Saturday, 18 March 2023

Boardman talks in colour… Mamba (1930)

Things you never expected to see… on several levels. This film was considered mostly lost for a long time until a nearly complete 35mm nitrate copy was located in Australia in 2009. This has subsequently been fully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in 2016, but what I watched was a rather fuzzy copy on YouTube… sometimes you must take what you can find. How could I resist seeing elegant Eleanor Boardman, silent star of The Crowd, Bardleys the Magnificent and Souls for Sale, in Technicolor and, talking too?

On the face of it, Boardman could be seen as one of those who’s career stalled after sound but she made seven talkies including the fascinating part-talkie She Goes to War (1929) enough of which survives to show how she was more than capable of sustaining her career, should she have really wanted to. Now in her early thirties, Boardman was married to and having children with King Vidor and, film fans, that’s an activity which doesn’t always sit well with the Hollywood sausage machine especially if you are, famously, “the most outspoken girl in Hollywood”! She liked Redemption (1929), the picture she made with John Gilbert, which didn’t enhance his (or her) prospects but gave her a gorgeous wardrobe, and then got loaned out by MGM to Tiffany Studios for Mamba.

Her last Hollywood film was de Mille’s remake of his own The Squaw Man (1931) and, as family duties and her increasingly unhappy marriage began to pre-occupy her, she refused to dance to the studio’s tune and return from an Hawaiian make-or-break with Vidor, to be loaned again this time to Paramount. By 1933 she had divorced King and taken her children off to Europe where she eventually met and married writer/director Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast for whom she starred in her last film, The Three Cornered Hat (1935) made in Italy. She appeared in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series interviewed in 1977, still strikingly sharp and eloquent, comfortable with her life and perhaps slightly dismissive of most of her films, save The Crowd.

Jean Hersholt

Here she’s perfectly fine, good at the grander emotions, dressed like a clothes horse if a little under-powered in some scenes in which she’s outshone, as everyone else, by a perfectly nasty turn from Jean Hersholt. Jean’s upbringing in Denmark, enabled him to nail the German accent required for the part of the titular snake, August Bolte (Mambo), a German opportunist who doesn’t care who he exploits as long as there’s profit in it. Born Jean Pierre Carl Buron, he started acting in short films in 1906 but emigrated for New York in 1913 aged 27 and established himself quickly, making films, most notably in Greed (1924) into the 1950s. He also translated 160 of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales into English and ended up as Leslie Nielsen’s paternal half-uncle… fact fans!

The film is one of those exhibiting a considerable amount of silent style especially when it begins with an extraordinary single take – some 90 seconds long – during which director Albert S. Rogell’s camera moves down and through a number of street scenes on an African reservation, showing us the local colour, and the nature of the place we are about to experience: Neu Posen in German East Africa, sometime in 1913. Like many other “pre-code” films of the period it comes with heavy doses of language and actions reflecting “the attitudes of the time” … Your honour, may I refer you to the statement made by one English officer to a German one: “… too many blacks to run after and too few of us whites to ever be able to hold them in line…” a sentence that is followed by the artful suggestion that those civilised whites of Britain and Germany would never be caught fighting amongst themselves. The audience knew and of course we still know, what this means.

Bolte arrives and is immediately confronted by a local woman (Hazel Jones) who claims he is the father of her child; the other Europeans look on is disgust as he pushes her away. He goes for a drink in a bar full of singing German and British officers only to be given the coldest of shoulders and to be told to his face that he’s not invited to Colonel Cromwell’s party. Bolte sings alone and throws his beer away ordering a champagne…

Bolte reviews his options...

“With more land und money than anyone else in East Africa… I could buy und sell the whole army!

A begging letter from a nobleman in debt back in Germany, offers the hand of his daughter Helen (Eleanor Boardman) in marriage in exchange for Bolte paying his creditors off. After reviewing Helen’s photograph, Bolte decides that this is the way to gain proper respect from society; married to a Lady, his snobbish detractors will have no option but to pay her their respects. He goes back to Germany and brings back his already traumatised new wife back with him. As his cockney manservant (a lively Will Stanton) says: “Blimey sir! But she’s a real aristocrat… she’s got quality!”

On the ocean journey she meets a handsome German officer, Karl von Reiden (Ralph Forbes) who is certainly more along the lines of the kind of man she’d hoped to wed. They connect but are soon separated by Bolte who demonstrates a grotesque mix of jealousy and pride. Back in Neu Posen in Bolte’s grubby mansion, Helen is holding out as long as she can, her honour still at stake as her contractual-obliged partner invites his former enemies to a party in her honour to which everyone is invited and duty bound to attend for her sake. Before the party begins, the native woman pays Bolte another visit and, after an altercation, she falls over his balcony and to her death.

Initially his grand party goes well but when news of the death breaks out the mood turns sour and the faint-hearted merrymaking stops, leaving Helen at the mercy of her husband until, that is, she is rescued by von Reiden who takes her off to see the local natives’ “Moon Dance” - perhaps it will help you forget… He delivers her back to her predatory partner just as he receives news that way has been declared between Germany and Great Britain. Now things reach a peak as Bolte tries to avoid the draft and to hold onto his ill-gotten gains…

Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes

Mambo is alleged to have cost over $500,000 to produce and appears to have been well received with the colour photography impressing. It’s more than just a novelty though with the colonial questions raised and the moral dangers presented by Bolte and then the War. Hersholt makes the picture though and seems able to raise sympathy for his misbegotten creation of Bolte who very rarely, if ever, does the right thing but still presents as a victim in comparison to the taller and more handsome officers, just about to fight the War to End all Wars.

