Monday, 29 January 2018

Anoushka Shankar interviewed for Shiraz (1928), in cinemas from 2nd February.

For her first film score, Anoushka Shankar not only succeeded she excelled. Given that this was a silent film and a long one, and that her work was to be unveiled live – without a safety net - the rapturous reception it received at last year’s London Film Festival Restoration Gala is even more remarkable, yet from the very start of our discussion I began to understand the reasons why.

I met Anoushka in her London studio and was very kindly offered tea in a mug on which the following question was written: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? I put this to Anoushka as my first question, hoping that other mugs would soon arrive with further questions… and it evinced the first burst of laughter from a woman who is as gracious as she is talented; she laughs like a lark but is very focused even in the face of my random question.

“To fly! I always had flying dreams as a kid, it was my big obsession…” but as soon as she thinks of applying this to the real world, she says “I almost wonder if that takes away the fun of trying to be honest… there’s a tension in trying something new and unknown, …from not knowing if it’s going to work or not, so it would almost take the interest away.”

Luckily this ties right into the question of why you would tackle a project like Shiraz, not just a huge exercise in scoring but also one that would be given a live premier in front of thousands. But clearly, it’s a question of “what would you do if you knew you could fail”?

AS I like to challenge myself and this was two-fold; there was the act of writing my first film score and having that be augmented by writing for a silent film and how much more was required for that…Then there was the fact that right from the beginning it was booked to be a live premier and that really intrigued me, I’d only seen a couple of films with live music being played and found it really electrifying. The dual element of having to compose and perform I found fascinating.

On stage and on screen at the Barbican. Photograph - and above - from Darren Brade.
PJ It must be very hard to not overstate and to draw the focus away from the film; some modern scores have taken over the narrative in a way but not yours, you kept the balance.

AS Yes, I saw that you said I hadn’t done that and that’s one of the things I appreciate, so thank you…

PJ: I wrote that before I knew I was coming here…

AS (Laughs…) That’s lucky then!

I grew up as an accompanist, so much of my playing was as the second sitarist to my father and so I have a good training in being the side person who is there to augment and I think that’s really important. Sometimes there is a clash - there can be an ego desire to play the very best, the most clever line there is and sometimes that’s just not appropriate in that moment, the choice to do it less or do it a little bit differently… it might not show in that moment the best of you but it’s best for the bigger picture. I had that experience in my past, so I kind of knew to do that in scoring a film.

But ultimately, people are coming to watch a film and if there was ever that experience of them being torn away from the film by me trying to take attention then that wasn’t going to work. So hopefully we would come across well…

PJ In some ways that’s kind of Rule #1 for silent film and yet it is so hard to apply in practice - which is why your score is so striking.

AS It was a great way to have a first experience, ‘wow, the Barbican Gala! OK!’ It was an electrifying night I thought, one of my more memorable shows I think.

PJ I saw Shiraz again last week and if anything, it’s even more powerful second time around. How does it compare with other collaborations?

AS The thing that felt scariest was the level of responsibility involved, with the fact that there was no one there who had been part of making the film to help instruct me as to what the intentions were. In any given scene I could easily chose the wrong way or read it the wrong way. So, if something was meant to be a very, obvious signifier of something to come, for example or if I just noticed it because I saw it 30 times and actually it’s not meant to be you know… Those are things that a director would tell you how to do as a composer and that director wasn’t there, so I did feel the weight of that responsibility of wanting to really try and have the film play as it as intended…

PJ Other directors are available… did your husband (director Joe Wright) help?

AS Laughs… Yes, I played it for him at the beginning and then half way through. It was helpful because at the very beginning we watched it together and he gave me a couple of pointers about pulling out just what I thought the themes were and always trying to decide that any given scene was about one of those themes or sometimes more than one that could make for interesting counter play. That was really helpful because it gave me a bit of a template to start with… and yet, for any director, it’s not their film so they still don’t know what the other person intended so there was still that shooting in the dark feeling, so, I hope we did that the best we could.

Himansu Rai and Charu Roy at the Taj Mahal
PJ I’ve been listening a lot to (Anoushka's latest album) Land of Gold and listening to tracks like Disolving Boundaries you feel like you’re wrapped up in the centre of a defined musical narrative: it starts in a disparate way before pulling together with an uplifting and forceful piano line as you're moved along; it’s very effective and very cinematic music.

AS Thank you, I really appreciate that. I’ve heard people use the word cinematic about my music for years and I can’t say I always knew what that meant but I liked it and I thought that now I’m writing for a movie I won’t know how to make it cinematic – laughs – now that I’m thinking differently!

PJ There must be the concern that you over think it and start to undermine your natural instincts?

