igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
This is a fascinating remake of a classic early French 'serial drama', of the type that doled out their revelations in lurid weekly thriller instalments. I haven't seen the original Judex, but I've seen Ultus, the equivalent British serial of the era... and I definitely recognise the style here. Multiple disguises, hairbreadth escapes from death, jawdropping coincidences, gadgetry and sleight of hand... and villains who never kill their victims when they ought to!

The print in the BFI National Archive was in beautiful condition (save for some oversized and rather intrusive subtitling), and this film is visually and musically stunning; the Maurice Jarre soundtrack is lovely, fitting and eerie. The morality of the story -- despite its simplistic chase format -- is surprisingly grey, with Jacqueline the only pure innocent (and thus, alas, the least interesting character). It's hard not to sympathise with Favraux in his situation, despite everything that we learn, or with young Morales, caught between the ruthless woman he loves and his long-lost father, and Judex himself finds his self-appointed mission of punishment harder and harder to fulfil.

Scenes like the masked ball (shrouded in almost surreal mystery, since it is not until afterwards that we have any idea what was going on!) and the spider-like climb of Judex' minions to the roof are very memorable, while the film also has a nice line in self-deflating humour, courtesy of the fiction-obsessed detective Cocantin and his rapport with small children. For such a preposterous comic-strip confection the plot holds together quite well, although having displayed such crowning ineptitude in their first attempt to kill Jacqueline (and what happened to the original idea of questioning her first?), it's hard to understand why the plotters don't just make away with her immediately the next time they get the opportunity!

The one thing that really grated, as with all old historical dramas, was the very 'modern' hairstyles and make-up used on all the eye-candy characters in order to make them attractive to a contemporary 1960s audience -- the result now, of course, is that instead of appearing subconsciously appealing they appear distractingly out of period. It's hard to credit a swooning damsel of 1916 when she is made up to look more like Brigitte Bardot...

Casting a professional magician as Judex enables the character to perform some impressive sleight-of-hand, and there are some subtle references to the original era, like the opening iris shot, the super-advanced (and supersized) antique surveillance gadgetry, and the title cards setting the various scenes. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is basically played entirely 'straight': it's not a tongue-in-cheek homage to pulp serials, it's presented in its own right as a piece of poetry for us to suspend disbelief -- a 1914 adventure of a mysterious caped avenger, an athletic, resourceful villainess, and a celestial innocent who sought to redeem her father's deeds.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
I had a brilliant idea today.

I was getting so desperate about the amount of backlogged research typing-up/indexing that I now have to do that I was actually considering paying someone to sit down and do it for me.

Then it occurred to me: why don't I pay myself? Buy myself something I like, every time I actually get a batch done? :-) That way I get to benefit from the money as well as from the work...

Of course, I haven't actually done any yet. But I do feel a whole lot better about it!




Next task: I really must get round to writing up a review for The Way of the Strong - not least because I can't forget it (or even stop fan-ficcing it!), but partly because F.Gwynplaine MacIntyre seems to have been at his wicked ways with it... I wonder what the odds are that he never actually saw the film? The fact that he calls the villain "Tiger Louie" (the original name of record) rather than "Denver Louie", the name on the actual restored print, is suggestive — but possibly it was only changed in the course of the recent restoration work, which post-dates F.Gwynplaine's IMDb review.

(Isn't 'Handsome' Williams wonderfully ugly, poor man? I had a look around for some photos of the actor out of character (Masquers' Club, Silent Ladies & Gents) and while easily recognisable, it's clear that Mitchell Lewis was nothing like as ugly in real life as the unfortunate Handsome — he doesn't have a broken nose, for a start — so that's another unreliable assertion from the well-known Mr MacIntyre.)

Other dubious statements (N.B. spoilers!):

  • I'm probably far too innocent to spot such things, but I didn't get any impression that Handsome has sexual designs on Nora — beyond the fact that he is obviously falling in love with her. That certainly doesn't appear to be his initial motivation. Louie's intentions, on the other hand, are quite unmistakeable...
  • Handsome doesn't have a mansion or a bootlegging empire — Louie does. (As so often in the past, I strongly suspect that F.Gwynplaine is extrapolating from stills and getting it wrong.) Handsome has what is probably a speakeasy, which he stocks with liquor stolen from bootleggers, and apparently lives in a couple of rooms 'above the shop', with a getaway staircase into the street. It's a comfortable and well-furnished existence, but the mansion seen in the film is in fact the hideout for Louie's gang and nothing to do with Handsome.
  • Williams (probably) doesn't end up drowning. He shoots himself at the wheel of his car, in the belief that he is so ugly that even a blind girl cannot love him; the car proceeds erratically and finally takes the traditional plunge over the edge of a cliff, in this case into a river. Handsome is quite probably already dead by this point — but I'll bet that our phantom reviewer saw a still of the scene where the bubbles are rising from the sunken car, and assumes that this was the intended method of the driver's self-destruction...
  • The statement that the final shot resembles "The Phantom of the Opera" puzzles me (I believe it's the bubbles rising as mentioned above), but I don't recall the "Phantom" accurately enough to state for certain that it doesn't end on a shot of the Phantom's coach in the river. The fates of the drivers, of course, are rather dissimilar.
  • Williams and his henchmen do not defend their mansion with elaborate machine-guns mounted on the staircases, so the audience can scarcely have laughed at them. There is, however, a scene in which Louie (minus his henchmen) drags out from an upstairs room the machine-gun and shield he was seen using in a drive-by shooting earlier in the film, and starts shooting down the stairs: no-one laughed at this in the screening I saw, but if we give Mr MacIntyre the benefit of the doubt it is possible that, in addition to confusing the ownership of the mansion, he also made a slip of the pen in naming the gunner in question. Frankly I think that he saw a still of this scene and guessed falsely at the identity of the man behind the shield, but I could be wrong. It is possible to make that sort of basic mistake as to identities and ownership: I know because I did it myself when reviewing "Flesh and the Devil", despite loving the film (long since corrected!)...
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
Importing old blog entries...


For my latest bout of research I decided to look into those two mysterious 1927 film credits on Sonnie Hale's record, "On With the Dance" and "The Parting of the Ways".

I still haven't been able to confirm the existence of "Parting of the Ways" (although the IMDB gives some pretty specific details whih suggest that someone, somewhere, has access to records about it), but I can definitely confirm that "On With the Dance" exists -- and Sonnie was almost certainly in it!

From Bioscope's list of new releases, July 1927:

"On With the Dance" Series
Offered by: Pioneer
Directed by: Harry B. Parkinson
Length: series of twelve, 600 feet each.
Release Date: First week in October (approx)
Type: Interest
Cast: Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale, Laddie Cliff, Phyllis Monkman, Leslie Henson, Madge Elliott, Cyril Ritchard, Bobby Howes, Sid Tracey, Bessie Hay, Leslie Hatton, Devina and Charles, The Tiller Girls, Annie Croft, etc.
IN BRIEF: Dances by well-known stage stars. Some good slow-motion pictures.
Suitability: Excellent short reel subjects for all houses.

An earlier article ("Pioneer Film Agency announce that they are nearing completion of their 'On With the Dance' Series...") again proclaims that the films "will feature such well-known favourites as Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale..." So Binnie and Sonnie were not only in the series, they are repeatedly ranked as the top attraction!

Kinematograph Weekly runs an entire half-page article on "On With the Dance" on July 28th 1927 ("Something New in Dance Films"), which likewise refers to "such household names from West End theatre and cabaret as Binnie Hale, Sonnie Hale" etc., although in this case it gives a full list including such faces as Billy Leonard and Claude Hulbert. Even more excitingly, it publishes a set of eight stills underneath the article: not specifically captioned, unfortunately (the group caption mentions only four named couples, plus the Tiller Girls). But the top right-hand couple, with the man supporting his partner in a lift, looks distinctly like Sonnie and Binnie Hale.

So much for my deep scepticism as to whether this pairing (pace Gwynplaine Macintyre) ever worked together on stage: it looks as if they actually did do a demonstration dance for the benefit of Pioneer Films' cameras. What's more, at least two of these short films survive in the National Film Archive (and at least one of them was apparently screened at the National Film Theatre in 1995), so the record may even still be viewable today....
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
I've just discovered the full content of the BFI's latest batch of Mediatheque releases, themed around 1930s British features: and it turns out to contain not one but TWO previously-unseen Sonnie Hale films, in addition to archiving "Friday the Thirteenth" (and "Evergreen", of course, but that one's available for sale...)

The new titles are "The Gaunt Stranger" -- the very picture I've just been researching! -- in which Sonnie Hale's performance has been generally commended, plus "My Song for You", one of the three Jan Kiepura musicals in which the tenor was teamed with Sonnie.

