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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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Archive for the 'Silent film' Category

When the image ruled: Julien Duvivier in the silent era

Maman colibri (Mother Hummingbird, 1930).

DB here:

Rewind the tape of film history. What if cinema had been invented as a perfect audiovisual medium, with images exactly synchronized with sound? What would the evolution of film form and style have been like?

Actually, Edison and other early inventors wanted sound to accompany the picture. Technical obstacles to sync sound initially proved too strong, and the fact that the public approved of the silent image led to a delay in fulfilling what André Bazin called “the myth of total cinema.”

It’s long been felt that this delay was a good thing for the artistic development of the medium. Perfect image/sound coordination would have led filmmakers to a line of least resistance, a simple reliance on recording what was taking place in front of the camera. The absence of dialogue forced filmmakers to develop techniques of visual storytelling. “The time of the image,” thundered Abel Gance, “has come!”

Some film techniques were borrowed from theatre and painting, but others became identified closely with the moving image. Techniques such as camera movement, analytical cutting, and rhythmic crosscutting, have analogs in other arts but remain distinctly “cinematic” (chiefly because of cinema’s ability to control duration). During the 1910s and 1920s, filmmakers refined pictorial narrative in ways that couldn’t have been foreseen earlier, and avant-garde movements showed that the new medium had remarkable abstract and non-narrative possibilities as well.

Because of all this, it seemed that sync sound came along just when the silent cinema had reached an expressive peak. By then, people knew the powers of the moving image, and so could integrate sound with it to create an audiovisual art form.

I think there’s a lot to be said for this viewpoint, though it was often used as a cudgel to beat early talkies as “uncinematic.” There’s no denying that many filmmakers who made outstanding silent films, from Hitchcock, Lang, and Ford to Lubitsch, Eisenstein, and Renoir, managed to retain pictorial richness while relying on the unique contributions sound could make. In a teaching exercise, Eisenstein asked students to plan the filming of the assassination of Julius Caesar as a silent film, and then go back and reconceive it as a sound film. That way, the new synthesis could exploit the strengths of both ingredients.

Julien Duvivier’s silent films are good examples of the push toward maximal expressivity by means of visuals. He accepted the coming of sound, even welcoming color and depth, but by then he had already accepted the 1920s urge toward an overwhelming pictorial experience. At one level, he saw the need for spectacle–either shooting on striking locations, employing masses of actors, or creating  flamboyant studio sets. At another level, the visual storytelling could be more inward-turning. How could moving images illuminate the thoughts and feelings of characters, the access to minds given through language in prose fiction and on stage? We can see in Duvivier’s late silent work a pressure in both directions: a love of eye-smiting locations either found or fabricated, and an urge to plunge into characters’ minds at every moment.

These revelations come courtesy of Flicker Alley’s massive collection of nine of his late 1920s features, all beautifully restored by the dedicated team at Lobster Films. Poil de Carotte (1926), the earliest item in the box, shows a filmmaker utterly in command of the resources of the “mature silent cinema.”

Most of the films between that and Au bonheur des dames (1930)  have been largely unknown and forgotten, and their revelation here is unlikely to add another masterpiece to his career log. But they’re very impressive for revealing the diversity and ambitions of mainstream French cinema of the 1920s. Moreover, Duvivier was prepared to carry a commitment to pictorial storytelling to striking extremes.

 

Eye candy, natural and artificial

Duvivier’s first film, Halcedama (1919; not in this collection), a French “Western,” made extensive use of the rugged terrain of the Corrèze region, “the savage heart of France,” according to a title. Extreme long shots (akin to those in Feuillade’s Tih Minh) let mountains and valleys dwarf the characters. The 1920s films tend to be melodramas, but they too exploit locations with expansive production values.

Before moving to cosmopolitan scenes, Le Tourbillon de Paris (1928)’s opening scenes give off a palpable sense of cold in their bleak display of a man struggling through the snow in Tignes, in the French Alps. The same regional realism is present in La Divine Croisière (1929), shot on location in several coastal cities.

L’Agonie de Jérusalem: Revelation (1927) tells of an anarchist who rejects bourgeois comforts, including “paternal power,” and agitates for world revolution. When he’s blinded, he returns to the family home in Jerusalem. There he undergoes a conversion through identifying with Christ’s suffering and is miraculously cured. Duvivier took the production to Jerusalem, and the film features impressive scenes of the area, including the Wailing Wall and the Garden of Gethsemane.

For Maman Colibri (1930), Duvivier’s heroine, a woman who leaves her husband for a soldier young enough to be her son, follows him to his post in Algeria. The film exploits both desert landscapes and the sumptuous gardens of the Villa Arthur in Algiers. Closer to home, but still carrying the whiff of the picturesque, was Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans (1927), a comedy about rivalry between brewers. The film begins with a montage of Belgian cities and their landmarks, culminating in a documentary montage of Brussels. The film is bookended by a double wedding at the city’s splendid Grand Place.

Probably the location shooting that will most attract a viewer today is the climactic sequence of Duvivier’s parody of Feuillade serials, Le Mystère de la Tour Eiffel (1927). It consists of a long chase up the girders of the tower, with actors scrambling after one another in vertigo-inducing shots.

     

As with Tih Minh, you have to marvel at the acrobatic skill and sheer guts of the performers.

Duvivier also took advantage of the resources of well-endowed French studios, which had yielded impressive set design in Gance’s Napoleon (1927), L’Herbier’s L’Argent (1928), and Dreyer’s Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). Le Tourbillon de Paris, tracing the return of a stage diva to the city she loves, shows her reentry into the haute monde in a huge nightclub scene. This is later matched by her triumph in before a theatre audience.

