Early & Silent Film

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Pordenone’ ‘Verdi’.

Posted by keith1942 on January 13, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ground floor and screen from balcony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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Early film screenings in 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2019

Brüder, Deutschland 1929, Regie: Werner Hochbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Madame de Langeais’

Posted by keith1942 on December 24, 2018

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

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

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

‘loosely connected by recurring characters.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Her Code of Honour, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 4, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Stahl with Florence Reed and William Desmond on set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Captain Salvation, USA 1927

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

“you can’t judge this woman’.

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

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

“Ain’t I am right to my body.”

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

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

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

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

“suffer her to come unto thee.”

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

‘first gospel ship’.

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

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

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

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

Jay Weisberg commented that

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

He notes

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Parade’s Gone by …’

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was disappointed though to read that

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Honoré de Balzac in early films.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Grande Bretèche

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

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

The Sealed Room USA.

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

The Sealed Room

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Literary adaptation, US pioneers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2018

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

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

The opening panel was ‘Archives and Restorations’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel 2: Silent Film and Aesthetics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel 3: Silent Film Exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Wednesday.                              Keynote 2.

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

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

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

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

Panel 6: Silent Film and Women.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audio-Visual Heritage round table.

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Archival issues | Leave a Comment »

The Kennington Bioscope: 4th Silent Film Weekend.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2018

This short festival was held at the Cinema Museum in London on September 8th and 9th. The volunteers at the Bioscope, working with Kevin Brownlow who unfortunately could not come along, had a programme of interesting [and in some cases rare] early films. Most of the screenings were on 35mm or 16mm: the projectionist reckoned he had worked through 31 reels over the two days and he did this very well.


Where the North Begins (1923) was a Rin-Tin-Tin drama from 1923. This was an early film in the career of this famous canine star. The production actually worked up several sets of filming into a complete 55 minutes narrative. The film made good use of a lot of location shooting in Canada. Rin-Tin-Tin appears as a young puppy lost in the wastes and bought up as part of a wolf pack. Then he meets Gabriel (Walter McGrail) a trapper wounded when his furs are stolen. The Dog is at first aggressive but his ‘heritage’ overcomes this as he recognises

‘His master and friend’.

The film then unravels the plot by Shad Galloway (Pat Hartigan) and his henchman ‘The Fox’ (Charles Stevens) to pin the theft of the furs on Gabriel and to steal his sweetheart Felice (Claire Adams). The human plotting is fairly conventional. But The Dog [or wolf-dog] has some exciting and impressive sequences. He races over snowy landscapes, fights off superior numbers of wolves, wrestles down the villains and in one especially impressive stunt leaps up and through a first floor window. Great out door adventure and canine dramatics. There is a slightly risqué sub-plot, Shad has a ‘housekeeper’, Marie (Myrtle Owen). The film was screened from a 16mm tinted print and looked good.

A German double bill opened with the one-reeler As We Forgive / Wie auch wir Vergeban ((1911). This offered an early role for later ‘diva’ Henny Porten. Her officer husband whilst in Japan has a ‘Madame Butterfly’ affair. This leads to tragic death of their child and a reconciliation at the child’s tomb.

When the Dead are Living Again ./ Die Geliebte Tote (1919) is a German or Austrian film adapted from ‘Bruges-la-Morte’ (‘The Dead [City of] Bruges)’, a short French novel by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, first published in 1892. The original novel recounts the obsession of a widower with his dead wife. |He sees a dancer who resembles the wife and becomes obsessed with her: this leads to her death. The film was described as an ‘early Weimar Gothic’. What makes it intriguing is that the same novel was adapted by Yevgeni Bauer in 1915 as Daydreams. This German version seems to have followed the complete novel commencing with the meeting and marriage of the protagonist, a sculptor, and an ending after a period in an asylum. The Bauer version concentrates on the death of the wife and the obsessive relationship with the dancer. Moreover Bauer has the protagonist as a photographer which allows some interesting cinematic touches. What stands out dramatically in both versions is the death of the dancer, strangled with the tresses of the dead wife. However Daydreams is much more effective. In one sequence in When the Dead are Living Again we see the protagonists at a café and it is clear that the dance floor beyond them is a rear projection whereas in Bauer a similar scene uses deep staging and deep focus as well as [for the period] a notable tracking shot.

In the afternoon we had a British picture The Garden of Resurrection (1919) written by and starring Guy Newall. He was a popular leading actor in the period regularly starring with Ivy Duke. Newall was partnered in a production company with George Clark and their films were distributed by the Stoll Company. Here Newall adapted a 1911 novel by E. Temple Thurston. Thurston was a writer of novels, plays and film scripts. He was partly bought up in Eire and he would seem to be part of the dominant Anglo-Irish class. ‘The Garden of Resurrection’ is partially set in Eire. Written in 1911 it shows no awareness of the important political strife of the period. Likewise the film in 1919 has no awareness of the War of Independence then raging.