I wouldn't mind seeing Jessie in "Waltzes from Vienna" (also released) either!
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
It's easy to associate "The Passionate Friends" to its detriment with "Brief Encounter"; in its voiceover/flashback structure, in its themes of suicide and adultery, and of course in the casting of Trevor Howard. But in a sense -- although not, unfortunately, an entirely successful one -- in a sense, the later film is an attempt to do something very different with this source material. At the most basic level the two pictures have virtually nothing in common: "Brief Encounter" is a story of renunciation and unselfishness, of ordinary lives in an unromantic setting, of heartbreak from a painfully honest narrator. "The Passionate Friends" (a title never really explained) revolves ultimately around selfishness and self-deception, lavish trappings and a shallow surface gloss epitomised by the cheesy 'Swiss' tourist music that backs the initial establishing shots.

Mary's swelling soft-focus memories of her grand passion are deflated by jarring little jabs from the director, in what I suspect is intended as an alert to the viewer that her romantic-seeming situation is not quite what it seems -- in effect, she is an unreliable narrator, and the pay-off comes when she perceives, finally and appallingly, what she really is and what she has done. It is a climax worth waiting for, but it is slow to arrive; and the subtle wrongness in the love affair, the self-dramatisation and lack of authenticity (whether or not these are deliberate attempts to undermine her presentation of events, as hindsight suggests they may be) until then tend to come across simply as unconvincing story-telling.

It is never clear just what Mary means by her assertion that she wants to belong to herself and not to any lover. By the end, however, it is all too apparent that this mantra, reminiscent of the "Can't tie me down, babe" slogans of the (male) serial shaggers of the Sixties, is every bit as self-indulgent a female pose. She is in love with the idea of being in love: playing at it, day-dreaming transgressions. But when reality strikes, the whole game is exposed as a silly, hugely destructive fantasy.

After the first showdown with her husband (which we are specifically, and with hindsight, significantly, not allowed to witness), she warns Steven that she is not truly a good person to love. We -- and he -- do not then either understand or believe her; but she is right. She is not prepared to give herself, in modern parlance to 'commit': but she will not let go either.

The trouble for me is that for most of its running length the film seems to be simply a somewhat off-kilter account of an adulterous affair, over-ponderous, with clumsy use of music and heavily ironic dialogue. (The cinema audience, young and out for a good time, spent rather more time giggling than I assume the director intended.) The cinematic tricks that are present, such as the abrupt cuts in the taxi scene, the nested flashback structure, or the montage of advertisements in the Tube station reading "Keep Smiling", "Strength" and "Saved", too often seem awkward or labouring the obvious. If the idea was indeed to subtly undermine audience preconceptions, it doesn't really work -- there is no equivalent here to the stunning shift in perception that exists between the opening sequence of "Brief Encounter" and the final unwinding of the flashback.

As the ambiguous Mary, Ann Todd is a strangely elusive presence. The character is at the heart of the plot and has the lion's share of screentime, and yet most of that time it's hard to get a grip on her beyond the superficial. I'm still not sure whether this is an intended result of the acting and/or direction, or a flaw in the film.

Trevor Howard carries off the role of the unfortunate Steven with angular charm and provides the requisite sense of bewildered decency; but as others have rightly remarked, it is Claude Rains, in what might appear a largely peripheral role, who steals the show.

Rich, older, physically unprepossessing, and mildly affectionate towards his wife when he can spare a moment from the financial markets, Howard Justin is the face of moneyed security versus the romantic passion promised by Mary's once-and-future lover, and as such represents the trappings of a marriage of convenience rather than an actual human being. But almost from the beginning we are made aware that he is neither unintelligent nor unobservant; later we discover that he is not as complaisant as the other couple have assumed, and finally, that he can be hurt -- and can love -- as deeply as any other man. Over a mere handful of scenes in the course of the film Claude Rains manages to convey more tension and real emotional presence than anyone else, and it is this contribution that makes the final twist both plausible and satisfying.

"The Passionate Friends" is not the great film that I feel it is perhaps trying to be; but it is certainly not an abortive carbon-copy of "Brief Encounter". The resolution of the film is starkly effective and is worth sitting through a glossy and rather uninspired beginning for: as a whole, it can be seen as an honourable failure.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
Today was the start of the British Film Institute's much-advertised 'Weekender'; my chief interest in it was that it offered a chance for me to take a guest to see The Rat, which I had enjoyed so much when it was shown as part of a special evening in 2004 and never expected to see on the big screen again.

