Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘French film 1920s’ Category

Carbon Arc Screenings

Posted by keith1942 on July 24, 2014


Carbon arc

One of the treats introduced at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2013 was a screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini using a 1930s projector with carbon arc illumination. At one time this technology was the basis of nearly all cinema projection. The sparks jump between carbon rods and produce one of the brightest illuminations in cinema. I spoke to one projectionist who had suffered a slight eye flaw from their brightness. The technology required projectionists to check and maintain the gap between rods – and rods burnt ou relatively quickly. But the illumination is not only bright but produces an image that is fairly faithful to the original, including the distinctive colour palette.

The Ritrovato screenings start about 10 p.m. and the audience can enjoy the image, the atmosphere and the balmy evenings of summer. This year’s were packed, with other members standing round in the shadows. The screen is framed between trees and the projector not only illuminates this screening but also sends a small beam vertically up above the projector. There is a moment of anticipation as the projector is ‘fired up’ and then the audience swivels from looking behind to looking in front as the film image is revealed.

On the Wednesday evening we had La Princesse Mandane (1928), part of a retrospective of films directed by Germaine Dulac. The film was commercially funded and adapted from a novel by Pierre Benoit. Dulac, of course, is really thought of as an avant-garde filmmaker and an early example of a director who could be labelled ‘feminist’. I suspect it was the disparity between these two forms that made the film less than effective for me. It is well produced and there are some imaginative scenes, especially in a long dream sequence. However, this dream world runs for over 50 minutes of the films 74 minutes running time. I found it padded out with sequences that neither forwarded the narrative nor developed the characters. The Catalogue comments that “The image of the princess – the mise en scène of her femininity – is the object of a masculine fantasy….”

Which is accurate. But this did not seem to generate much critical interrogation of such a ‘male gaze’. Still this was a wonderful way to watch the film. And there was an excellent accompaniment at the piano by Stephen Horne, who added a few other instruments in his inimitable manner.

The Thursday evening saw us back in the courtyard for Sangue Bleu (1914), part of a programme of films directed by Nino Oxilia. But the focus of the film was the silent star and diva Francesca Bertini. She is certainly one of the three major artists of the Italian diva era. Here she was working for Celio Film, but she went on to produce her own films. As is the case in diva films, the mise en scène privileges the star, but also provides an opulent and dramatic range of settings as she emotes, most frequently in the tragic mode. The Catalogue comments that

“Elena (Bertini) appears / disappears, emerges / vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light…”

The plot, which is fairly conventional has an aristocratic wife and mother dumped by her husband and then misused and abused by a series of male characters. Meanwhile the princess struggles to retain and care for her daughter. This is great, over-the-top melodrama, which works partly because of the presence of Bertini. The accompaniment by Daniele Furiati matched the onscreen drama. And the ambience of the occasion was magical.


Posted in French film 1920s, Italian film, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

An Italian Straw Hat / Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Rene Clair 1927

Posted by keith1942 on June 4, 2014


This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce from 1851.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema (Sight & Sound November 2013):

“Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.“

All of the director’s silent films were screened at the 2007 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a programme entitled René Clair: Le silence est d’or. The Festival Catalogue included notes on Clair and the films by Lenny Borger. He pointed out that for many years Clair’s reputation rested on a series of early sound films, including Le Million and A nous la liberté. Clair himself was often dismissive of some of his earliest films. In fact he developed his skills in a series of silent films which stand up very well today. Clair started out as a journalist, and then took up screen acting.  His first directorial outing was Paris Qui Dort (Sleeping Paris, 1924). Filmed in the summer of 1923 this is an early science fiction drama, running just over an hour. A mad scientist’s ray turns Paris into a frozen city of sleep. The only six characters awake embark on a surrealist trip round the city. The film is full and witty an innovative techniques and situations. It presents the delight of a young filmmaker with the magic of the new medium.

Entra'cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entra’cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entr’acte (i.e. intermission) is Clair’s famous film experiment from 1924. Clair was working as editor of the cinema section of the arts magazine Le Théâtre-Comoedia Illustré and was involved with avant-garde artists such as the Dadaists. The film was to fill the interlude in a new Ballet, Relâche, by Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Entr’acte, which runs for just on twenty minutes, is another ensemble of cinematic techniques, much of it down to the cinematographer Jimmy Berliet. The official plot has a group of mourners chasing a runaway hearse.

Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was released in 1925. It had been made whilst Clair was working on Entr’acte and produced by Films René Fernand. It was a fantasy film mixing comedy and melodrama. It is full of the recognisable techniques and tricks in Clair’s first two films. The plot is quite complicated but ends in another dramatic chase. The standout sequence is set in the Moulin Rouge where the fantasy elements commence. Designer Robert Gys created the setting with great skill in the studio. The Giornate screening used a British print from the National Archive, which, surprisingly, is longer than the surviving French print.

Le Voyage Imaginaire (1925) was commissioned by ballet impresario Rolf de Maré to star his lead performer Jean Borlin. Like its predecessors this is a fantasy film, this time with the hero’s fantasy in a dream form. The sets by Robert Gys were again impressive, but the film did not really work effectively. It flopped and undermined the growing reputation Clair had established with his first three films. It also closed off a film career for Borlin.

Clair was then recruited to work for Films Albatros and his first production for them; La Proie du Vent was both a critical and commercial success. This launched the partnership with producer Alexandre Kamenka and designer Lazare Meerson. The plot follows a fantastic adventure romance set in the sort of Mittel-Europe revisited recently in Grand Budapest Hotel.  The film also starred the British actress Lilian Hall-Davis.

Clair’s follow-up film was Un Chapeau de Paile D’Italie. His last silent feature was Les Deux Timides (1928). This was a comedy by one of the authors of The Italian Straw Hat Eugène Labiche. The C19th play focuses on two shy male protagonists pursuing romantic interests with difficulty. Clair updated the play to the present and added characters and additional scenes.

His last silent was a documentary short, La Tour (1928) of the Eiffel Tower.

1929 onwards saw the arrival of the news sound cinema. Alexandre Kamanka’s Albatros Film was a casualty as the producer re-joined forces with his erstwhile Russian colleagues at the Billancourt Studio. Clair went to work at the Tobis Paris Studios, part of a conglomerate involving the Tobis and the Klangfilm Sound Companies. He retained the services of Art Designer Lazare Meerson and directed some of the outstanding early sound films including A nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931) and Le Million (1931).



An Italian Straw Hat follows the travails of Fadinard (Albert Préjean) on his wedding day. An accident with the Italian straw hat of Anais Beauperthuis (Olga Tschekowa), caught in a compromising position with her lover Lieutenant Tavernier (Vital Geymond), upsets the carefully planned celebratory events. Fadinard, a bourgeois, is joining hands with Hélène, daughter of petit bourgeois Yvonneck. The comedy opens in the Yvonneck home, and in increasingly farcical situations, takes in the streets, Fadinard’s apartment, the Town Hall, and the home of Beauperthuis. Some of the comedy is delicate and recurring, two important props are a pair of gloves and a pair of shoes. Family, guests and others are often subject of misapprehensions and, importantly, not all of these are dispelled by the resolution. The actions involving the Lieutenant become increasingly bizarre and the coup de grace is presented with great flair.

Clair and his production team appear to have caught the milieu of the 1890s with real skill. What adds immeasurably to one’s pleasure is that the film recreates the sense of the cinema of the 1890s as well. Most of the exteriors are actually studio based, but are extremely convincing. The seemingly random passing dogs, ubiquitous in early film, contribute to this sense of authenticity. Once the straw hat has suffered its fate the comedy develops and becomes ever more emphatic.

