Tuesday, 31 May 2011

René Clair - Under the Roofs of Paris (1930)

“Sous les toits de Paris” is an early sound film directed by René Clair, probably the first French musical and certainly the first international French hit of the sound era.

The film starts with an extraordinary tracking shot from the roofs over Paris down slowly towards a group of people singing and lingering on young Pola as she watches the show. It’s a great, steady, graceful shot and a surprise in a film of this era. As the camera starts to move you find yourself wanting to know more about the singing and hoping that the camera will follow your interest downwards…it can and it does (stitch that Mr Welles!).

It’s not the only striking innovation and there are frequent shots panning from ground to sky in a film that surely influenced Hitchcock’s magnificent “Rear Window” (maybe even the Chim Chimeny sequence in Mary Poppins…). Almost all of the film was shot in studio – these shots wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else – but the continuity with outdoor shots is masterfully maintained and, if anything, this adds to the intensity of the story: working class Parisians trapped in their situations.

Their lives are enlivened by music including the darn catchy title song, which is sung with gusto by Albert at the start and then proceeds to infect many of the characters as it sweeps from room to room in the crowded tenements.

Albert Préjean is excellent as “Albert” a likeable if somewhat compromised singer of songs and seller of sheet music. He falls for “Pola” (played by the elaborately-bobbed Pola Illéry – no effort wasted on inventing new character names then!) a very pretty Romanian girl, who’s plainly mixing with the wrong company in the malicious form of Fred (Gaston Modot…somehow Gaston sounds more threatening than Fred but maybe that’s my English perception…).

Pola is scared by Fred’s forceful advances and ends up spending a chaste night with Albert in a scene Hollywood wouldn’t have touched at the time. She’s obviously not entirely convinced by Albert either, but they move closer together and are heading towards matrimony before events intervene.

The film subverts expectations as the course of this true-ish love doesn’t run as true as contemporary or even modern audiences might expect… We’re never sure how this is all going to end thanks to superb performances from Albert and Pola and to the complications of their precarious lives. Albert is mistakenly locked up for possession of his mate Bill’s stolen goods but released following Bill’s own capture and the latter’s honourable owning up.

There’s another outstanding scene after Albert’s release, when he fights fearsome Fred with the action largely obscured by posts and walls until Albert’s friend shoots out the lights and even more confusion reigns. Clair, apparently unconvinced by the potential of sound films, also uses sound to obfuscate and conceal parts of the story. Sometimes the characters’ voices are drowned out by sound or muffled by a closed door. It’s as if the director is using the limitations of sound recording to aid his story telling to draw us in and undermine again our expectations.

Albert is eventually re-united with Pola but by then she has fallen for his friend Louis (Edmond T. Gréville)… who will she chose and will the friends fall out forever?

In the end, the story runs full circle and the camera gracefully backs away from the singing group on the streets back up to the roofs from which we began out journey. Very clever Monsieur Clair, set designer Lazare Meerson and cameraman Georges Périnal. All in all, a very satisfying film.

The Criterion edition includes deleted scenes, "Paris qui dort" (Paris Alseep), Clair's first film and excerpts from a 1964 BBC interview with the directorl.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Free-running Fairbanks! When the Clouds Roll by (1919)

"When the Clouds Roll by" is a 1919 Douglas Fairbanks vehicle directed by Victor Fleming - later to make Clara Bow's "Mantrap" and those couple of major 1939 colour movies!

It's a slight story but very well told from the inventive opening titles showing the actor, director, writer and even the camera men smiling for their introduction, through some bizarre dream sequences to a physical battle between the main character's sense of humour and "despair".

Even the intertitles are different, illustrated and witty, all rendered in hand by Henry Clive. This is one smart movie.

But the energetic performance of Douglas Fairbanks is what makes the film work. He's an extraordinary athlete who jumps, climbs, falls and bounces throughout. His escape from the vegetables of his dream (yes...they are...) looks like an exercise in Parkour freerunning almost a century before its invention. He never stops and was obviously meticulous in planning his stunts and the whole physical choreography of his story.

On top of this is the winning smile and natural exuberance that made him one of the early silent stars, the equal of Pickford or Chaplin (this was the second United Artists feature).

The story revolves around the attempts of one nutty professor, Dr Metz, to show that it is possible to drive a man to suicide through the power of suggestion...the wrong foods (see the above vegetables) and just generally messing up the subject's work, life and love.

It doesn’t quite hang together as a story but it certainly works as a great basis for Fairbanks to show what he can do. Too superstitious to cross the path of a black cat he simply climbs up the side of the building whilst he's even able to nip down to a submerged kitchen to bring forth breakfast for his sweetheart.
All in all, undemanding and thoroughly entertaining. The whole thing a call to good humour and positivity in the face of all the negatives of human experience: "Never despair folks, everything will be Jake...when the clouds roll by!"

Next up "The Mystery of the Leaping Fish" when Douglas plays one Coke Ennyday!?

Clouds rolling by the amazon here or via TCM.

Friday, 27 May 2011

"...there is only Louise Brooks..." Pandora's Box (1929)

Sometime back there was a bit of a to-do concerning the possible sighting of a woman using a mobile phone at the premier of Chaplin's "The Circus" in 1928. The supposed time-traveller was witnessed on the extras for the DVD of the film and looked fairly convincing as a modern mobile user somehow transported back to the '20s and seemingly chatting away in that incessant manner we're all compelled to do.

It looked striking: the shock of the old. A perfect anachronism that connected you very strongly with the everyday past.

I feel the same way about Louise Brooks.

Last night I went to watch "Pandora's Box" at London's Prince Charles Cinema. The film was ably accompanied in sure-footed (handed?) fashion by John Sweeney and is part of the venue's laudable monthly silent film programme.
This is the film that really kick-started my interest in silents by providing the perfect shock that is Louise Brooks.

So much has been written about "Pandora's Box", about Mr Pabst and especially about Brooks. But just what was it that makes it so appealing and so able to break the complacent, soundless binding of 20's film in order to establish a connection with modern audiences?

It's Louise, it always has been. She's terrific, fully believable as a Pandora able to bend the will of men and women alike through sheer allure. But it's not just beauty. Brooksie can act and how. She's contemporary and timeless. She's now.
Oh. I'm getting carried away. But you have to try work it out. Her style and image have persisted on their own. For many years she was just a postcard to me and a signifier of shared aesthetic with my wife.

Then I saw Lulu and finally realised how amazing she was. Then I watched "Prix de Beauty", "The Show off", "Love 'em and Leave 'em", "A Girl in Every Port"..."Beggars". Then I read Barry Paris, "Lulu in Hollywood" and "Dear Stinkpot".

So, it's always a pleasure. She was a star whose greatness matured over the decades and she had an integrity and rare intelligence, deserved of so much respect.
She berated Kevin Brownlow for leaving Clara Bow out of the Parade and was similarly generous and cantankerous in equal measure to other contemporaries. She was uncompromising and unmatched.
"Pandora's Box" was transfixing again and all the more so on the big screen. Pabst built the film around Louise and there are some shots that burn themselves into the memory and stay there...Lulu's look of mean triumph when discovered with Dr Schon by his fiance, her energy and joy in the opening scenes, her quick changes of manipulative energy in persuading the Doctor, the Countess...anyone, to do just as she wants them to.

Then there's the close, when she literally lures Jack the Ripper to her death...

This film deserves its place in the pantheon but it's probably more important for showing us Louise Brooks. And preserving her for the generations.

In this case, we're the time travellers. Do we go to her or does she come to us? C'mon, it's Brooksie, I think you know the answer to that one.

The full Criterion edition is available here and it's to be hoped the latest clean up is available soon. Blu Ray with all the trimmings please.

For all things Brooks check out the excellent Louise Brooks' Society site. and the societies' blog is here.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Jenny Hasselqvist – all acting, all dancing!

Jenny Hasselqvist (or Hasselquist) was a top class ballerina who also starred in a number of high-profile silent movies. There’s very little about her online (at least in English) but she’s certainly more deserving of wider recognition and remembrance.

Born Matilda Elizabeth Jenny Hasselqvist in 1894 into a well-to-do Stockholm family (her father was a Swedish MP), Jenny first appeared on stage as a dancer in her teens. She was one of the premier performers of the day and was principle ballerina for the Swedish Royal Opera from 1915-19 touring Europe in many successful productions.

In 1920 she joined the Swedish Ballet in Paris which produced five seasons of ground-breaking and avant garde dance. An article in Spel en dans (September 1925) ranked her with Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Lili Green as a world-class dancer. There's a documentary about this period - if ballet's your thing - with a sample here.

There are some excellent photographs showing Jenny in performance but little film of her ballet dancing. One noticeable exception is the 1916 Mauritz Stiller film "Balettprimadonna" a film thought long lost but now preserved in nearly complete form by the Swedish Film Insititute - I'd love to see it on DVD! There's also the, frankly bonkers, German “health and efficiency” movie "Wege Zu Kraft und Schonheit" ("Path to the Power & Beauty") (1925) in which Jenny’s dancing is one of the more conventionally interesting sections and certainly the highlight.

She dances in “Sumurun” and this is also one of the best chances to appreciate her acting ability. An Ersnt Lubich film from 1920 this was primarily a vehicle for Pola Negri and represents that early German sub-genre of Arabian Pantomime! The film is available on a Kino DVD and this shows the full-length picture (not the truncated US version) which reveals itself to be a sophisticated and intricate comedy and one preserved in excellent quality.

Jenny plays the title character (and is indeed featured on the cover, not Pola as some might think) and for my money, outmatches Ms Negri in skill, personality and certainly movement. That’s not to understate the latter’s own abilities – she’s deservedly a legend – but to underline how talented Ms Hasselqvist was.She faced an even sterner challenge in “The Saga of Gosta Berling” when acting alongside the 19-year old Greta Gustafsson (later Garbo) and again more than holds her own - albeit against inexperienced opposition who nevertheless shows promise... Her part is a less prominent one in this sprawling three hour epic than in the Lubish film but she still stands out for her grace and emotional subtlety.

Adapted from the nobel prize winning author Selma Lagerlof’s novel and directed by Mauritz Stiller, the film was one of the key European movies of the silent era and much has been made of the Stiller/Garbo angle. The cast is a very strong one with Lars Hanson outstanding as the cleric torn between his passions and his women. The great Gerda Lundequist is also present as the wise Margaretha Samzelius.

Jenny plays Marianne Sinclaire who is wooed by the outcast Gosta Berling. Gosta sticks with her after she is ravaged by small pox and rescues her from the fire of Ekerby. But Marianne nobly frees Gosta of his obligation to her knowing that his heart lies elsewhere, “our adventure is over – forever” she says her eyes telling a different story as she sacrifices her own happiness for his.

It’s a mass of melodrama but compelling viewing. People can pick holes in the continuity, sprawl and overall coherence but it is a tale well told with some great dramatic sequences, the above mentioned fire and Gosta and Elizabeth’s escape across the snow.

And, in every scene, Jenny is strong, expressive and convincing. More skilled, certainly, than Ms Gustafsson at this stage.She never gave up her principle career – indeed film looked more of an adjunct with an average of around a movie a year through the 20’s at a time when she still toured Europe frequently with the Swedish Ballet. She eventually opened her own ballet school in 1932 after making her last film “Den farliga liken” (“The Dangerous Game) in 1930. She passed away in 1978 having been married a number of times and no doubt more revered as a ballerina than as a film star.

See for yourself why she should be remembered for being both.

Arabian adventures here and Gosta saga here.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Smoke Fairies & Princess Nicotine (1909)

"Princess Nicotine", aka "The Smoke Fairy", is a short film from 1909 that utilises various Melies-styled trickery to show how the naughty fairy can mess with your 'baccy and with your head!

Directed by one J Stuart Blackton it tells the brief, but entertaining, story of a sleeping smoker being visited by the eponymous Princess. Illustrative of the state of the art special effects lapped up by cinema audiences over a century ago, it looks like a mystical relic to modern eyes. Forget CGI, these are hand-crafted illusions!

One legacy of the film was to gift Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies with the name of their band. The Smoke Fairies play a unique style of home counties delta blues with ethereal vocals floating over increasingly compelling melodies. They channel numerous influences through a highly individual sound and are developing some beautiful songs...try "Summer Fades" or "Hotel Room" of their latest album, "Through Low Lights and Trees". As with the good Princess, everything feels hand-made and lovingly rendered. These fairies share a singular vision and they're out to make us feel...different!

Catch them live when you may just hear them play their currently-favoured encore, Killing Joke's "Requiem"...one of the most surprising and strikingly apt covers I've heard for a long time.

Go all you Fairies!

The Princess is downloadable here at the Internet Archive.

Summer Fades is simply gorgeous on YouTube, but just purchase Low Lights... at Amazon.

Find out more about the group and get a free download on their official site.