Friday, 21 April 2017

Shanghai Star - The Goddess (1934), BFI DVD


“Older people went misty-eyed when they heard Ruan’s name… She represented a time for them when hopes weren’t jaded, when you didn’t have to talk in double speak, when a revolution promised better lives.” Mark Cousins remembering a recent visit to China.

This one is almost too much, the natural dignity of Ruan Lingyu outstanding in a desperate tale of motherly love against all odds provided by a brutal environment and a society determined that it’s all her fault. This is a third world away from the sweet stories of Hollywood and sees Lingyu’s character employed as a prostitute – a goddess by any other name – and enduring the overbearing “protection” of a crime boss in order to provide for her son.

Even when the kindly head of the school stands up for her he is shouted down by those who cannot see beyond her profession… can’t see even Barbara Stanwyck playing this, not overtly. Yet the Greta Garbo of Shanghai takes it all in her stride and is magnificent.

Ruan Lingyu
Written and directed by  Wu Yonggang, The Goddess is remarkably bold in its subject matter and reflective of a country in flux between the revolutionary forces of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist Kuomintang Party led by Chian Kai-chek who had achieved a temporary ascendancy in Shanghai which clearly allowed the urban creative elite full expression.

In the Shanghai of 1934 there were as many as 100,000 women scraping a living as a prostitute: around one on thirteen… In the year of the Long March Chinese society warlords and politicians struggled for control whilst a newly urbanised peasantry lived in squalor.

Shanghai street-work
The film was one of Ruan Lingyu’s last as she committed suicide within a year of its completion – she was only 24 and on this evidence a performer of the highest order with a range of controlled, natural emotion that cuts through in a very modern way.  If not the Chinese Garbo of legendary cliché but, as with Greta, someone who works their interior world very hard and yet gives only glimpses of the powerful turmoil just bubbling below.

She’s almost matched by the baby-faced Zhang Zhizhi who plays her pimp, a compulsive gambler and a bully who can smile and smile and indeed be a villain still. But he’s not necessarily the clichéd control freak and psychotic bully boy; he’s weak and irresponsible - another believable character.

Zhang Zhizhi - nowhere near as friendly as he looks
Then there is the woman’s son, played by a talented youngling called Keng Li who gives a very good account of himself… The Chinese Jackie Coogan? No, he’s his own boy.

Wu Yonggang’s screenplay had been partly inspired by his observing prostitutes forced smiles as they greeted customers: what horrors lay behind those phoney faces? Wu had spent time in Hollywood and his experience is clear from any number of clever tracking shots, expert close-ups and a wonderful overhead as the woman engages with another client and the two walk off together to more hotel room misery…

Cold hotel morning
The woman seeks to find a way to support her son using the only option open to her. She is almost run in by the police but takes shelter with her soon-to-be protector who starts to make her work for him. Not wanting her boy to suffer as she has she starts to hide away money in order to enrol him in school. But prejudice is rife and the other school governors are not so open-minded nor are the parents. Meanwhile the gambling-pimp finally finds the stash of money, is he about the throw away the only chance the boy will ever get?

Last chance at school?
No spoilers:  Even if this was a Hays dodging pre-code Hollywood film, there would be retribution in store but here the twists and turns have the ring of truth and you’re never certain of the end game as the story plays its course. It remains a genuinely moving experience and a story the resonates strongly still.

Chinese composer Zou Ye’s newly commissioned score moved graceful alongside the film interweaving modern themes with more traditional sequences: a bridge connecting us to the time and the place… Zou Ye conducted the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra for this recording of a  score commissioned by the KT Wong Foundation, an independent body dedicated to fostering cultural exchange between China and the rest of the World.

Brilliant actor at work
Sadly, Ruan’s personal life was no less complicated than this film and under huge pressure from the press following her complicated love life, she took an overdose and died less than a year after The Goddess. Her death led to questions being asked about the uncontrolled behaviour of the tabloid press and the rights of celebrities to privacy and a life… and we think we’re so different?

The Goddess is extraordinary proof of the talent that was lost.

It’s available on BFI DVD from 23rd April and you can pre-order it directfrom their online shop now!


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The Irish questions… The Informer (1929) on Blu-ray/DVD


Last year’s London Film Festival archive gala restoration is now available on sparkling BFI Blu-ray, all the better to show the dark heart of this republican mood piece filmed almost entirely on-set in Elstree. The Informer is set in the context of the fight for Irish independence but it’s mostly about loyalty, love and betrayal: country, friends and lovers, all can be let down in the heat of the moment.

