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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

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The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

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The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

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Archive for the 'Documentary film' Category

Bill Morrison’s lyrical tale of loss, destruction, and (sometimes) recovery

Kristin here:

Many readers of this blog have heard of the Dawson City Film Find (hereafter DCFF), as it is called in Bill Morrison’s extraordinary documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time. How in 1978 work on a construction site in Dawson City, Canada, led to the discovery of hundreds of reels of nitrate films packed into a swimming pool in 1929, covered over, and forgotten. How these reels turned out to be from silent films, mostly from the 1910s, many of them previously thought entirely lost.

Few will know the story in the detail with Morrison provides, nor will they know the rich historical context that he provides for the discovery and recovery of the reels. His film is not, however, simply a presentation of the DCFF. It’s about growth, loss, recovery, and destruction in several areas, all circling around Dawson City as their hub. The subtitle “Frozen Time” is a bit misleading. The reels of nitrate sealed away in the permafrost were no doubt frozen, and the temporal fictional and newsreel images they contained were lost for decades.

Morrison, however, weaves information about a variety of other subjects together in a way that makes the passage of time palpable for us. We see its effects on people and places and discover the odd, fortuitous connections among them in a dizzying fashion.

A complex film like this deserves an extended commentary, which I offer below. There are spoilers galore in it, and I would suggest seeing the film before reading this. It should appeal to anyone interested in early cinema, in North American history, and in documentaries in general. Kino Lorber has recently released Dawson City: Frozen Time on Blu-ray, with extras including eight films from the DCFF.

 

Easing into the past

The films-in-a-swimming-pool hook is what Morrison uses to lure us into his larger historical weave. He begins with a hint of the recovered footage, showing a baseball game which will later be revealed as the scandalous 1919 World Series where White Sox players were bribed to throw the deciding game. Then we see briefly see Morrison himself being interviewed by a talk-show host, followed by a lady in 1890s costume enthusiastically introducing a premiere screening of some of the restored films for an audience in the Palace Grand. That theatere is a modern reconstruction of the first theater built in Dawson City, used for live drama, opera, eventually films, and other forms of entertainment.

We move by stages back into history. Fifteen months before the premiere the discovery was made: a man running a back hoe turned up reels and coils of film. We meet the protagonists of the film-discovery portion of Morrison’s tale: Michael Gates, curator of Collections at Parks Canada from 1977 to 1996, and Kathy Jones-Gates, Director of the Dawson Museum from 1974 to 1986. She was Kathy Jones at the time of the discovery; this tale even has a romance, since the pair married after working together on the recovery of the buried reels. The couple describe the initial find, over still photos of mud-covered reels taken with Jones’s camera (above).

Morrison now takes us further back, to demonstrations of how nitrate film was made (with extracts from a 1937 film optimistically titled Romance of Celluloid) and how it is prone to catch fire and burn fiercely. The well-known 1897 Charity Bazaar disaster in Paris is cited, while film of a burning tent and fleeing spectators is shown. No visual record survives of the Charity Bazaar disaster, not even photographs. News accounts used engravings as illustrations. The burning tent footage is from a film released twenty years later, Polly of the Circus (1917), one of the main lost films recovered in the DCFF.

Morrison does not hide this source but superimposes a caption giving the film’s title, date, and source. This is the first time he draws upon DCFF images to evocatively represent real historical events. Later in Dawson City, the mention of an actual person, such as Gates, sending a letter will be accompanied by a montage of letter-reading moments culled from DCFF films. It’s a clever way to add a little humor and to show off a wide variety of the titles without dwelling on long clips from any one film.

Having established the destructibility and danger of nitrate, Morrison flashes back to the earliest period portrayed in the film. Epic photographs show forested landscape. The narration, done with captions rather than voiceover, informs us that for millennia the area where the Klondike River flows into the Yukon has been the hunting grounds for one of the First Nations, the “native Hän-speaking people.” (The footage is from City of Gold, the famous 1957 Canadian documentary about Dawson City, which will become more important later in Morrison’s film.) A photo introduces Chief Isaac, leader of one subgroup of the Hän.

Nothing is said at this point, but the fate of these hunting grounds initiates one of the major threads recurring through the film, that of ecological destruction.

The third major thread is the history of Dawson City itself, which is as fascinating as the story of the buried films. In late 1896 or early 1897 one Joseph Ladue claimed 160 acres as a town site, where he sold lumber and lots to prospectors. By the summer of 1897 there were 3500 residents, and Morrison uses population figures to trace the wide swings in the town’s fortunes over the decades.

At this point the Northwest Mounted Police relocated the Häns’ village five miles downriver, and their fishing and hunting grounds were destroyed by mining.

During the descriptions and facts about the huge amounts of gold coming out of the area, Morrison introduces other motifs and threads. He mentions that Jack London was among the prospectors. He was the first of several writers and theater figures who were in the Yukon, often during these early years. Most of them resurface late in the film later on, turning out to have surprising connections with the history of the cinema and each other.

Famous entrepreneurs of later years got their starts here. Sid Grauman was a newspaper boy who eventually went on to build a theater chain, including the Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles. Ted Richard, who staged boxing matches in the Monte Carlo theater, later founded the New York Rangers and rebuilt Madison Square Garden. Alex Pantages started as a bartender, rebuilt Dawson City’s Orpheum theater after it burned to the ground in 1899 and showed traveling programs of early movies. He became one of the first major film tycoons, building a string of 70 theaters in North America.

 

The Gold Rush frozen in time

One of the revelations of Dawson City is the work of photographer Eric Hegg, who traveled to the Yukon alongside with the hordes of hopeful prospectors. He, however, worked as a photographer, and shot thousands of images that became, as Morrison’s caption says, “the iconic images of the Gold Rush.” The one above shows the arduous and crowded journey up over the notorious Chilkoot Pass. Chaplin later staged a remarkably similar scene for The Gold Rush (1925), though whether he could have seen Hegg’s images is unclear.

By the summer of 1898, the population of Dawson City was around 40,000, and the richest claims were all taken. Businesses were set up to cater to the prospectors, including Hegg’s photographic studio. Saloons, casinos, theaters, as well as more practical boat-builders and banks sprang up. Of the two initial banks that opened branches, the Canadian Bank of Commerce is the more important to Morrison’s story, since it eventually acted as the Dawson City agent for distributors sending films to town.

The first boom ended in the spring of 1900, after the announcement of a gold strike in Nome. Three-quarters of Dawson City’s population left, including Hegg, who left his collection of glass negatives with his partner, Ed Larss. He opened a new studio in Skagway and continued to document the Gold Rush.

After his departure, Hegg disappears from Dawson City for quite some time. His work there, however, was also fortuitously rescued from oblivion. Twenty minutes from the end, we are introduced to Irene Caley and Will Crayford, who married in 1947 and decided to move a cabin from Dawson City to Rock Creek. Inside the walls they found hundreds of Hegg’s glass negatives. How they got there is unknown. Coincidentally, Hegg died in 1947, presumably unaware of the recovery of his early negatives.

The newlyweds proposed to strip the emulsion off the plates and use them to build a greenhouse. Luckily a local shopkeeper recognized their nature and gave the couple plain plates in exchange for the 93 glass ones, as well as 96 nitrate negatives. He donated the collection to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. Arguably this rescue is as significant as the DCFF, especially given that Hegg’s photographs mostly survived in beautiful condition and constitute the best record of the Gold Rush’s first stage.

In 1949 a book of Hegg’s photographs, edited by Edith Anderson Bccker, was published as Klondike ’98.

Subsequently documentary film director and producer Colin Low saw the plates in Ottawa and was inspired to make City of Gold (1957), co-directed by Wolf Koenig. City of Gold, which drew extensively on Hegg’s images, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film. The awards ceremony took place at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, built and owned by the same Alexander Pantages who launched his theatrical career in Dawson City. It would be nice to think that whoever attended that ceremony representing City of Gold saw the connection.

In 1900, Hegg moved to Skagway and continued to document the Gold Rush. His post-Dawson City photographs also survive. The University of Washington’s collection contains over 2100. Its library offers a short biography and a generous sampling of those photographs here.

 

Weaving the threads together

Dawson City’s second boom was less spectacular but more ominous. The White Pass Railroad made Dawson City more accessible, and heavier equipment was brought in: giant hoses to break up the ground, sluices to convey the ore to a central locale, and so. Miners brought their families to live in Dawson City, with the population steadying at 9000. Various institutions, including banks, the Carnegie Library (above), and, in 1902, the huge Dawson Amateur Athletic Assocation (DAAA) building was built, with an auditorium, billiards room, bowling alley, skating rink, and swimming pool (top). I can’t summarize the whole film, but by this point Morrison has introduced enough people and places to start connecting them up in unexpected ways.

One such thread meanders like this. The celebrity motif returns at about this point, with Marjorie Rambeau (later to have a career as a character actress in movies from 1917 to 1957) performing in Dawson City with a traveling theatrical trouple. Rambeau is not significant here, but Fatty Arbuckle was also in the cast. This information is accompanied by a frame from Fatty’s Day Off (1913), a film discovered in the DCFF.

Shortly after this, we hear of two further celebrities-to-be who were in Dawson City. In 1908, poet Robert Service arrives to work at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and the following year he writes his first and best-known novel, The Trail of ’98 (1909), about the Gold Rush. From 1908 to 1912, William Desmond Taylor works as a timekeeper on a large gold-mining dredge belonging to the Yukon Gold Company, founded by Daniel and Soloman Guggenheim in 1907. These dredges handled most of the mining, throwing many out of work and causing Dawson City’s population to shrink to 3000. Huge dredges would continue to grind down the land for decades.

In 1912, Taylor left for Hollywood, where he enjoyed a short but prolific career as an actor and director, before, as Morrison foreshadows, his untimely death.

These people disappear for a time, and we learn that in 1911 the auditorium of the DAAA was turned into a movie house, the DAAA Family Theater. Other theaters in town went over to showing films. Morrison conveys this via an amusing montage of shots of people in cinema and theatrical audiences, all from DCFF films. He also provides a quick summary of disastrous nitrate fires during the early 1910s.

There follows a long interlude of coverage of the suppression of laborers and leftists during this period, in part to show off some of the newsreel footage preserved in the DAAA swimming pool. These include the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, the “Silent Parade” protesting violence against African-Americans in 1917, and the World Series scandal of 1919.This somewhat tangential though interesting foray into politics also serves to bring us forward nearly a decade.

The Solax studio fire, which also happened in 1919, provides a rather wobbly transition back to film and Dawson City as the end point of a film distribution line. The population has sunk to 1000 by this point. Since the films shown in the town during this decade were not shipped back to the distributor, many of them were stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library and continued to be through the 1920s.

A long, effective montage of shots from various DCFF films follows, beginning with people listening through doors and going through them, so that we get the impression of a giant house with dozens of people sneaking around. This is followed by shots of men attempting to embrace women and being repulsed.

The last of these is from The Kiss (1914), starring William Desmond Taylor. A caption announces his murder in 1922.

     

A Dawson City newspaper page announcing the murder and calling Taylor a “Klondiker” and a “Yukoner” is superimposed over another image from The Kiss. Coincidentally, just below this story is one about Arbuckle’s second murder trial ending in a hung jury. The second Taylor headline points out: “Noted Stars Involved.” One of these was Mary Miles Minter, and Morrison shows her in a film, The Little Clown (1921), from the DCFF. Minter had acted in films directed by Taylor, though this is, alas, not one of them. It was however, discovered among the DCFF films. Not one to quit there, Morrison cuts to a shot from another DCFF film, The Strange Case of Mary Page (1916), which has a plot that resembles Taylor’s case.

     

That two Hollywood directors should have been linked to murder cases, one as victim, one as alleged perpetrator (Arbuckle was never convicted), was certainly a gift to a director keen to stitch as many elements of his film together as possible through associations rather than straightforward historical causes.

Other connections are less elaborate. At the point where the story of Dawson City has reached the late 1920s, The Trail of ’98 (1928), an adaptation of the Robert Service novel mentioned above, is shown via a superimposed poster to be screening at Grauman’s Chinese, another chance confluence of two people who could not have crossed paths in the Yukon, since Grauman left there in 1900.

 

The burial

All this material has brought us to the point when the accumulating films in the library basement were transferred to the DAAA swimming pool. By 1928 Dawson City had developed a “modest season tourist industry.” Chief Isaac, whom we met early on, had become mayor of Moosehide (above). And Clifford Thomas, the man responsible for putting the film reels in the swimming pool, moved to Dawson City to work at the Canadian Bank of Commerce. He also became the treasurer of the Dawson Amateur Hockey League, which played on the ice rink installed annually over the swimming pool.

In 1929 the library storage had reached capacity, and when Thomson inquired of the studios what he should do with the films, he was instructed to destroy them. At about the time, it was decided to fill in the pool so as to allow for a the skating rink to get rid of a broad bulge caused by the pool’s cover. Thomson made the decision to use the reels as fill in this conversion. Numerous other reels were burned or thrown into the Yukon River–a standard way of disposing of trash.

Morrison could have skipped back to the recovery of the films roughly fifty years later, but instead he continues the Dawson City story. First, he poetically indicates the long decades the reels spent sealed underground with a montage of women asleep, all drawn from DCFF films. The talkies finally reach Dawson City, and more silent reels are dumped or burnt. Chief Isaac dies in  1932.

Parades continue to celebrate the Gold Rush heritage, as recorded by George Black, an avid local amateur cinematographer who recorded several events shown in Dawson City. The one below took place in 1941.

By 1950, the population of Dawson City dropped under 900 people. The last theater was torn down in 1961, though the replica of the Palace Grand went up as a multi-purpose facility in 1962.

On November 15, 1966, the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation closed down its last dredge. A lengthy drone shot flies high over the tortuous, unnatural landscape that resulted from many decades of grinding down and spewing out the land (bottom). The ecological thread has not been emphasized through most of the film, but it comes to a devastating conclusion.

Morrison reaches the discovery of the reels in 1978, and Gates and Jones-Gates resume their story. They contact Sam Kula, Director of Audiovisual Archives, 1973-1989 at the National Archives of Canada. Kula comes to Dawson City, and he (left) and Gates (right) investigate the sodden reels of film.

Kula initially suggested donating the films to the local museum and contacted Kathy Jones. She helped dig up the films, which turned out to be far more numerous and buried far more deeply than they imagined. A newspaper item about the find led to a letter from Clifford Thomson. His explanation of how he had arranged for the films to be put in the swimming pool solved that mystery and provides us with our basic knowledge of the origins of the reels.

The rest of the film’s tale of the reels’ discovery follows how the three rescuers tried to ship the thems to the National Archives of Canada, with several truck, bus, and air services refusing to deal with nitrate film. In November of 1978 a Canadian Air Force plane delivered 506 reels to the Archives.

Morrison ends with a series of shots from various DCFF films with heavy deterioration. The thread of nitrate’s flammability and the recounting of numerous nitrate fires finds its quiet ending in the film’s lengthy final shot. A female dancer performs a modern dance that apparently expresses anguish. Blank white flashes flicker across the frame, suggesting that the dancer is being enveloped by the flames generated by nitrate film.

It is a fitting ending to a film that blends fascinating information and poetic associations in equal measures.

 

Some caveats

Despite my considerable admiration for Dawson City: Frozen Time, I have to take issue with some of the descriptions in this last part of the film. The narration does not point out that most of the films recovered were incomplete–not surprisingly, given how many reels were burned or otherwise destroyed. A film historian would assume that. A casual viewer would not. Similarly, there is an explicit statement that “every other copy” of these films had been lost to fire and decay. Some of these films, however, survived elsewhere, and sometimes in better copies.

The reception of the film has, through no fault of Morrison, distorted the significance of the DCFF considerably further. This evidently started with a extensive article in Vanity Fair that dubbed the DCFF “The King Tut’s Tomb of Silent-Era Cinema.” Numerous reviewers picked up this idea and repeated it, as when Kenneth Turan began his review, “It’s been called the King Tut’s Tomb of silent cinema, a celluloid find at one of the world’s far corners that dazzled the film universe.”

I cannot think of a more inapt comparison. Tutankhamun’s tomb is one of only two largely undisturbed royal tombs from the entire three-thousand-year history of ancient Egypt, and it is far and away the more important of the two. Despite the tomb’s small size in comparison with others in the Valley of the Kings, an extraordinary number of intact royal grave goods came from it–about 5000 of them (a small sample shown above). Indeed, most of what we know about ancient Egyptian royal grave goods is derived from those pieces. Tutankhamun’s tomb is, as far as we now know, unique.

In contrast, there have been many hundreds of discoveries of original silent films. One of the most notable is the Desmet collection in the Netherlands, which contained over 900 films, most of them complete and in excellent condition. Other such discoveries have ranged from single prints to large collections. Those who have discovered and restored these films are still building the international archival holdings of silent cinema. The Dawson City find is simply one important contribution to this extensive and ongoing effort.

Sam Kula himself wrote, “No-one familiar with the considerable resources now accessible through the work of film archives throughout the world would seriously argue that the Dawson Collection, or any one cache of early film, will lead to a wholesale re-write of the histories.”

 

The story continued

Morrison essentially ends his account when the films leave Dawson City, which is quite understandable. But the viewer might ask what happened next. There is little attention paid to the lengthy, complex procedures necessary to rescue the films from the effects of their long burial and to transfer their images onto modern negatives.

The Blu-ray release contains a nine-minute supplement, Dawson City: Postscript, which does trace some of the subsequent history of the rescued reels. We see the washing of the films in the Canadian facility, as well as the storage facilities in which the original films were stored once they had been duplicated. In the US, the Library of Congress’ 388 reels are now kept at the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, which David visited and blogged about earlier this year. Morrison maintains his history of Dawson City as well, noting that in the summer of 1979 the town suffered a disastrous flood and that the premiere of some of the restored films took place shortly after that, on September 1.

At first glance, the Dawson find seems to have been handled in a casual way, with local administrators who were not film archivists digging up reels with shovels and handling them in a way that today would seem reckless. Some have assumed that considerable unnecessary damage was done to the films after their discovery. Yet no written account of the whole affair has yet been published.

I asked our friend Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department of the George Eastman Museum, for his opinion. He kindly gave me his account of the rescue process, which suggests that the original participants in Dawson City did the best they could under extremely challenging circumstances.

As Paolo wrote in introducing his description, “Please note that what I know is just a matter of oral history — things I heard from the protagonists and witnesses of the events, several years ago. Also, I have not yet seen Bill Morrison’s film.” Others may be able to correct or expand upon some of what Paolo has written. Still, it provides a very informative and useful summary of the rescue process. (I have identified the people mentioned below in brackets. The undated image of a silent-era drying drum is the only image in this entry that is not from Dawson City: Frozen Time.)

In my opinion, the rescue of the Dawson City was a miracle of improvisation and initiative achieved under extremely difficult and often adverse circumstances (see below). In all fairness, I can’t call it a disaster (I can think of other occurrences in my field where that term could rightfully apply). In hindsight, it is all too easy to point out the mistakes made in the process; back in 1978, archival practices were less sophisticated than they are now.

The comparison with Tutankhamen’s tomb is indeed excessive in regard to the aesthetic importance of the films; there is no exaggeration, however, in pointing out the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the discovery, and the steps taken in a very short period of time. You don’t find silent films in a frozen swimming pool that often. When you do, the historical value of the artifacts is not an issue. You want to save all the objects, and then find out their worth. That’s the main reason for the mystique surrounding the discovery; that’s also why I heard about it as soon as I started studying silent film history and film preservation.

It must be pointed out at the outset that the film reels found in the layer right under the permafrost that covered the swimming pool were already decomposed. Nothing could be done to save those prints. It is my understanding that preliminary identification work was undertaken at Dawson City, and that such work was implemented in a cold area. It may be argued that there was no particular reason why this work had to be done there instead than later in Ottawa, but that’s what happened. The late Sam Kula, one of the protagonists (together with Bill O’Farrell [Head of Film Preservation, 1975-2002, National Archives of Canada] and Paul Spehr [former Secretary for the Motion Picture Section of the Library of Congress and Assistant Chief of the Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress], among others) of this story, may have been able to explain this.

The reels gradually thawed in at least three stages, during their transfer to a) an air-force base near Dawson City; b) the National Archives in Ottawa; c) the Library of Congress. The thawing could perhaps have been minimized (if not avoided altogether) if the material had been processed in a refrigerated area from beginning to end. This didn’t happen. The nitrate unit at the National Archives of Canada had been shut down to make room for operations on safety materials, and no special precaution could apparently be taken while dividing the collection in two main groups: the Canadian newsreels to be kept at the National Archives, and the American films to be sent to the Library of Congress.

Bureaucracy was the nemesis of the Dawson City rescue project. The only way Bill O’Farrell could bypass it was for him to personally transport the reels of American films from Canada to the US by car, in a large station wagon, from Ottawa to Suitland, Maryland. His heroic feat — perhaps the most important of his career — would have hardly been possible today. He had no choice; following the usual protocol would have taken months, and the emulsion on the prints would have melted completely. Paul Spehr did his part by having the films accepted into the collection in record time, without following the standard acquisition procedures at the LoC. O’Farrell had alerted Spehr that “there is water in the cans” — this is what Spehr heard on the phone, and he expected this to be the case when the material arrived. It’s not that the reels were drenched in a pool of water in each can; but there was water. The prints had thawed.

In that situation, it was deemed necessary to do something about that water. The technical staff at LoC designed and built a drying drum, similar to those used in film laboratories during the silent era. Because of their size, each reel had to be unwound and cut into sections of approximately 300 feet each. The reels were dried that way. They were unwound while very wet on the edges of the reels, and the emulsion inevitably peeled off from the left and right margins of the frame; hence the distinctive look of the Dawson City films we can see today in reproduced form. I think the very same method for drying the films was applied in Ottawa to the Canadian newsreels.

To reiterate the point, the whole story has always been described to me as an emergency rescue performed at breakneck speed, a chain of events where careful advance planning could not be part of the picture. The only way to avoid the partial loss of the emulsion would have been to undertake the entire process in a much colder working area. By the time the reels reached Dayton, however, it would have already been too late to apply such a solution, even if a low-temperature processing area had been available. All that could be done at LoC was to “stabilize” the material long enough for it to go through the printers for duplication.

So that’s that. I hasten to add that my recollections raise a number of questions to which I have no answer.

Our thanks to Paolo for filling in so much of the rest of the story of the Dawson City Film Find.


Thanks to Jonathan Hertzberg of Kino Lorber for his assistance.

The Sam Kula quotation comes from his account of the DCFF rescue, “Rescued from the Permafrost: The Dawson Collection of Motion Pictures,” which can be found on Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archvists #8 (Summer 1979), reprinted from American Film (July 1979).

A brief description of the “Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection” is on the Library of Congress “Motion Pictures in the Library of Congress” page.

Ritrovato 2017: Many faces, many places

Varda and JR

Agnès Varda and JR, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 1 July. Photo: DB.

DB here:

This final post from Il Cinema Ritrovato is no less a miscellany than the others. With over 500 films screened, Kristin and I invariably missed things that others raved about. Still, we saw enough powerful cinema to make us want to flag some key items for you.

 

Silents, please

Kristin has already mentioned one of the most startling items we saw, Le Coupable (1917) by André Antoine. I’m still processing the audacity of this film. The prosecutor in a murder trial abruptly claims the defendant as his son. We then get the familiar flashback format, shifting from the courtroom to the events leading up to the crime and the arrest. But the shifts between present and past are so quick, and the bits we see of the trial are given in such intense, stark singles, that they gain an astonishingly modern pulse.

Prosec 300     Defendant 300

Add in marvelous use of locations, real alleys and corridors and cafes, and you have a very impressive movie.

Hallway 300     Cafe 300

Once more, 1917 proves to be dynamite.

From the same year came Furcht (Fear), by Robert Wiene. Count Grevin wanders anxiously through his castle for about sixteen minutes of screen time before we realize, thanks to a flashback, that he’s haunted by his theft of a precious Indian statue, stolen from a temple. Soon a priest materializes, either on the castle grounds or in Grevin’s imagination, to declare that he has only seven years to enjoy life before vengeance strikes. Which it does, of course. Conrad Veidt plays the priest with the smoldering glare, and ambitious superimpositions show how committed German cinema was to special effects. Dr. Caligari was three years off.

Secrets 250Not that other years should be slighted. Le Collier de la danseuse (The Dancer’s Necklace, 1912) was an agreeably preposterous crime movie. (The thief has a jacket with fake hands dangling from the sleeves, just the thing for escaping handcuffs.) The film boasted the low, almost Ozuesque, camera height typical of other Pathé productions of the year.

Borzage’s Secrets (1924) traces a marriage through three large flashbacks, with the first emphasizing romantic comedy, the second suspense, and the third family melodrama. Norma Talmadge, who savored a split-personality role in De Luxe Annie (1918), gets to play a woman at three ages here. The central section, devoted to a Griffithian siege on a lonely frontier cabin, showed Borzage’s ability to whip up enormous excitement, with an unexpectedly sad twist. The whole movie has over 11oo shots, indicating just how committed American filmmakers had become to fine-grained scene breakdowns.

All in all, the silent films on display this year were as revelatory as ever.

 

Cinematic geometries

ABE CLAN29

The Abe Clan (1938).

For some years Ritrovato has included a Japanese sidebar curated by Alexander Jacoby  and Johan Nordström. This year the theme was socially critical jidai-geki, or historical films. Some of them were fairly familiar to Western cinephiles because copies were circulated by the Japan Film Library Council from the 1970s onward. Examples include The Abe Clan (1938) and Fallen Blossoms (1938), both very good films. Along with these, the Bologna series gave the Yamanaka Sadao classic Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937) another well-deserved airing.

Some of these are fairly intimate dramas, others use a lot of spectacle. The image from Abe Clan above is fairly typical of the monumental turn some jidai-geki took in the late 1930s. Several of the films starred members of the left-wing Zenshinza kabuki troupe, perhaps best known to aficionados from Mizoguchi’s staggering Genroku Chushingura (1941-1942).

Three of the other films showed the range of this genre during Japan’s “dark valley,” its turn to authoritarian rule and imperial warfare. The Rise of Bandits (1937), by Takizawa Eisuke, was a rousing but melancholy Robin Hood tale. A lord’s honest son tries to save a shipment of gold from marauders, but he’s framed by his duplicitous brother. So he becomes the outlaws’ leader, at the cost of his wife’s life and his father’s trust. Some superb action sequences, including a fiery final assault on the castle, alternate with semicomic scenes among the bandits, with the hero’s cynical sidekick twisting not-too-bright thugs around his finger.

Night Before 300

Hagiwara Ryo’s The Night Before (1939, production still above) was based on a Yamanaka script, and like Humanity and Paper Balloons, it braids together several characters’ fates. As rival samurai factions struggle during the Meiji restoration, ordinary people–an artist, a family running an inn, a young man wanting to make his name as a warrior, a bitter and disenchanted samurai–try to get by. One of the innkeeper’s daughters is attracted to the youth, another daughter who works as a geisha eyes the artist, and the old man seems to escape into endless games of shogi with a neighbor. The film has a panic-stricken climax, in which the factions collide in darkness along the riverside and innocents get swept up in the violence. As with many films in the series, the critique of mindless militarism isn’t far below the surface.

The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday (1941), by the great Masahiro Makino, is a murder mystery. An unpleasant landlord is the victim, and there are plenty of suspects. The scattered clues didn’t seem to me to play entirely fair, but the investigation is largely a pretext to explore adjacent households and obfuscate what turns out to be complicated post-murder maneuvers. At the climax, all the suspects are seated in a single line to hear the magistrate’s solution, just as if they were in Nero Wolfe’s office.

Makino’s style accentuates the spatial layout through a remarkable ten zoom-ins that yank us to one or another suspect as the explanation is given, sometimes with flashbacks. Camera zooms (as opposed to optical-printer ones, as in Citizen Kane) are rare in any national cinema of this period, and Makino uses them almost in the spirit of Hong Sangsoo, more to perk up our attention than to enlarge anything for closer scrutiny. (Admittedly, the last one rivets us on the guilty party.) The same geometrical impulse encloses the tale: an opening crane shot down, a closing one upward. As often in Japanese cinema, The Man Who Disappeared Yesterday marks and repeats film techniques to give a decorative flourish to the story.

Technique also comes to the fore, of course, in Divine (1935), a French production directed by Max Ophüls. The attraction isn’t just the dizzying camera movements, swimming through a tangle of backstage paraphernalia and crawling up stairways. Max is more than a master of the tracking shot. In one witty passage, framing and cutting coordinate to stretch the distance between a couple who can’t tear themselves away from each other. (In my last frame, the milkman’s head slides almost out of frame.)

1 300     2 300     3 300     4 300     5 300     6 300

The plot centers on a country girl who becomes a follies performer and is framed as a drug dealer by a Lothario and a lesbian. This contraption seems more or less a pretext for Ophüls to indulge his endless fascination with women striking poses for men while asserting their own demands. The abrupt and unexplained happy ending is the logical wrapup for a film less concerned with a plausible plot than a display of Woman in all her dazzling divinity. There. How’s that for a Sarris sentence?

 

Bigger than life

Visages postman 400

Although there were some repeats on Sunday, the final big event of the festival was the screening, to some 3000 people on the Piazza Maggiore, of the new film by Agnès Varda and JR. Kelley Conway reviewed its Cannes premiere for us earlier, and now that we’ve seen it, we like it a lot.

Varda has the ability to take a whimsical, borderline-cutesy idea and turn it into something poignant, as in Daguerreotypes and Opéra-mouffe. (Nursery-rhyming titles, like Mur Murs and Sans toit ni loi, encapsulate her attitude.) Her latest, an associational documentary along the lines of The Gleaners and I, depends on the premise of traveling through France and making enormous photographic portraits of ordinary people. These are then mounted on buildings in their home town–hence the title Visages Villages.

The result is both intimate and monumental. A postal clerk or a woman truck driver take on the billboard proportions of politicians and pop stars.  Without any sense of slumming, Varda and JR can memorialize a woman living in a building about to be demolished, and can spare time for a haggard hermit who has dropped out of the system. It’s as powerful a populism as any you’ll see, but done with humor, genuine curiosity, and respect for the integrity of each subject. A playful approach to art can yield serious emotional effect.

As Visages Villages goes on, it turns introspective. Varda recalls episodes from her life and tries to incorporate one of her photos, a casual shot of Guy Bourdin, into a skewed tipsy WWII bunker rusting on a beach. She recalls young days with Godard and Karina, so that now when Godard dodges a meeting, she becomes rueful (“The rat!”). This lady gleaner is always gathering fragments, and we’re lucky she shares them with us.

 

Again Bologna gave excellent, overwhelming value. The surprises never stopped. Dropping into a film I hadn’t seen in three decades, Rancho Notorious, I not only had fun but realized once more Lang’s diabolical genius. A peculiar insert of a boot slipped into a stirrup puzzled me, but after an hour I got it. (Forgive me, Fritzie, for I knew not what I did.) Long may this festival flourish.


Thanks as ever to the vast and dedicated staff of Il Cinema Ritrovato, particularly Guy Borlée, Gian Luca Farinelli, and Mariann Lewinsky.

I discuss the trend toward monumental jidai-geki in chapters 12 and 15 of Poetics of Cinema. More detailed analysis can be found in Darrell William Davis’s book Picturing Japaneseness: Monumental Style, National Identity, Japanese Cinema.

Visages Villages (aka Faces, Places) is distributed by the Cohen Media Group.

Agnes JR

Agnés Varda and JR. Photo: DB.

Ritrovato 2017: An embarrassment of riches

Concorde new

Place de la Concorde (somewhere between 1888 and 1904)

KT here:

David’s recent entry stressed the world-wide scope of offerings here at Il Cinema Ritrovato. The time period covered is even broader–this year as broad as it could possibly be. The final night’s film in the Piazza Maggiorre will be Agnès Varda and JR’s prize-winning documentary straight from this year’s Cannes festival, Visages Villages, with Varda here to introduce it. Yesterday we saw a work that may have been created before the cinema itself had been properly invented.

 

The earliest years

American Mutoscope & Biograph

Somewhere in the time period 1888 to 1904, French scientist Etiennes-Jules Marey created a huge photographic format, a filmstrip 88 mm wide and 31 mm high. He exposed a series of images along this broad strip but never intended to project them as a film. As with much of Marey’s work, these high-quality photographs were tools to allow him to analyze movements, in this case those of humans and horses in the Place de la Concorde.

The National Technical Museum in Prague has scanned this series of frames to create a digital copy that can be projected in motion. The results, lasting only 45 seconds, has a clarity and detail that seems to rival that of Imax film. (The image at the top only hints at the effect.) We watched the piece four times and would have been glad to see it at least as many more.

A major thread running through the festival is the year 1897, which, although only the second year of the established film industry, already saw the making of many beautiful and intriguing films. Among the ones shown here were films made by the American Mutoscope Company (later known under the more familiar name, American Mutoscope and Biograph) and British Mutoscope and Biograph. These films, made to be shown in both peepshow machines and projected onto screens, utilized a 68 mm format.

Such films have mainly been seen in poor prints that give an impression of primitive crudeness. Thanks to preservation work on collections in the EYE Filmmuseum and the BFI-National Archive, the richness and clarity of these films have become evident, and they look anything but primitive. One American film (above) is Jumbo, Horseless Fire Engine, credited to William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson himself, provides what must have been an exciting variant on the many films featuring horse-drawn fire engines racing along streets.

One of the Lumière company’s most prolific traveling cameramen was Alexandre Promio. I was naturally intrigued by series he filmed in Egypt in 1897. One thing that struck me about 28 films in the program was how few featured famous tourist attractions and truly picturesque images. True, Les Pyramides (vue générale) shows one of the most familiar ancient sites in the world, the Sphinx against the great pyramid of Khufu.

Promio Sphinx film 1897

Most of the rest of these brief films are remarkably mundane, however. Place de la Citadelle shows an open space with a nondescript building in the distance rather than the two main attractions of the Citadel, the Mosque of Mohammed Ali and the spectacular view out over the city. Village de Sakkarah (cavaliers sur ânes) shows fellahin riding donkeys in modern Mit Rahina, but in the background the colossal quartzite statue of Ramesses II lies on the ground (where it still lies today, covered by a shelter). It is a beautiful statue, visited by nearly all tourists, and yet in the film it is merely a distant, vague shape, identifiable only to those who are familiar with it.

Numerous other views are moving, taken either from trains and showing ordinary industrial buildings or from boats, showing mainly palm trees. The collection leads one to speculate what prompted Promio to choose his subjects.

I believe the tradition of showing films in the open air of the Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini (the courtyard of the Cineteca di Bologna) on carbon-arc projectors began in 2013, which I reported on it. This popular feature has expanded, with three programs this year. The first centered around Addio, Giovenezza!, which David described in his entry. The second was particularly special, with a five early shorts ranging from 1902 to 1907 shown on a vintage 1900 projector, hand-cranked by Nikolaus Wostry of the Filmarchiv Austria. The films were charming, but the star of the show was the projector. It looked like a magic lantern dressed up with special attachments that allowed for moving pictures, including a shutter sitting in front of the lens rather than within the body of the lantern. Indeed, the thing looks like a magic lantern converted into a film projector.

Projector 1900

This projector cast a much smaller image than the later carbon-arc projector used for the second part of the show. The image had rounded corners and it flickered distinctly. At times, despite Wostry’s obvious expertise at hand-cranking, the image would briefly go to black. Watching this presentation, it became easy to grasp how early audiences might have been constantly aware of the artifice, the machine, creating these images and have marveled at any sort of moving photographs that were cast on the screen before them. It was a magical few minutes, making almost real the section of the program entitled “The Time Machine.”

 

Classics of 1917

The Girl from Stormycroft

Although there was some thought of ending the Cento Anni Fa programs once the feature film became established, that has fortunately not been done. Instead, a mixture of shorts and features continues to celebrate the cinema of a century ago. Some of the Italian films David wrote about came from that year.

I had the chance to see two masterpieces from that year back to back: André Antoine’s Le coupable and Victor Sjöström’s The Girl from Stormycroft. Both center around the subject of women seduced and left pregnant by their selfish lovers.

I had never seen Le coupable.  Antoine is often referred to as a naturalist theatrical director, but going by Le coupable and La terre (1921), he is equally a major film director in the realist tradition, though his output consisted of only nine films from the brief period 1917 to 1922.

While La terre was filmed largely in the countryside, Le coupable was shot in the streets of Paris, and many of its interiors seem to be set in real rooms. Antoine manages to combine the gritty realism of his lower-class milieux with beautiful cinematography (see bottom image). The story takes the unusual form (for its day) of a lengthy series of flashbacks framed by a trial of a young thief and murderer. The past does not unroll from witnesses’ testimony, however, but from one of the presiding judges’ lengthy confession that he is the father of the accused  and had abandoned the boy’s mother. The situation is pure melodrama, but Antoine’s light touch and feel for the settings of the action make it a masterpiece.

The Girl from Stormycroft has the distinction of being the first adaptation of a novel by internationally popular author Selma Lagerlöf, whose work was to be the basis for several classics of the Swedish silent cinema, including The Phantom Carriage and Stiller’s The Saga of Gõsta Berling (1924). It is set in the countryside, in a group of small villages. Helga, the heroine, has been seduced by a married man who refuses to acknowledge her child as his own. In a key trial scene, she gives up her suit against him to prevent his committing a sin by swearing to a lie on the Bible. This gains the admiration of a well-off and kind young man, Gudmund, who persuades his mother to take Helga on as a maid. When his fiancée and her parents visit Gudmund’s family, they express disgust at her presence and depart (above), leaving Gudmund is left with doubts about his upcoming marriage.

 

Early sound films

El-compadre-Mendoza-2

Il Cinema Ritrovato’s programs offer an opportunity to sample early sound films from a much wider range of countries than usual. Gustav Machaty, best known for Ecstasy (1933), made From Saturday to Sunday in 1931. It follows a pair of working girls who go out to a ritzy nightclub with two wealthy men, intending to exploit the two for a lavish night out while avoiding their sexual demands.

This proves more difficult than they expected, and we end up following one of the pair as she is stranded late at night in the pouring rain. As the title suggests, the action is a slice of life, lasting less than 24 hours. Machaty manages to blend the visual style of the late 1920s with a firm grasp of sound technology. The result is an entertaining if rather conventional tale.

From Saturday to Sunday, Machaty

Mexican filmmakers seem to have proved equally adept at taking up sound. The program notes for the program “Rivoluzione e avventura: Il Cinema Messicano dell-Epoca d’Oro” point out that  Mexican production burgeoned in the 1930s, going from one feature in 1931 to 21 in 1933.

The earliest film in this thread, El Compadre Mendoza (1933), is a technically and stylistically impressive film, looking like a Hollywood film of the same era. It’s part of a trilogy about the Mexican Revolution, coming between director Fernando de Fuentes’ El prisionero 13 (1933) and Vámonos con Pancho Villa (1935), though it is quite comprehensible and enjoyable on its own.

The irony of the title is that the protagonist, a jovial, sociable plantation owner, is professing loyalty to both sides, and for years he manages to live a pleasant life with his family and staff on their large hacienda. The film is remarkable in portraying the Revolution almost entirely offscreen. The narrative sticks mostly to Mendoza’s house, and we gauge the progress of the fighting purely through a series of sequences in which either revolutionary or government troops ride up the long, tree-lined road to the house. There Mendoza and his household provide a bit of socializing, putting up an effective façade of loyalty to whichever army is present at the time.

Mendoza develops a particular friendship with Felipe, a Revolutionary general (above), who also attracts Mendoza’s young wife in what develops into a lengthy unconsummated romance. Inevitably Mendoza’s juggling of the two sides collapses as he is forced to help one of them against his will.

For me the most unexpected discovery of the festival was the second Mexican film, Two Monks (1934). It is considered the first in the Mexican Gothic genre. It was inspired by the Spanish-language version of Dracula (directed in 1931 by George Melford for Universal), as well as by German Expressionist films.

There are no monsters in the film. Instead, a frame story set in a monastery that looks straight out of Murnau’s Faust (1926) introduces a young monk, Javier, who has gone mad. He attacks another monk, Juan, with a crucifix and confesses to the prior that he did so because Juan had committed a terrible crime. A lengthy flashback lays out the story of Javier’s love for Ana and his eventual rivalry with Juan. In the second half, Juan also confesses, and the story is repeated from his point of view. Scenes we saw earlier are replayed, often starting at an earlier point or ending at a later way, in a way that alters our understanding of the two monks’ past relationship. The result is not a Rashomon-type situation, for the two men agree on the events they describe, disagreeing only on the implications of those events.

It’s a remarkable narrational technique for this early in film history. The atmosphere claustrophobia created by the small cast (no passers-by are seen in the brief street scenes and no servants appear in the houses) and of dread created by the sets and the dissonant music of the climactic scene would bear comparison with the horror films of Universal and Hammer.

Dos monjes 3

 

Restorations that make me feel old

West Indies

Film restoration has been around for decades, but at some point within the several years I noticed that an increasing number of films were being restored were ones that I had seen when they first came out or shortly thereafter. Modern classics restoration wasn’t just for silent films and movies from the golden studio era. Now they’re for modern classics: The Graduate, Belle du jour, Women in Love, Blow-Up, and Day for Night (not to mention the restorations shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in past years).

Hondo 300My first thought is, why do such recent films need restoration? Answer: maybe they’re not as recent as they seem to me. My second thought is, haven’t the studios realized that they need to take care of their films? Answer: Yes, to some extent, given the vital work done by studio archivists like Grover Crisp and Shawn Belston. Still, will There Will Be Blood be neglected until it needs restoration in twenty years’ time?

Among the relatively recent films presented in restoration here is Med Hondo’s West Indies (1979). The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project undertook to restore a number of films by Hondo, an Algierian actor and director and one  of the most important directors from the African continent.

West Indies is a remarkable film, a musical on the history of French slave-owning in its Caribbean colonies. Inside an empty factory Hondo built a large set depicting the upper and lower decks of a slave ship. The various sections of this ship provide stages upon which scenes, anything from a 1968 demonstration in the streets of Paris to a slave auction hundreds of years before. Five actors representing colonial interests, including a black man who cooperates in order to maintain his position as a figurehead governor, take similar roles throughout the action.

It’s a lively, entertaining film, done in color and widescreen, as well as a maddening look at French complacency and casual cruelty. Most of the muscial numbers are dances rather than songs, with Hondo himself having choreographed several of them.

Hondo, now 83 and reportedly seeking backing for another film, was present at the festival and introduced the screening of West Indies that we attended. He was visibly moved by the chance to show this little-known work to an appreciative audience and thoroughly won us over during his brief presentation. With luck we will see a tenth film from him.


Thanks to Guy Borlée for his assistance with this blog, and to the programmers and staff of Ritrovato for another dazzling year. You can download the entire festival catalogue here.

Kelley Conway reviewed Visages Villages at Cannes for our blog.

 

Le coupable 1

Le coupable (1917)

Ladies at all levels

La Cigarette

La cigarette (1919)

Kristin here:

Earlier this month Flicker Alley released another of its ambitious collections of historic films, Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology. The dual-format edition contains three discs DVDs and three Blu-ray discs. Its ambitions are reflected in part by the volume of material included (652 minutes) and in part by the range of its contents, from well-known classics to obscure titles.

The collection was one of the last projects curated and produced by the late David Shephard. As with many of Flicker Alley’s releases, it was a joint project with Film Preservation Associates (Blackhawk Films) and Lobster Films of Paris, working with several film archives. The films are arranged chronologically, with the earliest being Les chiens savants (1902), a music-hall dog act attributed to Alice Guy Blaché, and the latest Maya Deren’s classic experimental film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943).

The publicity for the collection emphasizes that “More women worked in film during its first two decades than at any time since” (from the slipcase text). I would be interested in how such a claim was arrived at. It seems unlikely to me, if only because the film industries of the major producing countries have grown enormously since the silent and early sound periods. Still, despite this claim, the notes in the accompanying booklet (written by Kate Saccone, Manager of the Women Film Pioneers Project) describe how the DVD/Blu-ray release “reclaims that stature of ‘woman director’ and celebrates it in all its glory.” (One film included, Discontent [1916], is listed as “by Lois Weber”; in this case she wrote the screenplay, which was directed by Allen Siegler.) Thus the program does not survey the range of filmmaking work women performed–but such a survey would be essentially impossible. The lack of detailed credits on early films makes it difficult to determine even the director of a given film.

 

The silent films

Suspense

It is not really possible to discuss all the films, but I’ll mention some and link to earlier entries where we’ve discussed some of them.

Of the 25 titles on the three discs, fourteen are silent. Six of these give an overview of work of Blaché, with three French films and three made after her move to the US.

Lois Weber is represented by three films, starting with perhaps her best-known work, Suspense (1913). With its unusual angles (see above), elaborate split-screen phone conversations, and action shown in the rear-view mirror of a speeding car, this is one of those films you show people to demonstrate how wonderfully inventive directors around the world became in that incredible year. I am also very fond of her feature, The Blot (1921).

The third Weber film, Discontent (1916), may surprise those familiar with her socially conscious features. In the mid-1910s Weber worked in a variety of genres. While David was doing research recently at the Library of Congress, he watched some incomplete or deteriorated Weber films that haven’t been seen widely. He wrote about False Colors here and here. Discontent is a comedy with a moral. An elderly man is living in a home for retirees, but he envies his well-to-do family. Finally they invite him to live with them, and naturally everyone ends up annoyed by the situation–including the protagonist, who winds up returning to the home and his friends.

Mabel Normand apparently directed quite a number of her films for Mack Sennett, and Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914)  is one of them. Its cast also includes Charles Chaplin and was his third film to be released, although it was the second shot and the first one in which he wore a version of his Little Tramp costume. Not surprisingly, he steals every scene he’s in. Normand even plays second fiddle to him, with her character forced for a stretch of the action to hide under a bed, where she is barely visible while Chaplin performs some funny business in the same room. (The print seems to have been assembled from two different copies, the bulk of the film being in mediocre condition with the ending abruptly switching to a much clearer image.)

Mabel's Strange Predicament

One curious item in the program is Madeline Brandeis’ The Star Prince (1918). According to her page on the Women Film Pioneer’s Project, Brandeis was a wealthy woman who made films, mainly centering around children, as a hobby. Some of these were apparently intended for educational use. The Star Prince, her first film, is clearly aimed at children. A few of its adult characters are played by young adults, while children play both children and adults. This becomes a bit disconcerting when we assume for a long time that the prince and princess are perhaps seven or eight, until they fall in love and become engaged.

Despite the amateur filmmaking, there are some attempts at superimpositions and other special effects to convey the fantasy, as well as an charmingly clumsy pixillation of a squirrel puppet, the position of which is changed far too much between exposures.

The Star Prince, squirrel

This is the sort of local production, made outside the mainstream industry, that so seldom survives, and it is a welcome balance to the more sophisticated works that make up the bulk of this collection.

Speaking of which, the next part of the program consists of two features by one of the best-known female directors, Germain Dulac. The first, La cigarette, appeared in 1919. It’s melodrama about an fifty-ish Egyptologist, who has just acquired the mummy of a young princess who was unfaithful to her older husband. The professor begins to imagine that he is suffering a similar fate when his young and beautiful wife (see top) begins spending time with an athletic young fellow.

I remember seeing this film nearly forty years ago and thinking it was pretty weak. Luckily I have seen many films from this era since and know better how to watch them. Seeing it again I liked it quite a bit. It’s beautifully shot and well acted, and its sympathetic depiction of the doubting husband and the clever and resourceful wife is more subtle, in my opinion, than that of the marriage in The Smiling Madame Beudet (which is also included in this set). I was glad to have a chance to see the film again and recognize it as being among Dulac’s best work.

The silent section of the program ends with Olga Preobrazhenskaia’s The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927). The title emphasizes that Preobrazhenskaia’s film is set in a provincial area. Ryazan, the capitol, is about 120 miles southeast of Moscow, so it is not one of the far-flung regions of the USSR. Still, it would have been distant enough at the time to have its own distinctive culture. Peasant Women gives us plenty of local costumes and customs without giving the sense of this being ethnography first and narrative second. Exotic though it may seem to us, this would have been recent history to Russians when it first came out.

Although most synopses claim that the story runs from 1916 to 1918, it actually begins shortly before World War I, probably in 1914, as the heroine Anna marries Ivan in a lively wedding scene including a carriage ride for the bridal couple (below). Shortly thereafter news of the war comes, and Ivan reluctantly departs for to serve in it. Anna is left in the household of her lecherous father-in-law, who rapes and impregnates her. The war goes on and ends, with the Revolution taking place entirely off-screen.

Pesant Women of Ryazan, carriage

The second woman of the title is Wassilissa, a tougher sort, who applies to convert a decaying local mansion (we are left to assume that it was confiscated in the wake of the Revolution). She is seen at the end as being the prototype of the new Soviet woman, though Preobrazhenskaia throughout avoids hitting us over the head with overt propaganda.

The sound films

Papageno

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the directors on the third disc, devoted to sound films, are likely to be more familiar to modern viewers. Nevertheless,  Marie-Louise Iribe and her film Le Roi des Aulnes (1920), were completely unknown to me. She was the niece of designer Paul Iribe and worked primarily an actress during the 1920s, and this seems to have been her only solo directorial effort. (IMDb lists her as the co-director of the 1928 version of Hara-Kiri, which she also starred in.)

Le Roi des Aulnes is one of the musically based movies that were popular in the early sound era, being based on both Goethe’s and Schubert’s versions of “Der Erlkönig.” It’s nicely photographed, and the part of the father is played by Otto Gebühr, known for being trapped by his resemblance to Friederick der Grosse into playing that role time after time from 1921 to 1941. He’s predictably excellent here, though the stretching of the short poem into a 45-minute film forces him to register worry and eventually grief throughout. Indeed, despite extrapolated incidents, such as the injury of the father’s horse and the need to procure a new one, a great deal of repetition occurs: lots of riding through marshes and menacing appearances by the Erlkönig, who is portrayed as a large man in chain-mail.

The special effects are the most impressive thing about the film, using double superimpositions in widely different scales, with the giant king holding a small fairy on his palm.

Le Roi des Aulnes supers

Despite its problems, the film is a valuable addition to our examples of this mildly avant-garde trend that flourished for a short time.

Most of the rest of the directors are well-known and can be mentioned more briefly.

The great animator and innovator of silhouette animation Lotte Reiniger is represented by three short films: Harlequin (1931), The Stolen Heart (1934), and Papageno (1935). I have written about Reiniger’s complex compositions, including her subtly shaded backgrounds. Of the directors represented here, she is the one who enjoyed the longest career, from 1916, when she would have been 17, to 1980, when she was 81. I discuss a BFI boxed set of some of her 1950s films here. I haven’t been able to find a complete filmography, but William Moritz estimates that she made “nearly 70 films.”

Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker’s A Night on Bald Mountain is similarly familiar. Like Iribe’s Le Roi des Aulnes, it falls into the genre of illustrations of existing musical pieces, being an illustration of a piece of the same name by Modest Mussorgsky, as arranged by Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. It was created by manipulating hundreds of pins on a large frame called a pinboard, invented by Alexeieff, his first wife Alexandra Grinevsky-Alexeieff (whom he divorced in order to marry Parker in 1940), and Parker. The textured effect is quite unlike that of any other type of animation.

Night on Bald Muontain 2

Dorothy Davenport was a prolific actress from 1910 to 1934. She is perhaps most remembered as the widow of Wallace Reid, a star who died from the effects of morphine in 1923. She directed seven films over the next decade, ending with the film in this set, The Woman Condemned (1934), mostly either uncredited or signing herself Mrs. Wallace Reid.

The Woman Condemned is a B picture, produced independently and distributed through the states’ rights system. It’s a competently done murder mystery that gains some interest by withholding a great deal of information from the audience. There are two main female characters, the victim and the accused (seen below in an interrogation scene), and we have very little idea of their motives and goals until the climax of the film. The revelations involve a twist on the same level of groan-worthiness as “and then she woke up.” But again, having a little-known B picture adds to the wide variety of films presented here.

The Woman Condemned 21

One can hardly study early women directors and skip over the favored documentarist of the Third Reich, Leni Riefenstahl. Day of Freedom (1935) is a good choice for inclusion, occupying only 17 minutes of screen time and amply demonstrating Riefenstahl’s undeniable gift for creating gorgeous images from ominous subjects.

Day of Freedom

Experimental animator Mary Ellen Bute is represented by two contrasting abstract shorts, the lovely black-and-white ballet of shapes, Parabola (1937) and the vibrant and humorous Spook Sport (1939), the latter (below) made with the collaboration of Norman McLaren.

Spook Sport

Dorothy Arzner, the only woman to direct mainstream Hollywood A films from the 1930s to the and 1940s, is introduced via a clip from one of her most famous films, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). In the scene, Maureen O’Hara’s character interrupts her dance routine to tell off an audience of mostly men who are cat-calling her.

Maya Deren’s first film, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) ends the program (see bottom). It is a happy choice, since of all the films in the program, it has undoubtedly had the greatest influence on the cinema. Much of the subsequent avant-garde cinema has turned away from music-inspired abstraction and opted for ambiguity, psychological mystery, and impossible time, space, and causality.

 

Valuable though this collection is, I cannot help but think that some of the directors represented have been oversold. Saccone sums them up:

Together, these 14 early women director have produced bodies of work that are inspiring, controversial, challenging, invigorating, and thought provoking. These women were technically and stylistically innovative, pushing narrative, aesthetic, and genre boundaries.

Surely not all of them meet these criteria. We would hardly expect one hundred per cent of the male directors of the same era to be “technically and stylistically innovative,” so why should we expect all of the work by fourteen varied female directors to be so? Saccone quotes Tami Williams’ book, Germaine Dulac: A Cinema of Sensations. on how the director searched “for new techniques that, in the light of official discourse of governmental and social conservatism, and the modernity of the new medium, were capable of expressing her progressive, antibourgeois, nonconformist, and feminist social vision.” Saccone sees this search in The Smiling Madame Beudet, where “Dulac utilizes cinema-specific techniques such as irises, slow motion, distortion, and superimposition, as well as associative editing, to give visibility to the inner experiences and fantasies of an unhappily married woman …”

Readers might infer that Dulac innovated these techniques. Yet they had already been established as conventions of French Impressionist cinema, notably in Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) and La roue (1922) and Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). For example, Dulac surely derived the distorted image of Beudet that conveys his wife’s disgust (below left) from a similar shot of a drunken man in El Dorado (right).

Smiling Madame Beudet, distortion 2     ElDorado distorion

This is not to say Dulac isn’t a fine filmmaker or that she had no new ideas of her own. Only that she didn’t single-handed discover these techniques, but rather she turned the emerging repertoire of Impressionist techniques toward portraying a woman’s experience.

In some cases films that were co-directed by these women are presented as their sole efforts. Lois Weber’s Suspense was directed, as were many of her early shorts, with her husband, Phillips Smalley. Quotations from interviews with both Weber and Smalley make this clear. In 1914, Smalley said of his wife, “She is as much the director and even more the constructor of Rex pictures than I.” “Even more” because Weber often wrote the screenplays for their films and in at least some cases edited them. Weber later described how Smalley worked from her scripts: “Mr. Smalley got my idea. He painted the scenery, played the leading role and helped direct the cameraman.” Directing the cameraman is part of the job of a director.

The list of films in the booklet attributes Night on Bald Mountain entirely to Claire Parker, though on the backs of the disc cases the credit is to Claire Parker and Alexandre Alexeieff. Alexander Hackenschmied (aka Hammid) is not mentioned in the list of films, and the booklet refers to him as having a “close collaboration ” with Deren, even though he and Deren are both listed as directors on the original credits of Meshes of the Afternoon.

Still, if the collection does not make the case that all of the women represented were wildly talented and innovative, it does show the variety of ways in which women managed to work both in and out of the mainstream industry. It’s valuable collection of historical examples and should be welcomed by anyone interested in the silent and early sound eras.

It is worth noting in closing that viewers should not expect all of these films to be presented in the usual beautiful restorations we are used to from Flicker Alley. Some of these films are indeed gorgeous, including the two Mary Ellen Bute shorts, Peasant Women of Ryazan, Day of Freedom, Meshes of the Afternoon, and La cigarette (though the latter has some small stretches of severe nitrate decomposition). Other prints are quite good or at least acceptable. A few of the films simply do not survive in any but battered or faded prints, notably Discontent and The Star Prince. But we are lucky to have them at all.


The quotations from the Smalley and Weber interviews are from Shelley Stamp’s Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (University of California Press, 2015), pp. 26-27.

[May 23] Many thanks to Manfred Polak, who has drawn my attention to a higher estimate of Reiniger’s lifetime production of silhouette films. Her friend and executor, Alfred Happ, put the figure at about 80. The source is an exhibition catalog from the Stadtmuseum Tübingen, which houses Reiniger’s archived material: Lotte Reiniger, Carl Koch, Jean Renoir. Szenen einer Freundschaft. Die gemeinsamen Filme. ed. Heiner Gassen and Claudine Pachnicke (Stadtmuseum Tübingen, 1994).

Carl Koch was Reiniger’s husband and collaborator; Reiniger created an animated sequence for her supporter and friend Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise. According to Manfred, “Alfred Happ and his wife Helga were Reiniger’s closest friends and caretakers in her last years in Dettenhausen (near Tübingen, Germany). After Reiniger’s death, Alfred Happ was the administrator of her estate. If you ever come to Tübingen, visit the Stadtmuseum (City Museum), where her estate is hosted now. A part of it is shown in a permanent exhibition.” He also provided a link to a touching account of Reiniger’s friendship with the Happs.

Meshes of the Afternoon

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)

David Bordwell
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