Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Games with thrones… When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), Ben Model, Undercrank Blu-ray/DVD

“Why doesn’t someone put that out on DVD?” one of the great questions for the modern silent film fan and I’ve asked that question myself many times. This was the film that put Marion Davies on the map and it was one of the big hits of 1922 returning its $1.5 million investment many times over, a commercial and critical success.

A trade advert breathlessly described the response to the film at the Scala Theatre in London where it “…drew such a tremendous crowd… that the police had to hold back the throngs and traffic was retarded for blocks…” whilst the New York Evening Mail thought it as “the most amazingly beautiful picture ever made.” All of which makes its absence from our digital libraries even more bewildering.

Lyn Harding and Marion Davies
Cue Ben Model, silent film accompanist and preserver of lost legacies through his company Undercrank Productions. Ben launched a crowd-funding campaign to release a restored Knighthood on Blu-ray and DVD and with the help of 317 backers (including myself) has put together a glorious tribute to Marion and one of the blockbusters of the age. The US Library of Congress did most of the heavy lifting on the 'preservation' end of the project and scanned the source nitrate 35mm's. Images were cleaned up and tints restored along with “hand-coloured” flames in the closing segment with the result that the film now looks as good as new. Mr Model also provided a new organ score to accompany the film along with the two surviving themes written for the film by Victor Herbert, the introductory theme and the Marion Davies’ March… you have to be a star to have your own march!

I’ve only previously been familiar with Davies’ work in The Patsy and Show People and given the legend of her beau William Randolph Hurst’s attempts to promote her as a serious actress, it’s so very interesting to see her sense of humour and comic brilliance shining through even in here in what feels like a very modern screwball adventure story. Marion could easily have been cast in Bridesmaids being part-Pickford with a twist of Talmadge but containing virtually zero Gish, no matter how much Randolph wanted her to be a drama queen.

Marion abides...
Marion maintained that her sugar daddy over-promoted her and prevented her from hitting the natural groove that would have seen more success but she loved him just the same and even lent him a financial assist later in life.

Davies’ Mary is inexhaustibly exuberant sticking her tongue out at the French ambassador, running away in drag with her lover and generally giving her exasperated elder brother, Henry VIII (Lyn Harding) the run-around throughout. She’s the ultimate younger sibling (so, more Constance than Norma…) but with such charm not even mean ol’ Henry can contain her for long.

Forrest Stanley, waiting to rescue damsels
Based on a true-ish story, Mary was indeed wed to the much older King of France, Louis XII but he was 52 and not 102 as portrayed by William Norris and she did indeed get her brother to promise that she could chose a second husband of her own even if the actual Charles Brandon was a worthy-but-dull as the one portrayed here by Forrest Stanley – who in fairness is simply out-played by Marion.

Gustav von Seyffertitz scaring the kids again and many others...
The only ones who come close to Davies are George Nash playing an adventurer who engages in swordplay with the effeminate diner he encounters in the tavern – Davies’ fights convincingly after learning some fencing skills – and William H Powell as young man in only his second feature who plays Louise XII’s nephew Francis with Rickman-esque glee.

But the whole picture is a romp, perhaps not up there with Robin Hood but lavishly upholstered and played out on massive studio sets that would not be out of place in one of Doug’s extravaganzas. Robert G. Vignola directs with wit and skill and having already worked with Marion he knew how to smuggle through the best of her spirit amidst the swords and scenery. He lets her shine brightly amongst a slightly meandering plot as she makes the most of every chance to express comic devilment.

Mary and the young-at-heart King Louis XII
Mary is supposed to be sweet sixteen and therefore of the right age to be married off to France to help cement an alliance but she spots the chivalrous Charles as he unseats the Duke of Buckingham (Pedro de Cordoba) – one of the King’s counsellors who is revealed later to be far more scheming than schemed against.

Mary goes off to seek the forbidden advice of the soothsayer Grammont (a nice spooky turn from Gustav von Seyffertitz) and Charles intervenes to stop Bucky’s plan to catch her in the act. He’s made a powerful enemy though as the Duke gets him arrested and Mary has to trade marriage in France for his life aided by Cardinal Wolsey (Arthur Forrest) who gives more balanced advice to the throne.

So it’s off to the French court and her new (very) old man and the lecherous threat of Francis… enabling Mr Powell to make the most of his opportunity to push some menace into proceedings.

Bill Powell's Francis, dreams his schemes...
When Knighthood Was in Flower is a valuable social document and we should be grateful for Mr Model’s efforts in restoring it and capturing the essence of success for audiences in 1922. His score is dutiful in taking tone and themes from the existing music and recreating on organ the sounds of period silent film accompaniment. He follows the sense and sentiment with expert ease and whilst to some ears, the organ may be too specific in sound to escape its historical context, that’s obviously a big plus for this kind of project. A fresh sound for a re-emerging star!

The Blu-ray and DVD combo is available direct from Ben’s site as well as other purveyors of plastic discs and that’s not all for Marion as he has now released two more of her films, the two surviving films made just prior to "Knighthood", Beauty's Worth and The Bride's Play both with his new music. They are just a few irresistible clicks away from being on your shelves… Don’t delay, Marion Davies is back and this Model business-model is surely the way to go forward with high-quality digital distribution for other overlooked silent gems.

