Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Love is All, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on February 27, 2015


This is essentially a compilation film that

‘aims to be a brief affirmation that love and courtship … more complex and inclusive than … [discourses] might have led us to believe’. (S&S)

I went to see it last week and I have to confess that I gave up 20 minutes into the film. The last time I did something similar was two years ago when a 1920s Swedish drama was projected in the [seriously] incorrect aspect ratio. One problem was the music that accompanied the film by Richard Hawley; though some of the extracts retained their own soundtracks. He is, apparently, a popular contemporary singer. I found the music inappropriate and also too loud. A friend who likes Hawley’s music conceded he found it inappropriate for some of the film. Then there were the clips and their arrangement, including in some instances cropping some sound film to 1.33:1. The clips date from over a century of British film and include features, documentaries, amateur film and home movies. I did start to discern themes in the selection but the arrangement of clips was odd, to say the least. What finished me was a series of clips from Hindle Wakes (1927) which seemed to aim at re-producing the plot of the film, but without all the nuances that make it so interesting.

I had noticed in the opening credits that the film was from the BBC Storyville stable so I reckoned I would be able to check it out on television later: with the sound turned down. In fact, I was able to do this the following Sunday via BBC4. Viewing the film, whilst I did find that it had merits, I still found the music obtrusive and frequently inappropriate. And the treatment of the film material often seemed ill-judged.

Much of the ‘found footage’ was from amateur/and home movie films. There were also documentaries, including some that seemed likely to be from television. This was in both black and white and colour, though some of the latter material seemed to have been colourised. The oddity of all this was the aspect ratios. The film title was in 1.85:1 and some of the footage was in its original widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 [approximately]. But the rest was in something like 1.33:1. Sight & Sound gives the ratio as 1.34.5:1; another of those ‘new ‘ratios. It seems that that the images were cropped to a ratio half-way between 1.33:1 (silent|) and 1.37:1 (sound). It also looked as if some of the silent material was masked at the side to fit this ratio.

The soundtrack was similarly problematic. Most of the film was accompanied by Richard Hawley’s music, which I disliked. It was at times repetitive and obtrusive. Four or five films actually had their own soundtrack playing, but at times this was mixed with musical accompaniment. For me the worse example was Karel Reitz’s fine Momma Don’t Allow (1955), where the musical accompaniment seemed anachronistic.  Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) had a mixture of original dialogue and musical accompaniment. I do think that there is rarely a good case for replacing a film’s sound track with musical accompaniment.

But the most problematic was the attempt to present feature films with a series of clips that created a mini-narrative. This seemed to happen to some of the documentaries, but the films that I recognised were Fox Farm (1922), Hindle Wakes (1927), Piccadilly (1929) from the silent era and Brick Lane (2007) from more recent times. The 1975 ‘black consciousness film Pressure along with My Beautiful Laundrette did not seem to be examples of these ‘mini-narratives’, though both films had several extracts featured which suggested partial plots. Since I know all these films fairly well I was concerned about how this briefly constructed plot line was a long way removed from the experience of the original film.

The film has several themes which emerged rather haphazardly: women’s equality, gay and lesbian relationships, cross-ethnic relationships, and alternative courtships and marriage: hence the films noted above. The best sequences for me were where the illustrations of the themes, as opposed to attempts at narrative and often through discontinuous editing, were presented. In particular I thought the final sequence of the film worked well, as a monologue from the heroine of Brick Lane plays over a series of contrasting extracts. It has to be noted thought that the film does not really present the ‘100 years’ of the title.

The final problem was the end credits of the film. There was a note of the contributions of the BFI and the Yorkshire and North East Film Archives. But the only material which received  specific mention were We of the West Riding (1946), My Beautiful Laundrette, Brick Lane, a short film from the National Film School and two sets of actual wedding material. The other titles mentioned above, plus two versions of The Kiss in the Tunnel, 1898 and 1899), all went unattributed. The excerpts were titled but that is not quite the same thing. So whatever its merits I do feel that this film should not be seen as an exemplar for further work with archive material.




Posted in Archival compilations, Archival issues | Leave a Comment »

Sangue Bleu (Literally Blue Blood) / The Princess of Monte Cabello, Italy 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2015

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

This film was screened at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a carbon arc projection in the cortile of the Cineteca. This was a splendid event and the light and shadow of the courtyard was reflected at times in the light and shadow of the film.

The three reel feature was produced by Celio films and featured their star Francesca Bertini. This was the penultimate film in a run of 25 that she made at the studio. Bertini, along with her rival Lyda Borelli [‘a [polite rivalry’] was the leading diva in Italian cinema.

The diva character ranged from a sort of femme fatale to the fallen and exploited woman. In this film Bertini is closest to the latter: a countess and mother who loses her secure social position, has to perform in the lowly and exploitative music hall and is used as a device for money by a wastrel and gambler. Unlike some of the other melodramas in this genre, the Countess is spared a final, tragic fate. The film, as is so often the case in this genre, is set in the worlds of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. It is also set in France rather than Italy: possibly for reasons of possible moral censorship – the film features a divorce and a tango, the latter at this time was seen as an immoral and suggestive dance.

At the start of the film the Countess Elena [given as a Princess in the Italian] is married with a young daughter, Lianne. The count’s ‘friendship; with another aristocratic woman arouses the jealousy of Elena. This leads to a legal separation with Elena awarded custody of her child. However, whilst innocent [not always the case in such films] Elena is accused on impropriety and loses the custody of her daughter. She now has to rely on the actor Jacques Wilson, who sees her not only as amour but also a source of income. It is in the third reel of the film that Elena is reduced to theatrical performances and the climatic sequence is set in a theatre.

