Monday, 22 October 2018

The Godmother of Slapstick… Mabel Normand Shorts with Meg Morley Trio, BFI

Mabel was one of those who “made” screen comedy having, as she said: “…no precedent, nothing to imitate… I had to cleave a new path to laughter.” Whilst that sounds suspiciously like studio guff, it’s pretty much what happened for a woman who wrote and directed her own films and mentored Charlie Chaplin amongst others.

Arguments still rage – you know what cineastes are like – about how much that mentoring involved but looking at Mabel’s films pre-Charlie you can see how much of his gestures, reactions, and sensibilities came from her…. Also, it’s impossible not to look at her face-pulling and not see Stan Laurel’s defeated innocence there too.

His partner Oliver Hardy was in tonight’s programme, along with Charlie, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Sennett (of course) and Ford Sterling. The boys are funny but Mabel, Mabel understands
Normand became an artist’s model at 14 and at 17 she starred in her first film going on to make Her Awakening (1911) with DW Griffith and William J. Humphrey’s Tale of Two Cities (1911) – both when she was just 18. She started a relationship with Mack Sennett who saw more than comic potential in the perfectly natural performer with no theatrical training and, the rest is history…

Writer, performer, stunt person... director: pioneer
Tonight’s completion is part of the BFI’s Sonic Cinema strand as well as it’s Comedy Genius programme which runs up until the New Year with funny films both silent and sound. Tonight, was a live performance of four Mabel Normand films that will be playing across the country over the next few months.

Meg Morley a regular silent film accompanist is also an accomplished jazz musician and here she has been given the chance to combine both interests by accompanying Mabel with her Trio – a score jazzed up with improvisations with the pianist, double bass player Richard Sadler and drummer Emiliano Caroselli showing the intuitive musical connection you would expect yet all watching the films and working with Mabel not around or over her.

Normand has a quick wit and her face emotes in double time as the broader strokes of her comedy unwind in plots of confusion, reaction and ill-tempered misunderstandings.

Mabel's Blunder...
In Mabel’s Blunder (1914) we see Mabel being pursued by a young co-worker (Harry McCoy) and his father (Charles Bennett) (what this says about the sexual norms of the times…). This delicate balance is thrown out when a young woman (Eva Nelson) comes to visit and Mabel’s jealousy knows no bounds.

She disguises herself as her brother (Al St. John) who chauffeurs them off to an afternoon party whilst her brother dresses as Mabel and, with face covered in a veil, still gets plenty of attention from dad. The truth is revealed at the party where we also meet Harry’s pal Billy Bronx (played by a young fella name of Charley Chase who, mark my words, will one day be big in talking pictures!).

Mack Sennett and Roscoe Arbuckle watch Mabel on screen
Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913) gave us the chance to see Mack and Mabel in the same film and for me she is much funnier than he, better stick to the gags and directing Mr Sennett.

Mack is engaged to Mabel but he’s distracted by Virginia Kirtley – not for the first time – and drives Mabel away. She becomes a movie star – Mabel was one of the first to have her name in film titles and this rather meta reference shows the audacity of the Sennett group as they set the template – and Mack soon discovers what he’s missing.

Mack watches his former love in a movie theatre and is beside himself, unable to separate fiction from reality, much to the annoyance of his neighbour played by Roscoe Arbuckle.  He tries to shoot the baddie in the film – Ford Sterling (and who wouldn’t!) only to find he’s happily married to Mabel.

Responsible parenting...
His Trysting Place (1914) showed that Normand and Chaplin were amongst the highest energy double acts in slapstick with the two trading gags, falls and blows at the rate of at least one every few seconds, sometimes more. Their punishing scenes in the kitchen would have been improvised but when Charlie picks up their baby by the scruff of his neck, walks in to make himself comfortable on the kid’s crib and then hands him a six-shooter to play with, you know we’re reached a higher level of daft.

This was the funniest film and if this was Mabel mentoring our Charlie, it was as much a joy to watch as Charlie Parker’s improvisational bouts with Dizzy Gillespie, John and Paul trying to out-write the other or Cleese/Chapman trying to outthink Palin/Jones… red-hot talents trying to outdo the others to the benefit of all.

By the time of Should Men Walk Home? (1927) Mabel was not in the best of health when she made this, her final film but she’s still recognisably the star of Mickey and all those Sennett classics. It’s odd to see her in late twenties fashions but she carries it off alongside Creighton Hale who is as funny as I’ve ever seen him – I loved it when he corpses playing a statue spouting water… The pair play a couple of crooks in search of a necklace at a society party and in addition to being pursued by Eugene Pallette they also have a robust encounter with a Mr Oliver Hardy.

