Early & Silent Film

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Cottage Road Cinema 1912 – 2012 centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 23, 2016

 

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

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

Cottage blue plaque

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

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

There is more on the Cottage Road Cinema WebPages.

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Unexpected Eisenstein

Posted by keith1942 on April 14, 2016

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

A sketch by Eisenstein for Ivan the Terrible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The Artist France 2011

Posted by keith1942 on April 6, 2016

tThe Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uggie

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

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

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

From my original LIFF review.

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The Hyde Park Picture House in 1915

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2016

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

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

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

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

Elaine poster

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

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

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

“1. The Clutching Hand

2.The Twilight Sleep.

3.The Vanishing Jewels

4.The Frozen Safe.

5.The Poisoned room. and so on ….”

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

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

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

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‘The cosiest Picture House in Leeds’

Posted by keith1942 on March 13, 2016

This illustration is from the printed history of the Hyde Park Picture House published by the Friends in 1997.

This illustration is from the printed history of the Hyde Park Picture House published by the Friends in 1997.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds celebrated its centenary in 2014, opening in November 1914. During the centenary year a relative of Leeds resident and business man Harry Childs, who was involved in the opening and running of the Hyde Park Picture House, donated a set of ‘Log Books’ that start with the opening of the cinema and carry on until the 1950s. The books record the daily performances, ticket sales in different price categories and the daily and weekly income. You can imagine that there are lots of figures to be analysed. The performances and prices are shown in the above advertisement from the Yorkshire Evening News.

It is not clear how seats and customers were demarcated, perhaps the 1s seats were in the balcony. The bulk of the customers fell into the 3d and 6d price range.

Firstly, the capacity of a standard rectangular theatre was increased by using a balcony .. [which] … allowed an astounding 587 people to be crammed in. [Since the 1980s the seating has been reduced to 350].

The records in 1914 offer no information about the films screened. However from early in 1915 the title of the feature is usually recorded in the margin. The norm appears to be two programmes a week, one from Monday to Wednesday and one from Thursday to Saturday. This is done briefly, so it is not always possible to identify the film: and about two thirds of titles from this period have been lost. However there are also other sources.

Whilst a record of the complete programme for the first week of November does not survive, we know that the main featured was billed as Their Only Son ‘a patriotic drama’. Released in October 1914 by Barker Motion Photography Ltd, the film comprised two reels – 2,650 feet. It probably lasted 44 minutes. No copy appears to have survived.

Their only son

Barker Ltd was one of seven major production companies in the UK at that time. The Managing Director, W. G. Barker, had started out with the Warwick Trading Company and set up his own company in 1909. The firm built the first studio at Ealing. Their output included theatrical adaptations, but also ‘Topicals’. The films were also noted for the frequent use of location shooting.

The film was directed by Bert Haldane from a story by Rowland Talbot. The film starred two actors who worked regularly for Barker – Thomas H. MacDonald and Blanche Forsythe [‘a plump, demure English girl.] This quartet all worked together again on a major production by Barker Ltd in 1915, Jane Shore, a six-reel film set during the Wars of the Roses. The company were relatively successful during the war years with a number of patriotic dramas set during the current conflict or earlier wars that probably offered some sort of parallel.

Apparently the plot involved a son who falls out with his father when he volunteers for the army and becomes a dispatch rider. Wounded, he is nursed back to health by his ex-wife, [fittingly following the literary tradition of remarkable coincidence]. Presumably the film ended with husband and wife and father and son reconciled.

The programme would have included a number of short supporting films, rather like those in the bfi’s A Night in the Cinema in 1914. The early records do not seem to provide any indication of the accompaniment for these films without soundtracks. The likeliest option would have been a solo piano providing a musical accompaniment rather like that used for the silent films re-screened in more recent times.

It seems that the film in the second part of the week was An Englishman’s Home (1914) another lost film. The film was adapted from a play by Guy du Maurier. it was produced by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company. The company produced over 300 films between 1908 and 1924. At the time of this production it was based at a studio in Walthamstow.

The film itself was approximately 2,200 feet in length [two reels] and probably lasted about 35 minutes. The director was Ernest Batley who had 47 credits between 1910 and 1919, both as an actor and director. He and his wife, Dorothy, played the two leads along with George Foley. The latter appears to have played regular supporting roles in this period. The only indication of the plot is the following:

A pacifist reforms after foreign invaders occupy his house and kill his son.

