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’.


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.