Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Oooh, Betty!! A Sister of Six (1927) with Neil Brand, British Silent Film Festival Day Four

"Charming scenes – Gorgeous gowns – Splendid Acting. Betty Balfour’s greatest picture.”

As if it were possible to love her any more, A Sister of Six cemented Betty Balfour’s place in our silent hearts as forever, Britain’s Queen of Happiness.

This was a very special occasion as Magnus Rosborn had brought over an exceptionally fine 35mm print from the Swedish Film Institute: shipping back “Bettys to Blighty” in our hour of greatest need. This copy has only been screened a handful of times outside Sweden and is of a restoration completed in the mid-seventies from original nitrates that were sadly discarded at the time. New finds of nitrate elements raise the possibility of further digital restoration of this exceptionally energetic Swedish-German co-production that showcased an impressive array of European talent.

This was credited as directed by Ragnar Cavallius – script-writer for Greta, Lars and Jenny’s The Saga of Gosta Berling – but cinematographer Carl Hoffman (you know, Faust and all that Varieté, Varieté, Varieté…) really took the lead and this much was clear from his hand-held pursuit of a cheeky monkey to an array of shadowy dollies and pull-aways.

Betty on her way to finishing school...
A visual treat the film was filled with outstanding energy not just from our Betty but her handsome co-star Willy Fritsch who plays a Count Horkay tricked by his cousin into a trip to meet the seven daughters of Mrs. Gyurkovics (Lydia Potechina), the eldest of which is he is lined up to marry but – gasp! – he’s already wed. Y’see, Pat and Paddle’s Cocktails is supposed to be madcap but this, this is madcap and charming and funny throughout!

The plot is so complicated and cunning you could twist a tail around it and call it foxy but it doesn’t matter because at any given moment you’re only a cute Balfour twinkle or a mad Aunt’s leer away from a smile. The aunts in question are brilliantly created by Karin Swanström as Countess Emilie Hohenstein and Stina Berg as Countess Aurore Hohenstein – two women so concerned at the romantic behaviour of their niece, that they have prepared a padded room for her.

Padded room, dark mansion-imprissonment, cross-dressed Count come to the rescue? All you need to do is make sure that Betty is at the heart of all that and you’re there!

A Sister of Six is simply one of the most joyous silent films - the publicity quote above is no exaggeration - and no wonder the front row fan whooped with delight at the merest mention of Betty’s name. Mr Brand did very well to play on amidst the riot but it was magnificent on all fronts.

Women Variety Performers on Phonofilm

Tony Fletcher dropped his sock to the stage and we entered an alternate universe of music hall madness as the stars of the day were recorded on Phonofilm, a one-take audio-visual technique of the 1920s. Here we found Edith Kelly-Lange on violin, Yvette Darmac, Emmie Joyce (no relation to Alice or me) articulating her need for love and scouser Gertrude Watts aka Beryl Beresford, being all kinds of cheeky alongside husband Leslie Hinton Cole.

But nothing caused greater excitement on Silent Saturday than Fay “Frenchie” Marbe singing There's More to The Kiss Than XXX, a saucy song from your actual George Gershwin with lyrics from Irving Caesar. Miss Marbe was so smilingly direct she had us mooching along in the most carefree way as audience participation reached alarming new heights.

Fay “Frenchie” Marbe
Phil Carli then kicked off his talk on early sound and recording systems by declaring that “Edison was an ass!” about which there was complete agreement. A fascinating character though and a very entertaining presentation!

PG Wodehouse Stephen Horne, Neil Brand and Bryony Dixon

This was an interesting session whether or not your golf clubs, like mine, have been relegated to the lowliest garden shed. Neil Brand read from one of PG Wodehouse’s golfing short stories, A Woman is Only a Woman, and, relishing every bon mot, showed how crisp and witty PGW’s prose was, making me feel pure shame for never having read him (putting that right now). PG’s stories of golf are, of course, far more about the players – and men – than the game itself and are revelatory about twenties polite culture in general.

“Love (says the Oldest Member) is an emotion which your true golfer should always treat with suspicion… I have known cases where marriage improved a man’s game, and other cases where it seemed to put him right off his stroke. There seems to be no fixed rule.”

The Stoll Company made six shorts based on these stories and we were treated to three of them after Neil’s reading with Stephen Horne hitting an Eagle or two and proving more than up to par on accompaniment.

Rodney Fails to Qualify (1924) introduced us to the diminutive Harry Beasley as The Caddie, an invention of the film series intended to fulfil the same function as The Oldest Member in the stories: the oil that keeps the stories running. We couldn’t work out Harry’s age… anything from 20 to 40 but he was guaranteed cheeky!

The Clicking of Cuthbert (1924) featured the eternal Moore Marriott as grumpy Russian novelist Vladimir Roseleaf whose unexpected passion for golf, wrong-foots the local book group enabling Peter Haddon’s Cuthbert to impress Helena Pickard’s open-minded blue stocking Adeline.

