Archive for the ‘SILENT’ Category

Opium (1919)

Dir: Robert Reinert | Silent film

Siegfried Kracauer – who hit thirty the year this feature came out – was able personally to recall the  film’s first release which ran in an expensive Berlin movie theater with the house sold out for three weeks. Of course, one avoided being seen on such occasions”!

With prescription of addictive opiates currently causing a panic in Britain it’s timely to see again this dire warning against the perils of opium a hundred years on; restored to its former glory with magnificent tinting, handsome exteriors and an involved plot starting in China and concluding in Europe.

With so much going on the plot thread involving opium is easy to lose track of, and director Robert Reinert is for the most part content to let his cast mug to the camera (Werner Krauss both looks and acts like Moore Marriott as the leering Chinese villain Nung-Tschang, who keeps magically popping up whenever the action relocates) and let the plushness of the production take care of itself. There are a couple of interesting camera tricks that anticipate Vertigo but Reinert more often favours scenes of Satan cavorting with nymphs to create the atmosphere he’s after!

Although he (eventually) makes an impressive entrance, Conrad Veidt isn’t actually in the film for very long, and the cast member who makes the most sympathetic impression is probably doe-eyed Sybill Morel in a double role as mother and daughter. Richard Chatten

The Soul of Youth (1920)

Dir: William Desmond Taylor | Silent

William Desmond Taylor (1872-1922) unfortunately remains one of the best-remembered directors of the silent era for entirely the wrong reason that on 1 February 1922 he was the victim of Hollywood’s most notorious unsolved murder. Kenneth Anger in 1959 devoted a lip-smacking chapter of ‘Hollywood Babylon’ to the case; while Sidney D. Kirkpatrick’s ‘A Cast of Killers’ (1986) is an excellent review of the evidence. But no one ever showed any curiosity about his films. (I first came across Taylor’s name in David Robinson’s ‘World Cinema’ (1973), in which Robinson simply dismisses him as “an indifferent director”.)

 

However, the excellent tinted print of ‘The Soul of Youth’ presently available on DVD reveals Taylor the director to be just as interesting as Taylor the murder victim; and that he is worthy of attention as an imaginative creative figure in his own right. His professional standing during the early twenties is attested to by the opening credits for this film, which read ‘William D. Taylor’s Production of “The Soul of Youth”‘.

16-year-old Lewis Sargent, who had just played the title role in Taylor’s version of ‘Huckleberry Finn’, stars as an orphan and juvenile delinquent gently guided towards the straight and narrow by the humanitarian regime of the Denver-based jurist and social reformer Benjamin Barr Lindsey (1869-1943). Assisted by atmospheric and realistic production design by an uncredited George James Hopkins and superb photography by Taylor’s regular cameraman James Van Trees (who a quarter of a century later shot the Marx Brothers classic ‘A Night in Casablanca’), Taylor skilfully marshals his large cast, keeping up the pace as he adroitly juggles various concurrent narrative threads with warmth and good humour. @Richard Chatten

 

Vier um der Frau (2021)

Dir: Fritz Lang | Cast: Hermann Bottcher, Carola Toelle, Lilli Lohrer, Ludwig Hartau | Germany, Silent, 52′

Now a hundred years old! Despite resurfacing in Brazil in 1987 and now available on YouTube, this dynamic, good-looking little gem by Fritz Lang remains stubbornly overlooked by most film historians, yet is probably as lively as anything Lang ever made, based on a play by Rolf E, Vanloo, and a script by Thea von Harbou.

Like his earlier serial Die Spinnen, Lang’s template at the time was Louis Feuillade’s melodramatic tales of arch criminals transposed to what is presumably contemporary Berlin (although the time it was made is now far closer to Dickens than us), in which morals were loose, most of the characters wear large overcoats and hats signalling their social status (and one of the employees at the local restaurant is a little black kid). The production company plugs itself by making the local cinema prominently on view the Decla-Bioscop; while Teutonic thespians like Rudolf Klein-Rogge play characters with Anglo-Saxon names like ‘Upton’. @Richard Chatten

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The Red Kimona (1925)

Dir: Walter Lang | Wri: Dorothy Arzner, Adela Rogers St Johns | Cast: Priscilla Bonner, Nellie Bly Baker, Carl Miller, Mary Carr, Virginia Pearson | US Silent 76′

One of the most sought after missing Hollywood silents is Human Wreckage (1923), a drama about drug addiction that was the first of three crusading independent productions produced by and featuring the actress Dorothy Davenport under the name “Mrs Wallace Reid”.

Number Three was The Crimson Kimona which manages to pack an incredible amount of plot into under eighty minutes while addressing the thorny subjects of prostitution and the rehabilitation of offenders; and, like Human Wreckage, was banned by the British Board of Censors. Unlike the former this happily still survives.

The surprises start early with the name of Walter Lang – whose debut feature this was – prominently displayed as director. For 25 years from the mid-thirties until the early sixties, Lang was a competent ‘A’ feature workhorse for Fox whose name adorns such bland big budget fodder as The King and I without his name ever on its own account ever exciting much interest among scholars. Lang gets solo credit on The Red Kimona (Mrs Wallace Reid getting a separate supervisory one), and does a remarkably good job, aided by excellent photography by James Diamond and uniformly good performances, not all of them credited. (Tyrone Powers Sr, for example, plays Gabrielle’s brutish father, but the pinched-faced actress playing her mother is uncredited). In order to sugar the pill of the earnest Sunday school nature of the subject (complete with biblical quotations), The Red Kimona is replete throughout with blandishments that keep the audience attentive, ranging from coloured inserts of the eponymous Red Kimona (presumably designed to symbolise the heroine’s fall from polite society) to an invigorating car chase through Santa Fe.

Making much of being based on a genuine criminal case in New Orleans in 1917, and scripted by Adela Rogers St. Johns and Dorothy Arzner, the film begins and ends with Mrs Wallace Reid speaking directly to camera, her words conveyed by subtitles; a device routinely used in sound films and on television, but which I’ve never before encountered in a silent film.

Gabrielle’s suitor Howard Blaine (played by Carl Miller) is so repulsive – significantly a bruise can be seen on her upper arm in one scene, and the only kindness she receives later is from the prison matron – one suspects a diatribe against men is in the offing; but socialite Mrs. Fontaine, her Mrs Danvers like housekeeper (played with crow-like malice by Emily Fitzroy) and her coven of clucking lady friends get equally short shrift (another eye-catching performance by an uncredited performer is by the actress who plays Mrs. Fontaine’s cynical maid). Gabrielle meanwhile finds her knight in shining armour in a chauffeur’s uniform in the form of Mrs. Fontaine’s chauffeur Freddy, engagingly played by Theodore Von Eltz.

As Gabrielle herself, Priscilla Bonner’s performance grows on you as the film progresses (which is not in straight chronological sequence) and her character evolves as she rolls her big round eyes lovingly filmed in close up. (Like historical detective fiction author Anne Perry when the release of Heavenly Creatures [1994] outed her forty years after the event as the fifties teenage killer Juliet Hulme, the real life Gabrielle Darley was less than thrilled at having the spotlight again turned on her without her permission using her real name; and in 1931 she successfully sued Mrs Wallace Reid for substantial damages.) @Richard Chatten

 

Eternal Love (1929) Prime Video

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch | Cast: John Barrymore, Camilla Horn | German, 61′

Eternal Love was the final silent film made by Ernst Lubitsch and John Barrymore. Based on a 1900 novel by J.C.Heer called ‘Der Koenig der Bernina’, the feature is fairly typical of the cross-pollination then common between Europe and Hollywood, with a German director and scriptwriter and female leading actress, sets and costumes by Caligari veteran Walter Reimann and Banff National Park in Canada standing in for the Swiss Alps in 1806.

Despite the high-powered talent brought to bear on it, Eternal Love for the most part lacks Lubitsch’s customary saucy wit promised in the earlier scenes featuring the saucy Mona Rico, and seems rather perfunctory compared to G.W.Pabst’s similar but far superior Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü released later the same year. Oliver Marsh’s photography would plainly be far more impressive in its pristine nitrate form than the rather blurry version available today, while the drab Vitaphone score by Hugo Riesenfeld also rather holds it back.

The luminescent final shot of the moon emerging as the clouds part strikingly anticipates Crack in the World (1965), directed 35 years later by Eternal Love’s editor Andrew Marton, which ends with a shot almost identical to that of Eternal Love, except that at the end of Marton’s later film there are two moons…@Richard Chatten

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The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Dir: Wallace Worsley | Wri: Gouverneur Morris, Ruth Wightman | Cast: Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy, John Bowers, Raymond Hatton, Hardee Kirkland | US Silent, Drama 65′

At noon on 16 September 1920 the United States suffered the most destructive act of terrorism yet committed on American soil when a bomb believed to have been planted by Italian anarchists exploded on Wall Street, killing 30 people outright and injuring hundreds of others.

Already in cinemas, Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty (1920), had recently starred Lon Chaney as the head of a gang of anarchists plotting a spectacular robbery; and a year later the director and star released a similarly themed follow-up based upon another novel by Gouverneur Morris.

Obviously a pot-boiler compared to The Penalty (but like its predecessor handsomely shot by Donovan Short), Chaney has top billing but a very secondary role as a member of a secret society who resemble the anarchists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), the conspirators in Thorold Dickinson’s Secret People (1952) and the vigilante judges in Peter Hyams’ The Star Chamber (1983). They decide to rid society of a vile plutocrat (Raymond Hatton, called “The Menace” in the cast list but referred to throughout the film as “The Man Who Has Lived Too Long”) by cutting cards to choose the assassin. This scheme is complicated by an extremely uninteresting love triangle comprising Farallone (Chaney), Forrest (John Bowers) and the intriguingly named Lilith (Leatrice Joy); the last being the brotherhood’s only sister, a prig whose infatuation with “the Cause” means she has zero interest in romantic matters.

Although selected on the basis of cutting cards (an obvious nod to Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Suicide Club’), Forrest should have been the obvious candidate to carry out the assassination in the first place; since for the past three months he’s been working as a waiter in the restaurant where The Menace has breakfast every morning at 9.00, and thus perfectly placed to shoot him in the head at point blank range.

Instead their chosen method of execution takes the form of an entirely indiscriminate act of terror employing a bomb capable of destroying an entire building; which it should already have been obvious to Forrest and his associates would mean that The Menace would not be the only casualty (like the little Kenyan girl in Eye in the Sky). Sure enough, when it finally dawns upon Forrest that there will be collateral damage the entire operation is compromised.

The bomb itself looks like a cigarette case and neatly fits into a jacket pocket: yet another example of movie technology far in advance of anything available in real life. The Wall Street bomb itself had had to be brought to the site where it exploded on a horse-drawn wagon.Richard Chatten

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The Last Warning (1928) *** Bluray

Dir.: Paul Leni; Cast: Laura La Plante, Montague Love, Roy D’Arcy, Burr McIntosh, Margaret Livingston, Carrie Daumery, John Boles)Bert Roach, D’Arcy Corrigan; USA 1928, 89 min.

