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Her Code of Honour, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 4, 2018

This was a film in the ‘John M. Stahl’ programme at the 2018 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It appears to be the earliest surviving feature directed by Stahl. It was produced by Tribune Productions, a Manhattan based studio in the late teens. The screenplay was by a woman writer Frances Irene Reels; she and Stahl were married. The Catalogue includes notes on the film by Charles Barr, partly taken from the chapter on the film in the book published to coincide with the retrospective, ‘The Call of the Heart’ (Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr, John Libbey 2018). The book uses part of the opening title of this film,

“When the call of the heart is heard all else is forgotten.”

In the film that ‘call’ initially affects Helen (Florence Reed), an US art student living in Paris in 1895. The ‘call’ that affects her is her passion for Jacques (Irving Cummings). In fact she learns that Jacques is a married man with a young son. But the ‘call ‘ is felt for Helen herself by a fellow expatriate Tom (Alec B. Francis). When Helen dies in childbirth, apparently with child by Jacques, Tom takes the baby home to the USA and raises her as his daughter, Alice (also Florence Reed).

The film cuts to 1918 and the adult Alice now begins a relationship with a young man Eugene (William Desmond). A letter from a her dead mother and a pair of rings left separately to the young couple bring back 1895 and the ghosts of the fatal events that occurred then.

The film fits into conventional romantic dramas of the period and also offers relationships and occurrences that are common in Stahl’s later films. The film is plotted so that neither the characters nor the audience know all the aspects of the events in 1895. So there is a mystery whose gradual solving enables a happy ending. This includes flashback late in the film which fills out what actually occurred in 1895.

Charles Barr in his article discusses the plotting and the style of the film,. He makes much of the setting in 1895, the year of the advent of Lumière cinema. I was not completely convinced by this. But he also discusses some key scenes in the film which demonstrate both the intricacy of the scripting and the intelligent but subtle direction by Stahl.

He also notes that Florence Reed acted in three film for John Stahl. One is lost, the other was The Woman under Oath (1919), which was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato earlier in the year. The two Festival s co-operated in this retrospective with Bologna screening sound films and Pordenone screening the silent films. What continues to puzzle me is why the silent The Woman Under Oath was only screened at Bologna and not as part of the silent film retrospective. If it had we could have compared both the films and the acting of Florence Reed.

John Stahl with Florence Reed and William Desmond on set

One character that Charles Barr does not mention is the dog, a collie cross. We meet him [male I think] early on in Tom’s household and he re-appears with Tom, Alice and with the young couple. A friend remarked that he was ‘a real family dog’. He is there at crucial moments in the plot: he is pawing at the door of Alice’s room as she opens her mother’s letter and also sees the ring. He is there barking at a wedding rehearsal and again as the couple are finally united, presumably signalling his approval.

The film is in many ways a conventional drama. Barr includes a comment by Bruce Babington, who

“refers to the elements of “coincidence, extreme narrative suppression, and revelations of buried family secrets” that are pervasive in early melodrama.”

But Barr also notes how the film fits into the film work of John Stahl. Helen meets the wife of Jacques,

“wife and mistress, their only meeting, one that is de-dramatised in content as in form: anticipating the “other woman” of later films like Back Street [1932]and Only Yesterday [1933].”

Her Code of Honour was scripted by Frances Irene Reels who was also Stahl’s partner; she died young in 1926. She is also credited as writer on four other films directed by Stahl: The Woman in His House (1920), The Song of Life (1922), The Dangerous Age (1923)and Husbands and Lovers (1924). The input by women writers is an important aspect of Stahl’s film output. Among these was Gladys Lehman who scripted Back Street and several other films: she worked in Hollywood from the late 1920s until the beginning of the 1950s. And Back Street was an adaptation of a novel by Fannie Hurst whose work was adapted for several of Stahl’s sound films. Whilst these films work within the limitations of the values of the time, Her Code of Honour being a good example, the focus on the position of women in both domestic and public life is one of the most interesting aspects of Stahl’s films.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive. It ran 65 minutes, apparently at 24fps. This seems rather fast for 1919 and it is a full-length print. I did not notice anything to suggest the film was running fast. The accompaniment was by Daan Van Hurk at the piano.

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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

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

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

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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David Shepherd 1940 to 2017

Posted by keith1942 on February 3, 2017

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David Shepherd with Kevin Brownlow

David was a key member of the brigade of film enthusiasts who preserved the flower of early cinema.

He worked as a collector, restorer and provider of prints. I have had the pleasure of seeing many classics that survive and are available thanks to his efforts. He worked for a time at the American Film Institute and with The Library of Congress. He was associated with Blackhawk Films, who at one time provided prints of difficult-to-see films. Later he founded and ran Film Preservation Associates.

His legacy will survive in the countless films whose continued existence and access is thanks to him.

A favourite of mine which I owe to David is Henry King’s Tol’able David USA 1921). This apparently was also a favourite of his. It is a fine rural melodrama and with an excellent canine performance from a collie named Lassie: note though there is also a scene of trauma.

There are numerous tributes to him on WebPages and Blogs devoted to film history and there is an obituary in the new Sight & Sound.

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‘The cosiest Picture House in Leeds’

Posted by keith1942 on March 13, 2016

This illustration is from the printed history of the Hyde Park Picture House published by the Friends in 1997.

This illustration is from the printed history of the Hyde Park Picture House published by the Friends in 1997.

The Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds celebrated its centenary in 2014, opening in November 1914. During the centenary year a relative of Leeds resident and business man Harry Childs, who was involved in the opening and running of the Hyde Park Picture House, donated a set of ‘Log Books’ that start with the opening of the cinema and carry on until the 1950s. The books record the daily performances, ticket sales in different price categories and the daily and weekly income. You can imagine that there are lots of figures to be analysed. The performances and prices are shown in the above advertisement from the Yorkshire Evening News.

It is not clear how seats and customers were demarcated, perhaps the 1s seats were in the balcony. The bulk of the customers fell into the 3d and 6d price range.

Firstly, the capacity of a standard rectangular theatre was increased by using a balcony .. [which] … allowed an astounding 587 people to be crammed in. [Since the 1980s the seating has been reduced to 350].

The records in 1914 offer no information about the films screened. However from early in 1915 the title of the feature is usually recorded in the margin. The norm appears to be two programmes a week, one from Monday to Wednesday and one from Thursday to Saturday. This is done briefly, so it is not always possible to identify the film: and about two thirds of titles from this period have been lost. However there are also other sources.

Whilst a record of the complete programme for the first week of November does not survive, we know that the main featured was billed as Their Only Son ‘a patriotic drama’. Released in October 1914 by Barker Motion Photography Ltd, the film comprised two reels – 2,650 feet. It probably lasted 44 minutes. No copy appears to have survived.

Their only son

Barker Ltd was one of seven major production companies in the UK at that time. The Managing Director, W. G. Barker, had started out with the Warwick Trading Company and set up his own company in 1909. The firm built the first studio at Ealing. Their output included theatrical adaptations, but also ‘Topicals’. The films were also noted for the frequent use of location shooting.

The film was directed by Bert Haldane from a story by Rowland Talbot. The film starred two actors who worked regularly for Barker – Thomas H. MacDonald and Blanche Forsythe [‘a plump, demure English girl.] This quartet all worked together again on a major production by Barker Ltd in 1915, Jane Shore, a six-reel film set during the Wars of the Roses. The company were relatively successful during the war years with a number of patriotic dramas set during the current conflict or earlier wars that probably offered some sort of parallel.

Apparently the plot involved a son who falls out with his father when he volunteers for the army and becomes a dispatch rider. Wounded, he is nursed back to health by his ex-wife, [fittingly following the literary tradition of remarkable coincidence]. Presumably the film ended with husband and wife and father and son reconciled.

The programme would have included a number of short supporting films, rather like those in the bfi’s A Night in the Cinema in 1914. The early records do not seem to provide any indication of the accompaniment for these films without soundtracks. The likeliest option would have been a solo piano providing a musical accompaniment rather like that used for the silent films re-screened in more recent times.

It seems that the film in the second part of the week was An Englishman’s Home (1914) another lost film. The film was adapted from a play by Guy du Maurier. it was produced by the British and Colonial Kinematograph Company. The company produced over 300 films between 1908 and 1924. At the time of this production it was based at a studio in Walthamstow.

The film itself was approximately 2,200 feet in length [two reels] and probably lasted about 35 minutes. The director was Ernest Batley who had 47 credits between 1910 and 1919, both as an actor and director. He and his wife, Dorothy, played the two leads along with George Foley. The latter appears to have played regular supporting roles in this period. The only indication of the plot is the following:

A pacifist reforms after foreign invaders occupy his house and kill his son.

Clearly the opening week of the Hyde Park Picture House was a very patriotic one.

Purpose built cinemas like the Hyde Park were relatively new. Leeds first proper cinema had opened in 1905. The nearby Cottage Road cinema in Headingly opened in 1913. Purpose built cinemas both standardised film programmes and presentations and altered the composition of the audience. Early films were predominately a working class entertainment. By the teens of the last century middle class patrons were increasing in number. Leeds saw increasing competition in the period for audiences, though audiences themselves were increasing. On its opening night the Picture House attracted 425 paying customers: on the first Saturday the figure was 681. The first house in the evening seems to have been the most popular.

HPPH cover

‘The Cosiest Picture House In Leeds’, A History of the Hyde Park Picture House 1997. [Supported by Leeds City Council Leisure Services]. Written by Penny McKnight, Edited by Judith Weymont with Photographs by Mandy Wragg. Produced by The Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House.

The Log Books will join the other archive materials of the Picture House which are kept in the Grand Theatre Archive at The West Yorkshire Archive Service. This unfortunately has moved from the convenient Sheepscar venue, near the city centre, right down to Morley, a long bus journey. There is an online Catalogue.




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Crossways /Jujiro, Japan 1928

Posted by keith1942 on February 18, 2016


The film was screened as part of the Leeds International Film Festival [LIFF] retrospective  Silent Classics with Live Soundtrack: but it also had an outing at the National Media Museum as part of the Silents with Live Piano.. This is an early classic film from Japan [also known in English as Crossroads]. It was possibly the first Japanese film to receive International attention with screenings in Paris, Berlin and in London in 1930. The director Kinugasa Teinosuke, who also wrote the screenplay, was a pioneer in a more experimental approach to film in Japan. His most famous film is A Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji 1926). This was an avant-garde film whose style bore strong affinities both with German Expressionism and Soviet Montage. That film offers an extremely subjective and fragmentary plot set in an insane asylum. A tour-de-force of style, in Japan its screenings could have the assistance of the Benshi (a film narrator in the cinema); abroad one version  had intertitles inserted to assist viewers. Unfortunately for Kinugasa, who also produced this and the later film, it was a commercial flop. This would seem to be a major factor in Crossways having a more discernible and conventional plot line: and frequent intertitles. The production was also dependent on the major commercial studio of Shochiku.