The film was directed by Nino Oxilia, who previously worked as a scriptwriter for Celio. The staging and mise en scène is notable. As with Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses long tableaux-like takes with deep focus. Whilst many of the scenes rely on the setting shown in a depth of field there is less deep staging than in the Borelli film. Sangue Bleu also makes use of more crowded scenes, as in the grand party at the villa of Count Cabello; and later in the impressive street scenes in Monte Carlo. The central focus is less on the main female protagonist, so that Bertini has fewer sequences where she dominates the frame than is the case with Borelli. There is a difference in their performance style as well. Bertini fills out her emotional scenes with gesture and movement, whereas Borelli is often in stasis or with little movement.

Like Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses the grandiose sets of the bourgeois world. And it shares with that film a dramatic climax in a Theatre. Earlier we had seen an amateur charity performance with Elena in a variation on Madame Butterfly [the opera was still in the early days of it popularity]. The Theatre sequence also plays with the contrast between backstage and the auditorium: with a very similar shot to that in the Borelli film which reveals the expectant audience as the curtains are pulled open.

However Sangue Blue has distinctive use of light and shadow. There is one notable sequence where the Countess, already suffering from the travails in her marriage, walks along a twilight-lit great hall:

Elena appears/disappears, emerges/vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light (from the side windows). (Michael Canosa in Il Ritrovato Catalogue).

The cinematography was by Giorgino Ricci, clearly a skilled craftsman in the use of camera and lighting.

Bertini was another theatrical actress who moved into film. She became a star first with Film d’Arte Italiana, then at the major studio of Cines. She moved to Celio in 1912. This was the period when the Italian Industry was building sumptuous purpose built cinemas and attracting more upmarket and affluent audiences. The films, like the diva cycle, reflected this with their common setting in affluent worlds and a style that was parallel to that of the bourgeois theatre and opera.

The director Nino Oxilia had also started out in theatre. He worked first as a scriptwriter than as a director. His films were noted for their sumptuous settings and the use of chiaroscuro. His career was cut short when died whilst serving in the Italian army on the Austrian front.

As well as offering an alternative to Borelli’s diva in Ma L’amor mio non muore Bertini’s feature was also influenced by the Danish film Afgrunden (1910) directed by Urban Gad. Bertini recalled that during the production of Sangue Blue.

They had me watch The Abyss with Asta Nielsen. The film shocked me. (Michele Canosa quoting from Bertini su Bertini, 2003).

Afgrunden was the most notable of the early films starring Asta Nielsen. She soon moved to the German film industry where she became a major European star. She was probably the first major diva persona in European film.

The print screened in Bologna was from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. Restored to its full glory, the print enjoyed the original tinting used in 1914, and there was a fine musical accompaniment by Daniele Furlati. The Cineteca Bologna, together with Eye, has now produced a DVD version of this film.

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

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, UK 1927

Posted by keith1942 on February 14, 2015


These days the BFI journal Sight & Sound has a regular column on The World of Silent Cinema – ‘Primal Screen’. The new issue (March 2015) has a report by Bryony Dixon on a screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands organised by ‘The Falkland Island 1914 Centenary Committee’. The title of the latter illuminates the values of the article, which describes this as ‘a glorious odd opportunity of a lifetime’. The BFI staff member and film were flown down to the Malvinas in a RAF airbus. Obviously another British propaganda exercise [in the bourgeois sense].

As far as I know this is the only silent film that features the islands. However, Bryony Dixon goes on to note sound films that also feature the area. She seems to have only seen two British films. Certainly there is no mention of a film like Resurrected: a far more critical treatment than the two that she lists. Like wise there is no mention of Argentinean films that treat the conflict: for example, Verónico Cruz (1987) and Illuminados por el fuego. That is as one-sided as British war films from earlier conflicts, including World War I. So, re the Malvinas, colonialism is alive and kicking in this so-called ‘post-colonial’ world.

Bryony Dixon ends the article by listing some of the other recent BFI restorations that have been screened in far away places. Some of these, I know for a fact, used 35mm prints transported from the UK. Presumably this applies to the screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, which would explain why a RAF airbus was needed. However, whilst the BFI is happy to transport these valued prints over thousands of miles they are not as forthcoming nearer home. I know of cases where an exhibitor has specifically requested a 35mm print for a screening and they have been fobbed off with a DCP. The political reaction probably matters more, but having to suffer inferior copies is equally galling.


Posted in Archival issues, Britain in the 1920s, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

“I’m writing in darkness …”

Posted by keith1942 on January 28, 2015

The technique works in full darkness.

The technique works in full darkness.

These words were read by Juliette Binoche from notes written by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film melodrama The English Patient (1996). The combination of two of my favourite actresses with a well-written and dramatic sequence gave the words great power. But they also had an evocative quality, because with less panache and less drama I too often write in darkness. I was taught these skills so that I could sit in a darkened cinema auditorium, whilst watching a film and take notes.

I do this most frequently at Festivals, especially for screenings of film from the silent era, where the use of title cards lends itself more to note taking. Unfortunately not all the members of such select audiences observe the same sensitivity for their fellow viewers. In recent years, though to a lesser degree, such festivals have suffered from the ravages of mobile phones and tablet users. I find it bizarre that the latter cannot apparently check the time without lighting up their screens. But in addition to those we often also have people in the auditorium using a torch shone on notes or even laptops with the screens brightly lit.

