Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

The Kennington Bioscope: 4th Silent Film Weekend.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2018

This short festival was held at the Cinema Museum in London on September 8th and 9th. The volunteers at the Bioscope, working with Kevin Brownlow who unfortunately could not come along, had a programme of interesting [and in some cases rare] early films. Most of the screenings were on 35mm or 16mm: the projectionist reckoned he had worked through 31 reels over the two days and he did this very well.

Saturday:

Where the North Begins (1923) was a Rin-Tin-Tin drama from 1923. This was an early film in the career of this famous canine star. The production actually worked up several sets of filming into a complete 55 minutes narrative. The film made good use of a lot of location shooting in Canada. Rin-Tin-Tin appears as a young puppy lost in the wastes and bought up as part of a wolf pack. Then he meets Gabriel (Walter McGrail) a trapper wounded when his furs are stolen. The Dog is at first aggressive but his ‘heritage’ overcomes this as he recognises

‘His master and friend’.

The film then unravels the plot by Shad Galloway (Pat Hartigan) and his henchman ‘The Fox’ (Charles Stevens) to pin the theft of the furs on Gabriel and to steal his sweetheart Felice (Claire Adams). The human plotting is fairly conventional. But The Dog [or wolf-dog] has some exciting and impressive sequences. He races over snowy landscapes, fights off superior numbers of wolves, wrestles down the villains and in one especially impressive stunt leaps up and through a first floor window. Great out door adventure and canine dramatics. There is a slightly risqué sub-plot, Shad has a ‘housekeeper’, Marie (Myrtle Owen). The film was screened from a 16mm tinted print and looked good.

A German double bill opened with the one-reeler As We Forgive / Wie auch wir Vergeban ((1911). This offered an early role for later ‘diva’ Henny Porten. Her officer husband whilst in Japan has a ‘Madame Butterfly’ affair. This leads to tragic death of their child and a reconciliation at the child’s tomb.

When the Dead are Living Again ./ Die Geliebte Tote (1919) is a German or Austrian film adapted from ‘Bruges-la-Morte’ (‘The Dead [City of] Bruges)’, a short French novel by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, first published in 1892. The original novel recounts the obsession of a widower with his dead wife. |He sees a dancer who resembles the wife and becomes obsessed with her: this leads to her death. The film was described as an ‘early Weimar Gothic’. What makes it intriguing is that the same novel was adapted by Yevgeni Bauer in 1915 as Daydreams. This German version seems to have followed the complete novel commencing with the meeting and marriage of the protagonist, a sculptor, and an ending after a period in an asylum. The Bauer version concentrates on the death of the wife and the obsessive relationship with the dancer. Moreover Bauer has the protagonist as a photographer which allows some interesting cinematic touches. What stands out dramatically in both versions is the death of the dancer, strangled with the tresses of the dead wife. However Daydreams is much more effective. In one sequence in When the Dead are Living Again we see the protagonists at a café and it is clear that the dance floor beyond them is a rear projection whereas in Bauer a similar scene uses deep staging and deep focus as well as [for the period] a notable tracking shot.

In the afternoon we had a British picture The Garden of Resurrection (1919) written by and starring Guy Newall. He was a popular leading actor in the period regularly starring with Ivy Duke. Newall was partnered in a production company with George Clark and their films were distributed by the Stoll Company. Here Newall adapted a 1911 novel by E. Temple Thurston. Thurston was a writer of novels, plays and film scripts. He was partly bought up in Eire and he would seem to be part of the dominant Anglo-Irish class. ‘The Garden of Resurrection’ is partially set in Eire. Written in 1911 it shows no awareness of the important political strife of the period. Likewise the film in 1919 has no awareness of the War of Independence then raging.

The two central themes in the film are male self-consciousness and [dimly] racism. A. H. Bellairs (Newall) considers himself the ugliest man in England: hence he has no romance, only his faithful terrier Dandy (played by Newall’s own dog Betsy). However, the romantic interest Clarissa is apparently a half-caste from Dominica in the Caribbean. She is the object of a fraudulent relationship by one Fennell (Lawford Davidson). He has hidden her away [because ‘she is black’] with maiden aunts in Ireland. He plans to suborn her fortune through a fake marriage. Overhearing his plan Newall determines to save Clarissa and journeys to Ballysheen on the southern coasts. The plot stretches coincidence to extreme lengths. So in the course of the narrative we also have Newall encountering a jealous husband; a con artist and blackmailer; an unwanted pregnancy; but finally a satisfactory ending.

The issue of ‘blackness’ in the film is problematic. Given its black and white cinematography Clarrissa’s colour is only apparent through the dialogue. Intriguingly the sign of her ‘blackness’ is a flowered dress which Fennell’s aunts insist she does not wear. At another point in the narrative she wears a veil to hide her visage. The implication of the film, [which may have not been consciously intended] is that a black woman can only hope to catch an ugly white man. The film may have thought that even this was liberal in the post-World War I culture.

