Thursday, 29 January 2015

Melting the glass ceiling… Smouldering Fires (1925)/ Now or Never (1921), London Kennington Bioscope with Cyrus Gabrysch and John Sweeney

Watching Clarence Brown’s work as editor on Tourneur’s The Blue Bird, I was reminded of one of the former’s films mentioned by Kevin Brownlow in an introduction he gave for Brown’s The Eagle at a screening at the Phoenix.  A tantalising clip was of Smouldering Fires  was shown at that event yet, not tempted by grimy YouTube nth gen copies; I’ve yet to see the film… holding out for the quality, context and company it deserved.

Patience is its own reward as, out of nowhere, it did come to pass that Mr Brownlow was to present his own copy at the Cinema Museum as part of the monthly Kensington Bioscope screenings of unusual and hard to find and, in this case, almost impossible to project, silent celluloid.

Tully Marshall, Malcolm McGregor and Pauline Frederick
So it was that we headed back into the depths of South London, memories stirred by the Walworth Road, the White Bear theatre pub and the absence of the once-unavoidable smell of garlic from Pizzeria Castello Restaurant on the Elephant roundabout.

This was my first visit to the Cinema  Museum and… what a great venue, full of the musky remnants of the picture house past and a viewing room making full use of the former hospital’s spaces. There were excellent home-made flans and the unique warmth generated by a room full of many dozens of silent film buffs (is there a collective noun? How about a Silence of…or a Pickford of...?).

Mr Brownlow mingled – our living connection to so much of the silent past. He told a story of a phone call from Harold Lloyd in response to a fan letter he’d written from school in the late forties… film stars just don’t do that anymore but then maybe they don’t make fans quite like Kevin either.

First up was the Lloyd short Now or Never (1921) which was a  concentrated shot of the man’s fearless comic invention – even in the face of crashing train wheels Harold stays calm…hilariously so. Mildred Davis plays the girl charged with looking after a Lonesome Little Child called Dolly (Anna Mae Bilson) who takes her along on a train trip to meet her old flame only to find Dolly’s Dad (William Gillespie) is also on board… Harold is soon pressed into child-minding.

John Sweeney played along with prescient piano… he and Harry must have played this duet before – let’s face the music and laugh!

Then the main dish, Clarence Brown’s Smouldering Fires which, Mr Brownlow revealed, nearly convinced some studio bosses it was a Lubitsch and thereby helped ensure him a healthy contract at Universal. It is a very witty film with some great performances but it also carries a dramatic wallop that brings the best out of Pauline Frederick who gives a performance that a few years later might well have been Oscar-worthy.

Frederick had years of stage experience even before her film career and yet Brown told Brownlow that she suffered from terrible nerves for the first couple of days of the shoot. Playing the ”older women” at the age of 41 to baby-faced Malcolm McGregor’s 32 and Laura La Plante’s luminescent 20 must have been a challenge – one she met with a brave and extraordinarily honest performance. The experience of the great Tully Marshall is on hand to offer a counter-balance of expressive depth whilst the youngsters struggle to act through their prettiness.

Malcolm McGregor acts his age...
This is that rarest of things, a mainstream film aimed at the middle-aged market… and one that doesn’t take the easy way out.

It starts as almost as an office-based romantic comedy with a twist: the senior executive in Vale Inc. is a woman, Jane Vale (Frederick), who has inherited the firm from her father and worked tirelessly to far exceed his achievements by always putting the business ahead of herself and the chance for a personal life.                     

She chairs meetings eating away at her lunch and ruthlessly dismisses suggestions that are not in the best interests of her company. Her right hand man, Scotty (Tully Marshall) keeps a little pad to instantly terminate the contract of any employer displeasing Miss Vale; one of the board doodles an insulting cartoon lampooning her lack of love and he’s gone. Secretary Kate (Helen Lynch) dreams of being on stage and is let go after biting back and every time Scotty hands Jane one of his nice pencils she keeps it…

One of the young managers has a radical idea to improve productivity but Jane initially dismisses, when he argues his case and openly disagrees with her he looks set for the chop – “too ambitious” – but she relents and instead invites him onto the board, impressed with his honesty and integrity.

Gradually the two get closer and the staff begin to gossip. There’s an excellent sequence on the shop floor in which the camera literally follows the word-of-mouth as it works its way from machinist to machinist.

Robert arrives and faces humiliation as one of his more difficult charges, Kate Brown (Helen Lynch), over-steps the mark. A male co-worker laughs at Robert who knocks him down, there’s a brief fight and emerging victorious, Robert tells the whole factory there’ll be no more rumours running down the woman who is going to become his wife…

Jane listens on unseen and delighted at this unexpected declaration, after all these years of disciplined self-denial she may have found the love of her life… Scotty looks worried.

Things progress and the couple get engaged and then disruption is brought by the arrival of Jane’s younger sister, Dorothy (Laura La Plante). Initially Jane is convinced that Robert is just a gold digger – no one of his age would marry a woman of her sister’s age for anything other than financial gain, or at least she thinks.

Can Jane keep up with the youngsters?
But Robert’s feelings turn out to be way more complex than that and a uneven love triangle soon develops that threatens to render all parties’ lives a misery… things do not proceed as simply as you’d think.

The version shown was a 16mm print designed for home viewing. It is of a longer cut than some European versions and comes complete with the original tints. It was very hard to project and the Cinema’s projectionist in addition to spending days restoring the stock also had to proceed very cautiously during the screening with the odd stop and start.

