Monday, 23 November 2015

Dust in Dalston… Written in Dust (2014), with Ling Peng and Andrew Middleton, Rio Cinema

There were some interesting questions on the survey handed out to gauge response to this film: “How often have you seen a silent film with live music?” answer: many times and then “How often have you seen a modern film mixing traditional Chinese music with modern composition?” answer: never before…

Gareth Rees’ modern silent emerged last year with a tour of China as well as elsewhere, always with live accompaniment and this was the last show of a short UK outing featuring the score performed live by Ling Peng and Andrew Middleton who provided a unique blend of textural support: something old and something very new.

Nick Ma
As a live cinematic experience it worked very well and for an hour and a half we were submersed in the sights of Beijing regarding the city with an intimacy not always found in sound films. Rees’ use of silent film in this context meant that we had to study facial expressions for meaning with no distraction from sub-titles. Silent film was always a great leveller for world cinema with pantomime an international language and title cards interchangeable: it still works.

Bin Ba
The score from Peng and Middleton brought the audience even closer with the former playing a variety of traditional instruments  - Erhu (two-stringed Chinese violin), Guzheng (Chinese zither) and Xun (wind instrument) – and the latter on piano, electronics and an obscure western six-stringed device called a guitar.

This mix of classical and modern reflects the film’s concern with the strangeness of ultra-modern urbanisation and its impact on individuals who are often shown in close up, dwarfed by the glass monoliths surrounding them with aggressive angularity.

It opens with three figures approaching a massive edifice of artificially-lit tower blocks: “at last, the city” one of them says. We see the three riding through the neon streets – youngsters from the country, sucking in every detail of this new environment, their faces ablaze.

The three are Han (Bin Ba), Ling (Lily Guo) and Bo (Nick Ma) and they are here to make a living and, perhaps, to find themselves. They arrive at their tiny one-room apartment and roll out their meagre possessions – tomorrow they will find work.

Lily Guo
Rees has a keen eye for detail throughout and the lives of those in what is little more than a brick-built shanty town are shown in detailed juxtaposition with the new city – toddlers wandering across the dusty roads as huge lorries pass by, a community of small-holders huddled together for food and company against the backdrop of anti-septic immensity.

A dangerous place
The following day, Bo is greeted by a neighbour who works on a building site and follows him to find work shovel in hand. Han spots a woman collecting plastic bottles and starts to do the same being paid a pittance for the effort whilst Ling gets work as a waitress.

Small beginnings but they are off the mark.

Nick Ma and Bin Ba
Ambitions slowly reveal themselves. Han eyes an attractive girl handing out leaflets in front of an office complex - he catches her eye but she won’t go for lunch with a waste collector. Bo loves Ling but doesn’t have the confidence to let her know whilst she longs to be a singer.

Han plays the lottery – the get-rich-now long-shot of every advanced society and fortune of a kind is on its way as Bo’s workmate dies in his sleep and the boys find a wad of cash hidden in his shorts: the meagre rewards of a life in the city. There’s a picture of the man and his sister in the room – Han hides it and any sense of duty to the living person in the picture.

Bright lights, really big city
Han tells Bo that they mustn’t tell Ling and he concocts the lie that he has won the lottery. They have money now and begin to spend it, especially Han who can now impress the girl with a motorised scooter.

But Bo is troubled by the windfall and when his workmate’s sister turns up looking for her brother’s savings he is tormented even more whilst Ling works out was has happened. She tells Han what she knows and understands why he did it – “for them” – and just as she embraces him Bo looks on from afar, his heart breaking. But Han rebuffs Ling for the sake of his friend: none of the three is without honour these are characters with human depth, well written and superbly played.

Ling sings in the Lily Bar
Ling gets a job singing in a bar wearing the white wig familiar from the film’s flyers (I have quite a collection of those as Mr Rees has been tireless in promoting Dust at other silent film events!) and things are looking up. But can the trio truly escape the consequences of their combined culpability and will the city claim them…?

Dust was a thoroughly immersive hour and a half with lovely performances from the three leads and a simple story well told by the director. Gareth even turned up as a tourist who photographs Han retrieving his water bottle from a rubbish bin.

