Thursday, 29 November 2018

The unforgotten… Mickey (1918), BFI with John Sweeney

Mabel Normand was hugely influential and massively successful and she was undoubtedly one of the pre-eminent creators in the formative years of silent film and comedy. Without her constant emotional momentum and physicality Stan Laurel may never have developed that look of quiet desperation and Charlie would have taken longer to develop his understanding of cinematic direction and comedy action. A mentor to Chaplin, his director and equal as well as a collaborator with Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle and many more, she blew the box office in 1918 with Mickey, the first and last film from her own production company and the biggest Hollywood hit of the year.

There had been some debate on the ICO panel preceding this screening about whether the “Big Four” silent comedy greats was merely a creation of male cineastes after the fact – men being so fond of lists and rankings – but whilst Mabel was a ground-breaker and undeniably great, it’s hard to make a case for her superiority over Chaplin – the most famous man in the world then and not far off it now – or Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd whose success in the twenties eclipsed everyone. Harry Langdon certainly has not the cache now, despite his success then, he’s been less durable perhaps because of the lack of a unique proposition? Still, even Max Linder, Chaplin’s “Master” is broadly forgotten and he was undoubtedly as “great” as almost anyone.

Mabel, as with Max, tragically never got the chance to develop her film making and this, along with many lost films, helps explain why, debates about primus inter pares apart, she is less well known. She should be revered though along with others.

A clip was shown of Marie Dressler in Tillie’s Punctured Romance which remains one of my favourite silent comedies featuring Mabel as well as Charlie at his nasty, snarling best; the two riffing off each other as Dressler owns the central drama. She’s certainly one of the very best comedic actors and she enjoyed a long career: nothing less than extremely good in everything she did. Worthy of memory without a doubt.

Without question, female silent comics have been less well remembered but, aside from that, the women stars that do persist in memory are great versatile players like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson… whilst even Norma Talmadge, who had her own studio and many big hits, and sister Constance (herself no mean comic) are less fashionable along with Viola Dana and a ton of others. Tastes change, films get lost and history is not always fair.

Sometimes silent film fandom is like a celluloid Fahrenheit 451; we preserve in our minds those whose artistic impact has been burned from public memory either at a much lower temperature in a nitrate fire or just through revisionism and blind fashion. There’s a responsibility to highlight what you learn and to rekindle the lost work and we are lucky that there are so many enthusiasts archiving, programming and writing.

I loved discovering Mabel a few years back and watching Mickey and Tillie’s PR enjoyed her every bit as much as Chaplin or the kind of Pickford film the former most represents. Mabs is that bit harder than Mary and that Lubitsch scene in Rosita where the Canadian eats the grapes was lifted from this film when Mable stuffs her face with the cherries on a cake, milking the scene for all its worth denying all knowledge as she tries and fails to munch away the evidence and wipe the juice from around her mouth.

Minnie Devereaux and Mabel
Mabel was intensely relatable, and so knowing in the way she emotes, sharing the joke with an audience quickly attuned to watching only her. Charlie took that but no one’s ever going to accuse Normand of being soppy, she’s a working-class girl who’ll work it out for herself and come to the rescue of her man if he’s backed a losing horse.

Directed by F. Richard Jones, Mickey is ostensibly a straight-ahead comedy about a hillbilly orphan made good but there’s plenty of subversive invention from Normand who creates a feel-good cohesion that must have been worth its weight in gold at the time: Mickey’s a girl who defies convention and makes good against all odds. It’s 1918 and, frankly, women are on the march.

She is first seen extending an arm to surreptitiously steal her adopted father’s hat – a carefully drawn-out reveal for a major star.  The hat falls near the mine shaft and, amidst some confusion, kicks off a rescue attempt at their mine as she is believed to have fallen down but she emerges from a hole carrying their over-inquisitive cat. Fearing a beating from her step-dad, Joe Meadows (George Nichols), she tries to hide his belt and makes their donkey eat it, much to her “mother’s” delight – Joe’s housekeeper Minnie as played by the stern-looking Minnie Devereaux (who has a belting smile to go with her bruiser arms).

Mabel and George Nichols
Mickey’s too much for the old man and he wonders if he should send her to her aunt in New York to learn some manners “around female company”. Mickey’s father died and left her in the hands of his business partner in the hope that one day their Tomboy Mine (see what they did there?) would make good… many years on it still hasn’t and he’s at his wit’s end.

We are shown a glimpse of Mickey’s fancy relations: money-grabbing Aunt, Mrs Drake (Laura La Varnie)  aiming to marry off her shrill daughter Elsie (Minta Durfee) as profitably and as quickly as possible and her lush of a brother (Lew Cody – such a good player and a future Mr Normand!) who spends more on horses than his family.

Auntie Evil’s main hope is, co-incidentally, a mine-owner as well, only a rich one; the answer to all the family’s prayers as they struggle in their upper middle-class poverty trap. But, before he can pledge his troth, the moneyed miner, Herbert Thornhill (Wheeler Oakman), has to go and sort out some border disputes on his mine and as luck would have it, he discovers Mickey hiding under the bed in his hotel room. She is on the run with her pooch who has just mauled the local store-keeper’s legs and leaves an immediate impression on the city guy.

Laura La Varnie and Minta Durfee
She rides off to save her dog from the baying mob but Herbert follows, intrigued by her strange exuberance… Rebuffed by her step-dad’s caution, Herbert never-the-less pursues his interest in Mickey especially after he spies her skinny dipping within sight of his theodolite… (a throwback to her days as a Sennett bathing beauty: The Diving Girl returns!).