But it was well worth it a superb film from Mr Brown and a great performance from Pauline Fredericks – both up there with the very best of silence.

Accompaniment was provided by Cyrus Gabrysch who calmly dealt with any interruptions and wove some lovely lines as the story veered from comedy to calamity…

A great venue and a great cast of characters on and off screen: next month’s treat is Bare Knees – another fun evening is in store. More details can be found on the Bioscopesite and, of course on Silent London.

Thanks also to Greta de Groat and her excellent Pauline Frederick website from which I appropriated some of the scans above.
Pauline takes direction from Clarence

Monday, 26 January 2015

Gloria excels… Stage Struck (1925), Barbican with the European Silent Screen Virtuosi

I will always be very grateful to Lucy Porter as the last time I saw her she was giving me a publishing industry award (two actually…) and, dressed in bow tie and dinner suit, my resemblance to John Gilbert was – arguably - never more in evidence. Here she was introducing two films from her silent film idol, Gloria Swanson which showcased the appeal of one of the era’s very best performers as well as Lucy’s superb judgement.

Like most modern viewers I initially viewed Gloria through the twisted prism of Norma Desmond – a woman traumatized by her fall from fame in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard and yet watching her younger self in Teddy at the Throttle (1917) and Stage Struck, you forget the future; drawn in by her incredibly  vibrant, intelligent performing. She had the same kind of star power as Mary Pickford or Joan Crawford – wide-eyed girls next door with that little bit more who worked their socks off.

Above all else, as Lucy Porter said in her Sight and Sound article, you are captivated by just how likeable Gloria Swanson is… like Mary you simply want her to win.

Jennie's dream self
Directed by Allan Dwan, Stage Struck famously features opening and ending sequences filmed in the early two-colour Technicolor highlighting Swanson’s character Jennie Hagen’s dreams. Jennie works as a waitress in a café yet wants to be a star actress. The opening section is a pure dream of theatre from Dwan and his cinematographer George Webber, that shows Jennie superstar actress being rapturously received by her audience before declaring herself Salome and rising up some phantom steps to receive her famous platter… it looks as much like an Aubrey Beardsley picture as Nazimova’s film.

Jennie's Dream Boat: Lawrence Gray
As Salome stands triumphant the head of John the Baptist transforms into a plate of beans which begin to slide off the tray as the daydreaming arms that hold it drift back to reality with a bump.

In the frenetic every-day of the eatery the food needs to be a fast as the customers who steam in between shifts at the local factory. Jennie needs to be quick on her feet but too often she is distracted by thoughts of Orme Wilson (Lawrence Gray) – a man who flips pancakes with the aplomb of a cocktail mixologist much to the delight of the young women who gather at the window to watch him.

Beans for Baptist
Orme has distractions of his own though and longs to meet an actress like the dozens who are stuck on his bedroom wall – how can Jennie compete with all this two-dimensional perfection? There’s a funny sequence in which she mimics the pouting and preening of these impossible starlets only drawing the line at an image showing one with hardly a stich – really, Orme!

Jennie dreams of opening a restaurant with Orme but she has a plan to become an actress by correspondence course… Just $5 to hopefully show him she’s as good as any of them.

The Water Queen arrives
But the arrival of a steam boat carrying a theatrical troop brings Orme’s dreams closer to fruition. Led by Buck (ex-Sennett mainstay Ford Sterling) the players include one brassy blonde lead actress called Lillian Lyons (Gertrude Astor) who immediately catches his eye and Orme jumps at the chance to meet her.

Their first rendezvous at the café is sabotaged by Jennie with a series of comic accidents in the kitchen. Swanson is so winning in these moments, tough but vulnerable especially when measured against the towering thesp.

Jennie has pin-up envy...
There seems little she can do to knock Orme off course until, spotting her aspirations, quick Buck makes her an offer she can’t refuse… and the stage is set (literally) for a battle between blonde brawn and brunette grit… Gloria always seems to pick fights with the bigger girls, first Bebe Daniels and now Gertrude Astor: she never knows when she’s beaten!

This was very much Swanson in her comic pomp more defined than in her earlier work with Sennett and de Mille and with a romantic determination and pure will to happiness that sits far more comfortably than her Desmond desperation. This was the “face” she had then but it was also the spirit and the skill.

Jennie tries to be the actress Orme wants...
Teddy at the Throttle (1917), screened before the main film showed more of Gloria’s raw ability at just 18 working with animals and Wallace Beery, her husband at the time… just. Lucy Porter pointed out that their relationship was very much on the rocks at the time, so much so that Mack Sennett made sure they didn’t have to rehearse together. None of this impacted on the end result, a gag-packed spoof on the Perils of Pauline and other damsels who end up chained to train tracks… Swanson performed all of her own stunts but then her relationship with Beery clearly showed that she was afraid of nothing!

Gloria and Lawrence Grey in publicity still from Stage Struck
Superb accompaniment was provided by the European Silent Screen Virtuosi comprised of Geunter A Buchwald on piano and violin, Romana Todesco on double bass and Frank Bockious on percussion. They gave the films plenty of swing and perfectly matched the mood as virtuosi should.

Stage Struck was restored some time ago and looks well for its age, a shame the film is not available on home media. There’s an horrible bootleg copy of YouTube but this film and Gloria deserve a lot more. That said, seeing it in cinema with improvised accompaniment and a live – laughing - audience was the bee’s knees and we left buzzin’…