Archive for John S Robertson

The Easter Sunday Intertitle: Stupidly Rich

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , on March 27, 2016 by dcairns


From SOUL-FIRE, directed by John S. Robertson, perhaps the only silent film-maker to have a song written about him by the Byrds.

It’s now my ambition to become “stupidly rich.” I used to want to be “lousy with money” like the Weenie King in THE PALM BEACH STORY, but stupid has supplanted lousy in my innermost yearnings.

A little like the goofy HOUSE OF DARKNESS, this movie has a musical inspiration. Hero John Barthelmess has written a symphony inspired by his adventures around the world. As it is played for the first time, the scenes which inspired it are presented to us in flashback, movement by movement. Yes, the film is utter tosh. But it is eventful tosh. Alcoholism! Leprosy! Sarongs! It also has a graininess — I suspect the surviving print is 16mm — which is not unpleasing — much of the Hollywood gloss is soaked up, and a charcoal patina replaces it.


Bessie Love pauses in her Island Love Dance.

The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Clan Gathering

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2015 by dcairns


I already wrote about ANNIE LAURIE here, but that was based on a very fuzzy copy — nothing about the experience could compare to seeing the film on 35mm at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, accompanied by Shona Mooney and her ensemble. The news that HippFest was commissioning scores from respected musicians new to silent film accompaniment had been both exciting and worrisome. I certainly hope Jane Gardner is back next year. But the policy was an undoubted success, due partly to the sheer talent of Moishe’s Bagel (who scored SALT FOR SVANETIA) and Shona Mooney, and partly to the policy of having experienced accompanists mentor the composers. Stephen Horne advised on this one.


The folk song Annie Laurie is one of the most beautiful pieces of music Scottish culture has provided, and Mooney used it eloquently, weaving it in with other themes and building the emotion of this rip-roaring melodrama/historical farrago to a perfect series of crescendos. A particularly striking effect was the use of silence, always timed to heighten key moments: the music drops out, one character looks at another, there’s a moment of understanding, and then the score starts up again. Powerful.


On the big screen, MGM’s lavish production values could be fully appreciated, with a studio Scotland concocted from models, glass paintings, capacious castle interiors and papier-mache boulderscapes in the manner of Welles’ MACBETH. All this expenditure resulted in a loss for the studio and accelerated the end of Lillian Gish’s stardom, but the Hippodrome was packed with enthusiastic movie lovers. Probably half the crowd was Scottish, enjoying the blatant traducement of our history and culture — we were just flattered that a Hollywood studio would think it worth doing. I described the film to curious prospective viewers as “BRAVE without the bears,” but it also has bloody limb-loppings, homoerotica (hulking clansmen recalling Groundskeeper Willie’s frequent shirtless action scenes; girl-on-girl kissing with Gish and her BFF) and David Torrence (brother of the more famous Ernest), an actual, honest-to-God Scotsman ~


An audible gasp from the assembly when the print blossomed into Technicolor at the end.

The Bo’ness Hippodrome knows how to do these things — there’s a sense of occasion, dressing up, informative and funny introductions (Bryony Dixon this time), a short subject with some light-hearted connection to the main film, and a great sense of social gathering, with friends from all over and a community spirit too. It would be great to get some of this going on in our larger film festivals.

Intertitle of the Week: Highland Reels

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , on December 19, 2010 by dcairns

ANNIE LAURIE was the rattiest recording of anything I’ve looked at lately. The movie itself had a big timecode stuck on it, and the disc I was watching had evidently been produced by somebody with a video camera filming a TV screen playing the movie on VHS. At first I was irked, thinking the anonymous pirate ought to have at least used a tripod, even if he couldn’t simply connect the VCR to a DVD recorder. Then I surmised, from the timecode, that the movie was probably the property of some archive, and the intrepid crook had smuggled a handicam into a little screening room to filch the movie’s image. Of this, I heartily approved. Archives are great things, preserving the physical substance of cinema history, but too often it’s difficult for us mortals to access the goodies within, for geographical locations, and the archives make it difficult or impossible for us to get our hands on recordings, for copyright reasons. So larceny is the remaining option for cinephiles with hungry eyes.

Credit to the mysterious source: whenever his arm got tired, resulting in violent jostling of the image, he would rewind the tape in order to get a better version of the ruined sequence. I presume he intended to edit the faulty “takes” out, but never got around to it. A shame there was no soundtrack though — I can imagine a score making deft/cheesy use of not only the title song, but also “The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” and “Auld Lang Syne”.

Anyhow, the movie posits Lillian Gish in the Scottish Highlands, as the titular Annie, she of the beautiful ballad heard in both Elia Kazan’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and Takeshi Miike’s THE BIRD PEOPLE OF CHINA. So, I was of course thrilled at seeing La Gish impersonate one of my countrywomen. And then I was doubly, triply, quadruply thrilled that this studio Scotland was a dank, papier maché affair highly reminiscent of Orson Welles’ MACBETH. I doubt it was an actual influence — I prefer to think that both films accurately reflect the way denizens of Hollywood imagine my homeland — heaps of muddy canvas draped over boxes, molded pulp mountains, crooked castles of permanently wet clay. Come to think of it, that’s often how *I* think of the place, and I live here.

The story is set at the time of the Campbell-MacDonald feud, leading up to the infamous massacre of Glencoe, when the English-loving Campbells treacherously murdered a batch of sleeping MacDonalds. Lillian plays a Campbell who falls for a MacDonald, leading to kilted Romeo & Juliet antics.

Wouldn’t be surprising to see a trio of witches atop this outcrop.

Gish is more than usually pert and perky and pixieish here. One saucy scene has her serenaded by her effete Campbell beau, while she sits on the castle wall and smiles down at her rough, manly MacDonald suitor, who’s sitting on a rock amid a babbling brook. It’s surprising to see Lillian so fickle.

By the film’s climax, the Campbell’s have pretty much disgraced themselves via treachery, except for maybe Lillian’s Walter-Brennan-like grizzled protector, so she jumps ship and heroically lights a beacon to call rescuing clansmen. The climax is really thrilling, helped by the fact that both history and Gish’s rep as a tragedian really push us to fearing the worst possible outcome. In the end, this follows the MGM model and averts disaster, so we get a lovely two-strip idyll instead of heaps of corpses. Whatevs!

Colour hasn’t aged too well, alas. But by a happy coincidence, the MacDonald tartan uses the same hues as Two-Strip.

Praise to John S Robertson (a Canadian, probably with Scottish roots) for spectacular battle/chase action. We can see his film technique has grown more sophisticated since his (excellent) Barrymore DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE.

Leading men — Norman Kerry (Lon Chaney’s strongman rival in THE UNKNOWN) is a dignified MacDonald, triumphing over a deeply-scooped waistcoat which allows his nipples to peep shyly forth. Creighton Hale (THE CAT AND THE CANARY) is a suitably poncified Campbell. He may be best known today for Kenneth Anger’s completely unfounded allegation that he fucked a goat in a porno movie. All the more reason for joy at the liberation of this charming curio from its dusty canister.