Tuesday, 30 October 2012

My funny Halloween... Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)

"I felt that he was not flesh and bones, that he was part of the steel of the camera…"

So said Fay Wray after being directed by Michael Curtiz in this strange film from one of cinema’s most prolific directors. If you don’t know Curtiz by name then you’ll certainly know him by his pictures which include everything from the rare silents such as  Red Heels, to massive blockbusters like The Adventures of Robin Hood and niche features like Angels with Dirty Faces and Mildred Pierce...Then there was a little something called Casablanca…and White Christmas!

 It’s hard to reconcile such a broad body of work and it’s difficult to say that there was anything like a “Curtiz style”, other than a high level of professionalism, working – hard - with the best people, as Wray’s quote testifies, and smoothly-efficient story-telling.

Mystery of the Wax Museum was still relatively early in the Hungarian-born director's career and it shows the influence of his time in Germany (where he made the aforementioned Red Heels (Das Spielzeug von Paris), Einspanner Nr 13 and dozens of other intriguing silents). There are certainly a lot of expressionist touches; dark shadows pervade the film and characters are framed at odd angles against the scenery.

One of the last films to be made using the two-strip colour, to emphasise the “horror” no doubt,  this does sound very much like a straight-ahead pre-code horror but it has more style than you might expect and is still a little chilling to this day…a little haunting or maybe just plain weird! Tod Browning eat your heart out!

It begins in London in the early 1920s where down a dark and dingy street, Ivan Igor (Lionel Atwill) is a sculptor of genius who, unaccountably, operates a wax museum. Art critics are wowed and want to exhibit his incredibly life-like sculptures at the Royal Academy.

However, Igor’s  beautiful creations – one of whom looks very much like a young Fay Wray… aren’t pulling in the crowds and the museum’s owner Joe Worth (Edwin Maxwell),  has a plan to balance his books by burning down the museum and cashing in the insurance money

Lionel Atwill and Allen Vincent
Igor tries to stop Worth but is knocked out as the fires leap all around him and his handiwork melts grotesquely before his eyes…

We shift forward a decade to New York City on New Year’s eve 1933…as New Yorkers celebrate a grimly-familiar face watches them with disdain… It’s Igor, who has somehow survived and is set to open a new wax museum in the city.

Glenda Farrell
But all is not quite right, Florence Dempsey (mouth almighty Glenda Farrell for whom playing a tough-fast-talking journo became a career) is sent out by her charmless editor, Jim (Frank McHugh) to try save her job by finding a story in the apparent the suicide of a model named Joan Gale (Monica Bannister).

The girl’s body is taken from the morgue and Florence starts to think that she might be onto something…

The model’s boyfriend, rich-kid George Winton (Gavin Gordon), is implicated but Florence thinks differently. Her nose for a story is so good you wonder how she struggles to find news!

Yep, "pre-code"... Fay in those shorts
We switch to Florence's apartment where roommate Charlotte Duncan (Fay Wray) is performing some gratuitous (very much “pre-code”) exercises in shorts… Charlotte’s fiancé Ralph (Allen Vincent) works at Igor's museum and takes the girls along to the opening. Here they encounter Igor who is wheelchair bound and crippled following the fire in London. His hands were severely damaged and he has to rely on the hands of Ralph and other less wholesome assistants.

He unveils a waxwork Joan of Arc who looks startlingly life-like… and frankly behaves like a man with something to hide!

More than this he is entranced by Charlotte seeing her as the exact likeness of his Marie Antoinette… one of those lost in the fire. Those familiar with Carry on Screaming might spot where this film is headed right about now. But there is still something genuinely creepy about proceedings and this formula was yet to become stale.

I won’t go any further with the plot suffice to say that there is genuine peril and Charlotte really shouldn’t be so trusting! The climax is well-handled and Curtiz builds the tension well – we were squirming in our seats right till the end.

Frying tonight?!
The sets are superb, all larger than life and owing something again to German expressionism (Curtiz was Hungarian but learned his craft in the Weimar). The cast is uneven, Lionel Atwill is a little wooden (or should that be waxen?) whilst Fay Wray was a little subdued – though her time was to come with something more sizably scary in her very next film.

Glenda Farrell takes the plaudits and marauds her way through proceedings firing off one-liners and casual comments with machine gun rapidity – she was reputably able to say 400 words in 40 seconds… She grounds the action in someone believable and even confounds expectations with her choice of romantic partner at the end. An interesting “broad”, she enjoyed a long career in film and television, including a series as a fearless investigative reporter.

Monica Bannister... still life
But, spare a though for Monica Bannister who had to play a waxwork dummy for long minutes on end…

Mystery of the Wax Museum is stylishly atmospheric and well worth a showing at your Halloween party. Don’t expect to be too frightened but you’ll certainly be amused and entertained. Available from Amazons.

"Mouth almighty!"

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Methadone acting… The Devil’s Needle (1916)

This film is the lead title on Kino’s Blu-ray collection The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice & Redemption. Filmed in 1915 and starring one of cinema’s then rising stars, Norma Talmadge, it addresses the prickly issue of drug addiction in a surprisingly measured way.

I’d expected a melodramatic approach and a purely disapproving tone but the film’s a bit smarter than that - it’s not Reefer Madness. This is helped considerably by Talmadge’s understated and naturalistic energy but also by restrained direction from Griffith acolyte Chester Withey (I believe DW also helped to over-see the project) and a story that tries to demonise only the damage done by the needle and not the addicts themselves.
Norma Talmadge sits for Tully Marshall
It deserves credit here for giving Talmadge’s character a backstory as a wartime nurse who fell into using morphine to help cope with the stress of her situation. Then again… what we now have is a “remixed” version that was released in 1923 to cash in on Norma T’s huge popularity. They needed to beef up her role and to make her character more sympathetic.

It may also be only coincidental that this re-release followed on so soon after the death of Wallace Reed from morphine addiction? There was certainly enough of an issue when the film was originally made in 1915… and it was far from the first of its kind. Indeed, as the Variety review from July 1915 so jadedly suggested: “…It's a very commonplace story and picture in these modern days…. The drug story has been so often sheeted there is nothing left for it, unless the Fine Arts plan is to keep drilling against the evil effect of drugs.”

Tully Marshall shows Marguerite Marsh his artwork
Then as now, substance abuse was rife and I don’t think viewers have changed in their desire to vicariously experience the experience – we like to disapprove and films of bad behaviour help in this self-validation.
Talmadge plays Renne Duprez, model to artist John Minturn (Tully Marshall) who’s well of inspiration is running dry. He’s going through the motions on his latest work and badly in need of another model to complete the work.

Unbeknown to him, Renne is addicted to morphine having begun using it during her time as a wartime nurse to cope with the horrors of front line work. She keeps a stash in her changing room to pep herself up.
Minturn is visited by a businessman patron, one Marshall Devon (FA Turner), his daughter Patricia (Marguerite Marsh, Mae Marsh’s sister) and her pompous fiancé, Sir Gordon Galloway (Howard Gaye). Patricia sits alongside Renee and the artist realises that she could be his missing muse. She is hauled away by Sir Gordon leaving Minturn depressed at having missed his chance.

Tully Marshall watches the fairies in the flames...
It is now that Renne offers him the fateful opportunity to inject some “inspiration ready-made”! She persuades him to take a little morphine and quickly his spirits rise and he can imagine Patricia still in position… he can continue to paint.

In spite of her fiancé’s disapproval, Patricia sits for the artist and the two begin to form a relationship, and in a sign of his growing recklessness, the two quickly marry.

Cut to a year later and the ravages of his drug addiction are taking their toll and Patricia is living life in misery. He tries to force her to take his drug but she manages to escape. Meanwhile, Renne has managed to kick her habit and when the artist arrives to get help in scoring more morphine, she resolves to help him recover as well.

Will Minturn manage to get the monkey off his back and recover his lost inspiration? And will he be able to re-unite with his wife before the drugs or other societal ills catch up with them both?

Howard Gaye, Tully Marshall, Marguerite Marsh and Norma Talmadge,
This version of the film gives far more attention to Talmadge but she’s worth it and easily the best actor on show. Tully Marshall is also good as the depressed and then simply deranged artist. Miss Marsh doesn’t quite match them but maybe had more challenges in the original version.

Chester Withey directs well with good pace towards the rather contrived ending. It is, none-the-less, still a thrilling dénouement although, ultimately, The Devil’s Needle feels like entertainment wrapped up as a social study, a warning with a profit motive.

The final film on this disc, The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) is a more earnest attempt to educate and has the support and involvement of many noted psychiatrists listed at the beginning. The film is incomplete and only about half an hour remains but it’s enough to get across the harshness of the tales being told. It’s all based on true stories/scenarios and these don’t tend to end well… no heroic rescues here just a warning.

