Sunday, 26 January 2020

High signs… Slapstick Festival Day Two & Three, Bristol Watershed and Cathedral

Paul McGann stood in the pulpit of Bristol Cathedral not unlike Lars Hanson’s priest in The Saga of Gosta Berling and he told it, with all the confidence and power of the truly convicted. There are many takes on introducing film but Mr McGann brought the passion of a silent enthusiast with the technical appreciations of a skilled actor. He introduced the films but he also set the scene but detailing choice moment of performative brilliance from Charlie, Stan and Buster, whetting audience appetites for relishing something new even amidst familiarity. When Charlie wipes Edna’s face with a soapy sock he’s reminding her of a mother long forgotten and when Stan realises he doesn’t have money in his wallet but luncheon vouchers, he gives the most devastated and bloody hilarious response; straight to camera – to us – help!!

The gala featured Chaplin’s The Vagabond (1916), one of his breakthrough two-reelers for Mutual in which he rescues Edna Purviance from a group of gypsies who stole her as a child and turned her into a drudge. It’s a life of slavery and the more I watch Charlie the more I think of his upbringing and his politics; his tramp obviously standing outside of accepted society, intervening as he sees fit. Not so archaic after all.

On the Saturday we’d see a couple of Charlie’s films from the First National period including Pay Day (1922) in which he is married and working as a builder who tries to hide some of his pay from his wife. In Their Purple Moment (1928) Stan and Ollie try to do the same so they can afford a night out on the tiles and off the hook. Of course, it doesn’t work out this way and their wives rumble them with Stan’s substituting her coupons for his stash leaving him with steak dinner for five, including two good-time girls and their cabbie, in a dangerous night club.

Mr and Mrs Keaton
The main feature was Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923) the first of his features and a huge leap for comedy kind. Keaton used his budget to shift the legendary Canfield and McKay feud back to the 1830s and the early days of rail with miles of track laid for a ramshackle train pulled by a replica Rocket – preferred for comedic reasons to more historically-accurate locos. Buster plays young Willie McKay returning South to inherit his father’s “estate” only to find the Canfield family ready to avenge the death of one of their own at his father’s hands.

There’s an exception in the family view of Willie in Virginia (Natalie Talmadge who is quite good but lacks the spirit of Constance and the presence and technique of Norma) who invites him around for dinner. Only southern hospitality can prevent Old Joseph Canfield (Joe Roberts in his last film) and his sons from killing Willie and there’s a good deal of comedy business before Buster makes a break for it and ends up rescuing Virginia in an iconic scene at the falls. It’s a thrilling film with real drama added to the gags by one of the greatest comedy auteurs. We also get three generations of Keaton with Buster and Natalie’s baby boy as the young Willie and a trademark high kick from Joe Keaton at the railway station: he good knock a man down far easier with foot than fist!

Once again, The European Silent Screen Virtuosi joyfully accompanied with Günter A. Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius filling the cavernous spaces with perfectly judged improvisations.

Train kept a rollin'... just!
There’s more to learn about even those we know the most and another key strand from this year’s festival was those less well-known but who were once stars. Of these none shone quote so bright as Marie Prevost, one of Lubitsch’s favourite American actresses who featured in three of his Hollywood films, The Marriage Circle (1924), Kiss Me Again (1925) – of which, sadly, only a trailer remains and Three Women (1924) in a long career. She started out as a Sennett bathing beauty – legs to die for and in some of the most iconic stills of the period – achieved stardom in the twenties and gradually faded into smaller roles in the thirties.

Michelle Facey introduced and provided all of these details and much more about the actress’ backstory. A show of hands showed at the start that most in the audience were indeed not familiar with Prevost outside of the silent film glitterati in my corner! She certainly impressed us all in On to Reno (1928) with a performance as Vera, a young desperate housewife, that showcased her ability to mix toughness and vulnerability with an emotional dexterity not a million miles from Clara Bow. In films like The Racket you see Prevost’s street smarts but here, whilst she suffers no fools, least of all under-achieving husband, Bud (Cullen Landis) who’s lack of drive is about to lose them their house, you see someone the audience would find very relatable.

Vera is offered a thousand dollars to stand in for one of her company’s divorce clients, who can’t be bothered to spend three months in Reno, to enable her to register the qualifying absence from husband, Herbert Holmes (Ned Sparks). Whilst this proposition is oddly sanctioned by her boss – the law is clearly different in the USA – it makes for a whole heap of misunderstandings and fast moving, door-slamming, naked swimming, mayhem ensues. It’s pre-pre-code but also proto-Ray Cooney farcical which leaves a smile as well as a laugh on your lips.

John Sweeney’s accompaniment amplified the action as usual and made sure we enjoyed the full Prevost.

I hope we see more of Marie’s films now and that the diligence of keepers of the flame like Michelle is rewarded with more recognition for Marie’s skills and star appeal. For those wanting to find out more about MP I can recommend Stacia Kissick Jones’s Marie Prevost Project on her site; She Blogged by Night – which is an interesting tale of film research in itself.

