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Beginnings of the Western – Indian Pictures

Posted by keith1942 on August 17, 2017

 

Filmmaker James Young Deer onscreen.

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

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

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

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

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

 

‘The Arrow of Defiance’

The Arrow of Defiance Pathé 1912.

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the West was Young, Vitagraph 1913.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘without honour, without a grave’.

 

The Struggle, Broncho 1913

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Flaming Arrow’

The Flaming Arrow, 101 Bison Film/Universal

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

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

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

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

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

Simmon comments on the overall film and generic examples,

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

Whereas in The Flaming Arrow

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

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

And Gabriel Thibaudeau provided lyrical accompaniment on the piano.

 

 

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Beginnings of the Western – Cowgirls.

Posted by keith1942 on August 8, 2017

This was the second programme offered a in Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 presenting the early years of the major Hollywood genre. Richard Abel’s introduction in the Festival Catalogue noted,

“something like a genre begins to emerge out of a wide variety of films – cowboy films, Indian pictures, and cowgirl films – during the two-year period of 1912 – 1913.”

What also seems to be the case is that women characters did better in this developing period than was often the case when an identifiable and conventionalised genre did emerge. In this programme we had six films where women were important characters and even were the dominant actor.

Broncho Billy’s Narrow Escape, USA 1912

This was an Essanay production directed by and starring G. M. Anderson. Happily John Oliver has just written a profile of ‘The First Cowboy Film Star’ in ‘Flickers’ June/July 2017. [Gilbert] Anderson worked in the early US films, including a small part in the 1903 The Great Train Robbery. He was a co-founder of Essanay in 1907 and in 1909 commenced a long series of popular westerns. He generally directed and starred in these films but,

“Despite regular appearances, Anderson would still introduce variations from film to film as to how the character was portrayed. In one film Broncho Billy could be bandit, in the next a cow puncher, and then a miner in the following film. He could even be a bit of a bumpkin. He could even die at the end of a film.”

The last was not typical of what the western became.

In this title Billy is a wandering cowboy hired by a Prospector Ben Martin (Arthur Mackles). Billy develops a mutual attraction with Martin’s daughter Lois (Vedah Bertram): there is a happy shot as they sing and duet on a guitar and banjo. However, Billy’s rival Baxter (Brinsley Shaw) manages to convince some cowboys that Billy is a horse thief. The response, that becomes a typical event in westerns, is a proposed lynching. But Lois rides to the rescue and as Abel notes:

“The film ends with an emblematic shot of the couple smiling and chatting, until Billy (in an atypical gesture) slides a ring onto her finger.”

Lois is shown as a skilled horse rider. Vedah Bertram made 22 westerns with Anderson but she died young [aged 20] in 1912. Apart from the riding sequence the film also uses shots in silhouette as characters move from interiors to exterior light.

A Girl of the West, USA 1912

A Vitagraph film probably directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon. This was one of the last westerns shot by Vitagraph on the East Coast,, in their New York studio and nearby locations. The locations are uninspired and a later Vitagraph in the programme demonstrates one important factor in moving west to California.

Scott Simon in the Festival catalogue notes that in the film we get the following title:

“HOORAY! FOR THE AMAZONS.” shout cowboys in the final inter-title of the slightly mist titled A Girl of the West, which features two gun-toting, rapid-riding women – the ranch girl (Polly) and the outlaw (Nell) – along with the heroine’s older sister (Dolly) who lectures her unsuccessfully about proper female behaviour in the west.”

Lillian Christy plays Dolly (Daisy in the print), Helen Case as Polly and Helen Galvin as Nell.

Simon’s reservation regarding the film’s title are justified, Polly acts out of love for a cowboy John (Tom Fortune) whilst Nell is the moll of the villain Scar-faced Bill (Robert Thornby). The plot lacks plausibility. John sells him horse and is to collect the $500 purchase price when he delivers it to the ranch. Scar-faced Bill and his henchman steal the horse and delivering it to the ranch collect the $500. Given the purchaser had agreed the bargain with John this seems unlikely or the men really are dumb. The best bit of the film is the conflict between |Polly and Nell, as they battle with Polly successfully riding to recover the money.

The 35mm print was 902 feet, running 13 minutes at 18fps. Likely there is a little missing, as so often the case with early film. Certain Dolly’s appearances and role seem a little truncated.

The Craven, USA 1912.