Universal intended The Last Warning as a companion piece to Leni’s more famous (and superior) The Cat and the Canary (1927), and it was also German born director Paul Leni’s final: he died at the age of forty four eight months after the film’s premiere, contracting sepsis from an untreated tooth infection.

Based on the novel by Wordsworth Camp, the Broadway play by Thomas F. Fallon and then adapted for the screen by Alfred A. Cohn, The Last Warning is a mystery-thriller ‘who-done-it’, with a clunky and complicated narrative dominated by Leni’s direction and Hal Mohr’s jerky camerawork. Charles D. Hall’s art direction is inspired by German expressionism, with Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett/ Waxworks (1924) perhaps his greatest achievement.

Leni made use of the Phantom of the Opera (1925) set for his last outing which begins with one of the actors (Woodford’s D’Arcy Corrigan) being electrocuted on stage. There is rumour Woodford was part of a menage-a-trois, but more confusion occurs when the body disappears without trace. The theatre is closed but five years later producer Mike Brody (Roach) re-opens the place to catch the murderer by staging a re-run of the play with the original cast members.

During the rehearsals falling scenery, a fire and frightening noises occur, and the purse of leading lady Doris (La Plante) is stolen. Stage manager Josia Bunce (McIntosh) receives a telegram,  signed by John Woodford, telling him to abandon the play and this sets the stage, quite literally, for a series of disasters, involving a 400 volt cable electrocution and worse was to come.

After the shooting, some spoken dialogue and audio effects were added, but this version has been lost. We are left with great moments of camera work, such as in a scene where veteran actress Barbara Morgan leaps from the stage and plummets to the ground, with the camera taking on her POV. Whilst Phantom of the Opera would play a great role in future Universal canon of horror features, The Last Warning, with its masked killer, is a prelude to the Italian ‘Gialli’ features of directors Dario Argento and Mario Bava. AS

ON EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA 15 FEBRUARY 2021

Glumov’s Diary | Dnevik Glumova (1923) ****

Dir: Sergei Eisenstein | Cast: Grigoriy Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov, Mikail Gomorov | USSR 1923, 5’

Conceived like Orson Welles’ Too Much Johnson fifteen years later as augmenting a stage production. Before The Battleship Potemkin there was Glumov’s Diary; and before the Odessa Steps was a small flight of steps outside the Morozov mansion in Moscow in which the Proletkult theatre was currently housed and in front of which Eisenstein’s enthusiastic young cast cavorted nearly a hundred years ago (including a pipe-smoking bride arm-in-arm with a very camp-looking groom).

Representing the tiny acorn which grew into the mighty, if blighted, oak of the cinematic legacy of Sergei Eisenstein, his illustrious filmography starts with this strange-sounding title in which the young director himself puts in a brief appearance introducing himself to the camera sporting a scruffy beard and an enormous shock of hair.

By the the time he’d been harassed into an early grave a quarter of a century later he’d probably long forgotten this little squib which shows the influence of Melies rather than Kino-Pravda, since it probably contains more special effects than the rest of Eisenstein’s oeuvre put together; including the bizarre transformation of a cavorting clown into a swastika. Richard Chatten.

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Shiraz (1928) ***** We Are One Festival

Dir: Franz Osten | Writer: W Burton based on a play by Niranjan Pal | Cast: Himansu Rai, Enakshi Rama Rau, Charu Roy, Seeta Devi | 97′ | Silent | Drama

SHIRAZ: A ROMANCE OF INDIA is a rare marvel of silent film. This dazzling pre-talkies spectacle was directed by Franz Osten and stars Bengali actor Himansu Rai who also produced the film from an original play by Niranjan Pal. Shot entirely in India with a cast of 50,000 and in natural light, the parable imagines the events leading to the creation of one of India’s most iconic buildings The Taj Mahal, a monument to a Moghul Empire to honour a dead queen.

Shiraz is a fictitious character, the son of a local potter who rescues a baby girl from the wreckage of a caravan laden with treasures, ambushed while transporting her mother, a princess. Shiraz is unaware of Selima’s royal blood and he falls madly in love with her as the two grow up in their simple surroundings, until she is kidnapped and sold to Prince Khurram of Agra (a sultry Charu Roy). Shiraz then risks his life to be near her in Agra as the Prince also falls for her charms.

SHIRAZ forms part of a trilogy of surviving films all made on location in India by Rai and his director Osten. Light of Asia (Prem Sanyas, 1926) and A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, 1929) complete the trio intended to launch an east/west partnership bringing quality films to India, all based on Indian classical legend or history, and featuring an all-Indian cast in magnificent locations. Apart from the gripping storyline, there is the rarity value of a sophisticated silent feature made outside the major producing nations in an era where Indian cinema was not yet the powerhouse it would become. Rai makes for a convincing central character as the modest Shiraz, with a gently shimmering Enakshi Rama Rau as Selima. Seeta Devi stars in all three films, and here plays the beguiling but scheming courtesan Dalia, determined to get her revenge on Selima’s charms.

Apart from being gorgeously sensual (there is a highly avantgarde kissing scene ) and gripping throughout, SHIRAZ is also an important film in that it united the expertise of three countries: Rai’s Great Eastern Indian Corporation; UK’s British Instructional Films (who also produced Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars and Underground in 1928) and the German Emelka Film company. Contemporary sources tell of “a serious attempt to bring India to the screen”. Attention to detail was paramount with an historical expert overseeing the sumptuous costumes, furnishings and priceless jewels that sparkle within the Fort of Agra and its palatial surroundings. Glowing in silky black and white SHIRAZ is one of the truly magical films in recent memory. MT

SHIRAZ IS PART OF WE ARE ONE A FESTIVAL CELEBRATING SOLIDARITY FROM THE FILM COMMUNITY | BFI PLAYER

 

 

The Son of the Sheik (1926) ***** Bluray release

Dir: George Fitzmaurice | Cast: Rudolph Valentino, Vilma Banky, Montagu Love | US, Silent drama 69′ | English intertitles

This simple love story of lust and betrayal is elevated by exquisite performances from Valentino and his personally chosen co-star Vilma Banky who is visibly transformed by his sultry love-making in the desert sands of Araby, sumptuously evoked in William Cameron Menzies’ set design.

The narrative is driven forward by Artur Guttmann’s atmosphere score primping the emotional lows and highs of the tragic fable. The legend behind the camera was George Barnes whose evocative images would see him winning an Oscar for Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1941), a Golden Globe for Cecile B. DeMille’s 1952 extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth and many other nominations.

ON THE EUREKA LABEL FROM 17 FEBRUARY 2020

 

 

 

Ecstasy | Estasi (1932) Made in Prague Film Festival 2021

Dir.: Gustav Machaty; Cast: Hedy Kiesler-Lamarr, Aribert Moog, Zvonimir Rogoz, Leopold Kramer; Czechoslovakia 1932, 90 min.

Czech director/co-writer Gustav Machaty (1901-1963) paints a portrait of passionate love and jealousy, set in and around Prague in the early 1930s and based on the novel by Robert Horky.

A mixture of sound and silent film, Ecstasy would be remembered for its nude scenes rather than its cinematographic value or its bold feminist stance. Hedy Kiesler was the star turn – she would soar to the Hollywood firmament as Hedy Lamarr.

The drama opens as newly-wed couple Ewa (Kiesler) and the much older Emile (Rogoz) arrive home.  Emile fumbles with his keys, desperate for a night-cup. Pricking his finger while trying to help Ewa take off her necklace, his mood worsens and he reaches for the newspaper, ignoring his beautiful bride. Ewa leaves him and returns to the estate of her father (Kramer) where she skinny-dips in the lake, her horse running off with her clothes. Meanwhile Adam (Moog), a young engineer, working on the railway-line, catches the horse and returns her clothes in an encounter that leads to a torrid night of sex and the first female orgasm on screen: Ewa’s eyes are closed, her lips parted, whilst another shot shows her limp wrist, symbolically dropping the necklace with its pearls rattling to the floor. 

Emile realises the error of his ways and tries to make amends – but Ewa rejects him  – he then comes across Adam and gives him a lift in his car unaware to the tryst. But when he sees the necklace in Adam’s hands, Emile is distraught and commits suicide the same evening in a hotel where the couple are dancing. Ewa is shocked and abandons Adam. The finale pictures her happily cuddling a new-born baby.

Ewa’s search for passion is seen as a rightful pursuit, a stance against her selfish  husband. But Adam is neither her saviour nor her downfall. Ewa’s reputation survives intact, Adam comes across as a naïve country boy, fulfilled by his work on the land more than his affair with a woman, and merely the catalyst for Ewa’s emancipation. Ewa is not punished like Madame Bovary. She is a self-determining woman who has chosen pleasure above pain.

Produced for the German market, Ecstasy is certainly still very central European in tone, Vienna, Austria, and the old Habsburg Empire are still alive. The lack of dialogue is surprising: Ewa’s scenes with Emile and Adam are silent. At a time when men had the last word, Ewa proves that actions speak louder than words. But when she does speak – in the scene with her father – Ewa is in charge, telling him to lie to her ex-husband when the he phones. Her father asks: “Why do I have to lie?”, Ewa answering “So I have my peace”. 

The film premiered in Prague in January 1933, with Kiesler storming out of the theatre, feeling betrayed by the director and producer, who had promised that the nude scenes would be shot from far away, so that nobody would recognise her. In Germany, the feature was cut from the original length of 95 minutes to a mere 82. In the USA, Ecstasy was forbidden until 1940, when it was show in an even more edited version than in Germany. France was the only place where the original version is still shown even today.

Later, Kiesler’s husband, the arms dealer Fritz Mandle, would try to buy up all the copies of the film but without the negative, his efforts would be in vain – as were his attempts to hold on to his wife.

Shot by DoP Jan Stallich in intimate close-ups, the wider screen scenes at the railway, are edited by Antonin Zelenka in the way of the Russian montage features. Ecstasy would be Machaty’s last film in his homeland. He went to work in Germany and Italy, before returning to Hollywood, where he had learned his trade from Griffith and Von Sternberg in the 1920s. His film noir Jealousy (1945) is one of the gems of the genre. Machaty moved to Germany in 1951, teaching at the Munich Film School and directing his last feature Suchkind 312 in 1955. AS

Ecstasy with live overture by Anna Vöröšová / Sun 7 Nov, 3 pm

     

   

Women Filmmakers (1911-1940)

More women worked in film during the early years of the 20th century than at any time since. In the silent era, these women made films for a female audience. And although the focus was traditional: love, marriage and family, the narratives were playfully critical of these themes in a clever and humorous way, pushing the boundaries aesthetically and offering amusement at a time when society was much more restrictive for women than it is nowadays.

Filmmakers such as Lois Weber, Marie-Louise Iribe, Alice Guy Blaché, Germain Dulac, Dorothy Davenport, Olga Preobrazhenskaya, Dorothy Arzner, Mary Helen Bute and Mabel Normand were working together with female screenwriters and producers for the female-dominated audience of the time. For some reason these innovative, pioneering talents have been relegated to the back burner or written out of cinematic history all together, and that is why people talk of their rarity value.  

Alice Guy-Blaché (1873-1968) started her career as a secretary at Gaumont, Paris and would go on to be its only female film director there between 1896 and 1906, making her debut with the first ever feature with a narrative: LA FÉE AUX CHOUX (The Cabbage Fairy). Alice became the production head for Gaumont France and although her directing credits were never really established in France alone they numbered over 500, and  specialised in working with children. Marrying her English Gaumont colleague Herbert Blaché in 1907, the couple soon moved to the United States where they set up the trading arm of Gaumont. In New Jersey Alice set up her own studio, Solax Films, in 1910. For three years, it produced 95 very successful short films, before switching to medium length productions: she directed twenty-two between 1915 and 1920. Two years later, after the collapse of Solax she went back to France where she novelised film scripts, eventually returning to the US to spend her final years with her daughter Simone in New Jersey, not far from the former Solax studio.

FALLING LEAVES (1912) was a melodrama starring a child actor Magda Foy in the role Little Trixie (Magda Foy) whose sister Winifred (Marian Swayne), is dying from TB. The family doctor announces gravely to Winifred’s mother “your daughter will die when the last leaves fall”. Little Trixie not only stitches some leaves to the tree branches, but also gets help in form Dr. Headley (Mace Greenleaf), who has developed a cure that saves Winifred and needless to say, opens the way for a romantic happy-end. That same year Alice filmed THE GIRL IN THE ARMCHAIR (1912) that sees Blanche Cornwall playing heiress Peggy Wilson who becomes the romantic interest and intended wife of her guardian’s son Frank Watson (Mace Greenleaf). But Frank is more interested in gambling, and comes a cropper after he losing USD 500 at Poker, a sizeable amount in those days. The film delivers a happy-ending and a clever scene where Frank sees the cards moving around him in a circle, during a nightmare. THE OCEAN WAIF (1916) is an intricate riff of the ‘damsel in distress’ theme. Doris Kenyon plays Millie the waif in question, discovered on a beach by her brutal stepfather Hy. After regular beatings she runs away and hides in a supposedly abandoned villa, which is then let the writer Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) as the location for his ‘haunted house’ novel. Mistaking her for the much talked off local “ghost” he falls in love, leaving his fiancée who is immediately picked up by a rich count. Unaware of this development, Millie returns home to her step father, who tries to rape her. Another villager comes to the rescue and all’s well that ends well. The film proves that although women where directing, the narratives still saw men very much in control.

Lois Weber (1879-1939) started life as a Street Evangelist but was cast, ironically, by Alice Guy in HYPOCRATES (1908), her first film. Weber’s own prodigious career as a director kicked off with A HEROINE (1911) and continued with 27 movies between 1914 and 1927. After founding her own production company in 1917, she joined Universal Film Manufacturing (the forerunner of Universal) a decade later, but never made the transition into sound, directing just one talkie, WHITE HEAT, in 1934. Weber died lonely and destitute at the age of only sixty, being wrongly remembered as a “star maker”. Film historians have not been kind to her, seeing her diminishing output as the result of her divorce from her husband (and co-producer) Phillips Smalley who never directed or produced a film after they divorced – very much in contrast to Weber.

SUSPENSE (1913) highlighted her invention of the triple screen that added an ingenious twist to the story of a race to the rescue – once again of a ‘damsel in distress’. It sees a city-worker husband (Val Paul) desperate to reach his wife (Weber) threatened by a tramp (Sam Kaufman) trying to break into their house in a remote location. The husband jumps into an idling car (filling the middle part of the screen) and races towards his wife and tramp (who occupy the edges). The police are in hot pursuit while the tramp skulks into the bedroom before being over-powered by the arriving posse. THE BLOT (1921) is a full length feature (91′) and a true auteur’s effort: Weber directed, co-wrote and co-produced this strangely modern tale of poverty in academia that contrasts with the rise of a ‘nouveau riche’ of all kinds. Lecturer Theodore Griggs (Philip Hubbard) and his family are living hand-to-mouth: when he invites the Reverend for tea, his wife (Margaret McWade) frets about the housekeeping budget. Griggs is then belittled by a trio of students whose fathers’ income and political connections will guarantee them top marks. One of them, Phil West (Louis Calhorn), is secretly in love with Griggs’ daughter Amelia (Claire Windsor), the Reverend also fancies his chances with her. Luckily for all concerned, it all works out in the end with one of the inter-titles reading: “men are only boys grown up tall”. 

Mabel Normand (1892-1930) had a short but eventful life: both behind and in front of the camera. A pioneer of silent movies, she appeared in several hundred short films and directed ten between 1910 and 1927. Credited with saving Charlie Chaplin’s career she also developed Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ screen personality. Her accidental involvement in the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the shooting of Courtland S. Dines marred her career, as well as her association with ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whose life was fraught with scandal. Suffering from TB she died at the tender age of only 37. MABEL’S BLUNDER (1914) is a witty comedy of errors and cross-dressing where Mabel (Normand) unhappily finds herself involved with the father of her husband to be. Things get worse when her fiancé’s sister (Nelson) also enters the fray. Mabel dresses up in male drag and teaches both men a lesson. The film went on to be recognised over 100 years winning the National Film Preservation award in 2009.

GERMAINE DU LAC grew up in Paris where she enjoyed an artistic education that led to journalism on her marriage to Marie-Louis Albert-Dulac. One of the leading radical feminists of her day, she became editor of La Française, the organ of the French suffragette movement, also serving as its theatre and cinema critic. In 1915 she teamed up with her husband to direct inventive often experimental shorts produced by their company Delia Film. During the 1920s she emerged a leader figure in the impressionist film movement with titles such as Coquille and the Clergyman. During the Second World War she used her diplomatic skills on behalf of the Cinemateque Francaise to secure the return of valuable films seized by the Nazis. Her ambition was to make ‘pure cinema’ untrammelled by influences from other art forms. She also pioneered French cinema clubs throughout France before the advent of talkies saw her turning her talents towards newsreel production at Pathé and Gaumont.

LA CIGARETTE  (1919) an exquisite but badly damaged restoration of this 51 minute playfully plotted love story sees a flirtatious young wife (Andrée Brabant/Denise) frolicking around Paris while her ageing Eygptologist husband (Gabriel Signoret) frets that she no longer loves him. Despondent, he puts a poisoned cigarette into his box, in the hope that chance will decide his fate, and adding a soupçon of suspense to the delightful post-war snapshot. LA SOURIANTE MADAME BEUDET (1923) Madame Beudet is distinctly more miserable about the state of her marriage than Andrée Brabant’s Denise in this ironically titled silent chamber piece. So much so that she decides to do away with her gurning idiot of a husband (Alexandre Arqullière) who paws her incessantly as she quails away in disgust.  The tone is morose, and Germaine Dermoz makes a cast iron case for women married to men they simply can’t stand the sight of, but are trapped with for reasons beyond their control.

MARIE-LOUISE IRIBE Parisian actress and filmmaker, Marie Louise Iribe (1894-1934) had a short but dazzling career and is best known for her 1928 debut Hara-Kiri (co-directed with Henri Debain). Her follow-up Le Roi de Aulnes (1931) is based on a poem by Goethe. This enchanting filigree fairy tale has the same magical touch and look as Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête which followed 15 years later and during wartime. The simple but moving storyline sees a man riding through hill and dale to carry his injured son home. As he slips in an out of consciousness the boy imagines death as a mythical king surrounded by wood nymphs. Emile Pierre delicately overlays the forest journey with ethereal images of the king in iridescent armour, transformed from a humble toad realised by DoP Emilie Pierre’s ethereal double exposures. Max D’Ollone’s atmospheric score brings the magic to life.

Film and theatre actress, director and founded of the acting school VGIK, Olga Preobrazhenskaya (1881-1971) studied at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1905, making her debut as a filmmaker in 1916 with a silent black and white drama Miss Peasant (Baryshnya-krestyanka) scripted by Alexander Pushkin. Her themes are the lofty historical ones of Empire and Soviet Russia seen through the experience of ordinary people. Preobrazhenskaya also had a penchant for folklore and her love of the countryside is clearly conveyed in The Peasant women of Ryazan (1927/aka Baby ryazanskie) a jubilant Soviet ethnographical silent film set in pre-war 1914 and is probably the most far-reaching of the BFI collection with its themes of war, revolution and collectivisation. It compares and contrasts the fates of two siblings before and after the First World War: Ivan and his sister Vassilia come from a wealthy farming family. Ivan marries a less fortunate Anna, Vassilia rejects tradition with her lover Niccolai. This powerful drama is richly bucolic, stylistically elegant and thematically controversial making use of Soviet Montage editing techniques to drive the action forward.

BFI has restored ome unseen films from nine influential women directors have been transferred to Blu-ray restoring their valuable contribution to the narrative of film history. 4-disc Blu-ray set released 24 June 2019 | The set includes three short documentaries, exclusive scores on selected films and a 44-page booklet.

White Paradise (1924) ****

Dir: Karel Lamač | Script: Karel Lamač/Martin Fric | Cast: Karel Lamač, Vladimir Majer, Anny Ondra, Josef Rovensky | Drama | Czechokoslovakia 70′ | Silent

The UK premiere of this restored box office hit from 1924 stars Anny Ondra and Karel Lamač in the role of naïve orphan Nina and escaped convict Ivan. It is screened with live musical accompaniment by Tomáš Vtípil.

In the depths of a snowbound Bohemian forest, orphan Nina serves passing travellers in a small coaching inn. One of them is Ivan (Karel Lamač), who has escaped from prison for a crime he didn’t commit and is now desperate to bring medicine to his dying mother. Nina falls for his good looks and kind heart and decides to help him, offering sanctuary in the cellar.

This social melodrama benefits from an ingeniously written script and the involvement of Der starke Vierer (The Strong Four) – one of the most distinctive creative teams to come out of early Czechoslovak cinema: director and actor Karel Lamač, cameraman Otto Heller, actress Anny Ondra and screenwriter Václav Wasserman – contributed to the international success of the film and opened the doors for Lamač and Ondra.

Presented in partnership with Barbican and in collaboration with the Czech National Film Archive. | 28th April 2019, at 3pm | Barbican Cinema 1, Barbican Centre, Silk Street, London, EC2Y 8DS

 

The Marvellous Mabel Normand **** BFI Comedy Genius 2018


The BFI’s upcoming COMEDY GENIUS SEASON features a new set of four shorts starring the queen of silent comedy, Mabel Normand.

Mabel Normand (1892-1930) had a short but eventful life: she was a pioneer of Silent Movies as a star actress (in 220) and director (in 10) between 1910 and 1927. Working alongside Charlie Chaplin, she ended up saving his career at Mack Sennetts’ Keystone – the producer wanted to sack him. Normand also developed Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ screen personality. But she was, more or less, accidentally involved in the murder of William Desmond Taylor and the shooting of Courtland S. Dines, as well as being a friend (and co-star) of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, whose life was a series of scandals. Normand suffered for a long time from TB, interrupting her career and leading to her early death at the age of 37.