Before things can really develop, Joe sends her off to her aunt who is not so welcoming once she discovers that Mickey’s mine is worthless and sets her to work as a maid and general dogsbody. Normand makes merry with this city Cinderella situation: she has the same energies as Pickford and an open honest charm that makes her an automatic ally for the watching audience. Herbert, thinking that he’s lost her for good, agrees to marry cousin Elsie but he is reunited with Mickey as she gate-crashes the engagement party. He’s made a mistake and turns to his close friend and attorney, Tom Rawlings (Tom Kennedy), for help… he wants the one he can’t have and not the one he’s contractually obliged too.

Two reversals of fortune spice things up as Herbert’s ownership of his mine comes under threat, leaving him potentially penniless and imprisoned whilst Mickey’s mine finally strikes gold. The girl is unaware though as she has already been jettisoned by her Aunt just moments before she sneakily reads the telegraph intended for her niece… A desperate chase ensues in which the family tries to over-take her train and secure the return of their new meal ticket. It’s breath-taking stuff and the film is a real crowd pleaser throughout as rotten Reggie’s rigged race runs its course and his rude advances place Mickey in mortal danger…

Lew Cody as Reggie the Rotter
Sadly for Mabel her career was not sustained and she was impacted by both the Arbuckle and Desmond scandals and tragically by the onset of tuberculosis which gradually led to her becoming addicted to her medication as well as having an increasingly direct effect on her health. We should remember her for the sheer joy and exuberance she bought: a talent that enabled Mickey to become the blockbuster it was even if its star was less than convinced of its quality. Now, that’s a true professional at work: no second best.

John Sweeney’s accompaniment was a delight perhaps relaxed in the presence of such a sure-footed performer as Mabel, from the chase scenes to the dance and the dramatic conclusion his duet with the actress was pitch perfect.

The BFI’s print was warm and atmospherically care-worn and the whir of projector added to the delight. There’s a number of Mabel films on the superb Kino Lorber Pioneers: FirstWomen Filmmakers… which is part of the joyous process of re-establishing the gender balance of film history. Personally I’d rather watch a Lois Webber film than a DW Griffith or Mabel rather than Ford Sterling: these films are there on merit.

Meanwhile don’t forget that the BFI’s The Marvelous Mabel Normand: Leading Lady of Film Comedy pack of four shorts - with ace Meg Morley score - is showing across the country. Details here on their website.

Mabel Normand is one of my Big Six silent comics and mighty Mickey is one of her best.

Home truths... Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), New restoration on BFI Bluray and DVD

“It’s hard to believe that one man could have caused so much suffering and all these years later I make a film about him, it’s extraordinary…”

When I first saw this back in 1988 I was struck by the unmistakable sense of “face”; these were people I knew, relatives that I’d see at weddings and funerals at family gatherings in Liverpool; right down to “Mickey” being the spit of my Aunty Doreen and Freda Dowie’s resemblance to my Nain. This is one of the most resonant films ever made in Britain.

Terence Davies grew up in Liverpool’s Kensington and the houses there are the same as my Mum’s in Anfield and my father’s in Wavertree, all areas of Liverpool that were built on close communities and extended families. The anger and brutality of Davies’ childhood is encapsulated in the primal rage of Pete Postlethwaite… I never saw my grandads go off like him but nor would I have messed with them or my Dad.

Davies was the youngest of ten and this film is almost told from the physical standpoint of the child as he stands slightly outside of the main action, catching snatches of mysterious adult actions and viewing the house, the stairs, the happy and the sad from the detachment of his age and stature. I found this claustrophobic on first viewing but this is perfectly the perception of a boy trying to remember and to make sense of those real and imagined moments that revealed the adult world to him.

I remember similar people and occasions, being four and a page boy at our Doreen’s wedding, the adults buzzing around my Nan’s house in Wavertree, my Aunty Barbara looking so pretty (we still flirt now) and taking care of the precocious little lad with the blue blazer. I didn’t really understand everything that was happening but I knew enough to say thank you to the vicar after the ceremony; it seemed like the right thing to do. There may not have been that much singing in our houses but there was plenty of music – both sides of the family could play, some exceptionally well – and, at funerals especially, there was drinking.

Davies’ film is almost a silent one but filled with music either as soundtrack or sung by the characters: everyone had their own songs whilst others like, If You Knew Suzy, was always a group sing-along. The narrative is an expertly-edited series of narrative gobbets, moving tableaux of family life showing the snatches of joy between the killing graft, the wars and the weight of responsibility placed on the shoulders of men when they were still boys; no wonder they barely grew beyond that point.

It starts with a great opening shot the front of one of many thousands of Victorian terraced houses and as the camera moves into the hallway and round to the front room where we see the three children and their mother: all in the moments between definite emotions… weddings, funerals; there’s sadness either way. The mother sings one of Davies’ mam’s favourites, setting the tone, and then we have Jessye Norman singing There’s a Man Going Round Taking Names.

On the wall behind them is the only photograph of Davies' father with a horse, one of the few pleasures he ever found in life: “it’s hard to believe that one man could have caused so much suffering and all these years later I make a film about him, it’s extraordinary…”

It’s one of the most genuine films ever made full of rounded characters we know, like and would want to avoid. Chief amongst these is the Father – one of legions of working-class men born into misery and rage: a stranger to happiness he wishes. As Davies says, like all tyrants he’s moved by sentimentality and not by real emotion; he wishes his children a happy Christmas when they’re asleep because he can’t face saying it to them awake. The next day he explodes at the dinner table and rips the Christmas dinner onto the floor.

