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!

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