AS It was just a question of doing it over and over again really. One good decision I made was not to start at the beginning… and not to work in order. So, we ended up with really-random patchworks and then each bit would inform the next, and kept going back over it and sieving though it and one more time and one more time… We were able to build in a lot of detail and a lot of quite specific structure within it.

PJ There’s a lovely bit when Shiraz is chasing after Selima is kidnapped and there’s a riot of counter-rhythms from the tabla and other percussion.

AS We started with one percussion and then a second percussion and then a third… we wanted it to feel chaotic whilst he was chasing and lost… we were quite careful about how we would use surround sound, it was quite minimal, and we wanted it to have impact when we did it. That was the first moment where we used an element of surround sound, so the percussion starts coming form all over the place it enhances the feeling. There’s a moment when they all charge to chase after him and that’s the point when all the percussion snaps together and starts playing in unison… Stuff like that was really fun to get to play with which I would never have thought of if I was just writing for an album.

PJ The music is so well edited as part of the film and it struck me that the sitar was almost like the narrator and that when you’d have an intertitle the sitar would solo, pausing the action between the scenes and preparing for changes in mood.

AS I’m aware of myself as a band-leader in the context of it being a live show as well – again I was building this soundtrack knowing that it would be a live show as well, so I was having to build it in a way that it would work live, so there was an element of thinking who was playing what and needing to make sure I could lead in a song… For me I often err on the side of caution where I’m paranoid that I’m taking up too much space with my instrument so I almost back out of pieces too much at first when I’m writing and give all the melodies away to other people. It usually takes someone else coming in and saying ‘where’s the sitar? I haven’t heard it for three scenes?!' and I have to go ‘alright!’, I’ll just be sat there and need to put myself back in. You have to find a balance but no I tend to be quite paranoid of being too showy.

PJ What other concerns did you have about the project?

AS Time period was another one and stylistic choices. I know I’m already known for making music that’s quite multi-cultural, with an Indian centre and yet incorporating other elements, so when the BFI commissioned me I figured it was with an openness to that. I assumed I had the freedom to chose whatever pallet I wanted to but that was a bit paralyzing at the beginning… I keep coming back to this but that fact that it was booked as a live premier was really useful because I had to commit right at the beginning to what my ensemble was going to be and that meant I knew who I was writing for. But at the beginning I could have gone in any direction, I could have chosen a full ensemble of eight purely traditional Indian instruments in order to make a fully authentic Indian score or I could have gone a bit more Avant Garde and just gone sitar with a quartet, electronica and made it be a more London-based soundtrack…

In the end I settled on a mixed Indian and Western ensemble that would help me give a lot of variation through what’s a very long film. I made the decision to start very authentically in the way one would expect with the opening credits: ‘this is an Indian film from the 1920s…’ and slowly from there to start to bring in developments in a way that wasn’t too jarring…

PJ Does that development come with the emotional flow of the film?

AS Yes and it was a kind of narrative as again it was following the story of the film. There is that point in the film that you talked about where Selima is kidnapped, it’s such a dramatic moment that it felt appropriate to introduce a new instrumental sound and once the piano is in you can begin to establish other sounds and so, by the end of the film you’re in what almost could be a more pop-feeling arrangement with sitar being like a vocal and having full verse/chorus elements in that final love scene... but you had to get there carefully, and if we’d have brought that in at the beginning it would have felt strange. It’s a process of going one way and then another and then another before fitting it all together: it feels very fulfilling I think? I Hope! (Laughs!)

PJ I think the film’s not an obvious film either, it ends with the love of the Prince and Shiraz and their mutual dedication to honouring Selima.

Charu Roy and Enakshi Rama Rau
AS I think a lot of people are surprised with which man she chooses in the end… which is funny when you think of what the film’s about…

PJ …and he seemed a nice prince too, perhaps just a little harsh on occasion?

AS Yes, just a bit! It does twist and turn in tone and you can play with that and then you’ve got Daliah, who’s just such a great character to write for.

PJ Have you seen A Throw of Dice and Seeta Devi’s other films? It has a soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney but there could be room for another one?

AS She’s brilliant isn’t she… and, well no! (smiles) I watched it for Nitin’s score years ago not knowing that I would end up doing one as well, so I didn’t pay as much attention beyond the music I think. But yes, she’s wonderful and she gives a different colour. It was nice to have a couple of moments to play with humour, it’s very serious and it’s very epic and so on, but we did try and have a giggle now and then!

PJ There are some moments as with the elephant’s foot, when it starts off a bit funny and then…

AS I found that scene incredible even without music, it was really well done.

PJ The way it was cut, you were convinced that Shiraz is going to get squashed… And there’s something about that character too, and the actor, Himansu Rai, he’s so relate-able, humorous and serious in turns.

AS He’s very likable, you identify with him, he’s the kind of everyman isn’t he?

