Bioscope Newsreel no. 16

Raymond Griffith: A Physiognomic Appreciation
David Cairns has been writing about comedian Raymond Griffith, “the most shamefully neglected performer in Hollywood history”, both on his Shadowplay blog and and his regular ‘The Forgotten’ column for the online cinematheque site MUBI. Read more (and more here).

Master of mise-en-scène
The Wall Street Journal writes in praise of Joseph Von Sternberg and the recent Criterion three-DVD set of his silent films Underworld, The Last Command and The Docks of New York. “With pristine prints and the welcome addition of Robert Israel’s newly composed but historically informed scores, film lovers can savor the work of a great director unhindered by expressive constraints”. Read more.

San Francisco 1906 in colour
Not colour film, unfortunately, but colour images taken by inventor Frederic Ives in 1906 of the city after the earthquake have been discovered by the Smithsonian Institution (actually a year ago, but the Internet is such a slow communicator of information at times). The Bioscope has previously written about the Kromskop, which helped inspire British inventors Edward Turner and G.A. Smith working on the first colour cinematography systems. Read more.

Dovzhenko on DVD
David Parkinson at the Oxford Times enthuses eloquently over the DVD releases of Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) and Arsenal (1929). “Anyone who considers modern sound cinema to be more sophisticated than the wordless pictures made between 1895-1930 should take a look at Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora … a dazzling array of artistic theories and screen techniques to explore such diverse topics as Ukrainian mythology, Soviet industrialisation, pacifism, the beauty of the landscape and the arrogance of the European bourgeoisie”. Read more.

Chaplin trouble
The long-promised Charlie Chaplin museum, converted out of the comedian’s home in Vevey, Switzerland, is in trouble. Art Info reports of Chaplin’s World: The Modern Times Museum that “financial difficulties have led to the purchase of the house and its surrounding land by two investors with shady connections, and supporters now wonder whether or not the museum — in planning for ten years — will ever see the light of day”. Read more.

The end of times
Happier Chaplin news from Leonard Maltin, who reports on the dedicated efforts by a group of film buffs and local history enthusiasts at William S. Hart Park in Newhall, California to mark the 75th anniversary of Modern Times, the film that called an end to the American silent film era. Read more.

‘Til next time!

The Seven Lively Arts

‘The Custodians of the Keystone’ by Ralph Barton, frontispiece illustration to Gilbert Seldes, The Seven Lively Arts

In a recent post on the cinema novel, I mentioned Gilbert Seldes’ advocacy of this hybrid cultural form, and said that a follow-up post was needed, because his book The Seven Lively Arts was available online. Indeed it is, and here is the promised post.

Gilbert Seldes (1893-1970) was an American cultural critic, one the pioneering champions of the popular arts in the age of mass media. His made his name, and established his life-long theme, with his 1924 book, The Seven Lively Arts. The seven are the movies, musical comedy, vaudeville, radio, comic strips, popular music and dance. Seldes championed what was excellent in what was popular. As his biographer Michael Kammen puts it:

Seldes … is conspicuous among his contemporaries because of his abiding commitment to the democratization of culture … Seldes genuinely believed that the taste level of ordinary Americans was not inevtably contemptible, and that, in any case, taste levels could be elevated.

Several decades’ worth of cultural criticism since the 1920s have rather dulled the revolutionary nature of Seldes’ stance. Elitism has become an ugly word; there is no high art or low art; and we seek to understand the components of a culture and how artefacts embody these rather than to say that one work of ‘art’ is better than another. Seldes didn’t think like a present-day cultural critic, but he did work to overturn preconceptions about supposedly low cultural forms. Of these the form that interested him the most, and to which he devoted most attention in his book, was film.

The opening chapter, ‘The Keystone the Builders Rejected’, sets out his agenda:

For fifteen years there has existed in the United States, and in the United States alone, a form of entertainment which, seemingly without sources in the past, restored to us a kind of laughter almost unheard in modern times. It came into being by accident – it had no pretensions to art. For ten years or more it added an element of cheerful madness to the lives of millions and was despised and rejected by people of culture and intelligence. Suddenly – suddenly as it appeared to them – a great genius arose and the people of culture conceded that in his case, but in his case alone, art existed in slap-stick comedy; they did not remove their non expedit from the form itself.