We were promised all sorts of extravagant entertainments — live musicians synchronised with those on screen, burlesque dancers at appropriate moments — but in fact all that happened was that they put up the auditorium lights during the nightclub scene and people gradually noticed some ladies in shiny costumes appearing in the aisles and walking across in front of the screen. The second time, they didn't raise the lights (which was less distracting) but then you really couldn't see the dancers at all. It was a good idea but it didn't come off in performance; I suspect the practicalities hadn't all been thought through. A pity for the girls who were supposed to have been the highlight of the show...

But the film, although playing to a youthful audience who had been promised decadence and burlesque, survived the entire experience triumphantly. For the first few minutes the audience sniggered at just about everything shown on screen. Intertitles? — intrinisically hilarious. Ladies in 1920s fashions? — oh, so screamingly old-fashioned! But "The Rat" is a fast-moving piece of low-brow entertainment, designed to thrill, amuse, and hook 'em in... and within about five minutes, the audience had apparently stopped laughing at the film and started laughing with it... save for when they were waiting in breathtaken silence to find out what would happen next....

Response afterwards, in wondering tones: "But Ivor Novello could act!"

He can indeed act, and infinitely better here than in Hitchcock's notorious The Lodger. Novello's sense of mischief as the irrepressible Rat seems to be rather better developed than his attempts to appear sinister and darkly significant for Hitchcock, and his desperation and heartbreak at the end of this film are far more effective than his saintly crucifixion pose in the later production — possibly another case of the Novello curse, whereby he only seemed to be able to achieve stage success in scripts that he'd penned himself!

By the end of the film I was actually starting to wonder if I'd got completely the wrong end of the stick on my previous viewing, and interpreted a tragic ending as a happy one or vice versa — and I knew roughly what was going to happen. The tension was terrific, and a couple of scenes brought tears to my eyes again.

After the disappointment that followed taking a guest to see The Crimson Pirate (I didn't know anyone existed who wouldn't enjoy at least the acrobatics on display...) I was very much relieved that this piece of unashamed melodrama went down so well, from sweet little Odile to the swaggering Rat and beautiful, bored Zélie de Chaumet. It's a film with no pretensions to sophistication — shop-girl stuff — and tremendous fun.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
The weather was nice yesterday, so I went for a walk; a quick stroll between stations, with a 600-foot climb as destination in the middle. The National Trust had helpfully provided steps — the path had less-than-helpfully directed us straight up the steepest part!

In the course of the afternoon I met a handful of other walkers. They were dressed up straight out of the outdoor catalogues in trousers with zip-off legs, multi-strapped rucksacks, twin striding poles, and ergonomic sandals; I was traversing the English countryside in linen jacket, corduroys and brown Oxfords, with a sleeveless jumper slung round my neck. I'm not sure which party found the other more bizarre...

Over the last few weeks I've spent a good deal of time and effort (not to mention cash) on Robert Donat at the National Film Theatre, and I'm still rather disappointed. I'd love to be a fan, but I'm afraid I'm not... and I'm not sure why. After all, he has the voice, the accent, the artistic credentials, the technical ability; he's deeply respected by people I admire, bracketed together with Leslie Howard as an example of 'the sensitive hero', and allegedly a matinee idol to boot.

The good looks I admit I can't really see — the older he gets, the more he looks like Kenneth More, which is fine if you happen to be Kenneth More (whom I enjoy watching), but isn't that flattering in anyone else. But this, of course, really isn't Donat's fault and shouldn't be significant. After all, I'm a fan of Charles Laughton, whose appearance couldn't be described favourably with the best will in the world...

What I don't get from Donat, I suppose, is any sense of charisma — any trace of the 'star' quality that ought to compel attention from out of the screen. He isn't exciting as such; he disappears perhaps a little too entirely into his assorted roles, is perhaps a little too generous when sharing a scene with his co-stars. I don't know.

He is certainly technically accomplished, with many of the films placing a strong emphasis on his ability to age himself up and/or transform his persona; ironically and rather painfully, this is a young man's game. He is far more convincing playing the ancient Mr Chips in his mid-thirties than he is playing a twenty-year-old William Friese-Greene in "The Magic Box", fifteen years of ill-health later.

He also undoubtedly speaks poetry beautifully, an ability also showcased in various productions, and his vocal abilities are flexible and very wide-ranging. What he too often doesn't seem to manage — and I don't know why not — is to engage me with the character emotionally.

I've now seen all the famous films — "Goodbye, Mr Chips", "The Citadel", "The Count of Monte Cristo", "The 39 Steps", "The Winslow Boy" — and a number of the others: "The Cure for Love", "The Ghost Goes West", "Perfect Strangers", "The Adventures of Tartu", "Lease of Life". The most accomplished and sophisticated is probably "The Citadel", in which I found myself drawn into the character in a way that happened with few of the others (my main disappointment here lay in a fairly heavy-handed voice-over scene used at a pivotal point in the plot; not Donat's fault, but it shook me out of the film). The two Donat pictures that I actually enjoyed the most, however, were those dismissed as mere wartime propaganda pieces: "The Young Mr Pitt" (sadly not present in the National Film Theatre's recent season), and "The Adventures of Tartu". (And as the preposterous Tartu, he also looks his most flattering — clearly he should have indulged in pomade more often!)

Both films benefit from a lively sense of irony, and both have more emotional depth than one would expect. Much of "Tartu" is a larger-than-life humorous romp — with Donat's skills of transformation deployed in an impersonation the actor appears to be thoroughly enjoying for a change — but it also has some very tense moments, and at least one point where it appears to be heading for a very dark irony indeed. "Mr Pitt" verges on hagiography but refrains from pulling its punches where mob psychology is concerned, while including some charming domestic comedy and a touch of (probably ahistorical) romance; it's far more than a mere flag-waver, with considerable intelligence and wry humour.

Since I also quite enjoyed "Knight Without Armour" (although it suffers from uneven script development and a director over-enamoured of Marlene Dietrich's glamour), I can't help wondering if I don't require a counterbalancing vulgar dose of propaganda thrills to enable me to appreciate the over-rarified spheres of Donat's talent... :-(

(Incidentally, what happened to the 'currently watching/listening to' feature on MySpace blogs? I rather miss it.)

{N.B. reposted from MySpace blog (like other entries of this vintage)}
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
The National Film Theatre has just started running a 'Robert Donat season'; the star exhibit is of course Hitchcock's "Thirty-Nine Steps", which I'm afraid I never much cared for (I'm going off Hitchcock in general, after a promising start), but there are other films I'm interested to see, quite apart from the question of Donat himself. On that matter, on current showing, I remain mildly well-disposed but still to be convinced — on the other hand, at this stage in the Buster Keaton season I didn't think much of Keaton either...

Exhibit Number One was "The Private Life of Henry VIII", which of course I remember like everyone else for the famous chicken-bones on the floor scene... and had no idea that Donat was even in it. It was Charles Laughton's film, of course, and remains rightfully so, even though it's a bit creaky. (He over-does the swaggering and laughing at the beginning of the film, and the structure remains inherently episodic, despite an attempt to use Donat's character as a linking device — unfortunately it's not really much of a role. John Loder, in another very minor part, made more of an impression on me...)

Today's exhibit was Donat's sole Hollywood movie, the 1934 "Count of Monte Cristo". I was eager to see this, as I like swashbucklers and it has a good reputation; I also had an ulterior motive! The good news is that this turns out to be, as I hoped it might, my "long-lost Monte Cristo" -- the film I once caught the end of, thanks to the BBC, on holiday twenty years ago, and have never been able to find again since. The bad news is that, alas, the part I missed isn't actually nearly so good as the remainder...

The Reliance Pictures production of "The Count of Monte Cristo" is a queer mixture of success and banality; of studio polish and poverty-row shortcuts; of genuine emotional power and thumping cliché; of briskly-moving adaptation and bizarre moments of staging (revolving witness-box, anyone?) A literal version of Dumas it is not — one would not expect it of any film spectacular made at this period — but many of the changes made are entertaining or effective, and the happy ending provided works at least as well as Dumas' rather unsatisfactory version. The meandering original is reduced to a bare two hours' running time by dint of concise scripting and cutting out most of the sub-plots involving the de Villefort and Morrel families, an attempt which is by and large successful. It works less well at the beginning, where there are simply too many unidentified characters popping up and scheming without any of them really being established properly, particularly as Morrel and de Villefort's father are then pruned from the plot, never to appear again. And de Villefort's downfall as presented here really doesn't work for me: lacking the damning evidence of infanticide, the script doesn't seem to come up with any terribly convincing alternative to turn the tables on the prosecutor. On the other hand, introduced material such as Mercedes' (completely uncanonical) aristocratic snob of a mother and the tableaux in praise of Fernand at which Haydee accuses him works very well.

