Monday, 18 March 2019

Feline spooky… The Cat and the Canary (1927), Kennington Bioscope with Jeff Rapsis

This film is not so much a horror classic but a major step forward in spooky-comedy, paving the way not just for Bob Hope’s talkie remake but a whole sub-genre of scarily-funny movies. Paul Leni’s film looks great and takes many visual tropes from the German style and injects laughs into the resultant combination of eerie unease. From the opening titles, showing the title revealed by a horned hand wiping away the dust, it makes its intentions known and it really does achieve that balance between the unexpected, the unnerving and the uncannily-timed.

This being the Bioscope, we were treated to a watch of Kevin Brownlow’s own 35mm, one that resulted from his own restoration for Photoplay. We also got an introduction full of the insider jokes and insights from the man who – nearly – met the all, capturing silent stars on tape from the fifties to the eighties and preserving the oral history of the birth of film.

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

Courageous Creighton Hale
The film had long languished in poor quality but in the 1960s KB found a good print and restored it from 35mm nitrate it parodies the horror film, which hadn’t really started to dominate, although it was popular on stage, where this story began John Willard’s 1923 stage play. KB interviewed the camera man, Gilbert Warrenton, who told him that they had to dig into the floor to get the right angles. Extra lights were also needed to create the right dynamics between dark and shard.

Leni used a gong to drill his play’s movements and claimed that the shadows were as important to the film as the characters… and so it was to prove. Kevin also got to talk with the film’s striking star, Laura la Plante, was too shy to be interviewed and by that time had forgotten every detail apart from the costumes. Ultimately, he feels that The C&C is a commercial film, superbly well-made and one that is critically under-recognised, certainly it had a major influence on the Universal horrors of the thirties, especially James Whale’s Cold Dark House.

Martha Mattox feels the chills
It starts with a dark and stormy night, as it simply had to, but the director of Waxworks and collaborator with Lubitsch, May, Dupont and a host of European film-makers, knew what he was doing… The opening section shows mad old Cyrus West’s spires cross fade into milk bottles which imprison him, wheelchair bound, as viscous black cats encircle this crippled canary: his greedy relatives waiting to get their share of his fortune all, as set out in his will, to be unveiled twenty years after his death.

The action moves to the interior of the West mansion and Leni treats us to the works, wonderfully lit settings with Gilbert Warrenton’s camera swooping round corners with alarming grace then careering down blustery corridors as drapes and curtains fly wildly in the wind. This is a place full of dark surprise, bad humour and menace.

There’s a knock on the old door and West’s faithfully grim retainer, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) – not very motherly or, indeed, pleasant – opens the door which is almost held back by sheer weight of cobwebs. Enter Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) West’s lawyer, here on the dot, two decades after his death to reveal the contents of the will. Opening the safe he finds a moth and knows someone has forewarned themselves of the contents… but no one else has been in the house only Mammy and her un-living companion who stares down with intent from his portrait.

Laura La Plante
The guests, all soon to be suspects, all save the murdered… arrive and Leni gives us portraits of people with something to hide; eyes darting, greed nervously bubbling just under the surface and desperation enough to make anyone of them suspicious. There’s Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who’s already dark eyes take on additional edginess and who almost snarls as his estranged cousin Charles "Charlie" Wilder (Forrest Stanley) arrives. Charles has more regular features but nervousness around the eyes and a mouth that suggests weakness and desperation.

Their more senior cousin Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) arrives with her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) both clinging on to the hope that there will be a windfall to compensate for the many obvious disappointments that have etched themselves on their faces: Susan old with bitterness and Cecily just on the cusp as youth fades. Cue the comedy. Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) arrives in a miss-firing motor car, breaking to avoid crossing the path of a black cat and then running into the house convinced his engine’s back-fire was an assassin’s bullet. He’s no Bob Hope but he’s funny alright.

The entourage is completed by the arrival of Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) – youngest of the group and seemingly as sane as sixpence. La Plante takes top billing on the film and had some of the sharpest haircuts in all of silent film.

Gertrude Astor and Flora Finch are shocked!
Anna is revealed as the sole beneficiary and becomes the Canary and the trick is to work out who the Cat(s) might be with pretty much everyone looking as guilty as can be… personally I was hoping it might be Creighton Hale. The mysterious deaths begin to happen, sliding panels start to reveal clawed hands and an escaped lunatic is revealed to be on the loose. What’s more, Annabelle must be proven sane in order to qualify for her prize or else her inheritance will go to another.

Who’ll it be? And will anyone from this strange family emerge as the unlikely hero to protect the true heir? There’s the usual miss-direction and emotional disturbance of the humour but it’s still a fun watch: golden rule of all whodunits… make ‘em all look guilty and then gradually provide them with alibis/good character.
Jeff Rapsis brought a confident narrative-driven dynamism to his accompaniment, different from UK players or just a man with his own style? The top players go world-wide and so this is music without boundaries and here he was perhaps more influenced by the film’s origins as much as he was last year when playing for Salt for Svanetia (1930).

He gave it his all and came good on his stated aim of recreating the tone and collective response to this wonderfully funny and slightly scary film!

Michelle Facey and Meg Morley - two cool cats!
There were further feline treats in the first half tonight with lots of Felix the Cat films celebrating the mad-cat adventurer’s centenary. We saw Felix in Hollywood – even Mr Brownlow couldn’t spot all the characters… and snatched of a documentary on the cat’s cool creator.

Meg Morley accompanied and then played accompaniment to the popular hit, Felix Keeps on Walking, for the Bioscope’s resident chanteuse, Michelle Facey, to sing. Michelle sells these songs so well and I think we have the beginnings of a regular spot here… Pamela Hutchinson famously described the Bioscope as London’s Silent Speakeasy and will molls like Michelle and Meg, we only need some feathers and more-illicit hooch and we’re there!! It brings the music to life, a human voice singing clearly in the new, old-fashioned way.


Felix learns the Black Bottom from Ann Pennington
Our guides through the life of Felix, Glenn Mitchell and Dave Wyatt

Friday, 15 March 2019

The Joker and Cat Woman… The Man Who Laughs (1927), Meg Morley Trio, 1901 Arts Club

On the day I pre-ordered the new Flicker Alley dual format release of the new 4k restoration of this film and The Final Warning, Paul Leni’s last two films, I went to see this screening in one of the capital’s most elegant venues. This highly-influential take on Victor Hugo’s featured accompaniment from the magnificent Meg Morley trio who provided richly-textured improvisations that brought out the best in this odd and very amusing film. Meg is classically-trained and a gifted jazz player and it’s fascinating to watch her silent sensibilities filtered through this genre and in also group setting.

Meg leads the group with striking confidence, especially as they were playing “sight unseen” – no preview, no rehearsal - this was an unfolding surprise for both them and us and it was full of warm, delightful chords as well as dynamic progressions. Meg also took a cushioned mallet – it could have been a duster - to the Club’s Steinway strings, before resuming the emphatic motifs with swing and silent swagger. But somebody stop me before I make like Jack Kerouac; I dug it OK?

The 1901 Arts Club is a compact long rectangle and the compact acoustics perfectly projected Meg’s piano, Richard Sadler’s bass and Emiliano Caroselli’s drums. The story is set in seventeenth century England but the music works absolutely by dipping into the jazz sensibilities of the late twenties as well as more modern textures. Most importantly and, as you’d expect from a Kennington Bioscope Alumnus, Meg allows the narrative to breath and the actors to shine, or, in the case of Olga Baklanova, positively burn… and, in the case of Herr Veidt, dazzle.

Olga smokes...
Original reviewers noted the Russian actresses astonishing Albedo but it’s hard not to give credit to the laughing man himself, Conrad Veidt who is acting with a huge prosthetic grin and still managing to convey more emotions with his eyes than most with a full face. The film was adapted from Victor Hugo’s durned weird novel in which a fallen aristocrat is disfigured as a child and somehow manages to rise once again despite his permanent grin. It’s said, that the film inspired Batman’s nemesis The Joker in which case Olga B might well have lain the ground work for Catwoman or, as she was originally known, The Cat… she’s certainly the, ahem, cat’s whiskers.

Having watched Leni’s Cat and the Canary the night before, it was interesting to see the director’s work and quite a few of the same performers – he was clearly hitting a great groove which makes his untimely death in 1929 all the more regretful. But whilst that Cat is a spooky mystery this one is an outright creepy comedy and it says much for contemporary sensibilities that audiences were attracted to its dark disturb.

Lokking through Conrad Veidt's eyes
Veidt plays Gwynplaine a man scarred for life from childhood by a group of travellers led by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann) who specialised in cosmetic disfigurement in order to create oddities suitable for circus performers. In this case, Charles II, and successor James II (Samuel de Grasse) has ordered the mutilation as revenge on the boy’s father who has displeased him. The father, Lord Clancharlie (Connie dashing not laughing) is mercilessly squished in the Iron Lady and the boy’s face will forever be locked in an horrific grin… laughing at his father’s betrayal.

It’s a brutal beginning but the film soon begins to work its uncanny rhythms and hope emerges as the boy rescues a blind baby from the bitter cold and finds sanctuary with an itinerant circus performer called Ursus (Cesare Gravina) who lives in a caravan with his pet wolf  Homo (Zimbo the Dog) …

Not the Meg Morley Trio
All grown up now and  Gwynplaine’s face has made him the most popular clown in town – people just can’t help but laugh when they see his hysterical smile but, in spite of the gadgetry and painful false teeth he wore, Veidt’s eyes give so much more away: pain but also something more, his love for blonde, beautiful and blind Dea (Mary Philbin, the Sheila Eaton to Olga’s Madonna, the Taylor to her Gaga etc…) who loves him back. But she has never seen his disfigurement nor felt his smile… Gwynplaine cannot believe that she would still love him if she knew what he really looked like.

But, as in all such tales, Gwyn’s past is still in front of him… Lord Clancharlie’s land and property was given to the family who betrayed him and so Laughing Boy has an inheritance and a peerage he knows nothing about.  The beneficiary is one Duchess Josiana (Olga B) who leads a life of carefree debauchery and expressive bathing as a servant’s key-hole view of her boudoir reveals.

The troupe travel to entertain the court of Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) and, as their weird play proceeds, the crowd breaks into hysterics and yet daring Duchess Josiana cannot decide whether to laugh or lust; there’s something more deeply intriguing about Gwynplaine’s unrelenting grin.
She orders him to be brought to her chambers sending him a note from “the woman who did not laugh” neglecting to mention the reason why, although he soon finds out. Gwynplaine is impressed if only for the reason that if the Duchess can fancy him, then Dea may also… so he must let down her lustful ladyship.

Meanwhile the Queen’s aid, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), has found out that Gwynplaine is the rightful owner of the Duchess’ land and for her to retain her title, she will need to marry him. The Queen orders his capture and immediate ennoblement.

Can Gwynplaine escape from his new-found position, refuse his Queen’s instruction and go in search of Dea all the while turning down the desirous Duchess? Knowing Victor Hugo, you’d have to say not but this is Hollywood and the unexpected is always possible if not probable.

Mary Philbin with Zimbo The Dog
It’s a splendid romp with Leni making light of the convoluted plot and playing for drama and laughs in equal measure. The cast are exemplary even though poor Mary Philbin often gets overlooked in favour of the dynamic duo: The Joker and The Cat.

You can now pre-order the new 4k restoration from Flicker Alley and the film comes in dual format with a new score form Sonia Coronado, along with the original Movietone and stack of extras including an essay from our own Kevin Brownlow and a visual essay by John Soister on Leni's work at Universal during this period. There's a trailer here - it looks dynamic and so clear.

For further Southbank Silents screenings follow them on the Twitter @SouthbankSilent  and the 1901 Arts Club on the web-thingy.

There's that Steinway, just waiting to be played...

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

The large back room… Stranger in the House (1967), BFI Flipside, Dual Format

Made around about the same time as The London Nobody Knows, a quirky documentary narrated by James Mason and exploring the capital’s oddest outposts, Stranger in the House features the Winchester and, indeed, Southampton that nobody knew… This is one of those oddly-balanced films that must have been so “even” at the time with one of our biggest movie stars playing Old Guard to a gaggle of RADA graduates who, it has to be said, do “wacky things”.

Led by Geraldine Chaplin and a baby-faced Ian Ogilvy, this funky group hang out in discotheques, smoke weed, stand up frequently in fast cars and boats and trespass on cargo ships. It’s all a far cry from the disciplined up-bringing of Angela Sawyer (Chaplin), whose father’s only vice is a 15-year long addiction to alcohol and isolating himself from fatherly affection since his wife ran off with another man… one who was far less serious about a legal career.

Geraldine Chaplin and Paul Bertoya,
John Sawyer (James Mason) is a man who is drunk “today, yesterday and tomorrow”, someone who cannot see a way forward beyond his past and whose magnificent Georgian house in Winchester is crumbling around in sympathy with his lost ambition, self-loathing and unkindness. In comparison, daughter Angela’s rooms are ablaze with pop-art colour, Peter Blake to her Dad’s Francis Bacon, with appropriated signs of youthful revolt; a traffic sign, advertising hoardings and so, much, pink!

