Saturday, 21 April 2018

Night for day… British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2018, Day One, Phoenix Cinema

The sun’s out, cracking the flags in London on the hottest day of the year and we just don’t care, we’re sat in the dark in a 108-year old purpose-built cinema watching ultra-rare British silent films, well, mostly silent…

Phonofilm programme 'Mainly Men - A Night in the Music Hall 1925-1928' a selection of early sound shorts of cabaret acts presented by Tony Fletcher

Tony Fletcher’s sessions on early sound films are a bit of a tradition at the BSFF and they are always fascinating rewarding his ling hours of subterranean research. They show the ghosts of musical hall past and give a real insight into the performance style and cultural mores of variety as well as silent years. They also prove, without doubt, that we are a country of weirdos with a sense of humour to match.

We started off with gondoliers in Clapham with Billy Merson singing his popular ditty, “You and I and my Gondola” a parody of more earnest poetry from the likes of Robert Service. Then Charles Patton pleaded “If Your Face Wants to Laugh, Well Let It” and in a way we almost did. The Plattier Brothers turned a gag involving bird-song into a sketch which was gruesome in so many ways as one brother flirted with the other using only the sounds of nightingales; they were French you see, and such esoteric whimsy was no doubt a novelty.

Billy Merson played the Manchester Palace Theatre in 1921, once nightly and every afternoon.
Dandy George was more typical fare teasing a highly-drilled terrier into performing tricks and at one point holding him by the feet as he “stood” to attention. We simply don’t know how many terriers he worked with over the years after his first “partner” Rosie passed after a short retirement. A Doggy Ditty followed from George Jackley which was more properly A “Dodgy” Ditty by today’s standards but who doesn’t still make jokes about their mother-in-law? Ahem.

Teddy Elben’s version of He Walked Right In featured the fab Phonofilm Cabaret Girls strutting their stuff including the “new Black Bottom Dance” – there were four girls but only three danced due to constraints of space and the need to keep Teddy in shot.

Now, Hal Jones, who I am sure you all know as the famous Lancashire Comedian, sang a song about Swistles which seemed to be a condensed milk not unlike that produced by Nestle. It was a shaggy dog of a song which featured a laboured refrain that proper got my goat… still, it were funny and I did used to so love condensed milk sandwiches myself: colly-olly sarnies as my Mum called them.

Kids, don't try this at home
Jack Hodges – The Raspberry King and a big influence on Spike Milligan (remember the Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town…), was an inventive musical comic who in addition to fruity flavours also mastered the musical saw.

The highlight for me was the Coney Island Six – American jazz musicians who not only could play but dance as well. In Syncopation and Song (1927), they took turns in singing, dancing and swapping instruments whipping up a storm of high-energy trad that almost had us up and dancing in the aisles. And that’s jazz!

Ships That Pass in the Night (1921), Cyrus Gabrysch

“Despite its lack of plot and pessimistic tone… Whatever its value as entertainment, it is undoubtedly an artistic success.” The Bioscope, 29th September 1921

Bit of a tone poem this one and controversially so… the audience split in fierce debate over whether this mountain drama was too mannered, too lacking in event and, indeed, whether it was good at all and, even, better than Black Narcissus!?

Ships don’t just pass in the night and this was an absorbing and unflinching tale about honesty and difficult loyalties. Adapted from Beatrice Harraden’s novel of the same name, published in 1893, the story is a deliberation more than a drama and, set amongst your actual Swiss alps at Davos Platz, is lovely to look at… as amongst all this casual beauty, life slips away.

Francis Roberts plays Robert Allisten a “disagreeable man” who is an architect on the way up, he’s devoted to his work and his mother equally and she (Irene Rooke) to him; clearly the love of her life. Just as his designs for a new city hall are accepted he is delivered a “death sentence” – a diagnosis of TB which, in this pre-antibiotic age, could only be treated by a shift to altitude. So it is that he must tear up his blueprint and abandon his ambition.

Beatrice Harraden
In a Swiss kurhaus he prepares to convalesce in misery barely touched by the lives of those around him and feeling an obligation to keep living if only for his mother’s sake. He encounters his emotional counter in the form of bookseller’s daughter Bernadine Holme (Filippi Dowson) who is a warm a he is cold.

Also, there are the Reffolds, he (Arthur Vezin) dying and she, Einifred (Daisy Markham) still vibrant and looking for life. Contrasts are clear between this relationship and Robert’s with his mother: he is obliging himself into misery whilst Einifred is refusing to end her life just because her love is losing his. Einifred finds an enabling conscience in Bernadine who is happy to spend time with her husband; she also looks straight into the heart of uncomfortably dark truths but sees only light. So, it is that she is amused rather than repelled by the difficult architect and gradually his Vulcan heart begins to melt.

