Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Hot media… Figaro (1928), Il Cinema Ritrovato 35 Digital Streaming


As the UK sweats and my new home office warms up over 30 degrees centigrade, the weather is almost Italian and therefore the perfect ambiance for watching restored and rediscovered film in the annual cinematic celebration that is Il Cinema Ritrovato. This year Bologna has a live event but as travelling remains an issue from the UK, some of us have to watch from a far via the festival’s streaming channel, a choice selection from the main programme. Very engaging it is too for withing minutes of clicking play on this film, the 918 miles between my laptop and Bologna disappear and I’m sat in the Cinema Jolly, a cool bottle of iced tea in my hand, rehydrating as I’m lost in this sparkling restoration… Travel is all in the mind, man, and in time as well as space.


Figaro exemplifies the ambition of late silent period French film and of course its director, Gaston Ravel who had twenty years of filmmaking under his belt by this stage as he decided to combine the Beaumarchais trilogy, Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro and La Mère coupable into one two-hour film. These plays pre-dated the French Revolution and were controversial in their day – the second was banned by Louis XVI after a private reading, although Queen Marie-Antoinette was a fan – for addressing changing attitudes to the ruling classes as well as sexual politics. Naturally enough they were still appealing to later Third Republic viewers not least for their fame as operas from Mozart, Rossini and Milhaud.


Ravel deftly handles these three related narratives and brings out the extraordinary energy of his cast, especially dancer and performer par excellence, Edmond van Duren as Figaro and Marie Bell as his wife Suzanne. Van Duren is full of Fairbanks force and is in near constant flow, free running his way as the catalytic cohesion binding the story and defining the mood throughout. As the finest barber in town, he keeps tabs on every head he’s had the pleasure to know including the great and good such as Count Almaviva (Tony D’Algy, dimpled and handsome) who he helps to romance Rosine (Arlette Marchal, a divine profile...).


Arlette Marchal

Rosine is of noble birth but the ward of Doctor Bartholo (Léon Bélières) and entrapped – sorry – engaged to be married to the old duffer who attempts to keep her under lock and key. Figaro has a plan, he always does, and gets the Count to pretend to be a commoner, Lindor, sent to help Rosine with her piano playing. It almost works as well until Bartholo spots too much close attention from teacher to pupil and after chasing his competitor out, takes advice from the sinister Basile (José Davert with long dank hair and daft hat) to slander the Count’s reputation. There’s a superimposition of snakes as don Basile’s words literally poison Rosine’s mind and she accepts her only refuge with the Doctor.


Cue another plan from Figaro…


Edmond van Duren and Tony D’Algy

The years move on and married life does not suit the Count who, whilst he loves his wife, also loves other women too, if for different reasons. There are lavish and frankly shocking, parties involving all kinds of naked cavorting – checks notes, “blimey, this is French!” – as amorous Almaviva collects conquests much as millennials used to catch Pokemon. Meanwhile Figaro has found love too and met his perfect match in Suzanne (Marie Bell, another fantastic presence from the stage) who he asks permission to marry. The Count agrees on one condition… and the couple must find a way to re-direct his energies.


Plan A involves young Chérubin (Jean Weber), Rosine’s godson, dressing up as the bride to be… which would have been an interesting surprise for the Count had he not interrupted the ruse. But the team of Figaro and Suzanne is irrepressible and there’s so much delight in seeing their eyes light up as yet another plan is hatched! The rhythm of the film is so perfectly judged by Ravel and the pace never drops as invention is uninterrupted by every counter move from the Count.


No social distancing at the Count's party...

The final part of the story moves things on another year or so after Almaviva has sent Chérubin off to serve in the army for being a little too tall and handsome for the life at court… Rosine has had a baby by this point and things seem to have calmed down for the couple. Then we see the noble and promoted Colonel Chérubin in battle – some excellent mobile camera work amongst the charging horses – before, mortally wounded, he passes on a secret to comrade in arms Major Bogaerts (Genica Missirio).


Bogaerts takes the message to Rosine who, in gratitude, has him employed as the Count’s secretary. By this stage Rosine’s child is a toddler enjoying a Punch and Judy show from Figaro and Suzanne – there is no limit to their talents. The two see Bogaerts for what he is and know they must defend the Count and Rosine from whatever mischief he is up to… this calls for not one but two cunning plans… and, as Figaro says: “Suzanne you are so shrewd. Worthy of your husband!”


The film is rich in character as well as cinematography, sets and costume design – from JK Benda who also worked with Jacques Feyder and others. There are sumptuous moments, on location too especially at the Château de Rochefort-en-Yvelines where we see Suzanne spellbinding Bogaerts, supposed sweethearts among the sweet peas.