You can't resist... this is bigger than both of us, dear reader.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Wise before the event... J'Accuse (1938) out now on BFI BluRay/DVD

"I dedicate this film to the Dead of tomorrow's War, who will doubtless watch it with scepticism and fail to recognise within it the image of themselves." Abel Gance 1938

When I first heard that Abel Gance had "remade" his eerie First World War epic I callously thought about the "improvements" George Lucas had made to Star Wars and THX 1138 through a remix using recent technology to "enhance" his "dated" originals. This comparison is facetious I'll admit but I'm not a great believer in remakes.

I don't think Gance chose to make this picture as an "improvement" on the already powerful silent original, he made it because he was as frightened as his hero in the latter film, that Europe was about to descend into a second war to end all wars. Actually, forget frightened: he was angry and watching the incredibly moving closing sequences of this film is every bit as poignant as the sight of off-duty soldiers in the first film who play the dead risen from their battlefield graves come to accuse the living. The first film was shot in 1918 and many of these troops returned to the front and their doom and yet, in 1938, many of the men in the film would suffer the same fate yet only the twenty first century watcher really knows that for sure, despite Gance's prediction above.

"What I said before, I say again - I'll scream it into the face of mankind, because it must be done!"

War was possible in 1938 but by no means a certainty - most people lived in hope that Herr Hitler surely couldn't be as bad as he was made out... Even as late as September, British PM, Neville Chamberlain was still talking about "peace in our time" even though he, like Stalin the following year, was playing for time as the Brits had failed to re-arm at the same rate as Nazi Germany and were just not ready...

Victor Francen speaks for his director
In his informative notes and commentary for this superb BFI release, Paul Cuff clarifies Gance's position regarding "strong leaders" by showing that the far right had been highly critical of Napoleon - a film who, literally, several people even now accuse of "fascism"... whereas noted fascist sympathiser, Lucien Rebatet viewed it as "idiotic sentimentalism".  But Gance was indeed a man on a mission and his own experience in the Great War had convinced him it had to be the "final" conflict.

In his first talkie, La Fin du Monde (1930... (just about 90 years too early, cheers Donald and Kim...) the director had mankind renouncing war and establishing a World Council, leading the charming Rebatet to label Gance a "delusional primitive". Well, speaking as one about another, I must say that I found J'Accuse - Prenez Deux very moving and, even though the story is uneven in parts, the central message never grows old. As for Rebatet, he spent the war broadcasting for Vichy radio and blaming the Jews and the third French republic for the war.

He never touched the World in the way that Gance did, he never became loved... Gance's open-hearted approach to film-making lifts this film throughout as does his casting of the exceptionally commanding and mightily-expressive Victor Francen as Jean Diaz.

Victor Francen and Francois Laurin - a difficult conversation
Francen is one of the senior troopers at a beleaguered French outpost near the front in the dying days of 1918. In a remarkable opening sequence as what's left of the little town comes under sustained fire, a dead dove falls slowly into gas-poisoned water in a fountain topped off by a statue of Christ inverted by the bombardment. When a squaddie finds the bird, the talk is of how to eat it but Jean decides to bury it instead.

As he does so, he is joined by Marcel Delaitre (Francois Laurin) whose wife Edith (Line Noro) has fallen in love with Jean... It's a key plot component from the first film but here it's covered off in minutes as the two men shake hands; although that will not be the end of it. The men join their comrades in the village bar where sad-eyed Flo (Sylvie Gance... yes, the very same) sings songs to keep the spirits alive especially for one of the men, the youngest and the handsomest, who can't gather the courage to tell Flo how he really feels. But, she knows...she knows.

The troop are ordered on a deathly patrol from which only one man has returned: Jean. With the clock ticking down on armistice it seems a sad risk to take and knowing the dangers Jean agrees to swap places with one of the men, a father of four.

Sylvie Gance sings for the boys
We don't see their final battle just the corpses being dragged back and counted as young Jean fades away in no man's land. But, they're not all dead and Jean's luck has held out and he coughs back to life perhaps foreshadowing later events or an indication that he has been chosen to represent the Dead?

Meanwhile Marcel is dying and Jean promises that there will never be anything between him and Edith. He's a man of his word but things are still very complicated as he returns to the civilian world...

Fittingly for a man who came so close to death, Jean cannot fit back amongst the mortal world and, whilst he continues to innovate for the glass company he once managed, he bases himself near to his fallen comrades and the huge cemetery at Verdun. He's searching for something, a way to stop war ever happening again.

Francois Laurin and Line Noro
The world thinks him mad and Edith and her blossoming daughter, Helene (Renee Devillers) - who loves Jean as much as her mother - try to understand the moods of this brilliant but broken man. Things are complicated by the reappearance of the man who ordered the final assault, Henri Chimay (Jean Max) who eventually becomes engaged to Helene... As war becomes more likely, the stage is set for a chilling replay of the most famous moment from the 1919 film. It's done very differently but is no less powerful aided by Francen's superb commitment.