     

More stylized sets, in a comic vein, characterize the Antenna gang in Mystère de la Tour Eiffel. They use , the Tower to transmit coded messages to their agents. The gang headquarters may be a down-market parody of Léger’s modernist sets of L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924).

     

Probably the most famous achievement of Duvivier’s set design is the staggering department-store set in Au Bonheur des Dames,  Zola’s story of big business crushing local shops. Sweeping tracking and crane shots enhance the scale of Au Bonheur des Dames, modeled on the Galeries Lafayette (where a few shots were taken as well). The film contrasts the vista of the main shopping area with the cramped store of the fabric merchant Baudu.

     

The same difference emerges in the broad layout of the office of store’s boss Mouret and Baudu’s pinched apartment, built as a complete set of rooms.

     

Yet the sets can be less ostentatious and still powerfully functional. The simple, geometric grids and figure placements of the investiture scene in La Vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin (1929) gather force through their precise articulation of the stages of the heroine’s acceptance into the sisterhood.

     

     

In this twenty-minute sequence, details of gesture and position exude respect for the rigors of ritual and the sincerity of the girl. Duvivier’s calm precision reminds me of scenes in Bresson’s Anges du péché. At the same time, the impersonality of the ceremony is heightened by cutaways to Thérèse’s father, at once pious and regretful; with her novitiate, he will die alone. For him, Duvivier adds Impressionist flourishes to emphasize that the grille shuts him off from her.

     

Such scenes create a sort of “intimate spectacle” that goes beyond sheer scale.

In a fine crowd scene in La Divine Croisière, Duvivier deploys expressive detail within a mass of people. The predatory capitalist Kerjean has ordered a defective ship to sail, and the townsfolk fear that it has been lost. Simone, a courageous young woman, calls a meeting in which she asks them to cease mourning and set out to look for the sailors. In a brief montage reminiscent of the cream-separator sequence in Eisenstein’s Old and New, close-ups show the villagers gathering hope under Simone’s visionary appeal.

     

     

With this sort of intimacy, however, we move close to the second pictorial strategy that characterizes Duvivier and many of his peers: picturing the workings of the mind.

 

Getting inside

Kristin has pointed out that the 1910s were an era when many filmmakers wanted to go beyond simply creating a coherent story by adding expressive dimensions to the action. Many American films of the period try to illustrate characters’ thoughts, chiefly through flashbacks. There were more elaborate experiments as well, with attempts to portray dreams, hallucinations, and even alternative courses of action. (Some examples here.) In The Gangsters and the Girl (1914), a young woman imagines two consequences of a robbery.

     

Halcedama had, like many other French films, incorporated simple subjective techniques like these. The looming figure of the protagonist’s dead father interrupts several scenes, and one scene multiplies the presence of the man the protagonist has come to kill.

The early 1920s saw French filmmakers eagerly exploring other resources. Duvivier’s films are much of their time in their inclusion of wide-angle shots with big foregrounds, a great range of camera angles, freely moving camerawork (including crane shots), heavy use of superimposition and dissolves, and a multiplication of cuts, often very fast-paced.

     

     

Abel Gance’s La Roue (1922) and Jean Epstein’s Coeur fidèle (1923) crystallized these possibilities, and other filmmakers felt free to flaunt pictorial display. Many of these devices were put in the service of enhanced subjectivity.

In scene after scene, Duvivier dwells on the moment by plunging into characters’ reactions to the scene, given not through dialogue but through imagery. One of his favorite devices is the superimposition–not as a single item, as in The Gangsters and the Girl, but as a flurry of images melting into one another, suggesting a stream of consciousness. In L’Agonie de Jérusalem, Alice recalls the childhood she shared with Jean, as images rolling along a road.

     

The heroine of Le Tourbillon de Paris is dazzled by the array of jewels and dresses her husband offers her, and the heroine of Maman Colibri is captivated by her dance partner.

     

Poil de Carotte is a virtual anthology of ways of conveying mental states. This tale of child abuse probes the fear and despair François feels by being trapped in a family full of hate. The opening uses superimpositions of family members to show how it’s painful for him to write an essay about them.

     

His cruel mother haunts his dreams, and her attacks on him are given in distorted imagery.

     

As he rigs up a noose with which to hang himself, we get a rapid montage, in superimposition, of memories of ill treatment.

     

Nearly every film is packed with these inserted passages, which seek to deepen the drama without use of intertitles. Today they look old-fashioned, even though our films continue to use them. Back then they may have become a bit tiresome. Serge Bromberg’s text for the Flicker Alley booklet quotes a 1930 review:

Why does Julien Duvivier sometimes insist on techniques that seem obsolete today? Overprints [superimpositions] and special lenses no longer surprise us.

When they work best, I think, it’s because they find fresh material that allows them to unexpectedly expand the moment of a scene. For example, François’s father is not so much cruel as indifferent to the boy. His gradual realization that the mother is working the boy like a dog is given two ways. First, a multiple-image shot shows several versions of his son busy in the garden.

Then a series of dissolves following the father’s advance to the camera shows the sheaves now sprung up in profusion–all as a result of the boy’s labor.

     

     

Still, Duvivier was able to probe minds without such devices. The village meeting in La Divine Croisière, mentioned above, is an example. So too is a little bit of byplay in Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans.