The great genius is of course Chaplin, but while some critics acknowledged that genius (particularly after The Kid, about which he is ambiguous), Seldes argues for the importance of not separating the man from the form in which his greatness was made manifest. The art was not in the man was in slapstick itself. For Seldes, ‘everything in slap-stick is cinematographic’: the slapstick comedy of Mack Sennett and Keystone was pure cinema because it was achieving results which could be acomplished by no other medium, and which were perfectly suited to that medium,; whereas D.W. Griffith, despite all the ways in which he advanced the art of the motion picture, still had half a mind in another medium (the stage, or the novel).

Seldes goes on the champion the slapstick form, taking pot-shots at his fellow critics for dismissing it without reasons. He writes illuminatingly about Ben Turpin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and lesser lights such as Chester Conklin. He cherishes slapstick for its absence of pretension and consequently its lack of vulgarity:

I consider vulgar the thing which offends against the canons of taste accepted by honest people, not by imitative people, not by snobs. It is equally bad taste, presumably, to throw custard pies and to commit adultery; but it is not bad taste to speak of these things. What is intolerable only is the pretense, and it was against pretentiousness that the slap-stick comedy had its hardest fight. It showed a man sitting down on a lighted gas stove, and it did not hesitate to disclose the underwear charred at the buttocks which were the logical consequence of the action.

There is a touch of paradox for paradox’s sake, but it is an engrossing set of arguments for all that. Every line makes you think again about what you have seen. Seldes goes on to tackle different aspects of his seven lively arts, with an entertaining variety of approaches to the different chapters. A chapter on D.W. Griffith is in the form of a duologue outside an Ancient Greek theatre. There is a mocking open letter to movie magnates (‘I am trying to trace for you the development of the serious moving picture as a bogus art, and I can’t do better than assure you that it was best before it was an “art” at all’). His chapter on Chaplin reveals a deep appreciation of the ebbs and flows of his work which reads like a critic commenting on a display of paintings in gallery. He is alert to the aesthetic experience of Chaplin’s overall output: ‘The flow of his line always corresponds to the character and tempo; there is a definite relation between the melody and the orchestration he gives it’. As noted, he also champions the cinema novel (it is almost the only section of the book not devoted to American culture), because it shows literary people thinking cinematically rather than people of the cinema losing faith in the essential value of their medium and weakly copying literature or the theatre. Other chapters cover jazz, comic strips, Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, Krazy Kat, clowns, Pablo Picasso and more.

The Seven Lively Arts is available in online as one of the hypertext series from American Studies at the University of Virginia. The online version incudes all appendices and illustrations. The digitisation isn’t perfect, with some slips in the OCR (there are problems with split words, accents and some punctuation). In places words are missing. But it is helpfully divided up into chapters and shows page breaks and page numbers. Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

Max and the girls

Max Davidson in Why Girls Say No (1927)

The Bioscope is going to try and devote more attention to new DVDs and new print publications in our field. But will we have any more welcome a title to announce than the latest offering from Germany’s Edition Filmmuseum, due out in February? It’s Max Davidson Comedies, a collection of twelve comedy shorts (two of them talkies) on a 2-disc set. Davidson was a Hollywood supporting actor who enjoyed a brief period as a star attraction when he appeared in a series of comedies made in the late 1920s for Hal Roach Studios. His speciality was Jewish humour, and though some have expressed doubts about the durability of such ethnic humour, the exuberant freshness of Davidson’s comedy, coupled with a knowing sense of the world’s follies which gives him a particularly modern appeal, have made Davidson a great festival favourite. Titles such as the sublime Pass the Gravy (a strong candidate for funniest silent comedy short of them all) and the gloriously named Jewish Prudence are essential viewing and a tonic for our tired times.

