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The Kennington Bioscope: 4th Silent Film Weekend.

Posted by keith1942 on September 17, 2018

This short festival was held at the Cinema Museum in London on September 8th and 9th. The volunteers at the Bioscope, working with Kevin Brownlow who unfortunately could not come along, had a programme of interesting [and in some cases rare] early films. Most of the screenings were on 35mm or 16mm: the projectionist reckoned he had worked through 31 reels over the two days and he did this very well.

Saturday:

Where the North Begins (1923) was a Rin-Tin-Tin drama from 1923. This was an early film in the career of this famous canine star. The production actually worked up several sets of filming into a complete 55 minutes narrative. The film made good use of a lot of location shooting in Canada. Rin-Tin-Tin appears as a young puppy lost in the wastes and bought up as part of a wolf pack. Then he meets Gabriel (Walter McGrail) a trapper wounded when his furs are stolen. The Dog is at first aggressive but his ‘heritage’ overcomes this as he recognises

‘His master and friend’.

The film then unravels the plot by Shad Galloway (Pat Hartigan) and his henchman ‘The Fox’ (Charles Stevens) to pin the theft of the furs on Gabriel and to steal his sweetheart Felice (Claire Adams). The human plotting is fairly conventional. But The Dog [or wolf-dog] has some exciting and impressive sequences. He races over snowy landscapes, fights off superior numbers of wolves, wrestles down the villains and in one especially impressive stunt leaps up and through a first floor window. Great out door adventure and canine dramatics. There is a slightly risqué sub-plot, Shad has a ‘housekeeper’, Marie (Myrtle Owen). The film was screened from a 16mm tinted print and looked good.

A German double bill opened with the one-reeler As We Forgive / Wie auch wir Vergeban ((1911). This offered an early role for later ‘diva’ Henny Porten. Her officer husband whilst in Japan has a ‘Madame Butterfly’ affair. This leads to tragic death of their child and a reconciliation at the child’s tomb.

When the Dead are Living Again ./ Die Geliebte Tote (1919) is a German or Austrian film adapted from ‘Bruges-la-Morte’ (‘The Dead [City of] Bruges)’, a short French novel by the Belgian author Georges Rodenbach, first published in 1892. The original novel recounts the obsession of a widower with his dead wife. |He sees a dancer who resembles the wife and becomes obsessed with her: this leads to her death. The film was described as an ‘early Weimar Gothic’. What makes it intriguing is that the same novel was adapted by Yevgeni Bauer in 1915 as Daydreams. This German version seems to have followed the complete novel commencing with the meeting and marriage of the protagonist, a sculptor, and an ending after a period in an asylum. The Bauer version concentrates on the death of the wife and the obsessive relationship with the dancer. Moreover Bauer has the protagonist as a photographer which allows some interesting cinematic touches. What stands out dramatically in both versions is the death of the dancer, strangled with the tresses of the dead wife. However Daydreams is much more effective. In one sequence in When the Dead are Living Again we see the protagonists at a café and it is clear that the dance floor beyond them is a rear projection whereas in Bauer a similar scene uses deep staging and deep focus as well as [for the period] a notable tracking shot.

In the afternoon we had a British picture The Garden of Resurrection (1919) written by and starring Guy Newall. He was a popular leading actor in the period regularly starring with Ivy Duke. Newall was partnered in a production company with George Clark and their films were distributed by the Stoll Company. Here Newall adapted a 1911 novel by E. Temple Thurston. Thurston was a writer of novels, plays and film scripts. He was partly bought up in Eire and he would seem to be part of the dominant Anglo-Irish class. ‘The Garden of Resurrection’ is partially set in Eire. Written in 1911 it shows no awareness of the important political strife of the period. Likewise the film in 1919 has no awareness of the War of Independence then raging.

The two central themes in the film are male self-consciousness and [dimly] racism. A. H. Bellairs (Newall) considers himself the ugliest man in England: hence he has no romance, only his faithful terrier Dandy (played by Newall’s own dog Betsy). However, the romantic interest Clarissa is apparently a half-caste from Dominica in the Caribbean. She is the object of a fraudulent relationship by one Fennell (Lawford Davidson). He has hidden her away [because ‘she is black’] with maiden aunts in Ireland. He plans to suborn her fortune through a fake marriage. Overhearing his plan Newall determines to save Clarissa and journeys to Ballysheen on the southern coasts. The plot stretches coincidence to extreme lengths. So in the course of the narrative we also have Newall encountering a jealous husband; a con artist and blackmailer; an unwanted pregnancy; but finally a satisfactory ending.

The issue of ‘blackness’ in the film is problematic. Given its black and white cinematography Clarrissa’s colour is only apparent through the dialogue. Intriguingly the sign of her ‘blackness’ is a flowered dress which Fennell’s aunts insist she does not wear. At another point in the narrative she wears a veil to hide her visage. The implication of the film, [which may have not been consciously intended] is that a black woman can only hope to catch an ugly white man. The film may have thought that even this was liberal in the post-World War I culture.

