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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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Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana


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

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

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

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


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

The Everlasting Triangle 1914. 17 minutes at 16 fps.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Director John H Collins. Script by Gertrude Lyon.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Florida Enchantment USA 1914

Posted by keith1942 on May 13, 2016

florida enchantment

I saw this film as part of a programme of films titled ‘Queer Cinema Before Stonewall’ at the Film Society Lincoln Center. I had not been aware of the title before but apparently it is fairly well known. Vito Russo discusses it in The Celluloid Closet (1981). It turned out to be an entertaining and intriguing screening.

The film was directed by Sidney Drew who also starred. I had seen two of his films before at the 2014 Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, Boobley’s Baby and A Case of Eugenics (both 2015). The film is based on a C19th novel and theatrical adaptation [the latter now lost].

Lillian Travers (Edith Storey), a northern heiress takes a visit to Florida along with her fiancée Dr. Frederick Cassadene (Sydney Drew). The ‘enchantment’ arises when Lillian eats a seed that she finds in an old chest. The seed’s magical properties turn Lillian into a man, Lawrence. The film then exploits Lawrence’s actions especially ‘his’ vamping of the women in the social circle. Later in the film Lillian gives Frederick a seed and he turns into a women.

So the plot involves cross-dressing, gender and sexual re-orientation and possibly bi-sexuality. Russo makes the point that

“In both cases it’s a male view of the sexes that dominates the impersonation.”

In the lead role Edith’s cross-dressing and male impersonation is quite subtle and delightfully ironic, However, Drew’s impersonation is over-the-top and full of ‘eye-rolling’ actions.

Moreover, in the conventions of the period, Lillian’s black maid, who also undergoes a transformation, is a black-face actor, also with an amount of eye-rolling action. The full implications of these transformations are avoided with Lillian waking from a dream and all the unconventional behaviour safely tucked away. Though presumably Freud or a disciple, if they saw the film, would have had a field day of analysis.

The Giornate Catalogue for 23014 commented on Drew’s film work

‘Although they wrote and directed their films together, in interviews Drew gave his wife his wife credit for the tone of the material’.

This was Lucille McVey, his second wife, who seems to have married in July 1914. She is not credited in any source I have seen for this film except as part of the cast as ‘Mrs Sydney Drew’. However, Drew’s first wife, Gladys Rankin, also wrote plays, rewrote their vaudeville acts and worked with Drew at Vitagraph. And the writing credits include one Marguerite Bertsch. What is interesting is that all three films that I have seen feature issues that are generally seen as ‘women’s issues’: a baby, eugenics and the cross-dressing in this film. So whilst A Florida Enchantment does seem to feature a male viewpoint the basic plot tends to subversion of masculinity. It would be nice to pin down the contribution of these women.

The screening used a 16mm print which had a pretty good image. The filming was typical of the period. The settings were recognisably studio sets though there were some nice location shots. It was in the ‘second’ screen at the centre, a well appointed auditorium, spacious and comfortable. This meant however that there was no musical accompaniment and we watched the film in full silence. The film ran jus over 60 minutes. I did think that it ran slightly faster than the norm. Afterwards the manager advised me that they did not have a variable speed projector and had to run the film at 24 fps. IMDB gives the length as 1500 metres, which at 16 fps, the likely speed for that period, would give 80 odd minutes. However, I suspect that the running speed was not 24 fps as the film did not seem to be 8 fps faster. Perhaps it ran at 18 fps or 20 fps; the former is a standard setting on 16mm projectors.

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The 18th British Silent Film Festival

Posted by keith1942 on September 16, 2015

Silent cover

This excellent four-day event, British Silent Film and the Transition to Sound, took place from the 10th to the 13th of September at the Phoenix in Leicester. It was also supported by the BFI, The Arts and Humanities Research Council and De Montfort University. There was a programme of early films, some of which I will post on individually. And there were introductions and longer contributions on the films and the context of the transition from silent film to sound film. This event was extremely well organised. The programme was intelligent and interesting. The contributions were stimulating. There were well prepared supporting notes.

It says a lot for the organisation that the programme went off with only a couple of minor hitches, even though relying on a stack of film cans from 80 or 90 years ago. The provision by the cinema was also excellent: friendly staff, very good catering and always someone to point one in the right direction. The projection team worked well not only with many old films but with a variety of format – celluloid and digital. And then there were a bunch of talented musicians.

