Female Hamlet

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet (1921)

The second notable Edition Filmmuseum DVD release to tell you about is Hamlet & Die Filmprimadonna, to be issued on 10 June 2011. It was 2009 when the DVD label first announced that a DVD of Asta Nielsen’s Hamlet (1920), from the coloured print discovered in 2005, was forthcoming. Whether it was licensing issues, or technical matters that held up the release I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – all that matters is that such a key film, from a fine restored print, and with a highly commendable score, is available on DVD at last. It certainly ought to have an impact.

The Danish actress Asta Nielsen was probably the leading European film performer of the 1910s. Though her dark demeanour and unconventional beauty probably led to a lack of success in the USA, in European countries, especially Germany, she was revered, with films such as Afgrunden (The Abyss) (1910), Balletdanserinden (1911), Die Suffragette (1913) being among the most iconic and forward-looking of their age. She and husband/director Urban Gad moved to Germany in 1911 and it was in that country, after she had established the Art-Film company, that Nielsen (now parted from Gad) embarked a radical film interpretation of Hamlet. Possibly by this time Nielsen’s star was a little on the wane, but her taste for the bold and challenging was undimmed.

It was a bold enough decision to film Shakespeare, whose plays had lost favour with cinema audiences and producers once feature films had come in. But Nielsen and her directors Sven Gade and Heinz Schall went further. Though the essential structure of the film was taken from Shakespeare’s play, they went back to Shakespeare’s source material, in particular Saxo Grammaticus, to rid the play of its Renaissance trappings. And then they went further by making Hamlet a woman. The scriptwriter Erin Gepard apparently found justification for this in a obscure work of Shakespearean criticism, The Mystery of Hamlet (1881), by one Edward P. Vining. Vining’s earnest expressed thesis was that the deep-rooted mysteries lying at the hear of the play and particularly the character of Hamlet could be readily explained if you understood that Hamlet was a woman, forced to disguise her sex for political expediency, with the added complication of being in love with Horatio.

Here is some of Vining’s argument:

There is not only a masculine type of human perfection, but also a feminine type; and when it became evident that Hamlet was born lacking in many of the elements of virility, there grew up in him, as compensation, many of the perfections of character more properly the crown of the better half of the human race. All mankind has recognized the deep humanity of the melancholy prince, and many have been puzzled to find that they were instinctively compelled to bow before him in admiration, while still finding in him so many faults and weaknesses. The depths of human nature which Shakespeare touched in him have been felt by all, but it has scarcely been recognized that the charms of Hamlet’s mind are essentially feminine in their nature.

One has only to argue that Hamlet could have his feminine side and yet remain a prince to put Vining’s arguments in their place, but it is true that there have been a number of female Hamlets on the stage from the 18th century onwards. Among the stage performers who were not content to be confined to playing Ophelia have been Sarah Siddons in the 18th century, Charlotte Crampton, Clare Howard, Alice Marriott and Alma Murray in the 19th, and in more recent times Frances de la Tour and Angela Winkler. The evidence of such performers suggests both something particularly feminine in the character of Hamlet, but also a desire to lay claim to an iconically male role.

Perhaps the most notable female stage Hamlet also became the first film Hamlet when Sarah Bernhardt was filmed in 1900 in the duel scene from Hamlet. Not only was it the first film Hamlet but it was the first Shakespeare sound film, as it was made for the Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, with the film synchronised to a phonograph recording. Female screen Hamlets post-Nielsen have been rare, though the Turkish actress Fatam Girik was the star of İntikam Meleği (1977), English title the helpfully literal Female Hamlet. It is perhaps because it is so often such a struggle just to get Shakespeare filmed that few producers or performers have felt any need to takes things further and explore such gender reversal. Opportunities on the stage have been that much greater in number, as Tony Howard documents in his excellent Women as Hamlet: Performance and Interpretation in Theatre, Film and Fiction.

