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

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