Saturday, 6 March 2021

Top Talmadge? A Pair of Silk Stockings (1918), with John Sweeney, Slapstick Festival Online

A poll in Moving Picture World in 1921, placed Norma and Constance Talmadge as the first and second most popular movie actresses in the USA and their success endured through most of the silent period.


Of all the superstars of silent film, Norma is perhaps the one modern audiences are most ambivalent about. Maybe this is because we don’t see her very best films that often (Smiling Through, the brace with Borgaze, Kiki et al) and because her, highly skilled, performances are in melodramas that just don’t translate that well. For me she is the finest actor of her family though with middle sister Natalie very limited in comparison – just good enough in her husband Buster’s Our Hospitality (1923) – and the youngest, Constance, excelling mostly in comedies requiring a different skill set. It is for this very reason that it may well be that she is now the Top Talmadge a century on from being overshadowed by Norma’s range.


Their mother thought Constance looked like a little Dutch boy (nope, me neither….) and that nickname stuck with the actress, who’s energy and sense of fun now leap out of screenings in ways that strike the same chords as Pickford, Normand and, indeed Fairbanks, with whom she starred in The Matrimaniac (1916). She was one of the brightest things in Griffiths’ sprawling Intolerance, running wild as the Mountain Girl fighting against oppression, riding chariots… but found her niche with the kind of social comedy of which A Pair of Silk Stockings is a fair example. She has an almost unconscious natural exuberance that combines with her expressiveness – huge eyes alive with feeling – to draw our response and convince with even the creakiest comedy.


Constance Talmadge and Harrison Ford

She’s another “time traveller” someone with a modern look and who is not burdened by over exposure as a silent icon; sneaking her persona through under the cover of her sister’s ubiquity. There are fewer preconceptions with Constance and we are simply left with what we find; interpreting her as something fresh.


Anita Loos was in a position to form an opinion though and the festival’s excellent compere, Lucy Porter, quoted from her autobiography, A Girl Like I, in which the writer expressed her admiration for “…one of the few genuine femme fatales I have ever known… Not to be in love with her would almost make a man seem abnormal, but no woman could be too jealous of Dutch because she had a sense of humour about sex that made her laugh off the majority of her suitors.”


And this we can see throughout Stockings, a very British type of farce set in an English country mansion and based on the play of the same name by Hendon-born Cyril Harcourt (originally named Cyril Worsley Perkins) which spawned further film as Silk Stockings in 1927 with Laura La Plante and John Harron. By this time Constance effectively had her own production company courtesy of her sister Norma’s husband, Joseph Schenck, and her choice of roles and crew working with screenwriter Edith Kennedy and director Walter Edwards on a number of projects including Mrs. Leffingwell's Boots (1918) and Romance and Arabella (1919).

Constance not looking at all as if she's a boy from Holland

Since it has dawned on him that he was a neglected husband, Sam’s grouch has grown daily until it is too big to swallow…


These films co-stared Harrison Ford as does A Pair of Silk Stockings and he has good chemistry with Constance, keeping a straight face and stubbornly struggling on digging when male pride leaves his character – described as “the husband of Mrs Sam Thornhill” - in a hole of increasing depth. Kennedy’s script makes the most of Sam’s discomfort and poor judgement as his insecurity gets the better of him with his wife Molly (Dutch) far too smart and alive for him to pin down.


Their row erupts or rather spirals into polite disagreement only the English could manage, over what car they should buy; Molly wants a new roadster and Sam thinks only a sensible touring car will do. He decides to test his wife by giving her the money for the car fully expecting that she’ll think twice and buy him what he wants but he’s picked the wrong spouse for that old ploy as Molly gets the sportier model. Miffed in the most passive aggressive of ways – Kennedy’s title cards are merciless – Sam decides to up the stakes just as Molly decides to trade for the tourer.

Sylvia Ashton disapproves


He sends a very expensive fur wrap to actress Maudie Plantagenet (Florence Carpenter), makes sure she sits next to him and Molly at the theatre, flirts ostentatiously and then makes sure that Molly sees the bill for the unfaithful fur. We then see what he expects to happen – wife contrite and desperate to win him back – and then what actually happens – wife in a fury and straight off to a divorce lawyer.


