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The Nitrate Picture Show 2017

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

May 5th to 7th 2017 saw the third Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in New York State. Around 500 enthusiasts from all round the world turned up to see and enjoy early films in their original format. Rarely seen now because of the safety hazards, nitrate has a distinctive palette, a luminosity when light falls on objects, a distinctive contrast with chiaroscuro and a vibrancy in Technicolor. As before we enjoyed ten programmes, nine of them features. The films were introduced, mainly by the archives supplying the prints. And the George Eastman staff and projection team worked tirelessly round the clock so that the Festival ran fairly smoothly. All the films were projected in the Dryden Theatre, spacious, good sightlines, an impressive front curtain and Century projectors with safety fittings in the booth.

As in previous years the titles in the Picture Show were only released on the Friday morning. I am not sympathetic to this approach. Paolo Cherchi Usai, the director, explained that the purpose of the Festival is to watch nitrate film rather than particular titles. However, I have several friends who find this problematic; partly because they may already have seen some films and seen them in nitrate prints. In addition the quality of the prints varies, not surprisingly, since the age of these ranges from 70 years to over a 100. Apart from the wear and tear of exhibition the film suffer shrinkage; and the rate is provided in the Picture Show brochure. Still this year’s programme was worth the trip.

The opening programme on Friday afternoon offered seven short films. The earliest was a silent with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli: sadly the only silent in the programme.

In a Roman Garden    Donald MacDonald, US 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York    Running time: 12 minutes. “This copy has 38 splices. As customary for films of the early era, each projection print was assembled by splicing together different shots. Shrinkage: 0.95%. Produced by the Powers Motion Picture Company in New York, this costume drama of religious subject is the earliest film shown so far at the Nitrate Picture Show.”

The main character Marcus, was an epicurean. He was taken with a young dancer on whom forced attentions. However, he was soon under her charms and her religion, Christian.

The film made extensive use of a lake as a setting. There was tinting extant on the print, especially blue for evenings. This was not great filmmaking but fascinating. The plot, involving decadent Romans and a Christian maiden, reminded me of the skeleton plot for The Robe.

En Kluven Värld / A Divided World, Arne Sucksdorff, Sweden 1948. Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), Stockholm. Running time: 9 minutes. “Donated to the Swedish Film Institute in 2003 by a private collector, the print is in wonderful condition, with only nine splices. Shrinkage: 0.75%. Arguably the greatest by the Swedish master of shorts. Arne Sucksdorff, A Divided World is a hauntingly beautiful, poetic depiction of animal hierarchy in a forest somewhere in Sweden on a winter night.”

This was indeed a delight. I have seen Sucksdorff’s films before and he is idiosyncratic. The films at first appear as documentary but often, like this short film, they are akin to fantasy. The film presented a winter nighttimes landscape where animals, including s ferret, a rabbit, a fox and an owl searched the terrain. The depiction reached a rather macabre climax. The black and white moonlit images looked great, but this was studio rather than actual settings. The film also made good use of natural sounds with more dramatic accompanying music.

Together in the Weather George Pal, US 1946. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 7 minutes. “The copy is in overall good condition. Shrinkage: 0.7% One of the most beloved (and edgiest) “Puppetoons” by the famous Academy Award–winning Hungarian-American master of stop-motion puppet animation.”

I am more familiar with George Pal’s science fiction features but in the 1940s he made a series of animated short films under the generic title ‘Puppetoons’. This title involved a romance between two animated weather vanes; as the introduction suggested the story had quite an adult feel for the 1940s. The well presented puppets looked great in Technicolor.

The Kidnapper’s Foil, Melton Barker, US 1930.. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 17 minutes. “The print is generally in good condition, with twelve splices and some perforation and edge damage. Shrinkage: 0.7% A unique treasure of our shorts program, this early example of truly independent, amateur small-town filmmaking is the original that inspired Barker to travel the United States for forty years, remaking the same film with local children.”

Neither film nor print was memorable but it did seem unique: a slice of genuine ‘Americana’.

The other short films were Movies are Adventure, Jack Hively, US 1948, Academy Film Archive. Pá Ski Med Pwer Og Kari, Skiing with Per and Kari, Norway 1948, Nasjonalbiblioteket. Something You Didn’t Eat, James Algar, US 1945, Museum of Modern Art – a war time animation.

The first feature film was on Friday evening.

Bakushū/ / Early Summer, Yasujirō Ozu, Japan 1951. National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Running time: 124 minutes.

This was a fine example of Ozu’s filmmaking. It was fairly typical of his later films, though not quite as minimalists as some: there were a couple of tracking shots used. There were a lot of familiar faces both in front of and behind the camera. Setsuko Hara played the lead as Noriko Mamiya. Aficionados of Ozu tend to have an almost obsessive delight in this actress. She was excellent but I was also struck by Chikage Awashima playing her close friend and confidant Aya Tamura. Aya was less of a traditionalist and the scenes where they discussed their different situations were a delight.

The Cinematography by Yûharu Atsuta was also a delight. However, the print was slightly warped and the focus, especially when deep staging was in use, was not consistent.

Early Summer (1951)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shown: Setsuko Hara (as Noriko), Chikage Awashima (as Aya Tamura )

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Irvin Reis, US 1947. Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 95 minutes. “The print is in very good condition, though it does have significant curl. Shrinkage: 0.6%.”

I had seen this film before. It stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy: two fine actors who looked out of their comfort zone in this film. A teenage Shirley Temple was not in their class. The print did look good, but I wished that a better film had survived on nitrate.

Anchors Away George Sidney, US 1945. British Film Institute, London Running time: 143 minutes “Generally in good condition, the print has a few visible light to medium scratches (both emulsion and base) and slight nicks at the edges. Heavy edge wave throughout the print; perforations, however, are undamaged. Shrinkage: 0.35–0.55%.”

