Monday, 31 October 2016

Teardrops… Stella Dallas (1925), Barbican with Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry

“The slender rapier triumphs over the spiked bludgeon throughout the unfurling of the screen conception of Olive Higgins Prouty's novel…”  Mordaunt Hall, New York Times 17th November 1925.

Well… I was warned I might need a box of tissues and if even Mordaunt was so moved; you know there’s an irresistible sadness about to pass in front of your eyes. What’s more accompanist Stephen Horne was assisted by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on harp – there’s no way I was going to get through this without, you know

Directed by Henry King with an adaptation from Frances Marion Stella Dallas walks that fine line between melodrama and drama. It features characters bound by the invisible constraints of their time and it perhaps a backwards view of social mores even for 1925 but, the story was driven by grief as much as anything else.

Lobby card with bennett, Colman and Moran

Olive Higgins Prouty wrote the novel soon after the death of her three-year old daughter in 1923 and it is the story of the sacrifices a mother makes in order to ensure her daughter’s success in life. I’m sure for Prouty this was a case of if only; a tribute to the one lost and the lengths she would have gone to if only she could have.

Any decent onto pure Victoriana is also offset by a fierce performance from Belle Bennett whose own son had also died just before she got the part: her Stella rings very true. As Pamela Hutchinson noted during her illuminating introduction, she had already launched a one-woman campaign to get the role and rewarded Goldwyn and King with a display that must have resonated with so many parents in an era when childhood mortality was far more commonplace.

Stella will do anything for her daughter even to the extent of sacrificing her own happiness: her life means nothing if her daughter cannot live well.

Belle Bennett
The film begins with a parental sacrifice as Stephen Dallas Senior (Charles Willis Lane), wealthy industrialist, takes his own life after being accused of financial wrong-doing. His son, Stephen Jnr (Ronald Colman) goes off to work in a remote corner of their business empire.

Away in this small town environment, Stephen mingles with ordinary working folk from outside his class. He forms an attachment with one lass, Stella, amidst some funny scenes on her family porch as her brothers try and interfere – the film’s not all doom and gloom and its humour also brings balance.

Stephen and Stella try to romance
Stella and Mr Dallas wed and have a daughter, Laurel, and yet it soon becomes apparent that the couple have different priorities: he needs to drive the family business in New York whilst she is happy bringing up her daughter amongst people she knows.

As gaps start to appear, not least in terms of geography, Stella spends time with an earthy good-time fella name of Ed Munn (Jean Hersholt who is so very good at playing characters with a soft moral centre…). Needless to say this doesn’t sit well with Stephen who misses the companionship of more refined women such as his former sweetheart Helen Morrison (Alice Joyce – no relation) who is now married with three boys.

Back on small-town, Laurel’s teacher spies Stella having fun with Ed and expels her from school leaving her humiliated when the rest of the class fail to turn up for her 10th birthday party. There are some sweet moments as Stella and Laurel (who is now Lois Moran) make the best of a bad day… even Dad is not present but then why would he be; he’s got a business to run.

One party and two guests
The story moves on a few years and Laurel comes of age still played by Lois Moran (just 16 at the time and later much favoured by F Scot Fitzgerald according to PH). She forms an attachment with a young rich boy called Richard Grosvenor (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr 15 at the time!) but is ashamed of her mother with her crude ways, working class manners and dress sense.

Stella overhears some of the rich set mocking her and begins to think she can only be holding her daughter back. By this stage she and Stephen have run aground and knowing of his attachment to Helen, Stella asks her competitor directly for help…

I won’t go any further but the story becomes very focused and desperately sad - perhaps an ode to lost children for whom a mother would rather grieve when lost yet still alive rather than gone forever.

Doug Junior and Lois Moran
Faced with such emotional extremes, Stephen Horne’s score is restrained and melodic. He knows just how to under-score high emotions and this was the third time I’ve seen him play in just over a week, each one a wildly different film.

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s golden harp melded perfectly with Stephen’s music and is a hugely variable instrument: a piano without the keys but with an unique, taught beauty of its own. There really isn’t enough harp in my life…

Ronald and Aunty Alice (maybe)
Stella Dallas was playing as part of the Barbican’s CheapThrills, Trash, Movies and the Art of Transgression series as well as their regular silent film and live music strand. It was projected from an actual 35mm film which was a very good copy – not tinted like the old fuzzy Sunrise Silents DVD from which my screen shots are grabbed.

Not sure exactly how transgressive things got but it certainly wasn’t cheap emotionally and that is what sets it apart from mere genre: a genuinely-elevated play about grief and sacrifice. To this extent it's really all about Belle Bennett and her ability to channel her own pain into performance.

Belle rings true

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Black star rising … Within Our Gates (1920), BFI with Stephen Horne

The history of cinema is a one of wilful forgetfulness. Watching Nell Shipman reveals how deeply she and other women were buried by the grey men running Hollywood and the same must also be said for Oscar Micheaux. Why did American film have to be so male and why did it have to be so white?

