Saturday, 13 September 2014

William S. Hart burning down the house - Hell's Hinges (1916)

"No actor before the screen has been able to give as sincere and true a touch to the Westerner as Hart. He rides in a manner indigenous to the soil, he shoots with the real knack and he acts with that sense of artistry that hides the acting."    New York Press (1916)

I’m not sure what experience the Post’s correspondent had in order to form this opinion but from my long years of Saturday TV westerns, Hart does appear more authentic than I might have expected: the ten gallon hat for a start along with leather wrist bands (very sensible with all that lassoing) and gaudy shirts... they had to be real.

William S. Hart
Hart was indeed a dedicated student of the era and was a personal friend of Wyatt Earp (only 17 years older…) who owned Billy the Kid’s genuine six-shooters. Born in the civil war years, Hart was already 51 when he made this film and a veteran actor with a serious classical stage background having played on Broadway as well as Shaftsbury Avenue. This skill is much in evidence throughout this film and his instinct that screen acting required toned down expression although I’m sure the mighty landscapes and frenetic action took the edge of any over emoting.

He was already in that late mid-period stage that John Wayne struggled with: still a believable man of action but perhaps less so a romantic lead. Which might explain his almost chaste fascination with Clara Williams’ character Faith. He looks like a man who has seen trouble and travelled long and hard to find some more – Blaze Tracy isn’t the name of a man who has been taking life easy after all.

Hart is the core of this dynamic film which has something of the vengeful force reproduced by Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter but so many westerns to come would have been influenced by Hell’s Hinges. This is the West wild in tooth and claw, in which the moral compass has not just been lost but crushed by a stampede of settlers. Some folk want order and religion whilst others just want the good times force and will power can bring. It’s a primal western and westerns are just about as primal a genre as cinema has… hold on to your hats and leave your guns at the door.

Charles Swickard directs with real pace and the film has a raw intensity clearly influenced by Griffith’s narrative invention but also with a stylized focus of its own. Blaze is a wild creature who won’t be entirely civilised by the coming of Christianity although he’s big on an eye for an eye. To paraphrase Alan Moore: westerns are revenge fantasies for the impotent – might with right on its side.

Jack Standing and Clara Williams
All begins way out east where young Reverend Robert Henley (Jack Standing) holds forth in front of his congregation in chapel. But not all of his audience is held rapt, his sister Faith (Clara Williams) looks worried as she sees his performance exceed his belief: he relishes the acting and not the actions. His superiors look to find him a placement somewhere less… demanding, and come up with a small town out West: surely they must be so sorely in need of the Good Word that Robert will finally find his feet in less urbane sophisticated climes…

Faith – who hasn’t lost hers - insists on accompanying him to help him settle in… they travel hopefully across magnificent valleys and then arrive amidst a dusty gun battle: the clue’s in the name, they’ve come to Hell’s Hinges.

Silk and Blaze in happier times...
The two dominant figures in town are slick, Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) a professional gambler and runner of the local saloon and all that goes with it. Against him is alpha cow-hand, Blaze Tracy (Hart) – a force of nature not naturally favouring neither good nor bad: just survival of the fastest.

Neither men want to see the town get organised by organised religion and both fully expect the new arrivals to fall flat on their faces. Silk aims to speed this up by arranging for a party to crash the first sermon at the town’s makeshift church. Reverend Henley collapses under the pressure but his sister’s made of sterner stuff and starts singing… the sound is enough to sooth the savage breasts of drunken townsfolk and to stop Blaze in his tracks.

Faith sings and the townsfolk listen
Thus the immovable object makes the force stop and think… there is hope in this town. But, even as the townsfolk start building a new church, Silk is playing the Reverend… he tells him that the dancers in his saloon would appreciate a sermon and, like a fool he goes off to try: well, why not, as the showgirl said to the reverend…

He catches the eye of one Dolly (Louise Glaum: the woman who put the amps in vamps even before Theda arrived!) who Silk has lined up to lead him down the – darkened – garden path.  Dolly and Robert have such a good time that he drunkenly sleeps through Sunday morning… there’s no one to christen the new church.

