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)
It's been rather a damp few days overall, one way and another...

No sooner had it finally finished raining than the larder flooded; with hindsight, I imagine that the pipework above the shelf had probably been leaking for some time, but it wasn't until water started dripping down into the fruit rack that it got noticed. The entire shelf (which had to be sawn out of its supports in order to reach the piping) was sodden and slimy with mould, and is now reposing in its component planks outside the back steps waiting for somebody to scrub it down with a hard brush...

The plumber was somewhat taken aback by our highly esoteric pipes. Apparently, we have lead, copper and steel (rusting of the latter having caused the problem) pipework of all different diameters running along the same wall; just to add to the confusion, thanks to modern engineering we have now acquired some 'metric copper' to add to the mix. Naturally, the joints between all these mutually incompatible systems are completely botched together in a perfect plumber's nightmare! I imagine it's a complete cross-section of waterwork through the ages since mains water was first fitted...

At any rate, the flood has been quelled for the moment, although the rest of the steel pipes are in an almost equally parlous condition, especially where they run out through the wall. I wonder whoever thought that using ferrous metal for water-pipes was a good idea? Possibly the same person who thought that cast-iron was a suitable material for our gutters...

The floor is all soaked, of course, and will have to dry out; a long business at this time of the year. Stacks of stored food have been evacuated all over the place, to various unused locations — thanks to the winter, it is fortunately not too much of a problem, as almost all the rooms are fairly cold this time of year. We are starting to run out of floor space, though... and all the jams that used to live on that specific shelf now have illegible labels!

Meanwhile the days are ticking on towards December, and it's time to think of the store-cupboard. Today was dominated by Christmas cake and puddings, occupying all cooking facilities to the extent that we were forced to dine on grilled sausages and chutney... plus some small beetroot that hitched a lift in the boiling water around the pudding-basins. My own idea, though I say it myself, and one that considerably livened up the meal. After all, when one has so much boiling water on the go for so many hours, why not make use of it for other purposes?

I don't remember ever having so much trouble with kitchens steaming up before. Condensation on the windows is one thing, but today — as the puddings boiled on and on for hours and hours — it got to the stage where drips were falling from the ceiling, and the washing hanging from the airer was getting wetter rather than drier. We ended up with all doors and windows flung open to the outside air in sheer self-defence to try to ease off the temperature gradient. Incredibly, it was still 60F indoors... but the windows cleared up and the walls were no longer running with water, which was the aim of the exercise.

All over now, thank goodness, at least for another year... or until it's time to boil the puddings again for eating!

I watched the latest programme on the "Paul Merton's Silent Clowns" series, which was about Laurel & Hardy (as opposed to the Buster Keaton one during the Bonfire Night party). It was actually very interesting from my point of view, as it was mostly about the challenges of creating music for silent films; something that has always fascinated me. I did get the impression that there wasn't nearly so much about the comedians themselves, or rather about their work — most of the clips being shown, with the exception of the infamous demolition scene in "Big Business" were illustrating the principles of accompaniment (I found the brief, uncredited, clips of what appeared to be accompanists as depicted in contemporary films fascinating), and the programme finished off, perhaps inevitably, with a screening of the completed product: the film whose scoring had been being discussed throughout much of the rest of the broadcast. I did miss the first ten minutes, and presumably these were used to cover the duo's artistic history — but what I saw at times felt as much like a programme about the work of Neil Brand as about Laurel & Hardy.