This is a Vitagraph film shot in the new Los Angeles Studio, in Santa Monica in California. Laura Horak, in the Festival Catalogue, comments on the film and its star,

“Schaefer had moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles with Vitagraph regulars Sturgeon, this film’s director, and actors Thornby, Bennett and Burns (all in this film ) in October 1911 to form the Western branch of the Vitagraph Company. The Western Vitagraph films were often praised for uniting spectacular locations with quality photography, complex plots and mature acting.”

The changes are notable in comparison to A Girl of the West. California offered better and more varied locations and a brighter climate with better light for the cinematography. And the working conditions seem to have better suited the production crew.

The film opens with the title,

“The wife of a coward.”

Anne (Anne Schaefer, Maud in the print) is the niece of a ranch owner. The new hand out from the east is Harvey (Robert Thornby). Harvey shoots a line that impresses the ranch hands and even more Anne. They marry. Her eyes are opened when a Mexican bandit ((William) Eagle Eye) threatens them for money; Harvey is prepared to hand over money but Anne chases off the bandit.

Harvey gets the credit and is elected sheriff. However nemesis arrives when he is required to apprehend a noted bandit Black Pete (probably Tom Beckett). But Anne has to undertake the task, tracking down Black Peter. In an well staged confrontation Black Pete hides in rushes, but when he jumps out Anne is quicker and shoots him dead.

Back at the cabin Anne sends Harvey to collect the body, thus preserving

“my father’s honour'”

throwing down the gun, possibly a motif that developed into the badge thrown down. Thus Harvey preserves his reputation and his

“unearned honour.”

The plot is seemingly not unusual, Laura Horak notes,

The Craven was one of many films from this period that dramatised white male cowardice (e.g. The Honour of His Family, 1910). It was also one of the many in which courageous white women took over from incapacitated brothers, husbands and sweethearts ….”

A Bit of Blue Ribbon, USA 1913.

This is another Vitagraph filmed in California. By now the company had moved to a new studio in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, located near hills and open country: likely a factor in the move.. The film has what seems an unusual plot and the print we viewed was only 741 feet, apparently with missing shots and title cards. So the opening of the film is unclear. It seems that Kitty (Marty Charleson), the daughter of a ranch  owner, has a favourite horse Seňor: she also has a human sweetheart, Steve (Robert Burns). The father Hartwell (Charles Bennett) orders Steve to shoot Seňor, though why is not clear. The mother in this film is played by Anne Schaefer but she has much less to do than in The Craven.

Steve honourably refuses to shoot Seňor so Hartwell decides to carry out the deed. Fortunately he is interrupted and shot by a Mexican horse thief (William Eagle Eye again). Unfortunately the Mexican is able to throw the blame on Steve. In an early example of what becomes one of Hollywood’s most common motifs Steve is discovered by other cowboys bending over the wounded Hartwell. This confirms his guilt and he is dragged away. In another conventional trope the cowboys vote and agree to lynch Steve. Kitty now rides to save Steve and confronts the Mexican. He mages to escape but drops the titular blue ribbon. Kitty recognises this as belonging to her father. She rides again to save Steve from hanging. Later the Mexican is apprehended and [it seems] sentenced to hanging [or possibly lynching].

Una of the Sierras, USA 1812.

This was another Vitagraph film, directed by Ralph Ince, younger brother of key producer Thomas Ince; though Rollin S. Sturgeon also had a role in the production. This is another classic plotline. The western gal goes east [or north] and encounters the world, the technology and the mores of  urban life. Una (Mary Charleson) is

“Brought up in the Mountains Wild. She is more that a match for a Crafty Financier. She’s a Hummer and Can Do Things.” (The Vitagraph promotion quoted in the Festival catalogue).

Ulna’s father is a prospector in California. At his death she comes into

“enough gold to pay the national debt!”

So she goes to live with her aunt in the city. There are amusing scenes as she explores her aunt’s property, encounters a motor car and jumps in the Pacific clothed. Romance arrives in the shape of two financiers, shady investor Sharpe and kindlier stockbroker Clifford. Sharpe tries to eliminate Clifford through a share scheme, but Una saves him and the day.

“In the unpublished synopsis, she asks Clifford “if they are engaged” and he answers with a kiss.”

Sallie’s Sure Shot, USA 1913.

This was a Selig western that I had seen before and which repaid a second viewing.

“A Tale of Devotion and Dynamite.”