It’s remarkable that an English film of this time – based on Liam O'Flaherty’s 1925 novel - would tell a sympathetic story of republicans so soon after the fact of the uprising and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922, the politics may be side-lined but there’s no doubt who these people are and why loyalty matters so much. In her introduction, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon quotes O'Flaherty later writing that he based his story on the style of the cinema and that he wanted to treat his readers “…as a mob orator treats his audience and toy with their emotions…” – there’s a proto-noir feel to a film that is infused with uncertainty and a sense of dread.

Lars Hanson
It’s easy enough to identify with selfless comradeship and the loyalty of lovers but it’s harder to recognise the spiteful urges that drive us all towards betrayal. After that, all that is left is understanding and forgiveness and that is so rare.

As with a number of the best British silent films, The Informer featured European talent, including its German director (Arthur Robison, of Warning Shadows fame) and his cinematographers Werner Brandes and Theodor Sparkuhl, who combine to create such a superbly oppressive world of on-set shadows – as if the darkness was pushing down on the fragile hearts of the cast. There’s plenty of image mobility, especially impressive when the camera moves from where Francis hides as Gypo turns from his mate’s house and walks down an alley across a perfectly-synchronized crowded street to the police station to do the dreaded dirty on his pal…

Lya De Putti and Carl Harbord
Hungarian Lya De Putti (last seen swinging with Emil Jannings in Varieté) is Katie, the woman stirring such strong emotions between best pals Gypo Nolan, played by Sweden’s finest, Lars Hanson and Francis McPhilip played by Carl Harbord of Salcombe, Devon.

The cast is a very strong one bulked out by some great character actors like Warwick Ward as Dan Gallagher commander of the group, Dennis Wyndham as his right-hand man and the mobile mug of Craighall Sherry as his left, Mulholland. Ward was interesting casting, looking so much like the British heroic ideal – hawk-like features and resolute moustache: a man of decision.

Dan Gallagher, Warwick Ward, Craighall Sherry, Lya De Putti, Carl Harbord and Lars Hanson
Daisy Campbell is also very fine as Mrs McPhillip, the woman who loses a son and yet has the faith and heart to bring redemption whilst Johnny Butt is nasty enough as the pimping Publican aiming to make Janice Adair lost-lass Bessie earn her keep no matter what. There’s even a sharpshooter played by young Ray Milland who looks like he might be one to watch in the future.

But it’s all about the magnificent leads… Katie loving Francis then Gypo, Gypo loving Francis but mainly Katie and Gallagher loving his cause above all also.

The film begins with a fire fight as two groups of unknown allegiance battle each other in the streets of Dublin before the Police move in… One of the group, Francis, accidentally shoots the chief of police and must go on the run. He can’t stick it though and returns in secret to the house of Katie Fox his ex-sweetheart only to find that she has moved onto the slightly more dashing Gypo and yet still tries to hide Francis’ presence. It doesn’t work though as Gypo sees more than he ought to and jumps to all the wrong conclusions…

Lars and Lya
It doesn’t take much to tip Gypo over the edge – remember what Lya did to Herr Jannings in Varieté?! – but here she makes double sure forcing him to make the rash decision to gain his revenge by telling the police where his former friend is hiding.  The scene is well constructed as the camera follows Hanson as he marches through Dublin streets towards a cinema just disgorging its audience, to the police station where he is rewarded with twenty pound notes (not pieces of silver…).

No good can come of this but it will not be the last telling betrayal in the film…

Garth Knox - compositional coffee
I’d enjoyed Garth Knox’s new score live and there’s an extra on the disc in which he details the creation of his score aimed at “shaping the silence”. It’s interesting that he tries to put back some of the rougher edges of the characters taken out for the film but very much present in O’Flaherty’s book. He used uilleann pipes and accordion to re-patriate the story in Irish tones and purposely used a small ensemble to recreate the close-quarters dramatics on screen. He goes on to say in the notes that “the idea was to rub the organic grain of the folk sound into the more polished perfection of the… more classical instruments (flute, viola) …” this also contrasts Gypo’s hot blood with Gallagher’s coldness.

Knox takes a strong lead from the actors and I liked his attention to detail when, for instance, Gypo loses sense of his surroundings under stress and the score follows him into detached reverie. It is an emotionally-intelligent and stirring score which largely works in tune albeit occasionally foreshadowing the tumult of the performances and the narrative flow.

Warwick Ward and Lya De Putti before and after restoration
The BFI team having done a superb job on a mix of source materials for this restoration and amongst the extras there’s a comparison showing before and after… well, there is no comparison really. The sound version is also included and was restored ten years ago but just seems lumpen when compared to the fleeting, shadowy nuance of the silent. Again the extras show a comparison; silents were just so much more dramatic at this stage.