Marie Bell and Tony D'Algy

It’s hard to understand how Ravel was practically forgotten for decades as Pierre Philippe points out in the catalogue essay, but his success here came just as sound pictures were about to change along with tastes. The director and film are exactly why Il Cinema Ritrovato is essential viewing though, restoring not only the physical results of his work but also his reputation as new memories are created by an audience eager for the delightful shocks and surprises of the old.  


Figaro was restored in 2K in 2020 by Gaumont in collaboration with CNC - Center national du cinéma et de Immagage animée, at Éclair laboratory. It comes with a delightful new score from Alvaro Bello Bodenhöfer, guitarist and composer, who weaves some lovely lines around this comedy of love and light.


The streaming festival continues and there is a lot more to come, all viewable up to 3rd August. Details here!!


She can hear music...

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Being natural... Solax - The House Built by Alice Guy Blaché, KB TV, Women & Silent Screen Online

“There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason she cannot master every technicality of the art... “Alice Guy-Blaché in The Moving Picture World, July 11, 1914.

This was some undertaking, a collaboration between the Kennington Bioscope and the Women & Silent Screen Online Conference, that featured nine of serial ground-breaker Guy Blaché’s films as writer, director and producer for Solax Films. As noted by the Bioscope’s Michelle Facey, the French woman was the only woman owner of a film studio at the time and she remains the only woman to have occupied this position over a century later which is remarkable and depressing in equal measure.

Guy Blaché made her own way, from inventing narrative film making to helping establish the studio system that would eventually help displace her in mainstream history. According to The New York Dramatic Mirror, by 1912 she was drawing an annual income of between $50-60,000 – some salary in modern terms and allowing for inflation a measure of her success. Whilst few with an interest in silent film would not be aware of her work, she is now emerging more fully from the shadows, as she becomes the subject of more academic research, restoration and a widespread critical rebirth. Her inclusion on Kino and the BFI’s early women filmmakers’ anthologies, Pamela B. Green’s revelatory biography, Be Natural (2018) and a new ARTE French documentary, Alice Guy, Pioneer of the 7th Art, Forgotten by History from directors Nathalie Masduraud and Valérie Urrea, all contribute to this growth in awareness of her contribution and influence.

And still the only one...

The stream was an online equivalent of “A Solax Night”, curated by Kim Tomadjoglou from the Library of Congress who had a number of films on show along with the BFI, Eye Filmmuseum, George Eastman Museum and Lobster Films. It was hosted by Michelle Facey, KBTV’s regular compere and featured introductions by Tomadjoglou; Allison Farrell and Tami Williams, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (who helped co-ordinate), and the LOC restoration team, Heather Linville (Lab Supervisor), Frank Wylie (Head Lab Timer), Lynanne Schweighofer (Preservation Specialist), and George Willeman (Nitrate Vault Leader) who talked about the dream job of restoring Alice’s films.

Their efforts were much appreciated as we were able to sense for ourselves the ability and appeal of Guy Blaché’s American films, after she and husband Herbert, used Gaumont’s empty studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to start her own production company, Solax which produced films at an astonishing rate between 1911 and 1914 before the War and Edison’s trust, forced filmmakers to Hollywood. These films show us the cinematic skills of the director, enabling us to move beyond the “recovery narrative” and to see how well Guy Blaché made films and money in this most competitive world. We can see how she evolved as a filmmaker with more dynamic camerawork, more cuts and even split screens and how she made the most of the emotional capacity of her stock troop of players. Eat your heart out DWG!

All of this, of course, was enhanced by some of the finest musical accompaniment on the planet.

Race relations on Love's Trail

Frozen on Love’s Trail (1912) with Costas Fotopoulos

First up was a curious tale of “the devotion of a redskin” shot around Fort Lee, New Jersey – old “Hollywood” – which showed that loyalty and sacrifice were not only limited to white settlers out West. The story is set on a reservation in the “Klondike” where, Mary, a young woman, is kind to a mixed race native American courier who falls in love with her much to the distaste of her would be paramour Captain Black and others at the post. Needless to say, amongst some superb snowy locations, the courier proves he’s worth any number of Captains.

Guy Blaché’s concerns on race were also to inform A Fool and His Money (1912) which was probably the first narrative feature with an all-black cast, the white actors having refused to work with the black co-stars. She was from Paris, what did she know of old prejudice?

Vinnie Burns showing her total lack fear of fire...

Two Little Rangers (1912) with Andrew Earle Simpson

This thriller has previously been shown at the KB live and shows Guy Blaché’s editing ability with multiple cuts enhancing the narrative urgency of what is a tough tale in which the two young women take on bandit Bill Gray. Vinnie Burns plays the older of the sisters and was the genuine article, trained as a stunt woman by Guy Blaché, and, according to Solax PR, known as “the girl who isn’t afraid of fire, water, air or beast!”