Lilyan and Monte share a drink
I missed Reno when the Bioscope screened it last year and I also missed their screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s So This is Paris (1926) which, again, was remis of me as it is as funny as any the director’s films from this period – for me anyway! Here again we had misunderstandings between two couples but with the added flare of the director’s unique use of visual signifiers to embellish the live actions. Mary Pickford, famously fractious with Ernst after Rosita, said that all he did was “direct doors” but as Kevin Brownlow said in his introduction, Lubitsch could direct doors better than most could direct people.

Thus it is that Suzanna (Patsy Ruth Miller), wife of Doctor Paul Giraud (Monte Blue), looks up from reading a racy novel about desert romance to see the naked chest of a “Sheik” across the road in a neighbouring apartment. It’s actor Maurice Lalle (Andre Beranger) who has just finished a rather unconvincing rehearsal with his wife Georgette (Lilyan Tashman, who impressed Greta Garbo very much in this film, so I’m told by KB’s MF…) who’s disenchantments are far broader when it comes to her hubbie… Things get very “Parisian” when Paul is despatched to tell the naked performer to tone it down, as the Doc and Georgette are old friends – possibly more than friends.

Andre and Patsy
There begins a four-way tangled web as Paul and Georgette renew their dancing partnership and Maurice attempts to sheik up Suzanna’s love life. Monte Blue makes for a superb drunk and cuts a pretty sharp Charleston as well. It’s all so perfectly balanced and timed and, as has been said, one of the most criminally overlooked Lubitsch films.

Accompaniment was from The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and I loved the precision of their extemporised standards Ain’t She Sweet and The Charleston. Surely Slapstick needs to review the unofficial – and, indeed, merely rumoured/made up – Ban on Dancing?!

Paris has a brief bit of young Myrna Loy as the Lalle’s maid and five year’s earlier Patsy Ruth Miller was an uncredited bit-part player in One A Minute from 1921; ever heard of it or it’s star Douglas Maclean?

Young Patsy Ruth Miller and Douglas Maclean
Maclean made 23 feature films and was a big star for most of the twenties with a mix of Harold Lloyd’s looks and his hero Douglas Fairbanks energy. As with the latter had made what he termed “straight comedies” in which he acted a role rather than played a persona with action gags thrown in. In One A Minute (1921) he plays Jimmy, returning home after finishing college to manage his late father’s drug store and meeting an attractive young woman en route, Miriam (Marian De Beck) who we just know will be important later on…

Jimmy finds the store on it’s uppers and about to be outcompeted by a new super-drugstore run by Silas P. Rogers (Andrew Robson) who is, you guessed it, Miriam’s dad. If only Jimmy’s father had completed his research into a cure-all powder… but, what the heck, Jimmy invents one anyway and somehow, his improvised panacea actually works! It’s frothy stuff but Maclean is eminently likeable and you can see why this star shone.

Accompaniment was from Maestro John Sweeney and he made Maclean, glean!

Paul and Serge were on fire!
As ever there were many delights to be found in the sessions and Serge Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme session literally featured flames with live action peril for Paul McGann as he was “volunteered” to hold a film cannister as Serge set fire to some nitrate film stock; it was alarmingly impressive showing how many lost films met their end on this unstable storage. Still, even a century or more on, Serge and his team, plus others supplying films for this year’s festival like Steve Massa (author of Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy and Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, The Bad, and The Forgotten of Silent Comedy) and Ben Model (who’s Undercrank Productions releases rare and previously lost material), keep on finding and restoring.

Serge featured some Laurel and some Hardy before uniting the two on a restored Duck Soup (1927) when their magic combination was really starting to come into focus. My Granddad Jim Joyce loved the duo and I remember watching them with him: “watch these, they’re really funny!”.

Last word goes to David Robinson who not only met the boys but was also present at Charlie Chaplin’s last ever recording session as he put the music to Woman of Paris in the 1970s. He showed us Pay Day (1922) as well as The Idle Class (1921) two films made for First National that if not prime Chaplin certainly only by comparison with the quality of his major works. Both films showed Charlie’s social conscience and he doesn’t get credit these days for his political subtexts; he’s not so much sentimental as socialist.

Colourful Aimée 
David also showed us the work of John Bunny, one of the first American comedy stars with Bunny All at Sea (1909) and Bunny in Society (1909) which featured an uncredited appearance by Our Mabel Normand which almost made me stand up, shout and point! Mabs was magnetic and these two prints were in stunning quality.

Less well known is British actress Aimée Campton a popular stage actress who made films in France as the character Maud. We saw Les Charmes de Maud (1912) together with the recently unearthed Maud Clubman aka Maud and the Batchelors (1914) with Dan van den Hurk accompanying; another performer of real style to hold in our collective silent conscience.

Another splendid silent Slapstick with so much passion on view. See you next year Bristol and long may you screen!

You should also read PH's take over at Silent London - a ball was had by all!

Charlie and Edna

Friday, 24 January 2020

All kinds of funny… Slapstick Festival Day One, Bristol Watershed and Cathedral

They call it Slapstick and you may start the day laughing at a man diving through the Earth to China and finish it with another trying to escape marriage to a woman he thinks has a wooden leg but in between you are astonished by French Benshi and genuinely unable to watch the moment Emily Davison gave her life for Suffragism. Our sense of humour has always derived from concerns, compassion and need to collectively understand.