Thursday featured early examples of the new sound technology in British cinema. The day opened with Larraine Porter offering an illustrated talk on the period of transition. Rather like the first years of cinema this was a complicated picture, with rival sounds systems, rival companies and a competition to offer the first example. The larger competition was between the USA and Europe. The most notable intruder was Western-Electric; whilst the notable European system was Tobis Klang-film. As in the USA, whilst there were examples of disc with film, the industry soon tended to sound-on-film.

There had already been a burst of investment following the Film Act of 1927. Much of this, was speculative. As Larraine noted, of six companies launched in May 1928, only Associated Talking Picture survived into the mid-1930s. The new technology required heavy investment, both for studios and cinemas. It also required relatively quick returns, but the UK was already dominated by Hollywood studios and [to a degree] their distribution arms.

Many of these early sound films do not survive. Critical comment suggests that at least some of them did not deserve to. However, there were films of higher quality. One was the morning screening, The W Plan, from British International Pictures (1930). It was directed by Victor Saville at the Elstree Studio and used the RCA Sound System. The film was a World War I spy story and ran for 104 minutes. It starred Brian Aherne [soon to move to Hollywood] and Madeline Carroll: soon to work with Alfred Hitchcock.


After lunch Geoff Brown asked ‘Was Blackmail Britain’s First Talkie?’ As you might expect, it depends on the definition. And Geoff actually said very little about the Hitchcock film but offered descriptions and illustrations of some of the other contenders. These included the now infamous White Cargo where Tondaleyo leads the colonial administrator astray: Mr Smith Wakes Up, a comedy short with Elsa Lanchester singing: Under the Greenwood Tree, which offered a delightful sequence when the village musicians discover the vicar has purchased an organ and threatens part of their livelihoods: and To What Red Hell, a film with an anti-capital punishment message and a character frequently seen after both World Wars, the damaged veteran (all titles released in 1929).          

There were two screenings in the afternoon. There was Dark Red Roses from British Talking Pictures (1929). Unfortunately sequences from the film were missing and it only ran 53 minutes. However, it had a straightforward revenge plot with the rather stilted dialogue common in this period. The second film was a jollier affair, Splinters from British & Dominion Film Corporation (1929). The company had a tie-up with The Gramophone Company ‘His Master’s Voice’, which enabled it to offer recorded music and artists. Splinters was a musical revue actually started by the top brass to entertain front-line soldiers in 1915. And it had become a box-office attraction post-war in London and on tours. There was a certain amount of presentation of the condition nears the front and then the entertainments. These were remarkably good and included an impressive female interpreter, Reg Stone.

I missed the evening screenings, just to be in a fit state for the next day. But the evening featured the US sound version of High Treason from the Gaumont Company (1929) and war drama The Guns of Loos from Stoll Picture Productions (1928).


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The Whispering Chorus, USA 1918.

Posted by keith1942 on December 11, 2014

Voices Chorus

This film, released in March 1918, was Cecil B. De Mille’s 29th feature. He had started his film career in 1914 with The Squaw Man. This was filmed for the J. L. Lasky Feature Play Company. In 1916 a merger with Adolph Zukor produced the Famous Players – Lasky Corporation. In 1935 the company became Paramount Pictures Inc. De Mille was a founder member and the Director-General in the early years. He worked with the company in two periods right up to the end of his career.  Nowadays he is best remembered for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), but in the silent era he was an important and innovative director. The Whispering Chorus makes exceptional use of chiaroscuro and of superimposition. Its story, adapted from a novel, seems to prefigure aspects of the later film noir genre. Apart from the contrast between light and shadow, the protagonist, John Tremble, is drawn into a world of criminality by siren voices and finally succumbs as a victim hero.

De Mille described aspects of the film in his 1959 Autobiography (Edited by Donald Hayne).

The same critic who called The Devil Stone “piffling” said that my next picture, The Whispering Chorus, was “the quintessence of morbid­ness”. I hope that he has lived to see some of the screen’s more recent offerings. The Whispering Chorus, written by Jeanie Macpherson from a story by Perley Poore Sheehan, was in fact one of the first, if not the first, of the films that have come to be called “psychological”. The conflict in it is in the souls of the characters rather than in forces external to them. It is the story of a man condemned to death for his own murder. …

The Whispering Chorus was “supposed to be a non-star production”, Randolph Bartlett wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “but Raymond Hatton is the unmistakable star [as John Tremble], in as brilliant a character study as the films have ever produced”. Kathlyn Williams played his wife, and Elliott Dexter [is George Coggeswell] ….