The two central themes in the film are male self-consciousness and [dimly] racism. A. H. Bellairs (Newall) considers himself the ugliest man in England: hence he has no romance, only his faithful terrier Dandy (played by Newall’s own dog Betsy). However, the romantic interest Clarissa is apparently a half-caste from Dominica in the Caribbean. She is the object of a fraudulent relationship by one Fennell (Lawford Davidson). He has hidden her away [because ‘she is black’] with maiden aunts in Ireland. He plans to suborn her fortune through a fake marriage. Overhearing his plan Newall determines to save Clarissa and journeys to Ballysheen on the southern coasts. The plot stretches coincidence to extreme lengths. So in the course of the narrative we also have Newall encountering a jealous husband; a con artist and blackmailer; an unwanted pregnancy; but finally a satisfactory ending.

The issue of ‘blackness’ in the film is problematic. Given its black and white cinematography Clarrissa’s colour is only apparent through the dialogue. Intriguingly the sign of her ‘blackness’ is a flowered dress which Fennell’s aunts insist she does not wear. At another point in the narrative she wears a veil to hide her visage. The implication of the film, [which may have not been consciously intended] is that a black woman can only hope to catch an ugly white man. The film may have thought that even this was liberal in the post-World War I culture.

The film’s use of Dandy is redeeming for dog lovers. He is an amiable and active canine protagonist. We even get title cards indicating his thoughts: thoughts which his master appears to understand from his posture and expression.

The rest of the afternoon included a presentation on the films of Pearl White, [The Perils of Pauline, 1914 and The Exploits of Elaine, 1915 – 1916). Unfortunately very little of White’s films survive. There followed a romantic comedy from 1924 with Constance Talmadge, Her Night of Romance. Unfortunately this was only available from a DVD.

However, we were back to ‘reel’ film in the evening. This featured one of the outstanding personalities of Silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford. First up was A Beast at Bay, a Biograph one-reeler from 1912 and directed by D. W. Griffith. The 16mm print was a re-issue from the 1920s with new title cards: presumably to cash in on Pickford’s immense popularity. This was classic Griffith territory with Mary menaced by an escaped convict and then saved in heroic fashion by her boyfriend, redeeming an earlier lack of bravado.

The main feature was the 1926 Sparrows, from the Mary Pickford Corporation. This film rather departed from the typical Pickford persona. It was set on a ‘children’s farm’, an scandal issue in the 1920s. Molly (Pickford) has to marshal and protect eight younger children from the miserly and exploitative Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who is aided and abetted by his slatternly wife (Charlotte Mineau) and son (Spec O’Donnell). The son, given to petty persecutions, is well played as are all the children. The climax of the film involves the children in fleeing across a alligator-invested swamp.

“The similarities to Sunrise are particularly identifiable in the set, a swamp in the Deep South constructed on four acres of studio grounds by Art Director Henry Oliver, utilising 600 real trees, moss, pits filled with burnt cork, sawdust and muddy water, plus a miniature lake.” (Bioscope Notes).

The cinematography by Pickford’s favourite Charles Rosher with Hal Mohr and newly arrived Karl Struss, makes great use of this. And the cast, led by Pickford, though slightly too adult for her part, are excellent. This is exciting stuff. It is also part of Southern Gothic and there are instances where the film looks forward to the later Night of the Hunter (1955).



The day started with Miss Lulu Betts, a Famous Players-Lasky film from 1921 and directed by William C. de Mille. Little of this film-maker’s work survives, which, on the showing of this title, is a real shame. The film is from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Zona Gale. Lulu (Lois Wilson) is the put-upon sister in a middle-class household. Despite their church-going and moral attitudes Lulu is a skivvy for the family: only the elder daughter Diana (Helen Ferguson), herself a little rebel, shows any awareness of this. Circumstances conspire to effect a change in Lulu’s situation. Like Clarissa on Saturday she goes through a false marriage but survives this to find a level of independence and a serious and moral romance.

The film was described as naturalist’ drama’ and it represented the small town life and household with a palpable sense of realism. The plot does tend to melodrama but Lulu’s situation and the settings are fully convincing.

The Silent Enemy (1930)was a paramount production,

“A late Silent film telling the story of Red Indians – ‘Native-Americans’ in today’s parlance – before the arrival of European settlers, acted by a a native cast.

An epic reconstruction of life among the Ojibway tribe, shot on location in the Great Barren lands of Canada.” [Bioscope Notes).

So this was a liberal attempt to present an indigenous point-of-view, though it still reflects the dominant representation of the time. It is also clearly influenced by the trail-breaking documentaries of the 1920s, in particular Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). However, in keeping with the tropes of Hollywood, the battle for survival, seeking food and journeying to the great Caribou migration, is dramatised in a conflict between two individual Indians and their opposing strategies. The tribe’s rituals and activities are very well done. And the location work brings a real sense of time and place to the film. The finale offers the mammoth caribou herds and the successful survival of the tribe.

