Monday, 24 October 2016

Anthem for doomed love… Destiny (1921), Cambridge Film Festival with Stephen Horne

My first trip to the Cambridge Film Festival and a film projected in Emmanuel College; a sixteenth century venue for a film that features a sequence from around that period. Cambridge and Oxford are anomalies in the UK retaining so much of their earlier architecture in educational powerhouses that ensure that the present always gives way to the past. Fritz Lang trained as an architect and no doubt would have appreciated the additional context provided to his film by this vibrant antiquity.

I spent three years living in a college begun in 1264 – the last in a 1288 quadrangle - and you pass through without even scratching the surface: students haunt Oxbridge, flickering briefly and casting our flitting shadows against its external stone.

Tonight Death came to Cambridge and reminded us all that somethings outlast even the finest sandstone. Made in 1921 when there were over half a million war-widows in Germany, Destiny or Der müde Tod (literally The Weary Death) suggests that love is stronger than death but no less avoidable. To a nation in a devastation of mourning its gothic kindness would have touched so many: fairy-tale frankness masking a more positive than pessimistic message.

Bernhard Goetzke
Death is played rather convincingly by Bernhard Goetzke who carries his dark duties with a heavy heart and weary resolution: it’s not easy being the man in black but he wears it well and is nothing if not fair.

Lil Dagover is the Maiden who tries to reason with The Glum Reaper after the untimely demise of her love (Walter Janssen) her selfless pursuit of his life touching even his grief-drenched soul.

It is interesting that the man is in distress and not the damsel; she is relentless and willing to risk all and give all to save her love. After watching Nell Shipman do the same a few days ago from 1919, it’s interesting to see Lil Dagover also playing the swashbuckling hero.

Lil Dagover
This restoration was making its UK debut and the newly minted tints and tones were a treat, bringing out the film’s sumptuous design and cinematography. The crew worked on many other noteworthy Weimar films and it is no surprise that America and others were watching. Douglas Fairbanks allegedly bought the US rights just so he could copy elements of the Arabian sequence for The Thief of Bagdad and also delay release until after his own film. But the visual influence stretches along way… all the way to a Swedish beach in 1957 when a knight plays chess to stave off his death?

Destiny is a big step forward from Lang’s previous films, Der Spinnen, and it marks the beginning of his audacious fairy tales, spy stories and science fiction.

Meeting the strange dark man
The framing sequence in some un-dated present is relatively stripped back as the young couple travel in a horse-drawn carriage to a small town of Brothers Grimm vintage. They are joined by an intimidating dark stranger who follows them to a local inn. At the inn is a delightful collection of civic grotesquery who recall the story of a dark stranger buying land next to the cemetery and building a huge wall around it with no visible means of entry…

The couple toast the future life together but it is not long before the man is gone and the woman if in despair at the edge of the wall as wraith-like figures pass through her and the wall. She resolves to take her own life and to follow her man: love is stronger than death and she will rescue him.

The hall of candles was inspired by a Grimm’s fairy tale (thanks MD!)
She meets death inside his mausoleum and they walk amongst thousands of candles each representing a brief life that will always flicker out. Death is there for lives lived long and short – he takes a baby’s life with the same endless sorrow as an old man - he is a force of nature tasked by the almighty…

And yet, convinced of the woman’s love he is willing to give her a chance to defeat him and win back her dead man’s life.

She has three chances in three separate vignettes: set in Persia, Venice Carnaval, and lastly a magical China…. She has to prevent Death from taking her three loves in each scenario with their lives represented by a single candle flame:  if but one remains a-flicker she’ll have won but who can hope to beat Death.

A magic carpet ride
The contest thus set out I can say now more without spoiling... the end, when it comes, makes perfect sense and works on many satisfactory levels.

Stephen Horne has previously accompanied this restoration in San Francisco and Bologna and his familiarity paid dividends here with some sumptuous themes one of which lingered long after the film’s conclusion: Death’s theme. Stephen has the most varied kit of any leading silent accompanist and here featured even an Arabic call to prayer along with flute, accordion and Emmanuel’s Steinway. You need soul to make it all work and Destiny met its musical match.

The film was also accompanied by one of the Festival programmers Margaret Deriaz reading out English translation of the German title cards as the film had arrived from the Murnau-Stiftung in its native tongue.  But they have stout hearts at the CFF and Margaret read very well.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Lil Dagover
Destiny is a gothic pantomime performed with relish not just by Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke but also a host of Weimar stars including Dr. Mabuse himself Rudolf Klein-Rogge, M’s Georg John and many more. Not the very best of Lang but a very moving signifier of what was to come and without doubt a very interesting film.

As we walked from the lecture theatre, the old walls of Cambridge were shrouded in dark and we were haunting again sure in the knowledge that love is stronger than mortar (boards).

