Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Blacksmith (the 1921 version = the first version = unreleased in the US)

THE BLACKSMITH (Saltarello fabbro) (Comique Film Corporation, Inc., US, 1921 / 1922) D, SC: Buster Keaton, Mal St. Clair; P: Joseph M. Schenck; DP: Elgin Lessley; tech. dir: Fred Gabourie; C: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts.

Version 1 (Malec forgeron): 1921; not released in US. DCP (from 35 mm, 496 m.), 20' (22 fps); source: Lobster Films, Paris. No intertitles. Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone), grand piano: Neil Brand, 12 Oct 2013

In the presence of Fernando Peña (Buenos Aires) and Serge Bromberg.
Screened earlier: Version 2: 1922; released in US through First National. DCP (from 35 mm, 550 m.), 21' (22 fps); source: Lobster Films, Paris. English intertitles, with French subtitles. Benshi commentary: Ichiro Kataoka; M: John Sweeney.

David Robinson: "For many The Blacksmith remains one of Keaton’s best-loved shorts. The narrative line is casual, but the film has memorable moments: the giant horseshoe magnet that snatches everything in sight, from a cart-wheel to the sheriff’s badge; Buster the horseshoe clerk, deferring to his demanding equine client; a sprung support devised for a saddle-sore equestrienne; the dirtying-up of a patrician white horse and the systematic destruction of a couple of automobiles."

"The film now commands fresh attention, however, with the discovery that it was made in two different versions, probably shot as much as 10 months apart. The revelation comes from Fernando Peña, already celebrated for his part in two major discoveries in the Museo del Cine de Buenos Aires: the complete version of Metropolis and the fragmentary My Son, the only known surviving film of the legendary Yevgeni Cherviakov (it was screened at last year’s Giornate). Peña was not particularly excited to discover The Blacksmith in a cache of 9.5mm films bought by his friend and fellow collector Fabio Manes – until they screened it and found much of the action quite different from the known versions. The film had French subtitles, which led Peña to consult Serge Bromberg. In turn, Bromberg sought out 35 mm prints of The Blacksmith that had survived in France. His hunch was rewarded: two of these – including one in Lobster’s own collection – proved to contain the scenes from Mr. Peña’s version, along with an extra gag, and a further scene which the French distributors probably thought too saucy for home viewers on 9.5mm. Lobster have now restored this version and the Giornate is privileged to present its premiere screening."

"The months since the discovery have led to energetic detective work on both sides of the Atlantic to try to reconstruct the history of the two Blacksmiths. John Bengtson, the undisputed authority on Hollywood silent film locations, has demonstrated that scenes in the two versions were filmed several months apart: in the interim new buildings have appeared and existing ones changed: Hollywood was developing fast in those years (see Bengtson’s “Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations” website)."

"Meanwhile, Susan Buhrman discovered two obscure but vital newspaper reports. On 22 September 1921, the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger reported that Keaton had just finished The Blacksmith, and that it would be forwarded to New York for preview within the next week. Not until January 1922 however was there a report of any preview, when the magazine Photoplay moaned that “There is hardly a smile in his latest comedy, if such it can be called. The situations are forced and his work laborious. His scenario writer should consult Webster and discover that the words silly and funny are not synonymous”. The attack was premature. The Blacksmith was not to be released until 6 months later, and then – as we now know – in a much revised version."

"In speculating on the chronology of the two versions of The Blacksmith, we are helped by knowing that the production schedule at the Keaton studio was fairly regular: generally the time between releases stayed close to an average of 35 days. If the first version of The Blacksmith was ready for shipping on 22 September 1921, therefore, it had presumably been started not later than the second week of August. This followed a period of inactivity. In the spring of 1921 Keaton had to abandon The Electric House when he broke his ankle on a prop escalator, while on 31 May he married Natalie Talmadge – two contrasting distractions. It seems likely that The Blacksmith marked resumption of work in the studio, and it may be significant that Keaton does not undertake any major physical feats in the film, apart from a long shot of his being dragged on the back of a truck."

"Perhaps, however, production had taken place earlier than this speculative August-September dating, and the film, though completed, had already been held back, since by the time The Blacksmith was shipped to New York in the last week of September 1921, The Playhouse must already have been far into production: it was ready for release on 6 October 1921. A complicated production, The Playhouse must have been begun early in September, almost a month before The Blacksmith was deemed ready for shipping to New York. Perhaps Photoplay only corroborated Keaton’s own misgivings about The Blacksmith."

"The very much made-over version that is now familiar was finally issued on 21 July 1922. In the interim the studio had released The Playhouse, The Paleface, Cops, and My Wife’s Relations. We cannot guess when the new work on The Blacksmith was carried out, though there was a 4-month interruption in releases between Cops in February and My Wife’s Relations in June 1922, which might have provided some opportunity."

"So how did the apparently suppressed version get away – to reappear now, after 90 years? The only answer can be that in September 1921, before the need to rework the film had been acknowledged, a negative or prints of The Blacksmith had been optimistically shipped to France, where it was presumably screened commercially, and later reduced to 9.5 mm for the Pathé-Baby home projector market. Though launched in October 1922, it was not until 1927 that the Pathé Baby projector could project films as long as 15-20 minutes: the Argentinian 9.5 mm print is of the complete film, so must have been struck in this later period." – David Robinson

AA: The Blacksmith has been a dear film to me for a long time. As a schoolboy and as a student, when we were running various film societies, including ones based on 16 mm prints, I loved the classic comedies available at 16 mm rental companies such as Viihde-Kuva, and we screened The Blacksmith many times, but I believe it was the general release version of 1922. That was forty years ago so I cannot swear it was that version.

It was very rewarding to see both versions of The Blacksmith within a few days. The first observation is that even the scenes and gags we have always known get better when there is a chance to see them again. Of course also this film is available on dvd, but there is a fundamental difference in seeing a film like this with an appreciative audience. And what audience would not be appreciative to a masterpiece like this.

Joe Roberts plays the hulking blacksmith, and Buster Keaton plays his small but agile assistant.

They told there are some five minutes of unknown material in this rare first version of 1921, unreleased in the US. I believe those five minutes include scenes such as - Buster Keaton driving a motorcar, smoking a cigar, while the blacksmith is in prison - The steering wheel comes unstuck - Having lost control of the car Keaton runs over the blacksmith - The gag with Keaton carrying the long plank - The blacksmith chases Keaton, but when Keaton notices the silhouette of an undressing woman they take a break to watch - The chase goes on around a shack - The sweetheart emerges from the shack, and during the wild chase Keaton uses each fraction of a second to propose. Having locked up the blacksmith inside the shack he can finally focus on the proposing.

As a narrative this early version is more coherent. The happy ending (with a flash-forward to the young family with a child) is abrupt in the general release version, but here it is satisfyingly founded and inevitable.

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