Seeta Devi
PJ He’s totally naturalistic in the same way that Seeta Devi is as well… that’s something you find even this early, with some people, whether it’s because they’re acting themselves, fundamentally, or just acting “well”. You look at Seeta once and she reaches across the decades and feels very fresh. And that’s where the music helps… in this connection.

AS Well that’s the aim, you want people to be able to reconnect with this film and the music is what brings them back into the film. The first time I watched the film it was silent…I found it amazing and impressive but it was a very disconnected experience my first time watching a film with absolutely no sound and I was struck by how two dimensional it felt without the music.

I’m so curious to know what music was played with it at the time. It’s really wonderful that the BFI have restored it this way… I’m so glad I did it!

PJ You can say that now… but was there any point when you thought you’d bitten off too much?

AS Yes, definitely… especially in the final weeks. We had a big technical issue and had to re-do a lot of the things we had to in the last three weeks. The sheer volume was really quite insane. So that was the black moment! I work with incredible people, my soundman and my cellist/pianist who worked co-arranging a lot of things, were brilliant and we all just pulled in and did it together.

PJ How do you approach composing for western instruments?

AS I feel woefully ill-equipped in comparison to on the Indian side, I can’t notate and I have very little understanding of harmonic structure, so I tend to write melodies and then I’ll work with someone to help me ground things. They’ll help me understand what I’ve done because it’s more instinctive than from knowledge,  I’ll write the Indian notation for that part of the ensemble and then I’ll need to work with someone to notate that into western score

The great Himansu Rai
PJ We’re no longer talking about “world music”, just music – “thank goodness!” – and in terms of experimenting and blending styles, your music is innovative but from the point of view of a virtuoso… always balanced even when it’s pushing boundaries.

AS When I started moving into, I guess, multi-cultural or experimental music, that was one of my aims, because I grew up in a classical world, I know the standard with which people listen to a classical musician and they expect a certain qualitative element to be there. I hope that anything I work on, that people listening with other ears, that are trained in other cultures, would be able to find those same elements of quality in the elements I use even if I’m not an expert in them, so that’s where the collaborative approach comes in where I need to work with other experts who can help me make sure of quality in areas that I might not be aware of. 

I love all kinds of music and I’m very open, but it will make me wince sometimes if someone who is a fantastic musician from a non-Indian culture, just doesn’t understand what they’re doing when they choose an Indian melody or line, you know and just stick it on there. It’s a tough call – sometimes it could sound pretty to someone who doesn’t understand but to someone who does understand it sounds all wrong or out of tune or expressed weirdly… all those things, so I know that way of listening and I would hate for someone to listen to something I’ve used and feel the same way.

PJ I listened to a couple of Mogwai remixes of tracks from Land of Gold - and I love Mogwai - yet they’re very masculine in their approach but good at structuring sound. They did a good job – your tune and their sound blend so well.

AS Thank you, I love Mogwai too!

Recommended and don't miss the remixes!

PJ What was the response in India to Shiraz?

AS It was equivalent, it was good. We did 4/5 shows and they all had the same immediate response that we had at the Barbican at the end. I think that there was perhaps an added element of the emotion involved in watching something from your own culture that’s been restored. A lot of people were watching a film from their own country that was older than anything they’d ever seen before. There were some chiming moments in a couple of the cities during the first kissing scenes, people just gasped dramatically all the way across the hall because they weren’t expecting that because we’d generally grown up with not seeing that… I gasped and my Mum gasped as most people would never have seen a black and white film with a kiss in it… and then there were two! So, there were lovely moments like that.

PJ Do you have any other film projects?

AS I’m touring at the moment, then working on a new album sometime this summer, so it’s a question of seeing how we go. I definitely found it very fulfilling to write for a film and would so I love to do more… whether another silent film falls into my lap or not I don’t know, but film hopefully. I would be curious to learn how to write for a non-silent film at this point because, in a way, that has a completely different set of challenges. That would be interesting and that might have more scope for opportunity as well.

Shiraz opens on Friday 2nd February for runs at the BFI and Home, Manchester and then around the UK until the end of March. A digital release will follow but I would urge you to not miss it on the big screen and with the full might of the Shankar score! Full details are on the BFI site.

Details of Anoushka's tour and impressive back-catalogue can be found on her website.

My review of the now legendary Gala Performance is here.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The People’s Pictures… Slapstick Festival Gala Friday, Bristol Watershed and Colston Hall

My third year at the Slapstick Gala and again I marvel at the event’s support from the city of Bristol; the Colston Hall was filled to the rafters not just by curious locals or travelling hipsters but by local folk who know how to have a grand time! No one talked throughout the show, continually checked their phones, laughed at the quaintness of it all or, indeed, some of Tim Vine’s jokes*… they get it: they know Stan and Buster and they really understand Charlie and Oliver. Heck, even the obscure Arthur Lake, casually dropping a baby in convenient dump bins… they got him too.