Meg’s trio played some swinging tunes accompanying the rhythms of the humour with rag-time and twenties swing – they were tight and they were flowing with their lead’s silent film experience keeping the jam in tune with the action on screen. This isn’t free jazz but improvisation within tight boundaries and all the more so because of the need to score a narrative: it was a blast and they found so much freedom within this tightest of “briefs”. They soul of early jazz was there but there was a modern sensibility which helped bring Mabs right up to now.

The Mabel Normand tour continues through the next few months nationwide, check the BFI site for details as they are confirmed. This woman was the first of either sex to throw a custard pie, she broke the fourth wall to glance directly at the audience before anyone else and she was a great collaborator: The Godmother of Slapstick and much else besides.

Mabel Normand was a one-off and her time has come again: make mine Mabs!

Revolution in the head… Fragment of an Empire (1929), Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, BFI London Film Festival 2018

This highly-skilled late Soviet silent, has been described as one of the most important restorations of recent years and has already been screened in San Francisco, Bonn and Munich before tonight’s UK premier. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius have played for a number of those screenings and their familiarity with this singular film was in evidence throughout.

Directed by Fridrikh Ermler, one of the lesser-known lights of this period in Russia, this film might well help elevate his reputation as it combines a lightness of touch with a strong narrative idea and unexpected moments of humour and horror to remind all of the seriousness of the soviet enterprise in the middle of the first Five Year Plan.

The film was restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and Eye, from elements held by Eye in Holland together with Russian and Swiss prints all of which combined to give the complete film with an extant original score confirming the length. Bryony Dixon introduced with her opposite number at Eye, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, detailing the restoration and the fact that the film is more accurately translated as Remnant of Empire which, viewing the film’s conclusion, makes all the more sense of the denouement… but I’ll say no more other than that to say that the film is very much on message and imperial ideas can only get in the way of progress.

Fyodor Nikitin and Yakov Gudkin
The main protagonist, Filimonov (Fyodor Nikitin) is, of course, a remnant of the old era having lost his memory prior to the successful completion of the Revolution and remembering only the agonies of the war that proceeded it. The film opens in a snowy night-time with rows and rows of soldiers’ bodies and the observation of one character that there are “so many boots...” Amongst the useless bodies and recyclable footwear there is a wounded soldier who is hefted into a barn by a kindly comrade - Filimonov. The soldier is thirsty and in desperation he suckles a dog, pushing her pups out of the way… he’s discovered by the enemy and an officer who shoots the dog dead: if that’s how they treat animals, imagine how they treat humans?

Throughout Ermler uses darkness and light in startling ways and the restoration naturally shows this so clearly: a beam of light shoots out across a darkened field and moves slowly revealing a lone soldier who gradually lifts himself and moves out of danger. It is all about the individual in a world of mass slaughter and mass movements; there’s a place we must find to survive both.

Fyodor Nikitin
Over a decade later Filimonov has amnesia and has no idea, as he works in a remote railway station. A train pulls in and he recognises a well-dressed woman (Lyudmila Semyonova) who throws out a used cigarette pack… it is familiar. He begins to have dreams and fragmentary recollections of this woman and makes his way back to St Petersburg in search of his past. Of course, the old city is no more and is now Leningrad and as he walks among statues of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov Lenin, he realises that the country he knew has changed beyond recognition with high-rise modern buildings replacing the old streets and a more modern economy in place.

It’s not all to his liking though and you could be forgiven for thinking that Ermler was sneaking in a critique of the regime but no, like all good propagandists, he doesn’t insult his audience’s intelligence and shows the bad as well as the good: the new world is not perfect and there is, as one character says, much work to be done.

Such daring use of light
Filimonov gradually starts to remember things and this examination of an individual’s sense of self is as important as the fact of his coming to terms with the communist agenda. In this way the ten years of amnesia is a device to show how far the Soviet Union has come and how Filimonov accepts and embraces this in a very personal way. If you’re a soviet worker then you will take great heart from the outcomes…

He starts to find purpose as he gets a job in a factory and, another co-incidence, meets up with the soldier he saved at the start of the film (Yakov Gudkin): one good turn deserves another and he is embraced by new eager friends and colleagues.

Finally remembering more he seeks out his wife, and whilst he still loves her, she is married to another man (Valeri Solovtsov) – a bespectacled “manager”. Their relationship is in the balance and there’s a clear suggestion that the new purpose of Soviet society might compensate for need for such a traditional concept as a marriage… time to look forward and not back!

"Where is Petersburg?"
Filimonov made many more films within soviet society and was active until the sixties. This film is a very elegant one and manages to intertwine the revolution of the heart and mind with the external attributes of change which are often the things we react against. Don’t think of the Soviet Union as evil or an experiment doomed to fail - Stalin was already making the Boslehvik agenda all his own – think of the hope ordinary people had. OK, you could say the same about Germany, but this was a political philosophy not based in of itself on hate and films like this show more the feeling of Russia’s applied Marxism – it does more to answer the question of why? Historians want context and to examine primary sources to understand situations and Fragment of an Empire is one of the most important pieces of evidence I’ve seen from Soviet cinema.

Comrades Horne and Bockius worked like Alexsei Stakhanov in digging deep into the narrative and crafting a multi-faceted contribution of their own. They are two generous players who understand each other’s sensibilities as well as their role in supporting this striking story: a creative collective in sync and in sympathy.  

Personally, I’m waiting for a British film in which an everyman (played by me) has amnesia for a decade (or maybe longer) and wakes up to find everything sorted out… actually make that 50 years and get the cryogenic chamber ready…

The personal and the political: Fyodor Nikitin and Lyudmila Semyonova
New purpose!

Friday, 19 October 2018

The shock of the old… The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, with Bryony Dixon, John Sweeney and his Biograph Band, London Film Festival 2018

This was the most unusual Archive Gala I’ve seen at the London Film Festival and one of the most thrilling: silent films at the BFI IMAX and all from 1896-1901 …but they’re not even in colour or in 3D?! These restorations of 60-68mm original film and in some cases negatives, didn’t need any further enhancements and, accompanied by John Sweeney’s gorgeous and evocative score, we were pulled into the world of our great grandparents by the sheer scale of the Victorian every day.

The British science fiction writer Bob Shaw had a concept called “slow glass” through which light passes incredibly slowly so that the person on the other side could view events in “real time” years later. So it felt with this collection of 51 films from which light was released of Victorian vitality that was both moving and powerfully familiar.

A ‘phantom ride’ through a Southampton street atop a tram in 1900 felt like we were inside the screen whilst a colourised trip through Conwy, a town I know very well, made me feel like dropping off and into the Liverpool Arms overlooking the estuary and Deganwy – you know the one, on the walls, near the smallest house in Wales. 

Conwy from the L & NW Railway (1898)
Away from the domestic there were also images of Victorian military might with stunning sequences from the Boer War including ambulances crossing the Tugela River at the Battle of the Spion Kop in an immaculately framed sequence with unbelievable depth of field.In the age of the battleship we also saw warships in rough seas and the German Küstenpanzerschiffe, SMS Odin firing her fearsome 9.4 inch guns. 

The 68mm film gives four times the image detail as 35mm and would have been shown on a similar scale in some of the London theatres of the time including the Alhambra (now Leicester Square Odeon) and the Palace Theatre of Varieties on Cambridge Circus (now known as the Palace Theatre). The technology was brought back to Britain by William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, who had worked with Thomas Edison in the USA and whose British Mutoscope and Biograph Company ran at the Palace. In her notes, Bryony explains that Dickson’s films would form a twenty-minute segment of an evening of music hall, with the theatre’s orchestra playing along just as the Sweeney Bioscope Band were tonight.

The crossing at the Tugela River 
But, before we got to the films, the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon, who programmed the evening and provided delighted commentary throughout, explained the visual history of the Victorian era, a time when few saw much beyond a street level view of their surroundings. Painted panoramas began to be made and exhibited at multi-storey such as Robert Barker’s Rotunda in Leicester Square, which still survives as the Roman Catholic Church of Notre Dame de France. Here people could pay for a broader perspective, a pigeon’s eye view of the capital and much more: travel broadened the mind and so did a bigger view.

As the huge IMAX screen loomed over the audience you could well imagine the impact Dickson’s projections would have had on the audiences of the 1890s: this was a whole new way of seeing the world and not just the streets and buildings of your home town, celebrities too including the old Queen even if her parasol kept her in shadow, it was still a thrill to see Victoria amidst the crowds.

It was hard not to feel connected to the watchers of 120 years past who would marvel in a not dissimilar way at the views on screen; shadow-plays large and small from the intimacy of a royal picnic in the gardens of Clarence House (1897) to the thrilling launch of the Oceana at Harland and Wolff shipyards in 1899. The ship is huge and the crowd fold away as they realise that the backwash will soak them on the shore. Dickson was an engineer and he would have appreciated this massive technical accomplishment more than most. There were also shots of iron foundry workers pouring molten metal into moulds: the work is unremittingly hazardous and they wear platform shoes to protect their feet, one slip and they would be maimed for life.

