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Min Svigerinde Fra Amerika / My Sister-in-law from America, Denmark 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on September 9, 2017

This was one of the 1917 films at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto from ‘The Danish Film Institute at 75’. It was a comedy short written Waldemar Hansen with cinematography by Hugo Fischer. The Catalogue notes by Thomas Christensen  gave more detail about the director:

“Lau Lauritzen Sr. was among the most productive film directors in Danish Cinema. While he is best known by many as the director and creator of “Pat & Patachon” comedy films, he started his career with Nordisk film, where he began directing in 1914 and throughout the 1910s made almost one short subject every week.”

Unfortunately this film is incomplete, missing up to a reel. Even so the surviving nine mines [172 metres at 16 fps] was a delight.

A husband is entertaining his mistress and is discovered by his returning wife. Taking advantage of a telegram announcing the visit of his brother from America he introduces her as ‘my sister-in-law from America’. Meanwhile we watch the travails of the brother and his wife as they land in Denmark and become separated. When the brother arrives he plays along with charade. But, predictably, the wife then also turns up. The film has a brilliant final one-liner.

The cast are excellent though I could not find a cast list to identify who played whom. Whatever, the characters deliver with real panache. Christensen has a droll comment, which refers to the final sequence:

“The double cover-up at the end, …, might interest viewers studying the representation of religious and cultural differences as humorous'”

Definitely a title to track down.

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – finale.

Posted by keith1942 on September 21, 2015

Anzac Cove.

Anzac Cove.

Sunday morning returned us to World War I. The scene was set with a presentation on how film had treated the ill-fated Gallipoli failure. This was an event on which troops from the then empire – especially Australia and New Zealand – suffered heavy casualties. It is even now a day of remembrance in Australia. We watch several aspects including two films based [rather differently]] on the same book by Ernest Raymond. One was the relatively recent Gallipoli (1981) following the fate of two Australian recruits. The second was from a 1930 sound film, Tell England. A recent film, The Water Diviner (2014) also deals with these events: interestingly it provides much space and a certain sympathy for the Turkish combatants: not noticeable in the earlier films.

Tell England was also the morning feature. This was filmed by British Instructional Films and directed by Anthony Asquith. Asquith is a much neglected British director. His earlier silent films are very fine, and so is this early sound film. His output in the 1930s is less distinguished which is presumably down to the failings of the British industry. Whilst some of the sound sequences are clichéd there are stand-out action sequences. The most impressive is one featuring the allied landings, which intercuts specially filmed material with ‘found footage’ from 1915. Asquith’s early films show the influence of Soviet cinema, which he presumably saw at the London Film Society. There are examples in editing and montage in this film: and Asquith not only learnt from the techniques of Soviet filmmakers, but also clearly comprehended their use of montage. There are three listed cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell and James Rogers, and their black and white cinematography is extremely well done. The editor is Mary Fields and she also was obviously a fine talent.

After lunch we had a presentation on Early British Advertising Films. These ranged from 1903 to 1947. We saw scotch, matches, boot polish soap, railways, cycling and hot drinks. The early ones ran for under a minute. Then oddly there was a period of extended advertisements of several minutes, reverting in the 1950s to the earlier and shorter length. This is what we suffer today. The blessed aspect of early adverts is the absence of sound. I tend to think that the dialogue and commentary in contemporary adverts is somewhat worse than the images.

A 1920s advert.

A 1920s advert.

The last two films in the programme had already featured at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto. So, being fairly wacked, I am afraid I missed them. The first is a very fine late Scandinavian silent, Ragens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929). This is a rural drama with fine location filming: one of the pleasures of Swedish silent cinema.

The final film was Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal. This is a classic of Soviet cinema, always worth revisiting. The film had a newly prepared electronic score by Guy Bartell. I have to ask friends how they found it. I trained back to Leeds, tired but replete.

This was a rewarding four days, and extremely well delivered. I did have some minor reservations, which are worth airing because they seem to me to be on the increase. The advance programmes did not have information on formats. One of the helpful De Montfort organisers provided me with a partial list. But even in the programme notes it was not always clear what format would be screened: there were 35mm, DCPs and DVDs. With some of the films from elsewhere it apparently was not always certain what format would arrive. But the bulk of the programme came from the BFI, so there must have been certainty in these cases. There is a mistaken assumption that watching digital is the same or better than celluloid. I thought, as with the Hitchcock silents and on this occasion with the Keaton, that this is not the case.

The notes on 35mm did provide frame rates. But this was not the case with DCPS. The sound films would run at 24 fps, but what happens with silents. FIAF has now provide specifications for silent running rates on digital: but there seems to be very little usage of these in the UK.

