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Audrey Kupferberg: A Couple Of Down And Outs

In an age when we have come to believe that any film can be seen leisurely at home if you sit on your sofa long enough, it is particularly exciting to enjoy a cinematheque screening of a film that is not available to the home market in any format, one that has not been shown on home or theater screens for close to 100 years.

The film is called A COUPLE OF DOWN AND OUTS.  It was made in 1923 by pioneering British film producer G.B. “Bertie” Samuelson, and written and directed by Walter Summers, who is considered an important interpreter of the Great War on the British screen.  The film is based on a story by William Townend. 

On August 12 and 14, this long-forgotten silent movie was shown at the BFISouthbank in London.  The surviving nitrate materials with Dutch inter-titles were preserved on 35mm film stock at the Eye Film Institute in the Netherlands.  That version was shown at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2012.  More recently, the British Film Institute’s National Archive completed a digital restoration with titles translated back into English.  The film is now as close as it ever can be to its original state.

What makes A COUPLE OF DOWN AND OUTS well worth discussing is not its preservation process or its cinematic structure, but its content.  The story centers on a World War I veteran, played by Rex Davis, whose bravery was rewarded with a row of showy medals, but the war has been over for five years and this once capable man has suffered from unemployment.  One day he recognizes his old artillery horse on the docks as it is being led to a ship headed for Belgium where it’s scrawny body will be used as meat for the starving people of Flanders.  In a gesture of kinship, outrage, and desperation, he steals the horse.  With the aid of a sympathetic young woman, played by Edna Best, and her policeman father, he saves the mistreated animal and in doing so comes to see a productive future for himself.

The significance of horses in battle during World War I – and their close ties to the soldiers who came to rely upon these animals for their lives and the lives of their fellow soldiers -- is a theme many will recognize from seeing WAR HORSE on stage or screen.  Into 1918, British horses carried soldiers into battle against the Huns.  Throughout the war, British horses carried supplies and bodies to and from the front lines.  An astounding eight million horses died in duty during the Great War.

In A COUPLE OF DOWN AND OUTS, both the human veteran and his horse are downtrodden, hungry, and forgotten. They are seen as bravely fighting in the mud of the front lines, and they are seen later as they struggle for survival in a society that has moved on and left them in the dust.  With so much in the news these days about the inconsiderate ways our veterans are being treated, this film offers a universal and timeless message.  

The BFIcinematheque screenings drew such large audiences that the theatre staff transferred the programs to a larger venue.  The screening I saw was introduced by G.B. Samuelson’s son, Sir Sydney Samuelson, who gave a very interesting summary of his father’s rocky career in film production.  He made it clear that not all film producers became wealthy moguls.

It would be nice to end this commentary with the announcement of a DVD and Blu-Ray release date for A COUPLE OF DOWN AND OUTS, but as far as I know, none is forthcoming. 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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