation.

This comedy involves cross-dressing; an action that was extremely popular in earlier comedies. A newspaper headlines informs the viewers that

‘Jim Spike is on the job again’.

When Fraunie sees the accompanying photograph he realises that he and Spike look similar. Shrugging of the issue he visits his girlfriend Sallie. But her father, having seen the article, throws Fraunie/Spike out of the house. The story now runs in parallel. In one Fraunie is seen and pursued by detective Sherlocko and his partner who mistake him for Spike. To avoid them Fraunie and his friend Dick dress as women. The film makes great play with the consequences including Sherlocko and partner making advances. Meanwhile Sallie, on a city ferry, encounters Spike himself. She temps him into attempting to rob  her and she is able to have in arrested. All the characters come together at a police station where confusion continues until Sallie explains who is who.

A rather knock about comedy. Out heroine Sallie is clearly smarter and more able than than the assembled males.

The Detective’s Dog. Produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1912). running time: 11:30 minutes, one reel of 300 metres. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: Meg Morley.

One for Canine fans. Both the opening and closing scenes are missing and explained in on-screen titles. There is also some deterioration, as shown above, but only for a few shots.

Detective Harper’s daughter, (Magda Foy again), brings home a canine waif. She is so attached to this large Bernese Mountain Dog that the parents allow him to stay. Meanwhile the detective is on the trail of a gang of counterfeiters who both threaten storekeepers as well as passing fake bills. Not the brightest member of the Force Harper is trapped in the gangs basement workshop. In a trope found in other silent dramas and still on the go in the Bond era, Harper is tied to a plank inching towards a whirling circular saw. Meanwhile, Harper’s wife is worried a by his absence. The unnamed canine hero is given a coat of Harper to sniff. He sets off and soon finds Harper dangerously close to the saw but helps him break free. We learn the gang are captured and the dog is celebrated by the family.

Our canine hero offers a performance of restraint in the family home but is far more active in the rescue sequence. He is possibly the same dog as Pathé’s 1911 Fidèle / Fidelity but that was made in France by Léonce Perret. Did someone migrate with their companion or was this a relative in the New World?

Greater Love Hath No Man. Directed and produced by Alice Guy Blaché (Solax, USA, 1911). running time: 15:20 minutes. Source Archive: Library Of Congress. Music: John Sweeney. 1 reel, 300 metres; without tinting. There is a 1915 film of five reels with the same title credited to Herbert Blaché; it looks like a mining drama.

This title is a western romance. Set in a mining town in New Mexico. Jake is smitten with the camp flower, Florence [Vinnie Jones]. We see them both in the town saloon as the mail arrives. There is news of a news superintendent for the mining. When he, Harry, arrives Florence is immediately smitten with him; poor Jake is spurned. The superintendent weighs the gold bought by the miners and pays out the value. Some Mexican miners, only identifiable as such from the title card, dispute his valuation. But he forces compliance at gun point. Meanwhile Jake sees the couple in a leafy spot embracing; he is distraught and leans against a tree as he cries. Harry and Florence also meet in the superintendent office. Thus they are caught together when the Mexicans attack the office. Helped by Jake they flee the mob. However, there is only one horse and Jake offers to hold off the mob whilst Harry and Florence ride for help. They find a troop of US cavalry. But Jake is out-gunned by the Mexicans and when they return he dies in Florence arms.

The film will have been shot at the Flushing Studio in New York. The interiors, especially the saloon, are well done. It is not clear where the exteriors were shot but they are very well done. The sequence where Jake watches the couple uses trees and greenery to good effect. And the clearing where we watch the gunfight as Jake holds off the Mexican mob is well done and really exciting.

The Solax Studio in Fort Lee

These early films have few credits. So the researchers have identified Alice Guy’s contributions as writer, director and, often, producer. Some of the cast are known and there seems to have been a stock company of faces including regular leading players like Vinnie Burns and regular character actors like the child Magda Foy. There is little information regarding the craft personnel. It seems that Herbert Blaché acted as production manager and cinematographer for the majority of these titles. One other craft person known is Henri Ménessier who was the set designer on many of these films. He had worked with Guy in France at Gaumont and was sent across the Atlantic  to the Flushing Studio; then moving with Guy to the Solax studio at Fort Lee. Clara Auclair discussed his work in one of the presentations at the Conference. She noted that he had a tendency to include alternative spaces alongside the central setting; allowing for particular plot developments. So in The Sewer we see young Oliver in an alcove listening as the gang plan their assault on Stanhope. This is crucial in allowing Oliver to assist Stanhope to escape the clutches of the gang and the final happy resolution.

The Conference organisers plan to make the presentations available date. This will provide an interesting and informative commentary to these fascinating early films. You can get a sense of this; full details on the Conference and screened titles and programme notes are on the web pages. The whole event is a welcome opportunity, especially during  a lock down where we are all missing cinema.

Posted in Archival compilations, US pioneers | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

William Friese-Greene at the Bioscope

Posted by keith1942 on May 4, 2021

Kennington Bioscope on line on You Tube

[Note, the first 50 seconds are a blank screen with no sound then the opening credits appear.]

May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’.

Friese-Greene was one of  a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventor, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.

Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.

Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.

He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned  to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year.The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design  by Julia Squire.

The cast list is immense, with dozens of cameos from successful British film actors. In fact, it is possibly easier to spot who is missing than list all those who appear.

Despite or possible because of this approach the film was a failure. The film has an odd script and despite a fine performance by Robert Donat as Friese-Greene the film lacks dramatic development. The opening credits appear over a stone slab successive names of an interesting selection of film pioneers:

Thomas Alva Edison – whose employee W. K. Dickson developed a working camera.

Etienne Jules Marey – a French pioneer who developed a photographic ‘gun’ taking multiple images.

Louis le Prince – a French pioneer working in Leeds who developed a camera and possibly a projector

Louis Lumière ave son frère. – the famous organisers of a public projection in December 1895

And then Friese-Greene himself is inscribed on the slab for the closing credits; as with his grave which offers ‘the inventor of kinematography’.

The film’s script is structured around two flashbacks. At the opening we see Friese-Greene, on his way to a meeting of the British Film industry at The Connaught Rooms in London, visiting his second wife, now separated.. The visits motivates a flashback by his wife. She remembers the evening of their first meeting, following a visit to an early fairground cinématographe projection featuring Lumiére titles. Then, with friends, she is taken to Friese-Greene workshop where he demonstrates his early work exploring colour film. Most of the flashback concerns the travail of the family as Friese-Greene encounters increasing problems of debt.

After the first flashback see Friese-Greene arrive at the Industry meetings. A phrase by a speaker motivates a longer flashback. Friese-Greene remembers his courtship of his first wife and his early career in a photographic portrait studio.

His growing interest in the possibility of projecting moving images involves increased experimental work but also an increasing debt burden. Much of this concerns his work with the newly developed celluloid, a crucial technology for film projection. In an  undated sequence we see him successfully project moving images; at about ten frames a second with a pronounced flicker. He rushes into the street and finds  a policeman to whom he can demonstrate his invention; a cameo by Lawrence Olivier.

We then see the affect of his debt and bankruptcy on his family; his wife died young. But the projection sequence appears as a climax of the flashback. We return to the meeting where Friese-Greene makes an impassioned plea to the uncomprehending meeting. Shortly afterwards he collapses and dies.

The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.

Brian Coe in  ‘The History of Movie Photography’ (Eastview Editions, 1981) is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor.

Michael Chanan in ‘The Dream that Kicks The Prehistory and Early years of Cinema in Britain’ (1980) has several pages on Friese-Greene in his chapters on patents. He writes that the inventor probably did develop some form of celluloid which he used in his 1889 camera. Chanan also notes that the patent is jointly in the name of Friese-Greene and an engineer Mortimer Evans. However the frame rate of around ten per second would not have produced a viewable moving image.

There is more on Peter Domankiewicz’s Blog ‘William Friese-Greene & me’. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.

The KB seminar addressed both Friese-Greene’s biography, his technical achievements and the ups and downs of his reputation. It was introduced by Nicholas Hiley, a trustee of the Cinema Museum where the Bioscope is based. He noted that they were not able to show actual clips from The Magic Box as screening these on You Tube would be a breach of copyright. There is a real irony in this. Friese-Greene’s financial problems stemmed in part from legal disputes over patents. Copyright is a form of patent and after dying in poverty Friese-Greene’s work is now protected for profits be other capitalists. The irony was not remarked on.

The first presentation was by Peter Domankiewicz who is researching Friese-Greene’s life and work. He provided an overview of the inventor and addressed the ‘problem’; the two very different assessments of his achievements. Peter talked about his life, with illustrations, images of replicas of his cameras, and some digital versions of the film that he did make.

Running successful photographic studios Friese-Greene worked with a John  Rudge in 1881; the latter having a lantern projector with a primitive shutter mechanism. By 1885 they had a four lens lantern which created a form of moving image. In 1889 Friese-Greene took out a patent for a single lens camera which ran at about ten frames per second and included pinholes on early celluloid as the film strip.  This was earlier than the use of celluloid by Thomas Edison’s employee, W. K. Dickson. Friese-Greene went on to take out a patent for a stereoscopic camera and then for early colour film stock. But his cameras all seem to have operated about ten fps, slower than the minimum of 14 fps which produces the illusion of movement.

Replica camera

Peter did talk about the irony of the obscurity in which Friese-Greene lived at the time of his death which was then overturned and led to his funeral being a large public event and a continuing reputation as  a key inventor in the development of what became cinema.

Steve Herbert talked about the technical aspects of Friese-Greeene’s inventions. Steve was involved in 2000 in the ‘race to cinema‘ project. Their website contains illustrations and information about the replicas, including two by Friese-Greene and also one by the Leeds-based inventor Louis le Prince. Steve presented some of these replicas in stills and short moving image sequences. He pointed out that the patents involved associate engineers; for the single lens camera Mortimer Evans. He commented on the frame rates of Friese-Greene’s camera, only 10 fps or less. And he made a general point about the early inventions that one lacunae was the absence of a sprocket system. This was the contribution of W. K. Dickson and the Lumiere Brothers, the latter developing  a combined camera/ projector. Steve will be posting a fuller discussion of this issue on his webpage, The Optilogue.

Steve also recounted an odd little tale. For the production of The Magic Box replicas were made of both Friese-Greene’s monoscopic camera [single lens] and his stereoscopic camera [dual lens camera] but that the one used in the famous sequence where Robert Donat as Friese-Greene demonstrates his moving image to a Police Constable is the stereoscopic camera.

Steve concluded on the claim in Roy Allister 1948 book ‘Friese-Greene: close-up of an inventor’ , labeling him ‘the father of film’. But the mechanisms only reached 10 fps and were limited to cameras rather than projectors.

Ian Christie addressed the ‘afterlife of Friese-Greene; the ups and downs of his reputation. In the years after his death, at least in Britain, he enjoyed the status as a key inventor in the development of cinema. The Magic Box was the culmination of this viewpoint. In Britain the release of the film was seen  as a major event; even though it did not do well at the box office. However, in the USA the film was described in one review as a ‘perversion of history’; the general view was that the British were inflating Friese-Greene’s importance.

