Saturday, 29 August 2015

Boys don’t cry… Hamlet (1921), Wilton’s Music Hall with Robin Harris

Another year another celebrity Prince of Denmark and as London reels from the Cumberbatch-lash (To be or not to be… was moved in previews to the start of the play in the Barbican’s new version - imagine!?) this screening at wonderful Wilton’s provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on just how malleable this play can be.

This wasn’t the first time that a woman had played Hamlet but it was almost certainly the first time that the Prince had actually been a Princess – one forced to conceal her sex in order to maintain the Danish throne and who’s dithering route to revenge is now explained by her femininity. Well, that’s how Dr. Edward P. Vining's book The Mystery of Hamlet had it in 1881 but here, with Asta Nielsen as the Prince, it’s a little different…

One of the tinted sequences - Hamlet rides with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Die Asta was calling all of the shots and with this being her self-titled company’s first production, she appointed the directors Svend Gade and Heinz Schall and – one presumes – had plenty of say in the direction of her character: a Hamlet whose function is not just smothered by surmise (as distant cousin Macbeth once remarked) but through force of circumstance. She is a woman in a brutal man’s world, whose position is purely dependent on her being perceived as a man.

Asta Nielsen and Lilly Jacobson
Some of those down from Hoxton for the evening may have found the premise a little too funny but Asta knew full well what she was about and there are some wonderful digs at Hamlet in the opening titles: “ an ass” said Goethe, “an affected fop” said Herder and a "taseless mix of whim and nonesense" said Voltaire (ooh, get you!). Vining’s theory could explain it all and is all the more gender-bent because of the fact that in Tudor times a young man would have had to play the woman playing the man…

Sometimes it's hard to be a woman...
This was also post-War Germany, after a conflict that had seen women stepping into so many of men’s roles – Asta was already the money and the talent: here was another way for her to promote equality of opportunity…

My father was killed by a Danish sword...but let us put their hatred behind us!
I’d seen the film before – the splendid Edition Filmmuseum DVD and this was the version used for tonight’s screening but I wasn’t just here for the movie and the newly re-furbished Wilton wonderland: I was here for the music. We were treated to an exceptional live score composed by multi-instrumentalist Robin Harris who played piano, flute and percussion whilst regular collaborator Laura Anstee played Cello and a lot more besides. They also had Aaron May on electronics, who sampledg the other players’ and creating enriched soundscapes layered over the acoustic instruments: a fusion of modern composition for silent film with modern sound collage.

Hamlet instructs the players
They provided a multi-textural accompaniment to Nielsen’s meta-textual film and you got the feeling that Asta would have smiled that knowing smile, winked and said “well done”! I especially liked the deployment of the Swanee Whistle but there were many instruments played to great effect throughout highlighting the comedy as well as the usual tragedy – I think this Hamlet was meant to be played with a swagger and to be fun. Mission accomplished Robin, Laura and Aaron!

Hamlet teases Polonius
Hamlet: Drama of Vengeance, to give its full title, is a tour-de-force from Nielsen who, whilst she wouldn’t actually pass for a man does pass as a woman playing at being a man. Mr. From-Hoxton, the jokes are intentional and the country that was busy inventing and perfecting the art of twentieth century cultural transgression was more than capable of holding all of the contradictions of Asta’s Hamlet in its cinematic consciousness all at the same time.

How lovely Provence must be...
Hamlet goes to university and casting an appraising glance up and down Horatio (Heinz Stieda), who is from Provence, remarks how lovely the place must be; she occasionally has to pull her shirt closed to conceal herself and you can imagine the double-think of the Ophelia situation. All is explained by her attempt to keep Horatio away from Polonius’ daughter but there’s a lot of love that might well dare not speak its name otherwise.

Hamlet’s situation starts with her father, also called Hamlet (Paul Conradi), almost dying in battle. Her mother Queen Gertrude (Mathilde Brandt), delivers a baby girl but decides the only way to secure the throne is to tell the world it is a son. King Hamlet recovers but agrees to go along with the deception.

The Danish Royal Family: complicated...
By the time the girl has grown almost into a man, Gertrude has grown tired of her father that she’s carrying on with his brother Claudius (Eduard von Winterstein). A power struggle’s afoot and you wonder how Gertrude is going to break the news to her new lover that her son is nothing like he seems…

The King is removed by snakebite and his funeral wake quickly morphs into a wedding party as his brother and murderer hastily arranges a wedding. Hamlet enters the great hall, dressed in black with her cape flowing impressively behind as she storms towards the throne: she has her suspicions and when she discovers Claudius’ knife next to the snake pit from which he took the viper that did the deed… she knows her enemy.

