Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Silent Sheffield Part 2… The Cameraman (1927)/The Girl with a Hatbox (1927), Abbeydale Cinema

Day two of the festival and we returned to the Abbeydale Cinema for a packed programme of silent delights, stepping back in time but also towards new blends of music and motion pictures in this re-born cultural space. If you sneak behind the screen you can see all the way to the roof of the Abbeydale, it’s a huge monolith with almost a century of cinematic shadows cast on its brick walls; it feels far more real than Cineworld far more cherishable!

First up was a selection of cartoons that made Itchy and Scratchy look tame. Who knows what makes the cartoonists mind works but they’ve always delved deeper into madcap possibilities than those who work with the living. Jonny Best played madcap piano and Trevor Bartlett wacked seven bells out of his drums.

There’s something about Marceline…

Marceline Day
The Cameraman (1928), Johnny Best with Trevor Bartlett

Next up was one of my favourite Busters and a must-watch on live 35mm. This film is so perfectly balanced in terms of story, comedy and sentimentality with a delicate handle on all three right down to the final pull-away brilliance after Buster’s heroism at the boat race.

My eagle-eyed brother-in-law had guessed at Charles Lindberg for the opening ticker tape parade (I fact-checked and he was correct) when tintype shooter Buster meets Marceline Day. The pair are surrounded by a crush of onlookers, submerged in this blizzard of paper and yet he only has eyes for her and indeed – weirdly – a nose for her hair (try saying that in Scouse la…). There is indeed something about Marceline Day – with her fresh, open features and doe-eyes communicating more than just sweet sensitivity… She’s every bit as purely-motivated as Buster and the two see only the sense in each other.

So it is that scatty man with the tin attracts the practically-perfect, prim PA and, as Buster swaps his tintype one-shot camera for something pre-war and hand-hand-cranked, Sally determines to help him in any way she can. But it’s a tough business with lots of front required and street smart hustlers like Harold Stagg (Harold Goodwin) for whom the clue is in the name, who are all too willing to knock Buster down especially if it means getting to Sally…

Whistful chaos ensues as Buster jumps onto a fire engine heading the wrong way, gets changed into an outsize swimming costume and loses it all except the girl. Sally passes him his big chance with a tip off about a gang war in Chinatown; it’s perfect as he gets there to see it all and looks to have redeemed himself only for his camera to be lacking that most important element: celluloid.

Down, Buster is nearly out… but there’s one last chance to get the gig and the girl but he may need help from a cheeky monkey.

Apparently MGM used this "perfectly constructed comedy" to train new writers for years to come… such a shame they decided to take more and more creative control away from its star over the course of his contract. But The Cameraman is one of Buster’s finest.

Johnny Best accompanied again with Trevor Bartlett percussing, perfectly punctuating each gag and fall. The Camerman has a swing to it with Keaton almost in constant motion and the music matched them with a confident, light-heartedness that always held onto hope just like our hero.

The part of the monkey was played by Josephine the Monkey.

There’s also something about Anna…

The Girl with a Hatbox (1927), Meg Morley

Shamefully, this was my first Boris Barnet film and my expectations perhaps were a little low – how could he possible follow Buster? Well the answer is by deploying Anna Sten in the most screwball comedy this side of early Lubitsch and by pushing over an old man into the snow, not once but twice!

Anna Sten
The Girl with a Hatbox (or Moscow That Laughs and Weeps or, indeed Девушка с коробкой) was commissioned by the People's Commissariat (Narkomfin) to promote government bonds and is easily the funniest lottery advert ever. Barnet took their money and ran with it and whether it encouraged people to buy more tickets I doubt as, whilst the ticket is important to the plot, it’s not that important to our main characters who are more concerned with love than money: just try that on a Saturday night BBC!

Natasha (Anna) lives with her elderly grandad and makes hats which she transports to a shop run by one Madame Irène (Serafima Birman) and her rolly-polly husband (Pavel Pol) who is actually far more interested in other women and money. Natasha carries her hatbox with her at all times and meets a poor man on his way to Moscow to study, Ilya Snegiryov (Ivan Koval-Samborsky). Ilya gets off on the wrong foot by putting his left one through the hatbox but later Natasha takes pity on him and tries to help get him off the streets and into the apartment Madame Irène has set aside for her use.

There was a mouse...
Natasha fakes wedding papers so that Ilya can stay but Irène and her husband try everything they can to kick him out. Irène orders Natasha to be paid off but her greedy hubby offers her his lottery ticket instead… a perfect plan except for one thing: the ticket comes up lucky.

Now the malevolent husband wants his money back whilst Natasha has left it with Ilya who, discovering the win decides he can’t be marrying Natasha as people would think he’s greedy… The desperation and misunderstanding escalate and is matched by physical violence to old and young alike as Natasha’s love-sick railroad clerk Fogelev (Vladimir Fogel) does bonkers battle with Irene’s husband.

It’s quite crazy but with an excess of sheer charm mostly provided by the excellence of Miss Sten who went on to enjoy some success in Hollywood but is here seen perhaps in a more natural setting: given the freedom to improvise the most remarkable reactions, unpredictable delights and stares that would reduce Peruvian bears to quivering wrecks.

Ilya in pursuit

Playing along with a cool (jazz) head was The Bioscope’s own Meg Morley who improvised some lovely counter-points to the chaos and skilfully side-swiped the obvious punch lines in order to underpin the central themes around Natasha and her search to grab hold of something other than a hatbox in her hectic life.
And, of course, there’s even something about Ivor!

Next up was The Man Without Desire (1923) with Stephen Horne accompanying, of which more later… save to say that this is a very unusual film in which Ivor Novello lives and almost dies in Venice only to be put in suspended animation for 200 years. Like a lost film he is found many years later and, as he is exposed to the light, we wait anxiously to see if he lives or burns…

Ivor takes a long nap...
Tall Tales and Incredible Journeys

For tea we were treated to a selection of “trick” fantasy films by Georges Melies, Segundo de Chomon and RW Paul with accompaniment from a pick-up band comprising Messrs Horne, Best, Bartlett and Meg Morley.

The '?' Motorist (1906) produced by Paul and directed by Walter Booth got things off to a flying start followed by some devilish doings from Segundo de Chomon’s quite brilliant The Red Spectre (1907), hand-tinted malevolence with our musicians in overdrive. The finale was provided by the full-colour restoration of George Méliès' famous 1902 adventure, A Trip to the Moon.

The Red Spectre (1907)
The selection is being played again latyer in the month so try not to miss it!

And it was then that I had to return to the duty-full South missing the day’s final two films, the emphatically worrisome brilliance of Beyond the Door – which I’d seen and reviewed earlier at the BFI - and Greta Garbo’s Flesh and the Devil (1926) which I was aggrieved to miss: how can our heroine chose between John Gilbert and Lars Hanson? I’ll have to wait to another day to find out.

Another impeccable choice for the festival and there are many more to come before the month is out. Check out the festival calendar on their site: enjoy yourself, Yorkshire is closer than you think!

Now for some gratuitous picturs of the venue.

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