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The Woman Under Oath, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 19, 2019

This is one of the earliest surviving films directed by John Stahl. It was screened in the Stahl retrospectives, both at Il Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. At Il Ritrovato it was the only silent in 2018. At Le Giornate it was omitted in 2018 and then screened, along with a surviving fragment, in 2019. I never quite figured out this different treatment from other titles made by Stahl but it meant that we were able to watch the film twice. This helped, as though the surviving print is only missing 440 feet, there were certain problems with this version and I was unsure how much this was due to missing footage. I now think that the film is very well produced  in most aspects but that some of the editing does not work well.

John Stahl was a film-maker and producer in Hollywood from 1914 until 1950. He directed twenty silents, many of which do not survive. He was co-chairman and producer at Tiffany-Stahl in the late 1920s. In the 1930s he directed melodramas for Universal and  later worked for Metro, Columbia and finally C20th Fox. Most of Stahl’s films are dramatic features and they usually fall into what has been characterised as ‘the woman’s picture.’

“The turbulent and  tender world he depicts has at its centre women, often working together and living alone. Active participant in a society undergoing change, they are portrayed  by some of the most glamorous screen icons – with a rare sense of ease.”  (Ehsan Koshbakht in the Ritrovato Festival Catalogue).

The Ritrovato Festival programme of Stahl titles  included films starring Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne  and Gene Tierney among others.  This film starred Florence Reed, a ‘grand dame’ of Broadway Theatre who also appeared in several silent films in the late teens.

The premise of the drama concerns a modern woman, novelist Grace Norton (Florence Reed). In a trope that precedes reality by a decade Grace Norton  becomes the first woman  in a New York trial to be selected for Jury Service. In fact, it was only in 1937 that the state laws allowed women to serve on juries.  The film, and its attendant publicity,  made play with the idea  that the trial involves the first woman  member of a New York Jury . The film’s premise raises issues around the social status of women in contemporary US society; it contrasts representations of men and women; and it develops an intriguing but complex plot mystery.

The court case involves a young  man on trial for murder. Jim O’Neil (Gareth Hughes) has been caught standing over a corpse with gun in hand: a trope that is repeated across film after film. The dead man is his ex-employer, Edward Knox (David Powell). Grace is the sole woman among eleven other male jury members on the trial. However, one of these, John Schuyler (Hugh Thompson), is already a friend of Grace and there is a romantic aspect  to their friendship. Part of the drama in the film is generated by the gender division in the jury room. It is here that the films dwells most intensely on the then unusual situation of a single woman juror with eleven male jurors. Early on the men all ask Grace’s permission before they start smoking.

In the trial sequences we see Jim facing prosecution for the murder of Edward Knox. Prior to this we see the murder scene,  the police investigation and charges, and, at its end, the summing for the jury. The film certainly has a number of well-edited and dramatic sequences. It opens with a close-up of a hand and a gun in a shot window. Young Jim is buying a gun. The following scene  shows him in a bar where a drink stiffens his nerves. He then proceeds to the apartment of Edward Knox and we see him confront Knox with gun in hand. The actual shooting is not seen but instead we see shots of a policeman and hotel staff reacting to the sound of the gunshot. Not coincidentally [we learn later] we then see Grace Norton near the hotel and hailing a taxi.

Jim, found standing over the body with gun in hand, is taken into custody. Another bravura sequence shows his interrogation by the police. ‘A good cop’, ‘bad cop’ routine in a noir-like room with a strong central light and shadowy perimeters accentuates the drama. Then Jim is confronted by a Knox look a-like and collapses and confesses.

The plot develops through a series of flashbacks. One set show us the background s to Jim’s animosity to Knox: the latter is a womaniser who has exploited Jim’s girlfriend. Thus, as the plot unfurls, the audience learn about Knox’s nefarious behaviour and  the events that led Jim to the apartment at his moment of death.

Another of the flashbacks fill in Grace’s family context, including her ailing sister  The Norton and O’Neil families share the same situation, an absent father, an [apparently] widowed mother and a dependent sister. These are factors that are revealed as affecting the deliberation in the jury room.

After the final submissions and the summing-up by the judge the jury retire. There is a straw poll, with only one vote for acquittal. Ten angry men [but not John Schuyler] all look at Grace,

”I wonder who it is?”

This is followed by a cut to the O’Neil’s mother and sister sitting outside the court, waiting apprehensively. Such parallel cutting is utilised right through the film, drawing connections between characters but also ratcheting up the tension in the drama. This particular section extends when the jury, split over a verdict, are locked in for the night. This, of course exacerbates the gender situation. The film passes over the question of food or toileting in this situation. The news of an unexpected event, a ‘deus ex machina’, resolves the deadlock in the jury and enables an upbeat ending to the drama.

The trial struck me as the weakest section of the film. There are a series of questioning of witnesses. As this proceeds there are frequent cuts to the jurors, Grace and a fellow jury member John Schuyler (Hugh Thomson). I found these too frequent and too fast, undercutting the court room drama.

However, the trial livens up when a young woman, Jim’s sweetheart, Helen (Mildred Cheshire) intervenes and takes the stand. In her evidence she testifies that she and Jim were sweethearts but that she suffered sexual molestation by Knox.

This is presented in a flashback which is slightly odd. We see Jim fired by Knox when he is found in the stock room with Helen. Helen is then taken to Knox office where he molests her, at one point pulling down the window blind. At this point the camera cuts to an exterior and in low-angle shot we see what appears to be Jim’s perspective; Knox grabbing Helen and then pulling down the blind is repeated from this exterior. Repeating a shot and action is found in early cinema but is uncommon by this date. What is odder that this turns out not be to be a subjective shot. Later Helen returns home with a torn dress and implications of rape. Jim is shocked and then and there vows revenge on Knox. Presumably he did not see what occurred before the blind came down?

The jury room  sequence, which is the dramatic climax of the film, is well done. The playing emphasises the unusual effects of a woman presence. As noted above, almost immediately the male jurors start to light their cigarettes and cigars, then, suddenly, remembering Grace’s presence, seek her approval. When a straw poll is taken  on the issue of guilt or innocence, Grace is the odd woman out. However, she is not entirely alone. John Schuyler is already known to Grace and it is in a flashback  that it is suggested that  he has a romantic interest. He acts as a sort of shield for Grace.

The jury deliberations mean that the twelve have to be locked in overnight; one of the  issues that made people hesitant about women jury members. There is large window and through it we see the snow is falling; it is the eve of Christmas.  Then a porter is allowed to pass a note to Grace. It tells her that her sister Edith (May McAvoy) has died. We have already seen her and the mother in previous scenes. Grace is shown as extremely solicitous of her sister who is ill.

The news of Edith death enables Grace to now tell the jury her reasons for voting for a not guilty verdict. The flashback she recount is presented on the blind of the rooms window; an excellent and dramatic touch.  Grace explains  that Edith was also a victim of Knox’s molestation. Pretending to her that he intended marriage so she suffered a ‘fate worse than death’: though death follows consequent on her pregnancy. Grace revenges her sister by shooting Knox,  moments before Jim enters the room with similar intent. This is the reason that she is seen hailing a taxi outside the hotel immediately after the murder.

Grace’s  story convinces  her fellow jurors. And in addition the foreman decides that since deliberations inside a jury room are confidential  they do not need to report Grace’s crime. Jim and his family celebrate a not guilty verdict. And the films ends with a romantic shot of Grace and John.

The flashback structure of the film is intriguing and effective. The drama  rises continually through the film though parts of the plotting stretch co-incidence to breaking point. Stylistically the film is extremely conventional. The cinematography and performances are good but the editing does not make full use of this. In the court room scenes we tend to see a series of cuts from either mid-shot or close-up of the main characters; lawyers, judge, witnesses and jury. This becomes repetitious and I thought that the drama could have been more effective if greater use was made of the larger settings.

The film is notable for the way that Stahl and his writers present a key female character in a positive and central position in the drama. Whilst Jim’s situation is likely to generate sympathy in an audience it is Grace who is the constant centre. In fact this probably accounts for the editing style in the court room sequences, where we are constantly taken back to see Grace’s responses.

I find the film full of inventive touches and overall it dramatises the story well. I think the court room scene is the weakest. In terms of plot the film rather ‘has its cake and eats it too’.  In ‘The Call of the Heart John M. Stahl and the Hollywood Melodrama’ Pamela Hutchinson comments on Grace’s role in the film and the jury,

‘It also creates a realm of women’s knowledge unperceived by men – facts and events that only one gender is aware of, an d that may be vital in court.”

