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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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Blue Jeans, USA 1917

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2017

This was the fourth programme in the John H. Collins retrospective at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. Rather like Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) this is a melodrama in which the protagonist overcomes both villainy and an image of self in ‘small town America’. Like that film this is also a fine piece of ‘Americana’. What distinguishes it is that the protagonist is a young woman. David Mayer in the Festival Catalogue notes how the film has transformed the source material, a play from 1890 by Joseph Arthur., one of his popular works.

“Quite possibly at the instigation of writers June Mathis and Charles Taylor, the play’s rube comic roles and broad comic dialogue were stripped away, the comical interludes largely expunged, and the narrative reshaped and smoothed out to create a taut drama of love, ambition, family woe, and female heroism in the rural south-east corner of bucolic Indiana bordering the Ohio River, “the Blue Jeans District”, which gives the drama its title. Crucially, in an act destabilising the former dominance of the male lead, reshaping the narrative to focus on the bravery, self-abnegation, and resourcefulness of the heroine June, providing a major role for Collins’s wife, the actress Viola Dana.”

The plot remains melodramatic. The heroine, June (Dana) is an orphan and in the course of the film she discovers the truth about her lost mother and is reunited with her grandparents. She also has to battle with the varied blows that fall on her romantic hero Perry Bascom (Robert Walker). He has returned to his family town of Rising Sun. Over the course of the film he has to battle politically and literally with the film villain, Ben Boone (Clifford Bruce). He also has to clear his name of a slander, that he abandoned a wife and committed bigamy. And, to regain control of the family mill, he has to overcome the town prejudices that stem from the time of an earlier owner, his uncle.

Viola Dana is fine as the heroine, and she expresses suitable range of emotions a she moves, from love, through adversity and to discoveries from the past. Walker plays Perry as a fairly conventional hero as he encounters one setback after another.

Stylistically the great pleasure of the film is the manner in which it captures the flavour of a small rural town and the surrounding countryside. The opening, as Perry bowls downhill on a bicycle back to Rising Sun, encountering June on his way, sets the scene beautifully. And the are many scenes in the surrounding countryside, in nearby woods and on a nearby river. Perry and June marry in a ‘little chapel; by the river’. The film also makes effective use of cross-cutting between actions and events and draws parallels between these through the use of superimpositions. And there are a number of flashback that fill in the ‘back stories’ of the characters: as for example as Perry unravels the slander about his earlier marriage and claims of bigamy.

The small town of Rising Sun typifies some of the contradictions in ‘small town America’. Perry is not the only one to encounter ‘small town’ prejudice. After her marriage and the birth a of a child June goes to the local church to seek baptism for the infant. But the minister and congregation set their faces against her because they hold ‘uncertainties’ about her conception. This leads to a round denunciation of the church prejudices by one of her only friends, Cindy Tutwiler (Margaret McWade). The point is emphasised by a shot of the church’s stained glass window bearing the  legend ‘suffer little children’. This question of legitimacy is dramatised by a photograph of Cindy’s daughter Lucy [later revealed as June’s mother) which Cindy’s husband Jacob (Russell Simpson) has turned towards the wall.

There is also a sequence set on the night before a local election with candidates’ hustings and large crowds. This makes good use of numerous extras and chiaroscuro effect. It is also the point at which a melodramatic revelation takes place as Perry’s ‘ex-wife’ Dora denounces him.

The film does retain quite a lot of the melodramatic plotting. The climax of the film takes place at the saw mill where Perry confronts Ben. It is Ben who proves the stronger and he ties Perry onto the machine saw whilst locking June in the mill offices. June breaks out of the office and rushes to the saw, rescuing Perry from his mortal threat. David Mayer points out the generic implication of this scene.

“Joseph Arthur’s famous third-act sawmill “sensation scene” (a melodramatic episode so stirringly iconic that it’s reprised in the final-reel of numerous 007 films …”.

This title confirmed the claims made for the retrospective and for Collins as both a fine filmmaker and an important pioneer in the development of Hollywood. Like The Girl Without a Soul this film was made for the Metro Picture Corp. It was also supplied by the George Eastman Museum but in a 35mm print. Donald Sosin supplied the accompaniment on the piano and including a song from the original play.