Hamlet flies in to challenge the new King
How to revenge herself given her precarious position and the new King’s superior strength? Hamlet makes the decision to not only pretend to be mad but to carry on pretending to be a man.

Kindly old Polonius (Hans Junkermann) – who is quite splendidly made up like an out-take from an Aubrey Beardsley illustrated Japanese fairy tale – tries to help the seeming unfortunate who then persuades his daughter Ophelia (Lilly Jacobson) to fall for him and not Horatio… That’s just not going to work out and, by the same token, nor can the Norwegian King Fortinbras (Fritz Achterberg) expect his relationship with the young Price of Denmark to ever be more than… fraternal.

The fair Ophelia gets closer to the water...
Hamlet is always amongst my favourite Shakespeare with an uncertain hero given plenty of great soliloquies en route to the neat bloodbath at the end… Here the tragedy is stripped down and given new dimension as Horatio realises his buddy is really his love: an extra twist – love as well as life wasted.

Asta Nielsen
It goes without saying that Die Asta is quite magnificent – amidst the pantomime the big screen revealed even more of her ability to present the appearance of nuanced reality on film. It’s her casual glances and smaller gestures that succeed the most; underpinning her ability to rise to the more obvious dramatic crescendos.

The Edition Filmmuseum DVD is available direct and can find it on, .com and , too.

More details of Robin Harris can be found on his website which also features musical samples from his score for Der Golem! Lovely stuff.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

FF + MM = 8½ (1963)

Of all the accolades for this film – and it’s on pretty much every “best of” list – perhaps the Vatican’s ranking it among the best films made in the first century of cinema is the one Federico Fellini would have been most amused by. Who knows? But the answer might well be in itself, a film that is entirely about the question: “why make a film?” and about which it is probably impossible to say anything new.

So, why bother trying? There are choices to be made and this is one you can just watch, enjoy and leave alone, you’re not going to add anything to a pile of opinion 52 years deep and yet, why say anything about any film unless you feel you’re either a valuable show off of you just have to make a note of your personal response.

On the way to work
I’m sat on a train, heading down to work, it’s a sunny morning after the rain before and it’s either this or a spread sheet… Having sat in the same room as Federico and Marcello for over two hours, it would be rude not to acknowledge their presence.

Hang on… isn’t that Claudia Cardinale smiling at me over the ranks of Italian tourists packed onto the Gatwick Express? She’s leading me on.

is the most numerically-accurate film in history: the precise number of films it’s director had made up to that point with one co-direction preventing its being rounded up to an even 9.

It is ostensibly a film about a director, Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) trying to overcome his doubts about his own credibility in order to make another movie. Throughout he’s pestered by producers and performers all anxious to work as well as an intellectual film critic Carini Daumier (Jean Rougeul) whom at one point he imagines being silenced by "hanging" (don’t worry he returns).

Rossella Falk and Anouk Aimée - funny and serious
It takes a lot to take the mickey and yet still produce such a powerfully-immersive film as 8½ but Federico also manages funny and serious, imagined and real and counter-balances everything impossibly well all through the intense focus of his remarkable star.

Mastroianni is a wonder throughout and has qualities akin to Gish and Huppert – he can show interior worlds and hold Fellini’s contradictions within his character with a stillness that belies the conflict and moving with graceful transitions between the states of confusion, hope, desperation, pity and love. What can appear as a cool demeanor very soon dissolves into apathy and inertia.

Marcello not in neutral...
Very few men can act this way and carry it off – Mastroianni’s “neutral” is so poised that he is able to flex his mood far easier than other more overtly demonstrable actors.

Here he takes even the most unforgiving statements form his inner critic on his chin … He is apparently making a film full of “gratuitous episodes, perhaps even amusing due to their ambiguous realism. One wonders what the author’s point is… The subject matter doesn’t even have the merits of an avant-garde film…” No wonder he “hangs” him!

Lengthy queues for holy water
Guido is in a sanitarium in an attempt to recover his strength and find his movie-making mojo… his self-doubt (The Critic) is soon joined by his over-bearing mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo) who arrives by train to collect her man and her part… It’s hard to see what Guido sees in the obvious charms of Carla and it’s only when we encounter his wife that all makes sense.

Carla is straightforward, if demanding, and doesn’t pull Guido into the deeper waters of his marriage where Luisa Anselmi (Anouk Aimée) is every inch his match. But Carla is also crowd-pleasing cinema and that’s a place the director likes to visit even though he hates himself for staying there.

Carla being straightforward, not demanding...
He calls Luisa and asks her to come and join him – we know and he knows that it will make his life more difficult and that’s the challenge he’s seeking.