In addition to Raymond Hatton’s remarkable performance, this film was noteworthy because of the “chorus of faces” which gave the film its name. To show the thoughts struggling in the troubled mind of John Tremble, we faded in and out, around his figure on the screen, various faces, kindly, sullen, tempting, laughing, accusing, encouraging as if they were speaking to him what he himself was thinking. This was for its time an outstanding feat of photography. It was done by double or multiple exposure of the film. For the final appearance of all the faces together in the condemned man’s cell, there had to be as many exposures as there were faces, accomplished with all the carefulness and precision which such treatment of film demanded.

In the making of most motion pictures, there is some incident which seems funny in retrospect but does not at all seem so when it happens. To portray John Tremble’s degradation during his years as a fugitive, Jeanie Macpherson had written a scene of his being lured into a low dive in Shanghai in the course of a rather wild celebration of the Chinese New Year. A Chinese New Year meant crowds and fireworks, of course. We transformed one side of Selma Avenue into an approximation of a Shanghai thoroughfare, with elaborate fire­works strung all along the block, and we assembled a suitable number of Chinese extras to throng the street.

His description includes a number of tropes familiar in the world of noir. Rather than a femme fatale we have the siren voices that tempt John to criminal action.  This is the `Whispering Chorus` of the film:

text Chorus

he hears voices that both tempt him to illegality [misappropriating monies from the firm in whose accounts office he works] and voices that caution proper conduct. The visual superimposition of these voices presents those of temptation as male and that of virtue as female. This ties into the plot of the film where virtue is connected to gender. John`s wife, Jane, and his elderly mother who lives with them, are happy to live within the limited means provided by his salary.

There is also a class dimension to the plot. John is a lowly paid clerk and one whispering voice argues

You work to hard – just to make a rich man richer.

Contrasting John is another character, George Coggeswell, a ‘fighting young senator’ – fighting corruption. He is clearly more affluent than John and later becomes Governor and acquires a fine mansion. His investigations lead to John’s fraud coming to light and his flight from justice. Coggeswell also comes to the aid of the grieving Jane, who believes John is dead. And their romance becomes important in the film’s resolution.

Whilst De Mille was fairly innovatory at this time and also often pushed at the boundaries of the censorship parameters of the time, he tended to fairly conservative moral values: there are several titles bearing biblical quotations. The critic noted the ‘sentimentality’ of the film. This is especially apparent in the representation of the women in the film. We first see John’s mother, an elderly grey-haired woman, in a chair, sewing petals, and with a birdcage just above her head. Jane copes with the limited income as a model of domesticity, mending worn clothes and cooking from a limited budget.

As De Mille notes the cameraman, Alvin Wyckoff, makes an important contribution to the film. The superimpositions are excellent and the use of shadows is especially atmospheric. This can also be seen with Wyckoff`s camerawork in the earlier feature, The Cheat (1915), a notably stylish film. The Art Director, a post developed as Hollywood developed the studio system, was Wilfred Buckland. He was also an important influence in the teens and 1920s in the studio system. The use of settings and props add a dimension to the characters and their actions. In an early sequence Jane, at the behest of her mother, hangs mistletoe in preparation for John’s return on the eve of Christmas: when he arrives without her promised present she sadly removes the mistletoe. In a parallel manner flowers frequently recur. After the petals we see flowers by the sick bed of the mother. They are prominent in Coggeswell’s office when Jane visits him. Later in the film a wedding ceremony has centrally placed flowers. Another important sequence involving the mother Jane and Coggeswell is placed in the garden. And towards the end a prostitute plays with flowers around John: he crushes them and then they are carelessly tossed to the floor. The editing emphasises such moments and also draws parallels across story and the experiences that happen to John on his wanderings and to Jane as she waits at home. At one point the film cuts from a prostitute with John in an opium den to the wedding ceremony back home. Other cuts between the increasingly decrepit John and the increasingly successful Coggeswell reinforce the division.

So this is a fine example of a feature film from the late teens as the Hollywood Studio system developed. In fact it seems that the film was not successful at the box office, it was probably a little too challenging in terms of the cinema conventions of the time. However, it is clearly an important influence in terms of the studio technical and stylistic developments.

