Monday, 26 March 2012

Joan Crawford in... Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Every time I see Joan Crawford she gets younger. Of all the stars of the twenties she was the one who perhaps had the greatest career in sound and I know her best from those films of the 40s and 50s.

I watched Johnny Guitar a few months back – what a stunningly odd film that is, but all the better for it – and to see the same intelligent hood-eyed stare from Joan a full 26 years’ earlier is testament to her consistency and ability.

Whilst Crawford had earlier been in successful but slight comedies like Spring Fever with William Haines (a superb comic actor who lost his stardom to homophobic prejudice) and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp with a fading Harry Langdon (she was also in Tod Browning's truly bizarre The Unknown with Lon Chaney), Our Dancing Daughters was the film that turned her into a major star. And it’s easy to see why.

Joan plays Diana Medford an energetic jazz baby who seems to be the life and soul of every party. The film starts at breaktaking pace with the camera focused on a pair of dancing feet in front of a mirror, the feet carry on their movement as, cheekily, a pair of pantyhose are pulled up over them. The camera pulls back to show a full-clothed and party-ready, Joan dancing like the Charleston champion she was in real life.

Di goes down stairs to say goodnight to her folks – "...see you at five!" – and to be toasted by a trio of male admirers. She decides to toast herself as she wants to be able to like herself all of her life…it seems a strange thing to say but it’s key.

Off they go to the party were the various characters are revealed and Joan gets to blast the floor some more. Di’s best friend is Beatrice (Dorothy Sebastien) who is seemingly more straight-laced and sensible and Anni (a great performance from Anita Page who really gives herself to the role) a girl who is anything but as innocent as she looks – she wants to marry well and that precludes everyother option.

They have variable relationships with the men in the group, the mischievous Freddie (Edward Nugent), the serious Norman (Nils Asther) and the seriously loaded Ben (John Mack Brown).
Di spies Ben and take an immediate interest but gets pulled away to dance leaving the way open for Ann to make a play.

A competition takes place for the millionaire’s affection which Ann wins through guile and pretending to be the innocent girl that Di is not. Yet Di is true to herself and won’t compromise her way into Ben’s affections.

He falls for Ann’s impersonation and the two are married. Ann is triumphant and doesn’t mind who knows it and at the same time she continues a fling with Freddie behind Ben’s back: she’s got what she wants and doesn’t think she can be displaced.

Too late Ben realises that it was Di he loved after all but she has resolved to tour Eurpoe and to leave the scene of her disappointment. At the same time Bea has married uptight Norman who cannot forgive her past and tries to exclude her old friends.

It seems that only the amoral schemer has got what she wanted and things are set for an almighty showdown and a dramatic climax.

What is so interesting about the story is how it plays with preconceptions. The flapper turns out to be the decent gal and when Di toasted her good character and her ability to live with herself she really meant it. Ann is also true to herself but she is totally cynical and sees manipulation and “real politik” as the only means of obtaining her goals.

The rest are less sure of themselves and are in various states of confusion even though they may find their way forward – Bea is essentially decent and we hope Norman is too.

Written by three women, Josephine Lovett, Marion Ainslee and Ruth Cummings, Our Dancing Daughters is very much a film dominated by the female leads and that, coupled with its balanced view of youthful high spirits marks it apart from the formulaic moral tale it could have been.

There's a lovely moment when a drunken Annikins looks down on three washer women scrubbing the floor of the night club: "Women, women...working!" Josephine, Marion and Ruth obviously knew that reaction well enough.

And, Joan Crawford is sensational…there's a particular set of the jaw that she carries when faced with opposition and it is the same warring against Anita Page as it is facing down mad Mercedes McCambridge all those years later in Johnny Guitar. What an intelligent and centred actress she was and, all legend aside, she seems to have been immensly hard-working and driven.

Here she is naturalistic and believable. Her character is a winning one and that is all the more impressive given the subject matter. This is a party gal but one who we will see to be true to herself, honest and fair. It would take a superior talent to make that line work in any time, that Joan does it here is testiment to the small revolution of her coming.

Our Dancing Daughters is available through Amazon and all good retailers. Now, having outlined the plot of The Unkown to my disbelieving wife, I have to persuade her to watch it!

