Saturday, 30 August 2014

Erik and René… Entr'acte (1924)

Erik Satie
Read casually, like a goat: By the early 1920s Erik Satie was one of the grand older men of the French avant-garde some thirty years on from his youthful pop classics Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes… He was an influence on Ravel and, of course, Debussy, his more disciplined friend and occasional rival, and seems to have pursued a life of uncompromising eccentricity.

Satie it was who composed using his own technique and wrote highly specific instructions to musicians asking them to play such titles as Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear with “much more illness” or “light as an “egg”.  But he wasn’t flippant; heartbroken after his split with famous artist and muse, Suzanne Valadon, he composed Vexations,  a single theme to be repeated 840 times in succession - anxious musical ponderings that lead nowhere: despair remains the same and no feelings are excised.

Satie and Francis Picabia
Satie’s art was expressed through every facet of his work and much of his life and, yes, he strove to avoid pretension: he had his own discipline. No wonder his appeal endured even to the more casually bookish students of the late twentieth century…

He collaborated and influenced waves of Parisian artists across a variety of media and in 1917 he scored the ballet Parade for typewriters, sirens, ticker tape and a lottery wheel amongst other artefacts. The scenario was written by Jean Cocteau and stage design was by Pablo Picasso.

Under the roofs of Paris...
Satie scored Francis Picabia’s 1924 ballet, Relâche, which included a surrealist film sequence, Entr'acte, filmed by René Clair and featuring a host of heavy friends such as Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp: Les Deux Magots must have been empty that day.

Satie himself gets things off to a bang as he and Picabia leap in exaggerated slow motion towards a canon overlooking Paris. Taking their time they load the gun and fire a shell directly to camera: this one’s for the audience.

Mystery Train
Satie’s score is what he described as “furniture” music, background or what we might today view as ambient although you cannot ignore its insistent, occasionally jarring passages. It must have been one of the earliest examples of a synchronized score (in the lose sense) as it plays along over a series of seemingly un-related images – two men playing chess on a rooftop, a ballet dancer (Inge Frïss) filmed from under a glass floor (she has sturdy knickerbockers – don’t worry - and later a beard…) and three balloon-headed dolls which deflate and reflate as a train ploughs through the countryside.

Inge Frïss
A more formal narrative emerges after a young man (Jean Börlin) shooting at an egg in a carnival stall ends up shooting at a bird in flight which comes to nestle on his shoulder. As he revels in the miracle of nature he himself is picked off by another hunter… and he falls to his doom.

Jean Börlin
The young man’s funeral is well attended by many well-dressed citizens who form an orderly queue behind his coffin and the camel pulling it. The cortege moves on and those following glide gently up and down like slow-motion stallions or the wooden horses of a merry-go-round…  if life is ridiculous then death is sillier still.

The funeral cart becomes separated from the camel and develops a life of its own, speeding off through Parisian streets with the mourners in hot pursuit. Eventually it reaches the countryside and spills the coffin into a field… those who had managed to keep up surround the casket only to reel in shock as the lid is lifted to reveal the young man fit as a fiddle and dressed as a magician.

He pulls out his wand and one by one magics the mourners away before turning it on himself and with a short flourish making himself disappear. All gone, as if they never really existed…

Vivaient-ils dans le film ?
It means what you think it means and to be honest I’m never really sure if dada or surrealism is a puzzle to be worked out and explained or just a statement… but let’s not go there.

It’s amusingly done by Clair and it would interesting to see the film in the context of the ballet as a whole as intended - it might explain more... Yet what we have gives a clear impression of the surrealist intent and its  all the more precious for Satie’s contribution and the footage of the great man taller than I expected in top hat and beard, smiling at all the mischief.

He died the following year overcome by the effects of years of alcoholic abuse; the absinthe got him in the end.

Entr'acte is available on the under card of the Criterion DVD of Clair’s A Nous La Liberte. You can find it on Amazon or order direct from Criterion themselves.

There are also over nine hours and forty minutes of Vexations available on YouTube... played by Nicolas Horvath. I'm listening to them as a type...

Monday, 25 August 2014

Before the bob… Broken Hearts of Broadway (1923)

I have to confess that probably the first time I was aware of Colleen Moore was through Barry Paris’ references to her in his Louise Brooks biography. Colleen was the first to really popularise the bob haircut that Louise was to epitomise for modern audiences from Henri Langlois onwards, yet she was without doubt one of the stars of the twenties and operated at a level of far greater popularity than her younger, sassier, competitor: she’s just less now… or is she?

There’s no good reason for Colleen Moore not to be remembered and recognised as even this routine back stage drama demonstrates. She had energy and great timing, lighting up her face at will with far greater impact than any of her co-stars and pulling the viewer down with her after every set back. Yes indeed, what we have here is an actress of controlled natural expression who wouldn’t be out of place living in the adjoining dwelling to your own. Not glamorous, super-natural or overtly sexual (hi Clara!)… just a bit real.

Colleen Moore
You can see why she was so popular - her apparent modesty, implicit good nature and sheer lack of threat would win over viewers with a sustainability beyond those with higher levels of impact and vogue. Mind you, this was the film before Flaming Youth after which the hair and the dresses got shorter and she became The Flapper… I shall have to find out more about Moore.

For Broken Hearts of Broadway Moore plays a small town girl come to New York to make her mark. From the film’s opening framing sequence we learn that she does but for much of the narrative we find it hard to work out how.

Tully Marshall and Creighton Hale
It’s a rainy night on Broadway where, clearly, the lights are not always bright…  An Outcast (Creighton Hale) is so on his uppers he’s having to stuff newspaper down his jacket to keep warm, a cab draws up and the driver Barney Ryan (Tully Marshall) quickly recognises an old buddy. Barney sizes up his old pal and realises he’s nearly done… he’d tried writing and looking up at a neon sign reckons only bad luck has stood in his way. Not so, says Barney eyeing the sign: he knows the story behind the success it advertises: Broken Hearts of Broadway, starring one Mary Ellis… and he sets out to explain and inspire...

He’d first encountered Mary Ellis (Colleen Moore) on a similar rainy evening. She was yet another small-town amateur who’d come to find her fortune. His wife set her up as a room-mate for another wannabe, the aptly named Bubbles Revere (Alice Lake) full of vim and a vigorous willingness to do what it takes to “make it”. Bubbles is – loosely-speaking  – committed to a young painter who also rooms in the house, Tony Guido (Anthony Merlo). His room-mate is a song-writer named George Colton (Johnnie Walker)

Katie Price
They are struggling artistes and for all Mrs Ryan (a fearsome Katie Price) tries to keep them in order they are always late with their rent.

Bubbles gets Mary a gig at her theatre whilst Mary meets George after helping him complete a song by playing the logical ending after overhearing his struggles above… a sequence requiring considerable wit in a silent film. George manages to sell their song: things are looking up!

George and Mary tune up
As the four go out to celebrate they meet two of Broadway’s most powerful show-runners Barry Peale (Arthur Stuart Hull) and Frank Huntleigh (Freeman Wood). These guys know “talent” when they see it and the girls are soon installed in one of their productions. But such promotion comes at a price and as the girls open their after show gifts it slowly dawns on Mary what the quid pro quo will need to be… whilst Bubbles is happy to take her chances Mary is chaste and wants to stay loyal to George.

Meeting the money men...
So far so backstage movie convention but the course of honest success is not to run quiet so smoothly as you might expect. Bubbles goes from strength to strength whilst Mary’s principles guarantee her months more of penury. George gets a gig at a Chinese nightclub which looks perfectly fine to me but which leads to an assault on Mary and the pair getting fired after their first engagement.    

As the money runs out he loses his piano and Mary has to address how ambitious she actually is… Can she go through with the exchange of favours or will talent somehow win out? A breathless closing section neatly provides the answer albeit with a convoluted denouement that lacks the cutting edge of uncertainty.

An offer she can't refuse?
This aside, Broken Hearts of Broadway is entertaining enough and there are good turns from Tully Marshall, Katie Price and Alice Lake who does indeed bubble away with energy.

Alice Lake
Irving Cummings’s direction is perhaps a little static especially for the sequences on stage, then again he could have been masking the leads' lack of dance training. His story telling is efficient and there are a couple of memorable close ups of Colleen Moore as she looks up through the roof of Barney’s cab and again as she sees Bubbles head off for a life of “sponsored” showbiz success.

Breakfast al fresco
This being my one and only Moore film to date I look forward to seeing how she developed by, say, Orchids and Ermine from 1927… on this showing, in which she‘s comfortably the standout, I’m expecting great things!

Broken Hearts of Broadway is available on a Grapevine DVD, other versions are available from Amazon which probably use the same source – I think it’s public domain now?

PS Flaming Youth is largely lost but there's a tantalising eleven minutes preserved by the Library of Congress and available on YouTube... Here's a sample with Colleen getting dolled up: ready to help make the twenties roar.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The way out Wests... The Cat and the Canary (1927)

“It was a cold, dark, rainy night…” but you may have seen it here first or rather, in my case, with Bob Hope in the 1939 remake. As a child I loved that film with its secret passageways and comedy-horror - all that was missing was a cowardly hippy and a talking dog. But Paul Leni’s silent version is all-together darker and the humour works primarily as counter-balancing relief to the tension as the gathered ensemble are driven hysterical by shadowy threats in the dreamy dark spaces of an old gothic pile.

House, bottles, canary and... cats
It’s expressionism by numbers but the director of Waxworks and collaborator with Lubitsch, May, Dupont and a host of European film-makers, knew what he was doing… The opening section shows mad old Cyrus West’s spires cross fade into milk bottles which imprison him, wheelchair bound, as viscous black cats encircle: his greedy relatives waiting to get their share of his fortune… A clawed hand moves across and reveals the contents of his will… to be unveiled twenty years after his death.

The scene is thus economically set and we know we’re in for a knowingly-hair-rising treat. The story came from John Willard’s 1923 stage play and, whether or not the conventions of creepy who-dunnits were already well set, this is surely one of the first films to perfect the genre: Bob Hope may have thought he knew but this mob were in on the joke earlier.

The action moves to the interior of the West mansion and Leni treats us to the works, wonderfully lit settings with Gilbert Warrenton’s camera swooping round corners with alarming grace then careering down blustery corridors as drapes and curtains fly wildly in the wind. This is a place full of bad humour and menace.

A torchlight cuts through the darkness and a figure finds and opens the safe placing a new document inside… we were right, something’s afoot.

Martha Mattox and Tully Marshall
There’s a knock on the old door and West’s faithfully grim retainer, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) – not very motherly and… yep, a bit unpleasant – opens the door which is almost held back by sheer weight of cobwebs. Enter Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) West’s lawyer, here on the dot, two decades after his death to reveal the contents of the will.

Opening the safe he finds a moth and knows someone has forewarned themselves of the contents… but no one else has been in the house only Mammy and her un-living companion who stares down with intent from his portrait.

Arthur Edmund Carewe and Forrest Stanley
There are superb shots of Mammy and Crosby, sharp, awkward, angles, back-lit and deep in thought: they’re gothic constructs as much as the house itself. Then the guests arrive and Leni gives us portraits of people with something to hide – eyes darting, greed nervously bubbling just under the surface and desperation enough to make anyone of them suspicious.

There’s  Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who’s already dark eyes take on additional edginess and who almost snarls as his estranged cousin Charles "Charlie" Wilder (Forrest Stanley) arrives. Charles has more regular features but nervousness around the eyes and a mouth that suggests weakness and desperation.

Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch
Their more senior cousin Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) arrives with her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor)  both clinging on to the hope that there will be a windfall to compensate for the many obvious disappointments that have etched themselves on their faces: Susan old with bitterness and Cecily just on the cusp as youth fades.

Cue the comedy. Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) arrives in a miss-firing motor car, breaking to avoid crossing the path of a black cat and then running into the house convinced his engine’s back-fire was an assassin’s bullet. He’s no Bob Hope but he’s funny alright.

Creighton Hale sees things
The entourage is completed by the arrival of Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) – youngest of the group and seemingly as sane as sixpence. La Plante takes top billing on the film and was a major star as the silent era neared its fateful collision with the systems of sound.

The camera takes in every consideration as the family sit around the table waiting for Crosby to reveal the “winner”… almost every face a torture of hope and, bitter entitlement with two exceptions: Paul makes a joke of things and Annabelle just seems happy to go lucky…

Laura La Plante
As she is revealed as the sole beneficiary, the others crowd around secretly seething to various degrees and none more so than Aunt Susan whose head is shown warped by the news.

From this point on Annabelle becomes the Canary and the trick is to work out who the Cat(s) might be with pretty much everyone looking as guilty as can be… Now the mysterious deaths begin to happen, sliding panels start to reveal clawed hands and an escaped lunatic is revealed to be on the loose. What’s more, Annabelle must be proven sane in order to qualify for her prize or else her inheritance will go to another… perhaps the one who broke into the safe and knew of the deal before hand?

Who’ll it be? And will anyone from this strange family emerge as the unlikely hero to protect the true heir? There’s the usual miss-direction and emotional disturbance of the humour but it’s still a fun watch: golden rule of all whodunits… make ‘em all look guilty and then gradually provide them with alibis/good character.

Annabelle menaced by the Cat's hand
Leni directs with style from start to finish and you can understand why the film was so successful. For me, Creighton Hale is perhaps a little too much but he does have his moments. Tully Marshal and Martha Mattox are respectively masterfully grouchy and zealously sinister whilst you can see why La Plant was such a success with her strong, expressive features.

It’s also worth mentioning the inter-titles from Walter Anthony which add much humorous variety… there’s no “Zoiks Scoob!” but a superbly animated “GHOSTS!!”.

I watched the 2004 David Shepard restoration which uses James Bradford's original score as adapted and performed by Eric Beheim and The Cyrus West Players as well as new music composed by Franklin Stover and performed by the Mont Alto Orchestra - all suitably spooky… Tales of the Expected perhaps but done with style. It's available from Amazon as is the Kino Brownlow Photoplay Restoration... which just has to be worth investigation!