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Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana

 

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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 »

William Shakespeare by Film d’Arte Italiana

Posted by keith1942 on December 1, 2016

Lear and his fool.

Lear and his fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shylock

Shylock

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

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

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

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

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

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

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35

Posted by keith1942 on October 17, 2016

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This Festival of silent film took place this year from October 1st to October 8th in the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular title, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. I intend to write in detail about the most interesting screenings but this is a general overview of the week. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.

The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints accompanied with music by their long-time collaborator Carl Davis. The film was the first feature of Garbo filmed with panchromatic film stock. This stock had a more varied colour palette than the standard of that time, orthochromatic, which had been cheaper before this. This was especially responsive to facial features and Garbo’s use of lips and eyes. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s  expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.

Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris, missing the opportunities opened up by the great Bolshevik-led Revolution. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of  a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor Edmund Kean. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film was long and clearly constructed around the star who also contributed to the screenplay. Likely he was responsible for the long death scene, a tour de force in acting and filming. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.

One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The leading Bolshevik agitator (Boris de Fast) was suitably wild-eyed and malevolent. However the film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).

One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John  Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. Collins died during the world-wide  influenza pandemic, aged only 29. His surviving films show a real cinematic talent. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine drams set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.

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We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The films opened with a shot of a lake and a title,

“Throw a stone ….”

In every film this metaphor of spreading ripples explored responsibility. The cast consisted of the same regulars, with Tom Moore and Anna Q. Nillson in the main parts. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. These were convincing and violent fights, and in fact, such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.

The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. If the fight offered fairly brutal fisticuffs the latter parts of the film were even more brutal: and Krug’s taxidermy skills were put to unusual use. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander. The film retains a degree of shock 97 years on.

Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. There was a partly sympathetic contrast between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the English mansion and in the British trenches. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork. It was less sure when dealing with the politics of wartime Britain.

After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. Part 2 of this 218 minute epic also had a splendid and dramatic court room sequence. The film tried to soften the character of the Count/Dantès at the film’s end. It also suffered from what Edward Said defined as orientalism in the eastern sequences. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.

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The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). This early romantic comedy was beautifully filmed and had a really engaging performance by Tora Teje as Irene, married to Professor Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) and ably supported by Lars Hansen as Preben Wells and Karin Molander  as Marthe. The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).

‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination  of drama, science fiction and fantasy. Emil Jannings played Robert Heron, who thanks to a mysterious visitor acquired control of an endless power supply and went on to dominate the industrial world. The plot appeared to reflect contemporary concerns about energy and power politics: it actually seemed fairly appropriate to the present. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.

A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. Poland became an independent state after the Versailles Conference in 1919. The programme was mainly of films produced in the newly developing industry in the 1920s. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. But one sensed the cultural factors that made it a national epic. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel. We studied the film closely as, because the film cans were mislabelled, we saw the fourth reel twice. But the film stood up to this mishap.

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third  film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912). In a separate programme we had very early films shot in Venice by a Lumière cameraman.

There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. Some of these. like The Cheese Mites; or, Lilliputians in a London restaurant (190211) are well known. But there were also some new discoveries. The Fatal Hand (1907) was an early serial killer drama. And A Collier’s Life (1904) was an example of what became in the 1920s known as ‘documentary’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt [several times], an unsuccessful Democrat Alton B. Parker, Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge plus film of a Democratic Party Convention and The Old Way and the New (Film Classic Exchange 1912) a ‘paid-for’ film on behalf of Woodrow Wilson.

There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, including a really oddball two-reeler, The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species (Lubin Film Co, 1913) with a bizarre human/animal relationship. The second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ was from the same years and included the one-reel Sallie’s Sure Shot (Selig 1913) where the climatic shot produced audience applause. The third programme was ‘Indian Pictures’. I felt that Native-Americans were not so well served in this selection. Two films had ‘self-sacrificing Indians’. Is there a word of Native-Americans equivalent to ‘Uncle Tom’  for Afro-Caribbean? But The Flaming Arrow (Bison Films 1913) had the protagonist White Eagle apparently winning the Colonel’s daughter: and there was a the one-reel The Arrow of Defiance (Pathé 1912), directed by James Young Deerlove, whose work I admire.

Sallie of the 'sure shot'.

Sallie of the ‘sure shot’.

