Thursday, 17 July 2014

The good old days... Buster, Charlie, Felix, Harold and George at Wilton’s Music Hall with The Lucky Dog Picturehouse

What better place to connect with the spirit of Charlie Chaplin than in Britain’s (and the World's!) oldest surviving music hall, just a hop, skip and a ferry across the Thames from his old stomping grounds. Charlie never played Wilton’s Music Hall but he certainly trod the boards in many similar theatres as did Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd across the pond and Georges Méliès in Paris.

The silent hipsters gather...
John Wilton bought what had been a public house in the 1850s and built his ‘Magnificent New Music Hall’ in 1859 to play host to the East End’s finest including Arthur Lloyd and George Leybourne - Champagne Charlie himself. The venue was a Methodist hall in Chaplin’s days and after years of post-war decay the hall is back in all its glory as one of London’s most distinctive arts venues, its patchwork eighteenth century fascia opening up to reveal a dusty brick and stucco interior in which you can almost breathe in the history …

Tonight Milton’s had been taken over by The Lucky Dog Picturehouse for an evening celebrating the Comic Heroes of the Silent Screen – this is how the hall could have been in 1924 and it felt altogether wrong not to be in period costume… So, tonight, I blog upon the shoulders of five genuine comedy giants…

Georges Méliès avec Georges, Georges et George
 Un Home de Tetes (1898)

Written, directed and starring Georges Méliès along with four of his heads… this was a brief yet typically inventive comic blast from the godfather of cinema and great to see on the big screen (I was one of those who almost leapt up and cheered during sections of Hugo…). He pops one head after another onto two tables either side of him then – after a failed attempt at singing in harmony – bops the tuneless versions in favour of the one true voice.

This is one of my favourite Méliès as it’s a solo show and you can see the performance craft honed over his years as a magician.

Emily O’Hara, Lucky Dog’s founder, played along on jaunty guitar – what a joy to duet with Georges.

The Adventurer (1917)

So many dismiss Charlie Chaplin for his sentimentalism but in this energetic short you can see his relentless, seriously anarchic comedy in full effect. Charlie is quick, he’s fearless and more than a little bit wicked.

We never know why Charlie’s on the run but he’s an escaped convict trying to out fox the police from beginning to end. We first see his head emerging out of the sand to confront the gun of a policeman taking a breather on a rock and his ensuing chase with the law is one of the most inventive and consistently funny I’ve seen. Charlie ends up in the sea and after evading capture ends up trying to save a woman drowning near a beach, that is until he spies her daughter (Edna Purviance) and decides she’s more in need of rescue – it’s a comically-shocking moment and proof that Chaplin was rather more knowing than some might expect.

Henry Bergman, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin

Charlie falls in with the girl’s family after convincing them that he’s a commodore swimming far from his yacht. He has a running battle with her over-aged and over-grown suitor (Eric Campbell) which involves lots of minor ABH and manages to drink as much as he possibly can. Before the police arrive and the chase resumes, Charlie lives the high life of the rich set… just like any poor boy from Walworth would given the chance to get one over on some nobs.

Peter Coldham provided expert piano accompaniment and helped to ensure the hall was filled with the sound of a collective re-connection with the silent sense of humour: we cast our chin-stroking hipster reserve away and just laughed!
Visions of angels...
Never Weaken (1921)

Any thoughts that Harold Lloyd would struggle to follow Charlie were soon dispelled as his “thrill” comedy wound us up to unexpected heights. Charlie got the most laughs but Harry ran him close and his audience response was laced with our genuine concern for his safety. 93 years on and we still think he might actually fall… that’s genius!

This was Lloyd's last short film, before he focused on features and he went out with a bang, using techniques that would later make Safety Last into a classic. But here the sky-scraper slapstick was used in condensed form – almost too much to bear for those of a nervous disposition: we laughed out our unease and there were genuine gasps and groans as one slip on a mile-high girder led to another and Harold clung on for dear life.

Harold is desperate to impress his girl (Mildred Davis) and attempts to drum up business for her osteopath boss who hasn’t enough patients to cover her pay. All goes well with the aid of a neighbouring acrobat (Mark Jones) but when Harold sees the girl talking marriage with another man, he resolves to kill himself. Harold suicide preparations are surprisingly funny but, just when it seems he’s worked out the perfect death he is lifted out of his office by a girder wedging itself under his chair. For a moment he thinks his plan has worked and as he opens his eyes he sees the statue of an angel on top of the building and a voice like an angel in singing practice on the top floor. But, as a basement jazz band pops his bubble Lloyd’s reactions as he realises where he actually is are precious.

