This International Festival of silent film once again attracted archivists, collectors, film fans and academics to Pordenone and to the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular titles, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.
The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints which Kevin Brownlow has collected over the years. The film was accompanied with music by the long-time collaborator Carl Davis. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.
Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris after the Revolution and Civil War. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. The print also had quality tinting, the work of the Jan Ledecky Laboratory. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.
The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.
One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).
One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine dramas set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.
We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. Such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.
The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander.
Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork.
After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.
The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).
‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination of drama, science fiction and fantasy. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.
A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel.
The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912).
There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley up to Woodrow Wilson. with a number featuring Teddy Roosevelt.
There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, a second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ and a third programme with ‘Indian Pictures’ or Native-Americans.
We had animation with Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with animal characters and several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant.
As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. This was a full and enjoyable programme.
One minor flaw in the week was the use by some in the audiences of electronic gizmos, which I reckoned were slightly up on last year. The Theatre staff identified and stopped some miscreants but the main auditorium has large blocks of seats and the offenders were often seated in the middle or a row. A friend suggested that the top balcony be turned into a ‘sin bin’ and offenders banished up there with the gods. One possible response would be for the Festival to replace the printed title projected on the bottom of the screen before programmes with a full-screen warnings about this. Another would be for the audience members to be more pro-active and to tell people to turn off the offending machine. To assist in the latter here are the seven deadly vices of mobile phones/tablet users and their corresponding virtues.
Taking pictures and even moving images of the films during screenings as opposed to turning the gadget off and buying the DVD or looking on the Web.
Making or receiving calls instead of placing the cell phone in silent mode or switching it off.
Using phones or tablets to send and/or receive messages instead of doing this later outside the Theatre.
Using cell phones or tablets to check matters on the Web or similar instead of reading the excellent notes in the Festival Catalogue.
Using tablets or computers to take notes during films instead of following the guidelines on taking notes in the dark.
Using a tablet or cell phone as a torch and waving the beam round instead of keeping it below knee height and changing the white light for a coloured bulb.
Checking the time on a cell phone or tablet instead of reading the programme beforehand and noting the running time.
This is a new study of Louis Le Prince, who in 1888 shot three short sequences of film in Leeds in West Yorkshire. Two were filmed in a garden in the Roundhay suburb and one on the Leeds Bridge in the City Centre. Le Prince designed and constructed his own camera. He used a paper strip combined with cellulose. At the time he was also working to use the new celluloid material and it seems he had also solved the problem of projecting his film. These films precede the far more famous Thomas Edison in New York and the Lumière Brothers in Paris. Yet Le Prince is far less well known than the other pioneers of cinema.
The director, David Nicolas Wilkinson, wants to change this and give Le Prince [and Leeds} their proper place in the early history of film and cinema. His film provides a biography of Le Prince and a study of the technology and techniques he developed and the short films that he made. The film also addresses the fact that he only made these three films – a mystery surrounds the failure to follow on his pioneering work. The mystery is also investigated in the new study.
The area does offer memorabilia to Le Prince: there are blue plaques on Leeds Bridge and alongside the old BBC building where Le Prince had a workshop. Both the Armley Industrial Museum and the National Media Museum have displays about Le Prince and the Museum has a series on on-line pages.
The film itself has a Charity première at the Hyde Park Picture House, another historical film site, on Wednesday July 1st at 8 p.m. The event will include a presentation on Le Prince, examples of early film technology on display: and the added bonus of a DVD and the seminal book on Made In Yorkshire [by Tony Earnshaw and Jim Moran]. I suspect the event will sell out quickly, recognition that seems to have eluded Le Prince in his own lifetime. There is another screening at the National Media Museum on July 2nd at 6.30 p.m.
These films are screening at the Hyde Park Picture House in a special event this coming Sunday (March 15th 2015) From Drifters to Night Mail: The British Documentary Movement. The screening will offer 35mm prints from the bfi. The films are all seminal contributions to the British Documentary Movement and its work for, first the Empire Marketing Board, and then for the GPO Film Unit.
Drifters 1929, black and white, silent – originally 56 minutes.
This study of herring fisherman in the North Sea was directed, edited and partly photographed by John Grierson, the filmmaker who led the documentary movement until he moved to the National Film Board of Canada. The main cinematography was by Basil Emmott, who had already contributed some fine location work to the 1927 drama Hindle Wakes. The film commences in a fishing village, follows a fishing vessel out to sea, observes its catches, and then follows it back to harbour where the caught fish enter the national and international markets. Much of the film relies on location shooting, on land and at sea in the fishing vessel. There are also insert shots filmed at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film demonstrates the influence on Grierson and his colleagues of two of the outstanding innovators of the 1920s. One was Robert Flaherty, whose new form of ‘documentary’ (Nanook of the North, 1922) influenced the treatment and the narrative of Drifters. The other influence is Soviet montage and in particular Sergei Eisenstein. The latter’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin. 1925), along with Drifters was, part of a triple bill at the London Film Society in 1929, together with an early work by Walt Disney.
