Sunday 31 March 2024

Coming soon. The Cat and the Canary (1927), Eureka, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray


“…  not the first of its kind, but it is one of the few hybrids that succeeds in spoofing old-dark-house clichés – secret passageways gaping open, monstrous hands extending slowly towards unwitting victims – while remaining genuinely spooky.”

Imogen Sara Smith from her booklet essay, Laughter in the Shadows

The Cat and the Canary represents a peak of silent film technique and is as good as almost any silent film made in Twenties’ Hollywood, a defining, genre-defining classic. It is not so much a horror classic but a major step forward in spooky-comedy, paving the way not just for Bob Hope’s talkie remake but a whole sub-genre of scarily-funny movies. Paul Leni’s film looks great and takes many visual tropes from the German style and injects laughs into the resultant combination of eerie unease. From the opening titles, showing the title revealed by a horned hand wiping away the dust, it makes its intentions known and it really does achieve that balance between the unexpected, the unnerving and the uncannily-timed.

From previous viewing of Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay 35mm at the Kennington Bioscope, I knew that the film had long languished in poor quality until the 1960s when he found a good print and restored it from 35mm nitrate. Eureka’s new restoration is a 4k transfer from a recent digital restoration that looks as good as the day it was first edited together, especially in Blu-ray quality: never darker, sharper or more ominous…

The Cat and the Canary it parodies what had yet to be termed as “horror”, which hadn’t really started to dominate film, although it was popular on stage, where this story began John Willard’s 1923 stage play. Whilst it’s one of Universal’s big three foundational shockers, along with Hunchback and Phantom, it’s also a continuation of the German style, expressionist as well as existentially oppressive in the manner of Caligari, Student of Prague, Golem and Leni’s own Waxworks. It meets a lot of Lotte Eisner’s Expressionist criteria with unsettling frames and deep shadows alive with menace.

Do not mess with Laura La Plante's hair!!

Kevin Brownlow interviewed the camera man, Gilbert Warrenton, who told him that they had to dig into the floor to get those acute angles and he also explained that extra lights were also needed to create the right dynamics between dark and darker. Leni used a gong to drill his player’s movements and claimed that the shadows were as important to the film as the characters… and so it was to prove.

It starts with a dark and stormy night, as it simply had to, but the collaborator of Lubitsch, May, Dupont and a host of European filmmakers, knows what he was doing… The opening section shows mad old Cyrus West’s spires cross fade into milk bottles which imprison him, wheelchair bound, as viscous black cats encircle this crippled canary: his greedy relatives waiting to get their share of his fortune all, as set out in his will, to be unveiled twenty years after his death.

The action moves to the interior of the West mansion and Leni treats us to the works, wonderfully lit settings with Warrenton’s camera swooping round corners with alarming grace then careering down blustery corridors as drapes and curtains fly wildly in the wind. This is a place full of dark surprise, bad humour and menace. 

Here's Mammy! Martha Mattox 

There’s a knock on the old door and West’s faithfully grim retainer, Mammy Pleasant (Martha Mattox) – not very motherly or, indeed, pleasant – opens the door which is almost held back by sheer weight of cobwebs. Enter Roger Crosby (Tully Marshall) West’s lawyer, here on the dot, two decades after his death to reveal the contents of the will. Opening the safe he finds a moth and knows someone has forewarned themselves of the contents… but no one else has been in the house only Mammy and her un-living companion who stares down with intent from his portrait.

The guests, all soon to be suspects, all save the murdered… arrive and Leni gives us portraits of people with something to hide; eyes darting, greed nervously bubbling just under the surface and desperation enough to make anyone of them suspicious. There’s Harry Blythe (Arthur Edmund Carewe) who’s already dark eyes take on additional edginess and who almost snarls as his estranged cousin Charles "Charlie" Wilder (Forrest Stanley) arrives. Charles looks like our leading man, but there's a nervousness around the eyes and a mouth that suggests weakness and desperation. 

Their more senior cousin Susan Sillsby (Flora Finch) arrives with her niece Cecily Young (Gertrude Astor) both clinging on to the hope that there will be a windfall to compensate for the many obvious disappointments that have etched themselves on their faces: Susan old with bitterness and Cecily just on the cusp as youth fades. Cue the comedy. Paul Jones (Creighton Hale) arrives in a miss-firing motor car, breaking to avoid crossing the path of a black cat and then running into the house convinced his engine’s back-fire was an assassin’s bullet. He’s no Bob Hope - more Ernie Wise - but he’s funny alright.

Gertrude Astor, Flora Finch and Creighton Hale

The entourage is completed by the arrival of Annabelle West (Laura La Plante) – youngest of the group and seemingly as sane as sixpence. La Plante takes top billing on the film and had some of the sharpest haircuts in all of silent film not to mention costumes which is pretty much all she remembered when later interviewed by Kevin Brownlow. All the same, I’m sure she’s one of his favourites!

Anna is revealed as the sole beneficiary and therefore becomes another Canary and the trick is to work out who the Cat(s) might be with pretty much everyone looking as guilty as can be… personally I was hoping it might be Creighton Hale. The mysterious deaths begin to happen, sliding panels start to reveal clawed hands and an escaped lunatic is revealed to be on the loose. What’s more, Annabelle must be proven sane in order to qualify for her prize or else her inheritance will go to another.

Who’ll it be? And will anyone from this strange family emerge as the unlikely hero to protect the true heir? There’s the usual miss-direction and emotional disturbance of the humour but it’s still a fun watch: golden rule of all whodunits… make ‘em all look guilty and then gradually provide them with alibis/good character.

The film looks fabulous on this 1080p HD presentation from a 4K digital restoration of the original negatives supplied by MoMA.|There's also a fascinating new score from Robert Israel -presented in DTS-HD MA 5.1, it says here - which has been compiled, synchronised and edited by Gillian B. Anderson, based on the music cue sheets compiled and issued for the original 1927 release. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to disagree with Kevin Brownlow when he said, again at the Kennington Bioscope, that The Cat and the Canary is a commercial film, superbly well-made and one that is critically under-recognised, certainly it had a major influence on the epic Universal horrors of the thirties, especially James Whale’s Cold Dark House, and way beyond, through Bob Hope’s version in 1939 and onto an entire backlot of scary mansions spoofed so well in Scooby Doo.