The film centres on a brother and sister, Rikiya (Bando Junosuke) and Okiku (Chihaya Akiko). Okiku is the centre of attention early in the film as she waits and worries about her brother who is visiting Yoshiwara, the entertainment district of 18th century Tokyo, [a comment pointed out this is the Edo Period]. Entertainment, of course, concerns prostitution and its associated vices. Rikiya is obsessed with a geisha O-ume (Ogawa Yukiko) herself the centre of an admiring circle, with several men using for her graces. Essentially most of the film switches between the sparse attic flat where the brother and sister live, and the gaudy and racy district of Yoshiwara.

Okiku also becomes the object of both a passing man who carries a police truncheon, apparently a sign of his office: and of an old procuress at a nearby brothel. She is also caught in the economic bind of the pair’s poverty, a fact of life that is blithely ignored by the brother.

The story of the film is fairly conventional, but the style of the film is as arresting as Kinugasa’s earlier work. The living quarters are filmed in the contrasting shadows of light and darkness familiar from expressionism, and the settings make frequent use of bars and blocks, and present an extremely stylised feel. Yoshiwara is closer to the circus feel of early Soviet films, and has frequent and dramatic montages. The plot line is not only fragmentary but offers a demanding chronology.

Michael Wood, who introduced the film screening at LIFF, remarked that Kinugasa had stated that he was influenced by the 1919 German expressionist masterpiece Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. Sequences of the film also reminded me of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1924 Strike (Stachka), with a touch of Grand Guignol. Whilst Yoshiwara reminded at times of sequences in Fritz Lang’s 1926 Metropolis: a film which itself borrowed from the representations of Yoshiwara district.

The LIFF screening enjoyed a live accompaniment from the group Minima. They are a four-piece line-up of electric guitar, keyboard, bass and drums. Their accompaniment was an improvisation rather than a prepared score. Apparently this was their third outing with the film. Overall their music worked extremely well, and provided a fine addition to the visual poetry. There were a couple of sequences where they used woodblocks, an instrument frequently used in traditional Japanese film accompaniment. These emphasised both the melodrama but also the distance the film sought to create. There was a certain amount of repetition in their music, but this mirrors a device also found in the film. I did think in one or two sequences that the electronic amplification was a little loud. However, this was a really fine cinematic vision, which was enhanced by the live music in the auditorium. For the Silent with live Piano we enjoyed Darius Battiwalla. He offered a distinctive use of the solo instrument, with both rapid and slightly atonal passages for Yoshiwara with more melancholic or melodramatic passages for those sequences featuring the sister.

We had a good 35mm print on both occasions. The film looks fine in its original format and the definition and contrast in the cinematography were excellent.


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Drifters, UK 1929

Posted by keith1942 on March 18, 2015


John Grierson directed this film in the silent mode. It is a seminal film in terms of the British documentary movement of the 1930s. The film was strongly influenced by the new Soviet film montage movement, especially the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In fact Drifters was screened at the London Film Society in 1929 along with Battleship Potemkin. It is recorded that the film society audience preferred Drifters to Eisenstein’s Potemkin. This was presumably because, whilst Drifters is a finely made film, it is also more conventional than Potemkin: for example the montage has less discontinuities and much of the film is close to the form that became the dominant mode of British documentary in the 1930s. That aspect shows the other important influence, the work of Robert Flaherty, especially Nanook of the North (1922). The narrative of the earlier film, and the emphasis on the struggle against ‘nature’ or the ‘elements’, is replicated in Grierson’s approach, as it is in much of British documentary film work. This approach appears again in Flaherty’s later Man of Aran (1934).

The film runs for just on 50 minutes. Grierson was responsible for the scripting, direction and editing and some of the filming, whilst Basil Emmott undertook most of the cinematography. The film was shot on location in a northern fishing village and at sea onboard a herring fishing boat. In addition there are a number of insert shots, many taken at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film was made under the auspices of the Empire Marketing Board, the first in a number of state institutions that funded the documentary movement. Apparently the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury was an expert on the herring industry: an example of the shrewd approach that Grierson bought to his documentary work. The Production Company for the film was New Era Productions Ltd, a commercial company. They provided technical assistance, studio facilities and distribution. It would seem that studio work was mainly based here as also post-production.

Much of the film constructs a recognisable narrative with the fishing village, the voyage, the catches, the return to harbour and the final auction on the dockside. The sequences of fast cutting or montage are placed within this at strategic points. The use of such ‘montage’ distances the film from the sort of realist feel that is usually associated with the British documentary movement. Whilst sequences in the film present and explain the techniques of the fishermen, in other sequences there is a strong, poetic feel. Both approaches can be seen in other work from the movement: Harry Watt’s films probably represent the realist approach, whilst Cavalcanti’s films tend more to the poetic. Humphrey Jennings combines both in a seamless flow, which is his particular talent.