Waves of laughter flowed around the Hall, genuine, belly laughs, all feeding each other as recognition of the ridiculous, the daft and the jaw-dropping was shared by the warmest audience you’ll find in all the kingdom. Bristol, you are the most educated and fun-to-be-with crowd! Comedy is a team sport and in this respect, you are City and Rovers united.

I had a conversation with my mother-in-law about why she hadn’t found Chaplin as funny as she’d expected up to now but what’s been missing is an audience and a live musical setting – tonight’s showing of A Dog’s Life (1918) took the roof off and she laughed.

The Bristol Ensemble played Chaplin’s own score and Günter A. Buchwald conducted for a film that is so much more knowing than most “civilians” would expect… aside from this crowd that is. From Edna Purviance’s tear-jerking singing – buckets of tears… a splash in the face for those who talk “sentimentality” – to Charlie’s knowing look at the end, the film is razor sharp.

Laurel and Hardy kicked us off in fine style with Angora Love (1929) – accompanied by maestro John Sweeney on the Hall’s amazing grand and Frank Bockius on percussion. This film may well have been the origin of the “don’t work with animals” rule as the lads just about manage to cope with a goat that just won’t let them go.

Arthur Lake’s Whose Baby (1929) may well have completed the other half of that rule as our rarely-screened hero has to cope with looking after a baby whilst convincing his girl that it’s not his. I use the term “looking after” loosely as Arthur dumps the kid in bins, lets his pram run into traffic and hangs him up on hooks. It’s all in the best of bad taste but a riot all the same.

Sherlock Jnr (1924) was the headline act and not the first time Buster’s meta-masterpiece had an audience gasping in disbelief as he puts his body on the line for laughs in some of his best stunts. The action is far-fetched but as the boy in the row behind observed, these things make sense as he’s in a dream… this Bristol audience is well informed at all ages!

Gunter played along on violin and piano with The European Silent Screen Virtuosi featuring Frank Bockius (percussion), Romano Todesco (double bass) and Marc Roos (trombone). The acoustics in the Hall are darned good to my ears and, sat dead centre, the music was rich and satisfying.

A stunning end to a full Friday which began with...

The Three Keatons
The Young Keaton (1895-1917) with David Robinson

David Robinson talked us through the golden age of vaudeville and variety and the birth of Buster! Keaton’s remarkable theatrical career began in 1899 aged 3, and we learned that it was not Harry Houdini who earned him his nickname but another vaudevillian who witnessed his fall down the stairs. Keaton’s father was an astute self-publicist and came up with the “better story” later. It was a tough existence and seeing Buster talk on film later in the day, you got the impression that he was a forceful, intelligent man with intent forged on the road in medicine shows and lower-league theatres. 
By the time he stepped in front of a camera he was a comedy seventh dan ready to knock his block off for our delight.

Betty Balfour's eyes

Vagabond Queen (1929), Betty Balfour with introduction form Lucy Porter

In which our Queen of Happiness plays Sally a humble maid in a London boarding house who temporarily becomes the Princess of Balonia – a woman she resembles to the last freckle – in order to act as a decoy on coronation day as rebels in the fake Balkan state, use knives, bombs and bullets to try and assassinate their future monarch.

It is an aptly named country and there’s a certain Marx Brothers zaniness to Douglas Furber’s script: “My friends and Balonians!”, directed with brisk efficiency by Géza von Bolváry. The film was essentially a silent but had a recorded soundtrack added post-production to turn it into a “talkie” of sorts. The score was from John Reynders – a renowned musical compiler – and sticks like glue to the narrative with sound effects galore as it follows the action like a shadow.

Betty is super-charged charm throughout and is aided by Ernest Thesiger as Lidoff, the Balonian diplomat and young Glen Byam Shaw as her boyfriend Jimmie. The real Princess’s actual husband, Prince Adolphe, as played by the decidedly louche Charles Dormer, is in a drunken confusion wondering how his poor Zonia has lost her loving feeling.

Like anyone introducing their mate to a party, Lucy Porter perhaps worried that we’d not get Betty, but who couldn’t love Chester-le-Street’s finest: she does indeed still make us happy!

Seff on the left and Cocl on the right
Cocl & Seff: Austria’s Laurel & Hardy, introduced by Chris Serle

Now here’s a couple of queer fish… one of cinema’s very first double acts who from 1913 appeared in many films sometimes together and sometimes apart. Both Austrian boys, Rudolf Walter (Cocl) and Josef Holub (Seff) had the distinguishing traits of most double acts: one tall, one short and one brainy the other less so… as things progressed Seff – who on this evidence was slightly funnier – evolved to look a little like Harold Lloyd.