The film was screened in a fairly good 35mm print recently at the National Media Museum. We enjoyed a fine accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. The print, from the British Film Institute archive, was 6,626 feet whilst the original release was 7,320 feet in length. The projection speed for the film’s premiere was recorded, 19 fps. This gives about eleven minutes difference in running times between the two versions. Apparently the UK release in 1930 had about a reel removed. There does not seem to be a record of what was cut, and not all the elisions in the film are clear. There are though two noticeable differences. During the ceremony of the Town Hall Fadinard imagines the Lieutenant wreaking havoc in his apartment. About half of this sequence is missing, the most dramatic part where Clair uses stop-motion effects: also seen in his earlier experimental films. Later when Fadinard visits Monsieur Beauperthuis he recounts the original accident, presented visually as a melodramatic stage version. All of this has been removed. In both cases the UK distributor seems to have removed the most unconventional treatment in the sequences. They presumably thought even then that English audiences like their ‘realism’. Darius also noticed that a couple of title cards were missing in the shorter version. These also relate to the sequences at the apartment of Monsieur Beauperthuis. In this case the distributor appears to have misunderstood the visual signal Clair adds for the audience at this point. In fact one can work out the sense of the sequence from the remaining visual sign. One other brief scene cut is an image of a priest and marital couple as Fadinard explains his situation to the Lieutenant. The oddity here is that there are two such inserts, but only one has been removed.

The continuity of the film remains in the shorter version, as does most of the comedy. Unfortunately the two main sequences that have been cut, Fadinard’s imaginings at the Town Hall and his presentation of Monsieur Beauperthuis, are among the highlights of the film. However An Italian Straw Hat remains one of the finest of the silent era’s comedies. It is certainly equal to the great filmic comedies made in Hollywood in the 1920s. Clair has a great comic touch and his filmic style, together with excellent production support, is always a pleasure. Whilst this film is the peak of his work in the 1920s the other features from that decade are certainly worth seeking out.

Posted in French film 1920s, Silent Comedy | 2 Comments »

Les Nouveaux Messieurs

Posted by keith1942 on September 12, 2009


 This French silent was screened at the 2008 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is both a romance and a political satire. I not only enjoyed the film but also started noticing interesting parallels with a later British sound film, Fame is the Spur. The discussion of the two films that follows does include plot spoilers.

LES NOUVEAUX MESSIEURS (Translated as The New Men) Films Albatros/Sequana Films, France 1928.

Director: Jacques Feyder; screenplay: Jacques Feyder, Charles Spaak, from the play by Robert de Flers & Francis de Croisset (1926); photography: Georges Périnal, Maurice Desfassiaux; design: Lazare Meerson; cast: Albert Préjean (Jacques Gaillac), Gaby Morlay (Suzanne Verrier), Henry Roussell (Comte de Montoire-Grandpré).

Filmed: 27.6­28.9.1928 (Brie-Comte-Robert; Créteil; Brunoy; Château de Bisy; Studios Billancourt).

35mm, 2805 m., 123′ (20 fps); print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.

French intertitles [with a translation].

Musical score composed and conducted by Antonio Coppola, performed by I’Octuor de France.

“Les Nouveaux Messieurs, by Francis de Croisset and Robe­rt de Flers, had been the hit of the 1925-26 Boulevard season, enjoying a run of 400 performances. It was a romantic and satiric comedy that described a tug-­of-war waged over a pretty young actress by two men: her ageing aristocratic protector and a young left-wing electrician union organiser. The aristocrat uses his wealth and connections to protect his ­protégéé, but the worker wins her over with his casual charm and ­dynamic self-confidence. The electrician is appointed labour minister in a new left-wing government, only to lose his position (and lover) when the government is toppled.”

Lenny Borger in the Catalogue 2009.


The play from which the film originated was first performed in 1926. It would seem likely that it was commenting on current political developments in France. There was a General Election in 1924. It was narrowly won by the Cartel des Gauches, which replaced a conservative government. The Cartel was an alliance of radicals and socialists, with a small group of communist. However, the new government was undermined by disagreements among its members. What finally bought it down were economic forces. There was a large deficit in the French budget, exacerbated when the reparations awarded to France from Germany at the Treaty of Versailles were postponed by the US sponsored Dawes Plan. Unable to resolve the crisis the Cartel lost the support of centrist groups, and was replaced by a government of National Unity. The Cartel leader Herriot joined in, but it was really a conservative administration.

[See A History of Modern France, Volume 3: 1871 – 1962, Alfred Cobban. Pelican].

This French silent provides an interesting contrast with the later sound film made in Britain, Fame is the Spur, UK Two Cities 1947, black and white, 116 minutes.

Produced by John Boulting. Directed by Roy Boulting. Script by Nigel Balchin from the novel by Howard Spring.

