Kennington Bioscope at The Cinema Museum, Lambeth
4 May 2016
( NB Contains spoilers)
It was another packed house at the splendid Cinema Museum to see the latest Kennington Bioscope presentation, an intriguing double bill of Hollywood knock-about western and Swedish historical melodrama. Just about the only thing that these films had in common (other than their year of release) was an emphasis on impressive outdoor, location shooting.
But first up was a short documentary, Life On The Circle Ranch in California (1912), made by the intriguingly named Circle Ranch Film Company of Santa Monica. The film documented the contemporary life of cowhands involved in rounding up cattle in the Santa Monica hills, sorting and branding them, dispatching them to markets in Chicago and finally celebrating after the work was done. The film presented an intriguing portrait of work that probably hadn’t changed that much since the days of the wild-west but most interesting was the location shooting, with the rolling hills of rural Santa Monica now long gone, entirely swallowed up by urban sprawl from Los Angeles. The film was the directorial debut of one John B O’Brien who went on to direct over 60 films, mainly westerns, as well as acting in some 90 films until his death in 1936. Musical accompaniment was ably provided by Lillian Henley on the piano. (Availability – This film is included in a compilation DVD released in 2011 by the US National Film Preservation Foundation entitled Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938)
Next up was Bucking Broadway (1917), an early John Ford western, probably the ninth film he directed, when he was still credited as Jack Ford. The film was long thought ‘lost’ until rediscovered in France and restored in 2003 by the Centre Nationale de la Cinématographie (CNC).
The film centers on Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), a cowboy on a ranch in Wyoming who falls in love with Helen (Molly Malone), the daughter of his boss (L M Wells). But then Eugene Thornton (Vester Pegg), a sharp city slicker, arrives from New York in a flash automobile to buy horses. On the night a party is given to celebrate the formal engagement of Cheyenne and Helen, she elopes with Thornton. Cheyenne, devastated by the loss of his fiancé, decides to go to the city to rescue her. As a country boy in the big city he has some difficulties with technology (a hissing radiator) and the locals (a couple of pick-pockets). Meanwhile, Helen is discovering that Thornton isn’t quite as nice as he makes out. When Cheyenne tracks them down he has to call for help from his cowboy friends who are in New York delivering horses. They lead the charge down Broadway and a furious fist-fight sees Thornton and his pals vanquished and Cheyenne finally gets his girl.
Bucking Broadway is one of only a handful of Ford’s early silent films to survive. But even at this early stage, many of the classic traits of his subsequent career are evident. The exterior landscape shots are superbly composed and the action scenes skilfully choreographed (although for fight scenes, Ford would apparently sometimes just yell ‘Fight!’ and leave it up to the actors, often resulting in a few broken bones). But Ford was equally assured with the more intimate scenes (such as Cheyenne’s nervousness when seeking approval from Helen’s father for their wedding) and these scenes are just as beautifully shot as the expansive exteriors, particularly the images of Cheyenne proposing to Helen by match-light or the shadows cast on the face of Thornton’s ‘sister’ by the table light. These were just stunning. And his superb sense of comedy timing is already apparent (for example, the scene where Cheyenne is buying new clothes, his difficulty with the hissing radiator/snake or the hotel bell-hop’s nervousness around the gun-totting cowboy are all comedic gems). And there is an early example of the Ford trademark shot of a figure framed within a doorway looking back into the room, in this case Helen’s father (left), but repeated most notably by John Wayne (right) in The Searchers (1956). From this early start, Ford’s directorial career never looked back. His silent epic The Iron Horse (1924) virtually invented the modern western genre. Stagecoach (1939) saw the start of Ford’s longstanding collaboration with John Wayne. His ‘Cavalry Trilogy’ – Fort Apache (1948), She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949) and Horse Soldiers (1959 – remain classics and The Searchers was named the greatest American western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008.
Bucking Broadway was leading man Harry Carey’s (left) sixth film with Ford and they would continue to work together for another three years. He more often portrayed the down to earth cowhand rather than the flash cowboy, but could turn it on when necessary. In this film he manages to out-do Tom Mix by not only jumping from horse to moving train but also by taking his saddle with him! But Carey also displays a fine sense of comic timing as well as the ability to effectively handle the dramatic moments, despite probably being too old for this role. After leaving Universal to join Fox in 1920 Carey eventually went on to complete almost 300 films before he died in 1947. Molly Malone as Helen (below) was a late starter in films, not making her debut until 1916 at the age of 28. She made at least three films with Ford and Carey before Bucking Broadway. Although this role was hardly demanding she did manage to effectively convey a sense of guilt at jilting Cheyenne and apprehension that marriage to Thornton would be a mistake. Malone went on to star in a number of comedies with Roscoe Arbuckle, eventually making over eighty films before she retired in 1929.
While Bucking Broadway might not be a classic, it was certainly enjoyable. It moved at a good pace, had a cogent plot, was beautifully shot and very funny in parts. The nicely tinted copy we watched was beautifully restored. While there were a few jumps which suggested there were some gaps in the rediscovered print, these did not spoil the enjoyment. And the accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysh complemented the film superbly. (Availability – There are a couple of versions of this film on YouTube, one with a particularly good live accompaniment by Portuguese band Zelig. It is available on DVD and BluRay as a bonus feature on Criterion’s 2010 reissue of Ford’s film Stagecoach)
Then it was time for Swedish melodrama in the form of Terje Vigen (1917, aka A Man There Was), directed by and starring Victor Sjostrom. The film was based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen (all the inter-titles are quotations of Ibsen’s original text) and is widely seen as heralding the start of a golden era of Swedish cinema, characterised by breath-taking cinematography, deft editing and performances of great intensity.
In the film, Sjostrom plays an intrepid fisherman who tries to bring food to his starving family in Norway by breaking through an English naval blockade during the Napoleonic Wars. But he is captured by the English. The enemy captain (August Falck) ignores his pleas to be allowed to save his family and he is put in jail for years. Upon his release he is heartbroken to learn that his wife and child did not survive. Embittered, he works as a pilot and years later answers the call to rescue a yacht that is in trouble off the coast. Terje faces a moral dilemma when he realises that the yacht is that of an English lord and his family, the same captain who stopped Terje saving his own family. Terje now has a chance for revenge. He lets the yacht run aground and takes the captain, his wife and daughter onto his cutter. When they reach the reef where the English had sunk his own boat many years before, he sinks it in the same way. The captain, suddenly recognising Terje, tries to resist but Terje tells him that if he does, his wife and daughter will pay the price. However, when Terje holds the Captain’s daughter in his arms, he is purged of this madness and confronted with his own responsibilities. A dinghy comes to rescue them and later the English lord and his family express their gratitude before leaving. The closing image is of a cross marking the shared grave of Terje’s wife and daughter as the sun sets in the background, a scene of peace and redemption.
There are two factors in particular which make Terje Vigen such a film of note. The first is the stunning outdoor location shooting, carried out on the coasts around Stockholm. The film highlights the ruggedness yet bleak beauty of the landscape, at the same time emphasizing the harshness of existence for those inhabiting it. Alright, so some of the outdoor action scenes may not be quite as dramatic as implied. One production photograph in particular (image, right) shows Sjöström standing not in a rowing boat but on a small reef on to which a sail has been erected, providing a steadier and more camera-friendly platform. While Sjostrom pretends to sail the ‘boat’ the cameraman is hand-cranking and a film-hand stands ready with bucket of water to simulate the next wave. But much of the outdoor shooting greatly adds to the authenticity of the film and is indeed impressive. For example, Terje’s attempt to outrun the English boat is particularly convincing, superbly shot and edited, particularly when he tries to escape by swimming underwater. And the scenes of raging seas are used effectively to portray Terje’s inner anger and bitterness.
The second factor is Sjostrom’s performance in the leading role. On screen in virtually every scene, Sjostrom apparently took on the role when his actor of choice dropped out. He effectively portrays Terje’s transformation from young carefree husband and father (image, left) to old and bitter widower (image, right), conveying his inner grief, anger and desire for revenge in a restrained and convincing manner. His directorial technique is equally impressive, heralding a director who would go on to direct classic silent films in Sweden (The Phantom Carriage (1921) and Hollywood (He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and The Wind (1928)). His directorial career largely ended with the coming of sound and he returned to Sweden to continue his acting career, giving a remarkable swansong performance in Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film Wild Strawberries.
Given Sjostrom’s dominant screen presence, the other character role’s in Terje Vigen were little more than supporting parts. August Falck as the English lord was an eminent theatrical actor and director who worked closely with leading Swedish playwright August Strindberg. Actress Edith Erastoff (who played the English lady) also began as a theatrical actor. She went on to make other films with Sjostrom and they were married in 1922. She went with Sjostrom to America but had largely retired from acting by 1923.
Given its story-line, Terje Vigen was never likely to be a bundle of laughs. But what Sjöström did was to produce a film of stark beauty, realistically acted and which convincingly captures the bitterness and melancholy arising from tragedy as well as the moment of release which comes with realisation that such bitterness is misplaced and futile. The final shot (image, left), of a peaceful sea at sunset seen beyond the graves in which Terje’s wife and daughter lie, implies that this redemption has brought Terje a degree of inner peace and reconciliation and, as such, is particularly poignant. The live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney was, as usual, sublime but in this instance even more challenging than usual with the need to intersperse his playing with moments of quiet to enable Lillian Henley to smoothly read out translations of the Swedish inter-titles.
(Availability – There are only short clips available on YouTube. Kino Lorber issued a DVD of Terje Vigen in 2008 also containing another Sjostrom film, Ingeborg Holm (1913) )