Thursday, 11 February 2016

Make More Silence! Shoes (1916) with Lillian Henley/ Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema, Kennington Bioscope

“I grew up in a in the business when everybody was so busy learning… that no one had time to notice whether or not a woman was gaining a foothold…” Lois Weber

It is estimated that around half of all silent film scripts were written by women – a much higher ratio than at any other period.  That figure is open to dispute but there’s no doubting the importance of women in writing and directing during the years when cinema was still finding its commercial feet.

Chief among those who wrote and directed was Lois Weber who also, of course, performed. Shelly Stamp’s fascinating study of her career shows how she emerged very strongly as a film-maker of conviction and success before her challenging cine-agitation started to fall from fashion at the same time as the industry grew more coldly commercial. The success of Hypocrites and Where Are My Children? was not to be repeated in the post-war years and as the twenties progressed Weber fell from auteur to “star-maker” as superficiality took over and women grew from creators into commodities… “finding” people with glamour and star quality became more of a story than the composition and creation of quality films.

Posh shoes from Shoes (1916)
Why did women lose their footing so spectacularly? The profit motive ensured that an industry was developing that would be driven by the masculine ego – and there were plenty of huge ones around. In spite of the fact that the vast majority of the audience were women, it was now men who would largely dictate the versions of femininity they would watch on screen.

After Lois Weber in 1919, Universal wasn’t to have a woman director on its roster until 1982… that’s a long time in showbiz, enough for  a dozen careers-worth of your modern popstar-to-actor-to-CBB contestant.

The book of the moment
Tonight was the launch of Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema a new book celebrating the growing restoration of the reputations of those who not only filled the skills gaps in early cinema but more than played their part in the most crucial period of development in cinema history.

A number of the book’s authors were on hand to discuss the book and to illustrate some of the themes. Cheryl Robson explained the work’s origins in the project Celluloid Ceiling: women film directors breaking through which focused on the “now” and inevitably led the gaze backwards to a more equitable time. Then Melody Bridges ran through an overview of the contents including some fascinating footage of the one-woman outward-bound film-course leader that was Nell Shipman.

Nell Shipman and a bear
Nell was seen driving a pack of huskies through the snow, forging ice-cold torrents and being in dangerously close proximity to a grizzly bear: surely we need to find out what happened to that bear!?

Ms Shipman is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women taking creative control and the book aims to highlight not just the directors but also the cinematographers, writers, editors and producers. The contributors are clearly passionate about the work and there’s the added bonus of the text of an interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow with Dorothy Arzner. There’s also the revelation that the world’s first cinematographer was a woman called Laura Smith from Brighton who was cranking the handle as far back as 1897…

The book is available direct from Supernova Books and you won’t want to miss out: honestly, don’t blame me if you’re caught out at the next silent film gathering and you haven’t read it!

Mary and that cast of several!
Of all the silent women, Mary Pickford stood tallest and retained a position of power the longest, from actor to producer and industry figure. But she started out on the boards and as a player for Biograph. Pamela Hutchinson introduced us to The New York Hat (1912) a film dominated by Mary as well as the unexpected hat and a cast, as she pointed out, of literally several other future stars: two Gishes, two Pickfords, a Mack, a Mabel and a Barrymore.

It’s a special film, it gets better every time I see it and it makes me cry.

Lois takes charge
Then Bryony Dixon introduced tonight’s leading woman: Lois Weber – simply one of the most important and talented directors and writers of the period from the human species.

Shoes (1916) comes from Weber’s peak period of progressive preaching but Bryony was right to question why it is only women who seem to be slighted by the description of making films about “social issues” – imagine Ken Loach dealing with the poverty trap encapsulated in this film?

Feet for purpose?
Weber announces the film as a follow up of sorts to Where Are My Children? although Eva Meyer’s plight is only tangentially related. Eva (played by Mary MacLaren) has the bad luck to be the daughter of a lay-about (Harry Griffith) who is more concerned with drinking, smoking and reading dime trashy novels than providing for his wife and four children.

Eva works at a five and dime store and barely earns enough to keep herself and the family afloat. All the while her shoes are falling apart and, as they cannot afford a new pair, she keeps on having to cut out and insert cardboard.

'Cabaret' Charlie
The shoes mark a very real humiliation as those around her are well shod and don’t have to spend all day in sodden torment. But the sums don’t add up and this is no quaintly melodramatic confection but a real slice of everyday misfortune: Weber wasn’t one to let a confected happy ending undermine her truth.

