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Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship. By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2020

The author in interview at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

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

The sub-title of the book may suggest a specialist work. This is true in part, but the writing and presentation as generally accessible and the detail information and comment on the Silent Era is of a quality and comprehension that is not found in  preceding works with which I am familiar.

The book has three main components. First there is an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; I also enjoyed the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli; such accompaniments are now standard for ‘silent’ screenings.

The curtain rises for a nitrate screening in the Dryden Theatre.

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

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. Usai also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory. Another recent area of research is the differences made by translations, including dubbing and sub-titling.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (originally 1898) produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and was not happy about the digital version or the type of music used for accompaniment, which I found  inappropriate. The digital version, and indeed a 35mm version, looked good but they were closer to the distinctive visual patina of digital than to the more luminous patina of actual film. An example I prefer that he mentions is the 2016 restoration of Kean (1924) by the Cinémathèque française. The tinting and toning was done by the Czech specialist Jan Ledecký using the techniques from the 1920s. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto; a film I had seen before but the difference in the 35mm was lovely to behold.

‘Kean’, 1924 with Ivan Mosjoukine

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration; but also one of wonder. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common.

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

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. Paulo’ Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

Silent Cinema

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

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

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

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

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

Posted in Book review | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Mistinguett – two dramas.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2020

Poster for ‘La Glu’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Glu, France 1913.

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

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

The Catalogue notes that the term is

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

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

‘suspicion and jealousy assail the unhappy groom’

And when he searches Fernando room he finds notes from

“Jules, also Arsene and from Georges.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Two films by Max Linder

Posted by keith1942 on February 4, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

The film does have some very effective technical effects.

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

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

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

‘Silent Cinema’ by Paolo Cherchi Usai

Posted by keith1942 on January 16, 2020

Paulo Cherchi Usai in an interview at Le Giornate 2019

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was originally a review in the ‘Media Education Journal

Posted in Archival issues, Early cinemas | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Woman Under Oath, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 19, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

”I wonder who it is?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suzanne Grandais with Léonce Perret

Posted by keith1942 on November 11, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I only like Chrysanthemums.”

The two suitors rush off; return to be told,

“only red ones.”

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

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

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

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

Le Homard / A Lucky Lobster, 1913

This title was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“in the American way.”

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

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

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

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

Les Épingles / For Two Pins, France 1913.

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

‘laughter,’ “The best remedy.”

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

Les Nuage Passe / A Passing Cloud, France 1913.

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

“Léonce, Léonce. Help! Help!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019

Posted by keith1942 on October 23, 2019

Catalogue cover – Marion Davies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paulo Cherchi Usai giving an interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

A quiet moment for Reception staff

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lincoln Cycle/ The Son of Democracy, USA 1918

Posted by keith1942 on September 28, 2019

This cycle of films was part of the programme at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017 devoted to the silent films of John Stahl. In fact his name appeared nowhere in the credits which recorded one Benjamin Chapin as writer, director and star.

“at the time of its release it was completely identified with Benjamin Chapin, a noted theatrical impersonator of Abraham Lincoln. …” (Richard Koszarski in the Festival Catalogue).

Whilst Chapin was planning his cycle through his own Charter Features Corp. D. W. Griffin’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ 1915 transformed the subject of the US Civil War and of Lincoln into major box office potential.

“Charter’s response was to advertise for additional technical staff, including “a Director of the most pronounced ability” to supplement Chapin’s existing unit. This seems to have been the moment Stahl came aboard, although Charter’s publicity arm, designed to focus all attention on Chapin, never admitted the fact.” (Festival Catalogue).

John Stahl, who entered the young film industry as an actor, had already directed one film, now lost, but uncredited. After this series he went on to direct nineteen features with credits as director.

Chapin had ambitious plans for the cycle.

“a sequential narrative whose structural complexity, he said, was modeled on Wagner’s ‘Ring Cycle’. The series of stand-alone subjects would not be linked chronologically like a serial, but thematically with all the episodes designed to address one central question: if Abraham Lincoln was America’s greatest president, what experiences acted to shape the development of his social, ethical, and political character.” (Festival Catalogue).

