Take Five: Happy New Year!

A Happy New Year to all readers of my blog, and thanks very much for your support, visits, comments and ‘likes’ during 2014. I’m hoping to post a bit more regularly here over the coming 12 months, so watch this space.

A while back, I launched a series of mini-reviews mentioning 5 films on a particular theme – I’m now resurrecting the idea for a quick look at some movies about New Year, in no particular order.

Cavalcade 81. Cavalcade (Frank Lloyd, 1933): I’ve just got round to watching this pre-Code, an adaptation of a stage play by Noel Coward which revolves around a series of tableaux centred on momentous events in British life. It begins with New Year’s Eve at the dawn of the 20th century, and runs through to New Year’s Eve 1933.  The way it blends together the story of two families above and below stairs clearly shows the way forward to TV series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs, while the intensely-felt central performance of Diana Wynyard as an aristocratic mother at times reminded me of Celia Johnson in Coward’s later classic, Brief Encounter. I really enjoyed it, despite the fact that many people don’t. Anyway, yes, it is episodic, but what great episodes. Also, the music is excellent, especially Ursula Jeans’ performance of Coward’s song Twentieth Century Blues – even if you don’t want to see the whole film, just treat yourself to this clip!

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The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

Martin Harvey 1I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.

Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the  play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.

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The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

This is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon, being organised by  Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures blogs. Please note I will be discussing the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter, both the film and the book.
The Scarlet Letter 9Great Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) is regularly hailed as one of the very greatest silent films. However, The Scarlet Letter, a movie he made just two years earlier with the same screenwriter, Frances Marion, and the same main stars, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, tends to be strangely overlooked. Yet, for my money, his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is another masterpiece – and, as with The Wind (which has at least had a Spanish release), I can hardly believe there isn’t a DVD available.

It is about time Sjöström and Gish got the recognition they deserved, and  that both these great films were released on DVD, and preferably Blu-ray too. Sadly, the only way I could see The Scarlet Letter was on Youtube, where the picture quality wasn’t very good – but the film’s astonishing power shone through all the same. (It is occasionally shown on TCM in the USA, but I don’t think it is ever screened on TV in the UK, where I live.)

Portraits by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for the film to be made and how it was her project all the way. I won’t go over all this ground again, but please do read Jenni’s posting.

During filming for MGM, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson acted their parts in English and Swedish respectively – something which was possible in the silent era – but you would never know that by watching. They both give great performances as the heroine, Hester Prynne, and the tortured young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, while another fine actor of the era, Henry B Walthall, dominates several scenes as the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. (His name exactly suggests his chilling personality.) Gish  expresses her character’s suffering and passion through her eyes, as she also does in The Wind.

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Nicholas Nickleby (George Nichols, 1912)

Harry Benham plays Nicholas Nickleby

Harry Benham plays Nicholas Nickleby

After enjoying the 1911 version of A Tale of Two Cities, I was interested to see another early silent adaptation of a Dickens novel made the following year. However, I must say I don’t feel George Nichols’ three-reel version of Nicholas Nickleby, one of  many short films made by the Thanhouser Film Corporation at this time, works nearly as well. The main problem is that the novel is so much longer, with so many different plot elements to include.

The good news is that the Thanhouser company has put the whole film online. In region 2, it is also included on the BFI’s Dickens Before Sound  and as an extra on a newly-restored Studiocanal DVD release of the 1947 Nicholas Nickleby. In region 1, it is as an extra on Thanhouser’s release of the company’s David Copperfield from 1911.

Inevitably, as it tries to cram an enormous book into only around 30 minutes (and some prints are even shorter at 20), this film is really a series of short scenes from the novel and relies on the audience’s knowledge of the book. There are very few intertitles – usually I’m glad if a silent film is sparing on these, as they can break up the flow of the action, but here there are so few that it is hard to follow. Also, any trace of Dickens’ comedy is lost along with his language, and just the melodrama is left.  It all feels far more disjointed than the early ATOTC, as it quickly moves from a quick burst of Dotheboys Hall (I was rather surprised to see that Squeers has two eyes in this version!) to a glimpse of the Crummles theatre company and then the attempt to force Madeline Bray into a marriage to an older man – as well as Sir Mulberry Hawk’s evil pursuit of Kate Nickleby.

Mignon Anderson plays Madeline Bray

Mignon Anderson plays Madeline Bray

Most of the acting is highly melodramatic, with Frances Gibson, in particular, playing Kate in a very stagey way and giving an interesting feeling of how a theatrical melodrama around this period must have looked. Mignon Anderson gives a similar performance as Madeline, swooning to the floor. But Harry Benham, as Nicholas, seems surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic. A robust figure with his hair cut short, he doesn’t look at all how I’ve ever pictured the character, or indeed anything like Phiz’s illustrations, but his acting stands out from that of the rest of the cast.

BFI’s taster for silent Dickens – and lamentations over lost films

Thanks so much to everyone who has shown an interest in my Dickens in December series of postings. I’m getting the impression that quite a few people are particularly fascinated by the silent adaptations – it is amazing to realise that there were around 100 silent films of his works during that era, though many have sadly been lost.

I don’t have all that much time tonight, but thought I’d share a link to the BFI’s taster for the surviving Dickens silent films. This has left me very keen to see the adaptation of  David Copperfield made in 1913 by Thomas Bentley, which is said to be the second oldest feature-length British film (I don’t know what the very oldest was!)  There are a few minutes of footage included on the Dickens Before Sound DVD, but I now really want to see the whole thing.

Luckily, the 1913 British film of David Copperfield does survive complete, although it hasn’t been released on DVD, so I should hopefully be able to get hold of it at some time.

However, there are many other lost or unavailable silents which I would love to see. For instance, a 1914 two-reel version of Martin Chuzzlewit with Alan Hale, so great as a supporting actor in many 1930s Warner films, playing the young Martin – this is said to survive in George Eastman House’s collection, so it may emerge at some time, but it may remain as just a tempting thought. There were also two versions of The Chimes made the same year, now lost, as well as a Hard Times in 1915, a Great Expectations in 1917 – and the list goes on. Another one I’m especially sorry not to get a chance to see is A Tale of Two Cities from 1922, starring Clive Brook as Sydney Carton.  There are plenty of Dickens adaptations which are available and which will keep me busy for ages, but it is sad to think how much has been lost. I’ll once again link to the excellent page at The Bioscope blog which lists all the silent Dickens productions that were made, both those which still exist and those which are gone forever.

Two Dickens film snippets from 1901

I haven’t got time to write a full posting tonight, but will just give links to a couple of fascinating very early Dickens adaptations, really just fragments, both dating from 1901. The first is thought to be the very earliest Dickens film in existence, and was recently rediscovered in the BFI’s archive in London after having been wrongly labelled in the past. Entitled The Death of Poor Jo, and only a minute long,  it shows the death of the crossing sweeper from Bleak House. Thanks to Gina from Dickensblog for reminding me about this clip!

The second is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, a very early version of A Christmas Carol – only about half of the film survives, making three-and-a-half minutes of footage, but it covers quite a lot of the story through a series of brief scenes. I was impressed to see that even in 1901 the adaptation includes some special effects, such as Marley’s face appearing in the door knocker, and the spirits standing between Scrooge in the foreground and the scenes from Christmas past appearing in the background.

Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922)

Oliver Twist 1922 1After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917),  I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the  poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.

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A Tale of Two Cities (1911 and 1917)

Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton

Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton

More Dickens in December – and I’m back to silent cinema, though I do promise to include some later films in this series of postings too! Some Dickens works seem to be constantly adapted for the screen, notably Great Expectations, with two new versions in the past year alone – I’m hoping to see the latest Mike Newell film later this week. Others don’t get adapted so often, if at all. These days, A Tale of Two Cities falls into the latter camp, as it hasn’t been adapted for the screen since the 1989 mini-series starring James Wilby. But in the past it was a favourite with adapters, and over the last couple of days I’ve enjoyed watching two early silent American versions.

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A Christmas Carol (J Searle Dawley, 1910)

AChristmasCarol1910 1A Christmas Carol has probably been filmed, staged and adapted more than just about any other literary work. As my ‘Dickens in December’ season carries on, I’d be very interested to hear which adaptations of this great tale are other people’s favourites – my own, out of those I’ve seen to date, is probably the Alastair Sim version, though I do also love the more recent Patrick Stewart film, which my family often watches at Christmas.

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Dickens in December

As a lifelong Dickens obsessive, I’ve been vaguely intending all year to do a series of postings on films based on his books for his bicentenary, but have only got round to a couple of postings, on the 1935 films of David Copperfield and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Now it’s December and, if I don’t get down to it right now, the moment (or the year) will be gone.

Of course, Christmas is always thought of as the season for Dickens (though there was a lot more to him as a writer than that)  – so I’m going to aim to post something about films associated with and inspired by my favourite novelist every day this month. Realistically, I don’t think I will come up with a full-length review every day, but there will be something Dickensian here for those few people who keep faith with my erratic blogging.

dickens before soundTo start off with, let me just recommend the region 2 BFI DVD Dickens Before Sound, which followed on from their fascinating Silent Shakespeare collection. It features some of the very earliest film adaptations of  Dickens, made between 1901 and  the 1920s. Most of the films are very short and focus on just brief incidents from his novels, but they give a feeling of just how well-known and well-loved his works were. I was especially amazed by Gabriel Grub, a series of lantern slides portraying the short story from Pickwick  Papers which was the inspiration for A Christmas Carol.  Also featured are an adaptation of the Carol from 1901, DW Griffith’s version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and more snippets from Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, as well as Frank Lloyd’s full-length silent feature of Oliver Twist from 1922. Of course, Dickens’ voice and use of language are central to his appeal, but he is also a very visual writer, who was interpreted by great illustrators like Cruikshank and Phiz, and adapted for the stage from the very beginning – and these  early films tie in with that.