Early & Silent Film

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The Rat

Posted by keith1942 on March 21, 2012

Novello as Pierre

Gainsborough 1925, black and white, with Intertitles.

Producer: Michael Balcon. Director: Graham Cutts. Written by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier, adapted from their own play. Cinematography: Hal Young. Art Direction: C. W. Arnold.

Cast: Ivor Novello – Pierre Boucheron/The Rat. Mae Marsh – Odille. Isabel Jeans – Zélie de Chaumet. Robert Scholtz as Herman Stetz.  James Lindsay as Detective Caillard. 

Marie Ault as Mère Colline. Julie Suedo as Mou Mou. Hugh Brook as Paul. Esme Fitzgibbons as Madeleine Sornay. Iris Grey as Rose  

The film is adapted from a successful play written by Novello and Collier. The original idea was Novello’s, who had thought of it in terms of a film. By the early 1920s Novello was a successful composer, film and stage actor and well on the way to becoming a ‘matinee idol’. The play and the film are both clearly written around Novello’s persona.

The drama is set in the Parisian underworld. Pierre is a thief, referred to as an ‘Apache’, a slang term of the period. It derived from a Parisian street gang noted for their violence and savagery, comparing them to the stereotypical image of the North American Indian tribe. Odille is his casual girlfriend and they live in the squalid and somewhat anarchic city quarter.

 Zélie de Chaumet is from the opposite end of the class divide. She goes ‘slumming’ in the quarters of the proletariat and lumpen-proletariat, a common activity among the bourgeoisie and one seen in both European and Hollywood films of the time. She visits the White Coffin Club, where we see the notorious Apache dance. This was another famed representation in which a man and woman, [often a pimp and a prostitute] have a flamboyant and violent dance. The dance turned up frequently in the Teens and 1920s films, including in the famed French series Les Vampires (1915). The meeting at the club set off a chain of events, involving passion, violence and the heavy hand of the law.

As with the play, the film was a popular success. There was quick sequel, also involving Novello and Jeans, The Triumph of the Rat (1926). And a third film followed in 1929, The Return of the Rat, released in both silent and sound versions in 1929. Ivor Novello is the star and prime focus of the film and seems to have been the major popular interest for audiences. This repeated the success of the stage version, both in the West End and in the provinces. One biographer recalls that: “At Leeds a fervent admirer got hold of his hair and pulled out quite a large lump, and with the very best of heart and affectionate feelings…’ (W. McQueen Pope, Ivor 1951).

Mae Marsh had starred with Novello in an earlier drama directed by the prestigious D. W. Griffith, The White Rose (1923). Marsh made several films in the UK, being an early member of the long line of Hollywood stars imported to improve British film’s box office. Marsh was an actress whose style was in the traditional melodramatic associated with early silent film. Isabel Jeans provided a clear contrast, nearly always playing upper class and sophisticated women. She was repeating the role that she had played in the successful West End production.

The two women, both enamoured with the Novello character, offer opposing stereotypes. Marsh as Odille, the innocent and simple slum child following Pierre almost like a lap dog: March as Zélie, is the sophisticated but kept woman of a bourgeois, her relative independence restrained by economic dependence.

The film was shot at the Islington Studio. Michael Balcon and Gainsborough had taken this over from the US Company Famous-Players Lasky. Balcon was possibly the most talented and successful producer in the history of the British Industry. He generally produced quality films with above average production values for British films: the scripts were usually economical with popular subjects: and he had a fine eye for talent. Among his alumni were Alfred Hitchcock, Alexander Mackendrick and Robert Hamer. However, the previous film directed by Cutts, Woman to Woman (1924, now lost) with another US star Betty Compson, had been a rushed production and failed at the box-office. So the fledgling company needed a success.

In the case of The Rat the director Graham Cutts was one of the most successful directors in the industry of the 1920s. Like other British filmmakers Cutts had experience of the technically advanced German film industry, and he was one of the first home filmmakers to introduce noticeable angles and tracking shots with the camera. He was ably assisted by the cameraman Hal Young, [who also filmed the fine rural drama Fox Farm, (1922)] and the art designer C. Wilfred Arnold (responsible for the design on The Lodger (1926). Cutts has since been overshadowed by the dominance of Alfred Hitchcock in Film Studies, but he and the larger British film scene offered frequent and higher quality than is often recognised.

