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Would You Believe It! (UK 1929)

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2015

Walter Forde in What Next?

Walter Forde in What Next?

This film was the main feature in a silent film presentation during the Leeds International Film Festival. There was this feature and two earlier shorts, introduced and accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Best.

Would You Believe It! was a comedy feature co-scripted, directed and starring Walter Forde. Forde, born in Bradford, started out in the Northern Music Halls. He moved into film in 1919, first as a writer then as a comedy lead. He made several two reel comedies, produced in a converted hangar in Hertfordshire and then a converted drill-hall in Devon and all marketed under Zodiac Comedies. He, as was the  case in the silent era, played a stock character Walter, well meaning but innocent. He then made six two-reelers at the Windsor Studios. This was followed by two years in Hollywood at the Unviersal Studio. When he returned to the UK he joined the Nettlefold Company who had taken over Cecil Hepworth’s old Studio at Walton. There he made four comedy features, all using the Walter character and playing opposite Pauline Johnson as a romantic lead. The films were co-written by James B. Sloan with Walter also directing. Sloan is also credited as director on a number of comedy shorts that Forde made on his return to the UK.

Would You Believe It! was the final comedy feature silent made by Forde, as this was the point that the introduction of sound film occurred in the British film industry. Rachel Low comments on the film:

“His last silent comedy, Would You believe It! (Trade Show May 1929) was directed and written by him, and this time reviewers, slow to recognise comic ability unless already established either in America or on the stage, at last began to take notice. But by this time sound film had become the fashion and even a Vocalion music recording could not save a comedy so essentially silent in technique. The [four] films were slight comedies with timidly darting style, dabbling politely in romantic farce, slapstick and a playful use of the medium. Forde himself appeared as a burly amiable and innocent young man engaged in suburban misadventures, somewhat puzzled but hopefully dogged.

He was too late for a career as a silent film comedian, but the direction and editing of the film show a considerable talent, which was fortunately to find expression in the thirties.”

Low is likely accurate on the context and Forde’s general approach, but she probably underestimates the quality and popularity of the film. The BFI Screen Online is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“He resumed the ‘Walter’ series, this time in collaboration with James B. Sloan and by the late 1920s, had become recognised as one of Britain cinema’s major comic talents, the director and star of a number of very popular comedies for Nettlefold …”

In the film Forde plays Walter, a would-be inventor. After trials and failures he comes up with a remote-control system with military potential. At this point the invention and Walter become the target of foreign spies. Whilst this conflict continues Walter is also developing a relationship with Pauline (Pauline Johnson), who coincidentally works for the Ministry of War.

The film  opens when Walter’s experiments force him to leave home. He obtains a job as an assistant in a toy shop. There are several very funny sequences involving, first as baby, then balloons and finally mechanical toys. The balloons at one point form a phallic shape which I assumed was intentional and rather risqué for the period. The mechanical toys go berserk in a marvellous sequence, scattering customers round the shop.

It is at the shop that Walter meets Pauline. As their relationship develops she also arranges for him to demonstrate his invention to the Ministry of War. At this point the foreign spies enter the picture. The chief seems to be modelled on a caricature of Lenin: an unidentified reference to a Soviet threat?


There are a number of sequences where the less than competent spies attempt to steal the invention or kidnap Walter. There is a fine long sequence on the London Underground involving a spiral staircase and a lift. This is really fine comedy and the humour increases as there are repetitions both on the stairs and in the lift.

“All are seen from a simple, single camera angle, but by rapid cutting of repeat shows of this section with the hero, the villains, and then the case itself sliding down on its own, the illusion of a chase up and down the staircase is created … The comedy effect of this simple sequence is successfully created by using the juxtaposition of shot …” (Rachel Low).

The film develops to a final climax when Walter’s invention is tried out on an actual tank. Once again the spies are plotting to steal the invention. This is a fairly long sequence but it develops both the drama and humour with real skill. It is also a fairly destructive sequence, demolishing cars and  whole houses in a chase sequence. You might guess that there is a positive outcome for Walter and Pauline.

Low’s comments on the filmmaker and the film sequence are apt. This was an extremely well made silent feature. The cinematography is excellent: by Geoffrey Faithful. And equally well done was the Art Design by W.G. Saunders and the editing by Culley Forde. Both the underground and the toy shop sequences were really effective. And the finale, though drawn out, is full of extremely well presented action. Forde himself obviously has an eye for the distinctive comedy sequence: there is another ingenious scene when he goes to the wrong venue for his War Office interview.

The film was accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Best. This was a enjoyable and appropriate score, adding to but not overpowering the film’s drama and comedy. Jonathan also offered a short introduction to the film and to the accompanying  two short films. He explained that the three films represented three early decades  in the British silent cinema and among other aspects offered a comparison of the development in comedy in that period.

Motor Pirates or The Modern Pirates, a black and white film  produced by the Alpha Trading Company. They operated from 1903 until about 1910. The film was approximately 500 feet in length and ran for about nine minutes at 16 fps. An armoured car terrorises the countryside but is finally bought to book. The film is rather violent but the action is presented in long shot: there is little sign of motivation. There are a couple of ingenious set-ups with the police before an extended chase ends in a river.

Blood and Bosh (1913) is from the Hepworth Company. It is just on 650 feet in length, running for about running for about 11 minutes at 16fps. The plot synopsis gives little idea of the actual film.

“A baby, the beneficiary of a will, is kidnapped, thrown through a window, trample don, and finally rushed to hospital to be re-inflated.” [LIFF Catalogue].

The characters, including a hero, heroine, villains, mother and child, surgeon and sawman, are performed in stark melodramatic fashion. The cuts are frequently abrupt as the audience is taken on a erratic narrative. And the action  is violent, bizarre but often very funny. The films seems to be the product of a premature British member of the Dada.

The 35mm prints, in pretty condition, were provided by the British Film Institute. They do not seem to have a practice of recording frame rates? The projectionist, at the Hyde Park Picture House, had to experiment, eventually they settled on 18 fps for the programme. This was slightly fast for the early films. It seemed OK for the Forde feature, though there was a slight flicker from that frame rate.

Still a very entertaining programme. More please, soon.

Rachel low’s The History of British Film 1918 – 1929 is part of the seminal five-volume study: Geoffrey Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1971.


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Dawn, UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2015


This is an early film about Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by the Germans during World War I for spying. Her case became a cause celebre at the time and she has remained a fairly iconic figure since. This is the centenary of her death and Park Circus has re-issued a 1939 film, Nurse Edith Cavell. The Hyde Park Picture House has gone one better and recently screened the earlier film in a 35mm print and with a set of interesting introductions. The film previously has only been screened at the Imperial War Museum and the British Silent Film Festival.

The essential record. Cavell was a British Nurse working in Belgium when the war broke out. She became involved in a network helping escaped POW’s make their way home. The network was betrayed and 35 members captured by the Germans. 30 of the members were sentenced to hard labour, five, including Cavell, were sentenced to be executed. Three of these had their sentences commuted to hard labour, but Cavell and a colleague were shot. There were protests both by the Allied enemies and by ‘neutral’ nations, especially by the US Legation in Belgium.

Herbert Wilcox was one of the more successful producers and directors in British film in the 1920s. He specialised in historical dramas, and he also produced and directed the 1939 version, which starred Anna Eagle. There had been some short films about Cavell, in which the Germans were portrayed as brutes and Cavell as an innocent victim. But by the late 1920s the British Government was concerned to maintain good relations as Germany was shepherded back into the ‘democratic fold’. The German Government raised objections when Wilcox’s production got underway. The British Government evaded the issue with reference to the British Board of Film Censors [set up in 1912] as an independent censorship body: somewhat economical with the facts. Wilcox did in fact make changes to the film including the ending, but it does not seem that there is a record of these.

In fact when the film was completed the BBFC refused it a certificate. However, the BBFC’s remit was only partial in this period, as the Local Authorities actually held the legal right of licensing. Wilcox was successful in getting the film licensed by the London County Council and it received a general exhibition. It was also screened in Germany, without much apparent incidents.

