Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Crossing the Rubicon… Gaius Julius Caesar (1914)

Based on a true story by William Shakespeare… or something like that, this is a suitably huge take on the life of Julius Caesar featuring something like 20,000 extras and a significant number of horses. Directed by Enrico Guazzoni it represents one of the pre-war highlights of the silent Italian epic along with the same director’s Quo Vadis from 1912.

It doesn’t quite have the ground-breaking bravura of the previous year’s Cabiria but it is impressive none-the-less with densely-packed tableaux, crowded set piece battles and extensive location shooting. As grand gestures go it’s pretty darned grand as befits the man who put the imperial into Rome. The Caesar on display is a man who believes in the nobility of his countrymen and who proves his worth through a breath-taking sequence of military victories having been forced to leave corrupt Roman society.

Amleto Novelli
He’s such a noble leader you have to wonder why there were so many senators willing to contribute to his eventual downfall but they get theirs and far more rapidly than the insurrectionists at the time. Was Guazzoni supporting the right of contemporary Italy to spread out into empire along with Germany, France and Britain? They were there first after all… and whilst every jaded democracy looks back with fondness at their past glories, pasts don’t come much more glorious than Italy’s: for Gaius Julius Caesar… think King Arthur but real and with a much broader remit.

Amleto Novelli and Irene Mattalia
Young Caesar (Amleto Novelli – who was Vinicius in Quo Vadis) is in love with Servilia (Irene Mattalia) and the two share illicit trysts as her family do not approve of their liaison. Her father Cato (Augusto Mastripietri) has promised her to another, Marcus Brutus (Antonio Nazzari), an ally of the Roman dictator Sulla. They are from Rome’s old established families whose republicanism is a self-perpetuating oligarchy that looks after nobility and wants the populace kept in place… in the film any way.

Lovely lighting in this scene don't you think?
Caesar is spotted leaving their meeting place and Cato forces Servilla into agreeing marriage with Marcus Brutus in order to protect Caesar. Caesar is incensed but there is no way out especially as he falls foul of Sulla and is only rescued by the intervention of the Vestal Virgins.

He has to leave Rome and goes off to serve in Asia leaving Servilla to marry Marcus Brutus in misery especially as she is carrying her lover’s child. She tells Marcus who swears to turn the boy against his father… In reality Brutus was not Caesar’s son (his father was Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder) although his mother was indeed Servilla who did later become Caesar’s mistress.

Brutus is turned against his father
It is a long seven years before the dictator dies and it is safe for Caesar to return to Rome, and when he does he is welcomed back by all but the “optimates” who want to protect the status quo. Sadly these now include his young son who has been bought up to believe in the Republic and to hate Caesar’s “populaire” approach.

Caesar is not without friends in his places and he earns a position that see him elected as Consul for southern Gaul in charge not just of the lands but also the army that occupies it. Caesar begins to show stunning vision and leadership and moves his men northwards to expand the Roman territory still further. He ended up being the first Roman to conquer Gaul and also the Germanic lands beyond the Rhine and a hostile, damp island floating in the North Sea.

Under siege
The Gallic Wars are shown in summary form and represented best by the Battle of Alesia in which Caesar’s forces overcame the numerically far superior forces of the mighty Vercingetorix (Bruto Castellani) through discipline and strategic innovation. Fighting his foes on two fronts Caesar had his men dig lethal traps in front and behind whilst also fortifying their position.

Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar
Caesar returns to Rome controlling all of Gaul but with feelings running high in the Curia Hostilia – the senate meeting house – where Cato leads demands to remove Caesar’s consulship. The famously-loyal Mark Anthony walks out in disgust.

Brutus leads the senate delegation to Caesar’s camp with demands to disband his legion and to accept the loss of his consulship… The soldiers try to kill Brutus but Caesar stops them but Brutus does not express gratitude calling him an enemy of the Republic… which is factually exact.

Crossing the Rubicon
Caesar has little option but to press on into Rome and he drives his army onwards crossing the river Rubicon, the border to Rome, declaring Alea iacta est! (The die is cast!).

Enjoying a triumphant return to Rome, Caesar takes the treasures of Saturn’s Temple to feed his troops – Saus populi suprema lex! (The good of the people is the highest law!)

His former ally and one-time son-in-law, Pompey (Ignazio Lupi) has gone over to the Republican cause and as Consul provides the opposition but he flees Rome for Greece (Albanian in this film…) berated by Cato and Brutus for being too hesitant…

But Caesar defeats Pompey’s army – his army was smaller but used to victory, battle-hardened and confident in themselves and their charismatic, tactically brilliant leader. Brutus is captured and fears for his life but Caesar tells him he wants him alive for the good of the fatherland and he wants him to rule the lands he captured in Gaul.

Pompey sails off to Egypt, where he is killed at the order of King Ptolemy (Cleopatra’s brother) but Caesar is not pleased… every Roman life is sacred especially that of a former friend.

The Senate
Rome receives the victor with a huge parade celebrating his many conquests… This is a stunning sequence involving many thousands of extras, stretched out over a long procession that takes well over three minutes to snake its way past the camera… I was reminded of the entry of Caesar into Cleopatra in the 1963 film and this sequence was undoubtedly an influence on so many later depictions of Rome…

The big parade...
Caesar is named dictator for life and the establishment reaction spreads… Brutus is pulled back in and agrees to lead the rebellion. Then comes the Ides of March… Caesar is warned but he doesn’t want the Senate to be guarded by his soldiers as enemies. His end comes as the old guard begins its last stand… the age of empire was about to begin and Caesar’s nephew Augustus would soon rule as Emperor.