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Love in a New Town… Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967)

And…every so often a flash of colour! This film is special in being perhaps the only major motion picture filmed using the UK’s first major “New Town” as its backdrop. The town is Stevenage which was transformed in the early 1950s from a small Hertfordshire village into a sprawl of optimistic high-rise flats, acres of uniform clean-white housing and fly-overs, pedestrian precincts and one of the most deliberate shopping centres modern architecture could conceive.

You can imagine that Stevenage, Skelmersdale or Corby would have looked stunning as architects’ scale models and too often the full-sized constructions are viewed as failures. But it’s not necessarily the buildings, or the people, it’s the economy, stupid…Yes, some of the layouts were naive and forced people into un-social environments with less connection than the inner city areas they were extracted from. But some of the design worked well and continues to breed pride and good neighbours, even during times of economic difficulties.

In Clive Donner's 1967 film, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, the clean white of the nearly-new town is used to underpin a contemporary tale of hip teen angst. They could have filmed in Notting Hill, Camden or Highgate but they chose somewhere representative of the forward looking optimism of the times.

And, the uncluttered environs of Stevenage were perfect for filming Barry Evan’s bicycle flying down the quite walk ways, talking incessantly to camera in the manner of a younger and not-yet-qualified Alfie. It also allows all walks of life to be shown from the detached modern house of Barry’s dream girl Mary (Judy Geeson… like Susannah York, only sweeter…), to the already running-down flat of his fall-back girl Linda (Adrienne Posta, who somehow manages to exhibit the defeated physicality of a middle-aged woman in a 20-something’s body…) and back to mansion of plummy Caroline, the girl beyond his reach (a quite superbly bonkers Angela Scoular).

Based on a book by Hunter Davies, Beatles biographer, one of the main chroniclers of this progressive decade, and inspired by his partner’s scripting of Georgy Girl, Mulberry Bush is the story of a young man’s coming of age, based on Davies’ own youth in Carlisle. Evans plays Jamie McGregor an over-sexed sixth-former who is obsessed with girls and growing up.

He works as a delivery boy for a supermarket and spends his time whizzing around on his bike taking cardboard boxes of groceries to needy housewives. But they’re never as needy as he wants them to be whilst the girls he knew at school have either already got well-off boyfriends with cars (Mary) or are locked into a pattern of all too adult behaviour (Linda).

Jamie wants to find them and to find himself… even if he doesn’t know that’s what he’s looking for. He has a fish and chip-fuelled liaison with an unresponsive Linda which is cut short by the arrival of Mary with his friend Spike (future TV vet Christopher Timothy). Next he gets invited to a church disco with Paula (Sheila White) who leads him on a little way but really has the hots for the priest. He then spends a strange evening with Caroline’s parents who are interested only in using others only as props for their own jaded sexual gratification. Denholm Elliot is magnificently malevolent as Caroline’s wine-loving pater.

Jamie finally achieves base camp with the very friendly Audrey (Vanessa Howard) at a party in a furniture store…carpet burns galore as the teens trash the displays and change partners with dizzying speed.

A visibly disappointed Jamie spots Mary on his was out and they head off into the night. They go away to Mary’s parents’ sailing club and enjoy a memorable skinny dip by the side of a river but there are soon little cracks even in this relationship. These are widened the next day when Mary reveals that she wants to carry on seeing other people whilst Jamie is set on some sweet old fashioned monogamy. He knows now what he doesn’t want whilst Mary is happy to carry on enjoying directionless youth.

As the boys look forward to starting University up in Manchester, Jamie reveals that he’s no longer interested in playing the field but then catches site of Mary’s friend Claire (a young and lovely Diane Keen) who flashes him an encouraging smile.

As with Hunter Davies’ inspiration, Catcher in the Rye, not much happens in the end but the film succeeds in conveying the “state” of youth at that moment between school and college when everything seems possible, even if only for a little while.

It’s a good snapshot of a moment in time and a New Town when it was in the same position before “ …a great future” passed behind it! Now we’re all of us over 30 in a state of “Stevenage”…

The soundtrack is provided by hipster beat combo the Spencer Davis Group featuring the vocals of Stevie Winwood. Appropriately enough for a film about coming of age, this also includes the title track played by Winwood’s next and more grown up band, Traffic, who moved on from psychedelic pop to lay the bedrock for early progressive rock.

Stevenage is the next big town along from where I live and knowing it as it has now become makes viewing Mulberry Bush a strange experience. Watching a film from 1967 is like viewing any other period piece but with a difference, as most of the scenery in this case remains intact if a little run down in parts.

Not a major film but still a vey interesting one. I would urge you to catch the train up to Stevenage one day …before or after you see this film, and then try and spot the difference. You may struggle to pick up the soundtrack LP but, last time I looked, there was a second-hand record stall in the covered market.

The excellent BFI dual format pack, includes a documentary on the history of Stevenage New Town along with other shorts and an excellent booklet with a contribution from Hunter Davies as well as an appreciation of the sadly under-appreciated Barry Evans. Available from Amazon (as is the soundtrack CD) or direct from the BFI Shop.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Marie Prevost in Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle (1924)

The Marriage Circle is slick and lovely Lubitsch. It’s one of the first of his films when I can clearly see his famous “touch” in effect throughout a wittily-directed story of sexual politics in early 20’s Vienna. There are surprisingly few intertitles but lots of cleverly composed shots that help the actors reveal the plot.

There are also some superbly-relaxed performances from a very strong cast who looked like they were having an absolute ball throughout.

Adolphe Menjou plays Professor Josef Stock, almost improbably married to the very earthy-looking Mizzi played by Marie Prevost. The two are at each other’s throats with the lust that brought them together long-ago replaced by irritation and disdain. The Professor would just love to find grounds for divorce whilst Mizzi would just love to find another man.

Their opening scenes are a hoot as they swap the soured indignities of a marriage encircled by familiarity and contempt. Their quick fire exchanges almost make you hear what they’re saying and would have worked very well in sound: think Doris Day and Tony Randall. But Marie is no Doris Day; it’s pretty clear what she’s really after and she’s full of raw expression and bright-eyed, restless energy.

Her attention turns to the husband of her best friend, Charlotte Braun played by an excellent Florence Vidor who reminded me a little of Eleanor Boardman...King Vidor certainly had a "type"! Charlotte's husband is Dr. Franz Braun, the marvellously visaged Monte Blue. Being that kind of girl, Mizzi wants the one she can’t have and sets off in pursuit of mischief.

Seeing his chance, Professor Stock hires a private eye to follow Mizzi and get him the evidence he needs to gain separation. Mizzi doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction but she can’t help herself.

Entertaining chaos ensues as Mizzi tries to manoeuvre Franz away from Charlotte and into her arms. There are near misses aplenty and various cases of mistaken identity as Franz’s colleague, Dr. Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale) senses his chance may come with Charlotte…who is largely oblivious.

It’s all a bit grown up and very daring, no wonder they were Viennese and not American, even pre-code this was pushing the sexual boat out.

There’s a superbly subtle moment at breakfast when Franz moves towards his wife’s embrace, she is stirring her coffee and he is cracking his boiled egg; Lubitsch focuses just on the two breakfast items as the spoons stop moving and the lovers engage off-shot, above the table.

Masterful stuff and timeless technique.

Lubitsch makes us care about all of the characters though even Mizzi who, as she cries out to Josef, just wants love… The professor himself almost relents but he’s smart enough to know that they’ll never be for the long term.

Of course, we really don’t want Franz and Charlotte to split apart and for their marriage circle to be broken. They’re as right for each other as Mizzi and the Prof are wrong.

Throughout Prevost steals most scenes she’s in, even against the mighty Menjou and this high quality cast. Just why she wants to spoil her friend’s relationship isn’t clear but maybe she’s lost and still looking for the thing that Charlotte has found.

Her openness and physicality is a provocation to the men and audience alike. She's like a prototype Clara Bow: running wild and worldly. She had, after all, been one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, during which time she took part in one of the most amusing photo shoots being driven on a motor boat by a dog. This picture, often attributed to Gloria Swanson, is always worth reproducing…credit to the copyright holder and about time you released more Prevost-era Sennett comedies I think!

Prevost signalled her shift in career focus by burning her swimming gear before her first major features for Universal in 1921. This film shows how successful the transition from eye candy to actress was for her. She not only had the looks but the talent: natural and quick witted. In Lubitsch's opinion she was one of the few actresses in Hollywood who knew how to underplay comedy to make it funnier.

The Marriage Circle is available from and is recommended as a showcase of the skill of its director but also, this unfairly remembered actress. Yes it ended badly but she had a life and she had talent and we should salute what she did achieve and not how she came to die.

What is more; I bet she had fun! We certainly did watching her in 2012!

I was partly moved to watch this film by Stacia’s excellent Marie Prevost Project over at shebloggedbynight. She's put in much serious research and righted the wrongs done to Marie's reputation by cheap shots from Kenneth Anger and others.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The 7x7 Link Awards!

Flick Chick, author of the excellent A Person in the Dark blog has very kindly given me the 7x7 Link Award. It's great to be *read* and it's always nice to be recognised - good to know that we're none of us alone in the dark!

The 7 x 7 Link Award rules are as follows:
1. Tell everyone 7 facts that no one else may know about you
2. Link to one of 7 posts that you feel best fits the following categories: Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, and Most Pride-Worthy Piece
3. Pass this award to 7 other bloggers

Hmm... not like Fight Club rules then?

So 7 things you may or may not know or want to know:
1. I work in marketing for a media company (sounds bad I know)
2. I started this blog just so I could follow a friend's blog...only then did I think about what I should write!
3. Pandora's Box was the first silent DVD I bought, in a second hand record shop in Bristol, knocked me sideways and I've haven't looked back
4. It's *all* about Brooksie
5. I complained to Bryony Dixon that her - totally essential - "100 Silent Films" book was costing me a fortune: it is and I love it!
6. My friend's great aunt - Sybil Rhoda - was in Alfred Hitchcock's Downhill - I look forward to seeing the restored version!
7. I made my teenage daughter watch large swathes of Greed
- she's paying me back with her Friends box set...

Blushingly, I turn to the 7 posts that meet the following categories...

Most Beautiful Piece - this is a tricky one to kick off with... film is all about beauty after all but are any of my posts "beautiful"? Certainly one of the most affecting films I've seen was The First Born with Steven Hornes' superbly emotional score. I've seen this twice now and hope it gets a DVD release. The post was: The sounds of silents...

Most Helpful Piece - hmm, this implies that people actually gain utility from my ramblings... I suppose flagging upcoming events and helping spread the word counts in which case my trumpeting of the Dodge Brothers, Neil Brand and Beggars of Life may be tops. Seeing them all again at the Barbican on 29th April!

Most Popular Piece - easy one this, it's "...there is only Louise Brooks..." written after a screening of Pandora's Box at the Prince Charles Cinema in London. Just me gushing, but I mean it.

Most Controversial Piece - controversial with me at least... Ecstacy...Hedy good... bad pun aside, this seems to attract a lot of attention from search engines merely for the use of the words "Hedy", "Lamarr" and "nude"... Oops, there I go again! It is an interesting film and for all the right reasons!

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece - I shouldn't have been surprised but the greatest French actress of her generation in 80's Aussie indy classic... was very popular! Isabelle Huppert in Cactus (1986)

Most Underrated Piece - this is a recent one, French war poetry… J’Accuse (1919)... I think this film is quite exceptional and can't wait to see Napoleon in cinema. Is Abel Gance the ultimate cult director?

Most Pride-Worthy Piece - I'm just standing on the shoulders of giants here but I do take a lot of satisfaction in rediscovering performers who may get overlooked and I was particularly impressed with the multiple talents of prima ballerina and actress Jenny Hasselqvist - all acting, all dancing. She's great in Stiller's Johan, Sumurun and Gosta Berling. When will they release Victor Sjöström's Vem dömer on DVD!?

My recommendations for blogs you should read?

1. Sir Gawain's World ...a hand-crafted blog from a proper wordsmith! Also wields a sword and rides a powerful horse.

2. She Blogged by Night - sorry Stacia, I know you have issues with these bloggy chain-letters but I think your site is great: especially your championing of Marie Prevost!

3. 100 Years of Movies - a lot of years to cover and a lot of expert commentary - I even agreed on Green Lantern!

4. Silent Beauties - the hardest-working blog on silents? No one uncovers more silent treats than miwi!

5. Leopard and Lipstick - Johnny Cash, Serge Gainsbourg...and "a place to ponder on how much leopard print a girl can wear at once?"

6. Flapper Flickers and Silent Stanzas - "A modern look at the 1920s and 30s" and a lot of Clara Bow!

7. Time Machine to the Twenties - great title for a blog and wouldn't we all want one!

Apologies to anyone I missed out. So much sincere thought, passion and self-expression...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Not quite black and white… Laura (1944)

Maybe I’m biting off more than I can chew here but I’ve been concerned with seeing this film since I picked up a lobby card from the BFI… Said card features Dana Andrews staring with intent at Gene Tierney… who wouldn’t… and their expressions are so loaded that you feel something bad has to have happened and that it could quite easily happen again.

Film Noir is so much about hidden meaning and the total uncertainties of explained truth… It’s a mighty genre to summarise succinctly but it seemed to represent a huge moment in American history when it was realised that not only where the bad guys at home as well as abroad but that they were as much American as anyone else… This sounds wild, but just think of the whole horrific series of post-war hearings that pursued this very logic as, perhaps light-headed after winning the World after the War, the USA started to look for its weaknesses.

Noir also looked to play with narrative structures as part of the cinematic depiction of disorientation when, literally, anyone could have done it, the perp might be the “ victim” and the narrator may even be dead.

Gene Tierney stars initially as a painting of Laura Hunt, a woman who appears to have been brutally slain by a shot gun fired directly into her face. Dana Andrews is Detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson, the latest in a line of police put onto the case. We first see him in the apartment of Laura’s friend, the writer Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb.

Lydecker is a wise-cracking writer who beckons the detective into his bathroom where he has been working on a typewriter balanced on a board. Whilst this is eccentric behaviour there’s a strangely feline aspect to Lydecker and his challenging treatment of the policeman, asking him to pass his robe as he leaves the bath and trying to unsettle and belittle him.

Laura was to have married the socialite Shelby Carpenter played by a young and delightfully off-beat Vincent Price. Waldo was disapproving and makes it clear where the motives for the crime may have lain.It seems that the couple had been having mutual second thoughts as their day approached with Shelby drawn to the forceful and harshly-intellectual Ann Treadwell (Judith Anderson), not obvious competition for Laura, or what we have seen of her from her painting and flashbacks, but none of these people are what they seem.

Very quickly Detective McPherson is out of his depth immersed in the deeper meanings of these unsettling intellectuals. He clings to the rock of certainty provided by the painted image of the murdered Laura. The others spy his weakness.

Then suddenly, Laura returns. She had been away at her country cabin and her radio been broken, meaning that had not heard of her own demise. Or had she?

This emboldens the detective and he suddenly has the purpose of a solid murder mystery to deal with together with one new suspect. Laura’s presence gives him something tangible to deal with and if he can solve the mysteries surrounding her situation he will find the answer to who was actually killed and why.

It would be wrong to go into much further detail about the plot as this film is so much about the surprise of what happens next at every turn until the last.

Needless to say, there are many twists and switches, Shelby shows some confusing loyalty to Laura whilst Ann Treadwell is so coldly logical about the human relationships between the three of them that you want her to be wrong, but you know she’s right. People are that calculating and manipulative.

The murderer turns out to be unexpected but that’s what you’d expect if not maybe who you’d expect...

It’s a stylish and atmospheric film that makes the most of its largely interior locations. Otto Preminger directs with style and focus and it’s certainly a film you have to watch more than once to get full value - one of the very best of its type.

Gene Tierney plays the part wonderfully or should that be inhabits the role? She had the perfect look for the period and the style if not the performance range. No shame in that. She felt the role would have suited Hedy Lamarr but whilst Ms Lamarr would have been perfect for the painting I’m not sure she would have carried the edginess and moral confusion that Tierney manages.

Gene Tierney was one of the most imperfectly beautiful actresses of her generation and that was her strength. You could believe that most of the men would fall for her but that things wouldn’t always go her way.

Laura has just been showcased at the BFI and re-released in some UK cinemas. It’s well-worth watching in cinema – the kind of film watched on TV all too often and maybe taken for granted. But nothing is certain in Laura although it is guaranteed to be also available on DVD from Amazon.