Thursday, 21 December 2017

Double Bebe… She’s a Sheik (1927)/Miss Bluebeard (1925), with Meg Morley and Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Tonight, Kevin Brownlow had promised us a surprise from his own collection and he delivered with a 16mm transfer of She’s a Sheik that hasn’t been projected in public since I was in short pants (no, even earlier than that troublesome New Romantic period…). The film had been transferred by a British collector using ex-air force equipment and yet looked pretty fine partly due to the extensive  repair work of the Bioscope’s ace projectionist Dave Locke.

Kevin described it as madcap like Hellzapoppin and whilst it doesn’t quite match the madness of that film it’s heart-warmingly daft with a welcome eye on gender-reversal that suits Bebe Daniel’s natural intelligence as well as William Powell’s willingness to never take himself that seriously. It’s a little patchy in parts but redeemed by Daniel’s making like Fairbanks as well as her old sparing partner Gloria and, of course, Mr Valentino.  No one can pet a peacock (not going there…) wearing an outrageous feathered head-dress quite like Bebe and she out smoulders Rudolph whilst lazily stroking a leopard which is clearly benefiting from the same kind of head doctor as the Happy Mondays in 1991.

William Powell is about to get his thawb handed to him
Bebe is a magnetic presence and a natural comedienne as she would show from the Mack Sennett days through to the wise-cracking screwballs of the thirties and beyond after she settled in the UK as Mrs Lyons (not Leopard you may note…). She has a striking, thoroughly-modern face and yet there’s always a twinkle… not so far from either Doug or Rudy then: these people had The Glamour alright.

So does William Powell and Richard Arlen for that matter, even when their characters are being humiliated by the film’s star. Bebe plays Zaida a good catholic Spanish girl who is the adopted daughter of Sheik Yusif ben Hamad (Paul McAllister … not many of us Paul’s get to be a Sheik!). The Sheik is fully supportive of her right to choose a marriage partner and very quickly she spies just the man, a French army officer, Captain Colton (Arlen), the trouble is he’s already seeing a blonde Wanda Fowler (Josephine Dunn) who Zaida spies two-timing him.

Reversing the, actually quite disturbing, kidnapping approach to courtship from other films about similar things, Zaida takes her Captain prisoner and quickly wins him over through basic womanly wiles and the offer of food, drink and a good pipe. But it’s at this point that the nasty Kada (Mr Powell) decides he’s going to take this woman himself and overcome the French forces… What do you reckon to his chances of either?

Dreamy duo: Richard Arlen and Bebe Daniels
Meg Morley accompanied having not even seen the film before and provided some luscious chords with period-jazz flavours, sweeping minor shapes that swept through the sand and patient, confident themes that embraced the unpredictability of the action and the unseen narrative.

Lilian Henley provided similar service for the first film with her own trademark polish and assurance. If Meg’s improvisational jazz background informs her approach perhaps Lillian’s experience as a professional actress informs her own highly-disciplined and sympathetic playing. I watched Ben Travers flapper farce Thark last week and it’s so close to Miss Bluebeard in style and I’m taking a wild guess here, I could easily imagine it’s one of Lillian’s favourite periods?

The film is not as zany as SAS and creakily shows its stage roots having been based on a play, Little Miss Bluebeard, by Avery Hopwood but does have its moments and some amazing costumery especially for Bebe to wear.

The plot is as convoluted as all get out and shows once again that you should never let anyone impersonate you as you can end up married or even in court (name that Colleen Moore film!). But successful composer Larry Charters (Robert Frazer) who is visiting Paris is so fed up of young women chasing him that he asks his mate Bob Hawley (Kenneth MacKenna) to impersonate him so he can focus on his writing.

He runs into stage actress Colette (see what they did there…) who is introduced in one of the film’s cleverest moments behaving on stage as we expect her character to behave in the film… and, one thing leads to another and a drunken mayor marries them (dontcha just hate it when that happens!).

So far, so what you may say but when Colette meets the real Larry it is, ow you say, l’amour at first sight (Colette has title card French to die for, n’est pas).

Robert Frazer, Martha O'Dwyer and Raymond Griffith
It gets complicated and really the funniest thing is the excellent Raymond Griffith trying to get some sleep as The Honourable Bertie Bird even whilst mostly wearing his trademark top hat.

Two sides to Bebe Daniels and proof that she could more than match anyone for comedy, swinging action and romance. Plus... Swanson and the lion? Yeah, got me a leopard.

Before Bebe we had a Christmas short, a British version of The Little Match Girl (1914) which was indeed short and bitter sweet with Meg accompanying.

This was all a fine way to finish off the year at the Bioscope. Here’s to 2018 and The Cinema Museum continuing to support this excellent enterprise.

You're twisting my leopard man...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

The Twelve Days of Silent Night: the year in pantomime. Or, well done 2017!

This just gets harder; how can any sane person possibly reduce such a splendid silent year into a top twelve?! This year I've seen more live cinema than ever before along with a travelling band of fascinated and fascinating individuals who are on a mission to understand more of the immense silvery spaces that make up the lost worlds of cinema without sounds but with music and soul.

1. The Freshman (1925), Guenter A Buchwald, Bristol Ensemble, Slapstick Festival Gala, Colston Hall, Bristol
It's now an annual family tradition with my daughter at Bristol University and the Gala never disappoints especially with so many locals turning out in a packed Colston Hall.

All this and Roy Hudd channelling Max Miller! Now, there was a funny thing!

Catherine Hessling  - La Fille de l’eau (1925)
2. La Fille de l’eau (1925) with John Sweeney, Institut Français
Jean Renoir's first feature film was being shown as part of the annual All About Piano! festival of the keyboard at the Institut français and was part of its ciné-concert stream. It's always good to experience different venues and the Institute provided a superb context for both the film and John Sweeney with a finely-tuned grand piano enabling him to fully tap into his boundless reservoir of musical themes.

What better way of celebrating the versatility of le piano than hearing him accompany for this ciné-concert?

3. Revolutionary Centenary: The New Babylon (1929), Sasha Grynyuk, LSO St Luke’s
This was a reconstruction of an original score by a precocious young man name of Dmitri Shostakovich. Sasha Grynyuk played the complex work to perfection and this one stood out in a year of celebrations… From an historical point of view the centenary is an important one and it was depressing to see so many post-factual judgements based on all that was to come. The film was propagandist, but we know all about such things in 2017.

Les Misérables
4. Play for a day… Les Misérables (1925-6), Neil Brand, The Barbican
One huge film serial, one fair-sized piano and a man with a seemingly endless musical imagination kept us entertained for over five hours at the Barbican. By co-incidence the London Marathon was on the same day buy, carrying the film and his audience with him all the way, Neil Brand emerged the real winner.

The Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield, South Yorshire

5. Yorkshire Silent Film Festival, The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand, Covent Garden Sinfonia, Ben Palmer, Abbeydale Picture House
Part of the joy of silent cinema is introducing new people to the experience. My sister lives in Sheffield and neither she nor her husband had ever seen a silent film on screen, so it gave me great pleasure to see their reaction to Buster Keaton’s Cameraman, The Girl with the Hatbox and The Lodger featuring the Covent Garden Symphonia playing Neil Brand’s super new score.

The Abbeydale is a great venue, a stunning relic of mass entertainment past and I hope it and the Yorkshire Silent Film festival go from strength to strength. I’ll be back next year.

6. New silent films! This was the year of Alex Barratt’s mesmerising ode to his home town with The London Symphony (2017) which I saw with Ben Palmer conducting the Covent Garden Sinfonia playing James McWilliam's score at the Barbican.

We also the simply remarkable Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016), in which Bill Morrison unearthed not only the story of hundreds of lost silent films but also of the perma-frosted town in which they were held in ice for 90 years.  The film creates a compelling narrative by weaving past, present, fact and fiction together with mind-boggling cohesion.

Maurice Elevy's master-stroke!

7. British Silent Film Festival Another smashing long weekend in Leicester during which Balfour mania reached new heights as Betty charmed us in film after film including Cocktails (1928) and A Sister of Six (1927). I also particularly enjoyed Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928) with his extraordinary re-enactment of the battle as soulful as it was accurate especially when accompanied by John Sweeney’s thunderous accompaniment. Kevin Brownlow described it as the most impressive large-scale action scene in British silent cinema and it’s hard to think of many sound films that come close.

My official James Murray Pordenone mug...

