Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Ice cold in Archie… Sir Arne's Treasure (1919)

Every so often a film comes along and just rocks your little watching-on-laptop commuter world. On the Gatwick Express last week I’ve been bowled over by a combination of Julius Jaenzon’s cinematography, Mary Johnson’s acting and Mauritz Stiller’s inspiration.

Johnson’s a Scandi-Gish, delicate and pretty with emotions sourced deep within her tiny core, working their way out in great volcanic bursts that shake her very being: like Lillian she acts with her whole being and her frailty is all too real.

She is driven through this film by the promptings of Stiller in what some see as his greatest. I can’t comment having not seen them all, but he comes close to the heights of his more reputable Swedish (Stiller was Finnish) friend and frequent collaborator, Victor Sjostrom in this powerful, claustrophobic meditation on guilt, love and destiny.

The Scandi-Gish
Then there is the magnificence of Julius Jaenzon’s camerawork as he captures the intimacies of the wide-open spaces as easily as he does the depths of the shadowy interiors. There’s startling use of moving cameras as he tracks characters at key moments: the guard ascending the prison steps to a conflagration with his three prisoners and the heroine’s pursuit of the truth carried in her lover’s blackened heart. Events swirl around and the hopeless humans drift aimlessly among the frozen stone as they try to outlive their destiny.

It’s a contrast to Thomas Graal’s Best Film you have to admit.

Based on The Treasure by Selma Lagerlöf, the story is smaller than Stiller’s epic adaptation of the same author’s Gosta Berling but there’s the same moral range: Man must make his peace with the ultimate arbiter and there is a price to pay for every bad deed.

Three bad men
Here the darkness is not immediately apparent as the three Scottish mercenaries at the heart of the story are seemingly brave and carefree men even when held captive in one of King Johan III’s gaols in seventeenth century Sweden. The men, Sir Archie (Richard Lund), Sir Filip (Erik Stocklassa) and Sir Donald (Bror Berger) lark about in their confinement in high spirits even removed from freedom and their national drink: we’re clearly meant to like them… a sucker punch for what comes next, although there’s further play on our sympathy as the narrative unfolds.

The men escape after bamboozling a dopey guard and make their way across the frozen wastes. They very nearly succumb to sub-zero starvation but manage to find the home of a fishmonger, Torarin (Axel Nilsson) where they rip into their food and drink with animalistic relish as his wife looks on in horror.

Julius Jaenzon is the man with the movie camera
The picture shifts to the hall of Sir Arne (Hjalmar Selander) where dinner is in progress. Opposite Sir Arne sits the curate and at the far end of the table sit Sir Arne’s niece Berghild (Wanda Rothgardt) and Elsahill (Mary Johnson), an orphan taken in by the vicar’s household.

Torarin is present and sits without envy at the table of a man whose fortune is alleged to have been looted from the monasteries during the Swedish reformation. The monks had prophesised that the money would only bring ill-fortune and you know they might have been onto something.

Suddenly the meal is disturbed as Sir Arne’s Wife (Concordia Selander) has a vision of men sharpening long knives at Branehog… the table turns in shock at the ill forebodings.
Stiller works his way carefully around the narrative even when proceedings are telegraphed so clearly. 

Mary Johnson and Wanda Rothgardt
Sir Arne’s house is attacked and set aflame by “three men” and rather than show the incident the director focuses on the devastation of the aftermath after the villagers arrive – too late – to find Berghild mortally wounded on the floor and the entire household slaughtered. All except one… Elsahill emerges from hiding and we see her grief at finding her friends all dead – Johnson radiates pure sorrow and we’re none of us going to recover for the rest of the film.

The men escape across the frozen wastes and there’s a shocking moment when their horse trips into a gap in the ice (no disclaimer about animals being injured during silent filming…) taking their carriage with it. They make off with Sir Arne’s treasure box across the ice and cover their tracks in the hope their pursuers will believe all lost…

But this is no mere crime caper, there re deeper issues at stake and, as Elsahill is taken in by Torarin and his wife, she eventually catches the eye of three foreigners passing away the days as they wait for a ship back to Scotland. They are most anxious to hear her sad tale.

The winter is hard and the boats are all ice bound – the producers actually left a sailing ship to be frozen into the sea over winter – that’s planning! But will the weather clear when the men intend to ship their evil cargo? Meteorology moves in mysterious ways and there’s a cosmic balance in play.

Archie meets his match: Erik Stocklassa, Richard Lund  and Bror Berger
But, even within the confines of this Christian morality, nothing is clear cut as murderer-in-chief, Sir Archie and Elsahill fall in love. As one realises who the other actually is the two are tortured by conscience – how can she love the man who killed her loved ones and how can he forgive himself for the harm he has caused?

It doesn’t go the way you expect it to go… and raises compelling questions of love and forgiveness.

This is among the most emotional and immersive Swedish silents and is uncompromised by commercial consideration. The cast is strong and the style naturalistic even with Berghild’s ghost illustrating their guilt perhaps more than the supernatural – no doubt Stiller departs from his source in this respect.

Guilty visions
Mary Johnson’s tortures dominate the film and her intensity easily clears the bar marked melodramatic as she wrestles with the most conflicting of emotions. Richard Lund’s Sir Archie is not her match even though he meets her halfway in a bizarre love triangle of death, greed and guilt.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes with an emphatic new score from Matti Bye and Frederik Emilson which sweeps along at pace sometimes ahead of the film’s emotional force but always in sympathy. All in all, Sir Arne is a must have digital delight for fans of scandi-silents, you can order your copy here.

Mary Johnson

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Another year over... 12 from ‘16


And lo, it did come to pass that the year of fear was nearly done and it was time to reflect on those silvery screen moments that made me forget all dreary and celebrate joyous connection with cinematic genius past and musical improvisation present. Here then, particularly in no particular order, are some of my best bits of the year.

1.    Terje Vigen (1917) John Sweeney and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Back in May I was blown away by Victor Sjöström’s images and Henrik Ibsen’s words brought vividly to life by John Sweeney’s immaculate playing and Lillian Henley’s impeccable articulation of the English translation. I’ve seen Terje Vigen before and listened to title card translations but Ms Henley surpassed all the rest with a pitch perfect reading that brought a bitter-sweet intensity to Ibsen’s tragic tale. There and then I thought this couldn’t fail to be one of the very best screenings of the year and so it was.

The Bioscope has had a vintage year with the 2nd annual Silent Film Weekend and Silent Comedy Weekender providing twin pillars around which the metropolitan silent activist can build their schedule of "must see" delights.

2.    Porter Loos… Slapstick Festival

Way out West in January I experienced my first Slapstick Festival and especially enjoyed Lucy Porter’s session on the writer Anita Loos… from one witty woman to another this was an absorbing dive into the unrivalled scat of silent film’s leading lady of letters. From Mary Pickford’s tears over her ruined New York Hat to Doug Fairbank’s stoned pursuit of mysterious leaping fish; Loos caught the moment with equal verve. Mr Sweeney was again on hands along with the marvellous harpist, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.

The Friday night gala featuring Charlie’s sublime The Kid and Buster’s brilliant Cops were also superb but it’s the Porter passion that stays in the mind: we’re all a bit like that… cinemutophilia is driven by such intense interest.

3.    British Silent Film Festival Symposium, Kings College, London

Back to college at Kings for two illuminating days of screenings and papers at the BSFFS – a chance to see rare films such as The Somme (1927) and Fred O’Donovan’s Knockagow (1918) “made by Irish Men and Women”. Top film was the very coy Married Love (1923) starring the beautiful and amazing Lilian Hall-Davis passing on Marie Stopes highly-coded lessons of practical parenting.

Top academics and researchers combined with all the best accompaniments and excellent company to provide a truly enriching two days.

Lilian Hall-Davis

4.    The Globe and BFI trading places

Theatre and live cinema swapped “codes” and venues in a contest that proved how brilliant both were. The Globe Musicians accompanied the BFI’s Play On! compilation of silent Shakespeare at ye olde NFT whilst a few months later Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) was screened in the Globe accompanied by Uttley and Gregory’s score and the Monteverdi Choir ably marshalled by Charles Hazelwood.

All the world's a screen etc...

5.    Destiny (1921), Cambridge Film Festival with Stephen Horne

The Cambridge Film Festival had an excellent focus on silent film and this early Fritz Lang creepy was screened in the lecture hall at Emmanuel College with Stephen Horne providing uncanny accompaniment as Love plays games with Death.

6.    Prix de Beaute (1929), Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Not for the first time, Louise Brooks had me weak at the keyboard, desperately struggling to find the words to impress her. This was a performance that showed the marked superiority of silent film over early sound as Brooks’ eternal fascinations and Stephen Horne’s dashing lines, elevated this film to its proper position – not Pandora by any means but something less knowing and all the more tragic for it.  

Every little breeze, seems to whisper... Louise.

7.    The Ghost That Never Returns (1930)/Hell’s Hinges (1916), The Dodge Brothers, Barbican

This was a riot of rhythm as Mike, Mark, Aly and Alex were accompanied by Neil Brand in providing musical momentum for two wildly different films: one wild and western, the other ethereal and eastern. Both had trains, dust and a narrative drive set straight for the hard way: mad cowboys played incompetent pool as revolutionary tension rises for the condemned man on his last day of freedom whilst William S Hart discovers God in a woman’s heart and lights a fire to burn his town free of sin.

All this and Mr Kermode’s steady hands coaxing tuneful atmospherics from Mr Theramin’s potentially treacherous electro-magnetic fields...

8.    The Informer (1929), London Film Festival, BFI

The London Film Festival offered quality over quantity for this year’s silent choices and The Informer didn’t disappoint. Freshly-restored and accompanied by a roaring new score from Garth Knox and a crack six-piece ensemble it was a hard-hitting tale of love and betrayal that somehow retained its force in spite of having to tiptoe around English sensibilities. A digital release is being prepared for next season.

9.    Von morgens bis mitternachts (1920), Stephen Horne & Martin Pyne, Barbican

This film formed part of a short series of authentic Weimar expressionism which, it turns out, was far less a movement than a trilogy. Only this film, Caligari and the closing segment of Waxworks, can truly be considered purely expressionistic… even though elements of technique are commonly overlapping – atmospherics intended to show interior states but almost all using more conventional narrative structure and design. Well, according to Lotte Eisner and those who know, you know.

A striking and stylish film with quirky, surrealist syncopations from Messrs Horne and Pyne.

10.    Women of the Year - Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema, Kennington Bioscope

Given that women wrote around half of silent films their subsequent retreat in the industry is a sad indictment of cinema’s subsequent white male corporate dominance. A new book Silent Women: Pioneers of Cinema was launched at the Bioscope and aimed at restoring the reputations of those who not only filled the skills gaps in early cinema but more than played their part in the most crucial period of development in cinema history.

Lois Weber’s Shoes was screened with Lillian Henley providing music as eloquent as her spoken word for Terje Vigen. After this I sought out more Lois and began an appreciation of the mighty Nell Shipman!

11.    The Somme (1916), Laura Rossi, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall

The most poignant sights and sounds were conjured at this screening on the anniversary of the Battle’s end although whether it ever ended for the thousands involved I doubt. Laura Rossi’s score, partly in tribute to her Uncle Fred who fought in and survived the Somme, was magnificently in sympathy with the mixed emotions on view. Ordinary fathers, sons and brothers momentarily pushing aside mortal dread with brave smiles for the folk back home.

The argument goes in some quarters that there is some sort of statute of limitations on remembrance but, with these images of fragile existence still on screen, how can we ever not watch without feeling? In the past wars disappeared with memory and painting, now we have an eternity of archived actuality… these men live on.

The Lancashire Fusiliers take a break

12.    Man Men of the year…

There can only be one or is that three: the fictionalised General, his writer-director and the man who has worked for so long to resurrect his work. Yes, forget Time’s choice of a two-bit huckster as its MOTY, my choice belongs to Napoleon, Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow: three giants of a permanent cinematic revolution that rages on to this day thanks to the BFI’s stunning restoration.

But there’s a fourth… Carl Davis whose stunning score impressed once again at the live performance at the Royal Festival Hall, he conducting tirelessly and the London Philharmonia playing this amazing, stirring music with his own compositions standing shoulder to shoulder with Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart.

If you haven’t got the BluRay/DVD set, there’s still time to ask Santa or treat yourself via the BFI Shop.

See you in 2017! Maybe even in Pordenone…

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Keeping up appearances… Skinner's Dress Suit (1926), Kennington Bioscope with John Sweeney

“He enjoyed making nice medium pictures. Simply, easily, quietly.”   Reginald Denny describing his pal, director “Bill” Seiter.

Kevin Brownlow introduced this film – a print from his own collection - with a description of how he’d met its star Reginald Denny in 1964, many years after the British actor’s silent heyday and after decades of playing stock English characters in the talkies. Brownlow projected the film for Denny and his family and, despite the letters fears that the film might “creak” he was rewarded with an emphatically-amused response.

The same thing happened tonight aided and abetted by John Sweeney’s effortless period piano precision.

Skinner's Dress Suit is that rare thing a genuinely charming comedy featuring two vibrant leads – Denny and the lovely Laura La Plante who cut a rug almost as sharply as her platinum bob. In thrilling style, the two dance the Savannah Shuffle…. a variation on the Charleston – before leading a host of society types in trying to learn the steps.

Strictly Come Shuffling
Directed by William A. Seiter a keen golfer and close buddy of Denny’s the film never strains and the relaxed humour is testament to the compatible temperaments of both men: “we never had an argument, never a cross word, “he told Brownlow, “…and we always brought the picture in within budget...” Seiter was clearly a very able manager of time and people.

Denny plays Skinner and over-reaching and under-achieving office worker whose wife, Honey (LLP), keeps egging him on to get a raise. But Skinner not only doesn’t have the nerve he doesn’t really have the edge being walked all over by both his juniors and his superiors. Unable to tell Honey he’s been passed over yet again, he pretends that he’s had a $10 a week raise and the two start extending their credit starting with a party dress for her and a dress suit for him.

Both prove very useful after Skinner is taught the new dance craze, the Savannah, by fellow wage slave Miss Smith (a peppy Betty Morrissey) and simply everyone at the party they attend wants to learn it. Social mobility awaits but in keeping up appearances their credit gets stretched to the limit.

Laura La Plante and Reginald Denny
But gradually they are accepted by their snooty neighbours, The McLaughlin’s and are invited into higher society…

All comes crashing down when a major contract is lost and Skinner is the man to be let go… he hasn’t the heart to tell Honey as she entertains but has to fight off the repro men gathering for their furniture and the tailor who wants his fine dinner suit back.

There’s just one last chance… an invitation to the party of the season held by the Colby’s (Hedda Hopper and Henry Barrows) if they can make an impression Skinner could still save his social standing…Cue Mr Jackson (Lionel Braham) the man who withdrew his contract with Skinners firm and his wife (Lucille Ward) both eager themselves to get introduced to society… You can work out the rest but the story is so well pitched the resolution works as smoothly and reassuringly as you’d hope.

A really enjoyable mainstream slice of silent Hollywood and just the thing after my week of Vampire Counts and murderous priests!

Skinner negotiates with his tailor
On the undercard tonight was a selection of the really rare and fascinating a collection of unique 4k high definition scans of original nitrate prints made by Tony Saffery, taken from his personal collection. You’ll only find this kind of thing at The Bioscope folks… we are spoilt rotten!

Rambles around Mulhausen (c1920) was a genuinely stunning Pathecolour travelogue around Alsace and Sparta showing slices of the everyday in colour including folk dress that has “hardly the Bond Street flavour…” and a boy with a pig.

Adventures of little Nibs (1928) was a cartoon of Itchy and Scratchy style – bullets and brickes flying through the ultra-violent air of a city. Policemen are wanted “good pay, as long as you live” and Nib’s pal Mike gets a job meeting the height required thanks to a bump on his head.

The view from south, Mulhausen, Alsace Lorraine
The Makeshift Bedroom (1906?) was a bizarre Andre Deed short in which Mr Deeds lives in a bed in the street… Policemen tiptoe around so as not to wake him and street lights ae covered before everyone decides to chase him and he floats off into the harbour on his multi-purpose mattress.

LCC Housing campaign film (c1921) was a typically British public information film asking people to do their patriotic duty and buy binds to support house building. A surreal turn is made when two of the most famous people in the World, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, join in the call… or at least their pictures do.

His New Cane (1912) This film is presumed lost in some quarters but here it was larger than life – a man sticking his walking device into others business until, again, there’s a huge chase…

Mr Deed in a spot of bother in a later film
Cinema Lake (1920) was a part live action/part animated oddity with a drawing board character erasing drawings and actuality alike: “Just wait till I take away Prohibition…” even now that’s funny!

London Wonder City (c1921) was indeed a wonder: The Guildhall, Mansion Houise, St Pauls and Fleet Street as well as Piccadilly Circus in colour at night..

Tommy Marries his sister (1910) involved the casual brutality of a small boy helping his sister marry the guy she likes and not the one she’s been given. Well done kid!

A mad-mixed bag and an excellent intiative to share and brought to life with skilled accompaniment from Meg Morley and Mr Sweeney.

Thankyou Kennington! See you in 2017!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Body and Soul (1925), BFI with Peter Edwards and Nu Civilisation Ensemble

This was the world premiere of the restoration of Oscar Micheaux’s major work and an electrifying new score from prodigious jazz composer Peter Edwards: part cinematic event and part gig – we even had an encore and I wish they could just have carried on playing…

Screening as part of the BFI’s ongoing Sonic Cinema strand and the Black Star season, this restoration is also available on the titanic Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set – out now – albeit with a different score from Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky.

According to Charles Musser in Race Cinema and the Colour Line – an essay in the Pioneers booklet – Paul Robeson disowned this film and used to insist that his debut film was actually The Emperor Jones from 1933.

Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins
This is a shame as he is superb playing two characters and being utterly convincing as the homicidal pretend priest Reverend Isaiah T. Jenkins. But Robeson felt he had been duped by director and writer Oscar Micheaux who was taking pot shots at a number of plays about black culture written by white writers, in which the actor had starred.

Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and The Emperor Jones along with the now obscure Nan Bagby Stephens’s Roseanne had all featured Robeson and helped establish him as a stage force. But the actor seemed unaware of Micheaux’s agenda until after the film was made… maybe the lure of cinema was too great to resist or at least the potential profit share.

Mr Robeson plays the good brother
But what we see now is far shorter than the original nine reeler and something has been lost in terms of the narrative balance of another complicated story from this director. Robeson wouldn’t be the first actor to find their work cut out of all recognition.

He is so very watchable though, a handsome and energetic presence who switches from the good brother Sylvester to the bad seed Isaiah with ease. He’s an escaped convict who makes a living fleecing his deluded flock in order to support his gambling and drinking. Robeson even makes a good drunk, staggering around his house in the early hours applying ice to his temples (c’mon, we’ve all done it!).

Julia Theresa Russell
I’m beginning to get my eye in with Micheaux and his spoofing of organised religion is relentless from the boorish, Uncle Tom preacher of Within Our Gates to the “Reverend” Jenkins’ drunken sermonising in this film. He also paints the congregation as either bored or complicit in the ecstatic distractions of the Holy rolling… in his view perhaps not so different from the bars and gambling dens the gangsters inhabit.

He hits his targets over the head but his sense of humour is there throughout and you can see it in the performance of his actors who look so relaxed and unafraid to push the emoti-boat out.

Mercedes Gilbert
Mercedes Gilbert is an example as Sister Martha Jane in many ways the story’s centre as the mother who falls prey to the Reverend’s lies and criminality. There’s a lot of swooning but there’s also a glint in the eye as she addresses the audience through the most outrageous elements – tragedy and comedy so closely aligned.

Her daughter, Isabelle, is well played by Julia Theresa Russell who is both frail and brave refusing to buckle under the physical domination of the rotten Reverend.

Lawrence Chenault
Lawrence Chenault provides a suitably twisted turn as 'Yello-Curley' Hinds, Jenkins’ former cell-mate who spies his pal preaching with his beady, evil eyes. Chenault’s quite a feature on the Pioneers box set and is very entertaining.

Other caricatures repeat from the other Micheaux films with Marshall Rogers as a sleazy speakeasy proprietor and a delightful double act of Lillian Johnson as "Sis" Caline and Madame Robinson as "Sis" Lucy, two Pious Ladies of excitable disposition. The clichés were no doubt all true and these folk would have been recognizably real to their audience.

It’s Robeson’s show though as the “Reverend” Jenkins slips further and further down the slope to eternal damnation as his booze-funding church con runs into extortion, sexual violence and ultimately murder. It’s a physically-dominant performance as he towers over the rest of the cast yet falls victim to his own ability to wield force.

Paul Robeson, Julia Theresa Russell and Mercedes Gilbert
Peter Edwards and Nu Civilisation Orchestra – Rob Ansty on Bass and Moses Boyd on Drums – were caught up in the action themselves and played a Micheaux-mix of muscular jazz that connected forcefully well with the spirit of the film.

The music loped one minute and slammed its fist down the next, pulling the audience along in syncopated harmony with the mischievous spirit of this play on meanings. Edwards looked around the audience at the end and acknowledged there had been “something in the air”. A good gig all round!

The further adventures of Peter Edwards and Nu Civilisation Orchestra can be followed on their website.

Had too much to dream last night?