Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The three Dougs… Gallant Hearts (1931) with Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, BFI

After Shiraz another gem from Indian cinema, perhaps not as polished but sparkling all the same. Gallant Hearts (Diler Jagar) is one of so very few silent films to survive from this time and has recently been restored by the National Film Archive of India was being shown here for the first time overseas. It’s a sprawling adventure influenced heavily by the work of Mr D Fairbanks and features a trio of adventurers who enjoy free-running swordplay so much, they often stop and wait for the baddies to catch up.

The screening was part of the BFI’s ongoing silent film strand as well as the India on Film series with the NFAI and featured mind-boggling improvised accompaniment from pianist/multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, another multi-instrumentalist on Dholak, Dhol and Tabla. They played as one, without any rehearsal, four hands playing sometimes four instruments at a time, as they reacted to events on screen. It takes generosity as well as skill to make a film score in this way and the two supported each other and the film exceptionally well, especially during those extended fight scenes, hitting a playful and purposeful groove as our heroes danced with death.

Whilst Gallant Hearts has its heroic Prince Hameer (an actor named Hamir… it was indeed Hameer Time…) it also features a woman who is his every inch his match. Lalita Pawar plays Hameer’s love, Saranga, an acrobatic daredevil who can outfight the men just as easily and also becomes a masked avenger, righting the wrongs of the evil King Kalsen and saving her true love’s life on a number of occasions. So interesting to see such a liberated female presence as a natural part of the story… for without qualification, Hameer is lucky to win her respect and to earn her love.

Bad King Kalsen
G.P. Pawar directs and there are many interesting fades and camera movements, with a montage of tempting luxuries focused on Saranga’s face as the King charms her with promises of endless royal favour and later a tracking shot as she walks in torment after letting down Hameer. Some of the action looks a little slack but it must have been largely improvised on location (and there are very few studio shots).

Like all good fantasies, the film is about the battle between good and evil and the long-game. In Magadh a good and generous king is poisoned by his scheming brother Kalsen. The faithful sardar Satyapal smuggles the dead king’s infant son out but the child is seemingly lost after the horse and escort take a tumble.

There follows twenty years of misrule, the titles superimposed on Satyapal’s increasingly grey visage, during which evil reigns and the bad king begats a bad Prince Ramanaraj who, like his father, has broad tastes in abuses of all kinds and more than a little fondness for the ladies. In one horrible  scene we see the King whipping a man because he has tried to stop his wife joining the royal harem.

Prince Ramanaraj and friend
Into this “Kingdom of Horror” arrive three fearless visitors, Hameer, Saranga and her brother Balbheem, a troupe of acrobats who, naturally enough cannot escape the attention of royal spies on the look out for “pretty birds” to trap for Prince or King. The Commander of Maghadh, large of moustache and with a very helpful boil on his face perhaps representing the simmering sin in his heart, tries to take Saranga away but is quickly humiliated by Hameer who is part Fairbanks, part Adam Ant and early Spandau Ballet… ridicule is nothing to be scared of certainly not with his lithe athleticism and way with a sword!

In evading the chasing pack of royal guards they bump onto the canoodling Prince who, instantly clocking Saranga’s charms, invites these “brave lads” (love the English title cards!) to perform at the palace…

Clever though they are the trio are taken by surprise when Saranga’s bed is lowered in the middle of the night and she is taken by royal guards with the King just beating his son to her capture.

“Silly girl! You were born to live in palaces not beg in the streets!”

Hamir and Lalita Pawar
The King lays it on with a shovel and persuades Saranga into lowering her guard for just an instance at which point Hameer arrives and jumps to the right wrong conclusion. Seemingly betrayed and with “nothing to live for…” he is captured and thrown in the dungeon with Balbheem. But, as Saranga works to deceive the King, Balbheem stirs his friend up for some vengeance and the adventure takes off all over again.

It seems like a wedge has been driven between the two lovers though but shortly after the ongoing battle against the King is joined by a masked avenger, part Zorro and with a hint of Musidora’s Irma Vep (only good). Who is this Robyn Hood? And is there one more revelation that will restore good order to the Kingdom…?