Here in one of England's most cinematic cities, people gather every year to laugh and, more importantly, to connect. I go to a lot of silent films screenings – yeah, obviously – but these are unique, this city responds in kind every year with sold out shows across the programme and with contributions from across the World.

This year Lobster Films supremo, Serge Bromberg brought so much to the party with restored and rare films fleshing out a fascinating mix of diverse comedies. He’s a pretty diverse man himself in terms of his talents and not only does he restore films he also plays accompaniment and today he provided live narration to Georges Méliès’ La fée Carabosse ou Le poignard fatal (1906) with John Sweeney on piano. It was a riot as Serge improvised off what script there was through twelve minutes of hand coloured Méliès madness involving a knight asking the titular witch for aid in rescuing his sweetheart from all manner of daft threats. Qui, nous connaissions le français Benshi et c'était magnifique!

A witch yes, but what is she thinking?!
Later in the day the tone was altogether more reflective in a discussion of Suffragettes in Silent Comedy with Lucy Porter and Samira Ahmed, moderated by Andrew Kelly. Lucy and Samira were the perfect blend of informed with their responses to the comic and journalistic context of these films – both fascinated by the response and social setting of these films that, regardless of their intent, were not only responding to, but helping to develop. Suffragism was a movement across class and sex, whilst most of the comedies on show were placed in very recognisable Edwardian middle-class South-East London, the newsreels showed the support from trades unions and men. As Jane Duffus – author of The Women Who Built Bristol 1184-2018 – said during the Q&A, many working class men did not have the vote as well.

We loved Chrissie White as Physical Culture Phyllis - in Wife the Weaker Vessel (1915) - see image at the top... and in Tilly and the Fire Engines (1911) with Alma Taylor – voted Britain’s favourite film star in 1915 by readers of Pictures and the Picturegoers,  14,000 votes ahead of Charlie Chaplin. But there was also extended footage of the 1917 Derby in which Emily Davison lost her life trying to pin a rosette onto the King’s Horse, the jockey, Herbert Jones was distraught and haunted by the episode through his life whilst the establishment perpetuated the myth of suicide and not political determination for the educated and brave Emily. In these times we do well to properly study history and the way that things happen and they are then portrayed; I loved this history session and its enquiring use of primary sources! That said, cross-dressing boy-girl Diddums Diddles the Policeman (1912) was wacked as anything and, yes Lucy, the moments when “she” shins up drainpipes and lampposts are indeed hard to unsee… still, do yourself a favour, it’s on BFI Player. Alot of these films are there and on the BFI's Make More Noise DVD.

Hard luck, Buster.
The day began with a screening of three top-tier Buster Keaton comedies with introductory expertise from Polly Rose, screen editor by day and Keaton PhD student by night (and day at the weekend no doubt!) accompanied by Guenter A Buchwald and Frank Bockius: nothing in January 2020 could be much finer! One Week (1920) and The Boat (1921) are sublime, laugh-a-foot-of-film-funny with that extra sprinkle of Sybil Seely but I’d never thought before that the latter was a sequel to the first? Of course now it’s obvious but… Hard Luck (1921) I’d never seen before and is not quite so perfect with Keaton playing off a string of unsuccessful suicide attempts the last of which was only recently recovered and which, he said, gave him the biggest laugh of his career, so much so that they had to delay the feature after it… I won’t spoil it and it’s another restoration care of Serge B.

Talking of whom, the Lobster restoration of Pierre Étaix’s Yoyo (1965) was a total surprise to me and proved to be not the mawkish clown-fest I’d cynically expected. Étaix’s film is so subtle and very smartly pays tribute to the silent era right through to the TV age of the sixties. Étaix plays father and son to cover the ground and the twenties section, with silence only punctuated by exaggerated sound effects was a delight. There was also a convicted murderer in the cast with huge ears and a long trunk… but we have to forgive elephants anything.

And so, to the grand finale and Bristol Cathedral in which, standing high in the pulpit, her expensive posh shoes out of view, Shappi Khorsandi preached to the converted on the subject of silent divas.

Love 'em both!
We started off with Mabel Normand marrying Rosco Arbuckle in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), one of their most winsome films presented with lovely crisp visuals as John Sweeney and Frank Bockius rocked the massive acoustics. Mabs and Rosco are primal screen and both eternally funny, emotionally agile and genuine, they also knew how to fling themselves around physically for the sake of our good time.

By comparison, whilst Viora Daniel and Lillian Biron were definitely female, there was precious little slapstick from either in A Pair of Sexes (1921) in which some daft man accidentally nicks his neighbours twin babies. Still, Dan van den Hurk accompanied with vigour. Definitely diva was Dorothy Devore who made short work of the plot and other characters in Saving Sister Suzy (1921) in which she needs to dress like a child so as to give her sister a chance of winning the man; an odd premise but DD is comedy class!

Also definitely diva and totally slapstick was the remarkable Martha Sleeper in Sure-Mike! (1925), her only leading role according to Silent Diva expert Michelle Facey of the Kennington Silent Speakeasy. Skating at speed through crowded streets, riding on a driverless motorcycle and bravely providing physical comedy, Martha also had an ace face, tough and pretty with a perky presence you’d expect to have found more favour. One of the films and finds of the day!

Martha Sleeper - a Parker Posey for the Jazz Age?
Lastly, we had Charley Chase – definitely no lady although not immune from diva-esque behaviour! In His Wooden Wedding (1925), he shares an hilarious dance routine with Gale Henry – the inspiration for Olive Oil apparently – as he tries to displace a wedding ring from the back of her dress… How did it get there? Well, his best man tells him is intended has a wooden leg…

The European Silent Screen Virtuosi joyfully accompanied the last three with Günter A. Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius.

A full day and a splendid full-throated programme. Bring on tomorrow Bristol!

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

Lady of Spain… A Romance of Seville (1929), Network Blu-ray

Finding a British silent film on Blu-ray is a rare treat and so, with no knowledge of the contents, I didn’t hesitate to bung £8 to the staff at Fopp in exchange for Network's new Blu-ray, A Romance of Seville; that’s roughly the cost of a large cappuccino and cheesecake at Caffe Nero so an essential sacrifice as part of my so-called diet.

Directed by Norman Walker and co-scripted by Alma Reville, wife of Alfred but a fine writer first and foremost, with cinematography from Claude, son of The William Friese-Greene, the packaging promised a “silent classic” with sweeping panoramas of Seville, glamour and adventure. Originally the film featured extensive Pathéchrome colour sequences and I can only imagine how the ball scenes would have looked but what remains is 62 minutes of decent quality black and white restored from original elements and with a contemporary score from John Reynders featuring “a medley of colourful Spanish music” written when the film was re-presented with sound – no dialogue just the music - in 1930.

The gardeners of Seville
Of what remains, the star must be the location shooting and the cameraman with some stunning sweeps across the Spanish countryside together with inventive framing that gives the narrative a little more impetus than the narrative otherwise warrants. But we should be glad that this exists at all and I found it entertaining with some unexpected and winning characters.

The camera pans round to the ancestral home of Don Pedro Cortez, a splendid villa suspended on a rock face overlooking the plains of Andalucía. Cortez has pledged his daughter Delorez (Eugenie Amami) to Ramon (Alexander D'Arcy who enjoyed a long career including Hitchcock’s Champagne ) son of Senor and Senora Duniga, a marriage of moneyed convenience… and there’s a nice shot as the couples meet as seen through a grille and Friese-Greene’s camera moves forward passing through to reveal our players.

Uneasy Eugenie Amami and Alexander D'Arcy
We’re pretty sure how this is going to play out and the young couple look awkward as Ramon’s mother teases him about his lack of romantic wiles but, whilst he doesn’t look like he lacks experience with that moustache, he turns out as to be a splendid chap who won’t be forcing his hand on anyone but the woman who loves him. Delorez loves a soldier, Captain Juan Fernando (can you hear the drums, Hugh Eden?) and when they are spied by Ramon in the garden, he surprises them both by saying he will do anything to avoid his duty and to let their love continue.

Fernando: Senor Roman I would die for her.
Ramon: I think Delores would much rather you lived for her.

All very noble you might think and just as Ramon looks at a loose end he spots a young woman standing on a balcony – it’s Pepita (Russian-born, Marguerite Allan) – who turns around, spurning Roman’s attention only to find herself set upon by three bandits. He races to her aid quickly despatching the three other men; clearly the Force is strong with this one.

Rascally Randle Ayrton and compromised Cecil Barry...
The thieves were not only after Pepita but also the jewels in her father’s safe, but whilst Don Orsino Valdez has been tied up, his valuables are still safe in the safe. Don Orsino invites his double saviour to dinner… Meanwhile, Ruso (Randle Ayrton) the leader of the gang sits munching on prawns against another lovely mountain backdrop as he discusses tactics with Pepita’s young man, Estaban (Cecil Barry) upon whom he has some impressive “kompromat” – although we never find out what it is to make the man betray her in such a way… guess he’s just a wrong ‘un. The necklace is to be Pepita’s marriage dowry and so Estaban would get it anyway but he cannot escape his past.

Back at Don Orsino’s villa Estaban thanks Ramon for rescuing his intended although Pepita’s affection is hardly a done deal and both men know the game is up when they meet.

More neat camerawork as the shadows fall on Marguerite Allan's face
So, who will win the heart of Pepita? Will the jewels escape Estaban’s blackmail and Ramon’s protection and will there be desperate chases across gorgeous dusty terrain as true love wins out? And, let’s not forget Delorez and Juan Fernando; will his soldier’s training come into use?

Whether you find all of this engaging is probably down to your mood but it’s a well made film and even the character of Ruso is well established by Randle Ayrton; he likes his prawns and also has a balanced view of his felonies, he’s not just a baddy. The four young leads are all energetically convincing too, especially Marguerite Allan and Alexander D'Arcy as the negotiate the will they/won’t they arc of true cinema lovers…

A Romance of Seville (1929) is available directfrom Network, or Fopp et al and is a good value glimpse at the home-grown product on the brink of the talkies.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Alien nation… Fellini Satyricon (1969), BFI Fellini Centenary

There is nothing as blatantly false as unconvincing statements made by men and nothing as blatantly unconvincing as their fake seriousness… Gaius Petronius, The Satyricon

Having started with La Dolce Vita (1960), dipped back to near the beginning with I Vitelloni (1953), I am left dazed and confused by the director’s outrageous acceleration in style and content with 1969’s Satyricon. I’d come to NFT1 straight from watching Be Natural the new documentary on early film pioneer Alice Guy and to find myself confronted with this eroticised Roman storytelling was more than a little culture jolt. Frederico and Alice would, I’m almost sure, have got on famously… maybe, if they’d just stuck to the films.