John is beyond bitter and is simply disinterested yet Mason carries all of this off and still makes us care, injecting his character’s path to redemption with enough stubbornness that it is entirely believable. This is not an easy man and his investigations are as much into his own conscience as the causes of a murder, an approach very much in the style of the story’s original writer Georges Simenon, creator of Maigret and writer of over 500 (yes) reasonably-concise novels. Simenon liked to focus on his main characters and their mental processes faced with the horrifically-criminal and here Mason’s barrister reveals a surprising humanity when he eventually nails the killer; a moment when our sympathies are not as cut and dried as they might be.

James Mason aginises about lost love.
Directed and written by Pierre Rouve, who worked mostly as a producer as on Blow Up and others, the film is uneven, Mason aside, but whether by design or timidity, Rouve let his star make the running. The other players are more problematic chiefly because, Blow Up and some others aside, it’s quite difficult to capture The Spirit of ’67 without highlighting how British hippies were more formerly whimsical than say those in West-Coast America where, after all, they had a war to protest.

Sarah and her chums are not helped by being a bit posh… they’re all from nice homes and drive around in sports cars with matching fab gear in Winchester – hardly Haight Asbury – going down to Southampton to smoke joints in darkened clubs to the sounds of The Animals. No sign of Fonda or Hopper here although there’s a guy wearing an “I Hate You All” t-shirt who sells the drugs which are consumed by Angela and her working-class Greek boyfriend Jo Christoforides (Paul Bertoya), Peter Hawkins (Bryan Stanyon) and Sue Phillips (Pippa Steel) but not Desmond Flower (Ogilvy) who turns out to be rather more uptight than the rest.

What d'you mean I look like my dad?!
Peter is the son and heir of Harry Hawkins (the magnificent James Hayter) and his retail business whilst Desmond is the son of Colonel Flower (Clive Morton) and his wife (Moira Lister) who just happens to be John Sawyer’s sister.

One day the famous five are playing in Southampton harbour and they sneak onto a cargo ship where they find an American Barney Teale (Bobby Darin, literally, somewhere, beyond the sea…) who is anxious to take his leave and doesn’t mind blackmailing these rich saps into providing him accommodation at an abandoned Theatre owned by Peter’s dad. Darin provides great energy with an acting style out of step with the Brits – more method and manically-mannered but reasonably effective in a “am I watching the same film?!” kind of way. The film was an MGM production and this injection of American style creates an uneasy tension with the more cerebral intensity of Mason – A Small Back Room meets Rebel Without a Cause?

Kids yesterday... 
Any road up, Barney has soon wheedled his way into staying in the loft of the Sawyer’s cavernous Georgian pile and the tension mounts leading to murder. Who dunnit and will John Sawyer be able to sober enough in time to save himself and his daughter’s relationship, not to mention her lover’s life? Apart from anything else, Jo Christoforides is a foreigner and the subject of the same unreasoned prejudice as you find in every civilized country from time to time. His mother is played by the great Megs Jenkins, who epitomised nuanced maternity for decades. She’s joined by Ivor Dean who is employed with equal surprise as the world-weary Inspector Colder – he might just have well walked straight off the set for The Saint and his role of Inspector Teal.

There’s also a tough-but-sweet-hearted cameo from “Aunty” Yootha Joyce in the fairground shooting rang where the boys steal a gun which is eventually used as the murder weapon…

Bobby Darin gives it some "more"
In the end we care less about who committed the crime than the healing powers of investigation which put familial squabbles in sharp relief; which may well be part of the appeal of this genre in the first place.

Stranger in the House is the 37th release in the BFI Flipside strand, comes in dual format - Blu-ray and DVD along with a stack of archival extras include photographer David Bailey’s 1966 film G.G. Passion (with Chrissie Shrimpton and Caroline Munro…), a psychedelic 1968 advert for coffee, an interview with James Mason, a new commentary and an illustrated booklet. There’s also a couple of odd shorts: Tram Journey Through Southampton (c1900) and Charlie Chaplin Sails From Southampton (1921), of interest to his daughter and us silent film fans.

Bored teenagers
Further details are on the BFI shop site – I personally like so many of the series, being, in most cases, far too young to have seen them in the first place and, in general, they always convey so much of the talent as well as the themes and sense of place long gone; in this case, the Winchester no body knows...

On the way to the Winchester nobody knows...
Winchester fashions

Guilty feet... Mr Mason's shoes pick up the scenery paint
"Excuse me, but do you have a copy of the Law Society Gazette?"
Moira Lister lounges as Ian Ogilvy loiters
(Here it comes...) ...somewhere, across the sea...
The retail empire strikes back
Aunty Yootha
"No, I ain't seen a copy of the Gazette either..."
Odd man out.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Indian summer... Heat and Dust (1983), BFI re-release – now showing!

I must admit that I was prevented by student “cool” from catching this first time round and the snobbery of the middle-brow persisted with The Guardian’s Sam Jordison once describing Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s source novel as like the Coldplay of literature; “far too dull to loathe”. Well, to 19-year old Paul and Sam, I have to say you’re both missing the point. This Merchant Ivory film, with a screenplay from the author herself, is far more impressive and gently hard-hitting than I expected.

Coming after Ghandi (1982) – which I did watch as “revision” for my Further Paper on Indian Independence – and before the hits of The Jewel in the Crown (1984), The Far Pavilions (1984) and A Passage to India (1984), Heat and Dust underperformed…  but I hope that now’s the time to put that right. This carefully-crafted film has probably never looked better following a stunning 4k digital restoration and has been critically much better regarded as the years have past with Sight and Sound describing it as one of Merchant Ivory’s best films.

Greta Scacchi and Nickolas Grace
The cast is stunningly good especially the two female leads, Julie Christie and Greta Scacchi, here in her breakthrough role and a player with so much screen presence some scenes might as well be a monologue. The two women play related roles across time, with Scacchi in the 1920s as Olivia Rivers wife of a British officer who mysteriously disappears only to be followed up 60 years later by her great niece,

But they’re not alone, Nickolas Grace, who was present at the screening I saw, is superb as Harry Hamilton-Paul, an ex-pat pretty much in exile, addicted to the freedoms of India, and far away from the restrictions of blighty. He gives a febrile performance as someone who talks home in the full knowledge that this is no longer London.

The Julie...
Produced by Ismail Merchant and directed by James Ivory this is not a love letter to the colonial period but to the people of the time, who whatever their origins contributed to change, no matter how slight. It looks stunning and Walter Lassally’s cinematography can rarely have been better served since the film’s initial release.

Half of the film is set in the present with Anne (Christie) investigating the past of her Great Aunt Olivia (Scacchi) who mysteriously dropped off the family radar in the twenties. The two women’s stories are deftly run in parallel in order to show their paths towards a greater understanding of themselves and each other. Both follow their hearts and whereas in Olivia’s case this meant “disgrace” for Anne it points her towards freedom. There’s a single moment when both are in the same frame, as Anne gazes in to the bungalow in which her Aunt lived and she is shown in reflection with her lover, the Nawab of Khatm (Shashi Kapoor).

It's hot and there's a fair amount of particles in the air
None of this is isolated from the politics and enduring issues of the sub-continent, no film about the British in India could be and the Nawab is suspected of being involved with banditry and, naturally, anti-colonial activity. He couldn’t be further from Olivia’s husband Douglas Rivers (Christopher Cazenove), a civil servant in the colonial administration in Satipur. The young couple are very much in love but Douglas has a view on the role his partner should play that becomes sadly at odds with her own desires. Olivia wants to immerse herself in their new environment and she most certainly does not want to be sent away with the other wives during the most heat of peak summer.

She is alienated by the expats and increasingly seeks the company of the Nawab, aided by Harry… meanwhile, two generations down the line Anne becomes more and more immersed in her cultural environment, staying with the family of civil servant Inder Lal (Zakir Hussain), in the area her Great Aunt once lived. She becomes drawn to Inder as he guides her through the city and her rediscovery of her aunt. She also meets Chid (Charles McCaughan), an American convert to Hindu mysticism… he’s an earnest phony of course but illustrates the gap still existing between the first and third worlds… Anne is making a deeper connection and will, as her aunt before her, have a fateful decision to make…

Shashi Kapoor and Greta Scacchi
It’s a simple enough story but one to luxuriate in; a more philosophical work than, say Coldplay’s Yellow… there’s also a grand cameo from Madhur Jaffrey as the chain-smoking Begum Mussarat Jahan.

I’ll end with a quote from Roger Ebert – it’s a well-established blogger-cheat when you cannot hope to match him – he wrote that the film treated both of its love stories “… with seriousness; these are not romances, but decisions to dissent. It is fully at home in its times and places... And when it is over, we're a little surprised to find that it is angry, too. Angry that women of every class and every system, women British and Indian, Women of the 1920s and of the 1980s, are always just not quite the same caste as men".

The film has an extended run at the BFI in March and is now re-released across the UK – further details on the BFI site. Do not miss it on the big screen... you'll find yourself a little lost.