Clearly the opening week of the Hyde Park Picture House was a very patriotic one.

Purpose built cinemas like the Hyde Park were relatively new. Leeds first proper cinema had opened in 1905. The nearby Cottage Road cinema in Headingly opened in 1913. Purpose built cinemas both standardised film programmes and presentations and altered the composition of the audience. Early films were predominately a working class entertainment. By the teens of the last century middle class patrons were increasing in number. Leeds saw increasing competition in the period for audiences, though audiences themselves were increasing. On its opening night the Picture House attracted 425 paying customers: on the first Saturday the figure was 681. The first house in the evening seems to have been the most popular.

HPPH cover

‘The Cosiest Picture House In Leeds’, A History of the Hyde Park Picture House 1997. [Supported by Leeds City Council Leisure Services]. Written by Penny McKnight, Edited by Judith Weymont with Photographs by Mandy Wragg. Produced by The Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House.

The Log Books will join the other archive materials of the Picture House which are kept in the Grand Theatre Archive at The West Yorkshire Archive Service. This unfortunately has moved from the convenient Sheepscar venue, near the city centre, right down to Morley, a long bus journey. There is an online Catalogue.

 

 

 

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Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2016

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

This annual event runs this year from March 14th until March 20th. Among the programmed presentations are two films screening from 35 mm prints with live musical accompaniment.

On the Friday evening we have Exit Smiling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1926.

Exit smiling

The film has seven reels and runs for 71 minutes. It is a comedy drama starting off in a bank with an innocent teller discharged through the machinations of his rival in romance. The film then becomes a backstage comedy with a second-rate theatrical company touring small towns, The two aspects of the plot come together in the finale. The star is Beatrice Lillie, who was already a success on London’s West End and Broadway. Lillie was successful in revues, on radio and on record. However, this was her only mainstream leading film performance. She was reckoned to have an ‘eccentric persona’. So whilst Lillie is the star she is not the romantic lead in the film. But she is its comic heart.

The film was written directed by Sam Taylor. One of his more famous films was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923). The film also enjoyed the talents of Cedric Gibbons on the set designs: a craft person whose work graced M-G-M right through the studio period. The film will also enjoy an accompaniment by Neil Brand, one of the most talented of the regular silent film musicians.

On the final Saturday there will be Stella Dallas Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. 1925.

Stella-dallas-lobby-1925

This is an eleven reel film running 110 minutes. The source is one of the great woman melodramas, originally a 1923 popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. It was also successful in several stage versions and later as a popular radio series. And there is a sound film version from 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. This film features Belle Bennett as Stella. Bennett worked right through the teens and twenties including starring in  another great literary melodrama East Lynne (1925). Both films dramatised the mother who sacrifices herself for her child. Lois Moran plays the daughter, whilst the absent father is played by Ronald Coleman. He was one of the very popular romantic leads of the period.

The production team is also a stellar affair. The director was Henry King whose fine list of titles includes Tol’able David (1921). The script is by Frances Marion, whose writing included the scenario for one of the greatest woman pictures of the decade The Wind (1928). And the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, whose most famous film was Casablanca (1942).

The film has one of the most emotional finale’s. So the accompaniment will need to match this. Fortunately this is another fine regular silent film musician Stephen Horne.

Two very fine and worthwhile screenings.

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Crossways /Jujiro, Japan 1928

Posted by keith1942 on February 18, 2016

Crossways

The film was screened as part of the Leeds International Film Festival [LIFF] retrospective  Silent Classics with Live Soundtrack: but it also had an outing at the National Media Museum as part of the Silents with Live Piano.. This is an early classic film from Japan [also known in English as Crossroads]. It was possibly the first Japanese film to receive International attention with screenings in Paris, Berlin and in London in 1930. The director Kinugasa Teinosuke, who also wrote the screenplay, was a pioneer in a more experimental approach to film in Japan. His most famous film is A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji 1926). This was an avant-garde film whose style bore strong affinities both with German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. That film offers an extremely subjective and fragmentary plot set in an insane asylum. A tour-de-force of style, in Japan its screenings could have the assistance of the Benshi (a film narrator in the cinema); abroad one version  had intertitles inserted to assist viewers. Unfortunately for Kinugasa, who also produced this and the later film, it was a commercial flop. This would seem to be a major factor in Crossways having a more discernible and conventional plot line: and frequent intertitles. The production was also dependent on the major commercial studio of Shochiku.

