Saturday, 21 September 2019

Korean Autumn… Kokdu: A Story of Guardian Angels & London Korean Film Festival 2019 1st-24th November

Kokdu is the latest film from director Kim Tae-yong, probably best known for Memento Mori (1999) and Late Autumn (2010) and who also curated the restoration of Korea’s oldest surviving feature, Crossroads of Youth (1934) – as seen in London earlier this year.

It’s a charming mix of traditional Korean theatre based on the myth of the Kokdu, four supernatural spirits who guide the dead to their destination in the afterlife. The action is split between live action in “reality” and a spectacular theatrical production with the two gradually becoming one as the film progresses.

Two children, Su-min (Kim Su-an) and Dong-min (Choi Go) trade their grandmother’s flowery shoes for a puppy they discover at the market but when the latter (Park Jeong-suk), is taken seriously ill, they try to retrieve her shoes and take them to hospital. The children follow a trail to the junk dealers’ site and, spotting the shoes deeply buried, fall down after them only to emerge backstage at a theatre where their mother (Park Mi-hyen) is directing a Kokdu show.

In the grand tradition of Oz, the play’s the thing but Tae-yong keeps his fantasies balanced throughout maintaining a firm grip on his poignant narrative to the elegiac end.

‘I am an entertainer Kokdu. I’ll cry and laugh with you, comfort you through the journey.’

On stage the children are greeted by four Kokdu; the Caregiver (Cho Hee-bong), the Guide (Shim Jae-hyun), the Guard (Park Sang-ju) and Entertainer (Lee Ha-kyoung) all are new to their roles and so nervous about apparently having to escort children to their after-life they decide that the best policy is to fib a bit and play along with the pretence of finding grandma’s shoes which, no doubt, when clicked together under the incantation “there’s no place like home” may well return you to reality.

Traditional gugak music is used throughout and as per its stage origins, the story was originally performed live at the National Gugak Center in Seoul, generating record ticket sales, the film has spectacular theatrical routines as the children head towards Heaven or Hell and Grandma, waking in hospital, heads out towards them…

The children with Caregiver, Guide, Entertainer and Guard 
The two children give wonderful performances beyond their years and the Kokdu are excellent value too, especially Lee Ha-kyoung who dances superbly and Cho Hee-bong who's dynamically funny in any language. Entertaining for all ages, I found the film very moving – we never stop preparing ourselves for grief and processing it once it has arrived: and fairy tales have always served that purpose.

The film was screened as part of the programme launch of the London Korean Film Festival which runs from 1st to 14th November in London before touring across a further six cities from 18th to 24th. Now in its 14th year the festival will highlight 100-years of Korean cinema with UK and International premieres, guests and events across a diverse set of strands.

The Seashore Village
The festival’s Opening Gala on 1st November with a UK premier of a restored The Seashore Village (1965) a story of a young woman, Hae-soon, living in a village heavily populated by women who have lost their husbands at sea. The film’s director Kim Soo-yong is now in his 90s will be present to discuss the film, his career and the rich history of Korean film.

Special Focus: A Century of Korean Cinema picks up from the LKFF’s superb collaboration with BFI earlier this year featuring pivotal titles exploring the nation’s rich cinematic history and incorporating UK and European premiere film screenings of culturally-important retrospective titles, many newly restored, and introduced by leading filmmakers and critics from Korea and the UK, along with Q&As, forums, workshops and unique events. 

The oldest film to feature in the Special Focus programme is Yun Yong-gyu’s melodrama A Hometown in Heart (1949) and there will be a focus on films from the 60s including Aimless Bullet (1961)from Yu Hyun-mok, a key figure of the period, which I’m told is a powerful, downbeat view of postwar struggle told with style and substance. A Woman Judge (1962), the second ever film from a woman director, Hong Eun-won also looks another highlight featuring the struggles of a young woman to break the mould and become a judge.

Aimless Bullet
The strand continues with key films from the 80’s and 90’s an era when Korean cinema finally started to gain more international recognition with directors like Hong Sangsoo, whose The Day a Pig Fell into a Well (1996) sounds too good to miss, Lim Soon-rye, her debut, the satire Three Friends (1996) is on show, and Lee Chang-dong whose second work Peppermint Candy (1999), portrays a tragic personal story which reflects on Korean society as a whole. 

The Cinema Now strand showcases the best of contemporary Korean cinema with a diverse line-up including some of Korea’s finest recent titles, including festival sensations and domestic box office hits from the past year most of which are UK and European premiers.

Presented by the LKFF in conjunction with the Barbican’s Hidden Figures film programme, there is a celebration of renowned director Ha Gil-jong, one of Korean cinema’s most iconoclastic auteurs from the early 70s – when censorship was strict - to date. The March of Fools (1975), Ha’s best-known film, is among those screened and shows how he was able to use a college comedy to reflect on the prevailing dictatorship of the time.

The Day a Pig Fell in a Well
Women’s Voices celebrates the work of first-time women directors with four films: Cha Sung-duk’s Youngju (2018, UK Premiere), Ahn Ju-young’s A Boy and Sungreen (2018, International Premiere), Shim Hyejung’s A Bedsore (2019, International Premiere) and Young Sun Noh’s intimate documentary Yukiko (2018, UK Premiere).

The Documentary strand highlights the work of two of the country’s political film collectives which developed in the 1980s, the Seoul Film Collective, who from 1982 to 1987 produced a number of films that contributed to the collective social and political reform movement and the collective Jangsangotmae whose film The Night Before the Strike (1990) was banned and had to be shown illicitly.

The Animation strand will showcase a classic Korean animated film from Shin Dong-Hun, a pioneer in Korean animation, A Story of Hong Gil-dong (1967) one film Disney will not be re-creating as live action.

Full details of these and the other strands, Artist Video and Mise-en-scène Shortsare set out on the festival’s website: it’s going to be a richly rewarding November!


