Saturday, October 17, 2009

Special Lectures on Notable Films (I)

This is the first of two lecture texts that W. Stephen Bush published in Moving Picture World at the beginning of 1910 for films released in December of 1909 by Pathé Frères. As both texts contain performance indications ("Order appears on the screen"; "Here interrupt the lecture and render a suitable song"), the lectures were clearly intended to be read as the film was running.

Bush's text for his lecture to La grande bretèche (1909) is primarily descriptive: it supplies names of characters and specifies some background information that might not be evident to those who do not know the story. Bush also clarifies the plot situations by providing motivations for character actions and, toward the end, by adding dialogue.

La grande bretèche was a Film d'Art based on a short story by Balzac. This story was also the basis of D. W. Griffith's The Sealed Room, which had been released in September of the same year, and Vitagraph's Entombed Alive, which was released in October and starred Annette Kellerman.

La Grande Breteche
Pathe Film of Art. Released December 12th.

After darkening the house this brief and general explanation of the film may be offered with advantage:

La Grande Breteche is the name of a castle in the beautiful and historic French province, Vendome, and made famous by the celebrated French story-teller, Honore de Balzac. It is now nothing but a mass of ruins and weeds, but at the time in which the story is laid, it was noted for its wonderful flowers and gardens, a fact, which in the running of the film, will be observed by you with pleasure.

As soon as this preamble is finished and the moment the title is flashed on the screen, the following lecture may be found useful:

Scene I.—The first picture takes us back to the time of the great Napoleon. In the war which he had waged against Spain among the many captives was a noble prisoner, Count Ferredia. An adjutant from Napoleon’s military staff has come to Vendome and is now calling at the office of the sub-prefect, announcing the coming of the Spanish Count. The latter, a perfect type of the young Spanish grandee, enters and the adjutant hands the order concerning the prisoner of war to the assistant in charge of the office. (Order appears on the screen.) The assistant reads the order which commands him to exact his parole from the Spaniard and obeys by asking the latter for it. Slowly, proudly the parole is given, the prisoner is politely dismissed and leaves, while the adjutant continues his report to the assistant sub-prefect.

Scene II.—A scene in front of the splendid gardens of the Grand Breteche, where the people gather evenings to play and promenade. The Spanish Count is in the throng, and presently observes with unfeigned admiration a strikingly handsome woman promenading with her maid. She is the wife of the sub-prefect, accompanied by her maid. She has lost the fragrant white rose she carried and gallantly the Count picks the precious flower from the ground and with a graceful bow hands it to the wife, who regarding the prisoner with ill-conceived favor, bids him with her eyes rather than her words to keep the flower. The adjutant and the assistant pass at this moment and meet the sub-prefect himself, Count Merrett, the husband of the handsome woman. All this has been quickly observed by Ferredia, who asks the assistant for an introduction and is thereupon introduced both to the prefect and his wife.

Scene III.—In the gardens of La Grand Breteche the Spanish prisoner and Countess Merret are sowing the dragon seed of sin at many a secret meeting, guarded by the faithful Rosalie. It was well to have her on the watch, for she has time to give the lovers warning, the Spaniard disappears with the maid through a rare path in the shrubbery, not a moment too soon, for it is evident that beneath the husband’s formal politeness there lurks suspicion. He finds it strange to see the wife in the gathering darkness busy with needlework and when she, still hoping for another glimpse of her lover, hesitates to come in, he forces her with scant ceremony to come with him.

Scene IV.—Two masons from the village have been ordered to do some work about the castle and have come for further instructions as to where to begin. (Short pause.) Count de Merrett, more suspicious than ever of his wife’s fidelity, now seeks to test it. He pretends to go away on a journey and the Countess falls unsuspectingly into the trap. When the clumsy, stupid masons have at last been gotten rid of, the wife sends her maid with a message to Count Ferredia asking him to come to Grande Breteche at once. (Message appears on the screen.)

Scene V.—The message has been delivered, the maid signals to Ferredia hiding in the bushes and at the very moment appears in a different part well able to watch all the Count Merrett. The latter observes with bitter rage how the Spaniard is admitted into the house, cautiously walks over the lawn observed only by the clownish masons, who little realize what tragic part they will soon be called upon to play.