The full list of titles is:

* Why Girls Say No 1927, 22′
* Jewish Prudence 1927, 21′
* Don’t Tell Everything 1927, 22′
* Should Second Husbands Come First? 1927, 21′
* Flaming Fathers 1927, 24′
* Hurdy Gurdy 1929, 20′

* Call of the Cuckoo 1927, 19′
* Love ’em and Feed ’em 1927, 9′, tinted
* Pass the Gravy 1928, 25′
* Dumb Daddies 1928, 15′
* Came the Dawn 1928, 17′, tinted
* The Boy Friend 1928, 19′
* The Itching Hour 1931, 18′

The films features new scores by Joachim Bärenz, Christian Roderburg and Stephen Horne, a 20-page bilingual Booklet with essays by Richard W. Bann, Steve Massa, Stewart Tryster and Stefan Drössler, and copies of scripts, cutting continuities, stills and lobby cards of all the lost Max Davidson comedies as additional DVD-ROM features. The PAL DVD is region 0, with German or English titles.

While we’re here, we ought also to mention an Edition Filmmuseum release from last month, Female Comedy Teams. This shows the efforts made by Hal Roach Studios in the late 20s and early 30s to create female comedy duos, such as Anita Garvin and Marion Byron, Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, and Thelma Todd with Patsy Kelly. The 2-disc set contains films that are mostly new to me, and I’m certainly very keen to see Garvin and Byron’s A Pair of Tights (1929), confidently described on the site as “one of the greatest silent two reel comedies ever done”.

Just the first two films on the disc (both Garvin and Byron) are silent, but in our new expansive spirit we’ll acknowledge the existence of the Thelma Todd sound shorts as well. The full list of titles is:

* Feed ’em and Weep 1928, 16′ (Garvin & Byron) [New score by Günter A. Buchwald (piano & violin)]
* A Pair of Tights 1929, 19′ (Garvin & Byron) [New scores by Joachim Bärenz (piano) and Christian Roderburg (percussion)]
* The Pajama Party 1931, 20′ (Todd & Pitts)
* On the Loose 1931, 20′ (Todd & Pitts)
* Show Business 1932, 19′ (Todd & Pitts)
* Asleep in the Feet 1933, 18′ (Todd & Pitts)
* Work in Progress: The Restoration of GOING GA-GA 5′

* The Bargain of the Century 1933, 19′ (Todd & Pitts)
* Beauty and the Bus 1933, 17′ (Todd & Kelly)
* Babes in the Goods 1934, 19′ (Todd & Kelly)
* Maid in Hollywood 1934, 19′ (Todd & Kelly)
* The Misses Stooge 1935, 18′ (Todd & Kelly)
* Top Flat 1935, 19′ (Todd & Kelly)

There is a 20-page bilingual booklet with essays by Anke Sterneborg, Dave Stevenson and Cole Johnson, and a DVD-ROM section with further essays, documents and stills. Again, it’s a PAL DVD, region 0, with German or English titles.

Trailers for both DVDs can be viewed on the Edition Filmmuseum site.

Baby face

Harry Langdon’s name is always there when you get asked to name the top-ranking American comedians of the silent era, though he tends to be the name that you come up with last. He was a talented comedian, especially when working with sympathetic directorial and writing talents who could help bring out the best from his baby-face looks and unworldly demeanour that nevertheless had him triumphing over adversity every time. He is an acquired taste, but an oddly captivating presence once you let his films do their work.

There’s now an excellent website devoted to him, with the fine web address of www.feetof (derived from the title of one of his Mack Sennett shorts), created by Tim Greer. Simply and clearly laid out, it comprises a filmography (1923-1945); an articles section with biography, short pieces by musician Ben Model, film historian Brent Walker and others, plus contemporary reviews; an extras section with portraits, bibliography, DVDs (unfortunately without links, which would have been helpful), news and more; a links page; and a contact page with information on the author.

The design is engaging, the enthusiasm infectious, and it’s made me determined to check out his films again to remind me of his particular comic gift. Job done.

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.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day four

Giornate del Cinema Muto poster in a Pordenone shop window at night

And then it rained. There’s always one day of heavy rain at Pordenone (it is quite near the Alps, after all) and on Tuesday October 5th it came down in torrents. This was certainly a day for sheltering in the cinema and viewing everything that came up.

