Saturday, 28 January 2017

Max, le grand fromage… Seven Years Bad Luck (1921), Daan van den Hurk, Slapstick Festival

Monsieur Linder, not just a master of slapstick but also subtext and, indeed, the comedy of cheese.

David Robinson introduced and gave a fascinating insight into the early years when film comedy had a French accent, albeit silent… From the Lumière brothers' naughty gardener standing on his colleagues hose in 1895 through to the manic André Deed aka Cretinetti or Foolshead, the French set the style culminating in Max Linder, perhaps among the first to develop more complex emotional resonance with his cinematic comedy?

Linder began making films in 1905 and by the time of the First World War, it wasn’t just Charlie Chaplin who described him as The Master. The war left a deep mental scar on Linder and he became deeply depressed in the years after it. Despite making a number of Hollywood films – including Seven Years… and the sublime, The Three Must-get Theres – he committed suicide in Paris along with his wife in 1925.

The Linder’s baby daughter Maude, was raised by her mother’s parents, who never mentioned her famous papa until, at the age of 18, she discovered his truth and started to preserve his legacy. David Robinson has met Maude on a number of occasions and she lives on now in her 90’s, proud of her father’s talent and achievements.

A cheesy grin from Max et sa belle-mère (1911)
The first film, the newly-rediscovered Amour Et Fromage (1910) illustrated perfectly the edge he had on other comics of the time. His comedy is casually surreal with a cheese so noxious, it develops its own sentience as it tries to escape consumption. It’s a stinker of a premise but very funny – who can resist the comic potential of a bad smell!

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry accompanied on harp proving again how flexible that instrument can be in this context: she played some lovely lines as you would expect but also hit the strings hard to create surprising atonal riffs. This instrument rocks and if Jimi ever played harp, well... it could have sounded a little like this.

The main feature was Seven Years Bad Luck, one of three films Linder made in Hollywood post-war and famous for its much-imitated mirror sequence.

Whersh my key...?
Max is getting married and the film starts with him celebrating the sacrifice of his liberty for love. He is a most impressive drunk, scaling his front steps with all the assurance of a two-minute old gazelle. Once inside he makes the classic error of confusing his wardrobe with his window: he throws his clothes out into the street and wonder why the air smells of mothballs.

But the real fun starts in the morning with his mirror as after his as Max's Valet John (Ralph McCullough) and Maid Mary (Betty Peterson) break his dressing mirror and coax his chef (Harry Mann) into pretending to be his master’s reflection. It’s the first time – I suppose – this act was done and it a mini-masterwork of invention: from Max’s deep concern at his handsome fizzog turned a little plain to his trouble with making his shaving foam stick.

Just as our hungover hero thinks he’s figured it out the servants get the mirror fixed and Max throws a shoe through it: seven years bad luck!

Max and Harry
Linder’s mind runs free through his films and he carries it all across with breathless ease even when the story takes sharp turns off course. This film is frenetic and has its own logic but it also has depth: Max is running from his ill-fortune but is he also running from commitment?

Max’s relationship with his fiancée Betty (Alta Allen) is a comically-fragile one – each as whimsical as the other; a perfect match – and he veers from winning her over to annoying her with the click of a phonograph and a silly Hawaiian dance with his other maid (Lola Gonzales). Betty throws him out on the grounds he has turned the house into a music hall.

Off goes Max leaving his pal (F. B. Crayne), who has designs of his own, to smooth things over with Betty… Max then decides to pack his bags and go on an adventure, because this is what you must do when relationships need work – perhaps he can escape?

Alta Allen with a girl's best friend?
He gets mugged out of town and has to bunk onto a train to get home, chased relentlessly by the ticket collector and guard he hides out in a station initially disguised as the old station agent. He gets close to the Station Agent's Daughter (Thelma Percy) ending up disrobing her after his hands get covered in molasses. This is a fantasy of freedom for Max and even when he later dreams of marrying Betty, he is surrounded by dozens of pretty women… Maybe the Sennett bathing beauties had an afternoon spare or maybe Max was making a point.

Max takes refuge in a zoo as a troop of cops pursues him. He tells a friendly lioness that he won’t eat her and generally pushes the Gallic whimso-meter onto full. He has his own style and sub-textural comedy quite distinct from Charlie, Buster and Roscoe. But then again he was first among these equals and there are extra bonus points for that!

Max's conflicted dream of happy ever after...
Things end as you’d expect and yet… seven years on from their marriage, the couple have seven little Max all dressed just like Dad… the cycle begins again. Bad luck?

Daan van den Hurk provided accompaniment and impressed with his controlled fluidity – every pianist has their own style and Daan was perfect for this tale of comedy heartbreak. I’m no musician but I would hazard a guess that the set up and punchline and sheer emotional unpredictability of comedy makes these films a challenge to accompany.

There’s also the ever-present danger of breaking into laughter. So, play along, match the tempo and never, ever laugh… tough gig! But a packed Arnolfini really appreciated the effort!  

Seven Years Bad Luck is part of the Kino Max Linder Collection which is available direct or from Amazons... daft not to if you haven't already.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Now there’s a funny thing… The Freshman (1925), Guenter A Buchwald, Bristol Ensemble, Slapstick Festival Gala

Another bumper show at the Colston Halls, mixing old and new as Buster, Stan, Ollie and Harold were preceded by Rory and Roy (who channelled Max)…

It was inauguration day in the US and multi-cultural Bristol was a good place to be - a city that knows its Tricky from its Trump. Cometh the hour cometh the multi-man as Rory Bremner provided pitch-perfect presidential  pretence; a much-needed humorous antidote to a western leadership that cannot even be bothered to count let alone spell-check.

Against the depressingly historic events in Washington DC, it was good to be reminded of the importance of comedy in providing relief and perspective.

First up was Buster Keaton’s The High Sign (1921) – actually his first solo short but delayed in favour of One Week, which he thought was stronger. It probably is but The High Sign is still a belter with a stone face caught up in a ludicrous plan to both kill and protect August Nickelnurser, the town miser who owns the Blinking Buzzards gang $10,000.

Buster manages to convince both the gang boss, the unfeasibly tall Joe Roberts, and August and his daughter (Bartine Burkett) that he is a dead shot thanks to the use of a hungry hound to create the impression he’s hitting all the targets in the funfair. It’s a tough commission but somehow Buster managers to get the job half done with the aid of an hilarious chase through August’s escape-routed house.

Of the films we saw, this was the favourite of my student daughter and her pal: Buster remains the coolest fool!

Dorothy Coburn and Oliver Hardy take a nap
Next we had Laurel and Hardy being offered a bonus to complete a new house on time in The Finishing Touch (1928). Homeowner Sam Lufkin obviously has more money than sense as this pair don’t look capable of working either faster or smarter. It’s the usual elegant disaster from the boys all given extra spice by the impatient promptings of a petite-yet-fearsome nurse (Dorothy Coburn), who runs a hospital nearby and asks them to keep the noise down.

Naturally there’s a cop on hand - Ed Kennedy – to keep a watchful eye and to make sure they’re both quick and quiet. Predictably, they manage neither but there’s no finer sight in silent of Ollie falling hard and Stan convincing himself and the World that it’s none of his fault.

Beat-perfect jazzy accompaniment was provided by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi, comprised of Geunter A Buchwald on piano and violin, Romana Todesco on double bass and Frank Bockious on percussion.

Roy Hudd in Max Miller style quiet suit...
Now then, the phrase “National Treasure” is often over-used but there are few more deserving of that epithet than Roy Hudd, a man whose illustrious career has always run in hand with preserving our music hall past. He is President of the Max Miller Appreciation Society and has kept The Cheeky Chappie’s legacy alive through his one-man shows and even playing him in a Doctor Who audio story (Pier Pressure).

Dressed in an outrageous Miller-esque silky suit, Roy proceeded to bring the house down with material now more sepia than blue but still showed why timing and stage-craft are so important to stand-up and slapstick alike.

"They don't make 'em anymore, duck!"

Harold's inspiration: Lester Laurel in The College Hero
Now for the main event and the screening of Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman (1925), accompanied by the 25-piece Bristol Ensemble orchestra, conducted by Guenter Buchwald and playing composer Carl Davis’s lovely score.

This was Lloyd’s biggest hit of the twenties and whilst some, like me, might prefer say Speedy, this film is an undoubted classic of structure and style as Harold is put through humiliation after humiliation until it seems he can sink no lower but just as redemption seems beyond him, well… what do you expect?

Lloyd produced and his team of writers - John Grey, Sam Taylor, Tim Whelan, and Ted Wilde – along with directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor – worked out this narrative arc with slide-rule precision and it was one that would only really work with Harold’s particular persona. Of the big three (or four), Lloyd was perhaps the closest to the common man of the jazz age: perpetually optimistic and ambitious, he has the go-getting intensity of the classic American and his relentless spirit sees him through.

The new arrival: keen to impress!
Chaplin is of an earlier time as is Buster and both are somehow more “primal” blue-collar personas. Lloyd is on the up and here he’s off to conquer Tate University at all costs! His idol is The College Hero (James Anderson) and he pins a photograph from the College magazine, the Tattler… he devours the literature and is very impressed with a film about a college hero who has a signature shuffle he dances before extending his hand in welcome to every new acquaintance.

Harold’s living a fantasy of college life at a time when only the privileged few would attend (the World’s turning again…) but it was obviously an inspiration as dozens of similar films were to follow after The Freshman’s success.

Harold’s initial experience is cringe worthy and the College Cad (Brooks Benedict) repeatedly lines him up and plays him for the fall. Harry borrows a line from his film hero and asks them to call him Speedy as he starts to bribe his way to friendship through buying ice cream and soda for all.

Jobyna Ralston
He hosts the "Fall Frolic" dance in an attempt to secure his popularity but his tailor (Joseph Harrington) has to be on hand as he has not completed proper stitching for his dress suit… it’s very funny but the humiliating conclusion is all to inevitable.