Sunday, 15 September 2019

Secrets and lies… British Silent Film Festival 2019, Part Two

The Runaway Princess (GB/Germany, 1928) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry

There is more joy in Heaven over a newly watched British silent film than a dozen from Hollywood… certainly in my house. Personally, I found Anthony Asquith’s fairy tale charmingly entertaining even if it's not quite up there with his Shooting Stars, Underground or A Cottage on Dartmoor. It stars Austrian actress Mady Christians in what Laraine Porter described as a woman’s adventure, and one close to the heart of Lady Elizabeth Russell, the author of  the novel,“The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight” on which the film was based, who lived a life of suffocating duty only enlivened by lengthy country walks with her many dogs.

Here the poor Princess makes a break for it when she is told she is to marry the Prince of Savonia and, accompanied only by her Professor (Fred Rains, father of Claude!), the two head off to London for adventure and a normal life. En route Priscilla meets a handsome man (Paul Cavanagh) who is immediately taken with this strange but pretty woman and follows her to offer help in a non-stalky way.

There are mishaps aplenty and some great shots of London especially when 'Cilla rides down Fleet Street up top on a double decker only to be turfed off with no ticket just yards from the Edgar Wallace and Devereux Arms public houses… Mady Christians is excellent as the innocent but resilient royal and there’s some great casting as she encounters a group of forgers including Nora Baring, who’s screen intensity instantly creates a new dynamic mix. Things are about to get a little more serious but Asquith – who co-directed with Fritz Wenhausen – balances the tension with the humour and this is a satisfying romantic comedy that would soon be christened screwball. All is never as it seems but we know that!

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, playing Oberon the Harp, created some wonderful atmospherics and plays the instrument like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: every part is used for sound, percussion from the frame, loose-peddled block chords and deep bass as well as two-handed melodies that contrast the comedic with the romantic.

Spion Kop
The Boer War on Screen with Stephen Horne

Bryony Dixon and Matt Lee of the Imperial War Museum, talked us through a series of films from the Second Boer War which ran from 1899 to 1902 as the British Empire suppressed an insurgence from the Transvaal and Orange Free State sparked by the discovery of gold in South Africa (and much more besides). The conflict was a key one for Great Britain as it was not only harder to win than had been expected but it also showed up the poor physical condition of many conscripts.

Over 6,000 Boer soldiers were killed against over 22,000 from the Empire with Matt Lee pointing out that more died from disease than from direct action. Talking of which 46,000 civilians died in the concentration camos the British devised and which were recently defended by Jacob Rees Mogg… even 120 years on his kind are still whitewashing a policy which both parties at the time decided to abandon.

The films largely showed a mix of routine behind the lines operations and “staged” activities but the scenes showing the aftermath of the British rout at Spion Kop were incredibly powerful as thousands of men snaked their way back from the battle: carrying a stretcher would have been Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and nearby, covering the event as a journalist, was former soldier Winston Churchill – a man all too familiar with military failure but not lacking in bravery; he was captured as a prisoner of war but managed to escape from a Boer POW camp in Pretoria.

Adolf Philipp and Marie Pagano
The Midnight Girl (US, 1919) with Neil Brand and Michelle Facey

KenningtonBioscope programmer and film historian, Michelle Facey, wowed us all with the tale of entrepreneurial entertainer Adolf Philipp and Marie Pagano, stunt woman, horse rider, extra, Theda Bara body double and, finally, film star. Michelle is rescuing Miss Pagano from shadows of film un-history and gave us a feel of the personality of a woman described as “prominent in the world of players” and whose riding was so expert, that Motion Picture News wrote “… her seat is so perfect that she is a joy to watch both on and off the screen”.

The Midnight Girl is the only extant film she made and it allows us to see her vibrance and dancing skills as she plays the cabaret star by night/nurse by day Clarisse, who nurses a grumpy alcoholic, Tomas n Gee (Adolf Philipp) who is in a real tizz about prohibition.

Always having an eye to commercial spin-offs, Philipp had a theme song for this and his other films, which viewers could purchase as sheet music; Michelle sang it beautifully accompanied by Neil Brand.

Toni (GB, 1929) with Neil Brand

Back to Britain next with a Jack Buchanan comedy featuring another runaway princess, this time called Eugenie (Dorothy Boyd) caught up in some nonsense featuring Jack as Toni Marr, a low-powered socialite so in need of some adventure that his doctor has him change places with a detective called Marini (also JB) who has as many enemies as Jack has hangovers. It’s a riot and features hidden passageways, Moore Marriott (hurrah!) and Forrester Harvey as Watts the manservant.

The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge) (Fr, 1925) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne

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.

Georges Vaultier plays Julien Boissel who is devastated when the love of his life, Yvonne (Sandra Milovanoff) is about to be forced into marrying Gauthier (José Davert) an evil newspaper proprietor (no real need for the “evil” there…) who has some kompromat on her father Victor, ex-minister of state (Maurice Schutz). His lively cousin Jacqueline (Madeleine Rodrigue) invites him to forget himself at the Moulin Rouge and here he is spotted by experimental psychologist Dr Window (Paul Ollivier) who offers him a way to, literally, leave his troubles behind by detaching his soul from his sad body…

Julien bilges and starts haunting Paris in the most amusing of ways, refusing to go back to his boring corporeal form as it’s far more fun being a phantom and he has, almost, forgotten Yvonne. An intrepid reporter Jean Degland (Albert Préjean) is a little too intrepid and discovers Julien’s body; a murder investigation is launched and the phantom is about to become permanent when an autopsy is announced…

Clair’s Phantom is redeemed by an ever-present sense of ridiculous as well as good performances and outrageous ambition. I especially liked the moment when Julien floats across Paris streets arms out, followed immediately by a traffic cop using the same movement.

The dynamic duo of Horne and Baldry were perfectly in tune with this uncanny action as they collaborated with almost telepathic cohesion flavouring the action with a sumptuous repeated theme from strings and keys, aided by flute, accordion, woodwork, base pedals and, startlingly voice! Silent film musicians are amongst the finest of collaborators as they’re so used to working with visually active partners with emphatic opinions!

María Corda on the poster
Follow that, early British talkie, Tesha (GB, 1928) with your original soundtrack, some dialogue and Jameson Thomas!?