Ian commented on how critical publications on the inventor undermined his status in Britain. Brian Coe, a prestigious critic because of his position at the Kodak’s George Eastman Museum, was damning in his comments. Michael Chanan offered a more balanced view. And John Barnes, author of ‘The Beginnings of Cinema in England, 1894 – 1901’, regarded Friese-Greene as having little relevance.

Ian also explained about a particular confusion in the film biopic. The famous sequence is where Donat, playing the inventor, demonstrates his camera/projector to a police constable. However, this conflates Friese-Greene’s work with an incident from the work of another British pioneer, R. W. Paul. Ian has written on Paul and the incident in question is illustrated in a graphic novel about Paul. He traced some of the mistaken writings that led to this confusion.

Ian ended with a quotation by Henry Hopwood in 1899;

“there never was an inventor of Living Pictures” (‘Living Pictures’).

This was a general view in which the three speakers concurred in the final Q&A with Nicholas Hiley. In times past there was an emphasis on the successful inventor/s who produced key technological developments. Nowadays there is a more general interest in the variety of contributions which led to a particular form of moving images.

Readers can check out the various sites indicated above and both Peter Domankiewicz and Steve Herbert will be adding more contributions to out understanding of Friese-Greene and the context in which he worked. And Ian Christie has published a major work on R. W. Paul, described on his web site.

Note; The Magic Box is a title that screens on ‘Talking Pictures’ [Freeview 81] and is on today, May 28th, at 6 p.m.

Posted in UK pioneers | 2 Comments »

The Golden Age of Méxican Cinema: A Prelude

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2021

This is a streaming programme available on several platforms including You Tube.

It is provided by Filmoteca UNAM which is an annexe based in London offering ‘A Centre for Méxican Studies’ on behalf of the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Their home web page gives information on their variety of services and studies. This programme is titled;

‘The Golden Age of Méxican Cinema. A Prelude.’

This ‘golden age’ is generally considered to have run from 1930 into the 1950s. This was a period on increased production, high production values, and films made by distinguished directors and craft people. This ‘prelude offered six titles from both the preceding decades and the 1930s; this included titles from both silent and sound cinema. The titles were streamed on Tuesdays from February 16th and then weekly; at the moment all the titles remain available on YouTube. I assume that they are available beyond the bound of Britain. Search under ‘UNAM UK’ and you can scroll horizontally along a listing; the titles all have the publicity frame above.

Titles should have English sub-titles for the Spanish title cards. I viewed the first title on You Tube; note there is an earlier version on this platform which does not have sub-titles. And there are panels and similar in the early frames which seem to be cross-feeds from the other platforms.

16 Feb: Tepeyac. México, 1917 – Silent Film

Directors: Carlos E. Gonzáles, José Manuel Ramos y Fernando Sáyago.

This is a drama set round the myth of an apparition by the Virgin Mary to an indigenous Indian in the 16th century. Tepeyac [Tepeyacac] is close to Mexico City. In the Aztec culture it was the site of a temple to an Aztec Goddess Tomantzin. By the 1520s the Spanish had succeeded in overthrowing the dominant Aztec society and introducing colonial control and exploitation of the lands and peoples. Conveniently in 1531 an Indian, Juan Diego, who had converted to the Spanish catholic religion claimed to encounter an apparition of the virgin Mary on Tepeyac hill. She asked that a shrine be erected at this spot to her. The Spanish authorities were sceptical when Juan Diego reported this to the bishop. However, when he produced a miraculous image of the Virgin they were convinced. So a Basilica was erected at Tepeyac with the shrine known as Our Lady Of Guadalupe. Guadalupe is the name of the local villa, now a suburb of the city. I wondered if the use of Guadalupe rather than Tepeyac was because the latter had associations with a Aztec goddess. The conversion of the Indians and such a myth were instrumental in increasing the hegemony of the Spanish in Mexico.

The title opens with information about the digital restoration of the film in 2016. Title cards briefly refer to the ‘tradition’ of this apparition and its importance in Mexican culture. Then, in a common trope of the period, we are introduced to the cast and their characters. The film has two story lines. Initially we meet Carlos and his girlfriend Lupita. Carlos is sent on a mission to war torn Europe. Lupita gives him medallion of the Virgin for safe keeping. He travels by train to Vera Cruz and takes a steamship to New York. Then Lupita reads of the sinking of an Atlantic liner by a German submarine. She is distraught for Carlos’ safety; unable to sleep she reads an old history book which contains the legend of the Virgin of Tepeyac. This motivates a flashback to the early years of the Spanish domination. We see Aztec Indians secretly worshiping the Goddess Tomantzin. And two Indians assault a Conquistador. Armed Conquistadors invade the Indian temple but a Friar intervenes and, as the Conquistador watch, inveigles the Indians into converting to Catholicism.

Then, in a long sequence, we see the events of Juan Diego’s apparition and his efforts to persuade the Spanish prelates to build a Basilica on Tepeyac. He is assisted by a miraculous image and the cure of a sick relative.

Returning to the present Lupita receives a telegram from Carlos in New York, ‘safe’. Later he returns and the couple go to the Guadalupe shrine on the anniversary of the apparition in December.

The title is in black and white; I wondered if the original had some tinting, possibly for night scenes. The cinematography is in long shots; at several points the camera moves closer to the protagonists but still effectively long shots. The film concludes with a slow pan across the basilica and the city below.

The film valorises the myth but also does give attention to the Indian culture. At various points the subject of the apparition is referred to as:

‘Mexican tradition: ‘Virgin of Tepeyac: Virgin of Guadalupe’: Mexican Virgin’.

And we do see an example of the Indian resistance to Spanish colonialism. However, the friars, whilst sympathetic to the Indians are still in the service of colonialism and they are valorised. There is a limited criticism in the presentation of the Spanish. And a title card notes that the Spaniards changed

‘Santa María Tequatlanspeah’ to ‘Santa María de Guadalupe’

And another title card referenced the 1910 revolution which ushered in the existing government and social forms.

Lupita, Carlos and Lupita’s mother all subscribe to the myth. However, since Carlos is on a steamship to New York rather than crossing the Atlantic Lupita’s medallion is not required to demonstrate any efficacy. And when the couple visit the Basilica we see them in the nearby fair where the relics and souvenirs of the shrine are just commodities; [ an unwitting criticism].

The restoration work has been well done and the images and title cards are pretty good. Note, the English sub-titles are laid across the title cards reducing the clarity of both.

The title has an accompaniment by José María Serralde Ruiz at the piano with Valeria Palomina and Martin Diaz Velez on woodwind.

El Tren Fantasma. México, 1926 – Silent Film

Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.

This is the second silent in the Mexican title season. It is an action drama set on the Ferrocaril-Mexicano line in Orizaba Province, close to Vera Cruz. A railway engineer is sent to Orizaba to investigate ‘irregularities’. He arrives and is met by the rail dispatcher Don Tomas and his daughter Elena. She is accompanied by Paco. Adolfo and Paco become rivals for Elena’s affections. Adolfo’s investigations soon involve him in tracking down the bandit gang behind recent robberies. In fact Paco, known as “Ruby”, is the leader of the gang and already has a moll, Carmela. Predictably Paco and Carmela, she undeservedly so, meet untimely ends.

The plot is fairly basic and the film relies on dramatic action. Great use is made of the rail-road and its engines. There are dramatic sequences, chases and fights on engines and tenders. The action is padded out with ethnic cultural actions. There are several scenes involving lassos. And during the first visit to the bandit den we watch as they indulge in dances, rumbas and jarabes; [traditional Spanish song forms involving dancing]. There is long sequence set in a bull-fighting arena as Paco attempts to display his courage and skill.

The cinematography by mainly uses long shots and mid-shots, though there are several close-up for dramatic detail. The camera is mobile; there are frequent high angle shots, presumably from buildings and possibly platforms or cranes. This is especially so in a fine sequence of a chase in a disused rail works with the actors climbing over a n array of buildings, walls and machinery. At least one of the bandit members is played by an actor with acrobatic skills.

The film also uses moving cameras, frequently placed on an engine or tender or following along rail tracks. This is well done and the actors have some fairly dramatic stunts and actions. And the film uses superimpositions; one very effective one shows Paco watching his rival with Elena, sitting by a pool, and the image in his mind of her superimposed. And the film ends on an iris of the couple. The film effectively combines actuality footage with staged scenes and sequences. The editing of this is sharp and precise. I could not find a credit or listing for an editor on the film; it may have been the director or cinematographer.

And there is a very sprightly accompaniment with José María Serralde on piano: Omar Álvarez on violin: and Roberto Zerquere on percussion.

The restoration in 2002 had to work on a print with many problems and none of the original title cards. There was also missing footage. In this digital version a sequence before the climax is reconstructed using still and titles. I think there are probably other short lengths of missing footage but the overall narrative works and the new title cards provide the necessary information.

El Puño de Hierro. México, 1927 – Silent Film

Dir. Gabriel García Moreno.

This is a later film by the same director and cinematographer as El tren fantasma. The plot shares the melodramatic aspects of the earlier film  but the central theme appears to be moral and educational. This is a expose and riposte to the drug taking habit and the criminal underworld in which it operates. The basic plot of the film is illustrated in a effective title frame which shows a trio in the grip of a hand as a hypodermic enters the forearm.

The key characters include Carlos, a young man drawn into indulging in morphine. Laura is his girlfriend and lives on a fairly large ranch. Antonio is a foreman on a nearby ranch but is also leader of a criminal gang, ‘The Bats’. Whilst the gang have committed a series of robberies they draw the line at drug taking. Pete is also a worker at the Two Diamonds ranch and his friend is a kid called Jackie. Jackie is introduced reading a ‘Nick Carter’ magazine, setting him up as an amateur detective. Doctor Ortíz runs a hospital clinic for drug victims. We first see him giving a street lecture on the evils of drugs; however, a later title card claims that he has a ‘split personality. And then there is the drug den and its denizens, all controlled by “Old Faggin”.

The film opens with Carlos in a drug den; a site central in the later stages of the film. The effects of the morphine are shown as Carlos mistaking a donkey for his girlfriend and bizarre dreams. However, during the lecture by Doctor Ortíz the more serious effects of drug taking are illustrated in quite disturbing scenes. As the story develops there are action sequences, chases, fights, sleazy buildings and hidden trapdoors; all the tropes of early action dramas. There is however a distinctly different feel to the melodramatic action and the actual scenes of drug abuse and hospital treatment. The final scene of the film is missing and is explained in an on-screen title;but the plot is fully resolved in the surviving final scene.

Like ‘El tren …’ the film mixes actuality footage with staged drama. But the footage supporting the moral theme slows the pace of the film and the fights and chase are not as dynamic as in the earlier film. This title was restored in 2001 and digitised in 2016. Many of the title cards were missing and explanatory titles based on the surviving script have been inserted; even so there are some points where not all is clear.