I have seen the film on 35mm but now the BFI has re-released the film in a digital format. Filmed in 1929 the film was silent, so the usual practice is to provide some live accompaniment. It was screened at the Bradford Film Summit in the Cinemobile, a travelling cinema from Eire. This impressive vehicle unfolds to present a 100-seat auditorium, with a proper screen and sound provision. The format, likely Blu-Ray, had the flat digital patina and rather lacked definition. Moreover, whilst the film did not seem noticeably speeded-up it certainly seemed to move fast and was shorter in terms of running times. This screening had an accompaniment by Jason Singh: a sound and ‘boxbeat’ artist. i.e. the sounds/music are entirely produced by the human voice. In this case Jason Singh had a pre-recorded track with layers of his vocal sounds and he then accompanied this with live responses. This was an impressive show: one would not have known that much of the sound was the human voice without being told. The accompaniment worked well for much of the film, but at times it rather over-powered the image. For some sequences the sound was too loud, though this may have been exacerbated by the limited size of the auditorium. However, for much of the film we also had the pre-recorded track, which was essentially rhythmic. I felt that the rhythm did not always match the changes in tempo in the film, especially when we moved from location sequences to the insert shots, a number of which tend to the non-realist.

After the screening there was Q&A with the performer. He explained the techniques he used, including in producing the pre-recorded track. This was interesting.  He remarked that the live element is affected by the factors in a particular screening and that ‘no two shows are the same’. He also stressed how he wanted to avoid literal sound accompaniments, for example bells. And he commented that he aimed to make ‘an emotional connection to the visuals’. I think this is only a partially successful approach to take. It is true that much of the film lends itself to this approach, for example the storm sequence. However, the use of montage also brings intellectual aspects to the film, and I think these needs a less emotional and more cerebral approach. Even so this was a worthwhile experience and Grierson’s film stands up to any number of showings.

Then with good fortune the film was screened again: at the Hyde Park Picture House and in 35mm. This was part of a programme ‘From Drifters to Night Mail: the British Documentary Movement’ introduced by Andy Murray. The other two films screened were Housing Problems (1936) and Night Mail (1936), both sound films. Andy filled in some useful background on the films before they were screened and he talked about Grierson’s role in the movement, quoting his line

“I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”.

Andy was also right to stress the elitist elements in this viewpoint: however, Drifters offers this in a low key, though it is clearly ‘propaganda’.

In 35mm the visual qualities of Drifters were much more apparent. The superimpositions and dissolves in particular looked very good. And the tinting for the night scenes showed up well. The title cards also showed up well. They use stills from the film, with low definition, as a backing for the words. I think some titles have been replaced, as not all the cards used this superimposition.

The screening was accompanied with the soundtrack from the bfi Blu-Ray. This was also by Jason Singh, and he is right, each performance does seem different. The volume level in the larger auditorium of the Picture House was better. As with the earlier screenings at times the accompaniment is very effective, but I still found it repetitious and there is a certain aural monotony by the end of the film.

I was able to speak to Andy after the screening. He pointed out that the sequences below deck were ‘filmed ashore’. He was not certain where, but the New Era Studio would seem likely. The title cards will presumably have been added then as well.

I also spoke to the projectionist. He ran the film at 20 fps, which gave us 48 minutes running time. He pointed out that curiously the Blu-Ray only runs for 40 minutes, seemingly the film was transferred at 24 fps. He had to loop part of the accompaniment back to match the film’s running time.

I checked some old catalogues and found only references to silent prints. One bfi listing did offer both silent and sound speeds, but the print was given as silent. On this occasion the catalogue suggested 18 fps as the silent rate – I am sure that would be too slow.

The moral of this story is hang-on till another enlightened exhibitor gets hold of the 35mm silent print. It will be worth a wait. Not only is this a seminal movie for British cinema and the wider field of documentary: it is a finely made and fascinating study.


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Silent Film Festival in Scotland

Posted by keith1942 on March 5, 2015


It is good to see that this Festival, now in its fifth year, is still running. Its main venue, The Hippodrome, celebrated a centenary in 2012: one of the oldest film venues still in use. Over the five days there are a variety of early films being screened, a number of them offering rare opportunities to see early classics.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015

Wednesday 18th March until Sunday 22nd March

It seems that most of the films will be screened from digital formats, but I am advised by the organisers that these will be projected at the correct frame rates. It is good to see this facility developed by FIAF actually appearing in the UK. . Moreover there is also live music for the screenings. And there are two events screening from 35mm prints:


During WW1 the British government made over 1,000 films to record fighting, train troops and for propaganda. After 1918 the authorities had the foresight to deposit these films at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), leaving us with a remarkably powerful record of the life of the nation during one of the most traumatic and influential periods in modern history. This programme of highlights from the IWM’s collection, specially curated for HippFest by Senior Curator Dr Toby Haggith, presents rarely screened clips ranging from recruitment and the role of women to coverage of campaign fighting including the Air War and the Western Front, as well as moving scenes of post-War memorials.

1h 45m incl. Q&A

With: Dr Toby Haggith

Performing live: Mike Nolan


We close the Festival in fine style with the world premiere of a newly commissioned score by award-winning Scottish fiddle player Shona Mooney (2006 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year) for this stirring epic starring Lillian Gish as the plucky Annie Laurie for whom forbidden romance fuels the flames of hatred between the warring Macdonald and Campbell clans. Critics of the day praised the film’s “substantial” plot, “colourful action, settings and costumes” and the “rugged scenes suggesting all the bluntness of Scotch character” and audiences today will no doubt be equally charmed by the timeless performance of one of silent cinema’s most enduring icons. ‘Annie Laurie’ and Shona Mooney’s new score will be performed at The Barbican Centre, London in spring 2015. Come dressed with a dash of tartan to finish the Festival in style!


Performing Live: Shona Mooney, Alasdair Paul, Amy Thatcher

Dir. John S. Robertson | US | 1927 | 1h 53m + SSA short

M-G-M, story and scenario Josephine Lovett, nine reels.

