277: Bonn Silent Film Festival

Archival Spaces 277

Bonn Silent Film Festival: Panel Discussion

Uploaded 3 September 2021

Bonn Silent Film Festival

Between August 12 and August 22, 2021, the 37th International Silent Film Festival – Internationalen Stummfilmtage – Bonner Sommerkino –  was held in Bonn, Germany, co-organized by the Förderverein Filmkultur Bonn e.V.  The live version of the Festival has taken place for decades in an open-air cinema at the University of Bonn, and this year – given the ongoing COVID pandemic – required not only the usual accreditation but also social distancing and a vaccination pass. However, the restored and digitized films were also available online for forty-eight hours after the screening, allowing people like me to actually view the program. Programmed by newly appointed Artistic Directors Eva Hielscher and Oliver Hanley, the films were invariably accompanied by live music by internationally known musicians, including Elisabeth-Jane Baldry, Günter Buchwald, Stephen Horne, Richard Siedhoff, Daniel Stetich, Sabine Zimmer, and Sabrina Zimmermann.

Even though I have seen literally hundreds and hundreds of silent films over my forty-five-year career as a film historian and archivist, I had actually only seen a couple of the films shown in Bonn this year. Some of the highlights for me were the following:

Girl in Tails (Foto: Svenska Filminstitutet/SF Studios)

Flickan i Frack/Girl in Tails (1926), a Swedish film, directed by Karin Swenström, was a revelation. Swenström was a well-known actress in Sweden who directed half a dozen films in the 1920s, which are completely unknown abroad.  Here she plays a supporting role as the wealthy éminence grise in a very conservative, small town in Sweden, where the local school and church are the center of all life. That stifling atmosphere is familiar to us from Ingmar Bergman or the 2005 Oscar Foreign Film nominee, As It Is in Heaven (2005, Kay Pollak), but this film has a strong feminist aspect: A very smart young woman wears tails to the graduation ball because her father refuses to buy her a gown, even as he pays for tails for her brother. She is interested in a local classmate/nobleman, who she tutored to graduation, and moves in with his family when she breaks with her father after being ostracized by the town. The young nobleman’s chalet is populated by a group of five highly accomplished professional women, whose relationship to him and each other is unclear, but their mannish demeanor, cafe klatsches, and cigar smoking could be mistaken for a lesbian commune.

Zuflucht with Francis Lederer, Henny Porten

Another discovery for me was Zuflucht/Refuge  (1928), starring Francis Lederer and Henny Porten and directed by Carl Froelich. Lederer portrays an upper-middle-class, German ex-soldier who returns to Germany destitute, after fighting as a Communist revolutionary in Russia and is afraid to go home to his mother because his brother had ridiculed him for his political beliefs. He meets and falls in love with Porten’s proletarian vegetable market woman, but their happiness is short-lived because he has apparently contracted tuberculosis. While the film is clearly a melodrama a la Henny, it also visually reproduces the working classes of late 1920s Berlin in an almost neo-realist manner, similar to Joe May’s Asphalt (1928) or Piel Jützi’s Mother Krausen’s Trip to Heaven (1929). The scenes in a Wedding tenement, when the mother’s limo pulls up and is surrounded by hoards of dirty-faced children is remarkable.

Seine gelehrte Frau (1919) with Esther Carena

I was also bowled over by Seine gelehrte Frau/His Learned Wife (1919), starring Esther Carena and directed by Eugen Illés, i.e. Illés Jenő, as he was known in Hungary. Also called Women Who Shouldn’t Get Married, this is a feminist film about a highly successful woman obstetrician, Dr. Ada Haller, who neglects her husband, he a wealthy factory owner, leading him somewhat reluctantly to have an affair. When his mistress becomes pregnant, the doctor must deliver the baby but is unable to save the mother. Realizing her own culpability in her husband’s philandering, she takes the child as her own, leading to a reconciliation with her husband.  Esther Carena was a well-known and popular film diva from 1915-1919 who remains underexposed in film history because so few of her films survive, and because the pre-Caligari period has been neglected. Indeed, this recently and beautifully restored title from the Federal German Archives is not even listed in any of the German filmographies and it is unclear how many of her more than 25 pre-1920 films survive.

Karin Swenström
Eugen Illés aka Illés, Jenő

On Sunday 8-22, the Festival hosted a Zoom panel discussion with a host of film programmers and archivists to discuss “finding an audience for (silent) film heritage today.” Among the participants were the Hielscher and Hanley, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Archive), Elif Rongen-Kaynakci ((Eye Institute, Amsterdam), Janneka van Dalen (Austrian Filmmuseum), Matjey Strnad (Czech Film Archive), Ellen Harrington (Deutsches Filminstitut, Frankfurt), Rob Byrne (San Francisco Silent Film Festival) with Grazia Ingravalle (Brunel University, London) moderating. There was general agreement that even though audiences are often gray-haired, younger audiences, are enthusiastic, especially in Eastern Europe.

It was also agreed that special events, in particular those featuring live musical accompaniment, were successful in winning over new audiences, but that the musicians had to be chosen carefully and had to be professional. Programmers also had to be convinced of the quality of the films they show, in order not to waste time or turn off the audience due to flawed films. While some felt that films with racial or gender stereotypes should be avoided, others noted that discussions about such stereotypes have been productive and desirable for audiences. Finally,  it was noted that online platforms for silent films, both temporary for festivals or permanent archival sites, have vastly increased audience numbers and won them over for silent films.

Certainly, this blogger has been grateful for the online programs of Bonn and Pordenone. 

With a Motocycle Above the Couds (1929) Oesterreichisches Filmmuseum, Vienna

276: Cuban Star Xonia Benguria

Archival Spaces 276

Remembering Cuban Film Star Xonia Benguría

Uploaded  20 August 2021

In October 2017, UCLA Film & Television Archive screened a new 35mm restored print of Casta de Roble (1954) in the massive retrospective, Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960. Its star, Xonia Benguría, died in Astoria, N.Y. on 31 July 2021 after sixty years in exile. Earlier, in July 2016, Luciano Castillo, Director of the Cinemateca de Cuba, had hand-carried a dupe negative of the film, along with several other pre-revolutionary Cuban films to Los Angeles from Havana for preservation. In Casta de Roble, a young peasant girl, played by Xonia Benguría, who also wrote the script, has a baby by the master of the plantationwhich is taken away from her. She marries and has another son, but the loss of the child has scarred her for life. Shot mostly on location in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, the film visualizes the harsh life of peasants and workers in a sugar economy, where only a privileged few at the top benefit, while the workers are enslaved as tenant farmers. Directed by Xonia’s then-husband, Manolo Alonso, the film had a keen sense of style, its social realist narrative enlivened by many compositions quoting Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovchenko. Given that for five decades the Communist government suppressed the knowledge of any filmmaking activity in Cuba before 1959, the film was a revelation.