The cycle certainly did not match Wagner’s epic work. And Chapin did not emulate the long and arduous dedication to the work exhibited by Wagner, he was taken ill and died in 1918. But the cycle was already incomplete and unfinished and Chapin sold ten episodes to Paramount in 1917, who distributed them under the overall title The Son of Democracy. There was a reissue in the 1920s for the Education Market; apparently some packages had ten episodes, one eight and some titles were available individually. There are now two lost episodes with only eight surviving.

These were two reel films digitised and projected from a DCP, retaining the tinting of the originals. We watched them in the order that they had been distributed though they may have been filmed and completed in a different order in 1915 and 1916. The missing episodes were the eighth and ninth of the original ten part cycle.

We started with two episodes which are part of ‘My Boyhood’; both run running just on 25 minutes and accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano.

My Mother.

The title opens with Lincoln by a river notebook in hand.

A Flashback returns us to 1809. At this point the family, his mother Nancy, father Tom, young Abe and his sister Sarah, move from Kentucky to Indiana. In their rough cabin we see the mother reading from the New Testament in the family bible, ‘love one another’. Then a flashback within a flashback shows us the courtship of Tom and Nancy. Nancy make her husband promise to study and become literate. In the main flashback it is clear that Tom has not mastered literacy. So Nancy teaches young Abe. The family text for reading is Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrims Progress’. But Nancy is taken ill and she dies,

“Dear ones, goodbye.”

The film clearly intends to show Lincoln’s mother as the key influence on the young Abe and offers an emphasis on biblical morals. Starting with this episode sets down a particular marker for the cycle.

My Father

This title commences in 1861 with the President elect saying goodbye to ‘old friends’.

As so often he recalls a tale from his youth, ‘40 years ago’. At home Abe annoys his father with his constant reading.

Sent outside Abe becomes embroiled in a fight over a rabbit with his regular opponent, Hank Carter. In a nice background touch as Abe and Huck fight over the rabbit a young black boy makes off with the trophy. Abe receives a beating for the fight and his father takes the precious Bunyan and stashes it in a tree stump. But Abe’s literacy enable him to prevent his farther signing a fraudulent contract with Huck’s father. This and the memory of Nancy, [seen in a superimposition] makes the father relent and he fetches to book from the stump. A title informs us that Abe and his father

“reach an understanding.”

So this episode gives us the authoritarian father in contrast to the gentler and more educated mother. The Carters, junior and senior, are the regular villains of the piece. More affluent than the Lincoln’s, the son fights Abe whilst the father tries to exploit Tom and later a friend of Lincoln, Reverend Elkins.

The Call to Arms.

This episode ran 26 minutes and was accompanied at the piano by Gabriel Thibaudeau.

This episode opens in 1861 at the White House with his two sons, Willie and Ted who are scolded by their mother for being in wet clothes after bathing. Abe remarks,

“That reminds me.”

We see a brief flashback to one of Abe’s fights with another boy, Huck, He is reprimanded by his mother who raises the bible.

Lincoln now receives a delegation as the crisis with the Southern States mounts.

There is another brief flashback to Abe and his dying mother with his promise ‘never to fight’.

Back to 1861 and the South fires on fort Sumter.

“Union dissolved.” “Seven stars lost to the flag.”

A further flashback to Lincoln making an election address, holding up the Stars and Stripes and making a promise,

“Not one star shall be lost.”

Back in the present the President reads the ‘call to arms’ and cheering crowds respond.

There is now, [the only example in the whole cycle] a sequence from 1917. This is a newsreel of a ‘Wake Up America’ demonstration with Chapin dressed as Lincoln urging on the demonstrators.

This episode has more flashbacks than is the norm in the cycle, including the ones involving his now dead mother. These symbolise Lincoln’s struggle with the necessity of waging war.

The last sequence, effectively a flash-forward plays into the debate in the USA about involvement in the war taking place predominantly in Europe.

Then we had two episodes in a screening with Gunter Buchwald playing accompaniment at the piano.

My First Jury

It opens in the White House where Lincoln has to decide on an appointment in his Gentryville; the part of Illinois where the Lincoln’s lived for a time. The appointment is to the Post Office and the candidate is Billy Jinks. In Gentryville we see blacksmith Huck Carter [his childhood opponent as an adult] ‘cussing Lincoln’. Denver Hanks, who I think is from Lincoln’s mother’s family, writes to Lincoln recounting this. The letter motivates another flashback.

