Saturday, 30 January 2016

Happy families… La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Sometimes the manners of a hundred years just drop away and you simply see.

This film plays with your expectations and the outcome we anticipate is quite different from the one we get - such is our (my) complacency and Germaine Dulac’s genius. The director took Denys Amiel’s play of a marriage being slowly strangulated by a careless male becalmed by middle age routine and turned it into a meditation on woman’s capacity for quiet desperation: one almost without ending… It would be funnier if it didn't feel quite so true.

Hanging on... desperate
Germaine Dermoz is Madame Beudet who does indeed smile fairly often: out of acceptance, the sheer agony of her boorish husband’s humour, her lack of freedom, the absence of love and the impossibility of ever finding it and, ultimately, her own decisions…

There’s a vase of flowers on the central table in their drawing room. Madame positions it right of centre near the edge whilst Monsieur always moves it to the obvious centre. This is all things in their marriage which has been panel-beaten into rigid conformity by a husband (Alexandre Arquillière) who actively seeks out only more of the same ignoring the impact of diminishing returns by forcing himself to laugh louder.

Go ahead punk, make my day...
In mock despair, he feigns to commit suicide – what a card – by holding an empty revolver to his temple if his wife disagrees with him. He wants to go to watch Faust (the opera, it's a few years too early for Murnau’s silent version, which I would urge Madame to drop everything to see…) yet his wife refuses, preferring to play her piano, read or re-position the flower pot.

Their friends arrive and pressure is repeatedly applied – including the gun act – but she is not for turning. Mean old man that he is though, he locks the piano lid down if she is not joining in then she shall have nothing.

The friends, Monsieur (Jean d'Yd) and Madame Labas (Madeleine Guitty) are clearly as much in sympathy as her husband and the latter’s angled disregard says all you need to know about her view of Madame Beudet’s fashions.

The long suffering Madame B is at home when her husband initially returns and begins the process of setting his house in order. He sits at his commanding desk ordering the servants around and taking care of important matters whilst his wife tries to read a book.

She had been playing Debussy and was in a world of pastoral escape, with a gentle breeze accentuating the slivers of sunlight on the long grass near some imagined pool. Dulac compares the motion of her hands on the piano with her husband’s graceless shuffling of business correspondence.
She reads a magazine and imagines a hunky tennis player running to her relief and yet thoughts of her husband crash in on the reverie and fragile invention is rudely dissipated…

He’s a menace and in her desperation she takes the bullets from the left-hand drawer and loads them into the gun in the right-hand drawer – his fail-safe method of ensuring the gun is never loaded has been removed and the next time he pulls the trigger the joke will be on him.

Yet Madame B is no killer and tries very hard to empty the gun… only to be thwarted by too many people popping up in the wrong place. Husband duly arrives home ready to begin his boorish routines… it could be the death of him but there's a narrow escape.

In many such plays a dramatic incident serves to bring the wayward couple back together again but not here where his complete misunderstanding of what has just happened only makes matters worse. She looks pleadingly to the Heavens – possibly with murder on her mind and certainly with the knowledge that she is trapped – damned as sure as any caged bird to a long and tedious demise.

Germaine Dermoz
Dulac directs with impressionist invention and allows the settings to define Madame’s prison: outside there are beautiful streets and waterways whilst she is confined by role and situation to a life in which even art is an irritation. There are no title cards to directly reflect the characters' inner turmoil only the visual clues - the perfect capture of thought on silent screen.

The film is available as part of an ARTE DVD Germaine Dulac (1922-1928) - Drei Filme der französischen Stummfilm-Pionierin and can also be found on YouTube complete with a dreamily-anxious score from Manfred Knaak and played by the Kontraste Ensemble.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Slapstick and Bristol fashion… The Kid (1921), Colston Hall, Slapstick Festival Day Two

There was a moment during this gala screening when I looked along the line to see the faces of my family lit up with smiles. Both generations had already been laughing at Buster Keaton chased by hundreds of cops and Charley Chase pursuing a woman he doesn’t know is his wife but then Charlie Chaplin comes along to offer something more complex: a comedy about poverty, loss and fragile chance.

If Charlie had been set a test to cope with this scenario without being mawkish… he couldn’t have passed it better. The Kid is a sentimental film but Chaplin steers perfectly clear of the obvious dangers and those moments, and there are those moments, when the emotionalism is switched dangerously high, are handled with exquisite ease. There's a look between mighty five-year old Jackie Coogan and his surrogate father that is searing and not soppy. It is the look of a man who knows parental loss and a supernatural performance from young Jackie.

But then... there is a dream of a dog flying on angel wings as Charlie and his angels fly around the Slums of Heaven with manic abandon. It comes just at the right moment in the film a sequence designed to undermine overt sentimentality.  So, right back 'atcha 21st Century Cynics: this is mad fun and our Charlie deliberately flies towards the Sun on waxen feather wings but he doesn’t crash or burn he glides straight to the heart of funny.

I’d never seen The Kid, on purpose, holding off for a live screening and tonight the Colston Hall, the Bristol Ensemble, ably conducted by Timothy Brock and the fulsome support of an open-minded and good-humoured Bristol audience delivered wonderfully well.

If today’s sessions at the Slapstick Festival proved one thing it is that watching comedy is always – always – better as a group exercise. Live music creates new connections with the films and a joke shared is often laughter squared.

In the splendid, care-worn, space of the Colston Hall, the European Silent Film Ensemble played along to Keaton’s massed Cops (1922) and Charley Chase’ Mighty Like a Moose (1926) – what a title! Then came the main feature with the Ensemble playing the UK premier of Charlie’s own score, conducted by Mr Brock.

The most striking thing about the main feature is how cinematic the writer, director and star’s vision was. The film is told with supreme economy - a narrative that could be convoluted and strained is perfectly paced and key moments fall as lightly as feather’s dropped from dog angel’s wings…

The performance of Coogan is like that of a man four times his age – his father was on hand to help gear him up for the emotional moments but he winked at Charlie and told him he knew what he was doing. Edna Purviance as the mother who gains a career and loses her child, shows just why Chaplin rated her so highly whilst Chaplin himself is not the focus of the film you might expect – he’s almost ever-present but is smart enough to under play and generous enough to let the other leads and some super support actors take the limelight.

Compere Robin Ince had said he’d once been asked to write an article on whether Charlie was still funny: his response was that it could be a very short piece beginning “Yes…”. Of course he is, and my family and the two thousand-strong audience proved it.

The Colston Hall
This was my first day at the Slapstick Festival – now in its 12th year – and it was a rewarding one – work commitments meant I missed out on the opening day a mistake I won't make next year!

I arrived left foot still hot from the M4, just in time to see David Robinson’s session on Mack Sennett – a man who made over a thousand films and who brought so many talented comedians to screen. Robinson focused on “four and a half” plus a few more…

Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand
First up was Mack himself in heavy disguise playing a French interior designer (of sorts) intent on delivering the eponymous item in D. W. Griffith’s A Curtain Pole (1909) – Dutch Talmadge’s  climactic chariot charge from Intolerance clearly had its origins here although she never worked out how to put the horse into reverse.

Then we had marvellous Mabel Normand bouncing her way through a choice of racers in The Speed Kings (1913) with “father” Ford Sterling trying to force her to choose his favourite for some un-specified reason. Everything feels improvised but Sennett films the - actual – races very well. He learned with DWG at Biograph and knew how to throw a film together, ad hoc and energised thanks to his dynamic performers.

Charlie as a Cop: Ford's not in this one as well?!
We had the one and only glimpse of Charlie Chaplin as a Keystone Cop in A Thief Catcher (1914) again featuring Ford Sterling – David Robinson warned that it wasn’t the best film but conceded that John Sweeney’s piano improvisations turned it into something more: audience plus expert live accompaniment equals pure joy!

Don’t Weaken (1920) again featured Ford Sterling just as I had probably seen enough of the ham of the hour but this was a different side to Sterling who played a convincingly-graceful dance teacher trying to impress newly-enriched Charles Murray’s daughter played by Harriet Hammond. The two men box and Murray is getting pasted until the Dancing Master is distracted by Harriet’s pins. Way more sophisticated than Benny Hill.

Hurry up Harry... 
Finally there was Harry Langdon in His Marriage Wow (1925) with the deeply-unsettling Vernon Dent as A Pessimist - Prof. Looney McGlumm trying to dissuade him from marrying Nathalie Kingston. I’m still haunted by Dent’s soul-sucking stare of disapproval…

Next up was a session on writer Anita Loos from Lucy Porter who bounded on stage with all the energy of a Mabel Normand clutching a handful of written notes and Loos’ two autobiographies. Loos played fast and, er, loose with the facts but was spot-on viscous in her observations on contemporaries – especially poor Norma Shearer.

Anita... there's one huge flaw in your argument...
 In her defence, Anita could be just as hard on herself plus she could write! We watched The New York Hat (1912) with accompaniment from harpist, Elizabeth – Jane Baldry who played in complete sympathy with the emotional cadence of Mary Pickford’s performance – I’ve never been so shocked by a father’s demolition of a feathered hat.

Then we were treated to the inexplicable The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) written by Tod Browning with intertitles by Anita Loos. Here again the redemptive power of a comedy audience was proved as – having previously been a bit Home Counties about the drug taking, I just saw  a stoner comedy performed with self-depreciating zest by Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love as the little fish blower…

Coke Ennyday's on the case!
Only Fairbanks could possibly follow that and so he did in Wild and Woolly (1917) written by Anita Loos and directed by her water-carrying husband-to-be John Emerson and filmed by some bloke called Victor Fleming.

It is a splendid romp about a rich boy wannabe cowboy who gets sent out to scope out an investment opportunity for his pa. The western townsfolk get wind of the greenhorn’s delusions and make like it’s 1880 all over… Plans are set to entertain his fantasy with a train robbery and an Indian uprising but soon the fake bullets turn real and, delightfully, Doug turns out to be just as brave as he wants to be…

Tip of the ten gallon hat to Mr Sweeney – westerns must be murder on the keyboards with the relentless rhythm of trains and horses always interrupted by contrapuntal gun fights and saloon brawls!

Then came the evening and the pun-fight at the Colston Hall…

Cops on the run
Buster’s Cops! (1922) was a massed symphony of un-policed chaos that builds exponentially towards one of the most existentially bleak comedy climaxes in silent film.

But then what could be more post-structurally challenging than the battle Charley Chase has with himself in Mighty like a Moose (1926)… one to watch our Charley: a reputation on the rise!

The Mooses: Vivien Oakland and Charley Chase
Superb accompaniment was provided by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi comprised of Gaunter a Buchwald on piano and violin, Romina Todisco on double bass and Frank Blockhouse on percussion.

There was also a surprise appearance from St Helen’s favourite son (sorry Johnny), Bernie Clifton who, in the spirit of Slapstick, not only showed that comedy is for life and not just Christmas (he’s 79) but also sang Charlie’s Smile – two minutes in which the World slowed and Chaplin again reminded us that humour is often the only hope we have.

The Slapstick Festival continues until 25th but watch their website for 2017…

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Smooth criminal… The Rat (1925), Kennington Bioscope with Cyrus Gabrysch

The year is now officially underway with the first Bioscope of 2016 and what a grand way to start with a rarely-seen British thriller featuring one of our leading men, Ivor Novello, a striking young man who for those unfamiliar is not unlike a leaner Valentino.

Novello co-wrote the script and the original stage play with Constance Collier and starred in both along with two no doubt smashing sequels - The Triumph of the Rat (1926) and The Return of the Rat (1929). This is the kind of character Hitchcock was casting in The Lodger – a contemporary leading man without peer in the UK and with a refined dramatic style that reflected a supernatural wit.

The Jeans Genie and the Thin White Duke
Directed by Graham Cutts, who enjoyed a long career from silents like The White Shadow to Three Men in a Boat (1933) and Aren’t Men Beasts! (1937), The Rat is highly stylised:  part crime caper/part love story. Crime for love’s sake, money for art’s sake… even when forced to share his last bacon rasher, The Rat still prefers to return stolen items as if the thieving of them has not satisfied him enough.

Novello prowls the opening sequences with delicious intent, Top Cat more than King Rat, breaking hearts for a living whilst being looked after by the steadfast Odile Etrange played by Mae Marsh – with whom he’d been in a DW Griffith film the previous year. He’d played a conflicted preacher, Joseph Beaugarde in The White Rose but here as Pierre Boucheron, The Rat, he has no qualms to slow down his criminal style.

 The Rat is at ease with himself, equally adept at making women fall for him as he is at throwing his cap and dagger at the wall in order to create an instant hat stand – that’s a trick for me to work on in our hallway… We first see him on the run from the police, hiding under a man-hole as they stand overhead, unaware enough for him to slice the shoelaces off one man’s shoe.

He frequents a lively nightclub called the White Coffin Club where the prevailing ethos seems to be burning out before fading away… and where the coffin-shaped doorways and general décor are simply to die for…  The redoubtable Marie Ault is superb as Mère Colline, the WCC’s mistress of ceremonies whilst the striking Julie Suedo as Mou Mou is one of Rat’s former lovers, scrapping with other contenders and ripping her skirt to dance a dirty tango with our anti-hero.

The White Coffin Club: check out the coffin-shaped doors
 Cutts' direction involves a good deal of fluid camera movement and this is seen especially well in the Club as Hal Young’s camera darts to specific characters to focus attention and to show the dimensions of their own dangerous movements – the knife fight between Rat and a jealous competitor and the dance with Mou Mou. Young had previously worked in the USA whilst Cutts had spent time in German studios and, in addition to the movement, there is some fine chiaroscuro lighting – shadows falling all too easily over Ivor’s fine-lines - a face that wasn’t made for feeding: cheekbones so sharp they could cut people dead.

Julie Suedo as Mou Mou
The editing is also cute, assured enough to allow conclusions to be reached before narrative explanation is required. Mou Mou rows with Rose (Iris Grey) and the cut goes nonchalantly from their staring each other out to a medium range shot of a tussle on the floor: this is not called the White Coffin Club for nothing. Rose fights with another ex-suitor and the object of their affection forces them to kiss and make up on the floor… there’s some frankly Germanic stuff going down.

Elsewhere there is grander entertainment as rich manipulator Herman Stetz (Robert Scholtz) treats his much younger lady friend Zélie de Chaumet (Isabel Jeans) to some culture. The dance sequences are spectacular and well filmed. Zélie is a thrill-seeker, slightly bored with it all but little does she know that her purse has just been appropriated from under her bored nose by the notorious Rat…

Stetz and his young squeeze...
Meanwhile Stetz is investigating the Coffin Club as a venue to stimulate her interest, he swans in trying to own the place but is eventually re-buffed by the smarter moves of The Rat. Undeterred he directs his aide to bring Zélie and her party: this is just the kind of decadence she will love.

Zélie arrives and duly becomes captivated by the dark-eyed, flop-fringed smooth criminal and the two engage in a middle-distance flirt off, he preening, she seething, especially after dropping her hankie and giving the biggest sequence of come-hithers imaginable. Eventually the irresistible object succumbs to irresistible force and there will be trouble ahead.

Zélie and The Rat
Meanwhile… Mae Marsh is fretting away in the background and steadfastly looking after Rat. She even takes his flick-knife to the Coffin Club where she draws the attention of Stetz… there are some uncomfortable moments between the two – is she an abused heading inevitably to another abuser – more specifically an actual, physical abuser rather than someone who just takes her for granted.

