C’est une catastrophe

Jean-Luc Godard’s Une catastrophe

In what is quite a coup for the Viennale, Vienna’s film festival, Jean-Luc Godard came out of semi-retirement to make a trailer for the festival, his first film work since 2006. Entitled Une catastrophe, it runs for just sixty-three seconds, but it is hereby claimed for the silent film community because it makes use of Battleship Potemkin and People on Sunday. The film opens with the over-famous Odessa Steps sequence from Potemkin, accompanied probably for the first time by the sounds of a tennis match.

Then, following a shot of an agonised man with a knife (from what film?) and gaudy colour footage of war, we get a slowed-down, stop-start sequences of two lovers from People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag), Edgar G. Ulmer, Fred Zinnemann and Billy Wilder’s exquisite 1930 drama with a Berlin documentary background. Throw in some fractured titles, snatches of Schumann’s “Scenes from Childhood”, and an eighteenth century poem in Low German, and you have a mightily rich concoction for your sixty-three seconds.

Love, death, guns, music, language, iconography, montage. Histoire(s) du cinéma, indeed.

100 years ago

Back to our series of pieces from the original film journal The Bioscope, published 100 years ago to the day. Today we consider the dreadful crime of having music at a film show, and on a Sunday too…

The Camden Case


Some months ago, itwill be remembered, Mr. Robert Arthur, Mr. Walter Gibbons, and Mr. W.H. Terrell were bound over at Clerkenwell Sessions, a jury finding them guilty of having carried on a music-hall entertainment at the Camden Theatre without having a license from the London County Council.

At the Sessions on Tuesday, it was alleged that the terms of the recognisances of the parties had been broken, and notice had been served upon them to attend the court to show why they should not be forfeited.

Mr. Horace Avory said the house was closed after the conviction until Monday 14th September, when without any license being obtained from the L.C.C., the theatre was opened with an animated picture entertainment, along with music. There were also Sunday performances.

The music, counsel argued, was not incidental to or subsidiary to the entertainment, but was independent and substantial. This was shown by the fact that so soon as the selections ceased, the gallery became noisy, and quieted down again when it re-started.

Mr. Muir said his client, Mr. Robert Arthur had absolutely nothing to do with the place at all since the early days of the former proceedings.

Mr. George Elliott did not dispute the facts, but disputed that what was done was an infringement of the Act.

Mr. Barnes, solicitor for the prosecution, said the music was supplied by an electrical orchestral piano. The entertainment would have been a dull one with no music, because the intervals were very long. People joined in the choruses, and sang.

Mr. Muir asked that, as Mr. Arthur had no desire to offend, he might be allowed to go.

Mr. Wallace, K.C.: Certainly.

Mr. Walter Gibbons called on his own behalf, said he was not conscious at any time of having violated his recognisances. The public came to see the bioscope.

Mr. Wallace, K.C., items of the Sunday program as follows:-

The Pneumatic Policeman. (Laughter.)
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
“The Sign of the Cross.”
The Reluctant Dog.
Yachting on the Solent.

Is that a Sunday program?

The Witness: Yes, they are all pictures which no one can object to on a Sunday.

Mr. Wallace, K.C., found that defendants (Messrs. Gibbons and Terrell) had violated their recognisances.

He fined them 40s. each, requiring an undertaking that there should be no music at week-day performances, and no performances at all on Sunday.

Mr. Wallace intimated that he did not think defendants deliberately intended to violate their obligations.

The Bioscope, 30 October 1908

Before the Cinematograph Act of 1910, there was no licensing scheme for moving picture shows in Britain, something which exercised the authorities greatly. The London County Council, which oversaw the licensing of entertainments in the capital, could licence public shows under three categories: music, music and dancing, or stage. Film shows fitted none of these per se, so had to obtain a licence for music or music and dancing if they were not to be in danger of being closed down by the L.C.C for having failed to conform to the Disorderly Houses Act of 1751. Most complied, but quite a number prefered (or had no option but) to risk it, or even in some cases put on film shows without music.

Sunday film shows were another vexed issue for the L.C.C., it being considered that entertainments of any kind on a Sunday were unwelcome, but friviolous and doubtless immoral bioscope shows especially so. Venues liked show films on Sundays, because they drew the crowds, but to keep sweet with the L.C.C. suitably ‘harmless’ programmes were concocted for Sunday shows.

The Cinematograph Act, introduced in January 1910, was established to monitor this mushrooming new public entertainment by establishing a licensing scheme specifically tailored towards it. It was the first piece of legislation in the UK which recognised the film business.

Walter Gibbons (1871-1933) had been in the film exhibition business for a decade by this point. He inherited a music hall empire and in 1910 built the London Palladium as his flagship venue. He would be knighted for his services to British variety theatre, but ended his life bankrupt.

Travellin’ on

There has been steadily increasing interest in the ambulatory nature of much of early cinema. Before films were fixed to a venue, they were frequently to be found on the move. Fairgrounds, a form of entertainment continually on the move, became a regular home for film shows in the late 1890s to early 1900s, and travelling showmen to film shows from town to town. Recent research work has uncovered extensive information on the early ‘travelling cinema’, as the term seems to be. Most notable in this field has been the body of work that followed the discovery of the Mitchell & Kenyon collection of non-fiction films from the Edwardian era, films commissioned by town hall showmen and fairground operators, generally located in the north of England.