Fellow shop girl, Lil (Jessie Arnold) responds to the playful overtures of cheeky chappie 'Cabaret' Charlie (William V. Mong) and ends up with a new watch as a sign of payments made in kind. Is this the only way Eva can hope to keep her feet dry?

Trouble in store
Lillian Henley provided expert accompaniment drawing some lovely plaintive lines as Eva’s desperation grows. It’s a simpler, less dramatic film than Children or Hypocrites but Shoes does its work equally well.

Weber described her background as “church army” and couched her stories in a moral rather than political framework using the medium to “preach to my heart’s content”. As Stamp posits, by involving the viewer in her character’s inner world’s she shifted the focus away from a purely sociological view of the situation and invested her audience with the need to make their own choices. We don’t just see Eva’s dilemma, we experience it and she wants a reaction.

Mary MacLaren
Weber hoped to uplift the quality of cinema and she also wanted to generate debate and a thoughtful response: this is cerebral cinema from a woman of genuine conviction. We’re not battered down by 90 decibel IMAX-fuelled super heroics but we’re no less affected by the combination of performance, narrative and music.

Which is exactly why, Mr Osbourne, Mr Duncan Smith… Dave… you really ought to watch more silent film!

We watched the 2010 EYE reconstruction which melds a 1916 print with a sound re-mix from the early 30s to create the best possible version of Shoes. We’re lucky to still have it.

Another one of those killer facts: there were more women working in Hollywood in 1916 than in 2016… Why is that? If Lois Weber was still around, she'd make a film about it. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Mean streets… Regeneration (1915)

Raoul Walsh shot President Lincoln twice in his role as John Wilkes Booth and also as assistant director to DW Griffith on The Birth of a Nation. Within a few months he was directing his own feature and one that showed plenty of influences from his experience.

is full of close-ups, dolly shots, juxtapositions, multiple and parallel narrative strands and a basket of cats that may or may not foreshadow what’s to come. He obviously learned quickly but the flair on display was all his own including his ability to get the best of a cast of professional and non-acting participants.

Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Skinny?
Regeneration is often described as the first gangster film but whilst I’m not sure on that it is certainly an attempt at realism way beyond some American contemporaries. Filmed on location in New York City, down on the docks and in the Bowery (before CBGBs livening things up…) it provides a precious view of the darker side of Manhattan enlivened by the appearance of actual member s of the criminal classes: drunks, punks and prostitutes.

Over the roofs of New York
Remarkably, Regeneration is also based on My Mamie Rose: The Story of My Regeneration (1903) an autobiographical book by one Owen Frawley Kildare who had been orphaned early in life and brought up the hard way first by abusive adopted parents and then using his own wits, made his way as a gangster until the chance for redemption came in a relationship with a Settlement House worker – Mamie Rose.

Spot the actors
Kildare’s version of his life has been challenged but there’s no denying the grit and darker edges  which permeate the cinematic interpretation.  It’s not just the locations and the extras that are tough, the story doesn’t go easy with the viewer either.

The boy's view of his mother's hearse
Walsh works his way through his characters’ formative years with economy and three actors… the ten year old Owen Conway (John McCann) is shown on the day of his mother’s funeral and there’s a moving point of view shot as he looks in sad shadows out of the window down onto the sunlit hearse carrying her body.

Mr and Mrs Conway have a disagreement
He is taken in by neighbours, the battling Conways – Maggie (Maggie Weston) and her abusive alcoholic husband Jim (James A. Marcus). For a while Owen dodges his way between their everyday conflicts but Jim just gets worse leaving him no option but to leave.

Owen grows up a fighter
Moving on to seventeen, Owen (Harry McCoy) is now working on the docks and stepping up to protect a disabled co-worker from abuse. He defeats the bully and gains the loyalty of the victim as well as the local hoods. By the time he’s a man, the superbly-monikered Rockliffe Fellowes, he’s head of a gang and looking a little like a young Marlon Brando: cock of the walk and yet with a warmth around the eyes… It’s surprising that Fellowes didn’t go onto to greater things as he gives a really excellent performance here.

Rockliffe Fellowes
Up 2nd Avenue 50 blocks or so and there’s a man who wants to eradicate the hoodlum problem – new District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh) who has risen on a platform openly condemning the underworld. He entertains guests with talk of the dark side including Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson – the Q standing for Quirentia) who is excited by all this talk of gangsters and would like to meet one.