The second half of the film begins to play these themes out and is less entertaining than the more light-hearted first. In what has time and again been described as a period of stylistic struggle for domestic film, The Rat proved that our sense of humour and irony was a feature of our silent cinema and this was much appreciated by a full-house audience of considerable demographic diversity – I swear some of the denizens of the White Coffin Club may have dropped in for the night…

Odile and her Rat
As our four protagonists cross-partner, the dangers become acute and Odile’s selflessness threatens not just liberty but her life as well… Can The Rat save her; can he save even himself?!

Cyrus Gabrysch played some wonderfully fluid lines alongside the film and had a ball with Novello’s musicality: there’s a reason the songwriter’s best moments are in a nightclub.

Down in the sewers...
Tonight’s under-card was a diverse treat from an intriguing last surviving reel of a Danish gothic thriller, The House of Fatal Love 1919) featuring one of my favourites, Clara Pontoppidan, in flash-back being bricked in by an enraged lover whose read too much Edgar Allen Poe. Then there was A Trip to the White Sea Fisheries (1909), Joseph Rosenthal’s astonishing footage of the North Sea fishing fleet which shows the perfect storms the fishermen faced and yet amidst all the everyday dangers they still find time to muck about, throwing the day’s catch at each other and bobbing for apples whilst tied upside down (just wait for next Halloween!).

In keeping with tonight’s theme there was also Alice Rattled by Rats, a 1925 Disney cartoon featuring a live action Alice, dozens of dirty rats and Julius the Cat (Felix’s cousin?). Top Cat John Sweeney played along before rushing off to Bristol for more slapstick than you can shake a stick at!

Waiting for The Man?

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Boys keep swinging… Departure of a Great Old Man (1912)

“… this mad luxury in the midst of unnecessary need and penury…”

Leo Tolstoy died on 20th November 1910 at Astapovo train station after fleeing from his family and specifically his controlling wife Sofia. He had renounced his aristocratic privilege and spent his time on the train explaining the principle of Georgism to fellow passengers: the product of the land should be shared by all who lived and worked on it – a utopian hope for a society divided like no other.

The Departure of a Great Old Man (1912) - co-directed with Elizaveta Thiemann – was Yakov Protazanov’s fourth film and rather primitive in comparison with The Queen of Spades (1916) and the spectacular Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). But this was something different, an attempt at capturing the news, featuring actual locations and, even the subject’s corpse lying in state at the end.

Tolstoy's thoughts are with the rural poor
The film was banned in Russia with Sofia taking exception to her portrayal as a greedy, domineering aristo but it was welcomed elsewhere.  Tolstoy is treated as a man more sinned against than sinning and wandering alone a prophet without honour in his own home, greeted in heaven by Jesus in a most unexpected manner – we’re still a long way from 1917 although Protazanov was one of the few directors to return to films post-revolution.

But what can you make of his motives in producing a film in such haste just a year or so after Tolstoy’s death – a tribute yes, but also an attack against the family that held him back in his radical final months. That said, film historian Ian Christie talks about Protazanov’s “ability to seize on the topical or the scandalous and intensify it to the point where it acquires a real moral significance for the audience."  Best to avoid hindsight as always in Russia but there was clearly a sense of injustice and one that didn’t stand up in court when Sofia’s challenge came.

The peasants ask Tolstoy for land
Tolstoy’s demise overlapped with Russian concerns of inequality and in this film a group of peasants comes to the great man’s house in order to ask for land. He tells them they must speak to his wife “the boss” and she quickly dismisses their claim leaving her husband in impotent despair.

According to Christie, the idea for the film came from a Tolstoy expert who based the story around this sad discord of the author’s final days at home in Iasnaia Poliana and then on his “escape”.

Vladimir Shaternikov was made up very effectively as Leo Tolstoy and this, accompanied by the location shooting added a feel of documentary realism until those closing moment of religious reconciliation for a man who had pushed the Orthodox Church pretty hard.

Domestic disharmony
After arguing with his wife about helping the peasants, Tolstoy makes a will without telling Sophia – “Let the income from my books go to the common good!” – and appoints Vladimir Chertkov (Mikhail Tamarov) as his editor.

He allows a young peasant woman to collect firewood on his land but a man on horseback hired by Sophia beats her and Tolstoy is not able to protect her. In spiritual crisis he sees a vision of a nun praying for him and makes the fateful decision to leave Iasnaia Poliana.

His daughter Sasha aka Alexandra Lvovna Tolstaya (Elizaveta Thiman) tries to persuade him to stay but he is resolved and after she tells her, Sophia pretends to commit suicide by falling down next to some water… (they really don’t like her do they!).

Meanwhile Leo visits Shamordin Monastery to see Sister Maria Nikolaevna – the woman he imagined praying for him – she seems to help as he spends time with peasant children and in the fields. The sister tries to affect reconciliation with his wife.

Tolstoy is taken ill travelling and meets his fate at Astapovo… “So, this is the end! And there is nothing!” But not in this film, as the author is met by Jesus in the clouds.

Some mean souls on the inter-web take issue with the film’s “slowness” its static camera and so on… but this was 1912 and where were you when the badges were handed out for cinematic innovation?! The industry was young in Russia and was to advance quickly with this director being one of the main shakers. He was to conduct his players with a baton – the “braking school” as it was known, in which a unity was attempted between visual design and the narrative conception.

This Old Man was a step on the way and is fascinating for the technique it does contain as well as the very notion of death observed almost in real time. Tolstoy’s body makes an appearance near the end* creating the same morbid frisson as the sight of a smiling David Bowie just days before his demise earlier this week.

For my generation and others there is no one else like David Bowie and for popular culture there has perhaps not been a bigger loss since John Lennon - things will never be quite the same again. Perhaps the same was true in Russian literature, after the loss of one of their greatest writers. To make sense of it all, it helps to reflect, especially with two men who went out still trying to make a difference in their own ways.

End of the road
This is one of the Milestone DVDs produced in the early nineties and features a young Neil Brand providing accompaniment in time-honoured fashion, skipping across the keyboard in fleet-fingered sympathy with his subject as always.

This is Volume 8 of the Early Russian Cinema series and can be ordered direct from Milestone Films here.

*From documentary footage filmed by A. Drankov

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Top cat… Tigre Reale (1916)

Is it getting hot in here? Now it’s probably the flames, lapping ever higher over the Grand Hotel Théâtre de l'Odéon but in truth it’s been getting warmer ever since the boys first noted the arrival of Pina Menichelli as Contessa Natka. As a man they turned to watch her slink out of her overcoat and address herself to the room with arched back and eyebrow, head held high to view the audience, looking through them with the superior gaze of a higher being.

Pina Menichelli
The great divas of Italian film in the teens enjoyed the male gaze and they also rose above it. This in itself might be a deliberate part of their appeal but as exploitation goes, it’s a cut above. Francesca, Lyda… they were in complete control, theatrically-experienced women of distinct presence and intellect but it’s Pina who is perhaps the most purely cinematic. Menichelli went straight to celluloid and it shows as she plays to the camera naturally filing the frame with poised elegance and an almost unconscious joy.

Their performances are like songs and only in Italy could you really get away with such melodramatic musicality and yet, always, there was Bertini’s calculated glare, Borelli’s sneering intensity and  Menichelli’s  selfless smile, to lift us above the act: artifice completely under-cut by abandon.

Giorgio is transfixed, but Pastrone shows reaction then action
Tigre Reale (The Royal Tigress) was directed by Giovanni Pastrone who brings some of Cabiria’s movement and scale although this time without the elephants. Menichelli was in that film (as was Bertini) and here she is the focus of Pastrone’s action as the married Russian Countess with a past who drives a young Italian diplomat Giorgio La Ferlita (Alberto Nepoti) to distraction in Paris.

The two’s first encounter leaves Giorgio besotted and unable to comprehend Natka's seeming indifference.  She promises him a dance – marking his card – but he looks up to see her leaving before they can meet on the dancefloor.

Giorgio is injured in a duel and receives an encouraging note from Natka to speed his recovery. A game of frustration begins before Giorgio can be certain that his feelings are reciprocated; Natka leaves just as he arrives, breaks arrangements, pulling away in her limousine just before he can reach her – she’s always just out of reach yet reaching out enough to keep him coming (we all know how that feels don’t we?).

Natka spots Giorgio in the wing mirror
Finally the two meet and Natka’s reticence is explained in a flashback – her unhappy marriage leading to a relationship with a young man named Dolski (Febo Mari) who her husband exiles to Siberia. Naturally Natka follows only to find him in the arms of another – he had given up hope yet seeing her again his love is rekindled. She, too proud to take him back, shuts him out and challenges him to demonstrate his love which he does by shooting himself making his point whilst ensuring that she loses hers.

Natka and the love of her life
Years of half-life have left her resistant to male company too afraid of finding love and now that she has she withdraws again from Giorgio and everyone else: still married and miserable she dwindles away masking her pain through self-medication.

Meanwhile Georgio lives on learning to love a new woman, the wealthy Erminia (Valentina Frascaroli). They plan to marry but at their engagement party he receives a letter from Natka… who must see him again.

"Natka's voice has something enigmatic and fatal about it..." ran the original title card
Arriving at her rooms in the Odeon, he finds her close to death, mind and body smothered in narcotic confusion, a woman who cannot live any longer. Forgetful, she drinks another few drops of morphine and collapses on her true love… overdosed and delirious, things are about to get a lot worse as fire engulfs the Odeon and her husband Count de Rancy (Gabriel Moreau), walks in only to promptly lock the lovers in.

Smoke billows, flames rise higher… is Natka even alive? Can the lovers escape… how many operas have a happy ending?? You’ll have to watch to find out.

Tigre Reale is another extraordinary tone poem from this golden age of Italian cinematic expression. It may be too emotive for some tastes and yet, once you get the style and the method it makes for captivating viewing. It’s interesting how early cinema was so clearly an extension of existing cultural styles in each country but you would expect no less with a new medium that could only be informed by theatrical method as it forged a new identity within increasingly-porous national boundaries.

Pina sets the tone
As Pastrone influenced Griffith so he too would learn new tricks from America, Germany and Sweden. But in 1916 the style was more clearly Italian! There’s some deft touches such as Natka’s point of view shot looking in her compact mirror to see Georgio moving towards her car, whilst the fire at the hotel is mirrored by the fire dance at the neighbouring theatre as the director cross-cuts between the two dramas: one real the other imagined… truth revealed in theatre.

The Fire Dance and the fire
The flashback sequence is also well handled with excellent exteriors of the sleigh ride across the snow, Natka’s rescue and the tragic circumstances of Dolski’s sad suicide. Good work from cinematographers Segundo de Chomón and Giovanni Tomatis who also allow Pastrone to combine close-ups with camera-fluidity – there is an especially impressive moment in the theatre as the view slowly reveals the stage beyond the watching countess then the audience and her distance from Giorgio.

Cinema in the theatre
It is a lovely-looking film and yet Tigre Reale is frustratingly not available on DVD although extensive segments are included in Diva Dolorosa (1999) – a compelling compilation of the diva period with snippets of Borelli, Bertini and Menichelli combined with the lesser lights of Soava Gallone and Helena Makowska and set to Loek Dikker’s swooning neo-classical score.

There are rough copies on youTube but this film deserves the same sort of attention as Sangue Blue and Ma l'amor mio non muore both of which are on DVD from Cineteca Bologna.

Diva Dolorosa is available along with Angela Dalle Vacche's excellent Diva, Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema or on its own from Amazon.

Floral fetish: Natka nibbles the flowers in her cab...