Sunday 15 September 2019

Secrets and lies… British Silent Film Festival 2019, Part Two

The Runaway Princess (GB/Germany, 1928) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry

There is more joy in Heaven over a newly watched British silent film than a dozen from Hollywood… certainly in my house. Personally, I found Anthony Asquith’s fairy tale charmingly entertaining even if it's not quite up there with his Shooting Stars, Underground or A Cottage on Dartmoor. It stars Austrian actress Mady Christians in what Laraine Porter described as a woman’s adventure, and one close to the heart of Lady Elizabeth Russell, the author of  the novel,“The Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight” on which the film was based, who lived a life of suffocating duty only enlivened by lengthy country walks with her many dogs.

Here the poor Princess makes a break for it when she is told she is to marry the Prince of Savonia and, accompanied only by her Professor (Fred Rains, father of Claude!), the two head off to London for adventure and a normal life. En route Priscilla meets a handsome man (Paul Cavanagh) who is immediately taken with this strange but pretty woman and follows her to offer help in a non-stalky way.

There are mishaps aplenty and some great shots of London especially when 'Cilla rides down Fleet Street up top on a double decker only to be turfed off with no ticket just yards from the Edgar Wallace and Devereux Arms public houses… Mady Christians is excellent as the innocent but resilient royal and there’s some great casting as she encounters a group of forgers including Nora Baring, who’s screen intensity instantly creates a new dynamic mix. Things are about to get a little more serious but Asquith – who co-directed with Fritz Wenhausen – balances the tension with the humour and this is a satisfying romantic comedy that would soon be christened screwball. All is never as it seems but we know that!

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, playing Oberon the Harp, created some wonderful atmospherics and plays the instrument like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: every part is used for sound, percussion from the frame, loose-peddled block chords and deep bass as well as two-handed melodies that contrast the comedic with the romantic.

Spion Kop
The Boer War on Screen with Stephen Horne

Bryony Dixon and Matt Lee of the Imperial War Museum, talked us through a series of films from the Second Boer War which ran from 1899 to 1902 as the British Empire suppressed an insurgence from the Transvaal and Orange Free State sparked by the discovery of gold in South Africa (and much more besides). The conflict was a key one for Great Britain as it was not only harder to win than had been expected but it also showed up the poor physical condition of many conscripts.

Over 6,000 Boer soldiers were killed against over 22,000 from the Empire with Matt Lee pointing out that more died from disease than from direct action. Talking of which 46,000 civilians died in the concentration camos the British devised and which were recently defended by Jacob Rees Mogg… even 120 years on his kind are still whitewashing a policy which both parties at the time decided to abandon.

The films largely showed a mix of routine behind the lines operations and “staged” activities but the scenes showing the aftermath of the British rout at Spion Kop were incredibly powerful as thousands of men snaked their way back from the battle: carrying a stretcher would have been Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and nearby, covering the event as a journalist, was former soldier Winston Churchill – a man all too familiar with military failure but not lacking in bravery; he was captured as a prisoner of war but managed to escape from a Boer POW camp in Pretoria.

Adolf Philipp and Marie Pagano
The Midnight Girl (US, 1919) with Neil Brand and Michelle Facey

KenningtonBioscope programmer and film historian, Michelle Facey, wowed us all with the tale of entrepreneurial entertainer Adolf Philipp and Marie Pagano, stunt woman, horse rider, extra, Theda Bara body double and, finally, film star. Michelle is rescuing Miss Pagano from shadows of film un-history and gave us a feel of the personality of a woman described as “prominent in the world of players” and whose riding was so expert, that Motion Picture News wrote “… her seat is so perfect that she is a joy to watch both on and off the screen”.

The Midnight Girl is the only extant film she made and it allows us to see her vibrance and dancing skills as she plays the cabaret star by night/nurse by day Clarisse, who nurses a grumpy alcoholic, Tomas n Gee (Adolf Philipp) who is in a real tizz about prohibition.

Always having an eye to commercial spin-offs, Philipp had a theme song for this and his other films, which viewers could purchase as sheet music; Michelle sang it beautifully accompanied by Neil Brand.

Toni (GB, 1929) with Neil Brand

Back to Britain next with a Jack Buchanan comedy featuring another runaway princess, this time called Eugenie (Dorothy Boyd) caught up in some nonsense featuring Jack as Toni Marr, a low-powered socialite so in need of some adventure that his doctor has him change places with a detective called Marini (also JB) who has as many enemies as Jack has hangovers. It’s a riot and features hidden passageways, Moore Marriott (hurrah!) and Forrester Harvey as Watts the manservant.

