Sunday, 24 September 2017

Can’t buy you love… Not for Sale (1924) with John Sweeney, BFI

“You taught him nothing and now you’ve left him with nothing.”

“Charming” is not to damn this British comedy with faint praise but to accurately reflect its infectious good humour and sense of fun. It is fascinating to see more homegrown silent films on screen and to watch a discrete re-write of history as more are revealed as not only competent but skilled and very enjoyable.

This film was being presented as part of the BFI’s attempts to foreground the contributions of women in silent British cinema, in this case script-writer Lydia Hayward who based her script on the novel by Monica Ewer. Hayward is gaining increased regard as Bryony Dixon and Tony Fletcher’s accompanying notes make clear and her work here sets out a rich range of characters and very British situations.

Ian Hunter plays Martin Dering the son of the Earl of Rathbury (Edward O'Neill) who is being constantly let down by his son for various reasons.

Ian Hunter in The Ring
Martin is half-heartedly engaged to Virginia Strangeways (Phyllis Lytton) who is, along with her nair-do-well brother Bertie (Lionelle Howard), the people he trusts most in the world as they are tied to him through loyalty to his money. The film is wonderfully clear on this point and Martin is very relaxed on the subject: a very good turn from Ian Hunter whose character is essentially decent as he goes on a downwardly mobile path in the world beyond his trust fund.

Martin loans Bertie his £3,000 quarterly allowance for some madcap scheme and, of course, doesn’t get it back… Don’t worry, says Martin, there’s plenty more where that came from… only this time there isn’t as he’s cut off by Daddy and left with only a fiver a week on the condition that he finds a job.

He chances upon a guest house in Bloomsbury Square run by Annie Armstrong (Mary Odette) with the aid of a relative or two, including her cheeky brother John (a barnstorming performance from young Mickey Brantford). Their father has passed away leaving them his paintings as well as the house but they struggle to make ends meet even with the aid of the lodgers John hates.

Martin quickly impresses John with his debut at the dinner table, rebuffing the attentions of the other three guests – played by the kinds of character actors you can only find in the UK… and enlists him into his anti-lodger society. There’s a secret sign: pull on your nose, tug your earlobe and thumb to temple, waggle your fingers… it could catch on, slightly easier than The High Sign.

But, more importantly Annie becomes impressed with Martin who by this point is re-christened Smith and works as a chauffeur for some posh folk… not as posh though; if only they knew. The attitudes of British class deference and stubbornness pervade the film… we should remember this as we look to gift more power to these ruling classes. We didn’t get where were used to be, yesterday, by taking the nobs too seriously…

Gladys Hamer in another dramatic role...
There’s also comedy cameo from Gladys Hamer as Florrie, a former orphan rescued by Annie who cleans house and brings one-time minor league shoe thief, Sunny Jim (W.G. Saunders) to heel.

Martin begins to learn the value of hard work as well as the delights of a day off… for the watching audience who regularly clocked off at 12.30 on a Saturday, it’s a welcome acknowledgement of the daily grind. Martin is realising the importance of integrity and when he sees Annie’s sister being romanced by a moneyed cad of his acquaintance he warns her not to “sell herself”… a phrase that will come back to haunt him.

One of his co-workers, strapped for cash, finds one of their ladyship’s earrings and takes it leaving Martin to take the rap which he does, fully realising the situation. The busy bodies back at the house are not impressed and issue an ultimatum forcing Martin to once again do the decent thing and pack his bags. It’s not clear now whether he goes to prison or just off the rails but re-enter Bertie with some good news and Martin’s back in the money and dinner suits. He sends a message to Annie offering marriage and a title but, mistaking his intent she declines: right timing but wrong message… she is not for sale to privilege. Martin hits the skids…

The story is slightly uneven at this point (suggesting lost footage?) but we all get the drift… can love overcome all for estranged father and son, will Annie’s intervention save her listless Lord and when will the Earl start stop just seeing the cost and not the value?

British Empire Exhibition 1924
W P Kellino directs well and moves the story along at reasonable pace, including those open-top tram journey shots I like so much. There’s also some location footage of the British Empire Exhibition and the hop fields of Kent where working class Londoners would go for a working holiday during harvest time – Michael Powell’s father owned one such farm.

