Category: Silent Era

The Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, René Clair, France 1927)

Italian still 2

This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema:

René Clair may have become the forgotten man of classic French cinema, despite a prolific career that stretched from the dada short Entr’acte (1924) through the first French musicals of the early 30s, and up to the mid-1960s Yet his command of sophisticated comedy, both silent and sound, was second to none; and in this inventive adaptation of a vintage farce he offered a spirited alternative to the dominance of Hollywood comedy, at a time when both the French avant-garde and mainstream cinema had reached an impasse. Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.

And Clair is equally alert to the satirical undercurrent, without ever losing sight of what Henri Bergson termed the “snowball effect… as an object rolls through the play collecting incidents as it goes”. The surrealists, who hated avant-garde pretension, saw that this was no mere

literary adaptation. With its puppet-like characters trapped in their roles, and decor that threatens to engulf them, it achieves the dream-like quality that surrealism prized­ while also remaining a thoroughly civilised, scathing and completely French comedy.

Sight & Sound November 2013

You can catch the film at the National Media Museum on Sunday May 18th with a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

Kinugasa Teinosuke

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Yoshiwara in Crossways

Kinugasa worked as a director in the Japanese film industry from 1920 to 1966. His main work was at the Shochiku and Daiei Studios. He had started in films acting as an oyama – a male actor impersonating in women’s roles. His 1953 film Gate of Hell (Jigokumon) won both the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and an Academy Award for Best Colour Costume Design and a Special Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Picture. But Kinugasa is most famous for two very distinctive films late in the silent era.

A Page of Madness (Kurita ippèji, 1926) is an avant-garde film with striking use of montage and of the expressionist use of chiaroscuro. The plot concerns an old man who works in an insane asylum in order to be near to his wife who is an inmate. However, the action is presented in an elliptical fashion and without any title cards. The film works in an open and fragmentary manner and [as with the inmates] moving between reality and illusion. The film was almost totally innovatory in the Japanese cinema of the time. However, its challenging form did not appeal to audiences and the film was believed lost until its rediscovery in the 1970s. It now holds place as a distinctive classic of Japanese film.

Kinugasa’s 1928 film Crossroads (also Crossways / Jujiro) combines the technical experimentation of the earlier film with a far more accessible plot. Set in the C18th it concerns a young man who is smitten with the charms of a geisha. She prefers his rival though she also exploits the young innocent. A fight leads to his temporary blindness. His sister sacrifices herself to obtain treatment for her brother. The melodrama continues to a violent and tragic resolution.

The sister who sacrifices herself for her brother is a staple of Japanese culture, notably in the films of Mizoguchi Kenji.

The use of expressionist chiaroscuro in the film both dramatises the plight of the brother and the oppressive situation of the sister. Whilst the montage, combined with a use of Grand Guignol reminiscent of Eisenstein, dramatises the exploitative and decadent character of the milieu of Yoshiwara, the area of debauchery and prostitution.

The later film falls into the period characterised as ‘late silents’; the use of synchronous sounds in commercial features having arrived in the USA in 1927. However, in Japan [along with several other East Asian countries] the use of sound was delayed for several years. This was partly economic, because of the capital cost involved, including the wiring of exhibition venues. But there was a particular factor in Japanese cinema, the power of the benshi, who provided voiceover and commentary for silent films. The benshi were one reason why Japanese film came late to the use of title cards. There were benshi strikes against the introduction of sound in 1932. The earliest surviving indigenous sound film in Japan is The Speech of Prime Minister Tanaka (Seiyukai Sosia Tanaka Giichi-shi Enzetsu, 1928). Sound features appeared in 1930, one of the earliest surviving films is by Mizoguchi Kenji, Hometown (Fujiwara Yoshie no Furosato). Kinugasa directed the first sound version of The Loyal 47 Ronin (Chūshingura) in 1932. It was only in 1935 that the production of sound films in Japan exceeded that of silents. And the latter type of film was still made a couple of years later.

There is an opportunity to see Crossways in a reasonably good 35mm print at the National Media Museum on Sunday March 16th. And there will be a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

Note, it is possible that the 35mm print will not be available and the screening will have to use some other format.

Silents at Leeds Town Hall

The great pipe organ

The great pipe organ

The Leeds International Film Festival has tradition of screening films from the Silent Era with live musical accompaniment. This year there were two such events, both in the Victoria Hall. This concert hall is blessed with a large pipe organ, an accompaniment I have not heard for some time. The instrument offers a great variety of sounds, timbres and volumes. So the resident organist Simon Lindley bought a distinctive musical dimension to the films.

The first screening was the Soviet Classic Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin1925). This was in a digital version of the Deutsche Kinemathek restoration. The quality of the image was impressive, especially for a film produced eighty years ago. The digital frame rate was slightly fast in some of the rapid montage sequence is justly famous. However, the film also has passages of a more restrained tempo and even lyrical moments. The organ accompaniment was able to give great and varied play to these changes.

The second film was a German classic, Faust (1926) directed by the legendary F. W. Murnau. The projection used the recent Eureka version with the original German titles. The film has impressive sequences that utilise the German expertise in chiaroscuro lighting and in the use of models and special effects. And the famed actor Emil Jannings dominates the film with his characterisation of Mephisto. The organ proved to be extremely appropriate for the religious themes in this work but also for the melodramatic sequences at the climax. This was a lunchtime screening and the Hall was packed.

‘Prepare for Darkness’.

Gothic

This was the Gothic Film Festival organised by the Cambridge Film Trust at the Kirkstall Abbey ruins in Leeds, close by the River Aire. This gothic ruin made great site for these films ‘with their dark heart’, especially as the dusk came in and the lighting created a chiaroscuro effect within and without.

A little less favourable was the autumn weather. Some screening suffered from both wind and rain over the festival weekend. I went on the Sunday, when the rain had gone and the wind had died down. Even so, as warned in the brochure, we came wrapped up in thermal wear and wrapped in blankets. After the show was over I stood in a bus shelter whilst a couple indulged in energetic exercises to unthaw their bodies. One nice touch by the organisers, a welcome for ‘well behaved dogs’. I saw one, with equally well-behaved owners. Fortunately neither of the films had scenes likely to spark canine nightmares. The humans were possibly less fortunate.

The opening film was Carl Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film made in 1928. This is not strictly a gothic film, but it fitted well into the religious environs. The film is based on the actual records of the trial of this young French heroine – the English are the villains. It is one of the most intense films that one can see. There are sequences with crowds and tracking shots, but most of the film consists of large close-ups with acute angles. The intense style is reinforced by the consistently brightly lit white backgrounds, all photographed by Rudolph Maté. And it had a bravura accompaniment by Stephen Horne on keyboards and additional interments. Unfortunately there was only a small audience to appreciate this masterpiece.

The second film, The Innocents (1961) had a much larger audience. This is an adaptation of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw directed by Jack Clayton. A governess, played superbly by Deborah Kerr, comes to a country house to care for two children. As the past invades the present the film has a terrific sense of the creepy and the uncanny. The black and white scope photography was beautifully done by Freddie Francis and the mise en scéne has a lot of subtle touches.

The organisers had a digital projector set up in the nave along with a large screen. This worked very well, and the chairs were pretty comfortable for an ad hoc arrangement. The two films enjoyed pretty good transfers to digital formats, though the effect of frame adjustment was slightly noticeable on The Passion … The introductions both referred to the First Gothic Film Festival so I hope we will get another opportunity with more dark works of cinema.

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began  to screen films at other venues earlier this year.

Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.

Maya Deren in 'At Land'

Maya Deren in ‘At Land’

At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).

Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.

Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.

fantomas

The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing  a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.

The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.