We also had some animation. There was Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with only animals, so minus any out-of-date stereotypes. There were several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant. I should note here that it was a not a great week for canine characters. We had a fluffy one perched on a piano singing: a benighted German Shepherd forced to climb  ladder on a high construction site: a Springer killed by some sort of Staffs: and a poor mutt blackened by its over eager owner.

As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. These mainly added to the pleasure and to what the film suggested regarding character and narrative. But Pordenone is not immune to the recent over-emphasis on musical accompaniments: there were a couple of titles where I thought the music tended to over-power rather than support the film.

We had a high number of films on 35mm, and the print quality was generally good. The DCPs were somewhat variable. Not all the archives have the resources to transfer film to digital at the highest quality. I hope that film will continue to provide the main source for screenings at the Festivals.

The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. The programming was good and there only a few hiccups. He did, though, have to apologise for the brevity of some of the meal breaks. Another good year and a special pleasure as it becomes more difficult to see early film on film.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

A House Divided USA 1931

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2016

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This was an early sound film from Universal Pictures. The original story was penned by Olive Edens and then scripted by John B. Clymer and Dale Van Every. The film was directed by William Wyler, working on only his second sound film. The finished film is dominated by Walter Huston as Seth Law. Seth is a boat owner in a small seaside village on the Pacific coast where they fish for salmon. Seth is a larger and life character who dominates the village. In an early bar scene we see Seth easily polish off  liquor, pick up the leading bar-room gal and then beat a rival in a brutal fist fight. Seth is a widower with a son Matt [Kent Douglass, later to become Douglass  Montgomery]. Matt is a far more sensitive character than his father, who despises him. The bar-room scene opens with Seth trying to teach his son to drink and pick up women. Matt resents his father, partly because of Seth’s treatment of his dead wife and mother.

The film opens with the funeral of the dead wife and mother. Boats land on a beach and then the funeral group, with the coffin, climb a steep path to a cliff-top cemetery. Following the funeral Matt wishes to leave to become a farmer but his father insists on him staying. Then Seth gets a response from a ‘ mail-order bride’ and promises to let Matt leave when he is married.

When the potential bride arrives it turns out to be a friend of the respondent, Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler). She is much younger than Seth and he offers to pay her return fare. She, coming from poor farming stock, opts to stay. Thus Seth marries her. On his wedding night the village celebration takes place alongside the docks, with a great bonfire and fireworks. Seth performs for the village with an energetic and bravura dance round the fire.

Whilst the marriage starts out as an necessary formality for conventions sake, Ruth gradually awakens desires long dormant in Seth. Meanwhile, Matt who has not left, has struck up a close friendship with Ruth. One night when Seth attempts to assert his conjugal rights Matt fights with him outside Ruth’s room. Seth is toppled down the stairs, injures his spine and becomes  a paraplegic. From then on Seth, an active and vigorous man, is struck down, having to drag himself round house and environs. These sequences are reminiscent of some of the films that featured Lon Chaney.

The relationship between Ruth and Matt develops but remains chaste. The pressures of her situation finally compel Ruth to attempt to leave in the Law boat. Caught in a storm, her boat is wrecked on rocks near the harbour. Seth, tied to a long rope, goes to her rescue. He perishes but Ruth survives and is rescued by Matt. The final shot shows them together at the regular trysting spot, a promontory below the Law house.

It is Huston’s performances that impresses in the film, both as the active but oppressive father: then as the frustrated invalid. But the supporting cast are also very good. And the melodramatic tale carries great conviction. The direction and production match this. Wyler exercises great control and the presentation is dynamic and condenses the story, only 70 minutes in running time. The cinematography is by Charles Stumar and makes fine use of chiaroscuro with some impressive night-time sequences. The father and son fight sequence, and the subsequent scenes with a cripple protagonist make good use of high and low camera angles. At times we are down on the floor with Huston. There are a number of special effects by that regular with the studios John C. Fulton. And the still early and rather primitive Western Electric sound systems is well judged in the hands of C. Roy Hunter.

One of the writing credits, for dialogue, goes to the young John Huston, son of Walter. He had already provided dialogue for the preceding Wyler film The Storm, (1930). His role in the film is intriguing. There are a number of sequences of conflict between the father Seth and the son Matt. How much did actual life feed into these? The basic plot is a familiar one and there is a variant in the later They Knew What They Wanted (1940).