We now see a flashback to the young Abe. He and Huck regularly have fights.

On this occasion a young black boy, Jim, is chased accused of stealing a chicken belonging to the Carters. Abe proposes a trial; Huck is prosecutor and Abe defender. The jury consists of a cat, a donkey and a goat. Predictably Jim is found not guilty’. This provoke another fight between Abe and Huck whilst Jim escapes with the chicken, though he soon loses this.

In the present Abe writes back to Denver who reminds Huck of a piece of evidence, a sickle, still hanging in a tree from the earlier time.

Tender Memories

Running nearly 29 minutes.

The Civil War is under way and the White House is besieged with petitioners . Lincoln visits the front line. Here a skirmish occurs and two Union soldiers are shot. Lincoln comes on a soldier praying at a rough cross/grave. The scene is set at night-time and the fire and flares have red tints. Lincoln reassures a young soldier and tells him a tale.

A flashback takes us back to when Abe lost his mother. She is ‘laid to rest’ in the woods and Tom, Abe and Rash put up

“a rude cross”.

Then Abe writes to the Reverend Elkins to come and pray over his mother’s grave. This is delayed as the Reverend arrived during the fight between Abe and Huck and the minister left the scene. Later Abe is able to explain the fight and convince Elkins to pray at the grave.

At the end the soldier salutes Lincoln.

A further flashback expands on Abe’s letter. We see the family with the Reverend at the grave as all kneel and pray. Abe seems to see his mother, a superimposition..

She died in 1818 and the last shot is the grave

”grave as it is today”

with two children kneeling there.

Another double bill was accompanied at the piano by Donald Sosin.

A President’s Answer.

Running 24 minutes.

This opens with the White house which was the

‘same in Lincoln’s day” and filmed with “special permission.”

Now we encounter Huck again; now a Confederate agent recruiting for their army.

One of his targets is the son of Reverend Elkins and his wife David. Lincoln and an officer come across David, now a prisoner of the Union. In Gentryville Elkins reads of David’s capture as a ‘traitor’.

Selling his house he comes to plead his case in Washington. Edward Stanton, the secretary of war, argues against

“setting aside verdicts.”

Elkins visit his son and encounters Lincoln in the garden.

A flashback shows us Abe and ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, a present from the Parson. And we see his prayer over the grave of Abe’s mother.

Despite the argument of Stanton Lincoln releases David into the custody of his parents.

Native State.

Running just on 30 minutes.

This title opens in 1863 and secretary Stanton has decreed the confiscation of enemy property: including the home of supporters of the Confederacy in Washington. One of these is the grandson of Daniel Boone who is to be evicted. Out in his carriage with his son Lincoln passes the house where the now blind old man is sitting as the house is emptied. Lincoln sits on the bench beside the old man who swears

“vengeance on Lincoln.”

Lincoln writes a note to Stanton and we enter a flashback.

Lincoln’s grandfather Abraham has joined Daniel Boone in Kentucky where fighting goes on with hostile Indians. His father, then a young Tom, finds his sister Dot is missing. He finds her in the woods but both are captured by an Indian, Crow Eye. At the Indian camp there is debate as to what to do with the c children. Sympathetic Indian squaw, Fawn, takes the children away. The trio are menaced by a wild cat. But Abraham, searching for the c children with Boone, shoots the animal. Fawn is allowed to leave.

When the flashback ends Lincoln orders the Officer to leave and countermands the order of eviction. Informing Boone of this they shake hands and Lincoln leaves.

So the final surviving episode of the cycle, accompanied at the piano by Daan van den Durk.

Under the Stars

Running 27 minutes.

The stars in the title refer to the flag; the issue, discussed at a White House cabinet meeting, is whether Kentucky, a slave state, will join the Confederacy. There are cuts between a series of scenes: the cabinet discussion: the meeting of the Kentucky State caucus: Lincoln playing with his son in the White House garden: and Lincoln with Colonel Homes, an emissary from Kentucky.

So that “Kentucky is saved for the flag” Lincoln sends a letter to the Kentucky leaders recounting another of his tales from the past.

