Casanova (1927) and Other 9.5mm Vitagraphs – Part III

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum

                              14 March 2018


(Warning:  Contains spoilers throughout)

Barely had we time to draw breath from the mirth of the Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Laughter Weekend (for details   Click here) than we were back at the (still under threat) Cinema Museum for another of the KenBio’s regular Wednesday evening events. And tonight we were here to enjoy another selection from renowned film collector, restorer and historian Kevin Brownlow’s library of 9.5mm films, movies that were edited down from first release for sale to the home movie viewer.  The highlight from tonight’s titles would surely be the 1927 version of Casanova starring silent film heartthrob Ivan Mosjoukine, but before that there were other delights to be explored.

First up was Without Benefit of Clergy (Dir. James Young, US, 1921) , based upon a story by Rudyard Kipling and set in British colonial India.   Ameera (Virginia Brown Faire) a native girl is about to be married off to an older man by a money-lender (Otto Lederer) to settle the debt owed by Ameera’s mother. Spotted by John Holden (Thomas Holding), a British engineer, he stops the sale and is immediately besotted by the girl.  Settling the mother’s debts Holden marries Ameera and they live happily together but Ameera, being a Muslim, refuses to mix with the Christian ladies in Holden’s social circle.  They have a child together but at the age of six the child dies of a fever.  Later Ameera is struck down with cholera and also dies.  Holden is distraught and never returns to the house in which they lived happily together and it is gradually destroyed by floods.  

Reviews of this film on its first release were less than complementary with Film Daily describing it as a “Faithful rendering of Kipling’s text but lacking in dramatic screen values.”.  But this edited version, cut down to about nine minutes from an original running time of well over an hour, is really just the bare bones of the story without any sort of opportunity for character development or the build-up of any sort of atmosphere.  However, the film is not without interest in being not only based upon a Kipling story but also featuring Kipling himself as production designer, brought in to provide the film with an authentic ‘Indian’ look and get around his own reluctance to agree to the production unless it was actually shot in India.  The film also saw an early appearance by Boris Karloff but, unless I blinked and missed it, I think his character disappeared in this radical re-editing.

(NB   There is no sign of this film on disc or on-line.)

Next up we had an episode from a 1922 serial, The Timber Queen (Dir. Fred Jackman, US 1922) starring Ruth Roland.  In episode 12, The Abyss, Ruth Reading (Roland) is the heiress to a timber company but under the terms of her dead father’s will she will only inherit if she is married by her 21st birthday.  If she does not then the company will go to her scheming cousin James Cluxton (Val Paul). Cluxton is concerned that Ruth is getting over friendly with Don Mackay (Bruce Gordon) and sees his inheritance disappearing if they start making marriage plans. Seeing Ruth on top of a railway wagon, Cluxton’s henchman knocks away the supports and the wagon speeds away down the steep railway incline.  Don comes riding to the rescue and dramatically saves Ruth in the nick of time before the railway wagon plunges into the abyss.   

Made by the ‘Ruth Roland Serials’ production company and produced by Hal Roach, most of the 13 parts of this serial are considered lost but at least five survive. At just seven minutes long and with a hefty number of fairly wordy inter-titles this episode of The Timber Queen follows a pretty taught schedule before ending with the traditional dramatic (in fact, very dramatic!) rescue and teaser for the next episode.  Ruth Roland had been working in films for a decade before The Timber Queen, starting out with Kalem Studios in 1911.  By the time she retired in the early 1930s she had appeared in over 200 films, rivalling Pearl White as the queen of the early serials.  But she was also a fairly astute businesswoman, establishing her own production company which made seven very popular serials including this one, ensuring her own future financial security.  

(NB  This episode of The Timber Queen is available on disc from Harpodeon.  The dramatic climax can also be viewed on-line.)

Live piano accompaniment for the two opening films this evening came from John Sweeney who nicely complimented the drama of the first and added to the excitement of the second.  


The next screening was a somewhat more substantial affair, Norma Shearer starring in After Midnight (Dit. Monta Bell, US, 1927).  Shearer plays Mary, a cigarette girl working in a night-club.  Walking home one night, down-and-out Joe (Lawrence Gray) tries to rob her but she manages to knock him out.  Feeling sorry for the thief Mary helps him back into her flat and the two are attracted to one another.  Mary convinces Joe that he can better himself and helps him get a job in a garage. Planning a future together, they start saving for Joe to buy a taxi and set himself up in business.  But Mary’s fun-loving sister Maizie (Gwen Lea) ridicules their plans.  When Mary tells her they have reached their savings target Maizie tells her that she can make that in one night.  Going to meet Joe Mary finds he has quit his job.  Eventually she sees him in his old drinking haunt.  Unbeknownst to her he is negotiating to buy a discounted taxi but she mistakenly believes he has gone back to his criminal ways.

Distraught, Mary decides there is no point in saving and uses the money to buy a number of expensive gowns and after work takes up an offer to go out to a party with one of the rich patrons at the club where she works.  Arriving at the club with his newly purchased taxi to show Mary, Joe is just in time to see her departing with the man and his friends, including Maizie.

At the party Mary gets drunk and her increasingly outrageous behaviour leads Maizie to decide to drive her home but when the drunken Mary grabs the steering wheel the car crashes and Maizie is killed.  Arriving home distraught, Mary is confronted by Joe who accuses her of being no better than her worthless sister. When Mary reveals that Maizie is dead they both see the error of their ways and decide to give their relationship another go.     

This was the last of some half dozen films Norma Shearer made with director Monta Bell and whatever its original merits Kevin Brownlow was less than complimentary over this edited version of the film, concluding that all of the best bits had been taken out.  But what remains is still a watchable melodrama, albeit perhaps not a great one.  Shearer is of course always worth watching although the more characteristically vivacious Shearer doesn’t really arrive until her drunken party scene.  In contrast Lawrence Gray as Joe is somewhat wooden (and even worse as a thief, he threatens Mary with a lead pipe, she gives him her money, he gives her the pipe and she uses it to knock him out!!).  At the point of making After Midnight, Shearer’s career was on a very steep upward trajectory, all of her recent films having proved money makers and her next role would be in the phenomenally successful Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, US, 1927).  Her marriage to studio boss Irving Thalberg meant she would get the pick of plum roles, much to the chagrin of other stars at MGM but after Thalberg’s death her career waned and Shearer had all but retired by the end of the 1930s.

Live piano accompaniment for After Midnight came from Meg Morley.  

(NB  After Midnight does not appear to be available either on disc or on-line.)


The last film of the evening was by far the most interesting, an edited version of the 1927 French epic Casanova (Dir. Alexandre Volkoff, Fr, 1927), also known variously as The Loves of Casanova or The Prince of Adventurers.  The last of these alternative tiles was apparently used on the film’s UK release when somewhat over zealous British censors deemed the very word ’Casanova’ as being over inflammatory and even ordered the name of the film’s leading character changed.  This home release version of Casanova was also unusual in being some five reels (roughly an hour in length), well over double the length of most films released for the home market.  But then again, the original film was quite substantial, although precisely how long is difficult to judge with various ‘full length’ versions now in existence running anything from 127 to 159 minutes.  

I’d seen a full 159 minute version of Casanova at the BFI last October. While gorgeous to look at in a stunning restoration by Cinémathèque Française I did find the film somewhat over-long with several points at which a suitable finale could have been reached only for the film then to continue, in a rather episodic fashion.  The switching between genres was also disconcerting, were we watching a comedy, a melodrama or an adventure film.  And I also have to admit (and I know that this could get me stoned to death!) not to being much of an Ivan Mosjoukine fan,  I recall once reading that if you want to get a man interested in silent film then take him to see a Keaton film but if you want to get a woman interested then take her to see a Mosjoukin.  Well, I’d rather see a Keaton any day, but everyone to their own!  However, having seen the full film, this evening would provide a good opportunity to compare and contrast it with the home release version.

The film opens with Casanova waking in his home in Venice to be confronted by a visit from the bailiff, but he manages to buy him off by giving him a book supposedly of magic spells. He then receives a letter from the wife of Lord Stanhope, seeking an assignation with Casanova in her husband’s absence.  But Casanova’s reply is intercepted by Lord Stanhope himself who confines his wife to the house and sets a trap for her lover.  Escaping the trap, Casanova is forced to flee Venice for Austria.  Here he meets and frees a girl (initially disguised as a boy), Theresa, from the clutches of her brutal guardian but can’t stop him recapturing her, in the process of which Casanova is robbed and left penniless.  

Helped by another traveler, Senor Dupont, royal dressmaker to Catherine, wife of Emperor Peter III of Russia, Casanova steals Dupont’s identity and money and proceeds on to Russia.  Along the way he briefly meets and is infatuated by Marie (image, right), wife of Count Mari.  In St Petersburg Casanova (still in the guise of Dupont) makes the acquaintance of Catherine and is appalled at the deranged Emperor’s humiliation of her before his repulsive mistress. Casanova also renews his acquaintance with Count Orloff who he has previously befriended in Venice.  Orloff is determined to unseat Peter III and put Catherine on the throne.  Following a palace coup, Peter is killed and Catherine crowned Empress.  At a grand ball to celebrate her coronation Catherine becomes jealous of Casanova’s attentions to the Countess Marie who has also arrived in Russia. When Catherine orders his arrest, Casanova escapes once more back to Venice, with the help of the countess.  

Arriving home during the Venice Carnival, Casanova is disguised as a singer.  At a night-time water festival he again meets Marie but is recognised and forced to flee once more.   He is eventually captured after again encountering Theresa and helping her escape from her guardian.  Aided by his friends and Theresa, Casanova then makes a daring escape from his prison cell, departing Venice by boat but promising to return to reclaim Theresa’s hand.  .           

The full length version of Casanova was certainly notable for the amount of action and dramatic incident it packed into its running time and whoever edited down the 9.5mm version was clearly keen not to exclude any of this content.  The result, however, is that this shortened version moves on at quite a significant pace, from major event to major event often loosing much of the interlinking narrative which takes forward the plot.  In this respect I was glad therefore to have already seen the full length film, which made this version much easier to follow.  Speaking after the film to some of those seeing it for the first time, the view of most was that while they enjoyed the scale and grandeur they often struggled to follow the plot. The other element lost in the editing process is much of the often knock-about comedy, the 9.5mm version being a much more serious film than the original. But one or two very amusing scenes do remain, for example when the page boy looking for Casanova asks too loudly where he lives at which point women appear at every house window to point out is home or when, making his last dramatic escape, Casanova is still distracted by a pretty face.  

But while you may struggle somewhat with the plot of this edited version of Casanova you cannot fail to be overwhelmed by the look of the film.  The location shooting in Venice is superb while the painted backdrops of a wintry St Petersburg work remarkably well.  The large set piece scenes such as Peter ‘s banquet and in particular Catherine’s entry to the grand ball, with gigantic cape carried by perhaps twenty page boys (image, right), are stunning.  There are also some very well filmed night time scenes, atually filmed at night rather than relying on tinting, particularly the water festival in Venice, illuminated by fireworks and the night time battle scenes in St Petersburg.  Although the 9.5mm version not surprisingly lacks the hand coloured scenes of the original it is quite effectively tinted in parts.   

Both director Volkoff (image, left)  and star Mosjoukine (image, right) began their film careers in pre-revolutionary Russia and Mosjoukin in particular was a major star but both opted to leave Russia when the revolution broke out, eventually settling in France where they established their own studios.  Apart from Casanova they made a number of other films together including The House of Mystery (1923), a ten-part serial, and Kean (1924). a biopic of English actor Edmund Kean.  Volkoff continued to direct in France, Germany and Italy until his death in 1942.  As well as acting, Mosjoukin also directed and wrote screen plays.  Indeed, he was co-writer of Casanova.  Probably his most memorable role was as the lead in Michel Strogoff (Dir. Viktor Tourjansky, Fr, 1926)  It was on the strength of this performance that Mosjoukin got a call to Hollywood.  Universal’s Carl Laemmle, along with most other studio heads were looking for a new Valentino and he thought Mosjoukin fitted the bill.  But it was not to be.  Starring alongside but very much as second lead to Mary Philbin in Surrender (Dir. Edward Sloman, US, 1927) there was no chemistry between the two stars and the direction was lack lustre resulting in critical and popular response that was at best lukewarm. And with the talkies coming and Mosjoukin’s lack of English he was soon back in France where he picked up his career, continuing to make films, including another version of Casanova (Dir.Renee Barberis, Fr, 1934) until his death from TB in 1936.   

Amongst the supporting cast, the demented Peter III was played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from his appearance as the similarly demented scientist Rotwang in Metropolis (Dir. Fritz lang, Ger, 1927).  The Empress Catherine was played by popular French actress Suzanne Bianchetti.  Following her early death in 1936 her husband instituted the Suzanne Bianchetti Award, still given annually to the most talented upcoming French actress. Marie was played by Polish actress and director Diana Karenne, who was to die in France during an Allied air-raid in 1942.  Lastly, Rina De Liguoro (image, right) , as the dancer Corticelli in the (for its time) somewhat ‘risque’ dance scene near the film’s beginning was a popular Italian diva who starred in many a (remade) Italian epic in the 1920s including Messalina (1923), Quo Vadis (1924) and The Last Days of Pompeii (1926) and who made her final film appearance in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963).

But just before we finish with Casanova, there is one more point of interest worth raising.  In the 9.5mm edit shown tonight, at the very start of the film Casanova walks across his bedroom arm in arm with two girls who each bend down to pick up two small dogs but one of the dogs runs slightly away and one girl has to chase it before picking it up.  However, in the 127 minute version of the film on You Tube, the scene is the same except when the two girls bend down to pick up the two dogs, neither runs away! In at least this one instance, the two different edits of the film appear to include two different takes of the same scene.  This could not be explained by use of two cameras to cover the same scene, one for domestic and one for foreign versions (and I’m not even sure if this happened in non-US productions), as the scenes are clearly different ‘takes’  Without an opportunity to review the 9.5mm version again I can’t say if any other scenes differ in this way but am intrigued as to why this should have happened.  Answers on a postcard please!!

Live piano accompaniment to Casanova was provided by the always excellent Cyrus Gabrysch.  

(NB A fully restored 159 minute version of Casanova is available on disc while a moderately good quality 127 minute version can be viewed on YouTube.)