Cast: Hamer Radshaw – Michael Redgrave. Ann – Rosamund Johns. Tom Hannaway – Bernard Miles. Arnold Ryerson – Hugh Burden. Lady Lettice –

Howard Spring started out as a journalist in South Wales, and then moved on to the London Evening Standard. This, his most well known novel was published in 1940. It is a salutary tale [the leading character appears to be modelled on Ramsay MacDonald] of a working class lad who succeeds in becoming a Member of Parliament, a Government Minister and finally a Lord: but loses touch with his roots and his class politics. The novel begins with a quotation from John Milton’s Lycidas:

“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise

(That last infirmity of noble mind)

To scorn delights and live laborious days.”

The film broadly follows the book and opens with this quotation in a voice-over by the lead actor. It provides an apt comment both on this British political saga and the earlier French farce. The narrative is organised around episodes, usually introduced by a title showing the year, running from 1870 to 1937. The French and British films are in many ways very different, including one being silent and one sound. But there are also interesting parallels in the character situations and the development of the plot.

Like Nouveaux Messieurs, Fame is the Spur is loosely based on actual events and characters. And the latter film mirrors the earlier one in that a key moment in the narrative is an economic crisis that impacts on the governing class. In Fame is the Spur Hamer has become the Minister for Interior Affairs in a Labour Government. The Wall Street Crash and the beginning of the Great Depression lead to the formation of the National Government led by Ramsay MacDonald. Hamer joins this collaborationist government, which [among other measures] institutes a cut in unemployment benefit.

Hamer ‘sells out’, as indeed does Gaillac.

In fact this crossing over of the class divide had becomes increasingly clear as Hamer’s career progresses. Like Gaillac he acquires the external trapping of the bourgeois politician, the top hat and evening dress. He also acquires a large and expensive mansion. In Nouveaux Messieurs Gaillac visits a new housing estate dressed in his top hat and tails, demonstrating his alienation from the working class party supporters. In the British film at one point we see Hamer vainly attempting to persuade Welsh miners to support the Imperialist war effort. This contrasts with his early working class family and upbringing.

Hamer stirs the miners with his grandfather's sword

Hamer stirs the miners with his grandfather's sword

In Nouveaux Messieurs we see Gaillac at the C.I.T. offices with a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital on his desk. [C.I.T. is presumably meant to strand in for the actual C.G.T. Confédération Générale du Travail]. The equivalent scene in Fame is the Spur shows Hamer in an early job in a Manchester Bookshop. Among the photographs on the wall is a portrait of Karl Marx. Hammer’s young female admirer, Ann [whom he later marries] comes to be ‘instructed’ and he lends her An Introduction to Capital.

Some of the parallels are rather different in presentation. So in Nouveaux Messieurs we see a French deputy dreaming in the chamber: of nubile ballet dancers pirouetting in the aisles. In the Boulting film the ‘dream’ sequence refers to the tale told to the young Hamer by his granddad. This is a reminiscence of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester in 1819. This is not a realistic flashback, but an imagined event [presumably by Hamer] where the workers wear garlands of flowers and the attacking yeomanry are dressed as medieval knights. The grandfather has retained a souvenir from this infamous event, a yeoman’s sword, which becomes a symbol of Hamer’s youthful radicalism.

Fame is the Spur uses frequent montages: i.e. rapid sequence of shots highlighting events, as for example in the St Swithun Parliamentary election where Hamer cuts his political teeth, or when the Suffragette agitation is introduced. Nouveaux Messieurs uses a rather different technique, rapid accelerated motion, during the tour by Jacques of the new housing estate, as he desperately tries to rush back to the political crisis in Paris.

There are two important developments in the plot where the films differ considerably. In Nouveaux Messieurs Suzanne accompanies Jacques when he goes to address a transport workers strike. Jacques is successful in halting the march by the workers; and later, at a rally, suggests the speeches are ended and that there be dancing. The strikers win concessions, but Jacques is clearly restraining worker’s militancy in a reformist manner.

In the Boulting film Hamer’s equivalent scenes is when he goes to address striking Welsh miners at the request of his friend Arnold. Hamer stirs the miners up to a militant pitch, brandishing the sword from Peterloo as a symbol of class resistance. In the ensuing fracas a worker is killed and Hamer is seen as an agitator, though he vigorously disclaims responsibility.