In a flashback we again encounter the Lincoln family in the times of the grandfather Abraham. The family move from Virginia to Kentucky. They set up in a cabin near a fort where is seen Daniel Boone.

After a dispute over a dead deer ‘hostile ‘Indians’ attack the cabin. Then Abraham is killed by an arrow in the back. A rescue party from the fort, including Daniel Boone, find the young Tom by the body of Abraham.

In the present Lincoln concludes

“[He] gave his life to place the star of Kentucky in the flag.”

The title ends with the Kentucky State Assembly approving neutrality in the war.

Richard Koszarski, in his article in ‘The Call of the Heart – John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama’ (2018) has brief plot outlines for the missing episodes.

‘Down the River’

The Mississippi in the olden days was infested by bands of slave-dealers who seized free negroes and sold them into slavery. While floating with the tide down the river on a long raft with a load of goods, young Lincoln becomes the central character in a contest of craftiness and violence with the worst of these gangs who have stolen a free negro from New Salem, a little black urchin, cause much excitement and furnish the side-splitting fun of this picturesque romance of the Mississippi.

“Ninth Chapter                                          ‘The Slave Auction’

This shows the slave center at its worst. Here young Abe is at close quarters with the band of slave-stealers. To save the free negroes, he again becomes the main figure of a drama of plot and counterplot, suspense, excitement and humor in their highest form. In the very shadow of the auction block a voodoo fortune-teller prophesies that he will become President, that he will be the leader in a great war and that through him will slaves be freed. Lincoln fails to save the free negroes and in righteous wrath he vows,

“I I ever get a chance to hit slavery, I’ll hit it hard.”

Both the voodoo woman’s vision, and young Abe’s pledge come true, for, in thirty-one years, Lincoln, as President, signs Emancipation Proclamation, abolishing slavery for ever.”

These synopsis are marketing material and do not really offer a sense of the treatment. Does either episode use flashbacks in the manner of other episodes? In fact they seem connected in a linear story that is different from the rest of the cycle. It is not clear if the mini-narrative consciously illustrates from Lincoln’s experience; is he recalling events in some situation. The resolution of ‘The Slave Auction’ does suggest the events recounted offer an explanation of a central part of Lincoln’s project. It is also intriguing; why are these two episodes missing? I have not seen any explanation of this. It seems that they were omitted in some releases of the Education version in the 1920s. If so it suggests a value-laden decision. The Hollywood studios were prone to omit material on the ‘Jim Crow’ culture of the South and its antecedents because of fears of effects on box office.

Noting that reservation the surviving overall cycle remains an impressive work. It would seem that Chapin is important in the development of the project. However, it is also clear that Chapin deny proper credits to his collaborators and critics have to surmise their input.

Richard Koszarski, in the Festival Catalogue, has provided some of the cast and craftspeople involved. Chapin played Lincoln, his father Tom and his grandfather Abraham. Lincoln as a boy – Charlie Jackson. Nancy Hanks, the mother, Madelyn Clare. Other cast members included Alice Inwood, Florence Short, Joseph Monahan and John Stafford. These names were revealed by Stahl when he publicised his own role as director.

There seem to have been a number of writers who contributed to the screenplays: Paul Bern, Monte Katterjohn, William B. Laub and Donald Buchanan. There were at least three cinematographers who worked on the cycle: J. Roy Hunt, Harry Fischbeck and Walter Blakely. The production was filmed in 19125 and 1916 on the East Coast Studio. Visually the film is conventional relying mainly on mid-shots and long shots. There are frequent use of the iris to focus on a character, prop or detail. The editing is excellent, though not credited. The entrance and exit to the flashbacks is well judged and produce a fairly complex narrative for the period.

It is difficult now to determine whose influence produced what in the cycle. Chapin clearly bought an overall vision to the series of films. Richard Koszarski makes some comments on the possible contributions of both Chapin and Stahl.

“Many events depicted do not recall any of Chapin’s theatrical productions, especially the emphasis on young Abe’s relationship with his mother in the first episode, or the continuing concern with slavery and racial injustice seen in My First Jury, Down the River and the Slave Auction … last two episodes unfortunately missing) … [it] focuses instead on his [Lincoln] sense of patriotism and justice and refers to the rebels as traitors, an unusually blunt position noted with surprise by reviewers.”

The synopses for the missing episodes suggest a different treatment in My First Jury from the two later films. And the emphasis on patriotism may well have been because of contemporary issues, including that of war, where Chapin takes a pro-entry position. And perhaps the blunt condemnation of the Confederacy, like the issue of slavery, was a factor in the missing episodes being excluded.

On the narratives Koszarski writes:

“Even more striking is the way in which the Cycle uses memory. The film incorporates flashbacks as a basic structuring device illustrating how formative experiences shape our entire character …..”

He notes how some instances, such as the fights with Huck Carter, are presented more than once and with different footage. And he also raises the way character is presented; the importance Nancy, Lincoln’s mother. He wonders regarding the issue of slavery, noting that this is an issue [like motherhood] which is not found in the theatrical productions by Chapin that proceeded the films.

One can also speculate about what was bought to the series by the team of writers used by Chapin. Paul Bern was a noted, writer, director and producer whose credit includes the memorable Grand Hotel (1932). Monte Katterjohn was an experienced film script writer hose most famous credit is the 1921 The Sheikh. William B. Laub was another writer, here at the start of his career. A number of his credit are period dramas. Donald Buchanan was similar, starting out writing stories for films and progressing to script writing.

Like the surviving reels the queries on authorship are more questions than answers. But the production teams produced a fascinating exploration of Lincoln and his position in US culture. This was the period that followed the elevation of Lincoln to his status as the greatest US President. Chapin’s career, on stage, on film and as a public figure testify to the centrality of the figure to the US history. Following the cycle through the week of Le Giornate was a rewarding experience.

Note, the version at Le Giornate was transferred from the prints held at the Packard Center of the Library of Congress. There were safety prints from the Education Version. Thank you to Zoran Sinobad for the information,.

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Fante-Anne / Gypsy Anne, Norway 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 20, 2019

Jon with the adult Anne

This title was screened at the 2017 Giornate del Cinema Muto in the Scandinavian Cinema programme. The film stood up well in a strong collection. It was the earliest example of a feature length Norwegian production with an indigenous narrative and a strong rural focus. It was adapted from a short story by the writer Kristofer Janson. A C19th writer and minister who wrote popular rural dramas; he had worked in the USA amongst Norwegian-Americans. This added a US audience to that at home and the director, Rasmus Breistein accompanied a tour and the films with a fiddle.

Breistein was a pioneer in the Norwegian film industry which, up to this point, had not really produced films that reflected Norwegian life and culture. Breistein would go on to direct films in Norway right up until the 1950s. His more famous silent is The Bridal Party in Hardanger / Brudeferden i Hardanger (1926),

This film opens with two ‘foster siblings’; Anne who is ‘a wild one’ and Haldor who is ‘more tranquil’. We see several scenes where Anne leads Haldor into more adventurous escapades and for which he is punished. Spying on a romantic couple motivates Anne to take Haldor to a small waterfall and encourage him to act romantic with a kiss. And the final event is in the creek, off-limits to the children, and into which Haldor falls. When his mother sees his state she complains that Anne should

“’never allowed to stay here.”

The listening Anne runs to her adult friend, Jon, a labourer on the Storlien farm. He explains Anne’s history which we see in flashback. A wandering woman with child is refused help at the farm. But the next morning Jon finds the dead woman and her surviving child in the barn. Thus Anne came to stay on as an ‘adopted’ sister to Haldor. Anne cries as Jon comforts her. The sequence ends with an iris shot of Jon. A title follows with a comparison of the children to ‘the prince and Cinderella’ but notes the

‘she’ has to ‘stay in the cottage’.

An ellipsis of several years follows.

The ‘adult’ section of the film opens with an iris shot of a tolling bell and then a cut to Anne happily pulling on a bell rope. This has no plot significance but presumably establishes that Anne remains a ‘wild spirit’. There follows a long shot of two men in a field, the adult Haldor and Jon. They are identified by further shots, first of Haldor in a long shot and then of Jon. But Jon, it what is presumably a sign to the audience of later developments, is presented in the foreground with Haldor in the background. And this follows the privileging shot of Jon at the end of the childhood sequence.