A lovely sequence as the figure walks off, blurring into the lights...
Interestingly, a large proportion of audience responses indicate that people haven’t been to see a silent film with live accompaniment before: Written in Dust is therefore achieving the remarkable feet of introducing new audiences to an old form done in modern style. It’s what the film is all about and so gratifying it must be to see this impact on the cinema-goers.

Dust deserves more attention and another tour. Watch the film’s website for more details and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook. There are trailers on YouTube from which I appropriated the above images (sorry!)... but, such a lovely film, I would like to watch it again.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Duty to passion… Red Heels (1925)

Das Spielzeug von Paris (entitled Red Heels in English – from its source book by Margery Lawrence) is an Austrian film directed by Michael Curtiz (Michael Kertesz at this point in his journey to the very top) that tells an old tale of theatrical fortunes and conflicting loves. There’s a lot of flash and a fair amount of flesh but a story that ultimately side-steps some of its designated clichés...

There’s a clear fix on the new star Lili Damita who is seen in a variety of stunning gowns and dance pieces in which the current Mrs Curtiz and future Mrs Flynn shows an incredible amount of energy with a physical expression that is exhausting to watch even at this distance.

She can dance and she can act and she can also “wear”… there’s a very popular still of La Damita in a silver, evening gown that has a popularity all of its own in fact it’s far easier to find than this film which I obtained from an American retailer that claims to "love the classics" but which took an age to deliver… still, it did arrive.

It was probably worth the wait as, mostly, the film is in good nick and presumably the source material is even clearer “nth” generations up the line.

Show girl: Lili Damita and Henry Treville
Curtiz presents a film that feels five years ahead of time with huge set-piece stage sequences and dialogue-heavy title cards that would be much improved by the rapid-fire delivery of a Glenda Farrell or Joan Blondell although whether either could move as impressively as Lili I doubt: there’s a wildness in her expression that looks more to Pola Negri that Norma Shearer. No wonder Errol liked her so much.

Behind the scenes at the new Eden...
Curtiz is very strong on the back-stage machinery of the revue at Nouvel Eden, one of the shining lights of La Pigalle but as one of the venues main patrons, Vicomte François de la Roche de la Maudry (Henry Treville) walks through the giggling showgirls, the theatre manager (Hans Moser) is wrestling with the problem of declining ticket sales.

Ninette (Maria Fein) the current Revueprimadonna, is past her best and a new star is required to reverse their fortunes. The Vicomte has just the person in mind and take the manager to a club in Montmartre to witness a ferocious dance from one Susana Armard (Lili Damita) whose stage name is Célimène.

And that's probably jazz...
Before long Célimène is the toast of Paris and knocking them dead with her high kicking all action costume wearing a feast of feathers and lithe limbs in perpetual motion in stages that would make Busby’s accountant wince.

At the same time we are introduced to English playboy Miles Seward (Eric Barclay) who with his pal Miguel (Theo Schall) catch site of a flyer for Susana/Célimène’s show and make their plans. Miles is involved with a young woman of standing Dorothy Madison (Ria Günzel) whose mother, Lady Madison (Traute Carlsen) deeply approves of this sensible young man.

That floor's bound to be covered in dust!
Miles and Theo hit the Nouvel Eden just in time to see Célimène’s act and Miles forgets all about his fiancée as he goes to see the actress after the show. Célimène reciprocates this interest and a little spark ignites that will keep them both warm for some months to come.

We don’t see much of Miles’ regular existence but we are treated to the broken flower vase of his desire as Curtiz offers some frankly pre-pre-code allusions to wantonness. Damita is all extended limbs and arched torso as she embraces her new love but there are conflicts to be addressed.

Miles is a respectable man and Susana is a show girl; he has his responsibility and duty to marry Dorothy whilst she had her professional duty and affiliation to her sugar Vicomte… but there’s more; she genuinely loves performing and possibly as much as anything or anyone else.

But right now, their growing concern is very much for each other and things come to a head as Miles is out with his fiancée, sister Nan (Marietta Müller) and Miguel. Susana arrives with the Vicomte in tow and daggers are cast each way across the room. Miles cracks and dances with Susana forcing the Madisons to leave as a helpless Miguel pleads his buddy’s case.

