Saturday, 17 August 2019

Boxing match… Early Women Film Makers, BFI Blu-ray release

‘There is nothing connected with staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.’ Alice Guy Blaché

Like London buses, you wait years for a box set of early women film pioneers and then four of them arrive almost all at once. This BFI set is the latest and for those wondering which to buy I’m here to make the case for this over Flicker Alley, Lobster and even Kino Lorber, although in the latter case you really should buy both with the caveat that the Blu-ray version, which has the most content, is Region A and you'll need a compatible player.

Making an American Citizen (1912), unique to the BFI set
The Kino set is six Blu-ray discs and, of course, has a greater range of material than the others but it dovetails pretty well with the BFI set and together they give you 8-9 discs of unique, must have, material from an era that is only now being fully rediscovered. Even in the span of my relatively recent interest in early film, the directors in this set have been re-evaluated with pioneers like Guy Blaché and hugely popular filmmakers like Lois Webber been restored to their rightful position. There are some great films on these sets and they help to broaden our appreciation of the new media as one not just dominated by Méliès, Griffith, de Mille et al.

Kino goes long on Alice Guy Blaché with 14 films from 1911 to 1913 of which the BFI replicates five and adds two, Making an American Citizen (1912) and The Girl in the Armchair (1912). Only Flicker Alley covers her earlier work with Les Chiens Savants (1902), Une Histoire roulante (1906) and La Barricade (1907).

Guy Blaché's utterly lovely Falling Leaves (1912)
Guy Blaché pretty much invented narrative film making as Pamela Hutchinson explains in her essay in the excellent BFI booklet which also allows the contributors to comment on each film. There are two films not covered on Kino, Making an American Citizen (1912) and The Girl in the Armchair (1912) with the former taking the director’s experience of immigration and turning it into a proto-feminist fable. As PH notes, equality in marriage is a condition of acceptance in the new country, and the heroine, played by Blanche Cornwall, sees her husband Ivan abandon his domineering Euro-bullying to fit in with the New World after various American men step in to force him to adjust his behaviour.

It’s not just the fact of these films but their themes; there is a different sensibility at work and a willingness to tackle subjects from within rather from on high (and yes, DW, I’m looking at you).

Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern in The Blot (1921)
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the films of Lois Webber whose work often contains a depth and intimacy that others lack. The BFI set includes The Blot (1921) which is not only one of her best but also one of the most impressive character-based dramas from the period, its tale of bourgeois poverty trap, neighbourly jealousy and conflicted love delivered by superb performances especially from Webber discovery Claire Windsor as the librarian at the centre of a love triangle between an educated but poor theology student and a wealthy Phil West played by Louis Calhern (who I’ve just seen in the BFI’s smashing restoration of Notorious (1946)). Her mother is also well played by Margaret McWade who hangs on in quiet desperation as the family suffers daily humiliation from their immigrant neighbours who make a healthy living through trade. There’s no right or wrong to either side and Webber’s take is sophisticated to stand the test of time better than Griffith’s Victorian morality tales.

Triangulated tension - Lois top right in Suspense (1913)
Webber tackles social issues with an even-handedness that eludes many and Discontent (1916) about an old man who is happier in his old soldiers’ home than with his well-intentioned relations, is another example. Her technical skill and innovation are also evidenced by a crisp restoration of the superb Suspense (1913) famous for its three-way split screen and overhead point-of-view shots: it’s a genuinely pioneering and tense story of home invasion on a par with anything coming out of Biograph.

Kino has 13 Lois Webber films including noteworthy features such as Too Wise Wives (1921), Hypocrites (1915) and Where Are My Children? (1916) yet, apart from the spectacular Suspense (1913), the BFI disc alone includes Discontent (1916) and The Blot (1921). I’m beginning to suspect collusion…

Here's Mabel!
The BFI set gives you by far the most Mabel for your money with five films of which Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913, 14 mins), His Trysting Place (1914, 22 mins) and the magnificent late period riot Should Men Walk Home? (1928, 28 mins) are unique to the BFI set. Mabel’s a marvel and I especially enjoy the rawness and energy of her work with Chaplin in Trysting and Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). Mabel directed the former and, probably, co-directed the second which sees Charlie progress from irresponsible parent to slightly chastened – and battered – husband; these two were making up so much content on the hoof and had improvisation to burn.

Mabel’s adventures are also marvellously accompanied by the Meg Morley Trio who’s tight, jazz-age playing catches the mood and movement of Mabel’s quicksilver narratives.

That's not how we rehearsed it Charlie...
None of the material on the third and fourth BFI discs is available on the Kino set and one of the main delights is a film from Olga Preobrazhenskaya, regarded as the first female Soviet filmmaker. Kat Ellinger’s essay reveals that little is known about the director and that whilst many of her films are lost, what survives reveals a concern for character over propaganda even though the film included here, The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) could be seen as an attack on the Kulaks (rich peasants) who were viewed as in the way of industrialisation/modernisation by  Stalin’s regime.

The Kulak in question is Vasilii Shironin (Kuzma Yastrebitsky) who allows his son, Ivan (G Bobynin) to marry Anna (R Pruzhnaya) a poor girl from the neighbouring village, only to rape her when he is away in the First World War. Anna has her father-in-law’s baby but has to live in disgrace with the village not knowing the cause of her shame. Shironin’s daughter, Vasilisa, (Emma Tsesarskaya) is the face of the new Russian woman, forging her own destiny by deciding who she marries and setting up an orphanage.

Damned by tradition and a Kulak's greed (R Pruzhnaya)
Even as the villain of the piece, Shironin has shame and regret and there’s a lot going on in a narrative that is true to itself and not just instructions from on high. There are some superb sequences of rural life showing the vibrancy of a culture that was under threat even just over a decade after the story was set. The performances are also excellent especially from R Pruzhnaya as the long-suffering Anna and from Emma Tsesarskaya as the modern Vasilisa. Ellinger has this as a feminist film but sadly things were to get worse in the ensuing decade and beyond.

The face of the future? Emma Tsesarskaya's character makes her own decisions.
Over in France, Germaine Dulac and Marie-Louise Iribe were to be allowed considerably more creative freedom. The former is of course well known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), which deals so eloquently with the lot of many French women, a “key feminist text” as Jane Giles points out in her notes for a country which didn’t grant universal suffrage until 1945. Dulac’s range encompassed more regular fare such as La Cigarette (1919) in which a jealous archaeologist and older husband Pierre (Gabriel Signoret) plans on using a poisoned cigarette as revenge on his younger wife Denise (Andrée Brabant), who he suspects of wandering. It’s a stylish and good-looking romantic comedy – lovely locations along with well-designed interiors and there’s a great performance from an Egyptian mummy too…

Some fairies, yesterday
Marie-Louise Iribe has already made a stylish impression on me in Hara-Kiri (1928) which she co-directed with Henri Debain’s and in Le Roi des aulnes (1929), her only film as sole director, she proves to have an uncanny style all her own. Based on Goethe’s poem Erlkönig (1782) and Shubert’s song of 1815, it features a father battling through a forest to take his sick son to a doctor. The two confront all manner of imagined horrors in the deep woods as the Erl King magics up fairies to obstruct their purpose, as if the illness wasn’t real enough…

Last but not least is The Woman Condemned (1934), an early talkie from Dorothy Davenport also known as Mrs Wallace Reid, wife of the film actor who died from drug addiction in 1923, who was determined that his death would not be in vain and that she would fulfil her own ambitions. Ellen Cheshire’s essay details Davenport Reid’s determined creative drive after being widowed as she wrote, produced and directed films with a social conscience. She transitioned to sound films and The Woman Condemned, an entertaining but over-worked and under-budgeted crime film that features an outstanding cross-examination scene with Claudia Dell giving her all.

Under pressure: Claudia Dell
Cheshire quotes Ivan Spear in Boxoffice (13th May 1939wondering why so few women ‘attain high production or executive niches in the [film] industry and, further, why those few women who have done so have failed to stay at the top’. Davenport Reid was one of those who he said had “dropped from sight” but she continued working as a scriptwriter into the fifties and deserves to be remembered as a filmmaker in her own right and not just a widow.

The set also includes a snippet from Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance (1940) along with Mary Ellen Bute’s experimental Parabola (1937). There are also three short featurettes on Mabel Normand, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber: fascinating lives and there’s a lot more to come in their rehabilitation as all the essays make clear.

Smoking is bad for the health...
I’ll leave the last word to Germaine Dulac writing in ‘Ayons la Foi’ Le Film (1919):
‘The time has come, I believe, to listen in silence to our own song, to try to express our own personal vision, to define our own sensibility, to make our own way. Let us learn to look, let us learn to see, let us learn to feel.’

The BFI set is full of these “songs” and it’s essential for all who want to listen. Available now from the BFI Shop on and offline.

The Kino-Lorber set is also available direct from their site and a reminder that it is Region A so you'll need multi-region capability.  It features a mind-boggling range of filmakers including Nell Shipman, Alla Nazimova (Salome in great quality!), Ida May, Julia Crawford Ivers, Frances Marion - her feature Song of Love (1923), starring Norma Talmadge - serial queens, Grace Cunard and Helen Holmes and more (two silent features from Dorothy Davenport Reid!). There's a 40% discount at the moment and together with the BFI set, this wonderful box set opens up a whole new-old world of cinematic and social history.

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