If it hadn’t been for those pesky German kids, Leni’d never have gotten away with it…

Extra frightening features:

Limited Edition O-card slipcase featuring new artwork by Graham Humphreys [First print run of 2000 copies]

Two brand new audio commentaries: Stephen Jones and Kim Newman plus  Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby

Mysteries Mean Dark Corners – brand new video essay by David Cairns & Fiona Watson

Pamela Hutchinson interviewexcellent new discussion with writer and film critic Pamela Hutchinson who, as you would expect, thoroughly contextualizes the film, the director and the cast.

Phuong Le interview – another newly commissioned interview with film critic Phuong Le who explains the differences between the film and the play and looks at Leni's aims in making a "non-European, American film

A Very Eccentric Man & Yeah, a Cat! – extracts from John Willard’s original play 

Lucky Strike – Paul Leni gives a full-throated endorsement to the product that got him through filming The Cat and the Canary

A collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by Richard Combs, Craig Ian Mann, and Imogen Sara Smith

Whilst Eureka were kind enough to send me a review copy I’ve already pre-ordered the fill set with all the above limited-edition trimmings. There’s still time for you to do the same, the Blu-ray is released on 22nd April in the UK and you can order it direct from Eureka using this link.

Saturday 30 March 2024

Time and motion... My Grandmother (1929), with Stephen Horne, Klassiki online


"Even for viewers with no interest in the history and politics of the film, My Grandmother is a wonderful example of eccentrism and a catalog of the avant-garde’s film techniques during Soviet cinema’s golden age.” Denise J. Youngblood, The Moving Image*


This is the second time I’ve watched this film and tried to write about it because the first time I couldn’t quite believe it. Make no mistake, My Grandmother is nothing to do with the business of sucking eggs and everything to do with the Kafkaesque reality of bourgeois spoilers trying to cripple The Revolution through dragging the new freedoms into the ground by excessive bureaucracy. They don’t know or want to know any differently and even the gilded statues of the post-revolution rise up to chastise those who drop litter: is this the point of Art to make the ordinary citizen feel small and, in this case, less than perfectly formed.


This was director Kote Mikaberidze’s first film and I wish I knew more about his brief and that of his co-writers, Siko Dolidze, and Giorgi Mdivani. The film was made during the time of Stalin's Cultural Revolution (1928-1932) and creeping bureaucracy was seen as anti-revolutionary and the enemy of progress but the route the film takes to make this point is pure experimentalism conducted in a spirit of wilful entertainment. It is so sharply sardonic, one could almost suspect the filmmakers of trying to smuggle anarchic meaning past the censors – the ultimate bureaucrats after all, organising thoughts and filing away the divergent messaging. And, so it proved with this film which was shelved for decades after the censors had their final say only to be restored and screened in 1976 by the Georgian film studio partly as, "even today, it will be able to combat certain shameful practices still present in our society."

The Accounts Department hard at sleep

My Grandmother is easier to look at as an explosion of experimental energy, channelled through every available camera trick and editing technique, than as a coherent film.

Julia Zelman, East European Film Bulletin, Volume 51, March 2015


We begin at the offices of the "TORK" trust, a round table of laziness and distracted bureaucrats in the accounts department who pass their time playing with toy cars, staring into space or making paper planes. These planes are made by a sad man who uses them to declare his love for a woman in the typing pool who rebuffs his advances and smiles cruelly as he shoots himself. One man down, the Doorman (Evgeniy Ovanov) is called to drag the body away as the others fight over his place and promotion, Soon a very smart young man with a briefcase (Mikhail Abesadze) takes his place and gathers up the hundreds of overdue letters that have been left to lie around.


The office is visited by a workers’ representative (Akaki Khorava) who looks on in disgust as they snooze and ignore their work, he towers over the round table and is furious at the waste of revolutionary opportunity. He demands fifty roubles to aid production and for once the team responds but the new business manager, the Bureaucrat (Aleksandre Takaishvili) is sacked for many obvious reasons.


Aleksandre Takaishvili under pressure

The Bureaucrat returns home and we see his state of consciousness represented by a surreal sequence as his daughter’s toys look on in animated shock as he seemingly hangs himself. Mikaberidze uses a fair amount stop-motion in the film and will later show an animation of a cruel cartoon from the local paper about the Bureaucrat. His troubles are only just beginning though as his wife (Bella Chernova) returns home and finding him alive but very much to blame, kicks him around their apartment before throwing him out of the window – another cartoonish device. He rises from the pavement like Road-runner and she pursues him in a fury.


1. Find Grandmother 2. Be insistent 3. Be impudent And you will find a new job.


The Bureaucrat bumps into the young man with a briefcase and, as his wife looks on, gets the advice he hopes for; if he’s bold and finds the right sponsor, i.e. Grandmother, he can work his way back onto the team. But, like Sisyphus pushing that rock up the mountain, our Bureaucrat is heading into a maze of frustration as he tries to follow the three strands of advice only to be rebuffed time after time…


Bella Chernova is not impressed

He goes to see the Superintendent only to be hauled down the stairs by a statue that takes offence at dropped cigarette butt, just inches from a bin. The spray-painted almost nude, is uncredited but is very impressive in a none speaking role and this is an issue that still plagues us today. Here, it’s possibly a reference to the small-mindedness of civic art or maybe just the need to keep the streets tidy. Our hero finally makes it past the endless queue and another door man and brow-beats the Superintendent into writing him a letter to secure his job back. He drives the older man to distraction but he will discover the road to cushy re-employment is paved with bad intent and that you simply can’t put a price on reality…


As an example of what would have been said if it could have been said at the time though, My Grandma is hard to beat but as Denise Youngblood has also said*, it was ultimately lacking in sympathetic characters and the exhibition of so much technique meant it was too “formalist” for the powers that were to accept. It’s more anarchic than avant-garde and by the time it’s finished just yells its message at the audience after tying us in knots for the whole run-time: DEATH TO RED TAPE, TO SLOPPINESS AND TO BUREAUCRATS!


Mikaberidze aimed a liberating film from the influence of theatre and literature and his use of mixed media underpins this even if the technique does indeed over-ride the message sometimes; it’s still a wild adventurous ride. His set designer Irakli Gamrekeli also contributes some wonderful spaces to the film, from the round table to the door-keepers chair positioned up a flight of steps next to a set of numbered lights responding to the corresponding seat of the slow-working bureaucrats within.


Stephen Horne brings musical order to this chaos with his trademark wit and invention; there’s no red tape or sloppiness just a deep musical understanding of film and it’s emotional-political context. The accompaniment is exactly what the film requires to come alive on screen and connect with modern audiences in a world in which the only rational response to events is to seek meaning in the manner of the comedy twice-repeated history is becoming.


