Saturday, 22 December 2012

The young man and the sea... Captain Salvation (1927)

As you delve deeper into the depths of silent film, you start to follow a daisy chain of actors and directors who impress and lead you into seeking out more of their work. So it was that a film I wouldn’t have given a second thought to a couple of years back, became compelling viewing due to the presence of one of the stars of The Saga of Gosta Berling (Lars Hanson) and another from The Cameraman (Marceline Day).

Captain Salvation was released in 1927 and features Hanson as Anson Campbell a young man on the verge of priesthood and yet who is always drawn back to the sea… his sweetheart, Mary Phillips (Day), is the daughter of the local priest and she looks forward to the time when he preaches from her father’s pulpit.

Lars Hanson
As its title suggests Captain Salvation deals with themes of Christianity and the sea - faith lost and regained on the edge of the world. Directed by John S. Robertson the film was based on the 1925 novel by Frederick William Wallace, a maritime journalist who had commanded a First World War Q-Ship. Not surprisingly, there's an authentic feel to the maritime action and if you like sailing ships, this film has some good ones.

Marceline Day
The opening section sets the scene very effectively as the excitement rises with the return of Anson from seminary. Robertson uses his locations well as Mary runs from her house to greet her lover but as his ship rolls into the quay he is also met with disappointment by his stern Uncle Peter Campbell (Sam De Grasse) who views his sea-going passions with disdain.

Anson is not dressed in a manner befitting the clergy and clearly enjoys the sea air far too much... The small God-fearing community follows Peter's lead and generally disapproves of Anson’s resistance to the call of the cloth but Mary is head over heels and can only see the good in her man.

The two share some lovely naturalistic moments on the beach as Anson presents Mary with a ring and proposes marriage… this section looks scripted (not all silent film was...) and Day can clearly be lip-read… you can almost hear them. Day is so freshly naturalistic and counterpoints the more expressive Larson well.

The weather changes and they both know a storm is on the way. They make it back to Anson’s friends’ house in time but are called out along with the rest of the village as a ship runs aground and survivors are hauled onto land. It’s a grim scene – a foretaste of what’s to come.

One of these poor souls is that of Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke) a fallen woman who one crew mate blames for the wreck. There’s little sympathy form the locals with Uncle Peter suggesting that she recuperates in the jail “where she belongs”. This angers Anson who demands that she be treated like everyone else as a “person”.

Thus battle lines of compassion are drawn across the community as Bess stays with Anson and his reputation is ripped to shreds… even Mary cannot stand it and is finally unable to resist the pressure of her simple-minded kin.

There seems nowhere left to turn and Anson follows Bess onto a schooner and a new life beyond the poisonous village. The board and are greeted by the larger than life Captain George Fawcett (all six feet and four inches of Ernest Torrence…Clara Bow’s co-star in Manhunt and brother of City Girl’s David).

But, from the frying pan they have fallen through the fire and straight into Hell. This is a prison ship whose warders are more brutal than their inmates, each of whom is branded, brutalised and treated like animals.
Anson soon becomes dragged into the hideous depths of the Hold whilst Bess has to contend with the lecherous advances of the not so good Captain. 

Ernest Torrence
Torrence is great as the relentlessly callous officer and Starke is genuinely moving as the tart with a new-found heart. Anson’s faith in her has given her faith in good and the strength to stand up to this man. Her relationship with Anson is always platonic and before they departed, she was at pains to tell Mary how good a man she was spurning: even if she wanted to she will not take Anson from his love.

But Anson is paying a heavy price and his faith falls away as he sees all around him lost and without hope of charity. He is driven almost mad by the extent of the cruelty and the depths of their despair.

Spoilers… It is Bess that truly becomes the captain of their salvation. She will not succumb to the Captain’s will and ends up fatally wounding herself when left with no other option. Anson charges at Fawcett in a rage and their ensuing battle is thrillingly filmed high up amongst the rigging as they trade blows in a messy and naturalistic scuffle to the death!

