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Two films by Max Linder

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2020

These were part of a programme dedicated to European Slapstick at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto. Linder was a pioneer comedian and star of European cinema, successfully engaging the new cinema-going public from 1905. He was an influence on many of the subsequent film  comedians, including the notable exponent of slapstick in Hollywood and on Chaplin himself. These two film date from late in his career after he had returned from a foray in Hollywood films. Following the second his life was to end tragically in suicide.

La Petit Café(1919) is an adaptation of a play by Tristan Bernard (1912). The film was directed by Raymond Bernard, the son of the plays author. Raymond Bernard had started out as an actor; then worked with Jacques Feyder as an assistant and this is one of his early solo features and he also worked on the screenplay with Henri Diamant-Berger.

The plot is a familiar one. A penniless man turns out to be the illegitimate heir of a wealthy man and enjoys a large inheritance. There are various travails on the path, including characters who attempt to usurp the inheritance. But the most humorous passages are of Max Linder as Albert working in a boulevard café. There is a comic contrast between Albert as a lowly waiter and , later, as an affluent man-about-town. But Linder most familiar aspect are as a ladies man. He has several romantic adventure. And in one, he and Bernard have a fine ellipsis underscored by the broken umbrella, left all night at the door of one amour’s house. The film also has a nice homage to Chaplin with whom Linder had become friendly during his sojourn in Hollywood.

“the first scene is an an out-of-context Linder imitation of Chaplin’s Little tramp – mugging at the camera in what might be a personal message to Chaplin himse4lf.” (Lisa Stein Haven in the Festival Catalogue).

Au Secours (1924) is another Linder film made with a noted director; in this case Abel Gance. The film was only a short version of the original. The final cut was 1500 meters then reduced to 900 metres on release. The 35mm version screened at 18 fps was only 490 metres. This presumably affected the coherence of the film’s narrative.

Basically Max Linder accepts a bet at his gentlemen’s club; the dare of spending an hour in a supposedly haunted house. The member who lays the bet and owns the house cheats by creating various pseudo phantoms and even an attack on Max’s young wife. Bizarrely the action takes place on the opening night of Fax’s honeymoon, something that sits ill with Maxis familiar character of romantic voyeur.

The film does have some very effective technical effects.

“most notably his [Gance] use of high=sped montage, negative image, slow-motion, and reverse-motion. For an instance, in a scene in which Max is hanging from a chandelier, Gance  distorts the image such that a sense of vertigo is effectively created.” (Festival Catalogue).

The Catalogue suggests that the film was produced over three days, which presumably accounts for the film lacking the sophistication that one associates with Linder. However, he is always a delight to watch on-screen, dapper, confident and sexy. So the programme offered real pleasure and fine examples of ‘European Slapstick’.

Posted in French film 1920s, silent comics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Ménilmontant, France 1926.

Posted by keith1942 on May 29, 2018

This title was screened at e Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 in ‘The Canon Revisited’. We watched a DCP sourced from a 35mm distribution print. The film had been re-edited by a distributor adding intertitles in the 1928: we saw the original version without intertitles. And alternative title translates as ‘The Hundred Steps’.

The film is an early example of what became known as ‘French impressionist film’. The actual story is conventional and melodramatic. Two sisters who move from a rural town to Paris are the objects of passion by a young ‘Lothario’. This results in one sister becoming pregnant and the other falling into prostitution. Late in the film the two separated sisters meet in the streets, both sad victims.

There is a definite cross-over with D. W. Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm (1921). In fact some critics compared the performance of the younger sister (Nadia Sibirskaia) to that of Lillian Gish. She also plays in a Griffith-type sequence, when pregnant and starving she is given dry bread by a tramp sharing a park bench.

What made the film stand out was the style, which features many of the techniques that became common in impressionist films.

There are sequences of violence in rapid montage, of dreamlike multiple superimpositions and lap dissolves (all done in camera), of documentary like impressions …, of classical continuity editing.” (Richard Abel quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The director, Dimitri Kirsanoff, seems to have done much of the hand-held camera work, which is another feature of the film. There are frequent scenes set in actual Paris streets, often after rain, or doused by the production: glistening cobble stones that must have looked great on nitrate.

Kirsanoff was Estonian who migrated to Paris. His father died in the Russian Revolution which seems to have darkened his views. He disliked ‘Potemkin’ but rated Stroheim. His helpmate was the film’s leading actor, Nadia Sibirskaia (originally a Breton Geneviève Lebas). They acted together in an earlier of his films, L’Ironie du destin (1921), now lost. Whilst Ménilmontant was a success after a screening at the avant-garde venue Théâtre du Vieux Colombier Kirsanoff’s career was caught between the conflicting pressures of commercial demands and avant-garde values. He made several more films but failed fine a niche in which to work consistently.

