Pordenone promises

Oliver (Jackie Coogan) meets the Artful Dodger (Edouard Trebaol) in Oliver Twist (1922), from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

It’s nine months away, but for those of you planning your year ahead, it’s well worth noting the programme for the Pordenone silent film festival, for which quite a lot of detail has been advertised already. The festival takes place 6-13 October, and very interesting the lead theme is Charles Dickens, whose bicentenary the world is celebrating. The Giornate del Cinema Muto normally goes in for programmes on performers, filmmakers or national output, but a couple of years ago it broke the mould with its Sherlock Holmes and related detectives strand, and now Dickens is the main attraction for the 31st festival. It’s a welcome widening of the festival’s approach.

Other strands promised are rediscovered Italian films from the Komiya Collection of Tokyo and the Desmet Collection of Amsterdam, the Ukranian/Swedish acress Anna Sten (the rival to Garbo who never quite was, but someone you sense is ripe for rediscovery), German animation (Lotte Reiniger, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann etc), more once again from Australia’s excellent Corrick collection of early films, and the Canon Revisited strand of classics more read about than seen by most, such as Storm over Asia, Ménilmontant and Hands Up! Here are descriptions of some of the strands from the Pordenone site:

During the silent era about a hundred films were made from the works of Charles Dickens. These were produced, not only in his native country and in the USA, unsurprisingly, but also by companies from Italy, France, Germany, Hungary, Russia and, especially, in Denmark. What further proof is needed of the international popularity of these stories and characters, the importance of these writings on the development of cinematic story-telling and the influence of this work on the greatest of film-makers: Griffith, Chaplin, Eisenstein? For Dickens has been adapted for cinema and subsequently for television arguably more than any other great writer. Many of these early productions are now, unfortunately, lost; nevertheless, nearly a third of the silent films can still be found in archives throughout the world.

Dickens was born in 1812 and, during his bicentennial year, the continuing significance of the greatest English novelist will be celebrated throughout the world. So it is entirely appropriate that in 2012 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto should present a programme dedicated to silent versions of this great body of work. An extensive retrospective will include both rarely seen films and some that have recently been restored. The earliest extant adaptation is Scrooge, Or Marley’s Ghost, R.W. Paul’s version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ made in 1901, in which cinematic ‘special effects’ had to be mobilised to represent the temporal and psychological complexities of the original story. The last Dickens silent was The Only Way, Herbert Wilcox’s version of ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’ made in 1925, providing today’s spectator with an insight into the acting and staging techniques of late 19th century theatre. In between there are films from companies such as Gaumont, Vitagraph, Edison, Thanhouser, Hepworth and from directors such as Walter Booth, J. Stuart Blackton, Maurice Elvey, Marton Garas, Frank Lloyd. Some might object that these are of varying quality. Taken together, however, they chart a history of developing approaches to cinematic adaptations of literary texts. Perhaps the most exciting revelation in this bicentennial year will be long-awaited restorations of A.W. Sandberg’s Danish films for Nordisk which lovers of both Dickens and the silent screen will finally be able to assess. Eisenstein went so far as to claim that the very prose style of Dickens somehow prefigured the language of cinematic narration. In 2012 we look forward to engaging with this fruitful, contentious assertion.

The 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto will further pursue its mission to retrieve long lost masterworks of Italian cinema. Italian film history is documented better than any other, but a comparatively small proportion of the actual works are known to audiences. We are working both with Italian archives and the great international collections to retrieve works that have lain, often unrecognized, in the vaults. Last year Pordenone audiences saw hitherto unseen Italian films restored by the archives of Amsterdam, Rome and Turin. This year we are privileged to have the first sight of the Italian treasures from the Komiya Collection of Tokyo, opened up to the West for the first time in Pordenone, and a further instalment of the extensive Italian holdings of the Desmet Collection of Amsterdam.

ANNA STEN (1908-1993)
Swedish actress who was known as “the Russian Garbo”. With a startlingly photogenic beauty and a wide dramatic range that easily took in comedy and high drama, she was lucky or shrewd in always choosing fine directors and highly original subjects. This complete retrospective includes her debut in Boris Barnet’s classic comedy The Girl with the Hatbox, and Yakov Protazanov’s The White Eagle, in which Sten appears alongside two of the most legendary figures of Russian theatre, Vasili Kachalov and Vsevolod Meyerhold. Most remarkable is the international premiere of the rediscovered My Son, for 80 years believed lost, and directed by Yevgeni Chervyakov, long forgotten but now recognized as one of the most original and influential masters of the Soviet cinema. Sten’s last silent film, Lohnbuchhalter Kremke was shown, to an enthusiastic critical reception, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in January 2011. Sten was subsequently taken to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn, who planned to make her a star to eclipse Garbo and Dietrich. Her accent was against her, and though it lasted until 1964, her Hollywood career was undistinguished.

At the 2012 Giornate del Cinema Muto, the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin will present two programs of German silent animation films. In Germany, animation received its initial boost with propaganda films made to support the war effort in World War I. The post-war period saw a proliferation of animation artists, and in the 1920s the variety of animation techniques used was greatly extended: hand-drawn, stop-motion with models, cut silhouette, experiments with molten wax. Avant-garde artists like Walter Ruttmann and Hans Richter used animation techniques for groundbreaking abstract films. Most animation films however were made for a rather baser reason: to sell things. Yet the illustrators involved in making animated commercials succeeded in creating elegant, humorous little masterpieces that often quite transcend their original purpose. The Pordenone programs illustrate a wide selection of animation and colouring techniques, with work by the famous masters like Hans Fischerkoesen and Lotte Reiniger alongside lesser-known but no less gifted graphic artists.

All praise to the Pordenone people for unveiling so much of the programme so early, but such promises do help for those who need to plan ahead – especially those wondering whether to make 2012 the first year that they visit the festival. Already it would seem to be more than worth your while.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day six

Image of Buster Keaton from the Giornate del Cinema Muto’s trailer, animated by Richard Williams

We have reached day six of our reports on the 2011 Pordenone silent film festival (Thursday October 6th for those of you taking notes), and our undercover reporter The Mysterious X is showing no signs of flagging as he enters the Teatro Verdi once more…

Crumbs, Thursday already … in at 9.00am for a Disney short, Tommy Tucker’s Tooth (USA 1922) a semi-animated children’s instructional on dental hygiene. Neatly done, but the main point of interest now is that the healthily-grown kid with the good teeth of 1922 would today be being filmed at an obesity clinic, with a stern voiceover …

Then Klostret I Sendomir (The Secret of the Monastery) (Sweden 1920), a Victor Sjöström costume drama, part of The Canon Revisited strand. An elderly penitent monk tells a pair of guests the tale of the monastery’s foundation, by an Earl who discovers the betrayal of his wife’s adultery with her own cousin, and that his beloved son was not actually his. Confronting her, she initially deflects the affair onto her maid, before being given a choice; either she kills the kid, or she dies. Unexpectedly, she goes to do just that, but the Earl stops her at the last second; not doing so was her last chance of redemption, she is told, and she is duly despatched with the same dagger she was going to use. The son (who had already survived an earlier attempt at defenestration by the Earl) is taken to a woodcutter with some funds, and we are told the Earl sells up and founds the monastery. There is then a twist ending, that you can see coming from about five minutes from the start of the film.