This seems to me to misread what we actually see. A jury member who is  a murderer could be of either gender and still reveal a different course of events from that heard in court. In fact bringing secrets into the jury room is a staple of such dramas, affecting one juror in ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ What seems more to the point is the question that if a male jury member had  made such a confession would his companions have shielded him from exposure.  This plot device also ‘stretches the long arm of coincidence to breaking point’; though that is a common device in melodrama.

Pamela Hutchinson seems to me on stronger ground  when she places this film in the overall oeuvre of Stahl and the central role that women characters, often like Grace strong and relatively in independent, play in his films. In this story Grace is a powerful character. She is able to wreak revenge on Knox whilst Jim turns up to late having had to stiffen his nerves with a drink. I did wonder how much the fact that the killer is a woman worked to allow an ending where a criminal escapes justice?

Presumably women in the audiences of the time would have found Grace an interesting and useful model; though it should be noted that she is also affluent and privileged. And men in the audiences would have found a dram that highlighted the gradual progress of women to independent and, often, equal roles in society.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive which was in good condition. The film runs for 73 minutes at 20 fps. I think the screening at the Ritrovato was had a slightly faster frame rate than at Pordenone; this would have exacerbated the editing flaws.  The accompaniment was provided by Donald Sosin at both screenings. e+He  He ably combined the emotions of mystery, romance and tension.

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Twin Kiddies, USA 1916.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2019

Fay, Grandfather and son

This film was screened in ‘Soul and Craft: A Portrait of Henry King’ at the Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019. King started out as an ac tor in Hollywood in 1913. He progressed to director and worked on over 100 films up until his last in 1962. For most of his career he was based at the Fox Studio. Many of his best films fir into the category of ‘Americana’ and he was adept at portraying typical figures from US culture and storytelling. He generally retained supervision over the editing of the productions so that most of his films are what we would today term ‘director’s cuts’.

This title has a fairly conventional situation: two children who look identical leading to adults mistaking one for the other. The two children are Bessie and Fay, both played by Marie Osborne. We first meet Fay, the young child of the Van Loan household. This is an affluent house hold in a large mansion with a team of servants. The head of the household is William Van Loan (Daniel Gilfether) who is the owner of the Powhatan mine and who lives with his adult son Baxter (R. Henry Grey), father of Fay. She is a spoilt child and neither the family nor her governess (Mignon le Brun) exercise much control over her. We see her playing with her pet dog and irritating both family and servants. Her sympathetic friends are her grandfather and the butler, Spencer (Edward Jobson).

Bessie is the daughter of Jasper Hunt [Henry King himself]. He appears to be a widower and the household and Bessie are cared for by the housekeeper Mrs Flannigan (Ruth Lackaye). Jasper is the manager at the Powhatan mine and we learn that there is a dispute between the workers and the overseers over an insufficiency of roof props in one mine shaft.

Van Loan senior visits the  Mine with his family. Fay is taken by her governess to an open-air site with a lake. It is here that Fay and Bessie meet and in their games change dresses. Mistakenly each child is taken back to the wrong household. Somewhat implausibly neither household notices the mistake, not even Spencer or Mrs Flannigan. Jasper and Mrs Flannigan think that Bessie [Fay[] is ill. The Van Loan household are puzzled by Fay’s [Bessie]

“sweetness and obedience.”

The discovery of the truth coincides with the collapse of the suspect tunnel at the mine. The children and families are re-united. It emerges that the two girls are twins, separated due to an arranged marriage; a frequent plot device in early cinema. So Bessie gets a sister and a new doll: Fay becomes a well-behaved child: and Jasper is promoted to manager: [I think either my notes or a title here or earlier was in error].

Marie Osborne is excellent as the two young girls. She is reckoned to be Hollywood’s first child star and successfully made 29 films up until 1919. She had a later minor career as an adult. The cinematography by William Beckway is fine and there is some good use of exterior locations. The common change in mid-shots to ‘close-ups] is by use of an iris. The film is well edited and the cutting between the two families, the two homes and the mine works well. The plot is fairly conventional and the sub-plot relating to the mine is not really integrated into the story line. Perhaps the producers wanted to pad the story out into a four reeler.

The print was of  fair quality. The production company Balboa Amusement sold out toe Pathé and we had a French Cinémathèque print with Desmet colour for the tinting; [one exterior scene set in the evening had green tinting].  Maud Nelissen provided a suitable, at time chirpy, accompaniment.

 

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Captain Salvation, USA 1927

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2018

This film was the opening ‘special event’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto this year.

The film was adapted from a novel by Frederick William Wallace. He was born in Glasgow, served in World War I and moved to Montreal in Canada. He became a published expert on the sailing ships which provide the setting for this novel published in 1925. The film was co-produced at M-G-M together with Cosmopolitan Productions, the latter was a foray into motion pictures by William Randolph Hearst.

The film opens in a small town of Maple Harbour, on the New England coastline. It is 1840 and the sailing ship ‘Lucy Foster’ returns. Practically all the inhabitants hurry to the harbour to welcome the ship and, at the tiller, Anson Campbell. Whilst Anson is clearly a skilled sailor he is actually returning from studies at a Theological College and is expected to become the pastor of the local church; a protestant or even Calvinist congregation. Among those greeting the ship are his uncle Peter Campbell, a worthy of the church, and his sweetheart, young Mary Phillips (Marceline Day).

After the reception at the harbour Anson and Mary slip away to a small wooden cabin along the seashore and under cliffs. Here they are greeted by Anson’s old friends and retired sailors led by Zeke Crosby (George Fawcett]. These opening scenes present the character of Anson, played with real charisma by Lars Hanson. There is also a sense of the demure Mary and of the religious tone of the village; exemplified by the conservative religious values of Uncle Peter.

The disruption to this almost idyllic situation comes during a great storm when a ship founders off the coast. The only survivor is Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke). She is immediately recognised as a ‘waterfront Jezebel’ by Peter. And the response of religious villagers is to shun her. Anson displays a different set of Christian values opining that

“you can’t judge this woman’.

He carries her to the cabin where he cares for her, with assistance from Zeke. Bess soon displays an attraction for Anson but their relationship is strictly platonic. However, Mary fails to recognise this and in a key scene returns her engagement ring to Anson. Anxious to avoid further complications to Anson’s life Bess decides to leave on a ship that calls in the harbour, ‘The Panther’. Anson goes on board to pay her passage and signs on as a crew member with the Captain (Ernest Torrance). Sure enough the Captain turns out to be the villain of the story. ‘The Panther’ is actually a convict ship carrying both male and female felons to salt mines on an Island in the South.

During the voyage the Captain attempts to molest Bess who makes the potent response,

“Ain’t I am right to my body.”

Anson vainly attempts to protect her and is chained below deck and brutally flogged. It also appears that the Captain intends to dump Bess and Anson on the island when the ship arrives. There is a dramatic fight between Anson and the Captain which ends up with them battling high in the rigging of the sailing ship. Anson wins but Bess dies.

The film then cuts to the return of the ship to Maple Harbour, renamed the ‘Bess Morgan’. This causes another contretemps with Peter. But Anson explains to him, Mary and the towns folk about |Bess death in a flashback. We see her ask Anson,

“ to pray for me …. [it is] brighter now you are praying.”

Standing over her body Anson prays, raising his eyes aloft,

“suffer her to come unto thee.”

and then closes her eyes. Predictably Anson and Mary are re-united and the ring is re-appears. More surprisingly Uncle Peter repents and confesses the error of his prejudices. The film ends with Anson and Mary at the tiller of the ‘Bess Morgan’ as it becomes the

‘first gospel ship’.

I have not been able to find anything on ‘gospel ships’, though there are several folk songs on this theme. I assume that they preach rather than trade. One hopes that the ‘Bess Morgan’ followed the theology of Anson rather than Uncle Peter.

This was a fine film to watch. The production is well done and the cast are fine, especially Lars Hanson and Pauline Starke. And the three ship-mates, led by Zeke, are entertaining. It was apparent from the use of the word ‘Jezebel’ that Bess would succumb at some point to moral closure. I thought this a particular shame because she was a much more interesting and vibrant character than Mary. But her death scene is especially well done.

