Bringing Silent Film Home

New Silent Film restorations Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Fanchon the Cricket (1915) produced by the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Flicker Alley.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney, DVD Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

‘No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.’

Herbert Howe in Photoplay, 1924.

When I look around at the brightest, most popular female stars in Hollywood today, I can think of no one you could repeat Howe’s phrase about- at least not yet, while we are in the process of reclaiming our inheritance. The more we discover about the early history of cinema, the more it seems that successive generations have been duped into believing that female roles, behind and in front of the camera, have always been secondary. Surprisingly, when the artform was still in its infancy there were many more prominent women working in the industry at all levels, including Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Nell Shipman, Dorothy Davenport, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. It shakes the contemporary view of linear progress to find examples of female stars like Pickford, with superior earning power to today, studio governance and creative control, writing, producing, acting and directing. As we grapple with the cumulative effects of gender disparity in the film industry- and the wider world, making the work of female pioneers of early cinema visible is an imperative.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 80% of all Silent Films are irretrievably lost. We can only see a mere fraction of what was created, an experience further reduced in quality by inferior online copies, which is why new restorations are so vitally important. Mary Pickford’s Silent screen career is inspirational, setting an example of what can be when women are able to shape their professions from the ground up. As a co-founder of United Artist studios with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford ‘the individual’ was blazing a trail in the motion picture industry before the studio rule book as we know it was written. She forged a career with enviable creative control as a producer, a tide now finally turning in the world of Film and TV circa 2018.

New restorations of Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket (1915) and Little Annie Rooney (1925) are very timely releases, not only in broadening our understanding of Pickford as an artist/producer, but as part of a wider reappraisal of women in film, integral in the history of World Cinema. These new deluxe, dual disc Blu-ray / DVD editions from the Mary Pickford Foundation, released by Flicker Alley, are ‘the first of a planned series of her films’ and what a delight it is to see them!  The care taken in both restorations has delivered clarity of vision, crisp tonal definition, exquisite colour tinting and a seamless flow of storytelling. Sensitively accompanied by new scores, there’s a fresh, exuberant spirit in how these films are presented, perfectly in keeping with the intelligence, empathy and wit we see in Pickford on screen. Big screen cinema/ live musical accompaniment experience aside, you won’t find a better introduction to Pickford’s work for contemporary audiences.

Annie Rooney and her gang. Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration journey is a fascinating and painstaking process. The starting point for Little Annie Rooney was ‘the original tinted nitrate print from Pickford’s personal collection at the Library of Congress, preserved photochemically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive (AMPAS). A new 35mm preservation master was scanned at 4K high definition’ to create a digital version, ‘evaluating the film frame by frame, removing dirt and other signs of deterioration to perfectly match the original nitrate tints and tones.’ Composer Andy Gladbach was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation to create a new, original soundtrack. A DVD bonus feature and article in the DVD booklet explores Gladbach’s considered approach to the score. Also included in the publication are rare, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from Little Annie Rooney in production and essays by award winning historian, documentary filmmaker and author Cari Beauchamp, enhancing appreciation of Pickford’s work.

Gladbach’s orchestration includes a variety of sound, with piano, viola, cello, bass, drums, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone and bass trombone. It’s a suitably brassy, rhythmically driven score, bringing Broadway, TV sit-com, Comic and Irish Folk melodic elements aptly into the mix for the film’s ‘downtown’ setting. There’s aural familiarity for a contemporary audience that’s an immediate bridge to the 1925 film, rather than set painting with period music. Our heroine is ‘bold’, spirited, and as she grows up during the course of the film, the music admirably follows her lead. Gladbach successfully builds momentum in alignment with the action, enhancing comedic moments and characterisation with emotive commentary from woodwind and brass. The overall effect is youthful, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable.

I first saw Little Annie Rooney on the big screen at Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017 and loved it.  It was by far the best feel good film I’d seen in a long time, from any century, and Pickford’s performance was a revelation. I immediately understood why she was so respected, adored and meteorically famous in her own time. I was also convinced that if people had the opportunity to see her work more widely, then she would have a Renaissance, inspiring future generations of filmmakers, women and introducing people to the joys and innovation of Silent Film. In many ways Little Annie Rooney is the perfect family entertainment, with more depth, diversity and heart than the standard fare. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ applies behind and in front of the camera. Pickford wrote, produced and starred, with William Beaudine directing, to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Amazingly Pickford was 33 when she played teenager Annabel (Annie) Rooney, but you’d never guess it from her inexhaustible energy on-screen. The warmth and humanity of a performance that ranges from exuberant childhood innocence to adult understanding of loss, allows the viewer to suspend any disbelief. At base, Annie is a winning character who Pickford inhabits completely, engineered in part to satisfy fans, but also extending beyond the brand of “America’s Sweetheart” or “the girl in curls.”

Pickford’s naturalism is her star quality. That every-person appeal is expanded in the central character, a daughter of Irish immigrants living in a poor neighbourhood. Annie is a strong willed, street fighting, mischievous tomboy with a fiery temper. She’s also a smart, kind and determined young woman, who rises to what the plot throws at her in the most entertaining, endearing and heartrending ways. She’s the spirited embodiment of rising above reduced circumstances, which would have struck a particular chord with audiences during the interwar period. Annie’s neighbourhood is an environment of rival gangs, poverty and crime, seen initially in child’s play battles, with every kid in the neighbourhood out pelting each other with projectiles. At one point we see Annie manoeuvring a pram from the inside like a tank, aptly accompanied by comedic, military style percussion. Although multiculturalism is seen through the lens of the day, it is unusually present at a time when on screen characters were predominantly white. In this context, Pickford’s “mini league of nations” of the playground/ inner city waste-ground, was refreshingly inclusive.

On the domestic front, the relationships between Annie and the masculine world around her are nuanced. Her policeman widower Dad (Walter James) and amiable elder brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) take care of her and she of them, with Annie taking on the role of the absent mother in the household. Their bonds are tender and good natured, with an all-pervasive sense of fairness that doesn’t spill over into saccharine.  Altruism and unconditional love are part of the family, a source of strength and tragedy as the story unfolds. Outside the home, gang rivalries divide the community and descend into violence, with Annie’s future partner Joe Kelly (William Haines) caught up in the crossfire. As a heroine, Annie/ Pickford convincingly carries the film. She’s goodness personified, but without being a one-dimensional, saintly goody two shoes- look at her the wrong way and she’ll still sock you in the jaw! Comedy, tragedy, love and sacrifice are all there, conveyed with Pickford’s natural warmth, humour and skill, qualities that never date.

Fanchon the Cricket (1915) DVD image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Made 10 years earlier and directed by James Kirkwood, Fanchon the Cricket, sees Pickford starring as a waif and social outcast, alongside her sister Lottie and brother Jack. Based on the 1849 novel La Petite Fadette by George Sand, this ‘adult fairy-tale’ was largely filmed outdoors on location in Pennsylvania. Fanchon lives in the woods with her unloving grandmother, labelled a witch by the local villagers. Wild and unspoiled by society, she is a child of Nature who craves human company and affection. Edward Wynard’s cinematography captures the natural setting and Fanchon’s predicament with stunning visual clarity. At one point, Fanchon’s isolation is expressed tonally in the frame, bisected by darkness and light. We see a circle of dancing villagers held aloft in the distance, while Fanchon watches them in our foreground, separated by a diagonal barrier of foliage. That evasive sense of human contact, longed for, but just out of reach, is communicated entirely by Wynard’s composition. It’s Silent, pure visual storytelling at its illuminating best. Wynard’s cinematography reminded me of the beautiful early stills work of Steichen and Stieglitz, combining the disciplines of photography and painting.

The popularity of Pickford playing a child never waivered throughout her career and this recurrent figure of the child/ woman is an interesting one in connection with the idea of the waif. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ persona stylised this trope, almost to the point of caricature, but Pickford’s portrayal of a ‘homeless, abandoned and neglected person’ is cast in a mythic guise of childhood, affording the individual freedoms that adult society would never allow.  Until love enters the picture, Cinderella style, Fanchon may be in rags, but she is also her natural, uninhibited self, which is an essential part of her appeal as a character. Although lonely and vulnerable, she’s certainly no damsel in distress. Fearless and resourceful, she dives in to save the hapless “hero” Landry (Jack Standing) on more than one occasion.

Fanchon the Cricket 1915 production still, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration of this film is a triumph of international collaboration between the Mary Pickford Foundation, Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute, who each held elements of the original film in their archives, L’Immagine Laboratory, Italy, responsible for the photochemical and digital restoration of the film and Roundabout Entertainment, Los Angeles, who completed the digital mastering. ‘Colours were recreated using the original tinting notes on the nitrate print and on the dupe negative loaders’ and ‘a new negative and 35mm prints were created from the restored digital version.’ The Mary Pickford Foundation paired Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach to create a new score. The orchestration, for acoustic and electric guitar, flutes, violin, viola, cello, grand piano, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, upright and electric bass, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and vocals, brings a variety of textures and sounds to the interpretation.  The human voice (without lyrics) is used to good effect to invoke memory, together with the ephemeral use of percussion, suspending time in remembrance. Although the range of instruments is broad and contemporary, especially in the use of guitar and electric piano, there is clarity and depth of feeling in restraint. We feel complex emotions like longing underpinning dramatic scenes in the selective use of solo/ lone character instrumentation. Piano, strings and lower woodwind take us deeper into Fanchon’s shifting emotional states. It’s a musical partnership that feels suitably tempered by the soul of the film, something which can often be missing on Silent DVD releases and in newly commissioned live accompaniments, when contemporary musicians simply perform over the film. Thankfully the ethos of ‘serving the film’ shines through in Ducatenzeiler and Gladbachs’ musical accompaniment.

Fanchon The Cricket is a wonderful example of how digital technology, communication and international expertise can be used to put film back together again in a project of global importance. Pickford herself believed that the film had been lost, so there is something very poignant about this release as a found object, drawn from different continents, the Old World and the New. I wish she could see it and her continuing legacy in this DVD release, which includes essays by Cari Beauchamp, placing Pickford’s remarkable work in historical, professional and thematic context. These new releases are a great introduction to a largely unknown era in Film, via DVD, Blu-ray and high definition live streaming.

The late Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett once said that in order to be pioneers, we must first acknowledge that we are heirs. This is certainly true of women working in all artistic disciplines, consistently written out of history. As we rediscover their incredible achievements, perhaps we can gain confidence in possibility, building careers from the ground up in new ways, redefining expectations, reshaping industry and the wider world in the process. Mary Pickford’s talent, imagination and business acumen were a visible leading light in her time and in our own. Yes, this is entertainment, but in the current climate, Pickford’s heroic determination and humanity steps right off the screen into our living rooms. This is an exciting start to an entire process of restoration, reappraisal and Renaissance, for Mary Pickford and for women in film.

https://marypickford.org/

flickeralley.com

BEHIND THE DOOR

Newly restored and re-released on DVD/ Blu-ray 4th April, 2017

*This review contains spoilers

I’m always excited by the miraculous survival of early films and the international collaborations that make restoration and re-release possible. Sadly we’ve lost an enormous amount of Silent Era film production, but amazingly material is still being discovered, in private collections, archives, vaults and attics. The establishment of global networks and conventions to help bring this scattered material together also makes me eternally hopeful of Silent treasures still out there waiting to be found. The transformation of these fragments through restoration, honouring the vision of the original filmmakers and providing scope for reinterpretation, contribute significantly to how we see the world and ourselves.

The newly restored DVD/ Blu-Ray release of Behind the Door (1919) by Flicker Alley is the result of an inspiring international collaboration between the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), the Library of Congress and the Gosfilmfond (Russian national archive), with a new score composed and performed by one of the world’s leading Silent Film accompanists Stephen Horne.  It is a magnificent achievement in the preservation of international film heritage, crafted with care, attention to detail and with humanity as the baseline of musical interpretation. The level of skill from film restorers and the composer in serving the film, creating an emotionally intelligent and multi-layered experience for audiences is extraordinary and heartfelt. Behind the Door will be a surprising discovery for contemporary viewers in terms of how the shocking nature of the story is compassionately nuanced by colour, composition and sound. This isn’t just a post WWI propaganda film or one dimensional shock Horror but something more satisfyingly complex in its original Craft, contemporary restoration and brilliantly insightful musical score.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door”, image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

The restoration of Behind the Door is the blessed sum of surviving elements.  An incomplete 35mm print, a roll of outtakes and a small roll of shots from the estate of lead actor Hobart Bosworth preserved by the Library of Congress were brought together with an edited export print conserved by Gosfilmofund, Russia and a copy of director Irvin Willat’s original continuity script loaned by Film Historian Robert Birchard. In the words of restorer Robert Byrne the director’s script was a significant discovery in ensuring “that the reconstruction matched the original editing sequence”, providing “a reference for the reel missing its English-language intertitles. The original colour tinting scheme [was] also restored, based on analysis of the film leaders and the structure of the printing rolls.” What we can now enjoy is “the most complete version of the film” seen since its original release almost a century ago and I hope that cinemas and festivals will enable audiences worldwide to discover it on the big screen.

In addition to the US feature restored by Robert Byrne, James Cozart, Seth Miller, Lori Raskin and Anne Marie Smatla, the DVD/Blu-ray release also includes the Russian version of the film re-edited and re-titled, documentaries on the restoration and the career of director Irvin Willat by celebrated Film Historian Kevin Brownlow, outtakes, stills and a booklet featuring essays by Film Restorer Robert Byrne, Film Historian Jay Weissburg and composer Stephen Horne. Regardless of your level of interest, there are multiple routes into the story, making, context and preservation of the film that add value to the release and shed light on why restoration is so valuable, vital and relevant in a digital world.

Hobart Bosworth and Jane Novak in “Behind the Door” image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Behind the Door was a revelation to me on multiple levels and I’m sure that it will provide potent inspiration for contemporary artists. It also presents an opportunity for reappraisal of our relationship to early film, our understanding of history, human behaviour and current events. To some extent the film’s reputation precedes the experience of watching it. The expectations of contemporary audiences in terms of what is considered “shocking” , “gruesome” or violent doesn’t prepare viewers for the emotional impact of what is not graphically depicted on screen.  When Behind the Door was first released in 1919 it was a box office success and highly praised by critics with favourable comparisons to the work of D.W.Griffith. The sensationalism of the story and the whole notion of Horror, rooted in the traumatic aftermath of WWI transcends the period in which it was made, aided considerably by the contemporary score. Behind the Door and its sensitive restoration demonstrate beautifully that Silent Films aren’t primitive relics or the remnants of a bygone age but a living, breathing Art. The plight of the central character Oscar Krug (played by the wonderfully expressive Hobart Bosworth) as “other” has resonance on many levels, particularly in a rising tide of xenophobia circa 2017.

Jo Taylor’s photography together with the depth and emotional texture of colour tinting, a practice which was widespread at the time, enhances the tone of the film beautifully. In the opening sequence when we witness Krug’s return to the windswept coast of Maine, the hilltop scene is aglow with the pink setting sun, contrasted with the silhouettes of gravestones in deeply immersive indigo. That setting sun/ end of life colouration together with the mercifully tender voice of solo piano frames the character and gently foreshadows the arc of the story about to unfold. Later in the opening sequence the evocation of night in inky ultramarine soothes like the texture of velvet and the glockenspiel aligns with that feeling, introducing an otherworldly sense of a man revisiting the life and love he once had amidst the decaying ruin of his taxidermist shop.  The sparing, plucked sound is as fragile and vulnerable as the character we see before and within us. As Krug lights a candle the yellow glow of the interior provides an atmosphere of compassion and remembrance. “Alone, forlorn and forgotten” he sees the handkerchief of his beloved Alice and we feel as he does, in the delicately mysterious melody of the flute, the state of holding on to someone long after they’ve passed. This melody is fluidly expanded by the piano, leading us on “a back trail through the haunted lanes of yesterday”, into Krug’s past, to the town of Bartlett, Maine, 1917.  The seamless pacing of the score is perfectly in tune with the emotional gravitas of each scene and integral to our empathy with the central protagonist. Horne’s music renders the character in flesh, blood and consciousness, emerging out of the dire circumstances he finds himself in and becoming a more sympathetic character than we might have imagined.

Hobart Bosworth in “Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Although he is a demonised figure, the focus of anti- German propaganda and ultimately a murderer, Krug is also an expression of collective loss and it is the subtle restraint of the music that enables us to feel that underlying truth. This reinterpretation through sound is one of the defining features of the restoration. The scale of mechanised carnage during WWI had never been seen before. Made just one year after the war ended, an entire generation of shattered lives was the reality with mental and physical scars still painfully raw. In this context the film is arguably not shocking at all. It is that psychological perspective and historical hindsight that bring perceptive shifts to the interpretation, illuminated through sound. Krug’s extreme actions feel like a manifestation of the pain, loss and rage so many would have felt at the time. The Horror in this film is lived rather than imagined and I suspect that this, together with the propaganda element helped the film make it past the censors. In killing a German Commander, someone with whom he shares language and ancestry, Krug kills part of himself, in turn becoming the barbaric, brutal, vengeful, cruel and despised figure the townsfolk have cast him as. But surprisingly Oscar Krug is overwhelmingly a figure of grief rather than a monster. In the end love redeems him in being reunited with his beloved wife Alice (played with great conviction and sincerity by Jane Novak). That tempering of judgement towards what could so easily have been a one dimensional villain is expanded by the score. The empathy we feel for Krug almost eclipses his crime because it is effectively given a wider, deeper frame of reference. Krug’s final actions are an expression of the worst that human beings are capable of.  Whilst that is anchored to the historical horrors of war, it is also timelessly rooted in the human condition and what fundamentally drives us. The unhinged capacity for vengeance is fatally partnered with love. In early scenes Krug is portrayed as an obsessively passionate man and a true patriot willing to defend himself, his home and his principles with his bare fists if necessary. The fight that ensues is startlingly real as the escalating energy of the mob spirals out of control. The suggestion from the massed townsfolk is that propensity for violence is in Krug’s blood, accompanied by the derogatory label of “Hun”, but the lack of civilization is in the home grown lynch mob who turn on a member of their community as “other” with frightening speed.

“Behind the Door” Image courtesy of Flicker Alley and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Even with the anti-German sentiment of the time, it is hard not to imagine potential identification with the suffering of Oscar Krug and returned survivors of WWI. Although part of the navy rather than serving in the trenches in the story, his shaking hands echo the tremors of shellshock. When we first meet him he is clearly a broken, destitute man engulfed in shadows, as so many were in the aftermath of the Great War. That unspoken Horror becomes the unconscious driver of his revenge for the violation and death of his wife Alice. Surprisingly here in 1919, a largely hidden war crime is depicted. Although certainly used to portray the enemy as sadistic, amoral animals devoid of human empathy, the unspeakable violence inflicted upon Alice is also on some level an acknowledgement of the wartime experiences of generations of women.  Sexual violence is a policy and a weapon still being used around the world today that cannot be relegated to history. More often than not the image of the devoted sweetheart/ wife / mother keeping the home fires burning is the one we see, with the suffering of women as casualties of war rarely given screen time. In Behind the Door Alice isn’t simply a passive love interest but a woman who chooses Krug against her father’s wishes and community, follows him to sea and becomes an innocent victim of circumstances beyond her control. We see in her interactions with the suitor her father has chosen that she has made up her own mind about her destiny and future happiness before the madness of war intervenes. Although in 1919 the atrocities of rape, torture and murder in Behind the Door were undoubtedly used as a vehicle for propaganda, for this contemporary viewer the suggestion of violence in being unseen is what powerfully takes hold. We are so accustomed to violence and gore depicted graphically on screen, that visual storytelling placing Horror behind the door for the audience to imagine is stronger and more affecting than anything the director could have shown us. Contemporary directors and screenwriters take note!

Stephen Horne’s score is resoundingly led by the film and its “visceral”, cathartically emotional” core. With characteristic grace and skill he refrains from over the top declarations of drama or pushing obvious, emotive musical buttons. His multi instrumental approach utilising the full expressive range of piano including the inner strings, thumb piano, glockenspiel, accordion and flute, provides scope for multi-layered exploration of the story, the characters and their motivations. Even in highly dramatic scenes his control is enviable with Horror communicated in a haptic way, in the finely scraped inner strings like the glint of light on a scalpel being drawn across the viewer’s skin. Sound isn’t used as a ham fisted statement of rage illustrating action, but as an exchange between the idea, the emotional core of the story and the motivations of human beings portrayed on screen. Equally the tenderness of Krug’s promise to Alice; “after the war we’ll go back to my shop” flowing into a faded rose tinted dream where love, hope and memory are entwined is conveyed by the fragile, ethereal timbre of the flute. What we feel in that moment is the characters’ shared vision and something more vulnerably real than the forced emotion and sonic illustration that dominates mainstream cinema. When interpreted in such a way Silent Film communicates a different way of seeing /being in the world and an expansively innovative creative vision. The re-release of Behind the Door is defined by the inspired alignment of the surviving film, its loving restoration and sensitive score now preserved complete for future generations.

www.flickeralley.com

www.silentfilm.org San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF)

www.stephenhorne.co.uk