Tag Archives: Kelly Robinson

Lillian Gish and The Wind: ‘It excited my imagination’

Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)
Lillian Gish in The Wind (1928)

The Wind screens with a specially commissioned live musical accompaniment from Lola Perrin at the Electric Cinema, London, on 9 April 2014, and the Watershed Cinema, Bristol, on 30 April 2014

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson. If you haven’t seen The Wind, be warned that this article discusses the ending of the film.

Ethereal, delicate, poetic, otherworldly are just some of the somewhat elusive adjectives used to describe Lillian Gish since the early years of her stardom. Effusive admirer Vachel Lindsay said “Lillian Gish could be given wings and a wand if she only had directors and scenario writers who believed in fairies.” However, in reality Gish had her feet firmly on the ground. She had a career spanning eight decades, was a spokeswoman for cinema’s history with high artistic ambitions for herself and for the medium. King Vidor, who directed her in La Boheme (1926) commented: “The movies have never known a more dedicated artist than Lillian Gish.”

In his autobiography A Tree is a Tree Vidor said that Gish was incredibly assertive and had her own thoughts about the filmmaking process. Indeed, she knew a great deal about cinematography and in particular lighting. She had learned her trade during the more collaborative process of the silent era, where she had received extensive tutelage from DW Griffith in a production context where actors frequently worked without scripts and where they were encouraged to collaborate on characterisation and staging. She may only have had had a small acting role in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), however she designed and furnished sets, helped with lighting and cutting, wrote intertitles and advertising copy.

Continue reading Lillian Gish and The Wind: ‘It excited my imagination’

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Why Change Your Wife?: Cecil B DeMille and the New Woman

Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife?
Gloria Swanson in Why Change Your Wife?

Why Change Your Wife? screens with a live score by Niki King as part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival on 10 April 2014 at BFI Southbank, at 6.10pm

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson

Cecil B DeMille is perhaps predominantly remembered for his big-budgeted biblical epics of the 1940s and 50s. For instance, the captivatingly lurid Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments are both still television staples. However, DeMille had a career that spanned several decades and he made more than 50 films in the silent era alone. Many of these early titles were similarly lavish and sensationalist, whilst also seeking to exploit contemporary social concerns.

Jesse L Lasky, Vice President of Famous Players-Lasky (Paramount), encouraged “modern stuff with plenty of clothes, rich sets, and action”. Savvy to the growing female audience, Lasky contracted screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson to portray women “in the sort of role that the feminists in the country are now interested in … the kind of girl that dominates … who jumps in and does a man’s work.” The result was several delightful, enormously successful, marital comedies, starting with Old Wives for New and followed by Don’t Change Your Husband. Why Change Your Wife? completes the “does what it says on the tin” trilogy. With their focus on female glamour and desire, these films offer more permutations of the “New Woman”, which Birds Eye View has explored in previous Sound & Silents strands.

Why Change Your Wife? (1920)
Why Change Your Wife? (1920)

Considering his somewhat indomitable, patriarchal image, it is perhaps surprising to find a large number of women amongst Demille’s regular collaborators. Anne Bauchens edited his films, from Carmen (1915) all the way through to The Ten Commandments (1959), his last film. In his unpublished autobiography he wrote that it was an essential clause in every contract that she be his editor. In the Los Angeles Herald Examiner he is quoted as saying that: “‘though a gentle person, professionally she is as firm as a stone wall … We argue over virtually every picture.”

Continue reading Why Change Your Wife?: Cecil B DeMille and the New Woman

The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Kelly Robinson, and the first in a new series of posts bringing you very personal top 10s from silent cinema experts and enthusiasts.

From a programming point of view, it’s always good to have a few shorts up your sleeve: either to accompany a feature or to make up a shorts programme, which are always a good way to introduce new audiences to silent film. I’m trying to write short screenplays at the moment and I’m inspired by these film-makers, several of whom spent the majority of their careers working on shorts.


How to be an American Citizen (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1912)

Made in the US by Solax, film pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché’s production company, this is such a brilliant darkly anarchic comedy. View the version on the Retour de Flamme (06) disc by Lobster Films for one of the most inspired accompaniments to a silent film.

Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)

Breathtakingly stylish (talk about Eisenstein’s “kino fist”!) but also heartbreakingly moving, this is avant-garde cinema of the 1920s at its most profound. The scene on the bench is as poignant as anything by Chaplin or more recent master Krzysztof Kieslowski. Unforgettable.

Kid Auto Races (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in Kid Auto Races (1914)

Kid Auto Races (Henry Lehrman, 1914)

Chaplin’s Keystone films are sometimes written off as unsophisticated fare, preceding a more nuanced approach to style and content at later studios. However, Chaplin’s performance here is pure clown, and shows why contemporary audiences immediately wanted more, more, more of “The Little Fellow”.

Leave 'em Laughing (1928)
Leave ’em Laughing (1928)

Leave ’em Laughing (Clyde Bruckman, 1928)

I just have to think about the final sequence of the Laurel and Hardy classic and I start chuckling madly to myself.

Daisy Doodad’s Dial (Florence Turner, 1914)

“The Vitagraph Girl” pulls a face at being one of the first screen stars.

Continue reading The 10 best short films for silent cinema novices

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

Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’

Mary Pickford with camera
‘You didn’t really direct Mary. She was a very sure person in her own category’ – Howard Hawks

This is a guest post for Silent London to mark International Women’s Day by Kelly Robinson, curator of the Birds Eye View Sound and Silents programme. 

Birds Eye View’s Mary Pickford Revived event is part of WOW – Women of the World Festival 2012 at the Southbank Centre. Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley with The New York Hat and Female of the Species screen at the Southbank Centre on 9 March at 8pm (find out more). Sparrows screens at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March at 4pm (find out more).

My success has been due to the fact that women like the pictures in which I appear” – Mary Pickford

In any serious study of early cinema, prominent men such as the “Father of Film” DW Griffith and silent clown Charles Chaplin are always first to feature. Happily though, recent literature has sought to readdress this critical gender imbalance by also highlighting the contribution of similarly extraordinary pioneers – including Mary Pickford.

Pickford was certainly a creative force on a par with Chaplin, and the two had a lot in common. Like Chaplin, she also performed in the theatre from a young age to support her family. At 13, a precocious Pickford harangued theatre impresario David Belasco to hire her, apparently telling him: “I’m the father of my family.” Like many other theatre actors, she was initially disdainful of cinema but was drawn in by the financial rewards. She enquired at the bustling Biograph studios for work, and it was here that she met Griffith, the director of two of the beautiful shorts that feature as part of the Southbank programme.

The films in this programme span a period of just seven years but this was a time of rapid change. Indeed, in the months that separate Griffith’s The New York Hat and Female of the Species we can see striking developments in film form and style. The volume of films Biograph churned out was phenomenal and between 1909 and 1910 Pickford appeared in 80 films for Griffith.

Mary Pickford, America's Sweetheart
Mary Pickford, America’s Sweetheart (Courtesy Birds Eye View)

Pickford said: “I got what no one else wanted and I took anything that came my way because I decided that if I could get into as many pictures as possible I’d become known, and there would be a demand for my work.” Indeed she quickly became a favourite with audiences, although they didn’t yet know her name; she was referred to as the ‘”girl with the curls”. Once she had established the extent of her fame, she asked for a rise from Griffith and her name on the screen.

Continue reading Mary Pickford: from the ‘girl with the curls’ to ‘woman’s woman’