Albert, a Parisian, is working in a Brussels brewery and has fallen in love with the boss’s daughter Suzanne. He leaves a corsage on her desk while she’s out. Seraphin, her shady fiancé, has found it there and, when she returns, offers it to her as his own gift. When Albert returns and finds her wearing it, he assumes that he’s won her affection–until he realizes Seraphin’s ploy. Duvivier could have played this out in a series of superimpositions in which Albert imagines her finding it, thinking of him, and wearing it for his sake. Instead, it’s left to the actors in a simple two-shot.

Albert sees her caress the corsage and he’s pleased. But then she says Seraphin gave it to her. There’s no dialogue title. She turns her head to the left to indicate he’s outside.

     

Albert starts to claim credit, but thinks the better of it and turns away. She notices and asks if he gave it to her.

     

He doesn’t admit it, but she realizes the truth.

As she ponders Seraphin’s deceit, Albert understands. He approaches, but she wards him off, still believing she must marry her fiancé.

     

Admittedly, this little pas de deux takes place after a dialogue in which Albert imagines all the slights he’s suffered as an outsider to the company, and before a lyrical passage in which he conjures up finding a flower in a lake. Duvivier couldn’t resist expanding the situation through his usual means. But the understated playing of the pair, without any verbal explanation, shows that he didn’t always need flashy visualizations to evoke characters’ changing reactions to a situation.

 

Duvivier remained active until his death in 1967, racking up an astonishing seventy-one features. There are plenty I have yet to see, but I’ll just signal some landmarks. Although he has remained most famous for his two Poetic Realist achievements, La Belle équipe (1936) and Pépé le Moko (1937), his accomplishments were more wide-ranging. Allô Berlin? Ici Paris! (1932) is a charming early sound comedy, and Un Carnet de bal (1937) and La Fin du jour (1939) won acclaim around the world. In Reinventing Hollywood I called attention to his significant American work: Lydia (1941), Tales of Manhattan (1942), and Flesh and Fantasy (1943). His powerful Simenon adaptation Panique (1946) is admirable, as are the lighter-hearted Sous le ciel de Paris (1951) and La Fête à Henriette (1952). Marie-Octobre (1959) is an interesting experiment in the three unities. And his later policiers have their supporters, especially Voici les temps des assassins (1956). Attacked by the Nouvelle Vague as a fossilized academic, he has reemerged as a robust example of the enduring force of French film tradition. The Lobster/Flicker Alley box confirms him as a sturdy storyteller and an ambitious pictorialist.


Halcedama is available on the Cinémathèque Française website, among many other discoveries. Gance’s broadside, “Le Temps de l’image est venu!” is in L’Art cinématographique II, ed. Léon Pierre-Quint, Abel Gance, Lionel Landry, and Germaine Dulac (Paris: Félix Alcan, 1927), 83-102. It is available in an Arno Press reprint (New York, 1970).

The best book on French silent film is Richard Abel’s magnificent, encyclopedic French Cinema: The First Wave,  1915-1929. A very complete account of Impressionist cinema is in Noureddine Ghali, L’Avant-garde Cinématographique en France dans les années vingt: Idées, conceptions, théories (Paris: Experimental, 1995). Kristin’s argument about the 1910s is set forth in “The International Exploration of Cinematic Expressivity,” in Film and the First World War, ed. Karel Dibbets and Bert Hogenkamp (Amsterdam University Press, 1995), 65-85.

Kristin picked Au Bonheur des dames as one of the best films of 1930. I discuss Lydia in a Criterion Channel installment, teased here. French Impressionism has remained a powerful, if usually indirect, influence on modern directors–for example, Scorsese.

Le Mariage de Mlle Beulemans (1927).

Dietrich before von Sternberg and von Sternberg before Dietrich

Thunderbolt (1929)

 

Kristin here–

In my entry on the ten best films of 1929, I suggested that that particular year, hovering as it did between silents and talkies, was relatively poorly represented on home video. Now Kino Lorber has released two films from that year that both entertain us and contribute to our knowledge of the late 1920s cinema.

In that entry I lamented the fact that Josef von Sternberg’s marvelous early talkie Thunderbolt had not had a proper DVD or Blu-ray released. I expressed hope that one of the home-video companies specializing in historically important classics would finally make it available. The Kino Lorber release finally allows historians and cinephiles access to this little-known masterpiece.

If Thunderbolt was a legendary film that called out for such a release, the 2012 Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung restoration of Kurt Bernhardt’s The Woman One Longs for reveals this previously forgotten film to be, if not a masterpiece, a very good film. It’s also completely typical of a trend of the late 1920s that I have termed the International Style.

Coincidentally, von Sternberg and Dietrich, so closely connected in our minds, link the two releases. Thunderbolt was the director’s last film before beginning his series with Dietrich, and The Woman One Longs for was Dietrich’s last (and first) starring roll before she worked with von Sternberg for the first time.

I’ll deal with it first, since I don’t want it to be overshadowed by Thunderbolt.

 

The Woman One Longs for

The standard story has Marlene Dietrich claiming that The Blue Angel was her first film. Seemingly she wanted to suggest that von Sternberg’s use of her in a series of star vehicles created her career. The image above, of her staring through a frosty train window, might easily be mistaken for a von Sternberg shot. In fact it’s from her previous film, The Woman One Longs for (Die Frau, das der man sich sehnt, aka The Three Lovers), directed by Bernhardt.

The Jewish director barely made his escape from the Nazis, working during the 1930s in France and then shifting to Hollywood. There, under the name Curtis Bernhardt, he made many films up to the 1960s, perhaps most notably the Joan Crawford psychological drama Possessed (1947) and the Rita Hayworth vehicle Miss Sadie Thompson (1953). That was an adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s “Miss Thompson” (previously filmed by Raoul Walsh as Sadie Thompson, starring Gloria Swanson, in 1927 and by Lewis Milestone as Rain [a new title that had replaced the original name of the short story], starring Joan Crawford).

