Thursday, 9 June 2016

Blood, Brutes and Black Bess – Kevin Brownlow’s Vitagraph home movies, Kennington Bioscope

It’s some kind of summer now: the start of the festival season and the Bioscope responded in its unique way with eight films in three hours. Our host Kevin Brownlow wanted to fit in another but most of us had homes to go to.

What we saw was a collection of 9.5mm prints intended for home viewing and which featured condensed versions of their source material ranging from one to three reels from the Vitagraph Company of America. Even stripped of their establishing narrative these films still made sense and were still impactful not least because of some spectacular action including horses racing a steam engine, cowboys, a steam engine ploughing through a forest fire and what looked like a full-scale sea battle.

But we also had Colleen Moore’s unique energy, Victor McLaglen’s physicality and a host of stars with successful careers and who should be better recalled: Irene Rich, J. Warren Kerrigan, Warren Baxter…

The latest in home projection technology!
In order to present these frail wonders on a large screen they had to be projected onto a small screen and fed through the digital projector at the Cinema Museum. The projectionist worked wonders, stopping the frames so the audience could read the intertitles and making running repairs when the celluloid snapped: hats off to Dave Locke who performed his usual wonders.

Black Bess/Black Beauty (1921) accompaniment by Costas Fotopulas

Jean Paige, Dobbin and James Morrison
Starring Jean Paige – later wife of this film’s director, David Smith – as Jessie and James Morrison as hero Harry, this film featured a stunning horse race at the climax as Harry rides the much-travelled black steed across country to outwit the baddie Jack (George Webb) and his inferior horse(-manship).

It’s exciting stuff and even with the under-cranking, showed immense courage from the riders as the race each other over field and fence in order to catch a steam engine.

The Ninety and Nine (1922) accompaniment by Meg Morley

This was Colleen pre-bob and Flaming Youth but she still presents with her trademark endeavour and pure focus even in a film described as “old school” by one contemporary review.

Colleen plays Ruth, whose parents have her lined up for a clearly unsuitable cheater when she, naturally enough, prefers the young and virile Tom (Warner Baxter). The bad suitor tries to fit the more deserving with a cheap charge of theft – employing the local “poor half-wit” to place Father’s wallet in an incriminating suitcase. But Warner’s too quick and stops the con chasing the boy off – not that this stops him being accused by parents who decide that it’s best for Ruth to go away to Forest Hill.

There’s a forest fire on that Hill though and only one man can save the day by driving a train into the heart of the heat…

On the Banks of the Wabash (1924) accompaniment by Cyrus Gabrysch

This was seven reels chopped down to two and there was just enough to capture some good interplay between a young inventor, David (James Morrison) and Dolly (a young Madge Evans who was later to feature in the excellent Dinner at Eight). David has invented a revolutionary device to radio control boats and this almost leads him astray before steadfast Dolly shows him the value of real love.

There is an impressive sequence involving a flood and a rescue from a Mississippi river boat as David’s threatens to cost him everything…

The Man from Brodneys (1923) accompaniment by John Sweeney

Kevin quoted a scathing review from Picture Play which described the audience on this film’s Broadway presentation as being “exceptionally impolite” but we’re a lot more forgiving with a film we’re almost certain never to see in its full form.

What’s left showed a British colonial outpost under attack from scheming “Hindoos” and whilst the mind inevitably conjured up the closing scenes from Carry on up the Khyber, there was some impressive action as the plucky Brits enlisted the help of the exceptionally convenient and well-armed US Navy to win the day!

J. Warren Kerrigan stars as Hollingsworth Chase – we’ll see more of him in a while – along with Wanda Hawley as Lady Agnes Deppingham (not the Deptford Deppingham’s the other lot… the ones in the country) and Alice Calhoun as Princess Genevra.

No doubt Boris would have just loved it!

Behold This Woman (1924) accompaniment from Costas Fotopoulos

This featured Irene Rich as film star Louise Maurel who falls for John Strangeway (Charles A. Post) a lunk of a backwoods boy after her car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – there are no hotels and she has to stay with him and his backwards misogynist father. John follows her to California and glimpses another world in which his now-hipster beard must be trimmed to help fit him in.

There were some fascinating glimpses of period Hollywood as the two attempted to make the bridge between Tinsel Town and Country.  Marguerite De La Motte is also in it and we’ll see her again in a moment.

The Clean Heart (1924) accompaniment from Meg Morley

This was a strange tale involving Philip (Manhunt’s Percy Marmont) working himself into a nervous breakdown and finding solace in the arms of the aforementioned Marguerite as Essie Bickers. As with all these “small” versions you wonder not only how much concrete meaning has been lost in the picture play precis but also how the story itself has been changed.

This seem to be going fine for Philip and Essie until they enter a scenic thatched cottage and suddenly their relationship seems to advance from dreamy to divorce in seconds, as if the building was haunted by past traumas… Then we have drama!

Captain Blood (1924) accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch

The film was based on the novel, Captain Blood, His Odyssey, by Rafael Sabatini and was Vitagraph’s biggest success costing a fortune with what look very much like actual, near-full-size galleons sinking, engaging in battle and being blown up in spectacular fashion.

It also featured some rare Brownlow Benshi as KB translated French intertitles using a discrete light pen – all adding to the feeling that we really were being treated to some rare views.

Of the 110 minute original only these 30 minutes survive and we’re lucky to have those.

David Smith directs again and Jean Paige stars again as Arabella Bishop who is surely too good for the bold neo-pirate that is Peter Blood who is secretly a qualified physician! The studio held a ballot for their audience to nominate who should play Blood and Smith was distraught when our old pal J. Warren Kerrigan – remember him from paragraph three? – got the gig: he wasn’t a fan. But JWK does well as the dandy sea-way man…

There’s a huge amount of dramatic doings as you’d expect but whoever edited this all down left in sufficient humiliation of pompous British imperialists and magnificent sailing ships to keep me happy: a grand, albeit mini, adventure!

Big film, massive crew!
As The Screen review said: “Youngsters who revel in the ruddy activities of seventeenth century pirates, will find plenty to think and dream about in this picture.” Count me young then! They went on to find various faults including that “Miss Paige… is a very quiet little lady, intent on showing her profile… She has little real opportunity to act, and is only pretty.”

Best of all: “Charlotte Merriam's eyebrows are of an up-to-date variety, which we might hazard did not exist in those turbulent times.” People: always make sure your eyebrows are up-to-date!

Charlotte's are up-to-date but I'm not sure about Warren's!

The Beloved Brute (1924) accompanied by John Sweeney

A brother from the same mother...
Time was running out but it was decided to end with the bang and crash of Victor McLaglen’s Hollywood debut!

As Mr Mordaunt Hall wrote in his New York Times review: “Although Mr. McLaglen facially is no Ramon Novarro, Ronald Colman or a Rudolph Valentino, he has a sympathetic personality and a wonderful facility for appearing at ease before the inquiring eye of the camera.”

And it’s true, Victor shines on screen with a tremendous charisma which completely overshadows his boxer’s nose - in 1909 at Vancouver fought six rounds with Jack Johnson – he is a heck of a performer who appears to have hit the ground running in this “western with a soul”.

Marguerite De La Motte
Directed by Vitagraph mainstay, J. Stuart Blackton, the sequences we have showed an intense story of brothers lost and found but only after bare-chested wrestling – Charles (Victor) – who does know - letting David (William Russell) - who doesn’t – win.

The two then contest a battle over dancer in search of a better life, Jacinta (Marguerite De La Motte yet again, not that anyone was complaining) - who proved more than capable of looking after herself. Dynamic fun and you just wished there was more: but if this is all we have... that is so much better than nothing!

Yeah, you heard, six rounds with Johnson!
In the end we ran out of time and Kevin promised we’d all meet again for further films. Yes, let’s do this again!

A huge tip of a Ten-Gallon Hat to the Bioscope’s superb musicians too without whom we’d only have half a show – you can find out more about them on the Bioscope site: a remarkable ensemble who play all of the right notes always in the right order, even when faced with unknown films, celluloid snaps and cruel cuts in the action.

This was another special cinema club evening at the Cinema Museum and you know the first rule of Cinema Club is that no one should talk about Cinema Club: but you simply have to!

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