Sunday, 9 May 2021

Back in the DHSS… Play for Today Volume Two, BFI box set


I was angry then and I’m bloody angry now. Tony Garnett


I was lucky enough to see Tony Garnett talk after a screening at Elstree of The Boys (1962) in which he acted, a few years back. Tony decided that he would never be as good an actor as he wanted to be and set about forging his career as a ground-breaking producer for Ken Loach and others. He still retained his passion for social justice as the above quote reveals; said with a smile but with a steely glint.


His production of The Spongers (1978) still provides the fiercest of gut punches and not for nowt has Jimmy McGovern described it as ‘the best television programme ever made’, and he wouldn’t have been the only one influenced by its realism and raw power. All of the plays in this new BFI set reflect discussions on social care, education, race and employment relations that are very much ongoing and none more so than disability rights.


Cheeky messaging at the play's start

The Spongers is based on an actual case in Salford in which council support for a child with Down’s Syndrome was withdrawn for the usual reasons of cost and the child ended up in a hospital where the care was hopelessly inadequate rather than in the expert and supportive environment she needed.


There are more than three classes in this country and the “Disability Class” cuts across them all in its own silent way, whole families impacted by circumstances not of their making and desperately trying to pull social, medical and educational support together under their own steam. You’re very lucky if you have income but you better hadn’t be poor.


Here Christine Hargreaves features as Pauline, a mother on benefits with four children including Paula, a child with Down’s. Paula McDonagh’s performance is very affecting even now especially when she has a meltdown which feels all to real to be comfortable but she is at the heart of the family and supported by loving friends as well as relatives.

Paula McDonagh and Gertie Almond

Times are hard and as the play opens the bailiffs arrive to reclaim a few hundred pounds worth of debt, a fortune for Pauline who, despite the attempts of a well-meaning social worker, has to sign off her possessions. Whilst she’s in a downward spiral of debt so too are local authority cuts removing the support for Paula and she is placed in unsympathetic environments that start to impact her mental health.


This all happens under a Labour government and with a Labour council – led by Councillor Conway played by Bernard Atha who had been a Labour councillor in Leeds and gives the debate between what is possible and what can be afforded extra grit. There are social workers and a dedicated support worker for the estate called Sullivan played by PFT ever-present Bernard Hill with passionate subtlety – he’s as helpless as Pauline to channel events.

Bernard Hill and Christine Hargreaves

Directed by Roland Joffé – his first film, Tony Garnett who “threw him in the deep end and he swam…” - the play mixes a good deal of natural humour and local warmth amidst the gloom. We’re setting up for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and there are street parties, singalongs and working men’s clubs in which Auntie Gertie (Gertie Almond) sings in the Northern way and is always ready with a quip and The Last Word!


But there’s no escapism left for Pauline who, having been married on a dual income for sixteen years, has slipped into debt following her husband’s departure and is now faced with agonising decisions if she wants to keep her family together. Her father, played by scouser Peter Kerrigan, tries to help and can’t believe as a child of thirties depravation, that his country is in such a state. It’s that feeling of helplessness that resonates still, even in this most prosperous of nations. Disability and ill fortune can condemn so many even as we find billions for failed track and trace systems and even more nuclear weapons that we will never need.


Frankie Miller and Ken Hutchison

Things are tough in Glasgow too and the two Peter McDougall plays, both directed by John Mackenzie show different aspects of the area, “Greenock Industrial and the Greenock Pastoral” as termed by David Archibald in his booklet essay on these most Scottish of plays. Martin Scorsese reportedly described Just A Boys’ Game (1979) as a Scottish Mean Streets… and it’s not hard to see why with this no holds barred vision of working-class brutality. Singer Frankie Miller is perfect as cock of the walk Jake McQuillen reminding me so much of the lads in seventies’ Liverpool, you’d cross the road to avoid. Jake doesn’t need to put out as he never backs down and has the cold-eyed certainty of a fast gun; he knows he can take anyone on his day.


His supremacy is about to be challenged by a “young team” (Mogwai were watching…) led by the razor blade toting McCafferty. In the pivotal battle Jake moves towards the gang telling him that “your tea’s oot’ and local catch phrase was born. The rules of the street pass on from generations and Jake’s Granda (Hector Nichol), even in extreme health is a hard-boiled bastard and his Grannie (Jean Taylor Smith) gives better than she ever gets. Tough love or just survival… there’s so much nuance in performance and players that you’ll be left thinking about the visceral actuality for days.


Jon Morrison and Billy Connolly

Another musician also features in The Elephant’s Graveyard (1976), this time banjo-player/comic and former shipyard worker, Billy Connolly who plays poetic postie, Jody who meets up with a bored IBM worker Bunny (Jon Morrison) up in the Greenock hills as they both bunk off work for the day. Jody is pushing 40 whilst Bunny has just started work and, over two bottles of stream-chilled fortified wine – you’re heads the next day!? – they start to set their worlds to rights and amidst the macho bluster and boyish “dares” start to establish a bond of sorts. The barriers come down and they even share a vision of cowboys being ambushed by Indians over a brook.


Despite their ages they have the same concern with how to live their lives and perhaps look back to the childhood freedoms of days in the woods for some clues. I like the robustness of the dialogue and the humour too. In the end you’re still wondering… what was really being exchanged and is Jody a vision of Bunny’s future or, maybe, just a smart-arsed postman.


Lovely music from young Carl Davis by the way, whatever became of him?