Ironically — given the Hollywood studio's doubts as to their unknown English import's ability to pull off anything but a fresh-faced lead — Robert Donat shines mainly in the latter half of the picture as the older, embittered and sophisticated Monte Cristo. His guileless Dantes makes little impression, for it could be any generic juvenile lead role — the character as written is not so much naive as uninteresting. Donat fares better where he can give a sense of some hidden depths to the part, and his best features are his strong eyes and brows rather than his cheery grin. As Monte Cristo, however, he is both debonair and dangerous, an intelligent schemer with a dry wit at his enemies' unknowing expense, and he is supported ably by both Douglas Walton as the young Albert and Elissa Landi as Mercedes.

It was Miss Landi's performance with which I was truly impressed here; she ages with utter conviction from the wilful girl to the resolute mother, and lends her scenes opposite Donat the real impact that is lacking from so much of the film. In a plot that has been re-angled to concentrate far more closely on the Edmond/Mercedes relationship, her role is vital, and her character provides most of the emotional engagement of the story, from light-hearted charm to heartbreak (Valentine de Villefort, here paired off with Albert, is a mere cypher in comparison).

The film starts off in outright formulaic guise, from Napoleon's appearance (in full uniform and cocked hat, with his hand duly thrust in his breast like that) to the standard storm-at-sea sequence with water poured across the screen. It continues to suffer from crude musical underlining almost throughout, almost sabotaging for example Donat's scene with the dying Abbé Faria, which he otherwise pulls off with conviction, while certan characters, such as Morrel and the mute Nubian Ali, appear to have been retained despite the loss of the plot elements which actually involved them (possibly as a result of cuts to the script later in filming?) Overall, however, the adaptation does a pretty good job of conveying information quickly and concisely — Albert's entire Italian adventure is dealt with effectively in a matter of a few minutes with none of the essentials lost, and Haydee's brief role introduced without seeming contrivance. It borrows little in practice from Dumas' wordy original save the bare outlines of its plot, and sometimes not even those; but as an initially uninspired Hollywood adaptation it improves considerably as it goes on. Literary fidelity isn't everything, and if it were not let down by certain sections I would have rated it considerably higher; alas, this production remains an odd mixture of the powerful and the pedestrian.
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
found the London Bird’s Eye View festival (of films by female comics/directors/scriptwriters with female musical accompaniment) rather disappointing, I’m afraid. I don’t know how much if that was my rather jaundiced emotional state at the time, how much due to the fact that I don’t really get on with screwball comedy, and how much down to the inexperience of the female accompanists; poor Mary Pickford probably fared the worst, having her polished but somewhat formulaic late comedy "My Best Girl" severely sabotaged by a mosquito-buzz/droning accompaniment from a modernistic string group. It might have worked for an expressionistic tragedy, but entertaining it was not.

But then to be honest I wasn’t terribly impressed by the two piano accompaniments from an experienced female silent film player; they were competent, she clearly knew what she was doing, but didn’t strike on my part any spark. And the films didn’t catch light either: "Show People" is doubtless much funnier if you know more about the Hollywood characters of the era (I didn’t recognise anybody but Douglas Fairbanks in that apparently-famous pan across the acting talent at the high table — and only identified him by the tan!), and while "The Love Expert" is technically very accomplished for its era, I found the heroine positively annoying. (To be honest I was mainly interested in the first place in the Keaton family connection: so this is the sort of thing Connie was up to while Arbuckle and his young assistant were busy making too much noise in their shared studios, back in New York; and this is Natalie in one of her few screen roles supporting her sister. Poor Natalie. She really isn’t as talented or as attractive as her little sister, is she..?)

The night I probably enjoyed the most was the performance featuring Gloria Swanson in "The Danger Girl", an incoherent madcap Sennett comedy, and Ossi Oswalda in the early Lubitsch film "Ich mochte kein Mann sein". Neither of the films is especially polished, but it was the musical accompaniment that made them both memorable and funny; in other circumstances they might well have been a complete drag, but with sympathetic music they were genuine laughing material. Which makes me wonder about the others.

"The Danger Girl" got a close-harmony accompaniment from a vocal group, partly sung (some of the on-screen text), partly nonsense syllables, and partly oral sound effects, i.e. a speeding car approaching, a galloping horse, etc — and if that sounds bizarre, it was! At least half the laughs of the film were probably provided by the vocalists rather than the somewhat confused onscreen action, and at times they actually helped to clarify what was supposed to be going on; a happy blend of nonsense for a very non-serious film.

The Lubitsch got a more traditional accompaniment from a female jazz pianist, who was presumably accustomed to improvising — I actually enjoyed her approach more than that of the official silent film composer and pianist, although to be fair she didn’t have to provide nearly so much material, since this film is very short (only three reels). Again the film itself is no very great shakes (and certainly far less sophisticated than, say, "My Best Girl" from ten years later) but the total experience was uncomplicated good fun.

One of the cats brought in a mouse from the garden to the kitchen today; I should have been suspicious of his very subdued mew outside the door, but I let him come into the room and of course he shot straight up the stairs to play with the beast in comfort. One biff knocked it down a whole flight, at which point we discovered that it was still alive and tried to pick it up — the mouse, being terrified and no fool, decided that it didn’t want to be attacked by an even larger predator, inflicted a nasty bite and shot under a bookcase and through a hole under some pipes to take up residence under the floor. Where it still is, so far as I know, and will probably remain until it dies of starvation or finds a way back out into the bitter wind. The last one turned up dead months later when the smell became too unpleasant. I do wish the cats would kill their food first and play with it afterwards...
igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
I was seriously debating yesterday whether or not to go to see "Laughing Anne" at the National Film Theatre in place of attending the (belated) Guy Fawkes party tonight. I'd got to the extent of looking the film up on the IMDb to check whether the omens were hopeful (they weren't; the film's average score was very low) and still dithering, when out of the blue I came upon a Usenet posting announcing that the BBC would be showing the Buster Keaton programme from Paul Merton's Silent Clowns series in prime time on mainstream TV that night.

My mind cleared instantly. Keaton or Conrad? Given that choice, my priorities turned out to be absolutely unquestioning: Keaton without a qualm, every single time. Considering the amount of time I'd spent dithering, it was almost funny.

The really silly thing is that I'd actually already seen the TV programme in question at a special sneak preview session before its original BBC4 transmission and it doesn't in any case tell me anything I don't already know, or show any footage I haven't already encountered. I just can't resist Buster Keaton under any circumstances; I suppose that's what they call addiction, although it feels more like religion...


A contributory factor was that the Conrad on Film season has been somewhat mixed to date, at least from my point of view. I'd already narrowed my planned viewing down to a handful of the pictures on offer, for one reason or another (my main interest is in the early film era itself, rather than in Conrad's work), and "Laughing Anne" had been one of the few survivors. (I was interested to see what Herbert Wilcox plus Margaret Lockwood would produce, and the plotline sounded my style.)

So far I've seen two of the three "Victory" adaptations in the season — the silent and very early sound versions — and the silent "Lord Jim".

The "Victories" were both pretty mediocre, verging on bad. The plum part in that plot seems to be the villain Ricardo, who comes across as the most lively and amusing character: the main reason why I watched the silent version was to see the famous Lon Chaney in the part, and he doesn't disappoint. Alas, that is more than can be said for Richard Arlen, the reason why I watched the sound version; he was terribly wooden in the leading man role of Axel Heyst. And after he'd been so good as a silent actor in "The Four Feathers" and "Beggars of Life", too. After watching this film, I frankly assumed that his career must have fallen casualty to the coming of sound — since although he has a perfectly good voice here, he seems unable to act with it — and was quite surprised to find that he went on getting parts for many years afterwards; maybe he was just having a bad day here. It's not a rewarding character to play.

The 1925 "Lord Jim", on the other hand, was unexpectedly excellent. Enough to make me go and read the book, which I was not at all tempted to do after watching a double-bill of "Victories"!

It has to be said that this film gets better as it goes along. There's nothing wrong as such with the beginning, but it's a bit pedestrian somehow. But comparing it with the original novel, I found it all in all a very good adaptation, and generally a better piece of storytelling than Conrad's long framing passages and non-chronological plotline allow: I'm not clear if the author was trying to rack up suspense, indulge in philosophical exploration or simply to be clever, but I actually felt that the film — with the benefit of almost no words at all, being silent — got to the heart of the character much more accurately and clearly than the book had. And as a piece of compression it's actually very clever.

The most significant example is the combining of the two villainous captains into the same character, thus adding extra personal impact on Jim when he encounters the pirates in addition to shortening the cast list and cutting back on exposition; but the depiction of Jim's wanderings after his disgrace is very well done by piecing together various separate incidents mentioned in Conrad's meandering account of that era, and making them into a coherent chain driving the hero back to seek help from the sympathetic merchant (again, a conflation of several characters making passing appearances in the book). The trial scene is also conveyed with remarkable skill, given the constraints posed by title cards and the imperative not to have too many of them.

But basically I strongly suspect that I liked it much better because I could identify with the central character in the plot. My masochistic streak coming out again, I suppose — but expiation, honour and heroic self-sacrifice were always my thing. In the end scene, where I have a feeling we are supposed to be willing Jim to yield to Jewel's pleas and escape fulfilling his word to his benefactor, I was sitting there thinking 'isn't that just like a woman? She simply doesn't understand, does she? Don't listen to her...'

