Friday, 9 October 2015

Splats entertainment… The Battle of the Century (1927), with Costas Fotopoulos, London Film Festival

My granddad Jim (born James Joyce, one-time amateur boxer, full-time carpenter and British Rail worker who fooled the five-year old me by claiming to have built Lime Street Station… on his own) loved Laurel and Hardy. One of my earliest silent film memories is of him sitting me down to watch the boys - “these are great…” - and our laughing together as they got to work. Silent film community – a shared experience and you always laugh more when there are others around to get the joke.

This was Jim’s little present to me and as I helped give him a live audience for his memories he helped me by opening up a new world of funny.  He was right, of course, they are good, really good and, as Buster Keaton who would have it, one of them was actually the best. But, for me, you can’t split them – they are a pair, a right pair!

The boys consider the consequences
The Battle of the Century has lived a half-life for much of the time since its release with one reel mostly (a few minutes survived in a fifties documentary)having gone missing until now and tonight, at the London Film Festival, we witnessed the full monty – every projected pie and every human target re-connected for the first time since who knows when.

On the undercard, there was a trio of silent shorts including Double Whoopee (1929) aka The One with Jean Harlow’s Legs – all of them! - You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928) and Big Business (1929) – all end up in perfectly choreographed mayhem with our two heroes the cause and the victims. But, whatever the slings and arrows of outrageous Christmas tree abuse, manhole mantraps and taxi driver vengeance, Ollie and Stan usually emerge smiling. As carpenters and publishers all know, there’s worse things can happen at sea…

The Battle of the Century shows the duo in the early stages of their personas with Stanley a boxer called Canvasback Clump – the clue’s in the name – and Oliver as his manager. As with so many of their films it’s not the desperation that’s funny, it’s the hope and here the extremely optimistic team almost succeed in securing an unlikely victory over the mean machine that was Noah Young – here playing a boxer name of Thunderclap Callahan – the clue’s in the… oh, done that.

But the chance is lost as Clump takes a nap on the canvas one more time. A change of tack is required and in a brief lost segment the boys meet insurance salesman Eugene Pallette who convinces Ollie that with a talent like Clump’s what they really need is insurance.

Every journey begins with a single miss-step
The new agenda is to get Stan injured but, unaware, he suddenly develops a charmed life refusing to slip on a strategically-placed banana peel in spite of his mate’s bets efforts. One thing leads to another and a man carrying a tray of pies slips up… outside of a pie shop… next to a van packed with pies…

And the first pie is placed on Ollie's face
Now, this can only mean one thing and what that is is the Citizen Kane of custard pie fights, a Sistine Chapel of crusted chaos - the pinnacle of pastried pugilism… as one pie leads to another and the whole street erupts in a flurry of flying food.

Injury is added to insult for Dorothy Coburn
This is The Great Silent Bake Off with some 3,000 cream pies used by hundreds of extras and dozens of skilful cameos each allowing a flicker of character as the human cost mounts… a Flapper (Dorothy Coburn) is splatted first and exacts swift revenge, followed by a man opening just a bit too wide in a dentists (Dick Sutherland), a man getting his shoes shined (Jack O'Brien) and a sewer worker (Dick Gilbert) poking his head up into the line of fire. 

Anita Garvin assess the possibilities for retaining dignity...
Anita Garvin slips on a pie but recovers her dignity and walks gingerly off shaking her leg just enough to indicate discomfort… and the rest is chaos.

Of all the tonight’s comic crescendos the pie battle got the biggest laughs. Maybe that’s because we’re less familiar than with the others or maybe it’s just a collective celebration that we can see all of this once again?
In the heat of battle
Live music accompaniment was provided by Costas Fotopoulos who seemed to have emerged unscathed but he’s riding his luck, it’s only a matter of time before the piano player cops the custard!

Our Jim would have loved it but then he undoubtedly did, in the cinema, somewhere in Liverpool in the 1920s… Thanks Grandad.

