Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’Ness, Scotland
21-25 March 2018
(Warning – Spoilers Throughout)
It was a pre-dawn start today as we began the long journey North for for our third visit to the annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival (HippFest), Scotland’s only silent film festival. But with a favourable tail-wind we were in Bo’Ness in good time to grab a lunchtime bowl of tasty broth at Brian’s Cafe before the day’s first presentation.
And the first session saw the welcome return of Professor Paul Pickowicz from the University of California at San Diego, with an illustrated talk with the intriguing title, ’In Search of Modern Marriage: Chinese Silent Cinema in the 1920s’. Prof Pickowicz began with the sobering fact that of the 500 or so silent films made in China in the 1920s, only 18 survive and of these only 8 are in a complete form. Of these surviving titles he picked out three to illustrate the central thread of his talk. All three films were populist, middle-brow entertainment, all set in an urban environment hinting at cultural and social modernity and all three had a woman as the central character. In each film the woman was married but each wanted more from the relationship. The other common factor was that each film was written and directed by a man.
The professor’s thesis was that in each film, the role of the woman within her marriage followed a common thread. Firstly she was the subject of temptation, then she transgressed; there followed a period of negotiation with her partner; then an act of redemption and finally a display of submission to her husband.
The first film he looked at was A String of Pearls (Dir. Li Zeyuan, Chi, 1925) Here the wife wishes to go out socialising with her friends while her husband remains home to look after their child (challenging the normal gender balance) but she complains that she lacks suitable jewellery. So her husband produces a string of pearls. However, it turns out he has stolen the pearls and is caught and jailed. Loosing his income, the wife falls in social and economic status. Visiting him in prison she takes the blame for his actions. On his release she gives him all the money she has saved and submits to his will and the traditional gender balance is restored.
In the second film, Oceans of Passion – Heavy Kissing (Dir. Xie Yunqing,Chi, 1928) the dissatisfied married wife is tempted into an affair with another man. When her husband finds out he divorces her and she moves in with her lover. But he turns out to be a serial womaniser. For unclear reasons, the woman ends up unconscious and her father forcibly returns her to her ex-husband where she attempts suicide but he saves her after which she speaks to him of the sin she has committed and of her repentance.
Finally, in Orphan In The Snow (Dir. Zhang Huimin, Chi, 1929) a wife leaves her husband and is saved from suicide by a wealthy man to whom she is immediately attracted but she fails to tell him she is married. He gives her a job as a maid in his household but she seeks a more romantic relationship with him at which point the man’s father physically chastises her for getting ideas above her station and she runs away again. Abducted by another man who mistreats her when she resists him she is eventually rescued by the wealthy man to whom she now submits in a romantic relationship.
The Professor offered up the notion that although these films seek to present a picture of modernity, including in the changing attitudes of women, this really only applies to the first four strands of his notion of a common thread (ie temptation, transgression, negotiation and redemption). The final strand (submission) is in reality a reversal of modernity, making the films much more traditional in tone than may originally be thought and likely reflects the influence of a male writer/director of each film. Within each film the woman;s submissiveness is also a product of her dependence on the man, her lack of independent means, of money or a job of her own. However, the Professor also questioned whether the situation was really any different for the lives of women in the West during this same era.
By way of contrast, he then showed clips from another Chinese film, Unending Emotions (Dir. Sang Hu, Chi, 1947) made a generation later and in a wholly different political and cultural era in China. In this film a woman teacher embarks on an affair with a man she later discovers to be married. Still in love with him she debates whether to stay with him but eventually decides to leave, in effect refusing to submit and in doing so genuinely challenges the traditional gender hierarchy. Within the film, the key factor accounting for this challenge is the fact that the woman has a profession (she’s a teacher), she is not therefore dependent upon a man. External to the film another probable factor in its more genuine picture of modernity is that rarity for a Chinese film even of this time, it was written by a woman!
This was a fascinating and well presented talk, cleverly illustrated by some beautiful Chinese films of the era, giving another all too brief snippet of the quality of Chinese film making at this time and further underlining the tragedy of so many Chinese films being lost. There were some lovely scenes within the clips, particular favourites being the animated pearls in String of Pearls which spell our ‘Misfortune’ when the woman is at her lowest ebb and the woman in Unending Emotions debating with her own alter ego whether or not to leave her married lover.
Professor Pickowicz’s questioning of whether things were really any different in the West at this time also brought to mind a British film, Paradise (Dir. Denison Clift, Br, 1928) starring Betty Balfour which seemed to perfectly match the common thread he was ascribing to Chinese films of this era. In Paradise, Balfour is living in London when she wins some money. Wanting to go on a swanky holiday to the South of France she asks along her fiance but he refuses. Not to be outdone she goes on her own. There, she becomes involved with a self-confessed gigolo at the hotel and considers running away with him. This whiff of scandal leads the hotel to ask her to leave. It also brings her fiance to convince her to return home. When she is unable to pay her bill (because the fiance has covertly taken her money!) he ‘saves her’ by paying it for her. In return, she submits to returning to London with him. Things really did seem the same then, the world over.
The excellent live piano accompaniment for all of these clips came from the Hippodrome’s own Forrester Pyke.
For the opening night feature, there was a screening of The Last of the Mohicans (Dir. Maurice Tourneur/Clarence Brown, US, 1920),with live musical accompaniment by David Allison. Based on the novel of the same name by James Fenimore Cooper and set in the North American colonies during the Seven Years War between England and France, the film follows Cora and Alice Munro (Barbara Bedford and Lilian Hall), daughters of an English commanding officer, as they first travel to meet him and then as they seek to escape following an Indian massacre of their father’s fort. Older daughter Cora is attracted to the noble Mohican brave Uncas (Al Roscoe), the last of his Mohican tribe, but she herself is pursued and captured by evil Magua (Wallace Beery) of the Hurons. In the chase to free Cora, both she and Uncas are killed by Magua who is then himself also killed by Uncas’ companion Hawkeye.
When I first saw this film last year at a Kennington Bioscope screening I thought it was excellent but on viewing it a second time it is clearly more than that, its a superlatively crafted piece of entertainment, beautifully written, well acted and superbly directed. J F Cooper’s novel is stripped to the bare bones and the film is centered around the three key figures of Cora, Uncas and Magua. The rest of Cooper’s characters are here little more than incidental players, including Hawkeye, the novel’s erstwhile star. But as a result, the film moves at a cracking pace, shorn of extraneous detail and building to an almost unbearably tense climax. The acting is excellent, particularly by Barbara Bedford as Cora. Wallace Beery is suitably loathsome as the evil Magua. For its time, the film treads quite a bold course by even just hinting at a mutual attraction between a white woman and an Indian and although the Indian characters (all played by white actors in make-up) are heavily stereotyped (the noble savage versus the venal brute) these same character traits are equally portrayed amongst the European characters. The directing and editing by Clarence brown (who took over from an injured Maurice Tourneur soon after shooting began) was superb. The extensive and brutally graphic action scenes were wonderfully handled but he was equally adept at injecting a strong element of humanity into the film and a palpable sense of grief and loss at its conclusion. And the film looked wonderful as well with the climactic scenes, shot in the stunning Yosemite National Park, looking almost like an Ansell Adams photograph in motion.
But as good as this film was, enjoyment of it was enhanced no end by the glorious live accompaniment from David Allison with an electronic score played on guitar and keyboard. The haunting themes beautifully captured the emotion of the film while the impact of the action scenes were intensified quite brilliantly by the frenzied, at times almost discordant playing. This was a stunning soundtrack, one that was unlikely to be equalled during the festival and a piece of music that would make a superb stand-alone CD.
Thursday afternoon’s tea and talk session came from film critic, author and writer of the silentlondon.co.uk website, Pamela Hutchinson, speaking to the title Lost Girls and Goddesses, about Austrian director G W Pabst, the female-centric focus of many of his films and the actresses who starred in them.
While Pabst can hardly be described as a forgotten director (indeed his 1929 film Pandora’s Box is now regarded as a classic of the silent era) it was Pamela Hutchinson’s position that his directorial career remained undervalued and was overdue for reassessment. Her view stemmed from a number of factors, including the heavy censoring of much of Pabst’s output, a tailing off in the quality of his later work, much of the focus of his work being on female-centric stories (7 out of 10 of his silent films) which were consistently undervalued by the largely male critics of the time and the fact that his career was been clouded by his willingness to continue film making in a Nazi occupied Austria.
However, despite the female focus in many of his films, these were not stories of romance and happy endings, rather for Pabst sexuality was used as a weapon, as a form of sexual tyranny. Nowhere is this better illustrated than the clip from Pandora’s Box when the son and fiancée of Lulu (Louise Brooks)’s lover Schon discover her and Schon mid-embrace, at which point Lulu’s face is a picture of sadistic triumph.
Pabst was a director focused upon the darker aspects of life, the corruption, deprivation and degeneracy which all too often underpinned life in 1920s Weimar Germany. Typical of this work was the clip we saw from his 1925 film The Joyless Street with Greta Garbo and Asta Nielsen, faced with the prospect of prostitution as means of surviving the runaway inflation of post-war Vienna. Pabst was also not afraid to push the barriers of what was considered acceptable in film. Pandora’s Box contained one of the first on-screen representations of lesbianism as Alice Robert’s character clearly yearned for Brooks’ Lulu. In an even more fetishistic clip we also got to see Valeska Gert as the reformatory matron putting her female charges through their exercises in Diary of a Lost Girl (1929) in what must have been the first on-screen female orgasm in cinema history! But Pabst’s uncompromising attitude in tackling these controversial issues was to result in the censoring of his work and a reluctance by major studios to further fund further projects. But in his peak years Pabst was able to work with a bevy of the most talented actresses of the era, (not just Brooks, Garbo and Nielsen but also Brigitte Helm and Lili Damita) and succeeded in bringing from them some of their best work.
This was a fascinating and thought provoking talk. Pamela has raised the possibility of reworking it in a more widely available on-line format. This would be excellent news as there is much here which deserves a wider audience.
Providing a live piano accompaniment to these many and varied clips was the excellent Mike Nolan.
We then had an evening dedicated to the work of Scottish pioneering film-maker, botanist, poet and painter Isobel Wylie Hutchinson and in particular her 1930s film-making in Greenland. Firstly poet, writer and singer Gerda Stevenson recounted Hutchinson’s life and travels in poetry and song.
This was followed by three of her films of life in Greenland with a new score by cellist Atzi Muramatsu. In the films we got to see some of the flora of the region, the Inuit communities at work and at play as well as the Danish religious and bureaucratic figures who controlled what was then a colonial territory. The three films were interesting in being such a rarity now, almost certainly some of the first moving images of Greenland. But they were not without their problems. There was nothing in the happy and smiling faces of the Inuit population which captured what must have been the grinding poverty and harshness of life. Similarly, the iniquitous sway of outside Danish political and religious influence on the territory passed un-noticed. Also, frustratingly, why did Hutchinson use black and white film for all of her shots of plant species with the result that no one plant was distinguishable from the next when she clearly had access to colour film stock? Despite these short-comings, the films remained interesting, but the real pleasure was in listening to the cello of accompanist Atzi Muramatsu with a score of rare, almost ethereal, beauty which perfectly captured the peace and serenity of the landscape and its population. .
Friday’s final tea and talk session came from film writer and academic Trevor Griffiths with a presentation on the life and work of Scottish stage and film comedian Billie Ritchie. Now virtually forgotten, if Ritchie is remembered at all it is simply as one of a myriad of Chaplin imitators. But from Trevor Griffiths research it is clear that Ritchie’s career added up to much more than this. For one thing, his career in variety started much earlier than Chaplin’s and in many ways it was really Chaplin’s career that echoed Ritchie’s. They both began in films (although here unusually Chaplin was first) working for the same studio and the same director. Often their images were used interchangeably for Chaplin/Ritchie films being screened. But Ritchie’s comedy was much more anarchic than Chaplin’s, which was focused more upon sentimentality and pathos. Indeed, rather than being simply a Chaplin imitator, by 1915 Ritchie was amongst the top five most popular film stars in Britain and America, a star with genuine international box-office appeal. It was only really as a result of ill-health and his decision to stick with what was a failing studio and director that resulted in his declining career fortunes and, with his early death, he quickly faded into obscurity.
This was an excellent presentation, superbly laced with anecdotes about Ritchie’s life. Although few of his films are available, even just some of the inter-titles or shooting scripts from his films were enough to leave the audience convulsed in laughter. Dr Griffiths’ research has brought this forgotten star wonderfully back to life.
Piano accompaniment for the clips used in this presentation came from Forrester Pyke whose stylish impromptu playing also saved the day during a prolonged technical fault.
The festival’s Friday Night Gala this year was Lubitsch’s The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (1927). Karl Heinrich (Ramon Novarro) is crown prince to a pocket kingdom somewhere in central Europe. Raised by a distant grandfather and groomed to be king he lives a lonely, isolated existence. His only friend is his tutor Friedrich Juttner (Jean Hersholt). But things take a turn for better when he heads off to university in Heidelberg, taking Juttner with him. Here he meets barmaid Kathi (Norma Shearer) and the attraction is mutual. In Heidelberg a whole new world of laughter, merriment and comradeship opens up to the prince. But just as he is dreaming of marriage to Katie, reality intervenes with news of the king’s imminent death. Drawn back into stifling court life he yearns for the happier times in Heidelberg. But revisiting his old haunts on a whim he finds that all has changed and he is locked into a regal life and impending loveless royal marriage without his beloved Kathi.
While The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg might be chockablock full of all those attributes that together characterised ‘the Lubitsch touch’, that focus upon sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, all done with the lightest of touches, I have to say its far from my favourite of the director’s work. The first half of the film works OK but the second half becomes increasingly maudlin while the film as a whole is overly weighed down with sentimentality. There is little spark between the two stars, while Shearer apparently wilted under the demands of the director, with one scene reportedly being shot 102 times. The only leading player who looked comfortable was Hersholt, turning in his usual solid performance. Lubitsch would go on to much better things (including Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939) and To Be Or Not To Be (1942)) as would Shearer, not least in marrying producer Irving Thalberg which did her career no harm, notching up no less than six best actress Oscar nominations. In contrast, Navarro’s career would be on something more akin to a downward trajectory. His strong accent counted against him with the arrival of the talkies and his apparent refusal to enter into a ‘lavender marriage’ to conceal his homosexuality made studios wary of working with him, although he did continue with occasional film and TV work until his murder in 1968.
On piano accompaniment and clearly a big fan of the film was Neil Brand who provided an enthusiastic soundtrack, nicely encapsulating the on-screen style, romance and melodrama.
Opting to skip the next morning’s ‘jeely jar’ double bill of Saving Sister Susie (1921)and The Kid Reporter (1924), both also accompanied by Mr Brand, our next feature was the recently rediscovered and restored Chinese melodrama Fen Dou (aka Striving, although also known less appropriately as Struggling) (Dir. Shi Dongshan, China, 1932). The film’s restoration by the China Film Archive is an encouraging sign that there is a growing interest within China itself of its silent film heritage. Fen Dou opens in a shared apartment house. Two brothers, the timid and studious Xiao Zheng (Zheng Junli) and the combative Xiao Yuan (Yuan Congmei), compete for the attentions of Swallow (Chen Yanyan) who lives in the flat above with her abusive step-father. To escape the aggression of her step-father and the unwanted attentions of Yuan, Swallow and Zheng run away together. Happily living together they are eventually tracked down by Yuan and the two brothers fight over Swallow. Arrested, they are both jailed but hearing a nationalist call to arms they both join the army on their release while Swallow goes to stay with the kindly teacher Mr Liu (Jiqun Liu) in his rural village. Her she is discovered by her step-father but the villagers unite to protect her. Meanwhile, Yuan is killed in battle and Swallow falls ill fearing the same of Zheng. But he eventually returns home and the two are united.
On the face of it a conventional romantic melodrama, Fen Dou cleverly mixes a sometimes not so subtle dose of nationalistic propaganda into the plot. Made during the period of civil war between nationalist and communist forces and with the threat of Japanese invasion already looming large, the film carried the strong message of loyalty to family and nation as well as a necessity of standing up to aggression. The seemingly mild mannered Mr Liu never missed an opportunity to advocate the brothers sticking together, of fighting for what was right and standing up to the bullying step-father. The message was equally clear with the brothers settling their differences to fight for the nationalist cause and with the villagers uniting to defeat the bullying step-father. Made by the Lianhua Studio whose owner was a strong supporter of the nationalist cause, the studio would lose its dominant position as the nationalist cause waned. Despite the pro-Nationalist sentiment of this and some other of his films, director Shi Dongshan worked in the Ministry of Culture in the newly established People’s Republic of China from 1949, helping to found the Kunlun Film Studios (a successor to Lianhua) but in 1955 he committed suicide as a result of protracted political persecution.
As for the film itself, I was struck by the number of parallels with Frank Borzage’s 1927 classic Seventh Heaven. Both were set largely in the multi-tenanted apartment block, each had a bullying family member (sister or stepfather) from whom the heroine sought escape while dramatic conflict provided the climatic backdrop. But the similarity was not just confined to plot, there was also much of the Borzage style about the film, for example in the use of an ascending camera to follow the characters as they moved between floors while the enormous depth of focus in some scenes was equally dramatic. While all of the cast put in solid performances, the star turn came from Chen Yanyan as Swallow. Just 16 when the film was made she became a hugely successful star, running her own studio and continuing to appear in film and TV until the early 1990s. Also of note were the well staged and hugely realistic battle scenes, yet another parallel with the Borzage film.
Live accompaniment for the film came from Stephen Horne (on piano, accordion and flute) and Frank Bockius (Percussion). Long time collaborators, their performances together are always perfection and this was no exception. Stephen Horne infused the film with some beautiful Chinese themed melodies, particularly effective in the more intimate moments while Frank Bockius came into his own during the scenes of conflict.
Next up was another extreme rarity, The Treasure (Der Schatz), the first feature from Austrian director G W Pabst and made in 1923. The master bell maker Balthasar Hofer (Albert Steinruck), his wife Anna (Ilka Gruning), daughter Beate (Lucie Mannheim) and labourer Svetelenz (Werner Krauss) live in a sinister house built on the ruins of a residence destroyed by the invading Turks centuries before. Treasure is rumoured to be hidden in the house but they have not been able to find it. The arrival of young goldsmith Arno (Hans Brausewetter) sets off tensions in the household when he and Beate fall in love, much to Svetelenz’s anger as he himself has his eye on Beate. While Svetelenz uses a divining rod to hunt for the treasure Arno uses logic to work out its hiding place. Realising that Arno has found where the treasure is hidden, Svetelenz informs the bell maker and together they plan to kill Arno and keep the treasure for themselves.But when this fails they get Arno and Beate out of the house while they dig out the treasure. When Arno and Beate return they discover the bell maker, Anna and Svetelenz drunkenly celebrating. Svetelenz offers his share to the bell maker in return for Beate’s hand but she informs him she is not for sale. Things turn ugly when Arno produces a knife and demands his share but Beate convinces him to depart the house with her, leaving the treasure to the others. The bell maker and his wife take the treasure, including Svetelenz’s share to their bedroom leading Svetelenz to start digging to see if there is any more remaining but his excavations undermine the house’s foundations and it collapses on the bell maker, his wife and Svetelenz. Arno and Beate depart arm in arm into the sunlight.
Asked to name the director of The Treasure, G W Pabst would not be the first name to spring to mind. Rather, given its style, a more likely suggestion might be Paul Wegener, Carl Boese, or Robert Wiene or even Benjamin Christensen. Because unlike most of Pabst’s best known work (The Joyless Street, Pandora’s Box or Diary of a Lost Girl) this was not a realist depiction of the decadence and frequently the depravity of Weimar Germany. Rather it was a Gothic tale, filmed in a dramatic expressionist style. Much of the film was shot in the gloom of the sinister house (think catacombe scenes from Metropolis or The Golem and you begin to get the idea), heavy on shadows and dark corners, a fantastic set designed by Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig who also did similarly striking set design for, inter alia, Caligari (1920), The Last Laugh (1924) and Faust (1926).
But, already, in this his first film there elements which were to recur throughout Pabst’s career, the psychological motif of Arno cruelly taunting those around him or the grotesque picture of the old and ugly Svetelenz trying to ‘buy’ the hand of the young and innocent Beate. But at the same time Pabst already showed an affinity for a strong female character in her refusing such a proposition. This was a powerful first effort by Pabst, a fascinating study of greed and treachery which builds to a poignant and dramatic climax. He was aided in great part by uniformly good performances from the central cast. Ilka Gruning, in particular, was superb as the avaricious wife. Not starting in films until her mid-40s, Gruning had a busy silent career, also appearing in Pabst’s Joyless Street before fleeing Nazi Germany for the United States where her film work continued with minor roles in numerous films,including roles in King’s Row (1942), Casablanca (1942) and Letter From An Unknown Woman (1948). Werner Krauss as the sinister Svetelenz played Dr Caligari in Robert Wiene’s classic and would become one of Germany’s biggest stars appearing in films such as Waxworks (1924), Tartuffe (1925) and Variete (1925) amongst many others but his unapologetic anti-semitism and appearance in Nazi propaganda films would virtually end his career. Lucie Mannheim as Beate went on to make films in Britain and the US and was probably best remembered here as Annabella Smith the blond whose early death sets Robert Hanney off on his search for The 39 Steps (1935).
Providing live musical accompaniment for the film was bassist Alois Kott. At the outset I thought that an 80 minute film score performed on just a double bass, albeit an electric one, was a big ask. But how wrong could I be. This was a perfect instrument on which to capture the film’s monstrously dark tone, its undercurrent of aggression and double cross and finally its dramatic conclusion.
Having opted out of the screening of The Great K and A Train Robbery (1926) on Bo’Ness railway station platform, partly out of respect for the Scottish climate in March (a wise decision, it was freezing!) and partly because of the risk of missing the start of the following film (another wise move) our next event was a new departure for HippFest, a late night horror double-bill.
First up was the incomparable Lon Chaney in The Penalty (Dir. Wallace Worsley, US, 1920). This was the story of a young lad who looses his legs due to a mistake by Dr. Ferris (Chrles Clary). Bitter and determined for revenge he grows up to become a notorious criminal mastermind known as Blizzard (Lon Chaney). The police send in Rose (Ethel Grey Terry), their best covert agent, to seek out evidence. However, she quickly falls in love with Blizzard due to a shared passion for music. Even when Blizzard discovers that Rose is a police agent he fails to take action against her because she helps him play the piano. Blizzard plans a criminal take-over of the city while his revenge against Ferris will be via his sculptress daughter Barbara (Claire Adams) and to get close to her he poses as a model for a sculpture of Satan that she is working on. He also has the idea that he can amputate the legs of Barbara’s fiancé and use them to replace his own stumps. He forces Dr Ferris to start the operation, but while Blizzard is anaesthetised the doctor discovers a tumour on his brain and removes it. It is the tumour which has been responsible for Blizzard’s deviant behaviour and, once removed, he becomes a model citizen with plans to marry Rose. But one of his co-conspirators fears that Blizzard will now turn him in. He shoots Blizzard who dies in Rose’s arms. Barbara and are her fiancé are re-united.
A legless master criminal, one who fails to ‘rub out’ a known police agent because she’s so good at working the pedals as he plays the piano, a last minute brain operation that turns the master criminal into pillar of the community. Complete hokum Well maybe, but complete hokum delivered with a certain degree of style. Chaney apparently underwent agonies with his legs strapped up behind him and could only endure the pain in ten minute shooting sessions, which may have gone some way to explaining the intensity of his performance. Although he had been appearing in films since 1912 this was Chaney’s first big break-out role. Despite Blizzard’s evil and sadistic manner, Chaney still manages to evoke our sympathy, a skill he would repeat throughout the rest of his career in acclaimed films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). As for the rest of the cast they weren’t called on to do much other than perhaps Ethel Grey Terry as Rose, although the speed at which she went from hard nosed police agent to simpering love interest didn’t hold out much hope for law enforcement in 1920s San Francisco. Director Wallace Worsley would work with Chaney again in Ace of Hearts (1921), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and, in on of Chaney’s most sought after lost films, A Blind Bargain (1922).
Live accompaniment for the film came from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello respectively. Although I couldn’t fault the musicianship of either of the players, this was a score that I didn’t think really worked. Although it caught some of the excitement it really didn’t do justice to the darker undertone of the film, the sense of menace and of evil.
The second half of the evening’s double bill was an altogether stranger affair, Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) directed by Benjamin Christensen, best known for his unremittingly dark Swedish drama-documentary style history of witchcraft, Haxan: Witchcraft Through The Ages (1922). But Seven Footprints To Satan, made during an ill-fated sojourn in Hollywood, is an altogether different film entirely.
James Kirkham (Creighton Hale) is a man of considerable wealth but limited intellect. Wishing to broaden his horizons by becoming a great explorer (much to the amusement of his sardonic butler. Both his wealthy uncle (DeWitte Jennings) and his fiance Eve Martin (Thelma Todd) seek to dissuade him but when this fails Eve invites him over to her house for a party during which a valuable gem disappears, a staged fight breaks out, someone fires a gun and everyone panics. James and Eve set off by chauffeur driven car to fetch the police but become locked in the vehicle and are delivered to a sinister mansion. Once in the mansion we’re on a surreal but glorious roller-coaster ride of oblique warnings, demonic screams, exotic damsels, and a whole other host of dwarfs, grotesques, a demented gorilla, the Mistress of Satan and “the man on crutches!!!”as James and Eve seek an escape. At last, everything is explained when…..Oh no, not even with spoiler warnings am I going to reveal the ending of this one. Seven Footprints to Satan can only be experienced first hand. See it and enjoy it.
Whatever your experience of silent film, nothing really prepares you for this, a film as weird in its own way as Fairbanks’ Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) albeit one without quite so much ‘coke’. This was The Cat and the Canary (1927, also starring Creighton hale) meets The Old Dark House (1932) but with Satan himself thrown in as a bonus. Like all the best comedy-horrors, its played with deadly seriousness by all involved and beautifully shot by Christenson. The editing is superb, the lighting and shadows hugely atmospheric and some of the jump cuts are fantastic. The cast seem to be enjoying themselves hugely, albeit with about as much idea as the viewer as to what is going on. Creighton Hale had done plenty of serious drama, including Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921) for D W Griffiths, before turning his hand to lighter roles. Although his ‘talkies’ career was mainly one of minor roles he did appear in bit hits such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). Thelma Todd displayed a nice line in comedy which would serve her well in subsequent Laurel and Hardy and Marx Brothers films but she was to die young in still unexplained circumstances in 1935. For Christensen, Seven Footprints to Satan was one of a trilogy of films (the other two sadly lost) he made for Warner but by this time he had had enough of Hollywood and returned to his native Sweden where he was not to direct another film for a decade.
As for the musical accompaniment by Jane Gardner and Roddy Long, rarely have I seen a silent film in which the music fits it so perfectly. And it all started out so ordinarily, Jane on piano and Roddy on violin and a nice conventional score to match the society party. But then as we are catapulted into the surrealism of the old dark mansion and its weird goings-on Jane switched to electronic keyboard and Roddy’s violin took on some electronic distortion and the effect was literally, well, electrifying! The zanyer the film got so too did the score, the playing more frantic and the sound more warped and distorted. The film was great fun but the accompaniment took it to another dimension. This is one which will long live in the memory.
And then, all too soon it was the final day of the festival. Forsaking a Laurel and Hardy triple bill in the morning our next feature was the beautiful Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928), the second of three Indian/German co-productions made by director Franz Osten, producer Himansu Rai and writer Niranjan Pal, all of which have, perhaps somewhat miraculously, survived.
Shiraz followed the story of Selima, orphaned and lost princess brought up in a humble family and loved by the family’s son Shiraz. When Selima is kidnapped and sold as a slave Shiraz follows, seeking to free her. But Selima’s new‘owner’ is Emperor Shah Jahan, whom she eventually falls in love with, leaving a broken hearted Shiraz. You can find our more detailed write up of this film here.
Accompanying the film on piano was John Sweeney. Having seen this film on two previous occasions, accompanied once by a live performance by composer Anoushka Shankar and and her ensemble and once by her recorded score, I was interested to see and hear how accompaniment on a single piano would compare. In John Sweeney’s hands I need not have worried. Although I thought I could make out one or two of Anoushka Shankar’s themes creeping in John really made this score his own, beautifully catching not only the intimacy and the drama but also the big ticket scenes such as the bandit’s raid on the caravan and the ‘death by elephant’s foot’.
The final film of the festival was an old favourite, Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928). Very much an urban, working-class love story, it follows the rivalry between Bill (Brian Ahern), an underground worker, and Bert (Cyril McLaglan), a power engineer, for the affections of shop worker Nell (Elissa Landi). As Nell rejects the attentions of Bert in favour of Bill, resulting in a pub fight at which Bert is beaten, he sets out to get his revenge on Bill. Persuading his some-time girlfriend Kate to falsely claim that Bill has assaulted her, Bert gets Bill suspended from work and facing criminal charges. But Nell has her suspicions. As first she and then Bill confront her, Kate realises that Bert has just been playing her along. Becoming increasingly unbalanced, she sets off with Bill to confront Bert at the power station where he works. While Bill is in the power station office Kate finds Bert in the power room where he kills her and tries to escape. Bill gives chase and, after being cornered in the underground, Bert is caught while Bill and Nell are re-united.
With the exception of the climatic chase, Underground is the slightest of tales. But as with much of Asquith’s work the delight is not necessarily in the plot but in the telling. This is very much the case in the opening scenes of Underground with the banter between passengers on the underground train. The characterisations in the film are wonderful, not just of the main players but even the smallest of roles, such as the dragon-like woman police officer on the train or the world weary barmaid in the pub. Asquith was a master at using these tiniest of details to portray a wonderfully realistic and lifelike world. He, along with cinematographer Stanley Rodwell, also vividly capture the sense of movement in the underground, the train entering a station, the bustle of the commuters and a fantastic scene as Bill and Nell attempt to talk while on opposite running escalators. Equally well handled is the final chase scene, shot on location at Lots Road power station in Chelsea.
In only his second directing role, Asquith is already both a confident and highly competent film maker. He would of course go on to greater things in the talking era with films like Pygmalion (1938), The Way To The Stars (1945), The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) as well as the almost criminally neglected Tell England (1931). Brian Ahern went on to a stellar career in Hollywood although Elissa Landi never really achieved the sort of acclaim she deserved.
Live accompaniment for the film came from Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, with a performance that may even have eclipsed their efforts on Fen Dou the previous day. I’m not sure how much time they get to rehearse a score with each other (I suspect not very much) but their playing together is almost faultless, with each seemingly knowing how the other thinks. This was a nice high point on which to end the festival.
And that was it at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival for another year. So what were the high points. Well, there were three very informative talks although pride of place probably went to Prof Pickowicz for his superb piece on modern marriage in Chinese silent cinema. Then there were the films, as always an eclectic but excellent selection. Chinese rarity Fen Dou was superb as was the hugely dark and melodramatic The Treasure. Accompaniment to both of these, from Stephen Horne/Frank Bockius and Alois Kott respectively added wonderfully to the films. Over and above this, Jane Gardner and Roddy Long’s accompaniment to Seven Footsteps to Satan was just brilliant. However, in terms of best accompaniment to best film I thought that David Allison’s accompaniment to Last of the Mohicans just edged it. But in a sign of the strength of HippFest and its musicians I would expect at least two and possibly three of these films to be in my top ten list of films of the year. Looking forward to next year’s festival already.