You can view My Grandmother with Stephen’s accompaniment on the Klassiki site here and, if you’re not already a subscriber, you will find so much bang for your buck or, indeed, reward for your Rouble with a huge range of films old and new from the East!


*Denise Youngblood, “My Grandmother (Chemi Bebia) (1929)” In: The Moving Image, Vol. 10 Issue 1. The University of Minnesota Press, 2010

Sunday 24 March 2024

Jenny Gilbertson's slice of life... The Rugged Island: A Shetland Lyric (1933), with Inge Thomson, Catriona Macdonald, HippFest at Home

"Jenny seems to have lifted the soul of that time in the islands and left it hanging up on the screen for future generations to see and feel part of."

Douglas Mackinnon

This film sits amongst better-known works of the thirties showing island life on the extremes but actually predates both Robert J. Flaherty’s docudrama Man of Aran (1934) – the Irish island, not Arran – and Michael Powell’s drama The Edge of the World (1937). Director Jenny Gilbertson (née Brown) had made a number of short documentaries and was encouraged to make this film by the great Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson, director of Drifters (1929) and the man who coined the term "documentary" in a review of Flaherty's Moana (1926).

The result is every inch as powerfully evocative as these other films with Jenny’s previous experience of the island, the documentary A Crofter’s Life in Shetland (1931), showing a year in the life of the rugged folk of Hjaltland… more Norse than Gallic and only 30 miles closer to Scotland than Norway. She was self-trained and this is even more remarkable when you consider that she not only wrote but filmed and edited her work.

There’s a discussion of Gilbertson’s work on the HippFest at Home/Falkirk Leisure and Culture You Tube channel from academics Dr Shona Main and Dr Sarah Neely, introduced by Alison Strauss, and it’s fascinating to see her journey from middle-class Glasgow beginnings to university, teaching and on to such inventive independent filmmaking. She had a passion for capturing ways of life far removed from the contemporary comforts of her upbringing and she was able to engage the locals in such a way that, as John Grierson said, had “…already broken through the curse of artificiality and is on her way to becoming a real filmmaker, an illuminator of life and movement”.

There was also an introduction from Janet McBain founding Curator, Scottish Screen Archive, who knew Jenny and remembered her as a "pocket dynamo" later in life. She took us through Jenny's career and her documentary shorts made for the GPO including In Sheep's Clothing (1932) screened before the main film with accompaniment from Stephen Horne. She didn't fully appreciate at the time how pioneering Jenny had been until the work of academic like Shona and Sarah. This is not surprising when you consider as Janet says, the films were found rotting in a henhouse but were subsequently restored by the SSA in 1997 and reprinted. Blessed are the Archivists... and the Festival Directors.

John Gilbertson and Enga Stout

The Rugged Island is so intimate it feels like a genuine intrusion on the lives being portrayed, the irony here being that Gilbertson’s was sometimes described as an “amateur” and yet clearly she was consummate in terms of technique and direction with only one professional actor - Enga Stout – with the rest being her friends and others she’d cast locally. Her editing is also so precise here in terms of capturing the detail of the performers including her substantial animal cast – Flora the dog and Caddie the lamb - to create such a warm narrative whole.

The story involves Enga and her beloved Johnny (John Gilberston who Jenny went on to marry) who face the choice of emigrating to Australia or staying to fulfil their duties in looking after their aging parents – something Jenny’s own mother expected of her. The economy of these islands was changing and trawling was replacing line fishing and industrialising what had been the mainstay of Shetlands’ way of life. This is reflected in a detailed way as we see Johnny and the men catching fish on the line – they have to, as there’s not much else to eat – then later trawling pulling in hundreds of fish.

The narrative works in so much of the day-to-day lives as the seasons change and events complicate their choices. Jenny’s camera is right inside the cramped crofters’ cottages – interiors built by the multi-tasking John Gilbertson whose parents and sister also provide suitable cast members. His best pal Andrew, from Stucca, played Andrew who woos John/Johnny’s sister Maggie and, as Dr Main points out in her HippFest programme notes, only someone with Jenny’s connection to the locale and the people could make a film that is so convincing and thoroughly authentic.

The film is a gorgeously evocative postcard from the past with the location perfectly served by Jenny’s camerawork; seagulls swooping across Shetland skies, as the young couple walk the cliffs and shore staring out to the endless sea of possibilities as they do at the beginning and end. After watch Johnny and the lads fish we see the interiors of the folk at their poached fish supper with bread and tea… a flashback to a childhood memory of my great grandmother McIntyre’s parlour in Liverpool, no electric in her kitchen at all. Her husband was a Glaswegian, and his mother came from a crofter’s cottage on the Isle of Arran.

Then we see the men tilling the land and the discovery of an orphaned sheep quickly adopted by Enga who feeds her from a bottle; no life can be wasted on the isle. There’s potato planting and the whole community working together to same intensive rhythms of necessity; there’s a time to farm and to dig up peat to burn in the winter. The women work together on converting wool into those famous sweaters, making a few shillings to pay for new fishing boots for Johnny from Peter Mouat’s General Merchants, a dealer in Shetland Hosiery.

This is not quite subsistence living but it leaves very little time for idle pondering – I’d be sunk – but Gilbertson interweaves the documentary purpose well with the drama of Inga and Johnny’s dilemma as it places them under pressure as the fishing season does not go well. It’s hard not to compare with Man of Aran and this does feel a more realistic and – this word again – authentic representations. It’s just lovely to look at and cinematically satisfying especially with the new accompaniment.

Everyone knits on Shetland...

This was provided by Inge Thomson and Catriona Macdonald who provided an intoxicating air of emotion and location, even for those of us of Scottish descent watching from home. Catriona is a Shetland fiddle player, Royal College of Music alumni and academic who combines that rich folk tradition together with collaborative and compositional expertise. Inge Thomson is from Fair Isle, Shetlands too, and is a composer, producer, lyricist, multi-instrumentalist and performer.

Together they infused their music with a vibrancy and authenticity to match the filmmakers own. I hope they get a chance to tour the film and music as Alison Strauss suggests.

The last word from Shona: “People can’t quite believe that (these films) exist. … she’s still not known enough, I don’t think she’s appreciated enough…” and, as she says, this is where HippFest comes in. This is peak HippFest, aiding the rediscovery of significant Scottish artists, especially one as ground-breaking as Gilbertson, is part of their core mission and achievements. Again, as the commentators say, the more you see of Jenny G, the more you want to see, the interest only grows the more you want to learn.

I just wish I’d been in the room to fully appreciate the film, music and audience… next year HippFest it’s in the diary!

The video discussion of Gilbertson’s with Dr Shona Main and Dr Sarah Neely is available via this link.


There’s also an excellent summation of Gilbertson’s career on the Women’s’ Film Pioneer Project here.



Friday 22 March 2024

Not missing out on Mary... Stella Maris (1918) with Meg Morley, Hippfest at Home ‘24

FOMOH… defined in Bo-ness as yon Fear of Missin’ Oot (On) Hippfest is high as I sit in South Cambridge 390 miles away from this year’s event but only inches away thanks to the streaming element of the festival, Hippfest at Home providing a sample pf the atmosphere and the cinematic treats being screened with accompanying piano-cam showing the players at work accompanying the silents and stirring the watcher’s hearts and minds.

Time flies and festivals fly even faster and there was, Alison Strauss the head of Clan Hippfest queuing up a vivacious introductory video from Pamela Hutchinson before introducing one of our finest accompanists, Meg Morley, who proceeded to enhance the extraordinary Stella Maris, one of Mary Pickford’s very best films and in which she gives Lon Chaney a run for his money playing two characters that look almost nothing alike.

She plastered her hair with Vaseline, smudged make up round her eyes to make them appear smaller, darkened her nostrils to make them wider and contorted her body to leave one shoulder higher and her back twisted... Pickford’s conviction and commitment to the roles is astonishing and , if you didn’t know she was both malnourished orphan Unity Blake and the titular bed-ridden privileged princess you’d struggle to recognise the most famous woman of the time…

The Mary we expect.

As Pam said, the dual roles gave Pickford a chance to draw on her impoverished, and abusive, past in deeper ways and with her great collaborator and a featured artist of this festival, Frances Marion scriptwriting, the two were able to create two unforgettable characters and to hint at real darkness. This is no Poor Little Rich Girl… Pickford was choosing her projects and her teams by this stage and this was a story she wanted to really challenge herself as well as the audience.


Based on the 1913 novel by William J. Locke, Stella Maris was directed by Marshall Neilan who Pickford compared the director favourably with DW Griffith, she always was a challenge, and felt that their shared Irish heritage helped him get the best out of her. As a result, this was the highest grossing film of 1918, on a level with say Barbie in tickets sold if not pink tinting and confused messaging. Stella Maris knows exactly what it wants to say about poverty and even the way wealthy women are treated by their so-called carers. By this stage Mary must have found much to identify with both her characters and that makes her choice of story all the more powerful and revealing.


Pickford is first seen as Miss Stella Maris a tragic young woman born into a wealthy family and yet in poor health: she cannot walk and is kept bedridden, well-protected from the horrors of outdoor life. She lives with her Aunt Julia Lady Eleanor Blount (Ida Waterman) and Uncle Sir Oliver Blount (Herbert Standing). Her favourite visitor is family friend, journalist John Risca (Conway Tearle) with whom she enjoys a fantasy existence of castles and kings. Interesting that she relies on a journalist to not tell her the truth…

The Mary we get.

But John has a darker home life with an alcoholic and abusive wife Louise (an excellent Marcia Manon, clearly having a whale of a time) whose numerous addictions are laid out for all to see: the wicked witch of this story. Listless Louise only ever gets passionate about punishment but is switched on enough to scour the local orphanage for home help in the form of the energetic but under-fed Unity Blake. Face and body posture twisted out of all proportion; Pickford must have suffered for this role in ways that only Chaney would appreciate.


Unity fails to meet her new mistresses exacting demands and is savagely beaten only being saved after neighbours here her screams. The police arrive and Louise is imprisoned for her assault. Wracked by guilt, John resolves to look after Unity and brings her into his house where she is looked after by his Aunt Gladys (Josephine Crowell). This upper-class generosity only extends so far though and they all resolve to keep Unity’s existence a secret from the enforced innocence of Stella. Here it is interesting that Stella’s innocence is prescribed by her relatives whilst Unity’s is seemingly just her natural state… in spite of all that she has been through.

Doctors gather to see Stella and decide that her legs can be restored through a new operation. The months pass and gradually she returns to full health. Inevitably she encounters Unity in a stunningly well realised double exposure: this is the tricky part - acting with yourself. By this stage it’s not Unity’s tale that threatens Stella’s fairy-tale world view but the world itself as she sees squads of soldiers marching past her huge garden and the questions keep on coming…

The film doesn't hold back from showing the desperation and brutality

Meanwhile, Louise is released for good behaviour and sets back to her recidivist ways aiming to ruin her estranged husband’s budding romance with the beautiful and unsullied Stella. Yet Unity has also developed feelings for her saviour… There’s a startling moment when she caresses John’s coat on a clothing stand, wrapping its sleeves around her and relishing the imagined intimacy, made almost real by the texture and the smell…

I won’t give away the ending but this is one you should see if you’re looking for Mary Pickford’s best films and if you haven’t already watched her tour de force. It's clearly one of her more political statements as well given the disparity between the two main characters and the disappointments of the rich woman discovering the nature of a world she has been deliberately isolated from. It's almost a fable of Pickford's own journey... she wants to be allowed to be both the woman she was and the successful star; with due respect to all on this spectrum of luck and life.

Meg Morley accompanied with a heart-breaking emotional narrative of her own which hit so many sweet and sour touch points in its intimate entanglement with the two Pickfords. Wonderful skill and sensitivity, I only wish I’d been there to hear it live. Next year no FOMOH!!



Thursday 21 March 2024

Ralph Ince evening… The Argyle Case (USA 1917) with Ashley Valentine, Kennington Bioscope

Thank you Tony Fletcher!

As Michelle Facey observed in her introduction, according to Wikipedia The Argyle Case is a lost film, and, indeed whilst there are no holdings in the Library of Congress, the AFI site also says that The National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) included this film on its list of Lost U.S. Silent Feature Films as of February 2021. Yet here it was on the BFI’s 35mm print projecting almost perfectly onto the Bioscope’s screen with a few missing frames here and there and a little deterioration on the blue/night scenes especially but, overall, a very impressive survivor. The KB’s super sleuth Tony Fletcher had located the print during the longs hours of eyeballing the catalogue and playing lucky dip, viewing the elements on Steenbeck machines in the BFI’s archive.


We are so lucky to have the KB and its team of researchers, collectors, projectionists and accompanists for where else do you get to see films like this that probably haven’t been projected in decades and which, so far as their country of origin is concerned, no longer survives. Preserving film is a global effort and I’m privileged to have seen this film and to try and retell the experience with possibly it’s first review in decades… even the audience plays its role!