Get your hair cut Davies!

No less than Daniel Day-Lewis described Phil Davies’ astonishing performance in Barrie Keefe’s Gotcha (1977) as one of his early acting inspirations. He plays an unnamed fifth former who, on his last day at school finds his gym teacher Ton (Gareth Thomas) and another teacher Lynne (Clare Sutcliffe who is also to be seen in eth BFI’s new release of I Start Counting) embracing in a storage room. Disaffected by his lack of consequence and Ton’s slaps, the kid holds them hostage by holding a lighted cigarette over his motorbike. Even the threat of immolation can’t help them remember his name and when the head (Peter Hughes) joins them, we see the three try to talk him round with only Lynne genuinely concerned with the boy and not the situation.


As someone who attended comprehensive school in the Seventies, I remember some dramas but, again, under a Labour regime, it was clear that not all schools were equal and that success was elusive. As with social care, you need to ride your luck with education especially if you can’t pay for it. Keefe went on to script The Long Good Friday and if you know that you’ll recognise this.


Gotcha was presented with another short school play, Brian Clark’s Campion’s Interview, in which a head teacher (Julian Curry) attends an interview for another headship and uses it to inform the gathered mix of educationalists exactly why they are failing his current school. It’s a smart script and well played by Curry who maintains an almost matter of fact calm as he lines up each and every failure of policy and leadership. The two plays together stir and shake.


Bryan Marshall and Gareth Thomas drink to a common cause?

In terms of production values and cinematic entertainment, Stocker’s Copper (1972) is the pick of the bunch not that this tale of industrial action and police suppression goes any easier on the viewer. Based on events in 1913 when a squad of specially trained policemen were sent from Glamorgan to break a strike at a Cornish clay mine. As the silent bobbies sit grimly on the train approaching their destination only one turns and remarks on the huge creamy mountains of china clay, Herbert Griffith (Gareth Thomas) who with the out of context innocence, remarks that it looks like snow.


Herbert – played so well by Thomas – is able to encompass a whole range of contradictions without crumbling under the weight of conscience. A former steel worker, he became a policeman for a steady wage and the “special training” his particular force offers; he understands the process of industrial action and even the need for it but he knows he has the right to beat down on it once the law is beached.


Jane Lapotaire and Gareth Thomas

He stays with the family of one of the strike’s leaders, Manuel Stocker (Bryan Marshall, excellent here as he is in I Start Counting…), with Stocker’s wife Alice (Jane Lapotaire) putting the need for income over the awkwardness of the arrangement. Tom Clarke’s screen play is canny and uses this device to explore the relationships between labour and the law as well as the many things the two working class men have in common. He pits Manuel’s stern resolve against the openness and seeming honesty of Herbert and the relationship is fascinating as you know all too well how things may end up.


The labour movement was on the rise across Europe and strikes were to be of increasing concern. The Home Secretary Winston Churchill sent troops to put an end to the Liverpool Transport Workers Strike in 1911 – including my tram driving great grandfather – and he also sent a battle cruiser up the Mersey for good measure. Yet these unions we ultimately to prevail. Not without many heads being broken and when the push comes to shove, Stocker’s Copper is unsettling viewing.


There’s another a splendid score from young Carl Davis along with the magnificent Treviscoe Male Choir and St Dennis Silver Band reminding us of the solidarity and comfort music can bring.


Victims of Apartheid

Lastly, we have Victims of Apartheid (1978), scripted by Tom Clarke and directed by Stuart Burge which feels the most of it’s time (I generally hate the concept of dated, how can any work of art know how it needs to be viewed in future?) but, for all that, still disturbing in this era of “All Lives Matter” relativism and denial.


South African actor John Kani plays George an anti-apartheid campaigner itching to return to the fray in his home country but also suffering what we’d now term as PTSD after being tortured by the authorities who drove a nail through his foreskin and made him stand on tip toe to avoid tearing his flesh. Kani is jobless and having been dumped by his wife, is being supported by various well-intentioned British activists including Canon Caper of Christian Underground (Peter Jeffrey) who offers him money to look after Henry (John Matshikiza) another supposed refugee from South Africa.


George’s life is chaotic and he has a new girlfriend, sex-worker Carrie (Coral Atkins) which says much of his position in this new society. The question is raised early on as George takes Henry on a bus ride and talks to the black bus conductor about his new friend conceding that whilst there is “racialism” in Britain there is no colour bar. The bus conductor’s response says it all: You got racialism, who needs a colour bar.


So, how “dated” is the vision of domestic racialism we see in this play exactly? It would be well over a decade later that Apartheid legislation was finally repealed in June 1991, pending multiracial elections held under a universal suffrage in April 1994. It was only then that Kani would tell the Financial Times that he felt ‘liberated from the responsibility of relevance’. The case continues…


The BFI are to be congratulated once again for making these works available and the Blu-ray transfers are top notch. The booklet is packed with high-quality essays commissioned by the tireless Vic Pratt and add so much context to films that still present as fearless. They were certainly challenged at the time with Gotcha shouted down for a repeat by Mary Whitehouse and her league of complainers and other’s such as Peter MacDougall’s Just Another Saturday – about Orange Day marches, rescheduled.


These plays put fear into the hearts of some in the establishment. Shall we ever see their like again on the BBC?