Unfortunately that meant starting at 9.00am with another selection of Boireau films. As noted in day three, the French comedian André Deed’s second stint as Boireau (1911-1914) produced work that was markedly inferior to his time in Italy playing the character Cretinetti. This second selection sufered from the same frantic gesticulation and body-bending from a performer who did not know how to stand still. Une Extraordinaire Aventure de Boireau (France 1913) stood out for the extraordinary comic conceit of having two men welded together after a heavy weight falls on top of them. One, Boireau, adapts to his new circumstances with zest; the other is wretched and complains all the time. It wasn’t exactly funny, but it was memorable. I kept thinking of the British comedian Norman Wisdom, whose death had just been reported, someone who once had audiences tearful with laughter only to live on to a time when audiences could only look on his work with bemusement and embarassment. What happens to humour when it isn’t funny any more? We just want to turn away.

And then we got a series of Calino films starring Roméo Bosetti, and Boireau looked like a comic master once again, at least by comparison. Enough of all this, let’s have some challenging Soviet documentaries.

Even at this short distance in time, I have little memory left of Mati Samepo (Their Kingdom) (USSR 1928) a 22-minute fragment from a five-reel documentary compilation of Georgian newsreel material made by Mikhail Kalatozov. All that remains are some impressions of satirical intent about oil in Kalatozov’s native Georgia, and a noticeable number of stray dogs. Unforgettable, however, was his documentary Jim Shuante (Salt for Svanetia) (USSR 1930). This was a strange film about a strange corner of the world. Svanetia is a remote area of Georgia, high in Caucasus mountains. The areas is inhabited by the Svans, and in its focus on their hard lives and distinctive cultural practices, it was another in series the films of anthropological interest that featured throughout the festival. However it was far from being a conventional, fact-based documentary. Some of the customs featured were a fiction – such as turning pregnant women out of a house to give birth, which was the practice in another region of Georgia but not in Svanetia. It showed life at its most rudimentary and functional, with miseries piled upon miseries to the point where it was almost comical (I was reminded of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes which similarly piles on the wretchedness beyond the point of sympathy). The images were often brutal or earthy, and they were always astonishing composed, but they told you nothing about the people. They were merely ciphers – and ciphers for a society that bore only a tangential relationship to reality. They existed to serve as subjects for an exercise in filmic style, not as people in their own right. The film did not inform; it exploited. It was the antithesis of the model anthropological film.

Salt for Svanetia (1930), from Wikipedia

Nor did it work as piece of Soviet propaganda. The ostensible reason for making the film was to show how a road-building programme was bringing the much needed salt to Svanetia and connecting it to the outside world, ensuring its modernisation and survival. But, as the programme note told us, the road-building was fiction too, and the whole message felt tacked on, as no doubt it was to please the party critics and censors (though they suppressed the film anyway). For Kalatozov the poetics of the image is all, and one comes away with visions of sun and shadow sweeping over the mountain sides, the stark villages with their tall towers and seemingly no people out and about, and unanswered questions about how the people were persuaded to play for the cameras, and whether actors were used. Salt for Svanetia is an amazing film, but not an honourable one.

And they we were back in Japan. I missed a couple of short films, but then settled down for the afternoon’s epic, the 188-minute Ginga (The Milky Way) (Japan 1931), directed by Hiroshi Smimizu, he of the restless camera and uncertain directorial purpose. Or at least that’s how he had seemed so far, but for Ginga he reined in the gimmicks, aside from some deft lateral tracking shots which acted as an effective visual motif. The plot was pure soap opera once again. It concerned a daughter of a businessman who marries her seducer to avoid social disapproval, a storyline that was starting to get a bit too familiar, while the passive suffering of Japanese women was starting to grate just a tad. But in truth the plot was not that important, or rather the various relationships were obscure (at least to these Western eyes), and you just surendered to the gentle style and the astute balance of understated realism and melodrama. If there had been silent television, its dramas might have unfolded much like Ginga.

There then followed a pleasant interlude – an Irish television documentary on archivist and film historian Liam O’Leary, At the Cinema Palace: Liam O’Leary (Ireland 1983). This was a delightful account of the man who virtually single-handedly established the idea of Irish film history as something to document and the need for an Irish film archive. He also worked for a time at the British Film Institute, and there were some gorgeous archive images – David Robinson (the festival director) sporting a florid 1970s moustache, David Francis (one-time curator of the National Film Archive) with a truly terrible jacket, and such a young Kevin Brownlow (O’Leary introduced Brownlow to Abel Gance when no one at the BFI was available to greet the great silent director in Britain. What must Gance have thought when the BFI sent a 17-year-old schoolboy instead?). A film about a man whose purposeful passion for film spoke to every film archivist in the audience.