I can't help wondering if this was due to the comparative lack of silent material in their career, since the teaming didn't really take place until 1927, and their 'talkies' are at least as numerous and well known... or due to a comparative lack of sophistication giving little scope for analysis. I know that it's snide of me, and I know that my Keaton-loyalties are probably clouding my judgement (when I was a child I absolutely adored Laurel & Hardy at the annual film shows, long before I ever even heard of Buster Keaton), but when the presenter sums up the quintessential L&H technique as being one of escalating chaos and the use of crowds 'as props' — the demolition derby, the giant bun-fight, and in this case a climax consisting of mass trouser-tearing-off — I can't help comparing it to Keaton's brand of basically intelligence-based, elegant misdirection comedy and thinking "Is this it? Is this all there is?" I mean, we're talking about the proverbial audience-of-twelve-year-olds appeal here: people for whom the biggest laugh in the world is a French horn getting run over by a steamroller and called 'flat', or as many men as possible getting hit in the face by a custard pie. If anyone was going to thrive and go from strength to strength in the talkie sophistication of the 1930s, who would have thought it would have been the comedians dealing in basic slapstick?

But as Merton points out, a comedy duo have a built-in advantage when it comes to dealing in dialogue — it's natural and indeed expected for them to talk to each other. Meanwhile, Keaton's humour was so very much 'silent' — so visual and full of movement — that perhaps it was at a basic disadvantage, like all very highly-adapted organisms, when it came to thriving in a very different environment. After all, Keaton's reaction to the potential of dialogue in film comedy (which as a technical innovator, he was all in favour of) was that you could use it to set up the gags in a more natural-seeming way... then get your actual laugh in the 'normal' fashion. Verbal jokes didn't come into his vision at all.

It was interesting to note that in fact, in the extract from "The Music Box" (1932) shown, Stan and Ollie were proceeding along just those lines: the humour in the set-up was entirely visual, and the dialogue was almost entirely unrelated to the laughs. The scene shown, as Ollie backs into a pond up a final flight of shallow steps, could have been used in a silent film with the addition of maybe one title card (which, in a true silent could probably have been avoided)... but then, as this is reputedly a remake of an earlier short, "Hats Off", perhaps it was...

Given the emphasis on composing and musical accompaniment in the earlier part of this broadcast, it is unfortunate that I felt that the ultimate screening of "You're Darn Tootin'" suffered from its soundtrack. I haven't got on that well in the past with Neil Brand's silent-film orchestrations — which is a pity, because I greatly enjoy and admire his improvisation work at the piano — but in this case I felt that there had simply been a wrong choice made based on the visual material. The film centres around the musical efforts of two hack musicians, and naturally the relevant instruments have to be shown playing when the characters play on screen. This element is all beautifully synchronised; the problem comes in the (increasingly lengthy) moments when no-one on screen is playing. Brand has made the decision to depict this by silence on the soundtrack, and I just don't think it works. A lot of the laughs in the early scenes occur during just such crises, when people aren't playing when they should be, and it feels completely unnatural to have long sections of complete silence during moments when the 'mood' (provided in a silent film by the accompaniment) is supposed to be moving forward.

When the sound-track comes to a total halt in a normal accompaniment, it is usually in response to a terrible shock or tense anticipation on the screen — it's a very powerful tool when used very sparingly. Using it in a laboriously literal interpretation of when Stan and Ollie are seen to play and when they are seen to stop feels completely inappropriate, especially when it lasts more than half a second or so and we see the band leader pick up his baton and storm over... all in complete silence, rather than the underlying emotional cues we'd normally be getting. These scenes need a background accompaniment under the actual on-screen playing: by all means let us hear it start and stop, but don't start and stop everything else in synchronisation as well. In this context it just doesn't make musical sense.

To be fair, I didn't much care for the film itself, as may have been apparent from my earlier comments. It's all right... but I didn't find it terribly funny. This is slapstick stuff, with people (or music-stands) falling over, tumbling down manholes and hitting each other, and culminates in one of Laurel's favourite 'descent into mayhem'-style set-ups, as passers-by get involved in one of Stan and Ollie's quarrels and the whole screen fills with men punching each other in the stomach, stamping on each other's toes, and debagging one another on a grand scale. Either you love this sort of thing or you don't, and I don't, really — I infinitely prefer Keaton's Heath-Robinson humour.

I did enjoy the surprise ending, though.

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.



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