Pie fight? What pie fight??

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Ernst incognito… Als Ich Tot War (1916)

This is not Ernst Lubitsch’s first film but it is his earliest-surviving long feature consisting of two reels and possibly a little more in the original version. It has something of the manic energy of his early comedies without perhaps the editorial control: as if he was in a rush and over-improvising. There’s no Pola Negri making like a cat or Ossi Oswalda not wanting to be a man but here we have Ernst himself not wanting to be alive… well, sort of.

Writer and Director introduces himself as a performer by stepping through the curtains in a nod to theatrical tradition. He grins at the camera and is a figure of impish vitality – it is good to see and whilst I’ve seen Ernst act in Sumurun here he is more himself in an attempt to be a dramatic comedy lead (not successfully as he later admitted).

Lanchen Voss and Louise Schenrich
He is followed on the cine-stage by Louise Schenrich who will play his wife and then the formidable form of Lanchen Voss who is his mother-in-law: Schwiegermutter in German which sounds far more of an insult.

Als Ich Tot War (When I Was Dead) was originally released as Wo Ist Mein Schatz? (Where's My Sweetie-Pie? or Treasure?) after the censors objected to the original title… there was a war on I suppose. It is a film about marital misunderstandings, chess obsessives and the transformative properties of the right kind of toupee.

But, more than anything, it is about the dangers of living with your mother-in-law… a timeless source of humorous friction: had Les Dawson been alive then or now, this is the kind of silent film had have made.

Happy families
Ernst lives with his lovely wife Louise and her over-bearing mutter, he has a passion for chess and after being invited to the local chess club for a match stays out far later than his Schwiegermutter would like. Ernst is frustrated by the slowest moving opponent you can imagine and chews hard on his cigar as he glances at the audience in frustration.

By the time his bland master opponent has moved enough to be defeated, his mother in law has locked him out of their apartment and, as he sleeps in the hall she evens steals his clothes for good measure – what a mean old Mam?!

Slow moving
An argument ensues the following morning and tensions run so high that his Louise has been persuaded to write him a note asking for a divorce: it seems that he may have won the match only to lose out in matrimony!

Ernst won’t take this lying down and writes a note back threatening to take his own life – when under pressure it’s always a good idea to sacrifice a pawn if it means you gain the Queen.

A mean ol' Mam
Mother-in-law wastes no time in going to a marriage bureau and asking what they have in stock. She is offered a middle aged man (Julius Falkenstein) who recoils at the possibility that she might be his match.

Meanwhile Ernst has been boring himself silly by enjoying life on the town… it’s not fulfilling and he wants his wife and life back. A job advert offers him a way, as Mother-in-Law advertises for an “intelligent younger man” to help around the house. With the aid of a cunning blonde wig, Ernst is becomes a different man and even his own wife doesn’t recognise him… see Mr Kent those glasses and Mr Wayne, that cowl… completely unnecessary!

Completely transformed!
The new houseman is a wow with the other servants and his employer begins to fall for his convincingly coiffured charms… but can Ernst prevent his wife being won away by the “new” man from the agency and thereby prevent his Schwiegermutter’s ultimate victory?!

It’s fluffy stuff but still funny and the three leads all play well with Ernst’s over-familiar nods and winks to us almost a statement of intent from the great director he was to become… “this is me messing about but just you wait a few years!” Deeply un-historical I know, but this man has the look of someone who really knows what he’s going to do!

The old and the young get ready...
The film was regarded as lost until the 1990s when an almost-complete copy was found in the Slovenska Kinoteka – it appears to be missing part of the first act and maybe even the ending although maybe Lubitsch trusted his audience enough to know how completely all would be resolved.

Three's a crowd
It is now available as part of the Masters of Cinema dual disc edition of Madame Du Barry (1919) – which is a vast upgrade on the version of that film I’ve previously watched. It is available direct or from Amazon – a must-have for those who appreciate the importance of being Ernst!