This would look amazing on the big screen and I look forward to a 35mm screening at some point and somewhere…

The Time Has Come… Arcadia (2018), Barbican with Adrian Utley and Will Gregory Ensemble

Photo from Mark Allan 

“She realised that answer lay within her all along… everything is connected… the past is gone, the future’s unwritten…”

Paul Wright’s amazing Arcadia continues to reveal new meanings and having not seen it since the Before Times it has matured in an organic way to present an evolving commentary on the soil we plough post-plague and the mulch of political discourse. We stopped abruptly before we started though as few minutes into this performance musical director Ross Hughes – also synth, clarinet, flute, baby bass and drums, of which more later… motioned to cut as the click track wasn’t working. This was Arcadia Live and the nine musicians on stage had to gather themselves to start all over again and act as the musical conduit between the screen and audience.


Those first few minutes were played again and I swear sounded different to what we had seen and what’s more the film felt different too… all more urgent and more passionate than before. Co-composer Will Gregory wasn’t kidding in the post-match Q&A when he talked of the relationship between sight and sound and the audience and this was now an audience willing them on just as they dug deep and played with perfect pitch and eloquence. All of the right notes, in the right order and on the right instruments, extraordinary dexterity and deftly moving.


Gregory and Adrian Utley’s original score had featured snippets from Daniel Avery and, especially folk musical legend Anne Briggs, who gave her blessing to the use of her songs and the re-editing of her uncanny voice on The Time Has Come, My Bonny Boy and Lowlands. So, apart from having to present a complete score of their own making, the duo needed someone to sing like Anne and the, actually astonishing, Lisa Knapp filled the bill, strong and true, pitch perfect and yet with the haunting vulnerability that makes Briggs so meaningful, it was breath taking and one of the best live vocals I’ve ever heard: there’s no margin for error with notes these pure and she was totally present.


Victoria Oruwari, Lisa Knapp and Will Gregory (Photo from Mark Allan)

The score is so varied and complex that Gregory said each player had to be multi-instrumental, otherwise an orchestra would be required, so Emma Smith played violin, whistle, guitar, Francesca Simmons violin, synth and keys, Zami Jalil viola, synth and keys with Ivan Hussey on bass and cello. Oh, and everyone had to be able to sing too with only Lisa and the powerful Victoria Oruwari purely on lead vocals. For their previous work on Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, Uttley and Gregory had used a choir and larger group of players but here the multi-tasking was so precise you couldn’t tell where and from whom the sounds were coming from.


This, of course, reflects the fact that, as with all live film scores, the sound and vision blends together and you experience both at the same time; with your focus on the totality which, as Uttley said, is different ever time, every venue and each audience. So it proved for the audience too and Arcadia live was unlike any other Arcadia I’ve experienced before. With the music, as with the film, there’s a timelessness in everything and the answer is in our ears and beneath our feet, grounded in sound, our hearts the perfect click track for the marvellous expression. They played and we listened, all connected in appreciation and those time-stilled moments.


Arcadia remains a stunning mix of its source material and perhaps his background in fiction helped develop the directorial vision needed to make such a coherent narrative from this many disparate parts – separated in time and style – all sourced by Paul Wright from the BFI archive and elsewhere before being subjected to the alchemy of his editing and his ability to juggle meanings so adeptly. There's a strangeness that feels like period folk horror, that rich seem of unsettling pastoral tales from The Wicker Man to Children of the Stones that took the ghosts of our rural past and used them to chill our urbanised present. We’re, literally, rootless and need to find our feet again, standing on the soil. In Wright’s narrative – and in the source materials - the suggestion is that we have lost something in the transition sparked by industrialisation “…from a time when we were connected to the land and to each other…” to a world of isolation. This is probably even more the case now than in 1948, 1965 or 1975 and if you don’t believe me, look again at that device you’re reading these words on.

Adrian Utley and Emma Smith (Photo from Mark Allan)

Starting with the microscopic worlds of Frank Percy Smith we see the almost unseen life beneath, moss and lichen growing, tadpoles gestating… then switch to the macro world of ploughing fields and sowing seeds. It’s a passionate programme of delicious slices of English whimsy but not without a dark side – a child (Jenny Agutter, from I Start Counting (1970) ) crying out “mummy, mummy!” in terror, miners being attacked by policemen, urban isolation and dark deeds abound: there’s something unsettling in the country but its natural balances are undermined by explosive urbanisation…

There’s country dancing, May poles and May Queens, Morris dancing and nudists too – more than I recall - all connected to the grass and the mud. And did those feet…? Jerusalem emerges with added themes and Blake’s meaning, yet, curiouser and curiouser, none of the images can be taken at face value any more. This alchemy is signalled by section headings like Into the Wild, Folk, Utopia, Amnesia, The Turning and In a Dark Wood… It as if Syd Barrett had written the mood board. Blood in the Soil is perhaps the key and the connections are made elegantly again and again shifting the feeling forward by association, image and music. This is where Anne comes in and tonight Balham’s finest, Lisa Knapp, musical proof of the countryside continuum.

The dance is a key part of Arcadia and whether it’s acid house, punk, Morris or psychedelia we all love to move, hitting down on the ground in eternal rhythms, a little faster here and there but essentially the same animal celebration. Sometimes we dance for the May Queen, or we fling burning barrels at the Beltane fire festival, we dance in protest but mostly we dance to connect.