You can pre-order Play for Today Volume 2 direct from the BFI shop, in person (hoorah!) or online. It’s out on 17th May and is an absolute delight! Rated: *****

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Fishy kettle tale… Der var engang (1922), with Neil Brand, Danish Film Institute streaming

Back to the endless database of digitalised Danish film for this comic fairy tale from Carl Theodor Dreyer which owes a little to early Lubitsch perhaps but is no surprise after the Dane’s earlier film, the magically real Parsons Widow (1920). If Der var engang (Once Upon a Time) does not match up to the almost perfectly executed Prästänkan, that’s partly because it is a more overt fantasy and because significant sections are still missing even from this 2002 restoration.


Around half of the film is lost but here the title cards have been restored and sense is made using stills from the film and additional intertitles. The main source for the intertitles was a title list from the archives of the Swedish film censorship office and the whole piece is now sequenced well enough to still enchant especially with the aid of Neil Brand’s expert score which smooths over the missing segments and the odd uncompleted or fully rehearsed moment.


Based on Holger Drachmann's 1883 play, itself drawing from Hans Christian Andersen's Svinedrengen (The Swineherd) and William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it’s a fable about a Prince and a Princess who need to find the level of their love, one too much a stranger to her real self, confounded by the comforts of her position and lost in her privilege. Yes, indeed, this is very much another Play for Today

The King of Illyria (Peter Jerndorff)

The story revolves around the Prince of Denmark – no, not that one – and his attempts to woo the especially obstinate Princess of Illyria. Unlike his distant relative, he’s a decisive man of action who, rather more quickly than in three acts and two scenes of dithering, decides that a play’s the thing wherein to prick the conscience of the King’s daughter.  And what a “conscience” it is, certainly more absent than present.


I would rather marry a beggar… Be happy I am not having you hanged!


As the film starts, we see a succession of hopefuls competing for the hand of the Princess, played by Clara Pontoppidan, here as Clara Wieth, who enjoyed over sixty years in cinema from 1910 to 1972 and featured in Dreyer’s Leaves from the Book of Satan (1920). All of them fail miserably as, bored to tears she dismisses their attempts to entertain and attract; even the rather camp chap who dances. Then it’s the Prince of Denmark’s turn and with handsome Svend Methling in the role surely, she’s going to be impressed but far from it, he only angers his would-be fiancé and the look on the long face of his loyal retainer, Kasper Smokehat (Røghat in Danish, played by Hakon Ahnfelt-Rønne) says it all…

Smokehat and the Prince

The Princess is not for turning and so it’s time for Denmark to go sulk in the woods with his horse. He is greeted by a mystical peddler – or some-such – who offers him a copper kettle that will show him how to “capture happiness” … With magic on his side our brave hero returns with well-trimmed facial hair to try and capture the hardest heart in all of Illyria.


The film looks delicious throughout and no more so than the scenes that follow with the Princess and her ladies in waiting frolicking around the well-topiarised royal gardens. They’re a vision of coordinated fashion and expression setting the Princess in a completely different light; warm and summer freed as compared with glacial palatial. She’s intrigued by the handsome new woodsman with his distracting rattle… and then must have his special kettle even if it means exchanging a kiss…


Oh well, it is my duty as Princess to support art…

The Princess is on the right (Clara Pontoppidan)

The Princess decides that the rattle is irresistible as indeed maybe the woodsman and make the exchange… but, as Lady Booby said to Joseph Andrews, “kissing is as a prologue to a play” and before long the kettle is irresistible too even as the second kiss is only rewarded with an image of the Princess’ “true love”, the Prince of Denmark she currently loathes. No such disdain for the woodsman though and, away from prying eyes, he is allowed into the royal rooms… as the dealing moves from hearth to heart.


But this Prince has a bigger plan - an elaborate "play" - and sailing through the mists comes a boat carrying his emissaries, a knight who asks if the Princess has reconsidered Denmark’s offer. She has not… but meanwhile the noble Smokehat comes to the King disguised as a knight and not only reveals the Princess’ embarrassment but threatens to order Denmark’s gathering soldiers to attack unless “…the Princess be exiled along with the rogue she prefers!”


The Prince in disguise with a magic rattle...

Now, it’s all a bit of a long game, but the King feels he has no option and the Princess is sent to live with the woodsman in a humble cottage whilst he maintains the deception of not being a royal. No interviews with Oprah though, just pot making and the attempt to bring his love down to ground. She’s not the only one who needs lessons in humility as they see the Prince’s own men abusing the poor folk, hanging poachers and other wrong doers.


It’s a fairy tale and so you may decide that you know what’s going to happen, it could be Grimm or it could be Disney but either way it’s a trajectory that doesn’t disappoint. This is not the best of Dreyer – it’s hard to tell given the missing footage – but it has its moments and is wonderfully bought to life by the restoration and Neil Brand’s playing which leads our emotional imagination through the stills and title cards that complete the picture.


The film can be viewed on the Danish Film Institute site and with those engaging leads, stunning cinematography, Neil’s score and the humorous balance of Smokehat, it is yet another Danish delight.

Yes, your majesty. Two kisses...

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Wynne’s World… I Start Counting (1970), BFI Flipside Dual Format out on 19th April


I Start Counting was a really good piece of work. … David Greene was a director who could focus so much on the drama of the piece, so you don’t get so hung up in period… but it is of its period. Jenny Agutter


I must confess that like an American obituarist who knew Emmy-winning director David Greene more for his esteemed TV work, I also expected I Start Counting to be something of a violence-heavy “slasher flick” but it is defies this lazy labelling. Based on Audrey Erskine Lindop’s novel from 1966, it is more Angela Carter than Get Carter, for, as the BFI’s Dr Josephine Botting explains in her excellent essay in the booklet, Greene took the interiority of Lindop’s story and translated it on screen via the extraordinary talents of Jenny Agutter.