Chester Forgets Himself (1924) in which Jameson Thomas’ Chester Meredith, a man with a potty mouth, almost loses his quest for Ena Evans’ Felicia Blakeney by forgetting to express himself. Some lovely title cards left Chester’s language to our imaginations but Felicia liked his tone better!

Canine Capers…

We’d already seen one comedy canine (in Cocktails…) and there just had to be more as is BSFF tradition. This sequence included Cecil Hepworth’s astonishing Dog Outwits the Kidnappers (1908) in which a dog not only outwits kidnappers but drives their car off… I hadn’t seen it before and I may have whooped.

Contrary to the title Teddy the Dog doesn’t actually drive a train in Clarence Badger’s Teddy at the Throttle but he saves Gloria Swanson who is *actually* tied to railway tracks! Proof that, even if only on this occasion, attempted murder-by-steam train was a thing in silent films.

Then we had charming Charlie Chase taking a bath with Duke the Dog in Dog Shy (1926). CC is the real deal and a premier league performer with or without the pooch.
Gloria, ready for her chain-up...
The Pleasure Garden (1925) with Philip Carli

Introducing, Bryony Dixon took us back to 2012, the year of the Hitchcock Nine and the BFI’s epic restorations which were unveiled throughout the year with diverse accompaniment – anyone else remember the beatbox Downhill!? Hitchcock’s directorial debut, The Pleasure Garden was Bryony’s favourite restoration – if not favourite film – given the challenges of the source material and the creative process involved in putting, literally, every cup of tea in its right place. Hitchcock was not a director who ever put in a shot without purpose and everyone served the overall narrative including that of a lone tea leaf floating in a cuppa; a sure sign of impending visitors for our grandparents and every viewer in 1925 (or 1927 when, post Lodger, this film got its general release).

The Pleasure Garden has some great Hitch moments: from the opening sequence as dancing girls hurry their legs down a spiral staircase to then be ogled by a front row of sweaty middle-aged men (ahem!) only for Virginia Valli to laugh off the attentions of her ogler-in-chief (you go, girl!) to the, sickly-disturbing, drowning as Miles Mander’s character finally loses it in the heat. This moment never leaves the film – as stark and psychotic as any in silent film.

Philip Carli, suffering throughout with that most British of gifts, an ‘orrid cold, cast off his discomfort to accompany with a dramatic dash, clearly relishing his duet with Alfred!

Virginia Valli disapproves
And then there was Betty…

The evening show was Stephen Horne and Minima’s fantastic re-scoring of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr whichI had previously seen and raved about at the Barbican back in January. A film that takes on dramatic new flavours in the hands of the collaborating accompanists: their project is not so much a re-scoring as a chance to reflect on the pure brilliance of Dreyer’s technique.

And that was me at this year’s British Silent Film Festival, a wonderful event for which everyone involved – players, presenters, programmers, volunteers, bar staff and sandwich makers - should take a bow as we smooch Fay Marbe’s There's More to The Kiss Than XXX in their general direction!

Monday, 18 September 2017

Epic! British Silent Film Festival, Day Three

It started with the 600 and it ended with Civil War; Day Three at the BSFF was not for the faint-hearted.

Kevin Brownlow is on record as saying that the Charge of the Light Brigade in Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928) was the best mass action scene in British silent film and it’s hard to argue after one of the most visceral of sequences involving hundreds of men and horses from a number of battalions recreated the heroic disaster on the fields of Aldershot.

In her, uniquely well-informed introduction, Lucie Dutton explained how the silent version was never released with the film held back for sound overdubs before finally hitting screens in 1930. The silent version we saw is itself a reduction, focusing on the history and largely ignoring the romance between displaced Scottish farm lass Jean McDonald (the lovely Benita Hume) and disgraced Scots Guard John Kennedy (arguably the best looking MacLaglen, Cyril). As it is, the story switches from a brief meeting to Jean riding along with the cavalry to warn as the Russians gather for attack.

Benita and Cyril in a scene missing from the version we saw... but does it exist?
But once the action starts it is spellbinding and very poignant, with Tennyson’s words, Elvey’s meticulous soldiers and John Sweeney inspired accompaniment. As her beloved John heads into the valley of death, Jean sits with a group of peasant women in off-the-shoulder torment as the brigade charges into impossible odds, facing enemy fire on three flanks.

As the few dozen survivors wearily gather on a ridge you can’t avoid the actuality; this is how they died for Queen and Country. Elvey is more concerned with history than anything else in these moments and the Russians are evenly painted as the formidable fighting force they were with the cartoon nastiness coming from Mr Miles Mander as a dastardly British officer. No one could handle a moustache with such attitude.

Not all British films were as balanced and Walter Summers, otherwise forensic, Men Like These (1931) contained some racial stereotyping bewildering to modern viewers. His story of a stricken submarine and trapped sailors aiming for a longshot float to safety using Davis re-breathing kits, portrays the two Asian characters as limp in a crisis as our brave boys overcome their situation using guile and grit. It’s tense and if you’re claustrophobic not a comfy watch.