Their earlier shorts shown lacked the finesse of a Chaplin or Mabel Normand but by the twenties they were more oddball. One film was set in a hotel with the characters all moving like jazzed automatons, John Sweeney expertly followed their rhythm and it was an hilarious combination.

The funniest film was a Seff solo from 1926: Seff on the way to power and beauty (extracting der Mikel from the earnest Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit) which was a commercial for the Viennese Dairy that – wait for it! – milks the association for everything it’s worth. Also features cheese.

John Sweeney and Elizabeth Jane Baldry took turns accompanying and played together to sublime affect. Let’s have more piano and harp!

Lost and Found… David Robinson, Elizabeth Jane Baldry and Daan van den Hurck

Mr Robinson was on fine form today and took us through some enthralling snippets starting with the Odd-Father of Slapstick film, Leopoldo (Luigi) Fregoli a hugely-popular transformist, a quick-change artist, who could go from old gentlemen to lady… and young man faster than you could say, er, David Robinson.

There followed an English film featuring a lady on skates flying through the streets at an incredible whack, causing all manner of chaos; well done that stunt man!

Next an Italian film, featuring a lady whose huge hatpins knock into the heads of all around her and wonderful solo accompaniment from Elizabeth Baldry who plays her harp as percussion, rhythm and lead – a one-woman band who finds rich tones from deep bass, atonality (scratched strings) as well as the gorgeous lines you’d expect: a joy to watch her work form the second row!

André Deed – the World’s first comic superstar and a man of many monikers, featured in Boireau déménage (Boireau Changes House) and a bonkers tale of a door fitter creating mayhem with his door en route to a job… improvised and shot mostly on location, these are fascinating as well as funny.

As David Robinson said, there’s hardly any visual gag going that Max Linder didn’t invent or improve and we got to see a sample of his earlier work in Two Great Sorrows (1908) that even David hadn’t seen. It was a darkly comic tale about a young widower and a young widow that showed the root of Linder’s appeal was his ability to act…

Marcel Perez
Marcel Perez – who had even more names than Monsieur Deed – was next Mademoiselle Robinet (1912) in which he has to cross dress to cover up a dalliance with another man’s wife with the inevitable consequences.

Ray Hughes, a Chaplin imitator, was next in the genuinely “lost and found” Love and Lunch. I had no idea that there were Charlie tribute acts at the time but given his popularity it’s not too surprising… he’s pretty good but he’s no Charlie!

Lastly, we had a Stan Laurel treat, the recently recovered full version of his 1924 solo movie Detained (1924), provided by The Frisian Film Archive in Holland. Stan was great in this film and very funny; not for nothing did Buster consider him the greatest, he connects so well with the audience, even now, we’re all in on Stanley’s jokes!

Stanley hanging on...
As David said, having seen these films so often, they’re a lot funnier when accompanied by Elizabeth and Daan, there’s so much range in their playing and they make for an intuitively subtle combination –  as indeed did Elizabeth and John.

So Funny it Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (2004), Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson

Perhaps the abiding memory of this day will be our Kevin and our David trading tales of meeting some of the artists featured: yes, Mr Brownlow met Buster Keaton and Mr Robinson met Laurel and Hardy.

They were in conversation after the screening of Brownlow’s documentary of Buster’s difficult years at MGM, a period of declining creative output despite commercial success. The Cameraman was perhaps the last film in which Keaton had something like full creative control and the MGM brass mistook its success for their own… With every subsequent film from Spite Marriage (screened the day before) onwards, the studio took more away from its star in an attempt to leave him as just a “performer”. Buster was more than that though and even though the film’s earned good money he 
wasn’t going to go quietly.

It’s a shame we can’t see more of Brownlow’s amazing interviews with Keaton and others but when studios are asking up to $600 per minute for use of footage integral to the stories in Hollywood and elsewhere, there’s no affordable way. So… the very same guys who wasted these talents and destroyed their work in the first place, now stand in the way of what remains being more widely seen. And yet… Warners can find the odd $70 million just for Justice League re-shoots and MGM/Sony $100s of millions for remakes of Death Wish and Tomb Raider. Valuable work gentlemen, valuable work.

If you want to see the true spirit of cinema, you only had to look at David and Kevin, two people in love with film and who, after many decades of involvement, are still youthfully excited about their subject. Right back at you boys!

Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson

*To be fair, Mr Vine was very funny too!

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The three Dougs… Gallant Hearts (1931) with Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, BFI

After Shiraz another gem from Indian cinema, perhaps not as polished but sparkling all the same. Gallant Hearts (Diler Jagar) is one of so very few silent films to survive from this time and has recently been restored by the National Film Archive of India was being shown here for the first time overseas. It’s a sprawling adventure influenced heavily by the work of Mr D Fairbanks and features a trio of adventurers who enjoy free-running swordplay so much, they often stop and wait for the baddies to catch up.

