Monday, 19 March 2018

St Patricia… Little Old New York (1923), with Morgan Cooke, The Barbican

As Jeanine Basinger has written, from a historical perspective, no one has it worse than Marion Davies; “…she was a big success in silent movies, and popular with audiences… but nobody believes it.” Whilst this is partly, as Basinger says, the curse of Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst was not Charles Foster Kane and nor was he the one doing the acting on screen. Right from the get-go Marion made films for Hearst and he was seen by contemporary reviewers as controlling her career.

Thankfully we get the chance to see for ourselves how good Marion Davies was not just in comedies such as The Patsy and the sublime Show People but increasingly in the kind of historical romantic dramas her wealthy lover liked to see her in and which were box office successes. When Knighthood was in Flower (1922), recently released on BluRay, was an enjoyable romp uplifted by the tonally-varied exuberance of Davies’ performance and was one of the biggest films of that year. Today we watched another smash which ended up the seventh highest grosser of the year.

Marion was big box office and the intimacy she still establishes with paying customers explains why.

Today’s screening featured a fine print from the Irish Film Institute and was supported by Culture Ireland as part of GB18: Promoting Irish Arts in Britain. The fact that it was screened the day after a St Patrick’s Day drubbing of the English rugby union side by the team in green was purely co-incidental.

The accompaniment was provided by Galway musician, Morgan Cooke who also introduced the film discussing the work of the prolific director Sidney Olcott, who was Hollywood’s go-to-fella for features of Irish origin. Marion herself was a first generation American with parents both from Eire but y’all know that surely just from the glint in her emerald eyes…

Little Old New York is a sub-Dickensian tale that has many a twist in just under two hours’ running time with a slightly clumsy plot taken from Rida Johnson Young’s play. For it to work, you have to be able to believe that people could accept Marion Davies as a young man… she might be wearing trousers and a bobbed haircut but, what can I say; “dude looks like a lady…” Probably she finishes last in a silent cross-dressing chart featuring Asta Nielsen (Hamlet), Ossi Oswalda (I Don’t Want to be a Man), Mary Pickford (various) and Louise Brooks (Beggars of Life), but you have to go with it.

Yep, totally a boy
Marion plays Patricia O'Day the sister of Patrick (Stephen Carr) who has inherited millions by way of his estranged Uncle’s dying wish to atone for cutting old man John O'Day (J. M. Kerrigan) out of the business they both started in America. John has returned to Ireland whilst his brother has prospered and has nursed a sizeable grudge over this time as he has struggled to look after his own. At the reading of the will, step-son Larry Delevan (Harrison Ford – no, not that one (again)) obviously has high hopes but he can only inherit of Patrick fails to turn up to claim his prize within a year.

That year is just about up and Larry is celebrating with his pals but there’s a knock on the door and in walks John O’Day and his son Patrick who has turned remarkably feminine since we last saw him. We learn later that Paddy had died on the crossing and John, desperate to get his just deserts, persuades Pat to drag up.

Pretty soon Pat is making large eyes as Larry (what could Lubitsch have made of this?!) who just thinks the lad is a bit soft: “Patrick, what did you do in Ireland?!”  asks one character later but the Americans remain fooled.

There’s a sub-plot involving Larry’s investment in a mad invention – a steam-powered paddle steamer invented by Robert Fulton (Courtenay Foote) who did indeed exist and do this thing. Various know-it-alls think it’s crazy but it’s Larry’s shot at making it given that Pat has inherited his inheritance.

Not That One and Such a Fine Comedienne
It all bobs along nicely and really takes off when Larry bets his house (literally) on an unlikely victory for his pal Bully Boy Brewster (Harry Watson) in a boxing match against the ferocious Hoboken Terror (Louis Wolheim).

There’s a good balance of comedy and drama and it has an amiability due in no small part to the star presence of Marion Davies. She’s an extraordinary pretty boy and once she’s back in feminine clothes there are numerous close ups of her tear-stained face that guarantee an emotionally immersed ending.

Morgan took the bold step of asking a mostly English audience to participate by singing along to the song Marion Davies plays on her harp “Do you hear me callin' when the dews are fallin'...” – the rehearsals went well but we were a little quiet when the moment came! Never-the-less, it’s not often you get to join in. In addition to the harp, Morgan played piano and melodica lingering on the many magnificent close-ups of Marion and pummelling the keys during that boxing match.

For those of us who missed the Quiet Man for St Patricks, this was a good old scrap that descends into a free-for-all… before love saves the day.

For me it was another important part of Davies’ career slotting into place. The film was placed fifth in the – non-Hearst - New York Times top ten and Marion was voted fifth in Quigley’s Box Office Stars list; she came second the following year. None of which fits in with the narrative of her only finding her feet with comedy – she was funny all along and even in these historical dramas there was gurning, fighting and dancing. Whether William Randolph approved or not is another matter…

Monday, 12 March 2018

The funniest woman in the World… Exit Smiling (1926), Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope 2nd Silent Laughter Weekend

The Cinema Museum’s redoubtable tour guide, Morris Hardcastle, was offering his hand at £50 per shake given he had once shook Charlie Chaplin’s hand, for David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow he was suggesting a bargain £100 given the number of silent performers these two have met over the years. But before Exit Smiling, our final film of the packed, inspirational Saturday programme, Mr Robinson told us of meeting its inimitable star, Beatrice Lillie at a screening of the film at the BFI in the late 1960’s and raised the stakes once more. 