The plot of The Woman One Longs for is straightforward melodrama. The protagonist, Leblanc, is expected to rescue his family’s factory, tottering on the brink of bankruptcy, by marrying a wealthy heiress who loves him but who leaves him cold. He marries her, but on their honeymoon trip aboard a train to the south of France, he suddenly becomes fascinated by a mysterious beauty, played by Dietrich. She seemed to be under the sadistic control of Dr. Karoff. The latter is played by the great actor of the Expressionist theater, Fritz Kortner, familiar to most modern spectators as Dr. Schön, who keeps Lulu as his mistress in Pandora’s Box (also 1929). Leblanc becomes obsessed with saving Dietrich from her captor.

The plot is entertaining enough, but the real interest in the film, at least for David and me, is Bernhardt’s direction. It’s quite skillful, even flashy. Moreover, Bernhardt had clearly been seeing many of the major films of the 1920s from Germany, the USSR, and France. Like many other directors of the late 1920s, he blends them seamlessly into what I have called the “International Style.” (See Chapter 8 of Film History: An Introduction.)

The film starts in a setting done in a style familiar from many German films of the era, with a camera following a character through an atmospheric, faintly Expressionist street clearly built in a studio (below left). Even after the Expressionist movement ended in early 1927 with Metropolis, German films continued to use settings influenced by the style to represent old buildings or poor neighborhoods. Compare the opening shot of The Blue Angel (below right), the only Expressionistic setting in the whole film.

   

But Bernhardt has seen Soviet films as well. The early montage establishing the Leblance family’s factory uses the quick cutting, dramatic angles, and dissolves that such scenes have in so many Soviet and European films of the era (below left). A fight scene between Leblanc and Karoff uses fast editing, canted compositions, and camera reframing (below right).

   

Bernhardt has almost certainly seen L’Herbier’s L’Argent of 1928, with its streamlined sets (left) and low-angle framings shot with wide-angle lenses (right). Compare the latter with the low-camera-height shot of the Paris Bourse at the top of the L’Argent section in the 1928 entry linked immediately above.)

  

Bernhardt had also clearly seen Underworld, for the New Year’s party that forms the climactic scene of his film imitates von Sternberg’s party scene fairly obviously. The action centers around the two main male characters’ struggle over the heroine, with two count-downs raising the suspense: the beauty contest in Underworld and the approaching midnight signalling the new year in The Woman One Longs for. The hanging streamers that increasingly dominate the setting are, however, the giveaway for von Sternberg’s influence on Bernhardt (see bottom).

Speaking of influence, there is a moment in the party scene when the drunken Kaross pops a startled child’s balloon with a cigarette. Maybe this is a common trope in films, but the only other example I can think of is Bruno’s similar gesture of casual cruelty in Strangers on a Train.

The Woman One Longs for also contains a reference that we might today call an “Easter egg.” At the end, Karoff is arrested in the luxury hotel where the three main characters have been staying and where the New Year’s party take place. The manager insists that in order to avoid a scandal, the police must escort him out of the building via the “Hintertreppe” (backstairs). One of Kortner’s major roles had been the devious, obsessed postman in Leopold Jessner’s Hintertreppe (1921), one of the few other classics by which Kortner is known today.

 

Thunderbolt

I have already sung the praises of von Sternberg’s pre-Dietrich films on this blog. I find his naturalistic first feature, The Salvation Hunters (1925) heavy-handed, but with Underworld (1927) he abruptly hit his stride. To me it and The Docks of New York (1928) are his masterworks–those and Shanghai Express (1932), arguably the best of his Hollywood Dietrich films. The Last Command (1928) is excellent but not up to that level. I discussed these three when The Criterion Collection released them as a set in 2010. That set went out of print but is fortunately now  available in Blu-ray. I put Underworld in my ten-best list for 1927 and The Docks of New York in the 1928 list. As I mentioned at the outset, Thunderbolt made the 1929 list.

There I briefly discussed the remarkable compositions and use of offscreen sound in the lengthy prison scenes of the title character on Death Row. Watching the new Blu-ray in preparing this entry, I was struck even more by the early scene in the Black Cat, a Black-run nightclub where we are introduced to Thunderbolt and his relationship to Ritzie, the heroine. As in the silents, von Sternberg’s habit of staging compositions with obstructing objects in the foreground is apparent. Note the entrance of Thunderbolt and Ritzie with a set element both framing and obstructing them (see top). Later a scene as two patrons of the club gossip about Thunderbolt partially blocks the faces, particularly of the one on the left.

The whole scene is marvelously enhanced, as I said in my 1929 entry, by the inclusion of Theresa Harris’ complete rendition of “Daddy, Won’t You Please Come Home.” It’s hard to think of another mainstream Hollywood film in which a Black cultural situation is used so naturally and with so much respect.

The Black Cat sequence ends with a police raid on the club. The cinematography at this point is pure film noir. (See image at the top of this section.)

As I said in the earlier entry, the one flaw in the film is the tepid central couple played by Richard Arlen and Fay Wray. Given the excellence of the Black Cat sequence and the lengthy prison scenes, that flaw is minor indeed.

The Woman One Longs for (1929)

French silents from Il Cinema Ritrovato 2021

L’Arlésienne (1922)

Kristin here:

Like so many of our fellow festival-goers, David and I were not able to visit Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato, the annual festival of restored films and curated thematic threads. Fortunately the organizers made a selection of the films and events (interviews, discussions of films by archivists) available online.