This reliance on unnecessary technology is to be deplored. As a good will gesture to his fellow film scholars Michael Walker [my mentor in these skills] has kindly agreed to provide explanatory notes  for any serious film buff or scholar who wants to also acquire these skills. Please feel free to copy these notes and pass them out to offenders sighted in auditoriums.

Taking notes on films in the dark

  1. Use a Reporter’s Note Book/Shorthand Notebook 8″ long by 5″ wide with a spiral wire at the top holding the pages together. (a) It’s easier for turning pages in the dark and (b) if the notes get into a muddle, the wire can be taken out, pages moved around, then the wire replaced again.
  2. Leave the first page and the last page blank for indexing the contents of the notebook. An index enables you to see at a glance which films are in that book.
  3. Before the film starts, leaf through the notebook to ensure the pages are separated. If they are not, you will make a noise separating them as you turn in the dark and this could distract neighbours.
  4. As you take notes, keep track of where you are on the page with the thumb of the non-writing hand. You do not need to look down. Move the thumb down a certain distance after each line is completed. This may require practice to find the best spacing. But overwriting is the biggest problem, so don’t squeeze the lines together too much (see also 7). The technique does mean you will end up with an inky thumb. This is not a big deal.
  5. The notes are to remind you of the film. Character names and relationships are crucial; plot is usually more important than dialogue.
  6. I find it easier to shift the book sideways to turn pages in the dark.
  7. Afterwards, if you go through the notes whilst the film is still reasonably fresh, you will find that they bring it back to you. Because the notes will be spaced out on the page, there is room to add clarifying details.
  8. Go through the notebook one way, then turn and go through the other. To avoid getting the book the wrong way up, feel whether it is cardboard (you’re writing from the front of the book) or cover paper (you’re writing from the back) at the end.
  9. Accidents such as overwriting on a page can happen. These should be sorted out promptly, by deciphering and transferring one set of notes to a fresh page. A magnifying glass helps in deciphering overwritten words. It is here that the ability to move pages around in the notebook can be invaluable.
  10. Always have a spare pen handy; the ink can run out whilst you’re writing.
  11. With practice, it is possible to tell by feel when a biro dries up: the pen starts to drag on the paper as you write. This is an occasion when you do need to look at the notebook to check, but the light from the screen should be sufficient to see whether or not you’re still writing anything.
  12. It’s up to you whether you have either (a) one index for both sides of the notebook at the front, or (b) one for each direction at the relevant end. Option (b) is easier to index, but it will take longer to check what’s in the notebook.

Michael Walker




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

My Love is Immortal! / Ma L’amor mio non muore!, Italy 1913.

Posted by keith1942 on January 5, 2015

My Love

This is a classic film from early Italian cinema. I saw the film for the first time at the 1993 Giornate del Cinema Muto: my first visit to this great festival. The film was screened in a programme that effectively featured suffering heroines. Already we had watched Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm and D. W. Griffith’s The Mothering Heart, both also from 1913. The excess of emotion this occasioned led to me having a long late evening walk round the town for catharsis. I have since seen the film at Il Cinema Ritrovato and in 2013 the Bologna Archive produced a DVD of a restored version of the film.

The film is generally reckoned to have been the start of a long line of ‘diva’ films. Angela Dalle Vacche writes in The Diva Film (In The Italian Cinema Book, edited by Peter Bondanella, 20144).

In the early Italian film industry, ‘diva’ meant female star in the ‘long’ feature film. The latter was approximately sixty minutes long, four reels, with some close-ups for the film star or diva, artificial lighting, a fairly static camera and many-layered compositions in depth. A mixture of the Catholic mater dolorosa, of the Northern European femme fatale in literature and in painting and of the new woman of modernity, the Italian diva would move from the roles of prostitute to socialite, or from rags to riches in the very same melodrama, so combining stereotypes of femininity from both the upper and lower classes.

The film only offers some of the many characteristics of the diva. It appears to start off as a spy story, a popular genre of the period. Moise Stahr steals secret plans in the keeping of Elsa’s father, a colonel in the Wallenstein military. Her father commits suicide and Elsa is forced into exile. She achieves economic independence by becoming a successful theatrical diva: however, she is lonely and unhappy because of her loss. She meets Prince Maximilian who has to sojourn in the coastal resort for his health. Their romance leads to tragic results. So Elsa’s character suffers changing roles and, finally, the melodramatic ending that is common in diva films.

The film also adheres to the style described an Angela Dalle Vache. What struck me at the first viewing was the way that the film was dominated by long takes on a static camera whilst the characters moved in different layers of depth across the sumptuous settings. My friend Kim, who was at this screening, explained that the filmmakers of the period imported aspects of the grand style in Italian theatre and opera, hoping this to attract more affluent middle class members into their audiences.

Thus an early setting is the drawing room in the house of Elsa and her father. However there is a dining area at the back of the set and a study equally deep in the set. For much of the sequence we follow the characters, with often a pair in the foreground and a couple in the background, all involved in action. There are occasional mid-shots but predominately we sit and watch rather as if positioned before a theatrical proscenium. The film is composed predominately of long shots, in long takes. In scenes set in the theatre later in the film Elsa is seen onstage prior to a new act in what is effectively a mid-shot: the curtains part and we now have a long shot of star, audience and auditorium.