There are also a number of Topical Budget newsreels from the period which show the events outside the picture houses... they are terse reminders of tensions that persist to this day.

The Informer is released on DVD/Blu-ray on 24th April and you can order it direct from the BFI shop online

De Valera - I Want Peace (1921)
De Valera's message - I Want Peace (1921)
Protesters outside the Unionist Conference in Liverpool 1921

Sunday, 9 April 2017

The Silver Age… British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2017, Kings College, London


Random quote of the BSFF Symposium: "What for did ye no let your mither ken ye were in life?"

Back to college and two days of top-quality research, broken instruments, revelations and biscuit-fueled enlightenment and a reminder to always lock the door of your laboratory if there’s a cobra in it.

The Transition to Sound 1925-7 - Tony Fletcher

Tony introduced four films that featured early sound experiments that were a mixture of well-synched wonder and the downright shocking! The films were directed with metronomic precision in single studio set-ups in which very deliberate diction could be synchronized with minimal movement.

In The Gentleman (1925) – probably the earliest surviving British sound-on-film production – RB Salisbury is foppishly unsettling as George (RS Salisbury) a husband who, finding himself in “triangular circumstances”, uses weird passive-aggression to win back his wife, Lorna (Daye Dawne… great name) back from the suave Paul (Reginald Fox).  George starts throwing things out of their window and bemoaning his inability to get angry whilst Lorna had earlier said she might have loved him more “if only he’d knocked me about a bit.”

The odd man kept on piping “Thank you!” (pronounced Thank-Q!!) - a catchphrase that needed some work I felt…

Next up Betty Chester chatted amicably to camera in Pig-Tail Alley (1926) before being made up to look Chinese and singing the title song: the words “sinister”, “dope” and “oriental” were probably used in the same sentence… and Betty seemed so nice when she chatted before the song.

Then Basil Gill played a scary Santa Claus visiting two well-spoken children played by Nona and Sheila, the daughters of Vivian Van Damm, later the impresario behind the Windmill Theatre. Little Shiela went on to run the theatre after a successful career as a rally driver… 

There was more triangulatory discomfort in The Antidote (1927) in which an earnestly-bearded Jameson Thomas plays Professor Gilbert Oliver a man to wrapped up in his work with snakes to notice that his wife, Marion (Primrose Morgan) is bored enough to have started an affair with Dick - pronounced Dick! – (Walters Sanders). Dick’s discarded glove gives the game away and the prof plans poisonous revenge…

Look out!!
Class and the Train’s Effect: Reinvestigating the ‘Panicking Audience’ - Rebecca Harrison

We were reminded of the eternal snobbery of British society as the actuality of working class response to the new media of film was revealed as something more than contemporary descriptions of bumpkin-panic and ill-educated confusion.

The mechanics of cinema was well known across the country thanks to travelling fairs which featured sophisticated pop-up picture houses every bit as sophisticated as their more illustrious urban counterparts.

Once again, the establishment press is the main culprit for lazy portrayals of the poor and the “un-educated”. A reaction against the threat posed to the established order by modernity – new media will do that.


Trainspotting Too: Reporting from the BFI’s Victorian Project - Bryony Dixon & Steve Foxon

If you’ve never seen a 60mm (yes, six-ty!) Victorian moving picture then be prepared for your jaw to hit the floor. This was an update on the BFI’s ongoing mission to digitize and restore all of its films from the era of empire. The focus was on trains and Steve Foxton is a specialist with a rare passion for locomotives. He showed us four films and then re-showed them to explain what we were seeing: the make of trains, the direction of travel and the historical background.

This was film as forensic history – animated archeology that is every bit as exciting as digging up physical evidence…there should be a TV series in this!

Hang on!
Seismic Sturnutations: That Fatal Sneeze (1907) as Earthquake Film - Stephen Morgan

That Fatal Sneeze features a man sneezing so hard the whole world shakes or rather the camera, with a pendulum attached, makes it seem so. Stephen drew a connection with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and then explained the difference in director Lewin Fitzhamon’s approach from others: everything is shaken by the screen and not just the actor. The audience’s perception is impacted as men and dogs cling on for dear life. Ground-shaking stuff!

The Series Character on UK Screens before the First World War - Andrew Shail

Series as in ongoing stories based around the same characters as opposed to serials, ongoing single stories presented as linked episodes, were hugely popular. Andrew has identified 87 recurring characters who appeared in roughly 6% of all films placed on the UK market from 1907-12. There were spreadsheets and graphs which helped to explain how this phenomenon created a demand for the same characters and brand recognition for the actors who played them: the birth of the star system?