A second body of work has looked at what was happening on the European mainland. A conference on travelling cinema in Europe took place in Luxembourg in September 2007, accompanied by the Crazy Cinématographe shows (revived for this year) and DVD release. Now we have the proceedings of the conference published as Travelling Cinema in Europe, edited by Martin Loiperdinger and published by KINtop. Though it has a German publisher, the book is in English. The book provides a diverse look at the commercial heyday of the travelling cinema in the first decade of the twentieth century, with a particular focus on Luxembourg and the Greater Region, with another section looking at non-commercial travelling cinemas from the 1920s onwards. Here’s a chapter listing:

Martin Loiperdinger – Introduction

Travelling Cinema in Europe before the First World War

Vanessa Toulmin – ‘Within the Reach of All’: Tavelling Cinematograph Shows on British Fairgrounds 1896–1914

Matthew Solomon – Fairground Illusions and the Magic of Méliès

Mustafa Özen – Travelling Cinema in Istanbul

Ralf Forster – Easy to Handle and Part of the Novelty: Equipment for Travelling Cinemas in Early Trade Catalogues

Daniel Fritsch – The Paradoxical Austrian Travelling Showmen’s Magazine Die Schwalbe

Joseph Garncarz – The Fairground Cinema: A European Institution

Travelling Cinema in Luxembourg and the Greater Region before the First World War

Uli Jung – Travelling Cinematograph Shows in the Greater Region of Luxembourg: An Overview

Paul Lesch – Travelling Cinematograph Shows in Luxembourg

Brigitte Braun – Marzen’s Travelling Town Hall Cinematograph in the Greater Region of Luxembourg

Non-commercial Travelling Cinema in Europe from the 1890s to the 1960s

Torsten Gärtner – The Church on Wheels: Travelling Magic Lantern Mission in late Victorian England

Thomas Tode – Agit-trains, Agit-steamers, Cinema Trucks: Dziga Vertov and Travelling Cinema in the early 1920s in the Soviet Union

Urszula Biel – German and Polish Agitation through Travelling Cinemas in the 1920s in Upper Silesia

Yvonne Zimmermann – Training and Entertaining Consumers: Travelling Corporate Film Shows in Switzerland

Christian Kuchler – Catholic Travelling Film Shows in West Germany after the Second World War


Claude Bertemes – Cinématographe Reloaded: Notes on the Fairground Cinema Project Crazy Cinématographe

The travelling cinema work can in turn be seen as part of a wider investigation of the relationship of early cinema to society, which is at last taking place. It was not just what they saw, but how they saw it, that matters. There is a growing body of work that is looking the composition of the programme, the location and strategies of venues, the composition of audiences, the location of audiences and their relationship to the entertainments offered to them, the time that they had to devote to such diversions and the value that could be placed on that time, the role of the audience in contributing to the early cinema experience – all of this informs us of early film’s social significance. Without such knowledge, our understanding of the films is barren.

Things European

1903 amateur film by Julius Neubronner of a Kronberg bank employee, Moren, performing a number of dances and female impersonations in Neubronner’s garden, from the Deutsches Filminstitut

I’ve written before about filmarchives online, the European-funded project providing integrated access to filmographic and technical information on selected films from archives across Europe. When we last visited the subject (May 2007), there were some 4,000 films (predominantly non-fiction) documented, from five partner archives: Deutsche Filminstitut, the British Film Institute, La Cineteca di Bologna, the DEFA-Foundation and Národní Filmový Archiv Prague.

A year and a half on, and there are now eighteen institutions taking part, of which those contributing content are the British Film Institute, Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique, Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, DEFA Stiftung, Deutsches Filminstitut, Fondazione Cineteca Italiana, IWF Knowledge and Media, LICHTSPIEL / Kinemathek Bern, Magyar Nemzeti Filmarchívum, Národní Filmový Archiv and Tainiothiki tis Ellados. All the participating archives are part of MIDAS (Moving Image Database for Access and Re-use of European film collections), a project funded by the European Union’s MEDIA pogramme to encourage more efficient distribution of historic content in European film collections. The target is 20,000 records to be published by the end of 2008. Individual records come with rich cataloguing details and – rare for online film archive initiatives – technical information on the film elements held.

A selection of films (74 and rising) has been made available for viewing online, the majority of which are early non-fiction titles (a lot of them Mitchell and Kenyon productions from Britain and the ‘amateur’ efforts of Julius Neubronner from Germany). The same films can be found on the project’s YouTube channel. There are plenty of genuinely fascinating gems in there, with a clear emphasis on historic film’s documentary qualities.

While we’re on the subject of European film archive initiatives, it’s worth noting the European Film Gateway, a recently-announced three-year project planning to develop an online portal, “providing direct access to about 790,000 digital objects including films, photos, posters, drawings, sound material and text documents”. Film archives from across Europe (but not Britain) are participating. The project is funded by the European eContentplus programme, and the results will eventually be linked to the Europeana, a planned European digital library, museum and archive. More on this project once it’s properly underway.

You’ll already know about European Film Treasures, also funded by the MEDIA programme, which is delivering a library of historic titles from collections across Europe (including Britain this time), silent and sound.

Go explore.

Mystery movies

Unidentified film with a 1923 edge code, from The Nitrate Film Interest Group

The Nitrate Film Interest Group is a new interest group set up by the Association of Moving Image Archivists, or AMIA. The group, which describes itself below, is dedicated to promoting understanding about nitrate film and, through its Flickr pages, providing an online space for placing images of unidentified films, inviting comment.

This FLICKR account is to help archives around the world identify unknown films in their collection. We will do our best to post what information is known about each film along with the frame scans. If you are able to provide any information such as title, actor, approximate date, or anything helpful then please leave a comment.

Films that have multiple frame scans have been grouped into sets that can be found along the right side of the screen. By clicking on the set information will appear that applies to all of the frame scans from that reel of film. We suggest that you navigate these photos through their sets so as to see all of the information that is provided.

The Nitrate Film Interest Group is a part of the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ interest groups. Check out AMIA at http://www.amianet.org. The Nitrate Film Interest Group is dedicated to promoting education about nitrate film as well as functioning as a resource for those interested in and working with nitrate film by becoming a major resource for archivists’ needs.

