Friday, 26 February 2016

It’s in the air… Love (1927) Aphrodite Raickopoulou, Vadim Repin and Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

Well it was certainly love for Mordaunt Hall, with the New York Times critic almost lost for words in describing Greta Garbo as "a blonde Mona Lisa" who "outshines any other performance she has given to the screen".

I doubt he could have contained himself had he been here to hear Aphrodite Raickopoulou's stonking new score written for and played by Vadim Repin ably accompanied by the might of the Philharmonia Orchestra… “Paramedic for Mr Hall!”

Is often been said that the camera loved Garbo – watching Sky Arts Movie documentaries it seems that the camera also loved Ava Gardner, Lana Turner et al and so on: that Camera was pretty fickle. I think that the director, cinematographer and, subsequently the audience loved Greta and Mordaunt Hall of course…

Mordaunt loves Greta
She must have brought something powerfully new to the screens and perhaps her European ethereality topped off an earthy sexuality that the West had rarely seen. Theda and Pola were too deliberate whilst Lillian, Mary and even Clara were girls in comparison with this woman who operated on unknowable levels. She has more in common with Asta Nielsen and the great Italian Divas, especially Bertini: realism with just a silent touch of a short-fuse.

A Lyda Borelli reveal borrowed from Malombra?
Her only vulnerability was love itself and even she could be charmed by the wholesome wit of John Gilbert. Gilbert was the proof of accessibility and possibility and, pause for sigh, proved that ultimately neither of things actually applied in Greta Gustafsson’s case.

But all that was to come and tonight, as in 1927, the audience believed in their love and, in the love of a mother and son as well as the love of a soldier for his comrades in arms: there was a lot of love going round.

But first to feel it was off-screen, as Vadim Repin – described as the leading soloist of his generation – took to the stage to rapturous applause alongside conductor Frank Strobel wading through the eighty-strong Philharmonia. Aphrodite Raickopoulou has spent much of the intervening period between her splendid score for Faust – performed in the same venue in 2012 – on this new piece and it was worth every note.

Repin took flight almost from the first few bars of the overture before the film began and Raickopoulou’s themes began to reveal themselves against the well-travelled narrative of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is an interesting choice to follow up the more tonally extreme Murnau film but the score succeeded in adding flavour especially to Garbo’s almost mystical expressiveness. I probably said it before but she over-matches Mr Gilbert whose natural charm and earnestness simply washes over the swede’s hidden depths.

John Gilbert: at first sight
Don’t get me wrong, I do love John Gilbert and I would also agree with the rather leftfield suggestion from Hugo Vickers who in his introduction suggested that were he alive today, Gilbert would easily beat Donald Trump to the Whitehouse: well yes, him, Felix the Cat and Ben Turpin too!

Meanwhile, back in Tsarist Russia… as adaptations go, this one is remarkably economical with Director Edmund Goulding moving Frances Marion’s precis swiftly along and focusing on the aspects of love that bind the characters to their diverging paths: there is no easy way for any of them to follow their hearts. Such clever work Miss Marion!

John Gilbert also part directed, perhaps been given his head with his almost soul-mate – not for nothing did the publicists promote the film as “Garbo and Gilbert in… Love” although the original title was simple Heat which I’m less convinced about.

OK... it is a little warm in here...
Their first encounter is tantalizing as horse-drawn carriages career through frozen countryside. We only see Garbo’s face through a veil which delays the moment of her rescuer, Alexis Vronsky (Gilbert) seeing her face. After her carriage loses a horse he takes her to an n inn and after installing her in a double room wrongly assumed to be theirs, is transfixed when the big reveal happens: love at first sight!

But… it’s complicated: Anna is already married to the influential, rich and late middle-aged Senator Alexei Karenin (Brandon Hurst) and, worse still, they have a son, Serezha Karenin (Philippe De Lacy) who Anna adores more than life itself. The bond between the 10-year old boy and the 22-year old actress is a strong one but I’m pretty sure it’s meant to show the immensity of the maternal bond. True Vronsky is jealous in the selfish days of his passion but he comes to accept the boy’s position in her life.

George Fawcett does his Windsor Davies
But Vronsky is similarly compromised by his family connection to his regiment, led by the Grand Duke Michel (George Fawcett who is about as Cossack as Windsor Davies!). He faces being drummed out after generations of Vronsky family service if he doesn’t save face by giving up Anna.

Eventually the Senator intervenes, telling the lovers that they will destroy themselves. He is playing a long game and counting on the pressures of societal norms to keep them apart.

Ultimately Anna cannot leave her boy any more than Vronsky can walk away from his comrades and his familial history. Regretfully they give up their love and prepare for the misery of separation.

Anna gives her emotions away as she watches Vronsky's race
Famously two endings were filmed one based on Tolstoy’s and another crafted for local taste… you’ll have to watch it yourself to find out which one won.

Love is a very good film above and beyond G&G. There is some lovely cinematography from William H. Daniels who employs a good range of “European” camera mobility, following the characters through immense rooms and tracking John Gilbert during the soldier’s horse race – Anna’s heart is in her mouth and we respond in kind to the under-cranked danger of the equine dual.

It’s available from Warner Archives in a decent print but it would be good to see it released with this enormous, radiantly good-natured new score.

The concert launched the 2016 UK-Russia Year of Language and Literature and featured my pal Sarah’s live debut at a silent film – thanks for taking the chance SEG!

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