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The Cossack Whip, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2017

This was John H. Collins final film for a combination of companies, Kleine – Edison – Selig – Essanay. He then moved on to Metro. Collins had married up and coming star Viola Dana in 1915 and she was the star of this film  and continued in that role for Collins until his demise in 1918.  Helen-Day Mayer and David Mayer in the Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue, characterise the plot of this film.

“Not high art, but a melodrama to be enjoyed – as melodrama. Although the collapse of the Russian Army, virtually helpless under German attack, was well known in America in 1916, writer James Oppenheim and scenarist Paul Sloane fell back on a misgoverned, cruel and autocratic representation of Russia that had been the subject of numerous late-Victorian stage melodrama.”

In the early reels we have the despotic Tsarist secret police, secret revolutionaries [though without defined political content] and the innocent villagers caught up in the conflict. In the film we first meet the revolutionary band [ The Brotherhood] including Sergius (Richard Tucker). An attack on a train to free imprisoned radicals leads to searches of villages on the orders of Cossack officer Ivan Turov. This leads to a raid on the village where Darya (Viola Dana) and her family live,

The raid is a bravura sequence. A lone horsemen is seen on a hilltop amongst a snow-covered but desolate landscape. He is joined by other horsemen, seen in silhouette. Intercut with this are scenes of a village celebration for the betrothal of Darya’s sister Katerina (Grace Williams) to Alexis (Robert Walker). Then the mounted Cossacks attack the village, shooting, cutting down with sabres and pillaging. Some villagers, including children, are left for dead; others are marched off to the secret Police HQ for interrogation. Darya had managed to hide in a water barrel and hs emerges to see the dead and the desolation.

At the Police HQ the interrogation is supervised by Turov. With Katerina Turov shows her the torture of Alexis through a stone trap door above the cell where he is being beaten with a whip. Turov offers her Alexis’s life in exchange for her favours. However, after he has satisfied his lust, Katerina discovers that Alexis is actually now dead. Katerina is also beaten, and in a terminal state, she returns to the village with the whip used in the torture. Finding her and hearing her story Darya swears revenge.

The plot moves on. Darya flees to Moscow and joins the ballet troupe of which Sergius is also a member. However, the secret police force her to flee again, to London. Darya’s ballet career is furthered there by Madame Pojeska ((Sally Crute). But even here she is the subject of surveillance by a Tsarist spy. She also meets Sergius again.

The pair return to Russia where Darya becomes a featured dancer in the prestigious Imperial Ballet. This brings her to the attention of Turov who visits her dressing room and flirts with her. Darya takes up his invitation and he shows her the secret police HQ. He shows her the actual cell where Alexis and Katerina were tortured and the stone trap-door above. Playfully and flirtatiously examining the wall manacles in the cell, Darya inveigles Turov into letting her lock him in them. She now produces the whilst and proceeds to beat the helpless Turov. Tension is increased when a cut show the audience a man In Tsarist uniform above the cell as well as Turov’s Chinese servant. The uniformed officer turns out to be a fellow revolutionary who ends Turov’s agony by shooting him. This sequence once again uses the effective and relatively fast editing seen earlier in the film. At the climactic moment the dead Katerina is superimposed on her living sister. And the underground cell is presented with a blue tint which emphasise its forbidding nature.

Her revenge completed Darya can flee Russia with Sergius. We last see the pair entering

‘the land of the free’

as the ship passes the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour.

The plot line was not always clear to me and the ‘long arm of co-incidence’ seemed to operate. The geography of the film seemed very convenient, especially the visit to the secret Police HQ in the final reel. And credits seem to suggest two Turov’s: if so I did not distinguish them. And synopsis referred to Paris rather than London. However, the 35mm print for the screening seemed complete. Whatever the possible confusions in the plot this was an exemplary use of film techniques and seemingly radical for the period.

Jay Weisberg and Paolo Cherchi Usai’s introduction in the Festival Catalogue comments;

“A fine example of this [the fruitful collaboration of Collins and Dana) is The Cossack Whip, which can still astonish the modern viewer for the unbridled modernity of its style. The film is edited with an elegance and rhythm that could have made Eisenstein envious, and there is reason to suspect that Collin’s grasp of the medium flourished quite independently from Griffith’s influence.”

We also enjoyed a suitably dramatic accompaniment from Neil Brand at the piano.

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Beginnings of the Western, Pordenone 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2017

‘The Escape of Jim Dolan’.

 

These programmes continued the exploration started at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This year the focus was on films produced in 1912 and 1913 as the genre began to take shape in the early Hollywood studios. The first of three programmes presented cowboy films shot in California by these young companies.

At the End of the Trail was a Vitagraph production from 1912. This was a stock trade but with some distinctive features. A Sherriff [George C. Stanley] learns from a group of cowboys that they have seen a wanted horse thief. He sets off, with a wanted notice,  in pursuit of the Mexican. The meet and fight in a desert, [shades of the later Greed]. At first successful the Sherriff is wounded and overpowered by the Mexican. We follow the latter to his cabin where his daughter Mercedes is of a religious turn. She has  small religious shrine on the wall of  the cabin. Mercedes is also literate unlike her father, She reads the wanted poster that he has pick up but which he does not understand. Pointing to the cabin crucifix she accuses him. Lacking in morals and paternal care he attacks his daughter and leaves. The wounded sheriff, finding the Mexican’s horse caught tin a bramble bush, arrives at the cabin. Mercedes tends his wounds. Then the Mexican returns. Mercedes is killed in the shootout. Now a posse of Cowboys arrive. Standing round Mercedes grave they all remove their hats, except the Mexican, obdurate to the last.

The film was projected form a 35mm print with Dutch intertitles and translation. Filmed in the familiar fairly standard long and mid-shots. What stood out was the tinting in the desert sequences. This was a sort of yellow-brown, suggestive of the later yellow tinting in the Stroheim’s ‘Greed’. In terms of representation there was the familiar Mexican stereotype with the daughter a good and sacrificial character to offset this.