And none of the notes provided aspect ratios. This was a particular problem because early sound films tended to be in 1.33:1 with the framing reduced by the added soundtracks. And there was apparent frequent cropping in the 35mm sound prints. These require appropriate projection plates and lenses, which I assume the Phoenix do not have. But it would have been good to have been forewarned about this.

One of Leeds' 100 year-old cinemas.

One of Leeds’ 100 year-old cinemas.

Still my views are predominately positive and hopefully there will be future silent festivals. So I wanted to add two suggestions. One is that by number nineteen it will be long overdue to have a festival in the North of England. Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle and Sheffield could all provide excellent venues. And my own city of Leeds could also do so: and there are in or nearby the city five working cinemas that a hundred years ago were already exhibiting the films that are the subject of these festivals. We could also have an overdue appreciation of Louis Le Prince.

My other suggestion is regarding content. The films were fine, but I did weary slightly of the uncritical patriotism. It would be good to have early films from the Socialist and Labour Movements. Groups like Kino and the Film and Photo League continued making silents into the 1930s. And there were talented and interesting filmmakers like Ivor Montagu and Ralph Bond. Some of these films certainly survive, even if only in their original 16mm format. Wheel them out?

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival – Day 2.

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Maurice Elvey - the film director.

Maurice Elvey – the film director.

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

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

Ian Hunter

Ian Hunter

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

Ivan Mosjoukine.

Ivan Mosjoukine.

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

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Asta Nielsen

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2015

Asta

Nielsen was a successful and popular actress in European cinema from 1910 to the mid-1920s. She was also possibly the first cinematic diva. Her career was launched with great panache in Denmark in 1910. She later moved to Germany, where Danish cinema was already popular. Though she is remembered mainly as a combination of femme fatale and tragic heroine she appeared in a wide range of genres, including comedies. Her films have appeared at both Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato. However it was the latter festival that provided an overview of her career in a retrospective in 2007, with a particular focus on the teens.

The programme was curated by two German scholars, Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann. As well as programming a wide range of films bought together from a number of archives they provided the notes for the Catalogue and some very interesting introductions to the films.  One point that they emphasised was the task of trying to achieve some sense of Nielsen’s persona and impact back in the teens and 1920s.

For example, we scarcely have any sense anymore of the drama of passion, the pathos of the sexual, the significance of the gender conflict. Yet these were very much part of everyday life around 1900 – something to which not only Sigmund Freud, but also the sexual reform movement and the woman’s movement, testify

Ritrovato Catalogue, 2007.

Nielsen could certainly generate both passion and pathos. But whilst in a number of films she portrayed the victim of male exploitation she was also frequently a strong and forceful female character. And this aspect of her persona was apparent both in dramas and in comedies.

Nielsen was already an established stage actress when she was recruited into the Danish cinema in 1910. Whilst she was discovered by August Blom most of her films were directed by Urban Gad, whom she married. They were both recruited to Germany in 1911 and most of her film career was spent in that Industry. She was already a popular star before World War I and she continued a successful film career after the war.

The 'gaucho'dance in Abyss

The ‘gaucho’dance in Abyss

Her earliest film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato was Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910): the film ran for 44 minutes at 18 fps and the Danish intertitles had an English translation. In the film she plays Magda who starts a romance with Knud (Robert Dinesen) after a chance meeting on a tram. Knud is a conventional professional; his mores illustrated by his father being a minister. But Magda is taken by Rudolph, a performer in a travelling circus. Thus she is caught between the domesticated male and the lover figure, a staple of film melodrama. What made the film stand out was the vitality and forcefulness of Magda’s character. There is an erotic sequence where Magda vamps Rudolph on stage: and later she wields a knife when she is caught between the competing desire of Knud and Rudolph. The Catalogue included a contemporary review, which gives some sense of the impact of this new film actress.

All these may have contributed to the sensational success of the film drama The Abyss, which is currently showing to full houses twice every evening at the Palasttheater in Dusseldorf…. [re the gaucho dance in the film] Asta Nielsen, in the role of Magda, dances out her ill-fated and ruinous passion for the artist Rudolph.

“Die Kinematograph”, Düsseldorf, December 1910.

As was conventional in this period the film was presented mainly in long shot with just a few mid-shots. Even so Nielsen generated obvious emotion in her stance and movements: posture and gesture was as important as facial expression.

Francesco Bertini, an Italian Diva who followed on Nielsen in 1914, recalled being shown The Abyss in preparation for one of her early dramas and even then, four years later, it was still regarded as shocking.

An example of her later work was found Mod Lyset (Towards the Light, Denmark 1918) written and directed by Holger-Madsen, [screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1999). It ran for 68 minutes at 16 fps and had Danish intertitles with a translation into English. It was a single Danish production for Nielsen in this period.

