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April 2013

Win tickets to see Guests of the Nation (1935) at the Barbican

Guests of the Nation (1935)
Guests of the Nation (1935)

Chances to see Irish silents are very far and few between, so this orchestra-accompanied screening of Guests of the Nation promises to be something very special. That title doesn’t refer to Irish hospitality – this film is an adaptation of a Frank O’Connor short story, and the “guests” in question are British hostages of Irish freedom fighters. The author even has a cameo role in the film. It’s a late silent, filmed in the mid-1930s and features a few faces you may recognise from sound films.

I don’t know much about the film myself, but the Barbican website has this to say about it:

Guests of the Nation, preserved in the IFI Irish Film Archive, is one of a handful of indigenous dramas made in Ireland during the silent period and is a remarkable work. Here, we are delighted to present the film with live orchestral accompaniment, with Niall Byrne as the composer and David Brophy conducting.

Based on a short story by Frank O’Connor (a frequent contributor to The New Yorker) reflecting his experience in the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, the film concerns the friendship between British military prisoners and their IRA captors during the War of Independence.

Shot during the summers of 1933 and 1934 by a group of passionate amateurs under the direction of playwright and theatre director, Denis Johnston, the film features early screen performances from the legendary Barry Fitzgerald, Cyril Cusack, Shelah Richards, Hilton Edwards, Denis O’Dea, and, indeed, Frank O’Connor himself.

To win one of three pairs of tickets to see Guests of the Nation at the Barbican, just send the answer to this question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com by noon on Wednesday 10 April. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries.

  • Guests of the Nation actor Cyril Cusack played the Fireman Captain in which Francois Truffaut film?

Guests of the Nation screens at 4pm on Sunday 14 April at the Barbican Cinema. To book tickets, please click here.

Sumurun: Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri’s Arabian night

Pola Negri and Ernst Lubitsch in Sumurun
Pola Negri and Ernst Lubitsch in Sumurun

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson.

Sumurun screens with a live score by Amira Kheir at BFI Southbank as part of Birds Eye View Film Festival on Thursday 4 April at 6.10pm. Read more here.

Sumurun is the product of an intensely creative time in the German film industry when an extraordinary range of artistic and entrepreneurial talent emerged: creating ambitious films that challenged American productions for the international market.

Paul Davidson, the director of the German production firm Projektions-AG Union (PAGU), was a film producer unafraid of financial risk-taking and he invested large amounts of capital early on in the industry. In 1918 the company was merged with several other firms under the umbrella of Ufa, with Davidson becoming an executive on its board. Much of Ufa’s success was the result of the absorption of PAGU’s talent, which included directors such as Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Wegener and stars such as Pola Negri and Ossi Oswalda. Indeed because of its established reputation it still produced under the PAGU brand and retained a considerable degree of independence.

With financial support from the German bank, Ufa began a policy of big-budget films aimed at the international market. In 1918, Davidson suggested Lubitsch try making one of these Großfilmes, epic productions indebted to the Italian spectacle films, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914) – films which in their budgets and enormous sets were an attempt to compete with Hollywood. Lubitsch assembled a regular production team around him for a series of these ambitious films, including his co-writer Hanns Kräly, the set designer Kurt Richter, and cameraman Theodor Sparkuhl. Famous actors such as Pola Negri added star allure to these films and became a big draw for audiences’ world-wide. Sumurun is one of several extraordinary films that resulted from these collaborations during the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Pola Negri
Pola Negri