The style of the film is similar to its predecessor. The cinematography mainly uses long shots and mid-shots with a few close ups for dramatic detail; like the injection of morphine which is actually shown. There are hardly any of the tracking shots which added to the dynamism of ‘El tren ..’ The settings though mirror the earlier film; much of the action is set on what seems to be an old ruin, similar in some ways to the earlier rail workings.

The film runs over half-and-half longer than ‘El tren…’ but the actual action lot occupies a similar amount of time to the train plot. I wondered what motivated this title. Perhaps there were some monies for such a moral property or perhaps they reflect The personal experience of the production members. This version looks reasonable and has involved much restoration. The end titles provide a cast list; however the musical credits are missing but this sic aleatory the same trio led by Jose Maria Serralde Ruiz, again in fine form.

El Prisionero 13, México 1933 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

This is the first of three films directed by Fernando Fuentes dealing in some fashion with the Mexican revolution of 1910. The revolution lasted a decade, from 1910 to 1920. In 1911 there was a military coup by a General Huerta; The resistance to his government included the forces led by Emiliano Zapata and a Constitutionalist Army controlled by Venustiano Carranza. When Huerta was overthrown in 1914 a civil war broke out between the forces of Zapata and Carranza. Pancho Villa, initially part of the Constitutionalist armies, sided with Zapata but Carranza’s forces were finally victorious. The film is an early ‘talkie’ or sound film, in black and white and running 73 minutes.

The film opens with Colonel Carrasco playing cards with a friend and drinking. It is clear that the Colonel has a drink problem which he refuses to address. Following scenes show how his addiction oppresses his wife. He also appears to have frequent extra-marital affairs. Finally the wife leaves with his baby son, Juan and their maid. The Colonel frantically tries to trace his missing son without success.

Several lap dissolves of mother and son take us to the adult Juan [Juanito to his mother]. Every evening Juan visits his girlfriend following traditional customs and thus  only able to speak through window bars though these are wide enough to enable a kiss. His mother worries for Juan’s safety as street demonstrations foreshadow the coming revolution.

Colonel Carrasco, an officer in Huerta’s army, is now commander in the district. A group of civilians are planning an insurrection against Huerta’s oppressive rule.  The Colonel orders his soldiers to arrest leading figures in the ‘rebellion’. By this point viewers will probably sense a familiar generic story emerging. However, the plot has at least one surprise in store. And for much of the remaining film the focus is on the Colonel and the imprisoned leaders rather than on Juan and his mother. However, the key protagonists do come together for the climax and resolution of the story.

The film predominately uses long shots and mid-shots with infrequent close-ups. However, the cinematographer Ross Fisher offers a more dynamic style for the climax. Set in the military barracks there are powerful tracking shots along line of prisoners and squads of soldiers. The editing by Aniceto Ortega is also effective with number of lap-dissolves which relate characters and settings.

The soundtrack uses plot-related sound behind the dialogue;and there are occasional bugle and military band music. The film has been restored but the streaming quality was not great with some minor buffering.

Rosalio entertains the Zapatistas

El Compadre Mendoza, [ México, 1933 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

The film’s title translates as ‘My Buddy Mendoza’ but there is also an English title, ‘Godfather Mendoza’, which is some ways is more appropriate.

This was the second title in the Fernando de Fuentes trilogy set during the Mexican Revolution which ran between 1910 and 1920. In the story there are both Zapatistas and the Constitutionalist Army Carrancistas] fighting the dictatorship of General Huerta. This was an early stage of the revolution which, following the defeat of Huerta’s forces, then saw a civil war won by the leader of the Constitutionalist forces Carranza. The protagonist Rosalio Mendoza is a rich landowner who is also involved in other businesses with his two brothers. Rosalio manages to be on good terms both with the Zapatistas and the Government military and we see units of both armies entertained on his hacienda. A frequent trope shows servants changing the portraits that hang in the study; from Huerta to Zapata: from Zapata to Huerta and finally the hanging of that of Carranza.

On a visit to Mexico City to check on his businesses Rosalio meets Dolores [‘Lolita]’] whom he marries. Soon they have son. One of the visitors to the hacienda is General Felipe Nieto, a Zapatista. Felipe becomes the godfather of the son, named after him. But Felipe senior’s devotion to Felipe junior is really motivated by his undeclared passion for Dolores. Dolores is probably aware of this passion but neither initiate an affair. The climax of the narrative is when Rosalio has to make a choice between his relations with the Zapatista and the Constitutionalist army, here led by Colonel Bernáldez.

Most of the action takes place on the hacienda with one visit to Mexico City [only interiors]. Most the action between the Zapatistas and the Government army take place off-screen; and this applies to the later conflict between Zapatistas and Constitutionalist. We see a Colonel Martinez, the leader of the Huerta forces, as well as Nieto and Bernáldez. The ordinary Zapatista enjoy greater attention, greater screen time and more frequent close-ups than those of the Huerta or Constitutionalist soldiers.

There are familiar names and faces from El Prisionero trece, both in front of and behind the camera. However this is a far more dynamic production. The film opens with a excellent touch; the camera tracks along the ground, then on  a rifle butt trailing in the dust as the camera tilts up to show a weary Zapatista at the rear of a military column as it arrives at the hacienda. Entrances and exits to the hacienda regularly show the gate in the walls that surround the property. In the course of the film there are fluid tracking shots and ambitious pans, one describing a complete circle. Interiors make frequent use of dollies which show the sets are often full of lead characters and numbers of extras. The film also uses both high and low angle shots and superimposition to emphasize the drama and forward the action. The flow is assisted by numerous lap dissolves as sequences develop. And the is the judicious use of low key lighting in the frequent night time scenes. The sound track techniques are basic with limiting mixing functions; we hear dialogue, diegetic noises and several songs [again sung by the Zapatista] which also comment on the plot. There are only a few snatches of non-diegetic music, which accompany the different military forces and add to their characterisation.

The cinematography is by Ross Fisher who shot El Prisionero trece and the earlier film had a couple of sequences that shared the dynamic camera work. However, this title was edited by the director [no editor is shown in he credits] and the dynamic approach is apparent right through the 85 minutes running time. Like the earlier film there is a powerful final sequence to the story; a body is shown hanging in the gateway at the exit from the hacienda.

¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa!, (Let’s Go With Pancho Villa!., México, 1936 – Sound Film

Dir. Fernando de Fuentes.

This was the third and last title in the trilogy of films set during the Mexican Revolution and directed by Fernando de Fuentes. It was not successful at the box office and the production company was bankrupted, though Fuentes continued writing and directing films into the 1950s.

The title character, Pancho Villa [originally Francisco] is one of the best known of the figures of the revolutionary decade. A wealthy landowner he entered the wars in the early stages when the rebellion began against the Presidency of Porfirio Díaz. Over the course of the revolution Villas changed sides more than once. He was prominent in the fight against the dictatorship of General Huerta, as part of the Constitutionalist forces. In the film the final stages are set as Villa’s army set off to what became the battle of Zacatecas in 1914. This was the decisive battle which led to the defeat of General Huerta. However, it was followed by a civil war between Villa, allied with Emiliano Zapata, and the Constitutionalist forces led by Venistiano Carranza. Carranza was finally victorious and for some years Villa was not included in the pantheon of the revolution.

The film opens in the small town of San Pablo where an army captain in Huerta’s forces is investigating the deaths of 14 of his soldiers. He suspect a young man, Miguel/Angel. Miguel goes on the run. He calls at the house of a fellow radical Tiburcio. Joined by four other friends they set off to join Villa’s army. We meet Villa as he distributes grain to the peasants from his military train, whilst his soldiers eat, sing, drink and attempt amours. Villa is portrayed as very effective in his rhetoric to the troops and to the peasants. He welcomes the new recruits and nicknames then ‘The Lions’; they are Tiburcio, Miguel, Martin, Maximo, Meliton and Rodrigo.

The rest of the film presents a series of battles between Villa’s forces and those of General Huerta. Villa’s army is generally victorious but there are frequent set-backs and large number of fatalities. There are intervening scenes, mostly of ‘the lions’, of the personal lives of the soldiers; and alongside those showing Villa’s planning and leadership. The Lions’ are brave and very supportive of their fellow members. This includes one point where they are captured by Huerta’s troops and then freed. However, battle by battle, individual members die. Some in battle but some from the ravages that accompany the war. Finally we see the sole surviving member traipsing away into the darkness.

The film has a fairly varied use of camera and editing though it is less dynamic than El compadre Mendoza. In particular there are far fewer tracking shots, though a couple of the forces of Villa, like at the initial sequence on the military train, are impressive. But there are frequent pans and dollies, high and low angle shots and frequent cuts to close-ups of protagonists. Much of the film presents large scale battle sequences: these include trench warfare: charges by Villa’s volunteers: and hand-to-hand fighting during assaults of redoubts and fortresses. The editing, this time by J. B. Noriega; maintains a high tempo that drive forward the action. The opening of the film sets the tone with a short montage of images that will follow in the main narrative.  The soundtrack includes much martial music, in particular to accompany Villa’s forces. There are several songs, sang by ‘the Lions’ and other Villa volunteers; one that is repeated is ‘If they kill me tomorrow …’.

Villa is portrayed as a ruthless character ready to sacrifice his men in the pursuit of victory. Like most generals he commands from behind the troops but on at least one occasion he leads his men in a charge against the enemy. The army of Huerta enjoys supplies of artillery and the Gatling machine gun. Villa’s men are seen in heroic actions against the lethal technology. The representations in the film are pointed clearly in a long opening on-screen title which includes:

“blame for the cruelty [in the war] cannot be put on any group of people …”,

thus inferring that such actions were common to all sides in the conflict. This film, like the two earlier, has a muted support of the revolutionary forces but does not really valorise them. It is individual characters who receive the positive representations in this trilogy.

UNAM partnered with Filmoteca to this exclusive film cycle… ‘The Golden Age of Mexican Cinema: A Prelude’ with ENGLISH SUBTITLES.

Free Access in the following link: http://bit.ly/2MVI7VF – currently the six titles are still available on You Tube.

Thank you Filmoteca UK to make this possible.

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

A virtual Giornate

Posted by keith1942 on December 6, 2020

As with a number of other film festivals Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2020 could not meet in the new Verdi theatre in Pordenone and relied on streaming a series of programmes.

The week opened with ‘The Urge to Travel’ / ‘Voglia di Viaggiare’’ this was a programme of nine short films made between 1911 and 1939.

They were all interesting but I most enjoyed Over Bessegen på Motorcykkel, Norway 1932; here two unskilled cyclist created chaos for a series of road users, pedestrians and workmen. The music was by José María Serralde Ruiz.

The opening feature was Penrod and Sam, directed by William Beaudine, USA 1923, This was adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington; the second in a series of three chronicling a young middle class boy and his friends. Tarkington was known as a ‘midwest regionalist’ so this is set in what is called ‘small town USA’. Apart from Sam, Penrod’s closest companion is Duke, a white Staffordshire or Staff cross. I should warn those of a sensitive soul that Duke comes a cropper in the film. I do not know about the books but the film has pretty sympathetic portraits of black member of Penrod’s gang for the period. The accompaniment was by Stephen Horne.