Nielsen’s interpretation was therefore part of a clear (if marginal) stage tradition, but was something of a bolt out of the blue for film. There was nothing really to compare it to in 1921, and little since – it is a film that stands on its own. It is Nielsen’s great accomplishment that we immediately accept her as Hamlet. Her androgynous looks help to a degree, but crucially she is not trying to be a man playing Hamlet (as Bernhardt and her predecssors had done) – she plays a woman who must disguise herself as a man. There is no questioning of the rightness of the idea when we watch the film, and little sense of any forcing of the narrative to fit the thesis. It works on its own terms. It has its absurdities, inevitably, particularly when Horatio discovers that the dying Hamlet has been a woman all along, but that may simply be a fault of our modern eyes. Technically the film is no masterpiece. It is plainly directed, somewhat meanly produced, and not memorably performed aside from Nielsen. But it does succeed as a consistently imagined world, where people live, work, rule and affairs of state take place. As I wrote previously here about seeing the film in 2007, “there is a keen sense of palace life going on while the central figures progressively, and madly, destroy one another”. Moreover, there is no sense at all of something translated from stage to screen. The best Shakespearean cinema is invariably where cinema comes first.

The Edition Filmmuseum DVD derives from the colour version (i.e. tinted and toned) discovered in 2005 and restored by the Deutsches Filminstitut. It comes with a new score by Michael Riessler which I found especially haunting and appropriate when I heard it in 2007. The release is a two-DVD set. Disc 1 is the film (110 mins). Disc 2 has Die Filmprimadonna (1913), starring Nielsen and directed by Urban Gad; Nielsen home movies, films on the restoration process and a short entitled Der elektronische Hamlet 2007 (2008).

Bioscope Newsreel no. 25

Paul Merton, a sign, and an orange

Another week has gone by, and silent films continues to make the headlines – almost literally so in the case of our first news story. Read on.

The continuing story of Zepped
Silent films made it through to the popular consciousness this week with the widely-publicised news of the upcoming (June 29th) auction of a curious 1916 film called Zepped (previously reported on by the Bioscope in detail). Amazingly the story made it to the main BBC news, plus a wide number of newspapers. The film, found on eBay, combines routine animation of the period with clips from Chaplin films. The ignorant claims being made in the press for what is a minor of work of passing interest to Chaplin experts and early animation buffs are frankly embarassing, though I dare say its owners will have the last laugh if they really do get the six-figure sum they are hoping for. Only if the figure includes pence, that’s what the Bioscope thinks… Read more.

Merton’s Hollywood
However, another instance of the popularisation of silent films has been surprisingly successful. Paul Merton’s earlier programmes on silent film comedy have been a bit of a mixed bag – enthusiastic but muddled. Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood, however, started off rather well last week, with an opinionated but informative and generally disciplined account of Hollywood’s formative years. We have quite high hopes of this evening’s second episode, which covers the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. Read more.

Napoleon’s maps
We have already enthused about The Cine-Tourist, a website on the mysterious and poetic connection between films and maps. Just up on the site is a page on the use of map imagery in Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927). It’s an engrossing and illuminating piece of close visual analysis, warmly recommended. Read more.

The balancing bluebottle
Those in the UK might like to listen out on Radio 4 this Sunday at 13:30 for a repeat of The Balancing Bluebottle, the engaging programme from 2009 on naturalist filmmaker F. Percy Smith, one of the great obscure filmmaker of the silent era. It’s presented by the Science Museum’s Tim Boon and the Bioscope makes a brief appearance, interviewed in a windy corner of Leicester Square. Read more.

The Bray Animation Project
A fine new website has been published by Tom Stathes dedicated to research into the 1913-1927 output of American animation studio Bray, producers of such series as Colonel Heeza Liar, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat, and featuring the work of Pat Sullivan, Max Fleischer, Pat Sullivan and John Bray himself. There is a studio history, filmography, ample illustrations and a discussion board. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Poor people

Screening the Poor 1888-1914

Two posts are coming up on two important DVD releases from that excellent label Edition Filmmuseum. Post number one is on an innovative two-DVD set of magic lantern slides and early films, Screening the Poor 1888-1914.

