Monday, 29 April 2013

Redwood Stage: Beatriz Michelena in Salomy Jane (1914)

Beatriz Michelena
“Unless nature betters her handiwork in the forests of California, it is difficult to see how producers are going to improve upon the scenic beauty …” The New York Dramatic Mirror 1914

This film was lost from 1931 to 1996 when a copy was found in Australia. It is the last surviving film made by the California Motion Picture Corporation and also the only film featuring Latino star Beatriz Michelena.

Michelena was a woman of many talents, a successful opera singer, writer and business woman who formed the CMPC with her husband in order to produce her own films… This was one of a number of independent companies that flourished in the years before Hollywood assumed its familiar pattern. But the company failed and all evidence of its output was seemingly destroyed in a fire in the early 30’s.

Beatriz Michelena and House Peters
We are there for doubly blessed to have this excellent example of their work as well as Ms Michelena’s acting, all spruced up with a spritely new score from Mr Steven Horne – a master-craftsman of silent film accompaniment.

Salomy Jane was based on the popular novella by Bret Harte and as with other early features struggles to accommodate all of the details and characters from even the short-form novel. It was made over a period of six months and for a reputed $200,000 yet, despite critical acclaim, suffered from poor distribution and never broke even.

As her name suggests, Salomy Jane is no shrinking violet and as with Salomé, at one point urges one of her suitors to despatch a man who has assaulted her. She’s a tough gal but then this was the old west and a town where the only women seem to be either domestic slaves or sex workers.

Woman. horse... tree
The film opens with a magnificent shot of Salomy/ Beatriz emerging from a giant Redwood tree. The camera ranges up this massive tree to highlight the glorious North Californian forests and then down to our heroin astride a white stallion. The highly-informative commentary from Gary Scharnhorst, paints all this as Freudian symbolism and a deliberate effort to foreground Michelena’s sexuality… I’m not so sure myself: it’s a nice tree and it’s a nice horse though… but Beatrix does have a winning smile and doesn’t need the symbolism.

Acting with children as well as animals...
There’s also no doubt that Michelena’s the star, as, a part from every inter-title having her name on it, she is the only one to have the grand introduction with the other actors introduced in snippets of their later action.

And what a lot of them there are… this is a very busy film with four main narrative strands and a lot of action – sometimes confusingly quick.

Salomy and her father Madison Clay (Matt Snyder) arrive in Hangtown a care-worn mining community still just about riding the wave of the ’49 gold rush… they have come from Kentucky and intend to breed horses.

Ernest Joy, Beatriz Michelena, Clarence Arper and Matt Snyder
 Hangtown contains a lot of stock characters that were already emerging into cliché by this point. There’s gruff stage-hand Yuba Bill (Andrew Robson), professional gambler Marbury (Ernest Joy) and the town “flirts” Anna May (Lorraine Levy) and Mary Ann (Loretta Ephran)…

There’s also Red Pete (William Pike) a good fer nothin’ wastrel who abuses his wife (Clara Beyers as Clara Byers) and takes what money they have to gamble and get drunk whilst she and their three children live off scraps.

No shortage of suitors for Salomy
Colonel Starbottle (Clarence Arper) is on hand to provide some light relief with a flamboyant beard and grand gestures. He lets Salome and Clay a house and grounds for their livestock…

But any chance of a fresh start is curtailed as there’s already an enemy in town in the form of Larabee (Harold Entwistle). His family have a long-running feud with the Clays and have warned him of their arrival.

A sister's tragic message
British actor House Peters plays The Man (Jack Dart in the book) who is pursuing the rat who robbed his sister of her honour. He opens a locket with her picture and a note indicating that she has taken her own life in shame. She has sent a picture of the man who wronged her and it looks a lot like Baldwin (Harold B. Meade) with a villainous moustache.

Salomy tells Ruff to avenge her
Like most of the men in Hangtown, Baldwin is quick to hit on Salomy and, after she rebuffs his advances, follows her deep into the woods where he attempts to steals a kiss – code for a sexual assault which is largely missing from the film. Luckily The Man chases her attacker off and sets after him in hot pursuit.

Salomy runs back home in distress where she persuades another suitor, Rufe Waters (William Nigh who also directed parts of the film and later had a distinguished directorial career), to kill her attacker in exchange for her hand in marriage. Very Salomé …

Hold up!
He robs the stagecoach with his buddy Gallagher (Demetrios Mitsoras) setting in chain the events that will bring all the narrative strands crashing together. As they make their escape the stagecoach drives back to tell the sheriff.

Mill Valley with Mount Tamalpais in the background
There’s a great shot of the stagecoach racing down the winding roads of the Mill Valley with Mount Tamalpais in the background… Just a dozen miles north of San Francisco the scenery is stunning and one of the main reasons to watch this film.

Meanwhile (again), The Man has tracked down Baldwin to his miner’s shack hideaway and engages him in a fist fight… He easily bests the baddy and slays Baldwin with his own knife. Natural justice for both his sister as well as Salomy… But Ruff sees all and aims to take the credit and claim his prize from Salomy.

Mr and Mrs "Red Pete" and child
The stage robbers return home and there’s a smart sequence in which Red Pete’s children play around their parents… one of them pulling his sister’s sole dress off the washing line so they can go out  to play… before they go, the girl’s twin sister takes the stolen bracelet Pete has just offered his wife…

This bracelet will be handed to Salomy as she plays with the children…

A posse is organised as the Sherriff enlists the local men to capture the robbers and Baldwin’s killer and things really ramp up as the trigger happy chase the felons in order to deliver a summary hanging. The Man gets caught up in the melee as he’s confused and accused by the various parties as is Salomy in possession of the incriminating jewellery.

Salomy is accused
All of the strands are skilfully pulled together in one drawn-out and breathless conclusion – a riot of redwood, mistaken identity and desperate attempts to escape the vigilante’s “justice”...

It would be fatuous to say that, even by this juncture, the Western had established its familiar patterns as the templates had already been set in the works of Harte and many others in the 1800s. What cannot be denied is the enduring effectiveness of the formulae. 

You can just see House and Beatriz riding through the trees
A century on Salomy Jane is still beguiling fun helped in no small part by Stephen Horne’s trademark musical intuition. He weaves some lovely lines around the characters and the narrative,  enabling the modern viewer to really connect and better interpret the source material… and the amazing landscapes.

Beatriz Michelena makes for a compelling lead playing Salomy as a gum-chewing gal of action who is every bit as tough as the men around her. Her stage experience and operatic sensibilities suit the style of the play and she works well with House Peters. Like many of the characters in the film, she is an interesting shade of grey not clearly black and white – that’s the West alright:  “ a woman’s got to do what a man’s gotta do…”

Mount Tamalpais again in the distance...
Salomy Jane is part of the National Film Preservation Foundations box set, Treasures 5: The West. It can be ordered direct from the NFPF site or from Amazons. Excellent value, it also includes The Lady of the Dugout and Clara Bow in Mantrap (also featuring Mr Horne’s music).

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Not set in stone… La Notte (1961)

Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau
Why do we own the films we like? In many cases we’re defining ourselves through possession but in a precious few it’s because we have to watch them more than once… probably the very definition of a film you should own. This was the third time I’d watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte (The Night) and it won’t be the last.

There’s an interesting point made by Brad Stevens in his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema release of this film, he’s seen the film many times and every time he watches it he sees new details and his view of the central characters shifts. Maybe this is down to the deceptive complexity of Antonioni’s films or it could just be his studious refusal to offer definitive narrative resolutions. Either way, his films reward repeated viewing more than most…

Marcello Mastroianni and Monica Vitti
But are they deep and “difficult” films… elitist works that can only be fully understood by those who recognise all of the subtext and influences? Antonioni refused to accept that “literary” cinema existed let alone that his own work be part of it and, whilst he was happy to discuss his work with intellectual rigour, he made no lofty claims in that respect.

You can watch his films for enjoyment and draw your own conclusions about precise meanings which may well say more about yourself than the subject.

It is contemplative cinema, as I’ve said before and not unlike silent film in many ways, with sub-titled dialogue about as helpful as inter-titles in determining the motivations and feelings on display. Jeanne Moreau might, in fact, be one of the greatest silent film actresses that ever lived with her stillness belying a peerless range of expression.

La Notte begins in the bright daylight high above a sun-soaked modernist Milan – even 50 years on, this still feels futuristic. The camera moves slowly from atop a skyscraper and gradually slides down onto the city against a backdrop of atonal electronic sounds. The director is taking us down into the story.

Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Bernhard Wicki
We encounter a writer Giovanni Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) and his wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) as they visit a clinic where there terminally ill friend, Tommaso (Bernhard Wicki) is being treated. There is the usual awkward visiting time conversation even as Tommaso orders champagne for his friends and mother.

Bad traffic
Lidia cannot take the bravado and weeps by herself outside. Meanwhile Giovanni is lured into a fellow patient’s room where a young woman offers herself to him, just as he responds she is restrained by staff… Honest emotion for one and the refuge of mindless sex for the other…

Strangely Giovanne confesses this moment to Lidia as they drive through traffic jams to a signing for his new book… Yet, Lidia’s reaction is not quite what you’d expect to this unnecessary revelation – is Giovanni trying to shock or just get attention. Poor Giovanni, to be so at the mercy of instinct and female forces beyond his control.

Remember paper?
At the book signing (filmed in a real publishing house with a real publisher and a real Nobel Prize winner… the illusory intrusion of the truth, natch…) Giovanni is fawned over – he is on the brink of great commercial success but doesn’t know what to do with it other than respond as he did to the advances in the hospital.

Lidia in the city
Lidia leaves and goes for her celebrated walk through the streets of Milan finding many things but not perhaps what she’s looking for. Here Moreau is shown dwarfed against the mighty slabs of Milanese modernism whilst she hugs a lost child, encounters drunks and then breaks up a fight only to have to flee from the amorous victor.

She is “lost” too and returns to the area where she and Giovanni used to live when she sacrificed her privileged comfort in exchange for life with a struggling artist. As she watches youths firing rockets Giovanni sleeps in their apartment…. the day’s events have exhausted him or perhaps he has nothing better to do.

Silence in the library
He is shown impassive and emotionless against shelves heaving with thousands of books – so much knowledge but what does he really understand?

Lidia has reached the suburb of Sesto San Giovanni and calls Giovanni from a run-down café. He drives out and the couple share brief memories of this place where their relationship grew.

Back in their flat they debate whether to go to the party of Mr Gherardini (Vincenzo Corbella) a wealthy industrialist who has taken an interest: “every millionaire wants an intellectual, he chose you” says Lidia.

Giovanni and Lidia react in different ways
En route the couple attend a strange cabaret featuring two lithe black dancers in an overtly sexualised performance. With the backing of a modern jazz band, the girl performs amazing contortions with a full wine glass… Giovanni is unmoved, prompting Lidia to joke about having “a  thought…”

The couple arrive at Gherardini’s party which takes up the second half of the film and is a tour de force which took 35 nights of filming to complete. A series of hard night’s days...

Small talk
The party seems to be in constant motion with the guests barely establishing contact before moving on to something new. An old friend of Lidia’s is there – tremendously wealthy and incredibly bored. Her old life…

Gherardini has Giovanni shown around – he’s too busy to do it himself – and he encounters a woman who seems to prefigure the film’s possible ending when she talks about wanting to read a story of a marriage break-up with a woman sacrificing her own happiness for her husband’s future with a younger woman. But it’s not to be that simple.

A new game
Giovanni encounters Gherardini’s daughter Valentina (Monica Vitti) a 22-year old woman who his intellectual but un-focused, reading “improving” books, attempting her own prose yet happier playing a game of push-compact on the floor. Giovanni joins in but withdraws after their game has attracted the attention of other guests and high stakes.

Lidia looks on as Giovanni kisses Valentina
The night draws on and Lidia phones the hospital to find that Tomasso has died. Ashe falls back in desperation and is sparked into driving off with a racing driver who has pursued her, Roberto (Giorgio Negro). She wants to negate her feelings and the two are shown in silhouette driving slowly through the pouring rain… shared laughter in a thoughtless visceral encounter.

Slow drive in the rain...
But, as Giovanni’s attempts to pursue and conquer Valentina, Lidia cannot complete her infidelity and returns to the house.

Valentina helps her dry off and the two share a complicit understanding of the situation emphasised by Giovanni’s appearance at the bedroom door as they discuss matters with a directness beyond him in spite of all the verbal dexterity at his disposal.

In the end Valentina is left “exhausted” by both of them as they leave… bound together still in their silence. They are far too complicated for her to deal with.

Exhausting company...
Lidia asks to go for a walk and the couple wander onto a golf course as the film’s pivotal moment approaches… What remains of their love and are they now merely “in pity” along with the protagonists in L’Aventurra? Giovanni just can’t meet with Lidia on the same emotional terms and he tries to submerge rational debate beneath a thoughtless moment of carnal abandon?

As in the earlier film we are left with ambiguity… there’s the possibility that the marriage will continue and there’s even the chance that it may be saved. Tomasso’s illness has thrown them both into crisis what will remain for them after the shock of grief has passed.

Giovanni forgets...
Giovanni is ready to turn down the offer of lucrative work as Gherardini’s PR guru and so hasn’t given up on breaking through his block. Lidia repeats over and again that she doesn’t love Giovanni anymore and asks him to say the same… if it matters to her it means that she has doubts…


The three main leads are superb, Mastroianni rescues his Giovanni from being a hateful self-obsessed phoney by investing just enough spark and the occasional sliver of genuine feeling – why does he seek Valentina so readily? Is she the part of Lidia he wants to re-connect with?

Monica Vitti is excellent as the conflicted young intellectual, robbed of any drive or direction by the extreme wealth of her parents. She has tried to create but is happier playing childish games. She baulks at coming between the married couple and in the end you feel she has been abused by them both in their struggle to connect.

Jeanne Moreau
But it is Jeanne Moreau who is at the centre of things, her Lidia being a painful portrayal of a woman in early mid-life crisis, confronted by the death of a man who loved her and the disinterest of the man she gave up her position and privilege to support. Tomasso loved her unconditionally and encouraged her to develop but he was suffocating and she took greater strength from Giovanni’s self-interest.

Yet this once-reassuring trait has isolated them both and she mourns the loss of the man who loved her as she loved Giovanni.

The Masters of Cinema transfer is superb and much better than the previous DVD I’d seen. There’s no commentary but an extensive booklet from the aforementioned Mr Stevens and a long interview with Antonioni from 1961.

I'd buy you all a copy but you probably already have it...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Epic tableau… The Last Days of Pompeii (1913)

Let's be honest, some pre-war films can be a touch… challenging. You don’t always get whisked away by the magic and forget that you’re watching a hundred-year-old film and one that might, actually, just be bad.
It’s supremely condescending to not expect a film of any vintage to entertain and to move you: the techniques may have changed but people haven’t and neither has the drama.

Ultimi giorni di Pompeii, Gli  was directed by Eleuterio Rodolfi and Mario Caserini, who also wrote the screenplay based on the famous novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. It is one of the last great “tableau” films, so called as they consisted of a series of, often quite intricate, single takes using a largely static camera.

Fernanda Negri Pouget, Ubaldo Stefani and Vitale Di Stefano
Caserini and Rodolfi’s stretch the possibilities of this form to the limit with supreme invention and clever direction that makes the most of elaborate mis-en-scene along with some huge outdoor set pieces. Needless to say, there’s also an actual cast of thousands… gladiators, lions and horses and an exploding mountain.

It is not the breakthrough of the following year’s Cabiria but it must have been one of the pinnacles of this particular form, three years after the stunning L’Inferno raised Italian film's level of ambition many notches higher.

Eugenia Tettoni Fior
Rather than the relatively static camera giving rise to only surface involvement from the viewer, the depth of field and character choreography sucks you into this world of masters, slaves, witches and bad haircuts…

The story revolves around Glaucus (Ubaldo Stefani) – one of Pompeii’s most eligible, who opens the film walking down the main street with his friend Claudius (Vitale Di Stefano). They are chatted to by a couple of young ladies but Glaucus only has eyes for Jone (Eugenia Tettoni Fior) one of the city’s great beauties.

We are shown exterior shots of the two lovers enjoying a picnic in the lagoon but they are observed from the shore by Arbace, Egyptian High Priest (Antonio Grisanti) who, when not plotting to increase the popularity of Isis and other “new” Egyptian gods, is trying to force Jone into his arms… by foul means or fair.

Against this upper-class backdrop is introduced, a poor blind girl, Nidia (Fernanda Negri Pouget, who maintains her eyes in an excruciating upward tilt for the whole film… method miming!). She sells flowers when she isn’t slaving away at one of the local taverns.

More jealousy...
Glaucus, appalled at her miss-treatment, rescues her and buys her from the landlord. He sets her up as a handmaiden in his splendid villa... a very mixed blessing as it turns out.

Nidia falls very quickly for her rescuer but she’s quickly in misery following a visit from his true love… and we see her agonising against the curtains while Glaucus and Jone make love down stage.

We know who Jone would rather be with...
But all is not clear in love and Arbace summons Jone to pay homage to Isis at the temple. He tries to force her obedience and a striking split screen shows her torment as Arbace stands over her convinced he’s won whilst she imagines her happy day on the boat with Glaucus.

But Jone is saved by the intervention of Apoecides (Cesare Gani Carini), a Disciple of Arbace who doubts his master’s sincerity. Arabace swears revenge…

Nidia follows Jone and Glaucus
Back at Glaucus’ villa, the lovers re-unite and walk through the dusk pursued by a forlorn Nidia – great camerawork here as the directors shoot against the setting sun.

Nidia goes to Arabace for help – surely a love potion can help win her the heart of her master? Seeing a way of killing two birds with one stone, the priest makes plans…

Caught in the storm
Glaucus and Jone go walking on the slopes of Vesuvius and are forced to seek shelter with a mountain witch after a fierce storm breaks. The old crone is helpful until Glaucus kills her pet lizard mistakenly thinking it was about to bite Jone…no mammals were harmed in the making of this film but the reptile wasn't so fortunate.

After they have left, Arabace arrives looking for that love potion and the aggrieved witch concocts a brew that will rob Glaucus of all reason…

The scene of the crime...
Nidia duly delivers the potion but is appalled to see how it drives Glaucus mad… he runs off in terror and is framed by Arabace for the murder of his troublesome sceptic, Apoecides. Unable to think straight, Glaucus cannot defend himself against the charges and as Arabace has locked up Nidia, the only witness who “saw” what actually happened, he looks doomed.

He is duly sentenced to death in the Coliseum whilst Nidia rots away in her dark cell… is all hope lost?

A cast of thousands....
Rodolfi and Caserini make great play of the Coliseum and really show how inadequate the term “tableau” is for this film as a casts of thousands teams around a convincing replica stadium, welcoming gladiators and horsemen. Arabace is shown in the VIP area, celebrating his impending victory…

It's never over till the final whistle...
Spoilers ahead… As you’d expect, things are about to be interrupted by an unavoidable geological event. Before the volcano goes off though, the resourceful Nidia is able to trick her way to freedom and enlist Claudius to clear his friend’s name. But, just as he points the finger at Arabace… the sky turns red and priorities shift.

Nidia imprisoned
Here again, the directors, belie the limitations of their form by cutting quickly from scenes of escalating chaos on set to actual volcanic hillsides. Convincing scale models erupt over head as the cast run wild.
Amongst it all justice is done and our heroes are lead to a sea-borne escape by the blind girl who can see just as well in the volcanic gloom as in daylight…

Chaos erupts
I enjoyed this film far more than I expected and was impressed with the way Rodolfi and Caserini made the absolute most of what was possible. Within a year there was Cabiria and the camera has never stopped moving since, but this film was a significant step forward in terms of movement within the field of focus as well as the ability to translate an epic novel onto screen.

Eugenia Tettoni Fior menaced by Antonio Grisanti
The actors perform well if not as naturalistically as say contemporary Danish performers (or Gish and Pickford for that matter…) with only Antonio Grisanti taking the villainy a bit over the top. Otherwise Ubaldo Stefani makes for a likable hero (in spite of his challenging haircut), Eugenia Tettoni Fior has Romanesque elegance and Fernanda Negri Pouget convinces as the blind heroin who's love transcends her own needs.

I watched the Kino DVD which is available direct as well as Rakuten and, yes from those tax-avoiding Amazonians.

The End