The film was shot in black and white and is six reels – running about 85 minutes at 22fps. The original release was 7,300 feet: now it is 6,510 feet which suggests cuts due to wear and tear. The Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) Reginald Berkeley   … (story),  Robert Cullen   … (scenario) , Herbert Wilcox   … (adaptation). Cullen also directed and one of his films is Every Mother’s Son (1926) a wartime drama. It is possible that Wilcox’s adaptation is to do with the changes: what these all were is not clear, though it definitely included the ending. My thoughts on re-watching the film was that some of the title cards were likely the result of this change in approach.

The film opens with a series of title cards. They first laud Cavell’s ‘heroic life and death’. Then they offer a sort of generalised anti-war message, ‘Rulers of Europe, puppets of carnage ..enslaved by war.’

The film then moves into its story, and we see the Belgium Institute where Cavell worked. Inside we are presented with a children’s ward, the use of children is a recurring trope in the film. One boy puts on a Prussian style helmet, ‘I am an Uhlan’ [light cavalry in Poland, Russia, and Prussia]. Another boy puts on a different cap, ‘I am a chasseur’ [French light infantry’. The ‘Uhlan’ chases the ‘Chasseur’ who runs and shelters behind Cavell in her office. Briefly and directly the film sets up the drama’s plot and values.

The war arrives, Europe ‘blazed into flames’. Then we see a man on the run (Jacques – Mickey Brantford ) and Germans searching. His mother, Madame Rappard (Marie Ault) attempts to hide him and when Cavell arrives she arranges to take the man to the Institute. There she burns his uniform: right through the film, with one other exception, escaping soldiers are seen in civilian clothes. Later Cavell and Madame Rappard hide Jacques in a part of the basement and move a large wardrobe to hide the entrance.

So Cavell is drawn into helping escapees: a flashback shows Jacques telling her that there are ‘hundreds like me’. In most cases the men are taken through the streets at dark and secreted on a barge which travels along a canal across the frontier. The group appears to consists of Cavell, Rappard and two other women (Madame Ada Bodart – herself and Madame Pitou – Mary Brough) and a Bodart’s young son Philippe (Gordon Craig): rather different from the actual network. This is a woman’s group. One man, the bargee (Richard Worth) , hesitates to assist the prisoners and is roundly ordered to do so by his wife, Madame Pitou. Later it is a man who betrays the network. The only positive m male member is Philippe, a teenage boy and an unnamed man who guides the prisoners from the Institute..

The actions of the group are intercut regularly with the German military. At times this is quite stereotypical: the communication system is a post card mailed at the frontier. After a fruitless search one German soldier willingly agrees to post the card for the Madame Pitou. We also see the German high command, including the Military Governor, General von Zauberzweig (Frank Perfitt) . As they start to realise that there is an escape network investigations and searches are instigated. At one point it appears that escaped prisoners are being found among the allied dead after battles on the front line: clearly having rejoined the allies and their war effort.

The investigating officer is presented as quite intelligent. He remembers a conversation with Cavell which arouses his suspicions. His first search is fruitless, but after the betrayal he returns and discovers the hidden door behind the wardrobe. This is a moment of high drama in the film. Cavell is assisting a wounded and wanted RAF officer: the only other escapee seen in uniform. The search takes place as Cavell and an assistant attempt to smuggle him out of the Institute. This is done successfully: another rather conventional plot device. Meanwhile Cavell is incriminated by a discovered network document.

We then get Cavell’s trial and execution. ‘Trial between women and war machine’. Her women companions are also charged but the trial is predominately about Cavell. We do see the young Philippe who is a compulsory witness and who is committed for perjury. Cavell is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. A title tells us that the others are sentenced to hard labour: so unlike in actuality Cavell is to die alone.

Following the sentence the film includes the efforts of the US Ambassador to stop the execution. There are letters and visits by his aide, but the Commander cites ‘duty’. This section of the plot emphasises the ‘brutality’ of the sentence: the film does not raise the issue of spying by the actual network. It does provide sympathetic Germans who themselves sympathise with Cavell, undermining the German position. So an officer visits the Institute and sees the wounded airman, but ‘clicking’ his heels’ and saluting Cavell he leaves without reporting what he has seen.

Even more notably we see dissent among a member of the firing squad. This is Private Rambler, who demurs when he is selected for the squad. At the actual execution he hesitates when the order to ‘raise arms’ is given and then refuses. The officer commanding berates him. And there is an exchange of glances between Rambler and Cavell. This sequence is clearly cut, likely due to the changes made to placate the Germans. It would seem that there was originally more than one exchange of glances between Cavell and the soldier, and the suggestion of Cavell’s nod that he should ‘do his duty’. Note, ‘a legend long generally accepted’.

The execution took place at the Tire National, on the edge of a field behind the building. We see the preparations including an English Chaplain ministering to Cavell. She is them marched down stairs, through a basement to the yard. There is the business with Private Rambler but we do not see Cavell actually shot. What we do then get is a title showing the words that Cavell spoke to the Chaplin,

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

These are famous and off-quoted words.

The film has a very restrained feel. Partly this is down to the performance of Sybil Thorndike as Cavell: she is magisterial and even her emotional displays are restrained. There is some difference between her and other cast members’ performances: Madam Pitou and Rappard are quite a bit more expressive. This restraint is emphasised by the film’s direction. Wilcox is a fairly static director, his films concentrate on performance and mise ne scène. So the film is shot predominately in long and mid-shots. And even when there are close-ups they are not large, but almost themselves mid-shots. There is very little moving camera: though already Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock were using these techniques in their films. All I noted were several pans, especially during the court sequence.

The cinematography by Bernard Knowles is well done and there is some expressive lighting in certain sequences. The art direction is by Clifford Pember and would seem mainly to relate to interiors,. Much of the exteriors were shot in Belgium, frequently using actual locations from the events recorded. Note, the 35m print we watched was a composite, one could discern changes in lighting and definition within sequences. It appears this BFI print combines four reels from its own archive copy and two reels from a copy in New Zealand.

The film had a musical accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla on the piano. Darius gave a short explanation before the screening. His performance was partially prepared, partly improvised. He explained that in the 1920s there was a range of musical accompaniments: some using prepared musical sequences, some composed or arranged. The latter had at one extreme the Wagnerian romantic approach, The sort of music that Korngold bought to Hollywood in the 1930s. Some of it was closer to neo-classical, for example Kurt Weill. Darius’ accompaniment for this film was closer to the latter, re-enforcing the style of the film. Much of it was low-key and often with sparse notation, but he also bought in martial chords at certain points in the film,. I thought it set of the film exceptionally well. though it of course re-enforced the values the film offered.

Darius at the piano.

Darius at the piano.

The pre-screening talks were also informative. Dr Emma Cavell was related to Edith Cavell through an Australian connection. She filled out some of the family history. But her project around Cavell also bought her into contact with the Cavell heritage events. It is worth noting that Cavell was given a state funeral in the UK and there is a statue to her in Trafalgar Square where there is an annual memorial event. She was also added to the Anglican Church listing of ‘saints’.

Professor Fell talked about the history of Cavell and the network in which she was involved. There is evidence that the network not only assisting escaping soldiers but that they also passed on information concerned with the war effort – i.e. spying. She also pointed out that Cavell was not tried alone, nor was she executed alone but along with Philippe Baucq who was a key member of the network.

The disparities between the film and the record made sense when Doctor Claudia Sternberg talked about the representations of Cavell , including on film. Early illustration showed Cavell with long, streaming hair, younger than her actual 49 years and in some suggestions of rape. One newspaper illustration depicted the Germans as pigs or ‘swine’. One film of 1915 was entitled Nurse Martyr. She also talked about the depiction of Cavell as a lone victim in illustrations of the execution and the use of nurse uniforms rather than civilian clothes. She went on to fill in the context of the Wilcox film  and suggested that this was a transitional work, with ‘civilian society’ portrayed as ‘subordinate to the military’.

Dawn poster 01

The talks filled out the film and enabled a fuller appreciation of the representation and its relationship to the historical person and events. My main reservations were two-fold.

