Thursday, 19 January 2017

Brunette ambition… Orchids and Ermine (1927), Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

Introducing this screening of a 35 mm print he helped preserve whilst at the BFI, Glen Mitchell recalled corresponding with Colleen Moore at the time and her sadness at the loss of so many of her films. Amongst the lost was So Big (1924) which she considered her finest dramatic work and yet here, in this slight but very enjoyable film, was ample evidence of her abilities and unique cinematic charisma.

I’d previously only seen a very murky DVD of Orchids and Ermine and this was like watching a different film. Most precious of all was the chance to view Colleen in full beam and rarely can there have been anything on celluloid as heart-warming and compelling as her honest expressiveness: a smile that provokes instant sympathy and features that flash with the most genuine of human signals. She has an almost supernatural ability to convey emotion and you cannot fail to be pulled in by those brown and blue eyes (she had heterochromia).

After an early career as a standard-issue pretty foil for male heroes, Moore was told to study comedy and, avoiding the more salacious Sennet studio route, developed her skills at the Christie Film Company. Her breakthrough came in Flaming Youth (1923) (of which only a tantalising fragment survives) after which she was famous for her black bob -  the younger Louise Brooks was still dancing at this stage albeit with the same haircut which she'd sported from childhood. Moore before Brooksie, before Clara and after Olive was arguably the definitive flapper of the twenties.

Her persona is well reflected in this film with a character sure of her own direction and wanting success – fine flowers and fur – but not at the cost of her integrity and not without love.
Inspired by the fine life and deciding that her cat was no proper substitute for actual dead animal fur, 'Pink' Watson decides to quit her job in a cement factory and head for swanky Fifth Avenue. She applies for a role at a glamorous hotel and gets selected against a staircase full of glampusses on the grounds that she’s less obvious.

Moore and Mickey
Not that Pink’s lack of cheap signalling prevents her being hit on by the middle-aged millionnaires passing through the lobby. Whilst the assumption is that marrying a man for his money is uppermost on many women’s minds, at least Pink sets her sights higher, which is doubly unfortunate for a six-year old Mickey Rooney playing a man of modest stature, dwarfed by his wallet… a cute interlude.

Of course the first good-looking millionaire, Richard Tabor (Jack Mulhall) will likely succeed where the sleazy ones fail but Mervyn LeRoy’s script is smart enough to put a spin on this too as Tabor, tired of womanly attention, switches places with his valet, Hank (Sam Hardy). Hank draws the heat, especially from the blonde ambition of Ermintrude De Vere (Gwen Lee), Pink’s colleague.

All kinds of confusion ensues and there are some thrilling shots of New York City in the rain as the real Richard climbs across from one tolley bus to another to catch up with a disbelieving and disapproving Pink who thinks he’s his valet.

In there somewhere – although I failed to spot her – is a young Gretchen Michaela Young who apparently gained a new first name, Loretta, after one of Colleen’s famous dolls.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied in crisply humorous style; melding perfectly with Miss Moore’s winsome comedy.

Paul Panzer and a tiny Gladys Hulette - Princess Nicotine (1909)
On tonight’s undercard were a quarter of interesting shorts musically-illustrated by John Sweeney. There were two animations from Bray Studios, The Artist’s Dream (1913) about a naughty dachshund over-eating two-dimensional sausages and How Animated Cartoons are Made from 1919. The answer is painstakingly and frame by frame…

First up though was the magnificent Princes Nicotine (1909) also known as The Smoke Fairy… probably no relation to the Sussex beat combo of the same name (see below for a random plug). A mischievous tobacco sprit plays with her master’s pipe ultimately setting fire to his desk and audacious special effects reinforce the impression that smoking this weed cannot be good for you.

Then there was an untitled travelogue filmed from a boat passing through an ancient Dutch town… faded tints adding to the eerie.

Stan, Ruby Blaine, Oliver and Thelma Hill - Two Tars (1928)
Tonight’s big bonus was in celebration of Oliver Hardy’s 125th birthday, Two Tars from 1928, the second year of Laurel and Hardy and a film that proved so potently funny that preview audiences at the time asked to see it twice. David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell introduced with the latter revealing that the long traffic jam sequence had to be directed on horseback by James Parrott… it’s a riot of ill-tempered physical abuse that proves that violence only begets more violence. There’s not much funnier than cars being smashed up and people falling over though is there! Think Goddard’s Weekend only with more malevolence…

A grand start to ’17 from the Bioscope!

PS Here's those modern Smoke Fairies...  a lovely mix of home counties folk and delta blues.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

Money can’t buy you love… Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies, BFI BluRay/DVD

Charlie Chaplin became the most famous man in the world when working for Essanay in 1915. In Beatles terms, if the Mutual Comedies are his Rubber Soul, Keystone Please, Please Me, then the films of this period are his A Hard Day’s Night – a real, albeit uneven, progression in the definition of his style and comedy character.

