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Hells Heroes or ‘The Three Godfathers’

Posted by keith1942 on February 27, 2022

The original version of this tale was a short story, “Broncho Billy and the Baby”,  which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1910 and was the basis for an Essanay short film of the same name. The short story  is credited as the basis for Kyne’s later novel ‘The Three Godfathers’ in 1913; an online version is dated 1916 and would seem no longer than the original story. Set in Arizona, the basic plot has a gang of bank robbers stumble on a covered wagon where a dying woman entrusts her baby to their care; thus they become the ‘godfathers’ of the title.

” The Youngest Bad Man had just been the recipient of a serious thought. He hastened to get it off his mind. Boylike he interrupted and rose to a question of information.

“What’s a godfather, Bill? What job does he hold down?”

“You’re an awful ignorant young man, Bob,” replied The Wounded Bad Man reproachfully. “You been raised out in the woods somewheres? A godfather, Bob, is a sort of reserve parent. When a kid is baptized there’s a godfather an’ a godmother present, an’ for an’ on behalf o’ the kid they promise the preacher, just the same as the kid would if he could only talk, to renounce the devil with all his works an’ pomps——”

“What’s his works and pumps?” demanded The Youngest Bad Man.”

“Well—robbin’ banks an’ shootin’ up deputy sheriffs, et cetry, et cetry.”

The drama then follows as the men battle the Colorado Desert and a lack of water to carry the baby to safety. Their destination is the mining town of New Jerusalem. One item the men carry is a bible, found in the wagon. The story is full of religious symbolism from the New Testament and the passion sequences. A burro stands in for the donkey of Palm Sunday and there are several references to the ‘good thief’ of the crucifixion.

The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations;

Three Godfathers, a 1916 film with Harry Carey

Marked Men,  a 1919 remake of the 1916 film, also starring Harry Carey, considered a lost film

Action, a lost 1921 film

Hell’s Heroes, a 1929 film directed by William Wyler

Hells Heels, a 1930 ‘Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’ animated short directed by Walter Lantz

Three Godfathers, a 1936 film featuring Chester Morris

3 Godfathers, a 1948 film starring John Wayne [Three Godfathers in Britain].

Ice Age, 2002, where a mammoth, a  tiger and sloth rescue a child; but neither the novel nor the earlier films are credited.

Tokyo Godfathers, a 2003 Japanese animated film loosely based on the novel.

I had the pleasure of viewing the 1929 version on 35mm at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1994. This was my second visit to the Festival, then still presented in the old 1930s Verdi Theatre. The film appeared in both silent and Movietone sound versions. We viewed the silent version in a 35mm print with English title cards from the George Eastman House. The film had some inspired additions to the novel. Neil Brand provided the piano accompaniment. The climax of the film had additional music in one of the finest cinema experiences that I have enjoyed. In this film version the surviving  Bob [Charles Bickford] staggers into New Jerusalem, carrying the baby; it is Christmas Morning rather than the night of Christmas Eve in the original story. He  collapses in front of the town’s people gathered in the wooden framed church. This sequence was accompanied by a burst from a choir out of the darkness singing ‘Silent Night’.  In the darkness they had gathered in the two small musician’s balconies either side of the proscenium. There was not a dry eye in the theatre. Unfortunately the old Verdi is no more. However Universal Pictures together with The Film Foundation is working on a restoration of the film.

The film notes in the Catalogue comment:

“Poignant camerawork and naive yet effective  symbolism shouldn’t make you overlook the director’s early evidence of Jansenist obsession with falling from grace and the struggle for forgiveness.”

This is based on a article  by Andre Bazin and Bert Cardullo.  Jansenism  rose in the C17th and 18th; it was condemned as heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. The perceived error was an emphasis on ‘justification by faith alone’ rather than the  embracing of God’s grace through free well. In ‘Three Godfathers’ the reader senses that the three bad men are forced, by their encounter with mother and baby, to reveal an innate goodness that overcomes their evil ways. One could see a similar personal development in Wyler’s later masterpiece, The Best Years of their Lives (1946). But the scriptwriters presumably were also responsible in translating the themes of the novel to  film.  Tom Reed and C. Gardner Sullivan were both experienced dramatists for popular film including work for the western genre. The cinematography is fine. It is by George Robinson, a long-time professional with Universal. He started as an actor in 1912 and soon moved behind the camera. He was prolific but mainly worked on comnventional studio productions. He also directed several short films.

The 1948 version, directed by John Ford, is not of the same calibre. The Technicolor cinematography of Winston C Hoch is very fine. The screenplays, by Laurence Stallings and Frank S. Nugent, credits the Kyne novel. However, there are quite few changes from that and they also differ from those in the Wyler version. In particular the ending completely lacks the drama and tragic overtones of the 1929 version. This is partly down to the writing but also to the way that the Wayne persona differs from that of the young Bickford. And whilst the music presents Ford’s particular favourite melodies and songs it does not offer the impact of the live choir of 1994.

Posted in Hollywood, Westerns | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Pandora’s Box / Die Büchse der Pandora, 1929

Posted by keith1942 on January 8, 2022

This is a film classic from Weimar cinema and I was able to revisit it in its original 35mm format as part of the Centenary Celebrations of the Hebden Bridge Picture House.  The film has become memorable for a number of reasons. One is the star, Louise Brooks, who worked in the burgeoning Hollywood studio system but also in Europe; and here film-makers bought out a luminous quality to her screen presence. Brooks was an attractive and vivacious and smart actress; her ‘Lulu in Hollywood’ (1974), recording her experiences in the film world, is a great and informative read. Here she plays a ‘free spirit’ whose charisma has a fatal effect on the men that she meets.

In this film she was working with one of the fine directors of Weimar Cinema. G. W Pabst. Pabst was born in Austria but his major career was in Germany. He was good with actors, especially women; his Joyless Street (Die freudlose Gasse, 1925) features three divas, Asta Neilsen, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Pabst worked particularly in the ‘street’ film genre and in complex psychological dramas. He was noted for the fluid flow of the editing in his films. Following ‘Pandora’s Box’ Pabst also directed Brooks in the very fine Diary of a Lost Girl / Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, 1929).

One reason for the quality of Pabst’s silent films is the skill and expertise of the craft people working in Weimar Cinema. They led Europe in the quality of their production design and construction; and the development of ‘an unchained camera’ was extremely influential leading to German directors and craft people being recruited to the major Hollywood studios.

The film is an adaptation of an important German play ‘Earth Spirit’ (‘Erdgeist’, 1895) and ‘Pandora’s Box’ (‘Die Büchse der Pandora’, 1904) by Franz Wedekind. There had already been an earlier film adaptation with Asta Neilsen in the role of Lulu (1923); and there is a famous operatic adaptation, ‘Lulu’, by Alban Berg. In the play the character of Lulu is described as “the true animal, the wild, beautiful animal” and the “primal form of woman”.

Brooks, in her chapter on ‘Pabst and Lulu’, records;

“Franz Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box opens with a prologue. Out of the circus tent steps the Animal Tamer, carrying in his left hand, a whip and in his right hand a loaded revolver. “Walk in” he says to the audience, “Walk into my menagerie”.”