The film centres on a brother and sister, Rikiya (Bando Junosuke) and Okiku (Chihaya Akiko). Okiku is the centre of attention early in the film as she waits and worries about her brother who is visiting Yoshiwara, the entertainment district of 18th century Tokyo. Entertainment, of course, concerns prostitution and its associated vices. Rikiya is obsessed with a geisha O-ume (Ogawa Yukiko) herself the centre of an admiring circle, with several men suing for her graces. Essentially most of the film switches between the sparse attic flat where the brother and sister live, and the gaudy and racy district of Yoshiwara.

Okiku also becomes the object of both a passing man who carries a police truncheon, apparently a sign of his office: and of an old procuress at a nearby brothel. She is also caught in the economic bind of the pair’s poverty, a fact of life that is blithely ignored by the brother.

The story of the film is fairly conventional, but the style of the film is as arresting as Kinugasa’s earlier work. The living quarters are filmed in the contrasting shadows of light and darkness familiar from expressionism, and the settings make frequent use of bars and blocks, and present an extremely stylised feel. Yoshiwara is closer to the circus feel of early Soviet films, and has frequent and dramatic montages. The plot line is not only fragmentary but offers a demanding chronology.

Michael Wood, who introduced the film screening at LIFF, remarked that Kinugasa had stated that he was influenced by the 1919 German expressionist masterpiece Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. Sequences of the film also reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike (Stachka), with a touch of Grand Guignol. Whilst Yoshiwara reminded at times of sequences in Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis: a film which itself borrowed from the representations of Yoshiwara district.

The LIFF screening enjoyed a live accompaniment from the group Minima. They are a four-piece line-up of electric guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. Their accompaniment was an improvisation rather than a prepared score. Apparently this was their third outing with the film. Overall their music worked extremely well, and provided a fine addition to the visual poetry. There were a couple of sequences where they used woodblocks, an instrument frequently used in traditional Japanese film accompaniment. These emphasised both the melodrama but also the distance the film sought to create. There was a certain amount of repetition in their music, but this mirrors a device also found in the film. I did think in one or two sequences that the electronic amplification was a little loud. However, this was a really fine cinematic vision, which was enhanced by the live music in the auditorium. For the Silent with live Piano we enjoyed Darius Battiwalla. He offered a distinctive use of the solo instrument, with both rapid and slightly atonal passages for Yoshiwara with more melancholic or melodramatic passages for those sequences featuring the sister.

We had a good 35mm print on both occasions. The film looks fine in its original format and the definition and contrast in the cinematography were excellent.

 

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The First Born UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

first-born

This British silent film from 1928 was re-discovered and restored by the British Film Institute. The film is a subtle and witty parable on married life and the bourgeois mores of the period. It adds to the re-evaluation of British silent film in recent years, joining a growing list of productions that are both intelligently scripted and made with a distinctive style and noticeable technical quality.

The film is also interesting because it benefits from the talents of a number of extremely able filmmakers. The film was produced for Gainsborough under the auspices of Michael Balcon. He is a producer whose impact over decades on British film is equal too or greater than many of the valued auteurs who usually garner the most attention. The film was designed by W. C. Arnold, whose distinctive sets gave such impact to an earlier Gainsborough film, The Rat (1925). And the film stars Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll.

The film was directed also by Miles Mander, less well known for directing than for acting. He was a character actor whose typical role was as ‘a moustachioed cad’: he plays a bigamist in Hitchcock’s early silent The Pleasure Garden (1925). However, Mander had some experience in theatre, as an actor-director. He had also worked with the Swedish film director Gustaf Molander. Both The First Born and later directorial outings show a continental influence in the use of the camera and in editing practices.

Mander adapted the film from his own stage play ‘Those Common People’. In some ways his fellow-scenarist in the adaptation is the most interesting, Alma Reville, usually listed as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally regarded as the auteur par excellence. In fact, as with many other noted filmmakers, his work relies to a great degree on the talent of his collaborators. His British films benefited from the scriptwriting talent of Charles Bennett. He worked with notable cameramen, designers, editors and gifted actors like Peter Lorre, Robert Donat and indeed Madeleine Carroll. Michael Balcon was his mentor. Quite possibly though Alma was his most important muse. She was already established in the industry when Hitchcock entered it as young man. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter, but her career was subordinated to that of her husband: very much the norm in the industry of that time. Hitchcock always acknowledged that he discussed his films daily with his wife. So there is a tantalising question mark over the status of Alma Reville.

Intriguingly the film features a triangle, Miles Mander as Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll as Lady Madeleine Boycott and John Loder as Lord David Harborough. Sir Hugo is a philanderer and abuses his wife. This partly motivates the romantic but chase affair between Madeleine and David. At a crucial point in the film Hugo physically attacks his wife. But David is away in London, the ‘absent lover’. This is a not uncommon motif but one that appears regularly throughout the career of Hitchcock. Whose motif?

Some light was shed on this by the introductory talk before a screening of the film at the National Media Museum. The talk was by Nathalie Morris from the British Film Institute. She has written on ‘The Early Career of Alma Reville’ (in the Hitchcock Annuals, 1 to 15, 2009). This bought an added dimension to the film, as did the live music performed by Darius Battiwalla. He had already established a high standard of accompaniment at earlier Bradford screenings such as The Rat (1925) and Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). The film was screened as part of the Bradford International Film Festival.

Originally posted as a preview.

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Diary of a Lost Girl / Tagebuch einer Verlorenen Germany 1929

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2016

L.Brooks.diary

This is the second film that Louise Brooks made with G. W. Pabst. Both are iconic figures in late silent cinema. Brooks is a luminous and distinctive star presence on screen. Pabst is a skilled and innovating filmmaker. Moreover, they worked together towards the end of one of the really creative periods in silent cinema: filmmakers in the Weimar Republic enjoyed the most advanced technical facilities in Europe and innovated in a series of distinctive film movements. This film also benefited from the skills of the industry’s craftspeople, especially the cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Fritz Arno Wagner.

The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Margarete Böhme. She was a popular writer in the early C20th. Diary of a Lost Girl was her most popular novel, published in 1905 and eventually selling over a million copies. So the original story was set in Wilhemine Germany. It was at first marketed as an actual story edited by Böhme. It had already been filmed in 1918, though this version seems lost.

The partnership of Pabst and Brooks is famous for their previous collaboration, Pandora’s Box (Nero-Film AG 1929). This was adapted from an even more notorious work by Franz Wedekind, two plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box 1904). These are classics of German literature, though they were also considred shocking and suffered censorship problems when first performed. Their quality can be seen from an earlier film version starring the major diva of the time, Asta Nielsen. There is also as an operatic masterpiece by Alban Berg, Lulu. Pandora / Lulu achieves tragic status whilst offering a scathing critique of bourgeois society. Diary of a Lost Girl does critique the mores of contemporary German society but is much more of a melodrama.

The plot of the film is full of conventional sequences, which are also found in other films dealing with the exploitation of young women. In keeping with the pre-occupations of the society of the time, these are predominately sexual with the economic taking a subordinate place.

Brooks plays Thymian, the central character. At the start of the film her household is disrupted when the housekeeper, Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) becomes pregnant by Thymian’s father, Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky). Henning runs a pharmacy: he is also a weak character, of import later in the film. So Elisabeth is forced to leave and soon commits suicide. Her father later marries the new housekeeper Meta (Franziska Kinz). During this Thymian displays her innocence and naivety by failing to really understand what has happened: she also then displays her sensitivity when she sees Elisabeth’s corpse carried away.

This sexual disruption to the household sets in motion a series of exploitative actions, which also fall outside the mores of bourgeois society. Thymian is seduced / raped by the Pharmacy assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp). This leads to a series of ‘falls’ for Thymian – through reformatory and then to a brothel. Through all this Thymian records her life in her dairy: a present for her confirmation day, the day on which the scandal regarding Elisabeth occurs.

1929-diary-of-a-lost-girl

Brooks’ character is rather different from the ‘free spirit’ of Pandora’s Box. In that film her sexually aware innocence leads men to their doom, but finally also leads Lulu to her own. In Diary of a Lost Girl Thymian is the proverbial innocent. Even after a spell in a reformatory and when she has progressed to a brothel she seems unaware of the actuality of sex, especially sex in which men expropriate from a woman. Thus in the film it is unclear whether Thymian is merely seduced or she is actually raped. In two scenes involving men Thymina apparently swoons and is then carried by the man to a bed and to sex. Given the exploitative tone that Pabst’s film provides I think these actions really count as rape.