Grierson’s use of montage is more conventional than that of Eisenstein and his film has a linear narrative. But it also offers symbolism and abstract motifs for the viewer.
The film demonstrates not only Grierson’s cinematic talents but also his shrewd manoeuvres within state institutions. The film’s topic played to the interest of a key civil servant in the Treasury regarded as an expert of the British Herring Industry.
Housing Problems 1936, black and white, sound film, 16 minutes.
This study in social reportage was sponsored by the gas industry. However, apart from a final comment, this is not a paean to a capitalist corporation but a hard-headed and powerful piece of social observation and implicit criticism. Directed by Edward Anstey and Arthur Elton the film presented scenes of squalor in slum housing and, fairly uniquely for this period, working class people were seen describing their own world and situation. Other work by the documentary movement did offer such voices, but the situation and voices in this film are the most compelling. The film ventures into the ‘other world’ of ordinary lives paralleled in the work of Mass Observation and the writings of George Orwell. There is a positive message at the end, featuring in part the Leeds Quarry Hill Development of the time: a note of posthumous irony. If John Grierson returned today he would be hard put to produce a film on herring fishing: but Anstey and Elton would have no difficulty in presenting again a world of slum housing and exploitation.
Night Mail, 1936, black and white, sound film, 24 minutes.
This was the most popular of the 1930 British documentary films: it actually enjoyed screenings in commercial cinemas. The directors, Harry Watt and Basil Wright, followed the night mail train from London to Glasgow, ‘carrying letters’ for all and sundry. The film used extensive location work with some striking cinematography. I especially treasure a travelling shot as a Border collie vainly chases after the speeding train. Some of the interiors were filmed in a studio setting, carefully simulating the rocking motion of the train. The first 20 minutes of the film are in fairly conventional documentary style, with an authoritative voice-over. The final four minutes follow a different form, with poetry (W. H. Auden) and music (Benjamin Britton). The credits list Alberto Cavalcanti as sound director. Cavalcanti had worked in the European avant-garde cinema. One version I heard suggested that in fact two films were in preparation by the Unit. And they were finally amalgamated to make this complete film, [there are two earlier sequences that bear the inprint of Cavalcanti and his team]. This certainly makes sense of the final form of the film. Moreover, whilst the last four minutes do have the touch that one finds in Cavalcanti’s work the bulk of the film has the established approach that one can find in other films by Watt and Wright. If this was the case, it was a happy marriage: though as with Drifters we no longer have a rail system to inspire this sort of filmmaking.
There is a posting on Drifters at
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.
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.
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.
Festivals always pose difficult choices, so I only caught part of this programme early films and comics. Fortunately I arrived at the right moment – Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (UK 1908). This starred the two leads of the more famous Rescued by Rover (UK 1905), the young Barbara Hepworth and the family dog Blair. As in the earlier drama the intrepid canine rescued the Hepworth’s daughter. Notably the rescue utilised an early motor vehicle, demonstrating that at his period dogs were the safest drivers on the road.
It was followed by The Elusive Pickpocket (France, 1908) who proved not only light-fingered but possessed of magical powers. He was also an anarchic character, as were the maids in the two following comedies. Cunégonde’s Family is Coming Over (France, 1912) in which the maid used her family, fantastic zeal and a huge volume of water to clean and then wreck the home of her bourgeois employers. A Nervous Kitchenmaid (France, 1908) was sadly incomplete, but had an exhilarating sequence of plate smashing.
The quality of the prints screened was exceptionally good: a friend confirmed this was true of the whole programme. This was the result of obtaining new prints from four major European film archives. Good work by the Festival staff. The rest of the programme included the Italian clowns Tontoli and Kri Kri: the home-grown Tilly: the aforementioned French films: and several dramas and actualities.
Accompanying this varied selection at the piano was one of the UK’s premier accompanist of ‘Silent Film’, Neil Brand. The selection that I viewed and heard ranged from the suitably rumbustious to the more quietly evocative. And the Town Hall auditorium provided a great venue for live music. It seems Neil was accompanying some of these films for the first time: playing ‘blind’ so to speak. He claims that this is a challenge that he enjoys.
The programme was a particular pleasure given the infrequency of Early Film screenings on good 35mm prints in our Northern climes. Hopefully, more next year.