The actress was just 16 at the time but wise beyond her years in portraying the 14-year-old Wynne Kinch who, almost ever-present, binds together a narrative based on her emotional state. We see the world through her eyes and it’s as close as you get to an internal narrative rendered through facial expression alone. There are no words, just what we read from Wynne’s lived and dreamed experience.

Jenny Agutter

This film is one of early-Agutter’s best and you can well understand why, as she says in the twenty-minute interview about the film included in the extras, it’s one she remains fond of. Not many of us can say the same about our 16-year-old output. This film was immediately followed by The Railway Children and then Walkabout but Agutter had been acting since 1964 and her experience shows. Close-up after close-up shows us the story through her eyes and we are left to pick up external cues that may or may not be exaggerated by her point of view.


The characters are drawn partially as an extension of Wynne’s perceptions. Is her adopted brother Len (Gregory Phillips) anything more than a weirdly obnoxious, drug-dabbling teen who just happens to be obsessed with the recent spate of murdered girls? There’s a great cameo from a young Michael Feast as Jim his slightly wasted drug buddy who turns up for dinner looking like he’s over-indulged on the Moroccan.


Then there’s older stepbrother George (Bryan Marshall) who is both an authority figure and Wynne’s crush; both alluring and unknowable for her as she perches at the top of the stairs to simply watch him get changed, the sexual subtext overridden by her desire simply to be with him. Can it be that the blood on the pullover she knitted for him means something far darker than her worst nightmare? In Wynnes world everything associated with her is an extension of her anxieties and preoccupations; she is learning how to exert a more adult perception on things that happen without and not within her.


Seventies breakfast

Mother, played by the eternally suffering Madge Ryan, holds the family together, ever serving, whilst Granddad (Billy Russell) is most usually seen cradling a mouse; to varying degrees both are seen out of the corner of Wynne’s adolescent eye; taken for granted but loved.


Whilst she longs to move forward and embrace a romantic future with George, Wynne cannot stop herself revisiting the past in the form of their old house, a ramshackle cottage on the edge of the woods, home to childhood comforts and a dark secret. The film was shot at Bray Studios in Berkshire and on location around Bracknell, one of the early “New Towns” and which features the octagonal tower block where the family have been relocated after their former home was compulsorily purchased. According to Dr Botting this is Point Royal in Bracknell, which is now Grade II listed as ‘one of the most distinctive architectural features in any of the English new towns’.


I remember the discussions as a child when my grandparents’ neighbours were moved from Victorian terraces in Liverpool to Everton Valley tower blocks. No one seemed happy about this at the time and, indeed, many of those blocks were gone within a generation.


Stevenage, Runcorn, Harlow? Nah, Bracknell.

The set design from Brian Eatwell is eye-catching with so much white in the family’s apartment, all pure and new in contrast to the earthiness and menace of their old house. This is a film about personal and social change and, lest we forget, about sexual development and the men who take an unhealthy interest.


Wynne and her best friend Corinne (Clare Sutcliffe) talk about sex a lot, pretending to know more than they do and to have done more than they have done; Corinne shouts jealously after Wynne that’s she’s “done it” seven times as her friend goes off on a supposed date. The bus conductor – Simon Ward in his first film – looks on with concern and, at one point tells Wynne that her dress is too short. The world was changing.


Back to the old house...

Charles Lloyd-Pack has a marvellous cameo as a priest talking at the girls’ school about sex education only to be faced with questions he’d really rather not answer. There’s an appearance by one Phil Collins as an uncredited ice-cream vendor – one day mate, one day… whilst Lally Bowers causes a brief stir as Aunt Rene at a family get together. The great Fay Compton, who made her first film in 1914, appears as Mrs Bennett, the family’s old neighbour for whom George is supposed to be putting up shelves.


Wynne discovers this deception and finds out that George has been seeing an older woman called Leonie (Lana Morris) … in her mind this all connects to his disposal of the bloodied jumper and she becomes ever more convinced that he is guilty of the murders and she is the only one who can save him…


It’s an atmospheric film that enjoys a sparkling score from Basil Kirchin with upbeat sunshine pop like the theme tune – sung by Lindsey Moore – mixed with some folk horror lines that wouldn’t be out of place in the bucolic Arcadia. At family breakfast we also have the pop of the day introduced by DJ Stuart Henry who’d moved on to FAB 208, Radio Luxembourg, in my day.


Jenny and Bryan Marshall

David Greene’s direction maintains a very disciplined focus on Wynne’s view and also doesn’t linger too long on the horror aspects thereby avoiding the above “slasher flick” epithet with ease and crafting something a lot more interesting to watch and something his lead actor is more than capable of sustaining.


Apart from the excellent booklet, with essays on Greene, Agutter and the now late Claire Sutcliffe from Jon Dear, there’s the usual wealth of BFI extras on the disc including:


Chris O’Neill’ video essay on the film Loss of Innocence.


Worlds within Worlds: The Musical Mindscapes of Basil Kirchin: an interview by Vic Pratt with Jonny Trunk, founder of cult label Trunk Records about the life and audio art of his friend Basil Kirchin, composer of the I Start Counting! soundtrack.


An Apprentice with a Master’s Ticket: Richard Harris on Writing for the Screen: the award-winning screenwriter looks back across the decades as he reflects upon his career, from The Saint and The Avengers to A Touch of Frost.


I Start Building – a series of short films from the BFI National Archive reflect the blissful thinking embedded at the heart of the New Town dream.


Danger on Dartmoor (1980), a Children’s Film Foundation complement to the main feature directed by David Eady, featuring a young girl and her friends contending with a dangerous villain on the prowl and a ramshackle old house. Includes Patricia Hayes, Barry Foster and Sam Kydd!


So, what are you waiting for? Head straight to the BFI online shop and place your order; you will not be disappointed. Another superb addition to the Flipside catalogue: films of their period but infused with timeless British quirk, strangeness and charm.

Clare Sutcliffe has a smoke
Fay Compton!
All mod cons...
The girls buy an ice cream from Phil Collins!
Lower right is a copy of The Pretty Things SF Sorrow, in this condition it would be worth £1000s now...

Monday, 29 March 2021

Train kept a rollin’… The Signal Tower (1924), Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne, San Francisco Silent Film Festival Streaming

“… so, remember… never think of anything but your duty, until the track’s clear and your train’s safe!”

I’d previously seen a screening of Kevin Brownlow’s own copy of this film with Cyrus Gabrysch accompanying ferociously at a breathless evening at the Kennington Bioscope and this was a chance to see the restored film Kevin had played a major role in constructing with the SFSFF. There were no 35mm copies and so Robert Byrne of the SFSFF, Patrick Stanbury and Mr Brownlow worked with surviving 16mm elements, scanning materials at 4k, digitally repairing and creating a new 35mm negative from which prints were struck that were then dye tinted by specialist chemists in Prague.

The results were screened at the 2019 SFSFF and are astonishingly good, crystal clear with the beauty of the Californian forests fully enhanced and the locomotives as impressively highlighted as the actors. What is it about boys and steam trains? The accompaniment from Stephen Horne, aided by Martin Pyne/Frank on percussion, brought out the full majesty of the setting and the mechanics as well as one of the most febrile of conclusions in silent film.

Virginia Valli wrote a letter to Picture Play magazine from location in Mendocino County “I’m… just about as deep into the wilds of Northern California as any picture player has ever ventured. It’s beautiful; great redwoods, the bluest sky I have ever seen and brown and yellow maple leaves lending a dash of colour to the deep green of the firs. It’s so beautiful it’s actually awe-inspiring.”

This restoration certainly confirms that former and emphasises the “awe” in terms of Clarence Brown’s setting – the entire movie was shot in situ with sets built near the railway tracks – but also his treatment of the locos. In his introduction the Bioscope event and his essay for the SFSFF festival, Brownlow emphasised Brown’s fascination with trains. Brown was an engineer by training and clearly relished filming these steam-powered giants, getting up at the crack of dawn with his cameraman, Ben F. Reynolds, to record the trains powering through the pines with steam billowing above them and into the narrow sunlight.

The company hade rented a stretch of track which had only one service a day and so were able to take their time in presenting the life of this remote outpost and, with plenty of time to stage the most explosive of life-sized stunts: no scale models were damaged in the making of this film.

You can understand Brownlow’s passion for this is a film to make the rail enthusiast’s pulse race that bit faster as this is a film to increase everyone’s BPM as Brown winds the tension to almost unbearable levels: a runaway train speeding down towards a defenceless passenger train, a signal man fighting the elements and time to dislodge the tracks and faced with the horrific dilemma of having to save the many whilst his wife is under imminent threat from a boozed-up Wallace Beery with only one thing on his mind; a very vulnerable Virginia Valli.

Rockliffe Fellows watches an actual train steam by in a signal towerpurpose built on location

Those misty Mendocino Mountains contain a signal box vital to the effective running of the railroads and manned by just two men each working twelve hour shifts. The always upstanding Rockliffe Fellowes plays one of these “Tower Men”, Dave Taylor, whose wife Sally (Virginia Valli of Wild Oranges and The Pleasure Garden fame) and young lad Sonny (Frankie Darro) live in an idyllic wooden house near the tower – three miles from the nearest town.

Dave’s partner Old Bill (James O. Barrows) is indeed old and one-handed and so is replaced by Joe Standish (Wallace Beery) a man who’s flash suit and polished shoes mark him out as self-obsessed from the start and who is referred to as a “railroad Sheik” by one of the company’s engineers.

Dave lets Joe take over old Bill’s old room and he soon sets his sights on Sally even though her cousin Gertie (Dot Farley) initially acts as a kind of shield for his unabashed “sheik-ness”. Sally sends Gertie away to pay more attention to her fiancé unwittingly removing her own last line of defence… Joe soon makes his move and Dave kicks him out.

Wallace Beery and Virginia Valli

A storm is brewing though and as events take a serious turn on the mountain, Joe arrives late and, drunk in the heart of a crisis, forces Dave to take over and, once again kick him out. But that’s not the end of Joe’s nuisance as Dave sees him heading towards his home through the wind and rain… As disaster looms he must choose between Sally’s safety and his responsibilities to protect the passengers.

Beery does his usual top-notch job – his intensity belying his lighter, more likeable edge whilst Valli was the perfect complement, with a vulnerability running alongside her desperate resolution to resist the demon in her house; the film would not work as well without her imbuing Sally with so much depth and without Beery’s ability to kid us that he’s just not going to be as bad this time. Rockliffe Fellowes meanwhile, is the perfect heroic straight man to the descending chaos, a natural straight-backed affability informing his character.

Full marks to young Darro as well, aided and abetted by Jitney the Dog.

The family under threat

Biographer Gwenda Young describes The Signal Tower as one of Brown’s most personal films and he even made an appearance as a switchman trying to stop the runaway train as well as being “Conductor Brown” the addressee of a telegram. The “home invasion” represented by Beery’s character cuts to the heart of every relationship and powerfully contrasts with the accelerating disaster without. For the many or for the crucial few?

It’s a dramatic scenario and one that required a great deal of precision musical engineering from accompanists Stephen Horne and percussionist Martin Pyne with the latter providing the locomotive power to the former’s heat and steam. Brown’s film is full of controlled rhythms and contrasts from the towering bucolic surrounds to the dynamic force of the locomotion and the wayward intensity of the human drama and the score successfully navigated this triple track escalation to the film’s pulsating closure.

For the musician, every note’s a dead man’s handle – for the train driver, everything stops if you release your grip but the music is dependent on the continuation of a thousand stabs of precise pressure: all the right notes and all in the right order with Beery’s leery menace as much a threat as the speed of those locomotives. Stephen’s themes were as strong as you’d expect and the rhythmic requirements brought out the forces pushing the ultimate dramas of family, lives and morality under threat.

So, now is exactly the right time to join the SFSFF and to experience this film which is online until the 4th April. There’s also a collection of some previous restorations and the promise of more to come. Full details are on their website here.

Monday, 22 March 2021

The haunted queen… Prix de Beauté (1930), with Stephen Horne, 10th Hippfest Silent Film Festival

Don’t think I’m untrue, my only love is you… Don’t be demanding, be understanding… My only love is you.

In the post-screening Q&A, Stephen Horne revealed the moments when he could “hear” Louise Brooks’ voice in his head as he played for Pandora’s Box, piano screen right in NFT2 at the BFI lost in music, film and this vision with unexpected sound. Brooksie is indeed one of cinema’s greatest naturally occurring special effects and as Pamela Hutchinson said in the Q&A, the sheer physicality of her dancer’s control, coupled with extreme intelligence and beauty draws the audience towards her on so many levels. Acting as hypnotism, but also as Stephen says, cinema as a haunting.

Prix de Beauté goes from strength to strength every time I see it especially with Mr Horne’s uncanny sympathy with a film he first accompanied in Bristol in 2006. This was the 2012 Cineteca di Bologna’s restoration based on the sole surviving silent copy with muted sections included from the French sound version filling gaps here and there. It’s a far cry from the “talkie” version I first experienced and runs at 113 minutes versus the former’s 98; largely due to a normalised, slower pace. I did attempt to watch both versions at once for comparison but I soon got too engaged to bother. The two versions are different though as they were filmed separately with the sound version presenting a smaller frame as space was given over to the soundtrack so we not only see more get a longer film, we also see more in it!

The film’s development involved both René Clair and Brooks’ mentor G.W. Pabst – the former developing the script from the latter’s story with moments of pure cinema originating from both under the eventual direction of Augusto Genina. Clair’s brilliant closing sequence was envisaged as a silent and it’s impossible to imagine it working any other way now. Overall, Genina presents his own “cut”, a visually coherent film and one that has never looked better, highlighting the work of his ace cameraman, Rudolph Maté who had worked on Dreyer’s Joan and would go on to collaborate on Vampyr too.

Louise Brooks attracting attention

The opening section in the public pools has a documentary quality like People on a Sunday and Brooks is introduced feet – or rather feet, calf and thighs – first before blowing the audience away with vivacity and a smile to brighten even the darkest metropolitan day. There’s more exceptional footage at a fairground as Brooks’ character suddenly starts to regret passing up her chance to become separate from the common men pressing all around her. Amidst the smiles and tom-foolery Brooks’ face is a mask of despair as realisation drives even the faintest smile from her lips.

It’s hard to resist drawing parallels with the star’s own situation in this film: she’s followed onto a train by press and paparazzi after winning the chance to represent France at the Miss Europe pageant and subjected to male attention at every stage. Her big break finds her conflicted between opportunity and loyalty to her man, Andre (Georges Charlia), a choice that made the actress burn a fair number of bridges, in actuality. Lucienne gets and accepts a chance in a talking picture whilst in real life America Brooks was turning down offers from Wild Bill Wellman to star in a thing called The Public Enemy (Jean went with that one…). Louise was just 23 when she made this film and it was to be her last starring role in a feature: mid-life redemption and eternal fame all lay ahead, but first she had to get lost for a while.

Brooks once described herself as an actor who largely just played herself and that’s enough if you’re picked for the right roles and well directed. But she does have to work a bit harder than Lulu as Lucienne Garnier, a sweet secretary who dreams of bettering herself through her beauty: you can’t imagine LB being so naive. She larks with her modest boyfriend – a typesetter at the newspaper where she works as a typist – and he is already jealous of the attention she attracts from other men at the pool and everywhere else. Andre doesn’t like beauty contests and Lucienne can’t even bring herself to tell him that she’s entering.

Standing by her man Andre

Executive types look at pictures of the contestants and one stands out: no one’s going to complete with that hair, those eyes… Whisked away to San Sebastien in Spain, Lucienne is soon competing in the beauty contest (actually filmed in Paris with thousands of extras). The documentary feel is again present with candid shots of the public mixed in with key players from high society (and low morality) including a maharajah (Yves Glad) and Prince Adolphe de Grabovsky (Jean Bradin).

