Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Jenny from the dock... Docks of Hamburg (1928), with Stephen Horne, Cambridge Film Festival 2019

"I love you. For the first time, I love someone. And I do not care about everything else…"

Emmanuel College was founded in 1584 by Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Elizabeth I and as you walk past the dining hall, originally the chapel of a Dominican Friary, (replaced by a building commissioned from some bloke called Sir Christopher Wren), you’re so immersed in the atmosphere that a late twenties silent film feels positively futuristic.

The silent film experience is that magical mix of venue, audience, music and film and all are inter-active and malleable even the feeling on screen. Emmanuel’s theatre is a modern building tucked to one side of the graceful old quads and it provides a perfect place to focus the mind, comfortable seats, warm wooden finish and a Steinway grand for Stephen Horne to play with.

Ace Weimar programmer, Margaret Deriaz, introduced with a natural warmth and enthusiasm few lecturers present; silent film is like a continuing educational programme for the historically-fascinated and these films are unique primary sources that we not only read but experience in places like this and with accompanists offering emotionally rich audio commentary.

As Margaret said, Stephen Horne has an affinity with Weimar film and that can only come from decades of accompaniment and research into the area. Margaret herself is one of the leading experts on this period of cinema and earlier this year programmed a superb series of Weimar films at the BFI: one of the best I can remember.  

Stellen Sie sich in einem Boot auf einem Fluss vor...
Directed by Erich Waschneck with much excellent cinematography from Friedl Behn-Grund, Docks of Hamburg is rich with location shots of the docks and the St Pauli district, providing a view of Germany’s most vibrant port before the War re-arranged things and the Beatles arrived 30 years later. There’s also an audacious travelling shot of Willy Fritsch’s character as he walks through the docks in search of his Jenny… it prefigures neorealism and so much film of the early Beatle era.

The interiors and sleaze of St Paulis were also, as Margaret pointed out, the result of Alfred Junge’s production design. He had also worked for Ewald André Dupont on Moulin Rouge and Piccadilly and was to enjoy a long career including working in Britain with Powell and Pressburger as production designer on Colonel Blimp, A Canterbury Tale, I Know Where I’m Going, A Matter of Life and Death and Black Narcissus. Well, he started here.

The film is a loose reworking of Carmen with boats, not bulls, and smugglers replacing toreadors. Willy Fritsch plays Klaus Brandt, a naval seaman who has just been promoted to night watchman for his ship, just as he has become engaged to his social climber girlfriend (Betty Astor).

One night Klaus catches someone trying to break onto the ship and, having caught the intruder, makes the classic error of assuming a hat and trousers indicate a boy when really it’s a girl called Jenny (Jenny Jugo) who, soaked to the skin, strips in front of his saucered eyes to dry off. After the initial shock, Klaus is so won over by Jenny’s carefree, well, everything, that he forgets fiancée and work, covering for her as the port authorities pass by.

Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand: Herr Rasp und Jenny
Jenny’s associated with a colourful gang of ne’er-do-wells including Tonio Gennaro as Gentle Heinrich (definitely harder than he looks ), Wolfgang Zilzer as The nipper (he’s young) and Fritz Rasp as The Doctor (probably not medically trained) all of whom are looking for an opportunity to get rich quick through smuggling, living off immoral earnings and extortion.

Jenny works in a nightclub as a hostess, dancer and cyclist… racing other girls in a competition to show off their thighs in skimpy bathing costumers with the winners of their sexy spin being pre-arranged. It’s all part of a whir of activities to relieve distracted punters from their hard-earned pfennigs either through drinking, gambling or the oldest transaction in the world. Jenny is in the midst of this world but seems happy enough – this is not the usual fallen woman, she’s more like Marlene’s Lola Lola.

By chance, Klaus bumps into Jenny outside of the club and she explains what she does and invites him to see for himself… he’s smitten and, for the first time in her life, Jenny is smitten too. This is Carmen but not quite as we know it. Klaus sneaks off from his ship-mining to see Jenny only to find that the Rats have broken onboard and stolen not only cash and goods but also his chance of a career.

Sie hat eine Fahrkarte, um Fahrrad zu fahren - Jenny's in it to win it
He tries again, this time getting a lowly job as a stoker on a ship bound for Australia only to be drawn away again by Jenny’s charms… All the while she keeps on working and, like Klaus, we aren’t sure if her feeling for him are as deep as his for her. She meets with a couple of rich handsome men, one an actual racing cyclist (Friedrich Benfer), and she’s whisked away to posher nightclubs where they ply her with new clothes and champagne… Is this what she really wants or is Klaus her heart’s desire?

Do they want to save each other or will this end as all Carmen tales with the ultimate punishment for Jenny and Klaus on the rocks? I couldn’t possibly comment.

Willy and Jenny make for charming leads and Jugo is indeed another “Earth Spirit” with a relaxed intensity and free expression which raises her above the dirty doings all around. We can fully see why Klaus would be drawn to this erotic firefly – throwing away his future and his fiancée, in an effort to not only win Jenny’s heart but to save her from the life she’s in.

