Buster Keaton’s final word

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on March 6th, 2013 by Eric Veillette

John Sebert, left, and Buster Keaton, on the construction site of MacDonald Block during filming of The Scribe. “He didn’t think the script was funny,” says Sebert. “He’d been making these industrial films for years, but he was still dedicated to the gags. He still wanted to make people laugh.”

This piece was originally published by the Toronto Star on March 5, 2013. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

Buster Keaton, who rose to fame in the 1920s, directed and starred in some of the most famous films of the silent era. The General (1926) is ranked 34th on Sight and Sound magazine’s list of the 50 greatest films of all time.

Nearly four decades later, during a chilly October in 1965, Keaton was in Toronto, appearing in The Scribe , an industrial safety film commissioned by the Construction Safety Association of Ontario.

It would be his last film. On Feb. 1, 1966, Keaton died of lung cancer.

The short, directed by John Sebert, features Keaton as a would-be reporter visiting a construction site, press pass tucked into the band of his famous pork-pie hat. It appears as a special feature in Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Buster Keaton’s College (1927), available this week.

Until he was contacted by the Star, Sebert was unaware that his first directorial effort was coming out. “I think it’s wonderful,” he says on the phone from Naples, Fla. “I still have my reservations about the film. It could be a lot better, but over the years, all sorts of people have wanted to look at it.”

A life-long cinema fan — who often saw Keaton’s films when presented by the Toronto Film Society — Sebert was a renowned photographer and long-time contributor to Chatelaine and various catalogues, including Eaton’s, when he was offered the chance to direct a film.

When a 30-minute documentary on construction safety was proposed, Sebert immediately thought of Keaton, whose slapstick was constructed with engineering-like precision. “He’d be wonderful because he spent most of his life making accidents happen,” he adds with a laugh.

While physically in good shape — performing most of the sight gags and running along the site — Keaton was in poor health, often falling into uncontrollable coughing fits. “We flew to San Francisco to meet with him and set everything up. When we got there, he said: ‘My wife doesn’t want me to do it, but I really want to do it.’”

The shoot lasted 10 days. While other locations are visible, the majority of the production takes place on the construction site of MacDonald Block at Bay and Wellesley. “Whoever granted us permission must’ve been a Buster fan, because they made it very easy for us to shoot in this location.” The site was completed in 1968. Sebert would direct other films, as well as nearly 1,000 television commercials.

Keaton, whose career declined in the 1930s after losing creative control of his films when he signed to MGM, appeared in several industrial films throughout the years, and his stone-faced appearance was a regular fixture in television commercials, like this Ford van advertisement, also released in 1966.

Chris Seguin, a local silent film historian, applauds Kino for releasing the short because it was likely only ever shown in union halls or during training sessions. “Without companies like Kino and private collectors, these films would be lost. Even the CSAO disposed of their only 16-millimetre print once they could transfer it to VHS — and they did a lousy job of it at that. These films were considered disposable, but they’re a major part of an artist’s legacy.”

The elusive short, shot on 16mm film, was acquired on Ebay by Kino Lorber producer Bret Wood. A print also exists at Library and Archives Canada.

While in town, Keaton also filmed his last television appearance, as a guest on the CBC game show Flashback. One of the panelists was Elwy Yost, the former host of TVO’s Saturday Night at the Movieswho died in 2011 .

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Charles Dickens in the silent era

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on December 31st, 2012 by Eric Veillette

This article was originally published by the Toronto Star on December 28, 2012.

The silent era saw the production of about 100 films based on Dickens’ work. Eight shorts, made between 1901 and 1912 — including the earliest filmed version of A Christmas Carol — will be shown on Monday as part of the Dickens on Screen series at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Capturing Dickens on film was an obvious leap for filmmakers, says Adrian Wootton, series curator and chief executive of the British Film Commission. “There was enormous familiarity with his work,” he says on the phone from New York City.

The mass public’s awareness of Dickens came mostly from the adaptation of his novels into other media, he says. From popular ballads and theatre to magic lantern shows, “filmmakers knew that they were tapping into popular conscience. The public knew and loved the stories and characters.”

How faithful were the earliest adaptations? “With the shorts they were certainly involved in gigantic acts of compression but tended to be faithful to particular scenes in terms of what Dickens wrote and said in his public readings.” Wootton says the most obvious example is the murder of Nancy by Sikes in Oliver Twist. “In three early versions, the technology changes, but the perspective of the scene stays the same and is essentially faithful to the original work.” The program features a nine-minute version from 1909, an interesting bridge between theatre and film.

The majority of the silent era’s output is lost, including a big budget version of Barnaby Rudge from 1915. “There was much balyhoo when the film came out, but it hasn’t been seen since the teens. All that exists now are still photographs.” The film was directed by Thomas Bentley, who helmed several Dickens films throughout his long career.

Surviving, however, are two versions of A Christmas Carol — both utilizing ghostly double-exposures — and favourites of Wootton.

“Although Dickens did not invent Christmas, he surely popularized it,” he adds. By 1843, when he wrote A Christmas Carol, the holiday had become more popular in Britain and America, and Christmas trees, cards and seasonal carolling were common.

“He loved Christmas and wanted people to celebrate it, but he also wanted to use it for a way to prosecute through fantasy his anger about social injustice.”

Dickens died in 1870, a quarter century before the invention of cinema, but Wootton supposes he would have enjoyed seeing his characters flicker on screen. “He loved performance. He would have embraced cinema.”

Pausing, Wootton adds: “And Twitter, for that matter. He loved all means of reaching the public.”

Dickens Silent Shorts screens Dec. 31 at noon at TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King St. W., with piano accompaniment by William O’Meara. Info at tiff.net.

The Last Laugh: Banned in Ontario

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on December 5th, 2012 by Eric Veillette

Released in 1924, Murnau’s film was not screened in Ontario until 1928.

During the winter of 1925, F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece, The Last Laugh, was shown to a very exclusive group of Ontario movie-goers.

The audience was the Ontario Board of Censors, and while they were no doubt impressed by the film’s dazzling cinematography and lack of subtitles, the film was banned simply because it was made in Germany.

Murnau’s film was screened in other provinces and shattered box office records in the United States, but provincial treasurer W.H. Price, under whose authority the censors sanitized cinema, maintained that with the scars of war still too fresh, Ontario’s movie-going public did not want to see German films.

“Before we came into office,” he told the Daily Star, “there was a rule against the showing of German-made films. We have simply continued that policy. I do not believe that the people of Ontario want German films,” said the provincial treasurer of a policy enacted during a national conference of censors in 1919. “No doubt time will come when we will import German pictures just as we do other goods of German manufacture, but at the present time the public temper as I sense it does not call for them.”

Asked whether or not there was propaganda in German films, the provincial treasurer said he didn’t know, “but you never can tell what there might be.”

It would finally be shown at Shea’s Hippodrome in February, 1928. By then, the film’s lead actor, Emil Jannings, had become a star in Hollywood, which led to a softening in attitudes toward German films.

A passionate plea

The Last Laugh was not the first German film to cause controversy in Ontario. In 1921, several social groups, including the Women’s Liberal Association and the Daughters of the Dominion, urged the government to ban public screenings of Ernst Lubitsch’s Passion.

While The Last Laugh deals with the dehumanizing aspects of rank and uniform in post-war Germany, Passion had nothing to do with the country whatsoever – it was an account, told through the lens of a German film-maker, of the French revolution.

Originally released in 1919, the film had been certified by the Board of Censors some time before the Allen chain planned to screen it in February, 1921. Amid the controversy, Censor Board chairman Alex Hamilton released a statement to the press: “While the film Passion was passed upon by the Board of Censors as formerly constituted it has not been seen by the present Board. Upon inquiry we find that it was presented for censorship, and dealt with in the way which was customary by those who were responsible for the censorship at the time.”

Despite the certification, the protests circumvented the Censor Board’s jurisdiction, and the police – who acted as censors in the pre-Censor board days – were now being asked to prevent its public presentation.

Sgt. Moncur, a veteran of the First World War, asked the Board of Control: “Have we fought in vain? Have I fought in vain? Has my son been murdered in vain? Has my other son been gassed in vain. If this film is produced here it is a disgrace to Canada and to the British Empire. There is nothing uplifting in the subject whatever.”

“It is demoralizing in its teaching,” agreed Controller Hiltz of the Board of Control. “There is too much killing and on the platform they are actually shown cutting heads off. I do not see any good in showing it at all.”

The press, and the film’s supporters – which included the Moving Picture Operators Union, as well as a veteran’s association representing 16000 soldiers – were quick to note the hypocrisy at hand, citing that no concerns were raised over the $700 000 worth of cutlery, toys and other products imported from Germany during the month of November. “This does not come into competition with anything made in Canada,” said J.B. Clonk of the Allen Theatres chain. “It is not underselling Canadian goods or cutting Canadian workmen out of employment.”

An ad for Passion in the Arizona Daily Star, October, 1927.

At Massey Hall, one of the city’s biggest stages, German operas and plays were often shown without incident.Passion’s story, about Madame DuBarry, had been presented on stage in the past without a whisper.

Defending British honour
Nevertheless, the board voted that the film be banned. Mayor Tommy Church added: “The police commissioners will take it up on Friday at two o’clock,” when the film was scheduled to preview at the Allen Theatre, located at the corner of Richmond and Victoria.

With Passion now banned, the Allen chain filled the spot with another historical drama, The Romance of Lady Hamilton, which they inexplicably billed as “the British version of Passion.”

But it seems the whole affair was doomed from the very beginning. “Scarcely has Toronto recovered from one attack of “Passion” when another outburst threatens to overwhelm it,” reported the Daily Star on February 12, 1921. The Navy League was now “up in arms” over the way the film treats the honour of Horatio Nelson.

 The Allen chain released a statement: “British decency is not soiled, British honour is not flecked, nor is British gratitude minimized in the story of TROLH. Surely Canadian patriotism is not superior to the patriotism of the Brit producers of this film, and if the Navy League of Canada saw fit to exhibit the former story of the life of Lord Nelson, there can be no insult intended or gathered from the present production.”

The film played without further incident, and the Allen’s advertising for the film paid off – the chain’s flagship theatre at Richmond and Victoria was packed throughout the British film’s week-long run.

Regarding The Passion incident, it would seem, through the press at least, that the role of chief censor would not become the public-facing role it would later be under O.J. Silverthorne, Donald Sims and Mary Brown, the latter often enforcing her draconian views onto the movie-going public.

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Modern-day silent films at the Toronto Silent Film Festival

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on April 3rd, 2012 by Eric Veillette

The following article was originally published in the Globe & Mail on March 24, 2012. It appears here in a slightly edited form.

When Shirley Hughes launched the Toronto Silent Film Festival in 2009, she never thought that a modern-day silent film like The Artist could claim the Best Picture Oscar, sparking a revival of interest in early cinema.

Closing tonight, the festival has long placed importance on connecting the past to the present. The opening night film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring a young Joan Crawford, draws many parallels to the Oscar-winning film. “It’s a great example of a jazz age film,” said Ms. Hughes, claiming that Crawford greatly influenced Bérénice Bejo’s portrayal of Peppy Miller in the award-winning film.

But The Artist, about the downfall of a silent actor at the on-set of the talkie era, would have you believe that silent film production ceased entirely after 1928. “The medium lived on,” said Ms. Hughes. One of the films shown, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, was made in 1931. “Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936. Some of Jacques Tati’s films, even the opening sequences in Pixar films like Wall-E and Up, are practically silent. It never really went away.”

A condensed version of Edmonton-based Eva Colmers short “The Weightless Traveler” was one of several modern-day silent films presented at this year’s Toronto Silent Film Festival. You can view the complete short here.

Past meets present

A selection of minute-long films featured last fall during the Toronto Urban Film Festival will precede Our Dancing Daughters. Originally presented on screens hanging above TTC subway platforms, the modern-day shorts will be shown in a proper theatrical setting, with musical accompaniment.

David Schmidt, a Toronto-based filmmaker whose short, Don’t Let The Bedbugs Bite, draws on his own nightmarish experience of living in a bedbug-ridden Toronto apartment, said it’s pretty exciting to see his film in a theatre alongside the silent masters. “On the TTC, you’re not as focused on the films because you have your destination in mind,” he said. Although he doesn’t work exclusively with silence, he loves the medium’s ability to focus solely on the story. “All you have are the images. The story is at the forefront.”

Eva Colmers, the Edmonton-based director of The Traveler, said she “really honours those great masters who were able to get such reactions out of audiences.” Since her silent shorts rely solely on visuals, they have appeared in festivals from Colombo to Copenhagen. “It’s a universal language, without borders,” added Ms. Colmers, inferring one of the reasons why Charlie Chaplin, not wanting to alienate his audiences in non-English speaking countries, kept making silent films throughout the 1930s.

The closing night film, Varieté (1925), starring Emil Jannings, will be preceded by The Force that Through the Green Fire Fuels the Flower (2011), by Otto Kylmälä. Ms. Hughes hailed the Finnish-born director’s film about love and loss as a “touching, extremely personal story done in a very artistic way,” which eschews the inter-titles long associated with silent film, instead weaving them into the film’s environment.

Silent films have always been in Mr. Kylmälä’s blood stream. “They were my first nanny. My grandmother used to put on countless VHS tapes of Chaplin and Keaton to keep me occupied.” His filmmaking endeavours were later influenced by seeing live presentations of King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) and Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

Films like any other

Ms Hughes says the festival’s modern-day shorts all contribute to the medium’s lexicon without resorting to homage or parody of their earlier counterparts: whether live action or animated, there are no pie-fights or prat-falls.

In his film, Mr. Kylmälä steered clear of homage. “My agenda was at its core to make a film like any other, which just happened to be in silent form.” He wants to raise awareness for the era, but not by “skipping all of the wonderful decades of film history in between.”

Like Ms. Colmer and Mr. Schmidt, who has enjoyed the early, pioneering films of the Lumiere Bros, Mr. Kylmälä hopes that the revitalized interest inspires people to see that films by Chaplin, Vidor and Murnau are still very relevant today: “Hopefully that excitement will generate new innovative uses for visual language.”

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Watching Napoleon with Kevin Brownlow

Posted in Toronto Cinemas on April 2nd, 2012 by Eric Veillette

Last week, on assignment for France 24, I attended the U.S. premiere of film historian Kevin Brownlow’s most recent restoration of Abel Gance’s monumental 1927 silent epic Napoleon. Under the auspices of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, over the course of four nights, roughly 12 000 people experienced cinematic history.

Gance’s film hadn’t graced a North American screen since a Francis Ford Coppola-produced roadshow played several cities, including Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, over thirty years ago.

It did play Toronto earlier, when a mangled, incomprehensible cut by MGM premiered at the Loew’s Yonge St. Theatre in October, 1928. “What Gance sent them was six hours,” said Brownlow, during our interview at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, CA. “And what they showed was seventy-five minutes.”

An ad for Napoleon in the Toronto Daily Star, October 1928. Rather unremarkable, claimed the critic, who was more puzzled by Napoleon’s appearance compared to the famous portraits of his days of exile: “This actor is much too thin, too tall and too eagle-like in the face.”

But thanks to Brownlow’s efforts, this restoration runs nearly 5 ½ hours – 8 ½ with intermissions. “Pure cinema,” as he called it, with composer Carl Davis conducting a 46 piece orchestra.

Presented with an honourary Academy Award in 2010 for his various books, documentaries and film restorations, Brownlow is the reason why this film, about the early days of Napoleon Bonaparte, is even remembered today. When he discovered it in 1954, it was mostly forgotten: re-releases and home distribution offerings had stripped the film of its technical wizardry and contemporary reviews did not incite the kind of praise worthy of Brownlow’s claim of it being “better than Citizen Kane.”

At the film’s dress rehearsal on March 23, I was informed that Brownlow was in the auditorium overseeing the test of the film’s famous three-screen Polyvision finale. As test patterns and Vincent Price trailers (yes, really) were used to calibrate the projectors, we discussed films we’d seen at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival last October.

As he sat down in one of the Paramount’s cushy art-deco chairs, keeping his trusty Cinerama baseball cap on, I told him I’d return five minutes before the scheduled interview.

A sense of wide-eyed wonderment

The rehearsal started late, so when I returned, Brownlow asked to hold off until the end of the upcoming Marseillaise sequence. “This is the scene that first marveled me in 1954,” he said quietly, as though not to disturb the orchestra. Inviting me to sit down beside him – surely the cinematic equivalent to sparring a round with Norman Mailer –  he assuredly added: “It will be worth it.”

It was. As warm amber tinting emanated from a stained glass window, I was instantly drawn in as the orchestra elevated the patriotic pomp that is “La Marseillaise” into a roaring crescendo. The camera swirls, full of bright, silvery visages held me transfixed. It was at this moment where I realized that every word Brownlow had written about the film in books like ‘The Parade’s Gone By’ (1948) or ‘Napoleon’ (1983) was bereft of even the slightest exaggeration about its visual impact. And we still had 13 reels to go.

Out of the corner of my eye, the film’s flicker reflecting off his eye-glasses, I couldn’t help but be swayed by his sense of wide-eyed wonderment, undiminished since adolescence.

As the sequence ended and the tinting reverted to its original black & white, we slowly – reluctantly – exited the auditorium. It’s difficult to detach yourself from cinema that grapples your core in such a way, or as Brownlow’ puts it, “makes a participant of the audience.”

Walking up the staircase to the mezzanine where my camera crew was set up, I asked him if, having seen it so many times, the film’s effect had dwindled over the years. “Absolutely not,” he said, in his most polite are-you-kidding-me kind of way. “It’s even more entrancing now because it didn’t look anything like that when I first saw it.” Indeed, decades of research and work, with the help of several archives like the BFI and the Cinematheque Francaise, had gone into restoring the film to what director Abel Gance himself had originally intended.

With my own eyes

The next day, when I experienced the film in its entirety, I realized what a silly question that was. Even if Gance had abandoned production after the opening snowball sequence, showing the young Bonaparte’s burgeoning tactical genius, it would still be considered the greatest one-reeler ever made.

But the film’s moment de triomphe is the lauded three-screen Polyvision finale. Despite the beautiful rush of images we’d seen over the last seven hours, the tryptich presentation of Napoleon’s Italian campaign is what we’d all been waiting for. A gasp, in unison, was heard when the curtains revealed the two other screens. The remainder of the reel was a beautiful sequence of marching soldiers, a horse-mounted Bonaparte traversing the three screens (meriting riotous ovation from the crowd), and its blue, white and red, French flag-tinted finale.

The audience’s applause for Carl Davis was ferocious, but grew even louder when Abel Gance’s signature appeared on-screen.

Twenty or so minutes later, while standing on the subway platform, I wasn’t the only one humming ‘La Marseillaise.’

See my report on Napoleon’s trumphant return to the U.S. on France 24’s Culture Show [It’s at the top of the show, about 0:45 in].

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