Thursday, 30 April 2015

Brave hearts and chieftains… Annie Laurie (1927), Barbican with Shona Mooney Trio

Hollywood has long specialised in the cod-Celtic but Shona Mooney’s authentic, soulful folk reclaimed this one for Scotland!

Her score had been commissioned for the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema to accompany this film’s re-emergence after a crisp restoration by U.S. Library of Congress and the show came thundering down to England to strike a blow for the Highlands just a few hundred yards from where William Wallace was executed in 1305 (Smithfield, just outside Barts…).

Tha wee bonnie lassie, Lillian
The film was directed for MGM by John S. Robertson and represented an attempt to broaden Lillian Gish’s appeal. Sandwiched between her two films with the great Victor Sjöström – The Scarlet Letter (1926) and The Wind (1928) - Annie Laurie feels lightweight but it’s good to see Gish in more flirtatious mode and I don’t think I’ve seen her smile so much... That’s not to say that she doesn’t get a chance to stress-test her character and there is one extraordinary moment when her face is in open-eyed shock when, through she is able to summon forth tears - supernatural control but, in this film, from someone who is less intense than usual*.

The film is loosely based on the legendary rivalry between the Scottish clans of MacDonald and Campbell which resulted in the Massacre of Glencoe of 12th February 1692.

Some men in kilts
The feud between the clans is presented in a half-comic way here even though events kick off with the killing of one of the MacDonald’s men by the Campbells who attach a note to the body to make sure their neighbours get the message (sometimes it’s just good to talk boys…).

The MacDonald Chieftain (Hobart Bosworth) calls on his son Ian (Norman Kerry with an odd moustache and a strange shirt with plunging neckline… they did realise how cold it is in Scotland didn’t they?!) to extract revenge and heads off with his men to steal the Campbell cattle and the life of one of their men – “A Campbell for a MacDonald!” he cries as he dumps the body in the mix of their evening revels.

Norman Kerry and Lillian Gish
 The squad also takes the Campbell Chieftain’s niece, Enid (Patricia Avery) with them after she has caught the eye of Ian’s brother Alastair (Joseph Striker). She had been wandering in the castle grounds with her best friend and cousin, Annie Laurie (Gish) who desperately tries to stop the kidnap.

Negotiation takes weeks and, by the time the clans gather to return Enid, she has fallen for her handsome captor and refuses to return. The Campbell Chieftain (Brandon Hurst) curses her, her lover and their first born: feelings are running high.

Enid and Annie
Annie tries to make Enid stay and her eye is caught by that of the young “Pup” MacDonald – something stirs… which is all very frustrating for Donald Campbell (the normally likeable Creighton Hale who is here, not so much…). As Donald tries to woo Annie her thoughts begin to drift to the far hunkier Ian. As comic relief Sandy (Russell Simpson) says: these barbarians have a way with women.

Donald is not quite the lute playing fop he appears though and opinion on just exactly who is the barbarian must be suspended pending further data.

Lillian Gish and Creighton Hale
Enid invites Annie to visit and sends Ian to escort her. The two bond after he carries her across a babbling brook (see Mr Griffith, Lillian doesn’t always need to half drown in order to make a movie…) and on the return journey she receives the shock of a kiss. She runs away but they both know this is it.

As relations thaw all round, Ian and Annie dance at a coming together of the clans and Donald’s jealousy rises up a notch or three. Walking together Annie and Ian are surrounded by Duncan and his men, Ian calls on her to leave the Campbells but she isn’t ready and after she leaves, Donald’s boys subject Ian to a walk through a tunnel made by their raised swords. As he walks through they strike his back, flaying his skin and leaving deep scars, Annie runs back to intervene and there are some excellent shots of her panicked face through the steel.

Annie really likes the 'tache
Ian keeps too much of his pride and cruelly rejects Annie for not declaring her true love… Job done thinks scheming Donald.

Events now begin to broaden in scope as the Campbells look to find favour with the English King and to outmanoeuvre the MacDonalds. Annie hears of their plot to take the latter’s land with the monarch’s help if the MacDonalds refuse to sign a new agreement and rushes off to warn Ian. But will the man ever sober up enough to drop his grudge against her and in time to prevent the Campbells not only taking their land but their lives as that fateful day in Glencoe approaches…

Annie pleads with unyielding Campbells
It’s a well-made film with some interesting cinematography from Oliver Marsh especially with what looks like hand-held camera-work for the main battle and a chase sequence. The story may be less than historically accurate but it’s an entertaining ride.

The experience was elevated from an interesting to exciting one by the genuinely uplifting, intelligent and precise composition of Shona Mooney. Shona played the fiddle and was accompanied by Alasdair Paul on guitar and flute as well as Amy Thatcher in accordion and piano. This well-drilled group played very tightly along with the action with energy and invention.

Amy Thatcher, Shona Mooney + Alasdair Paul
The music worked so well with the film, matching sound effects and themes to the action to witty and winning effect; from a knock on the door to the emotional cadences of Miss Gish’s acting. I am sure Lillian would have approved whilst the rest of us were on our feet clapping for an encore!

If you get the chance to see the film with Shona’s accompaniment I wouldn’t hesitate and it is to be hoped that the combination gets more opportunities to show how the unique combinations of silent film and fresh music can move an audience.

More details of Shona Mooney’s music are on her site. She has had a very active career since winning the BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2006 recording numerous albums and touring the World. She specialised in Eighteenth Century Scottish music and so her affinity with Annie Laurie is not surprising: more authentic, in fact, than the Californian scenery and title card dialect used in the film…

*Off screen her mother had been taken ill and Gish confessed to being less involved in her preparation for this film than in say La Bohème (1926) or The Wind. It’s no bad thing – in terms of the film – as she gives a relaxed, naturalistic performance and is more lighthearted as a result.

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