One of the stand-out features of the film was the cinematography by William Daniels. The whole film looks good. Scenes set below deck have a a grim palette and there is excellent chiaroscuro. The final fight in the riggings between Anson and the Captain is exhilarating with splendid use of camera positions and shots. The editing by William Hamilton is also well done. The Catalogue notes that

“M-G-M clearly wanted this to be a prestige production. Assigning a crew of 75 and hiring the ‘Santa Clara’, an 1876 four-master ship, for the scenes at sea. Cedric Gibbons and Leo E. Kuter designed evocative sets for the seaside town of Maple Harbor, Massachusetts, and locations were filmed on Catalina Island.”

Jay Weisberg commented that

“[the film’s] relative obscurity [is] perplexing, especially given the praise heaped on it upon its release.”

He notes

“The Philadelphia Tribune’ was even more effusive:“one of the finest dramatic achievements of the year.””

This seems in part due to the influence of Scandinavian films and in particular one of the finest directors there:

“It was Phil Carli who first bought to my attention Stroström ‘s striking influence … Atmospheric coastal scenes boast meticulous attention to effects of light, and the sea’s presence is beautifully calibrated to elide with the emotional states of the characters.”

This may have been part of the inspiration for the fine score which Phil Carli composed to accompany the film: played under his direction by the San Marco Orchestra. It highlighted the dramatic scenes but never overpowered the film.

This was a screening worth waiting for. The film was original programmed for the 2017 Giornate but copyright issues [I think] led to the delay. The 35mm print sourced from Warner Bros. and the Packard Humanities Institute was worthy of the film and the music.

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‘The Parade’s Gone by …’

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2018

This year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto had the strongest programme for several years. Among the pleasures was this selection of six films:

“To honour the 50th anniversary of The Parade Gone By… we gave Kevin Brownlow carte blanche to select six films he wanted to see at the Giornate.” [Festival Catalogue).

The Programme notes included tributes to the book and to Kevin by a range of l8 luminaries from the silent archival and study areas. The major introduction was by David Robinson who remembered being asked by the Editor at Secker and Warburg to read and offer an opinion on the book. He added the other achievements by Kevin,

“There was much more to come. Winstanley, Hollywood, Thames Silents, Unknown Chaplin, and all the documentaries, Photoplay and all its restorations and productions and new books to go with them. In 1980, with the collaboration of David Gill and Carl Davis, Napoleon … gave back to audiences the long-forgotten thrill of a theatrical and orchestral performance of a “silent” film.

An Academy Award was the least tribute that Hollywood could offer to its great chronicler” (Festival Catalogue).

A more notable honour was the first Jean Mitry Award [1986] along with his collaborator David Gill. And as noteworthy have been the BBC radio dramas chronicling his work on Napoleon and his film Winstanley.

I remember reading the book in the early 1980s and then through the Hollywood series and the Thames Silents discovering the real and proper experience of watching [and listening] to silent film. I later enjoyed the further series The Other Hollywood, though unfortunately it was not given the space and resources accorded Channel 4’s Hollywood. I have on many occasions enjoyed the meticulous restorations of early film, and enjoyed the prints that Kevin has saved for posterity, including at the London Bioscope screenings.

So I waited with anticipation to see the selection that Kevin chose. Happily five of the six were on 35mm. Given the subject of the celebrated book these were all titles from Hollywood Studios. But they offered a varied selection of genres, stars and craft people and of styles and techniques.

The Covered Wagon, 1923 from Famous Players-Lasky, is a seminal example of the early western. The director was James Cruze, whose parents had been part of the Mormon trek into Utah. And the craft team included Karl Brown on cinematography and Dorothy Arzner as editor. The cast included major players and actual cowboys and Indians. This was an epic film though the surviving version is two reels shorter than the original. Kevin notes that

“it was the first western to be taken seriously by historians,”

I was disappointed though to read that

“almost never in the history of western migration did an Indian war party descend upon a circle of covered wagons.” [Quoted by Kevin).

Shot mainly in Nevada and Utah what stood out in the film was the visual presentation and the impressive settings and landscapes.

The Covered Wagon (1923)
Directed by James Cruze
Shown from top: J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson

 

Captain Blood, from the Vitagraph Corporation of America in 1924, was also shorter than the original by about 2,000 feet. Even so it ran just on two hours with a plot line not dissimilar to the later Warner Bros. Version; both were adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini. The studio planned

“a rip-snorting, rapid-fire melodrama that will please any red-blooded audience.”

In fact I thought the film more stately that dramatic. There are some well-staged action sequence. The film used actual square-riggers and miniatures and some of the editing between these made the effects somewhat obvious. And the titles use of ‘Irish colloquialism’ for Peter Blood [originally a Irish physician] seemed quaint. But it worked well overall as it did on release, becoming the highest grossing picture produced by Vitagraph.

 

Smouldering Fires was the one film on a DCP. It was taken from a 16m print in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The film was produced by Universal-Jewel [the company’s prestige productions] in 1925 and directed by Clarence Brown. Kevin in his notes noted the influence of Maurice Tourneur and Ernst Lubitsch,

“The title suggests a Drury Lane melodrama, but the film turned out to be if not quite a feminist film, at least an intelligent, poignant and beautifully filmed story about a 40-year old woman who inherits a factory from her father.”

The early scenes where Jane Vail (Pauline Frederick, excellent in the part) dominates her factory managers were a delight. Then Jane is taken with a young foreman, Robert (Malcom McGregor) who attracts her attention and then her emotions. Rather predictably Robert then falls for the younger sister Dorothy (Laura La Plante). This part of the drama seemed rather conventional but the three leads are good and we actually get to see an outdoor expedition in Yosemite. O also thought that Tully Marshall as Scotty and Wanda Hawley as Lucy were excellent in their supporting roles. The film also has a nice turn in irony.

Smouldering Fires (1925)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Shown at right: Pauline Frederick

 

The Home Maker was also Universal-Jewel from 1925. The director was a name new to me:

“The director of this picture, King Baggot, was responsible for two of the worst silent pictures I’ve ever seen – Raffles (1925) and Down the Stretch (1927). How can the same man possibly have made one of the best?”

Part of the reason may be the original novel by Dorothy Canfield and the adaptation by Mary O’Hara which follows the book closely. Kevin also notes that Baggot had an alcohol problem which may have affected some of his work. Seemingly not on this picture. Alice Joyce, a fine actress, plays Eva Knapp imprisoned at home with growing children whilst her husband Lester (Clive Brooks in a rather untypical role] is less than successful at his office job. His situation leads to depression and an unsuccessful suicide. But his subsequent incapacity finds Eva going out to work and becoming a higher earner in a department store whilst Lester finds hitherto hidden paternal virtues. Thus the whole family find an improved way of life: one that rests, as we learn, on a dubious moral decision. I agreed with Kevin, as did many of the Giornate audience about the quality and interest of this film. I was, though, less convinced by the situation but the sterling cast certainly make their characters convincing.

The Home Maker (1925)
Directed by King Baggot
Shown from left: Maurice Murphy, Julie Bishop, Clive Brook, Alice Joyce

 

The Enemy from M-G-M in 1927 enjoyed the services of Fred Niblo as director and Lillian Gish as star. The film as it survives is missing the last reel but whilst the end is not necessarily predictable the judicious use of stills and titles is sufficient. Lillian’s Pauli is the daughter of an Professor in Vienna (Frank Currier) ; we are familiar melodrama territory here. Pauli marries her sweetheart Carl (Ralph Forbes) just before he leaves for the front in 1914. Most of the film is set on the home front as shortages increase. Pauli and her father suffer more because he holds pacifist views. The melodrama here is conventional but seeing Lillian Gish actually play a woman reduced to prostitution is definitely a one-off. Technically the film has some splendid sequences with dissolves and superimpositions. The domestic scenes are well handled. But there are probably two many similar scenes of troops marching off to war though, noticeably, the civilians become less and less enthusiastic.

 

Then we had The Mating Call (1928) from Paramount Pictures and also directed by James Cruze. The film was adapted from a novel by Rex Beach. The story offered a rather unusual situation. Leslie Hatton (Thomas Meighan) returns from the Western Front in 1919 to find his sweetheart and wife [as the thought] has had the marriage annulled and re-married. In this complicated situation Leslie gets himself a ‘mail-order wife’; though he actually finds her by going to Ellis Island and selecting a young woman from among the immigrants, Renée Adorée as Catherine. What develops much of the drama is a secret vigilante group who rides round in black hoods terrorising people who are thought to break the conservative moral code of the small town. [They are not the Ku Klux Klan as some reviews suggest]. The direction is good and the two leads are excellent. The vigilantes seem rather cack-handed but they do help develop the drama. Some of the continuity is eccentric, Catherine insists on her parents accompanying her to Leslie’s farm but after one shot of them hoeing a field they disappear.

