Just published: ‘Morte a Venezia fra fotografia, pittura e cinema’, in: Francesco Bono, Luigi Cimmino, Giorgio Pangaro eds., Morte a Venezia. Thomas Mann/ Luchino Visconti: un confronto (Cosenza: Rubbettino, 2013), pp. 129-148.
Yesterday the Amsterdam EYE Filmmuseum announced it had found Love, Life, Laughter (George Pearson 1923), starring Betty Balfour, and one of the 75 most wanted lost films on the list of the British Film Institute. As many films by Pearson but also many films with Balfour are lost, this was quite a revelation. In the 1920s Betty Balfour was the most successful actress of British silent film. Balfour was a true comedienne, and this shows as well in Love, Life, Laughter, in which Balfour did what she was best in: singing, dancing and joking, though mixed with pathos, not unlike Chaplin.
Love, Life, Laughter deals with poor Tip-Toes, who wants to become a big music-hall star. She befriends a lonely boy who dreams of becoming a writer. The duo agrees to meet again in two years to see whether their dreams have materialized. Balfour herself came from music-hall, so in particular British audiences must have seen a link between real life and the filmic world. In The Netherlands Love, Life, Laughter had its premiere on 12 October 1923, at the Amsterdam movie palace Theater Tuschinski. Its Dutch title was “Squibs as Tip-Toes, queen of the music-hall”, referring to Balfour’s most famous film character, that of a cockney flower girl. Squibs had been the character created by Pearson in his 1921 homonymous film Squibs (1921). The film was such as a success that Pearson directed three sequels as well: Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (1922), Squibs M.P. (1923) and Squibs’ Honeymoon (1923), all with Balfour in the lead. Of all these only Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep remains, basically the only complete film by Pearson remaining. While Love, Life, Laughter was not part of the Squibs sequel, Dutch publicity still pretended it to be.
In contrast to other British directors like Anthony Asquith, and even Hitchchock to a certain extent, Pearson’s films often dealt with the ordinary man. One of his most wanted lost films is Reveille (1924), in which the First World War is seen from the perspective of the ordinary man. Here too Betty Balfour played the female lead, but now in a dramatic part. Pearson was known for the subtle lighting in his films, for which he was even compared to ‘continental’ filmmakers in France and Germany, which was a high kind of appraisal then. Pearson was so smitten with Balfour that he was ready to divorce his wife and marry her, but Balfour thought him too old, so they stopped their collaboration.
At the end of the silent era Balfour acted in several British films at BIP (British International Pictures) such as Hitchcock’s Champagne (1928), but also in several co-productions with Germany and France, of which some were shot at the BIP studios. She also acted in French and German productions ‘tout court’, such as (the still existing) Le diable au coeur (1928) by Marcel L’Herbier, and with Jaque Catelain. Her last silent film was The Vagabond Queen (1929), shot at BIP by the Hungarian director Geza von Bolvary. Again she played a working class girl who happens to be a lookalike of a queen in some Eastern-European country called Balonia…
When around 1930 sound cinema had become common in Europe, Balfour’s status as star went down. In 1931 she married songwriter Jimmy Campbell, known from songs like ‘Goodnight Sweetheart’ and ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. She did play major parts in about 7 sound films in the 1930s, so she wasn’t expelled from the film sets because of some accent (like had happened with actress Mabel Poulton). After all, Balfour was a stage performer who could do any accent or language. Rather age may have interfered here, in 1930 she was 27. Between the wars stardom for a female actress was often just a decade or even less. After that one often had to satisfy with character roles or retire.
Here are two reviews from Dutch newspapers of Love, Life, Laughter:
Telegraaf, 13 October 1923: “Our gloomy and worrisome time needs Betty Balfour, for she brings distraction with her healthy humor and silvery laughter. (…) She leads one into a mood of safe pleasantness, without morbid exaggeration or dangerous thrill. (…) The story brings us the contradiction of dispirited “Weltschmertz” and weariness ànd zest for life, and ends in a big surprise. The direction is of the best British kind, executed down to the smallest detail, and shows great sophistication without ostentatious extravagance. If only there would be more like this. “
Handelsblad, 14 October 1923: “Sorry for the dear children, but I cannot but draw one conclusion: there is only one Betty Balfour . ( … ) She has nothing, absolutely nothing that speaks against her; her fine witty face with the mischievous, telling eyes , her zest for life and wantonness, her typical gait , her movements, her dancing and especially her naturalness and ease in every situation and in any environment, are the properties which have created her a proper and unique place among the many divas with and without talent ( … ) Well, as long as people still enjoy movies like the Squibs series, all the innocent joy is not yet out of this world . And being able to conclude this , is a beautiful thing , as now it’s raining all day , and everyone is exhausting themselves in predicting all kinds woe and misery that us poor earthworms , will bite us until we don’t know anything anymore. Miss Squibs thinks differently and shows us the flip side of the coin: the humour in the things of every day. “
We are now half way our course Crossmedial Exhibitions of our Master Comparative Arts & Media Studies. Yearly, we have an exhibition in focus which is either crossmedial because of the artists him- or herself or because of the crossmedial creation of the exhibition by the curator. This year’s exhibition is Jeff Wall. Tableaux-Pictures-Photographs, 1996-2013. The exhibition at Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, focuses on the later work of Wall, taking the year 1996 as starting point when Wall started to work with black and white photography – though he never discarded his work with colour photography with lightboxes for which he became famous in the first place. So the exhibition shows some 40 photos: lightboxes, b&w prints and colour prints. The colour prints include a diptych never shown yet: Summer Afternoons (2013).
After a presentation on the phenomenon of crossmedial exhibitions and on previous exhibitions in focus at Boymans, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam Museum, and EYE, we had a thorough discussion on literature dealing with the museum of the 21th century, including Michelle Henning and Eilean Hooper-Greenhill. We already had two fascinating meetings with the museum staff over the last two weeks, dealing with issues of curatorship, selection, the museum’s focus on solo exhibitions, the negotation with the artist, the narrative of the exhibition, and photography at the Stedelijk Museum; Public Program and education; communication, marketing and press (in general and in particular for this exhibition). This Monday we’ll have our third and last meeting about logistics & policy but also returning to curatorship.
Yesterday, at the opening, several people started to associate with the life-sized, sometimes tableau styled photographs, drawing relations between the depicted humans (the characters) and the obecjts surrounding them, inventing complete stories of what happened here, but also before and after. The pictures clearly invited to have this instant narrativization. The photographs also have a strong cinematic feeling: they could have been moments of narrative cinema. Especially the lightboxes with their increased lighting, resembling studio film lights, suggest this. Wall’s photographs aren’t really about exact cinematic quotations, but rather suggest a feeling of the “cinematic” in general.
Today, after an introduction by Visser on how she wanted to do something different from previous chronologic, linear exhibitions or previous divisions in genres – or for that matter an explicit connection with Wall’s inspirational sources like was done in Brussels in 2011 – Wall himself had a speech about his own explanation of the title, his development and his recent ideas about his own art. His statements were sometimes puzzling as they seemed to contradict what I saw just one day before. For various reasons the photos avoid direct identification or confrontation, in contrast with his early work Picture for Women. We are dealing now with a disavowed contemplation, even if it is clear the maker must have felt compassion for his characters or his situations. This is enforced by the various characters looking away from the camera, bowing their heads or offering us the backs of their heads. This sharply contrast with, again, Picture for Women, which – in filmic terms – breaks the diegesis because of its direct adress. In these later works Wall keeps up the diegesis.
While most of Wall’s pictures deal with characters (you might also call them extras) in a setting, the often stunning sets seem to be ignored by the depicted humans. I was quite intrigued by Wall’s less recurrent examples of photos in which humans are absent but have left their traces, a bit as in Samuel van Hoogstraten’s paintings or in Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’eclisse (1962). In the latter film the quintessential location for the two protagonists is an ordinary crossroads in EUR, then a new quarter at the southside of Rome. Here the two meet, as the woman lives nearby. Antonioni focuses on detals of the location: a tree covered with ants, a sewer, a jockey riding on a tilbury, a nurse pushing a pram, a tank filled with water. As Vittoria (Monica Vitti) throws in a little piece of wood that floats on the surface, the tank is appropriated as part of her life, just like the zebra that becomes a prop for her indecisiveness. In short, Antonioni monumentalizes a totally un-monumental site. When in the last twenty minutes the two protagonists don’t show up anymore at the location, we still associate all the elements we see again as part of their life. We still see the wood floating in the tank. The ‘extras’ continue their routines. But we wait in vain for the leading couple, who despite their promises have each decided not to reunite.
On Monday March 10th, 2014, at the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, I’ll give an introduction to the film La Grande Guerra (1959) by Mario Monicelli, and starring Vittorio Gassman, Alberto Sordi and Silvana Mangano. La Grande Guerra, on two buddies on the Italian Front during the First World War, starts as a comedy but then gradually becomes more grim. The film, scripted by a.o. the famous screenwriters duo Age & Scarpelli, received ex aequo the Golden Lion in Venice, together with Il Generale Della Rovere by Roberto Rossellini, and starring Vittorio De Sica. While La Grande Guerra is sometimes hailed as the first Italian feature on the First World War, some research proved this is not surely the case, even if Monicelli was the first Italian ‘auteur’ filmmaker to do so. This calls for a pedigree of the Italians filming the First World War, but also for a look at the Italian embarassment over the first adaptation of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) by Frank Borzage, and starring Gary Coooper. The Battle of Caporetto (1917) plays an important role here. Finally it calls for some research on the anti-Austrian Italian film propaganda during the First World War, such as Maciste alpino (Pastrone 1916), and the combination of army and comedy in Italian cinema, even before the First World War, such as Kri Kri e Lea Militari (Cines 1913), below on a poster by Marchetti.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,900 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.
Just appeared in Acta Sapientiae Universitatis. Film & Media Studies, No. 7 my article ‘Of Artists and Models. Italian Silent Cinema between Narrative Convention and Artistic Practice’. Based on research in the film archives of Turin, Bologna, Rome, Gemona, and Amsterdam. With thanks to Agnes Pethö, Giovanna Ginex, Armando Audoli, and the various film archives.
Visited the Giornate del Cinema Muto and had a lovely time, spoiled by the family with whom I stayed. Co-presented with Giorgio Bertellini, Francesco Pitassio and Luca Giuliani, the wonderful and rich Italian Silent Cinema Reader, edited by Giorgio Bertellini, and with me as author of two articles. Enjoyed Martin Loiperdinger’s birthday and new volume on Asta Nielsen. Was surprised about the smooth Domitor meeting and not surprised by the lengthy AIRSC meeting. Had big fun meeting, dining and wining with all my colleagues and friends. Liked the EFG 1914 presentation. Saw a few good films this year, such as the Swedisch comedy The Smugglers (with Pat & Patachon really funny for a change, under the direction of Gustav Molander), Beggars of Life (Louise Brooks), Gerhard Lamprecht’s tearjerker Children of No Importance/Die Unehelichen, Gennaro Righelli’s Der geheime Kurier with a dashing Iwan Mozzhukhin and remarkable mise-en-scene and photography, Pudovkin’s The Mother/Mat for the …th time, the incredible Kammerspiel thrilller Shattered/Scherben by Lupu Pick, and an early adaptation of I promessi sposi/The Bethrothed, with Gigetta Morano and shots partly on location. The found Welles, Too Much Johnson, was less than expected, but the last night with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd was a good if not revolutionary closing performance. Some of the sound on film scores were horrible this year, as well as some of the live accompaniments, but Stephen Horne was wonderful. Problems with the many digital projections seemed a sign of the times, now that digital projection dominates, but problems with analogue projection as well confirmed that the world did not really change that much. Finally, relying on DVD in preparation can be risky, as one German film suddenly lacked English subtitles, with the subtitlers backing out and Pordenone regulars in the audience taking over. Yet, it shows that festivals such as these cannot exist without the huge human effort behind it. And neither without funding, as was expressed on various occasions.
Afterwards in Verona I gave a lecture on Romeo e Giulietta (Ugo Falena 1912), with Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena as the Shakespearian couple. Of course everybody knows Verona is the city of Romeo and Juliet, so I was in the “tana del leone”. And this took place at the Lyons Club Verona, at the ballroom of palazzo Castellani, in the heart of Verona. Très chic. Had a little time to stroll around, visit the museum at the Castle as well as the Duomo, and walk along the river Adige. Romeo e Giulietta was a typical Film d’Arte Italiana (FAI) production, stencil coloured, first analog restored by EYE (Netherlands Filmmuseum) in 1997, then digitally by ZZ Productions in 2003 in collaboration with EYE, Gosfilmofond, the Cineteca di Bologna et.al. Various composers were asked by Arte Television to compose new scores, a selection was broadcasted on Arte in 2003.
A challenge was to try and find out if the film was really shot in Verona, as FAI. Right away it was clear that all interiors were shot in the Roman studio of FAI, on which Luigi Pirandello based his novel Si gira!, later published as Quaderni di Serafino Gubbio operatore. Some of the exteriors were also clearly studio work, but some looked like as if they had been shot outdoors in real settings. Before I gave my lecture I was only able to identify one location. When the presumed dead Juliet is brough into the church, and Romeo thinks he is too late, the portal of the church reminded me of a place I had been. After endless surfing on Google Images and going through my own pictures, I found out that the real location was not Verona and neither a church. It was Palazzo dei Priori in Perugia: mark the lions at the foot of the pillars, the winged animals on top and the three bishop-like figures in the hemicircle above the door posts. Of course shooting in Perugia must have been cheaper than Verona. But the facade in the film might well have been an imitation, based on the palazzo in Perugia, reconstructed at the studio premises on the Via Nomentana in Rome.
A second location seemed real and some of the attendants at my Verona lecture thought they recognized something but couldn’t pinpoint it. During my stroll the morning after, I casually walked into the courtyard of the Prefettura, the former Palazzo di Cansignorio, built in the 14th century and restored in the 1880s. And lo and behold, it looked quite a bit like the courtyard of Juliet’s house in the FAI production. Not exactly the same, but the checkered wall and the fat columns are a bit similar. So the Prefettura might have been a model for a studio built set.
Finally, when Romeo and Juliet first meet on the stairs of her house, behind them we notice a kind of medieval or rather late Roman styled equestrian statue, in a rather course style. Moreover he is a knight without an armour. I first thought of the equestrian statues of the Verona mediëval aristocrat Cangrande but he is always presented as a knight in armour, and always as a free standing sculpture, not sculpted into a wall (basso relievo). At the Castelvecchio Museum, however, I saw a basso relievo of St. Mark and the Beggar, by the so-called Tuscan Master of 1436. Mark wears no armour, just a ‘tunica’ like the cavalier behind Romeo and Juliet. The style, though, is much more refined, classicist and Renaissance-styled, reminding of Pisanello. In contrast to the sculpture in the film, St. Mark’s horse does not lift one of his forelegs, which though was a classic element in equestrian statues from Antiquity on (e.g. the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Roman Capitol).