The set is completed by Children of Eve (1915) - covered earlier on this blog - and is available from all good Amazons.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Marion Davies in King Vidor’s… The Patsy (1928)

This was the first time Marion Davies had worked with King Vidor and this film foreshadowed Davies’ comic tour de force in Vidor’s Show People released later in the year.

The Patsy has just been screened at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and the tireless Silent London included a clip on her blog of the sequence in which Marion Davies character, Pat, impersonates not one but three of Hollywood’s finest. In three absorbing minutes Davies is Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri…

Having seen her "Murray" in Show People I wasn’t surprised but seeing her rip into Gish and Negri was genuinely shocking and funny. Pola I am sure could take it on the chin or take it out on Davies’… but Gish? I’m sure she looked down from her exalted position and smiled a pained smile.

Vidor had seen Davies’ comic turn at parties and noted her natural instincts as a crowd-pleasing comic, even if the laughs were at her own expense. Not quite what hubby William Randolph Hearst had in mind for her at all… but The Patsy became her biggest hit to date.

Davies is funny throughout this film which shows her to be a natural and exuberant comedian. She plays Pat, the youngest member of the Harrington clan, who is forever being picked on by her Ma (Marie Dressler in a career-rescuing and, as legend has it, life-saving performance) who favours her more elegant sister Grace (Jane Winton).

Pa Harrington (Dell Henderson) tries to stand up for Pat but is usually slapped down…outnumbered by Ma and Grace. The family dynamics are well handled from the opening Sunday lunch in which Pat tries to work out the correct way of eating soup to her getting the scrag end of the chicken and having to fend for her own new clothes that are borrowed by big sis.

Orville Caldwell
Yet Pat would like to do some borrowing of her own with Grace’s boyfriend, Tony (Orville Caldwell) who is completely oblivious only having eyes for Grace and an odd obsession with fixing the family door bell.
They go to the Boat Club Dinner where the wealthy gad-about Billy Caldwell (Lawrence Gray) arrives fresh from his speed boat to spy Grace. He makes a bee-line for their table in the guise of a waiter, much rude waiting is delivered – a celery stick ends up down the front of Ma’s dress - until Billy is revealed and the attitude of the Harrington table turns from disgust to deference.

Grace begins to encourage Billy’s advances but still wants to keep hold of her “second best toy” much to Pat’s frustration. She can’t get Tony’s attention and makes up a story of an un-named man she admires but who doesn’t know she exists.

Obtuse Tony offers to help her attract the sap’s attention…boy is he… oblivious!

 Marie Dressler and Jane Winton 
He gets Pat to read lots of self-improvement books so that she can develop a personality and she walks around spouting nonsensical quotes that in the context of the family living room just persuade Ma that she has lost her marbles. But Dad understands and will do what he can to aid the cause.

So things proceed in amusing fashion, Grace’s sisterly competitiveness leads her to blackmail Pat so that she can seal the Tony “deal” again… Pat needs to pull a big one out of the hat.  Bingo! Go round to Billy’s and pretend he’s miss-treating her! Sounds a bit much too modern minds but it’s here we see the triple impersonation… Billy will be alright, it’s just a laugh…

Tony rescues Pat but things backfire as he can’t believe she’d risk being alone with such a player. Now the worm finally turns as Pa stands up for Pat and against his harridan of a wife. It’s as humorous as it’s inevitable but well handled by the excellent cast.

Marie Dressler is fantastic, her every action pops out of the screen and she is brilliantly over-bearing. Henderson is good at hen-pecked and his revolt at the end is all the sweeter for it – two real craftsmen at work here.

But full marks go to Marion Davies for creating the perfect comic storm. She obviously had no qualms playing alongside the demure Jane Winton and doesn’t hold back on the face-pulling, prat falling and un-glamorous looning throughout. Not the Patsy at all just the Funny.

The Patsy is available from Warner Archives accompanied by her stirring new score from Vivek Maddala which really enhances a fantastically clear print. Annoyingly, Warners keep on having really good sales offers for the US-only, still, at least we can buy through amazon.com (nope, I’m not on commission).

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hitchcock and Horne, London Film Festival - The Manxman (1929)

This was the final restoration premier for the Hitchcock Nine and the BFI series went out with a bang... a piano, fiddle, oboe and two harps! Presented as the London Film Festival‘s archive gala, the screening took place at the Empire Leicester Square, a former music hall where the Lumière brothers staged the first commercial projected film shows in 1896.

