Saturday, 30 May 2015

Ain’t no mountain high enough… A Dangerous Wooing (1919)

A Dangerous Wooing (Ett farlig frieri) was Rune Carlsten’s directorial debut and he went on to make some twenty films up until the 1940’s. If you didn’t know better you might almost assume that this romantic comedy drama was the work of his more renowned Swedish contemporary, Victor Sjöström, with extensive shots of the Scandinavian countryside (actually the region around the Hardanger Fjord in Norway) but Carlsten shows a lighter touch.

The exterior camerawork is exemplary from Raoul Reynolds and Carl Gustaf Florin, showing the sweep of endless mountains and hills behind the  Husaby farm at the centre of this very human romantic comedy… The day-to-day struggles of existing on this land is set aside as the characters set about each other but in the end the physical challenges of their location ,must be over come in order for the day to be won.

Right rural ain't it?
Carlsten’s tone may be warmer but, as with Sjöström, he attempts to paint an historically-detailed picture of traditional rural life from the clothes and the manners to the daily routines of cows, cooking and horn-blowing and, of course, the endless scrapping. Unfortunately for the boys there seem to be very few eligible young women in the village and the men of a certain age can’t stop fighting over her.

Gull Cronvall and Lars Hanson
Aslaug (Gull Cronvall) is the winsome daughter of veteran cock of the walk, Knut Husaby (Theodor Blick) who freely describes himself as the “Wolf” and his two sons as cubs… although Sigurd (Hugo Tranberg) and Eyvind (Gosta Cederlund) seem scarcely feral.

The old wolf Husaby!
As the film opens we see the old Wolf repel an amorously-intentioned violinist (Torsten Bergström) who is unceremoniously booted down the garden, landing next to two other would-be suitors. The keen-eyed viewer may spot a young Uno Henning as one of them… he would later star so effectively  in A Cottage on Dartmoor and more.

Thormund (Hjalmar Peters), the wealthiest farmer in the area approaches with his only son, Ola (Kurt Welin) who has all of the financial backing and none of the front being a podgy lad who is easily despatched and dunked in milk by Uno and his accomplice.

The Competition...
Nor will he fare any better with Aslaug, who only has eyes for one man, the handsomely-capable Tore Næsset (the capably-handsome Lars Hanson) who is not only her pick of the bunch but far smarter than the competition. He and Aslaug are already in love and the one little thing standing in their way is his humble station... well, that and Aslaug’s fearsome father.

Tore is the son of a humble small-holder and even his mother (Hilda Castegren) tells him he’s too poor to score with the Wolf’s foxy daughter (sorry…). But, he’s a man crazy in love and determined to bridge the income gap.

Thormund and his son arrive to propose to Husaby – and his daughter – and the Wolf declares that it’s her decision. She politely declines the course of her heart having already been set and then Tore declares his intentions only to be laughed out of the house by the older men and their sons: he is not worthy…

The counter-proposal is laughed off
But Tore is nothing if not steadfast and he continues to see Aslaug, fighting off attention from all comers during the course of her daily life minding the cows in the family’s extensive farm. As he bests every lad from the village, the Wolf decides it’s time to intervene… with the help of his two sons naturally…

Tore is ambushed by the sons and having easily beaten them both off is caught unawares by their father’s joining the fray. The three Husabys give him a beating and the Wold tells him that unless he makes it to see Aslaug the next Saturday, their engagement will be called off and she will have to marry  Ola Thormundson…

Tore evades the ambush
As Tore licks his wounds – in so much comedy bandage – the other families keep watch and make sure his entry to the farm and the single track to the out-house where Aslaug stays when minding the cattle, is impassable. Tore attempts a brave attack only to be repelled by weight of numbers… All looks lost until he stares out from his mother’s house up the impossibly high cliff to where his love waits…
Hang on...I've got an idea...
Rune Carlsten’s direction is assured and moves into a higher gear with the action scenes and the physically-impressive outdoors: the sub-polar light was key to Scandanavian success at this stage of cinema al fresco.

Lars is excellent as you’d expect and proves as adept at comedy as drama faced with the impressively-mighty Theodor Blick who you just wouldn’t want to mess with unless, that is, you were inescapably, bravely, in love with his daughter.