I trust Der müde Tod is destined for home media release and with Stephen’s accompaniment too!

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Ev'rything's free and easy, do as you darn well pleasey… Kennington Bioscope Second Comedy Weekend

Kennington Bioscope you spoil us and we should never fail to be grateful for days like this: rare screenings, new discoveries and top-notch musical accompaniment all just a few Northern Line stops shy of the west end in the leafy high-housed terraces of Lambeth.

The Bioscope is based at the Cinema Museum, a former workhouse now overshadowed by massive skyscrapers at the Elephant and Castle. But the old continues to stand tall against such crass interruption: and this is a place we go to share in the preservation of memory without which we’re just all so many empty buildings.

Kid Boots (1926)

This marked the first time I’ve seen Clara Bow on the big screen and, as usual w=she did not disappoint. Directed by Frank Tuttle, this was Eddie Cantor’s first film and was based on his 1923 hit Broadway musical – without the songs – although Meg Morley provided perfectly-pitched accompaniment instead. Clara’s breakthrough, Manhunt, was released during production and by the time Boots she was a star. She and Cantor made a good partnership with he teaching her comic timing and she teaching him film acting.

Eddie impresses with an energy of his own – a remarkably supple stage veteran he is put through his physical paces by Clara’s bully of an ex, Big Boyle (Malcolm Waite) who tries to electrocute and then pummel him to pieces at a country retreat. But it is Bow who shines brightest and gradually takes over the film with her ease of expression and vivacity.

Eddie tries to make her jealous by flirting with the scheming Carmen Mendoza (Natalie Kingston) and as tears well up in Clara’s eyes we feel her genuine hurt. It’s a comedy but no one could feed tragedy so quickly into a smile as Clara.

Clara Bow
There’s winsome support from Lawrence Gray – who is Eddie’s mate trying to avoid his divorce falling through to the mendacious Mendoza – and Billie Dove as Eleanor Belmore, the new apple of his eye. It’s fun and features an extended literal cliff-hanger at the end… oh and Eddie Cantor looks just like Melvyn Hayes.

Meg Morley accompanied filling these boots with jazz-aged phrasing and rom-com panache: we were off to a flyer!

Early Days…

Andre Deed
Twenty years before Bow and Cantor’s relative sophistication there was an explosion of cinematic comedy characters in Europe. The venerable David Robinson gave us a glimpse into this almost vanished world of protean film stars who straddled the Worlds of theatre and the new media – highly athletic and expressive in films with fixed cameras and minimal narratives.

These players needed to have high impact and recognition and in this era of rapid prototyping only the fittest, fastest and funniest would thrive. André Deed was the first true named cinema comedy star with films dating from 1906 after he Charles Pathé was impressed with his stage performance. Deed was popular throughout Europe and was a man of many monikers: Cretinetti in Italy, Foolshead in Britain and Boireau in France.

The crowd waits to ambush Foolshead in his case!?
We saw a flavour of Deed’s approach in the – literally – mad-cap Boireau’s Apprenticeship (1907), which launched his career, and then How Foolshead Paid His Debts (1909) which involved a good deal of business with a large attaché case in which our hero hides. There’s a lot of chasing and our hero avoids his debtors by eventually disappearing into a wall.

There was more extreme silly with the Italian short Duel with Shrapnel (1913) which involved two men (Alex Bernard and Ernesto Vaser) trying to explode bombs attached to their backs… the winner may or may not win the hand of a fair maiden.

A dangerous game of Tick
No trip to the Big Bang of cine-comedy is complete without Max Linder – Chaplin’s Professor – and here we saw The Man Who Hanged Himself from 1912 which remains outrageous and very funny!

Scarce Pathé 28mm prints, almost as old as the films themselves, were projected by KB experts Chris Bird and Brian Giles on some equally vintage apparatus.

Lillian Henley accompanied with grace and humour, playing all of the right notes all in the right order in spite of the madness on screen.

Laurel and Hardy – And Still They Come!

David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell performed a double act of their own to introduce a genuine scoop with the British premier of four films involving Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. These restorations include previously lost footage – some large, some small, which goes towards completing the picture of team’s precious legacy.

The Second Hundred Years (1927)
The Second Hundred Years (1927) is now completed by footage long lost. It was the first true Laurel and Hardy film and features the duo attempting to break free from jail. Their chemistry is already in evidence and they just warm your heart.

Putting Pants on Philip (1927) is another very early example of this blend of comedic talent. Individually as shown by Stan in the restored but fragmentary Monsieur Don’t Care (1924) and Oliver aka Babe in Maids and Muslin (1920) they were funny guys but together there’s some kind of a critical mass of comedy that delivers economies of scale beyond any other duo in history.

Cyrus Gabrysch somehow kept pace with all this and the alarming possibilities of Stanley wearing a kilt in true Scottish style.

Ock no!
Home James (1928)

Kevin Brownlow introduced the day’s second feature film and this was an opportunity to see his copy of this rare Laura La Plante comedy. Laura’s striking blonde bob is nowadays mostly associated with The Cat and the Canary but this film showed how adept she was at comedy and it’s a bit of a gem for all that.

Laura plays a small town girl who leaves for New York to paint and make her fortune. Her mother (Aileen Manning) is not convinced she’ll make it – folk that leave rarely do - and it seems she’s not far wrong as Laura is selling plenty of paintings just none of her own; working as a sales clerk in a department store.

Laura tries to hide from Mr Lacey Senior
Laura is terrorised by Arthur Hoyt’s miserable floorwalker, Waller, who can smell her lack of dedication. By chance – where would we be without it? – Laura encounters the son of the shop owner, James Lacey Jr (a charming Charles Delaney) who she mistakes for his father’s chauffeur. Junior does little to dissuade her and plays along loving the idea that this gal likes him just for himself. He even starts doing some work standing in while Dad’s away just so he can see more of Laura.

The standout scene occurs when Laura has to go see Lacey Number Two to be disciplined; James hides from her so as not to give the game away while she performs an elaborate shadow play at the office door to convince Waller she’s been let off.

Not a classic but a really enjoyable movie all the same with a neatly paced narrative as mother and sister come to stay, James uses his own home to help Laura show she’s successful and James Senior finally makes it home.

The relations come calling
John Sweeney was our musical chauffeur and drove with relaxed precision towards the film’s destination neatly swerving to avoid jams and dead ends with practiced ease.

Lupino Lane – Local Hero

This was a labour of love from Lane aficionado Mathew Ross and opened up a career I knew very little about. Excitingly there was also a brief clip of Michael Parkinson showing Arthur Askey (all together: Ithankyou!) film of Lane performing some of his most famous theatrical moves in a 1978 documentary on pantomime.

Lupino Lane & Wallace Lupino - A Half Pint Hero (1927)
The Lupino family had a theatrical pedigree stretching back centuries and “Nip” – as he was nicknamed – was trained in gymnastics from early childhood, a still showing him in relaxed splits showing how comfortable he was with his double-joints.

Mathew rates Lane’s athleticism as second to none with only Buster coming close and there were ample examples of Lupino’s prat-falling in clips from The Dummy, one of his earliest British films in 1916 to his successful stint in Hollywood with the Roscoe Arbuckle directed Fool’s Luck (1926) and A Half-Pint Hero (1927) – in which Lupino plays a fireman battling brother William Lupino for the love of Toy Gallagher.

William appeared in and co-directed many of Lupino’s films often as his rival or his ally – the two had an instinctive understanding of the other’s technique and we saw this in full in Hello Sailor (1927) in which the boys chase after a girl who turns out to be a twin (Charlene and Minniela Aber: where do they get these names!?).

Roscoe Arbuckle and Lupino Lane or is it Alan Cummings?
Lillian played along with Lupino – both walked the walk as you do down Lambeth way.

It was time for dinner but I had to take my leave for a previous engagement at the Rough Trade 40th Anniversary concert at the Barbican. I swapped the chance to see Lupino in the 1939 musical, The Lambeth Walk, for some more contemporary sounds.

My ears won’t thank me for that.

Another great day at the Bioscope - enriching, informative, funny and thoroughly entertaining. Thank you Amran, Michelle and all the team - long may you reign!

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Nell's sequel… Back to God's Country (1919), Kennington Bioscope with John Sweeney

Nell Shipman was an almost impossible woman. Not so much difficult to deal with as difficult to deter not by wind, rain or snow and certainly not by lack of financial backing or even a man... She made films in the harshest of conditions and, here, she turned adversity into Canada’s most successful silent film.

Before we begin: consider the similarities between the films of Victor Sjöström and Nell Shipman? Lots of snow and scenic splendour but whereas the Outlaw and his Wife faced some fearsome drifts you had the feeling that the crew would be snuggly back in their chalets after the shoot whereas the Shipman operation was further out in all ways.

Strapped for cash and occasionally nearly drowning in rapids or under the ice at Priest Lake, Nell Shipman was a stunt woman too. Her stories may contain corn but… just hear her roar!

Nell Shipman
Directed by David Hartford and based on Nell’s adaptation of James Oliver Curwood’s short story: Wapi, the Walrus, Back to God’s Country took the actress back to the character and scene of her previous hit, God’s Country and the Woman (no, not Yorkshire but somewhere far cooler, the stunning mountains of Alberta…).