A Wife in the Hills (1912) was produced at the Essanay studio and was part of a famous series, “Broncho Billy”. ‘Billy’ was played by G. M Anderson, founder of the studio and the regular writer and director of these westerns. Not all the characters he plays are “Broncho Billy”. In this film he is an outlaw Bart McGrew. The plot of the film parallels in an odd way the preceding film, At the End of the Trail. Bart’s partner Don Trout (Brinsley Shaw) is having an affair with McGrew’s wife (Vedah Bertram). So seeing  a wanted notice that offers a pardon to any gang members who turns himself in he sells out Bart to the Sherriff. At his arrest Bart realises about the affair and the betrayal. Later he escapes from prison and is pursued by a posse. But reaching the cabin he has run out of ammunition. In a providential intervention a shot by the posse hits and kills Don,. As his unfaithful wife tends the body Bart smiles! This is an usually ironic ending for an early western.

The film was screened from another 35mm print from the EYE Museum. The chase sequence is fairly extended and as it nears the cabin the spatial relationships become slightly confused. And at one point the camera ‘crosses the line’, a technique not yet elevated into a taboo. Richard Abel in the Festival Catalogue noted:

“[this] makes the shooting of Trout all the more grimly ironic – and a sharp contrast to the ending of Essanay’s A Pal’s Oath (1911), shown last year in Pordenone, in which Broncho Billy decides not to exact vengeance when, through an open window, he finds his nemesis embracing his wife (Billy’s former lover) and child.”

The Greater Love USA 1912 was from the Vitagraph Company. The story is simple but the treatment is notable. The Kansas Kid (Robert Thorny) is the subject of a wanted notice. Meanwhile the Sheriff  (Fred Burns) has  a sweetheart (Edna Fisher). She tends a wounded stranger who turns out to be the Kansas Kid. She and the Kid also feel a mutual attraction. This leads to a dispute between the Kid and the Sheriff, who only later realise that the man is the wanted outlaw. Following  a pursuit the Sheriff is wounded and the kid takes him back to be tended by his sweetheart. The grateful Sheriff shakes his hand.

Richard Abel provided some informative notes in the Festival catalogue.

“This surviving film print [35mm] includes a range of tinting characteristic of the period, which differentiates one time of day from another as well as exteriors from interiors.”

He goes on to note the stylistic treatment in the film:

“It also uses a series of objects to effectively highlight key moments in the story: the wanted poster, a rain barrel, a flower, several written notes, and a photograph.”

The poster appears at least three times. And the photograph functions to inform or influence both the Sheriff and the outlaw. And in addition,

“this Vitagraph film deploys eye-line match editing, in not one but two scenes: the fist involving the sheriff and the young woman; the second (with one mismatch), the gunfight between the Sheriff and the Kid.”

I also thought, [but only on one viewing] that there was match when the Sheriff observes the glances between outlaw and the young woman. Also what struck me as uncommon was a high angle camera shot as the Sheriff and the outlaw face off for their confrontation.

Richard Abel’s commentary also left me uncertain. I noted that after the return of the wounded Sherriff and the handshake between him and the outlaw that the cowboy posse also shook the hand of the outlaw. I may have misread this shot as Abel writes:

“but the Sheriff’s men still arrest the Kid and lead him away.”

The Escape of Jim Dolan, USA 1913.

This was a two reel Selig western, the 35mm print including tinting in parts. The plot is full of incident and action. Jim Dolan is false accused by the Foreman of Brown Ranch because of they both admire the Rancher’s daughter Grace. However, there is also a dispute over water rights. The foreman buries a cattle hide on Dolan’s claim, resulting in Jim being convicted for cattle stealing and sentenced to ten years in jail. A title card announces

“The Escape of Jim Dolan.”

Grace smuggles in tools hidden in a basket of food. Jim breaks out at night and is soon pursued by Posse. Hindered by his horse going lame, Jim hides in a river, ingeniously breathing through the barrel of his gun [is that technically possible?]. But his troubles continue. He is captured by Apache and tortured. But the rope which ties him to the horse as it gallops breaks and Jim is assisted by a passing prospector. Back near the ranch a bar brawl leads to the confession of the Foreman. Reading of his innocence in newspaper Jim returns to his claim and to grace.

Jim is played by Tom Mix, a major star and noted for his horsemanship. So one impressive sequence has Jim fleeing on a relay of horses as he escapes from prison and the posse. Mix manages to dismount and then remount

“In scarcely more than a second’s space.” (New York Dramatic Mirror quoted in the Catalogue).

The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species, USA 1913.

This was a delightfully bizarre western. The 35mm print was missing one section, so the details in the Catalogue relied on the Lubin Film Co. synopsis.

“For those weary of cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians, Romaine Fielding’s The Rattlesnake – a film that still brings gasps – gives us an unclichéd and ruggedly symbolic West. Lubin advertised it as a “strange and weird story” of “a man’s gratitude to a snake for saving his life.” The two-reeler is set in Mexico, and was filmed around Las Vegas, New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, where the landscape looks as unforgiving as the story’s obsessive central figure, played by the director.” (Scott Simmon in the Catalogue).

Tony’s life is saved when the rattlesnake bites an assailant who subsequently dies. Tony, full of gratitude, adopts the snake. However, his girlfriend Inez (Mary Ryan) demands that he choose between her and his reptilian friend. Seven years pass and Inez has married John Gordon ((Jesse Robinson). When Tony attempts to shoot Gordon he ends up being bitten by the snake. By the close the snake is dead and Tony has lost an arm.

This is the only full-length film of Romaine Fielding to survive. though he worked on over a 100 between 1912 and 1915. One wonders if there were imaginative but sadly lost melodramas about horses, cattle, donkeys, and of course dogs. I would be happier, though, if the film did not repeat the stereotypical representation of snakes as untrustworthy.

As Simmon notes the film’s use of landscape is excellent. The New York Dramatic Mirror praised the film but could not resist a rather obvious pun:

“The venom of jealousy has never furnished a better basis for a story than this film portrays. Nor have we in years seen this plot germ presented in a manner more original in conception and development. Romaine Fielding struck upon a singularly appropriate personification of this character  trait in the use of a rattlesnake … Hi shows the hand … of a master of technique in his development of atmosphere to the last essence.” (Quoted in the Catalogue).

