Thursday, 26 April 2018

Hot media… British Silent Film Symposium 2018, Day Two, Kings College, London

Kings Road, 1891

The joy of history, as my tutors never said directly, is in reconnection with the feelings of the past; looking through the dates to the actual emotion around events and change. Today’s presentations pulled us back to the moments when uncertainty fired invention and genuinely brave hearts kickstarted the medium we are all so cool about now. But nothing was inevitable and collaboration by men working on parallel courses determined the future. The birth of cinema was more along the lines of Hedy Lamarr’s spread frequencies than a single signal (and if there was one it certainly was not from Thomas Edison).


Ian Christie – The Tarnished Myth of British Precedence

Ian Christie kicked us off and introduced the man of the day, William Friese-Greene by way of the Boulting’s The Magic Box (1951) in which bemused PC Laurence Olivier witnesses the first projection of moving images, supposedly in 1890. Whilst Friese-Greene had not developed his magic to this extent, this scene is fiction based on fact only not William’s but RW Paul’s in 1895 when he and Birt Acres made so much noise celebrating running a film on a Paul Kinetoscope (Edison wouldn’t supply them with “his”) that a policeman did indeed make inquiries.

Why didn’t Paul get the credit and why were some so keen on attributing credit to Friese-Greene? The answer is in the ebb and flow of historical agendas and a rush to lay the crown on single heads. Friese-Greene’s reputation has paid many times over for the infamous film but both he and Paul deserve a balanced appreciation.

Ian Christie showed panels from a graphic novel detailing Paul’s work and has more to come with book, blog and exhibition. More details on the blog:

Peter Domankiewicz – William Friese-Greene and the Art of Collaboration

Peter also came up with genuinely jaw-dropping boost for WF-G’s with his re-animation of the latter’s film of Kings Road, London in 1891!  This was probably the first time the pictures had been shown on anything other than a Kinetoscope and we’d like to see more. In the meantime, it is on YouTube.

Friese-Greene, as with Paul, collaborated with a number of others to develop his technology, including John Arthur Rudge, inventor of the Biophantic Lantern. Together they made a sequence entitled Rudge Loses His Head, in which, examination of the slides revealed Friese-Greene played the body from which Rudge’s head seemingly detaches.

Later F-G worked with Mortimer Evans to develop a camera capable of taking a rapid series of pictures – 6-7 frames a second and potentially up to 100 all in 1890 (but not projectable onto a sheet for gasping policemen…).

William Friese-Green
Then there was Frederick Varley who had devised a machine for weighing mediums – to work out the impact of ectoplasmic discharge (ew!) – and with whom F-G came up with a stereoscopic camera.

After Friese-Greene’s reputation has been trashed until the point he was claimed to have contributed very little, it is ironic that a review of his choice of collaborators shows just how significant he actually was. Maybe he just wasn’t good at the PR aspect – and we know he struggled at business. Edison – a master at both, didn’t acknowledge Dickson’s role (and others’) in his’ company’s developments whilst even Le Prince wouldn’t have captured Leeds on film without James Langley’s camera.

Peter Domankiewicz also makes films and further details can be found on his site.

Elizabeth Watkins – Scientific Photography and the Fantastic in Polar Expedition Films: Reading the Notebooks of Fred Gent

There was collaboration on a grander scale in the pioneering films of Herbert Ponting who filmed the Scott’s expeditions and Frank Hurley who worked with Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton.

Their work was not only driven by commercial imperatives but also a supplement to established methods of scientific documentation and not juts in extensive sequences of penguins. Watkins work has focused on the influence of Fred Gent, General Manager for Gaumont (Sydney) on the resultant expedition films from the selection of camera equipment even as far as lecture rights and exhibition work.

There were some gorgeous tinted and colour shots (applied colour) of polar landscapes – Arch Berg, Castle Berg and so on which used a colour-coding following Gaumont’s lead: green for wildlife and so on. The use of colour is part of the performance and I had never thought about how specific that could be.

Castle Berg, William Ponting 1911


Andrew Shail – The UK Film Market, 1907-1912

In case you didn’t know, by day I’m a marketeer and I love data – not in a Cambridge Analytica way – but as a means of understanding behaviours and better supporting customer service delivery (yes, I’m one of the Marketing Good Guys…).

I was therefore naturally in awe of firstly Andrew Shail’s – and later Nyasha Sibanda’s – data-driven analysis. Historical analysis rarely gets the chance to use a quantitative approach and Andrew’s database of some 19,000 films from 1907 to 1912 has enabled him to draw some startling conclusions about the UK film market. The data was captured from the Kinematograph Film Review and represents around 90% of the domestic film market – an over-whelming sample ration in terms of likely accuracy.

