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The Nitrate Picture Show 2017

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

May 5th to 7th 2017 saw the third Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in New York State. Around 500 enthusiasts from all round the world turned up to see and enjoy early films in their original format. Rarely seen now because of the safety hazards, nitrate has a distinctive palette, a luminosity when light falls on objects, a distinctive contrast with chiaroscuro and a vibrancy in Technicolor. As before we enjoyed ten programmes, nine of them features. The films were introduced, mainly by the archives supplying the prints. And the George Eastman staff and projection team worked tirelessly round the clock so that the Festival ran fairly smoothly. All the films were projected in the Dryden Theatre, spacious, good sightlines, an impressive front curtain and Century projectors with safety fittings in the booth.

As in previous years the titles in the Picture Show were only released on the Friday morning. I am not sympathetic to this approach. Paolo Cherchi Usai, the director, explained that the purpose of the Festival is to watch nitrate film rather than particular titles. However, I have several friends who find this problematic; partly because they may already have seen some films and seen them in nitrate prints. In addition the quality of the prints varies, not surprisingly, since the age of these ranges from 70 years to over a 100. Apart from the wear and tear of exhibition the film suffer shrinkage; and the rate is provided in the Picture Show brochure. Still this year’s programme was worth the trip.

The opening programme on Friday afternoon offered seven short films. The earliest was a silent with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli: sadly the only silent in the programme.

In a Roman Garden    Donald MacDonald, US 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York    Running time: 12 minutes. “This copy has 38 splices. As customary for films of the early era, each projection print was assembled by splicing together different shots. Shrinkage: 0.95%. Produced by the Powers Motion Picture Company in New York, this costume drama of religious subject is the earliest film shown so far at the Nitrate Picture Show.”

The main character Marcus, was an epicurean. He was taken with a young dancer on whom forced attentions. However, he was soon under her charms and her religion, Christian.

The film made extensive use of a lake as a setting. There was tinting extant on the print, especially blue for evenings. This was not great filmmaking but fascinating. The plot, involving decadent Romans and a Christian maiden, reminded me of the skeleton plot for The Robe.

En Kluven Värld / A Divided World, Arne Sucksdorff, Sweden 1948. Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), Stockholm. Running time: 9 minutes. “Donated to the Swedish Film Institute in 2003 by a private collector, the print is in wonderful condition, with only nine splices. Shrinkage: 0.75%. Arguably the greatest by the Swedish master of shorts. Arne Sucksdorff, A Divided World is a hauntingly beautiful, poetic depiction of animal hierarchy in a forest somewhere in Sweden on a winter night.”

This was indeed a delight. I have seen Sucksdorff’s films before and he is idiosyncratic. The films at first appear as documentary but often, like this short film, they are akin to fantasy. The film presented a winter nighttimes landscape where animals, including s ferret, a rabbit, a fox and an owl searched the terrain. The depiction reached a rather macabre climax. The black and white moonlit images looked great, but this was studio rather than actual settings. The film also made good use of natural sounds with more dramatic accompanying music.

Together in the Weather George Pal, US 1946. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 7 minutes. “The copy is in overall good condition. Shrinkage: 0.7% One of the most beloved (and edgiest) “Puppetoons” by the famous Academy Award–winning Hungarian-American master of stop-motion puppet animation.”

I am more familiar with George Pal’s science fiction features but in the 1940s he made a series of animated short films under the generic title ‘Puppetoons’. This title involved a romance between two animated weather vanes; as the introduction suggested the story had quite an adult feel for the 1940s. The well presented puppets looked great in Technicolor.

The Kidnapper’s Foil, Melton Barker, US 1930.. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 17 minutes. “The print is generally in good condition, with twelve splices and some perforation and edge damage. Shrinkage: 0.7% A unique treasure of our shorts program, this early example of truly independent, amateur small-town filmmaking is the original that inspired Barker to travel the United States for forty years, remaking the same film with local children.”

Neither film nor print was memorable but it did seem unique: a slice of genuine ‘Americana’.

The other short films were Movies are Adventure, Jack Hively, US 1948, Academy Film Archive. Pá Ski Med Pwer Og Kari, Skiing with Per and Kari, Norway 1948, Nasjonalbiblioteket. Something You Didn’t Eat, James Algar, US 1945, Museum of Modern Art – a war time animation.

The first feature film was on Friday evening.

Bakushū/ / Early Summer, Yasujirō Ozu, Japan 1951. National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Running time: 124 minutes.

This was a fine example of Ozu’s filmmaking. It was fairly typical of his later films, though not quite as minimalists as some: there were a couple of tracking shots used. There were a lot of familiar faces both in front of and behind the camera. Setsuko Hara played the lead as Noriko Mamiya. Aficionados of Ozu tend to have an almost obsessive delight in this actress. She was excellent but I was also struck by Chikage Awashima playing her close friend and confidant Aya Tamura. Aya was less of a traditionalist and the scenes where they discussed their different situations were a delight.

The Cinematography by Yûharu Atsuta was also a delight. However, the print was slightly warped and the focus, especially when deep staging was in use, was not consistent.

Early Summer (1951)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shown: Setsuko Hara (as Noriko), Chikage Awashima (as Aya Tamura )

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Irvin Reis, US 1947. Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 95 minutes. “The print is in very good condition, though it does have significant curl. Shrinkage: 0.6%.”

I had seen this film before. It stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy: two fine actors who looked out of their comfort zone in this film. A teenage Shirley Temple was not in their class. The print did look good, but I wished that a better film had survived on nitrate.

Anchors Away George Sidney, US 1945. British Film Institute, London Running time: 143 minutes “Generally in good condition, the print has a few visible light to medium scratches (both emulsion and base) and slight nicks at the edges. Heavy edge wave throughout the print; perforations, however, are undamaged. Shrinkage: 0.35–0.55%.”

I was surprised to find the the film runs over two hours, it had never seemed that long. Gene Kelly dances superbly, especially with the ‘little girl dancer’ and played his usual ne.er do well character saved by the ‘good woman’. Sinatra was surprisingly innocent but has a couple of fine numbers. Dean Stockwell was no more objectionable than the average Hollywood ‘cure’ kid. José Iturbi was a better conductor than actor. And Kathryn Grayson had a great voice but it was in a different register from Kelly’s: I wondered wishfully what the film would have been like with Judy Garland. However the ‘Jerry the Mouse’ sequence was superb and technically masterful. Kelly’s films do tend to have sequences with children, presumably to humanise him. The print looked great but the second reel was slightly sploggy. Presumably the M-G-M sent a master across for the British Labs and experts there were divided if this was the print or a projection bulb. The film confirmed how good Technicolor looks on nitrate.

In the afternoon we had two Czech films.