The film’s use of Dandy is redeeming for dog lovers. He is an amiable and active canine protagonist. We even get title cards indicating his thoughts: thoughts which his master appears to understand from his posture and expression.

The rest of the afternoon included a presentation on the films of Pearl White, [The Perils of Pauline, 1914 and The Exploits of Elaine, 1915 – 1916). Unfortunately very little of White’s films survive. There followed a romantic comedy from 1924 with Constance Talmadge, Her Night of Romance. Unfortunately this was only available from a DVD.

However, we were back to ‘reel’ film in the evening. This featured one of the outstanding personalities of Silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford. First up was A Beast at Bay, a Biograph one-reeler from 1912 and directed by D. W. Griffith. The 16mm print was a re-issue from the 1920s with new title cards: presumably to cash in on Pickford’s immense popularity. This was classic Griffith territory with Mary menaced by an escaped convict and then saved in heroic fashion by her boyfriend, redeeming an earlier lack of bravado.

The main feature was the 1926 Sparrows, from the Mary Pickford Corporation. This film rather departed from the typical Pickford persona. It was set on a ‘children’s farm’, an scandal issue in the 1920s. Molly (Pickford) has to marshal and protect eight younger children from the miserly and exploitative Grimes (Gustav von Seyffertitz), who is aided and abetted by his slatternly wife (Charlotte Mineau) and son (Spec O’Donnell). The son, given to petty persecutions, is well played as are all the children. The climax of the film involves the children in fleeing across a alligator-invested swamp.

“The similarities to Sunrise are particularly identifiable in the set, a swamp in the Deep South constructed on four acres of studio grounds by Art Director Henry Oliver, utilising 600 real trees, moss, pits filled with burnt cork, sawdust and muddy water, plus a miniature lake.” (Bioscope Notes).

The cinematography by Pickford’s favourite Charles Rosher with Hal Mohr and newly arrived Karl Struss, makes great use of this. And the cast, led by Pickford, though slightly too adult for her part, are excellent. This is exciting stuff. It is also part of Southern Gothic and there are instances where the film looks forward to the later Night of the Hunter (1955).

………………….

Sunday:

The day started with Miss Lulu Betts, a Famous Players-Lasky film from 1921 and directed by William C. de Mille. Little of this film-maker’s work survives, which, on the showing of this title, is a real shame. The film is from a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Zona Gale. Lulu (Lois Wilson) is the put-upon sister in a middle-class household. Despite their church-going and moral attitudes Lulu is a skivvy for the family: only the elder daughter Diana (Helen Ferguson), herself a little rebel, shows any awareness of this. Circumstances conspire to effect a change in Lulu’s situation. Like Clarissa on Saturday she goes through a false marriage but survives this to find a level of independence and a serious and moral romance.

The film was described as naturalist’ drama’ and it represented the small town life and household with a palpable sense of realism. The plot does tend to melodrama but Lulu’s situation and the settings are fully convincing.

The Silent Enemy (1930)was a paramount production,

“A late Silent film telling the story of Red Indians – ‘Native-Americans’ in today’s parlance – before the arrival of European settlers, acted by a a native cast.

An epic reconstruction of life among the Ojibway tribe, shot on location in the Great Barren lands of Canada.” [Bioscope Notes).

So this was a liberal attempt to present an indigenous point-of-view, though it still reflects the dominant representation of the time. It is also clearly influenced by the trail-breaking documentaries of the 1920s, in particular Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). However, in keeping with the tropes of Hollywood, the battle for survival, seeking food and journeying to the great Caribou migration, is dramatised in a conflict between two individual Indians and their opposing strategies. The tribe’s rituals and activities are very well done. And the location work brings a real sense of time and place to the film. The finale offers the mammoth caribou herds and the successful survival of the tribe.

After lunch we enjoyed another Paramount film with another put-upon wife and mother. Dancing Mothers (1926) was directed by Herbert Brenon, an adaptation of play by Edgar Selwyn and Edmund Goulding, soon to be a writer and director in Hollywood. The wife and mother of the film is Ethel Westcourt (Alice Joyce). This lead actor was reckoned to be outshone by the actor playing her daughter ‘Kittens’, Clara Bow. It is true that Bow immediately established her star quality in the film but the character is essentially lightweight. I found Joyce’s performance as the wife/mother who transforms her life and escapes from an oppressive situation impressive. The point at which she emerged in the film was excellent both in acting and appearance.

‘Kittens’ is like her father High Westcourt (Norman Trevor), affluent, self-absorbed and indifferent to the emotional situation of the mother. Westcourt was one of a number of male characters over the weekend who are criticised for selfish and exploitative behaviour. So this well-executed film demonstrates a ‘feminist’ strand in 1920s Hollywood.

Mid-afternoon we had a selection of BFI prints and files of ‘Messing About on the River’. Unfortunately a number have only survived in poor quality prints. The title that stood out was Up the River with Molly (1921) from the Hepworth Manufacturing Company. Molly was another terrier on a boat following the major river. A charming addition to a strong roster of canine stars over the weekend.

The feature film was on 35mm in a good print. It was one of the films by Artistic Pictures acquired by the BFI early this century. The film was adapted from a short story by W. W. Jacobs. Sam’s Boy (1922) is set in the Thames estuary and along the Kentish coast, using actual locations though with fictionalised names. Like other titles from Jacob this is a slightly comic realist story of ordinary people and events. Here an orphaned scamp tries manipulating adults in order to secure a home. Sam Brown (Tom Coventry) of the title is the most religious member of a small sailing ship. Having annoyed his crew fellows with his religiosity and music they play along with the scamp when he targets Sam. The characters are delightfully realised and the location work is a real pleasure. There are only four reels but the hour-long viewing offers low-key drama, irony and a authentic sense of the 1920s.

Turksib is a five reel Soviet documentary from 1929 that survives in several versions. The screening offered a 35mm print of the version prepared by John Grierson including English language title cards. The film’s director Victor Turin was in London and had some involvement in the editing. The film was produced by Vostok-kino which made films for the Eastern Soviet Republics. The subject matter was the construction of the Turkestan – Siberia railroad, covering over 1400 kilometres pass great lakes, over deserts and over mountains. Turin had studied in the USA at MIT and had some sort of work at the Vitagraph film studio. He had made three film since returning to the USSR, two fictional and one documentary.

This project was part of the Soviet first Five Year Plan. Several years discussion and preparation went into the plan at Party and Soviet Congresses, in the Central Committee and in the Soviets of the Union Republics. Two state Departments, Vesenkha and Gosplan, oversaw this major industrialisation project which bought planning into an economy still operating under the market.

The film uses familiar tropes from soviet film; montage, metaphoric images, graphics and associational links. The cinematography uses the striking assemblage of shots, angles, positioning and superimpositions. The overall structure of the film is closer to documentary in the western capitalist industries. Turin considered that the film should have a thematic structure, akin to the narrative structure in fictional film. So the overall presentation is somewhat different from the work of the Factory of Facts or a documentary of the same period directed by Mikhail Kalatazov, Salt for Svanetia (1930). The film was influential amongst British documentary film-makers such as Basil Wright. One can see the cross-overs. The opening reels offer landscapes with people and the more dynamic montage occurs during the vast construction. There are sequences that represent both the indigenous mainly nomadic peoples as well as the army of labour involved in the construction. And there are some slyly comic shots offering a sense of their every-day lives and work. However, the main thrust of the film is this eruption into the sparsely populated and wild landscapes and the conflicts are frequently about man and nature rather than the social relations that dominate in Dziga Vertov’s films. The title was a popular success both in the USSR and abroad. It offers a dynamic portrait of the modernising of these regions still mired in traditional ways of life.

The final film of the weekend was The Golden Butterfly / Der Holdene Schmetterling. A European co-production directed Michael Curtiz (then Michael Kertesz) and starring Lili Damita and Nils Asther. Among the supporting actors was Curt Bois {as a dance master and director). Bois has the distinction of the longest career as a film actor [1907 to 1987) and we had, in addition, a short film in which he featured from 1909. This was German title Patent Glue / Klebalin klebt alles in which two boys play a series of tricks with a powerful glue.

The main feature was nicely done but lack dramatic development. Lillian (Damita) and Andy (Asther) are a potential couple but her ambitions for a stage career come between them. The major problem was not the conventional obstacles [parents, the law, rivals etc.] but the priggish attitude of Andy to Lillian’s ambitions. The finale, where his intransigent attitudes are finally broken down, seemed over-extended.

The film was projected at 18fps but this seemed a slow frame rate and produced a longer running time which probably exacerbated the slow tempo. The print had a some missing elements and late in the narrative we found ourselves with the major production number of the film, involving Lillian’s stage act as the ‘butterfly’. Otherwise the print was in good condition and looed fine.

Overall this was a rewarding weekend and the organisers and the Museum are to be congratulated on the full programme. Kevin Brownlow also deserves a substantial thank you for the provision of prints. When it is becoming increasingly difficult to see early film in original prints this was welcome.

The screenings were enhanced by live music. The Bioscope has an impressive roster of musicians providing accompaniments and they are skilled at supporting rather than overpowering the films. The talented performances at the piano were supplied by Neil Brand, Costas Fotopoulis, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Meg Moorland and John Sweeney. There were also extensive printed film notes and introductions to all the screenings. A great way to spend a weekend.

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The World and it’s Woman, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on April 22, 2018

Geraldine Farrar with Frank Lloyd

This was a title screened in the ‘Red Peril’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate3 del Cinema Muto. It was an example of ‘anti-communism’ even more virulent than the companion The Right to Happiness [also USA 1919]. Wikipedia quotes Murray B Levin on the ‘red scare ‘ in the USA between 1917 and 1920;

“a nationwide anti-radical hysteria provoked by a mounting fear and anxiety that a Bolshevik revolution in America was imminent—a revolution that would change Church, home, marriage, civility, and the American way of life.”

The film was directed by Frank Lloyd for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation. It starred Geraldine Farrar. She was an established opera diva who made her screen debut in Cecil B. De Mille’s Carmen (1915). The Festival Catalogue notes that

“By the time of The World and its Women, her fifth picture for the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, Farrar’s salary was among the highest in the industry: according to Goldwyn papers at the Margaret Herrick Library, she received $150,000 for four months of shooting, while her co-star husband Lou Tellegen earned a modest $600 per week (reportedly the borzoi hound made $50 a day). “ (Antonia Guerrero and Jay Weisberg).

In fact the borzoi hound was likely the most over-paid merely lying gracefully on the floor and interjecting a yawn at one point and offering a dainty paw. The hound was accompanied among the supporting cast by a number of exiled Russian aristocrats presumably still seething from the loss of their ill-gotten wealth.

The film opens before World War I in Tsarist Russia where US engineer Robert Warren (Edward J. Connelly) is managing the oil fields of for Prince Michael Orbeliana (Alec B. Francis). Warren’s daughter Marcia (May Giraci) is friends with the prince’s son, Michael ((Francis Marion). Marcia reads to the young prince from Cinderella and he replies that one day

“I will marry you.”

We also see Mary playing and singing for her father. But he dies when his investments are lost.

As an adult Michael (Lou Tellegen) marries Baroness Olga Amilahvari (Naomi Childers) , an advantageous match. Olga is actually the object of love by another aristocrat Count Alix Vronassof (Arthur Carewe), but he is poor and not a suitable suitor. Marcia (Geraldine Farrar) herself is the object of passion by Peter Poroschine (W. Lawson Butt), not an aristocrat. Marcia debuts at the Imperial Opera to great acclaim. The Tsar is there, as is the Tsarina and a monk, not [I think] identified. Now a romance develops between Michael and Marcia.

The war arrives and Michael, among others, marches of to war to the tumult of cheering crowds. But among the troops are ‘sneaking elements’, including Peter. He is assisted by a erstwhile friend of Marcia, Erina..

We move onto 1917 and the increasing agitation and rebellion among working people and peasants. The developing revolution is represented negatively Among the titles we get are,

“reign of terror in Petrograd’

‘even the whip of the Cossacks was better’

And Red Guards are shown shooting civilians in the street: Eisenstein’s depiction in October (1928) of Czarist troops shooting civilians in the street is historically more accurate.

Prince Michael and Princess Olga

Alix and Olga perish in an attack on their estate by peasants. Michael leaves Petrograd is trying to protect his his estates in Galicia. Mary works in a centre for orphaned children. But Peter is is active at the ‘Red HQ,

‘a den of terrorists’.

Here we also see a poster advocating ‘the nationalisation of women’, one of the more scurrilous slanders in the US media at this time.

So Peter and Erina come to see Mary and he offers to spare Michael, now returned, for her ‘favours’. This leads into the most exciting sequences of the film. There is a violent ‘catfight’ between Marcia and Erina. Marcia escapes, first through a window and then across a roof. Michael and Serge fights, another brutal contest. Michael succeeds and as Red Guards batter down the door he and Marcia escape.

The film now cuts to Archangel where allied warships, [British, French and US] lie off-shore; part of the invasion of the Young Soviet Republic. One of the few historically accurate depictions in the film using inserted ‘actuality’ footage. Michael and Maria cross sand-dunes to a US soldier and safety. Aboard a ship they flee and Mary will

“become his wife”.

We saw the film in a Belgium print which was tinted and toned: the French and Dutch titles were translated. The character’s names were different in this print. Mary was Marcia, Michael was Boris and Peter was Serge. This print apparently also added to the titles. So Erina was Irina and

“[The Belgium print’s intertitles call her “the Théroigne of Bolshevism” in reference to the French Revolution’s Anne-Théroigne de Méricourt, a rabble rouser born on what is now Belgium territory.]” (Festival Catalogue: Anne-Théroigne more accurately was a victim of male violence in her working life and a powerful fighter for woman’s rights during the French Revolution].

This film’s original title was The Golden Voice. The changed title seems odd but the Catalogue suggests

The Woman has survived her World.”

A narrative that crosses over with Ayn Rand’s ‘We the Living’ (1936).