We were not able to watch all of these, so we concentrated on an area in which we have both worked, French silent cinema. There were three of these, or six if you count the four episodes of the 1927 serial, Belphégor. They were beautiful restorations, all presented in black and white. (I must admit, beautiful though tinted and/or toned films are, I prefer the black-and-white versions. That’s mainly because if one is taking frame enlargements for reproduction in black and white in a publication, it is often impossible to get a decent copy from a tinted print.)

No doubt it is frustrating to read about films that are unavailable to see outside archives. Still, some of the Cinema Ritrovato films travel after their presentations at the festival, and some appear on DVD/Blu-ray. These are three to keep an eye open for.

 

L’Arlésienne

I must admit, this was the only title of the three that I recognized. David and I had been very impressed by André Antoine’s earlier films. (See our brief comments on and some frames from his extraordinary 1917 Le coupable here and here.)

While Le coupable was a courtroom melodrama set in Paris, L’Arlésienne follows his 1921 naturalistic film La terre by being shot in the French countryside. In this case the story takes place in and around Arles, at that time a village in the south of France, not far from the Mediterranean coast northwest of Marseilles. The familiar tale concerns the family of Rose Mamaï, a widow who runs her large farm, aided by her cheerful, naïve son Frédéri, who seems destined to marry Vivette, from a nearby farm, until he falls under the spell of the unnamed title character.

The film is not as splendid as the two earlier ones, but it is well worth seeing nonetheless. It gets off to a somewhat slow start, with a leisurely exposition of the locales and the characters. Frédéri’s growing obsession with l’Arlésienne takes its time. Still, conflict eventually creates greater drama as Rose learns of her son’s love for a woman “with a past” and the woman’s lover shows up to try and thwart her golddigging attempt to marry Frédéri.

The gorgeous cinematography and use of authentic locations, however, more than offset the plot problems (see frames above and at top). Like so many French directors of the silent era, Antoine took advantage of local carnivals and holidays, economizing by filming the crowds candidly. The frequent glances into the camera by locals testify to that.

To the far left of this frame, one can glimpse the well-known Roman amphitheatre of the town, used in L’Arlésienne for a bullfight scene, whither the villagers in their best clothes are headed.

Antoine’s film makes an interesting comparison with Alberto Capellani’s 1908 version, shown in the first Cinema Ritrovato season of his films. Capellani shot most of his excellent version in Arles as well, though in a very different style. (I discuss it briefly here and here; the latter entry gives information on the DVD releases of various Capellani films shown at the festival, including L’Arlésienne.)

 

Figaro (1927)

Gaston Ravel is a director whom many of us have heard of, but few of us have seen his films. His reputation is as a director of high-budget, prestigious films–comparable to Raymond Bernard, whose The Miracle of the Wolves (1924) is perhaps the most familiar of the epic period films of the period, excepting Napoléon vue par Abel Gance (1927).

With Figaro, Ravel manages to condense all three of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s three Figaro plays (Le Barbier de Séville [1775], Le Mariage de Figaro [1781 but banned from performance until 1784], and La Mère coupable [1792]) into a two-hour film.

The result is a lavish spectacle. The costumes were designed by J. K. Benda, who later created those of La Kermesse héroïque (Jacques Feyder, 1935). The interior sets were studio-built (see bottom), though the exteriors of the later parts of the film were shot at a huge chateau with extensive grounds, the Rochefort-en-Yvelines. At least some French directors had by this point adopted and mastered Hollywood three-point lighting, as the frame above demonstrates.

Visually the film in fact looks like it could have been made in one of the big Hollywood studios, though the story is a bit too risqué to have been made there. (The young lady dancing and trailing a long, diaphanous veil in the frame at the bottom eventually spins until it drops off, leaving her completely nude.)

I found the casting of “artistic dancer” Edmond van Duren (as the program notes describe him) unfortunate. He reminded me of the overly merry Merry Men in Alan Dwan’s 1922 Robin Hood, bounding through nearly every scene. The rest of the actors were fine, particularly Arlette Marchal as Rosine, later the Countess Almaviva.

The tone also changes across the film, from comedy in the first part, to drama in the second, and then to tragedy (or melodrama?) in the third. The original plays premiered so far apart that the changes might have been less noticeable or made more sense. Mozart, however, was wise to confine himself to the middle play.

Apart from such problems, however, the film is entertaining, as well as being an important example of how ambitious a project French studios could occasionally manage–as does the film immediately below.

 

Belphégor (1927)

By the 1920s, Hollywood serials had declined from being the center of a program to being a low-budget side attraction. In France, however, serial storytelling remained quite central to the industry. Some serials were presented as discrete episodes, each involving a continuing set of characters, as in a television series. Other installment-films were “ciné-romans,” telling a continuous tale in blocks that might be published at the same time in newspapers and magazines.

Louis Feuillade’s death in 1925 ended his long string of beloved serials and ciné-romans for Gaumont. Other studios made equally popular, big-budget items, including Albatros, with Alexandre Volkoff’s 1923 La Maison du mystère. That film’s reputation lingered in film history despite the unavailability of complete prints until recently. By contrast, Henri Desfontaines’ Belphégor has remained largely forgotten.

Now it has been restored in a beautiful version. Although it, too, centers around a mysterious master criminal out to control the world, it is miles away from the wonderful mid-1910s serials of Feuillade. It’s instead a strange and impressive combination of various elements of French cinema of the 1920s. Where Feuillade shot in a rough-and-tumble way in the streets of Paris or the environs of Nice, with cheap sets for interiors, Belphégor‘s settings immediately remind one of L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine and L’Argent. In particular, the exterior (above) and interiors (below) of the Baroness Papillon recall that of Claire Lescot in the former film.

Like Figaro, Belphégor has impressive production values and a grasp of Hollywood three-point lighting that creates dark, suspenseful shots. The film gained some prestige by supposedly being the first story to be set inside the Louvre. The interiors, of course, are sets, but ones that successfully convey the look of a major museum at night.

The script has a certain looseness, perhaps caused by the fact that the episodes were being released in parallel to the serialization of Arthur Bernède’s novel in Le Petit Parisien. That journal’s director also headed Cinéromans, a production firm making films exclusively for distribution by Pathé.

A meandering and repetitious plot is not the film’s main problem. The common–and probably correct–assumption that a film’s villain must be a strong, interesting character is completely ignored here. We see “Belphégor” only occasionally, looking like a person dressed in a burka with some checkered decoration around the head. Unlike Fantômas and other Feuillade villains, we never see Belphégor out of costume until the very end. Instead the villain’s machinations are largely carried out by a pair of thugs who have a faintly ludicrous, not-very-dangerous air. Belphégor, when encountered in the Louvre by the guards and investigators, invariably runs and, after a brief chase, escapes.

Oddly enough, the main detective, Chantecoq, is played by René Navarre, so memorable as Fantômas. (He was one of the co-founders of Cinéromans in 1919.) His presence hovers over the film, emphasizing that the main villain is barely present and does little.

Like the two other films discussed here, Belphégor’s pristine restoration, its beautiful sets and cinematography, and the expert lighting make it a pleasure to view. Complete serials from this era are so rare that as an historical document, it is welcome indeed.

 

Although these three films are not among the masterpieces of the 1920s (though L’Arlésienne comes closest), they give us more insight into French cinema of the day–a national cinema that has remained somewhat in the shadows of the German Expressionist and Soviet Montage movements of the same period.


As usual, the festival held its Il Cinema Ritrovato DVD Awards ceremony, though by this point the competition is dominated by Blu-ray releases. Our friends at The Criterion Collection, Flicker Alley, and Kino Lorber figured prominently in the awards and jury members’ favorites, as did international archives and companies. I have blogged about the two Flicker Alley jury favorites, Waxworks and Spring Night Summer Night.

Figaro (1928).

A tantalizingly anonymous Josef von Sternberg film

Children of Divorce (1927)

Kristin here:

In 2008, David and I attended Il Cinema Ritrovato for the sixth time. The Hollywood director being featured that year was Josef von Sternberg. We saw some of the gorgeous prints on show, most notably (for me), a chance to re-watch the underrated Thunderbolt (1929), his first sound feature. To us the big auteur of the year, however, was Lev Kuleshov. Astonishingly, we only blogged from the festival once that year. It was a busy summer.

We and a great many other festival-goers lined up to see one of the rarer items on the program: Children of Divorce, credited to Frank Lloyd but with reportedly about half the footage re-shot anonymously by von Sternberg. We and a considerable number of those festival-goers did not get into the auditorium. For some reason this rare, legendary film was shown in the smallest venue, the Mastroianni, which was packed, with the two side aisles full of standees. (See the bottom image of our blog from the festival, as we caught a glimpse of those lucky enough to get in before  retreating to find something else to watch or perhaps to wander around the always enticing Film Book Fair.)

Eight years later, in 2016, Flicker Alley released a Blu-ray/DVD combo of the Library of Congress’ 4K restoration of Children of Divorce. That two-disc set is out of print, but last month a MOD (manufacture-on-demand) version was made available. It is a single disc, Blu-ray only, and its main supplement is a pretty good one-hour documentary on Clara Bow produced in 1999 for TCM. (The original booklet is not included.) Somehow we missed the original release, but now I have a chance to catch up with this elusive film.

Naturally I wanted to find out if any information on which scenes of the film von Sternberg re-shot were available, I looked at various internet sources, including books in our library the reviews of the original 2016 Flicker Alley release and books. I found nothing on the subject, not even from film buffs speculating on the basis of style which scenes were his. I suppose one reason why so little discussion of von Sternberg’s contribution is that for many viewers and purchasers of the Flicker Alley discs, this a Clara Bow and Gary Cooper film. Those online reviews from 2016 focus on them rather than on the two very different directors of Children of Divorce. The third star, Esther Ralston is excellent as Jean, and in 1929 she would go on to play the title character in The Case of Lena Smith, Sternberg’s last silent film, which survives only in a fragment. Still, she doesn’t have the lingering reputation and devoted following that her co-stars still enjoy.

Spoilers ahead, including a revelation of the ending.

 

Von Sternberg’s account

In trying to discover von Sternberg’s contribution, we seem to be entirely dependent on von Sternberg’s sketchy recollections of his work on the film in his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1965). Needless to say, one cannot take his account as the unvarnished truth, but it may contain some elements of that commodity.

According to von Sternberg, B. P. Schulberg, head of Paramount, asked him to watch a film that the studio considered unreleasable. Could von Sternberg could improve it by adding the sort of clever intertitles that he was then known for?

I looked at the film as he requested. Its title was Children of Divorce, and it had been made by a prominent director, Frank Lloyd, normally an effective director of commercial films. This one was a sad affair, containing theatricals by Gary Cooper and Clara Bow, the “It” girl of her day. I reported back to the executive who had backed this venture with a million dollars, and told him that no skill of mine could restore life to the film by injecting text into the mouths of the players. I suggested that half the film be remade.