It moves quicker than a glacier and is thoroughly absorbing as it wrong foots all expectations of polite romantic progression as death takes people as casually as breathing. Percy Nash who directed a decent 1920 version of Hobson’s Choice (available on PFI Player) clearly relished the mix of interior and exterior spectacular and fills his deceptive, possibly transgressive teapot with a simmering mix of very British pragmatism.

Random pic of Daisy Markham, this film is digitally-speaking, deep, deep undercover...
Joan Ritz – Nash’s Maggie in Hobson – plays the mother of an alpine family befriended by Robert whose husband dies – literally slipping away – while out on the slopes with the former Architect. The family is distraught, even Robert feels it, but we’re all so fragile. For himself, Robert feels too much obligation for his obsessively devoted mother to move on, only when she dies can he decide for himself whether to commit to more love with Bernadine.

There aren’t many films that address the ties that bind in such a direct way and Percy Nash’s film is quite unlike any other British silent that I’ve seen in this respect. It’s not so much that nothing happens – plenty does – but the drama is all in the emotion and not the action which is underplayed to the extent of sometimes being off-screen.

All of this was duly noted in an accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrisch who relished the emotional pacing and dynamic scenery, filling those spaces with compact lines that weaved around the delicate drama on screen. It must have been interesting to play for such a “narrow band” picture - especially when you haven't seen it beforehand - but Cyrus’ musical statements defused slowly along with the rarefied flavours of the film. 

French Soldiers in Bolibar

The Marquis of Bolibar
[AKA The Betrayal] (1928), Stephen Horne

If Ships was perhaps too real, our final film of the day was magically-real with strange things afoot in the Peninsular War in 1811, with the French lined up against the British and the Spanish, occupied, and stuck in the middle.

Directed with panache by Walter Summers and photographed superbly by Jack Parker, this was a good-looking if patchy film shot partly in Malta - in Ħaż-Żebbuġ and Mdina - featuring thousands of Maltese extras for the battle scenes. Perhaps unsurprisingly given Summers action-film experience – this was the film made directly after The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927) - the story opens in dynamic style as French soldiers move in on a British encampment. Led by Lieutenant Donop (Michael Cogan) they emerge from dark smoky waters like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now (kind of) and sneak up the shore to spy on the enemy.

It’s a set piece that isn’t quite matched through the rest of the film but there are many stylish moments that come close and whilst we were warned that the plot may be a little wayward, it did make sense in an uncanny way, helped in no small measure by the spirited accompaniment from Stephen Horne fresh from recent travels to the Americas and taking this all in his stride.

Elissa Landi
The story revolves around a promise from the titular Marquis (Jerrold Robertshaw) to help the allies re-take his town through three warnings. The first will be a plume of smoke which is their signal to block off the town, destroy all bridges (there are some explosive moments) and prevent any relief from outside. The second will be the church organ playing at which point the people will rise up and civil disruption will distract the French. The final and decisive message will be the delivery of the Marquis’ knife, signalling that the town is ready for storming. The Marquis is confident and predicts that he’ll easily find his way back into Bolibar and be eating off the table at French army HQ. Unfortunately, Lt Donop has heard every word and makes good his escape to report back.

The tone changes – almost alarmingly - after the breathless news is broken and we meet the officers, each of whom has enjoyed a liaison with the Colonel Bellay’s late wife Francoise-Marie (Elissa Landi). There’s young blonde Lt. Gunther (Carl Harbord) whose flashback reverie is rudely interrupted by the boorish Captain Brockendorf (Evelyn Roberts) who, despite the impediments of character and moustache also enjoyed a dalliance as did Dapt. Egolstein (Cecil Barry) and, of course, our brave Donop. As for the Colonel (Hubert Carter) it’s hard to see what the young woman saw in him, but he remains obsessed with this lost love.

Bolibar does indeed smuggle himself into the French officers’ mess but it found out and sentenced to a firing squad. Before he dies though he tries to speak to his friends but then enigmatically tells the men that God will them in what needs to be done.

Before the Lord can start moving in mysterious ways, we learn that the Colonel has discovered a young Spanish woman who looks exactly like Francoise-Marie, La Monita (also played by Elissa Landi – so versatile!). Naturally, the officers also see the similarity and fall for her as much as F-M Mark 1. There follows a courting that is almost all a-forgetting that there’s a bloomin’ war on and, needless to say, the men’s actions start to fulfil the Marquis’ prophecies almost as if there was an invisible guiding hand…

Cast of thousands
It’s hokum but enjoyable and it’s not always about the quality it’s exactly the experience of sharing a film in plush seats with very fine accompaniment. On this point Mr Horne delivered providing musical special effects were sometimes the film lacked them: a duet inside from the Sun.

As we walked outside, blinking in the unseasonal bright, we managed to get all of the way across the road before entering the welcoming shadows of a public house.