Questions about these scans can be posted to the scan comments. If you have a frame scan of an unidentified film, any questions about the Nitrate Film Interest Group or this account an email can be sent to nitratefilminterestgroup@yahoo.com

To check the frame stills of unidentified film (which include sound films), click on the Photostream link on the Flickr page. If you know something, do add a comment – no one has done as yet.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Alexander Shiryaev (1867-1941) is not a name that you will find in any film history. He was a member of the Russian Imperial Ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, St Petersburg, a protégé of the great choreographer Marius Petipa, a character dancer of great skill (he was too small for the classic leading roles), and a gifted ballet teacher.

It was his teaching that seems to have led Shiryaev to film. Fascinated with human movement and the notation of ballet, Shiryaev began producing sequential drawings of dance steps that documented the minutiae of such movements, work that was inherently cinematic in construction. Shiryaev must have seen the connection, because in 1904 he applied to the theatre management to let him purchase a motion picture camera and film to record the dancers of the ballet. He was turned down – no films were allowed to be made of the dancers of the Imperial Ballet. Undaunted, Shiryaev purchased a camera anyway – a 17.5mm Biokam acquired in London, to be followed by an Ernemann Kino, also employing 17.5mm film. At some point he also had used of a 35mm camera.

Shiryaev took to filming as one who instinctively knew what the medium could do. He understood the camera as he understood dance. Between 1906 and 1909, Shiryaev produced an astonishing body of work – live records of dances, home movies, comedies, trick films, animations and puppet films. None of these was seen in public. They might have disappeared from history entirely, had they not first been narrowly saved from destruction in the 1960s by a friend of Shiryaev’s, Daniil Saveliev, and then discovered again in 1995 by filmmaker Victor Bocharov, who has been their custodian ever since. Bocharov produced a documentary on the collection in 2003, Zapazdavshaya Premiera (Belated Premiere), but the screenings at Pordenone were the true public premiere for the majority of these films, many of which came fresh from the specialist labs of PresTech in London.

The Shiryaev films were shown over a number of days, the programmes including A Belated Premiere and films related to his world, such as Anna Pavlova dancing. But the main programme came on Friday 10 October, and divided up his ouevre into four categories.

Dance films
These were films of Shiryaev and his dancer wife Natalia Matveeva dancing on a sunlit stage at their Ukraine home. As the only films of the Russian ballet greats at this time, they have plain historical value, but they are also a visual delight. The two dance singly or together in a selection of folk-based dances, performed with sparkling zest, and each ending delightfully with the dancer leaving the stage then returning for a bow. The most dazzling are those on 35mm, particularly Shiryaev’s party piece, ‘Fool’s Dance’ from Petipa’s Mlada.

Trick films
Shiryaev was evidently a film-goer himself, and decided to emulate some of the trick films common in the mid-1900s. All were again filmed at his summer home, in the open air. One film where a giant spider came down and settled on a sleeping man was clearly inspired by Georges Méliès’ Une nuit terrible. Another, given the title [Chairs], anticipated Norman McLaren’s Neighbours by some fifty years, with its stop-animation of humans seated on chairs and swapping positions.

Earlier in the week we had seen numerous fleeting home movies of Shiryaev and family (they are some of the earliest surviving home movies anywhere) and various staged comedies made by the family. The marvellous thing to behold was how the boundaries between home movies, comedies and then trick films blurred, all created in the same spirit of joyous performance. The family’s whole lives seemed to be some form of dance.

Paper films
For me, Shiryaev’s paper ‘films’ were his greatest achievement. Before he had a camera (or so it is assumed), he produced animations on paper (45mm wide) which have now been reconstituted on film. One such film with delicate line showed birds in flight, the observant results of which the festival catalogue rightly pointed out connected his quest for reconstituted movement with that of the chronophotographers Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey. But finest I think was [Cakewalk], a trio of dancers in exquisite, gently swaying unison. Only a minute or so long, but I have never seen a finer piece of animation.

Shiryaev’s puppet animation P’ero-Khudozhniki (Artist Pierrots), from http://www.watershed.co.uk

Puppet films
For David Robinson, the festival’s director and a most enthusiastic advocate of Shiryaev’s work, the stop-frame puppet films he made were his greatest achievement. They were certainly the most astonishing. Years ahead of animation elsewhere in the world (and two or three years ahead of Starewitch), these films used puppet figures in a theatre set to recreate, in meticulous detail, actual ballet dancers. Some of the effects – such a water or paint being thrown, or balls being tossed in the air – were astonishingly accomplished, and simply the co-ordination of several puppets all dancing at the same time would have required prodigious patience and skill. One of the films indeed revealed the animator’s hands to the edge of the frame, moving manically into a mysterious blur.

The puppet films required some concentration on the part of the audience, particularly the 12-minute-long [Harlequin’s Jest], which was in five acts with long titles (supplied by Bocharov) explaining the action. What helped enormously was the music. We know that Shiryaev meant his films to be so accompanied, including the animations, but not what that music was. John Sweeney, one of the festival’s core band of pianists, took on the task of matching music (some from Petipa ballets, some his own) to the films, with Günter Buchwald joining him on violin for [Harlequin’s Jest]. The brilliant results were rightly given loud acclaim by the audience – the musical highlight of the festival.

We will certainly be hearing more about Alexander Shiryaev. The documentary A Belated Premiere gets its British premiere at the Watershed in Bristol on 19 November (nearby Aardman Animation has been involved in supporting the restoration of Shiryaev’s work), and with the restoration of the films as yet incomplete (some we saw only on DVD), it’s a certainty that there will be more on show at Pordenone.

