Sunday, 26 November 2017

Wild at heart… Le diable au coeur (1928)

I believe it was George Harrison who once remarked, “she’s got the Devil in her heart oh no, no, no-oh…” but it might have been John Lennon? Here Betty Balfour, our own Queen of Happiness, is infected with the most spiteful of quick tempers and shows how her impulsive chaotic charm could be turned to destruct mode. The film’s translation reads as Devil May Care but I prefer The Beatle’s description… although I’m not entirely sure that Ricky Dee Drapkin had her in mind when he wrote the song.

Betty was 25 and at the height of her powers in 1928 with Mr Hitchcock to be her next director after Marcel L'Herbier. This film is a world away from the light comedies I’ve mostly seen her in but she plays well and dominates the film with eye-catching intensity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I don’t get what L'Herbier saw in Jaque Catelain but he’s slightly limited in comparison to the Balfour emotive engine. He’s so much a product of his director’s odd worlds that I can’t imagine him in a British film whereas Betty is positively protean with a cross-border and cross-genre appeal rivaled by very few.

It is not so much of a stretch to accept this tiny woman as a child as she is in the opening sections of the film. She is a tear-away, leading her parents a merry dance, not just with her maniacal brothers in tow but many other juniors from the small port of Le Harve in Northern France, the gateway to England should anyone want to go there.

Little miss mischief
Betty plays Ludivine Bucaille, “une fille étrange…” who is indeed a little beyond the usual as she drives her father Maurice (Auguste Picaude) to drink and her mother (Catherine Fonteney) to distraction. There are some convincing scenes of childish mayhem as Ludvine energetically marshals the local lads of misrule in endless japes, hiding from the police, trespassing and pretending to be handicapped.

Ludivine has still to understand the power she has over her surroundings and when she launches a cruel attack on the house of the Leherg family for no good reason other than their piousness, she causes more upset than she bargained for. They smash a window and the kids scatter as Mr Leherg (Roger Karl) and his young son Delphin (Jaque Catelain) come out to catch their tormentors. Ludivine is caught by Delphin and an instant flash across their eyes confuses her enough to wish both he and his father dead. The young fisherman exposed a weakness she was not expecting and as she spitefully tries to mask her romantic urges with distaste she protests far too much.

Jaque Catelain
Disaster strikes though when the Leherg’s boat goes missing in a storm. Everyone believes them drowned and Ludivine assumes it’s her fault and that she has wished death upon them. There is a very poignant scene in which the fishermen mournfully trudge from the dockside only to encounter Ludivine and her posse laughing and skipping without a care in the world.

The young woman’s spirits crash to earth and when, joy of joys, she finds Delphin alive and wandering in shock, she cannot do enough for him. He loses his mother soon after from the shock and is soon out of house and home but with no option but to leave. Ludivine persuades her parents to offer him board and cleans up their house, applying her energy with a new, more adult, purpose.

Balfour’s ability to switch from comic childishness to these more dramatic emotions is rare and she imbues even the most slapstick of moments with an edge; a twinkle in the eye that conveys joy and devilment. Her character is conflicted fighting a battle between denial and desire that can only end with her growing up.

Lauderin trying to impress Ludivine with his largess...
She meets her match when a showman, Pierre Lauderin (André Nox) comes to town with a gaggle of dancers and other performers. He calls her bluff and is more than amused to see how she responds. We’re unimpressed with his fascination with the girl and so is she.

Soon Ludivine’s not the only player struggling with integrity as her parents are made an offer they find hard to refuse by the scheming Lauderin who will clear their debts if he can marry their daughter. Ludivine’s ability to take offence leads to a pointless stand-off with the man she really loves, and she succeeds only in making things worse… The Devil is in her heart again and she will have to work hard to overcome the impact of her temper…

L’Herbier shows us gorgeous locations and this is as an emphatic a view of the natural world as L’Inhumaine and L’Argent are of the stylish built environments. We even get some typically flamboyant mise en scène at the port-side hotel at which the old lech is about the entrap his young prey… the huge deco space almost repels Ludivine as she longs for the salty freshness of her honest fisherman…

Then there’s the tunnel through which Ludivine must walk to reach the adult world of Lauderin’s show bar, the Eden, in which the men drink and where she finds Delphin making eyes at Thania (the aptly named Kissa Kouprine) and fighting with another man for her favour… It’s a passage to another world and one you need to navigate both ways. Again, L’Herbier’s design is around his emotional narrative and almost built form the characters outwards. Lauderin looms watching in the shadows behind Ludivine as she looks down on the unknown pleasures below.