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The Adjutant of the Czar / Der Adjutant des Zaren, Hungary 1919

Posted by keith1942 on July 31, 2017

This film appeared in a programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto for ‘The Danish Film Institute: A 75th Anniversary Tribute’. The film was actually a Hungarian Production, filmed in Berlin with the surviving print held in the Archive. These varied credits are appropriate as this was one of the titles made by the peripatetic ‘white Russian’ filmmakers after they chose exile over helping to build the new Soviet Union.

Whilst the film is set in pre-revolutionary Russia the anti-socialist values are clearly apparent. Casper Tybjerg [of the Danish Archive] writes in the Festival Catalogue:

“The figure of the Czar is treated with almost mystical reverence …; like Christ in Ben-Hur, the Czar is conspicuously placed just outside of the frame or with his back turned.”

The hero of the film, Prince Boris Kurbsky is played by the great Russian star Ivan Mozhukhin. Returning to Czarist Russia after a failed romance and engagement Boris meets and assist a mysterious lady at the border, Helena di Armore (Carmen Boni). She has lost her passport so Boris passes her off as his wife. This not only throws them together on the remaining train ride but sets up gossip amongst Boris’s fellow Officers. On his return Boris is assigned to the personal guard of the Czar: he also discover love and marries Helena.

However, Helena is not only mysterious but she has a secret. She has lost a family member to the Czarist secret police and has now joined band of secret revolutionaries. Boris is caught between his duty and his love for Helena. Helena, who now reciprocates, is caught between her love and her commitment. The film clearly comes down on the side of Boris and the aristocratic class. The revolutionary are stereotypical subversives and there is no attempt to define their politics apart from their hatred of the Czar whom they plan to assassinate. When we do meet them they are hidden in a cellar in a dark and disused buildings, full of shadows and far from the light.

If the film in anti-revolution it is critical of the now defunct Czarist regime. Helena and others are victims of the hated and brutal secret police. And whilst Boris is able to thwart the plot it is at the cost of his love.

“Even so, the politics of Czarist Russia are ultimately destructive of true love, and the loyalty of Mozhukhin’s character leaves him stranded on a darkened railway platform, staring tearfully after a disappearing train, billowing black smoke as it carries his wife away into the night.” (Casper Tybjerg in the Festival Catalogue).

The film is very much constructed around the persona of Mozhukhin. The early part of the film play like a romantic comedy as Boris begins his involvement with Helena. Casper Tybjerg describes one fine scene where romantic love is recognised:

“his boyish elation when Boni agrees to marry him is particularly endearing; he sweeps her up in his arms and whirls around like a dervish, ending up in a pratfall with her on his lap.”

As the plot darkens the mood shifts, the film turns to melodrama, and here Mozhukhin demonstrates his powerful expressive style;

“later, during the grand ball, he thwarts the assassination attempt through the power of his piercing stare alone: after a tight close-up of Muzhukhin’s eyes, Helena is unable to pull out the pistol in her handbag.”

This sequence is constructed around a number of close-ups, including the purse carried by Helena. Whilst the film moves between fairly conventional set-ups, as in the palace, at times it makes good use of camera and editing. A number of sequences enjoy rapid dolly shots, as at the Imperial Ball. There are short effective tracks when Boris investigates the next of revolutionaries, and at one point what seems to be a hand-held camera. And the sequences with chiaroscuro, such as the revolutionary hide-out or the final railway station, are well presented.

The director was Vladimir Strizhevsky and he also wrote the scenario. He carried on directing films in the bourgeois west until the 1940s. The excellent cinematography was by Nikolai Toporkov and the design by Hans Sohnle and Otto Erdmann. I did not find a credit for editing.

The film was screened from the Archive’s 35mm print, with Danish title cards and a translation provided. John Sweeney accompanied the film at the piano with a predominantly melodramatic score.

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The Girl Without a Soul, USA 1917

Posted by keith1942 on July 27, 2017

This was another film scripted and directed by John H. Collins presented at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. His star and wife, Viola Dana, had a double role in the film playing two identical sisters.

“…this enjoyable film fully justifies the casting of versatile Viola Dana in double roles, in which she achieves two distinct characterisations with a simple alteration of contrasting hair styles and nuanced changes of expression and body language: a steely-eyed concentration and selfishness as Priscilla and a warmth and, joy and trust as dog-loving Unity.” (Helen Day-Mayer and David Mayer in the Festival Catalogue).

These are the two daughters of violin maker Dominic Beaumont, Priscilla is a gifted violinist whilst Unity, ‘without a soul’ or ‘talent’ is confined to domestic labour. Priscilla’s lover is also a musician Ivor, whilst Unity’s beau is the village blacksmith, Hiram.

