Monday, 12 June 2017

48 Hour Party People... The Kennington Bioscope 3rd Silent Film Weekend, Day One

Take one cinema museum, add five accompanists, ten films and a museum full of silent film enthusiasts, gently simmer on one of the hottest weekends of the year and keep hydrated with fine coffee until brought to the boil by Catherine Hessling dancing the Charleston, Bebe Daniels attacking a houseful of rum runners and Fritz Rasp trying to get away with murder! And that was just the first day of the annual Kennington Bioscope weekend.

Programme 1: Comedy Starter

Are Parents People? (1925) with Cyrus Gabrysch

Kevin Brownlow – a man without whom this weekend and our silent film viewing in general, would simply not be the same – got things underway with the bombshell (to me at least…) that Adolphe Menjou was actually half Irish and could speak Gaelic and the more I looked at Adolphe the more I could “hear” that brogue… Co-star Florence Vidor later told Kevin that Menjou fell apart with success, unable to cope with too much good fortune he fell to self-medicating with a bottle. But all we can judge is what we see of his excellence in front of camera.

Kevin explained the influence of Chaplin’s Woman of Paris on director Malcolm St. Clair’s style with the latter eschewing flamboyant camerawork in favour of a focus on character development. A supposedly simpler approach but the narrative was still driven by silky editing and some touches that might even be described as Lubitsch-esque; a pair of impatient feet here, a door opened just for slamming and the flicking of peanut shells off an armchair in tribute to a habit of Mabel Normands…

This was an original print from the Kodascope Library and looked as fresh as the proverbial. It was my first exposure to the sparkling brilliance of Betty Bronson who’s quicksilver emoting persuaded JM Barrie to select her to play Peter Pan. Here she’s Lita, a teenager torn between two parents, Menjou and the elegant Florence Vidor, who are so in love they hate each other.

Unable to see beyond their mutual inflexibility they divorce leaving their daughter in a boarding school trying to figure out a way to reunite them. She hatches a plot involving a movie star – an hilarious turn from George Beranger – expulsion and handsome Doctor Dacer (Lawrence Gray).

It’s a hoot and Betty shines bright but not without skilful support from Adolfe and Florence.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied and delicately added extra punch to this charmer.

Merian C Cooper (left) and Ernest B Schoedsack (right)

Programme 2: Before King Kong

Grass (1925) with Lillian Henley

And so to the remarkable human being called Merian C Cooper: fearless film-maker, bomber pilot and explorer who was embodied as Robert Armstrong’s ruthless go-getting Carl Denham in the director’s King Kong (1933). Kevin Brownlow showed an excerpt from a documentary which revealed Cooper’s uncompromising and courageous approach to life – his bomber was once shot down and he was injured in the neck yet still, with his burnt hands useless, he managed to land his plane, steering with his elbows and knees. After the war he fought with the anti-revolutionary forces against the Bolsheviks where his life was saved by those scarred hands – they wouldn’t kill him because they thought he was a peasant – and also by an Amercian reporter, Marguerite Harrison.

Harrison was part of the package when seeking funding with cameraman Ernest B Schoedsack for an exhibition to film the “forgotten” Bakhtiari Tribe in southern Persia in what is now Iran. The tribe lived a precarious existence and had to move with the seasons in order to keep livestock fed.

Just one more mountain to go...
To call Grass a truly remarkable film is to damn it with faint praise, with Cooper capturing the movement of 50,000 people and half a million animals crossing the fearsome Karun River in what he described as “the greatest piece of continuous action I have ever seen”. They used the inflated skin of goats to create rafts on which goats, children and women floated across rapid waters and drove their animals to swim over, herding them on theses leaky blow-up goatskins as the relentless rivers forced against them.

And then… they had to climb the whole lot over a 12,000 foot mountain…

Programme 3: The First French New Wave

Erik and Francis jump for the camera
John Davies talked us through the post-war revival of the French film industry after impact of the Great War with the influx of creative talent from the arts and the avant garde.

Charleston (1927) with Daan van den Hurk

Jean Renoir was a potter and the son of Auguste who famously married one of his father’s models, Catherine Hessling. He tried to turn Catherine into an actress but, charming though she was, she was limited. What she could do though was dance and in this mad mash-up of science fiction and jazz-age syncopation she slashes the rug to pieces with non-stop Charleston as she teaches the dance to an explorer from civilized Africa (American dancer Johnny Huggins who can also move!) who lands in primitive Europe in a floating sphere in "post-war" 2028.

The way things are going this looks like a pretty accurate representation of the near future; it is going to happen!

Catherine Hessling greets Johnny Hudgins
Entr’Acte (1924) with Daan van den Hurk

The next two films I’ve already covered elsewhere but needless to say it’s always a pure joy to see Erik Satie jumping up and down in slow motion as he and Francis Picabia fire cannon over Paris. Guest accompanist Daan van den Hurk played Satie’s original score and it was a beautiful thing for I do heart Satie.

Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet) (1922) with John Sweeney

If you’re losing an argument with your wife it’s never a good idea to pretend to put a gun to your head. Germaine Dulac’s film makes this point as subtely as it can aided by the director’s cutting edge technique and Germaine Dermoz’ poignant expressiveness in the face of her idiot spouse played by Alexandre Arquillière. I hope her character took up tennis in the end…

Alexandre Arquillière... funny man
Programme 4: Bebe Daniels

Spring Fever (1919)

No chance of the sublime Bebe Daniel’s ending up with a wrong ‘un and to prove it here she was finding love with Harold Lloyd in one of a number of shorts the two made together (and yes, they also dated).  It’s a high-energy romp from start to finish with Lloyd’s inventiveness matched by Daniel’s ability to hold the funniest of straightfaces.

Feel My Pulse (1926) with Daan van den Hurk

Daniels was half-Spanish and half-Scottish which accounts for the looks and, indeed, the look: a kind of “ya wanna say that again pal?” So it’s amusing to see her as pampered rich kid Barbara Manning who’s been kept in anti-septic cotton wool for the first 21 years of her life according to the terms of her inheritance. She’s frightened of everything and especially the thought of anything surprising happening and what it might do to her heart.

Luckily she’s inherited a sanitarium and heads off to find peace and calm only to find it’s been taken over by rum-runners led by no-good weasel William Powell and his right hand man, played by Richard Arlen, who may not be all he seems. Taking everything a face value Babs wanders through almost the whole con but you just know that at some point the Latin lassie is going to find her feet and kick back!

A fun film... it’s hard not to be bowled over by Bebe and Bill!

Programme 5: Lost and Found

Sands of Destiny (Sables) (1927) with Lillian Henley

Nadia Sibirskaia so much older in Menilmontant
I like the films of Dimitri Kirsanoff a lot but this one wasn’t quite as dreamily enchanting as Menilmontant or Brumes D’Automne. Even allowing for his dressing Nadia Sibirskaia up as a mixture of Mary Pickford and Mary Quant the film made a lot of a small plot. I couldn’t quite believe Nadia as a child – she was 25 at the time – who sets out to find her opera-singer father, Edmond Van Daele (Robespierre out Napoleon) who has inexplicably left Gina Manes (Joséphine de Beauharnai out of Napoleon) for the admittedly interesting Collette Darfeuil.

Her dad is on a singing engagement in the middle of the Tunisian desert and yet that doesn’t stop her setting off with her servant, dog and pet goat. There’s adventure, danger and wildlife theft and a remarkable co-incidence featuring Rimsky-Korsakov…

Lilliam Henley accompanied with some dreamy desert songs and brought out the best of Kirsanoff’s eye for shifting sandy sentiments.

Programme 6:

A Centenary Tribute to Philippe de Lacy by David Robinson

In which David took us through the short but stellar career of this child actor or rather actor who just happened to be a child and capable of matching Garbo emotion for emotion in Love, a section of which was screened leaving few unmoved.

The Loves of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe Der Jeanne Ney) (1927) with Costas Fotopoulos

GW Pabst’s controversial film was the meatiest offering of the day and I enjoyed seeing a 35mm print on screen with Costas Foutopoulos’ muscular accompaniment: of all the films I’d already seen this was the one that had the most added value as a live experience.

Pabst puts so much detail in his film and brings out the best in such fine performers as Fritz Rasp (oh, how I hate him: such a great baddy!), Brigitte Helm (so method in playing blind she almost was blind, nearly being knocked down by a car as Pabst later related), the ethereal Edith Jehanne and Uno Henning, another fascinating “interior” actor.

Uno Henning
The author of the book launched a campaign against Pabst’s film but he did everything he could to carry through the original focus on Russian politics into the film under pressure from UFA’s new owners for more “commercial” fare… It remains a powerful, emotional work that has you on the edge of your seat and has the kind of quick-wrap ending you’d expect of later Hitchcock.

A thrilling end to a full day of silent cinema. Half-time.

Edith Jehanne and Uno Henning

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