I thought the film missed out on a possible trope. It could have ended, as it began, with the funeral of Seth, in the cliff top cemetery. This would have bought the story full circle and provided a visually impressive close to match the opening. We watched a good 35mm print at Il Cinema Ritrovato, though it was overly dark at times, possibly a dupe. The ratio was 1.20:1 with the early sound strip tightening the framing. The Festival Catalogue opined this is

‘arguably William Wyler’s first mature film’.

In fact, of those that I have seen, the silent Hell’s Heroes (1929) would equally deserve that accolade. In both films Wyler, with his production colleagues, demonstrates a mastery over the conventions of Hollywood studio drama.

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

Like the famous Hollywood feature, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this is a powerful and critical representation of the trench warfare in World War I. It is grimmer and more realistic than the US film, but both make use of the new sound technology. Westfront 1918 [as it is generally known] has been available in a 35mm print for years but now the Deutsche Kinemathek have revisited their negative copy and a positive copy held by the BFI. The result is a fuller film version with improved sound which was screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in a DCP format. The dialogue is in German and French and has English subtitles. It runs 96 minutes and is in the soon to be standard 1.33:1 ratio.

The film was directed by G. W Pabst and includes fine cinematography by Charles Métain and Fritz Arno Wagner. As with Pabst’s silent films the editing is fluid and follows a basic continuity and there are impressive tracking shots at the front. The sound is impressive for this early foray in the new technology and adds to the fierce brutality of the images. The noise of battle or of scenes away from the front is unrelieved by any accompanying music.

The film is adapted from a novel by Ernst Johannsen, and scripted by the author with  Ladislaus Vajda. The film has four protagonists serving on the Western Front in 1918. Their intertwined experiences are presented in an episodic fashion. Their experiences here are awful. At various stages they have to confront enemy attacks, bombardments [including at one stage by their own artillery], gas attacks and being buried alive when trenches collapse. There are several harrowing sequences in no-man’s land and memorable images of the wounded and the dead. Pabst and his team pull no punches in depiction the grim reality of modern warfare.

We also see the soldiers away from the front. One has an affair with a young French woman, which one imagines did not go down well in territories which had been part of the western alliance. Another returns home to find his wife is surviving through effective prostitution. These latter scenes hark back to the ‘street films’ of the 1920s.

Westfront1918_Foto

In some ways the grimmest moments are at the film’s ends. Here a wounded officer is taken past the grotesque corpses of battle and then to a field hospital where medical attention is basic and inadequate. What saves the sequence is a moment of compassion across the lines of conflict.

The film was successful on release though the Festival Catalogue includes a report by Siegfried Kracauer that

“Many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film.”

The Nazi response in 1933 was even more drastic, they banned the film as it

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

That and cutting the prints down [as with the UK release] meant that the surviving film for years was an incomplete picture. This restoration reveals what is one of the important films about the first World War. The fact that it is in DCP presumably means that it will circulate more widely. Perhaps someone will give us a double bill of the Pabst masterwork and All Quiet on the Western Front?

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, German film, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

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A Florida Enchantment USA 1914

Posted by keith1942 on May 13, 2016

florida enchantment

I saw this film as part of a programme of films titled ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ at the Film Society Lincoln Center. I had not been aware of the title before but apparently it is fairly well known. Vito Russo discusses it in The Celluloid Closet (1981). It turned out to be an entertaining and intriguing screening.

The film was directed by Sidney Drew who also starred. I had seen two of his films before at the 2014 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, Boobley’s Baby and A Case of Eugenics (both 2015). The film is based on a C19th novel and theatrical adaptation [the latter now lost].

Lillian Travers (Edith Storey), a northern heiress takes a visit to Florida along with her fiancée Dr. Frederick Cassadene (Sydney Drew). The ‘enchantment’ arises when Lillian eats a seed that she finds in an old chest. The seed’s magical properties turn Lillian into a man, Lawrence. The film then exploits Lawrence’s actions especially ‘his’ vamping of the women in the social circle. Later in the film Lillian gives Frederick a seed and he turns into a women.

So the plot involves cross-dressing, gender and sexual re-orientation and possibly bi-sexuality. Russo makes the point that

“In both cases it’s a male view of the sexes that dominates the impersonation.”