Day One done and the next day was to be even hotter…

Take your seats and remove your hats.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

The spy who came on to the cool… The Adjutant of the Czar (1929), with Meg Morley, BFI

Febrile crowd, chants of "Ivan, Ivan!!" echoing across the Thames, tourists looking nervously on as the enhanced police presence struggled to maintain order… it could only mean that Russia’s premier silent actor was playing at the Southbank. Yes indeed, as far as the fan-girls and boys were concerned, there are no faults in this Czar and a packed NFT 2 attested to the actor’s appeal following on from the London Film Festival Screening of Casanova last autumn when a middle-aged male blogger fainted.

Calming down a little, there is no doubt that Ivan Mozzhukhin always delivers and his extraordinary screen presence is not just that of a White Russian Valentino, he’s his own mix of undeniable masculinity and feline expression. Technically he’s more aligned with modern sensibilities than most silent Hollywood males and he’s just fascinating to watch: diffident, remote, sometimes insecure, passionate and valorous… as unpredictable as almost anyone else.

See, feline...
This was also the BFI debut of the Bioscope’s own Meg Morley, who is so stylistically flexible herself being an improvisational jazz player by trade as well as a nuanced film accompanist. There’s so much character in Meg’s playing, I was really interested to hear her Mozzhukhin-Mix and she did not disappoint with improvisations that sounded so context-contemporary, with fulsome phrasing that tracked emotion and narrative with classical lines and evocations of screwball-to-come: Carole Lombard could well have been in the room and she was having a jaunty conversation with Maurice Ravel and Paul Whiteman.*

The Adjutant of the Czar (Der Adjutant des Zaren) was a German production directed by Ivan’s fellow exile Vladimir Strizhevsky. It is, of course, quite different from the films of their former countrymen, although we did have some quick-fire montage towards the end.

Carmen Boni and Ivan Mozzhukhin
Bryony Dixon introduced and explained that this was one of Ivan’s rarer films, the only copy being in Denmark where the DFI had produced this restoration. Like all of Ivan’s pictures it is worth watching and whilst it’s no classic it is none-the-less the kind of good quality watch that, if anything, gives modern watchers more of the flavour of late period silent than the truly great moments from say, Dreyer, Pabst and Vidor.

The programme notes included a “review” from British trade mag, The Bioscope, which made the extraordinary claim that our hero was “wooden” and showed “little emotional power”. Yeah, right. Ivan Mozzhukhin is a talent of World-historic cultural importance whilst The Bioscope is no longer published.

Full English?
The story begins with Strangers on a Train and ends a bit like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (only not quite as cold…). Ivan plays Prince Boris Kurbski who is the titular Adjutant and is returning by train to St Petersburg on the back of a cancelled engagement. In the dining car, he encounters a young Italian woman Helena di Armore (Carmen Boni) who is struggling to communicate her order, he translates for her and is quickly demonstrating just why his fiancée felt he wasn’t a keeper, with appreciative glances and an agenda...

At the border Helena’s papers are stolen by a shift-looking bloke in a scruffy beard and trench coat (Alexander Granach), passport-less there’s no way she can press on to her important engagement in St Petersburg but Boris hatches a plan: he can pass her off as his wife and smuggle her through.

Carmen Boni
The plan succeeds and there’s a Hitchcockian tension in their compartment as she gets changed and he watches her shadow and stares at her sleeping (honestly, if it was anyone else, I’d be worried). Back home, Boris’ friends and colleagues are delighted with his new wife and there’s no easy way out of close proximity for attractive man and attractive woman… One thing leads to a dozen others and before you know it they’re getting wed for real with two more – huge - twists to come.

Boris returns to duty but is instructed to return home and look after his bride only to find her off out… he follows her to the darker end of town and is astonished to overhear the real reason for her mission to Russia, their meeting and subsequent marriage.

There’s superb cinematography from Nikolai Toporkoff at this moment as a close up on Boris’ anguished face is followed by a zoom through wooden door to a room with dozens of conspiratorial faces half lit as they peer over our old friend the scruffy-bearded bag-snatcher. he is busy de-briefing Helena – who is a spy, sent to get close to the Russian court and off-load an explosive device at the first target-rich social event.

But she is begging her comrades to be relieved of duty as she has, genuinely, fallen for the man she was meant to entrap and wants no more of their plot. But, no one gets to walk away from the, whatever-group-they’re-supposed-to-be, and Helena is trapped. There’s worse to come though as now Boris knows and whilst he’s also in love with his wife, this is a tough one…

On the run
This all works so well as Strizhevsky takes the time to really establish his characters, from the two leads who are both superb to warm supporting types such as the Prince's manservant (Daniel Dolski) and his Generals Koloboff (George Seroff) and Trunoff (Fritz Alberti). Even the authority figure of Baron Korff (Eugen Burg) who begins to suspect Boris and Helena’s relationship is shown to be decently professional as well as slightly scary.

The chemistry between Mozzhukhin and Carmen Boni is terrific and you really believe in their situation just as you root for their eventual happiness. It’s light, romantic and with enough genuine jeopardy to keep you anxious.

And Meg was with them all the way, on the train, through slapstick and sedition to a thrilling chase involving horse-drawn carriages. A thoroughly entertaining debut and top quality support for arguably the greatest silent smoulderer. #MegAndMozz

* Ravel was fascinated with jazz and met Gershin, Paul Whiteman and Bix Beiderbecke on a trip to New York in 1928. Find out more here...

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Shacked up... The Canadian (1926), Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

Mona Palma and Thomas Meighan
One of the real treats of attending the Kennington Bioscope is not only watching films from Kevin Brownlow’s collection but also hearing his introductions. As the noughties game used to have it, we’re all six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon but in Kennington we’re just three degrees through Kevin Brownlow to so many silent film stars, cast and crew.

Kevin not only met William Beaudine, The Canadian’s director, he also helped put on a screening of the film so that, having been too busy in the first instance, it’s director could finally see it 44 years after its run. Ill health almost prevented Beaudine attending and he wouldn’t give an introduction until the audience and he had a chance to see it the film was actually any good… after applause during and after the film, he got up on stage and announced his surprise that he wasn’t that bad director, in patches at least.

The Canadian is indeed a decent movie and has many similarities to Victor Sjöström’s later film The Wind (1928) a film found in very good quality in the UK prompting one US archivist to tell Kevin that they only had “the poor man’s Wind”… Whilst The Canadian is not as good as that nor City Girl (1928), another later film featuring a sea of wheat, it is a very good movie and accompanied by Lillian Henley’s perfectly-paced piano – lots of lovely, patient lines, so sure of tone - had more than one of this battle-hardened silent audience to wipe salty fluid from their eye: we’ve coped with Chaplin, Stella Dallas, Joan of Arc… but then this!?

Beaudine had been primarily a comedy director and, seeing out his contract to MGM as a lucrative loanee with Paramount, he took a chance and took the all expenses trip up to Canada to make a drama based on a 1913 play, The Land of Promise, by W. Somerset Maugham of all people. He was accompanied by cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff who ended up being assisted by a curious electrician, Stanley Cortez, who stayed up all night studying the cameras hoping to find a more better role. He ended up as Orson Wells cinematographer on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

See, from Kevin Brownlow to Orson Wells in three moves!

Nora Marsh (Mona Palma, who bears a passing resemblance to City Girl’s Mary Duncan…) has had to leave the “culture and poverty” of Britain (and this in 1926!!) following the death of her aunt. She travels way out west to stay with her brother Ed (Wyndham Standing) and his wife Gertie (Dale Fuller, who has a face you never forget and was so good in von Stroheim’s Greed).

Nora’s no explorer and quickly finds both the locale and the locals distasteful. She’s full of airs and graces and appalled by the rough and ready approach to dining; eating with a fork and no napkins. Chief amongst the louts is Frank Taylor (mighty Thomas Meighan) who is as incredulous as she at each other’s startling incompatibility.

But it’s not Frank Nora needs to worry about, at least not yet, Gertie’s a reasonable girl but when she finds her sister in law not only knows literally nothing about housework but continues to lord it over her and the men, she cracks and picks a fight Nora can only loose.

Thus it is, slightly improbably, that after being forced into the most humiliating of apologies, Nora offers her desperate hands in marriage to Frank who had previously said that he only wanted a woman to cook and clean. The two are wed in cold contractual misery and then face life together in a cold, tiny wooden shack that makes Lars Hanson’s gaff in The Wind look positively palatial.

There a thousand tiny terrors start to unfold including the issue of marital intimacy… like a gent Frank sleeps in the main room leaving Mona the bedroom. But, the pressure builds, and things are about to get a lot more intense.

The Canadian deserves its own reputation and both leads excel. I knew what to expect from Mr Thomas Meighan, but Mona Palma was also very good – pride just about trumping fear until she learns to adapt.

There’s also a nice turn from Charles Winninger as Pop Tyson who dances a mean jig!

Up first was an eclectic and satisfying mix of shorts the best of which was It’s A Gift (1923) which featured Snub Pollard in a small metal car propelled by his use of a giant magnet to follow other vehicles; it’s an iconic image and now I know which film it was from! Snub plays a scientist who has an automated breakfast and wake up routine similar to Wallace in The Wrong Trousers: we’d all like to pull a few strings to get our breakfast made and trousers hitched.

The gifted Mr Pollard
There was also an oddity called Life’s Staircase (1915) featuring a couple reading and ripping up old love letters, she ranged left and he, right, as the circumstances of each letter and token place alongside, double-exposed. It’s about marriage and the prototype relationships we leave behind, and it reminded me of Scott Pilgrim vs The World in which our hero must battle all his girl’s previous partners. In this film he’d only have to get married and they’d all fade away.

First film was a dreamy confection from Louis Feuillade all about Spring (1909) which featured lots of women dancing in flowing white dresses. It was impressive, but I was concerned about the safety of the numerous doves held aloft during the calisthenics.

My garden, today
If you like ladies in swimming costumes, an episode of the long running women’s cinemagazine, Eve’s Film Review, was about to explore how “Eve’s” swimming costume has shrunk since the 1880’s. There was definitely a trend on the evidence presented and cause for concern for some but boy, were they in for a shock twenty year’s later.

Felix the Cat started life in Eve’s Film Review and he popped up trying to win a battle with a clown for the hand of a doll in Toy Land. Itchy won (or was it Scratchy?) and the romance between paper cat and human doll went to plan but oh, Mr Hays were you not watching?!

Meg Morley matched these broad themes with an assured eclecticism of her own: if you can accompany cartoon cats, Doves in danger, Snubb’s auto race and swimming-costumed women washing elephants in Manchester zoo, then you can probably cope with anything.

Another superb evening at the one and only Kennington Bioscope c/o The Cinema Museum! Thanks to Lillian and Meg for playing, Michelle Facey (the shorts: meticulous research as usual!) and Kevin Brownlow (his film!) for introducing, Dave Locke for projecting and to everyone who keeps this special place going.

PS For Ladies Only? Eve's Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33 by Jenny Hammerton looks fascinating and is available on Amazon!

Sunday, 8 April 2018

The gypsies and the tramp… The Adventurer (1917), ZRI, Kings Place

ZRI describe themselves as a Viennese tavern band and when I first saw them they were producing an exhilarating take on Brahms and the gypsy music from which he took so much inspiration. He was a regular drinker and listener at a Viennese tavern called The Red Hedgehog (Zum Roten Igel…) where he immersed himself in the music of tavern bands, inspired to compose his Hungarian Dances and much more.

These ‘Gypsy’ bands were diverse included Jews, Greeks and Russians as well as Hungarian Roma, they might even have included the odd tramp or two. Which may or may not have any bearing on the latest step in their evolution, they may well have rushed off to play an evening of Schubert in Stoke Newington but this afternoon they were attempting something completely new: accompanying a silent without a safety net for the first time.

These are all superlative musicians, classically-trained and disciplined, yet also capable of extemporisation and improvisation the two do not always go hand in hand. Matching wits against Charlie Chaplin at his most mercurial in The Adventurer, is probably not the safest place to start but it’s what Brahms (probably) would have wanted had he (somehow) been given the choice.

Henry Bergman, Marta Golden, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell and Charlie Chaplin
ZRI seem to feed off each other as much as their notation and adding a sixth member to the dynamic allowed them to add an extra dimension and, not only were the group watching the film as they played they were also laughing – especially Iris Pissaride who soldiered on with the santouri through every smile. As accordionist Jon Banks said afterwards, even though you know what’s coming it’s still funny and the band are more than tight enough to roll with every unexpected plop of ice cream, kick and pratfall.

The score was a mix of Charlie-contemporary flavours from Limehouse Blues, Brother Can You Spare a Dime (sung so expressively by cellist and multi-tasker extraordinaire Matthew Sharp) to a final acapella version of Chaplin’s Smile which moistened many a watching eye. There were also more “classical” pieces with rip-roaring escalations of Ben Harlan’s clarinet and Max Baillie’s violin which are trademark ZRI, bringing “the gypsy” out from the more ordered settings of Brahms and others.

They split the film into four parts, freezing the action and playing “interludes” which may be sacrilege for some, but it worked as the tone was maintained and quite clearly the players were enjoying themselves.

Edna Purviance, Marta Golden and Charlie Chaplin
The Adventurer was Chaplin’s last film for Mutual and shows the maturation of his style as he began to reach for longer form comedy. Even though he had settled his tramp persona this film features a more malicious Charlie than some might expect. For a start he is an escaped convict, there’s no back story on his innocence or otherwise, and then there’s his fondness for alcohol and life’s baser pleasures. He nobly dives in to save a drowning woman at a seaside resort but quickly switches target when he sees her daughter (the divine Edna Purviance). He also saves the girl’s would-be suitor, big and beardy Eric Campbell, only to drop him back in the water again.

Charlie’s battle with Eric intensifies as he gains acceptance in polite society and with the girl’s parents, even her father, played by Henry Bergman, who is a judge who vaguely recognises him… Eric also spies mischief when Charlie’s mugshot is shown in the newspaper and the police return only to provide our (anti?) hero with more opportunities to humiliate them through swiftness and comic invention few could match. Forget “sentimental” Chaplin, this is Charlie the Punk and he wears it well.

ZRI: Max Baillie, Jon Banks, Matthew Sharp, Ben Harlan and Iris Pissaride
So punk and classical do mix and this was a thoroughly enjoyable – sold out – adventure for band and audience from which only a live Charlie was missing. As ever the live setting brought out the best in both sight and sound; it’s almost as if Charlie knows we’re laughing (long before 1917 he was *sure*.)

I hope ZRI carry on this adventure as they are made for jazz-age capering. Chaplin was a world-wide success by 1917 and you can imagine The Adventurer being screened not just in Vienna and Hungary but in New York with jazz, klezmer, classical and all manner of folk music similarly deployed as accompaniment.

Both music and silent cinema were expressions of migrated creativity and ZRI’s music shares its roots with the same sources, the melting pot of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which itself fed out West as the Twentieth Century began to take its toll.

More details of ZRI are available on their website - I urge you to seek them out! 

“Smile though your heart is breaking, smile… ”

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Sea song… The Call of the Sea (1927) with Taz Modi Ensemble, Barbican, 16th Kinoteka

This was another impressive restoration at the close of this year’s Kinoteka Film Festival a digital restoration combining two incomplete copies that has produced a complex two-hour film that was probably even longer. Given that only some 5% of Polish silent films survive, we should be grateful.

Call of the Sea (Zew Morza) was presented in partnership with the Polish Cultural Institute in London to a packed house in the Barbican’s cinema. Directed by Henryk Szaro based on a novel by Stefan Kiedrzyński which occasionally threatens to bog down a mostly sprightly narrative. Szaro is a skilled silent director and is inventive in joining the dots of the source material, a toy family from the orient is used to show how both one of the character’s is spoilt but also that she misses a mother whilst the same character has a pet parrot that only tells the truth and, strange as it may seem in a silent film, the audience knows it just as much as the inadequate man who strives to be its owner’s suitor…

Szaro also show us some stunning location shoots of old Gdansk and Gdynia medieval relics still on show before the destruction began a decade later. Excitingly he also shows us a car chase, warships and a combined aerial and naval sea hunt. Officers of the Polish Navy and Maritime Squadron took part in the filming in Puck using two torpedo boats ORP Kujawiak and ORP General Sosnkowski as well as a seaplane LeO H-13 from the Maritime Squadron in Puck. Stanisław Hryniewiecki, for example, was actually the torpedo captain of ORP Kujawiak and here he plays himself.

Now we're in the air!
It makes for a great advert for the armed forces as well as a thrilling final race to save lives and vital secrets: a real crowd pleaser; a Polish blockbuster!

Szaro also develops his characters well despite a populous cast with a lot of sub-plot. Then as now the key was to cast actors of character and this works very well with the remarkably modern Nora Ney who plays the exotic Jola, daughter of a shipping magnet and owner of the above-mentioned articulate avian who is a wild child with great fashion sense and a decent heart. Less successful perhaps is the casting of the gurning Mariusz Maszyński as Lord Karol Skarski, a kind of Boris Johnson figure, who is desperate to marry the hero’s love with only a vast fortune and a face that could sink a thousand ships to offer.

Nora being exotic... those three toy figures will also feature as a motif.
That hero is Stach who we see initially as a seven-year old boy (played by Tadeusz Fijewski who went on to become a huge star in Poland after the war) who is obsessed with stories from the sea as well as the daughter of the local landowner, Hanka (Krysia Długołęcka). He reads heroic stories of seafaring heroism and the actors who are to play the grown-up versions of Stach and Hanka, Jerzy Marr and Maria Malicka, first make their appearance as a prince and queen in one of these stories – pretty smart eh?

Stach’s dreaming ways displease Hanka’s English governess Miss Phlipps (Izabella Kalitowicz) and there’s a great standoff as she towers over him and he is viewed through the space formed by her angry folded elbow. The boy copies her body language and she ends up breaking his toy boat, her only response to his defiance.

Lord Ha-Ha (not Boris)
Eventually it’s too much and Stach leaves for a life on the ocean wave. Working his way up from cabin boy to midshipman and beyond, Stach earns his keep on the merchant vessels of Van Loos (Antoni Bednarczyk) and is well liked by the crew with the single exception of the boatswain Rudolf Minke (Stefan Szwarc) a “bosch” who also has a fancy for jazzy Jola. Van Loos offers Stach a partnership and his daughter’s hand in marriage then Minke turns up with more than the hand in mind… Dismissed after attempting to assault Jola the boat-swine swears revenge on Stach and you know there’ll be trouble.

Stach returns home to announce his success after so many years away. He finds his parents in their bucolic water mill, father (Antoni Różański) and mother (Józef Modzelewska) but old love is re-awakened when he is visited by Hanka… even though he has Jola and Hanka is being pursued by silly Lord Skarski (whose wealth will solve he father’s cash-flow issues), this thing is bigger than commerce.