The Trail of Cards, USA 1913

This title from the American Film Company was preserved on a 35mm at the Library of Congress. [The same title occurs in the same year on a Selig sea-faring film]. It was noted re the Western,

“In 1913 ”Moving Picture World’ published a list of narrative “bromides” that scriptwriters would do well to avoid if they desired to steer clear of clichéd storytelling. … But The Trail of Cards was singled out for redeeming [a] …hackneyed situation by giving it a “brand new twist”. (Festival Catalogue).

The ‘hackneyed’ story involved two suitors for the one young woman, Bess (or Rose – Lillian Christy). The two suitors, Bob (Edward Coxen) and Pedro (no credit), test their mettle in a fight which Bob wins. Thus he wins Bess. However Pedro has his men kidnap Bess and carry her off – in a hammock slung between two horses. We actually see Bess’s mother vainly shooting after the kidnappers. The ‘twist’ is that Bess leaves a trail of playing cards which Bob and Bess’s father follow to rescue her.

This short film is stylistically innovatory, as Charlie Keil [in the Catalogue] points out:

“Tracking shots recur throughout the film, [most frequently as Bess plants the ‘trail of cards’], and a notable variant serves wrap up the plot: the reunited couple ride towards her ranch as the camera dollies backward, …”

In some ways this film could have slotted into the later ‘cowgirl’ programme.

Philip Carli provided the accompaniment for the films. The films were projected at 18 fps except A Wife in the Hills projected at 16 fps. Most often frame rates are a judgement by archivists. These all looked fine and offered steady movement. The rate of filming and projection in this early period is an intriguing issue.

 

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Behind the Door, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2017

Robert Byrne’s notes in the Festival Catalogue for this film open:

“Behind the Door’s reputation as a shocking film, for any period, is fully justified. “Brutal”, “overwhelming,” and “diabolical” were some of the adjectives used to describe it upon release, and few viewers today will gainsay those reactions. Yet the film was also nearly universally praised as a thrilling, exceptionally well-made story that could boast top-notch technical achievements alongside superb performances.”

The general consensus at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto was that these comments were correct, both about the shock and about the quality offered by the film. It was screened in the ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ section. The producer was Thomas H. Ince, a key film player in the teens; and directed by Irvin V Willat, a director whose other work I have not seen. The story in the film played into the prejudice against German-American citizens in the USA during, and for a time after, World War I. Luther Reed adapted a short story that appeared in McClure’s Magazine in 1918, playing against the common prejudices with a story of a German -American who fights in the US navy. The adaptation seems to have been skilled piece of work. The film also benefitted from location shooting, and the use of an actual submarine  in some sequences. The film has been restored using prints in the Library of Congress and another print from Gosfilmond [which had been changed in line with common practices in the Soviet Union]. The current 35 print is still short of some 700 feet which have been covered by the use of stills and additional title cards.

The main character is Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) a German-American who owns a taxidermist shop in a small coastal town in Maine. At the start of the film as news arrives that Congress has voted to join in the European war, Oscar becomes ht object of small town prejudice. This is stirred up by two members of the local bourgeoisie, bankers, Mathew Morse (J. P. Lockney) and his partner Mark Arnold (Otto Hoffman). Oscar refuses to be intimidated and is involved in fight with one local, Jim MacTavish (James Gordon). This is impressive knock-about fight which ends with MacTavish who opines that Oscar’s fight prowess makes him

‘one regular American’.

We also meet Morse’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) who is in love with Oscar. As the fight gets underway, in her fear, Alice drops her handkerchief. Despite her father’s opposition she and Oscar marry. Oscar then enlists in the navy accompanied by MacTavish. Unable to bear parting Alice hides herself on the ship, the Perth, that Oscar captains; he has seafaring experience. This leads to the central tragedy of the film. The Perth is sunk by a German U-Boat. After 48 hours in a life boat Alice is ‘rescued’ by the U-Boat, whilst Oscar is cast adrift in the boat. Later in the war, captaining a armed cruiser, Oscar’s ship sinks a U-Boat and the sole survivor is Lieutenant Brandt, (Wallace Beery) and it transpires that he commanded the submarine that kidnapped Alice. The film now follows Oscar’s brutal revenge.

Oscar interrogates Brandt, but he uses his German and a pretended sympathy for the German cause to entrap Brandt into telling him of his exploits. These include the rape of a female survivor [clearly Alice], and having satisfied his lust she is tossed to the crudities of the crew. Brandt’s unintended confession is accompanied by flashbacks. These are not explicit in the manner of modern film but still shocking for the period. We see Alice cowering before Brandt who manhandles her. Then she is pushed through a door where a back projection shows her carted off by the crew. her death takes place off-screen. But wee then see a bundle dumped in the sea using the submarine’s torpedo tube.

Having established Brandt’s guilt Oscar proceeds to his revenge. Chaining Brandt up in a cubicle and producing a scalpel. The ensuing torture was too brutal even for this film. And after an ellipsis MacTavish and a fellow officer find Oscar with the corpse, as the widower explains,

“I told him … that if I ever caught him I’d skin him alive; but he died before I’d finished … Damn him.!”

These lines actually concluded the original play. But the film achieves a more melancholy feel by the addtion of an opening sequined which recruiters at the closure. So at the start we find an unidentified figure on a bleak Maine cliff-top at an isolated cemetery. He stops by a grave, one James MacTavish. He continues into a deserted town and a ramshackled shop, the old taxidermists. Hr picks up a scrap of cloth, a handkerchief  as it is blown across the floor proceed by the wind. A lonely dog is shown to howl.  When we return at then end we are again in the taxidermist shop. The ghostly figures of Alice and Oscar appear and embrace.

