Sunday, 25 October 2015

We were surprised… Silent Laughter Saturday, Kennington Bioscope

Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith
Back to the Islington of the South and the walk along the graceful Georgian high-sides of Kennington Park Road, in the quiet hours of a Saturday morning when the city is still stunned after the week and the Friday night before…. A hearty breakfast was had at a café near the park and then into the Cinema Museum for a day of silent comedy re-connection.

Today we were only two degrees of separation from some of the greats with a talk from David Robinson, long-time director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and former Times film critic who once interviewed Laurel and Hardy for Sight and Sound as well as Kevin Brownlow for whom it might be easier to list those he hadn’t met.

and again...
First up was a film from Mr Brownlow’s collection, Paths to Paradise (1925), featuring the bonny Betty Compson and Raymond Griffith who Kevin felt could have been amongst the very best had it not been for a “difficult” nature and a way with the studios that made Louise Brooks look like an arch diplomat.

The film was directed by Clarence Badger and was a lively caper movie featuring triple-crosses and a police motorcycle chase sequence that would have exhausted even Smokey and his bandit.

Compson plays a moll called Molly (see what they did…) part of a gang that dupe innocent thrill-seekers hoping to see life in the underworld. They do a quick change routine depending on what brand of criminality you want and when a gent (Griffith) comes looking for some Chinese crims they make ready the opium smokers and incense. Just as they think they've duped the rube he turns the tables posing as a policeman and makes off with a generous contribution to the police fund before Molly spots that his badge is for the gas inspectorate…

Partners in crime?
Soon Molly and the gent - The Dude from Duluth according to IMDB (he does abide…) – are chasing the same mark as an old millionaire (Bert Woodruff) somehow trusts him with protecting a diamond necklace for his daughter’s wedding. The heat is on and Molly teams up with the Dude for that amazing chase sequence which gave accompanist John Sweeney ample scope for some high-speed playing: careering off in dangerous directions but always keeping his eyes firmly on the road!

The film is missing its final reel but ends on a perfectly acceptable moment of success or doubt… As KB said, hopefully one day someone in New Zealand will find they have the reel in their loft.

Laurel & Hardy Revelations

Next up were some Laurel & Hardy recollections from Mr Robinson interspersed with rarities including an un-censored version of Duck Soup (1926) complete with poor Stan dressed as a maid trying to avoid seeing his temporary mistress through to her bath. This film has recognisable dynamics between Stan and Ollie but was made a few years before their relationship was cemented.

The print came from the BFI and is far better than version on released DVDs – they will hopefully be remastered for the film's 90th.

Madeline Hurlock, William Austin, Oliver and Stan in Duck Soup
A clip was played from Leave ‘em Laughing (1928) in which Stanley has a tooth-ache. The couple started filming the bed scene and laughed so hard that nothing was committed to film for the first few days: they had fun so did we.

The final short was the surviving second half of a rather fine Stan Laurel solo spoof called When Knights Were Cold (1923) in which our hero is Lord Helpus. He and indeed all the knights ride pantomime horses and it looks for all the world like an outtake from The Holy Grail especially when Stan’s “horse” drains a water trough in one go.

Of course it's a horse...
David’s recollections of his meeting with the boys in the Brixton Empress Theatre were precious. It was the boys' last tour – Ollie was overweight and in ill health but they were very welcoming and, as the young journalist met them with pad but no pencil, Oliver duly lent him his.

Stanley did most of the talking and enabled Robinson to produce a summation of their career at a time when their critical stock was very low – “only popular with the public” and even regarded as “dross for the news theatre” by a young Kevin Brownlow. This new generation was about to reverse that impression in a major way: genuine “game changers” in their own right.

The Silent Contenders

But, what about those comics who are still little remembered? Of the Big Four even Harry Langdon is perhaps not so well remembered now but what of Charley Chase, Lupino Lane, Lloyd Hamilton and others?

Matthew Ross, editor of Movie Night magazine, gave a fascinating talk on the other silent comic contenders starting with Max Linder the man Chaplin used to call The Professor.