I was surprised to find the the film runs over two hours, it had never seemed that long. Gene Kelly dances superbly, especially with the ‘little girl dancer’ and played his usual ne.er do well character saved by the ‘good woman’. Sinatra was surprisingly innocent but has a couple of fine numbers. Dean Stockwell was no more objectionable than the average Hollywood ‘cure’ kid. José Iturbi was a better conductor than actor. And Kathryn Grayson had a great voice but it was in a different register from Kelly’s: I wondered wishfully what the film would have been like with Judy Garland. However the ‘Jerry the Mouse’ sequence was superb and technically masterful. Kelly’s films do tend to have sequences with children, presumably to humanise him. The print looked great but the second reel was slightly sploggy. Presumably the M-G-M sent a master across for the British Labs and experts there were divided if this was the print or a projection bulb. The film confirmed how good Technicolor looks on nitrate.

In the afternoon we had two Czech films.

Źhavý Jicen / Hot Throat, Jiří Lehovec, Czechoslovakia 1939. PNárodní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 12 minutes. “The National Film Archive received this nitrate print from the estate of the film’s director in March 2004. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 1.3% An industrial short produced by Pražská železářská společnost (Prague Ironworks Company) in 1939, the film contains footage from the shorts Výroba oceli (Steel Production, 1939)—today presumed lost—and Poklady země (Treasures of the Earth, 1939), both directed by Karel Kohout.”

The introduction explained that the film was made at the time that the Third Reich was dismembering Czechoslovakia. Thus, whilst the film was overtly an industrial documentary, covertly a sub-text obliquely presented a nationalist stance. This appeared to have been achieved mainly through the music. This was extremely martial: if I had not known about its resonances I would have been puzzled as to the significance.

Seréna / The Strike, Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia 1947. Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 77 minutes. “The print is in very good condition. It was deposited with the National Film Archive at some point before 1952, and is probably the print of Siréna that was screened in 1947 at the 8th Venice International Film Festival where the film won the Grand International Award. Shrinkage: 0.8–0.95%”. “a dignified and an even more brilliant counterpart, with its proletarian story about the working-class Hudcový family. It is an intense, extensively detailed, and often riveting picture about the bitter cycle of existence for the poor, a picture of misery and grief, warmed only by the rays of human love and hardened by the hate that compels one to clench their fists and come to blows—perhaps even wrongly.” – Jan Žalman, Kino, May 9, 1947.”

This was a powerful depiction of a C19th strike with on one side the working class mining community and on the other the bourgeois owners and their lackeys among the government and military elites. The brochure drew a comparison with the British The Stars Look Down (1940). I thought this misplaced. The British film is a melodrama which focuses on a working class leader, played by Michael Redgrave. This film was much closer to the slightly earlier German film Die Weber / The Weavers (1927), an adaptation of a play from 1892. Both films dramatically present the exploitation and concurrent oppression of the workers. In both cases a strike leads to confrontation with the authorities, violence and the wreaking of the bourgeois mansion. This version presented the confrontations with dramatic flair and powerful cuts as the conflict developed.

Phantom of the Opera Arthur Lubin, US 1943. Print from David W. Packard. Running time: 92 minutes. “Occasional curling and brittleness throughout the print. Despite the overall stiffness of the base, the copy has an excellent look on the screen, with saturated colors and minimal scratches. Shrinkage: 0.65–0.75%. “Phantom of the Opera” is far more of a musical than a chiller, though  this element is not to be altogether discounted, and holds novelty appeal.”

The film certainly lacked the disturbing and scary features of the earlier version: only the more recent musical (2004) is inferior. The film makes use of a number of operatic [or operetta] sequences, but these were rather flat. Claude Rains in the title role had some promising scenes but was never properly exploited. And the romantic hero and Police Inspector were played more for laughs than frights. It did, though, look great. The Technicolor was vibrant and the contrast, especially in the sequences below the Opera House, was excellent.

In the evening we enjoyed a special treat

Alexsandr Nevskij / Alexander Nevsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev, Soviet Union 1938. Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna. Running time: 108 minutes “At some point in the 1960s, this became the 324th print to enter the collection of the Austrian Film Museum, likely a donation of the Soviet embassy in Vienna. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.8–1%. “In Nevsky, the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism.” (Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Film Sense’, 1942).”

The Introduction suggested ‘Socialist realism’, for me a complete misnomer. Whilst the film falls into the period when that form was dominant the film is not realist, and whilst there are convertional characters their treatment transforms them. The film is famous for the battle on the ice at the climax, but all the way through the nitrate print added luminosity to the armour and the decoration, and finally the ice bound, lake. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography was, as ever, magnificent. And the film enjoyed a pioneering score by Sergei Prokofiev, though, unfortunately, the aged soundtrack did not do this full justice,

I was pleased to see that the Brochure added a note of approval by Uncle Joe:

“It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. You directed Alexander Nevskij. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period.” – Joseph Stalin in conversation with Sergei Eisenstein, Moscow, February 1947.”

Before the closed we had another short film. A warning about its content reduced the audience, presumably including vegetarians and vegans and those with sensitive stomachs.

Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju, France 1949. La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Running time: 22 minutes.  “Donated to La Cinémathèque française by André Joseph, editor and first assistant of Georges Franju, cofounder of the Cinémathèque, the print is in great shape, with very few scratches or splices. Shrinkage: 0.6%. A haunting documentary classic that details the daily operations of Paris slaughterhouses.”

One of the outstanding documentaries, though it makes no concessions to ‘good taste’ or audience sensibilities. This shocking approach is part of the film’s project. Not a great print but it looked fine.

Ironically this screening was followed by the reception provided by the Museum for the guests at the Picture Show. There was a plentiful supply of meats on offer including beef, but not [as far as I could tell] horse meat.