This is a fine drama and the restoration looks good. The original editing is excellent, especially during the fisticuffs between MacTavish and Oscar. The cinematography is well done, and the locations help make the melodrama convincing. There is one sequence where Bosworth clings to the conning tower of the diving submarine; using an actual vessel the actor nearly suffered a serious mishap. The inserted stills and title cards fill in the gap in the plot. And there is fine tinting which has been carefully reproduced. Phil Carli provided a fine accompaniment, emphasising at times the romance, at other the tension and finally the sense of melancholy.

And it seems we have the San Francisco Silent Film Festival to thank for this worthy addition to the archives.

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Tempest, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2017

This film was part of the programme dedicated to William Cameron Menzies at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Apart from Menzies the film had a fairly mixed group of filmmakers contributing. James Curtis, in the Festival Catalogue, records this:

When first announced, the John Barrymore vehicle Tempest was an original story by Mme. Fred de Gresac. Directing the script would be Frank Lloyd, late of Paramount. The title stuck, but little else did. Lloyd fell away sometime over the spring of 1927, as did Mme. de Gresac’s material, and Russian émigré Viktor Tourjansky, under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer replaced him. The news story, set in the time of the Russian revolution was supplied by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Tourjansky’s mentor at the Moscow Art Theatre.  … As veteran scenarist C. Gardner Sullivan got down to work on the screenplay, Menzies began the process of illustrating key sequences with Tourjansky.”

Slow production led to Tourjansky being ‘assisted’ by Lewis Milestone. There were changes to the cast and then Sam Taylor was bought in as director.

“”I don’t know anything about Russia,” the former gag man for Harold Lloyd to Considine.”

But producer John W. Considine of Feature Productions. Inc. kept him in charge. Taylor junked nearly all the material already filmed and working closely with Menzies and Sullivan directed the film that we now have. [a 35mm print 9203 feet long, it ran for 102 minutes at 24 fps, [we are entering the sound era].

The film was designed for John Barrymore and he dominates the story and the screen. There is even an exterior scene by a river where he is able to bare his manly chest. The 1920s was Barrymore’s heyday in film. The other casting changed several times but the romantic interest was finally played by Camilla Horn. Horn, a German actress, came to fame in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), which led to a Hollwyood contract. Alongside Barrymore in the film is Louis Wolheim, who worked with the star on both stage and screen. The film’s villain was actually a Russian actor working in Hollywood, Boris de Fast. And there are other familiar faces among the supporting cast including g George Fawcett, a silent regular as authority or patriarchal figure.

The plot is simple and conventional. Sergeant Ivan Markov (Barrymore), is of peasant origin, but excellent at his work. He aims to become an officer, and despite the class hierarchy in the Tsarist army, he succeeds. This is partly due to the General (Fawcett) who has a high opinion of Ivan. Sergeant Bulba (Wolheim) is Ivan’s friend and confidant. However, now promoted Lieutenant, Ivan is treated with disdain by his fellow Officers. More wounding is the disdain shown by the General’s daughter, Princess Tamara (Horn). Falling in love with Tamara, despite her arrogance, Ivan gets drunk and is found ‘in flagrante delicto’. He is court-martialled and sentenced to five years in prison. Whilst incarcerated World War I breaks out and Ivan watches his troops march off through his prison bars.

All this time Ivan has been pursued and cajoled by a peddler, in reality a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Now Ivan is suffering the treatment the Peddler predicted. Moreover, now the prophecy of the ‘Red day dawning’ comes to past. Freed Ivan becomes a leader among the revolutionaries. He now takes revenge on his former arrogant officers, presiding over the court [in black jacket astrakhan hat] where they are sentenced to death as members of the hated aristocracy. But then, first the General and then Tamara are bought for trial. Ivan’s heart overrules his head. He outsmarts the Peddler turned Commissar. Whilst he is too late to save the General, He, Tamara and Bulba flee the new revolutionary state.

Tempest (1928)
Directed by Sam Taylor
Shown from left: Boris de Fast, John Barrymore

Given the presence of at least two ‘white Russian’ émigrés the finale of the film is not surprising. And I do not know whether Nemirovich-Danchenko was asked or paid for his story. Indeed, how faithful the film was to its source. Curtis notes that Taylor

“began anew, working more closely with Menzies’ illustrations than with the script Sullivan had fashioned.”

In fact, it is a very conventional Hollywood narrative, with the new Revolutionary and free Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. An opening title offers,

” a red tempest of terror’.

Ivan is never a card-carrying revolutionary. He is misused and abused by the military hierarchy. When the opportunity arises he takes revenge, but then his love for a ‘good’ [and suitably chastened] woman saves him. Needless to say the likeable General dies but the likable Bulba leaves with the romantic couple.

The style of the film is fairly conventional but it enjoys some excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher: he, among other accolades, was the favourite cameraman of Mary Pickford. There is some excellent use of chiaroscuro, especially in the prison sequences. And there are some very effective use of insert shots for flashbacks experienced by Ivan.

What stands out about the film is the design of Menzies. Curtis notes:

“For Tempest, Menzies rendered a less-stylised version of Russia that he had for The Eagle (1925, set in the time of Catherine the Great], but on more comprehensive. He would later speak of the importance of setting and lighting in securing a desired emotional effect, and how, in many cases., authenticity was sacrificed and architectural principles violated for the sake of the emotional response being sought.”

So the film offered not an authentic Russia, not an accurate history, certainly not a detached view of the revolution. One anomaly is a picture of Joseph Stalin on the wall where Ivan and the Commissar confer: presumably in 1917.  Menzies work was praised by critics, [presumably mainly anti-Bolshevik] and the film apparently did good business in the cinemas.

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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

This film was directed by Raoul Walsh and produced by the short lived R.A.Walsh Company. This was one of the businesses in which Walsh attempted independent productions before returning to Fox in the mid-twenties: he had left in 1920. The film was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 celebrating the Production Design of William Cameron Menzies. Walsh had recruited him from Famous Players. They were to work together again on The Thief of Bagdad (1924) with a far more lavish production budget.

The film was screened from a 35mm print from the George Eastman Museum. The print was 7,205 feet; 200 feet shorter than the original release. It was projected at 20 fps.