This new BFI set is the result of a 12-year project, led by Lobster Films and the Cineteca di Bologna, and features all of Chaplin’s Essanay output on two disc Blu-ray and DVD. The films are fully restored and presented alongside exclusive special features – all released for the first time in the UK.

This was a transitional period for the pop-cultural superstar as he cemented his fame and developed his style. Keystone had been punk cinema, instant scenarios developed through improvisation and riffing off the talents all around, Mack, Mabel et al. But at Essanay with more control and bigger budgets, Charlie was able to produce more measured comedies albeit still at some rate of production – with 15 films released between February ’15 and March ’16 and his departure.

Edna and Charlie
Included were some average fare but also what Glenn Mitchell, in his accompanying essay, considers Chaplin’s first true classic, The Tramp (11th April 1915) and The Bank (9th August 1915) described as an “undisputed classic” by Frank Scheide in his piece.

After his barnstorming year at Keystone Charlie knew his earning potential was far greater elsewhere and he negotiated a huge deal with Essanay, a company famous for the Bronco Billy westerns - drama as well as comedy. You can take the boy out of Walworth but this 25-year old still knew his way round the block and, reputedly, Charlie had himself paged when meeting Essanay exec GM Anderson – Bronco Billy himself - at the Alexandra Hotel in Chicago thereby drawing a large crowd – instant proof of popularity.

Ben Turpin was just a little too funny for Charlie's tastes!
Relations with Anderson and his Essanay co-owner, George K Spoor, were not always to be smooth – particularly the latter. The company was to not only frustrate his ambition for longer form features nixing the idea for a feature called Life – but also re-cut some of these two reelers such as the Burlesque on Carmen (April 1916) and Police (27th March 1916) by including outtakes and, for the former, shooting additional footage with Ben Turpin.

There is a freshness here and an inevitable clash between the creativity of the star and the moneymen: Charlie’s velocity was simply too great.

His New Job, released on 1st February, was appropriately Chaplin’s first Essanay film (featuring a then unknown Gloria Swanson as a typist!) and A Night Out followed just two weeks later, released on 15th.

That's Gloria in the corner!
The latter featured Charlie’s new leading lady, the Edna Purviance, who was all but one of his films for the next eight years. He cast her after they had met socially and she more than justified his faith by providing a deeper emotional foil for him to interact with – Edna would muck in with the best of them but she could also act.

Chaplinitis had already begun but reached its full flowering in 1915 with merchandise, comics, books etc… There were Chaplin look-a-likes… and the kind of multi-media explosion you might think started with those mop-tops fifty years later.

Lloyd Bacon, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Tramp
None of this promotional excess would have worked had the product itself not been so good and by the time of The Tramp (11th April 1915) you can see the brand equity reaching its initial peak. This film shows Chapin’s increasing emotional content with our hero tramping off alone in the hope of better romantic fortunes at the film’s conclusion. In his earlier films, Chaplin had not always been sympathetic and indeed he had been an irritant; drunk and malicious but here he was beginning as a romantic hero and an everyman not guaranteed to win in love or war… someone 1915 could really identify with.

Interestingly Chaplin would still dip into earlier characters and in A Night in the Show (20th November) he played a drunken dandy and an unruly reprobate: Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy. This was an adaptation of the old Fred Karno sketch Mumming Birds and is a hoot; a precious example of his origins in live performance.

Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy
Work (21st June) was also descended from the stage sketch from his time with Fred Khano and filmed at the imposing Bradbury Mansion – the only thing missing is Shaggy and Scooby Doo! Slapstick with irony…

A Woman (12th July) featured some old school British drag, which for some providing further evidence for that minority who found Charlie a little crude. It wasn’t just in the US though as the film was seemingly banned in Sweden until 1931.

Charlie gets the wrong end of the stick...
The Bank (9th August) is indeed just about the pick of the bunch from the opening gag about Charlie storing his mop in the safe to the endless battles with Bristolian Billy Armstrong. The slapstick is balanced perfectly with romance and action as Charlie mistakes Edna’s intentions and falls hard for a woman out of his class. There’s a genuinely dramatic closing sequence but never a guarantee that Charlie’s heart will triumph.

Police (27th March 1916) was Charlie’s last Essanay film to be made and ends the run on a similar note: Chaplin is trying to go straight and it all boils down to whether his co-burglar (Wesley Ruggles) will persuade him to make his crime worse or whether Edna’s goodness will turn his fortunes. He does better here but, as he walks off into the sunset, arms aloft as in celebration of his new possibilities, a stray copper pops into view to chase him back from the sunset.

Charlie defends Edna
That’s just a small sample of the delights in the set. Sold?

Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies is released on 23rd January and you can pre-order your copy from theBFI Shop. The films have never looked so good in digital form and come with fresh music from silent-scoring experts the Mont Alto Orchestra and Robert Israel. It is a sumptuous celebration that no fan of silent comedy will want to be without, Chaplinitis may have peaked in 1915-18 but it’s never really gone away.