Bob Dylan said never to finish your album with an epic and so Tesha was, not to damn with faint praise, the perfect end to the day. It concerns the love affair between a businessman Robert Dobree (Thomas) and Tesha, a ballerina (Hungarian actress María Corda) dedicated to her art but lacking the one thing she most wants in the world; children.

Sadly, as his doctor explains, having suffered injury and shellshock in the war, Robert, might not be able to reproduce and, after the couple get married, we shift to five years later with no offspring… A chance encounter at a Southampton hotel ends up with Tesha pregnant and, Robert is none-the-wiser. Sadly, the father of Tesha’s baby turns out to be Robert’s “greatest friend” Jack Lenane (Paul Cavanagh) … what are the odds?! It’s tense stuff and a subject that many childless (by choice or otherwise) people, as well as the shell-shocked trying to live on with normal lives, would have identified with.

Brigitte Helm and her gypsy
Secret Film: The Blue Danube (GB/Germany 1932) with original soundtrack

The final day and Geoff Brown teases us with clues I’ll never get for the festival’s secret film… it’s another early British talkie and, as with the rest, essentially a silent film with music superimposed, in this case rich gypsy takes on the title tune and other hot Austro-Hungarian hits.

These gypsies are organised (they are Alfred Rode and His Royal Tzigane Band after all) and they can play so well that a passing Countess (Brigitte Helm, at last!) decides they’re perfect for her party, especially the tousle-haired Sandor (Joseph Schildkraut) who laughs at life even as he plays guitar and sings to his sweetheart Yutka (Chili Bouchier, who is, erm, as warm as she sounds). Sandor is drawn to the close-fitting clothes of the curvy Countess and breaks Yutka’s heart… she runs out leaving him wrecked and a shadow of the gypsy he used to be. The years pass and the couple meet again; Yutka is married to a wealthy soldier but is she really happy… he has barely any hair let along a curly kiss-curl after all?

This is not one of Herbert Wilcox’s finest moments but is entertaining all the same with some rousing music and performers making the most of what they got given. I liked the way he used sound in the narrative, his characters reacting to these new elements in inventive ways.

Say cheese
A slow journey across Europe – A programme of early travelogues

Presented by Bryony Dixon, with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne once again accompanying, this compilation of early travelogues was the perfect end to my Festival. Bryony took us all round Europe and, as ever with these early films, the sight of long-lost ways of life is compelling in itself. I especially liked the film of Dutch cheesemakers but I still don’t know how they get the skin on. Europe eh? So different and yet so very much the same.

Thank you to everyone at the British Silent Film Festival who organised this splendid event, I think we all appreciate the amount of effort that goes into programming, presenting, performing and promoting; see you again in 2021!

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Who knows where the time goes… British Silent Film Festival 2019 Part One

Spring Awakening
Yesterday I spent 14 hours in Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema as I travelled from Naples to the peak of the Matterhorn via drunken Edwardian suburbs, crime-ridden Cotswolds and embittered Berlin: it’s been a ride but together we made it through.

This being the half-way point in what the social media is hashtagging #BSFF19, I thought it best to jot down my hot takes before like my dreams they fade and dry, so, exasperated reader, this is how my Leicester feels on this Saturday morning.

The best film in qualitative, comedy terms has been Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin) (1919) which, on seeing it for the second time this year, is an almost perfectly compressed sequence of joyously-daft comedic riffs from Victor Janson, Ossi Oswalda, Harry Liedtke and Julius Falkenstein.  It may very well be the best German comedy in history as suggested by Weimar queen Margaret Deriaz in her splendid introduction and, surprisingly, over a third of Weimar films were comedies so there has been a lot more competition than some might expect.

There was plenty of evidence of Herr Lubitsch’s “touch” which Margaret described as his simply respect his audience’s intelligence, but that takes some confidence and humanity. We also had plenty of Neil Brand touches with piano accompaniment informed by so much contextual awareness and intuition.

Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) was another film I’d seen before and it impressed me even more on second viewing helped by Lillian Henley’s emotionally-intelligent piano which brought out flavours of exhausted grief, resignation and gradual hope that must have characterised the post-war years. The film is remarkable for the affection shown between the men, chiefly John Armstrong (Gerald Ames) and his army pal Ginger (Teddy Arundell), who helps him find a purpose after he is blinded in the war. Silent Scouse superstar (it says here) Peggy Carlisle is also in wonderful as “Peggy” who always sees more than the brutal boys and she and Lillian made me cry… I’m telling!

Able Mabel
The Alley Cat (1929) was an unexpected delight in the evening, a hi-energy Anglo-German production with exteriors filmed in London and studios in Germany. It features Britain’s Princess of Pugnacity, Mabel Poulton, as Polly an “alley cat” who gets involved with a songwriter, Jimmy Rice (Jack Trevor) who suspects himself of murder (he’s not alone). It’s a slight story but made with energy and some style with those fancy German camera-sweeps you’d expect (Austro-Hungarian in this case from Nicolas Farkas) which are especially impressive in a Rear Window type sequence when our Polly hears an assault at the back of her rooms and swings down the fire escape to land the attacker on the head.

The thug in question is one of them McLaglen lads – Clifford – who, with the aid of plastic cauliflower ear plays Beck, a common criminal with base designs on Polly and, at the moment above, stage star Melona Miller (Margit Manstad out of Sweden). There are lots of impressive scenes at the theatre Melona works with a cast of hundreds of well-trained legs stretching out in sensational synchronised back steps up a huge stairway; Busby Berkley check out Berlin!

Beck lurks in the East End and China Town and there are echoes of Piccadilly although the film isn’t as focused. That said, with Stephen Horne’s trademark energies and tonal dexterity we were caught up in this breathless chase from East to West End and back again. The fight scenes are as well choreographed as the dance and Beck goes face to face with the coppers in one heck of a shoot out!
One excellent shot sees the camera pull focus from Jimmy’s face to a bottle of White Horse whiskey; we all needed a drink after this one.

The Brigitte Version
Friday and the long day begins with a trip to Italy with the leather lungs of Polish tenor Jan Kiepura as Giovanni the singing tourist guide in Napoli in City of Song (1931). Another Anglo-German production, the Germans had the beyond-elegant Brigitte Helm and the Brits got the willing Claire Winter, as socialite Betty Stockfeld who spots the talent and tries to make him a star. There were some super sequences in Naples and Pompei but the film disappoints with a narrative full of blind alleys and predictable open doors. As Geoff Brown explained in his excellent intro, the English version is somewhat truncated – with almost half an hour missing – the full German version is on YouTube, some astonishing fashions for Ms Helm.

Next up were a selection of British silent rarities from the Archive Agency, which showcased why the UK was at the forefront of silent comedy in the 1900s. There’s something so familiar about the likes of Walter Booth’s The Curate’s Double (1907) which features two twins (?) playing a roguish husband and pastor who look alike… seaside slapstick is so deeply engrained in us all my brothers. A Merry Night (1914) showcased every camera trick in the book as a sozzled gentleman struggles to stop his world from, literally, turning upside down.

The Silver Lining (1928) was a so-so story with some fantastic locations all reproduced on a stunningly-good print from the BFI national archives. It features the excellent Marie Ault as mother of two lads, good-looking goodie Tom (Patrick Aherne) and not-bad-looking baddie John (John Hamilton). Tom wins the girl, Lettie (Eve Gray) and John teams up with a good-for-nowt gypsy (Moore Marriott – hurrah!) to steal pearls loaned for their wedding. Tom gets framed but you know how these stories go. I enjoyed it and Lillian Henley transported us through the crime-riddled rural idyll with practised poise.

Marie Ault in Love on the Dole (1941)
What a difference a film makes if you’re an accompanist and Neil Brand had two contrasting works that illustrate perfectly the how varied the end results can be. First up was a farce called Tons of Money (1924) starring Leslie Henson and Flora le Breton as a hard-up couple desperate to maximise their inheritance by faking his death so that he can impersonate his bearded cousin from Mexico. Unfortunately there’s another fake cousin and a real one to contend with… all quite mad of course but Mr Brand took it very seriously as he picked a musical course that punctuated every punchline. Harder work than it looks this comedy but we were in safe hands.

Talking of which, gruff German mountaineer Carrel (Luis Trenker) toys with whether to drop his love rival Edward Whymper (Peter Voß) in Struggle for the Matterhorn (Der Kampf ums Matterhorn), Neil’s second film of the day. He accompanied with Jeff Davenport on drums and the music could not have been more different as they filled the airy mountain views with dynamic minimalism and underpinned Mario Bonnard and Nunzio Malasomma’s breath taking shots with dynamic slabs of percussive energy. I love the cinematic ambition of this film and the fact that as Miranda Gower-Qian explained in her informed introduction, the crew had to climb the Matterhorn to film – perhaps falling in love with the mountain as much as Whymper and all those who climbed and failed to climb.

I could do without some of the slapstick in the valley and Clifford McLaglen’s mad gurning as Carrel’s bitter half-brother but Alexandra Schmitt is great as their mother and overall it’s a triumph.

Film of the day was Richard Oswald’s devastating Spring Awakening (Frühlingserwachen) (1929) based on Frank Wedekind’s play which dealt with the damage done by a society that tried to suppress emerging sexuality and understanding. I was reminded on Ian McKewan’s Chesil Beach and stories my mother tod me of couples that arrived on their wedding night with not a clue of what to do.

The story revolves around four youngsters Wendla (Toni van Eyck), her beau Melchoir (Rolf von Goth), tortured Moritz (Carl Balhaus) and Ilse (Ita Rina… surely an Earth Spirit/Lulu in an alternate Pabst timeline…). The kids know but the grown ups don’t want them to understand and Fritz Rasp is especially nuanced as Lehrer Habebald a teacher who seems to constantly suppress his own realisations in favour of his discipline and “method”.

I’d like to say more but there’s more films to watch… Wedekind  expert Michael Eaton, gave a rapturous introduction and urged us to read the play, which I will, and Stephen Horne melded musically with this saddest of cinema especially during an operatically-intense final hour. Wow.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

In Devon everything is fine… Lorna Doone (1922), with Costas Fotopoulos, Kennington Bioscope

The new Bioscope season kicked off with a screening of Kevin Brownlow’s own 16mm print of Maurice Tourneur’s florid Lorna Doone, in which the director proves that you can indeed fit a quart into a pint pot.

Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s novel has everything the moors the merrier in fact with passions surging like waterfalls, opening the doors to death on two occasions and muscles being rendered from the flesh of evildoers. This is, indeed – perhaps – a story that “outlives modern literature… never old, never new… a literary heritage of Civilization…” but all that aside Tourneur made a fun film even if Madge Bellamy looks a little too modern with her thick eyeliner and jazz-age pout.

Before we hit those highlights though, Kevin talked us through Tourneur’s backstory with clips from his own collection illuminated by Colin Searle’s sparklingly sure-handed piano improvisations. We started with The Wishing Ring: An Idyll of Old England (1914) which as a young collector her almost left behind in Keswick Library believing it to be a British film and, therefore, of less interest! He managed to grab the copy and it’s an interesting curio, very much highlighting the step-change in technique that the French director was about to help lead.

Whereas the camera is fairly static, the close-ups are limited and the staging is formal, by the time of Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915) there’s a stunning use of angled camera, meticulous stage direction over an open plan office which forms the basis of a bank robbery. It’s far too good not to copy and low and behold, a clip from Fritz Lang’s Spiders shows an almost identical sequence.

John Bowers and Madge Bellamy
Tourneur was regarded as on the same level as DWG and DeMille by the time of Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) with Mary Pickford playing the wealthy child in a cast full of very tall people and normal sized sets on which he was rightly confident that the protean Canadian could present as a 12-year old. This film and his famous The Blue Bird (1918) demonstrated his way with fantasy with the latter being described by one projectionist as like dreaming when you’re awake.”

By 1922 Tourneur had shifted away from the fantastic to the historic and Lorna Doone (1922), filmed near the Thomas Ince Studios in New York and not Devon, England as the director requested, is full of fluid moments of striking storytelling whilst being as plot heavy as a month of EastEnders.

One moment has always struck me especially hard and that is when the Doone Gang attacks young Lorna and her mother’s carriage; heavily outnumbered their carriage is driven into the sea and Lorna’s mother is pushed to the ground as her daughter is taken. The gang rides off, we can almost hear the girl’s pleas, the camera shows her mother trying to raise herself from wet sand, a cut showing the sea lapping around the carriage after the tide has come in and the back to the mother, face down in inches of water…

It's a sign.
The film is far from grim but it has the occasional moment of artful violence in between a narrative that just won’t stop. Set in the late seventeenth century it tells the tale of various families in the Exmoor across the borders of Devon and Somerset. It begins in the White Horse Inn – famous among the taverns of old England - I’m sure you probably know it… where two youngsters meet, John Ridd (Charles Hatton), son of a farmer and Lorna (Mae Giraci), daughter of the Countess of Lorne… it’s love at first sight and the young lad, on hearing his new friend is to travel through the dangerous lands of the Doone bandits, gives her his pen knife. In spite of warnings from others, the Countesses troop head off and duly get ambushed by the rogues on the coast – rather brutally, as above, with the head of the clan, disgraced former nobleman (wrongly so in the book) Sir Ensor Doone (Frank Keenan) who decides to steal the child.

But John has followed and watches on helpless vowing to revenge himself on every one of the Doones!

Flip forward and we find Lorna all grown up as Madge Bellamy and living an uncertain existence amongst the Doones. She has caught the eye of Carver Doone (Donald McDonald) the most unhinged of the clan but can rely on the fatherly support of the suddenly decent Ensor: maybe she has allowed the man to remember the best of himself? It’s an uneasy existence though as Sir Ensor bats down Carver’s marriage request…pronouncing that Lorna can chose who she marries, so long as he lives.

The hunkiest man in Devon and the strongest.
Meanwhile John has grown up into John Bowers – the strongest man in Devon! He is out juggling logs in a stream when he is swept down river into the waters of the Doone Valley. He wakes to find a beautiful brunette leaning over him and they quickly realise who each other is: Lorna pulling out John’s long-cherished penknife. They have not forgotten.

But it is not safe in the valley and Lorna helps John escape back to his world: there can be no reconciliation for fear of Doone reprisals apparently… John returns to his farm, his heart a perfect L, for Lorna, for love… His cousin Ruth (Norris Johnson) looks on, lost in her own longing… an incomplete triangle that will break before the film is done. Lost more besides.

The plot is of its age and genre but Tourneur makes sure that Lorna Doone flies by at an irresistibly entertaining pace. The cinematography from Henry Sharp is also superbly advanced and delivers the richness and range you’d expect for his director.

Madge miscast?
Costas Fotopoulos came with his Old Romantics Toolbox brim-full of longing poignancy, laced with dramatic dynamics and horse-chasing rhythms… he added the classic to the classic and ensured that we arrived breathless at stories end.

Lorna Doone isn’t the best of Tourneur but tonight, with Mr Brownlow’s film, his introduction and the playing of Colin and Costas, we wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

Reel streets... Midnight Cowboy (1969), 50th anniversary restoration, released by BFI

“Having seen it, you won’t ever again feel detached as you walk down West Forty-Second Street, avoiding the drifters, stepping around the little islands of hustlers…” Vincent Canby, New York Times

1987 and my first visit to New York City, wandering goggle-eyed through a Times Square showing the World its arse at 10 o’clock in the morning, I’d never seen anything like it and it wasn’t just “show”. I saw one guy getting hustled along a side street towards West-side with the words “c’mon man you know it’s what you’ve always wanted…” Nothing me or my girlfriend could do but watch him make his choice. I wonder what happened?

Thirty years later, there’s nothing left of this terrifying Times Square but twenty years before it was home to Jon Voigt striding through its seedy streets to the saddest harmonica playing in human history, Jean 'Toots' Thielemans lines over John Barry’s sublime score. Midnight Cowboy’s third star was naughty, haughty 42nd Street and her sisters, gone to seed and on their uppers, Times Square went completely method for this part and almost showed up even Dustin Hoffman who’s "Ratso" Rizzo is like the walking dead from the get-go. Barry’s score comes in fourth being all the sadder for the fact it dares to dream.

That’s pretty much how the story goes, Voigt’s innocent cowboy, Joe Buck, setting his heart on an escape to New York City from his dead-end job in Texas and – possibly – a sexual assault (his dreams are split between erotic fantasies of Annie (Jennifer Salt) saying he is the only one to accusing him of being the one…). Joe has decided to become a hustler and to make his fortune servicing rich married ladies looking for some extra marital fun. Trouble is there are already so many cowboy sex workers in the City and he’s lacking the instinct for the job.

Jon and Dustin
He succeeds in picking up a client, Cass (Sylvia Miles) and a good time is had by all until she refuses to pay out forcing him to “loan” her a twenty out of guilt. He ends up with a male client in a cinema and finds that even this sheepish guy (the esteemed Bob Balaban no less!) guilts him out of steeling his watch in payment.

Joe’s a sucker and meets a guy unlikely to give him an even break in a dive bar. Enrico Salvatore "Ratso" Rizzo takes his money and sends him off to a guy who can act as his “manager”, in reality, a religious maniac who tries to “convert” him back to the true path. There’s no one to trust in a city that eats cowboy hustlers for brunch.

The lessons keep on building up for Joe and after he re-encounters Ratso, recriminations are overlooked as they concentrate on the act of survival, squatting in a dingy condemned building and relying on day to day luck.

The soup of human kindness
It has been said that British Director, John Schlesinger, brought kitchen-sink ethos to this very American poverty trap but I’m sure this scene was and is played out in cities across the world. It’s also been said that if this film wasn’t the first gay buddy film then it helped clear the path for those to follow: I’m not sure that’s true for, whilst the relationship that develops between the two men is highly emotional,  sexuality doesn’t even come into it, this is about mutual respect, love and survival in a world gone very wrong.