Naturally applause is loudest and longest for Lucienne who easily beats Miss Germany and Miss England to take the crown. Now its cocktail parties and offers of jewels and riches from her betters – Lucienne sails through as if it’s one childlike adventure: never has the Brooks smile been so much in evidence. But Andre has been in pursuit and unwilling to upset him more, Lucienne decides to go back to Paris.

Prince Adolphe advises that Andre will never understand her and we get the feeling he has a point. Shadowy days in a meagre apartment lie ahead for Lucienne and she is as imprisoned as their pet budgie ironing and cooking for Andre. He tears up her fan mail and bans all talk of Miss Europe but the fresh Prince tracks her down and makes her a fateful offer.


Then comes the funfair and those moments of doubt all leading to a change of heart and that stunning closing sequence. That may be the best part of the film but Louise Brooks is so much more powerful in silence and without the clumsy dubbing; she’s a spectacular – haunting - vision and one that is almost hard to watch… and ultimately, she just doesn’t need words.

Stephen Horne’s experience with the film showed with a subtle and forceful score featuring piano, flute and accordion. It’s fascinating to hear him play for a film he knows this well and to hear him maintain the freshness of improvisation with such practiced and hard-hitting emotional content. No musical spoilers: but you really must hear this show yourself and a closing sequence that is so perfectly timed as the piano brings dark discord and the flute lifts us high with Lucienne’s light and laughter as she watches herself on screen singing the lines above... 

Clair’s next film was to be the excellent Under the Roofs of Paris whilst Pabst went on to film The Threepenny Opera and a remake of L'Atlantide (featuring Brigitte Helm) the restoration of which is due a release.

For Brooks, this was to be her last major role. For those in the business who she hadn’t already alienated, she served out a few more roles, most notably in God’s Gift to Women but blew her last major chance with Public Enemy… Would she have made more of the opportunity than Jean Harlow? Hard to say; there was a potentially great actor in Brooks but as Pamela Hutchinson indicated, she just wasn’t going to sacrifice herself to this career. During filming Brooks infuriated her director by staying out late and having too good a time. Genina was convinced that this was preventing her from becoming “the ultimate actress” and he was probably right but, I doubt anyone could make Louise Brooks do much she didn’t want to do.

Festival director Alison Strauss pointed out that the French title contains a pun; it is not only the prize for beauty but the price. 

Alison's introductions have been a great feature of Hippfest Online as she highlights some of the many attractions of this part of Scotland. For this film she was at the futuristic Falkirk Wheel, the world's only rotating boatlift; something else I have to see in 2022!

The Q&A with Alison, Stephen and Pamela is available to watch on the Falkland Community Trust YouTube channel and it's an excellent mix of silent film musicology, scholarly Brooksology and unexpected hauntology...


This restored version of Prix de Beauté is out now on a two DVD set featuring three more of Genina's films, Goodbye youth! (1918) and it's remake from 1927, as well as The Mask and the Face (1919). You can order it through Amazon of direct from the Cineteca Bologna’s CineStore.

Cultural exchange… A Kiss from Mary Pickford (1927), with John Sweeney, 10th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival


Why aren’t you a star?


As plans go, Sergei Komarov’s was pretty good and it says something that the writer/director’s game was – according to some - only fully up some years later when someone handed his titular star a copy of this film in the 40’s or 70’s depending on your source. Either way, I’ve no idea what Mary Pickford thought of the finished film, I’d hope it would have brought back some very happy memories of her time in Europe with Douglas Fairbanks and also that it would remind her how absolutely loved she was by millions. It would have made her laugh no doubt and at her own expense and the sheer ludicrous nature of the fame she experienced in a uniquely successful way in over twenty years of filmmaking and beyond.


In 1926 Mary and Douglas came to Moscow as part of a grand European tour and seeing how rapturously they were greeted, how fetishized they were as something beyond ordinary humanity, Komarov devised a means of using this to both shine a light on the nature of this ultra-fame and to lampoon it. He had no special access to Pickford and Fairbanks just a collection of newsreels and one crucial sequence in which Mary agreed to perform a short skit with Igor Ilyinsky at the end of which she kisses him on the cheek; the moment which makes this film transcend its sources, from meta to better.


As a standalone comedy, A Kiss from Mary Pickford works as a kind of Russia cousin of the lost Merton of the Movies or Souls for Sale, Show People and so many films that are about films. Its humour is slapstick and pointedly surreal, revelling in the magic whilst at the same time making vicious fun of Pickfair mania and the need to not just see stars but to own anything connected to them, a kind of amoral materialism reflective of  the current state of capitalist decline... 

Igor Ilyinsky takes it all in

It begins with our hero, Goga Palkin (Ilyinsky), a ticket collector at a cinema, being rejected by his “actress” girlfriend, Dusya Galkina (the striking Anel Sudakevich) for not being able to hold a candle to her hero, Douglas Fairbanks. Come back to me when you’re a star she demands unreasonably, not revealing the auditions she herself failed that morning. Their quarrel comes after watching Zorro – itself a reminder of Valentino’s The Eagle, screened earlier in the festival – and Goga makes plaintive Fairbanks faces, as he wonders how he can possibly compare.