The film’s use of Dandy is redeeming for dog lovers. He is an amiable and active canine protagonist. We even get title cards indicating his thoughts: thoughts which his master appears to understand from his posture and expression.

The rest of the afternoon included a presentation on the films of Pearl White, [The Perils of Pauline, 1914 and The Exploits of Elaine, 1915 – 1916). Unfortunately very little of White’s films survive. There followed a romantic comedy from 1924 with Constance Talmadge, Her Night of Romance. Unfortunately this was only available from a DVD.

However, we were back to ‘reel’ film in the evening. This featured one of the outstanding personalities of Silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford. First up was A Beast at Bay, a Biograph one-reeler from 1912 and directed by D. W. Griffith. The 16mm print was a re-issue from the 1920s with new title cards: presumably to cash in on Pickford’s immense popularity. This was classic Griffith territory with Mary menaced by an escaped convict and then saved in heroic fashion by her boyfriend, redeeming an earlier lack of bravado.

The main feature was the 1926 Sparrows, from the Mary Pickford Corporation. This film rather departed from the typical Pickford persona. It was set on a ‘children’s farm’, an scandal issue in the 1920s. Molly (Pickford) has to marshal and protect eight younger children from the miserly and exploitative Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who is aided and abetted by his slatternly wife (Charlotte Mineau) and son (Spec O’Donnell). The son, given to petty persecutions, is well played as are all the children. The climax of the film involves the children in fleeing across a alligator-invested swamp.

“The similarities to Sunrise are particularly identifiable in the set, a swamp in the Deep South constructed on four acres of studio grounds by Art Director Henry Oliver, utilising 600 real trees, moss, pits filled with burnt cork, sawdust and muddy water, plus a miniature lake.” (Bioscope Notes).

The cinematography by Pickford’s favourite Charles Rosher with Hal Mohr and newly arrived Karl Struss, makes great use of this. And the cast, led by Pickford, though slightly too adult for her part, are excellent. This is exciting stuff. It is also part of Southern Gothic and there are instances where the film looks forward to the later Night of the Hunter (1955).

………………….

Sunday:

The day started with Miss Lulu Betts, a Famous Players-Lasky film from 1921 and directed by William C. de Mille. Little of this film-maker’s work survives, which, on the showing of this title, is a real shame. The film is from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Zona Gale. Lulu (Lois Wilson) is the put-upon sister in a middle-class household. Despite their church-going and moral attitudes Lulu is a skivvy for the family: only the elder daughter Diana (Helen Ferguson), herself a little rebel, shows any awareness of this. Circumstances conspire to effect a change in Lulu’s situation. Like Clarissa on Saturday she goes through a false marriage but survives this to find a level of independence and a serious and moral romance.

The film was described as naturalist’ drama’ and it represented the small town life and household with a palpable sense of realism. The plot does tend to melodrama but Lulu’s situation and the settings are fully convincing.

The Silent Enemy (1930)was a paramount production,

“A late Silent film telling the story of Red Indians – ‘Native-Americans’ in today’s parlance – before the arrival of European settlers, acted by a a native cast.

An epic reconstruction of life among the Ojibway tribe, shot on location in the Great Barren lands of Canada.” [Bioscope Notes).

So this was a liberal attempt to present an indigenous point-of-view, though it still reflects the dominant representation of the time. It is also clearly influenced by the trail-breaking documentaries of the 1920s, in particular Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). However, in keeping with the tropes of Hollywood, the battle for survival, seeking food and journeying to the great Caribou migration, is dramatised in a conflict between two individual Indians and their opposing strategies. The tribe’s rituals and activities are very well done. And the location work brings a real sense of time and place to the film. The finale offers the mammoth caribou herds and the successful survival of the tribe.

After lunch we enjoyed another Paramount film with another put-upon wife and mother. Dancing Mothers (1926) was directed by Herbert Brenon, an adaptation of play by Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding, soon to be a writer and director in Hollywood. The wife and mother of the film is Ethel Westcourt (Alice Joyce). This lead actor was reckoned to be outshone by the actor playing her daughter ‘Kittens’, Clara Bow. It is true that Bow immediately established her star quality in the film but the character is essentially lightweight. I found Joyce’s performance as the wife/mother who transforms her life and escapes from an oppressive situation impressive. The point at which she emerged in the film was excellent both in acting and appearance.

‘Kittens’ is like her father High Westcourt (Norman Trevor), affluent, self-absorbed and indifferent to the emotional situation of the mother. Westcourt was one of a number of male characters over the weekend who are criticised for selfish and exploitative behaviour. So this well-executed film demonstrates a ‘feminist’ strand in 1920s Hollywood.