The plots develops around Hiram’s money box where he keeps the savings for his wedding to Unity, but also savings by the congregation for a new organ for the village chapel. Opportunistic Ivor inveigles Priscilla in helping him to steal the money. Suspicion falls on Hiram, in part because he has bought an expensive dress for the wedding for Unity. And it is Unity, as in other films starring Viola Dana, who must save Hiram from an unjust trial and punishment. However, Hiram is allowed his own action, chasing after the fleeing Ivor and apprehending him for justice.

Collins and his cinematographer John Arnold achieve some effective split screen shots to show Priscilla and Unity together in the frame. The Mayer’s also point out that the pair,

“collaborating on shots and sequences that define the rural environment in which the narrative unfolds: the romantic idyll Unity and Hiram share on a slow-moving river overhung with vegetation alongside a packed country courthouse evoked, not by those in attendance, but by the rows of buggies and spring wagons and their patient horses and mules, noses in feedbags parked under the leafy, sun-dappled sycamores – a tranquil scene sensationally disrupted by shady Ivor’s flight from justice.” (Festivals Catalogue).

So the country environment is evoked as successfully as in the other rural based drama Blue Jeans. And, as in that film, there is the evocative river journey. Blue Jeans also features the finely achieved hustings for the election: in this film  an equivalent sequence is the arrival of the new organ for the village chapel, with all the villagers in a attendance and celebrating this new acquisition.

Collins develops the plot by the use of well-placed flashbacks, which both fill out the action but also, as in the court hearing, add to the drama as we revisit a key scene. The sense of ‘Americana’ that we find in Collins work is here in the film’s reference to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Unity recites his poem ‘The Village Blacksmith’ at the local girl’s school Commencement Day. This poem also ties neatly into her relationship with Hiram. As well as fine technical work Collins film’s have carefully developed plotlines with little redundant action and carefully placed ‘plants’ and ‘pay-offs’.

This was the only title from Collins at Le Giornate screened from a DCP: transferred from a copy held by the George Eastman Archive. The accompanying music was provided by Phil Carli at the piano with Günter Buchwald on the violin, including ‘dubbing’ the playing of Priscilla.

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The Cossack Whip, USA 2016

Posted by keith1942 on July 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘the land of the free’

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

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

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

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

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

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The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

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The Hyde Park Picture House in 1915

Posted by keith1942 on March 20, 2016

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

The Hyde Park Picture House in the 1960s

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

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

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

Elaine poster

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

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

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

“1. The Clutching Hand

2.The Twilight Sleep.

3.The Vanishing Jewels

4.The Frozen Safe.

5.The Poisoned room. and so on ….”

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

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

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

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The First Born UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on February 10, 2016

first-born

This British silent film from 1928 was re-discovered and restored by the British Film Institute. The film is a subtle and witty parable on married life and the bourgeois mores of the period. It adds to the re-evaluation of British silent film in recent years, joining a growing list of productions that are both intelligently scripted and made with a distinctive style and noticeable technical quality.

The film is also interesting because it benefits from the talents of a number of extremely able filmmakers. The film was produced for Gainsborough under the auspices of Michael Balcon. He is a producer whose impact over decades on British film is equal too or greater than many of the valued auteurs who usually garner the most attention. The film was designed by W. C. Arnold, whose distinctive sets gave such impact to an earlier Gainsborough film, The Rat (1925). And the film stars Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll.

The film was directed also by Miles Mander, less well known for directing than for acting. He was a character actor whose typical role was as ‘a moustachioed cad’: he plays a bigamist in Hitchcock’s early silent The Pleasure Garden (1925). However, Mander had some experience in theatre, as an actor-director. He had also worked with the Swedish film director Gustaf Molander. Both The First Born and later directorial outings show a continental influence in the use of the camera and in editing practices.

Mander adapted the film from his own stage play ‘Those Common People’. In some ways his fellow-scenarist in the adaptation is the most interesting, Alma Reville, usually listed as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is generally regarded as the auteur par excellence. In fact, as with many other noted filmmakers, his work relies to a great degree on the talent of his collaborators. His British films benefited from the scriptwriting talent of Charles Bennett. He worked with notable cameramen, designers, editors and gifted actors like Peter Lorre, Robert Donat and indeed Madeleine Carroll. Michael Balcon was his mentor. Quite possibly though Alma was his most important muse. She was already established in the industry when Hitchcock entered it as young man. She worked for a time as a scriptwriter, but her career was subordinated to that of her husband: very much the norm in the industry of that time. Hitchcock always acknowledged that he discussed his films daily with his wife. So there is a tantalising question mark over the status of Alma Reville.

