Monday, 24 July 2017

A train runs through it… Rails (1928) with Stephen Horne, BFI

"Cinema is the strongest weapon,” tweeted* Benito Mussolini when laying the cornerstone for Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1936…. Mario Camerini apparently knew it but very rarely showed it during the years of Il Duce’s rule with Rails (Rotaie) (1928) being an exception by all accounts.

This film was being shown as part of the BFI’s new strand of Sunday silents and they are to be commended for screening this relatively-obscure gem with so many turning out to watch a film that, as Bryony Dixon implied in her introduction, we never knew we wanted to.  But Rails is an impressive film full of late silent invention, rapid cuts, camera mobility, Germanic shadows, Russian montage and plenty of Italian emotion; a film you really feel your way through.

Käthe von Nagy
Stephen Horne’s accompaniment ran, as you would expect, very much on time… highly appropriate for a film of this era (sorry) and not surprising given that he was awarded a prize at the Bonn Silent Film Festival for the score. Using his unique armoury of piano, accordion, flute and percussion he took the audience in hand for Rails’ emotionally intense twists and turns hitting several action points precisely on the nail. But this music is largely improvised and it’s that in-the-moment fragility which makes it so compelling the player is watching the film with the audience and interacting with both at the same time.

From the start, you are immersed straight into the action with this film as we join a young couple driven to desperation and planning an overnight stay at a dingy hotel they cannot afford but will never have to pay for.

Maurizio D'Ancora aka Rodolfo Gucci - later he would devote himself to fashion
Käthe von Nagy plays the woman, La ragazza – a waitress - and Maurizio D'Ancora her lover Giorgio – according to IMDB, although he’s not named in the film. Giorgio has messed up in unspecified ways and has earned the distrust of his potential in-laws who see him as incapable of making a living. Rejected by family and at sea in the forced economic disruption of the time, the two have nowhere to go. Giorgio drops a lethal pill into a glass and they wait for the drug to dissolve…

Then, as sharply as a twist of fate in a Paul Auster novel, reality takes a turn as a steam train blasts past the hotel window, far closer than they expected, and rattles the glass smashing it to the floor. It’s the shock they needed and hand-in-hand they creep out of the hotel and head off into the night with nothing but the revulsion of a narrow escape to propel them forward.

The train and the glass
They make their way to the station and, as she almost faints, head  to the buffet for drink. This opening segment is so intimate and Camerini’s lense moves close in and around the couple using von Nagy’s extraordinary expressiveness to do the work of a dozen intertitles. You feel in the story with them and that intimacy, reinforced so elegantly by Stephen’s playing, carries you through the picture. If you don’t care for this couple then you probably need to check your heart.

A man in a hurry drops his rather fat wallet and Giorgio picks it up and follows too late (by measures on purpose...) to hand it back as its owner disappears on an accelerating train. It’s full of money, they have a chance and they can go anywhere now; they can escape.

Giorgio gets them tickets on a sleeper and they head south in comfort, mistaken for a honeymoon couple in the dining car by fellow travellers. A weasely man with a Miles Mander moustache clocks the girl… not the kind of attention you want to attract.

A jump – there are several cuts that suggest missing material – and we see the man, Jacques Mercier (Daniele Crespi) looking out to watch a motorboat race from the balcony of a plush Mediterranean hotel. The couple are also staying here and soon Giorgio is playing cards with Mercier’s group and the weasel is thinking of ways to have his evil way with his other half…

Oppressed by the city, the couple are equally out of their depth amongst the vicious bourgeoise of the Amalfi coast. She shops and he gambles… and Mercier waits for his moment. It’s only a matter of time before things go awry.

Oh the places you can go to by train!
Rails tiptoes around the strictures of Italian governmental controls and Camerini manages to mix positive messaging about industrialisation with an examination of the dislocation it was causing. From what we have the propaganda is sparing inserted and the meat of the film remains the couple and their search to find a place to love in a society which, unsurprisingly, is neither urban poverty nor seaside opulence, just pro-activity and honest endeavours.

All in all a real treat and I look forward to more Sunday silent surprises on the Southbank.

 *Or he would have if Twitter had been invented.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Equality begins at home…The Home Maker (1925), Persephone Bookshop

“This is a box-office picture par excellence for all audiences. It is hard to conceive an audience that will dislike it.”

Remarkable film and remarkable venue… I’ve never watched a silent film in a retail environment before but this felt more like a club as the tea cups and saucers were passed around along with strawberries and cream scones…

Persephone specialise in keeping significant books by women authors in print and one of these is The Home Maker written by Dorothy Canfield's and published in 1924, it offers a glimpse into our grandparents’ world that may still surprise and shock.

Mary O’Hara adapted the story and King Baggott directed what Moving Picture World breathlessly described as: “One of the Finest Pictures Ever Made” whilst Variety was more mealy-mouthed saying that it “…almost reaches the heights of greatness… Perhaps had the plot not been so typically American, one of the highly touted foreign realistic directors might have done something big with it.”

Alice Joyce still from Greta de Groat's Silent Diva site - link below.
That would have been to have missed the entire point of mainstream American culture attempting a story such as this, one that touches the most delicate of subjects: American manhood and the role of the American wife in supporting the same. This picture is a brave and subtly-astonishing one because of those who made it.

The Home Maker is down as “quite hard to find” but when you have connections like the Persephone you can ask to screen your friend Kevin Brownlow’s copy. It was cramped but convivial and I’ve rarely seen as attentive and respectful audience outside of the more established silent film emporiums.

Alice Joyce (no relation, probably… I mean yes, possibly, at some point from the 1800s and, co-incidentally her mother was a McIntyre, my mother’s clan…) plays Eve Knapp the very able wife of a not so able husband played by Clive Brook, who made a brave decision in accepting this role. The operative word that keeps being repeated is efficient and Eva Knapp copes very well with every situation she faces whereas husband Lester struggles to make his mark at work.

Clive Brook (
Lester fails to get promoted, his lack of efficiency meaning the rule that length of employment guarantees seniority. It is a supreme humiliation for the main bread-winner and he can see no way out other than to take his own life and make sure the insurance money gets paid to Eva and their three children. He succeeds in accidentally falling off the roof but doesn’t perish only leaving himself crippled in a wheel chair.

Eva refuses charity from his previous employer and asks for a job instead. Reluctantly Lester’s old boss agrees and she is soon doubling sales and making herself invaluable.

Back at home, Lester too finally finds his metier, as he starts to relish spending more time with the family; the joys of parenting outweighing his failure in the world of work and his physical condition. Here at last is something he is good at and there’s a lovely moment when he watches his youngest, Stephen (played by the quite remarkable Billy Kent Schaeffer) try to beat an egg, father’s patient encouragement pays off as the boy works out what to do.

Detail from a lobby card
A new equilibrium is achieved in the home but it’s still an uneasy one for if Lester were to recover the couple would have to resume their old roles bizarre as it may seem in 2017. I won’t give anything away but I liked the way this story was essentially about a family working together even if sacrifices have to be made above and beyond gender expectations and, yes, even the maintenance of male pride.

Alice Joyce is superb, holding so much emotion with almost casual ease, her huge dark eyes running deep with meaning. Clive Brook’s also a class act and any worries that his character will simply be a loser are blown away by his display in the film’s second half.

Young Billy Kent Schaeffer is a live wire and was later compared with Mickey Rooney but didn’t sustain a career in spite of this exceptionally-promising performance. There’s also George Fawcett, always good value, gurning away in the amiably convincing role of the family doctor.

High on strawberries and fine tea I may well have been, but this is a film well worth seeking out.

Another dramatic lobby card!
Naturally I couldn’t leave without the book – the cover and production values are so high at PB and these are tactile treasures you’ll want to hold as well as read. My daughter has already taken it: a nineteen year old keen to find out what went before… Persephone helps books continue and there’s nothing so important to writing and stories that they persist and that they are read!

Copies of The Home Maker can be obtained from the Persephone website whilst there is also some interesting background about book and author on their forum.

Not for the first time I’m indebted to Greta de Groat’s excellent website, The Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen from which I gleaned the reviews and images above. It’s a thoroughly-researched site and you can easily get lost there for days… Thankyou Greta!

Friday, 14 July 2017

The return of KB’s Shorts… Kennington Bioscope with John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrytsch

"It's easier to go straight with you..." says Billy. Don't count on it Leila honey...
My week of abbreviated wonders... It’s interesting that, after seeing a 132 minute cut of an approximately 600 minute film (Greed – see previous post), I find myself watching three Pathe 9.5 mm films that contain proportionately more of their source material. All came from the collection of Kevin Brownlow and from an age when this was almost all there was... no streaming in HD, Blu-ray of Betamaz.

Pathé invented this smaller stock for home consumption and as the Bioscope’s master of the magic lantern, Chief Projectionist Dave Locke, pointed out, the projection area is almost the same as 16mm and, with the right illumination it was perfectly possible to project them unaided onto the Cinema Museum’s screen. Mr Locke can make almost anything appear on that screen and these three examples included sumptuous close-ups, massed battle scenes and Billy Haines and his cheeky grin!

Billy and Leila in a publicity shot for Jimmy Valentine
The films were not always authorised hence Pathé’s issuing of a number of MGM titles, re-edited and cut to look like different films. Here was Jimmy le Mysteries (1928) that just happened to look a lot like Alias Jimmy Valentine directed by Jack Conway and staring the puck-ish Haines. Haines was one of the true silent greats, a natural on screen who could fool around whilst all the time being a flick-switch away from the drama.

He plays the eponymous Jimmy, an audacious safe cracker who, accompanied by his cartoonish side-kicks Karl Dane and Tully Marshall, sets about reducing the current accounts of banks across New York. He’s a dandy cracksman and it’s all a bit of fun until he meets Leila Hyams trying to stop her younger brother getting into a scrap.

Lional Berrymore tests Billy's alibi...
Jimmy likes this one so much that it doesn’t even matter that her dad runs the biggest bank in town, for this girl he’s willing to go straight, heck, for this gal, he’s willing to actually get a job and in her old man’s bank! Has Jimmy really turned over a new leaf and, even if he has, will the dogged Inspector (Lionel Barrymore) let him get away with it.

As with all three of tonight’s Pathé precis, this demi-Jimmy made perfect sense and was edited well enough to retain a sense of its original narrative and drama. John Sweeney accompanied in dynamic fashion, vamping along in cine-character as each of the four reels were replaced.

Next up, a tale the French company called, Money Does Not Bring Happiness (another link to Greed!) known better as The Younger Generation (1929) and directed by none other than Frank Capra. As with the first film this was intended to include sound but as Variety noted, this was not entirely successful: “… as bad as it can be!”

Luckily Pathé produced a silent and we had Cyrus Gabrysch’s excellent accompaniment instead adding effortless classical lines and under-pinning the emotions of this light-touch drama about a family rift.

Family miss-fortunes
The Goldfish family – a possible reference to big Sam Goldwyn’s original name – live in a tight-knit Jewish neighbourhood in a tenement block. Their eldest son Morris is a bit full of himself and beats up little sister Suzanne for giving his cake to her pal Eddie. A fight breaks out and Morris knocks an oil lamp over and, whilst his sis escapes across to Eddie's, he collects all of the valuables first. His mother (Rosa Rosanova) is impressed, he will be a big businessman one day, whilst his father (Jean Hersholt… yet another Greed connection…) is less sure, knowing that, basically, money can’t buy you love…

The years pass and Morris has become rich (and Ricardo Cortez), sis has turned into lovely Lina Basquette and she’s still seeing Eddie (Rex Lease) a piano player who big brother still considers far from suitable. The whole family live together on Morris’ immense pad with Capra frequently having his butler pulling down blinds that create the shadowy impressions of prison bars…

Ricardo Cortez faces off against Lina Basquette (TCM colorized...)
Talking of which, Eddie makes a mistake by agreeing a gig distracting the crowds singing on a float whilst some mobsters rob a jewellers. It doesn’t go well but Suzanne persuades her lover to do the time even though he was scarcely aware of the scheme. He gets sent down but the harshest punishment comes from Morris who exiles Suzanne as well saying that even her parents disown her.

Tragically this is not true… Time passes, more money is made and Father never smiles… is there any chance of love finding a way?

Simone Genevois takes to horse in la Merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc (1929)
Lastly an epic two reeler and believe me when I say you would scarce credit how many thousands of men and horses can be transposed onto 9.5mm! This was La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1929) directed by Marco de Gastyne more in the style of Gance than his Joan competitor Carl Dreyer (whose film he declared extraordinary).

Kevin Brownlow said that the studio had wanted the Dreyer film to have been an epic and it was... just not in the way they expected. The French film on the other hand was huge in scope taking seven months to film all across France with its director in search of authentic locations from Rouen to Orleans, Rheims Cathedral to the cellars of Mont St Michel. There was also a cast of thousands including at one point military extras who, having achieved their director’s objective, pushed on for greater glory only to be met with the fists of their opposition!

Simone Genevois
Simone Genevois makes for an heroic Jeanne and was exactly the right age to play the Saint being 16-17 during the shoot (she played Ivan Muzzhukhin’s young daughter in House of Mystery (1924) too!). We see her naming of the Dauphin in the cathedral and pivotal role in the defeats of the English.

Once caught, the comparisons with Dreyers trial are interesting, especially the faces of her accused. She found the filming exhausting, not just because she had to wear actual 22 kilo armour but also the emotional impact of the ending which she found hard to watch after completion.

Mr Brownlow said this 9.5 copy had helped spark the restoration of this film, and it would be one I’l like to see all the way through. Cyrus again accompanied and followed every sword thrust and parry, every heroic charge and the sadness of this remarkable young person’s final days.

Another evening of the unexpected for a packed, end of season, Bioscope. The next begins in September and it may well begin with The Goose Woman featuring one of the very best performances of the era from Louise Dresser.

And yet another good season for the Kennington Bioscope! Thanks to all those who organise, project and otherwise enable this precious cinematic resource. The Cinema Museum is also to be congratulated and deserves whatever support every genuine cinephile can give it. One of the best venues in London and surely one of the very best silent film clubs anywhere!