Mid-afternoon we had a selection of BFI prints and files of ‘Messing About on the River’. Unfortunately a number have only survived in poor quality prints. The title that stood out was Up the River with Molly (1921) from the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. Molly was another terrier on a boat following the major river. A charming addition to a strong roster of canine stars over the weekend.

The feature film was on 35mm in a good print. It was one of the films by Artistic Pictures acquired by the BFI early this century. The film was adapted from a short story by W. W. Jacobs. Sam’s Boy (1922) is set in the Thames estuary and along the Kentish coast, using actual locations though with fictionalised names. Like other titles from Jacob this is a slightly comic realist story of ordinary people and events. Here an orphaned scamp tries manipulating adults in order to secure a home. Sam Brown (Tom Coventry) of the title is the most religious member of a small sailing ship. Having annoyed his crew fellows with his religiosity and music they play along with the scamp when he targets Sam. The characters are delightfully realised and the location work is a real pleasure. There are only four reels but the hour-long viewing offers low-key drama, irony and a authentic sense of the 1920s.

Turksib is a five reel Soviet documentary from 1929 that survives in several versions. The screening offered a 35mm print of the version prepared by John Grierson including English language title cards. The film’s director Victor Turin was in London and had some involvement in the editing. The film was produced by Vostok-kino which made films for the Eastern Soviet Republics. The subject matter was the construction of the Turkestan – Siberia railroad, covering over 1400 kilometres pass great lakes, over deserts and over mountains. Turin had studied in the USA at MIT and had some sort of work at the Vitagraph film studio. He had made three film since returning to the USSR, two fictional and one documentary.

This project was part of the Soviet first Five Year Plan. Several years discussion and preparation went into the plan at Party and Soviet Congresses, in the Central Committee and in the Soviets of the Union Republics. Two state Departments, Vesenkha and Gosplan, oversaw this major industrialisation project which bought planning into an economy still operating under the market.

The film uses familiar tropes from soviet film; montage, metaphoric images, graphics and associational links. The cinematography uses the striking assemblage of shots, angles, positioning and superimpositions. The overall structure of the film is closer to documentary in the western capitalist industries. Turin considered that the film should have a thematic structure, akin to the narrative structure in fictional film. So the overall presentation is somewhat different from the work of the Factory of Facts or a documentary of the same period directed by Mikhail Kalatazov, Salt for Svanetia (1930). The film was influential amongst British documentary film-makers such as Basil Wright. One can see the cross-overs. The opening reels offer landscapes with people and the more dynamic montage occurs during the vast construction. There are sequences that represent both the indigenous mainly nomadic peoples as well as the army of labour involved in the construction. And there are some slyly comic shots offering a sense of their every-day lives and work. However, the main thrust of the film is this eruption into the sparsely populated and wild landscapes and the conflicts are frequently about man and nature rather than the social relations that dominate in Dziga Vertov’s films. The title was a popular success both in the USSR and abroad. It offers a dynamic portrait of the modernising of these regions still mired in traditional ways of life.

The final film of the weekend was The Golden Butterfly / Der Holdene Schmetterling. A European co-production directed Michael Curtiz (then Michael Kertesz) and starring Lili Damita and Nils Asther. Among the supporting actors was Curt Bois {as a dance master and director). Bois has the distinction of the longest career as a film actor [1907 to 1987) and we had, in addition, a short film in which he featured from 1909. This was German title Patent Glue / Klebalin klebt alles in which two boys play a series of tricks with a powerful glue.

The main feature was nicely done but lack dramatic development. Lillian (Damita) and Andy (Asther) are a potential couple but her ambitions for a stage career come between them. The major problem was not the conventional obstacles [parents, the law, rivals etc.] but the priggish attitude of Andy to Lillian’s ambitions. The finale, where his intransigent attitudes are finally broken down, seemed over-extended.

The film was projected at 18fps but this seemed a slow frame rate and produced a longer running time which probably exacerbated the slow tempo. The print had a some missing elements and late in the narrative we found ourselves with the major production number of the film, involving Lillian’s stage act as the ‘butterfly’. Otherwise the print was in good condition and looed fine.

Overall this was a rewarding weekend and the organisers and the Museum are to be congratulated on the full programme. Kevin Brownlow also deserves a substantial thank you for the provision of prints. When it is becoming increasingly difficult to see early film in original prints this was welcome.

The screenings were enhanced by live music. The Bioscope has an impressive roster of musicians providing accompaniments and they are skilled at supporting rather than overpowering the films. The talented performances at the piano were supplied by Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulis, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Meg Moorland and John Sweeney. There were also extensive printed film notes and introductions to all the screenings. A great way to spend a weekend.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

 
%d bloggers like this: