Tuesday, 18 June 2019

Playing with fire… Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), BFI Weimar Cinema Season

Well, this was it, I long ago decided to not watch my DVDs of this film as I wanted to see it first on the big screen and Herr Pabst and Louise Brooks did not disappoint. Diary is not another Pandora’s Box but it is a film that gives Brooks the chance to show her acting range and Pabst the opportunity to focus on her remarkable expression and, yes, the rest of her; perhaps the sexual superpower of the silent era (awarded retrospectively), with a character in search of herself and not a purely natural spirit like Lulu.

After watching Mother Krause and Kuhle Wumpe earlier in the BFI’s Weimar season, this is a more focused and ultimately more politically liberal and mainstream tale although we still have the seemingly obligatory suicides… they needed to do something about those windows and accessibility to dangerous prescription drugs. Pabst's film is certainly part of die neue Sachlichkeit, but it's more polished than those two films but that’s not to say it doesn’t cover the darker side of life. Writer and Brooks/Pabstpert, Pamela Hutchinson, gave a fascinating introduction, quoting the actress in saying they were attempting to show the “flaming reality” of “sexual hatred” and this film does indeed burn right up until a telling last moment.

“I think in the two films Pabst made with me… he was conducting an investigation into his relations with women, with the object if conquering any passion that interfered with his passion for his work…” Louise Brooks

Louise Brooks
The thing that flames the fiercest is of course Louise Brooks and whether she’s playing an ingenue, a reform school girl, prostitute or woman grasping her destiny, performs with grace and an almost casual conviction. Pabst’s camera closes in over and over on her astonishing believability lost as much as his audience in the emotional intelligence as well as the structure of her expression: killing us softly with her smile. One first viewing this film does not have the script or story power of Pandora and yet the performance is all of the same quality: this is It squared.

Pabst may well have been fighting to overcome sexual instinct but he was keen to maximise his new found asset and had it in mind to cast her as Lola Lola in what would become The Blue Angel, but whilst he lost out on the rights to that, he also could never really make a Dietrich out of Brooks who, having burned her Yankee bridges by refusing to overdub The Canary Murder Case, decided Europe wasn’t for her after one more film, Prix de Beauté with Pabst’s script involvement and direction from Augusto Genina, which, along with Beggars of Life, completes an impressive top four from her brief career.

A crown of innocence: Josef Rovensky and LB
Who knows what could have been but, we have what we have and this film added so much delightful substance to my impression of Brooks as an actor proving that Pandora’s Box – which I’ve seen dozens of times – was no one off and that she and her director could almost match it even with subject matter drawn from Margarete Böhme’s sensationalist 1906 novel which dealt with a woman’s fall into prostitution – a story Böhme claimed to be based on truth. All a far cry from a Frank Wedekind play. It’s a simpler story but one that provides an interesting fall and rise for Brooks to contend with. Her character Thymiane is the daughter of a well-to-do pharmacist, Robert Henning (Josef Rovensky) who’s only weaknesses are a fondness for young housekeepers and trusting his assistant Meinert (Fritz Rasp) rather too much.

Brooks later said that Fritz Rasp was one of her more alluring co-stars...

Meinert takes advantage of Thymiane – forcibly - and she gets pregnant. At the same time her father is seducing his latest housekeeper, Meta (Franziska Kinz) with the previous one Elizabeth (Sybille Schmitz, later to star in Vampyr) having already been dismissed. There’s perhaps a line between the two men and their relationships with younger women especially given what is to come for Thymiane and later for Meta…

Thymiane has the baby but refuses, understandably, to marry a man she doesn’t love. The baby is placed into care and the young woman is sent to a reform school as her father is encouraged by Meta who knows her power.

The story takes a dark and more expressionist turn as Thymiane enters a highly disciplined reform school run by a director played by the extraordinary Valeska Gert and her husband, the equally odd Andrews Engelmann. These two create an evil pairing although Gert gives her nastiness an extra twist with her curious enjoyment in watching the girl’s exercise… all I can say is Hedy, you and your pearls may have been beaten to the punch by a couple of years and in the weirdest of ways.

