Saturday, 21 July 2018

A simple soul… Kipps (1921) with Neil Brand, Kennington Bioscope

"…the ruling power of this land, Stupidity… a monster, a lumpish monster, like some great clumsy griffin thing…  like some fat, proud flunkey, like pride, like indolence, like all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life…" HG Wells, Kipps (1905)

There is more joy in Heaven (the one that looks like The Cotswolds) over the screening of a decent British silent film than over any number of talkies… It’s probably in the Bible; check out the gospel according to the Saints Pearl and Dean.

It's useful, of course, to have the wonderful source material of an HG Wells' novel and the acting of George K Arthur, who simply “was Kipps” according to the author. Wells was less favourable over the actor’s subsequent film, The Wheels of Chance but, personally, I think that film has almost as much charm as this.

It also helps greatly to have an accompanist like Neil Brand who really understands the period, the source material and the very British story being told. In his introduction he said he hadn’t played with the film for twenty-odd years, but it didn’t show as he patiently built up a thoroughly Edwardian sentiment with flashes of more modern – classic – scoring. All this whilst resisting the temptation to reference a note or two from Half a Sixpence which was based on this story.

George K Arthur headed off to Hollywood not to long after this and I’d last seen him in Lights of Old New York with Marion Davies and Mr Brand again on piano. He has charm and a natural reticence which makes him perfect for romantic comedy but he’s a canny actor with more to his game than he’s often credited. One of his most unusual castings was in Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters in which his vulnerability plays off against the dockside thuggery and, indeed, Paulette Goddard’s own toughness.

"Kipps is Kipps"
Here he is in his element as the man to whom Life just keeps on happening…  The full title of Wells’ book is Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and George is the perfect straight man for the jokes perpetuated by the ruling powers of the land. He is Arthur Kipps (don’t delude yourselves that I’m not looking for a way to fit Arthur Sixpence into all this…) an easy-going orphan who lives with his stern and often disapproving uncle, Old Kipps (John Marlborough East) and his wife (Annie Esmond).

He grows up with his best friend Sid, the neighbour’s son and there are lovely scenes of imaginary pirate fights on what looks like the wreck of a Great War battle ship. Arthur takes a shine to Sid’s sister, Ann Pornick (Edna Flugrath) but takes a long time to express his intentions. When he does he finds he is loved back and they split a sixpence in half to remind them of their incompleteness when apart.

Now, having finally got started, Arthur is exiled to an apprenticeship at the Folkestone Drapery Bazaar, run by Mr. Shelford (Arthur Helmore). Wells’ class concerns are still very much in evidence and Kipps’ dialect comes out in the title cards as easily as his discomfort in “polite society”. People like him have little control over their lives and must follow their duty, and, in his case, this means separation from the other half of his sixpence.

Edna Flugrath in 1919
Gradually he forgets Ann and starts to woo his arts teacher – self-improvement was all the rage - Helen Walshingham (Christine Rayner). He also makes a new pal, aspiring playwright and actor, Harry Chitterlow (Teddy Arundell) and whilst their initial meeting ends up with his losing his job after they get drunk, Harry spots an advert in a paper that means Kipps is due a life-changing inheritance.

Newly enriched with his long-lost grandfather’s posthumous generosity, Kipps now has to adjust to his new social status and also to look after his fortune… Will money guarantee his happiness and acceptance, and, as Ann re-appears as a humble housekeeper can true love overcome the phoney concerns of social status?

Director Harold M. Shaw makes light of the story’s literate origins and constructs a deft, enjoyable narrative that allows his actors to shine. Kipps is very enjoyable, professionally-made cinema that even manages to smuggle in some of Wells’ social concerns. You wouldn’t get so much of that in Hollywood... or would you?

The Sun winks
The first half of tonight’s programme featured the Georges Méliès’ masterwork, Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904) which takes the template of 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune and swings off even further into the solar system.

Méliès plays an engineer called Mabouloff who has devised an expedition to take his fellow explorers across the Alps, up into space and back down again using steam, airships, rail, automobiles and submarines… it’s madcap and inventive and feels slightly more structured and technically advanced than Moon even as one thing keeps on leading to another. There are fades from one scene to the next and the shot of the Sun's face is what you might a close-up!

Fernande Albany - who would have been 15 - plays the inventor's cheeky servant and one of the few woman among the travellers. She stands out from the grey, bearded boffins adding kinetic interest to the chaotic tableaux throughout. She went on to enjoy a long career in France and it’s good to put a name to one of the faces.

The plans are unveiled - Fernande Albany on the right in light blue?
The version screened was in magnificent colour – originally hand-tinted – and this worked especially well when the travellers hit the stars and get eaten by the Sun. Luckily the rules of physics were suspended for the adventure and they managed to drop back to earth in a submarine, past several disinterested perch or sticklebacks stuck in front of the camera.

It was an absolute joy and John Sweeney played along with his old friend with adventure and much gusto of his own: it’s not just the musical narrative but the ability to create just the right period tone that is so extraordinary about Messrs Brand and Sweeney; the Bioscope piano must look forward to their accompaniment.

Crossfading from one scene to the next...
As if that wasn’t enough we saw an episode of the British Sexton Blake serial The Mystery of the Silent Death (1928) starring Langhorne Burton as Blake and Mickey Brantford as his assistant Tinker. There was some excellent detecting, thrills with spills – possibly down to this being two reels cut down to one. Ultimately the message was, gentlemen clearly in a “funk” almost certainly have something to hide.

We also had the World’s most popular cartoon cat (until Walt ripped him off) in Felix Strikes it Rich (1925) and an adventurous western from the Nestor Film Company, The Awakening of Apeta (?) which was a turbulent tale of mixed-race love and loyalty; in America as in Wells’ Britain, social mores held people down so miserably; you can only hope we can cling onto the changes brought by the ensuing century.

Tonight, we were, once again, spoilt rotten by the Bioscope: enjoy your summer break and see you all again for a lot more in September.

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