"Sie liebt dich, ja, ja, ja!"
Stephen Horne responded to this complex Kabarett with clubby accordion, lilting flute and sentimentally intelligent piano – he has such a feel for every movement of Waschneck’s visual Bizet including one of those gorgeous themes he has which not only encapsulates the longing and fear of desire but sticks in your head for days. Klaus is drawn to Jenny… they’re on a collision course which will either work for them or kill them and, thanks to Mr Horne, we fall a little more emphatically ourselves.

Docks of Hamburg is a good Weimar film but Stephen’s playing lifted it higher as his well-informed melodies captured and expanded on the mood created by Waschneck and his players. It doesn’t exist on home media or even YouTube so I’m especially grateful for the opportunity to see it projected.

Another smashing show in Emmanuel and the Cambridge Film Festival remains one of the UK’s strongest for silent films and accompanists.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Time for sacrifice… How I Won the War (1967) and Plod (1971), BFI Dual Format, out now!

John Lennon’s in How I won the War on this new BFI Blu-ray set, yeah, yeah, yeah… but Mike McGear, John Gorman and Roger McGough are in one of the supporting features, Plod (1971) a long-considered lost film from the lovable mop-top minstrel, comedian and poet. Together these Liverpool likely lads formed The Scaffold; part Gooney-Beatles (Mike is Paul’s brother)/part poetry collective, The Liverpool Scene – which had included McGough at one point. They were an unlikely pop group with hits including Thank You Very Much and Lilly The Pink a tribute to Lillian Pinkman who invented a rather alcoholic tonic for prohibition America.

In Plod, based on a poem in Roger McGough’s book, After the Merrymaking, they give full reign to their madcap impulses with a loosely formed Day in the Life of PC Plod (Gorman, typecast…) who encounters all sorts on his working day between Dirty Old Maggie May and her fellow streetwalkers up by the Cathedral – plus ca change eh girls? - and a mysterious dog-murderer via strange encounters at the Albert Dock with a yellow-faced McGear (oh dear…)

Stereophonic faith
Still, it was 1971 and Plod is fun, where else are you going to get a gospel song praising, praising, praising! those good old Jellied Eels. Fab lads, although I had to explain this to my children… but they think all Liverpudlians are daft anyway: half their relatives in fact. Funny, but daft, and why not?

Plod also gives some great location shots of Britain’s true second city as it was in the early 70s when I was but a lad. From Hope Street and the cathedrals down to the Albert Dock via Bold Street and the spaces in between, it presents a fascinating backdrop, especially if you look at how things are now with art galleries and retail centres. The humour though, that remains unchanged and The Scaffold are for the ages.

Roger, with whose words they made the movie.
Now for the main feature, a rather earnest How I Won the War starring their mate Johnny and some posh actor called Michael Crawford. Satire always plays with contemporary wisdoms and perhaps dates more than most comedy, but that’s less of an issue when you dig into the context. As the British Empire slowly excused itself from the Pink World and the war raged pointlessly in Vietnam, you would expect to find a film like this one. It pokes bitter fun at the very foundation of an army led by public school donkeys - even grammar school ones - officers who succeeded in spite of and not because of their leadership.

Michael Crawford’s character Lieutenant Goodbody certainly fits in with a donkey, he’s grammar and not public but tries his hardest to fit in with those above. As for those below, his men, including young Johnny Lennon, as Gripweed, the great Roy Kinnear as Musketeer Clapper, Jack MacGowran as Musketeer Juniper and Lee Montague as Sergeant given the fictional rank of "Corporal of Musket" Transom. All know what to do more than their leader and yet there he is trying to lead them to their deaths on a regular basis… like Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they have do their duty knowing that  their death is as guaranteed as it is futile.

Michael Crawford
In these febrile times in which the achievements of war, dating back to the Napoleonic, via the Boer and the two World Wars, are regularly quoted in terms of the UK’s poltical relationship with modern Europe, this film is a timely reminder that we didn’t always respect our victories even 22 years after the last big one, or 15 years after Korea, ten after Suez and with Ireland about to really kick off. How I Won the War may feel a little over-egged and slightly sloppy BUT imagine Crawford not as Lieutenant Goodbody but as Captain Rees Mogg or Sergeant Francoise. If these people still invoke military conflict as if it were honourable and efficient success then they are mistaken, the Falklands and the Iraq wars have shown the reality if they care to look honestly.

Anyway, invoking Beyond the Fringe’s call for a “noble sacrifice…” Goodbody’s squad have been tasked with setting up a cricket pitch behind enemy lines in an effort to boost Our Boys’ morale: it’s a daft mission but one he intends to fulfil. Director Dick Lester moves the narrative lines around a fair bit to add an extra element of confused unreality, and we see the pitch under friendly fire before it is used. Now we know such issues were a problem – especially with French planes or British warships being used by enemies and friends during recent conflicts.

Goodbody gets captured but gets on so well with the erudite German commander that the agree a deal for the latter to hand over the key bridge in exchange for a business deal after the war. It goes wrong, as all these things do, because of communication and the fact that no one else in the British army knows what hands have been shaken.