Louise Glaum turns on the charm
Things head downhill… all the way to Hell in a hand-cart to be exact.

Mild spoilers:  There is now open war between the Gamblers and the God-fearers and Blaze must decide on the role he must play. The film builds to a spectacular physical crescendo as tragedy leads to vengeance and a balancing of the burning books as Blaze sets his destiny…

In Hell
There are moments when Hell’s Hinges feels almost modern: it's so stripped down in its attempt at authenticity. The Western template was being set but this is also a representation of how things actually were just a few decades before - this was living memory and Hart’s meticulous research influenced the film’s direction as well as his performance.

There’s great support from Alfred Hollingsworth as the unlikeable rogue and Louise Glaum as the tart without much of a heart. She's the antithesis of Clara Williams’ Faith who manages to bring subtlety to what could so easily have been one-note purity. But it’s Hart that draws the eye throughout, a man of gentle strength who looks to find redemption. He knows a good thing when he finally sees it…

There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Jean Hersholt as a rowdy townsman and John Gilbert as a rowdy cowboy – not too sure how you’d spot the difference.

Hell’s Hinges is available in a really good quality print as part of the Nation Film Preservation Council's, Treasures Volume 1 collection. That essential set is currently out of print but there are copies available from Amazon: better hurry though as it’s getting pricey, but you’ve probably already got it, right?

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Judging Jenny Hasselqvist … Vem Dömer (1922)

This is a film with many alternate titles Love's Crucible, Judging?, L'épreuve du feu, Who judges?, Mortal Clay, The Acid TestGod's Judgment… Maybe the distributors struggled with the precise meaning of a photo-play that is clearly more than it might seem.

Vem Dömer was Victor Sjöström’s follow up to The Phantom Carriage and was a lavish production premiered on New Year’s Day in 1922 accompanied by the Red Kvarn Orchestra and a publicity campaign including an illustrated book of Hjalmar Bergman’s story. Sjöström co-wrote the screenplay and whilst this tale of illicit period romance may appear atypical it has much in common with its predecessor and the director’s earlier work. Just as characters in There Was a Man and The Outlaw and His Wife must endure extremes in order to survive, so must Jenny Hasselqvist’s Ursula overcome not just a physical test but also a moral one:  she has to judge herself.

Gösta Ekman and Jenny Hasselqvist
I’ve raved about Jenny Hassselqvist before and she gives a great performance here with her ballet dancer’s physicality under-pining an energetic focus that draws the viewer in like few others. From the first moments when she is shown praying alone in the cathedral to her stunning appearance in silhouette mounting the wooden steps for her ordeal by fire, she holds herself so well and is able to convey so much just through posture – it’s remarkable. Then for her close ups, as she wrestles with the guilt of love and betrayal, she conveys a very modern, Huppert-esque intensity….

The film is in dark contrast to Sjöström’s al fresco classics and is largely studio-based with the majority of exterior shots taking place at night. This puts the focus firmly on the main players… it’s dark and claustrophobic and you can count the smiles almost on one face. Given this delicate darkness, it’s a shame that there isn’t a restored version generally available:  the sections included in the Sjöström documentary on the Kino discs, reveal so much more of the lighting, set design and Hasselqvist’s expression than the copy I was able to view.

Gösta Ekman
But, even given the low-res limitations, Vem Dömer is gripping viewing. It’s an ostensibly Christian tale of faith in truth and love yet it’s also a meditation on self-doubt and guilt: redemption comes either through a kind of miracle or the realisation of truth… the choice is yours.

The plot: The film opens with Ursula praying alone, dwarfed in the dark mystery of a medieval cathedral. She is due to marry an older man she does not love and pleads with the statue of Christ at the alter for a way out so she can marry her true love Bertram (Gösta Ekman). She glances at a Latin inscription: “… and realises that she must do her duty.

The marriage has been arranged by Bertram’s father, The Mayor (Tore Svennberg) and Ursula’s intended, Master Anton (Ivan Hedqvist) a sculptor considerably older than his intended. Their wedding takes place amongst civic joy whilst Bertram looks on in misery.