With: Lillian Gish, Norman Kerry, Creighton Hale, Joseph Striker



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Posted by keith1942 on September 2, 2014



Kino-Pravda was a newsreel that ran from 1922 to 1925, 23 issues in all. Issues 1 to 20 were produced by Goskino. This body was replaced in 1925 by Sovkino and Vertov and his comrades now worked in the documentary section, Kultkino, which produced issues 21 to 23.  The programmes at Le Giornate included all the surviving editions [issue 12 is lost], though some issues are incomplete. Pravda means truth and this was also the title of the Communist party’s principal daily newspaper. This was more than just a newsreel; it was a platform for propaganda and agitation. Yuri Tsivian in the Festival Catalogue comments:

 That the newsreel Kino-Pravda, like the newspaper Pravda, was less about news and more about statements … Dialectical editing: thesis – antithesis synthesis. Kino-Pravda not only shows – it explains!

As the series develops Vertov and his comrades experiment with form and techniques: the ‘dialectical editing’ becomes more and more noticeable. The point about the collective form of this ‘factory of fact’ is frequently underplayed. Dziga Vertov invariably has the lead credit, but the designation varies – ‘a film by’, ‘director’ ‘leader/author’; likewise the credits for other members come and go. However, there contributions are important, especially the two other key members, Eizaveta Svilova as editor and Mikhail Kaufman as cinematographer. And there are other contributors and supporters, notable in the pages of the Constructivist Journal LEF, edited by Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were also teams of cameramen spread across the Soviet Union who sent in footage to Moscow and which is used in the issues. A special issue like 21, Lenin Kino-Pravda, could require specially commissioned footage.

Programme 4 at the Festival presented Kino-Pravda number 1 to 8. All released in 1922, and running between 7 and 13 minutes. These films are dominated by the trial of the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries. There was a real gulf between the political line of this Party and the Bolsheviks. It was a divide that became violent: it was a Socialist-Revolutionary who shot Lenin in 1918, [an injury from which he never fully recovered]. The trial ran on from 1919. A number of issues of Kino-Pravda provide extensive coverage. They also provide examples of the experimentation by the kinocs. Surprisingly, [given that Vertov frequently fulminated against acting in film dramas] there is a staged scene in Issue 3 about betting on the outcome of the trial.  Later in Issue 5 we see a spectator reading a newspaper titled Kino-Pravda No 5.

Issue 6 ‘begins with a close up of a box, on which we read the words Kino-Pravda No 6, July 14, 1922. A man comes and opens the box, which turns out to contain a reel of film. The man threads the film –the very film we are watching – into a projector and the newsreel Kino-Pravda No 6 begins.

As newsreels the films include much more: ‘bread barges’ carrying food following the famines of the Civil War: an armoured car factory: cycle racing: ‘White Army’ sabotage by arson in Siberia: and a silk fare in Baku.

Programme 5 presented Kino-Pravda numbers 9 to 13 [12 is missing]. Also produced in 1922 and running for between 12 and 16 minutes. The films show Vertov and his comrades experimenting and developing their use of techniques. Issue 9 includes a section of horse racing. The Catalogue notes that half-a-minute of film offers –

A routine bus ride – but what makes it interesting is that Vertov renders it in 10 shots: the conductor selling tickets (1.6 metres); the driver starting the engine (0.8 metres)’ the engine running (1.3 metres); a passenger’s hand holding onto the railing (0.5 metres)’ the driver’s foot pressing the accelerator (0.5 metres);

Tsivian points up two influences. One was an obsession with speed, an attribute of modernist sensibility: this had also been seen in the work of the Russian and Italian Futurist movement. But there is also an interest of the action style of Hollywood features, popular in the new Soviet Union. [You can see examples of this interest in the work of other directors including Kuleshov and Eisenstein). Following the horse racing Issue 9 includes a demonstration of a US movie camera, the advanced technology in use in Hollywood.

Issue 10 includes Constructivist style lettering provided by Alexander Rodchenko. The Catalogue quotes Constructivist Aleksei Gan:

The whole tenth issue has screen-high intertitles. And here too Vertov has overcome the worn-out technique of horizontal writing. It is clear that words must be constructed on screen in a different way.

This is an area that Vertov develops as the Kino-Pravda series develops and titling is an important and often radical component in his films.

Kino-Pravda No 13 is of a different order from preceding issues: the full title is “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow”, A Film Poem Dedicated to the October celebrations, “October Kino-Pravda) / (“Vchera, Segodnia, Zavtra”. Kinopoema. Posviashchennaia Oktiabrskim Tozrzhestvam, “Oktiabrskaia Kino-Pravda”), [the addition of such sub-titles increasingly becomes the practice]. It is 743 metres in length and runs for 33 minutes. The film coincided with the 5th anniversary of the October Revolution. Its title was “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow. A Film Poem dedicated to the October celebrations (Vchera, Segodnia, Zavtra”, Kinopoema, Posviashchennaia Oktiabrskim Tozrzhestvam. The film includes the anniversary celebrations in Red Square. But also a montage of the burials of heroes, composed from early films and including graves in Astrakhan, Kronstadt and Minsk. The montage generalises the particular into the general. Tsivian quotes Vertov [from the Annette Michelson’s translation)

Freed from the rule of 16 – 17 frames a second, free of the limits of time and space, I put together any given points in that universe, no matter where I’ve recorded them. My path leads to the creation of a fresh perception of the world. I decipher in anew way a world unknown to us.