The suggestion was that the changes made by the film after the German objections gave the film a more general anti-war tone. I thought there was a discrepancy between the title cards and the visual representation in the film. The opening title cards in particular were quite strident and appeared to put together European powers on both sides of the conflict as war-mongers. However the actual narrative was much closer to conventional war films. Cavell and the network were portrayed sympathetically and shown as non-military. The fact that the key member were women seemed more about this type of discourse than any feminist rendering, though they did come across as strong characters. The Germans were portrayed through the film in conventional militaristic terms, re-enforced by the dissensions by individual Germans and the depiction of the US Legation. I incline to think that one of the ways that German objections were responded to was to change title cards rather than the actual imagery, a not uncommon way of ‘sanitising’ silent film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

The key changes to the visual imagery were the execution. Here there are clear cuts, at one point there is a shot of Cavell facing the squad and then a reverse shot, and we discover a field behind her. It is a disruptive moment. Presumably this cut was seen as diminishing the literal visual violence in the film, but all the business with the dissenting soldier remains.

I also had reservations about the idea of a transitional film. I can see that it has some of these aspects in terms of British film. But the anti-war tone had already appeared much earlier in the 1920s. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921) has a powerful anti-war drive and in this film civil society is clearly subordinate to the military. And in British film the jingoistic support of the allied war effort continued, a good example being The W Plan from 1930. Here Brian Aherne plays an British Officer and spy who outwits the stereotypical Germans.

It also need to be pointed out that ‘anti-war’ has a limited connotation in such films as Dawn. As  pointed out by Andrew Britton such films rarely address the actual politics of an actual war. This is centrally true of World War I. This was an imperialist war between European colonial powers and ‘plucky little Belgium’ had one of the worse records for colonial atrocities in the Congo.

But a great opportunity, so felicitations to the Hyde Park Picture House and to the contributors to the event.

There is more material in Rachel Low’s the History of the British Film 1918 – 1929, Allen and Unwin 1971.

The Belgium archive also have a print which is being restored.


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Indian Silent Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2015


India around 1900

Film on the Indian Sub-continent – Early years 1896 to 1924

Prior to 1947 the British Raj occupied the whole of the Indian sub-continent, including what later became Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was in this context that cinema arrived in India. And the early and developing years of film were carried on under the eyes of the British. That would seem to a be a factor in the scarcity of examples of early film: along with resources and the climate. When I first saw early film from the sub-continent it was at Il Giornate del Cinemas Muto in 1994. And we were able to see the entire early film archive at that festival. Unfortunately most of the films only survived as fragments. However, along with the archive came a group of talented musicians who accompanied the films with traditional music

The central figure in indigenous cinema in this period was Dadasaheb Phalke, who made the first Indian feature films. He also set the trend for mythological films, representing the riches of the indigenous culture. The arrival of sound in the 1930s led to the development of the film musical form, the growth of Film Studios and the central importance of stars to audiences.

Early Days

On July 7 1896, at the Watson Hotel in Bombay, the French cameraman of the Lumière Company, Maurice Sestier, screened the first film show in India. The show was patronised by both the European and Indian elites of the city. Within a week the show moved to the Novelty Theatre, allowing different classes (and even women in a separate section) to view the new wonder. Other showmen followed, and soon the residents of both Calcutta and Madras were able to experience the marvel. The shows used theatres, public halls and even tents set up in playgrounds. And the programmes soon included ‘exotic’ views shot in India.

Harischandra S. Bhatvadekar was the first indigenous Indian to import, in 1898, a camera and to start making films. The films included important political events such as the reception given to a mathemematics scholar, R. P Paranjpye, after he achieved a First at Cambridge University. As is common with early silent film, much of this footage is lost, including what was the first Indian story film, Pundalik, made in 1912. However, at least some of the films of Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke do survive. He is India’s equivalent to the great early North American filmmaker D. W. Griffith.

Phalke: the father of Indian Cinema

In 1910 Phalke saw a film of The Life of Christ. He was inspired:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gogul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’ (Quoted by Suresh Chabria, 1994)

Phalke taught himself the skills of filmmaking, and made a trip to England and the studio of the pioneer filmmaker Cecil Hepworth. Phalke then set up the first production company with its own studio, Phalke Films, in Bombay. In 1913 he released Raja Harischandra: the surviving print runs for 23 minutes at 16 fps with titles in Hindi and English. The original at just under 3,000 feet, probably ran for fifty minutes. The film’s tale came from the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and narrated the story of a king whose love of truth is tested by a god. The film was both a commercial and critical success. Indian audiences powerfully identified with images from their own culture. Despite this, Phalke encountered problems, including the prejudice against cinemas as a ‘low form’ of culture and the fact that no ‘respectable’ woman would appear in a film. His early films used men playing female characters. Later filmmakers at first recruited women less susceptible to the taboo, such as Anglo-Indians. Phalke also had to raise his own funds, as established financial institutions would not invest in film.

Phalke followed his first success with Lanka Dahan (1917) the story of the abduction of a wife by a demon king, Shri Krishna Janma (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919).   The films centred on the god Krishna, played by Phalke’s daughter, Mandakini, and Phalke used early special effects to create the magic of the god hero. These are three important titles in a series of films, and parts of them have survived and have been restored and housed at the National Film Archive of India.

Kaliya Mardan

Kaliya Mardan

The first production company

Phalke filmed Raja Harischandra in the vicinity of his own house, then moved his enterprise to Nasik, where all the subsequent films were produced. According to film historians Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980), the family lived in a three-story house, on a few acres land. The family included Dadasaheb Phalke and his wife, Kari, their five sons and three daughters and various relatives. All the children appeared in Phalke’s films. Kari Phalke loaded and unloaded the camera, rushed film to the laboratory – a portion of the kitchen area – and supervised all laboratory work.

Several dozen people worked on Raja Harischandra, but during the following years the company grew to about a hundred. They all lived on the Nasik estate. The company became an extension of the joint-family system and the members of this extended family did all essential work. Outsiders were only involved occasional crowd scenes. The Phalke enterprise set a pattern that dominated Indian film production for several decades.

His films were shown in cinemas in the large cities, such as Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph, when it opened and to the vast peasant population in the countryside. As Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980) indicated,

‘In due time Phalke, like other producers of this period, became an exhibitor and travelled far and wide by bullock cart, with projectors, screens and films. The people who came were seldom two-rupee customers. Most paid four annas, two annas, or even one anna, and most of them sat on the ground. The revenue was in coins. The weight of the coins, on the homeward trip, could be enormous.’

In the 1920s other entrepreneurs followed in Phalke’s footsteps. The main centre for these production companies was Bombay/Mumbai, however there were also film studios in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai. An important producer was H J F Madan, who launched a Bioscope show in a tent in 1902. He expanded into theatres and later film production. This company was an early example of vertical integration. When Madan died in 1923 he owned 50 movie theatres, a third of the national total.

There were a series of high value productions mainly down to the efforts of Himansu Rai, who also acted in the films. They were directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten working with a German cinematographer Emil Schünemann. Rai raised monies both in India, Germany and from the British film industry. The final and most sumptuous of these epics was Prapancha Pash / A Throw of the Dice (1929). The film retells an episode from the Mahabharata about a king who is cheated of his throne and must struggle to win back the kingdom and his love. She is played by Seeta Devi, reckoned to be an Indian film diva. This is credited to British Instructional Films and Pro Patria Films Ltd. The surviving print is 6694 feet in length with English titles; it ran at 21 fps for 85 minutes. The other two films, which also survive, are Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) this debut film from the production grouping dramatised a story about the life of the Buddha. Their second film was Shiraz (1928) which told the legend of the building of the Taj Mahal.

Gallant Heart

An example of a genre film is Diler Jigar / Gallant Hearts, produced by the Agarwal Film Company in 1931 in Pune. A slightly shorter version survives, running 8672 feet and with titles in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and English: it ran for 117 minutes. It seems that this film was partly inspired by the Hollywood films of Douglas Fairbanks. However, it also fits into a wider cycle of swordplay and stunt films. A tyrant usurps the throne, but the baby prince is saved by a courtier. He re-appears with a love and her brother. Much of the film is shows them outwitting and outfighting the tyrant. What makes the film especially notable is that some of the finest sword play features the heroine  Saranga, as a masked woman avenger,  outdueling the henchmen of the usurper. She was played by a young actress Amboo who played on in the talkie era. Another film from the company survives, Gulaminu Patan / The Fall of Slavery (1931). This is a costume drama lacking the panache of Gallant Hearts. However it does depict the exploitative conditions in rural areas, a theme to which Indian cinema would constantly return.