Thymiane escapes the school with her pal Erika (Edith Meinhard) aided by her pal the penniless Count Osdorff (Andre Roanne) who has been disinherited by his Uncle (Arnold Korff) for being a likeable if listless waster. Thymiane discovers that her baby has died and in desperation moves in with Erika at a brothel in sequences that still carry coy intent directly or indirectly. The madam (Marfa Kassatskaya) kits her out in high heels and evening dress and in a moment of transcendence offers the young woman a glass of champagne which she gulps down – a baptism of Bollinger.

Brooks and Edith Meinhard
Soon, after collecting on her first customer, Thymiane lying unhappily in bed as a wad of notes rest next to her… Thymiane advertises herself as a fitness/dance instructor and Brooks herself  would return to dance teaching in the thirties and, much later, would turn tricks in New York before finding salvation in writing after rediscovery. Her first customer features a bizarre turn from a weirdly bearded Sig Arno who follows her callisthenics before getting too excited and being shooed away with a lighter wallet.

The “lost girl” has found a new direction and yet things cone to a head when she spots her father and, Meta, now his wife, slumming it in a low-rent night club. Father and daughter are heartbroken but Meta rushes her husband away before any rapprochement is possible. Her father dies in misery and her inheritance offers Thymiane the chance to finally change direction… what would Lulu do? Nothing at all like Thymiane whose character gets the chances denied her more elemental “twin” in an ending I must admit I didn’t see coming at all…

Ultimately, I am amazed that given the intense interest in Brooks ,that Diary gets screened so rarely; it’s a fine companion to Pandora and helps give a more complete picture of the actress; she was no one-hit wonder, just A Wonder and, with Pabst’s help and a very strong supporting cast, made her mark here too.

Thank you, BFI, PH, GWP and LB! There’s still more Pabst to come in June with The Joyless Street (1925) details on the BFI website along with the last few weeks of this splendid Weimar season.

Sybille Schmitz
Josef Rovenský  and Franziska Kinzas
Sexy Fritz Rasp (apparently)
Andrews Engelmann
The excellent Valeska Gert
Edith Meinhard
Sig Arno, dontcha know
Pabst was pleased with this tracking shot of Brooks running up the stairs, it's mirrored by her slow trudge near the ending...

Now I can watch these...

Sunday, 9 June 2019

It’s not the hope… Kuhle Wampe (1932), BFI Weimar Cinema Season

“So, who will change the World?
Those who don’t like it as it is!”

There are some films that just chill you to the bone with a combination of context, hindsight and the present. Who Owns the World? or Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt?, to give it its full German title, is just one of those films for a whole range of reasons, chiefly its sense of pride, optimism and resolution. Made in early 1932 when Germany had five million unemployed, a mass of debt and extremists promising a solution that, as we now know, would hit the country sooner and harder than they could ever expect, its message that the World must change and it will be changed for the better is heart-breaking.

This was Bertolt Brecht’s follow up to the enormously-successful Threepenny Opera and he took more control over proceedings with director Slatan Dudow, easier for him to work through than the powerful Herr Pabst. It’s almost a silent film with sparse dialogue leaving the focus on the songs with Brecht’s lyrics and Hanns Eisler’s music with the Solidarity Song sticking in my head as I left the cinema: “Forward – and never forget our solidarity!”

Solidarity through song
The film contains some magnificent shots, courtesy of cinematographer Günther Krampf, and, feels more like People on a Sunday than the studio-bound Opera. Brecht said that a quarter of it was filmed in just two days and it does feel naturalistically rough and ready, like Ken Loach four decades before his time along with what feels like improvised dialogue and the actors working off situations.

The most scripted part of the film – directed by Brecht - feels like the final sequence on the commuter train where people from all walks of life discuss the state of things and the way forward. Everyone is here, whether from Weimar Berlin or Brexit South-Eastern suburbs, the middle-aged, the old and the young all seeing different things as eternal truths are exchanged – comfortable conservatives and struggling youth in opposition about to be outflanked by a pernicious mix of twisted nationalism and ruthless state control that generated an incredible pace of change and used that as its justification.