The screening was part of the BFI’s ongoing silent film strand as well as the India on Film series with the NFAI and featured mind-boggling improvised accompaniment from pianist/multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne and Jeevan Singh, another multi-instrumentalist on Dholak, Dhol and Tabla. They played as one, without any rehearsal, four hands playing sometimes four instruments at a time, as they reacted to events on screen. It takes generosity as well as skill to make a film score in this way and the two supported each other and the film exceptionally well, especially during those extended fight scenes, hitting a playful and purposeful groove as our heroes danced with death.

Whilst Gallant Hearts has its heroic Prince Hameer (an actor named Hamir… it was indeed Hameer Time…) it also features a woman who is his every inch his match. Lalita Pawar plays Hameer’s love, Saranga, an acrobatic daredevil who can outfight the men just as easily and also becomes a masked avenger, righting the wrongs of the evil King Kalsen and saving her true love’s life on a number of occasions. So interesting to see such a liberated female presence as a natural part of the story… for without qualification, Hameer is lucky to win her respect and to earn her love.

Bad King Kalsen
G.P. Pawar directs and there are many interesting fades and camera movements, with a montage of tempting luxuries focused on Saranga’s face as the King charms her with promises of endless royal favour and later a tracking shot as she walks in torment after letting down Hameer. Some of the action looks a little slack but it must have been largely improvised on location (and there are very few studio shots).

Like all good fantasies, the film is about the battle between good and evil and the long-game. In Magadh a good and generous king is poisoned by his scheming brother Kalsen. The faithful sardar Satyapal smuggles the dead king’s infant son out but the child is seemingly lost after the horse and escort take a tumble.

There follows twenty years of misrule, the titles superimposed on Satyapal’s increasingly grey visage, during which evil reigns and the bad king begats a bad Prince Ramanaraj who, like his father, has broad tastes in abuses of all kinds and more than a little fondness for the ladies. In one horrible  scene we see the King whipping a man because he has tried to stop his wife joining the royal harem.

Prince Ramanaraj and friend
Into this “Kingdom of Horror” arrive three fearless visitors, Hameer, Saranga and her brother Balbheem, a troupe of acrobats who, naturally enough cannot escape the attention of royal spies on the look out for “pretty birds” to trap for Prince or King. The Commander of Maghadh, large of moustache and with a very helpful boil on his face perhaps representing the simmering sin in his heart, tries to take Saranga away but is quickly humiliated by Hameer who is part Fairbanks, part Adam Ant and early Spandau Ballet… ridicule is nothing to be scared of certainly not with his lithe athleticism and way with a sword!

In evading the chasing pack of royal guards they bump onto the canoodling Prince who, instantly clocking Saranga’s charms, invites these “brave lads” (love the English title cards!) to perform at the palace…

Clever though they are the trio are taken by surprise when Saranga’s bed is lowered in the middle of the night and she is taken by royal guards with the King just beating his son to her capture.

“Silly girl! You were born to live in palaces not beg in the streets!”

Hamir and Lalita Pawar
The King lays it on with a shovel and persuades Saranga into lowering her guard for just an instance at which point Hameer arrives and jumps to the right wrong conclusion. Seemingly betrayed and with “nothing to live for…” he is captured and thrown in the dungeon with Balbheem. But, as Saranga works to deceive the King, Balbheem stirs his friend up for some vengeance and the adventure takes off all over again.

It seems like a wedge has been driven between the two lovers though but shortly after the ongoing battle against the King is joined by a masked avenger, part Zorro and with a hint of Musidora’s Irma Vep (only good). Who is this Robyn Hood? And is there one more revelation that will restore good order to the Kingdom…?

Another cracking Sunday silent at the BFI and here’s hoping that the spirit of adventure continues!

Monday, 15 January 2018

Ha-Ha for Hollywood... Show People (1928), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image

Mordaunt Hall hit the nail on the head in his New York Times review: “So clever is the comedy in Show People… that it would not be at all surprising to hear that many in the audiences had sat through it twice.” Try five or seven times and it’s still a life-affirming hit.

This was the first time I’ve seen the movie in cinema though and with Cyrus Gabrysch’s playfully assured accompaniment and an audience of serious cinephiles getting every joke and spotting every starry face, it was as funny as ever.

I want to live in Billy and Marion’s world.

I always link this film with Souls for Sale (1923) starring King Vidor’s future wife, Eleanor Boardman and, in a cameo, the man himself, along with appearances from Mr Chaplin (filming Woman from Paris) and Erich von Stroheim (filming Greed, no less). It’s a film about making it in Hollywood and wraps the comedy around a more serious story although it’s also featured Boardman’s fellow New Face of 1921, William Haines as Pinkey, the assistant director; his first film credit!