Postlethwaite does Scouse like a native even if he was from another great Lancashire town, Warrington, up the road. His portrayal of Tommy Davies is one of the great horrors in British film: a man who can favour his eldest daughter Eileen (Angela Walsh) whilst later beating her sister Maisie (Lorraine Ashbourne) with a broom for even asking if she can go to the dance: an event that happened to the film-maker’s sister.

He’s similarly aggressive towards eldest son, Tony (Dean Williams), who he casually kicks out of the house for some misdemeanour… the lad can’t be more than 12. This is another real event and after sleeping rough in the park for a few days he went to live with his Gran and never came back. Davies was present when years later, his brother came home - absent without leave - smashing the front windows wanting to fight his father.

At the same time, Tommy has a soft spot for Eileen’s mate Micky (Debi Jones – who is so full of Scouse joy), for whom he’s far more lenient and humane… the dirty old get! Mickey was based on his sister’s best mate Monica Kelly and Davies talks lovingly of the women, their humour, style and ability to keep their heads even when their men, all around them, were losing theirs.

Meanwhile the next generation of men are heading in the same direction, some cut from the same cloth: Eileen marries Dave (Michael Starke, one of many Brooksiders in the cast and good with it too!) – who gets a bit funny about people coming round… whilst her mate Jingles (Marie Jelliman) is hitched to Les (a vicious turn from Andrew Schofield who I once saw playing in the same band as Margi Clarke at Eric’s) with whom you would not want to mess.

Mickey has it easier with the jokey Red (Chris Darwin) and Maisie finds the good fella she deserves in George (Vincent Maguire) … there’s hope that the family will progress and, what we don’t see in this scaled-down version, is the tenth child growing up to make a quite exceptional film about it all.

In the Q&A accompanying the screening of this restored edition, Davies revealed he never watches his films as he always sees the faults and spent enough time with them during editing. He’s very self-depreciating – you can take the boy out of Liverpool… The film is not autobiographical per se but it mixes in real events with fictional representations such as when Tony and his brother-in-law fall off the scaffolding: a mix of Davies’ eldest brother’s injury in the forces and his brother-in-law falling.

His father had black rages and some of the stories were toned down – one time his mother jumped out of their bedroom window to avoid her husband’s fury and was caught by a passing soldier; Davies felt this wouldn’t have been believable and yet, it happened.

This was his first film, made with BFI backing on a shoe-string but out of necessity came an extraordinary flow of images – the shot of the umbrellas outside the Futurist and the camera floating over the sisters as they cry watching a film inside as a lush, orchestral version of Love is a Many Splendoured Thing plays, followed by the men crashing down through glass in slow motion. A “magical lie” as Davies says but an incredibly powerful sequence.

Davies’ love for his siblings, friends and family imbues the film and it’s instantly recognisable by all: even with so much rage in their lives they continued to love and snatch those precious shards of happiness whenever they could.

This 4K digital restoration from the original 35mm camera negative, approved by director Terence Davies, is simply stunning and every home should have one. It’s available on Blu-ray and DVD from the BFI Shop and online. Every home should have one!

There’s a welter of extras including a post-screening Q&A and Davies’ commentary on the film – essential listening – along with interviews with the director from 2007. A chunky and fully illustrated booklet has new writing on the film by critic Derek Malcolm and art director Miki van Zwanenberg, essays by Geoff Andrew and Adrian Danks, and full film credits.

There’s also Images of Liverpool in Archive Film (1939-42, 62 mins) which features three archive shorts depicting the city of Liverpool and its community when the city had a million people and my parents were kids…

Monday, 26 November 2018

Love thy neighbour… The Cohens and Kellys (1926), Barbican with Dermot Dunne, Nick Roth, Cora Venus Lunny and Adrian Mantu

"An Uproarious Knockout! -- A Thousand Laughs!"

Well. That was a right laugh! I hadn’t high hopes to be perfectly honest, having just completed a small tour of the half-dozen or so Irish bars between Liverpool Central Station and Lime Street (karaoke city mate and if you’re still sober by midday they kick you out) but this plastic paddy needn’t have worried. This film is far more sensitive than you’d expect and is more about the character’s than their ethnicity and certainly not their religion. It’s not especially deep but it’s heart-warming and imbued with the message Hollywood repeats over and over again: we simply must learn to get on with each other.

Head of Irish Film Programming, Sunniva O’Flynn, introduced and explained that this was the film that kicked off an seven-film franchise during which the Cohens and Kellys found themselves variously in Paris (1928), in Atlantic City (1929), in Scotland (1930), in Africa (1930), in Hollywood (1932), in Trouble (1933) but, almost never in agreement. These kinds of stereotypes were well known by audiences at the time and accepted as being a celebration of recognisable community types by a wide audience and, indeed the film did well with both Irish and Jewish audiences.

Charles Murray and Kate Price
You can understand why the series worked with the four leads being so strong and it’s still funny helped in no small measure by the most agile of live scores that mixed both Irish and Jewish Folk music traditions often at the same time along with jazz and Klezmer. The players not only watched the film, they synched music and musical effects precisely with the action: this was a score rehearsed to within a sprocket hole of perfection.

