Sunday, 25 September 2022

The first Elizabethans… Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), BFI Blu-ray

 

Whilst Helen Mirren is perhaps the only actor to have played both the first and the second Queen Elizabeth, Glenda Jackson played the first twice having just come off a very successful portrayal in the six-part BBC series Elizabeth R (1971) when offered the chance to reprise the role for this film. The original choice, Geneviève Bujold, had decided against playing her “daughter” after her award-winning turn as Anne Boleyn in Anne of a Thousand Days, also directed by Charles Jarrott and also produced by the Hal B. Wallis so, with Vanessa Redgrave nailed on as Queen Mary, they made Birkenhead’s finest actor, an offer she couldn’t refuse. Jackson’s one stipulation was that all of her scenes were filmed first in the initial three weeks shooting… such is the power of a Star and the pressing need for anyone to grow back their natural hairline.

 

Apart from the chance to see these two giants of British cinema and theatre playing such iconic roles, the film is jam-packed with some of the finest actors of the kingdom, Trevor Howard at his economical scene-stealing best, Nigel Davenport carrying an “atmosphere” of febrile energy throughout and, talking of which, New York-born, Irish raised and English-schooled, Patrick McGoogan who is thoroughly unsettling in darker ways. There’s also young Timothy Dalton, a rising star who formed an attachment with his Scottish queen beyond the film and for fifteen years. We also can’t overlook Daniel Massey either nor Ian Holm… but we’ll get to them all later.

 

Whilst contemporary reviews were very positive towards the players there were some brickbats for the slow pacing as well as historical inaccuracies/liberties… In his commentary, American film writer Sergio Mims makes a very good point concerning the narrative content in a year in which the film code lay smashed on the ground with so many “permissive” films released, all of which were more raunchy and daring than this historical “procedural”… it was hardly going to compete with A Clockwork Orange, Klute, Dirty Harry, Death in Venice or Get Carter; different agenda and style but wrongfooting some critics save Roget Ebert who could see the value of Redgrave and Jackson’s skills.

 

"Vanessa Redgrave is a tall, straight-backed, finely spirited Mary, and Glenda Jackson makes a perfectly shrewish, wise Elizabeth." Roger Ebert

 

Glenda and Vanessa

As for historical content, yes, the film has the Queens meeting, which they never did, but they did correspond and this creative shorthand proves a good way of personalising their relationship as well as addressing the manoeuvrings and bravery that led Mary to her fate. The film plays more due diligence to the progression of events than many subsequent films have, 2018’s effort especially… with Margot’s Liz being friends with Saoirse’s Mary, although Max Richter’s score is very fine. Talking of which, we have a John Barry score here, so right back ‘atcha 2018!

 

If anything, this Mary makes light of the historical detail with so many Shakespearean actors able to punch meaningfully through the detailed script with ease and meaning. Can any film "based on historical events" truly capture the full picture with anything like historical accuracy; all we can hope for is a reasonable flavour and, for those whose interest is piqued, the starting point for further researcher. Watching this film I automatically thought of the now later Hilary Mantel, who has done so much to humanise the historical novel with thorough primary source research matched with erudition and storytelling skill. What she could have made of Mary and Elizabeth we can only guess, for now though we have one of the most intriguing relationships in British History all illuminated by the extensive correspondence between the two, all recently on show at the British Library.

 

We start in France, on location at Château de Chenonceau, and young Mary’s husband Francis II falling victim to a seizure. The balance of power in western Europe was very precarious even as we look back on this Elizabeth’s long reign with questions of religion, succession and nobility all playing their part in destabilising a monarch with no heir. Mary was young but had arguably a greater claim and, crucially, a son, James.

 

Daniel Massey


Powerful though these women were, their weakness was often the men in their life, certainly in Mary’s case. Her cousin half-brother James Stewart, 1st Earl of Moray (Patrick McGoohan) just wants to manage her, and rule, happy for her to be married and left in France and then, on her return to Scotland, frustrated by her marrying the impulsive Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (Timothy Dalton), a fine looking but weak-willed fop, directed at her by Cousin Elizabeth, to weaken her position and to draw her eye away from her suggested groom – and lover - Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Daniel Massey).

 

“It's all very Game of Thrones…” as someone once said to me after one especially deft piece of politics at work… I didn’t study The Prince and Discorsi for nothing! Unfortunately for Mary she has to learn as she goes and doesn’t have the sound counsel Elizabeth has from Sir William Cecil (Trevor Howard) and even the well-intentioned promptings from advisor, David Riccio (Ian Holm) is undermined by his relationship with Darnley, un-historically intimate as it may possibly be.

 

Eventually Mary finds solace and support with James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell (Nigel Davenport) who, as film scholar Ellen Cheshire points out in her excellent booklet essay, is seen by some as a more abusive presence in her life. Here he helps give her the confidence to use her increasing maturity but she plays her hand badly and Elizabeth, whilst always offering her a way out, has little option in the end. One of her mottoes was video et taceo (I see and keep silent), and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that she simply made fewer mistakes.