That Lloyd should fall down so badly seems odd, given that he had been cranking out films at a rapid pace since 1915. These included films that would be considered star vehicles and adaptations of popular literature, such as the first version of The Sea Hawk in 1924. He would soon go on to win two early best-director Oscars, one for the Greta Garbo vehicle The Divine Woman (1928) and one for Cavalcade (1933), as well as being nominated for what is probably his best-known film, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)–which won Best Picture despite not winning any other of its seven other nominated categories. Cavalcade often shows up on lists of the worst films ever to won the highest prize, but nevertheless, it seems odd that a director so respected within the industry that he won an Oscar for a film made the year following Children of Divorce‘s release should fall down so badly in creating the latter. We shall probably never know what cause this strange failure.

I must admit to never having seen a Frank Lloyd film, but von Sternberg’s assessment of him as an “effective director” seems lukewarm. It suggests that although Lloyd was a good, solid Hollywood practitioner, he had created an unwonted lemon.

In assessing the verity of von Sternberg’s account, we should pause over von Sternberg’s claim that Children of Divorce had had a million-dollar budget. That was well above the average cost of a film in those days. (Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, with its giant Monte-Carlo set, had gone over budget to become the first million-dollar film in 1922, and Universal head Carl Laemmle made the best of the situation by blazoning the extravagant budget in publicity for the film.) The original costs estimate sheet on Flicker Alley’s site, along with other documents from the film’s production, puts the total budget at $334,000–pre-re-shoots–a far more plausible sum. Possibly, writing in the wake of the scandal over the cost overruns leading to an estimated $44 million budge for Cleopatra (1963), he had to boost the paltry-sounding budget of a late-1920s feature at least to seven figures to show that he was doing an important favor for Schulberg.

In response to von Sternberg’s suggestion that half the film be remade, Schulberg (according to von Sternberg) said that he could not allot another five weeks to making changes in a project that still might flop. Von Sternberg writes, “I carelessly replied that I could remake half the film in three days and turn over a successful version to him.”

Schulberg asked, “What can I do about the sets? They’ve been torn down and the stages are full.”

Again according to von Sternberg, “I told him to have a tent erected for use as a stage and to dig out the sets from storage, and not to bother about anything else.” Schulberg agreed.

Von Sternberg’s entire account of the process of re-shooting the scenes runs as follows:

The tent went up and the transfusion began. A rainstorm came and lasted three days and three nights. We waded through the new scenes, now and then dodging a heavy burst of water that penetrated the canvas overhead. The crew that helped me and the poor actors that I mercilessly put through their new paces had to take a prolonged rest cure when I had finished with them. To match the scenes I wished to retain I had to use the style of the replaced director. The assignment was completed on time and, after removing the old scenes and replacing them with the new material, I showed the film to the flabbergasted executives.

This tells us discouragingly little. The weather and the cast’s exhaustion make for a dramatic tale but tell us nothing about the film itself. The only statement of interest is “To match the scenes I wished to retain I had to use the style of the replaced director.” Von Sternberg certainly knew the well-established norms of Hollywood filmmaking and if he deliberately set to blend his work into an existing film, his style could be difficult to detect. After all, we don’t know exactly what was wrong with the original version. Bad performances? Von Sternberg’s reference to “theatricals by Gary Cooper and Clara Bow” suggests that this may have been the case. Bad storytelling? Von Sternberg doesn’t mention whether he re-wrote any of the scenes he revised.

The new version premiered on April 2, 1927. Von Sternberg was not paid for his labors (he says), but he did prove himself as a director. Schulberg allowed him to direct an entire feature himself. Later that year, on August 20, his first silent masterpiece, Underworld, came out. This item in Variety of March, 1927, seems to confirm the basic claim of von Sternberg’s account. Several trade papers mentioned that Sternberg had re-shot some scenes, but none specifies which ones.

Briefly, Children of Divorce concerns two girls whose recently divorced parents have dumped them in a convenient French convent to be cared for. The parents return to the free life of single people, visiting their daughters infrequently. Kitty, a frightened, lonely girl, befriends the kindly Jean. Kitty introduces Jean to Teddy, an old neighbor of Kitty’s.  Teddy and Jean hit it off and promise to marry as adults.

Kitty grows up and becomes Clara Bow. She is poor and must give up her love for the noble but impoverished Prince Ludovico (Einar Hansen) to pursue Teddy, now grown up to be Gary Cooper and very rich. His meeting with the grown-up Jean (Esther Ralston), herself now described as the richest woman in the USA, rekindles their love. Despite knowing this, Kitty uses the occasion of a drunken party to trick Teddy into marrying her, and they have a daughter.

Teddy wants to divorce Kitty and marry Jean, but insists that the daughter must not be as they were, a child of divorce. Kitty thinks this would free her to marry Ludo, but he informs her that his religion would not permit him to marry a divorced woman. She determines to hold onto Teddy. Jean decides to marry Ludo, thus quashing Teddy’s hopes of marrying her. Pure misery abounds–all the result, one way or another, of divorce.

 

What did von Sternberg do?

Naturally one would wish to know which scenes are Lloyd’s and which Sternberg’s. In her brief program notes for the film in the Bologna catalogue, Janet Bergstrom confidently comments, “You can’t miss the shadow language of his scenes.” Perhaps not, but there are actually very few Sternbergian shadowy shots in the film, and those are often brief touches. Here are the main examples. The second scene of the film shows the young Kitty (later to grow into Clara Bow) during her first night in the French convent where her newly divorced mother has dumped her (bottom). In another such atmospheric shot, Teddy reads Jean’s letter refusing to marry him if he divorces Kitty (top).