The quartet featured multi-award-winning Irish accordionist Dermot Dunne, saxophonist Nick Roth (of the Yurodny Ensemble), improvising violinist Cora Venus Lunny and cellist Adrian Mantu (from the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet). There were times when Cora scratched her strings or bowed atonally to mimic the dogs and Adrian did the same in tandem with Dermot and Nick to replicate speech patterns or rather an argument. The music was building on top of the images and with such vivid character on screen it worked exceptionally well: it’s rare to hear a score that gets as many laughs as the film but it deserved it and I can see both Cohen and Kellys laughing their socks off in rare agreement.

George Sidney
The Cohens and Kellys has been beautifully restored by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique and the IFI Irish Film Archive and the resultant digital transfer looked fantastic and very “warm”. It was being presented in partnership with The Irish Film Institute in association with Irish Film Festival London and UK Jewish Film Festival and the Barbican Cinema 1 was packed with many Cohens and Kellys not to mention at least one Joyce.    

Now the two families are neighbours down in the lower East-Side on opposite sides of a tenement building, and we’re introduced to the nature of their relationship as the two family pet dogs fight in the hall to be soon joined by the youngest sons, Sammy Cohen (Robert Gordon) and Terence Kelly (Mickey Bennett - who was also in Mary Pickford's Sparrows) two lads who just want to knock each other’s block off.

Jason Robarts' Dad
Their mothers, hearing the racket, come out onto the hall Mrs. Cohen (Vera Gordon) who is perhaps a potential peacemaker and rather over-matched by Mrs Kelly (Kate Price from Cork, the only Irish-born player) who is fearsome indeed. But this fight starts and ends with the heads of the family, Patrick Kelly (Charles Murray) a policeman (natch) and Jacob Cohen (George Sidney) a draper (also, natch!) – two stubborn middle-aged tyrants with little sense of their own ridiculousness.
The exceptions to all of this are the Kelly’s eldest, Tim (Jason Robards Sr. – yes, that Jason Robart’s dad!) who is completely besotted with the Cohen’s daughter, Nannie (the rather striking Olive Hasbrouck). Naturally they keep their romance secret and there’s be hell to pay if either father finds out which, of course, they will…

Olive Hasbrouck 
There’s a funny subplot in which Cohen, his poorstore overshadowed by two larger ones both of who are discounting, decides to repaint his signage to say “Main Entrance” which results in a fracas requiring the attention of a particular police man.

Cohen’s in debt and struggling and tries to avoid a lawyer, Milton J. Katz (Nat Carr) who is seeking him out. He finally gives himself away to find he has inherited two million dollars from his Great Aunt… Now everything changes as the family moves to a mansion seemingly leaving the Kelly’s all behind but, frustrated by their parents’ intransigence, Nannie and Tim have got married. Cohen goes through a nightmare of feints and stress-gurning and is sent away to recover at a sanatorium. He returns nine months later to find another Cohen now in the house, one who is also a Kelly!

The families who can’t avoid each other are now forced together in ways they had not expected and someone needs to find a way to make it work. Luckily there’s a crooked lawyer and unexpected complications to finally bring out the best.

Harold A. Pollard directs with skill, alighting on every argument without telegraphing intent any more than necessary. There is some lovely fluid camera work from Charles Stumar – very European which occasionally made me think of Emil Jannings playing Mr Cohen… with lots of pullbacks as the Cohens or, indeed, the Kellys absorbed the latest outrageous twist of fortune.

It was funny in 2018 and funnier in 1926 but this is how our great grand uncles and aunts laughed at themselves and the enduring obsession with things not being as they should be. In the end, kick back and if you have to row make sure you always make up.

So, raise a glass: l'chaim and sláinte to us all!

A shot of the rehearsal shared by the Irish Film Institute

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Comrades in films… Silent Guns, Kennington Bioscope Great War Centenary Day

There’s film of history and film as history: films that are essentially primary source in themselves, how else to view almost any cinema after the Great War in which six million men served, 725,000 British servicemen died and over 1.75 million were wounded, half of which left with life-changing injuries.

My great Uncle Alec lived the rest of his life with shrapnel in his skull whilst my granddad William saw much that changed his attitude to class, politics and religion; he also almost died twice. The First World War touches us still but for those making film during, after and about the conflict in the silent era it was an act of personal and professional exegesis. Even in Hollywood some had fought in the war, William Wellman and Richard Arlen were both fighter pilots a decade before they made Wings, whilst in Europe, as you’d expect, connections were everywhere.

The styles of cinematic representation differed even then from the forensic neo-documentary approach of the British reconstruction films such as today’s Q Ships (1928) to the more dynamic and crafted approach of perhaps the first true war blockbuster, King Vidor’s extraordinary The Big Parade (1925).

A shoulder to cry on - Comradeship (1919)
There are no winners in war but today there were two films that stood out, Vidor’s film and, to the delight and surprise of a fair few, Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) which was so deftly made it could have been made in California that year or ten years later in Ealing.

It’s so affecting that I’d like to demand both a re-screening as soon as possible as well as a Blu-ray and DVD release. I’m also agitating for a posthumous damehood for Peggy Carlisle who is excellent in the film and clearly one of the all-time great Scouse silent stars… they should get some stars for Mathew Street!