Within Our Gates is not just Oscar Micheaux’s oldest surviving film it is also it is the oldest known surviving film made by an African-American director. It was in part a direct response to the racial specifics of Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which could not be excused then – remember the film was banned in Boston – nor by any additional contextualization a century onwards. It would be fascinating if it wasn’t so sad and so all prevailing. If each film is a conversation between creator and audience our cinema has only been whispering about racial issues for the majority of the time between Griffith’s Birth and Nate Parker’s which recently premiered.

Ashley Clark, programmer of the BFI’s Black Star season, introduced with a wealth of detail about this little understood film and its ground-breaking auteur. He asked for a show of hands for those who had seen it and almost every arm indicated that we hadn’t.

Micheaux had a unique and complex cinematic vision that was running counter to his extremely limited budget and reputedly he never allowed more than one take whilst also working with a mix of trained and un-trained actors. He works a densely-populated novelesque narrative that would give even Emily Bronte headaches with the story advancing quickly between South and North and back again, a key section told in flashback and a cast of many key players: this is a film that needs to be watched more than once.

According to Scott Simmon in the programme notes, Micheaux made some 22 silent features and yet only Body and Soul (1925) had been thought to survive until a Spanish version of Within was discovered and retranslated to create the restoration.

The result is packed full of ideas and incident, occasionally confusing almost as much as it astonishes: and yes, you do occasionally feel like chanting “are you watching David Wark?!”

The cast is mixed race and this speaks of an emotional and collaborative honesty far in advance of Griffith. Not all the characters of various colours are good or bad and not all have happy or sad endings: this feels a significant advance on Victorian ideals and melodrama.

There are hangings, a depressingly common occurrence in 1920, 1930 and even much later and no one rides in with a well-aimed rifle shot to free the innocent: just a heart-breaking shot of a knife slowly cutting two taught ropes sometime later. The hangings were for all the family and given his almost matter of fact treatment of this everyday (or Sunday) event, you can see why controversy dogged this film.

Sylvia heads to Boston
The rough quality of the production reflects it budget but also perhaps Micheaux’s rush to get all of his ideas down. He was clearly passionate about race and the importance of education in helping the black populace advance. The story features educated middle class black society based in the North where, he sardonically notes, lynchings still occasionally happen. There’s the same characters on the edges of that society – notably the gangster Larry (superbly played by Jack Chenault) - that you still find in modern cinema.

Overall the quality of acting varies but Micheaux’s star Evelyn Preer carries the film’s most intense moments with real conviction. Preer worked on a number of his silent films including his lost first feature, The Homesteader (1917) and she stands out for her restraint and expression.

Jack Chenault
She plays teacher Sylvia Landry who in the breathless opening is assaulted by her fiancé (James D. Ruffin) after her jealous cousin Alma (Flo Clements) has withheld a key message from him. Already carrying the secrets of a mysterious past, Sylvia decides to leave behind this newly abusive present to head South to work in a school for poor black children.

The school is under threat of closure and she heads back North in search of funds to save the day. She quickly meets and falls in love with the friendly Doctor Vivien (Charles D. Lucas) – in the UK, she’d be lucky to even get an appointment – who offers her a brighter life but not before her past comes back to haunt her in a frenetic last half-hour that cross-cuts like Griffith in ways that make his heroic white boys look like so much play-acting.

Charles D. Lucas
Micheaux takes serious aim at white hypocrisy and the belief that black people should stay in their place – there was a campaign at the time to remove the right to vote – whilst some influential white folk felt the comfort of preachers should be enough to satisfy the second-class citizens. One such preacher is lampooned as he tries to whip his congregation into a frenzy – there’s some lovely reaction shots of a bored and embarrassed audience.

There’s also an “Uncle Tom” character Efrem (E. G. Tatum) who gossips his way to favour only to be betrayed by the very folk he aims to flatter whilst a Northern white philanthropist, Mrs. Elena Warwick (simply Mrs. Evelyn) proves that not all whites are as mean spirited as Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd) when it comes to extending a helping hand.  

The congregation react to the over-heated sermon
Ultimately Micheaux appears convinced that there is a way forward as Doctor Vincent urges Sylvia to believe in their country – a place where they are not immigrants but wholehearted contributors. As Sylvia says: “It is my duty and the duty of each member of our race to help destroy ignorance and superstition…”

The film may occasionally confuse but when it hits it hits hard and you’re left feeling shaken by the racist atrocities near the end. In Chicago where 23 African Americans and 15 whites had died during race riots in 1919, the leading black-owned newspaper, The Defender, declared that some felt “the showing pre-eminently dangerous; whilst those who reasoned with…the injustices of the time, the lynchings and handicaps of ignorance, determined that the time is ripe to bring the lesson to the front.”

A century onwards and we still walk some of the same ground.

Evelyn Preer
Stephen Horne accompanied with his usual tonal versatility incorporating some bluesy lines amongst the period-perfect improvisations. Last time I’d seen him he was in the gothic fairy tales of Fritz Lang’s Destiny but you screen ‘em and he’ll play ’em!

Within Our Gates is a film that repays a repeat viewing and luckily we have the Kino-produced compilation of early Pioneers of African-American Cinema on Blu-ray and DVD. The BFI is also releasing this set for the European market - you can pre-order here. Christmas is coming but then as Ashley Clark pointed out, there’s also a very handsome book to accompany the BFI’s Black Star season.

Both will be available from the BFI online and also, possibly, if you’re very good, from “Silent Santa”.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Anthem for doomed love… Destiny (1921), Cambridge Film Festival with Stephen Horne

My first trip to the Cambridge Film Festival and a film projected in Emmanuel College; a sixteenth century venue for a film that features a sequence from around that period. Cambridge and Oxford are anomalies in the UK retaining so much of their earlier architecture in educational powerhouses that ensure that the present always gives way to the past. Fritz Lang trained as an architect and no doubt would have appreciated the additional context provided to his film by this vibrant antiquity.

I spent three years living in a college begun in 1264 – the last in a 1288 quadrangle - and you pass through without even scratching the surface: students haunt Oxbridge, flickering briefly and casting our flitting shadows against its external stone.

Tonight Death came to Cambridge and reminded us all that somethings outlast even the finest sandstone. Made in 1921 when there were over half a million war-widows in Germany, Destiny or Der müde Tod (literally The Weary Death) suggests that love is stronger than death but no less avoidable. To a nation in a devastation of mourning its gothic kindness would have touched so many: fairy-tale frankness masking a more positive than pessimistic message.

Bernhard Goetzke
Death is played rather convincingly by Bernhard Goetzke who carries his dark duties with a heavy heart and weary resolution: it’s not easy being the man in black but he wears it well and is nothing if not fair.

Lil Dagover is the Maiden who tries to reason with The Glum Reaper after the untimely demise of her love (Walter Janssen) her selfless pursuit of his life touching even his grief-drenched soul.

It is interesting that the man is in distress and not the damsel; she is relentless and willing to risk all and give all to save her love. After watching Nell Shipman do the same a few days ago from 1919, it’s interesting to see Lil Dagover also playing the swashbuckling hero.

Lil Dagover
This restoration was making its UK debut and the newly minted tints and tones were a treat, bringing out the film’s sumptuous design and cinematography. The crew worked on many other noteworthy Weimar films and it is no surprise that America and others were watching. Douglas Fairbanks allegedly bought the US rights just so he could copy elements of the Arabian sequence for The Thief of Bagdad and also delay release until after his own film. But the visual influence stretches along way… all the way to a Swedish beach in 1957 when a knight plays chess to stave off his death?

Destiny is a big step forward from Lang’s previous films, Der Spinnen, and it marks the beginning of his audacious fairy tales, spy stories and science fiction.

Meeting the strange dark man
The framing sequence in some un-dated present is relatively stripped back as the young couple travel in a horse-drawn carriage to a small town of Brothers Grimm vintage. They are joined by an intimidating dark stranger who follows them to a local inn. At the inn is a delightful collection of civic grotesquery who recall the story of a dark stranger buying land next to the cemetery and building a huge wall around it with no visible means of entry…

The couple toast the future life together but it is not long before the man is gone and the woman if in despair at the edge of the wall as wraith-like figures pass through her and the wall. She resolves to take her own life and to follow her man: love is stronger than death and she will rescue him.

The hall of candles was inspired by a Grimm’s fairy tale (thanks MD!)
She meets death inside his mausoleum and they walk amongst thousands of candles each representing a brief life that will always flicker out. Death is there for lives lived long and short – he takes a baby’s life with the same endless sorrow as an old man - he is a force of nature tasked by the almighty…

And yet, convinced of the woman’s love he is willing to give her a chance to defeat him and win back her dead man’s life.

She has three chances in three separate vignettes: set in Persia, Venice Carnaval, and lastly a magical China…. She has to prevent Death from taking her three loves in each scenario with their lives represented by a single candle flame:  if but one remains a-flicker she’ll have won but who can hope to beat Death.

A magic carpet ride
The contest thus set out I can say now more without spoiling... the end, when it comes, makes perfect sense and works on many satisfactory levels.

Stephen Horne has previously accompanied this restoration in San Francisco and Bologna and his familiarity paid dividends here with some sumptuous themes one of which lingered long after the film’s conclusion: Death’s theme. Stephen has the most varied kit of any leading silent accompanist and here featured even an Arabic call to prayer along with flute, accordion and Emmanuel’s Steinway. You need soul to make it all work and Destiny met its musical match.

The film was also accompanied by one of the Festival programmers Margaret Deriaz reading out English translation of the German title cards as the film had arrived from the Murnau-Stiftung in its native tongue.  But they have stout hearts at the CFF and Margaret read very well.

Rudolf Klein-Rogge and Lil Dagover
Destiny is a gothic pantomime performed with relish not just by Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke but also a host of Weimar stars including Dr. Mabuse himself Rudolf Klein-Rogge, M’s Georg John and many more. Not the very best of Lang but a very moving signifier of what was to come and without doubt a very interesting film.

As we walked from the lecture theatre, the old walls of Cambridge were shrouded in dark and we were haunting again sure in the knowledge that love is stronger than mortar (boards).

I trust Der müde Tod is destined for home media release and with Stephen’s accompaniment too!