Źhavý Jicen / Hot Throat, Jiří Lehovec, Czechoslovakia 1939. PNárodní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 12 minutes. “The National Film Archive received this nitrate print from the estate of the film’s director in March 2004. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 1.3% An industrial short produced by Pražská železářská společnost (Prague Ironworks Company) in 1939, the film contains footage from the shorts Výroba oceli (Steel Production, 1939)—today presumed lost—and Poklady země (Treasures of the Earth, 1939), both directed by Karel Kohout.”

The introduction explained that the film was made at the time that the Third Reich was dismembering Czechoslovakia. Thus, whilst the film was overtly an industrial documentary, covertly a sub-text obliquely presented a nationalist stance. This appeared to have been achieved mainly through the music. This was extremely martial: if I had not known about its resonances I would have been puzzled as to the significance.

Seréna / The Strike, Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia 1947. Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 77 minutes. “The print is in very good condition. It was deposited with the National Film Archive at some point before 1952, and is probably the print of Siréna that was screened in 1947 at the 8th Venice International Film Festival where the film won the Grand International Award. Shrinkage: 0.8–0.95%”. “a dignified and an even more brilliant counterpart, with its proletarian story about the working-class Hudcový family. It is an intense, extensively detailed, and often riveting picture about the bitter cycle of existence for the poor, a picture of misery and grief, warmed only by the rays of human love and hardened by the hate that compels one to clench their fists and come to blows—perhaps even wrongly.” – Jan Žalman, Kino, May 9, 1947.”

This was a powerful depiction of a C19th strike with on one side the working class mining community and on the other the bourgeois owners and their lackeys among the government and military elites. The brochure drew a comparison with the British The Stars Look Down (1940). I thought this misplaced. The British film is a melodrama which focuses on a working class leader, played by Michael Redgrave. This film was much closer to the slightly earlier German film Die Weber / The Weavers (1927), an adaptation of a play from 1892. Both films dramatically present the exploitation and concurrent oppression of the workers. In both cases a strike leads to confrontation with the authorities, violence and the wreaking of the bourgeois mansion. This version presented the confrontations with dramatic flair and powerful cuts as the conflict developed.

Phantom of the Opera Arthur Lubin, US 1943. Print from David W. Packard. Running time: 92 minutes. “Occasional curling and brittleness throughout the print. Despite the overall stiffness of the base, the copy has an excellent look on the screen, with saturated colors and minimal scratches. Shrinkage: 0.65–0.75%. “Phantom of the Opera” is far more of a musical than a chiller, though  this element is not to be altogether discounted, and holds novelty appeal.”

The film certainly lacked the disturbing and scary features of the earlier version: only the more recent musical (2004) is inferior. The film makes use of a number of operatic [or operetta] sequences, but these were rather flat. Claude Rains in the title role had some promising scenes but was never properly exploited. And the romantic hero and Police Inspector were played more for laughs than frights. It did, though, look great. The Technicolor was vibrant and the contrast, especially in the sequences below the Opera House, was excellent.

In the evening we enjoyed a special treat

Alexsandr Nevskij / Alexander Nevsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev, Soviet Union 1938. Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna. Running time: 108 minutes “At some point in the 1960s, this became the 324th print to enter the collection of the Austrian Film Museum, likely a donation of the Soviet embassy in Vienna. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.8–1%. “In Nevsky, the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism.” (Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Film Sense’, 1942).”

The Introduction suggested ‘Socialist realism’, for me a complete misnomer. Whilst the film falls into the period when that form was dominant the film is not realist, and whilst there are convertional characters their treatment transforms them. The film is famous for the battle on the ice at the climax, but all the way through the nitrate print added luminosity to the armour and the decoration, and finally the ice bound, lake. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography was, as ever, magnificent. And the film enjoyed a pioneering score by Sergei Prokofiev, though, unfortunately, the aged soundtrack did not do this full justice,

I was pleased to see that the Brochure added a note of approval by Uncle Joe:

“It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. You directed Alexander Nevskij. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period.” – Joseph Stalin in conversation with Sergei Eisenstein, Moscow, February 1947.”

Before the closed we had another short film. A warning about its content reduced the audience, presumably including vegetarians and vegans and those with sensitive stomachs.

Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju, France 1949. La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Running time: 22 minutes.  “Donated to La Cinémathèque française by André Joseph, editor and first assistant of Georges Franju, cofounder of the Cinémathèque, the print is in great shape, with very few scratches or splices. Shrinkage: 0.6%. A haunting documentary classic that details the daily operations of Paris slaughterhouses.”

One of the outstanding documentaries, though it makes no concessions to ‘good taste’ or audience sensibilities. This shocking approach is part of the film’s project. Not a great print but it looked fine.

Ironically this screening was followed by the reception provided by the Museum for the guests at the Picture Show. There was a plentiful supply of meats on offer including beef, but not [as far as I could tell] horse meat.

Night and the City, Jules Dassin, UK/US 1950. UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 111 minutes. “This very special pre-release print of the noir classic runs ten minutes longer than the UK cut and a full fifteen minutes longer than the most widely known US cut. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.9–1.15%.”

This is a noir classic and contains some fine location shooting in London by Max Greene. The art direction for the interiors and sets was skilfully done by C. P. Norman. And the editing by Nick de Maggio and Sidney Stone was fluid and keeps the pace of the film tight. Jules Dassin orchestrated this team with fine direction. The same applied to the cast. Richard Widmark gave a standout performance as Harry Fabian, verbose and flashy but vulnerable and ultimately tragic. The supporting cast was a sheer pleasure: Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross) was hard and cynical whilst husband Francis L. Sullivan (Philip Nosseross) was weak under the calculating bonhomie; Herbert Lom as a wrestling impresario Kristo was impressively threatening and Stanislaus Zbyszko   completely convincing as a classic Greek wrestler Gregorius. Smaller parts were equally well played, as, for example by Maureen Delaney  as Anna O’Leary , a sympathetic black-marketer.  Then there was Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol). Someone at George Eastman is obviously a fan; we have had one of her movies in each of the three Picture Shows, previously Laura in 2016 and Leave Her to Heaven in 2015.

The longer print was intriguing though the additional footage was not obvious. My New York friend reckoned that the final wrestling match was shorter in the US version. As far as the UK version goes I thought there were possibly a couple of extra lines of dialogue, otherwise difficult to tell. But it was a sharp print. The chiaroscuro looked great and the London scenes, especially along the river, were worth a trip to see.

 Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, UK 1945. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 111 minutes.”This print was submitted for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress by David O. Selznick. It includes a very special effect at the end of the film—blink and you will miss it! There is very little scratching, and the black-and-white emulsion has retained all of its luster. Shrinkage: 0.5–0.6%.      “This writer has had little traffic with practitioners of psychiatry or with the twilight abstractions of their science, so we are not in a position to say whether Ingrid Bergman, who plays one in her latest film, Spellbound, is typical of such professionals or whether the methods she employs would yield results. But this we can say with due authority: if all psychiatrists are as charming as she—and if their attentions to all their patients are as fruitful as hers are to Gregory Peck, who plays a victim of amnesia in this fine film which came to the Astor yesterday—then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy. For Miss Bergman and her brand of treatment, so beautifully demonstrated here, is a guaranteed cure for what ails you, just as much as it is for Mr. Peck.”

Seventy years on these psycho-analysts has little in common with that proposed by Sigmund Freud. But Ingrid Bergman is captivating. Whilst Gregory Peck tends to the wooden, in this case, as an amnesiac, it works well. There is a delightful supporting role with Michael Chekhov as Dr. Alexander Brulov. And the most realistic exit from an elevator you could hope to see.

The standout sequence is that designed for the film by Salvador Dali, though it demonstrates why he was not a fully-paid up Surrealist. The ‘special effect’ at the end was a shot in Technicolor. This nicely rounded off the print. Though its visual qualities did not show off nitrate’s characteristics to full effect. there were some fine close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, but no tear to match the much talk-about drop in Casablanca screened in  2015.

So to the final film and the ‘Blind Date’ of the Festival. This screening is kept secret till the audience see the opening credits of the film. The Brochure contained a single still, a puzzle to ponder over from Friday to Sunday. Our little group narrowed it down to 1940s European; variously German, Italian or French. The shot contains cobbles and a drain, not objects in which we had many cinematic references. We were only warm, the title emerged as Finnish.

Lovoton Veri / Restless Blood , Teuvo Tulio, Finland 1946. KAVI, Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti. (National Audiovisual institute) Helsinki. Runing time: 91 minutes.            “Opinions on Restless Blood are quite abruptly divided…”

My sense of the audience was that the division in the Dryden Theatre was between people who found it slightly amusing or interesting and a [possibly] larger number who were baffled by why the film was selected. It is basically a melodrama involving family and sexual relationships, with the film dominated by the star Regina Linnanheimo as Sylvi: an impressively over-wrought performance. The script was not well judged and the technical aspects offered low production values and some really skimpy cinematography: some of the close-ups were seriously inadequate.

In his introduction to the film, avoiding any hard information, Paolo Cherchi Usai suggested we were about to see an ‘auteur’ who has been overlooked and forgotten and needed to be re-discovered. This was auteur not in the usual sense of familiar style and themes but ‘auteur’ in the sense of an obsessive focus on certain characters and situations. A friend who has seen some films directed by Tulio in the 1930s thought those were better; this title did not inspire me to find out.

I think this demonstrates the problem with ‘secret’ programmes. The reliance on other’s tastes and criteria. Happily most of the programme justified that, this film was an unfortunate exception.

Alongside the screening there were several illustrated talks.

‘Motion Picture Show on a 1905 Projector’.

This was a 35mm print run through a 1905 Lubin machine from the Archive. The print was hand-cranked and the exhibition was really interesting. It was not, given the guests were filing round to look at the projection closely, a nitrate print. it was an Edison short, The Land Beyond Sunset from 1912. I had seen this film before, at my first ever visit to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. However, I would have liked to be able to have sat down and watched the whole film: maybe in future such an event could end with a re-screening of the print?

We also had ‘Keepers of the Frame’: Hisashi Okajima from the National Film Center in Japan. He has a long involvement in this key archive. He talked about his experiences and the ravages that have destroyed much of the Japanese film heritage. These included the earthquake in 1923, fire bombing in World War II and then a fire in the archive in 1986.

Alexander Horwath gave ‘The James Card Memorial Lecture’. He is director of the Ősterreichisches Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum]. Quoting from Walter Benjamin he talked about film as a ‘heritage’, emphasising the act of projection and viewing as the focal centre. He also offered two short films on nitrate: ‘Death Mills’ produced in 1945 by the victorious allies for screening to German civilians. This was footage, mainly of the death camps, that presented the Holocaust in direct and bleak images. it seemed to contain some of the footage that was also sued in Resnais. masterly Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard 1956). The second was Rouen, martyre d’une cité (1945). The latter showed the wartime damage to the city. The contrasts between the films was emphatic, though I had reservations about the comments on this contrast. I think there is a discussion to b had about audiences, images and values in these examples.

There was also a documentary on archive work on the Thursday evening: I missed this having an early night. But apparently in the discussion people were using the terms – ‘film’, i.e. nitrate and acetate; and ‘file, i.e. digital. This seems to me a really useful distinction but I doubt the industry could be persuaded to take it on board.

Overall a very worthwhile weekend. Some fine movies, some really fine prints, and an opportunity to see something that is becoming another vanishing species: not because it is ephemeral, having a far longer shelf life than digital, but through lack of attention in the industry. There is debate about the issue of shrinkage. This year’s highest ratio was Night and the City, at 1.5%: this was the outstanding print of the Festival. Shrinkage presumably creates projection difficulties but the prints can still look great. There was a recurring focus problem on one projector, slight but affecting the depth of field.

Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 4th to 6th. This means that once more the opportunity arises of celebrating the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles with a print; I gather the organisers are looking, especially for Orson’s.

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Tempest, USA 1928

Posted by keith1942 on April 28, 2017

This film was part of the programme dedicated to William Cameron Menzies at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Apart from Menzies the film had a fairly mixed group of filmmakers contributing. James Curtis, in the Festival Catalogue, records this:

When first announced, the John Barrymore vehicle Tempest was an original story by Mme. Fred de Gresac. Directing the script would be Frank Lloyd, late of Paramount. The title stuck, but little else did. Lloyd fell away sometime over the spring of 1927, as did Mme. de Gresac’s material, and Russian émigré Viktor Tourjansky, under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer replaced him. The news story, set in the time of the Russian revolution was supplied by Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Tourjansky’s mentor at the Moscow Art Theatre.  … As veteran scenarist C. Gardner Sullivan got down to work on the screenplay, Menzies began the process of illustrating key sequences with Tourjansky.”

Slow production led to Tourjansky being ‘assisted’ by Lewis Milestone. There were changes to the cast and then Sam Taylor was bought in as director.

“”I don’t know anything about Russia,” the former gag man for Harold Lloyd to Considine.”

But producer John W. Considine of Feature Productions. Inc. kept him in charge. Taylor junked nearly all the material already filmed and working closely with Menzies and Sullivan directed the film that we now have. [a 35mm print 9203 feet long, it ran for 102 minutes at 24 fps, [we are entering the sound era].

The film was designed for John Barrymore and he dominates the story and the screen. There is even an exterior scene by a river where he is able to bare his manly chest. The 1920s was Barrymore’s heyday in film. The other casting changed several times but the romantic interest was finally played by Camilla Horn. Horn, a German actress, came to fame in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1926), which led to a Hollwyood contract. Alongside Barrymore in the film is Louis Wolheim, who worked with the star on both stage and screen. The film’s villain was actually a Russian actor working in Hollywood, Boris de Fast. And there are other familiar faces among the supporting cast including g George Fawcett, a silent regular as authority or patriarchal figure.