But their separation is only the set up for the main event which happens a month later at a house party given by Sir John Gower (Thomas Persse) and his wife played by the very stern and impressive Sylvia Ashton; the supporting players are all good here but as Lucy Porter says, she does stand out! Sam the Divorced is the “official killjoy” at the party where all their mutual friends have to tread on eggshells as he mopes about having failed to explain himself in court where he lost “hands down and thumbs up”. Fear not dear fellow, redemption lurks in even the darkest of nights…

TFW your divorced friends both turn up at the same party...


Molly arrives by surprise after her car breaks down interrupting the guests’ rehearsal of an Ibsen play (of course…), her old beau Captain Jack Bagnal (Louis Willoughby) is there, along with his young fiancé Pamela Bristowe (Wanda Hawley) and their friend Irene (Vera Doria) together with the Gowers they try to keep her and Sam apart… but life’s obviously not that simple. Add a beard for Ibsen, a burglar, the titular stockings and some heroically daft twists and turns and you can imagine how complicated this evening is going to get!


Accompanist John Sweeney drew a comparison with PG Wodehouse plays and he worked that comparison to superb effect with a seemingly effortless flow of peppy lines that wove amusingly around the sights and script. It’s just a shame we weren’t there as an audience to appreciate the performative whole but sat at our screens across the lockdown world we laughed and smiled in unison; knocked out by Dutch’s smile and Sweeney’s improvised comedic concerto!

Louis Willoughby and Dutch 

As with all the streams on the Slapstick Festival site, A Pair of  Silk Stockings can be viewed up to the 11th March so do not miss out!


Edith Kennedy's title cards are a hoot!

Sam's cunning plan...
He thought I was buying a tourer!?

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Laugh in paradise… Siren of the Tropics (1927), Günter A. Buchwald and Frank Bockius, Slapstick Festival 2021

Over ten years into my silent film hobby and this is the first full-length feature film I've seen with the legendary Josephine Baker. Rather remiss you may say but she has been on my list and this, appropriately enough, was her first feature film and, indeed, one of the very first films to feature a black actor as one of the leads this side of Oscar Micheaux, Richard E. Norman, Frank Peregini and other black filmmakers in the US. Hollywood was certainly not ready to go as far as French directors Mario Nalpas and Henri Étiévant do in La sirène des tropiques and other ethnicities often paid the price for involvement in the Caucasian world.


Their film does not necessarily follow the cliqued tramlines of other multi-ethnic stories but Miss Baker is treated as more overtly sexual than most white actors at this time – she’s topless twice -  and is portrayed as both innocent and with a childlike wildness; she attracts (white) male lust as well as love and protectiveness, revels in powerfully expressive jazz dancing – seriously, that *core* and the way she co-ordinates massive extensions without any apparent strain -  and yet remains in awe of western spirituality. So many questions… but, so used are we to seeing black actors now, that it’s a shock to see someone as naturalistic as her placed, largely, at the centre of a story in which race is not really mentioned.

Jospehine Baker

Slapstick 2020 was the last film festival I was able to physically attend and this year it has leapt online with some alacrity with a week’s worth of films, presentations and panel discussions all with newly commissioned musical accompaniment. This film was introduced by Akulah Agbami, Director of Sheba Soul Ensemble and BLACK Artists on the Move who explained Baker’s popularity in Europe, the film ran for many months in Paris where she was already famous and was premiered in Stockholm were her “exotic” charm was regarded as very fashionable. The film is probably the first to feature a black actress in a leading role amongst a white cast.


Live musical accompaniment was provided by Guenter A. Buchwald on piano and Frank Bockius on percussion, who, in addition to deploying an almost telepathic musical synchronicity, smartly avoided the cliches of cultural referencing. This being one of the great jazz babies, they gave us a rip-roaring, hi-tempo jazzed score that not only kept pace but lifted the film to the vibrational level of its all-powered star. When Baker eventually struts her considerable stuff towards the end of the film you felt that this is the moment the players had been pacing themselves for.


This was the musical equivalent of announcing, Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Josephine Baker… and it was as spine tingling a combination of artists across 94 years as you’d find!

Pierre Batcheff and Regina Thomas

Now there was also a film narrative involved and what a curious thing it was too… All starts in Paris where the rich and ruthless Comte Severo (Georges Melchior) does not take kindly to his goddaughter Denise (Regina Thomas) falling in love with the lowly but pretty, André Berval (Pierre Batcheff). The Count has already told his wife, the long-suffering Marquise Severo (Régina Dalthy) that he wants a divorce for, and I hope you’re sitting down, he wants to marry his goddaughter!