These are broken up by the title cards. I did wonder if the action in question was filmed in a complete take with the title card inserted later: some of these shots last several minutes. There are occasional mid-shots for closer into dramatic action and close-ups proper are reserved almost entirely for the star. There is very little camera movement, only an occasional pan across a set.

The film uses chiaroscuro lighting at certain points for dramatic effect, but mainly there is high key lighting, both for interiors and exteriors. One notable shot is of Elsa onstage, with the camera set at the back of the Prince’s box, with chiaroscuro in the foreground and high key lighting in the background. The sets and props fulfil important functions in the drama. I was particularly struck by the use of a three-part mirror in Elsa’s dressing room at the Theatre. This is cleverly used to fill out the action, at one point we see the farewell between Elsa and Maximilian only in the mirror.

The acting by Lyda Borelli as Elsa is what stands out in the film. The film displays the tendency to very emphatic acting common to this period: this works fairly well due to the composition in long shot. Even so, I found Borelli the most convincing member of the cast. She has a number of very fine scenes which rely on her actions and mime to convey the subtleties of the story. The title cards tend to give a general over-view of the action, occasionally they supply dialogue: thus early on at the point of the theft:

My love title

One memorable scene has Elsa [in mid-shot] at a station writing a letter to Maximilian, the emotion and content all communicated through Borelli’s expression and movements.

This was Borelli’s first foray into film. The Ritrovato catalogue offered some background on this.

In 1913, Lyda Borelli had reached the apex of her theatrical career. Performing in Italy’s most famous theatres, she ap­peared in plays by Victorien Sardou, Henry Bataille, Georges Ohnet, the very repertory that would soon become the backbone of diva cinema. Borelli’s most acclaimed per­formance was in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, which had its Italian premiere at the Teatro Valle on 10 March 1909. In her Salome costume, Borelli was portrayed by painter Cesare Tallone and in a photographic se­ries by Emilio Sommariva: popularised by postcards, these representations of Borelli’s theatrical career fuelled the public imagination and showed decisive for the construction of her iconic image in her first feature, Ma I’amor mio non muore!. Pro­duced by the Turin-based company Gloria Film and directed by Mario Caserini, the film was specifically written for her. While the plot deals with espionage and love, the second part is set in a world very close to Borelli – the stage. Her two successful performances, Zaza and Salome, reappear here. … Ma L’amor mio non muore! was an international success and turned Borelli into a film star. It also started a new phenomenon: the Italian diva-film. But this phenomenon didn’t come out of the blue; it incorporates the legacy of the pictorial, photographic and theatrical cul­ture of the Italian early twentieth century.  Ivo Blom.

Ironically it seems that one of Borelli’s finest attributes was her speaking voice, an aspect of her performance denied to the audiences for her films, without dialogue. Even so, she and the film are extremely expressive. And the opulent sets offer a rich scenic world for popular consumption.

The Giornate screening used a 35mm print from the Cineteca Italiana. It ran for 78 minutes at 16 fps. And one of the talented regulars at the Festival, Gabriel Thibaudeau, provided accompaniment on the piano.  The recent Ritrovato screening used a DCP transfer with recorded music track: the transfer was at silent fps rate and the version seems to have been a couple of minutes longer at 80 minutes. The DVD has a choice of musical accompaniments plus a gallery of photographs, including those referred to by Ivo Blom.

MA L’AMOR MIO NON MUORE! [Alternative title Everlasting Love], Italia, 1913. Director: Mario Caserini. Story: Emiliano Bonetti, Cinematography: Angelo Scalenghe.

Cast: Lyda Borelll (Elsa Holbein), Mario Bonnard (Prince Maximilian di Wallenstein), Camillo de Riso (Impresario Schaudard), Maria Caserinl (Gran Duchess di Wallenstein), Gianpaolo Rosmino (Moise Stahr). Prod: Film Artistica “Gloria”

DCP.  Black and white. Italian intertitles. Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna, Museo Nazlonale del Cinema e Fondazione Cineteca Italiana • Restored m 2013 at L’lmmagine Ritrovata laboratory


Posted in Early cinemas, Italian film | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

The Girl with the Hatbox / Devushka S Korobkoi, USSR 1927.

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2014

Grandfather and Natasha.

Grandfather and Natasha.

This film was screened at the 2011 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a programme devoted to the work of Boris Barnet: this was an early feature. It re-appeared at the 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of a tribute to the star, Anna Sten. Both Festivals used a print from the Österreichisches Filmmuseum. The screenings ran at 20 fps giving a running time of 80 minutes. However, the available DVD version from KinoAcademia looks like it has been transferred at a faster frame rate [24 fps for a sound print] and only runs for 65 minutes, but it is also about 300 metres shorter.

Boris Barnet was for long time rather overlooked among the early Soviet film directors. However, he is a director of real talent and had a particular flair for comedy and dramas of the everyday. He used montage rather less than many colleagues in the 1920s, but his mise en scène is often richly expressive. It is worth remembering that Eisenstein included aspects of mise en scène in his conceptions of montage. Barnet worked well with actors and his films usually offer fairly rounded protagonists.

Anna Sten was a popular and talented star in the Soviet cinema of the 1920s. She had a photogenic face and a character that came across from the screen. In the late 1920s he married the director Fyodor Otsep and accompanied him to Germany. She was later recruited to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn. [The Girl with the Hatbox was distributed in the USA as When Moscow Laughs]. He commented:

`This is some star`. She had everything. She had looks and style and sex and class. She had tremendous life and could act like a son of a bitch. [Quoted in the Ritrovato Catalogue].

