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Posts Tagged ‘Le Giornate del Cinema Muto’

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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Pordenone’ ‘Verdi’.

Posted by keith1942 on January 13, 2019

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto has offered an entrée into silent film since 1982. I was happy to go along for the first time in 1993 and[ fortunately] I have been able to attend every year since. In the early years we watched almost the entire programme in the old Cinema Verdi.

“From 1985 to 1998, the festival’s venue was the Cinema Verdi in Pordenone, a picture palace from the great post-war era of Italian cinema-going.”

The auditorium seated just over a 1,000 in a ground floor and a balcony. There was a proper projection booth with twin projectors and an ample and large screen. The downstairs seating was fine with good views of the screen from just about all the seats. The same was true of the balcony but the wooden seats could feel rather hard after several titles; cushions were advisable. On either side of the proscenium were two small balconies. It was from these that one of the great accompaniments was heard at the Festival. In the closing scene of Hell’s Heroes (1929) Charles Bickford staggers down the high street of a small western town. He is dying and clutching a small baby that he has saved and carried across the desert. The whole town is in the local church and as Bickford and the baby stagger through the porch, a choir, sited either side of the proscenium, burst into ‘Silent Night’ in the darkened auditorium. Was there a dry eye in the house.

“Following the local authorities’ decision to demolish the Verdi, in 1999 the Giornate moved to the Teatro Zancanaro in Sacile (15 km from Pordenone), a well-equipped modern auditorium behind the older facade of a theatre which has been presenting films since 1911.”

The Zancanaro was a fine venue but seated under 900. And in these years the Festival was expanding; as it had done continuously since its inception. There were additional screening of titles in the nearby Ridotto.; a hall rather than a cinema. The chairs were hard but the screenings were fine. It was there that I witnessed an impressive translation. We had a print on Stiller’s Gösta Berlings saga, 1924) but without English sub-titles. A member of the Festival audience [whose name alas I do not have] sat by the pianist and for over two hours translated the Swedish title cards.

“The Teatro Comunale “Giuseppe Verdi” of Pordenone rises on the ashes of the Cinema Teatro Verdi, closed on June 30, 1999 and subsequently demolished. In October 2007 the festival moved back to Pordenone and to the new Verdi theatre.”

The Festival has continued to have a screening at the Zancanaro on the Friday evening preceding the main programme. In Pordenone most of the screenings are in the new Verdi, with a few screening s[including Saturday morning when the orchestra rehearse for the final gala] in the Cinema Zero.

There were problems with the design of the new Verdi building, an opera and event venue rather than specifically for cinema. Apparently the sight lines were not good for all seats and the projection booth was inadequate. The move, planned for 2006, was delayed for a year. And the Festival has continued in this venue since 2007. The interior of the auditorium has steps by the side doors and there has been a few stumbles and an accident. So a dedicated band of ushers who assist people with torches to their seats. They are fine. Unfortunate some of the actual audience members also use their mobile phones as torches and quite a few of them do not realise that it is better to hold this at knee level rather than wave it about. There are three balconies. The first has some seats cordoned off because they are in front of the projection booth. The upper two are steep. There are quite a few seats on the ground floor and in the upper balconies where the sight lines are not good. I really did prefer the old Cinema Verdi.

ground floor and screen from balcony

The new Verdi seats just under 1,000 and that is the average number of registered guests in the last three years. And there are the local citizens who attend many of the screenings. So the last couple of years has seen queues forming, often 30 minutes or more before the next session stars. Fortunately rain is not frequent in Pordenone and even in October the temperature in the evening is mild. For many the queue if because they wish to sit in particular area. But for major titles it is just to ensure you can sit and watch the film.

There is a small Ridotto or rehearsal hall which is mainly used for the Master classes for aspiring silent film accompanists. But the hall was the venue for a striking commemoration. Celebrating the trail blazing FIAF event of 1981 which offered an in-depth study of early cinema. In this event we watched selection of some of the important material from that occasion, happily still on 35mm.

The Cinema Zero is fine but much smaller. It used to have a ground floor and balcony, the latter with the better sat. It was redesigned a year or so ago. And now there is one rake, with a separation aisle and standard comfortable seats throughout. However, it was just point this that the cinema went ‘all digital’. I remember passing a forlorn and abandoned 35mm projector outside the rear of the building.

Because of its design the Verdi has three floors of lobbies. One with a small coffee bar. It is here that the Festival places small exhibitions coinciding with a particular programme of films. And there are also a set of book and merchandise stalls. A good place for uncommon books and a wide variety of videos.

There is a large screen in the proscenium, 12 metres wide and 6 metres high. For screening sin the silent ratio of 1.33:1 this reduces to 8 by 5 metres. The projection booth in the Verdi is at the rear of the lower balcony and slightly off-centre. I had the chance to visit this and chat briefly to some of the projection team. The booth is fairly cramped. It should be noted that these days about half of the Festival programme is on 35mm prints, the rest on digital formats. So every day the team have a stack of 35mm reels to bring up, store, project and then move for the next batch.

There are two 35mm projectors, Cinemeccanica ZX8000H. Designed for a large screen the have a complete range of frame rates below 24 fps and the team also have a complete set of plates for the different aspect ratios. One year we had a film in academy ratio fired up in standard widescreen when the plates were confused. But this was a rare aberration. The team have a high standard of projection including getting the focal length right nearly always.

The digital projector is a 2k Christie DCP machines. These are fairly widely used projectors. However, 2K DCPs are not really equivalent to 35mm. There is a debate about just where the equivalence between digital and film falls. But all the sites I have visited reckon that 2K is not equivalent. Unfortunately despite the fact that 4K DCP is an available format; and that digital cameras are now available at 6K, most institutions including many archives still mainly use 2K. In addition the Christie only has standard frame rates, 24fps, 25fps and 48 fps. There are agreed specifications for lower frame rates but [like 4K]these have very little availability.

