Thursday, 11 January 2018

Oh brother… Second Fiddle (1923) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

I’ve been fascinated with Glenn Hunter since reading the book on which his lost film, Merton of the Movies (1924) was based and having seen his performance in Second Fiddle, I can now mourn the loss of his major hit even more. Hunter is a boyish, almost sensitive presence on screen but with a good range of physical and facial expression and a gift for comic timing: seeing him in the more knockabout Merton as the titular hero attempting to make his deluded way in Hollywood would have been a treat. As with Marion Davis’ character a few years later in Show People, Merton thinks he’s serious but everyone else thinks he’s hilarious.

In Second Fiddle Glenn Hunter manages to be both despite a plot so convoluted you could pin a tail on it and call it a “wonky”. He’s great and the film is a delight, once thought lost but tonight projected from Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm Kodascope print onto the Cinema Museum’s screen with lavish accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch.

Directed by Frank Tuttle the film was a truly independent production filmed in Queens of all places – it looked nothing like this rural community last time I passed through.  The cinematographer, as Mr Brownlow revealed, was Fred Waller the inventor of Cinerama and he does much good work with startling close-ups, atmospheric exteriors and a clever interior shot showing Hunter peering out in fear as a murderer creeps down the stairs towards him.

Hunter is Jim, the youngest member of the Bradley family and completely overshadowed by his older brother Herbert (Townsend Martin) a college boy who is seemingly everything his mother (Mary Foy) and father (Leslie Stowe) wanted. Jim suffers from low self-esteem, to put it mildly, and hasn’t the confidence to do anything other than screw up. A self-fulfilling prophecy of his own foretelling.

Mary Astor (in her sixth film) and Glenn Hunter
Jim hasn’t the confidence to make anything of his relationship with pretty Polly Crawford (Mary Astor, then just sixteen) the daughter of the local doctor (Otto Lang, Astor’s actual father, which is good to see given her youth). Polly clearly likes the young grease monkey but he’s too nervous to respond to any signals.

Herbert’s arrival home only pushes Jim down further. He had bought a dog as a present for his brother, but the latter walks in with an elegant pedigree hound far more aspirational than the lovable mutt Jim had in mind. Jim isn’t even confident enough to feel slighted by his brother as he moves in on Polly, he just assumes he’s not as good and Herbert’s not going to disabuse him, driving off with Polly as he tries to fix her car’s exhaust. Not so nice, a nasty Herbert.

That evening the Bradley’s dance to their record player, a 78 of an Argentine Tango allowing Herbert to show his moves with Polly while Jim is left with an umbrella. The film’s funniest sequence follows as Jim daydreams a south American scene with himself as a Valentino, cape and stylish gaucho look, nostrils flared and cheeks on full suck for some hilarious shapes. Hunter has delicate features and makes Ivor Novello look stocky, but he has the protean ability to inhabit the clothes; no wonder he was so successful on stage as well.

Tangoed... Hunter, Astor, Mary Foy, Leslie Stowe and Townsend Martin
The reverie is interrupted by the arrival of the sheriff as the town’s odd-bod, Mr Cragg (William Nally, craggy faced and a genuinely fearsome presence) has murdered his own daughter (Helena Adamowska) in search for the money she has hidden away in the hope of escaping his tyranny in their old dark house.

Mr Bradley heads off with the posse leaving his boys to protect Polly and their mother. Naturally enough Cragg comes to the house in search of food and money and Herbert makes off to tell the posse leaving his brother with a shotgun he forgets to load… The moments with Cragg circling the house are genuinely unnerving and Tuttle creates considerable tension.

Cragg breaks in using the door Herbert has absent-mindedly left open and Jim checks his weapon… in shock he tries to reach for some ammunition only to alert the intruder, but he confronts him all the same, his bluff enough to get Cragg to sit down as they await the sheriff.

But, as the law heads to the rescue, Jim is unable to keep holding the gun and faints. Cragg is caught though after Herbert shoots him – by accident more than design – and safely locked up, older brother is the hero whilst Jim is crestfallen. Matters get worse when Herbert covers up his oversight by loading the gun and Jim is accused of lying.

William Nally menaces Helena Adamowska
Miserable, and thinking Polly is deserting him too, Jim plans to leave for Boston only for a series of unfortunate events to unfold in a breath-taking final sequence as Cragg escapes, Polly’s car breaks down, Herbert gets desperate and all converge on that old dark house for truth and consequences.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied this enjoyable romp with deft precision – our feet tapping to tango rhythms, teeth chattering for Cragg’s demonic excesses and our smiles uplifted by glorious themes for young Jim’s redemption.

Earlier in the evening we were also treated to a DW Griffith short, Fighting Blood (1911) which featured a tense shoot out between native Americans and a family trapped in a log cabin, as Kevin said, almost a dry run for Birth of a Nation. The film included an interesting overhead shot of the action possible influenced by the work of Thomas Ince. Ince supposedly directed the second film we saw, The Heart of an Indian (1912) but it was Francis Ford who also starred in red-face, the most Irish Indian you could imagine. This film was altogether more subtle on the subject of native Americans and reflected the general pattern of more sympathetic portrayals before the sound era gave way to cliché.

Poignant shot from The Heart of an Indian (1912)
Lillian Henley accompanied in style with dramatic flourish as the drama played out on piano as on screen; the standard of accompaniment is so high at the Bioscope.

A grand start to the year and another sold-out performance at the Cinema Museum: they shouldn’t shut this place down they should expand it! Demand is on the increase and if you haven’t already signedthe petition to help keep the Museum in place please follow this link and support this unique venue.

Read more about Merton of the Movies here.

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