Anna Q and Carl Harbaugh
Be careful what you wish for Marie… Ames can’t resist showing off and takes his party to Grogan’s Theatre. There’s more interesting work from Walsh as Owen’s table is shown enjoying the theatre alternated with the more civilised dining of Ames. Grogan’s has some fascinating acts from a trio of rag-time singers to a dancer and acrobats: genuine off-Broadway variety from 1915.

Good times at Grogan's
The focus shifts from the stage once the posh party arrives and, catching Marie’s imploring eye, Owen has to step in to prevent Ames being ruffed up by some of his delinquent targets. It’s a pivotal meeting of worlds though as Marie resolves to help the poor and Owen has seen a glimpse of wholesome beauty that will inspire him to better himself… in time.

Owen to the rescue
Marie joins the Settlement Movement and aims to help the destitute and disadvantaged better themselves through education, religion and respect – it’s the kind of stuff UK Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, still has dreams about.

“A new world – wherein Owen finds, education, inspiration and love…”
Owen becomes involved after a reformed member of his gang suggest he will be effective in intervening in a domestic situation involving the fighting Flanagan family (why always the Irish!?) who have a father very drunk in charge of a baby.  Marie goes to ask his help and dropping all at a no doubt vital card game he goes and impresses Pa Flanagan with the force of his argument delivered in the case by a straight right…

Marie persuades Owen to lay down his can of beer
Owen is pleased with his intervention and loves the atmosphere at the Settlement along with the attention he gets from the electric-eyed Marie… Soon he leaves the gang to Skinny and attempts to gain enlightenment and Marie’s heart.

But this cosy scene cannot remain undisturbed for ever: District Attorney Ames has his eye on this interloper who has seemingly stolen his Marie’s heart whilst Skinny and the boys are never likely to stay sensible for ever… Will the past catch up with Owen and Marie?

“… this girl o’ mine …her soul, the noblest and purest thing I ever knew…”

The version I saw was from Image Entertainment and came with a considered new musical setting by Philip Carli from the 1995 David Shepard restoration…. It doesn’t match Griffith for length or actual invention but it tells this wholesome melodrama well and is unflinching in its own way. The gangster films to follow would not all be so careful in the moral  balance of their narratives.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Happy families… La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Sometimes the manners of a hundred years just drop away and you simply see.

This film plays with your expectations and the outcome we anticipate is quite different from the one we get - such is our (my) complacency and Germaine Dulac’s genius. The director took Denys Amiel’s play of a marriage being slowly strangulated by a careless male becalmed by middle age routine and turned it into a meditation on woman’s capacity for quiet desperation: one almost without ending… It would be funnier if it didn't feel quite so true.

Hanging on... desperate
Germaine Dermoz is Madame Beudet who does indeed smile fairly often: out of acceptance, the sheer agony of her boorish husband’s humour, her lack of freedom, the absence of love and the impossibility of ever finding it and, ultimately, her own decisions…

There’s a vase of flowers on the central table in their drawing room. Madame positions it right of centre near the edge whilst Monsieur always moves it to the obvious centre. This is all things in their marriage which has been panel-beaten into rigid conformity by a husband (Alexandre Arquillière) who actively seeks out only more of the same ignoring the impact of diminishing returns by forcing himself to laugh louder.

Go ahead punk, make my day...
In mock despair, he feigns to commit suicide – what a card – by holding an empty revolver to his temple if his wife disagrees with him. He wants to go to watch Faust (the opera, it's a few years too early for Murnau’s silent version, which I would urge Madame to drop everything to see…) yet his wife refuses, preferring to play her piano, read or re-position the flower pot.

Their friends arrive and pressure is repeatedly applied – including the gun act – but she is not for turning. Mean old man that he is though, he locks the piano lid down if she is not joining in then she shall have nothing.

The friends, Monsieur (Jean d'Yd) and Madame Labas (Madeleine Guitty) are clearly as much in sympathy as her husband and the latter’s angled disregard says all you need to know about her view of Madame Beudet’s fashions.

The long suffering Madame B is at home when her husband initially returns and begins the process of setting his house in order. He sits at his commanding desk ordering the servants around and taking care of important matters whilst his wife tries to read a book.

She had been playing Debussy and was in a world of pastoral escape, with a gentle breeze accentuating the slivers of sunlight on the long grass near some imagined pool. Dulac compares the motion of her hands on the piano with her husband’s graceless shuffling of business correspondence.
She reads a magazine and imagines a hunky tennis player running to her relief and yet thoughts of her husband crash in on the reverie and fragile invention is rudely dissipated…

He’s a menace and in her desperation she takes the bullets from the left-hand drawer and loads them into the gun in the right-hand drawer – his fail-safe method of ensuring the gun is never loaded has been removed and the next time he pulls the trigger the joke will be on him.

Yet Madame B is no killer and tries very hard to empty the gun… only to be thwarted by too many people popping up in the wrong place. Husband duly arrives home ready to begin his boorish routines… it could be the death of him but there's a narrow escape.

In many such plays a dramatic incident serves to bring the wayward couple back together again but not here where his complete misunderstanding of what has just happened only makes matters worse. She looks pleadingly to the Heavens – possibly with murder on her mind and certainly with the knowledge that she is trapped – damned as sure as any caged bird to a long and tedious demise.

Germaine Dermoz
Dulac directs with impressionist invention and allows the settings to define Madame’s prison: outside there are beautiful streets and waterways whilst she is confined by role and situation to a life in which even art is an irritation. There are no title cards to directly reflect the characters' inner turmoil only the visual clues - the perfect capture of thought on silent screen.

The film is available as part of an ARTE DVD Germaine Dulac (1922-1928) - Drei Filme der französischen Stummfilm-Pionierin and can also be found on YouTube complete with a dreamily-anxious score from Manfred Knaak and played by the Kontraste Ensemble.

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Slapstick and Bristol fashion… The Kid (1921), Colston Hall, Slapstick Festival Day Two

There was a moment during this gala screening when I looked along the line to see the faces of my family lit up with smiles. Both generations had already been laughing at Buster Keaton chased by hundreds of cops and Charley Chase pursuing a woman he doesn’t know is his wife but then Charlie Chaplin comes along to offer something more complex: a comedy about poverty, loss and fragile chance.

If Charlie had been set a test to cope with this scenario without being mawkish… he couldn’t have passed it better. The Kid is a sentimental film but Chaplin steers perfectly clear of the obvious dangers and those moments, and there are those moments, when the emotionalism is switched dangerously high, are handled with exquisite ease. There's a look between mighty five-year old Jackie Coogan and his surrogate father that is searing and not soppy. It is the look of a man who knows parental loss and a supernatural performance from young Jackie.

But then... there is a dream of a dog flying on angel wings as Charlie and his angels fly around the Slums of Heaven with manic abandon. It comes just at the right moment in the film a sequence designed to undermine overt sentimentality.  So, right back 'atcha 21st Century Cynics: this is mad fun and our Charlie deliberately flies towards the Sun on waxen feather wings but he doesn’t crash or burn he glides straight to the heart of funny.

I’d never seen The Kid, on purpose, holding off for a live screening and tonight the Colston Hall, the Bristol Ensemble, ably conducted by Timothy Brock and the fulsome support of an open-minded and good-humoured Bristol audience delivered wonderfully well.

If today’s sessions at the Slapstick Festival proved one thing it is that watching comedy is always – always – better as a group exercise. Live music creates new connections with the films and a joke shared is often laughter squared.

In the splendid, care-worn, space of the Colston Hall, the European Silent Film Ensemble played along to Keaton’s massed Cops (1922) and Charley Chase’ Mighty Like a Moose (1926) – what a title! Then came the main feature with the Ensemble playing the UK premier of Charlie’s own score, conducted by Mr Brock.

The most striking thing about the main feature is how cinematic the writer, director and star’s vision was. The film is told with supreme economy - a narrative that could be convoluted and strained is perfectly paced and key moments fall as lightly as feather’s dropped from dog angel’s wings…

The performance of Coogan is like that of a man four times his age – his father was on hand to help gear him up for the emotional moments but he winked at Charlie and told him he knew what he was doing. Edna Purviance as the mother who gains a career and loses her child, shows just why Chaplin rated her so highly whilst Chaplin himself is not the focus of the film you might expect – he’s almost ever-present but is smart enough to under play and generous enough to let the other leads and some super support actors take the limelight.

Compere Robin Ince had said he’d once been asked to write an article on whether Charlie was still funny: his response was that it could be a very short piece beginning “Yes…”. Of course he is, and my family and the two thousand-strong audience proved it.

The Colston Hall
This was my first day at the Slapstick Festival – now in its 12th year – and it was a rewarding one – work commitments meant I missed out on the opening day a mistake I won't make next year!

I arrived left foot still hot from the M4, just in time to see David Robinson’s session on Mack Sennett – a man who made over a thousand films and who brought so many talented comedians to screen. Robinson focused on “four and a half” plus a few more…

Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand
First up was Mack himself in heavy disguise playing a French interior designer (of sorts) intent on delivering the eponymous item in D. W. Griffith’s A Curtain Pole (1909) – Dutch Talmadge’s  climactic chariot charge from Intolerance clearly had its origins here although she never worked out how to put the horse into reverse.

Then we had marvellous Mabel Normand bouncing her way through a choice of racers in The Speed Kings (1913) with “father” Ford Sterling trying to force her to choose his favourite for some un-specified reason. Everything feels improvised but Sennett films the - actual – races very well. He learned with DWG at Biograph and knew how to throw a film together, ad hoc and energised thanks to his dynamic performers.

Charlie as a Cop: Ford's not in this one as well?!
We had the one and only glimpse of Charlie Chaplin as a Keystone Cop in A Thief Catcher (1914) again featuring Ford Sterling – David Robinson warned that it wasn’t the best film but conceded that John Sweeney’s piano improvisations turned it into something more: audience plus expert live accompaniment equals pure joy!

Don’t Weaken (1920) again featured Ford Sterling just as I had probably seen enough of the ham of the hour but this was a different side to Sterling who played a convincingly-graceful dance teacher trying to impress newly-enriched Charles Murray’s daughter played by Harriet Hammond. The two men box and Murray is getting pasted until the Dancing Master is distracted by Harriet’s pins. Way more sophisticated than Benny Hill.

Hurry up Harry... 
Finally there was Harry Langdon in His Marriage Wow (1925) with the deeply-unsettling Vernon Dent as A Pessimist - Prof. Looney McGlumm trying to dissuade him from marrying Nathalie Kingston. I’m still haunted by Dent’s soul-sucking stare of disapproval…

Next up was a session on writer Anita Loos from Lucy Porter who bounded on stage with all the energy of a Mabel Normand clutching a handful of written notes and Loos’ two autobiographies. Loos played fast and, er, loose with the facts but was spot-on viscous in her observations on contemporaries – especially poor Norma Shearer.

Anita... there's one huge flaw in your argument...
 In her defence, Anita could be just as hard on herself plus she could write! We watched The New York Hat (1912) with accompaniment from harpist, Elizabeth – Jane Baldry who played in complete sympathy with the emotional cadence of Mary Pickford’s performance – I’ve never been so shocked by a father’s demolition of a feathered hat.

Then we were treated to the inexplicable The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916) written by Tod Browning with intertitles by Anita Loos. Here again the redemptive power of a comedy audience was proved as – having previously been a bit Home Counties about the drug taking, I just saw  a stoner comedy performed with self-depreciating zest by Douglas Fairbanks and Bessie Love as the little fish blower…

Coke Ennyday's on the case!
Only Fairbanks could possibly follow that and so he did in Wild and Woolly (1917) written by Anita Loos and directed by her water-carrying husband-to-be John Emerson and filmed by some bloke called Victor Fleming.

It is a splendid romp about a rich boy wannabe cowboy who gets sent out to scope out an investment opportunity for his pa. The western townsfolk get wind of the greenhorn’s delusions and make like it’s 1880 all over… Plans are set to entertain his fantasy with a train robbery and an Indian uprising but soon the fake bullets turn real and, delightfully, Doug turns out to be just as brave as he wants to be…

Tip of the ten gallon hat to Mr Sweeney – westerns must be murder on the keyboards with the relentless rhythm of trains and horses always interrupted by contrapuntal gun fights and saloon brawls!

Then came the evening and the pun-fight at the Colston Hall…

Cops on the run
Buster’s Cops! (1922) was a massed symphony of un-policed chaos that builds exponentially towards one of the most existentially bleak comedy climaxes in silent film.

But then what could be more post-structurally challenging than the battle Charley Chase has with himself in Mighty like a Moose (1926)… one to watch our Charley: a reputation on the rise!

The Mooses: Vivien Oakland and Charley Chase
Superb accompaniment was provided by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi comprised of Gaunter a Buchwald on piano and violin, Romina Todisco on double bass and Frank Blockhouse on percussion.

There was also a surprise appearance from St Helen’s favourite son (sorry Johnny), Bernie Clifton who, in the spirit of Slapstick, not only showed that comedy is for life and not just Christmas (he’s 79) but also sang Charlie’s Smile – two minutes in which the World slowed and Chaplin again reminded us that humour is often the only hope we have.

The Slapstick Festival continues until 25th but watch their website for 2017…