Now it’s one of the cinemas of choice for blockbusting premiers so, there could be no bigger or better venue for the culmination of the BFI Hitchcock project.

The Manxman was Hitchcock’s last purely silent film (Blackmail was made in both formats… although it’s better as a silent in my opinion) and as Robin Baker, the BFI’s Head Curator, said in his introduction, showed the director’s mastery of the form.

Malcolm Keen and Carl Brisson
The restoration team had the benefit of the original negatives amongst others and their thousands of hours of labour showed in yet another crisp print projected into the Empire’s huge screen. The restoration process has been painstaking and as Baker said, it has taken longer to restore than films than Hitchcock took to make them.

And, what can you say about the new score from Stephen Horne? Having blown us all away with his music for The First Born at last year’s archive gala, he repeated the trick this year… adding appropriately Celtic touches to reflect the dramatic landscapes of the Isle of Man.

Randie Ayrton confronts Carl Brisson
Inventive, controlled and passionate the music was performed by Stephen with an expert ensemble made up of Jennifer Bennett (fiddle/viola), Joby Burgess (percussion), Janey Miller (Oboe and the aptly-named Oboe d’Amore) and Ruth Wall (Lever Harp/Wire Harp and a passing resemblance to Anny Ondra...).

This was the fifth of the nine restored Hitchcocks I have seen and whilst I have thoroughly enjoyed the new music placed against the other films, Horne’s score was the most sympathetic. This is very much Stephen’s “day job” and it really showed as his music offered gentle support to the story, anticipating mood changes and helping the viewer interpret the meaning and feeling. He’s spent decades dueting with the directors of silent film and so his mastery of collaboration-after-the-fact should come as no surprise.

Here his music played a major part in turning this event onto a memorable occasion, making the very best of a film of great visual flair but low-level dramatic impact.

The boys argue over who buys the next round...
The Manxman was based on a highly-successful 1894 novel from Manxman, Hall Caine and dealt with social norms of the Isle of Man a semi-autonomous island that even in the twenties was still mildly out of step with mainland Britain (even now…?). The social pressures on the main protagonists would have been a curiosity then and they certainly are now. The characters’ motivations therefore seem obscure and fathomless… which is where the music comes in helping to fill the cognitive gaps and anchor the heartbreak in terms we can better understand.

The story is a love triangle based in a small fishing port where a poor fisherman, Pete Quilliam (Carl Brisson) is best friends with a lawyer, Philip Christian (Malcolm Keen). The two men, from different ends of the social scale, are as close as brothers and pursue the same causes with Philip helping the fishermen fight for their rights.

But they also have other interest at heart. Pete is in love with Kate (Anny Ondra) the daughter of the local pub landlord and so, we soon discover, is Philip.  But when her father, Old Caesar (Randie Ayrton wearing two impressive earrings), rejects the fisherman as not being worthy he pledges to make his fortune overseas and return to marry Kate.

Dad watches Kate as she weighs up the options...
She pledges to wait for him and he asks Philip to watch over her. Pete leaves and via clever use of Kate’s diary, Hitchcock shows the developing feelings between her and Pete’s best mate… out of sight, out of mind.

Pete is reportedly killed and the two are free to pursue their affair but her returns unharmed and enriched, to claim his bride. Philip will not stand in his buddy’s way and, with his career on the rise, has other issues of standing to consider.

Pete marries Kate but they are doomed to unhappiness even after the birth of a baby… Will true love out or will society force them to persist in their sad compromise?

It’s a slow-paced film but Hitchcock puts as much emotional spin on things as he can but this sometimes means that the actors seem to be over-reaching. All three are very skilled but I struggled to view Malcolm Keen as genuine romantic competition to Carl Brisson (sorry mate!) – he is very expressive but hasn’t got leading man good looks. Besides, Anny Ondry can’t hide her earthy qualities and you instinctively feel that she’d be better off with the swarthy Dane.

Hitchcock’s camera spends a lot of time on Miss Ondry and you can understand why he chose her for Blackmail, she… radiates!

Can you spot Anny in this picture?
Also stunning is the north Cornwall scenery that stands in for the Isle of Man, you can see the director really enjoying himself with some shamelessly gratuitous shots of the cliff sides, forests and brooding  skies…usually with Anny skipping across them!

I shall really miss the Hitchcock premiers but these films will run and run. Robin Baker said that The Pleasure Garden had recently been shown to a crowd of 6,000 on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro… now there’s a great venue for silent film!

The Manxman is currently available as part of the Silent Hitchcock collection but, as I’ve said before, it’s worth waiting until the restored version is made available, hopefully complete with Mr Horne’s superlative score. The BFI are working on it…

There she is!

Monday, 15 October 2012

The Lillian Gish method… La Bohème (1926)

It’s easy to be condescending in your reaction to silent film… but distance in time doesn’t disable the skill and audaciousness of its creators and all cliché is dismantled when you look hard enough...

Decades before de Niro, Christian Bale and others made an art form out of physical deprivation in support of their roles, Lillian Gish was doing the same. To prepare for the tragic ending of this story (c’mon it’s from the opera by Puccini, what do you expect?) she visited sanitaria to study tuberculosis patients in order to learn how to breath with minimal movement of the rib cage. Then she starved herself of food and water for the three days before she shot the ending…

John Gilbert and Lillian Gish
Director King Vidor, said that he feared that it might be the end of her life as well as her character’s and it is genuinely shocking to watch her frail last moments as she hauls herself across Paris to meet her lover for the last time. It could be horribly melodramatic but she transcends this with conviction and incredible physical bravery. Why was she doing this? I was reminded of Emil Janning’s physical transformation in The Last Laugh but that was just acting... the knowledge that she weakened herself -risking her health – shows a level of professional commitment way beyond the norm.

Maybe she felt the need to make a statement as in some quarters her characterisations were staring to be seen as old hat. Herbert Howe, for instance, wrote in Picture Play magazine that, “When Lillian Gish now appears you know she is due for a beating. . . A Society for the Prevention of Screen Cruelty to Lillian Gish should be organized."

Yet Gish's method acting ensures a suitably grand climax to this operatic tale. With no music to emphasis the tragedy, she had to make the images convey the full force and, everyone else, including John Gilbert, is simply in support.

Gish picked the best rising talent she could to make this film after seeing early cuts of King Vidor’s magnificent The Big Parade. Vidor was to direct with his stars John Gilbert and Renée Adorée with the likeable Karl Dane also involved.

The story is set in 1830 and shows the lives and loves of a group of bohemians living in the service of their art in a tumbledown house in the Latin Quarter. Gilbert plays the would-be playwright, Rodolphe, who, in order to pay the rent writes stories about cats and dogs for a pet-fancier’s journal. His room mate is a struggling artist, Marcel (Gino Corrado) and their group is completed by down at heel musician Schaunard (George Hassell) and writer Colline (Edward Everett Horton).

Their landlord constantly chases them for rent but they just about make ends meet and their diet is enlivened by the occasional windfalls of Marcel’s girlfriend Musette (Renée Adorée) who lives downstairs in rather more salubrious circumstances… the source of her income is more than hinted at.
Renée Adorée and John Gilbert
Alongside the bohemian’s room is that of a lonely lace maker and embroiderer, Mimi (Gish) who has only her pet bird for company. It’s almost too pitiful but not in the hands of Gish who, even in her thirties could carry off “innocent battler”…she’s believable and not just dramatic.

The landlord wants her out and she is saved by the scheming Vicomte Paul (Roy D’Arcy, relishing the in the villainy) who has more than her fabric in mind… He starts to commission work form her just so he can stay close and work out a way of having his evil way…

Meanwhile Mimi meets Rodolphe and the two fall in love. Mimi encourages the writer to work on his first play and starts to sacrifice herself for him especially after he loses his work at the journal and she has to work nights to get the money to make him think he’s still employed… nothing must come in the way of his work.

Mimi and Rodolphe forget the food
We move from winter to spring and Vidor gives us another of his famous external sequences as the friends enjoy a day out in the countryside and Rodolphe and Mimi perform a wonderfully-shot dance amidst the trees. Nature boy and nature girl…

But this bucolic bliss cannot last and Rodolphe’s jealousy drives a wedge between him and Mimi. He forgives her when realising how ill she has become in supporting him, but as he races off for a doctor Mimi runs away. She doesn’t want him to care for her at the expense of his play.

Rodolphe searches frantically but cannot find his love. This drives him on to finish his play and, thanks to Mimi’s earlier networking on his behalf, it becomes a great success. As Rodolphe and the friends celebrate, Mimi is drawn back to him for one final farewell…

Opera libretto’s rarely a good film do make but Gish performs with such force that this one works... She is aided by the superb flowing direction of Vidor who also seems to have pretty much let her get on with it. Gilbert is engaging as the charming but slightly obtuse Rodolphe although he is less effective as the drama ramps up. Renée Adorée is under-used but has some good dramatic moments, especially towards the end.

It’s Gish’s film, as it was always going to be, giving a lie, yet again to Louise Meyer’s assertion that tragic endings do not great careers make. Hollywood caught up with her in the end but Gish ploughed her own furrow through her incredible long life.

La Bohème in available from Warner Archives in decent quality and with a sprightly new score.

Happy Birthday Lillian!

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Buster Keaton in The Cameraman (1928)

Buster Keaton
I haven’t written much on here about silent comedy aside from a very short comment on Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last. Maybe I’ve been put off by the amount of material already available or possibly I don’t trust my sense of humour…

From the very start of my interest in silent films I’ve always been a Buster boy rather than a Chaplin kid… as I’ve got older this still holds true, although clearly they should both be revered. Not just two of the greatest comics but two of the greatest film-makers.

Hitching a ride
Buster Keaton seemed a lot more physically high-impact than Chaplin and, in addition to subjecting himself to grand moments of actual peril, steam engines… falling buildings…  he looked faster, harder and more robust. Less of a mime and more of a maniac!

Here is seen in a way-too-large bathing costume but there’s no disguising his muscularity. Buster was fit and he needed to be to cover the ground as he carried on into his thirties with a number of career-sustained injuries…

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day
But the most agile thing about Buster was his mind and in The Cameraman he just keeps the ideas coming. He plays an imaginary game of baseball at Yankee Stadium, taking strike, fielding and running all by himself. Waiting for the phone to ring he runs up and down the stairs - too far down to the basement and too far up the roof... When his girl does ring he runs across town at full pelt to greet her as she places the phone on the receiver.

It’s all run at relentless pace by a man at the peak of his creative fitness…Unable to find a seat on the crowded bus he rides alongside Sally on the wheel arch, then he changes alongside a much larger man in a tiny cubicle at the pool and emerges in the other man’s costume only for it to get lost underwater without him as he tumbles off the diving board. Breathless.

A little large...
The story begins as it ends, at a parade. Buster is a 10c a shot tintype photographer. He becomes entranced by a young woman he photographs (Sally, played by the elegant Marceline Day) and, after losing her in the confusion, begins a relentless search to find her. He tracks her down to the MGM news service where he attempts to get a job as a cameraman in order to impress her.

His initial attempts all end in failure as her catches a fire engine the wrong way to a warehouse fire, arrives at Yankee Stadium when they’re playing away and then double and triple exposes his film… keep winding it forward and not backward, is Sally’s advice.

A lovely Day
Sally senses something in Buster and agrees to go on a date. They have an hilarious time in the pool where Buster struggles to fight off any number of would be suitors. Then, as they walk to the beach, pro-cameraman and rival in chief, Stagg (Harold Goodwin) offers them a lift…Sally in the front of his two-seat saloon and Buster getting soaked to the skin in the third seat by the boot.

Sally tips Buster off about a potential gang fight at the Chinese New Year celebrations. At last, he’s the right man at the right time and he fearlessly films the battle, aided by a clever monkey he picked up along the way…

Man and monkey...
But, after all this it seems that Buster forgot to load his camera.  He gets the can and that looks to be very much it… We next see Buster trying to film a speed boat race. Sally and Stagg are in one of the3 boats and Stagg loses control sending both flying as his boat circles around a helpless Sally. Buster bravely goes to the rescue only for Stagg to take the credit and the girl!

But all is not lost…

Buster Keaton and Marceline Day
The Cameraman is rightly regarded as one of Keaton’s classics and possibly his last major work. He’d lost his own company by this point and was working for MGM. But, in the case of this picture at least, it did not restrict his energy and innovation. Edward Sedgwick directed the film but with a fair amount of Keaton intervention alongside the invention... a crossover point in the way these films were made.

This was the third silent film of the weekend in our house and grabbed the attention of teenagers and spouse alike: the timeless cool of Buster Keaton. Because that’s ultimately it about Mr Keaton, he is cool and intelligent. He’s relentless and nothing stops him getting where he needs to go. He doesn’t moan or get down, he takes it all with dispassionate grace and emerges ultimately triumphant and with the girl. 

The Cameraman is available as part of the Keaton Collection from TCM along with Spite Marriage and Free and Easy.

Monday, 8 October 2012

All you need is ... Love (1928)

Greta Garbo and John Gilbert
Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina might well be one of the most adapted of all time but this film version takes up only a thin sliver of the story. You can only translate limited elements of the written word onto screen and maybe each adaptation reflects the focus of the times and the commercial and creative needs of the acting talents involved. But perhaps this one more than most.

The follow up to Flesh and the Devil, their smash hit from the previous year, Love is a vehicle to show the continuing sizzle between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert.

The big reveal...
Nominally directed by Edmund Goulding, it seems that Gilbert was calling many of the shots. The film had a troubled genesis with stars and crew coming and going until Gilbert and Goulding were finally in place. Oh what to do with the emergence of a phenomenon?

John Gilbert is likeable here but he’s outmatched by the power and presence of Garbo in my opinion. Garbo has a way of shifting emotional focus that is too nuanced for him to always follow. There’s a moment in the “happy ending” when she shifts from smiling lovingly at her son to shock at seeing her lover after so long and then onto joy within a second… the reverse shot shows Gilbert happy but out of step. A slip in the direction perhaps but a revelation of a surprising gap in acting range between these two…

John Gilbert
Don’t get me wrong, Gilbert is a true great, a charismatic freak of nature who audiences would be drawn to heroically and romantically… but he was up against possibly the most skillful actress of the period. I mean the Swedish girl was so good she waltzed from silent to sound carrying an accent as thick as the snow that engulfs them at the film’s start.

John Gilbert is Captain Count Alexei Vronsky, the latest in a long line to serve the Tsar’s army with honour. He encounters Anna Karenina (Garbo) in trouble as her carriage is over-whelmed by snow en route to St Petersberg.

Unable to continue, he helps her to an inn where he is struck down with love at first sight the second she removes the veil from her face. But, although the warmth between the two is immediate, Anna rebuts Vronsky’s approach.

George Fawcett
There’s a nice exchange of manly banter between Vronsky and Grand Duke Michel (George Fawcett) as he returns back late to his regiment the next day. The Captain says that he was delayed by snow, “was she pretty?” asks the Duke, “yes” replies the Captain.

But Anna is married to the much older Senator Alexei Karenin (Brandon Hurst) and they have a young son, Serezha (Philippe De Lacy). The course of true love will not run smooth…

But run it does and gradually the young soldier and the politician’s wife begin an affair. But, whilst Anna doesn’t love her father figure of a husband, it is clear that Vronsky has a rival for his affections. Anna loves her son as much as anything and this will eventually force her into abandoning her lover.

Greta Garbo and Brandon Hurst
The Senator exacts a terrible revenge and threatens to ruin the Captain’s reputation whilst refusing to let Anna see her son… Threatened with the loss of the two loves of her life Anna heads to the train station and… gets on a train. Here is the film’s major divergence from the book as the “happy ending” version kicks in and Anna is able to return to her son’s side and to be ultimately re-united with her lover after her husband dies.

Love is therefore not truly Anna Karenina but this ending does make sense in the context of the film. Anna is torn between her options but, from what we have seen, there’s no way she would kill herself if it meant never seeing her son again.

Philippe De Lacy and Greta Garbo
Whether that’s a failure of the film to engage sufficiently with her dilemma is open to debate. No doubt Garbo could easily follow this dramatic trajectory but the audience wanted her and Gilbert as a couple more than anything else.

As the Photoplay review said at the time: "It isn't Tolstoy but it is John Gilbert and Greta Garbo, beautifully presented and magnificently acted."

One of the film’s best sequences is when Anna is watching Vronsky in a regimental horse race. The direction is very good here as we switch from rider to race to the watching crowd where Anna is contorted writhing between the delight of her lover winning and the terrors of this most dangerous sport… 

The cinematography from William H. Daniels is worth mentioning. The outdoor scenes of the wolf hunt and the horse race are particularly well handled and show the technical mastery that had been reached by this point. There’s some superb tracking shots of both Gilbert and Garbo as they walk forward deep in thought and unable to connect with their surroundings and the people around them.

This is a nice crisp print but I’m surprised Love has not been made available in remastered quality with all the trimmings we’re starting to get used to. For now the Warner Archive version will serve well enough.

Greta Garbo... smiles