In the play she is an ambiguous character; Pabst and Brooks bring a sense of natural innocence to the character who is much less of a femme fatale than in other versions. Pabst eschews the prologue in the film version but in most ways it is the most faithful adaptation of the original. Wedekind’s play was controversial in its time as was this film adaptation.  The film was censored in many countries including Britain where there was an altered and ludicrous ending. Brooks again comments:

“At the time Wedekind produced Pandora’s Box, in Berlin around the turn of the century, it was detested, condemned, and banned. It was declared to be “Immoral and inartistic”. If in that period when the sacred pleasures of the ruling class were comparatively private, a play exposing them had called out the dogs of law, how much more savage would be the attack upon a film faithful to Wedekind’s text which was made in 1928 in Berlin, where the ruling class publically flaunted its pleasures as symbol of wealth and power.”

Her comment points up the context for the film. The reputation of Berlin in particular was for social and sexual licence.  Brooks describes some of this. The effect on cinema was that, as in this film, writers and directors frequently addressed issues avoided in other cinemas and, again as with Pabst, took an unusually liberal line.

The film opens in Berlin with Lulu’s many male admirers: we have major German film actors, Fritz Kortner as Dr. Ludwig Schön: Francis Lederer as Alwa Schön: Carl Goetz as Schigolch: Krafft-Raschig as Rodrigo Quast: and also Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts). Here one gets a sense of the social whirl of the capital; often seen as decadent from outside.  An important scene is set in the theatre backstage as Lulu prepares for her entrance in an exotic costume. Here we see  admirer and performer Rodrigo. The focal point in the sequence is the stage-manage who constantly rushes to and fro pushing the show along. Pabst, and cinematographer Günther Krampf, under cranked the scene so there is a real sense of frenetic rush. The stage manager’s problems are exacerbated by Lulu, who is Schön’s mistress and jealous of his fiancée, and so suborns the bourgeois and wrecks the engagement.

The film moves to the post-wedding celebration for Schön and Lulu. Lulu is not only the bride but the focus of attention of all the participants. In particular Lulu spends time with Alwa. Schön, by now smitten with regrets and fears, considers suicide but it is Lulu’s hand that fires the fatal shot. The audience do not see the actual act, merely the drifting smoke from the revolver.

Lulu is now brought to trial and she is seen in the dock in her black widow’s weeds. The prosecutor indulges in overblown rhetoric; citing the myth of Pandora in his argument for her guilt. Found guilty Lulu is rescued by a diversion by her friends, including the Countess. He we see a group of lumpenproletarians who effect the rescue; a sign of the low class situation of Lulu and, in particular, Schigolch.

Leaving by train Lulu meets another admirer, Michael von Newlinsky as Marquis Casti-Piani. He suggests a place to hide out; an illegal shipboard gambling den. The ship is another site of frenetic activity; and again Pabst and Krampf use slight under cranking to provide a sense of almost hysteria at the gambling tables. In this sequence both Rodrigo and the Marquis blackmail Lulu for money. The countess accounts for Rodrigo. And Schigolch enables Lulu to flee the ship with Alwa. Here we get a shot of cross-dressing which emphasises the androgynous quality in Brooks’ performance.

Finally the trio end up in the East End of London; a night-time setting full of noir-like shadows. This is end of Lulu’s downward spiral. The grim sequence of events is counter-posed with the activities of the Salvation Army. Wikipedia has a line on the action of the Production Company attempting to address Britain’s censorious cinema culture. In a changed ending Lulu is saved ‘from fates equal to death’ by conversion. I have never seen this version but the British Board of Censors records show that the British release was up to half-an–hour shorter than the German original; [presumably at similar running speeds]..

Pabst clearly bought out an unrealised quality in Brooks’ acting. She records he4r feelings on this;

“When I went to Berlin to film  Pandora’s Box, what an exquisite release, what a revelation of the art of direction, was the Pabst spirit on the set.”

She also records how effectively Pabst worked with Alice Roberts, who was not enamoured with playing  a lesbian character. The performances from all the actors are really fine; notable in that their characters are almost completely unsympathetic. Some of the narrative may appear fanciful and, as with Wedekind’s original, is as much about symbolising society as preventing it realistically; but the narr6iave remains convincing.

The editing of the film is well up to Pabst high standards. The development of characters and plots flow along; and, in what is a slightly long film, maintains interest and development. Pabst also has a discerning eye for the detail of the mise en scene. The theatre sequence is full of interesting action in the back ground to the actions of the key characters. And the ship board sequence is full of fine detail: some of it obviously symbolic like the stuffed crocodile hanging near the ceiling: but also in creating atmosphere in the brief shots of the ship itself, its shadowy appearance suggesting the decadence beneath deck.

Praise is due to the cinematography of Gunter Krampf. He s clearly played an important role in the creation of the visual effect of the film. Brooks records’

“He [Pabst] always came on the set as fresh as a March win d, going directly to the camera to check the setup, after which he turned to his cameraman, Günther Krampf, who was the only person on the film to whom he gave a complete account of the ensuing scene’s action  and meaning.”

This film is rightly now a classic, and like many masterworks, it is as much a collective achievement as an auteur product. It is also rare in that it is not often that such an interesting commentary on the film is provided by one of its key performers. The uninhibited depiction that Brooks notes led to censorship problems across many territories, not just in Britain. Happily in recent decades there have been several restoration which have returned the film to almost its original release length.

Originally running for 133 minutes; the print screened had most of the cuts restored and ran for 130 minutes at 20 fps. It had English rather than German title cards; in plain black and white and in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. I was unsure what the print would be like beforehand as the details held on the print by the BFI are sparse. The projectionist advised me that he had set the lamp higher because of the darkness of so9me sequences. It appeared to have been copied from a second-generation positive print rather than original negatives but the image quality was reasonably good. In fact, I soon recognised the print because there was  a slight warping in the wedding sequence and again later in part of the ship board sequences. It was the same print screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2007. This was a print restored in 1998 by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Cinémathèque Française; recorded as 3018 metres, whereas the original had been 3255 metres.

It had a live musical accompaniment sponsored by Cinema for All – Yorkshire and performed by Darius Battiwalla. Darius is a fine and experienced accompanist and he provided an accomplished score which match the varied moods of the film.

Posted in German film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Mistinguett – two dramas.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2020

Poster for ‘La Glu’

This performer and star featured alongside Suzanne Grandais in the ‘French Stars’ programme at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto.

“Mistinguett, “Queen of the Paris Music Hall,” “Queen of the Paris Night,” and affectionately known as ‘”La Miss”, is a French show business legend, famous for her stunning legs (Insured for half a million francs in 1919), incredible costumes and headdresses, and a long career as a star in the realms of music hall, revue, and film.”

She established herself on the French stage, including the Moulin Rouge. She started in film in 1908 and was still making appearances in the early 1950s. Little her of her famous legs were seen in the early films though she carried over her ability to use notable costumes and to play a variety of character types. What impressed in the film dramas was the intensity of her performances.

L’épouvante [in USA Terror-stricken] France 1911

Mistinguett made several films with Albert Capellani who was a noted and innovatory director in the early teens. This short film, running 10 minutes in a digital transfer, was described in the Press as a “terrifying cinemadrama”. It is minimal both in the time span and in the settings.

Mistinguett plays a music hall actress returning to her apartment in the evening. As she prepares for bed a burglar (Émile Milo) enters her apartment. When the actress realises she closes the inner door of her rooms. The burglar takes her jewels. As he leaves the police arrive and there is a chase with the burglar climbing up on the roof, and, then unseen by the police, climbing down the house but the guttering on which he hangs come away. Crying out for help the actress come out on the balcony and, moved by pity, lowers a curtain so he can climb to safety. Before he leaves he drops her jewels back on the table.

