Kennington Bioscope at Cinema Museum, London
7 February 2018
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
It might have been bitterly cold outside (and I have to admit that it wasn’t that much warmer tonight inside the Cinema Museum!) but as usual the Kennington Bioscope had the perfect antidote in the form of a charming, heart-warming little romantic drama, The Bride of Glomdal, from renowned Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.
But before the main feature and to mark the hundredth anniversary of (some) women getting the vote, Michelle Facey introduced a collection of short items with a suffragette theme. First up was A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912), an unusual production from the US Edison Company in that the film was shot in Britain.
In the film, the gentleman of the house, deeply opposed to female emancipation, heads out for a walk in the park where two mischievous boys surreptitiously attach a ‘Votes for Women’ poster to his back (image, left). Passing an anti-suffrage meeting he is set upon by a group of men in top hats and tail coats (all curiously reminiscent of one Jacob Rees Mogg in attire….and attitude!) when they see the message on his back. Fighting them off he accidentally breaks a shop window which sets the police after him. Getting his watch chain caught on some railings makes the police think he is a protester deliberately chaining himself to the railings and they arrest him. But a passing band of suffragettes, mistaking him for a kindred spirit, set him free (image, right). Returning home disheveled he is about to pour a drink when another ‘Votes for Women’ sign left by his maid unfurls from the drinks cabinet.
Apart from being filmed on location in London by an American company this film is also unusual in that it does not adopt an anti-suffragette perspective as did many films of the time. In fact, it is the men who are mocked rather than the suffragettes. But the film also benefits from being nicely shot around the streets of Whitehall, well structured and genuinely quite funny at times.
This was followed by a number a news-reels focusing upon suffragette marches (image, left) and protests in London and in particular the death of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Epsom Derby and her subsequent funeral. Despite having seen this footage several times previously ( and even from the perspective of today’s often graphic news reporting) the moment of collision between horse and protester remains a shocking image (image, right).
Then, lifting the mood somewhat was just a short clip of an unidentified film in which a man, newly taught in the deadly arts of JuJitsu, attempts to demonstrate his new found skills on a passing woman. But instead, he finds himself on the receiving end of a trouncing from a much more seasoned practitioner in the very same art. Stopping just long enough to hand the beaten man a business card proclaiming ‘Votes for Women’, the lady is soon back on her way. Funny in a somewhat surreal sort of way, it would be nice to see more of this film if it has survived.
Crossing the Atlantic for the evening’s next film, The Last Lap, this was one in a long series of films from Universal Studios, collectively known as The Collegians. An early project for young producer Carl Laemmle Jr, newly arrived aged eighteen at his father’s studios, the Collegians series would eventually run to 44 films over four years following the progress of student rivals Ed Benson (George Lewis) and Don Trent (Eddie Philips) as they worked their way through college, competing mainly for the attentions of the Principal’s daughter, June Maxwell (Dorothy Gulliver). Although almost completely forgotten now, the series was also notable for launching the careers of long-time cowboy supporting stars Andy Devine and Walter Brennan.
The Last Lap was an early entry in the series and sees bad boy Don Trent trying to get Ed Benson suspended in order to prevent him competing in the college cross country race that Don expects to win. When Ed is tricked into entering a Master’s study and suspected of snatching an early look at some exam papers (image, left), it looks like his goose is cooked. But June Maxwell saves the day by proving that he has been set up by Don. However, Ed requests that his rival not be suspended, so that he can beat him on the track. Despite some dirty tricks from Don during the race, it is Ed who (of course) eventually emerges the winner.
While The Last Lap was never going to be viewed as Oscar material, there were some amusing moments, although even this early in the series the plot was a bit creaky and it is hard to imagine how they spun this out to 44 episodes. Dorothy Gulliver made for a spirited female lead, a bit in the Clara Bow mould, but she never made much of an impact beyond the Collegians series with her credits becoming increasingly sporadic after the 1940s. Her last role was as ‘old woman on bus’ in Won Ton Ton: The Dog That Saved Hollywood in 1976. In contrast, George Lewis had a long and prolific career in both film and on TV, appearing in some 300 pictures and is probably best remembered as Don Alejandro de la Vega, the father of the hero in Walt Disney’s long running TV series Zorro (1957-61).
Piano accompaniment for this challenging mix of films came from Lillian Henley, switching seamlessly between the drama and sadness of the suffragette news-reels and the lightness of the comedies accompanying them.
(NB No sign of either The Last Lap or A Suffragette in Spite of Himself on disc although the latter can be watched on YouTube, as can much of the suffragette news-reel footage.)
There was then a complete change of pace and tone with the night’s main feature, The Bride of Glomdal (aka Glomdalsbruden) directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer and set in rural Norway.
Son of the family, Tore Braaten (Einar Sissener), returns home to his aged parent’s run-down farm intent on no longer working for other people but on restoring the farm to its former prosperity. Berit Glomgaarden (Tove Tellback), Tore’s childhood sweetheart and daughter of the Braaten’s rich neighbour Ola (Stub Weiberg), comes to visit. She and Tore discuss marriage and a life together once Tore has got the farm in order. But in the meantime, Ola has agreed with old Haugsett that Berit should marry his son Gjermund. When she learns of her father’s plans for her, Berit pointedly refuses and says she would rather run away.
At an evening dance Tore and Berit are together when Gjermund arrives and he and Tore fight over Berit. As the other villagers drag Gjermund off Tore (image, right), Berit declares to all present her love for Tore. In an effort to break up his daughter’s relationship with Tore, Ola visits him but Tore refuses to stop seeing Berit. Determined to see through Berit’s marriage to Gjermund, Ola sets off with Berit to the wedding (image, left) but en route Berit escapes, only to fall from her horse and is badly hurt. Found by Tore, he takes her to his parent’s farm (image, right) and after examining her the doctor says she cannot be moved. Tore’s father goes to see Ola but is met with hostility. Ola disowns his daughter and says he will never agree to her marriage to Tore.
Berit gradually recovers and she and Tore are happy on the Braaten farm, so much so that to avoid temptation (image, left) Berit decides to move and stay with the vicar and his wife. Seeking an amicable solution, the vicar says Berit should return to her home and that Tore should ask Ola’s for permission to marry her. To this end, the vicar confronts Ola, saying that Ola lied to him when he said Berit was marrying Gjermund of her own free will and that this was a serious criminal offence. Eventually Ola agrees to Tore and Berit marrying, he and Berit are reconciled and Ola’s relations with the Braatens are restored.
The wedding day arrives and preparations are under way when Gjermund, bitter at being rejected by Berit, cuts loose the boat used by the Braatens to cross the river. Without it, Tore and his parents cannot reach the church. Puzzled at Tore’s absence the wedding party come to the opposite bank from where they can see the Braatens. Ola sends across a horse for Tore but on the return journey he is washed into the fast flowing river (image, right) and carried away. Struggling to avoid floating logs he is washed downstream towards the treacherous rapids. Eventually with Berit’s help Tore manages to wade ashore and the wedding party return to the church where Tore and Berit are married (image, left).
Seen in the context with C T Dreyer’s overall career then The Bride of Glomdal was very much a stop-gap project, filling in time between his directing Master of the House in Denmark in 1925 and his move to France the following year for the extensive preparatory work involved with the production of The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Dreyer had apparently set out initially with the intention of directing a film based on a play by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, En Fallit (A Bankruptcy). However, it soon became apparent that this would be too demanding a project due to the limited time available. Instead, he decided to make a film based upon two works by Norwegian author Jacob Breda Bull, The Bride of Glomdal written in 1907 and Eline Vangen (1906). Completely out of character with his normal practise Dreyer began work filming Bride of Glomdal with little or no preparation, reputedly still reading Bull’s books while on the train to Oslo. There was no shooting script and the film was largely improvised on a day-to-day basis directly from the source material, with a cast who were due to return to theatre work once they had completed the film during their summer vacation.
But if The Bride of Glomdal was made, as it were, ‘on the hoof’, that is certainly not reflected in the final product. The film is a beautiful and lyrical poem of life in rural Norway. The cinematography by Einar Olsen is stunning, not just in the dramatic river scenes at the film’s conclusion (superbly edited by Dreyer) but throughout.. The film itself is nicely structured and beautifully paced. In some ways, the concluding scenes of Tore being swept away in the river are in marked contrast with the pacing of the rest of the film and I don’t think I would have been too disappointed if the film had ended simply with Ola’s reconciliation with his daughter and her and Tore’s subsequent marriage. But the dramatic conclusion added another layer to the film, emphasising that the natural surroundings may well be beautiful but they can also be treacherous and that for all Tore and Berit’s happiness, this could be snuffed out in an instant.
The quality of the film also owed a great deal to the wonderful performances of the entire cast. Surprisingly, criticism of the film on its initial release came mainly for the Norwegian cast, “altogether off, weak and characterless” even criticised for staring directly into the camera. Yet watching the film today their performances are superb, supremely naturalistic and wonderfully nuanced. Tove Tellback (image, lef) is marvelous as the headstrong Berit, self confidently telling Tore what he needs to do to gain her as a wife, angrily stamping her foot as she rejects her father’s plans for marriage to Gjermund or surreptitiously sneaking a kiss with Tore when no-one is looking. There is only a single un-necessary scene of her somewhat unrealistically fainting as Tore is washed away, before she recovers and comes to his aid. Equally good is Einar Sissener as Tore (image, right), naturally shy and lacking in confidence but determined in his love for Berit. There is a lovely scene of him embarrassed at seeing Berit raise her skirt to scratch her knee, while the scene as he and Berit wait anxiously in the Vicar’s parlour, each mirroring the other in fiddling with a plate and a hat in their respective hands, is just delightful. But beyond the main stars, there wasn’t a bad performance from any of the cast with the possible exception of Gjermund, whose character remained somewhat under-developed (but see below). Although most of the cast continued with modest film careers, none went on the achieve the acclaim that their performances here surely deserved.
As much a character in the film as the actors themselves was the scenery, with mountains, luscious valley and rushing river all beautifully shot.The exterior scenes were filmed in the upper Rendal valley, some. 150 km north of Oslo while the dramatic finale was shot in the Glomma River, the largest river in Norway. Praise must again here go to Einar Sissener who looked to do all the spectacular and hazardous river scenes himself without recourse to a stunt double.
The only chink in what was otherwise a convincingly realistic film was that following all the drama of the river rescue Tore only needed a change into dry clothes to carry onwith marriage ceremony. One had to wonder at just what scale of catastrophe it would take for a Norwegian marriage ceremony to be postponed!
Although The Bride of Glomdal was apparently a popular success on its first release it appears at some point to have been cut-down from an initial running time of 115 minutes to the current 74. It is not clear when or why this happened but this could account for the under-development of the Gjermund character. Sadly the edited footage has inevitably been lost for ever.
As for director C T Dreyer, if you’re only experience of his work was the Bride of Glomdal nothing could prepare you for the sheer visceral intensity of his next project, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), a film in direct contrast with the sweeping lyricism of Glomdal. However, both The Passion of Joan of Arc (image, left) and his next project Vampyr (1930, image, right) were box office failures (despite now being hailed as masterpieces) and Dryer was to make just four more films, at almost decade intervals, before his death in 1968 with a career that never quite lived up to the promise shown in his silent films.
So while The Bride of Glomdal may perhaps not measure up to the brilliance of say Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, by any other standards it is a beautiful, charming, almost bewitching film well worth watching, probably more than once.
Accompanying the film tonight was a very in-form John Sweeney with an equally lyrical and nuanced improvised score which precisely caught the humour, romance and drama of the film and hugely enhanced the audience’s enjoyment of it.
(NB The Bride of Glomdal is available on disc from the Danish Film Institute and can be watched in a variety of versions on-line, a particularly good example with a nice score being available here)