Vertov avoids a merely empirical depiction of events, typical of many newsreels and documentaries, as he develops a form that emphasises the social relations involved in any event or movement.

Programme 6 covered Issues 14 to 17: plus a fragment and the animation Sovetskie Igrushki (Soviet Toys, 1924 and running 13 minutes). The drawings in the latter were by Ivan Beliakov and Alesandr Ivanov and the focus is the worker/peasant alliance [smychka) admonishing the decadent bourgeoisie. Issue 14 is the last from 1922 and runs for 12 minutes and is credited as “experiment in newsreel”. Issues 15, 16 and 17 are all from 1923 and run between 14 and 24 minutes (all at 20 fps).

Between Kino-Pravda 14 and 17 we see further developments in the use of titles. In Issue 15 a mobile in the form of a hammer rises to hit religion, “With the Hammer of Knowledge”. Issue 16, Spring Kino-Pravda. A lyrical View Newsreel / (Vesenniaia Kin-Pravda. Vidovaia Liricheskaia Khronika), uses a Rodchenko installation to create the effect of a globe, presenting on ‘one side’ America and Capital. There is a certain visceral thrill as a shot of Trotsky addressing the Red Army follows.  Issue 14 also stresses the ‘United Front of the Entire Working Class.”  When we come to Issue 17 this ‘front’ is represented by the slogan ‘alliance’ / ‘smychka’, the alliance of peasants and workers. United Front policies were to be a subject of debate in both the 1920s and 1930s, the question being to define the relative positions in any ‘front’. Tsivian comments on ‘smychka’,

This term implied that the peasant majority was not oppressed under the proletarian hegemony, but was its lesser [non-hegemonic) partner.

The socialist revolution was based on the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

'smychka' - actually from Stride Soviet!

‘smychka’ – actually from Stride Soviet!

Issue 16 is famous for a different reason – it contains Sergei Eisenstein’s first film, Glumov’s Diary (Dnevnik Glumova) made to be projected during a Proletkult stage production. Vertov assisted Eisenstein with equipment and then included the short film in Kino-Pravda under the title The Spring Smiles of Proletkult.

Issue 17 offers credits for Mikhail Kaufman on cinematography and Elizaveta Svilova for editing, and Ivan Beliakov for intertitles. The film has a sequence of peasant women binding sheaves with dynamic editing and extremely short camera shots [similar to some in Battleship Potemkin). Tsivian comments,

 Vertov and Svilova were especially fond of applying fast editing to work processes, as if by doing so they were helping the people to work faster.

The focus of this issue is again the alliance between workers and peasants. So we see peasants visiting the All-Union Agricultural Exhibition in Moscow. And the point is emphasised by crosscutting between the countryside and the city. Finally workers and peasants are seen reading the newspaper Smychka. The positive depiction of the relationship between the city and the countryside, between workers and peasants, was to become a staple of Soviet sound cinema, but presented in a far more conventional manner than by Vertov and his comrades.

Programme 11 presented Kino-Pravda 18 and 19 out of sequence:

We wanted them to be seen together with Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World to make more salient a peculiar – uniquely Vertovian – genre to which these three films belong. Vertov calling this genre ‘probegi kinoapparata – movie-camera runs, or races, across far-apart geographic locations.

Kino-Pravda 18 (Probeg Kinoapparata v Napravleni Sovetskoi Deistvitelnosti 299 Metrov 14 min 50 sek.) / A Movie-Camera race over 299 metres and 14 minutes and 50 seconds in the direction of Soviet Reality, 1924. Actually the film ran 13 minutes at 20 fps.

The film starts in Paris at the Eiffel Tower where we get a vertical travelling shot, followed by an aerial travelling shot which leads to a landing in the USSR and a auto-race from Petrograd to Moscow. In Moscow we are again with smychka where the camera offers the viewpoint of a visiting peasant. There is a Vertov trope as ‘the movie camera pursues him’, visualised by the shadow of a man cranking a camera. The peasant visit includes

the moment when a baby is Octobrized. What does this mean, “Octobrized”? The same as baptised – but in a workers’ collective er instead of a church…

This is followed by a collective singing of a song in praise of Lenin.

Kino-Pravda 19 (“Chernoe More – Ledovityi Okean – Moskva” “Probeg Kinoapparata Moskva – Ledovityi Okean”) / Black Sea – Artic Ocean – Moscow” A Movie-Camera Race Moscow – Artic Ocean”. Runs for 16 minutes at 20 fps.

The film’s race draws contrast between the Southern regions and the Arctic regions of the USSR. And it uses both climatic and seasonal variations. But the human element focus on gender, the issue is dedicated to

“Women, peasant woman, worker woman”: and we are shown a variety of women involved in socialist action. These include:

A young woman types, another woman milks a cow; another works a field etc. Women in politics: a Sate woman speaks, Lenin’s wife and sister – shown at Lenin’s funeral and by his side when he was still alive.

The film reflects an aspect of socialist life in the 1920s, often forgotten, the degree to which women’s’ liberation was an important part of the political and social process. So Elizaveta Svilova tends to get overlooked in the tributes to Vertov [The Catalogue is an exception]. Yet this film ends with a title “The editing of the negative for Kin-Pravda 19, ..“and we see Svilova working on the film.

Programme 8 commenced with Kino-Pravda 20 (Pionerskaia Pravda) / Pioneer Pradvda.

