Sunday, 27 April 2014

The big sky… Heaven's Gate (1980)

Some people still get cross about this movie as if it’s a personal affront but, come on, did Michael Cimino really let you down? He pursued his dream at ruinous cost to himself and United Artists much in the way of an over-ambitious modern soccer club – even allowing for inflation, his $44 million budget would barely cover the annual salaries for PSG, Chelsea or Manchester City.

What he produced was a commercial failure but one that has had a growing amount of critical respect. Watching the restored director’s cut – supervised by Cimino – it felt like watching a really good HBO mini-series but with extra sky and impossibly huge mountains. Whatever else its failings, Heaven’s Gate is an extraordinary good looking film. 

Having not seen it for almost twenty years, this “new” version makes more sense in narrative as well as stylistic terms. Its pacing and granularity is now explicable as part of the greater whole and Cimino’s eye for detail creates an immersive experience unlike few others before or since.

I feel a tenuous personal connection to Heaven’s Gate as it was partly filmed in Oxford when I was an impressionable student, I knew some of the extras and I remember seeing the cameras and crew at Mansfield College, one of the newer colleges. Oxford’s a puzzling choice to double for Harvard with some of the buildings pre-dating Columbus by a full two decades... but that’s showbiz.

Kris in line at the Sheldonian Theatre and dancing around Mansfield College
This section and the one that closes the film, act as bookends depicting the main character’s class and position. James Averill (Kris Kristofferson who was a Rhodes Scholar at my college, Merton, many years before me…), is an educated man of East-cost culture who somehow gets embroiled in the base conflicts of the West.  The director’s time in establishing this is worth it for the contrast it shows once James and his friend, class wit, William "Billy" Irvine (John Hurt), get involved in the shooting.

The film is based on the Johnson County War of the 1890s although Cimino is going for representational and not historical accuracy, introducing new themes as he presents the conflict of rich cattle owners versus immigrants. The immigrants gather to enjoy life at a tented hall called Heaven’s Gate run by John L. Bridges (Jeff Bridges). Here they roller skate dance and enjoy the little freedom they have from struggle: a slither of Heaven.

Christopher Walken
One of James’ friends, Nathan D. "Nate" Champion (Christopher Walken) is an enforcer for the Stock Growers Association and we see him shoot dead one desperate cattle rustler, leaving his distraught wife as he heads off into the prairie framed by the rip in their sheet left by his shot gun blast.

This man was caught red-handed – literally – as he butchered a stolen cow but the stockmen are about to elevate justice to a whole new level of brutality. They meet and are persuaded by leader Frank Canton (Sam Waterston) to support the despatch of 125 hired guns to execute a list of 125 locals labelled as rustlers. All a far cry from university legal studies and, shockingly, based on an actual death list of 25 small-holders.

Billy witnesses the decision in a drunken stupor barely able to stand, he meets James who responds by laying out Canton… but can he stop the slaughter?

He didn't even bother to wrap it!
James heads back to base presenting a gift of a smart new trap to his lover Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the local bordello. The casting of the very French Huppert was apparently one of the first signs of trouble on the film as the producers didn’t feel she could cope with the English dialogue. Cimino put his foot down and carried on doing so as the production ran many times over budget. A sit turned out and as one of the producers now admits, Isabelle was superb – when is she ever not?

Ella also loves Nate but, in a neat testament to the ground rules of the time, always made him pay as a customer. We’re confused to see what we thought was a cold-blooded mercenary so awkward with his feelings.

Isabelle Huppert
James obtains the unlucky list and at Heaven’s Gate reads it out the terrified immigrants. Ella’s on it for the crime of accepting stolen cattle in exchange for favours but, in spite of James’ prompting she refuses to leave.

As tension runs high violence descends as the men ride in and Johnson County descends in stylised late-seventies havoc. Can James really stand aside to let his Eastern friend enforce the rule of law in such a callous and unjust way or will he make a stand with the immigrants? Can he forgive Ella for also loving Nate and the latter for loving the former… will this love triangle doom them all?

The climactic battle
For a film with such perfectionist tendencies you could say that the human motivations seem less than well-defined but then with actors possessing the skill of Hurt, Huppert, Bridges and Walken this can be a positive strength. Life is messy and human behaviour often bafflingly obtuse: they revel in the space Cimino allows.

Kristofferson doesn’t have their range but he more than makes up for this in presence: his face is a mask of masculine resolution deliberately obscuring his thoughts even when he’s angry.

Roller skating was genuinely a craze in the 1890's
It all feels very real and the earnestness you occasionally sense would nowadays be smothered by the hyper-violence enabled by CGI and other digital processing.

And then there’s that big, blue sky and those huge mountains, the dust filled rooms and the huge sets showing mankind in mass transit one their way to who knows where, who knows when. Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography is exceptional throughout and the film feels whole again.

Huppert and Kristofferson outside a cabin now in Jeff Bridges garden - fact fans!
I watched the 219 minute restored cut which is readily available from MovieMail and other online retailers.  It’s on MGM who obtained the rights from the wreckage of UA… don’t blame Michael Cimino it takes more than one auteur to break the bank and many weak executives to let them: where was the risk management?

The business may have died but the creative lives on.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Constant Constance… The Primitive Lover (1922) & Her Sister from Paris (1924)

"I enjoy making people laugh…  this type of work comes easiest and most naturally to me, I am not a highly emotional type….”

Constance Talmadge was one of the most energetic of silent film actors, with clear, open expression, and in possession of two of the biggest, loveliest, eyes in Hollywood. She is my abiding performance memory from Intolerance as she ripped into every opportunity she had to make an audience connection amongst Griffith’s sprawl.

Publicity still from Her Sister from Paris
She was a natural and even without the connections to her savvy sister Norma, would have made it on her own and probably in any era. Yet, Intolerance aside, did Constance ever make any really great movies and, as to a lesser extent with Norma, is this perhaps the reason why the once mighty Talmadge brand has faded more than others who were at their level in the middle silent period?

This is an over-simplification of course, but perhaps we should remember some actors because of their fame and contemporary position as much for the modern appreciation of their creative output? Perhaps we need a more historiographical view?

Account must also be taken of the actor’s professional self-awareness: Constance knew very well what she had to offer and, given the level of success she enjoyed, that was what she set out to achieve, even if the quality of ideas was sometimes illusive…

"…it is exceedingly difficult to get exactly the kind of comedy I especially want. I want comedies of manners, comedies that are funny because they delight one’s sense of what is ridiculously human in the way of little everyday commonplace foibles and frailties – subtle comedies, not comedies of the slap stick variety." 
Constance in Blue Book of the Screen (1923)

Here are two examples of her early twenties output that reflect the impact decent material and support could have on Constance’s energy levels.

The Primitive Lover (1922)

Directed by Sidney Franklin from a Frances Marion scenario based on Edgar Selwyn’s successful stage play The Divorcee, The Primitive Lover allowed the 23 year- old actress (and producer) to show an innocent, dreamy side to her persona as she graduates from spoilt, indecisive, fantasist to a woman of resolution.

Constance plays Phyllis Tomley who opens up the film imagining an extended fantasy in which, marooned at sea on a raft with just a goat and cake for provisions, accepts all too readily the sacrifices of her male protector as he throws himself overboard so that she and her fiancé may survive.

Constance and Harrison Ford
She awakens from her reverie as we discover she was reading the closing stages of her former lover’s book, The Primitive Lover. She turns to her down at heel husband, Hector (Harrison Ford) and asks if he would love her enough to sacrifice himself? She’s bored and spoilt and Hector doesn’t really know what to say or do: he’s a drip.

If only her ex, heroic writer Donald Wales (Kenneth Harlan) hadn’t tragically lost his life just after his book’s publication… But, what’s this, a headline in the paper reveals that he has been found alive and, a few moments later he’s bounding back into Phyllis’ life: the whole thing had been a rouse to sell more books, Hector had been in on it and there was no intention to hurt the love of his life…what!?!?