The version I watched was a copy of the 2010 restoration from the Svenska Filminstitutet which comes with an impressive, jazz-tinged score from Matti Bye. It's available on DVD from Loving the Classics purveyors of decent quality public domain cinema.

Uno Henning gets the cold shoulder

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Fear itself… The Coward (1915)

The Coward was one of a number of films made to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the American Civil War’s nominal ending. It tells a much smaller story than Mr Griffiths’ well-known epic from earlier in the year and focuses in on the more human reaction to war: the question of will I be able to fight?

Too often physical bravery is taken for granted and instinctive fear is treated as momentary doubt to be blown away by a sudden onrush of heroism or as a weakness to be pitied or laughed at. In The Coward the “hero” suffers deep shame and is only able to enlist under threat of being shot by his father… all armies need men like him: happy to slaughter those who run the wrong way.

Fearsome Frank Keenan
It’s not necessarily that this film won’t witness the ultimate triumph of heroism but the sympathetic way it deals with its counter-point that marks it out. The performance of the titular non-hero, Frank Winslow from baby-faced Charles Ray is naturalistic and convincing as the young man runs as terrified by his own perceived inadequacy as impending oblivion after all his letting not only his family and girl down, he’s letting himself down.

Written and produced by Thomas H. Ince and directed by Reginald Barker, The Coward starts off in the sunny South just as war breaks out. Frank’s father, retired Colonel Jefferson Beverly Winslow (Frank Keenan) sits reading a letter from Southern military command rejecting his offer to –re-enlist on account of age. Meanwhile Frank is out admiring peaceful nature with his sweetheart Amy (Margaret Gibson) but when they return to town, the declaration has been made and young men are falling over themselves to join up.

Margaret Gibson and Charles Ray
Frank’s worst fears have been realised and he is terrified of being a coward which seems distinct from being frightened for his own demise: is that a comment on societal indifference to the actuality of military conflict resolution at a time when Europe was ripping itself to shreds and America was seeing films showing the horror of its own war as never before?

Frank flees from the recruitment office
Frank enters the recruitment office, encouraged by the general hysteria and Amy’s pride, and almost manages it before, sickened with fear, he makes a break for home. He falls upon his mother (Gertrude Claire) and looks for some comfort but once his father hears we begin to understand why he’s more frightened of failure than death. The old man expects nothing but self-sacrifice and he treats his son as he would treat any other deserter by getting his gun and offering him the choice between a bullet sooner rather than later.

Frank joins up
Duly incentivised, Junior signs up with Dad in close attendance just in case and you have to say that theatre veteran Keenan is superb as the unbending force of Colonel Past: he may be unyielding but that look in his eye is not anger so much as deep regret and sadness… he knows all about war and he, unlike the thousands of ever-ready recruits, knows just what is going to happen to them.

So off goes Frank to serve the South but his involvement is short-lived as he runs back home after his first night watch: scared by the trees, the breeze and his own shadow. Father is disgusted and decides to take his son’s place in the war – off he goes, rifle in hand; back in the business.

Frank's disgrace is almost complete
But the Northern advance is swift and their home town is suddenly over-run forcing Frank to hide from the Yankees as they avail themselves of the Winslow house. As mother and the family servants – white actors Nick Cogley and Minnie Provost both in sad blackface – look after the intruders, Frank overhears their plans: they are exposed at the rear until reinforcements can arrive the following day… if the Confederates knew this they would be over-run...

Excellent battle scenes
OK… now the film changes tack as you might expect but it’s not without a twist in its final sequence. It’s also now that the war really starts and there are some well-realised scenes of battle from Barker and his cameramen Joseph H. August and Robert S. Newhard. After Birth the bar has been raised and after the slow pace and emotional intricacies of the film to this point, the action is now thick and fast.

If you look carefully you might even spot John Gilbert as “a young Virginian” although I missed him: these Yankees, they all look the same…

One of these men could be John Gilbert...
It’s not a major film but The Coward is none-the-less an interesting and entertaining one from a time of national self-reflection when the war was still in living memory and with some combatants still around to re-tell the tale.  As Birth also showed, some of the war’s issues were also still very much alive and kicking  but War never really grows old and Frank’s fears are as relevant and real today as they were a century ago.