All Harold has to do now is somehow avoid any number of girder perils and get back to ground to get the girl. It was breathless stuff, aided and abetted by Peter Coldham’s piano accompaniment… he deserved the half time break as much as anyone.

Felix meets Charlie
 Felix in Hollywood (1923)

Can’t think how it’s taken me so long to catch up with Felix the Cat; probably amongst my early silent memories thanks to Bob Monkhouse’s TV trawl through his dusty vault of 35mms….

Forget Itchy and Scratchy, Felix was always The Man – sorry Cat – and here he strides coolly over to Hollywood and meets Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Ben Turpin and others in the  first animated cartoon to feature caricatures of Hollywood celebrities (and before the celebrities became caricatures etc…).

Funny and so post-modern: every sassy cat that followed was always part-Felix.

Emily O’Hara, played along on cat-quirky banjo this time. 

Sherlock Jnr (1924)

Buster Keaton finished off the evening with one of his best and a film that really does justice to the Wilton’s attempt to recreate that twenties feeling. Sherlock Jr’s film within a film enabled us all to sit watching a film showing a projectionist watch his audience before dreaming himself into the film they were watching. And we all went in there with him.

I’ve previously raved about this film and, again, it was good to see it the way Buster intended. None of these film makers envisaged a world in which we could all watch their work alone at home and tonight, somewhere between the City and Shadwell, we were privileged to experience communal silent comedy in historically-appropriate surroundings.

At the end as Buster kept on glancing from his projection booth to the screen to work out how to make love to his girl, it was almost as if he were looking directly at us too: we’re pulled into the joke and not for a second does his expression waver: I know you’re watching and so am I but I’m not going to let you see that…

Mind your hats!
Tom Marlow provided thunderous piano accompaniment for the big finish and we clapped long and loud before heading to the bar and out into the warm almost Mediterranean air of Tower Hamlets…

The Lucky Dog hope to run more of these evenings and all I can say is, keep the films coming, bring your banjo and we will be there!

Further details about TLD are available on their website whilst details of Wilton’s Music Hall are on theirs. Encore!!

Monday, 14 July 2014

The nationalities question… Arsenal (1929)

A long time ago I failed to complete an essay on Stalin and the Nationalities Question for my history tutor Dr Robert Gildea. Meeting up last year I reminded him of my failure, he was forgiving (I think…) but reminded me of the enduring importance of this key issue in Russian history.

No doubt if I’d completed that essay I might understand Alexander Dovzhenko’s Arsenal a little better but I suspect that this is a film designed to hedge its bets, to avoid being pinned down at a time when being off message could be a dangerous thing.

 Arsenal is anti-war and pro-revolution but it is not simply pro-Soviet even when it climaxes with the uprising in Ukraine by workers sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. Some of these men were as passionately Ukrainian as communist. The film’s main character, Tymish (Semen Svashenko) refers to himself as a “Ukrainian worker” and the emphasis is equally on both. He is supernaturally empowered by this dual classification and acts as an emblem of righteous struggle. His specific oppressors in the film are the Ukrainian government, the short-lived Central Rada, but he may also be sending a message to a later regime that the struggle – for the Workers and for Ukraine -  will continue no matter who and what the odds.

Semen Svashenko
Arsenal’s style is all its own with impressionistic rhythms initially appearing disjointed but viewed on its own terms it rewards your attention. The second part of Dovzhenko’s Ukrainian Trilogy, after Zvenigora (1928) and before Earth (1930), Arsenal deals with the period between the start of the 1917 revolutions through to the January Kiev Arsenal uprising which, whilst unsuccessful, distracted the reactionary forces enough to allow the Bolshevik army to gain more ground, thereby helping them to enter the capital early in the following month. Not that that was the end of things…

The senseless bloody confusion of the period informs events from the very start as the swirling narrative begins… There was a woman who had three sons… and we see soldiers travelling on a train, their heads almost in silhouette against the fast-moving ground below as they try and make themselves comfortable.

A mother... some sons
 The sons were all lost in the War along with so many others. We see mutilated survivors and are shown a village populated by cripples and women standing in desolation or offering themselves to shockingly disinterested punters in the form of a local policeman. Authority is corrupt and society is destroyed by the shame of absence.

A widow is shown fighting to plough the earth eventually dropping with exhaustion, then a one-armed man fights with his horse as another widow beats her children at the end of her tether – “You’re beating the wrong one Ivan” the horse appears to say… They’re not the ones to blame.

