Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
29 January 2020
(Warning: Spoilers throughout)
La Glu (1927); The Overland Limited (1925); Galloping Gallagher (1924); Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans (1927).
Arriving at the Cinema Museum uncharacteristically late I missed out on my regular seat and ended up on the back row in the 1/9’s but it was worth it to catch the Kennington Bioscope presenting another batch of rare and rarely screened 9.5mm format films, introduced by renowned film historian and collector Kevin Brownlow. The 9.5mm format was conceived as an inexpensive way to provide copies of commercially made films to home users and was extensively marketed by studios such as Vitagraph and Pathe. Although the films distributed on 9.5mm were frequently edited versions of the cinema release, they are now sometimes the only versions to have survived so they can be of considerable interest
The 9.5mm format was unique in that it used a notched inter-title system in which each inter-title occupied only a single frame of film. A notch at the edge of the print stopped the advance of the film through the projector at the appropriate point so that the inter-title was projected much like a still slide would be, allowing the viewer time to read it, at which point the projectionist then restarted the film manually until the next notched inter-title was reached and the film-advance automatically stopped once more. Unfortunately, projecting original 100 year old prints using projectors of a similar vintage isn’t an easy task. The original notching doesn’t always work so the inter-titles can often pass by too quickly to read, adding to the difficulty in following the plot of what is often a ruthlessly edited version of the original film, so apologies in advance if some of plot outlines below are a little vague.
The evening’s first offering was a French melodrama La Glu (1927), directed by Henri Fescourt. The ‘Glu’ of the title is played by Germaine Rouer, a night club vamp of the first order, nicknamed ‘La Glu’ because ‘if you get too close, you’ll stick to her’! She has her eyes set on the wealthy Viscount Ribiers, but his father the Count, threatens to cut him off if the marriage goes ahead. Not to be outdone, La Glu takes a villa near to the Ribiers family home in a small Breton fishing village. On making her acquaintance, the Count is also attracted to La Glu, but she by now also has eyes for young local fisherman Marie-Pierre (Francois Rozet). He moves in with La Glu, much to the annoyance of his overly protective mother, Marie des Anges. However, when first the Count and then his son come to call on La Glu ( who isn’t too concerned as to whether she ends up with the younger or older aristocrat) Marie Pierre is furious and a fight ensues. As the Count points a gun at Marie Pierre, La Glu laughingly calls on him to pull the trigger. Shocked at her apparent disregard for him, Marie Pierre escapes and throws himself off a cliff. Badly injured he is returned to his mother’s house. Soon after, La Glu arrives and demands to see him, promising that she can seduce him away again. In a struggle with Marie des Anges, La Glu is killed. Waking from his bed, Marie Pierre is told by his mother that it has all been a dream.
Based upon an original 1881 story by author Jean Richepin, an earlier film adaption of La Glu was directed by Albert Capellani in 1913. It starred French cabaret sensation Mistinguett in the title role, at that time reputedly the highest-paid female entertainer in the world and whose legs were insured for half a million Francs decades before Fox Studios’ publicity department had the same idea for Betty Grable’s equally famous pins. That version survives in its entirety. (There was also a 1907 film of the same name, directed by Alice Guy Blache, but this was a simple tale of a boy and a pot of glue.)
Director Henri Fescourt (image, right) was at the height of his career at the time he made La Glu, having recently completed a seven hour version of Les Miserables (1925) to great popular and critical acclaim and was shortly to make an equally impressive version of Dumas’ Monte Cristo (1929). While La Glu is an altogether less monumental undertaking, at least in this abridged version, it is not without interest. The outdoor scenes of the Breton coast are beautifully shot by cameramen Georges Lafont and Marcel Grimault, the latter who also shot Les Miserables. But the film’s main attraction is the performance of Germaine Rouer (image, left) as La Glu. Although by 1927 the concept of the ‘vamp’ may have been a little dated (after all, archetypal vamp Theda Bara’s A Fool There Was had been released over a decade earlier) Rouer plays it for all she’s worth, with a streak of cruelty perhaps even Ms Bara would have considered too much. Primarily a stage actress, after a number of child roles in films, Rouer’s first adult cinematic role was in Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1916). By the mid 1920s she was regularly starring in cinematic adaptions of famous novels including Zola’s La Terre (1921) and Balzac’s Cousinne Bette (1928). Her last silent film appearance was in director Julien Duvivier’s Au Bonheur des Dames (1930). Although successfully making the transition to sound films, Rouer’s appearances were infrequent, as she chose instead to focus more on stage work. Her last film role was in 1954 although she can also be seen being interviewed for the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill documentary mini-series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood shortly before she died in 1994 at the grand old age of 97. Francois Rozet’s (image, right) portrayal of the truculent Marie Pierre was also good, nicely capturing that mix of spoilt mother’s boy and youthful rebellion. Rozet went on to have a long career in film and then TV before his death, also in 1994, aged 95.
Various sources give differing running times for the original version of La Glu, of between 60 and 90 minutes (which would be quite short in comparison with other films made by Fescourt at this time). The 9.5mm version we saw tonight ran for about 40 minutes, so whatever the original running time, considerable footage had clearly been edited out. It is also unclear as to whether the original version survives, so what we saw tonight may be all that remains.
The 9.5mm version of La Glu, with inter-titles flashing past at an unreadable pace, can be viewed on You Tube.
Providing a highly evocative piano accompaniment to tonight’s screening was Costas Fotopoulos
Next up, there was a complete change of pace with The Overland Limited, made in 1925 and directed by Frank O’Neil. Efforts to follow the film’s plot were hampered by the repeated failure of the notched inter-titles to remain on-screen long enough to read but it seemed to revolve around railway engineer David Barton (Malcolm McGregor) and his romance with Ruth Dent (Olive Borden). Barton has built a spectacular new railroad bridge but rival engineer Brice Miller (Ralph Miljan), who is also a rival for Ruth’s affections, sabotages the bridge in an effort to ruin Barton’s reputation. Meanwhile, on the approaching train, with Ruth on board, a ‘half wit’ passenger escapes his escort and climbs into the engine, disables the driver and sets the train at full speed towards the bridge. Just in time, the driver regains conciousness and detaches the engine from the rest of the train. The bridge collapses under the engine but the rest of the train is saved.The rival engineer’s dirty work is uncovered and Barton and Ruth are re-united.
A publicity blurb for the film on its original release read “Like a steel comet, the mighty locomotive was hurled into the foaming waters below! The crashing climax of the greatest railroad photo-play ever made.” But, in all honesty, I think not. The film is a bit of a pot boiler, from poverty row outfit the Gotham Pictures Company. Leading man Malcolm McGregor never really hit the big time and was normally to be found in supporting roles. The only other film in which I have come across him was Smouldering Fires (1925) in which he is the love interest for sisters Pauline Frederick and Laure La Plante. Of more interest was the presence of Olive Borden, so good just a year later in the John Ford western Three Good Men.(1928) But here she has just a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-her moments, clearly a victim of the ruthless 9.5mm edit process. Much more screen time was given over to the ‘half wit’ (image, below left, and as so gloriously described by those pre-PC era inter-titles) although ‘homicidal maniac’ might have been a better title and one who could drive a train to boot! It would also explain the re-titling of the film for its UK release as The Mad Train! And the much vaunted train crash finale? Well that was patently a model and not a very good one at that.
A copy of the original version of The Overland Limited has been preserved in the US Library of Congress. I could not find a running time but it came in at six reels so that would probably be about 90 minutes (at around 16 fps), compared to the 9.5mm version we saw which probably ran for about 15 minutes.
There is no sign of any version of this film being available on disc or on-line.
Providing a stirring improvised piano accompaniment under very difficult screening circumstances was John Sweeney.
The evening’s third screening also came from the US and featured the now almost completely forgotten screen cowboy Fred Thompson. The film was Galloping Gallagher (1924) and in it Thompson plays Bill Gallagher, a man of questionable integrity. But when the newly arrived Gallagher takes on one of the outlaws plaguing Tombstone, the townsfolk immediately elect him sheriff. Also expected in town is a new pastor but instead it is his daughter, Evelyn Churchill (Hazel Keener) who arrives in his place and Gallagher immediately takes a shine to her. The outlaw leader Joseph Burke (Frank Hagney), who is also the town banker, has his men kidnap Evelyn hoping that Gallagher will ride to her rescue and into an ambush. Gallagher manages to rescue Evelyn unschathed but is subsequently caught and locked in his own jail. Freed by his horse, Silver King, Gallagher leads the townsfolk against the outlaws, defeats Burke and is reunited with Evelyn.
Even in this bowdlerised 9.5mm format, Galloping Gallagher was still good fun. It had some nice comic moments, in particular Gallagher’s ‘encouragement’ of the townsfolk to contribute to the church collection plate and an undertaker who couldn’t suppress his delight at the prospect of yet another gun fight. Then there was Silver King (image, left, a publicity shot with Thompson), up there amongst great cowboy horses such as Tom Mix’s Tony or Roy Rogers’ Trigger. Not only did Silver King knock out the baddie but he also took the keys off his belt and passed them to Gallagher allowing him to escape his jail cell!
In his day, Fred Thompson was a big Hollywood star, second only to Tom Mix amongst screen cowboys. Getting into films via his marriage to screenwriter Francis Marion, Thompson appeared in two of Mary Pickford films scripted by Marion and a couple of serials before finding his niche as a screen cowboy. Signed by Joseph P Kennedy’s FBO Studios, Thompson and regular director Albert S Rogell had a string of big hits, with Thompson reportedly earning $10,000 per week. But at the height of his career, Kennedy contracted Thompson out to Paramount. Although the four subsequent films made money (for Kennedy) they mortally damaged Thompson’s fan base and with no further projects being offered by Kennedy, who now looked to be favouring the career of FBO’s other cowboy star Tom Mix, Thompson grew increasingly depressed as his career looked to be going nowhere. His death in 1928 was officially put down to misdiagnosed tetanus after he stood on a rusty nail but it was apparently the view of wife Francis Marion that he just gave up the will to live.
Although the two films Thompson made with Mary Pickford survive, only one of his screen westerns has survived in its entirety, 1924’s Thundering Hoofs (screened at the KenBio a couple of years back, and I still maintain that it should be ‘Hooves’!!) Tonight’s 9.5mm edited version of Galloping Gallagher is sadly the only other known surviving example of his work. Co-star Hazel Keener (image, left) won the Miss Hollywood beauty pageant in 1923 and the following year was selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star but although she remained active in film and TV work until the mid-1960s she never really achieved the star status predicted for her. Director Alfred S Rogell had a long career directing mainly Westerns, first on film and then TV, working up until the late 1950s.
This version of Galloping Gallagher along with Thompson’s other surviving film Thundering Hoofs (Hooves!!!) is available on DVD from Grapevine Video.
Providing piano accompaniment for this film was Colin Sell who coped admirably with both the film’s near relentless action and with a mid-film technical hitch.
For the evening’s final gem we were back in Europe, Belgium to be precise, with Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, a gentle 1927 comedy directed by Julien Duvivier. In the film, Albert Delpierre is a young, cultured and well spoken Parisian dispatched to Brussels to learn the secrets of the brewing trade at the Beulemans brewing company. He is not popular amongst the more down-to-earth Belgians but is secretly enamoured of M Beulemans’ daughter Suzanne. She in turn is engaged to Seraphím Meulemeester, the son of a rival brewer, although both father and son Meulemeester seem more interested in her dowry than Suzanne herself. M Beulemans and M Meulemeester are also bitter rivals for election to the presidency of the association of brewers.
As the wedding of Seraphim and Suzanne nears her maid reveals to Suzanne that Seraphim is in fact in a relationship with another woman. Upon visiting her, Suzanne discovers that there is also an infant Seraphim Jr. Suzanne confronts Seraphim and he agrees to call off the marriage but begs her not to reveal the truth to his father. However, at the hustings for the brewers association election Seraphim tells his father that the marriage is off because Suzanne has had affairs with other men. Upon hearing this, an outraged Suzanne spirits M Meulemeester off to meet with Seraphim Jr and his mother and eventually Meulemeester accepts them into the family.
Meanwhile, at the hustings, things are not going well for M Beulemans until, that is, Albert Delpierre steps up and makes an impassioned speech in his favour which sways the voters. The film ends with a joint wedding for Albert and Suzanne and Seraphim and his girlfriend. Together, the two couples then bring about a reconciliation between Beulemans and Meulemeester.
Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans was without doubt the film of the evening. Although the 9.5mm version we watched was edited down from an original 70 minutes to what seemed a little over half of that length it did not appear to loose any of its charm and warmth. The leading players were all well characterised, the plot ran gloriously smoothly and there was even time for some extended scenes, particularly the somewhat bizarre pipe smoking contest. Although much of the film was studio shot, there were also some lovely outdoor scenes of Brussels, particularly the final wedding, shot in the Grand-Place.
The film was loosely based upon a hugely successful stage play of the same name written in 1910 by Belgian authors Frantz Fonson and Fernand Wicheler. Further film versions followed in 1932 and 1950 as well as numerous TV adaptions. The 1927 film version was scripted by director Duvivier (image, left) who began his film career in 1918 as an assistant to Louis Feuillade and Marcel L’Herbier. He directed his first film the following year and achieved considerable success as a director of silent films although what was probably his silent masterpiece Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) went almost un-noticed on first release in the clamour for sound films. But Duvivier’s renown probably lay more in the sound film era, with hits such as Pepe Le Moke (1937) and The Little World of Don Camillo (1952), Amongst the cast of Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, Andrée Brabant (image, right) stood out as Suzanne as did Rene Lefevre as the two timing Seraphim. Brabant went on to work again with Duvivier in Au Bonheur Des Dames but made only a couple of sound films. Lefevre, in contrast, went on to a long and varied career in sound films, working until the late 1970s for directors such as Jean Renoir, Jules Dassin and Rene Clair.
The full version of Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans is believed to exist although there is no sign of it on disc or on-line. If you get the opportunity, it would certainly be worth getting to see.
Piano accompaniment for the film came from Costas Fotopoulos.
As is always the case with these 9.5mm evenings, the offerings were something of a mixed bag in terms of quality, but none was without interest and they always make for an entertaining evening. Appreciation is due to Kevin Brownlow and fellow collector Patrick Moules for supplying the films, for Kevin for his introductions and simultaneous translations of the French inter-titles and particularly to Dave Locke and the projection team for their efforts with some antiquated equipment and film stock.