Category: Silent Era

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 35

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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.

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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.

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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.

Democratic Convention in 1924

Democratic Convention in 1924

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.

The First Film (UK 2015)

Louis Le Prince

Louis Le Prince

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.

Glasgow FF15 #7: Why Be Good? (US 1929)

Colleen Moore as the 'hot dancer' . . .

Colleen Moore as the ‘hot dancer’ . . .

I don’t know if I’ve seen Colleen Moore in a movie before, but I’m certainly going to look out for her now. Why Be Good? directed by William A. Seiter is a recently restored First National picture in which a surviving Italian print has been ‘married’ to a Vitaphone disc recording. The restoration looked very good to me but I would need Keith to tell me if the speed was correct. In some of the dancing scenes the swift movements seemed just too quick to me. The soundtrack of music and ‘effects’ works well with a standout when two drunks sing and it is represented by muted brass instruments.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

. . . and the shop girl in love.

The story is very familiar, especially for the late 1920s early 1930s before the Hays Code came into force and the possibility of representing sexuality directly disappeared. Colleen Moore plays the shopgirl by day who is a ‘hot dancer’ by night and unwittingly becomes involved with the son of the department store’s owner. The young man’s father disapproves and fears she is a gold-digger – but she will prove him wrong. ‘Pert’ Kelly is a decent Irish girl from the Bronx. I looked up the unusual first name and discovered a reference to a Celtic name given to a baby boy – perhaps naming was different in 1900? The important element in the story is that Pert is a ‘good girl’ who has to pretend to be sexually aware to be accepted. She loves to dance (and the music and dance sequences are excellent) but recognises that her dancing in skimpy dresses with flashing legs is construed as a come-on. This portrayal works because Colleen Moore is such a lively actress with real personality. She was already 29 but could be younger the way she plays the role. The character is the genuine ‘modern’ young woman of the jazz age – smart and intelligent but also sensible.

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

Louise Brooks – the same bob?

I realise that my lack of knowledge about the stars of this period is a handicap. I think I read that the bob worn by Colleen Moore was copied by Louise Brooks whereas I had assumed that Brooks was the originator. Can any scholar confirm either way? What’s important is that while both women had the same hairstyle, Brooks became a femme fatale but Moore, in this picture at least, is the fun-loving ‘jazz baby’.

A second restoration of another Moore picture from 1929, Synthetic Sin, also directed by Seiter has also been seen in the US so I’lll look out for it appearing over here. Unfortunately some of her other successful films seem still to be lost.

Film on the Front Line: British Propaganda from WWI

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This is a presentation on video of films made during World War I. The films are from the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It runs at the Royal Armouries Museum for the duration of the Leeds International Film Festival. The screenings opened on November 8th with a presentation by Doctor Claudia Sternberg, a specialist on the First World War. And the films runs continuously daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

There are five films ranging a 100 foot short to a two reel film.

The longest film is Exploits of a German Submarine (U-35).Operating in the Mediterranean (UK, 1918 – 36 minutes. This has an interesting pedigree. The film footage was originally a German propaganda film The Enchanted Circle, showing the exploits of one of the most successful examples of submarine warfare at the time. The British took the footage, changed the titling and possibly re-edited the material. Thus is became an example of what is called ‘counter-propaganda’. This version is quite clearly decrying the enemy. Title cards suggest that the Germans are lax about war ethics and about veracity, implying that the British are not. There is some interesting footage of the vessel and a large number of ships sunk.

Liveliness on the British Front (UK, 1916 – 8 minutes). This was produced by the same people who made the famous and extremely influential The Battle of the Somme (UK, 1915): Geoffrey H. Malins and Edward G. Long of the British Topical Committee for War Films. It was only at this stage of the war that the British Government realised and implemented using film for the war effort. We see British troops relaxing behind them lines, but also going into action. The latter are fairly clearly staged. However there is footage that gives a sense of the state of the trench system and the living conditions that troops endured.

Home on leave (UK, 1916, – 7 minutes). The film follows soldiers leaving the Western Front and retuning home for leave: something that soldiers generally had to wait a considerable time for. There is a light-hearted feel to the antics of the soldiers as they journey by road and then by ship.

The Destruction of a Fokker: Our Mobile Ant-aircraft Guns in Action (UK, 1916 – 6 minutes). The Fokker was one of the very effective German fighter planes. Most of the film shows the mobile gun crews, moving, manoeuvring and firing their 13 pound weapon. For much of the film the enemy plane is in extreme long shot. For the climax there is a special effect – the use of a model: and then shots of the burning wreckage of seemingly two downed aircraft.

Fighting U-Boats in a London Back Garden (UK, 1918 – 1 minute). This very brief film is a ‘digging for victory’ feature. Civilians demonstrate the cheerful resilience that is expected from the British as they dig and plant in their tiny garden.

As you might expect the condition of the old prints varies considerably. Moreover, video transfer is not that kind to the contrast and definition of old film. Quite a lot of the footage is reasonably sharp and clear. However, within the films there are passages [especially in the U-35 footage] which is fairly washed out and poorly defined]. It is still an interesting an informative 58 minutes. There is a musical accompaniment by the Ithaca Trio. This is a quiet and appropriately sombre piece: it avoids more rousing music even during the action sequences.

A word of caution. The Royal Armouries is not the best signposted museum I have visited. And there are not specific signs or indicators for this event – it was not listed in the Daily Events Calendar that I saw. Moreover the Museum has a large number of video installations in the permanent exhibition, and I was at first misdirected to one of those.

So Film on the Front Line is in the Cinema on the second floor, the first floor of the War exhibits. Coming in the main entrance take the right hand lift at the far end: turn left out of the lift on floor 2 and the first entrance has the cinema, also on the left. When I went the auditorium doors had been wedged open so there was extraneous noise from the other exhibits: but the wedges are easily removable.

One last note – if you find this interesting, after the Festival you could check out the Mediatheque at the National Media Museum in Bradford which has large collection of archive film, including from the World War I period.