Lauderin is a truly disturbing creation from Nox as he emerges to leer over the young woman. If the film is about her emergence from childhood, then he represents all of the darkness she must avoid… repeatedly using money – he offers her mock-beggars a twenty franc note on their first meeting – muscle and manipulation he’s a user and abuser. The wicked warlock to Delphin’s handsome prince: a shady character indeed.

After rebuffing Lauderin’s offer, Ludivine is then gobsmacked to see Thania’s delight at Delphin fighting for her… what a strange world it is and, indeed, continues to be…

The film's sets were designed by Lucien Aguettand, Claude Autant-Lara and Robert-Jules Garnier. The cinematography from Lucien Bellavoine, Louis Le Bertre and Jean Letort makes the most of the spaces, light and shade to create a complete world. Holistic L’Herbier.

This film is currently available on Vimeo and is a copy of the Archives Francaise du Film 2007 restoration with a zippy accompaniment from Pierre Mancinelli, Michel Peres and David Mancinelli, improvised and recorded in live conditions. It is to be hoped that it will get a proper digital release for the many Balfourettes who can't get enough of the lass from Chester-le-Street.

Monday, 20 November 2017

A star is re-born… The Sins of Love (1929), UK premier with Ivan Acher, Barbican

This was the UK premier of Hríchy lásky, screened as part of the 21st Made in Prague Festival in partnership with the Czech Centre London and National Film Archive Prague. It’s a great shame we’ve had to wait so long for it is a lovely picture with an intensity and vision that tells an old tale in an unusual way.

Like many silent films of this period the cast was international with Italian actress Marcella Albani, the German Walter Rilla and dapper Frenchman Gaston Jacquet as a cross between Adolphe Menjou and David Niven… a smooth operator! Josef Rovenský plays the main role and does so powerfully with a Jannings-esque physicality allied to soulful eyes that convey the utmost misery on a face that you’d expect to naturally hope for the best.

Karel Lamac was an actor as well as a film maker as the Czech Centre’s Renata Clark explained in her introduction – staring in films with Anny Ondra, setting up a film studio together as well as dating. The two never married yet remained close and he was to die in her arms in 1952.

Here he directs with the assured hand of experience and you’d be hard pressed to separate The Sins of Love from a German or French production.

Josef Rovenský and Marcella Albani
The story is one of the oldest in cinema but with a twist… successful, middle-aged rural actor Ivan Kristen (Josef Rovenský) who leaves for the city and a bigger stage along with his younger and very noticeable wife, Sona (Marcella Albani) an aspiring actress.

In the Grand Theatre their arrival is unnoticed as Director Eduard Warren (Gaston Jacquet) has just been told by his brattish main actress, Mimi Stevens (Bronislava Livia), that she will not perform in Romeo and Juliet as he didn’t print her name in large enough text in the advertising. Hmm, she looks a little like Anny, I wonder who Karel had in mind?

Now, can you guess what’s going to happen next? There’s only 24 hours until curtain up and all Warren has to do is find a beautiful leading actress who knows the part of Juliet. Even in the confusion and panic he has already clocked Sona in his waiting room and quickly arranges a read-through with his Romeo, actor Richard Kent (Walter Rilla) who is impressed, immediately and in all ways.

Walter Rilla
Fast forward a year and Sona has been established as a star whilst her husband waits for his big break. Meanwhile she has grown close to Richard but her loyalty to Ivan has prevented her from acting on her impulses. Director Warren is also keen, as he is on any young woman… how times change eh?

