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.