Festival Director Daniel Fitzpatrick (L) with Kevin Brownlow.
By John Exshaw
A mere twelve days after introducing Rex Ingram’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse at the National Concert Hall, Kevin Brownlow, silent cinema’s resident saint and scholar, returned to Ireland for the recently concluded third Killruddery Film Festival, held at the eponymous House and Gardens outside Bray in County Wicklow. The event, which proved as popular as its predecessor last year, saw Brownlow, with his customary boyish enthusiasm, present no less than seven films over a three-day period, as well as delivering a highly diverting history of Irish involvement in the development of early Hollywood.
The festival, masterminded once again by director Daniel Fitzpatrick, kicked off on Thursday night with a meet-and-greet, followed by a selection of films made by the Kalem Company in Ireland around 100 years ago, along with an accompanying documentary. On Friday, and with a mixture of both curiosity and foreboding, I pitched up for the first film to be presented by Kevin, Abel Gance’s four-and-a-half hour La Roue (The Wheel, 1922). Famed for its stylistic innovations, in particular the use of rapid cutting, La Roue tells the story of Sisif, a train driver who saves an orphaned child from a wreck and decides to rear her as his own daughter. Complications set in when Sisif (Séverin-Mars) later falls in love with the fifteen-year-old Norma (played by director Ronald Neame’s mother, Ivy Close), who is also loved by his son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone), who of course believes that Norma is his sister. After that, everyone does a great deal of suffering, as the story moves from the train yards to the French Alps, where Sisif has been sent in disgrace after deliberately crashing his train.
Mind-boggling though Gance’s mastery of technique is, the film is definitely something of an endurance test, and at one point, when Elie cries out, “Rails, wheels, smoke! How gloomy it all is!” I found myself nodding in fervent agreement. Afterwards, Kevin asked me what I thought of it. “Well,” I said, “obviously, from a technical point of view, it’s an astonishing achievement. On the other hand, it’s rather like being beaten over the head with a Victor Hugo novel for four-and-a-half hours.”“That could be a good thing,” suggested Kevin, whose idea of fun clearly deviates rather drastically from mine after a certain point. With the festival unfortunately coming at a particularly busy time for me, I felt I had done my duty for the day and duly wheeled off, leaving Kevin and his merry band of enthusiasts to the joys of White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927).
Previous engagements, not least with the Wales vs. Ireland Six Nations match from Cardiff, kept me occupied on Saturday, which began with the annual visit of Sunniva O’Flynn, Curator of the Irish Film Institute, with her can of goodies from the IFI archive, this time containing three children’s films dating from the 1940s and 1950s. These were followed by three “Early Masterpieces of the Avant Garde”, including a 1928 version of The Fall of the House of Usher, presented by Daniel Fitzpatrick. Later on, Kevin presented Lewis Milestone’s The Garden of Eden (1928), starring Corinne Griffith, and the day finished with a screening of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes (1992), which really didn’t sound like my kind of thing.
On Sunday, I was back down in good time to pressgang Kevin and Daniel into a photo-opportunity before catching Kevin’s amusing, highly anecdotal history of the Irish contribution to early Hollywood, which he opened with the tango sequence from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, “just to show you what these people [or at any rate, Rex Ingram] were capable of.” Citing the fact that there was no Irish film industry at the time (not much change there, then), Kevin begged to differ – “It was Hollywood: the Jews ran the business, the Irish made the films.” Beginning, inevitably, with John Ford (“a one-man Irish Tourist Board”), whom Kevin had once tried to interview (receiving only a barked “Don’t remember!” to his questions about Harry Carey and Ford’s 1917 Western Straight Shooting for his trouble), he then proceeded to give thumbnail sketches of the careers of Ford’s brother, Francis, Allan Dwan, Joseph Henabery, Raoul Walsh, John Wayne, Marshall Neilan, Ingram, Herbert Brenon, William Desmond Taylor, Mary Miles Minter (Kevin finds the recent theory expounded by Charles Higham in his book Murder in Hollywood, that Minter shot Taylor by accident, the most convincing of the many on offer), Mack Sennett, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, and Colleen Moore, all of whom had Irish antecedents. The Irish influence in Hollywood remained strong into the 1930s, Kevin explained, until the balance was changed by the influx of European refugees from fascism.
Following a short break, Kevin then introduced Raoul Walsh’s 1915 drama Regeneration, a film which remains of interest mainly due to the director’s innovative use of point-of-view and tracking shots, and his insistence on grimly authentic East Side locations, rather than for its hackneyed story of a gang leader redeemed by the love of a good woman. Clearly inspired by D.W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), Walsh’s film, as opposed to Gance’s, did not overstay its welcome, coming in at an admirably brief 72 minutes, and was helped immeasurably by the live accompaniment provided by Stephen Horne, which included piano, accordion and flute.
Afterwards, Kevin and I repaired to the Orange Room (a former conservatory, presumably used for the growing of oranges) for refreshment. On the way, he asked me if I’d noticed the shot in the saloon hall in which a drunk imagines he sees a goldfish in his beer and hurriedly covers the glass with his hat. Yes, I said, just like the shot Ingram employed in the tango sequence of The Four Horsemen. Does this imply, I asked rather uncomfortably (Ingram being a favourite of mine), that Rex pinched the idea from Walsh? Quite the contrary, replied Kevin, Ingram was working as a writer at Fox at the time and it seems pretty clear he must have done some uncredited work on the script. Ah-hah, I said, mightily relieved, and that would explain the John George-like cripple who assists the hero. Indeed it would, replied Kevin.
Further conversation was interrupted by various enthusiasts who wanted to speak to Kevin, but by this stage I had my cup of joe and all was right with the world. Kevin, of course, was so enthused by the questions he was asked that he quite forgot to finish his tea and chocolaty thing before he had to dash off to George Cukor’s Camille (1936), a film I decided I could do without seeing again. Following a fascinating chat with Stephen Horne about the art of silent film accompaniment and how he auditioned for his position at the NFT in London (see his website, www.stephenhorne.co.uk for further details of his work), along with a digression on Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone, it was time to track down Daniel Fitzpatrick for his summation of this year’s festival.
Unfortunately, Daniel had opted to suffer with Garbo so I asked projectionist Dermot Marrey for his view on how things had gone. Very well, he confided, all the weekend films had been well-attended, with Seventh Heaven proving to be the “big hit” of the festival. After which, he informed me, everyone had relaxed with a few jars and then attended a lambing session. He then proceeded to whip out his mobile phone to show me evidence of said rustic endeavour. Fascinating, I said, my thoughts moving inexorably to Easter dinner and mint jelly. When in the country . . ., remarked Dermot, nodding sagely. Which reminded me it was high time to return to civilisation, leaving Dermot to project the last film of the festival, People on Sunday, directed in 1930 by Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer, and Fred Zinnemann, and then to presumably attend the closing event, “A 19th Century Magic Lantern Spectacular”, held in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray.
All in all then, another successful and varied programme at Killruddery, though it did occur to me that perhaps next year it would be a good idea to balance the ten-tissue weepies with something more two-fisted and manly. Westerns, to be precise, and I think I know just what’s required. Watch this space.