Britain's best bicycle!
On a lighter note, there were examples of the theatre with Herbert Beerbohm Tree dying an impressive death as King John in 1899 - a promo for his tour of the full play, the Victorians were media savvy and believed in the power of marketing! There was also comedy, Herbert Campbell being quite revolting as Little Bobby and impressive chair-juggling from the Agoust Family circus performers. All precious glimpses of the performance past: Britain's always has talent.

The Dickson films along with some from Prestwich and Gaumont were all restored by BFI National Archive in collaboration with EYE Filmmuseum and Haghefilm. The technology to enable projection at maximum size is only fairly recent and a huge amount of manual work was performed on the ancient film before scanning at 8k could begin. The results are genuinely beautiful and gave you the kind of buzz you get visiting a foreign country for the first time… something familiar and a lot that is unexpected!

As Bryony says: “…all of those things that tell you something is old have been stripped away…” and, indeed, the films are made with a Victorian sensibility that is perhaps the most striking aspect of all once you begin to experience them after the shock of the new-old.

Afternoon tea in the garden at Clarence House (1897)
John Sweeney’s score was comprised of dozens of themes, all conducted by the maestro himself with alacrity from his band: Michael Whight (clarinet), Oscar Whight (cornet), James Dickenson (violin), Nick Stringfellow (cello) and Frank Bockius (hitting everything in sight with precision). I’ve heard John’s expert piano improvisations many times and it was a treat to hear his composition across these players; as soulful and comprehending as you’d expect. They provided a musical conduit to the spirit of these Victorian visuals and there was not a note out of place as they combined concisely whether for sixteen seconds or sixty. Bryony called them a palm court band and sure enough there was a palm tree on the band stand – it was just like Tiffin at The Langham with added visuals.

There’s a lot more to come with the BFI’s Head of curation, Robin Baker, explaining that the films are just the first look at some 700 Victorian films newly digitised by the BFI National Archive that will be available online in 2019 to mark the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria’s birth.

It would be nice to view some more on the IMAX; having been back to the future I’d like to return.

Four times the image size of 35mm... palm tree on the right!

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The big finish… The Chess Player (1927), Mark Fitz-Gerald with San Marco Orchestra, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto! Pordenone, Day Eight

That was the way to bow out, thousands of soldiers on horseback running at and around the camera as they charge, quick cuts of faces in battle, sword slashes, men falling… all as Edith Jehanne’s character plays the Polish anthem on her piano, envisaging a triumph as the San Marco Orchestra played Henri Rabaud’s original score at full volume.

It’s been a grand – exhausting - week and this last push lifted our tired spirits high up to the huge screen of the Teatro Verdi, fully engaging in Raymond Bernard's images and thoughts brimming over with so many highlights and wonderful conversations with a community passionately interested in communication, history and preservation. A week of shared values which showed, as the man said, how culture transcends boundaries. With attendees from across the globe, Le Giornate proves this every year as, whether from the Lower East Side, the North West, the Far East or the East End, we all want to learn more and to enquire without. Cinema Muto: it’s film for the curious…

The Chess Player is a masterclass in late-silent cinema technique that was made at the same time as Gance’s Napoleon and shares some of the scope and invention with the mobile camera and epic scale as well as innovative cutting, framing and that focus on filming thought… as Charles Dullin’s character, the clockwork inventor, faces his demise he sees the clogs of life turning and his death comes not wearing a shroud or on horseback but as an automaton… with a scythe the shape of a clock’s ticker.

Edith Jehanne et Pierre Batcheff

It’s a film of two halves, literally as well as figuratively: set in Eighteenth Century Poland after the Russian invasion of 1776, the first part covers the delicate balance between the locals and the occupying army of Tsarina Catherine II (so different from Pola Negri’s Tsarina…).

Debonair Pierre Blanchar is the pig-tailed Polish noble, Boleslas Vorowski, a master chess player and military leader who’s adopted sister Sophie Novinska (Edith Jehanne) seen as a symbol of Polish independence with her face even painted on the army’s standards. Her ward is the mysterious inventor Baron von Kempelen (Charles Dullin) a man whose genius has earned him royal favour and yet who seems to harbour deep agendas.

Sophie loves Boleslas like a brother, and loves his unlikely best friend, a Russian officer Serge Oblomoff (Pierre Batcheff) in a quite different way. But love of country will soon intervene and tear them apart. A friendly game of chess between Boleslas and the Russian Major Nicolaieff (Camille Bert) as the officer’s relax in the mess, degenerates after a Polish dancer, Wanda (Jackie Monnier), is pursued by an aggressive group of Russian offices. Boleslas goes to her rescue and starts a fight that sparks a war.

Pierre Blanchar et Edith Jehanne 
The Poles succeed in driving the Russians from Vilnius but they are eventually defeated by the latter’s superior numbers. There follows the battle mentioned at the top as the real battle is imagined by Sophie at her piano… Jehanne is just superb in this moment, emotion playing across her face as fluidly as the piano combinations as she watched and hopes in tortured isolation.

The uprising is brutally suppressed and whilst Boleslas survives the battle he is badly wounded, as the Russians search him out the Baron has an idea… it’s crazy, but it just might work. And so, it is that we take a left turn down the alley marked Georgian Steam Punk or at least the 1920’s equivalent of science fantasy.

Catherine is the Great Big Cheat!
Von Kempelen has invented many disturbing automatons, including one of himself and a platoon of sword-wielding full-size toy-soldier and he has an idea how to hide Poland’s great hope as he recuperates… inside a chess-playing automaton called the Turk. The film now shows the tour of The Turk, accompanied by von Kempelen, Sophie and Wanda, as the mechanical wonder beats all comers and travels ever closer to Germany and freedom.

But, Major Nicolaieff recognises the playing style in losing to the machine and realises that the clock-work grand master hides a secret. He persuades their host, King Stanislas, to send the Turk to the Empress in St Petersburg… out of the frying pan… and into a no-win scenario for, not only does Nicolaieff now the secret, Catherine has an even bigger secret about Sophie which could completely undermine the fight for Poland… the pace changes but the strange atmospheric and claustrophobia of the last hour, make for thrilling denouement.

Blanchar and Dullin
There was indeed a mechanical chess player known as The Turk who defeated almost all opponents from 1770 to 1854 and baffled the best minds of Europe including Napoleon Bonaparte (not to mention Benjamin Franklin). Remarkably it was only “exposed” in the 1820s... some trick but it wasn’t in Poland and Russia.

Combining the two stories together makes for a unique blend and it worked so well with the full-blooded sound of the orchestra in the Teatro’s precision crafted acoustic space. Mark Fitz-Gerald conducted and deserved every bow in this most heated finale!

In Old Kentucky (1927) with Philip Carli

Our last John M. Stahl movie provided far gentler fare and was the rare opportunity of seeing James Murray not in The Crowd, although he was in several crowds and called on to do his trademark man-at-the-edge-of-his-tether routine. This film presumable happened after The Crowd – if the stories of Vidor’s discovery of the actor are true and probably Stahl’s use of Murray would confirm the chronology given his character arc.

Murray plays Jimmy Brierly the son of a long line of proud and successful Brierly’s (Edward Martindel) whom have made themselves rich through horse breeding and racing. Murray’s girl is Nancy (Helene Costello) and both seem well-adjusted kids… But when Jimmy gets called off to the Great War, things are about to change.

He returns a shell of the man he was before, drinking and unable to function let alone live up to father’s expectations. His relationship with both sweetheart and family breaks down and he walks away just as his father’s financial difficulties threaten the family’s future. But – you’ve seen this coming haven’t you… there’s always a chance at redemption if you happen to find your old thoroughbred in a army horse sale and the horse, who performed so valiantly with Jimmy in the tranches, is a “mudder”… the day of the big, make or break race approaches and it’s a dry sunny day… if only it would rain, the old nag would have a chance?!

The film features a number of actual black actors which is always a good thing to see although there’s a lead character in black face… still, this must have been progress. The film ends with Highpockets (Stepin Fetchit… real name Lincoln Perry) agreeing to marry Lily May (Carolynne Snowden) and as the two embrace, he picks her pocket… what a rogue! Snowdon especially performs well and does the right thing for her “employers” … she deserves more than being the comic relief and Stahl does allow her character through to the drama.

The Vengeance du Sergent de Ville (1913)
 Desmet Collection Discoveries, with Nick Sosin

The next generation got the chance to shine with Donald’s son Nick Sosin performing experimental and humorous accompaniment to a series of shorts.

I especially liked The Two Little Boys Next Door (1911) was a British short with the titular lads being very naughty indeed in battling their neighbours to Nick’s quirky accompaniment of hi-register scatt and ukulele.

Also good was Mes Voisins Font Danser (1908) featured the attempts of Max Linder to get some rest avec une malle du tete! There’s a choir rehearsing upstairs and they respond to his request to “turn that noise down” by starting to dance, so much so that, naturally the roof caves in. It’s comedy chaos but it’s also The Master, as Charlie called him, being masterly.

Louis Feuillade’s The Vengeance du Sergent de Ville (1913) was also a hoot as the policeman in question is a noisy neighbour, playing his horn far too load and forcing the other tenants to try stop him and resorting to slapping a paper mache model of the copper. My advice leave it out, he ain’t worth it!

The concentrated joy of these early shorts was a timely reminder of the prevalence and popularity of the short form comedy. And it was good to see at least a few this week!

So, that’s it, I’m leaving on a jet plane… DO know when I’ll be back again though! June for Bolgna and October for Pordenone and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 38!! An excellent week and as Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale collected the new David Gill Award for best musical collaboration – deservedly so for me  – Stephen dedicated it to all of the Giornate’s musicians, who even he is in awe of: me too and I’m not alone!

So, thank you for the music Giornate players, you have ALL brought us so much joy this week and we are loving your work.

Arrividerchi and see you all in 2019!

Saturday, 13 October 2018

Pola energy lights up Le Giornate del Cinema Muto! Pordenone, Day Seven

The sky was falling in, lava exploding from a volcano, baddies running around, horses flying, a heroine being menaced by a lady with a whip, snake were coming out of rocks… it felt like the end of days and John Sweeney was pummelling the Teatro Verdi’s Fazioli piano with the most remarkable ferocity. John’s fierce clusters were totally controlled and there were variations in theme and contrapuntal flourishes through the film’s extended climax – people had hit that keyboard hard this week but to be playing that fast and with so much finesse: no one was sleeping through that! No one has driven this musical Maserati that fast and stayed within the rules of the road… Magnifico!

As for the film? The Golden Abyss (1927) has twins played stylishly by Liane Haid who are separated by a sea disaster with one, Oédidée growing up on a remote island, saved by a blind missionary (natch) whilst the other, Claire, has become a vamp of the first order with Louise Brooks’ locks and looks to match. We get some lascivious nightclub scenes that we should have got in Paris After Midnight and there’s a lot of action even after the censor had their way.

Liane Haid's Oédidée can't take her eyes of the pith-helmet
This was Mario Bonnard’s third film in Germany and was a clear attempt to produce a Franco-German Lost World or similar adventure. It’s just too frenetic and the plot about a group of men saved from death to form a crack team to find the golden treasure of lost Atlantis (yes, there again) is straight out of pulp fiction – Edgar Rice Burroughs on opium. Dolores Coreto is over-the-top kinky as the booted gang-leader whilst most of the others are just struggling to catch up and there’s just too much wood.

But… it was fun in the end all thanks to the Fazioli set aflame!

For the real deal, and one of the undoubted highlights of the week, you knew we could rely on Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri in Forbidden Paradise (1924) a film of such knowing sophistication it makes most of the other Hollywood flickers we’ve seen look a little plodding.

This was Team Bergkatze re-united for the last time and showing the Yankees how things are done. 

It’s the story of a Russian Tsarina - Pola – who has her hobbies and likes entertaining. She takes a shine to Alexie (Rod La Rocque) a young officer, who has ridden to warn her of revolution (there’s not much history really…) in spite of her Lord Chamberlain (the genius Adolphe Menjou, without whom no film is complete) trying to keep the handsome cove away.

Now Alexie’s true love is Anna (Pauline Starke, who I’d last seeing getting killed in Captain Salvation) and yet… he’s just another boy who can’t say no to the Tsarina at least not initially.
The story is slight, but the direction is so subtle and controlled and Pola’s performance is a master class in sass! No one else really conveyed everyday sarcasm and street humour as well as Miss Negri and no one else ever looked quite like her. Amazing and transfixing and as we all simmered in a packed Teatro Verdi, grown men started to faint…

Pauline Starke, Rod La Rocque and Pola Negri
The accompaniment was from Günter Buchwald and Gabriel Thibaudeau and the roof was raised in appreciation at the finish. Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola was in the audience too – a special, Giornate night indeed!

A Dangerous Wooing (1919) with Mauro Colombis

The day began with lots of fighting as Lars Hanson took on all-comers for the hand of Aslaug (Gull Cronvall), the winsome daughter of veteran cock of the walk, Knut Husaby (Theodor Blick) who describes himself as the “Wolf” and his two sons as cubs… although Sigurd (Hugo Tranberg) and Eyvind (Gosta Cederlund) seem scarcely feral at all, especially in comparison to Lars’ Tore Næsset.
Thormund (Hjalmar Peters), the wealthiest farmer in the area approaches with his only son, Ola (Kurt Welin) who has all of the financial backing and none of the front being a podgy lad who is easily despatched and dunked in milk by Uno and his accomplice.

Then things get a little more serious as they all gang up on Tore forcing him to take desperate measures to secure his love… All good fun and it looks great of course!

Gull Cronvall and Lars
This was followed by The Home Maker (1925) on the Parade’s Gone By at 50 strand. It’s a fascinating film about the expectations of men and women at the time: if the only way an intelligent and able woman could carry on working as the main breadwinner and the husband could be the home-maker was him to feign disability… you understand the contemporary concerns of the film makers and Dorothy Canfield on whose novel this was based. Canfield was a committed social reformer and was named one of the ten most influential women in the United States by Eleanor Roosevelt. The book has been re-published by Persephone Books and you can order it from them online.

Memory Lane (1926) with music and vocals from Donald Sosin

Now for two of my absolute favourite show people, who both got their breaks in 1923 and who also starred together in Tell It to the Marines (1926). Eleanor Boardman and William Haines are true Hollywood royalty – classy, smart and living marvellous lives of real substance! I genuinely love everything I see them in and this John M. Stahl comedy did not disappoint!

It’s slight stuff as Mary (Eleanor) has to choose between Joe (William) and Jimmy (Conrad Nagel) and even after she marries the latter there are complications as Joe ends up as their taxi driver and then kidnapper. There’s some lovely comic riffing between Boardman and Haines as their car breaks down in the rain. The characters are likable, and the gentle storyline isn’t upsetting anyone but it warms your heart all the same.

Donald Sosin sang the theme song along with the props on screen and this worked really well with this winsome winner!

Troll-Elgen (1927) with Maud Nelissen

Now it was time for some scenery as we landed in Norway for Walter Fürst’s elk-based romance. The ghost elk is a revered animal that locals say contains the soul of a departed man; to kill the elk would give you special status but he’s almost mystically-difficult to track.

What this a-typical cervus canadensis has to do with another rural romance based on status and restrictive class tropes is purely tangential but it does add some lovely wildlife shots to the mix.

As with Lars this morning, Bengt Djurberg’s Hans has a fight on his hands to wed his love, Ingrid (Tove Tellback – who has the most penetrating blue eyes) and he has to contend with Einar Tveito’s Gunnar Sløvika a richer man and a huge bully as well. Now Tveito has form in this kind of role and is a great baddy, this won’t be a pushover and Walter Fürst’s debut is a good-looking and well-paced adventure that also squeezes in a circus act, abusive Uncles and a hunt for the famed elk.

And that was a packed Friday… off to the plaza for conversations late into the night…last day tomorrow.

Tove Tellback and Bengt Djurberg forget about the elk

Friday, 12 October 2018

Desert song... Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Day Six

There was a repeated refrain of a about a dozen notes made by using a violin bow against blocks on a vibraphone that got hooked in your head and is still with me. Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story in which the perfect pop song is written, so catchy it completely takes over all mental function… well, this was close but combined with Jacques Feyder’s mesmerising visuals, this was immersive silent cinema: a three-hour film that felt shorter than some 70-minute ones.

That motif encapsulated the fatal allure of the city lost within the Sahara and its immortal Queen Antinéa from whom there was no release except death and conversion into a metallic mummy in her hall of trophies (we can get into the psycho-sexual details later…). It’s a place so compelling, sexy and the ultimate art nouveau man-trap so well designed by Manuel Orazi – nearly impossible to find and completely impossible to escape… welcome to the Hotel L’Atlantide.

Stephen Horne and Luigi Vitale had only been a duo for just one day (force of circumstance) and yet they combined with intuitive improvisations on multiple instruments. I was in the front row and occasionally peaked over to see who was playing what in the orchestra pit as the two followed each other and the film as if they’d had weeks… not a few hours. That this was done for such a lengthy film and one which would be so hard to play for unseen, is remarkable. There are so many great musicians here this week, but this was as good as anything you’d hear.

Manuel Oraz's film poster
This was a world premier of Lobster Film’s new 4K restoration and it has produced an eye-wateringly gorgeous result for a film that maybe long but has such a consistency of tone throughout: it never sags, it moves like the dunes, relentlessly overwhelming (ah, but we’ll get the psycho-sexual later…).