The desperate bicycles
Equally powerful are the opening sequences in which young men on bicycles scour the city for work, waiting in groups to hear of possible vacancies before racing to find nothing. Feet peddle hard, the young men are determined and fast but not quick enough.

Back home in a tenement block, one of the young men (Adolf Fischer) is chided by his father for being useless, he’s been unemployed for seven months and with the family struggling he needs to pay his way. His sister Anni (Hertha Thiele, who has a stunning blonde close-crop not unlike Lynda la Plante) is the only one employed and her pride shines through as her brother’s silence reveals his desperation. The second he stands up and removes his watch, we know exactly what he’s going to do, and, with everyone else out he walks to the window and dives to his death four storeys below; at least they can sell his watch.

Alfred Schaefer
Things do not improve after his death and the family is evicted before moving in with Anni’s boyfriend Fritz (Ernst Busch) in his tent at Kuhle Wampe a former holiday spot on the Müggelsee in Berlin. Anni gets pregnant but Fritz doesn’t want to lose his freedom… Never the less and engagement is announced and there’s another lovely set piece as everyone gets drunk. Everyone that is except for a miserable Fritz and a resigned Anni who walks off to go stay with her pal Gerda (Martha Wolter).

Hertha Thiele
Gerda and her boyfriend, Karl Genosse (Adolf Fischer), are members of a left-wing group that gathers at the weekends to compete at sport – swimming, rowing, motorcycle racing… all of which goes perfectly well with discussion about Hegel and a socialist solution.

Their unity helps give Anni the courage to abort her child and then Fritz finally comes around… there is strength in unity even after he too loses his job; there is hope.

Then we have that final scene on the train as they head home as a good cross-section of German society tries to think its way out of the misery… as they descend into the darkness of the station corridors as the end our knowledge of what comes next makes it almost unbearable.

Train debate: Martha Wolter and Adolf Fischer

The BFI Weimar Cinema season continues to get darker as June progresses... details on their website.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Tailor-made woman… Souls for Sale (1923) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope Silent Weekender Day 2

Would you like to sin. With Elinor Glyn On a tiger skin? 
Or would you prefer. To err. With her. On some other fur?
Rupert Hughes (as quoted by Mr K Brownlow, on the occasion of his 81st birthday)

This was one of the first silent DVDs I bought partly because of its cameos of Hollywood stars but mainly because of a fascination with Eleanor Boardman who was later to star in The Crowd and to feature so elegantly in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series. Yes, there’s something about Eleanor and she’s also caught up in the William Haynes legend, with them both winning a contract through Goldwyn Pictures "New Faces of 1921" and maintaining a friendship through the years of their success and beyond: you got the feeling that they both rose above the daily Hollywood grind from the get go.

Souls for Sale is pretty light fare but it’s well made and does give a playful insight into the business of show people with Boardman’s character accidentally falling into the movies after escaping the clutches of her Bluebeard of a husband…

Charlie, Erich and Jean
The glimpses behind the scenes are, of course, 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 – no better treat for him than sharing in his passion – 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.

The film was based on a novel by a man named Rupert Hughes – Howard’s Uncle – who produced and adapted the screenplay and directed it. Mostly known as an historian and writer, Hughes couldn’t understand why a film company would buy an author’s work and then change so much. Here he made sure his work would see the screen as intended and the rigour of his research pays off in the detailed background to the film process.

Eleanor Boardman
Boardman was already famous as the Kodak Girl model and had already made three films but this was her first time as the main female star and so, just like her character she was in at the deep end. She’d tried to make a success on the stage in New York and made some head way but this, at 24, was her biggest break yet in the movies.

She doesn’t flunk it and, for me, gives a very relaxed and confident performance as Remember “Mem” Steddon (trips off the tongue doesn’t it…) who falls into film work as a refuge from her psychopathic husband (Lew Cody) and, against the wishes of her strictly-Christian parents – an echo of Boardman’s own folks’ disapproval. Boardman was perhaps a natural, very interesting to watch on camera and varied not only in her expression but her looks. She can handle comedy as well as drama and gives a taste of her dowdy desperation in The Crowd when watching her disastrous screen test: hands pulling her hair to a mess, tears running red down a face of real misery.