Dancing days

Wright says he always tries to use images from “all angles and even from different states…” he didn’t want to show just filmed theatre. His source material was a mix of documentary and drama with films like Herostratus (1967), Winstanley (1975) and Anchoress (1993) mixed in carefully so as not to drag the narrative off course. Literally thousands of films were considered and around 100 made the film with Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) and A Day in The Hayfields (1904) being amongst the earliest. Hippies older and younger are featured from Pioneers of Nudism (1938) to Tribe of the Sun (1972) and there are dark tones indeed from An Untitled Film (1967) and The Watchers (1969).

Ultimately Arcadia is a tone poem for us to interpret as we will in despite the specifics of word, action and song. It’s an intimate multi-media dialogue with some very talented and careful individuals who have produced something far greater than the sum of its parts: Arcadia, the feeling won’t go away and it could be the grounds on which we take our last stand? 

As I wrote on its first release, Arcadia is *exactly* the kind of thing you’d hope the BFI would do: a film that highlights the wealth of content in its archive and which makes something bold, beautiful and new. It’s challenging and sometimes disturbing but if we’re not disturbed sometimes we’re only dreaming. I really hope there’s more like this but for now, Arcadia takes a breath on our video shelves and Mr Wright gets back to fiction! The initial score and DVD are both available from the BFI and beyond, wouldn't it be good to have a live album too?

What a send off this was! 

Thursday, 2 March 2023

More please… Oliver Twist (1922), with John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope


8 Great reels that make you ask for more. Will Hays says Jackie Coogan Films are the sort the World needs…

Print Advert - Wyoming County Times, 20th December 1923

Introducing the screening of four films from his personal collection Christopher Bird delighted us with an evening of films connected with Charles Dickins and, to a lesser extent Lon Chaney.

First was Mrs Lirriper’s Lodgers (1912), an almost complete film previously considered lost and rescued by Chris from a pile of rubbish at the end of a antique collector’s garden. Painstakingly restored with over 400 manual fixes, the film, based on a story from Dickens, was a delight, telling a moral tale in limited time with the constant thought in our heads that this very nearly didn’t exist but for a collector’s endless curiosity.

Next up were three short 35mm films exchanged for a reassuringly expensive pint of lager – we all have our price and clearly the seller was happy to offload these potentially explosive nitrate curios. Included was a precious glimpse of a young Lon Chaney, looking dashing in one of the few elements of his early films still extant, this from Tangled Hearts (1916). Back to the Dicken’s theme and another previously lost film, Oliver Twisted (1918) starring Fred Evans, aka Pimple, as an actor playing Bill Sykes who seems to stagger over the fourth wall as he feels his way through an approximation of the story from our main feature clutching a wooden club and a three-legged toy dog. To watch Fred at work is to marvel at the consistency of British humour, always daft, always knowing.

Last of the shorts was Hello Hollywood (1927) a fascinating look behind the camera at eth sprawling estates and backlots of the major studios. Lon Chaney was mentioned in one intertitle and we also saw the set of Paris used in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

You've got to pick a pocket or two...

Containing roughly equal parts Dickens and Chaney was the main feature, Oliver Twist (1922) which was shown from a 16mm print again from Chris’ collection. This is another lost and found which on rediscovery in Yugoslavia in 1973, had to have intertitles inserted with help from star Jackie Coogan and producer Sol Lesser for Blackhawk Films restoration. The film is close to complete, missing perhaps a reel out to the original eight, but making total narrative sense and more.

Directed by Frank Lloyd, the film makes light of the complexity of Dickens’ original work – some 370 pages and 170,000 words, rather more than you need for a film. That said, like so many early films, it was based on a story that most people knew very well as the Pimple short further proves, including Nancy’s horrific demise – so fearful that Pimple has to change actress twice.

This feature was made just before Lon Chaney really hit the big time but, as with every one of his films that I’ve seen, he is submerged in character and all you see is Fagin, not a man heavily made up and radically adjusting his body shape to present the image of an older man, twisted by poverty and the evil that men do in picking a pocket or two. It’s fascinating how so many of the characters are recognisable in look and feel even at this early stage but Fagin is not as semitic as the Ron Moody portrayal.

The well meaning and well-to-do see the good in the boy... mostly.

This is not a starring role for Lon though, that privilege goes to eight-year old Jackie Coogan who had already made four features since his debut in The Kid and was looking good on it. It’s rare to find a child actor this accomplished but this is even more striking given the vintage. His expression is flexible and controlled and he knows how to hold himself even when there’s no dialogue or action directly involving him. He too is completely submerged in his role and is a very impressive Twist… not without an instinctive humour that places him apart from the more obviously terrorised Mark Lester! This is a tough role for a junior.

Elsewhere there is sterling work in bringing life to Dickens’ – genuinely iconic – cast of characters from the cheeky tea-leaf The Artful Dodger (Edouard Trebaol), the corpulent Mr. Bumble (James A. Marcus) to the battered but brave Nancy (Gladys Brockwell) and her loathsome man Sikes (George Siegmann); ultimately brought down by his own fears… Dickens was writing well before Freud but very few of his characters can escape from conditioning and context.

On the other side of the tracks there are a series of well-to-do saviours including the Maylie family with Rose (Esther Ralston) and a Mr Brownlow – no, not that one – all seeing the good in Oliver even when fate and his companions sometimes work against his fortune and character.

Jackie Coogan and Esther Ralston on the right

Talking of Mr Brownlow, our version, Kevin, interviewed Jackie Coogan extensively for his Hollywood series and also used the rushes of the full meeting for Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces (2000), on which Christopher Bird worked as Editor. Two degrees of Kevin Brownlow and beyond. Coogan was very impressed with Chaney’s contribution in spire of his father’s warnings that the elder actor would try and steal scenes… well, good luck to anyone trying to distract from young Jackie and I reckon Lon did a great job.


John Sweeney put in a marathon shift and accompanied the whole programme with the seemingly endless variation of light and tone he has at his finger tips. In spite of the circumstances, Oliver remains good whilst so many around him are made bad through situation and malice, John sort out the enduring truths of Dicken’s social morality and gave them full voice as we watched the shadows on screen. Classic and classy all round.


Another Bioscope super show and with tea and Tunnocks tea cakes, who could ask for anything more?

Tuesday, 28 February 2023

Snow business… Cocaine (1922)

Lazy, languid, laughing Jenny… to-day, depressed, to-morrow, merry.


Directed by Graham “Cut!” Cutts and produced by notorious, naughty Harry B. Parkinson, this film wastes absolutely no time it getting straight down to business. You want it, you got it, Jenny (Hilda Bayley), disaffected youth, a good-time girl, especially when Charlie’s around and sat at a table in The Live Hundred Club which could usually be relied upon for a secret supply of cocaine.


Here I am frequently lauding the cool Weimar hipsters for their lack of censorship and daring morality when less than two years after the drug was made illegal in the UK by the Dangerous Drugs Act 1920, some enterprising types were making an entertainment about “How girls become ‘dope fiends’!!” (and presumably boys too?).


Parkinson, of course had form in moral outrage, having previously plugged into moral panic for profit with the outrageous Trapped by the Mormons (1922) featuring a rather out of place Evelyn Brent, touring these shores on stage and behind Harry’s camera. Parkinson’s output at the time was prodigious with more schlock about Crushing the Drugs Trade and Mormonism before he produced his, genuinely wonderful, Wonderful London series. Then he went and (almost) spoiled it all by making an unauthorised biopic The Life Story of Charles Chaplin (1926), featuring Chick Wango (oh, my yes) as the title character and many sequences lifted from the real Charlie’s films. Chaplin sued and the film disappeared for ever…

Still, never let it be said that Harry didn’t have his finger on the pulse and this is entertaining exploitation that’s, of course, no where near as nasty as it could have been. I suppose that cocaine having previously been legal, it was viewed as a controllable drug just as alcohol was in the US with the prohibition which began slightly earlier in 1920. So maybe this wasn’t a call to be wary of what is now a Class A drug but a remembrance of fun times just past… No spoilers, but most everyone lives and “Lazy, Languid" Jenny doesn’t have to pay the ultimate price as so many women tended to even for minor misdemeanours normally involving moral missteps… sex being far more deadly than a bit of powder.


That said, maybe someone with a modern sensibility needs to go through this an edit out nonconformist sentiments about the drugs working? Or maybe it should be screened right away in the House of Commons?


There’s also blatant racism and ablism but we’re film historians we can handle it, we have to otherwise you might as well burn it all if a contextual interpretation cannot be found to enlighten, inform and explain the motivations of people clearly not giving a stuff for tomorrow’s opinions or, indeed, equality.

Anyway. The story… Ward McAllister wears yellow face as Min Fu, the Hundred Club’s manager and a dozen others as seedy. The character was apparently based on a gangster known as Brilliant Chang which, lets be honest is a tough epithet to live up to and I say that as Paul “Interesting” Joyce (courtesy of my ex-colleague Sarah from Bangor). Min Fu offers Jenny some blow as she sits bored in the club and we’ve already seen a drugs transaction take place outside, with cab driver passing a packet to Min Fu who gives it to his disabled assistant, Loki (Tony Fraser)… the signifiers of evil are not pleasant.


Loki gets busted outside and Min Fu has to report into “Number One” – there’s always a bigger boss, and hope that his pal keeps schtum. Meanwhile, back on the dancefloor… the joint is jumping as we take a sidestep to the opulent mansion of the charitable and respected figure of Montagu Webster (Teddy Arundell) who is, gasp, also Number One, leader of the whole trade. No one suspects him of such dirty dealing, least of all his daughter Madge (Flora Le Breton) who, as it happens is a friend of Jenny’s… and on an evening out where she meets the respectable Stanley (Cyril Raymond). After a wonderful evening she wants to go again but Monty does not agree, he doesn’t want her running wild!


You can see exactly where this is headed can’t you? Maybe...

Teddy Arundell and Flora Le Breton

Written by very Frank Miller, it’s a fast-paced moral tale with some style and is good value for it’s relatively short running time; another populist hit that Harry B. managed to smuggle past the censors with enough consequence for the criminal and the carefree to be deemed as a message to the gullible.


You can find it on the BFIPlayer for £1 and it’s cheap at twice the price!

Just say no.

Sunday, 26 February 2023

Odes to joy… Beethoven (1927)/ The Martyr of his Heart (1918), Austrian Film Archive Blu-ray

Do you prostrate yourselves, you millions,
Do you sense the Creator, World?
Seek him beyond the canopy of stars,
Beyond the stars he must surely dwell.

Friedrich Schiller’s Ode to Joy

Very few biopics stand the test of time and subject. Persons living and within memory are, by and large, hard to replicate on screen and for me at least it’s not easy watching Elvis, Elton or Freddie on screen; it’s frustrating seeing everything that they’re not based on what you have already experienced. It works better for lesser-known characters such as Noelle Gordon and especially those whose reputation needs to be re-established with great care. Talking of which, there are others who reputational slurs are simply reinforced with a lazy wink as in Babylon (2022) something of a hate-letter to silent film not to mention its audience.

In the case of national and global treasures long deceased, there’s a joy in just paying broad tribute and it’s here that we find these two pictures covering the life of Ludwig van Beethoven. Here we see Ludwig the man, the lover, the grump, the lonely driven soul who still liked a drink with friends even as he battled enemies… I doubt it’s a portrayal Haydn or his nephew Karl would have recognised but both are pop sketches that use the music, locations and Fritz Kortner’s physicality to remind us of this enigmatic powerhouse of classical music, a man who wrote over 700 pieces in a lifetime of the highest impact. Even as his health failed him, the composer produced his mighty 9th Symphony, a work almost 70 minutes long that introduced a choral section for one of the first times in symphony-history and which has confounded scholars and conductors ever since.

This release from the Austrian Film Archive celebrates the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and features two films, Beethoven (1927), celebrating the centenary of his death, and The Martyr of his Heart (1918) produced at a time when lauding national heroes was an end into itself. Both star Herr Kortner who clearly wasn’t at risk of typecasting in a career that eventually stretched over half a century well into the 1960s, acting and directing on screen and stage. He’s quite the screen presence with a face full of awkward features which he manages to contort into a vulnerable ferocity perfectly suiting the spirit of his subject. He’s believable as a romantic lead in the earlier film and as a man isolated by deafness and unyielding passions in the second. He’s a one-man Austrian Mount Rushmore of emotion, scaling alpine excesses with ease.

Young Fritz Kortner in 1918...

1918 and Ludwig van Beethoven is as close to living memory as Thomas Edison is to now only more fondly recalled… he did all his own work after all. Coincidentally, the third film on this set is The Origin of Beethoven's Moon Light Sonata (1909) a production of the Edison Manufacturing Company, and is entirely made-up rationale for the music, suggesting that Beethoven created it so that a blind woman could “see” the moonlight through his musical expression, nice thought though it may be and, indeed, indicative of its powerful effect on the imagination.


The Martyr of his Heart was directed by Emil Justitz, from a script he co-wrote with Emil Kolberg it’s a whizz through key touchpoints in the composer’s life with a focus on romantic turbulence. Beethoven is talented spotted conducting in his native Bonn by Joseph Hayden who invite him to Vienna to study with him. Once there he attracts the patronage of Prince Esterházy and others in the city’s cultural circle, he also makes a life-long enemy in the form of the entirely fictitious Baron Trautenfels (Anton Pointner) who acts as a representative of all those unknown obstacles to such a single-minded yet vulnerable creative genius. Beethoven did have a number of run-ins with theatrical impresario Baron von Braun but purely on musical business issues.


Beethoven's sworn enemy, Trautenfels at it again!

Their first clash comes, improbably, in a rivalry for the affections of Annerl, a serving girl at a bierhaus, the Baron does not want her consorting with minstrels although I’m not sure if those awarded princely patronage were ever seen as so lowly. Trautenfels is also faithless, even after marrying the barmaid, he still seeks out wealthy women to conquer and defraud.


All this is a little sordid next to Beethoven’s growing success and position, as his reputation grows and his love life is conducted, unsuccessfully among the upper classes. His deafness and fading health led him to become more isolated and more than ever, dedicated to his work with only his ward Karl, to care for. There’s extensive use of actual locations which adds some authenticity to the film along with the musical quotes from the composer’s most deeply autobiographical worldly statements.


The new score for this is from Birdmusicvienna and is a mix of old and new instrumentation and sound effects, which are sometimes funny and occasionally distracting. Overall, it’s a fun job and they include the inevitable quotations from the man who wrote his own life’s soundtrack which are deftly mixed with the mood and action on screen.

Ludwig conducts his latest groove with Annerl admiringly on the right

A decade later Kortner picks up the ear trumpet once more in Hans Otto Löwenstein’s tribute which, surprisingly doesn’t feel that different in technique although it has a more restrained and dramatic tone; no lusty barmaids or villainous Barons here, just a more straightforward attempt to capture the composer’s genius and isolation. We see Beethoven’s birthplace and more of his early life with his father pushing him hard to achieve what his own “powers” were too weak to attain.


In 1892 he is discovered by Hayden and travels there to be his student and to attract the patronage of Prince Lichnowsky as in the first film. Some scenes are similar to the earlier film and perhaps that’s to be expected but this is a more measured and evenly paced film. Beethoven gets so lost in his work he forgets to eat and then requests that the Prince moves his dogs so their barking doesn’t disturb him, both established tropes about the composer… as is the apocryphal story of his only recognising his hearing loss when he was walking with students and couldn’t hear a shepherd play his flute: it’s in both films but not provably truth, but it makes dramatic sense for a period of which there is some uncertainty – Beethoven being quieter than usual and possibly being ill prior to the beginnings of his debilitating tinnitus.


Lilian Gray and Fritz Kortner

Before all this Beethoven is romantically connected to the young Giulietta Guiccardi (Lilian Gray) who he teaches piano and dedicates the Moonlight Sonata too (see Edison, wrong again!). It doesn’t work out because of his recognition of the gap between their worlds, but he does get engaged to the more mature and understanding Therese von Brunswick (Dely Drexler) to whom he dedicates his opera Fidelio. But his continued dedication to work and issues with deafness lead to their breakup which, in the film, leads her to become a nun although in life she set up nurseries. Therese is very possibly Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” although he was also in love with her sister Josephine and they were both cousins of Giulietta… these aristos!


Beethoven approaches his last decade alone and surrounded by human silence and yet still producing the most transcendent work… his death is handled in a very inventive way in this film and we’re not left down as his eternal Ode to Joy plays us out in celebration of music still recognised by millions.