The diminutive autograph hunter
In Show People we get Chaplin without his make up and someone who goes unrecognised by Marion Davis’ character Peggy Pepper, later Patricia Pepoire and we also get Eleanor Boardman, shown in the boat-under-the-willow-branches sequence from Bardleys the Magnificent along with John Gilbert, also directed, of course, by King Vidor.

Confused? You might be, but I recommend Souls for Sale to all who like the People of Show….

John Gilbert’s also *in* Show People walking into the studios ahead of Pepper and her father General Marmaduke Oldfish Pepper (Dell Henderson) who brings her to Hollywood with the determined, but totally wrong assumption that she’ll be welcomed with open arms. After trying and failing to follow Mr Gilbert into the studios, they are sent to casting and the first of many humiliations.

New in town
Peggy is lucky enough to encounter Billy Boone (William Haines) in a studio canteen and he offends her by failing to take anything seriously; he’s an old enough hand to know the twin imposters of triumph and failure walk closely together in the dream factory.

He gets Peggy a chance in one of his comedies and, playing it straight, she gives the perfect, un-anticipated, response when squirted in the face with soda water and getting involved in a custard pie fight. But Peggy goes from strength to strength and is soon selected ahead of Billy by the studio for more feature work. They change her name to Patricia Pepoire and make her date a fellow star, Andre Telefair (Paul Ralli) a phoney French “count” who we later discover, used to wait on tables and who acknowledges Billy with the most effete of nods… (nothing is accidental when Mr Haines is around eh, boys?).

What a trooper!?
Miss Pepoire becomes more and more removed from her friends and family and starts to believe her own publicity: Hollywood always on the defensive by this stage. Billy sees Peggy filming a dramatic encounter with Andre as his Keystone-style comedy crew are filming themselves in a madcap chase, but he just can’t reach her – even Andre is closer to getting the joke.

But even when audiences begin to turn, Ms Pepoire doesn’t get it. She agrees to marry Andre and all seems to be lost but can Billy find a way to not only see sense but to win her back? Honest laughter may be the solution along with soda water and cream pies…

Show People is a now well-worn story very well wrought and is enlivened by the constant rush of surprise guests, stars that are so in on the gag that they ham it up, especially the lunch time banquet in which Karl Dane, George K Arthur, Mae Murray, Renne Adore, Dorothy Sebastian, John Gilbert (again!), Claire Windsor, Leatrice Joy, Norma Talmadge (looking stunning by the way…), then Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart who get to send themselves up (Bill’s the funniest!).

Peggy transformed as Patricia Pepoire (any resemblance to Mae Murray etc...)
But I especially like Peggy’s response to seeing Marion Davies, asking who it is she’s told that it’s Marion Davies – “who? I don’t like her much” she mouths. King Vidor himself also pops up directing a sequence not unlike part of The Big Parade – looks like he knows what he’s doing alright!

Mordaunt Hall was even impressed with his handling of Mr Haines, a performer he seems unimpressed with: “Mr. Vidor, who more than once has proved himself a wizard in handling players, has accomplished here the seemingly impossible—by eliciting a restrained performance from William Haines. Mr. Haines, who has kicked over the traces in a number of films, in "Show People" actually compels sympathy for the character.”

Mr Haines
He concluded with even more compliments from his back handed delivery: “Miss Davies is beautiful in this film, but occasionally she does not hesitate for the sake of the part to show that with her hair pulled back she can look relatively plain…”

It’s fair to say that both Billy and Marion left their egos at the door for this film and, no doubt at Vidor’s prompting, just went for comedy broke!

The film was screened - free - as part of the Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image winter season of events, further details of upcoming shows are on their site.

Show People is now available on Warner Archives DVD but it’s the kind of film that works best, is funniest, when you are in among the crowd, laughing… just like Billy and Peggy!

Top: The actual Mae Murray, Johnny G and Norma T
Bottom: Bill gets the draw on Doug, Pepper is impressed!

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Oh brother… Second Fiddle (1923) with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

I’ve been fascinated with Glenn Hunter since reading the book on which his lost film, Merton of the Movies (1924) was based and having seen his performance in Second Fiddle, I can now mourn the loss of his major hit even more. Hunter is a boyish, almost sensitive presence on screen but with a good range of physical and facial expression and a gift for comic timing: seeing him in the more knockabout Merton as the titular hero attempting to make his deluded way in Hollywood would have been a treat. As with Marion Davis’ character a few years later in Show People, Merton thinks he’s serious but everyone else thinks he’s hilarious.

In Second Fiddle Glenn Hunter manages to be both despite a plot so convoluted you could pin a tail on it and call it a “wonky”. He’s great and the film is a delight, once thought lost but tonight projected from Kevin Brownlow’s 16mm Kodascope print onto the Cinema Museum’s screen with lavish accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch.