This issue uses footage originally shot for Kino-Eye. It is presented in the form of five Despatches, ostensibly sent by the Young Pioneers to Kino-Eye. The film is mainly a series of outings: to the Red Defence Factory; to the Countryside; and to the Zoo, where we see again the elephant featured in Kino-Eye. The final Despatch is missing. The most impressive sequence is train journey, compiled with rapid editing both of the train and the landscape rushing by.

'Along the rails of Leninism'.

‘Along the rails of Leninism’.

Kino Pravda 21 Lenin Kino-Pravda. A film poem about Lenin / Leniniskaia Kino-Pravda. Kinopoema o Lenine. This is the first issue produced by Kultkino the documentary section of Sovkino, which replaced Goskino]. It is one of the longest issues, 664 metres running at 20 fps for 29 minutes: the average issue was around 300 metres. Moreover six cameramen are credited, not only Mikhail Kaufman but also Eduard Tisse [who was the regular cameraman with Eisenstein]. The film marks the first anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, who towered over the other leading comrades in the Bolshevik party and in the Revolution. Tsivian notes its structure:

It consists of three part, announced laconically by 1, 11, 111, and smaller sections marked by no-less laconic references to the years. The one-two-three structure relates the film’s narrative to the famous Hegelian (now also Marxist) dialectical triad

Part I – the ‘thesis’ – covers 1919 to 1923, This followed on from the attempted assassination of Lenin: the trail of the Socialist Revolutionaries, featured in early Kino-Pravda. Part II – the ‘anti-thesis – charts the course of Lenin’s illness and decline and then his funeral. Part III – the ‘synthesis’ – covers the influence of Lenin since his death.

Part II has more experimental titling by Vertov and Rodchenko. They use graphs and animated images to show the course of Lenin’s illness and then the funeral uses alternating imagery and titling, reaching a crescendo as the progression of mourners grows.

Part III combines imagery and animation. It shows both how Capitalist glee at Lenin’s demise is transformed to disappear as the Party not only continues but grows. And there is also the affirmation of the alliance between workers and peasants.

Kino-Pravda 22 (Peasant Kino-Pravda. “Lenin is Alive in the Hearts of the Peasant. A Film Story). (Krestinskaia Kino-Pravda. V Serdtse Krestianina Lenin Zhiv. Kinorasskaz).

Tsivian comments on this issue:

This issue of Kino-Pravda (a politically commissioned film, I am sure) was part of this extra effort: i.e. agitation to convince/convert the peasants to the cause of socialist construction.

This makes the film more openly didactic than many issues. The film follows a group of peasants who meet workers; visit Lenin’s Mausoleum and the Museum of Revolution. The film then moves on, with found rather than shot footage, to the oppressed peoples and nations in Asia and Africa. Once more we see tributes to Lenin. Tsivian suggests that this film is in some ways a ‘rough draft’ for Three Songs About Lenin.

Kino-Pravda 23 (Radio Pravda). This was intended to be major issue, running to 1400 metres, but only 400 metres survive. The socialists saw radio, like cinema, as a possibly transforming technology. The kinoki, like other groups in the 1920s, had a keen interest in this young medium. The Catalogue has a brief description of the titles from the missing opening. The film basically follows an instructional mode, explaining in particular the techniques and benefits for the peasantry. The film ends with time-lapse photography and animation by Aleksandr Bushkin depicting the arrival of ‘radio waves’ in the peasant huts.

Lines of Resistance – Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Translations by Julian Graffy.

This is a collection of materials about the Factory of Fact and their film output in the 1920s. There are several sections with published material on Kino-Pravda from the 1920s.

So there is a critical review of Lenin Kino-Pravda from the pages of Pravda, 4 February 1925.

The skill in choosing appropriate “pieces of life” is one of Comrade Vertov’s strong points, and in this work it is particularly apparent, but so is his weak point: you do not sense on screen that logical coherence which is Comrade Vertov’s plan. The viewer does not sense it. The whole film collapses into its component parts.

This failing can be removed from the work under discussion by replacing the sloganizing intertitles with explanatory ones, which can be done simply, vividly, expressively and … comprehensibly. If Comrade Vertov wants the workers and peasant audiences, then above all he must think about simplicity and comprehensibility.

A rather different response is provided by Aleksei Gan in Kino-Fot no 5 [a Constructivist Journal], 10 December 1922.

So-called “artistic” productions have crippled almost the whole of cinema’s establishment of personnel. You will not achieve what is necessary with this reserve of old film specialists. That is why we welcome so warmly the strength of our youth, the fresh worker who has not been seized by the sweaty hands of the beautiful.

The work of Dziga Vertov seems to follow two basic directions: the attempts at pure montage (in no 5 and 6) that were almost realised in the tenth Kino-Pravda, and the attempts to join various subjects together into a single agitational whole. The latest attempts were particularly successful in no. 13, where the Constructivist Rodchenko has managed to produce intertitles that have an impact of their own.

One senses that the sub-text of this debate is partly about whether documentary film should ‘address the few with advanced ideas’ and use ‘advanced techniques’. Vertov and his comrades were to find increasing problems as ideas of Socialist Realism ‘simple ideas for the many simply put’ gained purchase.

In fact the evidence suggests that there were a lot of workers and peasants in the USSR who could and would engage with Kino-Eye’s films. There are reports from the work of the Mobile Cinemas – steam trains, steam ships, films carriages and ‘one film-car’.

A village correspondent in Moscow province.

So let us see it!