Crawford’s character emerges thinking he’s won the war but the deaths of nearly all of his men are the price he happily pays for his own miraculous survival… it’s not too cynical a thought now as we approach another one of those “pointless sacrifices”, to give this conceit far more respect that we might have done in the 1990s-2000s.

The film is now on Blu-ray format for the first time in the UK and is presented in High Definition and Standard Definition. It comes with a set of great extras including a new commentary by Richard Lester authority Neil Sinyard, Richard Lester in Conversation with Steven Soderbergh, an audio interview from 1999 and illustrated books with new essays and notes on the extras.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

The Avenger: Endgame… Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Day Eight

Watching Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, a Story of the London Fog (1927) for the third time on the big screen, I can’t help wondering about the director’s political thinking. It’s probably been said before, but in the context of the late twenties, a film about hysteria roused by frenzied media coverage and leading to vigilantism and mob justice is not just about a serial killer… then again, it has been a long week; your mind is prone to wonder in Pordenone.

The real issue is how the public respond to the feeling of a murderer in their midst, an “other” set to destroy their way of life and someone who could be any one of them… This is the self-imposed terrorism of the newspapers we buy and the gossip we make and it is of course as old as the hills and always current. As Neil Brand said in his introduction to the 2017 premier at the Abbeydale in Sheffield, Hitchcock has made voyeurs of us all: we’re as obsessed with the vicious fantasy as the folk on screen and we lap it up all the same.

The story is not really about the murderous Avenger but how someone is perceived based on prejudice and human weakness. Ivor Novello’s lodger, Jonathan Drew is a jazz-age Man Who Fell to Earth, an alien in style and manners who is both “queer” and “doesn’t like girls” according to the title cards and this is more about his strangeness than any sexual statement. Who else to have cast in this role but a man with the same androgyny as David Bowie, whose Thomas Jerome Newton fifty years later, was scarcely more alien in the context of the earthy East End.

Ivor the Alien
Then there is June Tripp’s character who is positively seeking otherness, bored with her plodding boyfriend, over-eager copper Joe Chandler (Malcolm Keen) … she’s a feisty character and not given to hysteria and you know she’d be the practical one in any future relationship for her lover is deep in grief and needs her support – in every sense she saves Jonathan.

There’s an intimacy established with The Lodger’s characters so quickly, from the girls backstage at the Golden Curls show – reference in the opening montage and at the close – as the gobble up the news, to the Bunting household with father (Arthur Chesney) and especially mother, the peerless Marie Ault who’s Irish accent you can almost see on screen!

The Lodger is a bold creative enterprise from the title cards right through to the shot-making, story and performances. It needs a score to match… and Neil Brand has delivered something Alf would thoroughly approve of.

This is the second time I have seen the film with Neil Brand’s orchestral score and I have to say it is even better than the first: this is a soundtrack “in love” with this film’s characters and narrative and which works through the core of the film via a joyful osmosis; a duet between old and modern in totale simpatia. As with all of Mr Brand’s scoring, there’s a wealth of knowledge at work about the practice and those who have perfected it and one can hear echoes of Hitchcock’s future and past in the music.

This is one of the most re-watchable of silent films and the music recognises that and works with it; it’s composition that pays due diligence to audience expectations and is simply fearless in respecting the source and our ability to interpret the musical signals. The music is without pretence and is an honest, daring tribute to the watched and the watchers; it completes Hitchcock’s project goals by working on our voyeuristic involvement in the sensational story, June’s bath and the chess match by the fire that makes ‎Steve and ‎Faye’s Thomas Crown affair look like a bored game.

As the last act of Le Giornate it’s pretty much the perfect choice; beyond meta as a cinematic experience and, whilst it works on an immediate level, it’s a connoisseur’s delight: good vintage, delivered at the perfect temperature in the best silent restaurant in town.

The Joker
Before the end, there was still some interesting business to take care of. Sadly, I missed Colleen Moore’s rags to cinema comedy, Ella Cinders (1925) but I did make myself acquainted with “The King of Clowns”, Swiss-born Adrian Wettach in Son Premier Film (1926). Wettach – stage name Grock - had extraordinary physicality, a dynamic athleticism gained from his circus days and here, even at 45 his athleticism and energy are impressive as is his range of expression; positively Chaney-eque.

This first feature, natch, had him chasing his inheritance to Paris and getting involved with show people after his things are stolen. It’s French Whimsy alright and I have to say I prefer him without the make-up… too many clowns and Jokers this year.

William S Hart wasn’t joking though, certainly not in Blue Blazes Rawden (1918) when the high plains drifter was cast as a fierce woodsman in the “forest frontier” of the Canadian northwest of the 1880s. Jim Rawden is as wild as the wind, and when he comes into town for a good tie m with the boys he immediately comes head-to- head with the crooked English bar owner,  “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim) who tries to cheat him at cards and then gets an accomplice to empty Jim’s gun and sets up a fight he can’t lose…

As the two men face off, and Jim realises he’s firing blanks, his sheer rage puts Ladyfingers off and too frightened to shoot straight he falls. English to the last though, Hilgard asks Jim to lie to his mother and tell her he was a good man.

Thus it is that when she (Gertrude Claire) and her other son arrive, Jim goes out of his way to do the decent thing and tell her what she needs to know. Once again, his character have been “saved” by an honest white woman and this one of his own age too… (I wasn’t joking on that point M!) – Claire was only 12 years older than Hart.

Maude George plays the wilful Babette DuFresne, half French-Canadian, half-native American who loves Jim and wants him away from these people. As the Diane Koszarski notes in her film notes, Maude “…had been cast as morally suspect foreigners and vamps at Universal, Triangle, and Selig…” and was therefore ideal for the role.

It’s been quite a week for Hart and also for Reginald Denny whose final film was perhaps his funniest. Skinner's Dress Suit (1926) is that rare thing, a genuinely charming comedy featuring two vibrant leads – Denny and the lovely Laura La Plante who cuts a rug almost as sharp as her platinum bob. In thrilling style, the two dance the Savannah Shuffle…. a variation on the Charleston – before leading a host of society types in trying to learn the steps.

Denny has such an affable presence and is a precursor of the pre-code talkies to follow with his measured, realistic emoting and perfect sense of timing. And he can also dance, the Savannah Shuffle needs to be brought back; someone needs to tell Strictly/Dancing with the Stars…

As I type, I’m at Venice airport waiting for my delayed flight back to Britain… more time for coffee and reflection on another special week with silent pals on and off screen. Grazie molto Pordenone and let’s do it all again in 2020 however long the passport queue has become by then.

 Let's Dance.

PS Many, many thanks to PH: Britain's Queen of Bloggin'. Her daily updates have been so stylish and informed, you can read then all on her Silent London site.

If blogging is like jogging then this has been a marathon. But a fun run all the same!

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Joan in a state of grace… Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Day Seven

“If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

It was the age of the epic, films as battleships of desire armed to the teeth with huge sets, passionate stars and grand themes of endless truth and beauty. Cecil B DeMille followed DW Griffith’s Intolerance with the eleven reels of Joan the Woman in late 1916 and hoped to ride on the wave of enthusiasm for novelistic features.

This was a world premiere of the 2019 restoration and Joan doesn’t disappoint in terms of itself: it is dynamic, rangy and forceful and probably hasn’t looked this good in 103 years with the battles, pageantry and operatic drama all so crisp and with the colourised flames at the inevitable ending looking stunning. It’s not particularly historical of course but this was DeMille and not Dreyer and Joan was also propaganda for an America yet to enter the Great War.

The film has a framing sequence that has Joan (Geraldine Farrar) appear before a British soldier (Wallace Reid) who has to decide whether to volunteer for a suicide mission; now, says the ghostly Joan, it is time for you to right the wrongs you did to me/my country… This does seems a bit harsh, holding a grudge for 685 years and then having a pop at a random Englishman only, he isn’t, as Mr Reid is playing a descendant of Eric Trent who was famously the lover of Joan a character made up for the film to show that Joan was all woman (yes, exactly like Lisa Stansfield).

"Gerry" Farrar
Fact Check: The Maid of Orléans was just 19 when she was murdered by the English and here Our Gerry (actual nickname) was 34. But, enough of my history snark, I was genuinely very impressed by Farrar in this film not just for her command and expression but also because she really did get stuck into a very physical role, horse riding and battling with the boys.

This is how Hollywood has always "done" history and there’s an entertainment to be constructed which needs meet certain objectives to play to the millions eager for more drama and scale. Joan therefore has an – unrequited – love story with an English nobleman, Eric Trent (also Wallace Reid natch) who raids her village only to be stopped in his tracks by her beauty and conviction. She saves him, he saves her, she saves him, he tries to save her… it may be a set-piece romantic arc inserted for pragmatic appeal but it does humanise Joan’s character away from the saintly battles and warrior religion that might not have been enough to insure box office glory: this is Joan as A Woman after all.

There’s a cast of thousands with some of my favourite character actors including Hobart Bosworth as the noble General La Hire, Tully Marshall as L’Oiseleur a manic monk and Raymond Hatton as the weak Charles VII…

It’s a visual feast and purely entertaining if you switch off the history and was accompanied with power and panache by Philip Carli: music to storm English battlements to!

“She’s... the greatest find of the year! Beautiful, wonderful emotional quality – bound for stardom.”

Years later Joan the Dancer enjoyed a breakout performance in Edmund Goulding’s Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) tonight’s big film with another fresh restoration. Crawford plays Irene one of a trio of women trying to find work and happiness on Broadway one of the most successful themes of the times. The ethereal Constance Bennett is Sally, an elegant dancer who lives in a sumptuous upper east-side apartment kept by rich Marcus Morton (Henry Kolker aged 51) or possibly her family who are in oil… “just like sardines!” quips her pal.

Mary (Sally O’Neil) is an Irish gal on her first big stage break much to the concern of her beau, plumber Jimmy Duggan (William Haines – hurrah!) although her mam (Aggie Herrin) and Jimmy’s (Kate Price) are delighted – those two are great together and there’s lots of celtic banter! O’Neil is very sparky and I’m surprised she didn’t have a bigger career but, as with Bennet and especially Crawford, you needed to be so tough to thrive, a point the film’s glib conclusion makes as well“Broadway broke them but it won’t break me…”

The film starts in some style as the three make their way to the Dainties Theatre for the show with a lovely sequence where Irene stops to admire a black boy’s street dance, although she does drop her bag smashing her mirror… what can that mean? Then we see them in action on stage and Joan Crawford is magnificent, the ultimate flapper, arms thrown over her head as she cuts the sharpest of Charlestons centre stage: all of Lucille Fay LeSueur thousands of hours practice in full view and that’s before we’ve seen much of her uncanny responsiveness on camera.