David said she was often described as the funniest woman in the World and on that night in her seventies she still dazzled in unpredictable ways slaying the audience and laughing throughout the screening: “she’s very good, she does things the way I do them!” she remarked at her younger self… a one-off performer with unique timing and sense of the ridiculous and yet who could also reduce you to tears (with or without an onion…).

In her excellent, in-depth introduction, Michelle Facey related the opinions of Chaplin and Keaton on this Anglo-Canadian marvel including the latter sleeping outside her hotel room door – a slapstick guard of honour for this toweringly-talented Torontian. Sadly (for us) Hollywood couldn’t easily cast this quirky and stunningly individual talent and, for this and no doubt several other reasons (maybe she just didn’t want to?) this was Bea’s only silent film and she made few after, much preferring the more interactive and improvisational freedoms of the stage.

Tonight, we watched not only Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm copy of Exit Smiling but, as it turned out, Miss Lillie’s own, so I’d make that another £50 for shaking the hand of projectionist Dave Locke.

Beatrice Lillie and Jack Pickford
We are truly blessed by these associations with the silent past and also by expert accompaniment from the Bioscope Players. Meg Morley, a jazz musician by night and, a silent film accompanist by er, other nights, played along with a thoroughly modern mix of jazz-age themes and improvised scoring that sound for all the world like it’s been months in the preparation. I always imagine the music as a duet and Bea is such a graceful performer with a dancer’s arm extensions and amazing timing, that the music followed suit; to this extent Meg riffed with Bea and took some bold decisions along the way (a flash of Carmen for the vamping!) enjoying the tones as much as the audience.

I’ve previously raved about the actress and the film here if you want a fuller synopsis. I'd watched the Warner Archives DVD but, as ever, it's still a treat to see this film on screen especially in what Ms P. Hutchinson once described as a silent speakeasy: this crowd are fascinating as well as fascinated and all respect the subject.

Raymond Griffith and Vera Reynolds not in a night club...
With Miss Lillie tonight and Mabel Normand last week, it’s easy to forget that men can also be funny too… The day opened with Raymond Griffith in The Night Club (1925) a film that didn’t actually feature a club but as Kevin Brownlow’s introduction made clear, had been logged down as a title before script or even story. Block-booking in advance meant that there had to be a film of this title and so it was squeezed into the first title card as a gentlemen’s club dedicated to avoiding marriage.
Griffith’s character get’s jilted at the alter as his fiancé’s ex returned at the last minute from a presumed death on a desert island and so keen was he to marry that he tries to ban all women from his life. His fortune turns when an uncle dies and leaves him a million, but the condition is that he must marry his second cousin (Vera Reynolds).

He heads off for foreign climes only to find not only bump into but fall in love with Vera’s character, but things get awkward when they both realised, and she miss-hears his intentions. There’s a nice cameo from Wallace Beery (a bad-tempered Mexican) and an even better one from Louise Fazenda who plays his “Carmen” for whom he would kill whether you pay him or not.

Griffith is so watchable, he takes everything in his stride – even this daft script – with a wide-eyed smile and a look straight to the audience. Costas Fotopolous joined in the fun on piano, twinkling the ivories in sympathy with Raymond's knowing gaze. 

Henrietta Watson, Pauline Johnson and the impossibly youthful Leslie Howard
Then we had Tony Fletcher’s traditional sweep through rare and early British film and a revelation to me with a silent and very young Leslie Howard in Bookworms (1920). Based on a scenario from AA Milne (yes, him) it told the story of a young chap, Richard (Howard) and his attempts to woo his neighbour Miranda Pottlebury (Pauline Johnson) away from her over-protective Aunt and Uncle. The Pottlebury’s all use the local library and Richard starts to leave notes in books they order in the hope of communicating with the girl of his fancy… The results are gently amusing, and it is a very charming film with glimpses of post-War English gardens and sitting rooms.

A Fugitive Futurist (1924) was your standard time-travelling con which did feature some interesting special affects showing London as it will be in the future… a derelict Strand and water-filled Trafalgar Square are, of course, only just around the corner now thanks to Brexit…

Lillian Hall-Davis, Sybil Rhoda, Humberston Wright and Phyllis Neilson-Terry in Boadicea (1927)
Starlings of the Screen (1925) featured a host of young gals looking for fame with the Stoll Picture Company, including Sybil Rhoda who was to feature in Hitchcock’s Downhill as well as Boadicea (1927) – her favourite performance – with Lillian Hall-Davis.  Various screen tests are featured including professionals such as Moore Marriott playing alongside the hopefuls who include Molly Weeks, Phyllis Garton, Nancy Baird and Shailagh Allen but Sybil wins and gets the part of Melody Rourke in Sahara Love (1926).

“Look at all that sand, dozens of it…”

Crossing the Great Sagrda (1924) is almost indescribable; a mock ethno-graphical film with title cards that could have been written by a Goon had they yet been invented. It featured sand courtesy of Blackpool Borough Council and free-form intertitles each one attributed to a different film company. Whatever it was about, I liked it and I laughed.