Charlie and The Professor
Linder was ahead of his time in the pre-war years with a subtle style in contrast to the slapstick craze. He fought in the Great War and was invalided out after a gas attack suffering psychiatric problems until his untimely death in 1925. He made some excellent features in Hollywood such as The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922) and Seven Year’s Bad Luck (1921) from which was shown a sequence in which Max’s servants try to prevent him seeing that they have broken his mirror – the Marx Brothers were watching as their Duck Soup shows.

Ham Hamilton and Charley Chase
Lloyd “Ham” Hamilton was next – a laconic mummy’s boy who specialised in misfortune and the art of disdain. Mac Sennett praised his “comic motion” and you could see this even in one of his relatively early films called The Simp (1920) in which he tries to win the heart of a very forgiving Marvel Rae (there’s a name to conjure with!).

Sadly, many of Ham’s films are lost and the same is true of Charley Chase who must have been close to the Champions League of silent comedy: a complex persona combining elements of Lloyd and the nasty side of early Chaplin he was another good “actor” as well, like Linder.

Lupino Lane before he points his sword
Last up was a Brit, Lupino Lane, a relative of Ida Lupino and part of a theatrical family that could trace its stage lineage back to the 1600s. He had decades of stagecraft under his belt and was a supreme athlete with a signature move involving elevating himself from the splits… We were shown Sword Points (1928) a parody of those Musketeers and the style of Douglas Fairbanks who was present on set at one point – mutual respect.

David Robinson had pointed to the importance of critical re-evaluation in ensuring a performer’s legacy and we should make the most of what primary evidence survives for these performers.

Buster Keaton and Kevin Brownlow - A Hard Act to Follow

One comedian for whom the case is already rock solid is Buster Keaton and this is in part due to the efforts of Kevin Brownlow who in the eighties produced an Emmy Award-winning, three part series for British TV pulling together what  he could of radio interviews with Keaton and one filmed interview.

A dog and a Buster
Keaton’s widow was heavily involved and there were contributions from surviving contemporaries even though there were difficulties in the reliability of some witnesses (no naming and shaming, whatever happens in The Bioscope, stays in The Bioscope…) and availability of outtakes.

Kevin’s reminiscences were interspersed with clips from the programme as well as the films including The General (of course) and a short excerpt from a British series with Richard Hearne (Mr Pastry... before my TV-time) and an alternative ending to My Wife’s Relations (1922) which even Mr B had not seen before.

Interviewed by The Bioscope's David Wyatt, who worked on the series, Kevin Brownlow was in his element and threw in a James Mason anecdote in which the actor found a treasure trove of films after buying Buster’s House. Mason’s favourite was The Playhouse whilst he also found a stack of Talmadge features and was full of respect for the acting of Norma (another who deserves a reputational uplift in my humble… someone clean up those Frank Borzage films!)

Those relations
You’d Be Surprised (1930)

Up until last Wednesday I’d never heard of Walter Forde but now I was watching a second film directed by and starring probably Britain’s leading silent comic - The Bioscope is an education.

Then another of those second degree connections… Tony Slide, author of over 70 books on silent film and a friend of Forde’s during his last years in Hollywood, gave a personal insight into a man he felt deserved a lot more respect and work from the domestic film industry.

Walter Forde
This was a neatly produced romp that was infused with wit and which ended with a cracking gag – the very British sense of the daft! It concerned the musical “journey” of a composer, Walter (Forde) who’s initial movements only involve working for a piano removal firm.

One delivery is to the home of a West End star, Maisie Vane (Joy Windsor) who hears one of his compositions as he “tests” her new piano. She arranges for him to play the song to her producer convinced he will pick it up and the rest of the film pretty much involves Walter’s increasingly desperate efforts to get heard.

Joy Windsor glams it up in 1928
He enlists the help of an orchestra of street musicians, gets accused of murdering a bagpipe player (c’mon, fair do’s…) and then handcuffed to an escaping prisoner (a vicious turn from Douglas Payne). It’s light but likeable and hasn’t been seen in public for much of the past 80 years.

Hats off to an extraordinary accompaniment from John Sweeney and a specially assembled Bioscope Ensemble including today's other two pianists Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch along with special guests… The film originally came with a music and effects track which is lost although some elements survive such as the theme song which plays a major part. It was a significant challenge to re-orchestrate and John and his not-motley-at-all, merry band did so with some style blowing and hitting anything that moved to produce one of the highlights of the day.

The last film was Harold Lloyd's Girl Shy which sadly I had to miss as domestic responsibilities loomed – Harold and Jobyna will have to wait but I do have the DVD.,,

A thoroughly entertaining, informative and inspirational day which must have taken some organising: they really walk the walk in Lambeth!

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Crafted Capra with a cringe… The Matinee Idol (1928) Cyrus Gabrysch, John Sweeney, Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Of all the changed attitudes over the last century, the issue of race is probably one of the hardest to contextualise. Here Johnnie Walker plays a successful black-face entertainer in the manner of Al Jolson and it’s undeniably awkward for the modern viewer... I mean; why?!

We can't just ignore it but for audiences in 1928 minstrels were common-place and symptomatic of an unequal society were racial stereotyping was seen as legitimate entertainment… The fact that British TV still had the Black and White Minstrel Show in the seventies is even more shocking. We’ve moved on and culturally the cringes of the past must remind us of the need to keep moving further and to be mindful…

Ginger meets the face-paint in front of the man...
This film was lost until the nineties and gives an opportunity to see sweet Bessie Love in proper action. Miss Love never quite hit the top tier in Hollywood even though she featured in Intolerance and numerous features through to the talkies and was acting even in the eighties with appearances in Reds and The Hunger. She moved to Britain were she encouraged a young film fan name of Kevin Brownlow, whom she was later able to introduce to so many of her contemporaries for the interviews that became The Parade’s Gone By and, the renaissance is history…

So, not just a very pretty face… and what’s more on this evidence she was a fine comic actor.

It’s an early Frank Capra film and whilst it would be a stretch to identify any kind of “touch” of the Capra kind from the future director of Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Arsenic and Old Lace, It’s a Wonderful Life et al, it is a focused effort telling a slight story very well.

Johnnie Walker (last seen in Bare Knees) play Don Wilson the Jolson-type who sings comic songs made up as a minstrel. He’s a big hit on Broadway and so he and the boys decide to hit the backroads for a few days. Their car breaks down and spotting a pop-up theatre advertising the Bolivar Players, they boys head off for a laugh at the locals’ expense leaving Don to find a mechanic…

Don passes the audition...
It just so happens that the company’s lead, Ginger Bolivar (Bessie Love) has just fired one of the performers and is auditioning for a replacement with the same relish a witness surveys an identity parade… She asks the men to say “I love you” and is greeted by a line-up of the inept until, that is, the last man, the one who was really only looking for a garage.

Don is duly hired under the name Harry Mann and proceeds to add humorous spice the company, turning the words of Jasper Bolivar (Lionel Belmore) from Civil War tragedy into comedy.

Out in the audience sits Don’s manager Arnold Wingate (Ernest Hilliard) who find’s Don’s interjection as hilarious as the audience. He invites the Bolivar’s to play on their revue and Don plays along. Already attracted to the feisty, loyal and lovely Ginger, he begins to have his doubts and as he hides his identity in black face he wonders if breaking her heart is the best way of getting a laugh.

They say the tights are always bright on Broadway...
The Matinee Idol was thought lost until the 1990s, shows Capra developing away from his background as gag man for Harry Langdon and forging his own style. It’s a very symmetrical film albeit with the cultural cringe of comedy homosexuals and those awful faces in black paint.

Cyrus played along and moved seamlessly from Dixieland to Yankee Doodles: comedy and romance in balance.

On the undercard were three films new to me: I do love these Bioscope surprises!

Charles not being peaceful!
First up was a quite startlingly-brutal British film from 1905, The Life of Charles Peace which told the quite extraordinary tale of a notorious felon who blagged and murdered his way to ill-gotten riches until finally stopped by the Police. The sets were painted canvas but the stunts and fights were all too real… the scarcely-serene Mr Peace was like the Krays and the Richardsons combined exercising a pull on the contemporary imagination – the man who takes what he wants and doesn’t follow decency or the law – myth amongst the mayhem.

