Archive for DW Griffith

Imperfect Crimes

Posted in FILM, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2020 by dcairns

A man.

Two showings of shorts at Il Cinema Ritrovato won me over with their wit — Imperfect Crimes, programmed by Andrea Meneghelli, united a series of incomplete crime movies. The idea itself is a funny one, and the first fragment shown, NINA LA POLIZIOTTA, directed in or around 1920 by Giuseppe Guarino, exemplified the concept, cutting off just as an intertitle declares “The killer — is –!”

Of course, we can’t know if the immediately succeeding shots, now lost to time, would have provided the murder mystery’s solution, or if the filmmakers would have deferred the revelation for another reel or so, which only makes the accident happier. It looks like being a decent melodrama, with nice clothes — Italy in the teens and pre-flapper twenties seems to have been the only place in the western world where women were allowed to dress in a non-frumpy manner. In fact, my first encounter with the word “frump”, aged around twelve, was in the Brownlow & Gill Hollywood book. Lillian Gish, on a photo showing her in Griffith’s office: “I certainly look like a frump in that dress.”

ALBERTINI CONTRA DE SCHORPIOEN (aka IL PROTETTO DELLA MORTE I think, 1919, director maybe Filippo Castamagna) was a superhero story — Luciano Albertini, endowed with the strength of three men and a chunky sweater, battles the cat-suited Scorpion in a series of discontinuous fragments and stunts. Amongst the dangling from ropes, ladders and windows, and the massed brawls (Albertini’s chief fighting tactic is to pick up one opponent and hurl him at another, a sound technique if you’re up to it), a unique moment: at the far right of frame, a wooden handle obtrudes… a hand tentatively touches it… gives it a half turn, then thinks better of it… evidently the movie was being shot with two cameras, very closely placed, but for this scene, a strenuous punch-up, the second operator was for some reason (film shortage?) reluctant to do any cranking, whereas operator one, cranking like fury, was unfortunately oblivious to what he was actually capturing on celluloid…

IL RE DELL’ABISSO (THE KING OF THE ABYSS, Riccardo Tolentino, 1919) was equally action-packed, but was preserved as a mixture of jolting blipverts and longer sequences of derring-do shorn of context, and often of their beginnings, middles or endings. The heroes are a family of tumblers, which allows for a huge amount of implausible cliffhanging as well as rampant child-endangerment, which was emerging as a theme.

IDOLO INFRANTO (THE FALLEN IDOL) was directed in 1913 by our old chum Emilio Ghione, but rather than the serial capers I admire him for, this was more of a sedate woman’s picture with hardly any crime to speak of, but starring dolorous diva Francesca Bertini and with smashing title cards and scenery and frocks and gestures. A plot synopsis informed us that there WOULD have been some crime, since the tortured protagonist eventually brained Bertini with a hammer, mistaking her for her own bust, but that footage is lost on a cutting room floor that is itself also lost.

IL PASSATO CHE TORNA (THE PAST COMING BACK, anonymous), the limbless trunk of an obscure 1924 melodrama, was full of enigmas without solutions, as well as arty mirror shots and horrid, chalky makeup on the men. It dripped with atmosphere, moved at a sepulchral pace, and cut off in mid-pause, its origins and purpose still a total mystery, an invitation to strain our negative capability to breaking point.

SANSONE E LA LADRA DI ATLETI (Armando Mustacchi, 1919) was more he-man stuff: it translates as SAMSON AND THE THIEF OF ATHLETES. A sinister organization in boiler suits and goggles is trying to destroy Italian sport (a worthy cause), but they have reckoned without muscleman Samson (the dauntless Albertini again) with his massive frizzy hair and iron thews. In truth, he might be a more effective foe were he not prone to “a sudden uncontrollable fondness” when confronting the villainess, but it’s happened to the best of us. Helping Samson is celebrated cyclist Costante Girardengo as himself, fighting crime by cycling at it.

From the festival programme: “Sotto la maschera / La vendetta del pugnale doesn’t even have a name we can rely on. The two titles were handwritten on a scrap of paper found inside one of the cans that held the two nitrate reels. There is a 1913 film entitled Sotto la maschera, but this isn’t it. We follow a girl plotting revenge for her brother’s murder. The initially irrefutable evidence becomes mired in doubt. A baroness hides a dagger. With a relieved heart, a prince is slaughtered by the enemy among the barbed wire of the front. At least this time we have the ending. But will that be enough to dispel all our doubts?”

No. No it won’t.

Virtual Paradise

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 26, 2020 by dcairns

So this year, courtesy of the worldwide pandemic, we get to experience a small sampling of Il Cinema Ritrovato’s offerings from the comfort of our own filthy flat in the freezing drizzle of a Scottish summer. It’s very good value — for fifty euros Fiona and I can get enough content to fill our days, or almost, for a week. I don’t really like streaming things — you pay for something but you don’t get to own it — but it’s definitely preferable to international travel in the current world situation.

Day one — yesterday — we dipped in. Two not-quite documentaries. Jean-Pierre Berthomé & Emmanuel Charon’s BABYLON IN HOLLYWOOD is a work-in-progress short film about DW Griffith’s celebrated giant sets for INTOLERANCE — the filmmakers have calculated the measurements and the star of their film is a 3D computer reconstruction of the edifice, which the audience gets whizzed around and about and through. Based on little-seen stills, the filmmakers have also deduced that the set is not a closed, three-sided box as it usually appears — the walls don’t join, thus allowing the extras in more easily, and letting the light flood in. All this was fascinating.