Chris Horak and Luciano Castillo at LAX with Cuban films
Xonia Benguria

Born in Cuba on 4 October 1924, Xonia Benguría grew up in privilege. Her family’s extensive sugar plantations allowed her father to become a well-respected calligrapher, her mother a dedicated housewife who encouraged the artistic ambitions of her three children; Carmina, an older sister, became internationally known for reciting poetry. At twelve, young Xonia was sent to Averett College’s prep school in Danville, Virginia, to learn English. Returning to Cuba a year later, she had ambitions to act and sing and made her debut in May 1944, singing her own songs at Havana’s Teatro Auditorium. She followed that up by acting in the play “Petit Farándula” at the Teatro America, and a radio play, “Rendezvous at Five.” Shortly after the end of World War II, Benguría went to New York to study with Frances Robinson Duff, the “foremost dramatic coach” in America who had trained the likes of Helen Hayes, Katherine Hepburn, and Miriam Hopkins.

Chicharito (Alberto Garrido) and Sopeira (Federico Piñero)
School for Models (1949)

Returning to Cuba in the late 1940s, she married the actor Alberto Garrido from the Afro-Cuban comedy team of Chicharito (Garrido) and Sopeira (Federico Piñero), and gave birth to a son. She co-starred with the duo in two Cuban musical comedies: Escuela de modelos/School for Models (1949) and Cuando las mujeres Mandan/When Women Rule (1951), both directed by José Fernández. In the first film, she played a scantily clad nightclub dancer-singer. The latter featured the comic duo as Cuban nationals who desert from the Korean War and land in a country run by Amazonian women. Treated as sex toys by their two female captors (Benguría & Olga Uz), they lead a successful revolt for machismo. The films seem typical for Cuban film productions of the period.

Cuando las mujeres Mandan (1949)

After Xonia divorced Garrido, she married Manolo Alonso with whom she had a daughter. A prominent film director and close confidant of Cuban President, Ramón Grau San Martin, Alonso was born in Havana in 1912. In 1938, he started the 1st Cuban newsreel, Noticiero Nacional, and was involved in founding Cuban television in 1950. Alonso directed his first feature, I am Hitler (1944), a series of satirical sketches, and, Siete muertes a plazo fijo/Seven Timely Deaths, a thriller-comedy in 1950. Alonso probably met Benguría while he directed Garrido and Piñero short films, and hoped to star her in Leonela, which remained unproduced; based on the 1893 novel by Nicolás Heredia about the colonial sugar industry on the verge of bankruptcy, exploited by ruthless big-city merchants. But nothing in the couple’s biography could predict the ideological turn away from Hollywood-style comedy to Casta de Roble, which in exploring the plight of the poor in a rural society followed the lead of Emilio “El  Indio” Fernandez’s Mexican films, like Río Escondido (1948).

Xonia Benguria

The project came to fruition when Xonia showed her script for Casta de Roble to David Silva, a well-known Mexican actor who agreed to star. Alonso hoped to hire Gabriel Figueroa as cameraman, who was unavailable but managed to secure the Spanish cinematographer, Alfredo Fraile, who would shoot J. A. Bardem’s The Death of a Cyclist (1955). Hailed as a new beginning in Cuban cinema, Casta de Roble (1954) met with unanimous praise in Cuba and abroad, where Columbia picked up distribution.

Unfortunately, it was the last Cuban film for the couple, who would divorce, remarry, and divorce, again in exile. After the revolution in 1959, Castro asked Alonso to build up the Cuban film industry, but he declined for ideological reasons. After the intervention of the Japanese Ambassador, Jotaro Koda, the family was allowed to leave Cuba, arriving in Miami in December 1960.

Benguría and Alonso at New York premiere of Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days

In exile, Manolo Alonso directed La Cuba de ayer (1960s), a compilation of pre-revolution newsreels. Meanwhile, Xonia Benguría worked in New York Latinx theatres, including the Teatro LATEA, IATI Theater, Nuestro Teatro, and INTAR Theatre.  In 1989, she starred in the premiere of Luis Santiero’s “Lady From Havana,” and received raves from the Miami New Times:  “Creating very different characters in the course of one evening, and giving both roles depth and honesty, is an acting challenge, but these women make it look easy. Xonia Benguria commands center stage as the Queen Mama Beba, and portrays Gloria in Act Two with a fragile dignity.” Xonia had hoped to come to L.A. for the premiere of Casta de Roble’s restored printbut age and illness prevented it.

Cuban Publicity for Casta de Roble

For more information on Manolo Alonso, see Alejandra Espasande Bouza’s excellent article, “Manolo Alonso: A Cuban cinematic pioneer, http://alejandra-espasande-bouza.blogspot.com/2008/10/manolo-alonso-cuban-cinematic-pioneer.html. Many thanks also to Fabricio Espasande Bouza, who pulled together a ton of information on Benguría and translated it for me. See also Hollywood Goes Latin. Spanish-Language Filmmaking in Los Angeles, ed. by María Elena de las Carreras and J.C. Horak (Brussels: FIAF, 2019).

Marta VelascoXonia Benguria, Alina Troyano in “The Lady From Havana”

275: Marriage in the Shadows (1947)

Archival Spaces 275

Marriage in the Shadows (1947, Kurt Maetzig)

Uploaded 6 August 2021

At the Nazi Mixed Marriage Office in Ehe im Schatten (1947, Kurt Maetzig)

Although I have been studying German cinema for decades, I’m less familiar with films from the German Democratic Republic, simply because for a long time, it was just harder to see those films. The DEFA (Deutsche Film Aktiengesellschaft) was formed in 1946 and as an arm of the communist Socialist United Party (SED) maintained a monopoly until the demise of the GDR in 1990. Now Kanopy has made a very large selection of films from the DEFA collection at the University of Massachusetts- Amherst available, and I have been watching regularly. Recently, I caught up with an early so-called “rubble film” classic, Ehe im Schatten / Marriage in the Shadows (1947), directed by Kurt Maetzig. Starring Paul Klinger, it was the film debut of Ilse Steppat, who would later marry Max Nosseck, a German-Jewish director returning from Hollywood.  In retrospect, I’m, surprised I never saw the film, given Ehe deals with the expulsion of German Jews from theater and film after 1933, a topic of my dissertation. While the black and white film is very much a melodrama in the Ufa style before and during the Third Reich, – Bertolt Brecht called the film kitsch – Marriage in the Shadows clearly states that anti-Semitism was rampant in the German population and not just imposed from above by the Nazis.

The film opens in early 1933 with a theater performance of Friedrich Schiller’s “Intrigue and Love” (Kable und Liebe, 1784), staring Elisabeth Maurer and Hans Wieland. The Jewish actress is blacklisted shortly thereafter, and inexplicably, the “Aryan” Wieland marries her in the belief that he can protect her. Hans, initially the second fiddle to her star, continues his upwardly mobile career in Nazi Germany, even though a Jewish colleague strongly suggests the couple emigrate. Flash forward to the days before the November 1938 pogroms: His career is going gang-busters, while Elisabeth is suffering from intense isolation; unable to appear in public, she expresses doubts about their marriage, but he again dissuades her from emigrating. Like her Jewish former costume assistant, she spends days at the Nazi Mixed Marriages Bureau, applying for ration cards. The film’s last third takes place in 1943 when Elisabeth is ordered to hard labor, and Jews are being deported “to the East.” Hans talks her into attending the premiere of his newest film, ostensibly to cheer her up, where she charms a high-ranking Nazi, who is unaware of her status. When he finds out, he orders her deportation, and the couple commit double suicide.

Joachim and son 1930s

Marriage in the Shadows is dedicated to the German film star Joachim Gottschalk, who committed suicide with his Jewish wife and 9-year-old son in November 1941. Meta Wolf had been a successful young actress when the couple married in 1930. Somehow, they avoided attention after the passing of the Nuremberg Race Laws, because Gottschalk was only acting on local stages. However, in 1937 Gottschalk scored a huge film hit with You and I, so-starring Brigitte Horney, becoming with her the Ufa’s dream couple, idolized by millions of German women. Despite pressure from Ufa executives, Gottschalk refused to divorce his wife. However, when in April 1941 Gottschalk took Meta to the premiere of The Swedish Nightingale, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned him from film work unless he divorce. Gottschalk refused, further infuriating Goebbels who ordered Gottschalk drafted and his family sent to Theresienstadt. Goebbels forbid anyone from attending the funeral, although Horney and a few brave colleagues did go, while the German public only learned of Gottschalk’s fate after World War II, although there were many rumors.

Looting Jewish shops in Ehe im Schatten
Hans imagines his wife on a train to Auschwitz in Ehe imn Schatten

In adapting the Gottschalk story to film, Kurt Maetzig probably intuitively understood that only a melodramatic treatment about a tragic film star could reach a primarily female audience hardened by twelve years of anti-Semitic propaganda. Interestingly, Maetzig who was himself blacklisted by the Nazis in 1935, and whose Jewish mother committed suicide in 1944, moved the fictional couple’s suicide to 1943, probably so he could portray the effects of the Allied bombing of Berlin (blamed on the German Fascists) and the deportations of Berlin’s Jews, which only began days before the Gottschalks killed themselves. Simultaneously, Maetzig limits his visualization of Nazism to a few brief shots: the Brownshirts marching in 1933, a single S.A. man ordering civilians to loot Jewish shops on 9 November 1938, while several SS types appear during the final premiere; furthermore, Hans imagines Elisabeth’s deportation and incarceration in a camp by the SS, but in contrast to the reality of the 3rd Reich, there are no Swastikas visible, and only two tiny Nazi Party pins. Two years after the end of German fascism, such symbols may have been too potent, possibly calling forth positive rather than negative reactions. Ironically, this dearth of Nazi symbols reinforces the film’s thesis that the German middle class, especially artists, were collectively guilty of turning a blind eye to Jewish suffering and opportunistically refusing to resist fascism.      

Ilse Steppat and Paul Klinger in Ehe im Schatten

But, according to film scholar Bernhard Groß (Die Filme sind unter uns), Hans and Elisabeth are also responsible for their own fate. Like the protagonists in Schiller’s bourgeois tragedy that opens the film, they suffer from hubris, rubbing her Jewishness in the face of the Nazi bureaucrats, and by refusing to emigrate, despite numerous opportunities. Their tragedy is that like many German intellectuals, they keep telling themselves things will not be so bad under Fascism, that they can mitigate the worst Nazi excesses, that they can protect themselves. Indeed, the film is based on a post-war novella by Hans Schweikert, It Won’t Be so Bad, who, by the way, was one of those opportunists who profited greatly from the film industry, though not an overt Nazi.

Dr. Kurt Maetzig (1911-2012)

When Marriage in the Shadows opened in Hamburg in April 1948, Veit Harlan and his wife, Kristina Söderbaum, the notorious director and star of Jew Süß (1940), attempted to attend the local premiere but were rebuffed. Like far too many Germans, they yearned to continue their lives without repercussions for their passive and active crimes. Thanks to American Military Occupation policy, which favored anti-Communism over de-Nazification, all but the worst German mass murders were allowed to continue their middle-class lives and careers without consequences. Meanwhile, Marriage in the Shadows became a huge hit, bringing in over 10 million viewers in all four zones of occupation. Gottschalk’s female fans, millions of them war widows who had lost husbands and sons, made it so.

Acting out Intrigue and Love

274: Restoring Summer of Soul

Archival Spaces 274

Restoring Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)

Uploaded 23 July 2021

The Harlem Cultural Festival in the summer of 1969 has been called “the Black Woodstock.” Held over a period of six Sundays in what is now called Marcus Garvey Park at 125th Street in Harlem, the Festival drew over 300,000 people and featured some of the biggest music acts of the era, including Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, and the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, the Chambers Brothers, the Fifth Dimension, B.B. King, the Staple Singers, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, The Temptations’ David Ruffin, and Mongo Santamaria. A fantastic new documentary, Summer of Soul (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), directed by the musician-disc jockey-record producer Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, not only captures the spirit of that signature event but also contextualizes it within the African-American struggle for civil rights and an emerging “Black is Beautiful” cultural identity, adding modern interviews with participants on and off stage, as well as news film footage.

African-American fashion at Black Woodstock

As the documentary makes clear, structural racism in America’s entertainment industry kept the video footage from receiving its full due, even though many of the acts had had huge crossover hits that summer.  At least four one-hour (with commercials) compilations of the Harlem Festival were broadcast at the time. Produced/hosted by Tony Lawrence and produced/directed by Hal Tulchin with Jambe Prods., Ltd., one show was seen on the New York CBS affiliate WNEW-TV and CBS-KOOL-TV in Phoenix in July 1969. ABC broadcast a second show in September 1969 on WLS-TV in Chicago and probably some other markets, including Dallas, Miami, and the South. A compilation was also shown in Europe, distributed by Storyville Films. Thus, while the film states that the videotapes remained unseen and unheard for over 50 years, rotting away in a basement until producer Robert Fyvolent acquired the more than forty hours of footage, the actual story of its “discovery” and preservation is more complicated.

Director Hal Tulchin

The 3rd Harlem Cultural Festival, sponsored by Maxwell House, was recorded on 2” Quad videotape in summer 1969 by television director Hal Tulchin who put up his own money. Tulchin hired Tele-Tape Productions to supply a mobile recording truck, three Marconi Mark VII four Plumbicon tube color cameras. One tube each for the red, blue, green, and black & white, as well as a Norelco PCP-70 portable color camera with three Plumbicon tubes, red, green, and blue for the hand-held shots of the stage and audience.  All cameras were hard-wired to the truck. The Marconi cameras had their own vertical and horizontal aperture correction design, BBC qualified lens, producing a very high quality and detailed picture in both luminance and color. Filling the entire 4.2 Mhz NTSC bandwidth with information.

Norelco camera left of piano, Marconi cameras on and under stage right

The Tele-Tape truck had a full control room and two High Band Quad machines. The director created two simulations live versions. The first 2” machine recorded a line-cut of the performances on stage from the four cameras, as well as mixed audio on the audio track and ambient audio from the audience on the Cue track. The second Quad recorded an ISO cut, which was a camera shooting the crowd from the perspective of the performers. There were microphones on stage picking up crowd noise that was recorded on the main audio track. Audio from the production board mixer was recorded on the cue track from the Norelco, and ISO audio straight from the production board mixer since multi-track location recording was not yet possible. On high-profile performances, both Quad machines were recording the line cut and mixer audio as a backup.  Six reels of 90-minute Quad tape were shot per day. 

19 year old Stevie Wonder on drums. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios
Gladys Knight & the Pips. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios

Hal Tulchin tried for years unsuccessfully to find financial backers for his “Black Woodstock,” which he had copyrighted. In the early 1980s, Tulchin dubbed each of the Quad masters onto 1” Type C” on Ampex VPR-2’s, using 60 min tapes and small spot reels. For some reason he didn’t use 90 min 1” tape stock, thus breaking up the original reels. The quality of the analog dubs was also lower at 300 lines. The tapes remained stored in Tulchin’s Bronxville basement for decades.      

The Fifth Dimension

In 2004, Joe Lauro of Historic Films licensed all the footage and actually distributed clips, e.g. of Nina Simone, for several years and also teamed up filmmakers Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon to create a documentary but failed to find adequate financial backing. One company they pitched was Newmarket films, whose lawyer was Robert Fyvolent; he personally bought an option for the footage from Tulchin shortly after. In 2011 Tulchin made a new pitch, working with Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Productions (Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown) to sell the project. In June of 2012, a sample of the 1” tapes was sent to DuArt Restoration for evaluation, but their Video technician, Maurice Schechter, determined these tapes had baked in quad artifacts, so the original quads were pulled from Tulchin’s basement. Fourteen of the 2” tapes and log sheets were sent for transfer and restoration. The Quads were found to have incredible detail, resolution, saturation, and sound, but eventually, Jigsaw walked away. Tulchin died in August 2017 without having realized his dream of a “Black Woodstock” film. In October 2015, DuArt Restoration closed down and the fourteen original quad tapes apparently ended in the dumpster.

Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone

Before Tulchin died in September 2017, Fyvolent exercised his option and formed Mass Distraction Media to produce a documentary, probably bringing in Joe Kamen and RadicalMedia soon after, since that company asked the AMIA Listserv for suggestions to do transfer work on 2” Quads. Since Schechter Engineering had purchased DuArt’s video lab, Maurice Schechter and Bill Seery of Mercer Media were contracted to transfer all surviving 2” and 1”, baking and cleaning the quads to mitigate any back coat issues and from the decomposed foam seals of the Scotch Aqua shipping cases. The 1″ tapes had the Scotch flange removed. The analog video output of the quad was fed into a Snell and Wilcox decoder, which created a 10bit uncompressed SDI stream. This was a huge challenge since detail from the 4 tube cameras can create a mirage of visual artifacts, dot crawl, cross color, and loss of resolution. After several more steps to capture the audio. the SDI signal was captured by AJA to a 10bit uncompressed interlaced NTSC / 24bit 48Khz PCM quicktime file. Unfortunately, some of the performances had been on the lost 14 tapes. Fortunately, Schechter found the hard drives from the 2011 transfers and donated them to Radical. At this point director Questlove was brought in to supervise color timing and editing.

RCA TR600A Quad Machine at Glen Head, N.Y. transferring Tulchin footage

A decision was made to finish the film in 4K at 24p, blending down the 30 frame NTSC ( AKA 29.97 ) of the original digitization to 24 Frames, while keeping the 4×3 aspect ratio, thereby creating some digital artifacts. The producers apparently wanted the feel of photochemical film, giving it a “more vintage film” look that contrasted with the modern interviews and buttressed the filmmaker’s thesis that the historical event had been willfully neglected for decades.   

Ahmir Khalib Thompson aka Questlove

Make no mistake, Questlove and the producers have created an extremely moving document that itself becomes evidence for the institutionalized racism suffered by people of color in this country while celebrating the unbelievable joy of music. Nevertheless, one can hope that the unedited and correctly transferred footage of this amazing event will one day become available in all its visual glory.

Thanks to John H. Mitchell Television Curator Mark Quigley for help on researching this blog, to Joe Lauro for an interview, and to Maurice Schechter who spent hours explaining the technical aspects.

Nina Simone

273: John Auer’s Poverty Row

Archival Spaces 273

John H. Auer’s Beginnings as a Poverty Row Auteur

Uploaded 9 July 2021

Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

This week I recorded a DVD commentary for The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1934), directed by the Hungarian American director, John H. Auer, which will be released in a four-disc box set by Flicker Alley later this year. According to an appreciation published by David Kerr in Film Comment in 2011, the director, John H. Auer, “was a filmmaker of high ambitions who discovered a certain freedom on poverty row,” like Edgar G. Ulmer at PRC and Joseph L. Lewis at Monogram. As house director for urban thrillers romantic comedies, torrid melodramas, and breezy musicals at Republic, – anything but westerns! – Auer held a position similar to Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers. Kerr notes further, more than a competent craftsman, Auer’s films are about constant motion within a fixed structure, his characters consistently inconsistent, defined by dual natures and hidden emotions. In doing the research for the commentary, I was able to nail down some biographical details that have been fuzzy in previously published biographic sources.

John H. Auer

Born in Budapest on 3 August 1906 in what was then still the Austro-Hungarian Empire, John Hummer Auer suppressed his middle, becoming John H. According to some sources, John H. Auer was educated in Vienna and acted as a child in Hungarian films, beginning in 1918, but no credits have been confirmed. He supposedly entered the business world after his career as a child actor ended. His older brother, Stephen Auer preceded him to the United States, entering the country through New York in March 1921, remaining there until applying for American citizenship in 1927. Johan Auer arrived in New York from Trieste in November 1928 with his mother, Hinie Auer, on a temporary visa, giving his profession as clerk. It is unclear how long he stayed in New York with his brother, before traveling to Hollywood to find work as a director, but Auer initially failed to get a job.

Auer apparently entered the film industry in late 1930 as a producer for a Spanish language film, El comediante (1931), under the John H. Auer Productions banner. Starring and directed by Ernesto Vilches, the film was shot in Los Angeles and picked up for distribution by Paramount. Based on de Mélésville’s 19th century play, “Sullivan,” about the actor David Garrick, the film has Vilches performing in a variety of roles, including, “Peña Mena, Salambo, Juan Molinari and other figures known to the public,” according to Los Angeles Spanish language newspaper La Opinion.

While El comediante and the majority of Spanish language films were still being produced in Hollywood, due to inadequate production conditions for sound films in Mexico, by 1932 the situation was beginning to change, thanks to the success of Santa (1932). Auer’s directorial debut came with Un vida por otra (1932), a film he also co-wrote, although he did not speak Spanish. Produced by the companies Compañia Nacional Productora de Peliculas and Inter-Americas Cinema in the United States, the film starred Nancy Torres and Julio Villareal. The great Mexican director, Fernando de Fuentes co-wrote the script and probably assisted Auer with the direction of the actors, directing his own first feature the following year.  A melodrama of “a pure Mexican woman,” the film tells the story of Lucia, who needs money for her sick mother and takes the blame for a murder she didn’t commit; her mother dies before the actual murderess pays her, so she is ultimately acquitted. As La Opinion wrote in its review: “With an argument full of vigor and interest, it presents the rare combination of good photography with excellent acting. The direction is by John Auer, one of the foreigners most intimately knowledgeable about Mexican psychology.” The film received an award from the Ministry of Education of Mexico.

Auer followed up that film with Su última canción (1933), starring the Mexican “Caruso” Alfonso Ortiz Tirado and Maria Luisa Zea with music by José Broseño. The film revolved around a down on his luck opera singer who is prevented from committing suicide by a young woman who helps him revive his career but doesn’t love him, leading to tragedy. The film was praised in La Opinion as a truly “national” picture with outstanding acting and superior cinematography by Alex Phillips (Santa), the Canadian cinematographer who had a long career in Mexico. All three films by Auer were screened in the Spanish language cinemas of downtown Los Angeles and reprised several times.

The Crime of Dr. Crespi with Jeanne Kelly

Still unable to get an offer from Hollywood, Auer next directed The Crime of Dr. Crespi in September 1934, which he apparently also produced through his own company, J.H.A. Pictures, but was co-financed by Liberty Pictures and M.H. Hoffman in New York. Filmed at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, New York, the film was very loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, “The Premature Burial.” First published in the Philadelphia Dollar Newspaper in 1844, Crespi was co-written by John H. Auer and adapted by Louis Goldberg under the pseudonym Lewis Graham and Edwin Olmstead. Historical sources list Liberty Pictures as the film’s producer, but The Crime of Dr. Crespi was released by Republic Pictures, after Herbert J. Yates, the owner of Consolidated Industries, merged several poverty row studios that were heavily in debt to him. The Crime of Dr. Crespi was copyrighted twice on 29 November 1935, with a note by Republic stating that the first copyright in Liberty’s name was an error. The film remained on the shelf for at least 18 months and was not screened publicly until January 1936. Like much of Auer’s later work, the film’s studio bound scenes give evidence of high key lighting, expressionist shadows, off-kilter camera angles, a lot of camera movement, and even direct references to Weimar Cinema’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) and Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1932).

Major Bowes and Frank Sinatra (1935)

After completing the film Auer remained in New York at the Biograph Studios – probably living again with his brother and mother in New York – directing two short films, adapted from the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour’ radio program on the N.B.C. Network. Major Bowes Amateur Theatre of the Air was actually produced by Auer and may have been a pilot, because the second film, Major Bowes Amateur Parade No. 1 (1936), officially opened the six-film RKO series, introducing local singers and other variety artists to a wider public. A young Frank Sinatra made his first public appearance. recording with the Hoboken Four in the first film. 

John H. Auer transitioned to Republic Pictures after the merger with Liberty. His first film for Republic was A Man Betrayed (1936), shot at the Mack Sennett Studios – renamed Republic Studios in Los Angeles, and released in December 1936. Auer became a resident of Los Angeles the same year, according to his marriage certificate. Except for a three year period at RKO in the 1940s, Auer remained with Republic almost to the end of his career, directing and producing 30 features. Auer died on 15 March 1975 in North Hollywood.

Dwight Frye and Erich von Stroheim in The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935)

272: Boschwitz The Passenger

Archival Spaces 272

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz: The Passenger (1939/2020)

Uploaded 25 June 2020

Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, 1930s

I recently finished reading Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s “lost” novel. Der Reisende, published for the first time in German in 2018, and recently republished in English in a new translation as The Passenger, eighty years after its first quickly forgotten appearance; it has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece. A promising young German-Jewish author of 27 years with two novels under his belt, Boschwitz died in 1942, when the troop transport ship he was on was sunk by a German U-Boat, having previously survived a torpedo attack in 1940 en route to Australia. Like the luckless fictional Jewish hero of his novel, who desperately tries to flee Nazi Germany in the days after the November 1938 Pogrom, an event the Nazis-called Reichskristallnacht, Boschwitz could apparently not escape his fate.

The novel opens in the Berlin home of Otto Silbermann on the night of 9 November, when Nazi brown shirts, the Sturmabteilung (S.A.), try to break into his flat and arrest the middle-class businessman, just as thousands of other German Jews were arrested and beaten all over Germany. Leaving his Christian wife behind, Silbermann escapes out the back door, and after meeting his “Aryan” business partner who has bought the business for a tiny fraction of its actual value, – a process the Nazis termed “Aryanization” – gets on a train without a destination in mind. He tries unsuccessfully to cross the border illegally into Belgium with 40,000 Reichsmarks in his possession, – another crime, given the prohibition for Jewish citizens against taking any money out of Germany, – and spends the rest of the novel traveling by train from one place to another, eventually ending back in Berlin.

Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz and his mother, 1938

Silbermann is not only a completely assimilated German citizen of Jewish ancestry, he does not look “Jewish” and can therefore pass among both anti-Semites, Nazis, and ordinary, non-political Germans.   It is this ability to move freely among the “Wolfmen,” as Curt Siodmak called the Nazis that had kept Silbermann from emigrating sooner, as his son had and now leads him to reproach himself obsessively for not seeing the writing on the wall, for not rescuing his capital sooner, for abandoning his wife, for not trying to attempt another border crossing. But he had served patriotically in World War I on the Western Front, and like many middle-class German Jews, he took pains not to call attention to his Jewishness. As time goes on, Silbermann becomes not only more and more frustrated, but also thin-skinned, even aggressive. When he meets an old Jewish business associate back in Berlin, he accuses the friend of putting him in danger, because Löwenstein looks Jewish. When he meets a sympathetic woman on a train, who makes clear to him she is not an anti-Semite, he verbally abuses her. “You look so irritated. I can understand that, but you should know I have nothing to do with all that. I’m not an anti-Semite. And if you were?, he said sharply. What would it change?” He even retorts aggressively to a German police official who is trying to find an excuse not to arrest him.  

German citizens of Jewish ancestry, arrested by S.A> and Police on 10 November 1938

I’ve read dozens of novels, written by exiled German Jewish writers in my decades of research on German refugee filmmakers from Nazi Germany after 1933, but seldom have I read a writer who described the pain, suffering, disappointment, humiliation, and betrayal, as well as Boschwitz, himself a German citizen of Jewish ethnicity who was thoroughly assimilated, and even baptized. In fact, Boschwitz wrote the novel in one month immediately after the November Pogrom. It was published in Sweden and England under the title The Man Who Took Trains.

HMT Dunera, 1940

Boschwitz did escape and went to England, where his mother was already residing, but was arrested and deported as an enemy alien to Australia by Winston Churchill’s government.  On 10 July 1940 2,542 detainees, almost all of them Jewish, anti-Nazi Germans, Austrians, and Italians, were loaded onto the HMT Dunera, where they were beaten, abused, and robbed by British military guards before arriving in Australia 57 days later. The ship was torpedoed twice, but one bomb was a dud, while the second narrowly missed the hull. Among the ship’s passengers were many famous refugee scientists, artists, and intellectuals. Boschwitz spent two years in an Australian internment camp, was then allowed to make the perilous journey back to England, if he enlisted. In his luggage was a revised version of the novel he hoped to republish, having previously sent revisions of the first 109 pages. He died on 29 October 1942, when the M.V. Abosso was sunk by a German torpedo 620 miles north of the Azores.

M.V. Abosso

In the postwar German Federal Republic, no one was interested in publishing Boschwitz’s novel,  although none other than Heinrich Böll (Group Portrait with Lady) tried in vain to convince a publisher. Not until Peter Graf, the editor of Der Reisende, found the German manuscript in 2015 in the “Exile Archive” of the German National Library in Marbach was The Passenger discovered.  

German Jewish citizens paraded through streets, November 1938
German Anti-Nazis being forcibly deported, London 1940

271: Ozaphan 16mm

Archival Spaces 271  

Ozaphan, 16mm on Cellophane

Uploaded 11 June 2021

Ozaphan was a non-flammable safety film format marketed for home use in France and Germany from the late 1920s to the 1950s, which had the peculiarity that it neither used a conventional photographic emulsion, nor was its base di-acetate.  Rather, Ozaphan employed a system of image reproduction akin to blue line printing on a cellophane base. Despite the fact that it could not be utilized as a production medium, but only as a projection format, it was relatively popular as a distribution medium for amateurs wishing to screen commercial fiction, documentary, and animated films in their own homes. Ozaphan was produced through a cooperation between the French Le Cellophane, Agfa, and the German manufacturer Kalle & Co. AG. Despite attempts to form a French-German-American partnership in 1937-38  to distribute Ozaphan films in the United States, negotiations broke down, due to resistance from Ansco, the American subsidiary of Agfa, which saw as a competitor to its 16mm film. A new monograph by Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen, Heimkino auf Ozaphan. Mediengeschichte eines vergessenen Filmmaterials (CineGraph Babelsberg, 2021) details the history of this weird film format.

Cellophane was invented and patented between 1908-10 by the Swiss chemist, Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, as a clear, waterproof tablecloth for restaurant use, but was quickly marketed as packaging material for everything from food and candies to drugs and books. By 1912, Whitman Candy Company was packaging their sampler in cellophane. In 1924, Brandenberger sold the rights to cellophane production in America to E. I. du Pont de Nemours. While cellophane was contemplated as a base for photographic film, the fact that it lost its dimensionality when soaked in developer, made it unsuitable. Invented in 1917, Kalle & Co. introduced a diazotype photographic process in 1924, under the brand name Ozalid, which was able to accurately reproduce blue-line drawings on paper. Ozalid’s dry developing process used gas, rather than water, making a marriage of the two technologies feasible.

Le Cellophane S.A. trade show, n.d.
Ozolid blue line architectural drawing

With the expansion of the amateur film market in the 1920s, numerous raw film manufacturers attempted to find a safe alternative to highly flammable nitrate film. Pathé introduced a 9.5mm format in 1922 for their “Baby-Pathé” camera and projector, and Eastman Kodak brought their 16mm system to market in 1924, both based on a di-acetate based film. Shortly thereafter, Kalle, which had been absorbed by I.G. Farben, formed a partnership with Le Cellophane S.A. to create a non-flammable amateur film format, Ozaphan, which was also significantly cheaper to produce than di-acetate. In April 1928, Agfa introduced its 16mm Ozaphan film, having marketed a 22mm format (Edison) a year earlier, and two years later an X-ray film and film for soundtracks.

One advantage of Ozaphan was it was approximately half as thick as di-acetate, decreasing shipping costs, and also cheaper to produce because it did not use silver salts. Instead, cellophane was impregnated with a photosensitive ferric compound and dried. Utilizing a 16mm photochemical positive print, reduced from a 35mm negative as a matrix, Ozaphan prints were contact-printed under light, then developed under pressure in ammonia gas, a process that took 6-7 hours. Despite increased cost for matrices and developing, the cost of a finished Ozaphan film was 15 Pfennings, rather than 90 Pfennings per meter for di-acetate. This process obviously precluded the production of images in a camera, and was thus only used to make copies. Drawbacks to the process were that cellophane continued to have dimensional and shrinkage issues, and the quality of the yellow tinted black and white image was inferior to photographic film, lacking most grey tones.

Movector CS 16mm projector, modified filmgate for Ozaphan film, 1935

Nevertheless, Ozaphan became a popular amateur projection film format in Europe. By 1934, Agfa was distributing more than seventy-five titles (all of them silent) in the Ozaphan format. Virtually all of them were severely abridged versions of previously released commercial films, including German “Kultur” films from the Ufa, and other companies, and even American films, like “Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood.” Agfa, and after 1937, Kalle, continued to distribute films in a large catalog during the Third Reich, including Nazi propaganda films. And while the company went dormant in 1945, it was revived in 1949 in the German Federal Republic and continued to operate until 1958, even spawning an Ozaphan-Film Club movement with more than 10,000 members. As a result, at least two generations of amateur film lovers were influenced by the process. Several hundred Ozaphan prints survive in German film archives, but copying them was impossible until digital technologies were introduced.

Ozaphan Film Club Membership Card, 1950s

Film history is filled with such anomalies, technological dead-ends, and brief shooting stars! As a non-photographic process, Ozaphan was one of the most interesting. For those who don’t read German, Ralf Forster and Jeanpaul Goergen published their preliminary research, “Ozaphan: Home Cinema on Cellophane,” in Film History, No. 4, 2007, 372-383.

French Ozaphan film formats17.5 mm, 22mm, 24mm, 35mm sound

270: Warner Bros. abandon DVDs?

Archival Spaces 270

Will Warner Brothers Abandon DVDs/blu-rays?

Uploaded 28 May 2021

Several weeks ago, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites blew up with the news that AT & T’s Warner Media had announced that the WB would be abandoning the distribution of physical movie media, i.e., DVDs and Blu-rays, turning sales over to a third-party company. While the rumors were quickly denied, the Warner Archive Collection site now sends consumers to Amazon for the purchase of its classic DVS/Blu-Rays.

The Warner Archive Collection is the home video division for releasing classic and cult films from the company’s library. It began in March 2009 as a manufactured-on-demand DVD series with the goal of making available to consumers previously unreleased catalog films on DVD, without the major expense (advertising, packaging, extras) of a full DVD release. Although the digital transfers without clean-up were from existing prints, the initiative was in fact quite successful; it seems, for now, the Collection will continue operating, but the question is for how long?

The rumors started flying back in January when Warner Pictures Home Entertainment and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment announced that they would form a new joint venture to distribute DVDs in North America for new releases, library titles, and TV content. According to a report in Variety (15 January 2021)the new company was expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2021 but has yet to go public. The deal came as sales of all video disc formats (DVDs. blu-rays, UltraHD Blu-Rays) fell more than 50% between 2014 and 2018, sales dropping from $ 25.2 billion to $13.1 billion. In 2019, sales fell another 9.4% to $5.9 billion.

Meanwhile, in the first half of 2020, digital movie sales ($1.61 billion) overtook DVD/Blu-ray sales ($1.275) for the first time in the US, but those figures don’t even include streaming rentals or subscriptions. Since 2011, platforms like Netflix, Hulu, and HBO have seen sales balloon 1,231% to $12.9 billion. According to Zoe Mills, an analyst at GlobalData, “Streaming has been a significant disruptor in the video market, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video enticing consumers to invest in their services at the detriment of physical DVD and Blu-ray sales.” She noted further in a report on the website, Advanced Television: “The Covid-19 pandemic is set to exasperate (sic) this market even further as not only is there a major new entrant to streaming but also with more people spending time at home, investment in these subscription services appears more worthwhile as consumers are able to use them more regularly.”

Format changes are of course nothing new to the film business. For more than 100 years, from its invention in 1895 to 2009, when 35mm prints as a medium for theatrical projection suddenly became obsolete with the introduction of so-called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). However, 35mm as a film distribution medium had already been impacted by the introduction of 16mm in 1924, which quickly became a format for home viewing and for non-theatrical screenings in educational institutions. By the 1950s, virtually all the major studios operated non-theatrical divisions to distribute their new and classic films, once the 35mm theatrical market had been saturated.

1976 VHS VCR

With the introduction of VHS, a videotape format for home use in 1976, home viewing became much more practical and lead to a huge expansion in the market. By 1977, the first video rental store opened in Los Angeles. But the industry was worried that VHS would cannibalize box-office and so they sued SONY in 1976. As the cost of VHS players dropped to practically nothing, though, home video sales increased to $ 18 billion, creating a huge new income stream without effecting theatrical sales. In March 1997, the first DVD players were introduced and soon drove VHS from the market, given its superior image quality and ease of use.

However, with each of these format changes, fewer and fewer classic films have been available. Indeed, while VHS lead to the founding of numerous smaller distributors for public domain content, given the extremely low cost of transferring films to video, the introduction of DVDs lead to a shrinkage in the market, given digitals much higher production costs. With the new streaming services, classic and foreign films have become even more difficult to find and see. Yes, we have the Criterion Collection and You-Tube, but old American films from the classic studio era are virtually invisible on Netflix and many other streaming services. It remains to be seen, how many classic titles will be available on HBO Max (Warners), and the Paramount and Disney Channels.

Meanwhile, a number of smaller vendors, including Kino, Milestone, Shout Factory, Flicker Alley, and Drafthouse Films are betting that DVDs will stay around a bit longer, because a small but dedicated group of consumers still want to collect films, like holding the physical object in their hands, and believe the image quality of physical media still beats streaming.

269: 1970s Women Directors

Archival Spaces 269

Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema

Uploaded 14 May 2021

The following review was originally written in October 2019 but remained unpublished. With a woman of color winning an Oscar for directing this year, this book remains hugely relevant.

Elaine May directing A NEW LEAF (1971)

In October 2019, it was announced in the trade press that Elaine May was, at 86 years old, making her first film in more than three decades, Crackpot, starring Dakota Johnson (a project that has still not materialized). May, the former partner of Mike Nichols, belonged to the first generation of Hollywood women film directors, influenced by 1970s feminism. Elaine May is one of the subjects in Maya Montañez Smukler‘s book, Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2019), based on her dissertation at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The book won the Richard Wall Book Award of the Theatre Library Association.  

While American fiction filmmaking in the silent era featured literally dozens of women as writers, directors, and producers, the consolidation of the industry in 1920s Hollywood into a monopolistic system of production, distribution, and exhibition transformed filmmaking into a bastion of male privilege. While a small cadre of women survived as scriptwriters into the 1930s and 40s, only two women directors are known to have had modest careers between 1930 and 1970: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. With the rise of feminism, women began pushing for more responsibility behind the camera, and Smukler’s book analyses for the first time the success or lack thereof of the sixteen women who directed their first features in this period. It is a fascinating tale of small victories and major frustrations, involving gender issues that have yet to be resolved even now, exemplified by Elaine May’s banishment for 32 years after the mega-flop, Ishtar (1987), a film which has enjoyed rehabilitation in the last decade.

Ida Lupino

Before discussing the first attempts of women to reform Hollywood in the 1970s, Smukler offers a brief prologue that pays homage to independent women filmmakers who worked out of New York in the 1960s, making fiction features, including Shirley Clarke and Juleen Compton. Clarke’s The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963), and Portrait of Jason (1967) were art houses successes, before she moved to Los Angeles, taught at UCLA in the late 1970s, and made an unsuccessful run at Hollywood. Compton’s films, Stranded (1964) and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) were produced independently and then promptly forgotten after very limited runs. They were recently preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Shirley Clarke

In Chapter 1, Smukler sets the stage by noting that in 1970 the country’s two film schools most closely tied to Hollywood, UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC), matriculated only fifty women but 850 men. Clearly, this stepping stone to Hollywood – mythologized by the „movie brat generation“ of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – was for men only, so women had to organize. Smukler discusses various political attempts to influence Hollywood. In March 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducted hearings in Los Angeles, revealing gender and racial discrimination in the film industry’s hiring practices, but enforcement proved impossible in the face of indifference and intransigence. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was also brought into play, but the equally guilty studios and craft unions blamed each other, so nothing changed. Finally, the Writer’s Guild Women’s Committee, founded in 1972, began aggregating employment information to prove gender bias, but their repeated meetings with studio executives also ran aground. The studios argued that the marketplace and the industry’s self-regulation would lead to change, not government intervention.

Joan Micklin Silver

In Chapter 2, Smukler differentiates between studio, art-house, and exploitation films as production cultures where a limited number of the women found initial success. Elaine May is represented as the sole woman working in a mainstream studio environment when she directed A New Leaf (1971). Directors Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1971), Karen Arthur (Legacy, 1974), Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975), and Penny Allen (Property, 1979) all directed independent features which succeeded on the art house circuit. Stefanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé, directing It’s a Bikini World in 1967, before producing the box office exploitation smash, The Student Nurses (1970). Also working in the (s)exploitation field were Beverly Sebastian (The Love Clinic, 1968) and Barbara Peeters (Just the Two of Us, 1970). Not surprisingly, these female exploitation directors had to temper their feminist themes with nods to male fantasies. The Student Nurses, for example, featured strong and independent women who nevertheless had to expose their breasts like clockwork throughout the narrative.

Stephanie Rothman

Some, like Rothman, Silver, and Sebastian were helped by their producer husbands, but Smukler demonstrates that other male mentors, like Roger Corman, “rarely… created the stepping-stones for career progression that for their male colleagues were typical…” (p. 45). Other husband-wife partnerships included Joan Rivers/Edgar Rosenberg (Rabbit Test, 1978), Anne Bancroft/Mel Brooks (Fatso, 1980), and Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin (Moment by Moment, 1978), all of whom directed their first and only films for mainstream distributors.

Joan Tewkesberry

Smukler notes at the beginning of chapter 3 “While Hollywood seemed occasionally willing to appropriate feminism to boost its revenues and reputation, its unwillingness to hire women – both in front of and behind the camera – illustrated how the film business was determined to contain its female employees’ success – and with it, their power – even if doing so meant losing money that these directors and actresses could have made for their studios.”(p. 163). That is the essence of the story of women in Hollywood throughout this book. Smukler next discusses the directorial careers of Joan Darling (First Love, 1977), Jane Wagner, Joan Tewkesbury (Old Boyfriends, 1979), Joan Rivers, and Claudia Weill (Girlfriends, 1978), all of whom directed their first films in the late 1970s. Almost all the women named here enjoyed only very brief careers as feature film directors, but some of them were able to sustain themselves with television work, which was geared more towards female audiences. As Joan Tewkesbury noted: TV movies “were cheap to make and women watched them… The men watched sports and the women watched these TV movies.” (p. 186)

Lee Grant

In the remaining pages of the chapter, Smukler discusses the history of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, founded in 1974, which had been set up after persistent complaints that the AFI program privileged men: Only three of the AFI’s first 65 filmmaking grants were given to women. The workshop initially trained, among others, Anne Bancroft, Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle, 1980), Nancy Walker (Can’t Stop the Music, 1980), and Maya Angelou (Down on the Delta, 1998). The first three of course had major careers as actresses. Yet for all the propaganda value the AFI has culled from the workshop, none of the women in the early cohorts transitioned to mainstream Hollywood film careers, although Grant would produce a sizable body of work in documentary and television movies.

Maya Angelou directing DAWN ON THE DELTA (1998)

Smukler’s final chapter analyses the tortured relationship of the Director’s Guild with women, and the efforts of a group of feminists to push the DGA to accept more women through its Women’s Steering Committee – founded in 1979 –, making a direct appeal to the film companies, and finally through an EEOC legal case which ultimately failed. DGA resistance came not only from a significant number of males in the DGA but, more surprisingly, from DGA members of colour, who expected their grievances to be resolved before women stepped up to the plate.

In her epilogue, Smukler points to women directors who produced their first films in the 1980s and in contrast to 70s women, were often able to sustain much longer careers, in part, thanks to the spadework of their older sisters. In 2020, women represented 16% of directors working on the 100 highest-grossing films in 2020, the best year ever for women, who only represented 4% of directors in 2018. By presenting the creative biographies of the first modern generation of women directors in tandem with their political struggles for employment equality, Maya Smukler has written an important contribution to the history of women behind the camera in Hollywood.

Claudia Weill shooting JOYCE AT 34 (1974, Joyce Copra)

268: The Emergence of Early Television 1878-1939

Archival Spaces 268

Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939

Uploaded 30 April 2021

Even though we think of television as only coming to public consciousness several decades after the birth of cinema, one of the epiphanies of Doron Galilli’s new book, Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 (Duke University Press, 2020), is that theoretical conceptions of cinema and television emerged virtually at the same time, it initially being unclear which medium would first come to fruition. Furthermore, it was not until the cinema had entered its mature, industrial phase in the 1920s and the first practical television systems had been developed that media-specific definitions of film and television were first articulated. In presenting evolving theoretical models of television from early visionaries to modernist avant-garde theorists, Galili’s media archeology demonstrates that American television as an entertainment broadcasting system was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, as Galili notes in his first chapter, early conceptions of television were intimately connected to the telephone and the telegraph, rather than optical toys as was cinema, and were seen as visual extensions of those technologies. The focus was on the simultaneous transmission and reception of moving images, whereas cinema developed out of technologies for recording and projecting images, mostly for entertainment purposes, rather than direct communication. In other words, two different media environments, and not just their ontological differences as chemical or electronic media, characterized the development of cinema and television. At the most basic level, film eliminated time by recording it, television obliterated space through simultaneous transmission between different locations.  Galili’s second chapter digs deeper by aligning the development of cinema and television with 19th century theories of optics and the human nervous system, which was thought to function through electrical impulses. Both media were seen as prosthetic extensions of the human eye (the film camera as an eye is a central metaphor of 1920s modernist film theory), but television could see the world instantaneously. 

1910 French postcard by Villlemard

Even after cinema became a reality and began rapidly developing into a coherent system of production, distribution, and exhibition, the exhibition of “actualities” still evoked a sense of being there in the moment, just as television promised “liveness.” That very notion of liveness is what television broadcasters would highlight, in order to distinguish it from cinema. Not that all early television attempts were that “live:” In 1934, Gaumont-British relayed eight feet of film of an airplane race from Australia to England by wireless telegraph, a process that took 68 hours, thus rivaling present download speeds for uncompressed movies. But cinema also began to define itself in contrast to the electrical transmission of images: “As cinema created for itself a distinct and coherent media identity, it charted new intermedial contexts and thereby distinguished itself from the sphere of transmission media.” (p. 93)

Siemen’s Selenium Eye, Scientific American, 1876

In chapter 4, Galili discusses the history of radio broadcasting, noting that its institutionalization in the United States as a system of privately owned, commercially operated broadcasting networks during television’s experimental phase (1920s) made it the dominant model for American television, while European nations followed a state-owned model for radio and later television. However, both radio and TV depended on a one-way model of transmission from centralized broadcaster to consumer, rather than the telephone’s two-way communication. As in his earlier chapter, where the author discusses television’s visual depiction in early cinema, he here looks at the many interesting and fun examples of television use in classic movies.

In his final two chapters, Galili analyzes modernist film theory’s prognosis for television, focusing on Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “Radio-Eye,” and Rudolf Arnheim’s 1930’s writings on television. The former emphasizes to a much greater degree than generally acknowledged that Vertov’s ideal – though unrealized – media for bringing unvarnished reality to the masses was television, rather than film, decoded in a Marxist terms. Interestingly, one of the central metaphors of his greatest film, The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), is the simulation of sound and instantaneous transmission (radio/television). Galili has a harder time making a case for Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who, following his standard work, Film as Art, denied television, like sound film, any artistic characteristics, since it was a hybridized, impure medium. Rather, writing from Fascist Italy, Arnheim focuses on television’s potential for totalitarian control and “maintains that the state should utilize the advantages of television in order to reawaken communal feelings and save the creative power of individuals from being ‘weakened by the division of labor,’ a statement that comes dangerously close to undergirding Italian Fascist ideology.

Man With the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

In highlighting the dichotomies between cinema and television, between recording and transmission, between analog chemical film and electronic signals, while noting the continuous overlaps in conceptions and technical evolution, Doron Galili has vastly increased our knowledge of both media, while also illuminating the digital landscape of today, where film and television are no longer distinguishable. Ironically, the COVID pandemic has brought us back to television’s first conceptional model as a two-way tele-visual communication media through Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facetime.

Japanese Television-phone, 1968