It’s a stunning tale and one that leaves you reeling after seeing this sparkling 50th anniversary restoration on screen… Midnight Cowboy is re-released by BFI on 13th September and will be available across the UK until November. Full details are on their website here.

Harrowing but also hopeful, it’s a grown-up film that has grown up some more over the last few years… a classic you simply cannot walk by and ignore. Not now or anymore.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

A Betty Balfour primer… Love, Life and Laughter (1923), LFF 2019 Archive Gala, 3rd October

The 63rd BFI London Film Festival is just over a month away and the BFI has delighted many with the announcement of this precious slice of Britain’s Queen of happiness in her prime. Love, Life and Laughter (1923) was long believed lost and was on the BFI 75 Most Wanted list until, following the discovery of materials at the Eye Filmmuseum, the BFI National Archive was able to restore the majority of the film.

Love, Life and Laughter will be screened as the festival’s Archive Gala on 3rd October with live accompaniment from Australia’s Princess of the Piano, Meg Morley and it promises to be a treat with an extended introduction by the BFI National Archive’s Silent Curator Bryony Dixon and the BFI’s Film Conservation Manager Kieron Webb.

Written and directed by George Pearson film has Betty as a working-class chorus girl who dreams of being a writer and it sounds like Pearson lives up to his contemporary reputation as a Dickens of Film able to maximise the drama and the comedy; the love and laughter…

BFI Head Curator Robin Baker said “All discoveries of lost British films are exciting, but this is among the best. Despite its incompleteness, what survives is full of cinematic richness and a predictably dynamic performance from the UK’s biggest star of the 1920s, Betty Balfour.”

It promises to be one of the silent screenings of the year and to whet your appetite, here’s a random selection of some of Betty’s best bits; a sampling of the films that made her the Queen of Happiness.

Pensive in Champagne (1928)
Ballroom Balfour: Champagne (GB, 1928)

Champagne was not one of Hitchcock’s personal favourites and is a-typical in terms of its light-hearted storyline. It still has his visual flair with a number of striking sequences, but there’s little drama or threat… but any film staring Betty Balfour is going to be a giggle. Often compared with Mary Pickford, she is certainly an energetic performer with her mobile features enabling her to switch expression with unpredictable swiftness and Hitchcock often lingers on her face as she moves the story along with a laugh that emphatically becomes a frown and vice versa...

Betty plays a spoiled little rich girl who begins the story by flying out to rendezvous with her boyfriend (Jean Bardin) on a cruise ship. She’s been forbidden by her Wall Street banker father (a frowning Gordon Harker) from marrying the boy, but she’s not to be thwarted… even as she is also spotted by a predatory man (Ferdinand von Alten) who begins to pursue her – interrupting her attempts to make love to her beau. The comedy, dance and drama works its way to Paris and the inevitable Hitchcock nightclub dive, fall and redemption.

Champagne is a slight and oddly constructed comedy with a wonderfully quirky performance from Betty Balfour… part innocent, part irritant… she is unstoppable, emerging from each crisis with a beaming smile. A very British hero; she may be a brat but she’s not malicious and is ultimately humble and a quick learner!

Betty and Willy Fritsch
Borderless-Balfour: A Sister of Six (Sweden-Germany 1927)

"Charming scenes – Gorgeous gowns – Splendid Acting. Betty Balfour’s greatest picture.”

This exceptionally energetic Swedish-German co-production that showcased an impressive array of European talent showing that Betty’s appeal had complete freedom of movement.

Nominally directed by Ragnar Cavallius, cinematographer Carl Hoffman (Faust and Varieté) really took the lead and this much is clear from his hand-held pursuit of a cheeky monkey to an array of shadowy dollies and pull-aways. He captures the outstanding energy not just from our Betty but her handsome co-star Willy Fritsch who plays a Count Horkay tricked by his cousin into a trip to meet the seven daughters of Mrs. Gyurkovics (Lydia Potechina), the eldest of which is he is lined up to marry but – gasp! – he’s already wed.

The plot is so complicated and cunning you could twist a tail around it and call it foxy but it doesn’t matter because at any given moment you’re only a cute Balfour twinkle or a mad Aunt’s leer away from a smile. The aunts in question are brilliantly created by Karin Swanström as Countess Emilie Hohenstein and Stina Berg as Countess Aurore Hohenstein – two women so concerned at the romantic behaviour of their niece, that they have prepared a padded room for her.

Padded room, dark mansion-imprisonment, cross-dressed Count come to the rescue? All you need to do is make sure that Betty is at the heart of all that and you’re there! A Sister of Six is simply one of the most joyous silent films - the publicity quote above is no exaggeration.

Princess Happiness: Vagabond Queen (GB, 1929)

Here Chester-Le-Street’s finest plays Sally a humble maid in a London boarding house who temporarily becomes the Princess of Balonia – a woman she resembles to the last freckle – in order to act as a decoy on coronation day as rebels in the fake Balkan state, use knives, bombs and bullets to try and assassinate their future monarch.

It is an aptly named country and there’s a certain Marx Brothers zaniness to Douglas Furber’s script: “My friends and Balonians!”, directed with brisk efficiency by Géza von Bolváry. The film was essentially a silent but had a recorded soundtrack added post-production to turn it into a “talkie” of sorts. The score was from John Reynders – a renowned musical compiler – and sticks like glue to the narrative with sound effects galore as it follows the action like a shadow.

Betty is super-charged charm throughout and is aided by Ernest Thesiger as Lidoff, the Balonian diplomat and young Glen Byam Shaw as her boyfriend Jimmie. The real Princess’s actual husband, Prince Adolphe, as played by the decidedly louche Charles Dormer, is in a drunken confusion wondering how his poor Zonia has lost her loving feeling.

Arthouse Betty: Le diable au coeur (France, 1928)

Here Betty is infected with the most spiteful of quick tempers and shows how her impulsive chaotic charm could be turned to destruct mode. This film is a world away from the light comedies I’ve mostly seen Balfour in but she plays well and dominates with eye-catching intensity. I wouldn’t go as far to say I don’t get what L'Herbier saw in Jaque Catelain but he’s limited in comparison to the Balfour emotive engineering. He’s so much a product of his director’s odd worlds that I can’t imagine him in a British film whereas Betty is positively protean with a cross-border and cross-genre appeal rivalled by very few.