Charlie Chaplin (left) in A Thief Catcher, courtesy of Paul Gierucki and Slapsticon

In the evening we were treated to two of the most notable ‘lost’ film rediscoveries of the past year. First up, A Thief Catcher (USA 1914). Yes, at last a chance for us on this side of the pond to see the sensational discovery, made by Paul E. Gierucki, of a previously unknown performance by Charlie Chaplin in a Keystone comedy. It was known – because Chaplin said so in an interview – that he had appeared uncredited as a Keystone Kop early on in his film career, but never before had anyone rracked down such an appearance. A Thief Catcher is thought to have been either his second or fourth film for Keystone in terms of production (the catalogue told us it was shot 5-12 and 25-26 January 1914, with Chaplin’s bit probably in the latter) and the fourth in terms of release (19 February 1914). But enough of the historical minutiae – is it funny?

You bet it is. Not outstandingly so, but it gained more laughs in eight minutes than poor Boireau had managed to raise in two or three hours. It’s all in the cutting. The film is a typical breakneck speed Keystone offering, with routine knockabout elevated to something special simply by the speed of the action and the deftness of the edit. Boireau showed us comedy still rooted in the stage, the comic business contained within the single shot. Keystone gave us cross-cutting, the comedy of consequences, as each shot played off against the previous one. Ironically the film’s star, Ford Sterling, outdid André Deed in face-pulling, and probably no unfunnier man ever graced the cinema screen. But Chaplin was on the ball as a performer right at the start. He plays an inspector who investigates a shed where Sterling, playing a sheriff, has been imprisoned by three robbers. In his two-minute cameo (he appears briefly at the end as well) Chaplin gives an expert display in comic bemusement, ending up being knocked out by Sterling for his pains. The moustache is there, the baggy clothes, even a hint of splayed feet. It was a magical moment when he ambled on screen (the audience cheered). A Thief Catcher easily lived up to expectations.

Next up, after a trailer for the otherwise lost John Ford film Strong Boy (USA 1929) was an entire Ford feature film not known to exist until it turned up in New Zealand recently, Upstream (USA 1927). This was a comedy-drama set in a New York boarding house full of ‘resting’ actors, one of whom (Earle Foxe) unexpectedly gets an invitation to play Hamlet in London, because he comes from a great line of actors whose name he has inherited but with none of the necessary talent. But the plot didn’t matter much; what made Upstream such a delight was the series of comic vignettes of down-on-their theatrical types – knife-thrower, a pair of comic dancers, an old Shakespearean hand – a in a zippy, joyous opening sequence that was J.B. Priestley on roller skates. It showed you everything about why American cinema conquered the world – much as A Thief Catcher did, in fact.

It’s a minor film for all that, which ends rather abruptly with the rejection of the insufferably pompous Foxe character by his former colleagues, and one sensed that had they only had a stronger cast then the film could have been spun out to twice its length, because we wanted to know more about the characters. So, a lot of fun, a film to chalk up for those with an interest in Shakespeare on film (Foxe’s Hamlet mines every cliché about theatrical ham), and a film which does John Ford’s reputation no harm whatsover.

Capabalanca’s unwitting performance in Chess Fever, from

In what was a peach of an evening’s programming, things were rounded off with me for one my all-time favourite films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Chess Fever) (USSR 1925). This delirious comedy is terrific if you are a silent film fan, but if you are a chess fan as well, you’re in heaven. You get all startstruck in the opening sequence – look, there’s Réti! And Torre! And Marshall! And Grünfeld! And, wow, Capablanca! Chess Fever was shot by Vsevolod Pudovkin during the international chess tournament held in Moscow in November 1925. Its slight plot revolves around a man so obsessed with chess (even his socks have black-and-white squares) that he forgets his own wedding, but chess brings the two hearts together in the end. It’s filled with a succession of superb sight gags, where all of Moscow is shown to be chess-mad. It culminates with the great José Raúl Capablanca himself, the world chess champion, who appears in the film when the frustrated fiancée accosts him, though he was not aware that a dramatic film was being made with himself as a crucial character. Günter Buchwald (on top form all week) provided an appropriately lively score for violin, piano (he played both), double bass and drums, revealing himself in the catalogue to be a chess enthusiast as well. And has there ever been a better closing line for film than, “Darling, let’s try the Sicilian Defence”?