But first the Parade that was Big… this is a film that set the template for so much of what was to come from Wings, Hell’s Angels and All Quiet… right the way through to Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. The scene where John Gilbert, Karl Dane, Tom O'Brien and their company begin a slow walk in line with bayonets fixed through a forest littered with dead French soldiers is still unbearable tense. Slowly single soldiers fall, picked off by snipers, then two, then three as machine guns are trained on the men, then grenades and bigger guns… it is as if the real war is gradually being rolled out after a first half of comradeship and Gilbert’s character’s inevitable fall for the irresistibly-appealing Renée Adorée – the best leading actor in the film.

Renée Adorée 
Then, as even his closest buddies begin to fall, Gilbert is trapped in a crater with one of the Germans, he’s already fatally shot the man but, as with a dying animal, can’t deliver the coup de grâce… he gives the man a cigarette as he dies and, in an instinctive improvisation, pushes his face away repeatedly: he just cannot look at him.

There are a few moments of 1920’s artifice but whilst some might snigger as Adorée clings on desperately to Gilbert’s departing truck, the absolute panic as she searches for him as the thousands of soldiers depart is visceral and the way the soldiers can’t resist pawing at her an animalistic foretaste of the de-humanisation to come. The psychological impact of the war drives the story and that’s exactly why it still works so well: these people were far more familiar with the realities of war than us.

John Gilbert in the fight of his life...
It doesn’t get much more laudable than the second-highest grossing silent film ever and MGM’s biggest until they torched Atlanta 14 year’s later. Comradeship, however, was today’s revelation, the Stoll Company’s first feature film and one aimed at helping publicise the Comrades of the Great War; a post-conflict support group for ex-servicemen who, as King George V hoped, would keep alive the “splendid spirit” of the battlefield in peace time.

In Dr. Lucie Dutton’s fascinating introduction, she revealed that stage actress Lily Elsie, here making her only feature film appearance, donated her fee to the Comrades as did Louis Parker on who’s story the film is based, Director Elvey gave half his salary and Stoll 60% of box office receipts. It was a cause close to Oswald Stoll’s heart and even today the Stoll Foundation is active in supporting ex-service men.

Inventive mirrored shot of Lily Elsie in Comradeship (1919)
Elevy said that this story is “the finest I have ever read in my life and will make a very fine film…” not untypical enthusiasm for his current projects according to Lucie and it is indeed a fine story and one that entertains and engages and says so much about the period in which it was made. It’s an examination not just of the binary outcomes of the conflict but the deep impacts it left on the national psyche – the emotional elements are every bit as important as in The Big Parade.

Instead of John Gilbert we have Gerald Ames (whose teeth are not in the same league) as John Armstrong who runs a drapery in the small town of Melcombe, he is a pacifist at the start of the war but this will, of course, have to change – let’s hope we none of us ever have to go through the same moral calculations.

He is assisted in his shop by a fuzzy-haired blonde Peggy played by Peggy Carlisle who was all of 15 years old at the time and would become an Elvey regular after her cameo in Lloyd George she would feature in The Rocks of Valpre (1919) – screened at the British Silent Film Festival in 2015 – as well as the lost Keeper of the Door (1919) and the superlative Hindle Wakes (1928). She’s a terrific presence in this film and has to do a lot of the emotional heavy lifting after being betrayed and left pregnant by a German spy, Otto (Dallas Cairns) who also works as a cutter the store.

Peggy Carlisle by a happier tree
Otto busies himself taking pictures of key landmarks and, after events escalate, he leaves with a note saying he will return as John’s master (we relay don’t like Otto). Local landowner Lieutenant Baring (the always watchable Guy Newall) always suspected Otto but the draper gave him the benefit of the pacifist's doubt.

John meets Baring’s cousin, the elegant Betty Mortimer (Lily Elsie) and it’s respectful-love-for -one’s-betters at first sight. After war breaks Betty decides to turn their home, Fanshawe Hall, into a wounded soldiers' hospital and she also takes in Peggy after her step-mother disowns her.

There are some excellent exterior shots in this film – Elvey always has that and it adds so much “volume” to his best films – with cinematographer Paul Burger excelling with some prize shots of Peggy set against a row of trees, her movement making her anguish clear even from a distance; she is alone and in need of friends like Betty.

Peggy Carlisle, Gerald Ames and Teddy Arundell
John goes to war and meets up with a fine fellow called Ginger (Teddy Arundell) a proto-Karl Dane who plays the accordion badly but will always stick with his pals. On leave he rescues Peggy from assault and they begin a tentative relationship whilst, at the same time, John sees Betty give a locket to Baring and jumps to the wrong conclusions.

Back in the war, the chums have a fateful encounter with Otto and as Gerald returns blinded and peace is declared, it seems his chances of happiness and purpose have disappeared for good. But this is when comradeship comes to the fore and I wasn’t the only one wiping something from my eye as steadfast humanity endures.

Some felt at the time that the film had come too late but fascinating shots of German artillery in the Mall – there for children’s delight and as proof of victory – along with the plot concerning the Comrades of the Great War, would have been very important to a society in shock: who was really celebrating in 1918-19? Society needed to be seen to be standing tall.

Offering help and comfort for the 800,000 disabled ex-servciemen
There’s also a very deft conclusion with Elvey making like Lubitsch with a close-up of just Betty and Gerald’s hands: will they, won’t they… you’ll have to watch and find out!

Meg Morley accompanied, fresh off the plane from Australia and her playing was soulful and naturally so supportive. Her next trick was to transform herself into John Sweeney some two-thirds of the way through the Anglo-German A Romance of the Great Battle of Jutland/Die Versunkene Flotte (1926). Their change-over was seamless and John followed Meg’s lines; total pros these guys!