 

Redgrave and Davenport

All the same, Mary’s son James was crowned king following Elizabeth’s death and from 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth's life, the way was prepared with the ailing Queen’s chief minister Sir Robert Cecil – son of William - maintaining a correspondence with James, then the Scottish King, in order to prepare for a smooth succession. Needs must when it comes to the continuity of our monarchy… and these people were ultimately on the same side.

 

As an historical film, Mary of course takes liberties, but as the chance to witness a face off between Jackson and Redgrave it’s hugely enjoyable. Vincent Canby in The New York Times, saw it as "a loveless, passionless costume drama…” but he must have been expecting a car chase, organised crime and more nudity. It stands up very well and looks gorgeous thanks to Christopher Challis’ cinematography.


Glenda abides

As is usual, the Special Features are a bit special!

  • Presented in High Definition
  • Audio commentary by film historian and critic Sergio Mims (2020)
  • Isolated John Barry score with commentary from film historians Nick Redman and Jon Burlingame
  • Riding High (2022, 6 mins): actor Frances White recalls her experiences on location
  • The Guardian Lecture: Glenda Jackson (1982, 77 mins, audio only): from an interview at the National Film Theatre
  • Now and Then: Vanessa Redgrave (1968, 30 mins): and interview with Bernard Braden for his never broadcast series
  • Promotional trailer (1971, 4 mins)
  • Image gallery
  • Newly created audio description track
  • Illustrated booklet with a fabulous new essay by Ellen Cheshire, biographies of Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson by John Oliver, credits and notes on the special features – this is in the first pressing only so be quick!

 

You can order the set from the BFI’s online shop or onthe Southbank where you will be tempted with plenty of other goodies…






Monday, 19 September 2022

Solidarity Song… Kuhle Wampe (1932), BFI Blu-ray/DVD Out now!

 

“So, who will change the World?

Those who don’t like it as it is!”

 

There are some films that just chill you to the bone with a combination of context, hindsight and the present. Who Owns the World? or Kuhle Wampe oder: Wem gehört die Welt?, to give it its full German title, is just one of those films for a whole range of reasons, chiefly its sense of pride, optimism and resolution all impossibly poignant given the time of its production. Released in early 1932 when Germany had five million unemployed, a mass of debt and extremists promising a solution that, as we now know, would hit the country sooner and harder than they could ever expect, its message that the World must change and it will be changed for the better is heart-breaking.

 

This was Bertolt Brecht’s follow up to the enormously successful Threepenny Opera (1931) and he took far more control over proceedings with director Slatan Dudow, who was easier for him to work with than the powerful Herr Pabst. It’s almost a silent film with sparse dialogue leaving the focus on the songs with Brecht’s lyrics and Hanns Eisler’s music with the Solidarity Song still a powerful reminder of the forces that divide us: “Forward – and never forget our solidarity!”

 

 

The film contains some magnificent shots, courtesy of cinematographer Günther Krampf (who shot Nosferatu) and feels more like People on a Sunday than the studio-bound Opera. Brecht said that a quarter of it was filmed in just two days and it does feel naturalistically rough and ready, like Ken Loach four decades before his time along with what feels like improvised dialogue and the actors working off situations.

 

The image of men on two wheels recurs throughout the film: collective motion


The most scripted part of the film – co-directed by Brecht - feels like the final sequence on the commuter train where people from all walks of life discuss the state of things and the way forward. Everyone is here, whether from Weimar Berlin or modern day America and Britain, the middle-aged, the old and the young all seeing different things as eternal truths are exchanged – comfortable conservatives and struggling youth in opposition about to be outflanked by a pernicious mix of twisted nationalism and ruthless state control that generated an incredible pace of change and used that as its justification.

 

Equally powerful are the opening sequences in which young men on bicycles scour the city for work, waiting in groups to hear of possible vacancies before racing to find nothing. Feet peddle hard, the young men are determined and fast but not quick enough. This is one of a number of Brechtian ironies pointed out by writer Andrew Hoellering whose father produced the film. He’s interviewed in one of the extras, dating from 1999 and, this, together with the new commentary from film scholar Adrian Martin, adds a lot of context to the film.

 

Brecht rescripted the film after earlier work from writer Ernst Ottwalt and Slatan Dudow who had found a newspaper article detailing the suicide of a young unemployed worker. Brecht split the film into four sections according to Martin, of which this incident formed the basis of the first following on from the desperate search for work and entitled: One less unemployed man, a pointedly brutal take on the tragedy.

 

Defeated. Adolf Fischer's Karl has no fight left on his own.