The scenario was an adaptation of a popular novel by Peter B. Kyne,. Kyne was a successful novelist with a number of film adaptations. The most famous was ‘Three Godfathers’ (1913) of which there to have been ten film adaptations. The famous version is that directed in 1948 by John Ford and starring John Wayne. But the most memorable version is Hells’ Heroes (1930, William Wyler) screened at the 1994 Pordenone. That occasion was memorable for the addition of a [surprise] rendition of ‘Silent Night’ for the final tear jerking moments.

Kindred of the Dust is set on the Pacific Northwest coast in logging terrain. It stars Walsh’s wife Miriam Cooper as Nan [of the Sawdust Pile]. She and Donald Mckaye (Ralph Graves) are childhood friends and remain so as adults. Donald’s father Laird of Tyee (Lionel Belmore) owns the logging company. Thus Nan and Donald’s budding relationship is inhibited by the class divide. The differences are symbolised in the film by the Mckaye mansion and Nan’s family home outside of which sits the metaphoric ‘sawdust pile’.

Donald goes east to college and Nan leaves town and works as a singer. When she returns she has an illegitimate child: sparking off the town gossips. When Donald returns these factors inhibit a new relationship. Donald’s conflict with his father leads to him working at a rival logging company. He suffers an accident and is nursed by Nan. They marry but the Laird continues his opposition: it is only when a second child, a grandchild arrives, that he, Donald and Nan are reconciled and become the ‘kindred of the dust’.

The film is full of stock melodramatic situations and actions. The romance between Nan and Donald suffers one problem after another. One notable scene concerns Donald’s return. He is embroiled in a fight with a rough neighbour of Nan’s, a black man. An unusual situation for this period.

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

Kindred of the Dust was a real old-fashioned melodramatic story, ” wrote Miriam Cooper, “full of tough, straightforward heroines, mean, vicious villains and long-suffering heroines. My costumes in the picture tell the story, all grubby homespun and calico. After reels and reels of hardship and fighting you are convinced that nobody can ever be happy. Then, gee whiz, the heroine – me, of course – has a baby and everything turns out all right.”

It is only towards the end of the film that the narrative make use of timber industry and landscape. After his accident Donald returns as a foreman. There is an engine failure at the log slide. Donald rescues the Laird from the river, including some spectacular underwater shots. And this leads to the final reconciliation .

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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Bioscope Westerns

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2017

The Kennington Bioscope is a film club well known to discerning Metropolitan film buffs; one of the programmes to be found at London’s Cinema Museum. And it is an attraction that justified a trip from Yorkshire down to London. March 11th saw a day devoted to the Early Westerns. Programmed by John Oliver, with a substantial input from Kevin Brownlow, this was a real treat. There was a fascinating selection of titles from the early days of the genre: and nearly all the titles were on 16mm or 35mm with live piano accompaniments. There were also detailed programme notes and brief introductions to the separate programmes.

The day started with a Monogram five reel title from 1924, Thundering Hoofs [16 mm]. This featured ‘The World’s Greatest Western Star’ Fred Thomson. In his day he rivalled Tom Mix. A particular aspect of his onscreen persona was his horse Silver King. This equestrian performer could rival human characters with his intelligence and bag of tricks. Dave (Fred Thomson) loves Carmelita (Ann May) but is rivalled by Luke (William Lowey), dastardly, manipulative and a crook to boot. Dave and Silver King win through, though the climax in a bullring was slightly hard viewing for horse lovers. The film was directed by Al Rogell, a long time filmmaker in Hollywood. Of equal interest the film was written by Frances Marion under an alternative name. It also offered an early example of splendid stunt work by Yakima Canutt.

The second programme was four ‘Early Westerns’. These included films shot in or near New York, on the East Coast, and films shot in and around Hollywood, the West Coast. The representation of the Indian/Native American was rather different. East Coast western’s being sympathetic, even empathetic, whilst West Coast/Hollywood was in line with the stereotypes that were to dominate representations in the Studio era.

The first was a 1911 Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith, The Squaw’s Love (The Twilight Song – 35 mm). The film was set entirely in Indian society, in and around their camp.  Gray Fox (Alfred Paget) loves Wild Flower (Mabel Normand), but as she is the daughter of the Chief she is forbidden and he is banished from the tribe. With the help of his friends White Eagle (Dark Cloud) and Silver Fawn (Claire McDowell) he is re-united with his love. The film follows their adventures as they are hunted by tribe members and the heroine shows both courage and imitative.

The India Vestal (1911 – 35 mm) from Selig Polyscope had a more convertional plot. The Vestal (Viola Barry) was a baby taken by the Sioux in an attack on a emigrant wagon train. She was raised in the Sioux tribe but only found romance when she encountered a white trapper. The film was well written and directed by Hobart Bosworth who also played the trapper. Part of the film was shot in the spectacular Yosemite Valley. The towering rock faces, water fall and rapids added immeasurably to the visual appeal.

Custer’s Last Fight (16 mm) was produced by 101-Bison in 1912. 101-Bison combined a film studio with a Western Circus, and the company was able to mount large-scale scenes of characters, props and settings. The director was Francis Ford, who also starred, and the production was under the auspices of Thomas Ince, then introducing a systematic approach to production. So the film’s recreation of the events leading up to Little Big Horn were impressively mounted. The plot appeared to follow the historical events fairly closely. Custer was seen as a flamboyant hero rather than an officer suffering from hubris. Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt) was treated somewhat respectfully, but generally the Indians were the ‘other’ to the US Calvary. Oddly there was hardly any mention of Crazy Horse. The version we saw was a re-issue from 1926 with many of the title cards changed, which seemed to lessen the dynamism of the film.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911 – 35 mm) was one in a popular series of Essanay ‘cowboy’ films. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was the writer, director and star. In this film he was slightly less central, being the enabler for a romance between a young cowboy and his sweetheart. However Broncho Billy did get to display his prowess with six-guns, ‘writing’ with bullet holes in a fence.

Programme 3 was titled ‘A Copyboy’s Best Friend’: his horse, of course.

