Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Maurice Elvey and Neil Brand at The Barbican - The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

As Ian Christie said in his introduction, not many of the audience at London’s Barbican Centre would have seen a British silent film from 1918 before and certainly not one of this scale and sophistication.

We were gathered to watch a special screening of Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George with live accompaniment from Neil Brand and an introduction not just from the eminent Mr Christie but also John Reed from the Welsh Film Archive. Mr Reed not only played a major role in restoring the film; he found it after a mysterious disappearance for almost 80 years. Thrillingly, because the film had never been seen, it is pretty much in mint condition – this is cinema as it looked in 1918, no digital restoration, just the impression left by the light on the nitrate.

LG gave a five hour speech in Commons for the 1909 budget
Just why this lavish production, trumpeted for months in the trade press, never made it to the screen is not known. Kevin Brownlow suggests that, the war over and Bolshevism as the new threat, the powers that be didn’t want a film that celebrated Lloyd George’s almost socialistic achievements in the areas of pensions, health insurance and equality.

Whatever the political machinations, they can only add to the interest in what is a major historical document - a record of Britain during the Great War and which showed, like Birth of a Nation, that some issues remain unresolved even when consigned to “history”.

The young solicitor
At the end of the film, Lloyd George is seen ruminating about the peace process and resolving to make sure Britain is better prepared for any future conflict before realising that there must never be a “next time”…a highly poignant ending and one which reflected the horror at the blood-letting of the “War to end all wars”. Sadly, we now know the Second World War was birthed in the settlement of the First and Lloyd George lived on to see almost the whole of that mess too.

The film is faithful to its subject and, some childhood inventions aside, uses only dialogue culled from Lloyd George’s speeches and debates. This helps to side-step the pitfalls many subsequent biopics encounter in attempting to convert character and events into neat dialogue…

But then Elevy makes the right choices throughout the film and underpins the documentary by using the actual locations from the small Manchester cottage where Lloyd George was born to the various buildings in the Llyn peninsular where he grew up and began his legal career. There are even some glorious shots of the bay at Portmadoc along with Cadair Idris, one of the highest and most beautiful peaks in this part of Wales (I climbed it last summer: stunning views all round!).

Cadair Idris
Elvey drove miles to film a few minutes of Llandudno in Hindle Wakes… it’d be nice to think he’d formed an attraction for North Wales based on Lloyd George.

Elvey’s commitment to realism extended to huge set pieces re-enacting a number of LG’s major speeches and featuring – literally – a cast of thousands. As Ian Christie pointed out, it would be a long time before any British director again operated on this scale. It’s particularly effective for the Birmingham Town Hall riot when LG’s anti-Boer War stance almost got him strung up: the streets are overflowing with extras… at least I think they were extras!

Birmingham riots
Norman Page also plays a major part in “keeping it real” and makes for an uncanny Lloyd George: there are times when you forget that it’s not the Prime Minister touring the munitions factories or being smuggled out of the Birmingham riot. It’s a measured performance and it has to ring true, especially with the subject matter still very much in power… a pressure performance! At least Michael Sheen’s frequent takes on Tony Blair have generally been after his reign ended (don’t write the old charmer off yet though).

Written by Sidney Low the film covers Lloyd George’s life in meticulous factual detail – what else could you do with a living subject - from his humble beginnings to the Great War victory that seemed sure to guarantee his lasting reputation. Up to this point (Marconi Affair aside) LG had been largely sure-footed but there were to be later complications...

The great orator
Shortly after his birth, LG’s father’s failing health led the family home to Pembrokeshire. His mother moved in with her brother, a man of conscience who greatly influenced LG’s morality. He was also inspired by the preaching of his teacher and in a Griffith’s touch; Elevy shows us brief re-enactments from the scriptures. LG was moved but in a non-conformist and Welsh way - a man of his own people as egalitarian in this film as British movies ever got.

Man arrested for stealing bread...
LG becomes a successful solicitor with his quick intelligence and skilled oratory playing a major part. He marries his childhood sweetheart and a visit to Parliament convinces him to become and MP and, his reputation enhanced by the episode of the LLanfrothen Burial Case, he squeaks past the Tory candidate by 19 votes to become MP of Caernarfon Boroughs

There follows scenes of LG’s passionate debates in Commons (one of which got him suspended for a week) along with the public meetings which stirred the electorate as well as enraging them.

LG is greeted by the ghosts of PM's past... Disraeli on left.
Measured against modern Liberals, LG seemed to be largely free of compromise and with a distinct programme allied to a deep-lying morality. You feel like cheering as he becomes Chancellor and steers through the People’s Budget from 1909-11. This was a key point in the curtailing of both Royal political influence as well as the ability of the House of Lords to block the enactments of the lower chamber. In other words, the elected assembly prevailed and Lloyd George was a great parliamentarian for this alone.

"The workhouse doors open..."
But it is LG’s performance in World War One that is most celebrated and this section covers the last hour or so of the film. LG is shown resolving the ordinance supply issues which so threatened the allied efforts. Rail routes were improved and manufacturing was re-prioritised to ensure higher levels of viable ammunition.

LG takes over as Prime Minister in 1916 and helps to unify the Allies who are soon to include the USA. The films propagandist agenda tips the hat to all involved parties but this was wartime and audiences need sense to be made of the deaths of millions. LG ensures the appointment of General Foch as commander in chief of the allied forces and this is the key appointment as the German forces were finally forced into surrender.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George
It’s a huge film covering a lot of ground but it never drags… Elevy’s inventiveness moves the narrative along and by focusing on snapshots of key events would have touched many a nerve with contemporary audiences. He considered it his best film* and whilst Hindle Wakes is the more enjoyable, this film is a huge accomplishment for the time.

Amongst the supporting cast is the future Mrs Hitchcock, a teenage Alma Reville, as LG’s daughter Megan and there’s also a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Peggy Carlisle a Liverpudlian lass who played Mary in Hindle Wakes… I think anyway!

Peggy Carlisle cameo?
Neil Brand accompanied the film, and his score included the odd touch of contemporary music to add context all within a more modern composition. It was superbly sympathetic to the story and he played with energy and invention for the full two hours and twenty minutes: a mighty effort!

His score is featured on the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales DVD which the Barbican had kindly placed on sale in their Level 3 Shop (still there if you’re quick). In addition to a 16 page booklet there’s a second disc featuring an introduction from Philip Madoc along with interviews with Kevin Brownlow as well as Mr Brand. It’s also available direct from the Archive where you can also find extensive clips and more details. It is absolutely essential for all aficionados of early British cinema.

Norman Page and Alma Reville with some odd "ducks"
You can only wonder what impact this film would have had if it had been released in 1919. I’m sure the public would have flocked in their millions to celebrate their Prime Minister and Britain would have had a film to celebrate of similar stature to DW Griffith’s epics.

Also, if Birth of a Nation revived interest in certain unpleasant political strands in the US, isn’t it possible that Elvey’s film may have played a similar role in cementing the altogether more positive achievements of liberalism at a time when it was being compromised. The Liberal Party never recovered from the need for Conservative support in the latter years of LG’s premiership and they were soon out-flanked by the Labour Party. Could this film have helped LG’s party to stay more true to themselves?

Just a thought. You can’t buck a long term trend in political culture with a mere film… can you?

*Thanks to Lucy Dee, “Miss Elvey”, for that snippet!

LG working hard with his secretary

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Yevgeni Bauer’s debut - Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913)

Nina Chernova
This is a striking debut from Bauer and one of the most advanced films I’ve seen from 1913.

There are some wonderful compositions using the director’s typically well-designed sets through which his actors move through amazing shifts in light and tone. It also features possibly the earliest tracking shot as the camera follows the main character, pulling the viewer and their sympathy behind the troubled young woman.

The first dolly?
As ever with Bauer it is somewhat unsettling to view his tales of aristocratic ennui in a country that hardly knew itself. Within a few years, the way of life he depicts will have disappeared forever as Russian society – perhaps the most divided in Europe – is re-worked by the Great War and the Bolshevik revolution. Sadly the director himself was to face oblivion before this event was settled.

Bauer did have sympathy for the revolutionary cause as his later films show and, whilst here he depicts some of the underclass as criminal, there's none more listless and decadent than the idle rich, with their pointless parties and affordable morality...

Depth, design and despair
The film centres on Vera Dubovskaja (Nina Chernova) a bored young woman who has lost her taste for the endless frivolity of her privileged lifestyle. Her mother cajoles her through a party which takes place in amongst the first of what was to become Bauer’s trade- mark multi-layered sets.

Vera is seen reluctantly joining in with the party and then breaks away from the dancing and moves camera-forward to rest on a chair where she is briefly harassed by two male admirers. Shoo-ing them away she stands and walks down set to be followed briefly by Nikolai Kozlovski’s camera – a short, stunning moment of film history.

Let there be more light...
But even without his moving lens, Bauer used lighting, mis-en-scene and well-choreographed performers to create a real sense of depth and movement. In Vera’s bedroom she is almost detached from the World bathed in blue-tinted light behind a gauze drape, she gets up and moves through the flimsy barrier to open her curtains and be illuminated by the daylight streaming through.

Vera’s mother takes her to give aid to the poor who seem pre-occupied by drinking and gambling… society no doubt to blame but… In the shadowy loft they encounter Maksim Petrov (V. Demert) who pretends to have injured his arm, Vera’s applies a bandage and Maksim correctly spies a sucker.

Vera in the slums
He leaves her a letter – breaking into her room in the dark and tells her he is in need of help. We see Vera making her way through the slums as Maksim looks down from his loft. There’s great shot from on top the building tracking Vera’s hesitant progress she looks afraid and very vulnerable…

In Maksim’s flat the tale takes its pivotal turn as Vera is raped and ends up killing her assailant as he falls into a drunken stupor… Bauer doesn’t show specifics but enough to make the audience aware what outrage has taken place.

V. Demert and Nina Chernova
Vera returns home knowing that nothing will ever be the same again… she stands distraught in the former comfort of her room.

But, over time, she returns to society and meets the handsome Prince Dolskij (A. Ugrjumov). The two start a romance but Vera starts having visions of the man she murdered and falls ill. Recovering she prepares herself to tell her love the truth…

But the Prince, seemingly prepared to forgive her anything, is unable to process the full extent of her news… particularly the fact that she has “known” another, no matter the circumstances – in the context of the time an obviously difficult situation as the film acknowledges.

The Prince casts Vera out of his life and by the time he relents and realises the mistake he’s made, it is too late and she has gone. He spends a fortune on trying to find her but the private detectives comes can find nothing.

A. Ugrjumov and Nina Chernova
Spoilers ahead: The years pass and Vera has changed identity becoming a famous actress. There are some stunning shots of her curtain call – a confusion of pink light – and her dressing room, again bathed in pink.
By chance an almost exhausted Prince has been persuaded to attend the theatre and he looks on in astonishment recognising his lost love.

Will they be reconciled? And is it the twilight for more than one person’s soul?

A fascinating historical document, Twilight of a Woman's Soul shows how many of Bauer's techniques were already in place as well as how far he would travel by his later films – After Death (1915) and A Life for a Life (1916) are covered elsewhere on the blog.

Nina Chernova acts well as the tortured star and never drifts overboard... understated and naturalistic.

What a remarkable culture Russia had at this time, so sophisticated and European – the nobility often spent more time in France than Moscow – and yet so near to societal collapse. The seeds of revolutionary wildfire were laid long before this period though and the fateful catalyst was mere months away when this film was released.

I watched the BFI DVD which contains The Dying Swan along with After Death and a nifty video essay by Bauer expert Yuri Tsivian. It's available direct from the BFI site.

Monday, 11 February 2013

Dreyer's Devil… Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (1920)

Helge Nissen
“Satanas who must tempt mankind, in obedience to the Divine doom.”

Carl Theodor Dreyer once dismissed this early work as "a dreadful collection of oil prints", but there’s enough here to show his cinematographic flair and sheer ambition.

Leaves Out of the Book of Satan (1920) (Blade af Satans bog) is a portmanteau film made up of four tales, each of which shows the impact of Satan’s evil on Man’s choices. Satan is painted as the fallen angel who desperately wants to return to Heaven yet his God is unforgiving and sets him the task of testing mankind… for every failure Satan gains an extra 100 years’ torment but every success will knock a millennia from his sentence… it’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

One of the "dreadful collection of oil prints..."
Influenced by DW Griffith’s sprawling Intolerance, the Dane set out to make a similarly multi-stranded morality play but with a more linear structure than the former’s inter-linked, time-shifting narrative. I don’t know enough about Dreyer’s spirituality to gauge his motives in making this epic fable but it is a theologically interesting film and political too with the last two sections reflecting the post-war concern with the right to rule.

Helge Nissen
Helge Nissen plays Satan/Satanas in all four stories and is excellent throughout: a mixture of regret and rigour informing his endless evil doing… no one gets let off the hook easily and all are tested to the ultimate degree.

1st section: Christ's betrayal

This section shows the days leading up to Jesus’ arrest, and contains many faithful quotations from the scriptures, Dreyer revealing his trademark fondness of original source material.

All the best tunes?
There’s an interesting and subtle take on Judas (Jacob Texière): not an evil schemer as such but a man of principle, who wants the cause to succeed… His doubts lead him to betray Jesus (Halvard Hoff) or is it pride? Either way he is helped on his way by Satanas who poses as a pharisee.

This section features some lavish tableaux and looks like an 18th Century religious painting with the scenes around the Last Supper and the Garden of Gethsemane are acted out to the letter of the scriptures.

Halvard Hoff
The main divergence from classicism is a modernistic portrayal of Judas’ horrendous guilt… how much simpler to cast his as a man of pure selfishness and evil: here he looks to throw his thirty pieces of silver away…

2nd section:17th Century Spain

Dreyer focuses on the well-to-do family of Don Gomez de Castro (Hallander Helleman) a man of learning who is takes a scientific interest in new discoveries including those concerning the movement of the planets and their influence on our earthly lives.

Hallander Helleman (left) Ebon Strandin (right)
His daughter Isabel (Ebon Strandin) is taught by Don Fernandez (Johannes Meyer) a priest, who has developed a most un-holy obsession with the girl.

Don Fernandez is strong enough to remove himself from temptation but falls under the thrall of The Spanish Inquisition’s Head Inquisitor (Satanas) who makes him responsible for the de Castro’s when they are bought in for questioning. The father is tortured but Satanas encourages the priest to do far worse to Isabel…

Johannes Meyer and Ebon Strandin
Dreyer covers the sexual undertones uncomfortably well – self flagellation followed by gratification but Satanas ensures there are consequences… How sordid the mix of spirituality and sensuality.

3rd section: The last days of Marie Antoinette

The longest section, deals with the French Revolution, the temptation to take advantage of the chaos and the nobility of the ancien regime… Dreyer paints Marie Antoinette (Tenna Frederiksen Kraft) as a tragic figure and given the revolutionary chaos on Denmark’s doorstep at this time, perhaps sympathy with crowned heads is not too hard to understand.

Tenna Frederiksen Kraft
Against this back-drop a smaller story plays out featuring the family of the Count de Chambord (Viggo Wiehe). He charges his loyal servant Joseph (Elith Pio) with protecting The Countess (Emma Wiehe) and their daughter Genevive (Jeanne Tramcourt).

Another of the Count’s former servants (Satanas again) leads him into joining the revolutionary movement and Joseph must chose between his love for La Republic and for Genevive…Yet, as he proposes, Dreyer cuts to a group of children playing at guillotining a cat… and even as Genevive declines we can sense that she is sealing her fate, even though the cat leaps free…

The haves and the have-nots...
Marie Antoinette’s situation nears the end and Dreyer quotes from her tear-stained final letter… Joseph appears to be her way out but his quick temper and her regal poise damn them both. This segment is the busiest and you wonder why the royal story had to run alongside the noble one?

It does however, look superb and, in particular, there are stunning close-ups of Satanas, Genevive and Joseph at the inquisitor’s trial … as the latter is finally forced to betray his aristo friends…

Elith Pio
4th section: Finish Civil War 1918

The final sequence is based in the Finish Civil War and here the film finally finds a hero.

Clara Pontoppidan
Satanas plays Ivan, a Rasputin type character leading the socialist Reds in the battle against the conservative Whites… This is an odd conflation of recent Russian history – Rasputin may have inadvertently helped discredit the Tsarist regime but he was no Bolshevik.

Ivan’s motley band of revolutionaries captures a White communication post run by Paavo (Carlo Wieth) and his wife Siri (Clara Pontoppidan). They try to force the couple to send misleading messages to entrap the White forces but they refuse.

The scenes with Siri and Paavo are very moving and Dreyer lingers for a very long time on Pontoppidan’s gentle, naturalistic acting – she’s great and, along with Nissen is the stand-out performer in the film.

Paavo looks on as Siri stays strong
Siri refuses to bend as Ivan orders her husband to be shot and then threatens to do the same to her children… her loyalty to God and country comes first.

Satanas looks heavenward, he’s finally found some relief in his eternal quest to find the good in Man… but he must continue to fight the bad fight...

Satanas and his book
Like many a “double album”, Leaves Out of the Book of Satan occasionally creaks in terms of continuity and concept: there are more than enough good ideas to make a single superb feature film but maybe not one with four “sides”.

Throughout Dreyer frames his shots beautifully. like the oil paintings he invokes and he moves his cameras around to good effect – on dollys smoothing around corners or following characters down stairs. Light and shadow are used to focus the narrative – as when Joseph proposes in the third sequence. Dreyer blocks the light and closes it round each character as they interact… and it is the same with Judas and Jesus in first sequence.

There are, as you’d expect… extensive close ups and there are also plenty of ordinary faces… the “ordinary” was important to Dreyer as, in spite of the high concepts, he wanted his history kept real.

Ordinary men...
As for the moral force of the production… it seems that Old Nick is not the one performing the evil deeds, he is simply the catalyst for choices made and not the instigator of human desire, a challenge to restraint that so many fail. For this subtle positioning of evil, Dreyer deserves credit for not preaching and for issuing this slow, drawn out challenge to his viewers…

“Anew is heard the voice from above: Continue thy evil doings!” Satanas is damned to test mankind’s will for eternity – only by resistance to his influence will he be saved.

No rest...
I watched the Danish Film Institute’s superb restoration which looks astonishingly clear and has a sympathetic new score from Ronen Thalmay who must have had very tired hands by the finish. It also comes with a short biography of the director and an alternative ending to the Siri sequence.

It’s available direct from DFI whilst I got mine from the BFI Shop.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Really free… Mantrap (1926

"Well well - a big boy from Away Back!"
There are no rules for this blog but if there were, they wouldn’t prevent me from writing twice about films of particular note.

Mantrap I covered in the “early days” (2011) and didn’t really go into much detail – I had seen a VHS copy and it wasn’t great... no more than a bootleg view of a great concert.  But now the film has been cleaned up and released as part of the Treasures from the American Film Archives: Volume 5: The West (1898-1938) box set, it’s worth another, clearer, look: you can certainly see more.

Clara Bow
Directed by Victor Fleming, Mantrap is a vehicle designed to allow Clara Bow to dazzle as she flirts with all around her… but far from showing a woman exploited, Mantrap actually shows a woman in control.

Watching with my blue stocking mother–in-law (she takes pride in that term!) confirms this and we got to considering how much 20s film helped in liberating women or at least changing perceptions. After all, even the 60s looked back to icons of the earlier decade, Greta, Louise and, of course, Clara. It wasn’t just their looks or their style it was their intelligence and self-determination.

Ernest Torrence
Clara snags herself a husband from the middle of nowhere but this is what she wants – it’s not an escape but a choice. Joe Easton played by Ernest Torrence (the bad prison cap’n from Captain Salvation) isn’t everyone’s idea of a leading man but he’s steadfast and smart and will just about do for Alverna. The intervention of disaffected city lawyer, Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont) provides only a temporary destabilisation.

Percy Marmont
For a while he takes Alverna’s fancy but he’s not strong enough to see through her “rescue” and she’s already bored with him when hubby arrives to sort things out. Initially the two men are bargaining amongst themselves but after Alverna threatens to take off in Joe’s boat they quickly realise that the situation is not theirs to dictate.

Throughout Clara Bow is genuine and energetic: she is thoroughly naturalistic and effortlessly powers through this film with ease. Mantrap was one of her favourite films and you can see why. She has the central role, in spite of all the male introspection, and emerges with her free will intact at the end.

It’s a very entertaining film with first rate support from the wildly expressive Torrence and  the uptight sophisticate Percy Marmont (who I’d last seen getting bumped off by Peter Lorre in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent).

The film starts with Marmont’s character driven to the point of ennui by an endless succession of lucrative divorce cases and their endlessly needy divorcees. He’s had enough and needs to escape from woman kind.

Getting away from it all...
His friend, (Eugene Pallette, on the right), suggests a fishing trip to the wilds to clear the air and cement their friendship. Cut to the two men looking miserable sat drenched outside their tent as the rain falls hard on their parade.

Meanwhile, back-woodsman, Joe, has headed up to the big city where he is in a whirl of disorientated surprise. His eyes fall on a shapely ankle and the camera follows his gaze up to the owner… it’s Clara of course.

Clara Bow and Ernest Torrence
He follows the legs into a barber shop and orders everything on the menu just so long as Alverna is the one serving it up. The moment when Clara enters the salon and strolls majestically towards camera, drawing the eyes of all around her is the mark of a player at the height of her powers. So casually commanding and always with a twinkle in her eye that says, you’re in on this and we’re going to have some fun.

Alverna accepts Joe’s invitation to dinner and the two end up marrying and returning to Joe’s home. This is where they encounter Ralph who has been rescued by Joe from his miserable fishing trip. Ralph immediately recognises that he’s in trouble…

Clara Bow - City Girl or Lady of the Wildwoods?
You’d be surprised if either Ralph or Joe could win Clara’s heart under normal circumstances, but then this was part of the Bow phenomena – if these guys stood a chance with Clara then maybe you could too? Reciprocation might might – just might – be a possibility. All you needed was the chance and to be yourself… How many stars had this affect on their audiences?

You can measure Clara Bow against all the other stars but she was uniquely grounded in the reality of the everyday. In fact, she’d probably had it much tougher than you, so dust yourself down, pick yourself up and keep on… Energising and empowering what more can you expect from a true star?

Mantrap is available as part of the Treasures from the American Film Archives: Volume 5: The West (1898-1938) which also includes Al Jenning's Lady of the Dug-out as covered here.