The story was based on Pierre Benoît’s novel of 1919 and resemblance between Queen Antinéa and Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She is purely the subject of legal history. Stacia Napierkowska, a former dancer from the Folies-Bergère, plays the queen and has an earthier allure than you might expect from such a siren. I couldn’t stop comparing her with Brigitte Helm in Pabst’s 1932 version – the early film is better (although I’ve note seen the restored Pabst) but you can really buy into Brigitte’s eternal allure. Plus, she has a pet cheetah. I was also thinking of Hawkwind’s stage dancer, Stacia… and perhaps only certain gentlemen from Bristol might fully appreciate that reference!

Antinéa and a plaything
Anyway… we don’t get to see Antinéa for well over an hour and a half as the film reels out its narrative at walking pace with magnificent desert vistas and some cinematography worthy of a David Lean film. I especially liked the emergence of a gang of raiders as first one then six then dozens emerge silhouetted on the horizon and the flashback showing how a soldier had been kidnapped at a watering hole, the camera moving to the right as the seen reverse fades into view.  

This was Feyder’s first major film and he shot it in the actual locations – and eight-month long shoot in Algeria, on location among the Touaregs in the Sahara and the Ahaggar (Hoggar) Mountains and, just possibly, in the sunken city marooned in the former sea.

The tale is of lost legionnaires and both Jean Angelo as Captain Morhange and Georges Melchior Lieutenant de Saint-Avit are superb as is Marie-Louise Iribe as the Queen’s servant who tries to escape with Saint-Avit. Abd-el-Kader Ben-Ali is also good as the mysterious and principled Cegheïr-ben-Cheik a man of the desert who helps the men but also gets them stoned…

This is a film to relish and I would like to return to that score as well as L’Atlantide

 Husbands and Lovers (1924) with Mauro Colombis

This was the most polished Stahl so far and the first comedy. It features Stahl stalwart (Stahl-wart?) Lewis Stone plays, James Livingston a man taking his wife Grace (Florence Vidor) for granted and the final straw comes when she gets a perm and he doesn’t like it. His pal Rex Phillips (Lew Cody) does though and senses the chance to sneak in and steal the girl from under Jim’s insensitive nose.

We know how it’s going to go but it’s quirky and well-played enough to maintain our interest and the inevitable is eeked out to the last possible moment, Stahl knowing exactly what he is putting us through. Lew Cody though, no way is he ever going to bag Flo’ Vidor. Just saying.

Alice Tissot reading in foreground and Germaine Rouer outstanding...
La Cousine Bette (1928) with Günter Buchwald

This is another one of Balzac’s twisted tales and a film in which there are few innocents, as in life. 
It’s highly stylised by director Max de Rieux and almost grotesquely so but that starts to feel more and more right the longer you watch as bad behaviour gains all the ground. Cousin Betty as played by Alice Tissot is a malevolent watcher of other’s lives motivated by self-interest and the desire to push others lower than her. Germaine Rouer is outstanding – again – as Valérie Marneffe who is so deliciously bad as she breaks men like so many brittle toys and there are some excellent dandies in the form of Christopher Walken look-alike François Rozet as Comte Wenceslas Steinbock and Nell Haroun as Baron Henri Montès de Montejanos who has bizarrely-crafted side-burns to go with his deep eye shadow and excessive foundation: ridicule is nothing to be scared of mon brave!

Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes
The Enemy (1927) with John Sweeney

Fred Niblo’s film is another in the Kevin Brownlow strand and is a powerful anti-war statement based around two Austrian families at the outbreak of the Great War described by Kevin as a “…rarity, a truly pacifist film, almost an M-G-M version of Isn’t Life Wonderful?”

Lillian Gish is curiously playing within herself here – she was distracted off-set by her mother’s illness – but she’s still incredible even though she doesn’t go the whole La bohème for the depravations later in her character’s arc. Lots of close-ups and actually her more “relaxed” performance makes for interesting watching, less draining than say The Wind and her measured intensity gives room for the wider narrative to breathe.

At the start the impact of the declaration of war on university pals, Austrian Carl Behrend (Ralph Forbes) and Englishman Bruce Gordon (Ralph Emerson) makes you expect that they will provide the “enemy” and meet on the battlefield but no, the real enemy is at home. Hatred and unreasoned national pride drive Carl’s father away from his wife Pauli (Gish) and her family and after her grandfather (Frank Currier) is kicked out of university for his pacifist views they struggle to feed each other and Pauli’s baby.

Grandfather swaps his overcoat for an egg, but there’s far worse to come in a stunning closing sequence largely reconstructed using stills but which still kicks you hard.

Make war no more.