Changes in source of origin. Hard work and copyright Andrew Shail
It reveals a huge growth in the number of production companies issuing films in the UK, from just 7 in the first quarter of 1907 to 78 in Oct-Dec 1912. What’s more the country of origin, whilst being surprisingly varied with film from Italy, Denmark and even Japan part of the regular imports.
UK and France dominate until the start of 1912 when US output accelerates away, a few years before I expected with the Great War. Italian production also come in a healthy third (not unexpected perhaps) which Nordisk consistently contributes a steady flow of increasingly lengthy films. A fascinating glimpse of the size and scale of the new media as it matured during its second decade.

Lucie Dutton – From Glib-Smooth-Tongued Travellers to Cabbages: Maurice Elvey and British Distribution in the 1910s

Now for another of the traditional highlights of BSFFS, Lucie Dutton’s revelations on our most prolific film-maker and a maker of grand cinema almost the equal of Griffith (without the, you know…). In a day when so many themes interlinked, Lucie had analysed cinema advertising in Derby that showed up to 70% of films shown to be of US origin with just 21% being British.

It was therefore crucial for Mr Elvey to establish good relationships with renters and much of the director’s early film-making was shaped more by distributors than production companies: he saw himself as the producer of “the cabbage” reliant on the wholesaler to deliver to the greengrocers – i.e. the cinema. Even in the case of Elvey’s passion project – some cabbage! – which he sold to Apex for £15,000, they enabled him to make a “director’s cut” that had more action (re-shoots after some sequences were lost), educational content (the moving plans of the battles), illustrated intertitles and those stirring shots of modern warships.

It's that man again. Courtesy of Lucie Dutton
Another lovely snippet was the schools essay competition of which four entries survive detailing the pupils’ responses to the films. General agreement was that we’d love to read their reviews!

Neil Parsons – American movie-maker Harold Shaw as an agent of British Influence 1916-1920

Harold Shaw was born in Kentucky but came to work in Britain where he perhaps surprisingly produced a string of films that supported our role in the world.  Shaw seemingly succeeded in making a pro-Boer film that kept the British onside, Winning a Continent (1916) and went on to wrote a pro-Empire, Anglo-Zulu epic, The Symbol of Sacrifice (1918). He eventually made his own film, The Rose of Rhodesia (1918) and from there an anti-Bolshevik romance about a character called Lenoff (geddit?), The Land of Mystery (1920) which was immensely popular, re-assuring in the turbulent times…

He appears to have grasped the counter-intuitive notions of influential propaganda: giving the benefit of some doubt to the opposition.

The Imperial Film Company Ltd presents...


Chris Grosvenor – ‘Wake Up!’: British Cinema, the Outbreak of War, and the Voluntary Recruiting Movement, 1914-1916

Before the huge hits of The Somme (1916) and The Battle of the Ancre (1917) which showed those at home exactly what life was life on the front line, there were other films which were filmed on training grounds and were aimed at encouraging volunteers before the introduction of conscription in 1916. Long before the War Office set up its own committee for war-related film production, the British film industry was already doing its bit with a host of “invasion” films such as Wake Up! Or a Dream of Tomorrow (1914).

Is it to our credit that our government didn’t “industrialise” this propaganda process from the outset? Chris Grosvenor’s research highlights how – mostly - united in thought Britain was at this time.

A story book produced to accompany the film, Wake Up!

Ellen Cheshire – The Lads of the Village: From Stage to screen to court

Now for one of the day’s most shocking revelations… The Lads of the Village was a hugely popular stage play that was made into a film in 1919 (you can watch it on the BFI Player here). It was written by Clifford Harris and a man known simply as Valentine with music from James Tate. Ellen blew Valentine’s cover; his real name was Archibald Peachy, who also used the writer’s nom-de-plume of Mark Cross and who just happened to father Fany Craddock probably the UK’s first TV chef and a legend beyond her own lunch and dinner time.

Ellen is involved with Portsmouth’s Kings Theatre and as part of a research initiative, the Great War Theatre project, she discovered that it’s position in the busy naval port had meant it premiered a number of First World War propaganda plays including “Lads…” which the team re-staged in 2017.

The film turned out to be controversial, at least with the three original creators who sued Joe Peterman, the producer of both play and film, for using the story which he clearly felt, stripped of its 14 songs, was not their copyright.

Those Lads and that pig.
Christina Hink – Wonderful London in the 1920s

Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller’s 1924 travelogue series, Wonderful London provides a precious insight into London in the midst of change and, thankfully a BFI DVD is available of the twelve surviving films. Christina looked at the history and form of two of the films, London’s Sunday and London Old and New to show existing tensions in a city stuck between ancient and modern. It was ever thus with change the only guarantee as indeed is contrast whether between East and West, rich and poor or the future and the past.

East is East and West is Best...
Llewella Chapman – Government Policy on Filming at Hampton Court Palace, 1910-1930

As with precious architectural heritage, sometimes the powers that be just don’t understand what they’ve got until, regrettably, it’s gone…

Also, suspicious of the new-ish medium the Governments of the day were always cautious about allowing their precious property to be used as a backdrop for cheap shot entertainments. But gradually, as is our hallmark, they allowed more access, specifically to Hampton Court as Llewella’s research shows. In spite of films such as Hampton Court Palace (1926) – available on theBFI Player right now - the landowners were still not fully understanding the purpose of the films and their power in promoting their architectural wares.

Oh, the goings on in Hampton Court...


John Izod – Arthur Dulay and John Grierson: fitting Drifters (1929)

Sarah Neely read Mr Izod’s words as he was sadly unable to make it and she did a grand job. The research has uncovered a fascinating instruction sheet for musicians to help them play along appropriately to John Grierson’s Drifters (1929).

The film was accompanied by an orchestra for its premier and thereafter was “fitted” both tonally and prescriptively with the themes and tunes on this instruction sheet. On the right were instructions for disc operators – the disc jockeys of their day – and on the left was a list of music and playing styles for live accompaniment. I especially liked some of the instructions: “stormy agitated” and “flowering involvement” sound grand!

Not surprisingly The Clarion reviewed the film in 1930 as “a poetry of sound”.

Arthur Dulay's sinister agitations...

Geoff Brown – Did Britain Really Invent Film Sound?

Geoff Brown gave yet another of his witty talks and his humour so perfectly suited the subject matter of hurt Great British pride as those American’s took our baby and made it run. Returning to Mr Christie’s discussion of “first-ness”, Geoff explained how domestic efforts were made to claim the breakthrough of “sound” as well as vision. No doubt there were sound commercial reasons for this and the need to remain competitive, but it does feel a little… unreserved.

It was war, ladies and gents, a war against the impending invasion of high-tech American sound especially as viewed by those who viewed talkies as Hollywood’s revenge for the British quota system introduced in 1927. Bringing the day full circle, it was around this time when the “legend” of William Friese-Greene began to develop along with other British pioneers such as Eadweard Muybridge. As Geoff intimates thought, it doesn’t matter who came first just why exactly they were suddenly supposed to have been.

White heat of Brit-talkie invention
Nyasha Sibanda – Sound Arrives at the Tudor 1927-1931

Back to data and the rewards of a good spreadsheet well defined, maintained and interpreted! Nyasha has applied tremendous method to the ledgers of Leicester’s Tudor Cinema by data capturing tickets sold, revenue receipts, films screened over the silent era and into sound.

His findings were most enlightening showing the most popular films from 1927-29 with Ben-Hur just pipping Chaplin’s The Circus to top spot with 9,573 tickets sold. Maurice Elvey features twice with the most excellent Hindle Wakes (1928) and Mademoiselle from Armentieres (1927). The latter wasn’t the only feature I’d not heard of with something called Johnny Get Your Hair Cut staring Jackie Coogan in at number six!

British films do better in the silent era and, proving Geoff’s points about British defensiveness, after sound, Hollywood becomes ever more dominant. That said analysis of the audience feedback forms showed that they did prefer British voices but then you didn’t get many US films without an English accent…

Leicester's Top Ten: how many have you seen?

Laraine Porter – Elstree melodies and ‘the charm of the English voice’: musical moments in early British talkies

Laraine picked up on that “English voice” – seriously good programming! – and discussed the emergence of home-grown musicals which at one point made up a third of the total output from British studios featuring stars such as Jan Kiepura, one of Laraine’s favourites. Chasing what they saw as popular tastes and much to the distaste of the snobbish Close Up magazine (honestly, did they like anything?!) there was even a pop song in Blackmail with Miss Up to Date as sung by the grabby artist himself, Cyril Ritchard. The curse of the “theme song” struck the shadowlands of so many shandy silent/talkies with Sonny Boy the dubious template before full-scale musicals such as Elstree Calling (1930) all trying to emulate American successes. Despite the emergency of home grown talents such as Jessie Mathews and, later Gracie Fields and George Formby the British musical failed to compete with Americana much beyond the end of the decade. Maybe it was just not our style?

Cyd sings
By now the sun had heated our Kings College lecture room to levels that would parch a camel. It was time to re-locate and the Edgar Wallace pub awaited eager drinkers…

This was another highly successful event from the KC and BSFF team and today’s talks the most impressive of the three I’ve attended. More next year please Dr Napper!

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Night for day… British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2018, Day One, Phoenix Cinema

The sun’s out, cracking the flags in London on the hottest day of the year and we just don’t care, we’re sat in the dark in a 108-year old purpose-built cinema watching ultra-rare British silent films, well, mostly silent…

Phonofilm programme 'Mainly Men - A Night in the Music Hall 1925-1928' a selection of early sound shorts of cabaret acts presented by Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher’s sessions on early sound films are a bit of a tradition at the BSFFS and they are always fascinating, rewarding his ling hours of subterranean research. They show the ghosts of musical hall past and give a real insight into the performance style and cultural mores of variety as well as the period of silent film. They also prove, without doubt, that we are a country of weirdos with a sense of humour to match.

We started off with gondoliers in Clapham with Billy Merson singing his popular ditty, “You and I and my Gondola” a parody of more earnest poetry from the likes of Robert Service. Then Charles Patton pleaded “If Your Face Wants to Laugh, Well Let It” and in a way we almost did. The Plattier Brothers turned a gag involving bird-song into a sketch which was gruesome in so many ways as one brother flirted with the other using only the sounds of nightingales; they were French you see, and such esoteric whimsy was no doubt a novelty.

Billy Merson played the Manchester Palace Theatre in 1921, once nightly and every afternoon.
Dandy George was more typical fare teasing a highly-drilled terrier into performing tricks and at one point holding him by the feet as he “stood” to attention. We simply don’t know how many terriers he worked with over the years after his first “partner” Rosie passed after a short retirement. A Doggy Ditty followed from George Jackley which was more properly A “Dodgy” Ditty by today’s standards but who doesn’t still make jokes about their mother-in-law? Ahem.

Teddy Elben’s version of He Walked Right In featured the fab Phonofilm Cabaret Girls strutting their stuff including the “new Black Bottom Dance” – there were four girls but only three danced due to constraints of space and the need to keep Teddy in shot.

Now, Hal Jones, who I am sure you all know as the famous Lancashire Comedian, sang a song about Swistles which seemed to be a condensed milk not unlike that produced by Nestle. It was a shaggy dog of a song which featured a laboured refrain that proper got my goat… still, it were funny and I did used to so love condensed milk sandwiches myself: colly-olly sarnies as my Mum called them.

Kids, don't try this at home
Jack Hodges – The Raspberry King and a big influence on Spike Milligan (remember the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town…), was an inventive musical comic who in addition to fruity flavours also mastered the musical saw.

The highlight for me was the Coney Island Six – American jazz musicians who not only could play but dance as well. In Syncopation and Song (1927), they took turns in singing, dancing and swapping instruments whipping up a storm of high-energy trad that almost had us up and dancing in the aisles. And that’s jazz!

Ships That Pass in the Night (1921), Cyrus Gabrysch

“Despite its lack of plot and pessimistic tone… Whatever its value as entertainment, it is undoubtedly an artistic success.” The Bioscope, 29th September 1921

Bit of a tone poem this one and controversially so… the audience split in fierce debate over whether this mountain drama was too mannered, too lacking in event and, indeed, whether it was good at all and, even, better than Black Narcissus!?

Ships don’t just pass in the night and this was an absorbing and unflinching tale about honesty and difficult loyalties. Adapted from Beatrice Harraden’s novel of the same name, published in 1893, the story is a deliberation more than a drama and, set amongst your actual Swiss alps at Davos Platz, is lovely to look at… as amongst all this casual beauty, life slips away.

Francis Roberts plays Robert Allisten a “disagreeable man” who is an architect on the way up, he’s devoted to his work and his mother equally and she (Irene Rooke) to him; clearly the love of her life. Just as his designs for a new city hall are accepted he is delivered a “death sentence” – a diagnosis of TB which, in this pre-antibiotic age, could only be treated by a shift to altitude. So it is that he must tear up his blueprint and abandon his ambition.

Beatrice Harraden
In a Swiss kurhaus he prepares to convalesce in misery barely touched by the lives of those around him and feeling an obligation to keep living if only for his mother’s sake. He encounters his emotional counter in the form of bookseller’s daughter Bernadine Holme (Filippi Dowson) who is a warm a he is cold.

Also, there are the Reffolds, he (Arthur Vezin) dying and she, Einifred (Daisy Markham) still vibrant and looking for life. Contrasts are clear between this relationship and Robert’s with his mother: he is obliging himself into misery whilst Einifred is refusing to end her life just because her love is losing his. Einifred finds an enabling conscience in Bernadine who is happy to spend time with her husband; she also looks straight into the heart of uncomfortably dark truths but sees only light. So, it is that she is amused rather than repelled by the difficult architect and gradually his Vulcan heart begins to melt.

It moves quicker than a glacier and is thoroughly absorbing as it wrong foots all expectations of polite romantic progression as death takes people as casually as breathing. Percy Nash who directed a decent 1920 version of Hobson’s Choice (available on BFI Player) clearly relished the mix of interior and exterior spectacular and fills his deceptive, possibly transgressive teapot with a simmering mix of very British pragmatism.

Random pic of Daisy Markham, this film is digitally-speaking, deep, deep undercover...
Joan Ritz – Nash’s Maggie in Hobson – plays the mother of an alpine family befriended by Robert whose husband dies – literally slipping away – while out on the slopes with the former Architect. The family is distraught, even Robert feels it, but we’re all so fragile. For himself, Robert feels too much obligation for his obsessively devoted mother to move on, only when she dies can he decide for himself whether to commit to more love with Bernadine.