This film was a fascinating mix of military drama and tangled romance with Agnes Esterhazy’s Erica choosing German naval commander Barnow (Bernahrd Goetke) over his best pal, Royal Naval captain Dick (Henry Stuart). War breaks out and they determine to remain friends even as Barnow commits himself to his men’s lives. Erica is sorely tempted by Lt Arden (handsome charmer Nils Asner), and spills the beans on the eve of the Battle of Jutland as the greatest navies in the World prepare for the defining sea battle of the Great War. Jutland was a “score-draw” despite heavier British losses, that showed the Germans they had no chance of winning outright given the resources and size of the Royal Navy: after Jutland the Germans accepted that they had been contained as a surface fleet.

The SMS Szent István sinks 
It is very well done and features extensive found-footage from the conflict including the capsizing of the Austrian battleship SMS Szent István in 1918… which adds extra reality with the horrific sight of hundreds of figures swimming away from the massive hull as it rolls over.

Kings College's Dr Lawrence Napper introduced and said that this, mostly German production was part of a process of more balanced relationships between the former enemies, by this stage the Germans are recognised as men with honour as well as ruthless efficiency.

Lawrence also introduced Q Ships (1928), a more typical battle reconstruction film, directed by Geoffrey Barkas and Michael Barringer for New Era Films (an offshoot of British Instructional Films) which showed the role of armed cargo ships in entrapping German U-Boats. After Jutland the prospect of another great face-off between battleship-led fleets diminished and submarines became the key German naval weapon as they attempted to interrupt supplies to the Allies. There’s very little fictional drama and the focus was very "procedural" as they tried to show the actuality. Admiral Lord Jellicoe – who commanded the British fleet at Jutland – even features in the film to add authenticity and it was not uncommon for former combatants to be featured.

Even the mud was imported in the quest for accuracy and authentic ships and weaponry was used along with narratives based on actual medal-winning events. The films were “memory spectacles” for old troops who would watch them on the afternoons of Remembrance Sunday.

John Sweeney played his own respects with accompaniment that let the story breathe as the Brits chased an enemy submarine.

Oooh, Q-Ships is on Grapevine DVD
There were also three sections compiling shorter films: in America at War: Hollywood in the Air, Kevin Brownlow talked through his interviews with Colleen Moore in relation to Lilac Time, the film she made with Gary Cooper and, mostly, William “Wild Bill” Wellman on Wings which left me wanting to watch that film again on the big screen. After The Big Parade, Wings was another blockbuster and Howard Hughes was watching, again and again as he put together Hell’s Angels.

Hollywood on the Ground had Glenn Mitchel and Dave Wyatt introducing a mixed bag of which my favourite was Pearl White’s Pearl of the Army (1916) – it may be incomplete but it shows how one of the pioneers of women in action adventure films worked. There were also some classy comic cuts from Harry Langdon, Natalie Kingston and Vernon Dent in All Night Long (1924).

As a treat, Colin Sell accompanied these two segments and showed that he may well have had some previous experience… only “Samantha” knows for sure and she’ll never tell!

Lastly there were shorts from this side of the pond with Europe at War which included a fascinating single reel of a Herbert Brenon feature in which the Germans invade Chester. Victory and Peace (1918) came too late and was dogged by bad-luck and self-sabotage and so only this one reel survives: it’s powerful in its way as the city is bombed and children die – but propaganda that was simply after the show. You can watch the film for free on the BFI Player.

Nurse and Martyr (1915) was a highly-propagandist take on the execution of Edith Cavell featuring the rather too glamourous Cora Lee in the lead and an unknown actor as Elsa, a no-mark German who blames Cavell for her own failings and gets revenge by selling her out. An unnecessary addition to the story which, as the Fifeshire Advertiser noted, will “touch the heart of a nation… the British ‘Joan of Arc’…”

Edith (Cora Lee)  is betrayed by evil Elsa
Congratulations and thanks to all at the Bioscope and Cinema Museum who make these days possible. At the end Michelle Facey reminded us of the main importance of these films: “we shall not forget” those who sacrificed all for their country in a war that finished a century ago but which shaped the Twentieth Century and beyond.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Days of future past… City Without Jews (1924), Barbican with Olga Neuwirth and PHACE Ensemble conducted by Nacho de Paz

In the pre-screening Q&A with Bryony Dixon, composer Olga Neuwirth mentioned that she had just heard Theresa May say that political leadership wasn’t about the “easy task” but about “the right task” in response to the people’s will. It’s a phrase that the Austrian felt chimed very much with the decision by the Chancellor in this film’s fictitious country of Utopia when, responding to the electorate’s constant blaming of the Jews for their every ill, he decides to exile them all even against his better judgement.

Populism is nothing new and neither is religious intolerance and this film and Hugo Bettauer’s book upon which it is based, are excruciatingly prescient and so very relevant now as then and much in between. Shortly after the film was released Bettauer was murdered by a former member of the Nazi Party… a man who was released after spending just two years in a psychiatric hospital: justice was poorly served in 1920s Austria and there was, of course, far, far worse to come.

What began as a comedy satire thus ended up almost immediately as tragedy and is now imbued with the unbearable weight of a history with no sign of let up. Today, as the British government squabbled over Brexit and our relationship with the European Union, a politics founded in defining our commonality by rejecting “otherness” once again took its toll: it’s the oldest trick in the book and it works a charm in extending human misery.

The Chancellor
Olga Neuwirth is an Avant Garde composer from Graz in southern Austria, she is of Jewish heritage and has witnessed a rekindling of racial tensions throughout her life in this mainly Slovanian area. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declined throughout the Nineteenth Century leaving a power vacuum and messy local conflicts one of which led to the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand.

She has worked on film before and developed an opera based on David Lunch’s Inland Empire: she knows her films and her music and felt a specific responsibility with this commission. The result was uncompromising and nothing like we would normally hear for a silent film score but she wanted to present musically the enduring socio-political context this film already has.

Using a live orchestra of nine musicians and a pre-recorded backing track she produced an unsettling score that was hand-in-glove with the action on screen but which mixed jarring atonality with skilfully-twisted lines designed to disrupt and disturb. At one point a drunken, disjointed Land of Hope and Glory appears when some characters are in London, it was stretched almost beyond recognition but gave a hint of how the other themes used might sound to Austrians familiar with them: most of tonight’s audience didn’t have that context.

The people and their will
She used songs which were popular at the time and tunes which are contemporary symbols of the far right in Austria and always, wanted to convey “the creepiness, the uncertainty that everything can happen again… the past and the future are the same; it can always happen again…” and the music plays a major part in the connection.

The composer was already very familiar with the book and the film and when the missing footage was rediscovered in a Paris flea market in 2015… she was the natural choice even though she resisted at first and had to be persuaded by the head of the Viennale

She believes that the book should be taught in Austrian schools – Austria denied they were part of the Nazi programmes even until the 80’s – and feels it’s “already too late” to show the film given the rise of anti-Semitism again in Austria. It’s a depressing point of view but it is her truth and this is precisely why her score felt so angry; the more combative score I’ve ever heard for a silent film, a call for action and attention beyond the prime directive of accompanying this remarkable film.

This book is a satire but she didn’t feel that Bettauer felt he was any way in danger – he was playing with forms, even he didn’t want to recognise the seriousness… in the end it caught up with him as it has with millions. So, quite logically, Neuwirth’s score is as close to a red flashing light as you’ll get.

A thoroughly disturbing poster from 1926
Now the film… Directed by H K Breslauer this is often described as an Austrian expressionist film and yet, short of one great scene when an antisemitic parliamentary representative Bernard (Hans Moser) is jailed in a room full of twisted shadows and stars of David, it’s not going to pass Lotte Eisner’s test. It is very expressive and directed with skill but it’s tone – in sharp contrast to the score – is lighter given the expectation that the scenes in the film would not come to pass (although in this respect the film is more optimistic than the book).

Utopia is suffering from a devalued currency and post-war economic strife and new chancellor, Dr. Schwerdtfeger (Eugen Neufeld) responds to the ease as many voters blame Jews the hardship with their intelligence and general association with finance and the “arts” (what reasons do you need?). Gradually he accepts the unthinkable and passes a law banning Jews who must leave the country by 25th December – and a Happy Christmas to you too.

This impacts two lovers, Lotte (Anny Milety) who is the daughter of one of the members of the assembly who approves the law, and a Jewish artist Leo Strakosch (Johannes Riemann). She will never be able to see him as strict laws define who is and who isn’t a Jew.

A rich American anti-Semite (goodness me…) helps give the economy a lift and for a while, things improve for the Christians at least… but soon Utopia suffers as other countries refuse to do business with them and then, shock horror, their Yankee benefactor marries a rich Jewish girl.

At the same time the cultural life of Utopia suffers without the creativity of the Jews, their plays and their music whilst café become beer halls and a culturally-impoverished society becomes an intoxicated one.

As hyper-inflation kicks in – an all-too familiar experience – jobs are hard to get and Utopia is heading for disaster. Luckily, Leo, who has snuck back into the country disguised as a Frenchman, helps to organise counter propaganda to get his people back.

There’s a sardonic laugh from the Brits as a title card reveals they need a two-thirds “super-majority” to change to constitution in order to allow the Jews back – imagine that Mr Cameron?! There’s just one man in the way and Leo has a plan to deal with the troublesome Councillor Bernard…

City Without Jews (1924) on its own merits is a well-made film with good comedy moments and an excellent cast but in combination with Olga Neuwirth music it became something else indeed. The process of watching silent film normally involves re-connection with the sensibilities of the time and yet this performance did not allow that and who am I to say that, this time at least, that wasn’t exactly the right thing to do.

Whatever Albert Camus said about all art being an attempt to reconnect with those things that first “moved you”, sometimes its purpose is to agitate and to discomfort and to make you think. In which case job done.

A tip of the hat to the PHACE Ensemble as conducted by Nacho de Paz who were fascinating to watch at work.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

DJ Midas vs DJ Canute… The Man from Mo'Wax (2018), BFI DVD and Blu-ray

“Create your own universe, find your own identity. The rest is the product of your environment…”

This film made me relive the same hope and disappointment I had with the build up to the production and release of UNKLE’s debut, Psyence Fiction – DJ Shadow’s doing the music, Richard Ashcroft and Tom Yorke (!) are collaborating; this has got to be great but, in the end, too much and, at the time, we thought not enough… DJ Shadow had just released the era-defining Endtroducing through James Lavelle’s Mo’Wax record label and this was going to be a ”follow-up” on a grander scale with guest stars, a big theme, toys and tie-ins.

But it wasn’t to be, even though the record has some grand touches it fell under the weight of expectation and stands as the former head of A&R at A&M has it, as an attempt at the era’s greatest concept right at the end of that era… The music press hated it and I traded in my copy with barely a listen.

James Lavelle
And yet… by the end of this film, I so badly wanted James Lavelle to win I was beaming with delight as he turns things around with the most successful Meltdown Festival to date, curating some impressive talent and, more than anything, discovering how much how he was loved by a generation of music fans. Hell, he even gets back with DJ Shadow on stage for a sell-out UNKLE set at the Royal Festival Hall and there is peace, there is redemption and lessons learned.

This is where it begins, says James and you really do believe that. Since the film was completed Lavelle has released the fifth UNKLE album and the best-reviewed since Psyence Fiction… here’s a man who does not give up.

James had made a million by the time he was 21 through his record label, Mo’Wax – formed when he was 18 with Tim Goldsworthy - and the audacious signing of a wide range of hip-hop and dance artists from DJ Krush, Money Mark, Luke Vibert and Charlie Dark’s Attica Blues to the more esoteric electronica of Andrea Parker, whose Kiss My Arp was one of my favourites of the period. But it was DJ Shadow who was the world-shaking talent and his crate-scraping, totally-sampled Endtroducing… changed perceptions of what was possible for hip-hop.

DJ Shadow digging some crates
Mo’Wax, it seemed, could do no wrong and yet Lavelle was so driven, he couldn’t stop himself from driving ever onwards outside his comfort zone and that for pretty much everyone else working with him. In the press events for the launch of the collaboration Shadow (aka Josh Davis) looks haunted, he’d had enough and was burnt out with James a man for whom personal barriers were incidental to his pursuit of the right sounds and the sonic vision…

James’ mother recounts their having him tested by an educational psychologist as a youngster; he scored off the charts for creativity but a lot less for reasoning so, whilst Lavelle has undoubtedly pissed off a lot or people – hardly a bridge left unburned… there’s almost certainly a neurological reason for it. Whatever the cause, it appears he has learned to live within the rules most people accept intuitively… he’s also survived decades of DJ-ing, a job that goes hand-in-hand with sleep depravation and chemical methods of staying awake.

Lavelle got his break through writing a column called Mo’Wax for the forward-thinking jazz magazine, Straight No Chaser telling then editor James Bradshaw that he “needed him”, a young man with his finger on the pulse writing about the new “flavas of the month…”

It wasn’t long before his boundless passion saw him set up a record label – Mo’Wax infused with his love not just of hip-hop and sample culture but also street art with Robert Del Naja – 3D from Massive Attack (and a possible suspect for Banksy) – among those designing for the label along with New Yorker Futura 2000 aka Leonard Hilton McGurr who largely designed the UNKLE project.

He was expert at pulling people into projects but less so in “managing” them creatively or perhaps even as people. He was inspired by outfits like the Wild Bunch – who, including Bristol maverick Tricky, would morph into Massive Attack but wasn’t able to land them for his label nor Portishead the other leaders of the trip-hop movement of the early 90s.

Crowd pleaser
Mo’Wax attracted the attention of the bigger labels and A&M invested in the project… Lavelle may not have been a millionaire at 21 but he was close. Bigger business would bring trouble down the line even as he signed DJ Shadow and released Endtroducing. That record’s success helped him create the UNKLE project which, after two years gestation was so viciously cut down as a vanity project by the NME and others.

Listening to the record now it has stood the test of time better than expected, Shadow’s music is almost as inventive as his album and the collaborations work fairly well. But it underperformed and, as the film shows, was the peak for a project that delivered diminishing returns especially after Shadow left.

The question is always how much Lavelle was a genuine artist or just an “A&R man”, assembling talent and trying to gain credit for “editorial control” and vision. Lavelle is less revealing on this – clearly, it’s a painful subject – than current and past collaborators (there are many) and you gradually get the feeling that he has been dismissed too readily.

Hanging out with Noel and Ian in endless lost weekends in the mid-nineties
Artistic credentials aside, business acumen soon became Lavelle’s main weakness as A&M merged with Island and took all of Mo’Wax’s artists leaving Lavelle without a record label and facing decades of DJ-ing and fruitless attempts to create another breakthrough for UNKLE…

All of which finally brings us to his triumph at Meltdown and something like a happy ending. The fight goes on irrespective of personal and professional set-backs.

Director Matthew Jones has pulled together a tightly woven and dynamic story from many thousands of hours of footage from the last 25 years and made a compelling narrative for anyone with even a passing acquaintance with popular music and dance culture over that time. But it’s also a story about passion and one man’s refusal to submit to common-sense and personal approbation. James is now 44 and, as with all of us, you have to hope that it all begins now.

The Man from Mo’Wax is available in a standard edition and a stunning limited-edition DVD/Blu-ray set from the BFI shop online and on the ground UPDATE: this is now sold out but you can still grab it from Amazon and other retailers if you're very quick. It’ll strike a deep chord with anyone who truly loves music and popular culture. Apart from anything else, James Lavelle has brought so much joy to people's lives and we should celebrate a career less than ordinary.

The set comes with a ton of extras including a 2018 hour-long interview with James Lavelle and DJ Shadow and an extended “interview mash-up” with Josh Homme, Futura, DJ Shadow, Ian Brown and more: it’s worth it for Josh alone, a raconteur of the highest order!

“Mo” – More

“Wax” – A vinyl recording