Scene VI.—The maid brings the happy lover into her mistress’ room, he fervently kisses her hand, but is uneasy at the presence of the maid, who, however, is presently dismissed from the room. Their cup of happiness seems full, she, gently restraining his ardor, takes his mantle and hat and hides it in the closet next to her room and then returns to her lover. He sees a small crucifix on her bosom and she, to show him her love, takes it from her neck and gives it to him. He in turn bethinks himself of an ancient crucifix of silver and ebony and offers it to her, but in the impatience of his affection lays it on the table to devote himself to his new found love.

Scene VII.—Faithful Rosalie is guarding her mistress’ door, an evil office and an useless one as the event will show.

Scene VIII.—The lovers have drunk their fill of the cup of sweet venom, the lover draws the trembling hands of his mistress from her glowing face, turns the key and still lingers.

Scene IX.—Rosalie still on guard is found and pushed aside by the enraged husband, now sure of his prey and trembling in his eagerness for revenge. (Short pause.)

Scene X.—The knocking at the door strikes terror into the guilty lovers—they start and tremble and in their confusion they retain enough presence of mind to hide the Count Ferredia in the closet.

Scene XI.—A moment later the furious husband bursts into the room. No one there but the wife. He turns here and there, the wife is pale but self-possessed, he starts for the closet, she bars the way, the husband is in doubt as to his next step, when his eyes fall upon the crucifix on the table. “Who is in the closet?” he cries. “Speak.” “No one.” “No one? Then swear to it now on this crucifix.” “I swear.” Scarcely have the words dropped from the woman’s faltering lips, when the husband summons the maid and orders her to bring the masons into the room at once. “I will show you,” he says to the wife, “how much I trust in your words.” The masons come and are ordered by the Count to wall up the closet and do it at once and in his presence.

Scene XII.—The ill-starred prisoner is in an agony of suspense—he only can fear and suspect, when the blows from the masons’ tools rouse his worst fears. Are they digging his grave in which he must die?

Scene XIII.—Still the husband watches the work with feverish attention, the maid announces a visitor. He keeps his eyes on the work—at last he rises. Hope for one brief moment flames up in the Countess’ breast—“Here, take this, money, gold, jewels and more later, break a pane in the door. Be quick about it. Quick.” One of the masons does as he is bidden and the Count peers out, the terror of death in his eyes—the sub-prefect returns, summons the masons back to their work.

Scene XIV.—And now the dim light of the closet has turned to darkness and in the darkness of death the prisoner gropes about, every moment making it clearer to him that he is to die within the narrow walls.

Scene XV.—The work of the masons is complete, they have gone. Never for a moment does the remorseless husband change his cold, formal politeness and bows to go.

Scene XVI.—Scarcely has he gone, when the wife seizes a pick to free the lover.

Scene XVII.—But the husband suspects this. He runs back, seizes the wife, crying out: “Madam is ill, she must to bed and it is my duty as her husband to stay right here with her.” Suiting the action to the word he has his slippers and his house cloak brought into the room and makes himself ready for a long stay. She rises on her couch begging the husband to believe her and go and he tells her he believes her and that’s why he stays.

Scene XVIII.—Count Ferredia realizes that his end has come and dies with a last look at the fatal crucifix.

Scene XIX.—The doctor, called to attend the wife, after a brief examination, pronounces her speedy dissolution very probable and, after a world of sympathy to the husband, leaves.

Scene XX.—In her dying moments, quite forgetful of the presence of the stern husband, with the precious token before her eyes, the wretched wife strives and struggles with a last effect to rise and gathering all her feeble strength together, seeks with faltering steps the wall of death and gently, with the last remnant of her life, strikes the cross of silver and ebony against the cruel stones—a glance at the husband, still unbending, and she falls over—dead.

Scene XXI.—And separated from her but by an inch or more of stone lies stark in death the partner of her guilt.

Source: W. Stephen Bush, “Special Lectures on Notable Films,” Moving Picture World 8 January 1910, 19.
Image Source: Film Index 4 December 1909, 11.