Coyote Jim (Lester Cuneo) and his gang plan to take over the Ralston mining claim. Rob Ralston has gone to town to register the claim leaving his daughter Sallie (Myrtle Stedman) alone. Her sweetheart Fred warns off the gang. But they return, take Sallie to nearby claim and plan to trap Fred by dynamiting the cabin. Whilst there attention is elsewhere Sallie grabs a rifle and cuts the fuse wire with her ‘sure shot’. First time round Stedman’s body twirl and the accompanying cut occasioned applause from the audience.

Fred reasserts some masculine prowess when the gang relight the fuse by throwing it through the window at the gang. Following the explosion the gang are trussed up and handed over to the sheriff.

Laura Horak notes that

“In fact, Sallie was not the first Selig heroine to display such impressive shooting skills – in The Girl from Montana (1907), Pansy Perry’s character races on horseback to rescue her falsely accused sweetheart and shoots through the suspended rope just as he is hung.”

Whilst tropes and motifs from these early westerns became a regular part of plots in the western genre, the ‘can do’ woman were much less common. This selection was revealing and enjoyable. Several of the 35mm prints were from the EYE Filmmuseum with title cards in Dutch. We had an English translation provided. And there were a couple of instances where characters names had changed, as noted. Donald Sosin provided the accompaniment at the piano.

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Beginnings of the Western, Pordenone 2016.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2017

‘The Escape of Jim Dolan’.

 

These programmes continued the exploration started at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This year the focus was on films produced in 1912 and 1913 as the genre began to take shape in the early Hollywood studios. The first of three programmes presented cowboy films shot in California by these young companies.

At the End of the Trail was a Vitagraph production from 1912. This was a stock trade but with some distinctive features. A Sherriff [George C. Stanley] learns from a group of cowboys that they have seen a wanted horse thief. He sets off, with a wanted notice,  in pursuit of the Mexican. The meet and fight in a desert, [shades of the later Greed]. At first successful the Sherriff is wounded and overpowered by the Mexican. We follow the latter to his cabin where his daughter Mercedes is of a religious turn. She has  small religious shrine on the wall of  the cabin. Mercedes is also literate unlike her father, She reads the wanted poster that he has pick up but which he does not understand. Pointing to the cabin crucifix she accuses him. Lacking in morals and paternal care he attacks his daughter and leaves. The wounded sheriff, finding the Mexican’s horse caught tin a bramble bush, arrives at the cabin. Mercedes tends his wounds. Then the Mexican returns. Mercedes is killed in the shootout. Now a posse of Cowboys arrive. Standing round Mercedes grave they all remove their hats, except the Mexican, obdurate to the last.

The film was projected form a 35mm print with Dutch intertitles and translation. Filmed in the familiar fairly standard long and mid-shots. What stood out was the tinting in the desert sequences. This was a sort of yellow-brown, suggestive of the later yellow tinting in the Stroheim’s ‘Greed’. In terms of representation there was the familiar Mexican stereotype with the daughter a good and sacrificial character to offset this.

A Wife in the Hills (1912) was produced at the Essanay studio and was part of a famous series, “Broncho Billy”. ‘Billy’ was played by G. M Anderson, founder of the studio and the regular writer and director of these westerns. Not all the characters he plays are “Broncho Billy”. In this film he is an outlaw Bart McGrew. The plot of the film parallels in an odd way the preceding film, At the End of the Trail. Bart’s partner Don Trout (Brinsley Shaw) is having an affair with McGrew’s wife (Vedah Bertram). So seeing  a wanted notice that offers a pardon to any gang members who turns himself in he sells out Bart to the Sherriff. At his arrest Bart realises about the affair and the betrayal. Later he escapes from prison and is pursued by a posse. But reaching the cabin he has run out of ammunition. In a providential intervention a shot by the posse hits and kills Don,. As his unfaithful wife tends the body Bart smiles! This is an usually ironic ending for an early western.

The film was screened from another 35mm print from the EYE Museum. The chase sequence is fairly extended and as it nears the cabin the spatial relationships become slightly confused. And at one point the camera ‘crosses the line’, a technique not yet elevated into a taboo. Richard Abel in the Festival Catalogue noted:

“[this] makes the shooting of Trout all the more grimly ironic – and a sharp contrast to the ending of Essanay’s A Pal’s Oath (1911), shown last year in Pordenone, in which Broncho Billy decides not to exact vengeance when, through an open window, he finds his nemesis embracing his wife (Billy’s former lover) and child.”