Cinema was the ‘poor man’s theatre’ (to use a common phrase of the time); it also spoke to and documented the lives of the poor. In doing so it built on a tradition of social concern filtered through visual entertainment that had its roots in the magic lantern. In church halls, schools and missions throughout the late Victorian period, audiences were presented with sentimental but often heart-rending tales of the hardship suffered by those at the lowest rung on the ladder. The showmen, lecturers and propagandists who put on such lantern shows swiftly adopted the cinematograph as an additional weapon in their armoury, with early projectors often capable of presenting both film and slides. This multimedia nature of early ‘cinema’ shows is well-known, but is seldom reflected in modern-day exhibition of early film, still less in DVD releases. And that is what makes Screening the Poor so unusual – it brings together the lantern and the cinematograph on DVD in a conscious echo of the programmes of the late 1890s/early 1900s. The blurb for the DVD explains this further:

Around 1900, the issues of poverty and poor relief were the source of heated controversy. This DVD illustrates in seven chapters how examinations of the ‘Social Question’ were presented in magic lantern slide sets and early films. On the screens of auditoriums, Sunday schools, music-halls, cinemas and churches, visitors could witness orphans freezing to death in the snow, drunkards plunging their families into misery and helpless old people begging for a scrap of bread. Audiences experienced poignant moving pictures in performances with music, singing and recitations. The
photographic and film industries delivered glass slide sets and films in very large runs on a variety of themes relating to poverty.

This DVD recalls the forgotten art of projection and presents it anew on the modern electronic screen: drawing on original images and using authentic projection equipment, Ensemble illuminago shows enchanting Victorian slide shows and films in a live musical performance at the Munich Film Museum. Digital slideshows reconstruct the interaction between slide sets und text recitals, and early silent films are accompanied with music as they were a century ago: piano and violin underscore the moods that find visual expression in the films.

Nowadays it is rather unusual to find both films and slide sets presented on one DVD. Around 1900 it was common knowledge that the “moving pictures” in a film had evolved from photographic slide sets. Showmen, touring lecturers, music-hall entrepreneurs and cinema operators often used both projection media alternately in their live shows.

It is also unusual to compile DVDs thematically, according to social themes, rather than in a form that reflects pure film history (such as the output of a studio, director or actor). So this is a curated DVD, and the words below are from the DVD booklet, written by Martin Loiperdinger and Ludwig Vogl-Bienek. Whether an item is a film or a set of magic lantern slides is identified at the start of each description. Often the same subject from the same literary source (particularly the poems of George R. Sims, a once highly popular and influential documenter of the lives of London’s poor) cross from lantern to cinematograph. So, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now …

Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris

DVD 1
Slumming

Charitable organisations and dedicated journalists decried the misery of the slums in industrial cities. ‘Slumming’ was the term used to describe tourist outings or philanthropic day-trips to witness the poverty. Those who eschewed direct confrontation could visit magic lantern shows or the cinema: the photographic and film industries provided a constant supply of new material covering diverse issues of the ‘Social Question’.

  • Magic Lantern: The Magic Wand (GB 1889). Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard. – During an excursion through the slums of London, an author hears the story of an 8-year-old girl who discovers a magical way to cope with her mother’s death.
  • Film: Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris / How the Poor Dine in Paris (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – The first film reportage about the ‘clochards’ of Paris: it is difficult to distinguish the extras acting in the film from the real homeless people.
  • Film: Le Violoniste della carità / The Two Violonists (IT 1910). Producer: Cines. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – Two elegant young ladies embark on a slumming adventure: they swap their clothes with two poor sisters and perform as street musicians in their place.
  • Film: La Tournée des Grands Ducs / Seeing the Real Thing (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé, Director: Yves Mirande, Cast: Armand Numès, Gaston Sylvestre, La Polaire. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano ) – This film parodies the slumming trips made by members of Paris high society. An acting troupe satisfies the demand for entertainment by playing ‘real Apaches’.