After all that I wasn’t much in the mood for Lev Push’s Gypsy Blood (USSR 1928) – some film titles make you fear the worst – and I called it a day.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day three

Interior of the Verdi, showing the cover which goes over the central seats of the lower circle to prevent people sitting in front of the projector beam

Some said that it was a strong programme at Pordenone this year. But maybe they were misheard and what they really said as that you had to be strong for the programme at Pordenone this year. It certainly felt that way as we faced up to the epic offering on Monday morning, Ai Yo Jinrui To Tomo Ni Are (Love, Be With Humanity) (Japan 1931), all four hours and one minute of it. It took up the entire morning and the screening had to start half an hour earlier than usual, at 8:30, to fit it in.

I will confess that I lingered over breakfast and did not get to the Verdi until 9.00, where I expected to catch five minutes of the film and then head out for a coffee somewhere. But I got hooked. This wasn’t directed by Shimizu, it was the work of Shimazu (Yasujiro Shimazu), and what a difference the change in vowel made. This was as polished and authoritative a piece of direction as you could hope to find, aided by some outstanding performances. Love, Be With Humanity (is the title really that dreadful in Japanese too?) was the dramatic highlight of the festival so far.

The story was pure Peyton Place, or Jeffrey Archer. A rich, selfish father, superbly played by Sojin Kaminyama (who had returned to Japan after a period in Hollywood appearing in The Thief of Bagdad and as Charlie Chan), is deservedly saddled with four ungrateful, awkward children, each of different mothers. One is a wealthy wife most interested in jewelry than her child, another daughter is getting married, one son is a cold, intellectual, the other son is a fiery rebel (played by Denmei Suzuki) who refuses to take any money from his father, after the way his mother died wretchedly. The stage is set for a soap opera of epic proportions and concomitant confusion, but unlike his near namesake Shimazu so ably managed the interlocking elements of his narrative that you were never lost, and never impatient, despite the indulgent running time. In the end the father is ruined and the only child who cares for him is the rebellious son. Their climactic argument, where they trade insults yet the son’s wife recognises that they have actually already forgiven one another, exemplified the intelligent approach, constantly playing against expectation, that characterised the film.

And then there was the final reel. No one who was there is likely to forget it in a hurry. Father and son have emigrated to the USA, and taken up the cowboy life. The intertitles have switched from Japanese to English, and the whole conclusion, with stetsons, cowboy boots, beaming neighours and the home on the range, just boggled the mind. Doubtless it all rang true in Japan, but here we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. And then it was over, and there was huge applause for pianist Mie Yanashita, whose vivid accompaniment had been subtly attuned throughout to the film’s ebbs and flows, but it was sort of applause for ourselves as well for having made it all the way through.

I had been looking forward to the afternoon’s first offering. André Deed is generally thought of as one of the great non-American comic performers of the silent cinema period. He was a music hall comedian who joined the film business in 1901 with Georges Méliès in 1901, moving to Pathé in 1906. The character that he established, Boireau, became progressively popular throughout Europe and effectively established the idea of the comic character appearing in a series of films. He moved to Italy in 1908, establishing a new character, Cretinetti, for the Itala company (known as Foolshead in English) and it is Cretinetti films that I’ve long revered for their energetic style and clever mixture of half-wittedness with quick-wittedness. He returned to Pathé in 1911 and became Boireau once more before his career faded with the onset of the First World War.

Pordenone was presenting a strand on French comedy films (a speciality of festival director David Robinson) so it was Boireau that we got on Monday afternoon, ten titles, of which two were from his first period with Pathé, eight from his second. Sadly they were a huge disappointment. Deed mugged and gurned for all he was worth in a series of sloppily conceived scenarios that were resolutely unfunny. In the place of any visual invention we got face-pulling from Deed and much laughter directed at the camera from other performers – it’s always a bad sign when the actors feel obliged to laugh at the comic business, when that is our business. Alas, Boireau on this evidence was tedious, certainly no match for Cretinetti.

Variety is guaranteed at Pordenone. From pre-war French comedy we moved to late 20s Soviet cinema. One of the festival’s main strands was ‘Three Soviet Careers’, looking at the work of Mikhail Kalatozov, Abram Room and Lev Push. Lursmani Cheqmashi (The Nail in the Boot) (USSR 1931) was made by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili, who as Kalatozov would gain international fame for The Cranes are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964). His documentary films of the late 20s/early 30s were characterised by a truly extraordinary visual style but also a muddled ideology that saw them fall foul of Stalin’s censors.

The Nail in the Boot adapts the old tale of the nail eventually causing some great disaster as things build up because the original small irritation was not dealt with (“and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”). A group of soldiers in an armoured train come under attack. One of their number goes off to find help, but because of a nail in his boot he is hampered in his journey and the battle is lost. He is the subjected to a trial, where he comes in for intense criticism but eventually successfully argues his case.

The film was roundly criticised by the Soviets (particularly the Army) for being confusing and ideologically unsound, as a consequence of which it was banned. Seeing it now you have some sympathy with those critics. The nail theory is ridiculous, and the succession of calamities that befalls the soldier encourages our sympathies not our censure, so that he seems cruelly victimised by the subsequent show trial. Whosever’s fault it was that the armoured train was lost, it was surely not his. If there was a message there at all, it was not one that any true Soviet would wish to champion.

But in truth there is no message there at all. The Nail in the Boot is an exercise in pure cinematic style. No doubt Kalatosov was driven by some ideological certainties, but his camera drove him elsewhere. It is just an astonishing film to experience. Every image is burnished to perfection. The stylised results look like nothing on earth. There are the statuesque faces, the unreal landscapes, the astonishing shots from within gun barrels, the eerie intensity of the court room. It is cinematically brilliant – except that cinematic must mean more than technique, it must be technique applied to a particular and consistent aim. Here Kalatozov fails – but what an extraordinary failure.

Talking of extraordinary things, Stephen Horne‘s music was a multi-instrumental tour de force. Some may have though that there was a piano, accordion and flute trio accompanying the film, but no, it was the one man. Stephen can so far only play two of those three instruments at the same time, but it surely can’t be long before he is able to add the third as well.

Torres Straits islanders recreating ceremonies of the Malu cult for A.C. Haddon’s camera, from the 1898 film in the BFI National Archive

Anthropology was an unexpected sub-theme of the festival. Next up came The Masks of Mer (UK 2010), a documentary made by Michael Eaton about the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898 to the Torres Strait islands to the north of Australia. The expedition was led by Alfred Cort Haddon, a zoologist who became so fascinated by the native people he met on the islands when he first visited them in 1888 that he returned a decade later to study the humans. Remarkably he took with him not just notebooks to record his findings, but a phonograph to record songs and speech, and a motion picture camera.

The films survive, and form the centrepiece of Eaton’s fascinating and rather wise film. Haddon only received his camera a day or two before he was due to leave, but he captured short scenes of fire-making, of dances by some visiting Australian Aborigines, and most remarkable of all a Malu cult initiation ceremony dance which had had been suppressed by Christian missionaries. Haddon invited the people of the island of Mer to recreate three sacred masks (out of cardboard) which were essential to the ceremony and got them perform the forbidden dance for the camera. Some might think that this recreation falsifies the value of the film and the anthropological study, but Eaton argues persuasively that the collaborative nature of the film – Haddon working closely and sympathetically with his subjects – displays a deeper truth. Just pointing a camera at actuality does not reveal its true substance. It is what its subjects wanted to be shown that counts. This was as much the Torres Straits islanders’ film as it was Haddon’s, and that what was so extraordinary about Haddon, that he recognised this. The film also runs the sound recordings alongside the films. The two were not recorded together, but Haddon certainly exhibited them together (in 1906, if not before), so the experiment was justified. The film’s most magical moment was when Eaton visited Cambridge University and was shown the very masks that appear in the film, lovingly stored in the Haddon archive. It was a mysteriously moving moment. Anyway, a fine documentary of the kind you just don’t see on television any more.

So that was the afternoon done. Supper was spent in conversation about archives, exhibitions, scholarly project and the rich subject of colour, the fruits of which you may learn of at some other time. But then it was time to hurry back to the Verdi for the great treat of the evening, a film I had been waiting twenty years to see, ever since Kevin Brownlow programmed it at the National Film Theatre, describing it as one of the most amazing visual spectacles of the silent era, and for some reason I was unable to see it. This was going to be good.