Anton sculpts a statue of Ursula as the Virgin Mary a she poses exhausted on a pedestal… which is exactly where he has put her.  Anton worships her but she can only reciprocate with hatred for lost opportunities their bond has cost her yet, whilst Anton chip-chips away, she finds freedom reading in their garden where she is joined by Bertram.

Anton's work of worship
Anton and the Mayor head off to the ale house leaving the frustrated bookworms: two old men blind to the clear and present dangers of poetry... Ursula’s desperation is on the rise and the visit of a friar selling herbs and remedies (Waldemar Wohlström) provides her with a way out:  she will buy some rat poison and commit suicide with Bertram.

Hearing their plan, the Friar substitutes a harmless powder and heads off to spill the beans… and to get help.

No way out?
 The Mayor and Anton beat a hasty path with a large angry mob behind them… arriving at the house Anton confronts Ursula who, in misery, reaches for another solution; pouring what she thinks is poison into his drink. Seeing this in the mirror, Anton is crushed and his weak heart gives out as he reels from her betrayal.

Ursula is immediately suspected – as if the crowd needed much encouragement - but is saved after the friar’s story reveals the truth. Yet this is not a straightforward morality play: Ursula did have intention and, though she doesn’t yet know it, she was the cause of her husband’s apoplexy.

Soon the figure of Christ in the cathedral is seen to be weeping blood – by a young Nils Asther no less. Naturally… this is seen as divine evidence of Ursula’s guilt and the authorities waste no time in arranging a trial by fire to establish the truth.

Who judges? Nils second left.
Spoilers: The final set piece is a tour de force from Sjöström and I’ll try to avoid specifics… needless to say there are flames, fear and forgiveness and an emotional dénouement as powerful as it is unexpected.

The “modern” agnostic viewer might cringe at the non-secularity but I’m not so sure, as with The Phantom Carriage, that Sjöström has a straightforward Christian aim: these stories work on many levels and at their heart is the need to self-examine and to be true to one’s self.

Fire walk with me...
Jenny: The narrative is simple and could so easily encourage over-playing but Jenny Hasselqvist’s control enables her to play out Ursula’s whole story as if it were a ballet. Her pantomime is so impressive from a forlorn looseness at her opening prayers to the love-lightness of her scenes with Bertram and the heavy-hanging misery of her sterile posing for Anton’s statue. Once the accusations fly she stands tall in defiance and after the contortions of recrimination her final brave steps towards redemption are taken with head held high resolution.

Put this together with her ability to hold the camera’s gaze whilst emoting with equal grace and you have to my mind one of the most convincing dramatic actresses of the period. Her style still stands and, yes, there really should be a fan club!

Victor: Sjöström’s direction is powerfully economic and he keeps the focus on character above costume. The wonderfully expressive set designs of Axis Esbensen and Alexander Bakó are perfectly aligned from the unforgiving cathedral to Ursula’s little garden of romantic solace. J. Julius' cinematography captures every dark moment and flutter of joy – how good would this look on the big screen!?

Apart from the brief segment on the Kino DVD extra there’s no way to view Vem Dömer other than to wait for a rare screening or borrow someone’s VHS copy (merci Christine!) – it’s about time more of Sjostrom’s Swedish work was made available.

As for Jenny Hasselqvist, if you haven’t seen her performances in Sumurun, Johan and Gosta Berling then I recommend you go straight to Amazon right now: you will not be disappointed.

Gösta Werner's 1981 documentary is included as an extra on The Outlaw and His Wife - available direct from Kino Lorber.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Buy two Normas get Joan free... Lady of the Night (1925)

Norma and Norma
There’s a moment in this film when Norma Shearer leans over and embraces Norma Shearer. She’s playing two roles and in a critical scene her characters meet and make fateful decisions in the back of a limousine. We all think we know how it’s done: split screens and double exposure but that moment… you can’t quiet explain it away. Well, not until you realise that a double has been used briefly to play the more heavily made-up character: an uncredited actress named Joan Crawford.