This title was screened in a double bill with Louis Delluc’s Fièvre (1921). The Catalogue offered the legend that Ménilmontant was transferred to digital at 18 fps and looked fine. Stephen Horne and Romano Todesco provided piano accompaniments to the films; both played music that was appropriate and set off the tenor of the titles.

I was able to revisit the film in May when it was screened from a 35mm print. The print was fine but the accompaniment was a problem. There was a piano, which offered sparse accompaniment which suited the film. However the dominant sounds were pre-recorded sounds and live Foley sounds. The pre-recorded sounds including rain and street noises. The live Foley offered aural representation of actions on screen. The nadir of this was when the sound of the munching of bread on the park bench was recreated. It is recorded that some silent screenings used sound machines and similar. But I cannot believe that such literal sound recreation happened for avant-garde films and/or at the Colombier. What made the practice even odder was that the afternoon of films opened with silent Laurel and Hardy titles: a pair of comics where live Foley sound could have been a successful addition.

So this is a rare occasion for me where digital trumps ‘reel’ film.

Posted in French film 1920s | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

The Hyde Park Picture House in 1915

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2016

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

Monday, 2nd November 1915 the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds opened for its second year of business. Already in the first twelve months of film entertainment it had successfully established itself. The log books, donated to the West Yorkshire Archive Service in 2015, record the box office takings. Weekly attendances were now regularly over 2,000. At a Bank Holiday they could exceed 3,000. And the same happened when there was a really popular film. So the log books record key titles, and Charlie Chaplin had already registered with his amazingly fast rise to fame and stardom.

On the Thursday of that week in November 1915 another popular title opened at the cinema: The Exploits of Elaine (Pathé USA, 1915). The Exploits of Elaine was a serial, with fourteens separate episodes. The Hyde Park appears to have screened the separate episodes weekly, as part of the second programme of the week opening on Thursdays: presumably  as the box office increased towards the weekend.

Serials were immensely popular in this period and were produced by a number of different film industries. The French were leading exponents, most famously with Fantômas (Gaumont, 1913). This was so popular that it ran through five episodes, each over an hour in length. And the characters returned later in sound versions. Like many of the serials the original property was a comic book. Fantômas was a master criminal, hunted through the episodes by Inspector Juve. The staples of this and other serials were criminals, detectives, sometimes spies, disguises, adventures, chases, mysterious events, and cliff-hanging endings.  Over a hundred were produced in the USA alone in the silent era, and a number of the key characters also re-appeared in later sound versions. There was a serial produced in Mexico, The Grey Automobiles (El Automóvil Gris, 1919): based on actual criminals and police corruption. The entire serial was screened at this year’s Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Elaine poster

The Exploits of Elaine followed on from an earlier Pathé serial, The Perils of Pauline (1914) which enjoyed the billing –

“Thrilling, Terrifying, Titanic, Terrific, The Death Defying Sensation, Pearl White.”

The star, Pearl White, returned as Elaine. One description offers the ‘damsel in distress’ genre. However, this does not really do the films justice. Pauline, and then Elaine, were constantly in danger, usually from the cliff-hanging ending. And both heroines were assisted by an authoritative male who frequently rescued them. However, they performed many of the action and stunts and were quite capable of confronting their adversaries: in Elaine’s case a mysterious villain known as ‘the clutching hand’. The stunts were often ‘real’ and involved the heroines in fights, explosions, train and aeroplane acrobatics, and exposure on cliffs and over torrents. Like many other serials Elaine’s adventures were taken from a book, a scientific mystery series. Elaine proved as popular as her predecessor Pauline and there were two subsequent serials. A sense of the plotlines can be gained from some of the Chapter Titles:

“1. The Clutching Hand

2.The Twilight Sleep.

3.The Vanishing Jewels

4.The Frozen Safe.

5.The Poisoned room. and so on ….”

Again the French were also pioneers, Gaumont had Les Vampires (1915 – 16) with its black-clad heroine Musidora. The influence and popularity of these serials was widespread. Pauline was an influence on a famous and popular dare-do heroine in Hindi Cinema, Fearless Nadia. She wowed audiences from the 1930s to the 1950s and was the equal of her predecessors in taking on villains and coping adventurously with adversity.

Both Pauline and Elaine appeared in short episodes, usually one reel running for about fifteen minutes. Fans who saw A Night at the Cinema in 1914 will have seen an episode of The Perils of Pauline, with a climatic ending in a quarry. The popularity of this serial and other films demonstrates that in Leeds, as nationally, even at this period the burgeoning US industry was already developing the dominance.

Originally posted for the HPPH centenary. Note, the cinema’s anniversary was traditionally thought to be November 7th but the log books revealed it opened on November 2nd 1914.

