Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2015

Obsession, The (1912)

Obsession

This cautionary short by Louis Feuillade allows Renée Carl to show nearly every emotion during its 23-minute duration. She plays a woman who is duped by a phony fortune teller into believing that her husband (René Navarre, from “Fantômas” and “The Trust”) is doomed to die, a suspicion confirmed for the audience when he books a passage aboard the Titanic! But, he survives and returns, causing her to fear that her son must be the one fated to die. The avuncular godfather tricks the palmist into returning and giving a glowing prediction, giving away the game and saving Renée from her obsession. Unfortunately, the final scenes are missing, so had to be summarized in intertitles, but what there is here is interesting. I was particularly struck by the a-typical (for the time) lighting, as demonstrated in the still above. The practical lamp on the right is used again in a scene where the mother worries over the child, and she is able to pick it up and shine it on the bed. This is remarkable, because my understanding is that film of that time was not fast enough to “see” light from a practical source, unless you put a super-powerful bulb in it. So, either there was a clever lighting trick done to make it seem like the light moved with the lamp (without it casting a noticeable shadow), or Renée was in danger of seriously burning herself when she picked it up. Or else I’m badly misinformed on this point. At any rate, it’s a rare shot for the period, and looks pretty good, however it was done.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Renée Carl, René Navarre

Run Time: 23 Min, 43 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Heart and the Money (1912)

Heart_and_Money 1912

Alternate Title: Le Couer et l’argent

Tonight’s movie by Louis Feuillade is a foray into tragic melodrama. A pair of young lovers on a boat is separated by the girl’s mother (the ubiquitous Renée Carl, who was in “Fantomas” and “The Defect”). Mom has plans for her child, Suzanne: she hooks her up with a local wealthy land-owner, portrayed by a rotund Paul Manson (also in “The Trust” and a number of Feuillade’s popular Bébé films). Soon, she is more or less hijacked into marriage by the schemers, and is driven off to his estate in a motorcar, despite the protestations of her jilted boyfriend. When the husband conveniently dies, he has his revenge by stipulating in his will that his widow receives nothing if she remarries. Undaunted, she sneaks past her mother and back to her lover, but he won’t have her, haunted as he is by images of her with the fat man. Poor Suzanne comes to a tragic end, as befits tragedy. It’s all pretty typical stuff, which I can’t help but compare unfavorably to work Evgeni Bauer would be producing just a year later, but not too bad I guess. The casting choice also disappointed me: Why make it a fat, older man? Wouldn’t Suzanne be more heroic if she spurned the love of an attractive, rich man who just happened not to be the man she loved? As it is, it seems like she likes the handsome guy because, well, he’s handsome.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Suzanne Grandais, Renée Carl, Paul Manson

Run Time: 17 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Trust, the (1911)

Trust

Alternate Title: “Le trust, ou les batailles de l’argent”

With this film, I can see Feuillade’s development towards “Fantomas” and other crime serials for which he is remembered. Bearing in mind that I’ve only seen a small sample of the over 700 movies he made for Gaumont Studios in France, the thing that has stood out up to now is the range and diversity of his movies. This time, he produced something that appears to be a direct antecedent of his most famous works, even introducing his future master criminal, René Navarre, in the role of a private detective hired by an unscrupulous corporate executive to get the formula for artificial rubber from a hapless scientist. Navarre uses an intoxicating gas to render his rival’s secretary unconscious, in order to steal her hat and coat, so that he can impersonate her and steal the telegram that tells when and where the scientist will arrive. The audacity and outlandishness of the plot, of course, just makes it all the more certain it will succeed, and the detective then has the outrageous good fortune to be hired to be the man’s bodyguard! He kidnaps him and brings him to his masters, who wear masks and conspire in an underground grotto. But, the scientist has the last laugh when he gives them the formula in disappearing ink. The externals are more limited in this movie than some of the other Feuillades I’ve reviewed recently, and the whole thing is slowed down a bit by extensive use of text such as telegrams and intertitles to move the plot forward, but it was very interesting to see Navarre establish his scheming on-screen persona.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: René Navarre, Renée Carl, Paul Manson

Run Time: 24 Min, 42 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Roman Orgy (1911)

