As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014
Crainquebille (1922) || Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France) | Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster | Starring Maurice de Féraudy | Length 76 minutes || My Rating very good
The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.
For me, there’s something similar here to the way Fassbinder lays on the incidents and watches his character suffer under their weight. Feyder’s touch is lighter, though, and while things seem bleak at times, it never feels masochistic. The character of Jérôme Crainquebille (or “Bill” in the name given him by the original English-language release of the film) has a largely fatalistic approach to the way he’s treated, first arrested on a false accusation of abusing a bored cop, before being processed through the justice system and eventually released, shunned by his former customers. The scenes in the court, indeed, have an almost farcical quality to them, as we see defence, prosecution and judge respectively amuse themselves, showing little interest in what’s going on before them, and the statue of justice at the front of the courtroom turns and looks accusingly at the poor wretches in the dock.
What elevates the film is the almost naturalistic acting by Féraudy and the other minor characters (shopkeepers, cops, prostitutes and newsboys) who populate this world of street vendors based around the Les Halles market, itself long gone. The set design emphasises the dirt and shabbiness of these lives, punctuated a brief fantasy interlude in which Crainquebille imagines a life in the country, growing his own vegetables rather than selling them from his cart. And while tragedy at times seems inescapable, the film remains affectionate towards its impoverished characters, and allows for a little bit of hope to shine through the gloomy black-and-white.
Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora (The Cameraman’s Revenge, 1912, short film) || Director/Writer Władysław Starewicz | Length 12 minutes
A delightful film illustrating all the best qualities of this renowned Russian-born, Lithuanian-raised but largely France-based animator of the silent era, though this film dates from his Russian period. Starewicz (or Starewich depending on your taste for transliteration and anglicisation of the name) was known particularly for working with stop-motion animated insects, and here he presents a story of love and duplicity acted out by taxidermied beetles (the central couple), a floozy dragonfly and a jilted grasshopper. What’s nice is that the husband’s transgression in the Dragonfly cabaret is matched by the wife’s own fling with an artist, putting the two on equal pegging. The role of the grasshopper — playing the title character, a cameraman who gets his revenge by filming the husband’s dalliance first outside the cabaret and then at the Hôtel d’Amour — rather anticipates our own modern era of candid snapshots and handheld video footage being used in the court of public opinion.
Le printemps – Épisode 1: L’Éveil des sources – L’Éveil des nids (Spring, 1909, short film) || Director Louis Feuillade | Length 2 minutes
A very short and rather dull film involving a lot of sprites and nymphs, largely dressed in swirling diaphanous drapery, pirouetting around in the countryside, presumably as a form of moving classical painting illustrating the arrival of the season. Seems to have been one in a number of such portraits created by the prolific Feuillade, who is best known for his serials Les Vampires and Judex, but from looking at his filmography on IMDb, was clearly not lacking in work ethic.
Les Grenouilles qui demandent un roi (The Frogs Who Wanted a King, 1922, short film) || Director/Writer Władysław Starewicz | Length 9 minutes
Another animated short by Starewicz, this one a later film from his French period, and using taxidermied frogs rather than insects. It’s a satire on democratic government, as the frogs collectively demand from Jupiter a monarch who can rule more effectively than their elected government, but get instead a useless carved totem. When they complain, a stork is sent, which starts gobbling them up.
Crazy Like a Fox (1926, short film) || Director Leo McCarey | Writers Charley Chase and H. M. Walker | Cinematographer Len Powers | Starring Charley Chase | Length 25 minutes
A longer comedic piece from silent-era Hollywood which cleaves very much to all the slapstick ideals we’re familiar with from the Keystone Kops, Abbot & Costello, Laurel & Hardy and the like (indeed, there’s a brief appearance by Oliver Hardy as a mocked passer-by). The star here is Charley Chase, whose reputation has only recently started to be reinvigorated, and certainly he comes across as a dapper if unreliable romantic interest. He meets cute with a young girl at a railway station, as each of them is unwillingly on their way to an arranged marriage — with each other! Naturally, this misunderstanding leads to hilarity as Chase pretends to be crazy, as the title suggests. It’s not the most politically-correct of performances — involving as it does plenty of elastic facial gurning and use of wacky props — so the appearance of a grumbling blackface servant is very much of a piece with the rest. Still, it has a certain naive charm, even if the denouement is entirely unsurprising, and there’s a nice comeuppance for the bride’s snobby father.
Now You’re Talking (1927, short film) || Director Dave Fleischer | Writer Max Fleischer | Length 9 minutes
At first viewing, this feels like an instructional short, if a comic one, on the subject of telephone etiquette (and indeed, looking up its IMDb entry tells me that this is the case). It starts in live action, with a man failing to use his phone sensibly, before zooming into his cranium where an animation starts up which soon takes over the screen and has our phone lamenting his sad plight to a doctor, neglected and abused by simpletons who do not understand his precise technology and the new etiquette required for his use. Animated with a great deal of verve by the Fleischers, and filled with good gags, quickly transcending its instructional use.
Le Pompier des Folies Bergères (1928, short film) || Director unknown | Length 8 minutes
A short uncredited work known chiefly for the brief appearance of artistic cabaret dancer and sensation of Paris, Josephine Baker. Although she is clothed during an appearance on a Métro platform, dancing in front of the title character (a fireman who has stumbled out of the Folies), everyone else he meets morphs through his viewpoint into a dancing naked woman. It turns out this rather soft-core short was made by the aforesaid Folies as something of an advert for the affecting charms of their shows, though the gurning hero suggests more of a Benny Hill figure of comic lechery. His drunken eyes goggle through successive scenes of first women on the tram, and then even his firefighting colleagues, dissolving into images of naked women.