Newspaper cartoon of Cutts

At recent screenings the general comment has been to place the second film in the series, The Triumph of the Rat, as superior to the first in the cycle. However, the surviving prints [certainly at the bfi] are about a 1,503 foot shorter than the original release [as listed by Rachel Low]. That is about 18 minutes of running time at the likely speed of 22 frames per second. A number of scenes appear to be truncated, notably the Apache dance that takes place at the The White Coffin Club: a sequence that would have been central in both the play and film versions. There are possibly one or more missing scenes: including one late in the film between Pierre and Zélie. The surviving prints are clearly compilations; the quality of the image varies, the best being the tinted exteriors. A couple of scenes appear to have the framing cropped: and one scene with Odille seems to have the same shot repeated twice.

Lacking a full-length print it is difficult to provide a fair comparisons between The Rat and his subsequent Triumph. What strikes one about the original is the inventiveness of the techniques on display: the economical development of the plot: and the strong visual quality of many scenes, especially in the mise en scène for the White Coffin Club. Rachel Low in her seminal The History of British Film 1918 – 1929 (1971) commented on The Triumph that it was ‘lacking the talent to create a credible situation for it, they [the scriptwriters] piled absurdity on absurdity, replacing plausibility with exaggeration.’ In the case of The Rat, the plot is not really realistic, but the melodrama is presented with great plausibility.

The surviving version of the film opens by introducing us to Zélie and her ‘patron’ Herman Stetz [Robert Scholtz]. Next we see the Rat, on the run from the police. The latter is a nicely inventive sequence, finely photographed and it quickly establishes the insouciant charm of Pierre. Returning to his flat we meet Odille, the virginal innocent. She is in many ways similar to the virginal heroines of D. W. Griffith melodramas: Novello may well have picked up on these stereotypes from his work with that director. Then we move to The White Coffin Club. This is both the dramatic and visual centre of the film. The bar and dance floor is surrounded by coffin-shaped alcoves, an impressive design feature. The scene also establishes the low-life quality, which is typical of these types of stories. The Rat is clearly a dominant and feared protagonist in this world. He is also the object of female desire on the part of a several women, liberated and aggressive in terms of the representations of the times.

Ivor Novello’s persona in silent film was intriguing. He is handsome, possesses some charisma, but is also often a passive object rather than an active male protagonist. This is certainly a sense of his character in Downhill (1927), and even more noticeably in an earlier film of the period appropriately titled The Man Without Desire (1923). As Pierre Novello is the object of a metaphorical struggle between Odille and Zélie.  The latter is clearly more sensual and sexual than Odille, and is somewhat typical of Novello that in the end he chooses the virginal and domesticated Odille.

This also provides a ‘moral’ ending to the tale. In fact, in the sequel of The Triumph Pierre is seen to leave the criminal underworld in an attempt to move up the social ladder.

Contemporary reviews commented favourably on Cutts’ inventive us of techniques. Apart from the compelling mise en scène of The White Coffin Club there are frequent and well executed tracks and dollies of the camera. The most notable are in The White Coffin Club: there are  several fine tracks including a dramatic forward movement through one of the coffin shaped embrasures. The cinematographer, Hal Young, had moved to the UK from the USA in the days when Famous-Players Lasky ran the studio. The camerawork is not just inventive but contributes to the depth of character and story. In one sequence the returning Pierre first sees Odille as a reflection and the camera tracks in on this image before cutting to the actual couple. And there is a sense that parts of the narrative play out the repressed dreams of the characters. In another sequence Odille is menaced by Herman, preparing to embrace a new conquest. At the end of this sequence there is another reflection shot, and the character and his posture take on the look of an expressionist vampire as in Nosferatu (1921). Cutts had worked in the German film studios, and presumably he learnt the craft of chiaroscuro lighting and camera movements there.

The film also makes good use of décor and props. One recurring feature in framing of Pierre and Odille’s flat is a picture of the Virgin Mary and Child, with a prie-dieu bearing flowers placed beneath it. This is another touch reminiscent of D. W. Griffith, and Odille’s frequent prayers to the Virgin speak strongly of her innocence and naiveté. Crucially at a climatic point in the film Pierre himself collapses onto the prie-dieu as he forsakes his usual criminal responses for the religious acts associated with Odille.

Adapted from the notes to accompany a 35-mm screening of the film at the National Media Museum. Darius Battiwalla provided the accompaniment for the film at the piano, and emphasised not only the melodrama of the tale but the sleaziness associated with its underworld.


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