And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Shadows… Vampyr (1932), Stephen Horne and Minima, Barbican

Whether or not it was originally conceived as a silent film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is ideally suited to a re-score, especially one involving the combined forces of Stephen Horne and Minima: years of film accompaniment experience between them encompassing digital and analogue, piano and percussion and a mutually-impressive range of textural expression.

In his introduction, Stephen said that when he had met Minima founder Alex Hogg at a BFI panel on silent scoring, the two were viewed as being from different ends of the spectrum but rather than two worlds colliding these two found much common ground. For Mr Horne it's an opportunity to share his sonic pallet with other musicians and for Minima the chance to meld their alt-rock stylings with an unique one-man band playing piano, flute and accordion.

A group develops its own dynamics during improvisation and to share this process with another arch improviser must have been a fascinating process when the third party, Dreyer’s film, is so… unpredictable. Stephen’s piano acted not so much as a bridge between the source material and Minima’s more modern sound but a launch pad for an exploration of musical sentiments that are closely aligned.

Minima and their shadows?
As a musical mix it worked very well, growing in strength as Dreyer’s uncanny film developed its out of body, mind and spirit, narrative. Minima’s post-rock drive pushing on as well as working with practiced piano lines all wrapped carefully around the minimal dialogue and the gaping holes left deliberately in a story reliant on the deus ex machina of a dream saving reality…

Vampyr is one of the most unnervingly detached horror films and with events contained within open to so much interpretation, the accompaniment needs to both reflect this and emphasise the areas of more defined meaning: a challenge for one let alone five pairs of hands but one which Hornima passed with flying colours.

As Guillermo del Torro says in one of the excellent Eureka! commentaries, this is one of the few films to go back to the original ideas of the legend, with the vampires being "hungry shadows" who feed on the living... the young, the weak-willed and the vibrant. Throughout there are shadows detached from their corporal owners, dashing along with no solid partners to block the sunlight and living separate after-lives – no strolling together along the avenue for them!

The film is very, very, loosely based on In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu with the French film commentator, Maurice Drouzy, going so far as to suggest that this was a smokescreen to hide what was a very autobiographical work for Dreyer: a story founded in his lost childhood and adoption. Maybe... but it’s dreamy detachments make it hard to be certain of anything other than what we see on screen and what the director shows us is not intended to be easily “read”.

Nicolas de Gunzburg aka Julian West
The young hero Allan Grey – played by the film’s money man Nicolas de Gunzburg who adopted the name of Julian West for his self-funded big break – is a student of the occult who enters the village of Courtempierre with a fishing rod and high hopes of a more supernatural catch. He stays at a local inn and is visited by a man pleading with him to save his daughter. The man leaves him a book on vampires, to be opened on his death.

Dreams and reality converge and the narrative follows the logic of dream as Grey drifts to the man’s house only to see him shot by a seemingly insubstantial sniper. Gray stays on as a guest of the house, as the man's eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) begins to turn ill and is confined to her bed by a mystery ailment.

Henriette Gérard and Jan Hieronimko
There is a malevolent elderly woman, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) who seems to have power over many of the locals, especially her main accomplice, the local doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who was apparently an American university professor spotted by chance in New York, he is superb and another unsettling presence.

The youngest daughter, Giséle (Rena Mandel) is kidnapped by the doctor and Gray sets off to rescue her. He sits down on his way and his spirit appears to leave his body (is this the "dream" or did it start in the inn?) and goes off to where the girl is held. At this place he sees himself buried in a coffin with a glass panel: is that West's body in there or his soul?

Julian West’s acting “style” truly comes into its own in this sequence but, for those concerned with the sense of it, all looks bleak for the fearless vampire hunter…

Rena Mandel waiting for a hero
Vampyr is atypical for a horror film in terms of actually having a genuine religious agenda. Del Torro highlights a Lutheran theme of redemption, not surprising given some of Dreyer's other work, in that we can be saved by divine intervention only when we accept our need for salvation.  

Like many of the best "surreal" works (loosely speaking) not everything is explained or explainable. It doesn't matter; you don't have to square the circle and rationalise everything away, just take a meaningful amount of sense from the total abstraction of the work. It's the feeling more than conscious deduction that matters.

The cinematography of Rudolph Maté deserves special mention here as he is able to translate his director’s vision onto screen just as he did on Joan. He also shot Prix de Beauté.

To accompany such a film without being giving too much specific musical narrative takes some doing and to do it as an ensemble would appear even more challenging. Styephen, Minima and their notable shadows did so exceptionally well and I would heartily recommend the result.

Comparisons with Wolfgang Zeller’s original score are possible if you get the Eureka! DVD – available from the BFI online shop. Maybe future editions could include the alternative music?

The band gets set