It’s a competent enough film, but not vintage Sjöström. The actresses playing the countess and her maid were excellent, and stole the film despite – or perhaps because – they were playing irredeemable characters.

Tragedy of a different kind followed; the newly restored The Great White Silence (UK 1924) presented with live piano from Gabriel Thibaudeau, as opposed to the modern and not uncontroversial score on the BFI release (which I think is fine, personally). Gabriel, class act that he is, did a fabulous job on it.

Herbert Ponting’s documentary account of the doomed 1910-12 Scott Antarctic expedition looks stunning on the big screen – and despite being out commercially it drew a large and appreciative house. And the end is no less affecting for knowing it all in advance. It’s only now I’m wondering quite how the endtitles with their “Dulce et Decorum est” message would have played to the 1924 audiences, then fully aware of the futility of WW1, and not just the carnage.

Sound film!!! Sound on film at that … but from 1922, and Denmark, the experiments of pioneer Sven Berglund (Tonaufnahmen Berglund), who had demonstrated synchronised sound-on-film using two strips of 35mm the year before.

These were presented visually, multiple vertical lines varying in thickness with the volume, I assumed, looking like something from Len Lye; while the sound, read by laser in a lab and re-recorded on to the now-standard format, played out. As the film progressed we hear distant voices, distant music, until eventually, and very clearly, we get an English (American?) male voice reciting The Lord’s Prayer. For ’22, very impressive.

As was an unscheduled re-screening of Le Voyage dans la lune (France 1902) with a more traditional piano accompaniment from Donald Sosin. Yep, that was much more like it. (Take your word for it. – Ed.)

Poster for Eliso(USSR 1928), from http://www.cinematurkey.com

After lunch, and in for Eliso (Georgia SSR 1928), the day’s Georgian film; and the best of all of a very good bunch. Set again amongst the peoples of the high, remote mountains, but this time during the Tsarist era, this was a tale of love against religious divides, of cultural identity (positively – this was two years before Khabarda) as well as an element of “This is how bad it used to be”.

During a period of Russian expansionism a Moslem Chechen village is being deported en masse to Turkey to make way for Kazakhs; the scion of a nearby Christian village, in love with a Moslem girl, offers to help; the decision was a corrupt one. After a neat swordplay sequence worthy of Doug Sr. himself, our hero forces the general to cancel the deportation – but it has already started, after an ambitious couple tricked the village, into signing a petition for deportation thinking they were doing the opposite. The hero’s Moslem girlfriend is sent back from the caravan to burn their old village, to deprive the Kazakhs of its free use, nearly killing him in the process, as he was searching for her there. Back with the villagers, a woman dies in childbirth; this starts a a state of mourning, exacerbated by their miserable situation. Then a remarkable thing, and a remarkable sequence, happens. The village leader, elderly but striking and dignified, starts to dance: I read it as as a moment of supreme defiance; we have lost everything except what we can carry, and our culture, our identity. And we dance.

Slowly, very slowly, the tearing of hair stops. They watch him. A musician starts playing; hands are clapped; more dancers start. Gradually – five minutes perhaps – it becomes the most exhilarating dance sequence you’ve ever seen, young and old, male and female, hand-held camera roaming amongst them, the pace of the editing accelerating until the climax of sub-second flashed images. It actually surpasses the famous Coalhole sequence in Kean. All credit to the musicians; Günter Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius roared away, absolutely nailing the sequence. Please, someone, book this combination again; the topicality of the film, and the power the musicians bring to it, would wow any festival.

And straight into the second programme of Japanese animation; generally excellent, but not quite reaching the heights of Programme 1 … it mainly concerned the work of Noburi Ofuji, who used the cut-out technique applied to Chiyugami, the traditional Japanese printed paper, to create his comic characters. Pioneering, quirky and fun, also using sound-on-disc in the late silent period (or possibly animating to pre-existing records, I was none too clear) but they didn’t grab me as deeply. Others, from Ogino, were abstract patterns animated; very reminiscent of European avant-garde animation art of the thirties, the colour examples were, for want of a better word, particularly trippy. The final item was a 1937 Kodascope ‘How it’s Made’ short, Shiksai Manga No Dekiru Made (Japan 1937) showing cel animation in Japan. A good end to a fascinating strand … potentially the last Japanese strand as little remains that hasn’t been seen here over the years.

Despite my interest in early aviation I skipped the one-hour documentary on Santos-Dumont’s 50-second Mutoscope reel of him and Charles Rolls together, Santos Dumont Pré-cinesta? (Brazil 2010) … I expect Mr Urbanora to be aghast at such negligence, given his equal interest in the subject. (I am shocked. And saddened.- Ed.)

Evening, and a Disney, Jack the Giant Killer (USA 1923), before Fiaker nr. 13 (Fiacre No. 13) (Austria/Germany 1926), a Michael Kertesz/Curtiz film set in Paris despite its Austrian/German co-production status. This was a film with real charm, easily the best of the strand, and much more the sort of film to get you noticed by Hollywood; a melodramatic tale of the abandoned baby, daughter of a millionaire who doesn’t know she exists, but has been trying to find her now-dead mother. The girl grows up as the daughter of the horse-cab driver who found her. Apart from the charm, it features wonderful performances from the character actors, great atmosphere and excellent use of the Paris locations – it was highly reminiscent of Feyder classics like Crainquebille – my highest praise.

Thomas Meighan (right) in The Canadian (USA 1926), from http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com

The last film was a real treat too; from perennially underrated William Beaudine, The Canadian (USA 1926); a drama, but with seriously good comic elements within. Set in the broad wheatfields of Alberta, its subject is the problems and practicalities of marriage in small disparate communities, where your nearest neighbour may be a day’s ride away. Thomas Meighan, his name above the title, is the foreman at a friend’s spread, but although he has his own smallholding sorted out, it’s not quite ready.