In the lead role Edith’s cross-dressing and male impersonation is quite subtle and delightfully ironic, However, Drew’s impersonation is over-the-top and full of ‘eye-rolling’ actions.

Moreover, in the conventions of the period, Lillian’s black maid, who also undergoes a transformation, is a black-face actor, also with an amount of eye-rolling action. The full implications of these transformations are avoided with Lillian waking from a dream and all the unconventional behaviour safely tucked away. Though presumably Freud or a disciple, if they saw the film, would have had a field day of analysis.

The Giornate Catalogue for 23014 commented on Drew’s film work

‘Although they wrote and directed their films together, in interviews Drew gave his wife his wife credit for the tone of the material’.

This was Lucille McVey, his second wife, who seems to have married in July 1914. She is not credited in any source I have seen for this film except as part of the cast as ‘Mrs Sydney Drew’. However, Drew’s first wife, Gladys Rankin, also wrote plays, rewrote their vaudeville acts and worked with Drew at Vitagraph. And the writing credits include one Marguerite Bertsch. What is interesting is that all three films that I have seen feature issues that are generally seen as ‘women’s issues’: a baby, eugenics and the cross-dressing in this film. So whilst A Florida Enchantment does seem to feature a male viewpoint the basic plot tends to subversion of masculinity. It would be nice to pin down the contribution of these women.

The screening used a 16mm print which had a pretty good image. The filming was typical of the period. The settings were recognisably studio sets though there were some nice location shots. It was in the ‘second’ screen at the centre, a well appointed auditorium, spacious and comfortable. This meant however that there was no musical accompaniment and we watched the film in full silence. The film ran jus over 60 minutes. I did think that it ran slightly faster than the norm. Afterwards the manager advised me that they did not have a variable speed projector and had to run the film at 24 fps. IMDB gives the length as 1500 metres, which at 16 fps, the likely speed for that period, would give 80 odd minutes. However, I suspect that the running speed was not 24 fps as the film did not seem to be 8 fps faster. Perhaps it ran at 18 fps or 20 fps; the former is a standard setting on 16mm projectors.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Literary adaptation, US pioneers | 2 Comments »

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2016

Posted by keith1942 on March 9, 2016

This annual event runs this year from March 14th until March 20th. Among the programmed presentations are two films screening from 35 mm prints with live musical accompaniment.

On the Friday evening we have Exit Smiling Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures 1926.

Exit smiling

The film has seven reels and runs for 71 minutes. It is a comedy drama starting off in a bank with an innocent teller discharged through the machinations of his rival in romance. The film then becomes a backstage comedy with a second-rate theatrical company touring small towns, The two aspects of the plot come together in the finale. The star is Beatrice Lillie, who was already a success on London’s West End and Broadway. Lillie was successful in revues, on radio and on record. However, this was her only mainstream leading film performance. She was reckoned to have an ‘eccentric persona’. So whilst Lillie is the star she is not the romantic lead in the film. But she is its comic heart.

The film was written directed by Sam Taylor. One of his more famous films was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923). The film also enjoyed the talents of Cedric Gibbons on the set designs: a craft person whose work graced M-G-M right through the studio period. The film will also enjoy an accompaniment by Neil Brand, one of the most talented of the regular silent film musicians.

On the final Saturday there will be Stella Dallas Samuel Goldwyn, Inc. 1925.

Stella-dallas-lobby-1925

This is an eleven reel film running 110 minutes. The source is one of the great woman melodramas, originally a 1923 popular novel by Olive Higgins Prouty. It was also successful in several stage versions and later as a popular radio series. And there is a sound film version from 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the title role. This film features Belle Bennett as Stella. Bennett worked right through the teens and twenties including starring in  another great literary melodrama East Lynne (1925). Both films dramatised the mother who sacrifices herself for her child. Lois Moran plays the daughter, whilst the absent father is played by Ronald Coleman. He was one of the very popular romantic leads of the period.

The production team is also a stellar affair. The director was Henry King whose fine list of titles includes Tol’able David (1921). The script is by Frances Marion, whose writing included the scenario for one of the greatest woman pictures of the decade The Wind (1928). And the cinematography was by Arthur Edeson, whose most famous film was Casablanca (1942).

The film has one of the most emotional finale’s. So the accompaniment will need to match this. Fortunately this is another fine regular silent film musician Stephen Horne.