8. Pordenone Bellissimo! The Crowd (1928), Carl Davis, Pordenone Orchestra
This was my personal highlight as an event: my first trip to La Giornate del Cinema Muto and eight days of films long and short from breakfast to well past supper time, thank goodness the bars don’t close early in Italy. To be honest, it felt like the step up from Premier League to Champions League and I struggled to get out of the qualifying stages only to rally against the sheer class of the proposition. It’s a silent marathon and not a sprint and I can’t wait for next year.

Picking favourites is impossible but the opening round featuring Eleanor Boardman and James Murray in King Vidor’s The Crowd is the most memorable… A supernaturally-charged Carl Davis conducted the Pordenone Orchestra playing his own spectacular score for one of my favourite silent films and even up in the Gods at the Teatro Verdi my socks were detached and flying high over Friuli-Venezia Giulia skies.

Jenny Hasselqvist 

9. Jenny on the block… Vem Dömer? (1922) with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius, Pordenone
 There was a very strong Scandinavian strand at Pordenone of which Victor Sjostrom’s lover’s ordeal stood out as it had to, being a rare screening featuring Jenny Hasselqvist who is, for me, one of the greatest silent actors; a master of physical and emotional control who never overplays even in the most extreme circumstances. And she certainly had those at the end of this powerful film.

9. It was Louise Brooks’ year (again). In Italy I saw the recently rediscovered Now We're in the Air (1927) featuring Brooksie shining brightly despite a gurning Wallace Beery and a storyline flying like a bird… I also saw Pandora’s Box (1929) with Stephen Horne accompanying at the beginning and end of the year, the second introduced by Pamela Hutchinson, whose excellent book on the film made the re-watch essential and even more enjoyable.


10. Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala. This one went through the roof and was by some distance my most read post of the year and not surprisingly given the sense of occasion and the way that Anoushka Shankar got to the heart of the film with her intelligent and fluent score. This was one of the most uplifting screenings of the year, a real celebration.

11. Uncanny Tales… Häxan (1922), with Reece Shearsmith and Stephen Horne, Phoenix.
This was a Halloween treat organised by the East Finchley Contingent and which featured a local gentleman giving eloquent voice to Benjamin Christensen’s dramatized documentary on the history of witchcraft. Stephen Horne accompanied with uncanny virtuosity and the shock ending revealed mankind to be the real demonic power.

Häxan (1922)
12. The Cinema Museum/Kennington Bioscope
This list isn’t in any order, but I have saved the most important until last. This year was another vintage one for the Kennington Bioscope and their partners at the Cinema Museum. In addition to the regular screenings every three weeks we have also enjoyed the 3rd Silent Film Weekend and the 2nd Silent Laughter Saturday – dozens of fantastic films accompanied by excellent musicians: John Sweeney, Meg Morley, Cyrus Gabrysch, Lillian Henley, Stephen Horne and others.

Highlights have included the naughtiest Gish, Dorothy, in Nell Gwyn (1926) with Meg Morley, one of the great Italian Diva’s Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco (1916), with John Sweeney playing and honeyed spoken translation from Lillian Henley (they are the Bioscope’s Dream Team) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) one of the best-looking films of the year, with Cyrus Gabrysch’s piano filling the huge spaces with Death Valley cool as humanity fights for life and love against overwhelming heat and the onrushing Colorado River. Then two weeks ago we had Anna May Wong in Pavement Butterfly accompanied by Stephen Horne and Elsa Lanchester in the British silent treat, Blue Bottles with Meg Morley: great programming and so much talent.

Pina Menichelli in Il Fuoco 
But the Museum itself is also a pure joy, filled with memorabilia and artefacts that connect us to the cultural past. The people who run the museum and make the Bioscope possible are also the real spirit of the enterprise and to all the players, programmers such as Amran Vance and Michelle Facey and the volunteers, I thank you and hope that the Museum continues in its current venue – where once Charlie Chaplin’s family lived.

If there’s one present we all really want from Santa, this is it.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

It’s more important than that… A Matter of Life and Death (1946), BFI

This is a film for the ages, a film to grow with. When I first saw A Matter of Life and Death, I must have been very young and pretty much read it literally but when I watched in my teens I realised that it was not quite that simple: of course it wasn’t.