The farmer has a sister, coming over to live with him having lost the last of her English family; she is unused to both the more basic farm life, and to doing anything practical; when called upon to help out in the kitchen, she is not just clueless, but can’t help giving the impression that it’s all rather beneath her. After clashes – epic, and with some killer lines – with the sister-in-law played by the wonderful Dale Fuller, with the harvest in, and the foreman announcing his departure, she takes a surprising step; the sister offers to be his wife if he will take her away. They marry, and the tone of the film changes utterly. It becomes The Wind – without the wind. The parallels are extraordinary – and this is two years before the Sjöström classic. Here, the physical rejection of the husband is followed (we assume) by a rape perpetrated by the husband rather than a third party; there is a similar comic-relief cowhand, here played by a nearly young Charles Winninger; there is a crisis where hubby rides to the rescue in both films; and a similar Damascene conversion in the wives’ attitude when both farmers have raised funds to send them away.

The Canadian beat The Wind to the screen; one wonders which source novel was published first … and then we remember that The Wind‘s happy ending is not in the novel at all. The acting in The Canadian is solid, believable, but doesn’t have the grandeur of Gish and Hanson; but highly recommended if you’re interested in the prolific career of William Beaudine, who made great films in all sorts of genres, and yet doesn’t receive very much attention.

Sterling stuff once again from our sharp-eyed reporter. Look out soon for the report on day seven (the penultimate day), when we shall discover Lily Damita wearing not much more except jewellery, Eleonora Duse in a bonnet, Gene Gauniter in Ireland, and not one but two Betty Compsons.

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

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

Pordenone diary 2011 – day three

The Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Day three of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, and things kick off with another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, The Four Musicians of Bremen (USA 1922). Though still quite basic in style and reliant on repetitive action, this is a big step up from yesterday’s Little Red Riding Hood. It has little to do with the original Grimm brothers story, instead being an excuse for jazz-inspired invention (notably a dancing fish lured out of the water by the musicians’ playing), delighting in the self-contained world of nonsense that the animation medium permits, where any object can take a life of its own, and where dream logic rules.

Our Georgian film for the day is Amerikanka (Georgia SSR 1930), which sounds like it is going to be fun just from the title. However it is not some sort of satire on things American, which I am expecting, but rather the dramatic and true tale of how a printing press was set-up in a Moscow shop basement in 1905 by Bolsheviks during the first Russian revolution – ‘Amerikanka’, or ‘American Lady’, turns out to be a name for a type of small Russian printing press. This is almost a great film; with better handling from director Leo Esakya it would have been one. It has a startlingly dramatic beginning, with two escaped prisoners in the snow, one of whom is shot dead, while the other is chained to him. How does he escape? We’re not told; he just does, and it is dramatic slips like this that confuse the audience and hamper the film. But anyway we follow the escapee to Moscow, where he and colleagues set up the printing press to produce revolutionary pamphlets which are secretly read all over the city. The authorities eventually track down the printing press and a battle ensues, but the narrative is not as important as the dyanamic style, in which the text/images generated by the press take over the screen, serving as sloganeering intertitles, turning the film itself into a revolutionary broadside. Form and intent merge as one, though one still wants a stronger grip on the story if we are to be moved and not just impressed. But a remarkable film all told.

The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), from Cineteca Nazionale

We have already written at length about The Soldier’s Courtship (UK 1896), the earliest British fiction film made for projection (I choose my words with care), recently discovered in the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome, where they have held the film for years but only recently established its identity. I will discuss the film in more depth in Day Four (a presentation is to be given on the film’s restoration), but just to say here that the film is a fleeting delight. The soldier and his sweetheart sit down on a bench and enthusiastically embrace; a woman of mature years sits down on the bench beside them and refuses to budge; his sweetheart remonstrates with him and encourages him to take action; he tips the woman off the bench and she leaves in a huff; the couple are triumphant, kiss, and share a cigar. The couple are played by variety theatre stalwarts Fred Storey and Julie Seale, and it is Seale’s bright, enthusiastic performance that stay in the memory. OK, it’s just a silly gag, but the Pordenone audience laughs at it – and then laughs all the more at the huge list of credits that follow the one-minute film (credits for its restoration, of course). More on The Soldier’s Courtship on the morrow.

We are in the Early Cinema programme, but before we have the main body of films, there is another British discovery, this time from the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands. The Indian Woman’s Pluck (UK 1912) is a Cecil Hepworth production employing the classical Rescued by Rover formula. A baby is kidnapped and the thieves are tracked down my the family’s faithful Indian wet nurse (played by Ruby Belasco). It’s rather well paced and shot by director Frank Wilson, with the nurse tracing her prey by following drops of blood down the garden path, until the child is returned too hurriedly and the nurse explains her actions with a bit too much gesturing.

The main part of this programme is another collection of one-reelers from the extraordinary Corrick collection from the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. We have been treated to gems from this collection at Pordenone for a number of years now. The Corrick family of Australian travelling entertainers included films in their early 1900s shows, and they chose with care, because the quality of the titles in the archive they have handed down to us is consistently high. It is not going to be possible to go through them all here (the memory fades and the notes written in the dark have become all the more indecipherable). Stand-out titles include an awe-inspiring view of British battleships in a line at sea in Charles Urban’s Torpedo Attack on H.M.S. ‘Dreadnought’ (UK 1907); a spirited Pathé film on tobogganing down the Cresta Run, Sports d’Hiver: Le Tobogan (France 1905), so edited to make it look like the toboggan come down the ice in close succession when in fact one does not start until another has finished, a real sports film in its cutting and dynamism; [Sailor and Cop in Carpet?] (c.1904), an unidentified comedy, clearly British, in which a policeman and sailor argue, the former hides behind a carpet hanging on a line, then the sailor and a maid roll up the carpet and beat the policeman; a fascinating Edison proto-Western, On the Western Frontier (USA 1909) in which the use of painted backdrops for interiors and exteriors give a strong sense of the Western’s stage origins – the story is inpenetrable, but we can see cinematic ideas dimly evolve, though it would be more impressive if this were a 1904 film rather than 1909; an impressive Elephants Working in a Burmese Forest (Australia 1908), filmed by the Corricks themselves, which is notably absorbing; The Fakir and the Footpads (UK 1906), a Robert Paul trick film most engaging for including a Finchley road sign (a local signification from the filmmaker); and Personal (USA 1904), the famous Edison film which introduced the comedy chase genre (sixty years ahead of Benny Hill).