BIFF 2013 #3: A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, India/UK/Germany 1929)

a-throw-of-dice-021

BIFF19logoThis print restored by the BFI provides a glimpse of the possibilities of ‘global film’ just before ‘hegemonic Hollywood’ began to exert its control with the coming of sound. German filmmaker Franz Osten had already worked in India on two films with Bengali actor-producer Himanshu Rai – Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) 1925 and Shiraz (1928). These were the fore-runners of modern co-productions. Osten brought in German crews and the backing of a German studio (Ufa). According to IMDB, two British studios were also involved. The script seems to have had both German and British input into what was initially an Indian story scripted by Niranjan Pal who with Himanshu Rai would eventually set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 as one of the major studios of the sound period. The British contribution seems to have been ‘supportive’ since the main creative and technical roles were undertaken by Germans and Indians. Much of the film was shot on location in Rajasthan.

The 2006 restoration includes a Nitin Sawhney score that I was a little wary of at first but eventually I found worked very well. The camerawork by Emil Schunemann is excellent and at one point he gave us a stunning tracking shot seemingly out of nowhere. The film’s title neatly describes the narrative which involves two kings who are cousins, neighbours and inveterate gamblers in a period before the arrival of Europeans. It’s all fairly predictable stuff in the sense that they compete for the hand of a beautiful girl with one of them rather more devious than the other. But the story isn’t the main attraction – with 10,000 extras, footage of tigers in the jungle and ceremonial elephants, palaces and stunning landscapes, this is an action melodrama (the two terms once meant the same thing).  One thing that struck me about the camerawork was that several of he compositions can be seen as being imported from German cinema and then incorporated in later Indian popular cinema narratives. I’m thinking in particular of some of the fight scenes on cliff tops and a couple silhouetted on a mountain skyline. The spectacular German cinema of the 1920s was very interested in the ‘exotic Orient’ with Murnau travelling to the South Seas for one of his early Hollywood titles in Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang in aspects of Destiny (Germany 1921). (He would later return for his two-part film The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1959 based partly on his script for another 1920s film.) What we see in A Throw of Dice I think is not so much a German view of India as an example of the potential of Indian cinema to take the technical skills and creative vision of Osten and Schunemann and use them in developing the Indian cinema that would flourish in the 1930s.

Before the main feature (74 mins), BIFF elected to show an extract from Raja Harishchandra, the film usually taken to mark the beginning of Indian feature films in 1913 (and therefore the key film for the 100th Birthday tribute). The film was  originally a ‘four reeler’ of 3,700 feet running around 48 minutes at silent speeds. Producer-director-writer Dadasaheb Phalke had travelled to Germany and to the UK to acquire the skills and the technology to enable him to become the first Indian filmmaker of note, completely in control of his own productions in Bombay. Later he founded Hindustan Films, but the company struggled and Phalke’s brief career which should have flourished in the 1920s was cut short. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the founders of the film industry in Bombay and the Indian genres of the ‘devotional’ and the ‘mythological’. The extract was presented from Blu-ray and there seem to have been problems in transferring the material (I think that the original was lost in a fire at the Film Institute Archive in Pune). I confess that I found what was presented was quite difficult to follow but in 1912 when Phalke was making the film, cinema worldwide was in a state of very rapid innovation. To pick out a few points, there is still a reliance on what might be termed ‘proscenium arch’ shots with a tableau of characters as if on a stage, some occasionally looking at the camera. There are special effects and it is possible to see links to the Ramayana (Phalke is said to have been inspired by Christian narratives). The main plot involves a king who loses his kingdom and his wife and child through various accidents and by deceit but who then recovers them because the gods wish to reward him for his moral integrity.

There is a documentary on Phalke and the making of the film on YouTube (it’s not the ‘complete film’ as it claims) and it’s interesting to see the variety of comments (including the surprise shown by some Indians that Indian cinema goes back so far). Well done to BIFF for showing this and giving us all a chance to consider the whole 100 years.