Mistinguett’s performance is impressive. Her panic, then her pity, are powerfully conveyed. The film also benefits from Capellani’s direction and the uncredited cinematographer’s skill. As the actress prepares to read before sleep there is a forward track as she lights a cigarette. And during the burglary there are a couple of high-angle shows which increase the dramatic effect.

La Glu, France 1913.

This film was scripted and directed by Albert Capellani. It was adapted from a novel [later a play] by Jean Richepin. Mistinguett plays a femme fatale, not in the emotional manner of ‘terror-stricken’ but a cold and calculating sexual predator. The film’s title comes from a description she offers of herself in the film:

‘Who brushes up against me gets glued ..’.

The Catalogue notes that the term is

“a scurrilous bit of slang for an immoral femme fatale, a seductive siren who captivates and victimises all manner of men.” (Richard Abel and Victoria Duckett).

The films open with Mistinguett as Fernande, a young woman living at home with her bourgeois parents. She is already a flirt, meeting young men in the garden. Her father is visited by Doctor Pierre Cézambre (Henry Krauss). Fernande sets her cap at the doctor and they are soon married. Fernande caries on seeing other men. But

‘suspicion and jealousy assail the unhappy groom’

And when he searches Fernando room he finds notes from

“Jules, also Arsene and from Georges.”

The doctor beats Fernande whose response is to leave for Paris. Here she is able to live in luxury thanks to her many admirers. In one characteristic scene she dances for them at a boulevard café. These Paris sequences cove full rein to Mistinguett’s star persona.

“With her bright eyes, wide mouth, long legs, and limber body, Mistinguett is a perfect choice for the role. By turns vivacious, mischievous,impudent, and flaunting her allure, she commands the screen. (Catalogue).

One particular smitten admirer is the young Adelphe des Ribiers, a Breton aristocrat and presumptive heir to a fortune. But when Adelphe’s grandfather objects to the relationship Fernande leaves Paris. She rents a villa in Brittany on the coast. Here she vamps and bewitches a local fisherman, Marie-Pierre (Paul Capellani). This affair takes up the whole of the latter part of the film. Marie Pierre is already engaged and his fiancée and his parents are all appalled by this seduction.

There is a very effective beach scene where Fernande, dressed in a one-piece black swimming costume, toys with Marie-Pierre. Then he carries her from the sea. There follows the complete seduction. The sequence has an ellipsis but it is clear from the morning when Marie-Pierre rises in Fernande’s room that sex has taken place.

Marie-Pierre’s mother attempt too intervene to break up the relationship. Then the setting moves to a nearby town where Adelphe with his aristocratic uncle re-appears. This sparks Marie-Pierre’s jealousy and there is an intense and melodramatic sequence back at the villa where the uncle threatens Marie-Pierre with his gun. The latter collapses and he is taken back to the fisherman’s cottage of his parents. With the coincidence familiar in me,melodrama Doctor Pierre has moved to the village and is assisting the family. When Fernande appears at the cottage in pursuit of her victim the mother, now almost hysterical with anger, strikes Fernande with a mallet. She falls dead. But the noble doctor, who presumably feels some guilt for the subsequent events claims to have struck the fatal blow. The film end of this downbeat note.

This is a full-blooded melodrama dominated by the character of Mistinguett. The narrative travels from a small town to the metropolitan capital and then on to the rocky coast line of Brittany. The director Capellani made goods use of actual locations

“in the novel’s Brittany setting: the fishing village of Le Croisic, a nearby villa, and Guérande [the small town. This often gives exterior scenes a striking sense of deep space…” (Catalogue).

This can be seen in the early scene when Fernande lounges in the garden and then makes trysts with her lovers. It is noticeable in the beach sequence and in the several scenes set on the rocky cliffs. There is a strong spatial sense in the action in Guérande.

There is also an effective use of light and shadow. The scene where the doctor discovers the letters from Fernande;’s lovers has fine chiaroscuro. And there is similar low key lighting when we see Marie-Pierre after his night of passion with Fernande.

We enjoyed a 35mm print of 1951 meters with tinting, running at 18 fps for 95 minutes. This was an early and impressive feature. Both titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano.

 

Posted in Literary adaptation, Silent Stars | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Two films by Max Linder

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2020

These were part of a programme dedicated to European Slapstick at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto. Linder was a pioneer comedian and star of European cinema, successfully engaging the new cinema-going public from 1905. He was an influence on many of the subsequent film  comedians, including the notable exponent of slapstick in Hollywood and on Chaplin himself. These two film date from late in his career after he had returned from a foray in Hollywood films. Following the second his life was to end tragically in suicide.

La Petit Café(1919) is an adaptation of a play by Tristan Bernard (1912). The film was directed by Raymond Bernard, the son of the plays author. Raymond Bernard had started out as an actor; then worked with Jacques Feyder as an assistant and this is one of his early solo features and he also worked on the screenplay with Henri Diamant-Berger.

The plot is a familiar one. A penniless man turns out to be the illegitimate heir of a wealthy man and enjoys a large inheritance. There are various travails on the path, including characters who attempt to usurp the inheritance. But the most humorous passages are of Max Linder as Albert working in a boulevard café. There is a comic contrast between Albert as a lowly waiter and , later, as an affluent man-about-town. But Linder most familiar aspect are as a ladies man. He has several romantic adventure. And in one, he and Bernard have a fine ellipsis underscored by the broken umbrella, left all night at the door of one amour’s house. The film also has a nice homage to Chaplin with whom Linder had become friendly during his sojourn in Hollywood.

“the first scene is an an out-of-context Linder imitation of Chaplin’s Little tramp – mugging at the camera in what might be a personal message to Chaplin himse4lf.” (Lisa Stein Haven in the Festival Catalogue).

Au Secours (1924) is another Linder film made with a noted director; in this case Abel Gance. The film was only a short version of the original. The final cut was 1500 meters then reduced to 900 metres on release. The 35mm version screened at 18 fps was only 490 metres. This presumably affected the coherence of the film’s narrative.

Basically Max Linder accepts a bet at his gentlemen’s club; the dare of spending an hour in a supposedly haunted house. The member who lays the bet and owns the house cheats by creating various pseudo phantoms and even an attack on Max’s young wife. Bizarrely the action takes place on the opening night of Fax’s honeymoon, something that sits ill with Maxis familiar character of romantic voyeur.

The film does have some very effective technical effects.

“most notably his [Gance] use of high=sped montage, negative image, slow-motion, and reverse-motion. For an instance, in a scene in which Max is hanging from a chandelier, Gance  distorts the image such that a sense of vertigo is effectively created.” (Festival Catalogue).

The Catalogue suggests that the film was produced over three days, which presumably accounts for the film lacking the sophistication that one associates with Linder. However, he is always a delight to watch on-screen, dapper, confident and sexy. So the programme offered real pleasure and fine examples of ‘European Slapstick’.

Posted in French film 1920s, silent comics | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

‘Silent Cinema’ by Paolo Cherchi Usai

Posted by keith1942 on January 16, 2020

Paulo Cherchi Usai in an interview at Le Giornate 2019

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

This was one of three new books received by Donors at the 2019 Giornate del Cinema Muto; all three books addressed cinema in the sense of photo-chemical film. I read most of this book during the Festival and so I was able to enjoy the silent films with new aspects to my understanding. Paolo Usai was one of the founders of this Festival, now in its 38th year. Since then he has worked in a number of archives, most recently as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum. These years of viewing, studying and preserving early film have fed into an impressive study of the thirty plus years of the new art and entertainment form of Cinema. He has also made good use of his discussions and collaboration with a host of scholars and archivists who receive acknowledgement here.

