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Kevin Brownlow

Blu-ray: The silent horror of ‘Behind the Door’ restored

Behind the Door (1919) (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray+DVD) was for decades a film known by reputation only. A good film, yes, but more than that a notorious one, for what lay behind the door was… No spoilers because the film, once known to exist only in incomplete form, has been reconstructed and restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and released on disc by Flicker Alley. Its reputation proves well-earned.

Flicker Alley

Hobart Bosworth plays Captain Oscar Krug, an American seaman of German ancestry who left the sea for life ashore for the love of a woman. But in the opening moments of the film he’s a haunted man returning to the ghosts of the past in his old taxidermy shop, now a ransacked ruin choked by dust and shadow. His story plays out in the shadow of this resignation, a sunnier time when he was in love with banker’s daughter Alice (Jane Novak) and respected by his New England community. A jealous suitor uses the outbreak of World War I to whip up anti-German hysteria (which, in 1919, was not that distant a memory) but the two-fisted patriot wins over the mob with a roundhouse of a brawl and a rousing proclamation to do his duty, as every American should. He bonds with his opponent, McTavish (James Gordon), over the brawl and a few cuts later Krug is captaining an American naval ship, the Perth, with McTavish as his loyal mate and friend. And Alice stows aboard, kicked out by her possibly-crooked, definitely-shady banker father, ready to do her duty as a nurse. Then the unmistakable conning tower of a submarine rises from the surface of the sea and German U-boat commander Brandt (Wallace Beery) torpedoes and sinks the Perth with far too much malicious glee. If director Irvin Willat makes a point of celebrating the patriotism of German-Americans, he brands the German enemy with the familiar stereotype of the bloodthirsty Hun.

The rest of the story is best discovered on your own because it’s a doozy of a portrait of war crimes and gruesome revenge.

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SFSFF 2015: Kevin Brownlow – Stories from the Trenches of Film Restoration

I credit Kevin Brownlow for my passion for silent movies. I studied silent cinema in college film classes in the 1980s, viewed from 16mm classroom prints. I admired the era but, apart from Chaplin and Keaton and a few choice dramas, I never really embraced it as a unique form of storytelling. Then I saw Brownlow’s 1983 documentary The Unknown Chaplin and read his invaluable book “The Parade’s Gone By.” They helped me appreciate the beauty and expressiveness of silent storytelling.

‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’

Since then I’ve seen numerous silent film that Brownlow helped restore through Photoplay Productions (which helped me really see and appreciate the films on their own terms), watched his documentaries on Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow, Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, D.W. Griffith: The Father of Film and his epic thirteen-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Film (among others), read his books on silent film history, and had the good fortune to see his restoration of Abel Gance‘s Napoleon three times (two of them thanks to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which brought the film to Oakland in 2012 for its only American screenings to date).

He has been honored by the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the American Society of Cinematographers and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which gave him the 2010 Silent Film Festival award for his lifelong commitment to silent film preservation and history. And in 2010 he received the Academy Honorary Award, the first film preservationist to be so honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The 20th San Francisco Silent Film Festival closes with Brownlow’s restoration of the original Ben-Hur (1925) and he will appear onstage in conversation with 2015 Silent Film Festival award recipient Serge Bromberg. I spoke with Brownlow (who lives and works in London) about his adventures in preserving the legacy of silent cinema and the state of film restoration.

Sean Axmaker: You were involved in restoration long before the digital era.

Kevin Brownlow: Well it was certainly before the digital days but I’m certain that people were restoring films before me. I just picked titles that seemed not to be what regular cinema would call ‘commercial.’

Continue reading at Keyframe

Carl Davis on Scoring Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’

If all you know of Abel Gance’s 1927 masterpiece Napoleon is the version presented by Francis Ford Coppola in the U.S. in 1983 (and subsequently released on VHS tape and laserdisc), you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Carl Davis conducts

Coppola invited his father, Carmine Coppola, to compose an original score for the American release, which was cut down so the presentations with live orchestral accompaniment would be under four hours. Completeness aside, that score pales next to the muscular score that Carl Davis compiled and conducted for Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration. That score has only been heard in live presentations in Europe.

Carl Davis, a longtime composer for TV and film, was brought to silent movies by Brownlow when he commissioned Davis to score his epic 13-part documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, and was so impressed with the expressiveness of his music accompanying the clips that he invited him to score a complete silent feature. When he began presenting restored silent films in British television, Brownlow turned to Davis to provide the scores. In his book “Napoleon: Abel Gance’s Silent Film,” Brownlow wrote: “I had been startled when King Vidor told us, in an interview, ‘Probably 50 per cent of the emotion came from the music.’ After listening to Carl Davis’s music and watching its effect with the films, I realized what he meant.”

The American premiere of Kevin Brownlow’s complete restoration in Oakland on Saturday, March 24, 2012, also marks the premiere of the Davis score, which draws upon music composed during the period of Napoleon’s influence (“I gave myself the date 1810 as a boundary beyond which I would not draw on any music”) with special attention to Beethoven, who (according to Davis) initially dedicated the “Eroica” Symphony to Napoleon.

Davis discusses the score in the two video clips below.

Tickets, screening information and other event details can be found at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

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Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’ – The Complete Masterpiece Debuts in America


Albert Dieudonne is Napoleon

On Sunday, October 20, 2001, on the final day of the 20th Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the greatest, grandest silent film festival in the known universe), I boarded a vintage steam engine with a few hundred other silent movie-loving patrons, traveled from Sacile to Udine, filed into the Udine Opera House, took my nearly-front row seat (the Camerata Labacensis, Ljubljana, a 35-or-so-piece orchestra, was practically under my feet) and was, for the next 5 ½ hours (divided up by two intermissions and a dinner break), entranced by Kevin Brownlow’s 2000 restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon. It was the most transporting, invigorating, exiting cinematic experience of my life to date. Mr. Brownlow did not lie when he stepped on to the stage and made his introduction: “If all you’ve seen is the cut American version, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

His introduction ironically but endearingly twists the words that heralded the sound film era and sounded the death knell of silent cinema. When the movies first learned to talk, the camera became a slave to the primitive sound technology. Abel Gance’s Napoleon premiered in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, and is as fluid and adventuresome and cinematically thrilling as The Jazz Singer and hackneyed and mawkish and, in its sound scenes, static and stiff. The future was sound but Napoleon, the most expensive film made in France to that time, remains the glorious lifeblood of cinema. Like Birth Of A Nation before it and Citizen Kane to come, Napoleon uses practically every technique developed at the time of its production, refining and in some cases redefining them in the process, and creating a visionary work of film.

On Saturday, March 24, 2012, Kevin Brownlow’s full restoration of Able Gance’s Napoleon makes its long-awaited American premiere in Oakland at the Paramount Theatre, presented by Brownlow and accompanied by a full orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis, who conducts his score. There are only four shows of this all-day event: March 24, 25, 31, and April 1, and there are no further American screenings planned. If you love the cinema and have any opportunity to see one of these shows, by all means make every effort to do so. Yes, it is an event. It is also a transporting cinematic experience like no other.

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