City of women
Arsenal treats its viewers with respect and you have to remember that everyone would have been all too familiar with the events of 1917-18 and if we’re not now, we really should remind ourselves…

Dovzhenko dovetailed his film with this audience experience and recreated the desolate Great War with absurdist economy. Familiar shots of muddy battle fields end up with men attacking empty trenches, whilst the soldiers are difficult to identify as from one side or the other (they are all workers though). Then there is the famous sequence as a German soldier (Ambrose Buchma) starts to feel the horrific effects of laughing gas;  laughing his head off feet away from a fallen comrade, lying dead with his face contorted in a manic grin. Buchma was well-known to the watching workers and seeing him laughing in the insanity of certain death would have hit hard.

Ambrose Buchma
Dovzhenko was criticised at the time for not detailing more of the motivations behind the uprising and the conflict between the Ukrainian authorities and the revolutionaries. Maybe he thought such direct meaning was unnecessary or at least unnecessarily dangerous?

Tymish’s story runs through the whole film from the failing moments of the Tsar's War up to his role in the Arsenal Uprising - his presence is more symbolic than strictly “documentary”: a single revolutionary soldier to embody the struggle of millions.

 Tymish is revealed to be the leader of the men on the train as they leave the front and head home. They are confronted by a group of soldiers who look set to stop them by force but, at Tymish’s signal the tarpaulin is pulled aside to reveal rows of machines guns packed on the trucks. They force their way through but they do not have a driver and the train only succeeds in crashing: not the outcome one expects: revolution off the rails. There’s something wrong.

Spoilers…kind of… Tymish makes it back to Kiev and decides to join the Bolsheviks in struggle after seeing the reluctance of the Rada to complete the revolution: he wants the Ukrainian nation to have “Soviet power”.

The men seize control of the arsenal and a bitter battle is staged. There are betrayals and an horrific moment when two men confront each other. One has a loaded gun he has not the courage to fire and the other, turning away from the wall he was to be executed against, slowly walks towards him, takes the weapon and shoots him dead. This is war: some men are capable killers whilst others cannot kill even to save themselves. Maybe it’s the courage of conviction?

Through it all Semen Svashenko’s Tymish draws the eye with a firm resolution and an unquestionable integrity. In the end his truth is the film’s own and he cannot simply be blown away.

Danylo Demutsky’s cinematography is also outstanding. Demutsky had been an avant-garde photographer and his image-making has the off-kilter power to match Dovzhenko’s subtlety: there are so many memorable images. The director’s oft-quoted background as a cartoonist may also have influenced his episodic style: a series of outstanding set-pieces that hit home harder than some more character-based narratives.

Angles and atmosphere
Arsenal not only stands the test of time it pulls you back and I’ve found myself digging out old textbooks to find out more about the end of Russia’s war and the start of its revolution. Now, as Ukraine is on the verge of being undermined and at least partially absorbed back into Russia, you can only think that not only was my tutor correct but that  Dovzhenko would not have been in the least surprised.

It’s available from Mr Bongo…either on single DVD or in a set with Zvenigora and Earth – exceptional value from Movie Mail or Amazon.

Dr Robert Gildea is a prolific writer on  nineteenth and twentieth century history and I can especially recommend Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914 as a good starting point.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

He who cries last, laughs longest… He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

This film hits hard and whether that’s down to the Russian source material, director Victor Sjöström or the genius of Lon Chaney is difficult to say, but it’s one of the most genuinely affecting of films. He Who Gets Slapped doesn’t just succeed in playing the clown and the “life’s a walking shadow, nah, na, na, nah, nahh!” pathos it wrestles it into the air, walks around on stilts with it and then pushes the viewer backwards into a pale of cold water.

This is my third Chaney circus film and he really does make a fantastic clown… his range of facial expression is supernatural and the various extremes of clown make-up enable him to reach new heights of happiness and deeper troughs of despair.

But the secret of this clown is all in the back story…
Life's a walking shadow...
Based on the 1914 Russian play Тот, кто получает пощёчины  by Leonid Andreyev, He Who Gets Slapped is about betrayal, cruelty, fear and love – in that order.

Chaney plays scientist Paul Beaumont who is innocently pursuing his research into the origins of man, funded by Baron Regnard (Marc McDermott). Finally he achieves the breakthrough he has worked years to achieve and goes to tell his wife, Maria (Ruth King) and the Baron.  The papers will be presented at the academy and the Beaumonts take their leave of the Baron knowing that the next day will see Paul finally get the recognition he deserves.

Lon Chaney and Marc McDermott
But, as they leave, the Baron steals the papers from the safe.