The book has three main components. First an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; also enjoy the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli, now standard for ‘silent’ screenings. The difference is still more marked when early film, originally on nitrate, is transferred to digital formats, sometimes involving digital restoration work. I have seen over a hundred of these now and in most instances i find the digital version does not really match that of photo-chemical film. Digitisation is a complex process and technically informed colleagues can often point to a problem stage. However, overall the image of regular an uniform pixels is not really equivalent to the random silver halide grains. Most digital versions have a patina which appears rather flat in contrast to the depth of field and contrast on reel film. Generally the few transfers I have seen that equate to the original film have come from the Scandinavian archives, who clearly excel in this sort of work. But the German and French archives are good as well. Some I have seen are so poor I gave up on that particular screening.

Apart from the often uncritical view of digitisation there is a problem in terms of funding. I heard one archivist explain that funding agencies are often loath to include moneys for a master copy on actual film. I saw a presentation from a member of the Austrian Film Archive who had used new digital techniques to good effect in restoring a 1920s film; however there was no allocation for a 35mm master print and the master copy was actually on a tape format. How long will that last?

The book continues over eight chapters and nearly two hundred pages, Paulo Usai gives an account, section by section, of early cinema, when nitrate film without sound tracks was the form of moving image. He works through the actual film’s stock, including how it was processed: the equipment, both in the studios and in the theatres: the people, a host of roles in a variety of situations: the buildings, developing from primitive conversions to magnificent picture palaces: and the show, including the music or narrators [like the Japanese Benshi, a dramatic example] and even early attempts at synchronised sound. He points out, with detail, just how far from silent were early film shows. And also explains why surviving music for screenings can assist in working out more about how the film was presented.

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. He also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. At my early Giornate Festivals I was introduced to the arcane study of frame rates. This was not an exact science and Usai makes the point in the book that there was rarely a standard frame rate for any particular film as it travelled across various territories and screened in multiple venues. But skilled archivists and projectionists could usually judge an appropriate rate at which the film appeared to move without either exaggerated pace or dawdling slowness. Now, even at a Festival such as the Giornate, frame rates do not seem to get the attention they need. one problem is that so few digital projectors have been set to run at slower frame rates than 24, [as in sound film]. Quite often a quoted frame rates for a screening actually means the film runs for the same length of time as if at that frame rate. In reality in so many cases the transfer has used the technique of extending with additional frames [step printing] so that the title runs at 24 fps; DVD’s of course, run at 25 fps. The effect varies from film to film, but. for example,. with Soviet Montage what is seen differs from what was seen.

Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage Dans la Lune [originally 1902] produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. This was an epic work of restoration from multiple copies. Some parts were difficult to work on; some needed colour restoration; the process took over two years., We were treated to both a digital screening with a recorded music track and a 35mm screening. The digital version was just too bright and clean and had been step -printed; and the music, by ‘Air’ struck me as incongruous. The 35mm version was more impressive. This confirmed my reservations regarding digital; a helpful tool in archive work but not really equivalent to photo-chemical film for presentation.

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. He does this in the same thorough manner that he addressed the silent film era itself. This includes the way to handle prints, restoration and copying and the associated research to ensure the films are identified correctly and as much information as possible is garnered.

He notes a particular fine example of contemporary restoration, the 2016 35mm version of Alexandre Volkoff’s Kean du Désordre et Génie (1924). This was a partnership between the Cinémathèque française and the Czech archive, The latter has a specialist expert in tinting and toning, Jan Ledecky. I was fortunate in being at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto when this was screened and Usai’s praise is entirely deserved; it was a beautiful print. I had seen the film before on 35mm but this was several notches up and we had a fine accompaniment from Neil Brand. Unfortunately not all restorations and not all work on different colour formats is as successful.

My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common. The 2019 Giornate had one prize exhibit, the restoration on a 35mm print by a team led by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival of the 1929 Soviet masterwork, Fragment of an Empire / Oblomok Imperii, directed by Fridrikh Ermler. This was a real treat to enjoy with the original accompanying score arranged and performed alongside by the Orchestra San Marco with conductor Günter Buchwald.

Paulo Cherchi Usai’s book celebrates the archival work that goes into this sort of presentation. It also provides a detailed, almost exhaustive, description and commentary on the Silent Era. It is a lot longer than a number of other books on the topic but this is rewarding. His central point is that made by FIAF, that presentations of early film should be as close as possible to the original. Of course, as Usai points out, presentations in that era varied considerably but the goal should be the best quality of those.

The Bibliography is very well set out. The appendices, examples of research tools in this area of endeavour, assist in illuminating the topic; for example, ‘The Film Measurement Table’ showing the running times of 35mm and 16mm at different frame rates. The copious illustrations are both well chosen and well produced ; the colour plates are a delight.

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. But the subtitle which aims at people in or entering the fields of archival and curatorial work possibly makes it seem specialist. But the style is predominantly accessible and Paulo Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

BFI/ Bloomsbury Publishing. 2019. Third edition, considerably expanded from previous editions.

403 pages, with Bibliography, three Appendices and an Index.

213 illustrations, 10 charts and diagrams and 53 colour plates.

In hardback, paperback 978-1-8445-7528-2 and electronic versions.

This was originally a review in the ‘Media Education Journal

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The Woman Under Oath, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 19, 2019

This is one of the earliest surviving films directed by John Stahl. It was screened in the Stahl retrospectives, both at Il Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. At Il Ritrovato it was the only silent in 2018. At Le Giornate it was omitted in 2018 and then screened, along with a surviving fragment, in 2019. I never quite figured out this different treatment from other titles made by Stahl but it meant that we were able to watch the film twice. This helped, as though the surviving print is only missing 440 feet, there were certain problems with this version and I was unsure how much this was due to missing footage. I now think that the film is very well produced  in most aspects but that some of the editing does not work well.

John Stahl was a film-maker and producer in Hollywood from 1914 until 1950. He directed twenty silents, many of which do not survive. He was co-chairman and producer at Tiffany-Stahl in the late 1920s. In the 1930s he directed melodramas for Universal and  later worked for Metro, Columbia and finally C20th Fox. Most of Stahl’s films are dramatic features and they usually fall into what has been characterised as ‘the woman’s picture.’

“The turbulent and  tender world he depicts has at its centre women, often working together and living alone. Active participant in a society undergoing change, they are portrayed  by some of the most glamorous screen icons – with a rare sense of ease.”  (Ehsan Koshbakht in the Ritrovato Festival Catalogue).

The Ritrovato Festival programme of Stahl titles  included films starring Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne  and Gene Tierney among others.  This film starred Florence Reed, a ‘grand dame’ of Broadway Theatre who also appeared in several silent films in the late teens.

The premise of the drama concerns a modern woman, novelist Grace Norton (Florence Reed). In a trope that precedes reality by a decade Grace Norton  becomes the first woman  in a New York trial to be selected for Jury Service. In fact, it was only in 1937 that the state laws allowed women to serve on juries.  The film, and its attendant publicity,  made play with the idea  that the trial involves the first woman  member of a New York Jury . The film’s premise raises issues around the social status of women in contemporary US society; it contrasts representations of men and women; and it develops an intriguing but complex plot mystery.

