Saturday, 28 May 2016

He who gets slapped… Mockery (1927)

This was the second Hollywood film directed by the great Dane Benjamin Christensen (who made Mysterious X – his astonishing debut  - Blind Justice and the uncanny Häxan) and it has to be said that it lacks conceptual weight in comparison to his European output. That’s not only “show-business” it’s also the pressure of a studio system which expected its talent to shine through the constraints of commercial imperatives and the freedoms of a much tighter brief than UFA and Dansk-Biograf Kompagnie would have offered.

The film was panned on release but did reasonable business not least because of yet another superb performance from Lon Chaney: even when the plot is so-so, Mr Chaney can move the stoniest of hearts with the bending of his back, the slump of his shoulders and a mournful flash of his defeated eyes. His face literally collapses in pain like some great missing link between thought and expression… there’s never been anyone quite like him.

Lon Chaney
When the film was “lost” it was no doubt much coveted but its discovery in the seventies shouldn’t leave us disappointed entirely. The story is “light” for sure but I think the New York Times was a tad harsh in describing it as “…lumbering, dull-witted and, on the whole, unconvincing...” nor was Moving Picture World entirely fair in describing Lon as being “…hopelessly encumbered by the amateurishness of the plot development and handling."

Then as now, audiences voted with their feet and this one may have edged a 7 on IMDB had the primitive telephony of the twenties been able to access the internet.

Barbara Bedford and Lon Chaney
Star power and backlash… plus ca change. It’s still interesting none-the-less to see an American film dealing with the Bolshevik Revolution ten years down the line and bringing out characters on both sides: aristo’s who are good and selfish, insurgents who are the same and Chaney’s character, simple, “slow-thinking and ignorant”, Sergei who gets caught up in events mostly because he hasn’t got a friend on either side. Beyond all politics and class, he ultimately wants someone to connect with whilst all around are simply taking advantage.

The story begins with a gruesome search for food among the bodies of fallen soldiers. A peasant Sergei (Chaney) roots through the pockets and bags of the dead, searching for scraps; he finds the remnants of a chop and gnaws on the bone before spotting someone still alive. Instinctively he moves to help, offering the man some water before he drifts away in his arms.

As Sergei sees her...
He hears a call from the bushes behind and sees a pretty peasant girl (Barbara Bedford) she needs help in getting to the safety of Novokursk and offers Sergei food and, more importantly, friendship, if he will brave the threat of soldiers to get her home.

For their own safety, Sergei agrees to play the woman’s husband but when they are discovered by soldiers their commander refuses to accept that she is a peasant – her hands are too white – or that they are man and wife. He whips Sergei savagely until government troops arrive on horseback forcing them to flee.

Capt. Dimitri unable to apologise for his heart...
Sergei recovers in a military hospital while we learn his “wife’s” true identity, Countess Tatiana Alexandrova. As she waits a young officer, Capt. Dimitri (Ricardo Cortez) who has been sent to collect her, mistakes her for the peasant girl she seems and tries to flirt… shocked at discovering her true identity he utters the immortal line… “Forgive me Countess. I came to escort you to headquarters… but I cannot apologise for my heart.” Dimitri, mate, you better be one heck of a dancer because that sort of stuff just won’t wash… or will it?

Ricardo Cortez
Back in Novokursk and the twentieth century… the Countess breezes around in stylish suede and with authority regained. She is staying at the house of one of the newly-rich war profiteer Vladimir Gaidaroff (Mack Swain) and his authoritarian wife (Emily Fitzroy) which is acting as a temporary headquarters for smiley Dimitri and his regiment.

One day Sergei follows the Countess’ familiar face into the house and, after she finally recognises him, asks if she is still his friend… she is and rewards him with a position on her staff. This is not quite what the simple man was expecting and when he sees her in the arms of the handsome Captain his heart sinks.

The Countess' superiority
Sergei is jealous and he is disappointed after all he saved the Countess’ life whereas all Dimitri has ever done is smile and be charming… his frustration is refined to anger by the careful promptings of Ivan, the Gatekeeper (the brilliantly-named Charles Puffy) whose dentures say so much about his politics… One day, come the Revolution, we will be the masters and they will be the slaves… he opines whilst laughing about Sergei behind his back.

Dimitri and his troop head off to fight the revolutionaries leaving the house poorly defended and, when the action moves closer to home matters come to a nasty head: the rich run running from the poor in what looks very much like a Bolshevik Brian Rix farce.