Queen Maria and Prince Jerzy
Stach doesn’t even need Van Loos’ company as he has a true heart and plans that will revolutionise seafaring! He just needs to take good c are of those plans for German smugglers are on the look out and, remember the boat-swine?

There’s a tremendously kinetic finale and the film is satisfyingly dramatic and stylish another example of the strength of Polish silent cinema!

Pianist and composer Taz Modi (Submotion Orchestra, Matthew Halsall) lead an ensemble playing his part-improvised score including the lauded Matthew Bourne on piano, synthesizers and cushions, Duncan Bellamy (Portico Quartet – is it really ten years on from their splendid Knee-Deep in the North Sea?!) on drums and live sampling, Chris Hargreaves on sinuous bass and Simon Beddoe on brass; if music speaks a thousand words his lonesome trumpet picked out some of the most poignant.

Jerzy Marr and Maria Malicka
These players have serious chops and the music was a very modern mix of post-acid jazz eclectic that fans of the above bands, the Cinematic Orchestra, Nils Frahm and even Max Richter would appreciate. It didn’t entirely work seamlessly with the narrative though and sometimes it was headed off on a trajectory which, whilst it would eventually meet the story, distracted from the film’s own build-up. A little like the race between a car and a steam train that silent film watchers will be familiar with: the story follows a winding path, the train on straight lines. There were some lovely moments and lots of impressive playing but this was a good gig alongside a good film.

That said, I would pay to see both!

All in all though a splendid evening yet again thanks for playing, screening and programming!

Dziękuję Kinoteka!!

PS In addition to the Portico Quartet, I would also urge you to check out the Submotion Orchestra and Mr Bourne’s Kraftwerk re-werk Radioland: Radio-Activity Revisited.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

A hero for our times… Nelson (1918), BFI Player

My first thought in watching Maurice Elvey’s celebratory life story of Admiral Lord Nelson was that there was surely hardly anyone producing films of such length and scope in Britain at this time: a two-hour epic covering many years and battles across oceans... something that matched the ambition of American or European features. The film is not as good as the director’s next, The Life Story of David Lloyd George but that was backed more heavily before being pulled for many and complex reasons (c.f. Dutton, L).

Nelson - or Nelson; The Story of England's Immortal Naval Hero - is certainly propaganda, but it takes its facts and its audience very seriously. Nelson’s biography plays out with a minimum of gilded lilies and Elvey shows us major sea battles as forensically as possible with the aid of models, a chalk board and stop-motion ships. In its own way it reminds me of Monsieur Gance and his treatment of Napoleon (who, naturally, also makes his appearance here as less of a poet warrior than an implacable foe… France being our ally at the time of filming).  The style and technique of these films are worlds away, but both directors clearly saw their leads as key to their countries’ ideals of heroism and success.

Napoleon and Nelson both made their way against the odds – and established orders - on the basis of tremendous intelligence and daring. They were glory hunters and self-promoters but maybe that’s the price you pay for your heroes?  I’m sure Horatio would have approved of this film although maybe he’d have liked the crowds bigger at Portsmouth… just as Napoleon might have wanted a fourth screen added to the tryptic at the end of Gance’s film.

Napoléon Bonaparte
Elvey is here to salute the positives and is relatively subtle in this work. As Powell and Pressburger were later to show, to make good propaganda, you have to be fair to the opposition: hate isn’t enough especially when compared with inspiration and the need to do your duty. Here as in actuality, Nelson’s last words were “thank God I did my duty” and there were more than enough reliable witnesses to his last hours as confirmed by Andrew Lambert in his excellent biography (as recommended by Elvey-expert Lucie Dutton).

In the last section Nelson is in bucolic retirement in the beautiful gardens of his house in Merton, along with Emma Hamilton, his intellectual equal and the life of his love, only to be called away when Bonaparte looks to be making a pre-emptive move on the British fleet. In this time of great uncertainty, Pitt, his government and the admirals, turned to their unfailing naval leader, the man whose intelligence and intuitive genius had helped win battles across Europe and down to the Nile.

It was a battle too far, but Nelson won, and the course of history was changed.

When this film was commissioned, there was still no certainty in the result of the Great War and, Nelson’s leadership, luck and determination was still the inspiration required on land and sea. The film starts in the now with the grandfatherly Admiral Fremantle persuading a young lad that there’ s a future in the navy and how the service has been funded by Kings and the Commonwealth as gifts to the people. An impressive shot of HMAS Australia and HMS New Zealand (part of the Royal Navy but funded by New Zealand) forging through rough seas with magnificent intent.