Two very fine and worthwhile screenings.

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Tell England, UK 1931

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2015

TELLENGLANDHERALD2

This film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Ernest Raymond, subtitled A Study in a Generation. The novel follows two young men who join up in World War I and become involved in the Gallipoli campaign. This was the attack on the Dardanelles in Turkey by the Alliance of Britain and France, in 1915 and involving troops from both European powers’ colonial territories – Australasia, India and North and West Africa. There were also civilian workers from Egypt and Malta supporting the troops. Gallipoli looms large in the British memory. I suspect partly that this is because it was generally regarded as a failure or a disaster. In that sense it parallels other infamous military campaigns such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916 or earlier the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. There are also strong memories in Australasia. Anzac Day is April 25th, the date of the landing in which Australasian troops were heavily involved. There the campaign was felt to epitomise the superior and careless attitudes of the British High Command to troops from down under. Intriguingly Raymond’s novel was also the inspiration for an Australian film, Gallipoli. In this version two young Australians join up and become involved in the campaign. This year has seen the release of The Water Diviner, directed by and starring Russell Crowe. Most of the film is set after the war. What I found striking about the film is the amount of attention given to Turks. This seems to follow on from the setting as Crowe searches for the graves of his sons. The villains, if there are any in the film, are the Greeks who invade Turkey. At the same time the British military are portrayed as officious and much less helpful than a Turkish officer. Tell England was screened at the British Silent Film Festival 2015. It was preceded by a presentation looking at some of the other films that dealt with the campaign. These included newsreel coverage and what were effectively information films. One of these, Fight for the Dardanelles (1915), included animated sequences. There were also films that showed the Australian troops involved, and even Indian troops, I am not aware of any feature films that deal with ‘colonial’ Indian or the African troops. Nor I have ever seen a Turkish treatment of the campaign. The British films tended to report and valorise the campaign, rather than dwell on its failure. A slightly critical note was struck in Heroes of Gallipoli (1915) from Australia in which there were critical comments about the training and treatment of Australasian troops. The presentation also included an extended sequence from Tell England, the initial landings, which is possibly the most impressive sequence in the film. map1 The feature itself was produced by British Instructional Films. The project started in 1928 but was not completed until two yeas later. It was shot as a silent with the sound dubbed on later and it still retains some intertitles. This was, of course, the period of transition to sound and the film was screened at Leicester as part of a programme of early British sound films. Rachel Low (Filmmaking in 1930s Britain) has written about the problems of the transition. She quotes a passage by Peter Birt, who worked on Tell England, in the magazine Close-Up;

“Two [recorded sound] tracks, taken separately, may be dissolved one into the other: fades may be made; sounds can be distorted by running them through the projector faster or slower than the speed at which they were taken. (This was how we obtained the background for the trench raid and the low-frequencies for the blowing up on ‘Clara’, in Tell England).” [‘Clara’ was a Turkish trench mortar that occupied a long sequence later in the film].

Low adds the following:

“He also said that Tell England had a track for the explosions made from a collection of suitable recordings plus ‘background from another projector and voices from the floor’.

The film used the Tobis-Klangfeld sound-on-film system: the major European brand at the time. Like other early sound films the technicians were having in experiment and innovate. This and the somewhat primitive state of the technology mean the soundtrack on the film is variable, both in tone and volume. Given the limitations of the time it works very effectively. The script is credited to Anthony Asquith with the additional dialogue for sound by A. P. Herbert. Geoffrey Barks is credited as co-director. It seems that he was responsible for much of the location film which was actually based in Malta. Low explains,

“It was directed by Asquith with much of the location work on Malta being handled by Geoffrey Barkas, who had also made silent films for BOF and had a flair for big crowd scenes on location.”