Fortunately the ratio of film to digital has settled over the last couple of years around 50/50, I hope this will continue, However, the omens are not propitious. At a conference in 2018 an archivist from the Austrian Film Archive explained that the master of a new restoration was on tape and the funds were not available for a film master. I wonder, just as we have lost the old Verdi, whether the current far too rapid changeover of formats may not lead to lost films. Thus repeating the sad loss when sound replaced silent.

 

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Early film screenings in 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2019

Brüder, Deutschland 1929, Regie: Werner Hochbaum

The Sight & Sound new double issue has a lot of space devoted to the ‘top films of 2018’. Alongside this are lists of commendations of titles from particular territories or genres and one devoted to ‘five silent films to see’. This followed an article on the silent films that were accessible in 2018. There were some I saw and some I missed. But the article, like to list of titles, did not inform the reader of how and where the writer saw the titles. There were some comments on the non-silent Peter Jackson’s ‘rip-off’ from the Imperial War Museum materials. These were rather muted and those in the Silent Cinema London Blog were much more to the point.

In both cases there must be question regarding the format and the screening. In Britain most of the titles from the silent era come round on digital, and 2K DCP at that. No-one in Britain seems to have yet taken the trouble to follow the specifications for frame rates below 24 fps, most common in the silent era. So these titles must be step-printed to some degree.

And 35mm prints are not necessarily better. We had The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in Leeds from a 35mm print and with a very good musical accompaniment. But the print was a sound version and the image was noticeably cropped because of the change in ratio. Some of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival screenings were on 35mm but I only caught those in Leeds. Apparently part of the funding for this Festival comes for musical accompaniment. I assume this was the reason for experimentation. In this case the French film Ménilmontant 1926) on film but accompanied by Foley sound effects. This was not only bizarre but ruined the screening of the film. However, I am still able to travel and I was able to enjoy some fine quality films in good 35mm prints and screened and accompanied with due regard as the how films were presented in the earlier era.

The Berlinale had this very fine retrospective of Weimar Cinema. The whole programme was magnificent and even the digital transfers were well done. But the high point for me was:

Brüder / Brothers, Germany 1929 with a passionate accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

The Nitrate Weekend at the George Eastman Museum offered only sound features but included some pretty early prints. The Festival came to a fine climax with

Man of Aran, Britain 1934 with a well preserved print held by the Museum

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered what I thought was the strongest programme for several years. One of the real pleasures was series of film adaptation from the novels of Honoré de Balzac. One of the fine titles was;

Liebe, Germany, 1927. This was a well done adaptation of a fine novel with an impressive characterisation of the heroine by Elisabeth Bergner.

Le Giornate offers both 35mm and digital transfers, the latter of varying quality. But we had several of the latter that were very well done. Pride of place must go to;

Lasse Månsson fra skanne / Struggling Hearts, Denmark 1923. Set in the 17th war between Denmark and Sweden this transfer from 35mm looked excellent. The DCP was from the Danske Filminstitut. In other years there have been equivalent transfers from the Svenska Filminstitutet. The Scandinavian seem to have mastered this process.

The great beacon in Britain must be the Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. If I was richer I would move closer. Late in the year we had their fourth Silent Film Weekend. There was a rich variety of titles and music. My standout was;

Turksib, USSR 1929. The film alternates scenes of idyll with driving montage, well set up by the accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis.

There were many other fine prints, screenings and accompaniments. So this remains a good time to enjoy early films. However, Britain is not the best place to do this.

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Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Madame de Langeais’

Posted by keith1942 on December 24, 2018

This is one of the most interesting and pleasurable of Balzac’s novels. Jay Weissberg in the Giornate Catalogue notes comments on the several film adaptations;

Antoinette, Duchesse de Langeais is one of Balzac’s most bewitching characters, the representative par excellence of a profligate nobility reasserting its power and privileges under Louis XVIII.”

Antoinette and he lover Armand are both distinctive characters and the story and its social milieu are fascinating. The novella, [it is barely a full-length novel] is part of a trilogy that the author grouped under ‘Histoire des treize’ [History of the Thirteen];

‘loosely connected by recurring characters.”

But they are also connected by the central theme of frustrated passion and by a vivid portrait of upper-class Parisian life in the 1830s. The novel has proved a popular source for film adaptations.

La Duchesse de Langeais, 1910 French film by André Calmettes: The Eternal Flame, 1922 American film by Frank Lloyd: Love (Liebe), 1927 German film by Paul Czinner: La Duchesse de Langeais, 1942 French film by Jacques de Baroncelli: Ne touchez pas la hache, 2007 French film by Jacques Rivette, [the last uses a line from the novel ‘Do not touch the axe’]. There was also a version by Rex, The Ultimate Sacrifice 1911 and a lost version by Carmine Gallone La storia dei tredici with Lyda Borelli and, noted by Jay Weissberg,

the most famous cinematic version … never got beyond the planning stage: Greta Garbo, directed by Max Ophuls.”

There are also two French television film adaptations. The roster of stars and directors speaks to the attraction of this novel. Jay also notes than several versions adhere to the tragic ending in the novel, but at least two change this for ‘happy endings’.

We were able to see two silent versions, the 1910 French version of about ten minutes and then the 1920s German version in a full-length feature.

The outline story involves the Antoinette, a Duchess through marriage, through the spouses live separately. She is a noted member of the aristocratic circle and a fashion leader. She practices coquetry but is careful not to step over the moral boundaries of married women. Armand is General in the French army. He led under Napoleon and after a period of adjournment is back in service. He is a rather taciturn character who has never had a serious romantic or sexual involvement. Antoinette practises her coquetry on Armand who succumbs. However, her refusal to consummate a relationship leads to estrangement. ‘Do not touch the axe’ is Armand’s warning to Antoinette when they meet at a ball. Soon the roles are reversed and Antoinette is the one seeking a serious relationship. When she fails she retreats to a convent. Now Armand’s passion is re-ignited and the finale occurs when he searches for his now lost love.

La Duchesse de Langeais was screened from a 35mm print. Only 171 metres survived of the original 215 metres. At 18 fps it ran eight minutes. Clearly this involved considerable compression of the source. Antoinette (Germaine Dermoz) meets the General de Meyran (The director, Andre Calmettes] at a ball where he spurns her initial advances. This leads to a breach and then her retreat to the convent. The finale, when the general breaks into the convent in an attempt to free and win Antoinette is close to the novel and the most dramatic sequence in the film. But, as with Balzac’s original, he is to late, and finds only Antoinette’s body awaiting a funeral. The leads are effective and the production is well presented; predominately in long shots with convincing sets. The final attempted rescue uses chiaroscuro and emphasises the sense of imprisonment and loss.

This early short version was followed by Liebe which Paul Czinner both scripted and directed. The plot is relatively faithful to the source novel and the changes are minor. Elizabeth Bergner plays Antoinette with, I thought, great skill and characterisation. The changes in the attitudes and behaviour of the Duchess as the story progresses are convincing psychologically and generate strong emotion late in the film. Hans Rehmann plays Armand, Marquis de Montriveau. I thought he was effective in portraying the taciturn and [to a degree] repressed character of the general. However, I did not feel that he was a successful when the character develops from a passion to genuine and powerful love.

Paul Czinner’s adaptation catches the novel with a fair degree of fidelity. It also achieves a sense of the psychology of Antoinette and Armand, which is important in the plot development convincing. The plotting has nice touches which bring out the characters. Thus on first meeting Antoinette a tile card informs us,

[she] ‘wears no gloves’. [so other women] remove theirs”.

When we watch the series of visits to Antoinette by Armand in pursuit of his initial passion there is a scene where she plays the piano. This is an important point as later in the convent it is when Armand hears an organ playing and recognises both the melody and the style that he realise he has finally stumbled on Antoinette’s hideaway.

In the later tragic sequence, when mischance leads to the lovers missing a tryst, Antoinette waits in the shadows and there is fine chiaroscuro as we watch the sad figure. This is where on of the minor changes from the novel occurs. In the source Armand fails to realise that a clock is running slow and arrives late. In the film a ‘friend’ of Armand deliberately changes the clock time when he realises Armand has an assignations. A nice touch bringing out the meanness of the social milieu. This is an aspect that is also pointed out in the balls that Antoinette and Armand attend.

The cinematography for the film by Arpad Viragh and Adolf Schlasy is excellent The interiors have atmosphere created by the lighting and the exteriors look naturalistic. The designers were Hermann Warm and Bellan with costumes by Ilse Fehling; this all appear realistic and add to the atmosphere in which the cast perform. This was a fine production to watch.

This screening was also from a 35mm print, which was about 200 metres shorter than the original. But I was not aware of gaps in the narrative. The print ran at 20fps for 106 minutes. And Günter Buchwald provided the accompaniment at the piano with an occasional flourish on the violin. There was an emotional point when Armand, punishing Antoinette’s coquetry, steps back from this for a moment. The violin points this up. And the piano was, clearly important in the moments in which Armand recognises the touch of Antoinette.
For me this was one of the high points of the Balzac programme. It was fine to watch and captured the ironic portrait from the pen of the author.

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Her Code of Honour, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 4, 2018

This was a film in the ‘John M. Stahl’ programme at the 2018 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It appears to be the earliest surviving feature directed by Stahl. It was produced by Tribune Productions, a Manhattan based studio in the late teens. The screenplay was by a woman writer Frances Irene Reels; she and Stahl were married. The Catalogue includes notes on the film by Charles Barr, partly taken from the chapter on the film in the book published to coincide with the retrospective, ‘The Call of the Heart’ (Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr, John Libbey 2018). The book uses part of the opening title of this film,

“When the call of the heart is heard all else is forgotten.”

In the film that ‘call’ initially affects Helen (Florence Reed), an US art student living in Paris in 1895. The ‘call’ that affects her is her passion for Jacques (Irving Cummings). In fact she learns that Jacques is a married man with a young son. But the ‘call ‘ is felt for Helen herself by a fellow expatriate Tom (Alec B. Francis). When Helen dies in childbirth, apparently with child by Jacques, Tom takes the baby home to the USA and raises her as his daughter, Alice (also Florence Reed).

The film cuts to 1918 and the adult Alice now begins a relationship with a young man Eugene (William Desmond). A letter from a her dead mother and a pair of rings left separately to the young couple bring back 1895 and the ghosts of the fatal events that occurred then.

The film fits into conventional romantic dramas of the period and also offers relationships and occurrences that are common in Stahl’s later films. The film is plotted so that neither the characters nor the audience know all the aspects of the events in 1895. So there is a mystery whose gradual solving enables a happy ending. This includes flashback late in the film which fills out what actually occurred in 1895.

Charles Barr in his article discusses the plotting and the style of the film,. He makes much of the setting in 1895, the year of the advent of Lumière cinema. I was not completely convinced by this. But he also discusses some key scenes in the film which demonstrate both the intricacy of the scripting and the intelligent but subtle direction by Stahl.

He also notes that Florence Reed acted in three film for John Stahl. One is lost, the other was The Woman under Oath (1919), which was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato earlier in the year. The two Festival s co-operated in this retrospective with Bologna screening sound films and Pordenone screening the silent films. What continues to puzzle me is why the silent The Woman Under Oath was only screened at Bologna and not as part of the silent film retrospective. If it had we could have compared both the films and the acting of Florence Reed.

John Stahl with Florence Reed and William Desmond on set

One character that Charles Barr does not mention is the dog, a collie cross. We meet him [male I think] early on in Tom’s household and he re-appears with Tom, Alice and with the young couple. A friend remarked that he was ‘a real family dog’. He is there at crucial moments in the plot: he is pawing at the door of Alice’s room as she opens her mother’s letter and also sees the ring. He is there barking at a wedding rehearsal and again as the couple are finally united, presumably signalling his approval.