Friday was a day for superlatives. In the morning we had seen more of the Corrick collection of early films collected by a family of entertainers in 1900s Australia. Now, having written my thesis on Charles Urban (right), published a website about him, and taken my blog nom de plume from his company logo, it might be argued that I could be a little biased when it comes to praising his works, but – damn it all – Living London, made by the Charles Urban Trading Company, if it isn’t one of the greatest of all silent films, then it is undoubtedly the greatest film of 1904 [update: the film has now been identified as Urban’s The Streets of London (1906)]. The film is an eleven-minute section from an original forty-minute documentary (no other word will do) depicting London life. Moving approximately eastwards (from Westminster to the City, with a diversion along the Thames), the film shows the metropolis at its imperial zenith, vividly alive, with cameras picking out every detail, high and low (the trouble taken over camera positions was particularly noticeable) – traffic, roadworks, people dancing in the street, workers of every kind, buildings under construction, the river teeming with craft, even in one shot a row of men with sandwich boards advertising Urbanora film shows. The catalogue compared it to Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, but this was a work of a different kind, a sort of missing link between the single-shot actualities of the early cinema period and the constructed documentary. I can think of few other films that can so thrill with a plain exposition of ‘reality’.

The Corrick collection yielded other gems. Particularly noteworthy were Bashful Mr Brown (1907), a chase comedy made by the Corrick’s themselves; Babylas vient d’hériter diune panthère (1911), pure surrealism from Alfred Machin as an inquisitive leopard is introduced into a bourgeois household; and The Miner’s Daughter (1907), an exercise in beautifully judged pathos from Britain’s James Williamson, in which the title character parts from her father when she marries an artist, and after much grief they are finally brought together by his granddaughter. And it’s a rare early film that combines a mine explosion with scenes inside the Royal Academy.

After the highs of Shiryaev we relaxed in front of Ihr Dunkler Punkt (1929), a typically professional vehicle for Germany’s favourite Briton, Lilian Harvey, who played two identical people, one an ordinary young woman about town, the other a jewel thief, whose lives and lovers get mixed up. A light but cleverly made concoction, in which I most liked the comic turn by the normally sombre Warwick Ward, another Briton who plied his trade in German films.

Michael Nyman takes his bow

I was tiring just a little of films by this stage, and chosen not to follow D.W. Griffith into the sound era with Abraham Lincoln (1930). Instead I concluded my Pordenone with the evening screenings of A Propos de Nice (1930) and Kino Pravda no. 21 (1925). A large crowd of Pordenone locals queued up for this, and the theatre was filled up to its third tier. How come? Because Michael Nyman was playing the piano, and Italians, it seems, love his music. Nyman had been due to play at the festival last year, but had to withdraw owing to illness, so did the honourable thing by turning up this year. Despite his star status, Nyman found himself in the pit the same as all the other musicians during the festival, with the result that no one saw him until he emerged for his bow at the end. A Propos de Nice came first, and Nyman’s complexly repetitive music provided the ideal match for Vigo’s cumulative montage of telling images. It was certainly quite different to anything else we heard during the week, a lesson in how we should always be encouraging different musical interpretations of silent films. Particularly striking were sequences with a single bass note pounded with a rapidity that seemed to be testing the piano’s stamina to the limit.

The Kino Pravda, a celebrated example of the series, on the death of Lenin, was less successful. The film itself, with its hectoring, fractured style, combining newsfilm with slogans and animation, probably defies most forms of musical accompaniment, and Nyman’s score churned out circular themes that didn’t much connect with the film. The score lacked the inspiration of A Propos de Nice, and the film ended a few bars before he did, so that he was being applauded while still trying to finish playing. Opinion afterwards was mixed, with some of the musicologists among the Giornate regulars in shock.

And that was it for me. I left early on the Saturday, the last day of the festival, and so missed Griffith’s final film The Struggle (1931) (touchingly paired with a re-showing of his first, The Adventures of Dollie) and the grand finale of Jacques Feyder’s Les Nouveaux Messieurs (1929). This was a fine festival. Few outstanding classics, but so much to interest, stimulate, challenge and excite the imagination. There were welcome innovations, such as the electronic subtitles, and encouraging signs of closer relations between town and festival. The Giornate del Cinema Muto never rests on its laurels, recognising the broad and knowledgable audience that it attracts, and that in a real way Pordenone is silent film today. It sets the agenda; it builds up the canon; it consistently reminds us of how various the silent film was (and continues to be – there were some examples of modern silent shorts, though none that I saw were terribly distinguished). Warm thanks to all who make the festival such a success year after year. We’re so lucky that it’s there.

‘Til next year.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six

London loves silents

Trafalgar Square screening, 2007

A reminder to anyone in London on 23 or 24 October of the free open-air evening screenings taking place in Trafalgar Square. On the 23rd, starting at 18.30, you can see the British science fiction silent High Treason (1929) – “the British Metropolis” – directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Basil Gill and Benita Hume, with live piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. A fun film to catch, showing a London where we were to be travelling about the city in helicopters, communicating by television, and wearing dodgy fashions. The accompanying short is Gaston Quiribet’s trick film vision of a future London, The Fugitive Futurist (1924).

On the 24th, also at 18.30, there’s a programme of fifteen archive films under the title ‘London Loves’. Among the silents in the programme are the bizarre The Smallest Car in the Largest City in the World (1913), a long-time favourite of those at the BFI National Archive, in which a miniature Cadillac drives sedately down London’s streets; news footage of Charlie Chaplin’s return to London in 1921, with esctatic greetings from the crowds; and an evocative travelogue, London’s Contrasts (1924). The star attraction, however, is going to be Living London (1904), Charles Urban’s truly dazzling documentary portrait of London life, a 10-minute epic only recently rediscovered by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and shown earlier this month at the Pordenone silent film festival. It returns to London after 104 years, and on the big screen, in that location, the impact should be tremendous. Among the sound films, look out especially for John Krish’s masterpiece of poignant regret, The Elephant Will Never Forget (1953), on the last trams in London – until they bring them back again, of course. Music will be provided by three musicians, names as yet unpublicised.

