Sunday, 16 July 2017

Equality begins at home…The Home Maker (1925), Persephone Bookshop

“This is a box-office picture par excellence for all audiences. It is hard to conceive an audience that will dislike it.”

Remarkable film and remarkable venue… I’ve never watched a silent film in a retail environment before but this felt more like a club as the tea cups and saucers were passed around along with strawberries and cream scones…

Persephone specialise in keeping significant books by women authors in print and one of these is The Home Maker written by Dorothy Canfield's and published in 1924, it offers a glimpse into our grandparents’ world that may still surprise and shock.

Mary O’Hara adapted the story and King Baggott directed what Moving Picture World breathlessly described as: “One of the Finest Pictures Ever Made” whilst Variety was more mealy-mouthed saying that it “…almost reaches the heights of greatness… Perhaps had the plot not been so typically American, one of the highly touted foreign realistic directors might have done something big with it.”

Alice Joyce still from Greta de Groat's Silent Diva site - link below.
That would have been to have missed the entire point of mainstream American culture attempting a story such as this, one that touches the most delicate of subjects: American manhood and the role of the American wife in supporting the same. This picture is a brave and subtly-astonishing one because of those who made it.

The Home Maker is down as “quite hard to find” but when you have connections like the Persephone you can ask to screen your friend Kevin Brownlow’s copy. It was cramped but convivial and I’ve rarely seen as attentive and respectful audience outside of the more established silent film emporiums.

Alice Joyce (no relation, probably… I mean yes, possibly, at some point from the 1800s and, co-incidentally her mother was a McIntyre, my mother’s clan…) plays Eve Knapp the very able wife of a not so able husband played by Clive Brook, who made a brave decision in accepting this role. The operative word that keeps being repeated is efficient and Eva Knapp copes very well with every situation she faces whereas husband Lester struggles to make his mark at work.

Clive Brook (
Lester fails to get promoted, his lack of efficiency meaning the rule that length of employment guarantees seniority. It is a supreme humiliation for the main bread-winner and he can see no way out other than to take his own life and make sure the insurance money gets paid to Eva and their three children. He succeeds in accidentally falling off the roof but doesn’t perish only leaving himself crippled in a wheel chair.

Eva refuses charity from his previous employer and asks for a job instead. Reluctantly Lester’s old boss agrees and she is soon doubling sales and making herself invaluable.

Back at home, Lester too finally finds his metier, as he starts to relish spending more time with the family; the joys of parenting outweighing his failure in the world of work and his physical condition. Here at last is something he is good at and there’s a lovely moment when he watches his youngest, Stephen (played by the quite remarkable Billy Kent Schaeffer) try to beat an egg, father’s patient encouragement pays off as the boy works out what to do.

Detail from a lobby card
A new equilibrium is achieved in the home but it’s still an uneasy one for if Lester were to recover the couple would have to resume their old roles bizarre as it may seem in 2017. I won’t give anything away but I liked the way this story was essentially about a family working together even if sacrifices have to be made above and beyond gender expectations and, yes, even the maintenance of male pride.

Alice Joyce is superb, holding so much emotion with almost casual ease, her huge dark eyes running deep with meaning. Clive Brook’s also a class act and any worries that his character will simply be a loser are blown away by his display in the film’s second half.

Young Billy Kent Schaeffer is a live wire and was later compared with Mickey Rooney but didn’t sustain a career in spite of this exceptionally-promising performance. There’s also George Fawcett, always good value, gurning away in the amiably convincing role of the family doctor.

High on strawberries and fine tea I may well have been, but this is a film well worth seeking out.

Another dramatic lobby card!
Naturally I couldn’t leave without the book – the cover and production values are so high at PB and these are tactile treasures you’ll want to hold as well as read. My daughter has already taken it: a nineteen year old keen to find out what went before… Persephone helps books continue and there’s nothing so important to writing and stories that they persist and that they are read!

Copies of The Home Maker can be obtained from the Persephone website whilst there is also some interesting background about book and author on their forum.