This promise is not maintained by the rest of the film even though the three leads are all so good; there’s just not enough story to really make this a great film especially in Joan’s case. Iren is pursued by two men but we don’t get enough back story and motivation just lots of party lounging, looks and a mad dash in one of their cars for a spite marriage.

Idiot casts Constance aside.
Sally is tormented by her sugar daddy’s fading interest, although it’s impossible to understand why… as he tries to pick up the new girl, Irene who, being a street-smart Irish girl, you would expect would have seen him a mile off. But, no… Irene can’t resist flirting with Marcus thereby alienating both Jimmy and her new pal Sally… which feels contrived. Maybe there are elements missing but overall the film, for all its stars and style, doesn’t carry you away as far as it could.

The score was from Donald Sosin with an ensemble providing drums, double bass and guitar (will try and find their names!) who added style and were outstanding on the dance and party sequences: had there been room in a packed Teatro Verdi we might well have danced too.

Margery Wilson and William S Hart
William S Hart’s The Return of Draw Egan (1916) also had a new score, from Ari Fisher and performed by musicians from the Conservatorio di Musica Giuseppe Tartini, Triest, conducted by Petar Matosevic. It was thoroughly enjoyable and the film ticked all the Hart boxes:

1.  Rolling a cigarette one handed, lighting a match with the other hand, inhaling and looking well hard
2. Bad-guy-to-good guy as Egan gets a new start as a sheriff
3. Past coming back to haunt him
4. Saved by the love of a good woman/girl played by Margery Wilson (aged 19)
5. Louis Glaum playing a rabble-rousing saloon girl

All good fun and, I think the tenth Hart film of the week for me!

All this aside there was a fun sequence of mostly British shorts accompanied by Stephen Horne including a rather sad visit of Jackie Coogan to the Stoll Studios – he looked so young and tired – and the very witty What’s Wrong with the Cinema (1925) from Adrian Brunel (probably).

John Sweeney also accompanied more rediscovered shorts from the Desmet Collection including a probable Lois Webber film Twins (1911) Lupino Lane and his brother Wallace in Hello Sailor (1927) and the mesmeric dancing of Parisian Revue Attractions No. 1 (1926).

We could have danced all night but we drank instead. Thirsty work all this watchin'...

Friday, 11 October 2019

All around the world… Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Day Six

Day six and we’ve reached peak Pordenone with a united nations of silents taking us from Denmark to Japan via Russia, Germany and of course the wild west of America. Many of these films are about human relationships and, as Lisa Stansfield once remarked, "Been around the world and I, I, I, I can't find my baby..." maybe today would be provide some clues?

Events started strangely as strange can be with the unique comedy stylings of Pat and Patachon oddball Danes with numerous names but who started out as Carl Schenstrøm (1881–1942) and Harald Madsen (1890–1949). They specialised in being a) tall and daft and b) short and dafter with simplistically unsettling stories based primarily on these attributes.

There were a variety of shorts followed by the feature, Filmens Helte [The Film Heroes] (DK 1928) which as someone remarked, was more impressive for its quality around the two stars as much as for their proto-Benny Hill humour. In fairness there’s lots of amusing gags but there’s also a lot of the boys staring at a Josephine Baker-alike wearing maximum scanty and improbably impressing the ever-present leggy girls. They end up staring as cowboys in a supposedly serious western and as the director tries to drown his sorrows in the bar at the premier, the after show buzz reveals that it has worked spectacularly well as a comedy… were you watching Mel Brooks??

Neil Brand saw them coming and accompanied with the required straight face maximising their uncanny comedic delights.

The Tall and the Short of it.
Talking of serious westerns, Wild Bill Hart was back for more edgy Bad-Guy-to-Good-Guy-with-the-help-of-a-good-woman action and you have to say it’s a winning formula and he made the most of it. Of today’s two films, A Knight of the Trails (1915) and The Silent Man (1917) the latter was the most impressive featuring Hart as Silent Budd Marr, a hardworking, God-fearin’ prospector, “a helping sort of hombre.” He is robbed of his stake by “Handsome Jack” Pressley (Robert McKim) and turns to the dark side by holding up the stage and taking not only his rightful gold but also Pressley’s wife Betty Bryce (Vola Vale – it’s almost as if the were optimising for search terms even before Google was invented).

But Pressley is a bigamist who plans to get Betty to work as a “hostess” in his bar just like his other wife (gasp!) who he used to get to Silent Budd. There’s church burnin’, horse chasin’ and gun fightin’ as the Silent turns to Noise and Budd get’s his due with the help of “Grubstake” Higgins, “Preachin’ Bill” Hardy and “Sure is Purdy” Betty’s younger brother “Determined” David. It’s a family affair, with nicknames.

William and Vola share a joke.
Joseph A. Golden’s serial The Great Gamble (US 1919) has been given a grand restoration and so I won’t give it The Great Grumble but, at this stage of the Festival, I wasn’t able to give it the attention the 320 minute, 15-episode, 31-reel cliff-hanger deserves. I gave it a go but the story of a baddie trying to steal an author’s inheritance by substituting a look-alike for his daughter… was a longshot attention-wise… serials tend to develop momentum so I’ll dip into this reconstructed “Russian version” later...

Sorry, but which sister are you? The Great Crumble (1919)
It was time for a White Russian, quite a few of them in fact with Yakov Protazanov’s Father Sergius (1918) starring the masterful Ivan Mozzhukhin as Leo Tolstoy’s troublesome priest – a film that is post-revolutionary in addressing religious concerns in a way unthinkable before February ’18; you weren’t even allowed to show the interiors of church on film before then. There’s also a portrayal of Nicholas II that wouldn’t have passed; sexually predatory and definitely for himself and not the people.

Tolstoy was critical of the Russian Orthodox Church and was excommunicated for his pains and his story as shown in this film has the main character struggling to reconcile his passions with his conscience. We see Father Sergius progress from the angry young Prince Kasatsky to an elderly priest, all the way fighting an obsessional libido that sees him pursue the strikingly out of his league Countess Korotkova (Olga Kondorova) as a young man before placing himself in a monastery. Yet the older he gets and the longer his beard grows he still struggles to be free of carnality, even after chopping a finger off to keep his mind on higher things.

Mozzhukhin plays with his usual intensity and clearly relished the chance to show his range but the film’s a bit slow in parts after the spectacular opening segments, but that may well be down to my own pacing after 50+ hours of film!

Gabriel Thibaudeau accompanied in style contributing to at least one person on my row shedding a tear of two for the old priest.

Ivan's Prince bothers Olga Kondorova's Countess
We needed some action, some fighting and shouting and we got it with Chushingura (JP c.1910-1917) a remarkable early Japanese film that was accompanied by the energetic benshi, Ichiro Kataoka along with a trio playing piano, percussion and traditional instruments: Ayumi Kamiya, Yasumi Miyazawa, Masayoshi Tanaka.

Directed by Makino Shozo, “the father of Japanese film”, and actor Onoe Matsunosuke (presumably the God Father or Uncle?) the film is the longest of some 60 Chushingura films over this period including the first from 1910. These films were based on an actual event from 1701 in which two noble families clashed at Edo Castle with Asano Naganori (Asano Takuminokami), the lord of Ako Castle in western Japan, attacked Kira Yoshihisa (Kira Kozukenosuke). Asano’s clan paid a heavy price for contravening the laws of the Tokugawa Shogunate, forbidding violence in the Castle, had to commit hara-kiri, and the clan was terminated leaving 47 warriors to become ronin; samurai without a master.

OK, obviously not *all* 47 are in this picture but it's a representation of their comradeship.
The 47 proceed to attempt revenge on Kira with tragic results often repeated in Japanese stories and film.

It was the most distinct film of the week and the benshi adds another dimension alien to western silent film with a spoken word accompaniment offering adding new narrative details. It’s an onslaught and I swear between watching the screen, the subtitles and the performance on stage, I could almost understand what Ayumi Kamiya was saying.

There were also some very interesting Weimar Shorts with a feature on mouse breeding (yes) and a party political for the centrist Social Democrats that could only make one think of back home in Britain...

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Revolution in the head… Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Day Five

With all this talk of Todd Phillip’s latest talkie, Joker (pronounced Joke-err…) perhaps it was appropriate that two of today’s most interesting films addressed the mind in the context of traumatic events. In place of a psychopathic comic book villain we have a traumatised soldier, Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin) who has missed the biggest change in his country’s history.

Directed by Fridrikh Ermler, Fragment of an Empire (1929) takes an almost magical-realist look at the impact on this man as he is release from his pre-revolutionary shell-shocked amnesia into a Russia well into the Soviet project – Stalin was now in charge and the first Five Year Plan was well underway as forced industrialisation led to famine on an unimaginable scale in Ukraine and other rural areas.

Filimonov is, of course, a remnant of the old era himself and his observations on the New Russia are meant to make the audience appreciate them anew – revolutionary gains not to be taken for granted and still goals to be worked hard for. Further sacrifice is always going to be necessary and the personal must be subservient to the political. It’s propaganda that, despite of the censors’ eagle eyes, not only takes its audience seriously (like Powell and Pressburger) but which also allows for a range of interpretation: you ask if Ermler is for the Soviet or against? Ask yourself what you must do for Russia?!

Like the film the answer is complex and laced with humour; respecting the intellectual contribution required as much as the sacrifice for the communist state to achieve anything like its aims. Historian’s caveat: it must be presumed, unless otherwise shown, that Fridrikh Ermler was not aware of the inner workings of Stalin’s top-level strategies and that he, like 200 million others, could only view things from his own perspective. Which brings us straight back to the everyman Filimonov.

What happened?
Yes, dear reader, this is history as film and film about history as history, and you can never judge the efforts of the artists to try and find a way through for their meaning on the basis of subsequent knowledge of their time and place. This is one of the great films made about the interior life in a totalitarian state: and there’s another 80,000 words needed to fully cover that – if funding is available, I’ll give it a go.

The film’s opening says all you need to know about Ermler’s humanity. In a snowy night-time with rows and rows of soldiers’ bodies and the observation of one character that there are “so many boots...” Amongst the useless bodies and recyclable footwear there is a wounded soldier who is hefted into a barn by a kindly comrade - Filimonov. The soldier is thirsty and in desperation he suckles a dog, pushing her pups out of the way… he’s discovered by the enemy and an officer who shoots the dog dead: if that’s how they treat animals, imagine how they treat humans?

The rest is a whirlwind of some beauty, as Filimonov gradually comes to terms with modern life, his modern wife and sees exactly what remains of the old empire…

Why change your wife?
I had previously seen the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompanying this film (and their music is on the new Flicker Alley Blu-ray) but tonight featured the original score from Vladimir Deshevov, played by the Orchestra San Marco and conducted by Gunter A. Buchwald who also had to tweak the score to make it fit the running time. He did an amazing job and the score was richly enjoyable reflecting the tumult of emotions with some gorgeous lines and the hard-hitting proto metal of contemporary Soviet composition.

Like Joker, it’s a film you want to analyse and externalise. Unlike Joker, it is an undeniable classic.

Elsewhere the Giornate’s waters were relatively calm with the exception of those around Kador where a devious guardian is trying to rob his ward of her life, love and inheritance in The Mystery of the Kador Cliffs (1912). Directed by Léonce Perret it is not so much a who-dunnit but a how-he-who-dunnit-gets-caught… a bit like Columbo only a bit snappier, with more forensic method and fewer cigars: Sherlock-Columbo if you will.

Suzanne de Lormel (Suzanne Grandais) must make it to 18 without going mad or else she will lose all of the inheritance to her uncle and tutor the Comte Fernand de Kéranic (Perrett).  It’s the usual troublesome arrangement that can lead to trouble…

I’ve always loved the sweet-hearted appliance of science in the film’s denouement involving Professeur Williams (Émile Keppens), a man who has a reputation for solving the seemingly un-solvable psychiatric cases through revolutionary use of cinematic techniques! Todd Phillips take note.

Filiming to catch the criminal of Kador!
Elsewhere today we had another cheerfully sexy dose of Ita Rina as a member of an opera chorus in Mario Bonnard’s sumptuous Das letzte Souper (1928). The stakes are high as a very strong cast take part in a murder we are sure to happen as opera director and shameless Lothario Boris Stroganoff (Heinrich George), lines up a list of his potential killers with unremitting bad behaviour. In detective terms this is like Hercule Poirot with more patience… end result, the same.

We also had more of the reliably conflicted William S Hart who was especially impressive in Wolf Lowry (1917), with , Exhibitor’s Trade Review raving “Exciting gun play, love interest, the sweep of the great out-of-doors country and the spirit of self-sacrifice exemplified in the central character…” in short, everything expected from this genre master at the time.

Neil Brand played as if he had 100 western themes to incorporate at will in improvisations informed by so much classic scores of the genre: Hart brought a shooter to a gunfight but Mr Brand had a piano: bang-bang (in “C”).

William S Hart faces another moral conundrum in Wolf Lowry
Last, but not least, we had Wait and See (1928) a very strong – i.e. funny – British comedy from Walter Forde, which was basically Trains, Planes and Automobiles as Walter pursues his love interest Pauline Johnson (Jocelyn Winton), in a break-neck mash-up of mechanised transport. Walt plays Monty Merton who is pranked by co-workers fed up with his groundless ambitions, into believing he has a fortune to collect. This flimsy device snowballs until Walter’s successful pursuit may well generate enough investor support to save his firm and guarantee his future and love life.

Schrodinger’s Comedy Cat OR Brexit Fever 1920’s style? You decide.

Either way it was made all the more enjoyable by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius' accompaniment clanging along wonderfully well with Walter's weaving.

Boris Stroganoff before the off...

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Gypsies, tramps and thieves... Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone Day Four

“…ninety years from now, when all the war pictures and propaganda films and arty productions have been forgotten, some old white-beard is sure to mumble, ‘There was a girl named Marion who looked awfully cute in boy’s clothes.’” Delight Evans, Screenland, July 1926

Another epic day out here in the capital city of Friuli-Venezia Giulia with magnificently restored cowboys to start, followed by doctors, divas, death and Duck Soup, before a trio of women against the odds finishing at 1.00AM sharp… and all’s well!

In the Teatro Verdi the tone for the evening was set by the collective joy of seeing Laurel and Hardy in Duck Soup (1927) – a once-lost now found and restored by Lobster Films. There’s a new trend this year of applauding leads on screen but with Stan and Oliver our laughter is the salute and this early partnership is a hoot as the two boys, hoboes on the run who attempt to rent out a mansion to Lord and Lady Tarbotham (Madeline Hurlock classy and serene here and all too keen to take a bath as you’d expect from a former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty).

There’s no greater comedy hit than one shared and, in this theatre and with this audience we were grinning like loons as a mass forgetting of the everyday took hold and we were sucker punched time and again.

And then came Marion.

This year’s poster girl is already established as one of the major stars of the Twenty First Century silent renaissance and in Beverly of Graustark (1926) she is gorgeously funny. Davis never made a seriously revered film (although Show People comes close: it is loved) but it doesn’t matter as she was the queen of romantic comedy drama for much of the Twenties producing a string of major hits that allowed audiences to laugh themselves out of the day-to-day and onto the screen in sympathy.

There’s no better sight than Marion’s looks straight to camera eyes twinkling with the latest daftness. Mabel started it and Stan followed but Marion took it to another jazz-age level; her face bubbling and alive, as knowing as anyone, with perfectly timed beauty, an irresistible smile.

Here she has many reasons to be comically shocked as she plays an American who has to impersonate her cousin, Prince Oscar of Graustark (Creighton Hale) after he injures himself in a skiing accident. If the Prince doesn’t make it to the Graustark coronation on time the deals off and the nasty General Marlanax (Roy D’Arcy who is always good to watch in this kind of role).

And so the Prince formerly known as Beverly has to dress as a man and convince the cabinet and court to save the throne and she does such a splendid job that even politically-active and military trained goatherd Danton (Antonio Moreno, “Sweet Santa etc…”) can’t see that, with that skin, those eyes and all the rest, that she’s less of a man than he’ll ever be.

It’s exquisitely daft but the timing is absolutely perfect throughout and, this was reinforced by a masterclass in sympathetic accompaniment from maestro John Sweeney on piano and the Gene Krupa of Stummfilm, Frank Bockius. They ripped through the narrative with such clarity of purpose and a collective flexibility that encompassed grandeur and pratfall almost within the same phrasing. The film informs the music and the music informs the response, we laugh and they pay back, performance enhanced by sheer delight.

I have literally got this t-shirt!
Now, getting back to the start of the day, it turns out that yer cain’t watch enough William S Hart westerns; they’re all different, pack a moral punch and he’s just so durned watchable! This is why the efforts that have gone into restoring and recreating one of his best films, The Gun Fighter (1917) are to be applauded and a parade should be run for Mr Kevin Brownlow, Christopher Bird and Fritzi Kramer. Kevin had found some 35mm elements in a French archive and this was mixed with a 9.5mm “home cinema” reduction and completed with new intertitles from Fritzi who, whilst being a famous silent film blogger by night is also a graphic designer by day.

The restored film is indeed very strong, a philosophical western which contained more moral conundrums than the earlier films screened today – both of which were good but not as complex. It showed how Hart’s work was developing rapidly and taking more risks with his character’s moral journeys; the actor/director seemed to know how far he could push his audience’s sympathy and, unlike other prominent directors of the time, he was more concerned with ambiguity. He’s a fantastic actor and clearly relished the greys and that’s why this film is so important.

On Monday we had seen French newsreel showing a studio of colourists working in their dozens with magnified images and a pantograph machine allowing them to precisely colour film stock and today we saw the results of this process with Gerolamo Lo Savio’s Otello (1909). We all love a bit of colour and Othello is one of the plays I’d most like to see at this running time… and, by the Bard, it works! That Iago though; what a get.

Elettra Raggio
We had two Italian films with impressive if lower league divas. The first was Il Fauno di Marmo (1920) directed by Mario Bonnard and starring the loverly Elena Sangro as Princess Maria married to the Duke of Helgoland (Ugo Bazzini). The narrative is convoluted and uncertain but the film looks fantastic from the outrageously opulent dresses to the sumptuous locations in and around Rome.

Elettra Raggio is striking too in her surviving film La morte che assolve (1919) which is a complex tale of redemption between estranged family members which deserves more attention. Luckily, it’s available on DVD and so I feel compelled to go on at more length later about this remarkable writer, director and performer. I always love seeing Diva films in Italy, even more than I like hearing classic era progressive rock still being played on Italian radio…

Quickfire round, your starter for ten: Oh, Doctor! (1925), Oh, Reginald Denny you are a funny one, a very enjoyable romp about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.

Pauline Frederick having trouble with useless men
The Moment Before (1926), Pauline Frederick looking absolutely stunning as a gypsy woman falling foul of her circumstances in a story told in flashback right at the moment of her death. Eat your heart out David Lynch! One of the strongest actors around in the silent age and another one of those timeless/modern faces. Ace.

It was so very late when John H Collins’ A Wife by Proxy (1917) came on and in spite of a clunky beginning it won me over with some smart direction and cracking character development. Mr Collins is for sure the Irish Lubitsch with some excellent touches in this tale of a young Irish lass, Jerry McNairne (Mabel Taliaferro – Viola Dana wasn’t available!) sent over to the America to work with her cousin Norton Burbeck (Robert Walker). Norton will inherit a fortune if he marries by November but his scheming cousin works with a crooked couple to distract him using the womanly allure of brassy Beatrice (Sally Crute).

I loved the performances from all concerned, good detailed direction, and the two women were standouts. You’ll never beat the Irish.