Pola Negri was born Barbara Appollonia Chalupiec in Yanowa, near Lipno in Poland. She took as her professional name the last name of Ada Negri, an Italian poet she admired and the diminutive form of Apollonia as a first name. She had danced at the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg and had acted on stage and screen in Poland before being invited by Max Reinhardt to Germany to star in Sumurun  (a story derived from The Arabian Nights) after she had appeared in a Polish theatrical version. It was here that Negri met Lubitsch, who was a Reinhardt player and comedy short director at the time, and who was playing the role of the hunchback opposite her in the German theatrical version (a role he would recreate in the film). They became good friends and he made her the star of several of the large-scale costume pictures for Ufa. Lubitsch told her: “We’re going to make a picture of Sumurun. Reinhardt’s letting us have the sets and costumes. We’ll use most of the actors from the stage productions. We’ll hardly even have to rehearse. It’ll cost practically nothing.” (Pola Negri, Memoirs of a Star). Production started in September 1920. It was substantially cut and released by First International in the US in October 1921 with the new title One Arabian Night. Negri remembered its production as: “a very easy and happy chore. Except for a few Lubitsch innovations, it was essentially a photographed stage play.” (Memoirs of a Star)

This kind of dismissive assessment has plagued One Arabian Night, with even relatively recent biographies of Lubitsch granting the film scant attention. However it is an important film, both as an example of Germany’s aesthetic advancements and also in the context of Negri’s and Lubitsch’s career.  For instance it was this film that impressed Mary Pickford so much that she brought Lubitsch to the US for Rosita (1923). The film’s critical neglect is most likely a result of viewing the bowdlerised US print, which is missing thirty minutes. Thankfully now we can see the fully restored version.

Sumurun (1920)
Sumurun (1920)

Many historians agree that German films improved when Hollywood films began to be seen in Germany from 1921, and yet, interesting approaches to cinematography preceding the American influence are evident in films such Sumurun. For instance, in the opening of the film where the light streaming through blinds in the caravan causes chiaroscuro patterns. Cameraman Sparkuhl also has a tendency to hold closeups from a high angle, which adds variety to some of the scenes. Indeed, most of the closeups of Pola Negri, particularly the scenes of her dancing in Sumurun, are shot in this manner. This may have been a way of singling Negri out from the rest of the characters; similar to the technique of filming stars that was developing in Hollywood.

German film’s reputation for elaborate set design is evident in Sumurun. There is a rhythm both in the set design and also in the movement of figures within that design. Lotte Eisner has noted how the American musical would pattern itself on the “delicate arabesques” in this film (The Haunted Screen). Contemporary reviews often observed how Lubitsch’s films were on a par with the best American productions. Variety reviewing the film in 1921 commented: “The production is colorful throughout, the atmosphere of the East being perfect in detail.” These films were incredibly successful in Germany and abroad. Their settings, such as Sumurun’s Persia, and subject matter, offered audiences an escape from everyday reality. Negri observed  that “one of the reasons [for the success of Sumurun] was certainly because its intensely romantic oriental fatalism was precisely the kind of escapism a war-weary people craved for” (Memoirs of a Star).

Pola Negri in Sumurun
Pola Negri in Sumurun

Negri and Lubitsch were among the first international celebrities to be brought to the US – later director-star duos included Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo. Negri arrived under contract with Paramount in 1922 to a storm of publicity. The press went wild over an affair with Charles Chaplin and supposed spats between her and Gloria Swanson, whose top star status at Paramount she challenged.  Her vampish screen persona was conflated with anecdotes about her private life. The press spread rumours about her many lovers and delighted in reporting quirky acts such as her walking a tiger on a leash down Hollywood Boulevard.

Negri had became known abroad for playing roles where women exploited their sexuality for economic and political gain (see also Carmen and Madame Dubarry). Her swaggering sexuality is parodied sublimely by Marion Davies in The Patsy (1926). Diane Negra has observed the transformation that her persona undertook in the move from Germany to Hollywood. In the Hollywood films her femme fatale image was tempered and the films frequently ended happily. The American films also deemphasised the ethnic and class dimensions found in earlier films. Her US films were not as successful as the European ones and Negra argues that this was the result of her ethnic sexuality. Her Italian surname, Polish ethnicity and connections to German film industry meant she could not (or would not) be fully assimilated.  In public and private she appeared to resist being Americanised. “As the unassimilatable woman, both in ethnic and sexual terms, she stood for a type that was in fact far more transgressive than the thoroughly American, upper-middle-class flapper who, for all her supposed flouting of social conventions, was nearly always safely married off in the end.” (‘Immigrant Stardom in Imperial America: Pola Negri and the Problem of Typology’, Diane Negra).

Kelly Robinson

Yasujiro Ozu’s gangster youth

Walk Cheerfully (1930)
Walk Cheerfully (1930)

Yasujiro Ozu wasn’t always quite the Yasujiro Ozu we know from Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And he was certainly nothing like the film-maker you would expect if you had never seen those films, just been told about them as slow, domestic dramas on the theme of loss. Ozu has always put the fun into formalism, with playfully picturesque compositions and his famous cutaway “pillow shots” inserting frames of pure, simple cinema into his simmering narratives.

Later Ozu films are so routinely described as distinctively Japanese, as distinctively Ozu-esque that it may surprise many to learn that the director was actually a huge fan of Hollywood cinema. When he first started work at the Shochiku studio as a young man, he horrified the boss by claiming to have only seen a handful of Japanese films, and hundreds of American pictures. The twentysomething Ozu first aspired to make comedies, aping the slapstick of Harold Lloyd and the wit of Lubitsch.

The BFI collected a handful of Ozu’s campus comedies in a box set last year – and while their subject matter and setting seem very different from Ozu’s sound films, there was much that was familiar: a certain poignancy to the humour; the awkwardness of social and family situations; the sense of change and loss on growing old and leaving friends and family behind.

Dragnet Girl (1933)
Dragnet Girl (1933)

Now the BFI has brought together more of Ozu’s earlier, funnier material for a second set, but this time with a darker theme. The Gangster Films set reflects Ozu’s Hollywood influences, sure, but also a changing Japan, more urban, more hi-tech, more susceptible to western influences. In the student comedies, our slacker heroes are horrified by the brazen manners of so-called modern girls – Ozu’s gangsters embrace them, at least for a short while. The films featured in this new set are Dragnet Girl, A Straightforward Boy (fragment), Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. I don’t want to lump these films together, certainly the fragment is its own beast, but they do share some characteristics. The three features are all set in an Americanised Tokyo, accented with deep shadows and populated by Japanese gangsters straight out of US novels and films – double-breasted suits, sharp-brimmed hats and shiny leather shoes. Their molls have bobbed hair and fur collars, high-heeled shoes and glint in their eye.

The beauty of watching the gangster movies is to see Ozu’s cinematic style grow despite his influences. Or to put it in David Bordwell’s words: “The exotic and formulaic genre allows Ozu to experiment stylistically, moving toward that highly overt narration that was to become his trademark.” While the gangster films offer us Hollywood thrills in the shape of guns, girls and skulduggery, the poetics, the cutaways and composition are all Ozu’s own.

That Night's Wife (1930)
That Night’s Wife (1930)

Full disclosure: I’d quite like you to buy this box set. I contributed one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, on Walk Cheerfully. You’ll find more erudite words there too from Tony Rayns, Bryony Dixon and Michael Kerpan. The films are the thing, of course, and they are beautifully accompanied by Ed Hughes’ scores. The set has been reviewed in Film International, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, and in Sight & Sound, by Philip Kemp.

However, I’m not just writing to plug the box set, but to bring you some information about a forthcoming screening of Walk Cheerfully at BFI Southbank on 22 April. This is a members’ ballot screening, and you should know by now whether you have a ticket, though I suppose there may also be some more available nearer the date. This is a special screening and will be an experience very different to watching the DVD. First, the music will be a live improvised score that combines traditional Japanese music with electronic distortions – and a 78rpm record player. Walk Cheerfully is certainly a toe-tapping film, so I have high hopes for this. More details below:

Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell are the two musicians improvising a live score for Walk Cheerfully. The pair have worked together for several years on projects for film, dance and theatre, as well as numerous international concert and festival performances. Their duo album The Geographers is on the Emanem label.