It comes with a zippy new score from Aljoscha Zimmermann played on clavier and violin and which suits you very well Herr Lubitsch!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Go with the flow... L'hirondelle et la mésange (1920)

André Antoine was so successful in injecting realism into this film that it was refused distribution by a producer who no doubt didn’t consider it entertaining enough. We should expect no less from the director of La Terre (1921) and who took not only Emile Zola’s naturalism as his guide but, through his extensive theatrical work, the approaches of Ibsen, Strindberg and even Charles Dickens for whom environment was as key a part of personal journeys as free will.

No stage sets, extensive location work and a rhythm built around the working lives of the protagonists set the context for a drama that emerges only gradually through the routine to explode in a flurry of desperate violence at the end.

This is a film to savour and one that took over 60 years to “complete”… the six hours of rushes lying in storage until finally edited together in 1984 by Henri Colpi with the help of the director’s original notes. The result feels very modern and the contamination of contemporary editorial sensibilities aside, that’s no different from La Terre. Antoine had his way of work and also seems to have been as restless creatively as he was precise, leaving cinema as he had film to focus on writing in 1924.

Why not? He’d already mastered neo-realism and Dogma – insert smiley face - but the mixture of water-slow pacing, travelogue and the most undramatic treatment of a dramatic storyline combine to deliver a narrative that is engaging. It’s a slow-release concoction that plays on the characters’ confinement on board the barges… it’s L'Atalante without the romance and the whimsy.

Well, there is some romance but it’s not open-hearted but conniving and manipulative and inappropriately-aggressive.

Louis Ravet
Pierre Van Groot (Louis Ravet) is the captain of two barges, L'Hirondelle and La Mésange (The Swallow and The Titmouse)which he uses to transport building goods from the port of Antwerp into Northern France. He does a side-line in smuggling including diamonds and lace to bolster cash flow. The former are hidden below the waterline, strapped to one of the rudders whilst the silk is tightly wound around his wife, Griet (Jane Maylianes). Griet’s sister, Marthe (Maguy Deliac) lives and works with them.

Jane Maylianes
At the port in Antwerp, a young man Michel (Pierre Alcover) spots Pierre in deep discussion with a local jeweller. He follows his every move and ends up working with Pierre as a pilot… Pierre likes the fact that he has sailing experience whilst Marthe his youthful twinkle but Griet has her suspicions…

Maguy Deliac
Pierre joins in the rhythms of the family’s life and soon proves his worth earning the trust of Pierre if not his wife whilst young Marthe begins to hero worship. It’s a simple story which passes by a slowly as the buildings and trees on the bankside…but you’re pulled in all the same. We know Pierre’s a wrong ‘un but we begin to forget as he seems so helpful but the cuckoo won’t share the nest forever.

Pierre Alcover
Before departure from port, we catch a glimpse of Antwerp’s Ommegang Festival. There is a giant fish pulled by horses dressed in fish scales and with a cupid sat on top, spraying the cheering crowds in honour of a whale that swam up Scheldt River to be greeted warmly by the local fishermen. Then there are legends such as the giant Druon Antigoon who had his hand chopped off by local hero Brabo and who here towers over his carriers. The ceremony originated in the 14th century and was, at the time, run only every 25 years: a delightful slice of bizarre Belgium life.

The Ommegang Festival
From Antwerp they head up river to Tamise (the French name for Temse) where the railway bridge still survives. They disembark for some sightseeing and shopping offering a fascinating view of the fish market.  Michel makes his move for Marthe and there’s a terrifically tense picnic on the deck as Marthe glows, Michel looks shifty, Griet appraises and Pierre is oblivious. All four characters are so well defined and played - defined almost instantly by director and performer.

Antoine had many years of theatre direction and clearly knew how to get the best out of his actors even when they were not so experienced: without checking I’ve no idea which of the cast was the least experienced so well do they play.