 

All but two of the titles were new to me. As one expects from Kevin the prints were of good or even outstanding quality. Several of the accomplished team of musicians took turns to provide musical accompaniments. It did seem a worthy tribute to one of the most respected and accomplished ‘keepers of the flame’ of our surviving heritage from early cinema,

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The Birth of a Nation, USA 1915

Posted by keith1942 on August 28, 2018

This notorious title from the early days of US cinema regularly resurfaces. Now Spike Lee, in his new film BlacKkKlansman (2018), has used extensive clips from the film. With his particular skill in dramatising the contradictions of US culture Lee and his team present a screening of the film watched by contemporary members of the Ku Klux Klan. Elsewhere in the film a young Afro-American audience listen in horror as a veteran describes the murder and mutilation of a black man by a white mob in 1916. This sequence makes the point that the film fuelled a revival of the Klan as well as sparking riots and protests across the USA. The Rape of Recy Taylor offers a parallel in its use of the films of Oscar Micheaux, a rebuttal to the 1915 epic. The latter offers a central representation of the racism that underpins US culture; this is a title that always pays discussion.

The Birth of a Nation is both famous and infamous. Its success, its innovation, and its grandiose epic proportions have made it one of the most influential films in US history. But its racist treatment of the US Civil War and post-war construction have made it a notorious and problematic classic. There have been quite a number of attempts to play down the racism in the film and/or to excuse Griffith for the content. I incline with the comment in an excellent book by Scot Simmon (‘The Films of D. W. Griffith’), who discusses some of these ‘defenders;

“what is evident to all but the most determined apologists: The Birth of a Nation has evolved into one of the ugliest artefacts of American popular art.”

Paul Gilroy, in his introduction to Channel 4’s screening of the Thames Silents version (1993), commented that it was a ‘white supremacist text’, but also a film masterpiece. He pointed out how the film sexualises the conflict through the use of melodrama. Yet the film is an enduring presence in US popular art, and it needs to be confronted. Simon’s article is really helpful because he studies the film in some detail, examining its influences and its influence, and recognising those aspects that contributed to its power and success.

The surviving film is not complete; the version most widely available is from the 1921 reissue. Griffith cut some scenes because of the complaints about the film, but it is not completely clear what it is that has been excised. The remaining film still offers a clear narrative. In a manner reminiscent of much of his work at Biograph, Griffith presents his picture of the US Civil War and the reconstruction of the defeated South in terms of family melodrama.

The film opens in 1860 before the start of the war between the States and introduces us to the Cameron family (Southerners) and the Stoneman family ((Northerners). The opening two reels allow the development of audience identification, especially with the Cameron family. We witness a visit by the Stoneman sons to the Cameron household in Piedmont, South Carolina. The Doctor and his wife head the Cameron family. The eldest Cameron son is Ben, who, during the war years, becomes ‘the little colonel’. The youngest Cameron son Duke and the youngest Stoneman strike up a friendship and earn the title ‘chums’. The eldest Cameron son is Phil. The youngest Cameron daughter Flora is known as the Little Sister. A romance develops between Phil and the eldest Cameron daughter, Margaret. And Ben is taken with the absent Elsie, with her father Senator Stoneman in Washington, when he sees Phil’s portrait of her.

The Cameron family is given a positive, warm representation, which includes loyal, uncritical black slaves. There is also an early example of a long Hollywood line of identifications, sympathetic characters presented with their pets, in this case two puppies and a kitten. (The main villain, a mulatto Silas Lynch, is later shown mistreating a dog!) However, the representation of the Stoneman family is more problematic. There is no mother, though her absence is not explained. In keeping with his roots in nineteenth century melodrama, mother figures are central to Griffith’s notions of the wholesome family. Stoneman walks with a stick, often associated with either weakness or villainy. In Reel 2 a title card warns the audience of Stoneman’s ‘fatal weakness’ – a mulatto servant, Lydia Brown, who becomes his mistress. This is the viper in the nest. And the representation picks up on a warning placed clearly in the opening title of the surviving film:

‘The bringing of the African sowed the first seed of disunion’. Black people are the central problem in the film, and they create disunity within the ‘American family’. It is important to remember that the Civil War was fought over the Union and the South’s attempt at secession, not directly over slavery.

Scott Simmon relates Griffith’s film to the developing genres of the Civil War film and to the costumes dramas set in the South. He details some of the contemporary films that dealt with similar material. Miscegenation is clearly a common issue in these films. At the Old Cross Roads (1914) has white-skinned Annabel discover ‘tainted blood’ and she tells her white-skinned fiancé

‘as long as there is a stain of Negro blood we can be nothing more than friends’.

Clearly, popular film tended to reproduce the dominant racism of wider society. There is also the myth of the pre-war South, a paradise of courtly gentlemen, dainty belles and happy, unthreatening slaves. A key sequence in the film is the ball before the Southern gentlemen ride off to war; a spectacle repeated in innumerable later films. The ball is intercut with bonfire and celebrations in the streets, tinted red in the original. Despite the plotting including both families the film clearly privileges the experience of the South.

In the third, fourth and fifth reels, Griffith presents some aspects of this war. In a classic melodramatic convention the ‘chums’ meet and die on the front line in opposing armies. The final shot shows the fallen bodies in a deathly embrace. The second Cameron son dies in a scene depicting Sherman’s ‘march to the sea.’ This is a powerful sequence, using superimposition and cross-cutting, that depicts Sherman’s army and the burning of Atlanta. Gilroy’s point about ‘sexualising’ the conflict is borne out here in a title card:

‘The torch of war against the breast of Atlanta.’

Griffith also uses the powerful image of a harassed mother and children, both intercutting with the soldiers, and superimposing the image within the same frame as the battle.

There is only one major battle sequence, which is Petersburg and this also uses tinting. As Simon points out though, it acts more like a generic battle of the whole Civil War. Again the emphasis is on the heroic South, even as they lose. Colonel Ben Cameron is the key figure in a courageous but hopeless charge against the Union lines. The battlefield meeting convention recurs as the Colonel falls wounded at the feet of Captain Phil Stoneman. Ben convalesces in a Washington Hospital and he is able to develop a relationship with Elsie, who is a nurse there.

Reel 6 dramatises the assassination of Lincoln, and the ascendance to power of ‘carpetbaggers’ in Washington. Once again history is personalised as Elsie and Phil are in the theatre audience. Lincoln’s death makes Stoneman a key political figure determined that the South should be ‘treated as conquered provinces’ and to

‘put the white South under the heel of the black South’.

His mulatto mistress is shown as a noxious influence, encouraging a black opportunist, Silas Lynch. This sets the scene for the way in which Griffith film develops a more shocking dimension in the second part, titled ‘Reconstruction’.

Ben Cameron returns to the defeated South, family loss and a home ruined by war. For Griffith and the Cameron family the Southern blacks are incapable of either equality or democracy. There is a Manichaean split in the representation of black characters in the film. They are either unquestioningly devoted and loyal servants, or they are given to feckless singing, dancing, drinking, and in some cases even to rape and violence. Their excessive acting style emphasises these characteristics. One scene has a Cameron servant whipped for loyalty to his white master. The black population is seen as at the mercy of leaders and carpetbaggers, who

‘cozen, beguile and use the Negro’.

This threat to family and southern order creates the response, the Ku Klux Klan [Clan in the film] – for the film, heroic defender of the endangered white community.

In line with generic conventions this threat is personalised in attacks on white women. Gus, ‘the renegade’ pursues the Little Sister who jumps to her death rather than face dishonour. And Stoneman’s black protégé, Silas Lynch, menaces Elsie Stoneman. The staging and editing used by Griffith generates a sense of violation. In addition, Mae Marsh demonstrates a more melodramatic acting style than other leading white characters, and her death becomes an orgy of hysteria. This is cemented in melodramatic fashion as ‘the little colonel’ cradles the dying body of his ‘little sister’.

