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.

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