Le Miracle des Loups (The Miracle of the Wolves) (France 1924) has a reputation as one of the highpoints of French silent cinema. It is set in the fifteenth century during the reign of Louis XI (Charles Dullin) and it tells of the challenge to the king’s authority by the rebellious Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (Vanni Marcoux), while rival noblemen fight over heroine Jeanne Fouquet, played by Yvonne Sergyl. The film, directed by Raymond Bernard, is on a truly epic scale, with setpieces of the battle of Montlhéry and the siege of the castle of Beauvais which are meant to show off the millions of francs that were clearly spent on them. Romance, rivalry, intrigue, violence, spectacle, all in the hands of a skilled director – what could possibly go wrong?

Oh dear, oh dear. Right from the start it was clear that something was wrong, when the prelude introduced us to the romance between Jeanne and Tobert Cotterau, played by the toe-curlingly unromantic-looking Romauld Joubé, during which she gets her pet dog to pass a message to him by lifting the bewildered dog over a wall. On top of this we were fed long and tedious intertitles filling us in on all the history, with all of the unwelcome earnestness of a history teacher of very much the old school. It set the tone for the disaster that was to unfold before us over the next two hours or more.

A more turgid plod of a movie it would be hard to imagine. What it did remind me of, in fact, is a 1909 Gaumont one-reeler, Le Huguenot, which crams in a complex plot with too many characters, overlong intertitles obsessed with pedantic detail, all put over with histrionic performances strong on gesture and redundant when it comes to human feeling. The Miracle of the Wolves is simply a 1909 historical film stretched out to 130 minutes. It was so half-hearted throughout. The performances were lethargic (particularly Charles Dullin, who tried to look Machivellian but just looked like he was struggling to remember where he was), and even the battle scenes were undercooked (despite some bloody examples of what fighting in the Middle Ages was actually like), with extras just about going through the motions.

The key scene was the miracle itself. Jeanne is being pursued by the evil Comte du Lau (Gaston Modot, chewing up the scenery) in the mountainside snows when she is surrounded by wolves, who settle down around her before attacking the Comte’s men. We were meant to be awe-struck – instead all too many of the audience laughted heartily at the scene’s absurd piety. All in all, a film without any heart at all. I’d waited twenty years to see it and it felt like twenty years watching it. There was some historical interest in the screening for which Touve Ratovondrahety played a piano transcription of Henri Rabaud’s original score, but to be honest it had little to stir the imagination. But then it had such poor material to work with. Oh dear oh dear.

But there would be better fare on the morrow.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Chaplin returns to Waterville

A new comedy film festival has been announced, named after Charlie Chaplin. The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival is intended to be an annual event held in Waterville, Kerry, Ireland. The first such festival will be 25-29 August 2011. Waterville was a favourite holiday location for the Chaplins, and a statue of Chaplin stands there (one of a number of statues of Chaplin around the world, as documented in an earlier post).

There isn’t much in the way of details about the contents of the festival as yet, but it will feature new films and be competitive (with the awards to be known as ‘charlies’), while its patron is Chaplin’s daughter Josephine. However, one does worry a little about a festival which has trouble spelling Chaplin’s name – until it was changed in the past day or two, the website’s banner was proudly announcing the Charlie Chaplain Comedy Film Festival. Ouch.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Whom shall you telegram?

A minor diversion, courtesy of Boing Boing. It comes from The League of STEAM (Supernatural and Troublesome Ectoplasmic Apparition Management), a comedy troupe who present themselves as steampunk ghost-hunters (steampunk = modern technologies recast as Victorian). At any rate, it’s an entertaining take on Ghostbusters – though sadly the production budget didn’t run to any ghosts. You can find more of their videos at


This delightful short film doesn’t bill itself as being a silent film, but that’s what it is – exquisitely demonstrating wit and comic suspense through action, character and adroit choice of shot, and all wordlessly. It certainly has affinities with some of the comic masters of the silent era. The filmmaker is Nuno Rocha and his film, entitled 3×3 and made in 2009, has won awards at a number of festivals. It lasts just five minutes. Enjoy.