There was a personal dynamic at work on the film and the novel. Raymond lost friends in the Gallipoli campaign, as did Asquith. And Barkas had actually fought in battles on the Dardanelles. Both the novel and the film tend more to valorisation than to critical treatment of the campaign. Though both also dramatise the sense of loss that the ‘Great War’ occasioned. The cinematography is credited to three cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell, James E. Rogers, but it is not clear who shot which parts of the film. Parker and Rodwell had both worked on The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Island (1927); And Rodwell worked on Asquith’s earlier films Underground and Shooting Stars (both 1928). Whoever filmed which sequences it is very well done. There is though a clear difference between sequences shot in the BIF studios at Welwyn Garden City and the location work. The film was edited by Mary Field. One assumes that Asquith was closely involved as there are, especially in the landing sequence, passages of montage, which one also sees in his other films. Once again there is a sense of the influence of the Soviet filmmakers. Indeed one striking shot as the forces land on the beach presents a low angle shot of a ship’s prow, reminiscent of the closing shot of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The Art Direction was by Arthur Woods; He progressed to direction and turned out quite number of features in the 1930s. Peter Birch is jointly credited with sound alongside Victor Peers. The film would seem to follow the novel relatively closely, though a major change is the downplaying of a religious figure, a parson who advises the two protagonists. These are Rupert Ray (Carl Harbord) and Edgar Doe (Dennis Hoey). The film introduces them in the same way as the book, as teenagers at home and at their public school. This is fairly conventional: with boating, a diving competition and a relay race. The latter has notable tracks along the swimming pool. Another important character is Doe’s mother (Fay Compton) who appears several times and who will come to represent the sense of loss in the film. This is a privileged and untypical [except in the movies] existence. A tolling bell ushers in the war and we see the anxious mother losing her son. However, as is conventional for the period, these volunteers are gung-ho about the conflict. The induction into the army is also conventional and here the war is presented as an opportunity rather than the coming disaster. It is here that we get the first reference to ‘Tell England’ s a quotation is made to the famous message at Thermopylae, ‘go tell Sparta’. In fact, Rupert has studied modern courses at school whilst Edgar studied the classics, and he translates the Greek for his friend. The sequences make effective use of tracks and dollies. The duo then finds they are destined for the Gallipoli campaign. We also hear about the use of Australian and New Zealand troops at a staff-planning meeting. As we arrive at the landing sequence we see Australian troops who sing ‘Australia will be there’. 1931-film-tell-england-screening-at-mcc-20121101   The landings on the Dardanelles by the troops of the Alliance are really impressive and runs for about fifteen minutes. There are extensive shots of the troops approaching the beaches in their crafts, of the actual landing and them the first fighting with the Turks. Some of the footage looked liked it was taken from contemporary newsreels. The editing adds to the feel of dynamic conflict. The variety of shots includes the fleet barrages, ship bridges, [one is clearly a studio set], seamen and stokers on the ships, the waiting troops, disembarking and then struggling through the water and onto the beach. Once ashore there is the barbed wire, the machine guns and some hand-to-hand fighting. It was justly commented that, –

“the beach landings sequence is one of the finest action sequences of early British cinema.”

There is an effective interplay of large-scale operations, specific detail and the actual responses of the men involved. At one point a waiting soldiers comments;

“We’re off – thank god!”

There is also an effective inter-cutting of synchronised and non-synchronised sound. Whilst the film’s viewpoint is predominately from that of the invaders, there are also point-of-view shots from the Turkish lines. In another Soviet influence, there are some dramatic low angle shots of fighting on the skylines. The film covers the several simultaneous landings made by the alliance. It also depicts the initial Turkish surprise and then the fierce counter-attack. The end result is trench warfare, which in many ways mirrors that on the Western front of the war. This part of the film is pretty similar to other treatments of this type of warfare of the period. Comparison has been made to Journey’s End (1930). The film now changes from the large-scale presentation to the smaller and more personal side. So we basically follow Rupert and Edgar as they cope, or try to cope, with the situation. There is the increasing tension and increasing desperation as the conditions in dugouts are accentuated by frequent bombardments. The focus for much of this is the Turkish trench mortar ‘Clara’. It is the attempts to take this gun out of action, which dominate the latter stages of the film. Inevitably one of the friends dies and there is the final parting. Followed by the sad receipt of the news back home. These sequences also make effective use of camera and sound. Clearly the scenes use both studio sets and location film. But there are still the range of camera shots, including tracks, dollies, low and high angles and dramatic positions, with more skyline shots. There are also intense close-ups at moments of drama and stress. And the sound continues to intercut both synchronised and non-synchronised dialogue and noise. At one point the assembled officers sing ‘Annie Laurie’, which provides a moment of pathos. There are at least two more references to the motif of ‘Tell England’. The film ends with the evacuation of 1916 and one of the graves stones of those who remained:

“Tell England, you who pass, we died for her and we have no regret’.