Vinnie draws her gun, races on horses, pulls the postmaster up a rock face and fashions a bow and arrow to set fire to Gray’s hideout and her little sister, a splendid Gladys Egan, gives as good as she gets out-drawing Gray and also taking man and the elements in her stride. These are the forerunners of not just serial action heroines but also women of agency that grow to populate cinema. Also proof that things did not start off with woman “the weaker vessel” having to be rescued every five minutes on screen. Post-modern, postmaster’s daughters!

Split screen telephone call in The Strike. Lois Weber was watching.

The Strike (1912) with Lillian Henley

Guy Blaché’s stance on industrial relations next and an even-handed one it tries to be at a time when trade unionism was disturbing the balance of power in the advance capitalist economies… The director’s solution seems to be that boss and workers should understand each position more and that, as is the case, when disaster strikes all should work together. It’s fascinating to watch and to imagine the response of a 1912 audience to this over-heated melodrama which, whilst it focuses on the positivity of working together on the more important things, fails to address to underlying questions of fair pay and workers’ rights as you’d expect from a woman with a company to run. See Charlie for a more left leaning take perhaps, but there’s work to be done on the politics of silent film makers?

Poor man, rich man...

A Man’s a Man (1912) with Andrew Earle Simpson

More social concerns are evident in this tale of gross inequality in which a poor Jewish man has his daughter killed by a hit and run rich man. It’s harrowing but also powerful in its own way as the chance for vengeance is passed over for delicately handled forgiveness with a closing scene to moisten the eye of the most cynical silent cineaste.

Something's coming...

Starting Something (1911) with John Sweeney

From The Consequences of Feminism onwards, Guy Blaché was concerned with gender roles and often had her characters cross-dress to prove her underlying point of natural equality at a time when women did not even have the vote (except in New Zealand). Here Jones objects to the way his wife Bettie (Blanche Cornwall) dresses and takes revenge by wearing a dress… his wife’s Aunty is a suffragette and given to masculine attire and confusion reigns when Jones mistakes her for his wife, albeit with the aid of alcohol. To cure him of his addiction to the demon drink, Auntie suggests a course of “mental suggestion” to persuade Jones that his tipple is toxic and that he must keep dancing or die… I’ve really no idea what was in the water in the Solax script room but this is great fun and deserves a full viewing. Doug Fairbank’s Coke Ennyday would love this film!

The mind play also reflects contemporary fascination with hypnotism and psychology… another area of silent film that might reward study. But that’s just my suggestion…

Darwin Karr down in the sewers

The Sewer (1912) with John Sweeney

This two-reeler is credited to director Edward Warren with set design and script by former Gaumont colleague Henri Menessier who turns the sewers of the title into a sinister underground world of shadows and twisted structures, the art of darkness. John Stanhope (Darwin Karr) and his wife are philanthropists who are being taken for a ride by Herbert Moore (William Leverton) who runs the phony “Charity Organization Society”.

Moore and his pals – led by a beefy version of Fagin – aim to use little Oliver (Magda Foy – the Solax Kid cross-dressing!), to rob the good natured Stanhopes. But Oliver refuses to steal - yes, he is not at all twisted! – and is taken in by the charitable couple giving Stanhope a concealed miniature saw as a thank you present… he obviously had one spare for just such an occasion.

The gang’s second attempt succeeds and they tie Stanhope up and lower him to his doom in the sewer… how can he escape and save his family?! The sewers are a highlight all tinted green to reflect the odorous darkness… and this is a fun film performed with conviction and skill.

Watch that man

Cousins of Sherlocko (1913) with Colin Sell

Save me dick old top, or it’s a striped suit and iron bars for innocent me!

This awkwardly titled comedy follows the attempts of two detective “cousins” of Sherlock Holmes to track down a notorious robber called Jim Spike played by Canadian comedian Fraunie Fraunholz, a name to conjure with. Fraunie also plays Jim Neill who, unsurprisingly, is the spitting image of Spike a resemblance that costs him his engagement to Jane Ellery (Sally Crute) once her father sees “his” wanted picture in the newspaper. There follows a cat and mouse with the police and the convict involving some trademark Guy Blaché cross-dressing as Jim and his pal try to avoid the striped suit and iron bars. It’s a good laugh and well played by all.

"No Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!"

The Detective’s Dog (1912) with Meg Morley

Does anyone know how many Rovers have rescued over the course of cinematic history? It’s a high number for sure but here we have one of the very first as the newly adopted pet of Kitty, Detective Harper’s daughter, races out to find his new master. Harper has been trapped by the evil Richard Toole, who rather than shoot him in the head, straps him to a table with a buzz saw inching towards him… probably one of the first such scenes of unnecessarily complicated execution. Can the cop be found by the hound and can the detective capture dastardly Dick Toole? You’ll still edge towards the edge of your seat…

By this point the actors are starting to look familiar – Blanche Cornwall of Two Little Rangers, plays Mrs Harper for instance, Lee Beggs is Toole just as he was Sherlocko’s cousin and Darwin Karr is James Harper, Secret Service Detective with Magda Foy – famous for Falling Leaves - as Kitty. It’s fascinating to see them at working at pace with this being just one of up to three movies they were making that week. Here we see the discipline and control from the showrunner and her team; the cast deliver comedy and tragedy on her cue.