Even more interesting is the comparison between the heroines of the two films. Suzanne is a fairly active heroine, but the plot contains her as an object of male interest. By the end of the film she has opted for the affluent life provided by the Comte and is still a ballet dancer at the prestigious Opéra; a position first obtained for her by the Comte and then reinstated by Gaillac as a Minister. Ann, in Fame is the Spur, is equally subservient to Hamer early in the film. But by 1912 she has become a militant supporter of the Suffragette movement. Hamer, now well down the path of reformism, opposes the movement and votes for women. In fairly harrowing scenes the audience see Ann in Holloway prison and enduring the violence of forcible feeding. This exacerbates her consumption and she soon dies: leaving Hamer to the admiration of his aristocratic admirer, Lady Lettice, [wife of the Earl whom Hamer opposed in the earlier St Swithun’s election].

Fame is the Spur received an A Certificate and did not suffer the fate of Nouveaux Messieurs, which was banned for a time and then suffered enforced cuts to the film. This was presumably down to the more radical climate in the 1940s Britain with the mood of ‘no return to the thirties’. And the French film  appeared after a further General Election in France in 1928. This was won by the conservatives, and presumably sharpened the satire of Nouveaux Messieurs for audiences.

With everything going for it, nobody was ready for the shock awaiting the finished film at a first trade screening in late November 1928: it was refused a distribution visa and subsequently banned! The parliamentary world was up in arms: the film was declared an act of lèse-government, and a number of MPs, among them the president of the Chamber of Deputies, claimed to recognise themselves in some of the more unflattering portraits. Both Left and Right felt they were on the receiving end of Feyder’s satiric darts.

The scandal swelled ludicrously, only to subside months later. The distribution visa was finally delivered – pending cuts (the unkindest being the now-lost ironic epilogue at the train station, where the aristocrat sees his ex-rival off to a safely distant post in Geneva: “Vive la Republique!” yells the worker; “Vive la France!” the anti-parliamentarian counters).

Lenny Borger

The farewell

The farewell

Fame is the Spur has a very different sort of ending. The Boulting brothers came up with an inspired scene, which is not in the original novel. Now 75 and a Lord, Hamer returns to his mansion and overcome by memories takes down the sword from the mantelshelf and tries to draw it from the scabbard. He fails; it has rusted up from disuse. A powerful visual symbol for the situation of Hamer.

Nouveaux Messieurs is essentially a farce, whilst Fame is the Spur is a melodrama with tragic overtones This would seem to reverse Marx’s dictum, ‘that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce’. But the films also fit with stereotypical representations of the differences between French and British culture. The French film is a satirical farce, and at the centre is effectively a ménage à trois. The British film is clearly a melodrama, which opts for a serious moral stance rather than satire or even irony.

 The Director of Nouveaux Messieurs, Jacques Feyder, was an established filmmaker by 1929. In the 1920s he directed a number of fine features that are seen as early examples of French Poetic realism. [One example would be Crainquebille (1922) screened at an earlier Giornate]. But he had a chequered career. In 1929 he went to Hollywood for a period, but was not successful there. He had already demonstrated a clear touch for comedy and satire and his most famous film, La Kermesse heroique (Carnival in Flanders, 1935), is a satire on war set in a C17th village occupied by Spanish soldiers. Like Nouveaux Messieurs, the film mixes political and sexual conflicts in its plot.

The Boulting Brothers are now probably best remembered for their 1950s comedy. This included I’m Alright Jack, a satire on industrial relations that caricatured both bosses and workers. However, in the 1940s the Boulting were young and radical, part of that post-war left-leaning generation. Their earlier Pastor Hall (1940) was a savage indictment of the Nazi, and even ventured into the violent world of the concentration camp. And The Guinea Pig (1948) followed a working class lad [Richard Attenborough] trying to make a success of a scholarship to a Public School.

So the two films provide both parallels and contrasts. Given that the topic of parliamentary and class conflicts are not common in popular film, both their similarities and their differences provide an intriguing study.


Thanks to Il Giornate del Cinema Muto for stills from Nouveaux Messieurs.

Posted in French film 1920s | 1 Comment »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers