Thursday, 14 April 2016

A backlot of love… Studio Tour Films 1915-1925 with Kenneth Brownlow, Kensington Bioscope

MGM technically had fewer stars than Heaven but... it was close...
Kevin Brownlow informed us that he had lost his notes and a sold-out Bioscope laughed probably more at the idea that he might even need any.

Silent film and memory… Mr Brownlow has probably forgotten more about the subject than most of us will ever know and in this age of limitless storage there’s an interesting question: will anyone ever be forgotten again or, put another another way, is there any need to remember?

Frequently, when watching films from this era, you chance upon a great performance you hadn’t expected – John Gilbert in The Big Parade and Man, Woman and Sin – or a “new” actor who was massively popular at the time and yet who has faded from living memory.

Universal City postcard from 1915
There’s a new wave of memory being created and whilst you can count on one hand the silent film stars most cinema fans can name after Charlie, Buster, Greta, Laurel and Hardy… there are many more now familiar having been seen performer for the first time (again) over recent years.

But there’s always more… film was never as huge as in the silent era, much has now gone for good and the saddest loss of all is the affection and recognition of the stars.

Mr Brownlow treated us to three rare films showcasing three of the major silent studios all of which featured a mix of actors remembered and actors forgot. Given recent revivals there are those we know again and a smaller number, of those that have never been forgotten: Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and a few others.

First up was Behind the Screen (1915) showing the movie-goer the set up at Universal City. It featured plenty of myth-enhancing languid camera pans over the huge studios as well as fascinating glimpses into the set-up and quick turn-over of the production process. Victoria Forde – who later married Tom Mix – was one of the actors featured along with other familiar/unfamiliar names: Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran, Neal Burns and Stella Adams.

Lee Moran, Eddie Lyons, Victoria Forde and. Harry Rattenberry in Downfall Of Potts (1915)
Directed by the likes of Al Christie and Otis Turner, they were shown running through single takes on temporary sets that were ripped down as soon as they were used to be replaced by another. Edited for effect no doubt but here was motion picture as Ford car production line processing.

Paramount Studios in 1922
A Trip to Paramountown (1922) followed next and so much had changed with studios now firmly in charge and more structure in place. We saw Anna Q. Nilsson being shown her character through her director drawing it on a screen – although she becomes distracted by a member of the crew offering her sweets.

The humorous approach continued with Valentino seemingly being left to the mercy of an actual bull whilst making Blood and Sand before being shown Bebe Daniels watching a mini version of herself dance and the ill-fated William Desmond finding himself driving a toy car made famous in his hit, Excuse My Dust (1920)

Excuse my dust!
Then we see Cecil B. directing Manslaughter with Leatrice Joy in all her finery complete with pet lions and a menacing Thomas Meighan. Lastly Gloria Swanson’s feathered head-dress develops a life of its own – anything is made possible by the magical powers of Hollywood.

Marion Davis was there, just waiting as she tried unsuitable styles… along with Betty Compson, George Fawcett and Jack Holt but what of Sylvia Ashton, T. Roy Barnes, Dorothy Dalton and Robert Cain: who were they and how shall I remember them? Why should I remember them?

T. Roy Barnes and friend in 1924
An MGM promo put together for the 1925 Stockholder Committee was next and was more about showing the faces of the different creative groups putting the product together: the scenario writers (including Howard Hawks), the wardrobe artists, and a massed rank of cameramen featuring over two dozen of whom worked on that same year’s Ben Hur.

Who was Mr Bentley (left)?
A very impressive row of directors was featured including Frank Borzage, Victor Sjostrom, von Sternberg and von Stroheim, King Vidor and William Wellman. There was even a mysterious Scandinavian-looking gent by the name of Bentley… even Kevin didn’t know who he was.

Then there were the stars… and many of them too… I spotted Ford Sterling, William Haines, Harrison Ford, Billy Dove, Norma Shearer wilting under her mountain of fan mail, John Gilbert flirting with Zasu Pitts and Lon Chaney cheekily turning his one thousandth-face away from the camera.

Lon Chaney refuses to face front
These are precious images of the stars off duty and yet it is still sad that not all are known or have surviving examples of their work. We should be grateful for what we do have and seek to be as thorough and as objective as we can in our assessments of their work: they deserve no less. Above all, they contributed to the cultural life and happiness of our grandparents and great-grandparents: they might have played as crucial a part in their romantic lives as George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn did for my children’s parents… you never know.

What a find!?
MGM’s “find of 1925” was also shown, someone called Lucille Le Sueur… one of those who have passed into history beyond their generation: a natural, eternal star. One day even Joan Crawford’s memory will pass but I’d guess that will be a long time: what is the half-life of a megastar?

Yet another cracking show at the Bioscope and a tip of the hat to John Sweeney, Costas Fotopoulos and Cyrus Gabrysch who played along superbly to these slices of cine-history.

One of those letters is from me Norma!

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