Betty plays Ludivine Bucaille, “une fille étrange…” who is indeed a little beyond the usual as she drives her father Maurice (Auguste Picaude) to drink and her mother (Catherine Fonteney) to distraction. There are some convincing scenes of childish mayhem as Ludvine energetically marshals the local lads of misrule in endless japes, hiding from the police, trespassing and pretending to be handicapped.

Ludivine has still to understand the power she has over her surroundings and when she launches a cruel attack on the house of the Leherg family for no good reason other than their piousness, she causes more upset than she bargained for. Balfour’s ability to switch from comic childishness to darkly dramatic emotions is rare and she imbues even the most slapstick of moments with an edge; a twinkle in the eye that conveys joy and devilment. Her character is conflicted, fighting a battle between denial and desire that can only end with her growing up.

Betty in painted postered pursuit of Paradise
Beach Balfour: Paradise (GB 1928)

This film progressively gets darker after an opening which sees our girl – as Kitty Cranston -  struggling to complete a crossword on a crowded tube – as I type I’m on the  Northern Line – there are shades of Underground and it’s nice to see that commuter-mood hasn’t really changed. Now keep that crossword in mind as it’s going to be important. Kitty’s one word away, eight letters… a place of enduring happiness? “Public ‘ouse?” miscounts a lady crammed to the left of her, “Sarf ‘end” suggests a boy to the right… it’s only when she goes to meet her boyfriend, handsome Doctor John Halliday (Joseph Striker) in his crowded waiting room that his ironic comment about the state of things makes the penny drop: “Paradise!”

The Doc wants to settle down but Kitty is fed up of the trains and the rain and the grey and the rain and the trains… she wants the sunshine where people can “live”! She gets her chance when her crossword wins her £500 and whilst her father Reverend Cranston (Winter Hall) says it should be used to help the needy Kitty decides that self-actualization is more important and heads off on a lone mission to The Riviera.

Cue bleached images of Monte Carlo as Kitty ignores the warnings of the Doctor and the Reverend and starts to enjoy herself in five star luxury. But it’s not long before she attracts the attention of the local gigolo, Spirdoff (Alexander D'Arcy) who opts to stop dancing with older woman for money in favour of this much younger model and her money… There’s going to be a moral in this tale and we always, always root for Betty!

Tickets for the London Film Festival Archive Gala screening of Love, Life and Laughter are on sale now for BFI members and on general sale from 10:00am, 12th September - full details on the website here.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Boxing match… Early Women Film Makers, BFI Blu-ray release

‘There is nothing connected with staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.’ Alice Guy Blaché

Like London buses, you wait years for a box set of early women film pioneers and then four of them arrive almost all at once. This BFI set is the latest and for those wondering which to buy I’m here to make the case for this over Flicker Alley, Lobster and even Kino Lorber, although in the latter case you really should buy both with the caveat that the Blu-ray version, which has the most content, is Region A and you'll need a compatible player.

Making an American Citizen (1912), unique to the BFI set
The Kino set is six Blu-ray discs and, of course, has a greater range of material than the others but it dovetails pretty well with the BFI set and together they give you 8-9 discs of unique, must have, material from an era that is only now being fully rediscovered. Even in the span of my relatively recent interest in early film, the directors in this set have been re-evaluated with pioneers like Guy Blaché and hugely popular filmmakers like Lois Webber been restored to their rightful position. There are some great films on these sets and they help to broaden our appreciation of the new media as one not just dominated by Méliès, Griffith, de Mille et al.

Kino goes long on Alice Guy Blaché with 14 films from 1911 to 1913 of which the BFI replicates five and adds two, Making an American Citizen (1912) and The Girl in the Armchair (1912). Only Flicker Alley covers her earlier work with Les Chiens Savants (1902), Une Histoire roulante (1906) and La Barricade (1907).

Guy Blaché's utterly lovely Falling Leaves (1912)
Guy Blaché pretty much invented narrative film making as Pamela Hutchinson explains in her essay in the excellent BFI booklet which also allows the contributors to comment on each film. There are two films not covered on Kino, Making an American Citizen (1912) and The Girl in the Armchair (1912) with the former taking the director’s experience of immigration and turning it into a proto-feminist fable. As PH notes, equality in marriage is a condition of acceptance in the new country, and the heroine, played by Blanche Cornwall, sees her husband Ivan abandon his domineering Euro-bullying to fit in with the New World after various American men step in to force him to adjust his behaviour.

It’s not just the fact of these films but their themes; there is a different sensibility at work and a willingness to tackle subjects from within rather from on high (and yes, DW, I’m looking at you).

Claire Windsor and Louis Calhern in The Blot (1921)
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the films of Lois Webber whose work often contains a depth and intimacy that others lack. The BFI set includes The Blot (1921) which is not only one of her best but also one of the most impressive character-based dramas from the period, its tale of bourgeois poverty trap, neighbourly jealousy and conflicted love delivered by superb performances especially from Webber discovery Claire Windsor as the librarian at the centre of a love triangle between an educated but poor theology student and a wealthy Phil West played by Louis Calhern (who I’ve just seen in the BFI’s smashing restoration of Notorious (1946)). Her mother is also well played by Margaret McWade who hangs on in quiet desperation as the family suffers daily humiliation from their immigrant neighbours who make a healthy living through trade. There’s no right or wrong to either side and Webber’s take is sophisticated to stand the test of time better than Griffith’s Victorian morality tales.

Triangulated tension - Lois top right in Suspense (1913)
Webber tackles social issues with an even-handedness that eludes many and Discontent (1916) about an old man who is happier in his old soldiers’ home than with his well-intentioned relations, is another example. Her technical skill and innovation are also evidenced by a crisp restoration of the superb Suspense (1913) famous for its three-way split screen and overhead point-of-view shots: it’s a genuinely pioneering and tense story of home invasion on a par with anything coming out of Biograph.