The Captain topples to his fate and Anson rushes to comfort Bess in her final moments. She asks him to prey and, to his surprise he finds the will and the words to lead the liberated in a last call to save her soul. Hanson occasionally over-emotes but he’s a powerful actor and this scene left not a dry eye in the living room.

Time passes and we’re back at the village as, once again, Anson returns from the sea. He sails the schooner right up to the docks and all can see that she has a new name Bess Morgan. He addresses the entire village from on high and tells them the tale of Bess’ conversion… it is a powerful moment and he finally wins them over in recognition of the woman’s bravery and Christian charity.

Welcomed back into the fold Anson is reunited with his contrite Uncle and free to marry his true love. But he will return to the ocean as master of the first “Faith Ship”… spreading the good word amongst the shipping lanes.

Now, make what you will of the film’s Christianity but there’s no denying that Captain Salvation is a powerful and quite gritty story. It’s fairly specific on the nature of Bess’ wrong-doings and unflinching in the brutality of the prison ship. It’s one of those surprises silent film can still offer – work that is less couched in period politeness than you’d expect. They kept it reasonably real.

Pauline Starke
Another surprise for me was Ms Starke who takes the acting plaudits – she goes from desperation and hard-hearted pragmatism to compassion and Christian sacrifice. It’s quite a journey but one that she makes convincingly. Someone else to follow up on.

I watched the Warner Archives DVD which is from a decent print and features a suitably stirring new orchestral score from Philip Carli.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Wild as the wind… I Know Where I'm Going! (1945)

“Directed, written and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger…” for my money “The Archers” outrank any other British filmmakers in terms of their distinctive creative vision and sheer strangeness. They can comfort and unsettle all at the same time and whilst they represent a type of British-ness they also subvert it with their films containing elements of expressionism and mysticism that are distinctly European and definitely challenging. There are obvious cultural reasons for this in Pressberger’s case but Powell, from Kent, had spent time at his father's hotel in Nice and gained experience in German film studios in the silent era.

The consequences of their eclecticism are films that weave together contradictory elements and which contain elusive messaging… all of which is dealt with in an even-handed way found even in their propaganda films. They have strong male characters, played by Farrar, Niven and Livesy, who don’t always behave like gentlemen: they act on instinct and are free-thinkers not slavishly bound to strictures of culture or class. So it is with I Know Where I’m Going but here it’s the female lead who is revolting out of type.

Wendy Hiller
Released post-war in late 1945, this film offers the re-assurance of enduring love and community spirit after the battles won…and offers a Celtic companion to the previous year’s ethereally English A Canterbury Tale.

I Know Where I’m Going returns Powell to his beloved Scotland and to the highlands and islands previously showcased in The Edge of the World (1937). This time the location is Mull, and the distant shores of “Kiloran” (a fictional isle roughly in the position of Colonsay). All are beautifully photographed by Erwin Hillier - all darkness and light with some stunning expressionist shots of mountains, shore and sky.  These are perfectly matched by expertly constructed interiors in Denham Studios: 500 miles away they feel part of the location as surely as if they’d been built there.

Wendy Hiller is excellent as Joan Webster, a bank manager’s daughter from Manchester who – seemingly – knows exactly where she’s going and always has done. The film opens with a series of witty scenes showing the heroin’s steadfast pursuit of what she wants at different stages of childhood and presenting the credits on various bits of the scenery.

Consolidated Chemical Industries
This helps to accentuate the material world in which Joan lives and, shortly after we see her leaving an art-deco industrial building she informs her father that she’s off to Scotland to marry Consolidated Chemical Industries or at least the factory’s owner Sir Robert Bellinger, one of the richest men in England (note the country).

Joan is pretty sure of herself and waves good bye as her train heads north for her inevitable wedding. If she has doubts we only see them as the off-kilter dreams she experiences as she heads towards the border. However, things start to go awry as dense fog will not permit the final leg of her journey to the island Bellinger has let and upon which they are to be married.