War is hell
The Coward is available on Image Entertainment's Civil War Films of the Silent Era DVD from Amazon and probably elsewhere too.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Lost in transition… Our Blushing Brides (1930)

 Wiki-parently this was Joan Crawford’s 31st film (out of a career total of 86) and her 4th sound film – a third of her films were silent - made when she was just 26 and still in the process of becoming “Joan Crawford”.

Her diction is deliberately modulated to enable the microphones to pick up something approximating a received pronunciation north eastern American accent – this gal doesn’t sound like she’s from the Bronx let alone San Antonio, Texas… that she manages to act through these constraints is a wonder and a measure of her talent.

Crawford, Page and Sebastien again!
Our Blushing Brides follows loosely on from Our Dancing Daughters (very good), Our Modern Maidens (so-so) and is a mixed bag of genre and tone incorporating shop-girl comedy, dance spectacular, rom-com and melodrama shifting sometimes awkwardly between happy and really bloomin’ sad. Throughout it all, the camera is focused on Joan in and out of a variety of stunning gowns and frankly very pre-code lingerie… Ever get the feeling you’re being exploited?

It proves to be a very uneven experience and for stretches leaves you marooned in one of its pockets of coherence as you wait for the narrative to move along whilst, other-times, it just ups and jumps to its (sometimes-inevitable) conclusions without taking the characters and the audience through the steps to get there…

And yet… there are laughs, snap-chatty inter-play between the three female leads and a catwalk over-flowing with dancing mannequins all wearing the finest in elegant sewing or haute couture to you. Then there’s Joan, as expressive and energetically-focused as ever: this feels like a reasonably aerobic work-out for her but she’s clearly playing within her limits – half actress half athlete.

She gets good support from Dorothy Sebastian – ideal best friend material for Miss Crawford; capable of keeping up without overshadowing the front-runner. Also good is Anita Page who performs the seemingly impossible feet of having larger and prettier eyes than Joan. Joan has to work her lids to show her peepers to full effect but Anita just has to blink. A more natural comedian than Crawford her role is all the more tragic for that.

The three women play a hat-trick of shop workers who all perform different roles in Jardine’s Department Store and share a humble brownstone flat on their $20 weekly pay. Joan is Geraldine "Gerry" March a model or “mannequin” – who shows off the stores finest clothes to the well-off patrons whilst Anita is Connie Blair who works in the perfume counter whilst Dorothy’s Francine Daniels sells blankets in home furnishings.

As with all store-slaves they dream of escape and it seems Connie may well have found hers in the form of the owner’s second son David Jardine (Raymond Hackett). Gerry is less certain and has a natural distrust of male motivations no doubt having been once or twice-bitten. She attracts the attention of David’s elder brother Tony (Robert Montgomery) who ogles her during a fashion show and tries his luck but it turns out that Gerry doesn’t just play at hard-to-get: she is.

Then Francine, almost despairing of a lucky break, meets a mustachioed charmer Marty Sanderson (John Miljan) who orders $500 worth of blankets for his hotel and arranges a date at the same time: he’s in the money and she’s not bothering to check the gift-horse’s teeth…

Relationships move to the next level very quickly: Francine and Marty have a quick-fire drunken wedding much to Gerry’s concern whilst Connie soon moves into an apartment courtesy of David and it’s surely only a matter of time before he makes their relationship public.

Jeepers, creepers... check out Anita's peepers!
Then the film decides it’s time for a huge set-piece as a flamboyant fashion designer arrives to greet old pal Tony and arrange a massive show at the family pile… spotting Gerry he decides to make her the centre-piece. The limos arrive to find a massive stage erected on the vast Jardine estate and the nonsense begins with long minutes of Joan high-kicking and knicker-revealing in a flowing white dress. Swoosh, spin and bend: take that Mr Hays!!

What a swell party this is
Tony is naturally very impressed and takes Gerry off for a quite walk in the woods to show her his electronic tree house (haven’t you got one?). At the flick of a switch a large apartment is revealed and a stairway is lowered… Climbing up Gerry finds the room full of all the home comforts and yet, when Tony pulls up the stairs she feels cheated by this house-trap/tree-trick. Gerry had thought better of Tony and yet when he tries to man-splain his worldly-wise ways she realises he’s not one to trust before a tryst.