The presentation is rocky, but then the thing isn’t finished.

I first saw Mara Blasetti, daughter of the great Alessandro Blasetti, and a pioneering female production manager, at Bologna on one of my first visits. Now her golden stash of production stills has been rediscovered, and she narrates RITRATTO DI MARA BLASETTI, which has fewer ambitions to be cinematic than the BABYLON joint, but succeeds extremely well as a rostrum-camera slide-show full of insights and history with behind-the-scenes appearances by Sophia, Marcello, et al. Fiona got excited about the thought of Vittorio De Sica playing a lunatic bus driver in TEMPI NOSTRI – ZIBALDONE N. 2 (1954, aka THE ANATOMY OF LOVE) so I popped the disc in and we enjoyed that as an off-shoot of our Bolognese adventure.

Oh, and two shorts — in THE NEW MAID IS TOO MUCH OF A FLIRT (1912), a household crumbles into chaos when none of the male staff can resist the beauteous new ladies’ maid, but the mistress sorts out the fumbling admirers with a bit of hosepipe slapstick (a reliable finish since Lumiere). In TONTOLINI E TRISTE, the downcast comedian tries everything he can to cheer himself up, but the theatre is too tragic and the circus show devolves into a riot, but a trip to the movie house to see himself caper about finally brings a smile to his face.


Pg. 17, #5

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2020 by dcairns

I have watched the scenario work from the beginning, from the days when the main purpose of the script was to keep some prominent object moving before the eyes of the delighted audience. Naturally at that time any subtlety of motion would be wasted on a plot whose main situation took the form of a ball rolling down the hill with a frenzied mob chasing it. I now feel that scenario work is coming into its own.


“The projector will be rolling, the camera will be panning, the angle of the shots will be changing, and the distance of the shots will be changing, and all these things have their own tempo, so you have to have a tempo, too. If you sit or stand or talk the way you do at home, you look silly on the screen, incoherent. On screen, you have to be purposive. You have to be moving or not moving. One or the other. So a lot of times, in a complicated scene, the best thing to do is stand absolutely still, not moving a muscle. This would look very strange if you did it at the grocery store, but it looks okay on screen because the camera and shots are moving around you.”


Griffith was a tough directorial taskmaster–as just about all the best directors were. He once slapped Mabel Normand hard to make her crying-mad for a scene in The Mender of Nets (1912). After he shot the scene, Griffith put his arms around her and said, “There, darling, that’s what I wanted. I knew you could do it.” Lillian and Dorothy Gish recalled that when they first came to be interviewed by Griffith at the old Biograph studio in New York, he chased them all over the studio with a pistol to get their “emotional” reactions.


Sennett made certain that he was walking in the same direction as Griffith every night after work, and he began to expound some of his own ideas about the techniques of making pictures. Sennett was anxious to discuss his theories on the possibilities of screen comedy, a topic which left Griffith completely unmoved. Griffith failed to see anything funny about comic policemen, regardless of the manner in which Sennett chose to present his thesis or how many times he explained it. The topic bored Griffith then, just as it would bore him after his walking companion became world famous. Nonetheless, he was tolerant of Sennett’s opinions, and as they strolled about the city, the two men discussed motion pictures and the great future in front of them.


“I was interested in the idea of an artist at the end of the road. I wanted to write something about an artist in that predicament. It could have been any kind of artist; a painter, a writer, a concert pianist. But I had access to the biggest rock and roll singer in the world, and I was interested in that world. And there is no art form in which the violent impulse is more implicit than in rock music. And I was very interested in what was happening with Mick at that time, the flirtation with Their Satanic Majesties.”


It wasn’t enough! — Why had I made no mention of the GEEZER? Yes that was the location, enormous swim bath of vegetation, but there’d been this geezer down there, the all-important geezer, and it was from him, presumably, I’d learnt . . . what I’d now utterly forgotten — And the more I tried to recall him — the more it seemed like the act of recollection was driving him into the mists — and Fog.


When I mentioned my anxiety to my good friend Miss Ena M. Eaves, of the British Electrical Development Association, she told me of the work done on oven temperatures by Miss Bee Nilson, lecturer in nutrition at the Northern Polytechnic, and reproduced in her work, The Penguin Cookery Book.


Jeanie MacPherson, quoted in Script Girls, by Lizzie Francke, Robert Mitchum, quoted by Dave Hickey in Mitchum Gets Out of Jail, in the collection O.K. You Mugs, edited by Luc Sante, The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, by Ezra Goodman, Kops and Custards, The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book), by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer, Performance, by Mick Brown, Donald Cammell speaking, The Bald Trilogy, by Ken Campbell (Vol. 1, Furtive Nudist), Vegetarian Cookery, by Janet Walker.

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books on my nearest shelf.

It was perhaps to be expected that two books on Hollywood history would contain references to Griffith near the start, but it wasn’t planned by me. In his passage, Campbell is trying to recall an urban visionary he met in a dream, which he then too scantily transcribed: I’m happy to be able to help him out by demonstrating that this was doubtless Griffith in oneiric flâneur mode.