Thursday, 31 May 2018

Nevertheless, they persisted… The Suffragette (1913), Make More Noise with Wendy Hiscocks, Barbican

These films were being shown as part of the Barbican’s Nevertheless, She Persisted: Suffrage, Cinema and Beyond - the Art of Change – a season to mark the centenary of some women first getting the vote. Very few films survive documenting either the suffragette movement in action or fictional depictions and those that do, tend to have a negative view of the disruption.  This was a point made by researcher, writer and performer Dr Naomi Paxton in her introduction and even when the films were sympathetic they had to overcome censorship. Naomi researches the performative propaganda of the suffrage movement and it was fascinating to hear her thoughts on this selection of shorts, newsreel and the main feature: more noise was being made and by a mass movement across society.

By 1914 there were over fifty suffrage societies with the Women’s Social and Political Union (whose colours were the iconic purple, white and green), the Women’s Freedom League (green and gold) and the National Union Woman’s Suffrage Society (red, white and green) who were the oldest and largest.

The men of Widnes, where my grandfather lived, supporting suffrage
These groups were adept at using media as it was to get their point across… whether it was those colour ways of their branding, the use of photographs taken in the heart of protest marches or post cards of suffragette leaders doing routine household tasks to show they weren’t distracted from the daily tasks of motherhood. They were fighting a propaganda war but, unlike the movement satirised in our main feature, never aimed at injury and assassination – the only lives lost being their own.

The first part of the programme included a series of short films that were drawn from the BFI’s Make More Noise compilation: the cinema of suffrage. They were a mix of newsreel, comedy and reportage from 1901 to 1918 including two reports on the Derby day death of Emily Davison. In the first the race was shown with no comment on the incident but in the second we could clearly see her step out and be smashed down to the ground as she attempted to pin a rosette on the King’s horse… Footage of her funeral followed; clearly a major event with tens of thousands lining the route.

A democratic revolution
There are crowds throughout this footage, Trafalgar Square rammed with tens of thousands with banners showing support from across the country in largely peaceful process. There’s anxiety in the air though as the police look on anxiously in Whitehall and scuffles break out forcing a quick exit for Sylvia Pankhurst in one sequence. It’s amazing to have history captured so eloquently on screen especially at a time when the capitol’s streets are once again full of protest, for the NHS, against Donald Trump and Brexit… the vote wasn’t the ultimate aim of democracy and “noise” continues to be made.

The fiction in this mix is mostly comedic – a reaction against the disruption and one picking up on contemporary bemusement as well as anxiety. But this is Britain and so the idea of strong, independent women is both a funny thing as well as an odd idea… things being always as they seem to be anyway.

Chrissie White shows that wife is not the weaker...
Thus we have Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) in which a man gains revenge on his pal for accusing him of being hen-pecked by lining him up with a fitness instructor for his wife – played by Chrissie White (aka Tilly) who was in so much British film at this time. Here, as elsewhere, she demonstrates a keen feel for comedy as well as some impressive physicality, eventually having her husband cowering as she raises her fists. These moments do cut both ways though and in Milling the Militants, a man called Brown dreams of abolishing the suffragettes only to wake and have to face up to his fatherly responsibilities. 

Anarchy in the UK: Alma Taylor and Chrissie White as Tilly
Then in the Tilly series, Alma Taylor and Chrissie White play merry havoc with social norms by cheeking their way through anarchic adventures which must have made the women in the audience feel just that bit more amused than the men. The girls disrupt a gathering at their parent’s house, lead the angry guests on a merry chase sat on the handlebars as their boyfriends cycle away. 

The women’s movement was so ingrained in society and so many women went to the pictures… perhaps cinema was more subtly supportive than the government may have thought?

Asta Nielsen rising up!
Now onto the main feature, a tricky proposition in which the Danes and the Germans pass comment on the matter of the British suffrage movement.

