Sunday, 24 November 2013

Coney Island baby… Lonesome (1928)

“Gee it’s funny how lonesome a fella can be, especially with a million people around him…”

This magical tale straddles the divide between silent and sound and, for me, makes good use of the limitations of the latter without compromising the stunning visual fluidity on show.

Director Paul Fejös had a febrile imagination to accompany his ability to absorb and command technique. Lonesome is brimming with invention as he shows ordinary lives in extraordinary ways… clever motifs, over-layed in montage as he establishes character and situation with barely an inter-title.

His first Hollywood film, The Last Moment (1928), had been about the final seconds of a dying man and here he picks a few pivotal hours in the weekend of a young couple, both of whom are lonely in the big city.

Barbara Kent plays switchboard gal Mary, whilst Glenn Tryon is Jim a factory worker. Both live in small, single room apartments and head off for work each day with no one to say farewell or welcome home. Yet the streets, subways and workplaces are teeming with people and all their friends have romantic partners… it just hasn’t happened for them.

Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon
The camera follows them around their cramped apartments as they start their working day pulling us into their solitude. They travel to work on crowded subways and the camera switches from one to the other as a double-exposed clock-face ticks down the seconds of their working hours.

The weekend arrives – halfway through Saturday – and the two are persuaded to travel to the beach by the sound of 4th of July bandwagons. They board the same double-decker bus and Jim's eye is caught by the radiance of Mary's smile...

The tone is pushed just beyond normality and whilst the street scenes are recognisably real the beach is more crowded, more frenetic and more submerged in confetti than you’d expect: it’s expressionistic and the influence of Murnau is plain with "European trick shots" aplenty. Fejös later became a documentary film maker and anthropologist of note and here his eye for human behaviour is acute as he shows the crowds milling around enjoying their Coney Island daydreams.

There is a confusion about all the best seaside adventures as anyone who’s walked the Golden Mile on a sunny day will know and Fejös is following his characters’ hearts through an impossible landscape of compacted humanity: their connection hangs by a thread.

Jim pursues Mary through this throng and she responds;allowing him to chase her, teasingly throwing him off the scent as he tries to impress her with his strength. Jim gets told that he will meet his heart’s desire by a fairground machine and the relationship seems to be sure thing.

On the beach... in grainy silence
They go swimming and she loses her ring beginning another surely hopeless search and yet they find it: everything is against the odds and incredible. For a second Jim is confused thinking the wedding ring means Mary is already married but it turns out to be her grandmother’s: could be his day after all.

They get their photographs taken, Mary unguarded, joyful, beauty "passing the test" and Jim insecure, awkward, masculinity... then get closer as they sample the rides and amusement of the Playground of the World.

...and in spotless sound.
There are a three talking sections which Universal insisted on post-production. I think Fejös makes the most of these by using the first two, between Mary and Jim, as fantasy inserts, the actors rigidly posed in sand and studio, explaining each other in awkward formalities forced by the recording situation but also not unlike our first tentative conversations with girlfriends and boyfriends.

Similarly the colourised sections of the film, when Coney Island really lights up, are expressionist inserts showing the colour of love and the hope for happiness...

But, just as we think this story is heading only one way, there’s a fire on the roller-coaster after which the couple get separated. Mary feints and as Jim tries to get to her, he bumps over an officer of the law and is carted off to the fairground police station...

A third talkie tableau sees Jim arguing his innocence with the cruel coppers who almost lock him up for "picking up girls" but who finally let him free...but can he find Mary?

Now the film throws us into despair as Jim and Mary desperately search the amusement park for each other. They’re pushed and jostled, rebuffed by the fairground manager and blasted by wind and rain in the most pathetic of pathetic fallacies… and it works, as you shift anxiously hoping they’ll find each other…

Will the couple find themselves again or are they doomed to return empty handed to their lonely lives amongst the millions? You really need to see for yourself...

Lonesome deserves its reputation as a classic of sweet expressionism and shows that Fejös had a visual style all of his own aided ably by the superbly mobile camera work of Gilbert Warrenton.

Barbara Kent’s unrestrained smile illuminates the screen and enables her to project an honest vulnerability whilst Glenn Tryon is the more deliberately comic – an ordinary Joe (or Jim in this case…) who doesn’t want to blow his big shot at happiness.

I watched the Criterion version which comes with a nifty booklet containing essays about the film and Director. There’s also a fascinating visual essay featuring Fejös reading from his autobiography in the early 60’s: from a medical studies in Hungary to films in Hollywood, Denmark, Madagascar and some of the most remote populations on Earth… he had an amazing career.

There is also a second disc which contains two more Fejös’s films, his 1929 silent, The Last Performance with Conrad Veidt and, most intriguingly, a restored Broadway, his 1929 musical featuring Mr Tryon again alongside the greatly under-rated Evelyn Brent. More on both later…

You’ve all probably got the set already but if not, ‘tis available from Criterion direct and all decent ecommerce practitioners.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Charlie, Mabel and Marie… Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

…a century later, two children walk into the sitting room, glance at the TV and cry “Charlie!” Now they may live in an unusually “silent” household, but everybody still knows Chaplin and more people should know his co-stars: Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a film you have to watch at least three times in order to fully appreciate the extraordinary invention of the three leads. At times the three are riffing so quickly it’s genuinely difficult to know where to look… Charlie a non-stop falling-down machine, Mabel rolling those eyes and Marie bumping into everything whilst gazing out of screen to make sure you’re in on the joke.

This was the World’s first feature-length comedy, director Mack Sennett figuring that if his pal DW Griffith could make long-form drama he could do the same for laughs translating his winning short-form formulas to six reels. Structurally it doesn’t quite come off – there’s not enough “story” – but, it’s wonderful all the same: held aloft by Sennett’s surrealism and the dynamism of the players.

Marie Dressler is the nominal star, having featured in the stage play on which the film is based Tillie's Nightmare by A. Baldwin Sloane (music) and Edgar Smith (words), but this is really a triple-hander with the youngsters.

Marie Dressler
Dressler is a superb actress and I especially remember her droll performance in Dinner at Eight but I was surprised at her physicality: she has an almost Arbuckle-esque lightness which is all the more impressive for a 46 year old. She falls over taking rows of people with her, dances up a storm with Charlie and generally bops the tiny cockney all over the show.

She is also exceptionally expressive and uses this to great effect by constantly staring to camera, establishing eye-contact with the audience and signalling every intent with a wink, a grimace of malevolent gurn. It’s only at her opening and closing curtain calls that you realise how much she’s been acting; her self-effacing natural smile not being used a single time in the story.

Then there’s Mabs Normand… I really have some catching up to do with this woman who did so much to define the art of comic acting. With no theatrical background, she was one of the first actors to only know film and she appears completely at home within the frame pulling wild faces that are both realistic and controlled. As with Dressler she looks to the audience yet uses a “higher line”; caught more in her own thoughts, somehow vulnerable amidst the chaos she thrives on. She kept on reminding me of Stan Laurel but really it’s the other way round…

Normand’s comic naturalism is combined with her robustness and she falls down almost as readily as Chaplin – the two having an affinity nurtured during their Keystone shorts (they made a dozen): a great mix of improvisational styles… like Charlie Parker blowing with Ronnie Scott or Hendrix with McLaughlin… yet funnier.

The Stranger...
As for Charlie, he’s playing the baddie here having reverted from his tramp back to a more rakish persona but, whilst the moustache is different his moves are the same – he’s perpetual motion, falling, dusting himself down, hitting, kicking and never coming to rest.

Unlike the girls, Chaplin hardly glances at the camera, content to go about his business secure in the knowledge that he’s only a pratfall away from catching our eyes. He’s also surprisingly violent, engaging in a brawl with a fellow party guest which involves him repeatedly kicking the other man: I wonder if he ever used those moves down the Walworth Road?

The story, such as it is, revolves around Charlie’s attempts to separate Tillie from her fortune. Tillie is first seen in a small country shack with her father (Mack Swain), a stranger (Chaplin) arrives and attempts to woo her in order to steal what little money the family has.

Tillie runs away with the rogue and to the big city where-upon they encounter difficulty crossing the road… The pair are spotted by Charlie’s ex, Mabel, whose reactions on seeing the size of the competition are precious. The three proceed to a café where Tillie, quickly drunk on seemingly very little, loses her bearings and her cash. As the young couple head off to enjoy their windfall, Tillie is hauled off to a Keystone cell.

As luck – and plot demands – would have it, Tillie has a very rich uncle (Charles Bennett) who gets her released even though he wants nothing more to do with her and who can blame him in that dress and wearing that hat.

Tillie finds work in the café and I love the way this involves her picking up the gum-chewing attitudes of the waitresses…

Meanwhile Charlie and Mabel go the movies watching a Keystone comedy that mirrors their own crimes. The two wriggle with shame sat next to a stern looking sheriff (Charley Chase) in one of the film’s best sequences (not the first or last time Sennett used a film within a film).

Art mirrors life
Then the stakes are raised considerably as Uncle Banks takes a dive off Mount Baldy and things go into overdrive…You may not be surprised that in the end, there’s a chase and there are some cops.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is effectively a series of short comedies strung together as the six separate “acts” confirm yet this doesn’t invalidate Sennett’s ambition nor the performance quality on show.

I watched the BFI’s stunning 2003 restoration which just highlights the impact such work can have on your appreciation of film form this era: it’s great to see the clear image and to watch those marvellous faces at work. Previously I’ve only seen Tillie through a glass darkly but here she’s almost brand new and spiced up with a spanking new score.

There's Tillie and much more Mabel on the four DVD set, Chaplin at Keystone which is available direct from the BFI or from decent online retailers like MoveMail.

Spot the Mabel competition!

Friday, 15 November 2013

Fierce creatures… Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

“Don’t let the bastards grind you down. What I want is a good time. All the rest is propaganda.”

From reading Allan Sillitoe’s book on my pre-English O Level reading list onwards, I have always regarded Arthur Seaton to be the angriest of the angry young men. Here, after all, is a not unintelligent individual, a superior technician in the factory in which he works and who has the good sense to ultimately form balanced opinions and yet… if not out of control, he’s certainly full of the agitated need to fully express himself as and when he wants.

He just wants more, better than his parents got and their generation who fought in the Second World War and better than his workmates as they relax into compromise and the easy routines from which they never escape.

But can Arthur break the chain and escape his own future or is he doomed to make the same mistakes as everyone else?

Collective bargaining?
Produced by Tony Richardson and directed by Karel Reisz, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning formed one of British cinema’s most convincing adaptations of an Angry Young Novel, even if the Nottingham accents affected by the stars was a little askew… filtered through the native tones of Finney’s Salford,  Field’s Bolton, Robert’s Llanelli, Baker’s Manchester and Rossington’s Liverpool. Still at least it weren’t Received Pronunciation, by ‘eck! and, at least they were genuine regional accents from genuinely working class people.

Albert Finney – just 24 at the time, makes an excellent Arthur, coiled like a tightly wrung towel wrapped round his auntie’s mangle and always ready to give better than he gets. He doesn’t want to be told anything by anybody and actively courts enmity as a substitute for predictability.

Saturday night...
He still lives at home with his mam and dad (a TV zombie even with black and white and only two channels…) to whom he dutifully pays his weekly food and lodgings before going out and blowing the remains of his weekly wage on beer, girls and clothes.

Arthur’s one of the better paid workers at his engineering factory: he could work faster but that would only get them to increase his targets. He lives for the weekends and those slices of happiness in between one of which is Brenda (Rachel Roberts) the wife of one of his co-workers, the compliant and easy going Jack (Bryan Pringle).

We see Arthur and Brenda in the pub of a Friday night, the former engaged in a drinking competition with one of the locals: Arthur wins, but only long enough to collapse down stairs... Binge culture? It was invented a long time ago.

Arthur share some more reflective moments with his cousin Bert (Norman Rossington) as the two continue their childhood fascination with fishing but it’s only “half-time” in Arthur’s mission to wind-up almost everyone around him from co-workers to local busy-bodies.

Arthur's enemies...
At times he seems amoral such as when he tries to help a drunk who has smashed the windows of a funeral parlour, make his escape as the locals hold him waiting for the police. It seems an act worthy of some legal retribution but Arthur’s firmly on the side of the minority and of confounding expectations : “whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not…” now, where have I heard that line recently?

But life’s about to get a whole lot more interesting all round…Arthur spots a beautiful lass called Doreen (Shirley Anne Field) and starts to court her, in spite of her mother’s resistance. She’s the real deal and as quick with a quip as Arthur is, she knows her own mind and isn’t intimidated by him.

But then Brenda reveals that she’s pregnant and there’s no way it’s Jack. Now we see the strength of Arthur’s mettle, he wants to do the right thing but this situation is too complicated for him. He enlists the aim of his favourite Auntie Ada – the force of nature that is Hylda Baker – but her “remedy” fails to work.

Things proceed with Doreen as Hylda gets desperate and then resolves to having the child, whatever the storm it’ll cause. Jack’s squaddie brother is in town with his mate, and the two of them exact bloody retribution on the wayward engineer: the rough justice he knows he’s had coming.

But life carries on… Arthur heals and is visited by a sympathetic Doreen to whom, surprisingly, he reveals the truth or most of it… for most of the film he’s been lying to most of the other characters and now he’s finding respect for Doreen.

He remains restless, worrying Bert as they fish, “I’ve never heard you like this…” but, whilst he can concede that Jack is soft but not that bad, he seems to have a more balanced view. He also knows his feelings for Doreen are more significant than anything he’s had to contend with.

The film finishes with the two discussing the future overlooking some smart new developments… it seems that marriage and lower middle class comforts await Mr Seaton, but he swears he hasn’t lost his spirit and we believe him… up to a point.

The power of this story and of this film is poorly served by my synopsis, Finney is a force of nature and his character is just as unsettling now as he was then: at least he wasn’t just purely selfish he knew what he was fighting for and against. His character is unpredictable, loutish and dishonest but through it all he has his own code of honour even if he reaches his limits with Brenda.

Rachel Roberts is every bit as good - her Brenda is besotted with Arthur but enough of a realist to know she can never have him. She played safe with Jack and he’ll not let her down.

Shirley Anne Field is sort of like a British Heddy Lamarr: sometimes it’s difficult to see her acting beyond her beauty. But the lass is from Bolton: she’s not as posh or as soft as she looks and she can act (consistently well and with range Heddy dear...). This was her breakthrough film even though she and Albert already had The Entertainer under their belts: “that was our screen test” she said in her interview before the recent BFI retrospective.

All contributed to make a landmark of British film that many feel stands the test of time better than some from this period. That it remains so powerfully resonant is down in no small part to this marvellous cast and their genuine touch of class.

I watched the BFI restoration which is available direct in a DVD/BluRay pack.  53 years old and still packing a punch: just be sure you don’t run into an Arthur Seaton next time you go down the pub.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Everybody wants to be a cat… The Wildcat (1921)

This is a film which inverts sexual stereotypes, emasculates the military and turns its heroes into mere fop stars.

The Wildcat (Die Bergkatze) is one of the most unusual silent films I’ve watched and is infused with Ernst Lubitsch’s off-beat humour and set alight by Pola Negri’s energetically-free expression. Pola doesn’t just fill the role of the titular wildcat she tears up every scene given full licence by her director to be herself, to be a cat… to just go wild.

Taking expressionist design to its chocolate box extreme, Lubitsch gives us a snow-bound Sumurun without so much dancing and drama and with all holds on reality barred. This is a dreamlike fantasy that even tops itself with a dream sequence that shows just how much further things could have gone. A “grotesque…” as the director said… in four parts.

Even now it’s still surprising and Pola Negri is still an event.

Victor Janson
The tale begins as a strange castle awakes. This is Fort Tossenstein and there are unusual lines all around and gun turrets massed in odd clusters halfway up walls – it’s like the castle in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the fort’s commander (Victor Janson) looks like the king in that film, with his exaggerated Teutonic ‘tache and pumped-up pomposity.

He rallies the half-hearted guards who promptly flop back into bed, and goes to see his equally bizarre family. His daughter Lilli (Edith Meller) sits bored in her bedroom, seemingly about to kill herself, but the gun she puts into her mouth is only made of candy – what a strange joke…

Edith Meller
His bejewelled wife (Marge Köhler) passes him a note that reveals the impending arrival of Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) – at last a suitor for their daughter.

Alexis turns out to be not just the most eligible man in the kingdom but one who holds much of its female population in thrall. In scenes of prescient mania, his farewell parade is attended by thousands of screaming girls, who swarm around hoping for just a glimpse… along with what seems to be dozens of his own children.

Alexis and his fans
But… Alexis is no Harry Styles, he’s not even a Justin Bieber…maybe that’s the point. Soldiers with no devotion and stars with no presence: everything is exactly how it shouldn’t be.

Next we’re taken to a mountain top where a group of desperate renegades drink ground coffee and can’t seem to work out what’s worth stealing. The bandit's captain, Claudius (Wilhelm Diegelmann) tries to discipline his men but they aren’t afraid of him – just as the soldiers don’t fear their leader. But, when he calls for his daughter they soon show concern.

Rischka (Pola) emerges from a nap and prowls outside quickly picking up her riding crop to swipe any of the men who dare to challenge her. Kinkily, two of the men seem to rather enjoy her spanking and one even goes back for more. This wouldn’t be out of place in a twisted seventies stage farce but it’s rather more overtly perverse than you would expect.

Rischka is the real leader of this motley crew and soon she spies a lone sleigh making its way across the ice. It turns out to be Alexis en route to the castle and, whilst Rischka has the same extreme attraction as every other woman on encountering this unlikely heartthrob, that doesn’t stop her from robbing him of all his clothes.

He is forced to walk to the castle in his long johns whilst Rischka’s nurses a crush, making a make-shift shrine of his trousers with his publicity photo neatly placed below the crotch…

The castle sends out soldiers to teach the robbers a lesson and, accompanied by their own brass band, they singularly fail to land any blows as they are fended off by snowball and gypsy pratfalls.

Guns and drums at the ready...

One soldier pleads with Rischka not to be so rough and she spreads her arms wide, shrugs and replies: “war is war”… But snowballs are less harmful than guns. The rogues start to fall almost in slow motion, echoes of Sam Peckinpah, save for the fact that some even have the time to shake hands… Of course they haven’t been shot and are merely faking death to surprise the idiot soldiers.

Rischka easily out-thinks the troop and ends up letting Alexis fall down a ravine, yet, as in any cartoon he’s unharmed.

The "victory" ball...
The men return and the commander lays on a massive party to celebrate their “victory”… queue fireworks!! Yet, whilst they dance in strange rooms, the inhabitants of the castle are unaware that Rischka’s band are breaking in and set on stealing every, pillow, bed stead and hat, that they can find. They don’t seem that materialistic…

The leaders are weak and the women are strong: there’s a kind of gender reversal when Rischka kisses Alexis – he can’t match her intensity and again when he prepares himself for her, slipping into something more comfortable. The men seem emasculated and to enjoy their punishments… so soon after the very masculine failure of World War One?

Rischka still longs for the feckless Alexis and has intense dreams in which they dance through distorted castle halls, backed by a snowmen orchestra and he gives her his heart in biscuit form, she devours it just as surely as she would him..

Inserts snowman pun here...
Claudius decides she is in need of a husband and sets about finding a willing volunteer from his ragged band, but will his wildcat find peace with her own people or will she surrender her instincts to the shallow depths of Alexis' sheen?

Throughout Rischa is true to herself and ultimately she has a greater sense of duty and honour than the entire rank and file of the castle guard. That still doesn’t stop her redistributing the odd bit of wealth but, in the end, all’s fair…

Sandwiched between Anne Boleyn and The Loves of Pharaoh, this is Lubitsch in comedy overdrive and the clowning seems almost out of time until you think of the context and the growth of Dada and early Surrealism. Some compare the style to later British humour (M.P.... bingo!) but there’s more in common with Bunuel and Dali whilst you could easily see Groucho and his brothers stuck in this mess a decade down the line.

The art direction from Max Gronert and Ernst Stern is superb whilst the cinematography from Theodor Sparkuhl is all the more accomplished when you consider the location shoots. Lubitsch uses a range of cut-outs to frame certain shots from straight lines to crazy curves… all adding to the cartoon feel of the capers on view.

The pace of the comedy never lets up from start to finish and the cock-eyed world the crew create never wavers. Lubitsch deserves great credit for this cohesion as things could so easily just get *silly* but they don’t go too far, they stay the comedy course. We believe and we want the best for the characters that the film’s logic will allow.

But none of this would work without the lioness at the heart of proceedings. Pola Negri has a swaggering intensity throughout and you just can’t steer your gaze away from those huge, darting, dark eyes…

I watched the Kino edition (available direct or here) which features an appropriately lively score by Marco Dalphane which is chock full of interesting themes and musical cross-references as it keeps up with the film’s kinetic pace. Like the film it keeps running and jumping never once coming to land on dull reality.