Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
20 September 2017
We were at the Kennington Bioscope tonight for a slice of pure escapism in the form of Filibus (1915) an Italian crime caper featuring a female, cross-dressing master criminal who lived in an airship and who excelled in making fools of the authorities tracking her down. But as always at the KenBio there were a couple of interesting shorts to whet our silent film appetites.
And in Amran’s introduction we learnt something new straight away. Whoever suspected that there was such a thing as a ranch girl film genre. But apparently they were quite numerous around the time tonight’s first film was released, Girl Ranchers, from 1913. Directed by Al Christie, who at this time was churning out comedies and particularly comedy westerns at the rate of about one per week, Girl Ranchers focuses on two eastern sisters May and Mary Houston (Marie Walcamp, image left, and Ramona Langley) who inherit a western ranch. They decide to run the ranch themselves, much to the annoyance of the ranch hands. Pretty soon the ‘Rough Neck Ranch’ has been transformed into the ‘Maiden’s Rest Ranch’ and the bunk house is adorned with ribbons and flowers. But the final straw comes when the sisters decide that the ranch hands have to shave off their unhygienic moustaches. Now these guys all look like they’re auditioning for The Village People so this is a step too far and they up and quit. But when Indians attack the ranch, the cowboys come back to save the day and as a reward (once newly shaved) are invited to a dance with the ladies. Ok, from today’s perspective this film is probably wrong on so many levels, but I somewhat guiltily admit that it remained quite amusing, if only for the number of times the ranch foreman would draw his gun to emphasise a point.
Of more interest was the evening’s second film, A Girl’s Folly (1917), even though we only got to see an abridged version running about 25 minutes rather than the full 65 minute original. The plot focuses upon a young girl (Doris Kenyon, image, left with Robert Warwick) ’s efforts to escape her unfulfilled rural life. When she comes across a film crew shooting a western she is encouraged by the star (Robert Warwick) to try her hand in the film industry. But of more interest than the film’s plot was its portrait of the early film making industry. One of the first film’s about making a film (and as such a forerunner of movies such as Shooting Stars (1928), Day For Night (1973) or The Player (1992) ) A Girl’s Folly was set in the studios of Fort Lee in what was then rural New Jersey, which was the home of the US film industry long before anybody had ever heard of Hollywood. Many of the major studios started out here (Keystone, Fox, Mayer and Goldwyn amongst others) and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of just how films of that era were made. The studios were characterised by their glass roofs to allow in the light, with revolving sets to catch the sun as it moved round and with multiple films being made side by side. Also of interest was an uncredited role for Leatrice Joy (Image, left), last seen at the KenBio starring with Lon Chaney in Ace of Hearts (1921). But directed by Maurice Tourneur and with a story by Francis Marion, together with some good reviews, A Girl’s Folly certainly looks sufficiently enticing to track down and watch in its entirety if you get the chance.
The excellent accompaniment for both of these films was provided by Lillian Henley.
( NB Girl Ranchers can be found on the DVD Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938 from the National Film Preservation Foundation distributed by Image Entertainment
The abridged version of A Girl’s Folly screened tonight is available on the DVD Before Hollywood There was Fort Lee, N.J.: Early Moviemaking in New Jersey from Flicker Alley. The full version is available in a double bill with The Beloved Blackmailer from Reelclassicdvd or on its own from Grapevine Video.)
After the break it was then time for the main feature, Filibus (1915). Directed by Mario Roncoroni and made originally in what appeared to be a serial format, the film followed the exploits of female master-criminal Filibus (Cristina Ruspoli) who also appeared in the guise of the Baroness Troixmonde and the Count de la Brive. Being tracked down by her arch nemesis Inspector Hardy, Filibus comes up with a plan to lay a false trail which will prove that it is in fact the inspector who is the criminal Filibus. To this end she illicitly makes a copy of his hand to sow a trail of false fingerprints. Disguised as the Count de la Brive she fakes the kidnapping of the inspector’s daughter so she can effect her rescue thereby gaining the inspector’s trust. With the inspector finding his own fingerprints at the scene of Filibus’ crimes he begins to doubt his own sanity.
When Filibus steals the diamonds from an ancient Egyptian statue of a cat she cunningly also provides false photographic evidence (image, below left) of the inspector’s apparent guilt and he is arrested. Only the intervention of his friend Leo Sandy, who has been kidnapped by Filibus in an attempt at extortion but who has managed to escape, enables the inspector to be released on bail. But it is now the inspector who lays a trap for Filibus. Although he captures her she is able to effect an escape before the police arrive. But she promises that the inspector has not seen the last of her.
This plot summary really does little to capture the freshness and sheer inventive ingenuity of this film. Filibus’ home is an airship (image, above right, albeit one which must have Tardis like properties) crewed by her anonymous henchmen, from which she is lowered to earth in a metal basket to carry out her dastardly crimes. She and the inspector make great use of gadgets such as a miniature camera, a heliograph and knock-out gas while Leo Sandy makes his escape from Filibus’ airship using a parachute which must have been almost cutting edge technology when the film was made. However, one piece of gadgetry was decidely low-tech. When an inter-title said that the inspector ‘took precautions against the sedative gas’ , his precautions actually consisted of shoving cotton wool up his nose. Perhaps not very effective, but gloriously funny for the audience. While the special effects, particularly of the airship, may seem crude in today’s era of seamless CGI, for their time they must have been hugely impressive.
And a number of scenes may, in our more cynical world, require some suspension of belief, particularly the inspector’s failure to notice Filibus in her hanging basket almost directly above his head (image, right) or her ability to almost miraculously cut a perfect hole in the glass case housing the diamonds in barely a second, unnoticed by all those around her. But all can be forgiven in such enjoyable escapist fair.
The film is also interesting in the challenges it throws up to particular conventions of the time. It exudes a subversive, anti-authoritarian streak. Filibus may be the master criminal but she appears more interested in taunting and humiliating those in authority than in the proceeds of her criminal activity. Disguised as the Baroness Troixmonde she cheerfully tells the inspector to his face that she intends to prove that he is Filibus in order to collect the reward for the criminal’s unmasking. For Filibus, its the thrill of the chase rather than personal gain that provides the impetus for criminality, an anarchic game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities. Then there are the gender issues which the film not so much challenges as absolutely demolishes. Filibus is a highly successful female criminal, self assuredly leading her team of male accomplices, comfortable with high-tech gadgetry and running rings around the (male) authorities. Where did this character emerge from at a time when female roles in Italian cinema were almost entirely comprised of simpering slaves in historical epics or swooning divas, And who is the real Filibus? The Baroness Croixmonde looks to be as much of a disguise as the cross-dressed Count de la Brive. This master of disguise appears most at home as the masked, trouser wearing villainess, resplendent in her airship. And when, disguised as the Count (image, above right) , Filibus strolls out with the inspector’s daughter is this, as some have claimed, an early cinematic flirtation with lesbianism or just another part of our anti-hero’s master plan? If it was the former then it pre-dates other early noted lesbian portrayals, such as Alice Roberts in Pandora’s Box (1929) or Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), by well over a decade.
Although the film’s ending implies a sequel, with a note dropped with unerring accuracy by Filibus from her airship to the inspector, saying, ever so politely, “ Our strife will probably recur”, sadly this was not to be, with Italy’s entry into World War One almost sounding the death knell for the country’s film industry.
Very little is known about Cristina Ruspoli, the actress who plays Filibus (image, right) . She seems to have begun acting in films in 1912, appearing in some 35 pictures, mainly shorts but including starring roles in several feature length historical epics including The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and Spartacus (1913). Although she went on to make further films in 1916 nothing is known of her beyond this.
Director Mario Roncoroni began his film career as an actor in 1912, appearing in some 25 films. Filibus was apparently his first film as director. He directed some 20 further films in Italy including La Nave (1921) written by novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio and co-directed by his son Gabriellino. In 1925 he moved to Spain where he continued to direct but after making Voluntad in 1928 nothing further is known of his work and he is believed to have died in 1959.
An excellent piano accompaniment from John Sweeney succeeded admirably in ramping up the suspense and excitement of the film, leaving the audience almost breathless at times. Filibus might not have been a masterpiece but it was certainly great fun and enjoyed by one and all at the KenBio.
( NB Although a restored version of Filibus has been produced by the Dutch EYE Filmmuseum it does not appea to have been released on disc. A good copy is available to view on-line (YouTube and Vimeo) albeit without sound. )