The Greater Love USA 1912 was from the Vitagraph Company. The story is simple but the treatment is notable. The Kansas Kid (Robert Thorny) is the subject of a wanted notice. Meanwhile the Sheriff  (Fred Burns) has  a sweetheart (Edna Fisher). She tends a wounded stranger who turns out to be the Kansas Kid. She and the Kid also feel a mutual attraction. This leads to a dispute between the Kid and the Sheriff, who only later realise that the man is the wanted outlaw. Following  a pursuit the Sheriff is wounded and the kid takes him back to be tended by his sweetheart. The grateful Sheriff shakes his hand.

Richard Abel provided some informative notes in the Festival catalogue.

“This surviving film print [35mm] includes a range of tinting characteristic of the period, which differentiates one time of day from another as well as exteriors from interiors.”

He goes on to note the stylistic treatment in the film:

“It also uses a series of objects to effectively highlight key moments in the story: the wanted poster, a rain barrel, a flower, several written notes, and a photograph.”

The poster appears at least three times. And the photograph functions to inform or influence both the Sheriff and the outlaw. And in addition,

“this Vitagraph film deploys eye-line match editing, in not one but two scenes: the fist involving the sheriff and the young woman; the second (with one mismatch), the gunfight between the Sheriff and the Kid.”

I also thought, [but only on one viewing] that there was match when the Sheriff observes the glances between outlaw and the young woman. Also what struck me as uncommon was a high angle camera shot as the Sheriff and the outlaw face off for their confrontation.

Richard Abel’s commentary also left me uncertain. I noted that after the return of the wounded Sherriff and the handshake between him and the outlaw that the cowboy posse also shook the hand of the outlaw. I may have misread this shot as Abel writes:

“but the Sheriff’s men still arrest the Kid and lead him away.”

The Escape of Jim Dolan, USA 1913.

This was a two reel Selig western, the 35mm print including tinting in parts. The plot is full of incident and action. Jim Dolan is false accused by the Foreman of Brown Ranch because of they both admire the Rancher’s daughter Grace. However, there is also a dispute over water rights. The foreman buries a cattle hide on Dolan’s claim, resulting in Jim being convicted for cattle stealing and sentenced to ten years in jail. A title card announces

“The Escape of Jim Dolan.”

Grace smuggles in tools hidden in a basket of food. Jim breaks out at night and is soon pursued by Posse. Hindered by his horse going lame, Jim hides in a river, ingeniously breathing through the barrel of his gun [is that technically possible?]. But his troubles continue. He is captured by Apache and tortured. But the rope which ties him to the horse as it gallops breaks and Jim is assisted by a passing prospector. Back near the ranch a bar brawl leads to the confession of the Foreman. Reading of his innocence in newspaper Jim returns to his claim and to grace.

Jim is played by Tom Mix, a major star and noted for his horsemanship. So one impressive sequence has Jim fleeing on a relay of horses as he escapes from prison and the posse. Mix manages to dismount and then remount

“In scarcely more than a second’s space.” (New York Dramatic Mirror quoted in the Catalogue).

The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species, USA 1913.

This was a delightfully bizarre western. The 35mm print was missing one section, so the details in the Catalogue relied on the Lubin Film Co. synopsis.

“For those weary of cowboys, cowgirls, and Indians, Romaine Fielding’s The Rattlesnake – a film that still brings gasps – gives us an unclichéd and ruggedly symbolic West. Lubin advertised it as a “strange and weird story” of “a man’s gratitude to a snake for saving his life.” The two-reeler is set in Mexico, and was filmed around Las Vegas, New Mexico, east of Santa Fe, where the landscape looks as unforgiving as the story’s obsessive central figure, played by the director.” (Scott Simmon in the Catalogue).

Tony’s life is saved when the rattlesnake bites an assailant who subsequently dies. Tony, full of gratitude, adopts the snake. However, his girlfriend Inez (Mary Ryan) demands that he choose between her and his reptilian friend. Seven years pass and Inez has married John Gordon ((Jesse Robinson). When Tony attempts to shoot Gordon he ends up being bitten by the snake. By the close the snake is dead and Tony has lost an arm.

This is the only full-length film of Romaine Fielding to survive. though he worked on over a 100 between 1912 and 1915. One wonders if there were imaginative but sadly lost melodramas about horses, cattle, donkeys, and of course dogs. I would be happier, though, if the film did not repeat the stereotypical representation of snakes as untrustworthy.

