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Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana

 

The programme of film by John Collins was a revelation and a pleasure. I had enjoyed brief encounters before but here we had a programme of eight films [of varying length] and a display of impressive direction and a distinctive style. Collins started out with the Edison Company about 1910, working in a variety of roles. He progressed to direction in 1914. He immediately established himself as a talented and distinctive director. But his career was cut short by the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919. He died only aged 29 years. He had 41 credits as a director, frequently writing the screenplays.

The opening programme, ‘The Early Edison Years’. offered four films, three one -reelers and a three reeler.

The Man in the Dark 1914. 18 minutes at 16 fps.

This was his third film as director and he also wrote the script.. The main character is Silver Joe, originally Joe Raymond (Frank McGlynn). He is now a destitute old man but a letter he finds on a rubbish heap takes him [and the audience] in a flashback to his youth. He was engaged to Flora Van Dyke. In the film we see him celebrating his forthcoming wedding with a bachelor dinner. However his best friend Jack sees Flora with an unknown man to whom she gives money. When Joe hears the story from Jack he breaks off the engagement. Flora writes an explanation in a letter which Joe refuses to read and which he returns. This is the letter that the older Joe has now found. He reads that the man with Flora  was her brother, in trouble with the law. The money was to enable him to escape retribution. Enlightened too late Silver Joe goes to Flora’s old house. He finds that she has died and that her funeral is taking place. All that he is left with is a rose that he picks up. He burns the letter and expires.

collins_10

The film is noticeable for the stylistic touches that Collins provides. The reference to the engagement is presented in a heart-shaped iris shot. When Flora receives the letter we see her reflected in a three panel mirror, emphasising not her duplicity but the different pictures held of her. And the lighting in the film adds to the dramatic feel of the story,.

The Everlasting Triangle 1914. 17 minutes at 16 fps.

The film was directed by Collins but scripted by Charles M. Seay, a

‘stock player and vaudeville performer … taking on the roles of actor, writer and director.’

The film is not as well produced as The Man in the Dark, some of the sets are ‘shoddy’. Jay Weissberg in the Catalogue ascribes this to Edison economising.

But the stock melodrama is rendered powerful by a plot resolution that seems to prequel Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Kate (Mabel Trunnelle) is an ‘Eastern girl in the West’. Santley of the West (Frank McGlynn) meets her and proposes marriage. Her other suitor, Philbin, of the East (Robert Kegerreis) leaves. But  a year on, Kate , now living in rural cabin, pines for the busy life of the East. A letter brings Philbin back and they run off. Santley follows them and catches them up in the desert. He shoots two of the three horses and then forces Kate and Philbin to draw cards with himself for the remaining horse. Kate is able to ride off. But Santley forces Philbin on into the desert where he expires. Finally Santley commits suicide. A grim but potent drama.

collins_09

The Mission of Mr Foo 2015. 18 minutes at 26 fps. Missing about 75 feet.

Directed by John H Collins from a story by Helen Chandler. This is essentially a film with a stereotypical Asian villain. However Jay Weissberg makes the point:

“The film deftly blends stereotypical “Yellow Peril” deviousness – Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu’ was published just three years earlier , and the name “Foo” can’t be accidental – with a more positive depiction of the noble champions of the new Republic.” (Catalogue)

The cast includes a genuine Chinese actor, a Japanese actor performing as a Chinese character and [more predictably] Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters, including the villain.

Mr Foo (Carlton S. King) is an ant-republican plotting to restore the Chinese monarchy and also trying to undermine US power. The latter is done literally as he and his minions plot in secret underground passages below Washington DC. [A plot device that returned in the sound era].

collins_11

Tradition is emphasised in Foo’s commitment to the Buddha, seen in a opening sequence. Later there is a flashback to the now-departed Dowager Empress. Foo’s Buddhism does not prevent him threatening Florence (Gladys Hulette) , the daughter of an important diplomat (Bigelow Cooper) , with miscegenation. Bu the modern Republican Chinese are allowed to be active. The Chinese Ambassador Tu Sing (T. Tamamoto) and his secretary (Otto Kobe) are instrumental in the defeat of Mr Foo. Though the film ends with a slight reversion to tradition when Foo is forced to drink poison.

On the Stroke of Twelve 1915. 41 minutes at 20 fps, with some tinting

Director John H Collins. Script by Gertrude Lyon.

This is an early example of a three reel film, something Edison introduced in 1915. I was interested by the projection speed which seems quite fast for the period. The script writer, Gertrude Lyon, is also interesting. She appears in the lead role in the film, Irene Bromley, as Gertrude McCoy.  She both acted and wrote at Edison and later worked in England in Europe.

The film’s plot revolves around an amateur female detective, Irene. At the start of the film, on the death of her father, she inherits a fortune. In the first reel she acts as a spoilt and extravagant young woman. An aspect emphasised when her lawyers turn down an application by a penniless inventor but then happily allow her to spend $10,000 on a new car.

Irene is the object of attention by Sidney Villon (Bigelow Cooper again as villain) the lawyer who administers her trust. But she is also admired by young Arthur Colby (Richard Tucker), more attractive but also penniless. Reel one ends with a midnight event which will be important later.

