Thursday, 19 October 2017

Passion play… Underworld (1927) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope

After the festivals… another mini-masterpiece of programming at the Cinema Museum and a reminder of the power and the passion that fuels our interest in silent cinema made all the more poignant by the current threat to this unique venue. The owners of the property in which the Museum is located are putting it up for sale to property developers and threatening its future but the resistance is being mobilised and details are below…

Underworld is one of the great films with three searing performances from Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft and Clive Brook – a testament to their skills as well as the ability of their rookie director to overcome his nerves and deliver. Feathers, Bull and Rolls Royce are the beating heart of this story and whilst it is nominally a gangster movie it is really all about love, loyalty and compassion.

What does Bancroft’s Bull sense in Brook’s Wendel, a drunken bum of a fallen lawyer, that makes him trust his promise to be the “Rolls Royce” of silence… Why does he stick his neck out to protect Rolls Royce from "Buck" Mulligan’s bullying? He senses integrity and a steadfast character despite all Rolls’ faults, he may waver – everyone does – but there’s redemption in faith.

No, here's looking at you George!
Feathers also puts loyalty to Bull above love, she’s drawn to Rolls Royce, especially once he’s re-acquainted himself with the routines of personal hygiene… and the two wage a struggle with themselves. Bull too is tested by hate and the red heat of jealousy but once he understands it’s a lesson worth his life…

Von Sternberg stated later that the film was “an experiment in photographic violence and montage…” and was matter of fact about its crowd-pleasing elements. Kevin Brownlow in his introduction, shared his experience of meeting the former Joey Sternberg (the “von” was adopted from von Stroheim, a director who influenced Josef in terms of his on-set authority) and telling him how much he liked the scene with Bull feeding a cat milk as the cops gather outside; that’s the worst moment in the film replied the director. We disagree.

Rolls Royce spots Feathers for the first time...
Writer Ben Hecht, a street-wise journalist, was also dismissive of von Sternberg’s end product until he won an academy award for his script… The film was a smash hit and helped kick off the gangster film craze of the era with the director’s vision and those three leads creating an alchemy that was far from accidental.

Von Sternberg cuts to the chase and seems little bothered in conventional pacing. The film begins in the middle of a robbery as Bull Weed runs from a bank only to find Wensel identifying him and blocking his path… within minutes the two men are established in relation to each other. Feather’s first appearance is a tour de force of Peeping Tom visuals as Evelyn Brent stands atop the stairs of the Dreamland bar, casually adjusting her stockings and with those feathers wrapped around her, magnifying and obscuring her allure: she’s soft but hard and impossible to ignore. A single feather falls, and Rolls Royce watches it drift to the ground… one of the great entrances and as portends go, a real doozy.

Evelyn is a prototypical Marlene, lit with great care throughout and with dozens of killer close ups of eagle eyes and that distinctive profile. Brent became typecast as a gangster but there was so much going on behind those eyes… a few years younger and she could have been a real force in the thirties… but so it goes.

Also pinning down a future on the dark side is the magnificent George who is outrageously hearty throughout - a lion heart who rules his patch through force of will, guts and being quickest on the draw. He’s ferocious and smart too, smart enough to know what an asset Rolls Royce can be, no wonder he calls him the Professor. And the Professor is probably the most like us and indeed Josef, someone to contextualise the villains and a fellow traveller in this onscreen trip to the underworld.

Meg Morley played along with some crashing noir-ish minor chords and jazz-tinged lines that were so Chicago 1927… her playing got right to the heart of the film and was as bold as Bancroft and as deceptively fearsome as Feathers.

There was also very impressive undercard tonight with three powerful shorts…

Segundo's Spectre in 1907...
James Finlayson featured as an easily-distracted husband in Chasing the Chaser (1925) directed by a Mister Stanley Laurel. James’ character just can’t keep himself from chasing women and his long-suffering wife sets a honey-trap using a cross-dressing detective – now there’s an idea for a TV 'tec series… John Sweeney was on hand to add subtle flavours to Finlayson’s flirting.

Segundo de Chomón’s spellbinding The Red Spectre (1907) is a stencil-coloured mini-masterpiece showing the battle between the red devil of the title and a female foe… needless to say he loses. It features some startling trick shots and close-ups. Lillian Henley cast some music spells of her own with her accompaniment.

Elmer Booth in 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) featured the magnetic Cagney-esque presence of Elmer Booth and that famous close-up as he creeps up on his rivals… A Griffith innovation according to some but clearly not so a Segundo’s Spectre had just demonstrated. Still, all the same, the guy has some class and you wonder at what he could have done had his life not been cut short by an auto accident in 1915. John Sweeney guided us through the streets of downtown New York as the gangs hunt each other in a tense finale… If Underworld kick-started the gangster vogue this is one of the earliest examples of what was to come and it even featured real gangsters...

These nights at the Kennington Bioscope are a privilege and the Cinema Museum is such a warm venue; we’re surrounded by friends and the physical evidence of social history… there can be nowhere else like this place. The Chaplin family lived here when it was a workhouse, it helped keep our greatest silent comedian alive to become the man he was and now it helps sustain his memory and that of so many others.

The Cinema Museum

If the best modern Britain can offer is to sell it on and close it down to earn a few thousand for the failing government and rather more for the developers who are blighting London with soulless modernity then the gangster mentality will have won after all.

But we’re not going to go down easily and there’s plenty of love, loyalty and passion left for the museum.

You can sign a petition here to keep the Cinema Museum alive and there is a public meeting on Monday 30th October at the museum to discuss the ways forward.

A night in the museum
I can also recommend Lynn Kear’s book on Feathers: Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films ofHollywood’s Lady Crook which celebrates its subject’s career and the moxie which led her to make such a success of being the bad girl!

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