The overall feel is as pleasingly undulated as the Canterbury countryside and some of the sharpest moments are left to Mickey Brantford who pulls Lon Chaney faces to unsettle the guests. He tells them it’s an infirmity and that, if they were polite, they wouldn’t ask questions… Give this kid his own series!

John Sweeney accompanied in delightful fashion demonstrating an uncanny understanding of both tone and comic timing, which especially supported Master Brantford’s one liners. Proof that it’s not just the notes but how you play them that matters: John’s were all in the right order and in the right way!

Not for Sale is a rare as hen’s teeth and – at the moment – you’ll only see it projected as with today’s 35mm copy. It was good to see NFT 3 packed and one hopes this encourages more British silent film projections!

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Sky high… Filibus (1915) with John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

This was a rare treat: a 35mm restoration from the EYE Filmmuseum in Holland, which has only been seen previously at the San Francisco Film Festival and which was, 102 years on, making its debut in the UK an obscure survivor from just before the beginnings of the cinema dark ages in Italy.

But Filibus’ singularity extends beyond its physical rarity for it is a most unusual film: a female anti-hero, a super-villainess no less, a crime boss given to cross-dressing, ordering her henchmen about and flying around in a stealthy airship. She’s cunning and hi-tech, using guile and gadgetry to outwit her male enemies in the police and, especially her arch-adversary, Detective Hardy (Giovanni Spano) who she outwits at almost every turn.

Filibus aka Count de la Brive or is it, Jacob Rees-Mogg?!
Filibus (Cristina Ruspoli) is usually dressed androgynously but also poses as Baroness Troixmonde in civil society, and at the film’s start she challenges Hardy, saying that she is going to expose him as Filibus. Now this seems like a big ask but Filibus/Troixmonde has a secret weapon in the form of a silent airship and its silent lift which lowers her close enough to Hardy as he lounges in his villa’s garden to knock him out using chloroform. She takes his hand print and will use it to make a glove with his finger prints to implicate him in her crimes.

Directed by Mario Roncoroni, clearly Filibus is influenced by Feuillade’s Fantomas and its bad-gal even pre-dates Musidora’s Irma Vep in Les Vampires. It moves more quickly than either and is less earnest being far more concerned with whimsy than believability. Whereas the French serials are quite procedural the five episodes of Filibus just keep on moving onto the next shock even if some of the modern audience tonight found it hard to keep up with the century-old jokes... there is no doubt this was intended as fun!

Leonara and the Count
Now, things get even more interesting once Filibus adopts the guise of the Count de la Brive, a moustache can do a lot for a girl, especially combined with a hat. The Count starts to romance Hardy’s sister, Leonara for no other reason than perhaps he/she wants to but it’s also another way of keeping her enemy close.

There are a couple of Egyptian diamonds that need stealing from an ancient cat and Filibus is just the man/woman to do it… but will she spot the camera the Detective has hidden behind fake glass eyes? Of course she will!

 What’s so interesting about Filibus is the antagonist’s sheer brilliance; she is always one step ahead of the forces of law and order and she acts not so much out of greed but the need to make grand gestures. Filibus wants a game and what more challenging task than to frame Italy’s great Detective Hardy and to tell him she’ll be doing it from the outset, collecting the reqard meant for her capture?!

To be frank, Hardy’s a bit dull and maybe he had it coming lazing around in that impressively appointed villa. Besides, he hasn’t got a stealth-Zeppelin nor any henchmen and you could hardly call him glamorous… he’s going to have to rely on luck if he’s to stand any chance.

The ending of the fifth part suggests that there’ll be more to come but events were to overtake ambitions as Italy got sucked into the Great War. We’ll never really know what was to become of this entertaining master villainess but you can be sure it would have been fun.

Hardy at work, finding himself guilty!?
John Sweeney accompanied with a carefree spirit of adventure; unlike Detective Hardy he could see Filibus’ every move and motivation and he played with her plans to perfection.

On the undercard tonight were two shorter films that featured prominent women.

“No darn skirt bosses this ranch!”

Marie Walcamp is one of the Girl Ranchers
The first was The Girl Ranchers (1915) about a group of women who inherit an agricultural business out West and attempt to keep things a little too tidy. They alienate the cow-pokes with too many ribbons and then try to ban moustaches…  But, just as the men shave off their face-fur and the women adopt dungarees (it’s like the college Women’s Society in 1984…) the ranch is attacked by Indians forcing compromise all round.

For the many and not the few and stronger together or some-such.

Lillian Henley accompanied this hop-along with good-humoured poise, waiting for the cowboys to finally shape up in this reverse version of Greese.

Then we had an abridged version of Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917) which provided some fascinating glimpses behind the scenes of the Fort Lee movie studios including the revolving sets, glasshouse stages and the director, acting as himself.

Doris Kenyon in Follywood
This was Frances Marion’s first script and featured some interesting choices for the heroine… should she persist in her dream or return home. Dramatically the denouement would have worked better with the full narrative but it was still fascinating none-the-less.

Another cracking programme and so good to see three teen-age silents; the new media was in rude health. I'm currently highest-bidder on eBay for a second-hand airship - with slightly used group of hench-people - expect me to descend silently and in disguise, for all future screenings.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Oooh, Betty!! A Sister of Six (1927) with Neil Brand, British Silent Film Festival Day Four

"Charming scenes – Gorgeous gowns – Splendid Acting. Betty Balfour’s greatest picture.”

As if it were possible to love her any more, A Sister of Six cemented Betty Balfour’s place in our silent hearts as forever, Britain’s Queen of Happiness.

This was a very special occasion as Magnus Rosborn had brought over an exceptionally fine 35mm print from the Swedish Film Institute: shipping back “Bettys to Blighty” in our hour of greatest need. This copy has only been screened a handful of times outside Sweden and is of a restoration completed in the mid-seventies from original nitrates that were sadly discarded at the time. New finds of nitrate elements raise the possibility of further digital restoration of this exceptionally energetic Swedish-German co-production that showcased an impressive array of European talent.

This was credited as directed by Ragnar Cavallius – script-writer for Greta, Lars and Jenny’s The Saga of Gosta Berling – but cinematographer Carl Hoffman (you know, Faust and all that Varieté, Varieté, Varieté…) really took the lead and this much was clear from his hand-held pursuit of a cheeky monkey to an array of shadowy dollies and pull-aways.

Betty on her way to finishing school...
A visual treat the film was filled with outstanding energy not just from our Betty but her handsome co-star Willy Fritsch who plays a Count Horkay tricked by his cousin into a trip to meet the seven daughters of Mrs. Gyurkovics (Lydia Potechina), the eldest of which is he is lined up to marry but – gasp! – he’s already wed. Y’see, Pat and Paddle’s Cocktails is supposed to be madcap but this, this is madcap and charming and funny throughout!

The plot is so complicated and cunning you could twist a tail around it and call it foxy but it doesn’t matter because at any given moment you’re only a cute Balfour twinkle or a mad Aunt’s leer away from a smile. The aunts in question are brilliantly created by Karin Swanström as Countess Emilie Hohenstein and Stina Berg as Countess Aurore Hohenstein – two women so concerned at the romantic behaviour of their niece, that they have prepared a padded room for her.

Padded room, dark mansion-imprissonment, cross-dressed Count come to the rescue? All you need to do is make sure that Betty is at the heart of all that and you’re there!

A Sister of Six is simply one of the most joyous silent films - the publicity quote above is no exaggeration - and no wonder the front row fan whooped with delight at the merest mention of Betty’s name. Mr Brand did very well to play on amidst the riot but it was magnificent on all fronts.

Women Variety Performers on Phonofilm

Tony Fletcher dropped his sock to the stage and we entered an alternate universe of music hall madness as the stars of the day were recorded on Phonofilm, a one-take audio-visual technique of the 1920s. Here we found Edith Kelly-Lange on violin, Yvette Darmac, Emmie Joyce (no relation to Alice or me) articulating her need for love and scouser Gertrude Watts aka Beryl Beresford, being all kinds of cheeky alongside husband Leslie Hinton Cole.

But nothing caused greater excitement on Silent Saturday than Fay “Frenchie” Marbe singing There's More to The Kiss Than XXX, a saucy song from your actual George Gershwin with lyrics from Irving Caesar. Miss Marbe was so smilingly direct she had us mooching along in the most carefree way as audience participation reached alarming new heights.

Fay “Frenchie” Marbe
Phil Carli then kicked off his talk on early sound and recording systems by declaring that “Edison was an ass!” about which there was complete agreement. A fascinating character though and a very entertaining presentation!

PG Wodehouse Stephen Horne, Neil Brand and Bryony Dixon

This was an interesting session whether or not your golf clubs, like mine, have been relegated to the lowliest garden shed. Neil Brand read from one of PG Wodehouse’s golfing short stories, A Woman is Only a Woman, and, relishing every bon mot, showed how crisp and witty PGW’s prose was, making me feel pure shame for never having read him (putting that right now). PG’s stories of golf are, of course, far more about the players – and men – than the game itself and are revelatory about twenties polite culture in general.

“Love (says the Oldest Member) is an emotion which your true golfer should always treat with suspicion… I have known cases where marriage improved a man’s game, and other cases where it seemed to put him right off his stroke. There seems to be no fixed rule.”

The Stoll Company made six shorts based on these stories and we were treated to three of them after Neil’s reading with Stephen Horne hitting an Eagle or two and proving more than up to par on accompaniment.

Rodney Fails to Qualify (1924) introduced us to the diminutive Harry Beasley as The Caddie, an invention of the film series intended to fulfil the same function as The Oldest Member in the stories: the oil that keeps the stories running. We couldn’t work out Harry’s age… anything from 20 to 40 but he was guaranteed cheeky!

The Clicking of Cuthbert (1924) featured the eternal Moore Marriott as grumpy Russian novelist Vladimir Roseleaf whose unexpected passion for golf, wrong-foots the local book group enabling Peter Haddon’s Cuthbert to impress Helena Pickard’s open-minded blue stocking Adeline.

Chester Forgets Himself (1924) in which Jameson Thomas’ Chester Meredith, a man with a potty mouth, almost loses his quest for Ena Evans’ Felicia Blakeney by forgetting to express himself. Some lovely title cards left Chester’s language to our imaginations but Felicia liked his tone better!

Canine Capers…

We’d already seen one comedy canine (in Cocktails…) and there just had to be more as is BSFF tradition. This sequence included Cecil Hepworth’s astonishing Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (1908) in which a dog not only outwits kidnappers but drives their car off… I hadn’t seen it before and I may have whooped.

Contrary to the title Teddy the Dog doesn’t actually drive a train in Clarence Badger’s Teddy at the Throttle but he saves Gloria Swanson who is *actually* tied to railway tracks! Proof that, even if only on this occasion, attempted murder-by-steam train was a thing in silent films.

Then we had charming Charlie Chase taking a bath with Duke the Dog in Dog Shy (1926). CC is the real deal and a premier league performer with or without the pooch.
Gloria, ready for her chain-up...
The Pleasure Garden (1925) with Philip Carli

Introducing, Bryony Dixon took us back to 2012, the year of the Hitchcock Nine and the BFI’s epic restorations which were unveiled throughout the year with diverse accompaniment – anyone else remember the beatbox Downhill!? Hitchcock’s directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden was Bryony’s favourite restoration – if not favourite film – given the challenges of the source material and the creative process involved in putting, literally, every cup of tea in its right place. Hitchcock was not a director who ever put in a shot without purpose and everyone served the overall narrative including that of a lone tea leaf floating in a cuppa; a sure sign of impending visitors for our grandparents and every viewer in 1925 (or 1927 when, post Lodger, this film got its general release).

The Pleasure Garden has some great Hitch moments: from the opening sequence as dancing girls hurry their legs down a spiral staircase to then be ogled by a front row of sweaty middle-aged men (ahem!) only for Virginia Valli to laugh off the attentions of her ogler-in-chief (you go, girl!) to the, sickly-disturbing, drowning as Miles Mander’s character finally loses it in the heat. This moment never leaves the film – as stark and psychotic as any in silent film.

Philip Carli, suffering throughout with that most British of gifts, an ‘orrid cold, cast off his discomfort to accompany with a dramatic dash, clearly relishing his duet with Alfred!

Virginia Valli disapproves
And then there was Betty…

The evening show was Stephen Horne and Minima’s fantastic re-scoring of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr whichI had previously seen and raved about at the Barbican back in January. A film that takes on dramatic new flavours in the hands of the collaborating accompanists: their project is not so much a re-scoring as a chance to reflect on the pure brilliance of Dreyer’s technique.

And that was me at this year’s British Silent Film Festival, a wonderful event for which everyone involved – players, presenters, programmers, volunteers, bar staff and sandwich makers - should take a bow as we smooch Fay Marbe’s There's More to The Kiss Than XXX in their general direction!