Sunday, 15 January 2017

Money can’t buy you love… Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies, BFI BluRay/DVD

Charlie Chaplin became the most famous man in the world when working for Essanay in 1915. In Beatles terms, if the Mutual Comedies are his Rubber Soul, Keystone Please, Please Me, then the films of this period are his A Hard Day’s Night – a real, albeit uneven, progression in the definition of his style and comedy character.

This new BFI set is the result of a 12-year project, led by Lobster Films and the Cineteca di Bologna, and features all of Chaplin’s Essanay output on two disc Blu-ray and DVD. The films are fully restored and presented alongside exclusive special features – all released for the first time in the UK.

This was a transitional period for the pop-cultural superstar as he cemented his fame and developed his style. Keystone had been punk cinema, instant scenarios developed through improvisation and riffing off the talents all around, Mack, Mabel et al. But at Essanay with more control and bigger budgets, Charlie was able to produce more measured comedies albeit still at some rate of production – with 15 films released between February ’15 and March ’16 and his departure.

Edna and Charlie
Included were some average fare but also what Glenn Mitchell, in his accompanying essay, considers Chaplin’s first true classic, The Tramp (11th April 1915) and The Bank (9th August 1915) described as an “undisputed classic” by Frank Scheide in his piece.

After his barnstorming year at Keystone Charlie knew his earning potential was far greater elsewhere and he negotiated a huge deal with Essanay, a company famous for the Bronco Billy westerns - drama as well as comedy. You can take the boy out of Walworth but this 25-year old still knew his way round the block and, reputedly, Charlie had himself paged when meeting Essanay exec GM Anderson – Bronco Billy himself - at the Alexandra Hotel in Chicago thereby drawing a large crowd – instant proof of popularity.

Ben Turpin was just a little too funny for Charlie's tastes!
Relations with Anderson and his Essanay co-owner, George K Spoor, were not always to be smooth – particularly the latter. The company was to not only frustrate his ambition for longer form features nixing the idea for a feature called Life – but also re-cut some of these two reelers such as the Burlesque on Carmen (April 1916) and Police (27th March 1916) by including outtakes and, for the former, shooting additional footage with Ben Turpin.

There is a freshness here and an inevitable clash between the creativity of the star and the moneymen: Charlie’s velocity was simply too great.

His New Job, released on 1st February, was appropriately Chaplin’s first Essanay film (featuring a then unknown Gloria Swanson as a typist!) and A Night Out followed just two weeks later, released on 15th.

That's Gloria in the corner!
The latter featured Charlie’s new leading lady, the Edna Purviance, who was all but one of his films for the next eight years. He cast her after they had met socially and she more than justified his faith by providing a deeper emotional foil for him to interact with – Edna would muck in with the best of them but she could also act.

Chaplinitis had already begun but reached its full flowering in 1915 with merchandise, comics, books etc… There were Chaplin look-a-likes… and the kind of multi-media explosion you might think started with those mop-tops fifty years later.

Lloyd Bacon, Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance in The Tramp
None of this promotional excess would have worked had the product itself not been so good and by the time of The Tramp (11th April 1915) you can see the brand equity reaching its initial peak. This film shows Chapin’s increasing emotional content with our hero tramping off alone in the hope of better romantic fortunes at the film’s conclusion. In his earlier films, Chaplin had not always been sympathetic and indeed he had been an irritant; drunk and malicious but here he was beginning as a romantic hero and an everyman not guaranteed to win in love or war… someone 1915 could really identify with.

Interestingly Chaplin would still dip into earlier characters and in A Night in the Show (20th November) he played a drunken dandy and an unruly reprobate: Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy. This was an adaptation of the old Fred Karno sketch Mumming Birds and is a hoot; a precious example of his origins in live performance.

Mr Pest and Mr Rowdy
Work (21st June) was also descended from the stage sketch from his time with Fred Khano and filmed at the imposing Bradbury Mansion – the only thing missing is Shaggy and Scooby Doo! Slapstick with irony…

A Woman (12th July) featured some old school British drag, which for some providing further evidence for that minority who found Charlie a little crude. It wasn’t just in the US though as the film was seemingly banned in Sweden until 1931.

Charlie gets the wrong end of the stick...
The Bank (9th August) is indeed just about the pick of the bunch from the opening gag about Charlie storing his mop in the safe to the endless battles with Bristolian Billy Armstrong. The slapstick is balanced perfectly with romance and action as Charlie mistakes Edna’s intentions and falls hard for a woman out of his class. There’s a genuinely dramatic closing sequence but never a guarantee that Charlie’s heart will triumph.

Police (27th March 1916) was Charlie’s last Essanay film to be made and ends the run on a similar note: Chaplin is trying to go straight and it all boils down to whether his co-burglar (Wesley Ruggles) will persuade him to make his crime worse or whether Edna’s goodness will turn his fortunes. He does better here but, as he walks off into the sunset, arms aloft as in celebration of his new possibilities, a stray copper pops into view to chase him back from the sunset.

Charlie defends Edna
That’s just a small sample of the delights in the set. Sold?

