Saturday, 27 August 2016

Jeanne and John… Man, Woman and Sin (1927)


“The popular opinion that Miss Eagels is highly temperamental and is hard to work with has no foundation in fact, I know of no other actress I would rather have working under me than Miss Eagels.”

Monta Bell clearly believed in Jeanne Eagels who seems to have been one of those charged characters whose startling expressiveness drew heavily on an inner turmoil. A major star on Broadway, when her creative energy would tune with the live audience, she apparently doubted herself more in front of the camera and as a result, this film took a little longer than expected to make.

Jeanne also had problems with drink and drugs or rather her self-medication in response to stress-induced anxiety we can only guess at. She deserves the utmost respect for what she achieved all in spite of those personal odds.

Joining her in body and the spirits was of course John Gilbert – maniacally handsome and a winsome performer again in this film, top-billed, co-writer and giving an outstanding performance not only against type but also one of genuine pathos and subtlety. JG's a man as much sinned against as sinning and one whose only crime was to love the wrong woman (in fact and fiction...).

Jeanne Eagels and John Gilbert
Only two of Jeanne Eagels films survive, Man, Woman and Sin and The Letter – an early talkie also produced by Bell, for which she would receive a posthumous Oscar nomination. She died aged 39 in October 1929.

Having starred for four years on stage in Rain she was more than ready to play Vera Worth a street smart, society editor who just happens to be having a relationship with her paper’s owner Mr Bancroft (Marc McDermott). She’s a tough-talking hot-metal vet whose heart beats pure ink and which has healed over so many times it’s unlikely to ever break again.

Into her life walks Al Whitcomb (Gilbert) a cub reporter so green and trusting in the nobility of female spirit that surely she’ll just find him a laugh, toy with him and cast him away once boredom and the need for her expensive treats-in-kind kicks in.

Jeanne Eagels strikes a pose for the film's publicity team
We first see Al as a child (played by Philip Anderson) who lives in very humble circumstances down an alley where his mother earns a crust by ironing. The alley is mixed race and, strikingly for a film of this vintage, little is made of this: the neighbours just get on.

Out in front is the big house where rich folks live. Al takes the laundry round for the mother and falls for her pretty and completely unattainable daughter. One house in the street is said to be haunted and one day Al goes in and emerges as cool as he can, impressing the whole gang but especially the girl. One kid remarks that gangsters probably hid out there whilst the girl above his station drops her candy in admiration.

She’s already on a pedestal and her mother will make sure that Al never pulls her down.

Al at work
Fast forward and Al is now John Gilbert, still attached to his mother and still very earnest. He gets a job packing newspapers for delivery and starts to make his way.

Shockingly, aroused by pictures of movie stars in the paper, he decides to visit a brothel where, before things can develop too far, he has to come to the aid of one of his journalistic colleagues who has gotten too drunk and opinionated for house rules to accept. Sobered up and grateful he tells Al to report for a junior reporter’s job the next day.

Now things start to move, and Al is asked to attend the Presidential Ball with Vera. Kevin Brownlow has said that parts of the film had been cut because originally Gilbert was to be seen interviewing President Calvin Coolidge and locations were filmed around the White House. Eventually the politicians got cold feet and pulled these intriguing scenes... which is a shame as they would have lent considerably more depth to this broadsheet morality tale.

The presidential ball
John Gilbert, who co-wrote and partially directed said that the film “…could have been great but it wasn’t…” quoting “private reasons” which may have been Jeanne Eagel’s challenging working practices or, more likely, this interference from the Executive.

Al’s coverage of the Ball goes down a treat and Kevin Brownlow has described the sequence when he returns to the Bull Pen eyes glazed with the story he now has to write, as silent film at its best. There are no title cards just close-ups of Gilbert’s intensity: he has found his forte and maybe more…

Al in the newsroom
Even Vera, whom he describes as the most beautiful woman at the Ball, is starting to be won over by his puppy dog presence and, tiring of Bancroft’s variable enthusiasm, she starts to encourage his affections.

But can it last and once Bancroft discovers the two alone in her apartment – provided by him naturally – Vera tries to protect him by saying he’s been pestering her, but Al won’t have it and keeps on wanting to say the truth. Tempers flare and Bancroft lifts up a heavy lamp… the camera drops to focus on the men’s flailing legs as they battle for the weapon only for the older man to fall, dead, to the floor.

No spoilers!
This much the film’s promotional posters give away, but the question is now about consequences and whether Vera will work with Bancroft’s men to cover up and push the blame on Al – or will she finally commit to her own truth and save him…

Man, Woman and Sin is an unusual film for the period in its handling of relationships, leading men, smoking – Vera’s intake is mentioned a number of times – and race. Politics would have been on that list too… no doubt Louis B. Mayer would have hated it!

John Gilbert gives an outstanding performance – up to The Big Parade standards, whilst Jeanne Eagels shows what a strong performer she was: it was a privilege to see one of her few films and good to find a new, old name to remember.

Man, Woman and Sin is officially hard to find but I was lucky enough to attend a private screening on 35mm: maybe one day it will be shown again?

Saturday, 20 August 2016

War horse… A Couple of Down-And-Outs (1923) at BFI with John Sweeney


Eight million horses are estimated to have died during the First World War as mechanisation and weapons of mass destruction quickly showed them to be ineffective front-line weapons – in the last British cavalry charge in March 1918 all but 4 of the 150 horses involved were killed. They were used extensively behind the lines, able to pull their weight even in the hopeless mud behind the trenches.

The film was the first to be directed by Walter Summers who went on to great success with battle recreations for British Instructional Films such as Ypres (1925), Mons (1926), Nelson (1926) and the marvelous The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) (reviewed here).

Rex Davis and friend
It’s a far more straightforward tale than what was to come but shows evidence of Summers’ own wartime experience that led him to become what David Robinson terms, British cinema’s war poet.

In addition to Bryony Dixon, the film was also introduced by Sir Sydney Samuelson whose father, GB Samuelson not only produced the film but also photographed it and played a role in the writing. Samuelson Senior had an extraordinary career and was involved in over a hundred films of which, sadly, only around a tenth survive, so when this film was rediscovered in a loft somewhere in Holland there was much cause for celebration.

Now restored by the BFI from this last surviving print (now held by EYE) the film has English intertitles and is a delight for the eye.

Summers staged some huge reconstructions for the film
It’s fascinating to tap into British sensibilities just five years after what they were already calling The Great War: there’s a resilience to officiousness and unthinking authority and yet a respect for our institutions, our fighting men – and horses – and an eagerness to stand together and support our fellow man.

That easy going, clear-eyed great Britain can spot a phoney a mile off and someone in need of genuine help all at the same time: war-hardened and quick-witted there was no time to be wasted on fripperies.

A Britain still mourning
Our hero – an unnamed horse (two to be precise) and/or an unemployed ex-soldier, Danny Creath (Rex Davis) – are both left down and out after the War and it’s fascinating to see this being dealt with so openly at a time when “the returned” were still be re-assimilated into society.

Danny can’t find work and traipses around hoping for the best when it seems society has passed him by. At the docks, where he has once again failed to find work, he spots a familiar-looking horse… It’s one the animals used by his unit to pull the guns and he recognises not only its distinctive white head and “socks” but also the scar it gained when they were both wounded in battle.

Danny takes action and the pals escape
It’s due for shipment to Belgium and the knackers yard but he can’t let this brave animal bow out in this way and old courage returned and old certainties of duty clear he knocks two of the cruel handlers down and, with the ready help of the dock workers, who pile on the helpless men, makes his escape on the back of his old friend.

The scenes at the dock are an evocation of trade past and as Danny rides through narrow terraced streets we can see the wider environment – Wapping? – he knocks over a peeler on his escape but manages to find a house with a stable.

Molly confronts the strange man in her yard
Molly Roarke (Edna Best) is the young woman of the house and comes outside to find out what the noise was. An instant, post-war bond is made as she sizes up this medalled young man – who reminds her so much of the brother she lost in the war – how many households were unscathed?

By the time the Police come calling she’s already decided whose side she’s on… As she makes Danny some of her excellent coffee we learn the story in flash back. There are scenes from Jutland – mighty battle cruisers firing their 18 inch guns – where her brother died and then on the front where Danny and the horse fought. Some of this may be stock footage but its assembly and production clearly foreshadow Summers' later work.

Edna Best
There’s a lovely interplay between Molly and Danny and when her father (George Foley) – the Policeman who Danny knocked over – arrives for a “break” the subtleties of his relationship with his daughter almost pass the young man by…

The film is a balm for an audience still feeling the losses of the conflict as well as the economic impact. There’s a telling moment at the dock when Danny sneers at boxes of toy soldier all “Made in Germany”… then, as now the problem was always what the other fellas are doing but, in truth, the situation in Germany was far worse. But since when have facts influenced local sentiments?

Here to help: George Foley
Even now, A Couple of Down-And-Outs makes you feel better and it’s not just the skill of the film making…

John Sweeney accompanied with his usual verve – foot-sure improvisations that moved with the surprisingly sentimental and optimistic subject. He’d earlier improvised over a few minutes of footage showing the studios used by this and other Samuelson films. Sight-unseen he produced the perfect background for set painting, dancing rehearsals and directing: he could play along to accounting or even marketing and make it interesting!

The film is available on the EFG portal which shows the EYE copy with Dutch subtitles although an English translation is available.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Nurture vs Nature... The Mollycoddle (1920)


"The man of him has never lost sight of the boy of him." Mary Pickford

"A mollycoddle is a body of man entirely surrounded by super-civilization." reads the title card immediately following a foreword dripping in irony which thanks the "picturesque Hopi Indians who... in their savage way heartily welcomed us to their prehistoric villages and with primitive cheerfulness played an importance in this picture."

I think he means us don't you?

According to Fairbanks' biographer, Tracey Goessel, Douglas was so taken with the term mollycoddle as it was a favourite of his hero, Theodore Roosevelt that he paid $5,000 to retain the term for later use. I'm sure Teddy would have approved of this film, the "biggest and best production of his career" according to the trade ads.

Artificial life in mollycoddled Monte Carlo
Directed by Victor Fleming (yes, him) and written by an uncredited Fairbanks along with Tom Geraghty, The Mollycoddle (1920) was made just after When the Clouds Roll By, with sense of humour firmly back to earth... the equivalent of Fairbanks "getting it together in the country" . It carries a semi-serious message for the audience: don't be fooled by the adornments of civilization - mankind is just the same whether living in primitive buildings in Arizona or those more "highly polished" on the rocks of Monte Carlo or at least a Monte Carlo specially faked on the Californian hills.

To show us how this works,the film takes one mollycoddled man from Monte Carlo and throws him up out West where he re-connects with his inner "man" - a spirit gone soft released by the tonic of adventure! Pure Doug and very much a response to contemporary concerns that modernity was making America soft; one that could be seen in a number of his films in the early period of his cinema career.

Marshall IV - secure in his wild-western masculinity
Fairbanks plays Richard Marshall III, IV and V... the first two men of courage and adventure who's bravery and success led to the Mark V version living in wealthy comfort in Europe, disconnected from his American nature. Mark III was a "leather-necked, shag-gutted buckaroo..." followed by IV, who "...put the fear of God into the heart of many an evil-doer along the frontier".

Strolling the gardens of Monaco, Marshall V encounters a group of Americans on a yachting party: society widow Mrs Warren (Adele Farrington), her daughter Molly (Betty Bouton), intrepid journalist Virginia Hale (Ruth Renick) and their host, an unamused-looking Henry van Holkar (Wallace Beery, always a pleasure). They are accompanied by three American college boys: Patrick O'Flannigan, Ole Olsen and Samuel Levinski - played by Morris Hughes, George Stewart and Paul Burns in no particular order - who seem to represent the diversity of the frontier country.

Ruth Renick
"Nobody would ever take you for an American..." Virginia is immediately fascinated with the euro-fop with his polite language, monocle and cigarette holder - Americans roll their own! But he's from Arizona even if the college boys think he's "...contrary to the Constitution of the United States". They resolve to do something about it... he needs curing.

He's not the only one who is not quite as he seems as Van Holker is a "blackguard" (we should use that word more often... Mr Gove, Mr Johnson and Mr Trump) and one of the world's greatest diamond smugglers as illustrated by an animated sequence showing how his operation works from a mine worked by "renegade Indians" to the European cutters who fashion the gems. The yachting party is just a cover for the trade and Fleming and Fairbanks are in a real hurry to get to the action!

To cut a long back-story short... a cartoon is used. The real Beery.
Van Holker receives news that the secret service is on his trail... naturally he assumes that the too good to be true Marshall V is his man and refuses a request to take him back with them. Virginia is wistful: "I think he had the makings of a man." "Bah! That mollycoddle." responds Mrs Warren.
But... the college boys have smuggled Marshall aboard and he is discovered by Van Holker's men and sent to work stoking coal in the engine room. After some grubby hard work he's rescued with good humour intact: "You Johnnies are great spoofers! I rather like it..."

Things start to happen thick and fast as we discover Virginia is the secret agent and Van the Man blames Marshall for some papers she'd disturbed in his safe. He decides to drop the spy into the ocean but the college boys rescue him and he swims to shore only to get caught in the nets of a fishing boat used by the smuggler - some good work done by Doug on a floor of dead fish here... Marshall is starting to prove his mettle and escapes again as events move on land to that rogue Indian mine...

Sea yacht and land yacht...
As the party make their way on Van H's "desert yacht" - a bus rigged with a veranda at the back - Marshall encounters an "educated Carlisle Johnny": a native American who finds his laughable attempt to barter in, umm, primitive lingo well, er, laughable. But Fairbanks' point is an interesting one again: the primitives are civilized and the civilized are primitive. Yellow Horse - "a college Indian gone wrong" - is in charge of the mine but it hardly matters, he and all the of the henchmen are only there to provide an obstacle to be overcome. As Richard Schickel put it... "to see Doug at bay and fighting off his enemies... this was the moment of high deliciousness in all his work."

Civilization and natural life
Marshall - now back in his true element - spends much time with the Indians smoking a peace pipe, laughing and dancing in the most inclusive way... Fairbanks paying due respect to the Hopi tribe on whose land they filmed. Van H is convinced now that everyone's a spy and plans to blow them up at the ominously-named Death Defile, the entrance to Haunted Canyon: he aims to blow up Hanging Rock and start and avalanche.

Marshall looks on from as the baddies make their move...
"Primitive cunning, born of instinct, now guides his every move." Marshall tracks Van H's men as they capture the college boys but then rides to their rescue even going back to pick up one of the injured: he's becoming a pure hero returned to his land and his soul is fired in the midst of this adventure.

There are some spectacular sequences as Marshall heads off across the Arizona desert on horseback, Hanging Rock is blown up and the rocks come tumbling down. Then there's a climactic battle between... you know... which sees the protagonists chasing each other as they slide down rock and scree. Fairbanks broke a finger and badly strained two wrists during the production so that stuntman Richard Talmadge had to perform at least one of the fight stunts but the vast majority are pure Doug.
Fairbanks and Fleming see "civilization" as "primitive" polished and only by reconnecting to our natural state can we gain happiness and love. Slouching about in Mediterranean casinos is most certainly not the way...

Doug tackles Wallace Beery's stuntman on the rock slope
"He never sat when he could stand, never walked when he could run; and,to Doug, chasms were built to jump over." said Anita Loos and in The Mollycoddle as elsewhere Fairbanks preached Roosevelt's idea of the Strenuous Life to the full.


I watched the David Shephard restoration which features a new "musical setting" by Philip Carli which runs along with the story in true Fairbanks' style and speed! It is available as part of the Douglas Fairbanks: Modern Musketeer box set on sale from Amazon and others at above RRP prices... time for a re-issue?

Quotes above lifted from Tracey Goessel's lovely biography The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks - it's especially strong on his relationship with Mary Pickford with the author having acquired their love letters... you may well shed a tear or two. It's available from Amazon too.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

First amongst equals... The Crowd (1928)


“The Crowd is the finest American silent film I have ever seen… When a film of enormous social significance succeeds in being immensely entertaining, then as far as I’m concerned the director has achieved near-perfection.” Kevin Brownlow

Whatever  our role in life we all want to think that we’re a bit special and that there’s something that separates us from the mass of others. It’s this desire to stand apart that makes King Vidor’s film so compelling especially, as with its hero, John Simms, we also always fear that, in reality,  we’re failing to differentiate ourselves as much as we could. Stuck between acceptance and denial we watch The Crowd with a feeling of is this me?

But it’s the things we have in common that make us strong - our love, compassion and resolve - here is a film brave enough to show the importance of defeat whilst leaving only hope with no certainty of victory. Our hero takes his life for granted, spends too much time dreaming, loses the people he loves and takes what love is left almost for granted: the glass is more than half-emptied but you will the balance to shift.

The Big Parade of Peace...
Such is the The March of Life, a title John Gilbert suggested when discussing Vidor’s desire to follow up The Big Parade with a Big Parade of Peace. The project would undergo many changes in title but it was always going to be a very personal one for King Vidor as he had the chance to make the film he wanted in the wake of TBP’s massive success... Irving Thalberg happy to let him experiment so long as it helped him forget that 20% stake he’d had in the former film.

“I made pictures as a good employee and pictures that came out if my insides. This is one that came out of my guts. There was a lot of hypocrisy in early films and I wanted to get away from it.” King Vidor interviewed by Jordan R Young in 1978.

Eleanor Boardman and James Murray
Or as Eleanor Boardman – who played John’s wife Mary - put it: “The Crowd was to be the first picture without glamour…” Vidor simply wanted to tell the tale of an ordinary man: one of the crowd, as he faces the challenges of daily life without super-heroics or an excess of good fortune… or so he thinks for much of the film.

To play this everyman he chose James Murray an aspiring extra apparently encountered at random… Vidor wanted an unknown so the film would present a “documentary flavour” and he also wanted “….a young, good-looking man who looks like he really might be a clerk…” No chance for John Gilbert then.

Murray proved to be inspired casting with any technical limitations simply under-pinning his character’s self-deceptions as he moves forwards gradually after every devastating reversal.

Johnny Downs climbs the stairs
As if to reinforce the everyman theme the film begins on 4th July in 1900 with the birth of “…a little man the world is going to hear from all right…” Father has high hopes and everything is indeed possible.

Flick on to 1912 as John (an uncredited Johnny Downs) sits with the other kids asking each other what they’re going to do when they grow up. “My Dad says I’m goin’ to be somebody big!” he says but –  at the same time - Father dies – and there’s a terrific shot of young John climbing the stairs to realise he has gone… the first major defeat in the march of life reinforced by expressionistic forced perspective.

“You’ve gotta be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.”
"When John was twenty-one he became one of the seven million that believe New York depends on them.

John’s arrival is followed by superb camera work from Henry Sharp showing the press in New York City: thousands of people flowing along sidewalks, mingling with the traffic at cross-roads in a double exposure showing the lifeblood of the concrete and commerce. The camera angles on tall buildings, shifting to a model shot as it rises ever higher pulling back to focus on a window through which it fades into a giant room of endless regularity: desks into infinity.

Somewhere near the middle sits our John: one of the many in at desk 137, he scratches his head, seemingly intent on his work but he’s trying to think of an answer to a newspaper quiz: “Name our new motor fuel and win one hundred dollars”… a dreamer passing time and hoping for a long-shot… He clock-watches and preens himself for real life to begin after five o’clock.

In the city
He plans to study but Pal Bert (Bert Roach) has an offer he can’t refuse “I’ve got a pair of wrens dated up for Coney Island. Want to make it a four-some?” All the while there are people filling the streets and corridors… the Metropolis is teeming.

Bert and John run from out of the shadowy crowd to greet their wrens: Mary and Joan (Estelle Clark). Joan is bouncy and Mary is a little shy – Boardman so against sophisticated type here: gauche, chewing gun and head bowed – an Oscar performance, in my book, for 1928.

Boardman herself, always such a sharp commentator recognised the value of this work saying later that Mary Sims was simply “a job I had to do, I didn’t like to be so drab and unattractive, the hair hanging down, no makeup on…. I had confidence in Vidor; I knew he knew what he was doing…” and no doubt vice versa.

John is smitten
Bert and John both catch admiring glances at the girls’ legs as they climb the steps on a double-decker but whilst the former is pantomime leery, the latter has a deeper feeling: this girl is offering more than just a glimpse of stocking.

The couples sit at the front of the bus as they drive down the avenue and the thousand calculations and connections of early courtship are made. “Look at that crowd! The poor boobs…  all in the same rut!” says John to a shocked Mary and then he sees a men dressed as a clown advertising for shoes… a “poor sap” whose father probably wanted him to be president.

Joan, Bert, John and Mary
Onto Coney Island where the light-hearted tone is maintained – this is how life can be as we play and romance – survival put to one side. The Crowd plays with both concepts equally well and the mood is so superbly balanced by Vidor in spite of his laissez faire approach to the performers he controls their context and he casts for character: Murray was a natural whereas Boardman could truly act.

John proposes on their ride home and we switch to the wedding where Bert gives them “a year or two”… Funny scenes on the honeymoon train as the couple ready themselves for their first night and then some stunning shots from Niagara Falls where James pledges his love will never stop for the most beautiful girl in the world.

River deep, mountain high
Back to life and “home sweet home” where good humour enables them to rise above the compromises of location and affordability… But the cracks are there: Mary’s family Mother (Lucy Beaumont) and brothers Jim (Daniel G Tomlinson) and Dick (Dell Henderson) are less than impressed with her husband’s ability to provide. John doesn’t even have any hooch left for Christmas and heads off to Bert’s for a bottle only to be caught up in a party as his weak will crumbles at the mixture of girls and gin…

We begin to lose confidence in John as his career drifts and he falls into a routine of careless marital bickering: he dreams while Mary cleans … and cooks and washes. Their arguing intensifies - she must carry the blame for his failure to progress with every culinary accident counting against her. But as he storms out she calls down from the window: there’s something she hasn’t told him…

Beached
Family life moves them onward but five years later they’re still in their assigned roles on the beach. As with Junior (Freddie Burke Frederick) and their daughter (Alice Mildred Puter) run in the sand, John plays a ukulele as Mary cooks….

Then their luck changes twice in the space of a few minutes: John finally wins a caption competition and a life-changing $500. He returns home laden with presents yet, as they call the kids from across the street, tragedy strikes and their girl is knocked down by a truck.

It’s an horrific moment and one which completely changes the tone of the film –we’ve been lulled into a false sense of insecurity by Vidor and now we pay as John and Mary’s lives unwind…

The great Eleanor Boardman
“Except for The Crowd, I really am not proud of anything I did.” said Eleanor Boardman to film historian William Drew and you can see why as she pulls Mary through every emotional gear in the closing segments in a magnificent display of technique and conviction.

Murray also excels as misery piles on misery and he loses direction almost to the point of self-oblivion. Out of pace with the crowd he’s on his uppers losing job after job and deluding himself that a new “break” is only around the corner…

It feels mighty real and that nothing can possibly turn things around... that’s Vidor’s brilliance.

James Murray
For such a major film it is absolutely criminal that it is not available on DVD (there is a basic Spanish disc with English inter-titles and unknown provenance…) although the 1981 restored version from Brownlow and Gill, featuring Carl Davis’ lovely orchestral score is regularly shown on TCM (as my screen shots indicate). We have Wings, Sunrise and The Big Parade on Blu-ray; come on MGM!

Then again, the studio have always had form when it comes to The Crowd… they insisted on an alternative happier ending which was filmed but hardly ever shown after audience reaction indicated overwhelming preference for the intended conclusion. Attempts to make John more sympathetic – an actual go-getter – were warded off and completely missed the point: he’s as real a man as Hollywood gets.

As we watch John, Mary and Junior laughing their heads off in a packed theatre – an audience watching an audience watching two clowns – I’m reminded of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels in which the hero learns the value of his own brand of light entertainment as he watches a comedy film among a prison audience: whatever the circumstance, there’s strength in numbers.


Reading list:

King Vidor’s The Crowd, The Making of a Silent Classic by Jordan R Young is a fascinating account of the film featuring interviews with Boardman and Vidor as well as an introduction from Mr Brownlow quoted above. It’s available from Amazon.

King Vidor, American
by Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon a solid biography from the early nineties and still to be found on Amazon.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

I spy Asta… S1 (1913)


“The happiness of the country, It is the happiness of all.”

Thanks to those wondrous folks at the European Film Gateway, we are able to view one of The Asta Nielsen Series of films made in Germany by Asta and her director husband Urban Gad; this one from the third annual series, one of seven made in 1913/14 and released just after Die Suffragette (1913).

“The famous Danish actress… enjoys unchallenged popularity. Her acting, the vivid expression of her gestures, have earned her the honorary title of a ‘Duse* of cinematic art’…” raved Union-Theater-Zeitung about this “fully acclimated Berliner” in 1912. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation in the World’s third largest cinema market.

Asta Nielsen
The story is slight and lacking in dramatic pace but Asta’s acting overcomes it all in a series of virtual tableaux in which she shows her mastery of delicate, natural expression. Asta goofs around with her girlfriends, cigarette in mouth as she messes up daddy’s secret papers, exchanges secret glances with her beau and messes around on the beach just like you or I. There had probably never been a beach frolic quite like it up to this point – Asta’s dressed in practical light clothing anyway and rolls her bloomers up to allow most of her legs to paddle – we never saw that much of Lilian’s limbs of Pickford’s pins.

Out on a limb
In every scene Asta’s thinking and moving as if the entire exercise was just to enable her expression.  This film has just about the least happening of any film I’ve seen her in from 1910-1913 but she fills the gaps in dramatic tension with emotional improvisations.

Asta Nielsen is an extraordinary figure and in more ways than one… and no, there’s not a hint of Sid James in that observation. Asta confounded even future director Carl Theodore Dreyer with her willowy frame and slight physique, writing under the pseudonym Tommen in a 1913 review he decried her “…terribly unfortunate features. She is lanky … flat-chested and with no calves to speak of. But what does Asta Nielsen-Gad do? She is determined… to reveal her scrawniness.”  Young Carl’s protests to one side, Asta’s form found considerable favour in Denmark and beyond: something new.

The new look
Asta was the precursor of slimmer, smarter, leading ladies who would not only act well but lead their audience towards a future less-constrained by smothering fashion and manners. What we see in 1913 is a flaming youth and an “it” girl far from lost even after the box is flung open.

As Karl Bleibtreu, amongst the first film reviewers in the German speaking countries noted: “In every moment The Nielsen is the life, the nature, in every of her aspects she is real truth.” He thought she was better than Elenora Duse too… and he didn’t think her “scrawny” at least, I shouldn’t expect so.

At the airfield
Asta plays Gertrud von Hessendorf, daughter of General Hessendorf (Siegwart Gruder) who is charged with procuring new aircraft for the military. The two travel to Copenhagen to take a test flight in a giant airship – thrillingly, Asta is in the air for a few seconds although she is soon climbing out of the ship…

Military invention is at a delicate point and following a major crash, the country is badly in the need of the confidence boost that a new, indefatigable airship could bring: cue the S1 a ship so advanced enemies will quake and, of course, do anything they can to stop it.

This is where the handsome Graf Baldini (Charly Berger) comes in – a man who has already left his mark on the General’s daughter; he is also a spy for a foreign power charged with stealing the designs for the revolutionary new plane.

With Baldini
Instead of furtive looks and skulking shadows, Gad, focuses on the relationship between the two which gives his real-life wife ample opportunity to pull the viewer into what will become her conflicted world. She enjoys the frisson of her illicit relationship sneaking small affections during public functions and, most emphatically, enjoying the most liberated of seaside runs as she and the Count break free from a society picnic and just let rip splashing in the shallows and leaving the watcher in no doubt that their affection is real and very true.

But this cannot last and Gertrude’s loyalties will be tested to the limits once her love’s true nature is revealed: we she be loyal to father and state or will love guide her heart in frightening, new directions?

For the greater good?
The camerawork from Herr Karl Freund and Emil Schünemann is superb even whilst Gad’s direction is a little on the static side: he prefers to let his actors do the talking and there’s a lot of 1913-style pantomime within the static frame.

But Asta is never static and is in the constant flow of showing us who her character is and what she wants.

The film can be viewed on the European Gateway if you follow this link – there’s no sound but if you watch carefully you can hear the chamber players at the elegant parties, the dramatic tension of the aerial scenes and the sweep and descend as Gertrude’s heart almost splits in two…

Quotes lifted from the fascinating deep dive into Asta's break-out years that is Importing Asta Nielsen, KINtop 2 (KINtop Studies in Early Cinema). Available still from Amazon.

Men making plans
Gertrude, fag in mouth, and the girls
Freedom of movement
Partie de campagne
Der Asta