Sunday, 10 September 2017

Closer up... The Goose Woman (1925) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

I’ve seen this film before but I’ve never really seen it until now. Sometimes in our eagerness to view a film we put up with substandard digital copies – legally of course – but in the end you will always pay, without hesitation, to watch something as splendid on screen as Louise Dresser. Tonight we were treated to the restored 35mm print courtesy of UCLA, Robert Gitt and Kevin Brownlow which featured far more content and clarity as well as the dramatic enhancements of Cyrus Gabrysch’s energetically complex accompaniment.

The Goose Woman is a very good silent film but what raises it to the level of exceptional is the performance of Miss Dresser as the woman for whom all vanity has dissolved. She’s caked in her disappointment as surely as her pigs are snout-deep in in the mud of her swampy small-holding.

Director Clarence Brown is no slouch either and there are very few moments in film as powerfully sad as the accidental destruction of the last recording of Dresser’s fallen opera singer Mary Holmes (once Marie de Nardi…) in her pomp. Placed on the table by her son, Gerald (Jack Pickford), Mary’s precious shellac rolls slowly from the kitchen table smashing on impact with the cruel stone floor. Having lost her voice giving birth to the unwanted boy now he – unintentionally – destroys her last memento… and her self-loathing simply won’t allow her to forgive him. She pushes him out and then finds that the gin bottle she’d hidden in the kettle has evaporated away… like her life.

There are many such symbolic moments showcasing the “Brown Touch” – Gerald’s interrogation by the police is punctuated by his nervous distraction at a dripping tap, one cop shuffling coins and another cracking nuts… You can only agree with what he said to Kevin Brownlow half a century ago when the latter showed him his copy: “I hadn’t realised I was that good!” Kevin also showed the film to Mary Pickford on one of her rare trips to London and she was impressed with brother Jack’s performance – thirty years after she lost him to alcoholism in 1933. It’s always a privilege to hear Mr Brownlow’s introductions – he is literally on first-name terms with silent cinema history.

Dresser wore very little make-up for the production, far less than Jack Pickford from the look of some scenes, and allowed herself to take her character to believable extremes. She relishes the degradation of a woman whose life has been destroyed by her failings and yet who has a sense of her own ridiculousness. She’s a drunk, she keeps geese, you got a problem with that?

Jack and Constance
Yet so much of her situation is down to her being judged – her pregnancy supposedly cost her voice but more likely it sank her in shame. When she reveals a terrible truth to Gerald about his parentage, we don’t see specifics just his reaction and that of his sweetheart Hazel (Constance Bennett, a star in waiting).

Things are about to get a whole lot worse as a rich neighbour is shot dead and through her gin-glasses Mary devises a plan so cunning you could pin a tail on it and call it a fox: she’s going to reclaim her fame by pretending she saw the murder and show the world that she’s still Marie de Nardi! But as her fortunes begin to rise, the police inspector being a fan laps it up, she inadvertently puts Gerald right in the frame…

Brown handles these complications with such economy, the pay-off is superb, enabling his performers to slide through the narrative with the focus purely on their emotions. Of course he was Garbo’s favourite director: he let her breathe.

He also manages to infuse the story with humanity and comedy balanced against the dramatics. When Mary staggers off to find out what the murder scene looks like she’s pursued all the way by one of the geese… The animal in question is uncredited but she had an agent, you can be sure of that!

The pace of the film is deceptively unrelenting and Cyrus set the keyboard alight with classical flourishes as he bantered with Dresser and matched her note for note. The movie is richly toned – a gothic setting that influenced Sparrows – and this gave the pianist lots of room for rich textures of his own: all the stars were aligned on this one!

The packed house at the Bioscope burst into applause even as the credits started and deservedly so.

Earlier on we’d been treated to a couple of enjoyable oddities. The first was a dizzying compilation of railway “ghost shots” from Lyman H. Howe, Ride on a Runaway Train (1921),  which I hope never to see on Imax. The sequences showed some impossible angles and were sped up to create a disorientating feeling of being just in control… literally a rollercoaster of images and impossible railways!

Then there was watcher’s digest version of The Patent Leather Kid (1927) starring Richard Barthelmess and Molly O'Day from the Paul Killiam Silents Please TV series in 1961. The film was cut to less than half an hour and featured Mr Killiam’s narration explaining the narrative and other background. It worked remarkably well and from a time when silent film was largely regarded as a quaint relic, no doubt helped the flame to burn.

Molly and Richard
Richard B plays a cocky boxer who has courage only when wielding his fists; having been enlisted to fight in the Great War he has to find a way to be brave with guns and bombs… He’s saved by the love of comrades and of Molly O’Day with a bitter sweet ending marking it as definitely post-Big Parade.

Next up at the Bioscope is the Italian sky pirate film Filibus (1915) which pormises to be another treat!

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