Almost as barmy was Beauty and the Beast (1922) featuring Guy Newall as The Beast and Ivy Duke as… you can guess. Meg Morley brought musical method to all the madness.

After lunch it was time to cut to the Chase, Charlie Chase… as Matthew Ross took us through some more highlights from the second coolest silent comic who was so much his own man any comparison belittles his suave majesty.

Charlie helps a pal pull his car out from a muddy patch and ends up losing his own car to Hal Roache’s ACME mud pool and then goes in a brilliantly desperate search of trousers in The Way of all Pants (1927). The session ended with plastic-surgery farce Mighty Like a Moose (1927) which is a work of World-cultural significance.

Mr Sweeney stayed cool at the keys and kept pace with the Chase.

Monty Banks bronze medalist in the Freestyle Moustache 
Then in a surprise entry for moustache of the day (he came third…), Monty Banks twitched his winning ways through A Perfect Gentleman (1927). You can’t fail to like Monty in this well-balanced comedy, as he chases around a ship trying to prove his innocence after having crashed his own wedding inadvertently drunk and then doubled his disgrace by being accused of robbing his former fiancé’s father’s bank. Not the day’s first wedding nor the last bank robbery. 

Costas was really on the beat for this lightweight charmer and he was clearly enjoying himself as his punchy lines accompanied Banks' every pratfall.

The KB weekenders are great for bringing attention to performers such as Banks and Griffiths, but we were about to be reminded of the sheer excellence of one of those who is deservedly still widely remembered. Four commentators were given the essentially impossible task of choosing a favourite moment from a Buster Keaton film.

Even married to the star, Natalie Talmadge wonders why sisters Constance and Norma always had easier gigs...
David Robinson chose the breath-taking closing scenes from Our Hospitality (1923) when our hero rescues Natalie Talmadge from the rapids, a waterfall and over-bearing relatives. Then Kevin Brownlow’s choice was the Tong war from The Cameraman including a mini-tribute to the camerawork in Intolerance I hadn’t previously spotted.

Poly Rose (known to many on The Twitter, as The Flying Editor) is a film editor (natch) who revealed some secrets about Keaton’s own editing for Sherlock Junior. It takes one to know one and it was fascinating to see how this mind-boggling segment was constructed through double exposure. Publicity stills, and contemporary reviews also suggest that there were other versions of Buster’s somnambulant transition from what we see, Keaton test screened his work and fine-tuned the brilliance.

Last up was David Macleod, broadcaster and president of the Blinking Buzzards, the UK Keaton Society, who has written extensively on the comedian’s sound films which extend far beyond his relatively-short silent period. He chose the pulsating climax to Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) as our hero literally risked life and limb in a town torn apart by hurricanes and another extraordinary river rescue.

Buster to the rescue as Marion Byron clings on in Steemboat Bill Jnr
John Sweeney accompanied and once again demonstrated extraordinary fluidity for those river-chase sequences but most of all he really Keatoned those keyboards!

A day of pure concentrated silent bliss – where else would we see these films and hear these musicians?! Thankyou Bioscope and the Cinema Museum.

The Way of all Pants!

Monday, 5 March 2018

Unsolvable... The Mysterious Lady (1928) with Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

In the stalls at the Festival Hall there was no option but to just sit back and surrender to Carl Davis’ sound and Greta Garbo’s fury; both were overwhelming in their own way and the result was a unity of music and expression that you won’t find in Cineworld.

Crossing Hungerford Bridge after the show, I heard a complaint that the score had been “too loud” and “ill-matched” to the action but this is an opera without words and Garbo is radiating the same intensity as a stage full of singers with Puccini on full volume. If you want your Swede’s subtle and “silent” then maybe try some Ingmar Bergman instead?

The tempo is set early on when Austrian solder Captain Karl von Raden (Conrad Nagel) gets a last-minute ticket for the opera and finds Tania Fedorova (Greta Garbo) elegantly draping herself over the edge of their box as she watches Tosca. Karl is mesmerised and can hardly focus on the events on stage and Mr Davis’ score cleverly captures this by accompanying the interplay between the two leads as well as the performance on stage, quoting from the opera itself. Allegedly it’s an uncredited Betty Blythe playing the opera singer, but Conrad only has eyes for Tania… just as she planned (the minx!).

He doesn't even need to see her face...
Tania was due to meet her cousin, but he fails to turn up and, what do you know, she’s left her purse at home… like any gentleman faced with such a situation, Captain Karl races to the rescue and escorts her home in a handsome cab. He almost leaves only to find he has Tania’s carefully forgotten silk, returning it to her he accepts her offer of a “coffee” and enters her apartment not only abandoning all hope of an early night but also leaving his cab driver to soak in the pouring rain. Director Fred Niblo plays this for laughs and thankfully keeps the drama mellow just as Garbo herself injects the odd twinkle among the smouldering.