The screenings, organised by Film London and the London Film Festival, follow on from last year’s highly successful showing of Blackmail and a programme of archive shorts. It was a magical experience – not just seeing the films in such an extraordinary yet somehow rightful setting, but for the experience of audience watching. Some settled on the steps of the Square and took in every frame; some stopped by for a while to catch the experience before moving on; some paused briefly, on their way to catch a train, puzzled at what on earth was happening. Neil’s music pounded out, down the streets and over the rooftops, filling the evening air, drawing in people from all around to see what strange activity the capital was up to now. Film was bound up with the life of the city. An experience to savour.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day six

Market day in Pordenone

The 2008 Giornate del Cinema Muto was filled with many interesting and worthwhile titles across a wide range of what comprises silent film, but as day six dawned it felt like we had experienced little in the way of cast-iron classics. Plenty to intrigue and inform, few that would have made you want to rush out into the streets and drag in the nearest passer-by, telling them that they just had to see this. Sparrows (though it disappointed me) already enjoyed classic status; the Griffiths were a surprise, but they weren’t going to upset the pantheon; Ed’s Co-ed was very enjoyable, but it was an amateur college movie when you got down to it.

So it was on day six that we had the popular hit of the festival, and the first (but not the last) rediscovered classic of cast-iron certainty. The popular choice came at 9.00am, an odd slot for the silent film that had enjoyed the greatest publicity over the past year. It was only at the end of last year that it was announced that a print had been discovered of the long-lost Bardelys the Magnificent (1926), directed by King Vidor and staring John Gilbert, each fresh from their triumph with The Big Parade. Following some scepticism (a bogus announcement for the supposed rediscovery of Murnau’s The Four Devils occurred at about the same time), it transpired that a print had indeed been uncovered by the indefatigable Lobster Films of Paris. Just under a year later, it enjoyed its re-premiere at Pordenone, albeit in DigiBeta form. The tape copy may have been the reason for the less-than-prime-time slot, or it may have been a reflection of the disappointment reported by those few who had seen the film. Kevin Brownlow, in the festival catalogue, was less than enthusiastic, declaring:

It has a lush, gauzed look, but does not compare visually with Rosita or Dorothy Vernon, and the plot is so thin I found myself wondering why they made it at all.

All of which may be a warning not to judge films too much by how they appear on a monitor, without music or audience. On the big screen, slightly bothersome tape quality notwithstanding, with an audience out to enjoy itself and Neil Brand in commanding form on the piano, Bardelys the Magnificent was a triumph. It is an adaptation of a Rafael Sabatini novel, he of Scaramouche, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood, set in seventeenth century France. Bardelys, played with rogueish aplomb by Gilbert, is a devil-may-care courtier notorious for his success with women. He takes on a bet that he can marry Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman), daughter of a landowner believed to be inimical to the king. In a sequence of stills, representing the missing reel from the film, Bardelys comes across a dying rebel whose name he takes as a ruse to enable him to enter the castle, with plenty of attendant problems when he finds that he is now believed to be a notorious anti-royalist.

The centrepiece of the plot is Bardelys’ wooing of Roxalanne, which swiftly moves from challenge to real affection, leaving Bardelys and the film with the moral dilemma of how to negotiate the bet that underlies his actions. We won’t give the game away, as the film has yet to receive its American premiere and is going to be a treat for many audiences, but just to say that Gilbert and Boardman are both of top form, capturing the spirit of the text and the age in witty style. Wit is the optimum word; that sort of wit coming out of crisis that characterises the best of the Sabatini and Dumas school. The film climaxes with an escape from the scaffold sequence that spoofs Douglas Fairbanks, with assorted outlandish bounds to freedom, culminating in Gilbert leaping off battlements with a makeshift parachute. This sequence is the part of the film that has come for the highest praise, but I felt it veered on the facetious side – the film would have been better without it.

The film has some modest failings. The plot is a little thin, perhaps lacking a good sub-plot to add strength to the brew. There’s evidence of economies in some of the sets, which makes the film less of a visual treat than it ought to have been. But the audience relished every minute of it, through to its satisfying conclusion. Definitely a film to catch when you get the chance.

D.W. Griffith’s final silent film was Lady of the Pavements (1929), in which the old master achieved the near impossible in making Lupe Velez sympathetic. Mind you, it didn’t look that way early on in the film. The story is a take on Pygmalion, where a German diplomat Count Karl von Arnim (William Boyd) tells his cheating duchess fiancee (Jetta Goudal) that he would rather marry a woman of the streets than her. The rest of the plot you could probably come up with yourselves. The duchess gets one of her retinue to recruit a singer from the lowest dive in town, and to train her to appear to be a gently-born lady. Karl will then fall in love with her, which he duly does, and when the deception is revealed … well, of course, he marries her anyway. The singer they recruit is played by Lupe Velez, the Mexican bombshell whose film performances are invariably cranked up to eleven. It’s no different here, and for much of the early part of the film she is pretty much unbearable, an unexceedingly unlikely future mate for the fastidious Karl.

And then some modest magic occurs, and we start to care for her. Remarkably, Velez has a soft pedal and is able to do poignant. She reveals unexpected sensitivity of performance as her predicament worsens, and one feels for her. She is the best thing in the film, as most of the rest of the cast go through the motions, though I quite liked Goudal’s vindictive duchess. It’s not a great film, but it is a more than competent one, with some stylish camera movement, though with a sense that sheer studio power was carrying Griffith along. In the end, the film was another commercial flop for him, its greatest success coming from an Irving Berlin song Velez sings, ‘Where is the song of songs for me?’ (memorably recreated for us by Joanna Seaton), a recording of which was a hit for her (the film was released with synchronised orchestral score and songs from Velez). For the cognoscenti, the highlight was probably the scene towards the end where Velez, back in the restaurant where she started, sings a sad song and Karl appears to her in place of everyone in the room through progressive multiple exposures. So farewell then, D.W. Griffith the silent filmmaker.