There were Indian comedies. A three reel film, Jamai Babu survives, from the Hira Film Co (1931). This is an early Bengali film centred on a ‘country bumpkin’ visiting his urban in-laws in the city of Calcutta. It is rough and ready but provides glimpses of Calcutta at that time. It runs for 35 minutes hand has titles in Hindi, Bengali and English.

With the exception of Raja Harischandra and A Throw of the Dice it is really difficult to see these films outside the sub-continent. Though extracts appear in many of the television programmes about Indian cinema.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934 edited by Suresh Chabria was published to coincide with the 1994 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It includes a complete filmography for the period. The above post has been developed from a piece in the BFI CD-Rom on Indian Cinema [no longer available]. For sound cinema – for Parallel cinema.

Posted in Archival issues, Early cinemas, Festivals, Indian film | Tagged: | 4 Comments »

The 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto

Posted by keith1942 on October 16, 2015



This year’s festival ran from October 4th until the 11th. The weather was rather below par: cloudy most days, though we did get more sunshine towards the end of the week. But the content was well up to standard, though it was not one of the really great years: given the commitment to new or restored screenings, this is inevitable. But there were an awful lot of pleasures.

One of the stand-out events of the week was the screening of Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928). This was a cross between a Samurai and Yakusa films and originally ran for six hours; but only a 111 minutes survive, mainly from the second and third parts of the film. It was screened at an earlier Giornate, but this time we watched a restoration with tinting. We also enjoyed a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka [the Japanese narrator of early cinema] with live accompanying music from the Otowaza ensemble. It helps to have seen the film before because the fragments from Part 2 need some explanation. However later sequences have beautifully set and filmed scenes in a Sake Brewery, with the protagonists surround by vast barrels  between which they and the camera work. Then there is the finale of the film. This is a long bravura sequence, with Chuji’s band fighting off the police and his mistress guarding the ageing warrior.


We had another restored film from an earlier programme Les Misérables (France 1925-26). This was directed by Henri Fescourt and is the longest screen version that I have seen of the novel. It is fairly faithful to the book and has an excellent cast. The film offers finely presented exteriors, though the interiors are not  quite as good. The weakest part is the Paris insurrection and barricades, where the later version  by Raymond Bernard is superior. It is an epic production running over six hours. The accompaniment for the whole screening was performed by Neil Brand, a performance a impressive as the film.

For me the best programme of films was Other City Symphonies. Generally shorter films, there were a number of fine examples which fell between documentary, poetic and essay films. De Steeg / The Alley (Netherlands 1932) was a study of a poor neighbourhood in Rotterdam. Another film from the Netherlands was Pierement / Barrel Organ (1931) which followed this instrument around a working class area. There was the well produced A Day in Liverpool UK 1929) sponsored by the Council and extolling the ‘virtues’ of the great city. And there was the first film  by the long-lived but now deceased Manoel de Oliveira Douro, Faina Fluvial / Labour on the Douro River |(Portugal 1931) this was possibly the most poetic of the films. There was one substantial documentary Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht Űber Chicago / Chicago / A World City in its Teens. A Report on Chicago (Germany6 1931), running 74 minutes. This made fine use of the cinematography, both in conjuring up the urban architecture but also in placing the people in evocative positions. Generally these films were observational, though there were few sequences that appeared staged.

'The Alley'

‘The Alley’

Despite the title Russian Laughter was a programme of Soviet films. KinoKariera Zvonaria / A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career (1927) was a delightful two-reel comedy. As the title suggests the plot involves a film crew and their tale is told with real visual wit. Dva Druga, Model I Prodruga / Two friends, a Model and a Girlfriend (1928) was another engaging comedy. The ‘model’ was in fact a labour-saving machine and the humour revolved both around the machinations of an NEP villain and some less than socialist bureaucrats. Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik / The State Official (1931) had appeared t the Giornate before but was interesting to revisit. More than most films it dramatised the politics of Socialism in One Country, with its plots by subversives and little attention to social relations. There was Serdtsa I Dollary / Hearts and Dollars (1924). The film was incomplete and appeared to be influenced by  the far superior The Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). But apart from that I was non-plussed. It was either an avant-garde production  of extreme experimentation or there was something odd with the archival treatment. The plot was clearly out of sequence [decades before Jean-Luc] and event the title cards numbers were out of sequence. Clarifications appreciated.

The featured director was Victor Fleming. I enjoyed the familiar Mantrap 1926). This is Clara Bow’s best role on film, which is presumably why Kevin Brownlow used a film still in the titles for his great Hollywood series. There were two early films featuring Douglas Fairbanks, offering excellent humour. And there were two new titles for me, To the Last Man (1923) and Wolf Song (1929). Both has excellent photography and some beautifully realised scenes out in the wild west. The former had Richard Dix in a typical role: the latter the young Gary Cooper, looking quite beautiful. His co-star, Lupe Velez responded with the most palpitating bosoms I can remember seeing for  a long time.

The canine performance of the week – one of very few this year – was a Border Collie, Jean, in Ramona (USA 1928). The actual film was rather lacking in drama, apart from one great scene with Dolores del Rio in the title role. The talented dog graced innumerable scenes and displayed an uncanny ability to select the key position in the frame at any time. However, the film was less careful: parted from her mistress Jean only re-appeared in the final scene, quieting my worries. However, her journey there was missing from the plot.

'Ramona ', with Jean well placed in the foreground.

‘Ramona ‘, with Jean well placed in the foreground.

A slightly odder programme was Italian Muscle In Germany. These were films made in Germany featuring Italian actors: ‘muscle men’. The most entertaining was Mister Radio (1924). The star was Luciano Albertini. The film was set in an Alpine setting and utilised rock climbing and mountainous locations. The mountaineering was the most bizarre I have ever seen on film, the Everest climbers would have been petrified. And the film cut between actual locations and studio constructions. As long as one did not take it seriously it was very entertaining. The Invincible / Der Unȕberwindliche (1928) was a rather limp sequel. Familiar locations appeared but with little connection to the plot; presumably the crew just loved these sets.

Special events included Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful Romeo und Julia im Schnee / Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (Germany 1920). This feature looked great as well. And to end the week we had a digital version of The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925) with Lon Chaney. This has a violent but terrific ending, rather unusual for Hollywood at the time. And a real treat – Hal Roach’s The Battle of the Century (1927). This long-lost Laurel and Hardy has a splendid second reel involving [apparently] 3,000 pies. Let your imagination work.


I missed a number of screenings as I was recovering from an operation. And some of the features are best passed over in silence. Also I want to address the tribute to African-American Bert Williams separately. There were some Latin-American short films and features. However the main offering from Mexico, El Automóvil Gris / The Grey Automobile (1919), a crime story in 12 episodes, was restored and presented on digital. I had seen the films before, un-restored, however my memory was that they looked a lot better on 35mm. The DCP lacked definition and the tinting had an odd palette. About half the Festival was delivered on digital formats. Some of these were excellent, but  a number were not. So it is frustrating to watch digital when 35mm prints are available. Moreover, even when 4K is used in the process, many of these films are presented in 2K DCPs. The latter do not appear to have equivalent definition  or contrast to 35mm.

If some of the source material was of lower quality the music was not. We had most of the regular accompanists performing and two new members. Predominately the music was excellent and mainly avoids the pitfall of over-powering the films. This Festival was also the last with David Robinson as director. So he received a well-deserved Tribute and applause from the Giornate audience.


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Il Giornate de Cinema Muto 2015

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2015

Cinema Muto

Oh to be watching films now that autumn is here. Apologies to the great poet, but having just got my breath back after the British Silent Film Festival that yearly week of cinematic bliss in Pordenone is upon us. With admirable promptness the organisers have posted the outline programme and the daily calendar on the web. Among the treats will be:

CHUJI TABINIKKI / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels] (JP 1927)

I have been fortunate enough to see this seminal samurai film at an earlier festival, but it is a treat I have been waiting to revisit.

Then we will have the pic of the week:

LES MISÉRABLES (FR 1925-26; 397’) di Henri Fescourt. 4 chapters: (1) Jean Valjean; (2) Fantine; (3). Marius; (4) L’Épopée de la rue Saint-Denis

I assume this is the longest version and for me it is the best. Though the 1930s version directed by Bernard has the best sequence on the barricades.

And what is likely to be an intriguing new study,

PICTURE (US 2015), dir: Paolo Cherchi Usai; mus.: The Alloy Orchestra

The Alloy are really in the forefront of silent musical accompaniment. Their Man with a  Movie Camera score has no comparison.

We will also have OTHER CITY SYMPHONIES – AMÉRICA LATINA: ARGENTINA, BOLIVIA, MÉXICO – and RUSSIAN LAUGHTER , though last time most of the films were in fact Soviet. So Pordenone is not immune to contemporary vices in the film world.

Now all I have to do is check the weather. And this time I really must visit Pasolini’s grave, within reach: especially as the new film biopic opens whilst I am away.

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – finale.

Posted by keith1942 on September 21, 2015

Anzac Cove.

Anzac Cove.

Sunday morning returned us to World War I. The scene was set with a presentation on how film had treated the ill-fated Gallipoli failure. This was an event on which troops from the then empire – especially Australia and New Zealand – suffered heavy casualties. It is even now a day of remembrance in Australia. We watch several aspects including two films based [rather differently]] on the same book by Ernest Raymond. One was the relatively recent Gallipoli (1981) following the fate of two Australian recruits. The second was from a 1930 sound film, Tell England. A recent film, The Water Diviner (2014) also deals with these events: interestingly it provides much space and a certain sympathy for the Turkish combatants: not noticeable in the earlier films.

Tell England was also the morning feature. This was filmed by British Instructional Films and directed by Anthony Asquith. Asquith is a much neglected British director. His earlier silent films are very fine, and so is this early sound film. His output in the 1930s is less distinguished which is presumably down to the failings of the British industry. Whilst some of the sound sequences are clichéd there are stand-out action sequences. The most impressive is one featuring the allied landings, which intercuts specially filmed material with ‘found footage’ from 1915. Asquith’s early films show the influence of Soviet cinema, which he presumably saw at the London Film Society. There are examples in editing and montage in this film: and Asquith not only learnt from the techniques of Soviet filmmakers, but also clearly comprehended their use of montage. There are three listed cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell and James Rogers, and their black and white cinematography is extremely well done. The editor is Mary Fields and she also was obviously a fine talent.

After lunch we had a presentation on Early British Advertising Films. These ranged from 1903 to 1947. We saw scotch, matches, boot polish soap, railways, cycling and hot drinks. The early ones ran for under a minute. Then oddly there was a period of extended advertisements of several minutes, reverting in the 1950s to the earlier and shorter length. This is what we suffer today. The blessed aspect of early adverts is the absence of sound. I tend to think that the dialogue and commentary in contemporary adverts is somewhat worse than the images.

A 1920s advert.

A 1920s advert.

The last two films in the programme had already featured at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. So, being fairly wacked, I am afraid I missed them. The first is a very fine late Scandinavian silent, Ragens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929). This is a rural drama with fine location filming: one of the pleasures of Swedish silent cinema.

The final film was Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal. This is a classic of Soviet cinema, always worth revisiting. The film had a newly prepared electronic score by Guy Bartell. I have to ask friends how they found it. I trained back to Leeds, tired but replete.

This was a rewarding four days, and extremely well delivered. I did have some minor reservations, which are worth airing because they seem to me to be on the increase. The advance programmes did not have information on formats. One of the helpful De Montfort organisers provided me with a partial list. But even in the programme notes it was not always clear what format would be screened: there were 35mm, DCPs and DVDs. With some of the films from elsewhere it apparently was not always certain what format would arrive. But the bulk of the programme came from the BFI, so there must have been certainty in these cases. There is a mistaken assumption that watching digital is the same or better than celluloid. I thought, as with the Hitchcock silents and on this occasion with the Keaton, that this is not the case.

The notes on 35mm did provide frame rates. But this was not the case with DCPS. The sound films would run at 24 fps, but what happens with silents. FIAF has now provide specifications for silent running rates on digital: but there seems to be very little usage of these in the UK.

And none of the notes provided aspect ratios. This was a particular problem because early sound films tended to be in 1.33:1 with the framing reduced by the added soundtracks. And there was apparent frequent cropping in the 35mm sound prints. These require appropriate projection plates and lenses, which I assume the Phoenix do not have. But it would have been good to have been forewarned about this.

One of Leeds' 100 year-old cinemas.

One of Leeds’ 100 year-old cinemas.

Still my views are predominately positive and hopefully there will be future silent festivals. So I wanted to add two suggestions. One is that by number nineteen it will be long overdue to have a festival in the North of England. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle and Sheffield could all provide excellent venues. And my own city of Leeds could also do so: and there are in or nearby the city five working cinemas that a hundred years ago were already exhibiting the films that are the subject of these festivals. We could also have an overdue appreciation of Louis Le Prince.

My other suggestion is regarding content. The films were fine, but I did weary slightly of the uncritical patriotism. It would be good to have early films from the Socialist and Labour Movements. Groups like Kino and the Film and Photo League continued making silents into the 1930s. And there were talented and interesting filmmakers like Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond. Some of these films certainly survive, even if only in their original 16mm format. Wheel them out?

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 3.

Posted by keith1942 on September 19, 2015

An example of a Windjammer.

An example of a Windjammer.

Saturday had a distinct maritime flavour. We opened with the 1930 Windjammer. Loraine Porter introduced the film and we learnt that the project started as a film record of a voyage of Grace Harwar from Australia to England carrying grain. The voyage rounded the Cape Horn, so it was long and arduous. A.J. Villiers, [author of a book By Way of Cape Horn) recorded the voyage with cameraman Gregory Walker: who died near the voyage’s end. They filmed at silent speed, though it is not clear if it was a hand-cranked camera. After the voyage Villiers attempted to get the record released as a film. The first attempt failed, but there was more success with Wardour Films and it was released in a sound version. This unfortunately led to a disappointing version. The on-ship footage is often impressive, but only about 2,000 foot [a third of the total] made it into the 58 minute release. The rest was a sort of dramatic addition, filmed either in a studio or on the port-moored ship. This offered the poor sound and dramatic qualities of the early thirties. And the silent footage was speeded up, maybe from 20 to 24 fps? Villiers also suffered because he had great difficulties in getting any share of the income, which was less than the production and release costs. A missed opportunity unless someone can find surviving footage.

the RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania

Following this there was background and film examples about the notorious sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. There were some particular interesting examples of the use of animation for wartime propaganda. The session then offered Imperial War Museum material on Lord Kitchener: a chance for landlubbers to regain their feet. I was fascinated to learn that Kitchener was possibly gay and involved in such a relationship.

After lunch we had more water with Buster Keaton and his Steamboat Bill Jnr (1928). Some of my friends were very taken with this digital version, [which is getting a UK general release]. I found it had that flat surface patina that is a problem with digital versions. The better side of the session was Neil Brand, first talking about Keaton, and then providing a sparkling accompaniment.

After tea – the refreshment breaks were frequent and well done – we had another early sound film, The Great Game from British Instructional Films (1930). The ‘great’ game was football. The film effectively combined fictional dramatic sequences with actual footage, including Wembley and the FA Cup. The plot was fairly generic, and included a young footballer trying to make the first team. But the central conflict was in the Board Room, twixt Chairman and Manager. Rather nicely, and presumably reflective of currents in the 1930s, the emphasis was on the team. Surprisingly for me, it was also a period with debates about transfer fees, which made it seem quite up-to-date.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The actual FA Cup 1930.

The afternoon finished with another Soviet feature, The Cosmic Voyage (1936). This originally had a synchronised score but had an electronic accompaniment at the Phoenix. It had also been screened at the previous Giornate del Cinema Muto. This science fiction feature offered a preview of a coming Soviet Moon shot, with impressive designs and construction, whilst aiming for a scientifically based view of the future.

In the evening the Festival moved to Leicester Cathedral and the new tomb of Richard Third. The film, Jane Shore (1915), was set during the Yorkshire vs. Lancaster Wars of the Roses. Richard, as villain rather than hero or wise monarch, appears in the film. The film’s notable appeal is in the use of location settings with large numbers of extras. The version screened also had the original tinting restored. And there was a live accompaniment by Orchestra Celeste. So the day ended land-bound again.

Jane Shore booklet

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 2.

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Maurice Elvey - the film director.

Maurice Elvey – the film director.

The Friday was devoted to silent films and included some titles from Europe. We opened with a film by the British director Maurice Elvey, The Rocks of Valpre (1919). Elvey was a prolific but uneven filmmaker. This however was one of his finer films. Unfortunately there were at least two, probably three, missing sequences. However, the film followed fairly closely [I was advised] the adapted novel by Ethel M Dell and even with plot ellipsis it was possible to make sense of events. What distinguished the film was the locations [partly filmed in Torbay though set in France) and the style, with distinctive use of iris, shot placement and cutting. And there was a fine piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

There followed Not for Sale from the Stoll Company (1924). The film was scripted by Lydia Hayward who has featured in earlier festivals with adaptations of stories by W. W. Jacobs. This was early example of the ‘romcom’ or romantic comedy. Ian Hunter plays a rich aristocrat, Lord Denny, whose spindrift ways are bought to a sudden halt by his father. He is forced to find paid employment and moved from a Mayfair flat to a lower class boarding house run by Anne (Mary Odette). Hunter played the lighter comic touch well and there were many engaging scenes and, as you might expect, economic and romantic travails. The film also enjoyed a suitably light accompaniment from John Sweeney.

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

The day also saw two films on which the young Alfred Hitchcock worked at the London studio of Famous-Players. Hitchcock is credited with the film titles, though none of the actual title cards survive. Charles Barr provided introductions to the films and a possible relationship to the body of Hitchcock’s full directorial work. The Man From Home (1922) followed a young US heiress on a European tour and mainly set on the Italian Rivera. The plot was fairly generic and predictable, with the young heiress and her brother tempted astray by continental fortune seekers. But the production values of this US company were notable. The second film from the same studio was a unusual, bizarre example. Three Live Ghosts (1922) only survives in a re-edited version from the Soviet Union and Gosfilmofond. In the 1920s films from the capitalist west were frequently changed through editing and titling to accord better with the socialist values of the new Republic. There were performances of Intolerance (1916|) with added live choral inserts to improve the film. And Eisenstein, whilst learning his craft with Esfir Shubb, did some re-editing on films by Fritz Lang. Unfortunately whoever worked on this film was not of the same calibre. The changes relied almost wholly on new titles and the plotting was confusing and the political comment simplistic to say the least. However, it is a rare example of a uncommon cinematic form. We also enjoyed a fine Swedish import, Den Starkaste / The Strongest (1929). The films had previously been screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2013, but this fine production is worth several viewings. It is partly a romantic drama, but much of the film involves arctic voyages and hunts, and the quality of the settings and cinematography is admirable. Stephen Horne provided a suitable and lyrical musical accompaniment.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

The evening screening was Michel Strogoff (1926). This was one of the French films involving Russian émigrés in the 1920s. It stared Ivan Mosjoukine, a really charismatic actor of the silent era. A Siberian adventure based on a Jules Verne novel, one of the attractions of this film version was the use of Pathecolor [a stencil colour process] for a dramatic sequence. It was also an epic, running 169 minutes.

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on September 16, 2015

Silent cover

This excellent four-day event, British Silent Film and the Transition to Sound, took place from the 10th to the 13th of September at the Phoenix in Leicester. It was also supported by the BFI, The Arts and Humanities Research Council and De Montfort University. There was a programme of early films, some of which I will post on individually. And there were introductions and longer contributions on the films and the context of the transition from silent film to sound film. This event was extremely well organised. The programme was intelligent and interesting. The contributions were stimulating. There were well prepared supporting notes.

It says a lot for the organisation that the programme went off with only a couple of minor hitches, even though relying on a stack of film cans from 80 or 90 years ago. The provision by the cinema was also excellent: friendly staff, very good catering and always someone to point one in the right direction. The projection team worked well not only with many old films but with a variety of format – celluloid and digital. And then there were a bunch of talented musicians.

Thursday featured early examples of the new sound technology in British cinema. The day opened with Larraine Porter offering an illustrated talk on the period of transition. Rather like the first years of cinema this was a complicated picture, with rival sounds systems, rival companies and a competition to offer the first example. The larger competition was between the USA and Europe. The most notable intruder was Western-Electric; whilst the notable European system was Tobis Klang-film. As in the USA, whilst there were examples of disc with film, the industry soon tended to sound-on-film.

There had already been a burst of investment following the Film Act of 1927. Much of this, was speculative. As Larraine noted, of six companies launched in May 1928, only Associated Talking Picture survived into the mid-1930s. The new technology required heavy investment, both for studios and cinemas. It also required relatively quick returns, but the UK was already dominated by Hollywood studios and [to a degree] their distribution arms.

Many of these early sound films do not survive. Critical comment suggests that at least some of them did not deserve to. However, there were films of higher quality. One was the morning screening, The W Plan, from British International Pictures (1930). It was directed by Victor Saville at the Elstree Studio and used the RCA Sound System. The film was a World War I spy story and ran for 104 minutes. It starred Brian Aherne [soon to move to Hollywood] and Madeline Carroll: soon to work with Alfred Hitchcock.


After lunch Geoff Brown asked ‘Was Blackmail Britain’s First Talkie?’ As you might expect, it depends on the definition. And Geoff actually said very little about the Hitchcock film but offered descriptions and illustrations of some of the other contenders. These included the now infamous White Cargo where Tondaleyo leads the colonial administrator astray: Mr Smith Wakes Up, a comedy short with Elsa Lanchester singing: Under the Greenwood Tree, which offered a delightful sequence when the village musicians discover the vicar has purchased an organ and threatens part of their livelihoods: and To What Red Hell, a film with an anti-capital punishment message and a character frequently seen after both World Wars, the damaged veteran (all titles released in 1929).          

There were two screenings in the afternoon. There was Dark Red Roses from British Talking Pictures (1929). Unfortunately sequences from the film were missing and it only ran 53 minutes. However, it had a straightforward revenge plot with the rather stilted dialogue common in this period. The second film was a jollier affair, Splinters from British & Dominion Film Corporation (1929). The company had a tie-up with The Gramophone Company ‘His Master’s Voice’, which enabled it to offer recorded music and artists. Splinters was a musical revue actually started by the top brass to entertain front-line soldiers in 1915. And it had become a box-office attraction post-war in London and on tours. There was a certain amount of presentation of the condition nears the front and then the entertainments. These were remarkably good and included an impressive female interpreter, Reg Stone.

I missed the evening screenings, just to be in a fit state for the next day. But the evening featured the US sound version of High Treason from the Gaumont Company (1929) and war drama The Guns of Loos from Stoll Picture Productions (1928).


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[The] Man With a Movie Camera/Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, USSR 1919.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2015


This Soviet classic has been re-released by the BFI on a DCP: sadly there is not a 35mm print available. However, it is a good transfer and the source is high quality: also as the recommended frame rate is 24 fps there is not a problem with step-printing or running too fast. The actual print used is from the Nederlands Filmmuseum. This was screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2004. It is the most complete print known of the film. The original release was 1839 metres, this version is 1785 metres. It includes the chapter divisions which the author Dziga Vertov and his colleagues used in the film. The digital version now on release is a restoration by the Eye Institute and Lobster Films. Both are in the forefront of archival work on early cinema. Moreover the restoration has taken the opportunity to re-instate at least some of the missing footage. Included is the following:

“the one that shows, point blank, the moment a baby is being delivered , the most direct manifestation of Vertov’s direct cinema, which may be the reason that it has been censored from the Dutch print.” (Yuri Tsivian in the 2004 Giornate Catalogue).

Tsivian also explain the ‘provenance’ of the print. An opening title provides this information on the DCP. Dziga Vertov visited Western Europe early in the 1930s. He bought with him a print of the film from the Soviet Union and this was the print retained in the Nederlands. Apart from the importance of providing an almost complete version of the film this also provides a parallel with another important Soviet filmmaker. The most complete surviving print of Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) is the version that Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues bought with them to London and which was screened at the London Film Society with Edmund Meisel leading the musical accompaniment composed for the release in Germany.

Vertov and Eisenstein had rather different approaches to film and both were inclined to express their approaches with decided emphasis. In fact there were frequent and sometimes volatile disputes among the Soviet artists in this period: not surprisingly as they grappled with the form and style appropriate to the new society and new culture. Yuri Tsivian discusses the feud in the seminal study, Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). He suggests that there may have been a personal dimension to the arguments. That may be, but it would seem that in fact these two leading filmmakers had as much in common as they did in difference. I was struck revisiting Man with a Movie Camera by shots, especially in industrial settings, that reminded me of the films of Eisenstein, especially Strike (Stachka, 1924). Moreover, their use of montage has more in common than, say, that of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both Vertov and Eisenstein were concerned to record reality, but also to address the social relations involved in that reality. Their major difference was that Eisenstein tended towards dramatisation: Vertov emphasised that of the record. Eisenstein’s reflexive techniques aimed to position the audience in relation to the film: Vertov’s use of reflexivity aimed to draw the audience into the tapestry of the film itself. It struck me that just as among cinematic pioneers the Lumières are seen as proponent of actuality and Méliès of fiction, so in political cinema these two great artists can be seen as parallel proponents of two approaches, to a degree complementary.

A main title credits Dziga Vertov as “Author and Supervisor”, not as frequently printed in reviews and commentaries, ‘director’. He was the lead comrade in a movement of ‘kinocs’:

” We call ourselves kinoks as opposed to “cinematographers,” a herd of junkmen doing rather well pedalling their rags.” [Annette Michelson adds a footnote}, (“Cinema-eye men”). A neologism coined by Vertov, involving a play on the words kino (“cinema” or “film”) and oko, the latter an obsolescent and poetic word meaning “eye”.” (Kino-Eye, 1984)


A trio of kinocs were key to the filmography attributed to Vertov in the 1920s, though other comrades also contributed: the collective were also known by the title Factory of Facts. Aside from Vertov there was the cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and the editor Elizaveta Svilova: both of the latter are key to the final film. We not only see Kaufman repeatedly within the frame, but his positioning and framing with the camera contribute greatly to the visual impact. And Svilova, also seen several times in the film, produced [under Vertov’s supervision] the dazzling sequences of shots that compose the film.

Man with a Movie Camera is composed of seven reels and the Nederlands print retains the numbered divisions between parts. There is the Introduction and then the following six sections. The film opens with the Credits, importantly this stresses that this is a film


and a film


The collective’s earlier films had made extensive use of title cards. One of the radical aspects in Kino Pravda was the use of title cards, often carefully designed by fellow constructivists. In fact, as one critic, Khrisanf Khersonsky, pointed out:

“A film without intertitles, says Vertov. But this is not true [either]. There are various kinds of intertitles, and what, if not intertitles, are the shots of, for example,: a sign on a church saying ‘Workers’ Club’, an urn with the words ‘Citizen, keep things Tidy’, edited into a sequence of a girl washing, shop[ signs and so on.” [The majority of these are translated in the DCP by English subtitles]. (Lines of Resistance).

But the status in the film of a title card and of words within a frame is different. This distinction re-enforces the emphasis on the recording of reality, and avoiding the didactic commentative card. Something similar applies to the claim regarding the absence of a script. Vertov and his colleagues were criticised for not producing scripts before a production. The State financing body Goskino [which fired these filmmakers] relied on this to allocate resources. In fact, Vertov did produce ‘analyses’ beforehand: though much less detailed than a printed script. Indeed it is apparent that there is an overall structure to the film and that the relationship of parts to other parts and to the whole is very carefully worked out and calculated.

The film introduces itself in an extremely reflexive manner. We enter a film theatre, the projectionist prepares the print, the audience enters and the musicians appear. Now the film ‘proper’ begins, on the screen within a screen. This is kino-eye:

“When The Man with a Movie Camera was made, we looked upon the project in this way: … we raise different kinds of fruit, different kinds of film; why don’t we make a film on film-language, the first film without words, which does not require translation into another language …” (Kino-Eye, 1984).

We now enter the world of the cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman, but it is both the world of the cinematic collective and the larger world, the Soviet Union and its attempts to build a new society. In fact, there would have been several cameramen involved in the filming, since we frequently see the cinematographer himself in the frame. It is also a camera of record, sometimes apparent to the subjects, sometimes apparently not.

“To be able not to act [the requirement for documentary] – one will have to wait a long time until the subject is educated in such a way that he won’t pay any attention to the fact that he is being filmed. …

Following that line of thought I constructed a sort of tent, something like a telephone booth, for Man with a Movie Camera. There has to be an observation point somewhere. So I made myself up as a telephone repairman. There weren’t any special lenses, so I went out and bought a regular camera and removed the deep-focus lens. Standing of to the aside I could still get things very close up …” (Interview in Imaginary Reality, 1984).

At other times the cinematographer is emphatically in the frame. Lying by rail tracks to film an oncoming train: climbing up a tall tower to film from its top: standing in tram tracks in order to catch the approaching or retreating vehicles.


The first of six sections introduces us to the city and its people. This is the start of the day, we see silent buildings and empty streets. Gradually people rise and commence the day.

The second section shows us the city in full swing. People are active, machines move: the trams, a frequent sight, move round the city. And the urban crowds commence their activities.

The third section shows us Svilova at work, editing the film. Then we see various cultural actions: weddings, divorces, birth, death and funeral’s We also see the treatment of the victim of an accident and a fire brigade racing through the streets.

The fourth section shows labour processes in full swing. There is a contrast between cosmetic activity for women and women involved in manual labour. We see both business activity, such as a telephone switchboard, and the heavy manual labour underground in a mine.

With the fifth section formal productive labour comes to a halt. The section’s focus is on cultural and leisure activities. These include entertainments, sport and beach activities.

The final sixth section brings an overt political focus to the film. There are shots of both Lenin and Marx: and shots of the Soviet Workers’ Clubs: we see a woman shooting. Another image references the rise of the fascist threat. The key image is a collapsing Bolshoi Theatre, using superimpositions. Tsivian comments on this:

“Along with some other innocuous objects and artefacts from the Imperial era, soon after 1917 the Bolshoi was caught in a process which I venture to call “revolutionary symbolization”. In some cases – like ours – this symbolization could take the form of symbolic destruction …” (Lines of Resistance).


This final section also included references to radio, another technological and cultural form that was extremely important in the Socialist State. For the Kinocs radio was an important component for their new language: the next film produced by Vertov was Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Don Basin / Entuziazm, 1931), which used sound alongside the visual components in an extremely adventurous manner. Vertov, in an article on the film, commented,

“[My article] … speaks of Radio-eye as the destruction of the distance between people, as the capacity of workers of the entire world not only to see but simultaneously to hear one another.” [in Lines of Resistance].

But the most important component in this final section is the return to the audience we encountered in the Introduction. An increasing tempo alternates shots of the cameraman, shots by the cameraman and shots of the audience watching in the theatre. So that the film resolves itself finally with a reflexive manner which aims to involve audiences in the tapestry of the film.

The music track on the DCP is provided by The Alloy Orchestra. They provided the accompaniment at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, though on this occasion the print screened was from the George Eastman House. The Alloy Orchestra went back to the musical notations that Dziga Vertov provided for the original screenings. These were translated for the occasion by Yuri Tsivian:

“Vertov’s handwritten notes outlining a “music scenario for The Man With a Movie Camera – five pages of guidelines mapping out what kind of music Vertov wanted to go with what sequence. These written notes were intended to help three composers employed by the Music Council of Sovkino for the cue sheets they were supposed to write for an orchestra assigned to play for the film during the opening night on April 9, 1929;

[there is Verov’s] permanent tendency to start a sequence with conventional music steadily growing into the pandemonium of noises, his desire to “freeze” music, reverse it or make it sound “slow-motion” in the same manner as films shot do …” (Griffithiana 54 , October 1995).

This is the performance that The Alloy recreate for the DCP. However, whilst I remember the use of noises, both productive and human, in the 1995 performance I think they have taken advantage of digital technology to add to these.