It’s been a while since I watched Greta in Hollywood and you can fully understand the impact she had on the American public with a forthright sexuality that slinked and scolded and yet was self-determined and not fully revealed. As author Zadie Smith recently put it, Garbo exhibited an “inviable selfhood, ultimately impenetrable by other people.” Here as elsewhere, Garbo’s character has a secret and yet another secret beyond that too… In the first instance she is a Russian spy and she has deliberately targeted the young Captain in order to take advantage but it’s a role she takes far more intensely than necessary.

Conrad Nagel and Greta Garbo
We are in Vienna in 1910 and Europe is bracing itself for conflict as the Russians and Germans eye the Balkans and each other. After their night after the Opera and a “perfect day” in the sun, the Captain is informed of Tania’s day job and is suitably vexed. Karl has a vital package to take to Berlin and his career and many lives depend on it, but he’s followed by Tania who “comes to him as his lover and leaves as his enemy…” such a difficult woman this mysterious lady.

She has the secrets and Karl has a court martial, ritually humiliated in front of his regiment who turn their backs as he is stripped of insignias and medals before being thrown in jail for treason. He’s given a shot at redemption when released by his uncle Colonel Eric von Raden (Edward Connelly) who sets him up with a trip to Warsaw under the guise of a Serbian pianist.

Karl naturally finds Tania at a cocktail party and plays Vissi d’arte, their aria… she turns in shock to find him playing these dangerous chords and luckily decides to follow her heart. But Tania is under the wing of General Boris Alexandroff (Gustav von Seyffertitz) and whilst he won’t wait forever for her to surrender to his very limited charms, he is also very suspicious of the pretty pianist. And why does he keep on playing Pucccini?!

The Mysterious Lady is a symphony of Garbo in shimmering silk and magnificently shaded close ups - devised and shot by William H Daniels, who specialised in setting up that face for the most devastating effect.  It works optically of course but all the more so because of the specific mysteries of the actress’ expression; she is constantly wrong-footing the watcher’s expectations with distracted agitation and we look that bit harder almost seeking her reassurance. She rides the edge of defined emotional response in a way that haunts us still. Worn down by pretty much everything at this point in America, film critic Alexander Walker describes how Garbo managed to make her exhaustion look like "romantic agony..." and that " film so clearly shows that, for Garbo, passion was a form of tragic depression."

For his part Conrad Nagel was ill-served by the example of Lars Hanson in the surviving nine minutes of The Divine Woman shown before the main feature. Large Handsome can go toe-to-toe with his compatriot and even deluged in dozens of Garbo kisses and with the actress – shockingly and perhaps to him, surprisingly – grabbing him by the hair, he keeps on responding no doubt urged on by guttural Swedish encouragement from director Victor Sjostrom. Conrad’s no dummy but he is outshone by the divine energy of his co-star as were so many others.

Lars and Greta amidst the rough and tumble
Such a shame that only one reel of The Divine Woman survives but what an explosive section it is as Lars and Greta play forcefully for each other’s affections as the clock ticks away his last moments before he must depart with his regiment: they have only right now and, as it happens, so do we.

Carl Davis conducted his own scores and he had the full might of the Philharmonia crammed on stage with him – an 87-piece ensemble of intricate power augmented by piano, harp and possibly even the sink from Carl’s kitchen. The score referenced far beyond my limited experience of contemporary classical music but was as expertly constructed around image and acting as you would expect: you don’t need to understand the method just feel the results. As with actress so with composer.

The natural volume of such an orchestra is quite different from the amplified power of, say, Mogwai who I have also seen in the Royal Festival Hall (front row, right by the bass speaker…) but the results are the same minus the ringing ears. This is music with which you have a tangible connection and which, interwoven with the action on screen leaves you stirred and smiling as those silent film endorphins race around for a few hours still. 

Both these films are available on the Garbo Silents collection from TCM, but you haven’t really lived them until you’ve watched them in cinema with Carl’s band.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Weimar superstar… Christian Wahnschaffe (1919-21), with Stephen Horne, Berlinale 68 (Part Two)

Day three of the festival and it was back to the gorgeous Zeughkino for perhaps the major restoration, two films that were once considered lost and which had been painstakingly reconstructed over a two-year period… it was time for Conrad Veidt, a genuine Weimar superstar!

Directed by Urban Gad, the former Mr Asta Nielsen, the films were quite different with the first a sprawling tale of political subversion, nihilist revolutionaries on the prowl and the second a simpler, more entertaining tale of social injustice. We saw Connie the fashion plate, the feline sensitive, the noble hero, the Proteus - unfurling those steely limbs; defying the logic of form and substance… and always, always, carrying unconscious women.

Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 1: Weltbrand (World Afire) (1919)

“You sacrifice thousands of souls in your desire for adoration…”

World Afire is still incomplete and whilst titles explained missing parts of the plot there were still some narrative jumps in a story loaded with character and sub-plots. Christian Wahnschaffe is the spoiled son of a wealthy industrialist whose eyes are opened to the struggles below his income bracket through his relations with a stunning dancer Eva Sorrel (Lillebil Ibsen) and her associate, a Russian Nihilist called Iwan Becker (Fritz Kortner, wide-eyed and febrile even without Lulu to push him through the gears…).