Tony's on third strike
Disgusted Gerry departs and refuses to give Tony a second chance: a line that impresses as a third chance is also spurned. Gerry leaves to live alone as expectations are momentarily confounded… Then things begin to unravel as life and the narrative takes a turn for the worse all round as the film finally decides it’s a drama after all with music and comedy put aside for the final fraught thirty minutes.

At the time Our Blushing Brides did good business and it’s not hard to see why: it was built to succeed by ticking so many boxes it could almost be a multiple choice examination on how to make a Hollywood winner. It’s a thoroughly-professional endeavour from all concerned and whilst it doesn’t engage in the way that Our Dancing Daughters did, it prefigures the mass ensemble back-stage musical dramas that were to follow.

Such a show off
It was also another staging post in the rise of the remarkable Joan – her diction and tone would improve but the look and the intensity was already in place as evidenced throughout her silent successes.

Our Blushing Brides is available on Warner Archive DVD-R either direct or from Amazons.

Don't worry dear, he liked it really...

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Social mobility… East Is East (1916) with John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

Florence Turner
“If you talked less you’d give your mustache a chance to grow!”

You can take the girl out of Stepney but, as this film posits, you can’t take Stepney out of the girl. Faced with unexpected rags to riches and forced to live a life in which you’re taught “not to drop your h’s but to drop your friends…” East-end girl Victoria struggles to come to terms with West-end boys and their weak ways. Then as now, it seems, the toffs don’t know it all….

There was something in the air in early Twentieth Century Europe a movement craving greater equality that pre-existed and was encouraged by the large-scale national enterprise of the Great War.  This film takes a waif who can’t even aspire to be a Covent Garden flower girl and shows what happens when she is asked to fit in to what she regards as an “artificial” world. It is fascinating that the post-Edwardians were looking for a “genuine” culture and so very interesting that an American actress can play this part so well.

4 ft 10" of pure talent!
Lucie Dutton in her excellently-informative introduction gave us some background on the talented Miss Turner who took to acting inspired by Sir Henry Irving who saw the actor in her and told her to “keep at it!” That she certainly did and by 1916 when the film was made (it was released in 1917) the New Yorker had established herself as a major star in Britain with her own production company, run with Larry Trimble, which encouraged native talent such as a cine-curious theatre director called Maurice Elvey…

Another former theatrical they employed was the multi-talented Henry Edwards who directs this film as well as co-stars. Edwards creates many dynamic moments and makes the most of the relatively fixed playing area to such an extent that you almost forget the vintage and the country of origin: this is yet another impressive British film from the teens.

Henry Edwards
Handsome Henry plays one Bert Grummett a cockney jack the lad who is cock of the walk in poor Poplar. He has a pal, name of Victoria Vickers (Florence Turner), who lives with her aunt (Edith Evans) and Uncle somewhere not far from the breadline.

Summer comes and this rag-tag modern family head to Kent to get work on a zero hour’s verbal contract picking hops. They push the family “Ford” – a broken down old pram – out East and pitch their meagre tent.  Cinematographer Tom White captures some lovely pastoral moments especially when we see the crew joining what appear to be your actual hop pickers: a vision of The Garden of England long vanished, smiling faces blinking at the cameras in the heat haze of summer ’16 – the year of the Somme.

Now, as luck would have it, a rich and long-lost American Uncle has just died and left all of their money to their last surviving relative… one Victoria Vickers of Stepney. The lawyers are instructed to search and enrich but the Vickers mob are out in Kent and no one has any forwarding address. If Victoria isn’t found soon the money will have to go to charity and so it would were it not for the fact that one of the solicitors decides to take his holiday in Kent where, photographing local colour, he encounters VV.

At first Victoria and co just can’t believe it but once they are whisked back to London they find out the full details. Happy days, game over… not a bit of it!

Money will only serve to come between Victoria and those she loves, the conditions of the will mean she has to learn to be a “laydey” or else those charities will get their money. She’s sent to live with well-meaning but insular Mrs. Carrington (Ruth Mackay) and her useless wastrel of a son who is busily gambling away their family fortune.

