Monday, 27 August 2018

Gypsies, tramps and arsonists… Fante-Anne (1920)

I saw this film at last year’s silent film festival in Pordenone and whilst I was impressed, it was slightly lost in the rush of Scandinavian and other silent treasures. Watching it again on this sparkling Norwegian Film Institute DVD/Blu-Ray pack, I can appreciate its strengths a lot more: superb lead performers, top-notch cinematography and location backdrops to die for.

All this you tend to take for granted with Scandi-silents, but this was the first Norwegian film to be made by entirely by Norwegians and not led by Swedes, Danes or Germans. It was also, wiki-parently, the first film to feature professional actors, in this case led by the formidably expressive Aasta Nielsen - a 23-year old theatre actor and not the Danish Asta (an extra “a”) already established as Europe’s leading lady.

Directed by Rasmus Breistein, Fante-Anne (Gypsy Anne) was based on the 1868 novel by Kristofer Janson and, like so many films of the North, attempts to recreate the rural past as accurately as possible with milk-maids, grizzly farm hands and romantic dramas set to rural rhythms.

Norway's Aasta Nielsen
It’s also a film with a message and in which the outsider, the un-belonging gypsy, has to fight for her rightful place in a society constricted by tradition and prejudice. There are similar narratives throughout the films of this period from Europe to the USA addressing class as well as race: given the view of gypsies even now, integration in straight society would be as unlikely as say marriage between the leads in Broken Blossoms or The Red Lantern. The times, they were, very slowly, a-changing and, as usual, liberal artistes were leading the way.

Anyway… what we have here is a gently gripping story of a love triangle that succeeds in the improbable task of confounding expectations in ways that reinforce the morality of the tale. It’s a little slow perhaps but so absorbing especially here with the new orchestral score from Haldor Krogh as played by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra which looms over the action like the peaks on either side of the valley in which the Storlein family farm is based.

Elsa Vang in a tree
Here a young orphaned girl Anne (Elsa Vang) is taken in and grows up like a sister to Haldor Storlein (Olaf Solberg) with farm hand Jon Sandbakken (Einar Tveito) like the father she never had. The two children play, and we see Anne quickness of thought and playfulness, Haldor the slower of the two and often the butt of her pranks and the one who gets caught when her mischiefs gets spotted.

The years pass and Haldor is now played by Lars Tvinde and Anne by Aasta Nielsen; the two youngsters are still very close and, more than that are united by un-fraternal affection which causes the young man’s mother (Johanne Bruhn) some anxiety: the girl is not from here and of unknown origin, she cannot marry her son.

Meanwhile Jon’s affection is far from paternal and he surprises Anna by asking her to marry him… Anne smiles it off, she loves Haldor and just doesn’t think of the poor Jon as anything other than the surrogate he’s always been to her.

Einar Tveito
We know this story, we think, and surely the young lovers will follow their hearts to break with the requirements of the rural social order? Haldor’s mother has other ideas and pushes her son to abandon his ideas and court more worthy women whose lineage is without question. Sure enough, after a month of not seeing Haldor as she works as a milk maid up in the hills, Anne discovers he has been seeing a wealthy farm girl, Margit Moen (Kristine Ullmo) and they are going to be wed.

This naturally pushes all of the wrong buttons for Anne, betrayed and humiliated by her life-long friend. Jon warns Haldor of what she might do but the young dunderhead has underestimated his old friend just as he always did when they were younger. Anne takes things to another level, torching the new house he has been building and as the magistrate investigates, surely there’s a high price to pay for this impulsiveness…

Anne and Haldor share a joke
But the true heart of the story is only just starting to be revealed and I won’t spoil it.

Cinematographer Gunnar Nilsen-Vig deserves credit for some stunning composition, a world of crystal clear close ups and magnificent vistas, the farmers often dwarfed by their hugely impressive surroundings. The Scandinavian films of this period had almost every other country beat in terms of the natural backdrops and they were also favoured by the light for at least part of the year. In North America you’d have to be Nell Shipman to find this kind of rugged beauty and very few had followed her example by this stage.

Aasta Nielsen is superb, amongst a very naturalistic cast and she looks very much at home with farm duties as well as the drama. Einar Tveito, who will later feature in Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal and many more, is also good as the love-lorn Jon who has the most complex story arc of all – the transition from “uncle” to suitor is not an easy one after all.

Fante-Anne is a “bunad” film – one that looks back to the rural tradition – but unlike most other films, it doesn’t over romanticise the period and obviously highlights the inequalities that came with it. Too often the past and costume dramas are an escape for audiences but not here, it looks nice yes, but it is not a fair society.

The Fante-Anne dual format is available through Amazon or direct from the Norwegian Film Institute – well worth your time, I mean, just look at the view.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Special relationships… Separate Tables (1958), BFI Dual Format

Featuring a mighty cast list including a host of great British character actors, Separate Tables famously saw David Niven win a long overdue Oscar and Wendy Hiller deservedly winning Best Supporting Actress. This adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s play – or rather plays – is a “home game” for the Brits and no one is over-shadowed by the glamour of Rita Hayworth or the muscularity of Burt Lancaster, strangers in this strange land of repression and ancient manners… the film was however, shot entirely in Hollywood.

In his commentary, director Delbert Mann, says that a sound stage was the only way of creating a cinematic narrative based on a play with originally just two sets: the living room and the dining room with those separate tables. Harry Horner’s innovative design used a lot of glass which not only gave an impression of the hotel space it also showed action around the characters. Even as the film begins, and the camera pulls towards the hotel, we can see the characters moving inside and, many times after this, action continues beyond the glass either inside or outside. As Burt Lancaster’s character goes outside we can see Rita Hayworth’s already following him – this constant motion creates a very fluid rhythm for the film as characters move from one scene to the next and the narrative baton is passed directly onto the next runner.

Wendy Hiller, a midfield general moving the narrative through Harry Horner's glass set
The glass also allows for some sublime lighting both from without the “rooms” as well as within; for example, one room is darkly lit for an intimate scene between Burt and Rita but with a glow from outside the walls reminding us of the pressures of their circumstance.

It’s such a well-controlled and thoroughly entertaining film that it’s hard to believe Mann was initially reluctant about directing given the “Britishness” of the story. He was duly sent to Bournemouth to find out more about the largely-retired population that informed Rattigan’s work – the writer’s mother lived there along with other inspirations for his characters – and this re-assured him that, fundamentally, this was a universal story about loneliness and fear.

Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster sitting at their own tables
Separate Tables was originally two separate stories featuring the same two actors playing the four leads with only the hotel manager, Miss Cooper, playing the same character across the two parts. Mann merged the two narratives together and had Rattigan re-write with help from John Gay. The result is a masterclass of ensemble playing honed not only by the theatrical experience of the largely British cast but also Mann’s insistence on rehearsing for three weeks before shooting. His camera direction and placing of the characters in the controlled space of the set is masterful.

As we begin, the camera moves down as Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr) walks out of the Beauregard Hotel, and sits pensively on the steps, sad face framed by the iron railings of the place she lives under her mother’s command. She is waiting for her friend Major David Angus Pollock (David Niven) to come back from his walk and when he does the two share a strange intimacy; his cliched formalities hiding something and she tentative and far younger than her years. Inside the Beauregard they are greeted coolly by her mother Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper, forces’ sweetheart from the Great War and one of the great Dames of 20th Century theatre), who is clearly not impressed with the Major and barely tolerant of her daughter.

Deborah Kerr: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave?
Mann establishes his characters quickly and economically and we soon understand the other residents, mild-mannered Lady Gladys Matheson (Cathleen Nesbitt), Racing Post subscriber Miss Meacham (May Hallatt, who played the role in London and on Broadway) and retired teacher Mister Fowler (Felix Aylmer) who will spend the day waiting in vain for a former pupil to arrive. Almost everyone is older than they want to be and lonely, even Sibyl, prevented by her mother from the slightest independence.

The exceptions are a couple of young students, Charles (Rod Taylor) and Jean (Audrey Dalton) who have booked the Hotel for revision and a little more.

Deborah Kerr and David Niven, two lonely people
Buzzing purposely around her guests is the hotel manager Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller) who keeps her head whilst so many are about to lose theirs… and despite Doreen (a lovely cameo from Priscilla Morgan, who will one day marry Clive Dunn), a waitress with attitude.

Then Hollywood comes staggering drunkenly through the patio doors in the form of Burt Lancaster playing John Malcolm, a writer who lubricates his work with frequent trips to the local pub. John and Pat are engaged but the latter is perhaps under no illusions; why does her man drink so much?
Then a car pulls up and the guests rush to the window to see a glamorous new arrival, Anne Shankland (Rita Hayworth); two Americans in Bournemouth at the same time? As John sits down at his table for dinner his mouth drops as he sees Anne, his former wife, seemingly diverted to the seaside on route to her wedding to catch up with her ex…

I read the news today, oh boy...
Meanwhile the Major has seen something shocking in the local paper, he has been put on probation for inappropriate behaviour towards women in the local cinema and what had been private is now public. Before long, Mrs. Railton-Bell, discovering his secret and the truth of his rank and background, is agitating to have him removed from the hotel. Sibyl is beside herself, her friend guilty of such behaviour… her worst nightmare from the only man she trusts.

The two stories play out in balance, a narrative challenge especially as resolution nears, but the passions are well balanced between Mrs R-B’s puritanical mania and the still vibrant affections of John and Anne. In the middle of both is Pat… in love but logical.

Pat has John's number
Wendy Hiller was apparently reluctant to play the role after seeing that Miss Cooper was less significant than in the stage play but she is excellent – the glue holding everything together, a moral and physical centre connecting the characters as she maintains order in the Beauregard. Mann praised Hiller for her consistency of performance and style; she never over-emphasises but it’s all there and you know what she’s thinking as the bravest person in the hotel, no doubt with a huge backstory we can only glimpse.

For Rita Hayworth this was quite unlike anything else she’d ever done, and Mann said he thought she “frightened to death” with all the experience around her but this was one of the roles she was proudest of.

Rita radiates
In David Niven’s case he tapped into depths Mann didn’t expect he could given the distance between himself and the “Major”, he’s superb throughout and if the last scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eye you may need to check your heart. That’s partly down to Deborah Kerr and Mann was convinced that if her part hadn’t been cut down to speed up the introduction of the Hollywood contingent (not his choice) she may well have won the Oscar she was nominated for.

Separate Tables is out on 20th August on BFI dual format and comes with a handsome booklet and extras including Mann’s commentary and an in-depth audio interview with Burt Reynolds at the BFI in 1972.

Essential watching and listening available from the BFI onlineand in their shop. If you're quick you can pre-order!

Gladys Cooper in 1958 and back in the 1910s...

Friday, 10 August 2018

Catch 1920… Hobson's Choice (1920), BFI Player

When I started this silent film jog, the rehabilitation of British silent film had already begun to gather pace and now critical opinion is much more positive than perhaps at any point since Maurice, Anthony, Percy and the rest, decided to “go live” with cinematic presentation. So many things worked against British film, including America most of all – bigger budgets, same language, same actors (in so many cases) and that little extra you gain from shooting, far away in a sunny country.

Percy Nash’s Hobson's Choice is not perfect, but it is a very entertaining adaption of Harold Brighouse’s play that retains much of the characterisation that makes the subsequent adaption with Charles Laughton, Brenda De Banzie and John Mills such a favourite.

A drunken father, a strong woman who sees the way forward and the skilled craftsman needing to be set free by such a woman… It may be slow in parts but, by gum, this film has a satisfying story. First performed, perhaps surprisingly, in New York in 1915 (Brighouse was from Eccles, Lancashire) before a London transfer the following year, its message of emancipation and self-determination had even more impact in 1920… just after a war won with women’s help laid the foundation for concessions on suffrage (broadly speaking),

Joan Ritz, Joe Nightingale and Arthur Pitt
Our silent stand-ins for the mighty trio above are Arthur Pitt as Henry Horatio Hobson, Joan Ritz as his daughter Maggie and Joe Nightingale, who’d played the role in that first London run, as William Mossop. As with everything else you can’t view this from the hindsight of Hobson’s to come but it was the first film adaptation and was potentially truer to the stage origins than David Lean’s 1954 classic.

It is what it is and it’s delightful even if Joe’s Billie Mossop is nowhere near the catch that John’s is/will be. The three leads are especially good and Ritz especially to modern eyes, up against a cartoonish drunk and a cobbler without a clue (setting aside his ways with leather and nail, mind…).

Set in 1880’s Salford – not a dozen miles from the Pankhurst’s - Emmeline having been born in Moss Side in 1858, Sylvia in a place called Old Trafford in 1882 - the scene is Hobson’s shoe shop, managed by a father with three daughters. In his middle age, Hobson (‘obson, surely…) believes himself to be lord of all he surveys but in reality, his eldest daughter Maggie is holding the business together with her acumen. Amongst other things, Maggie keeps on top of the cash flow as her father spends increasing amounts of time drinking his dividend away in the local alehouse.

The King and his three daughters
He has long since ceased to be a key asset for the business and the quality is now all down to the skill of young William Mossop, one of two shoe-smiths who works under the shop. Mossop is so good that a regular customer, the well-to-do Mrs. Alethea Hepworth (Ada King) of Hope Hall, Salford, insists that only he should make shoes for her family. She also tells Hobson not to left him leave and, practical as she probably always is, tells William to contact her when the inevitable parting happens.

Maggie can see the way things are going and, even though William’s get up and go has seemingly already gone, she hatches a plan to not only set him up but also to marry him: she’s done the maths and everything!

Before Hobson can feel exactly how much sharper than a serpents tooth Maggie’s pragmatism is, we get his appreciation of his two younger and ostensibly prettier daughters, Alice (Phyllis Birkett) and Vickey (Joan Cockram), both are well placed with young male admirers,  but just as Hobson can see them happily married he tells Maggie that, at 30, she’s already missed the boat (or boot…): she’s on the shelf.

An offer Willie can't refuse?
Not quite and certainly not from Maggie’s point of view although there is the small matter of William’s free will and his attachment to the flighty Ada Figgins (Mary Byron).  Maggie is a wonderful creation – a Lancashire lass with her head crewed on who takes charge of her family and like a benign Mancunian Machiavelli edges everyone exactly where they need to be.

Old Hobson’s no help at all, guzzling away in drunken delusion at the Moonraker’s Arms tragedy of a very northern kind turned into comedy and indeed the play’s points are struck home inside locally-loomed cotton gloves. How many of us have tales of drunken forebears and how many families were saved by strong women taking charge as worn-out husbands and fathers collapsed in middle age unable to sustain their effort and hold onto their sense.

We laugh at the men because we know them as ourselves… even in the lauded production of the play at Deyes High School, Maghull in the late seventies (I was on curtains).

Hobson extracates himself from the troublesome cellar...
Once Hobson has fallen drunkenly down into Beenstock’s storage cellar, his fate is sealed as Maggie get’s the Fred Beenstock (Charles Heslop), Vicky’s intended, to raise a claim for trespass, damage to corn sacks and spying on trade secrets… She also gets, Alice’s beau, solicitor Albert Prosser (George Wynn), to make the complaint. With his health failing – he is drinking himself to death - Henry’s snookered, stuck between a rock and his daughter, left with no choice but Hobson’s…

It’s a delight, everyone is set-up, the couples married, William in awe and – the penny dropping – in love and Hobson starting to see the upside of being cared for by his “thankless daughter” … but only because one woman saw how it could be…

There are so many phrases to savour in the play, but this version works with some snappy title cards and string performances especially from Joan Ritz, who is well cast and anchors the narrative with some determination and insight. Joe Nightingale and Arthur Pitt both get through some excellent gurning but they’re supporting characters in a play that revolves around Maggie’s vision.

Whilst the action rarely shifts from the sets, there are some lovely locations – misty Salford streets, the Hobson’s shopfront, the walk/stagger to and from The Moonrakers… whether they were anywhere further north than Acton I can’t say.

I watched the film on BFI Player and it’s also one of a number of copyright-free “orphaned” films the Institute released onto YouTube last year - see below. Sometimes the folks in Stephen Street really spoil us!