‘The Brilliant Biograph: earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897 – 1902’) was a compilation by Frank Roumen, Netherlands 2020

“Amid the welter of projectors with extravagant names that competed for the public’s attention in the very first years of cinema, the Biograph had established itself as a product above the others, with a sharper, steadier, and far larger screen image than any of its competitors, a true source of wonder in all who saw it. The key to this success was the unperforated film of approximately 70mm width that the Biograph projector used, coupled with its choice of international subjects, and a policy of select and classy presentation, with the company controlling all exhibitions that used this unique system.” Luke McKernan in the Giornate 2000 Catalogue.

Now fifty titles from the collections of the Eye Museum and the National Film Archive have been digitised. The accompaniment was by Daan van den Hurk.

The second feature was Guofeng / National Customs; China 1935. This title was made at a studio under the dominance of the Kuomintang. The ‘National Customs’ was a campaign against foreign cultural influences and here it is structured into a romantic melodrama. In a rural town two sisters both love the same man. The working out of this conflict lead to personal tragedy but also to disruption in the school in which the sisters and their mother work. This provides the setting and situation for the values embodied in the Kuomintang campaign. The film was screened at an earlier Giornate in 1997 from a 35mm print. This was a digitised version recently completed by the Chinese Archive and then offered to this year’s Giornate. The film presents the problem of foreign influences as a cultural epidemic. This makes one wonder if the title was chosen as a riposte to the USA/Donald Trump’s constant accusations against China over the current epidemic.

The next programme opened with the Thanhouser one-reeler Toodles, Tom and Trouble, (US 1915). Despite that titular names the real star was a border collie, Lady. I have to complain about Jay’s introduction where he assured us that Lady remained OK. He apparently meant after the production whereas it seemed that he was talking about the plot. So the climax was a shock! Hopefully we will get a chance to see this skilled performer in another of her films.

The feature Where Lights are Low directed by Colin Campbell, US 1921, was a vehicle for the star Sessue Hayakawa. It was made by his own production company. The Haworth Pictures Corporation, established in 1918, which changed its name to the Hayakawa Feature Play Company at the beginning of 1921. A Chinese prince is sent to the USA to study. But his lowly love at home is sold into bondage and he has to struggle for money to save her from prostitution. Then, at the climax, he has to battle a San Francisco’s Chinatown criminal to save her. The final battle is long and visceral whilst the forces of law and order seem to take an eternity to come to the rescue. The film felt that there were missing sequences though the narrative still made sense. The accompaniment was by Philip Carli, who in the ‘chat’ also thought there were sequences missing.

The fourth feature was preceded by the Czech short film Ceské Hrady a Zámsky (1916). This opened in a ancient castle but the setting was merely the motivation for a mad dash from here to the capital Prague. The protagonist predictably encountered obstacle after obstacle as well as being assisted by a number of cinematographic tricks.

The feature was an Italian ‘anarchic comedy from 1921, La Tempesta in un Cranio, which translates as ‘the tempest in the cranium’ but which in Britain was titled ‘Kill or Cure’. I never really engaged with the premise of the title directed by Carlo Campogalliani who also played the lead characters. A rich and young man of a wealthy family fears that the hereditary madness will sooner or later afflict him. His friends set up a bizarre situation where he starts to think he is mad; revealed reality cures his fears. This approach to madness seemed to me only slightly preferable to that proposed by Freud. The music was provided by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius

Oi Apachides ton Athinon / The Apaches of Athens was a late silent produced in Greece in 1930. I thought the title was a little misleading. Coined in France the European term, ‘Les Apache’ referred to a violent criminal world culture and had a similar meaning when copied in other countries. However, in this title, the lead male trio:

“the charming but penniless Pierre Lambeth, known as “The Prince,” beloved by the flower-seller Titika, and his two chums, the comic duo Karoumbas (played by librettist Prineas) and Karkaletsos.”

are law abiding itinerant labourers. In the main climax of the story Pierre is even more moral that the guests at a bourgeois party. The film was adapted from an operetta

“celebrated for its revolutionary populist treatment of working-class characters,”

What stood out for me was the location filming in Athens and its celebration of working class life and experience. Directed by Dimitrios Gaziades and with a recorded orchestral accompaniment: Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Abwege (Germany 1928) ([The] Crisis) Directed by G. W. [Georg Wilhelm] Pabst,

This film had been screened at an earlier Giornate, also 1997. But the title was the digital version seen at the 2018 Berlinale. The music was by Mauro Colombis.

A Romance of the Redwoods (US 1917) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. This was a delightful Mary Pickford vehicle. She plays Jenny who travels from the East to the West of the USA. She is faced by all sorts of obstacles and dangers but she is a strong willed young woman who finally achieves a romance and a place in this new territory. The production was extremely well done, as you would expect from the people involved, including Alvin Wyckoff’s fine cinematography and it was a pleasure to watch. The music by Donald Sosin with Joanna Seaton

Ballettens Datter (Denmark 1913) (GB: Unjustly Accused) [Daughter of the Ballet]

Directed by Holger-Madsen

This film drama was described as a ‘modern comedy’, in the sense that it was a tale of irony rather than outright humour. The ballet dancer of the title marries a wealthy admirer with his condition that she leave the stage, When, frustrated in marriage and domesticity, she returns secretly to the stage this action sparks a familiar melodramatic conflation; but one that is resolve in a slightly fantastic fashion.

The music was by John Sweeney.

The final programme was a number of one and two reel comedies featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but before they formed the famous duo. There were moments of fun and humour but overall I thought these were minor examples of silent comedy. They demonstrated how, when they formed a double act, the combination of their individual talents created a whole more substantial than the parts.

Neil Brand accompanied the titles at the piano.

All the features were introduced by Jay who was seen in a variety of places in Pordenone familiar to regular Giornate guests. Streamings were followed by ‘chats’ hosted by Jay and usually including the musician who accompanied the title and one or even two people who were know legible on the film, the film-makers and the national cinema which they represented. These are available on You Tube.

There were also a series of ‘master classes’. The master classes at the regular Festival providing a learning opportunity for musician who want to develop their skills in accompanying silent titles. These virtual versions featured the musicians who accompanied this year’s title discussing their approach to providing such music from a range of viewpoints. These varied in the way they treated the issue; they were interesting but I sensed that the festival had not given them a specific brief. Such a brief would have providing for the different presentations to build into a coherent commentary on music and silent film.

And there were also daily review programmes, recommending new books on silent film and in one case a new box set of DVDs, [The Thanhouser Studio]. There are also available in You Tube.

The festival programme was streamed on MyMovie, which is the same platform as used by Il Cinema Ritrovato earlier in the year. The platforms runs up to 1080 but most of the features that I viewed were at 720. The supporting programmes were streamed at a lower rate and some that I viewed were several rates lower. I gave up one masterclass because the extracts used were so poor; though that may be partly due to the source. Overall the Festival programme was well organised and well presented. There were background notes for each programme on the Web Site. These offered basic production details and comments. I would have liked more information on the source material and the digitisation process. However, Le Giornate are preparing a printed catalogue which should be available in December and I hope will have more information.

The Festival was worth following but it did not increase my liking for streaming. Hopefully 2021 will see us back at Pordenone and in the new Verdi. I do worry that the increase of digital versions over this year both in festival and other screening facilities may lessen the amount of 35mm prints that we enjoy in Le Giornate; last year it was about fifty-fifty. My friend Peter, who checks these matters, says that the proportion of 35mm has gone down year-by-year recently.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Silent Comedy Watch Party

Posted by keith1942 on November 9, 2020

This is a New York based streaming programme that uploads weekly examples of the comedy of the silent era.  It is found on the major Web Site of Ben Model a composer and film historian dedicated mainly to the Silent Era. He is also involved in distributing titles on Blu-Ray and DVDs.

To date there are 33 episodes which include introductions and usually two or three one or two reel titles.

There are introductions on the titles, background and source material. Ben is accompanied by Steve Massa.

A list of the episodes can be found on the ‘vault page’ of the website:

One of the regular fans of this series has written profiling the programmes.

The Silent Comedy Watch Party- free streaming on Facebook live on Sunday at 3:00PM Eastern Standard Time, or YouTube for all episodes from March 22nd forward. …
You can watch The Silent Comedy Watch Party on YouTube. They are dedicated to providing free streaming and watching so more people can enjoy and learn. The streaming has evolved electronically over the m months.
They always get permission from the owners of the shorts prior to screening and always thank them. Ben Model has been providing musical accompaniment to silent films since he was a NYY Film School student and provided scores for DVDs and screenings including MoMA and The Library Of Congress in Culpepper, Virginia as well as other venues around the world. His music is all improvised so each performance is different. Steve Massa also a film historian and author. His last East book is ‘Rediscovering Roscoe Arbuckle’. Ben’s wife, Mona Allen, does the camera work and lighting, while Steve’s wife, Susan, watches from her device, to watch for any glitches. She will text Mona, who can make the necessary changes.

They provide this all free so everyone can enjoy and learn about silent comedy and learn about the actors and actresses as well as the directors, writers production companies and the releasing companies.

The programs are good family fun too!

 

Posted in Silent Comedy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Kennington Bioscope online

Posted by keith1942 on June 8, 2020

The on-line edition of the Kennington Bioscope presented a special selection of films from London-born music hall and silent film comedian Fred Evans (1889-1951) showcasing his celebrated comedy character, the prodigious ‘Pimple’, whose popular antics, with over 200 films to his name, proved to be a precursor of many British comedies to come. Hailing from a theatrical family and born in the same year as Charlie Chaplin, they were childhood friends and between them they dominated the comedy box office takings of the ‘teens in the UK. Streamed on Wednesday March 10th and from then on.

Fred Evans appeared in films from 1910 until 1922, though there are only two titles after 1918. His films were apparently popular with British audiences but I do not think the comedies travelled outside Britain and, as can be seen, they typify a particular British comic film character, who is out of sync with the world and the humour tends to slapstick and disaster-prone events.. The films were predominately one reelers and usually scripted by his brother Joe. The duo started out at the British Studio Cricks and Martin in 1910. This was a studio that operated from 1901 until the late teens under several titles. By 1910 the studio was based near Croydon. Evans’ early screen appearances  for Cricks and Martin were as ‘Charley Smiler’, a disaster-prone character dressed as a swell.

In 1912, Fred and Joe Evans began working at the Ec-Ko studios in Teddington, and set up their own production company, Folly Films. Cricks and Martin retained the copyright on the ‘Charley Smiler’ character so Fred devised his new character, ‘Pimple. ‘Pimple’ was an accident prone comic character, rather grotesque in appearance; his choice of name suggests this. A frequent speciality was parody of more upmarket productions, often including title cards with obvious puns.

