Thursday, 7 December 2017

The women… Pavement Butterfly (1929), with Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

We take it for granted, these films we watch, yes we recognise that screening rare and near impossible to find 90-year old treasures takes a huge amount of effort, but we don’t always consider the actual commitment in personal time and energy made by the managers of these passion projects.

Tonight, was an epic programme and one that not only featured a very rare film but also three shorter features that were thematically linked. You see a fascinating array of British variety acts in the first, followed by a visit to Berlin - the main feature was an Anglo-German co-production – and lastly the British comedy, Blue Bottles (1928) featuring Elsa Lanchester as herself: a woman of gumption and quick wit even under fire.

The Bioscope’s Michelle Facey programmed the evening and chose the Lanchester film partly because it has such a strong female lead and the same can absolutely be said of Anna May Wong in Pavement Butterfly (1929). That’s three remarkable women all on the one evening!

Michelle not only devised the programme she also researched the background for the films in depth and provided notes as well as her informative introductions. No wonder the Cinema Museum was packed to the rafters with not a single seat unsold: the best programmes attract the public and the sell-out spoke for itself on that one!

Mah and Coco, clown, croupier, club owner... cad!
Part of the fascination in watching Pavement Butterfly is seeing how Anna May Wong’s character gets treated. This is not a lazy modern liberal search for outrage but a fair comparison between European cinema culture and US in 1929. In her home country, Anna May Wong had struggled since her first film in 1921 to gain substantial roles and also characters that weren’t stereotypes. Yet in Europe for this film and Song (1928), her first film with director Richard Eichberg, she is not only a desirable and acceptable romantic lead, she is the star.

Eichberg simply took her natural talents and ran with them and you even read this film as a subtle critique of Western culture’s willingness to believe the worst of people of Asian origin: first the crowd at the circus where Wong’s character Mah works, turn on her very quickly assuming she has killed her magician partner and then later, when she is blackmailed by the man who committed that murder, her artist and romantic interest, all too readily thinks she has stolen the money.

For anyone who gets frustrated by such “misunderstandings” the film’s ending is richly satisfying and, in the context of so many films of this era – Hindle Wakes and a few others excepted – a blow for self-determination for women in general.

Anna May Wong, picture c. Getty Images
But the real triumph for this remarkable actor is that she gets the most screen time and the chance to behave with decency and intelligence: she is not just a cipher but the whole point of the film: she may be a butterfly of the street, but she knows how to make her own way. Wong is allowed the opportunity to fully reveal her character and there are times when Eichberg just lets his camera roll in vast close-ups, catching every moment as the poignant tears spark, flicker and then flow down the amazing face.

There are also some blokes in the film Fred Louis Lerch plays the handsome but hopeless Fedja Kusmin an artist who lacks the purity of trusting the thing he loves and the wickedly convincing Alexander Granach as Coco the Coincidental Clown who pops up throughout the film to throw mischief in our heroine’s way. Elwood Fleet Bostwick is Mr. Working a rich business man who encourages the young artist and Tilla Garden has a fine turn as his daughter Ellis who is also interestingly enough a woman who knows her mind.

Pavement Butterfly is a very fine film and Ellis and Mah are its most fully realized characters played by the two most interesting performers. That said, I shouldn't omit Gaston Jacquet as the Baron de Neuve, who helps Mah seemingly as he's keen to to the decent thing: this was good Gaston as opposed to the rogues he was also adept at playing... either way, always a twinkle in his eye though!

It’s always a special evening when Stephen Horne plays the Bioscope and this was no exception. I am constantly amazed by his improvisational range and, having watched him play just a few days ago, could sense no repetition only a performer’s joy in giving this rare screening the full bells and whistles. He started off at a canter with some meaty chords matching the carnival atmosphere and the troupe of party animals sharing Kusmin’s apartment block and began to inject subtleties of tone through flute, accordion, percussion and vibes. One day we’ll discover that they’re all pre-programmed alien artefacts from a civilisation so far in advance of our own that their musical science seems like magic.

Meg Morley was also pitch perfect accompanying the first three films. There is so much musical diversity at the Bioscope and I love the players, Meg is an accomplished jazz musician by trade and it’s fascinating to hear how this essentially emotional and improvised discipline informs her accompaniment. She is a very polished performer now and comes from the same planet as Mr Horne… they can see the future just as they duet with the past!

Elsa Lanchester
Tonight, Meg was with the stunning Elsa Lanchester in Blue Bottles (1928) as she gets mixed up in a crook’s convention and brings the full might of the Metropolitan Police Force down on them after blowing on a discarded police whistle. She toots the flute and in come mobs of plod, men on horseback, tanks, planes and even the navy – a sequence similar to the Marx Brother’s mad escalations in defence of Freedonia in Duck Soup.

It’s a riot of well-constructed slapstick as Elsa gets caught up in the rush as the cops charge into the house. There’s a running battle in which stripped-topped criminals try to avoid the police including one played by Elsa’s hubby-to-be Charles Laughton in his first film appearance. There’s mayhem as Elsa hides wherever she can only to capture the crooks single-handedly, dazed and in charge of a weapon she barely knows is in her hand.

Frank Wells falls in for Charles Laughton
There’s so much energy and invention from director Ivor Montagu on the script from Frank Wells based on a story from his father, Herbert George. They also discovered that Frank was rather good at falling down stairs and so he gets his moment playing a battered baddie.

Before this were two documentaries of which the British one, Hello Piccadilly (1925) was especially precious, the Jack Hylton band playing in the background as variety performers – a chorus line, contortionists and amazing trick dancers (you would scarce believe The Cat and The Dog dance: Strictly Come Dangerous!) – showed us what our great grand parents used to enjoy. They'd look over their pints of mild and smile at us all, sat in the dark watching proper entertainment. Cheers!

Thanks again to the Bioscope in general and to all those who volunteer and make these evenings possible.

PS I must also thank Dr Sylvia Hardy who has just shown my Elsa Lanchester's actual copy of the script for Blue Bottles and also let me scan her original photographic stills from the film. A prominent member of the HG Wells Society she is indeed another remarkable woman!

Elsa's script for Blue Bottles


  1. I haven't seen Pavement Butterfly, and your writeup really has been interested! I love Anna May Wong, it's a huge loss that her career was so constrained by racism.
    It would be great if this one got a release à la Piccadilly!

    1. She's very good in it and shows some of the range she had but wasn't allowed to demonstrate more often. The Bioscope tema had to fight to get the rights for this one and I hope it gets a proper release. She is one of the most interesting and able actors of the period! Best, Paul

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