“…a hapless piece of work that is years behind the times.”
Mordaunt Hall turned the scathe-ometer up to eleven in his New York Times review when Song was released 1928 but you can’t always believe what you read (as ITY-Arthur followers will know all too well). Maybe I’m too kind to these old dears but what was just the latest in that week’s endless set of new silent films for Mordaunt to assess has now become a rarity that is important just for having survived.
This is also the film Anna May Wong made not long before Piccadilly and even Hall notes that she is “a competent little actress” but one respected perhaps more now than then given the changed context but also our deeper understanding of what “little actresses” of her background had to face.
|Song on it's first release|
Silent films are also uniquely malleable because they are always part of a new context created by their musical accompaniment. Today Song had the multi-instrumental support of Stephen Horne as it was projected in the Regents Street Cinema, itself a living museum haunted by the flickering ghosts of the Lumiers… And… it came through rather well!
Anna May Wong excelled in a rare part that allowed her to just be – a good-hearted soul and not just an exotic token or worse still, something sinister. She responds to the camera’s frequently intense gaze with naturalistic gestures and a positive focus on her character and rides out some of the more extraordinary plot elements and costumery with ease and good humour. She’s equally at home fighting off attackers, coming to the rescue during a train robbery and selflessly supporting a selfish man who can’t see further than his own infatuation.
|Mr Hall... step outside.|
Song or Schmutziges Geld (Dirty Money) was an Anglo-German co-production directed by Richard Eichberg who then direct Wong in Pavement Butterfly (1929) before her famous West End turn in 1929.
The story is set in Istanbul and there are some lovely establishing shots of what would become the scene of Liverpool FC’s Champions League triumph almost 80 years later. Anna May plays Song an urchin eking out a living by catching lobsters on the beach. She is spotted by two men who proceed to assault her only to be fought off by a passer-by, Jack Houben (Heinrich George). It’s a pretty grim fight that’s only won when Song gets stuck into help her rescuer.
|Jack shows off his day job|
Jack takes Song back for temporary shelter at his humble home and frightens her to death as he demonstrates his profession – a knife thrower. In spite of Song’s nervous response to having sharpened steel utensils flung at her, Jack decides she could be an asset to his act and before long she’s dancing in front of the regulars at the homely music hall where he works.
Eichberg clearly relishes depicting this venue and the leering audience is shown in delicious close up as the weird and wonderful “turns” take to the stage.
|Richard Eichberg directs Anna on stage|
Jack takes one look at the smiling face on the table and flashes back to a time when he and Gloria were a couple… everything ended badly as he fought a young man pursuing her. The man fell overboard whilst they were on a cruise and diving in after him both men were lost, presumed drowned.
Jack still carries a very large torch and it’s only a matter of time before its subject turns up at the club accompanied by her theatrical manager/paramour Dimitri Alexi (Hans Adalbert Schlettow, who’s close shave in A Cottage on Dartmoor still gives me the shivers). Thankfully mutual recognition does not occur during Jack’s act and Song emerges unscathed before Jack and Gloria see each other.
After establishing that Jack is clearly not dead Gloria invites him to her show but she’s more interested in her “manager” than this blast from the past. But Jack’s a fool for love… If only he was rich enough to compete on the present-buying stakes? Jack follows a get rich scheme dreamt up by his accordionist (Julius E. Herrmann) – a can’t-fail train robbery. Someone tips the coppers a wink and Jack only escapes by hiding under the loco… he is nearly blinded as the machine lets off steam and Song comes to his rescue.
|Drama on stage as Jack faints...|
Jack needs an operation and a massive £20 is required to fund it, surely Gloria will help and, even if she doesn’t her manager is on hand to give Song all the assistance she needs. She goes to work as the star attraction in the club – and she can dance unlike the “ballerina” as the lavish set-pieces demonstrate. But everything she does is for the curmudgeonly knife thrower… what will happen when he has eyes to see the face of his guardian angel?
Song is a melodrama with some mad plot turns but Eichberg tells it well enough helped by some excellent cinematography from Heinrich Gärtner and the designs of Willi Herrmann. Whilst Mary Kid makes for an unconvincing ballerina, Heinrich George makes for a believable thrower of knives and, of course, Anna May Wong's smile and ready tears steal the show.
Stephen Horne said that, as a young accompanist, he had played along to Song sight unseen (the days before preview discs) and the film’s frequent narrative lurches had made for an engaging challenge. Today he knew what was coming and flute, accordion and piano were deployed to compelling effect.
Song may not be a great film but, in this cinema and with this musician playing it was a very entertaining one and if all else failed, it still showcases one the era’s best actors in a role of some depth... and, had he been here today, I'm certain Mordaunt Hall would have agreed!
Song is very rarely screened but is in very good condition… surely it’s worth a DVD release? If you liked Piccadilly you’ll probably like this too and if you’re a fan of Mr Horne’s unique lyricism you’ll want him playing on the release as well.
So come on Herr Copyright-Owner…