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The film had a far more complex style than Afgrunden. There were innumerable close-ups of the characters intercut to the mid-shots and long shots. For a number of shots an iris effect was used. The film also used chiaroscuro, and there was an impressive night-time sequence with a boat crossing and then a fire. The film also used a mirror as a plot device: a trope that appeared in Afgrunden and was common in this period.

The basic story was depicted at the start in a series of dissolving shots of the main character Countess Ysabel (Nielsen). Unlike many of her earlier melodramas, rather than a ‘fall from grace’ this film depicted a character’s ascent from ‘frivolity’ to religious and social commitment.

The film also had a complex plot with a number of intersecting strands. There was Sandro (Anton de Verbier), ‘the ruler of her [Ysabel] heart: who was not all he seems. There was professor with a nephew Felix (Harry Komdrup); the latter was smitten with Ysabel. And there were a separate set of characters around Elias (Alf Blütocher), a preacher involved in community work, including an island settlement for the homeless. These different characters were carefully integrated in the story to provide the motivation for the final and deliberately uplifting resolution. Nielsen was, as ever, excellent and charismatic; but the part did not offer the panache one felt with her less reputable characterisations.

In 1920 she starred as the protagonist in film a version of Hamlet based on a stage version by Erwin Gepard. The Catalogue quoted Lotte Eisner who opined:

The soulful eyes, the slim figure, the strange, cultivated pallor make Asta Nielsen the perfect Shakespearean Danish prince – exactly as we ant to see the prince.

In 1923 she starred in a film version of Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) from the play by Franz Wedekind: more famously filmed in 1929 by G. W Pabst. The director Leopold Jessner gave the film a rather expressionist look. But the character of Lulu, igniting uncontrollable desires in men, suited Nielsen perfectly.

Then in 1925 she was a leading player in a film by G. W. Pabst, Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street). Here, in a different role, she played a victim of the harsh economic conditions of the time and of an exploitative member of the petit bourgeoisie. The film is relentlessly grim, but beautifully filmed and edited: moreover for the price of one ticket you can see Nielsen, Great Garbo and Marlene Dietrich all in the same film.

Nielsen did essay some films in the early sound period but her great roles were from the teens through to the mid-1920s. She was in many ways the defining actress for the European diva of the silent era. She could play both victim and femme fatale but also handle the lighter touch of comedy. The films of the teens have a different focus and different style from the 1920s. But Nielsen was able to work effectively in both areas.

As the experience of Bertini demonstrates, she was an important influence across European cinema. And without a voice she communicated with her body, her gestures and her face.  The Catalogue notes:

Asta Neilsen discerned the potential of a style of acting that was not just unfettered by words but uninhibited in every respect. She took leave of the rigid linguistic forms by means of gestures and facial expressions, behaviour patterns which she clearly displayed. (Heide Schlüpman, Karola Gramann).

Note May 9th sees a screening of the Asta Nielsen Hamlet at the University of York Campus.

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Il Cinema Ritrovato27th Edition 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2013

Cineteca

This year’s festival organised in Bologna by the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna was a crowded week of archival film material. There were programmes of both silent and sound films spread across five venues and enjoyed in part or whole by about 2000 visitors.

One strand, now running since 2003 was The Time Machine, A Hundred Years Ago. Glorious 1913. This was curated in her own inimitable fashion by Marian Lewinsky. It included a range of films – short actualities and short and long fictional narratives. There were contributions from a range of national archives. The short actualities covered a varied range of topics – street scenes, the Mexican War, Greek antiquities, the Niagara Falls [a frequent cinematic sight] and a longer information film, Our Friend the Police. The last title indicated its content, which was produced by the Manchester Police Force. There were several delightful early comedies from the French auteur Léonce Perret. He both starred in and directed these films and they offered a distinctive and delightful Gallic humour. Longer films included the 1912 Italian Quo Vadis? This was an early example of the then new Italian epic running for 94 minutes. There was also Victor Sjöström’s early socially conscious masterpiece Ingeborg Holm. We had a marvellous performances from the early divas Asta Neilsen in Engelein and Lyda Borelli in Ma L’amo mio non Muore. The majority of these programmes were screened in 35mm with their original frame rates and many enjoyed tin ting, hand colouring or stencil colouring techniques.