Mable’s Blunder (1914) 

Dir.: Mack Sennett, Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Harry McCoy, Charles Bennett, Eva Nelson; USA 1914, 13 min.

Mable’s Dramatic Career (1913)

Dir.: Mack Sennett; Cast: Mable Normand, Mack Sennett, Alice Davenport, Virginia Kirtley; USA 1913, 14 min.

His Trysting Places (1914)

Dir.: Charlie Chaplin; Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mark Swain, Phyllis Allen; USA 1914, 32 min.

Should Men walk Home (1927) 

Dir.: Leo McCarey; Cast: Mabel Normand, Creighton Hale, Eugene Pallette, Oliver Hardy; USA 1927, 35 min

Mabel’s Blunder is a screwball comedy of cross-dressing. Mabel (Normand) bizarrely ends up being fancied by her fiancée (Bennet) and his father Harry (McCoy) – in a bizarre turn of events that naturally sees her compromised and embarrassed.  But things get worse when the fiancée’s sister (Nelson) arrives and is also keen on her own brother. Far too fond – in the eyes of Mabel- who doesn’t realise what’s going on, and suspects she has a rival. Mabel changes into male clothing and teaches both men a lesson. Directed by Mack Sennett, this is a turbulent but elegantly comic sketch.

Sennett was also the director of Mabel’s Dramatic Career, in which Normand plays a maid in love with the young Master of the house (Sennett) whose mother (Davenport) really prefers a real ‘lady’ for her son. Mabel is dismissed, but makes a career in the movies. This leads to great unhappiness on the part of the son, when he see his ex-flame on the cinema screen. The final scene is a showcase showdown.

In His Trysting Places Charlie Chaplin directed himself and Normand as couple who fall foul of a comedy involving a mix-up in coats. Chaplin is supposed to get a bottle for the couple’s daughter, but takes the wrong coat in a pub. Mabel finds a letter for a rendezvous in the pocket. She throws a fit. At  the same time, the owner of the coat (Swain) meets his girl friend  (Allen) in the park. She finds a baby-bottle in his coat pocket, and suspects that he has a child with a rival. The helter-skelter of the solution is mad slapstick but hilarious and brilliantly timed.

Should Men Walk Home, directed by Leo McCarey (for producer Hal Roach) is Normand’s penultimate feature. Also known as Girl Bandit, Mabel plays an upmarket lady robber, who together with her friend (Hale), tries to rob a wealthy man during a party. A detective (Pallette) stumbles through the film, always missing the clues, whilst Oliver Hardy has a small, but poignant role as a guest. When it comes to farce, McCarey was one of the best directors, and the finale even features an underwater sequence. Avantgarde and beautifully carried off.

SCREENING AS PART OF BFI’s COMEDY GENIUS season NATIONWIDE from 9 November 2018

Pandora’s Box | Die Büchse der Pandora (1928)

Dir.: G.W. Pabst; Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Carl Götz, Alice Roberts, Daisy d’Ora, Alice Roberts; Germany 1928, 135′.

Based on two plays by the German playwright Frank Wedekind (Earth Spirit/Pandora’s Box), there had been already a stage, screen and even musical version of the story, and Pabst, after having failed to find his ‘Lulu’ was about to cast Marlene Dietrich in the title role.

Luckily for him (and for the millions who have watched the feature), 22 year-old Louise Brooks (a trained dancer), his first choice, phoned from Hollywood just in time, to accept. Pabst had seen her in the role of a circus artist in Howard Hawks’ A Girl in every Port, and Paramount did not even answer his request to borrow her. Only after she quit Paramount ((“just for the hell of it”), did Bud Schulberg tell her that Pabst had offered her the part. She cabled Pabst her agreement immediately – Marlene Dietrich waiting in the director’s office.

Lulu (Brooks) is a mixture of modern femme fatale and a naïve child. Her allure and seductiveness is apparent from the get go when her lover, Dr. Peter Schön (Kortner) arrives. Meanwhile, her first pimp Schigolch (Götz) is hiding on the balcony of her flat. Schön is the editor of a big newspaper and engaged to the aristocratic beauty Charlotte (O’Ora). After spotting Schigolch, the disgusted publisher is delighted  that Lulu wants to star in a variety show, helped by Schigolch and the strongman Rodrigo Quast. But on the evening of the first night, Lulu has a tantrum: she is not going to perform in front of her lover’s fiancée. When Lulu seduces Schön, Charlotte and Schön’s adult son Alwa (Lederer), who is secretely in love with Lulu, enter through the backroom of he theatre. The editor has no choice now – he has to marry Lulu. On the night of their wedding there is a drunken scene in their boudoir involving Quast and Schigolch.  Lulu’s newly-wed husband, asks her to shoot herself, to save him from becoming a murderer – but in the struggle for the gun he is killed. Lulu is found guilt of manslaughter, but escapes with Alwa, Schilgoch and Quast. The trio soon runs out of money, ending up penniless in London, where Lulu meets her end at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

Not only did Pabst introduce Louise Brooks as the modern sex siren, he also casts, perhaps for the time in film history, a lesbian protagonist: Countess Anna Geschwitz (Roberts), who is, like all men, equally smitten by Lulu. But she is no wallflower – and even ends up murdering Quast, who wants to give Lulu away to the police for money.

Pandora’s Box was not successful at the box office, even German critic of the time Kracauer has nothing good to say: he considered Wedekind’s plays to be “really essays”, lifeless and lacking visual strength. In the USA, the film’s ending was changed: instead of being murdered, Lulu joins the Salvation Army.
Brooks would stay in Europe, starring next in Pabst’s Diary of a lost Girl, before returning to the USA, where she ended her screen career in 1938, becoming a writer. Pabst himself would never again reach the same heights, retuning to Nazi Germany in 1939, and ruining his reputation. But Pandora’s Box, a serendipitous meeting of chance and the unique historic constellation of culture, the Weimarer Republic, will live on forever. AS

A BFI RELEASE OF NEW 2K DCP OF THE MUNICH FILM MUSEUM’S DEFINITIVE 1997 RESTORATION, WITH SCORE BY PETER RABEN | OPENING AT THE BFI SOUTHBANK AND SELECTED CINEMAS NATIONWIDE ON 1 JUNE 2018

Bestia (1917) ** | Kinoteka London 2018

Writer-Director Aleksander Hertz | Cast: Pola Negri, Witold Kuncewicz, Jan Pawłowski, Maria Dulęba, Mia Mara. Melodrama | Poland / 67 min (incomplete)

Aleksander Hertz’s Bestia was one of the last of several films made by his company Sfinks starring his protégé Pola Negri under her real name Apolonia Chałupiec before she left for Germany in 1917, and, alas, the only one still surviving. Released in America in 1921 and slightly re-edited as The Polish Dancer to herald Negri’s arrival in Hollywood after making her name internationally in the German films of Ernst Lubitsch; it is to this version that Bestia owes its survival, and this was the version screened at Ognisko Polskie in partnership with this year’s Kinoteka Polish Film Festival.

Although popular playing A Woman of the World, (which became the title of one of her Hollywood vehicles), Negri in The Beast (to give it it’s literal title in English) proves far more sinned against than sinning; her choice of male company having done her no favours.

Bestia starts well with Miss Negri staying out late carousing with a bunch of drunken ne’er-do-wells (showing that Polish youth were as interested in the same things a hundred years ago as they remain today), and before long she has the world (and various men) at her feet as a raunchy cabaret dancer. Unfortunately she falls for a spineless stage door Johnny named Alexi, who neglects to inform her that he’s married, while the film’s emphasis shifts from Negri to Alexi’s dithering over whether or not to leave his wife. Negri’s honorable decision to reimburse money she’d earlier borrowed without permission from an oaf called Dimitri meanwhile seriously rebounds on her to her cost and it all ends in tears, with retribution meted out that bears little relation to the sins actually committed. RICHARD CHATTEN

KINOTEKA LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2018 | 7 -29 MARCH 2018

Fahrenheit 451 (1966) | Bluray release

Dir: Francois Truffaut |Cast: Julie Christie, Oskar Werner, Cyril Cusack, Anton Diffring | Sci-fi Drama | 112′

One of the many pleasures of Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has become the power of the bibliophile. When the fireman of the future turn their flame-throwers on a pile of 1950/60’s paperbacks (it’s now over fifty years since Truffaut chose them for the film) their book covers appear achingly nostalgic, to older cineastes. Many of these retro Penguins and Pelicans still turn up in charity shops and though it hasn’t come to pass that our government will destroy them, maybe, just maybe, instead of becoming ash, they remain unsold and unread?

It’s fascinating to watch Fahrenheit 451 in our social-media age when more time is spent reading words on screens rather than on paper. Technology has ‘burnt’ into our reading behaviour making a ban on books almost unnecessary. We’ve ‘freely’ chosen, assisted by advertising, to absorb information on computers, TV and film over experiencing knowledge gleaned from the inner life of books of fiction or philosophy.

Fahrenheit-451-poster-1Fahrenheit 451 depicts large television screens (a prophetic novelty in 1966 that we can now easily purchase) that in Truffaut’s ‘future’ are removed of word content in the form of credits or announcements. Our miniaturised phone screens, tablets and laptops, so commonplace in 2017, are never seen. Nor is any character depicted taking a selfie. The film’s routine narcissism consists of people without mobile devices, travelling on trains and hugging or touching their clothed selves, in a sad auto-erotic manner, indicating that clinging to a vestige of self-love is a last resort in a society where no one looks happy, and therefore is disinclined to reflect this on film.

Truffaut has claimed that Fahrenheit 451 is not science fiction. This is true in the sense that the technological menace of the book’s mechanical hound, and the horribly graphic manner in which would-be suicides are vacuumed of any depression, is absent. But Ray Bradbury, allowing for his technological terrors, was more of a poetic fantasist than a genre SF writer. Truffaut attempted to convey threats to intimacy (Fahrenheit 451 is more to do with repression and denial of human closeness). And Bradbury, also mindful of loss, is as differently soulful about that as Truffaut.

Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) discovers that after reading his first book, Dickens’s David Copperfield, he is re-born (“Chapter one. I am born. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life or whether that station will be held by anybody else these pages must show.”) His wife Linda (Julie Christie) discovers his crime and betrays Montag by informing the captain of the Fire Service (Cyril Cusack). Once they discover Montag’s secret hoard of books, Montag kills the captain, burns his room and escapes to the country to join the book people, who have each chosen a book to preserve for future generations. In Montag’s case it’s Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The formerly placid and neutral Montag is to be transformed by symbolic tales depicting morbid states of catalepsy, hallucination and terror.

On my 4th viewing of Fahrenheit 451 I was much more aware of the film’s lightly humorous tone, making for a telling picture of social conformity: particularly this absurd exchange between Montag and the captain.

The Captain: By the way, what does Montag do on his day off duty?
Guy Montag: Not much, sir, just mow the lawn.
The Captain: And what if the law forbids it?
Guy Montag: Just watch it grow, sir.

Or the lovely in-joke announcement, by one of the book people, who’s preserving his text, in his memory, in order to survive its physical destruction.

Book Person: And I’m The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.

Whether by accident or design, the film’s book titles take on their own filmic pattern of meaning. I’m sure film students have written essays and published theses, on the trajectory of key books in Truffaut’s film, relating to the moral awakening of Montag. The first book that we see burning is Don Quixote (A story of a man pursuing illusions) then The Moon and Sixpence (A story of a man renouncing the conventions of society to become an artist) and David Copperfield (A story of a man who wants to determine his own fate.) All can be viewed as stages in Montag’s development from destroyer to creator, fireman made lover slowly seduced by his books.

The obedient state servant rejects a “zombie” (Montag’s word) society. Fireman burns books. Fireman reads and comes to revere books. Fireman becomes his freely chosen book. “Kerosene is a perfume” says Montag, explaining his book burning work, to Clarisse (Julie Christie doubling up as wife alter-ego and book person). Interestingly Truffaut’s film has no equivalent line of dialogue to suggest that the smell of a book’s pages become Montag’s preferred love perfume.

If there are flaws in Fahrenheit 451 they centre round some occasionally stilted dialogue. (Though this can be viewed as the natural result of a highly controlled zombiefied society plus Truffaut’s lack of English over co-writing the screenplay). And when the book people begin to appear near the end and start to introduce themselves – for example (“I am Pride and Prejudice Book I and I am Pride and Prejudice book 2” ) you immediately think what a great idea but not quite worked out properly. Then a miracle occurred. During the shooting of the film, it went and snowed. As the snow falls people walk back and forth, reciting chapters to themselves, and we experience eloquent screen poetry – greatly enhanced by Bernard Herrmann’s touching music.

Fahrenheit 451 was deeply unappreciated by audiences and critics in 1966. Today its menacing charm both excites and disturbs. This is a world as lyrical as Truffaut’s earlier films: though now beguiling us with a melancholic dystopia: our desperate attempts to recover a sense of self – even if fulfilment of feeling is most tenderly realised in love’s surrender to the printed word. Alan Price © 2017

NOW AVAILABLE ON BLURAY

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Legendary GET CARTER composer, Roy Budd is to have his lost score for Rupert Julian’s silent classic film, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA premiered at the London Coliseum, 24 years after his untimely death in 1993. On October 8th 2017, Budd’s masterpiece score will be performed by the 77 piece Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra, conducted by Spencer Down, alongside a screening of the silent film in a world premiere event.

British jazz musician and composer Roy Budd, is best known for the film scores of Get Carter with Michael Caine and The Wild Geese with Roger Moore and Richard Burton. In 1989 Budd acquired the only surviving original 35mm reel of Rupert Julian’s silent 1925 film, The Phantom of the Opera, and lovingly restored it to its former glory before composing his own score to the film, a sweeping romantic symphony. Phantom is the sound of Budd blossoming from jazz virtuoso to classical maestro.

img014 A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, in 1953 aged six, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum on the same bill as Roy Castle and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films.

Throughout his childhood Budd, who has perfect pitch, won a number of televised talent competitions, before releasing a single, “The Birth of the Budd”, when he was still a teenager, and becoming the resident pianist at one of London’s jazz meccas, the Bull’s Head pub in Barnes. In 1971, he sealed his place in film history when, aged 22, he was hired by Mike Hodges to score his grim revenge drama, Get Carter, starring Michael Caine. The music budget was a mere £450, but Budd, along with a bassist and a percussionist, recorded a spine-tingling harpsichord motif which is now iconic. In 1981 The Human League covered the theme from Get Carter on their multi-million selling album Dare.

Phantom Dancers_SmIn 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere at the Barbican in partnership with UNICEF and European tour, Budd suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age. The concert was cancelled and Budd’s widow Sylvia was asked to foot the bill. Sylvia has fought for 24 years to give the score the public airing it deserves.

Phantom of the Opera is arguably Budd’s greatest achievement: a grand soundtrack for full orchestra with several themes and leitmotifs that pay tribute to the great composers of the concert hall and screen, while at the same time unmistakably the work of its inspired creator.

LONDON COLISEUM | 8 OCTOBER 2017

Lubitsch in Berlin: Six Silent Films | Bluray release

34801014693_36474028a3_zICH MÖCHTE KEIN MANN SEIN (I DON’T WANT TO BE A MAN) Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Ossi Oswalda, Curt Goetz; Germany 1918, 45 min. (Silent)

DIE PUPPE (THE DOLL) | Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Ossi Oswalda, Hermann Thimig, Victor Janson; Germany 1919, 48 min. (Silent) |

DIE AUSTERN PRINZESSIN (THE OYSTER PRINCESS) | Dir. Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Ossi Oswalda, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke, Julius Falkenberg; Germany 1919, 58 min. (Silent)

SUMURUNDir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Ernst Lubitsch, Pola Negri, Paul Wegener, Jenny Hasselqvist; Germany 1920, 85 min. (Silent)

ANNA BOLEYN (DECEPTION) | Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Henny Porten, Emil Jannings, Paul Hartmann, Ludwig Hartau

DIE BERGKATZE (THE MONTAIN CAT) | Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch; Cast: Pola Negri, Victor Janson, Paul Heidemann, Wilhelm Diegemann, Hermann Thimig, Edith Meller; Germany 1921, 79 min.

In From Caligari to Hitler, Siegfried Kracauer’s pre-eminent history of the German film between the two world wars, Ernst Lubitsch dominates the chapter entitled The Shock of Freedom, dealing with the films which followed the Armistice in 1918. Kracauer is not uncritical of Lubitsch’ four ‘blockbusters’ – Sumurun and Anna Boleyn are in this collection of six Lubitsch films – (the others were Madame DuBarry and The Loves of Pharaoh) – the author is emphatic: were it not for Lubitsch, “the German film comedies of the time would hardly be worth mentioning”. As it turns out, the comedies are in a way much more impressive than the big productions: they so much more innovative, and even anarchic. Many of  Lubitsch’ collaborators went on to enjoy long careers, often in Hollywood, as did the director himself.

Unfortunately LUBITSCH IN BERLIN does not include Paul Davidson, who was a well-known actor and chief-executive of UFA after the merger with Deulig. He became the producer of 39 Lubitsch films in Berlin. Some time after the director left for Hollywood in 1922, Davidson committed suicide but while he produced all six films, the actress Ossi Oswalda was the star of the three Lubitsch comedies I Don’t Want to Be a Man, The Doll and The Oyster Princess. Oswalda was the German Mary Pickford. She starred in 51 films between 1916 and 1933 – but could not adjust to sound films and died in poverty in Prague in 1947, four month before Lubitsch’ own demise in Hollywood. Script-writer Hanns Kraly, who was co-writer with Lubitsch for the films of this collection, followed Lubitsch to Hollywood, where they worked together again for Eternal Love (1929). Kraly has over 87 credits, among them 100 Men and a Girl and It Started with Eve. And last, but not least the masterful DoP Theodor Sparkuhl was behind the camera, not only for the films in this collection, but in a career that spanned over hundred features. He working in France and Hollywood after leaving Germany in 1928. Highlights were Renoir’s La Chienne, as well as Beau Geste and The Glass Key in Hollywood.

In I Don’t Want to Be a Man, Ossi Oswalda plays a teenage tomboy under the power of a draconian governess and a even more dictatorial and moralistic guardian (Curt Goetz). When Ossi has enough, she buys herself a tailored suit, dresses like a man and goes to a ball where she meets her guardian, who does not recognize her. The two get drunk together, even kiss, and in the morning Ossi is not only in love with her former tormentor, but wants to remain a woman for the rest of her life. The ball scenes are exceptional, Lubitsch’ talent for crowd scenes is perfectly showcased. Oswalda is very convincing in both roles, exuding a charming playfulness that outshines the rest of the cast.

35609775125_2008080c8b_zThe Doll is the most innovative of the three medium length features. The Baron of Chanterelle is dying, and wants his nephew Lancelot (Thimig) to marry, so the bloodline can continue. But Lancelot is afraid of women, and he flees into a cloister to get away from it all. But the monks are only interested in eating and drinking, and once they find out that Lancelot is heir to a fortune they hatch a scheme to get their hands on the money, convincing the young man to marry a mechanical doll, perfectly produced by master constructor Hilarius (Janson). But Hilarious’ apprentice accidentally destroys the doll, and his daughter (Oswalda) takes over in an amusing performance. The crowd scenes are magnificent, played out against the backdrop of a Grimm Brother’s design. The Doll is an early comedy masterpiece.

35570954296_af92bde88a_zThe same goes for the Oyster Princess, a satire on Hollywood films, where everything is over-cooked. The wealthy Oyster King (Janson) is tyrannized by his daughter overbearing (Oswalda) into find her a prince she can marry. Oswalda, who still sleeps with her teddy-bear, is not really after a husband, but wants to impress her contemporaries. The impoverished Prince Nicki (Liedtke) is chosen, but he sends his friend and servant Josef (Falkenstein) to have a look at Ossi. In a mix-up, Josef is taken for the real Prince, and Ossie marries him – but sends him away in the wedding night so she can go sharing her bed with her teddy. It all ends well but not before Lubitsch makes a fool out of the Hollywood style, in some scenes even outdoing his future employers; producing the kind of gags even the Marx Brothers would have been proud of!

IMG_4002In Sumurun (An Arabian Night), based on Max Reinhardt’s stage production, Lubitsch himself plays Yeggar, a hunchback who denounces the love affair between the old Sheik’s (Wegener) son and his mistress, the dancer Yannaia (Pola Negri), to the vengeful ruler, who kills the couple. Realising his humanity, Yeggar then murders the old Sheikh. Kracauer had this to say about the 1920 silent film thus: “loaded with kisses and corpses, this story phantasy pretended superiority to its theme, by satirizing it pleasantly.”

35570955686_59ba8b72fd_zFor Anna Boleyn (Deception) Lubitsch splashed out 8.5 million marks on this gruesome spectacle, that depicts Henry VIII’s lust for sex and murder. Torture scenes predominate, and, in contrast to Danton (1921), Lubitsch doesn’t need to embroider the facts as Henry VIII (Jannings) and Anna Boleyn (Porten) provided enough material to be exploited. Highlights are the murder of Boleyn’s lover and her own execution scene where the masses joined forces to converge on the Tower, giving Lubitsch an excuse to a chance to max out his crowd control mastery.

35570954966_1a475fc07f_zFinally, Die Bergkatze (The Mountain Cat) was a rare box-office failure for Lubitsch. In follows notorious Don Juan, Lieutenant Alexis (Heidemann) who seduces Lilli (Meller) the daughter of his fort commander (Janson). He’s also secretly in love with Rischka (Negri), leader of a robber gang, who infiltrates the fort. The two women fight for Alexis before Rischka ‘sees sense’ and gives Alexis up. Reinhardt’s stage designer Ernst Stern (who emigrated to London in 1933) was responsible for the innovative mixture of expressionism, Jugendstil and oriental fairytale. There are hardly any straight lines in the designs, everything is elliptic, full of scrolls and squiggles. Curved frames predominate this inventive silent film and, Lubitsch uses distorting mirrors for the dream-scenes to complete the magic of this highly unusual piece.

The last word should go to the pioneering Guardian film critic Caroline Alice) Lejeune (1897-1973) as quoted by Kracauer: “Lubitsch had a way of manipulating his puppets that gave multitude, and in contrast, loneliness, a new form. No one before had so filled and drained his spaces with wheeling masses, rushing in the figures from every corner to cover the screen, dispersing them again like a whirlwind, with one single figure staunch in the middle of the empty square” AS

LUBITSCH IN BERLIN | EUREKA MASTERS OF CINEMA | 18 SEPTEMBER 2017 

Speedy (1928) | The Criterion Collection UK

Director: Ted Wilde

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Ann Christy, Bert Woodruff, Babe Ruth

86min | Comedy Drama | US.

SPEEDY was Harold Lloyd’s last silent film, and director Ted Wilde (who was nominated for the short-lived Oscar category for Best Director of Comedy Films) would only direct two more films before he died in 1929, a day after his fortieth birthday. It serves as an important and nostalgic tribute to one of the last pockets of New York, where electrification and other mod-coms have not transformed the place into an urban jungle with the loss of human interaction based on trust and goodwill.

Harold ‘Speedy’ Swift (Lloyd) is unable to hold a job down for long, his obsession for baseball causing him to abandon any interest in his varied professions. He lives in New York with his long-suffering girl friend Jane Dillon (Christy) and her granddad Pop (Woodruff), who runs the last horse driven trolley in the City. But Speedy eventually comes good when he saves Pop’s business from the scheming plans of an Electric Trolley company who tries to run his business off the road. Pop Dillon gets a six-figure sum as compensation, which comes in handy for Speedy and Jane who set out for the Niagara Falls with the faithful horse and the half ruined trolley.

Despite being two generations younger than Pop and his friends, who are firmly rooted in the 19th century, Speedy is an romantic who yearns for a time where money was the only necessity in society. He is drawn to Baseball, a game which can last four or five hours – with not much happening. When Speedy meets his hero, the legendary player Babe Ruth, and drives him – for free – to a game, his utter joy and adoration knows no bounds.

Whilst the breakneck chase to get the Trolley back in time before the deadline, is makes for an impressive finale, the real highpoint of SPEEDY is a visit to the Coney Island Fair Ground, where the romantic couple enjoy dizzy rides, win a dog and have far too much to eat. Walter Lundin  (Safety Last) delivers – quite literally – a firework of images. Those who have had the mixed fortune to spend time with their kids at Disney Park Paris will recognise the firework and light display of Coney Island’s ‘Luna’ Park captured by Lundin. Whilst SPEEDY is not as innovative as Lloyd’s Safety First (1923), it is emotionally much more mature, and its critique of ‘progress at all cost’ is very real and gives the film an humane and insightful aspect. AS

NOW ON BLU-RAY IN CELEBRATION OF THE CRITERION COLLECTION UK LAUNCH | 18 APRIL 2016

Man With a Movie Camera (1929) | Dual format release

bfi-00m-d1f copyDirector/Writer: Dziga Vertov

Cinematographer: Mikhail Kaufman | Gleb Toyanski

Documentary    Russia

Dziga Vertov was in his early 20s when he took a job in a Soviet news company as a film editor and cameraman working on a communist propaganda series called “Kino-Pravda” which eventually gave birth to the Cinéma Vérité movement.  So keen was he, and so energetic in his desire to record real life in 1920s Russia that MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA came as a natural by- product of his ramblings with a camera and his cinematographer brother, Mikhail Kaufman. Dazzlingly innovative for the time, the reason to see this documentary today is for the fascinating record of daily life in the cities of Odessa, Moscow and Kiev.

In 1929, Vertov’s unique selling point for a film that was to screen all over the World before the Second World War and the Iron Curtain came down on Soviet Russia was that it transcended literature, language, sets scripts and actors to record life as it really happened to ordinary people, from early dawn after a Summer’s ‘White Night’ to dusk the following evening.

Vertov and his wife and editor, Elizaveta Svilova, who is seen furiously cutting and piecing together the freshly photographed images to produce startlingly emotional images. Sometimes funny and sometimes mortifying, they reveal an open coffin strewn with flowers and carried through the streets or a woman in the final stages of giving birth.

At the time of its early screenings, the films  was exhibited with live musical accompaniment suggested by Vertov’s notes for a soundtrack. This current restored 2K print is scored by the jazzy, percussive beats of Terry Donahue’s Alloy Orchestra, a three-man musical ensemble, based in the US, who write and perform to classic silent films. Enhancing the action but never eclipsing its visual language, Vertov’s documentary is propelled forward at a breakneck speed and the use of double exposures, split screens, irises and various other inventive techniques – at the time considered ground-breaking, but now looking rather quaint and adding to its extraordinary allure. But amazing as they are, the most fascinating thing about Vertov’s film is the ordinary detail of daily industriousness – women going through their dressing routines – making-up, having manicures and haircuts; horse-drawn carriages hastily crossing tram lanes; the elegant deftness of a girl packing cigarettes in a factory, clever ponies working in a coal shaft, bronzed men pumping iron, sleepy children waking up barefoot in the streets – these are the memories that provide a record of the Soviet era – far away from the illusions of Politics and official news propaganda.

But it’s Elizaveta Svilova’s remarkable editing that really makes the film buzz with an energy and a rhythm that’s quite upliting and intoxicating. During its running time of just over an hour, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen. MT

Included is the almost unwatchably sad KINOGLAZ short MEAT TO COW that follows the boy in the market asking “how much is the beef?” backwards to the cow being slaughtered, to the Cooperative and eventually seeing him grazing peacefully in the fields. MT

THIS DIGITAL RESTORATION BY LOBSTER FILMS | EYE FILM INSTITUTE IS NOW AVAILABLE FROM 18 APRIL 2016 ALONG WITH OTHER WORKS BY VERTOV | KINO EYE (1924) | KINO-PRAVDA #21 (1925) | SYMPHONY OF THE DONBASS (1931) | THREE SONGS ABOUT LENIN (1934) 

 

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) | The Play House (1921) | Buster Keaton is back

Buster Keaton (1895-1966), known as the man “who never laughed”, was not only the only silent movie star/director who could compete with Charles Spencer Chaplin, he was also a fearless stunt man who was in love with aesthetic innovation: The Playhouse (1921), a short, twenty-one minute silent ‘experiment’, featured not only, one, or two but nine (!) Buster Keaton’s in one frame. In this sparkling new restoration, with a score by Carl Davis and playfully directed by Edward F Cline, he stars not only as the inspirational leader of the vaudeville show but performs nearly all the roles of the characters and the audience. And, being Buster, he has to chase a girl who happens to have a twin sister. Full of visual gags, The Playhouse is still, nearly hundred years later, breathtakingly modern.

Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) is, with The General (1926), Keaton’s masterpiece of the silent era, before the studios took away his creative control of his films. Here, he plays Bill jr., the son of steamboat captain William Canfield, the latter a burly and robust tyrant who is disappointed that his son turns out to be a meek college graduate. Canfield senior is fighting for his existence while James King, another steamboat operator, runs a modern ship and is taking away Canfield’s customers. To make matters worse, Bill. Jr. falls in love with Kitty, King’s daughter. When a cyclone breaks out, Buster/Billy saves not only the lives of all main protagonists, but jumps again into the water, seemingly avoiding the grateful kiss of Kitty, only to fish the minster out of the sea. Steamboat Bill Jr. was a major production, $135 000 worth of street sets were built, just to be destroyed by the cyclone. In one of his most memorable stunts (often repeated in film-history), Keaton walks along a street, when a whole building façade collapses on him – the cut out of the set just big enough to miss him by inches. Steamboat Bill Jr. was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Steamboat Bill, premiered six month later, and featuring, for the first time, a hero by the name of Mickey Mouse. AS

IN CINEMAS NATIONWIDE FROM 19 SEPTEMBER 2015 | 4k RESTORATIONS COURTESY OF PARK CIRCUS | BFI

The Colour of Money | From the Gold Rush to the Credit Crunch | September 2015

Golddiggers 1933_2 copyPerfectly situated in the hub of Europe’s Financial centre, The Barbican offers a selection of films and discussions this Autumn exploring money through themes of power, wealth, poverty, corruption and consumerism.

From the silent era comes Erich von Stroheim’s potent thriller GREED, shows how the corruptive force of a sudden fortune ruins the lives of three Californians. The glitzy side of Hollywood is depicted in Mervyn LeRoy’s comedy musical GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (right) where millionaire turned composer Dick Powell uses his fortune for the good of the community. Robert Bresson won best director at Cannes 1983 for his classic l’ARGENT based on Tolstoy’s The Forged Coupon that explores the journey of 500 franc note and the devastating effect on its final recipient. In THE WHITE BALLOON (1995), Jafar Panahi’s slice of realism, written by Abbas Kiarostami examines how a child is swindled out of her birthday money and blockbuster THE WOLF OF WALL STREET charts the rise to riches and ultimate fall of New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) due to a 1990s securities scam. In AMERICAN PYSCHO (2000) Christian Bale stars as another wealthy City who sociopathic personality enables him to fund a lifestyle and escape into his own American dream. These are our recommendations:

Greed_7 copyGREED | Dir: Erich von Stroheim; Cast: Gibson Gowland, Za Su Pitts, Jean Hersholt | USA 1923; 462 min. (original), 140 min. (theatrical release), 239 min. (restored version)

Roger Ebert called Greed “the ‘Venus of Milo’ of films, acclaimed as a classic, despite missing several parts deemed essential by its creator”. It is also a classic example of Hollywood butchery, in this case performed by the new partners of MGM, Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer; Thalberg turning out to be Von Stroheim’s bête noir having already fired him from Merry-Go-Round at Universal. Just twelve people saw the original version (edited from 85 hours of total footage); one of them, the director Rex Ingram, believed that Greed was the best film ever and would never be surpassed. Shot over 198 days from June to October 1923 in San Francisco, Death Valley and Placer Country, California, it took over a year to edit, and cost $ 564 654 (around $ 60 million in todays money), but only grossed $ 274827 at the box office.

Based on the novel ‘Mc Teague’ by Frank Norris, Greed centres around the relationship of John Mc Teague (Gibson) and his wife Trina (Pitts). Mc Teague is operating as a dentist without a licence, when he meets Trina, who has been the girl friend of his best friend Marcus Schouler (Hersholt). After Trina wins $5000 in the lottery just before she marries McTeague, Schouler wants her back, and denounces Mc Teague to the police, for working without a licence. Mc Teague asks Trina for $3000, to save his skin, but she refuses him, being too fond of the money – she cleans the coins until they glitter. Mc Teague murders his wife and Schouler again reports him to the police. Mc Teague flees to Death Valley from his pursuers, among them Schouler, whom he fights to the death.

Greed  caused violence to break out off screen too. The film was nearly destroyed because of its unwieldy length, making it almost impossible to edit. A fist fight broke out between Mayer and Von Stroheim, after the former provoked the director with “I suppose you consider me rabble”, to which Von Stroheim answered “Not even that”. Mayer struck him so hard, that he fell through the office door. Mayer wanted a uplifting film for the “Jazz Age’, and Greed was uncompromising realism. But the studio even changed the meaning of what was left with inter-title cards. In the MGM version, when Trina and Mc Teague went by train to the countryside, the MGM title card reads “This is the first day it hasn’t rained in weeks. I thought it would be nice to go for a walk”. In Rick Schmidlin’s reconstructed version of 1999 (based on Stroheim’s 330 page shooting script and stills) it reads: “Let’s go and sit on the sewer” – and so they sit down on the sewer.

Von Stroheim, who invented an aristocratic upbringing and a glorious army career for himself, was nevertheless a master of realism when it came to films: when Gowland and Hersholt fight in Death Valley, the temperature was over 120 degrees, and many of the cast and crew had to take sick leave, Von Stroheim coaxed the actor on “Fight, fight. Try to hate each other as you hate me”. AS

L'Argent_2 copyL’ARGENT (1983) | Dir.: Robert Bresson | Cast: Christian Patey, Caroline Lang, Sylvie Van der Elsen, Michel Briguet France/Switzerland 1983, 85 min.

To find the money to direct what turned out to be his last film L’Argent, Robert Bresson needed the intervention of the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang – just like he did with L’Argent’s predecessor Le Diable Probablement (1977). L’Argent went on to win the Director’s Prize in Cannes, sharing in with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia.

L’Argent is Bresson’s truest ‘Dostoevskyan’ work, even though it is based on Leo Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Forged Coupon’. From the outset, money changes hands at a furious tempo: a young boy asks his father for pocket money but what he gets is not enough for him; he pawns his watch to his friend, who gives him a forged 500 Franc note. The boy, having recognised the forgery, takes the money to a photo shop, buying only a cheap frame with the note. The manager of the shop – after discovering the forged note, scolds his wife for being so naïve. But she reminds him that he took in himself two forged notes of the same denomination the week ago. The owner gives all three notes to Yvon Targe (Patey), who is the gas bill collector. Later, in a restaurant, Yvon tries to use the money but the waiter recognises the forgeries. Yvon is spared jail, but loses his job. Moneyless, he acts as get-away-driver for a friend’s robbery, but the plot fails and Yvon’s run of bad luck continues until its devastating denouement.

Apart from opening, everything is told in Bresson’s very own elliptical but terse style, making the smallest detail more important than the action. The prison is shown as a labyrinth in which Yvon is lost, particularly when sent into solitary confinement after a fight with fellow prisoners. The prison is shown in great detail in a similar vein to Un Condamne à mort s’est Echappé (1956) and becomes the material witness to Yvon’s suffering. The murder of the hotel-keepers is shown only in hindsight: a long medium shot of bloody water in a basin, followed by a close-up of Yvon emptying the till. The failed robbery is shown by the reactions of the passersb-by, who witness Yvon driving off, after shots are fired. Finally, enigma of the last shot in the restaurant, when the crowd looses interest in Yvon, as if he were simply not enough of a person, in spite of the hideous murders. In this shot, the whole universe of Bresson is captured: there seems to be no sense in human deeds, and, therefore there is no question of a why, and no guilt, but, perhaps just redemption.

DOP Pasqualino de Santis (Death in Venice) excels particularly in bringing together the close-up shots of the objects, and the long shots of Yvon as he gets increasingly lost: in the robbery, in prison, and in the cosy house of an old woman. We feel him shrinking, as he loses his identity during the film, becoming a total non-person by the end. The acting is as understated as possible, and Bresson closes his oeuvre of only thirteen films in fifty years with another discourse on spiritual and mystic values in a world, where money is everything and everywhere. AS/MT

THE COLOUR OF MONEY | BARBICAN LONDON EC2 | 10 – 20 SEPTEMBER 2015 

 

Too Much Johnson (1938) | Orson Welles Centenary |BLU-RAY

Cast: Joseph Cotton, Virginia Nicholson, Edgar Barrier, Arlene Francis, Mary Wickes

US Silent Comedy

At the 2013 Pordenone Film Festival a remarkable premiere took place. Orson Welles’s second film Too Much Johnson (1938) was finally revealed. A mint copy of this long-considered lost silent comedy displayed the ‘boy wonder’ Orson having cinematic fun with his new toy – the movie camera. Too Much Johnson is a chase movie. Joseph Cotton plays an elusive philanderer being pursued by his rival, in romance, across Manhattan rooftops, a meatpacking market and a Cuban desert.

The film was intended to be screened as an integral part of a Welles Mercury Theatre production of an 1894 stage comedy written by William Gillette. You have to keep this multi media idea in mind and realise that only a very small portion of the film was edited by Welles. What survives is an unfinished 66 minute work print that even to avid fans of Orson Welles does feel, on first viewing, a chore to sit through. True there are delightful pastiches of the Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd, German expressionism, Harold and early Soviet cinema. Yet this is all un-edited stuff in need of a more dynamic momentum. However a newly-edited, cut down alternative cut (or intelligent guess) lasting 34 minutes has been done by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

This speculative edit of Johnson allows Welles’s fans to have more fun in seeing how much (if any) of a youthful auteur’s signature is here. Citizen Kane did come next, and there are low and quirky camera angles on rooftops (before Welles did his Kane ceiling images), some mischief with the novelty of the automobile and a sophisticated organisation of crowd scenes. These shots look like ideas to be fully realised in The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger and The Trial. But any possible Wellesian ‘look’ is still very much grounded in his personal love of the past and early cinema.

Greed,_1924,_19_epilogoThere is an amazing scene involving barrels and hats. This has the flavour of the René Clair silent The Italian Straw Hat. Group compositions combined with deft cutting, where guys scramble for their boater hats and trilbies after chaos amidst rolling barrels, lend a frenetic charm. These moments are matched by Johnson’s later scenes where the hunter and the hunted splash, fully clothed, around a lake near a desert. Here we are pushed into something a little odder, more absurd, even darker, than a knockabout comedy. I wonder if Welles intended some mad comic take on the final scenes of Stroheim’s Greed? (left).

Too Much Johnson is more of a fascinating, re-discovered curiosity than a lost gem.But it’s still wonderful to have it back in circulation. As for the acting, well Joseph Cotton reveals a gift for comedy that was never properly realised in his other films. Both versions of Too Much Johnson are now freely available, from the National Film Preservation Foundation, and can be viewed online. Now, I wonder if the discovery of the lost Magnificent Ambersons footage is just round the corner? Just a cineaste’s improbable hope! AP

CELEBRATING THE CENTENERY OF THE BIRTH OF ORSON WELLES | DVD / BLU| Screened at 2013 Pordenone Silent Film Festival – Cinema del Muto | Courtesy of Mr Bongo Films 

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) MUBI

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer | Writers: Joseph Delteil/Dreyer

Cast: Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, Andre Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon

80min   Drama | Biography

The close-up is one of the most potent means by which a filmmaker can make a point. It tells us what a character is thinking or feeling in an instant. Yet close-ups can produce emotional overkill – the ‘lesbian’ love story Blue is the Warmest Colour (2013) is an example of employing the technique so often that the film is unable to breathe.

So what are we now to make of Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc where the entire drama is the close up? It has been called the supreme close-up film (not quite true for medium shots are also inserted). Yet Dreyer inescapably creates a film where the human face is the focal point. The face of Joan (the accused) and the faces of the clergy (the interrogators) are filmed with an unbearable tension.

The Passion of Joan of Arc taxes the viewer not with an excess of looks, but with intense spiritual intimacy. The critic Béla Balázas described Dreyer’s film as ‘a drama of the spirit’ enacted ‘in duels between looks and frowns.’ Joan is played by the French stage actress Maria Falconetti. Dreyer certainly found his Joan with Falconetti. He said that ‘She didn’t act for me. She just used her face.’ Falconetti’s androgynous beauty gives her performance a timeless quality. Her ‘acting’ or ‘being’ is magnificent.

The Passion of Joan of Arc is based on the 15th century records of Joan’s actual trial. Being a silent film we only get inter-titles. However Dreyer asked his actors to read out the records, even though we cannot hear what’s being said. This was Dreyer’s need for scrupulous authenticity. He also asked for the building of a medieval town and fort (rarely used) and the tonsuring of the male actors. Most of his film takes place in a set of stripped down purity. It was never meant to be a costume drama with medieval ornamentation. Not only does it look accurate, but it is also anti-naturalistic. To get at the soul of Joan’s story, Dreyer employed a radical editing style. A tableau of close-ups is often ‘irrationally’ employed to reveal the inner conflicts of each character, and not just logically to whom the dialogue is being addressed. The film has distortions of time and space. Actor’s bodies are rarely filmed below the waist. This abstraction takes the audience off guard. If space seems very strange, then cinematic time is also compressed, leaving us unsure if it’s an hour, day or a week that’s passed.

Many consider The Passion of Joan of Arc to be one of the pinnacles of silent cinema. It is certainly one of the best examples. Perhaps Dreyer’s last film Gertrud (1964) would be my favourite amongst his films. But Joan’s trial has to be experienced. 87 years old and still so essential, disconcerting and very moving.

A final suggestion. To fully experience Joan’s trial play the DVD/BLU RAY without choosing a music option. For me it’s probably the only silent film that benefits from being watched in total silence. Alan Price

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC IS AVAILABLE ON MUBI

Intolerance (1916)

Dir.: David Llewelyn Wark Griffith

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lilian Langdon, Constance Talmadge, Miriam Cooper

USA 1916, 168 min. SILENT

Premiering on September 5th 1916, when the First World War was raging in Europe, D.W. Griffith’s INTOLERANCE had cost $2.5 m (the equivalent of $46 m today) and was a colossal flop at the box office. What might have been the first “auteur” film in history ran originally for three and a half hours and combined four different narratives which were intercut. Griffith had started with the ‘modern’ episode of INTOLERANCE, “The mother and the law” – which was sometimes shown on its own – and featured a fight between workers and management, with strike-breakers and police involved in deadly fighting. This episode was finished before BIRTH OF A NATION was shown for the first time. Griffith then wanted to put this modern drama into historical context adding three historical events: Jesus becoming the victim of a power-mad Jewish religious establishment; the St. Bartholomew Night in France (1572) when the Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered by Queen Catherine of Medici; and the defeat and death of the Babylonian prince Balshazzar at the hand of the Persian king Cyrus, as a result of a religious conflict of followers of two Babylonian deities in 539 BC. As a form of interlude, Lillian Gish is shown rocking a cradle, representing the positive symbol of humankind. But Griffith ends the film with apocalyptic scenes of the destruction of New York.

Griffith employed no fewer than six assistants, among them the future directors W.S. Van Dyke, Erich von Stroheim, and Tod Browning. The massive towers of Babylon had a height of 70 m, at Belshazzar’s feast more than 5000 extras mingled in the huge hall. And one of battle scenes in this episode was filmed from a balloon, featuring 16,000 extras.