As Simmon notes the film’s use of landscape is excellent. The New York Dramatic Mirror praised the film but could not resist a rather obvious pun:

“The venom of jealousy has never furnished a better basis for a story than this film portrays. Nor have we in years seen this plot germ presented in a manner more original in conception and development. Romaine Fielding struck upon a singularly appropriate personification of this character  trait in the use of a rattlesnake … Hi shows the hand … of a master of technique in his development of atmosphere to the last essence.” (Quoted in the Catalogue).

The Trail of Cards, USA 1913

This title from the American Film Company was preserved on a 35mm at the Library of Congress. [The same title occurs in the same year on a Selig sea-faring film]. It was noted re the Western,

“In 1913 ”Moving Picture World’ published a list of narrative “bromides” that scriptwriters would do well to avoid if they desired to steer clear of clichéd storytelling. … But The Trail of Cards was singled out for redeeming [a] …hackneyed situation by giving it a “brand new twist”. (Festival Catalogue).

The ‘hackneyed’ story involved two suitors for the one young woman, Bess (or Rose – Lillian Christy). The two suitors, Bob (Edward Coxen) and Pedro (no credit), test their mettle in a fight which Bob wins. Thus he wins Bess. However Pedro has his men kidnap Bess and carry her off – in a hammock slung between two horses. We actually see Bess’s mother vainly shooting after the kidnappers. The ‘twist’ is that Bess leaves a trail of playing cards which Bob and Bess’s father follow to rescue her.

This short film is stylistically innovatory, as Charlie Keil [in the Catalogue] points out:

“Tracking shots recur throughout the film, [most frequently as Bess plants the ‘trail of cards’], and a notable variant serves wrap up the plot: the reunited couple ride towards her ranch as the camera dollies backward, …”

In some ways this film could have slotted into the later ‘cowgirl’ programme.

Philip Carli provided the accompaniment for the films. The films were projected at 18 fps except A Wife in the Hills projected at 16 fps. Most often frame rates are a judgement by archivists. These all looked fine and offered steady movement. The rate of filming and projection in this early period is an intriguing issue.

 

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Bioscope Westerns

Posted by keith1942 on March 19, 2017

The Kennington Bioscope is a film club well known to discerning Metropolitan film buffs; one of the programmes to be found at London’s Cinema Museum. And it is an attraction that justified a trip from Yorkshire down to London. March 11th saw a day devoted to the Early Westerns. Programmed by John Oliver, with a substantial input from Kevin Brownlow, this was a real treat. There was a fascinating selection of titles from the early days of the genre: and nearly all the titles were on 16mm or 35mm with live piano accompaniments. There were also detailed programme notes and brief introductions to the separate programmes.

The day started with a Monogram five reel title from 1924, Thundering Hoofs [16 mm]. This featured ‘The World’s Greatest Western Star’ Fred Thomson. In his day he rivalled Tom Mix. A particular aspect of his onscreen persona was his horse Silver King. This equestrian performer could rival human characters with his intelligence and bag of tricks. Dave (Fred Thomson) loves Carmelita (Ann May) but is rivalled by Luke (William Lowey), dastardly, manipulative and a crook to boot. Dave and Silver King win through, though the climax in a bullring was slightly hard viewing for horse lovers. The film was directed by Al Rogell, a long time filmmaker in Hollywood. Of equal interest the film was written by Frances Marion under an alternative name. It also offered an early example of splendid stunt work by Yakima Canutt.

The second programme was four ‘Early Westerns’. These included films shot in or near New York, on the East Coast, and films shot in and around Hollywood, the West Coast. The representation of the Indian/Native American was rather different. East Coast western’s being sympathetic, even empathetic, whilst West Coast/Hollywood was in line with the stereotypes that were to dominate representations in the Studio era.

The first was a 1911 Biograph title directed by D. W. Griffith, The Squaw’s Love (The Twilight Song – 35 mm). The film was set entirely in Indian society, in and around their camp.  Gray Fox (Alfred Paget) loves Wild Flower (Mabel Normand), but as she is the daughter of the Chief she is forbidden and he is banished from the tribe. With the help of his friends White Eagle (Dark Cloud) and Silver Fawn (Claire McDowell) he is re-united with his love. The film follows their adventures as they are hunted by tribe members and the heroine shows both courage and imitative.

The India Vestal (1911 – 35 mm) from Selig Polyscope had a more convertional plot. The Vestal (Viola Barry) was a baby taken by the Sioux in an attack on a emigrant wagon train. She was raised in the Sioux tribe but only found romance when she encountered a white trapper. The film was well written and directed by Hobart Bosworth who also played the trapper. Part of the film was shot in the spectacular Yosemite Valley. The towering rock faces, water fall and rapids added immeasurably to the visual appeal.

