Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Salvation in Soho? The Small World of Sammy Lee (1963)

Even now with chunks of real estate sacrificed to the “progress” of Crossrail and corporate encroachments, Soho is still the place to be in London’s West End. From my first excursions down from Liverpool on school trips, to eighties evenings in the French House, Coach & Horses and Soho Brasserie leading off to subterranean clubs, rare grooves and even the Groucho, it has always been an edgy area defined by an adventurous cool amidst the drab erotica – an area where the capital is not quite in control and strange, illicit events may still occur.

Back in the early Sixties, Soho was in transition with its multi-cultural shopping streets gradually being marked with clip joints and increasingly-brazen strip clubs. It’s a demimonde sensationally captured in Beat Girl and even Espresso Bongo and it is not too much of a stretch to view this far less well known film as the third part of this loose Soho-Trilogy.

As with those films, The Small World of Sammy Lee, uses real locations – including a glimpse of the famed 2i’s Club in which so many folk and rock stars began – along with real strippers, albeit in the fictional Peep Show club built on a Pinewood backlot. It also has perhaps the most gripping and believable narrative as the titular Sammy (a fantastic performance from Anthony Newley) strives to pay his dues in order to avoid a heavy beating and disfigurement.

Sammy 'Lee' Leeman is a compere at the Peep Show Club and chief amongst his many weaknesses is his predilection for gambling.  The film opens following a spectacularly unsuccessful all-night session that leaves him £500 in debt to one of the gangsters running the area, the unseen “Connor”.

Sammy later sees another one of Connor’s customers who has had his face slashed for late payment, it can only mean one thing and he has no option but to try and talk his way out of it.

The sweetest girl in all the world…
Making his way to the Peep Show where he works, he finds that Patsy (Julia Foster – the sweetest girl in all the world…) who he had briefly romanced, has made her way down South to find him. Patsy is young an innocent but tough enough to subject herself to topless inspection by the club’s maniacally hard-chewing manager Gerry Sullivan (Robert Stephens a true British legend); whose eyes pop in appreciation.

After that day’s rehearsal, Sammy receives two of Mr Connors’ heavies in his dressing room: the world-weary older hand, Fred (Kenneth J. Warren) and the excitable young apprentice, Johnny (Clive Colin-Bowler). Not quite John Hurt and Tim Roth in The Hit but the more I think about it… they’re cut from the same grimy cloth.

For some reason Fred decides to give Sammy a chance… five hours to get the money and avoid the consequences and so begins the chase of Sammy’s life.

At first he tries the easy route and cabs it over to Whitechapel and his brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a delicatessen with long-suffering wife Milly (Miriam Karlin). Pleasantries quickly aside Lou might just lend Sammy the money until Milly intervenes… Perhaps it would be good for Sammy to work this one out for himself she suggests, the guilt of a previous fling hanging over the two in Lou’s oblivious presence.

It’s Sammy’s time to stand up and start counting… with the aid of his slightly befuddled sidekick Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) and in between shifts introducing the dancers at the Peep, he racks up the invention to try and raise the cash. He flogs some dodgy watches, gets glasses for a new club – run by an exasperated Roy Kinnear and a fey Derek Nimmo (harder than he looks, he went to school with my Dad in Liverpool!) -  and pays off one creditor against another.

Mr Newley with Wilfrid Brambell
Running heroically through your actual Soho streets, Sammy is in full flow almost as if it’s more than his life that depends on it… He gets a tip from a shady pal, and goes off to retail some grass, offending his hip black mate rehearsing his jazz in a basement before finding a supplier: some films wouldn’t take the time to pop popular perceptions in this way but, like Sammy himself, this narrative cares to cover a lot of ground.

Meanwhile Patsy has been persuaded to do a turn by sleazy Gerry and Sammy ends up decking him and getting the sack. Julia Foster insisted on doing the routine herself and it adds to our recognition of Sammy’s own disgust: Patsy’s not the kind of girl he wants dragged down in his world and she’s an important part of this day when his small world not only gets turned upside down but he develops a sense of moral responsibility.            

No spoilers…

Time clicks on and Sammy’s almost within reach of his total; he has an offer on the antique chair in which his mother used to sit, he’s loathe to sell it but it may be his only hope. He wants to face up to his debtors and yet the chance to flee up North with Patsy also offers him a way out… 

What’ll it be Sammy Lee?

There’s a fab score composed by Kenny Graham and a soundtrack is available from Trunk Records whilst Sammy is available on Blu-ray – all the better to spot those landmarks, streets and atmospheres that even now persist.

You're too late mate, The Blue Posts has just closed down...

Friday, 10 February 2017

Special relationships… Salt for Svanetia (1930), Kennington Bioscope with Jeff Rapsis

“Our economic plan is stronger than religion and custom…” cheer inappropriately dressed soviet workers – think that first Boyzone TV appearance or In the Navvy… as they sing their way to Svanetia crashing a road through forest, mountain and unproductive agricultural landscapes.

Salt is so scarce in isolated Svanetia that cows gather round urinating farm hands in order to drink the salty outpourings whilst wolves lick the salt from new born babes rather than eating them… This is all to be found in Mikhail Kalatozov’s remarkable docu-drama, which starts off with history and ends up with hysteria as if the makers had suddenly remembered their brief and tried to cram an hour’s worth of propaganda into ten minutes.

Salt for Svanetia is a superbly-crafted film with outstanding cinematography from Shalva Gegelashvili and Mikhail Kalatozov showing the extraordinary lifestyle of the rural communities of the Svan people in remote mountain village of Ushguli in Svanetia – somewhere to the far North-East of Josef Stalin’s home state of Georgia. The Svan live off the land in huge towers that have traditionally been a defence against incursions and now they stand as a monument to their splendid isolation from the rapid industrialisation and social engineering of Stalin’s Republic.

Whilst the state was starving the land to feed growing cities, the Svan are shown making their own clothes, painfully cutting wool from goats, spinning it and making felt hats. They work the land using archaic tools and initially their life seems peaceful and calm. And yet… there is no salt and the men have to risk their lives clambering over mountains to bring salt to the people…

Maybe salt depravation affects the mind… as the Svan suddenly appear in the grip of religious mania as they form a long deranged line burying “a rich man”. They throw their money and themselves into his grave, slaughter cattle and horses in tribute to their archaic gods then callously exile a woman about to break the ban on giving birth during funerals…

The women don’t actually want to give birth and would rather die… if only there was salt. If only there was a road! …and some muscular singing workmen!!

Worry not as the camp constructionists are on their way…

In the Navvy...
None of this detracts from the film’s power and with its Flaherty-styled set pieces it not only showcases a disappearing way of life but entertains with forceful imagery in this stunning setting. No wonder Andrei Tarkovsky thought it amazing.

This was the second year of the first Five Year Plan which, if memory serves, took seven years with more misery to follow with the second Plan – millions died of starvation as Stalin focused on industrialisation and Dekulakization, the process of removing the wealthier peasants from the land with or without salt.

The Bioscope welcomed a guest accompanist Jeff Rapsis who had flown in from Boston in the morning. There was little sign of jet lag as he worked the keys with expert ease throughout helping to underscore the scale and wonders of the visuals whilst tracking the cock-eyed narrative moods. There’s something special about the relationship between live music and film…

David Shepard
Given the recent death of silent film historian David Shepard it was good to have one of his fellow countrymen playing and one who knew him personally. Mr Shepard was passionate about live screenings and, as Amran Vance reminded us in his moving tribute, helped preserve many of the films we have been lucky enough to see at the Bioscope. Another one of those relationships that go way beyond the bounds of the less than exceptional.

If Salt was a bright and shiny Russian doll, there should be no surprise in finding three smaller but equally wondrous ones underneath it.

The Voice of the Nightingale (1923)
The evening began with a remarkable stencil-coloured short, The Voice of the Nightingale (1923) from Wladyslaw Starewicz – a fable of young girl who accidentally traps a nightingale and then is driven by dreams to let him free. Who knows why the nightingale sings? He sings for thee my friend…

Then Chris Bird introduced two films he has helped preserve and propagate with the aid of the increasingly legendary Fritzi Kramer who runs the outrageously excellent blog MoviesSilently. Both films were made by Russian emigres, who had escaped to France on a ship called The Albatross after the revolution.  They named their production company after their ship and from which they made The House of Mystery, Le Brasier Ardent (1923), Kean (1924) and so many excellent features.

Ivan in L’Enfant du carnaval - screen grab from Movies Silently
The first tonight was Child of the Carnival (1921) featured Fritzi’s main man, Ivan Mosjoukine. It only survives as a 9.5mm home cinema version which compressed five reels into one often cutting out key scenes and characters to speed up the story telling. Still, there was enough to see the debonair M. ease his way with trademark charm through forced adoption of a child he presumes to be the result of a wayward dalliance. The baby’s mother is brought in by his scheming manservant – clearly trying to make a man out of him - and, waddaya know, it just might work.

Lillian Henley played along for these films and borrowed some melodies from the nightingale and effortless elegance from Ivan.

The KB poster using artwork from Fritzi Kramer - follow the link for Fritzi's review
Next was Tales of the One Thousand and One Nights (1921) directed by the inestimable V. Tourjansky and starring his partner Nathalie Kovanko and Nicholas Rimsky. Shot extensively in Tunisia the film looked grand despite again being from an incomplete copy – again 9.5mm and tinted. It’s such a joy to hear the projector whirl round 80-year old celluloid: so much warmer than digital, new light casting old shadows… actual magic!

The story is the familiar one of Scheherazade telling tales to prevent herself falling victim to the Sheik’s habit of killing his brides on their wedding night (something tells me he’s missed the whole point…). Her stories feature young lovers, Kovanko and Rimsky and their efforts to remain faithful to each other and Allah… an unbeatable combination or at least they need to be...

Meg Morley accompanied with some lovely Arabian flavours and romantic major chords; there’s something primal about the Arabian Nights both in terms of the form and the appeal, and she caught it perfectly with misirlou minims and sandy semibreves...

Another excellent programme from the Bioscope and films you simply won’t see screened anywhere else anytime soon!

Both of these films are available to view online via YouTube and you can see more of the extraordinary work Bird and Kramer are doing on Chris Bird's channel here as well as Movies Silently for which my blog envy knows no bounds!

You can also find out more about Jeff Rapsis' music on his website here.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Clara's baby… Children of Divorce (1927) on Blu-ray

“Gary’s such a big boy, so strong, so manly and so bashful, I always wanna rumple his hair an’ listen to all his troubles.” Clara Bow

Clara Bow in Blu-ray high-definition and the clearest possible view of her soon-to-be-stellar co-star, Gary Cooper; what could possibly go wrong?!

Even in her annus mirabilis when every single film topped the charts from Mantrap, Kid Boots to It! – it was recognised that Miss Bow needed better scripts to fully reach her potential. Sadly, much as it tries, Children of Divorce was not to be it... Joseph von Sternberg was brought in to re-shoot and re-direct the ending and whilst elements of the work received high praise – Clara’s soon-to-be-ex, Victor Fleming saying that the final sequence was amongst the greatest in cinema – overall the audience is left unsatisfied by characters with obscure motivations. The film tries to make a serious point about the importance of family life and the damage done by un-committed parenting but… it feel half-hearted and more concerned with the big dramas of duty.

All this said, what it does have is the magical realism of Clara Bow – an “expression-engine” who could break the heart of the most cynical viewer with a quicksilver intensity possessed by few other performers. Next to her, the ridiculously handsome Coop struggles to get beyond mildly forlorn or slightly distracted… he’s eye-catching alright but not really enough to draw your focus from Clara.

Stories abound of Bow getting her beau-to-be the part in this film and/or fighting for him to keep it after a stinker of a start. There is still no denying his own potent star appeal but Clara’s was in full burn and Coop was still learning the ropes alongside this sexual superpower. As he said in an off-set interview: “…you couldn’t steal scenes from Clara Bow. Nobody could… She just naturally walks away with every scene she’s in.”

Mr Cooper
He was also up against the equally lovely and capable Esther Ralston.

Esther is so polished and focused and knows exactly how to present face to camera whereas Cooper is often at unflattering angles. The big galoot has charm to burn possessing what Colleen Moore called “that peculiar personality, that intangible quality that communicates on camera…” Yet here, in terms of craft, he’s miles behind Ralston who glides with effortless sadness through the film. Her Jean is the only character really sure of herself around whom Bow’s impulsive Kitty and Cooper’s confused Ted struggle to make the right choices.

Ralston knows how to pose for intense close-ups and works the camera so well throughout. There was a lot for Coop to learn.

Esther Ralston
The film had five writers and it shows with a wayward central message about damaging divorce and also the need for socially convenient marriage getting in the way of emotional fulfilment: we – or rather the upper set – marry for money and do not always follow their hearts. Sadness and despair can be the only result.

The film starts in a de-facto orphanage for the sons and daughters of divorced ex-pats living in Paris and it is here that a young Kitty (Joyce Coad) is dropped off by her mother, (Hedda Hopper in her acting days), who tells her she’ll see her in the Summer – that’s a long time out of the way. She is befriended by the young Jean (Yvonne Pelletier) who provides the unqualified affection her parents cannot. Soon they meet a fiery young boy, Ted Larrabee, who forms a strong attachment to Jean…

Soul sisters
Fast-forward some years to a party at a country house where Kitty (now Clara) entertains the smart set including the titled but broke Prince Ludovico de Saxe (Einar Hanson) who loves her but cannot afford to marry her. Sailing impressively over a hedge on horseback is Ted (now Coop) who lands impressively to gulp down a glass of champagne from Kitty. This scene took some 23 takes according to Bow biographer David Stenn and almost got Cooper fired.

Enter the grown-up Jean (Esther), now very wealthy and a target for any cash-strapped socialite but wealth is the furthest thing on Ted’s mind as is transfixed. Kitty bounds over, as she will many times, to push herself between the two and poor Prince ‘Vito dies a little more inside.

Vito dying a little more...
Jean still loves Ted but wants him to make something of himself before they can consummate their childhood pledge to wed. Kitty loves Jean but also wants to marry into success and if she can’t afford have the man she loves, that’s the Prince, she’ll take the next best thing once Ted has become a success as a bridge-building architect.

Kitty arranges a party starting at Ted’s office and ending up the following morning with the biggest hangover imaginable for, even though Ted struggles to remember, the two got married at the culmination of the previous night’s revels.

WHAT a hang-over!
It’s the worst of timings as Jean has written to Ted saying that maybe they should marry but chance has gone and she sentences herself to noble exile in Paris in order to give Kitty a chance at happiness…

Some years later Kitty and Ted along with their well-cast daughter – the spit of a juvenile Bow -  arrive in Paris and this convoluted quadrangle of love is about to come crashing down around their sad heads.

There are some bold images in the closing segment – perhaps from von Sternberg – but… no spoilers! Overall the main director Frank Lloyd works competently with the narrative in spite of a repeated need to flash back to the younger versions of Jean and Kitty as if to remind us that the child is mother to the woman.

But the restoration is super quality and you can’t fail to be moved by the three leads especially and of course, Clara Bow. When those sad eyes open wide and Klieg lights giving her ample tears a powerful glow, you’d have to be made of stone not to feel more than a little welling up of your own.

There a cracking score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra which incorporates contemporary songs within a carefully crafted whole: for instance, JS Zamecnik’s Heart of Dreams is a recurring theme beginning as the youngsters become friends and returning for every key moment.

To top it all the set also includes the Discovering the It Girl documentary narrated by Courtney Love which, if you haven’t seen it features contributions from David Stenn, Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy) and Clara’s son, Rex Bell Jnr.

Children of Divorce in excellent production from Flicker Alley and is available direct. It deserves to do well and let's hope for more Blu-ray Bow in the near future!

Buy it! Buy it NOW!