After lunch we enjoyed another Paramount film with another put-upon wife and mother. Dancing Mothers (1926) was directed by Herbert Brenon, an adaptation of play by Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding, soon to be a writer and director in Hollywood. The wife and mother of the film is Ethel Westcourt (Alice Joyce). This lead actor was reckoned to be outshone by the actor playing her daughter ‘Kittens’, Clara Bow. It is true that Bow immediately established her star quality in the film but the character is essentially lightweight. I found Joyce’s performance as the wife/mother who transforms her life and escapes from an oppressive situation impressive. The point at which she emerged in the film was excellent both in acting and appearance.

‘Kittens’ is like her father High Westcourt (Norman Trevor), affluent, self-absorbed and indifferent to the emotional situation of the mother. Westcourt was one of a number of male characters over the weekend who are criticised for selfish and exploitative behaviour. So this well-executed film demonstrates a ‘feminist’ strand in 1920s Hollywood.

Mid-afternoon we had a selection of BFI prints and files of ‘Messing About on the River’. Unfortunately a number have only survived in poor quality prints. The title that stood out was Up the River with Molly (1921) from the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. Molly was another terrier on a boat following the major river. A charming addition to a strong roster of canine stars over the weekend.

The feature film was on 35mm in a good print. It was one of the films by Artistic Pictures acquired by the BFI early this century. The film was adapted from a short story by W. W. Jacobs. Sam’s Boy (1922) is set in the Thames estuary and along the Kentish coast, using actual locations though with fictionalised names. Like other titles from Jacob this is a slightly comic realist story of ordinary people and events. Here an orphaned scamp tries manipulating adults in order to secure a home. Sam Brown (Tom Coventry) of the title is the most religious member of a small sailing ship. Having annoyed his crew fellows with his religiosity and music they play along with the scamp when he targets Sam. The characters are delightfully realised and the location work is a real pleasure. There are only four reels but the hour-long viewing offers low-key drama, irony and a authentic sense of the 1920s.

Turksib is a five reel Soviet documentary from 1929 that survives in several versions. The screening offered a 35mm print of the version prepared by John Grierson including English language title cards. The film’s director Victor Turin was in London and had some involvement in the editing. The film was produced by Vostok-kino which made films for the Eastern Soviet Republics. The subject matter was the construction of the Turkestan – Siberia railroad, covering over 1400 kilometres pass great lakes, over deserts and over mountains. Turin had studied in the USA at MIT and had some sort of work at the Vitagraph film studio. He had made three film since returning to the USSR, two fictional and one documentary.

This project was part of the Soviet first Five Year Plan. Several years discussion and preparation went into the plan at Party and Soviet Congresses, in the Central Committee and in the Soviets of the Union Republics. Two state Departments, Vesenkha and Gosplan, oversaw this major industrialisation project which bought planning into an economy still operating under the market.

The film uses familiar tropes from soviet film; montage, metaphoric images, graphics and associational links. The cinematography uses the striking assemblage of shots, angles, positioning and superimpositions. The overall structure of the film is closer to documentary in the western capitalist industries. Turin considered that the film should have a thematic structure, akin to the narrative structure in fictional film. So the overall presentation is somewhat different from the work of the Factory of Facts or a documentary of the same period directed by Mikhail Kalatazov, Salt for Svanetia (1930). The film was influential amongst British documentary film-makers such as Basil Wright. One can see the cross-overs. The opening reels offer landscapes with people and the more dynamic montage occurs during the vast construction. There are sequences that represent both the indigenous mainly nomadic peoples as well as the army of labour involved in the construction. And there are some slyly comic shots offering a sense of their every-day lives and work. However, the main thrust of the film is this eruption into the sparsely populated and wild landscapes and the conflicts are frequently about man and nature rather than the social relations that dominate in Dziga Vertov’s films. The title was a popular success both in the USSR and abroad. It offers a dynamic portrait of the modernising of these regions still mired in traditional ways of life.

The final film of the weekend was The Golden Butterfly / Der Holdene Schmetterling. A European co-production directed Michael Curtiz (then Michael Kertesz) and starring Lili Damita and Nils Asther. Among the supporting actors was Curt Bois {as a dance master and director). Bois has the distinction of the longest career as a film actor [1907 to 1987) and we had, in addition, a short film in which he featured from 1909. This was German title Patent Glue / Klebalin klebt alles in which two boys play a series of tricks with a powerful glue.