The film was screened in a retrospective of De Mille’s silent work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The print was from the George Eastman House and preserves the notable use of tinting in the film. The film is seven reels in length and the recommended projection speed is 20 fps, giving a running time of just over 80 minutes. Like all of the de Mille’s early films this is well worth viewing. There are several video versions to be found on the Web and it was available from the BFI.


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The House With Closed Shutters, USA 1910.

Posted by keith1942 on September 29, 2014

The Flag - The Drink.

The Flag – The Drink.

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto as part of the mammoth and decade long retrospective of the films of D. W. Griffith. This is a one-reeler, [998 feet in length] released in August 1910. It was the 244th in the long series of films that Griffith directed for Biograph. And it was a one of a number of films that stood out in that series. It seemed to me to have enjoyed better production values than many of the other films from 1910. This seems likely to be because the film is a Civil War tale – there is a very impressive battle scene. Griffith, son of a one-time Confederate Officer, found one of his most compelling subjects in the Civil War. He had made four earlier films which used this topic. Moreover this was a popular genre in the period – 1910 was just before the fiftieth anniversary period of the conflict. And the war itself is one of the most potent memories in US culture.

The film treats the Civil War as part of a family melodrama – and Griffith’s films repeatedly join these two topics, notably in his infamous masterwork The Birth of a Nation (1915). As you might expect in a one-reel film the plot is relatively simple. Charles Randolph (Henry B. Walthall) joins the Confederate army as the war gets under way. However he has a fatal weakness – drink. Sent on a mission with an important despatch Charles flees to the shelter of the family home. His sister Agnes (Dorothy West) takes his place, delivers the despatch, but then dies in a battle. Her body is mistaken as Charles and he is deemed to have died a hero’s death. To preserve the family honour the mother (Grace Henderson) closes the shutters of the house and imprisons Charles there. Years later, an old man, he finally opens the shutters but succumbs to the light of day.

Griffith and his team imbue the film with great emotion. Dorothy West plays Agnes as young and vital whereas Henry Walthall makes Charles weak and indecisive. The house itself takes on the aura of Southern Gothic – a mansion where lies hidden the family secret. When the news of Agnes’ death and Charles now-heroic status arrives, the mother is implacable in immuring her son. The family interaction is set off against two young recruits to the Confederacy who are also suitors for the hand of Agnes (Charles H. West and Joseph Grayhill). It is they who provide a link between family and war and bring the news to the mother. In a later scene one of the suitor climbs in through an open window and the mother covers Charles with a blanket to hide him. There is also a ‘Negro servant’ played in blackface by William J. Butler.

The exterior scenes have an openness and fluidity that contrasts with the grim stasis of the shuttered mansion. Agnes’ ride with the despatch has an exhilarating rhythm. And when she is caught up in a battle between Union and Confederacy the audience is caught close up in the carnage of the conflict. A reviewer at the time commented “that the feature of the film that impresses most is the remarkable realistic battle scene.”

Griffith uses motifs to focus and intensify the drama. So the film opens with Charles and his sister as she sews the flag of the Confederacy. When later in the film she is caught up in the battle she catches a falling Confederate flag and dies waving it towards the enemy. When the suitors take their leave of Agnes she gives one a lock of hair and the other a flower from her hair. After her death and Charles imprisonment the suitor returns every year to lay flowers on the porch of the house: his and their ageing marking the passage of time.

At the centre of the story is Agnes, a strong and committed young woman. Whilst Griffith films often feature the heroine as innocent victim his films also feature strong, independent minded women. In this case Agnes’ commitment is to the Confederacy – in line with Griffith’s consistent support for the South and its reactionary values.

The film has approximately 60 separate shots and seven title cards. The title cards precede the relevant action, which relies extensively on the visual dramatisation for the story. The opening title sums up the moral line in the film, “The Price of Cowardice’. Most of the film is shot between mid-shots and long shots. The shots in the house are relatively long takes, but the actions sequences use shorter shots and faster editing. There is also parallel editing between the war actions and the family home

We were fortunate that this was one of the Biograph films that survive in a 35mm print [provided by the Museum of Modern Art]. It ran 17 minutes and 16 fps. According to my notes we had an accompaniment by Antonio Coppola, who is excellent with this type of melodrama.

There is a long article on the film by Tom Gunning in The Griffith Project Volume 4., bfi publishing 2000.

