Sunday, 20 January 2019

Smile… It's the Old Army Game (1926), Bristol Old Vic with Sally Philips, European Silent Screen Virtuosi, Slapstick Festival

Laughter may be the best medicine but there’s a lot to be said for smiling too. Bristol’s Slapstick Festival is the best of the West, an annual institution that draws huge support from Cary Grant’s hometown and comedians past and ever-present. As I sat in the Old Vic’s café with my wife and hangover, nursing a recuperative coffee more in hope than expectation, I spotted a table-full of Goodies, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden who lifted my spirits higher than caffeine ever could – I grew up smiling with them and also laughing with Tim, John Junkin and Lord Barry Cryer on Hello Cheeky (not forgetting Denis King on the old Joanna… I never caught her surname).

I’ve also never quite recovered from Sally Philips’ smile as her character repeatedly failed to keep a straight face confronted with Alan Partridge’s wrong-headedness. She was here to introduce perhaps cinema history’s most sublime smiler in one of her earliest films: it’s not the shadow of Louise Brooks’ smile but the sheer brilliance that warms the heart. As Sally said, Brooks almost breaks the fourth wall with her charisma and we’re also spellbound by her dancer’s grace and her pure, unconscious expression. That smile can be used for good and ill and Sally showed us a clip from Pandora’s Box in which Lulu once more seduces her man only to smile in wicked triumph as his fiancée opens the door to see them… she can smile and be a villain too but, it's a smile that still draws the viewer in. 

This was the first time I’d seen It's the Old Army Game (1926) on the big screen and in the quality it deserves. It was Brooks’ fourth film and only her second as the female lead and she had initially turned it down possibly because Clara Bow – who was committed to making Mantrap – refused it first: although that sounds a little mythical to me. She changed her mind possibly because of her friendship with WC Fields, with whom she had worked at the Follies. It would turn out to be a fateful decision as she would end up marrying the director Edward Sutherland within two months of the wrap.

Today's accompaniment was provided by European Silent Screen Virtuosi led by peerless pianist Günter A. Buchwald, Slapstick’s musical director and now in his 13th year at the festival. He led Romano Todesco (double bass and on the beat throughout), Marc Roos (excelling on trombone) and Frank Bockius (percussion) in an improvised score that fitted the film like a glove. In the Vic’s stalls I had a great view of the players and, especially Frank’s drumming be it on wood, tympani, or, indeed, drums. He imitated fire engines, telephone, door bells but all in a musical way and blended with the overall lines of the collective which worked thematically around the characters and situations to produce and early contender for small ensemble accompaniment of the year – I shall remind you when Silent London’s poll comes around.

The film itself was a light and frothy as one of Elmer Prettywillie’s cream sodas and is, as Günter observed post-match, almost two films; a romance between Brooks’ shop girl Marilyn and a charming chancer, George Parker (William Gaxton) and the slapstick comedy with Field as the misanthropic Prettywillie who never gives a sucker an even break, looking after number one first and often failing. Fields was 47 at the time (Brooks just 19) and the film was his chance to cross-over from the theatre to cinema following in the footsteps of other, younger, men such as Chaplin and Keaton. He regarded it as a risk which is hard to credit given his later success. An inventive and skilled performer he throws in what must have been a fair chunk of his regular act throughout a largely formless narrative involving battles with small children, family and customers.

The film starts with a daring real-time stunt as a woman (excellently played by an uncredited Elise Cavanna) drives like a maniac, narrowly missing a train just to buy a stamp: my wife gasped at the stunt and it is indeed remarkable. She wakes up Elmer in order to make her purchase and the proceeds to set off the fire alarm in trying to post her letter. The fire brigade arrives at the store to find no fire but plenty of soda and the startlingly pretty sight of Marilyn. Naturally a fire is started after they have left and Elmer spends a delirious few minutes attempting to wade through his dislocated response to the danger.

Elmer tries in vain to get some sleep but is constantly disturbed by his nephew, the knife grinder and the ice man, who cometh most inconveniently. Fields nephew is meant to look younger but is played by 11-year-old Mickey Bennett who had to work hard on some brutal stunts with Fields – he’s kicked, pulled and generally thrown around. A smaller child wouldn’t have gone the distance, but Fields’ antipathy towards children required extreme visual expression and Bennett goes with the blows like a real trouper!

Mickey’s mother, played by Mary Foy, is similarly disliked by her brother… as is the Station Agent, Tessie Gilch (Blanch Ring – Sutherland’s aunt), who has a soft spot for him... there’s so much bile in Fields’ world-view and you can understand why he had taken so long to find a story in film. He’s not much of a hero and, Marilyn aside, seems to react to circumstances with short term respite his only goal… I suspect I’m growing into the man he became.

The story, such as it is, doesn’t really get going until about half way through when salesman George Parker persuades Prettywillie to join him in selling New York land to the local Floridians. Parker has already appeared stopping off to post a letter at the station to one of his girlfriends, only to fall in love at first sight of Marilyn. He follows her into town and there’s a wonderful sequence of Brooks walking away dropping her hankie or pausing to browse the magazines, all the time waiting for Parker to catch up.

When the two do eventually connect, it is genuine but even this doesn’t stop George from involving the drugstore in his scam – does he know it’s a scam? Is he himself the victim of the New York con artists? This part of the plot is difficult to fathom – you know where the story’s going but it doesn’t really bother to explain itself and maybe that’s a post-modern comment on contemporary narrative or just an oversight.

Elmer goes with the flow and starts to sell thousands of dollars’ worth of lots to the townsfolk. Things are going well and everyone goes on a picnic, with George and Marilyn going for a swim – any excuse to get the young starlet in a skimpy costume - whilst Elmer, Mickey and the “Girls” lay waste to the garden of a wealthy family. This sequence is pure WC anarchy with windows smashed and property damaged before they escape by driving through a wall. It’s daft and purely malicious, but all done with a tipsy wink of the eye; Fields’ was possibly more hard-hitting than others of this time – he genuinely didn’t seem to care and there's a distinct edge to all the mayhem.

Of course the land scam comes back to bite them and things escalate out of control as Prettywillie goes to New York to confront the baddies and set fire to what's left of his car. Parker gets arrested and things look bad until something unexplained happens… You have to laugh. You can't help but smile.

It's the Old Army Game is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber and is now in pretty good quality, but it’s never been as funny for me as it was today when a combination of venue, audience, music and motion left us grinning like fools.

Bristol, as ever, it’s a pleasure!

The Slapstick Festival continues for one more day – details here – and then with the gala performance of Modern Times at the Hippodrome on 10th February: tickets available from the website.

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