Gance had seen action in the Great War and perhaps this gave him the motivation as well as the understanding that drove it. He did whatever he could to stop those trenches from being dug again and the tragedy of watching this film is knowing how quickly the battle lines would once again be drawn.

No wonder Gance was a "passionate pacifist". With J'Accuse he aimed to prove that "the future of humanity resides in a generation who will be the first Europeans..."  The last 72 years have seen peace in Western Europe at least, maintained by those new Europeans with or without Little Britain.

J'Accuse is out now and is available from the BFI shop on and online in DVD and Blu-ray - presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition with that new full-length audio commentary by leading Gance expert Paul Cuff. There is also a stills and special collections gallery and a handsome illustrated booklet written and compiled by Mr Cuff, including a specially commissioned essay and newly translated contemporary reviews.

One of the key releases of the year I would venture.

Monday, 24 July 2017

A train runs through it… Rails (1928) with Stephen Horne, BFI

"Cinema is the strongest weapon,” tweeted* Benito Mussolini when laying the cornerstone for Rome’s Cinecittà studios in 1936…. Mario Camerini apparently knew it but very rarely showed it during the years of Il Duce’s rule with Rails (Rotaie) (1928) being an exception by all accounts.

This film was being shown as part of the BFI’s new strand of Sunday silents and they are to be commended for screening this relatively-obscure gem with so many turning out to watch a film that, as Bryony Dixon implied in her introduction, we never knew we wanted to.  But Rails is an impressive film full of late silent invention, rapid cuts, camera mobility, Germanic shadows, Russian montage and plenty of Italian emotion; a film you really feel your way through.

Käthe von Nagy
Stephen Horne’s accompaniment ran, as you would expect, very much on time… highly appropriate for a film of this era (sorry) and not surprising given that he was awarded a prize at the Bonn Silent Film Festival for the score. Using his unique armoury of piano, accordion, flute and percussion he took the audience in hand for Rails’ emotionally intense twists and turns hitting several action points precisely on the nail. But this music is largely improvised and it’s that in-the-moment fragility which makes it so compelling the player is watching the film with the audience and interacting with both at the same time.

From the start, you are immersed straight into the action with this film as we join a young couple driven to desperation and planning an overnight stay at a dingy hotel they cannot afford but will never have to pay for.

Maurizio D'Ancora aka Rodolfo Gucci - later he would devote himself to fashion
Käthe von Nagy plays the woman, La ragazza – a waitress - and Maurizio D'Ancora her lover Giorgio – according to IMDB, although he’s not named in the film. Giorgio has messed up in unspecified ways and has earned the distrust of his potential in-laws who see him as incapable of making a living. Rejected by family and at sea in the forced economic disruption of the time, the two have nowhere to go. Giorgio drops a lethal pill into a glass and they wait for the drug to dissolve…

Then, as sharply as a twist of fate in a Paul Auster novel, reality takes a turn as a steam train blasts past the hotel window, far closer than they expected, and rattles the glass smashing it to the floor. It’s the shock they needed and hand-in-hand they creep out of the hotel and head off into the night with nothing but the revulsion of a narrow escape to propel them forward.

The train and the glass
They make their way to the station and, as she almost faints, head  to the buffet for drink. This opening segment is so intimate and Camerini’s lense moves close in and around the couple using von Nagy’s extraordinary expressiveness to do the work of a dozen intertitles. You feel in the story with them and that intimacy, reinforced so elegantly by Stephen’s playing, carries you through the picture. If you don’t care for this couple then you probably need to check your heart.

A man in a hurry drops his rather fat wallet and Giorgio picks it up and follows too late (by measures on purpose...) to hand it back as its owner disappears on an accelerating train. It’s full of money, they have a chance and they can go anywhere now; they can escape.

Giorgio gets them tickets on a sleeper and they head south in comfort, mistaken for a honeymoon couple in the dining car by fellow travellers. A weasely man with a Miles Mander moustache clocks the girl… not the kind of attention you want to attract.

A jump – there are several cuts that suggest missing material – and we see the man, Jacques Mercier (Daniele Crespi) looking out to watch a motorboat race from the balcony of a plush Mediterranean hotel. The couple are also staying here and soon Giorgio is playing cards with Mercier’s group and the weasel is thinking of ways to have his evil way with his other half…

Oppressed by the city, the couple are equally out of their depth amongst the vicious bourgeoise of the Amalfi coast. She shops and he gambles… and Mercier waits for his moment. It’s only a matter of time before things go awry.

Oh the places you can go to by train!
Rails tiptoes around the strictures of Italian governmental controls and Camerini manages to mix positive messaging about industrialisation with an examination of the dislocation it was causing. From what we have the propaganda is sparing inserted and the meat of the film remains the couple and their search to find a place to love in a society which, unsurprisingly, is neither urban poverty nor seaside opulence, just pro-activity and honest endeavours.

All in all a real treat and I look forward to more Sunday silent surprises on the Southbank.

 *Or he would have if Twitter had been invented.