Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Kevin Brownlow and Clarence Brown… The Eagle (1925)

Rudy can't fail...
The theory of “six degrees of separation” has morphed into “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”… but how about “two degrees through Kevin Brownlow”?

Mr Brownlow met so many silent actors and directors and through him we have a direct connection to Mary Pickford, Eleanor Boardman, Edward Sloman, Louise Brooks (Louise Brooks!) and... many others. He’s a living link to the silent masters and his role in preserving and regenerating interest in their work is not to be under-estimated.

Watching him introduce Clarence Brown’s 1925 romp,The Eagle, at East Finchley’s Pheonix Cinema, you sense that he would shy away from such praise: he remains incredibly enthusiastic and is far more interested in his subjects than himself.

Vilma Bánky and Rudolph Valentino
Clarence Brown is clearly a director Brownlow thinks has been over-looked and in need of a re-appraisal and he was given due credit in what was rather more than an introduction to this film. The highlight was Mr Brownlow’s personal recollections of meeting Mr Brown and of discussing his work on camera in 1969…even though CB claimed he didn’t think the film was rolling. It’s a fascinating document and Brown is one smart cookie.

Brownlow also took us through lengthy sections of some of Brown’s other films:

- The Goose Woman (1925) – Louise Dresser heart-breaking as the opera singer who has thrown it all away for a broken family (shamefully a film that’s still on my list!)

- The Signal Tower (1924) – an action movie which left us hanging on a cliff-hanger as two trains ran towards collision and Wallace Beery menaced Virginia Valli

- Smouldering Fires (1925) - Pauline Frederick as the ahead-of-her-time, macho factory owner who we suspect may need to learn about love and work-life balance

- Flesh and the Devil (1926) Greta Garbo smouldering with John Gilbert in the first of their many romances.

Garbo is the actress most associated with Brown who directed her in seven films including a number of talkies, he’s a much under-appreciated part of her success. But we were here to see another silent star and one I had never watched before, Mr Rudolph Valentino (I know… what can I say...).

Rudolph Valentino
No other silent actor can come with quite so much baggage as the Latin lover, the man who broke so many hearts that people seemingly took their own lives rather than face up to life without him… Surely he had to take himself that seriously too?

But no, what we find is a very handsome man who can act and who has a deliciously inclusive sense of humour to prick the bubble of heroic pomposity: think Antonio Banderas in an Aldomorvar film: a little camp but in a masculine way only real men can carry off!

Valentino is Lt. Vladimir Dubrovsky one of the bravest officers in the imperial elite serving the Czarina, Catherine (Louise Dresser). Spotting a runaway carriage he leaps onto his horse and sets off in pursuit, jumping on and pulling the horses to a halt.

Insert inappropriate comment here...
The party he rescues includes a beautiful young noblewoman, Miss Mascha Troekouroff (played by the delectable Vilma Bánky)… pleasantries are exchanged but he has an appointment with a more significant suitor, his Czarina.

Dresser doesn’t get much screen time but she’s, er... great as Catherine who struggles to negotiate the conflicts between her royal duties and her heart. She asks the young officer if he wants to be a general and almost swoons as he salutes her. But Dubrovsky has other duties to attend to in the form of his ill father whose estate and fortune are under threat.

Albert Conti and Louise Dresser
He runs away from his mistress’ proposal and she promptly puts a price on his head for desertion. Luckily for Catherine there is another officer – Dubrovsky’s pal Captain Kuschka (Albert Conti) who does want to be a general… and rather more besides.

Sadly Dubrovsky is not able to make it home to stop his father losing all as he dies leaving his land to be grabbed by the villainous Kyrilla Troekouroff (James A. Marcus, as cowardly as he is gluttonous).

Dubrovsky won’t take this lying down and turns himself into a Robin Hood figure – The Black Eagle – who leads his father’s remaining loyal staff into an escalating set of counter-measures aimed at over-throwing the usurper.

The Black Eagle and his merry men
Encountering a man who has been employed to teach French (incidentally, the language of the Tsarist court even up to the pre-revolutionary period…) to Kyrilla’s daughter, Dubrovsky takes his place as a means of breaking in and causing chaos.

Yet, when he arrives he sees that his student is to be the beautiful girl he rescued…

Valentino, James A. Marcus and Vilma Bánky
Thus things go as rom-coms go with love/hate heading only the one way for Dubrovsky and Mascha… Bánky and Valentino have tremendous rapport and she allows him to show his heroic humour.

Gradually Kyrilla is revealed as more buffoon than despot as the threats of imminent retribution from the Black Eagle un-nerve him more and more: you do wonder how he ever managed to take control of the Dubrovsky estate.

Dinner is served
Brown directs with a sure touch (not for nothing was he “blind-tasted” as Lubitsch by one Hollywood insider) and some innovative shots including an amazing dolly shot along the full length of Kyrilla’s banquet table. It’s a very well-made film and the print on view is in superb condition – watching it is indeed, as Mr Brownlow said, seeing silent film as it really was.

Accompaniment throughout was provided by Stephen Horne who really showed his versatility in the introductory mix – I especially liked the The Signal Tower’s dramatic train collision.  For the main feature his lyrical lines added flavour to the love story whilst he used a mix of flute, electronic keyboard and accordion to enrich the adventure.

Hearing silent film as it really was…

There’s a cheap DVD release for The Eagle but I would urge you to catch it if it is shown again and hopefully Kevin Brownlow will introduce it further. Time for a Clarence Brown season at the BFI perhaps?

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