Friday, 29 April 2016

The curious incident of the dog on a ladder in the night… Married Love (1923), with John Sweeney, Kings College, BSFFS 2016

Our Lilian
I can forgive this film anything as it stars Lilian Hall-Davis, simply one of the best actresses of the silent era and someone who plays emotions across her face as easily as most of us breathe.

But... there is a dog that climbs a fireman’s ladder up to a first floor bedroom blaze and returns with a child on its back and possibly several kittens. There’s also obscure advice about keeping the roses pruned as the well-tended ones tend to be better quality children… or something like that.

Married Love –released as the more carefully-worded, Maisie's Marriage - was based on birth control pioneer Marie Stopes’s book of the same name and it’s undeniably unfair to take issue with whatever metaphor was required to sneak the message through. The film was controversial with the BBFC removing a number of references to the subject matter – up to 14 minutes’ worth - and slapping an A certificate on for good measure: adults only – dogs maybe too.

The film is exceptionally good-natured and maintains a healthy balance between the drama and the coy parental advice. Alexander Butler directs well if a little unevenly.

A garden of children at The Burrows' house
We begin with the highly-populous Burrows family who have packed out their modest apartment with ten children and possibly more. Mrs Burrows (Sydney Fairbrother) spends her time between pregnancies cooking, ironing and being run ragged and has the added bonus of Mr Burrows (Sam Livesey) being effectively an eleventh child.

Their eldest son, an incredibly youthful Roger Livesey, has no clue where he’s going and is shaping up to be a chip of the old block (actor also being the step-son of his screen dad) but the one ray of hope is daughter Maisie (Lilian Hall-Davis) who works as a waitress and has the motivational drive provided by wanting to avoid being anything like her parents.

A grown-up Mr Livesey showing more of his Westminster School poise...
One day Maisie meets a friendly fireman, Dick Reading (Rex Davis), who stalks her back to the café where he is able to dampen the ardour of a couple of sexual harassers. Dick (sorry, I’m going to have to call him Richard) is self-assured, in most things, loves his mum and, indeed, his dog showing Maisie their photos with pride. But as their relationship forms Maisie becomes increasingly afraid of the consequences of settling down: she’s not keen on the multiple births and lifetime of drudgery marriage seems to entail.

She argues this point with Richard and her eavesdropping Pa intervenes after hearing how little she seems to value him as a role model. Maisie’s no push-over and she bites back only to storm out into an uncertain night.

Sam Livesey who married his sister-in-law after the death of her husband, and Roger's father, Joseph...
She walks to Piccadilly – a lovely sequence at the Circus all bathed in neon then as now – where she meets a couple of good-time girls who tell her that a good-time is just what she needs as well: as there’s nothing like “a jazz” to cheer you up. They head off to a nightclub for some of this jazz and Maisie encounters another sad example of masculinity: top hat and tails bemoaning the fact that he “…shouldn’t be here, it’s the wife’s fault… can’t mate with an icicle.”

Maisie refuses to engage and a fight breaks out which sees the gent proving to actually be a bit of a gent as he defends her, inspired by the unmistakable look of innocence in her eyes. Despondent, Maisie wanders until the morning and, finding herself on a bridge, climbs up and shockingly jumps into the Thames.

Marie Stopes in February 1923
Hall-Davis looks to go the full-Gish in this sequence and is certainly wild-drowning in some of the shots. A passing couple spot Maisie and he dives in whilst she gets the Police. She’s rescued but will have to face trail – suicide is illegal whether you live or die.

Maisie gets no sympathy from a misogynistic magistrate and cries out “I’m being punished for something I never knew… “; something she was never told. The couple try to intervene but she is sentenced to two months in the Second Division. On release she’s greeted by the woman, Mrs. Sterling (Gladys Harvey) who offers her a job as their maid and drives her back to upper middle class security.

Mr Sterling (Bert Darley) is a successful writer – is there any other kind? – and they have three darling little darlings, hair madly curled by the intense satisfaction of a childhood spent in endless play and wonder. No scrapping under their Ma’s ironing board or getting forgotten in the pub by their pre-occupied Pa… for them.

Marie Stopes' birth control clinic caravan
They awaken Maisie’s maternal instincts "that longing that lies in every woman’s heart…” but she’s surely thrown her chances with Richard hasn’t she? Cut to the inventive fireman showing his mother (Mary Brough) his new fire ladder – it’s been accepted and he’s going to do well… is there any way he and Maisie can ever be re-united.

And that’s how we come to find that dog climbing those steps and rescuing that child… but you really need to see this for yourself.

John Sweeney accompanied with his customary sure-fingered precision and maintained an elegant dignity even when those roses sprouted a child’s face and the canine clambering threatened to scupper the drama.

See! Emotions, playing across her face...
Lilian is lovely throughout and acts rings round cast and script… she never hits a wrong note even in a film as wayward in tone as this one. Hers should have been a long and glorious career and yet it wasn’t to be -  time for a retrospective and can someone please screen Boadicea?

The film was screened as part of the opening day of the annual British Silent Film Festival Symposium at Kings College London… of which more later…

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The edge of the World … The Phantom Light (1935)

"I am a sucker for lighthouses. The lonelier and more inaccessible the better. And I love comedy thrillers. I said yes to this one right away, and never regretted it. I enjoyed every minute. The less said about the plot the better…” Michael Powell, A Life in Movies

This is one of Michael Powell’s quota quickies made when he was learning his trade as a director and helping to keep cinema British at least long enough for the main feature to be shown. With the freedom of a tight budget he manages to work some sense of wonder with this film and there are emerging themes that would later be trademark.

And then there were four...
Based on a play taken from a book, The Haunted Light by Evadne Price, The Phantom Light treads that fine line between humour and “horror” in the same way as Arthur Askey’s The Ghost Train (ithankyou!) and Will Hay’s Ask a Policeman. It’s an unabashed guilty pleasure but with some substance.

Actual Wales
For a start, literally, Powell opens the film in actual Wales, as a train (on the Festiniog Railway no less) carries lighthouse keeper Sam Higgins (Gordon Harker) through southern Snowdonia to Tan y Bwlch station. He’s greeted by a gaelic-speaking old woman in local dress who wishes him “nos da” and leaves him to his own devices.

He comes across a stranded blonde, Alice Bright (Liverpudlian stage-star, Binnie Hale) who looks like she’s fallen off the back of a pre-code screwball comedy. The two meet a railway worker who points them on their way in pure cockney…

Prynhawn da...
They arrive after a bumpy car journey through more landscape in what is now gorgeous Gwynedd to arrive at a very welcoming village inn. Everyone if very keen to greet the new keeper for the Northstack Lighthouse, not just because they are welsh and hospitable but because there’s a ghostly mystery… and the previous two keepers didn’t complete his contract in the most unorthodox of ways…

Fishing in the pub
Alice is also most interested in the Northstack and she is very, very keen to visit it as, indeed, is a business man from down south called Jim Pearce (Hitchcock's silent boxer Ian Hunter) who plies Sam with double rum but to no avail. Alice asks Jim for help too but he’s not buying her little girl lost routine. Not surprisingly, what’s so special about a dangerous, possibly haunted lighthouse?

Sam makes his way over with the local crew including David Owen (Hitchcock's silent blackmailer Donald Calthrop) and a Doctor Carey (Milton Rosmer) who has to see to one of the men, Tom Evans (Reginald Tate), who has developed a fever leading to violent, hallucinatory episodes (yes, I know…). The Doctor decides that he is too ill to leave the lighthouse (yes, I know…) – it is a long way to Ysbyty Gwynedd.

Serious moonlight
Sam is pleased to renew acquaintance with an old mucker, Claff Owen (Herbert Lomas) who is out of his mind with worry about the ghostly light that has appeared, luring a merchant vessel to its doom whilst their own light was mysteriously shut down.

All perfectly reasonable… and then a boat arrives carrying the intrepidly-determined Mr Pearce and, what’s more, Alice has stowed away completely undetected! The seas are now a bit choppy and Alice takes the perfectly logical step of jumping into the water in order to get to the lighthouse (the reason will be apparent in a sec...)

Binnie in her water-proof high-heels
Both safely “on-board” Alice is wet through and there is no option but for her to get undressed in the room with the disturbed Tom in it and then to put on Sam’s Sunday best. Problem is, the trousers are a bit big for her and so she – again – does the logical thing and cuts them as really short-shorts: all the better for showing off the lengthy Hale legs which still retain her high-heels (maybe they’re water-proof?).

So, there we have it, a lighthouse full of mystery – an unwanted ghost, two unwanted guests, a woman in unnecessary shorts… all is set for a final third of nail-biting predictability.

Hunter and Hale
But, all said and done, the film has a little bit of magic, the locations and the lighthouse claustrophobia work well and the performance of Harker in particular. Graham Greene praised his “sure-fire Cockney performance” in The Spectator, reflecting Powell’s own assessment… “Gordon Harker was one of those naturals that every country has – a face to remember… He had one of those flat, disillusioned Cockney faces, half-fish, half-simian, with an eye like a dead mackerel… he could hold a pause as long as any actor I had known. Close-ups were made for him…”

Dead mackerel eyes...
Herbert Lomas is great at evoking wide-eyed terror and sometimes has to stand and wait while the rest catch up. Binnie is very hale and hearty whilst Ian Hunter is an upstanding leading hero (although he was Powell’s second choice after Roger Livesey, whose time would come…).  Whilst there’s a host of excellent character actors in support – I especially liked the relationship between the local bobby Sergeant Owen (Edgar K. Bruce) and the pub landlady Mrs. Owen (Alice O'Day).

Ian Hunter, not Roger Livesey
Roy Kellino’s cinematographic skill helps the director catch those wonderful glimpses of Wales – even the bits filmed in Devon where the actual lighthouse – Hartland Point – was (mostly). There would be much better days ahead for MP but this was a worthwhile stopping point en route to his greater, more personal works.

Powell was already thinking of St Kilda...
The Phantom Light has just been released on budget DVD from Network who are on a good run – unearthing some overlooked and long-forgotten neo-classics of British cinema – quota-produced and fuller-budgeted alike.

Monday, 18 April 2016

The late Einar Norsen … L’Inhumaine (1923)

"I hear the light! The final images of L’Inhumaine surpass the imagination. As you emerge from seeing it, you have the impression of having lived through the moment of birth of a new art.” Adolf Loos

This film was Marcel L'Herbier’s boldest attempt yet to combine his broad cultural interests in film and, as it was co-financed by the star, opera-singer Georgette Leblanc, it perhaps contained even more than he expected. The gosh and wow over his audacious mise-en-scene, haute-couture and superhuman cutting would have been magnified many times as the film’s release when audiences may have been confused by Miss Leblanc’s operatic style and the ultra-modern concepts such as the thing called a “television”.

Still, they used to walk out on Mahler’s early symphonies… you can’t break moulds without omelettes being made…

Miss Lescot entertains
This film still feels modern even after 93 years of development but the Future’s never quite what it used to be no matter how visionary the concepts. Here the architecture and design fare better than the automobiles and the laboratories. But that’s hardly the point as L’Herbier takes us on a trip involving enduring human tension – jealously, desire, power and ambition.

There’s an age gap between the leading couple with Georgette Leblanc being 54 and doe-eyed Jaque Catelain being less than half her age at 26 but again that’s part of the point: money and power bridge those years and as we see throughout, Leblanc’s character Claire Lescot is formidable indeed.

Jaque and Georgette
From the start we see the impact she has on even the most powerful of men as the great and the good gather at her impressive modern house to pay their respects and to try and win favour. The interior is more traditional… well a moated dining table with swans a swimming and servants wearing papier mache masks to make sure that they don’t reveal emotion and only appear to smile.

The men admire posters of their host, Claire Lescot the famous opera singer and prepare to jostle for her affection: American industrialist Frank Mahler (Fred Kellerman), Russian post-revolutionary power-player Wladimir Kranine (Léonid Walter de Malte) and Indian mystic millionaire Djorah de Nopur (Philippe Hériat). Mahler wants to do the decent American thing and make her a star whilst  Kranine has a vivid fantasy about Claire joining him in leading the workers and Djorah has more focused desires… wanting her to become his queen.

Claire's suitors
The men try and impress the singer but she dismisses them all – not one is quite right… unless… One man is very late and he might just have the “quelque chose” she is looking for.

Jaque Catelain
Enter youthful scientist and appalling time-keeper Einar Norsen (Jaque Catelain) who leaps from his hi-tech house into a powerful sports car and speeds away along the high hillside of Rouen to Claire’s house. L’Herbier creates an impression of speed and Norsen’s state of mind by double and sometimes triple exposing his journey in the car… he’s travelling so fast and living dangerously a man at the bleeding edge…  and you shall know him by his velocity.

Feel the speed
He arrives very late and is singled out by Claire for special teasing: she all nut ignores him as she listens to her other suitors and when finally they are alone in the Winter Garden, he fails to connect with his youthful hyperbole. Confronted by her disappointment, Norsen threatens to take his own life which, far from impressing, leads her to say that he must not value it much if he is willing to end it so cheaply. Claire returns to her party and send s bitter message to him in the form of a small knife from her jewellery…

The young man can take no more and leaves the house determined to make his point. As he drives away at full pelt Claire sings to her guests and is oblivious that he has not only left the house but has also left her a message.  By the time she stops to read it, we have seen Norsen’s car go over the cliff and dive deep into the River Seine – it runs through Rouen too.

News of the driver’s death is bought by a peasant girl (played by L’Herbier’s wife, Marcelle Pradot) who cowers in front of these powerful people. Claire is devastated and some of her would be conquerors decide to exact revenge all the same.

At her first concert after the death, Kranine arranges a group to shout accusations of manslaughter at the stage. But Claire is too strong and silences the calls as she steadfastly sings and sins over the massive audience. L’Herbier got permission to film in Paris’ Théâtre des Champs-Élysées and invited over 2000 people from the art world to provide the audience. Ten cameras captured their reactions and if you look very carefully you may spot James Joyce, Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Ezra Pound and other leading lights.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
After the show Claire is approached by an older man who says that Norsen’s body has been found and asks her to come and identify the body…

Spoilers ahead – go back now! Run, run as fast as you can!

Surprise, surprise!
To the surprise of not many amongst modern audiences, the corpse is far from stiff and Norsen arrives to reveal how he constructed a plan to show Claire how much he loves her. She wanted a reason to stay in France and Norsen offers her one. Intrigued she returns the next day for a demonstration of something called a “television”, a device that allows her to broadcast her voice around the World whilst at the same time seeing the reactions of the listeners…

Imagine if such a thing were possible?!

Claire travels without leaving..
But having finally caught Claire’s imagination, Norsen is about to face one final, seemingly insurmountable challenge as the maleficus Maharishi returns for revenge…

Everything culminates in a breath-taking blur of close-cut montage with L' Herbier even adding blank coloured screens of blue, red and yellow to add to the confusion of effort as Norsen and his men work to their limits.

The Maharishi puts the frighteners on Claire
L’Inhumaine still impresses with it speed and invention. The camerawork is dramatic and inventive throughout showing the full range of Gallic montage, blur, double to triple exposure and hand-held, dolly and trolley-mounted shots from cinematographer Georges Specht.

The zest for experimental elaboration drove L’Herbier to recruit as many multi-media experts as he could from across the arts.  Architect Robert Mallet-Stevens – often ranked alongside Le Corbusier  - did all of the exteriors and it was one of the first times that modern architecture was seen in films whilst Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti was in charge of most of the set design with the exception of a strange green conservatory designed by Claude Autant-Lara.

Critic Léon Moussinac moaned that "There are many inventions, but they count too much for themselves and not enough for the film" but it’s the omelette again.  To counter that architect Adolf Loos described the result as "…a brilliant song on the greatness of modern technique…” and this included the fashion with Paul Poiret’s design studio dressing Georgette Leblanc’s character in style and numerous works of modern art scattered around the sets. Painter Fernand Leger, designed Einar’s laboratory including installations and paintings to create one of the most striking features of the film.

Claire's house is modern on the outside and traditional inside
The film became a true manifesto for modern art and what would later be called Art Deco with a visual harmony that pre-figured the 1925 International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris. L’Inhumaine was part of the exhibition and finally found its audience and we haven’t stopped watching.

The film is now available on crystal clear Blu-ray and DVD from Lobster films complete with extras including a making of featurette and a choice of soundtracks from the more traditional Mont Alloy Orchestra and modern jazz and electronica experimentation from Aidje Tafial who discusses his score in the extras.

It’s available direct or through Amazon.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

A backlot of love… Studio Tour Films 1915-1925 with Kenneth Brownlow, Kensington Bioscope

MGM technically had fewer stars than Heaven but... it was close...
Kevin Brownlow informed us that he had lost his notes and a sold-out Bioscope laughed probably more at the idea that he might even need any.

Silent film and memory… Mr Brownlow has probably forgotten more about the subject than most of us will ever know and in this age of limitless storage there’s an interesting question: will anyone ever be forgotten again or, put another another way, is there any need to remember?

Frequently, when watching films from this era, you chance upon a great performance you hadn’t expected – John Gilbert in The Big Parade and Man, Woman and Sin – or a “new” actor who was massively popular at the time and yet who has faded from living memory.

Universal City postcard from 1915
There’s a new wave of memory being created and whilst you can count on one hand the silent film stars most cinema fans can name after Charlie, Buster, Greta, Laurel and Hardy… there are many more now familiar having been seen performer for the first time (again) over recent years.

But there’s always more… film was never as huge as in the silent era, much has now gone for good and the saddest loss of all is the affection and recognition of the stars.

Mr Brownlow treated us to three rare films showcasing three of the major silent studios all of which featured a mix of actors remembered and actors forgot. Given recent revivals there are those we know again and a smaller number, of those that have never been forgotten: Gloria Swanson, Joan Crawford and a few others.

First up was Behind the Screen (1915) showing the movie-goer the set up at Universal City. It featured plenty of myth-enhancing languid camera pans over the huge studios as well as fascinating glimpses into the set-up and quick turn-over of the production process. Victoria Forde – who later married Tom Mix – was one of the actors featured along with other familiar/unfamiliar names: Eddie Lyons, Lee Moran, Neal Burns and Stella Adams.

Lee Moran, Eddie Lyons, Victoria Forde and. Harry Rattenberry in Downfall Of Potts (1915)
Directed by the likes of Al Christie and Otis Turner, they were shown running through single takes on temporary sets that were ripped down as soon as they were used to be replaced by another. Edited for effect no doubt but here was motion picture as Ford car production line processing.

Paramount Studios in 1922
A Trip to Paramountown (1922) followed next and so much had changed with studios now firmly in charge and more structure in place. We saw Anna Q. Nilsson being shown her character through her director drawing it on a screen – although she becomes distracted by a member of the crew offering her sweets.

The humorous approach continued with Valentino seemingly being left to the mercy of an actual bull whilst making Blood and Sand before being shown Bebe Daniels watching a mini version of herself dance and the ill-fated William Desmond finding himself driving a toy car made famous in his hit, Excuse My Dust (1920)

Excuse my dust!
Then we see Cecil B. directing Manslaughter with Leatrice Joy in all her finery complete with pet lions and a menacing Thomas Meighan. Lastly Gloria Swanson’s feathered head-dress develops a life of its own – anything is made possible by the magical powers of Hollywood.

Marion Davis was there, just waiting as she tried unsuitable styles… along with Betty Compson, George Fawcett and Jack Holt but what of Sylvia Ashton, T. Roy Barnes, Dorothy Dalton and Robert Cain: who were they and how shall I remember them? Why should I remember them?

T. Roy Barnes and friend in 1924
An MGM promo put together for the 1925 Stockholder Committee was next and was more about showing the faces of the different creative groups putting the product together: the scenario writers (including Howard Hawks), the wardrobe artists, and a massed rank of cameramen featuring over two dozen of whom worked on that same year’s Ben Hur.

Who was Mr Bentley (left)?
A very impressive row of directors was featured including Frank Borzage, Victor Sjostrom, von Sternberg and von Stroheim, King Vidor and William Wellman. There was even a mysterious Scandinavian-looking gent by the name of Bentley… even Kevin didn’t know who he was.

Then there were the stars… and many of them too… I spotted Ford Sterling, William Haines, Harrison Ford, Billy Dove, Norma Shearer wilting under her mountain of fan mail, John Gilbert flirting with Zasu Pitts and Lon Chaney cheekily turning his one thousandth-face away from the camera.

Lon Chaney refuses to face front
These are precious images of the stars off duty and yet it is still sad that not all are known or have surviving examples of their work. We should be grateful for what we do have and seek to be as thorough and as objective as we can in our assessments of their work: they deserve no less. Above all, they contributed to the cultural life and happiness of our grandparents and great-grandparents: they might have played as crucial a part in their romantic lives as George Peppard and Audrey Hepburn did for my children’s parents… you never know.

What a find!?
MGM’s “find of 1925” was also shown, someone called Lucille Le Sueur… one of those who have passed into history beyond their generation: a natural, eternal star. One day even Joan Crawford’s memory will pass but I’d guess that will be a long time: what is the half-life of a megastar?

Yet another cracking show at the Bioscope and a tip of the hat to John Sweeney, Costas Fotopoulos and Cyrus Gabrysch who played along superbly to these slices of cine-history.

One of those letters is from me Norma!