The Argyle Case was directed by Ralph Ince, younger brother of Thomas, and filmed in 1916 for release the following year. It stars Robert Warwick as private detective Asche Kayton a man who uses all of the latest forensic techniques to assist his Holmesian deductions and an actor who has something of the bearing and look of Ivan Mosjoukine. He gets called into the murder of the wealthy John Argyle (Frank McGlynn), a man who lives in a Gotham palace somewhere up in the 900s on 5th Avenue.


Clearly Ralph Ince had been watching the French serials of Louis Feuillade but his detective is far more grounded in authentic police procedural technique and the narrative maintains a good balance between the need to show each major step without either giving the game away or dragging its feet. The film is propelled along by a mixture of uncertainty – does even this great detective suspect the Police’s obvious perp – as well as the mechanics of fingerprinting, “detectaphones” placed in the suspects rooms, and the quick response and actions provided by telegram and telephone; this is the modern criminal investigation unit who do rather show up the local police force.


Winding back, the story opens with old man Argyle (Frank McGlynn) fretting over the decision of his son Bruce (Arthur Albertson) to marry Nan Thornton (Gazelle Marche) when he had planned on his marrying his ward, Mary (Elaine Hammerstein) who he had adopted after promising her father on his deathbed. Bruce and Mary are like siblings though and neither feels that Nan is anything other than a love match. In a fury, Argyle throws out the newlyweds and calls his solicitor Mr. Hurley (Frank Evans) re-writes his will so that only Mary will be the beneficiary, despite her protests that Bruce is his own flesh and blood.


The following night is disturbed, and in the morning, house full of dread, Argyle is discovered murdered in the living room, with a poker the likely implement but no sign of Professor Plum. The police duly arrive and start making assumptions with Mary the one with the clearest motive given the change in the will. The police, under the leadership of Inspector Dougherty (John Fleming) start to follow Mary, clear that they’ve got their woman, but her brother Bruce has other ideas, calling in the master investigator Kayton to make sure of a thorough investigation.


Kayton quickly starts to join the dots, uncovering a woman’s fingerprints on the bureau next to the murdered man’s chair and eliminating the women in the house through taking their prints. He’s through and his logic stands up in terms of supporting the unfolding narrative. Soon other potential parties are uncovered such as Mary’s mother Nellie Marsh (Mary Alden) who is working with a counterfeiter called Frederick Kreisler (H. Cooper Cliffe) one of whose $100 Dollar forgeries is found at the scene of the murder.


Elaine Hammerstein

I won’t give anything further away just to say that this script, adapted by Chapin and Ince from Harriet Ford and Harvey J. O'Higgins’ novel of the same name, has plenty of twists and turns. It’s a fine, entertaining film with many interesting shots from cinematographer André Barlatier, evidence of the growing technical sophistication of the age; an overhead of Bruce as he sees his murdered father dead on the floor, numerous characters silhouetted as they enter buildings backed by bright external light, a shoot out in almost total darkness with flashes of light and gunfire the only illumination… The title cards are also interesting with a drawing of a torch illuminating the introduction of each new character and the actor’s name: playful Pulp!


Robert Warwick provides a perfect private detective with intelligence and intensity, he was to go on to a long career in film and television but here is a suave presence who, of course, attracts the interest of his client Mary. Elaine Hammerstein is eye-catching with an open face that seems anachronistic, transported from a more recent time, showing good expression and presence. She was one of The Hammersteins, a theatrical dynasty and her cousin Oscar, was indeed the lyricist of The Sound of Music and many more, A talented family and she was as much on stage as in film.


Forensic accompaniment was provided by Ashley Valentine complementing and completing the entertainment as he connected with this rare piece with assured tone and dynamic lines: when was the last time this 117-year-old entertainment was heard in the same way?


Michelle summed it all up by pointing out that, once again, we were watching films that you would not see anywhere else and this was not just the “lost” main feature but two earlier shorts from Ince that were from private collections.


A Regiment of Two (1913) with Timothy Rumsey


We kicked off with a lively comedy co-directed by Ralph Ince, who also features in the film as the bumptious Lord Dudley the preferred choice of suitor for the daughter of Mrs Wilton (Rose Tapley), Laura (Edith Storey, star of Vitograph’s gender-swapping A Florida Enchantment (1915)). Of course, Laura loves another, the handsome Jack Brent (E.K. Lincoln) who is also a member of the 13th Regiment, Army reserves.


This gives Laura’s father Ira (Sidney Drew) and his son-in-law Harry Bennett (Harry T. Morey), an idea as they pretend to enlist with the 13th so they can attend the Tiger Club on Fridays to cavort with a French dancer, smoke cigars and drink. It’s a wizard wheeze until a war erupts in Panama and the “boys” have to pretend to go along with the regiment to battle leaving their wives and daughters distraught. Ira and Harry are in no danger though as they head off for a fishing trip – what’s an innocent deception between couples? Trouble’s a comin’ though as newspaper reports of the 13th suffering a wipe-out cause them to work out their excuses…


It's fast-paced, inventive and pure daft and also features Anita Stewart – just 18 at the time - as Mrs. Harry Bennett. We watched a very impressive digital transfer from a 35mm copy in a private collection, once again, only at the Bioscope!


His Phantom Sweetheart (1915) with Timothy Rumsey

Anita Stewart also features in this short as the titular sweetheart who attracts the attention of Earle Williams - voted America’s number one star in 1915 – with the two often playing romantic partners. Williams’ character spies her at a performance at the Garrick Theatre – some fab on-stage action here too – and we follow their growing intimacy before things start to turn very dark indeed…

We saw a 4k transfer of a restored 16mm print from a private collection that had fresh title cards and some lush tints; again I feel the urge of the collector and the satisfaction that must be felt with every chance to share. 

This was Timothy Rumsey’s Bioscope debut and he accompanied both these films with assurance and some style; he’s already imbued with the spirit of these precious films and the phantom forces that guide the players’ hands on the KB’s grand piano!


Another special evening in Kennington and once again, as Michelle thanked the team, we can only re-iterate our gratitude for this museum, this unique club and those passionate cineastes who make the magic happen!




Wednesday 20 March 2024

Book Review: Death by Laughter: Female Hysteria and Early Cinema, by Maggie Hennefeld

If the women laugh… I don’t care what the men do. I go ahead and prepare for a long run… (if) they don’t like the show - turn off the pipe organ, Tessie; there’s nobody behind you but the ushers and they’re all asleep. 

Broadway star Taylor Holmes, Motion Picture Magazine, May 1918


This book achieves the rare feat of being both enlightening and thoroughly entertaining; Maggie Hennefeld’ s work here is so rich in content but it is also packed with the light touch of someone truly on top of their subject who is also able to define and then extemporise on the humour under study. Maggie’s historical analysis is compelling and revelatory, with the fluidity of her style making light work of the detail of whilst gleefully leading us on to the most interesting of conclusions.


Here is a book that explains the influence of societal changes on cinema, a liberation of feminine laughter that fuelled the popularity and monetization of the new media of the 1900s, as well as the opportunities the industry provided to enable the further acceleration of these changed sensibilities. The studios may have been laughing all the way to the bank but women were laughing all the way to greater liberation, self-expression and representation. None of this happened in isolation – other factors were at play – but The Killing Joke was definitely on the archaic attitudes of the late Nineteenth Century medical-political consensus. In capitalist society, nothing speaks louder than a new market found and served. Trust me, I’m a marketer.


I’m also a historian though – I’ve got the paperwork to prove it (just about) - and the first two sections of the book provide a thorough and fascinating feminist, “hysterical-historiographical” description of the view and status of women on the edge of nervous breakdowns as defined by the male mentalities of the Nineteenth Century and beyond. The appeal of silent film is always its view of the culture of the time, it’s a primary source showing not just the evolution of technique but also social mores, Death by Laughter adds so much context and breaks new ground for me and I would expect many others.


Léontine s'envole (1911)

“… women’s laughs were ruthlessly suppressed, muffled, corseted, defanged, gaslit and hystericized throughout the nineteenth century.”


Part One: Death by Laughter


Hennefeld splits the book into three sections, the first looking at the way laughter – something we would now count as a freedom – was once considered not just improper but also dangerous. From 1879 to 1920 hundreds of women supposedly laughed themselves to death, including one Bertha Pruett, killed by a joke in 1893 – allegedly.  It’s easy to laugh now but far more serious to lose control then, especially as a woman, prone as they were to nervous complications brought in by merry excess and wild laughter. Whilst there have been cases of people laughing just too hard, the poor man who couldn’t stop himself watching The Goodies episode about the ancient Yorkshire martial art of Ecky Thump, the dangers were used for marketing purposes very early on in the cinema.


Yet there was also deep-rooted disapproval of allowing one’s funny bone the full tickle. According to Charles Baudelaire writing “On the Essence of Laughter” in 1855, all merry laughter was “satanic”, “grotesque” or a symptom of lunacy. As bad as this is, he never used the term hysterical which was a gendered signifier reserved in a non-humorous way for the “weaker” sex for whom excess excitement was considered inappropriate by many. Indeed, as Hennefeld observes, women’s joyful laughter was actively censored and suppressed in the Nineteenth Century, they simply required more control.


The evolution of mid-to-late Nineteenth Century perceptions of laughter is analysed through sentimental novels, those reported health impacts and the works of Darwin (evolutionary purpose) and Marx (revolutionary purpose) until we get to 1898 and The New Laugh offered by the New York Herald; a “ripple of merriment” for a generation of girls making far too much noise. Buckle up Herald, the next century’s going to be a bumpy ride, and making more noise shall be the whole of the law.


I like the way Hennefeld draws contemporary analogies, especially the reference to the Monty Python sketch about the most dangerous joke in the world; one that is so funny it kills in seconds and which is used to win the Second World War. It’s un-survivable and un-sayable. Even lethal in German.


No Monty without Mabel?

Part Two: Female Hysteria


“I therefore claim all symptoms of female hysteria as unrealized eruptions of exuberant laughter… I see women’s hysterical symptoms as laughs cut off at the knees…”


This long-debunked aspect of early psychological analysis has been the subject of much examination by feminist historians. Hysterical was not a word associated with rollicking laughter until the end of the Nineteenth Century and was a signifier of female strangeness for much of the time before that and even beyond during the work of Sigmund Freud who here stands accused of “gaslighting the libido” of his subject Dora who simply refused to surrender to his interpretation of her symptoms. Dora’s will to resist is surely under-pinned by increasing education and the broader movement towards self-expression among better educated women. In Britain the reforms of Liverpudlian William Gladstone’s Liberal governments would have a long-term impact on the thinking and expression of the middle and even lower classes… soon more and more would want to vote and the disenfranchised were not laughing anymore.


Hennefeld shows how the “hysteria chronicles… map onto long-standing debates about the subversive potentials of disruptive feminist comedy” – can women’s laughing defiance tangibly impact the social order or are they just blowing off steam. This debate continues to this day across a whole range of the arts and even sports: how much “protest” does it take and is this also a manifestation of wider processes of change and challenge? She delves into the historiography of hysteria and the views of contemporary feminists balanced against those of the time to provide a whole spectrum of interpretation – from Freud to Foucault, who, whilst he is not gender specific, the facts show that hysterical women incarcerated in asylums were in greater numbers than men with similar conditions.


Next it is posited that pathological, noncomedic laughter is “the forgotten symptom” of female hysteria despite its frequent use as a cinematic signifier of unhinged evil/madness – think Bette Davis serving up a rat salad in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). “As a symptom – unlike hallucinations or somnambulism – laughter was never allowed to speak…” it was an uncoded message of madness, an end in itself in terms of cinematic creativity as well as contemporary psychotherapy.

Ultimately, the greater concern was possibly the transmissibility of hysterical laughter and the potential destabilisation of the social order. Living in the new age of mass hysteria – when the appearance or otherwise of a photoshopped princess can absorb the attention of millions – it is all too easy to relate to these turn of the last century concerns, “… emotional contagion and ideational suggestion are not so easily separatable…” as Hennefeld says.

Chrissy White and Alma Taylor. Dangerous women. 

Part Three: Early Cinema


“… female enjoyment was mined as a source of affective capital, conjuring transgressive fun as an exploitable compulsion.”


Did early cinema not only legitimise women’s freedom of hysteria but actively encourage it in the making and marketing of film? With the rise of this new media, women were able to become members of a “society of spectators”, participating in “…mass culture and a new urban crowd…” (Vanessa R Schwartz). A new context, new comedy and auditoriums enabling infectious mass merrymaking en masse.


