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...

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