The Quiet Don

The Quiet Don

One of the real surprises of the festival were a series of early Russian and Soviet films featuring the female star and director Ol’ga Preobraženskaja. Unfortunately her work as an actress only survived in fragments, though Plebej, an adaptation of Stringberg’s Miss Julie from 1915 and directed by Jakov Protazanov, looked very promising. A contemporary review praised her performance as the ‘volatile, sensitive countess’. The bulk of the programme were films that she directed with her partner Ivan Pravov. These were impressive, especially given that the work has been overlooked for a long time. In the 1920s she worked [predictably even in the progressive Soviet Union] on a number of films for children. One of these, Kaštanka (1926) adapted from a story by Chehkov, was a really fine canine film about a boy and his lost dog. Another Fed’kina Pravda (1925) adapted a classic Ukrainian tale of two boys from different sides of the track whose fates dramatise social inequality. Two films, Anja (1927) and Baby Rjazanskie (1927) focussed on central women characters. Whilst Tichij Don (1930) was an early adaptation of the famous Soviet novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Preobraženskaja and Pravov’s work lacked the distinctive montage style associated with the most famous Soviet filmmakers. However, they were popular drama, often with distinctive techniques in filming, and offering a seemingly realist portrait of aspects of life in the 1920s.

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

The featured early director was Allan Dwan, who worked in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961. His early one-reelers were mainly westerns. What immediately struck me was his tendency to use distinctive framing and a developing command in the use of landscape: both aspects, which may have influenced John Ford. This programme included two films that he directed for Douglas Fairbanks Sr., A Modern Musketeer (1917) and The Iron Mask (1929). There were also two films he directed starring Gloria Swanson. Zaza (1923) had Swanson and H. B. Warner rather miscast in an adaptation of a classic French melodrama. The other Manhandled (1924) was a department store melodrama and made perfect use of the star’s persona. Her Chaplin imitation in this film reappears in the later Billy Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard (1950), as does her co-star from Zaza H. B. Warner. And there was full-bodied Hollywood melodrama East Side, West Side (1927); this is a rag to riches story, which manages to include romance, heartache, the ‘American dream’ and a pretty good facsimile of the Titanic sinking.

One popular strand was Silent Hitch, the full nine restored silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock. These were all screened from 35mm prints with piano accompaniments. This was an exciting opportunity and the fine grain prints looked good. However, I did wonder why we had to travel to Italy to see the 35mm prints whilst at home in England it seems only possible to see these on DCPs.

Another familiar filmmaker was Charlie Chaplin. This is the latest phase of the ongoing Chaplin Project, restoring the complete 81 titles that Chaplin made across his long career. This year we had the Mutual comedies. These had all been transferred to DCPs. I noted that the Catalogue information was restricted to the number of reels. The equivalent screenings in 2012 had information both on the frame rate for projection and running times. In fact the Cineteca is one of the few venues where the new FIAF frame rates for early film appear to have been implemented. And there certainly were digital projections at this year’s festival where the screening used the historically determined frame rate. I could not get a direct clarification of the change but I assume the explanation is that only some of the Film Archive have so far implemented the FIAF specifications and that we are in an equivalent period to the arrival of sound, when film speeds are something of a lottery. This is rather sad given the scholarship that has gone into unearthing information and the technical effort into screening films as they would have when originally seen.

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

One event that did recreate the nearly cinema experience was in the courtyard of the Cineteca. There were two evening screening of films from The Morieux Collection, a Belgium archive based on a fairground mechanical theatre. There was an accompanying exhibition of Archive materials. The films were projected from surviving carbon arc projector provided by Cineservice. Watching the carbon arc projection is a rare pleasure, and it is a light source which has strong illumination and distinctive colour projection. There was a ripple of excitement in the packed courtyard as the projector ‘fired up’. And we then watched a delightful selection of short black and white and coloured films with musical accompaniments.

Of course there was a lot more in the festival programme. But a really important part of the early film programmes are the musicians who provide the accompaniment. Generally this is of a very high standard and adds immeasurably to the screenings. There were certain performances where I was really struck by the accompaniment and its interaction with the film.

Gabriel Thibaudeau provided a very lyrical accompaniment to a 1915 tragic Italian melodrama Tragico Convegno. Antonio Coppola was equally lyrical for a 1913 programme, which included In Peril of the Sea. Maud Nelissen was spot on for a programme of the early Allan Dwan westerns. A new accompanist for me, Matti Bye, provided a minimal but evocative accompaniment for Ingeborg Holm. And the Hollywood drama East Side, West Side enjoyed the playing of Donald Sosin and the singing of Joanna Seaton. It was all very memorable.

It was a very crowded and for me exhausting week. But it was full of memorable films, some of which I have waited years to see. I wait with anticipation the 2014 programme, which presumably will address the centenaries of both World War I and the start of Chaplin’s film career.

Stills courtesy of the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Scadinavian film, Silent technology, Soviet Film, US pioneers | 2 Comments »