Inexplicably, Phylis forgives Donald and rather turns on Hector who, rather decently volunteers to stand aside so that the two can be married. Game over and it’s not even half time… except it isn’t and Hector, in spite of going through with the divorce is inspired by a non-nonsense multiple bigamist Indian Chief (Chief John Big Tree) to hatch a plan to either win back his wife or at least prove her “primitive love” for Donald.

He ambushes them on their honeymoon in the Wild West and forces them to live in a shack so that Donald can prove himself the man he wrote he was… Aided by the Chief he sets them tasks and all is going amusingly until real trouble arrives. Who’ll be man enough for Phyllis when the chips are really down?

The Primitive Lover is entertaining fair allowing the three leads enough room to get some laughs at each other’s expense. It is, of course, roaringly un-PC in “new money” but does make fun of the pride and prejudices of both sexes. Constance is a little constrained by the formula though and doesn’t quite raise the bar to her usual level.

Her Sister from Paris (1924)

With a crisper script and better supporting actors – including herself – Constance does much better in Her Sister from Paris.

She plays Helen Weyringer in a stale marriage with Joseph (Ronald Coleman – hard to imagine I know…) but she just won’t party like she used to and he still wants his fun. Coleman’s great: a slightly-more substantial John Gilbert with more than a hint of “cruel” and who would go on to have success into the talkie era.

Helen and Joseph's domestic strife...
Joseph confesses his frustration to his friend Bob (the most excellent George K. Arthur – last seen on this blog trying to ride a bicycle in The Wheels of Chance) and spying a picture of a beautiful French actress very similar to how his wife used to look, resolves to head off to find her in Paris…

But the actress isn’t French and she’s also Helen’s twin sister, only distinguishable from her sibling by a beauty spot on her cheek, cropped blonde hair and a much higher energy reading.

As chance would have – dash it all! – Helen is also en route to Paris to seek sisterly solace and explaining all to her twin, Lola aka La Perry, the showgirl hatches a plan to teach wayward Joseph a lesson!

George K. Arthur and Constance
So it is that Helen has a Lola make-over and plays at being her sister for her clueless husband. Will her old man start an affair with the woman she thinks she is or will he come to his senses and realise that he needs to take as much responsibility for the good times he feels he’s missing with Helen.

It’s classic farce but smartly directed by Sidney Franklin and so very well played by the two Constances, Coleman and Arthur. It’s not a major movie just the kind of film that entertained a lot of people a lot of the time and you know that can’t be bad.

Decisions, decisions...
The Primitive Lover is available from Amazon on a cheap but OK DVD from Alpha Home Entertainment whilst Her Sister from Paris is available on Kino DVD in a double bill with Her Night of Romance, also with Mr Coleman and of which more later...

I’ll leave the last words to Constance, she and Norma both knew what they could offer: “My sister could cry real tears over two sofa cushions stuffed into a long dress and white lace cap, to look like a dead baby… That is real art…

…in my way, I take my work quite as seriously as my sister does hers… One must leave a great deal to the imagination on the screen… so, like the cartoonist, I try to emphasize the salient characteristics, which, of course, in my particular work, bring out the humorous side of the person I am portraying."

Friday, 18 April 2014

What’s so funny? Laugh Clown Laugh (1928)

There’s a shocking moment in this film when Lon Chaney’s character is tenderly holding his adopted daughter, played by Loretta Young, and kissing her on the shoulder in the way that dads do. Suddenly he realises that this is no longer a child and, in an instant his eyes widen in horror as he realises that his feelings have shifted in an altogether less paternal direction. You only see Chaney’s eyes and that’s all you need for one of the most controlled and expressive actors of the age.

The unease he feels is shared by the viewer though as you realise that Young was only fourteen at the time of filming: Pickford in reverse in the most shocking context. By all accounts the 45-year old Chaney looked after Young protecting her from the bullying of director Herbert Brenon but this is surely amongst the worst casting decisions ever made. Young does well and times were different: this was only play-acting but… really?

Chaney, needless to say, gives a typically committed performance and surely not even Emile Jannings could convey the level of sincerity required to play such a sad clown. It’s the ultimate juxtaposition and you have to really be broken hearted to carry this off – otherwise you’re just another hollow Grimaldi.

The plot owes something to La Roue (no doubt others) and was based on the successful play that had wowed Broadway in 1924 with Lionel Barrymore who may or may not have been lined up to reprise his role on screen.  Chaney plays Tito alias Flik one half of a travelling duo of clowns with partner, you guessed it, Flak (Bernard Siegel) also known as Simon.

Bernard Siegel
Tito finds an abandoned child, an unwanted girl tied to a tree near a river. Heart-rendered he resolves to keep her much to his co-clown’d chagrin even after naming the child Simonetta in his honour. As you can imagine there’s pathos a plenty but there’s something real about these jesters with Chaney and Siegel’s attention to detail winning you over.

Chaney had already played a clown in Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and required little prompting to immerse himself in the study of the ephemera, discipline and make-up of the profession.

The film fast-forwards a dozen years and we see Tito’s glowing pride as Simonetta learns how to walk the wire. She has grown up into young Loretta Young and she is exceptionally pretty (fast-talking pre-code success was mere years away).

Simonetta becomes part of the act and helps the boys to greater success. She is also spotted by Count Luigi Ravelli (Nils Asther) who is immediately captivated and rushes her and her injured foot to his bedroom… The young girl is shooed off by the Count’s mother (Cissy Fitzgerald) who – perhaps – senses that she’s a little young for him.

Then the moment happens when Tito feels that inappropriate affection and is driven into a deep well of conflicted emotions. A psychiatrist suggests that what he needs is to go and see the funniest clown in Italy, but Tito can’t: he is that clown.

The Count spots Simonetta caught in his fence: metaphor intentional...
At the same therapist we find the Count who as a result of a surfeit of bohemian excess is given to bouts of hysterics – he can’t stop laughing. Count meets Clown and they both decide they’ll be good for one another – perhaps their humours will meet in the middle.

Their friendship grows and gradually equilibrium is established for the odd couple but it’s a fragile triangle as the Count is increasingly in love with Simonetta and her besotted step-father knows it.

The Flik, Flak and Simonetta act has grown so successful that they now have theatre residence in Rome and they play to packed houses, as her grace allows the clowns to act the fools in love – of course all clowns are romantic failures, what else makes them so sad?

But there’s also daring do as Flick flies down from on high with just his head balanced on a wire attached up near the gods… Clowns live dangerously.

No spoilers… The Count proposes to Simonetta and relations are stretched to the limit as the plot delivers twists and tumbles you’d expect from Flik.

Young acts well beyond her years which seemed to be her speciality – she married Grant Withers aged 17 in 1930 and was a teen star of pre-code films such as Show Girl in Hollywood and The Truth About Youth. She was only 20 making Born to be Bad and showing up a rather wooden Cary Grant with her ferocious performance as the mother who refuses to let her seven-year old son go into his care.

Nils Asther has extraordinary screen presence as well: a believably vulnerable romantic lead who is also rather unsettling as the man who can’t stop laughing.

But it’s Chaney’s show and you can only marvel at the controlled expression: a face that can make you smile one second and uncomfortable the next. When the breaks come off and Flik takes his misery onto the stage it’s a special effect all on its own.

Laugh, Clown, Laugh is on the TCM Archives - The Lon Chaney Collection which is available from Amazon and other good online retailers.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

She’s the love of your life… Why Change Your Wife? (1920) w Niki King Band, BFI BEV

A Cecil B DeMille romantic comedy might not seem an obvious choice for the second in the series of the Birds Eye View Film Festival Sounds and Silents. The strand celebrates women in film and in jazz playing along with film and, rightly or wrongly, DeMille is perhaps more thought of as an exploiter rather than promoter of women.  But as the programme notes pointed out there were a number of key female collaborators for Mr DeMille beyond the two master comics we saw on screen (more on Bebe and Gloria in a mo’…).

Anne Bauchens edited all of his films for over forty years and here, as in his other silents, her expertise is evident in smooth transitions and state of the art story pacing. The stunning gowns were designed by Natasha Rambova who went on to work on Nazimova’s Salome – and her fashions are very much the co-star of this film – as my wife said: if only it was in colour!

Bebe Daniels and Gloria Swanson
The script was written by Sada Louise Cowan and Olga Printzlau, for-knowledge of which helps to off-set any modern sexual-political misgivings to an extent with their witty script detailing how the marriage contract can make the heart go duller… if both parties are not careful.

Gloria Swanson’s star power tends to further shift any un-even-handedness: she’s the story fulcrum and the character we care most about and events tend to unfold at her pace. Why change your wife? She’s Gloria Swanson you fool!

As if that wasn’t enough, the alpha male DeMille’s work was further feminized by the live score provided by British jazz ace Niki King who’s cleverly composed song-track gave sympathetic voice to Swanson in particular. We knew who Niki was rooting for!

Aided by a band on organ, harp, double bass and drums, Ms King’s music made this one of the most syncopated and swinging silent evenings I’ve enjoyed at the BFI reflecting and reinforcing the relentless pace of the film. Maybe jazz is getting like Shakespeare? You need to be an exceptionally fluent player to really make it ring true to modern ears: the form is “old” but the meaning, the message and the passion is timeless. Niki King achieved this and in doing so helped to un-wrap a very fresh silent film for the audience.

Bebe Daniels and Thomas Meighan say cheers!
Why Change Your Wife? was one of a series of sex-comedies DeMille made around the turn of the twenties and it dealt with marriage in a very swinging, pre-code way… he always did get away with what he could in this area of human fantasy.

Gloria Swanson is Mrs Beth Gordon who is all too comfortably married to husband Robert (Thomas Meighan). They’re inability to co-ordinate their morning bathroom routines reflect their divergent cultural and personal interests. Beth throws herself into middle-brow improving books and listens to serious classical music whilst Bob just wants to tango and to go to the follies… there’s a slight gender inversion here: he’s the jazz baby?!

Bob gets with the beat
Robert decides to spice things up and goes to buy some racy evening wear for his wife. The clothes are modelled by young Sally Clark (Bebe Daniels) who has longed to run her fingers through his masculine curly hair since she was a teen. She makes a play by sexing up the clothes, draping them as low as she can and adding a pint of perfume and a heart to her bare shoulder… it doesn’t go un-noticed.

I’d always associated Daniels with talkies – especially 42nd Street – but was surprised to find that she’d been an early comedy partner for Harold Lloyd in a number of his post-war shorts. That experience certainly holds her in good stead here and she is a match for Swanson in looks and timing: a comedy cat-fight is guaranteed.

Beth doesn’t like the clothes… why should she be forced into revealing her body just for male gratification? She stays at home to listen to her favourite violinist Radinioff (Theodore Kosloff) leaving Robert with no one to go to the show with… Sally’s arrival with a missing part of the dress prompts him to extend the invitation.

Sally and Robert enjoy the show and back at her flat – blimey they moved quickly in 1920 – Robert find out that they share the same record collection and interests (dancing… kissing…). It’s a late night and by the time he gets home it’s nearly two o’clock and, waking Beth up, she quickly rumbles him and divorce is immediately on the cards.

Robert steps over the mark...
So far so rom-com and so it goes as the marital twists and turns involving the lead characters follow their course as Beth decides that maybe she should show off more of her assets whilst new wife Sally even gets tangled up with the surprisingly butch Radinioff as emotional loyalties ebb and flow… towards a conclusion I won’t give away.

Why Change Your Wife? – supercharged by Niki King’s music – felt fresh, smart and knowing… these are very modern concerns handled with a smooth economy. Bebe Daniels’ naturalistic and expressive timing threatens to steal the show but Gloria Swanson is that perfect silent powerhouse and even over-matched in stature and looks your eyes are inevitably drawn to her intensity and direct communication. Someone who “spoke” straight to the watcher and who never takes our attentiveness for granted.

As for Ms King, her jazz adds a lot of modern flavouring to what could be otherwise well-worn swing. Pitch perfect and powerful she was a one-woman Greek chorus carefully matching words to the specific meanings of music and mood. I shall certainly be tracking her down to Ronnie Scott's for more.

Why Change Your Wife? is available on import DVD from Amazon whilst you can find Niki King’s music there as well as digital retailers such as eMusic. Niki's website is to be found here.

More information about the Birds Eye View Film Festival and Sounds and Silents is to be found here: they’ve given me renewed faith in Mr DeMille!

Beth's change of style had all the boys interested...

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Second wind … The Wind (1928) w Lola Perrin, Electric Cinema

In which a mighty wind blows down the Portobello Road carrying Lillian Gish with it...

This is my second post of the year on The Wind as I couldn’t resist the chance to see the film with Lola Perrin’s accompaniment and also in the almost ludicrously plush environment of Notting Hill’s Electric Cinema.

Comfort cinema...
Ms Perrin won Best Live Score in the 2011 Silent London poll in what was a vintage year and I can understand why her mesmerising, driving lines drew such praise. She blows along with the film with squalls of melancholy exactly reflecting Letty Mason’s nightmare journey: sometimes rising with her panic and always pushing forward with the certainty that there’s more to come. At times the playing is almost percussive so fierce is the finger work but Perrin’s control is absolute and she carries forward some richly rewarding themes.

By contrast Letty’s fear of the wind is the fear of being out of control when you are most desperate to stay in control. She heads out to unknown Texas to find comfort with her adopted brother but she’s quickly blown of course by his jealously protective wife Cora – a whirlwind all of her own.

The train that takes her out travels relentlessly into the wind which momentarily forces its way into Letty’s coach: she tries to be brave but she can’t hold back her fear. She seeks solace in the security of powerful men by flirting with the bullying Wirt but can’t see beyond the alien surface of the two dirt cowboys who live near her cousin, laughing off their attempt at proposing at the dance.

Here she takes comfort in the resumption of, for her, normal social routine but even this is disrupted by a passing cyclone and she is driven further into Wirt’s arms. But he’s a hollow promise offering her only extra-marital exploitation and she’s left at the mercy of her sister-in-law who marries her off to Lige.

Their wedding night is another journey into discomfort for Letty as she faces up to his – sincere – love-making as she would brace herself against the elements. She just can’t let herself go and is too uptight to see the man behind the surface he is just too alien.

He vows not to touch her again and kindly agrees to return her to the east but she must endure a storm greater than any she could even expect.

The ranchers rally round in an effort to survive and have only the longshot of bringing in the wild horses as the great “Norther” wind blows in with supernatural ferocity. Lige is their leader and reveals his true character as Letty timidly begins to respect him.

He has no option to leave her alone as the men go out in search of the horses and she is driven to the edge of her reason by the incessant battering of their homestead. The wind smashes free the cattle and breaks through walls and windows and there seems no escape. At the same time Wirt returns for his fateful reunion with Letty – can she withstand this dual assault and at last find peace?

The view from the comfy seats, beds just before the stage...
As Miss Gish suffered on screen, the audience felt inappropriately pampered in the circumstances. The Electric Cinema is an unique venue with plush armchairs, footrests and side tables for your refreshments… there are even beds down at the front of house: yes, really. The friendly staff and antique surrounds create a cinematic experience that makes you feel at home whilst at the same time enjoying the full scale cinematic experience all but trampled away in the multiplex supermarkets.

I appreciated the performances even more in this setting – Lillian Gish is indeed an uncanny and unsettling force of nature: she always takes her characters to the limit and you cannot really sit that comfortably as her disquieting intensity draws you in.

The only quibble is that print was not a great one and it is to be hoped that The Wind gets the digital clean-up it deserves and a DVD release complete with Lola Perrin’s score. There's more about Lola here...

The film was being shown as part of the annual Birds EyeView Film Festival in the Sounds and Silents strand celebrating women in jazz, playing along with film… It continues for me tonight at the BFI: a date with Gloria Swanson. On Friday 11th April there’s Lubitsch’s lovely Sumurun with that astonishing score from Amira Kheir - the same winning combination was featured last year.