Sunday, 22 July 2018

Still could… It Happened Here (1964) on BFI Blu-ray and DVD

“If we can get them all together working to one end, we’ll soon get the country back on its feet again… “

When I was five, in addition to remembering watching England win the World Cup, I was also convinced that The War was still going on, probably in North Africa. This was the result of misunderstanding the nature of programmes such as All Our Yesterdays, but even in 1966 the Second World War hadn’t really stopped…

Ten years before this an 18-year old schoolboy named Kevin Brownlow conceived of a counter-factual feature film that would examine the premise of the War not only lost but victory achieved on these shores. Joined by 16-year old Andrew Mollo the two would spend eight years in bringing their story to the screen and the story of how they did so is an epic in itself. Underfunded, the project ran on the pure energy of their enthusiasm and produced a film that was controversial then and remains so now simply through the act of allowing some actual fascists the chance to voice their views.

The film featured a host of amateurs and in Brownlow and Mollo’s driven pursuit of authenticity they filmed a group of British Blackshirts discussing their ideology with other members of the cast. They decided to let them speak for themselves and didn’t have an opposing voice on the grounds that the ideas were so patently ridiculous they fell immediately under the weight of their own delusions; the directors also didn’t want to dignify fascist fantasy with a counter argument for the unarguable. As it is, the raised eyebrows from the others says everything about their opinions on Jews, euthanasia and the Bolshevik threat to Aryan purity…

Stylish promotional cards from the original run
This sequence was edited out of the general release on the request of big money distributors United Artists despite objections from film makers and critics alike, but you can’t just bury fascism you need to know what it is and why it works… Thankfully this superb BFI restoration includes the section, taken from Kevin’s own 16mm dupe negative and a 35mm positive.

It Happened Here is a remarkable film in so many ways and like all good cinema it reflects the time it was made as much as the time is was representing as the contemporary reaction shows. Now, as the far right surges forward against a background of Western economic and democratic decline, is the perfect time to view it again. Brownlow and Mollo wanted to explain the nature of fascism and to dig beyond the narrative of consensual opinion that had reduced it to a two-dimensional metaphor for ultimate defeat; there was no guarantee of victory in 1940 nor, increasingly in 2018.

The story is set in 1945 and in a world in which Germany proceeded with Operation Sealion and invaded Britain, defeating all military and civilian resistance. By 1944, with America now involved in the war, the remnants of the Allied forces re-arm the British resistance and puts the security of the occupied country once more under threat.

Pauline Murray in her IA uniform
There are opening sequences featuring some excellent cutting from editor Brownlow which shows his appreciation for Eisenstein and Gance as he sets up the sense of violent defeat amongst the British. The main character is an Irish nurse Pauline – played by Pauline Murray a gifted amateur Brownlow had seen in another low-budget film – who is perfectly suited as our window into this confused world of fear and subservience.

There are some highly impressive shots of German troops hitting the tourist hit-spots of London and marching through familiar spaces. Some of the film was shot in 16mm by Brownlow and the difference in grain with the 35mm adds to the feel of documentary: these are the films the Man in the High Castle would prefer we saw… There’s also an authentic look to the uniforms, locations and equipment thanks to Mollo’s sourcing actual war surplus kit and the presence of un-renovated areas in a London still scared by bombing.

Pauline’s husband was killed by the Nazis, but she wants to avoid the war and just carry on with life. It’s a compromise all the civilians must face, and the disturbing facts is that as with France and indeed the Channel Islands, most people prefer compliance to revolt: what happens here is the same as in Germany, we fall into line… The only way she can be a nurse is to join the Immediate Action Organisation which delivers health care with an iron fist all in the name of order and discipline.

This drives a wedge between her and her still free-thinking old friends… she has to decide which side she’s really on and take a stance.

"Hurrah for the Blackshirts..."
It’s a tremendous package from the BFI including a 36-page booklet with essays from Dr Josephine Botting, historian EWW Foster and Mr Brownlow himself. There’s also a newly-recorded hour-long interview with Kevin Brownlow with Vic Pratt, an interview with production assistant Johanna Roeber together with behind the scenes footage from 1956-1966. The “newsreel” featured in the film is also featured – terrifying enough on its own.

As one of the characters in the film observes: The appalling thing about fascism is that you’ve got to use fascist methods to get rid of it… we’ve all got a bit of it inside of us…and it doesn’t take much to bring it out. Think of that the next time the Daily Mail or Telegraph headline on “traitors” or the politicians talk about the Will of the People in absolute terms.

It Happened Here is a vital film and tribute to the cinematic ability and drive of the most remarkable film historians this country has produced, and it is an essential purchase – a good way to celebrate the man’s 80th Birthday. He has the enthusiasm of a man a quarter of that age – clearly doing what you love keeps you young!

It Happened Here is released in Blu-ray and DVD dual format on 23rd July and can be purchasedfrom the BFI Shop. The film is also being screened on 23rd July at the BFI with a Q&A with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Details on the BFI website.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

A simple soul… Kipps (1921) with Neil Brand, Kennington Bioscope

"…the ruling power of this land, Stupidity… a monster, a lumpish monster, like some great clumsy griffin thing…  like some fat, proud flunkey, like pride, like indolence, like all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life…" HG Wells, Kipps (1905)

There is more joy in Heaven (the one that looks like The Cotswolds) over the screening of a decent British silent film than over any number of talkies… It’s probably in the Bible; check out the gospel according to the Saints Pearl and Dean.

It's useful, of course, to have the wonderful source material of an HG Wells' novel and the acting of George K Arthur, who simply “was Kipps” according to the author. Wells was less favourable over the actor’s subsequent film, The Wheels of Chance but, personally, I think that film has almost as much charm as this.

It also helps greatly to have an accompanist like Neil Brand who really understands the period, the source material and the very British story being told. In his introduction he said he hadn’t played with the film for twenty-odd years, but it didn’t show as he patiently built up a thoroughly Edwardian sentiment with flashes of more modern – classic – scoring. All this whilst resisting the temptation to reference a note or two from Half a Sixpence which was based on this story.

George K Arthur headed off to Hollywood not to long after this and I’d last seen him in Lights of Old New York with Marion Davies and Mr Brand again on piano. He has charm and a natural reticence which makes him perfect for romantic comedy but he’s a canny actor with more to his game than he’s often credited. One of his most unusual castings was in Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters in which his vulnerability plays off against the dockside thuggery and, indeed, Paulette Goddard’s own toughness.

"Kipps is Kipps"
Here he is in his element as the man to whom Life just keeps on happening…  The full title of Wells’ book is Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and George is the perfect straight man for the jokes perpetuated by the ruling powers of the land. He is Arthur Kipps (don’t delude yourselves that I’m not looking for a way to fit Arthur Sixpence into all this…) an easy-going orphan who lives with his stern and often disapproving uncle, Old Kipps (John Marlborough East) and his wife (Annie Esmond).

He grows up with his best friend Sid, the neighbour’s son and there are lovely scenes of imaginary pirate fights on what looks like the wreck of a Great War battle ship. Arthur takes a shine to Sid’s sister, Ann Pornick (Edna Flugrath) but takes a long time to express his intentions. When he does he finds he is loved back and they split a sixpence in half to remind them of their incompleteness when apart.

Now, having finally got started, Arthur is exiled to an apprenticeship at the Folkestone Drapery Bazaar, run by Mr. Shelford (Arthur Helmore). Wells’ class concerns are still very much in evidence and Kipps’ dialect comes out in the title cards as easily as his discomfort in “polite society”. People like him have little control over their lives and must follow their duty, and, in his case, this means separation from the other half of his sixpence.

Edna Flugrath in 1919
Gradually he forgets Ann and starts to woo his arts teacher – self-improvement was all the rage - Helen Walshingham (Christine Rayner). He also makes a new pal, aspiring playwright and actor, Harry Chitterlow (Teddy Arundell) and whilst their initial meeting ends up with his losing his job after they get drunk, Harry spots an advert in a paper that means Kipps is due a life-changing inheritance.

Newly enriched with his long-lost grandfather’s posthumous generosity, Kipps now has to adjust to his new social status and also to look after his fortune… Will money guarantee his happiness and acceptance, and, as Ann re-appears as a humble housekeeper can true love overcome the phoney concerns of social status?

Director Harold M. Shaw makes light of the story’s literate origins and constructs a deft, enjoyable narrative that allows his actors to shine. Kipps is very enjoyable, professionally-made cinema that even manages to smuggle in some of Wells’ social concerns. You wouldn’t get so much of that in Hollywood... or would you?

The Sun winks
The first half of tonight’s programme featured the Georges Méliès’ masterwork, Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904) which takes the template of 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune and swings off even further into the solar system.

Méliès plays an engineer called Mabouloff who has devised an expedition to take his fellow explorers across the Alps, up into space and back down again using steam, airships, rail, automobiles and submarines… it’s madcap and inventive and feels slightly more structured and technically advanced than Moon even as one thing keeps on leading to another. There are fades from one scene to the next and the shot of the Sun's face is what you might a close-up!

Fernande Albany - who would have been 15 - plays the inventor's cheeky servant and one of the few woman among the travellers. She stands out from the grey, bearded boffins adding kinetic interest to the chaotic tableaux throughout. She went on to enjoy a long career in France and it’s good to put a name to one of the faces.

The plans are unveiled - Fernande Albany on the right in light blue?
The version screened was in magnificent colour – originally hand-tinted – and this worked especially well when the travellers hit the stars and get eaten by the Sun. Luckily the rules of physics were suspended for the adventure and they managed to drop back to earth in a submarine, past several disinterested perch or sticklebacks stuck in front of the camera.

It was an absolute joy and John Sweeney played along with his old friend with adventure and much gusto of his own: it’s not just the musical narrative but the ability to create just the right period tone that is so extraordinary about Messrs Brand and Sweeney; the Bioscope piano must look forward to their accompaniment.

Crossfading from one scene to the next...
As if that wasn’t enough we saw an episode of the British Sexton Blake serial The Mystery of the Silent Death (1928) starring Langhorne Burton as Blake and Mickey Brantford as his assistant Tinker. There was some excellent detecting, thrills with spills – possibly down to this being two reels cut down to one. Ultimately the message was, gentlemen clearly in a “funk” almost certainly have something to hide.

We also had the World’s most popular cartoon cat (until Walt ripped him off) in Felix Strikes it Rich (1925) and an adventurous western from the Nestor Film Company, The Awakening of Apeta (?) which was a turbulent tale of mixed-race love and loyalty; in America as in Wells’ Britain, social mores held people down so miserably; you can only hope we can cling onto the changes brought by the ensuing century.

Tonight, we were, once again, spoilt rotten by the Bioscope: enjoy your summer break and see you all again for a lot more in September.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Forbidden colours… The Red Lantern (1919), Costas Fotopoulos, Kennington Bioscope

“East is East, and West is West… and never the twain shall meet.”

Anna May Wong makes a brief and almost impossible to spot, film debut in a film in which a Russian and an American play the two Asian leads. The Red Lantern is “of its time” and yet it is not unsympathetic to these characters whose lives are limited by Caucasian prejudice. The eye make-up is jarring and makes for awkward viewing but whilst attitudes have shifted there were those even at the time who found this unacceptable… in a time when Sessue Hayakawa was a bona fide star. But this is about love and prejudice and whether the lines quoted from Kipling should still be true some twenty years after the Boxer Rebellion led to the deaths of over 30,000 in Peking.

The film features Alla Nazimova in dual roles as Mahlee the illegitimate, mixed-race daughter of Sir Philip Sackville (Frank Currier) and half-sister to his pure English rose Blanche. Nazimova proves again her ability as the most stylised protean performer of the time and you’d scarcely recognise her as her own sister – blonde wig and a lighter touch – vs the taught angularity of Mahlee.

Alla Nazimova, also known as Naz (natch).
The Boxer Rebellion was not old news at this point as the Great War ground out its last days, and issues of self-determination drove the post-war agenda. China had been the subject of many international hands and the “allies” opposing the uprising had been a mix of British, American, German and Japanese who by the time of this film had assumed the lead role.

June Mathis’ screen play was based on Edith Wherry’s novel, written in 1911 and described in The Spectator review on release as an extra-ordinarily “vivid” account of missionary life and as “… a statement of existing conditions it is of the very highest interest.”

In this context it’s fascinating that Noah Beery’s Doctor Sam Wang is not an out and out baddie; firstly, he’s a Doctor, committed to heling and secondly, he too is “Eurasian” – mixed race – and has been humiliated by his attempts to integrate in the West. He gets involved in the uprising as he wants to earn his place in the East… he’s also a bit too fresh with Mahlee, just to push him into “bad guy” territory, behaviourally. As the book reviewer noted, the two best realised characters are Mahlee and Wang.

Another Beery baddie? Also the father of Noah Beery Junior of the Rockford Files!
Mahlee herself is got at for not having had her feet bound – the express wishes of Sackville as he abandoned her as a baby, little realising it would mark her as an outcast. So much so that when her grandmother is dying she asks her to cut her feet so that she may be accepted into heaven by the gods (tough gods!). But, nor can she truly find a place with the Christian Europeans, even as she works as a nurse in the Mission.

“Hush, child! You are like a cat treading on my heart. You have the foreign devils’ fear of death… my time is near and I am not afraid.”

She falls for Andrew Templeton (Darrell Foss), the son of the mission leader Reverend Alex Templeton (Winter Hall), but the son's admiration is tempered by her mixed race as indeed is that of his father and mother; as much as they like and admire Mahlee, she is not for their son.

Naz and Darrell Foss
Things become even more pronounced when the Stackville’s arrive and Andrew is automatically drawn to the Caucasian version of the woman he has felt such an uncomfortably strong attraction for. This is not good news and naturally Wang plays the rejection as another reason for Mahlee to help the Boxer rebellion by pretending to be the Queen of the Red Lantern.

Again, it’s of interest that the story doesn’t leave it there and there is still a chance for the Westerners to redeem themselves by accepting Mahlee for who she is and not how she was made but no… they can’t even manage that and so it is that Mahlee joins the revolt. What else has she got left and, despite her efforts to save them and repeated offers of friendship they just can’t get over her skin colour… even her love and even her father.

The imperliasts aren't budging!
So, by now we’re rooting for the Boxers… and so – probably - were many of the audience in 1919 which is an extraordinary thing.

Veteran Albert Capellani directs… and there are some excellent crowd scenes and luscious mise-en-scene: it’s an epic and I’m not surprised it was one of the biggest films of the year and established Nazimova as: ”The star of a thousand moods… in a drama of a thousand delights.” I wasn’t counting and that may well have been hyperbole but there were many delights…

Costas Fotopoulos accompanied and, sight unseen, did a marvellous job matching the dramatic and emotional pace of a film that does lead its audience along a twisted path to the denouement.

Now THAT. Is a hat.
Illegal drug frenzy at South London Silent Film Speakeasy!!

Before all this we were treated to Coke Enneyday (Douglas Fairbanks) and his opioid adventures trying to break up a gang of evil-doers using inflatable fish to smuggle. Lovely Billie Love is caught up in all of this and I especially liked the moment when one of the – Chinese – henchmen trapped her and said he could now do what he wanted with her… she beats him up and ties him up in his arms.

Anita Loos probably added the Girl Power and Todd Browning (you know, him!) summoned all the rest coming down from one bad trip on Venice Beach. Maaaann!

John Sweeney played along, as sober as a Judge m’lud! He had to be: Doug takes no prisoners and in amidst the fun drugs, he clearly forgot to take his worming tablets.

The men in a boat. 1910.
There was also some beautiful colour footage of the Italian Lake Garda taken in 1910 using the innovative British Kinemacolor process which, as the Bioscope’s expert projectionist, Dave Locke, explained, used a spinning disc, with red, green and clear plastic to synchronise with film shot using tinted stock. The result was simply stunning and “colour fringing” aside, when someone moved a little too fast for the camera to follow, it was something to behold.

If you travel down to Brighton and Hove, you can still see the Kinemacolor sign on the side of the building where it was developed.

One of the most remarkable shorts ever shown at the Bioscope or, indeed, anywhere else.

The Red Lantern was the recent Belgian restoration and was screened on 35mm. It is avialable from the Belgian Cinematek as an extraordinary extras-laden DVD with a 200 page book which tells you all you could possible imagine about Naz, the Boxer background and the making of this film. Highly recommended!