Lillebil Ibsen and Leopold von Ledebur
Eva is introduced with a great high-angled shot from Gad and his cinematographer Max Lutze who also perform similar service for the high-angled cheekbones of Herr Veidt. It’s Conrad the clothes horse with one combination of leather waistcoat and plaid jodhpurs being especially striking and we also see the Veidt ribs through a revealing satin dressing-gown – deliberate decadence setting him at the extremes of a long journey.

Christian fixates on Eva and drives his poor wife to misery as we meet the other players in Eva’s life Cardillac (Hermann Vallentin) a high-stakes investor and her step-father, the crippled dancer who made Eva dance over knives to succeed where he failed. It’s all very baroque – Eva’s father is introduced with a montage of naked dancers circling over his head – and as we skip from Paris to Russia the mood shifts.

Eva has attracted the interest of the Russian Grand Duke (Leopold von Ledebur) and the head of his secret police (Josef Peterhans) intercepts a secret document she has been hiding for Becker on behalf of the revolutionaries… As a revolution clearly very much like the one in 1905 gathers pace, Christian and Becker try to win them back.

The plot is considerably more convoluted than this of course but overall the film is a visually sumptuous melodrama incorporating fashion, dance and “nihilism”. But this was really only the set-up for Christain Wahnschaffe, the punch-line was to follow…

The Nihilists make secret plans
Christian Wahnschaffe, Teil 2: Die Flucht aus dem goldenen Kerker/ The Escape from the Golden Prison (1921)

The second “part” features far fewer characters and much more Veidt with a plot as taught as the sinews in the actor’s steely arms. This time Christian becomes drawn into the world of the poor by compassion and love although everyone’s motivations are at one time or another questionable, even Ruth (Rose Müller) the angel of the slums: wealth corrupts and Ruth is right when she tells Christian that “…your money sends people down the wrong path.”

Christian lives in splendour and is bored to tears at one of his own parties: tired of these “ceaseless revels”. His pal Amadeus Voß (Ernst Pröckl) suggests some slumming and takes him down to a dive bar well past the wrong side of the tracks. The denizens are drunk and feisty, and the posh boys cover up their bow-ties and try to look cool. It’s far too much for Christian though when a painter/pimp, Niels Heinrich (the excellent Werner Krauß) starts beating up his girl Karen (Esther Hagan). The violence is believably brutal from both actors – Krauß is so thoroughly menacing – that the intervention of Veidt’s character can’t come soon enough.

Christian protected by Ruth
Christian takes Karen to a hotel and she is naturally confused by Christian’s charity – good emoting from Esther Hagen. Sadly, they have been followed by Niels and so any relief will be short-lived…

Back in his mansion, Christian works out by boxing, allowing Veidt to show some impressive combinations, and thinks through what he should do. “The most exhausting work a man can do is nothing…” and spurred on he once again must rescue Karen on finding her being assaulted by Niels. Carrying her away from the hotel and back to her mother’s apartment, he passes through dozens of children lining the rickety stairways of their slum.

Here he meets the saintly Ruth who has devoted her life to helping and is transfixed by her example and, naturally, her smile. He offers his wallet, but she tells him to think harder. Voß cannot understand his friend: “… why are you here? Are you attracted by poverty?” no, replies Christian, “but I hate wealth”.

He follows this up by liquidating his assets and, sixty years before the KLF, sets flame to his fortune, causing a riot in the tenement. But there is one asset he wants to share and he gives his mother’s pearls to Ruth an act that does not go un-noticed and one thing leads to another, leads to a murder and more. Given the hyperinflation of this period – wheelbarrows of notes were required to buy groceries – this fascination with wealth and currency speaks for itself but we are also in the time when genuine alternatives to capitalism were closer to the mainstream. Whatever goes around…

On the Zeughkino’s Steinway, Stephen Horne was on top form and, having played the double the day before, was all over the narrative and emotion with multi-tasked inspiration. The closing passage to the second film was spectacular with a stunned audience hanging on the final, devastating, suspended notes and cinema staff putting in urgent calls to the piano tuner (possibly)… a fitting climax for that astonishing ending.

Die Unehelichen/Children of no Importance/Illegitimate Children (1926), with Maud Nelissen

Another film from Gerhard Lamprecht, this quite different from the first (Sins of the Father), but equally earnest in its pursuit of the social issues of the day namely child abuse in foster care. Lamprecht was the son of a prison padre and a humanist committed to moving society forward, a forward-thinking agenda that it’s all too easy to shake your head at: the rise of the most socially-destructive regimes was never inevitable and that is precisely why the recent history is so widely recognised in this city.

Peter Hewer (Ralph Ludwig), Lotte (Fee Wachsmuth) and Frieda (Margot Misch) are three illegitimate children in foster care with the Zielke’s. Herr Zielke (Max Maximilian) is a violent drunk who jokes with his pals in the bar that he’s off to have some fun beating his other half (Margarete Kupfer) who is just as hard on the children. Eventually this miserable existence takes its toll on Lotte and Peter is handed possible salvation by the well-off Frau Berndt (Hermine Sterler) only for his biological father (Bernhard Goetzke) to exert his legal right to take his child and work him hard on his barge…

Clearly there were injustices to be addressed but the film is naturalistic, well shot and delivers its message whilst entertaining. Lamprecht directs his young stars well and all three do very well… reader, there were moist eyes in the fifth row of the CinemaXx.

The Light of Asia / Prem sanyas (1925), with recorded score from Pierre Oser, and the ensembleKONTRAST

Lastly, I should mention the first film I saw, Die Leuchte Asiens, the first of the classic trilogy commissioned by Himansu Rai and Peter Ostermayer that came before A Throw of Dice and then Shiraz. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the excellence of the new Anoushka Shankar score for Shiraz, but I was slightly disappointed with the score that was played: a mix of chamber orchestration and electronica. There were treated instruments playing the leading lines and whilst these were not unpleasant I found them distracting and not always sympathetic.

Franz Osten directs this Indo-German co-production, which is never-the-less a special film with my main man Himansu Rai on top form as the Prince who wants to find peace with his god and the – rather young, 13/14?! - Seeta Devi, even then a performer of intensity and casual power, as his devoted wife.

A reminder, if one was needed that there’s more important philosophical work to be done to free ourselves from the mindsets of national identity and tribalism that bind our souls firmly to the ground.

Danke Berline, wir sehen uns nächstes Jahr!

Rocking the leather look

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Festival in Berlin… Weimar Film at 68th Berlinale

My first trip to the Berlinale - indeed to Berlin - and a long weekend in which the best pictures included work from Johannes Vermeer and the brightest star was probably a lass named Nefertiti born in about 1370 BC. Berlin is indeed a wonderful town and has many artefacts, ancient and modern, that demand investigation. It presents twentieth century impacts like the thousands of bullet marks on its Victorian museums, as part of an ongoing civic culture of recognition and renewal with the recent past and its wounds not overlooked but given their due. As we walked along a section of the Berlin Wall, we discovered the remains of basements used by the Gestapo and SS in the 30’s and 40’s as well as a control centre for the concentration camps.

Berlin has been reconstructed and you have to look hard for the kind of old neighbourhoods you’d find in London or even Paris. The roots of this architectural devastation lie in the events after the ending of the Weimar Republic and this year’s Berlinale celebrated that rich period of creative and socio-political hope between 1919 and 1933, including 28 features films of which I'd previously seen just two. I managed to catch about a third before departing and these included a rich variety of styles all containing themes reflective of yesterday and tomorrow. One short film, Streets of Old Berlin (1928), was a poignant reminder of how the city looked before disaster, it’s still out there, but this history doesn’t hold Berliners back it propels them forward.

The first full day was spent in the comfy seats of the Zeughkino, part of the Deutsches Historisches Museum, in an elegant screening room complete with a grand piano from those Steinway people. The first two films dealt with the Franco-Prussian border and eternal enmities…

Kameradschaft (1931)

Regina, or The Sins of the Father (1927), with Maud Nelissen

This film, whilst not the greatest print, was still satisfyingly-dramatic, well-acted and well directed with oodles of late-period silent style. The camera tracks a horse in full gallop, it follows the hate around the room in the festering alehouse and there are many atmospheric night shots along The Cat’s Bridge; a thin trail between the village and the castle housing the disgraced Baron… also the scene of the Berlinale Retrospective’s poster.

It’s 1807 and Prussia is at war with Napoleon’s France and in Schranden, the local Baron is co-operating with the French and when his son, a lieutenant in the Prussian army, is returning on leave, they put an ambush into play before he arrives. The Baron forces the local undertaker’s daughter, Regina, to lead the French along the “Cat’s Bridge” – throttling her if she doesn’t - and they massacre the Prussian forces.

Regina (Lissy Arna) is at the heart of this complex tale of incompatible love and loyalty… where even familial ties do not bind: “My Mother was Polish…” says the Baron (Gustav Rodegg) and “My mother was Prussian…” responds the son, Boleslav (Jack Trevor). Both act out of loyalty, but the son tries to find a higher sense of duty, arranging the burial of his traitorous father and turning even his most loyal men against him in the process.

Regina lives with Boleslav in the ruins of the family castle and as she clings to their last chance, he initially treats her with Baronial indifference – there are no simple paths taken and no easy resolutions in director and writer Gerhard Lamprecht’s world.

The hatred in the town is something to see and the sins of the fathers are not only passed onto the sons, they are also unforgivable. Regine’s father (Max Maximilian) cannot forgive her in his drunken rages whilst the townsfolk, revel in his acceptance of his father’s position, washing down the bitter tastes of hatred with flagons of ale supplied by the town’s Mayor (Rudolf Lettinger)

Napoleon escapes and once more Prussia calls on its men to defend the flag. Boleslav enlists the locals to fight under him yet even then he is challenged by one of the ring-leaders, the mayor’s son, (John Mylong) and has to have him arrested. His former lover Helene (Louise Woldera) pleads with Boleslav to show lenience for her new man; she is the daughter of the local priest (Andreas Behrens-Klausen) who also just cannot forgive. As the angry mob waits to ambush him at the bridge, Regine runs off to protect him…

There’s always a price to pay and the sins of the fathers do indeed pass onwards as Germany and France discovered so many times after the Napoleonic wars. As with all Weimar Cinema, hindsight makes every warning doubly poignant and the film makers were not wrong in the slightest. So it went and so it goes…

Gerhard Lamprecht directs this sprawling tale well and even though the subject is nominally a costume drama the real issue is perhaps a consideration of the “Great Betrayal” that festered in the post-war years – the act of national denial which ultimately led to further calamity. Lissy Arna is superb as the woman outcast - guilty but brave - whilst Jack Trevor is also tremendously nuanced as the war hero who discovers moral courage is more important than physical: the power to forgive is what we need to move on whatever the endless backlog of injustice.