Sadly, early cinema is, as Hennefeld says, “…a treasure trove for retroactive hope”; not all the news was good and she quotes Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai’s description of a nightmarish “permanent carnival” with its diminishing returns of compulsory enjoyment. This sits alongside Neil Postman’s concepts in Amusing Ourselves to Death, which, incidentally, had my son in ironic stitches as he read it for the first time recently and thought of Donald Trump: 40-year-old book, 80-year-old liar and 130-year-old lost opportunities.


Female and laughter from the marginalised was quickly commoditized in every conceivable way with phonographs featuring such as the “Hee-Haw Girl” Ida May Chadwick and “Laughing Girl” Sallie Strembler. Comedy films proliferated such as the 425 ft of laughter contained in Edison’s Sandy McPherson’s Quiet Fishing Trip (1908) and Essanay’s He Who Laughs Last, Laughs Best (1908) containing even more laughs per foot…

Frank Tinney &“Hee-Haw Girl” Ida May Chadwick, Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1919

Hennefeld prefers the period of “early” cinema, from 1896 to 1907 “at which point films became increasingly concerned with storytelling and character development”. This formative decade of white-hot innovation and “…hasty exhilarating temporality- the sheer enthrallment with unforeseen play of wild, shape-shifting figures. This is surely an energy we can all connect with, youthful, risk-averse, putting the show on here and with a pre-jazz ideology that there are no mistakes. It sounds like hysterical unruly production, one with fewer rules and more room for everyone outside of the settled hierarchies of theatre.


As the medium developed so too did a “moral panic” about the impact on audiences with films such as The Soul Kiss (1908) advertised as “…free from the slightest trace of suggestiveness… “even as the main make character goes on a kissing spree, something a female protagonist would not be allowed. The worry began that films with “too much meaning” might make their audience anxious, hysterical even – that old hack phrase making a comeback. There were even advisory notices attached to certain films such as Vitograph’s Jerry’s Uncle’s Namesake (1914) which was, “one of those wild comedies that are dangerous for hysterical persons to watch”.                                                                                                                                                                 

By 1915, movies were established (and, no, not because of Griffiths’ lengthy advert for the bed linen industry) as were its clientele with Hennefeld introducing a Madame Medusa as an exemplar of the every-woman crowding most cinemas. She quotes Mauritz Stiller’s The Mannequin (1913) in which Lili Ziedner jumps upon screen to knock out a boxer (Andre Deed) before re-joining the audience in ways that clearly foreshadow Keaton’s Sherlock but also reveal how women wanted more control on and off screen. Dangerous thinking at the time and a challenge to a society in which the needs of the many cannot possibly be met in reality.


Cinema was a hysterical medium that “let our minds fall asleep and create with our eyes whatever the soul desires…” (a sadly unknown German writer in 1910) and “hysteria-historiography” means understanding cinema as a somatic language – the body not the mind – and “… proxy reality for a spectator on the cusp of having a powerful voice.” In this case it was to be a reality increasingly controlled by male-dominated studios but they were addicted to their audience; this push and pull continues.

Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914)

The book also covers neurodivergent spectatorship in asylums as well as the fascination with mental health which led to such gems as Ham in the Nut Factory (1915) which does exactly as the title suggests. Tales that witness madness include of course, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) a depiction of the rise of the tyrannical psychiatrist, the cure being confused with the symptoms in a word of cognitive uncertainty in which films are also projected onto our doubts and fears.


Léonce Perret’s The Rocks of Kador (1912) is also quoted as “perhaps the most remarkable example of a meta film…” founded on the curative properties of cinema especially for female hysteria. Here, after having her sanity pushed to the limit by those wishing to make her miss out on her inheritance, a filmed reconstruction of her breakdown brings clarity back to her. Cinematic kill or cure would drive so much content as we were turned it on, tuned in and were turned on in return.


In her spectacular final chapter, Maggie brings forth the spirits of Daisy Doodad (Florence Turner) and her amazing Dial along with the legendary Léontine, a so-far un-named actress who produced a string of comedies in the early 1910s, to advance a Theory of The Laughing Head. Contrary to followers of David Wark G, close-ups were not his invention and indeed, human faces were a staple of cinema from the start. Liverpudlian James Williamson’s The Big Swallow (1901) gets his performer up close and digestible with his cameraman – which I’ve seen on 70mm at the BFI’s IMAX - then there was George Albert Smith’s series on Humorous Facial Expressions including Grandma Threading Her Needle (1901) and many more.


Gradually the performers and their parts are absorbed into more complex narrative spaces - the diegesis – although women’s faces remained as a close-up priority in many films, almost detached from body and this space as an object of wonder and desire. This is highlighted by the “low hanging fruit” (this is a playful book!) of When Cherries are Ripe (1907) which involves a woman chased up a cherry tree by a “masher” who evades him and is shown in triumphant close-up eating cherries, the most erotically coded fruit.


Marie Dressler throttles Charlie as Mabel watches Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

This “emblematic shot” was seen less as faces were used to connect more complex narratives – Mabel Normand’s brilliant look to camera deployed to this affect in Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914) as she tries to avoid a drunken tramp. The focus remained on the female face though and you only have to think of the stars of the twenties and beyond to recognise this.


What Maggie does in 350 pages of disciplined and tightly referenced writing I can’t hope to summarise in full but what I can tell you is to buy what is certainly one of the books of the year in terms of silent film and the society it fascinated, reflected and helped transform. This is surely a rich new area for historical study and, as Maggie and her contemporaries are proving, there are a lot of connections still to be made.  


The book is dedicated to Léontine (whoever you are) and whilst the search for this ground-breaking silent comedian continues we can see for ourselves how potent she and other women were on the Kino Lorber’s Cinema’s First Nasty Women four-disc box set which Maggie helped to compile with others from the Women Film Pioneers Project, Eye Filmmuseum, FIC-Silente, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, and Carleton University. Read the book then watch/rewatch these films; the past is being brought back to life in front of our very eyes and it means more.


Author note: Maggie Hennefeld is associate professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. She is also the author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (Columbia, 2018) and co-editor of Unwatchable (2019) and Abjection Incorporated: Mediating the Politics of Pleasure and Violence (2020).


You can order Death by Laughter from all reputable booksellers and direct from the publisher Columbia University Press.


Léontine's box of bellowing balloons begin to blow up the patriarchy!

Monday 4 March 2024

Love is in the air… Christopher Strong (1933)/ Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), BFI Dorothy Arzner Season


I’m not sure if I watched this film looking for Dorothy Arzner but found her anyway in yet another film in which heteronormative behaviour is gently challenged. In both these films, there is a direct challenge to the sanctity of marriage with the wanderings of the heart illustrating the soulful complexities that can work against relationships forged by societal expectation and rigidly “enforced” moral rules. But as with Arzner’s other work, they show women’s agency and place them at the forefront of the moral challenges and, ultimate decisions.