The court case involves a young  man on trial for murder. Jim O’Neil (Gareth Hughes) has been caught standing over a corpse with gun in hand: a trope that is repeated across film after film. The dead man is his ex-employer, Edward Knox (David Powell). Grace is the sole woman among eleven other male jury members on the trial. However, one of these, John Schuyler (Hugh Thompson), is already a friend of Grace and there is a romantic aspect  to their friendship. Part of the drama in the film is generated by the gender division in the jury room. It is here that the films dwells most intensely on the then unusual situation of a single woman juror with eleven male jurors. Early on the men all ask Grace’s permission before they start smoking.

In the trial sequences we see Jim facing prosecution for the murder of Edward Knox. Prior to this we see the murder scene,  the police investigation and charges, and, at its end, the summing for the jury. The film certainly has a number of well-edited and dramatic sequences. It opens with a close-up of a hand and a gun in a shot window. Young Jim is buying a gun. The following scene  shows him in a bar where a drink stiffens his nerves. He then proceeds to the apartment of Edward Knox and we see him confront Knox with gun in hand. The actual shooting is not seen but instead we see shots of a policeman and hotel staff reacting to the sound of the gunshot. Not coincidentally [we learn later] we then see Grace Norton near the hotel and hailing a taxi.

Jim, found standing over the body with gun in hand, is taken into custody. Another bravura sequence shows his interrogation by the police. ‘A good cop’, ‘bad cop’ routine in a noir-like room with a strong central light and shadowy perimeters accentuates the drama. Then Jim is confronted by a Knox look a-like and collapses and confesses.

The plot develops through a series of flashbacks. One set show us the background s to Jim’s animosity to Knox: the latter is a womaniser who has exploited Jim’s girlfriend. Thus, as the plot unfurls, the audience learn about Knox’s nefarious behaviour and  the events that led Jim to the apartment at his moment of death.

Another of the flashbacks fill in Grace’s family context, including her ailing sister  The Norton and O’Neil families share the same situation, an absent father, an [apparently] widowed mother and a dependent sister. These are factors that are revealed as affecting the deliberation in the jury room.

After the final submissions and the summing-up by the judge the jury retire. There is a straw poll, with only one vote for acquittal. Ten angry men [but not John Schuyler] all look at Grace,

”I wonder who it is?”

This is followed by a cut to the O’Neil’s mother and sister sitting outside the court, waiting apprehensively. Such parallel cutting is utilised right through the film, drawing connections between characters but also ratcheting up the tension in the drama. This particular section extends when the jury, split over a verdict, are locked in for the night. This, of course exacerbates the gender situation. The film passes over the question of food or toileting in this situation. The news of an unexpected event, a ‘deus ex machina’, resolves the deadlock in the jury and enables an upbeat ending to the drama.

The trial struck me as the weakest section of the film. There are a series of questioning of witnesses. As this proceeds there are frequent cuts to the jurors, Grace and a fellow jury member John Schuyler (Hugh Thomson). I found these too frequent and too fast, undercutting the court room drama.

However, the trial livens up when a young woman, Jim’s sweetheart, Helen (Mildred Cheshire) intervenes and takes the stand. In her evidence she testifies that she and Jim were sweethearts but that she suffered sexual molestation by Knox.

This is presented in a flashback which is slightly odd. We see Jim fired by Knox when he is found in the stock room with Helen. Helen is then taken to Knox office where he molests her, at one point pulling down the window blind. At this point the camera cuts to an exterior and in low-angle shot we see what appears to be Jim’s perspective; Knox grabbing Helen and then pulling down the blind is repeated from this exterior. Repeating a shot and action is found in early cinema but is uncommon by this date. What is odder that this turns out not be to be a subjective shot. Later Helen returns home with a torn dress and implications of rape. Jim is shocked and then and there vows revenge on Knox. Presumably he did not see what occurred before the blind came down?

The jury room  sequence, which is the dramatic climax of the film, is well done. The playing emphasises the unusual effects of a woman presence. As noted above, almost immediately the male jurors start to light their cigarettes and cigars, then, suddenly, remembering Grace’s presence, seek her approval. When a straw poll is taken  on the issue of guilt or innocence, Grace is the odd woman out. However, she is not entirely alone. John Schuyler is already known to Grace and it is in a flashback  that it is suggested that  he has a romantic interest. He acts as a sort of shield for Grace.

The jury deliberations mean that the twelve have to be locked in overnight; one of the  issues that made people hesitant about women jury members. There is large window and through it we see the snow is falling; it is the eve of Christmas.  Then a porter is allowed to pass a note to Grace. It tells her that her sister Edith (May McAvoy) has died. We have already seen her and the mother in previous scenes. Grace is shown as extremely solicitous of her sister who is ill.

The news of Edith death enables Grace to now tell the jury her reasons for voting for a not guilty verdict. The flashback she recount is presented on the blind of the rooms window; an excellent and dramatic touch.  Grace explains  that Edith was also a victim of Knox’s molestation. Pretending to her that he intended marriage so she suffered a ‘fate worse than death’: though death follows consequent on her pregnancy. Grace revenges her sister by shooting Knox,  moments before Jim enters the room with similar intent. This is the reason that she is seen hailing a taxi outside the hotel immediately after the murder.

Grace’s  story convinces  her fellow jurors. And in addition the foreman decides that since deliberations inside a jury room are confidential  they do not need to report Grace’s crime. Jim and his family celebrate a not guilty verdict. And the films ends with a romantic shot of Grace and John.

The flashback structure of the film is intriguing and effective. The drama  rises continually through the film though parts of the plotting stretch co-incidence to breaking point. Stylistically the film is extremely conventional. The cinematography and performances are good but the editing does not make full use of this. In the court room scenes we tend to see a series of cuts from either mid-shot or close-up of the main characters; lawyers, judge, witnesses and jury. This becomes repetitious and I thought that the drama could have been more effective if greater use was made of the larger settings.

The film is notable for the way that Stahl and his writers present a key female character in a positive and central position in the drama. Whilst Jim’s situation is likely to generate sympathy in an audience it is Grace who is the constant centre. In fact this probably accounts for the editing style in the court room sequences, where we are constantly taken back to see Grace’s responses.

I find the film full of inventive touches and overall it dramatises the story well. I think the court room scene is the weakest. In terms of plot the film rather ‘has its cake and eats it too’.  In ‘The Call of the Heart John M. Stahl and the Hollywood Melodrama’ Pamela Hutchinson comments on Grace’s role in the film and the jury,

‘It also creates a realm of women’s knowledge unperceived by men – facts and events that only one gender is aware of, an d that may be vital in court.”

This seems to me to misread what we actually see. A jury member who is  a murderer could be of either gender and still reveal a different course of events from that heard in court. In fact bringing secrets into the jury room is a staple of such dramas, affecting one juror in ‘Twelve Angry Men.’ What seems more to the point is the question that if a male jury member had  made such a confession would his companions have shielded him from exposure.  This plot device also ‘stretches the long arm of coincidence to breaking point’; though that is a common device in melodrama.

Pamela Hutchinson seems to me on stronger ground  when she places this film in the overall oeuvre of Stahl and the central role that women characters, often like Grace strong and relatively in independent, play in his films. In this story Grace is a powerful character. She is able to wreak revenge on Knox whilst Jim turns up to late having had to stiffen his nerves with a drink. I did wonder how much the fact that the killer is a woman worked to allow an ending where a criminal escapes justice?

Presumably women in the audiences of the time would have found Grace an interesting and useful model; though it should be noted that she is also affluent and privileged. And men in the audiences would have found a dram that highlighted the gradual progress of women to independent and, often, equal roles in society.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive which was in good condition. The film runs for 73 minutes at 20 fps. I think the screening at the Ritrovato was had a slightly faster frame rate than at Pordenone; this would have exacerbated the editing flaws.  The accompaniment was provided by Donald Sosin at both screenings. e+He  He ably combined the emotions of mystery, romance and tension.