There follows a night-time scene of the trial of Gus. Then the Clan leader holds aloft the

‘flag that bears the red stain of a Southern woman’

and the call goes out for a ride to save the South. These final three reels of the film prepare and then launch a bravura intercutting of the Clan riding thunderously to rescue Elsie from ‘ a fate worse than death’; white townspeople harassed and victimised by black riff-raff; and, a besieged cabin where both Southerners and Northerners are fending off crazed black soldiers. The cabin suggests an image of a reconstructed ‘American family’ as Union veterans, with a young daughter, offer shelter to the Camerons, who are accompanied by Phil Stoneman, now in opposition to his father. They ‘defend their Aryan birth right’. Predictably all are saved and the black soldiery is put to flight. This victory and the renewed union between North and South are cemented by the marriages of Ben and Elsie, Margaret and Phil. The film ends with a rhetorical flourish to anti-war sentiment and Christian piety rather at odds with the bloodthirsty actions of the Clan.

Stylistically the film uses the form familiar from Griffith’s Biograph work. The intertitles tend to explain the action, often prompting the audience prior to the scenes in question. There are only occasional camera movements, such as pans across the battle action and one reverse track during the final conflict. Exciting motion, such as the ride of the Clan, adheres to the style of early film, with the camera almost frontal to the movement. The most sophisticated aspects are in the editing and the use of masks and superimposition.

Griffith’s editing of the final reels – which depict, in quick succession, the Clan, the distraught Elsie, the panicking townsfolk and the besieged cabin – generates excitement and dynamism. This was amplified at the premiere as an orchestra filled the theatre with Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. Elsewhere Griffith uses similar techniques to dramatise the death of Little Sister and the heroic actions of Colonel Ben Cameron. In the sequence in which Elsie flees from Gus, intercut with the Colonel’s search for her, Griffith alternates mid-shots of the characters, iris style close-ups showing their emotional state, and long-shots that place the characters in the landscape of trees and rocks. Editing is also used to reinforce the stereotypes of the black characters: early in the film cutting to their simple frolicking dances and later to their more menacing drunkenness and violence.

Griffith brings a particularly powerful set of techniques to the staging of melodramatic moments. As in his earlier films he makes good use of natural scenery and of well designed interiors. The representation of the Cameron family is enhanced by the way characters are sited in domestic settings and against natural landscape. As the narrative develops, Griffith emphasises emotion through the use of mise-en-scène. The scene of Ben returning to his home in the aftermath of war is very powerful. He walks along the deserted street, to the dilapidated house, with the strains of ‘There’s no place like home’ played in the original music score. Little Sister runs out to greet him and leads him inside. As they cross the door frame a second arm appears and pulls him inside, presumably the arm of his mother. The flight of Little Sister and the search of the Colonel for her take place among trees and rocks, and there is a powerful sense of wilderness. Gus (the black assailant) is given a masked shot in close-up in which his face is framed menacing by hanging branches.

Louise B. Mayer’s fortune, due in part to the Box Office success of the film, became the basis for the Hollywood major studio, M-G-M, and a lot of the profits of the film went into the development of Hollywood businesses. The seminal influence of The Birth of a Nation on Hollywood can be traced in many ways. As with the example of Mayer, the economic success fed into the development of the Hollywood industry and majors, which remain to this day. In both the form of its narrative and in its style Griffith’s film had a powerful impact on contemporary and subsequent film-makers. But unfortunately the value system embedded in the film also remains potent in Hollywood. The stereotypes of both black people and the South carried on in Hollywood for decades, and we are not entirely free of them even today.

David W. Griffith Corp. 12 reels (11,700 feet, screened at 16 fps running time 190 minutes).

Directed by D. W. Griffith. Writers D. W. Griffith and Frank Woods.

Based on two novels, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, and a stage play, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. Filming took place between July and November 1914 and the film was premiered in February 1915. Originally it was released as The Clansman and then re-titled as The Birth of a Nation. The film cost around $110,000 dollars, though there was also an expensive marketing campaign with intensive publicity, attractions like the specially prepared musical accompaniment and extended road-show screenings.

The film starred Griffith regulars Henry B. Walthall and Lillian Gish, with Robert Harron, Miriam Cooper and relative newcomer Mae Marsh. Black characters were white actors in ‘black-face’, though there were also genuine black people among the extras.

NB – this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’.

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The World and it’s Woman, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2018

Geraldine Farrar with Frank Lloyd

This was a title screened in the ‘Red Peril’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate3 del Cinema Muto. It was an example of ‘anti-communism’ even more virulent than the companion The Right to Happiness [also USA 1919]. Wikipedia quotes Murray B Levin on the ‘red scare ‘ in the USA between 1917 and 1920;

“a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of life.”

The film was directed by Frank Lloyd for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. It starred Geraldine Farrar. She was an established opera diva who made her screen debut in Cecil B. De Mille’s Carmen (1915). The Festival Catalogue notes that

“By the time of The World and its Women, her fifth picture for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, Farrar’s salary was among the highest in the industry: according to Goldwyn papers at the Margaret Herrick Library, she received $150,000 for four months of shooting, while her co-star husband Lou Tellegen earned a modest $600 per week (reportedly the borzoi hound made $50 a day). “ (Antonia Guerrero and Jay Weisberg).

In fact the borzoi hound was likely the most over-paid merely lying gracefully on the floor and interjecting a yawn at one point and offering a dainty paw. The hound was accompanied among the supporting cast by a number of exiled Russian aristocrats presumably still seething from the loss of their ill-gotten wealth.

The film opens before World War I in Tsarist Russia where US engineer Robert Warren (Edward J. Connelly) is managing the oil fields of for Prince Michael Orbeliana (Alec B. Francis). Warren’s daughter Marcia (May Giraci) is friends with the prince’s son, Michael ((Francis Marion). Marcia reads to the young prince from Cinderella and he replies that one day

“I will marry you.”

We also see Mary playing and singing for her father. But he dies when his investments are lost.

As an adult Michael (Lou Tellegen) marries Baroness Olga Amilahvari (Naomi Childers) , an advantageous match. Olga is actually the object of love by another aristocrat Count Alix Vronassof (Arthur Carewe), but he is poor and not a suitable suitor. Marcia (Geraldine Farrar) herself is the object of passion by Peter Poroschine (W. Lawson Butt), not an aristocrat. Marcia debuts at the Imperial Opera to great acclaim. The Tsar is there, as is the Tsarina and a monk, not [I think] identified. Now a romance develops between Michael and Marcia.

The war arrives and Michael, among others, marches of to war to the tumult of cheering crowds. But among the troops are ‘sneaking elements’, including Peter. He is assisted by a erstwhile friend of Marcia, Erina..

We move onto 1917 and the increasing agitation and rebellion among working people and peasants. The developing revolution is represented negatively Among the titles we get are,

“reign of terror in Petrograd’

‘even the whip of the Cossacks was better’

And Red Guards are shown shooting civilians in the street: Eisenstein’s depiction in October (1928) of Czarist troops shooting civilians in the street is historically more accurate.

Prince Michael and Princess Olga

Alix and Olga perish in an attack on their estate by peasants. Michael leaves Petrograd is trying to protect his his estates in Galicia. Mary works in a centre for orphaned children. But Peter is is active at the ‘Red HQ,

‘a den of terrorists’.

Here we also see a poster advocating ‘the nationalisation of women’, one of the more scurrilous slanders in the US media at this time.

So Peter and Erina come to see Mary and he offers to spare Michael, now returned, for her ‘favours’. This leads into the most exciting sequences of the film. There is a violent ‘catfight’ between Marcia and Erina. Marcia escapes, first through a window and then across a roof. Michael and Serge fights, another brutal contest. Michael succeeds and as Red Guards batter down the door he and Marcia escape.

The film now cuts to Archangel where allied warships, [British, French and US] lie off-shore; part of the invasion of the Young Soviet Republic. One of the few historically accurate depictions in the film using inserted ‘actuality’ footage. Michael and Maria cross sand-dunes to a US soldier and safety. Aboard a ship they flee and Mary will

“become his wife”.

We saw the film in a Belgium print which was tinted and toned: the French and Dutch titles were translated. The character’s names were different in this print. Mary was Marcia, Michael was Boris and Peter was Serge. This print apparently also added to the titles. So Erina was Irina and

“[The Belgium print’s intertitles call her “the Théroigne of Bolshevism” in reference to the French Revolution’s Anne-Théroigne de Méricourt, a rabble rouser born on what is now Belgium territory.]” (Festival Catalogue: Anne-Théroigne more accurately was a victim of male violence in her working life and a powerful fighter for woman’s rights during the French Revolution].