The film is in many ways a conventional drama. Barr includes a comment by Bruce Babington, who

“refers to the elements of “coincidence, extreme narrative suppression, and revelations of buried family secrets” that are pervasive in early melodrama.”

But Barr also notes how the film fits into the film work of John Stahl. Helen meets the wife of Jacques,

“wife and mistress, their only meeting, one that is de-dramatised in content as in form: anticipating the “other woman” of later films like Back Street [1932]and Only Yesterday [1933].”

Her Code of Honour was scripted by Frances Irene Reels who was also Stahl’s partner; she died young in 1926. She is also credited as writer on four other films directed by Stahl: The Woman in His House (1920), The Song of Life (1922), The Dangerous Age (1923)and Husbands and Lovers (1924). The input by women writers is an important aspect of Stahl’s film output. Among these was Gladys Lehman who scripted Back Street and several other films: she worked in Hollywood from the late 1920s until the beginning of the 1950s. And Back Street was an adaptation of a novel by Fannie Hurst whose work was adapted for several of Stahl’s sound films. Whilst these films work within the limitations of the values of the time, Her Code of Honour being a good example, the focus on the position of women in both domestic and public life is one of the most interesting aspects of Stahl’s films.

The screening used a 35mm print from the BFI National Archive. It ran 65 minutes, apparently at 24fps. This seems rather fast for 1919 and it is a full-length print. I did not notice anything to suggest the film was running fast. The accompaniment was by Daan Van Hurk at the piano.

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Captain Salvation, USA 1927

Posted by keith1942 on November 3, 2018

This film was the opening ‘special event’ at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto this year.

The film was adapted from a novel by Frederick William Wallace. He was born in Glasgow, served in World War I and moved to Montreal in Canada. He became a published expert on the sailing ships which provide the setting for this novel published in 1925. The film was co-produced at M-G-M together with Cosmopolitan Productions, the latter was a foray into motion pictures by William Randolph Hearst.

The film opens in a small town of Maple Harbour, on the New England coastline. It is 1840 and the sailing ship ‘Lucy Foster’ returns. Practically all the inhabitants hurry to the harbour to welcome the ship and, at the tiller, Anson Campbell. Whilst Anson is clearly a skilled sailor he is actually returning from studies at a Theological College and is expected to become the pastor of the local church; a protestant or even Calvinist congregation. Among those greeting the ship are his uncle Peter Campbell, a worthy of the church, and his sweetheart, young Mary Phillips (Marceline Day).

After the reception at the harbour Anson and Mary slip away to a small wooden cabin along the seashore and under cliffs. Here they are greeted by Anson’s old friends and retired sailors led by Zeke Crosby (George Fawcett]. These opening scenes present the character of Anson, played with real charisma by Lars Hanson. There is also a sense of the demure Mary and of the religious tone of the village; exemplified by the conservative religious values of Uncle Peter.

The disruption to this almost idyllic situation comes during a great storm when a ship founders off the coast. The only survivor is Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke). She is immediately recognised as a ‘waterfront Jezebel’ by Peter. And the response of religious villagers is to shun her. Anson displays a different set of Christian values opining that

“you can’t judge this woman’.

He carries her to the cabin where he cares for her, with assistance from Zeke. Bess soon displays an attraction for Anson but their relationship is strictly platonic. However, Mary fails to recognise this and in a key scene returns her engagement ring to Anson. Anxious to avoid further complications to Anson’s life Bess decides to leave on a ship that calls in the harbour, ‘The Panther’. Anson goes on board to pay her passage and signs on as a crew member with the Captain (Ernest Torrance). Sure enough the Captain turns out to be the villain of the story. ‘The Panther’ is actually a convict ship carrying both male and female felons to salt mines on an Island in the South.

During the voyage the Captain attempts to molest Bess who makes the potent response,

“Ain’t I am right to my body.”

Anson vainly attempts to protect her and is chained below deck and brutally flogged. It also appears that the Captain intends to dump Bess and Anson on the island when the ship arrives. There is a dramatic fight between Anson and the Captain which ends up with them battling high in the rigging of the sailing ship. Anson wins but Bess dies.

The film then cuts to the return of the ship to Maple Harbour, renamed the ‘Bess Morgan’. This causes another contretemps with Peter. But Anson explains to him, Mary and the towns folk about |Bess death in a flashback. We see her ask Anson,

“ to pray for me …. [it is] brighter now you are praying.”

Standing over her body Anson prays, raising his eyes aloft,

“suffer her to come unto thee.”

and then closes her eyes. Predictably Anson and Mary are re-united and the ring is re-appears. More surprisingly Uncle Peter repents and confesses the error of his prejudices. The film ends with Anson and Mary at the tiller of the ‘Bess Morgan’ as it becomes the

‘first gospel ship’.

I have not been able to find anything on ‘gospel ships’, though there are several folk songs on this theme. I assume that they preach rather than trade. One hopes that the ‘Bess Morgan’ followed the theology of Anson rather than Uncle Peter.

This was a fine film to watch. The production is well done and the cast are fine, especially Lars Hanson and Pauline Starke. And the three ship-mates, led by Zeke, are entertaining. It was apparent from the use of the word ‘Jezebel’ that Bess would succumb at some point to moral closure. I thought this a particular shame because she was a much more interesting and vibrant character than Mary. But her death scene is especially well done.

One of the stand-out features of the film was the cinematography by William Daniels. The whole film looks good. Scenes set below deck have a a grim palette and there is excellent chiaroscuro. The final fight in the riggings between Anson and the Captain is exhilarating with splendid use of camera positions and shots. The editing by William Hamilton is also well done. The Catalogue notes that

“M-G-M clearly wanted this to be a prestige production. Assigning a crew of 75 and hiring the ‘Santa Clara’, an 1876 four-master ship, for the scenes at sea. Cedric Gibbons and Leo E. Kuter designed evocative sets for the seaside town of Maple Harbor, Massachusetts, and locations were filmed on Catalina Island.”

Jay Weisberg commented that

“[the film’s] relative obscurity [is] perplexing, especially given the praise heaped on it upon its release.”

He notes

“The Philadelphia Tribune’ was even more effusive:“one of the finest dramatic achievements of the year.””

This seems in part due to the influence of Scandinavian films and in particular one of the finest directors there:

“It was Phil Carli who first bought to my attention Stroström ‘s striking influence … Atmospheric coastal scenes boast meticulous attention to effects of light, and the sea’s presence is beautifully calibrated to elide with the emotional states of the characters.”

This may have been part of the inspiration for the fine score which Phil Carli composed to accompany the film: played under his direction by the San Marco Orchestra. It highlighted the dramatic scenes but never overpowered the film.

This was a screening worth waiting for. The film was original programmed for the 2017 Giornate but copyright issues [I think] led to the delay. The 35mm print sourced from Warner Bros. and the Packard Humanities Institute was worthy of the film and the music.

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‘The Parade’s Gone by …’

Posted by keith1942 on October 26, 2018

This year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto had the strongest programme for several years. Among the pleasures was this selection of six films:

“To honour the 50th anniversary of The Parade Gone By… we gave Kevin Brownlow carte blanche to select six films he wanted to see at the Giornate.” [Festival Catalogue).

The Programme notes included tributes to the book and to Kevin by a range of l8 luminaries from the silent archival and study areas. The major introduction was by David Robinson who remembered being asked by the Editor at Secker and Warburg to read and offer an opinion on the book. He added the other achievements by Kevin,

“There was much more to come. Winstanley, Hollywood, Thames Silents, Unknown Chaplin, and all the documentaries, Photoplay and all its restorations and productions and new books to go with them. In 1980, with the collaboration of David Gill and Carl Davis, Napoleon … gave back to audiences the long-forgotten thrill of a theatrical and orchestral performance of a “silent” film.

An Academy Award was the least tribute that Hollywood could offer to its great chronicler” (Festival Catalogue).

A more notable honour was the first Jean Mitry Award [1986] along with his collaborator David Gill. And as noteworthy have been the BBC radio dramas chronicling his work on Napoleon and his film Winstanley.

I remember reading the book in the early 1980s and then through the Hollywood series and the Thames Silents discovering the real and proper experience of watching [and listening] to silent film. I later enjoyed the further series The Other Hollywood, though unfortunately it was not given the space and resources accorded Channel 4’s Hollywood. I have on many occasions enjoyed the meticulous restorations of early film, and enjoyed the prints that Kevin has saved for posterity, including at the London Bioscope screenings.

So I waited with anticipation to see the selection that Kevin chose. Happily five of the six were on 35mm. Given the subject of the celebrated book these were all titles from Hollywood Studios. But they offered a varied selection of genres, stars and craft people and of styles and techniques.

The Covered Wagon, 1923 from Famous Players-Lasky, is a seminal example of the early western. The director was James Cruze, whose parents had been part of the Mormon trek into Utah. And the craft team included Karl Brown on cinematography and Dorothy Arzner as editor. The cast included major players and actual cowboys and Indians. This was an epic film though the surviving version is two reels shorter than the original. Kevin notes that

“it was the first western to be taken seriously by historians,”

I was disappointed though to read that

“almost never in the history of western migration did an Indian war party descend upon a circle of covered wagons.” [Quoted by Kevin).

Shot mainly in Nevada and Utah what stood out in the film was the visual presentation and the impressive settings and landscapes.

The Covered Wagon (1923)
Directed by James Cruze
Shown from top: J. Warren Kerrigan, Lois Wilson

 

Captain Blood, from the Vitagraph Corporation of America in 1924, was also shorter than the original by about 2,000 feet. Even so it ran just on two hours with a plot line not dissimilar to the later Warner Bros. Version; both were adapted from the novel by Rafael Sabatini. The studio planned

“a rip-snorting, rapid-fire melodrama that will please any red-blooded audience.”

In fact I thought the film more stately that dramatic. There are some well-staged action sequence. The film used actual square-riggers and miniatures and some of the editing between these made the effects somewhat obvious. And the titles use of ‘Irish colloquialism’ for Peter Blood [originally a Irish physician] seemed quaint. But it worked well overall as it did on release, becoming the highest grossing picture produced by Vitagraph.

 

Smouldering Fires was the one film on a DCP. It was taken from a 16m print in the UCLA Film & Television Archive. The film was produced by Universal-Jewel [the company’s prestige productions] in 1925 and directed by Clarence Brown. Kevin in his notes noted the influence of Maurice Tourneur and Ernst Lubitsch,

“The title suggests a Drury Lane melodrama, but the film turned out to be if not quite a feminist film, at least an intelligent, poignant and beautifully filmed story about a 40-year old woman who inherits a factory from her father.”

The early scenes where Jane Vail (Pauline Frederick, excellent in the part) dominates her factory managers were a delight. Then Jane is taken with a young foreman, Robert (Malcom McGregor) who attracts her attention and then her emotions. Rather predictably Robert then falls for the younger sister Dorothy (Laura La Plante). This part of the drama seemed rather conventional but the three leads are good and we actually get to see an outdoor expedition in Yosemite. O also thought that Tully Marshall as Scotty and Wanda Hawley as Lucy were excellent in their supporting roles. The film also has a nice turn in irony.

Smouldering Fires (1925)
Directed by Clarence Brown
Shown at right: Pauline Frederick

 

The Home Maker was also Universal-Jewel from 1925. The director was a name new to me:

“The director of this picture, King Baggot, was responsible for two of the worst silent pictures I’ve ever seen – Raffles (1925) and Down the Stretch (1927). How can the same man possibly have made one of the best?”

Part of the reason may be the original novel by Dorothy Canfield and the adaptation by Mary O’Hara which follows the book closely. Kevin also notes that Baggot had an alcohol problem which may have affected some of his work. Seemingly not on this picture. Alice Joyce, a fine actress, plays Eva Knapp imprisoned at home with growing children whilst her husband Lester (Clive Brooks in a rather untypical role] is less than successful at his office job. His situation leads to depression and an unsuccessful suicide. But his subsequent incapacity finds Eva going out to work and becoming a higher earner in a department store whilst Lester finds hitherto hidden paternal virtues. Thus the whole family find an improved way of life: one that rests, as we learn, on a dubious moral decision. I agreed with Kevin, as did many of the Giornate audience about the quality and interest of this film. I was, though, less convinced by the situation but the sterling cast certainly make their characters convincing.

The Home Maker (1925)
Directed by King Baggot
Shown from left: Maurice Murphy, Julie Bishop, Clive Brook, Alice Joyce

 

The Enemy from M-G-M in 1927 enjoyed the services of Fred Niblo as director and Lillian Gish as star. The film as it survives is missing the last reel but whilst the end is not necessarily predictable the judicious use of stills and titles is sufficient. Lillian’s Pauli is the daughter of an Professor in Vienna (Frank Currier) ; we are familiar melodrama territory here. Pauli marries her sweetheart Carl (Ralph Forbes) just before he leaves for the front in 1914. Most of the film is set on the home front as shortages increase. Pauli and her father suffer more because he holds pacifist views. The melodrama here is conventional but seeing Lillian Gish actually play a woman reduced to prostitution is definitely a one-off. Technically the film has some splendid sequences with dissolves and superimpositions. The domestic scenes are well handled. But there are probably two many similar scenes of troops marching off to war though, noticeably, the civilians become less and less enthusiastic.

 

Then we had The Mating Call (1928) from Paramount Pictures and also directed by James Cruze. The film was adapted from a novel by Rex Beach. The story offered a rather unusual situation. Leslie Hatton (Thomas Meighan) returns from the Western Front in 1919 to find his sweetheart and wife [as the thought] has had the marriage annulled and re-married. In this complicated situation Leslie gets himself a ‘mail-order wife’; though he actually finds her by going to Ellis Island and selecting a young woman from among the immigrants, Renée Adorée as Catherine. What develops much of the drama is a secret vigilante group who rides round in black hoods terrorising people who are thought to break the conservative moral code of the small town. [They are not the Ku Klux Klan as some reviews suggest]. The direction is good and the two leads are excellent. The vigilantes seem rather cack-handed but they do help develop the drama. Some of the continuity is eccentric, Catherine insists on her parents accompanying her to Leslie’s farm but after one shot of them hoeing a field they disappear.

 

All but two of the titles were new to me. As one expects from Kevin the prints were of good or even outstanding quality. Several of the accomplished team of musicians took turns to provide musical accompaniments. It did seem a worthy tribute to one of the most respected and accomplished ‘keepers of the flame’ of our surviving heritage from early cinema,

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Honoré de Balzac in early films.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2018

This was one of the programmes in an impressive Giornate de Cinema Muto, 2018. Audiences enjoyed a series of adaptations from the work of the great French novelist; what higher praise can there be than that both Frederick Engels and Karl Marx revered his works. There was a full and really informative introduction in the Festival Catalogue by Anne-Marie Baron. She wrote,

Cinema, searching for storylines and legitimacy, embraced Balzac from the outset, just as it did the Bible. [Both offer a great treasure trove of dramatic stories]. The Comédie humaine was a true goldmine, containing all the ingredients for success: dramatic events, emotions, and a sharp-eyed look at society. There were also decidedly commercial reasons for producing these scenarios – Balzac was widely read, and his cachet elevated the level of popular entertainment.”

The opening screening offered three one-reel films from 1909. In this period the large and complex novels were reduced to bare outlines. These three had slightly more body as they were adapted from a 1831 short story by Balzac, ‘La Grande Bretèche’. The basic story is well known, one of macabre revenge on illicit lovers. In the original story characters and their actions are recounted by four narrators, three in flashbacks, explaining events in the past which occurred a now-ruined mansion, its name the title of the story.

1909 was the year when everyone was scrambling to adapt Balzac’s short story “La Grande Bretèche” for the screen. The Italians got there first in July with Spergiura! (Literally “Swear that!”) … “ (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

The film was produced by the Ambrosio studio, directed by Luigi Maggi and adapted by Arrigo Frusta. The film was shot on a real location, the Villa della Regina in Turin.

No more sunbeams and mirrors, painted backdrops, no more windows and doors made of stage flats; but real rooms, windows with glass, genuine columns, tiled pavements, polished floors. And real furniture, gilded, and silk curtains, and expensive rugs, luxury, a never before seen display …. (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

The settings of the film are impressive. However the intertitles are missing so one had to infer some of the plot from what was depicted. We see first the Bianca Maria (Mary Cléo Tarlarini) on a balustrade whilst a young officer of the Dragoons (Alberto A. Capozzi) stands below her making passionate gestures. The balustrade leads to a grand staircase into the grounds of the mansion. Here we see the Marquis Croixmazeu (Luigi Maggi) carrying a bouquet for his wife. He apparently does not see the Dragoon. There follows a letter sent by Bianca to her lover. He visits her in her boudoir. A servant, spying the couple, rides to his master with the news of the illicit affair. Both return to the mansion. Warned by her maid Bianca hides her lover in a walled closet. When the husband enters he finds his wife standing before the closet. He demands she takes an oath that there is nobody in the closet, which she does at a prie dieu. Despite this the husband locks his wife’s room and goes to fetch two workman. They are ordered to brick up the closet, sealing in the Dragoon. We see a shot of the unfortunate officer as he realises what is happening and sinks to his needs. The appalled wife collapses, she may even have died from shock.

The film only runs for twelve minutes but the story is presented with real style. Apart from the impressive sets there is a build-up of tension as the film cuts between settings when the servant fetches the master and their return. The scene where the servant informs the master of the dalliance has a red tint, presumably metaphoric. And at the wife’s oath,

the tableau (in extreme close-up) of the swearing hand was a new thing” … (Arrigo Frusta quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche (also titled ‘Immured’] was produced by Les Films d’Art [part of Pathé] and directed by André Calmettes. They were also the company and director of the ‘ground-breaking’ L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908). The screenplay was by Paul Gavault,

the French version … takes a less censorious approach to the adulterous couple than either the Italian or [American [USA] versions. …

In keeping with Pathé’s aspirations towards prestige, the actors elected were taken from the top theatre companies … (Jay Weisberg in the Festival Catalogue).

La Grande Bretèche

In this version the married couple are Monsieur de Merret (André Calmettes) and |Madame de Merret (Véra Sergine) and the lover is Comte de Férédia (Philippe Garnier). After our initial sight of the characters a month passes, and the Comte visits Madame. A maid informs the husband and a title informs us of ‘The Revenge’. On this occasion the husband requires the wife to swear on a crucifix. The husband now orders workman to brick up the closet where the Comte is hiding. The wife tries to bribe the workmen to break the wall but then husband sees that it is finished. Later the wife vainly tries to smash the brickwork whilst the imprisoned Comte kisses a locket with the wife’s portrait. He endures his death throes whilst in the room the wife collapses and is laid on her bed by the husband and the maid, still holding the crucifix.

This film is the closest to that part of Balzac’s story of the events that occurred in ‘La Grande Bretèche’. It is also the most horrifying,. The cutting between the husband, the wife and her lover builds up the tension and the final death throes of the Comte are vividly portrayed. The print was about a hundred metres shorter than the original release. The plot is quite clear but presumably in its original form the paroxysms of jealousy and despair were even more fully played out.

The Sealed Room USA.

As Jay Weisberg notes this Biograph production did not credit Balzac for the source story. Directed by D. W. Griffith the film makes considerable changes and, as in the other versions, concentrates on the events in the past in the mansion, here more like a castle. In fact the film uses only interiors as settings. The king (Arthur Johnson) has a ‘favoured one’, (Marion Leonard). However, she is soon in the arms of an Italian troubadour (Henry B. Walthall). In his revenge the king has both the lovers walled up in a small ‘new room’ built for the favourite. He also forces the hesitant workmen at pistol-point to complete the work. Whilst the king gloats outside we see the interred couple become hysterical with the troubadour apparently turning on the woman as they expire.

The Sealed Room

This seems to be the most sadistic of the film versions. It is also the most melodramatic with the actors declaiming their actions and the shots mainly tableaux style with none of the dramatic cross-cutting of the European versions. The continuity seems a little lax. We see the Troubadour’s guitar outside the room, a clue for the King; but then he also has a guitar in the room with his lover. Both sets are strewn with flowers, which may be a metaphor of sorts.

This title was screened from a DCP, a copy of a 16mm version, itself a copy of a Paper Print survival from the period. Both European titles were on 35mm prints and were tinted. All three titles were accompanied by John Sweeney at the piano. His accompaniment increasing in dramatic flourishes as the melodrama on screen increased.

What is noticeable about all three versions is that they have a more moral tone than in Balzac’s original story. Jay Weisberg comments in the Festival Catalogue,

To the modern reader, Balzac’s refusal to condemn feels revolutionary, yet this was the quality that made many Victorians deeply uncomfortable, such as Margaret Fuller, writing in 1845, “he has no hatred for what is loathsome, no contempt for what is base, no love for what is lovely, no faith in what is noble. To him there is no virtue and no vice.”

The writer of this quotation clearly did not engage with the depth and complexity of Balzac’s writings. In the films his particular social commentary is lost due to the reduction of this story [and similarly in other adaptations] to a single narrative voice in linear fashion. Much of the complexity of ‘La Grande Bretèche’ stems from the main narration, by a Doctor, which then includes three other narrations as part of a flashback. The distance created has a quality later associated with Brecht.

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Within Our Gates, USA 1920

Posted by keith1942 on June 10, 2018

Within Our Gates is a riposte to the racism and white supremacy of D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). It is likely that Oscar Micheaux deliberately derived the title from a 1919 Griffith film, A Romance of Happy Valley, which contains the epigraph:

‘Harm not the stranger

Within your gates

Lest you yourself be hurt’.

This point is made in an article by J. Ronald Green in ‘Griffithiana 60/61’, a publication that accompanied the Giornate Festival of 1997, which saw the screenings of both the Griffith classic and the less well-known Micheaux film. Seeing the two films in succession demonstrated Micheaux’s success in confronting the pernicious arguments of the earlier film.

An important aspect of the rediscovery of Micheaux was a sense of the context for his film. Within Our Gates was produced for the US ‘race’ film market, and was therefore denied the resources and production values lavished on the Hollywood product, including Griffith’s epics. The dominance of these values, even today, makes Micheaux’s films appear inferior alongside those of Griffith. It is worth noting that at the 1997 Giornate, The Birth of a Nation received a full orchestral accompaniment, while Micheaux had to make do with a solo piano. But to appreciate Micheaux’s work it needs to be approached in the way one responds to an independent film. The emphasis is not on grandiose spectacle but intelligent and meaningful narrative.

The surviving print is incomplete and the film was frequently cut, sometimes by Micheaux himself, because the violence depicted in the lynching scenes sparked serious controversy. In Chicago the censors enforced cuts of 1200 feet, i.e. over an entire reel of the film. Moreover the source for the surviving print is a Spanish language version, so that the titles, translated into Spanish, have now been retranslated back to English. This apparently affects both the plotting and also the use of colloquial speech. One character’s name, Girdlestone, has changed to Gridlestone. It is also possible that some shots are in the wrong position, either through poor copying or carelessness in post production. This makes the plot somewhat difficult to follow at first viewing.

(Note: the contemporary terms for Afro-Americans citizens was Negro, or coloured, with more pejorative variations quite common. Negro was supposed to commence with a capital N, not to do so was considered demeaning by black people.)

The protagonist of the film is Sylvia Landry, a southerner. At the film’s opening Sylvia is in the north visiting her cousin, Alma. Alma, with the help of her other cousin, Larry, engineers the break-up of Sylvia’s engagement. Larry himself is involved in gambling and criminal activities. Sylvia now goes to work in a school for Negroes in the south, in the hamlet of Piney Wood. The school is clearly offering a path to betterment for poor Negro children, but it is almost bankrupt. Sylvia goes north again, to Boston, to raise money from wealthy benefactors. In Boston she meets a professional, modern minded Negro, Dr Vivian. Her rescue of a child from the path of an automobile brings her to the attention of wealthy Bostonian. Though a southern acquaintance schemes to prevent her funding a Negro school, the wealthy white woman provides the much-needed funds for Piney Wood and Sylvia returns to the school. There she turns down a proposal from its head teacher. Now Larry reappears and tries to blackmail Sylvia. To avoid more trouble Sylvia again travels to the north.

Larry is shot in a robbery. Dr. Vivian searching for Sylvia treats the dying Larry and then meets Alma. She tells him Sylvia’s story in a long flashback. We find Sylvia, not knowing her parentage, was raised by a black share-cropping family. The film illustrates the exploitation of black share-croppers. It also shows them victims of false accusations which lead to a lynching. This is intercut with an attempted rape. This is a powerful sequence of cross-cutting which provides the dramatic and critical heart of the film.

Some of the factors in engaging with the film are the conventions of the ‘race’ cinema. Whilst they follow the dominant Hollywood model in the main, the cultural opposition implicit in the films has an effect. Sylvia is introduced with a title card identifying ‘the renowned Negro Artist Evelyn Preer’. The predominantly segregated black audiences would have enjoyed a familiarity with her career and performances, probably completely unknown to equivalent white audiences.

A following title card then informs us that Sylvia is ‘typical of the intelligent Negro of our time’. Micheaux immediately offers a contrasting characterisation to those of Griffith and his Hollywood contemporaries. Micheaux also taps into the debates within the Afro-American communities of the time about their social values. Like many other successful Negroes (relatively speaking) Micheaux embraced the bourgeois values of the dominant society. His male protagonists tend to be self-made men. In several films they are either a homesteader or prospector, seemingly utilising Micheaux’s own earlier experiences. His arguments are for equality within the system. Dr Vivian clearly embraces the emerging imperial ideology of the USA. He proudly tells Sylvia of the Negroes’ role in the US adventures in Cuba and Mexico.

But Micheaux is not just a dissident black voice. A remarkable aspect of the film is the centrality and action of the heroine. In Griffith’s films women are idealised by men, saved by men and then married and protected by men. Sylvia travels, fundraises and fends off attacks on her own. She is an independent woman. Dr Vivian, a student of social affairs, persuades Sylvia to his point of view, but he does this through study and debate. Sylvia may be the victim of patriarchal violence, but she clearly confronts it.

It will be seen from the geographic plotting of the film that Micheaux also tackles the question of the South. Sylvia’s travels between North and South expose the particularly vicious nature of white supremacy in the southern states. However, Micheaux is also clear about the limits of northern liberalism. A wry intertitle reads:

‘At the opening of our drama, we find our characters in the North, where the prejudices and hatreds of the South do not exist – though this does not prevent the occasional lynching of a Negro.’

The performances and Micheaux’s mise en scène are predominantly within the conventions of the mainstream. The film offers an equivalent melodrama to Griffith. His contemporary Negro society has a fairly clear split between reputable and disreputable. Larry and his criminal associates are defined in anti-social terms, and receive the appropriate melodramatic punishment. Another aspect of Negro society is the religious trend. The Bostonian matriarch who opposes funding a black school proposes instead that money be given to a local minister and preacher. He preaches that Negroes should stay in their place and is clearly antithetical to the modern aspiring Negroes like Dr Vivian. He and his congregation are also characterised in the melodramatic performance similar to the Negroes in Griffith’s epic.

The plotting relies on melodramatic coincidences familiar from earlier film melodrama. Dr Vivian meets Sylvia when he sees her robbed in the street. And Dr Vivian rediscovers Sylvia through treating the fatally wounded Larry. At the climax of the film Sylvia learns about her parentage – “mixed race”. These characters are really melodramatic types rather than psychologically rounded individuals.

Visually the films share the style of earlier film melodrama. The staging is straightforward, with characters placed within simple changing settings. The standard shot is the mid-shot, with the action played straight to camera. The lighting is mainly naturalistic, but clearly limited. Because of this, many scenes have a low-key look. Micheaux’s choice of shots utilises a simple range and selection. He does use close-ups rather than the iris technique found in Griffith (iris shots tend to introduce or close sequences). He also follows the newly developed system of continuity, using shot, reverse shot and on- and off-screen actions matching.

His editing is the most distinctive use of technique. He parallels Griffith in his intercutting between characters and actions, both in order to generate drama and also to make comment. The manhunt and lynching is an incredibly powerful presentation. And the cross-cutting with an attempted rape in a different setting increases the critical power. This arrangement of cuts also presents the reality of lynching and murders for southern Negroes, and the rape and incest that accompanied this. Griffith’s inversion of the exploitation of black people after the Civil War is here re inverted by Micheaux, and he uses Griffith’s most notable technique to present his rebuttal.

Within Our Gates had a far more chequered career than The Birth of a Nation. Whereas the Griffith epic survives relatively unscathed, Micheaux’s riposte is heavily mutilated. This would seem to be a direct outcome of the dominance of Hollywood, and the oppressed cinema of the ‘race cinema’. Even so, it suggests a more complex audience experience in this period than might seem from the iconic status in which The Birth of a Nation is held.

Written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux Book and Film Company

Existing print 5935 feet (six reels, originally seven or eight reels). Running time of 100 minutes at 16 fps.

Cast: Evelyn Preer (Sylvia Landry), Charles D. Lucas (Dr Vivian), Jack Chenault (Larry Pritchard), Flo Clements (Alma Pritchard).

Note, this is a shorter version of the discussion of the film in ‘Studying Early and Silent Cinema’, Auteur 2014.

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