Hop pickers in Kent
Aunt and Uncle are paid off and shipped off to the New World whilst Bert backs out believing this all to be in Victoria’s best interests. Vicky writes him letters that Mrs C throws away believing that she needs to be protected from her past: there is no recognition of the validity of her previous existence (the unworthy poor).

She sends Bert £2,500 encouraging him to start up a business and to live his dream of a to-the-door, fast-fried fish and chip shop. Bert duly entrepreneurs and with a year has his own branded bicycles for home delivery, replaced a year later by vans – Harry Ramsden where you watching?
The East End of London in the Great War (Getty Images)
Bert visits Vic but his flashy suit and manners that mark him as “trade” won’t pass as middle class, at least Mrs C doesn’t think so. Bert goes off to get himself a proper tailor and a teacher to improve his manners whilst Victoria is sucked further into the loveless world of polite society. Mrs C’s son is now hopelessly in debt and he views Victoria as his payment protection insurance…  Will she become a victim of his financial miss-selling or will her old instincts make her bet on Bert, the genuine Grummett?
East is East is a thoroughly-entertaining film and very British in its refusal to take itself too seriously. Laugh out loud moments aside it carries a sincere message and we must always strive to be true to ourselves even when the best we can hope for is to hope for the best.

"Remarkable Exteriors and Exceptional Photography"
John Sweeney provided accompaniment with his usual grace and finesse. He strikes the keys so unerringly well you would find it hard to distinguish his music from a pre-prepared score and yet his “duet” with the film’s sentiments is improvised on the spot, seamlessly summoning themes from his vast mental back catalogue at the press of a key.

Cyrus Gabrysch provided similarly safe-handed service for the three films on tonight’s under-card – the Bioscope is always such great value! These were a 1921 serial featuring the Woman in Grey (Arline Pretty and, she is), episode 7, At the Mercy of Flames (she is) followed by an inventive cartoon from the legendary Max Fleisher, part of his Out of the Inkwell series.
Pretty in Peril!
Last up was a 1926 short comedy, Dodging Trouble featuring Neal Burns and Edna Marion. The two play a married couple trying to avoid being served a subpoena as they head off on holiday, they are pursued all of the way by Eddie Baker who is thoroughly-miss-matched against Buddy the Dog who is consequently now my favourite silent film hound!

The Woman in Grey serial is available complete on budget DVD from so, if you really need to see if she survives the flames you can! Various Neal Burns shorts are to be found on YouTube plus Max Fleisher’s rotoscoped clown.

You can also watch a blurry video transfer of East is East on the Internet Archive but tonight we were treated to the actual film and the re-assuring whir of the projector made the experience all the more… genuine.

KESSF first draft logo V4

Details of up-coming Bioscope screenings are available on their site including a weekender on 21/22 June – which I will sadly miss as I’m climbing Snowdon for Parkinson’s UK!

Monday, 11 May 2015

Anny Ondra scores with new comedy! An Old Gangster's Moll (1927), Barbican with Neuveritelno

This was the UK premier of Milenky starého kriminálníka aka An Old Gangster's Moll (also aka The Lovers of an Old Criminal) and Czech beauty Anny Ondra may just have a hit on her hands! She stars alongside the uncontested “King of Czech Comedians" Vlasta Burian whose slapstick is more than worthy of his exuberant moustache!

The film was presented in partnership with the Czech Centre London and supported by the Czech National Film Archive and was projected on 35mm film with English subtitles manually inserted on the title cards – there’s no better cinematic experience than to see today’s light passing through images burned onto celluloid in 1927.

Vlasta Burian and Anny Ondra
The “live” feel was accentuated by a crackingly-quirky score from  Czech trio Neuveritelno, three impossibly young musicians who really captured the film’s tone and were able to connect with their countrymen’s sense of humour even 88 years down the line. Again, there’s little better than someone showing their culture off with such energetic pride.

The trio comprised Jan Prochazka on double bass, Andrea Rottin guitar and Tomas Majtan on drums, mandolin, they all vocalised whilst someone also played kazoo at appropriate moments. Their music was a very Czech confection mixing the feel of sixties euro-wimsy with jazz, metal, swing and something approximating Czech skiffle. At times they sounded like the Czech Dodge Brothers but they brought a unique sound of their own and their infectious themes are still stuck in my head.

The King of Czech Comedians
All of this was in response to the bonkers energy of Ondra (here Anny Ondráková) and Burian on screen in this complicated comedy of co-incidence. Last time I saw Anny she was getting away with murder but here she takes on the persona of ultra-Flapper with ease: think Bare Knees after a sugar-rush and a fair amount of vodka.

Fifi's early-morning routine
She plays Fifi Hrazánková the pampered daughter of an industrialist who requires an army of helpers to get her ready for the day with massage, make-up and manicure. Her father is in the process of merging with the company run by one Pardon (Jan W. Speerger) whom he intends to get his daughter married off too… but Pardon has other ideas. Many months before he had met a lovely woman Olga Lesczynská (Vera Hlavatá) at a ball. The two agreed an assignation but Olga’s mother, Stefanie (Betty Kysilková) drags her away leaving him frustrated. He has spent the intervening time trying to find the love of his life..
Pardon waits in vain for his Olga...
Confused yet? All becomes clear over time but not until well after the arrival of Pardon’s Uncle Cyril Pondelícek (Vlasta Burian) an apparently infirm old chancer who arrives to take advantage of his nephew’s hospitality with Burian executing a superb tumble down the steps of his new home.

After getting the letter announcing the visit of Fifi, Pardon hatches a plan to swap places with his Uncle in the hope of avoiding this marriage of inconvenience… what can possibly go wrong?

Un-insurable, that's what she is...
There follows a breath-taking sequence as Fifi drives like a maniac towards her appointment; something akin to Death Race 1927 with a least one hen casualty and many other near misses. She drives Pardon off the road before arriving at the house by crashing through a wall.

She finds Cyril in the process of practicing his charm and rapidly overcomes her disappointment at his age when she catches sight of what appears to be his photograph in a newspaper… Cyril is the spitting image for a notorious criminal called Alois Kanibal – The Cannibal – who is wanted throughout the Republic. Fifi finds the idea of being a gangster’s moll very appealing.

Fifi mistakes Cyril for her dream mobster...
She starts putting the mastermind through his paces by asking him to show her a genuine “Apache” dance. Cyril frets over his rheumatism but then kicks into a dance routine that has him swirling Fifi around in the air – an eye-popping routine that seemingly involved both actors. Clearly Anny was as adept at physical comedy as she was as Hitch’s prototypical blonde – she’s a riot!

Strictly criminal dancing
Just as you assume that the story would rest on its laurels it changes gear once again as Cyril’s long-lost “love” – that is a woman he has avoided for 18 years – turns out to be Olga’s mother, Stefanie. This would count for little but for the fact that riding on a train, Olga spots Pardon sitting in his car at a level crossing. The eagle-eyed young woman then manages to get the train stopped and to position herself on a park bench near his car within seconds…

Cyril outpaces a police motorbike on a scooter
Re-united the two lovers hatch a plan to stay together but Stephanie – who is a clairvoyant who clearly never sees things coming – must be kept in the dark!

Pardon takes them back to the house and the mad-house mix is finally complete: Stefanie recognising Cyril, Fifi chasing her Cannibal and Pardon trying to make love to Olga… whilst the range of eccentrics who tend the household gurn away in the background.

Queue mayhem and misunderstanding… but that’s not all as surely, at some point, the real Cannibal must turn up…

Svatopluk Innemann’s direction is sophisticated with high-energy cutting, seemless double exposures and an inch-perfect race across a level crossing between Pardon’s car and an onrushing train. There’s also a splendidly gruesome sequence of comic murder as Cyril tries to persuade Stefanie that he’s a serial killer of his ex-girlfriends.

Vlasta Burian’s comedy is knowing enough to impress even the jaded modern pallet and he succeeds in letting the audience in on the joke whilst at the same time acting so well as both Cyril and Cannibal. As for Anny, she truly shows another side to her talents as she bounces across the screen boxing her maid and flying around in that mad dance – a shame she and Ersnt Lubitsch never worked together as she reminded me so much of Ossi Oswalda.

Andrea Rottin, guitar, Tomas Majtan, drums, mandolin and Jan Prochazka, double bass
Neuveritelno had flown in from Prague especially for the screening, hopefully they and the film will return… they are currently touring it in Europe. More details of their music and the tour can be found on their website whilst details of the film are on the Czech Centre London site.