“most remarkable is the way he [Collins] signals the striking of the midnight clock with a dozen flashes of light, rendering sound as visual form.” (Jay Weisberg in the Catalogue).

In reel two we see the conflict between Villon and Arthur, ending in a fight in Villon’s flat. Next morning two bodies are found, with a gun and a watch indicating the time of the fight. However, Arthur is alive and is immediately arrested for murder. here we have a familiar trope where an innocent man is found with a body and presumed guilty.

collins_08

Arthur is brought to trial and at this point Irene emerges not as a spoilt young woman, but an intelligent and resourceful person. In the course of the trial Collins uses several flashbacks to fill out the plot for the audience. It become clear that the scene with the penniless inventor was not merely background drama. And in following up the clues Irene is able to prove Arthur is innocent and their union is assured.

The sense of two characters described as ‘penniless’ adds emphasis to the film’s presentation of a distinction between wealth and moral emotion. Collin’s films are not radical inc content but they, as in many early US films, emphasise the merits of ordinary working people whilst privileging the benefits of wealth.

The film also displays Collins’ talent with production and lighting.

“It is in the film’s second half [mainly the event sin and alongside the court room drama] that Collins displays his directorial acumen, through dynamic angles and close-ups as well s very fine editing.” (Catalogue).

The last is apparent both in the use of the flashbacks and in the cutting between the court room and Irene’s detective work.

The four films all demonstrated Collins abilities in terms of direction, including in the pacing and rhythm of storytelling. Jay Weisberg suggests that,

“Clearly it’s time to reassess the standard dismissal of Edison films of the period. Contemporary critics were certainly more appreciative, and the studios roster of actors often receive high praise…” [Catalogue].

Whilst the plots were in many ways conventional the dramas were effective and, particularly in the longer film, one had a sense of some character development. All four films were screened from 35mm prints. The programme ensured that one would take care to catch all of the subsequent screenings of Collins’ films. And there were suitably dramatic accompaniments by Donald Sosin.

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Screening formats

Posted by keith1942 on February 13, 2017

Vertov's masterwork with black bars added!

Vertov’s masterwork with black bars added!

 

One of the links on this blog is for Silent Film Calendar. This is a very helpful service that offers a fairly comprehensive list of the screenings of Silent Films up and down Britain. It includes Festivals, Film Clubs/Societies and cinemas. After the title the pages offer information on the format in use, though almost all of these contain the legend ‘format not known’.

Almost without exception when I see an interesting screening coming up I have to contact the venue and try and establish whether they are using 35mm, 16mm, DCP, or some digital video format. The latter is far more common than is healthy for Silent Film programming.

Even prestige Festivals are increasingly using digital formats, though thankfully the Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto use very little digital video. The Golden Fleece of the Silent Film Festival circuit is now the George Eastman Nitrate weekend where the films are not just all on 35mm but in the actual format in which they were originally shot and exhibited.

In Britain the digital theatrical format is almost always 2K DCPs. 4K DCPs are pretty rare and this seems to be the case even when it is a title that I have seen in 4K at a Festival. It is fairly clear that 2K digital does not offer the resolution of 35mm and 4K would seem not to either when we are referring to good quality 35mm.

video-resolution-chart

Moreover when the specifications for theatrical digital formats was laid down the equivalent projection speeds were set at 24 and 48 fps, forgetting about any provision for the slower speeds of silent films. FIAF has now provided specifications for silent film speeds, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 fps. However, it is rare to find screenings in the UK that offer this; the norm appears to be 24fps with the consequent step printing of title to provide a suitable rate and running time.

Technically it seems quit easy to adjust digital projectors to alternative speeds to 24 or 48 fps. However, DCPs come ‘baked in’ [the phrase used] both in terms of projection speeds and aspect ratios.

The latter also means that unless cinemas have screen masking the framing offers  an image in 1.33:1 [or a variation] with black bars either side of the image. The bars on digital projection lack the density of masking, so they are quite noticeable and, in addition, they absorb less light so high key images reflect on them.

Elvey's masterwork in what appears to be TV's 16:9.

Elvey’s masterwork in what appears to be TV’s 16:9.

The situation is far worse when exhibitors use some digital video format. The quality is lower than for DCP plus DVDs and Blu-ray run at 25 or 24 fps. So invariably, [except for a few late silent titles] the  print has been  step-printed for transfer. It also seems that the norm these days is to use computer software and these [or at least some of them] use composite frames at edit points, hence the ‘ghosting’ that is a problem on many of these.

Step-printing varies in its effect on any film. But clearly films with fast editing, such as the Soviet masterworks, are likely to suffer from this. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Patyomkin, USSR 1925) has as few as two or three frames in some shots, and an additional frame for every two existing ones is likely when the films run below  20 fps.

Aspect ratios are also a problem in other ways. A friend went to see the screening of a rare New York Yiddish title which was screened in 16:9! Recently the BFI produced a digital version of Abel Gance’s masterwork Napoleon (France 1927). The most famous sequence in this film is the use of a three-screen triptych for the final sequence as the revolutionary army crosses the alps into Italy. At 35mm screenings with three projectors and screens [or equivalents] this image expands to the colossal and impressive finale. For the digital version the BFI used the following technique:

“The whole film is mastered in a scope DCP wrapper and can be projected in one format, the triptych will work on any scope screen (it won’t work on a flat screen).” (BFI Information).