The plot is simple and conventional. Sergeant Ivan Markov (Barrymore), is of peasant origin, but excellent at his work. He aims to become an officer, and despite the class hierarchy in the Tsarist army, he succeeds. This is partly due to the General (Fawcett) who has a high opinion of Ivan. Sergeant Bulba (Wolheim) is Ivan’s friend and confidant. However, now promoted Lieutenant, Ivan is treated with disdain by his fellow Officers. More wounding is the disdain shown by the General’s daughter, Princess Tamara (Horn). Falling in love with Tamara, despite her arrogance, Ivan gets drunk and is found ‘in flagrante delicto’. He is court-martialled and sentenced to five years in prison. Whilst incarcerated World War I breaks out and Ivan watches his troops march off through his prison bars.

All this time Ivan has been pursued and cajoled by a peddler, in reality a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Now Ivan is suffering the treatment the Peddler predicted. Moreover, now the prophecy of the ‘Red day dawning’ comes to past. Freed Ivan becomes a leader among the revolutionaries. He now takes revenge on his former arrogant officers, presiding over the court [in black jacket astrakhan hat] where they are sentenced to death as members of the hated aristocracy. But then, first the General and then Tamara are bought for trial. Ivan’s heart overrules his head. He outsmarts the Peddler turned Commissar. Whilst he is too late to save the General, He, Tamara and Bulba flee the new revolutionary state.

Tempest (1928)
Directed by Sam Taylor
Shown from left: Boris de Fast, John Barrymore

Given the presence of at least two ‘white Russian’ émigrés the finale of the film is not surprising. And I do not know whether Nemirovich-Danchenko was asked or paid for his story. Indeed, how faithful the film was to its source. Curtis notes that Taylor

“began anew, working more closely with Menzies’ illustrations than with the script Sullivan had fashioned.”

In fact, it is a very conventional Hollywood narrative, with the new Revolutionary and free Soviet Union as an ‘evil empire’. An opening title offers,

” a red tempest of terror’.

Ivan is never a card-carrying revolutionary. He is misused and abused by the military hierarchy. When the opportunity arises he takes revenge, but then his love for a ‘good’ [and suitably chastened] woman saves him. Needless to say the likeable General dies but the likable Bulba leaves with the romantic couple.

The style of the film is fairly conventional but it enjoys some excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher: he, among other accolades, was the favourite cameraman of Mary Pickford. There is some excellent use of chiaroscuro, especially in the prison sequences. And there are some very effective use of insert shots for flashbacks experienced by Ivan.

What stands out about the film is the design of Menzies. Curtis notes:

“For Tempest, Menzies rendered a less-stylised version of Russia that he had for The Eagle (1925, set in the time of Catherine the Great], but on more comprehensive. He would later speak of the importance of setting and lighting in securing a desired emotional effect, and how, in many cases., authenticity was sacrificed and architectural principles violated for the sake of the emotional response being sought.”

So the film offered not an authentic Russia, not an accurate history, certainly not a detached view of the revolution. One anomaly is a picture of Joseph Stalin on the wall where Ivan and the Commissar confer: presumably in 1917.  Menzies work was praised by critics, [presumably mainly anti-Bolshevik] and the film apparently did good business in the cinemas.

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Algol, Germany 1920 (USA aka Power)

Posted by keith1942 on April 17, 2017

This film was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016 in the programme ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’. I had seen the film once before, long ago, at the 1994 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then it was shown in a 35mm print from the Münchner Filmmuseum. That was a black and white print of 2050 metre. The screening at Le Giornate was on a DCP transferred at ’18 fps’. The latter print had used several Archive copies in a restoration that provided the original length of 2144 metres with the original tinting. The gap between screenings was too long to make much of a comparison, though the added tinting – notably some scenes in green and red – added to the film’s impact. However, Il Ritrovato screening ran 110 minutes whilst the longer Giornate digital version only ran 99 minutes. So I do wonder if the transfer actually did achieve `18 fps’, though the 35mm projection was probably closer to 16 fps.

Either way both presentations impressed me. Il Ritrovato Catalogue introduced the film thus:

“…Algol is one of the films of which almost every traces were lost in film histories (though not in the film libraries). It was one of the protagonists of the German screen of the early twenties and of the expressionist “season” …” (Leonardo Quaresima in ‘Cinegrafie’ n. 7).

The expressionist sets and style in a number of sequences certainly impressed me then. But I was also fascinated by the larger than life fantasy, which at the same time appeared to address issues of power, technology and the economic and social order of the time. Whilst the film was partly fantasy it also was clearly science fiction, looking forward in a number of ways to the 1926 Metropolis.

Le Giornate Catalogue also presented the film as ‘largely forgotten’. But Stefan Drössler in the Festival Catalogue also wrote about the myth that provided the film’s title:

“The Bright star Algol in the constellation Perseus is actually a three-star system. The mysterious variability of the brightness (due to mutual eclipses) led to its colloquial name, the Demon Star, and gave rise to legends and mystical stories, including the fantasy that informs the film Algol.

This story concerns a magical source of power that leads to the film’s protagonist Robert Herne becoming the most powerful man in the world through the control of energy supplies. Drössler comments on how the storey reflected conditions in Germany in 1920.

“The film was obviously conceived under the shadow of the shortages of energy and resources in World war I, when harsh winters claimed many lives among the civilian population. Further contemporary references abound. The place of the magnate [Herne] is clearly meant to be Sanssouci near Potsdam, residence of the King of Prussia and the German Kaiser until his abdication at the end of the Great war. The crippling tribute payable by the film’s “free state” are reminiscent of the reparations levied on Germany by the Triple Entente after the end of the War. The underground sequences evidently refer to the coalmines of the Ruhr, and the scenes of workers in revolt to the post-war uprising.”

The film opened with an explanation of the myth around ‘Algol’. We then met Robert Herne (Emil Jannings) who worked as a coal miner. The mine has been inherited by young heiress Leonore Nissen (Gertrud Welcker). Robert was visited by the character Algol; a cross between a demon and Mephistopheles. He offered Robert a secret, embodied in a science fiction style contraption, that would capture the rays from the star Algol and transform them into an endless supply of energy. As the story developed Robert built a factory where the rays were harnessed and proceeded to displace all other energy sources. He became the most powerful businessman in the world with governments captive to his monopoly.

In his personal life Robert forsook his existing relationship with Maria (Hanna Ralph) and wedded the heiress Leonore. This desertion was accentuated when Robert’s old friend Peter (Hans Adalbert von Schlettow) partnered Maria. These relationships set up a conflict between rural settings – virtuous; and urban industrial settings – exploitative. Their son, also Peter (also von Schlettow), continued the opposition to Robert’s dominance, becoming involved in resistance by ordinary workers to Herne’s monopoly and exploitation.

In Act II there was a 20 year ellipsis. Robert now had a son and daughter. The former, Reginald (Ernst Hofmann) was father’s heir. He went on a world trip and became embroiled with a ‘vamp, Yella Ward. She manipulated Reginald in an attempt to take control of Herne’s empire. Meanwhile Herne’s monopoly caused poverty and destitution among the ex-miners and in rural areas.

In Act III resistance increased. Peter Junior was a leading figure and he also influenced Herne’s daughter Magda (Käte Haack). She pleaded with Herne to

“free your machines.”

Leonore also joined the chorus, However, she was killed in an accident in the factory,

In Act 1V these different strands came to a climax. Herne was now old and sickening. however, his empire was still active, now with a massive drainage project at a river which would disrupt rural life further. Reginald, prompted by Yella, attempted unavailingly to prise away his father’s secret. Angry workers rioted and stormed the offices of the government. At the climax Herne, accompanied now by Maria, went to the factory where sabotage was planned. There was a vast explosion and the factory fell: the empire was ended.

There are clearly aspects of that plot that would seem to comment on the contemporary problems in Germany. Siegfried Kracauer in ‘From Caligari to Hitler’ does not to comment on the film at all. This is surprising because the writer does comment on the protagonist of another contemporary film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari also 1920).

“he [Caligari] stands for unlimited authority that idolizes power as such, and, to satisfy the lust for domination, ruthlessly violates all human rights and values.”

This applies equally to Herne in Algol. He does not display the psychotic characteristics seen in Caligari, but once in command of the magical secret he become increasingly obsessed with power and pursues this with a ruthlessness akin to that of the mad Doctor.

Both these characters a paralleled the  Master of the future city, Joh Fredersen, in Metropolis (1926). And Algol shares many features with this later science fiction masterwork.  Fredersen has a son Freder who is led astray by a vamp [though not  a human one]. He is saved by a heroine Maria. And just as Herne has his diabolical aid so Fredersen has his diabolical scientist Rotwang. And both narratives end in apocalyptic disaster as the empires of these tyrants collapse.

Metropolis offers an upbeat ending: perhaps because five years on society and economy looked rosier; certainly the German film industry was in far better shape. But the two films also differ in their treatment of the worlds they portray. Algol seems less strict science fiction than fantasy. In words reminiscent of Tolkien Herne gloats at one point:

‘the last ring in the chain I have forged.’

Metropolis is much more carefully designed in terms of technology and cityscape. And it deals centrally with major themes of the genre – technology, social order, the future.

Most notable is the sense of political economy in the films. Algol treats of economic matters in terms of the issues set out Stefan Drössler; so there is the economic impact on workers and on rural areas; and at one point a Government Cabinet Meeting, despite workers demonstrating outside, believes that

“we have to honour the contracts’.

Metropolis addresses not just the contradictions of the German economy but that of the global capitalist crisis; seen briefly at the end of the war and returning with full force three years later. So the destruction of the ‘heart machine’ mirrors the destruction of capital in a crisis. This setting the stage for the new round of investment signalled by the upbeat ending.

I would comment that Algol does not have the masterful script and stylish techniques of Metropolis; and it is not as expensive a production. I found the film uneven among other weaknesses. But there are frequent and impressive sequences. The cinematography by Axel Graatkjær [with Hermann Kircheldorff ] is well done when the opportunity arises. There are some fine superimpositions paralleling characters and plot events, especially recurring images of the character Algol and much chiaroscuro. And the production design by Walter Reimann is outstanding: he was also responsible for much of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was only credited with set design on this film but as Drössler writes|:

“whose responsibilities extended from “the entire artistic and decorative aspects of the film” through “the supervision and finalising of the décor”, all the way to “the setting up of the studio sets” and “the creation of the titles”.”

There were some heavily expressionist sequences and the large scale buildings, machines, and later destruction, were impressive.

The film is constructed round the character of Robert Herne, played by Emil Jannings. This is a part that plays to Jannings particular skills in characterisation. As the film progresses the display of obsession increases. And the dark side of the protagonist is forcibly dramatised as he manipulates people and then seeks to dominate them thoroughly.

The tinting of the digital version worked well and the definition of the image was good. The film was accompanied by Stephen  Horne at the piano, adding in an accordion at one point: and Frank Bockius added percussion. All in all it was memorable screening.

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Kindred of the Dust, USA 1922

Posted by keith1942 on April 9, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Catalogue review by James Curtis includes the following:

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

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

The film was accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau on the piano.

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Janko the Musician / Janko Muzykant, Poland 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on April 5, 2017

This was one of the titles in the ‘Polish Silents’ programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. This was the first sound film made in Poland but the Vitaphone discs are lost, so only this silent version survives. The sound version  still relied on intertitles for dialogue and the track contained music, songs and some animal noises. The film was presented from a 35mm print 2561 meters in length; the catalogue proposed 18 fps. However the film was timed at 93 minutes and I do not think it overran by much. Moreover 18 fps for a sound/silent film seems rather slow and at that frame rate it would have run over two hours. There were a couple of discrepancies regarding frame rates for the Polish titles: I assume that on closer inspection they settled for 23 or 24 fps. The print was worn but the image quality was pretty good. There seemed to be some unintended ellipsis in the plot so I assume there were missing scenes or sequences.

The film was adapted by Ferdynand Goetel from a novella by Henryk Sienkiewicz [of ‘Quo Vadis’ fame]. In fact the script extended the original story considerably; the second part of the film was a complete addition. The director, Ryszard Ordyński, was a regular in the industry and this was his fifth title.

Janko (Stefan Rogulski) is a young village boy with a passion for music. When we first see him in the film he is making his own homemade violin. He lives with his mother (Tekla Trapszo) and he also has a pet blackbird. However, he is tempted by the sight of a professionally made violin in the mansion of the local landowner. Caught he is sent to a Correctional Institution where the boys are disciplined and made to work at making wicker chairs. This opening section is finely filmed by cinematographer Zbigniew Gniazdowski. The film has a lyrical feel, the landscapes  lovingly photographed and with some very effective pans, tracks and superimpositions. Gniazdowski uses well-placed  dissolves to take the narrative forward. Apparently the original novella was a grimmer and more realist depiction of rural life. We do see an overbearing overseer ordering women workers, including Janko’s mother. And Janko’s treatment by the landowner and magistrate is heavy handed. But we are closer to melodrama than literary realism in this film version. In the novella a whipping leads to Janko’s death, so the rest of the film is the addition.

Whilst Janko is in the Correction Centre his mother leaves the village, releasing Janko’s pet blackbird. A young man now, Janko (Witold Conti) escapes from the Correction Institution but finds his mother gone though his blackbird returns. Janko sets off to the city where the blackbird leads to his striking up a friendship with two ne’er-do well’s (Adolf Dymsza and Kazimierz Krukowski). They form a musical trio which prove a success in a local bar-cum-restaurant. Janko’s increasing popularity brings him to the attention of a Professor of music (Wieslaw Gawlikowski) and his pupil, singing star Ewa (Maria Malicka). A rival for her affections, Zaruba (Aleksander Źabczyński), attempts to eliminate Janko by accusing him of the escape from the Correction Centre. Zaruba turns out to be the landowner who was responsible for Janko’s incarceration. But Janko’s friends rally round and he is acquitted, able to end the film in partnership with Ewa.

“The second part of the film introduces the sort of characters beloved by Polish musical comedies of the 1930s: noble rogues, driven by an honourable code despite living on the edge of the law.” (Adam Uryniak in the Festival Catalogue).

He adds that these actors for these characters were part of the popular Warsaw cabaret scene.

Filming ‘Janko’

I found the second part of the film less compelling than the first. The urban setting and the studio interiors lacked the visual charm of the countryside. And whilst the whole film is melodrama, the latter stages seemed to have more stock characters and situations. However the cinematography continued to make effective use of camera movement and dissolves, though there was little superimposition.

The screening was accompanied by Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius with piano, violin and some percussion. And they included at least one song featured in the sound version of the film.

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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].

collins_11

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.

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, US pioneers, Westerns | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Screening formats

Posted by keith1942 on February 13, 2017

Vertov's masterwork with black bars added!

Vertov’s masterwork with black bars added!

 

One of the links on this blog is for Silent Film Calendar. This is a very helpful service that offers a fairly comprehensive list of the screenings of Silent Films up and down Britain. It includes Festivals, Film Clubs/Societies and cinemas. After the title the pages offer information on the format in use, though almost all of these contain the legend ‘format not known’.

Almost without exception when I see an interesting screening coming up I have to contact the venue and try and establish whether they are using 35mm, 16mm, DCP, or some digital video format. The latter is far more common than is healthy for Silent Film programming.

Even prestige Festivals are increasingly using digital formats, though thankfully the Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto use very little digital video. The Golden Fleece of the Silent Film Festival circuit is now the George Eastman Nitrate weekend where the films are not just all on 35mm but in the actual format in which they were originally shot and exhibited.

In Britain the digital theatrical format is almost always 2K DCPs. 4K DCPs are pretty rare and this seems to be the case even when it is a title that I have seen in 4K at a Festival. It is fairly clear that 2K digital does not offer the resolution of 35mm and 4K would seem not to either when we are referring to good quality 35mm.

video-resolution-chart

Moreover when the specifications for theatrical digital formats was laid down the equivalent projection speeds were set at 24 and 48 fps, forgetting about any provision for the slower speeds of silent films. FIAF has now provided specifications for silent film speeds, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 fps. However, it is rare to find screenings in the UK that offer this; the norm appears to be 24fps with the consequent step printing of title to provide a suitable rate and running time.

Technically it seems quit easy to adjust digital projectors to alternative speeds to 24 or 48 fps. However, DCPs come ‘baked in’ [the phrase used] both in terms of projection speeds and aspect ratios.

The latter also means that unless cinemas have screen masking the framing offers  an image in 1.33:1 [or a variation] with black bars either side of the image. The bars on digital projection lack the density of masking, so they are quite noticeable and, in addition, they absorb less light so high key images reflect on them.

Elvey's masterwork in what appears to be TV's 16:9.

Elvey’s masterwork in what appears to be TV’s 16:9.

The situation is far worse when exhibitors use some digital video format. The quality is lower than for DCP plus DVDs and Blu-ray run at 25 or 24 fps. So invariably, [except for a few late silent titles] the  print has been  step-printed for transfer. It also seems that the norm these days is to use computer software and these [or at least some of them] use composite frames at edit points, hence the ‘ghosting’ that is a problem on many of these.

Step-printing varies in its effect on any film. But clearly films with fast editing, such as the Soviet masterworks, are likely to suffer from this. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Patyomkin, USSR 1925) has as few as two or three frames in some shots, and an additional frame for every two existing ones is likely when the films run below  20 fps.

Aspect ratios are also a problem in other ways. A friend went to see the screening of a rare New York Yiddish title which was screened in 16:9! Recently the BFI produced a digital version of Abel Gance’s masterwork Napoleon (France 1927). The most famous sequence in this film is the use of a three-screen triptych for the final sequence as the revolutionary army crosses the alps into Italy. At 35mm screenings with three projectors and screens [or equivalents] this image expands to the colossal and impressive finale. For the digital version the BFI used the following technique:

“The whole film is mastered in a scope DCP wrapper and can be projected in one format, the triptych will work on any scope screen (it won’t work on a flat screen).” (BFI Information).

A friend who attended a screening of this version complained than rather than expanding for an impressive finale, the image shrunk, thus reducing the impact.

I can understand film fans wanting to have copies of favourite films to watch at home: but that is domestic viewing and is in a different category from theatrical presentations, [or at least it should be]. And digital versions obviously allow screenings for groups who may not be able to access the infrequent 35mm presentations and venues that do not possess 35mm projection. But, unfortunately, digital also seems to encourage archive and distributors to use these formats instead of offering the films in their original and proper form. Exhibitors compound the problem by the paucity of information on formats. Few cinemas actually distinguish between film [35mm] and digital versions in their publicity and brochures. Even fewer actually indicate when the screenings rely on digital video: and this dereliction also applies to a number of Film Festivals.

A few years back the BFI produced restorations of the nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Britain in the 1920s. I was involved in screenings of these in West Yorkshire. Some of our screenings offered 35mm but on a couple of occasions the BFI replied to a request by sending a DCP. Yet later on I saw the same titles on 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. So the BFI could send the prints over a thousand miles to Italy but not north by only 200 miles. More recently The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Britain 1927) was released round the countries. It seems that the only screenings were from DCPs. Yet there was a 35mm print. In fact the BFI sent the 35mm print [courtesy of a RAF transport plane] all the way down for a screening to the British settler colony on the Malvinas.

We actually have the odd situation now where a screening from a digital video has live musical accompaniment: seemingly the musicians cost more than the expense of renting and transporting a 35mm print. Torkell Sætervadet, in his Introduction to the ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide’, writes as follows:

“[he argues for] the aim of presenting films exactly the way they were i8ntended to be presented – without any compromises with regard to picture, sound and appearance. Cinémathèques, film archives and film institutes have a particular responsibility to respect the integrity of the work of art that they are exhibiting and the inevitable consequence is that the technical requirements will be pretty rigid.”

I wonder how many people in the British Film Industry have read this fine volume or even have a copy. It would seem that the Cinémathèques Française have: as I was advised that in 2016 they declined to license a title for public screening when the source was digital video. Bravo!

 

Posted in Archival issues, Film Exhibitions | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Mysterious Lady, M-G-M 1928

Posted by keith1942 on December 3, 2016

mysterious_lady_04

This film provided the opening night attraction at the 35th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. We enjoyed Greta Garbo in a fine Photoplay 35mm print. And with Carl Davis conducting the Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone playing his 1980s score for the film. A presentation fit for the nearly 1,000 film fans filling the Teatro Verdi.

Mark A. Vieira praises the film in the Festival Catalogue:

“Greta Garbo’s sixth American film provides a fine introduction to the Garbo of the silent era. It shows how silent-film technology was evolving, even as sound film encroached. it is also a landmark in the evolution of the Garbo image. In 1928 she was not remote, stately or tragic. She was vital and sexualised. The post-adolescent with the sleepy stare was creating a sensation. There had never been a vamp with a heart, a mind, and a conscience.”

The production and Garbo as lead performer are both excellent. Other aspects of the film are more conventional. The plot was developed from a novelette by Ludwig Wolff, War in the Dark. Essentially it is a war time spy story with Tania Fedorova (Garbo) torn between her Russian spy master General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and a young Austrian officer Captain Karl Heinrich (Conrad Nagel). M-G-M employed at least six writers over six months producing a final screen treatment. Even then the plot remains predictable and lacking the subtlety of the best spy dramas. It is clear that none of the characters have actually watched or read spy stories, otherwise they would have known what was coming and presumably avoided the perils.

Whilst Garbo is luminous Conrad Nagel is romantic but not inspiring. And his character is certainly juvenile. Leaving Vienna by train Karl is carefully warned about spies and security and he still sleeps soundly through eight hours of the train journey. You can surmise what occurs.

The romance is assisted by some of the motifs placed in the plot. So Karl first sees Tania at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Verdi’s Tosca; setting up suggestive themes that echo later in the film. We have two border crossing with their particular associations. And all the paraphernalia of spy stories, with secret papers and pre-arranged set-ups.

The film does supply great scenes between the romantic couple. Benjamin Christensen, who worked on the script, supplied one sequence:

“Tania walks over to a, little table where she lights a candle in a beautiful old French candlestick. George [changed to Karl] is playing the piano again, but stealthily his eyes follow her. This strange adventuress seems more and more interesting to him. And the melancholia which rests upon her seems to enhance this woman’s strange charm.”

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

Niblo, Garbo and Nagel.

This sequence is one of the many well served by the technology and craft of the production. Mark Vieira records that:

“This career landmark [for Garbo] is seldom mentioned but it was due to a technical innovation, panchromatic film. Before this, orthochromatic film had been the standard. “Ortho” could not see red and saw too much blue; lips went dark and blue eyes turned white. Garbo was beautiful but ghost-like. “Pan” saw the full spectrum, so the black & whit image showed the actual values of the subject.”

And this technical advance was, in this film, in the hands of a fine cinematographer and Garbo’s favourite lighting cameraman:

“The improved rendering of Garbo’s skin, lips, and eyes was more than helpful; it was stunning. In scene after scene, William Daniels used pan film and incandescent lights to paint glowing images of a performer whose presence was so unusual that even co-workers had difficulty describing it.”

The great pleasure of the screening was watching scenes like the one described. The sequence in the darkened mansion set round the piano was lustrous and Garbo looked as fine as in any of her films. In fact, some in a preview audience found this over the top and some shots were cut from the final print version. So the photograph of the production set-up used on the cover of the Catalogue with Nagel, Garbo, Daniels and director Fred Niblo is a shot that is not seen in the final scene. But it does demonstrate nicely the craft of the period and the mood musicians who accompanied the stars.

mysterious_lady_05

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35

Posted by keith1942 on October 17, 2016

gcm_2016_poster

This Festival of silent film took place this year from October 1st to October 8th in the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular title, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. I intend to write in detail about the most interesting screenings but this is a general overview of the week. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.

The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints accompanied with music by their long-time collaborator Carl Davis. The film was the first feature of Garbo filmed with panchromatic film stock. This stock had a more varied colour palette than the standard of that time, orthochromatic, which had been cheaper before this. This was especially responsive to facial features and Garbo’s use of lips and eyes. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s  expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.

Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris, missing the opportunities opened up by the great Bolshevik-led Revolution. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of  a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor Edmund Kean. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film was long and clearly constructed around the star who also contributed to the screenplay. Likely he was responsible for the long death scene, a tour de force in acting and filming. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

Mosjoukine plays Kean plays Hamlet

The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.

One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The leading Bolshevik agitator (Boris de Fast) was suitably wild-eyed and malevolent. However the film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).

One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John  Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. Collins died during the world-wide  influenza pandemic, aged only 29. His surviving films show a real cinematic talent. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine drams set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.

whos_guilty_02

We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The films opened with a shot of a lake and a title,

“Throw a stone ….”

In every film this metaphor of spreading ripples explored responsibility. The cast consisted of the same regulars, with Tom Moore and Anna Q. Nillson in the main parts. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. These were convincing and violent fights, and in fact, such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.

The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. If the fight offered fairly brutal fisticuffs the latter parts of the film were even more brutal: and Krug’s taxidermy skills were put to unusual use. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander. The film retains a degree of shock 97 years on.

Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. There was a partly sympathetic contrast between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the English mansion and in the British trenches. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork. It was less sure when dealing with the politics of wartime Britain.

After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. Part 2 of this 218 minute epic also had a splendid and dramatic court room sequence. The film tried to soften the character of the Count/Dantès at the film’s end. It also suffered from what Edward Said defined as orientalism in the eastern sequences. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.

montecristo_03

The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). This early romantic comedy was beautifully filmed and had a really engaging performance by Tora Teje as Irene, married to Professor Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) and ably supported by Lars Hansen as Preben Wells and Karin Molander  as Marthe. The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).

‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination  of drama, science fiction and fantasy. Emil Jannings played Robert Heron, who thanks to a mysterious visitor acquired control of an endless power supply and went on to dominate the industrial world. The plot appeared to reflect contemporary concerns about energy and power politics: it actually seemed fairly appropriate to the present. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.

A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. Poland became an independent state after the Versailles Conference in 1919. The programme was mainly of films produced in the newly developing industry in the 1920s. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. But one sensed the cultural factors that made it a national epic. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel. We studied the film closely as, because the film cans were mislabelled, we saw the fourth reel twice. But the film stood up to this mishap.

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

Editing Moncy CzŁowiek

The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third  film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912). In a separate programme we had very early films shot in Venice by a Lumière cameraman.

There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. Some of these. like The Cheese Mites; or, Lilliputians in a London restaurant (190211) are well known. But there were also some new discoveries. The Fatal Hand (1907) was an early serial killer drama. And A Collier’s Life (1904) was an example of what became in the 1920s known as ‘documentary’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt [several times], an unsuccessful Democrat Alton B. Parker, Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge plus film of a Democratic Party Convention and The Old Way and the New (Film Classic Exchange 1912) a ‘paid-for’ film on behalf of Woodrow Wilson.

There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, including a really oddball two-reeler, The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species (Lubin Film Co, 1913) with a bizarre human/animal relationship. The second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ was from the same years and included the one-reel Sallie’s Sure Shot (Selig 1913) where the climatic shot produced audience applause. The third programme was ‘Indian Pictures’. I felt that Native-Americans were not so well served in this selection. Two films had ‘self-sacrificing Indians’. Is there a word of Native-Americans equivalent to ‘Uncle Tom’  for Afro-Caribbean? But The Flaming Arrow (Bison Films 1913) had the protagonist White Eagle apparently winning the Colonel’s daughter: and there was a the one-reel The Arrow of Defiance (Pathé 1912), directed by James Young Deerlove, whose work I admire.

Sallie of the 'sure shot'.

Sallie of the ‘sure shot’.

We also had some animation. There was Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with only animals, so minus any out-of-date stereotypes. There were several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant. I should note here that it was a not a great week for canine characters. We had a fluffy one perched on a piano singing: a benighted German Shepherd forced to climb  ladder on a high construction site: a Springer killed by some sort of Staffs: and a poor mutt blackened by its over eager owner.

As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. These mainly added to the pleasure and to what the film suggested regarding character and narrative. But Pordenone is not immune to the recent over-emphasis on musical accompaniments: there were a couple of titles where I thought the music tended to over-power rather than support the film.

We had a high number of films on 35mm, and the print quality was generally good. The DCPs were somewhat variable. Not all the archives have the resources to transfer film to digital at the highest quality. I hope that film will continue to provide the main source for screenings at the Festivals.

The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. The programming was good and there only a few hiccups. He did, though, have to apologise for the brevity of some of the meal breaks. Another good year and a special pleasure as it becomes more difficult to see early film on film.

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The Jew of Mestri / Der Kaufmann von Venedig Germany 1923

Posted by keith1942 on April 20, 2016

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

Henny Porten as The Lady of Belmont

This film, part of the celebrations for the 400th anniversary of England’s premier playwright, was screened at the Barbican on April 10th. I have just read J. G. Ballard’s ‘High-Rise’ so I was struck by the brutalist architecture of this complex. Inside, for Screen 1 in the main building, one enters a vast cavernous hall: it feels like the sort of entertainment space one would find in Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The cinema itself is down in the lower basement. It is spacious with a notable rake and, happily, has good quality 35mm projection. The print we viewed was from the UK National Film Archive and is a copy of the version prepared for release in the USA, shorter than the original German version.

The film was directed by Peter Paul Felner who also wrote the screenplay with Pietro Aretino. The source is not Shakespeare’s play but an earlier version which was also a source for Shakespeare’s tragedy. This is a story by Giovanni Fiorentino, in his collection of tales, Il Pecorone, which appeared in 1558. Felner seems to have worked some of the Shakespearean version in to the film but judging by the characters and plot it is closer to that of Fiorentino. The opening credits is for Fiorentino’s work but there is also a reference to Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. There are parts of the film that are close to the Shakespeare play and others that differ.  The characters appear to have the names used in the Fiorentino version: but the original German language titles may have been different. The collected plays include ‘The Merchant of Venice’ under the comedies, and parts of this film are played in that tenor.

The casting is variable. Henny Portman is The Lady of Belmont [Portia] and she is not exactly the type for this women who has so many suitors. She is better when disguised as the young lawyer {Balthazar] for the trial scene. Harry Liedtke is Giannetto (Bassanio) and Carl Ebert is Ansaldo (Antonio), they are passable rather than engaging. The stand-out performance is Werner Krauss as the Jew of Mestri, Mordecai. He combines the angry responses to prejudice with the growing malevolence directed especially against Ansaldo.   Lia Eibenschütz  as Rachele [Jessica, the Jew’s daughter] is also very good.

Fiorentino’s version and this film appear to provide greater emphasis on the manner in which the Jew is the subject of prejudice and mistreatment. In Shakespeare’s play Shylock is already prejudiced against Antonio. But in this version there is an important sequence when Mordecai sends his wife to collect debts owed to him by Giannetto. She finds Giannetto passing with friends, including Ansaldo. They roundly abuse her. As a consequence she suffers what appears to be a fatal heart attack. In the following sequences Mordecai mourns his wife and vows vengeance. Thus we get the Bond with Ansaldo and the ‘pound of flesh’.

There is more space devoted to his daughter Racele than in the play. She is wooed by Lorenzo (I missed his name in this version) who is something of a fancy man. Mordecai meanwhile has arranged a union with the son of a friend. So there is drama round Racele’s unwillingness to join this union.

The trial sequence is very close to that in Shakespearean’s play and it is followed by the re-union of Giannetto with The Lady of Belmont, of Ansaldo with the Lady’s assistant and confidante and of Lorenzo with Racele. We again see Mordecai in the streets, bitter and frustrated by the loss of his suit, his monies and his daughter. The final moment of the film also differs from the Shakespeare play. In a powerful final shot we get a close-up of Mordecai [an iris shot], which can be read different ways depending how you interpret Krauss’s characterisation. I tended to see this as sympathetic. The longer German version may generate a different feel

One of the cachet’s of the film is that it was filmed on location in Venice. It is well served by the excellent cinematography by Axel Graatkjær and Rudolph Maté. One thing I noted that was that the crowd scenes in the streets of Venice were running slightly faster than the rest of the print. This could have been a different cranking rate in exteriors, but it seemed quite consistent across sequences. So I think it was shot to run slightly faster in order to generate drama.

I found the trial sequence impressive. There is a volatile crowd of onlookers, who become excited and vocal. In front of this the young lawyer, Mordecai and Ansaldo play out the famous dramatic scene.

The print we enjoyed was of pretty good quality. It was projected at 19 fps, running for 78 minutes. This would be about 1700 metres. However, Wikipedia suggests that the original version was at least two reels longer, about 220 metres: IMDB has even longer at 2800 metres. It is possible as there were parts of the film that seemed undeveloped. This is true regarding the death of Mordecai’s wife, some of the street sequences, scenes on the ‘Il Ridotto’ involving the Jewish financial community, the plotting of the affair between Racele and Lorenzo and also some of the plotting around the wooing of the Lady of Belmont. It may be that what is missing includes scenes that are closer to Shakespeare.

We also enjoyed an excellent accompaniment by Stephen Horne. He likes to accompany with multi-instruments: so we had the piano keyboard and strings; a flute, an accordion, a xylophone and a hand-held harmonium.

 

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