Only the daughter of the hostel manager, Peggy (the excellent Jobyna Ralston) see him for who he is and loves him for it. She tells the momentarily crestfallen Harry to be himself but he still thinks he has a chance if he can only get to play in the big football game…

The final set piece is perfectly timed and you’re shifting in your seat well before Harry gets his chance…He does succeed in an all-American way but he only because he just won’t give up: ever!!

When all artifice is stripped away that is perhaps the quality that Lloyd most represents: energy and resilience for an audience struggling in their own lives. We’ve never needed him more…and I'm now not meeting anyone new without doing the college shuffle!

A super time was had by all and once again I was mightily impressed by Bristol and its comedy commitment – the Colston Hall was pretty much sold out and this festival just gets bigger and better.

Rory and the band take a bow!

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Brunette ambition… Orchids and Ermine (1927), Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

Introducing this screening of a 35 mm print he helped preserve whilst at the BFI, Glen Mitchell recalled corresponding with Colleen Moore at the time and her sadness at the loss of so many of her films. Amongst the lost was So Big (1924) which she considered her finest dramatic work and yet here, in this slight but very enjoyable film, was ample evidence of her abilities and unique cinematic charisma.

I’d previously only seen a very murky DVD of Orchids and Ermine and this was like watching a different film. Most precious of all was the chance to view Colleen in full beam and rarely can there have been anything on celluloid as heart-warming and compelling as her honest expressiveness: a smile that provokes instant sympathy and features that flash with the most genuine of human signals. She has an almost supernatural ability to convey emotion and you cannot fail to be pulled in by those brown and blue eyes (she had heterochromia).

After an early career as a standard-issue pretty foil for male heroes, Moore was told to study comedy and, avoiding the more salacious Sennet studio route, developed her skills at the Christie Film Company. Her breakthrough came in Flaming Youth (1923) (of which only a tantalising fragment survives) after which she was famous for her black bob -  the younger Louise Brooks was still dancing at this stage albeit with the same haircut which she'd sported from childhood. Moore before Brooksie, before Clara and after Olive was arguably the definitive flapper of the twenties.

Her persona is well reflected in this film with a character sure of her own direction and wanting success – fine flowers and fur – but not at the cost of her integrity and not without love.
Inspired by the fine life and deciding that her cat was no proper substitute for actual dead animal fur, 'Pink' Watson decides to quit her job in a cement factory and head for swanky Fifth Avenue. She applies for a role at a glamorous hotel and gets selected against a staircase full of glampusses on the grounds that she’s less obvious.

Moore and Mickey
Not that Pink’s lack of cheap signalling prevents her being hit on by the middle-aged millionnaires passing through the lobby. Whilst the assumption is that marrying a man for his money is uppermost on many women’s minds, at least Pink sets her sights higher, which is doubly unfortunate for a six-year old Mickey Rooney playing a man of modest stature, dwarfed by his wallet… a cute interlude.

Of course the first good-looking millionaire, Richard Tabor (Jack Mulhall) will likely succeed where the sleazy ones fail but Mervyn LeRoy’s script is smart enough to put a spin on this too as Tabor, tired of womanly attention, switches places with his valet, Hank (Sam Hardy). Hank draws the heat, especially from the blonde ambition of Ermintrude De Vere (Gwen Lee), Pink’s colleague.

All kinds of confusion ensues and there are some thrilling shots of New York City in the rain as the real Richard climbs across from one tolley bus to another to catch up with a disbelieving and disapproving Pink who thinks he’s his valet.

In there somewhere – although I failed to spot her – is a young Gretchen Michaela Young who apparently gained a new first name, Loretta, after one of Colleen’s famous dolls.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied in crisply humorous style; melding perfectly with Miss Moore’s winsome comedy.

Paul Panzer and a tiny Gladys Hulette - Princess Nicotine (1909)
On tonight’s undercard were a quarter of interesting shorts musically-illustrated by John Sweeney. There were two animations from Bray Studios, The Artist’s Dream (1913) about a naughty dachshund over-eating two-dimensional sausages and How Animated Cartoons are Made from 1919. The answer is painstakingly and frame by frame…

First up though was the magnificent Princes Nicotine (1909) also known as The Smoke Fairy… probably no relation to the Sussex beat combo of the same name (see below for a random plug). A mischievous tobacco sprit plays with her master’s pipe ultimately setting fire to his desk and audacious special effects reinforce the impression that smoking this weed cannot be good for you.

Then there was an untitled travelogue filmed from a boat passing through an ancient Dutch town… faded tints adding to the eerie.

Stan, Ruby Blaine, Oliver and Thelma Hill - Two Tars (1928)
Tonight’s big bonus was in celebration of Oliver Hardy’s 125th birthday, Two Tars from 1928, the second year of Laurel and Hardy and a film that proved so potently funny that preview audiences at the time asked to see it twice. David Wyatt and Glenn Mitchell introduced with the latter revealing that the long traffic jam sequence had to be directed on horseback by James Parrott… it’s a riot of ill-tempered physical abuse that proves that violence only begets more violence. There’s not much funnier than cars being smashed up and people falling over though is there! Think Goddard’s Weekend only with more malevolence…

A grand start to ’17 from the Bioscope!

PS Here's those modern Smoke Fairies...  a lovely mix of home counties folk and delta blues.