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Alan Dwan – The Noble Primitive

Posted by keith1942 on August 27, 2013

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

Alan Dwan directing in the 1920s

The title is the description given to this long-serving Hollywood director for a retrospective at the 2013 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Dwan worked as a film director in Hollywood from 1911 to 1961 where he worked on hundreds of features. As was often the case in Silent Cinema Dwan progressed to direction partly by accident. Working as a scenario writer in Chicago for the American Film Manufacturing Company he was sent o the newly founded and developing colony of Hollywood. He found a production crew but no director. So began his career.

The retrospective started with four very early one-reel westerns [all 1912], together with a fragment. Presumably they all involved a regular team for production. Certainly Dwan had a stock company of actors – J. Warren Kerrigan, Pauline Bush, and Jack Richardson in the leads with supporting actors. The plots are simple and easily recognisable in the genre. And they mainly rely on title cards that explain the characters and actions depicted on screen.

What strikes one are the women characters: ‘with Bush as the first representative of Dwan’s distinctively self-reliant women, whose unshakeable confidence in matters erotic and romantic is played in contrast to convoluted, inter-generational conflicts among male characters.’

Thus in both The Ranch Girl and Maiden and Men we have ranches run by women.

It should be noted though that these strong female characters are presented within the contemporary social limitations for women. The Maiden and Men has a sort of Madame Bovary style story where a young girl is cured of the influence of romantic literature. The film avoids the bleak ending of the French novel. And in the longest film in this programme, The Thief’s Wife is ‘saved’ from her criminal husband by the town Sherriff.

The ‘intergenerational’ conflicts are notable and effect both men and women. So in the Maiden and Men the central characters are a father and daughter. In Man’s Calling it is a father and son. The latter film has an intriguing use of religion, personified by Friars, presumably Franciscans.

The other striking feature of these early westerns is the style. Dwan has a great liking for framing shots: doorways, windows, barns and so forth. Several people at the Festival suggested that both his style and plotting had some influence on the early John Ford. There is certainly one shot which is prescient of the great closing frame in The Searchers. In The Thief’s Wife, as well as the framing, there is notable use of deep staging. At one point the wife and the sheriff stand by a door in the foreground, whilst in deep background we see the Posse and the pursued husband.

Dwan continued as a master of style and of the western in his later career. The festival also screened the only surviving reel, the opening, of Frozen Justice (1929). Set in the gold rush town of Nome in Alaska the film opened with an impressive tracking shot along a side walk, passing but also pausing before saloons, storefronts and alleys: finally entering a saloon and finishing with dolly shots as the girl singer starts to serenade customers.

Dwan’s silent and sound output included more westerns and the impressive swashbucklers starring Douglas Fairbanks Senior. Late in his career he directed Silver lode for Pinecrest Productions. Starring John Payne this is not only a fine western but also a fairly clear parable on the ongoing McCarthyism of HUAC, from which Hollywood in particular suffered.  The Catalogue quoted Peter Bogdanovich on this filmmaker, commenting ‘The films are about the lives of simple people and their innocence, ordinary and dignified lives reflected with a “profound sense of the essential indomitability and deathlessness of the human spirit.”

Quotations from Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue – programme notes by Dave Kehr and Peter von Bach. Stills courtesy of the Festival.

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Il Cinema Ritrovato27th Edition 2013

Posted by keith1942 on July 15, 2013


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

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

The Quiet Don

The Quiet Don

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

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

Gloria Swanson in Manhandled

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

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

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

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

The Morieux Collection Exhibition

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

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

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

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

Stills courtesy of the Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.

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

The Adventures of Dollie

Posted by keith1942 on August 4, 2009

D. W. Griffith on location later in his career.

D. W. Griffith on location later in his career.

(Biograph, US. 18/19 June 1908)
Dir.: D. W. Griffith; cast: Arthur Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Charles Inslee, Madeline West; 35mm, 830 ft., 15′ (15 fps), Library of Congress. Titles missing.

This first film by the US pioneer D. W. Griffith was shown at the start of the Il Giornate del Cinema Muto’s epic presentation of his entire output, in 1997. And it was re-screened in 2008 when the cycle of screenings finally came to an end. It is a simple one-reel film but what struck me on seeing it again was how so much of what became the recognisable style and themes of Griffith’s filmmaking could be discerned in this first tyro project.
The notes in the 2008 Catalogue commented:

A film that stands out for recognition and comment because it was the first motion picture directed by Griffith. Compared to competitive releases from Edison and Vitagraph in the same period, it has to be considered an unremarkable, if competently made film. -PL [DWG Project # 27]

In D. W. Griffith His life and Work (Oxford University Press, 1972) R. M. Henderson provides the description of the film that appeared in the Biograph Bulletin (July 14, 1908).