Children in Misery
The huge number of poor children was a central issue of the ‘Social Question’. They were not to blame for their wretched situation – and their need of help was obvious. Nonetheless, they were often suspected of being petty criminals. Slide shows and film screenings, however, usually presented impoverished children to their audiences as needy creatures deserving of help and affection.

  • Magic Lantern: Ora pro nobis (GB 1897). Producer: Bamforth, Text: A. Horspool, Music by M. Piccolomini. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Piano: Judith Herrmann – Ignored by passing churchgoers, an orphan girl freezes to death at her mother’s grave – an appeal to the Christian duty to provide help and alms to the poor.
  • Film: Le Bagne des gosses / Children’s Reformatory (FR 1907). Producer: Pathé. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – An orphan boy flees from a correctional institution in which children aged between eight and twelve are mistreated in the manner of prisoners in a penal colony.
  • Film: Bébé veut imiter St. Martin / Baby Pantomimes St. Martin (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé, Director: Louis Feuillade, Cast: Clément Mary. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Cinema’s very first child star gives a freezing girl half of his overcoat and learns that half a coat is of little help against the cold.
  • Magic Lantern: Billy’s Rose (GB 1888). Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – Death and salvation in the slums: a girl goes in search of a rose for her dying brother, but she freezes to death in the process and hands him the rose in heaven.

Child Labour
Impoverished children were made to work as street peddlers, shoe-shines, and messengers to help support their families. The labour unions, social reformers and charitable organisations were particularly critical of the perilous conditions faced by child labourers in factories.

  • Film: The Cry of the Children (US 1912). Producer: Thanhouser, Director: George O. Nichols, Cast: Marie Eline, Ethel Wright, James Cruze, Lila H. Chester, Text: Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1843). Score by Andrew Crow (Wurlitzer organ) – A moving appeal against child exploitation featuring highly realistic staged film footage. The story of a young girl’s death in a textile factory became a manifesto of the American reform movement against child labour.
  • Magic Lantern: The Little Match Girl (US 1905). Producer: McAllister, Text: Hans C. Andersen (1845), Images: Joseph Boggs Beale (1905). Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Karin Bienek
  • Film: The Little Match Girl – Print title: Het Luciferverkoopstertje (GB 1914). Producer: Neptune Films, Director: Percy Nash. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – The young street vendor in H.C. Andersen’s fairytale The Little Match Girl (1845) is one of the most famous and enduring icons of poverty. The story of her death and salvation has inspired countless book illustrations, magic lantern shows and film productions to the present day.

Rigadin a l’âme sensible

Charity and Social Care
Controversies concerning the justification, necessity and limits of aid surrounded the public discussion on the ‘Social Question’ from the beginning: able-bodied poor people of working age were generally suspected of being themselves to blame for their poverty due to negligence, idleness, or alcoholism, or even of deviously abusing
the benevolence shown to them. Slide sets and early films on the issue of poor relief addressed such prejudices – and also made fun of over-enthusiastic benefactors.

