Kennington Bioscope you spoil us and we should never fail to be grateful for days like this: rare screenings, new discoveries and top-notch musical accompaniment all just a few Northern Line stops shy of the west end in the leafy high-housed terraces of Lambeth.
The Bioscope is based at the Cinema Museum, a former workhouse now overshadowed by massive skyscrapers at the Elephant and Castle. But the old continues to stand tall against such crass interruption: and this is a place we go to share in the preservation of memory without which we’re just all so many empty buildings.
Kid Boots (1926)
This marked the first time I’ve seen Clara Bow on the big screen and, as usual w=she did not disappoint. Directed by Frank Tuttle, this was Eddie Cantor’s first film and was based on his 1923 hit Broadway musical – without the songs – although Meg Morley provided perfectly-pitched accompaniment instead. Clara’s breakthrough, Manhunt, was released during production and by the time Boots she was a star. She and Cantor made a good partnership with he teaching her comic timing and she teaching him film acting.
Eddie impresses with an energy of his own – a remarkably supple stage veteran he is put through his physical paces by Clara’s bully of an ex, Big Boyle (Malcolm Waite) who tries to electrocute and then pummel him to pieces at a country retreat. But it is Bow who shines brightest and gradually takes over the film with her ease of expression and vivacity.
Eddie tries to make her jealous by flirting with the scheming Carmen Mendoza (Natalie Kingston) and as tears well up in Clara’s eyes we feel her genuine hurt. It’s a comedy but no one could feed tragedy so quickly into a smile as Clara.
There’s winsome support from Lawrence Gray – who is Eddie’s mate trying to avoid his divorce falling through to the mendacious Mendoza – and Billie Dove as Eleanor Belmore, the new apple of his eye. It’s fun and features an extended literal cliff-hanger at the end… oh and Eddie Cantor looks just like Melvyn Hayes.
Meg Morley accompanied filling these boots with jazz-aged phrasing and rom-com panache: we were off to a flyer!
Twenty years before Bow and Cantor’s relative sophistication there was an explosion of cinematic comedy characters in Europe. The venerable David Robinson gave us a glimpse into this almost vanished world of protean film stars who straddled the Worlds of theatre and the new media – highly athletic and expressive in films with fixed cameras and minimal narratives.
These players needed to have high impact and recognition and in this era of rapid prototyping only the fittest, fastest and funniest would thrive. André Deed was the first true named cinema comedy star with films dating from 1906 after he Charles Pathé was impressed with his stage performance. Deed was popular throughout Europe and was a man of many monikers: Cretinetti in Italy, Foolshead in Britain and Boireau in France.
|The crowd waits to ambush Foolshead in his case!?|
We saw a flavour of Deed’s approach in the – literally – mad-cap Boireau’s Apprenticeship (1907), which launched his career, and then How Foolshead Paid His Debts (1909) which involved a good deal of business with a large attaché case in which our hero hides. There’s a lot of chasing and our hero avoids his debtors by eventually disappearing into a wall.
There was more extreme silly with the Italian short Duel with Shrapnel (1913) which involved two men (Alex Bernard and Ernesto Vaser) trying to explode bombs attached to their backs… the winner may or may not win the hand of a fair maiden.
|A dangerous game of Tick|
No trip to the Big Bang of cine-comedy is complete without Max Linder – Chaplin’s Professor – and here we saw The Man Who Hanged Himself from 1912 which remains outrageous and very funny!
Scarce Pathé 28mm prints, almost as old as the films themselves, were projected by KB experts Chris Bird and Brian Giles on some equally vintage apparatus.
Lillian Henley accompanied with grace and humour, playing all of the right notes all in the right order in spite of the madness on screen.
Laurel and Hardy – And Still They Come!
David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell performed a double act of their own to introduce a genuine scoop with the British premier of four films involving Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy. These restorations include previously lost footage – some large, some small, which goes towards completing the picture of team’s precious legacy.
|The Second Hundred Years (1927)|
The Second Hundred Years (1927) is now completed by footage long lost. It was the first true Laurel and Hardy film and features the duo attempting to break free from jail. Their chemistry is already in evidence and they just warm your heart.
Putting Pants on Philip (1927) is another very early example of this blend of comedic talent. Individually as shown by Stan in the restored but fragmentary Monsieur Don’t Care (1924) and Oliver aka Babe in Maids and Muslin (1920) they were funny guys but together there’s some kind of a critical mass of comedy that delivers economies of scale beyond any other duo in history.
Cyrus Gabrysch somehow kept pace with all this and the alarming possibilities of Stanley wearing a kilt in true Scottish style.
Kevin Brownlow introduced the day’s second feature film and this was an opportunity to see his copy of this rare Laura La Plante comedy. Laura’s striking blonde bob is nowadays mostly associated with The Cat and the Canary but this film showed how adept she was at comedy and it’s a bit of a gem for all that.
|Laura tries to hide from Mr Lacey Senior|
The standout scene occurs when Laura has to go see Lacey Number Two to be disciplined; James hides from her so as not to give the game away while she performs an elaborate shadow play at the office door to convince Waller she’s been let off.
Not a classic but a really enjoyable movie all the same with a neatly paced narrative as mother and sister come to stay, James uses his own home to help Laura show she’s successful and James Senior finally makes it home.
|The relations come calling|
Lupino Lane – Local Hero
This was a labour of love from Lane aficionado Mathew Ross and opened up a career I knew very little about. Excitingly there was also a brief clip of Michael Parkinson showing Arthur Askey (all together: Ithankyou!) film of Lane performing some of his most famous theatrical moves in a 1978 documentary on pantomime.
|Lupino Lane & Wallace Lupino - A Half Pint Hero (1927)|
The Lupino family had a theatrical pedigree stretching back centuries and “Nip” – as he was nicknamed – was trained in gymnastics from early childhood, a still showing him in relaxed splits showing how comfortable he was with his double-joints.
Mathew rates Lane’s athleticism as second to none with only Buster coming close and there were ample examples of Lupino’s prat-falling in clips from The Dummy, one of his earliest British films in 1916 to his successful stint in Hollywood with the Roscoe Arbuckle directed Fool’s Luck (1926) and A Half-Pint Hero (1927) – in which Lupino plays a fireman battling brother William Lupino for the love of Toy Gallagher.
William appeared in and co-directed many of Lupino’s films often as his rival or his ally – the two had an instinctive understanding of the other’s technique and we saw this in full in Hello Sailor (1927) in which the boys chase after a girl who turns out to be a twin (Charlene and Minniela Aber: where do they get these names!?).
|Roscoe Arbuckle and Lupino Lane or is it Alan Cummings?|
Lillian played along with Lupino – both walked the walk as you do down Lambeth way.
It was time for dinner but I had to take my leave for a previous engagement at the Rough Trade 40th Anniversary concert at the Barbican. I swapped the chance to see Lupino in the 1939 musical, The Lambeth Walk, for some more contemporary sounds.
My ears won’t thank me for that.
Another great day at the Bioscope - enriching, informative, funny and thoroughly entertaining. Thank you Amran, Michelle and all the team - long may you reign!