Charley Smiler Joins the Boy Scouts, Crick and Martin, (1911). This is a short film featuring Fred Evans original character. Charley is clearly out of place, a young man among young boys. And his scrapes show a similar misfit with the activities.

Making A Living (USA 1914) The first film featuring Charlie Chaplin at Keystone. This provided a comparison of the two comics, though Chaplin’s title is three years later. And the Keystone Studio has higher production values and sharper technical application.

The Adventures of Pimple: The Battle of Waterloo (1913) A parody of the then recently released British and Colonial Films’ epic depiction of the famed battle  (1913). The film has some good comic ideas but rather labours the parody. The actual battle starts promisingly with Napoleon and Wellington meeting and a large number of extras. And there is one good gag about cannon balls. But the cinematography, using exteriors, does not really develop the situation

Pimple Has One (1915) A servant fetching wine gets drunk and has trouble with the police. This title is incomplete. The opening has an ingenious idea; the camera is canted to represent the skewed view of the tipsy servant.

Will Evans the Musical Eccentric (1899) Fred Evans’ Uncle Will demonstrates some of his impressive stage skills. This is a film of the stage performance of an Evans’ family member.

Coventry scenes featuring Fred Evans. Evans on tour during the war years and exciting the attention  of a fairly large crowd.

Pimple’s Part (1916) Pimple tries to be an actor. An incomplete title where we watch Pimple trying to learn his lines in uncongenial surroundings.

Pimple’s Pink Forms (1916) Pimple is rejected by the army, so he takes a job delivering official forms – film fragment. Pimple is seen in three locations but two are obviously the same set. The title cards are green, interesting.

Pimple In The Whip (1917) A lord foils a plot to kill his favourite horse and rides it to win. This is another parody of a mainstream title. There are some nice moments with a pantomime horse but the staging is not great and the puns are howlers.

The show was hosted live by Michelle Facey with live and pre-recorded accompaniment from John Sweeney, Lillian Henley, Costas Fotopoulos, Meg Morley, Cyrus Gabrysch and Colin Sell. The digitised aspersions were from the National Film Archive with the exception of ‘Pimple’s Pink Forms’ from the Archive Film Agency.

I have to say that I find Pimple an acquired taste. He is often a buffoon rather than a comic. The production values, in some ways typical of this period in British film, are poor; something that the Keystone title shows up. I do not think that screening the Chaplin alongside Pimple intended to show up the latter but it seemed to me that it has that effect.

Pimple is often clumsy, Chaplin is balletic; even at this stage of his career he dominates the frame in a way that Evans fails to do. All the films are predominately in long shot. However, the Keystone cinematography is at the point where long shots phase into mid-shot. The Chaplin character and his fellow actors stand out more sharply than does Evans and his fellow performers. And the lighting is superior so that Chaplin’s expressions are clear and catch the eye; in many frames Evans does not have an equivalent focus. Along with the cinematography and lighting Keystone has much sharper editing. There is a dynamic flow to the Chaplin title that occurs infrequently in the Evans’ productions.

Fred Evans was apparently votes as very popular in a magazine poll of the period. But, like other British performers, he was easily outshone by the migrant working in early Hollywood. There are some incomplete records of titles screened in 1915 at the Leeds Hyde Park Picture House. There is no sign of Pimple but presumably he would have been in the programmes. However, Chaplin’s early titles are there and already, only a year into his career, there is a visible increase in attendances. The teens are the period when the centre of world cinema is shifting from Europe to the United States. This is especially marked in Britain. The industry failed to match the capital investment occurring in Hollywood. By the end of Fred Evans’ career the British box office is dominated by the Hollywood product. And what is apparent in that period is the increasing gap in the production values of Hollywood over British film.

The Kennington Bioscope is based at London’s Cinema Museum. There are regular screenings of early and silent films, frequently on 35mm prints and with live piano accompaniment. The regular programme was on a Wednesday evenings so not accessible easily from Yorkshire. However, there were also day and weekend programmes; several of which I attended and enjoyed.

The Cinema Museum is sited in Lambeth and took a little finding first time. It is housed in an old fire station and for the last couple of years the Museum has been campaigning to retain the premises. This is a vast and unique collection so it continuance is important. It is rather like an Aladdin’s Cave with all sorts of early cinema items and memorabilia. You can just wander round for an age taking in the variety of the collections.

The Bioscope screenings are relatively popular and presented in a professional manner. The screenings also enjoy musical accompaniment by a team of experienced and talented musicians, well versed in the demands of playing alongside these films with no soundtrack but great images and title cards to enable following the narrative. The Bioscope has also been supported by Kevin Brownlow, the doyen of researchers and writers into early cinema. And many of the other regulars are knowledgeable and well-versed in the arrival and development of film in the late C19th.

As with our traditional cinemas and the series of festivals in Britain and Europe all this has ground to a halt with the lock down,. Now the Bioscope has created an alternative online. Programmes of film and music have been streamed and are accessible on You Tube. There has been some skillful use of electronic and computer technology to make this possible.

The premiere screening offered three early short film courtesy of the Jean Desmet Collection at the Eye Museum in Amsterdam.  There was an introduction by a Bioscope member, Michelle Facey. As well as the introduction the programme opened with images of the Museum and the Bioscope. These gave one a sense of the Museum and of these regular screenings. The prints which had Dutch title cards had English sub-titles provided by Tom Higginson. First we had Love and Science / Liefde en Wetenschap, Eclair 1912. This comic story presented an inventor whose obsession causes problems for his fiancé. As Michelle remarked his invention seemed aptly appropriate for lock down viewing. The second film was Mixed Identities a Vitagraph title from 1913. This was another comedy where two sisters cause confusion when they take up employment as stenographers. The films were accompanied live by another member and regular Cyrus Gabrysch. A nice touch was a small inset image showing the keyboard during the accompaniment.

The premiere screening also included  Heppy’s Daughter (Val Williamson) in conversation with Tony Fletcher;  produced by Film Friends Production (2009). ‘Heppy’ here is Cecil Hepworth, one of the most important and influential of the British film pioneers. Val Williamson reminisces about her father and there are illustrative stills and extracts from Hepworth’s productions, including the seminal canine movie, Rescued by Rover (1905). There are also extracts from sound films and interviews. These have been provided with the help of the Cinema Museum, the British Film Institute and the Hepworth Trust. This is an interesting archival resource on early British cinema.

The next Bioscope programme offered more early titles, again courtesy of the Eye Museum. The programme opened with a Gaumont travelogue from 1910, A Pretty Dutch Town. The views enjoyed stencil colouring which adds to the imagery and there was a pre-recorded piano accompaniment from John Sweeney. The two following short film were both appropriately about ‘social distancing’ Gontran and the Unknown Neighbour / Gontran et la voisine inconnue was from the Eclair Co. (1913). This had an ingenious plot involving romance between two musical neighbours. The Dutch title cards had English sub-titles provided and Cyrus Gabrysch provided the piano accompaniment. Edison’s  Over the Back Fence (1913) was another comic treatment of romance. Here two neighbours overcome parental opposition with a wily breakdown of distance. There was a bonus title to the prepared programme with  Artheme Dupin Escapes Again / Arthème Dupin échappe encore. Dupin was a popular comic character for Eclipse between 1911 and 1916. The comedy, often slapstick, was heightened by the use of camera tricks. This episode from 1912 shows Dupin outwitting the police.

Programme three had four titles including a transfer of a two reel film. And, as usual, there was an introduction by Michelle Facey, piano accompaniments and [as needed] sub-titling by Tom Higginson.

Patouillard and the Bottle / Las Bouteille de Patouillard is a 1911 title from the French Lux Co. This is a one-reel slapstick comedy. Patouillard was a popular character in this period. He escapades always involved physical humour and cinematographic tricks. In this movie he has to carry a bottle of champagne home constantly warding off disaster. His actions erupt on the Paris streets just like the fizzy contents of his bottle. The piano accompaniment was provided by another Bioscope regular Colin Sell.

The two reel melodrama was from the |hand of D. W. Griffith at the Bioscope Studio. Fate (1913) survived among the paper prints lodged at the Library of Congress and the screening relied on a transfer from a 35mm copy held by a Bioscope member. As was usual with Griffith the plot and morals were starkly drawn. A villainous family threaten neighbours. The most dramatic sequence seemed to threaten the daughter’s cute puppy; fortunately the plot goes awry and the villains scapegrace son suffers the ‘fate’. Mae Marsh played the daughter, and in a more restrained fashion than for he later roles. The father was played by Lionel Barrymore who was as melodramatic as usual. This screening enjoyed  a pre-recorded accompaniment by John Sweeney.

The thirds title was another one-reel comedy from the Edison Company, Revenge is Sweet, (1912). The office junior is a prankster, mainly inflicted on the female staff. However, finally, he is caught by his own trick, just deserts. Colin Sell  provided music at the piano.

Finally, we had a melodrama from the noted silent director Lois Weber. This was a 1911 title from the Rex Film Company, operated by Weber and her husband., Philip Smalley. This was a one-reel drama tracing the lives of twin sisters, separated when their mother died. This is classic material; think of Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). The mains drama occurs when the sisters reach adulthood, at which point Lois Weber played both characters. The plot emphasises the different life styles of the pair; one in affluence, one in poverty. Weber was drawn to social issues as well as dramatising the situation of women. The copy used had tinting which added to the contrast. And there was musical accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch.

The series had added an earlier presentation at the Bioscope from 2011, ‘Chaplin’s London in Hollywood’.  This looks at the London in which Charlie Chaplin lived before he crossed the Atlantic to the USA and Hollywood. It also presents, with illustrated clips, how this fed into his films made in the early years. There is footage of areas of London where Chaplin lived and worked, with maps and stills to illustrate. The clips from films, including The Kid (1921) and the earlier short films are accompanied at the piano by Lillian Henley. There is also an extract from Limelight (1952) where Chaplin recreated the Music hall acts in which he worked. And there are extracts from Chaplin’s Autobiography read by Martin Humphries. The whole presentation was made by David Trigg and now Tod Higginson has added hard-of-hearing sub-titles. The presentation is preceded by a short [incomplete] travelogue in Eclair colour from 1914, Lake Maggiore/ Le Lac Majeure.

The fifth program at the on line Bioscope presented more films from the Jean Desmet collection and a feature length drama from a title preserved in the Library of Congress.

The first short film was a French comedy from 1911, L’abito bianco di Robinet / Het Witte Costuum van Nauke / Robinet’s White Suit. Robinet was one of the characters played by the silent comic Marcel Perez. He made over 200 silent comedies and worked across Europe and in the USA but started in France, still a centre of world cinema in the early period. Michelle Facey provides a lot of information about his career. This Italian title [with Dutch title cards and English sub-titles] charted the travails of the character as his pristine white suit is variously and increasingly blackened in a series of slapstick encounters. A regular pianist Cyrus Gabrysch provided a suitably lively accompaniment.

Then Il Pescara from the Ambrose Film Studio in Turin in 1912. This is a short travelogue that follows the river Aeterno-Pescara from its source to the harbour where it pours into the Adriatic sea. Accompanied by Costas Fotopoulos.

The main feature was from the Library of Congress of a film surviving in a 16mm print and that was restored for video by a crowd-funding organised by Movie Silents This was an adaptation in five parts of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. The film was made by the East Coast Conquest Films [part of the Edison Co.] and directed by Alan Crossland on a small budget. But the film enjoyed actual locations including shooting the shipboard sequence on an actual brig. In four reels the full narrative is not possible and the film concentrates on David Balfour and Alan Breck. The action  is well done and the locations add to the sense of drama. This version retains the tinting of the original. In her introduction Fritzi Kramer pointed out that some of the tinting, for example blue in an night scene , is important indicating the time of day of the sequence. The accompaniment was by John Sweeney.

Programme six presented titles on film-making and film-going. The short Los Angelos / Une promenade dans Los Angelos was a tinted film from 1912. Shots across the city included people in the centre and animals in zoos and parks, including engaging crocodiles and ostriches. John Sweeney provided the accompaniment.

Arthéme Opérateur / Artheme as Projectionist was an Eclipse production from 1910. This comic re-appeared, this time wreaking havoc in a cinema projection booth. There was some clever trick cinematography, chaos with film and equipment and on-screen examples of the early technology. Colin Sell accompanied the title on the piano.

A US set in tinsel town was Photo play Magazine Screen Supplement, circa 1920. The title offered insights into studios and a bevy of then popular screen performers, though the only one still familiar today would be Douglas Fairbanks. John Sweeney was back at the piano.

All three titles were courtesy of the Eye Museum and had Dutch title cards with English sub-titles provided.

The Pictured Idol focused on a young female fan of movies and of a major film star. The story chartered her disillusionment as she encountered the reality rather different from the on-screen fantasies. This was a Vitagraph title from 1912 accompanied by Colin Sell.

‘Four Square Steve’

The final drama was an example of films that survive on the 9.5mm format. This was a format for amateur collectors and there was a huge range of productions presented this way; (see the ‘Vintage Film 9.5mm Encyclopaedia’, Matador 2020]. This was a western produced by Mustang Films in 19126, Four Square Steve. The film featured an early role for the later star Fay Wray. She is the daughter of father whose land is targeted by a family of villains. The young hero saves both daughter and land. There is some excellent location work including a final climax on a disused mine and travelator

Programme seven had a single feature-length drama kindly provided from the British National Film Archive. This is the earliest film version of a stage classic, Hobson’s Choice. The play was written by Harold Brighouse, a member of the Manchester

School of Dramatists. Like the earlier drama ‘Hindle Wakes’, also adapted to film, this story has an affectionate and informed view of Lancashire and a strong central woman character. Percy Nash directed this six-reel film. There are two later sound film adaptations, from 1931 and 1954.

The plot involves a successful owner of a shoe/boot shop with three eligible daughters. Part of the story is about the three women finding husbands but it is also a drama of a family patriarch bested by the women of the house. This version opened up the staging but was predominately studio made and retained a theatrical air. The cast made great play with both the humour and the family conflicts.

Programme eight offered a ‘Bioscope Vacation’, a series of short film travelogues and one drama involving a vacation. Most of the titles were from Amsterdam’s Eye Museum and its Jean Desmet collection. In these cases the original title cards had been replaced by Dutch title cards, here with English sub-titles. Unfortunately this was the first streaming with a noticeable hiccup; one of the audio lines to a musician was lost temporarily. And poor Michelle in her comments found herself without a working microphone. However, at least for me, this was only at the end of a title and ‘normal service’ was resumed.

La perle de la Méditerrannée: Barcelone / Barcelona: Pearl of the Mediterranean was from the French Eclipse Company in 1913. This travel title also had tinting. Cyrus Chrysalis provided the accompaniment.

Constantine / Constantinople was a Éclair title with tinting; though here the print had suffered from the ravages of time and the tints were erratic. Cyrus provided the accompaniment.

Lillian Henley provided the music for Egypt circa 1910. The title covered a range of places rather than the capital Cairo. The colours, tints and tones, were even more erratic on another aged and worn print.

John Sweeney accompanied Turkey / Turkije, a 1915 title from a German company, Radios frankrijk. Here the tinting was more uniform.

Costas Fotopoulos provided accompaniment for two titles;

Beelden uit Piraeus / Pictures from Piraeus And then The Lonely Princess / De Eenzame prinses. This was a Vitagraph set in Venice and with an unlikely romance between a visiting Yank and an European aristocrat. As was often the case with the city of Venice the locale offered scenic vistas and the settings eclipsed the young g lovers.

Programme 9 offered a short film and then a six reel feature.

The Wife and I went Cycling / Une Partie de Tandem was an Eclipse title accompanied by Colin Fell. The cycle ride threw up a series of calamities presented with visual wit.

The feature was In Search of Castaways / The Children of Captain Grant? Les enfants du capitaine Grant, a 1914 adaptation of a picaresque novel by Jules Verne. The original novel from the 1860s ran to 900 pages. The search covered several continents, indicated by the separate sections, South America, Australia and New Zealand. The ‘search’ is rather implausible but leads a little band of would-be rescuers over a vast itinerary. The strength of the adaptation is the use of actual locations; there is an impressive sequence in the Alps. The weakness is the plotting, a factor complained about in contemporary reviews. There are quite a few long title cards, but even so it is not always clear why the characters act as they do. I had figures out the main lines by the end. And the title looks good and the music was fine as well. There is some nice tinting on the title cards.

Programme 10 offered another eclectic selection of short silent films, screened by kind permission of collections held by the Netherlands’ EYE Filmmuseum.

Our Film Stars – Photoplay Magazine Screen Supplement #6 (USA 1919). This was another episode in the series presenting notable film people to fans. James Cruze, who had an extensive career as an actor then moved to direction, most famously with The Covered Wagon (1923). He was, though, outshone by ‘Faithful Teddy’ a canine hero at Mack Sennett’s studio.

Flux The Cat (NL 1929). This was an advertisement for a Dutch tyre firm. The cat was clearly modeled on the famous US character Felix. Both titles were accompanied by John Sweeney.

Colin Sell accompanied Le Dytique (The Water Beetle) FR 1912. A tinted study from Eclair.

L’orgie Romaine (Lions of the Tyrant) (FR 1911). This was a hand-tinted title directed by the key filmmaker Louis Feuillade. One of those mad Roman tyrants looses his savage beasts on his own courtiers. John Sweeney returned to accompany this title.

Le Chien Insaisissable (The Elusive Dog) (FR 1912). This was a canine comedy full of trick cinematography as this elusive pooch appeared and disappeared. Lillian Henley accompanied at the piano.

Old Isaacson’s Diamonds (USA 1915) was an episode from one of the popular series of the period; Kalen’s The Girl Detective. The heroine worked by observation, showing up official detection. Costas Fotopoulos accompanied the title.

The screenings had English sub-titles where there were Dutch title cards. And Michele Facey provided introduction to the movies.

Kennington Bioscope partnered with the BFI London Film Festival 2020 for their online screening of newly restored Australian silent film, The Cheaters (1929). The feature was accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch.

Programme twelve saw the team bring you a programme of ‘Comedy and Colour’, with nine short films shown by kind courtesy of the Jean Desmet Collection and EYE Collections held by the Netherlands’ EYE Filmmuseum.

Robinet Pescatore (Robinet the Fisherman) (Italy 1914)

A title from Ambrosio with the now familiar comic character. Predictably Robinet, with a massive fishing pole, creates a series of mishaps with numerous hapless victims.

Coloured Views – Pontalier and Niort (France 1924-5)

This is a scenic tour in a mountain region in Eastern France. The title enjoys attractive stencil colour and a varied range of vistas.

John Sweeney provided the accompaniment for both titles.

Les Glaces Marveilleuses (Magic Mirrors) (France 1908)

This was one of the titles made by Segundo Chomón using trick cinematography and stop motion to produce a series of clever tableaus and transitions. The print had finely done stencil colour and an accompaniment by Lillian Henley.

Le Dirigeable Fantastique (France 1906)

One of the delightful titles by Georges Méliès. An inventor has a dream in which his airship leads to crazy events. The film also had early colouring and an accompaniment by John Sweeney.

Le Voyage sur Jupiter (France 1909)

A second title by Segundo Chomón also including a dream sequence, here leading to a magical voyage to the planets. This too had stencil colouring and the accompaniment by Colin Sell.

The Paper Bee (? 1920)

This is a nature documentary presenting an industrious insect in stencil colour. Lillian Henley provided the accompaniment but, unfortunately, there were some audio problems.

Amour de Page (France 1911)

‘The Love of the Page’ showed a servant wooing the daughter of his lord. The complication was an aristocratic rival who is finally un done by a convenient witch.

La Legende des Ondines (Legend of the Sirens) (France 1911)

This was another period drama which a rousing climax. The unhappy protagonist deserts his love for a sensuous siren; this takes place on a shoreline rock with the watery foam overwhelming all involved.

Costas Fotopoulos accompanied both titles.

Madamigella Robinet (‘Miss’ Robinet) (Italy 1913)

Robinet returned in this cross-dressing comedy. Caught in a compromising situation Robinet borrows his mistresses’ clothes. The tilt ends with a delightful sequence where the protagonist is enamoured by a whole host of men and a squad of police.

Colin Sell provided the accompaniment.

A Christmas Special courtesy of the BFI and the EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

Featuring a whole array of shorts of Winter and Christmas by the enormous generosity of EYE Filmmuseum and the British Film Institute (BFI). The longest programme to date with twelve titles and, impressively, twelve accompanists. There are the usual introductions by Michelle Facey, accompanied by some guests. And there are English sub-titles where required.

Holland in Ijs (Netherlands 1917) – Scenes from the Netherlands in what was an extremely cold winter for them. It included footage of the ‘Eleven City Tour’, a race held on the canals in years when they were frozen; not that often. A tinted title accompanied by Daan van den Hurk

Expedition to the North Pole (USA 1916) – Animated adventure by airship to the frozen North. The treatment included some satirical jokes about recent expeditions. Accompanied by Cyrus Gabrysch.

Il Natale di Cretinetti (Foolshead Christmas, Italy 1909) – Early film comedian André Deed wreaks havoc with an outsize Christmas tree. Typically that commences with his Christmas mail and then follows with the iconic tree. A title made in Turin and now accompanied by José María Serralde Ruiz.

Ida’s Christmas (USA 1912) – Dolores Costello and John Bunny star in this heart-warming tale from the Vitagraph studios. Ida desires an expensive doll, way beyond the purse of her poor parents. The tale relies on the over optimistic view of the Christmas spirit; especially when involving rich and poor. Accompanied by Colin Sell.

Snowstorm in New York (Netherlands 1926?) – A blizzard paralyses Manhattan. Accompanied by Ben Model.

Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost (Britain 1901) – R.W. Paul’s early and ingenious depiction of Dickens’ seasonal story. This was star screening in the programme. Paul, an important pioneer in early British cinema, produced an adaptation in twelve tableaux. Originally the print was 620 feet but only a version of 327 feet survives in the National Film Archive. The technician expert at the Bioscope, Todd Higginson, used a published synopsis in ‘The Era’ in 1901 to add titles that filled out the missing sequences. So we enjoy a combination of titles and filmed sequences which presented the complete version. Paul’s version did not use the ‘spirit’s of Christmas’ but used Jacob Marley’s Ghost to show Ebenezer Scrooge the past, present and future season. The film was sophisticated for the period with superimpositions and wipes. Accompanied by Meg Morley.

Snowballs (Britain 1901) – Schoolboy scamps besiege passers-by with handfuls of the cold white stuff. This was one of the short titles from the Mitchell and Kenyon collection; which lay hidden until 1994 when by a fortunate discovery they were recovered. Accompanied by Lillian Henley.

Santa Claus (Britain 1898) – The wonder of Christmas. British film-maker G.A. Smith’s film features his children and wife Laura Bayley. Smith was another pioneer on British film and part of what became known as ‘The Brighton School’. He was also inventive and there is a happy use of an iris in this title. Accompanied by Stephen Horne.

The Little Match Girl (Britain 1914) – Percy Nash directs this, the second British adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s heart rending story. This famous story turned up in a number of adaptations; this was an Eye print, thus with Dutch titles and English sub-titles. Heart-rending is right. The ‘little girl’ has a brutal father and must try to sell the matches in the freezing cold and snow., There is a nice use of colour to offer a dream world alternative to the grim reality. Accompanied by Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton, who added ‘Silent Night’ to the emotion.

The Mistletoe Bough (Britain 1904) – An unlucky bride is locked in a trunk in this early film. A sardonic plot and period settings which felt slightly anachronistic. But the grim outcome is effective. Accompanied by Costas Fotopoulos.

Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner (USA 1911) – Villainous Broncho Billy finds himself accidentally invited to the Sheriff’s home for the festive repast. In the title it is the Sheriff daughter rather an ‘accident’ that sets up the Christmas repast. There is also a happy coincidence as the present of a medallion is edited together with the arrival of the parson. Accompanied by Philip Carli.

There was a slight technical hitch, rare for the Bioscope, then:

Santa Claus and the Fairy (Britain 1898) – Have you been naughty or nice? Stockings at the ready! A moral just before the festivity. Accompanied by John Sweeney.

Programme 14 of the Bioscope offered three titles courtesy of the Library of Congress archive. There was a five reel programme feature and two short titles. These were introduced as usual by Michelle Facey and the shorts were accompanied by pre-recorded music with a live stream for the feature.

The Day After is a Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith in 1909 with the plot written by the young Mary Pickford. The film was 460 feet in length. I t was show in the then standard long shot/long take. Set at a New year’s Eve Party and released in January the film presents ‘Remorse’ [Moving Picture World Review]. In this case by the host husband and wife are their over-indulgence of the night before. The film has three basic set-ups: the parlour where the lethal punch is served and where later the couple cope with breakfast: the dance room where the revelries occur: and the bed-room where the toils of the night before are felt. This is a simpler comedy than some of the more complex dramas made by Griffith.    Colin Sell provided the music.

H2O (1929) is an abstract film made by Ralph Steiner. He was a photographer and cinematographer who also directed avant-garde films. He was a member of the progressive Film and Photo League. This is title is a study of water, both its situation and, for much of the film, the patterns seen in still and moving water. This was a pioneer work which was highly regarded and influential. Similar avant-garde works were also made in Europe, notably Joris Ivens Regen (Rain) in the same year. Later Steiner worked in Frontier Films with Padre Lorentz Leo Hurwitz and Paul Strand. The film’s pattern formed moving and soothing set of images, bought out by Lillian Henley’s accompaniment.

The feature was Daring Deeds from 1927; a standard release from a small production company, Duke Warne Productions. The AFI Catalogue has links on the output of the company which operated in the 1920s and closed early in the sound era. There are also links to the cast and production members. This is a black and white five reel title with some tinting in the night-time sequences and a bright red tint for the title card.

The plot involves the aeronautics industry and a key aerial race. In order to scupper the opposition thieves attempt to steal the plans of a new model and then actually high-jack the plane itself. They are thwarted by the son of the industrialist who ate first seems rather lackadaisical. There, is, profitably, a romantic tie-up as well. The narrative is very conventional but there are some well-done aerial sequences. Director of cinematography Ernest Smith excelled here. There is some under-cranking in the fight scenes which makes them run pretty fast for modern tastes. And I thought that at one point in a chase sequence that the camera actually ‘crossed the line; but this was early days in studio conventions. Oddly though, after the silent era, Smith was reduced to  camera operator.

John Sweeney provided a suitable accompaniment. The whole programme is still up on the You Tube Kennington Bioscope.

Many of the short films whose transfers feature in the Bioscope programmes are from the Jena Desmet Collection at Amsterdam’s Eye Museum. This is one of the Archives listed on the pages of the International Federation of Film Archives as providing free streaming for visitors during the lock down. This is a great resource and there are an amazing variety of early films provided in this way.

Posted in Archival compilations | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship. By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2020

The author in interview at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

I read most of this book during Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019, a week dedicated to screening films from the Silent Era. I was able to enjoy the silent films with new aspects to my understanding. Paolo Usai was one of the founders of this Festival, now in its 38th year. Since then he has worked in a number of archives, most recently as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum. These years of viewing, studying and preserving early film have fed into an impressive study of the thirty plus years of the new art and entertainment form of Cinema. He has also made good use of his discussions and collaboration with a host of scholars and archivists who receive acknowledgement here.

The sub-title of the book may suggest a specialist work. This is true in part, but the writing and presentation as generally accessible and the detail information and comment on the Silent Era is of a quality and comprehension that is not found in  preceding works with which I am familiar.

The book has three main components. First there is an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; I also enjoyed the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli; such accompaniments are now standard for ‘silent’ screenings.

The curtain rises for a nitrate screening in the Dryden Theatre.

Over eight succeeding chapters and nearly two hundred pages, Paulo Usai gives an account, section by section, of early cinema, when nitrate film without sound tracks was the form of moving image. He works through the actual film’s stock, including how it was processed: the equipment, both in the studios and in the theatres: the people, a host of roles in a variety of situations: the buildings, developing from primitive conversions to magnificent picture palaces: and the show, including the music or narrators [like the Japanese Benshi, a dramatic example] and even early attempts at synchronised sound. He points out, with detail, just how far from silent were early film shows. And also explains why surviving music for screenings can assist in working out more about how the film was presented.

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. Usai also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory. Another recent area of research is the differences made by translations, including dubbing and sub-titling.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (originally 1898) produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and was not happy about the digital version or the type of music used for accompaniment, which I found  inappropriate. The digital version, and indeed a 35mm version, looked good but they were closer to the distinctive visual patina of digital than to the more luminous patina of actual film. An example I prefer that he mentions is the 2016 restoration of Kean (1924) by the Cinémathèque française. The tinting and toning was done by the Czech specialist Jan Ledecký using the techniques from the 1920s. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto; a film I had seen before but the difference in the 35mm was lovely to behold.

‘Kean’, 1924 with Ivan Mosjoukine

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration; but also one of wonder. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common.

The Bibliography is very well set out. The appendices, examples of research tools in this area of endeavour, assist in illuminating the topic; for example, ‘The Film Measurement Table’ showing the running times of 35mm and 16mm at different frame rates. The copious illustrations are both well chosen and well produced ; the colour plates are a delight.

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. Paulo’ Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

Silent Cinema

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

BFI/ Bloomsbury Publishing. 2019. Third edition, considerably expanded from previous editions.

403 pages, with Bibliography, three Appendices and an Index.

213 illustrations, 10 charts and diagrams and 53 colour plates.

In hardback, paperback 978-1-8445-7528-2 and electronic versions.

Posted in Book review | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Mistinguett – two dramas.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2020

Poster for ‘La Glu’

This performer and star featured alongside Suzanne Grandais in the ‘French Stars’ programme at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto.

“Mistinguett, “Queen of the Paris Music Hall,” “Queen of the Paris Night,” and affectionately known as ‘”La Miss”, is a French show business legend, famous for her stunning legs (Insured for half a million francs in 1919), incredible costumes and headdresses, and a long career as a star in the realms of music hall, revue, and film.”

She established herself on the French stage, including the Moulin Rouge. She started in film in 1908 and was still making appearances in the early 1950s. Little her of her famous legs were seen in the early films though she carried over her ability to use notable costumes and to play a variety of character types. What impressed in the film dramas was the intensity of her performances.

L’épouvante [in USA Terror-stricken] France 1911

Mistinguett made several films with Albert Capellani who was a noted and innovatory director in the early teens. This short film, running 10 minutes in a digital transfer, was described in the Press as a “terrifying cinemadrama”. It is minimal both in the time span and in the settings.

Mistinguett plays a music hall actress returning to her apartment in the evening. As she prepares for bed a burglar (Émile Milo) enters her apartment. When the actress realises she closes the inner door of her rooms. The burglar takes her jewels. As he leaves the police arrive and there is a chase with the burglar climbing up on the roof, and, then unseen by the police, climbing down the house but the guttering on which he hangs come away. Crying out for help the actress come out on the balcony and, moved by pity, lowers a curtain so he can climb to safety. Before he leaves he drops her jewels back on the table.

Mistinguett’s performance is impressive. Her panic, then her pity, are powerfully conveyed. The film also benefits from Capellani’s direction and the uncredited cinematographer’s skill. As the actress prepares to read before sleep there is a forward track as she lights a cigarette. And during the burglary there are a couple of high-angle shows which increase the dramatic effect.

La Glu, France 1913.

This film was scripted and directed by Albert Capellani. It was adapted from a novel [later a play] by Jean Richepin. Mistinguett plays a femme fatale, not in the emotional manner of ‘terror-stricken’ but a cold and calculating sexual predator. The film’s title comes from a description she offers of herself in the film:

‘Who brushes up against me gets glued ..’.

The Catalogue notes that the term is

“a scurrilous bit of slang for an immoral femme fatale, a seductive siren who captivates and victimises all manner of men.” (Richard Abel and Victoria Duckett).

The films open with Mistinguett as Fernande, a young woman living at home with her bourgeois parents. She is already a flirt, meeting young men in the garden. Her father is visited by Doctor Pierre Cézambre (Henry Krauss). Fernande sets her cap at the doctor and they are soon married. Fernande caries on seeing other men. But

‘suspicion and jealousy assail the unhappy groom’

And when he searches Fernando room he finds notes from

“Jules, also Arsene and from Georges.”

The doctor beats Fernande whose response is to leave for Paris. Here she is able to live in luxury thanks to her many admirers. In one characteristic scene she dances for them at a boulevard café. These Paris sequences cove full rein to Mistinguett’s star persona.

“With her bright eyes, wide mouth, long legs, and limber body, Mistinguett is a perfect choice for the role. By turns vivacious, mischievous,impudent, and flaunting her allure, she commands the screen. (Catalogue).

One particular smitten admirer is the young Adelphe des Ribiers, a Breton aristocrat and presumptive heir to a fortune. But when Adelphe’s grandfather objects to the relationship Fernande leaves Paris. She rents a villa in Brittany on the coast. Here she vamps and bewitches a local fisherman, Marie-Pierre (Paul Capellani). This affair takes up the whole of the latter part of the film. Marie Pierre is already engaged and his fiancée and his parents are all appalled by this seduction.

There is a very effective beach scene where Fernande, dressed in a one-piece black swimming costume, toys with Marie-Pierre. Then he carries her from the sea. There follows the complete seduction. The sequence has an ellipsis but it is clear from the morning when Marie-Pierre rises in Fernande’s room that sex has taken place.

Marie-Pierre’s mother attempt too intervene to break up the relationship. Then the setting moves to a nearby town where Adelphe with his aristocratic uncle re-appears. This sparks Marie-Pierre’s jealousy and there is an intense and melodramatic sequence back at the villa where the uncle threatens Marie-Pierre with his gun. The latter collapses and he is taken back to the fisherman’s cottage of his parents. With the coincidence familiar in me,melodrama Doctor Pierre has moved to the village and is assisting the family. When Fernande appears at the cottage in pursuit of her victim the mother, now almost hysterical with anger, strikes Fernande with a mallet. She falls dead. But the noble doctor, who presumably feels some guilt for the subsequent events claims to have struck the fatal blow. The film end of this downbeat note.

This is a full-blooded melodrama dominated by the character of Mistinguett. The narrative travels from a small town to the metropolitan capital and then on to the rocky coast line of Brittany. The director Capellani made goods use of actual locations

“in the novel’s Brittany setting: the fishing village of Le Croisic, a nearby villa, and Guérande [the small town. This often gives exterior scenes a striking sense of deep space…” (Catalogue).

This can be seen in the early scene when Fernande lounges in the garden and then makes trysts with her lovers. It is noticeable in the beach sequence and in the several scenes set on the rocky cliffs. There is a strong spatial sense in the action in Guérande.

There is also an effective use of light and shadow. The scene where the doctor discovers the letters from Fernande;’s lovers has fine chiaroscuro. And there is similar low key lighting when we see Marie-Pierre after his night of passion with Fernande.

We enjoyed a 35mm print of 1951 meters with tinting, running at 18 fps for 95 minutes. This was an early and impressive feature. Both titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano.

 

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

Two films by Max Linder

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2020

These were part of a programme dedicated to European Slapstick at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto. Linder was a pioneer comedian and star of European cinema, successfully engaging the new cinema-going public from 1905. He was an influence on many of the subsequent film  comedians, including the notable exponent of slapstick in Hollywood and on Chaplin himself. These two film date from late in his career after he had returned from a foray in Hollywood films. Following the second his life was to end tragically in suicide.

La Petit Café(1919) is an adaptation of a play by Tristan Bernard (1912). The film was directed by Raymond Bernard, the son of the plays author. Raymond Bernard had started out as an actor; then worked with Jacques Feyder as an assistant and this is one of his early solo features and he also worked on the screenplay with Henri Diamant-Berger.

The plot is a familiar one. A penniless man turns out to be the illegitimate heir of a wealthy man and enjoys a large inheritance. There are various travails on the path, including characters who attempt to usurp the inheritance. But the most humorous passages are of Max Linder as Albert working in a boulevard café. There is a comic contrast between Albert as a lowly waiter and , later, as an affluent man-about-town. But Linder most familiar aspect are as a ladies man. He has several romantic adventure. And in one, he and Bernard have a fine ellipsis underscored by the broken umbrella, left all night at the door of one amour’s house. The film also has a nice homage to Chaplin with whom Linder had become friendly during his sojourn in Hollywood.

“the first scene is an an out-of-context Linder imitation of Chaplin’s Little tramp – mugging at the camera in what might be a personal message to Chaplin himse4lf.” (Lisa Stein Haven in the Festival Catalogue).

Au Secours (1924) is another Linder film made with a noted director; in this case Abel Gance. The film was only a short version of the original. The final cut was 1500 meters then reduced to 900 metres on release. The 35mm version screened at 18 fps was only 490 metres. This presumably affected the coherence of the film’s narrative.

Basically Max Linder accepts a bet at his gentlemen’s club; the dare of spending an hour in a supposedly haunted house. The member who lays the bet and owns the house cheats by creating various pseudo phantoms and even an attack on Max’s young wife. Bizarrely the action takes place on the opening night of Fax’s honeymoon, something that sits ill with Maxis familiar character of romantic voyeur.

The film does have some very effective technical effects.

“most notably his [Gance] use of high=sped montage, negative image, slow-motion, and reverse-motion. For an instance, in a scene in which Max is hanging from a chandelier, Gance  distorts the image such that a sense of vertigo is effectively created.” (Festival Catalogue).

The Catalogue suggests that the film was produced over three days, which presumably accounts for the film lacking the sophistication that one associates with Linder. However, he is always a delight to watch on-screen, dapper, confident and sexy. So the programme offered real pleasure and fine examples of ‘European Slapstick’.

Posted in French film 1920s, silent comics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

‘Silent Cinema’ by Paolo Cherchi Usai

Posted by keith1942 on January 16, 2020

Paulo Cherchi Usai in an interview at Le Giornate 2019

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

This was one of three new books received by Donors at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto; all three books addressed cinema in the sense of photo-chemical film. I read most of this book during the Festival and so I was able to enjoy the silent films with new aspects to my understanding. Paolo Usai was one of the founders of this Festival, now in its 38th year. Since then he has worked in a number of archives, most recently as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum. These years of viewing, studying and preserving early film have fed into an impressive study of the thirty plus years of the new art and entertainment form of Cinema. He has also made good use of his discussions and collaboration with a host of scholars and archivists who receive acknowledgement here.

The book has three main components. First an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; also enjoy the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli, now standard for ‘silent’ screenings. The difference is still more marked when early film, originally on nitrate, is transferred to digital formats, sometimes involving digital restoration work. I have seen over a hundred of these now and in most instances i find the digital version does not really match that of photo-chemical film. Digitisation is a complex process and technically informed colleagues can often point to a problem stage. However, overall the image of regular an uniform pixels is not really equivalent to the random silver halide grains. Most digital versions have a patina which appears rather flat in contrast to the depth of field and contrast on reel film. Generally the few transfers I have seen that equate to the original film have come from the Scandinavian archives, who clearly excel in this sort of work. But the German and French archives are good as well. Some I have seen are so poor I gave up on that particular screening.

Apart from the often uncritical view of digitisation there is a problem in terms of funding. I heard one archivist explain that funding agencies are often loath to include moneys for a master copy on actual film. I saw a presentation from a member of the Austrian Film Archive who had used new digital techniques to good effect in restoring a 1920s film; however there was no allocation for a 35mm master print and the master copy was actually on a tape format. How long will that last?

The book continues over eight chapters and nearly two hundred pages, Paulo Usai gives an account, section by section, of early cinema, when nitrate film without sound tracks was the form of moving image. He works through the actual film’s stock, including how it was processed: the equipment, both in the studios and in the theatres: the people, a host of roles in a variety of situations: the buildings, developing from primitive conversions to magnificent picture palaces: and the show, including the music or narrators [like the Japanese Benshi, a dramatic example] and even early attempts at synchronised sound. He points out, with detail, just how far from silent were early film shows. And also explains why surviving music for screenings can assist in working out more about how the film was presented.

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. He also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. At my early Giornate Festivals I was introduced to the arcane study of frame rates. This was not an exact science and Usai makes the point in the book that there was rarely a standard frame rate for any particular film as it travelled across various territories and screened in multiple venues. But skilled archivists and projectionists could usually judge an appropriate rate at which the film appeared to move without either exaggerated pace or dawdling slowness. Now, even at a Festival such as the Giornate, frame rates do not seem to get the attention they need. one problem is that so few digital projectors have been set to run at slower frame rates than 24, [as in sound film]. Quite often a quoted frame rates for a screening actually means the film runs for the same length of time as if at that frame rate. In reality in so many cases the transfer has used the technique of extending with additional frames [step printing] so that the title runs at 24 fps; DVD’s of course, run at 25 fps. The effect varies from film to film, but. for example,. with Soviet Montage what is seen differs from what was seen.

Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage Dans la Lune [originally 1902] produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. This was an epic work of restoration from multiple copies. Some parts were difficult to work on; some needed colour restoration; the process took over two years., We were treated to both a digital screening with a recorded music track and a 35mm screening. The digital version was just too bright and clean and had been step -printed; and the music, by ‘Air’ struck me as incongruous. The 35mm version was more impressive. This confirmed my reservations regarding digital; a helpful tool in archive work but not really equivalent to photo-chemical film for presentation.

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. He does this in the same thorough manner that he addressed the silent film era itself. This includes the way to handle prints, restoration and copying and the associated research to ensure the films are identified correctly and as much information as possible is garnered.

He notes a particular fine example of contemporary restoration, the 2016 35mm version of Alexandre Volkoff’s Kean du Désordre et Génie (1924). This was a partnership between the Cinémathèque française and the Czech archive, The latter has a specialist expert in tinting and toning, Jan Ledecky. I was fortunate in being at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto when this was screened and Usai’s praise is entirely deserved; it was a beautiful print. I had seen the film before on 35mm but this was several notches up and we had a fine accompaniment from Neil Brand. Unfortunately not all restorations and not all work on different colour formats is as successful.

My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common. The 2019 Giornate had one prize exhibit, the restoration on a 35mm print by a team led by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival of the 1929 Soviet masterwork, Fragment of an Empire / Oblomok Imperii, directed by Fridrikh Ermler. This was a real treat to enjoy with the original accompanying score arranged and performed alongside by the Orchestra San Marco with conductor Günter Buchwald.

Paulo Cherchi Usai’s book celebrates the archival work that goes into this sort of presentation. It also provides a detailed, almost exhaustive, description and commentary on the Silent Era. It is a lot longer than a number of other books on the topic but this is rewarding. His central point is that made by FIAF, that presentations of early film should be as close as possible to the original. Of course, as Usai points out, presentations in that era varied considerably but the goal should be the best quality of those.

The Bibliography is very well set out. The appendices, examples of research tools in this area of endeavour, assist in illuminating the topic; for example, ‘The Film Measurement Table’ showing the running times of 35mm and 16mm at different frame rates. The copious illustrations are both well chosen and well produced ; the colour plates are a delight.

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. But the subtitle which aims at people in or entering the fields of archival and curatorial work possibly makes it seem specialist. But the style is predominantly accessible and Paulo Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

BFI/ Bloomsbury Publishing. 2019. Third edition, considerably expanded from previous editions.

403 pages, with Bibliography, three Appendices and an Index.

213 illustrations, 10 charts and diagrams and 53 colour plates.

In hardback, paperback 978-1-8445-7528-2 and electronic versions.

This was originally a review in the ‘Media Education Journal

Posted in Archival issues, Early cinemas | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »