Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Sounds of British Silents

From: BFINA. E-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: John Sweeney. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 7 Oct 2009. Total running time: ca 90 min.

From the GCM Catalogue: "This programme, devised and presented by Tony Fletcher and John Sweeney, traces the efforts of early British film-makers to marry image to sound. As early as A.C. Haddon’s Torres Straits (1898) we find efforts to link mechanical sound recording to the image: from a later period we have examples from the extensive series of British Phonofilms. Other early producers gave exhibitors precise indications of the live music to accompany films (The Old Chorister; Sweet Genevieve), while the films of the musical team of Ellaline Terriss and Seymour Hicks would be meaningless without the accompaniment appropriate to their dance routines. The audience itself is invited to produce the vocal musical accompaniment for the ingenious H.B. Parkinson’s early variants on the “bouncing ball” films, The Tin-Can Fusiliers and Barcelona. Finally, Heroes of the Sea, Joe Grossman’s assembly of material from varied sources, is dramatically complemented by the synchronized score created by a prominent silent film composer, John Reynders. Notes by: Tony Fletcher, Alex Gleason, John Sweeney; with additions by: Michael Eaton, David Robinson, Geoff Brown, Catherine Surowiec."

[CHILDREN DANCING WITH BARREL ORGAN] (?, GB 1898). D: Charles Goodwin Norton; 69 ft, 1'09" (16 fps), sound. Charles Goodwin Norton (1856-1940) was a lanternist/lecturer who interspersed his programme of lantern slides with short films which he often took himself. This may be one of them. He exhibited for the royal family, the National Sunday League, and Harrods department store, among many others. - A funny scene full of life.

TORRES STRAITS (?, GB 1898). D: Alfred Haddon; DigiBeta [35mm orig. length: 235 ft], [6'] 4 min (transferred at 16 fps), sound. *No 35mm print of this film is currently available for screening.
Alfred Haddon visited Torres Strait, off the coast of northern Queensland, in 1888 as a marine zoologist. The people were already missionized, and he became convinced that old customs must be recorded before they disappeared completely. Ten years later he returned as leader of the Cambridge Anthroplogical Expedition. Though they took many photographs and made about a hundred phonograph recordings, the cinematograph which the team had ordered only arrived on the island of Mer a couple of days before they were due to leave. When he tested it Haddon was further disappointed, believing it had jammed. However, on his return to London he was informed by the makers, Newman and Guardia, that the four short films exposed had come out perfectly. On the first day he filmed fire-making and secular dances; on the second day a bêche-de-mer boat happened to arrive, and a dance by some of its crew is, therefore, the earliest film of Aboriginal Australians. But the final film is the most important: a magnificent documentation of one of the dances performed at a reconstruction of the now-defunct Malu-Bomai initiation ceremony, with masks specially recreated from cardboard. The earliest ethnographic film is already a performance for the camera. - The sound recordings used to accompany the Torres Strait film come from original wax cylinder recordings made on the same expedition as the films. While they were not recorded specifically as sound to accompany the films, they were used as such when Haddon showed the films in 1906. The recordings are used with the kind permission of the British Library Sound Archive. - A fascinating dance number with the original music mixed on the digital tape.

THE OLD CHORISTER (Williamson Kinematograph Company, GB 1904). D: James Williamson; 230 ft, 6' (16 fps). No intertitles. The film’s 4 scenes correspond to a set of 4 life-model slides for C.H. Roberts’ song “The Aged Chorister” (1901) issued by the Bamforth Company; Bamforth also produced a set of postcards illustrating the song. An entry in the Williamson catalogue specified the musical accompaniment: “At the point where the Old Chorister is remembering his younger days, an on-site boy soprano is to sing the opening measures of Handel’s ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ and again during the scene where the choir is singing in the church, an on-site chorus sings a verse of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, breaking off at the point where the old man is stricken.” - The religious film was screened with piano music. A duped look in the print.

THE WORLD FAMOUS MUSICAL COMEDY ARTISTS SEYMOUR HICKS AND ELLALINE TERRISS IN A SELECTION OF THEIR DANCES (Topical Film Company, GB, ca 1913). D: ?; CAST: Ellaline Terriss, Seymour Hicks; 629 ft, 10'29" (16 fps). Seymour Hicks (1871-1949) and Ellaline Terriss (1872-1971) were the English theatre’s ideal couple, both on and off stage. Hicks was actor-manager and author of 64 plays, who appeared in films from 1913 until his death. Terriss frequently partnered him on stage, film, and in music hall. This film gives a vivid impression of the British musical stage before the First World War. The items presented are:
“The latest American dance sensation THE BUMBLE BEE STING as being danced with enormous success nightly by SEYMOUR HICKS”
“FACIAL EXPRESSIONS BY SEYMOUR HICKS – ‘some do it this way’ (the various ways of kissing)”; followed by “The various ways of taking medicine”
“MISS ELLALINE TERRISS and original company in her well known dance from the Musical play THE MODEL AND THE MAID (‘If I were a boy’)”.
“The ever popular ragtime ALEXANDER’S RAG TIME BAND by Seymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss”.
The penultimate item is puzzling: no production of this title can be traced. A short-lived musical The Medal and the Maid, with music by Sidney Jones and Paul Rubens, was produced in London in 1903, but Ellaline Terriss was not in the cast, though her brother Tom was. It was not revived. - A funny record of the two musical comedy artists.

ARE WE DOWN-HEARTED? (Hepwix Vivaphone, GB, c.1911). D: Frank Wilson?; CAST: Hay Plumb; DigiBeta [35mm orig. l: 176 ft], 3' (transferred at 16 fps?), sound. *No 35mm print of this film is currently available for screening. Cecil Hepworth originally devised his Vivaphone synchronized sound system to record prominent politicians from the Conservative and Unionist Party on the subject of tariff reform in 1908-09. Soon he was filming actors miming to popular records of the day, turning out approximately two each week, many directed by Frank Wilson.
The disc of Charles Bignell singing “Are We Downhearted – No!” (music and lyrics: Worton David and Lawrence Wright) was issued in December 1910. In Hepworth’s synchronized visual version, the main performer is a well-known actor, director and writer, Hay Plumb (1882-1960). He is assisted by Madge Campbell, Jack Hulcup, Chrissie White, Alma Taylor, Jamie Darling (“whimsical walker”), and Frank Wilson as the bailiff. - A funny "all singing" film. A slightly high contrast print.

SWEET GENEVIEVE (H.B. Parkinson, for Master Films, GB 1921) D: ?; P: H.B. Parkinson; CAST: Evelyn Hope; 600 ft, 8' (20 fps). Henry Tucker’s music was written in 1869 to accompany George Cooper’s poem, written on the death of his beloved young wife some 15 years earlier. It remained popular for many years, and featured in the 1953 comedy film Genevieve, with Kay Kendall miming to the trumpet of Kenny Baker. This 1921 interpretation was advertised in the series “Famous Songs of Long Ago”, reissued by the Standard Film Agency in October 1925. Complete band scores of the accompaniment were provided for exhibitors. -

RADIO AND RADIANCE (H.B. Parkinson, GB, 1925-26). D: ?; P: H.B. Parkinson; 189 ft, 3’ (20 fps). Released in January 1926, this was the seventh of eight in the series “Across the Footlights”, distributed by Graham-Wilcox Productions. It features a test broadcast from the BBC 2.L.O. studios, Savoy Hill, London. Artistes appearing include Iris White, Eddie Morris, The Dancing Radios, and, uncredited, the comedian Tommy Handley. - A fascinating radio document.

SYNCOPATED MELODIES: THE TIN-CAN FUSILIERS (H.B. Parkinson, GB 1927). D: J. Stevens-Edwards; P: H.B. Parkinson; 243 ft, 3'24" (20 fps). Harry B. Parkinson (1884-1970) was a prolific producer and director of “interest films”, mostly remembered for his suppressed The Life Story of Charlie Chaplin (1926) and for his films of London life. In addition he made some imaginative sing-along films, with variations of the bouncing-ball technique. This example, from the “Syncopated Melodies” series, illustrates a popular song of 1926, one of approximately 600 written by the sheet music publisher Lawrence Wright (1888-1964) under the nom-de-plume of Horatio Nicholls. - A sing-along film, and the Verdi audience did sing.

SYNCOPATED MELODIES: BARCELONA (H.B. Parkinson, for Fred White, GB 1927). D: J. Stevens-Edwards; P: H.B. Parkinson; DP: Jack Miller, William Harcourt; CAST: Jack Hylton and His Famous Band, Sidney Firman and The London Radio Orchestra; 825 ft, 11' (20 fps). The song “Barcelona” was written in 1925 by Tolchard Evans (music) and Gus Kahn (lyrics). This was the first in H.B. Parkinson’s series of 12 “Syncopated Melodies”. At the end of the film the audience is requested to join in. -This belongs to the predecessors of the music video. A revolving turntable transforms into a revolving dance platform. The infectuous power of music.

GWEN FARRAR AND BILLY MAYERL IN “I’VE GOT A SWEETIE ON THE RADIO” (De Forest Phonofilms, GB 1926). D: ?; CAST: Gwen Farrar, Billy Mayerl; 352 ft, 4'27” (22 fps), sound. The deep-voiced, cello-playing comedienne Gwen Farrar (1899-1944) was best known as the on- and off-stage partner of the more lady-like Norah Blaney (1894-1984) throughout most of the 1920s and 30s. However, between 1926 and 1931 they seem to have separated, with Farrar forming a double act with the pianist and prolific composer Billy Mayerl (1902-1959), who at 23 had been soloist for the British premiere of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. Farrar and Mayerl stirred early attention with their renderings of James V. Monaco’s “Masculine Women! Feminine Men!” (performed by them in a 1929 B.I.P. short). The present song was composed by Mayerl and Kenneth Western, half of another music hall act, the Western Brothers. - A funny comedy scene with highly original comedians.

BILLY MERSON SINGING “DESDEMONIA” (De Forest Phonofilms, GB 1926). D: ?; CAST: Billy Merson; 357 ft, 4'30" (22 fps), sound. Song: “Desdemonia” (music and lyrics: Billy Merson). Billy Merson (born William Henry Thompson, 1881-1947) was a versatile comedian who had worked in circus, music hall, revue, pantomime, and musical comedy. Maurice Chevalier, who appeared with him in Hullo, America (Palace Theatre, London, 1918), later wrote, “this man had everything”. Along with “The Spaniard that Blighted My Life” and “On the Good Ship Yacki Hicki Doola”, “Desdemonia”, performed wearing the draughty, abbreviated chiton of ancient Greece, was one of his best-loved numbers. The present main title – apparently added in recent years – incorrectly calls the song “Desdemona”. The film was one of a series of 5 De Forest Phonofilms produced under the supervision of Vivian Van Damm, who managed the Clapham Studios in south London. - A comedy song routine.

J.H. SQUIRE AND HIS CELEBRATED CELESTE OCTET (British Sound Film Productions, GB 1928). D: ?; 407 ft, 5' (22 fps), sound. De Forest Phonofilm was renamed British Sound Film Productions (BSFP) in 1928, after Isidore Schlesinger took over the business. - J.H. Squire (1880-1956) formed the Celeste Octet in 1913; between 1923 and 1955 he gave over 500 radio broadcasts, as well as recording discs for Columbia. The Octet consisted of celeste, piano, cello, viola, and 4 violins. - In this incomplete print, Squire promises a “Cook’s Tour” of Russia, India, Italy, Finland, and Ireland. Russia is represented by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, India by Amy Woodford-Finden’s ballad “Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar”. Bizarrely, a snatch of Mozart’s overture to Le nozze di Figaro, set in Seville, appears to represent Italy. Lost footage robs us of Finland, and most of Ireland too. - Contrary to the programme note, the film seems complete: Finlandia (Jean Sibelius) is heard as the second-to-last entry, and The Minstrel Boy is the final one.

THE VICTORIA GIRLS IN THEIR FAMOUS DANCING MEDLEY (BSFP [Phonofilm], GB 1928). D: Hugh Croise?; mus. dir: Jack Weaver with The Victoria Palace Orchestra; 699 ft, 9' (22 fps), sound. The Victoria Girls – a fixture in the bills of the Victoria Palace music hall – were formed in 1923 under the name “The Moss Girls” (the theatre was part of the Moss variety circuit), and were trained by Mr. and Mrs. Rodney Hudson. They appeared in the Royal Variety Shows in 1927 and 1928.Here the 8 Victoria Girls dance, together and separately, to numbers that include “Diane” (music: Erno Rapee), “Rain” (music: Eugene Ford), and “Let a Smile Be Your Umbrella” (music: Sammy Fain). - A funny phonofilm. The Victoria Girls have shapely legs.

GORNO’S ITALIAN MARIONETTES (BSFP [Phonofilm], GB 1929). D: Jack Harrison; supv. dir: Henrik Galeen; DP: Arpad Viragh; mus. dir: Philip Braham; sd. rec: F.K. Crowther; 543 ft, 7' (22 fps), sound. The Gorno Marionettes were an old-established Italian family company. Their association with Phonofilm was not fortunate: the marionettes were destroyed in a fire at Wembley Studios in October 1929, a month after Phonofilm opened there. - The puppets present three items: (1) “Hello, Sunshine, Hello” (music: Harry Tobias; lyrics: Charles Tobias and Jack Murray) is performed by “Miss Drage assisted by Three Plain Vans”. (2) “Jan Olson in Dimples and Tears” parodies Al Jolson in “Sonny Boy” (“you were sent from Hades, to me right here on earth!”). (3) “I’m Crazy Over You” (music and lyrics: Al Sherman and Sam Lewis) is performed by the black singers, “The 3 Duns. Done, Underdone and Overdone”. - A puppet film with blackface aspects.

TEDDY BROWN AND HIS XYLOPHONE (British Phototone Co., GB 1928). D: J.B. Sloane; P: Ludwig (Louis) Blattner; DP: Karl Freund; CAST: Teddy Brown; 179 ft, 2' (24 fps), sound. Song: “I Want to Be Alone with Mary Brown” (music and lyrics: Edgar Leslie and Joe Gilbert). British Phototone was linked with Lignose-Horfilm GmbH in Berlin, which employed a film-disc synchronized device. In August 1928, 16 artists (including Teddy Brown) went from Britain to Germany to produce 50 shorts. Karl Freund served as chief cameraman. - An American of generous girth, Teddy Brown (born Abraham Himmelbrand, 1900-1946) also played saxophone and drums, and worked with the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra for 4 years before turning to dance-band work. He finally achieved popularity in cabaret and variety with his xylophone act. -Teddy Brown is a very big musician, dexterous with the xylophone.

HEROES OF THE SEA (British International Pictures, GB 1928-30). Compiler: Joseph Grossman; mus. dir: John Reynders; 520 ft, 6' (24 fps), sound. This promotional film for the Royal National Lifeboat Association was assembled by B.I.P. studio manager Joe Grossman from silent footage taken from several of the company’s features, including Castleton Knight’s Goodwin Sands and its sound version The Lady from the Sea, The Manxman (dir. Alfred Hitchcock), and the pioneering multi-lingual talkie Atlantic (dir. E.A. Dupont). - John Reynders (1888-1953) was the director of music at the Tivoli cinema in the Strand, London, in the 1920s. As music director at British International Pictures, 1928-1932, he conducted over 70 recorded film scores, including Blackmail, Atlantic, Under the Greenwood Tree, Elstree Calling, Murder!, Rich and Strange, The Informer, Piccadilly, A Romance of Seville, High Seas, The Vagabond Queen, The Flying Scotsman, and The Woman He Scorned. From 1935 he conducted light music concerts and musical productions with the BBC. - A dramatic seafaring montage with music.

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