Pordenone diary 2011 – day four

Audience in the Teatro Verdi awaiting the screening of Le Voyage dans la lune in colour, David Robinson (far right) introducing

The days go by, as they tend to do, and here I am on my last day in Pordenone, with the Giornate del Cinema Muto only halfway through. Never fear, there is cover organised, and for the four remaining days you will be getting reports from the Bioscope’s anonymous but observant and eloquent co-reporter, the Mysterious X. But it is Tuesday 4 October, and I am up with the lark once more, ready as soon as the doors of the Verdi opening for our first films films of the day – and what a marvellous start it is.

We begin, as we have each day, with a Disney Laugh-o-Gram. Puss in Boots (USA 1922) is great fun, never more so than when Puss goes to the cinema to see ‘Rudolph Vaselino’. It is filmed with zip and zest and a gag in every shot, though somebody should have told Walt that he had used the joke about eight of a cat’s lives floating up from its prone body a few times too often – it’s the third time we’ve seen it this week.

Next, two films in the Treasures of the West strand, both of them gems. Deschutes Driftwood (USA 1916) is an Educational Films production from the time when they made educational film, not the comedies for which they later became famous. The film follows a hobo (‘Walter’) as he travels along the Deschutes river, Oregon, hoping from train to train as a succession of authorities move him on. It is half a scenic (a phantom ride from a tramp’s point of view) and half a melancholy disquisition on a rootless life. It seems informed by a sensibility years ahead of its time, even if it is not strictly sympathetic towards its stubborn hero. Stephen Horne gives a sensitive accompaniment on piano an accordion, and this wistful, unexpected 11-minute film is for me the hit of the festival so far.

Or at least until the next film to be shown. Now, if you are introducing someone to the delights of the silent cinema for the first time, what would you encourage them to see? Metropolis, maybe? Pandora’s Box or The General probably. Well it’s always good to see a classic, but somehow classics stand alone and tell you more about themselves than they do about the medium to which they belong. If I were introducing someone to silents, I might prefer a film of more modest ambition, but one which nevertheless demonstrates through subtle artistry a particular understanding of human things, one that shows off the medium to its greater advantage. A film such as The Lady of the Dugout (USA 1918).

The Lady of the Dugout, with (L-R) Frank Jennings, Al Jennings, Corinne Grant and Ben Alexander, from http://www.filmpreservation.org

The Lady of the Dugout was produced, co-written by and stars Al Jennings, a sometime small-town lawyer, turned outlaw, turned evangelist (after a spell in prison and a presidential pardon). The film documents a tale from his time as an outlaw, heading the Jennings gang alongside his brother Frank (who like Al plays himself in the film) in the late 1890s. It’s a Robin Hood-style story, in which the Jennings brothers come across a deserted wife and child in a wretched dugout home (literally a hole in the ground with a roof over it), living in the middle of nowhere and without food. They come to her rescue (using money from one of their robberies), then when her brutal husband returns they take her to her middle-class family home, where her once unforgiving father now takes her back.

The story is engrossing, and the insight it gives into a frontier life where dreams have turned sour is a special one. There is an authenticity in locale, in the weatherbeaten looks of the Jennings brothers, in the action (a particularly convincing, almost matter-of-fact bank robbery), in manner and in human feeling. The film develops not out of the demands of story but out of circumstance, character and a true moral sense. The director was W.S. Van Dyke, and I can’t think of a better-handled silent film. It’s low-key, it doesn’t touch on any grand themes (though forgiveness, which is what it is ultimately about, is a noble theme), but it is about things that matter and people that we care for. You feel that nothing stood in the way of the filmmakers being able to tell the story exactly in the way that they wanted to (its sympathetic view of the outlaw life is extraordinary). It’s hard to believe that a film of such easy naturalism was made only four years after The Birth of a Nation. Only an over-cute child, and for this screening a poor quality DVD-R after the DigiBeta wouldn’t play, let things down. It’s on the new Treasures of the West DVD – please see it.

We return to The Canon Revisited, the strand of silent classics that the Giornate feels we need to see again to see how well they stand up in modern times, but which many of us are not too sure we’d ever heard of. Certainly one senses few in the audience could tell you much about director Fridrikh Ermler and would have to confess that they are seeing Oblomok Imperii (Fragment of an Empire) (USSR 1929) for the first time. Few would deny its position of greatness by the end of it, however. This is quite an extraordinary film. Its subject is a shell-shocked soldier, Filimonov (mesmerisingly played with wide-eyed puzzlement by Fedor Nikitin), who loses his memory at the end of the First World War, gradually regaining it four years later, when he discovers a very different country to the one he thought he knew. The buildings have changed, manners have changed, most significantly there are now no masters – he, like everyone else, is the master now.