According to biographer Kay Armatage, Shipman knew the limitations of her source material saying that it “was trash as a movie; a mere outline, a character study of a Great Dane dog and how he reacted to the need of the woman he loved…” but she knew what to do to spice things up: melodrama, pure evil, skinny dipping – at length – and a dog sled chase across the ice that would have done Abel Gance proud. The cinematography of Dal Clawson and, especially, Joseph Walker, who had learned a trick or two from working with Billy Bitzer, is stunning throughout and here he seems to be mounted on a third sleigh following the two in jumpy action mode.

Action on the ice
But Shipman also liked Walker because he knew how to make her look good in the daylight by opening the lens as wide as he could without over-exposing, rendering her in well-rounded contrast against a softened hard landscape. It’s these details that make Nell so good – she controlled so much of these productions and, whilst they were intended s escapist entertainment she arguably had a message concerning the environment and animal conservation well before those words were in common currency.

Armatage sees a lot of subtext in the way Shipman draws Inuit characters – women brought in to entertain sailors and who she tries to help, as well as wise old “yellow men” (she affords more respects than the cringe-worthy phrase might convey to modern readers) as well as her approach to nature. This was still, as she says, a moment in cinema history “dominated by independent and artisanal innovation… and maverick individualist entrepreneurship”. Before the studios and the men – literally – took charge and forced women like Shipman and Lois Weber out.

Shipman was a populist though and not averse to using her own physique to sell her film even playing on her nude scenes in the publicity: “Don’t book Back to God’s Country unless You want to prove that the Nude is NOT Rude!” Well done Bioscope for taking the brave decision in this instance!

Armatage again sees this surprising sequence as evidence of Shipman’s forthright desire to both challenge existing social mores as well as express her ideas of liberation through nature. Her nudity is shared by a bear (and yes, Nell made a private joke about a bear behind!) as well as two baddies who look on lustfully only to be repelled by said Grizzly – more likely Brown – Bear?

What is so clear to even less academically-qualified modern viewers is Shipman putting herself willingly at the centre of male gazing. But then she was so remarkably in control as her energies moved her ever forward.

A woman's best friend
She reportedly clashed with the author over her expansion of the female lead’s role at the expense of the four-legged “hero” but this was Nell’s show and she was running it.

After an introductory segment showing how Wapi the Great Dane (actually played by two dogs, Tresore and Rex) fell into the hands of viscous criminals we are introduced to the idyllic wilderness retreat of Delores LeBeau (Nell) her father Baptiste (Roy Laidlaw) and her fiancé Peter (Wheeler Oakman) a government cartographer.

Boo! Rydal thinks it's rude
Into this wilderness paradise comes a snake in the form of hard-going psychopath Rydal (Wellington A. Playter) who has already killed a Mountie before he spies the naked Delores and decides she’s the one for him. Rydal feigns injury to inveigle himself into the household with his side kick (Charles B. Murphy) and is only prevented from raping Delores by her father knifing his buddy.

He pretends to arrest the old man and then throws him in rapids losing out on his prey as she leaps into the water in a vain attempt to try save him. We clearly see Nell riding the rapids: I hope it was a warm day…

The years pass and Delores and Peter live in the city. Duty calls him onto a boat to the frozen North for cartographical work and you’ll never believe who the ship’s captain is!? Yes, it’s Rydal and he’s out to finish what he started.

Even in her city aprtment, Delores dreams of her wilderness
Injuring Peter 200 miles from the nearest doctor, Rydal thinks he only has to wait it out until Delores husband passes on but he reckons without his targets indomitable spirit and her super-natural way with animals. Diving into a fight between a mad Great Dane – yes Wapi! – and huskies she forms an instant bond and makes a four-legged friend who’ll stick with her through thick and thin…

Miles from nowhere… nature will always find a way.

Back to God's Country has some front and you can’t help but love it and Nell’s spirit. John Sweeney played along and got with the mood: romance, the great outdoors and life or death chases across the snowscapes all captured with pin-point piano-precision!

We learned a lot more about Nell in the first half with a screening of Girl From God’s Country (2014), Karen Day’s vibrant documentary on Nell and her legacy. There were fascinating interviews with Shipman’s great-granddaughter, granddaughter and son all of whom radiate with pride at what she achieved. I hope she knew how much she was valued by the time of her death in 1970.

The film also reveals the forgotten legacy of a generation of female silent film pioneers – not just Nell, Alice Guy and Lois Weber but also minority filmmakers, such as Zora Neale Hurston and Miriam Wong.

Women were pro-actively squeezed out of the pictures by the male studio system and even today levels of directors, producers and writers are not at the same level as the 1910’s.

OK. It's not rude!
All of this is covered in the excellent book Silent Women and some of the books authors were on hand tonight, Ellen Cheshire and Melody Bridges who introduced the documentary.

Kay Aramatge's biography, The Girl from God’s Country: Nell Shipman and the Silent Cinema is available form all the old familiar places... 

Back to God’s Country is available on a cracking MilestoneDVD along with Something New – Nell’s car advert turned adventure romance. Recommended.