Photo poses
The two couples attend a funfair and there is a precious sequence in which they go to have their photographs taken using a variety of popular props, a horse and cart and an airplane. These shots do indeed feel candid as if the performance veneer fell away when faced with photo formalities. But we know the type of poses as some of us are lucky enough to have our grand and great-grand parents in similar shots: on their best behaviour addressing the new world behind the lens.

They travel on towards Ghent and there is an accident when Michel hurts his hand when lowering one of the barge’s sails, Marthe rushes to bind the wound: did he do this deliberately? He eyes Marthe up and down and clearly has eyes for the elder sister. He sneaks over the boats at dusk and catches sight of Marthe wrapping herself in the lace she bought in Antwerp; the camera lingers and there’s something sensuous about this smuggling…

Pierre and Marthe head off to shore leaving Marthe and Michel alone, he takes plunge in the hold but she pushes him away in disgust: if she didn’t know before she does now.

As they approach the French border… Marthe tells all she knows to Pierre – Michel is not the man he thought he could trust. They make their way past customs but as Michel invites his captain to get drunk at Kruydewier’s Bar will he succeed in his patient robbery…  Antoine handles the drama with the same ease as the documentary and pastoral leaving an ending that is all the more impactful for its simplicity. Like everything else we’ve seen; it is believable.

Cat or should that be Swallow and Mouse...
I watched a video copy of the 1980s restoration which comes with a wistful improvised score on accordion from Marc Perrone. I’m not aware of this being on DVD but it is surely ripe for broader rediscovery and screening – so many superb riverside views. A gem and one of 1920’s best sans doubt!

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Brooksie bows out… American Venus, No 6 - Fred's Place Theatre, London

It’s better to burn out than fade away as old Neil Young observed from the safety of his thirties… yet how would you feel if you’d done both? Sixty years after her silent flame flickered so brightly did Louise Brooks spend her days in doubt and remorse?

As with politicians, actors’ careers often end in failure – a life measured by success, commercial and critical popularity, appreciation of your talent and your looks (although I think we’ve all got to contend with that…). Few had the visceral, visual impact of Louise Brooks nor the unique combination of intellect and beauty than enabled her to transcended the self-made mess of her Hollywood years to become an icon; her posters and postcards the gateway experience to a face that still compels attention and repeated viewing.

Any excuse...
Leslie Mildiner’s new play American Venus takes the title of one of Brooks’ (mostly) lost films to tell the tale of her life as she lives out her final days in the bedroom of her Rochester apartment.

Mildiner bravely takes on the task of recreating one of the most complex personalities in film and succeeds in presenting a version of Brooksie that rings true not just from a fans’ point of view but on a human level.This is in large part down to a titanic performance of wit and integrity from Susan Penhaligon who's Louise fights against the dying of the light in her own way: denying her usefulness and importance, putting down her carers and long-suffering friends as she is slowly weakened by a combination of emphysema and a heart condition.

Angharad George-Carey and Susan Penhaligon
Penhaligon’s delivery is pitch perfect and out of every excruciating coughing fit she flies with stinging one-liners striking out at herself and those around her.

She has dreams of her past and relives the brief affair her younger self, played by the sparkling Angharad George-Carey with elfin energy, had with Charlie Chaplin in 1925 New York. Brooks was 18 at the time and a dancer in the Follies just about to embark on a movie contract with Warner Brothers. There’s no evidence that she thought Chaplin was “The One” but in the play their relationship is used to show the intensity of Louise’s character – her near limitless possibilities the near-equal of Chaplin’s own…

Angharad George-Carey poses as young Louise in Fred's space
Tim Walton (who I’d last seen in the excellent City of Angels at the Donmar) plays Chaplin as a charismatic, muscular intellectual who is fascinated by the young woman’s refusal to submit to his will. Chaplin has just become a father again but Louise is unimpressed, she is a self-sufficient unit who will make her own mistakes with no room for phony sentimentality.

