Monday, 23 October 2017

Powderpuff picaresque… The Loves of Casanova (1927), with Stephen Horne, BFI, London Film Festival 2017

The BFI’s Bryony Dixon describes The Loves of Casanova as “… an exercise in ebullience…”, whilst Lenny Borger called it a “"Europudding" – albeit with plenty of flavour… and it’s hard to disagree. You could watch this film as a kind of biopic either of the life of Giacomo Casanova or of Ivan Mozzhukhin, possibly both… but either way there’s no absence of charisma.

The film was shot partially in Venice and it was good to revisit the location so soon after I recently returned there, albeit 90 years before… (it hasn’t changed much, but then I doubt it ever does, a little lower perhaps?). Entirely because sumptuous locations just are not enough, Casanova also features a veritable “kitchen sink” delivery of mise-en-scène devices throughout and not least for the climactic scenes with stunning Pathecolour during Venice carnival.

The camera is right amongst the action too, hand-held in Gance style, pulling the viewer into this glorious world of masked balls, illicit liaisons and romance… with a guy who can’t say no. There’s Casanova sword-fighting a dozen men, a colourized river-rescue, massed pursuit by gondola and horse and sleigh pursuit in the snow with everyone but the lead – audience and supporting players – in shock as our hero keeps his cool home and away…

Ivan Mozzhukhin: ridicule is nothing to be scared of
Bryony said the film was an attempt to out-Hollywood, Hollywood and it certainly has a good go. A tinsel-titled Casanova is followed by exploding fireworks and then dreams of dancers in Venice as our hero is revealed in his luxurious quarters. He is woken by his two, attractive blonde “assistants” just in time for the first bailiff of the day to attempt to arrest him.

The men find a famous dancer, La Corticelli (a shockingly topless Rina De Liguoro) in Casanova’s bedroom and the host then performs “magic”, persuading Menucci to accept his book of spells in exchange for the debt. Then we meet little Djimi (Raymond Bouamerane) who is the servant of Baroness Stanhope (Olga Day), he asks a man on the street where Casanova lives and all the windows in the street are opened by women who know the answer. The mood is playful, Russian whimsy filtered through French style as young Djimi plays tag with Casanova’s two assistants and then is chased by Baron Stanhope (Dimitri Dimitriev) as he tries to deliver a message from C to B… she reads the letter and then throws the torn pieces out of the window only for her husband to catch both them and their meaning.

A bit blue: Rina De Liguoro and friends
Next to a grand banquet in which Corticelli is host and we also meet a lieutenant of the Russian Imperial Guard, Gregori Orloff (Paul Guidé) who has plans of his own… slipping round the back to watch the women dance naked as Casanova and the rest stare at the shadows their bodies cast on a screen… It is SO saucy and, when our hero picks up his favourite dancer – Corticelli of course – she is clearly naked (of course). Ooh, la, la!! Or, as they say on Liverpool, ooh, la, la, la

But the Lieutenant is also interested and duels with Casanova but the dancer decides that they should be friends…  And that’s only the first half an hour!

Chased out of Venice on jumped up charges of sorcery, Casanova heads North and, in Austria, encounters Duc de Bayreuth (Albert Decoeur) and his party which includes a pretty-faced boy, Bellino… Casanova intervenes to stop a group of drunks abusing an old fiddle player showing that he’s a much Robin Hood as Don Juan and Bellino seems strangely impressed.

About a boy? Jenny and Ivan
During the night Casanova hears odd noises and Volkoff shows our hero imagining hazy images to go with the sounds as he leans, in sharp focus, against the door. There’s something afoot and the great lover once more springs to the rescue to find that Bellino is not at all a boy and that the Duc is trying to have his evil way with her… Thérèse (Jenny Jugo).

A dramatic rescue is cut short as sheer weight of men and horses overcomes Casanova… will he ever find her again? Here again there are some great shots from Volkoff and his team of cinematographers, Fédote Bourgasoff, Léonce-Henri Burel and Nikolai Toporkoff. With a camera pointing up as men on horseback race overhead you are reminded of the director’s work on Gance’s Napoleon.