A friend who attended a screening of this version complained than rather than expanding for an impressive finale, the image shrunk, thus reducing the impact.

I can understand film fans wanting to have copies of favourite films to watch at home: but that is domestic viewing and is in a different category from theatrical presentations, [or at least it should be]. And digital versions obviously allow screenings for groups who may not be able to access the infrequent 35mm presentations and venues that do not possess 35mm projection. But, unfortunately, digital also seems to encourage archive and distributors to use these formats instead of offering the films in their original and proper form. Exhibitors compound the problem by the paucity of information on formats. Few cinemas actually distinguish between film [35mm] and digital versions in their publicity and brochures. Even fewer actually indicate when the screenings rely on digital video: and this dereliction also applies to a number of Film Festivals.

A few years back the BFI produced restorations of the nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Britain in the 1920s. I was involved in screenings of these in West Yorkshire. Some of our screenings offered 35mm but on a couple of occasions the BFI replied to a request by sending a DCP. Yet later on I saw the same titles on 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. So the BFI could send the prints over a thousand miles to Italy but not north by only 200 miles. More recently The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Britain 1927) was released round the countries. It seems that the only screenings were from DCPs. Yet there was a 35mm print. In fact the BFI sent the 35mm print [courtesy of a RAF transport plane] all the way down for a screening to the British settler colony on the Malvinas.

We actually have the odd situation now where a screening from a digital video has live musical accompaniment: seemingly the musicians cost more than the expense of renting and transporting a 35mm print. Torkell Sætervadet, in his Introduction to the ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide’, writes as follows:

“[he argues for] the aim of presenting films exactly the way they were i8ntended to be presented – without any compromises with regard to picture, sound and appearance. Cinémathèques, film archives and film institutes have a particular responsibility to respect the integrity of the work of art that they are exhibiting and the inevitable consequence is that the technical requirements will be pretty rigid.”

I wonder how many people in the British Film Industry have read this fine volume or even have a copy. It would seem that the Cinémathèques Française have: as I was advised that in 2016 they declined to license a title for public screening when the source was digital video. Bravo!

 

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David Shepherd 1940 to 2017

Posted by keith1942 on February 3, 2017

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David was a key member of the brigade of film enthusiasts who preserved the flower of early cinema.

He worked as a collector, restorer and provider of prints. I have had the pleasure of seeing many classics that survive and are available thanks to his efforts. He worked for a time at the American Film Institute and with The Library of Congress. He was associated with Blackhawk Films, who at one time provided prints of difficult-to-see films. Later he founded and ran Film Preservation Associates.

His legacy will survive in the countless films whose continued existence and access is thanks to him.

A favourite of mine which I owe to David is Henry King’s Tol’able David USA 1921). This apparently was also a favourite of his. It is a fine rural melodrama and with an excellent canine performance from a collie named Lassie: note though there is also a scene of trauma.

There are numerous tributes to him on WebPages and Blogs devoted to film history and there is an obituary in the new Sight & Sound.

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The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh, USSR 1927

Posted by keith1942 on January 2, 2017

canone_04_romanov

This seminal Soviet film was screened at the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016. With 2017 approaching this seemed like a harbinger for commemorations of the Great October Revolution and the revolutionary cinema that it produced. The film is a compilation of ‘found footage’ and is credited in direction and scripting to Esfir Shub. She was the key editor in the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s. Daria Khitrova writes in the Festival Catalogue of the ‘universal praise’ for her work in the Soviet film community.

“Shub learned the craft of film editing in a hard but creative way. For years, her job at the Soviet film factories was to doctor foreign (and later domestic) movies ideologically unacceptable for Soviet audiences. In many cases, it involved a full turn-around of the plot, characters, and situations, without, of course, any additional filming being an option.”

This experience developed Shub’s editing skills but her standpoint on artistic creation followed on from her involvement with the Soviet avant-garde and the Constructivist Movement. Importantly she collaborated with both the stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. This project was initially her suggestion and it offered merit to the Soviet Production arm Sovkino as there was no existing cinematic record of the Revolution. Initially the working title was ‘February Revolution’. The plan was to produce a compilation film, at this time a rare and undeveloped form, running from 1913 [the anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty] until February 1917, That month saw a revolutionary uprising in Petrograd, appropriately on Woman’s Day. This led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas and the end of the Romanov Dynasty. When soldiers broke away and supported the revolution the ruling class were unable to suppress the uprising. They did form a bourgeois government and this and the Soviet continued side by side, a period of ‘dual power’.

Note, Shub followed up this film with one on the October Revolution, The \Great Road (1927). Shub’s main source of ‘found footage’ was the Museum of the Revolution in Moscow but she also collected material from Petrograd where the earliest Soviet museum had been based. The film also credits M. Z. Tseitlin as ‘consultant’. He appears to been part of the Museum and presumably helped Shub identify material.

A subtitle for the film reads,

“montage of historical documents”

The footage includes newsreel and actualities filmed in Russia, film of the Romanov Dynasty including their own home films, and material from the period from elsewhere. Some of the war footage includes material filmed at Verdun and the French uniforms can be recognised. One piece of films appears to be from the USA and show soldiers setting off to war. As might be expected the film does not have a series of credits for source material. And the main function of the film is as illustration, so in the case of generalised events such as war different footage can serve a similar purpose.

The film is approximately six reels in length: these are not used as chapters or segments as is the case for some films of the period. However, the film, whilst the overall chronology runs from 1913 to 1917, is presented in sections which both chronicle events but also present thematic aspects of the narrative.

The opening reel introduces the audience to the ruling class, both in the form of the Romanov’s but also in the bulwarks of state power: the church, the military and the police including the secret force or Ohkrana. An opening title reads,

“Black Reaction”

The first sequence show us the military and then a religious procession. We move on to the State Duma,

“obedient to the Tsar”.

This is a collection of landowners, members of the bourgeoisie and clergy, supported by a network of Deputy Governors in the provinces. Footage also shows us the fortresses of religion, the monasteries, and the vast estates of the landowners and aristocracy. The film frequently uses footage of well known characters involved in events, many of whose names we would no longer recognised. But some remain familiar,

“Rasputin’s rival Illidor”

This is followed by film of the peasants, presented as obedient to the dominant classes.

In the second reel the audience are shown the extensive celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Romanov Dynasty. At the end of the second reel, carrying on into the third, are presented the exploitation of the Russian peasants and workers. It introduces the notion of capitalism:

“Capital plunders, fighting for markets”

This leads into the competition across Europe and the increasing preparations for war.

“The hands of the workers were preparing death for their brothers”.

And there are shots both of factories and the production of munitions and armaments like the new form of warship, Dreadnoughts. We see film of the mobilisations early in 1914. Titles point out the resulting contradiction, as workers are drawn,

‘away from machines’ and ‘peasants from fields.”

The fourth reel opens with a series of explosions that lead into the eruption of war and the conflict across Europe. This section shows frequent explosions, large scale artillery but also the experience of the ordinary soldier involved in trench warfare.

A title card informs us that

‘ 35 million people, killed, wounded or maimed.’

There are shots of the dead, often frozen corpses lying in the remains of trenches. There follows film of the wounded and of refugees, dead animal carcases and the firing of ‘wheat fields’. There is film of the efforts of the ruling class to recruit more soldiers to die on battlefields, assisted by the church. Women replace the mobilised workers in factories, producing more ammunitions for the front.

“The country was being ruined”

and we see queues and the results of shortages. This lead into 1917, and a particularly severe winter. There are shots of wind, snow and huddled figures in the streets.

Around the start of the fifth reel there is film of soldiers walking away from the front line. Title cards present the call of the Bolsheviks to workers and peasants:

“Everyone under the Red Banner of Revolution.”

There follow footage of mass demonstrations; of soldiers demonstrating in the streets and of delegates of workers soldiers and peasants gathering sat the Tauride Palace. The bourgeoisie form the Provisional Government: there are shots of the ministers, including Kerensky. The crisis increases:

“Moscow sides with Petrograd.”

And soldiers come over

“to the side of revolution.”

canone_05_romanov

Reel six offers film of the opposing forces, the new government of the ruling class and the increasing crowds of workers, soldiers and peasants. Footage of the police and military imply the attempts at suppression. Soldiers form people’s militias and patrol the streets. The abdication of

“Nicholas the Bloody’

is greeted by cheering crowds.

On March 23rd there is a massive demonstration at the funerals of workers killed by the government forces. At the Petrograd Soviet Lenin calls for

“All power to the Councils of Workers.”

Endorsed by the deputies of workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ deputies the February Revolution is accomplished. Final shots of crowds, banners and deputies shaking Lenin’s’ hand.

As can be seen the tempo of the film increases as it approaches the key events of 1917. The found footage serves purposes that would have [in most cases] not been in the mind of the producers. So Shub appears to select the footage, partly on the basis of what it shows and how, but in addition, on what the context of the film provides in added meaning. This is a dimension that marks out Shub’s work from earlier example of compilation or found footage use. At the same time her selection relies on the literal information in the footage, marking her techniques off from those of the other Soviet Documentarists in the Factory of Facts. This also means that the pace of her editing is overall slower, as she relies on viewers extracting the information in the footage before relating this to preceding or following shots. The editing uses continuity rather than discontinuity. And the chronicle proceeds in a linear fashion.

The analytical aspect of the film relies on the title cards, some showing contemporary reports, statements or slogans: some providing information/comment. Cuts from one piece of footage to another illustrates and supports these. Shub’s experiences in editing imported films appears to have also relied on the addition of title cards of dialogue or plot information alongside the re-editing of the film footage.

The screening used a 35mm print from Gosfilmofond with Russian titles, translated into English in a digital projection. The print was reasonably good. As would be expected the found footage in the print varied greatly in terms of quality: one assume this was the case at the time of the original selection and editing. There were also some racking problems with the print. And we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Mauro Colombis, including I think some familiar tunes and themes appropriate to the subject.

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People die for metal/ liudi gibnut za metal, Russia 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 27, 2016

The Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

The Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen.

This film was produced by the Russian Yermoliev company in Yalta as they made their way into exile in Paris. The Bolshevik Revolution had already taken place and a Civil War raged across the new Soviet territories, with Britain, France and the United States invading the young Soviet Republics and aiding the forces of reaction. This production follows the style and conventions of the pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. This applies both to the story, typically downbeat, and to the style, shot in a tableaux-like form.

The film was screened from a 35mm print and was part of a programme celebrating the 75th year of Det Danske Filminstitut. This was a print with German language title cards[with projected English translation] and was titled ‘The Bartered Soul’, presumably an alternative to the Russian original for distribution abroad. The print was 1579 metres in length and projected at 20 fps. It had tinted sequences. There was some doubt regarding who directed the film for the company.

“There are only two contemporary Russian reviews for this film; one credits [Alexander] Volkov as director, the other, Yakov Protozanov. Protozanov definitely had some connection to the film: ten years later he wrote a screenplay which repeats this plot (but with a Soviet happy ending), and five years after hat he -rewrote it as a sound film. Neither project was filmed.” Festival Catalogue, Casper Tybjerg.

Protozanov went into exile, working in France and Germany, but then returned to the Soviet Union in 1923 and worked as a film maker in the Soviet industry.

The basic plot involved a wealthy bourgeois, Gornostaiev (I. Talanov), also known as ‘Mr Millionaire’. The romantic interest was a ballerina Llona (Mara Krogh) and there was an acquaintance Belinski (Yuri Yurievski). The millionaire made a bet that gold will win out over love: hence the title. In a reworking of the Mephistopheles legend he picked on a young worker, Alexei (Nikolai Rimski), as the subject of the bet. The offer made to Alexei was,

“sell me two years of your life”.

When he accepted he was gifted all the luxuries enjoyed by the millionaire. However, this meant parting with his old way of life, including a young woman friend, Manja. The millionaire inducted Alexei into the conventions and manners of the wealthy. This included a taste for pornography. After a trip abroad the pair returned and then Alexei became involved in an affair with Llona. Gornostaiev retaliated by ending the contract, and symbolically returning Alexei’s old working clothes. Llona realised that whilst she loved Alexei she could not live without the luxuries to which she was accustomed. The millionaire had won his bet. In a suitably downbeat twist Alexia now met his old flame Manja who was working as a prostitute. But Gornostaiev was to discover that gold, like love, exacted a price.

Much of the film favoured long shots and mid-shots, though there were cuts to close-ups for moments of strong emotion. The tinting was used to similar effect, the dinner party where matters came to a climatic head had a red tint. The film offered a certain distance as we watched the developing story. However, the plot line was strongly melodramatic, in particular at moments of crisis and in the final resolution. One intriguing technique was in the use of mirrors. There were several of these and they were shot or edited to emphasise a reflective stance. The most distinctive was in the theatre as a group of men watched the ballerina from an opera box whilst a mirror behinds them showed the audience the spectacle that they were enjoying. This fitted in with a tendency to symbolism in the film: the most notable example being a picture of Lucifer or Satan on the wall of Gornostaiev’s study when he made his offer to Alexei. later in the film, when Llona conceded that the millionaire had won his bet she retorted,

“You are diabolically clever. I love him all the same.”

But not enough to surrender the metal of the film’s title.

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Das Cabinet/Kabinett des Dr, Caligari, Germany 1920

Posted by keith1942 on December 14, 2016

caligari-poster

In the 1920s German cinema was the most accomplished in Europe and possibly the most influential until Soviet montage arrived. The giant UFA studio at Neubabelsberg was the largest and best equipped in Europe though it lacked behind Hollywood in its capital and resources. As the decade progressed the industry led the way in its production design, in the use of models and special effects, in its command of chiaroscuro [light and shadow] and then in the development of the moving camera.

Along with these skills and utilising them were a series of genres that offered unconventional stories and a distinctive style. The first of these was ‘expressionist cinema’. It embraced the style and content of a German art movement of the late C19th which itself had an unconventional look and a concern with dark, brooding topics. The approach seemed to fit well with a post World War I Germany. Not only had the state lost the war but it had only narrowly escaped a Soviet-style revolution: a political conflict which returned as the decade advanced.

This film was the first clear example of this new cinematic approach. However, some of the techniques and the look can be seen in other films of the time. And the use of light and shadow and a strong Gothic feel had been seen before the war in a film like The Golem (1915), remade as Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam in 1920)..

Caligari‘s was produced by Erich Pommer. Pommer was to be a key figure as a film producer throughout the decade. The story and screenplay were written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz. Whilst the initial story was a dark, the design of the film was what made it so unconventional. This was produced by Hermann Warm, Walter Reimann and Walter Röhrig: Reimann also designed the costumes. They imported a style that was both expressionist and theatrical. And the director Robert Wiene managed to preserve their vision and imbibed the cast with this as well.

The action takes place in a small German town when a fair opens. Among the shows is one run by Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) in which he displays a somnambulist Cesare (Conrad Veidt). The presentation is seen by two friends Franzis (Friedrich Feyer) and Alan (Hans Heinz von Twardowski). Both friends are enamoured with a local young woman Jane (Lil Dagover). The fair provides a warning of death and then a series of murders are committed though the murderer is unknown. The plot develops into a hunt and an unexpected exposure in an Asylum.

This was the original plot but it was added to; apparently by Fritz Lang who was considered as a director. The addition is an opening scene where an older man recounts the story in flashback. At the end of the film the opening pair, and the other key characters, are seen again suggesting that what we have seen may be a dream or fantasy.

The film is certainly dream-like and miles away from the naturalism that was the norm in contemporary cinema. The film made extensive use of chiaroscuro which gives an extreme contrast: this is produced both by low key lighting and by shadows painted on the sets. The sets are flat and theatrical and are full of angles which give a powerfully unsettling effect. A sense of perspective is also distorted. The acting, which is very skilled, mirrors this, with exaggerated gesture and a stiff non-naturalistic poise. This is a world of artificiality.

The settings in the film suggest a world outside the norm. The town is host to a fair, frequently a site of rule breaking and unconventional behaviour. Dark deeds occur at night, when the social order is less adequately policed. And the Asylum is the opposite of a world of order and convention.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari

The film has given rise to much discussion and to disagreements. One of the keenest is over the added opening and closing scenes. To a degree do they alter the substance and [crucially] the values embedded in the story. Added to this are questions of how far the film reflects or even anticipates events in Germany of the late 1920s and 1930s. Siegfried Karacauer argued that

“Janowitz and Mayer knew why they raged agaisnt the framing story: it perverted, if not reversed, their intrinsic intentions. While the original story exposed the madness inherent in authority, Wiene’s CALIGARI glorified authority and convicted its antagonist of madness.” (From Caligari to Hitler (1947).

However, M. B. White, in a review in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers (1987), suggests that the film remains ambiguous for audiences. He makes a key point that the expressionist style is continuous throughout the film.

“In other words, the film is structured in such a way that it represents contradictory ways of understanding the central sequence of events. This is supported by the consistency of the films mise en scène.”

But on a reviewing of the film it seemed clear that in the final sequence offers fairly conventional staging and performance, without the exaggerated style of the flashback. This is most notable in the character of Dr. Caligari where Krauss’s performance is radically altered. However White’s comments on the film’s structure seem valid. In particular, if the film acts as a metaphor for Germany in the period, then the site of an Asylum raises pertinent questions about the culture. Certainly by the time that the audience is apprised of the source of the disruption to ‘normal life’ several readings are possible.

An interesting comment on this aspect is provided by Ian Roberts in German Expressionist Cinema (2008).

“…his directorial input (Wiene), ensuring that the revised story-frame should be echoed in repeated circular imagery … point towards a very deliberate attempt to reflect the pattern of events unfolding in Germany’s streets…”

and he points to the cycle of defeat in WWI, the failed Soviet-style revolution and the re-imposition of bourgeois rule. This is an intelligent and illuminating reading of the film. And the debate itself adds to the interest of the film.

My own recent viewing made me realise the importance of the music that accompanies a screening. This had a fine piano score by Darius Battiwalla. For the flashback he provided music full of dissonance and sombre chords. But for the final sequence we heard lighter waltz-like music, which emphasised a return to normalcy from the world of chaos: with possibly a touch of irony.

Caligari set in train a series of expressionist films though critics do not agree exactly which films fit into the form. Of equal interest is that the film is both partly horror and also an early example of a serial killer film. The former is picked up in the slightly later Nosferatu (1922) [definitely expressionist]. The latter recurs in a number of examples in Germany in this period. The later notable example being Fritz Lang’s M (1931). And these films are a key influence on the later Hollywood noir cycle.

As with film noir we have a world of chaos into which the hero descends. Given the fate of Franzis at the end he seems to be a victim hero. There is not a femme fatale but there is Caligari’s ‘obsession’ and political noirs often rely on this rather than the sexual threat. And we have the triangular relationships: in this case three younger men obsessed with the woman and the addition of the older man. Serial killer films pick up a number of aspects of film noir. In addition we have the insane killer who is at the same time apparently rational, Caligari himself. The other recurring motif is the labyrinth. Strictly speaking this film does not have  a labyrinth but the sets on many occasions form corridors and passageways hemmed in by walls and buildings. At one point Franzis and two policemen descend a steep narrow staircase to a lower floor and a tightly constricted cell housing a suspect. And the ‘open air’ sequences at times resemble a maze, that parallel structure to the labyrinth. And serial killer films cross over with horror, as does Caligari. One powerful horror motif is the cabinet/coffin that house Cesare. Opening this lets  loose the horror that engulfs the town and the trio of friends.

 Decla Filmgellschaft. 4682 feet, black and white with green, brown and steely-blue tinting. 77 minutes at 16 fps.

Posted in German film, Gothic film | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

One Week, Metro 1920.

Posted by keith1942 on December 13, 2016

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Buster Keaton is normally ranked with Chaplin as the great silent film comedian. He came through a similar background in the US vaudeville. He entered films later, 1917, appearing in a supporting role alongside Fatty Arbuckle. When Arbuckle moved to feature production with Paramount Joseph Schenk, who ran the Communique Film Corp., elevated Keaton to star. Keaton acquired an old Chaplin studio and control over eight two reel comedies released by Metro [later M-G-M). Importantly whilst Keaton exercised the creative control he did not have the independence that Chaplin achieved: this was to blight his career in the late 1920s.

One Week was the first two-reeler released by Metro. It is constructed around a simple plot-line. Buster is the newly married ‘Groom’ and with his ‘Bride’ (Sybil Seeley) needs a home. He receives a DIY house kit as a wedding present. However, a thwarted rival in love sabotages the kit and most of the 20 minutes of the film finds Buster repeatedly attempting and failing to successfully construct his new home. He does manage a brief chase sequence early in the film. The finale involved Groom and Bride is one of the masterful examples of timing that make the gags so  effective.

Keaton was responsibility for the script [such as it was] and the direction: assisted by Eddie Cline. The film is sparse on credits but it seems that Keaton regulars filled out the crew; Elgin Lessley

on cinematography and Fred Gabourie in charge of technical effects. The latter are important in Keaton’s films.

Whilst One Week features a rival the film does not offer an opposing character in quite the way that Eric Campbell does for Chaplin. Keaton battles the elements, situations and especially technology. In this case the DIY house was apparently inspired by a Ford advertising film. Keaton is able to ring countless variations on the practices and pitfalls of DIY. Added elements, including a storm, increase the complexities. Such sequences, done with technical mastery, are a distinctive feature of Keaton’s comedies.

Keaton came to cinema slightly later than Chaplin and the style and technical aspects of the cinema had developed in this period. So we view the familiar long shots at mid-height, but we also get an array of iris shots, which act as equivalents for close-ups, both on characters and titles. And there are also a number of iris wipes which replace ellipses. Keaton and his team use editing to greater effect. Chaplin frequently uses a cut to make a gag: but Keaton uses successions of cuts to develop a gag line.

This is a perennial favourite, full of fine gags and reaching a fittingly dramatic climax.

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The Adventurer, Mutual 1917

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2016

mutual-adventurer

Chaplin learnt his trade in the British Music Hall. Then on tour of the USA he was recruited by the Keystone Film Company. The studio was run by Max Sennett and based at Edendale, close to the developing Hollywood. Chaplin signed with them in August 2013 and his first films appeared in 1914. Gradually his screen persona of ‘the tramp’ emerged and by 1915 he was already a star. The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, which opened in 1914, records some film details in the surviving log books. By the middle 1915 Charlie Chaplin is a ‘name above the title’ and attracting some of the biggest attendances of the year. Chaplin appeared in 35 films for Keystone: mainly one-reelers. By now he was so successful he was able to sign with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company for an increased salary and with greater control over the films in which he appeared. Chaplin made 14 films for Essanay, both one and two reelers. By now he was an international star and he moved again, this time Lone Star Mutual. Not only did he now exercise complete control over the titles but he was able to work at his own pace and in his own way: slower than most film-makers and with a perfectionist attention to detail and the comedy.

This film was the fourteenth and last title he made there. The shooting took at least two months, an exceptionally long period for the time. He shot about 700 takes, this for a film that was 1800 feet long and which ran for just over 20 minutes, presumably at 16 fps. There was not a script as such. Chaplin planned two settings, an opening sequence shot on the coast and then a set of interiors at a large mansion. When these were completed he added a third section which acted as a bridge between the start and end setting of the film.

The opening of the film finds Charlie as an escaped convict being pursued by a group of police along the seaside. This is fine slapstick with excellent timing. The sequence is almost entirely a chase up and down the cliffs and along the beach and water. Charlie displays the balletic grace which is one of his star attractions.

The central section has a series of rescues from the water and Charlie’s encounter with an attractive and affluent young woman (Edna Purviance). He also encounters her beau, played by his regular nemesis Eric Campbell.

The final section finds Charlie a guest at the mansion woman’s father, [he is a judge]. Charlie masquerades as a society man and is involved in a s series of mishaps and gags involving the well-heeled guests and the servants. Mayhem returns when the police re-appear towards the end of the film.

Charlie’s persona is typified in this film in the manner that David Robinson presents in a quotation:

“… all my films are built round the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious  in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman.” (David Robinson Chaplin His Life and Art, Collins and Son 1985).

Chaplin, whilst a tramp, has a petit-bourgeois style and his penury is constantly contrasted with his expensive tastes. This is especially true of the sequence in the rich mansion which sees Chaplin attempting to impress the young woman whilst his rival intervenes and the niceties of social norms are repeatedly sabotaged.

This approach was clearly an important factor in Charlie early success and popularity:

“One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.”

And Music Hall, and the US Vaudeville audiences had an even higher percentage of the poor. This was also a decade in which such divisions were powerfully present in political and economic life. The film also benefits from Chaplin’s inspired use of props: an instance here uses ice cream.

Stylistically this film, like its companions, is straightforward. The camerawork tends to rely on the long shot, with an occasional mid-shot. Camera potions are closest to the plan americain, head-on and mid-figure. The structure of the film relies mainly on the editing, and the cutting is an important element in the humour and jokes in the film. The cinematography, by Chaplin’s regular Roland Toleroth, is simple and effective. There is some under-cranking to achieve speed-up in the early sequences. And the characters tend to position themselves mid-frame.

At this early stage there films offer little in the way of credits. There would have been a raft of craft personnel working on this film. However, by now Chaplin was an autocrat, sometimes even a control freak, and it is mainly his mark we see on the film.

But an important element is the supporting cast. Edna Purviance was a regular in Chaplin’s films at this period: she also had a close personal relationship with Chaplin. The other key character is played by Eric Campbell. He is a superb foil to the ‘tramp’ and one wonders how effective the films would have been in his absence. Indeed this was his last film with Chaplin: he died not long after in an automobile accident.

After Mutual Chaplin’s films became longer and he developed the feature length comedies of the 1920s. But of course the groundwork for his later success was laid in the one and two reelers of the teens. Critics tend to rate the Mutual comedies as the best of his short films. The Adventurer is certainly a fine comedy. Some of the sequences are hilarious and one is aware all the time of a masterful hand coming up with witty and even outrageous effects.

Released October 1917. Two reels. Black and white. 1845 feet.

 

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The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

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This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

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

William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana

Posted by keith1942 on December 1, 2016

Lear and his fool.

Lear and his fool.

This was a programme of three early adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by the Italian studio. The company was founded by Pathé and was a parallel to the French Film d’Art. These were the years when film entrepreneurs were aiming to extend audiences to the bourgeois classes. Classic works such as Shakespeare offered a cachet for this potential audience: there was the added advantage that the works were out of copyright. The Festival Catalogue notes that as the Italian company did not yet have a silent stage for film work and so the productions were filmed in the open air and

“open-air sequences filmed in real places became a distinctive hall mark of their productions.” (Luciano Di Giusti).

The films are short by modern standards and do not all survive in full-length versions. What was offered was a series of key scenes with title cards describing the plot: presumably this relied on a certain audience acquaintance with the original. At this stage of the industry the cinematography relied on a static camera filming entire scenes in one long take. So there is a tableaux feel to the staging, though there are occasional mid-shots and at time the depth of field offers more dynamic action.

The films also used the Pathé stencil colour techniques. This was applied manually by women workers. Different colours were applied as tints to different areas of the frame. The work relied to a degree on pastel shades, so the colours are not as saturated as with hand-painting. But they add to distinctiveness to the frames and offer a more vibrant image.

The key filmmaker, who directed two and most likely supervised the third film, is Gerolamo Lo Savio. At this stage in the industry credits for the various craft people are minimal. The third film is credited to Ugo Faleno, a playwright recruited to Film s’Arte Italiana. Perhaps he was responsible for the scripts for the films.

The productions were constructed around notable stage performers, another attraction for the more affluent audience. Thus in two of the films screened the lead was Ermete Novelli. He was a major theatrical star in the late C19th and early 1900s. By the time of these films he was in his 60s. And he mainly recreates his theatrical performance rather than trying a different techniques for film.  For me the more interesting actor in the films is Francesca Bertini.  Only 18 at this stage Bertini had started in theatre. She went on to become one of the major stars and ‘divas’ of Italian cinema. Her performances, even here, show her developing a specific cinematic technique.

Re Lear / King Lear, 1910. 293 metres, original 325 metres.

The film uses eight settings that present the key sequences from the play: including Lear’s original disastrous judgement against Cordelia: his misuse and abuse by his heirs: and the tragedy of first the death of Cordelia and then his own. The final scenes offer a greater depth of field with the location adding to the drama. Novelli is rather stilted and not all of Bertini’s playing survives.

Shylock

Shylock

Il Mercante di Venezia / The Merchant of Venice, 1910. 169 metres, original 270 metres.

This film is also set out in eight sequences, the key scenes from the play. However, even less of the original survives in this version, so important points like the way that Portia’s plans that develop the drama are unclear. The Venice settings, interspersed between studio sets, enhance the treatment. Novelli is a stereotypical Shylock but particularly effective in the courtroom sequence. However, Portia is played Olga Giannini Novelli, apparently Ermete’s wife. She was also in Re Lear, but this is a substantial role and she seems miscast.

Romeo e Giulietta / Romeo and Juliet, 1912. 680 metres.

This is the longest of the adaptations and is complete. The film uses a number of close-ups which increases the dramatic effect. As with the other films we are presented with a series of key scenes that trace the tragedy of the young lovers. Bertini plays Juliet opposite Gustavo Serena as Romeo, an actor who played alongside her in number of films. They are mature lovers rather than teenagers but very effective in their passion and in their final traumas.

The two earlier films were 35mm prints from the BFI National Film Archive with English title cards. Both ran at 16 fps. I was rather puzzled that neither of these appeared to have been screened in the celebrations of Shakespeare in the UK. The third print was from the EYE Filmmuseum with Dutch title cards. It ran slightly faster at 16 fps. Mauro Columbis provided piano accompaniment for all three, suiting the music to the different tones of the films.

Posted in Festivals, Italian film | Tagged: | 1 Comment »