Clive Bell is a specialist in Japanese traditional music; he lived in Tokyo where he studied the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Later he learned to play the khene, a bamboo mouth organ from Thailand – a bright-toned, chordal wind instrument that is an ancestor of the accordion. Sylvia Hallett is a violinist, composer and instrument maker, with a unique personal approach to live electronics.

Clive Bell writes: “Walk Cheerfully is a film full of subtle surprises, that deserves a fresh-sounding score. Our musical accompaniment will blend these Far Eastern instruments, and the more familiar violin, with electronic looping and pitch-shifting. The live orchestra which accompanied Japanese screenings in the 1930s often mixed traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (lute) and taiko drum with trumpet, violin, clarinet and piano. Instead of a piano, we use electronics to extend the music’s range into magic and atmospheres.

“Ozu was a keen student of American cinema, but made films that remained essentially Japanese. We hope to return the compliment by creating a rich musical mix of Western and Japanese, of contemporary and traditional. And, when the gangsters play their 78rpm records in their club, we will activate an antique 78rpm record player of our own.”

The second surprise is that the film will be accompanied by live Benshi narration – as Japanese film screenings were in the silent era. The Benshi will be performed by Tomoko Komura, who will both translate the intertitles and narrate the film.

If you want to learn more about Ozu, and his silent work, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to begin.

Walk Cheerfully screens at NFT1 on 22 April 2013 at 6.30pm. Read more here.

News for 2013 from the British Silent Film Festival

Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)
Cocaine (Graham Cutts, 1922)

If my email inbox is anything to go by, several of you have been wondering when we would hear details of the 16th British Silent Film Festival. After last year’s trip to Cambridge, many of you will have been anticipating the festival’s return to London, for one thing…

Well. There’s bad news – but happily there’s far more good news.

The BSFF is taking a break this year – but there will still be a BSFF, of sorts. And yes, some of the events will be in London, but festivalgoers will also be packing their buckets and spades for a trip to The Suffolk coast – and the historic Aldeburgh Cinema.

The centrepiece of the events, according to my insider sources, will be the screening of Hobson’s Choice (Percy Nash, 1920), starring Arthur PittJoan Ritz and Joe Nightingale – a very, very rarely seen film and a magnificent adaptation of the play by Harold Brighouse. You’ll also have a chance to see the full surviving fragment of Graham Cutts’s Cocaine (1922) and the only surviving reel of Monkey’s Paw (Manning Haynes, 1923). Speaking of Haynes – you’ll be able to feast on his delightful WW Jacobs comedies down in Suffolk – a treat for any British silent film fanatic. If you linger by the seaside, you’ll also catch the Dodge Brothers accompanying the Louise Brooks film Beggars of Life (1928), which is well worth sticking around for.

Over to the official announcement on the British Silents website.

There will be no British Silent Film Festival this year while the team regroup – however, we are organising three fantastic one off events , with three enthusiastic new hosts:

19th April One day British Silent Symposium courtesy of Lawrence Napper at King’s College, University of London –incorporating the Rachael Low lecture. A ‘Call for Papers’ will be coming soon.

20th April – All day event at the Cinema Museum – a programme of sensational London related film – The Yellow Claw, full surviving fragments of Cocaine, Monkey’s Paw, and rare shorts from other collections. Also the 21st century premiere of the 1920Hobson’s Choice a genuinely good silent adaptation of the Harold Brighouse classic made famous by David Lean.

4th May – join us by the sea as the BSFF are guests of the glorious Aldeburgh Cinema for an all-dayer, with a coastal theme, including the ‘east coast’ films of Manning Haynes and Lydia Hayward based on the W W Jacobs stories, a programme of Lifeboat films and others. The fabulous Dodge Brothers will be playing ‘Beggars of Life’on the 5th for those who want to make a weekend of it!

Full programmes and further details to follow.

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