Saturday, 29 March 2014

The birds and the beetles… Erotikon (1920)

This slick comedy illustrates just why Mauritz Stiller was so admired in Hollywood following on from his equally knowing and thoroughly modern films featuring Thomas Graal. Along with Lubitsch (who this film influenced), he was the master of sophisticated European cinematic suggestiveness with this film containing much about Eros and very little of the more overtly-functional specifics a casual glimpse at the title might indicate…   

It’s not exactly Lars von Trier but for the time Erotikon must have been shocking enough with its freewheeling infidelities and close-relations-relationships

Anders de Wahl and Tora Teje
Along with the great Victor Sjöström, Stiller produced World-class films in a period when Sweden was able to compete on equal terms not just with Germany and France but also America, building on a great theatrical tradition through the war years when it wasn’t possible to import films from those involved in the conflict. The quality of their film production, performance and cinematography was second to none.

Here Stiller takes a zoological view of human relations, comparing bourgeois social mores with the sex life of the beetles that form the focus of one of the central characters academic studies.

Based on A kék róka (The Blue Fox Stole) a play by Ferenc Herczeg, Erotikon was an ambitious production successfully aimed at overseas markets, it featured sumptuous sets designed by Stiller himself as well as aerial photography and a cast of many dozen beetles.

The sex lives of Beetles and one of the film's many witty intertitles
Professor Leo Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) is the entomologist in question and he is almost totally absorbed in his studies even if he can only attract a half dozen students to his stultifying lectures. His wife Irene (Tora Tejz) is left alone top her own devices and these prove not inconsiderable.

She drops off Leo’s forgotten brief case at the university and then checks her hectic diary: “2pm, teach the furrier some patience, 3pm go flying with Baron Felix…” and off she goes as Leo beetles off to prepare for his passion.

Karin Molander keener than most of the Professor's students...
At the University, Leo’s niece Marthe (Karin Molander) works diligently drawing beetles as well as drawing male students to her like bees to a flower. Listening in, she is  rather too excited by her uncle's discussion on and is greeted with a disapproving look from the elderly Professor Sidonius (Torsten Hammarén), poised like an arthritic preying mantis.

Marthe dotes on Uncle Leo and thinks Aunt Irene equally marvellous oblivious to her wide range of friendships but then she has her own reasons for flattery.

Irene spends an awfully long time not deciding on what furs to buy and then tells the exasperated shop owner that she will return tomorrow.She bumps into her friend the Baron (Vilhelm Bryde) in his 100 horsepower sports car: how the other half lived in 1920's Stockholm.

Up, up and away...
Irene makes her appointment with the Baron and off they fly up into the friendly sky. Leo’s best friend is a handsome sculptor Preben Wells (Lars Hanson, didn’t really need to mention “handsome” there did I?) who spots the couple and the plane: is he interested for his pal’s sake or his own?

Henrik Jaenzon’s cinematography is, like much else in the film , excellent and the aerial shots are fascinating especially as the plane flies close to ground passing over Preben as he looks up in concern.

A dinner party is held at the house and we see the complex relationship between Preben and Irene as she plays a love song on the piano, "Jeg Elsker Dig" (I Love You) and he smokes his pipe lost in thought – not surprisingly given the rather risqué dress she is wearing: the Twenties obviously started roaring early on in Sweden.

After they have eaten the party head off to the theatre to watch a ballet about the infidelity of an Arabian queen: Schaname. It's fascinating to watch a ballet from this period and the staging and choreography are spectacular with dancers Martin Oscár as the Shah and Carina Ari as the tragic herione Schaname.

A night at the opera
The show’s adult themes challenge the watchers as Irene looks at the Baron, Preben looks at her and Leo thinks perhaps of beetles… There are some witty shots of the audience as one wife pulls the opera glasses from her husband as he spends rather too much time admiring the leading dancer.
Don't look now...
Earlier Leo had calmly discussed how many mates specific beetles have as in some cases “one female is never enough”, and it’s not just some of the audience in the ballet that have similar perspectives. But beetles are more straightforward than people and what follows is a confusion of motives and interpretation as everyone miss-understands everyone else.
Preben might be worried for Leo and Irene but he also wants Irene and her splendid wardrobe for himself. But, the Professor’s wife is seemingly engaged in pursuit of the dashing Baron… her signals are confusing.

Tora Teje
At the same time, Professor Leo is oblivious not just to his wife’s obvious courting displays but also the close admiration of his niece (and I really hope she’s not a blood relative!).

Things come to a head when Irene returns to the frustrated furrier and sees Preben’s model try to order an expensive stole on his account… She leaves before the young lady’s request is declined after a phone call to the artist.

Then Preben sees the Baron enter an apartment with a young woman who looks very much like Irene… Both are now feeling betrayed by the other and as Preben points the finger in front of the astonished Leo, Irene heads off back to mother (Elin Lagergren) whilst the sculptor urges the Professor to seek satisfaction from the Baron: a duel that can surely have only one winner!

Preben is concerned for Leo's honour
No spoilers:  The various strands are tied up very neatly in a well-balanced closing sequence which I won’t reveal. The performances are superb with Tora Teje the stand out as her boredom and thrill-seeking is revealed as something else all together as  the real sadness in her life comes to the fore.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes with a really interesting modern score from Bruce Bennett which works around the action, creating a mood slightly at odds with some of the emotional shifts but none-the-less it's very interesting musically. For me it succeeds in connecting over the whole film by mirroring the uncertainty of the characters’ motivations and the film’s detached and forensic approach to its subjects. 

It’s also worth mentioning the inter-titles which feature illustrations passing sneaky comment on the story and characters… very post-modern design from Alva Lindbohm Lundin.

Erotikon is available direct from Kino or from online retailers named after a big river in Brazil.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Louise Brooks: a storm in any port… A Girl in Every Port (1928)

An oddly intense buddy movie that famously revealed his Lulu to GW Pabst, Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port is amongst Louise Brooks’ better American film roles and was made just before the superb hobo symphony of Beggars of Life.

The film was intended as a vehicle for the rough-hewn Victor McLaglen who plays Spike Madden, a sailor with female friends seemingly everywhere he goes. This seems unlikely but that’s probably the idea and, even if all the nice girls love a sailor, not all of the girls in this film are nice as it turns out...

Robert Armstrong and Louise Brooks
Spike’s impressive run of conquests is under threat when he realises that he has competition on the seven seas: a man called Bill – Salami in some versions - (Robert Armstrong) who leaves his trademark calling card of an anchor in a heart either in the form of a bracelet or a tattoo. Too many times Spike meets an old girl-friend only to find that she’s already being ticked off by his fellow collector. He sets out to find this interloper and to protect his reputation as a grand master of lovin’ ‘em and, very much, leaving ‘em…

On goes the competition as Spike trails in his rival’s wake from Amsterdam where his friendly girl is now married with children, to Rio where he finds his trophy already branded and then again further south.

Victor McLaglan
It’s interesting that his passion is so competitively driven and, indeed, when Spike finally confronts his competitor, the two quickly start getting physical as Bill decks Spike only for them to join forces in fighting off the local police: it seems that there’s honour amongst thieves of the female heart. Yet, it’s an odd movie in which women are the game that the men are playing amongst themselves… you hope they get taught a lesson by someone!

Amsterdam: Phalba Morgan and Eileen Sedgwick
The version I’ve seen is some 80 minutes long and from the list of cast members, it would appear that we no longer have sight of every girl in every port. There’s Phalba Morgan and Eileen Sedgwick in Amsterdam then Elena Jurado, Dorothy Mathews and Natalie Joyce (no relation) in Panama.

Panama: Dorothy Mathews and Natalie Joyce
But, there’s sadly no sight of Natalie Kingston in the South Sea islands, Sally Rand in Bombay  and, intriguingly, Caryl Lincoln as the Girl from Liverpool – bet she was no push-over! Somewhere there was also a young Myrna Loy…

Maria Alba
There's an energetic contribution from Maria Alba as Maria Casajuana - the girl in Rio - who gets Spike into trouble with her over-possessive boyfriend and his gang. She's just about the only detailed female character in the first half of the film: the girls really are mostly just part of the scenery.

There’s also a cameo from Leila Hyams (later to star in Tod Browning’s Freaks in her short but memorable career) as a sailor’s wife who the boys find struggling to support her son after his sailor father has been lost at sea. They play with the boy and leave money to help is mother… their hearts are in the right place and there is a cost to be paid for so much fooling around.

Armstrong and McLaglan
We have to wait for the film’s second half to find the girl who will bring the boys finally together…  Louise Brooks plays a circus performer in Marseilles called Marie aka “Mam’selle Godiva! Neptune’s bride and sweetheart of the sea!”  She makes a stunning entrance in a one-piece leotard and climbs up a vertiginous ladder before diving into a small pool, soaking Spike who proceeds to falls hook, line and sinker for the acrobatic beauty: he has finally met his match.

Marie takes steps...
Spike has enough money to settle down and tells his new sweetheart of his savings and his plan… Brooks’ acting gives little away and there’s just the smallest glimmer in Marie’s eyes that might suggest unwelcome pragmatism. But we’re not sure until pal Bill recognises her as an old flame from Coney Island (not that that necessarily makes you a bad person...) who has his mark tattooed on her arm and still holds a candle. She’s keen to pick up where they left off and her callous wink whilst held in the arms of Spike is pure Lulu!

Bill doesn’t want to break Spike’s heart and won’t tell Marie’s truth but she pushes him pretty hard, sending Spike off on an errand so she can turn up in his mate’s room and tempt him… Jim almost gives in but it turns out that the “big Ox is worth more… than any woman…” Well… OK then.

Louise Brooks and Robert Armstrong
Brooks played down her role and the film, disparaging it’s homo-social subtext (she may have used other words…) but the film is more narrow-minded than that and all about lauding enduring male friendships. How this pure, brotherly love can be balanced with heterosexual promiscuity is beyond me. Honestly… they come up against a woman who behaves just like them and they’re driven into the chaste comforts of the masculine bond.

I can only conclude that, being unable to understand this, they should just try harder to secure deeper relationships not just with women but with all those around them: traveling the world in their ships they appear to have left their social responsibility at home. Maybe that’s too modern a view but I wonder what contemporary audience thought of the film’s message?
The boys and the "sexy skirt"
All this aside… there are splendid performances from McLaglan and Armstrong, especially the former who’s boyish charm shines through his care-worn, ex-pro boxer’s face: he really was as good with his fists as the film suggests.

Hawks directs with pacey-authenticity and there are some great touches – showing the lads drunken state by focusing on their legs staggering from bar to bar or Spike discovering Jim’s identity by the mark left by his ring on his chin. It’s witty and entertaining even despite misgivings about what it actually means (and Hawks also wrote the outline).

Would I watch it without LB? Maybe... but she improves the end product by providing a striking counterpoint to the over-compensating maleness. Her Marie is intelligent and in control – no doubt she has a boy in every pitch? She breaks Spike’s heart with the aloof, refined sexuality that was soon to play so very well in Berlin.

A Girl in Every Port is fairly hard to track down. It’s available on a 16mm DVD transfer from Grapevine in reasonable condition but really warrants a fully-restored release. Until then, you’ll have to aim to catch one of the occasional screenings in London and other “silent” cities…

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Stormy weather… The Wind (1928)

Three of my silent period favourites all in one film: The Wind couldn’t really fail… but there are questions.

Lilian Gish chose the vehicle, a novel of the same name by Dorothy Scarborough concerning a Virginian woman driven to mad extremes by the forces of nature in the wilds of Texas. Gish put together her own four page treatment and asked Frances Marion to adapt for the screen... She then lined up Victor Sjöström (here Americanised as Seastrom) to direct having already worked with him on The Scarlett Letter and obviously seen his native examinations of human nature sculpted by natural extremes.

Lars Hanson
Sweden’s leading man, Lars Hanson, was picked upon the basis of his appearance with Greta Garbo in Gosta Berling – although he had also starred in The Scarlett Letter as well as Flesh and the Devil, Captain Salvation and other Hollywood films.

Hanson makes for a great lead, handsome as heck and able to convey an earthy vulnerability alongside his more heroic qualities. He’s a good match for Lillian who, 35 at the time, plays a slightly more mature, vaguely manipulative, character than in many of her earlier films: she toys with affections and makes fun of others and amongst all of her vulnerability is made from stern stock.

Lillian Gish
The Wind is a white knuckle ride of emotion and Gish plays hers close to camera – watching her is always to suffer at least some degree of transmitted anxiety: she doesn’t let the audience have an easy time. Some, like my wife, find that a little goes a long way, but it’s this very quality which makes Lillian one of the first great screen actresses: there was undoubtedly madness in her method and it’s an intense visceral disturbance to those of us safe in our seats just watching... She personalises the on-screen drama, drawing you in with a unique connectivity, to the anxieties driving us all.

It’s hard to think of anyone better to direct this most intense, inward film than Victor Sjöström, the man who made The Phantom Carriage and Terj Vigen – Scandinavian epics that were unflinchingly aimed at externalising inner torment. There’s pathetic fallacy and then there’s The Outlaw and His Wife who live lives as rugged and uncompromising as the terrain where they make their home.

Montagu Love and Lillian Gish
For all that, Lillian Gish’s Letty Mason is not a typical Sjöström leading lady: city-soft and with airs and graces for all her timidity… she has some way to go.

Letty is heading out to Texas to stay with her cousin Beverly (Edward Earle). As she sits eating fruit on the train, she is approached by a self-assured man, name of Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love), knowing glances are exchanged and it’s clear both know what they’re about. Dust swirls all around the carriage blown with incessant force by the never-ending plain winds… it frightens Letty yet Wirt swaggers around absent-mindedly brushing dust off his jacket.

He introduces himself just as the window blows open to give Letty a blast of dust… he comes to her aid and bullies the dozing steward into replacing her food – surely Letty can see what we see: an over-bearing mean man of means?

Wirt explains the relentlessness of the local wind currents – likely to drive many mad, especially women (of course…) and, already she is scared of the force she cannot control although she tries to put on a brave face.

Letty is greeted not by her cousin but his neighbours, the rough-hewn Lige Hightower (Lars Hanson) and Sourdough (William Orlamond) who immediately start fighting over the new arrival’s favour even though the odds look to be pretty long.

Cora is less than impressed with the new arrival...
They duly deliver Letty to her cousin who greets her with the kind of warmth that makes it clear that they’re not blood relatives - he was adopted by her mother. Their enthusiasm for each other runs deep which explains the cold-blooded reaction of Beverly’s wife, Cora (Dorothy Cumming)… this is a harsh land of few certainties in which desperation drives many a decision.

Letty is pursued by Hightower and Sourdough at the local dance and plays them along, even though the former at least has scrubbed up quite well. Then with an eager glance she notices that Wirt has arrived… and, acquaintance renewed, an assignation is arranged. But Wirt is not quite the man he seems and can offer Letty only the empty future of life as his mistress: he is already married.

The lads look on as slimy Wirt impresses Letty
She returns to her cousin’s house were her options are brutally spelt out by Cora – she must find a man to marry and be taken off their hands and the options are limited to Hightower and Sourdough. Choosing the former she seems doomed to a life of loveless drudgery but Lige is a man of honour who, recognising that she doesn’t share his love, determines to work as hard as he can to return her to her natural world. He’s more than she deserves.

Spoilers ahead… Lige and his men brave dangerous winds to capture as many wild horses as they can as the ranchers face starvation. Wirt – arriving still in pursuit of Letty - is enlisted to help. All the while the winds grow stronger and the deadly “norther” gets closer and closer. In a film crammed with symbolism, there’s none clearer than the representation of the wind as a giant ghostly white horse (has anyone read DH Lawrence’s The Rainbow?). As the weather and human passion reaches a peak will Letty be crushed or will she find clarity?

The film’s most iconic sequence happens towards the end and it is debatable how much this represented actual events or just the state of Letty’s mind – or both? Best decide for yourself... it’s harrowing and open to interpretation.

In an introduction filmed in the 80’s Gish says that the film’s ending was imposed by the studio but I can’t think that the alternative she suggested would make any better sense. As it stands the film has a clear narrative structure that sees Letty’s character evolve rather than simply run out of options: she doesn’t deserve that and it doesn’t appear to be signalled by the style or the structure?

Gish gives a nuanced, full-throttle performance and her character has depth and shades of grey. Sjöström directs with coherent invention putting his actors through their paces out in 120 degree desert sands across which he had a rank of airplane propellers blowing at full power. Gish described it as her toughest gig which is really saying something.

The Wind did not prove a success at the time but is now widely regarded as a late-period classic and screened every year or two in London - this week at the BFI. It could do with a DVD release incorporating the Carl Davis soundtrack I heard – dating from the Thames Silents restoration – which enhances the action with elegance and energy: a mighty wind!

Until then there’s a Spanish DVD available on Amazon with a different and inferior score and less than optimal image quality - still worth getting mind if you haven't seen the film.

What is Letty thinking?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Thoroughly modern Lillie … Exit Smiling (1926)

"Lillie's great talents were the arched eyebrow, the curled lip, the fluttering eyelid, the tilted chin, the ability to suggest, even in apparently innocent material, the possible double entendre". Sheridan Morley in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

From the first moments of her appearance in this film, you know you are watching one of those rare performers whose style and skill simply connects perfectly with the modern viewer: reader, let me tell you of the actress out-of-time that is Beatrice Lillie.

Born in Toronto to a concert singer mother and a British army officer who later became a Canadian government official, Bea didn’t lose touch with the old country and made her West End stage debut in 1914 earning sufficient fame to end up marrying Sir Robert Peel (the fifth Baronet and great grandson of the Tory PM of the same name).

Beatrice Lillie
She was a highly successful stage performer on both sides of the Atlantic and needed to be as Bobby didn’t have wealth, nor the ability to generate a new fortune – spending the first night of their honeymoon on a losing streak in the Monte Carlo casino. Then, during one trip to Broadway, Bea was engaged to play in Exit Smiling, her first and only silent film.

Sometimes experienced stage actors struggled to transpose their skills to the big screen where every exaggerated inflection required to be seen in the stalls can be magnified a thousand fold.  But Lady Peel was a natural with her expressive understatement, timing and droll understatement perfect for the medium.

She thought this film rather cheesy and, whilst it’s true that her performance gives it more interest than the story may otherwise have demanded, Exit Smiling is an amusing film, well observed and paced and with a wonderful supporting cast.

Directed by Sam Taylor based on Marc Connelly’s play of the same name, Exit Smiling tells the tale of a fourth division traveling repertory company inflicting a drama called Flaming Women on the mid-West.

Beatrice plays Violet the company’s maid who doubles up as bit-part player by night and all-round dogsbody by day: cleaner, cook and seamstress all in one. She’s desperate for her big break to join the others in a proper part and almost gets her chance when the show’s leading lady – Olga (Doris Lloyd from Walton, Liverpool – wonder if she knew my Great Grandmother?) – is delayed after an incident involving the consumption of more than several beer bottles.

The play begins and quickly we can see the quality of thespian endeavour the company provides: Violet almost forgets her maid’s hat, and her lady, Dolores Du Barry, arrives closely followed by an evil moustache twirling scoundrel who means her ill. The lady’s beau arrives in the form of Cecil Lovelace (Franklin Pangborn) whose camped-up cowboy quickly engages in an unconvincing struggle with the assailant as they panto-fight over a gun

Some long acts later, the show heads towards its dénouement as Dolores vamps it up in order to distract the villain just long enough to save her true love, some elements of the audience watch with rapt attention. A little drama can go a long way…

Scouser Doris Lloyd vamps it up to confound the cad!
They head off to their next engagement in their own railway carriage which includes a saloon car, sleeping bays and storage space for props and scenery. Is this just the kind of long-haul company that Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish would have started out with in their teens?

At one of the stops they are joined by a sad young man, Jimmy Marsh (Jack Pickford) who leaving East Farnham for some unknown but obviously bothersome reason.

Jimmy admires Violet's style
He instantly catches Violet’s attention as she rehearses her vamp moves between carriages and she tells him that she’s an actress, impressed he confesses that he's always wanted to meet an actress, seeing only the surface self-confidence of her display.

Violet manages to persuade him to audition for the company and with her help (and that of a discretely held onion) manages to convince the hard-hearts of the seasoned pros. He’s in and very soon he’s playing the leading bad guy.

Beatrice Lillie and Jack Pickford
This is great for Violet who falls hook, line and sinker for this fresh-faced young man but she never shows him and he can never see anyone other than the up-beat, helpful individual who does her best for him.

The show goes on and on as they schlep from small town to small town and the friendship between the youngsters grows as the supporting characters are revealed: the old pro who once played with Elmer Booth (he of Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley), greedy show-runner Orlando Wainwright (DeWitt Jennings) and the camp Cecil.

Show people: DeWitt Jennings and Franklin Pangborn
Meanwhile we cut back to Jimmy’s home town as we learn the reason for his leaving as his girlfriend (oh no!) Phyllis (Louise Lorraine) tries to convince her bank manager father of his former teller’s innocence whilst he offers her Jesse Watson (Harry Myers) as, in his view… a perfectly acceptable alternative.

But Jesse isn’t quite the man he seems as we are shown local crook Tod Powell (Tenen Holtz) asking him for a “loan” knowing who the money was really removed by and who put Jimmy in the frame.

Tod puts the squeeze on sneaky Jesse
The innocent man is miles away on a train… or is he? Jimmy steps out of the actor’s carriage to greet another day only to find that they’re arriving at East Farnham: he can’t be seen here and he certainly can’t play on stage!

Violet, as she always does, has a plan and it’s an imperfect but funny one. Events descend into chaos as the strands come together and all matters come to a head in a breathless – poignant – finale which it would be cruel to reveal: you really have to see it for yourself.

Exit Smiling is available from Warner Archives complete with a new, orchestrated score from Linda Martinez which matches the story’s energy even if occasionally out of step with Lillie’s nuanced expression. But, she's just so quick...

Sadly that was it for Beatrice Lillie’s silent films although she returned occasionally to cinema work from early talkies up to Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967. She much preferred stage work – feeding off the audience reaction and enjoyed a long varied career on the boards, no doubt with her own changing room and a maid of her own.

It’s available direct from Warner Archives or from the usual Amazons.