Except that things are not quite like that, and this is where the film’s startling satirical power lies. Filimonov embraces socialism, but finds that many in this so-called new society have not given up on the old, bad ways, in particular the party apparatchik who has married Filimonov’s wife. Ermler recognises the private face of the USSR behind the public facade, and that all is not yet well, or as some would have things be, because people will be people. Ultimately the film is conflicted in the lessons it wants to draw from Filimonov’s experience, the eye for truth coming up against idealism and ideology. It is dispiriting when Filimonov, whom we have come to like greatly, turns to the camera at the end of the film and says (through intertitles), “No, it is not the end – there’s a great deal yet to be done, comrades”. Of course it is the only ending that could be expected, given the political climate, but the film has shown a much more interesting and plausible world, and it is remarkable that he was allowed to do so as much as he did. A few years later, there would have been no chance of anyone making such a questioning piece of cinema.

The film is technically dazzling, particularly some hallucinatory flashbacks, including a war scene where Filimonov encounters a German soldier played by the same actor. The opening is particularly arresting – a soldier lying close to death amid typhoid-ridden corpses, desperate to quench his thirst, sees a nearby dog with her puppies, is suckled by the dog, then someone comes up and shoots the dog, before Filimonov rescues the soldier (whom he meets later in the film). This traumatic scenario is recalled throughout the film. It is impressions like these of the past that continue to haunt the USSR, Ermler seems to be suggesting. Society may think of utopias, but the mind has other ideas.

Praise, by the way, is due to John Sweeney for his spirited accompaniment, in particular a moment of sheer genius when a balaika band appeared on screen (John not having seen the film beforehand) and he instantly produces the sounds of balaikas on the piano. We really are blessed at Pordenone by some outstandingly skilled, imaginative musicians.

Collegium audience learning about The Soldier’s Courtship

I head to join the Collegium, a sort of school for budding film archivists and scholars which the festival hosts. In practice this means a series of presentations relating to films and themes from the festival. I’m here to see the presentation by the Cineteca Nazionale and restoration specilaists Omnimago on The Soldier’s Courtship, the 1896 British film we saw yesterday. this is a fascinating mixture of historical investigation and technical exposition. The film has been held by the Cineteca for many years under a generic title and was only identified recently. At 80ft it is double the legnth of a standard Robert Paul film of the period, and Paul had problems showing it initially as his projector could not cope. Paul’s catalogue offers the film in two parts, though it is hard to say where the join could have been. As well as the 35mm film they held, the restorers also made use of the fragment from the film held by the National Media Museum in Bradford and a Filoscope flipbook of the film. There were signs of retouching in the print, possibly done in 1900, and there was further retouching done for the digital restoration, where damaged sections were papered over by clean sections from other frames (they wonder out loud whether they have over-restored to some degree – the purists might have been reassured by the sight of more blotches). One wishes Paul could have seen the extraordinary lengths to which we can now go to return a one-minute film to pristine state – electron microscope analysis, Diamant software, SCANITY film processing, Photoshop treatment of individual frames. We can make the past look so much better, the further in time we retreat from it.

I miss the afternoon’s screenings of Thanhouser films, being preoccupied by work matters (from which there is never any real escape) but fortunately I have notes from The Mysterious X, who was there, and reports thus:

First up post-lunch was a session of Thanhouser films, curated and presented by Ned Thanhouser, starting with four one-reelers: Uncle’s Namesakes (USA 1913) was a blast; a father of twin girls deceives their rich British-based uncle, who wanted the offspring to carry his name, into thinking they were twin boys; an inheritance is at stake. But Uncle rumbles the situation and decides to pay a visit … Petticoat Camp (USA 1912) was a delightful proto-feminist comedy over job demarcation on a camping holiday, and the strike and walkout that follows. An Elusive Diamond (USA 1914) was the tale of jewel thieves outwitted by the quick thinking of the young lady they target. Their One Love (USA 1915) was a US Civil War tale of twin girls whose childhood playmate grows up to go to war. David Copperfield (USA 1911) was a three-reel adaptation; based visually, as so many adaptations are, on the Phiz illustrations. It rolled along nicely, but suffered a little in comparisom to the slightly later, more energetic one-reelers.

