Category Archives: Black and White

#134 – White Hell

(1930, US, 100 min, b/w) Dir William Z Dolman. Cast Henry Lensing, Piper Pitt, Tom Claus.

Two fisted ice-bound thriller. A heavily moustached Tom Claus is underhanded seal baron Ogdon Bush, a man content to lord over his own personal fiefdom in the frozen wastes of Alaska until rogue philanthropist Lou Seward – quietly played by the ice eyed Lensing – drags his wind lashed carcass into Bush’s town. Bush sees the errant Seward nursed back to health by his mistress Amy (a glowing Pitt) and God knows he tries to get the man on board but aside from being a man of business, the principled Seward is also a dedicated animal lover hell-bent in beating back the seal pelt industry even if it means taking men like Bush on one at a time. Thus the stage is set for a battle of iron wills with the love crossed Amy stuck in the middle. A none more rousing finale make exceptional use of the abandoned Arctic paradise sets left in ruins from Hans Bismark’s 1924 flop The Cogs of the World as the set of a ten minute firefight that ends, as firefight are wont to do, in tragedy. The first landmark film from forgotten genius Dolman.

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#133 – Roi Du Canard, Le (King of the Ducks, The)

(1954, Fr, 65 min, b/w) Dir Albert. Cast Albert, Romy Pice, Joseph M.

A young man (deadpan director/performer Albert) is found in his pyjamas on the early morning streets of Paris, walking to and fro with his hands behind his back, stopping occasionally to bob his head. A passing milkman stops to ask if he is okay but in response the man just quacks. The milkman eventually takes him to a nearby police station where he is jokingly named Donald by the officers. A massive campaign to identify him is launched with no luck but in the meantime a local doctor offers to take Donald in where he befriends the doctor’s daughter. All is well until a mix up with the shifty groundskeeper one night leads to the young man being incarcerated in a local asylum where, during a midnight ceremony, he is crowned the King of the Ducks by his fellow inmates, complete with cardboard crown. The film ends with the downcast Donald sitting on the grass outside wearing his crown, looking up and smiling at a V of ducks passing overhead and off into the distance, calling after them with proud quacks of his own. Though it starts as a comedy it ends firmly in the realm of the classic weepy and any public screening I’ve attended has been awash in hot salty tears by the end.

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#124 – Delitos Menores (Petty Crimes)

(1948, Mex, ? min, b/w) Dir Luis Buñuel.

Between Gran Casino and The Great Madcap Buñuel made the short Petty Crimes which seems to have lasted all of three weeks as a completed short following the edit before a small fire at the studio spirited it away. Buñuel, it is said, wasn’t entirely pleased with the film they had produced and regarded the incident with no great emotion, moving swiftly on to the next project. Thus the fleeting existence of Delitos Menores remained of no real consequence until the late 1970’s when a copy of the script appeared in a suitcase in the attic of Ramon Valdez, the son of famed Mexican filmmaker Pablo Valdez and future director of Sol Diablo. Valdez Senior, it transpired, had worked on Delitos Menores as script boy and general gofer. Suddenly the film attained the mystique of the irretrievably lost and Buñuel had to fend off questions about it in interviews for the remainder of his life apart, that is, from when he fell back on his deafness to dodge the inquiries. Stills soon appeared in mislaid and mislabelled boxes in an archive in Switzerland and in 2000, as part of the celebrations for the centenary of Buñuel’s birth, a sort of slide show version was produced with the voices of Martin Sheen, Gabriel Byrne and Julianne Moore reading the parts. More recently Guy Maddin included it as one of the subjects of his Seances series with Udo Kier in the lead.

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#123 – Cogs of the World, The‏

(1924, US, 786 min original/119 min studio cut, b/w) Dir Hans Bismark. Cast Dabney Leigh, Josie Robin, Pat Basket, Horace Pet.

So in a single film you’ve vaulted to the ranks of the most popular and well regarded directors in the world – what do you do now? Something a little lighter than your last epic feature? A comedy, or perhaps a romance? Or do you take three years to make a thirteen hour pseudo-communist, mysticalist epic about the foundations of civilisation as you see it and the barbarism of modern industry? It’s going to be the latter, isn’t it? Well, you’re not alone – with his skilled but slight debut At Flight! With the Devil’s Wind… buckling all kinds of swash at the box office, Hans Bismark was handed a blank cheque and no provisos. Trouble started quick with his star, Francis de Pascal, dropping out three weeks into production citing a recurrent facial cramp. Then the massive sets of an Arctic paradise that had been erected in Alaska melted. It went downhill from there, a litany of difficulties that culminated in the legendary only screening of The Cogs of the World in its complete state that was regularly interrupted by the loud weeping of its broken director. Royal Brothers Studios eventually released the film in a severely truncated form that, according to contemporary reviews, mangled the story into incomprehensibility and somehow still managed to feel too long. This version flopped and it, along with the original edit, are now lost to film history. Bismark repaired to a sanatorium until 1928 at which point, for the third time in his life, began his career anew.

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#122 – At Flight! With the Devil’s Wind…

(1920, US, 101 min, b/w) Dir Hans Bismark. Cast Francis de Pascal, Bert Fin, Alice Pluto.

Hans Bismark arrived in Hollywood from Germany in 1920 – within weeks of Francis de Pascal – with no money and a wooden leg, both rewards of his service in the First World War which also gave him a hatred of his home country twinned with a nostalgia for how Old Europe had been when he was a child. Formerly the ‘King of the Stage’ in Germany as an actor and director, his difficult nature made the move necessary and he was determined to make his mark in his new home, and quick. Armed with his commanding presence and a couple buckets of charm he hit the studios and within no time had a picture. He hadn’t taken the easy way out either – this stage director with shaky English was to be making a high seas adventure with hot new thing Francis de Pascal. The going wasn’t easy – two stuntmen lost their lives in a freak squall and the picture ran both over time and over budget but Pascalmania had hit and At Flight! couldn’t have not been a hit if it had tried. Even the title’s eccentric punctuation couldn’t dissuade them but then how could it? It’s a rip-roaring adventure chock full of romance and featuring the kind of hair-raising stunts that would have a modern-day safety conscious studio soiling their collective pants. Out the other end Bismark was in the top-tier of film directors and de Pascal had become the apogee of male beauty. It was not to last however – within five years both men would be persona non grata in Tinseltown and within ten they would both be dead.

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#121 – Love in the Shadows

(1920, US, 72 min, b/w) Dir Pit Piabro. Cast Francis de Pascal, Olivia Bead.

It can be hard looking back to fathom the appeal of what was popular in the past. The short-lived ‘Bowler Cat’ fad of the 1890’s, for example, where ladies of good breeding would keep a live kitten in their bonnets, seems from this remove unnecessarily cruel to the kittens (which so frequently fell from their mistresses’ headgear) and without sufficient reward for difficulty involved. Cinema is no different either, with the big hitters of yesteryear enjoying their moment in the sun before the public tires of them and we’re left looking back over the years wondering what people were thinking at the time. Burt Reynolds, perhaps, or Ryan O’Neal. All of this is a roundabout way of bringing your attention to Francis de Pascal and Love in the Shadows, his first English language film which was shot when he was a mere week off the boat from France. It’s the usual forgettable, melodramatic stuff but it catapulted de Pascal to a position just below Valentino in the viewers hearts for the next handful of years. Unlike Valentino though his name would nowadays be recognised by none but a few diehard film aficionados (of which I count myself one). But does his popularity now baffle, almost a century later? Is he the ‘Bowler Cat’ craze of 1920’s cinema? I’m relieved to say no – he was a fine actor and a magnetic presence on the screen but the one thing he was missing  at this point in his career was the right vehicle. Enter Hans Bismark…

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#120 – Cuisine du Diable, La (Devil’s Kitchen, The)

(1918, Fr, 68 min, b/w) Dir B.F. Lebo. Cast Monica Lozange, Frederico de Pascal, Andreas Levant.

A pretty standard potboiler set in the fictional Parisian district of the title and about the people who call it home, The Devil’s Kitchen would be of little interest today as a film were it not for its historical import as the first feature of future star Frederico Francis St. Stephen de Pascal Paolo, AKA Francis de Pascal, who was popularly known in his heyday as the French Firebomb. He’s got a mid-level role in this as the dashing cad who lures Monica Lozange to the titular disreputable arrondissement where her innocence can be abused by its shady residents. Her beau, played by Andreas Levant in his usual white knight role, soon springs to her rescue and comeuppance is duly dealt out. The Devil’s Kitchen was a modest hit at the time but it got de Pascal noticed and it took only two further features before his name was changed and the film industry of France had become too small for him – Hollywood beckoned with his breakout role in the 1920 epic Love in the Shadows.

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#100 – One Hundred Years From Now

(1914, GB, 104 min, b/w) Dir Albert Adlington. Cast Herbert Baum, Eleanor Tatchell, Simon Fisk.

A large budget production for the time – partly funded by entrepreneur and utopian Sir Robert Sockton-Mogg – detailing the glorious future that lay ahead for the British Empire. As ever with these kinds of films it’s as entertaining to see what they got wrong as they did right. In the former camp there are the fashions which have remained curiously immobile from the Edwardian era and the biplanes that everyone has in their driveway. More poignant is the idea the film predicts that in 2014 that the British Empire would be celebrating one hundred years of peace and stability around the world but of course how could they have then predicted the First and Second World Wars, the dissolution of the Empire and all that followed. What they got right is interesting with a ‘Cinematograph’ is on the wall in every home like a flat screen TV, for example, or submarines travelling the oceans. Besides this and some ahead of their time special effects the film isn’t great, as stodgy to sit through as 1933’s similar Things to Come. It remains a valuable cultural artefact however and the mostly complete silver nitrate print in the BFI’s library is a wonder to behold. Maybe not perfect but a historical moment for sure.

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#94 – Zwarte Piet (Black Peter)

(1921, Neth, 27 mins, b/w) Dir Dick Binger. Cast Annie Dommelen, Oscar van Victor, B. A. van der Veer.

Not so much a film as an extended skit, pretty much, this silent comedy film about the then fine and now controversial Dutch Christmas character Black Peter was a great success at the time of it’s release and until very recently was a TV seasonal fixture. To the uninitiated Black Peter is the companion to Saint Nicholas (or Sinterklaas in the Netherlands) who doles out sweets to the good children and, to the bad, a whipping with a bundle of birch twigs. The controversy? Well, Black Peter is a moor you see, who is traditionally played by a blackfaced actor in a curly wig with big red lips. In addition to this he is played in this film by Annie Dommelen who is, as her name might suggest, a woman. Needless to say debate about the suitability of this character continuing to play a part of the celebrations of Sinterklassavond on December  5th each year continues to rage. But anyway – now that the layers of cultural context are peeled back, what of the film? Well Black Peter is hopping from rooftop to rooftop as the film begins, consulting his list and tossing sweets down the chimneys of the  good. Before long he happens upon the house of a bad child and, birch bundle in hand, climbs down with great enthusiasm to beat him. A frantic chase about the house commences with Black Peter eventually coming out on top. A strange little film with more about it to frighten than amuse for this viewer but were I a Netherlander of a century ago would my opinion be different?

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#76 – One Huge Beach

(1955, Aust, 95 min, b/w) Dir Ralph Robinson. Cast Rod Taylor, Diane Cilento.

Max (Taylor) lives alone on the beach in his shack overlooking the tide. Every morning he goes out to fish for food and see what’s been tossed up by the surf. One day finds a metal pod of some kind and through the glass portal on the front he can see that there is someone inside. He drags it back up to his shack and eventually breaks it open to reveal the young woman (Cilento) inside who wakes once the seal is broken. He nurses her back to health and returns from his beachcombing one morning to find her awake and sitting up. She is Valeria Pross and as she tells it she was put into what she calls her “lifeboat” back in 1975 when the war started. Max is confused – he doesn’t know of any war. “What year is it now?” she asks him but he doesn’t know. “But how did you get here?” she tries but incurious Max just shrugs. “My parents had me,” he says, “But they’re dead now.” She convinces him to join her in setting off from the beach in search of civilisation but, as they find, the whole world has been laid to waste by the nuclear war they have survived, turning it into an unending landscape of impassive irradiated sand – sand that is slowly killing her but that Max has grown up immune to. “You mean,” says Max, sifting a handful and furrowing his brow, “You mean the whole world has been turned into one huge beach?” But of course for him there is no loss – he’s never known it any other way.

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