Roman Orgy

OK, let’s get it out of the way right off, in case anyone came here because they were Googling for porn: There is no orgy in this film. Move along, nothing to see here. Nothing, that is, except for an odd costume drama directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Jean Aymé (whose talents as a baddy we previously saw in “The Defect”). Aymé camps uncontrollably as the debauched Roman emperor “Heliogabalus” (that’s a mouthful, but the end title makes it even worse by telling us he was the “Sardanapalus of Rome”), who sets lions loose on his dinner guests, spoiling the planned orgy. Having had enough of his tyranny, they call in the Praetorian Guard to do away with him There’s limited hand painting of the costumes in this movie, which is mostly pretty understated, but is striking in the gold helmets and armor of the Praetorians. Gaumont must have had a decent budget or some pull with a local zoo, because there’s at least seven or eight lions running around the studio, apparently with actors and crew right nearby.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Cast: Jean Aymé, Renée Carl, Luitz-Morat

Run Time: 8 Min, 52 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Defect, the (1911)

Defects

Alternate Title: “La Tare”

This longer story by Louis Feuillade (feature-length, if we accept the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’s liberal definition), is quite somber and serious, although also interestingly different from similar morality films from the US at the time. Anna (Renée Carl, who we’ve seen in a number of these Gaumont movies now) is a “flower girl” working at a brasserie frequented by “loose women” and making time with a dandyish medical student. She is unhappy in her job, but a real doctor strays in and offers her work at a hospital for seriously ill children and old people. She writes her boyfriend a goodbye letter and travels South, taking up her work with determined efficiency and a good bedside manner. Years later, when the old doctor dies, she becomes the director of the hospital. And then her old lover hears of her success and tries to chisel her for a job. When she refuses, he writes to a newspaper of her “sordid past.” The board, which at first appears willing to defend her against slander, decides to dismiss her when she owns up to it all. She can’t get a job without references, and is on the verge of suicide, but she collapses back into her chair and a final intertitle tells us she “considers the Far East — where people stricken by plague need nurses to liberate them from death.”

Now, as this is a bit longer, I want to take a bit of time to discuss it. First, it is interesting that the actress here is not made up to be at all glamorous or attractive, she is quite plain-looking and rarely, if ever, smiles or appears happy. Second, although Feuillade mostly keeps this one inside the cramped, stagey-sets of his studio, we do get some beautiful shots of Paris and the hospital grounds, and a shot of a train racing South that put me in mind of Lumiere, except that the angle was rather more interesting. While we’re on the subject of photography, there’s also an interesting tracking shot between two of the cramped sets at the employment office – nothing groundbreaking, but camera movement is so rare in 1911 that it stood out. It’s quite slow and deliberate, matching the mood of tragic destiny that prevails.  Third, I was fascinated, both by the apparent sympathy for the heroine shown in the narrative, and by the fact that having worked in a “brasserie” would disqualify a competent nurse from hospital work. Wikipedia tells me that “brasserie” means “brewery,” although the translated intertitles once used the term “dance hall,” perhaps trying to make the negative connotation clear to Americans. We don’t see any dancing, though, just what looks like a fairly congenial restaurant, with mostly female wait staff and mostly male clientele, both quite conservatively dressed and not touching one another. I admit, I don’t know much about the turn-of-the-century mores of French dining establishments, but it seems like a pretty judgmental position, perhaps the French equivalent of the gossips fussing about Mary Pickford’s “New York Hat.” Here, however, no one gets any comeuppance and the tragedy is taken almost to its final extreme, aside from the fact that the last intertitle tells us that Anna is truly redeemed and will continue her good works.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring:Renée Carl, Jean Aymé, Alice Tissot

Run Time: 41 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Custody of the Child (1909)

Custody of the Child

Alternate Title: “La Possession de l’enfant

This is another of Louis Feuillade’s early works for Gaumont studios in France. Although this is largely similar to Progressive Era morality dramas being made in the United States, there are some interesting differences. First of all, the very act of basing a film on the premise of divorce is unusual for American pictures anytime before “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), or at least “The Parent Trap” (1961). It’s also interesting that the it is the father who is awarded custody, making the conflict of the film the natural love between a mother and child, and the harm done by divorce to this institution. The child, although well-taken-care-of, quickly becomes melancholy, and the father takes him to his maternal grandmother. She, of course, immediately turns him over to the mother, who absconds and then tries to raise the child in poverty. The father goes to the police, and we seem to be set up for a tragic of ending, but the child brings his parents together. Modern audiences may be confused by the long hair and petticoats of the male child, but this would have been typical in Europe at the time. Again, Feuillade makes good use of Paris exteriors intercut with generic, cramped stage-like sets for the play.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Renée Carl, Christiane Mandelys, Maurice Vinot

Run Time: 11 Min, 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fairy of the Surf (1909)

Fairy_Of_The_Surf

Alternate Title: La Fée des Grèves

This gentle piece from Louis Feuillade bears a resemblance to “The Little Mermaid” and other fairy tales. Here, instead of a mermaid, a young prince fishes a fairy from the sea while she dances atop the water, then persuades her to marry him. Alas, she finds she must return to the sea, but the prince follows. Instead of drowning, he becomes “Prince of the Sea” and lives with her in a Méliès-inspired seashell castle. The extensive location shooting, nicely intercut with extravagant interiors, differs the look and feel of the piece from Méliès, however, and the tone and pacing of the piece feels a bit more deliberate than his usual gay abandon. Most of the setups are long shots, however, and we get only limited opportunities to see the actors’ faces, making this a visually typical film for the time. The version I saw had limited hand-painting of frames, especially of the costumes of the human characters, although the movie is not properly in color.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Run Time: 7 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Evgeni Bauer – A Russian Artiste

Welcome to a couple of firsts for my blog: this is both the first time I’ve participated in a blogathon and also the first time I’ve tried to write about the career of a specific filmmaker, rather than examining their films one at a time in capsulized reviews. Perhaps even more exciting: this post falls on my blog-birthday: The Century Film Project has now been in the blogosphere for exactly 1% of a century!

Evgeni_Bauer

The Story According to Wikipedia

When I heard about the “Russia in Classic Film” blogathon being held by Movies Silently, I knew I wanted to see what I could come up with on Evgeni Bauer.* I had only just discovered him, and have since written three reviews of his films, but I knew I had found someone special. His movies are so advanced by the standards of the teens that it’s hard to believe they aren’t ten years later than the dates they show. Although he seems to have worked with more than one photographer, the use of composition and lighting is always remarkably deliberate, and one suspects that he worked very closely with his cameramen to get the effect he wanted. No surprise that he was a production designer, because the sets are always carefully and artistically planned, and he gives actors and camera space to move around within the set as well. Finally, he was one of very few directors at the time who worked in three dimensions – what happens in the foreground and background can be more important than center stage, and performers move in all directions in his movies.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer's 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

A still from Yevgeni Bauer’s 1917 film Za schastem with Lev Kuleshov and Tasya Borman.

Looking Deeper: Tsarist Russian Cinema

The one book I could find in English that provided any insight into Bauer was Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908-1919. It’s a fairly rare book, I had to have my library order it from a University in Orange County, CA, and it’s rather odd as well. It’s dual-language, with English on the left side and Italian on the right, and sometimes the English reads is if translated by someone with only second-language skills. It refers to itself at several points as a “catalog,” and seems to have been intended to serve as companion to some kind of film festival or showing, in spite of its immensity (600+ pages). A lot of the text is apparently made up of comments from Russian film magazines, translated for current readers, with additional comments on each film by the editors.

What I did get from this was an interesting view of the Russian film culture of the period. Judging by these magazines, there was quite a thriving film industry and film-going public in Russia at the time, one which seems to compare to the United States. Now, I have to imagine, given what I know of Russian society, that this would have been a largely urban phenomenon, and that it would have been restricted to population centers like Moscow and Petrograd, excluding much of the rural population and presumably the lower classes, who wouldn’t have money or leisure for something like movies most of the time. But, that may itself give us some insight. These journals take film very seriously: it is clearly regarded as an art form already, not just a cheap way to make money, as it often was in the US. The critics writing for these magazines had very high expectations of the literary and visual quality of the films they talked about. Presumably, Russian audiences had similarly high standards.

What I Can Say (or Guess) about Bauer’s Career

In that sense, the emergence someone like Bauer begins to make sense. D.W. Griffith had to fight tooth and nail with Biograph in the United States to try to make anything “artistic.” He took too long, spent too much; all that was wanted was lots of content produced quickly so that the distributors could buy it up by the foot and fill up the nickelodeons with eager viewers. Bauer’s bosses at Khanzhonkov probably had a different approach (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were arguments about budgets there too). They wanted to beat the competition in terms of producing works that would impress people that could be spending their time and money on live theater, and so were more willing to innovate to get an advantage. I don’t have numbers to prove it, but I’d bet there were fewer venues for film in Russia, so less reason to try to make lots and lots of movies, since a lot of them would have nowhere to be shown. They let Bauer work in longer formats, take more time with set ups and rehearsals, and in general they wanted to see quality at least as much as, if not more than, quantity, because that’s what they could sell.