Maud Nelissen accompanied with well-practiced pacing: I liked the lyricism in her playing, well-formed and dynamic structures and I also loved her clever use of paused playing, showing, as Miles Davis used to say, the power of the spaces between the notes. Given the rich emotional textures on show, she trod the cat’s path with balanced poise.

Sons and Fathers

Kameradschaft / La tragédie de la mine Comradeship (1931)

Next up a talkie based on an incident on the German/French border in which German mine rescue workers went to the aid of hundreds of French miners stranded underground by a fire.

One of Georg Wilhelm “Pandora” Pabst’s first talkies it is a remarkable well-realised early talkie and one that was naturally in French and German. The theme of men being united more by common workman’s pride: miners helping miners, did not play well in Germany where the film sank, possibly with some behind scenes encouragement, but in France it was a huge success.

You can see why, it’s a taught, action-oriented thriller, with substantial supporting characters and some lump-in-the-throat bravery. There’s some lighter touches and a good cast, signs that Herr Pabst had mastered the new art of sound.

The rescue crosses the same borders fought over in Regine, and showed that power of worker solidarity… Again, as with other films of this period, hinting at what could have been.

Der Kampf ums Matterhorn/ Fight for the Matterhorn (1928) with Maud Nelissen

This being a Weimar Retro, I was desperate to see at least one “Mountain film” but with Leni R’s Blue Mountain sold out, settled for this long but frequently breath-taking adventure. Based on the “true story” of the Matterhorn first completed ascent, it featured some gorgeous vistas with sun shining through menacing clouds at 12,000 feet and probably higher! Directors Mario Bonnard and Nunzio Malasomma hauled their kit so far up the alpine peaks you figured they deserved their fair amount of triumphant views.

The film is very reminiscent of The Holy Mountain (1926) especially given that Luis Trenker features in both. Trenker may not have been the best actor in the world but he was almost certainly the best mountaineer who could act. His face is bronzed through continuous exposure to sun and snow and he looks the part standing, sitting or climbing.

The story is loosely based on the truth and the novel it inspired, Der Kampf ums Matterhorn (1928) by Carl Haensel. Trenker plays mountain guide Anton Carrel who is improbably married to the beauteous Felicitas (Marcella Albani) who is also the centre of attention for Anton’s annoying step-brother Giaccomo (Clifford McLaglen, Stepney-born brother of Victor and Cyril… they were everywhere those boys!)

A British climber, Edward Whymper (Peter Voss) arrives wanting to climb the Matterhorn… Anton won’t accompany him, but he does save him and them allows his brother to wind him up as the suave Whymper impresses his wife. Step-bro needles and pushes Anton so hard he takes Whymper up to challenge the summit and possibly ensure he has a climbing accident…

The brother is so unfeasibly annoying and yet this aside a fine adventure develops although it could easily have been half an hour shorter… Still, stirring stuff all the same aided by fine accompaniment from Maud Nelissen who filled those airy vistas with some beautifully patient lines and stayed with the mood as resolutely as Trenker clung to the granite.

Luis Trenker holds on

Ihre Majestät die Liebe/Her Majesty, Love (1931)

The end of day two and we have a madcap delight in the form of a Joe May comedy that could have been filmed for the Brothers Marx. If you like songs about the sexy benefits of gymnastics and stories in which the rich guy must find the courage to love the poor girl, that this one is right up your 42nd Strasse!

Playboy Frederich von Willingen (Fritz, later Francis Lederer), is more concerned with the clubs and cabaret of Berlin than with contributing to the family business. This is dominated by his big – in every sense – brother Othmar (Otto Wallburg) who would like him to settle down, preferably in exchange for further investment in their business.

But Fred spends his time in idle pursuits, making bets on who can break the ice with attractive barmaid Lia Török (Käthe von Nagy), although even he can’t.

A meeting of the family board leads to his having to marry a rich potential investor, but he rebels and offers to marry Lia… Of course, it won’t be as simple as that and the pressure for Big Brother - a raise and a promotion – tests his will… Time for Lia to take the lead and so she does with hilarious results.

It’s frothy fun and with some excellent dance routines and if it had been made in Hollywood you’d class it and the gymnastics dance in particular (Tibor Halmay and Gretl Theimer, selling it well!), as definitely “pre-code”!

Where ever you looked there were fun, fantastic supporting performances, giving us the character and cabaret, we’d been hoping for, making us glad that we’d made the effort to come hear the music play and not stayed in, alone in our room…

Francis Lederer and Käthe von Nagy

And the winner for best picture...

