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.

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