Monday, 30 December 2019

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think… The Canterbury Tales (1972), BFI Trilogy of Life Box Set

This year I visited Canterbury for the first time, a pilgrimage as much for Powell and Pressburger as the Cathedral or Chaucer but it’s impossible, as The Archers suggested, to separate the latter two elements of this historic city. Pier Paolo Pasolini was drawn to Geoffrey Chaucer’s most English of tales as part of his exploration of early literature, having just filmed The Decameron (1971) based on the tales of 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The director was fascinated by the relationship of the medieval mindset to contemporary society and duly completed his “trilogy of life” with The Thousand and One Nights (1974). All three are now presented in crisp restoration on this BFI three-disc Blu-ray set together with all the trimmings you’d expect and they still startle.

Watching The Canterbury Tales you see an alarmingly frank approach to sexuality and human nature that Pasolini wanted to unsettle his complacently civilized audience; we may dress well, drive expensive cars and live longer but we don’t live that differently. These tales of bawdy romance, cuckolded husbands, murderers and thieves still represent humanity in the raw, creatures of desire and cunning.

Them and us
The director appears as Chaucer in the film, writing down his tales in response to the events around him which are “told only for the pleasure of telling them”; his own phrase and not Chaucer’s. He presents the tales for his audience to interpret and to make their own judgements which will inevitably ensnare the unwary.

First up is The Merchant's Tale in which an elderly merchant Sir January (Hugh Griffith looking like the most febrile of old farts) marries a beautiful young woman called May (Josephine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie and sister of Geraldine). The old fella goes blind and May eventually arranges a tryst with a man of her age… the gods intervene and Pluto (Giuseppe Arrigio) restores his sight, Prosperine (Elisabetta Genovese) gives May the voice with which to talk her self out of the compromising situation his newly opened eyes reveal.

Josephine Chaplin and Hugh Griffith
And the moral of this story is? Good on May for her quick thinking and for grabbing what happiness the need to marry money has robbed her? The Tales may have the look and feel of censor-free 70s sex-comedies but there’s a robust honesty drawing our sympathy.

So too with The Bishop’s Tale in which a man (Franco Citti) is rewarded for spying on homosexual acts. The richer of the two men caught in flagrante delicto buys his way out but the poorer – who was with a very young Phil Davies – has not the money. He is burned at a public execution where the peeping Tom sells refreshments as the public awaits the entertainment… This is very much from the heart for Pasolini and the man later reveals himself as the Devil, highly mobile if not omnipotent as Peter Cook said.

There’s a full-blooded humour to the tales, even in their darkest moments, and so, in addition to an actual Chaplin, we even get a Chaplin-esque Perkin (Ninetto Davoli, who featured so much in Pasolini’s life and films) in The Cook’s Tale; a cheeky clown who just about gets away with everything but for whom the stocks await. He’ll even take the rotting food with a smile, knowing he’ll live again to gamble, cheat and otherwise cock a snook…

Tom Baker gets ready for his Bath
There’s also a ton of British talent in this film and if you really don’t want to see the mighty Tom Baker playing the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband then I can only pity you. There’s also Jenny Runacre, one of the most distinctive screen presences in British cinema, as Alison the wife of John the Carpenter played by Michael Balfour who has one of the most rustic and “lived-in” faces of all time; Pasolini cast for character as well as looks and the film is rich in details of both.

Robin Asquith interviewed here about his experience with Pasolini on The Canterbury Tales (1972) is an amusing raconteur and not quite what you’d expect; he’s from Southport and attended Merchant Taylors in Crosby before Bristol University. So, what we get is a kind of Confessions of a Chaucerian Scholar as well as an actor known for his parts as well as his, erm, parts.

The ageless Mr Asquith
He may seem atypical casting for the esteemed Italian but, Robin knew his stuff both as an actor and film maker and he was already versed in Italian cinema having worked with Franco Zeffirelli and been an admirer of Theorem and other Pasolini films. At his casting interview for Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo said that he looked like a man who used his penis a lot whereupon Robin dropped his trousers to show his manhood and ask if he still thought so? From that point the two became friends and the result included a strong performance from Asquith as Rufus in The Pardoner's Tale which featured a surprise shower for some of the unexpectant extras below.