He tells the boy to study the life of Nelson and leaves him a copy of Southey’s Life of Nelson. Then we start the story of Nelson, someone who always had to fight against natural disadvantages but who never backed away from a thing that looked worth doing!  Whether it was falling from trees climbed far too high or fighting with the boys far too big, young Nelson was a boy of courage and endeavour.

He enlists in the navy at just 14 even though he is not considered the finest specimen and he even gets invalided out at one point, but nothing can stop his eventual re-appointment. In all of this he is encouraged by his uncle, Captain Suckling, although not to the extent of favours: the navy is an opportunity for any man made of the right stuff and as Lambert and other commentators support, it was possible to advance based on ability. This is fascinating in of itself and our hero does indeed have extraordinary resources.

This is quickly proved in artic waters when the young officer defends his men from a rampaging polar bear, an event which is portrayed in graphic details that are simply impossible to relay… safe to say the bear comes off second best and Nelson’s momentum to success builds.

Battle of St Vincent - Nelson boarding the San Nicholas...  "surrender and be damned!"
Elevy is meticulous in his detail and replicates the major victories in Nelson’s rise faithfully starting with the incredibly bold attack on the Spanish fleet at the Battle of St Vincent in which he attacked their flagship, the San Nicolas, after leading his men through an adjacent vessel. The director details the ship movements in these battles and we see clearly how Nelson’s instincts led to counter-intuitive surprises for the opposition.

One man could indeed make a difference!

What a message for 1918 and indeed for 2018… perseverance leads to Victory (of course) and of course, Elevy uses the actual HMS Victory when the time comes with some gorgeous shots looking down on Nelson as he boards the vessel as if stepping up to a higher level.

Bothered by Britannia in delerium dream
There is impressive use of visual metaphor throughout the film; Horatio clutching his locket of Emma when thinking of his love or Nelson viewed within the Union Jack and as literally the heart of nationhood. The young Nelson is visited by Britannia and great admirals past as in delirium he dreams of his future greatness in much the same way Gance’s man saw the ghosts of Danton and the fathers of the revolution. These men are so great they must surely have been divinely aware of their fate… inspiration teasing a forgone cinematic conclusion.

Given his budget, Elvey also injects as much actual awe as he can muster with impressive shots of battleships out at sea and numerous location shots even though the Defence of Calvi (1794) looks like it’s taking place in Kent, we still get a feel for the action.

Out of the shadows
I like the use of shade in creating dramatic intimacy, with shots out of the dark of Nelson leaving for battle or in the thoughts of his family as he is away from home. For a while this was a family formed by his marriage to Mrs Nesbit the widow – played by the excellent Ivy Close (another link with Gance as she later played in La Roue, his epic of transgressive love off the rails…) but, in a shockingly frank title card she is dismissed; Nelson craving action and warm-hearted appreciation which his wife lacked the power to supply…

Sorry Ivy, it’s not you it’s him.

Donald Calthrop and Ivy Close
The film stops off in Naples which seems a world away from the wars with its flimsy regent (Edward O'Neill) less interested in his elegant and intelligent Queen than Mrs Emma Hamilton (the suitably eye-catching American actress Malvina Longfellow) the wife of the British envoy to this small Mediterranean ally. Sir William Hamilton (Allan Jeayes) scarcely notices Nelson’s instant fascination with his wife whilst the pair are happy to use her to encourage the King to resist Napoleon’s advances. Much adventure ensues as the Neopolitans revolt (and having been there I can understand why, a tough city not given to powder-puff princes…) and Nelson leads the escape following a nail-biting siege.

Malvina Longfellow,
Back in Britain, after all of these successes – Nelson settles down eventually with Emma after his dear friend Hamilton passes away. They live in the rural bliss of Merton, probably not that far from Wimbledon Dog Track as it used to be and the bog Sainsbury at Abbey Mills, and there are superb sequences of them in lush English gardens. Emma gifts Horatio (formerly Herbert actually) a baby and all is bliss. That is, until Bonapart escapes and the fight for Europe reaches the make or break Battle of Trafalgar.

Nelson seems happy to settle but he knows there is no other option but to do his duty and, possibly, he is the only man who can do what is required.

Nelson and Emma in the garden of Merton
Even if this were not true, it’s what those watching in 1918 wanted to see and Elvey, who had based the script on the aforementioned Robert Southey’s biography of Admiral Horatio Nelson, made sure this was what they got. More reading is required to find out exactly how much Nelson is myth but in 1918 this was as much as needed to be. England expected as every man was doing his duty.

You can view Nelson on the BFI Player in very decent quality. There’s no score and I trust that one day soon, it will be screened. After all, how many British feature films get shown from 1918 let alone films of this ambition and importance? Given the specific circumstances of the War, I wonder how the film came to be and how it was received? I’m sure we’ll get the answers soon…

Let's make this quite clear!
Produced under the sole direction of Maurice Elvey