He and Djimi are rescued by a passing stage coach containing M. Dupont who is en route to the court of Catherine II with the latest in lingerie and dresses… Casanova takes his stock and his passport – needs must and he has another court to conquer as Ivan and Alex make a dream return home…

Suzanne Bianchetti and Catherine's great, big train...
In St Petersburg we find Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, highly impressive as a fractious Tsar Peter III and Suzanne Bianchetti as a serene Catherine II… The queen takes rather well to her new friend and his fashions and as Orloff spots his old mucker, the two remember their pledge to remain friends just in time… and, soon, there are more important matters afoot. The Tsar is going too far, and regime change is in the air, he humiliates Catherine once too often and Casanova comes to her aid as the Empress’ forces re-arrange the gender at the top of government.

Catherine, who is pretty great, arranges a ball to celebrate and it’s here that Casanova spots Maria, Duchess de Mari (Diana Karenne) … He just can’t help himself “selecting” and it’s always “at first sight” as well… He’s a gentleman but he is more lion than human if you want to get zoological.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Paul Guidé
At the ball Empress Catherine has perhaps the longest train in movie history… the ensuing dance is a cauldron of human emotion with the director showing the faces of the main players, Casanova looking at Maria, Catherine, put out, gazing on with jealous concern, the Duke of Mari uneasy as his wife is romanced and Orloff concerned, as always, for his queen… The camera follows the movement around the huge ballroom and it’s another glorious set piece.

There’s more to come after Casanova and Maria escape from Russia and her husband and it’s back to Venice for a colourised denouement and more tough choices for our hero on the romance-front: it’s unrelenting and could easily carry on for Casanova in an endless loop of over-lapping love stories.

Diana Karenne and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Casanova is a dream of escape from responsibility and not just a tale of amorous addiction. Casanova always easily evades the officials and gallops off to love again …he always has a way out just as he'll always - nearly - get captured by his heart.

Stephen Horne had a ball with this, creating over two hours of musical variety in a four-hander with Ivan’s rhythmic mime. The plot and pacing may occasionally wander but Stephen held theme and tone driving the narrative onwards in characterful interplay with the lead’s darting eyes and feline grace.

As Bryony Dixon said, she could have picked any number of Ivan’s French films of this period – a golden streak for Mozzhukhin and Alexandre Volkoff, but this one is the most lavish and light-hearted and clearly all concerned were deadly serious about the project. It made us laugh and long for an era of powderpuff decadence.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Passion play… Underworld (1927) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope

After the festivals… another mini-masterpiece of programming at the Cinema Museum and a reminder of the power and the passion that fuels our interest in silent cinema made all the more poignant by the current threat to this unique venue. The owners of the property in which the Museum is located are putting it up for sale to property developers and threatening its future but the resistance is being mobilised and details are below…

Underworld is one of the great films with three searing performances from Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft and Clive Brook – a testament to their skills as well as the ability of their rookie director to overcome his nerves and deliver. Feathers, Bull and Rolls Royce are the beating heart of this story and whilst it is nominally a gangster movie it is really all about love, loyalty and compassion.

What does Bancroft’s Bull sense in Brook’s Wendel, a drunken bum of a fallen lawyer, that makes him trust his promise to be the “Rolls Royce” of silence… Why does he stick his neck out to protect Rolls Royce from "Buck" Mulligan’s bullying? He senses integrity and a steadfast character despite all Rolls’ faults, he may waver – everyone does – but there’s redemption in faith.

No, here's looking at you George!
Feathers also puts loyalty to Bull above love, she’s drawn to Rolls Royce, especially once he’s re-acquainted himself with the routines of personal hygiene… and the two wage a struggle with themselves. Bull too is tested by hate and the red heat of jealousy but once he understands it’s a lesson worth his life…

Von Sternberg stated later that the film was “an experiment in photographic violence and montage…” and was matter of fact about its crowd-pleasing elements. Kevin Brownlow in his introduction, shared his experience of meeting the former Joey Sternberg (the “von” was adopted from von Stroheim, a director who influenced Josef in terms of his on-set authority) and telling him how much he liked the scene with Bull feeding a cat milk as the cops gather outside; that’s the worst moment in the film replied the director. We disagree.

Rolls Royce spots Feathers for the first time...
Writer Ben Hecht, a street-wise journalist, was also dismissive of von Sternberg’s end product until he won an academy award for his script… The film was a smash hit and helped kick off the gangster film craze of the era with the director’s vision and those three leads creating an alchemy that was far from accidental.

Von Sternberg cuts to the chase and seems little bothered in conventional pacing. The film begins in the middle of a robbery as Bull Weed runs from a bank only to find Wensel identifying him and blocking his path… within minutes the two men are established in relation to each other. Feather’s first appearance is a tour de force of Peeping Tom visuals as Evelyn Brent stands atop the stairs of the Dreamland bar, casually adjusting her stockings and with those feathers wrapped around her, magnifying and obscuring her allure: she’s soft but hard and impossible to ignore. A single feather falls, and Rolls Royce watches it drift to the ground… one of the great entrances and as portends go, a real doozy.

Evelyn is a prototypical Marlene, lit with great care throughout and with dozens of killer close ups of eagle eyes and that distinctive profile. Brent became typecast as a gangster but there was so much going on behind those eyes… a few years younger and she could have been a real force in the thirties… but so it goes.

Also pinning down a future on the dark side is the magnificent George who is outrageously hearty throughout - a lion heart who rules his patch through force of will, guts and being quickest on the draw. He’s ferocious and smart too, smart enough to know what an asset Rolls Royce can be, no wonder he calls him the Professor. And the Professor is probably the most like us and indeed Josef, someone to contextualise the villains and a fellow traveller in this onscreen trip to the underworld.

Meg Morley played along with some crashing noir-ish minor chords and jazz-tinged lines that were so Chicago 1927… her playing got right to the heart of the film and was as bold as Bancroft and as deceptively fearsome as Feathers.

There was also very impressive undercard tonight with three powerful shorts…

Segundo's Spectre in 1907...
James Finlayson featured as an easily-distracted husband in Chasing the Chaser (1925) directed by a Mister Stanley Laurel. James’ character just can’t keep himself from chasing women and his long-suffering wife sets a honey-trap using a cross-dressing detective – now there’s an idea for a TV 'tec series… John Sweeney was on hand to add subtle flavours to Finlayson’s flirting.

Segundo de Chomón’s spellbinding The Red Spectre (1907) is a stencil-coloured mini-masterpiece showing the battle between the red devil of the title and a female foe… needless to say he loses. It features some startling trick shots and close-ups. Lillian Henley cast some music spells of her own with her accompaniment.

Elmer Booth in 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) featured the magnetic Cagney-esque presence of Elmer Booth and that famous close-up as he creeps up on his rivals… A Griffith innovation according to some but clearly not so a Segundo’s Spectre had just demonstrated. Still, all the same, the guy has some class and you wonder at what he could have done had his life not been cut short by an auto accident in 1915. John Sweeney guided us through the streets of downtown New York as the gangs hunt each other in a tense finale… If Underworld kick-started the gangster vogue this is one of the earliest examples of what was to come and it even featured real gangsters...

These nights at the Kennington Bioscope are a privilege and the Cinema Museum is such a warm venue; we’re surrounded by friends and the physical evidence of social history… there can be nowhere else like this place. The Chaplin family lived here when it was a workhouse, it helped keep our greatest silent comedian alive to become the man he was and now it helps sustain his memory and that of so many others.

The Cinema Museum

If the best modern Britain can offer is to sell it on and close it down to earn a few thousand for the failing government and rather more for the developers who are blighting London with soulless modernity then the gangster mentality will have won after all.

But we’re not going to go down easily and there’s plenty of love, loyalty and passion left for the museum.

You can sign a petition here to keep the Cinema Museum alive and there is a public meeting on Monday 30th October at the museum to discuss the ways forward.

A night in the museum
I can also recommend Lynn Kear’s book on Feathers: Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films ofHollywood’s Lady Crook which celebrates its subject’s career and the moxie which led her to make such a success of being the bad girl!