Even the critics of the time preferred the rather racist BIRTH OF A NATION to INTOLERANCE, failing to understand the narrative structure of the film, which was strictly non-linear. Later, Pudowkin and Eisenstein would copy Griffith’s parallel montage in their classic films of the Russian Revolution, and Cecil B. De Mille would employ the luckless Griffith to direct action scenes for THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and THE KING OF KINGS. In spite of founding “United Artists” with Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks in 1919, Griffith would stop directing in 1931, after a long series of mediocre productions, among them ISN’T LIFE WONDERFUL, which forced him to leave “UA”. Long forgotten, Griffith died lonely and embittered in a hotel room in Los Angeles in 1948; very few of his stars and co-workers attended his funeral. AS

INTOLERANCE is available on Masters of Cinema www.eurekavideo.co.uk from 8th December 2014

 

Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (1929) (Diary of a Lost Girl)

15396619231_ef32ee9cd2_zDir.: G.W. Pabst

Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Rasp, Edith Meinhard, Andre Roanne, Valeska Gert

Germany 1929, 94 min.

G.W. Pabst (1885-1967) was one of the main proponents of what Kracauer called “Die Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivism) and was called the “red Pabst”, because he was the most left-wing of the established directors of German Cinema during the Weimarer Republic.  It is hard to believe that between 1925 and 1931 he directed classic productions like Die Freudlose Gasse, Geheimnisse einer Seele, Die Büchse der Pandora, Westfront 1918, The Three Penny Opera and Kameradschaft. His return to Nazi-Germany in the late 30s came as a shock, and ruined his post-war career.

All the modern heroes of his films: the engineers, students, workers and clerk, are fighting for their existence in the inter-war years, they don’t need war as an excuse to die. Everywhere machines seems to gobble them up; even nature, in the mountain world of “Piz Palü“, is deadly. He will be remembered for his female heroines: Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo in Die Freudlose Gasse and Louise Brooks in Pandora and TAGEBUCH EINER VERLORENEN.

Pabst opens TAGEBUCH with a close-up: Thymian is looking at her diary, a present from an aunt. Later on, Thymian (Brooks), daughter of the pharmacist Henning, is seduced by his assistant Meinert (Rasp). After falling pregnant, her family puts the child up for adoption and punishes Thymian with a stay in a strict reform school. Together with her new friend Erika, Thymian escapes, but when she finds her child, it is already in a coffin. For a short time she lands in a bordello before an inheritance (which she rejects in favour of her half-sisters), leads to a marriage with a nobleman – and a visit to her old reform-school where she liberates Erika, who had been re-admitted.

Needless to say, censorship was strict: in September 1929 the film was shown with cuts of arount ten minutes, in December a higher inspecting authority (“Oberprüfstelle”) had all copies confiscated and cut a further three minutes before the release in January 1930. Among the cuts where the scene in the bordello because “It is corruptive to watch when the girls go with one gentleman after the other into bedrooms, where the exchange of money is shown”. One of the most brilliant moments of TAGEBUCH, when Valeska Gert as the manic directress of the reform school is gyrating in a sexually agitated way (the Weimar equivalent of ‘twerking’), was also a victim of the censors: “It is impossible to show the scene in the reform school as a mixture of Christianity and sadism – it is clearly seen as a violation of religious feelings”.

Whereas the writer Carl Mayer was the leading figure of early 20s German cinema; G.W. Pabst dominated the latter half. Every detail in his films has a presence which does not allow metaphysical association. Lighting, the movement of the objects, the wild camera and eclectic angles, all this was changed by Pabst and formed into something new: there is nothing but the scene itself, the present dominates through intensity. Pabst seems only to show the surface, but in such a way as to allow us to delve beyond and below: exposing the workings of society. AS

SPECIAL DUAL-FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD EDITION ON 24 NOVEMBER 2014, AS PART OF THE MASTERS OF CINEMA COLLECTION

 

Algol (1920) | Tragödie der Macht

Director: Hans Werckmeister   Writers: Hans Brennert, Friedel Köhne

Cast: Emil Jannings, John Gottowt, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Hanna Ralph, Erna Morena

99min  Fantasy | Sci-Fi

The intriguingly titled ‘Algol’ (1920) crops up occasionally in histories of silent cinema in general and sci-fi cinema in particular, but the excellent restoration – complete with a live musical accompaniment by the esteemed Stephen Horne – displayed at the Barbican, in the City of London, represented the first chance in Britain actually to see the film on a big screen in over 90 years. (The film can be viewed on YouTube, but untinted and with German titles only; and a DVD, also scored by Horne, may be in the pipeline).

Subtitled Tragödie der Macht (Tragedy of Power), the film provides a fascinating glimpse of a period when Germany’s fragile new postwar democracy seemed precariously poised on the brink of total political and economic collapse, yet was possessed of a film industry capable of producing an ambitious, lavishly mounted production such as this.

Emil Jannings – already a star of international stature on the strength of his roles for Lubitsch, and later the first actor to win an Oscar – plays Robert Herne, a coal miner presented by a mischievous alien called Algol (played by John Gottowt) with a machine that renders coal obsolete as a source of energy and thus gives Herne the financial clout to suck the rest of the world dry. (Sound familiar?) The action spans twenty years, during the course of which Herne loses his wife and ultimately his marbles before finally going up in smoke with his diabolical machine.

The histrionic plot combining both anti-capitalism and anti-technology provides a rather slender framework for such an opulent production, but Hans Werckmeister (a quantity otherwise totally unknown to film historians, who died in 1929) directs with a firm hand. The acting is generally good; far less like stereotypical ‘silent film’ acting than that in Fritz Lang’s later and much better-known Metropolis, while the superb photography and production design (the latter by Walter Reimann, fresh from working on The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) consistently provides something interesting to look at. All in all, a dynamic and enjoyable relic of an extraordinary era both in the history of the world and of the cinema. Richard Chatten.

Richard Chatten has written for Film Dope, The Independent, the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, The Encyclopedia of British Film, The Journal of Popular British Cinema and Cinema: The Whole Story. His favourite film is A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

15030343977_006f14eaee_zDirector: Raoul Walsh  

Writers: Lotta Woods and Douglas Fairbanks

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Anna May Wong, Sôjin Kamiyama

155min  Silent Adventure Family Drama   US

THE THIEF OF BAGDAD was Douglas Fairbank’s pet project after success with The Three Musketeers (1921), The Mark of Zorro (1920) and Robin Hood (1922) had cemented a Hollywood career. His powerful physique and athletic prowess that was later to make him the inspiration for Superman (despite being only 5.7”) fits well with this swashbuckling role that required him to scale walls stripped to the waist as the charismatic and infamous Arabic ‘Thief’ Ahmed. Based on one of the ‘1001 Nights’ tales, Ahmed uses his powers to win the heart of the Princess, but his father The Caliph (Brandon Hurst) forbids the marriage so the couple to embark on an exciting adventure involving a crystal ball, a magic apple, an invisibility cloak and, of course, a magic carpet. But vying for her hand is also the deceitful Mongol Prince (Sôjin Kamiyama) who also has a few more tricks up his sleeve. The first Chinese American star, Anna Way Wong has a role as the Mongol slave.

Under the direction of Raoul Walsh this is a dreamy and visually seductive fairytale affair that glistens with all the mystique of Araby and must have enchanted audiences young and old on its release in 1924. Today it’s still mesmerisingly beautiful to watch. and its silent format adds to its magnetic allure with Julanne Johnston as a simply luminous Princess. Her delicately romantic costumes were the creations of Mitchell Leisen, who was known for his elegant designs worn by Olivia de Havilland. After training under Cecil B De Mille he went on to work on The Thief. With its gorgeous technicolour sequences by Arthur Edeson and sumptuous sets by William Cameron Menzies transporting us to a distant world of make-believe, it was one of the costliest outings of the silent era and also the most lush, even by Hollywood standards. Carl Davies’ atmospheric score adds to the magic making this an ideal film for Christmas for all the family. MT

DUAL FORMAT DVD BLU RAY RELEASE AVAILABLE FROM EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT FROM 24 NOVEMBER 2014

Spione (1927) | DVD release

15213276627_8978af3e0a_mDir.: Fritz Lang; Cast: Fritz Klein-Rogge, Gerda Maurus, Lien Deyers, Willy Fritsch; Germany 1927, 144 min.

SPIONE, whilst directed by Lang, is much more a Thea von Harbou film, co-written by her, based on her novel of the same name. It has long become fashionable to put all the blame for the weaknesses of Lang’s films before his emigration on von Harbour – after all, she stayed in Germany, being a convinced national socialist. But it is not so easy: Kracauer rightfully criticises that “SPIONE could have been a true forerunner of the Hitchcock thrillers if Lang had not fashioned it after the pompous manner of METROPOLIS, with empty sensations taking on the air of substantial revelations.” But to say that its “virtuosity alienated from the content”, and later alleging that Lang only found his true ‘style’ in Hollywood, is simply going too far and forgetting that Lang’s Hollywood B-movies were much leaner because of restricted budgets. But one should not forget that on his return to Germany in 1958, Lang’s last films again could be put into the category of “form above content”; mainly for the reason that he could command a much higher budget – using scripts co-written by von Harbou (who had died in 1954) and himself based on her novels for “Der Tiger von Eschnapur” und “Das Indische Grabmal”.

In many ways SPIONE is a more rational version of Lang’s earlier “Dr. Mabuse” films from 1921/2. The main protagonist, Haghi (Klein-Rogge, who also featured as Mabuse), has a triple existence: he is leader of a powerful spy ring; the (crippled) president of a bank and the circus clown Nero. But whilst Mabuse was driven by lust for power alone, Haghi is much more a protagonist of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” (New Objectivism). He does not want power, he wants to have a better organisation than his opponent, the boss of the state run counter-espionage. Being a pragmatist, he underestimates the power of emotions: Haghi’s agent Sonja (Maurus) falls in love with her opposition agent no. 326 (Fritsch), and after Haghi fails to kill 326 off in a wonderfully staged railway accident, he flees into the circus world, but is even cornered there: he commits suicide on stage, the audience clapping, wildly believing it to be the highlight of his performance.

As usual, in most films from Kracauer’s so-called “Stabilised Period” in German cinema (1924–1929), neutrality is the order of the day. Whilst Mabuse was seen as the enemy, Haghi and his opponents are just competitors – like police and underworld in M (1931). In Lang films of this era, technology is perhaps the most dominant factor. Haghi’s spies use planes, which are much quicker than the trains used by the agents of the state. (A copy of SPIONE was taken by Zeppelin to New York for its US premiere). And all the walls in Haghi’s banking empire have spy-holes, as in Metropolis: so he could spy on his workforce. Spying is the central idea of many Lang films, SPIONE morphing without little transition into MINISTRY OF FEAR sixteen years later. AS

RELEASED AS A DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 17 NOVEMBER COURTESY OF MASTERS OF CINEMA

 

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