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.

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