This film’s original title was The Golden Voice. The changed title seems odd but the Catalogue suggests

The Woman has survived her World.”

A narrative that crosses over with Ayn Rand’s ‘We the Living’ (1936).

John Sweeney provided the piano accompaniment. The digital version was, according to the Catalogue, transferred at 18 fps. However, apparently the ‘New Verdi’ projectors only run at 24fps or above?

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The Right to Happiness, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2018

Red heroine, Sonia.

This film was part of the ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. In the Brochure it was one of two films titled ‘The Red Peril’, an apparent witticism that seem inappropriate just before the Centenary of The Great October Revolution. This film at least had the merit of being less virulent than the second title, The World and its Woman (also 1919).

Kevin Brownlow, in the Festival Catalogue, recorded that

“1919 was the year of the Red Scare, when Holubar [the director and co-writer] exchanged the Hun as villain with the Bolshevik, in one of the many political films that appeared just before the movies rejected “message pictures” and embraced the Jazz Age. …. the film was not an anti-Bolshevik hate picture. It was unique in presenting not only good and bad Capitalists but good and bad Communists.”

Whilst Kevin Brownlow is correct that the film avoided the virulent caricatures of The World and its Woman he does not really address the negativity of the film’s representations. These are embodied in the films’ title. The outcome of the film narrative is that this ‘right’ is only to be found in the USA. In a trope that runs through mainstream cinema the positive characters leave Soviet Russia. However, the ‘happiness’ of the resolution is partial.

The print we saw was 4,819 feet in length, about five reels. But the original was eight reels so there were extensive gaps in the narrative. Thus some of the film’s plot and treatment has to be surmised.

The film opens in the Jewish quarter of ‘Petersburg in 1898: [an error or mistranslation as it would have been St. Petersburg then]. A US businessman, Hardcastle (Henry Barrows), is staying there with his twin daughters, Vivian and Dorothy. The quarter is swept by a pogrom perpetrated by Cossacks. In Hardcastle’s absence the two girls are caught up in the violence. Vivian survives thanks to a faithful nanny, Leah, and is found next day by Hardcastle. Dorothy is lost but rescued by a Russian peasant woman and her son. Whilst Hardcastle return to the USA with Vivian, believing Dorothy lost or dead, Dorothy is bought up by the Russian family as Sonia.

The film moves forward to 1917. Sonia is now a radical and supporter of the Revolution. We see her as a firebrand speaking at a public assembly. She is followed by her step-brother Paul (Robert Anderson) and by a Bolshevik character, Sergius (Hector Sarno). Neither Sonia’s nor Sergius’ politics are clearly defined; typical; in this type films. But a title card notes that Paul is a follower of Tolstoy whose values were inimical to the revolution, tending to religious pacifism.

Sonia leaves Soviet Russia, with Paul and Sergius, possibly to garner support for the Revolution. The plot moves to New York. Here we cut between the Hardcastle home and factory and a cheap boarding house where the visiting trio now live. Paul opines that the

“sun of freedom”

is found in the USA whilst Sonia reckons

“conditions must change.”

At the factory we see disagreements between Hardcastle and his partner Forrester (Winter Hall). Hardcastle is a typical profit-driven capitalist, Forrester a more liberal example. The key disagreements are about re-employing workers who return from serving in the armed forces and wage rises because of rising costs of living. Forrester leaves the business and sets up a co-operative, employing workers who have returned from overseas.

Vivian is now a wealthy and fashionable young woman. She has two lapdogs, one canine and one human, George. Vivian does ask her father for money to support the Red Cross whilst George pointedly declines to join up and support the war effort. Vivian is also friendly with Tom (William Stowell), a foreman at the factory. Tom provides a link across the two contrasting settings as he lodges at the same boarding house as Sonia and her two friends.

The film does address the poverty of the period. Another resident at the boarding house is Lily (Alma Bennett) is a poor, unemployed ,

“victim of darkness.”

Lily’s plight is mirrored by a declining plant on the window ledge of her room, declining through lack of sunshine. We also see Vivian visiting and assisting families in the slum area. But in a familiar trope the mother seems feckless and is sermonised by Vivian. Through Tom Vivian also becomes aware of the exploitative nature of the work at Hardcastle’s factory. This is also the focus of the political activity of Sonia and Sergius. At one point we see them agitating outside Forester’s co-operative factory, but the worker merely jeer at them. However, at Hardcastle’s factory they have a more positive response and Sergius is active in organising a strike.

The strike leads to violence at a demonstration outside the Hardcastle mansion. Sonia leads the mass of strikers. She is confronted by Vivian with Tom and there is a moment of unrealised recognition. The violence escalates and Sonia is shot. As she is carried into the mansion by Paul her history is revealed and Hardcastle realises that Sonia/Dorothy is the missing twin. Dying Dorothy begs her father for his workers,

“help them, love them’.

Following her death Hardcastle speaks to the mass of workers promising a co-operative, an announcement greeted with cheers. The film ends with Hardcastle, Vivian and Tom in the family garden.

The film’s treatment of the central characters is important in presenting the values inscribed in the drama. Dorothy/Sonia is a ‘good communist’, however she is also a US-born citizen. So the film avoids having an indigenous Bolshevik presented in a positive light. Moreover, Sonia/Dorothy dies at the end, rather in parallel to the death in genre films of women tainted by illicit sexuality. Because she is tainted by Bolshevism she cannot survive.

Sonia and Sergius

The other communist character, Sergius, is played in a relatively villainous manner. He is instrumental both in the strike and the violence. At one point in the boarding-house Tom sees his gun and tells him,

“we’re not in Russia, pal.”

Moreover, Sergius is a negative character in personal terms. In New York he makes advances to Sonia which she rebuffs. He then turns his attentions to Lilly. He give both women, at different points, a medallion; a sign of his duplicity. And Paul is a pacifist and supporter of Tolstoy. In her final moments Sonia’s plea to her father is more in line with Tolstoy’s values than those of the Communist movement, or indeed of the radical US labour movement.

Vivian is changed from a rather light-headed socialite into a socially caring character, mainly through the influence of Tom. Tom is a typical petty-bourgeois who subscribes to the basic tenets of capitalism, though with a socially acceptable façade. And Hardcastle, originally an explicitly exploitative capitalist is changed by the death of Dorothy into a more acceptable boss, though his company will still depend on the extraction of surplus value from the workforce. A point that is clear from their continued occupation of the affluent mansion.

The attributes of the Hardcastle characters are emphasised by the use of familiar tropes. So when we meet the young Vivian and Dorothy in Petersburg, each has a pet; Vivian a cat and Dorothy a dog. Dorothy’s Borzoi is instrumental in her rescue when the Cossack sack and burn the quarter. Later, Vivian’s frivolous nature is epitomised by the lapdog she carries. However at the finale, in the garden of the family mansion, the accompanying dog is a rough collie, the prestigious breed in Hollywood films.

It is difficult to judge the film overall from what survives. The style is conventional for the period. The set pieces are well done, especially the Cossack attack on the Jewish quarter: dynamic and dramatic. The ‘riot’ at the mansion seems rather truncated. The print we saw had both tinting and toning, and this was especially effective in the Cossack raid. I was preoccupied for much of the running time with keeping tabs on the characters and their actions. We had a dramatic accompaniment at the piano by Phil Carli, which I think also used some melodies and airs of the period.

Camera operator, star and director.

Overall the film’s message was summed up by a comment in ‘Photoplay’,

[Holubar] asks the working man a question: which will you have in this country to better your condition – destruction under the red flag, or construction and cooperation under the American flag?”

This at a time when the US state was suppressing the IWW and busy deporting left-wingers, especially anarchist, to Soviet Russia. More to the point of the film’s message was that the USA, along with Britain, France, japan and other countries, was involved in the invasion of the young Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

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The Crowd, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on October 18, 2017

On set.

The film was screened from a Photoplay Productions 35mm print as the opening Gala at this year’s Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The film looked pretty good though the print was more worn than when I first saw it as a Thames Silent. As then we had a score composed and conducted by Carl Davis and played in this occasion by  the Orchestra San Marco.

I have written about the film in ‘Early and Silent Cinema’ and reviewing it my thoughts were more or less unchanged. It is a fine piece of direction by King Vidor. The script is excellent, the combined work of John Weaver, Harry Behn and Vidor himself. Behn had worked on the M-G-M’s earlier success, The Big Parade (1925). The title cards were composed by Joseph Farnham.