Brecht was interested in showing how petit bourgeoise attitudes of individual responsibility fail to take account of structural issues that can only have collective solutions. Back home in a tenement block, one of the young cyclists, Karl (Adolf Fischer) is chided by his father for being useless, he’s been unemployed for seven months and with the family struggling he needs to pay his way. His sister Anni (Hertha Thiele, who was also in Mädchen in Uniform (1931)), is the only one employed and her pride shines through as her brother’s silence reveals his desperation. In another of those Brechtian ironies, the father and mother are also unemployed. All are at their wits’ ends though and the second Karl stands up and removes his watch, we know exactly what he’s going to do, and, with everyone else out he walks to the window and dives to his death four storeys below; at least they can sell his watch.

 

This section is played out with Soviet-style montage and rapid cuttings, the filmmakers were not just influenced by communism but by the cultural output of the soviet regime. The second section begins with a montage of industrial settings as the family are about to get further crushed by the capitalist machinery. Unable to pay their debts the family is evicted and humiliated in part two, ironically entitled, The most wonderful life for a young person.

 

A solution arrives with them all moving in with Anni’s boyfriend Fritz (Ernst Busch) in his tent at Kuhle Wampe, a former holiday spot on the Müggelsee in Berlin. Anni gets pregnant but Fritz doesn’t want to lose his freedom in a sequence that has clearly gaps left by early censorship. Abortion, then as now, was a hot topic and any direct discussion has been lost. The initial decision is to keep the baby and an engagement is announced and there’s another lovely set piece as everyone gets drunk during an eight-minute-long engagement party. Everyone that is except for a miserable Fritz who feels he has been trapped and is not ready to commit. A resigned Anni walks off to go stay with her pal Gerda (Martha Wolter).

 

Headed in different directions? Hertha Thiele and Ernst Busch


Gerda and her boyfriend are members of a left-wing group that gathers at the weekends to compete at sport – swimming, rowing, motorcycle racing… all of which goes perfectly well with discussion about Hegel and a socialist solution. Their unity helps give Anni the courage to abort her child and then Fritz finally comes around… there is strength in unity even after he too loses his job; there is hope. As Martin points out, Brecht was less concerned about “centering” the young couples’ story arc than the messaging about collective action and solidarity; their personal solution is as unspecific as that for the “world” and the people.

 

The scenes of the “Worker Athletes” festival at the park are superbly cross-cut, women rowing, men swimming, motorbikes – not pushbikes – being flung hard around the muddy circuit. Dziga Vertov was clearly an influence. Then there is the marvellous Red Megaphone Group who, literally, amplify the concerns of the film and its core family: “forward, without forgetting what it is that makes us strong!”

 

Then we have that final scene on the train as they head home as a good cross-section of German society tries to think its way out of the misery… leading to the question only the young can answer, in the form of Gerda. As they descend into the darkness of the station corridors as the end our knowledge of what comes next makes it almost unbearable.

 

Strength through harmony


There’s welcome commentary on what became of the main cast and crew with most escaping Germany fairly soon after and Brecht being exiled again after the McCarthy blacklisting of the late 1940s, moving back to East Germany. How close America came then and how close is it now?

 

As Brecht wrote, “whether your belly’s full or empty, go forward without forgetting…”

 

There are the usual excellent special features:

  • Presented in High Definition and Standard Definition
  • Newly commissioned commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin (2022)
  • Introduction and Q&A by Andrew Hoellering (1999, 36 mins + 14 mins): the writer discusses his father’s work on Kuhle Wampe 
  • Bread (1934, 12 mins): a short political film made in protest against social inequality, poverty and unemployment
  • Beyond This Open Road (1934, 11 mins): modernist short by B Vivian Braun and Irene Nicholson, with poetic images of workers’ leisure time
  • Housing Problems (1935, 16 mins): Arthur Elton and Edgar Anstey’s powerful documentary about slum housing
  • Eastern Valley (Donald Alexander, 1937, 17 mins): a documentary about a Welsh co-operative scheme run by unemployed miners

 

A lush, illustrated booklet with essays by Martin Koerber and Henry K Miller, an archival review by Jill Forbes (Monthly Film Bulletin, July 1978), notes on the special features and credits - first pressing only, so be quick!

 

 

Another wonderful – historical – release from the BFI and every cineaste’s home should have one. You can order direct from their online shop and express your solidarity in person on the Southbank too!


Martha Wolter tells the train some truths

 



Sunday, 11 September 2022

Dancing queen… Foxy Brown (1974), Pam Grier at the BFI


I’ve seen a number of Q&As at the BFI but I don’t recall anyone dancing their way onto stage before nor holding the audience quite so rapt with energy, positivity and joy. Pam Grier is from a humble background but she’s a self-made force who, having decided to attend UCLA in the late sixties to become an actress, got a gig singing and playing organ with Bobby Womack, jamming with Sly Stone and one James Marshall Hendrix all in the first week of her stay in LA. Life is what you make it and her references to assaults in her early youth are an indication not of the scars left but the response given, and how she used every set back to propel herself forward.


You can’t just applaud Ms Grier, you have to stand up and cheer as well, quite something from a English audience but she is infectious and energetic, skiing, climbing and horse riding as well as continually film-making in her early 70s… “every day I wake up and I’m still breathing is a good day…” is something for all of us to take to heart. This was the kick off for a season of Pam's films at the BFI, the tagline is Foxy, Fierce and Fearless and that is no lie... 


We’d just watched Foxy Brown and it is certainly one of those films that, as with Shaft, Trouble Man and her earlier film Coffy (1973), epitomises seventies’ attitudes towards sex, ultra-violence, retribution but she says for her it represented independence and the chance to move further from the woman who arrived in LA with $33 and a bucket of chicken to her name. Foxy is without doubt a woman of agency, “you take care of the Justice and I’ll deal with the Revenge” she tells her crew of men towards the climax, and she overcomes every situation using guile and force while, always, retaining her femininity as she says.


Pam makes an entrance!


You might watch this film for Pam Grier and her style and beauty; but she also kicks ass, literally a master of martial arts, judo and kung-fu and the Hammond B3 organ; this is some prodigious talent. She does her own stunts which led to her breaking her leg in Coffy and the crew having to make-her cast look like her other boot. She’s not quite the authoritative actress of Jackie Brown and later work but she is absolutely a star holding the narrative together almost on her own. She’s on screen for almost the whole film which, has echoes not just of American action films but also Get Carter albeit she’s in better shape than Michael Caine’s Carter and it’s not even her full-time job.


We don’t know quite what Foxy does for a living, which is a legacy of the film’s origin as a follow up of sorts to Coffy, but she must do it very well. She can handle herself as the film’s superb sub-Bond title sequence shows, Foxy subverts the sexism of this style though, not just cleavage and curves but plenty of kick and a definite challenge to the audience… the female gazes back at her audience.


Foxy has humour to offset any hint of earnestness and the fashionable ultra-violence. No one’s more intentionally funnier than Pam’s brother Link – short for Lincoln – as crafted by Antonio Fargas who never misses a beat. Link getting in all kinds of trouble in his attempts to monetise the opportunities of supply and demand in his quest to move up from drug-dealing. He’s only a cog in a much larger wheel with the supply fed from a twisted white sister "Miss" Katherine Wall, a superbly wired Kathryn Loder, who could easily have been playing in one of Grier’s earlier Roger Corman films. Katherine is a super villain, by day a millionairess fashion tycoon, and by night pulling the strings on the city’s class A drugs and prostitution.


The Odd Couple... Kathryn Loder and Peter Brown


Helping her maintain this big business is a weirdly-smooth Steve Elias (Peter Brown) who, whilst being the object of Miss Kathy’s infatuation – she loves it when he hurts people – has his own agenda beyond falsified reciprocation. He’s too shallow even for the hollow and there’s a wry sequence when he’s telling his sugar mommy how much he loves her whilst rolling his eyes at the thought. It is so interesting that the baddies are professional class white people, definitely an observation about the power structure of the criminal classes, as well as the end-users who drive the wider drugs business.


At the film’s start, they have sent their goons Eddie (Tony Giorgio) and Hays (Sid Haig) to extract monies owed from Link who has to call in the aid of big sis. She duly arrives in the nick of time to swat the thugs and take her wayward brother home. Link is nothing if not faithless though. Jackie is romancing an undercover detective Michael Anderson (Terry Carter) who has just undergone facial surgery to change his appearance after infiltrating the drug syndicate. His bandages are removed, leaving Foxy with a still handsome boyfriend but the effort is sadly wasted as Link recognises his sister’ supposedly new paramour.


Here’s a chance for Link to re-finance and he can’t resist selling his sister’s man down the river exchanging £20,000 in exchange for Mike’s life. Foxy is naturally aggrieved and resolves to avenge her fallen lover just as soon as she’s kicked Link around his apartment.


The great Antonio Fargas and Pam


She poses as a call girl to gain entry to Miss K’s legion of lovelies-for-lease and pals up quickly with Claudia (Juanita Brown) in order to learn the ropes and dig deeper. Claudia’s trapped in this world and longs to get back to her daughter and Foxy persuades humiliate a well-placed client, Judge Fenton (Harry Holcombe) who was willing to go easy on the gang’s foot soldiers in exchange for favours but ends up trouser-less in hotel humiliation. Misfortunes are always deserved in Foxy Brown and there’s a karmic quality to her vengeance.


After this there’s no going back and after sending Claudia off to safe haven, Foxy is caught by the syndicate after Link once again fails her, this time fatally. It’s looking bleak for Foxy who is sent off to the “Farm” to be force-fed heroin before being sold off to sex slavery. She’s tortured and raped by two extravagantly-odd white characters and tied to a bed with a growing addiction in the middle of nowhere, there’s only one way out and that’s flicking the razor blade used to cut the heroin into her mouth, using it to cut her ropes, pulling together a make-shift weapon from some coat hangers that rip the face of one abuser allowing her to immolate the second and make her escape in their car… She is, like James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, a resilient master of graceful ingenuity!


It follows that the finale will be equally explosive as, Foxy gets positively medieval on various evil asses as her long-term admirer Quentin Tarantino would put it...


That look!


Jack Hill directs with dynamism and whilst he ticks all of the boxes for sex/blaxploitation he also allows his star to provide the template for female action heroes to come. There’s a reason we cheered Pam Grier today, she’s a hero on and off screen. She transcends the material and commercial imperatives, as well as the script, to present a character as iconic as Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel.


The music from Willie Hutch is to this film as Isaac Hayes’ is to Shaft and perfectly encapsulates the sass and the soul of Foxy Pam. As she proved in the flesh, she’s still “superbad” and in any language that’s extraordinarily good!


Full details of the Pam Grier season are here on the BFI site. Formidable!

 

The quiet before the storm...


Monday, 5 September 2022

The young ones… The Primrose Path (1925), with Stephen Horne, BFI


The eldest son is recklessly squandering his days along the path of folly - the Primrose Path - bordered by alluring  blossoms that ever beckon to youth...

 

This was Clara Bow’s 24th film and yet she was only just 20 when it was released in September 1925, positively ancient in comparison with Baby Peggy (aka Diana Serra Carey) who was on her 25th film aged just five with The Kid Reporter (1923): there was no hanging about in early Hollywood was there? Both films are testament to the professionalism and productivity of cinema at this stage and the opportunities for young talent to make an impact. Once you were noticed, the demand for your services was inexhaustible so long as you kept on delivering and saying yes… or at least had a parent, guardian or agent willing to do so.

 

The Peggy short was up first in this double bill of restored films… The Kid Reporter is a very competent effort that was designed to meet the expectations of its stars fan base and in its own terms it succeeds. You can see why Peggy was such a compelling character and why audiences of all ages were able to relate to her energy and humour.

 

A lot is down to the direction of Alfred Goulding who uses his remarkable asset wisely but you still have to perform even as a five-year-old and Peggy was clearly able to play act with the best of them, playing the unlikely stenographer at a newspaper run by barely-grown-ups. A string of posh pearls goes missing and the Chief offers the post of Managing Editor to the staffer who can find the story and the jewellery. No spoilers but watch the one who’s about three feet high.

 

Baby Peggy takes charge.


It’s always great to see Clara Bow on the big screen and whilst an unrestored and incomplete version of The Primrose Path had been screened earlier this year at the Bioscope, who also showed Kid Boots recently, a restoration of which was shown at this year’s Bologna Il Cinema Ritrovato, these are rare events compared with other actors of similar and, indeed, lesser status. Louise Brooks chided Kevin Brownlow for not focusing more on Clara Bow who she considered much more talented than herself and, whilst their styles differed, Bow was something of an emotional phenomenon, able to tap into a deep well of experienced sadness to present high-impact expression seemingly at will.

 

She was a natural, natural… as we can see it here even when, as the BFI’s silent film archivist Bryony Dixon said in her introduction, she’s not given much to do other than look pretty and cry which, on both counts, she does exceptionally well. But even when she’s not the centre of dramatic attention it’s always fascinating to watch Clara Bow and, as Bryony said when referencing her biographer David Stenn, his book, Running Wild, contains a lot of painful insight into Clara’s early years and the reasons why she was always able to tap into a well of sadness and would have struggled to match Peggy’s unblemished childhood charm.

 

Stenn was involved in both these restorations as was the BFI with materials used in conjunction with others led by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The colour tinting reproduces the dye-tinted colours present in the original nitrate film sources and restored 35mm print has been chemically dye-tinted, looking as good as almost any of Bow’s films in current circulation.


Clara in curls with Tom Santschi
 

The Primrose Path is no It! or Wings but it is a very entertaining programmer well-made by director Harry O. Hoyt (who went on to make The Lost World and many more) that pulls on the heart strings whilst presenting an effective plot line with many proto-gangster elements and genuine threat. You are ware of a limited budget and the tightest of briefs as sometimes cinematic code is used where linear storytelling might elaborate more fully: that is, you need to turn off your mind, relax and suspend disbelief as you fill in the odd gap.


The story is based on a fatherless family of Bruce Armstrong (Wallace Macdonald), a young man who has had his struggles with drink which resulted in an accident which left his younger brother Jimmy (Pat Moore, a bit elderly compared to Peggy but pretty good!) requiring a leg brace. They boys have no father, only a caring mother (Lydia Knott who is so quietly effective) who carries on amidst her despair at Bruce’s missteps.

 

Bruce is just about to get himself in deeper as, unable to pay his gambling debts to Tom Canfield (Stuart Holmes) a thoroughly corrupt Broadway producer, he agrees to help smuggle diamonds in exchange for a clean slate. Sounds fine, doesn’t it? Just about the only thing Bruce is doing right is dating one of Canfield’s chorus girls, a proper stunner name of Marilyn (Clara) who is no dope, seeing all the good in Bruce, and all the bad in Tom, providing more help than the young man probably deserves.

