Saturday, 1 October 2016

Not so easy virtue… The Vortex (1928)

"How can we help ourselves? We swirl about in a vortex of beastliness…”
From out of the gloom of the last surviving 9.5mm print comes another interesting British silent film. America may have had its Flappers and It Girls but in Britain we had the Bright Young Things (BYT as Michael Jackson might have put it…) who took the freedom of a privileged background to a level of excess scarcely seen since the student days of the last Tory government.

This film was based on a play written by the brightest of those young things, Noel Coward and starred one of the prettiest and most outrageously-talented, Ivor Novello. Even with missing footage and a stage play compromised by the cautious sensibilities of the screen, it’s a story heavy with scandalous possibilities: a mother refusing to grow old and who dallies with a young man half her age and a son unnaturally close to his mother who is struggling to form the coupling society demands.

Some bright, young British
“It’s so cheap not to get old gracefully.”

There’s so much unsaid – yes, I know it’s a silent film… and that’s clearly where a lot of the meaning is hidden. Oh Noel, you are so frightfully clever but how much of your play is left in the film?

Reviewing in The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall was confused by these gay Britishers: “It can hardly be called a pleasant or a stirring study. …Mr. Novello, Miss Kershaw and others do rather well considering the direction, but the development of the narrative is extremely feeble. It is at last an uninspiring idea, for everybody is more or less tainted.”

Which, my dear Mordaunt was precisely the point - real people: real problems even if they are posh ones… But even the British press were largely unconvinced with Theatre World calling the film “tedious” with all of Coward’s wit, dialogue and theatricality “going for nothing when translated into cinematic terms”. The playwright himself spoke up for the younger medium during the making of the film and opined that there were still some theatrical people who “regard contemptuously everything connected with film.”

“I call this house the laundry, for apart from soiled linen, it exhibits so many wash-outs.”

All this said, what remains is less dramatic than it otherwise could have been. Ivor Novello is a shadow of his usual self, his would be composer Nicky staring mournfully out from arid piano-playing, his spirits crushed by a domineering mother and a girl of wayward affection.

Gary Chapman in his excellent book on Gainsborough films, describes France Doble who’s Bunty Mainwaring is the maker or breaker of Nicky’s heart, as “gracefully ineffective” which is spot on – she looks the part with mannequin (old meaning) poise – lovely arms: total clothes horse - but insufficient plot motivation to engage.

Willette Kershaw connects the most with her Florence Lancaster raging against the dyeing of her hair. It’s a timeless tragedy the march of time and oh to be 45 again… Kershaw’s age during filming.

Alan Hollis and France Doble with her nice arms
"Florence Lancaster’s town house was her own; her complexion was not; but both were entirely renovated at regular intervals.”

The Vortex was Coward’s breakthrough, a scandalous tale of drug addiction, extra-marital affairs, the love that dare not speak and middle aged women behaving very badly. Director Adrian Brunel had his doubts about whether the essentially-slight story could make a good silent film once the story had been toned down and Coward’s furiously-skilled verbal riffs translated to title cards.

The producers checked with the Board of Film Censors and yes, the mother could not be seen to directly have a lover and no the son could not have a drug habit. Naturally Noel was not happy but commercial compromise, not for the first or the last time, won the day.

Mirror, mirror...
Brunel tried to make up for substance with style and there is some interesting cinematography from James Wilson and opulent design by Clifford Pember – all impressive enough now as a symbol of when Britain first really swung.

We can now also read through the gaps in our interpretation of Florence’s lifestyle choices and her exact relationship with young Tom Veryan (Alan Hollis). He’s a kept man who also happens to have previously been in a relationship with his mistress’ son’ fiancée, Bunty… Nicky has brought her to the family pile and things are going to get complicated.

“So amusing watching two people wondering if they dare fall in love with each other.”
But while Bunty and Tom try hard to remember why they split up in the first place, the real sparks fly between mother and son keeping their anger at the potentially double-dumping within the family.

Meanwhile Nicky gets a break as impetuous dancer, Anna Vollof (Julie Suedo) hears his music and dances into his studio. The big time looms but opportunity knocks when Anna’s drug use presents Nicky with a chance to shock some sense into his dearest and nearest.

Opportunity kicks
So… not great but still fascinating. The film flopped and in unrelated comments Coward made a plea for British producers to be more honest with themselves and “… talk less about what the box office is supposed to want.”

The case continues.

I watched the late Sunrise Silents version which does its best with the source material and a patchwork, pre-recorded score. It’s out there in the grey market.

“Patience my dear – the natural refuge of declining years.”
Gary Chapman’s London’s Hollywood - The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years is available from EP Publishing or from Amazon in various formats.


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