Every Sunday in our October Factory in the Resurrection district of Moscow province we have film shows, and its always such rubbish, such garbage, that you can’t help asking: do we really have none of our own proletarian pictures in the Soviet Union? …

Now that we have seen Kino-Pravda for the first time, we are even more eager to say that there are good pictures for the countryside, pictures with no made-up mugs and obscene grimaces, pictures which do not corrupt the countryside, but which show real life. So give us these pictures, don’t hide them, bring them to the countryside. The countryside is waiting for pictures like this. It’s sick and tired of watching all sorts of rubbish.

And a Kino-Fot report, 1922, notes;
Beginning from July of this year, twice a week, mainly on Thursday and Sundays, two mobile cinemas are working in Moscow Squares. They are showing all the current newsreels and Kino-Pravda. Each time the audience numbers two to five thousand people.

Note other quotations from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004 Catalogue.



Posted in Documentary, Soviet Film, Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

The Epic of Everest

Posted by keith1942 on January 8, 2014

An iris shot of Everest

An iris shot of Everest

This is a record of the 1924 British Expedition to Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan). The attempt failed but remained famous because of the death high on the mountain of two English climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The film records both the expedition to the mountain and the attempted ascent. The filming was undertaken by Captain J. B. L. Noel, using a specially adapted camera to film in the difficult conditions on the ground and on the mountain itself. Noel was only able to carry the camera up to the lower camps, but he recorded the climbs higher up by using a powerful telephoto lens.

Noel edited the footage and added explanatory title cards to create a documentary record of the expedition. He successfully recorded the journey of the expedition to the mountain and the grandeur of the ice fields at its foot and the steep snow and ice-bound slopes of the ascent. The title cards do more than explain. They provide a sort of commentary on the expedition and on its tragic conclusion. The commentary has a strong tone of orientalism about it. It also presents the expedition as a rather unique venture. Noel had in fact filmed an earlier expedition in 1922. But there is no mention of this in the title cards, suggesting that the expedition is a rather special, new type of venture.

Visually the film is impressive. This is scenery on a grand scale: the great mountain frequently dwarfs the British climbers and their laden Sherpas. The film certainly conjures up both the isolation and the impressive size and bleakness of Everest and the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

The bfi has restored the film and made it available around the UK. However, it seems that they have only distributed it in a digital format, a 2K DCP, running for 87 minutes. This did not seem to me to do due justice to the films visual qualities. Much of the footage has the sharper outlines found in digital formats. In fact the most impressive shots are those that were tinted, blue and orange. The tinting presumably softening the harder edges of the digital image. Moreover, the film has been step-printed to accommodate the projection speed of digital, 24-fps. Noel was using cameras fitted with electric motors but I have not found any record of the camera speed. It certainly seems to have been slower than 24 fps: in fact some of the fottage appeared to vary in projection speed: perhaps he varied the speeds or over or under cranked at times.

I had in fact seen the film before, at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then we viewed a Nederlands Filmmuseum black and white 35mm print, which [in the record] ran for 110 minutes. This had English intertitles as in the bfi restoration. My memory is that the visual quality of the Nederlands print was fairly good. And I don’t remember there being sequences that appeared speeded-up. I don’t have a record of the projection speed, but given it was a 35mm print it may well have enjoyed varied projection speeds. The difference in running times would not be explained solely by differences in projection speeds. I did think that the bfi version felt rather compressed towards the end. There is a bfi WebPages on the restoration, however it does not mention the length or the frame speed. The digital version clearly had some step printing in it, though with the sequences at variable speeds it is difficult to gauge the ratio of extra frames.

It is a shame that the bfi are not offering a 35mm print on this occasion. They will presumably have struck one from the restoration. The modern 35mm projectors with which I am familiar can change projection speeds at the push of a button. Though it would require an experienced and attentive projectionist to perform the operation. It is now possible to transfer early film to digital at the appropriate projection speed. The specifications provided by FIAF for this range from 16 fps to 24 fps. Of course, with this particular film there would still be a problem with the projection speed because I don’t think variation within a feature is possible on digital. If I am wrong, someone please fill me in on this.

As it stands I did not feel this digital version did proper justice to Noel’s cinematographic feats in the most hostile of environs. The digital effect on the image seemed to me quite noticeable at times. And one of the sections which appeared too fast was a rescue incident and this subverted the intended tension of the sequence. The digital version also had a sound accompaniment, partly composed of electronic music and partly of Nepalese ethnic instruments. It did not work for me; the parts that I thought effective were actually traditional piano. The Ritrovato presentation had a small musical ensemble with a score composed by Willem Friede from the Rotterdam Conservatorium: as I remember it worked very well. Can we hope for a 35mm print circulating at some future date? This would also provide space for live accompaniments and musicians able to respond to the quality of the film.



The Epic of Everest was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014 in the ‘Recovered and restored’ section. The film was screened in a 35mm print at 20 fps. The Catalogue notes that “The prints were scanned at a resolution of 4K using a wet gate to eliminate scratches and a novel technique was developed to scan selected scenes using individual colour LED’s to compensate for deterioration of the blue toning and the severe mould damage.” There was no mention of variable camera speeds, which certainly seemed the case when I saw the digital version and which affected the step printing for the DCP.

This is another example of the BFI transporting 35mm prints thousand of miles for a Festival, whilst they seem unwilling to transport the film a couple of hundred miles for indigenous audiences. And I am pretty sure that the DCP circulated in the UK was only 2K.

Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »