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The Girl from the Marsh Croft / Tösen Frän Stormyrtorpet, Sweden 1917.

Posted by keith1942 on November 21, 2017


This film was screened in the ‘A Hundred Years Ago: fifty films of 1917 in 35mm’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017. It demonstrates how Swedish cinema in the late teens was a trailblazer for artistic cinema and this was one of the most accomplished titles in the programme . It was directed by Victor Sjöström and it was in many ways typical of his work, with the redemption of a key character after a fall from  grace. There were some parallels with his later masterpiece Ingmarssönerna (1919). It was also typical of Swedish cinema of the period focussing on a romance that was inhibited by class and moral prejudices.

The film was the first adaptation in Swedish cinema of a story by Selma Lagerlöf [Ingmarssönerna was also adapted from one of her novels]. This famous and popular author won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1909  “in appreciation of the lofty idealism, vivid imagination and spiritual perception that characterize her writings”. Her works were a staple of Swedish filmmaking in the 1920s. This title was adapted from a tale in a collection of short stories. It seems that there are six other later film adaptations, including [intriguingly] a German production directed by Douglas Sirk. They would have to be very well done to surpass this version.

Lagerlof’s story is really a novella with six parts. The narrative opens in a court room where Helga, daughter of a poor family, is taking a paternity case against a wealthier famer in whose service she conceived. The case is never bought to a conclusion because, despite her determination to receive acknowledgment and support, she cannot stand by and watch the man who fathered her child commit perjury. Before the court case it appears that Helga has been the recipient of moral indignation but her unselfish act in the trial changes many attitudes among the village folk. Helga and her parents live in a croft on a hill above the village and close the forest. Here is she is visited by Gudmund, the son of a relatively affluent farmer, who was at the courthouse and was impressed with Helga’s virtuous conduct. She is offered service caring for his disabled mother.

Meanwhile Gudmund is courting Hildur, the daughter of the most affluent farmer in the village. They become engaged but Hildur, a relatively unsympathetic character, insists that Helga’s service is ended before she will marry Gudmund. Helga returns to the Marsh Croft, though she continues to work of Gudmund’s parents with washing and sewing.

Following a stag night in the city the drunken Gudmund is involved in a brawl. It appears that he may be responsible for the death of a participant. Thus Gudmund also falls from grace and is faced with a moral choice akin to that made earlier by Helga. It is the resolution of this trauma that also bring resolution to t the romantic drama.

Lagerlof’s novella is narrated in a third person, providing the dialogue of the characters but with their actions and inner thoughts described by the narrator. As the Nobel citation suggests there is a particular emphasis on the spiritual and moral aspects. But the story is also imaginative as the writer describes in detail the interior and exterior settings. The croft and it environs are especially well presented. And Lagerlöf spends time describing particular actions such as the wood chopping that both Helga and Gudmund perform.

The Swedish film version follows the plot fairly closely. However, since we watch the charterers they are far more personalised than in the written version . And the film uses only some of the narrative comments relying on performance to suggest the moods and feelings of the characters. The prejudices in the village community seem slightly starker in the film: only a select number of the inhabitants demonstrate a change of heart after Helga’s virtuous act.  The film presents particular actions as sequences in close detail as in the book: the sequences of chopping wood are important and the wedding preparations are also shown in full detail. The film does omit one interesting facet of the book: Lagerlof’s novella makes use of a traditional rural ritual involving ashes and a sense of home which is left out of the film. As with the novella the illegitimate child is rather conveniently left aside.

Sjöström with cinematographer Henrik Jaenzon makes a fine job of the filming. As is the case in Swedish cinema of the period the use of landscape is excellent, including both lakes, forests and mountains. The camera shows us both the village and its court house and the farm of the Hildur family which is effectively contrasted with that of Helga’s, high up and alongside the forest. The settings, both interior and exterior, are carefully crafted and the furnishings and objects delineate the characters. So the rich hustle and bustle of the wedding sets the scene for Gudmund’s confession. At another point a shot of Helga as she prepares the coffee for the visit by the Hildur family emphasises the social contrasts.

There is frequent deeps staging, well served by the deep focus available at the period. In one sequence Gudmund father, set back in the frame. watches his son, set forward, as he searches for an incriminating object. The Production Design by Axel Esbensen and Art Direction by Axel Esbensen enables the blending of locations and sets effectively.

Helga is played by Great Almrof, a popular and busy actress of the period. She is really convincing as the young woman with a strong moral sense and behaviour. Lars Hansen, in one of his early roles, is equally effective as Gudmund, a character who displays the impetuosity and exuberance that was the common characterisation played by Hanson. The pair were teamed together again in Maurice Stiller’s equally fine Song of the Scarlet Flower / Sången om den eldröda blomman (1919). The supporting cast are good as well. Karin Molander does well with the unsympathetic part of Hildur: we saw her again later in the week in Stiller’s Thomas Graals Best Film / Thomas Graals Bästa Film (1917).

The Catalogue entry, by Jon Wengström, noted that

‘The film was a critical and commercial success, not least in the US where more than forty prints were distributed. The “National Board of Motion Picture review” in January 1919 praised the film for its “excellent photography, unusual acting, exceptional technical handling” and its excellent moral effect”.




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Laughter in Hell USA 1933

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2016


This film was part of the programme of Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. The film and its director, Edward L. Cahn, were new to me. The film is from the period before the Hollywood Production Code came into full effect. It does not seem to have had a UK release. It is a film that followed on from the release and success of I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), and features the same notorious penal system. However, this is a far more brutal depiction and, I suspect, a more realistic one.

The basic plot line is structured around Barney Slaney played by Pat O’Brien, in one of his best performances. We first meet Barney as a young boy and the victim of bullying by the older and bigger Perkin brothers. Through hard study and graft Barney becomes an engineer on the railroad. He also wins the hand of Marybelle (Merna Kennedy) over the competition of Ed Perkins (Douglas Dumbrille]. Marybelle’s wayward behaviour leads to murder and Barney’s condemnation to the chain gang. The prison camp to which he is sentenced is run by Ed’s surviving brother Grover Perkins. So Barney becomes a victim of Grover’s persecution.

But what stands out in the film is the racist treatment of the predominately black prisoners. This is depicted in the film with both skill and quite shocking images. The prisoners are housed in wagons with metal bars, and this seems to be where they eat and sleep. The work routines are savage as is the enforcement of discipline. There is a powerful sequence where a black prisoner is hanged/lynched by Grover and the guards.

A cholera epidemic sees the prisoners forced to act as undertakers, collecting and burying the bodies of the victims. It is here that their pent-up resistance explodes in a powerful and fast cut sequence. This enables Barney to escape, though it appears that most of the black prisoners die in the episode. The later sequences of the films are quieter as Barney attempts to flee the state [and therefore the State jurisdiction] and make a new life. The ending here is ambiguous.

The film, especially in the prison camp sequences, offers striking black and white imagery, carefully controlled camera work and [for certain sequences] some very fast and effective editing. The Festival Catalogue notes:

“There is hardly a sequence in the film that is not marked by Cahn’s visual invention, which includes such innovations as a startlingly advanced us of slam zooms to portray Barney’s murderous rage.” (David Kehr).

Scenes involving violence and the chain gang also often use acute camera angles for emphasis. And there are also expressionist touches, as in the sequence of rebellion, and in some of the later scenes of Barney’s odyssey.

The film was adapted from a 1932 novel by Jim Tully, also known as the ‘hobo novelist’. It seems that the film softened the ending found in the novel. Tully’s autobiographical  ‘Beggars of Life’ was filmed in 1928 at Paramount and offered another subversive treatment of  crime and law and order in the period.

Edward Cahn had started in the industry in 1917 and worked as an editor before progressing to direction. This presumably accounts for the very effective editing in the film. The quality, and possibly the too close to real-life narrative,  of this film did not help his career. The Catalogue motes that,

“Cahn immediately vanished from Universal’s roster, resurfacing two years later at the Poverty Row studio Mascot – the beginning of a wildly prolific career as a B-director that extended into the early 60s.” (David Kehr).

Posted in Early sound film, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

A House Divided USA 1931

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2016


This was an early sound film from Universal Pictures. The original story was penned by Olive Edens and then scripted by John B. Clymer and Dale Van Every. The film was directed by William Wyler, working on only his second sound film. The finished film is dominated by Walter Huston as Seth Law. Seth is a boat owner in a small seaside village on the Pacific coast where they fish for salmon. Seth is a larger and life character who dominates the village. In an early bar scene we see Seth easily polish off  liquor, pick up the leading bar-room gal and then beat a rival in a brutal fist fight. Seth is a widower with a son Matt [Kent Douglass, later to become Douglass  Montgomery]. Matt is a far more sensitive character than his father, who despises him. The bar-room scene opens with Seth trying to teach his son to drink and pick up women. Matt resents his father, partly because of Seth’s treatment of his dead wife and mother.

The film opens with the funeral of the dead wife and mother. Boats land on a beach and then the funeral group, with the coffin, climb a steep path to a cliff-top cemetery. Following the funeral Matt wishes to leave to become a farmer but his father insists on him staying. Then Seth gets a response from a ‘ mail-order bride’ and promises to let Matt leave when he is married.

When the potential bride arrives it turns out to be a friend of the respondent, Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler). She is much younger than Seth and he offers to pay her return fare. She, coming from poor farming stock, opts to stay. Thus Seth marries her. On his wedding night the village celebration takes place alongside the docks, with a great bonfire and fireworks. Seth performs for the village with an energetic and bravura dance round the fire.

Whilst the marriage starts out as an necessary formality for conventions sake, Ruth gradually awakens desires long dormant in Seth. Meanwhile, Matt who has not left, has struck up a close friendship with Ruth. One night when Seth attempts to assert his conjugal rights Matt fights with him outside Ruth’s room. Seth is toppled down the stairs, injures his spine and becomes  a paraplegic. From then on Seth, an active and vigorous man, is struck down, having to drag himself round house and environs. These sequences are reminiscent of some of the films that featured Lon Chaney.

The relationship between Ruth and Matt develops but remains chaste. The pressures of her situation finally compel Ruth to attempt to leave in the Law boat. Caught in a storm, her boat is wrecked on rocks near the harbour. Seth, tied to a long rope, goes to her rescue. He perishes but Ruth survives and is rescued by Matt. The final shot shows them together at the regular trysting spot, a promontory below the Law house.

It is Huston’s performances that impresses in the film, both as the active but oppressive father: then as the frustrated invalid. But the supporting cast are also very good. And the melodramatic tale carries great conviction. The direction and production match this. Wyler exercises great control and the presentation is dynamic and condenses the story, only 70 minutes in running time. The cinematography is by Charles Stumar and makes fine use of chiaroscuro with some impressive night-time sequences. The father and son fight sequence, and the subsequent scenes with a cripple protagonist make good use of high and low camera angles. At times we are down on the floor with Huston. There are a number of special effects by that regular with the studios John C. Fulton. And the still early and rather primitive Western Electric sound systems is well judged in the hands of C. Roy Hunter.

One of the writing credits, for dialogue, goes to the young John Huston, son of Walter. He had already provided dialogue for the preceding Wyler film The Storm, (1930). His role in the film is intriguing. There are a number of sequences of conflict between the father Seth and the son Matt. How much did actual life feed into these? The basic plot is a familiar one and there is a variant in the later They Knew What They Wanted (1940).

I thought the film missed out on a possible trope. It could have ended, as it began, with the funeral of Seth, in the cliff top cemetery. This would have bought the story full circle and provided a visually impressive close to match the opening. We watched a good 35mm print at Il Cinema Ritrovato, though it was overly dark at times, possibly a dupe. The ratio was 1.20:1 with the early sound strip tightening the framing. The Festival Catalogue opined this is

‘arguably William Wyler’s first mature film’.

In fact, of those that I have seen, the silent Hell’s Heroes (1929) would equally deserve that accolade. In both films Wyler, with his production colleagues, demonstrates a mastery over the conventions of Hollywood studio drama.

Posted in Early sound film, Festivals, Hollywood | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Westfront 1918: Vier Von Der Infanterie, Germany 1930.

Posted by keith1942 on July 13, 2016

Westfront 1918

Like the famous Hollywood feature, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), this is a powerful and critical representation of the trench warfare in World War I. It is grimmer and more realistic than the US film, but both make use of the new sound technology. Westfront 1918 [as it is generally known] has been available in a 35mm print for years but now the Deutsche Kinemathek have revisited their negative copy and a positive copy held by the BFI. The result is a fuller film version with improved sound which was screened at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in a DCP format. The dialogue is in German and French and has English subtitles. It runs 96 minutes and is in the soon to be standard 1.33:1 ratio.

The film was directed by G. W Pabst and includes fine cinematography by Charles Métain and Fritz Arno Wagner. As with Pabst’s silent films the editing is fluid and follows a basic continuity and there are impressive tracking shots at the front. The sound is impressive for this early foray in the new technology and adds to the fierce brutality of the images. The noise of battle or of scenes away from the front is unrelieved by any accompanying music.

The film is adapted from a novel by Ernst Johannsen, and scripted by the author with  Ladislaus Vajda. The film has four protagonists serving on the Western Front in 1918. Their intertwined experiences are presented in an episodic fashion. Their experiences here are awful. At various stages they have to confront enemy attacks, bombardments [including at one stage by their own artillery], gas attacks and being buried alive when trenches collapse. There are several harrowing sequences in no-man’s land and memorable images of the wounded and the dead. Pabst and his team pull no punches in depiction the grim reality of modern warfare.

We also see the soldiers away from the front. One has an affair with a young French woman, which one imagines did not go down well in territories which had been part of the western alliance. Another returns home to find his wife is surviving through effective prostitution. These latter scenes hark back to the ‘street films’ of the 1920s.


In some ways the grimmest moments are at the film’s ends. Here a wounded officer is taken past the grotesque corpses of battle and then to a field hospital where medical attention is basic and inadequate. What saves the sequence is a moment of compassion across the lines of conflict.

The film was successful on release though the Festival Catalogue includes a report by Siegfried Kracauer that

“Many people fled the cinema complaining that they could not endure the film.”

The Nazi response in 1933 was even more drastic, they banned the film as it

“endangered crucial interests of state.”

That and cutting the prints down [as with the UK release] meant that the surviving film for years was an incomplete picture. This restoration reveals what is one of the important films about the first World War. The fact that it is in DCP presumably means that it will circulate more widely. Perhaps someone will give us a double bill of the Pabst masterwork and All Quiet on the Western Front?

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By the Law / Po zakonu / Dura Lex, USSR 1926

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2015

The prospectors

The prospectors

One critic described this film, from the Kuleshov Collective, as a ‘constructivist western’. It was adapted from a short story by Jack London by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov; the latter also directed the film. The plot of the film adheres fairly closely to London’s story, though there are three significant changes. The film follows from the admiration of many Soviet artists for the work of Jack London and also from a strong interest in US culture, including Hollywood film genres. These were seen as possessing a real dynamism and an embrace of many aspects of modernism.

The setting is the Yukon during the late C19th gold rush. There are only five characters, though the film adds a dog. Four men and a woman, all prospecting for gold. The original story also features Indians/Native Americans, though their role is subordinate. The film jettisons them completely. There was an opening shot of the execution of an Indian, which was left out. This is a desolate landscape for much of the time – from summer, through winter, to spring – frozen hard. The only additions to the harsh terrain are a cabin and the mine workings. For the film the exteriors were actually shot not far from Moscow.

It is very interesting to remember how the outdoor shooting in By the Law took place. We had to be in time to catch the ice flows thawing in the spring. We had a house built on the shore of the snowy river bank, and this house had to be flooded with water when the ice came into contact with it. …

First, it was necessary to work on the ice all the time. The actors’ hands and feet were scratched and bleeding. (Kuleshov).

In fact this was a low budget film, the only reason it was made. There was the small cast and few settings. Even then the production worked sparsely. The screenplay was written almost in one night.

The first major change in the film is the composition of the prospecting group. In the story we have four men, all of whom have contributed equally to the working capital. The leader is Hans Nelson, and the woman is his wife Edith, who for servicing the domestic needs of the group enjoys an equal partnership. In the film we have the Nelsons (Hans – Sergej Komarov, Edith – Aleksandra Khokhlova), the shareholders Dutchy (Fred Forell) and Harky (Porfiri Podobed); the fifth member Michael (Pyotr Galadzhev) is the group servant; Edith here works with the men on the mine. Michael will receive wages rather than a share of the finds. In the story these come from a steady flow of small amounts of gold, which amount in value to $18,000. In the film there is a sudden find of gold – by Michael! – whose value is not tabulated.

In the story violence erupts unexpectedly; this is the case in the film but it is also obvious that the inequalities between the partners and their servant are the motivation. Michael shoots Duchy and Harky. Following this he is bound by Hans and Edith. Whilst Hans wishes to carry out summary justice, Edith persuades him that they should follow ‘the law’. We observed the trio as Michael is imprisoned and watched over through the winter and then, with spring, how Edith and Hans proceed to trial, verdict and justice.

Much of the plot shows us the harshness of the artic winter. Hans’s struggles to dig graves for the two corpses in the frozen ground. He and Edith struggle to drag the bodies to the graves and inter them as a winter storm increases in violence. Then, later, as winter recedes, the land is flooded and Hans and Edith, with Michael, struggle against the waters that surround and flood the cabin.

In the story the omniscient narrator explains the character of the three main protagonists. In the film, much of this is conveyed in the mise en scène. Thus Edith is frequently seen with a small prayer book; seen in the first shot of her. She insists on reading some burial prayers over the graves as the storm howls around her and Hans. She constantly uses or refers to the same book in the cabin.

In the case of Michael we first see him with his dog and a wooden flute. We learn something from a flashback. He hails from Ireland and we see him in an earlier time with his aged mother, promising to return with money to support her. London explains this to the readers in his narrative voice.

The film uses very sharp and sometimes elliptical editing and favours angular shots. However, the chronology is straightforward and linear with the flashback fairly clearly signalled. In common with the 1920s Soviet cinema there is s strong tendency for the use of symbolism. Apart from her prayer book Edith also puts up a picture of Queen Victoria, who represents both Britain and British Law. In a title card, which may be ironic, Michael is informed that as he is Irish he is subject to British Law!

Much of the drama of the film is communicated by the acting. Michael early on, as he performs his menial tasks, suggests the class envy that motivates him. Hans also suggest an instinctive urge to violence and retribution. The standout character is Edith. Khokhlova is a very distinctive actress and this is one of her most powerful performances. The drama around the question of ‘the law’ derives much of it potency from her characterisation.

By the law dog

Then there is the dog. Unfortunately here the Soviet film mirrors that of Hollywood. The dog appears in the early scenes setting up the drama. However after the murders he more or less disappears from the plot. Then suddenly he re-appears for a scene in the sodden cabin. This is a festive dinner as spring arrives, also added for the film and reminiscent of a scene in Dostoevsky. The dog is seen licking Michael’s hand: adding to the change of mood as the imprisoned trio relax to celebrate the festivities. This is the point that we see the flashback. Then the dog disappears once more for good.

Kuleshov was the pioneer in Soviet montage and he had his own particular take on this. Rather than the discontinuities found in the films of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, with his cinematographer Konstantin Kuznecov, tends to rapid and short takes. However, like Eisenstein objects and parts of characters appear in close-up working as signifiers. Continuity flows from the plot and the title cards. Cuts between shots rarely provide a sense of the space between. The cutting is often abrupt and effectively some of the cuts work as jump cuts. Space in his films tends to collapse so that it is the changes in shot sequence that provides meaning rather than the suggested sense of the setting or landscape. Lighting is extremely important in his work. One technique he favours:

…the most advantageous lighting for the cinema is backlighting, so-called contre-jour. This light provides the opportunity to see, precisely and clearly, the silhouette of the object, provides an effect of stereoscopy and depth.

The approach is most dramatic in the climatic execution scene. The sequence has an abstracted and symbolic feel, as the characters and setting are seen more in outline: contrasting powerfully with the more realistic shots earlier in the film. The setting is dominated by a solitary tree, a tree that first appeared in the second shot of the film.

The execution.

The execution.

Kuleshov also has a distinctive approach to acting. This is most notably with his star Khoklova. This approach in some ways parallels the work of the German expressionists, in that acting seems to be an extension of the settings and objects in the film. However, Kuleshov makes very different use of light and camera. Soviet theatre had developed a dynamic approach to performance. Kuleshov develops this to create movement that is economical but authentic for the character. He describes Khokhlova in an earlier training in ‘educational etudes’ – rehearsal playlets that included the proposed montage of a finished film version.

A doctor receives a female patient. The doctor’s wife (Khokhlova) is extremely jealous. She confronts the doctor in a hysterical fit, and this fit goes on for about 150 meters, worked out in the most complex, semi-acrobatic series of movements.

This highly developed and precisely worked out acting style recurs in the most dramatic sequences inside the cabin. It reaches a crescendo in the execution scene where Khokhlova’s almost mechanical movements and stances parallel the stark outline of the set, dominated by the ‘hanging tree’.

The film follows this climax with another change to the London story. This is one that sets up both an ambiguity and a psychological frame for the characters’ actions and motivations. And it also brings back the economic to the fore of the story.

The film was popular in the USSR and well received critically abroad. Some critics in the Soviet Union thought that the film needed a stronger political slant. In fact, Kuleshov and his colleagues had sharpened the class angles of the original story: a recurring problem in London’s writings. Generally regarded as the best of Kuleshov’s surviving features, the film is powerful and involving. And it is another fine example of 1920s Soviet cinema.

Quotations from Kuleshov on Film Writings of Lev Kuleshov, translated and edited by Ronald Levaco, University of California Press, 1974.

The film was screened from 35mm prints at the 2005 and 2008 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

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