Sunday, October 05, 2014

Driven! The Desmet Automobile Show (curated by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi for Pordenone 2014)

Jewel Thieves Outwitted. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
Al volante! / Driven! The Desmet Automobile Show
With e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Maud Nelissen, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 5 Oct 2014

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi (GCM catalogue and website): "As the internal-combustion automobile (also known as the “horseless carriage”) approached its first quarter-century at the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the thrill of speed was a universally shared sensation, in a way that far exceeded the earlier marvel of the railway: now the vehicle and the mastery of speed was in our own hands – we were emancipated from the authority of the official driver. Speed inspired artists: the Futurist Manifesto was published in February 1909, just when speeds at Daytona Beach were topping 125 miles (201.17 kilometres) per hour. Popular art could be more sceptical, like the English music hall song of 1908:"

"A hundred miles an hour he went, and quite enjoyed the fun, Till a brewer’s dray got in his way and his day’s work was done. Motor racing was the new sports thrill: in the U.S., the Vanderbilt Cup was launched in 1904, and in Europe, the French Grand Prix was established in 1906. The last Grand Prix before the First World War, in 1914, was won by Christian Lautenschlager’s Mercedes, averaging 65 mph (104.61 km/h), while Peugeot drivers reached averages of 99 mph (159.33 km/h) in other events. Such races were jointly promoted by tyre manufacturers like Goodyear, Pirelli, Continental, and Michelin. Before the Great War, when the internal-combustion automobile would move on to new uses and inspire more sombre images, motor cars were still essentially a mark of status for the affluent. Motor shows flourished, displaying ever more innovative models. Motor excursions were a social fashion. Controlled-access highways were introduced. By 1910, Turin’s FIAT was among the largest automotive companies, opening a factory in New York following successful export. Overall, car production grew rapidly, as companies like Ford (established in 1903) converted to the assembly-line concept in 1913, making cars more and more available to the masses."

"And for film-makers, motor cars and the thrills of speed were irresistible. They offered a chic and up-to-the-minute new style for travelogues. For comedies, reckless driving was an inexhaustible source of fun – and the cars of a century ago proved to be worthy of the “endurance races” they had been subjected to, standing up very well to being bumped around, without the deception of trick effects. The motor car could also be a dramatic tool to speed up the action, though equally sometimes a pleasing distraction from the flow of the narrative."

"This selection of films reflects some of the ways in which motor cars were celebrated in the films of the pre-War era. All but three of these films come from the great Desmet Collection now held by EYE Filmmuseum. Jean Desmet (1875-1956) went from being a fairground showman to become an important Amsterdam exhibitor and distributor until World War I. When he gave up his business, he thriftily retained anything that might be of value, including posters, publicity materials, and films, some 900 of which still remain in the collection. The Desmet Collection (1907-1916), bearing witness to many popular phenomena of pre-war society by bringing us what was fashionable among the audiences of the time, will be commemorated in an exhibition, accompanied by an extensive catalogue, in Amsterdam, starting in December 2014." – Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi

All prints are from the EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. All film notes by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi and David Robinson.

LES DÉBUTS D’UN CHAUFFEUR (Der chauffeur als Anfänger) (Pathé – FR 1906) D: Georges Hatot; SC: André Heuzé; VFX, SFX: Segundo de Chomón; C: André Deed; 35 mm, 60 m, 3' (18 fps); no titles.
    "A demon motorist who runs down old ladies, policemen, perambulators, market stalls, and men on ladders provided even better quarry for the early French chase film than rolling pumpkins and runaway bulls. The car chase was to prove an enduring tradition, still doing frequent service a century later." - AA: A comedy, a road movie, a demolition derby, a chase movie. An early example of the film farce concept where the world perishes as the demon motorist speeds on. Lamp posts, baby carriages, vegatable stands, cyclists, porcelain services and horse carriages are demolished. Good slapstick. A beautiful print.
Les Pyrénées pittoresques. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
LES PYRÉNÉES PITTORESQUES (Een autotocht in de Pyreneën) (Pathé – FR 1909) D: ?; 35 mm, 120 m, 6' (18 fps), col. (stencil-colour); no titles.
    "Four young ladies, with their chauffeur and guide (with redundant megaphone) tour the beauties of the mountains with their picturesque waterfalls. The motor car and its passengers contribute human interest and continuity to this beautifully stencilled travelogue. A novelty is the masked screen, showing the audience the landscape as it is seen by the ladies through their binoculars." - AA: A travelogue. Beautiful composition, a sense of the sublime in the landscape, spectacular use of the very long shot. This print gives a good sense of a refined use of the stencil colour.
Auto di Robinet. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
AUTO DI ROBINET (Ambrosio – IT 1911) D: Marcel Fabre; C: Marcel Fabre (Robinet); 35 mm, 82 m, 4' (18 fps); col. (tinted, Desmet method); no titles.
    "A later Italian version of the chase film. Robinet’s apparent lack of a vehicle registration plate sets off a chase by a band of idiotic and apparently blind police on bicycles. In this case it is the pursuers, not the motor car, which precipitates chaos. As a pay-off, Robinet reveals that his registration plate has been there all the time, had they known where to look." - AA: A farce, a chase film. The police force thinks Robinet has no registration plate, and the entire police bicycle corps is set to chase him. They are the most bumbling and inept policemen ever seen. They stumble upon a railway roadblock, a ladder... The ineptitude of the police is of cosmic magnitude. When they reach Robinet, he displays the registration attached at the back of his pants.
Panne d'auto. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.

Panne d'auto. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
PANNE D’AUTO (Een autopech) (Celio Film – IT 1912) D: Baldassare Negroni; C: Francesca Bertini, Gemma de Ferrari, Alberto Collo, Emilio Ghione; orig. l: 320 m; 35 mm, 269 m, 13' (18 fps), col. (tinted); titles: DUT; Desmet Collection.
    "In this charming and precocious comedy-romance, the heroine challenges her rival suitors to compete to prove who is the fastest driver. The moustachio’d Lieutenant breaks his earlier records by reaching 100 kilometres within 15 minutes. Alberto’s 24-horsepower racer struggles to travel 10 kilometres before breaking down, leaving the couple stranded in the countryside. Even though Alberto proves a rather incompetent provider of food and drink in an emergency, the afternoon develops into a romantic countryside adventure, and love. Thus, despite his poor motoring prowess, Alberto proves the victor. After the breakdown and subsequent love-making, the motor starts up surprisingly readily – suggesting that already, a century ago, a breakdown could be contrived as a convenient seduction opportunity." - AA: A romantic comedy. Alice declares that of her two rivals she will pick the fastest driver. Alberto seems hopeless as his car breaks down by a spectacular landscape. In the middle of nowhere Alberto takes Alice to a walk in the nature, they touch, she surrenders... with faces glowing they return home, as upon their return to the car it turns out that the "car trouble" was a ruse by Albert. Beautiful print, beautiful toning and tinting.

LES GORGES DE SIERROZ (Eclipse – FR 1913) D: ?; 35 mm, 85 m, 4' (18 fps), col. (tinted); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "A travelogue which appears to be more concerned with promoting bridges and auto roads than celebrating the natural splendours of the area. The “touring” car (model unidentified) – shown in impressive panning shots – is demonstrated as a means of sightseeing. The editing is curious in its continuous alternation of the waterfalls and the car emitting smoke." - AA: A travelogue with a lot of very long shots of mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, including a boat ride into the caves. Beautiful cinematography, fine toning and tinting.
Léonce flirte. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
LÉONCE FLIRTE (Gaumont – FR 1913) D: Léonce Perret; C: Léonce Perret (Léonce), Suzanne Grandais (Suzanne); 35 mm, 310 m, 15' (18 fps), col. (tinted and toned); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "An episode in the ongoing saga of Léonce and Suzanne’s turbulent but loving married life. Spotting him through her binoculars flirting with an elegant lady, Suzanne departs the marital home in a huff – and in the family automobile. The automobile contrives to break down, obliging her to spend the night in a fisherman’s cottage, where Léonce, bicycle-borne, catches up with her. The cottage has only one bedroom, which the couple must share... The next day the automobile, having thus effected reconciliation, discreetly returns them home." - AA: A romantic comedy, Léonce Perret at his best, probably shooting at the Côte d'Azur. A comedy of remarriage, with Léonce winning back his beloved Suzanne, another piece of evidence of Perret as an originator of a noble line in the cinema that continued with Lubitsch, McCarey, Renoir, and Ophuls.

ROBINET CHAUFFEUR MIOPE (Ambrosio – IT 1914) D: Marcel Fabre; C: Marcel Fabre (Robinet); 35 mm, 127 m, 7' (18 fps); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "Despite his chronic myopia (he has some difficulty finding his way into the car) Robinet takes a driving lesson from a firm that promises a licence within 24 hours. However, the destruction to the city caused by his first lesson costs him dearly: his apartment is left with not even a bed. Again the familiar car-chase stunts are done with surprising immediacy and vigour." - AA: A farce, a chase, a comedy of destruction, Robinet chauffeur miope belongs to the same line of development as Les Débuts d'un chauffeur, the first film in this programme. During his driving lesson Robinet destroys the city - not just objects but entire houses and is stopped by nothing less than a steamroller. There is no lynching here but a long line of damages claimants. Robinet is left with not a penny and but a tiny carpet on which he can sleep. Interesting tinting (olive). A good print.
L'automobile della morte. Photo: EYE Filmmuseum/Desmet Collection. Click to enlarge.
L’AUTOMOBILE DELLA MORTE (De doodenrit) (Ambrosio – IT 1912) D: ?; C: Oreste Grandi, Mario Bonnard; 35 mm, 249 m, 13' (18 fps), col. (tinted); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "The automobile is central to this dark drama and its equivocal but presumably tragic ending. Oreste Grandi plays a motor taxi driver who is ruined and driven into exile in France through his wife’s selfish extravagance, but returns to avenge himself for her infidelity in his absence." - AA: A tragedy. The synopsis is above. The hatpin is the incriminating piece of evidence in this story of a disastrous marriage. The driver with his goggles and his massive fur coat reminds me of Jean Cocteau's review of Orson Welles's Macbeth. The finale is the death drive of the desperate driver who has taken his unhappy wife Nini with him. We see the wreckage by the shore. A fine composition, a beautiful print, maybe with a slightly duped look but lovely.

[ZIGOTO PROMÈNE SES AMIS] (Zigoto en zijn automobiel) (Gaumont – FR 1912) D: Jean Durand; C: Jean Durand (Zigoto); 35 mm 104 m, 6' (18 fps), col. (tinted); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "The car is the unchallenged star, as it gyrates madly across roads, descends stairways, and repeatedly and destructively bursts into innocent homes. The leading vehicle must have been very stoutly constructed to withstand all this. It has a double for the later scenes, where it has been so beaten up that its wheels are at a pitiful angle, though it is still able to transport Zigoto’s persistently long-suffering friends." - AA: A farce, a demolition comedy. Again the world is at peril. With his car Zigoto assaults clothing stores, construction sites... the car catches fire and is extinguished by water. Zigoto gets to haul his car back home. An ok print with a slightly low contrast.

JEWEL THIEVES OUTWITTED (Hepworth – GB 1913) D: Frank Wilson; C: Jack Hulcup, Violent Hopson, Rachel de Solla, Harry Royston; 35 mm, 216 m, 11' (18 fps); no titles; Desmet Collection.
    "This may well be the most ambitious chase film of pre-war years: the hero’s efforts to avoid the murderous jewel thieves involve horse-drawn transport, trains, automobiles, and a lengthy and well-shot sequence with an aeroplane – an invention with less than a decade of history." - AA: A crime film, a thriller, an action film, a chase film. An early exciting example of British wit in crime action cinema, before Alfred Hitchcock, before James Bond. Impressive mise-en-scène, a dynamic sense of space, a natural talent in filming action, vigorous editing, resembling early adventure serials. An often beautiful print with a slightly high contrast from a source with occasional damage.

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