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Suzanne Grandais with Léonce Perret

Posted by keith1942 on November 11, 2019

A typical Suzanne Grandais pose in ‘LES DEMOISELLES DES P.T.T.’

Suzanne Grandais, with Léonce Perret, featured in the ‘French Stars’ programmes at the 38th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I will discuss the other, Mistinguett, later.

Suzanne Grandais was born in Paris in 1893. She entered the theatre at the age of five and worked as both an actress and a dancer. She then had some small roles in short films and in 1910 signed with Gaumont, then one of the most important film studios not only in France but across the international film arena. In 1913 she moved to a German studio producing in France for a series, ‘Série artistique Suzanne Grandais’. She was an extremely popular film actress both in France and wider. She died young in a car accident in 1920. An obituary at the time described her as an

“exceptionally gifted and really beautiful young actress.” [Jay Weissberg in the Festival Catalogue].

As recently as 2009 a French novel still mourned her passing.

Léonce Perret was her frequent co-star at Gaumont and also the director of many of her films. On screen he often played a rather jovial character with a strong sense of mischief. As a director he worked on both comedies and melodramas. He was skilled with actors and was frequently innovative in his direction of cinematography and lighting.

The four films in the programme were a drama and three one reel comedies, a genre at which both Grandais and Perret were adept. They almost always played a couple, sometimes married sometimes prospective lovers. This was the time when European actors were starting to receive identified credits, leading to a star system that was also developing in the USA. Gaumont, with Grandais and Perret, was in the forefront of this development.

Le Chrysanthème rouge, 1912 with a English language title of Love’s Floral Tribute.

Suzanne plays a young woman of the same name, [common across these titles]. She has two suitors, one of whom is Léonce. To test them she gives them the task of bringing a bouquet of her favourite flowers; carefully not identifying the blossom. We see both suitors buying multiple bouquets at florist stalls; I think these were on the banks of the Seine. On their return Suzanne tells them,

“I only like Chrysanthemums.”

The two suitors rush off; return to be told,

“only red ones.”

Léonce now rushes off but this rival stays and whilst Suzanne is absent cuts his hand and stains the flower red. A shot dramatically rendered with stencil colouring. On his return Léonce find his rival with Suzanne bandaging his hand and smilingly shaking her head. The gentleman, Léonce shakes the hand of his rival and kisses the hand of Suzanne, then leaves.

The drama is shot with real economy and some interesting locations. Suzanne’s characterisation of the young woman is excellent and sympathetic. Jay Weissberg in the catalogue described her as

“simply a self-assured woman re-writing social norms on her own terms.”

The surviving 35mm print had been copied onto a DCP and including the coloured flower; it ran 13 minutes.

Le Homard / A Lucky Lobster, 1913

This title was

“the first in Beaumont new series “Léonce”, based on the director-actor’s cinema persona…” (Festival Catalogue).

The opening was a slit screen of two full-length shots of Léonce in oval frames. We then move to a seaside resort where Léonce and his wife, Suzanne, are on holiday. They visit the local quay where Suzanne sees fishermen selling lobsters. The price is eight francs which Léonce decides is too much. Suzanne is angry at this and complains bitterly when they return to their lodgings. To placate her Léonce offers to himself catch a lobster. In fact, whilst hiring the fishing utensils and waterproof clothing Léonce bribes a fisherman to let him have a lobster. In a wild night with winds and high seas Suzanne worries over her husband. He is actually at the local cinema watching a comedy.

“the latter action sees a clever triple-screen in which Suzanne, fearful for her husband’s safety, prays on the left-hand side while waves crash against rocks in the center and Léonce roars with laughter in the theatre on the right …” (Festival Catalogue).

At first Suzanne cares lovingly for her husband when he returns with the lobster. But the fishermen’s call for the gear reveals Léonce’s ruse. Interrupting Léonce as he shaves Suzanne daubs him with the shaving cream.

A triple-screen with Suzanne on the left and Léonce centre-frame on the right

The row revolves later on the beach. Suzanne is paddling and Léonce watches her  through his binoculars as she evinces distress. In a clever sequence of iris shots Léonce sees her distress, runs to assist and we see that the cause is a Lobster clinging to her backside.

Re-united, the couple enjoy the lobster in a meal at the lodgings,

“in the American way.”

This title shows off the talents of both Léonce and Suzanne. Her character

“embodying a loving but strong minded woman who won’t be made anyone’s fool, though in the end she is game for a joke even when it’s on her.” (Festival Catalogue).

On screen Léonce is typically playful and mischievous. Off-screen the story and characters are clearly presented and he uses innovatory techniques, such as the triple-screen with Suzanne, sea and rocks and Léonce and later the editing of the iris shots in the beach sequence.

We watched the longest surviving version on DCP, fourteen minutes. But then we also saw a three minutes extract on 35mm with the original stencil-colour of the beach sequence. A charming and impressive one-reel production.

Les Épingles / For Two Pins, France 1913.

This is a typical marital comedy with Perret and Grandais. Léonce has bought Suzanne a present, a shield for the hat pin she wears. However Suzanne is adamant that she will not us use it. As Suzanne prepares to go out Léonce points out to her the newspaper report of a new local ordinance requiring women to wear a shield over their hat pins. Suzanne firmly refuses, so as they bid goodbye with an embrace, Léonce pretends that the hat pin has pricked him in the eye. The servant is sent for the doctor. As he treats Léonce the latter lets him in on the trick. But Suzanne is listening at the door. So she now pretends to have fallen over and injured her ankle. The doctor, aware of both fake injuries, prescribes ‘joke’ remedies. As the injured parties lay on the bed Léonce strokes Suzanne ankle and she kisses his eye:

‘laughter,’ “The best remedy.”

The couple are reconciled as the servant returns with the bizarre remedies; her face when she sees them is a picture.. And Léonce shields the couple’s kiss from the camera: a typical trope. Screened on 35mm.

Les Nuage Passe / A Passing Cloud, France 1913.

Another marital tiff; this one over who can smoke at the breakfast table. Léonce does so but objects when Suzanne follows suit. They retire to their separate rooms. Suzanne attempts a reconciliation but the connecting room is locked; Léonce lies smoking on his bed. Then two mice invade Suzanne’s bedroom.;

“Léonce, Léonce. Help! Help!”

So the husband comes to the rescue and the couple once again lie together on the bed. In a n nice closing touch a statue of Cupid becomes animated and fires an arrow at the couple.

This used a 35mm print with tinting; and when Suzanne is threatened by the mice the tinting is green, changing to amber when we see Léonce respond. .

La demoiselle des P.T.T. / Shooing the Wooer, France 1913.

The English title refers to the plot; the original title refers to the offices of ‘Post, Telegraph and Telephones’ Here Suzanne appears without Léonce on screen , though he may have been behind the camera. Suzanne sets out to work at the P.T.T., using the tram, where an ‘old bourgeois gentleman’ is so smitten that he follows her to the office. Here he attempts to ‘woo’ Suzanne who smartly rebuffs his advances by bringing her window down on this hand. But unrepentant he then tries to chat to her by telephoning her office. Here the film uses a three-way split screen, with the gentleman, Oscar, on the left: the telegraph wires in the middle: and Suzanne on the right. His last resort is to send a letter, delivered to the office by his manservant. Suzanne sends him a tart reply.