No Greater Love...

Greater Love Hath No Man (1911) with John Sweeney

Directed by Alexander Butler and Guy Blaché, this is another stirring western melodrama that once again features Fearless Vinnie Burns as Florence, "The Rose of the Camp". She is beloved by Jake (Romaine Fielding) but takes a shine to, handsome Harry Litchfield, the new superintendent of the Gatlach Mine in New Mexico. It’s love at first sight but not for the Mexican miners who feel Harry is cutting them short on the weighting of their gold. One of them pulls a gun but Flo’ is too fast for him, Vinnie’s persona is consistent; she always stands her ground.

The Mexicans hatch a new plan and Jake, overhearing has to decide if he can overcome his love-sick jealousy to save his rival even at the cost of his own love. It’s the kind of moral high stakes that still resonate in these disbelieving days and there’s a stirring finale culminating in a tableau echoing classic art, heroes, heroines, glory and the United States flag. Even then, the immigrants knew what this meant more than most…

The famous sign at the Solax Studios reminding the actors to “Be Natural” never led Guy Blaché to ignore the need for dramatic power in her films. As a result, they showed seemingly ordinary people living extraordinary lives and formed a powerful connection with the mass audiences of the time as they stared in wonder at people so much like themselves on screen.

Alice, please take a bow!

Alice being interviewed later in life, from Be Natural

Seven of these films are available on the Kino Blu-ray/DVD Alice Guy Blaché Volume 2 – The Solax Years which you can order direct in the USA or via Amazon and others in the UK/EU.

Volume 1 covers her Gaumont years and both are part of Kino's Pioneers, First Women FilmMakers series. The box set has the two films from the above – Two Little Rangers and No Greater Love – that aren’t on Volume 2… all essential of course!

Thursday, 17 June 2021

A passion play... Piccadilly (1929), BFI Blu-ray out 21st June

“Just imagine the whole place being upset by one little Chinese girl in the scullery?”

Piccadilly may need one of those advisory warnings Talking Pictures use when dealing with materials that reflect “the prevailing attitudes of the time” but the film did enable Anna May Wong to be the one thing she wasn’t really allowed to be in her native America – a romantic lead. Gilda Gray may well have top billing here but there’s no doubt who your sympathies are meant to be with, in the love-tangle at the heart of this story.

Director E A Dupont, had already made two films on the theme of infidelity and waxing entertainment careers with Varieté (1925), based in the circus and music halls of Berlin, in his native Germany and Moulin Rouge (1928), another BIP title set in a saucy Parisian demi-monde still many decades away from the existence of Kylie’s Absinthe Fairy. This film, whilst preoccupied with London’s West End, also spends a good deal of time in East End where it turns out that whilst you can’t take Limehouse out of May Wong’s Shosho, it’s also hard to take her out of the area’s  pervasive misery.

Anna May Wong

Art director Alfred Junge, who worked with everyone from Paul Leni to Michael Powell, faithfully captured the atmosphere of both and, slightly disappointingly for me and other 80’s clubbers, recreated the interior of the Café de Paris, between Eros and Leicester Square, which I had always assumed was the location for the filming, in Elstree Studios. It was worth it though, as this allowed the remarkable camera mobility we see in the film as the dancers whirl around and audience reacts to the visceral movements and swirling passions of the cabaret…

This disc comes with an odd five-minute Prologue to Piccadilly, in which Jameson Thomas’s character form the film, Valentine, talks briefly to a former customer (John Longden) with dark regret in his heart in front of his humble rural ale house. This was intended for US audiences at a time when most films had sound… oddly, we’re not surprised to find that Valentine’s “sound world” lacks the style and excitement of his silent glories…

“Can you picture things? Then close your eyes and I’ll tell you a strange story about Piccadilly…”

Café de Paris on set, complete with famous twin staircases

And so, we begin… and there are many strange aspects to this particular story. In her excellent booklet essay, the BFI’s Bryony Dixon explains that it is hard to say which was the more shocking for contemporary audiences: the drugs or interracial relationships. For his part Jameson Thomas, speaking about the cutting of the kiss between his character and Shosho, in a 1931 interview in US fan magazine Movie Classic, felt that ‘in England we have less prejudice against scenes of interracial romance than in America. In France still less, and in Germany none at all. But we are still careful to handle such scenes tactfully.’

It’s hard for casual viewers to contextualise the daring of the love story in these enlightened times perhaps and also because Anna May Wong, in a Brooksian way, seems to stare out at the viewer as if the past 92 years hadn’t happened. When I first saw the film, it was also the first time I’d watched her but now with several viewings and a number of other films under my belt, her talent is as clear in terms of its quality as much as its compromise by American film makers.

Jameson Thomas

Piccadilly was an original screenplay by Arnold Bennett, a British novelist of social concerns and who once observed that “good taste is better than bad taste, but bad taste is better than no taste.” The resultant film was a highpoint for native silent film albeit one that was made with international funding, cast and crew. The director bringing Germanic sensibilities to his London locations as, in fairness, did Mr Hitchcock, and whilst arty-farty Close-up may have felt it owed little to the location, I’d disagree as there’s a lot of “London” in the film.


Werner Brandes' camera may have been almost entirely on-set but he captures the West End thrills as well as the murky otherness of Limehouse; London’s original China Town, with crowded streets squeezed in between Whitechapel and East End docks on the North-side of the river Thames.

Cyril Ritchard and Gilda Gray

His camera swoops through the opening sequences as we see the Piccadilly Club’s star attractions, Victor and Mabel descending the Café de Paris steps to wow the audience with their quick stepping. Victor is played by Cyril Ritchard (the artist in Blackmail) and Mabel by Gilda Gray (a Polish actress, big in the US and who popularised a dance called The Shimmy). Victor wants to take their partnership into a more romantically choreographed direction but suave club owner, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), is the object of Mabel’s genuinely adoring eye.

Things come to a head after a disgruntled diner, Charles Laughton, temporarily stealing the show as a corpulent complainer with a dirty plate. Valentine tracks down the source of the imperfection as he finds his scullery distracted by a dancing Chinese girl Shosho - played Anna May Wong. He orders her removal but not before clocking the moves… there’s something there. Later he auditions her in his room and, whilst we aren’t shown the sequence, Shosho leaves him with her lucky charm. An unseen transaction has taken place.

Victor forces Valentine’s hand by harassing Mabel one time too many and then offering to quit only for the club owner to fire him first. Game over and literally slapped down, Victor leaves and Mabs pins her colours to the main man yet she isn’t able to hold the star billing alone and soon Valentine is looking for someone to pull in the punters.

The Shosho show in Soho

It’s Shosho’s big chance and she plays her cards well, insisting on choosing her own costume from a seller in Limehouse rather than the fake theatricals from Soho. Victor finds himself being outmanoeuvred by a woman finally realising her potential and power. As Shosho woos Valentine her loyal friend Jim (King Hou Chang) takes it on the chin as she insists on his accompanying her at the club. Shosho’s dance is, of course, a sensation and the sequence is superb as the camera roams around the ballroom catching the response from the crowd as the glitter ball slowly turns… Mabel senses that her game is up and pleads with Victor but he is commercially and emotionally banking on Shosho.

There’s a fascinating and very deliberate sequence where Valentine takes Shosho out to an East End pub in which a young girl dances with a black man. The man is ejected for daring to dance with a white girl but, to her credit she – an uncredited Ellen Pollock - argues her case long and loud. It’s a startling moment outside of the show business milieux and the most pointed reference to the race issue in the whole film; the voice of Bennett and Dupont?

Shosho duly notes the situation and both she and Victor know they must be discrete, so much is unspoken and we come very close to seeing them kiss only for concerns about the American market forcing a timely cut.  As these two grow closer though, Mabel and Jim can’t let go… it’s a passion play as much as anything else.

Gilda Grey may have been the big name but the film’s success is founded on Wong’s crisp naturalism and you can only imagine the impact if she was the only Asian actress you were used to seeing? Shosho is a rounded character as well,  not some manipulative and inscrutable “other” but a player, every bit as much as Victor, Val and Mabel. That’s show business  and looks, talent and drive are the ultimate equalisers... as is love.


Gilda Gray

Jameson Thomas is grand as the dashing alpha male Valentine, ruling all but his heart with a rod of commercial iron. I also see  more in Gilda Gray’s performance with each viewing and she gives Mabel a vulnerability that is inversely proportioned to Shosho’s burgeoning self-awareness.

King Hou Chang deserves special mention too for frequent scene stealing; he was a non-professional and yet his portrayal of the conflicted Jim is pitch perfect as his love and loyalty are stretched to the limit by Shosho’s ambition. Hannah Jones also throws in sure-footed light relief as Bessie, Shosho's friend and the distractible supervisor of the part-time plongeurs. 