The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge) (Fr, 1925) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne

This was the UK premier of Lobster films restoration of René Clair’s first feature and, as with his earlier short film, Paris qui dort, it is a science fantasy film in which the human drama is magnified rather than obscured as is so often the case.

Georges Vaultier plays Julien Boissel who is devastated when the love of his life, Yvonne (Sandra Milovanoff) is about to be forced into marrying Gauthier (José Davert) an evil newspaper proprietor (no real need for the “evil” there…) who has some kompromat on her father Victor, ex-minister of state (Maurice Schutz). His lively cousin Jacqueline (Madeleine Rodrigue) invites him to forget himself at the Moulin Rouge and here he is spotted by experimental psychologist Dr Window (Paul Ollivier) who offers him a way to, literally, leave his troubles behind by detaching his soul from his sad body…

Julien bilges and starts haunting Paris in the most amusing of ways, refusing to go back to his boring corporeal form as it’s far more fun being a phantom and he has, almost, forgotten Yvonne. An intrepid reporter Jean Degland (Albert Préjean) is a little too intrepid and discovers Julien’s body; a murder investigation is launched and the phantom is about to become permanent when an autopsy is announced…

Clair’s Phantom is redeemed by an ever-present sense of ridiculous as well as good performances and outrageous ambition. I especially liked the moment when Julien floats across Paris streets arms out, followed immediately by a traffic cop using the same movement.

The dynamic duo of Horne and Baldry were perfectly in tune with this uncanny action as they collaborated with almost telepathic cohesion flavouring the action with a sumptuous repeated theme from strings and keys, aided by flute, accordion, woodwork, base pedals and, startlingly voice! Silent film musicians are amongst the finest of collaborators as they’re so used to working with visually active partners with emphatic opinions!

María Corda on the poster
Follow that, early British talkie, Tesha (GB, 1928) with your original soundtrack, some dialogue and Jameson Thomas!?

Bob Dylan said never to finish your album with an epic and so Tesha was, not to damn with faint praise, the perfect end to the day. It concerns the love affair between a businessman Robert Dobree (Thomas) and Tesha, a ballerina (Hungarian actress María Corda) dedicated to her art but lacking the one thing she most wants in the world; children.

Sadly, as his doctor explains, having suffered injury and shellshock in the war, Robert, might not be able to reproduce and, after the couple get married, we shift to five years later with no offspring… A chance encounter at a Southampton hotel ends up with Tesha pregnant and, Robert is none-the-wiser. Sadly, the father of Tesha’s baby turns out to be Robert’s “greatest friend” Jack Lenane (Paul Cavanagh) … what are the odds?! It’s tense stuff and a subject that many childless (by choice or otherwise) people, as well as the shell-shocked trying to live on with normal lives, would have identified with.

Brigitte Helm and her gypsy
Secret Film: The Blue Danube (GB/Germany 1932) with original soundtrack

The final day and Geoff Brown teases us with clues I’ll never get for the festival’s secret film… it’s another early British talkie and, as with the rest, essentially a silent film with music superimposed, in this case rich gypsy takes on the title tune and other hot Austro-Hungarian hits.

These gypsies are organised (they are Alfred Rode and His Royal Tzigane Band after all) and they can play so well that a passing Countess (Brigitte Helm, at last!) decides they’re perfect for her party, especially the tousle-haired Sandor (Joseph Schildkraut) who laughs at life even as he plays guitar and sings to his sweetheart Yutka (Chili Bouchier, who is, erm, as warm as she sounds). Sandor is drawn to the close-fitting clothes of the curvy Countess and breaks Yutka’s heart… she runs out leaving him wrecked and a shadow of the gypsy he used to be. The years pass and the couple meet again; Yutka is married to a wealthy soldier but is she really happy… he has barely any hair let along a curly kiss-curl after all?

This is not one of Herbert Wilcox’s finest moments but is entertaining all the same with some rousing music and performers making the most of what they got given. I liked the way he used sound in the narrative, his characters reacting to these new elements in inventive ways.

Say cheese
A slow journey across Europe – A programme of early travelogues

Presented by Bryony Dixon, with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne once again accompanying, this compilation of early travelogues was the perfect end to my Festival. Bryony took us all round Europe and, as ever with these early films, the sight of long-lost ways of life is compelling in itself. I especially liked the film of Dutch cheesemakers but I still don’t know how they get the skin on. Europe eh? So different and yet so very much the same.

Thank you to everyone at the British Silent Film Festival who organised this splendid event, I think we all appreciate the amount of effort that goes into programming, presenting, performing and promoting; see you again in 2021!

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