Not for the first time I’m indebted to Greta de Groat’s excellent website, The Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen from which I gleaned the reviews and images above. It’s a thoroughly-researched site and you can easily get lost there for days… Thankyou Greta!

Friday, 14 July 2017

The return of KB’s Shorts… Kennington Bioscope with John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrytsch

"It's easier to go straight with you..." says Billy. Don't count on it Leila honey...
My week of abbreviated wonders... It’s interesting that, after seeing a 132 minute cut of an approximately 600 minute film (Greed – see previous post), I find myself watching three Pathe 9.5 mm films that contain proportionately more of their source material. All came from the collection of Kevin Brownlow and from an age when this was almost all there was... no streaming in HD, Blu-ray of Betamaz.

Pathé invented this smaller stock for home consumption and as the Bioscope’s master of the magic lantern, Chief Projectionist Dave Locke, pointed out, the projection area is almost the same as 16mm and, with the right illumination it was perfectly possible to project them unaided onto the Cinema Museum’s screen. Mr Locke can make almost anything appear on that screen and these three examples included sumptuous close-ups, massed battle scenes and Billy Haines and his cheeky grin!

Billy and Leila in a publicity shot for Jimmy Valentine
The films were not always authorised hence Pathé’s issuing of a number of MGM titles, re-edited and cut to look like different films. Here was Jimmy le Mysteries (1928) that just happened to look a lot like Alias Jimmy Valentine directed by Jack Conway and staring the puck-ish Haines. Haines was one of the true silent greats, a natural on screen who could fool around whilst all the time being a flick-switch away from the drama.

He plays the eponymous Jimmy, an audacious safe cracker who, accompanied by his cartoonish side-kicks Karl Dane and Tully Marshall, sets about reducing the current accounts of banks across New York. He’s a dandy cracksman and it’s all a bit of fun until he meets Leila Hyams trying to stop her younger brother getting into a scrap.

Lional Berrymore tests Billy's alibi...
Jimmy likes this one so much that it doesn’t even matter that her dad runs the biggest bank in town, for this girl he’s willing to go straight, heck, for this gal, he’s willing to actually get a job and in her old man’s bank! Has Jimmy really turned over a new leaf and, even if he has, will the dogged Inspector (Lionel Barrymore) let him get away with it.

As with all three of tonight’s Pathé precis, this demi-Jimmy made perfect sense and was edited well enough to retain a sense of its original narrative and drama. John Sweeney accompanied in dynamic fashion, vamping along in cine-character as each of the four reels were replaced.

Next up, a tale the French company called, Money Does Not Bring Happiness (another link to Greed!) known better as The Younger Generation (1929) and directed by none other than Frank Capra. As with the first film this was intended to include sound but as Variety noted, this was not entirely successful: “… as bad as it can be!”

Luckily Pathé produced a silent and we had Cyrus Gabrysch’s excellent accompaniment instead adding effortless classical lines and under-pinning the emotions of this light-touch drama about a family rift.

Family miss-fortunes
The Goldfish family – a possible reference to big Sam Goldwyn’s original name – live in a tight-knit Jewish neighbourhood in a tenement block. Their eldest son Morris is a bit full of himself and beats up little sister Suzanne for giving his cake to her pal Eddie. A fight breaks out and Morris knocks an oil lamp over and, whilst his sis escapes across to Eddie's, he collects all of the valuables first. His mother (Rosa Rosanova) is impressed, he will be a big businessman one day, whilst his father (Jean Hersholt… yet another Greed connection…) is less sure, knowing that, basically, money can’t buy you love…

The years pass and Morris has become rich (and Ricardo Cortez), sis has turned into lovely Lina Basquette and she’s still seeing Eddie (Rex Lease) a piano player who big brother still considers far from suitable. The whole family live together on Morris’ immense pad with Capra frequently having his butler pulling down blinds that create the shadowy impressions of prison bars…

Ricardo Cortez faces off against Lina Basquette (TCM colorized...)
Talking of which, Eddie makes a mistake by agreeing a gig distracting the crowds singing on a float whilst some mobsters rob a jewellers. It doesn’t go well but Suzanne persuades her lover to do the time even though he was scarcely aware of the scheme. He gets sent down but the harshest punishment comes from Morris who exiles Suzanne as well saying that even her parents disown her.