Miles walks the long walk home alone, along deserted Parisian streets in the early morning… When he arrives home he finds Susana waiting and the rest is physicality…

Happy ever afters?
Cut to some idyllic pastorality as Miles and Susana revel in the fields and quay-side of his retreat in Brittany: it looks very much like a happy ending and in some films that would surely be that.

But Célimène lies restlessly-dormant and perhaps sensing this the Vicomte persuades fellow performer and best buddy Christina (Maria Hasti) to invite her to a party at his pad, Villa Paradiso up the coast. She gleefully takes off leaving a note for Miles.

Back in the old groove?
Of course, when she arrives at the Villa it’s not just a party but a stage set for her to perform and she soon succumbs to the champagne and the beckoning of the old groove.

The weather has changed and in near darkness with the rain pelting down, Miles goes off on foot to rescue his love… cue lots of pained shirt-drenched determination intercut with plumed jazz-dancing. Miles makes his way and a face-off with the Vicomte and Célimène/Susana.

Through the wind and the rain...Eric Barclay
Miles retreats only to be followed by Susana who discovers that the wind has changed and is now blowing in her face… she loses sight of Miles and after finding him not at home struggles to return. Rescued by a car from the Villa she succumbs to a fever – it’s pneumonia… Will she survive and will she be re-united with Miles? The answer is not straightforward…

Duty versus passion
Samuel Goldwyn smartly invited Lili Damita to Hollywood after watching this film and it’s easy to see why – she was an excellent dancer and silent actress (she had a stage background) and would even made the transition to sound in films like Fighting Caravans with Gary Cooper and This is the Night with an impossibly youthful Cary Grant.

Lili Damita
The film is clearly a vehicle for her and her husband focuses very closely on all aspects of her role including the odd, very continental, wardrobe malfunction.  But it’s an engaging film all round which, even if the plot is rather convoluted, ends on an interesting note. It deserves wider recognition not just for its star though but also for the most bizarre dance routine involving giant chefs and ballerina’s dancing around huge mixing bowls… now that’s what I call entertainment!

A bake-off dance-off?!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Anna May Wong on... Song (1928) with Stephen Horne, Regents Street Cinema

“…a hapless piece of work that is years behind the times.”

Mordaunt Hall turned the scathe-ometer up to eleven in his New York Times review when Song was released 1928 but you can’t always believe what you read (as ITY-Arthur followers will know all too well). Maybe I’m too kind to these old dears but what was just the latest in that week’s endless set of new silent films for Mordaunt to assess has now become a rarity that is important just for having survived.

This is also the film Anna May Wong made not long before Piccadilly and even Hall notes that she is “a competent little actress” but one respected perhaps more now than then given the changed context but also our deeper understanding of what “little actresses” of her background had to face.

Song on it's first release
Silent films are also uniquely malleable because they are always part of a new context created by their musical accompaniment. Today Song had the multi-instrumental support of Stephen Horne as it was projected in the Regents Street Cinema, itself a living museum haunted by the flickering ghosts of the Lumiers… And… it came through rather well!

Anna May Wong excelled in a rare part that allowed her to just be – a good-hearted soul and not just an exotic token or worse still, something sinister. She responds to the camera’s frequently intense gaze with naturalistic gestures and a positive focus on her character and rides out some of the more extraordinary plot elements and costumery with ease and good humour. She’s equally at home fighting off attackers, coming to the rescue during a train robbery and selflessly supporting a selfish man who can’t see further than his own infatuation.

Mr Hall... step outside.
Song or Schmutziges Geld (Dirty Money) was an Anglo-German co-production directed by Richard Eichberg who then direct Wong in Pavement Butterfly (1929) before her famous West End turn in 1929.

The story is set in Istanbul and there are some lovely establishing shots of what would become the scene of Liverpool FC’s Champions League triumph almost 80 years later. Anna May plays Song an urchin eking out a living by catching lobsters on the beach. She is spotted by two men who proceed to assault her only to be fought off by a passer-by, Jack Houben (Heinrich George). It’s a pretty grim fight that’s only won when Song gets stuck into help her rescuer.