But the movie capital made much less effective us of her than the Soviet filmmakers with whom she started her career.

Anna plays Natasha, the girl with the hatbox. She lives with her grandfather outside Moscow and they support themselves by hat making. In this small hamlet her admirer is Fogeleth (Vladimir Fogel], who is the telegraph operator and runs the ticket office at the railway station. Every day Natasha travels by train into Moscow to the hat shop of Madame Irene and her husband Nikolai. As well as employing her Madame Irene has Natasha listed as a tenant, but for a room which is actually used by her husband. There were strict rules about accommodation in the 1920s, supervised by local Housing Committees. A comedy around accommodation is also the plot mechanism of the later Bed and Sofa (Tretya Meschanaskaia, 1927). And conflicts and arrangements over rooming in big cities are a common story across cinemas.

One morning, travelling into Moscow, Natasha meets Ilia (Ivan Kobal-Samborskii), coming to Moscow to study. Whilst their initial meeting is hardly propitious, when Natasha meets Ilia again and finds that he is homeless she takes pity on him. She arranges a marriage of convenience so he can take up residence in ‘her room’ at Madame Irene’s. The film then follows the development of the conflict this arrangement produces with Madame Irene and Nikolai and also the developing relationship between Natasha and Ilia.

The plot is complicated further when Nikolai gives Natasha a Golden Premium Bond ticket instead of wages. The Premium Bonds were part of the State loan raising system, not that different from such lotteries in capitalist societies. The prizes could run into thousands of roubles. In fact, the film was a commission to the Mezhrabpom-Rus studio for a film to publicise the State Loan system. Apparently the script by Valentin Turkin and Vadim Shershenevich was a slim affair. And Barnet developed the project considerably in production. This enabled him to develop the central characters, who are both psychologically believable and attractive subjects. This also downplayed the function of the State Loan System to a degree, though the prize draw is important in the resolution of the film.

As in the better known The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928) the film features an innocent arriving in the big city, though here it is a man rather than a young girl. So Natasha is the experienced and worldly-wise citizen. Also as in Trubnaya Square the point of conflict resolves round the petty bourgeoisie. As in that film Madame Irene and Nikolai seem to be NEP-people – entrepreneurs who took advantage of the New Economic Policy introduced following the ravages of the Civil War. Madame Irene and her husband indulge themselves in a similar fashion to the NEP-people in Trubnaya Square: both films feature indulgent and extravagant dinner parties. And both sets of employers exploit ordinary working people – the gold standard of Soviet citizenry.

Barnet already shows himself adept at comedy, including visual humour and gags. In Natasha’s village there is a narrow bridge over a frozen stream on the way to the station: several mishaps occur here. There are some delightful scenes revolving round the furniture or lack of it in the disputed room. And the shy courtship of Natasha and Ilia has delightful moments and presents a strong and autonomous heroine. The mise en scène is sued to great effect. One set is the kitchen in the shop cum household, usually filed with drying laundry. There are several scenes where the white sheets are used to great comic effect: these same props also feature in The House in Trubnaya Square.

But Barnet is also adept at montage, in the sense of fast editing. The sequence where we view the announcements of Premium Bond winners has excellent fast cutting and also very effective use of superimpositions. Barnet and his cinematographer, Boris Frantsisson, also have notable shots, long takes and sequence shots. Both Ana and Fogel are seen early on in mirrors or through frozen windows. There is a fine chase through the streets, which recalls the momentum found in the much-admired Hollywood films of the period.

This is a delightful comedy and offers a rather different representation of Soviet urban life from some of the other film classics of the period. It does, however, lack the effective political comment that adds so much to The House on Trubnaya Square. The use of the Premium Bond system seems little different from the function of such systems in bourgeois cinema. Apparently the script had a resolution that at least partially addressed this issue, but it did not make it into the finished film. Even so this is an impressive film from a rich career.


Posted in Festivals, Silent Comedy, Soviet Film | Leave a Comment »

The Whispering Chorus, USA 1918.

Posted by keith1942 on December 11, 2014

Voices Chorus

This film, released in March 1918, was Cecil B. De Mille’s 29th feature. He had started his film career in 1914 with The Squaw Man. This was filmed for the J. L. Lasky Feature Play Company. In 1916 a merger with Adolph Zukor produced the Famous Players – Lasky Corporation. In 1935 the company became Paramount Pictures Inc. De Mille was a founder member and the Director-General in the early years. He worked with the company in two periods right up to the end of his career.  Nowadays he is best remembered for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), but in the silent era he was an important and innovative director. The Whispering Chorus makes exceptional use of chiaroscuro and of superimposition. Its story, adapted from a novel, seems to prefigure aspects of the later film noir genre. Apart from the contrast between light and shadow, the protagonist, John Tremble, is drawn into a world of criminality by siren voices and finally succumbs as a victim hero.

De Mille described aspects of the film in his 1959 Autobiography (Edited by Donald Hayne).

The same critic who called The Devil Stone “piffling” said that my next picture, The Whispering Chorus, was “the quintessence of morbid­ness”. I hope that he has lived to see some of the screen’s more recent offerings. The Whispering Chorus, written by Jeanie Macpherson from a story by Perley Poore Sheehan, was in fact one of the first, if not the first, of the films that have come to be called “psychological”. The conflict in it is in the souls of the characters rather than in forces external to them. It is the story of a man condemned to death for his own murder. …

The Whispering Chorus was “supposed to be a non-star production”, Randolph Bartlett wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “but Raymond Hatton is the unmistakable star [as John Tremble], in as brilliant a character study as the films have ever produced”. Kathlyn Williams played his wife, and Elliott Dexter [is George Coggeswell] ….