We head out for coffee and an agreeable discussion about early aviation films, then start the afternoon with a trio of films from the Shostakovich & FEKS strand. FEKS stands for the Factory of the Eccentric Actor, the avant garde acting troupe established by directors Grigori Koszintsev, Leonid Trauberg and others and dedicated to bringing together popular dramatic forms (music hall, Chaplin, circus, commedia dell’arte, Keystone etc) in an exuberant kind of performance that naturally had a manifesto and an -ism to its name – Eccentricism. They put on stage productions and they made films, and Shostakovich wrotes scores for a number of those films.

An early film production, before Shostakovich joined them, was Chyortovo Koleso (The Devil’s Wheel) (USSR 1926). Many greatly admired this tale (with reel three missing) of a sailor on shore leave who becomes mixed up with a Petrograd underworld gang, led by a stage magician called ‘The Question Man’. So I wish I could report more enthusiastically about it. It has some bravura fairground sequences (including the ‘devil’s wheel’ itself), and it all ends with an exciting battle, but looking beyond the style I find little to engage me (I even doze off for a while in the middle), and curiously I find more impressive a collection of fragments from the film which follows after, which may be outtakes or tinting tests. Divorced from narative, the fragments somehow highlight the directors’ vision more effectively; indeed the way in which they hide any story makes the connections between them seem all the more mysterious and inviting.

But what a treat now follows. We have a screen test for Novyi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1927). The subject is Raisa Garshnek, who was a 17-year-old Sovkino laboratory employee. She didn’t get the lead part (they gave her a bit part instead), and seeing the screen test we can see why, but what is wonderful is that she is still with us, and we see a video interview with her, now aged 101. She has kept hold of the screen test all these years (the only surviving screen test from the Soviet silent film era), and brightly tells us of her time at Sovkino, casually mentioning that it was she who painted the famous red flag at the end of Battleship Potemkin. You don’t expect there still to be a human connection between today and a film which is now so iconic you cannot really believe that real people actually worked on it.

Kobutori (which translates as His Snatched-Off Lump), from http://www.digital-meme.com

Next up is the first of two programmes of Japanese animation. Of course, these days everyone knows something about Japanese animation, and Studio Ghibli is one of the best-known film production companies anywhere. This programme takes us to the roots of anime and the scarcely-known early history of Japanese animation. The earliest surviving Japanese animation film dates from 1917, though in 2005 a hand-drawn fragment dating from before 1912 was found (not thought to have been released commercially). The Japanese animation films of the silent era are both familiar, in that they adopt basic techniques employed by American animation studios of the period, and strange, in that they take their films in entirely different directions – in theme, narrative, design and emphasis. They don’t look like later anime films (no large round eyes), but their very difference to the Western view gives them an affinity with the present-day work of Miyazaki and co.

I must refer you to the excellent notes by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström in the Pordenone 2011 catalogue, as without the context they provide the films you will only have my impressionistic, sometimes puzzled notes, because I cannot say that I always enjoyed the films that much. So we start with Namakura Gatana (Japan 1917), a mixture of rudimentary cut-out and silhouette animation about a samurai with a blunt sword, and Urashima Taro (Japan 1918), based on a folktale about a fisherman visiting the undersea domain of the Emperor of the Sea after rescuing a turtle, characterised by some elegant line, both of which were rediscovered in 2008 (something we reported at the time). The use of traditional stories and historical themes recur in what follows and distinguish Japanese early animation from what was being produced elsewhere. Kanimanji Engi (Japan 1924) is a rather creepy, unworldly fable about crabs who rescue a girl from a snake, made with silhouette animation. Some of the crabs die, indication of a bleaker attitude to life that characterises some of these films, certainly a long way off from Disney’s peppy, positive Laugh-o-Grams.

Ubasateyama (Japan 1925) tells of an old woman whose great widom enables her to solve riddles; Chappurin to Kugan (c.1921-25) is an artless oddity about which little is known. It has a cartoon Jackie Coogan visiting Japan (Chaplin appears only briefly), and in common with a number of these films it seems hard to judge for whom it was made – it seems to be equally lacking in appeal for children and adults. Sanbiki no Koguma-san (Japan 1931), or Three Little Bears, promises a more Disney-like theme, but though it has a similar combination of animals and travel through surreal adventures, it has a lot less sugar to it (my notes refer to children weeping when the bears melt a snowman – or was it the bears themselves that melted?).

Kobutori (Japan 1929) pretty much sums things up for me – who else who have considered even for a moment making an animation film about two old men disfigured by lumps on their faces? It’s a moral tale of two men who dance before odd bird-like creatures in the hope of losing their lumps; the good man is rewarded, the bad man ends up with two lumps. The artwork is fine and the narrative well-handled, but its sheer oddness I find bewildering. Another animation, another moral fable: Futatsu no Sekai (Japan 1929) was produced by the Ministry of Education and is based on the familiar Grasshopper and the Ant story. It contrasts the industry of those insects who work in summer with bourgeois idlers who, unprepared for winter time, fall into hardship, misery and even disfigurement. We are again reminded how life is unkind; Uncle Walt’s fables only tell us to have happy dreams. We finish off with Oira No Yakyu (Japan 1930), a spoof on the Japanese passion for baseball in a game played between rabbits and badgers (who look more like beavers to me). It starts off like an American animation (albiet technically inferior by far), then drifts off into more characteristic vein when the ball is knocked out into the countryside to be devoured by a frog.

An interesting evening’s programme awaits, but I head off for supper and engrossing discussion, which touches on film archive politics, Creative England, the British Film Institute, the Lumière brothers, visual sociology, the BBC, the Digital Public Space, home movies, federated databases, the Delhi Durbar, the challenges presented to translators by rapid-talking film academics, YouTube, programming early cinema, the British Library, magic lanterns, showmanship, film lecturers, scholarship, CCTV, film lecturers, digitising film journals, and much else besides. And all that takes up five hours, and so the day ends.

Please return soon for our report on day four, when we shall have offer you train travel with a hobo, a man suckled by a dog, a woman living underground, and an entire theatre quivering in horror at the sounds of the 21st century.

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

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!

The Zoetrope lives!

Phonotrope animation by Jim Le Fevre made in collaboration with DJ Malcolm Goldie

A favourite website of mine is Jim Le Fevre, the personal site of a British freelance animator. Aside from his standard animation work, Jim Le Fevre is a focal point for what has become a whole school of film artists working with what was once called pre-cinema technology to explore new forms of animation.