Rufus is one of many casualties in a film that shows how fleeting life is and how we should take what comfort we can from its living. The closing sequence shows a Hell that would almost make Derek Jarman blush as the hypocrites and the pompous get their just deserts. The camera cuts to Pasolini/Chaucer smiling as he contemplates his closing arguments.

The box set is now available from the BFI’s shop – on and off-line – and is essential viewing for all followers of the director’s and, indeed, Robin Asquith’s work!

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Modern times… La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini Centenary Season at the BFI

Some films you just have to see screened in cinema and Fellini’s epic is a key text, a fulcrum of the artform released sixty years ago at pretty much the mid-point in cinema history. Stylistically, La Dolce Vita has more in common with say Bait or The Irishman than Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon or Alice Guy Blaché’s early films, which says as much about the influence of the Italian’s film as the maturation of cinematic language and technology. It is a massive film, three hours long with dozens of characters all revolving around Marcello Mastroianni’s central character over seven main sections.

Original producer Dino de Laurentis had apparently wanted Paul Newman for the role of gossip journalist Marcello Rubini but Fellini wanted the subtler presence of Marcello Mastroianni rather than the Hollywood star who in this film featuring actual characters, would have been the subject of press attention rather. Mastroianni perfected the role of sold out-burned out writer for Michelangelo Antonioni too in La Notte, but it started here; his character only able to communicate with women through sex or, as he falls, physical intimidation. He still manages to attract our sympathy (mostly!) and, dear reader, I feel more than a little sell-out Rubini myself from time to time…

Last year we were treated to an Antonioni season at the BFI and this year we have Fellini – two giants of post-realism with distinct voices. Fellini differs from Antonioni in his sense of fun and outrageous ambition; Michelangelo would never start his film off with a statue of Christ being flown through Roman skies or finish it off with the dead-eyed stare of a massive weird fish all via a shedload of casual transvestism, prostitution and the earthy subjects that came to dominate later Fellini films. We can see all this for ourselves as the BFI, in addition to re-releasing this new 4k restoration, marks Fellini’s 100th birthday in 2020 with restorations of 8 12, Juliet of the Spirits, I Vetelloni and The Nights of Cabiria as well as screening of his other key works.

La Dolce Vita is one of his most defining statements and is so opulent and inventive that it flies by even on four hours sleep after a full day’s work… that’s quite something given the episodic narrative but you hang on for the truth about Marcello and the main strands of a quietly devastating story. Fellini confounds your expectations at pretty much every level not least with his unheroic main character who sleeps with everyone but his girlfriend and at one point berates her violently as they argue in his Triumph sports car.

Maddalena and Marcello emerge into the light 
The film features uncredited contributions from Pier Paolo Pasolini and, having just watched Canterbury Tales on the new BFI box set of his life trilogy, you can see something of his influence especially in the second main section as Sylvia, a famous Swedish-American actress played, of course by the iconic Anita Ekberg, leads the dance in the Baths of Caracalla. There a mix of rich characters in the line which also brings to mind the knight and his soldiers dancing on the fateful shoreline in Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, but this night in Cabiria ends only in damp disappointment for Marcello as he tries to catch Sylvia in her Trevi Fountain dance only to be absentmindedly dismissed. He also gets a thump from Sylvia’s alcoholic fiancé, Robert played by Lex Barker, a former Tarzan, a fact that is even referenced in the script.

Marcello is a confused individual, but he’s also remarkably pragmatic, he thinks nothing of calling occassional girlfriend, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), to see if he can use her apartment for a liaison with Sylvia; using her just as they’d used the prostitute in the first segment; casually paying her to use her bed for their tryst. The morning after they drive off in her expensive car, their “landlady” delighted with her tip and the already run-down modern apartment buildings put into sharp relief by their “escape” after slumming it.

