Saturday, 25 June 2016

House of cards… La maison du mystère (1923)

I must admit to some trepidation in taking on Flicker Alley’s three-disc collection of this serial – who has the time for the best part of seven hours of serial especially when the British summer is actually happening outside, as we speak!?

But, after a couple of episodes still peaking at the garden, nipping out to clear some weeds and eat salad, I was hooked and it turns out that you can very easily make the time to find out what happens in this tense thriller. Unlike many earlier serials, La maison du mystère (The House of Mystery), isn’t really episodic and plays like the chapters in the book, by Jules Mary, it was based on. It’s effectively one long narrative often picking up directly after the events of the previous episode.

As such it holds your attention and you never feel there’s any padding or artificial rounding off to make the stories fit within the format: the film-makers respected their audience and only now can we see their full intent by watching each element back-to-back – there was no box-set gorging in 1923; you had to wait a week at a time!

For a French production this is, of course very Russian with Alexandre Volkoff directing and Ivan Mozzhukhin (as Ivan Mosjoukine) acting and co-scripting with Volkoff. The two maintain a superb continuity throughout and keep a tight rein on the narrative which could so easily sprawl.

The tone is playful and inventive with each episode featuring a flick of the director’s wrist: a wedding shown entirely in silhouette, an overhead shot of a group of police officers suddenly emerging and circling around a wanted man and a breathless chase across a broken wooden bridge with four men holding hands to hold it together – a sequence that lasts for half an episode and could easily have come from a much later era.

The Human Bridge
Volkoff and Mozzhukhin never tire of their story and across the years it was made – 1921-23 – and the decades covered by the story, they maintain integrity and tension: they never repeat themselves and fit in stories within each episode which add extra weight and flavour. It’s a rich experience and you feel exactly like you’ve just read a good book.

Jules Mary was known for writing around miscarriages of justice and this story is no different and, whilst I usually hate stories about innocents proved guilty, you have to see this one through to make sure that justice, if at all possible, is done. To this extent it does feel very “modern” HBO or Netflix with victory not easily won and with a magnetic star every bit as capable as John Hamm or Kevin Spacey with a “European” sensibility quite unlike Hollywood at the time – Mozzhukhin looks at the camera with worrying intensity and is matched by the malevolent complexity of   the remarkable Charles Vanel who would enjoy a 77 year career including Clouzot’s Wages of Fear and Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

Charles Vanel
Ivan Mozzhukhin (as Ivan Mosjoukine) plays Julien Villandrit the inheritor of a large mill who lives in a large country mansion in neighbouring grounds. When first encountered he is an excited youth, sprinting in shirt-sleeves to propose to the daughter of his neighbours, Régine de Bettigny (Hélène Darly). He’s so nervous he could burst and behaves with gauche uncertainty as he tries to build up the courage to pop the question to Régine’s parents.

The Mill and the House
Permission duly granted he bounds off home unable to contain himself and literally bumps into his best friend, Henri Corradin (Charles Vanel) who has also, secretly held hopes for Régine. As Julien hangs upside down from a tree, Corradin is speechless, full of loathing for this undeserving loon…

Hélène Darly and Ivan Mozzhukhin
And so it begins, as Hell has no fury like an industrialist scorned, and hatred brews that will shape the lives of this unequal triangle for ever.

A retired banker, Marjory (played by Bartkevitch) is a gentle giant who seems exceptionally fond of Régine but also her mother (Nina Raievska) gently embracing her hand as her ailing husband sleeps outside their opulent “cottage”. Then there’s the woodcutter Rudeberg (Nicolas Koline) a man of no fixed moustache and a keen amateur photographer…he is a camera and the camera rarely lies… although sometimes it withholds what it knows…

Nicolas Koline
We move forward to Julien and Régine’s happy marriage which is shown in a stunning sequence of silhouetted tableaux – it’s the type of device that sets silent hearts all a flutter and had me calling the rest of the family in to re-watch it. It’s a remarkable play – like shadow puppets but with each actor clearly discernible and in character: Julien and Régine tender and Corradin, thwarted, sneaking down stairs; making plans.

Corradin schemes
The pieces are in place but it will take a full seven years before the drama will really begin… this is a “long firm” of  a story: payback will take all but every one of the serial’s 400 minutes. Moving on… the young couple now have a precocious daughter, Christiane (Simone Genevois) – their family complete. Already turning slightly grey with the agony of disappointment, Corradin smirks when Julien struggles with the Mill’s financial difficulties and is determined that he must not only succeed, his friend must fail… totally.

Julien confronts Marjory
He focuses attention on the kindly Marjory who, in addition to secretly bailing out the mill –  repeatedly paying their outstanding bills – is also inordinately fond of Régine: really, really fond. Julien’s not made of stone and he soon begins to doubt the old man at first banning him from their house after one generosity to many and then violently confronting him. But, as Julien storms homeward, the old banker follows and, collapsing from the effort, reveals the truth: he is Régine’s father but this must never be revealed.

Julien runs for help but whilst he’s away, another assailant appears and is caught on camera by the shocked Rudeberg who snaps the old man’s final moments; its grim struggle mirrored in his lens.

Rudeberg's lens sees all
By the time Julien returns with help the picture he has described is far from what is found: it’s murder and he is very much in the frame…

Thus begins Julien’s epic struggle to prove his innocence and, after he is incarcerated, to get free to rescue his family and to bring the murderer and his traitorous friend to justice. Over the course of the series he adopts many disguises: itinerant, clown, foreign legionnaire – they all serve in the war – and disabled veteran who works for the Mill unrecognised.

It's an epic
Christiane grows up (to become Francine Mussey – whose open, pretty face impressed my son no end…) and never forgets her father – meeting him once when she is seven and then again after the war when she begins to help him. She form a life-long attachment for Pascal (Vladimir Strizhevsky), Rudeberg’s son which is bitter-sweet as his father has used his photographs of the murder to not only blackmail Corradin into supporting the boy but has, as a result, condemned her father to his half-life in prison and then on the run…

Francine Mussey
It’s a complex tale that unfolds at novel pace… and watching it almost all at once is not the way to fully appreciate it – filming took two years for various reasons, and audiences would have agonising waits between each episode: a huge dramatic tension guaranteeing their interest. More like old analogue TV and not digital-on-demand.

The actors are all superb, Varnel treading an expert line between friend and foe and Hélène Darly enduring years of faint hope and almost certain degradation. Nicolas Koline epitomises their shared skill of character consistency and the film’s efforts to show the moral frailty in extremes as he does the right thing by his son but is largely to blame for the whole long mess.

Hélène Darly
And Ivan… Ivan is simply magnificent; one of the very best performers of the era here allowed to go the full Alec Guiness/Lon Chaney in a succession of disguises whilst all the time his charcter gets older, worn down by war and defeat… yet still with hope and the unqualified, unwavering love of his wife and daughter.

The set is available direct from Flicker Alley or Amazon and comes with an energetic new score from Neil Brand: a musical marathon which retains common themes and under-pins events in perfect sympathy – it’s full of winning lines and carries a steadfast charm that is very much the story of Julien and Régine’s love and hope.

Ivan of many faces
Also included is a slideshow of rare production stills and a 12-page booklet featuring extensive notes about the serial’s cast and crew compiled by Lenny Borger and David Robinson.

It’s essential for all fans of Monsieur Mosjoukine and inventive European silent cinema.

Monday, 20 June 2016

A bonza day at the Bioscope! - Kennington Bioscope, 2nd Silent Film Weekend, Day Two

The mood turns ugly at the Bioscope as the flapjacks run out!
Day Two of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Weekender and we're all refreshed and ready for another winning programme of the rare, the inspirational and the just plain funny. 

For breakfast...

 The Fighting Smile (USA 1925) with Meg Morley

Directed by Jay Marchant and staring Bill Cody (who was neither Wild or related...) – a baby-faced Audie Murphy for the silent era - this film also featured Jean Arthur who would go onto eventual success with those talkies and their comedy of the screwball… Here she wears jodhpurs very well and provides plucky romantic interest for Cody’s character to rescue whilst sometimes rescuing him.

This was a very neat and enjoyable western featuring some vertiginous horse-charges down dangerous slopes, almost non-stop action and the good humour of Mr Cody and his smile of fight. It’s a likeable smile and one that is based on confidence and can-do in a world where trust is always qualified by friendship and a good heart.

Bill on the horse and Jean Arthur to the right
Cody plays Bud Brant who is returning home to help his father save his ranch from ruin caused by careless cow counting. On his way he spots what looks like a young man struggling with a bucking bronco… seeing the young fella thrown to the ground he drives his horse down a steep incline to intervene only discover ‘taint a he but a she and a mighty pretty one too, name of Rose Craddock (Miss Arthur).

The two make eyes only to be rudely interrupted by her step-father and his foreman (George Magrill and Billie Bennett respectively) who is all dressed in black - never a good sign - and intend on marrying Rose. Bill, sorry Bud, is naturally undeterred and heads onto his father’s ranch to quickly spot the solution to the mystery of the disappearing cattle – a man named Shorty (he’s not that tall you see) who has been playing both sides.

As luck would have it, Bud once saved the fella’s life and feelings of loyalty are stirred only for Shorty to get cut short by Black Hat’s bullets. Luckily there’s time for the dying man to sketch out the location of the rustler’s secret hide-away and the game is on!

Bill Cody and friend
It is formulaic fair but you can’t help but be won over by the pace and the players – it’s good to see a happy cowboy for a change and that fighting smile is also a winning one.

Meg Morley put on her ten-gallon hat and spurs for some country-flavoured accompaniment for this rhinestone cowboy, soon she’d be on home turf…

Paradise (GB 1928) with Lillian Henley

Now back to Britain for the country’s Queen of Happiness, Betty Balfour to show us just how good an actress she was. This film progressively gets darker after an opening which sees our girl – as Kitty Cranston -  struggling to complete a crossword on a crowded tube – as I type I’m on the Victoria Line – there are shades of Underground and it’s nice to see that commuter-mood hasn’t really changed.

Our Betty Balfour
Now keep that crossword in mind as it’s going to be important. Kitty’s one word away, eight letters… a place of enduring happiness? “Public ‘ouse?” miscounts a lady crammed to the left of her, “Sarf ‘end” suggests a boy to the right… it’s only when she goes to meet her boyfriend, handsome Doctor John Halliday (Joseph Striker) in his crowded waiting room (plus ca change) that his ironic comment about the state of things makes the penny drop: “Paradise!”

The Doc wants to settle down but Kitty is fed up of the rain and the grey and the rain and the trains… she wants the sunshine where people can “live”!

She gets her chance when her crossword wins her £500 and whilst her father Reverend Cranston (Winter Hall) says it should be used to help the needy Kitty decides that self-actualization is more important and heads off on a lone mission to The Riviera!

Alexander D'Arcy enjoyed a long and varied career and everywhere he went, he took is 'tache with him!
Cue bleached images of Monte Carlo as director Denison Clift’s real agenda is revealed… Kitty ignores the warnings of the Doctor and the Reverend and starts to enjoy herself in five star luxury. But it’s not long before she attracts the attention of the local gigolo, Spirdoff (Alexander D'Arcy) who opts to stop dancing with older woman for money in favour of this much younger model and her money.

Spirdoff has a moustache so sharp it could cut a deck of cards and he’s as smooth as all get out. He introduces Kitty to a group of his fellow emigres, all artists who fled the revolution and who, being honest, seem like a pretty fun crew.

Now, I’m not sure whether the film is being subtly subversive but many of us took to this diverse group of bohemians and, when the inevitable call comes to return with Honest John we were in two minds… But things don’t quite pan out that simply…

Lillian Henley, dubbed The Queen of the Twenties by Bryony Dixon – the BFI Baroness - in her introduction, was clearly right at home duetting with Betty – can we have more Bronson-Henley please?!
Sentimental Bloke (Australia 1920) with Meg Morley

Made in 1919 and on general release from 1920 this Australian film confounded so many expectations it’s hard to capture them all although Stephen Morgan – almost – the token Aussie for this day, did his best in his introduction.

Firstly, the film is based on a poem – by CJ Dennis – and retains much of the verse to form its title cards. Secondly, that verse is in colloquial Aussie, written phonetically to create the genuine idioms of the time: bonzer mate! isn’t even the half of it: it’s about stoushing the johns, cracking a boo and piling on the dog… all as perfectly understandable as a magic eye picture or a paragraph with vowels turned upside down. A brave choice but we all got it right mates?

Thirdly, this film is set mostly in Sydney and not in the outback – this is no Barbeque Western but a tale of ordinary working class lives in Woolloomooloo – a tough neighbourhood, with the odd moments in the Royal Botanical Gardens and beyond

Finally… this is a film in which a man, changes and makes sacrifices to be with the woman he loves. Now as then this is not always the case – Betty B in the above film has to be the more pliant in her relationship. There’s something in Australia’s willingness to self-examine and to be humble (if the occassion calls for it…).

Raymond Longford directed and produced and directed and his partner, Lottie Lyell acted as ‘Er later identified as Doreen for whom our hero, the rough and ready Billy the Bloke aka The Kid (although with that mug, I’d opt for the former) played by Arthur Tauchert.

Billy starts in trouble and ends up in jail for illegal gambling, he’s very much a man of his environment and yet he wants to do better. After his release he searches fro self-improvement but it’s tough work staying strong and out of the pub.

Then one day he catches a glimpse of “’er” and his World turns… but there’s a long, rocky road to escaping his roots and to winning Doreen over on her terms, not with his fists or his wits: he needs to understand
Meg Morley added antipodean cadence to the film and matched this most rhythmic of films with consideration and precision throughout. Had my mate Kevin from Adelaide been here he would have shouted, ”go you good thing!” but the Brits just clapped and smiled – a lot!

At this point, Father’s Day called and I headed home to be unconditionally-worshiped by my family…

So, I missed:
Napoleon (FR 1927)  

This was Kevin Brownlow's original, 60-minute long, 9.5mm print of Abel Gance’s epic and as such is of historical interest in itself: helping to inspire the man who played a major part in the film’s restoration. The full five and a half hour Napoleon is being screened again with full orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 6th November – last time I screamed like a 1D fan at an appearance of Harry Styles and I shall no doubt rave on about it again.
Cyrano De Bergerac (FR 1923)

This is a sumptuous film and one I have already written about on this blog. I’d like to have seen it live to see the full impact of the colours and the sheer opulence of Augusto Genina’s production

Three Bad Men (USA 1926) with John Sweeney

I have this film on DVD but again it was a shame to miss seeing it on proper film – the BFI’s 35mm copy.

It’s one of John Ford’s major silent westerns and no doubt made for an interesting cowboy bookend to Day Two.

Again all credit to Amran, John, Cyrus, Lillian, Meg, Stephen, Costas and the crew in arranging a flawless two days – special mention also for the Bioscope’s projection wizard: Dave Locke.

To be continued…

Sunday, 19 June 2016

A Day in the Museum... Kennington Bioscope, 2nd Silent Film Weekend, Day One

Having missed the inaugural KBSFW due to charity mountain-climbing-in-the-rain commitments I discovered just what I’d missed on the first day of the second edition: warmth, shelter and good company along with a diverse and enriching array of silent film all played by some of the nation’s finest accompanists.

Gathered in the Cinema Museum we kicked off with three British films introduced by the BFI’s Bryony Dixon which, as she pointed out, showed domestic silent cinema at its best simply being itself and not trying to conquer the World. How we could benefit from this simple truth in these times of faulty memory, failed logic and delusions of past and future grandeur (I’m not going to edit that after Thursday’s result for either party).

These films showed everyday Britons – feuding, playing pranks, being oddball, inventive, sing-a-long and ultimately believing in fair play for all: that’s who we are and we don’t need to “take it back” from anyone because it’s never been taken!

Head of the Family (1922)
The Jest (1921) with John Sweeney

This was a short-sharp shock of a film that took an everyday domestic in unexpected directions…one of a series of “Grand Guignol” shorts directed by Fred Paul and aimed at showing the sordid cruelty of “life as it really is…”

Barcelona (1927) with John Sweeney

A tour-de-force of Sweeney-syncopation that showed the great British public dancing along to Tolchard Evans and Gus Kahn’s contemporary hit – from jazz-babies on the beach to a Bobby well on the beat… It culminated in a sing-along session during which, I’m afraid, we audience didn’t cover ourselves with glory… Let’s make this the Bioscope anthem though and work on this!

Head of the Family (1922) with John Sweeney

Directed by Manning Haynes this was a hearty comic drama that featured some glorious coastal locations.

Based on a Sailor’s Knots by WW Jacobs it features the unfortunate tale of Mrs Green (Daisy England) a widow who has re-married a bully of a husband (Johnny Butt), who has spent two years not fixing his broken boat and aims to sell of her long-lost son’s furniture in order to feed his beer and sitting hobby.

The new "head" helps bring back the furniture...
Inspiration strikes as the poor lady meets a young sailor, Robert Letts (John Ashton), who she suggests can take the place of her son in order to supplant Green as the master of their house and property. Robert is at first unsure but is instantly persuaded by embrace of his new “sister” Betty (Cynthia Murtagh).

A lovely flicker that displays the British nod and wink throughout and also features the immortal Moore Marriott who starred in of so many Will Hay films and Arthur Askey's I Thank You (oh yes!) providing much more of the same – we’re at our best laughing with and at each other.

Moore Marriott and John Ashton
Jazz Mad (1928) with Cyrus Gabrysch

Time for Hollywood and a film that reminded all of what an excellent actor Jean Hersholt was. This was a 16mm film from Kevin Brownlow’s collection and one he’d once traded but re-purchased: not a great movie but an enjoyable one clearly emulating Emil Jannings “humiliation” films.

Jean Hersholt plays Franz Hausmann a mid-European composer who has come to America to get his symphony performed and to make his reputation. He is supported by his devoted daughter Elsa (Marian Nixon) but the only gig he can get is playing a conductor of an awful-on-purpose “Orchestra” who play to get pelted with food at a nightclub.

Jean Hersholt as the humiliated Hausmann
He reaches his low point when the father of the rich boy Leopold Ostberg (George Lewis) Elsa has fallen for, arranges for the loving couple to see what music her “genius” of a father actually plays. Devastation follows – how low can Franz go?

Hara-Kiri (1928) with Stephen Horne

Marie-Louise Iribe - Hara-Kiri (1928)
Marie-Louise Iribe was one of so very few French female directors (and beyond: have you read Silent Women yet?) and this film was perhaps the most visually inventive of the day. The story opens with a woman packing in preparation to leave her husband. The camera follows her around her room selecting items and positioning her parting note and never showing us her face: it’s a bold opening and one that the film doesn’t quite live up to.

The subject matter is striking though – an inter-racial love affair between a mixed-race European woman Nicole Daomi (Iribe) and the Japanese Prince Fujiwara (Liao Szi-Yen). The man she is leaving is Professor Samura Daomi (Constant Rémy) a man, crucially, who knows all of the old ways of honour and circumstance.

Nicole and the Prince head to the Alps to ski, climb and share a room – would any Hollywood film be so frank? But tragedy strikes high on a mountain as she slips and he dies trying to save her. Their scandalous liaison has been revealed and back home the Shogun orders that honour be restored in the traditional manner.

An exploitative Austrian film poster for the film... Honest Google it's art!
The narrative may run a little slow and deliberately but the mood is maintained amidst some lovely-looking people and places… The set design from Robert-Jules Garnier is stunning and astute cinematography makes the very most of this as it does of the alpine exteriors. Costumes were designed by Shingo Tsutumi and again are luscious in support of the film’s effort at authenticity.

Marie-Louise Iribe has screen presence (for more of that, c.f. Jacques Feyder’s L’Atlantide from 1921) and continually draws the eye with her strength and control. A very interesting film and one that is rarely seen let alone screened … try finding a screen shot!

Mr Horne responded with his usual invention throwing in a snatch or two of Japanese folk music which I mistook for Ryuichi Sakamoto (now I know where he got it from!).

The Film Society Programme with Costas Fotopoulos                
Nadia Sibirskaya - Brumes d'automne (1929)
The London Film Society was dedicated to showing “fringe cinema” and art-house before we even used suich terms. Here Tony Fletcher presented a rich-mix of six that had been screened by the LFS.

Brumes d'Automne / Mists of Autumn (1928) I do love Dimitri Kirsanoff’s film for its atmospherics and the sheer pleasure it takes in visual beauty, from tyre tracks in the mud to rain falling on water and the puffs of smoke emerging from a chimney. Then there is the strikingly-striking Nadia Sibirskaia whose waters run as deep as those in the lake: she burns lets and ponders the end of a relationship – does she consider her end or does she see the clouds break?

Regen / Rain (1929) Precipitation proceeds also in Joris Ivens and Mannus Franken sodden city symphony… a classic of loose narrative observation all filmed from a hand-held camera.

Lotte Reiniger’s card-cut outs in Aschenputtel / Cinderella (1922) were chopping their toes off to fit into those glass slippers… it doesn’t pay to fib about your shoe-size!

Cinderella (1922) - at the ball
A Film Director's Nightmare (1925) by Julius Pinschewer was a jangled promo film for the KIPHO – showing some behind the scenes including a glimpse of the above Lotte.

Fall of the House of Usher (1928) was dark disorientation from Melville Webber exactly as Edgar Allen would have liked it.

Rachmaninioff's Prelude in C Sharp Minor (1927) Castleton Knight was convinced this was inspired by Poe’s The Premature Burial… if they had Classical MTV in the twenties: this is how it would have looked: a thriller!

This was clearly up Costas’ street and he must have really enjoyed the last especially: and speaking personally, it was one of my father’s favourite pieces of music.

The Red Mill (1927) with Costas Fotopoulos                

When I was a young silent film man I believed the line that Marion Davies was “discovered” as a comedienne with Show People but it doesn’t take a King Vidor to see what a natural talent she had for being funny – even if he did help out discretely on this film.

Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle under the assumed name of William Goodrich, his own name having been so wrongfully-blackened by, amongst others, William Randolph Heart’s press coverage… Here Hearst made some amends under pressure from his wife Marion, for whom Cosmopolitan Productions was almost exclusively created.

Game for a laugh
The story is slight but overall very entertaining and features some Arbuckle slapstick set-pieces – an ironing board that just won’t stand, the new sport of soap-suds skating and a lots of “Boo!” in a haunted windmill. It’s a really good showcase for Davies’ enduring comic appeal: perfect timing, mimicry and that buzzed twinkle in her eyes. She’s another with modern looks and style… she doesn’t mind being “made down” for the role of Tina, a scullery maid at the Red Mill Tavern who is berated for even sitting down by her monstrous boss, Dillem (George Siegman).

She catches the eye of visiting playboy Dennis Wheat (Owen Moore – the first Mr Mary Pickford) and his valet Caesar Rinkle (Snitz Edwards) but he has his eye on girls with more money and fewer freckles. Things change though when she swaps places with the Burgomaster’s daughter Gretchen (Louise Fazenda), who is about to be married off to Governor (William Orlamond) for political reasons but is really in love with Captain Jacop Van Goop (Karl Dane).

Marian and Moore
Dennis, attracted by Gretchen’s wealth also decides to intervene in the race but meets a dolled-up Tina and falls in actual love… and Roscoe sets the controls for the heart of the daft.

In the view of Lara Gabrielle Fowler – who is writing a biography on Davies (the first in a generation!) and provided notes for today’s screening: “It is a true silent classic and the joy that went into making it is palpable.”

The Man Who Laughs (1928) with Lilian Henley

At this point I had to leave to re-acquaint myself with my family – it having been a long week! This meant I missed what was the strongest film of the day which I would have loved to have seen on the screen – Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm copy – and accompanied by the always excellent Ms Henley.

But it had been a long good day already and there’s more to come tomorrow!

A very well-organised day from all at the Bioscope and a day of entertainment and learning – the specially-prepared notes on each film were clearly a labour of love and as I read Michelle Facey’s glorious background essay on Conrad Veidt’s film I was kicking myself all the way home! And then I remembered Olga Baclanova… I was missing Olga!!

 End of Part One...