Fellini’s film is extravagant and frankly, very frank: nothing can prepare you for it on the big screen. There are clearly elements that influenced Passolini, Ken Russell and Derek Jarman as well as dozens of other less reputable film makers. Yet, as with Passolini and his Trilogy of Life, Fellini was trying to get inside the historical mindset, here that of the Roman scribe Petronius, who wrote this story in the first century AD when he was very much in favour with well-known fiddler Emperor Nero.

The Satyricon depicts the exploits of the narrator, Encolpius (Martin Potter), and his lover Giton (Max Born), a handsome sixteen-year-old boy who is the envy of Encolpius’ fellow courtesans especially Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), once his lover now his friend and rival. As the title suggests the “novel” is a satire and one that would go down well with the court of Nero and, Fellini correctly assumed, the debauched audiences of the late sixties. The characters on which the episodes are based would not have been known to contemporary viewers but their behaviours would; the hypocrites, the puffed up egos and the carelessness of the powerful are all timeless as is the blood and guts of the design – the mess-on-scene if you will (ha!).

It's a visual feast but one which quickly over-faces the watcher; you’re overloaded by a screenful of gruesome details from over-made-up actors to strangely-painted masks – there’s a bloated actor dressed as a pig who eulogises about his newly acquired boy-toy, Giton, breaking wind and blowing his pig-tail into the air. It’s not that easy to watch amongst the greasepaint, the sweat and the disorienting shade and tone but all these things are there for a purpose; presenting an exaggerated, heightened reality that spins with uncomfortable velocity. Fellini seems to be following the original document closely even the parts that are missing provide him with the opportunity to add to destabilise the viewing experience as we go from a battle to a maze to face a minotaur. The film even ends on an unfinished sentence even as the manuscript does.

Fellini described the film as science fiction and in a 1969 interview, said "I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians." And, if you’re in the right frame of mind it is enjoyable. Roger Ebert said it was a masterpiece saying that “…films that dare everything cannot please everybody” and he would know havening co-written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – which, incidentally, would make a great double bill with this film. I would agree with Ebert’s assertion that this is a very controlled piece of work from the director for, whilst it looks uncomfortable, everything is done with measured deliberation, all designed to alienate and shift our state.

Martin Potter debates ownership with Fanfulla as Vernacchio and Max Born
This Rome is a culture cut off from sincerity and even Encolpius’ passion for Giton may just be a response to other’s attempts to posses him. Everyone is an enemy and alliances pass quickly when they outlive their usefulness with hands chopped off for laughs and men thrown into furnaces when they have stopped being entertaining. There’s a coup and we find a well-off couple seeing their family off to safety as they take their own lives knowing that they’ll not fit with the new regime; the man is meant to be Gaius Petronius.

There are nine major episodes in the film and they are only linked by the presence of the three main protagonists as they stumble from the debauched banquets and brothels of Rome to being kidnapped by pirates – the leader of which wants to marry Encolpius (of course) – to encounters with an hermaphrodite on the road, who dies after they kidnap him/her for a ransom… death is very much what you make it. There’s a Minotaur and a duel with a gladiator, who spares Encolpius’ life after his “eloquent” pleas – just another random episode. Encolpius is rewarded with humiliation after he fails to perform in public with the sensuous Ariadne. There follows a journey to see a witch in order to regain his mojo…

Life, it seems, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans and there’s little our hero can do to direct his own fate in the face of the cruel and unusual rulers of this world. Is this what the smartly dressed hip set of La Dolce Vita are really like underneath, is this all there is when you strip away the manners and the inhibitions of accepted society?

As is usual, there’s a superb score from Nino Rota – with the help of others – which incorporates electronica and heightens the strange feelings of the film. Given the way the director and musician worked – Rota didn’t always watch the film and Fellini would sometime cut to the music - it would have been an interesting brief!

It works… but in truth I’m not sure after one viewing why. I can say for certain that Fellini was clearly developing his style and it’s hard to see the three films mentioned at the top as obviously directed by the same man in the way that Berman or Antonioni films over the same period might appear. Eclectic and difficult to fathom. Don’t ask me, I’m as clueless as Encolpius.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Talk on the wild side… Cosh Boy (1953), BFI Flipside hits 40, BFI screening and discussion

Cosh Boy is the 40th release in the BFI’s Flipside series that has specialised in unearthing the best and the quirkiest films from often ignored corners of the British Film industry. I have nearly a complete collection because I’m weird that way but mostly because these are amongst the most un-self-conscious prime sources of post-war films, from the post-apocalyptic satire of Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room, sneaky peaks at the sleazy side with Primitive London to neo classics like Beat Girl which make up in locations what they lack in storylines.