Before all this, Guido wanders through the the sanitorium-cum-holiday camp accompanied by his nagging arty conscience. He finds his friend Mario Mezzabotta (Mario Pisu) who is a similar age but has left his wife to be with a younger woman, Gloria Morin (splendidly played by Barbara Steele). Gloria is highly intelligent and an art-house dream of hipster fringe, darting glance and angular black fashion: the cutting edge Guido feels he may lack.

Gloria makes Mario move
Guido seems to relate to the world through the women in his life and imagination – he catches sight of a beautiful young woman (Claudia Cardinale) a vision in white who dazzles as she hands him a glass: the perfect woman for the film and for life?

Claudia (again)
Dreams lead the narrative; Guido ascends from a murderous traffic jam at the start and is pulled to earth by a rope attached to his ankle and then he dreams of his dead parents, visiting them in their graveyard where his mother turns into his wife as she kisses him: one for the Freudians no doubt. But, as one of his father’s minders says, don’t let him play with your emotions.

Guido bows in mock worship when his producer Bruno (Bruno Agostini!) arrives with his entourage but he pays homage only to buy time. As the film progresses though the money wants solid return and Guido is increasingly backed into a corner.

He can’t decide on his cast and has only an outline for his story; something to do with man’s escape from the dying Earth in a massive rocket. We see the erection of the launch tower which will have the ship superimposed… it’s another chance to imagine a metaphor not just the hollow film inside the hollow tower but an escape from reality all round.

Luisa arrives with her best friend (Guido’s sister) Rossella (Rossella Falk) and the intimacy both bring make us focus on Guido’s weaknesses: he can kid us with his friends but not with his family.

Imagine space ship right here...
Then Guido has a spectacular dream with all the women in his life slaving over him until they become too old and are sent “upstairs” to retirement with the rest of the middle aged and faded… doesn’t happen in films much does it?

Time is running out but at the screening Beauty returns as Claudia arrives to discuss her part. Guido has pinned everything on her youth re-invigorating his project but, just as he realises that he cannot use her as a substitute for his own integrity, the producers arrive. There is no escape he must face the film crew on set – film or die.

The initial rushes don't look encouraging
works on so many levels and despite what may appear a meandering narrative, always engages with its intelligence and observation. The music of Nino Rota is rightly lauded, matching Fellini note for note whilst Gianni Di Venanzo’s cinematography makes this one of the best looking films of the era: so much light!

But it’s the playing that holds the attention most of all – in particular Anouk Aimée is the perfect foil for Mastroianni and does much to reveal his character’s weakness and way forward.

Here's hoping
It is an incredibly honest film and a brave one too: imagine if your film about writer’s block turned out to be the clunker that confirmed that, yes, you have actually lost it!? But no, Fellini always had it and he proved it again and again – I especially like Toby Dammit his quite stunning short film as part of Histoires extraordinaires (1968) but you know the rest.

There are many ways to consume - probably the best is from Criterion which is available direct or via Amazon. There’s also a British Blu-ray from Argent Films available here.

Friday, 21 August 2015

Devon can wait… Lorna Doone (1922)

Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s novel Lorna Doone has fascinated me since I saw a lurid hardback cover for it in our local library as a child - something about the moors, surging waterfalls and high passion.  Yet, I never got round to reading it – too many dinosaur and sci-fi books to get through first - but I’m told it’s a hearty romance among the best of mid-Victorian romantic “historical” fiction.

Director Maurice Tourneur’s 1922 film version is reputed by those who may know to be perhaps the best of the many film adaptations of the book and I can see why. You not only get the usual Tourneur visual flair, soft-edged pastoral accompanied by his totally-controlled sets – and he even appears to craft the land itself at times – but also quick-moving narrative and action which covers a lot of ground with economy and energy.

Action and scale
Adapting Blackmore’s sprawl into a tight 87 minutes was no easy task but the stripped down story  in the film still has balance… although the florid opening titles are not encouraging, raving about a story that “outlives modern literature… never old, never new… a literary heritage of Civilization.”

Set in the late seventeenth century it tells the tale of various families in the Exmoor across the borders of Devon and Somerset and Tourneur sets his locations better than most in Hollywood at this time although we do have the odd incongruous mountain. It begins in the White Horse Inn – famous among the taverns of old England - I’m sure you probably know it.

John meets Lorna
Two youngsters meet, John Ridd (Charles Hatton), son of a farmer and Lorna (Mae Giraci), daughter of the Countess of Lorne… it’s love at first sight and the young lad, on hearing his new friend is to travel through the dangerous lands of the Doone bandits, gives her his pen knife. In spite of warnings from others, the Countesses troop head off and duly get ambushed by the rogues on the coast – rather brutally, the head of the clan, disgraced former nobleman (wrongly so in the book) Sir Ensor Doone (Frank Keenan) decides to steal the child and – seemingly – kill her mother.