I really enjoyed Malte Giesen’s new score for the film, as performed by the Thüringen Philharmonie Gotha-Eisenach, there are so many skilful quotes from Beethoven’s work, all interwoven, sometimes diegetically, in tribute to the great milestones of his career, the turbulence of the Eroica, the calm of the Pastoral and love’s tribute in the Moonlight Sonata all cumulating in the ecstatic Ode to Joy which is the ultimate statement of Beethoven’s lasting achievement and humanity. There’s also a startling moment when Beethoven first experiences his deafness, the music stops completely and there’s silence until he sits down at the pianoforte and realises he can still “hear” what he plays and writes… it might be a bit too on the nail for some but it worked for me: it’s one of the markers of his genius that Beethoven could still thrive and develop his craft without being fully capable of hearing it.

Dely Drexler and Fritz Kortner

So, a highly commendable Blu-ray and one that has me listening to Herbert von Karajan’s versions of all nine symphonies as well as the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s set, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras and featuring my Uncle Duncan Atherton in the first violins. He and my mother, a pianist, loved Beethoven and his influence continues to inspire.


You can order the set direct from Austrian Film Archive and European suppliers. Roll Over Beethoven and tell Tchaikovsky the news…


Reading list - all from my mother's library:

Beethoven: The Music and Life by Lewis Lockwood (Norton 2003)

Beethoven by John Suchet (Elliott & Thompson, 2012)

The Ninth, Beethoven and the World in 1824 by Harvey Sachs (Faber & Faber, 2010)


The Moonlight Sonata in 1909...

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Girls will be boys… I Don’t Want to be a Man (1919)/Beverly of Graustark (1926), Kennington Bioscope and Vito Project


This was a glorious collaboration between the Kennington Bioscope and the Vito Project, a film club aimed at exploring cinema through a queer perspective, both meeting in elegant harmony with two silent films featuring two of the finest comedians of the period doing what they did best; challenging norms and making people laugh. This had to be one of the most celebratory atmospheres ever at the Cinema Museum with a meeting of minds from the two passion projects finding new aspects of appreciation, fresh angles to adore. There is always respect here for the context of century old cinema but there were new laughs to be had as the audience spotted patterns in the humour that some of us may have previously missed.

That said, some of us are clearly not that observant as I had completely forgotten the spectacular two-strip colour finale for Beverly despite having seen this restoration in Pordenone in 2019 with Mr Sweeney also accompanying. At the time I wrote about the importance of watching comedy with an audience and tonight this was proven once again with delicious new connections within the nuanced daftness that hold us all together in front of the world.

Marion’s a tonic and, as I put it in 2019, clearly hungover and heavily caffeinated, “…there’s no better sight than Marion’s look straight to camera eyes twinkling with the latest daftness. Mabel started it and Stan followed but Marion took it to another jazz-age level; her face bubbling and alive, as knowing as anyone, with perfectly timed beauty, an irresistible smile.”

Marion in colour!!

Vito supremo, Matheus Carvalho introduced and gave us an overview of Marion’s once misunderstood career…. Davis never made a seriously revered film (although Show People comes close: it is loved) but it doesn’t matter as she was the queen of romantic comedy drama for much of the Twenties producing a string of major hits that allowed audiences to laugh themselves out of the day-to-day and onto the screen in sympathy from When Knighthood was in Flower (1922), to Little  Old New York (1923) and onto this film. In all three, Marion dresses as a man to save the day and she does so in a manner, as Matheus quoting from Jeanine Bassinger in Silent Stars, aims at “comic androgyny”: she creates the physical sense of the male in her movements and attitude, with a grow-up, very meta sense, that anyone as feminine as she could every get away with really fooling anyone…

To this extent, Marion in drag is just an extension of her look to the camera and the audience, its’ a look of comic collaboration, we know and she knows but, strangely the rest of the cast don’t. We’re in on the joke and we can’t help but love her for it!

The story is brief on set-up and long on the situation. She plays a New York socialite, Beverly, called upon to impersonate her cousin, Prince Oscar of Graustark (Creighton Hale) after he injures himself in a skiing accident. If the Prince doesn’t make it to the Graustark coronation on time the deals off and the nasty General Marlanax (Roy D’Arcy once again fits the role of moustache twirling baddie to an evil T).

Marion just about a boy (screenshot from Movies Silently)

So, we literally have a Prince formerly known as Beverly having to dress as a man and convince the cabinet and court to save the throne and she does such a splendid job that even politically active and military-trained goatherd Danton (Antonio Moreno) can’t see that, with that skin, those eyes and all the rest, that she’s less of a man than he’ll ever be.


It’s exquisitely daft and the timing is absolutely perfect throughout and, this was reinforced by another masterclass in sympathetic accompaniment from John Sweeney on piano; the accompanist is the fourth element of the perfect silent mix: after film, location and crowd. Tonight, we were blessed with all round excellence from John and from Colin Sell on the first feature, an all-together more riotous affair.

Things getting out of hand...

The evening was also special one at the Bioscope as it was Michelle Facey’s birthday and, inundated with flowers, cards and gifts she celebrated her gift from Ernst Lubitsch and Ossi Oswalda in her introduction for the film. Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don't Want to be a Man) (1918) was one of the director’s last long-shorts made just before his first feature with Pola Negri, Die Augen der Mumie Ma (1918).  Oswalda is every inch as energetic as Negri and far more anarchic than Davies, or almost any American actor.