Directed by Frank Tuttle the film was a truly independent production filmed in Queens of all places – it looked nothing like this rural community last time I passed through.  The cinematographer, as Mr Brownlow revealed, was Fred Waller the inventor of Cinerama and he does much good work with startling close-ups, atmospheric exteriors and a clever interior shot showing Hunter peering out in fear as a murderer creeps down the stairs towards him.

Hunter is Jim, the youngest member of the Bradley family and completely overshadowed by his older brother Herbert (Townsend Martin) a college boy who is seemingly everything his mother (Mary Foy) and father (Leslie Stowe) wanted. Jim suffers from low self-esteem, to put it mildly, and hasn’t the confidence to do anything other than screw up. A self-fulfilling prophecy of his own foretelling.

Mary Astor (in her sixth film) and Glenn Hunter
Jim hasn’t the confidence to make anything of his relationship with pretty Polly Crawford (Mary Astor, then just sixteen) the daughter of the local doctor (Otto Lang, Astor’s actual father, which is good to see given her youth). Polly clearly likes the young grease monkey but he’s too nervous to respond to any signals.

Herbert’s arrival home only pushes Jim down further. He had bought a dog as a present for his brother, but the latter walks in with an elegant pedigree hound far more aspirational than the lovable mutt Jim had in mind. Jim isn’t even confident enough to feel slighted by his brother as he moves in on Polly, he just assumes he’s not as good and Herbert’s not going to disabuse him, driving off with Polly as he tries to fix her car’s exhaust. Not so nice, a nasty Herbert.

That evening the Bradley’s dance to their record player, a 78 of an Argentine Tango allowing Herbert to show his moves with Polly while Jim is left with an umbrella. The film’s funniest sequence follows as Jim daydreams a south American scene with himself as a Valentino, cape and stylish gaucho look, nostrils flared and cheeks on full suck for some hilarious shapes. Hunter has delicate features and makes Ivor Novello look stocky, but he has the protean ability to inhabit the clothes; no wonder he was so successful on stage as well.

Tangoed... Hunter, Astor, Mary Foy, Leslie Stowe and Townsend Martin
The reverie is interrupted by the arrival of the sheriff as the town’s odd-bod, Mr Cragg (William Nally, craggy faced and a genuinely fearsome presence) has murdered his own daughter (Helena Adamowska) in search for the money she has hidden away in the hope of escaping his tyranny in their old dark house.

Mr Bradley heads off with the posse leaving his boys to protect Polly and their mother. Naturally enough Cragg comes to the house in search of food and money and Herbert makes off to tell the posse leaving his brother with a shotgun he forgets to load… The moments with Cragg circling the house are genuinely unnerving and Tuttle creates considerable tension.

Cragg breaks in using the door Herbert has absent-mindedly left open and Jim checks his weapon… in shock he tries to reach for some ammunition only to alert the intruder, but he confronts him all the same, his bluff enough to get Cragg to sit down as they await the sheriff.

But, as the law heads to the rescue, Jim is unable to keep holding the gun and faints. Cragg is caught though after Herbert shoots him – by accident more than design – and safely locked up, older brother is the hero whilst Jim is crestfallen. Matters get worse when Herbert covers up his oversight by loading the gun and Jim is accused of lying.

William Nally menaces Helena Adamowska
Miserable, and thinking Polly is deserting him too, Jim plans to leave for Boston only for a series of unfortunate events to unfold in a breath-taking final sequence as Cragg escapes, Polly’s car breaks down, Herbert gets desperate and all converge on that old dark house for truth and consequences.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied this enjoyable romp with deft precision – our feet tapping to tango rhythms, teeth chattering for Cragg’s demonic excesses and our smiles uplifted by glorious themes for young Jim’s redemption.

Earlier in the evening we were also treated to a DW Griffith short, Fighting Blood (1911) which featured a tense shoot out between native Americans and a family trapped in a log cabin, as Kevin said, almost a dry run for Birth of a Nation. The film included an interesting overhead shot of the action possible influenced by the work of Thomas Ince. Ince supposedly directed the second film we saw, The Heart of an Indian (1912) but it was Francis Ford who also starred in red-face, the most Irish Indian you could imagine. This film was altogether more subtle on the subject of native Americans and reflected the general pattern of more sympathetic portrayals before the sound era gave way to cliché.

Poignant shot from The Heart of an Indian (1912)
Lillian Henley accompanied in style with dramatic flourish as the drama played out on piano as on screen; the standard of accompaniment is so high at the Bioscope.

A grand start to the year and another sold-out performance at the Cinema Museum: they shouldn’t shut this place down they should expand it! Demand is on the increase and if you haven’t already signedthe petition to help keep the Museum in place please follow this link and support this unique venue.

Read more about Merton of the Movies here.