Christopher Strong achieves this critique through the initial presentation of exemplars of this morality; a man who has always been faithful to his wife and a woman who has never been in love or in a relationship with a man. The previously unthinkable is soon drawn together as these two fall in love and begin a sexual adventure that is in complete opposition to their lives and morality up to that point. If the unexpected can happen to them it can happen to you, whatever it is.


Now then, the idea that Kathryn Hepburn’s daredevil Lady Cynthia Darrington might be tempted into lustful union by Colin Clive’s stuffed shirted Sir Christopher Strong, is another thing altogether; it’s a mismatch both in terms of acting ability and star power, Hepburn is magnetic and intense whilst Clive is rather dreary but maybe that’s the point. He would do more impressive work before his untimely death and I don’t mean to be unfair. This was, however, only Hepburn’s second screen role and first as the star and she carries the dramatic weight very well along with one other performer.


Sir Christopher and Lady Cynthia are brought together as the above examples by his daughter Monica (Helen Chandler) at a gathering of bright young things at a London party thrown by her aunt Carrie Valentine (Irene Browne). Monica is young and naïve and also involved in an affair with the very married Harry Rawlinson (Ralph Forbes) which might be one of the prompts for Aunt Carrie to declare a scavenger hunt in which the women must find that steadfast married man and the men a woman previously missed by Cupid’s arrow.


So it is that adventuress meets the politician and their priorities begin to change. What makes this story so poignant is the performance of Billie Burke as Lady Elaine Strong, who’s open-hearted ethereality – so well used in The Wizard of Oz as the Good Witch of the North – makes her perfect for the innocent wife at the heart of this otherwise two-sided love triangle. This being Arzner the drama pivots around Mother, Daughter and Flyer as much as the lovers.


Sir Christopher tries to stop Cynthia’s flying but we all know what that means: she needs to be free not just from him but from expectation. As she says, “courage can conquer even love…” and she has records to break and round the world races to win; she must be true to herself.


Directed by Dorothy Arzner with help from Tommy Atkins, the adaptation was written by Zoë Akins based on Gilbert Frankau’s novel. Hepburn and Arzner did not enjoy the smoothest of working relationships and it shows in some of the film’s unevenness but there are many fine moments, not least when Cynthia appears all dressed up as a silver moth for a fancy dress party… she looks unearthly and someone who should fly far, far away from Sir Christopher.


There are some fine dramatic moments, lovely-looking aircraft and a superbly suggestive sequence as highlighted by Pamela Hutchinson on the discussion at the start of the season in which we see only Cynthia’s braceleted forearm is seen as she and Christopher talk warmly in post-coital intimacy about their situation; has he brought her down to ground, is she bound by his gift… voluntarily, forever? It’s delightfully subtle film making.

“First she gave me gingerbread and then she gave me cake; and then she gave me crème de menthe for meeting her at the gate.”


In Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) Sylvia Sidney’s Joan Prentice is faced with similar decisions regarding Fredric March’s intoxicated Jerry Corbett who’s so out of touch with his feelings that he substitutes “swell” for “love” in all his praises. Swell is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary (no longer Moroccan-bound but online, if you know your Bing and Bob…) as a generalized term of enthusiasm but that’s not really good enough if you’re seriously committed and Joan simply deserves that.


This more comedic offering presents a heart-breaking take on a good man laid low by alcoholism; March’s Jerry is a charmer, even when drunk, but when he gets drunk he goes the whole hog and clearly there’s a deeper issue. Even his friend Vi (Esther Howard) warns her off before relenting knowing how intelligent, witty and kind he can be.


Joan has been used to every luxury Corbett. I never taught her the value of money only as I didn’t intend she’d ever have to know it…


Joan’s father, Mr. Prentice (George Irving) is altogether more suspicious and he offers Jerry $50,000 to give up Joan but he’s not taking any amount even though her father describes her as just a child… he wants them to wait until she is sure. But we are sure, says his daughter, we are sure, aren’t we Jerry. You’re sure of everything when you’re in love…


So, there’s a class issue here – as well as over-protective masculinity - but Joan is remarkably self-determined, she knows her own mind and is only let down by the men in her life. Her father is perfectly right in his instinct that Jerry might be a waster and the journalist soon does his level best to prove him right by getting drunk and incapable on the evening of the reception where the engagement is to be announced.


Joan’s in love enough to go through with the wedding but there’s a Arzner moment when, having forgotten the ring, Jerry has to use a bottle opener he finds in his tuxedo for Joan’s wedding ring. The worst of all starts, but Joan forgives him again as she does when he drops their Thanksgiving turkey… he’s trying and she sees something in him that he hasn’t quite found himself.


Encouraged/financed by Prentice, Jerry writes plays and finally gets one accepted, a satirical comedy called When Women Say No which is to be produced in New York. A success at least, what could possibly go wrong? Well, his former paramour Claire Hempstead (Adrianne Allen) is exactly what the doctor wouldn’t order, she’s encourages his drinking, rewrites some of her part and, of course, makes a play for the playwright…


Sir, if I said yes I should mean no and if I said no I should mean yes but my silence is all true and for you…


It’s almost as if Jerry wrote the play with Claire in mind and these lines reflect the ambivalence in his own communication and commitment, hiding his uncertainties behind witty circumlocution. On the opening night he succumbs to temptation deliberately placed in her dressing room and is pie-eyed by the time he is pulled on stage to take his bow. Joan asks his pal Buck (Richard "Skeets" Gallagher) to look after him but he’s senseless by the time he gets home in the early hours.


You can’t be a doormat!


I’m not a doormat, you don’t know how sweet and fine Jerry really… I know what I’m doing.


Soon he succumbs to Claire’s temptation whilst Joan responds by dating fellow cast member Charlie Baxter (some fellow called Cary Grant) and the rift deepens… Joan has to fight her father and her husband’s weakness/illness to get what she wants but it’s not a simple or straightforward path yet she has the strength.


March makes for a very good drunk but Sylvia Sidney is superb, her face alive with so much emotion, vulnerable, quaking and yet steadfast and resolute. Arzner may have been the only woman directing film in the Thirties but there were so many fascinating actresses and she worked with a number of them.


Merrily we go to Hell.


Merrily you go to your girlfriend.


This is no easy ride.