Mildiner appears to suggest that a combination of harsh parenting and her sexual abuse aged nine, may have made Brooks the unyielding truth-sayer and performer she was – who knows? She certainly seemed capable of inspiring loyalty and was supported by financial contributions by an ex-lover for the last few decades of her life.

Mary Keegan
Here she is cared for by Phylis (Mary Keegan who is also superb) who is stronger than anyone suspects, ignoring Louise’s art of misdirection and trying to do the best for her. One hopes that Brooksie did indeed have such a steadfast supporter.

Louise rides Phylis hard but this seems to be part delusion and part thank you… Phylis’ husband Frank (Brian Deacon) is not as strong as the women and whilst he makes himself busy Louise always has something more for him to do.

Susan Penhaligon and Nicholas Waring in rehearsal
Louis has a friend Stan (Nicholas Waring) who collects her library books and brightens her day with his tales of romantic failure. He leads with his heart, something Brooksie would never do, and as a consequence is constantly disappointed by the men in his life. His latest lover is clearly only after his money and a green card… he leaves him in the end for a woman. Poor Stan, if only he had a tenth of Louise’s spirit.

Another visitor is the librarian Tara (Sophia Swannell) who arrives initially to complain about Louise’s annotating the books she borrows with corrections and other “helpful” observations (including one concerning Tyrone Power that I probably shouldn’t repeat in writing). She stands her ground and is accepted.

Sophia Swannell and Brian Deacon
Louise is invited to be guest of honour at a retrospective screening of six films at Eastman House and has to be cajoled into going by Stan, she weeps at the sight of herself in Pandora’s Box… like being “present at her own autopsy…”

Directed by Sarah Berger who makes splendid use of the limited space of Fred’s Place this was close-contact theatre with every emphysematic fit making the audience squirm. I have no idea how the performers can stay so focused mere feet away from their audience but if you want to see how actors really work this is the place to be.

Angharad George-Carey and Tim Walton rehearse napping
Louise’s passing was felt most pertinently by Phylis – I won’t give away exactly how – but her message of obstinacy in the face of incapacity is a call to all to be true to themselves and to treat the twin imposters of fame and failure just the same.

Don’t waste it… and I’m pretty sure, Brooks, for all her trials, never really did. There are no doubts from Louise who’s only regret was growing old and hating it: if all you wanted to do was dance why love life when you can’t do what you love anymore?

American Venus is part of the Ever Hopefull Repertory Season of plays which completes at Fred's Place today… it deserves a wider audience and hopefully will get another airing. There's a short video about the season here.

6 Frederick's Place, just round the corner from Bank station
Keep an eye out for further events at No. 6, Fred’s Place and from the So and So Arts Club. It's the most intimate of venues in a side-street Georgian townhouse where Disreali worked in the 1820's and we almost felt like intruders as west end tales were passed around the room... a real treat!

Friday, 25 September 2015

The bringer of peace… A Trip to Mars (1918)

“We will never more kill living creatures and we will never more use weapons!”

When did alien worlds start being more of a threat than a promise? It says much about the times that this film’s Martians are an evolved civilization who want to help bring peace on Earth… so think again Gustav Holst.

Released in early 1918, Himmelskibet (literally Heaven-Ship but more often referred to as A Trip to Mars) was a plea for patience (and it is quite slow-paced) and pacifism at a time when the ending of the Great War was still some way off with both sides still in with a chance of victory (with or without the USA) and therefore still murderously competitive.

It is the most deliberate of allegories with this much being obvious from the names of the main characters; Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), the astronomer who believes and his counterpart Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen) who not only does not have faith he actively tries to destroy it in others.

Planetaros believes that there is life on Mars and enlists the help of his son, ocean adventurer Avanti (Gunnar Tolnæs) and his friend Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher) who is also in love with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen, who’s eyes are so electric blue they translate in monochrome as sheer white).

Alf Blutecher, Zanny Petersen and Gunnar Tolnæs
The Planetaros begin the construction of their great ship and name it Excelsior in tribute to the lofty heights of their dream. Naturally, Professor Dubious makes many attempts to undermine their project and – bizarrely – to lampoon it arriving just before take-off to ask them to deliver a letter for him…

They gather together an international team including an American lug called David Dane (Svend Kornbeck) who has a weakness for liquor (what were they trying to infer?!)… there may be trouble ahead.

Planetaros and Dubious
Avanti and Krafft take off with their crew in the 1918 version of the space shuttle, a propeller-driven bi-plane that presumably has a rocket as well. The effects are well done and all the more so given that there had been few feature-length films about space craft – although there were seemingly plenty of interplanetary shorts between this and Georges Méliès and there's an excellent summary on the  Silents, Please! blog: To the stars and beyond: movies dream of outer space, 1898-1910.

Taking what they knew the director Holger-Madsen and screenwriter, Sophus Michaelis, were breaking some new ground…certainly in trying to create a serious science film with a message.

Nothing dates in culture more than the view of the future and whilst there’s a period charm in the mix of old-new and old what the film achieves in conveying the wonder of connection with an alien culture undures: that aspect of science fantasy does not change and still drives the genre onwards.

State of the art...
The space ship may make Flash Gordon’s look like the Millennium Falcon and there really is no science at all in the fiction but the film really impresses with the gathering of Martians once the Earth men arrive… the hills lined with white clothed figures and topped off by well-designed temple (God is Love and is on Mars as in Heaven…).
Life on Mars
The Martian Leader (Philip Bech) and his balletic daughter Marya (Lilly Jacobson) move in a state of grace and are able to communicate to the astronauts through use of the perfect language – an interplanetary Esperanto that can be understood by all; pure meaning.

Don't worry, Nils will be alright
They offer the Earthers food, which is naturally vegetarian and when they reciprocate by shooting down a bird to show them the pleasures of fried poultry, the Martians are shocked. One thing leads to another and a young Martian (a very young Nils Asther) is almost killed as the men are briefly imprisoned.

The leader’s daughter takes up their cause and soon is making sweet music with Avanti… after wearing the Cloak of Mercy which allows them to judge themselves as innocent even though they did fire the first shots on Mars for millennia and threw a grenade at the advancing Martian crowd.

Marya wearing the garb of mercy...
Martian techniques enable them to look beyond the fear and ignorance behind the men’s actions and even the drunken David Dane, who tried to start a mutiny en route, begins to see the light.

Again the film scores with the wonder stuff, as Martian techniques relying on self-revelation and inner truth reveal that Avanti has fallen in love with the merciful Marya. There’s a beautifully lit Dance of Chastity which pretty much does the job for Avanti – these Martians can move.

The Dance of Chastity
Meanwhile back on Earth there is no sign of the adventurers and both Planetaros and Corona are beginning to fear for the worse. As Dubious revels in the hope of mission failure he drives Planetaros further into depression and physical decline. But Corona stands firm and defends her father … the women are starting to turn things around.

But still… the Professor is very ill and it is a long way back from the Red Planet…

“On Mars, everything is pure and innocent but on Earth…”
A Trip to Mars is a vision of a peaceful, pastoral future that is more about religious faith and eternal truths than technology. To this extent it has a far more developed “business case” than most modern science fiction with its obsession with delivering the technology without focus on the human process gains behind it.

The acting is less Asta Nielsen and more Astral Traveller with large sweeps of intrepid arms, vexed hands held to brows and bitter fists punched in professorial futility at the heavens.

It is very earnest but then that was important at a time when the truly incredible was very much earthbound in the everyday muddy hell of Western Europe.

“Do not fear death, it is just the beginning of a superior life!”
I watched the 2006 Danish Film Institute restoration which features a sparkling new piano score from Ronen Thalmay. It’s available direct or from Edition Filmmuseum and comes with The End of the World (1916) which doesn’t sound anywhere near as optimistic.

“Go and rest under the tree of longing. If your longing for me fills your dreams, I shall be yours!”