Custer’s Last Fight (16 mm) was produced by 101-Bison in 1912. 101-Bison combined a film studio with a Western Circus, and the company was able to mount large-scale scenes of characters, props and settings. The director was Francis Ford, who also starred, and the production was under the auspices of Thomas Ince, then introducing a systematic approach to production. So the film’s recreation of the events leading up to Little Big Horn were impressively mounted. The plot appeared to follow the historical events fairly closely. Custer was seen as a flamboyant hero rather than an officer suffering from hubris. Sitting Bull (William Eagle Shirt) was treated somewhat respectfully, but generally the Indians were the ‘other’ to the US Calvary. Oddly there was hardly any mention of Crazy Horse. The version we saw was a re-issue from 1926 with many of the title cards changed, which seemed to lessen the dynamism of the film.

Broncho Billy’s Adventures (1911 – 35 mm) was one in a popular series of Essanay ‘cowboy’ films. Gilbert ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson was the writer, director and star. In this film he was slightly less central, being the enabler for a romance between a young cowboy and his sweetheart. However Broncho Billy did get to display his prowess with six-guns, ‘writing’ with bullet holes in a fence.

Programme 3 was titled ‘A Copyboy’s Best Friend’: his horse, of course.

We first enjoyed a one reel from 1911 and Selig Polyscope, Saved by the Pony Express (35 mm). This credited Tom Mix as writer, director and star, the Pony Express Rider. Mix, like Broncho, was the saviour rather than the centre of the plot. There were romantic rivalries over Belle (Edna Fisher). When one of the lovelorn cowhands was found dead his rival Jim (Fred Church) was the suspect. Mix had to ride  with the evidence that would save him from the judge and a hanging. The film allowed Mix to show off his riding skills and those of his faithful companion Old Blue. Old Blue became a star in his own right: one of the first equestrian celebrities. He appeared in 87 films alongside Tom Mix. Years later he was laid to rest at the Mixville ranch, where most of the films were shot.

The accompanying film was a four reel from the Hal Roach Studio, The Devil Horse (1926 – 35 mm). This starred Rex the Wonder Horse – King of Horses and Yakima Canutt. Watching the film was slightly problematic after hearing of some of the ‘training’ methods that Canutt used on the horse. Apparently Rex was a fairly forceful character. A parallel problem was that in the film ‘the Devil Horse’ ‘hated’  Indians who captured him after na attack on the a wagon train. At that point Rex was  colt and David (Canutt) a young boy. They were reunited later in the film when we saw Rex taking out his ire on Indians. And there were also some problematic lines of dialogue.

Programme 4 gave us ‘Women out West’. The opening title was an extract, The Sawdust Trail (1924, Universal Pictures] with Josie Sedgwick as calamity Jane: one of her many roles in early westerns.

This was followed by a 1911 Vitagraph, A Girl of the West (35 mm). In this Lillian Christy played Polly Dixon, younger sister of Dolly (E. Helen Case), on whom John Winthrop (Tom Fortune) was sweet. He sold his horse for the princely sum of $500. However, Scarfaced Bill (Ralph Thornby), planned to abduct the horse and pocket the money. He was assisted by Dance Hall Nell (Helen Galvin). Polly was an excellent horsewoman. And she needed her skills to ride and warn the buyer of the plot. She also had to outmanoeuvre the Dance Hall Nell. Apart from the great character names and some excellent horse riding the film moved along at a great pace.

The Substitute (1911 – 35 mm) from the Lubin Manufacturing Company had familiar plot tropes. The un-credited cast included Jennie Rock, a telegraph operator. Her brother was an engine driver, but also an alcoholic. So Jennie had to masquerade as him and to drive the express. Worse or better followed: the train was held up and robbed. Jennie was able to signal a warning about this with a present from her Calvary amour, also a telegraph operator.

Two Little Rangers came from Solax in 1912 (35 mm). This was the company with the key pioneer Alice Guy Baché, who both wrote and directed the film. The key player and the older of the ‘rangers’ was Vinnie Burns, a protégé of Alice Guy and a stunt woman as well as an actor. The ‘two little rangers’ were the daughters of the village postmaster. When he was robbed they ride for help and then save an innocent man by exposing the real villain.