We first enjoyed a one reel from 1911 and Selig Polyscope, Saved by the Pony Express (35 mm). This credited Tom Mix as writer, director and star, the Pony Express Rider. Mix, like Broncho, was the saviour rather than the centre of the plot. There were romantic rivalries over Belle (Edna Fisher). When one of the lovelorn cowhands was found dead his rival Jim (Fred Church) was the suspect. Mix had to ride  with the evidence that would save him from the judge and a hanging. The film allowed Mix to show off his riding skills and those of his faithful companion Old Blue. Old Blue became a star in his own right: one of the first equestrian celebrities. He appeared in 87 films alongside Tom Mix. Years later he was laid to rest at the Mixville ranch, where most of the films were shot.

The accompanying film was a four reel from the Hal Roach Studio, The Devil Horse (1926 – 35 mm). This starred Rex the Wonder Horse – King of Horses and Yakima Canutt. Watching the film was slightly problematic after hearing of some of the ‘training’ methods that Canutt used on the horse. Apparently Rex was a fairly forceful character. A parallel problem was that in the film ‘the Devil Horse’ ‘hated’  Indians who captured him after na attack on the a wagon train. At that point Rex was  colt and David (Canutt) a young boy. They were reunited later in the film when we saw Rex taking out his ire on Indians. And there were also some problematic lines of dialogue.

Programme 4 gave us ‘Women out West’. The opening title was an extract, The Sawdust Trail (1924, Universal Pictures] with Josie Sedgwick as calamity Jane: one of her many roles in early westerns.

This was followed by a 1911 Vitagraph, A Girl of the West (35 mm). In this Lillian Christy played Polly Dixon, younger sister of Dolly (E. Helen Case), on whom John Winthrop (Tom Fortune) was sweet. He sold his horse for the princely sum of $500. However, Scarfaced Bill (Ralph Thornby), planned to abduct the horse and pocket the money. He was assisted by Dance Hall Nell (Helen Galvin). Polly was an excellent horsewoman. And she needed her skills to ride and warn the buyer of the plot. She also had to outmanoeuvre the Dance Hall Nell. Apart from the great character names and some excellent horse riding the film moved along at a great pace.

The Substitute (1911 – 35 mm) from the Lubin Manufacturing Company had familiar plot tropes. The un-credited cast included Jennie Rock, a telegraph operator. Her brother was an engine driver, but also an alcoholic. So Jennie had to masquerade as him and to drive the express. Worse or better followed: the train was held up and robbed. Jennie was able to signal a warning about this with a present from her Calvary amour, also a telegraph operator.

Two Little Rangers came from Solax in 1912 (35 mm). This was the company with the key pioneer Alice Guy Baché, who both wrote and directed the film. The key player and the older of the ‘rangers’ was Vinnie Burns, a protégé of Alice Guy and a stunt woman as well as an actor. The ‘two little rangers’ were the daughters of the village postmaster. When he was robbed they ride for help and then save an innocent man by exposing the real villain.

South of Santa Fe Frohman Amusement Corp. was a two reel film from 1919 (35 mm). The film starred Texas Guinan, who had a long career in films and ran her own production company for a time. Her tough persona was offered

‘ as a rowdy cowgirl who tames men as easily as horses’.

In this film she was hired as a foreman to control a group of rowdy cowhands who had defeated her male predecessors. They soon found that she was as handy with a fist as with a gun.

The Narrow Trail (35 mm)was a William S Hart production filmed at the Biograph Studio in 1917 with producer Thomas Ince. Hart was the most famous and popular of the screen cowboys of his era. Almost equally popular was his regular horse Fritz, a distinctive pinto horse. Hart regularly played ‘road agents’ or outlaws: in this film Ice Harding. His earliest films portrayed the partnership of man and horse. As his career developed the presence and influence of a ‘good woman’ took increasingly centre screen. In this film she was Betty (Sylvia Bremmer] and she shared a less than reputable past with Ice. The film included a visit by Ice to the great metropolis of San Francisco. But the bulk of the film found us in familiar western landscapes. As nearly always the couple resolved their difficulties and Ice evaded the law and ‘goes straight’.

The final film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), directed by Henry King for Samuel Goldwyn with a screenplay by Frances Marion. Unfortunately this was the only film on digital. The screening did rather lack good definition and the digital format did not cope well with the film’s tinting. I had seen the film in a 16 mm at the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is a fine production. The film dramatises the reclamation of an area of California with a vast irrigation project [the Salton Sink in 1905]. There were some fine large screen sequences and the dramatic climax when the Colorado river bursts through the barrier and flooded the sink was extremely well done. Ronald Colman was fine as the engineer Willard Holmes. Gary Cooper as his rival Abe Lee seemed rather underused. And Velma Banky was a stand out as the titular object of their wooing. A good end to a full and really enjoyable day.

 

So a worthwhile trip. A fine selection of early westerns well presented. And a word of praise to the musicians who provided accompaniments at the piano: Lillian Henley, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Neil Brand and Cyrus Gabrysch.

Credits, quotation and stills courtesy of the Kennington Bioscope.

Posted in Archival compilations, Early cinemas, Hollywood, Westerns | Leave a Comment »

Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana

 

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

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

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

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

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The film is noticeable for the stylistic touches that Collins provides. The reference to the engagement is presented in a heart-shaped iris shot. When Flora receives the letter we see her reflected in a three panel mirror, emphasising not her duplicity but the different pictures held of her. And the lighting in the film adds to the dramatic feel of the story,.

The Everlasting Triangle 1914. 17 minutes at 16 fps.

The film was directed by Collins but scripted by Charles M. Seay, a

‘stock player and vaudeville performer … taking on the roles of actor, writer and director.’

The film is not as well produced as The Man in the Dark, some of the sets are ‘shoddy’. Jay Weissberg in the Catalogue ascribes this to Edison economising.