Sona manages to swing Ivan a lead role and he goes to a dive bar to observe the criminal underclasses. He engages a pick pocket called Ferda Štika (LH Struna) to advise on clothing and criminality and the two strike an unlikely friendship. As with other parts of the film, Lamac is at pains to establish a warmth between the characters and Ferda is not just an archetype he’s going to be loyal to his new friend.

Gaston Jacquet
Ivan’s new play opens well and he’s riding high after a first half in which his groundwork has enabled him to produce a performance of depth with the dress and mannerisms of Ferda. During the interval, he spots Richard on the phone to Sona with a note in his hand clearly in her handwriting. Ivan jumps to conclusions and attacks his rival before being kicked back on stage by an exasperated Warren.
Ferda promises to get the incriminating letter and sets off to burgle Warren’s apartment… what can possibly go wrong?

The closing section is frenetic and moving as the actuality is revealed. It’s not quite what you’d expect but I can say no more…

Josef Rovenský and LH Struna
Rovenský goes through his paces and his character is a believable one: he’s a generous and slightly-deluded man but who doesn’t need to believe the best of themselves? The other main players are also top notch, Gaston Jacquet showing charm enough to convince as the manoeuvring Warren, Marcella Albani the beauteous talent with a heart of gold and Walter Rilla as her conflicted lover, restrained by honour.

This is another great Czech film as we’re now expecting every year from Made in Prague!

Czech musician and artist Ivan Acher performed a part-improvised and composed score using samples of found sounds, jazz-age rhythms and freshly-recorded brass. The music was near-ambient and reminiscent of the electronica of The Caretaker aka James Leyland Kirby – haunted echoes of distant dance-floors, the audio ghosts of good times past. It’s the kind of music I’d listen to on its own but here it set a mood but was not flexible enough to respond to the film’s emotional narrative.

It is good to experiment and whilst not to everyone’s tastes, the music and the images gradually came into balance whilst never quite sustaining alignment. Still some lovely soundscapes all the same.

Made in Prague continues until the end of November and details are available on the Czech Centre website. Details of Ivan Archer’s multi-media expressions are to be found on his website.

PS. My afternoon at the Barbican was completed by listening to some fearsome free jazz from Estonian prog-metal-jazz group Heavy Beauty whose blistering new album, Propaganda is out now!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Smile… Second Silent Laughter Saturday, Kennington Bioscope, The Cinema Museum, London

We were gathered to have a laugh in the beleaguered Cinema Museum* a former workhouse where the Chaplin family lived when fallen on hard times. What role this played on young Charlie’s sense of humour is hard to know but you have to imagine it contributed to the resilience of the street-hardened Lambeth boy. “Though your heart is aching… “

There was no Charlie today, although he’s always with us in the Museum (there’s a big statue for a start…) but there was a stellar line up of funny people to take us far away from the grey rain of south London.

Monty Banks Starter introduction by Matthew Ross with Meg Morley

Flying Luck (1927) with Monty Banks and Jean Arthur

Until today the main thing I knew of Monty Banks was that he married Our Gracie Fields, but he was a determined silent film comedian who couldn’t quite force his was into the top tier. This film was his last hurrah in Hollywood and tried to capitalise on the hoopla surrounding Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic flight.

It’s a fast-paced comedy with Monty’s character desperate to fly despite crashing his home-made plane, and things start as they mean to go on with a dangerous stunt as the aircraft moves off seemingly on its own with Monty in pursuit. Luckily Monty crashes into an army recruiting office and gets tricked into enlisting. On the way he meets Jean Arthur playing the niece of the Colonel (Jack W. Johnston) commanding his division as well as his future Sergeant (Kewpie Morgan) who kicks off their abusive relationship by throwing him off the bus.

Monty takes everything that’s thrown at him and his character is endearing – little bits of Charlie, Harry and Harold as well as a large dose of Latin-cheek (he was born and raised in Italy). It’s a victory for the little guy and a lovely film.

All that said, it wasn’t enough and sadly the distributors pulled his contract and he ended up in Blighty and the rest was Gracie and retirement in the forties in the luxury of Capri.

Meg Morley played along with the fun, flying high in Monty’s friendly sky.