Bauer himself came from an artistic background. His father had been a famous zither player and composer, his sisters acted on stage, and he went to the Moscow School for Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. No doubt it was there that he learned about composition and lighting, and he may well have brought painting techniques with him into film. After moving through several careers, he became a set designer, and was praised for the intricacy and style of his work. By the time he started making sets for the movies in 1912, he would have been forty five or forty six years old, was married, and had worked in various communications media, including the theater, newspapers, and magazines. He made 82 movies for Drankov, Pathé, and Khanzhonkov, had the highest salary of any Russian director, and became part-owner of the latter company through ownership of shares. He worked as a director only from 1913 to 1917, when he died due to pneumonia contracted after a fall while rehearsing walking with a limp for one of his movies.

Another still from Za schastem

Another still from Za schastem

Critical Reception

Now, back to those reviews for a moment. Considering how good his movies look today, I was surprised how harsh the criticism was, especially of my favorite Bauer so far, “After Death.” That one wasn’t about the film’s quality in itself, it was because he had dared to tamper with the sacred Ivan Turgenev, changing characters names and details for the movie. He actually wrote a sort of apology, admitting that “Turgenev should be approached in a different spirit and with different habits” than most film scenarios. Again, evidence of the high standards of Russian moviegoers!

A Tragic Loss, But…

It’s hard for me not to speculate about what would have happened if he had survived into the Soviet period. Many of his actors continued in the Soviet silent period, and certainly good movies continued to be made, but I wonder about the politics of some of his films. He got his start in the business building sets for “The Tercentenary of the Rule of the House of Romanov,” not a subject the Bolsheviks would be likely to approve, though I note that its two directors continued working through the twenties. The portrayal of the proletarian in “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” would also have been potentially embarrassing, certainly by the time of Stalin’s ascendency, but it’s possible that, had he lived, we’d have gotten a lot more great work from Evgeni Bauer.

Of his movies, 26 supposedly remain, but for an American with limited resources, it’s hard to even see a dozen of them. The Wikipedia page for Bauer has links to watch seven of them, and I’d recommend them wholeheartedly to any fan of silent movies.

 

 

*Of course, there are several ways of transcribing his name from Cyrillic. I’m opting for “Evgeni,” because that’s how it appears in “Mad Love: The Films of Evgeni Bauer,” the most accessible DVD collection of his work. Wikipedia prefers “Yevgeni,” and you’ll also find “Evgenii” and “Yevgenii” as well in other sources.

March 1915

SMS Dresden, which would be scuttled after the Battle of Mas a Tierra off Chile

SMS Dresden, which would be scuttled after the Battle of Mas a Tierra off Chile.

Once again, it’s time for a new roundup of events 100 years ago.

World War One:

On March 14, the Battle of Más a Tierra takes place. Off the coast of Chile, the British Royal Navy forces the Imperial German Navy light cruiser SMS Dresden (last survivor of the German East Asia Squadron) to scuttle.

On March 18, a British attack on the Dardanelles fails.

Diplomacy: On March 14, Britain, France and the Russian empire reach the Constantinople Agreement, to give Constantinople and the Bosphorus to Russia in case of victory (the treaty is later nullified by the Bolshevik Revolution).

Plagues: The 1915 Palestine locust infestation breaks out in Palestine; it continues until October.

Science:

On March 3 The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, is founded in the United States.

On March 19, Pluto is photographed for the first time but is not classified as a planet.

Military: On March 25 The U.S. submarine F-4 sinks off Hawaii during submarine maneuvers; 21 are killed. These are the first submarine fatalities in US history.

Sports: On March 26, the Vancouver Millionaires win the Stanley Cup over the Ottawa Senators three games to zero.

Film: On March 3, the movie “The Birth of a Nation” has its New York premiere, despite objections from the NAACP that it is “an offense to public decency.” The title has been changed since its debut February 8 in Los Angeles as “The Clansman.”

Births: March 2, Lona Andre (who appeared in “Slaves in Bondage” and “School for Girls”), March 17, Henry Bumstead (art director for “Vertigo” and “Unforgiven”), March 19, Patricia Morison (who had roles in “Dressed to Kill” and “Hitler’s Madman”).

Spring (1909)

Spring

Alternate Title: “Le Printemps”

This is a more sophisticated example of Louis Feuillade’s early work than the movies I’ve reviewed recently. It seems to be more in line with his concept of cinema as an art form, and apparently took some time to create. Various images of nature are shown with women and children dressed as fairies dancing or interacting with the surroundings. As the film progresses, we note that the trees in the background change from being bare, to budded, to flourishing in flowers and leaves. Many of the shots have the camera’s aperture partly closed down, creating a small, oval-shaped or circular frame, which adds to the impact of the shots with the aperture fully opened. The whole piece seems to be a reflection on classical myth, as well as on the timelessness of the change of seasons.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Henri Duval, Christiane Mandelys, Maurice Vinot

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.