Jack shows off his day job
Jack takes Song back for temporary shelter at his humble home and frightens her to death as he demonstrates his profession – a knife thrower. In spite of Song’s nervous response to having sharpened steel utensils flung at her, Jack decides she could be an asset to his act and before long she’s dancing in front of the regulars at the homely music hall where he works.

Eichberg clearly relishes depicting this venue and the leering audience is shown in delicious close up as the weird and wonderful “turns” take to the stage.

Song and Jack’s life seems to have settled but the arrival of a famous ballet dancer is about to upset the precarious balance of their apple cart. There are posters for Gloria Lee (Mary Kid) all over town and Song decides to use one to make an improvised table in Jack’s house, fighting off the local boys hired to deliver this promotion.

Richard Eichberg directs Anna on stage
Jack takes one look at the smiling face on the table and flashes back to a time when he and Gloria were a couple… everything ended badly as he fought a young man pursuing her. The man fell overboard whilst they were on a cruise and diving in after him both men were lost, presumed drowned.

Jack still carries a very large torch and it’s only a matter of time before its subject turns up at the club accompanied by her theatrical manager/paramour Dimitri Alexi  (Hans Adalbert Schlettow, who’s close shave in A Cottage on Dartmoor still gives me the shivers). Thankfully mutual recognition does not occur during Jack’s act and Song emerges unscathed before Jack and Gloria see each other.

After establishing that Jack is clearly not dead Gloria invites him to her show but she’s more interested in her “manager” than this blast from the past. But Jack’s a fool for love… If only he was rich enough to compete on the present-buying stakes? Jack follows a get rich scheme dreamt up by his accordionist (Julius E. Herrmann) – a can’t-fail train robbery. Someone tips the coppers a wink and Jack only escapes by hiding under the loco… he is nearly blinded as the machine lets off steam and Song comes to his rescue.

Drama on stage as Jack faints...
Only an operation can save Jack’s sight and he is convinced that Gloria will help… but Gloria is really very busy and realising this Song steps in to help convince Jack otherwise, using Gloria’s cast-of clothes to convince him that she is his the ballerina come to assist (we can only assume that Jack’s hearing has also been affected for him to succumb to this kindly deception).

Jack needs an operation and a massive £20 is required to fund it, surely Gloria will help and, even if she doesn’t her manager is on hand to give Song all the assistance she needs. She goes to work as the star attraction in the club – and she can dance unlike the “ballerina” as the lavish set-pieces demonstrate. But everything she does is for the curmudgeonly knife thrower… what will happen when he has eyes to see the face of his guardian angel?

Song is a melodrama with some mad plot turns but Eichberg tells it well enough helped by some excellent cinematography from Heinrich Gärtner and the designs of Willi Herrmann. Whilst Mary Kid makes for an unconvincing ballerina, Heinrich George makes for a believable thrower of knives and, of course, Anna May Wong's smile and ready tears steal the show.

Stephen Horne said that, as a young accompanist, he had played along to Song sight unseen (the days before preview discs) and the film’s frequent narrative lurches had made for an engaging challenge. Today he knew what was coming and flute, accordion and piano were deployed to compelling effect.

Song may not be a great film but, in this cinema and with this musician playing it was a very entertaining one and if all else failed, it still showcases one the era’s best actors in a role of some depth... and, had he been here today, I'm certain Mordaunt Hall would have agreed!

Song is very rarely screened but is in very good condition… surely it’s worth a DVD release? If you liked Piccadilly you’ll probably like this too and if you’re a fan of Mr Horne’s unique lyricism you’ll want him playing on the release as well.

So come on Herr Copyright-Owner…

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The Signal Tower (1924) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

Kevin Brownlow was in his element, retelling the tale of his pursuit of this print of The Signal Tower over many years with a recalcitrant collector, a self-made millionaire builder with a penchant for train films and fifties American TV shows. Mr Brownlow finally won over the covetous constructioneer who released his grip in the face of unrelenting enthusiasm and graciously agreed to pass on the treasure and all of his collection in his will.

You can understand the man’s own passion for this is a film to make the rail enthusiast’s pulse race that bit faster in fact, this is a film to increase everyone’s BPM as Clarence Brown winds the tension to almost unbearable levels: a runaway train speeding down towards a defenceless passenger train, a signal man fighting the elements and time to dislodge the tracks and faced with the horrific dilemma of having to save the many whilst his wife is under imminent threat from a boozed up Wallace Beery with only one thing on his mind with a very vulnerable Virginia Valli…

Rockliffe Fellowes and Frankie Darro
It’s a dramatic scenario and one that required a great deal of sinuous dexterity from accompanist Cyrus Gabrysch who provided the emotive musical fuel for this clash of metal, man and machines: a run-away pianist who matched the film beat for beat. For the musician every note’s a dead man’s handle – for the train, everything stops if you release your grip but the music is dependent on a thousand stabs of precise pressure: all the right notes and in the right order with Beery’s leery menace as much a threat as the speed of those locomotives.

The Signal Tower is a film of contrasts with glorious pastoral scenes of engine steam drifting through the mountainous woodlands being very reminiscent of Brown’s mentor Maurice Tourneur – the man KB reminded us he had approached for a job having virtually no experience: the former car salesman promising that he would become the perfect disciple an act of hutzpah that began the career of the man who would eventually direct so many Greta Garbo films.

Rockliffe Fellowes
Those misty mountains contain a signal box vital to the effective running of the railroads and manned by just two men each working twelve hour shifts. The splendidly-named, Rockliffe Fellowes plays one of those “Tower Men”, Dave Taylor, whose wife Sally (Virginia Valli of Wild Oranges and The Pleasure Garden fame) and young lad Sonny (Frankie Darro) live in an idyllic wooden house near the tower – three miles from the nearest town.

Dave’s partner Old Bill (James O. Barrows) is indeed old and one-handed and so is replaced by Joe Standish (Wallace Beery) a man who’s flash suit and polished shoes mark him out as self-obsessed from the start and who is referred to as a “railroad Sheik” by one of the company’s engineers.

Dave lets Joe take over old Bill’s old room and he soon sets his sights on Sally even though her cousin Gertie (Dot Farley) initially acts as a kind of shield for his unabashed “sheik-ness”. Sally sends Gertie away to pay more attention to her fiancé unwittingly removing her own last line of defence… Joe soon makes his move and Dave kicks him out…

A storm is brewing though and as events take a serious turn on the mountain, Joe arrives late and drunk in the heart of a crisis – forcing Dave to choose between Sally’s safety and his responsibilities to protect the passengers. In the wind and rain the family pull together as the tension bore down on the audience… we applauded long and loud relief expressed clearly in every clap of hands.

Wallace Beery and Virginia Valli
Beery does his usual top notch job – his intensity belying his lighter, more likeable edge whilst Valli was the perfect complement, resolution that cuts through febrile emotional response. Rockliffe Fellowes is the perfect heroic straight man to the chaos all around whilst young Darro plays well aided and abetted by Jitney the Dog.

A massive tip of the hat to cinematographer Ben F. Reynolds who had previously worked on Greed – no higher recommendation is necessary.

Jitney the Dog is on the right.
On the under card were a trio of curios from Mr Brownlow’s celluloid cellar… which broadly matched the themes of the main film.

First up was a British pastoral documentary A Day with the Gypsies (1920) directed and photographed by Cecil Hepworth. The film was a little treat featuring some lovely shots of twenties Sussex countryside although the location is uncertain and so felt they saw Kent?

A John Ford film was next, a confusing comedy called By Indian Post (1919) in which a love letter from gets stolen from Jode MacWilliams (famous Irish-American cowboy actor Pete Morrison) by a fellow ranch hand and only arrives at its intended target with the help of a native American called Two Horns much to the delight of intended target Peg Owens (Magda Lane).

The prelims were concluded with breathless final reel of The Lucky Devil (1925) featuring Richard Dix racing car number 13 to victory in a wacky race of relentless pace…  John Sweeney accompanied all three and may well have broken the speed limit on this last film.

Another splendid Wednesday evening in Kennington and, whilst here's a rough copy of The Signal Tower on Youtube and a cheap DVD available from Alpha on Amazon - neither will compare to seeing the film projected on screen...