Mack Swain
In spite of the sometimes awkward shifts from slapstick to serious, Sergei’s transformation into a vengeful revolutionary willing to bring his mistress down is actually quite shocking and confounds the expected trajectory – surely a noble death; steadfastly protecting the fragile beauty beyond his reach is what is required? But no, Sergei is out to take what he wants with no apology…

But it won’t end there – of course – and this twist saves the story in the end and leaves the audience hanging on for a more satisfactory resolution…

The direction from Christensen is efficient more than inspired but there are subtle tones in there such as the heavenly halo around the Peasant Countess’ head and Sergei’s instinctive washing of her feet: his is a biblical love and redemption can always come after a fall.

Mack Swain and Emily Fitzroy make for excellent cartoon capitalists whilst the pantomime proletariat are just as mincingly-effective.  Barbara Bedford makes for an unconvincing peasant – her hands are indeed too white but perhaps that’s the point - she’s otherwise impressively compassionate and feisty and very… neat!

Barbara Bedford: very neat
But it’s the Lon Chaney show and he acts through his make-up with the usual skill – not among his major work but if this was the only performance you’d seen, the only film left, you’d have to give it more respect than the newspaper critics of 1927.

Mockery complete with a sympathetic new score from James Schafer is available from the Warner Archive on DVD-R either direct or via Amazon.

Lon's drunk face

Monday, 23 May 2016

Jenny Hasselqvist on the edge - Brennende Grenze (1927)

This is a long film – 146 minutes – and one that gives ample time for its leading players to express themselves in lengthy close-up. There are none more expressive-impressive than Jenny Hasselqvist who has the highest level of physical and emotional control along with the grace and force of being also one of the leading prima ballerinas of the age.

Director Erich Waschneck made the most of this beguiling asset and in one sublime sequence the whole effort of the film is made worthwhile… with her character’s son having just killed the leader of the occupying soldiers, she turns from the door after waving him away and agonises for long moments – hands clasped in flickering resolution and arms dropped in despair: how can they escape from retribution, how can she save him?
Jenny H
I’ve compared Jenny H to Isabelle Huppert before and I think that is more valid than ever after watching this film. Two actors who can pack more emotional signalling into their deeply-generous features and never overplay; always holding something back of their truth… leaving that ultimate connection to the watcher.

There are numerous moments in which Waschneck lets his actors’ reactions tell the story – the action is mostly implied off-screen – and this is a psychologically-driven drama with relatively few title cards.

Farmer and fist
A German farmer is confronted by the Captain of the occupying Polish forces; he stares in resistance at the platoon on horseback in front of him, clenching his fists with his granite features frozen in preparation, the camera switches from face to fist, face to gun until the spell is broken as the Captain shoots his hand… Waschneck does not need to show us a battle to reveal the tensions of occupation.

Brennende Grenze (Burning Border) is based in the aftermath of the Great War when an independent Polish state was established after a century of partitions from Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. A series of border wars lasted until 1922 when national boundaries were finally settled.

Here come the Poles
During this border struggle – Grenzkampf – there were many injustices on both sides and this film, being German, focuses on the incursions into previously-German territory years before Poland was re-invaded.

Jenny Hasselqvist plays Luise von Will Bold, a widower left with a grand house defended only by the old-guard of the German army and her loyal staff. Her 18 year-old son, Heino (Hubert von Meyerinck) is a new recruit in the army and is shown writing to his mother (Hasselqvist was only 33 when the film was made) from the front lines. He hands his letter to a cavalryman and we see it wend its way through montage of rail and road to his mother, who is busily engaged in entertaining local notables all with a keen eye on this noble widow.

The commander and his gal...
Reading the letter Luise realises how much danger her son is in and the mood of the evening changes. The next morning Polish riders appear at the house for that well-wrought confrontation between the fist of the land manager and the commander of the Polish troops, Ladislaus von Zeremski (Hans Adalbert Schlettow).

At the house, Luis smiles at the pigs running through the hall, only to be greeted by the farmer; his bandaged hand economically explaining the outcome of the confrontation… another transition from happy to sad: her face literally says it all.

Oskar Homolka: what shall they do with the drunken sailor?
Meanwhile the invaders have quickly made themselves at home and are drinking the house dry led by a drunken sailor played by Oskar Homolka, an Austrian actor who enjoyed a huge career and was the star of many a sixties spy romp as a Russian or generic Euro-baddy for hire – he’s  great fun here as an emblem of the ill-disciplined occupiers.

Zeremski frolics with his moll, Nadja (Olga Chekhova) as baddies do but even these two have a human side, she treading on his toe as she rides their unwilling host and even showing vulnerability – this war has made them all a little mad and fear runs the day.

A soldier but still a son
An uneasy peace reigns and then Luis’ son returns home, found by his would-be sweetheart, Marlene (Camilla Spira), Luise’s housekeeper who  tells  her mistress and helps the soldier disguise himself as a waiter. The boy seems just that, gladly being cradled in his mother’s arms in a counter point to nasty Nadja’s moment of angst. But Heino is on the cusp of manhood and it takes all of his strength to resist knocking Zeremski to the ground after he starts dancing with Luise… this conflict throws the natural order up in the air and the commander is keen to taste the high life.

Fritz Alberti
But emotions really start to churn as one of Luis’ old loves, the traitor Tobias Raschoff (Fritz Alberti) re-appears as the Polish government’s nominated Commissioner… there’s a great reaction shot from Hasselqvist as she turns from playing the piano in her drawing room to face this man she loved so much but who now seems destined to be her oppressor.

And we’re hardly half-way through…

Martial law and the invaders out of control...
Martial law is declared and the Polish troops rampage through the town, taking their Kontribution – as they please. Tobias Raschoff takes a long walk in the country – his home soil - and we see from his pain that he is not as clear cut a collaborator as he seems. He has already sent his chauffeur off with a message trying to hold back the incursion but he is intercepted and Zeremski confronts him with his note… Nothing can now stop his troop from marching further.

One  man walks alone with his guilt?
Some spoilers…

But Raschoff is canny and takes the bull by the horns as the officers celebrate, ensuring they all get as drunk as possible, including the spiteful Nadja… a riot breaks out as the foot soldiers crowd at windows faces pressed against windows. Despite the party play – Waschneck builds a magnificent tension throughout – and scores will be settled.

Nadja runs riot on the table top dancing the full length before collapsing… she’s carried up to her room by  Zeremski’s Adjutant (Hugo Werner) who he orders to despatch Tobias: we see him enter and the door closes… one on one.

Heino bides his time waiting on Zeremski
Zeremski then heads up to have his evil way with Luise only to find his way blocked by the mysterious young waiter who has been an irritant all along… he raises his knife to strike and… Waschneck cuts once again, but we’d already seen the axe in Heino’s hand.

There’s so much to resolve in these final moments and the strands are brought together in dramatic fashion: love of mother for son, for country and each other triumphing against anarchy and opportunism – a message as welcome in Weimar Germany as any time since.

I watched the copy on the European Film Gateway which is as you can see low-resolution but watchable enough to show the performance skill and the cinematography of Friedl Behn-Grund. There’s no score so you just have to imagine and the German intertitles are a good excuse to brush up your translating skills but, in truth, they’re hardly needed such is the excellence of the performance.

Maybe one day Die Edition Filmmuseum may digitise for DVD or some kind souls will project on the big screen where it belongs.

The border

Monday, 16 May 2016

A light in the museum… Waxworks (1924), with Stephen Horne, Barbican

This was the last screening in the Barbican’s season of Weimar expressionist films (as opposed to films that are just very expressive…) with Stephen Horne, introducing as well as playing, quoting Lotte Eisner’s later-life conviction  that there were only two fully-fledged expressionist films - Von morgens bis mitternachts, and Caligari – along with the third segment of this film which, as Stephen promised, was well worth the wait!

As the Sun cracked the flags in the Barbican’s concrete courtyards, a substantial audience clearly preferred silence to shining as we gathered at the Centre’s lowest point: The Pit cinema.

Olga charmed by Emil
Waxworks was directed by Paul Leni who subsequently made The Cat and Canary, The Man Who Laughs and others in Hollywood. It is one of the first portmanteau horror/fantasy films with three stories all contained in a framing sequence set in a house of wax.

Leni recruited three of the Weimar’s leading men: Jannings, Veidt and Krauss who were respectively, corpulent, terrible and cutting!

Luna Park
A fairground – Luna Park – a whirl of double-exposed rides and lights, a young poet (William Dieterle) paper in hand, looking to respond for an advert for “an imaginative writer for publicity work in a waxworks exhibition”. He arrives at The Panopticum, a booth run by an elderly showman (John Gottowt) and his young daughter Olga Belajeff.

“Can you write startling tales about these wax figures?” asks the Showman before introducing his milky-faced cast of characters: Spring Heeled Jack (Werner Krauss), Ivan the Terrible (Conrad Veidt) and Haroun-al-Raschid, Caliph of Bagdad (Emil Jannings). Seeing the Caliph’s detached arm, the poet decides to write a story of how he came to lose his limb… the camera flicks out of focus and we’re in a wonderful, cartoonish Arabia looking on a paper-mache palace and plastic palm trees.

Assad canoodles with Zarah
The poet casts himself as Assad the Baker with the showman’s daughter as his wife – Zarah – one of the most beautiful women in the city not already married to the Caliph (he has a wife for every day…). The baker bakes and makes eyes at Zarah whilst the Caliph is pampered on the roof of his palace losing, badly, at chess. Distracted by the smoke from the baker’s oven the Caliph, perfectly reasonably, sends his Grand Vizier and his men to kill the baker but when they arrive they are distracted by Zarah’s beauty…
The Caliph's Palace is almost like a living thing...
The Caliph decides to investigate this woman for himself whilst Assad, forced to prove his manhood after Zarah realises that if she can catch the Grand Vizier’s eye she could do better, heads off to the palace to steal the Caliph’s magical Wishing Ring…

Cue a masterclass in kingly carousing from the protean Jannings, fleshy-grotesque in heavy padding, over-weighted turban and wicked moustache… he smiles, he gurns he licks his lips but he has charm enough to stop Zarah – and the audience – from running. Can Assad complete his task and keep his head and his wife? Have you read the Arabian Nights?

Next up the Poet turns his gaze towards Ivan the Terrible and a far more sinister tale ensues as Conrad Viedt’s Czar exhibits a sinuous delight in watching the grains of sand count down his tortured victims’ last seconds of life as they pass from chamber to chamber in his hourglass. It’s a horrible concept that perfectly encapsulates his silicon psychopathy.

Time waits for no man
But Ivan trusts no one, not even his poisoner-in-chief, who he has hunted down and killed but not before the man can write his master’s name on the terrible timer. Ivan is unaware as he continues his abuse of his subjects – terrible and not at all awesome in this context. When he does find out his solution reflects the tortured hyper-paranoia you hope haunts every psychotic despot – those to come and those passed.

The long day closes with that Eisner-authenticated expressionist sequence in which Spring-Heeled Jack comes to life and pursues the young couple in shadows and light as Leni let’s rip with every trick from the expressionist cookbook! Conrad Veidt’s sunken-cheeked ferocity aside, it is the film’s most genuinely haunting moment and right till the close you eye the Jack waxwork a little nervously.

Waxworks is a sight for sore eyes (hayfever and long drives…). Leni’s sets are superb throughout and Helmar Lerski’s cinematography brings them to life from the oppressive low-beamed ceilings of the Kremlin to the nightmarish exposures for jumping Jack flash.

Jack's menacing montage
Stephen played with his customary lyricism and control – playing the electronic keyboard always anchored with the Barbican’s splendid Steinway. Flute and accordion were also played all in sympathy with the film and as part of a remarkably well-structured improvisation. Waxwork’s range of moods presents a challenge to any musician, especially the curious mix of comedy, drama and horror (not to mention Emil!) but, once again, Mr Horne made it look like he’d spent weeks planning this all out with the ghost of Paul Leni or, possibly his animated wax figure…

Waxworks is available in its fully-restored length complete with tints, from Kino and you can order direct as well as from the long river that winds past localised tax-returns…

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Max Linder’s absurdification… The Three Must-Get-Theres (1922)

The man Charlie called The Professor
Max Linder stands tall in the land of daft with a range of ridiculous that stands the test of silly even after all these D'Artanians…  After this film, the normally sober New York Times – was it you Mordaunt? – was reaching for its thesaurus for new ways to describe this “whole-hearted mockery”, this “travesty” of Doug Fairbanks version of the Dumas tale which, it claimed, worked by the method of “absurdification“.

The film features the famous three swordsmen, Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus, not to mention the flashing blade called Dart-In-Again and runs ridiculous parallel to the Fairbank’s film’s romanticism. The Three Musketeers is outlandish enough and perhaps only a Frenchman could lampoon it as well as this – respectful tongue firmly in both cheeks.

Crossing the Channel
It’s the kind of intense humour you’d later expect of the Marx Brothers and whilst it has the physicality of Keaton and Chaplin it seems more overtly literate and literal in a surreal way. Donkeys love cows and our hero spends three months riding backwards on his humble steed whilst the Queen’s chamber quintet play jazz and the action counts down with the plucking of the remaining four hairs on a monk’s head.

