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Naming of parts

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2017

This is the title of a World War II poem by Henry Reed. A line from that poem ran through my head during the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto:

‘Which in our case we have not got’.

Reed was referring to parts of a World War II rifle: in my case it was both ‘reel’ films and Soviet films. To be fair I had a good week and enjoyed a lot of the films but I had also moments when I had a real sense of missing …..

To start with the Soviet. I was full of anticipation whilst I awaited the details of this year’s programme because the Festival fell only a few weeks before the anniversary of The Great October Socialist Revolution. This was an event that had more impact on cinema than any other I can think of – the development and realisation of Soviet Montage.

I was to be disappointed. The main programme of Soviet films was ‘Across the Sixth Part of the World: Soviet Travelogues of the 1920s’. In fact we did not get the Dziga Vertov film which clearly inspired the title, though we did get a film that utilised some of the footage shot for that productions. But there was not much montage, apart from some sharp editing by Yelizaveta Svilova in a couple of titles. But neither did we get the political content that was so powerful in the 1920s. The films were in the main interesting and several were extremely well made. But all of them could have been made in the same form if the 1917 Revolution had ended in February instead of October, i.e. with the assumption to power of the bourgeoisie. There were occasional pictures of Marx and Lenin; some political slogans; and in one film workers taking snapshots at dummies of the capitalist class; but no dramatisation of the revolution overthrowing an archaic society and starting the construction of a radically new one.

We did get a 35mm print of Aelita (1924) but this film is more-science fiction than revolution. There are interesting shots of urban life after the revolution but the workers’ rebellion in the film feels like an add-on. In ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ we also had An Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (1931), a film by Mikhail Kaufman dedicated to the Five-Year Plan and Collectivisation. However, it was transferred to digital and I thought not a particularly good transfer: and seemingly transferred at 25 fps [for video?]. Worse it had a musical accompaniment by Anton Baibakov Collective, which appears to be a Ukrainian group. They were clearly in a different world from that in which the film was conceived. The focus was the ‘Holodomor’ or Ukrainian famine of the 32 – 33. As artist they are entitled to present alternative stances. But I have to protest when they selected a film that was made before the event in question. A FIAF handbook opines that films should be screened as close as possible to their original release: that was hardly the case in this instance. Certainly i would have expected the Festival to offer a screening of the film as intended.

The cavalier treatment of the historical Soviet events and films was highlighted by another programme, ‘The Great War’. This imperialist conflict, rightly opposed by the Bolsheviks and other genuine socialists, enjoyed a varied programme, both features and documentaries; all the ones I viewed were presented as they might have been in the years of their release.

Regarding the Soviet issue I found in a comment by Jay Weisberg,

“I had some sly fun with Russia this year …”

He is in fact writing about the Soviet Union, a federation of Socialist Republics. He was introducing two filsm presented on the ‘Red Peril’, in other words, Hollywood dramas that vilify both the Revolution and the Bolsheviks. One, The World and its Woman (1919) recycled that ‘old chestnut’, ‘the nationalisation of women’. If that had existed it was probably preferable to the experience of Hollywood producers and their audition techniques.

Since the centenary can run for a year or more is it too much to hope that next year we could have a serious treatment of Socialist Construction. In which case a prime title would be the Old and New / Staroye i novoye (1929); the film about collectivisation directed by Sergei Eisenstein and one which I have not seen screened for ages. Also the British Film Institute’s National Film Archive has a number of 35mm prints of little seen Soviet titles from this period.

Perhaps in 2018?

Better was ‘Scandinavian Cinema’ which offered lesser known titles from the ‘golden age’. The titles were all very good and even those transferred to digital looked fine. The societies of the time were fairly repressive of women but the majority of these films had strong and independent minded women. I was especially taken with Gypsy Anne / Fante-Anne (Norway 1920). This was an adaptation of  a short story scripted and directed by Rasmus Breistein. Like several of the films  it treated the restrictions on cross-class romances. The turmoil this produced were symbolised in a act of arson. The unravelling of the crime and punishment reminded me of the treatment in Victor Sjöström masterwork Ingmarssönerna (1919).

A substantial programme was titled ‘Nasty Women’. There were five sections within this and I found the title puzzling. Many of the heroines in the films were closer to anarchy than nastiness.  A typical example is the earlier film was Tilly’s Party, a BFI print from 1911. Tilly (Alma Taylor) and her partner Sallie (Chrissie White) cause upsets to their bourgeois household,. There were a whole series of these films in the period and the recurring plots show the two girls repeatedly upsetting rules and decorum. However, the Catalogue, which only arrived on the Wednesday, shed some light on the programme.

“The term “Nasty Woman” has been a feminist rallying cry since October 2016, when Donald Trump interrupted Hilary Clinton by booming into his microphone “such a nasty woman”. ” (Festival Catalogue).

I think we often draw parallels between past and present but I also think this needs to be done with care and attention. Hardly any of the female protagonists in the film acted in any way ‘nasty’. Possibly the closest to the contemporary situation came in the sole feature length Hollywood film, The Deadlier Sex (1920), in which Mary Willard (Blanche Sweet) wreaks a well-deserved but possibly illegal lesson on her capitalist rival Harvey Judson (Marlon Hamilton). The film was very well produced and Blanche Sweet was a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately we did not see any female workers expropriating either of these bourgeois.

We had the third in the series of ‘Beginnings of the Western’ this year ‘early European westerns’. The first two programme featured a number of French films from Gaumont directed by Jean Durand and usually scripted by and starring Joë Hamman, who had direct experience of the US west and the Indian tribes. The film were shot in the Camargue and that lanscape gvae the films a distinctive feel. Several of the films had been transferred to DCP but Coeur Ardent / The Heart of the red Man (1912) was in a tinted 35mm print. The film traces the romance of Coeur Ardent (Joë Hamman) and Sun Ray (Berthe Dagmar). Her father Sitting Bear rejects his daughter’s suitor. In a bid to prove Coeur Ardent a brave and suitable warrior the pair steal cattle from a neighbouring tribe. This leads Coeur Ardent facing a ‘trial’ for his theft. These sequences make good use of the Camargue landscape, especially in the use of  lakes and marshland. Coeur Ardant’s survival in the test means the romance is fulfilled when Sitting Bear recognises the suitor’s bravery.

There were also Italian, Danish and a British westerns from the early period. The Scapegrace (1913) was filmed at the Crick Studio in Croydon. The ‘scapegrace’, Jack Marriott (Reginald Davis) is cut off by his father over gambling depts. He leaves London for Canada and the Yukon Gold Rush. He strikes gold on his claim, befriends bar girl Molly ((Una Tristan) and earns the enmity of  Mexican gunslinger Manoel (J. L. V. Leigh). So the film follows the US convention whereby villains are frequently from ‘south of the border’.  There is gunplay, arson, violence at the claim and a climatic rescue before the ‘scapegrace’ wins Molly and is reconciled with his father. There is some effective location settings,

“with local gravelly heath land standing in for the Yukon.” (Catalogue).

There is a US film with the same title from the same year from the Lubin Manufacturing Company.

‘The Japanese Silent Cinema Goes Electric’ offered to titles from “saundo-ban – films that were shot as silent films, but released with a post-synchronised soundtrack, usually consisting of music score, sound effects and the occasional popular song.” (Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in the Festival Catalogue).

The curators explained how this format was a stage in the on-going struggle in the industry over the role and dominance of the Benshi. A friend noticed that the soundtrack appeared to have slight silent pauses around title cards: he and Johan discussed if this was a deliberate ploy to accommodate Benshi where cinemas retained them: the conclusion is unclear. We had a well-known film by Ozu Yasujiro Tokyo no yado / An Inn in Tokyo (Shochiku, 1935). The 35mm print seemed to have less of these ‘pauses’, perhaps aligning with Ozu’s well-known opposition to the Benshi.

The other title was a welcome discovery, Shima no Musume / The Island Girl (Shochiku, 1933), directed by Nomura Hotei. At the initial screening there was a technical glitch and there were no English sub-titles. we struggled through it and then the Festival organised a follow-up with the English sub-titles: so I got to see the film twice. It was an excellent and powerful melodrama. The main story concerns a romance frustrated by poverty: a situation that crossed over with the Ozu. The sub-plots concerned geisha’s, with the Island girls providing a source for the Tokyo pleasure quarters, The film used a popular song of the time by a popular female singer.

‘Pola Negri’ presented ‘The First Phase of Stardom’, films produced in Germany. Mania. Die Gechichte einer zigarettenarbeiterin / Mani. The Story of a Cigarette factory Girl was made at Ufa in 1918. We had a 35mm print reconstructed with tints from surviving nitrate material. Pola Negri looked a star, both in performance and in scenes of her dancing. She played a working class girl whose beauty and magnetism leads her into the world of publicity and entertainment. She was also potent in the 1918 version of Carmen / Carmen (Gypsy Blood) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The film was closer to the original novella by Prosper Mérimée than the famous opera. The straight melodrama is less Lubitsch’s forte than his comedies, whilst the cast were never quite as compelling as Negri herself.

Another star was the canine performance of the Festival Toby, a poodle cross. This was an hybrid, part-western, part-thriller, Nel paese dell’oro (Italy, 1914). In the western section Toby is instrumental in rescuing the kidnapped Matilde. In the second half, set in Vera Cruz, Toby rescues the kidnapped son of the family. The conclusion has the bedraggled Toby and son triumphantly returning to the family apartment.

There was also a varied programme of films of ‘Early Cinema’, and the now -regular ‘Canon Revisited’. The latter shaded over into ‘Special Events’. Two of these were 35mm prints from Photoplay Productions: The Crowd , M-GM 1928 and The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg M-G-M 1927. Both enjoyed the scores composed by Carl Davis for the original series in Thames Silents. I was also pleased to catch L’Emigrante (Italy 1915). This was only a fragment, a third of the original release.  What we saw of the journeys in the film involved an elderly man migrating to South America and the exploitation that he encounters; a sort of subject suitable nowadays for Ken Loach.

Many of the films were in original release languages but the Festival has a well tried system with projected digital translations in English and Italian. And all the films had musical accompaniments, some solo or duo musicians, some with larger ensembles. In most cases these add to the screenings, heightening and dramatising aspects of character and plot. Some did tend to over-state the accompaniment which does get in the way of the film to an extent. But the Festival would not be the same without the music.

About nearly two thirds of the screenings were on 35mm, varying in quality but in most cases doing good or adequate justice to the titles. Just over a thirds was on digital formats. This was a variable experience. The International Federation of Film Archives has a number of documents on the Webpages regarding restoration and transfer of archive film, including the use of digital technologies. However, there does not seem to be a set of specifications that Archives should follow. The variation in quality of the Digital screenings at Le Giornate this year suggest that there is a disparate set of practices. Some were excellent,. especially those from the Scandinavian Archives. The best example was a DCP from Det Danske Filminstitut of Victoria Film’s Glomdalsbruden / The Bride of Glomdal ( Norway, Sweden 1926) scripted and directed by Carl Dreyer. The surviving version is incomplete but this copy preserved the distinctive qualities of the original.

However, there were other digital versions where the flat patina common in transfers was obvious. And in most cases the digital formats with tinting seemed over-saturated. I think there needs to be discussion about what exactly is the prime facture needed in transfers to digital. we had a short piece of early film shot on 65mm and transferred to digital. In the introduction we were promised that this would be the ‘cleanest’ version we would ever see. I think it was ‘clean’ but the ‘cleaning’ appears to have removed quite an amount of contrast and depth of field. I have seen early 65mm transferred to digital before and I am sure that it can look better than this.

There is a limitation in the current projection equipment in the new Verdi. Apparently the digital projectors only offer 2K quality and 24 fps. Tinting seems to need more than 2K to be effective and 24fps means step-printing. Several of the digital DCPs were marked in the Catalogue at slower rates of transfer, odd. However, there is real confusion of terms on this issue. FIAF have a glossary of terms on the Webpages but I could not find either ‘step-printing’ or ‘frame rates’.

What was more consistent about the festivals was the organisational and delivery, On the closing night the Festival Director read out a long list of people, staff and volunteers, who had worked before and during the festival. They duly received repeated rounds of applause from the audience – richly deserved.

One of their tasks is ‘policing’ the audience. Mobile misuse seemed down this year. However there is a growing tendency for late-comers to use their gadgets as torches: and many seem unaware that these can be used at knee height thus reducing the distraction. The most serious miscreants were people taking ‘pics’ during screenings. Some were caught by the theatre staff, but some were seated in the m idle of large blocks beyond reach. Perhaps the Festival could issue cattle prods in 2018?

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017

Posted by keith1942 on September 26, 2017

Impressively this year the Silent Film Festival in Pordenone has the complete programme up on its Webpages over a week before the start, Saturday September 30th. On offer will be a varied and fascinating selection of early films. My friend Peter Rist, who is expert at these sort of things, has sent me the following calculation:

“I have just done a count and of 57 screenings at Pordenone this year, 22 are digital, more than usual; over 38%; still plenty of 35mm though,”

Some of the formats are yet to be identified. But this is creditable, especially in a period when one requires time, money and considerable investigation to see films [as opposed to files] in an appropriative format.

The programmes contain some exciting prospects on film. These is a series devoted to ‘The Beginnings of the Western’: now in its third year these have offered fascinating offerings from the early in a major genre. On the Saturday evening the opening event of the Festival, The Crowd will be the 35mm Photoplay print originally screened in the Thames Silents, and we will enjoy once more Carl Davis conducting his score performed by the San Marco Orchestra. The film is a classic [discussed in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’] with fine direction by King Vidor and some excellent technical work in the Cinematography by Henry Sharp and the Film Editing by Hugh Wynn.  A great cast and some memorable dramatic moments.

Other classic revisited titles include Schatten: eine nächtliche halluzination (Warning Shadows, Artur Robison, Germany, 1923). In many ways this is the definitive expressionist film, intriguing and stylistic memorable.

There are several ‘diva’ titles. One pleasure with be Louise Brooks in Now We’re in the Air  (Frank R. Strayer, US 1927). Pola Negri stars in the 1918 Carmen and Mania. die geschichte einer zigarettenarbeiterin (Mania. The Story of a Cigarette Factory Worker, Germany 1918). And the rare A Fool There Was (1915) with Theda Bari is a happy opportunity. There are a series of programmes on ‘Nasty Women’. These appear to develop from the comic to the dramatic, so we await to see if they are ‘politically correct’.

‘The Swedish Challenge’ includes a title from a master of silent period, Vem Dömer? (Love’s Crucible, 1922) by Victor Sjöström. Ernst Lubitsch has several titles including The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), another screening with an accompanying orchestra.. And from Japan we have a late silent directed by Ozu Yasujirô, Tokyo no yado (An Inn in Tokyo, 1935). There a number of Italian silents which are new to me and which I look forward to seeing.

I shall wait and see what the DCPs are like in transfer quality. I am disappointed that the British Dawn (1928) is in a digital format since I saw it only last year in a good 35mm print.

The other set of DCPs are from the USSR. This is a disappointment less because of the format than because of the titles. Essentially the programmes offer a series of ‘Soviet Travelogues’. They are likely interesting and include some film work by members of the ‘Factory of Facts’. The only fictional feature is Aelita: this is on 35mm so it will be worth seeing again. But the Festival falls only a few weeks before the centenary of The Great October Revolution. I would have hoped that they could have fitted in at least one of the masterpieces celebrating this key event of the C20th. We are offered a couple of titles on ‘The Red Peril’ which sound politically dubious. A sadly missed opportunity.

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Who’s Guilty?. A lost series rediscovered.

Posted by keith1942 on September 7, 2017

This was one of the most interesting programmes at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Federico Striuli found a lost fourteen part serial from the teens of the C20th in the archives of Gosfilmofond. He provided extensive notes on the programme in the Festival Catalogue.

Serials were very popular in the USA, and in other territories, in the teens. One of the major players was Pathé Exchange [a subsidiary of the French Pathé]. In 1915 the company had a successful serial Who Pays?, a twelve part series, each episode offered a self-contained story, but featuring a regular cast and a ‘strong social critique’. Who’s Guilty was a follow-up, again with self-contained stories in each episode, a regular cast and an overt social agenda. However, in this series the lead characters were to be victims.

The new project had production problems and after shooting initial episodes, a change of cast and crew. It was completed in 1916 at the New York Studio of the Arrow Film Corporation. The scripts were written by a number of writers; however, there was a newspaper tie-in and these were all credited to a Mrs. Wilson Woodrow [a distant relative by marriage of the US president]. The directors were either Lawrence B. McGill or Howell Hansel and the cinematographer either Eugene J. Cugnet or Henry Cronjager, The two stars in every episode were Tom Moore and Anna Q. Nilsson [Swedish-born] supported by a regular company who varied depending on the episode and the size of the cast.

Ten of the 14 episodes survive, though not all are complete. Indeed nearly every episode has suffered at least minor cuts. Oddly the missing titles are all odd numbers? The films were all two reelers, standard for the time. We watched 35mm prints with Russian titles and a translation into English provided digitally. Quite often the names were different in the Russian versions from those recorded for the original US release. None of the prints had tinting but at this stage of the industry it is quite likely that the originals did.

The structure of the films is, as the title suggests, to raise questions regarding social issues. The key characters, almost uniformly victims in some sense, dramatise this in their personal lives. The films seem to have had a standard opening, [though not all the extant prints retain this], with a long shot of a lake and a title card which offered

“Life is like a lake, throw in a stone …’

No 1. Puppets of Fate. Only one Reel. 252 metres. 11 minutes.

The film was missing the original first reel and the Catalogue supplied the following:

“In the now-missing first reel, it was shown how the doctor had advanced his career thanks to his wife, up until he met the other woman.”

Tom Moore plays Doctor George Bullard, Anna Q. Nilsson his wife Esther and Olivia Handsworth the other woman, Sylvia Sands, a rich widow. Esther falls ill and. at her wish, Bullard carries out an operation. This is an infringement of medical ethics. Bullard sends Sands away at this point. Still Esther dies and the Doctor is left, as are the audience, with the regular last title card, ‘Who’s Guilty’.

Pianist, John Sweeney.

No. 2. The Tight Rain. 525 metres. 23 minutes.

This episode has three other writers credited besides Mrs Wilson; Edfrid A. Bingham, Albert Shelby LeVino and Hervey F. Thew. The Catalogue provided this backgrounds information.

“This episode deals with the disastrous consequences of a thwarted love. The episode contains some sexual implications that caused it to be banned or heavily cut in several states, resulting in many alternate versions, which seem to be confirmed by conflicting synopses in journals. However, this print does not seem to have significant cuts. “

Jack (Moore) the son of factory owner Jeremiah McCall (Arthur Donaldson) is attracted to one of the workers, Amy (Nilsson). McCall engineers her dismissal to end the romance. Amy moves to New York where she works in a fashion house. Jack, purloining $500 from the firm, follows her. Amy is the object of malicious intent by a patron at the fashion house. Inveigled to his apartment, Jack arrives and there is a fight followed by shots. The dying Amy crawls to the body of her dead Jack. The newspapers print a story of a ‘rich man’s son’s suicide’. The plot does suggest promiscuity of some sort. And, typical of the period, Amy has a black maid at her apartment.

The accompaniment was played by Stephen Horne.

No. 4. The Silent Shame. 565 metres. 25 m minutes.

One of several episodes dealing with divorce. The underlying problem was that the laws regarding marriage and divorce in different states varied and could cause problems across territories. Duncan Hilliard (Edward Davis) is married to Eunice (Nilsson) who is a lot younger.

“married at fifteen”.

The strains lead to her developing friendship with Bruce Kingston (Moore). They go away together but Duncan follows, mainly because he needs Eunice’s savings of $50,000. Thwarted he seeks revenge by pretending to arrange a divorce. Eunice and Bruce have a daughter who is thus illegitimate. When Eunice finds out about her situation she leaves Bruce and returns to Hilliard with her daughter.

In Reel 2 Bruce is a successful playwright. His new play will star a young actress Helen, Eunice’s daughter Ardath under a stage name (Nilsson again). Predictably romance develops. Meanwhile Bruce has bought a genuine antique ring as a stage prop, an antique which contains a secret phial of poison. In full melodramatic fashion, when Helen and Bruce realise their true relationships, she takes the real poison onstage, followed by Bruce who sucks the ring and both expire. A full blooded melodrama with a number of conventional plot points.

Pianist José Maria Serraldo Ruiz.

No. 6. Sowing the Wind. Only the second reel. 278 metres. 12 minutes.

In this episode Hugh Scott (Moore) has secretly married the daughter of his boss, Marjorie Turnbull., He loses some valuable bonds and so feigns suicide. In Reel 2 the missing bonds turn up. Hugh is now able to return, however, meanwhile [predictably] his brother Henry has romanced and married Marjorie under the misapprehension that she is a widow. Marital misadventures are a frequent theme in this serial.

Pianist Daan van den Hurk.

No. 8. Beyond Recall. 517 metres. 22 minutes.

This is an intriguing drama about the death penalty but also, as the Catalogue suggests,

‘an indictment against the whole legal system’.

Edwin Martel (Moore) and his friend Leonard (William B. Sherwood) are setting off on a business trip to South America. They leave behind [for the space of about two years] their girlfriends Margaret Graeme (Nilsson) and Elsie. Margaret breaks off her engagement with Leonard whilst Elsie becomes hysterical over Edwin’s departure.

In Reel 2 Elsie commits suicide. Edwin, who has forgotten his case, returns to find the dead body. And in a familiar trope the police find Edwin standing over the corpse. He is arrested and charged with murder. Margaret is the assistant to the New York District Attorney. She takes a particular interest in the case. Edwin is found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair. Now Leonard, who could provide an alibi for Edwin, returns. But it is the day of the execution. Margaret is distraught when Leonard explains.

The film is interesting also because of the detail of the court case. We see the jury verdict as well as the prosecution. And ‘going South’ to Latin America is a frequent and varied plot device in popular US film.

Pianist Daan van den Hurk.

No. 10. A Trial of Souls. 524 metres, 23 minutes.

This drama criticises fathers: Senator Mason, father of Rose (Nilsson) and a journalist Fletcher, father of Tom, an army Captain (Moore). The two men are political enemies: predictably the politician is the nastier of the two. In Reel 1 we see the romantic pair of Tom and Rose in adjoining gardens: he throws her a flower. Then there is a dispute at the nearby army base between the Senator and Fletcher. The Senator is fined $100 for his part in the fracas. Despite the feud Tom and Rose secretly marry, even though Rose is only 17 years.

In Reel 2 the Senator sues Tom for abduction as Rose is under age. A this point Rose’s mother becomes part of the plot, fainting when the Senator initiates the court proceedings. In court Tom’s lawyer elicits the information that Rose is adopted. A flashback reveals that she was placed in the orphanage by the Senator wife’s and another man. The mother faints once more. Tom is acquitted but the marriage declares void. We last see Rose entering a lake, [just like the one that appears after the credits).

The suggestion of extra-marital affair is a common device which at this period tends not to be completely explicit.

Pianist Donald Sosin.

No. 11. The Lost Paradise. 550 metres, 24 minutes. [No main title].

This is another tale of marriage and divorce. The Catalogue notes that the episode was written by two lawyers, William Hamilton Osborne of New York and Warren H. Small, a lawyer with the Arrow Film Corporation. Janet Gordon (Nilsson) marries Marc Lander. It is clear that she doe this under pressure from her father who is in debt to Lander. She finds that Lander is a bully and a louse. Her old friend Tom visits to support her. A fight with Lander ensues and Tom and Janet leave and she moves to Connecticut where Tom works.

In Reel 2 they marry. They have children but Tom’ sister (Mary Moore) is antagonistic. Jane has filed a divorce from Lander in Connecticut. However, this is not valid in New York. Lander sues for ‘illegal cohabitation’. The trial worsens Tom’s poor health and he dies of a heart attack. Worse follows. Jane’s marriage to Tom is not legal and the children are considered illegitimate. Tom’s sister takes his property. And, in one of the most downbeat scenes of this downbeat series, we see the lonely Jane and her tow children.

Pianist Mauro Columbis.

No. 12. Weighed in the Balance. 575 metres, 25 minutes.

This episode was written by the advertising manager of Pathé, P. A. Parsons. The story dramatises the frequently violent industrial disputes in this period. These presumably related to the more general gun problem in the USA: violence against pickets, both by the armed police and by armed vigilantes led to pitched battles outside factories. There are a number of independent and labour-funded dramas on the issue on the teens. And, as Barbara Kopple’s excellent Harlan County, USA (1976) shows,  the problem continued for decades.

Tom Olcott (Moore) at the death of his father has to get a job at the factory where his father was President. This is a drop in income and status, but Tom has to support his widowed mother and his sister {Mary Moore again). At the factory, where he is noted as a promising young workers, he strikes up a friendship with Edna Carr (Nilsson). But he is then victimised by a jealous manager and finally fired. This incident provokes the strike.

In Reel 1 we see the family crisis and then Tom’s job at the factory. He is not only a ‘good’ employee but is popular with his fellow workers. The conflict with the manager Graham takes place on one of those days of entertainment which were part of factory life in this period.

After Tom is sacked the other workers gather in support and the strike commences. The response of the management is that they need,

“100 workers and 25 guards”.

When the workers attempt to stop the scabs the police intervene and support the strike breakers. The workers respond by stoning the police. Now soldiers are called in. When the strikers will not disperse they open fire. There follows this dramatic shot with the bodies of strikers and other civilians lying in the street among the debris. In an ironic touch both Graham and Tom arte shot down: Tom

“a son of the people”.

The last shot shows Edna cradling the dead Tom in the form of a pieta.

This is a powerful and critical narrative. Whilst the film is played as melodrama the violence perpetrated on ordinary working people is clearly represented.

Pianist Daan van den Hurk.

No. 13. The Goad of Jealousy. 545 metres. 24 minutes.

This is a distintive treatment of a familiar and conventional subject. Tom Olcott {Moore] owns a gym and runs training classes. He is knocked out in an accident and at the hospital

meets Nurse Olive Hale (Nilsson). He is also visited by his married friend Minna (Margaret Prussing). Smitten with Olive Tom proposes and they are married. However, in a reverse of the most common plot it is Olive who is jealous and possessive. At one point she listens at a glass door whilst Tom takes a class for Ladies.

In Reel 2, Minna comes to stay because she is suffering abuse from her husband. This

inflames Olive’s jealousy: she has a bout of hysterics and is prescribed a strong medicine.. She sets up a reorder and microphone hidden in her husband’s office so that she can spy on him. She listens in to an innocent conversation between Tom and Minna. But, even more inflamed, she writes to Minna’s husband revealing where she is. The husband arrives and there is a fight between him and Tom. Olive now tells Minna to leave. However, Tom find the secreted recorder. Furious, he leaves the house and rides off: on what I think is an early Harley-Davidson. Whilst he is away Olive takes a large dose of the medicine and on his return Tom finds her body across her bed!

Pianist Neal Brand.

No. 14. The Irony of Justice. Reel 1, 273 metres. 12 minutes.

Only the opening Reel survives. Here we meet Tom Morrissey (Moore) and his sister Mabel (Nilsson). The problem they face are the neighbours, Hinkle Rokeson and his son Henry (Warner Richmond). Tom is tried for a misdemeanour, a prank that went wrong. Years later the family’s spaniel is attacked by the two dogs of the Rokesons’ and killed. This appears to be the only use of this emotional trope in the serial. After burying his dog Tom fights with Henry. Tom wins but father and son conspire

“to get rid of him for a long time.”

Tom is tried and sentenced on the false charge of attempted murder’. Found guilty he serves three years in prison and we see him working at one point on a chain gang. It’s brutal form is visualised when one of the guards knocks down Tom.

In the missing Reel 2 it appears that Henry has designs on Mabel. There is another fracas for which Tom takes the blame: his aim to protect the good name of his sister. Now he endures a twenty year jail sentence.

Pianists Jonathan Best and Meg Morley.

This was a fascinating set of films. As can be seen it addressed quite a range of issues, though certain situations appeared in several forms. In retrospect the series would appear to be fairly subversive, at least with some films. The story of the industrial dispute tends to support the workers, seen as victims. This does reflect a whole cycle of film s of the period that addressed these contradictions. The notably social issue missing is ‘”race’, either in terms of Afro-Americans or Native Americans. And the issue of gender tends to present women as victims rather than as subjects in stories.

The series was thought lost and then turns up in the Russian archive. Russian films of the pre-Revolution period were noted for being downbeat. There are examples of Russian films having ‘happy endings added for overseas releases, and in reverse, foreign films having ‘sadder’ ending sadder for release in Russia. So here we have what must be one of the most downbeat cycle of films from the US mainstream in the teens; and it survives only in Russia. I did wonder if the episodes that did not apparently survive were the less depressing ones?

They all appeared in 35mm prints and just about all the title cards were translated. The prints were worn but reasonably good. The projection rate was given as 20 fps, which seems quite fast for the period. The full two reeks would be 600 metres and 30 minutes of screen time, so it seems likely that none of these survive intact. There were indeed frequent ‘jump cuts’ and what appeared to be absent title cards.

Happily just about every musician at the Festival enjoyed the opportunity to accompany one of these titles including two of the student son the Giornate”s ‘masterclass’.

Note, ‘Working-Class Hollywood’, Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America by Stephen J. Ross (1998) has a lot of discussion of films about and by Labour. There is a brief reference to Who Pays which also included an episode dramatising a strike, but there are no details,.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35

Posted by keith1942 on October 17, 2016

gcm_2016_poster

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.

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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.

Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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 »