It works like this. The Zoetrope was an optical toy devised in the 1830s which presenting a strip of successive images around the inside of a drum. When the drum was revolved, viewing through slits in the side created the illusion of a single moving image. Le Fevre’s reinterpretation of this he originally called the (take a deep breath) Phonographantasmascope and now, a little more practically, calls the Phonotrope. For this he used a record player (revolving at 45 rpm) combined with a video camera shooting at 25 frames per second. By placing images or objects on the revolving turntable, and then playing with assorted variations on the basic set-up, some extraordinary animations emerge.

Here, for example, is Le Fevre demonstrating the process at the Flatpack Festival in 2009:

Le Fevre has a page on his website dedicated to the work of other animators and video artists working with their own variations on the Phonotrope idea. The level of invention is outstanding. You must visit his site (or follow his blog for regular updates) to see a fuller list of names working in this area, but here are few examples to whet the appetite (with links to the artists’ personal websites).

Retchy (aka Graeme Hawkins) uses balsa wood and a turntable to create what he calls 3D Zoetrope Sine Waves:

This extraordinary work is by Sculpture, who are Reuben Sutherland (animator) and Dan Hayhurst (music). They recently released a picture disc LP, ‘Rotary Signal Emitter’ and the video shows the disc being played:

Clemens Kogler calls his version of the technique Phonovideo. This ingenious video was created with two turntables, cameras, a videomixer and prints on cardboard.

Simon Oosterdijk has produced this brief but haunting video with 3D running figures on his turntable (sound design by Paul Gerring):

Here is David Wilson with a deluxe version of the technique made for a pop video (Moray McLaren, ‘We Got Time’). Everything you see in this video was created in camera.

On a humbler but no less inventive level is Tim Wheatley’s inspired use of a bicycle wheel instead of a turntable to create what he calls the Cyclotrope:

What is so pleasing to see in these videos is the continuation of the Victorian delight in motion recaptured. Narrative, or photographic realism aren’t required (though some have started to introduce both). All that is needed to engross us is a repeated motion, the very basics of the inanimate brought to life. It takes you back to the wonder that is the motion picture. What has been done with the medium since 1896 is all very well, but it’s just extending the basic idea to pass the time. Go back to that primal capture and replaying of motion, and you have the eureka moment played over and over again. Look, it moves!

I must just show you one more – Eric Dyer‘s ‘The Bellows March’. Motion pictures in their purest form.

France’s finest

Kino Lorber are releasing a second DVD set of Gaumont films. The first, Gaumont Treasures vol. 1(1897-1913), featured films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, and was effectively a cut-down version of a deluxe box set issued by Gaumont in France. Now Gaumont Treasures vol. 2, 1908-1916 is to be released on 19 April, featuring the work of Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder. Again it is based on a more extensive French original release (six discs), but the Kino release alone looks sensational – three discs, just under 600 minutes of film, and containing some of the most creative films of the early cinema period. Cohl was the first master of the animated film, Durand produced surrealist comedies and adventure dramas, and Feyder made films of surpassing elegance and wit. There are works from other filmmakers, examples of synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s hauntingly beautiful three-colour process.

This is the full list of films (English titles only):

DVD 1: Emile Cohl
Fantasmagoria (1908, 2 min.)
The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908, 2 min.)
Drama at the Puppets’ House (1908, 3 min.)
The Magic Hoop (1908, 5 min.)
The Little Soldier Who Became a God (1908, 4 min.)
The Boutdebois Brothers (1908, 2 min.)
Transfigurations (1909, 6 min.)
Let’s Be Sporty (1909, 5 min.)
Japanese Fantasy (1909, 1 min.)
The Happy Microbes (1909, 4 min.)
Modern Education (1909, 3 min.)
The Living Fan (1909, 4 min.)
Spanish Clair de Lune (1909, 4 min.)
The Next Door Neighbors (1909, 4 min.)
Crowns (1909, 5 min.)
Delicate Porcelains (1909, 3 min.)
Monsieur Clown Among the Lilliputians(1909, 4 min.)
Comic Mutations (1909, 3 min.)
Matrimonial Shoes (1909, 5 min.)
The Enchanted Spectacles (1909, 5 min.)
Affairs of the Heart (1909, 4 min.)
Floral Frameworks (1910, 5 min.)
The Smile-o-Scope (1910, 5 min.)
Childish Dreams (1910, 5 min.)
En Route (1910, 6 min.)
The Mind of the Café Waiter (1910, 5 min.)
Master of a Fashionable Game (1910, 4 min.)
Petit Chantecler (1910, 7 min.)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules (1910, 7 min.)
Petit Faust (1910, 5 min.)
The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910, 6 min.)
The Four Little Tailors (1910, 7 min.)
Art’s Infancy (1910, 4 min.)
The Mysterious Fine Arts (1910, 5 min.)
The Persistent Salesman (1910, 8 min.)
A History of Hats (1910, 5 min.)
Nothing Is Impossible for Man (1910, 6 min.)
Mr. Crack (1910, 5 min.)
Bébé’s Masterpiece (1910, 4 min.)
Music-mania (1910, 5 min.)

Original music by Bernard Lubat

DVD 2: Jean Durand
Calino’s Baptism (1911, 3 min.)
Calino Wants to Be a Cowboy (1911, 6 min.)
Zigoto and the Affair of the Necklace (1911, 8 min.)
Calino the Love Tamer (1912, 6 min.)
Zigoto’s Outing With Friends (1912, 5 min.)
Oxford vs. Martiques (1912, 4 min.)
Onésime Goes to Hell (1912, 7 min.)
Calino, Station Master (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime, Clockmaker (1912, 5 min.)
Onésime vs. Onésime (1912, 8 min.)
Zigoto Drives a Locomotive (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime Gets Maried … So Does Calino (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime: Calino’s Inheritance (1913, 1 min.)
Onésime Loves Animals (1913, 6 min.)
Onésime, Tamer of Men and Horses (1913, 13 min.)
Onésime and the Heart of a Gypsy (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime, You’ll Get Married … or Else! (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime’s Theatrical Debut (1913, 10 min.)
Onésime’s Family Drama (1914, 7 min.)

The Railway of Death (1912, 17 min.)
Burning Heart: An Indian Tale (1912, 13 min.)
Under the Claw (1912, 25 min.)

Jean Durand 1882-1946
Mini-documentary, written by Pierre Philippe, recounting the career of filmmaker Jean Durand through photographs and film clips.

Music by Patrick Laviosa

DVD 3: Jacques Feyder and the Early Masters of French Cinema
Heads … and Women Who Use Them (1916, 36 min.)
Friendly Advice (1916, 16 min.)*
Biscot on the Wrong Floor (1916, 15 min.)*
The Long Arm of the Law (1909, 7 min.)
The Barges (1911, 10 min.)**
La Marseillaise (1912, 10 min.)
A Drama of the Air (1913, 17 min.)
Child’s Play (1913, 12 min.)
Feet and Hands (1915, 17 min.)
A Factory Drama (1912, 13 min.)
The Pavements of Paris (1912, 13 min.)
The Fairy’s Farewell (n.d., 25 sec.)

Music by Patrick Laviosa, Ben Model (*), and Didier Goret (**)


Three early synchronized-sound musical shorts: “Anna qu’est-ce quet’attends?,” “Chemineau chemine,” and “Le Mouchoir rouge de Cholet”

Actualities that reveal the workings of Gaumont, including footage of founder Leon Gaumont demonstrating the operation of a motion picture camera, a hand-crank viewing device, a zoetrope, and dignitaries touring the Gaumont Studios

Excerpts of Gaumont’s revolutionary full-color film process

This is a sensational collection. Here is the infant cinema already able to hold its held up as a mature medium, capable of displaying artistry of the highest order. With this and volume one of Gaumont Treasures, plus Flicker Alley’s five disc set of the works of Georges Méliès (plus an ‘encore‘ sixth disc), and the recent Spanish release of a Segundo de Chomón DVD set, we are astonishingly blessed with DVD releases of early French cinema. And there will be more – a four-disc set of the works of Albert Capellani, another director of style and vision, is promised by Pathé in May.


The genius of Segundo de Chomón

Une Excursion Incohérente (1909)

For some while we have been bemoaning the lack of a DVD of the work of Segundo de Chomón, the brilliant Spanish trick filmmaker from the 1900s period, whose work is frequently compared to that of Georges Méliès. Examples of his work ripped from a VHS of unclear history can be found online in assorted places, but at last we can report the publication of an official DVD, Segundo de Chomón, el cine de la fantasía.

Produced by the FilmoTeca de Catalunya, and with films taken from the collections of the BFI, CNC Archives du Film, Eye, La Cineteca del Friuli and others, the multi-region DVD contains 31 titles (144 minutes of film), with an original music score by Joan Pineda. There is a booklet, Segundo de Chomón: Más allá del cine de las atracciones 1902-1912, written by Joan M. Minguet, author of the main work on de Chomón, Segundo Chomón. El cinema de la fascinació (2009). There are subtitles available in Catalan, Spanish and English.

The films are:

Los Héroes del Sitio de Zaragoza (1905)
L’Hereu de Can Pruna (1904)
Barcelone, Parc au Crépuscle (1904)
Le Roi de Dollars (1905)
Plongeur Fantastique (1905)
Ah! La Barbe (1905)
Les Cent Trucs (1906)
Le Courant Électrique (1906)
L’Antre de la Sorcière (1906)
Le Spectre Rouge (1907)
La Boîte à Cigars (1907)
Les Oeufs de Pâques (1907)
Sculpteur Express (1907)
Les Tulipes (1907)
En Avant la Musique (1907)
Kiriki, Acrobates Japonais (1907)
La Maison Ensorcelée (1907)
Les Lunatiques (1908)
Les Papillons Japonais (1908)
L’Insaisissable Pickpocket (1908)
Création de la Serpentine (1908)
Electric Hôtel (1908)
Le Petit Poucet (1909)
Le Voleur Invisible (1909)
Voyage sur Jupiter (1909)
Le Théatre Electrique de Bob (1909)
Une Excursion Incohérente (1910)
Gérone, la Venise Espagnole (1912)
Superstition Andalouse (1912)
Métamorphoses (1912)
Barcelone, Principale Ville de la Catalogne (1912)

Segundo de Chomón (1871-1929) became involved in film through his wife, who was an actress in Pathé films. In 1902 he became a concessionary for Pathé in Barcelona, distributing its product in Spanish-speaking countries, and managing a factory for the colouring of Pathé films. He began shooting actuality films of Spanish locations for the company, then 1905 moved to Paris where he became a trick film specialist. The body of work he created over five years was outstanding. Films such as Le Spectre Rouge, Kiriki – Acrobates Japonais, Le Voleur Invisible and Une Excursion Incohérente are among the most imaginative and technically accomplished of their age. De Chomón created fantastical narratives embellished with ingenious effects, gorgeous colour, innovative hand-drawn and puppet animation, tricks of the eye that surprise and delight, and startling turns of surreal imagination (see, for example, the worms that crawl out of a chocolate cake in Une Excursion Incohérente, one of a number of films where visitors or tourists are beset by nightmarish haunted buildings, a favourite de Chomón theme).

It is curious why he is not generally known as one of the early cinema masters, except among the cognoscenti in the field. Perhaps it is because there is a smaller body of work than that created by Georges Méliès (his works can perhaps be described as a cross between that of Méliès and another who combined trickery with animation, Emile Cohl); perhaps it is because he was a Spaniard working in France for the key part of his film career that has meant that neither side has championed him as much as they might have done. De Chomón carried on as a filmmaker, specialising in trick effects, working for Pathé, Itala and others, and contributing effect work to two of the most notable films of the silent era, Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) and Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927). Perhaps the publication of Segundo de Chomón, el cine de la fantasía will bring hilm back into the spotlight that his genius undoubtedly merits.

Le Théatre Electrique de Bob (Bob’s Electric Theatre), from UCLA’s YouTube channel, where it is dated 1906 though this is apparently the 1909 version of the film also on the DVD (see UCLA’s Silent Animation site)

Another example of Segundo de Chomón’s work to be found legitimately online is on the Europa Film Treasures site, the ingenious Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907).

(A question to those who might know – the DVD seems to be derived from the earlier VHS set, maybe from the 1980s, examples of which you can find draped all over YouTube. Can anyone confirm this?)

Slapstick is back


Here comes 2011, and first off the blocks will be the seventh edition of the annual Slapstick festival, held in Bristol. The festival has developed into a celebration of visual comedy in general by bringing together silent slapstick with British television and radio comedians of today (not that radio excels in visual comedy, but it all fits somehow). This year the presenters include Bill Oddie, Ian Lavender, Barry Cryer, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Neil Innes, Shappi Khorsandi and Chris Serle. Kevin Brownlow turns up presenting ‘Unknown Chaplin’ material, while the silent performers featured include Chaplin, Keaton and Langdon. And there is also a welcome tribute to one of Bristol’s finest, the Aardman Animation studios’ children TV series Shaun the Sheep, which the Bioscope should have championed long before now as a truly great example of the art of silent comedy happily carried on into the 21st century (and who would have guessed that Sir Christopher Frayling was a fan? Good on him).