Death on the beach
This scene is very atmospheric and the camera pulls away showing the travelers wrecked coach half submerged in the surf – almost surreal and reminiscent of gothic postcards of the period.

John has followed and watches on helpless vowing to revenge himself on every one of the Doones.

Madge Bellamy and Frank Keenan
Flip forward and we find Lorna all grown up as Madge Bellamy and living an uncertain existence amongst the Doones. She has caught the eye of Carver Doone (Donald McDonald) the most unhinged of the clan but can rely on the fatherly support of the suddenly decent Ensor: maybe she has allowed the man to remember the best of himself? It’s an uneasy existence though as Sir Ensor bats down Carver’s marriage request…pronouncing that Lorna can chose who she marries, so long as he lives.

Meanwhile John has grown up into John Bowers – the strongest man in Devon! He is out juggling logs in a stream when he is swept down river into the waters of the Doone Valley. He wakes to find a beautiful brunette leaning over him and they quickly realise who each other is: Lorna pulling out John’s long-cherished penknife. They have not forgotten.

Lorna and John get re-acquainted
But, it is not safe in the valley and Lorna helps John escape back to his world: there can be no reconciliation for fear of Doone reprisals apparently.

John returns to his farm, his heart a perfect L, for Lorna, for love… His cousin Ruth (Norris Johnson) looks on, lost in her own longing… an incomplete triangle that will break before the film is done.

Carver is inappropriate
Sir Ensor lives longer and weaker and soon crackpot Carver is counting down the days to when he can take charge of both the clan and Lorna. He seizes his moment when the old man looks to have expired and, as he hastily gathers a priest for a wedding, Lorna’s maid summons John.

John rips his way through the roof and scatters the wedding party against impossible odds and then all is saved by the resuscitated Ensor appears at the door buying the lovers enough time to escape before he falls dead at the feat of his unhinged successor.

John and Lorna are in pink-tinted idyll back at the farm and all might end there were it not for the appearance of the Countess of Brandir (one Gertrude Astor) who, summoned by a letter from Ensor revealing Lorna’s true past and inheritance, arrives just in time to put off Carver’s crew from a revenge attack.

Lorna and John agree that it’s important she goes off to London to resume being posh and it seems our lovers are to be split for the noblest of reasons… But don’t right off John who journeys to the capital in time to prevent the assassination of the King’s baby. But even in the euphoria of his deed he shows himself out of step with the sophisticates of court: the couple are stuck between their worlds and someone has to step over the line of demarcation.

Fortune favours at the Abbey
Even if that line is crossed, there are plenty of inconveniences back in Devon; remember Ruth, her steadfast heart now twisted by jealousy and then there’s the mad dog Carver, he’s never going to lie down until he’s put down…

OK, the plot’s of its age and genre but it is so well handled by Tourneur and Lorna Doone flies by at an irresistibly-entertaining pace. The cinematography from Henry Sharp is also superbly advanced and delivers the richness and range you’d expect from his director.

Some may knock Madge B’s acting but I think she does very well and even verges on the understated when compared to Frank Keenan’s Ensor and Donald McDonald’s Dangerous Carver Doone! John Bowers may well be the strongest man in Devon but he still looks like David Walliams.

I watched the Kino DVD which is the 2001 restoration complete with a score from Mari Iijima that under-pins the action with several emphatically-catchy themes. It occasionally threatens to over—power the film but mostly serves it very well – light-hearted, adventurous and lovely (beach slaughter apart).

John battles the mad dog
The DVD is available direct from Kino Lorber or from the long and tax-avoiding river people. The book is still someway down my list as but daughter says I’ve got to read Bronte's Charlotte and Anne first along with a shelf or two of more worthy literature... bet they won't all be as much fun though. 

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Olive branches out... The Flapper (1920)

“This is the fluffiest sort of fluff, but good summer booking just the same, though any but the best type of houses may find it lacking in dramatic meat…” So wrote the Variety reviewer on the film’s release in May 1920. Olive Thomas, whose “appeal is the sex appeal” here continued “her trip toward film fame…”

Sadly Olive’s trip was a very short one and within months she was dead, accidentally poisoned in Paris on holiday with her second husband Jack Pickford. She had been a star of the Follies with (reluctant) sister-in-law Mary describing her appeal: “The girl had the loveliest violet-blue eyes I have ever seen. They were fringed with long dark lashes that seemed darker because of the delicate translucent pallor of her skin.” Those eyes still work in black and white but on this showing Olive was more than just a fine pair of peepers but also a fine comic actor; and all of this in spite of a  uneven script from Frances Marion.

Olive eyes trouble
Directed by Alan Crosland, The Flapper was clearly a vehicle for the rising star – a Pickford by style and not just association – and plugs into the vogue for teen rebellion epitomised by those young women who just liked to have fun particularly those saddled with the tragic restraints of being born into wealth.

A bored teenager
Olive (then 24) plays 16-year-old Genevieve 'Ginger' King a poor little rich girl suffocating in the empty acres of her family mansion in Orange Springs – a town in which “they didn’t even have a saloon to close”. Her father (Warren Cook) is a senator and rules his castle with determined authority. He’s had enough of his daughter’s waywardness and, on the advice of his friend,  Reverend Cushil (Charles Craig), decides to pack her off to boarding school run with strict discipline by Mrs Paddles (Marcia Harris).

Bill takes Ginger for a ride
Before this, we meet Ginger’s (almost) boyfriend, Bill Forbes (Theodore Westman, Jr.) who is about to go to military academy and is part deus ex machine part red herring.

Ginger arrives at school to be confronted by the inmates lined up on the stairs, their short skirts revealing “the limbs of Satan from old family trees…” and appraising eyes who give her the “once over”. The title cards from Frances Marion are quirky whereas the tone of the film is sometimes just odd.

Limbs of Satan?!
For example… the girls like watching grown men but rather than fixate on someone age appropriate, Ginger falls for Richard Chenning (William P. Carleton – 47 at the time) – a middle aged man who wouldn’t give George Clooney or Cary Grant any sleepless nights… Maybe she’s looking for a father figure.

She finally gets to meet her man after a sleigh ride in which Bill forgets to remember that he can’t drive a sleigh; they tumble off and as he tries to recover the horse and snow-cart, Ginger convinces Richard that she’s twenty and on the lookout for some… sophistication.

Joining the grown ups...
Back in the school we have already met some of the other girls, one of whom is played by Norma Shearer (genuinely of school age at the time – 17 years old). Another, is “a moth amongst the butterflies” Hortense (Katherine Johnston) who has too much mascara to be a goody and a scheming boyfriend called Tom (Arthur Housman).

Goodies or baddies?
Ginger sneaks away for an evening of jazz dancing with Richard at the country club and Hortense tells Mrs Paddles in an effort to create a distraction. Sure enough as the school mistress heads off to re-capture her lost lamb, Hortense burgles the school safe just as Paddles pulls Ginger out from the dance, rightly suggesting to the unsuspecting Chenning that he should be locked up for romancing one so young… As he laughs this off to his friends Ginger’s heart breaks as she is dismissed as a silly thing.

The robbery is revealed... Norma Shearer second left?
On return to school she naturally decides to commit comedy suicide but is distracted by the sounds of Hortense dropping the stolen good down to Tom. Naively she accepts her classmate’s lame explanation.

We move on and after an impressive little dance with a ukulele – one of my favourite parts of the whole film! – Ginger is in New York en route to an assignation with Hortense and Tom. I always love seeing real backgrounds in films of this period… an open-top time-travel-tram-ride!

Ginger takes in the sights
Ginger agrees to help the two tea leaves – swallowing their story that they were eloping and only “borrowing” the goods as a joke… She decides to use the contents before she returns them to “vamp” Chenning and thereby gain her revenge… Oh dear Ginge, that sounds awfully complicated, dontcha think?

Queue Olive at last dressed as a proper flapper and cutting and rug very sharply at a mid-town nightclub. She convinces her prey that she is now “grown up” and there is much coded face-pulling at the shock of her lost virginity.

The flapper vamps it up!
Then she returns home to pull the same trick on friends and family… but lost honour is not to be taken lightly and things get a little complicated.

For all its disappointments – this is no prototypical Flaming Youth, It or Bare Knees – The Flapper remains diverting and that is entirely down to its star aided by Marion’s cute intertitles. There are just a few too many elements in the story – is Tom really necessary or his two hero worshiping hangers on from the academy? - but you can see why Thomas was a major starlet and who knows what she could have gone on to achieve as the twenties progressed? 

I watched the Milestone DVD The Olive Thomas Collection which comes with an hour-long documentary produced by Hugh Heffner (a connoisseur of that which Olive exudes…) and which provides a decent summation of Thomas’ short life and career. Some IMDB reviewers pick holes in the tone but, as with The Flapper itself, I much prefer its existence to the alternative!

It is available direct from Milestone or from those canny tax-avoiders over on the long river.