Asta Nielsen plays socialite Nelly Panburne, a thinly veiled Pankhurst, who has her pick of suitors from the upper echelons and yet who opts for the unobtainable Lord William Ascue (Max Landa) ...not a million miles from Lord Asquith, Britain’s PM at the time. Nelly’s mother, Mrs Panburne (Mary Scheller), is an aristocratic wife who has decided to join the struggle… even though she could presumably find other entertainment. (By contrast her counterpart, Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), was middle class and from solid Lancastrian socialist stock.)

There's no denying that Asta's character is bored of expected behaviours
She and her “sisters” suck Nelly into their world by showing her people in poverty (hey, sign me up too!!) and, overcome by their zealous fervour, she decides to become a suffragette. Nelly’s first bit of civil disobedience is to smash a shop window for which she is imprisoned. In jail she goes on hunger strike and there is a fairly uncomfortable demonstration of the attempt to force feed her with a rubber tube.

Under Asquith’s odious “Cat and Mouse Act” from 1913, suffragettes were allowed to go on hunger strike and then released when they were too unwell to take part in any further protest… giving the women enough rope to starve themselves. Here Nelly manages to avoid the feeding and is released in good health to a hero’s welcome from the suffragettes. 

Meanwhile Lord Ascue is the driving force behind an attempt to outlaw the suffragette movement. But, being a Liberal, he was having a relationship with one Lola Rodrigues who – scorned – gives her love letters over to the suffragettes so they may use them to blackmail her former lover and stop the legislation.

Book nibbling: so seemingly casual...
Nelly is given the task of delivering the ultimatum to Ascue but, before she leaves, her mother gives her a time bomb which she is to place in his study. Still ignorant of who her enemy is, Nelly plants the bomb and then realises to her horror that her intended victim is also the love of her life…

Once home Nelly tries to draw Ascue away to an assignation, but he already has a meeting planned in his house at precisely the time when the bomb is due to go off. Nelly finally breaks free of the hold the suffragettes have on her and goes to try rescue the Lord. The film is genuinely thrilling for this last section as Nelly struggles to get past the men of officialdom as the clock ticks down on their leader 's meeting… 

At the end there’s a sly intertitle saying “she who rocks the cradle rules the World” which cuts to a picture of Asta and her husband surrounded by four babies… this is so over-the-top it has to be pointed. We’ll never know for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if Asta felt that cradle rocking wasn’t necessarily the be all and end all…

She is such a relaxed and empowered performer, streets away from anyone else in the film in terms of technique in front of the camera. It’s little moments that make her appear so genuine and relaxed, picking up her mother’s pen on the desk as she talks with her or biting the corner of her book as she thinks. If a group of people were able to go back from the future to view her, they’d be hard pressed to know if she was acting. That’s us that is. Asta Nielsen, the future of cinema performance… you heard it here last.

Asta is also glammed up for this role and in addition to blonde highlights in her enormous hair, wears a range of quote outrageously opulent gowns that show just how extravagantly stylish the 1910s could be… how could she be so willing to give up these posh frocks for the poll box?
Asta Nielsen
Composer-pianist Wendy Hiscocks accompanied and brought her considerable experience to bear on the changing tones brought by the mix of news reportage, genuine tragedy and the complexity of Asta’s comedy.  She’s one of those pianists who has absolute surety on the keyboards and gracefully anticipated and responded to every change up on the screen.

Make More Noise is available on BFI DVD  (cheaper at BFI Shop than the other place...) with Lillian Henley’s lovely accompaniment whilst The Suffragette is on the EditionFilmuseum set, Four Films of Asta Nielsenwhich is essential for all those fascinated with the actor who at the very least, co-invented naturalistic film performance half a world away from Hollywood and with foresight and style all of her own.

She persisted and she took control.

* Even the granting of suffrage in 1918 was very limited - women over the age of 30 were given the vote in provided they also met certain property qualifications. It wasn’t until 1928 that suffrage was extended to all women over the age of 21, equal with men… That was the year Emmeline Pankurst passed away, having helped change British society for ever.

She who rocks the cradle?
Good question!

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Her name was Pola … The Spanish Dancer (1923), with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope

Pola dancing, Meg Morley playing… it’s enough to make you forget the Lambeth Walk and  flamenco down the Kennington Road.

In his introduction, Amran Vance quoted Jeanine Basinger on Negri’s ability to present emotion throughout form and here her every extension was balletically convincing in a story which sometimes almost put the pain in Spain. You can’t take your eyes of Pola as she ignites the screen with a power and cultured restraint sadly lacking from Wallace Beery’s boorish performance as King Philip IV.

It’s an odd mix of humour and drama that never threatens to take itself too seriously, although if you think the way to a woman’s heart is to shoot her husband and then seductively surprise her on her wedding night; then be my guest. There was the odd snicker at rather than with, but this tone was not unusual in a time of Fairbanks thrills and Barrymore blockbusters: see, how they laugh in the face of death!

Stitch that Pickford!
Any gripes are dispelled by the ambitious direction of Herbert Brenon and the majesty of Negri in a role that lets her dance, fight and love as only she can. Even in the spaces of a vast royal garden party you can see her movement as she leads an energetic group of gypsies in dancing for the Queen. Pola’s gypsy Maritana is distraught as she reads handsome Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno) his fortune and faces him with a passion Moreno struggles to match. The story was originally written for Rudolph Valentino and was re-tooled for the female lead, but you can’t imagine even he matching the swash in Pola’s buckle. She’s fierce – Lubitsch fierce – and there’s even a scene nicked from Die Bergkatze (1921) in which she douses herself in cologne.

Herbert Brenon had clearly done his homework and, after two so-so films in Hollywood, the former Barbara Apolonia Chałupiec scored her first major hit, one compared favourably with her old pal Ernst Lubitsch’s work with Mary Pickford in the similar tale of Rosita. Brenon gives Pola every opportunity to show her physicality, dancing and fighting as well as riding a horse and it suits the grand scale of his film in ways few leading actresses could match.

Antonio and Pola...
 Brenon has a cast of thousands and in addition to grand garden parties, shoots a mass carnival scene which is given extra atmosphere by tonnes of confetti and expert depth of field from cinematographer James Wong Howe. There’s excellent tracking work which gives a real feeling of atmosphere as the screen is filled with movement.

Against this are the acute emotions of court intimacy as Adolphe Menjou’s Don Salluste tries to manoeuvre King Phil into betraying his French wife, Queen Isabel of Bourbon (an excellent Kathlyn Williams) who really does deserve better. I liked the way the royal characters are introduced as poor old Velasquez tries to paint Phil and his favourite midgets only to be repeatedly interrupted by every significant new arrival.

Then the gypsies run out at the castle of Don Cesar de Bazan (Antonio Moreno) who is about to fall instantly in love, be declared bankrupt and have to go on the run: a rough night on balance. Luckily his fortune-teller reciprocates and even seeks him out the following day to return a purse one of the gypsies had stolen; the only money he has left it turns out.

I can't watch Adolphe without imagining his Irish brogue and I can't watch Wallace without thinking, "poor Gloria..."
The same young gypsy boy who had stolen the purse, Juan (Robert Agnew who was 23 at the time) turns up next as an ill-treated apprentice to a bullying nobleman. Ironically, Don Cesar defends him from his tormentor and ends up breaking the royal decree: no swordplay on carnival day. Things get really complicated as King Phil decides only the gypsy dancer will do for him and all manner of callous enabling is provided by Don Salluste as events spin seriously out of control…

Making sense of all this was Meg Morley whose exuberant and assured accompaniment was filled with so much content all providing subtle tone and colour to the spectacle. Her understated Latin lines and energy kept pace with every sweep, stomp and throw of the hair, not only from Pola but from Señor Moreno too.

Gimme a break 2017, it's a comedy-drama!!
Another superlative spectacle from Lambeth and London’s finest and, as if all of the above were not enough we were treated to three rare and, in one case, possibly unique, 16mmm films from director and collector, Chris Bird.

The first of these was a Georges Méliès film, Paris to Monte Carlo in Two Hours (1905) – imagine having something like that in your collection!? Prince Leopold can’t be bothered with a 17-hour train journey down south, so a mad motorist gives him a lift at what Phil calculated to be 214 mph. It’s magic Méliès with only one confirmed casualty, a man flattened by the car who is blown up so much he pops.