On the lawn of a country residence we find the little family comprising father, mother and little Dollie, their daughter. In front of the grounds there flows a picturesque stream to which the mother and little one go to watch the boys fishing. . . . While the mother and child are seated on the wall beside the stream, one of these Gypsies approaches and offers for sale several baskets. A refusal raises his ire and he seizes the woman’s purse and is about to make off with it when the husband, hearing her cries of alarm, rushes down to her aid, and with a heavy snakewhip lashes the Gypsy unmercifully, leaving great welts upon his swarthy body, at the same time arousing the venom of his black heart.
. . . [The Gypsy] seizes the child and carries her to his camp where he gags and conceals her in a watercask.
[Later] as they ford a stream the cask falls off a wagon into the water and is carried away by the current. Next we see the cask floating downstream toward a waterfall, over which it goes; then through the seething spray of the rapids, and on, on until it finally enters the cove of the first scene, where it is brought ashore by the fisherboys. Hearing strange sounds emitted from the barrel, the boys call for the bereft father, who is still searching for the lost one. Breaking the head from the barrel the amazed and happy parents now fold in their arms their loved one, who is not much worse off for her marvellous experience.

In the biography by Richard Schickel [D. W. Griffith An American Life, Touchstone Book 1984) we learn that Griffith directed his first one reel film for Biograph after receiving advice from the veteran cameraman Billy Bitzer. Bitzer was later to become a stalwart of the Griffith production team. The film was taken from a written synopsis at Biograph. Griffith was able to cast the film himself. The cameraman was a Biograph regular, Arthur Marvin. It was he who suggested the locations for the film. The filming took two days. And a month later it was released with apparent success. Biograph still sold its films outright at this period, before a rental system had fully developed. The best total for a film to that date was fifteen prints; The Adventures of Dollie sold twenty-five prints, a new house record.
The actual film is composed of fifteen shots, including the opening and closing Biograph credits. There are no surviving title cards. The camera shots are all in long shot, typical for the period. Characters enter and leave the frame as the plot progresses. Movements by characters tend to be towards the camera, which was placed in a frontal position. The majority of the shots are also long takes. Thus the second shot includes introducing the two boys, the entry in frame of Dollie and her mother, the entry of the gypsy, the purse snatching and the beating by the father. And the final thirteenth shot shows the boy fishing, the appearance of the water cask, the arrival of the father, the discovery of Dollie and the arrival of the mother for the family reunion.
However, shots seven to twelve are considerably shorter. This is the sequence of climatic danger as Dollie in the cask falls into the river, tumbles over the weir and floats towards the boys fishing. This technique of faster editing looks forward to the classic approach by Griffith of dynamic cutting for exciting situations of peril and rescue.
The embedded values of the film are also typical of early melodrama, but also typical of those that dominate Griffith’s film output. The focus of the film is the nuclear family. They are most likely petit bourgeois, as they have a large property and servants. Counterposed to them, in an almost Manichean division, are the gypsy and his woman. They are the typical villains of melodrama. The boys who assist in the rescue seem to be a piece of Americana, summoning up classic pictures from the likes of Mark Twain. And the location of the film provides natural settings, which were one of the appeals of his Griffith’s output at Biograph.
The melodramatic style, characters and plot remain typical of Griffith’s later and more sophisticated features. His most famous [or infamous] film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), retains these characteristics in a far more complex narrative. Stylistically Griffith has developed the close-up and shot lengths have shortened. But there is still a tendency to place the camera in a frontal position with movement towards it. The film contains a number of climaxes of peril and danger, which tend to rely on developing the excitement just as we see in Dollie’ situation. The primary focus of the story is on a nuclear family with similar class and “racial” characteristics to the first Adventure. And the opposing other remains; though now it is the enslaved Negroes who are seen as a threat to family and stability.
Both Griffith’s values and his approach to cinematic story telling were in tune with his majority audience, [though there was another black audience soon to be catered for by the race cinema]. From the start of his career Griffith was a successful filmmaker. This was one important factor in the immense influence he was to exert over the industry that developed in Hollywood.

Still courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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