 


The review in Variety noted that “Miss Bow looked cute…” which is code for Miss Bow looked incredible in a series of daring costumes designed to show off her “dangerous curves” but which she never lets overwhelm her striking expressiveness; she gives this script total respect and adds much to the level of drama. I’m reminded of what some of the Hammer actors have told me, they had almost no time and no budgets as well but their job was to turn up and deliver a quality performance which is what we see now and then from most of this cast.

 

Holmes is despicably nasty as is his muscle, Big Jim Snead (Tom Santschi) and an Englishman, Dude Talbot (the wonderfully named Templar Saxe) who is bringing the diamonds over from Blighty hidden in a cane. He exchanges the cane with one exactly the same carried by Bruce, who the authorities do not know, and is able to evade been caught sparkling-handed. It seems like everything has worked, until a row erupts between Big Jim and Canfield who, knocked backwards, breaks his neck on the fireplace.  Dude and Jim make like bananas and split leaving a stunned Bruce to be hauled away by Marilyn…

 

The evidence pretty much fits Bruce though and he faces a fight for his life after Big Jim, assuming he has taken the loot, comes looking for vengeance… and things get a lot more complicated.

 


LV Jefferson wrote the screenplay aka Leah Baird whom the Variety review praised for putting “much of the maternal instinct into the plot” and for “making Miss Bow a clean, good, lovable girl of a cabaret who (sticks) with her boy…”. The review reproduced in today’s screening notes, is pretty jaded – so many free screenings, so little time - but concludes that “this is a very interesting picture just that, which may be more for those who prefer a reliable.” Translation required…

 

Stephen Horne accompanied, fresh from his orchestrated score for the newly restored Stella Dallas (1925) at the Venice Film Festival. There was no orchestra on the Southbank today but there was a pleasing array of themes and tones played by the one man as Stephen brough his uncanny sensibilities to bear on supporting these two quite different films. As usual he caught the emotional resonance exactly right and was especially good with Clara as she took us from upbeat to potential tragedy.

 

Another lovely screening at the BFI, London’s most functional Tardis, taking us far and wide, forward and back on a regular basis. Here’s to next time, an appointment with one Pam Greer!





Sunday, 28 August 2022

To Please Sir with love… Please Sir! (1971), Network Blu-ray out now!

 

 

One of the biggest box office hits in Britain of 1972, when, Lord knows, we could do with a laugh, Please Sir! is one of those very rare beasts, a film based on a TV series that works on its own terms but also as an extension of the spirit and sensibilities of the series. Removed from the context of its source medium and, further, the school setting that created the situation, Please Sir! finds a new comedic environment with which to extend its mix of class and generational conflict in the more cinematic location of the great outdoors, albeit it just down the road from Pinewood Studios.

 

As David Barry (Frankie Abbott in 5c) says in one of the extras, the TV series was hugely popular and was even pulling in more viewers than Coronation Street at one point. As with Dad’s Army you had the eternal comedic conflict between the establishment of school authorities and beyond and the working-class kids (mostly in their 20s) who are written off as a bad job by almost all around them. There's some genuine pathos here amongst the (barely) scholarly slapstick.

 

The one person willing to take their side and who still has hopes for them is their teacher Bernard “Privet” Hedges as played by charming and quick-witted John Alderton who, in addition to having a certain McCartney-esque look, is able to convey a mixture of naivety and principled resolve. Bernard’s one of the most well-constructed comedy characters of the era because of these contradictions, his hesitancy almost always followed through by response and perhaps the sound of his hand gently slapping the back of a boy’s head. It’s hard to imagine any other performer holding these opposing forces together with a much likeability, ease and charm as Alderton and it was, as much as Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring, one of the iconic roles of early seventies sit-com.

 

John Alderton, Patsy Rowlands and Liz Gebhardt


There’s also, as with Dad’s Army, a superb troup of other performers who all score goals. There’s the magnificent Deryck Guyler – Wallasey’s finest - as Norman Potter, an ex-soldier with feet of clay who hates the pupils just as much as he loves his “senior officers” and relishes every small expression of authority even though the gang invariably run rings around him. The object of Potter’s loyalty, Headmaster Maurice “Oliver” Cromwell (Noel Howlett), is liberal and literal-minded, possibly a future-state Bernard who has ascended to a state of euphoric denial.

 

Whilst Potter puffs him up, the fearsome Doris Ewell (the wonderful Joan Sanderson) grounds him with her cynicism and political nouse. Mr. Price (Richard Davies) is of the Welsh persuasion and whilst just as cynical as Miss Ewall, lacks the gumption to do anything other than hang on in there and grab a beer when he can. Then there’s lovely old Erik Chitty as Mr Smith, a Godfrey figure – he was in Dad’s Army a number of times himself - who is occasionally called upon to deliver clarity to the situation.

 

Last but not least amongst the staff is Patsy Rowlands as the lovelorn Angela Cutforth, who holds at least four candles for Mr Hedges, a specialist in these types of roles – remember her affection for Kenneth Williams in Carry on at Your Convenience – she is the perfect emblem of The School Crush.

 

Carol Hawkins, Sir and Peter Cleall

This is where the series and the film scores as, in the world after Just William and before Tucker Jenkins (young Todd Carty is uncredited with a bit part in assembly fact fans), this series was one of the first to plug into our shared experience and it was far more Bash Street Kids than Billy Bunter at Greyfriars. The Fenn Street gang were rough and real albeit to varying degrees… Peter Cleall’s Eric Duffy was the class alpha, always ready with a quip and a comeback, cocky with a heart of gold. He is going out with the equally assured Sharon Eversleigh, played in the series by Penny Spencer and here by the radiant Carol Hawkins who then continued the role in the follow up series, The Fenn Street Gang (1971-3). Karen Gough in my class had the same feather cut as Carol... and I was dead impressed.

 

Sharon’s pal Maureen Bullock (Liz Gebhardt) is an earnest young woman of faith who has as big a crush on Mr Hedges as Miss Cutforth. She’s another relatively nuanced character with a lot of good lines highlighting the gulf between secular reality and the faith upon which the daily routines of education are based. The film begins with assembly and All Things Bright and Beautiful which couldn’t be further from the actuality.

 

Even more divorced from this reality is Frankie Abbott who, lives in a world of childish fantasy drawn from comics and films with his mother (Barbara Mitchell) doting on her “baby”, the two holding each other back. More grotesque is the family of day-dreamer Dennis Dunstable (Peter Denyer), presumably with special educational needs in modern parlance, who has a Dickensian bully of a father (Peter Bayliss) who cares not for his son’s learning or wellbeing.


Authority in harmony: Noel Howlett and Joan Sanderson

Rounding out the main players are Malcolm McFee as Peter Craven, a smooth-talking jack the lad, Aziz Resham as Feisal, and former Double Decker, future reggae superstar in Aswad, Brinsley Forde as Wesley. Both the latter characters are used to address the race issue and in ways that, for the time, are reasonably subtle. Talking of which, the school bus is driven by Jack Smethurst, star of  Love Thy Neighbour which was as heavy-handed on this issue as it was possible to be. 

 

The plot? 5c, after special pleading from Hedges worthy of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch, are allowed to go on the annual school trip to a summer camp, with his reputation on the line if they fail to live up to his expectations and do exactly what Miss Ewell and the rest expect. In the course of their journey from inner London to the shires, Wesley is lost and picked up by airline stewardess, Penny Wheeler (Jill Kerman), who he persuades that Mr Hedges is a racist bully, a joke that persists once she also turns up as the barmaid in the local pub.

 

Jill Kerman and Brinsley Forde


Amidst the rom-com and the inevitable chaos of the city kids in the country alongside posh grammar school students, there’s some touching loyalties displayed between 5c and Bernard. The series’ ultimate message being that education is about support, patience and tolerance... and you know that can’t be bad.

 

The digital transfer is excellent, revealing even a little of John Alderton’s foundation, but making everything as fresh as the comedy. There’s also a host of special features:

 

• New interviews with actor David Barry (Frankie Abbott), composer Mike Vickers, second assistant director Nicholas Granby, unit publicist Tony Tweedale and assistant editor Christopher Ackland

• 1970 TV Awards sketch

• John Alderton interview with Gloria Hunniford from 1987

• Theatrical trailer

• Image gallery

• There’s also a limited-edition booklet written by Jade Evans which is a thoroughly researched and eloquent as you would expect given her love for the subject.

 

Please Sir! Is available from 29th August on both DVD and Blu-ray and you can order it direct from those nice folks at Network.


Note the graffiti... I think we can all agree that Liverpool Football Club are indeed great!


Friday, 26 August 2022

Before Gosta... Gunnar Hede's Saga (1923) with Guenter A. Buchwald and Neil Brand, Bonn Silent Film Festival


As many may know I’m always up for a Saga directed by Mauritz Stiller and based on a book by Selma Lagerlöf and, even though this one is still missing about half an hour, it is a thoroughly entertaining romp through snow, love and madness which features the humanity you’d expect from Selma along with the mastery of locations and character you can rely on from Mauritz. It’s a story about reindeers and redemption (the latter, always a Selma theme) and, how fitting that a film featuring two violin players and the healing power of music, should be accompanied by the Silent Film Supergroup of Guenter A. Buchwald on violin and Neil Brand on piano… I really wish I’d been there to witness this gig in the flesh but the streaming screening will have to do for now and how.

 

Whereas Gosta Berling has its grand set piece of Lars Hanson and Greta Gustafson (Garbo) escaping across the frozen lake, this film has an extraordinary sequence in which Gunnar Hede (Einar Hansson) is dragged across snow and ice by an escaping reindeer, his grip and footing lost as, off-balanced, the rope he tied to deer and his waist is threatening to see him dragged to a painful doom. Hansson was originally down to play this role but he does very well in his first film role, bright eyed and passionate, his Gunnar inspired by his grandfather’s love of the violin as well as his epic journey bringing a herd of reindeers from the wilderness of the north for lucrative sale in the south.

 

Your grandfather was a simple peasant, Miss Stava should know better than to put fantasies in your head!

 

The matriarch, Mrs Hede (Pauline Brunius)


This action makes the family’s fortune and the gran house and estate of Munkhyttarian Gunnar sees the portrait of his Grandfather comes alive in his imagination, the same passion for music driving his daring imagination. But not all of the family celebrates this stunning success story with Gunnar’s mother Mrs. Hede (an excellent and very fearsome Pauline Brunius) being especially unimpressed. Her boy will have the best grounding in finance and mining management, so he may run the estate properly.

 

Best laid plans of domineering mothers are sometimes over-turned by happenstance and learning that his Father is extremely ill, Einer returns home as quickly as he can… This narrative runs on luck and chance encounters, as much as any Paul Auster novel and, like the American, and Lagerlöf is always more interested in the reaction than the action. In the period of mourning after his father’s death, it comes to pass that a small group of travelling acrobats comes to Munkhyttarian.


Stina Berg on tightrope, Adolf Olschansky spinning plates and Mary Johnson on violin 


This signals a comedic change of pace as we meet a horse that will only pull its cart when serenaded with the mouthorgan played by a scruffy tight-rope walker (Stina Berg) whilst her husband Blomgren (Adolf Olschansky) a man who has taken dishevelled into an artform – a Jasper Johns instillation dragged through a hedge backwards – holds the reins. With them is a poor waif, Ingrid (Mary Johnson) who they have adopted chiefly for her ability to play the violin as they perform. This couple are classic light-relief but they are quite extraordinary.


Their arrival at Munkhyttarian uplifts the mood and Gunnar watches from his window entranced by the music before moving down to find the player just as fascinating. Spirits are lifted and Irene stays as Gunnar starts to play again before a chance encounter on a train with two fellows who have the same plan as his grandfather’s to move enough Reindeer from North to South to make a new fortune.

 

Einar Hansson and Mary Johnson

Gunnar heads up north to Sápmi (formerly known as Lapland), to enlist the aid of Sámi (formerly known as Laplanders; exteriors were largely shot in the surrounding area, Nacka, and Kallsjön in Jämtland) to wrangle a giant herd of deer and drive South. There are some spectacular shots of scenery and the movement of the reindeer especially as they try to cross a wide river. Stiller’s cameraman was Swedish legend, Julius Jaenzon who worked so memorably with Victor Sjostrom as well, who is so audacious with his shots into the sun, managing stunning contrasts between the low light and the players: dramatically infusing the film’s tone with so many exterior shots.

 

The cattle drive is dynamic and with constant threat as the men must make sure that the lead deer is kept under their control so the rest will follow. The going gets tough though and in checking the safety of a frozen lake one of the men falls through the ice leaving Gunnar desperately trying to hold onto the beast which breaks away dragging him with it for hundreds of metres over the snow and ice. The other man is saved but by the time they find Gunnar half the heard as been lost along with his grip on reality. Face bloodied, he sees every animal as a threat and has lost his reason.

 

No deer were harmed in the making of this film, perhaps.

The night of Gunnar’s Reindeer ride, Ingrid experiences the strangest of dreams in which an old woman on a sledge appears in her bedroom: “I am Lady Sorrow on my way to Munkhyttarian…” she says, revealing a bewildered Gunnar in her carriage… what can it all mean? Dreams represent passions and fears but also reveal our deepest thoughts... and Ingrid's connection to Gunnar runs very deep indeed.

 

Gunnar returns home but is traumatised, childlike, and even though Ingrid does what she can, he busies himself with waking dreams collecting stones from across the estate pretending they are the coins required to save his childhood home. Meanwhile, facing ruin, his mother puts Munkhyttarian up for sale… what and who can save them now?


In the US the film was titled The Blizzard!

 

Lagerlöf was not happy with the liberties Stiller had taken with her story, The Tale of a Manor, she seemed to just about prefer Sjostrom’s approaches but was demanding all the same. That said, what remains of Stiller’s film is an engaging story of individual intensities and the grandeur of the rugged reindeer drive… Thousands of reindeer in a mad stampede – the greatest thrill ever screened! announced William Fox’ US publicity, and they weren’t far off.

 

All is thrillingly accompanied by Neil and Guenter who’s collective experience encompasses not just decades worth of silent film accompaniment but also regular collaborations with other players. What those in Bonn saw and we online heard was a deceptively effortless improvised score, sharing leading lines across instruments with a mutual understanding of the drama on screen. In fantasy Football you can select players from each side to form the best team independent of allegiance, here we had Ronaldo and Messi in fine form and it was a massive win for Fußball-Club Stummfilmtage Bonn!