But the stock melodrama is rendered powerful by a plot resolution that seems to prequel Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Kate (Mabel Trunnelle) is an ‘Eastern girl in the West’. Santley of the West (Frank McGlynn) meets her and proposes marriage. Her other suitor, Philbin, of the East (Robert Kegerreis) leaves. But  a year on, Kate , now living in rural cabin, pines for the busy life of the East. A letter brings Philbin back and they run off. Santley follows them and catches them up in the desert. He shoots two of the three horses and then forces Kate and Philbin to draw cards with himself for the remaining horse. Kate is able to ride off. But Santley forces Philbin on into the desert where he expires. Finally Santley commits suicide. A grim but potent drama.

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The Mission of Mr Foo 2015. 18 minutes at 26 fps. Missing about 75 feet.

Directed by John H Collins from a story by Helen Chandler. This is essentially a film with a stereotypical Asian villain. However Jay Weissberg makes the point:

“The film deftly blends stereotypical “Yellow Peril” deviousness – Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu’ was published just three years earlier , and the name “Foo” can’t be accidental – with a more positive depiction of the noble champions of the new Republic.” (Catalogue)

The cast includes a genuine Chinese actor, a Japanese actor performing as a Chinese character and [more predictably] Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters, including the villain.

Mr Foo (Carlton S. King) is an ant-republican plotting to restore the Chinese monarchy and also trying to undermine US power. The latter is done literally as he and his minions plot in secret underground passages below Washington DC. [A plot device that returned in the sound era].

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Tradition is emphasised in Foo’s commitment to the Buddha, seen in a opening sequence. Later there is a flashback to the now-departed Dowager Empress. Foo’s Buddhism does not prevent him threatening Florence (Gladys Hulette) , the daughter of an important diplomat (Bigelow Cooper) , with miscegenation. Bu the modern Republican Chinese are allowed to be active. The Chinese Ambassador Tu Sing (T. Tamamoto) and his secretary (Otto Kobe) are instrumental in the defeat of Mr Foo. Though the film ends with a slight reversion to tradition when Foo is forced to drink poison.

On the Stroke of Twelve 1915. 41 minutes at 20 fps, with some tinting

Director John H Collins. Script by Gertrude Lyon.

This is an early example of a three reel film, something Edison introduced in 1915. I was interested by the projection speed which seems quite fast for the period. The script writer, Gertrude Lyon, is also interesting. She appears in the lead role in the film, Irene Bromley, as Gertrude McCoy.  She both acted and wrote at Edison and later worked in England in Europe.

The film’s plot revolves around an amateur female detective, Irene. At the start of the film, on the death of her father, she inherits a fortune. In the first reel she acts as a spoilt and extravagant young woman. An aspect emphasised when her lawyers turn down an application by a penniless inventor but then happily allow her to spend $10,000 on a new car.

Irene is the object of attention by Sidney Villon (Bigelow Cooper again as villain) the lawyer who administers her trust. But she is also admired by young Arthur Colby (Richard Tucker), more attractive but also penniless. Reel one ends with a midnight event which will be important later.

“most remarkable is the way he [Collins] signals the striking of the midnight clock with a dozen flashes of light, rendering sound as visual form.” (Jay Weisberg in the Catalogue).

In reel two we see the conflict between Villon and Arthur, ending in a fight in Villon’s flat. Next morning two bodies are found, with a gun and a watch indicating the time of the fight. However, Arthur is alive and is immediately arrested for murder. here we have a familiar trope where an innocent man is found with a body and presumed guilty.

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Arthur is brought to trial and at this point Irene emerges not as a spoilt young woman, but an intelligent and resourceful person. In the course of the trial Collins uses several flashbacks to fill out the plot for the audience. It become clear that the scene with the penniless inventor was not merely background drama. And in following up the clues Irene is able to prove Arthur is innocent and their union is assured.

The sense of two characters described as ‘penniless’ adds emphasis to the film’s presentation of a distinction between wealth and moral emotion. Collin’s films are not radical inc content but they, as in many early US films, emphasise the merits of ordinary working people whilst privileging the benefits of wealth.

The film also displays Collins’ talent with production and lighting.

“It is in the film’s second half [mainly the event sin and alongside the court room drama] that Collins displays his directorial acumen, through dynamic angles and close-ups as well s very fine editing.” (Catalogue).

The last is apparent both in the use of the flashbacks and in the cutting between the court room and Irene’s detective work.

The four films all demonstrated Collins abilities in terms of direction, including in the pacing and rhythm of storytelling. Jay Weisberg suggests that,

“Clearly it’s time to reassess the standard dismissal of Edison films of the period. Contemporary critics were certainly more appreciative, and the studios roster of actors often receive high praise…” [Catalogue].

Whilst the plots were in many ways conventional the dramas were effective and, particularly in the longer film, one had a sense of some character development. All four films were screened from 35mm prints. The programme ensured that one would take care to catch all of the subsequent screenings of Collins’ films. And there were suitably dramatic accompaniments by Donald Sosin.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, US pioneers, Westerns | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

The Adventurer, Mutual 1917

Posted by keith1942 on December 12, 2016

mutual-adventurer

Chaplin learnt his trade in the British Music Hall. Then on tour of the USA he was recruited by the Keystone Film Company. The studio was run by Max Sennett and based at Edendale, close to the developing Hollywood. Chaplin signed with them in August 2013 and his first films appeared in 1914. Gradually his screen persona of ‘the tramp’ emerged and by 1915 he was already a star. The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds, which opened in 1914, records some film details in the surviving log books. By the middle 1915 Charlie Chaplin is a ‘name above the title’ and attracting some of the biggest attendances of the year. Chaplin appeared in 35 films for Keystone: mainly one-reelers. By now he was so successful he was able to sign with the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company for an increased salary and with greater control over the films in which he appeared. Chaplin made 14 films for Essanay, both one and two reelers. By now he was an international star and he moved again, this time Lone Star Mutual. Not only did he now exercise complete control over the titles but he was able to work at his own pace and in his own way: slower than most film-makers and with a perfectionist attention to detail and the comedy.