In addition to Raymond Hatton’s remarkable performance, this film was noteworthy because of the “chorus of faces” which gave the film its name. To show the thoughts struggling in the troubled mind of John Tremble, we faded in and out, around his figure on the screen, various faces, kindly, sullen, tempting, laughing, accusing, encouraging as if they were speaking to him what he himself was thinking. This was for its time an outstanding feat of photography. It was done by double or multiple exposure of the film. For the final appearance of all the faces together in the condemned man’s cell, there had to be as many exposures as there were faces, accomplished with all the carefulness and precision which such treatment of film demanded.

In the making of most motion pictures, there is some incident which seems funny in retrospect but does not at all seem so when it happens. To portray John Tremble’s degradation during his years as a fugitive, Jeanie Macpherson had written a scene of his being lured into a low dive in Shanghai in the course of a rather wild celebration of the Chinese New Year. A Chinese New Year meant crowds and fireworks, of course. We transformed one side of Selma Avenue into an approximation of a Shanghai thoroughfare, with elaborate fire­works strung all along the block, and we assembled a suitable number of Chinese extras to throng the street.

His description includes a number of tropes familiar in the world of noir. Rather than a femme fatale we have the siren voices that tempt John to criminal action.  This is the `Whispering Chorus` of the film:

text Chorus

he hears voices that both tempt him to illegality [misappropriating monies from the firm in whose accounts office he works] and voices that caution proper conduct. The visual superimposition of these voices presents those of temptation as male and that of virtue as female. This ties into the plot of the film where virtue is connected to gender. John`s wife, Jane, and his elderly mother who lives with them, are happy to live within the limited means provided by his salary.

There is also a class dimension to the plot. John is a lowly paid clerk and one whispering voice argues

You work to hard – just to make a rich man richer.

Contrasting John is another character, George Coggeswell, a ‘fighting young senator’ – fighting corruption. He is clearly more affluent than John and later becomes Governor and acquires a fine mansion. His investigations lead to John’s fraud coming to light and his flight from justice. Coggeswell also comes to the aid of the grieving Jane, who believes John is dead. And their romance becomes important in the film’s resolution.

Whilst De Mille was fairly innovatory at this time and also often pushed at the boundaries of the censorship parameters of the time, he tended to fairly conservative moral values: there are several titles bearing biblical quotations. The critic noted the ‘sentimentality’ of the film. This is especially apparent in the representation of the women in the film. We first see John’s mother, an elderly grey-haired woman, in a chair, sewing petals, and with a birdcage just above her head. Jane copes with the limited income as a model of domesticity, mending worn clothes and cooking from a limited budget.

As De Mille notes the cameraman, Alvin Wyckoff, makes an important contribution to the film. The superimpositions are excellent and the use of shadows is especially atmospheric. This can also be seen with Wyckoff`s camerawork in the earlier feature, The Cheat (1915), a notably stylish film. The Art Director, a post developed as Hollywood developed the studio system, was Wilfred Buckland. He was also an important influence in the teens and 1920s in the studio system. The use of settings and props add a dimension to the characters and their actions. In an early sequence Jane, at the behest of her mother, hangs mistletoe in preparation for John’s return on the eve of Christmas: when he arrives without her promised present she sadly removes the mistletoe. In a parallel manner flowers frequently recur. After the petals we see flowers by the sick bed of the mother. They are prominent in Coggeswell’s office when Jane visits him. Later in the film a wedding ceremony has centrally placed flowers. Another important sequence involving the mother Jane and Coggeswell is placed in the garden. And towards the end a prostitute plays with flowers around John: he crushes them and then they are carelessly tossed to the floor. The editing emphasises such moments and also draws parallels across story and the experiences that happen to John on his wanderings and to Jane as she waits at home. At one point the film cuts from a prostitute with John in an opium den to the wedding ceremony back home. Other cuts between the increasingly decrepit John and the increasingly successful Coggeswell reinforce the division.

So this is a fine example of a feature film from the late teens as the Hollywood Studio system developed. In fact it seems that the film was not successful at the box office, it was probably a little too challenging in terms of the cinema conventions of the time. However, it is clearly an important influence in terms of the studio technical and stylistic developments.

The film was screened in a retrospective of De Mille’s silent work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The print was from the George Eastman House and preserves the notable use of tinting in the film. The film is seven reels in length and the recommended projection speed is 20 fps, giving a running time of just over 80 minutes. Like all of the de Mille’s early films this is well worth viewing. There are several video versions to be found on the Web and it was available from the BFI.


Posted in Hollywood, US pioneers | Leave a Comment »

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2014


This was the 33rd Festival of silent film held in Pordenone [or for a few years Sacile]. It was a fairly full week full of classic early films, some familiar titles and some new and engaging surprises. The weather that accompanied the week was mixed some; sunshine some rain, but warm compared with ‘blighty’. It was a fairly full programme, we started at 8.45 a.m. one day. However, there were not any really late nights, I was usually in bed before midnight.

One major strand was a tribute to the Barrymores, Ethel, John and Lionel. They were part of what one could call Hollywood royalty in the 1920s. In fact, in retrospect it is surprising that it is only now that they have enjoyed a major retrospective. All three were established stars of theatre, and one sensed that this remained their main focus. A theatrical flourish tended to over emphasise their performances, more notably in the two male stars. One really interesting film has Lionel Barrymore as The Copperhead (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), a supposed supporter of the Confederacy but living in Union territory. It threw a distinctive angle on the US civil war, though it became almost masochistic as the hero suffered for the cause. We had only one complete film starring Ethel Barrymore, but she seemed in some ways the best adapted of the clan to film. The White Raven (Rolfe Photoplays, 1917) was a melodrama with a somewhat implausible plot but with a strong and determined female lead. The most famous title featuring John Barrymore was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920). The film is not as good as that directed by Robert Mamoulian a decade later, but Barrymore brings an intensity to the scenes of transformation that seem almost vampirist.

For me the star programme of the week was Russian Laughter: The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov, [despite the misspelling of Soviet!]. We enjoyed six silent films and one silent which had been re-processed as a sound film in 1935. We had two actual Russian silent films, from 1913, a farce with a triangular relationship: and from 1918 a countess having to work as a chambermaid. In the Soviet features we had a tailor threatened by his marriage hungry woman employer: an overtly political comedy about the different types of theft, criminal and capitalist: a critique of bureaucracy in the shape of a railway station manger; and three Chekhov stories adapted on film. Protazanov and his writers created well-structured plots and witty characterisations. The production teams achieved a sense of realism that grounded the films in recognisable world. I felt that this was lost in the final sound version, a satire on religion – but some friends at the Festival rated it highly.

There were a number of special events. The epic screening was Die Nibelungen Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge, both Decla-Biscop 1924). This complete epic now runs for 175 minutes. It is certainly impressive, especially in the geometric designs created for Lang by his production team. And there are also impressive effects like the fire-breathing dragon, an example of German expertise in this decade. However, it is also rather ponderous in a way associated with certain Germanic art. The second part has more action and violence but it also has an idea of German invincibility as onerous as that found in many Hollywood war movies. I was rooting for the Huns very soon into the film. I was taken with Kriemhild though – the most implacably determined heroine I have seen in years. And the restoration by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung was impressive. The Catalogue suggests that Part 1 would run at 20 fps and Part 2 at 22 fps – in fact, it felt like both parts were running at 20 fps. Sacrilegiously I did think about whether they could up this by a frame or two a second.

Ben Hur

Ben Hur

Another programme was The Dawn of Technicolor. This included formats like early hand-colouring, formats that came and went like Kelley Color and the early forms of the major colour film format, Technicolor. In the 1920s the Technicolor Corporation developed two-strip or two-tone Technicolor. It use varied but in a spectacular like M-G-M’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) some sequences had a magical appearance. A really beautiful shorter film [two reels running 18 minutes] was Manchu Love (1929) from the Technicolor Corporation itself. This used a dye-transfer system and also included in the production two stalwarts of the Technicolor output: Natalie Kalmus, who for years laid down rigorous standards in its use and Ray Rennahan, possibly the Hollywood expert in colour cinematography. The plot owed much to the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, though it as even more melodramatic. We also had a good print of The Black Pirate (The Elton Corporation, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like other prints I have seen it suffered from desaturation, but it did not suffer the pinkish hue found on a version copied on to Eastmancolor stock.

There was more Early Japanese Cinema. And as in the previous year there were screenings employing a Japanese Benshi. The main one featured Chaplin shorts, presumably marking the centenary year of his on-screen debut. I do think the Benshi works better with Japanese films than imports. However, Ichiro Katanka, one of Japan’s ten or so working Benshi, also presented the Jonathan Denis Memorial Lecture for 2014 – The Art of the Benshi. This was a really interesting lecture on the roots and characteristics of this narrative form: enlivened by a series of recordings of Benshi from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Johan, a Festival regular, worked hard at providing a translation into English. My only reservation was that whilst Ichiro worked from a laptop this was not projected for the audience. It would have helped to have Japanese names, titles and dates displayed as he talked.

Charlie Chaplin was with us again on the closing night for a screening with orchestral accompaniment of City Lights (1931). This is one of the outstanding features by Chaplin: it is rather long on sentiment, but Chaplin mainly undercuts this with sly humour. And the comedy sequences, including the famous opening, show him on top form.

There were many other splendid programmes. These included films produced in the year 1914, Ukrainian animation, Rediscoveries and Restorations and the welcome The Canon Revisited. A rediscovery was an early sound version of Battleship Potemkin Panswerkreuzer Potemkin (Prometheus – Film 1930). Given the impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece one can understand the desire to marry it with the new technology. However, it was not a successful marriage. Important title cards, like the quote by Trotsky on 1905, were missing: bizarrely, the divisions of parts had changed: and the music score was a combination of Edward Meisel with other music interpolated. I haven’t found a comment on this version by Eisenstein, but he famously ticked off Meisel at the London Film Society screening for tinkering with the projection speed.

Much more welcome in the ‘Canon’ was Raul Walsh’s slum film Regeneration (Fox Film Corp., 1915); though surprisingly no-one has got round to a full restoration. And there was Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes Pengar, Svensk Filminustri, 1919); Mauritz Stiller’s magnificent but chilling drama of violence and contrition.

As always at Le Giornate the films were ennobled by the accompanying music. Most of the regulars were there, and most of the music illuminated and dramatised the films. We had a couple of performances that were too strong for the respective films, but overall this was fine music with a strong sense of empathy for the films.

The other fine strand across the week was the performance by a number of canine actors. The prize must go to a collie in The Incorrigible Dukane (Famous Players Film Co., 1915). Excuse the plot spoiler, but Dukane Jr. (John Barrymore) and his team are under siege in a cabin. The villains throw in a stick of dynamite. The brave and intelligent collie picks up the explosive, runs to the villain’s hideout and jumps through a window, returning the stick to the astonished gang. And he escapes to return to the men he has saved.

One bonus seemed to be a reduction in distraction in the auditorium: there were only a few mobile phones going off – still too many. And only the occasional laptop or tablet visible: unfortunately a new bad habit is checking the time on the latter, though I am sure this could be done without lighting up the whole screen. As in the past we also had a couple of people taking photos on these devices! However, a friend told me that there were quite a number of electronic gadgets illuminated in the balconies, perhaps the users have just moved.

A final tribute, to Dave Howell from West Yorkshire. He attended every film screening and never [he assures me] fell asleep. I am uncertain what to admire more, his stamina or his dedication.


Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, silent comics, Soviet Film | Leave a Comment »

Cinema Museum in danger!

Posted by keith1942 on November 13, 2014

Naum Kleiman

Naum Kleiman

The Moscow Cinema Museum is one of the Archives whose work can be seen at festivals devoted to recovered and restored films. Naum Kleiman was its director and he is one of the major figures in collecting, preserving and providing accounts of the legacy of Soviet cinema. Now the organizers of Il Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto have circulated the letter below. They are requesting all interested people to offer their support to the staff of the Museum and the Museum itself.


An Open Letter to Our Colleagues –

Film and Museum Professionals in Russia and Abroad


On 27 October 2014, the entire professional staff of the Moscow Cinema Museum – 22 employees, including all curators, archivists and film programmers – delivered to the Minister for Culture of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Medinsky, a letter informing him they resign their posts because of the impossibility of continuing their work under the new leadership of the Museum


On 1 July 2014, the Ministry for Culture chose not to extend the contract of Naum Kleiman, one of the founders of the Moscow Cinema Museum and its director for over 25 years. Instead, a new director was appointed: Larisa Solonitsyna, editor in chief of the newspaper “SK News”, the official publication of the Association of Filmmakers of the Russian Federation.


Three months later, the entire scholarly staff of the Museum felt obliged to express their distrust to Larisa Solonitsyna, in a letter to the head of the Department for Cultural Heritage at the Ministry for Culture of the Russian Federation, Mikhail Bryzgalov, and to the Presidential Advisor, Vladimir Tolstoy, calling attention to the lack of competence of the new director and her authoritarian style of leadership that is putting in danger the work of the whole team.


Under the pretext of “making order”, Ms. Solonitsyna began to fire employees in opposition to her, offering them the alternative to “leave their employment for personal reasons.” But for the scholarly staff, representatives of three generations, this museum is not just a job – it is our vocation and life-work.


After our letter of October 27 to the Minister for culture with the explanation of our collective dismissal, the director decided to fire people: among the first five fired employees was Naum Kleiman. The director’s measures of intimidating or persuading to recall our letters of resignation did not make us submit.  On the evening of 27 October, the Ministry of Culture, through Interfax Agency, disseminated a text about alleged infractions in the Cinema Museum’s activity, including financial ones, but during the recent ministerial inspection, answers were already given to these unfounded accusations. Why then these matters are being broadcast in media? The purpose is obvious: to discredit the former director of the Museum and his staff.


For the third time in its history, the Cinema Museum is in danger of elimination.


Among numerous answers of solidarity to our appeal, we received an important proposal.

The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, planning to create a cinema department, like in Washington National Gallery of Art, Louvre Museum, Orsay Museum or Centre Pompidou, proposes to make Cinema Museum a part of its structure: a big developing museum association under its aegis, what gives our Museum a possibility to obtain its autonomous building with exhibitions and film programs. We summon our museum colleagues, researchers, filmmakers and film-lovers all over the world to support this initiative.


You can send your comments of support to our addresses:




Moscow, 31 October 2014


Naum Kleiman and the professional staff of the Cinema Museum

Posted in Archival issues | Leave a Comment »

London Symphony

Posted by keith1942 on November 4, 2014

Lon Sym



















This is effectively a type of film known as ‘21st Century Silent’. Using the form of early cinema for a contemporary subject can b problematic. However this film is a documentary and the makers specifically note the ‘city films’ of the 1920s as influences. In particular they refer to Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek a Kinoapparatom, 1929): and also to films by Walter Ruttman and Joris Ivens. I can imagine that this is just the sort of subject and approach where the combination of images and music without any dialogue or commentary will be effective.

The documentary films of the 1920s tended to rely on state funding or on the support of wealthy individuals [like the Surrealists]/ This film will be contemporary in another way. It is relying on what is termed ‘crowd funding’ – a lot of individuals and groups contributing amounts to towards the budget. This, of course, is an aesthetic and cinematic investment rather than a financial one.  But there is also likely to be a high satisfaction quotient when the film is finally finished and available for screenings.

The film has already entered production but ongoing funding is required. There is a lot of information about the proposed film and the funding methods on the Website. This project focuses son the metropolis, but if successful we might [hopefully] see city films from other major British cities.

Visit http://londonsymphfilm.com/


Posted in C21st silents, Documentary | Leave a Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers