Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Billy & Joan, tailor made... Spring Fever (1927) & West Point (1928)

I’m off to see The Tailor Made Man at London’s Arts Theatre for the second time - not used to seeing musicals at all let alone more than once…it really is that good and you should go see it! So, time to put in some more “revision” on the main character: Mr William Haines one of Hollywood’s most likeable and brilliantly self-less performers.

These two light comedies were made back-to-back around the turn of 1928 and were both directed by Edward Sedgwick as vehicles for William Haines and rising co-star Joan Crawford.

Comedy shorts
Spring Fever is the clear winner with a stronger story line, more golf, wittier inter-titles and considerably more Joan than West Point. The latter film is more formulaic with Billy as the wise-cracking recruit-to-hero in military setting he was forced to play a number of times… interesting type-casting, not just given Haines’ sexuality but also the pre-occupations of the times. The US was not at war and yet it felt the need to press the importance of its military and its discipline.

Spring Fever is freed of this agenda and is a more straight-ahead hetero love story with wayward Billy being forced to submit to honest self-discipline to earn Joan’s love.

He works in a factory as under-ambitious shipping clerk, Jack Kelly, a live-for-the-moment guy who enjoys taking the mick out of his grumpy boss Mr Waters (the marvellously expressive George Fawcett) but who none-the-less keeps an eye out for his old pop (Bert Woodruff).

George Fawcett and William Haines
There’s a great sequence when Kelly walks behind his boss mimicking his every move as he grumps his way across the shop floor. Haines is just so relaxed and free in his expression; he even pinches the derrière of a male co-worker en route – out and proud!

Jack and Mr Waters share one passion in common and that is for golf, “…invented by the Dutch in an effort to make the Scotch forget bagpipes…” Jack earns time at the local golf club as a reward for teaching Mr Waters some superior technique: it’s his big break and he intends to make the most of it.

The club...
But Jack is smitten when he comes across socialite Allie Monte (Crawford) who just happens to be dating the club pro Johnson (Edward Earle). Initially unimpressed with Jack’s bluster – and his back swing at her backside – “I’ve never hit anyone on the links before…” - Allie is soon won over by his way with golf instruction.

Allie meets Jack
Jack breaks the course record and resolves to “marry for money” to secure his future. In a convoluted twist he ends up marrying Allie as she is now without her fortune, her father having lost everything… It’s one of the first decent things he’s done but Allie re-buffs his charity once she finds out.

It’s a slightly unusual structure but one that, sure enough, will give the hero another chance and one involving a golfing dénouement intrinsically linked to his romantic fortunes!

Crawford and Haines have a real rapport and his spark and her intelligence make for a winning combination of unparalleled acting energy!

Tailor Made Man makes a lot of the Marion Davies link but they could have included Ms Crawford as well – she made five silent films with Haines and was a life-long friend. Then again,  a take on Davies is one thing but Crawford has a whole lot more reputational baggage – it would be nice though to see this wide-eyed young woman reclaimed from some of the perceptions of her over-wrought later period.

Joan the, young, woman
If Sedgwick was trying to repeat the actors’ chemistry in West Point he didn’t succeed …it’s a well-made but formulaic film and there’s less logic at the heart of the story. Know-all boy meets sweet girl, then meets the army and things just meander towards a some-what forced dramatic climax which echoes Haines’ break through role in Brown of Harvard.

Haines plays Brice Wayne a playful and frankly cocky young man who isn’t about to let military service interfere with his sense of humour.

The man of a few faces...
It starts well enough on the ferry to West Point, Brice convinces some fellow recruits that he’s an officer and Haines improvises a hilarious dental inspection. Brice then tries to ingratiate himself with a pretty fellow passenger, Betty Channing (Crawford), by pretending to be blind…funnier than it sounds.

Betty turns out to be the daughter of an inn-keeper providing accommodation for recruits…had to work a female role in there somewhere.

In Haines’ earlier military vehicle, Tell it to the Marines (1926) Eleanor Boardman’s nurse was attached to the unit whilst there was also the strong lead offered by Lon Chaney who anchored the story and enabled Haines to bounce off at will.

William Haines and William Bakewell
Here we get 'Tex' McNeil, Brice’s best buddy (played by William Bakewell) who is not as butch as his name would suggest and who appears to have as much of a crush on him as Betty – is this a deliberate sub-text?

Whilst it’s love at first sight for Tex, Betty’s not immediately impressed with the cut of Brice’s jib but we soon see that he’s not as selfish as he makes himself out to be - secretly paying off a fellow recruit’s debt.

There's obviously something about a man in uniform...
But as Brice continues to kick against the imposition of Corps discipline, his sporting super-power is revealed to be football. But his success only serves to make his head swell further and to drive a wedge between Brice and his comrades.

Eventually something has to give and Brice is kicked out of the team and also resolves to resign his commission… he doesn’t feel part of the Corps and the Corps is pretty much in agreement.

It is only the intervention of the loyal Tex which persuades them to give him one more chance…It’s the big Army vs. Navy game: can Brice redeem himself and win the hearts of his comrades as well as the disaffected Betty?

The Big Game
West Point has its moments and Haines is good as per usual but things are a bit rushed and lacking in dramatic tension!

Both films are available from Warner Archives and Spring Fever in particular is worth seeking out. The print isn’t as good as West Point but is mostly decent: who wouldn’t want to play a round of “Fours” with Joan Crawford and William Haines.

The Tailor Made Man continues at the Arts Theatre until 8th April – go if you get the chance: hopefully it’ll soon get an extended run on Shaftsbury Avenue or maybe even Broadway! It deserves the chance not least for helping us remember the remarkable William Haines!

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Mountain girl… The River (1929)

Before Murnau there was Borzage… uniting Mary Duncan and Charles Farrell in this tale of backwoods sensuality.

It’s remarkable how many cast and crew were shared by the two directors over the short, intense period when they were both at Fox. Duncan was in Murnau’s lost 4 Devils as well as City Girl whilst Farrell starred in that film as well as Borzage’s Seventh Heaven and Street Angel with Janet Gaynor who was also in Sunrise

Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan
The two directors shared expressionist techniques with the American heavily influenced by the German: pre-code and pre-crash these two helped set the high water mark of silent film creativity before the financial world took a tumble and Murnau met with his untimely ending.

That The River survives at all is a near miracle and, indeed, fair chunks of the recovered film were beyond saving including the beginning, three scenes and the whole of the climactic final reel. Yet, what does remain, is the very heart of a film often described as one of the most erotic of silent movies.

Allen John arrives at the camp
Much of this lies with the emotional honesty of the two leads, particularly Mary Duncan who proves again what a technically gifted actor she was. Playing an earthier character than in City Girl she transforms from predator to love-struck saviour as Charles Farrell’s innocent but ever-present sexuality wins her over.

Duncan is Rosalee, hard-bitten girlfriend of the local gangmaster Marsdon (Alfred Sabato) at a backwoods dam construction site. Bored with her bullying paramour she has an affair with one of the men but Masrdon kills him and his taken off to face justice.

Marsdon is arrested
Farrell plays Allen John a real backwoods-man who has built his own boat to explore up river. Unable to get past the dam he lands in time to prevent the dead man’s deaf mute friend Sam (Ivan Linow) from exacting revenge.

The men of the camp head off to the city for the winter and Rosalee is astonished to see a naked Allen John floating past the river’s leathal whirlpool and towards the shore. Just as he’s about to climb out of the water she surprises him leaving him to hide behind a rock… very much at the mercy of this confident and frankly quite forward woman. A lovely scene that sets the tone of their relationship.

Place inappropriate caption here...
Allen John soon becomes fascinated by Rosalee – one of the first woman he’s ever met beyond his mother. She teases him relentlessly not used to men of such clean living niavity. Allen John is forever missing his train and rocking up at Rosalee’s shack. She knows what he’s after but he – genuinely – doesn’t.

As Rosalee begins to warm to the big sap, she is prevented from taking action by the pet crow, Marsdon has left behind often seen looming in expressionistic shadows – there’s even a mement when Rosalee tries to move him away form the light only to leave him in a place where he creates an even bigger shadow… expressionist humour?

Winter looms and Allen John misses the last train till Spring. He buys provisions for Rosalee but she spurns his offer – she’s underestimated his good heart. She throws the food into the river but, together they rescue it.

The sexual tension rises and Duncan’s physicality is strikingly brought to the fore as she shows her longing for the young man. But then there’s that bird… she tries to kill it as it interrupts their flow once again but Allen John stops her. In her anger she stabs him with a blade which luckily breaks before it can penetrate his chest…

Spoilers:  Driven to frustration, Allen John goes out into the snow and starts manically chopping down trees – a metaphor to show how he can provide for her every bit as well as Marsdon.

He’s relentless and, failing to stop him Rosalee leaves him to it. He returns to his boat but fall unconscious as his fire goes out. He’s found the next morning by Sam who brings his friend to Rosalee’s – he is near death.

The two fight to revive him and as Rosalee sends Sam off to get help, she realises that the last chance is to use her own body heat… opening her coat she climbs into the bed and lies as close as she can to the man she now knows she loves.

It’s a wonderful scene and probably a quite shocking one for the time. Even if the film’s actual ending was extant, Allen John’s revival would still be the story’s pivotal moment… there were tears in our living room.

Possibly in recognition of this, the reconstruction fairly rushes through the final scenes which see Marsdon’s violent return and Rosalee’s plunge into the whirlpool. Whilst Sam drags off Marsdon to his fate, Allen John dives in and rescues her: the two are re-born.

I’ve written about other partial silent films but this one feels more balanced because of the remaining focus on the love story although it would have been good to see the whirlpool rescue! Farrell and Duncan have real chemistry which no doubt persuaded Murnau to cast them in City Girl.

I watched the Edition Filmuseum DVD which is replete with a booklet and extensive PDF extras. There’s a video essay from Janet Bergstrom on Murnau and Borzage at Fox and on a second disc, three short westerns from 1915 and 1916 starring a young Frank Borzage.

Available direct or from the BFI (not online though, you'll have to visit!) this will warm the cockles of anyone’s heart.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Kinugasa + In the Nursery, Barbican… A Page of Madness (1926)

Masuo Inoue
Just when you think you’ve seen it all a silent film comes along and knocks lazy preconceptions into touch or rather, in the case of this film, disorientates and then beats them severely around the head with a mop!

Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (狂った一頁 or Kurutta Ippeji) is so accomplished, so fully formed, that it appears to have come from nowhere – standing apart from American and European sensibilities it borrows elements and then re-interprets them in the most technically proficient and – naturally – Japanese way. It’s an uncomfortable and searingly honest film featuring a dazzling array of camera trickery and a structure that places considerable demands on the audience.

Think David Lynch meets Abel Gance via FW Murnau (Kinugasa chose The Last Laugh as his favourite film…)   and you’d be part of the way there but there’s an narrative integrity that you wouldn’t find in some contemporary avant-garde cinema… a clear storyline that just needs to be interpreted and without the aid of a single inter-title.

Much effort has been devoted to interpreting the film and yet watching it cold and without fore-knowledge of the story you have to make sense of what you can in those moments. I’ve subsequently re-watched it and read a bit more around the plot which feels very much like cheating… the film works on a number of levels and first impressions sit the deepest.

Viewers in 1926 may not have had to work so hard. There has been debate over whether the film would have been accompanied by a Benshi – a film narrator, but a 1977 interview with Kinugasa confirms that one was used: there is a specific meaning and the story isn’t a purely “surreal” or impressionistic tale.

There’s also a suggestion from scholar Alexander Jacoby, in his book A Page of Madness: Cinema and Modernity in 1920s Japan, that the director re-edited the film on its rediscovery to remove more traditional narrative sections and to conform more precisely with contemporary avant-garde perceptions. (A review of the book can be found on the Midnight Eye site. Not everything is ever as it seems, it seems…).

Screen shot: Yoshie Nakagawa
The film was playing as part of the London Barbican’s wonder: art and science on the brain season of events and featured expert  live accompaniment from Sheffield electronica duo In the Nursery – who provided such a memorable soundtrack to Elvey’s Hindle Wakes - they’re nothing if not versatile, as this film could hardly be more different.

A Page of Madness is based on a story treatment by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, probably amongst a number of others… It is set in a mental asylum where Kinugasa sets out the interior lives of the tormented inmates alongside their external realities.

Eiko Minami
There’s a ballet dancer (Eiko Minami) who furiously dances in her cell whilst in her own mind she is on an elaborate stage with the strangest set design: a giant furry ball that spins continuously behind her. She’s the signal for emotional shifts in the story: almost like a choreographic Greek chorus of one.

In the next door cell is a middle aged woman (Yoshie Nakagawa), tortured by her murder (or near murder – opinions seem to differ) of her child. She’s in contorted agony and unable to help herself even when offered the chance.

Unbeknownst to all, the woman’s husband (a truly amazing performance from Masuo Inoue) is employed as the asylum’s janitor. He took the job to help his wife but she looks beyond salvation and yet naturally, being a film audience, we hope for something...

Yoshie Nakagawa
Their daughter (Ayako Iijima) arrives to inform her mother that she is getting engaged and yet she didn’t know her father was working there… there follows arguments and dreams and what may be an attempted break out. But the wife will not leave and the Janitor is frustrated…drifting into a reverie that may be the continuation of an earlier dream.

Ayako Iijima
What happens and what is merely dreamt and… does it matter? One of the clearest signals in the film is when the Janitor calms some of the inmates by attaching Noh masks to their faces. In an instant they are calmed and, like the masks, you feel they are smiling. Without the mask of a smile inner thoughts are revealed all too readily.

The cast is a very strong one with Nakagawa presenting an especially harrowing take on the desolate mindscape of this woman who has, literally, lost everything.

But it is Masuo Inoue who holds the film and encapsulates the meaning… a very naturalistic performer his technique is one of the purest expressions of Lillian Gish’s stated aim to be never caught “acting” by the audience. He anchors the story and provides us with an identifiable “hero” and his shifts into hysteria are all the more shocking for this.  But does he lose it or does he dream it?

Kinugasa directs with great invention and dexterity. He borrows from everyone he could in order to show these tormented “inner lives”, deploying the full range of his influences in his own unique manner… There are extensive dolly shots, montage and double/triple exposures, “whip pans” – you’ll know the instant you see one what that means - and spotlighting. As the writer Vlada Petric stated, the film’s “cinematic structure includes virtually every film device known at the time…”

Triple exposure
It is so well controlled and serves the story well but, as Kinugasa said later, this “…was less important than technical experimentation: tracking shots, close-ups, rapid montage, flashbacks, dissolves, irises, etc. In this film I used almost every avant-garde technique.” 

Given the problems of understanding the story in its present form – even the 75 minute 2007 restoration - musical accompaniment takes on an additional importance. In the Nursery did a sterling job of “explaining” the action, the shifts from reality to dream… guiding our emotional response to actions that may be random and may be fantasy. This takes finesse and the delicate touch of experience – you can imagine all kinds of free-form “solutions” to A Page of Madness’ soundtrack but this film demands a disciplined response.

As it was, the boys provided the perfect musical “Benshi”.

A dream winner
Sadly A Page of Madness is not available on DVD except in a cheap-shot 3D version which bills it as a horror film. Hopefully this longer restored version will be available in more respectful circumstances at some point – c’mon Criterion!

In the meantime you can watch the 60 minute version on grainy YouTube and try to sync the In The Nursery CD as best you can!

There's a fascinating interview with Kinugasa expert Mariann Lewinsky also on the Midnight Eye site.

Some hope by the end?

Sunday, 10 March 2013

William Haines, Arts Theatre, London… Tailor Made Man (2013)

Faye Tozer and Dylan Turner
Tailor Made Man is not just the best silent-movie-gay-love-story-interior-design-musical in London, it's maybe the best musical?

William Haines story is one of the most extraordinary of all in old Hollywood. Winner, along with Eleanor Boardman of Samuel Goldwyn Company‘s New Faces of 1922 contest in 1922, he went on to star in over 20 films over the next decade before Louis B Mayer pulled the plug in dramatic fashion.

Haines was always himself and, startlingly, this meant he never tried too hard to hide his homosexuality not just off-duty but even in his films. He was an honest actor with a decent range who was naturalistic but also knowing and inclusive.
Billy Haines
This spritely musical grew out of Claudio Macor’s stage play of the same name dating from the 90’s, at a time when few of Haines' films were ever seen let alone available on home video – so great was his fall from Mayer’s good grace.  For this production, Macor wrote the book, along with Amy Rosenthal, and also directed.  The music was composed by Adam Meggido with lyrics from Duncan Walsh Atkins

The result is a joyous celebration, which allows Haines’ sense of humour to shine through and for a rapid connection to the visceral spirit of the times – a decade of decadence and dance.

Dylan Turner and Bradley Clarkson
A musical is a contrived art form in many ways but it serves this kind of story surprisingly well. Biographical dramas can get bogged down in the facts and strain underneath the weight of sequencing known chronology but with a musical you can just sing the story onwards as required. There’s dancing too with classy choreography from Nathan M Wright, making the most of a relatively small stage. And, of course, there’s  interior design!

Dylan Turner plays William Haines and has the right amount of good looks, charm and cock-sure confidence to convince as the man who seemed to breeze through to stardom. Bradley Clarkson plays Jimmy Shields, Haines’ life-partner who stuck with him through his rise, abrupt fall and subsequent re-emergence as an in-demand designer to the stars.

Vivien Carter and Clive Ward
The story begins with the elder Shields (Clive Ward) being interviewed by an architectural journalist, Betsy Dawson (an eye-catching Vivien Carter) not long after Haines’ death from lung cancer in 1973.

We move back to the early twenties as William travels to Hollywood with Eleanor Boardman (played by Holly Easterbrook)  -  another  great talent from the era who deserves more attention.

He meets Jimmy cruising through New York and their life-long affair begins, just as Billy’s silent career starts to take off, albeit after a few years worth of supporting roles.

Macor cleverly avoids too much film-by-film detail and prefers to use Billy’s relationship with Marion Davies to encapsulate his many leading lady friendships.

Faye Tozer looks very little like Davies but she puts in a memorable shift as William Randolph Hearst’s girlfriend – a fun loving party animal who finally found her niche alongside Haines in King Vidor’s classic Show People. Tozer’s voice is stage-strong and she carries off the peroxide playfulness very well.

Davies accepted Haines for who he is as did Anita Page, Boardman and Joan Crawford who famously described his relationship with Shields as the best marriage in Hollywood.

Faye Tozer and Mike McShane
But Haines’ paymasters were less forgiving. Mike McShane gives an almost show-stealing turn as the bluff hetero bully Louis B Mayer. LB was just about willing to tolerate Haines when he was good box office but he was quick to cut him down once his behaviour led to scandal.

Billy was caught cruising with a sailor and refused to marry his way to a PR alibi. In this version of events Pola Negri is suggested as the prime candidate for the lavender wedding. I’m not sure if this is true but it’s a good excuse for a routine with Kay Murphy excelling as a humorously-clichéd version of the Polish star.

That’s another thing about musicals… accuracy is less important than “feeling” and a good tune. I’m very happy to see anyone sing about silent film and in this case to accept a Negri from a parallel universe… conflated with Cyd Charisse’s Brooks’-inspired dancer in Singing in the Rain and still grieving her “Rudy” a decade after his death…

Billy goes off the rails as his career collapses and Jimmy deserts him temporarily. He returns just as his lover has hit rock bottom and the two begin to build their lives anew: We’ve Got Time is their anthem and beautifully expressed by both actors.

Marion also stands by the boys especially when they are driven from their LA beach front home by hoards of white supremacists intent on meting out rough justice after they believe that one of their sons was propositioned. In real life the case was dropped due to a total lack of evidence but no charges were brought against their attackers…

With Marion and WRH’s help, William begins to build a reputation as an interior designer, sprucing up some of her many properties before being commissioned to work on other stars’ houses.

I’d read about this aspect of Haines’ career but never appreciated just how successful and influential he became over the ensuing decades. For more details check out his company website and an interesting article in Architectural Digest. You can still buy Haines’ furniture but you need deep pockets!

The show ends with Design a song about matching your exteriors to your interior life: "...the life you live is all about design!" ...something William Haines did with style and persistence!

At the end my wife pretty much started the standing ovation and as I joined in we were clapping not just a great show from the talented cast but also Mr Haines himself.

Tailor Made Man runs until the start of April in the intimate Arts Theatre (home to some of the friendliest front of house staff in the Capital!) - if you’re anywhere near London I’d heartily recommend it. Hopefully it will tour and get the longer run it deserves.