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!

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