John Sweeney provided the piano accompaniment. The digital version was, according to the Catalogue, transferred at 18 fps. However, apparently the ‘New Verdi’ projectors only run at 24fps or above?

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Naming of parts

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2017

This is the title of a World War II poem by Henry Reed. A line from that poem ran through my head during the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto:

‘Which in our case we have not got’.

Reed was referring to parts of a World War II rifle: in my case it was both ‘reel’ films and Soviet films. To be fair I had a good week and enjoyed a lot of the films but I had also moments when I had a real sense of missing …..

To start with the Soviet. I was full of anticipation whilst I awaited the details of this year’s programme because the Festival fell only a few weeks before the anniversary of The Great October Socialist Revolution. This was an event that had more impact on cinema than any other I can think of – the development and realisation of Soviet Montage.

I was to be disappointed. The main programme of Soviet films was ‘Across the Sixth Part of the World: Soviet Travelogues of the 1920s’. In fact we did not get the Dziga Vertov film which clearly inspired the title, though we did get a film that utilised some of the footage shot for that productions. But there was not much montage, apart from some sharp editing by Yelizaveta Svilova in a couple of titles. But neither did we get the political content that was so powerful in the 1920s. The films were in the main interesting and several were extremely well made. But all of them could have been made in the same form if the 1917 Revolution had ended in February instead of October, i.e. with the assumption to power of the bourgeoisie. There were occasional pictures of Marx and Lenin; some political slogans; and in one film workers taking snapshots at dummies of the capitalist class; but no dramatisation of the revolution overthrowing an archaic society and starting the construction of a radically new one.

We did get a 35mm print of Aelita (1924) but this film is more-science fiction than revolution. There are interesting shots of urban life after the revolution but the workers’ rebellion in the film feels like an add-on. In ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ we also had An Unprecedented Campaign / Nebuvalyi Pokhid (1931), a film by Mikhail Kaufman dedicated to the Five-Year Plan and Collectivisation. However, it was transferred to digital and I thought not a particularly good transfer: and seemingly transferred at 25 fps [for video?]. Worse it had a musical accompaniment by Anton Baibakov Collective, which appears to be a Ukrainian group. They were clearly in a different world from that in which the film was conceived. The focus was the ‘Holodomor’ or Ukrainian famine of the 32 – 33. As artist they are entitled to present alternative stances. But I have to protest when they selected a film that was made before the event in question. A FIAF handbook opines that films should be screened as close as possible to their original release: that was hardly the case in this instance. Certainly i would have expected the Festival to offer a screening of the film as intended.

The cavalier treatment of the historical Soviet events and films was highlighted by another programme, ‘The Great War’. This imperialist conflict, rightly opposed by the Bolsheviks and other genuine socialists, enjoyed a varied programme, both features and documentaries; all the ones I viewed were presented as they might have been in the years of their release.

Regarding the Soviet issue I found in a comment by Jay Weisberg,

“I had some sly fun with Russia this year …”

He is in fact writing about the Soviet Union, a federation of Socialist Republics. He was introducing two filsm presented on the ‘Red Peril’, in other words, Hollywood dramas that vilify both the Revolution and the Bolsheviks. One, The World and its Woman (1919) recycled that ‘old chestnut’, ‘the nationalisation of women’. If that had existed it was probably preferable to the experience of Hollywood producers and their audition techniques.

Since the centenary can run for a year or more is it too much to hope that next year we could have a serious treatment of Socialist Construction. In which case a prime title would be the Old and New / Staroye i novoye (1929); the film about collectivisation directed by Sergei Eisenstein and one which I have not seen screened for ages. Also the British Film Institute’s National Film Archive has a number of 35mm prints of little seen Soviet titles from this period.

Perhaps in 2018?

Better was ‘Scandinavian Cinema’ which offered lesser known titles from the ‘golden age’. The titles were all very good and even those transferred to digital looked fine. The societies of the time were fairly repressive of women but the majority of these films had strong and independent minded women. I was especially taken with Gypsy Anne / Fante-Anne (Norway 1920). This was an adaptation of  a short story scripted and directed by Rasmus Breistein. Like several of the films  it treated the restrictions on cross-class romances. The turmoil this produced were symbolised in a act of arson. The unravelling of the crime and punishment reminded me of the treatment in Victor Sjöström masterwork Ingmarssönerna (1919).

A substantial programme was titled ‘Nasty Women’. There were five sections within this and I found the title puzzling. Many of the heroines in the films were closer to anarchy than nastiness.  A typical example is the earlier film was Tilly’s Party, a BFI print from 1911. Tilly (Alma Taylor) and her partner Sallie (Chrissie White) cause upsets to their bourgeois household,. There were a whole series of these films in the period and the recurring plots show the two girls repeatedly upsetting rules and decorum. However, the Catalogue, which only arrived on the Wednesday, shed some light on the programme.

“The term “Nasty Woman” has been a feminist rallying cry since October 2016, when Donald Trump interrupted Hilary Clinton by booming into his microphone “such a nasty woman”. ” (Festival Catalogue).

I think we often draw parallels between past and present but I also think this needs to be done with care and attention. Hardly any of the female protagonists in the film acted in any way ‘nasty’. Possibly the closest to the contemporary situation came in the sole feature length Hollywood film, The Deadlier Sex (1920), in which Mary Willard (Blanche Sweet) wreaks a well-deserved but possibly illegal lesson on her capitalist rival Harvey Judson (Marlon Hamilton). The film was very well produced and Blanche Sweet was a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately we did not see any female workers expropriating either of these bourgeois.

We had the third in the series of ‘Beginnings of the Western’ this year ‘early European westerns’. The first two programme featured a number of French films from Gaumont directed by Jean Durand and usually scripted by and starring Joë Hamman, who had direct experience of the US west and the Indian tribes. The film were shot in the Camargue and that lanscape gvae the films a distinctive feel. Several of the films had been transferred to DCP but Coeur Ardent / The Heart of the red Man (1912) was in a tinted 35mm print. The film traces the romance of Coeur Ardent (Joë Hamman) and Sun Ray (Berthe Dagmar). Her father Sitting Bear rejects his daughter’s suitor. In a bid to prove Coeur Ardent a brave and suitable warrior the pair steal cattle from a neighbouring tribe. This leads Coeur Ardent facing a ‘trial’ for his theft. These sequences make good use of the Camargue landscape, especially in the use of  lakes and marshland. Coeur Ardant’s survival in the test means the romance is fulfilled when Sitting Bear recognises the suitor’s bravery.

There were also Italian, Danish and a British westerns from the early period. The Scapegrace (1913) was filmed at the Crick Studio in Croydon. The ‘scapegrace’, Jack Marriott (Reginald Davis) is cut off by his father over gambling depts. He leaves London for Canada and the Yukon Gold Rush. He strikes gold on his claim, befriends bar girl Molly ((Una Tristan) and earns the enmity of  Mexican gunslinger Manoel (J. L. V. Leigh). So the film follows the US convention whereby villains are frequently from ‘south of the border’.  There is gunplay, arson, violence at the claim and a climatic rescue before the ‘scapegrace’ wins Molly and is reconciled with his father. There is some effective location settings,

“with local gravelly heath land standing in for the Yukon.” (Catalogue).

There is a US film with the same title from the same year from the Lubin Manufacturing Company.

‘The Japanese Silent Cinema Goes Electric’ offered to titles from “saundo-ban – films that were shot as silent films, but released with a post-synchronised soundtrack, usually consisting of music score, sound effects and the occasional popular song.” (Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in the Festival Catalogue).

The curators explained how this format was a stage in the on-going struggle in the industry over the role and dominance of the Benshi. A friend noticed that the soundtrack appeared to have slight silent pauses around title cards: he and Johan discussed if this was a deliberate ploy to accommodate Benshi where cinemas retained them: the conclusion is unclear. We had a well-known film by Ozu Yasujiro Tokyo no yado / An Inn in Tokyo (Shochiku, 1935). The 35mm print seemed to have less of these ‘pauses’, perhaps aligning with Ozu’s well-known opposition to the Benshi.

The other title was a welcome discovery, Shima no Musume / The Island Girl (Shochiku, 1933), directed by Nomura Hotei. At the initial screening there was a technical glitch and there were no English sub-titles. we struggled through it and then the Festival organised a follow-up with the English sub-titles: so I got to see the film twice. It was an excellent and powerful melodrama. The main story concerns a romance frustrated by poverty: a situation that crossed over with the Ozu. The sub-plots concerned geisha’s, with the Island girls providing a source for the Tokyo pleasure quarters, The film used a popular song of the time by a popular female singer.

‘Pola Negri’ presented ‘The First Phase of Stardom’, films produced in Germany. Mania. Die Gechichte einer zigarettenarbeiterin / Mani. The Story of a Cigarette factory Girl was made at Ufa in 1918. We had a 35mm print reconstructed with tints from surviving nitrate material. Pola Negri looked a star, both in performance and in scenes of her dancing. She played a working class girl whose beauty and magnetism leads her into the world of publicity and entertainment. She was also potent in the 1918 version of Carmen / Carmen (Gypsy Blood) directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The film was closer to the original novella by Prosper Mérimée than the famous opera. The straight melodrama is less Lubitsch’s forte than his comedies, whilst the cast were never quite as compelling as Negri herself.

Another star was the canine performance of the Festival Toby, a poodle cross. This was an hybrid, part-western, part-thriller, Nel paese dell’oro (Italy, 1914). In the western section Toby is instrumental in rescuing the kidnapped Matilde. In the second half, set in Vera Cruz, Toby rescues the kidnapped son of the family. The conclusion has the bedraggled Toby and son triumphantly returning to the family apartment.

There was also a varied programme of films of ‘Early Cinema’, and the now -regular ‘Canon Revisited’. The latter shaded over into ‘Special Events’. Two of these were 35mm prints from Photoplay Productions: The Crowd , M-GM 1928 and The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg M-G-M 1927. Both enjoyed the scores composed by Carl Davis for the original series in Thames Silents. I was also pleased to catch L’Emigrante (Italy 1915). This was only a fragment, a third of the original release.  What we saw of the journeys in the film involved an elderly man migrating to South America and the exploitation that he encounters; a sort of subject suitable nowadays for Ken Loach.

Many of the films were in original release languages but the Festival has a well tried system with projected digital translations in English and Italian. And all the films had musical accompaniments, some solo or duo musicians, some with larger ensembles. In most cases these add to the screenings, heightening and dramatising aspects of character and plot. Some did tend to over-state the accompaniment which does get in the way of the film to an extent. But the Festival would not be the same without the music.

About nearly two thirds of the screenings were on 35mm, varying in quality but in most cases doing good or adequate justice to the titles. Just over a thirds was on digital formats. This was a variable experience. The International Federation of Film Archives has a number of documents on the Webpages regarding restoration and transfer of archive film, including the use of digital technologies. However, there does not seem to be a set of specifications that Archives should follow. The variation in quality of the Digital screenings at Le Giornate this year suggest that there is a disparate set of practices. Some were excellent,. especially those from the Scandinavian Archives. The best example was a DCP from Det Danske Filminstitut of Victoria Film’s Glomdalsbruden / The Bride of Glomdal ( Norway, Sweden 1926) scripted and directed by Carl Dreyer. The surviving version is incomplete but this copy preserved the distinctive qualities of the original.

However, there were other digital versions where the flat patina common in transfers was obvious. And in most cases the digital formats with tinting seemed over-saturated. I think there needs to be discussion about what exactly is the prime facture needed in transfers to digital. we had a short piece of early film shot on 65mm and transferred to digital. In the introduction we were promised that this would be the ‘cleanest’ version we would ever see. I think it was ‘clean’ but the ‘cleaning’ appears to have removed quite an amount of contrast and depth of field. I have seen early 65mm transferred to digital before and I am sure that it can look better than this.

There is a limitation in the current projection equipment in the new Verdi. Apparently the digital projectors only offer 2K quality and 24 fps. Tinting seems to need more than 2K to be effective and 24fps means step-printing. Several of the digital DCPs were marked in the Catalogue at slower rates of transfer, odd. However, there is real confusion of terms on this issue. FIAF have a glossary of terms on the Webpages but I could not find either ‘step-printing’ or ‘frame rates’.

What was more consistent about the festivals was the organisational and delivery, On the closing night the Festival Director read out a long list of people, staff and volunteers, who had worked before and during the festival. They duly received repeated rounds of applause from the audience – richly deserved.

One of their tasks is ‘policing’ the audience. Mobile misuse seemed down this year. However there is a growing tendency for late-comers to use their gadgets as torches: and many seem unaware that these can be used at knee height thus reducing the distraction. The most serious miscreants were people taking ‘pics’ during screenings. Some were caught by the theatre staff, but some were seated in the m idle of large blocks beyond reach. Perhaps the Festival could issue cattle prods in 2018?

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The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

The Artist France 2011

Posted by keith1942 on April 6, 2016

tThe Artist

The Leeds International Film Festival (where I first saw the film) in its Catalogue quoted the director:

 “what I love is to create a show and for people to enjoy it and be aware that’s what it is – a show. I’m interested in the stylisation of reality, the possibility of playing with codes.”

Hazanavicius seems to have succeeded, the film has had very good responses at the Cannes Film Festival and generally in France: the audience in Leeds at a sell out performance at the Hyde Park Picture House clearly enjoyed the film, there was lot of laugher and a burst of applause as the end credits played out. I was less enthusiastic. This is a pastiche, as the director openly admits: probably my least favourite film form after pornography. I have read and heard differing opinions and I suspect that people’s enjoyment will depend on their knowledge of and acquaintance with the Silent Cinema, which the film attempts to recreate.  For me it was just ‘off-kilter’, that slight exaggeration which is so common in pastiche.

The basic plot is familiar, going back to the 1932 film What Price Hollywood! However, in keeping with the director’s interests in film language, codes and genres, there are sizeable chunks of plot that reminded one of Citizen Kane (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). Most of all, because it is a romantic comedy, there are frequent references to Singin’ in the Rain (1952). I saw this film again when the National Media Museum screened both films in a double bill. The size of the debt of the later to the earlier film was obvious.

The film was shot on 35 mm colour stock and then converted to black and white: it uses title cards for dialogue and plot information and there is an accompanying music track. At times it is very inventive, one pleasure is the use of sound rather than music for particular sequences. However, the cinema screening uses the DCP format, and I found the transfer to this retained the harder edges of that format, so that the black and white cinematography looks far too sharp for most examples of silent film. Likewise the acting, which is pretty effective, is just a shade too mannered. The film is set at the end of the Silent Era in the late 1920s and by this time Hollywood had developed an acting style that was less melodramatic and appeared more naturalistic. However, the major weakness for me was the accompanying music. This is not in the contemporary style, but neither is it in the style of 1920s accompaniment: in fact it reminded me most of 1950s radio music, rather anachronistic. The best musical moments were when the film used original recordings: an Ellington number, a 1930s rendition of ‘Pennies From Heaven’, and also at one point a solo piano.

One of the most popular aspects of the film was the supporting character of Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who is the companion of the hero. This is the best performance in the film and is a stand-out, even for one like myself who has enjoyed hundreds of canine performers. There is a conventional last minute rescue done with real élan and, amusingly, involving nitrate film. There is also a tragic scene, actually part of a cinema screening, where Uggie displays great pathos.

Uggie

As you might expect there are numerous references to the characters of the Silent Cinema and to its films. Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert and Douglas Fairbanks all get a nod: the last-named actually has his The Mark of Zorro (1920) excerpted in this film. And there are comic routines modelled on gags from the films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. In that sense the film is well researched, and the design of settings and costumes and props is very well done. In fact, so much is familiar that one cannot remember all the references, which I assume, are intended. We are in the transition from the Silent to the Sound era in Hollywood, and this aspect is well reconstructed and dramatised.

The film was generally successful and some critics commented on a possible ‘revival of interest in early cinema’. My major reservation is that, as with the use of early film on television in the 1960s and 1970s, the film will shape people’s expectations of the experience of silent film viewing as less than accurate. And since we live in decades where it is easier to see early film classics than in the past that might be a hindrance and a pity.

Black and white, 100 minutes, with title cards and some English subtitles. Screenwriter and director: Michael Hazanavicius. Cinematography: Guilaume Schiffman. Music: Ludovic Bource.

From my original LIFF review.

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From Rover to Uggie: Dogs on Film

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2014

Blair as Rover

Blair as Rover

This was an illustrated talk that I presented at the Cinema Museum in London in late 2011. The evening was composed of both silent and sound films. However, the two key canine stars in the title both appeared in ‘silent movies’, though separated by over by over a 100 years. In fact, there were quite a few featured performers from the silent era.
In Rescued by Rover Cecil Hepworth’s dog, Blair played the canine hero. He tracks down a kidnapped child whilst the human members of the family indulge in grief and panic. Thus Rover set the pattern for a whole series of dogs who rescue the human characters from dire emergencies.
Another example was Rin Tin Tin in Lighthouse by the Sea (1924). In this drama Rin Tin Tin and his master, Albert, are set on by bootleggers. Albert is trussed up in the lighthouse. He manages to strike a match on the floor with his boot and Rin Tin Tin lights a rag soaked in kerosene, climbs up the lighthouse stairs and lights the lantern to summon help.
The distraught Pete in Dog Heaven (1927) attempts suicide because his master Joey has transferred his affections from his dog to a young girl. The method, hanging, is macabre but also very funny. A more affectionate owner is to be found in Tol’able David (1921). David and his Border collie play by a lake and in the meadow, whilst David tries to impress his sweetheart. The high point of the sequence is when the dog makes off with David’s trousers, who is then forced to return home wearing a barrel. Spoiler warning, there is a traumatic scene later in the film!
There is even more comedy in a scene from Our Hospitality (1923). Buster Keaton is caught up in a Southern feud. His best hope is to stay in the house of his enemies since the law of hospitality protects him there. He tries hiding his hat so he can remain, but his dog keeps bringing it back. The dog has already trotted behind the train that bought Buster South from New York. Despite this and in an early example of a fairly retrograde Hollywood convention, the dog disappears completely after this sequence.
David Locke, who was also in charge of projection, bought along an early Edison Dog Factory (1904). An ingenious inventor produces a machine which, in a reverse technique, when fed material like sausages churned out dogs at the other end. We had a Bonzo cartoon where this ingenious dog was faced with a problem of accessing food hidden away in the kitchen. And we had a Jerry the Tyke cartoon where his master and animator turned him into a cinema poster. Finally we had a C21st ‘silent’ film, with the now popular star, Uggie.

Uggie + george
All these extracts were made even more enjoyable by a lively piano accompaniment from Lillian Henley. Those who came along appeared to enjoy the show. So we have a sort of sequel, And the Award Goes to …. – Dogs, of course, Thursday April 24th, again at the Cinema Museum.

Posted in C21st silents, Hollywood, Silent Comedy | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »