‘Mare Nostrum’ at the Cinema Museum, 3 September 2014

Last week, I dug out all of £3 to see some rediscovered and restored silent cinema. I had been to several screenings at the Cinema Museum before – the museum is a perennial source of filmic delights – but this was my first time at a Kennington Bioscope event. The auditorium was impressively full and not just the usual retired crowd that populate these screenings – I spied entire families, film historians and archivists, and more than one fellow PhD student. The audience for silent film screenings (and film projection in general) is ageing, but I am optimistic that there will always be enough new viewers to sustain it as a niche interest at least.


The evening was led by Kevin Brownlow, who introduced Rex Ingram’s lesser seen feature Mare Nostrum (1926), screened in beautiful 35mm, wholly restored after it was rediscovered in 1990s save for one elusive sequence which is still missing. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, and stars Antonio Moreno as Ulysses Ferragut, a Spanish sailor who is drawn into the war and away from his family by a seductive Austrian spy, Freya Talberg (Alice Terry). Apparently the missing scene depicts the lovers in a aquarium, watching some sort of symbolic fight between two octopuses. As Brownlow pointed out, the missing sequence sounds not unlike the similarly symbolic scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (as an aside: the gorgeous restoration of The Lady… is on general release now, go go go!). I will admit that any time the drama lulled I wondered where the ‘octopus love scene’ would have been. Because, I mean, octopus love scene.

Image via powell-pressburger.org

Image via powell-pressburger.org

For what it’s worth, I was not entirely sold on the plot. Moreno’s hero is so weak willed and Terry’s femme fatale so duplicitous that I could not bring myself to care about the fate of their love (maybe the octopuses would have changed my mind). This is a shame, because the setup of the drama is immediately enthralling… Ulysses’s father tells him the tale of Amphitrite, the Greek goddess who takes care of fallen sailors. When the fully grown Ulysses meets Freya, who looks the spit of a painting he has of the goddess, he is drawn back to the seafaring world that he promised his wife he had left behind.

The Mediterranean is the other character in the film, and is altogether more captivating than either of the two protagonists. The film is a mix of lavish outdoor shots of Barcelona, Pompeii and Naples, and closeted studio sets representing the vessels at sea. Add beautiful tinting and some trick shots and you have a film that is as visually beguiling as any of the period. Ingram produced a staggering amount of footage on the shoot, and it is worth seeking the film out just to see the extravagance and majesty; the chase in the streets of Marseilles is worth the price of entry alone. Ingram is considered to be an early auteur – as a contemporary of Erich von Stroheim and an inspiration to Michael Powell (who worked as a grip on Mare Nostrum), he was certainly forceful and influential.


Brownlow chose two shorts to accompany the main feature: a 16mm copy of American pacificist propaganda film Civilisation (Thomas Ince, 1916) and an unrestored extract from Behind the Door (also Thomas Ince, produced in 1919 but not released until 1925) screened from a DVD. When Civilisation was released to in Britain it was renamed Civilisation: What Every Briton is Fighting For, because pacifism was not exactly a selling point in countries fighting in WWI. The film was another Alice Terry vehicle, from before her marriage to Ingram, and boasts some really lovely tints (I particularly liked the pale pistachio colour, I might paint my bathroom something similar) and one of the first instances of illustrated intertitles. The extract of Behind the Door was in far worse knick, though even the standard definition DVD bore the promise of fantastic action sequences, and I was glad to hear that the whole film has now been found.

On Betty Balfour and the Star Attraction of Missing Cinema

Two weeks ago, news emerged that a lost British silent film, Love, Life and Laughter, had been found. A clip was played at the Orphan Film Symposium, and the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam is now in the process of restoring the film before exhibiting it.

When I found out about the rediscovery I was thrilled. I was aware of the film: it was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of missing titles. Moreover, I used it and another (still missing) film, Reveille, as the subject of an essay and poster presentation during my MA. Both of these films were directed by George Pearson, produced by his company Welsh-Pearson, and both starred Betty Balfour.


My presentation and essay focused on the marketing and critical reception of the two films, with a focus on Betty’s star persona (see above). When a film is known to be missing, often it is the star that is the crux of the interest in finding that film. However, that star is not always an actor. Directors, producers, designers and cinematographers often have star personas that can be leveraged to generate interest in a missing title, which is why Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle probably wins the prize for the most-wanted missing film.

I re-read that essay I wrote three years ago, and I noticed that at the time I thought that the BFI’s plea for the significance of Love, Life and Laughter and Reveille  was not based on the star persona of Betty Balfour, but in the possibility that the films ‘may have marked [the director’s] creative zenith.’* When the rediscovery was announced, however, George Pearson’s name was rarely mentioned, whereas Betty came to the fore once more.

Even fewer George Pearson films survive than Balfour works, but he was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, called a genius and even credited by some with inventing the moving camera shot.

Silent London

It is interesting to note the difference between marketing a missing film and celebrating a found one. Appeals for missing films are written by archivists and aimed at other archivists, collectors, historians and cinephiles who are more likely to be attuned to auteurism, more willing to go after the more obscure or cult films, and more likely to engage in the fetishisation of technologies and format. Articles about rediscoveries are written by journalists and pitched at prospective audiences, which include the more casual film fans who are more likely to be interested in Britain’s biggest silent film starlet, rather than a film director who happened to have a well-received sequence of films in the 1920s.

I had fully intended to condense that essay into a blog post for you guys, but I’ve since decided to sit on it in case I decide to publish it elsewhere. You’ll just to believe that I made many incisive and nuanced points about star theory, silent cinema and critical reception. Of course, if you do fancy academic work about Betty (or just want to see her in some other films) then the British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner.

* ‘BFI Most Wanted’, the British Film Institute, accessed 1 May 2011 (NB. the link is now dead: http://www.bfi.org.uk/nationalarchive/news/mostwanted/75-list.html)