South of Santa Fe Frohman Amusement Corp. was a two reel film from 1919 (35 mm). The film starred Texas Guinan, who had a long career in films and ran her own production company for a time. Her tough persona was offered

‘ as a rowdy cowgirl who tames men as easily as horses’.

In this film she was hired as a foreman to control a group of rowdy cowhands who had defeated her male predecessors. They soon found that she was as handy with a fist as with a gun.

The Narrow Trail (35 mm)was a William S Hart production filmed at the Biograph Studio in 1917 with producer Thomas Ince. Hart was the most famous and popular of the screen cowboys of his era. Almost equally popular was his regular horse Fritz, a distinctive pinto horse. Hart regularly played ‘road agents’ or outlaws: in this film Ice Harding. His earliest films portrayed the partnership of man and horse. As his career developed the presence and influence of a ‘good woman’ took increasingly centre screen. In this film she was Betty (Sylvia Bremmer] and she shared a less than reputable past with Ice. The film included a visit by Ice to the great metropolis of San Francisco. But the bulk of the film found us in familiar western landscapes. As nearly always the couple resolved their difficulties and Ice evaded the law and ‘goes straight’.

The final film was The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), directed by Henry King for Samuel Goldwyn with a screenplay by Frances Marion. Unfortunately this was the only film on digital. The screening did rather lack good definition and the digital format did not cope well with the film’s tinting. I had seen the film in a 16 mm at the 1999 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It is a fine production. The film dramatises the reclamation of an area of California with a vast irrigation project [the Salton Sink in 1905]. There were some fine large screen sequences and the dramatic climax when the Colorado river bursts through the barrier and flooded the sink was extremely well done. Ronald Colman was fine as the engineer Willard Holmes. Gary Cooper as his rival Abe Lee seemed rather underused. And Velma Banky was a stand out as the titular object of their wooing. A good end to a full and really enjoyable day.

 

So a worthwhile trip. A fine selection of early westerns well presented: a couple had also been screened in the Western programmes at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.. And a word of praise to the musicians who provided accompaniments at the piano: Lillian Henley, Meg Morley, John Sweeney, Neil Brand and Cyrus Gabrysch.

Credits, quotation and stills courtesy of the Kennington Bioscope.

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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.

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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.

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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].

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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.

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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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The 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto

Posted by keith1942 on October 16, 2015

 

GCM_LOGO

This year’s festival ran from October 4th until the 11th. The weather was rather below par: cloudy most days, though we did get more sunshine towards the end of the week. But the content was well up to standard, though it was not one of the really great years: given the commitment to new or restored screenings, this is inevitable. But there were an awful lot of pleasures.

One of the stand-out events of the week was the screening of Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928). This was a cross between a Samurai and Yakusa films and originally ran for six hours; but only a 111 minutes survive, mainly from the second and third parts of the film. It was screened at an earlier Giornate, but this time we watched a restoration with tinting. We also enjoyed a Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka [the Japanese narrator of early cinema] with live accompanying music from the Otowaza ensemble. It helps to have seen the film before because the fragments from Part 2 need some explanation. However later sequences have beautifully set and filmed scenes in a Sake Brewery, with the protagonists surround by vast barrels  between which they and the camera work. Then there is the finale of the film. This is a long bravura sequence, with Chuji’s band fighting off the police and his mistress guarding the ageing warrior.

CHUJI_02

We had another restored film from an earlier programme Les Misérables (France 1925-26). This was directed by Henri Fescourt and is the longest screen version that I have seen of the novel. It is fairly faithful to the book and has an excellent cast. The film offers finely presented exteriors, though the interiors are not  quite as good. The weakest part is the Paris insurrection and barricades, where the later version  by Raymond Bernard is superior. It is an epic production running over six hours. The accompaniment for the whole screening was performed by Neil Brand, a performance a impressive as the film.

For me the best programme of films was Other City Symphonies. Generally shorter films, there were a number of fine examples which fell between documentary, poetic and essay films. De Steeg / The Alley (Netherlands 1932) was a study of a poor neighbourhood in Rotterdam. Another film from the Netherlands was Pierement / Barrel Organ (1931) which followed this instrument around a working class area. There was the well produced A Day in Liverpool UK 1929) sponsored by the Council and extolling the ‘virtues’ of the great city. And there was the first film  by the long-lived but now deceased Manoel de Oliveira Douro, Faina Fluvial / Labour on the Douro River |(Portugal 1931) this was possibly the most poetic of the films. There was one substantial documentary Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht Űber Chicago / Chicago / A World City in its Teens. A Report on Chicago (Germany6 1931), running 74 minutes. This made fine use of the cinematography, both in conjuring up the urban architecture but also in placing the people in evocative positions. Generally these films were observational, though there were few sequences that appeared staged.