The next session featured a glorious compilation of films compiled by the BFI to hand-paint a picture of the world in 1913 before we said goodbye to all that. The BFI’s Bryony Dixon explained the popularity of these “interest” films as they not only showed other cultures but also the source of the foodstuffs consumed at home. Tea, Cultivation, Harvest and Processing (1909) does what it says on the tin and there’s a poignancy now in watching the two well-dressed ladies at the end sipping the end product in their comfy parlour: the milk goes in after the tea is poured of course.

There were some stunning hand-coloured images as we saw Delhi, Rangoon, Java, Borneo and, of course, Korea, Land of the Morning Calm (1908). The films were mostly clustered between 1907 and 1911 and these foreign lands seemed intimate and familiar even In the Land of Monkeys and Serpents (1910) aided by Stephen Horne’s accompaniment – a real treat for him to bring out the bells and whistles, a one-man gamelan.

From Sunda Islands snake-wrangling in 1910 to frozen nitrate in 1978 and Bill Morrison’s extraordinary cinematic archaeology. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) was the perfect post-prandial immersion with an electro-minimalist, glacial score from Alex Somers most familiar to me as producer of Iceland’s Sigur Rós. It’s a remarkable feat of editing and narrative construction, that uses elements of the 370-odd films recovered from the perma-frost of Dawson to help tell the story of the city as well as the mixed-bag, treasure trove itself. Fascinating stills from Eric Hegg whose 200 glass-plate negatives were only rediscovered in the 1950s, take the story back to the original gold-rush in the area and show the town grown to over 100,000 as men flooded North in search of their fortunes.

It was the most quietly disruptive cinema of the day that was full of multi-layered shocks and connections… When you consider that it was here that the Trump family fortune began with Grandpa Trump’s hotel, you realise that this history is still unfolding: land-grabs, greed and “gold-rush” mentalities are still be found in the land of opportunity.

Our second Bill Morrison epic also drew comparisons with the present day as his The Great Flood (2012) which used found footage to recreate the story of the flooding of the Mississippi Basin on 1927. Morrison takes so much care in assembling his materials some scenes almost convinced you that he’d gone back in time to shoot them. It was a testament to the news reporting of the time that so many aspects of the flood were covered as lives and homes were saved as the levees broke arlight... left right and centre. Memphis Minnie’s famous song battled in my head with John Bonham’s massive drumming on the Led Zeppelin version as the actual score from alt-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell floated intriguingly over the visuals. Not to everyone’s taste, Frisell’s recorded score was performed live with an original screening of the film and worked well for me apart from the last scene of Big Bill Broonzy and other bluesmen in the early 60s… it would have been good to have heard their playing at that point. But overall, another stunning production from Mr Morrison.

Next, a complete change of pace with Different from the Others (1919) and a revelatory examination of Paragraph 175 from the German penal code of 1871. In his learned introduction Matthew Jones Associate Professor in Film Studies at DMU Leicester, presented a timeline showing the progress of this code from the empire through the Weimar years and the calamities post 1933. After the war, censorship was temporarily lifted enabling the film to be made with the support and contribution of Dr Magnus Herschfeld, leader of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement and head of Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

Connie mit Dr Magnus Herschfeld
This film was the first to deal explicitly with homosexuality and Conrad Veidt is, of course, brilliant as the closeted violinist, Paul Korner who is only conflicted by society’s double-standards. The film features Herschfeld’s theories of the “third sex” which have obviously been long over-taken scientifically but his call for understanding and unequivocal belief that “love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex…” has endured.

Paragraph 175 was finally taken off the statute books in 1994.

Decisions, decisions for Raymond Griffith
As the long day closed, we were up for a laugh and the irrepressible Raymond Griffith delivered in Clarence Badger’s Hands Up (1926) as Neil Brand gleefully played along. Griffith plays Jack, a confederate spy (how very 2017!) who attempts to prevent Montagu Love’s Yankee Captain Edward Logan from delivering the gold the Union needs to win the Civil War. En route he faces capture and execution but also the most difficult of choices as he has to choose between the daughters of mine owner Silas Woodcock (Mack Swain) played by Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin.

Jack’s never phased certainly not facing a firing squad when he distracts the boys in deeper blue by throwing plates in the air and by, literally, painting himself out of a corner nor even when romancing the girls as their stagecoach is attacked by Indians: as the arrows fly they mistake them for a bee. The ending was a double whammy of historical timing and the most unlikely, jaw-droppingly irreverent, romantic solution. The pace is relentless and the comedy is probably metatextual proving once again that we were just as clever ninety years as we ever are now.

I’d like to say we sprang into the night with the same verve, reconstructing Griffith’s comedy battling across Leicester’s fearsome inner ring road but we were all filmed out and it was only Friday…