Film Notes - TSFF2021

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SOUTH (1919) UK
Director/Cinematographer: Frank Hurley
Few stories of failure are more compelling than Ernest Shackleton’s. Beaten to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen, he staked his legacy on a new challenge: a land-crossing of Antarctica, from the Weddell Sea to McMurdo Sound. A quick look at the map will tell you such a journey crosses the continent at its narrowest point. But you don’t need to be told how dangerous it is. Especially in 1914.
Antarctica looms large in our imaginations, as it did in Shackleton’s—and in the minds of the British public, who directly or indirectly funded journeys like his. It is, after all, one of the few places in our world that seems designed to keep us out. And maybe Shackleton’s failure to make that land crossing doesn’t matter so much, because he and his crewmen stood tall in the face of the continent’s rejection, holding out as long as they could, and made it home alive. That’s one way to look at it. SOUTH, the filmed documentary of their ordeal, certainly sees it that way.
We have Frank Hurley to thank for this record. The photographer, whose First World War portfolio would help anchor the look of that conflict in public memory, was already a tough customer, experienced in polar climes. He set sail with Shackleton, nearly 30 other crewmen, and dozens of sled dogs, loaded with enough equipment to capture an heroic adventure. Little of it came home again, but Frank did, and what he managed to save is unforgettable.
As detailed in Hurley’s haunting footage, Shackleton’s ship, the Endurance, became stuck in ice, in sight of the Antarctic coast but unable to reach it. The immense pressures this put on the hull eventually wrecked it, leaving the men stranded. By all rights this should have been the end of the story, but through determination and astonishing teamwork, the crew survived. They returned to civilization almost two years later, ignorant of happenings in the outside world, the Great War included, for nearly the whole of that time. Shackleton himself didn’t reach England until 1917.
What must these men have gone through? What did they become, camping out on ice flows, absent their loved ones, with no certainty of rescue—month after month? How did they coexist? We might ask these questions, but SOUTH doesn’t. The challenges presented here are the natural ones: bitter drops in temperature, ice splitting beneath their feet, vast icebergs to be avoided or climbed—vaster still distances of water to be traversed, in search of salvation. These trials are faced collectively, and overcome only by collective effort.
It’s fascinating, watching the sailors at work, first in pursuit of their goal, and later in pursuit of survival. We learn much about seamanship in cold conditions, the perils of ice and also the physics of it—and the machines, equipment, and supplies that allow a quest like Shackleton’s to seem even slightly rational. But it must also be said, simply because there is so much screen time devoted to them, that this a picture about animals. Natural fauna, especially seals and penguins, are captured in depth. The sled dogs are practically the stars of the picture. Playful, hardworking and exuberant, they embody the same spirit the humans must’ve had at the start of all this. Of the fate of the dogs, little is said. So we wonder.
Much of the latter portion of SOUTH is not filmed footage at all, but still photos, and even paintings of events happening during the voyage. This is not only forgivable, but actually effective—since it gives us a concrete example of the deprivation that increasingly threatened the crew. We are grateful for what we can see, not just because it’s so interesting, but because we know how remarkable it is that we have it at all. If SOUTH’s relentlessly triumphalist tone leaves us asking questions, we can at least agree that we’re glad these men got home, and brought with them such a prize as this. Victory is a relative thing.
Chris Edwards is a science-fiction writer and silent film enthusiast, based in Toronto.
Visit his website: https://chrisedwardsauthor.ca/  For Silent Film Reviews visit: Silent Volume (silent-volume.blogspot.com)
1000 LAFFS-MACK AND MAYHEM
There can be no question that Mack Sennett (and his Keystone Studios) literally invented cinema comedy as we know it today.
 
If you were to form a family tree, Mack would be the progeny of D.W. Griffith (his mentor) and Max Linder (the French comedian and his earliest influence) – from there, he let loose a lunatic litany of children, grandchildren and great-great-great-great grandchildren, first-second-third-fourth cousins, step-brothers and sisters, crazy uncles and offbeat in-laws.
 
Everyone who was anyone in silent comedy worked for him: Charlie Chaplin (whom he discovered), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, Mabel Normand, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Al St. John, Louise Fazenda, Ben Turpin, Wallace Beery, you name them… they all passed through his gates and sat at his feet, soaking in his philosophy of comedy. A who’s who of haha.
 
All of them left him eventually, but that education was passed on from generation to generation to generation.
 
And what was Sennett’s philosophy? At first, it was simple. A misunderstanding (generally between two or more lovers or wannabe lovers) escalates into a melee of bricks to the head and shoves into the lake. And maybe one of those round black bombs with a fuse in it. Okay, that sounds more formula than philosophy, but underneath it all was the idea that people are selfish, insolent, vainglorious, vengeful, cruel, craven, stupid, duplicitous, libidinous (or lascivious, your choice) – and nobody cared who knew it, dammit.
 
Sennett looked at people – and cranked it up to 11.
 
Ask the teens morphed into the ‘20s, Sennett’s films swerved into the cinema of surrealism. Dogs played poker against their “masters” (and won), bathing beauties had snowball fights in the frigid Yukon, oysters coughed up strings of pearls that made poor men millionaires.
 
The comedy got bigger and bigger, with blazing bungalows literally galloping through the streets of Los Angeles with teams of fire engines in hot pursuit, or dozens upon dozens of fllivvers piling up in massive crashes that must’ve totalled two tons of crunched metal.
 
In his own time, as he aged into his 80s, his output would seem “old-timey” – all custard pies and Keystone cops. But in truth he never looked back; he was always a pioneer. When sound arrived, Sennett was the first comedy studio to embrace it – and colour, too! He set out to build a massive, state-of-the-art studio to welcome the talkies.
 
Unfortunately, his ambition was also his downfall. Like Icarus, he reached for the sun… and got burned.
 
While waiting for the studios to be built, his star comedians – out of need, not greed – set out to earn a salary elsewhere. When the cameras were set to roll again, sound made them static and clunky and incapable of capturing the manic, anything-goes energy of Sennett’s best films. The tech couldn’t keep up with him.
 
Soon, the talkie cinema would be flooded with Broadway wiseacres (who put the “talk” in “talkies”) or – ultimately more fatal to Sennett – the personality-driven comedies of Hal Roach’s output: Laurel & Hardy, Charley Chase, Our Gang. Ultimately, he’d sign on two of the greatest personalities the screen would ever know – W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby – a last hurrah with two others who’d go on to bigger and better things, but too little too late. Sennett claimed bankruptcy after production of W.C. Fields’ “The Barber Shop”, fewer than five years after his first talkie.
 
But Sennett lived on, comfortable in his standing as “The King of Comedy” (hey, his own autobiography called him that) to his last days. His films live on too – rescued from their long sorry state of scratches and splices by film historians and restorationists such as Paul E. Gierucki, whose Cinemuseum provided many of the (gorgeous looking) films you’ll see at this screening – allowing us to see Sennett’s work the way it was meant to be seen: on a giant screen, with live music, among an audience who’ve come to do one thing.
 
Laugh.
Chris Seguin, Programmer and contributor to various comedy projects on dvd and in print.
The Spanish Dancer USA 1923
Paramount Pictures
Director: Herbert Brenon;  Cinematographer: James Wong Howe (credited as James Howe); Writers: Beulah Marie Dix (adaptation); Editor: Helene Warne; Costumes: Howard Greer
Principle Cast: Pola Negri, Antonio Moreno, Adolphe Menjou, Wallace Berry, Kathlyn Williams
Pola Negri and Mary Pickford—not normally 2 names that would be linked but for this film, they are. That’s because they both starred in movies from the same material. That two films from the same source material would come out in the same year is not as unusual as you would think. Other notable twin films include 1934’s The Rise of Catherine the Great and The Scarlet Empress; 2017 The Darkest Hour and Dunkirk; 1940 had Young Mr. Lincoln and Abe Lincoln and 2005 saw Capote and Infamous. The list can be easily added to. And so it was with Pola Negri’s The Spanish Dancer and Mary Pickford’s Rosita.
The original source material for both films was also adapted into operas, several plays, and earlier films in 1912/1915 and 1918.
While twin films weren’t unique, what’s interesting is that both feature films changed the protagonist from male to female. Originally this Paramount version was to star Rudolph Valentino but when his contract dispute with the studio became so serious that he left, it was re-adapted to focus on the woman’s part and Pola Negri instead.
Even more curious is that Pickford’s Rosita had Pola Negri’s favourite director Ernst Lubitsch-a director she worked extensively with in Germany and that duo became famous because of their films together. Antonio Moreno, another “Latin Lover” was chosen to play the part of Don Diego. His early childhood years was spent in Spain and his natural grace and humour worked well with the fiery Pola. Along with the two main stars were well known actors Adolphe Menjou and Wallace Berry as the king with the wandering eye (wearing a regrettable wig but pulling it off as only Berry could do) and the largely forgotten Kathlyn Williams as the Queen.
Behind the camera was a very talented team headed by director Herbert Brenon (Peter Pan 1925), costume designer Howard Greer (in the 1930s he would do the costumes for Katherine Hepburn’s Christopher Strong and Bringing Up Baby and his independent designs included wedding gowns for Bessie Love and Gloria Vanderbilt), an early-in-his-career cinematographer James Wong Howe (billed as James Howe in the credits), the legendary June Mathis and Beulah Marie Dix were the screen writers, and choreographer Ernest Belcher.
With the level of talent both behind and in front of the camera, it’s no wonder that The Spanish Dancer was deemed a hit. The fact that it was more favourably viewed than even Rosita is testament to the spot-on casting of the exotic and fiery Pola Negri in the title role. In the end it garnered critical acclaim, excellent reviews, and was a financial and artistic victory for Negri.
But then what happened? This big, expensive, and acclaimed film disappeared. For decades The Spanish Dancer was little seen, and what was seen was unloved. After release, it had been repeatedly shortened, re-edited, and re-issued in different versions and in doing so drained away of all of its power, beauty, humour, and charm leaving a dullish, costume drama to wallow in obscurity. While never completely “lost”, for all intents and purposes, it was.
But that cast, crew, production values and those original reviews combined to say that this was a film of some importance. So, the search for the true Spanish Dancer began.
Missing footage needed to be found, deterioration of existing footage had to be repaired, references on the films’ construction were critical to bring it back to life. Fortunately, the original cutting continuity was found in the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Film materials included the EYE Institute and the Belgian Film Archive both of which had 35mm nitrate prints, and two 16mm prints from Lobster Films in Paris and Photoplay Productions in the UK. However, each one of those prints was incomplete and of varying quality. After repairs, a puzzle like re-assemblage, the restoration of the images began, English Intertitles reinserted, and tints were restored.  What you see is now represents 95% of the original script without any missing scenes.
Suggested Reading on Pola Negri:
Pola Negri: The Hollywood Years by Tony Villecco 2017
Silent Stars by Jeanine Basinger 1999
Seductive Cinema by James Card
Suggested Films
Passion (Madame DuBarry) 1919; Hotel Imperial 1927; Forbidden Paradise 1924

WHY CHANGE YOUR WIFE? 1920 USA
Premiere Release: Los Angeles, California: February. 29, 1920, General Release: May 2, 1920; Original Length: 90 minutes, 7 reels, 7,175 feet;
Silent, B&W with Colour Tinted Sequences
Director: Cecil B. DeMille; Studio: Famous Players-Lasky Corp.; Producer: Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky; Cinematographer: Alvin Wychoff; Editor: Anne Bauchens; Writer: William C. deMille (Screenplay); Scenario: Olga Printzlau, Sada Cowen; Art Director: Wilfred Buckland; Costumes: Clare West (Uncredited) and Mitchell Leisen (Uncredited)
Cast: Thomas Meighan (Robert Gordon), Gloria Swanson (Beth Gordon), Bebe Daniels (Sally Clark), Theodore Kosloff (Radinoff), Clarence Geldart (Doctor), Sylvia Ashton (Aunt Kate)
“DeMille has gone and done it again!” explained The Moving Picture World on May 15, 1920. Why Change Your Wife? was written as a companion picture to DeMille’s 1919 film, Don’t Change Your Husband. Why Change Your Wife? ending up being the last in trilogy of DeMille-Gloria Swanson modern morality marriage films, with Male and Female (1919) sandwiched between the two.
William C. deMille, Cecil’s older brother, had been a successful Broadway playwright before joining his brother at Famous Players and becoming a noted film director and writer. William was slated to direct “Don’t Change Your Wife”, a film that he had written and developed. He was planning on making it in the same vein but as a reversal to Cecil’s Don’t Change Your Husband, but this didn’t come to pass.
Cecil wanted to make “Susan Lenox, Her Fall and Rise” by David Graham Phillips, as his follow-up to Male and Female. He made a success with another Phillips story a year earlier with, OId Wives For New (1918), but the talks fell through over money. Jesse Lasky then decided that William’s script was a more sensible and better fit for Cecil, and they changed the title to Why Change Your Wife?
With Cecil now in charge of Why Change Your Wife?, he turned his attention to casting a leading man to play against Gloria Swanson. His top choice was Elliott Dexter, who played Swanson’s husband in “Don’t Change Your Husband”, but he was unavailable due to illness. His next choice was Milton Sills, because he was at odds with Thomas Meighan and didn’t want to work with him again. However, Lasky preferred Meighan over Sills, and after a new contract was made for Meighan to reflect his new star status, he got the role.
The filming started on September 2nd and wrapped on October 22, 1919. DeMille created a subtly clever film by contrasting each scene with another, especially between Swanson and Bebe Daniels. This enhances the humour until it culminates in the last scene. The background artwork in the title cards shows another way DeMille was giving visual clues to represent the personalities of the main characters, even going so far as to change them throughout the film as the characters grow. For example, Swanson’s character Beth, starts out as an owl but then changes to a peacock, while Daniels character Sally, is shown as a cunning fox. These types of visual characterizations wouldn’t be prominent again until they were used in the opening credits of 1939’s The Women. In that film Paulette Godard is portrayed as the fox, while Norma Shearer is instead portrayed as a deer, even though her character goes through the same personal awakening as Swanson’s Beth.
The film’s silent character is undeniably the fashions created by Clare West, who was DeMille’s costume designer, and her assistant Mitchell Leisen. Together they created the films stunning and unusual fashions that became the rage, especially the bathing costumes. Enterprising theatre exhibitors even teamed up with local department stores to run fashion shows before the screenings for promotional benefits. It all worked because Why Change Your Wife? was a massive box office hit, earning over $1 million dollars.
Christina Stewart, TSFF programmer and Media Archivist at Media Commons, U of T Libraries
 
THE INFORMER UK 1929
British International Pictures   99min black and white with tints
Director: Arthur Robison;  Cinematographers : Werner Brandes & T Sparkuhl; Art Direction: JE Wills; Editor: Emile de Ruella; Scenario Writer: Rolfe E Vanlo (adapted from the novel by Liam O'Flaherty
Principle Actors: Lars Hanson, Lya de Putti, Carl Harbord, Warwick Ward
Restoration by the British Film Institute
Politics, it’s been said, is more dangerous than war, given that in war you’re only killed once. But the great misfortune for the protagonists of Arthur Robison’s The Informer (1929) is that they’re involved in both, and there’s no getting away from either.
Based on a 1925 novel by Liam O’Flaherty, The Informer demonstrates forcibly that life is full of traps, missteps, and breaches of loyalty. Set in Dublin, it focuses on the Party, a paramilitary organization modeled on either the IRA or Sinn Fein or both. Of particular interest are three Party members: Gypo Nolan (Lars Hanson), Francis McPhillip (Carl Harbord), and Gypo’s girlfriend, Katie Fox (Lya De Putti). The Party has made a pact with the police to refrain from violence, but Francis accidentally kills the chief of police, which puts a price on his head. He’s thereafter cast out of the Party by his compatriots in a gesture of self-protection, but they keep his whereabouts secret and attempt to help him avoid capture. But when Gypo sees Katie hurrying Francis out of her home, he assumes that she has been unfaithful to him and speaks against him to the police. In fact, she was hiding him from the law.
Both a thriller and a character study, The Informer presents Gypo as a compulsively destructive personality.
When he decides to speak against Francis, he’s chilled by his feelings of disloyalty, yet he hasn’t the moral resolve to stop himself from going through with it. Jealousy, one of the most infantile and narcissistic of emotions, seems infectious here, and tragedy is launched by dreadful emotional errors: Gypo’s envious assumption about Katie and Francis is what prompts him to inform. Seeking atonement, he helps a victimized women get out of a tight spot—an act that Katie assumes to be proof of sexual disloyalty. The result: a gesture of generosity is damningly misinterpreted and another betrayal results.
Photographed by Werner Brandis, and T. Sparkuhl, and very noir in its appearance and emotionalism, The Informer’s exterior scenes are drenched with darkness and gauzy with fog and smoke. Nocturnal scenes are eye-catchingly presented on strikingly evocative sets of crumbling, weather-beaten streets and allies. Especially memorable is a long, uninterrupted travelling shot of Gypo going to the police station to inform on Francis that takes him from an empty alley to a busy street that’s bustling with motion and crowded with pedestrians, automobiles, motorcycles, bicycles, and wagons drawn by horses and donkeys. Even better is a gunfight between Frances and the police that ends with a memorably arranged overhead shot that places the action in five different locations: on the left side of the screen we see Francis holding onto the edge of a rooftop high above the pavement, and right below him we can see the people on the sidewalk watching his struggle; in the middle of the action is a policeman crawling toward Francis to help him while at the bottom of the image are policemen positioned behind a chimney. And situated at the top of the frame is section of a nearby street packed with witnesses watching from afar. And there are oddly memorable little moments, such as when during a shootout a Party member’s lit cigarette is reduced by a passing bullet to a smoking stub, much to his vexation.
The Informer got its American remake by John Ford in 1935, with a highly regarded performance by Victor McLaglen. Also: a bit of historical trivia: Lya de Putti is praised as a screen siren by Liza Minelli’s Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972). Sally was right to revere her. De Putti, a pensively expressive actress, has a watchful presence and sadly fatalistic eyes.
Now available is a Blu-Ray/DVD print of The Informer restored by the British Film Institute (BFI) with a new score by Garth Knox that’s by turns lilting and jittery. It also includes a sound version of the film (which is by turns both silent and offers spoken dialogue as well).
And there’s more where all that came from: One doesn’t immediately associate noir thrillers with the British film industry, but there are more than a few, with several classics among them. Outstanding examples are John Boulting’s Brighton Rock (1948), Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and The Third Man (1949), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949) and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (1950). They’re all well worth seeing; they’ve met, after all, the standard set by The Informer.
 Michael Leo
Michael Leo is the former scriptwriter/researcher for TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movies, writer/producer for Elwy’s Word on Films, playwright, and freelance writer. Read his blog on films at  Pawprints and Thumbnails (wordpress.com)
 
 
© Toronto SILENT FILM Festival 2010-2021
TORONTO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL
© Toronto SILENT FILM Festival 2010-2021
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