I watched the new BFI Blu-ray which comes with a swinging rendition of his original 2003 score – only his third - from Neil Brand which is played by talented jazz ensemble including the composer himself on piano, Henry Lowther on trumpet, Stan Sulzmann playing saxes and flute, Rowland Sutherland, flute, Alec Dankworth on bass, Paul Clarvis, percussion and Jeremy Price, literally, blowing his own trombone. Sulzmann and Sutherland’s flutes get some of the best lines, often cutting expressively through the jazzed interplay to signal a nuanced change on tone and atmosphere.

King Hou Chang

Neil picks themes from contemporary and later period jazz to suitably illuminate this proto-noir, following the rhythms of the dance as well as character and story develop. Those flutes are essential for delicately adding Shosho’s musical presence but the aural ethnicity is restrained even in a score that, occasionally, can feel insistent. Every silent film and accompaniment have a different balance in terms of narrative pacing and musical energy and here compositional invention wins out given the absolute respect for the source material.

Mr Brand explains himself in more detail in one of the set’s excellent video essays along with an appraisal of the film from Bryony Dixon and a documentary on the career of Anna May Wong from film historian Jasper Sharp who is currently writing a book on the actress too. There’s also Cosmopolitan London (1924), part of the Wonderful London series, which takes a luck at multiculturism as it was with accompaniment from John Sweeney. 

As usual, this is essential viewing and reading from the BFI and you can order it now from their online shop.


Monday, 31 May 2021

Addio Giovezza! (1918 and 1927), Augusto Genina, Cineteca Bologna Box Set

You men are all Judases. Even when you kiss you betray…

These were the second and third adaptations of Sandro Camasio and Nino Oxilia’s wildly successful 1911 play, the first, in 1913, made by the playwrights themselves. Oxilia went on to write and direct including two of my favourite Diva films Rapsodia satanica (1917) and Sangue blu (1914) both with Lyda Borelli.

They’re part of a new set from Cineteca Bologna that collates four of the director’s work, majoring with a quite wonderful restored silent version of Il Prezzo Della Bellezza (1930), aka Prix de Beauté which, as you all know, stars Louise Brooks in full radiance. That film alone makes this set worth buying at all costs and as soon as possible, but the other films give a fascinating insight into Genina’s work of which so little survives. In their booklet introduction, Mariann Lewinsky and Andrea Meneghelli explain the difficulty in analysing the director’s work based on so few films.

Genina did not always make great films, but in each film he made, he knew how to encapsulate a world…

Ruggero Capodaglio and Lido Manetti in 1918

This is certainly true for his stunning, colourised Cyrano de Bergerac (1922) as well as these films both of which are based in Turin University… Genina also brought out the best in his performers from the sympathetic slapstick of our hero Mario’s sidekick, Leone, to fulsome roles for his lead actresses who are emotionally dominant throughout.

In 1918, Mario’s love interest is his landlady’s daughter Dorina who is played by Maria Jacobini who is a most compelling watch, quickly striking you with her warmth and range of expression. As Lewinsky says, it is she rather than Lido Manetti - later Arhold Kent acting in the US – who is the centre of the film even though his character Mario is the nominal focus.

Jacobini had been in a relationship with Nino Oxilia until his death in late 1917 when he had been planning his own remake of the play… it’s hard not to view her performance and the film itself as a tribute. She was the surprise of this package and I’d like to see more of this contemporary of Francesca Bertini – same age and experience but so different in style.

Maria Jacobini and Lido Manetti (later Arhold Kent)

The story is fairly easily summarised but is clearly so malleable as the various remakes show. Small town boy Mario leaves his loving parents behind to study law in Turin. En route he meets the comically short-sighted Leone (Ruggero Capodaglio) who is also to study law, and the two quickly bond; friends for life by the time the train arrives.

They face fresher humiliation together as they are tricked into paying for a huge round of drinks by some senior students… so much changes and yet so little, eh first years? They go in search of a room on the fourth floor of a cheap house being rented by a woman and her seamstress daughter, Dorina. Mario likes the look of both room and girl as does his myopic pal, but, as usual, Leone loses out. Gradually Mario raises the courage to tell Dorina that he likes her and soon his studies take on a broader remit.

The years pass and as finals approach an enigmatic and beautiful woman comes for a fitting at the dressmakers below their apartment. It is Elena played by, erm, Elena Makowska one of the Diva class actors who could hardly have been better cast as the elegantly illusive clothes horse who clearly gets what she wants. Yes folks, a “Jolene” scenario is about to take place as the mystery beauty sets her intense gaze on young Mario and the two click via a lovely set piece in the opera as he searches the stalls and galleries for the lady with camelias originally given to him by Dorina.

Elena Makowska looking like a Diva!

This treacherous play by Mario rather undermines our sympathies and Genina wisely distracts us with a farcical set-up for his planned assignation with Elena in his room. The place is filled with flowers and he gets Leone to pretend that it’s for him so that poor Dorina suspects nothing… but she wasn’t born yesterday. Everything is set until the students start to strike in protest at a reduction in exams… they need their lawyer, Mario to lead the protest…

Convincingly these are people still learning in and out of university and whilst the lessons are sometimes hard, they can also be unexpected.

Augusto Bandini three years before he met Louise Brooks

Move forward almost a decade, and we have a version with a different focus on character.

This version, whilst technically an upgrade, doesn’t always have the edge over 1918 especially as the latter is a fuller version and there are some parts missing especially at the end – the run time was originally 87 minutes and what survives is only just over an hour. Both have their visual strengths and noteworthy performers.

Now, I’m not claiming to be an expert on the films of Cliff Richard but after some time watching the 1927 version, I realised that the young lead was Walter Slezak, who plays Susan Hampshire’s grumpy director dad in Wonderful Life (1964). That aside, he had a distinguished career and it’s always interesting to see younger versions of actors you know only in later life.

Here Slezak’s Mario is more of the fulcrum and the real drama is between the two women, in this case Carmen Boni’s Dorina and Elena Sangro’s Elena who, whilst lacking her predecessor’s ethereality puts in a more convincing performance, acting Elena’s way to Mario’s heart and showing a good deal more tenderness in the process towards her helpless rival.

Walter Slezak

Another familiar face pops up and promptly falls over and it’s Prix de Beauté’s Augusto Bandini getting more laughs than Leone No. 1 with his greater physicality and comic energy. Leone’s myopia may well be real but there’s one uncomfortable instance on the train ride to Turin when he sits down next to an actress in black face and then quickly shuffles away once he gets close enough to detect her skin colour; a reminder of the way the wind was blowing in Italy at the time where Il Duce was already premier.

The new friends arrive at University and face the same ragging from the more experienced students, before ending up in the student bar, The Ark, where we witness a comic rundown of some of the student types; the Hippo, the Giraffe Piggy and a shapely pair of legs named Leda – shades of the director’s fascination with Brooks’ pins in Prix.

Carmen Boni

They find their rooms and Dorina, with Carmen Boni’s gamine delicacy a contrast to Maria Jacobini’s more physical performance.  There’s more of a focus on their friendship group and one delightful sequence in which a portable record player is set up and the youngsters dance along in ways reminiscent of Brian Ferry’s backing singers… their moves are robotic and comically stylised – the youth dancing to sounds with an appeal laughably obscure to one of Genina’s generation. Timeless inter-generational confusion, which brings us back to Slezak and Cliff…

As they romp, the vamp is downstairs getting her clothes fitted, marvelling at the youthful energies and planning her introduction to Mario. His betrayal of Dorina is again bitterly pragmatic, a young man who can’t say know to a more experienced offer; is this his real education and is the answer to focus on himself and his studies more? As Dorina’s quote at the top says, perhaps all men can be faithless when it comes to love and ambition.

Elena Sangro

Both films make the choice to buy this set an easy one – even without Brooksie – although the cover photo and multiple images of her legs emerging from the car at the lakeside, show that Cineteca Bologna know their main selling point.

You can buy the disc direct from them or from Amazons who place it in the “Books” section because of the lovely booklet which is very informative on the actors and the films.


Sunday, 23 May 2021

Nation or nurture? Maeve (1981), BFI Blu-ray out now


I felt very strongly that documentary was fiction because the shots were chosen and because of the politics of the person with the camera. Thus, I decided that if Maeve were fictionalised, we would have more scope to tell the truth.

Writer/director Pat Murphy was well ahead of the curve on this issue, as quoted in Dr Emmie McFadden’s excellent booklet essay, Sites of Power – Memory, Storytelling and Identity; what we get is not necessarily what we see and this new BFI release has a wider discussion about the portrayal of Ireland by film makers from without the country in the documentary Irish Cinema – Ourselves Alone? (1996). Murphy is very much from within having grown up in Dublin and Belfast before coming over to study in England and whilst her other films Nora (2000) and Anne Devlin (1984) were based on actual lives, Maeve is based, in part at least, on her own experiences. The film was also the first made entirely on location in Belfast… a mere 84 years after the Lumiere Brothers filmed O’Connell Street down in Dublin.

Maeve is a film that reads like a book; a dialogue-rich mix of naturalism, magic-realism and deliberately challenging set-piece debates about Irish nationalism and the feminist cause. Arguing with her – increasingly ex – boyfriend Liam about the true cause, Maeve tells him that this very masculine history erases her sex, past, present and, very probably, future whilst his response is that feminism is a side show weakening the main priorities of the movement for one state.

Mary Jackson's Maeve arrives home

So it goes and, whilst this debate is still alive, the activists of forty years ago are now themselves outflanked/diluted by agitators with new concerns for social recognition even as buses are still being burned in Northern Ireland. At one point Liam talks enviously of his father’s ability to grow up “inside all that and accepting it…” republican history; an unmovable trajectory for independence that provides its own myths and momentum and its own rewards. He bemoans the fact that at his age his father was already blowing up border posts and that he might be just one of those revolutionaries who don’t want to get shot.

The narrative moves back and forth as Maeve (Mary Jackson) looks back on everything she left behind on her return home from London where she intends to study photography. Such a lifestyle is frivolous to Liam (John Keegan) who is becoming only more entrenched in his views, all the more so as what he considers Maeve’s self-obsession moves her further away from him. But is the whole cause as likely to one day be as obscure as the stone circle Maeve flies over on her way back home? There’s an Englishman next to her who’s going to write an article on megalithic monuments for The Journal of Lost Knowledge…

Brid Brennan's Roisin brings home unwanted attention

We begin with Maeve’s father, Martin Sweeney played by the excellent Mark Mulholland, who you fancy, must have known Ted Hastings as a young man, spinning yarns in a pub by the River Lagan. He writes to Maeve after being told to take to his back room by British soldiers clearing the streets for a bomb nearby.

A lot of actual stories are relayed through the characters – giving real substance to Murphy’s documentary purpose. Maeve sits with her sister Roisin (Brid Brennan excelling in only her second film) who tells her of being stopped by a group of republicans with a boy armed with a gun. Then there is the story of a British soldier who climbed into bed with them – rifle in hand – expecting a warmer welcome than he got. The girls are made to jump up and down by a patrol and generally the view of the army is mixed to say the least.

But there’s little unity even within the Catholic “side” with most people, like Maeve’s parents just wanting to get on with their lives – to compromise. This isn’t enough for Maeve. As Dr McFadden points out, a woman’s duty here is seen as supporting the men in the fight for nationalism and yet her own mother is derided by her Uncle who caused her father to spend a year in jail by hiding explosives in his house without telling him. Martin gets the respect for doing the time and yet his brother has little respect for the wife that held the family together.    

Mary Jackson and John Keegan

A centre. A landmark. Laying a foundation, giving new ground. Grounding ourselves… Clarity. About what happens, about what’s supposed to happen… A lie. The truth. A lie that tells the truth… A projection. A memory… A way of thinking. A way of not thinking.

Younger Maeve recites this free verse as the camera pans over a misty clear Belfast, seen from the hills… all peace and possibility just before she rows with Liam, pining for the freedoms brought by blowing up border posts.

It’s Murphy’s willingness to experiment like this that keeps the film fresh and delivers the unexpected delights and shocks that make it so rewatchable. It’s a very earnest film but that’s a compliment given the subject and our unwillingness to let go of categorisations that lead to binary thought. She’s not didactic and leaves us to take things at face value and make our own minds up – a rare objectivity. A very Irish objectivity.

Mark Mulholland with Nuala McCann as Young Maeve

There are strange and lovely episodes with young Maeve exploring a dry-stone wall as her father, looking straight to camera, retells a story about a calf following him home, as they break from delivering his baked goods to the rural areas where they lived for a while before being forced back to the city and eventually the Falls Road. Then there’s a visit to the Giants Causeway on the Antrim coast, where mother and daughters walk barefoot before encountering an odd man blasting the sea with catholic verse, nature shouted down by nurture.

Writer director Lizzie Borden also writes an essay for the booklet in this set and notes that Maeve has been pushed into the ‘Irish Troubles’ bin, “… important but a partial and patriarchal view of its content” yet re-watching it she was “…stunned by how relevant its feminism is, ahead of its time and exactly of this time”. She also notes the bravery of filming in an actual warzone.

Now is the right time to reappraise this invaluable film and this is another superb set from the BFI.

The booklet includes an interview with Murphy, co-director John Davies and cameraman Robert Smith from March 2021. Davies remains “really pleased with the way the political commentary dipped in and out of the fabric of the film…” and I have to say they got this right as you care for Liam, Martin, Roisin and Maeve. The remains no easy answers.

Also included is a video essay on the film from Chris O’Neill, filmmaker and Head of Cinema at Triskel Arts Centre as well as the Donald Taylor Black and Kevin Rockett's documentary mentioned at the top. Ourselves Alone? separates the reality of domestic productions from the shamrock-tinted spectacles of The Quiet Man and other films which, even though they have merit, don’t really tell the whole story.

If you want that, you can and should order Maeve direct from the BFI online!


PS My Dublin uncle, actor and comedian Mike Nolan, was once in a film with Rock Hudson called Captain Lightfoot (1955) playing “Willie the Goat”. It’s a load of Hollywood blarney directed by Douglas Sirk, but at least Mike was the real thing and it was filmed in Ireland! It’s a riot, check it out on blur-ray too or on Amazon Prime.