Saturday, 14 September 2019

Who knows where the time goes… British Silent Film Festival 2019 Part One

Spring Awakening
Yesterday I spent 14 hours in Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema as I travelled from Naples to the peak of the Matterhorn via drunken Edwardian suburbs, crime-ridden Cotswolds and embittered Berlin: it’s been a ride but together we made it through.

This being the half-way point in what the social media is hashtagging #BSFF19, I thought it best to jot down my hot takes before like my dreams they fade and dry, so, exasperated reader, this is how my Leicester feels on this Saturday morning.

The best film in qualitative, comedy terms has been Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin) (1919) which, on seeing it for the second time this year, is an almost perfectly compressed sequence of joyously-daft comedic riffs from Victor Janson, Ossi Oswalda, Harry Liedtke and Julius Falkenstein.  It may very well be the best German comedy in history as suggested by Weimar queen Margaret Deriaz in her splendid introduction and, surprisingly, over a third of Weimar films were comedies so there has been a lot more competition than some might expect.

There was plenty of evidence of Herr Lubitsch’s “touch” which Margaret described as his simply respect his audience’s intelligence, but that takes some confidence and humanity. We also had plenty of Neil Brand touches with piano accompaniment informed by so much contextual awareness and intuition.

Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) was another film I’d seen before and it impressed me even more on second viewing helped by Lillian Henley’s emotionally-intelligent piano which brought out flavours of exhausted grief, resignation and gradual hope that must have characterised the post-war years. The film is remarkable for the affection shown between the men, chiefly John Armstrong (Gerald Ames) and his army pal Ginger (Teddy Arundell), who helps him find a purpose after he is blinded in the war. Silent Scouse superstar (it says here) Peggy Carlisle is also in wonderful as “Peggy” who always sees more than the brutal boys and she and Lillian made me cry… I’m telling!

Able Mabel
The Alley Cat (1929) was an unexpected delight in the evening, a hi-energy Anglo-German production with exteriors filmed in London and studios in Germany. It features Britain’s Princess of Pugnacity, Mabel Poulton, as Polly an “alley cat” who gets involved with a songwriter, Jimmy Rice (Jack Trevor) who suspects himself of murder (he’s not alone). It’s a slight story but made with energy and some style with those fancy German camera-sweeps you’d expect (Austro-Hungarian in this case from Nicolas Farkas) which are especially impressive in a Rear Window type sequence when our Polly hears an assault at the back of her rooms and swings down the fire escape to land the attacker on the head.

The thug in question is one of them McLaglen lads – Clifford – who, with the aid of plastic cauliflower ear plays Beck, a common criminal with base designs on Polly and, at the moment above, stage star Melona Miller (Margit Manstad out of Sweden). There are lots of impressive scenes at the theatre Melona works with a cast of hundreds of well-trained legs stretching out in sensational synchronised back steps up a huge stairway; Busby Berkley check out Berlin!

Beck lurks in the East End and China Town and there are echoes of Piccadilly although the film isn’t as focused. That said, with Stephen Horne’s trademark energies and tonal dexterity we were caught up in this breathless chase from East to West End and back again. The fight scenes are as well choreographed as the dance and Beck goes face to face with the coppers in one heck of a shoot out!
One excellent shot sees the camera pull focus from Jimmy’s face to a bottle of White Horse whiskey; we all needed a drink after this one.

The Brigitte Version
Friday and the long day begins with a trip to Italy with the leather lungs of Polish tenor Jan Kiepura as Giovanni the singing tourist guide in Napoli in City of Song (1931). Another Anglo-German production, the Germans had the beyond-elegant Brigitte Helm and the Brits got the willing Claire Winter, as socialite Betty Stockfeld who spots the talent and tries to make him a star. There were some super sequences in Naples and Pompei but the film disappoints with a narrative full of blind alleys and predictable open doors. As Geoff Brown explained in his excellent intro, the English version is somewhat truncated – with almost half an hour missing – the full German version is on YouTube, some astonishing fashions for Ms Helm.

Next up were a selection of British silent rarities from the Archive Agency, which showcased why the UK was at the forefront of silent comedy in the 1900s. There’s something so familiar about the likes of Walter Booth’s The Curate’s Double (1907) which features two twins (?) playing a roguish husband and pastor who look alike… seaside slapstick is so deeply engrained in us all my brothers. A Merry Night (1914) showcased every camera trick in the book as a sozzled gentleman struggles to stop his world from, literally, turning upside down.

The Silver Lining (1928) was a so-so story with some fantastic locations all reproduced on a stunningly-good print from the BFI national archives. It features the excellent Marie Ault as mother of two lads, good-looking goodie Tom (Patrick Aherne) and not-bad-looking baddie John (John Hamilton). Tom wins the girl, Lettie (Eve Gray) and John teams up with a good-for-nowt gypsy (Moore Marriott – hurrah!) to steal pearls loaned for their wedding. Tom gets framed but you know how these stories go. I enjoyed it and Lillian Henley transported us through the crime-riddled rural idyll with practised poise.

Marie Ault in Love on the Dole (1941)
What a difference a film makes if you’re an accompanist and Neil Brand had two contrasting works that illustrate perfectly the how varied the end results can be. First up was a farce called Tons of Money (1924) starring Leslie Henson and Flora le Breton as a hard-up couple desperate to maximise their inheritance by faking his death so that he can impersonate his bearded cousin from Mexico. Unfortunately there’s another fake cousin and a real one to contend with… all quite mad of course but Mr Brand took it very seriously as he picked a musical course that punctuated every punchline. Harder work than it looks this comedy but we were in safe hands.

Talking of which, gruff German mountaineer Carrel (Luis Trenker) toys with whether to drop his love rival Edward Whymper (Peter Voß) in Struggle for the Matterhorn (Der Kampf ums Matterhorn), Neil’s second film of the day. He accompanied with Jeff Davenport on drums and the music could not have been more different as they filled the airy mountain views with dynamic minimalism and underpinned Mario Bonnard and Nunzio Malasomma’s breath taking shots with dynamic slabs of percussive energy. I love the cinematic ambition of this film and the fact that as Miranda Gower-Qian explained in her informed introduction, the crew had to climb the Matterhorn to film – perhaps falling in love with the mountain as much as Whymper and all those who climbed and failed to climb.

I could do without some of the slapstick in the valley and Clifford McLaglen’s mad gurning as Carrel’s bitter half-brother but Alexandra Schmitt is great as their mother and overall it’s a triumph.


Film of the day was Richard Oswald’s devastating Spring Awakening (Frühlingserwachen) (1929) based on Frank Wedekind’s play which dealt with the damage done by a society that tried to suppress emerging sexuality and understanding. I was reminded on Ian McKewan’s Chesil Beach and stories my mother tod me of couples that arrived on their wedding night with not a clue of what to do.

The story revolves around four youngsters Wendla (Toni van Eyck), her beau Melchoir (Rolf von Goth), tortured Moritz (Carl Balhaus) and Ilse (Ita Rina… surely an Earth Spirit/Lulu in an alternate Pabst timeline…). The kids know but the grown ups don’t want them to understand and Fritz Rasp is especially nuanced as Lehrer Habebald a teacher who seems to constantly suppress his own realisations in favour of his discipline and “method”.

I’d like to say more but there’s more films to watch… Wedekind  expert Michael Eaton, gave a rapturous introduction and urged us to read the play, which I will, and Stephen Horne melded musically with this saddest of cinema especially during an operatically-intense final hour. Wow.



No comments:

Post a comment