Flipside provides the BFI’s very own indie label and it has far more freedom to release gems simply because they’re under the radar and with little digital presence. As the BFI’s Jo Botting said in the post screening discussion, the series gives a chance to provide context for these films through related short films and booklet essays. It provides nothing less than an alternative canon of domestic films that are often significant for beyond their technical merits.

The Battersea Boys
Cosh Boy may seem like a routine post war morality tale but there’s a dark side from the introduction onwards when editorial title cards express concern over the growth of youth violence and the lack of strong parenting. It reminds me of the start of Public Enemy; a film that both glorified and condemned the American Gangster. Post-war, with so many men missing, there would have been many families with sons and mothers such as those at the centre of the story.

Pretty boy James Kenney plays Roy Walsh who is all sweetness with his trusting mother, Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) a war widow who has perhaps been “too soft” on her only son. Hard to believe that Roy’s right hand man, Alfie Collins (Ian Whittaker who is interviewed in the extras!) has got away with anything through with the brilliantly brusque Hermione Baddeley as his Mum. But Roy’s the dominant personality who just happens to be a physical coward who needs Alfie to do the coshing for him before splitting their ill-gotten gains 50:50; ten bob for Alfie and 15 for him…

James Kenney
The lads get caught after one two many muggings and get put on probation with the proviso that they behave themselves and attend the local youth club. Roy plans to use it as an alibi for their continued petty crime and brings in some more gang members including an incredibly youthful Johnny Briggs as Skinny Johnson, still two decades away from Coronation Street. Briggs, like some of the other lads was born in Battersea and it’s good to see them prowling around still recognisable streets and stations. What they’d make of the new power station complex you can only guess, but Battersea has always been one of the best locations in London.

All goes to Roy’s plan until he meets Alfie’s implausibly attractive sister Rene (Joan Collins) and ends up getting her pregnant. Roy’s not being tied down by any skirt (to use his vernacular) and Rene tries to end it all in the Thames. As the pressure on him increases, Roy grasps for ever grander plans as he decides he must strike it big and move on… but can he escape the dual forces of the long arm of the law and  the firm hand of his mother’s new husband. It is very 1952 but it can only ever be so; one of the most pointless criticisms of any work of art is that it has dated: everything dates because we’re not all engaged in “timeless” activities… Cosh Boy is revealing about the time it was made and the places and the social mores of the post-war Britain; a country increasingly like our own.

Young Joan
Whilst Flipside has renewed attention to feature films such as Don Levy’s startling Herostratus – what a febrile presence Michael Gothard was -  Peter Walker’s Man of Violence (aka Moon) which turns the genre film on its head with a fine performance from Luan Peters – much under-rated and now much missed - as well as the quite brilliant Deep End from Jerzy Skolimowskiit; it has always featured a generous amount of those contextualising extras including fascinating short films that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Tonight, we saw David Bailey’s GG Passion (1966) starring Caroline Munro and Chrissie Shrimpton as two of a series of groupies for the titular popstar (Eric Swayne) who may or may not have outlived his usefulness to The Man.You can find it as one of the extras on Stranger in the House (1967) (Flipside 037) reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Also screened was Lindsay C Vickers The Lake (1978) in which a young couple and their dog, may, or – again – may not, have been menaced by supernatural powers; it's atmospheric and disturbing especially for dog lovers. Finally we saw Al Beresford’s Dreamhouse (1983) which has a similar scenario only set in a couple’s new house: the wife is haunted by strange sounds and images, a boy riding slilently around on a chopper bike, a man running with a bloodied kitchen knife through their hall and a young man being killed in their hall. Like the best of horror, it strikes straight to our deepest insecurities in the place where we should feel safest. It's a waking nightmare but what does it all mean for the couple? The answer almost jolted me from my seat in true vintage horror style.

After this there was a discussion between some of the BFI’s prime movers for Flipside including Sam Dunn formerly Head of BFI Video Publishing (now at Indicator), Jane Giles, formerly Head of Content, who, incidentally, has written the definitive book on the Scala Cinema, Jo Botting, Curator of the National Archive and Douglas Weir Technical Manager for DVD & Bluray. Flipsiders-in-chief, William Fowler and Vic Pratt who co-authored, The Bodies Beneath – the flipside of British film and television, led the discussion and there was an overwhelming sense of pride that they’d been able to resurrect and connect so much unseen and overlooked material. Vic and William started screening some of these films in 2006 onwards and this morphed into the home media releases starting with the Bed Sitting Room and culminating in Cosh Boy – which they urge you to buy, as do I!

Eric Swayne and friends
Doug Weir, who’s worked on every Flipside release, described how some of the source material is often degraded and you get a sense of the fragility of film and how even relatively recent films may perish. I’m used to only a small portion of silent film surviving but the problem hasn’t stopped. Nighbirds (1977) was an example of an almost unknown film that had sections missing from the 35mm print and they’d cut their only print to make the trailer. They’ve had to use VHS in some cases to plug the gaps but sometimes they find films that have never been watched and so are nearly pristine.

Sam Dunn said they wanted to focus on British film and finding ways to get more and more archive films out – shorts and documentaries. There were no hard and fast rules except for re-platforming the over-looked. Jane Giles said they wanted to expand the audience for these films and to extrapolate the value of these films’ meaning – just because these are not Odd Man Out or Powell and Pressburger, doesn’t mean that there was no good in the productions. This led to challenges in rights research as well as frequent arguments about what films to choose next, treading the fine balance between interest and marketability.