Another cracking Sunday silent at the BFI and here’s hoping that the spirit of adventure continues!

Monday, 15 January 2018

Ha-Ha for Hollywood... Show People (1928), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

Mordaunt Hall hit the nail on the head in his New York Times review: “So clever is the comedy in Show People… that it would not be at all surprising to hear that many in the audiences had sat through it twice.” Try five or seven times and it’s still a life-affirming hit.

This was the first time I’ve seen the movie in cinema though and with Cyrus Gabrysch’s playfully assured accompaniment and an audience of serious cinephiles getting every joke and spotting every starry face, it was as funny as ever.

I want to live in Billy and Marion’s world.

I always link this film with Souls for Sale (1923) starring King Vidor’s future wife, Eleanor Boardman and, in a cameo, the man himself, along with appearances from Mr Chaplin (filming Woman from Paris) and Erich von Stroheim (filming Greed, no less). It’s a film about making it in Hollywood and wraps the comedy around a more serious story although it’s also featured Boardman’s fellow New Face of 1921, William Haines as Pinkey, the assistant director; his first film credit!

The diminutive autograph hunter
In Show People we get Chaplin without his make up and someone who goes unrecognised by Marion Davis’ character Peggy Pepper, later Patricia Pepoire and we also get Eleanor Boardman, shown in the boat-under-the-willow-branches sequence from Bardleys the Magnificent along with John Gilbert, also directed, of course, by King Vidor.

Confused? You might be, but I recommend Souls for Sale to all who like the People of Show….

John Gilbert’s also *in* Show People walking into the studios ahead of Pepper and her father General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson) who brings her to Hollywood with the determined, but totally wrong assumption that she’ll be welcomed with open arms. After trying and failing to follow Mr Gilbert into the studios, they are sent to casting and the first of many humiliations.

New in town
Peggy is lucky enough to encounter Billy Boone (William Haines) in a studio canteen and he offends her by failing to take anything seriously; he’s an old enough hand to know the twin imposters of triumph and failure walk closely together in the dream factory.

He gets Peggy a chance in one of his comedies and, playing it straight, she gives the perfect, un-anticipated, response when squirted in the face with soda water and getting involved in a custard pie fight. But Peggy goes from strength to strength and is soon selected ahead of Billy by the studio for more feature work. They change her name to Patricia Pepoire and make her date a fellow star, Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli) a phoney French “count” who we later discover, used to wait on tables and who acknowledges Billy with the most effete of nods… (nothing is accidental when Mr Haines is around eh, boys?).

What a trooper!?
Miss Pepoire becomes more and more removed from her friends and family and starts to believe her own publicity: Hollywood always on the defensive by this stage. Billy sees Peggy filming a dramatic encounter with Andre as his Keystone-style comedy crew are filming themselves in a madcap chase, but he just can’t reach her – even Andre is closer to getting the joke.

But even when audiences begin to turn, Ms Pepoire doesn’t get it. She agrees to marry Andre and all seems to be lost but can Billy find a way to not only see sense but to win her back? Honest laughter may be the solution along with soda water and cream pies…

Show People is a now well-worn story very well wrought and is enlivened by the constant rush of surprise guests, stars that are so in on the gag that they ham it up, especially the lunch time banquet in which Karl Dane, George K Arthur, Mae Murray, Renne Adore, Dorothy Sebastian, John Gilbert (again!), Claire Windsor, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge (looking stunning by the way…), then Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart who get to send themselves up (Bill’s the funniest!).

Peggy transformed as Patricia Pepoire (any resemblance to Mae Murray etc...)
But I especially like Peggy’s response to seeing Marion Davies, asking who it is she’s told that it’s Marion Davies – “who? I don’t like her much” she mouths. King Vidor himself also pops up directing a sequence not unlike part of The Big Parade – looks like he knows what he’s doing alright!

Mordaunt Hall was even impressed with his handling of Mr Haines, a performer he seems unimpressed with: “Mr. Vidor, who more than once has proved himself a wizard in handling players, has accomplished here the seemingly impossible—by eliciting a restrained performance from William Haines. Mr. Haines, who has kicked over the traces in a number of films, in "Show People" actually compels sympathy for the character.”

Mr Haines
He concluded with even more compliments from his back handed delivery: “Miss Davies is beautiful in this film, but occasionally she does not hesitate for the sake of the part to show that with her hair pulled back she can look relatively plain…”

It’s fair to say that both Billy and Marion left their egos at the door for this film and, no doubt at Vidor’s prompting, just went for comedy broke!

The film was screened - free - as part of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image winter season of events, further details of upcoming shows are on their site.

Show People is now available on Warner Archives DVD but it’s the kind of film that works best, is funniest, when you are in among the crowd, laughing… just like Billy and Peggy!

Top: The actual Mae Murray, Johnny G and Norma T
Bottom: Bill gets the draw on Doug, Pepper is impressed!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Oh brother… Second Fiddle (1923) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

I’ve been fascinated with Glenn Hunter since reading the book on which his lost film, Merton of the Movies (1924) was based and having seen his performance in Second Fiddle, I can now mourn the loss of his major hit even more. Hunter is a boyish, almost sensitive presence on screen but with a good range of physical and facial expression and a gift for comic timing: seeing him in the more knockabout Merton as the titular hero attempting to make his deluded way in Hollywood would have been a treat. As with Marion Davis’ character a few years later in Show People, Merton thinks he’s serious but everyone else thinks he’s hilarious.

In Second Fiddle Glenn Hunter manages to be both despite a plot so convoluted you could pin a tail on it and call it a “wonky”. He’s great and the film is a delight, once thought lost but tonight projected from Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm Kodascope print onto the Cinema Museum’s screen with lavish accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch.

Directed by Frank Tuttle the film was a truly independent production filmed in Queens of all places – it looked nothing like this rural community last time I passed through.  The cinematographer, as Mr Brownlow revealed, was Fred Waller the inventor of Cinerama and he does much good work with startling close-ups, atmospheric exteriors and a clever interior shot showing Hunter peering out in fear as a murderer creeps down the stairs towards him.

Hunter is Jim, the youngest member of the Bradley family and completely overshadowed by his older brother Herbert (Townsend Martin) a college boy who is seemingly everything his mother (Mary Foy) and father (Leslie Stowe) wanted. Jim suffers from low self-esteem, to put it mildly, and hasn’t the confidence to do anything other than screw up. A self-fulfilling prophecy of his own foretelling.

Mary Astor (in her sixth film) and Glenn Hunter
Jim hasn’t the confidence to make anything of his relationship with pretty Polly Crawford (Mary Astor, then just sixteen) the daughter of the local doctor (Otto Lang, Astor’s actual father, which is good to see given her youth). Polly clearly likes the young grease monkey but he’s too nervous to respond to any signals.

Herbert’s arrival home only pushes Jim down further. He had bought a dog as a present for his brother, but the latter walks in with an elegant pedigree hound far more aspirational than the lovable mutt Jim had in mind. Jim isn’t even confident enough to feel slighted by his brother as he moves in on Polly, he just assumes he’s not as good and Herbert’s not going to disabuse him, driving off with Polly as he tries to fix her car’s exhaust. Not so nice, a nasty Herbert.

That evening the Bradley’s dance to their record player, a 78 of an Argentine Tango allowing Herbert to show his moves with Polly while Jim is left with an umbrella. The film’s funniest sequence follows as Jim daydreams a south American scene with himself as a Valentino, cape and stylish gaucho look, nostrils flared and cheeks on full suck for some hilarious shapes. Hunter has delicate features and makes Ivor Novello look stocky, but he has the protean ability to inhabit the clothes; no wonder he was so successful on stage as well.

Tangoed... Hunter, Astor, Mary Foy, Leslie Stowe and Townsend Martin
The reverie is interrupted by the arrival of the sheriff as the town’s odd-bod, Mr Cragg (William Nally, craggy faced and a genuinely fearsome presence) has murdered his own daughter (Helena Adamowska) in search for the money she has hidden away in the hope of escaping his tyranny in their old dark house.

Mr Bradley heads off with the posse leaving his boys to protect Polly and their mother. Naturally enough Cragg comes to the house in search of food and money and Herbert makes off to tell the posse leaving his brother with a shotgun he forgets to load… The moments with Cragg circling the house are genuinely unnerving and Tuttle creates considerable tension.

Cragg breaks in using the door Herbert has absent-mindedly left open and Jim checks his weapon… in shock he tries to reach for some ammunition only to alert the intruder, but he confronts him all the same, his bluff enough to get Cragg to sit down as they await the sheriff.

But, as the law heads to the rescue, Jim is unable to keep holding the gun and faints. Cragg is caught though after Herbert shoots him – by accident more than design – and safely locked up, older brother is the hero whilst Jim is crestfallen. Matters get worse when Herbert covers up his oversight by loading the gun and Jim is accused of lying.

William Nally menaces Helena Adamowska
Miserable, and thinking Polly is deserting him too, Jim plans to leave for Boston only for a series of unfortunate events to unfold in a breath-taking final sequence as Cragg escapes, Polly’s car breaks down, Herbert gets desperate and all converge on that old dark house for truth and consequences.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied this enjoyable romp with deft precision – our feet tapping to tango rhythms, teeth chattering for Cragg’s demonic excesses and our smiles uplifted by glorious themes for young Jim’s redemption.

Earlier in the evening we were also treated to a DW Griffith short, Fighting Blood (1911) which featured a tense shoot out between native Americans and a family trapped in a log cabin, as Kevin said, almost a dry run for Birth of a Nation. The film included an interesting overhead shot of the action possible influenced by the work of Thomas Ince. Ince supposedly directed the second film we saw, The Heart of an Indian (1912) but it was Francis Ford who also starred in red-face, the most Irish Indian you could imagine. This film was altogether more subtle on the subject of native Americans and reflected the general pattern of more sympathetic portrayals before the sound era gave way to cliché.

Poignant shot from The Heart of an Indian (1912)
Lillian Henley accompanied in style with dramatic flourish as the drama played out on piano as on screen; the standard of accompaniment is so high at the Bioscope.

A grand start to the year and another sold-out performance at the Cinema Museum: they shouldn’t shut this place down they should expand it! Demand is on the increase and if you haven’t already signedthe petition to help keep the Museum in place please follow this link and support this unique venue.

Read more about Merton of the Movies here.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Double Bebe… She’s a Sheik (1927)/Miss Bluebeard (1925), with Meg Morley and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Tonight, Kevin Brownlow had promised us a surprise from his own collection and he delivered with a 16mm transfer of She’s a Sheik that hasn’t been projected in public since I was in short pants (no, even earlier than that troublesome New Romantic period…). The film had been transferred by a British collector using ex-air force equipment and yet looked pretty fine partly due to the extensive  repair work of the Bioscope’s ace projectionist Dave Locke.

Kevin described it as madcap like Hellzapoppin and whilst it doesn’t quite match the madness of that film it’s heart-warmingly daft with a welcome eye on gender-reversal that suits Bebe Daniel’s natural intelligence as well as William Powell’s willingness to never take himself that seriously. It’s a little patchy in parts but redeemed by Daniel’s making like Fairbanks as well as her old sparing partner Gloria and, of course, Mr Valentino.  No one can pet a peacock (not going there…) wearing an outrageous feathered head-dress quite like Bebe and she out smoulders Rudolph whilst lazily stroking a leopard which is clearly benefiting from the same kind of head doctor as the Happy Mondays in 1991.

William Powell is about to get his thawb handed to him
Bebe is a magnetic presence and a natural comedienne as she would show from the Mack Sennett days through to the wise-cracking screwballs of the thirties and beyond after she settled in the UK as Mrs Lyons (not Leopard you may note…). She has a striking, thoroughly-modern face and yet there’s always a twinkle… not so far from either Doug or Rudy then: these people had The Glamour alright.

So does William Powell and Richard Arlen for that matter, even when their characters are being humiliated by the film’s star. Bebe plays Zaida a good catholic Spanish girl who is the adopted daughter of Sheik Yusif ben Hamad (Paul McAllister … not many of us Paul’s get to be a Sheik!). The Sheik is fully supportive of her right to choose a marriage partner and very quickly she spies just the man, a French army officer, Captain Colton (Arlen), the trouble is he’s already seeing a blonde Wanda Fowler (Josephine Dunn) who Zaida spies two-timing him.

Reversing the, actually quite disturbing, kidnapping approach to courtship from other films about similar things, Zaida takes her Captain prisoner and quickly wins him over through basic womanly wiles and the offer of food, drink and a good pipe. But it’s at this point that the nasty Kada (Mr Powell) decides he’s going to take this woman himself and overcome the French forces… What do you reckon to his chances of either?

Dreamy duo: Richard Arlen and Bebe Daniels
Meg Morley accompanied having not even seen the film before and provided some luscious chords with period-jazz flavours, sweeping minor shapes that swept through the sand and patient, confident themes that embraced the unpredictability of the action and the unseen narrative.

Lilian Henley provided similar service for the first film with her own trademark polish and assurance. If Meg’s improvisational jazz background informs her approach perhaps Lillian’s experience as a professional actress informs her own highly-disciplined and sympathetic playing. I watched Ben Travers flapper farce Thark last week and it’s so close to Miss Bluebeard in style and I’m taking a wild guess here, I could easily imagine it’s one of Lillian’s favourite periods?

The film is not as zany as SAS and creakily shows its stage roots having been based on a play, Little Miss Bluebeard, by Avery Hopwood but does have its moments and some amazing costumery especially for Bebe to wear.

The plot is as convoluted as all get out and shows once again that you should never let anyone impersonate you as you can end up married or even in court (name that Colleen Moore film!). But successful composer Larry Charters (Robert Frazer) who is visiting Paris is so fed up of young women chasing him that he asks his mate Bob Hawley (Kenneth MacKenna) to impersonate him so he can focus on his writing.

He runs into stage actress Colette (see what they did there…) who is introduced in one of the film’s cleverest moments behaving on stage as we expect her character to behave in the film… and, one thing leads to another and a drunken mayor marries them (dontcha just hate it when that happens!).

So far, so what you may say but when Colette meets the real Larry it is, ow you say, l’amour at first sight (Colette has title card French to die for, n’est pas).

Robert Frazer, Martha O'Dwyer and Raymond Griffith
It gets complicated and really the funniest thing is the excellent Raymond Griffith trying to get some sleep as The Honourable Bertie Bird even whilst mostly wearing his trademark top hat.

Two sides to Bebe Daniels and proof that she could more than match anyone for comedy, swinging action and romance. Plus... Swanson and the lion? Yeah, got me a leopard.

Before Bebe we had a Christmas short, a British version of The Little Match Girl (1914) which was indeed short and bitter sweet with Meg accompanying.

This was all a fine way to finish off the year at the Bioscope. Here’s to 2018 and The Cinema Museum continuing to support this excellent enterprise.

You're twisting my leopard man...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Twelve Days of Silent Night: the year in pantomime. Or, well done 2017!

This just gets harder; how can any sane person possibly reduce such a splendid silent year into a top twelve?! This year I've seen more live cinema than ever before along with a travelling band of fascinated and fascinating individuals who are on a mission to understand more of the immense silvery spaces that make up the lost worlds of cinema without sounds but with music and soul.

1. The Freshman (1925), Guenter A Buchwald, Bristol Ensemble, Slapstick Festival Gala, Colston Hall, Bristol
It's now an annual family tradition with my daughter at Bristol University and the Gala never disappoints especially with so many locals turning out in a packed Colston Hall.

All this and Roy Hudd channelling Max Miller! Now, there was a funny thing!

Catherine Hessling  - La Fille de l’eau (1925)
2. La Fille de l’eau (1925) with John Sweeney, Institut Français
Jean Renoir's first feature film was being shown as part of the annual All About Piano! festival of the keyboard at the Institut français and was part of its ciné-concert stream. It's always good to experience different venues and the Institute provided a superb context for both the film and John Sweeney with a finely-tuned grand piano enabling him to fully tap into his boundless reservoir of musical themes.

What better way of celebrating the versatility of le piano than hearing him accompany for this ciné-concert?

3. Revolutionary Centenary: The New Babylon (1929), Sasha Grynyuk, LSO St Luke’s
This was a reconstruction of an original score by a precocious young man name of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sasha Grynyuk played the complex work to perfection and this one stood out in a year of celebrations… From an historical point of view the centenary is an important one and it was depressing to see so many post-factual judgements based on all that was to come. The film was propagandist, but we know all about such things in 2017.

Les Misérables
4. Play for a day… Les Misérables (1925-6), Neil Brand, The Barbican
One huge film serial, one fair-sized piano and a man with a seemingly endless musical imagination kept us entertained for over five hours at the Barbican. By co-incidence the London Marathon was on the same day buy, carrying the film and his audience with him all the way, Neil Brand emerged the real winner.

The Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, South Yorshire

5. Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand, Covent Garden Sinfonia, Ben Palmer, Abbeydale Picture House
Part of the joy of silent cinema is introducing new people to the experience. My sister lives in Sheffield and neither she nor her husband had ever seen a silent film on screen, so it gave me great pleasure to see their reaction to Buster Keaton’s Cameraman, The Girl with the Hatbox and The Lodger featuring the Covent Garden Symphonia playing Neil Brand’s super new score.

The Abbeydale is a great venue, a stunning relic of mass entertainment past and I hope it and the Yorkshire Silent Film festival go from strength to strength. I’ll be back next year.

6. New silent films! This was the year of Alex Barratt’s mesmerising ode to his home town with The London Symphony (2017) which I saw with Ben Palmer conducting the Covent Garden Sinfonia playing James McWilliam's score at the Barbican.

We also the simply remarkable Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), in which Bill Morrison unearthed not only the story of hundreds of lost silent films but also of the perma-frosted town in which they were held in ice for 90 years.  The film creates a compelling narrative by weaving past, present, fact and fiction together with mind-boggling cohesion.

Maurice Elevy's master-stroke!

7. British Silent Film Festival Another smashing long weekend in Leicester during which Balfour mania reached new heights as Betty charmed us in film after film including Cocktails (1928) and A Sister of Six (1927). I also particularly enjoyed Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928) with his extraordinary re-enactment of the battle as soulful as it was accurate especially when accompanied by John Sweeney’s thunderous accompaniment. Kevin Brownlow described it as the most impressive large-scale action scene in British silent cinema and it’s hard to think of many sound films that come close.

My official James Murray Pordenone mug...

8. Pordenone Bellissimo! The Crowd (1928), Carl Davis, Pordenone Orchestra
This was my personal highlight as an event: my first trip to La Giornate del Cinema Muto and eight days of films long and short from breakfast to well past supper time, thank goodness the bars don’t close early in Italy. To be honest, it felt like the step up from Premier League to Champions League and I struggled to get out of the qualifying stages only to rally against the sheer class of the proposition. It’s a silent marathon and not a sprint and I can’t wait for next year.

Picking favourites is impossible but the opening round featuring Eleanor Boardman and James Murray in King Vidor’s The Crowd is the most memorable… A supernaturally-charged Carl Davis conducted the Pordenone Orchestra playing his own spectacular score for one of my favourite silent films and even up in the Gods at the Teatro Verdi my socks were detached and flying high over Friuli-Venezia Giulia skies.

Jenny Hasselqvist 

9. Jenny on the block… Vem Dömer? (1922) with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius, Pordenone
 There was a very strong Scandinavian strand at Pordenone of which Victor Sjostrom’s lover’s ordeal stood out as it had to, being a rare screening featuring Jenny Hasselqvist who is, for me, one of the greatest silent actors; a master of physical and emotional control who never overplays even in the most extreme circumstances. And she certainly had those at the end of this powerful film.

9. It was Louise Brooks’ year (again). In Italy I saw the recently rediscovered Now We're in the Air (1927) featuring Brooksie shining brightly despite a gurning Wallace Beery and a storyline flying like a bird… I also saw Pandora’s Box (1929) with Stephen Horne accompanying at the beginning and end of the year, the second introduced by Pamela Hutchinson, whose excellent book on the film made the re-watch essential and even more enjoyable.


10. Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala. This one went through the roof and was by some distance my most read post of the year and not surprisingly given the sense of occasion and the way that Anoushka Shankar got to the heart of the film with her intelligent and fluent score. This was one of the most uplifting screenings of the year, a real celebration.

11. Uncanny Tales… Häxan (1922), with Reece Shearsmith and Stephen Horne, Phoenix.
This was a Halloween treat organised by the East Finchley Contingent and which featured a local gentleman giving eloquent voice to Benjamin Christensen’s dramatized documentary on the history of witchcraft. Stephen Horne accompanied with uncanny virtuosity and the shock ending revealed mankind to be the real demonic power.

Häxan (1922)
12. The Cinema Museum/Kennington Bioscope
This list isn’t in any order, but I have saved the most important until last. This year was another vintage one for the Kennington Bioscope and their partners at the Cinema Museum. In addition to the regular screenings every three weeks we have also enjoyed the 3rd Silent Film Weekend and the 2nd Silent Laughter Saturday – dozens of fantastic films accompanied by excellent musicians: John Sweeney, Meg Morley, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Stephen Horne and others.

Highlights have included the naughtiest Gish, Dorothy, in Nell Gwyn (1926) with Meg Morley, one of the great Italian Diva’s Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco (1916), with John Sweeney playing and honeyed spoken translation from Lillian Henley (they are the Bioscope’s Dream Team) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) one of the best-looking films of the year, with Cyrus Gabrysch’s piano filling the huge spaces with Death Valley cool as humanity fights for life and love against overwhelming heat and the onrushing Colorado River. Then two weeks ago we had Anna May Wong in Pavement Butterfly accompanied by Stephen Horne and Elsa Lanchester in the British silent treat, Blue Bottles with Meg Morley: great programming and so much talent.

Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco 
But the Museum itself is also a pure joy, filled with memorabilia and artefacts that connect us to the cultural past. The people who run the museum and make the Bioscope possible are also the real spirit of the enterprise and to all the players, programmers such as Amran Vance and Michelle Facey and the volunteers, I thank you and hope that the Museum continues in its current venue – where once Charlie Chaplin’s family lived.

If there’s one present we all really want from Santa, this is it.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

It’s more important than that… A Matter of Life and Death (1946), BFI

This is a film for the ages, a film to grow with. When I first saw A Matter of Life and Death, I must have been very young and pretty much read it literally but when I watched in my teens I realised that it was not quite that simple: of course it wasn’t.

Seeing David Niven in massive close up for the first time on the big screen it is perfectly clear how much this story takes place from his point of view and yet his imagined afterlife is almost too huge in scope to be the dream of a single mind… but then it’s always hard to believe that the main works of Powell and Pressburger came from just two minds. If that’s not enough, the opening statement that "this is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war… “is clear enough, especially when followed up by “any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental".

This is a new 4k restoration and it’s exceptionally lovely with Jack Cardiff’s colours like so much newly-polished, quicksilver summer fruits, all the more so when contrasted with the monochrome “heaven”. Real life and real love are more vivid than the antiseptic afterlife especially as so many seem to have carried their grudges with them, of which more later.

Kim Hunter and David Niven - screen grabs from the BFI trailer for the restoration
The film has so much context and has to deliver on a variety of briefs. As with A Canterbury Tale, AMOLAD had to address the relationship between the allies and whilst there are French issues there are very specific American ones too. Alsi, with this film coming just at the War’s end, there was also a consideration of the UK’s future role in a World of vanishing Empire, a situation very much on the minds of the then self-determining USA (even so long after Woodrow Wilson). So many of the barbs from Raymond Massey’s American Revolutionary, Abraham Farlan, ring true today: then we’d just worked together to defeat the Nazis and now, well, now… we just get on each other's nerves.

But, no matter how Farlan rails against the unpopularity of Great Britain and the unsuitability of one of its sons loving a daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, ultimately love is the law. It’s probably all you need, love is, you know.

It’s curious that Farlan is so mealy-mouthed and prejudiced but then again this is in the mind of Peter. Niven's Squadron Leader Carter typifies the bravery of the best of us, putting his men before himself and ready to take his chances even without a parachute. He has been valiant and highly effective after his bomber was shot to bits and he engages with his last few moments with an almost matter of fact energy. He is intensely interested in the America radio operator, June (Kim Hunter) who picks up his distress call and the two form and instant, almost super-natural bond in the flaming seconds he has left. This was the War: tomorrow was never guaranteed not even assumed and we simply didn’t waste as much time as we do today.

Instant connection... as life ticks down

June, Peter… all of the characters on Earth are pragmatic and focused; what can be done will be done and in whatever conditions prevail. Oh, what you can achieve when your own mortality is no longer a comforting deception? Yet, Peter’s surface calm is counterbalanced by all kinds of agitation below in his subconscious and we get to meet them all, one by one.

Whilst Peter’s number 2, Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) waits for him to arrive “upstairs” he chats admiringly to an angelic (in all ways…) Kathleen Byron. Things run smoothly up there but this administrative angel is concerned at Peter’s non-appearance. Richard Attenborough arrives from the stairway to Heaven and caused the old couple in front of me to chatter excitedly: yes, after all these years, Dickie is still in the film…

Kathleen Byron (gulp) and Robert Coote
American soul-soldiers chat excitedly as they pop open bottles of celestial coca cola and eye up the angels as they would on Earth: in “heaven” everything is fine… and not too different from home.

But the mathematics is wrong, and Peter has unbalanced the books… the English fog meant that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) just couldn’t find him and he fell to Earth still alive. As Peter wakes up in the surf he sees a boy, strangely naked, playing a flute as he minds his goats… it’s an other-worldly seaside and it’s only when the lad points to buildings and a woman on a bike that he realises he’s alive. And the woman… it’s June, the woman he talked to as his took his leap of faith.

71 arrives and, literally, stops the World as he explains the rather awkward predicament… Peter needs to crack on with being dead and he would do, decent chap that he is, were it not been for the fact that his "extra" hours have seen him fall in love with June and her with him.

These consequences of celestial carelessness end up being discussed before the highest court in a stellar sequence which is so heavy in dialogue and yet remains a tour-de-force of edited brilliance. Peter is operated on by a brain surgeon just as he battles with himself in his vision of eternity. Is it worth going on living? How can you prove that someone loves you? And has there ever been a better portrayer of the decent British man than Roger Livesey?

After all this time... I can conclude that this is still a very odd film but also that it is a genuinely great one. It is an experience that has to be lived with and seen on screen and for the first time I really felt I’d paid The Archers and Mr Cardiff the respect their work deserves. Now I can wish for a Blu-ray version of this restoration without feeling that I’ve not given the bigger picture its due.

The Great Livesey
So, do go see AMOLAD on screen for this re-release and indeed any P&P film you can (I'm watching Blimp tomorrow at the Barbican). Tickets are available for A Matter of Life and Death from the BFI and elsewhere as the restoration is re-released.

Powell and Pressburger smuggle so much meaning in this film, it’s truly uncanny and almost as if we’re characters in their dream watching a debate about our lives… the watchers, watched this time in 4k resolution.

Yes Richard, still in the film.