Saturday, 16 June 2018

Taxi for Mr Curtis… Cab No. 13 (1926) with Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Lili Damita worked with Michael, married Errol, helped introduce the director and star of the greatest Robin Hood film ever made. But she had real star power – she positively glows, energised like Fairbanks and could probably kick your head without any back-lift having been trained at l’Opera de Paris.  She ended up starring with Cary, Maurice, Laurence, Jimmy and Gary but quit in her early thirties to be a mother.

Not many of her Hollywood films were great, and there was always something missing when she wasn’t able to express her physicality. In this film she dresses like Peter Pan and performs an impressive – heels as high as her head – kicking can-can and these are amongst her best moments. Her first film with Michael Curtis – then Michael Kertész – was Red Heels (aka Das Spielzeug von Paris) and that has a much higher tempo and some extended dance sequences that make more of her vibrancy.

Our Lil
Here again she is also a fashion plate with impressive eye-popping dresses that show off her neatness (male “code” alert) but for much of the film she’s a humble cab-driver’s step-daughter and the action is suitably Pickfordian knockabout.

Ah, but she can’t just be a cab-driver’s daughter, can she? No, as a baby she was abandoned by her dying mother who had run from her rich husband only to die in childbirth in a poor tenement. The landlady hides a note written to her husband in a book and places the baby in a horse-drawn cab – Number 13 - where it’s owner, Jacques Carotin (Paul Biensfeldt) decides to adopt this bundle of possibilities on the grounds that he’d always dreamed of having children.

Unlucky 13 for horse-drawn cabs as motors had taken over by the Twenties and Jacques struggles
Yes, the plot is a bit like that, but enjoyable all the same – there’s more exposition in the French-titles version doing the rounds and some of the English intertitles on the 35mm print we saw are a bit brusque in comparison. That said, the quality is superb - far, far better than these screenshots - and it’s great to see Lili on the big screen and to see more than an nth-copy digital bootleg allows.

They christen the child Lilian (thereby making it so easy to learn Damita’s name in the read-throughs) and naturally she grows up to be a dancing queen, young and sweet only 18 (in this instance). She graduates as the most talented and mischevous dancer at her ballet school and there are some winning scenes as she dances the Charleston Black Bottom for her classmates and teasers her teacher.

Bored in ballet...
She has a flirty relationship with another tenant, a musician who no doubt will be very successful at some stage, called Lucien Rebout (Walter Rilla) and the pass the time playing, singing, dancing… all the free-to-do stuff. He’s a bit of a Stephen Horne, playing violin and sax… what am I saying, he only does two instruments… but, most of all he - natch – plays on Lili’s heart strings and the two make a lovely couple.

Just when things look to have hit a long stretch of speed-restricted narrative carriageway, a coincidence happens… In an antiquarian bookshop run by a con-man (Max Gülstorff) and his master forger François Tapin (Jack Trevor), the latter discovers the letter from Lilian’s father - wealthy "King of the Cafes" Henri Landon (Carl Ebert) - hidden in the book which obviously has a fair re-sale value. As for the letter, it promises much more and, touching his boss for a 20,000 Franc loan he sets off to present himself as a rich playboy in order to woo the inheritor of her rich father’s millions…

Lovely composition as Tapin forges away like some alchemist turning paper and ink into money...
Bold plan I hear you say and so it seems but Tapin exerts a strange charm on lovely Lilian and soon turns her head by showing her the finer things leaving poor Lucien all glum at her dancing school’s passing out ball. This is one of several good-looking sequences, not just the dancing but also the design from Paul Leni – yes, him – which includes a carousel covered in streamers which is mesmerising. Then there is the second-hand bookshop from which the forgers operate, it’s a cavern of ill-gotten mysteries so well-lit and shot by Gustav Ucicky and Eduard von Borsody. Top-notch mis en scene with some state of the montage thrown in for good measure.

Good-looking film and great-looking stars even if perhaps too much time is spent on Lambeth’s own Jack Trevor – who would go on to feature in a number of GW Pabst’s films including two with Brigitte Helm Abwege and The Love of Jeanne Ney. In truth his François Tapin is more likeable rogue than anything else and, well… you’ll have to see the film, suffice to say that it’s also known as The Road to Happiness.

The eyes have it...
Curtis-to-be's direction is inventive and economical and there's one scene - a confrontation - that's decided on the strength of a "look" - the eyes of one character revealeing to the other that the matter is closed, or it will be if there's any further debate... clever stuff: pure cinema!

Herr Horne accompanied with his usual panache and instrumental juggling. Sometimes you think your mind is playing tricks when the accordion strikes as you follow the action down a Parisian street only to find Stephen – who is playing piano with the other hand – also has the other instrument on his lap. He uses the accordion to create sound effects and generate atmosphere and, of course, it is also perfect for the demi-monde of 1910 cafes under the streets of Paris.

Some of that montage business...
As is traditional with the Bioscope there was also an entrée of three short films that matched the mood and subject of the main film.

Tonight, we started with Fashionable Paris (1907) showing a glimpse of life in the trendy Bois du Bologne and then had La Tour (1928) Rene Clair’s angled explorations of the tower commissioned for the fortieth anniversary of its construction. Meg Morley accompanied and showed again her ability to mix in flavours of the period – a drop of Debussy and a soupçon of Satie – with flowing lines of her own. She made for an hypnotic combination with Monsieur Clair.

Lastly, we had a real treat with Adolf Philipp’s The Midnight Girl (1919) which not only featured Meg’s piano but also Michelle Facey’s pitch-perfect vocal debut on the title song at the beginning and end of the film. A woman of many talents – programming, researching and introducing tonight’s line up as well!

Another absolute cracker in Kennington. Merci beaucoup mes amis!!

Now for some more Cab. 13...

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