Caravans and Kinematographs: the origins of the public health film - Stephen Bottomore

In which we learned about the Women’s Imperial Health Association of Great Britain and their investment in cinema to educate the masses in entertaining ways. They were health missionaries who started making their own films by 1909-10 including How to Have a Baby and How to Dust a Room (my daughter needs to see the latter at least). They projected their films on the back of a caravan named The Florence Nightingale including one about flies…

The Fly Pest (1909) 35mm

It was excellent timing to schedule this one just before lunch, close-up photography of flies on all manner of surfaces including meat, sugar and a baby… All done to educate the public and yet I still ended up with the steak in King’s canteen…

‘A New Palace of Pleasure’: The Bohemia Cinema Pleasure Garden at Finchley, North London, 1912-18 Gerry Turvey

Modern day denizens of Finchley might be surprised to learn that not only were there elaborate picture houses lining their high street but Summer and Winter Gardens. The Picture Drome survives as the Phoenix but sadly the spectacular Bohemia with its 2,000 capacity gardens have long gone.

Llandudno, "Queen of the Welsh Resorts" as seen in Hindle Wakes
Maurice Elvey and Hindle Wakes: “It’s really about something – it’s about people” Lucie Dutton

Maurice Elvey told the BFI in 1949 that Hindle Wakes was “the greatest play ever written” and one of the films he most enjoyed making. Lucie set out to show us why he was so keen on Stanley Houghton’s play that he filmed it twice; was it the lure of Blackpool… of Llandudno?!

The director’s background in art theatre – he produced plays by Chekov, Strindberg, Ibsen - and political leanings – he was a trade unionist - would have seen him identify very closely with the message of working class independence. He also wanted naturalism in the film and both Estelle Brody and Peggy Carlisle spent time in a mill to learn how to properly look like they were doing the work.

This was more than just a “Lancashire film for Lancashire people” as the publicity had it, this was a liberating tale for all.

Adrian Brunel and the ‘missing’ film A Light Woman - Jo Botting

Adrian Brunel was one of the more… highly-charged characters of twenties film-making and A Light Woman - A Tale of Sunny Spain was a bridge-burner for him and Gainsborough Pictures who refused to allow him to edit the film after he attempted to sue his employers and generally tried to do just as he wished.

Screening - A Light Woman (1928)

Benita Hume shows impressive hurdling and swimming skills and as Dolores de Vargas, the “light” woman of the title and shows more shade than you could expect from abbreviated version of what is otherwise a lost film*. A DVD was shown of a 9.5mm reduced version produced for the home cinema market in the early thirties; the original was around 90 minutes whereas this was 25… enough to get the gist and to enjoy the mild tension of one man’s efforts to save his pal from marrying this flibbertigibbet.

Benita Hume in The Wrecker (1929)
Lots of good Benita on show her presence rather overshadowing the wimpy Donald Macardle as Ramiro her all-too-earnest would be lover and the rather-too-old-for-her Gerald Ames as the worldly Don Andrea who woos her in an attempt to save his friend from inevitable heartbreak. There’s rock-climbing and two of the main characters fall off a cliff-face: will they survive?!

It is hard to judge a film on this excerpt but it was engaging fare that made you wish for more outdoors adventures, character development and certainly more Benita.

*A fuller-length version was shown at a film club in 1976 and may still exist in the hands of a private collector... No one likes a hoarder: please share!

Making progress in re-assessing Progress Films - Ellen Cheshire

In which England’s Hollywood was revealed as being Shoreham-on-Sea and not, as you might expect, Ealing or Pinewood. Electric Pictures, Sunny South Films and Sealight had all been based in Brighton’s neighbouring town before Progress Films was set up in 1919 by Frank E. Spring.

Joan Morgan in 1917
It was Britain’s first studio complex in which people lived as well as worked and its main star was Joan Morgan daughter of house director Sidney Morgan. Ellen’s research revealed that Joan later became a writer and, unfortunately, a vocal supporter of the British Union of Fascists which hasn’t played well in Shoreham but at least Ellen has helped to find one of Joan’s other Progress films, Fires of Innocence (1922) which had been presumed lost…

Screening - A Lowland Cinderella (1921) 35mm

And so, onto the day’s main screening and Joan Morgan acting in simpler times…

Joan proves herself no light woman when it comes to acting and has leading-lady charm. She plays Hester Stirling the dispossessed daughter of a disappearing Dad (George Foley) who is abused by the morally-ugly sisters, uncle and aunt of the Torpichan clan with whom she is forced to live after her grandmother dies. It’s quite a neat little tale that involves a mildly complicated stash of rubies, sabotaged ball gowns and kindly nobility.

Dr. Silvanus Torpichan (Charles Levey) steals away the bag of rubies her father had secretly left for her and uses them to get rich in London. His shrew-like other half (Mary Carnegie) leads the bullying with her daughters Ethel (Mavis Clair) and Claudia (Eileen Grace) but the white sheep of the family is Tom (Cecil Susands) who even when Hester rebuts his romantic advances is kindly and jolly decent about it all.


A mild amount of tension is built up and, well, not for nothing is this film called Cinderella… As organizer and KC MC Dr Lawrence Napper pointed out on Day Two, these films are presented as much for their historical importance as their critical worth but I enjoyed this film and John Sweeney’s excellent accompaniment.

The Film Renter & Moving Picture News applauded a production that “demonstrates conclusively an author’s ‘atmosphere’ can be successfully transferred to the screen…” and also praised Joan Morgan’s “delightful acting”.    

Day Two

Sadly, work commitments meant that I missed the morning session including some fascinating-sounding talks on Sound, Music and Scotland as well as Scotland and Empire which included a screening of The Unsleeping Eye (MacDonald, 1928) on 35mm with live accompaniment from Stephen Horne – both film and music went down very well by all reports.

I arrived in time for the session on Sound and the British Exhibitor with four speakers who were also part of the ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound 1927-1932’ research project coordinated at De Montfort University, Leicester and the University of Stirling, and funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council.

“Almost, If Not Quite, As Good as the W.E.”: On Sound Apparatus 1929-1930 - Nyasha Sibanda

How the plucky Brits tried to compete with Western Electric in the provision of cinema sound systems. You know how this ends, but there were no lack of ideas from the manufacturers of Synchrophone and others.

The Projectionist faces the future
How to Lose Money in British Films: A Shareholder’s Guide - Geoff Brown

Geoff Brown gave a witty take on the tribulations of film companies as they failed to take advantage of the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927 and the introduction of quotas for home productions. The failings were ultimately very British

‘Avoiding a disaster attaching to a stampede’; the CEA and the reluctance of British cinemas to wire for sound - Laraine Porter

The Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association advised British cinemas not to wire for sound in 1928 and by the time the inevitability of talkies was accepted the following year the race for amplification had become a desperate one. Failure to plan ahead, vision and strategy… themes repeated throughout British history…

The Empowering of British Cinema Operators, 1927-33 - John Izod

The new, new media disruption brought a major shift in the make-up of Cinema employees as musicians and other “operatives” became less important in the delivery of the product.


Anxieties of the Middle Generation in The Flag Lieutenant (1927) - Christina Hink

Generational tensions between those who fought in the Great War and those only old enough to remember it, came to a head in the late twenties. Maurice Elvey’s The Flag Lieutenant had no specific adversary and was more about the tensions between youthful ingenuity and aged experience (even though the “young” lead, Henry Edwards, was 44 at the time…)

Lulu’s ‘misadventures’ in London - Pamela Hutchinson

This truly was the most salacious section of our days and whilst we learned about “lustmord” and the impact of Jack the Ripper on Pandora’s Box we also heard of the young Brooks’ less than stellar turn at the Café de Paris (later to be the location for Piccadilly and some awful dancing from me in the late eighties). For the full scoop see Silent London here.

‘The Worst Kind of American Sensationalism’: Selling Stardom in the 1922 Daily Sketch Contest - Chris O’ Rourke

There were contrasting reactions to Norma Talmadge-branded initiatives – the first a search for a British star which led to accusations that it could undermine rather than encourage domestic talent. The Daily Sketch was particularly damning but changed its tune for the more overtly commercial Pretty Hair Competition of 1923 as sponsored by AMAMI Shampoo.

Chris had a slide showing some of the other competitions including that from Picture Show won by Sybil Rhoda who went on to feature in Hitchcock’s Downhill as well as Sinclair Hill’s Boadicea (1927) with Lillian Hall-Davis. If only more were known about Sybil and the latter film…

Sybil Rhoda wins the Picture Show prize!
Bryony Dixon, Laraine Porter delivered the plenary and facilitated the final discussion and we were done for another year with all eyes now turned to Leicester for the British Silent Film Festival screenings in October. Watch the BSFF site for more details!

In the meantime there are ongoing programmes from the Bioscope, Barbican and BFI – the mighty Three B’s of British silent film screening: The Silver Age of Silents!