Pordenone regularly dedicates a section of the festival to the work of one of the world’s film archives. This year it was the Slovenian Film Archive, or Slovenski Filmski Archiv, celebrating its fortieth aniversary. I only caught the first few titles in its programme of actualities ranging from 1905 to 1937, but there was some magic there. The first Solvenian films were shot by Karol Grossmann in 1905/06, and we saw a striking high-angle view of townsfolk coming out of church in 1905, which had a real sense of pulling back the curtains to reveal the past; and delightful film of Grossman’s children, which has been used as part of the archive’s animated logo. But the real treasure was Postojnska Jama (Postojna Cave) (1926). Postojna Cave is a spectacular cave system and a top Slovenian tourist site. The film showed us the interior of the caves (the catalogue claimed that it was the first film ever taken underground, which may well be the case), through which a train travelled, with the passengers carrying flares. The result was a phantasmagorical tour de force, as white lights and smoke lit up the fantastical shapes within the cave, looking for all the world like a tourist trip through Dante’s Inferno. The interpolation of some still photographs deadened the effect slightly, but this short film (five minutes) provided perhaps the most dazzling visual effect of any film shown at the festival.

Brighton Sea-Going Electric Car (1897), from Filmoteca de Catalunya

Another anniversary marked by the festival was the thirtieth anniversary of the celebrated FIAF congress of 1978, held in Brighton in the UK, which held a symposium which examined films from around the world made 1900-1906. This epic undertaking (548 films were screened) effectively kick-started the serious study of early film, and had huge repercussions on scholarly understanding, publishing, video releases and some notable academic careers. To mark the occasion, the festival invited some of those who were at the original symposium to select two films each from the 1900-1906 period, and to say why they still excited their imaginations.

I was greatly looking forward to this part of the festival, and it’s sad to have to report that it was, in all honesty, a bit of a shambles. There was no sense of a governing idea, several of the prints were quite poor and appeared to be (and some certainly were) the prints shown at the original symposium, in some cases with quaint introductory titles. In at least one instance the wrong version of a film was shown, and there were some titles that weren’t in the catalogue at all but got shown because they were on the same reel as one of the scheduled films. I didn’t stay for the second half of what was a long session, but others reported similar disappointment. Of course, classic titles such as The Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) are never going to fail, but the highlight, ironically enough, was a new discovery. George Albert Smith’s Brighton Sea-going Electric Car (1897), discovered this year by the Filmoteca de Catalunya is a mysterious masterpiece in miniature. This was an elevated, sea-going platform, a sort of maritime tram, invented by Magnus Volk, which is seen to traverse the screen from right to left, like some bizarre vision of modernity drfiting into view then out again.

Alice O’Fredericks and Mona Mårtenson (right) in Laila, from http://www.nfi.no

The rediscovery that sent us out into the streets, if not with the intention of dragging in passers-by then certainly floating on air, was unexpected. Laila (1929) is a late Norwegian silent, a daunting 165 minutes long. Expectations were not high from those like me who knew little of this period of Norwegian cinema, though the presence of George Schnéevoigt, cinematographer on a number of Carl Th. Dreyer film, as director, had aroused curiosity.

So, we’re amid the snowy wastes of Norway, at some time in the past. It’s nighttime. Merchant Lind and his wife are being drawn by dog sleigh through the snow, taking their baby daughter Laila to her christening. A pack of wolves attackes them. In the frantic chase, the baby falls out of her sleigh. With the dawn, they seek desperately for the child, only to find an empty papoose. The child must have been devoured by the wolves. But the baby had been found by Jåmpa, the wild-looking servant of the wealthy Lapp Aslag Laagje, whose wife is childless. They decide to adopt the child, but then learn of her true identity. Sorrowfully, they return Laila to her true parents. But then her parents die of the plague…

We were gripped, and we stayed gripped throughout, as this immaculately-paced drama in the remotest of landscapes held you like only the best of silent films can. Exoticism was certainly part of the appeal – age-old, etched faces, rampaging wolves (running over the camera at one point), clashes between Lapps and Norwegians (disparagingly referred to by the former as ‘daros’), some fine ski-ing, and an awful lot of reindeer. Lying just underneath the narrative was a miscenegation theme, as the grown-up Laila (brightly played by Mona Mårtenson), kept in ignorance of her Norwegian parentage, is brought up to expect marriage to Laagje’s foster son Mellet. The film seeks to rescue her from this fate, preferring that she marry instead her first cousin, Anders Lind (Harald Schwenzen), who ends up rescuing her at the altar in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion, thanks to an intervention from Jåmpa (Trygve Larssen), who puts Laila’s happiness above loyalty to his master (and gets savaged by a pack of wolves for his pains).

This was a work on both an intimate and an epic scale (it is based on a novel by J.A. Friis), excellently played in a fine naturalistic style by all concerned. It was good human drama. It’s hard to make a dull-looking film when you have so much snow to work with, and Schnéevoigt did not fluff a single scene. The only disappointment was the print, which was a TV print with rounded corners. This was something of a distraction. Presumably it is the only material that survives. We were told that the film had previously only been available in sound speed form, but has now been re-photographed at 16fps. Fresh, unusual and soundly executed throughout, Laila was the outstanding feature film of the Giornate.

Flagging a little by this stage, and with no desire to see the new documentary on Mary Pickford which was the main evening screening, that was the end of Thursday for me. Day seven, and the last of these reports, will follow, bringing us a poignant tale of class divisions, a paean to London at its imperial zenith, a ballet master turned puppet master, two Lillian Harveys, and one minimalist.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day four
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven

Back to the Bible lands

Jesus’s first steps, Mulsant and Chevalier Bible lands films, from http://www.europafilmtreasures.eu

Regulars may remember that in the Bioscope report on the Pordenone 2007 festival, there was a detailed account of the remarkable find by Lobster Films of a cache of films from the earlier years of cinema taken in the ‘Bible lands’ i.e. Palestine. This collection of some eighty or so films included both actualities and dramatised scenes of the nativity. At the time, no one knew who had made these films, though a good guess was made that the filmmaker might have been the Frenchman Léar (real name, Albert Kirchner), known to have filmed nativity scenes in Palestine in 1897. Some of the films were believed to date from that period, but others stylisically suggested a slightly later date.