Vidor and the writer of his big success, Harry Behn, penned the original story. Jon Waver produced a full screenplay which was considerably adapted by Vidor and Behn.

‘Vidor pitched Irving Thalberg a film about an average man walking through life, and the drama taking place around him.” (Jordan R. Young in the Festival Catalogue).

Both the producers at the time and some reviewers treated the film as presenting the ‘working man’ However, true to Hollywood values, the hero John Sims (James Murray) is not strictly a member of the working class. He works in an office and is imbued with petit-bourgeois values. The film does not depict his father’s occupation but he clearly buys into the ‘American dream’ and is at pains to distinguish himself from the proletarian masses. At key points in the film John consciously distances himself: the notable example when he laughs at a man earning his living as a juggler/advert in a New York street.

The irony is that, as predicted by Marx and Engels, John is hurtled down in the reserve army of labour. But even here, reduced himself to working as a juggler/advert, he remains committed to the same values. The key representation of these is a recurring plot trope, John’s successful; entry in a competition to provide an advertisement slogan for a popular commodity, ‘Sleight-o-Hand’ ‘The Magic Cleaner’.. The final shot of him and his family is as the advert of the product [with his jingle] provides added pleasure to a celebration, displayed in the programme of a theatre entertainment. At this point the camera tracks back and they gradually are lost in the large audience. This emphatically places John in ‘the crowd ‘of the title. But this is not a conscious working class grouping, but an anonymised mass dominated by the ideology of the free market and ‘a fair day’s pay’.

The Catalogue noted that the Coney island sequence in the film was actually shot at Abbot Kinney Pier in California. But the film does include actual footage shot in New York, the major setting for the film.

One scene that I noticed this time round was interesting. At a dramatic climax John Sims contemplates suicide. He actually stands ready to jump un der an approaching train but draws back. Following this his young son (Johnny Downs) helps to restore his self-esteem by stating his love and admiration for his father. They now wend their way home. Here they pass a cemetery with ranks of gravestones set out in neat rows: this looked like a back projection. It suggests a visual comment on the situation. Oddly John leaves his son on a bench in front of the cemetery and runs to where a job vacancy is publicised. This is the work as a Juggler/advert and we see him dressed in clown uniform, juggling balls, in the street. Following this he returns, collects his son and both go home. It must be an oversight because strictly speaking the son must have been left alone on the bench for hours.

The film remains a powerful and effective movie. it went down great at the festival as did Carl Davis and the orchestra. I think his scores at certain points do rather overpower the films. But the musical sweep in this case works very successfully with the emotional melodrama.

 

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The Woman Disputed, United Artists 1928.

Posted by keith1942 on September 19, 2017

The film stars Norma Talmadge as Mary Ann Wagner, the prostitute with the conventional ‘heart of gold’. She is wooed by two army officers Gilbert Roland as an Austrian Lieutenant, Paul Hartman and Arnold Kent as a Russian Captain Nika Turgenov. The scenario was adapted from a story by Guy de Maupassant, ‘Boule de Suif’. This was possibly De Maupassant’s most famous story it has had numerous adaptation on film. The French title, one version of which is ‘Dumpling’, is the name in the short story of the French prostitute. This film has changed the setting from the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 to World War I and the Austrian / Russian front. Predictably it has also changed the ending of the story.

The film was directed by Henry King and Sam Taylor [according to King] directed three scenes that were reshot, including a new ending [though I doubt they ever considered using De Maupassant’s]. . The cinematography was by Oliver Marsh. And the key member of the production was William Cameron Menzies, credited with Set Design. The film, a 35mm silent print, was screened as part of the programme of his film work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017.

Paul meets Mary in the street at night as he runs from the police. James Curtis describes the moment in the Festival Catalogue.

“Momentarily stunned, he grimaces in pain, then notices a pair of legs in a darkened doorway. The camera tilts up to reveal Mary Ann Wagner, her makeup exaggerated after the manner of a cabaret dancer, her battered hat and polka-dot blouse advertising the fact that she is open for business.”

Mary assists Paul and later contacts his friend Nika who will establish his innocence. However. Mary is questions by the police and consequently loses her rooms. So she is accommodated by Paul at his apartment. This however is chastely done. Both Paul and Nika are smitten by Mary and we see their wooing over several weeks; the most delightful scenes feature the preparation and consumption of meals. However, Mary is most attracted to Paul and their planned union is cemented by Paul presenting Mary with his mother’s wedding ring. Nika is outraged by the preference for Paul.

War erupts. The battles we see are waged over the town, Lemberg [Lvov]. When the Russian army occupy Lemberg we come to the part of the plot taken from the DE Maupassant story. In this case the Russians are searching for a spy and seize several men and Mary on the road out of town. Nika is in charge of the investigation and Mary [as in the story] is pressurised by the men, including a priest, to grant Nika’s desires. She finally succumbs.

However, retribution is swift. As the Austrians retake the town Nika is fatally wounded by a shell. Paul finds both Nika and Mary in a partially ruined church. And Nika, with his dying words, exposes Mary’s fall from grace. Paul is now devastated. However, the Austrian spy, one of the trio of hostages, is able to reveal the nature of her sacrifice. James Curtis describes this dramatic tableaux, somewhat different from that of De Maupassant.

“the final shot presenting Talmadge’s magdalen from a balcony as a grateful army kneels at her feet, an absurdist conceit made credible by the star’s soulful performance – possibly the finest of her career – and the artful culmination of a near-perfect mise-en-scene.”

Paul, of course, is among the troops and as he too kneels the promise of a fulfilled union ends the film.

As Curtis notes, this is a fine performance by Talmadge, moving from the insouciant through romance to the sacrificial. Roland is convincing as the romantic hero whilst Arnold develops from romance to malevolence with aplomb. There is a good supporting cast and the priest [one of the trio of hostages- Michael Vavitch] is especially unctuous as he sermonises Mary. The film has some excellent cinematography with occasional expressionist touches.

What does stand out is the design of the production. Curtis notes in the Catalogue;

“The extant drawings for this sequence [the encounter between Paul and |Mary] show that Menzies effectively directed it; the set-ups are virtually identical to his visualisations. The Woman Disputed is a full of complex imagery – breakfast on a balcony with the city bustling below, the attack on Lemberg, a travelling shot past the massive columns of a church interior, the battlefield crossing of an Austrian spy through the great jumble of gnarled trees and barbed wire.”

Curtis also attributes the expressionist touches to Menzies and notes that this was when Hollywood was absorbing the impact of the great German films , in particular F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund’s The Last Laugh (1924). The latter two were among those actually recruited by Hollywood from the German film industry. The film was released in both silent and sound versions, apparently both running at 24 fps. The sound version offered a musical score including a song specially written for the film, ‘Woman Disputed I Love You’. However, at Pordenone we enjoyed a piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau, which I reckon was most likely superior. The print was just over 200 feet shorter than the original and offered English title cards.

This was the happy final 35mm feature screening before the evening event with a live orchestra, The Thief of Bagdad (DCP – 1924).

 

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Beginnings of the Western – Indian Pictures

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2017

 

Filmmaker James Young Deer onscreen.

One programme in the series of screenings of early westerns at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016 was devoted to the representation of Native-Americans. The Festival Catalogue noted:

“The third programme is devoted to Indian pictures, which continued to attract audiences. Pathé’s short film is a good example of the titles produced by James Young Deer, while the Vitagraph film is an anomaly from its western unit. The three longer films come from Thomas Ince and Francis Ford’s BISON 101 company and a later offshoot or rival, Broncho and Universal’s 101 Bison Films, all shot on location in California.” (Richard Abel).

The programmer also demonstrated the changing face of the Indian character in the western; the sort of sympathetic portrayal found in films by James Young Deer are replaced by the more stereotypical ‘other’ in films by producers like Thomas Ince. And Universal’s acquisition of the Bison 101 company points to a factor in this, the development of the large film combines, controlling production  through to exhibition.  These new companies also developed new strategies:

“When the feature-length westerns began to appear in 1914, they initially tended not to follow the “tradition of earlier one-and-two-reelers, which sometimes offered roles to native Americans, but instead turned to adapting famous stage plays with white heroes, such as Jesse Lasky’s The Squaw Man, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and Selig’s The Spoilers.” (Richard Abel).