Intriguingly the film features a triangle, Miles Mander as Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll as Lady Madeleine Boycott and John Loder as Lord David Harborough. Sir Hugo is a philanderer and abuses his wife. This partly motivates the romantic but chase affair between Madeleine and David. At a crucial point in the film Hugo physically attacks his wife. But David is away in London, the ‘absent lover’. This is a not uncommon motif but one that appears regularly throughout the career of Hitchcock. Whose motif?

Some light was shed on this by the introductory talk before a screening of the film at the National Media Museum. The talk was by Nathalie Morris from the British Film Institute. She has written on ‘The Early Career of Alma Reville’ (in the Hitchcock Annuals, 1 to 15, 2009). This bought an added dimension to the film, as did the live music performed by Darius Battiwalla. He had already established a high standard of accompaniment at earlier Bradford screenings such as The Rat (1925) and Cottage on Dartmoor (1930). The film was screened as part of the Bradford International Film Festival.

Originally posted as a preview.

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Diary of a Lost Girl / Tagebuch einer Verlorenen Germany 1929

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2016

L.Brooks.diary

This is the second film that Louise Brooks made with G. W. Pabst. Both are iconic figures in late silent cinema. Brooks is a luminous and distinctive star presence on screen. Pabst is a skilled and innovating filmmaker. Moreover, they worked together towards the end of one of the really creative periods in silent cinema: filmmakers in the Weimar Republic enjoyed the most advanced technical facilities in Europe and innovated in a series of distinctive film movements. This film also benefited from the skills of the industry’s craftspeople, especially the cinematographers Sepp Allgeier and Fritz Arno Wagner.

The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Margarete Böhme. She was a popular writer in the early C20th. Diary of a Lost Girl was her most popular novel, published in 1905 and eventually selling over a million copies. So the original story was set in Wilhemine Germany. It was at first marketed as an actual story edited by Böhme. It had already been filmed in 1918, though this version seems lost.

The partnership of Pabst and Brooks is famous for their previous collaboration, Pandora’s Box (Nero-Film AG 1929). This was adapted from an even more notorious work by Franz Wedekind, two plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box 1904). These are classics of German literature, though they were also considred shocking and suffered censorship problems when first performed. Their quality can be seen from an earlier film version starring the major diva of the time, Asta Nielsen. There is also as an operatic masterpiece by Alban Berg, Lulu. Pandora / Lulu achieves tragic status whilst offering a scathing critique of bourgeois society. Diary of a Lost Girl does critique the mores of contemporary German society but is much more of a melodrama.

The plot of the film is full of conventional sequences, which are also found in other films dealing with the exploitation of young women. In keeping with the pre-occupations of the society of the time, these are predominately sexual with the economic taking a subordinate place.

Brooks plays Thymian, the central character. At the start of the film her household is disrupted when the housekeeper, Elisabeth (Sybille Schmitz) becomes pregnant by Thymian’s father, Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky). Henning runs a pharmacy: he is also a weak character, of import later in the film. So Elisabeth is forced to leave and soon commits suicide. Her father later marries the new housekeeper Meta (Franziska Kinz). During this Thymian displays her innocence and naivety by failing to really understand what has happened: she also then displays her sensitivity when she sees Elisabeth’s corpse carried away.

This sexual disruption to the household sets in motion a series of exploitative actions, which also fall outside the mores of bourgeois society. Thymian is seduced / raped by the Pharmacy assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp). This leads to a series of ‘falls’ for Thymian – through reformatory and then to a brothel. Through all this Thymian records her life in her dairy: a present for her confirmation day, the day on which the scandal regarding Elisabeth occurs.

1929-diary-of-a-lost-girl

Brooks’ character is rather different from the ‘free spirit’ of Pandora’s Box. In that film her sexually aware innocence leads men to their doom, but finally also leads Lulu to her own. In Diary of a Lost Girl Thymian is the proverbial innocent. Even after a spell in a reformatory and when she has progressed to a brothel she seems unaware of the actuality of sex, especially sex in which men expropriate from a woman. Thus in the film it is unclear whether Thymian is merely seduced or she is actually raped. In two scenes involving men Thymina apparently swoons and is then carried by the man to a bed and to sex. Given the exploitative tone that Pabst’s film provides I think these actions really count as rape.