I don’t know enough to say if these films are entirely representative of the Thanhouser output, or if Ned Thanhouser has (understandably) cherry-picked the very best of what survives; but if they are, or even close to it, what a studio that must have been. All the films featured excellent staging and use of locations, some finely sensitive acting – only slightly broad in the comedy; and notably good, involving roles for the women to get their teeth into. Their One Love featured a charming passage-of-time device; a calendar on a desk is not unusual … having a miniature becloaked Father Time walk onto the desk to rip pages off the calendar is a tad more ambitious. And the lighting and special effects used during the battle sequence were exceptional; not the epic spread of Griffith’s cast of thousands, but intelligent use of less generous resources to great result. Playing the piano for these was the always excellent Phil Carli, but here seeming absolutely in his element with these cracking little films. As always happens somewhen during the Giornate, I really feel the need to explore further; to the Thanhouser website on my return home.

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films interviewed about the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (“The Avatar of its day”), with clips from the film itself (without the Air soundtrack)

The evening show commences, and the theatre, with all four tiers full, is a-buzz with excitement. It is not the main feature that is causing such fervour, but the short that precedes it – the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la lune (1902), undoubtedly the most familiar of all early films, now to be seen as none of us has seen it in a hundred years. Festival director David Robinson introduces Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange from Lobster Films, who have restored the film. Their plan is to make prints available in each of the major film archives around the world, while popularising their discovery by making it accessible to new audiences – people who “don’t know anything about anything”, in Bromberg’s somewhat unfortunate phrase. A significant element of the popularisation has been the decision to give the film a soundtrack written by vogue-ish French group Air, about which they seem a little ashamed and which Robinson introduces with apprehension, telling the audience (which is trembling in its seats in fear at this rude intrusion of the 21st century) that maybe they can screen the film later in the festival with traditional piano, which won’t upset anyone.

And then the film screening, and a pounding beat from the start probably comfirms the audience’s worst fears. Well, all I can say is that if silent films can’t stand up to 21st century treatment then there may be no good reason for continuing with them at all. And the Air soundtrack is a triumph. I don’t think I have heard a better modern accompaniment to a silent film. It is electro-pop with occasional diversions into odd noises, even background talk, with each scene given a different musical treatment, the musicians having noticeably picked up on various visual cues, such as the hammering of workmen when the rocket is being constructed. There is great variety, yet each element combines to make the harmonious whole, with a rousing stomp for the film’s triumphal finish that continues over the credits. The colour definition varies quite a bit throughout the film, but what comes over with great clarity is that this was always a film meant to be shown in colour – in truth, we haven’t seen Le Voyage dans la lune properly until now. Colour and music combine naturally to accentuate the film’s huge inventiveness. And David Robinson did have the good grace to say afterwards that he thought they’d actually made quite a good job of the music. Indeed they have. I hope it is enough to give the film the theatrical screenings that have been talked about (maybe accompanying Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which features Méliès as a character?). It is a triumph in every degree.

OK, follow that. Well, what could? We do have Shinel (The Overcoat) (USSR 1926), another FEKS production from Grigori Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg, a classic of sorts, though instead of Shostakovich’s music we get Maud Nelissen and trio playing her score to the film. I would happily listen to the music again, but not see the film again. Indeed for quite some time I listen only to the music and ignore the film entirely. Based on Gogol’s short story and avant garde in treatment, it goes on and on, seemingly without purpose. Why do people move and gesture with such meaningless slowness? What is the point of it all? When will anything happen of any significance? Why should we care? An old print does not help matters, and all in all this was a very odd choice for one of the prestige evening screening. Shinel feels lost to another age; Le Voyage dans la lune feels like it belongs to today.

The last film of the evening is Az utolsó hajnal (The Last Dawn) (Hungary 1917), directed by Michael Curtiz (as he would become). This was a pleasant surprise. I have been expecting something far cruder in technique and performance than that which we get. The film is sophisticated in performance and polished in technique, if wordy and frankly at times a bit above itself. It concerns a world-weary upper class man who decides to commit suicide, after insuring his life, to help a friend escape debts. The film makes something of a misjudgement when it moves to India (not an easy place to recreate in Hungary on a limited budget), then becomes intriguing when the man does indeed kill himself with the help of a mysterious Indian friend. This takes us greatly by surprise, but not nearly as much as when the Indian whips off his beard and reveals himself to be a relative of the man who appeared earlier in the film and who has actually ensured that the poison he has taken will not kill him. Much applause from the audience at a corny trick well executed. An enjoyable film, if a long long way away from Casablanca.