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The design of chance… A Throw of Dice (1929), Regents Street Cinema

This was my first visit to the recently-refurbished “birthplace of British cinema” (the Lumier Brothers projected here in 1896…eighteen-ninety-six!) and I can report that not only is the venue drenched in Victorian architectural atmospherics but the seats are really most comfortable… This suggests that one of the most important aspects of film watching may have been gotten right from the get go and anyone who has watched Spectre from a cheaply cushioned multiplex would know how wrong things have gone.

The Regent Street seats were suitably luxuriant for one of the most opulent films of the silent era: Prapancha Pash (A Throw of Dice) which was playing as part of the cinema’s Indian Season which links to the V&A’s Fabric of India exhibition.

The film was directed by Franz Osten as part of an unique cultural collaboration between India and Germany initiated by British-educated Indian solicitor Himansu Rai, who came to Europe in search of partners for a series of films on world religions. A Throw of Dice was the third in the series in which German crew worked with Indian performers and, as importantly, funding.

The story was based on a story by Niranjan Pal with adapted an episode from the Indian epic The Mahabharata. It is very much a fantasy involving kings battling for the love of a beautiful princess and their kingdoms: there’s a cast of thousands, gorgeous clothing and scenery, snakes, elephants and a lot of cheaters…

The kings tumble the dice
The two kings are Sohan (Himansu Rai) and Ranjit (Charu Roy) – the former quicksilver slick with a fleshy smile betrayed by his eyes and the later slim and dashing with an unguarded expressiveness that marks him out as a potential patsy when the cheat tries to prosper.

Sohan has invited Ranjit out hunting and instructs his shifty henchman Kirkbar (Modhu Bose) to shoot his regal pal in the back in the confusion of a tiger hunt. Things look bleak for the pierced prince but his aide (Lala Bijoykishen) knows of a healer nearby who might just be able to save Ranjit’s life.

Seeta Devi
The healer is a hermit (Sarada Gupta) who has left the devious ways of mainstream society to bring up his beautiful daughter Sunita (Seeta Devi) in peaceful honesty. The royal party arrives and the King recuperates…

Sohan’s plans are made a mess but he’s nothing if not resourceful and, indeed, observant, as he takes an instant liking to Sunita. Class will out though and Ranjit falls for the woman who nursed him to health and she likewise reciprocates recognising a good guy when she heals one. 

Himansu Rai, Sarada Gupta and Charu Roy
The two skip off to Ranjit’s palace leaving her father to carry on with his solitude but Sohan has other ideas and despatches Kirkbar is stab him with Ranjit’s stolen knife and thereby put him in the frame.

Clearly the couple’s relationship is going to be put through some testing times… but the whole enterprise is so well made: the pacing is sharp and Emil Schünemann’s cinematography is top class whether in catching the extraordinary light and landscape or the close interaction between the characters.

Ranjit’s palace
The two kings have already shown their weakness for what the modern American might call “craps” and so it is, as the story winds up that they play for their kingdoms, their freedom and the woman! One of them plays with loaded dice… can you guess which one?

Will Love conquer dishonesty and will there be a huge set piece ending involving thousands of extras, a big battle and a thrilling chase? You bet there is!

A Throw of Dice is a lovely film to watch not just for the fabrics which, even in monotone, are amazing but also because of a light and very sure touch throughout. The leads are all terrific with Himansu Rai clearly delighting in every devious ploy – he doesn’t over-play though and overall the acting is naturally knowing.

Kings quarrel
Seeta Devi is similarly nuanced and has one of those timeless faces that would look good in any film from any period: a neo-Bollywood Brooks no less! It’s a massive over-statement but you do get the feeling that cinema was going to suit India just fine – fitting in with a style of storytelling and a hugely rich cultural heritage that simply couldn’t be equalled by imports.

Seeta Devi hiding
The film was accompanied by Nitin Sawhney’s orchestrated score written for the 2006 restoration. It has some lovely themes but is sometimes a little over-bearing with some out of place vocalising which I always find a little odd for films without dialogue: no words are needed. That said, sat in this wonderful hall, this cosy comfort… I was transported far away from London’s crushing umbra to palaces of pure sparkle.

The film is readily available on BFI DVD either direct or from Movie Mail.