“Although the film is missing a letter insert, ‘De Bioscop-Courant’ describes the letter as contain  the following lines from La Fontaine’s tale. “The Ass and the Lapdog!”: “We should never force the talent we receiv’d from nature, for then everything we do will be ungraceful. A lumpish creature, tho’ he take the utmost pains, will never catch a graceful air”.” (Annie Fee in the Festival Catalogue).

When Oscar calls with flowers he reads the letter, much to the amusement of Suzanne and her fellow workers.

Annie Fee points up an important contextual aspect to the film’s release in March 1913.

“Four years earlier, female telegraph and postal workers had gained the sympathy of the French public when the politician Julien Simyan called them saloperies and sales poupées (whores and filthy dolls), His sexist insults triggered the first general strike of postal and telegraph workers, ….” (Festival Catalogue).

The film was part of the “Oscar ” series which starred Leon Lorin. The director is unknown but could possibly have been Perret; the split-screen is similar to that in Le Homard. However, the film has a notable caustic toner and whilst Suzanne is, once more, a self-sufficiency young woman, here she is young working woman with a faintly anarchic touch. We also enjoyed a 35mm print for this film

This programme of five titles opened the 38th Giornate. It was a real pleasure to watch and set a delightful tone for the coming week. This was enhanced by the musical accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau at the piano. This was at times chirpy, at times dramatic and at times lyrical.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2019

Catalogue cover – Marion Davies

Once again a international mix of committed cineastes gathered in Pordenone in north-west Italy for the 38th instance of this annual Festival. There were about a thousand here for a week of film from the first thirty five years of cinema. Within this crowd were a select group of ‘Donors’, who support the Festival by attending and contributing financially. Some have been returning year after year since its earliest days in the 1980s.

All guests receive a pass and a Catalogue; the Catalogue, with details of the titles, their provenance and some indication of the content. These came in the Festival bag graced by Marion Davies in Beverley of Graustark (1916), a Ruritanian story screened at the Festival; fans of William S. Hart were able to buy a festival T-shirt featuring this western hero. Donors also received a selection of new writings on the ‘silent era’. This year there were two books from Paulo Cherchi Usai, one of the founder of the Festival. He has also recently finished his work as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman Museum. His work and research there has fed in to the two books.

‘Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship’, BFI 2019.

This is a revised and much expanded version of his book and which has one of the most thorough accounts of the cinematic process in the founding and development of cinema and which also addresses the issues around the transition from photo-chemical film to digital.

‘The Art of Film Projection A Beginner’s Guide’. George Eastman Museum, 2019.

This promises to be a detailed study of projection of ‘reel’ film in all its aspects; a volume that should be extensively read in Britain.

‘Silver Screen to Digital A Brief History of Film Technology’ by Carlo Montanaro, Translated by Liam Mac Gabhann. John Libbey Publishing, 2019.

The book covers from the silent era up until the new computer based systems.

Paulo Cherchi Usai giving an interview

The volumes are pertinent. Peter Rist, who every year does his calculations, noted that there were 27 features on DCP at this year’s Festivals but only 17 on 35mm, i.e. titles running 50 minutes or longer. The short film programmes were better, about 50/50; 76 titles on 35mm and 78 on digital. The latter were interesting as digital versions and film versions were side by side and the characteristics of each could be both compared and contrasted. So far this has confirmed my preference for the traditional technology.

The opening and closing events of the Festival were digital projections. The opening night offered Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid with Chaplin’s own musical accompaniment performed by the Orchestra San Marco conducted by Timothy Brock; an expert in music for Chaplin’s films who arranged the score. The digital version was fine but this was the version re-edited by Chaplin and some of us would have preferred the original version from 1921.

The closing night offered Alfred Hitchcock The Lodger, A Story of London Fog (1927). On this occasion the Orchestra San Marco was conducted by Ben Palmer with a score composed for the title by Neil Brand. This was a digital rendering of a tinted copy and [as is frequently the case with the format] the tinting was over-saturated, reducing the definition within the image.

The audience included the citizens of Pordenone, who also enjoy the Festival. One of their favoured events is ‘Striking a New Note’, titles accompanied by the Orchestra dell’Instituto Comprensivo Rorai Cappuccini e della Scuola Secondaria di Primo Grado di P. P. Pasolini. [a school celebrating the great film maker; I somehow doubt we have a school in Britain cerebrating Derek Jarman]. The students play recorders with a piano alongside. This year they accompanied ‘Our Gang’ in Dogs of War (1923) and ‘Baby Peggy’ in Carmen, Jr. (1923).

There were also screenings specifically dedicated to the citizens. On the final Sunday the Verdi screened Chaplin’s The Kid this time with the orchestra under the baton of Maestro Gunter Buchwald. There was also an event for the citizens of Sacile where the Festival spent many years whilst the new Verdi was constructed. The Zancanaro Theatre hosted one of the films from the Reginald Denny programme of the Festival; What Happened to Jones (1926). This is an excellent combination of slapstick and farce and enjoyed a score written and composed by Juri Dai Dan with the Zerorchestra Partitura.

Both sets of audiences are fairly well behaved, but, even here at a specifically cinema event we have some ne’er-do-wells. The occasional mobile phone goes off: people actually text in the auditorium: actually light up tablets: and, whilst, one can understand using a phone as a torch in the darkness, some wave it about like a searchlight. The Festival would benefit from m ore frequent and more emphatic warnings; seen only occasionally before events.

A quiet moment for Reception staff

The staff and volunteers of the Festival are very good. One worker in the reception admitted to being worn out after registering all the guests and handling their queries. And, unfortunately, this year the staff at the Verdi had to assist when one unfortunate guest collapsed and had to be wheeled by out by medics: he has recovered. Most of the guests are in a good condition despite the demands of a fairly heavy programme of screenings. The staff receive a special thank you on the last night. Jay Weissberg [Festival Director] admitted it was not possible to list all the staff and volunteers who care for the festival-goers. I suggested perhaps we could have a ‘photo-montage’ of staff. There is already one for the recipients of the Jean Mitry Award, a prestigious honour given en annually. This photo-montage also means that every year we hear Aaron Copland’s beautiful ‘Fanfare for the Common Man. So perhaps readers could consider an equally appropriate piece of music for a ‘Fanfare’ for the hard-working staff.

The Jean Mitry Award is one of the special event s in the Festival. Past years have seen the honour awarded to some of the major luminaries of Silent Film study, preservation and presentation. This year the two recipients were Margaret Parsons who has for a long period organised the film programmes at the National Gallery in Washington DC; and Donald Crafton who wrote and taught key works on early animation.

Also this year one of the students from the David Selznick Film School presented the work for the Haghefilm Selznick Fellowship. This was a 1912 Russian Pathé film, the second part of 1812 (The Retreat From Moscow). This was a fine 18 minute 35mm print with excellent tinting. We watched Napoleon as he suffered the travails of the Russian winter and Russian resistance. Though the real suffering was reserved for the French soldiers, cut down by Cossacks, hacked down by serfs and savaged by wolves.

In between and alongside these events were a series of programmes which I shall return to discuss in greater detail. They included the early films of William S. Hart; the finest exponent of the western in early Hollywood. There was Hollywood star Reginald Denny, not that well-known these days but very popular in the 1920s. We had early stars of French cinema and a rang e of short films from Weimar Cinema. And we had a series of ‘flip-books’ painstakingly transferred to photographs and animated  for projections. All of these enjoyed musical accompaniments both from the orchestras and from a talented team of musicians, mainly on the piano, but supplemented by the violin, accordion, percussion and the human voice.

