Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Oooh, Betty!! A Sister of Six (1927) with Neil Brand, British Silent Film Festival Day Four

"Charming scenes – Gorgeous gowns – Splendid Acting. Betty Balfour’s greatest picture.”

As if it were possible to love her any more, A Sister of Six cemented Betty Balfour’s place in our silent hearts as forever, Britain’s Queen of Happiness.

This was a very special occasion as Magnus Rosborn had brought over an exceptionally fine 35mm print from the Swedish Film Institute: shipping back “Bettys to Blighty” in our hour of greatest need. This copy has only been screened a handful of times outside Sweden and is of a restoration completed in the mid-seventies from original nitrates that were sadly discarded at the time. New finds of nitrate elements raise the possibility of further digital restoration of this exceptionally energetic Swedish-German co-production that showcased an impressive array of European talent.

This was credited as directed by Ragnar Cavallius – script-writer for Greta, Lars and Jenny’s The Saga of Gosta Berling – but cinematographer Carl Hoffman (you know, Faust and all that Varieté, Varieté, Varieté…) really took the lead and this much was clear from his hand-held pursuit of a cheeky monkey to an array of shadowy dollies and pull-aways.

Betty on her way to finishing school...
A visual treat the film was filled with outstanding energy not just from our Betty but her handsome co-star Willy Fritsch who plays a Count Horkay tricked by his cousin into a trip to meet the seven daughters of Mrs. Gyurkovics (Lydia Potechina), the eldest of which is he is lined up to marry but – gasp! – he’s already wed. Y’see, Pat and Paddle’s Cocktails is supposed to be madcap but this, this is madcap and charming and funny throughout!

The plot is so complicated and cunning you could twist a tail around it and call it foxy but it doesn’t matter because at any given moment you’re only a cute Balfour twinkle or a mad Aunt’s leer away from a smile. The aunts in question are brilliantly created by Karin Swanström as Countess Emilie Hohenstein and Stina Berg as Countess Aurore Hohenstein – two women so concerned at the romantic behaviour of their niece, that they have prepared a padded room for her.

Padded room, dark mansion-imprissonment, cross-dressed Count come to the rescue? All you need to do is make sure that Betty is at the heart of all that and you’re there!

A Sister of Six is simply one of the most joyous silent films - the publicity quote above is no exaggeration - and no wonder the front row fan whooped with delight at the merest mention of Betty’s name. Mr Brand did very well to play on amidst the riot but it was magnificent on all fronts.

Women Variety Performers on Phonofilm

Tony Fletcher dropped his sock to the stage and we entered an alternate universe of music hall madness as the stars of the day were recorded on Phonofilm, a one-take audio-visual technique of the 1920s. Here we found Edith Kelly-Lange on violin, Yvette Darmac, Emmie Joyce (no relation to Alice or me) articulating her need for love and scouser Gertrude Watts aka Beryl Beresford, being all kinds of cheeky alongside husband Leslie Hinton Cole.

But nothing caused greater excitement on Silent Saturday than Fay “Frenchie” Marbe singing There's More to The Kiss Than XXX, a saucy song from your actual George Gershwin with lyrics from Irving Caesar. Miss Marbe was so smilingly direct she had us mooching along in the most carefree way as audience participation reached alarming new heights.

Fay “Frenchie” Marbe
Phil Carli then kicked off his talk on early sound and recording systems by declaring that “Edison was an ass!” about which there was complete agreement. A fascinating character though and a very entertaining presentation!

PG Wodehouse Stephen Horne, Neil Brand and Bryony Dixon

This was an interesting session whether or not your golf clubs, like mine, have been relegated to the lowliest garden shed. Neil Brand read from one of PG Wodehouse’s golfing short stories, A Woman is Only a Woman, and, relishing every bon mot, showed how crisp and witty PGW’s prose was, making me feel pure shame for never having read him (putting that right now). PG’s stories of golf are, of course, far more about the players – and men – than the game itself and are revelatory about twenties polite culture in general.

“Love (says the Oldest Member) is an emotion which your true golfer should always treat with suspicion… I have known cases where marriage improved a man’s game, and other cases where it seemed to put him right off his stroke. There seems to be no fixed rule.”

The Stoll Company made six shorts based on these stories and we were treated to three of them after Neil’s reading with Stephen Horne hitting an Eagle or two and proving more than up to par on accompaniment.

Rodney Fails to Qualify (1924) introduced us to the diminutive Harry Beasley as The Caddie, an invention of the film series intended to fulfil the same function as The Oldest Member in the stories: the oil that keeps the stories running. We couldn’t work out Harry’s age… anything from 20 to 40 but he was guaranteed cheeky!

The Clicking of Cuthbert (1924) featured the eternal Moore Marriott as grumpy Russian novelist Vladimir Roseleaf whose unexpected passion for golf, wrong-foots the local book group enabling Peter Haddon’s Cuthbert to impress Helena Pickard’s open-minded blue stocking Adeline.

Chester Forgets Himself (1924) in which Jameson Thomas’ Chester Meredith, a man with a potty mouth, almost loses his quest for Ena Evans’ Felicia Blakeney by forgetting to express himself. Some lovely title cards left Chester’s language to our imaginations but Felicia liked his tone better!

Canine Capers…

We’d already seen one comedy canine (in Cocktails…) and there just had to be more as is BSFF tradition. This sequence included Cecil Hepworth’s astonishing Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (1908) in which a dog not only outwits kidnappers but drives their car off… I hadn’t seen it before and I may have whooped.

Contrary to the title Teddy the Dog doesn’t actually drive a train in Clarence Badger’s Teddy at the Throttle but he saves Gloria Swanson who is *actually* tied to railway tracks! Proof that, even if only on this occasion, attempted murder-by-steam train was a thing in silent films.

Then we had charming Charlie Chase taking a bath with Duke the Dog in Dog Shy (1926). CC is the real deal and a premier league performer with or without the pooch.
Gloria, ready for her chain-up...
The Pleasure Garden (1925) with Philip Carli

Introducing, Bryony Dixon took us back to 2012, the year of the Hitchcock Nine and the BFI’s epic restorations which were unveiled throughout the year with diverse accompaniment – anyone else remember the beatbox Downhill!? Hitchcock’s directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden was Bryony’s favourite restoration – if not favourite film – given the challenges of the source material and the creative process involved in putting, literally, every cup of tea in its right place. Hitchcock was not a director who ever put in a shot without purpose and everyone served the overall narrative including that of a lone tea leaf floating in a cuppa; a sure sign of impending visitors for our grandparents and every viewer in 1925 (or 1927 when, post Lodger, this film got its general release).

The Pleasure Garden has some great Hitch moments: from the opening sequence as dancing girls hurry their legs down a spiral staircase to then be ogled by a front row of sweaty middle-aged men (ahem!) only for Virginia Valli to laugh off the attentions of her ogler-in-chief (you go, girl!) to the, sickly-disturbing, drowning as Miles Mander’s character finally loses it in the heat. This moment never leaves the film – as stark and psychotic as any in silent film.

Philip Carli, suffering throughout with that most British of gifts, an ‘orrid cold, cast off his discomfort to accompany with a dramatic dash, clearly relishing his duet with Alfred!

Virginia Valli disapproves
And then there was Betty…

The evening show was Stephen Horne and Minima’s fantastic re-scoring of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr whichI had previously seen and raved about at the Barbican back in January. A film that takes on dramatic new flavours in the hands of the collaborating accompanists: their project is not so much a re-scoring as a chance to reflect on the pure brilliance of Dreyer’s technique.

And that was me at this year’s British Silent Film Festival, a wonderful event for which everyone involved – players, presenters, programmers, volunteers, bar staff and sandwich makers - should take a bow as we smooch Fay Marbe’s There's More to The Kiss Than XXX in their general direction!


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us. I hope you find time to read some Wodehouse. His stories are more diverse than this, and include plenty of great female characters as well.

    1. I really enjoyed the reading and Neil Brand relished every skilled turn of phrase! I shall read PGW now - any recommendations for non-golfing stories? Best wishes, Paul