So the film ends with the validation of the war if not this campaign. But it also emphasises the sense of loss that was so strong in many of the films of this period. The film is a very fine war drama. It does have certain limitations, which are common in the period. Low comments: “Photography and editing oaf the battle sequence was magnificent, but the strangled patrician characterisation and dialogue and the true-blue patriotism seemed out of date.” British film did not achieve the production values of the Hollywood studios. And the reliance on stage actors meant that they often failed to give a recognisable depiction of class issues. However, the film is a demonstration of excellent ensemble work. BIF produced some very well done film dramas in the late 1920 and early 1930s. And Asquith, whose silent films were visually impressive, also bought flair to the new technique of sound. But this also shows how, like other directors, his work relied on the craft skills of his production team. His film work in the later 1930s is not of the same standard. It would be good if the film could be seen in 35mm around the UK. There was one little flaw in the screening at Leicester. As an early sound film the ratio was distinct, 1.20:1. However, the Phoenix did not appear to have the projection plates for that ratio and there was some cropping at the top and bottom of the frame. One reason for more screenings – in the correct ratio.

Posted in British sound films, Early sound film, Festivals, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Indian Silent Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2015

BritishEmpire-1

India around 1900

Film on the Indian Sub-continent – Early years 1896 to 1924

Prior to 1947 the British Raj occupied the whole of the Indian sub-continent, including what later became Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was in this context that cinema arrived in India. And the early and developing years of film were carried on under the eyes of the British. That would seem to a be a factor in the scarcity of examples of early film: along with resources and the climate. When I first saw early film from the sub-continent it was at Il Giornate del Cinemas Muto in 1994. And we were able to see the entire early film archive at that festival. Unfortunately most of the films only survived as fragments. However, along with the archive came a group of talented musicians who accompanied the films with traditional music

The central figure in indigenous cinema in this period was Dadasaheb Phalke, who made the first Indian feature films. He also set the trend for mythological films, representing the riches of the indigenous culture. The arrival of sound in the 1930s led to the development of the film musical form, the growth of Film Studios and the central importance of stars to audiences.

Early Days

On July 7 1896, at the Watson Hotel in Bombay, the French cameraman of the Lumière Company, Maurice Sestier, screened the first film show in India. The show was patronised by both the European and Indian elites of the city. Within a week the show moved to the Novelty Theatre, allowing different classes (and even women in a separate section) to view the new wonder. Other showmen followed, and soon the residents of both Calcutta and Madras were able to experience the marvel. The shows used theatres, public halls and even tents set up in playgrounds. And the programmes soon included ‘exotic’ views shot in India.

Harischandra S. Bhatvadekar was the first indigenous Indian to import, in 1898, a camera and to start making films. The films included important political events such as the reception given to a mathemematics scholar, R. P Paranjpye, after he achieved a First at Cambridge University. As is common with early silent film, much of this footage is lost, including what was the first Indian story film, Pundalik, made in 1912. However, at least some of the films of Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke do survive. He is India’s equivalent to the great early North American filmmaker D. W. Griffith.

Phalke: the father of Indian Cinema

In 1910 Phalke saw a film of The Life of Christ. He was inspired:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gogul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’ (Quoted by Suresh Chabria, 1994)

Phalke taught himself the skills of filmmaking, and made a trip to England and the studio of the pioneer filmmaker Cecil Hepworth. Phalke then set up the first production company with its own studio, Phalke Films, in Bombay. In 1913 he released Raja Harischandra: the surviving print runs for 23 minutes at 16 fps with titles in Hindi and English. The original at just under 3,000 feet, probably ran for fifty minutes. The film’s tale came from the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and narrated the story of a king whose love of truth is tested by a god. The film was both a commercial and critical success. Indian audiences powerfully identified with images from their own culture. Despite this, Phalke encountered problems, including the prejudice against cinemas as a ‘low form’ of culture and the fact that no ‘respectable’ woman would appear in a film. His early films used men playing female characters. Later filmmakers at first recruited women less susceptible to the taboo, such as Anglo-Indians. Phalke also had to raise his own funds, as established financial institutions would not invest in film.

Phalke followed his first success with Lanka Dahan (1917) the story of the abduction of a wife by a demon king, Shri Krishna Janma (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919).   The films centred on the god Krishna, played by Phalke’s daughter, Mandakini, and Phalke used early special effects to create the magic of the god hero. These are three important titles in a series of films, and parts of them have survived and have been restored and housed at the National Film Archive of India.

Kaliya Mardan

Kaliya Mardan

The first production company

Phalke filmed Raja Harischandra in the vicinity of his own house, then moved his enterprise to Nasik, where all the subsequent films were produced. According to film historians Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980), the family lived in a three-story house, on a few acres land. The family included Dadasaheb Phalke and his wife, Kari, their five sons and three daughters and various relatives. All the children appeared in Phalke’s films. Kari Phalke loaded and unloaded the camera, rushed film to the laboratory – a portion of the kitchen area – and supervised all laboratory work.

Several dozen people worked on Raja Harischandra, but during the following years the company grew to about a hundred. They all lived on the Nasik estate. The company became an extension of the joint-family system and the members of this extended family did all essential work. Outsiders were only involved occasional crowd scenes. The Phalke enterprise set a pattern that dominated Indian film production for several decades.

His films were shown in cinemas in the large cities, such as Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph, when it opened and to the vast peasant population in the countryside. As Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980) indicated,

‘In due time Phalke, like other producers of this period, became an exhibitor and travelled far and wide by bullock cart, with projectors, screens and films. The people who came were seldom two-rupee customers. Most paid four annas, two annas, or even one anna, and most of them sat on the ground. The revenue was in coins. The weight of the coins, on the homeward trip, could be enormous.’

In the 1920s other entrepreneurs followed in Phalke’s footsteps. The main centre for these production companies was Bombay/Mumbai, however there were also film studios in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai. An important producer was H J F Madan, who launched a Bioscope show in a tent in 1902. He expanded into theatres and later film production. This company was an early example of vertical integration. When Madan died in 1923 he owned 50 movie theatres, a third of the national total.

There were a series of high value productions mainly down to the efforts of Himansu Rai, who also acted in the films. They were directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten working with a German cinematographer Emil Schünemann. Rai raised monies both in India, Germany and from the British film industry. The final and most sumptuous of these epics was Prapancha Pash / A Throw of the Dice (1929). The film retells an episode from the Mahabharata about a king who is cheated of his throne and must struggle to win back the kingdom and his love. She is played by Seeta Devi, reckoned to be an Indian film diva. This is credited to British Instructional Films and Pro Patria Films Ltd. The surviving print is 6694 feet in length with English titles; it ran at 21 fps for 85 minutes. The other two films, which also survive, are Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) this debut film from the production grouping dramatised a story about the life of the Buddha. Their second film was Shiraz (1928) which told the legend of the building of the Taj Mahal.

Gallant Heart

An example of a genre film is Diler Jigar / Gallant Hearts, produced by the Agarwal Film Company in 1931 in Pune. A slightly shorter version survives, running 8672 feet and with titles in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and English: it ran for 117 minutes. It seems that this film was partly inspired by the Hollywood films of Douglas Fairbanks. However, it also fits into a wider cycle of swordplay and stunt films. A tyrant usurps the throne, but the baby prince is saved by a courtier. He re-appears with a love and her brother. Much of the film is shows them outwitting and outfighting the tyrant. What makes the film especially notable is that some of the finest sword play features the heroine  Saranga, as a masked woman avenger,  outdueling the henchmen of the usurper. She was played by a young actress Amboo who played on in the talkie era. Another film from the company survives, Gulaminu Patan / The Fall of Slavery (1931). This is a costume drama lacking the panache of Gallant Hearts. However it does depict the exploitative conditions in rural areas, a theme to which Indian cinema would constantly return.

There were Indian comedies. A three reel film, Jamai Babu survives, from the Hira Film Co (1931). This is an early Bengali film centred on a ‘country bumpkin’ visiting his urban in-laws in the city of Calcutta. It is rough and ready but provides glimpses of Calcutta at that time. It runs for 35 minutes hand has titles in Hindi, Bengali and English.

With the exception of Raja Harischandra and A Throw of the Dice it is really difficult to see these films outside the sub-continent. Though extracts appear in many of the television programmes about Indian cinema.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934 edited by Suresh Chabria was published to coincide with the 1994 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It includes a complete filmography for the period. The above post has been developed from a piece in the BFI CD-Rom on Indian Cinema [no longer available]. For sound cinema – for Parallel cinema.

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