Charlie Chaplin: The Essanay Comedies is released on 23rd January and you can pre-order your copy from theBFI Shop. The films have never looked so good in digital form and come with fresh music from silent-scoring experts the Mont Alto Orchestra and Robert Israel. It is a sumptuous celebration that no fan of silent comedy will want to be without, Chaplinitis may have peaked in 1915-18 but it’s never really gone away.

And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make…

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Shadows… Vampyr (1932), Stephen Horne and Minima, Barbican

Whether or not it was originally conceived as a silent film, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr is ideally suited to a re-score, especially one involving the combined forces of Stephen Horne and Minima: years of film accompaniment experience between them encompassing digital and analogue, piano and percussion and a mutually-impressive range of textural expression.

In his introduction, Stephen said that when he had met Minima founder Alex Hogg at a BFI panel on silent scoring, the two were viewed as being from different ends of the spectrum but rather than two worlds colliding these two found much common ground. For Mr Horne it's an opportunity to share his sonic pallet with other musicians and for Minima the chance to meld their alt-rock stylings with an unique one-man band playing piano, flute and accordion.

A group develops its own dynamics during improvisation and to share this process with another arch improviser must have been a fascinating process when the third party, Dreyer’s film, is so… unpredictable. Stephen’s piano acted not so much as a bridge between the source material and Minima’s more modern sound but a launch pad for an exploration of musical sentiments that are closely aligned.

Minima and their shadows?
As a musical mix it worked very well, growing in strength as Dreyer’s uncanny film developed its out of body, mind and spirit, narrative. Minima’s post-rock drive pushing on as well as working with practiced piano lines all wrapped carefully around the minimal dialogue and the gaping holes left deliberately in a story reliant on the deus ex machina of a dream saving reality…

Vampyr is one of the most unnervingly detached horror films and with events contained within open to so much interpretation, the accompaniment needs to both reflect this and emphasise the areas of more defined meaning: a challenge for one let alone five pairs of hands but one which Hornima passed with flying colours.

As Guillermo del Torro says in one of the excellent Eureka! commentaries, this is one of the few films to go back to the original ideas of the legend, with the vampires being "hungry shadows" who feed on the living... the young, the weak-willed and the vibrant. Throughout there are shadows detached from their corporal owners, dashing along with no solid partners to block the sunlight and living separate after-lives – no strolling together along the avenue for them!

The film is very, very, loosely based on In a Glass Darkly by Sheridan Le Fanu with the French film commentator, Maurice Drouzy, going so far as to suggest that this was a smokescreen to hide what was a very autobiographical work for Dreyer: a story founded in his lost childhood and adoption. Maybe... but it’s dreamy detachments make it hard to be certain of anything other than what we see on screen and what the director shows us is not intended to be easily “read”.

Nicolas de Gunzburg aka Julian West
The young hero Allan Grey – played by the film’s money man Nicolas de Gunzburg who adopted the name of Julian West for his self-funded big break – is a student of the occult who enters the village of Courtempierre with a fishing rod and high hopes of a more supernatural catch. He stays at a local inn and is visited by a man pleading with him to save his daughter. The man leaves him a book on vampires, to be opened on his death.

Dreams and reality converge and the narrative follows the logic of dream as Grey drifts to the man’s house only to see him shot by a seemingly insubstantial sniper. Gray stays on as a guest of the house, as the man's eldest daughter Léone (Sybille Schmitz) begins to turn ill and is confined to her bed by a mystery ailment.

Henriette Gérard and Jan Hieronimko
There is a malevolent elderly woman, Marguerite Chopin (Henriette Gérard) who seems to have power over many of the locals, especially her main accomplice, the local doctor played by Jan Hieronimko, who was apparently an American university professor spotted by chance in New York, he is superb and another unsettling presence.

The youngest daughter, Giséle (Rena Mandel) is kidnapped by the doctor and Gray sets off to rescue her. He sits down on his way and his spirit appears to leave his body (is this the "dream" or did it start in the inn?) and goes off to where the girl is held. At this place he sees himself buried in a coffin with a glass panel: is that West's body in there or his soul?

Julian West’s acting “style” truly comes into its own in this sequence but, for those concerned with the sense of it, all looks bleak for the fearless vampire hunter…

Rena Mandel waiting for a hero
Vampyr is atypical for a horror film in terms of actually having a genuine religious agenda. Del Torro highlights a Lutheran theme of redemption, not surprising given some of Dreyer's other work, in that we can be saved by divine intervention only when we accept our need for salvation.  

Like many of the best "surreal" works (loosely speaking) not everything is explained or explainable. It doesn't matter; you don't have to square the circle and rationalise everything away, just take a meaningful amount of sense from the total abstraction of the work. It's the feeling more than conscious deduction that matters.

The cinematography of Rudolph Maté deserves special mention here as he is able to translate his director’s vision onto screen just as he did on Joan. He also shot Prix de Beauté.

To accompany such a film without being giving too much specific musical narrative takes some doing and to do it as an ensemble would appear even more challenging. Styephen, Minima and their notable shadows did so exceptionally well and I would heartily recommend the result.

Comparisons with Wolfgang Zeller’s original score are possible if you get the Eureka! DVD – available from the BFI online shop. Maybe future editions could include the alternative music?

The band gets set

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Earthy spirit… Pandora's Box (1929), BFI with Stephen Horne

How many times have I watched this film and yet after a trying start to the year and the cruddiest of days I was once again completely and utterly in the moment from the first flash of Brooksie’s smile to the last: energised and engaged by a beguiling combination of Pabst’s genius and Stephen Horne’s way with musical instruments.

I sometimes almost forget that there are actually other performers in Pandora’s Box and I really should tip my hat to Fritz Kortner’s broodingly un-hinged masculinity as the sexually dumbfounded Dr. Ludwig Schön: he can’t live without her and he really can’t live with her. He attempts to move onto a more socially-suitable sexual target but back-stage his will proves inversely proportional to his physical power and he falls once more into the enticing arms of Lulu. As his fiancée opens the door the look of cruel triumph in Louise Brooks’ face is unsurpassably delicious.

Fritz Kortner broods
Other men are also available – in fact, for Lulu, most men and some women – with Schön’s son Alwa (Francis Lederer) next in the frame. He seems a genuine friend, the only one who doesn’t want anything from Lulu and that is why she likes him, although she does regret the fact that he may not love her. But of course he does and easily cracks once she applies the pressure of needing a well-tailored shoulder to cry on.

Who is Lulu? She is radiance and allure in concentrated tactical form with short-term sexual strategies that leave her companions confused and dazed. But she’s not the classic vamp and this film’s enduring structure provides her with more than that: she’s a curious cat and we know where that’s leading.

Like father like son
Carl Goetz as Schigolch is her original benefactor and father… a strange man unlikely to be a blood relative (sorry Carl) but who supports and feeds off his “daughter” right till the end. Maybe they are family after all as he is as concerned with earthly pleasure as she even if it’s brandy and Christmas pudding.

Schigolch initially tries to line up his protégé with the plump strong man Rodrigo Quast (Krafft-Raschig) but his offer of a circus double act is trumped when Schön poaches her for Alwa’s play… with consequences for all.

Brooks was just 22 when making this film and everything was coming to her as quickly and easily as for Lulu; attention just a smile away.

J. Hoberman, in his essay for the Criterion edition, claims that Pabst “virtually invented” Brooks and yet whilst there is ample focus on her throughout the film – a quite dazzling array of close-ups and stunning costumes – the director was working with a talent and a presence you can clearly see in her earlier films – not just A Girl in Every Port but also Beggars of Life and Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em.

Counterfactually we’ll never know what happens to Brooks minus GW Pabst and vice versa but what they made stays magnificently alive. Pandora’s Box is strongest when the focus is on its actress as in the opening sequence: the call girl sashaying her way powerfully around her plush apartment, enjoying her freedom, relishing her casually-exerted power - almost unconsciously alive and living every moment a thrill.

The story moves into darker tone as Lulu takes the stage and then Herr Doctor’s hand, celebrating her victory on stage in front of a thousand staring eyes.

The loyal Countess
 The women are manipulated as easily as the men including poor love-sick Countess Augusta Geschwitz (Alice Roberts) who will do anything for her girl even if, when intimacy looks near, Lulu just shrugs it off with a smile that lingers very little on any serious thought of her friend’s true intention.

Lulu just is, even when taking out the competition, Schön’s intended Charlotte Marie Adelaide von Zarnikow (Daisy D'ora), despatched with the venomous glee described above by the film’s and the silent era’s sexual superpower.

The former dancer and Ziegfeld Girl power-glides through the film, spinning her way through Pabst’s greedy focus with boundless energy, bible black eyes and that perfect pout so rich with the promise of her smile.

Yes, curls. What of it?
But then the restraining order kicks in and I need a little more objective contextual reasoning…

Lulu and Jack: why is that such a perfect couple? Gustav Diessl played Jack the Ripper, much to Louise’s delight as he was her pick of the cast… He is the man “no one can save”, he doesn’t even have any money and yet Lulu takes him upstairs just because she likes him. Curiosity killing the cat or something more? The Ripper kills the things he loves and the connection to the “little death” is hard to ignore yet what’s in it for Lulu? Does she want to put everything back in the box and is this the only way she can free Alwa and Schigolch?

Gustav Diessl, definitely not Stephen Horne
Stephen Horne played so carefully well in these moments. This being one of The Canon, he must have played along dozens of times and yet his accompaniment was as fresh as the breeze that seems to always whisper Louise and he paced his affecting phrasing with jazz-age assurance - like Miles Davis – leaving gaps of intent that enriched the notes to follow.

This was as close to silent cinematic perfection as you have any right to expect on the 3rd day of a nervy New Year: if you haven’t seen Lulu on the big screen you really don’t want to miss this.

Pandora’s Box plays three more times at the BFI - with more excellent live accompanists - and you should book your ticket now! You really don't want to upset Lulu do you?!