  • Film: Le Chemineau / Print title: De Zwerver (FR 1905). Producer: Pathé, Director: Albert Capellani, according to Victor Hugo, Les Misérables (1862). Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – A tramp who has stolen the holy silverware is acquitted. The pastor places charity before the law and claims that he had given the tramp the plundered goods. The missing scene at the end of this film can be seen on a postcard in the ROM section of this DVD.
  • Film: Rigadin a l’âme sensible / Whiffles Has a Sensitive Soul (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé / S.C.A.G.L.,Director: Georges Monca, Cast: Charles Prince, Gabrielle Chalon, Andrée Marly. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – In this comedy, our sympathy is not directed at the poor, but rather at the aristocratic benefactor who cannot bear to see suffering: he hands out all of his money – and even gives away most of the clothes on his back.
  • Magic Lantern: In the Workhouse (GB 1890). Producer: Bamforth, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – During Christmas celebrations at the workhouse, an old man attacks the British poor relief system: his sick wife had died of starvation the previous Christmas because the care authorities had ruthlessly stuck by their regulations.
  • Film: Christmas Day in the Workhouse (GB 1914). Producer: G. B. Samuelson Productions, Director: George W. Pearson, Text: George R. Sims. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – In the film version of this ballad, the old man dies just as he finishes his lament.
  • Film: Ahlbeck. Der Kaiser bei den Berliner Arbeiterkindern in dem von ihm gestifteten Heim / Ahlbeck. Wilhelm II visits a Working-Class Children’s Home (DE 1914). Producer: Eiko-Woche. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – At the Baltic Sea spa town of Ahlbeck on the island of Usedom, Kaiser Wilhelm II becomes convinced that playing in the sand of the dunes is beneficial to the recuperation of children.

Enter not the Dram Shop

DVD2
Drink and Temperance Movement
Alcoholism was often blamed as the cause of poverty. However, many social reformers emphasised that it was instead a consequence of poverty. In their war against the ‘demon alcohol’, the Temperance Movement relied on the persuasive power of projected images. Tales of drunken fathers who drove their families to ruin were part of the standard repertoire in early cinema and magic lantern shows.

  • Film: Manchester Band of Hope Procession (GB 1901). Producer: Mitchell and Kenyon. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – The Temperance Movement held street parades to rally support for their cause among the local populace.
  • Magic Lantern: Enter not the Dramshop (GB 1890). Unknown Producer. Text & Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek. – The pub threshold marks the crossroads between well-being and downfall: victims of alcohol are presented for purposes of pedagogical instruction. Medical diagrams illustrate the devastating effects of alcoholism on the human body.
  • Film: Les Victimes de l’alcoolisme / Victims of Drink (FR 1902). Producer: Pathé, Director: Ferdinand Zecca. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin) – Based on Émile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir, this film depicts the gradual decline of a labourer who starts out as a decent family man and ends up an inmate of a madhouse wracked by delirium tremens.
  • Film: Une Vie gaspillée (Print title) / A Life Wasted (DK 1910). Producer: Continental Films. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin). Original title not known. – A drunkard’s daughter likewise falls victim to alcoholism and freezes to death because her parents refuse to take her in.
  • Magic Lantern: Buy Your Own Cherries! (GB 1905). Producer: Bamforth, Text: John W. Kirton. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – The landlady of a pub refuses a carpenter the cherries that are standing on the bar. He thus renounces alcohol, instead spending his money on his family, and starts his own business.
  • Film: Buy Your Own Cherries! (GB 1904). Producer: Robert W. Paul. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – The film version foreshortens the ending: instead of continuing to drink, the carpenter buys gifts for his wife and children.
  • Magic Lantern: Dustman‘s Darling (GB 1894). Producer: Bamforth, Text: Matthew B. Moorhouse. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – At the door of a tavern, a widowed dustman tells the story of how his little daughter inspired him to give up drinking.
  • Film: A Drunkard’s Reformation (US 1909). Producer: American Biograph (US 1909), Director: David W. Griffith, Cast: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Adele DeGarde, Robert E. Harron, Florence Lawrence, Mack Sennett. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – While visiting the theatre with his young daughter, a drunkard is cured of his alcoholism. By cross-cutting between the Temperance Movement play on the stage and the reactions of the father and his daughter in the auditorium, D.W. Griffith makes visible the psychological process of an internal catharsis.

Don’t go down the mine, Dad

Perils of Wage Labour
Poor people who were able to work received no support. The working classes were forced to take on poorly-paid and dangerous jobs in order to survive. Mining accidents spread fear and terror among mining communities. Sensational special effects on the screen, such as firedamp explosions, helped reinforce demands by the labour unions and charitable organisations for safer working conditions and improved support for surviving dependants.

  • Magic Lantern: A Bunch of Primroses (GB 1889). Hersteller / Producer: York & Son, Text: George R. Sims. Reconstructed by Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Speaker: Mervyn Heard – A bunch of primroses lies on the death bed of a young female worker and tells of how she blossomed in the country and met an early death doing factory work in an industrial city.
  • Film: Au Pays noir / Tragedy in a Coal Mine (FR 1905). Producer: Pathé, Director: Ferdinand Zecca. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & viola) – Mining accidents used to be part of daily life for miners: Pathé, the leading film company of the time, condemned this scandalous situation by releasing this melodramatic social reportage which was shot partly on location at a mining site and partly on a recreated set in a film studio.
  • Film: Die Beerdigung der Opfer des Grubenunglücks auf der Zeche Radbod bei Hamm i. W., den 16. Nov. 1908 / Funeral of the Victims of the Radbod Mine Desaster near Hamm in Westfalia, Nov 16, 1908 (DE 1908). Producer: Welt-Kinematograph. Score by Günter A.Buchwald (piano) – The mourners pass by the camera, silently following the coffins of colleagues killed in the accident: they start to move – they are alive! They escaped with their lives once more …
  • Magic Lantern: Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad (GB 1910). Producer: Bamforth, Text: Robert Donnelly, Score by Will Geddes. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Score by Judith Herrmann (piano) – Dramatic slides illustrate a popular miners’ song: the sick son senses an impending accident and thus saves his father’s life.

Escape
Magic Lantern shows and early films about the ‘Social Question’ rarely tell of a successful escape from poverty, and the elimination of poverty is not an issue. The flood of emigrants was addressed by slide sets used by charitable organisations to prepare the migrants for an uncertain future. However, other means of escape from poverty were at hand: salvation in the afterlife or in the world of fantasy.

  • Film: The Two Roses (USA 1910). Print title: Les Deux roses, Producer: Thanhouser, Cast: Marie Eline, Frank Hall Crane, Anna Rosemond. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Tony Prolo is a track worker, and his son is run over by a car driven by the company boss: the boy recovers and the worker’s family is given a nice new home as a gift.
  • Film: Deux petits Jésus / The Foundling (FR 1910). Producer: Pathé / S.C.A.G.L., Director: Georges Denola, Cast: Jeanne Delvair, Jeanne Grumbach, Georges Paulais. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano) – Abandoned by the father of her child, a young mother is confronted with ignorance when she goes begging: in desperation she seeks refuge in an abbey church, lays her baby in the nativity crib – and dies.
  • Magic Lantern: The Emigrant Ship (GB 1890). Unknown Producer. Live Performance: illuminago – Karin Bienek, Ludwig Vogl-Bienek, Score by Judith Herrmann (piano) – This magic lantern show about the departure and sinking of an emigrant ship was extremely popular due to its motion and dissolve special effects. It is accompanied with emigrant songs, slides of the blessings of the New World and a dazzling light show – the Chromatrope …
  • Film: Geheimnisvolle Streichholzdose / A Match Box Mystery (DE 1910). Deutsche Bioscop, Director: Guido Seeber. Score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano, viola & violin) – A man without legs sells matches: in a surprising animation, the matches group together to form a variety of forms, until ultimately a small windmill made of matches burns down.

This is an excellent compilation, which illuminates the visual media of the late 19th/early 20th centuries and illuminates what concerned society and how it chose to express that concern. Like the best of the magic lantern and cinematograph shows, it imparts a strong impression upon the mind, teaching us of the sorrows of an age not so far away. I hope the DVD finds its way to new audiences.