Tragically this is not true… Time passes, more money is made and Father never smiles… is there any chance of love finding a way?

Simone Genevois takes to horse in la Merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d'Arc (1929)
Lastly an epic two reeler and believe me when I say you would scarce credit how many thousands of men and horses can be transposed onto 9.5mm! This was La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc (1929) directed by Marco de Gastyne more in the style of Gance than his Joan competitor Carl Dreyer (whose film he declared extraordinary).

Kevin Brownlow said that the studio had wanted the Dreyer film to have been an epic and it was... just not in the way they expected. The French film on the other hand was huge in scope taking seven months to film all across France with its director in search of authentic locations from Rouen to Orleans, Rheims Cathedral to the cellars of Mont St Michel. There was also a cast of thousands including at one point military extras who, having achieved their director’s objective, pushed on for greater glory only to be met with the fists of their opposition!

Simone Genevois
Simone Genevois makes for an heroic Jeanne and was exactly the right age to play the Saint being 16-17 during the shoot (she played Ivan Muzzhukhin’s young daughter in House of Mystery (1924) too!). We see her naming of the Dauphin in the cathedral and pivotal role in the defeats of the English.

Once caught, the comparisons with Dreyers trial are interesting, especially the faces of her accused. She found the filming exhausting, not just because she had to wear actual 22 kilo armour but also the emotional impact of the ending which she found hard to watch after completion.

Mr Brownlow said this 9.5 copy had helped spark the restoration of this film, and it would be one I’l like to see all the way through. Cyrus again accompanied and followed every sword thrust and parry, every heroic charge and the sadness of this remarkable young person’s final days.

Another evening of the unexpected for a packed, end of season, Bioscope. The next begins in September and it may well begin with The Goose Woman featuring one of the very best performances of the era from Louise Dresser.

And yet another good season for the Kennington Bioscope! Thanks to all those who organise, project and otherwise enable this precious cinematic resource. The Cinema Museum is also to be congratulated and deserves whatever support every genuine cinephile can give it. One of the best venues in London and surely one of the very best silent film clubs anywhere!

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Can’t buy you love… Greed (1924), BFI with Stephen Horne

Back in 2011 I’d watched the ARTE four-hour “restored” version of Erich von Stroheim's Greed but seeing a mere 132-minute version projected with live music really brought the core of the story emphatically to life.I'm not saying I agree with MGM's decision to strip down vonStroheim's vision but what's left is still so good it's better than most films.

Stephen Horne accompanied in style matching the film tonally and synchronising mood but also style as he played along on accordion as Mac squeezed out hymns to Trina on the unglamourous Oakland beach. Stephen’s played to Greed before but not that frequently which made these perfectly sequenced multi-instrumental moments all the more impressive.

Decades of practice makes for perfect and had the film been nearer its original length of 9-10 hours; I’m sure he would have kept pace (possibly with a break or four...). As it was, the accordion, flute, piano – whether played straight, deliberately-distorted with paper placed on the strings, or with those same strings plucked – and other effects matched and enhanced one of the most distinctive and brutally believable of all silent films.

Zasu Pitts
I deliberately wait to watch the “cannon” projected and with live music (and maybe one day someone will screen Sunrise without a pre-recorded score and I’ll see that too!) and the connection and experience of the work is always better. An informed and sympathetic audience helps too and those of us sheltering from 30-degree London knew full well that we were swapping rare metropolitan summertime for even rarer classic film.

Von Stroheim wanted to film the whole of Frank Norris' 1899 novel McTeague but everyone, except him, knew it was impossible. But what remains is unsettlingly life-like... rich in the details of everday desparation and human failure.

Gibson Gowland
The cast were chosen for their looks and not in a John Gilbert or Norma Talmadge way… Gibson Gowland is rough-around-the-edges McTeague a man who cares for small birds but with suitable provocation might throw you down a ravine if you crossed him. His best buddy Marcus is played by a Jean Hersholt realistically out of condition and in ill-fitting clothes and slicked down hair whilst the woman who comes between them, Trina, is played by Zasu Pitts like a cross between a drugged-up Lillian Gish and Stan Laurel. Pitts is the standout performer here and her transition from scared little mouse to deranged miser is played out through her manic saucer eyes and protean contortions the equal of Lon Chaney’s.

Her Trina is terrified of McTeague, none more so than on their wedding night but sublimates all in the pursuit of more money; a psychosis derived from either winning $5000 on the lottery, marrying her brutal dentist or both.

Jean Hersholt and Gibson Gowland
If there’s one sequence that gives away the film’s tone and the director’s signalling it’s this marriage which takes place in McTeague’s dental practice. As the vows are being read the camera looks down on the priest and couple then, with stunning deep-focus, reveals a crowd outside watching a funeral procession: in the midst of life (and this film) we can expect death. Stephen made light work of this unexpected duality and the moment had me in mind of Mahler’s First Symphony when the composer interweaved a funeral march with a folk dance; a mix he remembered having experienced as a child.

The funeral procession passes by outside during the vows...
If Trina’s character is mercurial McTeague’s an open book: a “slow-witted “man with anger issues. It’s interesting that von Stroheim dedicated the film to his mother as of the two mothers featured in Greed, one, McTeague’s, spends her life worrying about what might become of her son whilst the other, Trina’s, is a good old German mutter - about which Erich would know plenty - prone to cartoonish exploits with her husband and their three smaller children.

Mother McTeague pleads with her wastrel husband in a restored sequence (still only)
I re-watched the reconstruction and the story is a much fuller one – there’s an opening sub-plot dealing with McTeague’s father, a drunkard who spends all his time and money on booze and other vices, ignoring his poor wife’s entreaties to give her money… as well as much more details on those living in the block where McTeague’s dental practice is located, especially Maria the Mexican who sells the unwanted junk she is given to a man called Zerkow. Zerkow becomes obsessed himself with the idea of hidden treasure denied to him by Maria but this sub plot is missing entirely from the studio cut. 

Zerkow dreams of golden avarice are restored in still form for the ARTE restoration.
The reduced version still works though as it focuses on the main three characters… it’s less novelistic but still compelling in detail and the patient way von Stroheim dismantles good humour, civilised behaviour and all hope.

It does remind me of Zola and other late nineteenth century "realists" and the characters are largely doomed mostly by their own decisions. Their world is horrible and not unlike our own: how would we act in Greed?

The closing section is remarkable, prefiguring dozens of desert pursuits in later westerns, it shows the options fatally running out for men, horses and even birds. The story is wound up by a classic device which rams home the central point that the consequences of selfishness are terminal and damning in this world not just the next.

Death Valley '24
Greed was shot by von Stroheim entirely on location including weeks in Death Valley for this sequence. That’s a measure of his insane commitment to make something “real” and possibly lasting. Despite his torment at the studio’s butchery, posterity holds his film up not only as one of the greats but also as a missed opportunity for Hollywood to advance the art of movie making. Of course, they were never going to take the chance…  We mourn what was lost and savour what remains of this unique production.

The tinted birds in the restoration may indicate the connection between gold and freedom?
Bizarrely only a Spanish DVD is available of the film – industry indifference having passed down through generations of marketing and product development staff... When there are so many inferior films on Blu-ray you wonder how a such things come to pass. This is a major film, surely the film studies market alone is enough to justify a release of the ARTE restoration? That’s me as a publishing professional speaking and not as a silent movie fan… if you don’t monetise the great legacy of silent film you have to fight harder to preserve it and this is a golden (yes, on purpose) opportunity to do just that.

But. All this aside, huge props to the BFI for screening the film twice and for getting not only Stephen but the excellent John Sweeney to play along the previous week. I cannot complain at all about the quality and content!!