A year on, and the mystery has been solved. The films were not made by Léar but by the Abbés Mulsant and Chevalier in 1904, supported by the Roman Catholic promotional organisation, La Maison Bonne Presse. Mulsant and Chevalier visited Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon and later Turkey. They filmed the scenes about them, and created dramatised scenes inspired by the celebrated Bible paintings of James Tissot.

Research continues on their work, but Eric Lange of Lobster Films has kindly sent me a text on his discoveries. It’s in French, but that’s not going to present you with any problems (not in these post-Google Translate days). A selection of the films, concentrating on the nativity scenes, can be found on the European Film Treasures site (search under Mulsant or 1904), which has further information on the collection.

Au lendemain de la guerre de 1870, LA MAISON DE LA BONNE PRESSE voit le jour, sous les auspices des Augustins de l’Assomption. Son but est d’affirmer une présence catholique dynamique à travers des manifestations de masse : pèlerinages, enseignements, ou presse avec des organes comme le Pèlerin lancé en 1873 ou La Croix, 10 ans plus tard.

En 1895, le directeur de La Croix confie à Georges-Michel Coissac, futur historien du cinéma, la création et la responsabilité d’un service de projections lumineuses.

Des conférenciers projectionnistes sillonnent alors les paroisses et diffusent la bonne parole grâce aux séries de plaques de verre illustrant sous forme de tableaux vivants, la vie du Christ, des Saints et Martyrs ou les histoires édifiantes de Théodore Botrel.

En 1905, lorsque intervient la séparation de l’Eglise et de l’état, le cinématographe a depuis longtemps perdu son statut de curiosité scientifique pour n’être plus, pour beaucoup, qu’une vulgaire attraction de fête foraine.

Il commence toutefois à intéresser les esprits pieux de la maison de la Bonne Presse.

Lors du deuxième congrès général des oeuvres catholiques de conférences et de projections (19 – 22 février 1906) un conférencier défini ainsi ce point de vue :

« Il n’est personne qui nie l’intérêt des projections cinématographiques et le parti qu’en pourraient tirer les oeuvres catholiques de projections. Celles-ci ne doivent pas, sous peine de rester en retard et de se priver d’un puissant élément de succès, dédaigner cette nouvelle manifestation de l’art dans l’image lumineuse. Aussi semble-t-il tout naturel que le Congrès veuille étudier cette année les moyens de vulgariser le cinématographe et de le mettre à la portée d’un plus grand nombre. »

Ce rapport émane de l’abbé Mulsant qui a déjà mis en pratique sa théorie:

« On me permettra d’exposer ici l’oeuvre que j’ai entreprise en collaboration avec M. L’abbé Chevalier; heureux si notre petite expérience peut être de quelque utilité pour les conférences catholiques.
Ayant à chercher des ressources pour nos écoles du Liban très menacées par la diminution des aumônes venant de la France, et en face de l’impossibilité de quêter en ce moment dans notre pauvre patrie, nous avons songé à donner des conférences aussi intéressantes que possible, et en joignant aux projections lumineuses ordinaires les vues cinématographiques.

Pour cela nous avons fait un long voyage en Orient, pays qui du reste nous était déjà connu, et nous sommes arrivés à récolter en Egypte, en Palestine et au Liban de nombreux documents, clichés et bandes cinématographiques, avec lesquels ont été composées cinq conférences documentaires ou artistiques.

La première, Vers les cèdres du Liban, nous promène à travers les montagnes si pittoresques de la Syrie.

La deuxième et la troisième, s’attachant à la personne sacrée de Notre-Seigneur Enfant, essayent de le faire revivre, soit à la manière de Tissot dans la conférence documentaire Au pays de l’enfance du Christ, soit dans la Vierge et son fils, à la manière des artistes idéalistes qui, si nombreux à tous les ages, ont plus ou moins prêté à la Sainte Famille nos moeurs et nos goûts.

La quatrième conférence, Le Caire pittoresque, conduit dans la capitale de l’Egypte moderne, en fait ressortir les particularités et les contrastes et donne sur la religion musulmane et ses rites, de très curieux documents.

La cinquième, les Hébreux d’autrefois et les Fellahs d’aujourd’hui, transporte l’auditeur à plusieurs siècles de distance et fait revivre les moeurs au temps de Joseph et des Pharaons dans l’étude de la vie des champs et de la construction des temples.

Ces cinq conférences sont établies sur le même modèle, en ce sens que l’illustration lumineuse du texte est toujours composée de vues fixes alternant avec les vues cinématographiques. Un dispositif nouveau, inventé par les conférenciers eux-mêmes, permet la substitution instantanée du cliché à la vue mouvante. Cette méthode a le grand avantage de donner à la conférence plus de vie et de variété, les explications étant données sur les vues fixes qui ne sont que l’analyse du sujet cinématographique suivant.

Le spectateur jouit ainsi beaucoup mieux de la vue cinématographique déjà expliquée et n’est pas fatigue par une projection non interrompue de 600 mètres de bandes. Je puis dire que ces conférences, grâce à l’inédit des documents et à la perfection de l’appareil, ont pu être données en très grands nombres dans les milieux les plus différents, toujours avec le plus beau succès. En dix-huit mois, nous avons fait plus de 250 conférences dans des Grands et Petits Séminaires, des salons, des Sociétés de géographie, des Cercles artistiques, des collèges et couvents, des salles populaires où nous avons réuni plus de 2000 personnes. Nous comptons continuer notre oeuvre et poursuivre notre campagne de conférences, qui, comme nous l’ont dit bien des prêtres et des évêques nos auditeurs, font un bien réel aux âmes et permettent de parler de Notre-Seigneur dans tous les milieux. »

L ‘œuvre entreprise par Mulsant et Chevalier n’est certes pas une première. Dès 1897, Albert Kirchner, dit Léar, avait accompagné le père Bailly dans son pèlerinage aux pays du Christ et en avait ramené les premiers films tournés en Palestine et en Egypte ; des films malheureusement perdus aujourd’hui.