The great race begins
Next up was a Cecil Hepworth film, Miss Deceit (1915) of which this may have been the only copy remaining – anywhere! It features Johnny Butt as Podgmore, a financial manager who competes with his clerk Whatley (Arthur Staples) for the love of Miss Elysia de Seete (Chrissie White - British film’s first leading lady?). Podgmore keeps Whatley working overtime but the roles are reversed when the latter signs up and becomes a Sergeant. All the girls love a man in uniform, don’t they? Maybe…

Lastly, we faced the real horror of director-to-be James Cruze acting in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) alongside the delectable Florence La Badie. There’s a lot of potion drinking and gurning as the white-haired Dr J turns painfully into his black-haired and dentally-wayward alter-ego. I also liked the way that not only must the hair change but so must the hat, Hyde purposefully beating it into a jaunty signifier of his up-to-no-goodness. It’s fun and a prime example of the many films Cruze and La Badie were making at the time.

All three were meat and drink to John Sweeney, who took us on a rigorous journey river deep mountain high, via bizarre British love triangles and onto the good, the ugly and La Badie!

Florence and James
Ken Bioscope, you do spoil us rotten sometimes!!

Hyde's bad hat-titude in evidence!
Flo-La-Bad was a stunner
So was Pola
Look at Antonio's hair.
...she was a dancer (classically trained)


Thursday, 17 May 2018

Under the Moon… Salomé (1923) with Haley Fohr Ensemble, Barbican

Haley Fohr’s experimental score for Alla Nazimova’s radical passion project was commissioned by Opera North for the Leeds International Festival. It’s a mix of avant rock, post-rock, electronica and trace elements of folk/country although Tammy Wynette never sounded like this.

Vocalising and operating a console of synthesiser and samples, Fohr was accompanied by Tyler Damon on percussion, Andrew Young on double bass and Whitney Johnson on viola. The music was interesting in of itself but tended to take straight lines while the narrative followed a more elaborate path. The players followed a score and well though they performed the end result wasn’t balanced in the way that silent accompaniment often aims to be... but, this was intentional.

Fohr had taken the bold decision to remove the intertitles from the film arguing that by “…muting the text, I find new stories quickly sprout in its place from the action itself. The score to the film was composed as much to those stories as to the film itself.”  This is indeed bold given that the film was based on a poem by Oscar Wilde and featured extensive references to his original writing; removing this means you create a new narrative not only visually – we don’t have the specificity to define events – but also musically. That is Fohr’s intention and you have to respect that.

Alla Nazimova
One major issue I struggled with was the decision to leave gaps where the intertitles once where so that we had a blank screen between the action throughout. This interrupted the flow and unbalanced the mix – just when you were absorbed in the story it would stop and you’d be left looking at the band, well outside of the “moment” in terms of the film Nazimova created.

If you came to watch Oscar Wilde’s poem set to film with a score serving both then you were going to be disappointed but that was not the aim of a work that was in search of new meanings. To some that’s maybe like colourising Laurel and Hardy or adding CGI to old Star Wars films: just because we can doesn’t mean that we should... Still, you don't have to watch, unless, that is, you really wanted to see this film on the big screen, but maybe it wouldn't even have been there without the new music.

A few days earlier I had seen two electronica acts at the Barbican, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton), both had back projections to accompany their very different beats and the latter had a dancer interpreting her music. You could argue that Fohr was following a similar line only with a pre-existing and defined artwork. Not everyone was comfortable with the recycle.

Or maybe not?
Personally, I’m not so sure the removal of text in exchange for a visual vacuum was the way to go, had the score played over the intertitles we would still have drawn new meaning based on the music alone and not the absence of text. As it was it was just too distracting from both the film and the hard-working musicians in front of us. I also say this as someone who is familiar with this film and therefore followed the narrative lines dictated by the text whether or not it was there…

"How strange the Moon seems! One might fancy she was looking for dead things..."