Severo talks him round and he seems to accept the match by offering to set up André to manage one of his new mines in the West Indies; he demands a “brilliant situation” for Denise’s husband and tells him to go off and succeed”. How-ever… this is all a ploy to dispose of engineering André and he writes to his man in the Caribbean saying that it would “suit” him very well if Monsieur Berval never returned to France.


This absolute rotter’s right-hand rascal is régisseur Alvarez (Kiranine who is wonderfully menacing), who has the good looks of a crumbling cliff face and the charm of stale Roquefort. He will follow his orders to the letter just when he’s finished trying to sexually harass Papitou (Baker) the free spirit who dwells in the colony of Monte Puebla. Papitou climbs up a wardrobe to avoid his clutches and there’s a hand-held camera showing his and her views; the menace is real enough. She calls on her dog to help her jump to freedom and they cower behind a log as Alvarez shoots at them, surely premature assassination?

Georges Melchior and Kiranine - a right couple of wrong 'uns

André intervenes when he finds Alvarez trying to abuse Papitou and she is not only grateful but very much in love… so, when Alvarez tricks the young Frenchman into following him on a trip to the wilds, Papitou follows knowing it’s a trap. Sure enough André is knocked out and left for dead only for his new friend to come to his rescue. Bravely, he sets off after Alvarez and his men who plan to steal more gold and, again with Papitou’s help, stops them.


The film decides we’ve spent enough time in “Monte Puebla” as a disaffected Denise – appalled at her godfather’s intentions towards her, heads out to find her true love with Marquise Severo in tow. All are reunited and Papitou learns the disappointing truth that Andre’s eyes are only for his intended. Yet, the French set off back to Paris on a passenger ship, Papitou swims out to stow away and the film enters a more comedic phase in which Baker shows her gift for physical comedy and expression. She ends up in “white face” after being powdered with flour and in the nude, washing it all off in the bath and, again, whilst her race is not specifically part of the plot it is intrinsic to the viewer’s experience. We fill in the gaps, but Josephine just beams and carries on regardless.


Papitou learns Christian scripture...

Things will come to a head in Paris of course, but the abiding enjoyment of the film is in Baker’s incredible energy – something she had in common with the best silent stars – as well as her post-modern charm. She’s smiling at us and not just on behalf of her character and she’s making the most of her chances… and when she dances, the room is lit up once again.


The Slapstick Festival continues until Sunday 7th March and you can still catch up on Miss Baker, Clara Bow – the glorious It and rarely screened Kid Boots – Max Linder’s hilarious The Three Must-Get-There’s and much more beside.


Full details on the Slapstick website HERE!!

Saturday, 27 February 2021

Murder outside the cathedral… Der Bettler vom Kölner Dom (1927), Edition Filmmuseum DVD

It wasn’t just St Pauls that somehow managed to resist the bombing of World War Two, Cologne Cathedral also remained standing despite of the damage wrought by fourteen direct hits from allied bombs and the largely destroyed city beneath its distinctive twin spires. It’s hard to watch this film without thinking of the devastation to come and the changes that would be painfully made across the city; it’s a travelogue of a world about to be destroyed in the most brutal of ways.


Rolf Randolf’s film makes much of the locations around the cathedral although most of the action takes place inside city hotels and bars no doubt recreated on sets. The ancient building is the crux of the plot though as befits a structure that took some 600 years to complete; begun in 1248, work was halted in 1560 and not restarted until the 1840s, finally completed to original Medieval plan in 1880 with all potential litigants for project management failures long since passed.


Based on Emanuel Alfieri’s play, this detective adventure has more of the feel of a French serial than a Weimar film with fantastical disguises, secret codes, cold-blooded killing and underground crime organisations all with a mix of comical and dramatic detection. More Fantômas than Dr. Mabuse, Der Bettler vom Kölner Dom (The Beggar from Cologne Cathedral) is a fun adventure with many an offbeat as well as the odd jarring moment throughout a slightly uneven story.

600 years behind schedule... but enduring.

It’s a battle of wits between a gang organised by an unnamed man played by Carl de Vogt who co-ordinates his operations standing on the cathedral steps disguised as the beggar, and the great detective, Tom Wilkens played by Henry Stuart. Wilkens is called in to help stop the gang and the game of cat and mouse begins. Disguising himself as the Beggar – following the death of another officer who had done the same – he is rewarded with a message from the gang, in code, which simply welcomes him! The game is afoot… and who is clever enough to survive?