Max is Dart-In-Again also known as Knockout and he leaves his father’s farm, to find fame in Paris. He travels by donkey (Jazbo the Horse!) much to the chagrin of beast’s Friesian friend: the tracks of the cow’s tears mark the depths of her loss.

"...ravishing yet love-starved..."
We cut to the court of King Louis Xiii where we find his Queen, Anne (Caroline Rankin) “…the ravishing yet love-starved wife…” who, it turns out is hardly the first but definitely the latter. She’s been entertained by her band of merry maiden musicians who raise their sax and trombones in a clear display of jazz… the first of many delightful anachronisms – there’s even a handsome cab that’s actually a cab.

The scarcely regal King (Frank Cooke) returns, nonplussed from his travels and the scheming Li'l Cardinal Richie-Loo (Bull Montana) watches on with his pet monk (Bynunsky Hyman) – half man-half pet… a bizarre sight.

Bull Montana and Bynunsky Hyman
The Queen’s paramour, Lord Duke Poussy Bunkumin (Harry Mann) walks on tenterhooks like Felix the Cat with her lady in waiting, Constance Bonne-aux-Fieux (Jobyna Ralston) to rendezvous with his sweetheart and, as he takes her prized jewellery as a memento, the Cardinal, perched, precariously on a stack of chairs spots the moment!

Meanwhile… Max makes his way to Paris where he mistakenly rescues a poor man from harassment at the hands of the the cheesy villain, Roquefort (Jean de Limur). He’s mistaken, the pair were merely sharing a joke, and is duly knocked unconscious, tied backward on his mule and sent off… “Three months later…” runs the title card as he wakes up many miles away.

Jobyna Ralston
Arriving in Paris, Dart fails to impress a local maiden and decides that he needs to trade in his four-legged friend for some new clothes. Suitably attired he bumps into Constance and creates an immediate impression.

Now, I hear you ask, what about the three other guys? Dart heads to the musketeers recruiting office where he presents a letter from hid daddy to the diminutive “Goliath” in charge of proceedings – a very un-PC sight gag that plays upon preconceptions of size and its relative importance.
The three elite musketeers enter: Porpoise (Clarence Wertz),   Octopus (Charles Mezzetti) and Walrus (John J. Richardson), only to be chided for killing just 99 of the Duke’s guards, thereby missing the cremation discount on a hundred dead.

Porpoise, Octopus and Walrus... possibly not in that order.
Worry not, pledges Dart tomorrow we can kill the extra one and a hundred more: the crazed merchandising of death. One by one Dart arranges to see the three the next day “one o’clock by the cemetery wall…” and he greets them by leaping from what looks at least a fifteen foot wall – Linder is every inch a match for Fairbanks in his stunt work and his swordplay is not only adept but so well timed he manages to maintain the incessant beat of tricks and gags.

The musketeers are ambushed at their rendezvous and team up with their new fourth member to defeat the Duke’s assassins – no worries about that discount today. There’s more daring do as the team celebrates as Constance, looking on, sighs “Oh Knockout, Knockout, the Samson of my dreamless nights!” what is keeping her awake?!

His regal majesty
But trouble’s ahead as the King, prompted by his stinky-cheese advisor, asks the Queen to wear her jewels for the ball. She’s bound to get found out unless, unless… Knockout Dart can get to London and retrieve them from her lover…

The films accelerates to its conclusion with a bewildering pace as telephones inform a guard on a motorcycles of the musketeers’ rescue plan and our hero sets sail for England on his horse. It’s great fun and the invention never slackens as Dart is surrounded by dozens of swords pointing at his head only to simply duck, leaving a platoon of the Duke’s guards pinned by their own swords…

A tight spot?
Linder struggled to find the level of success in Hollywood that he had enjoyed, pre-war, in Europe – he was making films in the 1900s - and he began to doubt himself after this film became another relative failure “…I sense that I'm no longer funny; I have so many preoccupations that I can no longer concentrate on my film character ... The public is mildly amused by my situations, but this evening where were the explosions of laughter that we hear when Charlie's on the screen?...Make people laugh, it’s easy to say make people laugh, but I don't feel funny anymore."

Jobyna and Max
His comedy is as sophisticated as anyone else from the period and is still genuinely beguiling. Linder’s mental health had been fragile after his war experience and seemingly he would never fully recover and yet, on this evidence he was still funny – very, very funny – and transcendentally so.

The Three Must-Get-Theres is available on the Kino DVD set and is among the most essential of all silent comedy.