Truth was even more extraordinary than fiction and it’s worth perusing Mr Peace’s wiki…

Walter Forde
This was followed by Walter the Sleuth (1926) a film from Walter Forde, Britain’s premier silent comic who ended up a director in the thirties and forties, producing both versions of The Ghost Train including, of course the one with Stinker Murdoch and  Big Hearted Arthur Askey – “I thank you!” (bingo!!)

Lillian Henley provided accompaniment to this meandering romp through South West London – Richmond anyone? Forde played a clownish fisherman who has to act as the fiancée of a Surrey IT-Girl (Pauline Peters) who, supported by a very distracting group of Bright Young Flappers, is trying to avoid the intentions of an older man who, it turns out, is after the family jewels. Ford has to act as a detective and, as it turns out, well… you know the rest.

Gypsies in the city
The third film was the most startling and was Grossstadt-Zigeuner a 1932 documentary directed by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy on Hungarian gypsies in Berlin which saw John Sweeney really take flight on the piano pounding out spirited gypsy patterns that would have had Brahms dancing by the fireside in his beloved Zum Roten Igel*!

This is the closest I’ve personally been to cutting a rug at the Bioscope!

*The ‘Red Hedgehog Tavern’ – where Brahms went to hear gypsy musicians play in Vienna. If you want more "gypsy" I would recommend a very talented group called ZRI who play an unique mix of classical and Romany... they will move you!

Now a couple of days break before the Cinema Museum is officially confirmed as the funniest building in South London with the Bioscope Silent Laughter Saturday. A few tickets are still left if you hurry! I can't imagine any of us will want to miss this!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

We all did... I Loved Lucy, Above The Arts Theatre, London

Lucille Desíree Ball
"No goodbyes Doll, we never say goodbye..."

Lucille Ball starred in I Love Lucy from 1951 to 1960 and in two more successful long-running sitcoms for CBS: The Lucy Show (1962–68) and Here's Lucy (1968–74) - an unparalleled dynasty of sit-com success.

At one point it was calculated that 99% of Americans would recognise her face and that she was bigger than John Lennon (and whoever he was bigger than...). We all not only know Lucy but probably love her too and I can't remember I time when I didn't know who she was.

Lucy in full flow
All stars fade from themselves as much of the rest of us and not even "Lucy" could maintain her level of success - an Aaaron Spelling-produced eighties revival finally proving that point.

For the last decade of her life, Lucy kept company with a distant cousin of her second husband,  Lee Tannen upon who's book and play this production was based. Mr Tannen was on hand to introduce proceedings and, whilst you couldn't judge his backgammon skills, you could see how his wit and good humour would have been welcomed.

Directed by Claudio Macor (The Tailor Made Man and In The Dead of Night reviewed elsewhere on this blog) this was a workshop presentation which as Tannen pointed out, had taken less time ot rehearse than his journey time from the USA.

Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester
This sprint to performance was barely noticeable as the two leads Sandra Dickinson and Christopher Tester gave highly-impressive performances especially the former who, let us not forget was playing an icon. Those of us with memories of Ms Dickinson's Trillian in Hitchhiker's Guide and her other goofy Monroe-moments were astonished at her mastery of the Ball growl; a gravelly rasp that delivered hot gossip and incendiary one-liners with equal zest.

That's not to say that Mr Tester doesn't also give a fine performance and,judging from the photographs Tannen shared after the performance he bears more than a passing resemblance to the author. A boy who knew every single episode of I Love Lucy almost by heart, he first met Lucille aged nine when she married that cousin Gary Morton and was only to meet her again many years later in 1981 when he was working as in theatrical promotion.

Mr and Mrs Arnaz
The pair very quickly bonded as Lucy encouraged him to be as honest and open as possible - accepting his sexual preference without a beat and regaling him with delicious gossip as they began a decade of Backgammon... "if you didn't play with Lucy, you didn't stay with Lucy.."

Soon Lee is part time pal and part time PA, booking hotels in New York - anywhere but the Upper West Side - "it's too Lauren Bacall!". He is rewarded with stories of Thelma Todd having an affair with CG (not Clarke but Cary...possibly) and how the former never really recovered from the death of Carol Lombard - "the most beautiful dame I ever saw."