Meanwhile, another member of the gang, styling himself as Marquis de Puissac (Robert Scholz), welcomes a young American woman, Mabel Strong (Elza Temary) who he has written to, persuading her that she is his niece: she is either wealthy or just young…  Then, another member of the gang, the vampish Madame Madeleine Tréville (Hanni Weisse) reads of an Indian prince coming to town from Bombay with certain materials of great worth in his suitcase… no one can accuse this gang of not working hard on many fronts. But they are being matched by Wilkens who is, of course, the moneyed Maharaja!


Henry Stuart

Wilkens, and his sub-continental disguise, duly arrives just as the city is celebrating the eve of Lent and the streets are already full of merry making as he makes his way to the hotel across form the cathedral. Here he is greeted by two odd private detectives, Napoleon Bonaparte Schmitz (Carl Geppert) and Carolus Caesar Müller (Hermann Blaß) who we are sure, will find those names difficult to live up to.


All comes together in the big party in the hotel that evening as the maharaja is very taken with Mabel just as Madeleine tries to impress; they dine with the Marquis making Mabel the only person she says she is, so far as we know at this stage… Napoleon and Caesar are knocked out with drugged drink proffered by gang member and part-time chauffeur Steffens (Fritz Kampers) and, of course, the Indian riches are stolen only for Wilkens/Maharaja to reveal that there’s a trigger device which will explode if anyone tries to open the box. Panicked Madeleine makes her excuse and heads off to warn the gang… giving herself away to the eagle-eyed sleuth.


Elza Temary and Robert Scholz

As the gang tries to work out how to open the box and keep their heads, Madeleine and the Marquis’ evil plan for Mabel is revealed as their forged life insurance papers are to be used to reap rich reward when she is to be killed en route to Paris leaving an ‘andsome inheritance for her “uncle” … and the rest of the gang.


But there’s still time for plenty of twists and turns, betrayals, ill-advised notes, hopes and new alliances as the story meanders wistfully towards its rather odd ending and one of the most unusual chase scenes you’ll see as well as vehicular gadgetry that would leave Q scratching his head.


As Wilkens says to the baddies in a taunting and, surprisingly not anachronistic note: Ohne fleiss kein preis… (No pain, no gain…) and in truth there’s a lot of the latter and only a smidgen of the former in the pacing of the tale.

Hanni Weisse

Willy Hameister’s cinematography captures the city very well especially when he sets up on one of the cars, whilst the performers give it their best shot with Stuart excelling as the man who knows far too much and de Vogt brooding with a sadistic menace.


The digitally restored version on the Edition Filmmuseum two DVD set looks smashing and comes with two alternative soundtracks: a new orchestral score by Pierre Oser, produced and performed by the WDR-Rundfunkorchester, and a live improvisation by the great Günter A. Buchwald (piano and violin, played sometimes at the same time) recorded at the International Bonn Silent Film Festival 2010. There is a 16-page trilingual booklet as well as plentiful shorts, commercials, and newsreel reports about Cologne from the silent era with Stephen Horne mostly providing accompaniment.


You can order direct from the Filmmuseum and, whilst Brexit has made delivery slightly more expensive, it’s still well worth supporting the service and the remarkable films they make available.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Fleet streets… The Last Edition (1925) with Stephen Horne, SFSFF Streaming

“(It) has the merit, uncommon in most newspaper pictures, of being accurate in every detail. It is the best picture he has made and may be called a box-office success.” New York Morning Telegraph


This is the latest film to be streamed on the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and features a suitably frantic accompaniment from Stephen Horne originally recorded at the screening of the restored film in 2013. The Last Edition is a thrill ride, from the hot metal drama on the huge printing presses of the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper to break-neck car chases, fire engines and criminal doings with powerful, well-acted simple human stories, it’s a very solid late-period Hollywood silent.


The film was considered lost until a discovery of a 35mm nitrate print in the EYE Museum in 2012 led to a reconstruction, with Dutch intertitles translated back to American English and tints fully restored under the management of Rob Byrne’s team at the San Francisco Festival. The full story is fascinating and told here on the film’s restoration site.


Off-set litho printing presses... the smell of ink!!