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 2.

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Maurice Elvey - the film director.

Maurice Elvey – the film director.

The Friday was devoted to silent films and included some titles from Europe. We opened with a film by the British director Maurice Elvey, The Rocks of Valpre (1919). Elvey was a prolific but uneven filmmaker. This however was one of his finer films. Unfortunately there were at least two, probably three, missing sequences. However, the film followed fairly closely [I was advised] the adapted novel by Ethel M Dell and even with plot ellipsis it was possible to make sense of events. What distinguished the film was the locations [partly filmed in Torbay though set in France) and the style, with distinctive use of iris, shot placement and cutting. And there was a fine piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.

There followed Not for Sale from the Stoll Company (1924). The film was scripted by Lydia Hayward who has featured in earlier festivals with adaptations of stories by W. W. Jacobs. This was early example of the ‘romcom’ or romantic comedy. Ian Hunter plays a rich aristocrat, Lord Denny, whose spindrift ways are bought to a sudden halt by his father. He is forced to find paid employment and moved from a Mayfair flat to a lower class boarding house run by Anne (Mary Odette). Hunter played the lighter comic touch well and there were many engaging scenes and, as you might expect, economic and romantic travails. The film also enjoyed a suitably light accompaniment from John Sweeney.

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

The day also saw two films on which the young Alfred Hitchcock worked at the London studio of Famous-Players. Hitchcock is credited with the film titles, though none of the actual title cards survive. Charles Barr provided introductions to the films and a possible relationship to the body of Hitchcock’s full directorial work. The Man From Home (1922) followed a young US heiress on a European tour and mainly set on the Italian Rivera. The plot was fairly generic and predictable, with the young heiress and her brother tempted astray by continental fortune seekers. But the production values of this US company were notable. The second film from the same studio was a unusual, bizarre example. Three Live Ghosts (1922) only survives in a re-edited version from the Soviet Union and Gosfilmofond. In the 1920s films from the capitalist west were frequently changed through editing and titling to accord better with the socialist values of the new Republic. There were performances of Intolerance (1916|) with added live choral inserts to improve the film. And Eisenstein, whilst learning his craft with Esfir Shubb, did some re-editing on films by Fritz Lang. Unfortunately whoever worked on this film was not of the same calibre. The changes relied almost wholly on new titles and the plotting was confusing and the political comment simplistic to say the least. However, it is a rare example of a uncommon cinematic form. We also enjoyed a fine Swedish import, Den Starkaste / The Strongest (1929). The films had previously been screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2013, but this fine production is worth several viewings. It is partly a romantic drama, but much of the film involves arctic voyages and hunts, and the quality of the settings and cinematography is admirable. Stephen Horne provided a suitable and lyrical musical accompaniment.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

The evening screening was Michel Strogoff (1926). This was one of the French films involving Russian émigrés in the 1920s. It stared Ivan Mosjoukine, a really charismatic actor of the silent era. A Siberian adventure based on a Jules Verne novel, one of the attractions of this film version was the use of Pathecolor [a stencil colour process] for a dramatic sequence. It was also an epic, running 169 minutes.

Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Festivals, French film 1920s, Scadinavian film, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

J’accuse (Per la patria), France 1919

Posted by keith1942 on May 9, 2015


This is a classic of the French silent cinema and also an early and famous example of an ‘anti-war’ film. The film was released in 1919, whilst the ravages and tragedies of the war were still fresh in the minds of the audiences. In France the war had actually taken place on French territory and there were not only the huge losses of men in military action but violence experienced by civilian population.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. A new version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. Lobster films are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama: romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. Opening in a French village we watch the experiences of different characters who suffer both at the front line but also from the depredations behind the lines. As might be expected at this period the representation of the Germans is fairly one-dimensional. But the French characters offer a variety of responses to the conflict. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. The film uses close-ups for dramatic effect. One sequence uses a series of shots of hands as the men of the village prepare to leave for the war. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though over three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War, [not strictly accurate].

The version screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (200(0 was on 35mm and had tinting and toning. It was projected at 16 fps and ran for 192 minutes. Stephen Horne on the piano provided a suitably epic accompaniment. The same version was also screened at the last Leeds International Film Festival. On this occasion the screening used a DCP. I only managed to catch the final third of the film. The transfer was good but the film ran about 20 minutes shorter. I suspect the problem was that the DCP was run at 24 fps: I certainly noted some sequences were running too fast. Unfortunately the UK is lagging behind in developments: the FIAF specifications for frame rates below 24 have been around for a couple of years but so far are little used here. There was a very good accompaniment to the film on the Town Hall organ, played by Simon Lindley.


Posted in Archival issues, French film 1920s, war and anti-war films | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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 | 3 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.

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