Night and the City, Jules Dassin, UK/US 1950. UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 111 minutes. “This very special pre-release print of the noir classic runs ten minutes longer than the UK cut and a full fifteen minutes longer than the most widely known US cut. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.9–1.15%.”

This is a noir classic and contains some fine location shooting in London by Max Greene. The art direction for the interiors and sets was skilfully done by C. P. Norman. And the editing by Nick de Maggio and Sidney Stone was fluid and keeps the pace of the film tight. Jules Dassin orchestrated this team with fine direction. The same applied to the cast. Richard Widmark gave a standout performance as Harry Fabian, verbose and flashy but vulnerable and ultimately tragic. The supporting cast was a sheer pleasure: Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross) was hard and cynical whilst husband Francis L. Sullivan (Philip Nosseross) was weak under the calculating bonhomie; Herbert Lom as a wrestling impresario Kristo was impressively threatening and Stanislaus Zbyszko   completely convincing as a classic Greek wrestler Gregorius. Smaller parts were equally well played, as, for example by Maureen Delaney  as Anna O’Leary , a sympathetic black-marketer.  Then there was Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol). Someone at George Eastman is obviously a fan; we have had one of her movies in each of the three Picture Shows, previously Laura in 2016 and Leave Her to Heaven in 2015.

The longer print was intriguing though the additional footage was not obvious. My New York friend reckoned that the final wrestling match was shorter in the US version. As far as the UK version goes I thought there were possibly a couple of extra lines of dialogue, otherwise difficult to tell. But it was a sharp print. The chiaroscuro looked great and the London scenes, especially along the river, were worth a trip to see.

 Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, UK 1945. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 111 minutes.”This print was submitted for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress by David O. Selznick. It includes a very special effect at the end of the film—blink and you will miss it! There is very little scratching, and the black-and-white emulsion has retained all of its luster. Shrinkage: 0.5–0.6%.      “This writer has had little traffic with practitioners of psychiatry or with the twilight abstractions of their science, so we are not in a position to say whether Ingrid Bergman, who plays one in her latest film, Spellbound, is typical of such professionals or whether the methods she employs would yield results. But this we can say with due authority: if all psychiatrists are as charming as she—and if their attentions to all their patients are as fruitful as hers are to Gregory Peck, who plays a victim of amnesia in this fine film which came to the Astor yesterday—then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy. For Miss Bergman and her brand of treatment, so beautifully demonstrated here, is a guaranteed cure for what ails you, just as much as it is for Mr. Peck.”

Seventy years on these psycho-analysts has little in common with that proposed by Sigmund Freud. But Ingrid Bergman is captivating. Whilst Gregory Peck tends to the wooden, in this case, as an amnesiac, it works well. There is a delightful supporting role with Michael Chekhov as Dr. Alexander Brulov. And the most realistic exit from an elevator you could hope to see.

The standout sequence is that designed for the film by Salvador Dali, though it demonstrates why he was not a fully-paid up Surrealist. The ‘special effect’ at the end was a shot in Technicolor. This nicely rounded off the print. Though its visual qualities did not show off nitrate’s characteristics to full effect. there were some fine close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, but no tear to match the much talk-about drop in Casablanca screened in  2015.

So to the final film and the ‘Blind Date’ of the Festival. This screening is kept secret till the audience see the opening credits of the film. The Brochure contained a single still, a puzzle to ponder over from Friday to Sunday. Our little group narrowed it down to 1940s European; variously German, Italian or French. The shot contains cobbles and a drain, not objects in which we had many cinematic references. We were only warm, the title emerged as Finnish.

Lovoton Veri / Restless Blood , Teuvo Tulio, Finland 1946. KAVI, Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti. (National Audiovisual institute) Helsinki. Runing time: 91 minutes.            “Opinions on Restless Blood are quite abruptly divided…”

My sense of the audience was that the division in the Dryden Theatre was between people who found it slightly amusing or interesting and a [possibly] larger number who were baffled by why the film was selected. It is basically a melodrama involving family and sexual relationships, with the film dominated by the star Regina Linnanheimo as Sylvi: an impressively over-wrought performance. The script was not well judged and the technical aspects offered low production values and some really skimpy cinematography: some of the close-ups were seriously inadequate.

In his introduction to the film, avoiding any hard information, Paolo Cherchi Usai suggested we were about to see an ‘auteur’ who has been overlooked and forgotten and needed to be re-discovered. This was auteur not in the usual sense of familiar style and themes but ‘auteur’ in the sense of an obsessive focus on certain characters and situations. A friend who has seen some films directed by Tulio in the 1930s thought those were better; this title did not inspire me to find out.

I think this demonstrates the problem with ‘secret’ programmes. The reliance on other’s tastes and criteria. Happily most of the programme justified that, this film was an unfortunate exception.

Alongside the screening there were several illustrated talks.

‘Motion Picture Show on a 1905 Projector’.

This was a 35mm print run through a 1905 Lubin machine from the Archive. The print was hand-cranked and the exhibition was really interesting. It was not, given the guests were filing round to look at the projection closely, a nitrate print. it was an Edison short, The Land Beyond Sunset from 1912. I had seen this film before, at my first ever visit to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. However, I would have liked to be able to have sat down and watched the whole film: maybe in future such an event could end with a re-screening of the print?

We also had ‘Keepers of the Frame’: Hisashi Okajima from the National Film Center in Japan. He has a long involvement in this key archive. He talked about his experiences and the ravages that have destroyed much of the Japanese film heritage. These included the earthquake in 1923, fire bombing in World War II and then a fire in the archive in 1986.

Alexander Horwath gave ‘The James Card Memorial Lecture’. He is director of the Ősterreichisches Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum]. Quoting from Walter Benjamin he talked about film as a ‘heritage’, emphasising the act of projection and viewing as the focal centre. He also offered two short films on nitrate: ‘Death Mills’ produced in 1945 by the victorious allies for screening to German civilians. This was footage, mainly of the death camps, that presented the Holocaust in direct and bleak images. it seemed to contain some of the footage that was also sued in Resnais. masterly Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard 1956). The second was Rouen, martyre d’une cité (1945). The latter showed the wartime damage to the city. The contrasts between the films was emphatic, though I had reservations about the comments on this contrast. I think there is a discussion to b had about audiences, images and values in these examples.

There was also a documentary on archive work on the Thursday evening: I missed this having an early night. But apparently in the discussion people were using the terms – ‘film’, i.e. nitrate and acetate; and ‘file, i.e. digital. This seems to me a really useful distinction but I doubt the industry could be persuaded to take it on board.

Overall a very worthwhile weekend. Some fine movies, some really fine prints, and an opportunity to see something that is becoming another vanishing species: not because it is ephemeral, having a far longer shelf life than digital, but through lack of attention in the industry. There is debate about the issue of shrinkage. This year’s highest ratio was Night and the City, at 1.5%: this was the outstanding print of the Festival. Shrinkage presumably creates projection difficulties but the prints can still look great. There was a recurring focus problem on one projector, slight but affecting the depth of field.

Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 4th to 6th. This means that once more the opportunity arises of celebrating the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles with a print; I gather the organisers are looking, especially for Orson’s.

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Tempest, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2017

This film was part of the programme dedicated to William Cameron Menzies at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Apart from Menzies the film had a fairly mixed group of filmmakers contributing. James Curtis, in the Festival Catalogue, records this:

When first announced, the John Barrymore vehicle Tempest was an original story by Mme. Fred de Gresac. Directing the script would be Frank Lloyd, late of Paramount. The title stuck, but little else did. Lloyd fell away sometime over the spring of 1927, as did Mme. de Gresac’s material, and Russian émigré Viktor Tourjansky, under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer replaced him. The news story, set in the time of the Russian revolution was supplied by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Tourjansky’s mentor at the Moscow Art Theatre.  … As veteran scenarist C. Gardner Sullivan got down to work on the screenplay, Menzies began the process of illustrating key sequences with Tourjansky.”

Slow production led to Tourjansky being ‘assisted’ by Lewis Milestone. There were changes to the cast and then Sam Taylor was bought in as director.

“”I don’t know anything about Russia,” the former gag man for Harold Lloyd to Considine.”

But producer John W. Considine of Feature Productions. Inc. kept him in charge. Taylor junked nearly all the material already filmed and working closely with Menzies and Sullivan directed the film that we now have. [a 35mm print 9203 feet long, it ran for 102 minutes at 24 fps, [we are entering the sound era].

The film was designed for John Barrymore and he dominates the story and the screen. There is even an exterior scene by a river where he is able to bare his manly chest. The 1920s was Barrymore’s heyday in film. The other casting changed several times but the romantic interest was finally played by Camilla Horn. Horn, a German actress, came to fame in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), which led to a Hollwyood contract. Alongside Barrymore in the film is Louis Wolheim, who worked with the star on both stage and screen. The film’s villain was actually a Russian actor working in Hollywood, Boris de Fast. And there are other familiar faces among the supporting cast including g George Fawcett, a silent regular as authority or patriarchal figure.

The plot is simple and conventional. Sergeant Ivan Markov (Barrymore), is of peasant origin, but excellent at his work. He aims to become an officer, and despite the class hierarchy in the Tsarist army, he succeeds. This is partly due to the General (Fawcett) who has a high opinion of Ivan. Sergeant Bulba (Wolheim) is Ivan’s friend and confidant. However, now promoted Lieutenant, Ivan is treated with disdain by his fellow Officers. More wounding is the disdain shown by the General’s daughter, Princess Tamara (Horn). Falling in love with Tamara, despite her arrogance, Ivan gets drunk and is found ‘in flagrante delicto’. He is court-martialled and sentenced to five years in prison. Whilst incarcerated World War I breaks out and Ivan watches his troops march off through his prison bars.

All this time Ivan has been pursued and cajoled by a peddler, in reality a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Now Ivan is suffering the treatment the Peddler predicted. Moreover, now the prophecy of the ‘Red day dawning’ comes to past. Freed Ivan becomes a leader among the revolutionaries. He now takes revenge on his former arrogant officers, presiding over the court [in black jacket astrakhan hat] where they are sentenced to death as members of the hated aristocracy. But then, first the General and then Tamara are bought for trial. Ivan’s heart overrules his head. He outsmarts the Peddler turned Commissar. Whilst he is too late to save the General, He, Tamara and Bulba flee the new revolutionary state.

Tempest (1928)
Directed by Sam Taylor
Shown from left: Boris de Fast, John Barrymore

Given the presence of at least two ‘white Russian’ émigrés the finale of the film is not surprising. And I do not know whether Nemirovich-Danchenko was asked or paid for his story. Indeed, how faithful the film was to its source. Curtis notes that Taylor

“began anew, working more closely with Menzies’ illustrations than with the script Sullivan had fashioned.”

In fact, it is a very conventional Hollywood narrative, with the new Revolutionary and free Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. An opening title offers,

” a red tempest of terror’.

Ivan is never a card-carrying revolutionary. He is misused and abused by the military hierarchy. When the opportunity arises he takes revenge, but then his love for a ‘good’ [and suitably chastened] woman saves him. Needless to say the likeable General dies but the likable Bulba leaves with the romantic couple.

The style of the film is fairly conventional but it enjoys some excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher: he, among other accolades, was the favourite cameraman of Mary Pickford. There is some excellent use of chiaroscuro, especially in the prison sequences. And there are some very effective use of insert shots for flashbacks experienced by Ivan.

What stands out about the film is the design of Menzies. Curtis notes:

“For Tempest, Menzies rendered a less-stylised version of Russia that he had for The Eagle (1925, set in the time of Catherine the Great], but on more comprehensive. He would later speak of the importance of setting and lighting in securing a desired emotional effect, and how, in many cases., authenticity was sacrificed and architectural principles violated for the sake of the emotional response being sought.”

So the film offered not an authentic Russia, not an accurate history, certainly not a detached view of the revolution. One anomaly is a picture of Joseph Stalin on the wall where Ivan and the Commissar confer: presumably in 1917.  Menzies work was praised by critics, [presumably mainly anti-Bolshevik] and the film apparently did good business in the cinemas.

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Algol, Germany 1920 (USA aka Power)

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2017

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 in the programme ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’. I had seen the film once before, long ago, at the 1994 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then it was shown in a 35mm print from the Münchner Filmmuseum. That was a black and white print of 2050 metre. The screening at Le Giornate was on a DCP transferred at ’18 fps’. The latter print had used several Archive copies in a restoration that provided the original length of 2144 metres with the original tinting. The gap between screenings was too long to make much of a comparison, though the added tinting – notably some scenes in green and red – added to the film’s impact. However, Il Ritrovato screening ran 110 minutes whilst the longer Giornate digital version only ran 99 minutes. So I do wonder if the transfer actually did achieve `18 fps’, though the 35mm projection was probably closer to 16 fps.

Either way both presentations impressed me. Il Ritrovato Catalogue introduced the film thus:

“…Algol is one of the films of which almost every traces were lost in film histories (though not in the film libraries). It was one of the protagonists of the German screen of the early twenties and of the expressionist “season” …” (Leonardo Quaresima in ‘Cinegrafie’ n. 7).

The expressionist sets and style in a number of sequences certainly impressed me then. But I was also fascinated by the larger than life fantasy, which at the same time appeared to address issues of power, technology and the economic and social order of the time. Whilst the film was partly fantasy it also was clearly science fiction, looking forward in a number of ways to the 1926 Metropolis.

Le Giornate Catalogue also presented the film as ‘largely forgotten’. But Stefan Drössler in the Festival Catalogue also wrote about the myth that provided the film’s title:

“The Bright star Algol in the constellation Perseus is actually a three-star system. The mysterious variability of the brightness (due to mutual eclipses) led to its colloquial name, the Demon Star, and gave rise to legends and mystical stories, including the fantasy that informs the film Algol.

This story concerns a magical source of power that leads to the film’s protagonist Robert Herne becoming the most powerful man in the world through the control of energy supplies. Drössler comments on how the storey reflected conditions in Germany in 1920.

“The film was obviously conceived under the shadow of the shortages of energy and resources in World war I, when harsh winters claimed many lives among the civilian population. Further contemporary references abound. The place of the magnate [Herne] is clearly meant to be Sanssouci near Potsdam, residence of the King of Prussia and the German Kaiser until his abdication at the end of the Great war. The crippling tribute payable by the film’s “free state” are reminiscent of the reparations levied on Germany by the Triple Entente after the end of the War. The underground sequences evidently refer to the coalmines of the Ruhr, and the scenes of workers in revolt to the post-war uprising.”

The film opened with an explanation of the myth around ‘Algol’. We then met Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) who worked as a coal miner. The mine has been inherited by young heiress Leonore Nissen (Gertrud Welcker). Robert was visited by the character Algol; a cross between a demon and Mephistopheles. He offered Robert a secret, embodied in a science fiction style contraption, that would capture the rays from the star Algol and transform them into an endless supply of energy. As the story developed Robert built a factory where the rays were harnessed and proceeded to displace all other energy sources. He became the most powerful businessman in the world with governments captive to his monopoly.

In his personal life Robert forsook his existing relationship with Maria (Hanna Ralph) and wedded the heiress Leonore. This desertion was accentuated when Robert’s old friend Peter (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) partnered Maria. These relationships set up a conflict between rural settings – virtuous; and urban industrial settings – exploitative. Their son, also Peter (also von Schlettow), continued the opposition to Robert’s dominance, becoming involved in resistance by ordinary workers to Herne’s monopoly and exploitation.

In Act II there was a 20 year ellipsis. Robert now had a son and daughter. The former, Reginald (Ernst Hofmann) was father’s heir. He went on a world trip and became embroiled with a ‘vamp, Yella Ward. She manipulated Reginald in an attempt to take control of Herne’s empire. Meanwhile Herne’s monopoly caused poverty and destitution among the ex-miners and in rural areas.

In Act III resistance increased. Peter Junior was a leading figure and he also influenced Herne’s daughter Magda (Käte Haack). She pleaded with Herne to

“free your machines.”

Leonore also joined the chorus, However, she was killed in an accident in the factory,

In Act 1V these different strands came to a climax. Herne was now old and sickening. however, his empire was still active, now with a massive drainage project at a river which would disrupt rural life further. Reginald, prompted by Yella, attempted unavailingly to prise away his father’s secret. Angry workers rioted and stormed the offices of the government. At the climax Herne, accompanied now by Maria, went to the factory where sabotage was planned. There was a vast explosion and the factory fell: the empire was ended.

There are clearly aspects of that plot that would seem to comment on the contemporary problems in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ does not to comment on the film at all. This is surprising because the writer does comment on the protagonist of another contemporary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari also 1920).

“he [Caligari] stands for unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy the lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”

This applies equally to Herne in Algol. He does not display the psychotic characteristics seen in Caligari, but once in command of the magical secret he become increasingly obsessed with power and pursues this with a ruthlessness akin to that of the mad Doctor.

Both these characters a paralleled the  Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork.  Fredersen has a son Freder who is led astray by a vamp [though not  a human one]. He is saved by a heroine Maria. And just as Herne has his diabolical aid so Fredersen has his diabolical scientist Rotwang. And both narratives end in apocalyptic disaster as the empires of these tyrants collapse.

Metropolis offers an upbeat ending: perhaps because five years on society and economy looked rosier; certainly the German film industry was in far better shape. But the two films also differ in their treatment of the worlds they portray. Algol seems less strict science fiction than fantasy. In words reminiscent of Tolkien Herne gloats at one point:

‘the last ring in the chain I have forged.’

Metropolis is much more carefully designed in terms of technology and cityscape. And it deals centrally with major themes of the genre – technology, social order, the future.

Most notable is the sense of political economy in the films. Algol treats of economic matters in terms of the issues set out Stefan Drössler; so there is the economic impact on workers and on rural areas; and at one point a Government Cabinet Meeting, despite workers demonstrating outside, believes that

“we have to honour the contracts’.

Metropolis addresses not just the contradictions of the German economy but that of the global capitalist crisis; seen briefly at the end of the war and returning with full force three years later. So the destruction of the ‘heart machine’ mirrors the destruction of capital in a crisis. This setting the stage for the new round of investment signalled by the upbeat ending.

I would comment that Algol does not have the masterful script and stylish techniques of Metropolis; and it is not as expensive a production. I found the film uneven among other weaknesses. But there are frequent and impressive sequences. The cinematography by Axel Graatkjær [with Hermann Kircheldorff ] is well done when the opportunity arises. There are some fine superimpositions paralleling characters and plot events, especially recurring images of the character Algol and much chiaroscuro. And the production design by Walter Reimann is outstanding: he was also responsible for much of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was only credited with set design on this film but as Drössler writes|:

“whose responsibilities extended from “the entire artistic and decorative aspects of the film” through “the supervision and finalising of the décor”, all the way to “the setting up of the studio sets” and “the creation of the titles”.”

There were some heavily expressionist sequences and the large scale buildings, machines, and later destruction, were impressive.

The film is constructed round the character of Robert Herne, played by Emil Jannings. This is a part that plays to Jannings particular skills in characterisation. As the film progresses the display of obsession increases. And the dark side of the protagonist is forcibly dramatised as he manipulates people and then seeks to dominate them thoroughly.

The tinting of the digital version worked well and the definition of the image was good. The film was accompanied by Stephen  Horne at the piano, adding in an accordion at one point: and Frank Bockius added percussion. All in all it was memorable screening.

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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

This film was directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by the short lived R.A.Walsh Company. This was one of the businesses in which Walsh attempted independent productions before returning to Fox in the mid-twenties: he had left in 1920. The film was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 celebrating the Production Design of William Cameron Menzies. Walsh had recruited him from Famous Players. They were to work together again on The Thief of Bagdad (1924) with a far more lavish production budget.

The film was screened from a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum. The print was 7,205 feet; 200 feet shorter than the original release. It was projected at 20 fps.

The scenario was an adaptation of a popular novel by Peter B. Kyne,. Kyne was a successful novelist with a number of film adaptations. The most famous was ‘Three Godfathers’ (1913) of which there to have been ten film adaptations. The famous version is that directed in 1948 by John Ford and starring John Wayne. But the most memorable version is Hells’ Heroes (1930, William Wyler) screened at the 1994 Pordenone. That occasion was memorable for the addition of a [surprise] rendition of ‘Silent Night’ for the final tear jerking moments.

Kindred of the Dust is set on the Pacific Northwest coast in logging terrain. It stars Walsh’s wife Miriam Cooper as Nan [of the Sawdust Pile]. She and Donald Mckaye (Ralph Graves) are childhood friends and remain so as adults. Donald’s father Laird of Tyee (Lionel Belmore) owns the logging company. Thus Nan and Donald’s budding relationship is inhibited by the class divide. The differences are symbolised in the film by the Mckaye mansion and Nan’s family home outside of which sits the metaphoric ‘sawdust pile’.

Donald goes east to college and Nan leaves town and works as a singer. When she returns she has an illegitimate child: sparking off the town gossips. When Donald returns these factors inhibit a new relationship. Donald’s conflict with his father leads to him working at a rival logging company. He suffers an accident and is nursed by Nan. They marry but the Laird continues his opposition: it is only when a second child, a grandchild arrives, that he, Donald and Nan are reconciled and become the ‘kindred of the dust’.

The film is full of stock melodramatic situations and actions. The romance between Nan and Donald suffers one problem after another. One notable scene concerns Donald’s return. He is embroiled in a fight with a rough neighbour of Nan’s, a black man. An unusual situation for this period.

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

Kindred of the Dust was a real old-fashioned melodramatic story, ” wrote Miriam Cooper, “full of tough, straightforward heroines, mean, vicious villains and long-suffering heroines. My costumes in the picture tell the story, all grubby homespun and calico. After reels and reels of hardship and fighting you are convinced that nobody can ever be happy. Then, gee whiz, the heroine – me, of course – has a baby and everything turns out all right.”

It is only towards the end of the film that the narrative make use of timber industry and landscape. After his accident Donald returns as a foreman. There is an engine failure at the log slide. Donald rescues the Laird from the river, including some spectacular underwater shots. And this leads to the final reconciliation .

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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Janko the Musician / Janko Muzykant, Poland 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2017

This was one of the titles in the ‘Polish Silents’ programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This was the first sound film made in Poland but the Vitaphone discs are lost, so only this silent version survives. The sound version  still relied on intertitles for dialogue and the track contained music, songs and some animal noises. The film was presented from a 35mm print 2561 meters in length; the catalogue proposed 18 fps. However the film was timed at 93 minutes and I do not think it overran by much. Moreover 18 fps for a sound/silent film seems rather slow and at that frame rate it would have run over two hours. There were a couple of discrepancies regarding frame rates for the Polish titles: I assume that on closer inspection they settled for 23 or 24 fps. The print was worn but the image quality was pretty good. There seemed to be some unintended ellipsis in the plot so I assume there were missing scenes or sequences.

The film was adapted by Ferdynand Goetel from a novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz [of ‘Quo Vadis’ fame]. In fact the script extended the original story considerably; the second part of the film was a complete addition. The director, Ryszard Ordyński, was a regular in the industry and this was his fifth title.

Janko (Stefan Rogulski) is a young village boy with a passion for music. When we first see him in the film he is making his own homemade violin. He lives with his mother (Tekla Trapszo) and he also has a pet blackbird. However, he is tempted by the sight of a professionally made violin in the mansion of the local landowner. Caught he is sent to a Correctional Institution where the boys are disciplined and made to work at making wicker chairs. This opening section is finely filmed by cinematographer Zbigniew Gniazdowski. The film has a lyrical feel, the landscapes  lovingly photographed and with some very effective pans, tracks and superimpositions. Gniazdowski uses well-placed  dissolves to take the narrative forward. Apparently the original novella was a grimmer and more realist depiction of rural life. We do see an overbearing overseer ordering women workers, including Janko’s mother. And Janko’s treatment by the landowner and magistrate is heavy handed. But we are closer to melodrama than literary realism in this film version. In the novella a whipping leads to Janko’s death, so the rest of the film is the addition.

Whilst Janko is in the Correction Centre his mother leaves the village, releasing Janko’s pet blackbird. A young man now, Janko (Witold Conti) escapes from the Correction Institution but finds his mother gone though his blackbird returns. Janko sets off to the city where the blackbird leads to his striking up a friendship with two ne’er-do well’s (Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz Krukowski). They form a musical trio which prove a success in a local bar-cum-restaurant. Janko’s increasing popularity brings him to the attention of a Professor of music (Wieslaw Gawlikowski) and his pupil, singing star Ewa (Maria Malicka). A rival for her affections, Zaruba (Aleksander Źabczyński), attempts to eliminate Janko by accusing him of the escape from the Correction Centre. Zaruba turns out to be the landowner who was responsible for Janko’s incarceration. But Janko’s friends rally round and he is acquitted, able to end the film in partnership with Ewa.

“The second part of the film introduces the sort of characters beloved by Polish musical comedies of the 1930s: noble rogues, driven by an honourable code despite living on the edge of the law.” (Adam Uryniak in the Festival Catalogue).

He adds that these actors for these characters were part of the popular Warsaw cabaret scene.

Filming ‘Janko’

I found the second part of the film less compelling than the first. The urban setting and the studio interiors lacked the visual charm of the countryside. And whilst the whole film is melodrama, the latter stages seemed to have more stock characters and situations. However the cinematography continued to make effective use of camera movement and dissolves, though there was little superimposition.

The screening was accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius with piano, violin and some percussion. And they included at least one song featured in the sound version of the film.

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Bioscope Westerns

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2017

The Kennington Bioscope is a film club well known to discerning Metropolitan film buffs; one of the programmes to be found at London’s Cinema Museum. And it is an attraction that justified a trip from Yorkshire down to London. March 11th saw a day devoted to the Early Westerns. Programmed by John Oliver, with a substantial input from Kevin Brownlow, this was a real treat. There was a fascinating selection of titles from the early days of the genre: and nearly all the titles were on 16mm or 35mm with live piano accompaniments. There were also detailed programme notes and brief introductions to the separate programmes.

The day started with a Monogram five reel title from 1924, Thundering Hoofs [16 mm]. This featured ‘The World’s Greatest Western Star’ Fred Thomson. In his day he rivalled Tom Mix. A particular aspect of his onscreen persona was his horse Silver King. This equestrian performer could rival human characters with his intelligence and bag of tricks. Dave (Fred Thomson) loves Carmelita (Ann May) but is rivalled by Luke (William Lowey), dastardly, manipulative and a crook to boot. Dave and Silver King win through, though the climax in a bullring was slightly hard viewing for horse lovers. The film was directed by Al Rogell, a long time filmmaker in Hollywood. Of equal interest the film was written by Frances Marion under an alternative name. It also offered an early example of splendid stunt work by Yakima Canutt.

The second programme was four ‘Early Westerns’. These included films shot in or near New York, on the East Coast, and films shot in and around Hollywood, the West Coast. The representation of the Indian/Native American was rather different. East Coast western’s being sympathetic, even empathetic, whilst West Coast/Hollywood was in line with the stereotypes that were to dominate representations in the Studio era.

The first was a 1911 Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith, The Squaw’s Love (The Twilight Song – 35 mm). The film was set entirely in Indian society, in and around their camp.  Gray Fox (Alfred Paget) loves Wild Flower (Mabel Normand), but as she is the daughter of the Chief she is forbidden and he is banished from the tribe. With the help of his friends White Eagle (Dark Cloud) and Silver Fawn (Claire McDowell) he is re-united with his love. The film follows their adventures as they are hunted by tribe members and the heroine shows both courage and imitative.

The India Vestal (1911 – 35 mm) from Selig Polyscope had a more convertional plot. The Vestal (Viola Barry) was a baby taken by the Sioux in an attack on a emigrant wagon train. She was raised in the Sioux tribe but only found romance when she encountered a white trapper. The film was well written and directed by Hobart Bosworth who also played the trapper. Part of the film was shot in the spectacular Yosemite Valley. The towering rock faces, water fall and rapids added immeasurably to the visual appeal.

Custer’s Last Fight (16 mm) was produced by 101-Bison in 1912. 101-Bison combined a film studio with a Western Circus, and the company was able to mount large-scale scenes of characters, props and settings. The director was Francis Ford, who also starred, and the production was under the auspices of Thomas Ince, then introducing a systematic approach to production. So the film’s recreation of the events leading up to Little Big Horn were impressively mounted. The plot appeared to follow the historical events fairly closely. Custer was seen as a flamboyant hero rather than an officer suffering from hubris. Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt) was treated somewhat respectfully, but generally the Indians were the ‘other’ to the US Calvary. Oddly there was hardly any mention of Crazy Horse. The version we saw was a re-issue from 1926 with many of the title cards changed, which seemed to lessen the dynamism of the film.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911 – 35 mm) was one in a popular series of Essanay ‘cowboy’ films. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was the writer, director and star. In this film he was slightly less central, being the enabler for a romance between a young cowboy and his sweetheart. However Broncho Billy did get to display his prowess with six-guns, ‘writing’ with bullet holes in a fence.

Programme 3 was titled ‘A Copyboy’s Best Friend’: his horse, of course.

We first enjoyed a one reel from 1911 and Selig Polyscope, Saved by the Pony Express (35 mm). This credited Tom Mix as writer, director and star, the Pony Express Rider. Mix, like Broncho, was the saviour rather than the centre of the plot. There were romantic rivalries over Belle (Edna Fisher). When one of the lovelorn cowhands was found dead his rival Jim (Fred Church) was the suspect. Mix had to ride  with the evidence that would save him from the judge and a hanging. The film allowed Mix to show off his riding skills and those of his faithful companion Old Blue. Old Blue became a star in his own right: one of the first equestrian celebrities. He appeared in 87 films alongside Tom Mix. Years later he was laid to rest at the Mixville ranch, where most of the films were shot.

The accompanying film was a four reel from the Hal Roach Studio, The Devil Horse (1926 – 35 mm). This starred Rex the Wonder Horse – King of Horses and Yakima Canutt. Watching the film was slightly problematic after hearing of some of the ‘training’ methods that Canutt used on the horse. Apparently Rex was a fairly forceful character. A parallel problem was that in the film ‘the Devil Horse’ ‘hated’  Indians who captured him after na attack on the a wagon train. At that point Rex was  colt and David (Canutt) a young boy. They were reunited later in the film when we saw Rex taking out his ire on Indians. And there were also some problematic lines of dialogue.

Programme 4 gave us ‘Women out West’. The opening title was an extract, The Sawdust Trail (1924, Universal Pictures] with Josie Sedgwick as calamity Jane: one of her many roles in early westerns.

This was followed by a 1911 Vitagraph, A Girl of the West (35 mm). In this Lillian Christy played Polly Dixon, younger sister of Dolly (E. Helen Case), on whom John Winthrop (Tom Fortune) was sweet. He sold his horse for the princely sum of $500. However, Scarfaced Bill (Ralph Thornby), planned to abduct the horse and pocket the money. He was assisted by Dance Hall Nell (Helen Galvin). Polly was an excellent horsewoman. And she needed her skills to ride and warn the buyer of the plot. She also had to outmanoeuvre the Dance Hall Nell. Apart from the great character names and some excellent horse riding the film moved along at a great pace.

The Substitute (1911 – 35 mm) from the Lubin Manufacturing Company had familiar plot tropes. The un-credited cast included Jennie Rock, a telegraph operator. Her brother was an engine driver, but also an alcoholic. So Jennie had to masquerade as him and to drive the express. Worse or better followed: the train was held up and robbed. Jennie was able to signal a warning about this with a present from her Calvary amour, also a telegraph operator.

Two Little Rangers came from Solax in 1912 (35 mm). This was the company with the key pioneer Alice Guy Baché, who both wrote and directed the film. The key player and the older of the ‘rangers’ was Vinnie Burns, a protégé of Alice Guy and a stunt woman as well as an actor. The ‘two little rangers’ were the daughters of the village postmaster. When he was robbed they ride for help and then save an innocent man by exposing the real villain.

South of Santa Fe Frohman Amusement Corp. was a two reel film from 1919 (35 mm). The film starred Texas Guinan, who had a long career in films and ran her own production company for a time. Her tough persona was offered

‘ as a rowdy cowgirl who tames men as easily as horses’.

In this film she was hired as a foreman to control a group of rowdy cowhands who had defeated her male predecessors. They soon found that she was as handy with a fist as with a gun.

The Narrow Trail (35 mm)was a William S Hart production filmed at the Biograph Studio in 1917 with producer Thomas Ince. Hart was the most famous and popular of the screen cowboys of his era. Almost equally popular was his regular horse Fritz, a distinctive pinto horse. Hart regularly played ‘road agents’ or outlaws: in this film Ice Harding. His earliest films portrayed the partnership of man and horse. As his career developed the presence and influence of a ‘good woman’ took increasingly centre screen. In this film she was Betty (Sylvia Bremmer] and she shared a less than reputable past with Ice. The film included a visit by Ice to the great metropolis of San Francisco. But the bulk of the film found us in familiar western landscapes. As nearly always the couple resolved their difficulties and Ice evaded the law and ‘goes straight’.

The final film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), directed by Henry King for Samuel Goldwyn with a screenplay by Frances Marion. Unfortunately this was the only film on digital. The screening did rather lack good definition and the digital format did not cope well with the film’s tinting. I had seen the film in a 16 mm at the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is a fine production. The film dramatises the reclamation of an area of California with a vast irrigation project [the Salton Sink in 1905]. There were some fine large screen sequences and the dramatic climax when the Colorado river bursts through the barrier and flooded the sink was extremely well done. Ronald Colman was fine as the engineer Willard Holmes. Gary Cooper as his rival Abe Lee seemed rather underused. And Velma Banky was a stand out as the titular object of their wooing. A good end to a full and really enjoyable day.

 

So a worthwhile trip. A fine selection of early westerns well presented. And a word of praise to the musicians who provided accompaniments at the piano: Lillian Henley, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Neil Brand and Cyrus Gabrysch.

Credits, quotation and stills courtesy of the Kennington Bioscope.

Posted in Archival compilations, Early cinemas, Hollywood, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, US pioneers, Westerns | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

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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