Rather like the heroines from Programme two, but in a far more savage depiction, the Native American was badly served by the mainstream western right up until collapse of the studio system.

 

‘The Arrow of Defiance’

The Arrow of Defiance Pathé 1912.

The director and star of this one reel film was James Young Deer. Born and bought up in Washington DC, Young’s parentage was of the Nanticoke people, based in the North East of the Americas and Canada, Young supposedly worked in the Wild West circus shows. He started as a actor in films in the East Coast productions. He was then hired to work as producer, writer, director and star at the Pathe’s Edendale studio in Los Angeles. With his wife Red Wing [of the Winnebago tribe] he worked on about 30 short films between 1909 and 1915, of which only a few survive. Later he worked for a period in Britain.

In this film Young plays Dark Buffalo, chief of a camp of Indians. Sergeant [or Captain] Stewart of the US army brings an order for the Indians to move their camp. After a pow-wow and pipe Dark Buffalo refuses to move: a response symbolised by the ‘arrow of defiance’. The Indians attack settlers, an army camp and a settler wagon. The latter escapes to the safety of the Fort and the Indian attack fails. The film ends with an unusual shot, an embrace between a young Indian boy and a young white girl. Abel notes that

“Missing footage may explain that he was adopted by the girl’s white family, and both have escaped their burning farm.

Another, rather unexpected, is the shot that aligns movie spectators with a few Indian women in the foreground, as they watch the warriors burning a settler farm on a distant hill – a shot that echoes the opening shot of Stewart in the foreground looking down on the small Indian encampment in a distant valley.”

These sort of shots are enabled because the film uses relatively deep space for the settings and the action. Another has the settler wagon in the foreground with the mounted warriors deep in the field of view.

Whilst the Indians suffer defeat the imperious nature of the army settlement and control is apparent. And the shared family of Indian and settlers is a relatively unusual and becomes even more so as the feature westerns become conventional.

When the West was Young, Vitagraph 1913.

This one-reel film [12 minutes at 18 fps] was incomplete, cutting off just before the final shots. It was directed by W. J,. Bauman, an actor and director with seemingly few credits. The scenario was by W. Hanson Durham, who had quite a few credits in the teens including A Bit of Blue Ribbon.  The common element is near death  as a character saves another. In this film this is Black Hawk who, faint from hunger, is fed by the daughter of a settler. He repays the favour by warning the father and daughter of a band of Sioux warriors. Even so the father is killed and Black Hawk leads the girl to the safety of an army fort. However, he is hit in the back by an arrow. We see the girl rescued by a Calvary unit but do not learn Black Hawk’s fate. it seems that

“(as the print breaks off [- the Calvary]) keeps the warriors from scalping Black Hawk and chase them off.” (Richard Abel).

The film’s plot is fairly conventional but the treatment is good. The detail in the cabin when we meet father and daughter with the latter preparing a rabbit at the stove is well done. And after feeding the Indian the father offers him his pipe, a nice inversion of a familiar trope.

 

The Lieutenant’s Last Fight, New York Motion Picture Co, BISON 101

This film was produced by Thomas Ince, one of the key pioneers in developing what became the Hollywood studio system. The director was Francis Ford, John Ford’s eldest brother. He had a long career in Hollywood as an actor but also had a large output as director and sometime writer in Hollywood’s silent era. This tale of another heroic Indian is somewhat conventional and in its ending seems symptomatic of the changes taking place in the genre.

Francis Ford plays Great Bear whose father, a Sioux chieftain (William Eagleshirt), allows him to be sent to Military school A brief scene shows Great Bear on the receiving end of prejudice and contempt from white cadets. However, he graduates as a Lieutenant and returns to his area for duty at Fort Reno.

When the admiring Chief visits his son at the Fort they are the object of ridicule by the white officers and their wives. The exception is Ethel (Ethel Grandin) daughter of the commander Colonel Garvin (Barney Sherry). Ethel’s admirer Captain Haines (William Clifford), antagonised,. insults Great Bear. In the ensuing fight Haines manages to pull out Great bear’s revolver. It is Great Bear who is accused and victimised. After a court martial he is dismissed and stripped of his epaulettes in front of the regiment. When Ethel comes to bid him farewell he sadly takes down and contemplates his officer sword.

The Sioux Chief is outraged by the treatment of his son. He threatens war and Garvin arranges for the women at the fort to be sent to safety on stagecoach. The Colonel’s letter is taken from a courier by braves and the Chief prepares a war party. Caught between his conflicting  loyalty and desire, Great Bear takes out  his uniform and army revolver from a trunk and sets off to save the white woman.

He arrives at a place overlooking the attack on the stagecoach. A trooper rides to the fort for help and to allow time for a rescue Great Bear blows the army bugle he possesses: another familiar trope. The braves withdraw as the Calvary arrive to rescue the women, but Great Bear is shot in the back and left

‘without honour, without a grave’.

 

The Struggle, Broncho 1913

This is not strictly an ‘Indian Picture’. Scott Simmon notes in the Festival Catalogue that the film

“moves closer to “classic” revenge plotting … The price paid for Ince’s move from tales of conflicts within tribes or against the Calvary is that the Indian “hostiles” now lack the slightest motivation or individuality'”

So Simmon points out to the developments in the genre that brings us to the Indian or Native American as ‘the other’. The plot of the film has Bob Worth (Elmer L. Morrow) vowing revenge when his father is shot and his mother dies of grief. Five years on Bob is an army scout. In a saloon he recognises his father’s murder by a scar. But the man flees, shooting a card player with Bob accused of the murder.

He flees. now we see his ‘gal’, daughter of an officer at the Fort. And the Indians, Apaches, appear on the scene. The Calvary ride up, but with the Sherriff who arrests Bob. The two are soon sieged in a cabin by the Indians, but also with the now-wounded murderer. He offers a death bed confession. The Calvary re-appear and drive off the Indians. bob is re-united with his love.

Not a lot for an Indian-friendly audience. In other ways the film is effective with some good staging and editing. It was directed by Thomas H. Ince. However, mis-staging or mising title cards do create a little confusion. Simmon notes

“The happy opening household appears to be a miner and his wife and their teenaged son, but the studio synopsis states that the woman is the miner’s “daughter, a girl of twenty.” The woman is never seen again so that the impression that she must be the hero’s mother in  reinforced by his later identification of the murderer:”

“he killed my father and my mother died of a broken heart.” “

Still, this would not be the first time that a studio synopsis was in error.

‘The Flaming Arrow’

The Flaming Arrow, 101 Bison Film/Universal

Happily for Native-Americans the final film was more positive. Scott Simmon writes,

The Flaming Arrow must be unique among surviving early Westerns for both beginning and ending with happy interracial love.”

The opening presents a prospector with an Indian wife and child. The prospector is killed aiding Black Eagle and his tribe against an attack by Apaches. His wife, Flying Bird, expires after chanting a death song at his grave. This leaves White Eagle as an orphan.

He is sent away to a school in the West and returns ten years later. He develops a friendship with the daughter of the commanding officer at the fort. However, a rival officer with a Mexican accomplice plot to steal a gold shipment. They sell firewater to the Indians resulting in a war party. During an attack on the fort White Eagle rescues the daughter. The y then are laid siege in a cabin [again] whilst the braves shout ‘burn the white girl.!

The Calvary arrive in ‘a nick of time’, the villainous Mexican is killed, leaving White Eagle with the girl he preferred over his own people.

Simmon comments on the overall film and generic examples,

“Moving Picture World couldn’t help but notice the racial revisionism with “the old perplexed question of blood not being raised” between the lovers. By early 1913 Indian subjects remained popular, but story innovations were evidently needed. The usual plot conventions were on display for instance, two months earlier in Ince’s The Burning Brand, a Calvary lieutenant, learning his mother was an Indian, must abandon the colonel’s daughter and die in an attempt to win her back through a tribal attack.”

Whereas in The Flaming Arrow

“In the film’s surprising closing shot, the now-heroic White Eagle and the daughter of the Calvary colonel walk arm in arm towards a tight close-up. It is implied that their marriage will follow.”

Closer to the previous film in other ways, the opening needs help to from the synopsis to be clear about relationships. But the film has definite pace and the editing between scenes as the drama increases is effective. This was another 35mm print, this time from the BFI.

And Gabriel Thibaudeau provided lyrical accompaniment on the piano.

 

 

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