Ann Miller, Ginger Rogers and Lucy in Stage Door
Amongst the fly-through of Ball's cinematic history she claims to have discovered Anne Miller who seemed to have thought she was the re-incarnation of Cleopatra (not another one!) and with whom she starred in Stage Door (1937). Then there was the near affair with Henry Fonda in The Big Street (1942) - "the best film I ever made" - Jane Fonda later told her that no marriage would have been possible as they would have had to call the company Fonda-Lu.

Lucy and Henry in The Big Street
As it turned out, of course, the company she did form was Desilu with Desi Arnaz after marriage to the Cuban percussionist and after they had fought so hard to get the TV show featuring this "mixed" marriage made and then made on their terms - what a force they must have been.

The play's trick is that it manages to move through the years without sounding like a catalogue and much of this is down to the interplay between the characters as played by Dickinson and  Tester as well as the snappy dialogue they have been gifted.

Bob Hope and Lucy: King and Queen
Everything is stripped down in this workshop format with only two additional voices heard - Lee Tannen himself and Sally Ann Triplett as US journalist Diane Sawyer.

But, if the play is this good after only three working day's rehearsals... it's going to be great in full performance. A well-written play about one of the most important cultural figures of the Twentieth Century told with intimacy, style and more than a few laughs.

Who knew, for example,that Shirley MacLaine always referred to Lucille as "Mum" - "maybe in another of her lives?" mused Lucy and, that their attendance at a premier was delayed by Michael Jackson's inconveniently combustible hair: how long does it take to put out a fire on his head pondered Lucy impatiently?

Lucille in 1988
In his introduction Lee Tannen said he had been advised by British friends of the vast difference in meaning between a British "quite good " and an American one... well, just to make it clear, this Brit thought I Loved Lucy was very, very, good! I look forward to seeing it again next year!

Further details of the project are available on Twitter @ILovedLucyUK and Facebook: watch this space...

Key take-away: "Never cut funny".

Silent PS: For various reasons, the I Love Lucy TV show was shot on film and the great German cinematographer Karl Freund worked on episodes from 1951-6 developing processes that would ensure that the lighting would be even over each aspect of the set (and that wouldn't be the only silent film connection from Lucy's life).

Before the Falls… Sherlock Holmes (1916) Neil Brand Ensemble, BFI London Film Festival

Watson and Holmes: a very civil partnership
It was interesting to see the names of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat – current creators of the modern-day Sherlock, on the list of thank-yous from the restoration team for one of the very first screen representations of the original.  This version was arguably as much a re-working of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories as their modern version as it drew content from three stories A Scandal in Bohemia, The Final Problem and A Study in Scarlet whilst adding something of its own.

It was based on the hugely-successful 1899 play written by and starring William Gillette which, as Bryony Dixon pointed out in her introduction, not only had a long run in the USA but also ran for some five years just over the water in London's Lyceum Theatre where once it counted a young Charles Chaplin in the cast.

Great mind at work
Gillette was 62 when the film was made but he still carries of the part of the Master Detective with a rare charisma and intelligence even if he is a little too old to be a romantic interest for Marjorie Kay (17 at the time) as Alice Faulkner (a sort of goody-two-shoes version of Irene Adler).

Gillette is credited with introducing some of the standard visual elements of Sherlock, over his 1,300 stage performances and this recently-recovered film is no doubt all the more precious for preserving such an iconic performance for this enduring and malleable character: we all like to believe in detectives with super-intelligent.

Gillette and Kay
Here he seems to drift into scrapes almost as if he wants to prove he can get out of them – not unlike The Doctor as Mr Moffat would confirm… But he’s always thoroughly prepared whether in wearing a bullet-proof vest made of metal, planting spies in the enemy camp or using his junior butler Billy (here played by Burford Hampden but once by Charlie…)  as the last line of defence.

The film was originally presented as a series and the version uncovered and restored (full details are here) is from a French print which broke this down further into four parts with nine sections. This adds to the slightly disjointed feel of the narrative but it’s Sherlock Holmes; then, as now, it doesn’t all have to add up!

Alice defends her sister's honour in front of the Prince's men
It is very well directed by Arthur Berthelet who does well to lift the narrative away from its stage origins. There is some location shooting in London-looking streets and some interesting camerawork including medium range shots that fade into close-ups at crucial moments and out again.

Berthelet closes in on the action with a repeated disolve...
The story is convoluted and bitty – as you’d also expect from a serial... as you'd expect from Holmes  – and  is really only there to provide opportunities for the Great Detective to show how great he is.

Briefly… Alice Faulkner’s late sister had an affair with a prince and had kept some rather incriminating correspondence which his relatives are very keen to recover. Baron von Stalburg (Ludwig Kreiss), the prince's assistant, and Sir Edward Leighton (Hugh Thompson), a high British official, are trying to negotiate their return before the author’s impending marriage but Alice is refusing to budge.

Sherlock confronts Madge and James
Unfortunately for her, a good-for-nothing family called the Larrabees hear of her situation and try to take advantage… Led by James Larrabee (Mario Majeroni) and Madge Larrabee (Grace Reals) they’re a nasty lot - a little too histrionic for their own good - but, fortunately not too clever.

Holmes,who has been enlisted by the Prince to retrieve the letters, easily outwits by the Larrabees aided secretly by his agent Benjamin Forman (Stewart Robbins) posing as their manservant:  how very cunning Holmes! They decide to call for help from master criminal Professor Moriarty (Ernest Maupain) – who’s hatred for Holmes they hope will guarantee his support.

Guess who?
Yet even with  Holme’s arch enemy now involved can these criminal minds combined win over Holmes' powers of deductive pipe-smoking, intuitive reasoning and, indeed, disguise!

We don’t see too much of Doctor Watson (Edward Fielding) until later in the series when Holmes is sharing his house after an unexplained fire at his own apartments… but the template has recognizably been set.

Subtle gesturing from Mr Gillette - perfect for the big screen
Gillette is as razor-sharp as his name suggests and is a magnetic presence on-screen a natural who underplays so well you'd think he'd been in front of the camera for years whereas this was his only film. He blasts most of cast off screen with a performance of well-honed wit: the calculated confidence born of a thousand or more previous performances.

This was the first screening in Britain since the recovery and for longer than a lifetime: a special occasion that did not disappoint.

The Larrabbees are no match for Brand, Buchwald and Davenport!
A large part of this was due to the joyful accompaniment provided by Neil Brand (piano), Günter Buchwald (violin) and Jeff Davenport (percussion and sound effects). They playing a semi-improvised score based on Neil Brand's melodies as originally commissioned for La Cinémathèque Française. Every bell-ring and thump was precisely on target and the music was as elegantly period-appropriate as Mr Holmes' smoking jacket and as invigoratingly well constructed as his ultimate trap for Professor Moriarty!

There is soon to be a Flicker Alley DVD/BluRay release which - I think? - includes the boys' music as well - one for the Christmas list! Available from Amazon or from Flicker Alley which also has a downloadable press kit explaining more about everything!

Because the Cat just refused to be trained...
Before the main film we were treated to A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) a terrific little romp involving a smarter than average dog who does most of his master detective's leg work. Still very funny and an indication of how well-established the Holmes template was by this stage.

A Holmes for all times
Marjorie Kay performs well and went on to work as a nurse in the Great War and from there into stage work and opera. There's are some interesting biographical snippets on the I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere site as uncovered by Chris Redmond.

Young Miss Kay considers her next move

Monday, 19 October 2015

The spice of life… Variety (1925), Stephen Horne, BFI, London Film Festival

“The strongest and most inspiring drama that has ever been told by the evanescent shadows…”

After the red-carpeted glamour of the LFF Archive Gala back to the concrete picture palace that we still call the National Film Theatre and a matinee performance of one of the defining moments of Weimar cinema. I’ve held off watching Variety in the hope of seeing it on screen and with live accompaniment from someone as uniquely adept as Mr Horne: there were apparently some new “talkies” on show in the Festival but this was one of the must-see events of the week.

My patience was doubly rewarded by the fact that this is a film re-born following extensive restoration by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, in co-operation with the Filmarchiv Austria, using nitrate prints and duplicate negatives to create something as crisp and fresh as one of Herr Jannings’ leotards on the first day of filming!

In her introduction Bryony Dixon suggested that you could view Variety as the German leg of a loose trilogy of Ewald Andre Dupont films dealing with the seedier end of show business, the other two being the delicious Piccadilly (1929) and Moulin Rouge (1928). He had a fine eye for the sub-cultural and was helped by the technical imagination of his cinematographer Karl W. Freund who, of course worked on so many great films of the period including The Last Laugh and Metropolis.

Fireworks above and below
Here Freund along with Carl Hoffmann, produced some impossible shots amongst the acrobats on the flying trapeze. It’s hard to imagine the technicolour circus dramas-to-come bettering these moments as you really feel the pressure, the sheer physical improbability of these daredevils connecting with each other, their apparatus or achieving a triple somersault whilst blind-folded and in a sack…  There’s no safety net… and, squirming in my seat, I had a vivid flash back to childhood anxiety watching similar acts at the Blackpool Tower Circus (and there was me thinking I was over that!?).

The family caravan
As Mordaunt Hall fizzed in his New York Times review:  “…there is a marvellous wealth of detail: the lighting effects and camera work cause one to reflect that occasionally the screen may be connected with art.”

Well I would venture that it is more than occasionally as the core of Variety’s appeal is in the performances of the three leads.  Emil Jannings’ presence is first felt at the beginning as you watch the back of a long-imprisoned man walking with a defeated gait, strong shoulders at a stoop, head bowed, to yet another parole meeting in prison. We don’t see Jannings' character’s face but we know how hard his life is… his wife and son are willing to have him back but he has to open up about his crime.

Emile's expressive back...
Finally he does and the film cuts back to the full-faced, confident circus huckster that Jannings’ character, Boss Huller, was before… He seems content living with his baby and wife (Maly Delschaft), running a side-show beauty pageant that attracts the drunks and the old men, but once he soared until a fall left him hospitalised and he longs to return to the heights.

Lya De Putti
To his door is brought a young woman who has been rescued from a ship wreck and destitution. She catches the eye of both husband and wife and the former over-rules the latter when he spots a talent he can use: a genuine attraction in all ways…

The woman (Lya De Putti) is named Bertha after the ship of bad luck from which she was rescued: as new names go it’s not the most re-assuring. She drives their barely-controllable audience wild and Boss decides enough is enough.

Meanwhile Bertha attracts Boss closer to her and as his wife foretold from first sight, he cannot resist this appeal. Too poor to buy a motorcycle and not in possession of a PA to run off with, Boss decides to go back to the trapeze and leaves wife and child to run away with Bertha.

They build up their act in fairgrounds and soon get noticed in Berlin by a British acrobat Artinelli (Warwick Ward) short of a partner following his brother’s fall from on high. Soon they are three and are wowing the audiences in Berlin’s massive Wintergarten theatre.

But success brings its own costs and soon Bertha is spending more time with the younger man leaving Boss at home to darn her tights and to wait for her return. 

No profession is based as much on trust as theirs and yet whilst they depend so much on each other to stay alive they fail to protect each other’s interests on the ground… This is a triangle of trust that can only lead to tragedy if it breaks down.

Clearly it might but possibly not in the way you might expect as even their manager cannot bear to watch the triple twist anymore…

It is a superbly well-balanced film that is a well-practiced as the performers it portrays: Dupont manages to balance the dramatics with deeply personal performances which are especially rich from De Putti as well as Jannings: she matches him for intensity and tells her story in reverse revealing more of her strength as the story progresses while his ebbs away to leave only murderous desperation…

None of the three protagonists are anything other than true to themselves: Artinelli is artful, Bertha wild and Boss a force of his will… the greatest pity is that they met each other.

Stephen Horne took all of this in his surefooted stride and maintained a balance of his own between the low swings of fury and the lovers’ leaps. There is an amazing level of “content” in his improvisations especially when compared to a pre-prepared score: but then he does play up to four instruments almost all at the same time…

I’ll leave the last word to Mr Hall - “Scene after scene unlocks a flood of thoughts, and although the nature of the principal characters is far from pleasing; the glimpses one obtains are so true to life that they are not repellent.” I don’t think I’ve ever read “Mordy” so enthused but he had every right to be.

The restored Variety is available on Blu-ray and DVD from with English subs and a modern soundtrack that is by all accounts of un-paralleled clunker – maybe Stephen could make his improvised score available for download?