Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Jean Vigo's uncanny L’Atalante (1934)

“It’s a banal story, but it all depends on how you tell it…” Albert Riéra to Jean Vigo in 1933.

After the uproar caused by Vigo’s incendiary Zero de Conduit, studio bosses hoped to recoup their losses by giving the young firecracker a more straightforward script to film. Much had been invested in Vigo and the banning of his first feature had been costly, now it was hoped he would produce more populist fare based on the story of young love on a barge.

But Vigo was not so easily tamed, much to his paymasters’ chagrin and you have to wonder if any film-maker and film has ever been more unfairly treated? Gaumont got cold feet after the initial viewing – it seemed too unevenly paced and raw. They cut the film down by 20 minutes – creating a confused mess with the “long” sections left in and interesting moments curtailed. They also re-titled it after a famous popular song of the time, Le Chaland Qui Passe… but it failed to produce the hit they wanted. Vigo, terminally ill with tuberculosis, was powerless to protect his work and passed away soon afterwards.

Jean Dasté
It took many years and the chance discovery of an intact original 1934 cut at the BFI for the film to be restored to something close to Vigo’s original vision. The restoration team consulted as many survivors of Vigo’s crew as they could and the result is what we see now: generally accepted to be one of the best films ever made.

That’s usually a heavy burden to carry but the distinct qualities of Vigo’s work shine through and the almost silent pacing makes this a haunting and still moving film. There are imperfections but that’s – really – part of the charm.

The film starts with the marriage of a bargee Jean (Jean Dasté) to Juliette (Dita Parlo) who has, as her mother says, “…never even left the village before”. There’s a marvellous sequence as the couple walk ahead of their gossipy guests through the village, across the fields and down to the boat. As this quirky procession takes place, Jean’s colleagues, Père Jules (Michel Simon) and cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) run ahead to try and prepare a welcome in slapdash fashion.

Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo
Juliette paces the decks of her new home, pure white silken white dress in stark contrast to the bible black boat. She appears unsure and recoils after Jean trips but the two embrace and he carries her to their cabin. So begins her process of fitting into this cramped floating world, with its constant interruptions and the strangeness of Père Jules and his ever-expanding collection of cats. 

Juliette tells Jean that if he opens his eyes underwater he will see his true love just a she “saw” him when she was younger. He makes a joke of this but sees nothing… later he will try much harder: the films’ central motif  about the alignment of their marriage.

Juliette explores her new world
Juliette is tempted by the sounds of Paris on their radio… she and Jean argue over the distraction and shortly afterwards she hides from him in the fog – a foretaste of what is to come. As he paces the decks we can still see her, an interesting touch suggesting that emotional and not physical distance is the main issue.

Then there is a marvellous sequence in Père Jules’ cabin when Juliette learns of his adventures: he has travelled the World and she is fascinated with the relics of his travels. Jean is angered and takes it out on the older man, but it is Juliette he is concerned with. Père Jules takes his revenge by robbing the couple of a night out in Paris, as he goes off on his own adventure.

Michel Simon and Dita Parlo
Vigo encouraged his actors to improvise, telling Michel Simon “…write what you like. It can only be better than a writer would doc…”. They fitted the dialogue and the action around the objects they found, the puppet, the two hands pickled in a jar…all contributed to the nervy freshness of the narrative. Simon told Vigo that he hated to rehearse a scene twice – “the second is always a lie” – and so their working method was perfectly in tune.

Next day, Juliette gets her chance to see Paris and is again distracted by another man. Gilles Margaritis does a wonderful turn as the peddler, almost cycling into the Seine as he arrives huge suitcase across his back wobbling down the embankment at break-neck pace. His song to Juliette was shot over 20 times as he struggled to remember the words whilst the chaotic fight scene after he grabs her for a dance also had to be re-shot many times.. “my back still hurts!” he complained in a later interview.