Toutefois, s’ils ont bien été tournés en 1904, comme le laissent à penser les déclarations de l’abbé Mulsant, ces films offrent un des plus anciens témoignages filmés de la vision chrétienne en terre Musulmane.

Tourné in situ, la vie de Jésus détonne par rapport aux nombreuses versions très théâtrales éditées alors par Pathé, Gaumont ou Lumière. Le but est ici de « remettre en scène, sur place, au jour le jour, les personnages bibliques, d’évoquer leurs figures, redire leurs paroles, dans le pays que la Providence avait donné pour cadre à leurs passions, à leur espoir, à leur apostolat. »

Les sujets des autres conférences sont complémentaires puisque l’observation des us et coutumes en Palestine, en Egypte ou au Liban permet de « mettre en évidence les vestiges des traditions antiques, commentaires vivant de l’Ecriture qui éclairent d’un jour nouveau telles pages obscures de la Bible ou de l’Evangile. »

Au delà de leur aspect ethnographique ou religieux, les films de Mulsant et Chevalier sont aujourd’hui le témoignage rare d’une pratique qui va pendant longtemps opposer laïcs et catholiques: celle du conférencier projectionniste.

Le Texte des conférences de Mulsant et Chevalier semble avoir disparu, mais on en trouve toutefois quelques extraits dans les séries de cartes postales illustrées, éditées à partir de 1907 et proposées aux abonnées du Fascinateur, revue consacrée à la projection par la Maison Bonne Presse.

1907 est également l’année de la consécration pour Mulsant et Chevalier. Leur Annonciation de la Vierge est présentée au Vatican devant le Pape Pie X, en vues fixes d’abord, puis en scène cinématographique, avec de brèves explications du P. Chevalier lui-même. Le film vient conclure un programme des plus variés où se succèdent des scènes de la vie militaire, des scènes champêtres ou maritimes sans oublier des portraits de Sa Sainteté et de splendides tableaux de la vie du Christ ou des films comiques tel Toto Aéronaute (Pathé 1906)!

Jusqu’alors, les films de Mulsant et Chevalier ne se trouvaient pas dans le commerce, ce que regrettaient certains congressistes lors du troisième congrès général des œuvres catholiques de conférence et de projection. Après la séance faite au Vatican, un accord est conclu avec Gaumont qui propose fièrement sous le numéro 1821 de son catalogue « A Nazareth », collection de MM. Mulsant et Chevalier, projections représentées devant le Souverain Pontife. Ce films de 70 mètres se divise en 5 parties: L’atelier, Fontaine de Nazareth, Retour de la Fontaine, Le puits, le soir qui tombe.

Curieusement le film n’est qu’en distribution ; les droits de représentation sont réservés pour la France et la Belgique et il faut s’adresser directement aux Auteurs, 14 rue Sainte-Hélène à Lyon.

Peut être Gaumont ne veut il pas faire trop de concurrence à sa Vie du Christ éditée en 1906 et dont certains tableaux s’inspirent également de la Passion du peintre James Tissot. Dans ces mémoires, Alice Guy, qui a réalisé le film, indique que Mulsant et Chevalier étaient présents sur le tournage et portaient un vif intérêt à son travail. On pourrait en déduire d’après ces propos que les deux prêtres se sont inspirés d’Alice Guy, alors que ceux-ci avaient tournés leur vie de Jésus 2 ans plus tôt.

La production cinématographique de la maison de la Bonne Presse ne débute réellement qu’en 1909, avec une version de la Passion de 1000 mètres réalisée par Honoré le Sablais qui dirigera la production jusqu’à la première guerre, avant que l’abbé Danion ne prenne le relai.

En 1909, Mulsant et Chevalier sont certainement en Turquie comme en témoignent une série films retrouvés en même temps que ceux d’Egypte et de Palestine. On y découvre le témoignage de la présence chrétienne dans un orphelinat ainsi que les ruines d’Adana après les premiers massacres d’Arméniens. Ces films n’ont sans doute pas encore révélé tous leurs secrets.

Puis nous perdons la trace de Mulsant et Chevalier après une dernière séance de projection à Moulins, mentionnée par le Fascinateur en 1910:

« M. L’abbé Mulsant, le conférencier bien connu, a organisé cette année à Moulins toute une série de conférences religieuses, pour dames et jeunes filles, sur la vie de Notre-Seigneur, dans le but d’aider à l’intelligence des Evangiles.

Les projections ont été exécutées par M. l’abbé Mulsant lui-même, avec un appareil de haute précision, à la lumière oxy-éthérique. Les vues projetées, dont un bon nombre en couleurs, sont en grande partie l’œuvre originale et personnelle de M. Mulsant. Prises directement sur les Lieux-Saints même ou empruntées aux plus grands peintres de toutes les époques, elles ont pour but constant et unique soit la reconstitution historique des faits évangéliques, soit la représentation la plus expressive des mystères sacrés, d’évoquer en un mot, sous les yeux de la vie même du Christ, telle qu’il la vécut parmi nous, il y a dix-neuf siècle. »

Les recherches continues. A suivre …

Eric has also drawn my attention to his Cinématographes site on early cinema technology. Written in French, it’s a fabulous collection of images and descriptions of cameras, projectors etc., company information, catalogues and more, which I’ll cover in greater detail in a later post.