Friday, 9 February 2018

A river runs through it… The Bride of Glomdal (1926), John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

For a good portion of this film the narrative ebbs and flows in pleasing ways without really hitting you hard. The scenery is, of course, stunning as photographed by Einar Olsen and the cast, especially willowy, steel-blue-eyed Tove Tellback, are superb making a believably real rustic romance with stubbornness, jealousy, a fight and an injury… but suddenly, just when you think the narrative is ready to wind down, events take a dangerous turn and in a closing sequence of jeopardy, thrilling stunt work and fast-paced, anxious direction you find yourself thinking once again that no one can quite “play” fast moving water like John Sweeney!

Mr Sweeney was on excellent form throughout, pastoral accompaniment holding the story easily within his hands and a pitch-perfect flavouring for the romance and the resentment on route to the rapids that engulf the finale. These are moments to cherish when player and projection are completely in sync each adding to the other’s efforts and taking away nothing at all.

Harald Stormoen and Alfhild Stormoen look on...
Lillian Henley was in similar flow at the start of the evening as she accompanied newsreel of actual Pankhursts in startlingly clear action from 1913 and earlier as a Bioscope tribute to a century of suffrage (at least for those women of standing who got the vote in 1918). Lillian has form her of course having scored the BFI’s excellent Make More Noise compilation and her sympathy for the period and the cause was in evidence again as we saw the, so called, Trafalgar Square “riot” and 66,000 marching through London in a suffragette “pageant”. There were banners celebrating Sylvia and declaring that Fortune Favours the Brave. Odd that, in 2018 you could almost be certain that it’s favouring the deceitful and the salesman…

In 1913 people believed in democracy and, of course died for it. Two films showing the 1913 Derby were screened and there was a collective gasp when Emily Davison collides with the King’s horse – whatever her motivations, her death still carries meaning. There was footage of her funeral and a poignant sight it was too; we can each take our own meaning, but this isn’t just history but an ongoing process, just like Ireland, the Union and Parliamentary democracy itself.

Good on you Widnes!! My Granddad Bill no doubt was one of them.
A little light relief followed in which a confused fellow becomes A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1911) after schoolboys tack a “votes for women” sign on his back. He gets into a fight with some chaps at an anti-suffrage meeting and is saved by the suffragettes before being enlisted to walk, shoulder to shoulder. There are some wonderful backdrops of Trafalgar Square and Bloomsbury and the gent is played by Marc McDermott who went on to feature in Hollywood, in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Blind Wives, Flesh and the Devil and many more.

We even had time for Charley Smiler Takes Up Ju-Jitsu (1911) and early and very brief comedy from Fred “Pimple” Evans which featured some sisterly slams from a suffragette trained in the martial art in question.

George Lewis faces off against Rex Lease both in the race and for Mildred Harris...
Finally, we saw one of the US Collegians series, this one a racing tale called The Last Lap (1928) in which our hero Benson (George Lewis) must overcome the college bully to win the freshers vs sophomores cross-country race and the heart of Mildred Harris. It’s predictable and slightly infuriating but has its moments… maybe if we saw more of the series? This was episode 37!

It wasn’t in the same league as the main feature but then Dreyer is one of the most accomplished film makers of the era, and well beyond. Whilst I’ve seen some of his early films, The President, Leaves from Satan's Book, Michael as well as Joan and Vampyr, he was so productive between the first of those films and the last producing about one feature a year. This film came after Master of the House and before Joan and stylistically it’s quite different.

As John Sweeney said in his introduction though, it is interesting to see yet another strong female lead, in this case, Berit Glomgaarden (Tove Tellback) whose insistence on making her own choices drives the story.

Berit chooses her man
Based on the novel by Jacob Breda Bull, John said that the photo play was partly improvised – led by Dreyer - which might explain part of the differences from the film around it. Filmed in the Norwegian countryside, this is also a canvas wide enough to make the dedicated fan of Joan’s compact, claustrophobia, more than usually agoraphobic. It almost feels like a Victor Sjöström film so glorious is the backdrop. Also, what we now see is some 75 minutes long and just over half the original length although this doesn’t impact the story too much apart from rendering the jealous lover/would be murderer, Gjermund Haugsett (Einar Tveito) a little under-developed.

Gjermund’s father, Berger Haugsett (Oscar Larsen) agrees with Berit’s father, Ola (a moody Stub Wiberg) that she should marry his boy but, rather crucially, the bride-to-be has not signed off on the deal. Indeed, Berit has a different romantic course in mind, she is in love with Tore Braaten (Einar Sissener) the son of a small farm holder, Jakob (Harald Stormoen), who has big plans to expand operations and works feverously laying out new fields.

Einar Tveito
Once this preference is known tension bubbles across the village… Gjermund fights with Tore and the two have to be pulled apart. But Haugsett has made his choice and refuses to budge. Berit runs away as her father takes around wedding invitations and falling off her horse is rescued by Tore who takes her home for recuperation. Time for a reconciliation you’d think but there’s no chance as Haugsett hardens his heart, confounding expectations of a simple resolution – these farmers are so stubborn!

But there’s more to come as we head for the final nerve shredding conclusion!

Well played Bioscope, Mr Sweeney and Ms Henley, another memorable night at the Cinema Museum and this time I was early enough to grab a slice of the KB’s excellent home-made quiche!

Everywhere you look in Kennington, there are treasures