Brooks is very good at conveying this combination of innocent naivety, which is somehow combined with certain knowingness. Her definite charisma on screen partly follows from the way that she characterises the women she plays. In both of Pabst’s films there is a recurring characterisation by her: first she stares uncomprehendingly at another character, then she breaks into an engaging smile. These smiles mark steps in her progressions; parallel but different in the two films,

The film relies extensively on close-ups and these predominate over long shots. So the film emphasises the characters rather than the settings. Pabst and his team are masters of the developing art of film editing. His films tend to continuity rather discontinuities. And the cutting is regular so that we see characters and exchanges in a variety of shots.

The mise en scène adds to the representation of characters. In the body of the film there are three important settings: the family home and pharmacy: the reformatory and the brothel. The home is characterised by unease and dislocation. So we often see characters appearing or disappearing: caught in doorways and corridors. The reformatory is a sparse brutal environment. The most frequently seen room is a dining room cum workshop. There are only tables, chairs and the machines that the inmates work at.

Erika

                                                                      Erika

There is an exception, which is the girl’s dormitory, which offers a space where the girls [after lights out] enjoy some autonomy. So one memorable scene in the dining room has the head’s wife [Valaska Gert) striking a gong as the girls perform physical movements. Later, in the dormitory after the head of the reformatory (Andrews Engelmann) and his wife have gone to bed the girls play, smoke, play cards and generally indulge. [There is a feel of a parallel with the later famous sequence in Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite 1933].

This alternative space for women is paralleled in some ways by the brothel. The film generally presents this as a free and easy environment where the women are untrammelled and content. The setting is there for men and their pleasure, but the key figure is the ‘madam’ of the house. And the women are happy to pleasure the men. The exception, Thymian, follows the example of the others following her seduction/rape. A shadow appears in an intense scene where Thymian encounters her father, who is visiting a nightclub where Thymian is the prize in a raffle. The father is shaken, but Thymian continues her life of prostitution.

However, the strength of patriarchy returns in the film. Thymian’s two continuing friends over the course of the story are Graf Osdoff (André Roanne), heir to a count but an ineffectual character: and Erika (Edith Meinhard) a friend in both the reformatory and the brothel. Graf is disposed of but his death leads to Thymian being taken under the wing of his uncle, who ‘rescues’ her from her situation and places her in a properly salubrious situation Here Thymian is able to settle accounts with the people who have misstated and exploited her.

The ending in the film is different from that of the book. In the book

“she dies from never having experienced a love of her own volition.”

It seems that the book presents the story in the first-person of Thymian, hence the ‘Diary’ in the title. The film eschews this and treats the diary as a recurring plot device rather than a source of the narrative. Heide Schlüpmann also adds that:

“She [Margarethe Böhme] defends the rights and dignity of unwed mothers, as well as the “morality” of prostitutes, against the dominant bigotry, including the hypocrisy of the middle-class charity groups run by women.”

Much of this is lost in the film though Pabst and his colleagues do frame unsympathetically both the moral relatives of Henning who insist Thymian goes into a reformatory and a, later in the film, the middle-class charitable group who support the reformatory. This is where the film crosses over with Pandora’s Box, as in that film Lulu’s life and death are at the behest of men. However, Lulu is still a much more active character than Thymian. This is partly down to the melodramatic morals of Diary of a Lost Girl. But also that Wendekind’s play is, despite its critical stance, still predominantly from the male point of view, which is also the case with Pabst’s film. Schlupmann has a quotation from Brooks,

“He [Pabst} was conducting an investigation into his relations with women …”.

The skill of the filming and the presence of Louise Brooks have ensured that this film regularly resurfaces at Festivals. The original film was 3.132 metres in length. However, after censorship cuts one version was reduced to 2008 metres: and there was a recut version in 1930. Overall the film avoided the censorious response that met Pandora’s Box. But presumably the scenes in a brothel caused concern for some. The restored version by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiffung is 3,30 metres.

Heide Schlüpmann’s article The Brothel as an Arcadian Space? Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) appears in The Films of G. W. Pabst An Extraordinary Cinema edited by Eric Rentschler, Rutgers University Press, 1990.

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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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