The main feature was nicely done but lack dramatic development. Lillian (Damita) and Andy (Asther) are a potential couple but her ambitions for a stage career come between them. The major problem was not the conventional obstacles [parents, the law, rivals etc.] but the priggish attitude of Andy to Lillian’s ambitions. The finale, where his intransigent attitudes are finally broken down, seemed over-extended.

The film was projected at 18fps but this seemed a slow frame rate and produced a longer running time which probably exacerbated the slow tempo. The print had a some missing elements and late in the narrative we found ourselves with the major production number of the film, involving Lillian’s stage act as the ‘butterfly’. Otherwise the print was in good condition and looed fine.

Overall this was a rewarding weekend and the organisers and the Museum are to be congratulated on the full programme. Kevin Brownlow also deserves a substantial thank you for the provision of prints. When it is becoming increasingly difficult to see early film in original prints this was welcome.

The screenings were enhanced by live music. The Bioscope has an impressive roster of musicians providing accompaniments and they are skilled at supporting rather than overpowering the films. The talented performances at the piano were supplied by Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulis, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Meg Moorland and John Sweeney. There were also extensive printed film notes and introductions to all the screenings. A great way to spend a weekend.

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The Maharajah’s Favourite Wife / Maharadjaehens Yndlingshustru, Denmark 1917

Posted by keith1942 on September 6, 2018

This title was included among the 35mm screenings at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017: in the Chapter headed ‘Dark and Strangers’. In its year of release the film was a ‘crash box-office hit’.

In early 1917 ‘Paimann’s Weekly Film-Lists’ warmly recommended to its subscribers, the cinema owners of Austria, to book Robert Dinesen’s latest film: “The story is gripping and highly dramatic; the acting and photography are excellent, the sets lavish and the harem scenes first-rate.”” (Marianne Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is conventional for the time in many ways. The cinematography tends to offer long shot and medium shots [American shot]. The editing provides straightforward linear development and scenes are relatively short as one follows another. The sequences are constructed around the intertitles which provides much of the plot information. But the film is unconventional in the way it develops a story that is the product of European Orientalism. The film was adapted from a novel. I have not found any references to this so I am unsure how closely the film follows the original source.

The film opens with Elly (Lilly Jacobsson) and her family staying at a seaside resort. She is accompanied by her admirer Kuno von Falkenberg (Carlo Wieth), a naval captain. They meet the Maharajah (Gunnar Tolnaes). He is the embodiment of Orientalist representation,. Dressed in a western variant of Indian costume [similar to some worn by Rudolf Valentino), and resides in an apartment lavish with jewels and decorations. Elly is immediately struck as is the Maharajah. He sends via his servant, ( an oriental stereotype) a present of a book,. ‘One Thousand and One Nights’. Elly meets in him a garden pavilion at night and they plan to elope. This is effected next day by Elly going out alone in a skiff. The currents threaten her but the Maharajah sends his servant to rescue her and the couple elope.

Arriving in the Maharajah’s home state Elly is disconcerted when she becomes a member of the harem, peopled with attractive and scantily clad women. Later the Maharajah orders,

Bring my favourite wife here.’

And following an ellipsis Elly receives jewels and special treatment in the harem, though this excites the jealousy of the other wives. Later, unhappy in her situation, she rejects the gift of more jewels from the Maharajah and pleads,

Set me free.’

Meanwhile Kuno, still carrying Elly’s photograph in his pocket, is ordered aboard the cruiser Neptune and to India. Co-incidentally the ship stops at the port near the Maharajah’s palace and he invites the officers to his palace. Once there, to impress them he orders,

Gentlemen …. My harem where no European has ever set foot’.

And then,

Send for my favourite wife’.

Kuno realises the situation and later, in private, Kuno claims that the Maharajah

stole that woman.’

Surprisingly the Maharajah responds by offering Elly a free choice, opening his safe and showing her all his jewels, the alternative to leaving.

Later Elly leaves at night. The Maharajah has ordered his servants that if she is wearing European clothes she must be allowed to pass. As Elly nears the water and the waiting Kuno, she sees a figure draped in white. It is the Maharajah holding a dagger with which to end his life. Elly, overcomes, chooses to remain and they embrace and return to the Palace,.Kuno leaves.

Since the film included so many conventional tropes from Orientalist dramas I was really surprised when Elly changed her mind. This sequences is intensely dramatic and produces what is [in contemporary terms] a fairly subversive ending. The film plays with stereotypes that are presumed to appeal to a female audience; stereotypes that fuelled Valentino’s stardom. Mariann comments in the Catalogue:

“Miscegenation goes unpunished in this film, contrary to the racist US productions in a similar vein: …. (…. it seems no problem that The Sheik, 1921, is a rapist, after it is revealed that he is white after all).”

We had a 35mm print from the Danske Filminstitut in good condition; and the intertitles had an English translation. And Neil Brand provided a suitable accompaniment on the piano, which included the dance provided as entertainment for the Officers at the palace.

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