Roger Livesey
The mood is Archers’ other-worldly with the misty magnificence of the exterior landscape mixing with some wonderful characters. The Gaelic community endure the English wartime invasion with a pragmatic shrug and a knowing smile. There’s a well-to-do family with a chatterbox wife always desperate to play bridge and who’s daughter (Petula Clark) seems more mature than the adults. They contrast with wise old matriarch Mrs. Crozier (Nancy Price) who waxes lyrical about the dances… Scottish passion versus English artifice... But the English can go native and throw themselves into the area as eccentric Colonel Barnstaple (Captain C.W.R. Knight) proves in his vain attempts to train an eagle as a kestrel.

Pamela Brown
He rooms with Mrs Crozier – Pamela Brown as wild and free as the wind… prefiguring Jennifer Jones in Gone toEarth perhaps? She’s ahead of Wendy in actually feeling where she’s going and not rationalising… “there are more important things than money…” she tells the younger woman. She is a force of nature and the younger woman is transfixed when she appears: Hiller’s reaction shot is superb and you can sense the rest of the story panning out in those few seconds.

Subtext... what subtext?!
By this stage, Joan has met Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey who acts with relaxed yet complete conviction as always), a naval officer on shore leave who, she later learns, is the Laird of Kiloran and is the one letting the land to her fiancé. There’s an instant frisson between the two… and one suspects that Joan hasn’t really taken enough books out of the Library…

There’s also something unspoken between Torquil and Mrs Crozier… an understanding certainly but maybe more:  they’re rooted in their culture, location and earthy self-recognition. It’s most un-English but that’s exactly why Eric and Emeric loved the Scots! Then again, there’s seemingly not a lot of Manchester in Joan but that said Hiller’s Stockport accent slips out in the nightclub scene when asking for a “sherr-ay” and a “doo-bonnay”… the Lassie’s from Lancashire alright.

Joan wishes for a wind to blow her way clear to Kiloran but she summons a storm which leaves her stranded with Torquvil’s increasingly intimate company. Something’s afoot and as Torquil’s explains his family’s curse as they walk past Moy Castle, the depth of the link between land and folklore becomes clear: “My father never entered Moy Castle, nor did my grandfather or his father, and nor will I.”

The two stay in a hotel but Joan insists on sitting at separate tables…not just for appearances sake but her own. But, the barriers crumble further as they attend a céilidh in honour of a local couples 60th anniversary. Here, superbly marshalled by John Laurie – fine actor and student of Gaelic folk -  the music and the dance is frenetic and the emotions charged…
John Laurie leads the dance
Couples old and young whirl around the floor, their individual dramas played out as Joan watches from a step ladder with Torquil pushed gently against her legs. He translates the lyrics of the song and emphasis the last line as he turns to look directly into Joan’s eyes ‘Ho ro, my nut-brown maiden…You're the maid for me.’

The two are dragged into the dance and lose themselves in the crowd and the music.

By now Joan is desperate to get to Kiloran and, in spite of the dangers, pays one of the locals over the odds to take her there. It’s potentially suicide but Torquil fails to argue her round. Only when Catriona points out that he is the reason she’s leaving – Joan is running away from him – does Torquil take action. He leaps into the boat and just about manages to save them from being sucked into the Corryvreckan whirlpool in seasick scenes superbly intercut between the studio and exterior shots.

They return to the mainland and, even though a line has been crossed, Joan is still intent on completing her journey as the weather finally clears… and you really should watch the film if you want to find out what happens next.

It is not surprising that I Know Where I’m Going is the kind of film that people become strongly attached. It’s a love story but one that avoids cliché with it’s unpredictability and spirited call to know thyself and to always be prepared to be blown off-course. Love is facilitated by chance and by the right time and the right place… away from industrialised routines, Joan is able, finally, to “know” where she has to go. It’s a call to take the chance and be open-minded as the dance doesn’t go on forever.

A theme Powell and Pressberger were to explore again in their next film, A Matter of Life and Death

I watched the Classic Collection DVD but there's also a Criterion Edition out there which I'm finding it hard to resist.

Friday, 7 December 2012

A symphony of wheat… City Girl (1930)

Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan

This is one of those late period silents that make you realise how technically adept the form had become and what little positive impact sound could have on the fluidity of the story-telling. City Girl was almost fatally compromised by the Fox studio’s drive towards sound as it struggled to compete with Warner Brothers squawky innovations.

Director FW Murnau’s penultimate film (before Tabu and his tragic early death) looks as fresh today as when it was made - crystal clear and full of his trademark visual invention. Yet he walked off the film as Fox insisted in imposing sound re-takes (to be directed by Broadway’s Buddy Erickson) and the truncated “talking” City Girl, was the one that did the rounds until the silent version was rediscovered in 1969. It had only previously been shown to the overseas markets that lagged behind in the sound revolution.

Interestingly, Sunrise had actually been the first film with a synchronised soundtrack – music and some sound effects and a few words - using Fox’s Movietone system. Murnau had assumed the same for this film and the lost 4 Devils, he also wanted it shot in massive 70mm “Grandeur Film”… but commercial forces came into play.

How much this compromised his vision is debatable but what’s on view is so consistent and strikingly realised that it certainly feels like something close to top quality Murnau. The silent version would have been completed by editor/writers HH Caldwell and Katherine Hilliker both of whom were regular collaborators with the German and were able to maintain his intentions. Debate rages over the ending but Murnau definitely filmed it and, overall, we are able to view something close to Murnau’s film.

There are so many lovely shots such as the young couple’s jubilant run through the wheat fields on Lem’s return to his home, which includes some jaw-dropping camera-tracking – I’ve no idea how they kept the camera straight over the bumps and surprises of a field. Then there’s the massive harvester cutting its way across the rolling fields and, back in the City, the way Lem and Kate move in and out of significance in two crowd scenes when they are agonising over whether to seek the other out… the perfect metaphor for uncertain young love and smartly done.

There’s not the same variety and scale of built locations as in Sunrise but the film-makers still had enough funds to buy a huge orchard and turn it into a wheat field… (they sold the wheat after production…) and to build large-scale cityscapes in-studio as well as replicas of the wheat fields containing fake-farms that move just a little too quickly alongside the mighty harvesters…

The story is deceptively simple and is based, in part, on the play The Mud Turtle by Elliot Lester (Richard Lester’s father), but whilst the play starts with the couple’s return, Murnau builds in a back story, showing how they met. He doesn’t show their wedding but their *decision*… and it’s a beautiful thing.

We start with Lem Tustine (Charles Farrell) heading into Chicago by train and under strict instructions to sell the family’s annual wheat crop at no less than $1.15 per bushel. Nervously he counts his money but he’s impervious to the charms of a blonde fellow-passenger who eye a free lunch – more likely oblivious.

Meanwhile we see Lem’s authoritarian father chastise his sister for playing with just a few strands of wheat: he is a man who lives by the letter of the Good Book and has seemingly squeezed all joy out of his life…
We cut to a busy down-town dinner where the employees are working their socks off from the cramped sweaty kitchen to the cramped sweaty men at the tables. There’s one waitress, Kate (Mary Duncan) who dreams of rural idyll: surely life would be simpler and nobler in the country?

She spies Lem praying before he eats and is fascinated by his gentle ways and later impressed by his resolve as he threatens another man who has impugned her honour. Here is a real, two-fisted, man from the country and, actually, she knows what she’s looking for…

Lem and Kate’s relationship overshadows his sale of the wheat at a less than optimal $1.13… a loss of almost $800… and they decide to wed and return together.

Kate confronts Tustine

Their jubilant run through the fields is quickly cut short when Lem’s father (David Torrence) discovers his failure in getting a good price. He ignores Kate and then, while they are alone, accuses her of being a gold-digger. Kate is made of stern stuff and fights back, aiming to “make a man of Lem” even if his father won’t. Bested in the verbal exchange, Old Man Tustine falls back on brute force and slaps Kate down.

He leaves and Lem returns but he won’t retaliate for Kate, he can’t hit his own father (watcher patience is running a tad thin at this point but bear with it…). The rift starts to build and, until Lem returns to the upstanding guy he was in the city, there can be no proper union with Kate.

The Reapers are impressed by Kate's arrival...
Now events really ramp up as the reapers arrive to help them harvest the wheat. They’ve heard of the marriage difficulties and rather graciously decide to help out by trying to encourage the city floozy away for themselves. Chief amongst Kate’s would be paramours is Mac, (Richard Alexander – later a baddy in Flash Gordon!) who makes a number of plays for Kate as Lem continues to hold himself back.
And all the while the screen is getting darker as the mood slips away from the light…

Kate "caught" with Mac
It is only when his father tells him that she is about to run away with Mac that Lem starts to stir… he doesn’t quite believe it but as usual on the farm, falls short of decisive action. Now the weather begins to turn and the wheat must be brought in over night but Mac and the men refuse as a way of leveraging Kate out of the house… but she’s already gone leaving a note for Lem… and you really should watch the film to find out the rest.

City Girl doesn’t quite match Sunrise but it’s another lovely visual experience from start to finish. Farrell is handsome as heck and well on the way to stardom (enabling this film’s belated release) whilst David Torrence is suitably intense as the bible-bashing dictator who cherishes crops above human feelings. Edith Yorke is superbly harassed as his loyal wife, still afraid more for him than of him….

Just look Lem ya great lump!
But it’s Duncan who excels. Kate is the most rounded character in the film and is the heart of the story. She’s consistent throughout and even whilst she thinks “living on a farm must be wonderful”… she is actually remarkably free of rose tints saying later that “bein’ here’s alright…I don’t think much of the company.” It’s the behaviour of the men which is disappointing and not the location or the way of life.

Kate is a strong character disappointed with life so far who clings onto Lem as she knows their love is genuine and it’s The Chance. Duncan gives such a clever performance… on the two occasions when Kate almost loses Lem she collapses back into him more in exhausted relief than joy: real love and not pantomime! She knows what she wants all the way through and is so true to her self that she pulls all of the male characters around her: truly one of the strongest women characters in film.

French critic Jean George Auriol was bowled over: “Mary Duncan is the most intelligent woman of the cinema; she has the gift of exceptional insight, intensified at times by troubled intuitions.”

There’s excellent support form a good number of, largely comedic specialists, in the café as well as the Reapers and City Girl is high on humour reminding you of its expressionist agenda.

Murnau had apparently given some thought to where the sound sections might fit in but this obviously didn’t go far enough for the studio who wanted more talk and less expression. Luckily we can see something like the full force of what Murnau intended and, whilst his visual focus was no longer fashionable, it would be a long time before any sound film director could match what he achieved in emotional narrative.

I watched the Eureka Master of Cinema Blu-ray/DVD double pack which has a ripping new score composed in 2008 by Christopher Caliendo. There’s an informative booklet as well as an excellent commentary from David Cabot which debates the impact of sound on Murnau and his – successful – collaborations in Hollywood. You can see it in all the all familiar places… it would make an ideal Christmas present for someone you really care alot about…

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Carry on cowboy… The Lady of the Dugout (1918)

Alphonso J. "Al" Jennings
Ah, when is a story ever actually based on real events…

Al Jennings was a notorious character who emerged from the “wild” west to make his mark on popular culture and on early cinema. A former attorney he had turned to crime following the fatal shooting of one of his brothers by another lawyer. He enjoyed a largely unsuccessful criminal career in late 1897 along with his elder brother Frank and was sent down for life after being found guilty of train robbery and assault with intent to kill an officer of the law... Frank got five years.

Al and Frank Jennings
Following legal activity from another brother, both had their sentences reduced on a technicality and, bizarrely, Al received a full pardon from President Roosevelt in 1907; Teddy being convinced he had fought against the Spanish as a Rough Rider.

In prison he had befriended writer William Sydney Porter (“O. Henry”, later to write The Cisco Kid) and picked up tips on narrative techniques. But when it came to story-telling it seems that Al was a natural and he started to spin new and ever more elaborate versions of his life of crime. Naturally he began to become involved in cinema and the re-invention of the West in general and himself in particular.

Gentleman Jennings
The Lady of The Dug-Out was produced by Jenning’s own company and purported to be based on actuality. It starred Al and his brother Frank as themselves: two heroic figures who robbed from the rich only to give to the poor (and themselves). Their hearts of gold are touched when they encounter the Lady of the dug-out (Corrine Grant) living in poverty with her young son (Ben Alexander) and all but deserted by her soak of a husband (Joseph Singleton). They resolve to use their ill-gotten gains for good…

Al and Frank meet the Lady at the dug-out
Directed by W.S. “One-shot” Van Dyke, who was also credited as co-writer with Al, the film is well made entertainment. The boys are not the greatest actors but there’s no denying that Al has magnetism – even at 55 he looked a more than capable outlaw.

The story stars with the boys staging an opportunist robbery as Al overhears of $5,000 being deposited in the town bank. They make their escape and head out over the plains where they encounter the Lady living in a home literally dug-out of the desert: a startling construct that reflects the grim life awaiting those who failed to prosper in the "new" territories.

Corrine Grant and Ben Alexander
She hasn’t eaten for two days and so Al heads off on a 24 miles round trip to fetch some vittles, leaving Frank to get acquainted and to hear how the Lady came to live in poverty. She is the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who threw her out when she wanted to marry one his hands.

The two bought a house with what money she had but ended up defaulting on their mortgage as her husband descended into alcoholic inactivity and they ended up scratching a living in the middle of nowhere... she spends her life watching and waiting that he will return sober and with food...

Corrine Grant
The story within a story (within a whopper!) works well and is an unusual narrative turn for the time. Corrine Grant is excellent and she has to be to carry so much of the dramatic force. She’s ably supported by young Ben Alexander who later featured in the Dragnet TV series.

The Jennings boys leave all of the food for the mother and son and head off. Frank has been touched by her plight and they decide to exact revenge on the banker who took the Lady’s money.

Al makes a withdrawal

After a successful robbery they return to find the Lady being abused by her drunken husband who is less than impressed with their attempts to help his wife. He heads off to the saloon but returns with a posse to arrest the boys. There’s a gun-fight in which the boys dig their way to freedom and the husband gets shot… the Lady is all alone but not help-less.

Al and Frank return her and the boy to her parents who welcome her with open arms: all forgiven. They ride off into the sunset for more altruistic adventures…

OK, it’s easy to make light of Al Jennings’ way with the truth but you have to be impressed with his energy and his chutzpah! He lived well into his 90’s and advised on many a B-movie western. There’s a fascinating interview with him on the DVD commentary – still weaving outlandish tales even at 94, he says that he fought in the Civil War even though he was only born in 1863!

The overwhelming impression is that The Lady of the Dug-Out is a genuine display of the spirit of the 1890s when a man’s force of personality could take him anywhere, beyond the law as well as believability. Good enough for Teddy Roosevelt, we should cut Al some slack, whilst not condoning his crimes. After all… in all the trains and banks he (tried) to rob he never shot no-one… and, as Alias Smith and Jones, Butch and Sundance and others have shown, we like some outlaws we can forgive.

Ben Alexander and Corrine Grant
The Lady of the Dug-Out is part of the superb three-disc Treasures from the American Film Archives 5: The West, 1898-1938 from the National Film Preservation Foundation. There’s over 10 hours of material including a pristine print of Clara Bow’s favourite film Mantrap (I briefly covered it here but this new print is so much better).

It’s available from all good online retailers and is exceptional value - I would have been happy with Clara alone but The Lady of the Dug-Out is one of many superb surprises. The Western wasn't just a genre but a way of life...