Desmet Collection 2018
curated by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
Some themes are truly timeless and universally recognizable. Benjamin Franklin is credited with the aphorism “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” In his poem “Mending Wall”, published in 1914, Robert Frost writes, “Good fences make good neighbors.” (Franklin meant it in a joking way, while Frost was being bitingly ironic.) A good number of films in this selection take these words very literally.
Almost all of them (with the exception of Park Your Car, featuring neighbours getting along so well that they decide to invest together in a shared car) are about the well-known neighbourly irritations: the noise, the messiness, or simply the unpleasant characters of those living next door. Of course the classic topic of “falling in love with the boy or girl next door” is not forgotten either
What is noticeable in this year’s selection is that almost all the films end up being comedies, albeit of different sorts. Also, music seems to form an undercurrent; three films are directly about overhearing the neighbours playing a musical instrument, allowing a nice insight into the firm and functional presence of (loud) music within early silent cinema.
Visually speaking, it is interesting to note that the theme of neighbours seem to inspire a universally acknowledged cinematography: many of these films either have the camera pan up and down, or left and right, or the frame is split vertically (and sometimes horizontally) in order to show the neighbours simultaneously on both sides of a garden fence, balcony, apartments, or even different floors of a building.
A number of other films that would fit the topic were not used this year because they were already screened in earlier editions; such as Le acque miracolose (1914), where Gigetta Morano gets pregnant with the special “help” of her upstairs neighbour, who also happens to be her doctor, and Cunégonde trop curieuse (1912), where her constant spying on her neighbours in the apartment building drives everyone mad.
MES VOISINS FONT DANSER (28mm Pathé-Kok: Repos Impossible) (US: Noisy Neighbors; GB: My Neighbours Are Giving a Dance) (FR 1908)
regia/dir: Max Linder? Louis Gasnier? cast: Max Linder. prod, dist: Pathé Frères. uscita/rel: 06/1908. copia/copy: 35mm, 61.60 m. (orig. 70 m.), 3’04” (18 fps); senza didascalie/no intertitles. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. Preservazione effettuata nel 2000 dall’Immagine Ritrovata a partire da un Pathé-Kok 28mm gonfiato a 35. / Preserved in 2000 at the Immagine Ritrovata laboratory from a 28mm positive Pathé-Kok film print, blown up to 35mm.
Max has a splitting headache and tries to take a rest. However, his upstairs neighbours are having a crowded party, complete with loud music and singing. Max is desperate and bangs on the ceiling for them to stop, but instead they all start stamping on the floor, bringing the ceiling crashing down in Max’s apartment.
The print is a blow-up from the 28mm Pathé-Kok release, and as such carries the re-release title Repos impossible. Like many upstairs-downstairs neighbour films, this comic short contains a pan movement to reveal the neighbours upstairs, who at the end of the film spectacularly tumble down into Max’s bedroom. According to Raymond Chirat and Éric Le Roy, the film is directed either by Louis Gasnier or Max Linder himself.
LES BOTTINES DU COLONEL (FR 1910)
regia/dir: ? scen: M. Lamsoon [Eugène Salomon]. cast: M. Grégoire (Colonel Ronchon), M. Tramont (Paul), Mlle. [Hélène] Maïa (Jeanne), M. [René] Bussy (orderly). prod: Éclair A.C.A.D. copia/copy: 35mm, 182.70 m. (orig. 205 m.), 8’58” (18 fps), col. (imbibito/tinted); did./titles: FRA; titolo di testa mancante/main title missing. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection). Preserved in 1991 at Haghefilm from an internegative.
Paul is in love with his next-door neighbor Jeanne, the daughter of Colonel Ronchon. They communicate through the adjoining balcony, but one day Paul accidentally drops a note in the Colonel’s boots, left outside to air. As he warns Jeanne, they both go out of their way to remove the Colonel’s boots to retrieve the note before he notices.
The print credits the actors only by their surnames, together with the theatre troupes they belonged to at the time. Two of the performers appear to have been killed at the front during WWI: M. Grégoire of the Théâtre Cluny, who plays Colonel Ronchon, and Tramont (apparently not the actor Émile Tramont but a performer who only went by the one name), whose death on the battlefield in 1916 is confirmed by a belated obituary published in 1918 in Les Annales du théâtre et de la musique.
THE LITTLE BOYS NEXT DOOR (Twee kleine nietsnutters) (GB 1911)
regia/dir: Percy Stow. prod: Clarendon Film Co. copia/copy: 35mm, 341 ft., 5′ (18 fps); senza didascalie/no intertitles. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection).
This British film, held in the Desmet Collection, has always been known as Two Naughty Boys, by James Williamson. There were many comedies made around this time featuring naughty children in a variety of simple scenarios, generally misbehaving in the way that children do, with an anarchic glee. It was a popular genre in the 1900s and just into the 1910s, and could trace its origins back to the Lumières’ L’Arroseur arrosé (1895), in which a boy plays a trick on a gardener by standing on a hose-pipe to cut off the water, releasing it when the gardener squints down the tube to detect the blockage.
In this film, two quite young boys race around a parlour, diving under furniture and carpets to evade an irate grown-up before the scene shifts to the garden, where the boys’ attempt to retrieve a lost shuttlecock somehow leads to an epic hose-pipe fight. Comparing the age of the boys to those in Williamson’s earlier film, Our Errand Boy (1905), starring his sons Tom and Stuart Williamson, leads me to think this is actually a Clarendon film of 1911, The Little Boys Next Door. The boys are much smaller and younger-looking, it fits Percy Stow’s anarchic style, and the storyline from the contemporary synopsis fits well.
TOTÒ SENZ’ACQUA (Toto sans eau / US: Toto Without Water) (IT 1911)
regia/dir, scen: Emilio Vardannes. cast: Emilio Vardannes. prod: Itala Film. uscita/rel: 09.08.1911. copia/copy: 35mm, 140.70 m. (orig. 151 m.), 5’08” (24 fps); did./titles: FRA. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. Preservazione/Preserved: 1991, Haghefilm.
The water is cut off in Totò’s apartment building, so he volunteers to go to the water company and demand an explanation. However, by the time he gets there his house starts flooding, since he’s forgotten to close the tap and the pipe has been repaired in the meantime. Luckily his neighbours manage to reach him by phone and make him come home as quickly as possible.
Émile (or Emilio) Vardannes (born Antonin Bénevént, 1868? – 1951) was a French actor who entered films in Italy in 1909. In 1911, Turin-based Itala Film cast him in the Totò series, for which he’s often credited as director, scenarist, and main actor. His international popularity was swift, with Moving Picture World (11.08.1911) commenting on Toto Without Water: “Toto is something of a favorite and his antics in this picture will not reduce his popularity in any degree.” In 1912 Vardannes switched to Milano-Films, where he was featured in the “Bonifacio” comedy series into 1913, and then continued a rich career in both dramatic (Hannibal, in Cabiria) and comic roles into the sound era. The film was first released in France as Toto sans eau in 1911, but was reissued in 1914 when, according to Aldo Bernardini and Vittorio Martinelli (Il cinema muto italiano. 1911), it was re-edited.
WHEN MARY GREW UP (Een meisje dat een jongen had moeten zijn) (US 1913)
regia/dir: James Young. cast: Clara Kimball Young (Mary [Dutch print: Marie]), E.K. Lincoln (John Benson [Dutch print: Johan Hammond]), Flora Finch (la domestica/the maid), Julia Swayne Gordon (la zia/Mary’s aunt), Wally Van (il ragazzo del droghiere/grocer’s boy), Max Koster? (poliziotto/policeman), James Young? (autista adirato/irate driver?). prod, dist: Vitagraph. uscita/rel: 28.01.1913. copia/copy: 35mm, 958 ft. (292 m.; orig. 1000 ft.), 14′ (18 fps), col. (imbibito/tinted); did./titles: NLD. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection). Preservazione effettuata nel 1992 presso Haghefilm da un internegativo./ Preserved in 1992 at Haghefilm from an internegative.
Mary is an irrepressible teenager whose rambunctiousness drives her guardian aunt to distraction. When the family maid locks her in her room, she dons boy’s clothes and climbs out the window, getting into trouble when she’s caught by neighbour John Benson, stealing his apples. Attitudes change though when he discovers the pretty girl hidden underneath the mannish attire, and Mary seconds the flirtation, but clearly on her own terms.
“If all comedies could be as captivating as When Mary Grew Up, reviewing would be a joy indeed,” crowed the critic for the New York Dramatic Mirror (5 February 1913), and few would gainsay his remarks, for the film is an absolute delight (it hasn’t been screened at the Giornate since 1987). It could just as easily have fit into last year’s “Nasty Women” programme, as Clara Kimball Young’s Mary is the sort of delicious spitfire whose headstrong pursuit of instant gratification knows few limits. When Mary Grew Up is yet further proof of the 23-year-old Kimball Young’s superb comic timing, and while she became a noted dramatic actress under Lewis J. Selznick’s guidance, one can’t help but feel a sense of loss that she, like Norma Talmadge, was pushed to jettison laughter in favor of d-r-a-m-a. As Moving Picture World (8 February 1913) wrote, “There is not a dull moment in this fine comedy.”
Be sure to notice the school pennants decorating Mary’s room, all of which attest to her strong-minded sense of female solidarity. There’s one for Belmont College for Young Women in Nashville, Tennessee (which merged the same year with a nearby school to become Ward-Belmont College); Western High School, founded in 1844 and the oldest public all-girls high school remaining in the U.S.; and Agnes Scott College, an all-women’s institute of higher learning founded in 1889 in Decatur, Georgia.
GONTRAN ET LA VOISINE INCONNUE (Gontran en zijn onbekende buurvrouw) (FR 1913)
regia/dir: ?. cast: René Gréhan. prod, dist: Éclair. copia/copy: 35mm, 167 m. (orig. 202 m.), 8’22” (18 fps), col. (imbibito/tinted); did./titles: NLD. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Desmet Collection). Preservazione effettuata nel 1990 presso Haghefilm da un internegativo. / Preserved in 1990 at Haghefilm from an internegative.
Gontran (René Gréhan) is so obsessed with playing the piano that he completely neglects his wife Arlette (or Alida as she is called in the Dutch intertitles). She moves to a house within hearing distance and begins to take piano lessons. Gontran is entranced by the music and starts courting this mysterious and talented neighbour from behind the garden fence, much to her satisfaction.
Gréhan (dates unknown) seems to have been a very prolific stage actor in the early 1900s at various theatres, including the Grand Guignol, “where five or six times an evening he switches between both tragic and comic roles with equal ease” (according to Film-Revue no. 13, 1913). Employed by Pathé as early as 1906, he moved to Éclair and was featured as the comic character Gontran between 1910 and 1913, when he was compared to Max Linder: “As played by Gréhan, (…) Gontran is an anxious, overconfident bourgeois type not unlike Max — and his polished style of performance and facial appearance (large eyes, hair parted in the middle, and thin moustache) do remind one of Linder.” (Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914). In the United States, the series was first released using the Gontran name, but was changed to “Nutty” between 1913-14.
LA VENGEANCE DU SERGENT DE VILLE (De Wraak van den politie-agent) (FR 1913)
regia/dir: Louis Feuillade. cast: Paul Manson (Monsieur Brême [Dutch print: Brasem], il proprietario/apartment owner), André Luguet (suo figlio/his son), Yvette Andreyor (sua nuora/his daughter-in-law Marcelle), Louis Leubas (poliziotto/the policeman), Renée Carl. prod, dist: Gaumont. uscita/rel: 31.01.1913. copia/copy: 35mm, 255 m. (orig. 265 m.), 13’33” (16 fps), col. (imbibito/tinted); did./titles: NLD. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam. Preservazione effettuata nel 1991 presso Haghefilm. /Preserved in 1991 at Haghefilm.
Newlyweds move next door to a policeman (Louis Leubas) who delights in playing the horn whenever he pleases. This gets on everyone’s nerves, especially the young bride (Yvette Andreyor), who soon becomes hysterical from the noise. The doctor prescribes a peculiar cure; she must be provided with a substitute policeman she can torture as she wishes, for up to 8 days. The family brings in a life-size doll, the spitting image of the neighbour. The cure proves to be very efficient, and Mrs. Brasem’s health improves. Curious to know why she’s no longer complaining, the policeman drills a hole in the wall, and on seeing the doll, decides to take his place. Although the very last metres appear to be missing, this film is a must-see as one of the more bizarre examples within the “neighbours” theme. Some sources indicate Suzanne Grandais as among the cast, but it is hard to establish the source of this information, and she is nowhere to be seen.
PARK YOUR CAR (Auto-manieakken) (US 1920)
regia/dir: Alf Goulding. scen: Hal Roach. cast: Harry [“Snub”] Pollard, Marie Mosquini, Hughey Mack, Sunshine Sammy Morrison, Ernie Morrison Sr., Sammy Brooks, Earl Mohan, Vera White. prod: Hal Roach, Rolin Film Co. dist: Pathé Exchange. uscita/rel: 19.12.1920. copia/copy: 35mm, 853 ft. (260 m.; orig. 1 rl.), 8’57” (24 fps); did./titles: NLD. fonte/source: EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam (Zaalberg Collection). Preservazione: 2008, presso Haghefilm./Preserved in 2008 at Haghefilm.
Sometimes neighbours get along just fine, as in Park Your Car. Here the problem comes when Snub Pollard and Hughey Mack think they can save money by buying a car together – only the vehicle they get isn’t quite what they bargained for.
Snub Pollard (1889-1962) is still one of the most recognizable faces of silent comedy. His screen character was that of a goofy goon with a long, droopy Fu Manchu moustache. But not in Park Your Car. This short is a rare example from a brief period in 1920 when producer Hal Roach decided to change Snub’s look. Having had great success moving Harold Lloyd from the grotesque Lonesome Luke to a young everyman with glasses, Roach thought he’d try the same thing with Pollard. The problem was the Pollard films were anything- for-a-laugh gag fests in the Mack Sennett tradition, and without the upper lip hair Snub got lost in the shuffle. So after being clean-shaven in a few entries like Cash Customers and The Morning After (both 1920) the moustache returned.
Pollard was a graduate of the Australian children’s troupe Pollard’s Lilliputians, and began his film career in 1913 working for Universal and then Essanay, where he connected with Hal Roach. When Roach set up his own production company, Snub was hired to be second banana for his star comic Harold Lloyd. In 1919 he was given his own one-reel series, and he spent the 1920s as a star for Roach and Weiss Brothers Artclass Pictures.
Snub always got a lot of help from his friends in his comedies, and on hand in Park Your Car is his usual leading lady Marie Mosquini. His large buddy is Hughey Mack, former stalwart from the Vitagraph Company, who would move into support in features, and become a favorite of director Erich von Stroheim for pictures such as Greed (1923), The Merry Widow (1925), and The Wedding March (1927).