Director Emory Johnson, an actor turned director and writer, made films that focused on the working man and this is, as the above quote indicates, a very accurate portrayal of the publishing business, especially in the scenes showing the newspaper being typeset, plated and printed – yes, I am old enough to have worked with hot metal presses! The process is important as it not only shows the working reality of our hero Tom McDonald (the excellent Ralph Lewis) It also becomes one of the key “races” in a film full of urgency and tight spots. Johnson’s due diligence and determination to anchor his film in the authentic production process of the newspaper business, makes it both believable as well as historically interesting. We forget how many hands moved so swiftly and in unison to bring news to the world and most films focus on the journalism and not the setters and printers, machine minders and delivery men who brought the ink and paper over the final stages.


To this extent the film reminded me of The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), if not in fantastical subject matter then just in the process of newspapers, and how it plays a part in the narrative of both films. Juts as the Day used the Daily Express offices and plant, Johnson’s film was located at the actual Chronicle building in San Francisco, shortly before they moved to new premises.


Louis Payne and Ralph Lewis

Tom is an experienced pressman at the Chronicle and the times they are a changing, circulation is down and Publisher Jerome T Hamilton (Louis Payne), is looking for a fresh approach as he shouts at his useless yes men in the board room, feeling his margins dilute with every issue. Thus, it is that Tom’s departing boss’ recommendation is ignored as he is just another “old hand” with twenty years’ at the paper.


Tom’s disappointment is amplified as he finds “Bull” Collins (Tom O’Brien) moving into his old Forman’s office; a younger man but one who has been a “complete failure” as a printer and yet who clearly mangers upwards well and has now been appointed to his position of maximum inefficiency.


My boy, never forget the story I told you about the three generals… Truth, Love and Duty…


Frances Teague telephonist

Tom takes it on the chin, he is proud of his job and providing leadership and encouragement to his team, including young apprentice, “Ink” Donovan (Billy Bakewell). He also has a happy home with wife Mary (Lila Leslie), son Ray (Ray Hallor) who has just been offered work at the District Attorney’s office, and Polly (Frances Teague) a telephonist who is romancing one of the paper’s young reporters, Clarence Walker (Rex Lease) – all three will play a major part as the drama unfolds.


Meanwhile, back in the print palace, Jerome takes a walk past banks of typographers, and the huge rolls of paper on the lithographic printer. He’s looking for anything that can help him improve his paper’s performance and he overhears Tom counselling young Ink with his motto about Truth, Love and Duty… Jerome summons Tom to his office, offers him a cigar and begins what will become a regular series of chats, all of which end with his calling a ditzy stenographer (Ada Mae Vaughn, giving it extra!) into the office and we see her taking his thoughts down using shorthand; the start of the journalistic process even now.

Ray Hallor and Rex Lease

Walker, it looks like Blotz is now part of high society, give it your best shot boy and put a stop to his operation…


Talking of which, action picks up elsewhere as courthouse reporter Harry Owens (C Hollister Walker) get’s the word on infamous bootlegger Blotz and phones in for the file of the man who has so far evaded press and police alike. Here we see the backroom researchers as every mention of the gangster is pulled from the Chronicle’s extensive files. Clarence goes off to investigate and tracks down Blotz (Will Frank) and his right-hand man, Red Moran (David Kirby), climbing up outside their building to overhear them sending a payment in to a contact in the DA’s office…


The bad penny is Gerald Fuller (Cuyler Supplee) but, after Clarence follows Red in, Fuller fingers none other than young Ray to take the rap. Ray is arrested and in the face of rather flimsy circumstantial evidence, assumed as guilty even if Clarence suspects not. He must phone in his story, which sets up a breath-taking finale, as the Chronicle tries to publish, Red tries to destroy all of the paper’s evidence by setting fire to the building, and Tom is faced with having to print a story that he cannot believe as he sees the headline on the final edition announcing his son’s arrest: Young attorney in $50,000 bribe!


Come on boys! All hands on deck, we still have eighteen minutes until press time.

All action!

Spoilers: Journalism works hand in hand with the police as Clarence joins the dots and persuades the cops to listen for calls to Fuller’s office and Polly plays her part in not only connecting the calls but keeping the perps talking…


It’s a rousing finale with some great location shots captured by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and greatly enhanced by some power playing from Mr Horne who paces his musical sentiment as perfectly as you’d expect. Johnson’s direction is very disciplined and allows Stephen to weave dynamically between the cross-cutting action and emotion, especially as buildings burn, bootleggers are pursued and Tom’s family face their greatest challenge!


The Final Edition is still available to view on the SFSFF site, you just need to register as a member and enjoy!