As for Julius, as the film makes clear, he lives on as immortal history whilst those who conspired against him are forgotten… All that is, save for the man who he may well have viewed almost like a son in his final moments with Roman historian Suetonius claiming he said something like You too, child? as opposed to et tu Brute? as Mr Shakespeare suggests. Others report, however, that he said nothing at all…

Gaius Julius Caesar is one of the last of the Italian silent spectaculars and it remains enjoyably paced – it has to be to cram all of the above narrative into just over two hours! Yes the camera movement is minimal and stately but what it shows are a succession of often striking compositions, notably when Caesar stands silhouetted in blue against a deep red setting sun: the majesty of the lost art of tinting.

The film doesn’t appear to be available on home media but you catch it in reasonable quality on YouTube.

The golden age of tinting...

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Jazz and babies… The Empty Cradle (1923)/Bare Knees (1928), Kennington Bioscope with Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch

There are plenty of lost films but there are also many unknown ones at least to me, I had never heard of The Empty Cradle and there is very little about the film on the interweb – even IMDB only has the cast list and no reviews. So, it’s quite a present to be able to sit in comfort and good company to unwrap the mystery of a film I didn’t know I wanted to watch until I’d seen it.

At London’s Kennington Bioscope they’re used to such treats and we watched a 80-something 16mm Kodascope print that required a good deal of attention from the projectionist in fixing broken sprockets prior to the show and then constantly re-focusing as light flowed through it in public for the first time in years.

Burton L King 1920.jpg
Burton King
Directed by Burton King from a story by Leota Morgan, the film starred Mary Alden an actress who learned her craft on Broadway before working for the Biograph Company and famously featuring as the mulatto girl who falls for Northern reformer John Stoneman in Birth of a Nation. She was in Intolerance too as well as Clara Bow’s The Plastic Age and a host of features up until the pre-code era in Strange Interlude (1932) with Norma Shearer.

She was forty when she made this film and clearly a very experienced and able actress who carried much of the emotional weight of the drama on her shoulders.

Harry T. Morey
Alden plays Alice Larkin a woman who left the upper-middle class enclave of The Hills for the blue collar depths of The Road in an every-town called Bloomdale. She married for love and in hope but her husband John (Harry T. Morey) has failed to provide the success they longed for. He has a formula for treating copper but has not been able to master the process leaving them stony broke and in debt not just to the local grocer, who they owe $3.98, but Alice’s wealthy Aunt Martha (Rica Allen) who’s sadness at her niece’s life choices has mutated into a form of sadistic glee in reminding her of constant failure.

The couple have three children, two characterful boys Buddy (Mickey Bennett) and Frankie (Edward Quinn) and a baby girl, Louise (apparently played by one Helen Rowland). Times are hard and as the boys dream of their Christmas presents – a drum for one and a pram for the other (plus a cow to provide milk for his baby sister) – Alice knows that she cannot afford for Santa to visit.

Former Zeigfeld girl Madeline La Varre
The plot thickens when her former love rival Ethel (Madeline La Varre… now there’s a name to conjure with!) arrives in town with mischief on her mind: let’s call her Evil Ethel shall we… Ethel it was who stole off with Alice’s former love, the well-heeled Robert Lewis (Coit Albertson) but who then lost him as her character flaws eroded their marriage. But she has a plan to win him back and, at the same time, break her former rival’s heart for good… see how evil Ethel is?

Evil wants to buy herself a baby and claim it as Robert’s own, thereby winning him back and the person she has chosen to acquire the child from is Alice. Meanwhile, down the hill as the boys play with their old toys on a cold Christmas morning, John heads off to his workshop to experiment once again on his process. There’s a flash and he reels back seemingly blinded… he’s helped back to the house to heap more misery on the flailing family fortunes.

Mickey Bennett
Just when you think things cannot get any worse… Evil’s attorney arrives with a cheque for $50,000 which he offers to Alice in exchange for her daughter… Broke with no support from her Aunt and with a husband possibly crippled what options does she have?

If this all sounds melodramatic that’s because it is but the playing is so intelligent you forget the situation and feel for the characters… More than one cynical cineaste wiped a tear from their eye as the story unfolded after the apparently fateful decision… but I will say no more.

Lillian Henley provided expert accompaniment to the film and greatly enhanced the drama. Given the film’s rarity I wonder if she’d had a chance at a run-through but she played very well – I'd not seen her play before but she's certainly a musician to watch and hear! More details are on her website.

Virginia Lee Corbin and Johnnie Walker
Top of the bill tonight was the bundle of fun that is the flapper comedy, Bare Knees described in its introduction as being amongst the speaker’s favourite films with bad titles. Bare knees and bare backs will get girls into trouble says her elder sister but a glimpse of stocking is no longer shocking and in the world of Virginia Lee Corbin’s Billie anything goes… Except Billie’s not quite what she appears even though Director Erle C. Kenton’s camera seems fixed on her legs almost throughout. She has a thoroughly modern morality and is first of all, true to herself with an open integrity that puts her elders to shame.

Never judge a book by its cover or legs by their lack of covering…

I previously raved about Bare Legs and tonight saw no reason to change my opinion. It’s always better watching a comedy with a live audience and those wise-cracking title cards were rewarded with laughs all round in another full house. I also have to say that Jane Winton has the most gloriously expressive eyes especially as they well up with the shock of betrayal soon followed by pride in her suddenly surprisingly wonderful sibling…

Jane Winton and those eyes...
Bare Knees is a gift for accompanists and Cyrus Gabrysch grabbed it with both hands and all ten digits as he threw in plenty of jazz-age riffs and romantic transitions. His music transformed the experience of watching the film – it’s so much more fun live and worth the late night on a school night - I forgot all about my budgets - what more can you ask?

Bare Knees is available on DVD from Grapevine and we can only hope that The Empty Cradle will get more attention in future. For more like these keep your eyes on the Bioscope’s website.