The day arrives and, with hardly an inter-title, we see Paul’s face contort into anger and disbelief as he hears the Baron take full credit for the discoveries. He tries to reason with the Baron and gets a slap in the face – the first of thousands – which sends the academy into roars of laughter. He is utterly humiliated and, when he gets home there’s far worse to follow as his wife reveals she’s leaving him for the Baron.

Slumped at his desk, surrounded by all of his useless books, Paul laughs at his own ruin.

The man who laughs...
After every “act”, Sjöström inserts the image of a clown laughing hysterically at a spinning world. At the start the clown morphs into Paul spinning the globe in his office and after his bitter failure, the spinning globe is joined by clowns who sit around its circumference and watch as it turns into a circus ring. So many images in the film are used to match with others and move the focused visual narrative along in a very economical way. 

All the World's a stage...
The circus ring is in Paris and it is now six years later. A sensational clown has taken the city by storm: HE – who gets slapped – can you guess who he is?

HE’s act is elaborate, featuring massed ranks of clowns of all sizes, ushered into the arena by an enthusiastic orchestra, syncopating wildly. HE is at the back of the parade on stilts alongside the senior clown Tricaud (Mack Sennett veteran Ford Sterling) and enters to grand applause and a wave of hilarity.

As the spectacle unfolds it’s clear that it is entirely based on the humiliation of his previous existence, the clowns carry large books in mockery of the years he spent in fruitless study and as Paul/HE looks to the audience he sees the faces of the Academy’s mocking scientists laughing down at him.

Clowns and judges...
The procession ends and HE is knocked backwards off his stilts: down to earth and there’s more to come as he is flanked by Tricaud and another clown who take turns in slapping him as he tries to make statements about the World… it is flat – slap! – it is round - slap! – it is soft – slap!! IN mockery of his failed scientific career he is slapped for every statement and the entire troop takes turns in beating him to the ground.

Eventually he is beaten down to the ground and his heart, held against his chest by a cloth pocket, is ripped out by Tricaud, and he is trampled into the sand…

But, it’s all in fun.

Elsewhere in the circus is the handsome horse-rider Bezano (John Gilbert – didn’t really need the “handsome” there did I?) who notices the arrival of a pretty girl, Consuelo, (Norma Shearer so different from her world-weary, pre-code persona a decade down the line) who is to join his act. Consuelo’s career is being masterminded by her father, Count Mancini (Tully Marshall, looking swell in his evil beard!) a hard-up nobleman who aims to use her exposure to marry her off to the highest bidder.

The two young equestrians bond immediately whilst HE is also smitten with the young woman; a reminder of the love he has lost.

All balance is soon lost as the Baron comes to watch the show. He doesn’t recognise the man whose life he stole but Paul certainly spots him.  But it’s not the clowning the Baron has come to see but the beauty on the horse. After the show he is introduced to Conseula and her father sets about negotiating a deal to sell her off.

Norma Shearer and John Gilbert
Sjöström cleverly mingles scenes of Conseula and Bezano falling in love on a bucolic picnic with the negotiations between the Count and the Baron…. One couple reach a spiritual balance and the other purely a fiscal one.

HE gets wind of this and resolves to save the young girl he loves and revenge himself on the man who threatens to take everything once again… but, no spoilers.

I’m not sure I like clowns in general but I like Chaney’s clowns and this is possibly his greatest mixing extreme pathos with a laugh that is so engulfing you truly believe the switch from bliss to bedlam that has brought it forth. HE is contorted by the misfortunes of existence into someone who can only take solace in further violence from a world that won’t listen and which refuses to understand him.
Marc McDermott, Norma Shearer, Tully Marshall and John Gilbert
 How will it end? You hope for a peaceful resolution and an end to his suffering.

The supporting cast are excellent with Tully Marshall excelling as the Count just about keeping up appearances in order to cash in on Conseula whilst Marc McDermott plays the pantomime villain with subtlety – he genuinely doesn’t see anything wrong with what he does.

Norma Shearer
Norma Shearer is a picture of vibrant youth – possibly too young for Mr Gilbert – and a world away from the wise-cracking, self-assurance of her talkies.  Her Conseula is an important part of HE’s story and may ultimately help connect him back to the world he left so completely.

Mr Chaney
It’s also worth mentioning the cinematography of Milton Moore who helps his director maintain such a consistent tone throughout this symmetrical tale: the globes spin, the crowds laugh and the clowns all fall down in the end.