Other such shots occur occasionally. When Teddy and Kitty’s daughter totters winsomely down the stairs during a party, the elaborate railing casts a shadow over her. Jean’s first sight of her fixes her determination that for the sake of the child she will not agree to marry Teddy if he divorces Kitty.

   

These are the only shots that one could argue contained strongly Sternbergian shadows. The opening scene in the convent as Kitty’s mother leaves her has a shadow of an offscreen window on the wall at the center of the shot, but surely one could not be certain that an image directed by Lloyd could not have such a modest shadow simply to create the atmosphere of the setting.

Indeed, it seems like a typical shot from an A picture of the mid-1920s.

I do not think that one can determine which shots and scenes were redone by von Sternberg just by the lighting. “To match the scenes I wished to retain,” von Sternberg must have used the three-point lighting system that had been established as the norm during the second half of the 1910s. He did a very good job, and there are many scenes that look like they could have been shot by Lloyd or Sternberg, adhering to that same norm and of course using the same sets and costumes. Which of the two directors made this image, with its exemplary use of the three-point lighting system devised by Hollywood practitioners in the second half of the 1910s?

Von Sternberg’s reference to Lloyd as an “effective” director may sound like diplomatic, lukewarm praise, but he might have meant that any good Hollywood director with an experienced cinematographer could have produced such an image, with its perfect blend of key, fill, and back lighting.

Similarly, we might be tempted to identify this glamor shot of Ralston as directed by von Sternberg, but it seems a fairly conventional approach to filming a beautiful star in the late 1920s.

And here’s an impressive depth staging in the scene where Luco tells Kitty that he could never marry a divorced woman for religious reasons.

It is tempting to think that the stark juxtaposition of a sharply in-focus foreground cut off from the soft-focus background by the edge-lit fringes on the curtains is a von Sternbergian touch, but we cannot be certain that Lloyd and a good cinematographer could not create the same effect.

 

A possible, probable von Sternberg scene

The big climactic scene sure looks like a very skillful director made it. One is tempted to say that that director was von Sternberg.

The action brings to a head Kitty’s machinations. Having been rejected by Luco, she realizes that her refusal to let Teddy and Jean be together is making them miserable and is not the best thing for her daughter, either. She writes a suicide note addressed to Jean, hugs her daughter for the last time, and heads into her bedroom clutching a bottle of poison.

Here is a breakdown of the scene. It begins with Kitty reading a newspaper. We see her point-of-view, revealing that Luco is going to marry Jean. Luco has already rejected her, but this scene is the moment when she learns that he is to marry her friend. The newspaper shot is followed by a closer view of Kitty.

      

She looks up and to her right, her face grim. It is notable that Bow has been de-glamorized for this scene, with her eyebrows minimized and her hair swept back from her face in a matronly style quite different from her usual bouncy curls. The camera pulls in toward her until it is in extreme close-up.

     

The pull-in reveals a tear that has slid down from her right eye. It is worth pointing out that this is Clara Bow, noted for her flapper image, always lively and carefree. Clearly she could play drama and even melodrama. Perhaps this is an instance of von Sternberg’s famous ability to direct female performances.

The intense close view is interrupted by a cut to Kitty dropping the newspaper. A long shot follows as she stands and moves to sit down at the desk. A cut-in to a medium shot shows her thinking and beginning to write.

     

This leads to her point-of-view on what she writes. We learn only that it is a letter to Jean and that Kitty has had a realization. A return to the medium-shot framing shows her reacting to a knock at the offscreen door and saying, “Come in” as she hides the letter under the desk-blotter. An eyeline-match cut shows her daughter entering. A pan follows as she crosses to the desk and Kitty kneels to embrace her.

      

A cut-in shows Kitty emotionally embracing the girl. During the course of this, the girl’s hat falls off. In a return to the medium-long shot, Kitty carries the girl to her nurse. Another shot shows her returning to fetch the fallen hat and hugging it while displaying despair.

      

A more distant framing shows her putting the hat back on the child. The nurse’s cheery expression as she helps put the hat on contrasts greatly with Kitty’s unnoticed emotion. Once the others leave, Kitty returns to sit at the desk and pulls out the unfinished letter. Again we see her point-of-view as she completes the letter and we realize that it is an apology and suicide note, telling Jean to marry Teddy and raise the daughter that should have been hers. A return to the medium shot shows her putting the letter into an envelope.

      

A rather clumsy and unnecessary cut-in to a tighter shot of Kitty might suggest a blend of Lloyd and von Sternberg footage is occurring, but the lighting on the set, Kitty’s hair-do and costume are identical, so the footage is probably all from the same director. A return to the previous medium shot shows Kitty hesitating as she finishes addressing the envelope and presses a button to summon a servant. A cut back to a more distant shot shows her rising and starting rightward toward the door.

     

A cut to the doorway shows Kitty handing the envelope to a maid, who leaves. Kitty than moves away from the camera to reach for a small cabinet on a table. A cut-in with match-on-action shows her unlocking the cabinet and taking out an object barely recognizable as a small bottle.

      

A cut to the mirror above the cabinet shows Kitty looking at herself, with the image of her face going out of focus. A cut to a medium-long shot leads to the camera panning with Kitty as she moves to a door at the rear.

     

She opens the door and walks into the distance as the camera tracks slowly back.

   

That’s a pretty flashy scene, and it certainly seems more likely than not that von Sternberg directed it.

Once again Flicker Alley deserves credit for bringing us another important film from the silent era.

 


Thanks to our friends at Flicker Alley for facilitating this entry.

 

 

David Bordwell
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