And of course he doesn't.

My only complaint about this scene would be that they really shouldn't have staged it so that a dying man has to stagger back across a long bridge; Jewel should have run to meet him, for plausibility's sake...



A big grumble, though, goes to the elderly (and possibly deaf, if you take the charitable view) American couple who were seated towards the front of the auditorium, and persisted in supplying a running commentary to each other, in addition to crinkling sweet papers and sucking and slurping loudly. The last straw was when they started ad-libbing dialogue at one of the most intense moments: I'm sure they were thoroughly enjoying the film, and it was all relevant chatter, but they didn't half put me off. I'd like to claim that I took no action in order to avoid disturbing the rest of the audience, but actually I was too inhibited to do more than sit there seething as they exchanged comments almost in my ear. In any case they took absolutely no notice when I did try.

Grrr.

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
Today was my second screening of the London Film Festival, after Brand Upon the Brain! — tonight's film was the rather more conventional silent "Asphalt" (thus titled in the original German), and it was preceeded by a long and entertaining description of just how it had been brought back from the Moscow state film archive by someone who had gone to Russia to look for something quite different, and of how it differed from the American release, which had until then been the only known surviving print.

Apparently the American distributors felt that the original cut was too 'slow', and removed a lot of the reaction shots in favour of extra titles explaining exactly who everyone was and what they were thinking; by the time it had been stressed to us three or four times how slow the Germans liked their films to be, I'm afraid I was feeling rather nervous as to whether this was really the version that I wanted to be seeing, given my bad experiences with some other German epics!

But the director's vision was vindicated — it's hard to image what the American cut can have been like, but since it is crystal-clear what is going on in the minds of the various protagonists, all the explanation must seem rather laboured. And fortunately, there was nothing like the 'one-minute close-up, followed by another minute on the other face' that we had been promised... or if there were, at least it didn't seem anything like that long.

Overall I was reminded of 'Carmen' (probably because I had just been watching Preminger's "Carmen Jones") but with a happy ending — happyish, anyway. Instead of killing the girl, he kills her lover; but then she gives herself up to save him, proving that she's really not all bad after all... The film is beautifully shot in the most fully-developed silent tradition, with conscious plays and parallels of images, and effects of lights: the street scenes take place on a gigantic set built expressly for the purpose. But I was never quite confident of the heroine's motivations (making it hard to sympathise) and I did feel that there were some plot ends left unresolved. Good — beautiful — but not I think unqualified great.

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
I went to see "Ratatouille" yesterday — it was billed as a special preview, so I was a bit miffed to discover that the film had already been out for months elsewhere around the world! I'm not quite clear why the Germans and Malaysians apparently get to see it first, since it's not as if we were waiting while anybody dubbed a non-American soundtrack before releasing it in the UK...

Still, I posted my review anyway: after all, there are only six UK reviewers so far.

This is possibly not the most suitable film to watch immediately after your favourite rat has just died, but I'd had to book our tickets a month in advance.

igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Horizon)
I've just been to see Part I of Lang's Die Nibelungen, which was rather better than I confess I was expecting: "Dr Mabuse" left me cold, and "Metropolis" I found to be great art but a poor film. But despite its two-hour-plus running length, "Siegfried" was never boring. The young actor who plays the hero did a pretty good job of making him interesting despite his immaculate goodness, although his consort Kriemhild never quite convinced me as the beautiful, twice-duped princess: I can see the actress doing very well as the vindictive widow in Part II, but I'm not sure sweet and lovely is her forte. Brunhilde, on the other hand, was excellent as the Hippolyta-like Maiden King who is tricked into a forced marriage and is first bitter and then, when she learns the truth, vengeful. I couldn't help but feel for her.

The special effects in the film are very notable for their era, and the dragon scene is rightly famous. I particularly liked the little touch where it 'whoofs' breath out of its nostrils to stir the surface of the water immediately before drinking, and when Siegfried stabbed it in the eye a gasp of pity and revulsion went round the cinema.

Overall, however, I'm not sure the film entranced me enough to go and see Part II; the main reason would have been to find out what happened to Brunhilde, and she is conveniently disposed of in the final scene of this film. (I'm not quite sure why she acts as she does -- regret, presumably?)

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igenlode: The pirate sloop 'Horizon' from "Treasures of the Indies" (Default)
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