Seeing David Niven in massive close up for the first time on the big screen it is perfectly clear how much this story takes place from his point of view and yet his imagined afterlife is almost too huge in scope to be the dream of a single mind… but then it’s always hard to believe that the main works of Powell and Pressburger came from just two minds. If that’s not enough, the opening statement that "this is the story of two worlds, the one we know and another which exists only in the mind of a young airman whose life and imagination have been violently shaped by war… “is clear enough, especially when followed up by “any resemblance to any other world known or unknown is purely coincidental".

This is a new 4k restoration and it’s exceptionally lovely with Jack Cardiff’s colours like so much newly-polished, quicksilver summer fruits, all the more so when contrasted with the monochrome “heaven”. Real life and real love are more vivid than the antiseptic afterlife especially as so many seem to have carried their grudges with them, of which more later.

Kim Hunter and David Niven - screen grabs from the BFI trailer for the restoration
The film has so much context and has to deliver on a variety of briefs. As with A Canterbury Tale, AMOLAD had to address the relationship between the allies and whilst there are French issues there are very specific American ones too. Alsi, with this film coming just at the War’s end, there was also a consideration of the UK’s future role in a World of vanishing Empire, a situation very much on the minds of the then self-determining USA (even so long after Woodrow Wilson). So many of the barbs from Raymond Massey’s American Revolutionary, Abraham Farlan, ring true today: then we’d just worked together to defeat the Nazis and now, well, now… we just get on each other's nerves.

But, no matter how Farlan rails against the unpopularity of Great Britain and the unsuitability of one of its sons loving a daughter of Boston, Massachusetts, ultimately love is the law. It’s probably all you need, love is, you know.

It’s curious that Farlan is so mealy-mouthed and prejudiced but then again this is in the mind of Peter. Niven's Squadron Leader Carter typifies the bravery of the best of us, putting his men before himself and ready to take his chances even without a parachute. He has been valiant and highly effective after his bomber was shot to bits and he engages with his last few moments with an almost matter of fact energy. He is intensely interested in the America radio operator, June (Kim Hunter) who picks up his distress call and the two form and instant, almost super-natural bond in the flaming seconds he has left. This was the War: tomorrow was never guaranteed not even assumed and we simply didn’t waste as much time as we do today.

Instant connection... as life ticks down

June, Peter… all of the characters on Earth are pragmatic and focused; what can be done will be done and in whatever conditions prevail. Oh, what you can achieve when your own mortality is no longer a comforting deception? Yet, Peter’s surface calm is counterbalanced by all kinds of agitation below in his subconscious and we get to meet them all, one by one.

Whilst Peter’s number 2, Flying Officer Bob Trubshawe (Robert Coote) waits for him to arrive “upstairs” he chats admiringly to an angelic (in all ways…) Kathleen Byron. Things run smoothly up there but this administrative angel is concerned at Peter’s non-appearance. Richard Attenborough arrives from the stairway to Heaven and caused the old couple in front of me to chatter excitedly: yes, after all these years, Dickie is still in the film…

Kathleen Byron (gulp) and Robert Coote
American soul-soldiers chat excitedly as they pop open bottles of celestial coca cola and eye up the angels as they would on Earth: in “heaven” everything is fine… and not too different from home.

But the mathematics is wrong, and Peter has unbalanced the books… the English fog meant that Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) just couldn’t find him and he fell to Earth still alive. As Peter wakes up in the surf he sees a boy, strangely naked, playing a flute as he minds his goats… it’s an other-worldly seaside and it’s only when the lad points to buildings and a woman on a bike that he realises he’s alive. And the woman… it’s June, the woman he talked to as his took his leap of faith.

71 arrives and, literally, stops the World as he explains the rather awkward predicament… Peter needs to crack on with being dead and he would do, decent chap that he is, were it not been for the fact that his "extra" hours have seen him fall in love with June and her with him.

These consequences of celestial carelessness end up being discussed before the highest court in a stellar sequence which is so heavy in dialogue and yet remains a tour-de-force of edited brilliance. Peter is operated on by a brain surgeon just as he battles with himself in his vision of eternity. Is it worth going on living? How can you prove that someone loves you? And has there ever been a better portrayer of the decent British man than Roger Livesey?

After all this time... I can conclude that this is still a very odd film but also that it is a genuinely great one. It is an experience that has to be lived with and seen on screen and for the first time I really felt I’d paid The Archers and Mr Cardiff the respect their work deserves. Now I can wish for a Blu-ray version of this restoration without feeling that I’ve not given the bigger picture its due.

The Great Livesey
So, do go see AMOLAD on screen for this re-release and indeed any P&P film you can (I'm watching Blimp tomorrow at the Barbican). Tickets are available for A Matter of Life and Death from the BFI and elsewhere as the restoration is re-released.

Powell and Pressburger smuggle so much meaning in this film, it’s truly uncanny and almost as if we’re characters in their dream watching a debate about our lives… the watchers, watched this time in 4k resolution.

Yes Richard, still in the film.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The women… Pavement Butterfly (1929), with Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

We take it for granted, these films we watch, yes we recognise that screening rare and near impossible to find 90-year old treasures takes a huge amount of effort, but we don’t always consider the actual commitment in personal time and energy made by the managers of these passion projects.

Tonight, was an epic programme and one that not only featured a very rare film but also three shorter features that were thematically linked. You see a fascinating array of British variety acts in the first, followed by a visit to Berlin - the main feature was an Anglo-German co-production – and lastly the British comedy, Blue Bottles (1928) featuring Elsa Lanchester as herself: a woman of gumption and quick wit even under fire.

The Bioscope’s Michelle Facey programmed the evening and chose the Lanchester film partly because it has such a strong female lead and the same can absolutely be said of Anna May Wong in Pavement Butterfly (1929). That’s three remarkable women all on the one evening!

Michelle not only devised the programme she also researched the background for the films in depth and provided notes as well as her informative introductions. No wonder the Cinema Museum was packed to the rafters with not a single seat unsold: the best programmes attract the public and the sell-out spoke for itself on that one!

Mah and Coco, clown, croupier, club owner... cad!
Part of the fascination in watching Pavement Butterfly is seeing how Anna May Wong’s character gets treated. This is not a lazy modern liberal search for outrage but a fair comparison between European cinema culture and US in 1929. In her home country, Anna May Wong had struggled since her first film in 1921 to gain substantial roles and also characters that weren’t stereotypes. Yet in Europe for this film and Song (1928), her first film with director Richard Eichberg, she is not only a desirable and acceptable romantic lead, she is the star.

Eichberg simply took her natural talents and ran with them and you even read this film as a subtle critique of Western culture’s willingness to believe the worst of people of Asian origin: first the crowd at the circus where Wong’s character Mah works, turn on her very quickly assuming she has killed her magician partner and then later, when she is blackmailed by the man who committed that murder, her artist and romantic interest, all too readily thinks she has stolen the money.

For anyone who gets frustrated by such “misunderstandings” the film’s ending is richly satisfying and, in the context of so many films of this era – Hindle Wakes and a few others excepted – a blow for self-determination for women in general.

Anna May Wong, picture c. Getty Images
But the real triumph for this remarkable actor is that she gets the most screen time and the chance to behave with decency and intelligence: she is not just a cipher but the whole point of the film: she may be a butterfly of the street, but she knows how to make her own way. Wong is allowed the opportunity to fully reveal her character and there are times when Eichberg just lets his camera roll in vast close-ups, catching every moment as the poignant tears spark, flicker and then flow down the amazing face.

There are also some blokes in the film Fred Louis Lerch plays the handsome but hopeless Fedja Kusmin an artist who lacks the purity of trusting the thing he loves and the wickedly convincing Alexander Granach as Coco the Coincidental Clown who pops up throughout the film to throw mischief in our heroine’s way. Elwood Fleet Bostwick is Mr. Working a rich business man who encourages the young artist and Tilla Garden has a fine turn as his daughter Ellis who is also interestingly enough a woman who knows her mind.

Pavement Butterfly is a very fine film and Ellis and Mah are its most fully realized characters played by the two most interesting performers. That said, I shouldn't omit Gaston Jacquet as the Baron de Neuve, who helps Mah seemingly as he's keen to to the decent thing: this was good Gaston as opposed to the rogues he was also adept at playing... either way, always a twinkle in his eye though!

It’s always a special evening when Stephen Horne plays the Bioscope and this was no exception. I am constantly amazed by his improvisational range and, having watched him play just a few days ago, could sense no repetition only a performer’s joy in giving this rare screening the full bells and whistles. He started off at a canter with some meaty chords matching the carnival atmosphere and the troupe of party animals sharing Kusmin’s apartment block and began to inject subtleties of tone through flute, accordion, percussion and vibes. One day we’ll discover that they’re all pre-programmed alien artefacts from a civilisation so far in advance of our own that their musical science seems like magic.

Meg Morley was also pitch perfect accompanying the first three films. There is so much musical diversity at the Bioscope and I love the players, Meg is an accomplished jazz musician by trade and it’s fascinating to hear how this essentially emotional and improvised discipline informs her accompaniment. She is a very polished performer now and comes from the same planet as Mr Horne… they can see the future just as they duet with the past!

Elsa Lanchester
Tonight, Meg was with the stunning Elsa Lanchester in Blue Bottles (1928) as she gets mixed up in a crook’s convention and brings the full might of the Metropolitan Police Force down on them after blowing on a discarded police whistle. She toots the flute and in come mobs of plod, men on horseback, tanks, planes and even the navy – a sequence similar to the Marx Brother’s mad escalations in defence of Freedonia in Duck Soup.

It’s a riot of well-constructed slapstick as Elsa gets caught up in the rush as the cops charge into the house. There’s a running battle in which stripped-topped criminals try to avoid the police including one played by Elsa’s hubby-to-be Charles Laughton in his first film appearance. There’s mayhem as Elsa hides wherever she can only to capture the crooks single-handedly, dazed and in charge of a weapon she barely knows is in her hand.

Frank Wells falls in for Charles Laughton
There’s so much energy and invention from director Ivor Montagu on the script from Frank Wells based on a story from his father, Herbert George. They also discovered that Frank was rather good at falling down stairs and so he gets his moment playing a battered baddie.

Before this were two documentaries of which the British one, Hello Piccadilly (1925) was especially precious, the Jack Hylton band playing in the background as variety performers – a chorus line, contortionists and amazing trick dancers (you would scarce believe The Cat and The Dog dance: Strictly Come Dangerous!) – showed us what our great grand parents used to enjoy. They'd look over their pints of mild and smile at us all, sat in the dark watching proper entertainment. Cheers!

Thanks again to the Bioscope in general and to all those who volunteer and make these evenings possible.

PS I must also thank Dr Sylvia Hardy who has just shown my Elsa Lanchester's actual copy of the script for Blue Bottles and also let me scan her original photographic stills from the film. A prominent member of the HG Wells Society she is indeed another remarkable woman!

Elsa's script for Blue Bottles

Monday, 4 December 2017

Das Buch über Pandora… Pandora's Box (1929), with Stephen Horne and Pamela Hutchinson, Phoenix Cinema

Once more out of The Box my friends but there’s no getting tired of this film especially in the wonderful surroundings of the old Phoenix and with Stephen Horne’s endlessly-inventive playing.

This is a vital film, one of the cornerstones of the silent film canon and my gateway to the whole shebang (starting with a DVD purchase in Park Street, Bristol in 2003 if you want to know). Pandora’s Box is worthy of the highest recognition and it has long merited its own book: now it has one, written by silent film expert Pamela Hutchinson and it’s the book it deserved. With her Silent London blog, Pamela has been helping to re-invigorate the British silent scene and she has played a major part in opening up the world of live silent screenings for myself and many others.

Pamela writes with an expert eye, easy wit and steadfast concision; there is much attention to detail in the book but it is all explained with fluid precision. The research is thorough, with revelations both scandalous and surprising and this is one of the best of the BFI’s Film Classics series I’ve read,  achieving its key objectives with ease, Pandora’s Box is engrossing, informative and entertaining.

That said, perhaps the highest praise I can give is that it made me experience the film in a completely different way, informed by its break down of Pabst’s directorial style and the way he worked with Louise Brooks in particular. With just five weeks shooting, perfectionist Pabst managed to construct one of the greatest silent films and he made the absolute most of his uniquely eye-catching talent.

Not only was the great “bridge-burner” Brooks temperamentally unsuited to the job of movie star she was also just not that bothered. Pabst deserves more credit for plugging her super-natural energies into the context of his film especially as she spoke no German…

Pamela introduced the screening and included some delicious titbits, Marlene being on the verge of signing up as Lulu just as Paramount gave their approval for the loan of their 21-year old misfit and Brooks’ troubled relationship with most of her co-stars (Gustav Diessl excepted…). Brooksie crashed her career but she found subsequent redemption after this controversial film was rediscovered decades after its chances of success was censored away. She wrote with fierce eloquence about her old career and spent the last third of her life celebrated by cineastes and influencing so many… not just in film but across our culture: Brooks equals self-determinated cool and she is forever now.

The book balances the, er… books in terms of Herr Pabst and whilst his Nazi collaborations no doubt damaged his post-war reputation (he did voice his un-leveraged opinions after the war), you can see how his mico-management helped to bring out the most from his crew and cast. Hutchinson relates a story of how cameraman Günther Krampf argued over whether a shot of Brooks and Fritz Kortner canoodling on her couch could be made: the director wanted the camera to close in and then move up out of view of the illicit “action” below. Krampf said it couldn’t be done but it was and we saw it today.

Pabst encouraged his team to voice such opinion though and this team ethic no doubts helps explain the results… five weeks of intensive work that, nowadays, would barely allow for a few Josh Whedon re-shoots to lighten the Zac Snyder darkness of Justice League or similar blockbuster.

Pabst is known for his abilities with actors and whilst he cast for character as well as range he was delighted to discover that his Lulu was a professional dancer. The moments when Brooks dances are visceral and define her character so well especially in the opening sequence. Brooks describes their collaboration as that between a choreographer and dancer and it’s also the dance of light on the most perfectly coiffured bob in history.

Lulu also dances with Countess Augusta Geschwitz played by Alice Roberts/Roberte, who Hutchinson rightly points out deserves more credit for her ground-breaking portrayal of lesbian longing. The Countess is an important part of the story especially given the way she, like all the men, is ultimately discarded after use. She looks lovingly straight into Lulu’s light and is doomed to shrivel in the shade.

No one escapes unscathed as Lulu burns… least of all herself. Wedekin’s story is unrelenting and whilst Pabst moved away from it to create a more socially-conscious story there is a price to pay for the earthy spirit.

Stephen Horne accompanied using an electric keyboard, accordion, flute and assorted percussion and, it seemed to me that he was finding new themes and responses. His ability to weave defined progressions into a two-hours plus improvisation is extraordinary and whilst he could make CCT footage of the A10 entertaining, working with Pabst, Brooksie and company he pulls you right into the centre of their silvery-shadowed world.

In the end, as Francis Lederer’s Alwa staggers into the fog after the Salvation Army, you are slightly dazed… You have to hope for the best and that’s the best you can hope for as the poet Peter Wylie once said and hope is, as Pamela points out, the last gift from Pandora’s box.

I try to write about the experience of watching silent film live and normally that’s a combination of variables led by the film, the accompaniment, audience and auditorium. This book added a vital new element and, I know it’s a bit much to ask, but could we have some more Pam?

As it is, it’s a text I will return to. A five-star job!!

Pandora’s Box is available from all good booksellers, the Amazon and, of course the BFI. If you like the film, the actress, silent or any film-making you should buy with confidence.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Wild at heart… Le diable au coeur (1928)

I believe it was George Harrison who once remarked, “she’s got the Devil in her heart oh no, no, no-oh…” but it might have been John Lennon? Here Betty Balfour, our own Queen of Happiness, is infected with the most spiteful of quick tempers and shows how her impulsive chaotic charm could be turned to destruct mode. The film’s translation reads as Devil May Care but I prefer The Beatle’s description… although I’m not entirely sure that Ricky Dee Drapkin had her in mind when he wrote the song.

Betty was 25 and at the height of her powers in 1928 with Mr Hitchcock to be her next director after Marcel L'Herbier. This film is a world away from the light comedies I’ve mostly seen her in but she plays well and dominates the film with eye-catching intensity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I don’t get what L'Herbier saw in Jaque Catelain but he’s slightly limited in comparison to the Balfour emotive engine. He’s so much a product of his director’s odd worlds that I can’t imagine him in a British film whereas Betty is positively protean with a cross-border and cross-genre appeal rivaled by very few.

It is not so much of a stretch to accept this tiny woman as a child as she is in the opening sections of the film. She is a tear-away, leading her parents a merry dance, not just with her maniacal brothers in tow but many other juniors from the small port of Le Harve in Northern France, the gateway to England should anyone want to go there.

Little miss mischief
Betty plays Ludivine Bucaille, “une fille étrange…” who is indeed a little beyond the usual as she drives her father Maurice (Auguste Picaude) to drink and her mother (Catherine Fonteney) to distraction. There are some convincing scenes of childish mayhem as Ludvine energetically marshals the local lads of misrule in endless japes, hiding from the police, trespassing and pretending to be handicapped.

Ludivine has still to understand the power she has over her surroundings and when she launches a cruel attack on the house of the Leherg family for no good reason other than their piousness, she causes more upset than she bargained for. They smash a window and the kids scatter as Mr Leherg (Roger Karl) and his young son Delphin (Jaque Catelain) come out to catch their tormentors. Ludivine is caught by Delphin and an instant flash across their eyes confuses her enough to wish both he and his father dead. The young fisherman exposed a weakness she was not expecting and as she spitefully tries to mask her romantic urges with distaste she protests far too much.

Jaque Catelain
Disaster strikes though when the Leherg’s boat goes missing in a storm. Everyone believes them drowned and Ludivine assumes it’s her fault and that she has wished death upon them. There is a very poignant scene in which the fishermen mournfully trudge from the dockside only to encounter Ludivine and her posse laughing and skipping without a care in the world.

The young woman’s spirits crash to earth and when, joy of joys, she finds Delphin alive and wandering in shock, she cannot do enough for him. He loses his mother soon after from the shock and is soon out of house and home but with no option but to leave. Ludivine persuades her parents to offer him board and cleans up their house, applying her energy with a new, more adult, purpose.

Balfour’s ability to switch from comic childishness to these more dramatic emotions is rare and she imbues even the most slapstick of moments with an edge; a twinkle in the eye that conveys joy and devilment. Her character is conflicted fighting a battle between denial and desire that can only end with her growing up.

Lauderin trying to impress Ludivine with his largess...
She meets her match when a showman, Pierre Lauderin (André Nox) comes to town with a gaggle of dancers and other performers. He calls her bluff and is more than amused to see how she responds. We’re unimpressed with his fascination with the girl and so is she.

Soon Ludivine’s not the only player struggling with integrity as her parents are made an offer they find hard to refuse by the scheming Lauderin who will clear their debts if he can marry their daughter. Ludivine’s ability to take offence leads to a pointless stand-off with the man she really loves, and she succeeds only in making things worse… The Devil is in her heart again and she will have to work hard to overcome the impact of her temper…

L’Herbier shows us gorgeous locations and this is as an emphatic a view of the natural world as L’Inhumaine and L’Argent are of the stylish built environments. We even get some typically flamboyant mise en scène at the port-side hotel at which the old lech is about the entrap his young prey… the huge deco space almost repels Ludivine as she longs for the salty freshness of her honest fisherman…

Then there’s the tunnel through which Ludivine must walk to reach the adult world of Lauderin’s show bar, the Eden, in which the men drink and where she finds Delphin making eyes at Thania (the aptly named Kissa Kouprine) and fighting with another man for her favour… It’s a passage to another world and one you need to navigate both ways. Again, L’Herbier’s design is around his emotional narrative and almost built form the characters outwards. Lauderin looms watching in the shadows behind Ludivine as she looks down on the unknown pleasures below.

Lauderin is a truly disturbing creation from Nox as he emerges to leer over the young woman. If the film is about her emergence from childhood, then he represents all of the darkness she must avoid… repeatedly using money – he offers her mock-beggars a twenty franc note on their first meeting – muscle and manipulation he’s a user and abuser. The wicked warlock to Delphin’s handsome prince: a shady character indeed.

After rebuffing Lauderin’s offer, Ludivine is then gobsmacked to see Thania’s delight at Delphin fighting for her… what a strange world it is and, indeed, continues to be…

The film's sets were designed by Lucien Aguettand, Claude Autant-Lara and Robert-Jules Garnier. The cinematography from Lucien Bellavoine, Louis Le Bertre and Jean Letort makes the most of the spaces, light and shade to create a complete world. Holistic L’Herbier.

This film is currently available on Vimeo and is a copy of the Archives Francaise du Film 2007 restoration with a zippy accompaniment from Pierre Mancinelli, Michel Peres and David Mancinelli, improvised and recorded in live conditions. It is to be hoped that it will get a proper digital release for the many Balfourettes who can't get enough of the lass from Chester-le-Street.