Gilles Margaritis comes between Jean Dasté and Dita Parlo
They return to the boat but Juliette wants to see more and sneaks off to walk the city and, in a fit of pique Jean sails off leaving her behind and alone. The producers just couldn’t stop Vigo dealing with darker issues and Juliette is constantly under threat as she wanders alone. A wretch grabs her handbag at the station and is quickly charged down and brutally attacked… we are in no doubt that desperation drove him to the crime and the vengeance of the crowd seems motivated by spite not justice.

The film was shot through the harsh winter of 1933-4 and Vigo improvised around the elements as they found him… he added smoke to make the best use of fog and showed a line of workers in the snow outside the factory, as Juliette looks for work and accommodation.

Jean Dasté, Louis Lefebvre and Michel Simon
Jean is miserable and falls into a deep depression, almost losing his job as he ceases to function. In the end he dives into the canal in search of his true love, clearing his mind as he has a vision of his bride. Dasté’s brave submersion was originally filmed in the autumn but had to be re-shot in December after the crew had cleared the water of ice.

Jean now knows how strong his love for Juliette is, but can they be re-united? There’s not a dry eye in our living room at the conclusion…

Jean sees Juliette
Vigo took this simple tale and made it unique…there are so many beautiful images – Juliette’s pacing the deck in her wedding gown, Jean’s underwater quest for his love and the docks and waterways. 

The lead actors are superb with Simon energetically repellent, unflinching but also very funny as he improvises the grotesqueries of Père Jules’ character.  Dasté shows grit as he ranges from the easy-going confidence of masculine control to out-of-his-wits desperation once he realises what he has lost – a haunted man who watches and watches, running into the sand at Le Harve as if he is prepared to go to the ends of the Earth.

Dita Parlo's smile

Dita Parlo radiates innocence and joy but also supreme vulnerability: she is ecstatically connected to Jean, her face shining with the brightest of smiles when they connect but totally miserable in their enforced separation.

“We were put in a situation and had to depict it truthfully,” Dasté said later. Of all the couples in cinematic history, you want it to work out for these two!

The original soundtrack from Maurice Jaubert is also worthy of mention, it’s not what you’d expect of the time and sounds like the more pastoral aspects of King Crimson… distorted strings, flute and oboe sounding like a mellotron decades before it was due. Sad, timeless tunes that perfectly fit the story.

Dita Parlo and Jean Dasté: do try this at home!
I watched Artificial Eye’s Jean Vigo Collection which features all of the director’s work on two DVDs and the 2001 restoration of L’Atalante.

Amongst the extras is a precious film Filmmakers of Our Times – Jean Vigo made in  1964 by Jacques Rozier. This features interviews with almost all of the cast and crew of L’Atalante, including co-writer and producer Albert Riéra. All  give fascinating insights into the making of the film as well as Vigo.  Dita Parlo, still vivacious in 1964, said it was impossible to explain Vigo’s character… whilst Simon, larger than life as you’d expect, obviously had huge respect for the young director. 30 years on, all involved seemed to cherish the experience and to still mourn the loss of the man who had led them in this extraordinary collaboration.

There is also a 38 minute documentary on the film’s 2001 restoration as well as short features on the sound restoration and the introduction to the 1990 restoration.

It’s available from Amazon but I'm sure you already have it anyway!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Ernst Lubitsch’s epic relic… The Loves of Pharaoh (1921)

Dagny Servaes
It’s initially hard to sense much of the Lubitsch "touch" in this blockbuster ilm, until you realise how everything begins to revolve around human frailty, love, duty and misunderstanding.

Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of Pharaoh or The Wife of the Pharaoh ) was the most expensive German film production up to that time with huge monolithic sets somewhat in the tradition of Cabiria and Intolerance, lavish design and costumes. There were mass battles filmed overhead from a balloon and featuring over 6,000 extras. Lubitsch filmed with some 16 cameramen… a quite extraordinary spectacle for a film made in the early 20’s.

It was a statement of intent from probably the leading film making nation outside of the USA (Paramount actually stumped up $75,000 of the funding, a figure worth many times that in the hyper-inflationary Weimer economy). It was also to be Lubitsch’s ticket to Hollywood, one last German feature after this, then next stop Mary Pickford and Rosita.

Emil Jannings
Here he cast the two powerhouses of German silent film with Paul Wegener playing Samlak the Ethiopian king and Emil Jannings as Pharaoh Amenes … there will be grandstanding! For me Jannings is the more controlled actor and he gives here yet another great physical performance as he is destroyed by the conflict between love and his duty. But that’s not to say Wegener isn’t his match in deranged pomposity!

Paul Wegener
Samlak is in search of a treaty with Egypt and writes to Amenes offering his daughter as a token of sincerity. En route a young Greek slave girl, Theonis (Dagny Servaes) meets a young Egyptian Ramphis (Harry Liedtke who had been in Sumurun and a number of other Lubitsch films). He rescues Theonis from the Ethiopians and takes her home as you would, frankly.

Samlak is not one to forgive and he certainly won’t forget, and this Egyptian “theft” still rancours even as he goes on to meet the Pharaoh. Eager to cement their diplomatic friendship, Amenes pledges to seek out and return the lost property and thus is the dramatic fulcrum of the film established.

Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke
Amenes is a firm ruler and one who pushes his people hard to achieve the aims of state. Many are killed in an accident at the site of his new treasury, his architect, Solis (Albert Bassermann) pleads for more time but needs must. Even so, we sense that Amenes has a heart… his responsibility weighs heavy.

Solis is also Ramphis’s father and, having greeted his sons’ new friend brings her to court where she is encountered by Amenes who is immediately struck by her beauty… Samlak spots Theonis and Amenes refusal to give her up, leads to war. Meanwhile Theonis and Ramphis have been caught trespassing on the sacred ground of the Treasury and sentenced to death. Amenes cannot bring himself to kill Theonis and uses Ramphis as a lever to win her commitment, banishing the younger man to the mines, and, as he prepares for battle he makes Theonis his queen…

Dagny Servaes and Friedrich Kühne
Is Amenes to be fatally distracted by his uncertain love and will Ramphis and Theonis ever be re-united? The story pans out in unexpected ways... not quite grand enough but still affecting.

It's fascinating to consider the differences between the two versions that substantially make up the restoration. In the Russian version, a lot of Amanes love-sickness was cut enabling his portrayal as a strong leader who overcomes personal weakness. But in Italy, the leader reduced by love was more interesting. The Russians knew what they were doing in the febrile post-revolutionary period whilst the Italians were looking for a more enduring statement of human frailty.

Emil Jannings and Dagny Servaes
Luckily the restoration team had both versions to complement each other and construct the majority of the story pretty much as Lubitsch filmed it. But this was truly international in a way that only silent film could be and each region was able to get a different slant on the story and even, in the case of the USA, a different ending. The restoration team are to be congratulated in giving us the story Lubitsch wanted to tell, or as close as it’s possible to get. There are still some 600 metres of film missing and title cards and still shots are used to fill the gaps in the story.

Dagny Servaes and Harry Liedtke
Of equal importance though is the restoration of the original “soundtrack” – the score created specifically for the film by the German composer Eduard Künneke. This has been brilliantly re-synchronised by Berndt Heller to fit and one of the extras allows you to focus on the orchestra as they play this stirring piece. It really is rare to be able to hear how the film makers wanted you to hear and makes for a really rounded production.

The film was in many sections, scanned frame by frame and the 90 year old image has probably not been seen so clearly since the film’s first run. The restoration team was able to reinstate the tints as originally intended as well – an art in itself this colourisation helps to bring the film to life.

Emil Jannings (centre)
Perhaps the ultimate tribute is that the restoration team threw out their original 2005 version after the Italian version was discovered. In doing so they were able to use the more modern techniques the same company had employed on Metropolis. The result is stunning and does full credit to Lubitsch, his set designers and chief cameramen Theodor Sparkuhl and Alfred Hansen.

There’s also a 38 minute documentary on the restoration which shows just how close we were to losing this key film in Lubitsch’s career. It may not be as sophisticated as his later work or as character-driven as Sumurun or Madame Dubarry but it’s an impressive spectacle all the same and evidence of a prodigious talent.

I watched the 2 DVD set which is available from the BFI Filmshop or direct from Alpha-Omega who have produced such an outstanding restoration.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Edward Sloman & Sophie Solomon... His People (1925), London Barbican

George Lewis and Blanche Mehaffey
Edward Sloman’s silent films are mostly lost and to see one on the big screen is a rare treat, especially when it’s accompanied by a new live score.

Made in 1925, His People, was rated by Sloman as his personal favourite, when tracked down by Kevin Brownlow, and it was also one of his most successful films. Presented here as part of the UK Jewish Film Festival, the film was introduced by “Ted’s” Great Nephew, Anthony Sloman, who also happens to be a respected and multi-skilled film figure. Tony was sound producer of In the Company of Wolves and many other films and is a noted critic and film historian. He recalls that no one in his family had really mentioned his great uncle’s trade, the Sloman family invariably being tailors…but, no doubt, very talented ones!

If self depreciation whilst in possession of considerable talent is a Sloman family trait, Anthony’s great uncle certainly seemed to share it. He came across as humble in the Brownlow interview and this film, alongside the others I have watched, displays great visual control and superb narrative economy. Sloman moves the viewer and his actors effortlessly around the screen and everyone is always in action even when they’re not the centre of attention.

Rosa Rosanova , Rudolph Schildkraut and Albert Bushaland
There’s a moment when the Cominsky family are sitting down for their Friday night meal and we suddenly notice Sammy’s sweetheart through the window in her apartment across the block, we follow his gaze… she’s intruding in the story and that’s what he wants.

The opening scenes, set when the Cominsky boys were just boys…is a whirl of rapid cutting and movement showing the hectic life of the ghetto and introducing the characters as they interact with this rough and tumble world. Morris hides behind his books whilst Sammy takes life by the scruff of the neck – honest and brave. He fights his brother’s corner against an older boy and in winning gains a dollar from a boxing gym owner, thereby triggering a life-long interest..

Their father David Cominsky (a quite superb Rudolph Schildkraut) is a Russian émigré who was an academic back home… he sees learning as the way forward and naturally favours the bookish Morris. His wife, Rosie (Rosa Rosanova another excellent performer), holds them all together, seeing the good in Sammy but deferring to her husband.
Rosa Rosanova and Rudolph Schildkraut
They live in a crowded tenement block and their next door neighbours are the Shannon family, culturally different but very much in the same boat. Kate Shannon (Kate Price) is the matriarch and has to keep her gossip mongering husband in check. Their pretty daughter Mamie is already the apple of Sammy’s eye.

Move forward a decade and the boys are fully grown. Morris (Arthur Lubin) is training to be a lawyer with eyes set on the daughter of the judge who runs his law firm. Sammy (George Lewis) is still chasing money from boxing but tells his folks he’s selling newspapers… The family dynamic is little changed with pop favouring Morris and continuing his disappointment with Sammy. But his younger son is happy and in love with the grown-up Mamie (Blanche Mehaffey)… another disappointment in the eyes of his strict father.

There are serious issues in the slums, there’s little money and life’s a struggle, but the family and the film are funny. The intertitles are witty and the timing of the leads is impeccable: I heard more laughter in this film than in any silent features I can recall outside of straight-ahead comedies.

Blanche Mehaffey and George Lewis
But gradually, the family drifts apart. David learns from Mr Shannon that Sammy is boxing under an assumed Irish name and kicks him out whilst Maurice also leaves to pursue his upward mobility. So ashamed is he of his background that he claims to be an orphan to impress his intended Ruth (Virginia Brown Faire) and her father – his boss – Judge Nathan Stein (Bertram Marburgh). It’s a sad moment and drew some gasps from the audience (honestly people… what happened to your cynicism?).

But Morris needs money and forces his father to sell his prized bearskin coat in exchange for a formal dinner suit… his father catches a cold in the snow en route and falls ill. Morris – who threw the suit away as all he really wanted was money – is too busy seeing his intended to visit his sick father.

Sammy is mistaken for Morris by his delirious father and it seems like this will be a kind lie to end his father’s life… But, the old man pulls through remaining none the wiser, however, the doctor informs Rosa that he must be moved to a warmer climate if he is to carry on much beyond six months. There is no money but in desperation Sammy persuades his trainer to let him fight for a big purse against a much more experienced boxer… he has little chance and as the fight begins, Mamie brings Rosa along to watch…

At the same time Mr Shannon (tellin’ tales again!), shows David a newspaper announcing the engagement of “orphaned” Morris Cominsky – who has made his own way in the world – to Judge Stein’s daughter. Horrified, he resolves to find out the truth and visits the Judge’s house yet, in one of the most moving scenes in the film, Morris claims not to know his father who lets his son off the hook… if this is the way he has chosen then he is willing to let him go.

Meanwhile things look very bad for Sammy as he is battered from pillar to post… think Rocky in the opening rounds only more one sided! Just as things look hopeless as he lies senseless on the canvass and Rosa comes to him shouting encouragement. He bounces up and within a few blows has sent the champion unconscious to the deck!

They have the money to save David and now Sammy goes and drags his brother away from his society friends and home to face a reckoning…

Rudolph Schildkraut and George Lewis
His People is good family fun and a film which is strong on the simple benefits of family, friends and community. To all immigrants it seems to be saying, help each other and make your way however you can, whether it’s via a profession or through your wits. This was very much a welcome message for the thousands of struggling émigré families in the United States and elsewhere: opportunistic flexibility even if this meant moving away from traditional values…or reinterpreting them.

The improvised score from Sophie Solomon was energetically inventive throughout without ever over facing the film itself. She is a highly-skilled violinist (and Artistic Director of the Jewish Music Institute), and was ably accompanied by Quentin Collins (trumpet), Ian Watson (accordion) and Grant Windsor (piano and occasional percussion!).

Some live scores can counter-point a silent film – rubbing modernity up against the old - but others support and move in tandem. Solomon’s group gave one of the best examples of the latter I’ve seen this year (up there with Stephen Horne and The Manxman). My uncle was a pro violinist, playing for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic for 30 years… he loved Jascha Heifetz and I am sure he would have loved Ms Solomon’s playing – strongly emotional and yet never sentimental with a line of steel resilience throughout and more than a hint of gypsy wildness!

Blanche Mehaffey and George Lewis
Sight and sound combined with a receptive and knowledgeable audience to produce a worthy tribute to a classic director and the culture he helped celebrate.

The UK Jewish Film Festival continues until 18th November and is an annual event: more details here.
His People is available on DVD from the US National Center for Jewish Film and no where else as far as I can see. Let’s hope for wider Sloman releases sooner rather than later!

Edward Sloman discusses the script with Rudolph Schildkraut

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Anthem for Doomed Youth… The Battle of the Somme (1916)

"Crowded audiences...were interested and thrilled to have the realities of war brought so vividly before them…" The Times, August 22, 1916

This film was intended to form a bridge between the Western Front and the Home Front. The War Office had only lifted a ban on filming the war in late 1915 and what started off as disparate reporting of the battle ended up as an attempt to create a more coherent narrative.

Whilst some of this was “reconstructed” (the famous “over the top” sequence was in fact the only such fiction) and otherwise moulded to fit with scenes moved around chronologically, there is no doubt that the results are still haunting to this day. How could they fail to be?

British soldiers charge across No Mans' Land
At one point the filming picks up the chaos of the actual charge as soldiers run across no mans land, it’s difficult to make out the pattern initially but then you see the direction they are headed and you start to make out the falling bodies… These were amongst the first casualties on the most calamitous day in British military history: the 1st July 1916, when 19,240 men died and a further 38,230 were injured.

In an age when the filming of conflict at close quarters is almost taken for granted it is hard to imagine the impact of The Battle of the Somme on contemporary audiences. The Great War was two years into its bloody course and the main source of information would have been the written reports in newspapers. Here suddenly, were images of huge explosions, muddy trenches and the flesh and bone of men giving their all for the country. Here was what was actually happening to the husbands, sons and brothers of those left at home.

Geoffrey Malins (left on camera), John McDowell (right)
This was a calculated risk on behalf of the War Office, the film was intended to have huge propaganda value and so it proved with millions queuing to watch it on record runs as it became the most successful British film of the era with over 20 million tickets sold…almost half the country watched it.

Historians may argue over the authenticity of some of the shots and, of course, the film was “censored”… this was Great Britain at war in 1916. With the casualties mounting and no clear end in sight, the War Office needed a demonstration of the courage and superiority of the British army… the folks back home needed to know that the war was being won and they needed to see how their friends and relatives were fighting and dying…

Whatever the intent and the restrictions placed upon them, Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell’s film is an incredible slice of authentic history. The two men showed a lot of courage as well as technical ingenuity starting at opposite ends of the 16 mile long front and ended up in the south where the allied push had been most successful.

The film starts with the build up as soldiers and munitions are moved into position. The men are shown marching happily to the front, waving at the camera pleased to be given a possible connection to home. How heart-breaking it must have been to grieving audiences back home who watched in hope of seeing a loved one.

The action then shifts to show the intense artillery bombardment that presaged the battle over the last week of June. Bigger and bigger guns are shown culminating in a mighty 16 inch Howitzer. The workings of these infernal machines is shown in some detail, the ground shaking as round after round is despatched to the German lines.

The huge Hawthorne Ridge mine explosion was filmed by Malin and later footage showing the 40 foot deep crater left by the Lochnagar mine showed how destructive these weapons could be. The latter crater remains unfilled on the battlefield to this day.

Hawthorne Ridge mine
The preparation of the soldiers becomes more intense as we see the trenches at an area termed “White City” (the Brits neutralising fearsome foreign soil by using familiar terms), then follows Malin’s genuinely chilling footage as the soldiers engage. There was much debate at the time over the validity of showing the actual combat and loss of life but if seeing the reality doesn’t shake us from any complacent view of war then what will? This was not the intent of the time, but they wanted to show what the men were actually experiencing in the name of God and country.

The staged sequence in which a few dozen men clamber over a low trench and run across the barbed-wire field showed closer up what was actually happening all over the battle field.

The remainder of the film shows the aftermath of the initial push with the injured being patched up – one man with entry and exit wounds clearly visible on his arm  and again on his right shoulder: a lucky survivor. Captured German soldiers are also shown in their hundreds most just glad to be alive.

But the film makers also paused to show the bodies of the dead and there are some surprisingly lingering shots of solders, frozen where they fell. This was one element which the authorities might have miscalculated and future propaganda was more guarded.

At the end, the soldiers are shown to re-group and prepare to re-enter the fray - an upbeat conclusion (mostly using footage from before the battle) for what was only the first week or so of a battle that raged for months well into the autumn. The prisoners of war are shipped off in trains: they were the lucky ones.

There’s an extraordinary shot (McDowell?) showing the devastation around Mametz, as the camera pans almost 360 degrees to show buildings reduced to rubble. It looks like a vision of Hell, as does much of the film.

By the end of the battle in November, the allies had gained about six miles at a cost of 623,907 casualties against 465,000 for Germany…over 300,000 lives were lost from both sides. How many of the smiling soldiers seen in this film made it though?

The Royal Fusiliers after the first day
Hostilities resumed the following year once the weather and ground improved.

The Battle of the Somme could only give a flavour of the scale of this loss and it succeeded in showing the humanity, providing the template for future reporting. It was inscribed into the UNESCO “Memory of the World” register in 2005. A second film, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, was released in 1917 showing the latter stages of the Battle - a war within a war.

The sunken road... 20 minutes later a German shell landed on this spot
I watched the Imperial War Museum’s DVD which features a restored print and specially written orchestral score from Laura Rossi. This was used for the restoration premier on the Southbank and does a splendid job of connecting the film with modern sensibilities.

There’s also a fascinating alternative score from an ensemble led by Stephen Horne which features a medley of contemporary music as recommended at the time. As close as it’s possible to get to a restored “soundtrack” for a silent film, this gives a moving insight into the mood the film distributors wanted to create.

Both musicians are interviewed and the extras also include a commentary and interview with Roger Smither, Keeper of the IWM’s Film and Photograph Archive, as well as missing scenes and a 36 page booklet. It’s available from the Imperial War Museum direct or through all good online retailers.
Lochnagar crater and memorial

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Evelyn Brent talks! Interference (1928)

Evelyn Brent
In spite of compelling roles in some of the best films of the 20s, distinctive good looks and acting abilities way beyond many contemporaries, Evelyn Brent failed to sustain success. But, as with Louise Brooks, the fact that she failed to “stay a star” shouldn’t be held against her: she gave some memorable performances and we have the enduring brilliance of Underworld and others as testament to her considerable ability.

In the final analysis, Brent seems to have come to terms with her fall from grace well and taken a balanced view… Unlike Brooks she kept working into her middle years and made ends meet playing a succession of the “lady crook” roles that came to define her. And yet, she was capable of so much more as her sure-footed performance in the comedy drama Love ‘em and Leave ‘em showed as well as her conflicted revolutionary in The Last Command.

William Powell and Evelyn Bren
She seemed to be forever miscast in average films with even contemporary reviewers threatening to form a league to help get her better roles. Maybe she just didn’t fit any one stereotype sufficiently well enough… maybe her sexuality didn’t fit and certainly, she was badly managed by her second husband (who left her bankrupt). But every good film was followed by half a dozen middling ones…

She listed Interference as her favourite film alongside Underworld and it’s not hard to see why. Made a few months after her final von Sternberg feature – the lost film The DragnetInterference was Paramount’s first talkie.

Starring Clive Brook, Doris Kenyon and William Powell it was based on the stage play written by Harold Dearden and Roland Pertwee – a good idea for the fledgling medium for which dialogue suddenly had to be naturalistic in a way not always found on title cards.

Evelyn Brent... hatching a plot!
All had stage experience and it showed with Brent and Brooks being particularly impressive. Enunciation was vital given the primitive recording techniques and this could conflict with the performers' need to bring as much natural feeling as possible into their voices.

Powell is caught here struggling with an English accent and frequently intoning “Deb-or-rah!”. Overall he does well, which is more than can be said for Doris Kenyon who possibly needed stronger direction… she’s far too cautious and halting and you really struggle to understand just why Powell’s character might consider leaving Brent’s for her?

William Powell and Clive Brook
The director was Paramount’s head of special effects, J. Roy Pomeroy, who took his chance as one of the few to grasp sound technology early on and yet his was not a sure hand and his inflated wage demands soon saw him out. Throughout the film his actors are planted in firm positions with long sections of virtual stasis as dialogue is delivered into carefully positioned microphones…

Interestingly, the seven minute sequence following the murder at Deborah’s apartment, features fast-flowing, silent film direction and succeeds in telling the story with far more eloquence than the talking sections… film was 30 but sound was just a newborn, still toddling around carefully placed microphones… There are quick entries and exits of Philip followed by Dr John who attempts to cover up for Faith who he thinks is the killer…

Lothar Mendes, listed as “Co-director”, was actually the director of the silent version and it is from him that many of these more deft touches came.

"...every morning Sir John will get a postcard and they’ll be blank… just as long as you behave…”
Interference is a story of a love quadrangle, based in upper middle class Britain after the Great War… Powell plays one Philip Voaze who was reportedly killed in action. He survived and has assumed a new identity, Julian Akroyd, but is spied at a memorial service for the war dead by his former lover Deborah Kent (Brent) who pursues him back to his apartment only to find that he wants to forget his old life with her and to make a fresh start.

The two have history and Deborah has always resented the woman Philip left her for, Faith (Kenyon) who is now happily married to an up and coming surgeon, Sir John (did they do that on purpose?!) Marlay. As a way of exacting revenge Deborah decides to blackmail Fiona knowing that any scandal might burst Sir John’s career bubble. She confronts Faith and threatens to release love letters sent from Faith to Philip to the press. She takes great pleasure in telling her that she is only asking for payment as a way of showing who has the upper hand. It’s cruel... but Brent is so much the superior actor you find yourself trying to excuse her behaviour.

“Oh, Faith… sui-cide is such a foolish way out!”
But all is not so simple… Faith crumbles like a balsa wood deckchair in a mild breeze but her husband is made of sterner stuff. The real complication comes from Philip who is seriously ill. He seeks out Sir John in an attempt to find a diagnosis and cure but, before he can see the doctor, Faith arrives to find him. Stunned at finding him alive she quickly assumes that he as part of Deborah’s plot…

Faith leaves and her husband tells Philip that he has very little long-term future. His aorta has been fatally weakened and unless he curbs his lifestyle and takes it very easy then he could die at any moment. He resolves to use his time well…

Clive Brook
Deborah continues to apply pressure to Faith but she cannot meet the requested payments… Then Sir John finds out about the blackmail and resolves to sort the issue out in his own way… All the protagonists are about to converge on Deborah’s apartment in a final conflagration…

Brent wears a succession of stunning outfits and is frequently seen draped over chez lounges with intent… she acts the others off the screen and obviously had no problem with the transition from silent to sound.

Years in theatre both in the UK as well as the US no doubt helped but she also had the timing and subtlety that screen acting required… She was intelligent enough to listen and learn from the likes of John Barrymore (with whom she worked on Raffles the Amateur Cracksman in 1917) who told her to smile with her eyes and not to be too expressive.

She also learnt from Tod Browning on a few films in the early 20’s… he worked from dialogue, unlike most silent directors and this struck a particularly resonant chord. Pointing out that Brent makes a magnificent baddie, is about as insightful as saying Garbo makes a great lover… but her intelligence and forceful nature made her perfectly suited to being a “lady crook”. And Josef von Sternberg brought this potential to full bloom.

Here she plays another anti-hero but one who has depth: she genuinely loves Philip and her revenge is tempered by the desire to make her peace and her life with him. As with her twists and turns in The Last Command she handles these emotional transitions really well… those determined eyes, the unmistakable intelligence, the sad realisation that she may never get these chances again…

And, sadly, in career terms she wasn’t able to sustain this kind of platform for her talent. But, what she left us is more than enough to prove that she was one of the very finest actors of the age. She made it and was able to come through the other side with grace and humility, finding friendship and happiness in the end.

Betty and Bill
Interference is bizarrely a “hard to find” movie, although it is available in so-so quality on YouTube. It deserves to be seen more widely and in good quality on DVD not least because of the important milestone it was in the development of the talking film but also because it’s one of Evelyn Brent’s best performances – one that proved she could act and talk at the same time!

Post script: I've recently completed Evelyn Brent: the Life and Times of Hollywood's Lady Crook by Lynn Kear with James King (foreward by Mr Kevin Brownlow).

It is excellently researched with an especially impressive filmography, covering all of Eveyn's movies from 1914 to 1950.

They have done a good job of telling the tale of this talented and courageous woman, steering an objective course through the conflicting contemporary PR. In spite of a disastrous husband or two, studio incompetence, bigotry and plain bad luck, you get the feeling that her career would always have been fitful... she just wasn't made for those times... But enough film-makers of quality were around to give her the chance to shine brightly.

It's available from Amazon. A recommended read paying tribute to one of the best actresses in Hollywood: ever!