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!

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