Category Archives: Silent

#234 – Flesh of the Air, The

(1923, GB, 32 min, b/w) Dir B. Richard Crisp. Cast Ivy Bean MacTashman, B. Richard Crisp.

Another of B Richard Crisp’s lost ‘Meat Films’. It’s a short one too, with a simple story – a wandering lady (Ivy Bean MacTashman) grown hungry on the moors pulls from her skirts a shotgun and with it plucks a passing duck from the air. Plucked and gutted it is soon cooked on a rough fire and eaten with gusto. Then, from the gloom about from the setting sun, steps the self proclaimed Keeper of the Flesh of the Air (Crisp himself, in another of his homemade and apparently foul smelling suits fashioned from real meat). After that your guess is as good as mine – as mentioned the film itself is lost and indeed there appears to be no record of it ever having been screened either, the scant particulars of the film having been provided by the director during what appears to have been his sole interview recorded mere days before his death. An intriguing mystery of a film as much of his oeuvre is with even his devotion to the subject of meat being a grey area – some reckon it to have been a fetish for him but others see each his films to be anti-meat propaganda. The only thing we can be certain of is that we’ll never really know for sure.

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#225 – Meat Palace

(1921, GB, 41 min, b/w) Dir B. Richard Crisp. Cast Conrad Hoot, Phillidia Fitzhibbert, Ivy Bean MacTashman, B. Richard Crisp.

A delicious Scots oddity, the fever dream of the unnamed, destitute and moor-stranded lead (a bearded, shambling Hoot) who is led by moonlight to the titular edifice (constructed, as suggested, of food flesh) by a beautiful pair of diaphanously gowned and supernaturally glowing women (Fitzhibbert and Bean MacTashman). Therein our anonymous bum hero finds himself at the service of The High Lord Meat and Creamy (the director Crisp himself, encased in what was apparently a self-made and fantastically pungent ‘Beef Suit’) whose whims begin at the curious and before long descend into the downright wrong. All this is gleaned from the script – of which a half-dozen scribbled pages remain – a roll of mostly fogged-out photographs from the set and the recollections of esteemed film critic Maxim Puccini who was, at the time, a fourteen year gaffer’s hand. The recollection of the set’s “thick creamy stench” apparently put him off dairy for the rest of his life. The result is a grab-bag of suggestion and little in the way of fact – the ‘downright wrong’ of Lord Meat’s whimsy, for example, is frustratingly unknown. It seems to have found little favour with audiences of the time and it’s last recorded exhibition seems to have been in 1926, when it was screened to a visibly discomfited Lord Evelyn French-Parstley, the keeper of the King’s Exceptionals, at the Royal Estate of Bip, West Scotland. Now presumed lost and much sought after by aficionados of Crisp and his ‘Meat Films’.

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#216 – Action Dreaming

(1910, GB, 14 min, b/w) Dir James Gilroy Munce. Cast Unknown.

Possibly the craziest, most ahead of its time and influential fourteen minutes of early cinema as film pioneer James Gilroy Munce corrals every optical trick available to him and invents a few more for this mostly narrativeless explosion of invention. Now little seen (and only now available for viewing in the Munce museum in Colorado) it spent a good twenty years following its production travelling with Munce or one of his trusted associates to every corner of the United States with his other films, enrapturing audiences wherever it went. No doubt some of the future titans of SFX saw it on this run and, inspired by shots such as the lead character – usually referred to as The Dreamer – leaping to the moon, went on to replicate them in their own features in later life. Cooper and Schoedsack, it is said, were inspired by the Dreamer’s wrestling with a sea colossus (having first swollen to match it in size) to realise King Kong themselves in 1933. To any student of film history, afficianado of the medium’s early years or even the mere fan a pilgrimage to Colorado’s to view this relic of enterprise and inspiration is an absolute must.

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms

#170 – Golden Padlock, The

(1931, Ger, 61 min, b/w) Dir Hans Thomas Mann.

Hans Thomas Mann (not to be confused with regular old Thomas Mann, sans Hans) was an early pioneer in German cinema. In the early days he ran a one man operation, producing his own ‘lantern shows’ (rudimentary animation, mostly) with which he would then tour the country to show with his daughter Pini as assistant. In his autobiography, The Picture Man, he revealed that his tours took him up mountains, down valleys and across half of Europe to bring cinema to the country folk who would not have witnessed such a thing otherwise. This golden era for Mann ended, rather inevitably, when the First World War broke out. Like many during those long hard years he lost much, not least his beloved daughter. The interwar period found Mann struggling for work but he found himself a patron in Lupu Speyer, star director of Zwei Brüste (and, more famously, 1927’s megabudget flop Götz von Berlichingen) who had first been introduced to cinema as a boy by Mann’s travelling show. Speyer, having clout in spades at this time, wrangled Mann the budget for his debut film with an actual budget and what would turn out to be his final film – The Golden Padlock. The fairy tale story of a young girl lost in a vast forest primeval and the titular object that keeps shut the door leading to her home in the subterranean land of fairy. It’s totally animated in a style similar to Lotte Reiniger (whose career was taking off about the same time) with the padlock hand painted in a fashion that shimmers off the screen. A soundtrack silent save for the sound of a distant flute only adds to the etherial strangeness. A labour of love obviously made in honour of his lost daughter the process as a whole took almost ten years, during which time Speyer’s career had peaked and nosedived back into obscurity and Mann had emigrated to England where the film was finished. It’s been seen very few times since then but the BFI have a fantastically well preserved copy in their vaults which they wheel out on occasion – if you get the opportunity run, don’t walk, to see it.

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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.

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms

#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?

Twitter: @MadeUpFilms