Spike looks down on the BFI Flipside team
José Ramón Larraz’s Symptoms (1974) was once on the BFI’s Top Ten Most Wanted lost films and an appeal led to a broken 35mm negative being found in Belgium and the team were able to recover. The team had differences over favourites and different ideas of what should be done next; they’re still looking for The Appointment (1981) so check your sheds and lofts… which is exactly where GG Passion was found. For the rights, Jane had to liaise with Roman Polanski’s collaborator Gene Gutowski, who had produced it whilst the crew from Repulsion also worked on the film. More of those Flipside connections.

Cosh Boy is on sale on 20th January and is great fun with superb extras – you can order it from the BFI Shop online alongwith others in this most laudable of series.

Note also that The Party's Over (1963) is unlikely to be re-issued due to rights complexities so, order it now if you haven't already got a copy!

Ian Whittaker and Hermoine Baddeley

Monday, 13 January 2020

Wasted youth… I Vitelloni (1953), BFI Fellini Centenary

Seven years before La Dolce Vita, another of Federico Fellini’s characters formed an innocent relationship with a youth that may or may not signify the possibility of escape from a dead-end existence. In his third film he drew upon his upbringing in seaside Rimini to paint a slightly autobiographical picture of five close friends who’s get up and go has got up and gone or, if you will, si alzò e se ne andò! I Vitelloni are not exactly bored teenagers, they’re well into their twenties and are either not working or still living under the assumption that life is about to start. It takes that friendship with a young lad working early shifts at the railway station to help one re-connect to his own youthful ambition.

As the train pulls the escaper away, the camera cuts to the bedrooms of his four friends as the lie asleep in each case pulling away as his momentum carries him clear of the ties that bind. It’s a neat moment and another one of Fellini’s great endings to accompany his great beginnings… although this is certainly one of his films that maintains narrative energy and interest throughout with rich characters and compelling episodes in which revelations are made and fortunes pivot.

Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste, Riccardo Fellini and Alberto Sordi
The subtitles translated I Vitelloni as The Bullocks and it could also be The Idle People, not so much the victims of post-war economic malaise as sheer boredom – anathema to Fellini who escaped the “Italian Blackpool” for Rome in the thirties in order to study law. The gang are stuck mostly living with parents and living the lives they have since they were 15. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is their leader, handsome, stylish and totally faithless, chasing girls with no self-control until the inevitable happens and someone gets pregnant.

That someone is Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) who in addition to having just won the local beauty contest, is the sister of Fausto’s best pal Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) who is as considerate as Fausto is wild; the kind of guy the idiot needs and probably one of the few who would put up with prolonged exposure. Moraldo was described by the director as being closest to his own character although there is also a voice-over to provide additional context.

Fausto considering his options.
The others in the group are Alberto (Alberto Sordi) who has a fine singing voice, outgoing and not afraid to drag up for carnival. He lives with his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farell) who, unlike him, has a steady job and is also in a long-term relationship with a married man. As with later films, the women seem far more grown up than the men who struggle with even the basics of self-awareness and communication. Unlike her brother Olga is desperate knowing that her prospects are bleak and that she may have to seize the only chance she may have to get out.

Then we have Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) a would be playwright who is awaiting his lucky break as he works away in his auntie’s house occasionally distracted by his pretty neighbour Gisella (Vira Silenti). He’s the most intellectual but not the smartest – as so often happens – and the butt of the group’s jokes. His big chance comes when an old theatre star comes to town Sergio Natali (Achille Majeroni) who leads the youngster on by allowing him to read him his play as they wine and dine. But Natali is far more interested in Leo than his words and as he tries to take their relationship in a different direction in the dockland shadows, the writer finally makes his escape.

Just watch the film Fausto...
The final member is the group is Riccardo (Fellini’s brother Riccardo) who is the least well realised character – a good guy who greases the social wheels of the group but who doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc. For that we need to go back to Fausto and the Rubini family…

Fausto’s father (Jean Brochard) who still doesn’t spare the rod for his man-child, makes sure that he marries Sandra and the couple seem happy enough. Sandra’s father (Enrico Viarisio) gets Fausto a job at his friend’s shop selling religious paraphernalia to nuns – hardly his dream but then he doesn’t appear to have one, except the life of a womaniser. He goes to the cinema with Sandra only to leave in order to pursue another woman (Arlette Sauvage) even as his wife is engrossed in the film and the whole experience with her husband. Fausto can’t commit even to the fantasy as the woman is just too distracting; he plays footsie, lights her cigarette and, after his inconclusive pursuit, returns to find Sandra outside, the film over.

Fausto flirts with the boss’s wife and ultimately loses his job as a result, falling foul of a more solid marriage. He enlists Moraldo’s help to steal an angel from the shop in revenge and tries to sell the statue to a nun and then a monk. Both have enough angels already and whilst Fausto sees only the monetary value of the piece, the “simple-minded peasant” (Silvio Bagolini) who pushes the angel on a barrow, is in awe.

