13 May 2020
(Warning: Contains spoilers throughout)
We may be in lock-down but that is clearly not going to prevent the good folk at the Kennington Bioscope from ensuring that we continue to receive our regular helping of silent film rarities. After their hugely successful opening event on 29 April, what delights would episode two of KenBio TV bring us.
The evening got off to a start familiar to all regular patrons of the Cinema Museum, with the ritual striking of the gong and museum proprietor Ronald Grant’s customary cry of ‘Take your seats, please’ ! And there on our screens was Michelle Facey (aka @best2vilmabanky), hunkered down in her North London apartment and ready with an informative introduction to the first two of the evening’s films.
First up was a short travelogue entitled A Pretty Dutch Town (c.1910, although possibly later) featuring the canal town of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. The film was a gentle, water borne journey along the town’s canals and into the River Meuse. Lining the canals was a fascinating collection of architecturally contrasting houses and warehouses probably built over several centuries, some even constructed on the actual bridges over the canal. As we reached the river, barges were replaced by numerous sailing vessels and together with scenes of the town’s Grote Kerk (‘Our Dear Lady Church’). This was a short but beautifully stencil-coloured film from the Cinema Museum’s own collection (but restored by the Netherland’s Eye Film Museum). Towards the end of the film, nitrate degradation almost completely removes the photographic imprint yet the stencil colouring remains, resulting in an amazing shimmering image, almost like a moving impressionist painting.
The film was accompanied by a recorded piano score by John Sweeney which was perfectly attuned to and complemented the film’s gentle pace.
We then had a film from the Eye Museum’s own collection, Gontran and the Unknown Neighbour (1913). The film tells of Gontran (Rene Grehan)’s fixation with playing the piano, to the extent that he increasingly neglects his wife. But she has a plan. Moving to the house next door she enlists her own piano teacher and pretty soon Gontran is enchanted by the piano plying from the adjoining house and schemes to meet the unknown lady responsible. After much anonymous chit-chat over a garden wall, the wife finally reveals her identity to Gontran and they are happily reunited. This was a charming little film, beautifully restored and tinted. Rene Grehan was one of two comedians who the Pathe Company saw as possible successors to their hugely successful star Andre Deed when he left the studio in 1908, the other being Max Linder. Initially it was Grehan who was the more successful, usually portraying the same smooth, suave and debonair character. So successful in fact that around 1910 he moved to Eclair Films (after which Linder’s career seemingly took off at Pathe, with him adopting a very similar character style to Grehan’s ). Grehan made a significant number of Gontran films for Eclair (some sources talk of 82) between 1910 and 1913. Many were directed by Lucien Nonguet, who was also still regularly directing Linder at Pathe. There is no information on the woman playing Gontran’s wife, not even her name, which is a shame as she is very good as the neglected spouse (and very forgiving in the circumstances, particularly when Gontran says he will happily give up his wife for this new ‘amour’. I think that I would have been left wearing the step-ladder at that point!).
Providing a beautiful live piano accompaniment was Cyrus Gabrysh, seamlessly melding in with the on-screen keyboard work.
After a short interval where we could but reminisce about stocking up with coffee, tiffin or caramel shortbread from the Cinema Museum’s snack bar we were back for Michelle’s next introductions. The first was for Over The Back Fence (1913), made in the US by the Edison Company and again held by the Eye Film Museum. In the film, the old Colonel (William Wadsworth) and his neighbour Miss Scraggs (Alice Washburn) are not on good terms after a fight between their respective pets. This is unfortunate as the Colonel’s nephew ( Harry Beaumont) and Miss Scraggs’ niece (Bessie Learn) are on very friendly terms and would like to get much better acquainted over the fence adjoining their respective houses. However, both the Colonel and Miss Scraggs are determined to prevent their relationship going any further. The youngsters therefore hatch a plan to feign dislike of each other which perversely works, with uncle and aunt pushing them back together. Over The Back Fence may be just the slightest of comedies but it is both charming and funny and works very well with minimal inter-titles.
Actress Bessie Learn made over a hundred films between 1911 and her retirement in 1919 becoming, in the process, one of the Edison Company’s most bankable stars. She died in 1987, aged 98. Harry Beaumont was eventually probably better known as a director than an actor. For those fans of coincidence, according to IMDb he made 99 films as director and also 99 as an actor. In cricket parlance, you could say that the nervous nineties got him in both innings. But the night’s award for prolific acting must go to William Wadsworth. After a long stage career he made his first film for Edison in 1911 and by 1918 had appeared for them almost 200 times.
I was much amused with the review of the film by The Moving Picture World, February 15, 1913 –
The opening situation of this picture doesn’t promise anything out of the ordinary, and, except for pretty scenes and pretty acting it doesn’t provide anything exceptional. The author seems to have seated himself and turned out a conventional commercial comedy. There is some freshness in his idea, but it is not rich in true comedy. Indeed, we think that nearly all the comedy comes from the producer and the players, who deserve credit for making an entertaining, if not very substantial, offering. The photography is almost perfect. C.J. Williams is the producer, with William Wadsworth and Alice Washburn playing the older people, and Harry Beaumont and Bessie Learn in the parts of the two young folks. All are surely acceptable. Marion Carr is the author. The picture made a ripple of laughter which came and came again while it was on the screen.
Saying that “..this picture doesn’t promise anything out of the ordinary..” then going on to list everything you’d want in a comedy plus the fact that it made the audience laugh repeatedly! Boy those Moving Picture World reviewers were a tough bunch to please!
Providing a nicely nuanced recorded accompaniment to the film was John Sweeney which, given the absence of inter-titles,was all the more crucial in highlighting the film’s changes of pace and tone.
The final film of the evening was another from the Eye Museum’s Jean Desmet Collection entitled Artheme Dupin Escapes Again and made in 1912. This was something of a knockabout comedy concerning a pair of police officers attempting to apprehend our hero Artheme Dupin (Ernest Servaès) after he tries to bribe his way out of a speeding ticket. This is the film that would have resulted from Georges Melies directing the Keystone Cops. Lots of chases and falling down interspersed with endless trick photography. There was also the oddity of it being a French film but with the police wearing British Bobbies’ outfits. Oh, and did we mention the outrageous levels of police violence, it made The Sweeney look like Andy Pandy. The Arthème Dupin series, made by the Eclipse Studio, was supposedly a pastiche of Arsène Lupin, the suave, gentleman thief created by French writer Maurice LeBlanc in 1905. The series, starring, directed and produced by Servaes may have run to as many as 63 films between 1911 and 1916. But as if this wasn’t enough, Servaes also made at least 20 films in the Polycarpe series plus numerous other shorts in the same time-frame.
The rip-roaring live piano accompaniment for Artheme Dupin Escapes Again came from Cyrus Gabrysh
It was great to be back with the KenBio, albeit in this on-line format, and we eagerly await programming details for Episode #3.
This episode of Kennington Bioscope Live Stream Broadcast #2 remains on line here at their You Tube page (along with Michelle’s excellent introductory scripts) together with the first episode. The individual films can each also be viewed separately on You Tube, although without the KenBio piano accompaniment.