A long section has sequence of Anne working up the hillside at the summer farm tending for goats and cows. Both Haldor and John visit Anne. Jon makes a rather shamefaced proposal which Anne deflects. She is really in love with Haldor which is apparent on his visits. And we also see her in the village and the couple attending an open-air dance. Here the character of the two suitors is emphasised. Haldor gets in to a fight with another young man who has the temerity to dance with Anne. This is intercut with a shot of Jon and home with his mother and reading

“his collection of sermons.”

Village gossip about the romance between Haldor and Anne comes to the ears of his mother. She retains her old disdain for Anne and questions Haldor whether he should

“marry a girl of unknown origin.”

She suggests a local girl Margit whose family is

“rich and respectable.”

In fact, Haldor has already proposed to Anne. But he backtracks and stats to woo Margit. We see her visit his mother and inspect a new house which Haldor, as the

“richest bachelor in the village”

is building for himself and now his new bride.

Matters now come to a head. Haldor and Jon drop in at the summer farm whilst on the hill gathering moss. They do not see Anne but she overhears their conversation as Jon upbraids Haldor for his cavalier treatment of Anne. This scene is cut relatively fast and combines mid-shots and iris shots of the trio, including Anne listening at a door. Later Haldor returns home whilst Jon stays on the hillside with a lame horse. Fired by what she has heard Anne slips down the hill and waits till late. Then she creeps in to Haldor’s unfinished new house and set fire to kindling. The fire of the house is hot in red tints. Then we see the fire from afar as viewed by Jon descending the hillside. He finds Anne who is creeping back to the summer arm. Panicking she tells him

”if you say a word …. in the waterfall.”

There is another ellipsis and we find ourselves outside the local Court house where the villagers gather for an investigation into the fire. After another witness Anne is questioned by the recorder [magistrate]. She is cheeky in her responses and denies nay knowledge of the fire. The Jon is called forth. Passing Anne who gives him a terrified look he stands and confesses that he started the fire, suggesting jealousy as a motive. He is bound over and sentenced to prison.

The following scene sees Jon come to say goodbye to his mother. But Anne is already at the hut, having confessed to his mother. When Jon sees Anne he tells her that he believes that he can cope with prison better then her and it would likely have an adverse effect on her. The accompanying policeman has not seen Anne and he takes Jon away to begin his prison sentence.

Anne runs across the hills and is seen standing outside the prison as Jon is led in. Anne stays in town and obtains a job as a nanny. When Jon is released he is met by Anne who take shim to his mother. He says that he will

“go to America … if you and mother join me.”

Anne;’s acceptance is signalled as she shakes Jon’s hand. We last see them in a reverse shot as they stand at the rail of the ship,

“three happy people.”

Off to the USA ..

“a place without prejudice.”

The cast of the film perform well. Anne Nielsen is convincing as the adult Anne. Eino Tveito’s Jon is a serious character and presents the restraints that follow from his working status. He does not age in the move from childhood to adult world, but in both he seems a paternal figure. It is noteworthy that at the film ‘s resolution we have a feel of comradeship between Anne and Jon with their handshake rather than a more conventional romantic tone.

It is this style of treatment that contributes to the film’s achievement of a realist feel.

“The film’s authenticity in its treatment of environment and character remains striking, as does its beautiful cinematography, and is all the more impressive considering that the vast majority of those involved in the production were making films for the first time. But the director, the cinematography, and the actors all had a solid base in Norwegian music, literature and peasant culture.” (Festival Catalogue).

Gunnar Nilsen-Vig is credited with design, cinematography and editing. So his input is an important aspect of the final film. Visually the film has an impressive look and contributes to the feel of authenticity. There is amount of iris shots, common in this period. This is particular so in the dramatic sequences. However, such shots also privilege certain characters like Anne and Jon who enjoy the majority of these.

This is an interesting and convincing drama. The catalogue notes the influence of Swedish films and I was struck by some crossovers between this film and Victor Sjöström’s Ingmarssönerna (Sons of Ingmar but Dawn of Love in Britain, 1919). However, in that film it is the women who goes to prison, making the latter a more subversive narrative. Still, Anne is a strong women who eventually finds her way in life.

Director and scriptwriter, Rasmus Breistein. Based on a short story by Kristofer Janson (1878). Cinematography, design and editing; Gunnar Nilsen-Vig.

Cast: Anne Nielsen – Anne. Einar Tveito – Jon. Lars Tvinde – Haldor. Johanne Bruhn – mother of Haldor. Henny Skjønberg – mother of Jon. Edvard Drabløs – magistrate. Dagmar Myhrvold – mother of Anne.

Kommunernes Filmscentral.

DCP from 35mm, 75 minutes transferred at 15 fps. Tinted. Titles, Norwegian, English sub-titles.

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The Parson’s Widow / Prästänkan, Sweden 1920

Posted by keith1942 on April 25, 2019

This title was part of the programme, Swedish Challenge: the quality of Scandinavian cinemas in this period meant there was never a challenge in enjoying the films. This is one of the earliest films of Carl Theodore Dreyer that I have seen. Here he is working for AB Svensk Filmindustri. Of his titles that I have seen it has the most light-hearted story. The film is set in C17th Norway and adapted by the director from a short story by Kristofer Janson. The basic plot follows the efforts of theologically trained Söfren (Einar Rød) to obtain a parish incumbency. He needs a stable income so that he can marry his sweetheart Mari (Greta Almroth). However, obtaining a benefice rendered vacant by the death of the incumbent he finds that the rules require him to marry his predecessor’s widow.

The film is divided into five acts. It opens with Söfren and Mari in a verdant setting, the young lovers. We then follow an extended sequence where Söfren must compete with two rivals for the vacancy. Söfren comes from a poor family and so the living is essential if he is to merry Mari. His rivals, Olev and Kurt, are both from more affluent families. We watch as in delightful comic modes the film shows us the travails and successes of the contest. Söfren is not above sabotaging his rivals. But they lack the dynamism that Söfren brings to the exemplar sermon which is judged by the congregation. All three have to preach to a congregation that fills the small church. In delightful scenes, that reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Life’s Little Ironies’, Olev and Kurt lull the audience to sleep. Söfren, with a brand of bravado, keeps them wide awakes. These scenes in the church are intercut with shots of Mari as she wait in trepidation for the outcome. All through the film Dreyer has nicely judged counterpoints between the dramatic and the comic. Once Söfren is successful and wins the vacancy he discovers the catch; having to marry the widow of the deceased parson. Uncertain, Söfren goes to the parsonage and succumbs to the pleasures of the food and wine that are his new lot. As Mari remarks later, he has ben ‘bewitched’ [through physical pleasures] by the widow. The rest of the film follows as Söfren adapts different stratagems to inveigle Mari into the household [as his sister] and in a more sardonic tone, to remove the widow he has married.

There are a couple of ‘accidents’ but, this being a comedy, no fatalities. And towards the end of the film we are shown a more sympathetic side of the widow. Her memories of her own romantic youth and the impediments that she encountered point the way to a solution of the predicament. This sets up a satisfying and happy resolution.

The film is beautifully handled with many of the stylistic characteristics of Dreyer on show.

Dreyer emphasises ethnographic realism throughout his film. He shot the whole film in real 17th-century houses at Maihagen, an open-air museum near Lillehammer, not just the exteriors but the interiors too, despite the considerable logistic al difficulties this entailed.” (Notes in Festival Catalogue).

Extras were played local people in the area.

Geroge Schnéevoigt

Visually the film is a real pleasure. The interiors are convincing and the exteriors have that sense of authentic nature that graced Scandinavian cinema in this period. The cinematography, by Geroge Schnéevoigt, is very fine. Dreyer himself both scripted and edited the film. The cast are equally good. Einar Rød’s Söfren offers a rather passive lover which assists in much of comic business: a man clearly out of his depth away from the pulpit. Greta Almroth is the somewhat long-suffering fiancée facing the travails with patience. I had previously seen her in Victor Sjöström’s The Girl from Marsh Cottage / Tösen frân Stormyrtorpet (1917) where, as Helga, moral issues stood between her and happiness. She has a delightful screen presence. The widow is played by Hildur Carlberg who give the change in character of the woman real conviction .

The film has been restored and transferred to a DCP with a frame rate of 18 fps. Not a fan of digital transfers this look really good, one could imagine one was watching a 35mm print, including the tin tin g and toning. The Scandinavian archive do seem to set the quality standard for working with digital. John Sweeney added to the pleasures with a fine accompaniment.

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