There aren’t many films that address the ties that bind in such a direct way and Percy Nash’s film is quite unlike any other British silent that I’ve seen in this respect. It’s not so much that nothing happens – plenty does – but the drama is all in the emotion and not the action which is underplayed to the extent of sometimes being off-screen.

All of this was duly noted in an accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrisch who relished the emotional pacing and dynamic scenery, filling those spaces with compact lines that weaved around the delicate drama on screen. It must have been interesting to play for such a “narrow band” picture - especially when you haven't seen it beforehand - but Cyrus’ musical statements defused slowly along with the rarefied flavours of the film. 

French Soldiers in Bolibar

The Marquis of Bolibar
[AKA The Betrayal] (1928), Stephen Horne

If Ships was perhaps too real, our final film of the day was magically-real with strange things afoot in the Peninsular War in 1811, with the French lined up against the British and the Spanish, occupied, and stuck in the middle.

Directed with panache by Walter Summers and photographed superbly by Jack Parker, this was a good-looking if patchy film shot partly in Malta - in Ħaż-Żebbuġ and Mdina - featuring thousands of Maltese extras for the battle scenes. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Summers action-film experience – this was the film made directly after The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) - the story opens in dynamic style as French soldiers move in on a British encampment. Led by Lieutenant Donop (Michael Cogan) they emerge from dark smoky waters like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (kind of) and sneak up the shore to spy on the enemy.

It’s a set piece that isn’t quite matched through the rest of the film but there are many stylish moments that come close and whilst we were warned that the plot may be a little wayward, it did make sense in an uncanny way, helped in no small measure by the spirited accompaniment from Stephen Horne fresh from recent travels to the Americas and taking this all in his stride.

Elissa Landi
The story revolves around a promise from the titular Marquis (Jerrold Robertshaw) to help the allies re-take his town through three warnings. The first will be a plume of smoke which is their signal to block off the town, destroy all bridges (there are some explosive moments) and prevent any relief from outside. The second will be the church organ playing at which point the people will rise up and civil disruption will distract the French. The final and decisive message will be the delivery of the Marquis’ knife, signalling that the town is ready for storming. The Marquis is confident and predicts that he’ll easily find his way back into Bolibar and be eating off the table at French army HQ. Unfortunately, Lt Donop has heard every word and makes good his escape to report back.

The tone changes – almost alarmingly - after the breathless news is broken and we meet the officers, each of whom has enjoyed a liaison with the Colonel Bellay’s late wife Francoise-Marie (Elissa Landi). There’s young blonde Lt. Gunther (Carl Harbord) whose flashback reverie is rudely interrupted by the boorish Captain Brockendorf (Evelyn Roberts) who, despite the impediments of character and moustache also enjoyed a dalliance as did Dapt. Egolstein (Cecil Barry) and, of course, our brave Donop. As for the Colonel (Hubert Carter) it’s hard to see what the young woman saw in him, but he remains obsessed with this lost love.

Bolibar does indeed smuggle himself into the French officers’ mess but it found out and sentenced to a firing squad. Before he dies though he tries to speak to his friends but then enigmatically tells the men that God will them in what needs to be done.

Before the Lord can start moving in mysterious ways, we learn that the Colonel has discovered a young Spanish woman who looks exactly like Francoise-Marie, La Monita (also played by Elissa Landi – so versatile!). Naturally, the officers also see the similarity and fall for her as much as F-M Mark 1. There follows a courting that is almost all a-forgetting that there’s a bloomin’ war on and, needless to say, the men’s actions start to fulfil the Marquis’ prophecies almost as if there was an invisible guiding hand…

Cast of thousands
It’s hokum but enjoyable and it’s not always about the quality it’s exactly the experience of sharing a film in plush seats with very fine accompaniment. On this point Mr Horne delivered providing musical special effects were sometimes the film lacked them: a duet inside from the Sun.

As we walked outside, blinking in the unseasonal bright, we managed to get all of the way across the road before entering the welcoming shadows of a public house.

Day One done and the next day was to be even hotter…

Take your seats and remove your hats.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The spy who came on to the cool… The Adjutant of the Czar (1929), with Meg Morley, BFI

Febrile crowd, chants of "Ivan, Ivan!!" echoing across the Thames, tourists looking nervously on as the enhanced police presence struggled to maintain order… it could only mean that Russia’s premier silent actor was playing at the Southbank. Yes indeed, as far as the fan-girls and boys were concerned, there are no faults in this Czar and a packed NFT 2 attested to the actor’s appeal following on from the London Film Festival Screening of Casanova last autumn when a middle-aged male blogger fainted.

Calming down a little, there is no doubt that Ivan Mozzhukhin always delivers and his extraordinary screen presence is not just that of a White Russian Valentino, he’s his own mix of undeniable masculinity and feline expression. Technically he’s more aligned with modern sensibilities than most silent Hollywood males and he’s just fascinating to watch: diffident, remote, sometimes insecure, passionate and valorous… as unpredictable as almost anyone else.

See, feline...
This was also the BFI debut of the Bioscope’s own Meg Morley, who is so stylistically flexible herself being an improvisational jazz player by trade as well as a nuanced film accompanist. There’s so much character in Meg’s playing, I was really interested to hear her Mozzhukhin-Mix and she did not disappoint with improvisations that sounded so context-contemporary, with fulsome phrasing that tracked emotion and narrative with classical lines and evocations of screwball-to-come: Carole Lombard could well have been in the room and she was having a jaunty conversation with Maurice Ravel and Paul Whiteman.*

The Adjutant of the Czar (Der Adjutant des Zaren) was a German production directed by Ivan’s fellow exile Vladimir Strizhevsky. It is, of course, quite different from the films of their former countrymen, although we did have some quick-fire montage towards the end.

Carmen Boni and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Bryony Dixon introduced and explained that this was one of Ivan’s rarer films, the only copy being in Denmark where the DFI had produced this restoration. Like all of Ivan’s pictures it is worth watching and whilst it’s no classic it is none-the-less the kind of good quality watch that, if anything, gives modern watchers more of the flavour of late period silent than the truly great moments from say, Dreyer, Pabst and Vidor.

The programme notes included a “review” from British trade mag, The Bioscope, which made the extraordinary claim that our hero was “wooden” and showed “little emotional power”. Yeah, right. Ivan Mozzhukhin is a talent of World-historic cultural importance whilst The Bioscope is no longer published.

Full English?
The story begins with Strangers on a Train and ends a bit like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (only not quite as cold…). Ivan plays Prince Boris Kurbski who is the titular Adjutant and is returning by train to St Petersburg on the back of a cancelled engagement. In the dining car, he encounters a young Italian woman Helena di Armore (Carmen Boni) who is struggling to communicate her order, he translates for her and is quickly demonstrating just why his fiancée felt he wasn’t a keeper, with appreciative glances and an agenda...

At the border Helena’s papers are stolen by a shift-looking bloke in a scruffy beard and trench coat (Alexander Granach), passport-less there’s no way she can press on to her important engagement in St Petersburg but Boris hatches a plan: he can pass her off as his wife and smuggle her through.

Carmen Boni
The plan succeeds and there’s a Hitchcockian tension in their compartment as she gets changed and he watches her shadow and stares at her sleeping (honestly, if it was anyone else, I’d be worried). Back home, Boris’ friends and colleagues are delighted with his new wife and there’s no easy way out of close proximity for attractive man and attractive woman… One thing leads to a dozen others and before you know it they’re getting wed for real with two more – huge - twists to come.

Boris returns to duty but is instructed to return home and look after his bride only to find her off out… he follows her to the darker end of town and is astonished to overhear the real reason for her mission to Russia, their meeting and subsequent marriage.

There’s superb cinematography from Nikolai Toporkoff at this moment as a close up on Boris’ anguished face is followed by a zoom through wooden door to a room with dozens of conspiratorial faces half lit as they peer over our old friend the scruffy-bearded bag-snatcher. he is busy de-briefing Helena – who is a spy, sent to get close to the Russian court and off-load an explosive device at the first target-rich social event.

But she is begging her comrades to be relieved of duty as she has, genuinely, fallen for the man she was meant to entrap and wants no more of their plot. But, no one gets to walk away from the, whatever-group-they’re-supposed-to-be, and Helena is trapped. There’s worse to come though as now Boris knows and whilst he’s also in love with his wife, this is a tough one…

On the run
This all works so well as Strizhevsky takes the time to really establish his characters, from the two leads who are both superb to warm supporting types such as the Prince's manservant (Daniel Dolski) and his Generals Koloboff (George Seroff) and Trunoff (Fritz Alberti). Even the authority figure of Baron Korff (Eugen Burg) who begins to suspect Boris and Helena’s relationship is shown to be decently professional as well as slightly scary.

The chemistry between Mozzhukhin and Carmen Boni is terrific and you really believe in their situation just as you root for their eventual happiness. It’s light, romantic and with enough genuine jeopardy to keep you anxious.

And Meg was with them all the way, on the train, through slapstick and sedition to a thrilling chase involving horse-drawn carriages. A thoroughly entertaining debut and top quality support for arguably the greatest silent smoulderer. #MegAndMozz

* Ravel was fascinated with jazz and met Gershin, Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke on a trip to New York in 1928. Find out more here...

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Shacked up... The Canadian (1926), Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Mona Palma and Thomas Meighan
One of the real treats of attending the Kennington Bioscope is not only watching films from Kevin Brownlow’s collection but also hearing his introductions. As the noughties game used to have it, we’re all six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon but in Kennington we’re just three degrees through Kevin Brownlow to so many silent film stars, cast and crew.

Kevin not only met William Beaudine, The Canadian’s director, he also helped put on a screening of the film so that, having been too busy in the first instance, it’s director could finally see it 44 years after its run. Ill health almost prevented Beaudine attending and he wouldn’t give an introduction until the audience and he had a chance to see it the film was actually any good… after applause during and after the film, he got up on stage and announced his surprise that he wasn’t that bad director, in patches at least.

The Canadian is indeed a decent movie and has many similarities to Victor Sjöström’s later film The Wind (1928) a film found in very good quality in the UK prompting one US archivist to tell Kevin that they only had “the poor man’s Wind”… Whilst The Canadian is not as good as that nor City Girl (1928), another later film featuring a sea of wheat, it is a very good movie and accompanied by Lillian Henley’s perfectly-paced piano – lots of lovely, patient lines, so sure of tone - had more than one of this battle-hardened silent audience to wipe salty fluid from their eye: we’ve coped with Chaplin, Stella Dallas, Joan of Arc… but then this!?

Beaudine had been primarily a comedy director and, seeing out his contract to MGM as a lucrative loanee with Paramount, he took a chance and took the all expenses trip up to Canada to make a drama based on a 1913 play, The Land of Promise, by W. Somerset Maugham of all people. He was accompanied by cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff who ended up being assisted by a curious electrician, Stanley Cortez, who stayed up all night studying the cameras hoping to find a more better role. He ended up as Orson Wells cinematographer on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

See, from Kevin Brownlow to Orson Wells in three moves!

Nora Marsh (Mona Palma, who bears a passing resemblance to City Girl’s Mary Duncan…) has had to leave the “culture and poverty” of Britain (and this in 1926!!) following the death of her aunt. She travels way out west to stay with her brother Ed (Wyndham Standing) and his wife Gertie (Dale Fuller, who has a face you never forget and was so good in von Stroheim’s Greed).

Nora’s no explorer and quickly finds both the locale and the locals distasteful. She’s full of airs and graces and appalled by the rough and ready approach to dining; eating with a fork and no napkins. Chief amongst the louts is Frank Taylor (mighty Thomas Meighan) who is as incredulous as she at each other’s startling incompatibility.

But it’s not Frank Nora needs to worry about, at least not yet, Gertie’s a reasonable girl but when she finds her sister in law not only knows literally nothing about housework but continues to lord it over her and the men, she cracks and picks a fight Nora can only loose.

Thus it is, slightly improbably, that after being forced into the most humiliating of apologies, Nora offers her desperate hands in marriage to Frank who had previously said that he only wanted a woman to cook and clean. The two are wed in cold contractual misery and then face life together in a cold, tiny wooden shack that makes Lars Hanson’s gaff in The Wind look positively palatial.

There a thousand tiny terrors start to unfold including the issue of marital intimacy… like a gent Frank sleeps in the main room leaving Mona the bedroom. But, the pressure builds, and things are about to get a lot more intense.

The Canadian deserves its own reputation and both leads excel. I knew what to expect from Mr Thomas Meighan, but Mona Palma was also very good – pride just about trumping fear until she learns to adapt.

There’s also a nice turn from Charles Winninger as Pop Tyson who dances a mean jig!

Up first was an eclectic and satisfying mix of shorts the best of which was It’s A Gift (1923) which featured Snub Pollard in a small metal car propelled by his use of a giant magnet to follow other vehicles; it’s an iconic image and now I know which film it was from! Snub plays a scientist who has an automated breakfast and wake up routine similar to Wallace in The Wrong Trousers: we’d all like to pull a few strings to get our breakfast made and trousers hitched.

The gifted Mr Pollard
There was also an oddity called Life’s Staircase (1915) featuring a couple reading and ripping up old love letters, she ranged left and he, right, as the circumstances of each letter and token place alongside, double-exposed. It’s about marriage and the prototype relationships we leave behind, and it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim vs The World in which our hero must battle all his girl’s previous partners. In this film he’d only have to get married and they’d all fade away.

First film was a dreamy confection from Louis Feuillade all about Spring (1909) which featured lots of women dancing in flowing white dresses. It was impressive, but I was concerned about the safety of the numerous doves held aloft during the calisthenics.

My garden, today
If you like ladies in swimming costumes, an episode of the long running women’s cinemagazine, Eve’s Film Review, was about to explore how “Eve’s” swimming costume has shrunk since the 1880’s. There was definitely a trend on the evidence presented and cause for concern for some but boy, were they in for a shock twenty year’s later.

Felix the Cat started life in Eve’s Film Review and he popped up trying to win a battle with a clown for the hand of a doll in Toy Land. Itchy won (or was it Scratchy?) and the romance between paper cat and human doll went to plan but oh, Mr Hays were you not watching?!

Meg Morley matched these broad themes with an assured eclecticism of her own: if you can accompany cartoon cats, Doves in danger, Snubb’s auto race and swimming-costumed women washing elephants in Manchester zoo, then you can probably cope with anything.

Another superb evening at the one and only Kennington Bioscope c/o The Cinema Museum! Thanks to Lillian and Meg for playing, Michelle Facey (the shorts: meticulous research as usual!) and Kevin Brownlow (his film!) for introducing, Dave Locke for projecting and to everyone who keeps this special place going.

PS For Ladies Only? Eve's Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33 by Jenny Hammerton looks fascinating and is available on Amazon!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The gypsies and the tramp… The Adventurer (1917), ZRI, Kings Place

ZRI describe themselves as a Viennese tavern band and when I first saw them they were producing an exhilarating take on Brahms and the gypsy music from which he took so much inspiration. He was a regular drinker and listener at a Viennese tavern called The Red Hedgehog (Zum Roten Igel…) where he immersed himself in the music of tavern bands, inspired to compose his Hungarian Dances and much more.

These ‘Gypsy’ bands were diverse included Jews, Greeks and Russians as well as Hungarian Roma, they might even have included the odd tramp or two. Which may or may not have any bearing on the latest step in their evolution, they may well have rushed off to play an evening of Schubert in Stoke Newington but this afternoon they were attempting something completely new: accompanying a silent without a safety net for the first time.

These are all superlative musicians, classically-trained and disciplined, yet also capable of extemporisation and improvisation the two do not always go hand in hand. Matching wits against Charlie Chaplin at his most mercurial in The Adventurer, is probably not the safest place to start but it’s what Brahms (probably) would have wanted had he (somehow) been given the choice.

Henry Bergman, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin
ZRI seem to feed off each other as much as their notation and adding a sixth member to the dynamic allowed them to add an extra dimension and, not only were the group watching the film as they played they were also laughing – especially Iris Pissaride who soldiered on with the santouri through every smile. As accordionist Jon Banks said afterwards, even though you know what’s coming it’s still funny and the band are more than tight enough to roll with every unexpected plop of ice cream, kick and pratfall.

The score was a mix of Charlie-contemporary flavours from Limehouse Blues, Brother Can You Spare a Dime (sung so expressively by cellist and multi-tasker extraordinaire Matthew Sharp) to a final acapella version of Chaplin’s Smile which moistened many a watching eye. There were also more “classical” pieces with rip-roaring escalations of Ben Harlan’s clarinet and Max Baillie’s violin which are trademark ZRI, bringing “the gypsy” out from the more ordered settings of Brahms and others.

They split the film into four parts, freezing the action and playing “interludes” which may be sacrilege for some, but it worked as the tone was maintained and quite clearly the players were enjoying themselves.

Edna Purviance, Marta Golden and Charlie Chaplin
The Adventurer was Chaplin’s last film for Mutual and shows the maturation of his style as he began to reach for longer form comedy. Even though he had settled his tramp persona this film features a more malicious Charlie than some might expect. For a start he is an escaped convict, there’s no back story on his innocence or otherwise, and then there’s his fondness for alcohol and life’s baser pleasures. He nobly dives in to save a drowning woman at a seaside resort but quickly switches target when he sees her daughter (the divine Edna Purviance). He also saves the girl’s would-be suitor, big and beardy Eric Campbell, only to drop him back in the water again.

Charlie’s battle with Eric intensifies as he gains acceptance in polite society and with the girl’s parents, even her father, played by Henry Bergman, who is a judge who vaguely recognises him… Eric also spies mischief when Charlie’s mugshot is shown in the newspaper and the police return only to provide our (anti?) hero with more opportunities to humiliate them through swiftness and comic invention few could match. Forget “sentimental” Chaplin, this is Charlie the Punk and he wears it well.

ZRI: Max Baillie, Jon Banks, Matthew Sharp, Ben Harlan and Iris Pissaride
So punk and classical do mix and this was a thoroughly enjoyable – sold out – adventure for band and audience from which only a live Charlie was missing. As ever the live setting brought out the best in both sight and sound; it’s almost as if Charlie knows we’re laughing (long before 1917 he was *sure*.)

I hope ZRI carry on this adventure as they are made for jazz-age capering. Chaplin was a world-wide success by 1917 and you can imagine The Adventurer being screened not just in Vienna and Hungary but in New York with jazz, klezmer, classical and all manner of folk music similarly deployed as accompaniment.

Both music and silent cinema were expressions of migrated creativity and ZRI’s music shares its roots with the same sources, the melting pot of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which itself fed out West as the Twentieth Century began to take its toll.

More details of ZRI are available on their website - I urge you to seek them out! 

“Smile though your heart is breaking, smile… ”