Monday, 2 November 2015

Primal screen… Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), with Donald MacKenzie on the Troxy Wurlitzer

This was a first for me; the chance to hear a silent film accompanied by a Wurlitzer organ an instrument synonymous with the form. Being a native Lancastrian (in old money) I have, of course, seen organs rise up in front of cinema screens in Blackpool (certainly) and Liverpool (probably) but only as a lad and never playing a soundtrack. The Wurlitzer makes a sound queasily nostalgic and also undeniably genuine: the authentic sound of populist entertainment. If Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newman were around in 1920, this is how they’d make themselves heard…

The mighty machine at Limehouse’s Troxy was originally installed in its sister cinema the Trocadero cinema at the Elephant and Castle and has been relocated and restored over a six year period. It has four keyboards, 1,728 pipes and effects including – actual - drums, cymbals, xylophone, glockenspiel, marimba and piano. This is the silent sound pallet with, again actual, knobs on!

The Troxy opened with a film about a large gorilla in 1933 and organist Donald MacKenzie played the theme from King Kong in his introductory medley. It’s one of the great London cinemas – it had  3,500 seats – and has been used for a variety of cultural purposes in recent years  and, like Kentish Town’s Forum, Brixton’s Astoria (now the Academy) et al. as a venue for bingo and then that thing they call "rock" – I was here last to watch Canadian post-rock ensemble, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

But now the flickers are back and tonight was the first time an organ had been played for a life time. The Troxy was set up in style with a proper queue, ushers in uniform (a bit like Emile Jannings in The Last Laugh) and pie and mash for the locals: it felt like an alternate universe combined with a time-slip… and the place was pretty full, and with an audience that respected the material.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has long been on my watch list and didn’t really disappoint aided by Mr MacKenzie’s mastery of improvisation organ which propelled the story to its breathless conclusion. There are some flat sections – not helped by over familiarity with Robert Louis Stevenson’s story – but John S. Robertson directs well and Barrymore is, of course, a monster.

Filming was on stages constructed in the Amsterdam Opera House on 44th St. Manhattan,  so that JB could carry out his stage duties on Broadway in the evening – no rest for the wicked: that was at least three roles he was playing.

Brandon Hurst tempts John Barrymore
John Barrymore plays Dr. Henry Jekyll a visionary doctor who fixes the poor during the day and researches the furthest possibilities of human biology in the evening – more duality. He’s romancing Millicent Carew (Martha Mansfield) the daughter of Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) a man who has experienced most things in life and uses his wiles to shelter his daughter and to cynically forge his way in the world.

Miss Gina, “Italian artist”
He can’t believe that Jekyll is the do-gooder he seems and sets out to tempt him to taste the forbidden fruit of naughty Nita Naldi or Miss Gina, “Italian artist” as she is known here, an exotic dancer in a seedy club “gentlemen” frequent. Faced with Miss Gina, Jekyll can well see Carew’s point but he breaks away integrity intact.

Sir George tells the Doctor that the easiest way to get rid of a temptation is to give into it… and this is one of a number of Wildean moments in a film that also draws on Dorian Grey as well as The Strange Case…

Back in his lab Jekyll muses on the possibilities of having cake and eating it: what if you could isolate the bad from eth good in a separate persona? It’s slightly flawed logic as the same person is still performing the acts but… it’s a near-perfect way of eradicating guilt and blame. Writing before Freud, The Strange Case… was published in 1886; Stevenson was writing an allegory partly based on an actual case of split personality. Modern amateur psychologists can have a field day…

Mr. Edward Hyde makes his initial appearance without the assistance of make-up as Barrymore contorted face and body to disturbing effect. Hyde goes back to find Miss Gina, kicks over inconvenient children and is generally unpleasant in personal hygiene and deed.

Martha Mansfield and John Barrymore
Jekyll has him under control initially and proposes to Millicent in the optimistic assumption that civilised life carries on but the door has been opened and his alter ego keeps on coming back and every time he is worse…

As the organ swirls every more violently the narrative whips up a storm and, well, you probably know the rest… The tale is well wrought though and Roy F. Overbaugh’s cinematography is also to be commended for turning those Manhattan street sets into London after midnight.

Mr Hyde busy ruining lives... in dives.
But it's Barrymore that makes you believe... that self-confessed mixture of "talent, a glass and some cracked ice" was most definitely heavily-laced with the former.

A Stan Laurel spoof, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925) was shown before the main feature and was a slightly patchy affair that actually made a lot more sense after we’d seen the main feature. Must re-watch!

Doctor Pyckle
This was silent cinema returning to the people in a manner I’ve not seen before. We didn’t have the pie and mash but next time we’re down the Troxy we’ll go for the full-East End.

Watch the Troxy for details of up-coming events and check out Amazon for DVDs of the film – the Kino edition should be decent (?) but the print we saw could do with a restoration.

Donald MacKenzie's site has details of his busy schedule - he's playing the organ at Ally Pally soon.

A queue stretching around the block!

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