Betty Balfour in Reveille (1924)
There followed a poignant two minutes silence following an extract from the British Reveille (1924) which featured Betty Balfour and a host of actors who if they didn’t fight in the Great War were certainly mightily affected by it. The film is on the BFI's most wanted list but elements survive including this sequence showing various characters observing the silence on Remembrance Day. Very moving and as silent as the Bioscope has ever been...

British Shorts introduced by Tony Fletcher with John Sweeney

Tony Fletcher introduced a deep dive into our domestic cinema history – I really appreciate these sessions as there’s always an uncanny familiarity with the faces and places: these artefacts are recognisably from our culture.

Now we all know that sound films didn’t begin with Mr Jolson and Tony screened two Vivaphone films which featured players miming along to recorded discs to startling effect.  I Do Like to Be Where the Girls Are (c.1912) featured the voice of Jack Charman and Cecil Hepworth’s stock players: stars Harry Buss, the principal comic along with Madge Campbell, Chrissie White, Alma Taylor, Violet Hopson, Claire Pridelle and others.

The Rollicking Rajah (c.1912) featured Harry Buss again along with the same Hepworth dancers this time accompanying a recording from Harry Fay. It’s a catchy tune and could well be a hit!

Harry Buss is where the girls are
The Curate and His Double (The Parson and His Double) (1907) featured a foretaste of the trick used in Christopher Priest’s The Prestige… not saying which one though! It’s glorious to see British comedy from this time, we were at the forefront with stage-toughened routines and performers who played direct to camera as if we were a live audience in Wilton’s or one of the thousands of music halls in Edwardian cities.

It was back to the seaside for Kelly Takes His Missus to Southend (A Useful Umbrella) (1913) was from the naughty postcard end of the pier and featured an outrageous couple – possibly Irish, possible both male – and their umbrella wielding trip to Southend and the Kursall. Only in Britain… and the sight of onlookers marvelling at the madness of the couple on the spinning floor made you feel a queasy nostalgia.

A Merry Night (1914) was packed with invention and camera trickery – a quite superb mini-symphony! Two drunks struggle home as the World tilts on its hand-held axis and as one lands home he finds his house playing drinks on his addled brain. I especially liked his paintings shooting at him and waving a tiny Bentine-esque white flag when he shot back!

Walter Forde was probably Britain’s top silent comic and in Walter Makes a Movie (1922) he shows just why. Surprisingly he’s a thief, stealing the purse of Patricia Highbrow (Pauline Peter)

Hapless Husbands introduced by Michelle Facey with Meg Morley

Michelle introduced a multi-national quartet of comedy contenders from Spain, America, France and Germany… all showing that, across the globe, the men, they know nothing.

Robinet is Jealous (1914) in which the multi-monikered Marcel Perez (aka Robinet, Tweedy, Tweedledum, Twede-Dan and many more...) won’t trust his wife even when she’s doing the nicest things for him. Perez was a pioneer of cinematic silly with a background in circus and music hall infusing his films with sight gags and quick-tricks. He went on to direct a marvellously bonkers feature The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913) which I’d dearly love to see screened in cinema!

Innocent Husbands (1925) There was little “innocent” about Charlie Chase who had such a strong and unique persona: smartly-helpless in the face of outrageous fortune and always bouncing back after hubris-induced near-disaster. Here he tries to cover his tracks after ending up with a girl in his party when al he really wanted was to play draughts with his neighbour… long story short: it’s very funny!

Max Wants a Divorce (1917) because he will inherit a fortune as a bachelor… sadly he’s just married Martha Mansfield and needs to invent a reason to get divorced to claim his prize. The best laid plans fall apart as you can't cash in love for money as the poet said.

The Persian Carpet (1919) starred the little-known Gerhard Dammann as a man determined to get the best possible present for his other half to celebrate their anniversary. Like so many men he doesn’t really think it through… be careful what you wish for.

Be My Wife (1921) introduced by Jon Davies, with Lillian Henley

Alta Allen, Max Linder and Caroline Rankin
Even Charlie called Max The Master and Be My Wife (1921) showed exactly why. Linder had led the way in comedy but had been traumatised by the Great War, never to recover… one of millions who never lived free of it. This film was the second of those made post-War in Hollywood and is sophisticated and so-well balanced from the get-go.

Max duels for the attention of young Mary (Alta Allen) with rival Archie (Lincoln Stedman) who is the preferred candidate of her miserable Auntie (Caroline Rankin). It’s a French farce made transatlantic by Max’s cool and it features his iconic electrified hair.

Lillian Henley accompanied Max with assurance, matching his every mood in 1920’s tones and character. Linder directs with disciplined rhythms and must be a gift for duetting pianists.

Keaton Centenary introduced by David Wyatt and Susan Cygan with John Sweeney

Roscoe and Buster in The Butcher Boy
Buster Keaton’s first appearance on film was impeccable, a one-take wonder in Roscoe Arbuckle’s The Butcher Boy (1917) and we not only had a clip of the classic molasses mess from the same film, but a re-worked version of the sketch recorded for US TV in the early fifties. Buster may had been pushing sixty, but he made the sketch funnier with title cards for the actors to hold up playing on the joke being a joke. David Wyatt explained that Buster undertook a lot of small-screen work at this time and Susan Cygan read out an exchange between himself and Chaplin when they worked together on Limelight. Chaplin was surprised to find his old mucker fit and wealthy and when asked by Buster if he watched TV, said he wouldn’t have one in the house… “how do you keep so well?” he asked, “television…” was the reply.

We were shown a clip of an Arbuckle film, Iron Mule (1922) in which recently-unearthed footage shows Buster performing a trademark stunt as a native American. Roscoe was – undeservedly – persona non-grata by this stage and didn’t even get a credit but Buster always stood by him.

A crisp copy of Buster’s first solo effort, One Week (1921), was screened; amongst the most precise and near-perfect silent comedies. Actually, there’s no “near” about it.

John Sweeney accompanied what must be a very old friend with whirlwind pathos and slapstick timing.

She Could Be Chaplin! Anthony Slide on Alice Howell            

There was more to come with a session on Alice Howell from renowned researched Anthony Slide but, unfortunately, I had to depart, more than a little heartbroken after previously seeing her in Cinderella Cinders (1920) which was projected along with One Wet Night (1924). There was also a restored version of her 1917 feature Neptune’s Naughty Daughter completed by Glenn Mitchell from BFI and DFI materials.

You can’t see them all and I can read all about it in Mr Slide’s book, She Could Be Chaplin!: The Comedic Brilliance of Alice Howell which is available from Amazon in kindle or hardback.

I also missed Kevin Brownlow introducing Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother (1927) which I do have on DVD but… it’s never as good as watching on screen with live accompaniment and laughter shared amongst a warm room filled with an audience literally sharing the joke! Plus, Kevin’s introductions are not only insightful and witty they are informed by the fact that, often, he has met the people on screen.

Thankyou Cinema Museum and the Bioscope Team, another impeccable programme and one I know took commitment and much time to organise. I am loving your work!

*The Cinema Museum building is currently under threat of sale to property developers. To find out more and to sign the petition opposing any change of use, please visit the Museum’s Website.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

But not least... The Last of the Mohicans (1920) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

Shortly into production of The Last of the Mohicans, Maurice Tourneur suffered an injury leaving his assistant Clarence Brown to complete the film. Brown, a one-time car salesman, had decided the Frenchman was the best director in Hollywood and in 1915 had approached him directly to teach him everything he knew as a replacement for the assistant he had just fired… By 1920 Brown was Tourneur’s right hand and he later told Kevin Brownlow that it was like receiving an Oscar when the master commented on the finished film: “not bad, Mr Brown, not bad…”

On such relationships are great films made and Kevin Brownlow, introducing this screening of his own copy, recalled having to call in a favour from Henri Langlois in order to screen the same to Clarence Brown in the 60s, the latter pointing out every scene that should have been tinted so emphatically that Kevin had to be reminded by the Bioscopes projectionist, the mighty Dave Locke, that the copy if black and white.

It mattered not as the screen comes alive when Brown and Tourneur’s vision is projected. Apparently, Maurice was none too keen on location shooting and so Clarence had already plenty of experience which shows in the action on top and against huge mountain-scapes as well as the impressive and disturbingly blood-thirsty battles scenes. This is one aspect I was not expecting and the large-scale attacks on women and children by the rogue native American tribesmen is unsettling to say the least.

But this is not your usual story of cowboys and Indians… no matter how demonised the Huron tribe is we also have “good Indians” in the form of the diminished Mohican tribe not to mention inter-racial love that is remarkable for the time and the novel even has the extra twist of Cora Munro being mixed race. The book was the second of five James Fenimore Cooper wrote in the mid-nineteenth century about the battle for supremacy between the British, the French and the native Americans and was set in 1757, during the Seven Years' War with the French army aligned with the Huron tribe in a losing battle against British dominance (but don’t worry America, 1776 is just around the corner).

Barbara Bedford and Alan Roscoe
Cora (Barbara Bedford) and Alice Munro (Lillian Hall) are the daughters of British Colonel Munro (James Gordon) who commands Fort William Henry, south of Lake George in the colony of New York. The French are planning and attack and Uncas (Alan Roscoe) – the last Mohican warrior – is sent by his father Chingachgook (Theodore Lorch) to warn the Brits… Cora is immediately taken with the handsome fellow and her useless compatriot Captain Randolph (George Hackathorne) looks on jealously.

Wallace Beery, perhaps surprisingly, plays an Indian scout Magua who, of course, has a treacherous heart and is secretly going to lead the Munro girls into the hands of his pals in the Huron tribe… all the better to get his way with Cora. It’s not just Wallace and Alan in black-face though, there’s not a single native American in the film and as Brown quipped to Brownlow, there’s one called Murphy. Obviously, Daniel Day-Lewis wasn’t yet available… although Boris Karloff was, playing an, uncredited, native.

Wallace Beery who's actual wife is just below in the feathers...
Mohicans is a classic adventure story and the film does it justice with exceptional performances from Bedford, Roscoe and Beery – he’s just so good at being bad. Brown makes light of the novel’s complexities and strips the story down whilst moving the moral issues forward. The actual events are as much a backdrop as the scenery to the three-way tussle for Cora and she makes for a brave and action-oriented hero herself.

Cyrus Gabrisch made himself at home in the great outdoors, filling the valleys with mountainous chords and propelling the action ever onwards with fleet-fingered progressions that traversed the emotions as fluidly as Uncas scaled the sheer rock walls for his love.

Time's almost up lads...
Tonight’s shorts were also from Mr Brownlow’s collection and started off with a Biograph film, By Man’s Law (1913) which featured Mae Marsh taking yet another unfortunate fall as a society girl the local do-gooders want to “rescue”. The film board of Ohio apparently complained that “the rich should not be satirised…” Oh yes, they must!

Kevin revealed the astonishing statistic that Paramount, having made 1017 silent films, only managed to preserve 37 of them… although I’m not sure how many were found in other archives and stores? This partly explains why there is only one reel remaining of the fascinating A Trip to Paramount (1922), which featured a number of well-known stars working on and promoting their films. We had Rudolph Valentino going through his paces bullfighting in Blood and Sand accompanied by Nita Naldi doing her own “torrid-adoring”, then Cecil B Demille’s Manslaughter with Leatrice Joy in the splendour of the so-far-over-the-top-they’re-back-under… Roman scenes.

Maximum plumage, Swanson Overdrive
There was Wallace Reid with a mini-version of himself driving a toy racing car and Bebe Daniels showing off a mini-Bebe dancing on the palm of her hand and then a brief glimpse of Glorious Swanson in the now lost film Her Gilded Cage. So many we recognise but others we couldn’t as their films have gone…

Meg Morley accompanied with trademark assurance and captured the confident mood of these untouchables from the era of peak-cinema, masters of mood who confidently led our hearts astray for fleeting minutes as we sat watching in the dark.

Another splendid night in the museum… thanks Bioscopers and to the Cinema Museum staff and volunteers.

For updates on the campaign to save the Cinema Museum please check out the website and, if you haven’t already done so, please sign the petition to save this precious and irreplaceable community resource!