We also met and chatted to old friends and colleagues: wrapped up well for the start and enjoyed warmer sunshine for the end of the week; and, as space and time allowed, indulged in the excellent Italian cuisine. The whole week offered enough pleasure to return in 2020 when we are promised more Westerns.

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The President/ Præsidenten, Denmark 1919

Posted by keith1942 on September 12, 2019

Screened at the 2019 Il Cinema Ritrovato, The Catalogue places this film in the programme of 1919; one of the titles already familiar to many in the audience.

“1919 was the year of the directorial debut of the man who was to become the greatest international name in Danish cinema.  Carl Th. Dreyer had worked for Nordisk Films Kompagni for six years, first as a script consultant and writer of intertitles, then as a scriptwriter. He had worked on some 20 projects and had also tried his hand at editing.” (Dan Nisen).

After this apprenticeship Dreyer had many of the skills required to take up direction with this his first feature. Dreyer adapted the story from a novel by the Austrian  writer Karl Emil Franzos. Nissen explains that,

“Dreyer had worked on the script  and had cut away all the political and social material from the novel, which dealt quite  a lot with class structure and the political situation in Austria.”

The former aspect means the film is predominantly a personal drama. I found the plotting rather more conventional than the later features by Dreyer. But the design, visualisation and performances are of the same recognisable quality.

“What interested Dreyer was the story of three men of different generations, failing to fulfil their responsibility toward women of a different class, bearing their children.”

The film opens with Karl Victor (Halvard Hoff) and his farther Victor von Sendlingen (Elith Pio). They are at the gates of a ruined castle, once the domain of the Sendlingen family. The father tells his son;

“I die a wretch.”

In a flashback he explains how his own father made him marry a r girl whom he had made pregnant.

“no good ever comes from such an alliance.”

and he makes his son swear never to marry a commoner.

The films now moves forward three decades and Karl Victor is the President [senior judge] of the town tribunal. He is highly respected. This is demonstrated by a celebration I have never seen awarded a judge on film; the town people march in a torch lit procession to the unveiling of a bronze head of Karl Victor. His best friend is a lawyer, Berger. To Him Victor confesses that he cannot try an upcoming case because the accused is his illegitimate daughter, Victorine. He fathered her in a relationship with the governess of the children of his uncle. When he proposed to marry the pregnant young woman his uncle reminded him of the oath extracted by his father. Later, as a young woman, Victorine worked as a governess and was herself seduced by the young son of the family. She is now on trial because her baby died and she is accused of infanticide.

Berger unsuccessfully defends Victorine. Under sentence of death she is secretly released by Victor who flees the town with his daughter and two faithful servants. Three years later Berger comes across Victor, now under an assumed name.

Victorine is to be married. After the wedding Victor returns to his old t won and offers himself for trial. His successor refuses the offer on the grounds that it would undermine faith in the judiciary. Returning to the ruined family castle Victor jumps / falls to his death.

I have e not read the original novel but the plot presented by Dreyer is interesting among other ways in comparison with the film by Alfred Hitchcock from 1929, The Manxman. This film was adapted from a novel by Hall Caine. There are quite a few differences in the plot from the Dreyer work, but it shares the situation of a young woman on trial for infanticide and with the judge the man involved in her pregnancy and situation. The Hitchcock goes for the full-blooded melodrama of a confrontation in the court room. Dreyer, by contrast, adopts a far more restrained presentation, with the secretive escape. The Manxman’s sequence take place in the full light and public glare of the court room. The Dreyer has the quartet, surreptitious leaving by night, in scenes full of shadows and dark corners.

This seems to me to fit into the characteristics way that Dreyer treats people and their situations. He focuses on the way that people face the contradictions of life, often with an intensity rarely found d in cinema. Præsidenten is an early film and does not achieve the intensity of later works by Dreyer. I thought at times that the narrative was treated in  rather conventional manner. In an early scene a young woman plays with a puppy and a kitten. This trope appears later in the film. And the mise en scene is often not as sparse as in later films. I did find that the opening and closing sequence at the ruined castle had the power that Dreyer develops  as he grows more experienced.

The screening presented a restoration which had used newly discovered records of the tinting and toning for the film. This was a fine 35mm print and the tinting and ton tinting was very well done; avoiding the over-saturation that sometimes mars modern examples of the technique. And the film benefited from a  fine and lyrical accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. The opening, as we encounter the ruin for the first time, struck a fine, plaintive tone.

 

 

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Twin Kiddies, USA 1916.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2019

Fay, Grandfather and son

This film was screened in ‘Soul and Craft: A Portrait of Henry King’ at the Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019. King started out as an ac tor in Hollywood in 1913. He progressed to director and worked on over 100 films up until his last in 1962. For most of his career he was based at the Fox Studio. Many of his best films fir into the category of ‘Americana’ and he was adept at portraying typical figures from US culture and storytelling. He generally retained supervision over the editing of the productions so that most of his films are what we would today term ‘director’s cuts’.

This title has a fairly conventional situation: two children who look identical leading to adults mistaking one for the other. The two children are Bessie and Fay, both played by Marie Osborne. We first meet Fay, the young child of the Van Loan household. This is an affluent house hold in a large mansion with a team of servants. The head of the household is William Van Loan (Daniel Gilfether) who is the owner of the Powhatan mine and who lives with his adult son Baxter (R. Henry Grey), father of Fay. She is a spoilt child and neither the family nor her governess (Mignon le Brun) exercise much control over her. We see her playing with her pet dog and irritating both family and servants. Her sympathetic friends are her grandfather and the butler, Spencer (Edward Jobson).

Bessie is the daughter of Jasper Hunt [Henry King himself]. He appears to be a widower and the household and Bessie are cared for by the housekeeper Mrs Flannigan (Ruth Lackaye). Jasper is the manager at the Powhatan mine and we learn that there is a dispute between the workers and the overseers over an insufficiency of roof props in one mine shaft.

Van Loan senior visits the  Mine with his family. Fay is taken by her governess to an open-air site with a lake. It is here that Fay and Bessie meet and in their games change dresses. Mistakenly each child is taken back to the wrong household. Somewhat implausibly neither household notices the mistake, not even Spencer or Mrs Flannigan. Jasper and Mrs Flannigan think that Bessie [Fay[] is ill. The Van Loan household are puzzled by Fay’s [Bessie]

“sweetness and obedience.”

The discovery of the truth coincides with the collapse of the suspect tunnel at the mine. The children and families are re-united. It emerges that the two girls are twins, separated due to an arranged marriage; a frequent plot device in early cinema. So Bessie gets a sister and a new doll: Fay becomes a well-behaved child: and Jasper is promoted to manager: [I think either my notes or a title here or earlier was in error].

Marie Osborne is excellent as the two young girls. She is reckoned to be Hollywood’s first child star and successfully made 29 films up until 1919. She had a later minor career as an adult. The cinematography by William Beckway is fine and there is some good use of exterior locations. The common change in mid-shots to ‘close-ups] is by use of an iris. The film is well edited and the cutting between the two families, the two homes and the mine works well. The plot is fairly conventional and the sub-plot relating to the mine is not really integrated into the story line. Perhaps the producers wanted to pad the story out into a four reeler.

The print was of  fair quality. The production company Balboa Amusement sold out toe Pathé and we had a French Cinémathèque print with Desmet colour for the tinting; [one exterior scene set in the evening had green tinting].  Maud Nelissen provided a suitable, at time chirpy, accompaniment.

 

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