I watched the Warner Archives disc which comes with a new score from the Alloy Orchestra which mixes found sounds with cut up orchestrations to good effect. It’s available direct  or from Amazon.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Karma Camellias… Nazimova and Valentino’s Camille (1921)

Alla Nazimova was one of the most noticeably European influences on mid-period American silent film bringing a sophistication and style that took pretentious then gave it a make-over and a stern talk about expressing itself more.  But her films are uniquely striking, imaginative and memorable. Theda and Pola may have promised you a good time but Nazimova offered something altogether more disturbingly transgressive...

Born Miriam Leventon in Yalta, she first came to the US in 1905 with an attempt to open a Russian language theatre in New York. After this failed she was signed up by Henry Miller and became such a success on Broadway that they named a theatre after her. By 1916 she had made her first movie and soon went on to write and produce her own films.

Nazimova admires Natacha Rambova's sets
By the time she made this film, Nazimova had her own coterie of creatives including art director extraordinaire Natacha Rambova (real name, sadly, just Winifred Shaughnessy) and a young actor name of Rudolph Valentino. Both would provide a memorable contribution to this updating of Alexandre Dumas jnr’s La Dame aux Camélias book of 1846 and play of 1852.

Nazimova plays Marguerite Gautier a courtesan (OK, “escort”…) who lives a life of luxury in exchange for favours –  but only if you offer me jewels (there’s no way, if you can’t pay…). She’s living la vida loca but it’s slowly killing her consumptive body.

The film opens on a magnificent art nouveau staircase leading down onto the dance floor of a chic Parisian nightclub. Marguerite is wearing a gown trailing a shimmering satin wrap dotted with images of Camellias, her signature: the most beautiful but fragile bloom - one scratch of the petals and the flower soon dies.

She is surrounded by wealthy older men who compete for her attentions as she wittily bats them away. Across the club a young man stands and stares… he is law student Armand Duval (Valentino) a new arrival in Paris being shown around the highlife by his friend Gaston Rieux (Rex Cherryman). Gaston introduces him to Marguerite who advises that he may be better off studying love not law.

The party moves on to Marguerite’s apartment and all goes well until the hostess has a coughing fit and retires to her room. Armand follows and the two get very close very quickly.  This is much to the annoyance of Count de Varville (Arthur Hoyt) who is on a promise or special promotional offer…

A young woman arrives mid-party, a former co-worker with Marguerite from her life before, called Nichette (Patsy Ruth Miller). She catches Gaston’s eye yet he is told to behave himself as he is not worthy. A sign of Marguerite’s loyalty to those she loves… does she really belong in this shallow world of the good time girl?

Armand and Marguerite fall deeper in love and there’s a wonderful scene in a blossom-covered orchard where they picnic and Armand gives her a copy of Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost (incidentally, turned into an opera by Puccini just as Verdi turned The Lady of the Camellias into La Traviata…). He reads the story as she leans her head against his shoulder and we flash back to the book’s key moment as Manon’s lover abandons his noble life to follow her in exile to America.

In shock, Marguerite realises that she doesn’t want the same thing to happen to her lover. They are joined by Nichette and Gaston who announce their engagement: can there be the same future for Marguerite and Armand? As the blossom billows around them it seems all is possible but that wouldn’t account for the pull of a story that has been told so many times… sure enough Armand’s father soon visits Marguerite with a request that will turn her life inside out.

Ray C. Smallwood directs with smooth assurance whilst Rambova’s sets are genuinely stunning, with Marguerite’s apartment being the stand out with its organic curves, high ceilings and connecting see-through doors all of the same silken prints as Marguerite’s dress. Even her boudoir is separated from the living space by glass with flimsy curtains made from this material: everything is to be seen in her rooms and there is not a dark corner anywhere. There are even automated blinds on the oval windows which pull back at the click of a button to reveal the city outside - has anyone got those at home?

Nazimova is extraordinary to watch with her shock of dense curls corkscrewing up way above her head and an acting style that combines a powerful naturalism with mannered choreography. Her face is almost always in soft focus with her 41-yeard old features carefully lit at all times – she still carries it off.

Valentino, 16 years her junior, is also in soft focus and is a less defined presence all round than he would be with The Sheik and later films such as The Eagle in which his sense of humour was allowed to shine through. He’s still a highly credible romantic lead and no mistake.

I watched the TCM restored version which features a sprightly new score from Peter Vantine.   It comes as part of the Greta Garbo Signature Collection box set for which is serves as an interesting comparator with the Swedish star’s version of the same story. Nazimova’s no Garbo perhaps but she is still one of the silent era’s most distinctive talents. How many others are remembered from their surname only?