One of the strongest impressions from the film is the almost frenetic pace of the editing. Shot constantly follows shot. Some of these offer some sense of continuity, many suggest counterpoint and discontinuity. The influence of Kuleshov’s ideas on montage appear: as the film constructs a series of images that are actually separated by time and space: the weddings utilise film shot both in Odessa and Moscow.

The framing of Kaufman’s camera work is impressive. The film uses a range of camera shots and of editing techniques as varied as any in this period of cinema. Annette Michelson describes the film thus:

“This film, made in the transitional period immediately preceding the introduction of sound and excluding titles, joins the human life cycle with the cycles of work and leisure of a city from dawn to dusk within the spectrum of industrial production. That production includes filmmaking (itself presented as a range of productive labour processes), mining, steel production, communications, postal service, construction, hydro-electric power installation and the textile industry in a seamless organic continuum, whose integrity is continually asserted by the strategies of visual analogy and rhyme, rhythmic patterning, parallel editing, superimposition, accelerated and decelerated motion, camera movement – in short, the use of every optical device and filming strategy then available to film technology. …. ‘the activities of labour, of coming and going, of eating, drinking and clothing oneself,’ of play, are seen as depending upon the material production of ‘life itself’. (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Whilst the film’s editing is distinctive even in Soviet cinema, there are parallels to other film works. I have mentioned the parallels with the editing of Lev Kuleshov and in industrial shots with Eisenstein’s films. In part four we see shots of a spinning machine which parallels Eisenstein’s shots of a cream separator in The General Line / Old and New (Generalnaya Linya / Staroye i Novoye, 1929). The frequent tram shots at one point reminded me of Boris Barnet’s fine The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928).


The film, as was often the case with the films from the collective, provoked furious discussion. Vertov records screenings followed by discussions in the Ukraine. Tsivian in his volume provides the record of such a discussion as well as the varied responses to the film in print.

“[The Society of friends of Soviet Cinema] The discussion became extraordinarily sharp only around the middle of the evening. It was the film’s ideological aim that suffered the greatest bombardment.

“The authentic life of the country is not shown in the film,” said the Editor of the magazine Ekran. “This comes about because the predominant role in the film is played exclusively by the form, good stunts, excellent montage, and … nothing else.”

Comrade Berezovsky’s words were disputed by Comrade Gan, The film poses problems of the way of thinking man in society far more seriously than it is posed in all our feature films, with their deliberately emphatic interpretation of the world.” (Lines of Resistance).

Vertov’s films, like some of the other avant-garde art of the period, was found really challenging: now, when so many filmmakers, have followed his example, the work can be more accessible. However, the debate also reflected the contradictions of opposing political lines in Soviet art, a debate that reflected the more fundamental struggle between political lines in the party and leadership. Sadly, the radical elements lost out and were increasingly suppressed in the following decade. So that Vertov, though he made at least two more fine films, was not able to produce anything equally radical in the following years. It is worth noting that this was the final collaboration between Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman: the latter was less impressed with the overall structure and complexity of the final film,. He went on to direct documentary films himself.

If the form and style of the film is more appreciated in the contemporary world of cinema there is frequently a less intelligible response to the political and ideological line of the film. In 2013, under the title Ukraine: The Great Experiment, Il Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a programme of other radical films produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the late 1920s. The Catalogue entry by Ivan Kzolenko made a reference to the work of the Kinocs in the Ukraine, commenting

“But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films.”

I find this comment difficult to equate with the film that I have seen a number of times. As Tsivian argues in Lines of Resistance the film is the accumulation of a decade of experimentation by the Kinocs group. And it is an intensely political work, the treatment of the Bolshoi Theatre above is a single example. Tsivian also provides a longer discussion of how the film exemplifies the analysis of Karl Marx. One example is a series of shots of coal mines and aerial conductors:

“Vertov tried to connect inside the viewers’ mind, the production of coal – the economic cause – with the economic effect: the production of electricity”.

Tsivian also offers parallel examples from earlier films. He continues,

“What all three exemplify is that, early one, the ambition of Vertov’s cinema becomes not to show, but to think – that is, to disclose invisible connections between things.” (Both in Lines of Resistance).


So Man with a Movie Camera is not merely [as Comrade Berezovsky comments] an exhilarating bag of tricks and technical devices. As Comrade Gan argued it offers an ‘interpretation’ of the world. And the world in question is the world of Socialist Construction, still a relevant concept in 1929. The structure of the film offers the processes of labour and of the labourers. Included in this is the labour process of film itself. Annette Michelson points out how,

“Vertov seems to take or reinvent The German Ideology [which he would not have read] as his text, for he situated the production of film in direct and telling juxtaposition to that other particular sector, the textile industry, which has for Marx and Engels a status that is paradigmatic within the history of material production” (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Man with a Movie Camera is a film about social relations, and that includes the underlying social relations that are not apparent to the superficial surface viewpoint [i.e. ideological]. Hence the film continuously cuts between the variety of social relations, productive, cultural and personal, in modern society. And in the final section the audience, that is the ‘workers and peasants’ of the Soviet Union, are integrated into that tapestry of relations. So the film is propaganda in the socialist sense, advanced ideas for advanced workers.

In pointing to this it must be noted that there is an unexplored space in the film: agriculture and the peasantry. This part of the socialist state had been explored in some of the earlier films of the Kinocs. But the focus in this film is entirely urban. Given that the 1929 is a key year in the introduction of collectivisation: Eisenstein’s compelling The General Line / Old and New treats the issue: this is an analysis that needed treatment, either in the film or separately.

The film does fall into the category of City Symphonies: and one comparison frequently drawn is with Ruttman’n’s Berlin: Symphony of a City(Berlin: Die Sinfonie einer Gross-stadt, 1927). However, these two films offer vastly different treatments and approaches, partly explained by Berlin being a centre of Capitalist relations whilst the Soviet cities were parts of an ongoing Socialist project. One key difference is the treatment of people. My memories of Berlin are of a series of abstract buildings and spaces: last time I viewed it I was surprised to see that there are quite a number of urban citizens in the film. Man with a Movie Camera is centrally about the people who inhabit these cities and their relations to each other and to the buildings and machinery that surround them.


The 2013 Giornate Catalogue makes one valid point:

“The fact that the film was made in Odessa and partly in Kyiv and Kharkiv is often mistakenly disregarded by researchers.”

In fact some publicity for the re-release [not the BFI’s] mistakenly referred to ‘filmed in Moscow’. Vertov and his fellow Kinocs had already filmed The Eleventh Year (Udynadsiatyi, 1928) for the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate. The films funded by Goskino in Moscow had increasingly been subjected to criticism, both for the working practices and the films’ treatments. As the 2013 programme demonstrated there was a radical space for film in the Ukraine at the end of the 1920s. So much of Kaufman’s work was filmed in the Ukrainian cities. However, following the continuing practice of using ‘found footage’ there is also Moscow footage, presumably from earlier films or film out-takes.

These circumstances remind us that the film was one of the great expressions of Socialist art in the 1920s: but a Socialist Art that was under attack from what is best described as reformist cultural values. Vertov was well aware that his film did not exactly fit the developing cinematic values in the Soviet Union.

“The film Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental film, and as such may not immediately be understood and may be destroyed in the days immediately following the completion of the auhtorial montage.” (Lines of Resistance).

As an experimental film it has exerted an immense influence, including on filmmakers who did not necessarily share the Kinocs’ socialist values. But those values are equally central to the quality of the film. Vertov writes, detailing material from the film, of this ‘visual symphony’,

All this … – all are victories, great and small, in the struggle of the new with the old, the struggle of revolution with counterrevolution, the struggle of the cooperative against the private entrepreneur, of the club against the beer hall, of the athletes against debauchery, dispensary against decease. All this is a position won in the struggle for the Land of the Soviets, the struggle against a lack of faith in socialist construction.

The camera is present at the great battle between two worlds:… (Kino-Eye).

Imagining Reality The Faber Book of Documentary, Edited by Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, Faber and Faber, 1984

Kino-Eye The Writings of Dziga Vertov, Edited by Annette Michelson and Translated by Kevin O’Brien, Pluto Press 1984.

Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate Dell Cinema Muto, 2004.

Griffithiana was a Journal published jointly by a Cineteca del Friuli and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.

Posted in Archival issues, Documentary, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »


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