Brooks is very good at conveying this combination of innocent naivety, which is somehow combined with certain knowingness. Her definite charisma on screen partly follows from the way that she characterises the women she plays. In both of Pabst’s films there is a recurring characterisation by her: first she stares uncomprehendingly at another character, then she breaks into an engaging smile. These smiles mark steps in her progressions; parallel but different in the two films,

The film relies extensively on close-ups and these predominate over long shots. So the film emphasises the characters rather than the settings. Pabst and his team are masters of the developing art of film editing. His films tend to continuity rather discontinuities. And the cutting is regular so that we see characters and exchanges in a variety of shots.

The mise en scène adds to the representation of characters. In the body of the film there are three important settings: the family home and pharmacy: the reformatory and the brothel. The home is characterised by unease and dislocation. So we often see characters appearing or disappearing: caught in doorways and corridors. The reformatory is a sparse brutal environment. The most frequently seen room is a dining room cum workshop. There are only tables, chairs and the machines that the inmates work at.

Erika

                                                                      Erika

There is an exception, which is the girl’s dormitory, which offers a space where the girls [after lights out] enjoy some autonomy. So one memorable scene in the dining room has the head’s wife [Valaska Gert) striking a gong as the girls perform physical movements. Later, in the dormitory after the head of the reformatory (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife have gone to bed the girls play, smoke, play cards and generally indulge. [There is a feel of a parallel with the later famous sequence in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite 1933].

This alternative space for women is paralleled in some ways by the brothel. The film generally presents this as a free and easy environment where the women are untrammelled and content. The setting is there for men and their pleasure, but the key figure is the ‘madam’ of the house. And the women are happy to pleasure the men. The exception, Thymian, follows the example of the others following her seduction/rape. A shadow appears in an intense scene where Thymian encounters her father, who is visiting a nightclub where Thymian is the prize in a raffle. The father is shaken, but Thymian continues her life of prostitution.

However, the strength of patriarchy returns in the film. Thymian’s two continuing friends over the course of the story are Graf Osdoff (André Roanne), heir to a count but an ineffectual character: and Erika (Edith Meinhard) a friend in both the reformatory and the brothel. Graf is disposed of but his death leads to Thymian being taken under the wing of his uncle, who ‘rescues’ her from her situation and places her in a properly salubrious situation Here Thymian is able to settle accounts with the people who have misstated and exploited her.

The ending in the film is different from that of the book. In the book

“she dies from never having experienced a love of her own volition.”

It seems that the book presents the story in the first-person of Thymian, hence the ‘Diary’ in the title. The film eschews this and treats the diary as a recurring plot device rather than a source of the narrative. Heide Schlüpmann also adds that:

“She [Margarethe Böhme] defends the rights and dignity of unwed mothers, as well as the “morality” of prostitutes, against the dominant bigotry, including the hypocrisy of the middle-class charity groups run by women.”

Much of this is lost in the film though Pabst and his colleagues do frame unsympathetically both the moral relatives of Henning who insist Thymian goes into a reformatory and a, later in the film, the middle-class charitable group who support the reformatory. This is where the film crosses over with Pandora’s Box, as in that film Lulu’s life and death are at the behest of men. However, Lulu is still a much more active character than Thymian. This is partly down to the melodramatic morals of Diary of a Lost Girl. But also that Wendekind’s play is, despite its critical stance, still predominantly from the male point of view, which is also the case with Pabst’s film. Schlupmann has a quotation from Brooks,

“He [Pabst} was conducting an investigation into his relations with women …”.

The skill of the filming and the presence of Louise Brooks have ensured that this film regularly resurfaces at Festivals. The original film was 3.132 metres in length. However, after censorship cuts one version was reduced to 2008 metres: and there was a recut version in 1930. Overall the film avoided the censorious response that met Pandora’s Box. But presumably the scenes in a brothel caused concern for some. The restored version by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiffung is 3,30 metres.

Heide Schlüpmann’s article The Brothel as an Arcadian Space? Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) appears in The Films of G. W. Pabst An Extraordinary Cinema edited by Eric Rentschler, Rutgers University Press, 1990.

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