And that is Pordenone for me this year. I must return to London to deal with assorted pressing matters. I have enjoyed the Giornate, particularly the screenings today, though the feeling is (and others seem to share this) that it hasn’t quite hit the heights too often. Perhaps the Mysterious X, who takes over this diary for day five, will see things differently. We shall see.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

In the lobby

Lobby card for The Covered Wagon (1923), part of the Western Silent Films Lobby Card Collection

For decades lobby cards were an integral part of the cinema-going experience. While posters appeared outside the cinema to lure you in, the cinema lobby or foyer would house sets of cards – effectively mini-posters – usually arranged in grid form, promoting films on show and films to come. Lobby cards played an important part in making the very process of going to the cinema something special. Though they had been replaced by plain black-and-white stills by the time I started going to the cinema, you still scanned the forthcoming attractions with delighy, like being in a sweetshop or a toyshop, each image extraordinarily filled with promise as you lived out the drama it depcited in your mind’s eye. You saw an entire film bound up in a single, evocative image. Expectation has always been the engine which has kept the cinema going.

Lobby cards appeared in the 1910s, produced first in sets of four, later usually appearing in sets of eight, and acquiring colour by 1917 (even if the films were black-andwhite they were neverhtless promoted in colour). The standard size was 8″x11″, and they would be shown on free-standing boards or easels, or else framed on the lobby walls. They have become a favourite subject for collectors, and they record not only the emotional import of films but frequently document films that do not survive in any other form. They ceased to be produced for American exhibition at some point in the 1980s (around the time that multiplexes became the norm), but still get made for film exhibition in other territories.

All of which is premable to the bringing to your attention of the Western Silent Films Lobby Cards Collection, part of the digital library of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The collection comprises 86 lobby cards and 19 printed fliers used to promote sixty-eight silent Westerns produced between 1910 and 1930. Each image is available as as thumbnail, then x4 and x8 size, plus a zoomable file if you have the right softare for viewing .sid files. The descriptive data is meticulous if dry, telling you all about the card but nothing much about the film that it promotes. Nevertheless, the site a delight to browse. The films featured include The Mollycoddle, The Covered Wagon, The Bronc Stomper, The Pony Express and The Thundering Herd, with stars such as Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, William Farnum and Fred Thomson.

The collection is part of the Yale Collection of Western Americana at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and to discover more about the broadcder contexts in which the silent Western sits, do try out other image sets from the Western Americana collection, such the Detroit Photographic Company’s Views of North America, ca. 1897-1924, Ruckus! American Entertainments at the Turn of the Twentieth Century or Mammoth Plate Photographs of the North American West.

My thanks to Brad Scott for bringing the collection to my attention.

Cockney Cherokees on the sky-line

shootingstars

Annette Benson and Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)

Recently on the Nitrateville silent film discussion forum, someone posted a link to a spaghetti western site which had a filmography of European westerns, going back to 1906. All very interesting, and a reminder that from the earliest years of cinema countries around the world tried to produce their own versions of the genre that seemed quintessentially American, the western.

But the filmography, though useful, is nowhere near complete. Particularly for the silent era there are huge gaps, which become clear when one looks at the British silent western alone. The spaghetti western filmographer may possibly have thought that Britain did not count as part of Europe, but equally may not have thought that such a thing as the British western existed. But exist it did, and its strange history will now unfold…


British cinema is what it is because of its relation to American cinema. For reasons economic, artistic and linguistic, British film makers have always had an uneasy relationship with American filmmaking, half envious, half slavish, playing along with the game to a set of rules not quite understood. A minor, but diverting illustration of this is the British western. With only a few exceptions British westerns can be divided up into three categories: straight attempts at westerns, adaptations of the western milieu to British Empire settings, and parodies.

Western novels were popular in Britain even before the arrival of the movies, as well as the frontier novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha, and the visits to the country of Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West show had created a romantic enthusiasm for the western myths and values in many in Britain at the turn of the century. The first British films to reflect this interest were a music hall sketch starring the legendary Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell as ‘Indian braves’, Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (1900), and a grotesque short comedy, The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (1901), in which the Chief (sporting a peculiar head-dress) enters a store, swallows the contents of a bottle of aperient powder, inflates and explodes. A copy of this latter oddity survives, unlike the great majority of the thirty or so westerns made in Britain between 1901 and 1915, all of them one- or two-reelers. Lost, for instance, is the next film on a roughly western theme to be made, Joe Rosenthal’s Hiawatha (1903), made during a visit to Canada and enacted by members of the Ojibwa people. Rosenthal also made Indians Gambling for Furs – is it War or Peace? at the same time.

Such curiosities aside, the key period for the production of British westerns was to be 1908 to 1913, when American films were becoming an increasing economic threat and began to demonstrate an evident hold on British audiences that British films seemed to lack. Had they but known it, British film makers had played their part in the creation of the American western, as it is probable if not absolutely proven that the Sheffield Photo Company’s exciting chase dramas of 1903, A Daring Daylight Burglary and The Robbery of the Mail Coach in particular, made a great impact in America and were a strong influence on The Great Train Robbery, the archetypal western. The latter film, with its highwayman protagonist, indicated a possible route for British films to follow if they were to challenge the Americans on their own ground. Various producers were indeed to film stories of the medieval outlaw Robin Hood and the eighteenth century highwayman Dick Turpin, but somehow the historical trappings had a lack of conviction, and it was not until the 1950s and the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood that the British came up with the depiction of a native myth that could match equivalent American western product for local popularity. A halfway solution came the following year with the Charles Urban Trading Company’s Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (1904), which located its thrills in Australia, the robbery being perpetrated by bushrangers. British film makers seeking to recreate Western thrills would turn again to the colonies in later years.

British westerns began to appear in some numbers from 1908. The chief producers were the American Charles Urban, the most cosmopolitan film maker in the British film industry, who might have been expected to show such an interest, and more surprisingly the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, based in rural Walton-on-Thames and rather better known for delicate character dramas, happy comedies, and its use of the English countryside as a background. One of the few British silent westerns to survive is Hepworth’s The Squatter’s Daughter, made earlier than the main body of silent westerns in 1906 (it is held by the BFI National Archive).

It was directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, who made the classic Rescued by Rover (1905). Rumoured to have been shot on Putney Common, London, the action opens with Indians crawling through undergrowth towards a ranch house. They beat down the fence and spear the men inside, taking a girl (Dolly Lupone) captive. She is taken to their chief, who declines to kill her with his spear, and instead she is tied to a stake to be burnt. Her father (Fitzhamon himself), riding past, hears the commotion, shoots down the Indians and rescues his daughter from the stake. The film is less than sophisticatedly made, with a particularly unconvincing ranch house, pantomime costumes and antics for the Indians, and the unmistakable greenery of the English countryside. At one point during the Indian camp scene a sailing boat goes past in the background. But for all its crudities it is quite exciting in its way, and looks to have been great fun to make.

Records of the production of British silent westerns are few, but one such record can be found in Leslie Wood’s 1937 book, The Romance of the Movies:

British producers set about stealing a march upon their transatlantic cousins and started making a brand of cowboy and Indian films all their own – in more senses than one! Many of these ‘horse operas’, as the Americans call them, were made in Epping Forest and other more or less suitable locations on the outskirts of London. Old ladies enjoying a quiet picnic on Box Hill would have their idyll rudely shattered by the war-whoops of a dozen half-naked Cockney Cherokees suddenly appearing on the sky-line, waving tomahawks and lusting for blood. Countless ‘Nells of the ranch’ rode in chaps and Stetsons over the hills at Addington, Surrey, and scores of bad men in check shirts and sombreros plotted to steal the mortgage on ‘the old mine’ at Friern Barnet. Somehow they lacked an air of reality when seen on the cinema’s screen of illusion. The horses, hired from livery stables, were but poor substitutes for the ponies of the prairie, and the English lanes lacked that barrenness and dustiness which so stirred the imaginations of the followers of the American Broncho Billy. For many years the Americans were to send us films purporting to show English life against backgrounds dotted with eucalyptus trees and cactus plants and prickly pears; the Knights of King Arthur could chew gum and our courts of justice were represented as a cross between a three-ring-circus and a public auction, and we accepted it all without a murmur, apparently because we either thought the Americans knew more about our national life than we did ourselves or because, being foreigners, we couldn’t expect them to know any better, but the cowboy pictures made in Surrey were quickly disclaimed by all right-thinking cinema-goers.

Wood suggests that the decision to produce westerns was a response to economic rivalry with American cinema, which seems doubtful, but there was certainly a panic feeling among British producers that they could not produce what a global market wanted (with a comparatively small home market they were heavily dependent on exports), and had to at least to try and make westerns if that was what the public wanted. Equally a stubborn feeling that ‘whatever they can do we can do just as well’ must have influenced the decision. After all, as Wood points out, ‘the Western film or the Cowboy-and-Indian picture as it was known to every small boy, was a sure drawing card’. British producers just had to have a go. Just such a ‘cowboy picture made in Surrey’ as the right-thinking were to reject is described by Dave Aylott, who was acting in and directing films for Cricks and Martin (indeed based in Croydon, Surrey). This is from his unpublished memoir, From Flicker Alley to Wardour Street:

We once attempted to make a Western picture, and there were some very good paddocks and corrals on the adjoining estate that we used. We hired some real cowboy saddles, etc., and managed to get some good cowboy outfits complete with ‘chapps’. There were some fine long-tailed horses in the paddock but not one to suit me. I was playing one of the parts, [A. E.] Coleby another, and Johnny Butt was supposed to be a treacherous Red Indian guide. I was supposed to have a rough-looking horse that also had to buckjump. We found the very thing in a gypsy camp and had it brought to the studio. But when we had saddled it and I mounted, the animal would not move, let along buck. We tried all ways, even a chestnut burr under the tail, but it was no good. The gypsy who owned him said he could not understand his being so quiet, and when we told him to take the horse away as being no good, he said ‘Wait a few minutes. I’ll make him jump for you’. He dashed out of the gates to a little general shop a few yards away and when he came back said ‘Jump on his back and hold tight’. I don’t know exactly what he did, but I have an idea that he mentioned the word ‘ginger’. Within a few minutes I was giving the onlookers a wonderful display of buck-jumping. I stuck to him like grim death until he reared right up and nearly toppled over on top of me as I slipped off. It was along time before he quietened down. We did manage to finish the film, but never afterwards did we attempt to make a cowboy film.

The memories of Wood and Aylott view the past with amusement, but it appears that at the time producers took their task seriously and hoped for the results to be convincing and commercial. The film Aylott is describing is ‘Twixt Red Man and White (1910), and that the Cricks and Martin publicity department at least had confidence in the film be gleaned from its notice in a trade paper, which gives a good indication of the sort of western being made in Britain at this period:

‘Twixt Red Man and White. – An incident in the life of a backwoodsman, with realistic setting and splendid acting. A white trapper plays cards with an Indian whom he discovers cheating: a struggle ends with the apparent death of the Indian. The white man, fearing reprisal, hurries back to the settlement and tells his chums and all make haste to fortify their cabin. The inert body of the Indian is soon discovered by other members of the tribe, who swear revenge, and taking the trail, soon arrive at the settlement, which they immediately attack. A stout defence is offered, and the Indians are kept in check, but ammunition fails, and to save his comrades the hero of the story, notwithstanding the entreaty of his chums, gives himself up to the Indians, who march him off to their encampment, and hastily binding him to a tree, pile faggots round him, fire them, and enliven the proceedings by starting the weird ‘Death Dance’. But the cheating Indian has in the meantime recovered his senses, returns to the white man’s settlement and soon hears of his antagonist’s fate. Accompanied by the rest of the erstwhile defenders, he follows the Indians to their camp and demands that the white trapper shall be released, and the quarrel settled by single combat. Each taking a knife, a terrific fight in engaged in, which ends in the Indian being disarmed. He bares his chest for the final thrust but the white man offers his hand in friendship, and what might have ended in a deadly feud is closed by a scene in which enemies intermingle and swear peace and goodwill ‘twixt red man and white.

The plotting and performances were serious; it was the British backgrounds that let them down. That, and a certain lack of confidence which was making itself felt throughout British production, and could only be more pronounced when attempting to film the Wild West. But the films are now lost, and the titles alone remain: An Indian’s Romance (1908), The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (1909), Hidden Under Campfire (1910), The Sheriff’s Daughter (1910), An Outlaw Yet a Man (1912), Through Death’s Valley (1912), and several more. A particular oddity must have been the Natural Color Kinematograph Company’s Fate (1911), filmed in Kinemacolor and hence the world’s first western in colour. Also lost are the several comedies made in which a comic figure usually besotted with cowboy films tries to become one in real life, with chaotic results made more absurd by the British setting. For instance Pimple (Fred Evans), Britain’s most popular native film comic, made two such parodies: Broncho Pimple (1913), spoofing the schoolboy’s favourite, Broncho Billy, and The Indian Massacre (1913), which poked fun at such serious endeavours as D.W. Griffith’s The Massacre and The Battle of Elderbrush Gulch.

The small spate of silent British westerns seemed to have come to an end in 1914 with the First World War and the gradual emergence of the feature film. The imposture of the western could just be sustained while films were one- or two-reelers; not when the film ran for over an hour. Westerns disappeared from British production schedules, and almost the only serious attempt during the whole of the war period was a six-part series, The Adventures of Deadwood Dick (1915), co-directed by and starring Fred Paul as the Englishman Richard Harris who journeys to the Wild West for adventure, and proves himself as tough as any true Westerner. The West was already being seen as a testing ground of macho toughness, and Englishmen were by nature excluded from it. This was another theme to which British film makers would return. The incongruous Englishman out West was in any case to prove a standard figure in American films, from Charles Laughton’s imperious butler in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) to (by some curious irony) the real life Richard Harris, playing a masochistic lord undergoing a Sioux trial by strength in A Man called Horse (1970) and the self-glorifying ‘English Bob’ in Unforgiven (1992), outsiders all.

jacksampete

Ernest Trimingham (left) and Percy Moran (centre) in Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), from Stephen Bourne, Black in the British Frame

Somewhat surprisingly, there was a return to western film making in the immediate post-war silent period. The early 1920s were the absolute low point of British film production, crushed as it had been by the war and then by absolute domination by Hollywood, but they were also by extension a period of experimentation, of ‘we’ll try anything once’, when anyone might have a go. Thus a handful of silent western features appeared. In Jack, Sam and Pete (1919), based on the popular boys’ stories by S. Clarke Hook, three cowboys rescue a kidnapped child. It was a starring vehicle for Percy Moran, the pre-war star of the stirring Lieutenant Daring adventure series, who clearly hoped to create a new character to excite a young audience. One of the trio in the title, Pete, was played by Ernest Trimingham, Britain’s first black actor.

The Night Riders (1920) was one of a handful of features made in Hollywood at Universal City by the adventurous producer G.B. Samuelson and concerned cattle rustlers in Alberta. Renowned war cameraman Geoffrey Malins made the humble Settled in Full (1920), a conventional Western that in style looked back to the pre-war days. Little Brother of God (1922) was a Western set in Canada about a man (Victor McLaglen) seeking the truth behind his brother’s death. Produced by Stoll, the stolid leading British film company of the period, it was fatally compromised by being shot entirely in the studio. Rather more interesting probably were two adventures set in England starring a visiting American star of cowboy serials, Charles Hutchison. British producers had just begun what was to be a long-running policy of importing minor American stars to brighten up their productions, and for the Ideal Film Company Hutchison made Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (1923), in which he rescues a girl from a wicked squire’s torture chamber, and Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (1924) again brought cowboy thrills and spills to an unexpected English setting.

By the mid-1920s naive British westerns seemed a thing of the past, and a new confidence and sophistication in the film making led to a film such as Anthony Asquith’s Shooting Stars (1928), set in a film studio, which satirises the filming of a ridiculous cowboy romance (all the while a deadly love triangle takes place between the three leading actors). It mocks American cinematic conventions, and could be seen as British cinema’s farewell to produce pale imitations of what came from across the Atlantic, but in fact the British western was to roll on and on…


This post is adapted from the first half of a talk that I gave many moons ago at the National Film Theatre on the British western, silent and sound. You can find the text of the talk on my personal website, where you can follow the story into the sound era and find out about The Frozen Limits, The Overlanders, Diamond City, Ramsbottom Rides Again, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, The Singer not the Song, Carry on Cowboy, The Hellions, Eagle’s Wing and A Fistful of Fingers.

Finally, here’s a filmography of the British silent western (extant films are marked with an asterisk):

1901 – Burlesque Attack on a Settler’s Camp (pc. Warwick)
1901 – The Indian Chief and the Seidlitz Powder (pc. Hepworth) *
1903 – Hiawatha (d. Joseph Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1903 – Indians Gambling for Furs – is it Peace or War? (d. Joe Rosenthal pc. Urban)
1904 – Robbery of a Mail Convoy by Bandits (pc. Urban)
1906 – The Squatter’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth) *
1908 – A Fight for Honour (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1908 – An Indian’s Romance (d. Frank Mottershaw pc. Sheffield Photo Company)
1909 – The Ranch Owner’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1909 – Saved by the Telegraph (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – Hidden Under Campfire (pc. Walturdaw)
1910 – A Rake’s Progress (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Cricks and Martin)
1910 – The Sheriff’s Daughter (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1910 – ‘Twixt Red Man and White (d. Dave Aylott pc. Cricks and Martin)
1911 – Fate (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Natural Color Kinematograph Company)
1911 – Smithson Becomes a Cowboy (pc. Urban)
1912 – Buffalo Bill on the Brain (d. Theo Bouwmeester pc. Kineto)
1912 – Cowboy Mad (pc. Precision)
1912 – The Heart of a Man (d. Gilbert Southwell pc. GS Films)
1912 – An Indian’s Recompense (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – An Indian Vendetta (d. Lewin Fitzhamon pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Cook’s Bid for Fame (pc. Hepworth)
1912 – Making a Man of Him (pc. Urban)
1912 – The Mexican’s Love Affair (d. Fred Rains pc. British Anglo-American)
1912 – An Outlaw Yet a Man (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1912 – Through Death’s Valley (d. Sidney Northcote pc. British and Colonial)
1912 – A White Man’s Ways (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Kineto)
1913 – Adventures of Pimple – The Indian Massacre (pc. Folly Films)
1913 – The Opal Stealers (d. A.E. Coleby pc. Britannia Films)
1913 – The Scapegrace (d. Edwin J. Collins pc. Cricks) *
1914 – Broncho Pimple (pc. Folly Films)
1914 – A Study in Scarlet (d. George Pearson pc. Samuelson)
1915 – The Adventures of Deadwood Dick [series] (d. Fred Paul/L.C. Macbean pc. Samuelson)
– How Richard Harris Became Known as Deadwood Dick
– Deadwood Dick’s Revenge
– Deadwood Dick and the Mormons
– Deadwood Dick Spoils Brigham Young
– Deadwood Dick’s Red Ally
– Deadwood Dick’s Detective Pard
1915 – Cowboy Clem (d. Bert Haldane pc. Transatlantic)
1915 – The Cowboy Village (d. J.V.L. Leigh pc. Gaumont)
1916 – How Men Love (d. J.M. Barrie, amateur)
1916 – Partners (d. Frank Wilson pc. Hepworth)
1919 – Jack, Sam and Pete (d. Leon Pollock pc. Pollock-Daring)
1920 – The Night Riders (d. Alexander Butler pc. Samuelson)
1920 – Settled in Full (d. Geoffrey H. Malins pc. P.M. Productions)
1922 – The Cowgirl Queen (d. Hugh Croise pc. Lily Long)
1922 – Little Brother of God (d. F. Martin Thornton pc. Stoll)
1923 – Hutch Stirs ‘Em Up (d. Frank H. Crane pc. Ideal)
1924 – Hurricane Hutch In Many Adventures (d. Charles Hutchinson pc. Ideal)

The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

Pen and pictures no. 3 – J.M. Barrie

There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.

Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:

Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.

Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.

The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.

The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.

What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.

The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.

It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:

He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.

The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.

A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.

Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’

Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.

Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.

Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.

Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.

Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.

J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from http://www.knebworthhouse.com

The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.

Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:

  • US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 The Little Minister
    d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Kalem
  • US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Powers
  • US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
    d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
  • GB 1915 The Little Minister
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
  • GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play's stage production (scene six)]
  • GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
    d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
  • GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
    d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
  • US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
    d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1920 Half an Hour
    d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
    d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
  • US 1921 The Little Minister
    d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
    d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
    d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1921 The Will
    d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
  • US 1922 The Little Minister
    d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1924 Peter Pan
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
    d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
  • US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1927 Quality Street
    d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions

Cowboys and Indians

The East End Years

http://www.amazon.co.uk

I’m a collector of memoirs (published and unpublished) of the film-going experience in the early years of cinema. One particular favourite from my work on London before the First World War is the memoirs of Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood. I just came across a copy in Foyles today, and thought it worth sharing with you.

Rocker (1907-2004) led a somewhat unusual London childhood, in that his father was the German anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker, while his mother was a Jewish-Ukranian anarchist-syndicalist, and their home was a focal point for revolutionaries. Kropotkin and Malatesta were family friends, and his childhood memories of life in Jewish Whitechapel are fascinatingly coloured by the radicalism that was all around him. This is evidenced by his memories of going to the cinema when very young (maybe six or seven), where his reactions to Westerns were at variance with most children:

High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Not every child liked going to the cinema in those days. Rocker much preferred Punch and Judy shows (“I sometimes wonder if the creator of the Punch scenarios was not an anarchist in disguise. His hero was forever running afoul of the law…”). He went on to become a noted artist and book illustrator, examples of which you can see find at www.ferminrocker.com.

The West in Early Cinema

The West in Early Cinema

Amazon.co.uk

The Bioscope returns from Amsterdam, and will regale you with a report on the Iamhist conference tomorrow. Meanwhile, thinking of that city, there’s a new publication from Amsterdam University Press which looks interesting. Nanna Verheoff’s The West in Early Cinema: After the Beginning is an investigation of the emergence of the Western as a genre in the first two decades of cinema (i.e. to 1915). The author analyses Western films, many of them little known, from archives across the world, tracing the relationships between films about the American West, and other popular media such as photography, painting, popular literature, Wild West shows and popular ethnography, as well as other popular films. Great cover too. As Jean-Luc Godard said, “All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun”.

William S. Hart: Star of the West

William S. Hart

There’s a film season started at the Museum of the Moving Image, New York, on the films of the great star of the silent Western, William S. Hart, whose chilly vision of the West has been compared in recent times to that of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. The season runs 21 April-6 May, and features Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Taking of Luke McVane (1915), The Captive God (1916), ‘Bad Buck’ of Santa Ynez (1915), The Bargain (1914, a new Library of Congress restoration), The Return of Draw Egan (1916), The Narrow Trail (1917), Branding Broadway (1918), Wagon Tracks (1919), The Toll Gate (1920), The Testing Block (1920), The Whistle (1921) and his masterpiece Tumbleweeds (1925), preceded by Hart’s spoken introduction to the 1939 re-issue.

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