Here’s the full programme:


5.40pm Watershed
Academy Award winning film historian Kevin Brownlow introduces a selection of the rarest and least known footage of Charlie Chaplin as the festival opens with the first of four events dedicated to the ‘Little Tramp’.

8.00pm Colston Hall
Neil Innes: A People’s Guide to World Domination
The very welcome return of Slapstick Festival supporter and patron, Rutle and Bonzo front man Neil Innes as he brings his new solo show to Colston Hall for one night only on the opening night of Bristol’s Seventh Slapstick Festival. Neil performs a wry, poignant, humorous and topical one-man show, spiced with anecdotes of his life and times in the worlds of media and show business. Neil’s solo shows tickle the emotions with a potent mix of fine musicianship and enlightened lyricism, packed with sharp observations celebrating the absurdities of modern existence. Join us for a unique musical experience in the company of the self proclaimed ‘Ego Warrior’ and ‘Seventh Python’


2pm Arnolfini
CLARA BOW in MANTRAP (Dir Victor Fleming; USA, 126 mins)
Clara Bow wasn’t just the ‘IT’ girl of a generation, she was also a fine actress and comedienne. Here in one of her funniest films, Bow plays the sexy wife of an old Canadian backwoodsman who becomes attracted to a young, rich and famous divorce lawyer who comes to town on vacation.

4pm Watershed
SLAPSTICK INTERNATIONAL (U) with live piano accompaniment
In a continuation of Slapstick’s tradition of sharing the best new silent comedy finds, three superb films discovered by the Giornate Cinema Muto for Italy’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival: W.C. Fields, making his silent screen debut, in THE POOL SHARKS; the same wise-cracker in the early sound short, THE GOLF SPECIALIST, plus a delightful silent from Russian, CHESS FEVER. Introduced by Pordenone’s director David Robinson, with John Sweeney on piano and Chris Serle as host.

7.30pm Colston Hall
with Bill Oddie, Ian Lavender, Barry Cryer and Neil Innes; the Jazz Train orchestra; the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Paul McGann

Four living comedy icons introduce a four-film salute to the best-loved past masters of silent humour, showing here on a giant screen with music from the 25-piece jazz combo, Jazz Train, and the European Silent Screen Virtuosi. Plus a ukulele tribute to Chaplin and an appearance by Paul McGann. £20 (£16 conc); £6 under 12s.


9.30am Colston Hall
HOMAGE TO CHAPLIN (U, Germany, 50 mins)
A rare chance to see a fine visual tribute to Charlie Chaplin, made in association with, and performed by students from, a German school for young people who are deaf. Showing here with a live piano accompaniment by Guenter Buchwald.

11am Colston Hall
Baby-faced Harry Langdon used a subtler form of visual comedy than that which became known as ‘slapstick’ but his talent made him a worthy rival of those who became better known. Here, Graeme Garden, of The Goodies and the I’M SORRY I HAVEN’T A CLUE panel explains why he’s a Langdon champion and introduces some of the comic’s brightest and funniest shorts. With live music.

2pm Arnolfini
Too often overshadowed by his more legendary comedies, THE CIRCUS boasts Chaplin’s most brilliant gags, including a Hall of Mirrors chase and climaxing with a de-trousering by monkeys on the high wire! Showing here with the UK premiere of a new short by the triple Oscar-winning animator, Richard Williams, based on his 1950s drawings of a circus in Spain.

4pm Bristol Old Vic
DAD’S ARMY and EASTENDERS star Ian Lavender makes his first Slapstick visit appearance to share his long-held passion for Buster Keaton – his chosen subject on a recent Celebrity Mastermind – before revealing and screening his all time favourite short by ‘the great stone face’ and then introducing SHERLOCK JUNIOR (PG, 1924, 45 mins) in which Keaton plays an aspiring detective wrongly accused of a crime by the family of the girl he loves. With live accompaniment by the five-piece European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

8pm Bristol Old Vic
The man who has probably worked with &/or written for more UK comics than anyone else on the planet shares his favourite moments and memories with another bright star of British comedy, Rob Brydon. Together, they’ll be telling tales and showing clips celebrating almost 100 years of film and tv humour – from Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, via Morecambe & Wise and David ‘Del Boy’ Jason to today.


9.30am Colston Hall
Amazingly, 2010 saw the rediscovery of not one but two unknown Chaplin films, a lost Charley Chase, and the recovery of films featuring Laurel & Hardy, Harry Langdon and British stars, Walter Forde and Pimple. Join silent comedy expert David Wyatt as he brings these gems and others to the screen again, concluding with the UK premiere of Stan Laurel’s restored Monty Python-like classic WHEN KNIGHTS WERE COLD (1923).

11am Colston Hall
Writer, actor and wit Tim Brooke-Taylor shares his memories of working with the instantly-recognisable but often overlooked bug-eyed funny man Marty Feldman in his pre-Hollywood days. With clips of some of Marty’s best visual gags from shows like the seminal AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW and the BAFTA award-winning MARTY to illustrate and Chris Serle as host.

2pm Arnolfini
LECTURE: SLAPSTICK & THE CITY: Silent Comedy and the Metropolitan Playground plus HEAVEN’S SAKE and music from The Slapstick Boys
Dr Alex Clayton, Lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of Bristol, looks at how early slapstick films used urban architecture – including statues, giant clocks, escalators and industrial machines – to create some of their most vivid and comic sequences. With illustrative clips and, to follow, a Harold Lloyd comedy (U, 1926, 58 mins) set in the ‘Big Apple’, with a live accompaniment.

2pm Watershed
Eighty years on from the end of the silent film era, silent comedy is alive and well and regaining massive new audiences and global success in the guise of the Wallace and Gromit spin-off character Shaun the Sheep’. Here, Aardman Animation’s Creative Director Richard Goleszowski, chats with Sir Christopher Frayling about Shaun’s inspirations, development and popularity, using extracts from the shows and original models.

4pm Bristol Old Vic
When comedian and author Shappi Khorsandi was invited to add an item to BBC Radio 4’s THE MUSEUM OF CURIOSITY, she chose Charlie Chaplin and revealed that his THE GREAT DICTATOR is her all-time favourite film. Here, she explains why she is so drawn to this satire on dictatorship, Fascism, and racism before iintroducing the film (PG, 1940, 120 mins) in which Chaplin plays both the Hitleresque Adenoid Hynkel and his look-alike, a poor Jewish barber. £10-£5

8pm Watershed
To close Slapstick 2011, Tim Brooke-Taylor introduces the Frankenstein spoofathon which catapulted his comedy colleague Marty Feldman to international stardom. Here, Feldman plays Eye-Gore in a piece of inspired lunacy which also stars Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder. Dir: Mel Brooks, USA, 1974, 105 mins.