Back in 1925 viewers wouldn’t have been able to freeze the frame and roll back the action to reveal the truth to the vague delight of their wife and daughter… nor would they have been able to recognise one of the most famous faces in cinema history... but I could, so there you go.

Norma and Joan
This snippet aside Lady of the Night’s major revelation was Miss Shearer herself who gives two top-notch performances in a manner my daughter described as naturalistic and unaffected – “she’s not like the rest: she’s almost modern…” (I feel that I’m giving our Beth a good grounding; don’t you?).

Norma Molly and Norma Florence...
Norma does indeed stand out and the same intelligence on evidence in her more famous pre-code hits can be seen here in the sassy, gum-chewing, broken hearted Molly Helmer. If you didn’t know she was also the soft, highly privileged but decent, Florence Banning you might struggle to recognise her… but that is acting. I get the impression she really enjoyed the former role more – there’s a lot more of an emotional ride and she’s the true noblewoman in the end; defined by her choices and not her position in society.

This is typical Hollywood double-think – an industry in a hurry to get rich quick, largely peddling tales in which the ordinary poor have it better because that choice of being “good” is much harder: this played well with their working class audience who then gave them back a fortune in return.

Miss Shearer is often accused of riding high on the extent of her husband, Irving Thalberg’s, considerable influence but this is some months before their affair began although she was in a relationship with this film’s Director Monta Bell at the time… But Norma Shearer is a darn fine actress and she shows it twice over in Lady of the Night (1925): even in the 1920’s women didn’t need any help from men in gaining success through sheer talent. And, do we really think that one of the best talent-spotters in Hollywood history would push the claims of anyone he didn’t think was anything less than exceptional?

On this evidence Shearer was an unique acting presence and one that relied more on skill than sheer good looks to impress. Her emoting is impressively nuanced and you are compelled to watch her every sneer, wince and head-tilt as her Molly struggles to make the best of things as the dice roll first for then against her…

Lew Harvey
The film opens with Molly’s father Chris being sent down for twenty years just after she is born. He says goodbye to her in handcuffs then rails against the wealthy Judge Banning (Fred Esmelton)
 as his baby daughter is wheeled up safe in the arms of her rich aunt Miss Carr (Dale Fuller).

18 year’s later both girls are orphans and as Florence leaves her select school for girls, Molly leaves her reform school with her gum-chewing friends Gertie played by Betty Morrissey and another, un-named, performed by Gwen Lee.

Typical Girls: Gwen Lee, Betty Morrissey and Norma Shearer
Molly heads off to Kelly’s bar for an evening of dancing with her long-standing beau, “Chunky" Dunn (the marvellous George K. Arthur) whilst Florence attends an elegant coming out party. Chunky attempts to defend Molly form the attentions of a local wide-boy only for a neighbour, David Page (Malcolm McGregor) to have to step in and do the job properly. Molly is impressed and starts planning a boyfriend upgrade by inviting her rescuer to diner. 

George K. Arthur
Mr Page is not just handy with his fists though, he’s an inventor and before his appointment he achieves the breakthrough he’s been working for: a device that can open any safe! Wow, if only the script had gone into more specifics on that one… He tells Molly and, their gooseberry for the evening, Chunky who suggests there will be a fortune available from the underworld but Molly’s having none of it and tells David to sell it as a security device to banks.

He follows the straight and narrow and seals a lucrative deal with local bankers and their wealthy backers – including Judge Banning. He meets Florence and falls in an instant… future life sorted – not bad for an evening’s work.

Choices, choices... Malcolm McGregor and the Normas
But… it’s not that simple and David’s life is to be eventually decided by the women in his life and not his own free will… an interesting progression from Alice D.G. Miller (who wrote the scenario) and Adela Rogers St. Johns who scripted. The ending’s not too surprising but the way we get there is based on moral code and not character weakness or happenstance… it’s not greatly dramatic but it is well done and Norma Shearer shines!

I watched the Warner Archives edition which comes with a cracking new score from Jon Mirsalis. It’s worth it for the double barrels of Norma and that first glimpse of Miss Crawford. It's available from Amazons...

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Erik and René… Entr'acte (1924)

Erik Satie
Read casually, like a goat: By the early 1920s Erik Satie was one of the grand older men of the French avant-garde some thirty years on from his youthful pop classics Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes… He was an influence on Ravel and, of course, Debussy, his more disciplined friend and occasional rival, and seems to have pursued a life of uncompromising eccentricity.

Satie it was who composed using his own technique and wrote highly specific instructions to musicians asking them to play such titles as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear with “much more illness” or “light as an “egg”.  But he wasn’t flippant; heartbroken after his split with famous artist and muse, Suzanne Valadon, he composed Vexations,  a single theme to be repeated 840 times in succession - anxious musical ponderings that lead nowhere: despair remains the same and no feelings are excised.

Satie and Francis Picabia
Satie’s art was expressed through every facet of his work and much of his life and, yes, he strove to avoid pretension: he had his own discipline. No wonder his appeal endured even to the more casually bookish students of the late twentieth century…

He collaborated and influenced waves of Parisian artists across a variety of media and in 1917 he scored the ballet Parade for typewriters, sirens, ticker tape and a lottery wheel amongst other artefacts. The scenario was written by Jean Cocteau and stage design was by Pablo Picasso.

Under the roofs of Paris...
Satie scored Francis Picabia’s 1924 ballet, Relâche, which included a surrealist film sequence, Entr'acte, filmed by René Clair and featuring a host of heavy friends such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp: Les Deux Magots must have been empty that day.

Satie himself gets things off to a bang as he and Picabia leap in exaggerated slow motion towards a canon overlooking Paris. Taking their time they load the gun and fire a shell directly to camera: this one’s for the audience.

Mystery Train
Satie’s score is what he described as “furniture” music, background or what we might today view as ambient although you cannot ignore its insistent, occasionally jarring passages. It must have been one of the earliest examples of a synchronized score (in the lose sense) as it plays along over a series of seemingly un-related images – two men playing chess on a rooftop, a ballet dancer (Inge Frïss) filmed from under a glass floor (she has sturdy knickerbockers – don’t worry - and later a beard…) and three balloon-headed dolls which deflate and reflate as a train ploughs through the countryside.

Inge Frïss
A more formal narrative emerges after a young man (Jean Börlin) shooting at an egg in a carnival stall ends up shooting at a bird in flight which comes to nestle on his shoulder. As he revels in the miracle of nature he himself is picked off by another hunter… and he falls to his doom.

Jean Börlin
The young man’s funeral is well attended by many well-dressed citizens who form an orderly queue behind his coffin and the camel pulling it. The cortege moves on and those following glide gently up and down like slow-motion stallions or the wooden horses of a merry-go-round…  if life is ridiculous then death is sillier still.

The funeral cart becomes separated from the camel and develops a life of its own, speeding off through Parisian streets with the mourners in hot pursuit. Eventually it reaches the countryside and spills the coffin into a field… those who had managed to keep up surround the casket only to reel in shock as the lid is lifted to reveal the young man fit as a fiddle and dressed as a magician.

He pulls out his wand and one by one magics the mourners away before turning it on himself and with a short flourish making himself disappear. All gone, as if they never really existed…

Vivaient-ils dans le film ?
It means what you think it means and to be honest I’m never really sure if dada or surrealism is a puzzle to be worked out and explained or just a statement… but let’s not go there.

It’s amusingly done by Clair and it would interesting to see the film in the context of the ballet as a whole as intended - it might explain more... Yet what we have gives a clear impression of the surrealist intent and its  all the more precious for Satie’s contribution and the footage of the great man taller than I expected in top hat and beard, smiling at all the mischief.

He died the following year overcome by the effects of years of alcoholic abuse; the absinthe got him in the end.

Entr'acte is available on the under card of the Criterion DVD of Clair’s A Nous La Liberte. You can find it on Amazon or order direct from Criterion themselves.

There are also over nine hours and forty minutes of Vexations available on YouTube... played by Nicolas Horvath. I'm listening to them as a type...