The carnival scene is the film’s centrepiece and all the characters collide in one gloriously choreographed sequence. The camera moves through the mass as they dance, the tickertape falls and the music is incessant. After the ball the hangovers kick in and reality bites in the harshest of ways… Some will grow and others will fall back in the fantasy of routine.  

I Vitelloni is a fun film with a serious heart which I guess is Frederico all over. Nino Rota’s music is here too as it would be for decades; he weaves some gorgeous themes and as with 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita and the rest, holds the emotional lines together through the episodes. Not surprisingly the director called him the "most precious collaborator" he ever had and the two work so well with Fellini often cutting to Rota’s music, as the composer didn’t always see the visuals. That’s a fascinating level of trust.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Be wonderful… Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), BFI preview with Pamela B Green and Cosima Littlewood

"What kept me going was Alice herself, but also the people surrounding the film…because they wanted Alice’s story told.” Pamela B Green

Watching this documentary it’s difficult not to get more than a little angry on behalf of Alice Guy-Blaché, a woman robbed for so long of recognition as the probable creator of narrative film-making let alone her position as the first woman film-maker in 1896. Various modern directors are asked about her, and almost all including Patty Jenkins, Julie Delphy, Ava DuVernay and even Geena Davis, had either not heard of her or been aware of what she achieved.

Understandably Pamela B Green has been a woman on a mission for the decade it has taken to bring this documentary to fruition and by helping to right an historical wrong dating back to the birth of film, the real triumph may well be as one audience member suggested, that her family now know that Alice is getting the credit she deserves.

Alice Guy-Blaché made something like 1000 films including 150 with synchronised sound during the first three decades of film. Of these over 150 have now been recovered and are starting to take their place in screenings and on digital releases such as the box sets from Kino-Lorber, BFI and Lobster Films. AG-B along with the great Lois Webber and others are being returned to rightful prominence and on merit, with their films the equal of anyone from this period.

Probably Alice Guy...
Along the way Green enlisted the help of some very heavy friends, notably Jodie Foster who narrated, co-produced and even gave us a recorded message before screening. Then there’s executive producers including a fella called Robert Redford and the late publisher Hugh Hefner who was one of the biggest investors. It’s also worth noting that the film was based on Alison McMahan’s ground-breaking book, Alice Guy-Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (2002) and the author was another collaborator on the film. British silent film historians, Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide, also pop up as "Friends of Alice"; she's not an unkown quantity for those in the know but clearly there is work to be done on her place in film studies.

As with the development of early films, collaboration has been key – “it takes a village” as Green says - but, unlike the films of Alice Guy, credit was due but withheld and even today Gaumont will not be releasing the home video version of this film. You want the truth, perhaps they can’t handle the truth which is rather shameful and beyond petty. But, as Green as said in the Q&A, history is usually defined by the dominant voices and perhaps Alice didn’t rate herself ahead of others such as Louis Feuillard or Georges Méliès

Chance also plays as part with founder Léon Gaumont passing away in 1946, before the second edition of the company’s history that would have included more credit for his former secretary.
Alice Guy famously started out as Léon Gaumont’s secretary and he gave her the chance to create films with a story narrative as well as hand-tinted colour and synchronised sound. These innovations were extraordinary at the time and the only extraordinary thing about a woman directing them is the simple fact that she was not given the credit more widely then or for the majority of her life.

She was probably the only woman directing films for the first decade of cinema and was certainly recognised as a talented, bankable film maker in France and then later in the USA where she not only established her own studio, Solax, but also built her studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She married British cameraman Herbert Blaché in 1907 and they had two children including daughter Simone – born 1908 - who is featured in filmed interviews. Alice returned to France in 1922 and divorced Herbert Blaché severing her ties with the film industry for good too.

The film follows her progress which becomes that of Simone as she accompanies her around the world, Simone was married to a diplomat, and eventually attempts to find her films and re-establish her place.

The film then becomes a fascinating procedural investigation, as not only films but footage of interviews is found and a clearer picture is formed. This may not be the first Guy-Blaché documentary, as Jay Weissberg observed in his Variety review, but it is certainly the first to build on those earlier efforts and to reach a wider audience. It has also been a living exercise in recovery – both of reputation and, not unconnectedly, materials; the films found during the period of the research are now being digitised and shown more widely. That in itself is the main thing that will continue to uplift the reputation of this key figure.

After the Q&A we were treated to a screening of Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913) a charming short from Solax about a young man who just has to get married at short notice in order to gain his fortune, It’s as funny as any Sennett film form the period and much more of a laugh than one of DW Griffith’s. For further proof, c.f. The Consequences of Feminism (1906) which even impressed Sergei Eisenstein.

Martin Scorsese describes Alice as an extraordinary and sensitive filmmaker and as more of her films are found and shown, lets hope for a fuller appreciation of her skill and not just the uniqueness of her contribution.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018) is on release from 18th January – full details will be on the BFI site as well as the film's own. Not to be missed even if, as Pamela said in the Q&A, they’re standing on the shoulders of the many researchers who went before.

It’s a very well-made film which catches the excitement of the filmmakers’ journey and does surprise and entertain even for those familiar with the subject. Let’s hope there’s more to be found,

Here’s to Alice Guy and her family!