All the necessary information, with booking details and information on past festivals, can be found on the Slapstick site.

Tied to the tracks

I’m grateful to Bioscope regular Penfold for bringing this delightful short animation by Aidan McAteer to my attention. It is funny, stylish, and will have particular resonance for any weekend train traveller in the UK who has come up against the words ‘engineering works’ …

It’s a mocking idea of a silent film, the kind of silent film that was never made. All those know don’t know silent films know one thing about them – that they featured evil villains who twirled their moustaches then tied a hapless female to the railway track. And all those who do know silent films know that such scenes were hackneyed even before films were invented, and the few films that did show them did so as parody.

It’s an issue that comes up time and time again, so let’s try and pin down the historical truth. The idea of an entertainment where someone is tied to a railway track and is rescued in the nick of time certainly predates cinema. The entertainment that put the idea into the popular imagination was an 1867 stage melodrama written by American playwright and theatre manager Augustin Daly entitled Under the Gaslight which featured a man tried to railway tracks who was rescued by a woman before he could be run over by the oncoming train (Victorian theatre revelled in such stage spectaculars). An earlier play, The Engineer, had some elements that may have inspired Daly, but he put all the right elements together.

Poster for Under the Gaslight, from http://www.josephhaworth.com. Note the male victim and the female rescuer

When the man in peril was changed to a woman in peril in the popular imagination is unclear, but it is no surprise that the transference was made. The play was wildly popular and was re-produced many times, while Daly complained that his big idea was stolen by other theatrical managers who adapted it for their own entertainments. When films appeared, thirty years later, the mannerisms of stage meldorama that had sent shivers up Victorian spines were out-of-date (so no more twirling of moustaches if you wanted your villain to be taken seriously) while the elaborate stage effects were increasingly supplanted by the realism that cinema could provide by filming on location. So, as dramatic films emerged a major sub-genre emerged of the train thriller (including such notable titles as D.W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator and The Girl and Her Trust). But the thrill had transferred from the tracks to the train itself. It is the speed, power and modernity of the train that characterises such films, not the notion of tying someone to the tracks which was too much ingrained in outmoded stage conventions to be taken seriously.

That said, the transference was not immediate, because there were at least two films featuring a woman in peril of being run over by a train that played it straight before anyone played it for laughs. Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon’s The Train Wreckers (Edison 1905) features a switchman’s daughter who is pursued by a gang of outlaws, tied to a tree, then when she she escapes (her dog unties the rope) the outlaws knock her unconscious and lay her on the railway track. Happily her boyfriend is a rail engineer who scoops her up from the cow-catcher in the nick of time. So, not exactly tied to the rails, but near enough, and a work very much in the spirit of the Victorian melodrama.

The set-up was still credible in 1911 because it turned up again with Pathé/American Kinema’s The Attempt on the Special, which is very close in action to the earlier film, down the heroine being left unconscious on the rails (rather than tied up) and the assistance from a dog. It is described thus by the BFI National Archive:

Nell, the pointsman’s daughter is tied up by a gang who plan to rob a train. A greyhound, taught to relay messages between herself and her boyfriend comes to her aid and unties her. She sends the dog off with a message for help, but in attempting to escape she is knocked down and left lying on the track. The message is recieved in time to save the girl and the gang is routed.

Ford Sterling with the sledgehammer and Mabel Normand tied in the rails in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), from moma.org

The film that established the parodic idea, and which is often used to illustrate it, is Keystone’s Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913), featuring real-life motor racer Barney Oldfield, Ford Sterling as the moustachioed villain and Mabel Normand as the victim. The film plays it entirely for laughs, and the still above shows you everything you would expect to see. Not only is it not the archetypal silent, but it is unusual for its time in parodying dramatic conventions that someone like D.W. Griffith was still half in thrall to. Perhaps 1913 was some sort of a threshold year of a lack of respect for Victoriana, because stage melodrama is similarly ridiculed by the British film Blood & Bosh, made in the same year by Hepworth. It can be seen as a sign of the growing maturity of the film medium as it outgrew its stage origins, and as the twentieth century increasingly outgrew the nineteenth.

Betty Hutton playing Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline (1947), from http://www.dvdbeaver.com

It is commonly believed that heroines being tied to the tracks was a common element in the adventures serials that appeared around this time, such as The Exploits of Elaine (1914), The Perils of Pauline (1914) or The Hazards of Helen (1914-17). Such serials skilfully married the melodramatic conventions of an earlier age with independent heroines that were a part of the modern world. The heroines were put into perilous situations, but they had the resourcefulness to escape from them. Trains feature frequently in such serials, but the heroine is more likely to be tackling danger on the train rather than being passively threatened by it. The Perils of Pauline, often cited as showing Pauline (Pearl White) being tied to a railway track, contained no such scene. Indeed, the only example from a silent serial I have traced with anything like such a scenario is the Helen Holmes serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands (1916). Here a person was a person tied to the tracks, but it was a man, and it was Helen – in true Under the Gaslight fashion – who rescued him. In the 1947 feature film The Perils of Pauline Betty Hutton (playing Pauline heroine Pearl White) does get tied to the rails, but that just shows what had been forgotten about silents in less than two decades. And it was probably from here – a parody of a parodic idea – that the idea as being archetypally silent film took hold, and has remained.

Helen Holmes to the rescue in A Lass of the Lumberlands

Interestingly Under the Gaslight itself was filmed, in 1914, with Lionel Barrymore and Millicent Evans, though the plot synopses I’ve seen make no mention of any trains at all (and the film is lost). Instead it was Keystone who returned to the comic idea established in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life when they made Teddy at the Throttle (1917), in which Gloria Swanson gets tied (strictly speaking, chained) to the tracks, Wallace Beery is the villain, and it is the quick-witted dog (Teddy) who saves Gloria.

So the idea was around in the silent era, but infrequently so. It was played straight on a few occasions, parodied on about as many, and inverted on at least one occasion. It is anything but a major theme.

But the myth goes on. The villain twirls his moustache. The pianist pounds away furiously as the train grows ever closer. The girl, bound with rope, squirms and screams. Will the hero get there in time? Will the idea that this is what silent films were about ever be shaken off? Probably not. It’s what people need to know who don’t need to know. We’ll just have to live with them.