Sunday, 7 April 2019

Murder on the dancefloor... Palais de Danse (1928) with Costas Fotopoulos, BFI


“We are a nation that suffers from… mock modesty and it applies to British film… there is no reason why our films should not rank higher… Are we downhearted, emphatically no!”

Speaking thus in 1929, Maurice Elvey bemoaned the attitude of the British to our own cinema and, commenting as above, issued a rallying cry for the creative arts to stand up and be counted. Dr Lucie Dutton in her excellent introduction addressed this ongoing narrative of “mock modesty” and offered this film as yet another example of domestic cinema’s quality. Elvey himself wouldn’t have ranked Palais de Danse on a level with say his own Hindle Wakes (1927) but it’s clear to see that the former is not only highly competent but stylistically adventurous and entertainment.

Lucie quoted the above from a 1929 radio interview and an earlier interview in which Elvey also talked about wanting to make stories that touched on the common experience of the audience: “depicting human emotions in a reasonable way… (and) just the sort of happenings that must have happened to themselves.” This film, as with Hindle, helps explain why audiences at Granada cinemas voted him the most popular director in 1927.

One of my favourite sequences in Hindle Wakes is that showing the dancing in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and here Elvey filmed 1500 extras in the Tottenham Palais (built in 1910 and only demolished as recently as 2003), Percy Strong’s camera following the mass as the circle the dancefloor marshalled impeccably by the director (was anyone better with crowds than Maurice?) and his assistant, one David Lean.  It’s hypnotic and poignant, these were are grand-parents’ moves, it was how they met and how they courted.

Mabel Poulton promotes the Danse
The film is packed full of cross-fades, dolly shots, montage, and Germanic camera mobility and it draws you into the Palais and moves the narrative onwards so effectively. At one point, Lady King (Hilda Moore), enjoying a rendezvous with “Count Alban” (aka No. 1 played by the marvellously menacing John Longden, who also co-wrote the story), are followed as they stand up from their table in Eugene’s Club and move over the room to open a door revealing a roulette table. There are also plenty of “Elvey Touches” such as when the legs and feet are shown of the professional dancers/escorts as they march out from their changing rooms to face another day of being bought and danced with… or when our modern Cinderella (Mabel Poulton) is first caught up in the show, nervously reacting to the extreme close-ups of “Prince Charming”, Tony King (Robin Irvine) as he attends to her in a tableaux vivant at the start of the film.

In the same way that, say Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan are easier reads than other middlebrow heavyweights who use too much technique (yes Martin and, especially you Will…), Elvey focuses on the story and only uses that which advances the process. I’d say he is under-rated from what I’ve seen and there are a growing number who would agree with Dr Dutton in recognising his importance in the development of British cinema from the 1910s onwards.

Mabel Poulton is an actress new to me but she’s excellent in the film as the daughter of a disabled war-veteran road worker who is plucked from her father’s side opposite 415–419 High Road Tottenham, to fill the glass shoes of a missing Cinders in the aforementioned tableaux. She catches the eye of the Hall’s owner and auditions for the leading professional dancer, Number One (Longden) who is extremely impressed after a false start in which she dances ballet.


She is allocated the number 16 and is soon foxtrotting her feet off on the daily drag round the dancefloor. The other dancers are well observed especially Number 2, played by a perpetual motion gum-chewing Chili Bouchier, as the world-weary girl with the curls who comes out with such lines as “c’mon you flat-footed son of a saxophone!” – I think we’ve found the English Marie Prevost!

It’s a culture shock for our innocent Cinders and there’s another great sequence in which she backs away, mesmerised and horrified at the mass of human interaction, shadows falling in constant motion one her face and the walls. She retreats staring at the action and finally sneaks out of the door, pausing only for one last look.

Her Prince Charming returns and gradually No 16 falls in love with Tony King but it’s not a relationship approved of by his mother nor his father, Sir William King (Jerrold Robertshaw) a judge “of few words but long sentences”. Tony pleads with her ladyship – “this is 1928, times have changed…” but not by that much and the class divide stands firm even as Lady King finds out who her Count really is.

As Number 1 starts blackmailing his Lady, Cinders overhears and tries to help… things are about to get a lot more complicated; there’ll be more dancing and a heck of a fight before the day is done in a thrilling, if completely predictable, ending.

The curved entrance to the Palais de Dance on Tottenham HIgh Road
Costas Fotopoulos accompanied with sure-footed flourishes that captured the mood and the period; rhapsodic elements mixed with jazz-age poignance. Just what the film asked for.

Palais de Danse could easily have been a Hollywood or French comedy-drama and proves Mr Elvey’s point precisely by its quality – it’s not his best work but it is very good all the same!

For more on British Silent Film, I can recommend theBritish Silent Film Symposium which takes place at Kings College London on 11thand 12th April – it’s a fascinating line up of research and films and plays a major role in the ongoing rehabilitation of British silent film.

Are we downhearted? Emphatically no!

Chili Bouchier, the English Marie Prevost?

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