Less regal Garbo?!
She reminds me of a less regal Garbo, more down-to-earth and not quite the force or presence but still very watchable and adaptable, he relatively tall frame (over 5 feet 6… a giant in 1923!) making her both a graceful clothes horse as well as the equal of the men.

The film starts off with a shot of Mem in the back of a railway carriage with her husband Owen Scudder (Lew Cody), who is already starting to frighten her with his weird intensity – first example of Boardman’s ability to show unease. She’s desperate and jumps train at the first opportunity, landing in the middle of a desert.

Not a real sheik... Frank Mayo, Eleanor B and Richard Dix
She wanders for days and finally is saved by a Sheik on a camel… or rather handsome actor Tom Holby (Frank Mayo) who is on a location shoot for a film being made by director, Frank Claymore (Richard Dix). The crew rescue Mem with stars Leva Lamaire (Barbara La Marr… see what they did?) and Robina Teele (a feisty, Mae Busch) making sure the kid gets a break as well as medical attention. Snitz Edwards is also on hand as the lovelorn Komical Kale, who is unrequitedly in love with Leva who still mourns for her lost lover, Jim, who died as his plane was engulfed in flames.

Meanwhile Scudder with a history of marriage and murder behind him, manages to evade the cops at a railway station and then gets lucky and a little richer by taking advantage of Abigail Tweedy (Dale Fuller) who he convinces, cons and almost chokes before escaping. Of course, he’s not finished with Mem just yet…

After finding work in a hotel, the end of season forces Mem to try her hand in Hollywood and, we see her trying to sell her soul, to get into a picture, any picture… there’s a great casting session with even Eve Southern as Miss Velma Slade being told she’s only beautiful and there’s a pile of those in this town (the film was also intended to discourage people from the film business… ).

Billy Haines!
In addition to Chaplin and von Stroheim, Mem gets a tiny part in Fred Niblo’s The Famous Mrs. Fair and sees Marshall Neilan directing The Eternal Three with Raymond Griffith, Hobart Bosworth, and Claire Windsor. Star-spotting is half the fun although Kevin spoiled this by reading out the names of a table full at one point: including Barbara Bedford, Chester Conklin, William H. Crane, Elliott Dexter, June Mathis and ZaSu Pitts.

After a disastrous screen test with Frank Claymore and the crew, he realises that she’s made more for drama than comedy and gradually she starts to make her way with bigger and bigger parts. Eventually she gets her big chance in a circus film after Robina gets injured. By this stage Scudder is back on her trail and has decided that he’s in love with the now successful actor…

But, it’s a stormy night over the circus set and there’s not many places more dangerous than a film set based in a tent!

The ending is a tour de force as the storm hits and the flames rise higher – all tinted yellow in the Warner Archive/TCM restoration. One of the extras told Brownlow that the circus tent was soaked in paraffin for the fire… which Hughes didn’t let people know there were horses inside as he didn’t want them to clear a path for them; the result is chaotic but undeniably dangerous with a least one injury to a dancer.

As a defence of the film industry, that doesn’t show the health and safety standards in a good light but I guess the audience took it all as part of the drama.

Meg Morley accompanied in fine style matching the epic with the intimate in a film of many contrasting moods. There may have been a snatch of Liszt at one point but as ever Meg melds these themes into an overall improvisation that is unique to the moment and the setting.

Big productions!

The Old Swimmin’ Hole
(1921) with Meg Morley

Talking of William Haines, the next film starred Charles Ray who bears more than a passing resemblance to the former. Based on a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, the film was essentially a series of backwoods episodes all told without intertitles. Directed by Joe De Grasse it was charming if a little ambient, but like all poetry, something you had to just relax and focus on. Meg Morley accompanied again and in a quite different manner; lots of light tones and energetically reiterated figures that played so well along with the “children” on screen.

I spotted Laura La Plante in Pickford curls as Charles’ love interest, so different from her close-cropped platinum bob of later years.

Another exceptional collection of films overall for the weekend and I was sorry to miss the final parts of the second day. All credit to the programmers, players, projectionists and volunteers who make the Bioscope happen and happen so very well!

Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Rare treats... Kennington Bioscope, Silent Film Weekender Day One

"To those who believe in Santa Claus, thirty miles to the gallon, and other fairy stories…"

Cruise of the Jasper B (1926) with Lilian Henley

The weekend cast off with a Jasper B-film, this one was an odd fish that put me in mind of the Marx Brothers, with period-zany humour and a hero who wasn’t afraid to dress for the occasion. Rod La Rocque looks like a lanky Fairbanks in the Black Pirate as Jerry Cleggett, descendant of an 18th Century pirate and inheritor of his family fortune so long as he marries before he’s 25… He lives on the bad-ship Jasper B but leaves it in pursuit of conveniently timed true love with Agatha Fairhaven (Mildred Harris).

All looks fair set for multi-millionaire matrimony until Reginald Maltravers (Snitz Edwards) tries to put a spoke in the wheel to rob his stepsister Agatha of her inheritance which, naturally, is detailed in the will written on her back. The second half of the film is full of entertaining hi-jinks as the couple, aided by Cleggett’s right-hand man Wiggins (Jack Ackroyd), tries to shake off their pursuers and end up being attacked by army, navy and air force… some comment on Federal government and heavy handedness perhaps?

James W. Horne directs and it was good of him to take responsibility in the circumstances. Lillian Henley accompanied keeping a cool head whilst all those around we’re nearly losing theirs.

Rider of the Stone...
The Stone Rider (1923) with John Sweeney

‘Tis the season for Weimar film and it was good to see another rare one this featuring Dr Mabuse himself, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in the role of Der Herr vom Berge a man more villain than hero. In a weekend dominated by Hollywood films it was interesting to compare this expressionist-gothic tale with its darker themes and wild mise en scène. The central fantasy village looked like Teletubbies on mescaline and the interiors were similarly eccentric – like Caligari off-cuts. The story was dream-like but then it is a tale being told to a group of young people as they gather beneath a curious rock feature that looks like a man riding a horse…

Directed by Fritz Wendhausen from a script he co-wrote with Thea von Harbou, The Stone Rider is a grim fairy-tale but also an interesting one the subverts our expectations with redemptive love saving the soul of a man who never knew he cared.

The irony is that vom Berge is feared for his visits to disrupt weddings in his valley and it is one such love match he destroys that sets his fate in motion. The groom lashes out at him with a knife and in so doing, kills his bride Schaffnerin (Emilia Unda) … vom Berge rides off laughing, leaving the valley full of fear and a need for revenge.

Schaffnerin’s sister (Hirtin) Lucie Mannheim runs down from the mountain too late but resolves to avenge the death and sets off armed for the deed. Opportunity presents itself but something stays her hand… deeper feelings intervene and there’s hope out of hate.  But, just as the Baron softens so do his subject’s hearts harden for revenge… it’s a brutal world and The Stone Rider is determined to confront it.

John Sweeney illuminated with some expressionism of his own, monolithic slabs of gothic foreboding mixing with thrilling romance.

"Their only sin was that they loved too much..."
The Price of Pleasure (1925) with Costas Fotopolous

Turns out that even pleasure carries a charge even as The Stone Rider pays the wages of sin. This film was directed by Edward Sloman who directed His People (1925) and Surrender (1927) – two very interesting works of which Kevin Brownlow spoke highly.

Mordaunt Hall wrote a bizarre review of this film for The New York Times at the time, in which he praised the method of child actor Charles Bernard Murphy Jr. who must have been all of 18 months at the time: “He is the jolliest and most effective baby we have seen on the screen filling a rôle in a full-fledged production…” but the film is much more about the boy’s “support actors”,  Virginia Valli’s expressiveness, Norman Kerry’s heroic quality and Louise Fazenda’s sheer zip: she’s always highly watchable!

Valli plays Linnie Randall, a shop girl who marries Kerry’s Garry Schuyler who is well above her station but equally smitten. This pure love-match is does not impress Garry’s mother (Kate Lester) who cannot overlook her daughter-in-law’s humble status and employs lawyer John Osborne (George Fawcett ) to drive a wedge between the two.

Linnie runs away upset and – calamity! – gets knocked down by Garry’s over-anxious driving, somehow, he is convinced that she has died in hospital and his mother makes sure it stays that way. Meanwhile, Linnie recovers, has Garry’s baby boy – CB Murphy jnr – and gets by with her pal Stella Kelly (Louise Fazenda) babysitting… The course of true love never runs true but you can bet that joy wins out in the end.

Costas Fotopolous made merry throughout with fluid themes that followed the romance through the slings and arrows of outrageous parents.

Living Flowers (1906) 

35mm Shorts from the David Eve Collection – Programme One, with Lillian Henley

David Eve has amassed a collection of rare short films, and we saw a selection on a 35mm copy of the originals which are held in George Eastman House. I was especially taken with the coloured Living Flowers (1906) directed by George Velle in which women’s faces grew from flowers; includible vibrancy for a 113-year old film. Then there was Wait Till I Catch You (1910) by Percy Stow involving a chase through the streets of Croydon – hell, we’ve all been there! Finally, there was a rare-as-hens-teeth Mack Sennett comedy, Great Scott (1920) featuring the Charlie Murray and Ford Sterling – one of a series of shorts in which they played “Reilly” and “Yonson” – Irish and Dutch antagonists in a multi-cultural muddle.

Lillian Henley crafted delightful themes, drawing on her theatrical affinity for this period as she opened a melodic gateway to Edwardian Croydon and beyond.

Beauty’s Worth (1922) with John Sweeney

Marion Davies was always good, this was one of her major films from her period of peak popularity – when she was crowned “Queen of the Screen” by theatre owners - and as with When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), Little Old New York and The Bride’s Play, she’s a solid-gold star already and showing how adept she really was a romantic drama. She didn’t need to wait for The Patsy or Show People for the audience to get her, she was always, lovingly funny and charmingly believable.

Here she goes from being Prudence Cole, a nice homely Quaker girl, in an unusually stylish satin Quaker dress, to being a fashion plate for the quick-designing talents of cool rich-boy artist Cheyne Rovein (Forrest Stanley). Rovein is trying to help Prudence impress the shallow young man who she thinks she loves and manages to stage some very impressive tableaux at a few days’ notice one of which allows the actress to recreate the dancing doll routine from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 in which she featured – a long road to the top for Brooklyn’s Marion Douras!

In the film she starts off poor Prudence under the thumb of her strictly Quaker aunts, Aunt Elizabeth (Martha Mattox, so scary in Paul Leni’s Cat and the Canary which also featured Mr Stanley)
And Aunt Cynthia (Aileen Manning). They receive a visit from former neighbours Mrs. Garrison (Truly Shattuck, yes, really!!) and her son Henry (Hallam Cooley) – Prudence’s childhood sweetheart and a man with fond memories of her inheritance.

Amazing what you can throw together in just two days...
The Garrisons get permission to bring Prudence over to stay with them in Haven, somewhere on the familiar coast of Monterey where the idle rich and their feckless off-spring spend all day looking for something to do. Pru is, of course out of her depth here and just hasn’t the fashion sense to catch up, which is where our bohemian friend steps in to help her get noticed by her intended and, as it transpires, herself…

John Sweeney accompanied with some lovely lines and was especially impressive in covering the splendour of those high-fashion tableaux, even in the most predictable of Hollywood fare, you need to be ready for such a shift and, as usual, Mr Sweeney had it covered. He played his part on underpinning the gentle charm of this film and of the leading actress herself.

Once again, I had to miss Norwegian epic, Laila (1929) on account of footballing matters – this being Liverpool FC’s sixth triumph in the Champions League. You can never have too much of a good thing in film or footie!