Kino has 13 Lois Webber films including noteworthy features such as Too Wise Wives (1921), Hypocrites (1915) and Where Are My Children? (1916) yet, apart from the spectacular Suspense (1913), the BFI disc alone includes Discontent (1916) and The Blot (1921). I’m beginning to suspect collusion…

Here's Mabel!
The BFI set gives you by far the most Mabel for your money with five films of which Mabel's Dramatic Career (1913, 14 mins), His Trysting Place (1914, 22 mins) and the magnificent late period riot Should Men Walk Home? (1928, 28 mins) are unique to the BFI set. Mabel’s a marvel and I especially enjoy the rawness and energy of her work with Chaplin in Trysting and Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914). Mabel directed the former and, probably, co-directed the second which sees Charlie progress from irresponsible parent to slightly chastened – and battered – husband; these two were making up so much content on the hoof and had improvisation to burn.

Mabel’s adventures are also marvellously accompanied by the Meg Morley Trio who’s tight, jazz-age playing catches the mood and movement of Mabel’s quicksilver narratives.

That's not how we rehearsed it Charlie...
None of the material on the third and fourth BFI discs is available on the Kino set and one of the main delights is a film from Olga Preobrazhenskaya, regarded as the first female Soviet filmmaker. Kat Ellinger’s essay reveals that little is known about the director and that whilst many of her films are lost, what survives reveals a concern for character over propaganda even though the film included here, The Peasant Women of Ryazan (1927) could be seen as an attack on the Kulaks (rich peasants) who were viewed as in the way of industrialisation/modernisation by  Stalin’s regime.

The Kulak in question is Vasilii Shironin (Kuzma Yastrebitsky) who allows his son, Ivan (G Bobynin) to marry Anna (R Pruzhnaya) a poor girl from the neighbouring village, only to rape her when he is away in the First World War. Anna has her father-in-law’s baby but has to live in disgrace with the village not knowing the cause of her shame. Shironin’s daughter, Vasilisa, (Emma Tsesarskaya) is the face of the new Russian woman, forging her own destiny by deciding who she marries and setting up an orphanage.

Damned by tradition and a Kulak's greed (R Pruzhnaya)
Even as the villain of the piece, Shironin has shame and regret and there’s a lot going on in a narrative that is true to itself and not just instructions from on high. There are some superb sequences of rural life showing the vibrancy of a culture that was under threat even just over a decade after the story was set. The performances are also excellent especially from R Pruzhnaya as the long-suffering Anna and from Emma Tsesarskaya as the modern Vasilisa. Ellinger has this as a feminist film but sadly things were to get worse in the ensuing decade and beyond.

The face of the future? Emma Tsesarskaya's character makes her own decisions.
Over in France, Germaine Dulac and Marie-Louise Iribe were to be allowed considerably more creative freedom. The former is of course well known for The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), which deals so eloquently with the lot of many French women, a “key feminist text” as Jane Giles points out in her notes for a country which didn’t grant universal suffrage until 1945. Dulac’s range encompassed more regular fare such as La Cigarette (1919) in which a jealous archaeologist and older husband Pierre (Gabriel Signoret) plans on using a poisoned cigarette as revenge on his younger wife Denise (Andrée Brabant), who he suspects of wandering. It’s a stylish and good-looking romantic comedy – lovely locations along with well-designed interiors and there’s a great performance from an Egyptian mummy too…

Some fairies, yesterday
Marie-Louise Iribe has already made a stylish impression on me in Hara-Kiri (1928) which she co-directed with Henri Debain’s and in Le Roi des aulnes (1929), her only film as sole director, she proves to have an uncanny style all her own. Based on Goethe’s poem Erlkönig (1782) and Shubert’s song of 1815, it features a father battling through a forest to take his sick son to a doctor. The two confront all manner of imagined horrors in the deep woods as the Erl King magics up fairies to obstruct their purpose, as if the illness wasn’t real enough…

Last but not least is The Woman Condemned (1934), an early talkie from Dorothy Davenport also known as Mrs Wallace Reid, wife of the film actor who died from drug addiction in 1923, who was determined that his death would not be in vain and that she would fulfil her own ambitions. Ellen Cheshire’s essay details Davenport Reid’s determined creative drive after being widowed as she wrote, produced and directed films with a social conscience. She transitioned to sound films and The Woman Condemned, an entertaining but over-worked and under-budgeted crime film that features an outstanding cross-examination scene with Claudia Dell giving her all.

Under pressure: Claudia Dell
Cheshire quotes Ivan Spear in Boxoffice (13th May 1939wondering why so few women ‘attain high production or executive niches in the [film] industry and, further, why those few women who have done so have failed to stay at the top’. Davenport Reid was one of those who he said had “dropped from sight” but she continued working as a scriptwriter into the fifties and deserves to be remembered as a filmmaker in her own right and not just a widow.

The set also includes a snippet from Dorothy Arzner’s Dance Girl Dance (1940) along with Mary Ellen Bute’s experimental Parabola (1937). There are also three short featurettes on Mabel Normand, Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber: fascinating lives and there’s a lot more to come in their rehabilitation as all the essays make clear.

Smoking is bad for the health...
I’ll leave the last word to Germaine Dulac writing in ‘Ayons la Foi’ Le Film (1919):
‘The time has come, I believe, to listen in silence to our own song, to try to express our own personal vision, to define our own sensibility, to make our own way. Let us learn to look, let us learn to see, let us learn to feel.’

The BFI set is full of these “songs” and it’s essential for all who want to listen. Available now from the BFI Shop on and offline.

The Kino-Lorber set is also available direct from their site and a reminder that it is Region A so you'll need multi-region capability.  It features a mind-boggling range of filmakers including Nell Shipman, Alla Nazimova (Salome in great quality!), Ida May, Julia Crawford Ivers, Frances Marion - her feature Song of Love (1923), starring Norma Talmadge - serial queens, Grace Cunard and Helen Holmes and more (two silent features from Dorothy Davenport Reid!). There's a 40% discount at the moment and together with the BFI set, this wonderful box set opens up a whole new-old world of cinematic and social history.