This was Weimar Germany and an initial post-war period that saw a flourishing of frank expression and, with no censorship for a year or two, some of the most forward-thinking sexual statements including, of course, Different from the Others (1919). Watching this film again there’s no doubt that the film does more than tease us with the implications of the cross-dressing; Ossi’s erstwhile counsellor Herr Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) who she meets in a cabaret, dressed as a man, is in no doubt that he is kissing a he even if it’s a she. As he says later on about his new pal’s sister, “she’s a looker too…” Of course, what’s so great, what’s so free, is that Lubitsch makes very little of this… he leaves that to the audience in a tragically short lived permissive society.

Ossi is a rebellious tomboy, gambling, drinking and doing all manner of grown-up male things from which her uncle (Kurt Götz) and governess (Margarete Kupfer) forbid her if only to allow themselves to indulge. Lubitsch highlights the comic hypocrisy of both as she carries on smoking Ossi’s cigarette and he grabs a bigger glass to increase the rate of alcoholic intake.

Ossi’s like Iggy with a Lust for Life… or at least for eating cherries and gobbling candies in her window whilst a crowd of young men pleads to be fed like hungry penguins. She obliges only for Uncle to chase them away... what the girl surely needs is some discipline or maybe an adventure! Uncle is called away for the comically un-specific fact that “the institute he has set up is ready for him” but before he goes, he recruits a stern governor to make sure his ward is properly looked after: Herr Counsellor Brockmüller.

Brockmüller almost immediately brings Ossi to heel with his startling natural authority – he’s also a bit of a looker boys and girls! But Ossi is not so easily curtailed and she vows to resist whilst he promises to cut her down to size. The game is afoot! Ossi decides to play men at their own game and goes off to the gentlemen’s outfitters to order a dinner suit. The assistants fight over measuring her up and decide on splitting the work limb by limb. Men lust after Ossi in groups and make horrible obvious play of their intentions: but she’s in charge.

Kitted up in starched collar, bow tie, top hat and tails, Ossi sets off to have fun at the dance hall, catching the eye of a number of young women as she takes her pretty-boy swagger to the dance. She chances across someone familiar: Herr Brockmüller and tries to attract away his favoured escort and once she’s distracted by another man, the two get to know each other in the time-honoured rituals of male bonding: they get smashed.


Governess Margarete Kupfer enjoying forbidden fruit...

It’s a long night and by the time the two fall out onto the pavement it’s the morning and they’re struggling to think or walk straight, putting on each other's overcoats which happen to include their address cards. Confused by the cards, their driver takes them to each other’s houses but not before the above-mentioned drunken smooching. Cheekily subversive. the kissing has the audience running through the permutations: Ossi knows what she’s doing but Brockmüller is clearly a man of broad tastes…

Colin Sell accompanied with wit and the practices ease of a man who has worked with Graeme Garden and played up the storm Ossi’s anarchy deserved. In Germany as elsewhere, the War left an opportunity for gender equality and Ossi was here to grab that chance with both hands either in a suit or in a dress… for the continuation of the film’s title is clearly: I want to be a woman!

Back to Marion, Matheus quoted Cordelia D. "Delight" Evans writing in Screenland in July 1926 “…ninety years from now, when all the war pictures and propaganda films and arty productions have been forgotten, some old white beard is sure to mumble, ‘There was a girl named Marion who looked awfully cute in boy’s clothes.’”

Well, there were two awfully cute girls in boy's clothes here tonight, Miss Evans, it’s 2023 and my beard is indeed, mostly, white.

Antonio and Marion, he has no clue the sap!


Here's to more collaboration between the KB and Vito, a splendid time was had by all.


For further details of the Vito Film Club visit their Facebook page.

Bioscope details are to be found on the Cinema Museum website.




Monday, 6 February 2023

Childhood’s end… Ingmar Bergman, Volume 4 BFI box set, out now.


‘After the strokes had been administered, you had to kiss Father’s hand, at which forgiveness was declared and the burden of sin fell away.’ Ingmar Bergman recalling his childhood.


The BFI’s digital odyssey covering the epic and unique career of Ingmar Bergman reaches it’s crescendo with his final films, but not his final works as he continued on television and stage until 2007. This set includes both versions of his semi-autobiographical masterwork, Fanny and Alexander, the TV series (filmed first but released after reworking for cinema in 1984) and the film he intended to be his last big screen statement in 1982. Both are daunting but as soon as you set yourself down with snacks and suitable libations, you quickly become lost I the sheer human simplicities he addresses and the audacious connection he always seemed to have with us as viewers.

Fanny and Alexander drew on some of his upbringing with his father a Lutheran pastor would indeed hit his children with a carpet beater but there was love too, painful shades of grey with a God of love and hate. Bergman sets the story in the 1900s, with a vivid Christmas celebration introducing us to the family and even though there will be torment there is also so much joy in this film along with magic, the world seen through the eyes of his ten-year old protagonist, Alexander played with incredible assurance by Bertil Guve. In his booklet essay, Philip Kemp – who else are you going to get to write about this one? – also notes the Dickensian aspects to the story, maybe Swedish children have as much connection with these tropes as the British?

The budget was Bergman’s biggest. the most expensive film made in Sweden up to that point, at over $6m, with more than 60 speaking parts and some 1,200 extras. It took a year of pre-production and a mountain of editing to produce the longform TV version and the ruthlessly edit it down to the three hours plus cinema version. It won four academy awards and was recently ranked as number 53 in the Sight and Sound Hundred Best Films poll…

Alexander directs: Bertil Guve 

The film begins with young Alexander moving cut out characters in a toy theatre, before searching for the rest of his family in their huge, richly-decorated house; a director in search of his characters? Here’s also a boy with a rich imagination, seeing a statue’s arm move as he hides beneath the dinning room table.

What follows is as rich and magically real as a Dickensian Christmas with Bergman dealing with the extraordinary behaviours and imaginations of his players in a casual way, oddness just happens and we’re expected to deal with it. The story begins and ends with the warmth of the Ekdahl family and the imperious, heart-warming matriarch Helena as played by the remarkable Gunn Wållgren, a woman who manages to convey world-weary yet still youthful energy. Helena looks on her family and is concerned and delighted in equal measure.

She has three sons, Carl (Börje Ahlstedt) fearful and in debt, the other theatre restaurant manager Gustav (Jarl Kulle) warm yet careless in love and the third Oscar (Allan Edwall), the manager of the family theatre. Oscar is the oldest and his mother’s most reliable son, happily married to the beautiful but much younger Emilie (Ewa Fröling) and father of Alexander and his sister Fanny (Pernilla Allwin). Rehearsing Hamlet, Oscar suffers a stroke and the children’s world is to be turned upside down. In time Emilie is married to the handsome Bishop Edvard Vergérus (Jan Malmsjö) who offers her love and a new more spartan existence for the family. Things do not go well… his puritanical authority soon brings the children and especially Alexander, into fierce conflict and the beatings begin as Bergman releases the spirit of his father on screen.

Gunn Wållgren

Max von Sydow was to have played the part of the Bishop Edvard Vergérus, but a mix up between an over-zealous agent and a frugal SFI meant by the time he said yes to Bergman it was too late and he  cast Malmsjö instead as the conflicted cleric. As it turns out he was inspired casting, a light entertainer usually, here his dramatic shifts were perfect for the stepfather who ultimately is frightened by his wilful, new son although, according to Kemp, the boy took some time to get over the fact that he was more used to seeing the actor singing Puff the Magic Dragon. His smile and good humour make his unyielding will to punish and constrain all the more unpleasant: it’s a nightmare.


The struggle between Alexander and the Bishop is the heart of the film and plays out in unexpected ways, everything does in fact and with twists and turns that my prose can’t do justice too. It’s the most intense and cinematic ride… a glorious drama with a cast alive to the depths of meaning expected from Bergman. As Oscar says in his Christmas speech at the theatre, see below*, sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better… as with the best of Bergman, all art in fact, you don’t leave it, it stays with you, meaning infused consciously and subconsciously to eventually filter through over days, months and years. In different circumstances the film will take on new aspects and I watched with my daughter, wife and 91-year old mother-in-law, a PhD in English Literature and MAs in English and Film. She wrote about Fanny and Alexander at length when studying, but refused to let me crib from her essay… but we had some great conversations.


Much as he seemed to have enjoyed the whole project, Bergman was well into his sixties and he later said in a TV interview, Farewell to Film, ‘my body is tired and it hurts, and you realise these are signals, warnings to take it easy… Altogether this is a good place to stop.’ From this point onwards he would focus on TV and theatre, alternatively less pressurised and also more gradual experiences than cinema. But what a legacy he left in all three disciplines.


The family that plays together, stays together...

I’m also quite pleased with myself for having spotted that one of the actors in the theatre is named, Tomas Graal (Heinz Hopf) a reference perhaps to two silnet films from 1917 featuring Bergman’s mentor and friend, Victor Sjöström, as Thomas Graal, a scriptwriter, with both directed by another epic Scandinavian, Mauritz Stiller. You could spend weeks in the two versions of this huge film and still find new connections and meanings.


The other films on this six-disc set are:

Cries and Whispers (1972), I saw last year when the BFI re-released it in cinemas for its 50th Anniversary. It’s one of Bergman’s greats, and one of the first in colour, a cross-over success that led Francois Truffaut to suggest that maybe his other films would have been more popular with the vibrant red that dominates this raw tale of illness, familial love and honesty. It strikes chords with such force though and Bergman felt that with this film and Persona, he had gone as far as he could in touching wordless secrets that only cinema could uncover.

Wordless secrets eh? Bit of a challenge for the amateur blogger but safe to say Bergman dealt in these issues successfully and used cinematic language to the fullest of his ability to address feelings and relationships that we all recognise and which we all struggle to articulate.  This doesn’t make him a paragon just exceptionally observant.

There’s so much more in these films and these BFI sets are to be treasured.

Liv Ullman, Ingrid Thulin and Kari Sylwan

Scenes from a Marriage (1974) Berman doesn’t terrify with his honesty much more than in this film featuring his long-term partner, the genius Liv Ullman.

Autumn Sonata (1978), Bergman directs Bergman, aka When Ingmar met Ingrid… a powerhouse film!

Fårö Document 1979 (1979), the ten-year follow-up to the documentary Bergman made about his adopted home.

From the Life of the Marionettes (1980) a TV movie about the events before and after a murder in a strained marriage.

After the Rehearsal (1984), another TV film, this time about a controlling director putting on a performance of Strindberg's A Dream Play.

Ingrid Bergman in Autumn Sonata (1978)

All look sparkling and restoration-fresh with After the Rehearsal  the only one to have been only available in standard edition, it still looks grand. Special features include a 100-page perfect bound book featuring new essays by Geoff Andrew, Catherine Wheatley, Leigh Singer, Andrew Graves, Philip Kemp and Ellen Cheshire.

You can order the set from all good home entertainment online retailers but especially the BFI Shop, in person or online.


*My only talent, if you can call it that in my case, is that I love this little world inside the thick walls of this playhouse and I’m fond of the people who work in this little world. Outside is the big world and sometimes the little world succeeds in reflecting the big one so that we understand it better. Or perhaps we give the people who come here a chance to forget for a while…