This film was the fourteenth and last title he made there. The shooting took at least two months, an exceptionally long period for the time. He shot about 700 takes, this for a film that was 1800 feet long and which ran for just over 20 minutes, presumably at 16 fps. There was not a script as such. Chaplin planned two settings, an opening sequence shot on the coast and then a set of interiors at a large mansion. When these were completed he added a third section which acted as a bridge between the start and end setting of the film.

The opening of the film finds Charlie as an escaped convict being pursued by a group of police along the seaside. This is fine slapstick with excellent timing. The sequence is almost entirely a chase up and down the cliffs and along the beach and water. Charlie displays the balletic grace which is one of his star attractions.

The central section has a series of rescues from the water and Charlie’s encounter with an attractive and affluent young woman (Edna Purviance). He also encounters her beau, played by his regular nemesis Eric Campbell.

The final section finds Charlie a guest at the mansion woman’s father, [he is a judge]. Charlie masquerades as a society man and is involved in a s series of mishaps and gags involving the well-heeled guests and the servants. Mayhem returns when the police re-appear towards the end of the film.

Charlie’s persona is typified in this film in the manner that David Robinson presents in a quotation:

“… all my films are built round the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious  in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman.” (David Robinson Chaplin His Life and Art, Collins and Son 1985).

Chaplin, whilst a tramp, has a petit-bourgeois style and his penury is constantly contrasted with his expensive tastes. This is especially true of the sequence in the rich mansion which sees Chaplin attempting to impress the young woman whilst his rival intervenes and the niceties of social norms are repeatedly sabotaged.

This approach was clearly an important factor in Charlie early success and popularity:

“One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.”

And Music Hall, and the US Vaudeville audiences had an even higher percentage of the poor. This was also a decade in which such divisions were powerfully present in political and economic life. The film also benefits from Chaplin’s inspired use of props: an instance here uses ice cream.

Stylistically this film, like its companions, is straightforward. The camerawork tends to rely on the long shot, with an occasional mid-shot. Camera potions are closest to the plan americain, head-on and mid-figure. The structure of the film relies mainly on the editing, and the cutting is an important element in the humour and jokes in the film. The cinematography, by Chaplin’s regular Roland Toleroth, is simple and effective. There is some under-cranking to achieve speed-up in the early sequences. And the characters tend to position themselves mid-frame.

At this early stage there films offer little in the way of credits. There would have been a raft of craft personnel working on this film. However, by now Chaplin was an autocrat, sometimes even a control freak, and it is mainly his mark we see on the film.

But an important element is the supporting cast. Edna Purviance was a regular in Chaplin’s films at this period: she also had a close personal relationship with Chaplin. The other key character is played by Eric Campbell. He is a superb foil to the ‘tramp’ and one wonders how effective the films would have been in his absence. Indeed this was his last film with Chaplin: he died not long after in an automobile accident.

After Mutual Chaplin’s films became longer and he developed the feature length comedies of the 1920s. But of course the groundwork for his later success was laid in the one and two reelers of the teens. Critics tend to rate the Mutual comedies as the best of his short films. The Adventurer is certainly a fine comedy. Some of the sequences are hilarious and one is aware all the time of a masterful hand coming up with witty and even outrageous effects.

Released October 1917. Two reels. Black and white. 1845 feet.

 

Posted in Hollywood, Silent Comedy, silent comics | Leave a Comment »

The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

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This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

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Laughter in Hell USA 1933

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2016

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This film was part of the programme of Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. The film and its director, Edward L. Cahn, were new to me. The film is from the period before the Hollywood Production Code came into full effect. It does not seem to have had a UK release. It is a film that followed on from the release and success of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and features the same notorious penal system. However, this is a far more brutal depiction and, I suspect, a more realistic one.

The basic plot line is structured around Barney Slaney played by Pat O’Brien, in one of his best performances. We first meet Barney as a young boy and the victim of bullying by the older and bigger Perkin brothers. Through hard study and graft Barney becomes an engineer on the railroad. He also wins the hand of Marybelle (Merna Kennedy) over the competition of Ed Perkins (Douglas Dumbrille]. Marybelle’s wayward behaviour leads to murder and Barney’s condemnation to the chain gang. The prison camp to which he is sentenced is run by Ed’s surviving brother Grover Perkins. So Barney becomes a victim of Grover’s persecution.

But what stands out in the film is the racist treatment of the predominately black prisoners. This is depicted in the film with both skill and quite shocking images. The prisoners are housed in wagons with metal bars, and this seems to be where they eat and sleep. The work routines are savage as is the enforcement of discipline. There is a powerful sequence where a black prisoner is hanged/lynched by Grover and the guards.

A cholera epidemic sees the prisoners forced to act as undertakers, collecting and burying the bodies of the victims. It is here that their pent-up resistance explodes in a powerful and fast cut sequence. This enables Barney to escape, though it appears that most of the black prisoners die in the episode. The later sequences of the films are quieter as Barney attempts to flee the state [and therefore the State jurisdiction] and make a new life. The ending here is ambiguous.

The film, especially in the prison camp sequences, offers striking black and white imagery, carefully controlled camera work and [for certain sequences] some very fast and effective editing. The Festival Catalogue notes:

“There is hardly a sequence in the film that is not marked by Cahn’s visual invention, which includes such innovations as a startlingly advanced us of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rage.” (David Kehr).

Scenes involving violence and the chain gang also often use acute camera angles for emphasis. And there are also expressionist touches, as in the sequence of rebellion, and in some of the later scenes of Barney’s odyssey.

The film was adapted from a 1932 novel by Jim Tully, also known as the ‘hobo novelist’. It seems that the film softened the ending found in the novel. Tully’s autobiographical  ‘Beggars of Life’ was filmed in 1928 at Paramount and offered another subversive treatment of  crime and law and order in the period.

Edward Cahn had started in the industry in 1917 and worked as an editor before progressing to direction. This presumably accounts for the very effective editing in the film. The quality, and possibly the too close to real-life narrative,  of this film did not help his career. The Catalogue motes that,

“Cahn immediately vanished from Universal’s roster, resurfacing two years later at the Poverty Row studio Mascot – the beginning of a wildly prolific career as a B-director that extended into the early 60s.” (David Kehr).

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