Luckily, even Soviet Moscow has an industry prepared to train would be film stars and Goga enlists on a programme to test his suitability to be a star. This course is perhaps unnecessarily rigorous as the latest reject is hauled out unconscious by an aggressive looking man. Stardom is clearly not for everyone and clearly makes demands that the average citizen finds hard to bear… Then he appears before three white coated old men who, naturally, get him to stand under a cold shower in a swimming costume. He pulls out the picture of his love to remind himself why this ordeal will be worth it and then strikes an exhausted Fairbanks pose and smile… is that all there is?


He passes the first test perfectly although he’s only just keeping it together… then he’s spun around until he disappears, the men worry he may have been disintegrated and then he has to stand on his head for long minutes – he cheats by putting his shoes on his hands. The result? A pass with flying colours – Genuine Certification of Cinematic Ability (Stunts)… Russia’s Buster Keaton is born… or is he?


One for Zorro, Anel Sudakevich

The pace is unrelenting and there’s some excellent funny business with the glass of water Goga slips into his pocket… he forgets and sits down only to realise that there’s water running down his leg. For a few horrible moments he relives childhood torment.


Soon Goga wanders onto his first film set which, conveniently enough, seems to be situated right next to the cinema. There is a superb overhead shot of a studio at work, with two separate scenes being filmed, the actors dwarfed by the scenery and the technology. The studio was Mezhrabpom-Rus, now the Gorky Film Studio, where over 20 films, including Aelita, Queen of Mars were shot.


Goga looks dumb enough to do stunt work and so it transpires as he’s hefted high up to the rafters for an especially dangerous stunt, promptly falling asleep 100 feet in the air after the cast and crew below are distracted by the imminent arrival of two American superstars…


What if we make a Russian Harry Piel out of him?


Show people at the Mezhrabpom-Rus

The producers decide that Goga is a natural comic and that they can make him into “a Russian Harry Piel”. Who’s that, I hear you cry – me too – well, Harry was a hugely successful comic actor and director who made over a hundred films, 72 of which were lost, including most of his silent, in an allied air raid during the war. He joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and paid the price with post-war imprisonment never recovering his popularity. He was known for his explosive comic style and for allegedly doing all his own stunts (spoiler: he didn’t) but would have been closer to the dafter version of early Keaton/Chaplin that Ilyinsky presents here.


Mary and Doug arrive and within the film, even watching now, there’s a thrill in seeing such candid shots of them. Mary’s beautiful smile is if anything more marked than on screen whilst suntanned Doug looks as fit as a butcher’s dog as the saying used to go in Stalingrad… Star power shines out as they wave from a train window, from their hotel and as they arrive as the film studios. I’m reminded of the time when Doug had to carry his wife on his shoulders among one crush in London on their honeymoon, even though they are protected, they feel much closer to the crowds than you’d expect; reality about to crash their fragile fame.


But Goga walks into the reception and is only concerned about seeing his love who is far too intent on viewing the royal couple to pay him any heed. Dusya has been one of a group pursuing the Americans with wide-eyed fanaticism, moving forward en masse like a plague of cineaste zombies; the undead, avoiding the light and staring, always staring, in search of a screen…


Douglas and Mary

When it comes to love scenes, I’m always ready.


Who is that funny little man? Asks Miss Pickford, clearly with an eye for style. The studio execs ask him to do his stunt for her but he hides in fear of falling only to reveal himself when Miss Pickford asks if she can do a love scene with him instead. After seeing only, the fiction and the newsreel footage it is indeed as surprise to see the two actors together and it must have caused a sensation in Russia. If Mary wanted to show her support for Russian film it worked.


And how it works in the film too as Goga himself becomes a superstar with eager fans chasing him everywhere for just a strip of shirt or grab from his wig. It’s like George Harrison running from fans in A Hard Day’s Night or, more pointedly, David Hemmings fighting for Jeff Beck’s guitar in the 100 Club in Antonioni’s Blow Up; you maybe saw it here first Michelangelo? Is Goga now too good for Dusya or will he get over himself and his legions of fans?


As Steven Morrissey once said: Fame, fame, fatal fame, It can play hideous tricks on the brain…


John Sweeney provided accompaniment and delighted in every comedic twist and turn in this joyful film that is as much a celebration of the Muscovite sense of humour as its cinema. John tracked the full range with accompaniment that was as in tune with Sergei Komarov’s larger purpose as it was Ilyinsky’s every gurn and pratfall. It is, as John said in his introduction, the kind of film you fall for… one that is largely unseen but is further evidence of the strength of Russian comedy and cinematic ideas during the Twenties.

John Sweeney on piano cam!


Mary and Doug also met with Sergei Eisenstein on their Moscow trip having helped get his Battleship Potyomkin released in the US. Fluent in English, Eisenstein took them on a tour of the city and gave them its history cinematically and otherwise. Mary’s kiss was her contribution to a film industry that fascinated them and which they hoped to encourage; a glimpse of the contemporary view of fellow creatives at a time when the Soviet project was very much in the balance.


You can still catch the weekend programme via the Hippfest site and Q&As are on the Falkirk Community Trust YouTube channel.


You can still catch up on the weekend programme until tomorrow so better be quick, especially for Louise Brooks in a restored silent Prix De Beauté (1930) with Stephen Horne score, Marlene in The Woman Men Yearn For (1929) and Mary Pickford in the above film and the brilliant southern gothic of Sparrows (1926).


It’s been a joy and I look forward to attending next year’s festival in person!