The man with a moving camera; Paparrazzo (Walter Santesso)
The film’s depiction of the media circus surrounding glamour is eternally resonant. Dozens of photographers like Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) swarm around the famous attempting to capture a moment or two of their time, whilst Marcello and other journalists live off this world whilst also wanting to be a part of it. Marcello is conflicted and faithless, torn between the needs of his lover Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) who tries to take her own life after his night with Maddalena, and the need for a connection with a star like Sylvia or even a deeper love with Maddalena. For the first he gets a smack in the stomach from the former Tarzan and for the latter he’s left humiliated – taking to her sat alone in a whispering gallery whilst she leads him on from another room as her new lover silently embraces her.

Marcello and co race off to bear journalistic witness to two children who claim to have seen the virgin Mary. It’s a chaotic scene as the rain ours down and the crowd, a mix of the curious and those hoping to be cured, follows the children as they try to summon the apparition; turns out she’s no less substantial than Sylvia at least in terms of meaning.

Promised you a miracle
Marcello also has the hope of writing more seriously – he has a novel on the go - and looks up to his old friend, the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny) who has seemingly both material and cerebral grace, the family ideal achieved along with career success on his own terms. Sadly, Steiner has thought himself into a hollow existence and all is not as it seems at his elegantly intellectual party.

Marcello takes himself away to the beach for some peace and quiet with his typewriter. He encounters a young girl, Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) who seems to represent the ideal of innocence and the (illusory) potential of unformed youth. He calls her an angel and then asks if she has a boyfriend… typical Marcello. This being Fellini she turns on pop music on the jukebox, Marcello’s thoughts grounded to Earth.

Marcello’s father (Annibale Ninchi) comes to visit and we quickly see that his son is a chip off the old block who just wants to party, dance with young women and generally join in. But father cannot keep up with the pace anymore and is taken ill late into the night, returning home with an indication of the finite nature of Marcello’s lifestyle.

Nico arrives.
Then we have an injection of the 21-year old Christa Päffgen aka Nico – future singer with the Velvets and beyond but then known mostly as an actress. She adds energy to a sequence that ends up with an all-nighter at an aristocratic party, wearing a knight’s helmet as the revellers dance till dawn, get drunk and look for the dead. As they wander bedraggled in the early morning, they encounter some locals off to church; there’s faith and there’s hope.

Then the film turns on one truly tragic event and we will see which way Marcello will take himself. Paola returns at the end for a wordless conversation with Marcello, highlighting what Robert Richardson calls the film’s "an aesthetic of disparity”, the difference “…between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is". The film is over and Marcello may well be but Paola’s smile is sweet as she looks on with knowing, almost parental, exasperation.

La Dolce Vita is sprawlingly intense and I took far more from it on the big screen. I’m going to see it again and would urge you to not miss this rerelease or, indeed, any of Fellini’s extraordinary cinematic statements over the next few months.

Full details are on the BFI site. What a way to start the new Twenties!

Monday, 23 December 2019

2019 vision… illuminating a year in the dark.

Who knows where the time goes eh? The centenary of 1919 passed by with brutal speed leaving me reeling in its wake trying to grab hold of something solid to make sense of it all. This was the year of going with the flow; a mad dash from Italy to Korea to Leicester and back to Italy via a Weimar Germany that increasingly felt uncomfortably familiar.

There’s no respite, strong rumours suggest that the Twenties are about to be re-booted and we can only hope that means a return of style and ambition across every walk of life. So, in no particular order, and with sincerest thanks to everyone who programmed, introduced, projected and played along with the 120+ silent films I saw in cinema… here we go: fourteen favourites but it could have been forty.

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway...
1.       The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand score, Ben Palmer conducting Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone

My third year at Le Giornate and to get through eight days of cultural and social excess – those Aperols won’t Spritz themselves - and still find myself watching this film with such alert glee, says so much about Hitchcock’s visuals and Neil Brand’s score. In my first year I’d nodded off for Lubitsch’s Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (sorry Ernst) but watching this most re-watchable of silent films with Neil’s score sinking in even more, I felt fully connected in this cinematic home from home.

There is just so much to process in Pordenone with up to 14 hours of film a day. It was a good year for William S Hart – with a retrospective showing how his bad-to-good man, with the love of a good woman, themes evolved – Estonian silents and a delightful Marion Davis film, Beverly of Graustark (1926), which proved a cross-dressing delight! Read all about it in my daily posts here.

You know who it is.
2.       Brooksie on the big screen: It's the Old Army Game (1926), with European Silent Screen Virtuosi, Bristol Old Vic, Slapstick Festival also Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), BFI

There aren’t that many Louise Brooks’ films but I want to see them all on the big screen and this year I added two more and was not disappointed. Louise is fresh as a daisy alongside an occasionally tiresome WC Fields in Army Game, her gleeful reactions just beautiful to watch especially in a room full of people experiencing the same thing. Diary is at another level as a film and I’ve waited years to see it on screen eschewing my multiples DVDs and Blu-rays… with a smashing intro from Pabstspert Pamela Hutchison unseen Louise filled the screen almost as powerfully as for Pandora.

At the Crossroads
3.       Crossroads of Youth (1934), with Lee Jinwook and Cho Hee Bong, BFI Early Korean Cinema

2019 was the centenary of Korean Cinema with a season featuring what remains of the very earliest films made under Japanese occupation as well as an excellent 14th edition of the Korean Film Festival later in the year.

Crossroads is the only silent survivor of this turbulent period and had been painstakingly reconstructed to establish narrative and visual sense. This was a silent film screening unlike any other I’ve ever witnessed, in addition to a Korean Byeonsa – a more active version of a Japanese Benshi – performed with gleeful energy by Cho Hee Bong, we had two actors, Hwang Minsu and Park Hee-von who sang parts echoing the central love story with West-end panache. Accompaniment was provided by composer Lee Jinwook on keyboards, Shin Jia on accordion, Oh Seung Hee on double-bass and Sim Jeongeun on violin an ear-popping combination of styles that seamlessly supported the narrative on and off screen.

The Miller and the Sweep (1897)
4.       Screening the Victorians, with Bryony Dixon and Stephen Horne, BFI

This was another marvellous trip through the oldest BFI archives accompanied by curator Bryony Dixon and Stephen Horne and it featured some of the most impressive footage from the Victorian cinema era, 1896 to 1901. We’d seen glimpses of Queen Victoria before but this screening of Queen Victoria’s Last Visit to Ireland (1900) from a print held by MOMA, was the clearest glimpse yet of the Empress as she greeted Dublin crowds smiling and wearing sunglasses – yes, smiling!

5.       Happy Birthday, Mr Paul!, with Ian Christie and John Sweeney, BFI

It was a good year all round for Victorian film with Ian Christie giving two thoroughly entertaining show and tells at the BFI and the Bioscope on RW Paul, the father of British cinema.

During his ten years of peak activity, Paul undoubtedly advance the art of cinema as both a technical innovator and an artistic one: bringing both together in forms of new expression. The World’s first two-scene film was (probably) Paul’s Come Along, Do (1898) which has now had a fragment of its long-lost second scene - inside the art gallery - restored from one of his illustrated catalogues, another innovation in marketing terms – take that Mr Edison or more specifically, William Dickson who did the work the Big E was happy to patent!

It was good to fill out the backstory of this key figure and Christie’s book, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (Chicago University Press) will be on many a list this Christmas.

Valeska Gert in Joyless mood.
6.       The Joyless Street (1925) with John Sweeney, BFI Weimar Season

The BFI spoiled us with some excellent strands this year, I loved the Antonioni season and of course we have the ongoing musicals season which covers a huge amount of ground from the Hollywood greats to fantastic British and French films: First a Girl and Les Umbrellas de Cherbourg being two standouts. For me though the Weimar Cinema season curated by Margaret Deriaz was not only the best of the year but also for many years, from a silent perspective at least.

Between 1919 and 1933, Germany produced over 3,500 films, second only to Hollywood in scale and productivity and it was a delight to see some of the cream of what remains: from the madness of Opium (1919) to the hard-hitting politics of Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness (1931) via so many “key texts” such as Der Golem (1920), Dr Mabuse (1922) and The Student of Prague (1926).

It's impossible to pick a favourite so I will opt for Pabst’s Joyless Street illuminated by Queen Asta Neilsen and Princess Greta Garbo along with King John Sweeney’s unstinting improvisation and utterly controlled musical narrative.

Another joyless street
7.       Sylvester (1923), Frank Bockius and Stephen Horne, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna

It was hot, hot, hot in Bologna with the usual bewildering range of choices and memorable outdoor screenings in the Piazza Maggiore of my favourite Keaton with a restored The Cameraman (1928) followed by Charlie’s turn with The Circus (1927), a film I’d not seen and yet which was one of the funniest I’ve seen all year.

There was no escaping Germany though and Frank Bockius and Stephen Horne’s accompaniment for Lupe Pick’s grim Sylvester (1923) under the stars with the Piazzetta Pasolini’s carbon-arc projector revealed an horrific family struggle taking place in the backroom of a bar on a street filled with New Year’s revelry. The two accompanists took turns in carrying the line and it was fascinating to hear a percussion-led musical narrative.

Our Betty Balfour
8.       Love, Life and Laughter (1923), with Meg Morley, London Film Festival Archive Gala

Unseen since 1923, recovered by a cinema owner in Holland and restored by a multi-national team, this was one of those screenings when you walk out onto the Southbank with a spring in your step, cracking a wonky smile with a shard of bliss warming your core courtesy of Britain’s Queen of Happiness and Australia’s Princess of the Pianoforte. Music and movie combining in a genuinely soulful way to utterly change my mood on a rotten Brexit Thursday… forget all that, let’s have a laugh; let’s live a little… is precisely what Betty Balfour urged.

Ita means it.
9.       Tonka of the Gallows (1930), with Stephen Horne, Phoenix Cinema

This film was one of the hits of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival and understandably drew a substantial audience of the capital’s silent cineastes to the Finchley Phoenix. We’d come to see the serene Slovenian Ita Rina who’s delicate beauty underpinned her quite staggering performance in this film. Add in Stephen Horne’s alchemical accompaniment (he also played for it in San Francisco) and we were lost in that mystical meld of sound, vision and venue which leaves you at the mercy of your own emotional response.

10.       The Cat and the Canary (1927), with Jeff Rapsis, Kennington Bioscope

One of so many excellent screenings from the National Treasure that is the Cinema Museum. Here we were treated to a watch of Kevin Brownlow’s own 35mm – I know! - one that resulted from his own restoration for Photoplay. We also got an introduction full of the insider jokes and insights from the man who – nearly – met them all, capturing silent stars on tape from the fifties to the eighties and preserving the oral history of the birth of film.

Guest pianist Jeff Rapsis had flown over from Boston in the morning and was full of praise for the Bioscope – and it’s (thankfully) ongoing contribution to keeping alive the art of improvised accompaniment for which a live audience is just essential. “I have no sheet music, I have nothing prepared I just go with the film and the audience…” and, in front of our very eyes, he performed the magic.

Lady Eleanor
11.       Souls for Sale (1923) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope Silent Weekender

I have a well-publicized soft spot for Eleanor Boardman and also love films about films of which Souls is one of the very first. The glimpses behind the scenes are precious, with Erich von Stroheim seen directing Greed, giving Jean Hersholt instructions, and Charlie Chaplin playing along by over-actively directing Mem/Eleanor in a “scene” from Woman of Paris. Elsewhere you can glimpse Hobart Bosworth, Barbara Bedford, Chester Conklin, Raymond Griffith, June Mathis, Marshall Neilan, Claire Windsor & many more! William Haines is also in there, his first credited appearance, as Pinky the assistant director to Richard Dix’s square-jawed Frank Claymore.

Kevin Brownlow introduced on his birthday and explained that the film was partly a PR exercise to show that after numerous scandals, Hollywood wasn’t a bad place, full of upstanding professionals. Meg Morley accompanied in fine style matching the epic with the intimate with trace elements of Liszt amongst the jazzed assurance!

Asta catches a tram and a man.
12.   Claire (1924)/ Afgrunden (1910) with John Sweeney and Colin Sell, Kennington Bioscope

Two films that showed how women’s stories were front and centre of the new medium in Weimar Germany and Denmark. Claire is convoluted fun and John Sweeney enlightened the narrative with romantic flourishes and dramatic interventions that ensured we were firmly focused on the extraordinary expressiveness of Lya de Puti. Michell Facey introduced and told of the Hungarian actress’ success in Germany – including Variety and her off-screen/in-trailer relationship with Emil Jannings – before she tried her (bad) luck in Hollywood…

No misgivings about the quality and significance of the first of the films, Afgrunden (1910) staring the uncannily naturalistic Asta Nielsen who is undeniably one of the inventors of screen acting and her ability to express cinematically – nuanced and naturalistic – is something to behold. As Angela Dalle Vacche has said, seemed to anticipate the close-up's subliminal impact.

The alternate title for this film is The Woman Always Pays and even as early as 1910, Asta was questioning why this should be with a character who is dependent on male patronage and who cannot be free of the “male passions” that plague Lya too. Colin Sell accompanied with remarkably steady hands despite the mounting on-screen excitement of Asta’s raunchy dance round a ranch hand in the most figure-hugging dress in the World.

Ghost of a chance
13.   The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge) (1925) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne, British Silent Film Festival

This was the UK premier of Lobster films restoration of René Clair’s first feature and, as with his earlier short film, Paris qui dort, it is a science fantasy film in which the human drama is magnified rather than obscured as is so often the case. The dynamic duo of Baldry and Horne provided yet another sublime combination taking it in turns to wring unexpected sounds and sumptuous lines as we floated through this strange adventure.

"Life's a walking shadow, nah-nah-na-nah-nah!"
14.   He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Taz Modi and Fraser Bowles, Barbican

To see this film projected from a 35mm print is a special treat and all praise to the Barbican team for sourcing this copy from a private collection in France. He Who Gets Slapped has not been digitally restored, which is a crime given its qualities, and probably has not been screened like this for many a year in the UK.

Not all sonic experiments from the Barbican work but I enjoyed the mesmeric and wistful score from Taz Modi who plays a kind of hybrid-jazz, accompanied by expressive cello from Fraser Bowles. Taz’s piano figures weaved patterns over the narrative rather than matching specific events; a tonal rather than a harmonised duet and which, in the context of such a powerfully visual and humane film, worked very well. More please Barbican!

So, just to be clear:
1.       The Christmas we get we deserve.
2.       I (therefore do not) wish it could be Christmas every day.
3.       All I want for Christmas is a screening of Gosta Berling...

See you in The New Twenties!

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Venus as a boy… First a Girl (1935), BFI Musicals Season

In his introduction, film historian John Oliver, apologised to fans of Gracie Fields after declaring Jessie Matthews as the leading singer, actor and dancer in British film during the thirties. It was hard not to agree seeing her energised and uplifting performance in this film; the Soho girl from Berwick Street, had elegance and a strong slim physique and could effortlessly lift a straight leg higher than her head with seemingly little effort. She was just as adept in raising a smile and whilst she quibbled about her slight overbite, her upturned nose and “big eyes”, jeepers, those peepers were made for the camera.

This was the fourth film the actress had made with Victor Saville and the director was the ideal match for the nervous star and even commissioned screen test after she had been cast just to show her how perfect she was for the role. First A Girl is essentially a remake of Viktor und Viktoria (Victor/Victoria) a 1933 German musical comedy film directed by Reinhold Schünzel starring Renate Müller as a woman pretending to be a female impersonator. This very Weimar storyline allowed for a startling array of double and even single entendre concerning he/she and the subject of “half and half” – pre-Kinsey code for those who "like” everyone. There's a constant play with the idea of "confused" sexuality with a man not sure why he feels so "strange" looking at another man and a woman taking in the news that her finance may be in love with another man - transvestism as comic-erotic?

Griffith Jones and Jessie Matthews
So it was that Jessie had her hair cropped Eton style; closer than a Brooksie bob without the bangs, cutting a striking figure in Mayfair dinner parties and saving a fortune on haircare. The style suits her delicate features to a “t” but she makes for a rather unconvincing boy; which is always half the point at this stage in proceedings. It was still too risqué for the US where several chunks were chopped and the whole film was banned in Maryland. Nevertheless, the film did reasonably well in America and her name was up in lights the same size as Clark Gable in Times Square; she was an international star.

First a Girl retains its charm and is still strikingly frank and funny to this day, helped by Jessie’s eternal good humour and a strong supporting cast including her husband Sonny Hale who’s full of comic energy himself as Victor, a down on his luck cross-dressing crooner. Jessie plays Elizabeth, a girl who sings to her co-workers in a chic London fashion house and lampoons Princes Wibble-Wobble, Princess Mironoff (Anna Lee, who has the most stunning smile), as they watch the latest show.

Jessie cuts a rug as only she can
Betty’s job is hanging on by a thread but gets a last chance to deliver an expensive dress to the Princess. She gets distracted on the way by an open audition and borrows the dress to make an impression but she can’t hit the right tone for the choir master and, bumps into Victor as the two walk out in dejected rejection. Caught in a rain shower, Victor loses his voice and has to enlist Betty to take his part – a girl playing a boy playing a girl… She goes down a storm despite escaping geese and slipping on paste but is talent spotted all the same by Mr. McLintock (Alfred Drayton) who lines up a big tour for Victor and his new mate “Bill”.

Now playing much smarter venues, the couple get spotted by the Princess again and her latest fiancé-or-not, Robert (Griffith Jones, Gemma Jones Dad, fact fans!) – as she later explains, engagements are like inoculations, some take some just don’t… Victor soon sets his sights on the Princess while Robert is strangely fascinated with Bill having been completely convinced that he was a girl on stage. But, as Victor impresses the Princess with his Shakespeare quotes, Bob and Bill get pickled at the bar and share large cigars; Bill’s eyes widening when presented with her eight-incher. They also bond over a shared love of the Mills Brothers, a nice touch!

Sonny Hale, Anna Lee, Griffith Jones and Jessie: Robert is "confused"...
The Princess is not at all convinced that Bill’s a boy and arranges to drive he and Victor down to their next engagement in Nice via a small hotel Robert knows where they lay a trap for the young lad. Bill survives their test and we see his splendid turn as Victoria at the theatre with Saville giving it the full Busby Berkley with dances choreographed by Ralph Reader that make up for any lack of budget with imagination and sheer pep! Matthews has a long, slim figure and leads off many a dance by leaning back and raising a long leg high into the air before hitting the ground hard with a deceptive swiftness. You can see why the Americans called her the “Dancing Divinity” as she has a smooth, sure-footed style all of her own that is indeed world class (sorry Gracie) to the extent that you could see her on stage with an Astaire or a Cagney. Powering her supernatural grace is the sincerest of smiles and a glint in her huge eyes string enough to power a reasonably sized family home.

The songs are memorable too, written by Americans Al Goodhart and Al Hoffman (both of whom would later have work featured in Singing in the Rain) along with Maurice Sigler. Add costumers from Coco Chanel and you have something approaching American standards of excellence. Now then, none of those films had a sweetheart quite the likes of our Jessie though did they and it’s a heart-warming thrill to see the Berwick Street Ballerina showing her star power on the big screen and in 35mm too!

Yeah, obviously a man
The story must conclude with Bill’s outing as a non-boy and, well, all the hoped-for happiness and laughter is delivered in the closing section of the film as both Betty and Victor are unleashed!  Robin Baker’s aim in curating this season has been to give us all a lift and with this film, as with so many others, he has succeeded! I saw it just after casting my vote in the General Election… for an hour and a half I didn’t think about politics AT ALL and as I walked home and as I sit here I’m still smiling about Jessie and frankly, feeling just a little bit in love.