Salomé is a stunning silent film that features some of the most cohesive creative vision in film, with Natacha Rambova’s designs drawing on Aubrey Beardsley’s iconic interpretations of Wilde’s words. The whole enterprise drips in decadence – Wilde wrote the original in French whilst under the influence of new passions; in Salomé the act of merely looking can lead the soul on a fateful dive into the heart of desire.

Bad boy Beardsley and the "invisible dance".
Yet, even he was concerned his work might be overshadowed by the power of the drawing even though he had initially viewed Beardsley as "...the only artist who, beside myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance."

Directed by Charles Bryant, Salomé is the quintessential platform for producer and star, Alla Nazimova - a woman aiming to combine both Wilde and Beardley's visions. This mix allowed her to put together one of the first genuine Hollywood “art” films – an enterprise laced with her European artistic sensibilities from the choice of story, writer, designer and even sexuality… Maybe the rumours of an all-gay cast were just hype, but this story of transgressive - deathly - passion may have additional spice being performed by homosexual actors given Wilde’s proclivities and the tragic response of Victorian authority.

Natasha Rambova's stunning designs took from Beardley's style...
Such freedom of expression clearly appealed to Nazimova who was forging a brave career through her alien sophistication and an angular, conflicted, expression so at odds with the warmth of mainstream American cinema. Yes, she strikes a pose, but it rings true and there's an undoubted sense of humour behind the balletic pantomime. Salomé needed to be well choreographed to translate the author’s rhythms and whilst the expressions occasionally grate some of these characters are meant to simply be grotesque…

Not Salomé though, she’s just a bored teenager…with an endless wardrobe to fit every flounce and flurry.  Nazimova was pushing it, being just 44 at the time and yet with expert lighting and deep inches of foundation she carries it off, like Mary Pickford on crystal meth. 

She sits bored stiff at the table as the regal bacchanal rages all around. Her stepfather, Herod, Tetrach of Judea (Mitchell Lewis) has obtained power by murdering his brother and acquiring his wife, Herodias, and her altogether more alluring daughter, Salomé. They party with a collection of bizarre guests, a group of Pharisees who argue over the existence of angels, men in strange hats and with strange hairdos and nervous servants so concerned over the risks of their master’s opprobrium that they would rather throw themselves off the battlements rather than be granted an audience with an unhappy King. 

Salomé imagining "a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory..."
Tiring of her step-father’s inappropriate attentions, Salomé leaves the banquet hall and steps outside for some fresh amusement. She finds her  loyal servants Narraboth, Herod’s Captain of the Guard (Earl Schenck) who harbours unrequited love for his mistress, and Herodias’ Page (Arthur Jasmine). Salomé ignores them and distractedly stares at the stars in a provocative pose before sounds from a deep well break her reverie… These are the prayers and pronouncements of John the Baptist,  or Jokanaan in the film and play (Nigel De Brulier), a seer and prophet  who just won’t be silenced on the subject of the impending Messiah.

Salomé catches one look at his fine chiseled features and slender strength and is hooked, demanding that he be released so that she may learn more. Jokanaan emerges and refuses to be distracted from his cause by the “young” seductress in spite of her best efforts: he knows that even if he glances at her too deeply he could fall. Soon good feeling turns to bad and, in the face of Salomé’s infatuation, faithful Narraboth kills himself in front of his love but she simply steps over his corpse in her attempt to speak closer to Jokanaan. Horrified at this callous disregard and so much else besides, Jokanaan returns to his cell…

Mother and step-father in shock. Kids yesterday...
The film, as the play, makes constant references to the Moon – it’s tied to fate and the immutability of feminine will. What starts off blue gradually gets darker as a skull appears to fill the centre and then the sky runs red as matters descend into madness. Salomé sulks and as the party finally comes out to join her, is made an offer she cannot refuse by Herod: if she dances he will give her anything she desires. She agrees but doesn't reveal what her prize will be… and, boy, there will be blood.

Salomé exists in an unsettling world all of its own and is surely one of the most subversive films of silent Hollywood. It was a box office dud that prevented Nazimova from being able to make further films with the same control – but we all know now what she really meant