'The Alley'

‘The Alley’

Despite the title Russian Laughter was a programme of Soviet films. KinoKariera Zvonaria / A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career (1927) was a delightful two-reel comedy. As the title suggests the plot involves a film crew and their tale is told with real visual wit. Dva Druga, Model I Prodruga / Two friends, a Model and a Girlfriend (1928) was another engaging comedy. The ‘model’ was in fact a labour-saving machine and the humour revolved both around the machinations of an NEP villain and some less than socialist bureaucrats. Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik / The State Official (1931) had appeared t the Giornate before but was interesting to revisit. More than most films it dramatised the politics of Socialism in One Country, with its plots by subversives and little attention to social relations. There was Serdtsa I Dollary / Hearts and Dollars (1924). The film was incomplete and appeared to be influenced by  the far superior The Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924). But apart from that I was non-plussed. It was either an avant-garde production  of extreme experimentation or there was something odd with the archival treatment. The plot was clearly out of sequence [decades before Jean-Luc] and event the title cards numbers were out of sequence. Clarifications appreciated.

The featured director was Victor Fleming. I enjoyed the familiar Mantrap 1926). This is Clara Bow’s best role on film, which is presumably why Kevin Brownlow used a film still in the titles for his great Hollywood series. There were two early films featuring Douglas Fairbanks, offering excellent humour. And there were two new titles for me, To the Last Man (1923) and Wolf Song (1929). Both has excellent photography and some beautifully realised scenes out in the wild west. The former had Richard Dix in a typical role: the latter the young Gary Cooper, looking quite beautiful. His co-star, Lupe Velez responded with the most palpitating bosoms I can remember seeing for  a long time.

The canine performance of the week – one of very few this year – was a Border Collie, Jean, in Ramona (USA 1928). The actual film was rather lacking in drama, apart from one great scene with Dolores del Rio in the title role. The talented dog graced innumerable scenes and displayed an uncanny ability to select the key position in the frame at any time. However, the film was less careful: parted from her mistress Jean only re-appeared in the final scene, quieting my worries. However, her journey there was missing from the plot.

'Ramona ', with Jean well placed in the foreground.

‘Ramona ‘, with Jean well placed in the foreground.

A slightly odder programme was Italian Muscle In Germany. These were films made in Germany featuring Italian actors: ‘muscle men’. The most entertaining was Mister Radio (1924). The star was Luciano Albertini. The film was set in an Alpine setting and utilised rock climbing and mountainous locations. The mountaineering was the most bizarre I have ever seen on film, the Everest climbers would have been petrified. And the film cut between actual locations and studio constructions. As long as one did not take it seriously it was very entertaining. The Invincible / Der Unȕberwindliche (1928) was a rather limp sequel. Familiar locations appeared but with little connection to the plot; presumably the crew just loved these sets.

Special events included Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful Romeo und Julia im Schnee / Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (Germany 1920). This feature looked great as well. And to end the week we had a digital version of The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925) with Lon Chaney. This has a violent but terrific ending, rather unusual for Hollywood at the time. And a real treat – Hal Roach’s The Battle of the Century (1927). This long-lost Laurel and Hardy has a splendid second reel involving [apparently] 3,000 pies. Let your imagination work.

BATTLE_05

I missed a number of screenings as I was recovering from an operation. And some of the features are best passed over in silence. Also I want to address the tribute to African-American Bert Williams separately. There were some Latin-American short films and features. However the main offering from Mexico, El Automóvil Gris / The Grey Automobile (1919), a crime story in 12 episodes, was restored and presented on digital. I had seen the films before, un-restored, however my memory was that they looked a lot better on 35mm. The DCP lacked definition and the tinting had an odd palette. About half the Festival was delivered on digital formats. Some of these were excellent, but  a number were not. So it is frustrating to watch digital when 35mm prints are available. Moreover, even when 4K is used in the process, many of these films are presented in 2K DCPs. The latter do not appear to have equivalent definition  or contrast to 35mm.

If some of the source material was of lower quality the music was not. We had most of the regular accompanists performing and two new members. Predominately the music was excellent and mainly avoids the pitfall of over-powering the films. This Festival was also the last with David Robinson as director. So he received a well-deserved Tribute and applause from the Giornate audience.

 

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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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