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!

No comments:

Post a Comment