Friday, 9 February 2018

A river runs through it… The Bride of Glomdal (1926), John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

For a good portion of this film the narrative ebbs and flows in pleasing ways without really hitting you hard. The scenery is, of course, stunning as photographed by Einar Olsen and the cast, especially willowy, steel-blue-eyed Tove Tellback, are superb making a believably real rustic romance with stubbornness, jealousy, a fight and an injury… but suddenly, just when you think the narrative is ready to wind down, events take a dangerous turn and in a closing sequence of jeopardy, thrilling stunt work and fast-paced, anxious direction you find yourself thinking once again that no one can quite “play” fast moving water like John Sweeney!

Mr Sweeney was on excellent form throughout, pastoral accompaniment holding the story easily within his hands and a pitch-perfect flavouring for the romance and the resentment on route to the rapids that engulf the finale. These are moments to cherish when player and projection are completely in sync each adding to the other’s efforts and taking away nothing at all.

Harald Stormoen and Alfhild Stormoen look on...
Lillian Henley was in similar flow at the start of the evening as she accompanied newsreel of actual Pankhursts in startlingly clear action from 1913 and earlier as a Bioscope tribute to a century of suffrage (at least for those women of standing who got the vote in 1918). Lillian has form her of course having scored the BFI’s excellent Make More Noise compilation and her sympathy for the period and the cause was in evidence again as we saw the, so called, Trafalgar Square “riot” and 66,000 marching through London in a suffragette “pageant”. There were banners celebrating Sylvia and declaring that Fortune Favours the Brave. Odd that, in 2018 you could almost be certain that it’s favouring the deceitful and the salesman…

In 1913 people believed in democracy and, of course died for it. Two films showing the 1913 Derby were screened and there was a collective gasp when Emily Davison collides with the King’s horse – whatever her motivations, her death still carries meaning. There was footage of her funeral and a poignant sight it was too; we can each take our own meaning, but this isn’t just history but an ongoing process, just like Ireland, the Union and Parliamentary democracy itself.

Good on you Widnes!! My Granddad Bill no doubt was one of them.
A little light relief followed in which a confused fellow becomes A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1911) after schoolboys tack a “votes for women” sign on his back. He gets into a fight with some chaps at an anti-suffrage meeting and is saved by the suffragettes before being enlisted to walk, shoulder to shoulder. There are some wonderful backdrops of Trafalgar Square and Bloomsbury and the gent is played by Marc McDermott who went on to feature in Hollywood, in Laugh, Clown, Laugh, Blind Wives, Flesh and the Devil and many more.

We even had time for Charley Smiler Takes Up Ju-Jitsu (1911) and early and very brief comedy from Fred “Pimple” Evans which featured some sisterly slams from a suffragette trained in the martial art in question.

George Lewis faces off against Rex Lease both in the race and for Mildred Harris...
Finally, we saw one of the US Collegians series, this one a racing tale called The Last Lap (1928) in which our hero Benson (George Lewis) must overcome the college bully to win the freshers vs sophomores cross-country race and the heart of Mildred Harris. It’s predictable and slightly infuriating but has its moments… maybe if we saw more of the series? This was episode 37!

It wasn’t in the same league as the main feature but then Dreyer is one of the most accomplished film makers of the era, and well beyond. Whilst I’ve seen some of his early films, The President, Leaves from Satan's Book, Michael as well as Joan and Vampyr, he was so productive between the first of those films and the last producing about one feature a year. This film came after Master of the House and before Joan and stylistically it’s quite different.

As John Sweeney said in his introduction though, it is interesting to see yet another strong female lead, in this case, Berit Glomgaarden (Tove Tellback) whose insistence on making her own choices drives the story.

Berit chooses her man
Based on the novel by Jacob Breda Bull, John said that the photo play was partly improvised – led by Dreyer - which might explain part of the differences from the film around it. Filmed in the Norwegian countryside, this is also a canvas wide enough to make the dedicated fan of Joan’s compact, claustrophobia, more than usually agoraphobic. It almost feels like a Victor Sjöström film so glorious is the backdrop. Also, what we now see is some 75 minutes long and just over half the original length although this doesn’t impact the story too much apart from rendering the jealous lover/would be murderer, Gjermund Haugsett (Einar Tveito) a little under-developed.

Gjermund’s father, Berger Haugsett (Oscar Larsen) agrees with Berit’s father, Ola (a moody Stub Wiberg) that she should marry his boy but, rather crucially, the bride-to-be has not signed off on the deal. Indeed, Berit has a different romantic course in mind, she is in love with Tore Braaten (Einar Sissener) the son of a small farm holder, Jakob (Harald Stormoen), who has big plans to expand operations and works feverously laying out new fields.

Einar Tveito
Once this preference is known tension bubbles across the village… Gjermund fights with Tore and the two have to be pulled apart. But Haugsett has made his choice and refuses to budge. Berit runs away as her father takes around wedding invitations and falling off her horse is rescued by Tore who takes her home for recuperation. Time for a reconciliation you’d think but there’s no chance as Haugsett hardens his heart, confounding expectations of a simple resolution – these farmers are so stubborn!

But there’s more to come as we head for the final nerve shredding conclusion!

Well played Bioscope, Mr Sweeney and Ms Henley, another memorable night at the Cinema Museum and this time I was early enough to grab a slice of the KB’s excellent home-made quiche!

Everywhere you look in Kennington, there are treasures

Monday, 5 February 2018

Kickstarted… The Pride of Palomar (1922)

Crowdfunding has played an increasing role in securing the future and wider-distribution of silent films. It is indeed the internet done properly with like-minded people connected to projects that match with their specific interests just so long as the target group is big enough and the rights holders are pre-disposed.

This project, the clean up and release an early Frank Borzage film, The Pride of Palomar, was eventually able to also “rescue” a second film, Back Pay (1922) and to support an excellent pdf document on the director, Frank Borzage - A Dossier as well as a smaller document featuring contemporary details and much else on the main film.

I am very glad that I supported True Film’s project and impressed with how Patrick McInerney, John Heath and Patrick Ford Bowerin realised their objectives and then some more. Gentlemen, well done!

These works may not feature the Frank Borzage who directed some glorious late period silents but they still show an interesting film-maker honing the vision and subtle emotional flavours he would display in Lazybones, The River and Seventh Heaven. Back in 2006 Slant magazine ran a career appraisal which mentioned “…embarrassments” in Borzage's career giving specific mention to “…a shameful anti-Japanese drama for William Randolph Hearst (The Pride of Palomar) …” but, whilst the racism is not comfortable (lazy Mexicans, scheming Japanese…) it’s not enough to damn the entire work 90 years on and Palomar is a fun film to watch with some lovely emotional peaks and enough narrative edge to leave you aching for the final resolution.

As Molly Haskell notes in her dossier essay, Borzage Soulmates, the director often features “…lovers who cannot be separated by distance or time…” and, whilst this is true of our two leading characters Don Mike Farrell (Forrest Stanley) and Kay Parker (see-saw, Marjorie Daw) – who are mostly blocked by family interests and the various arts of The Deal – it’s also the case with Don Mike and his father, Don Miguel (Joseph J. Dowling) who dies in mourning after hearing that his heroic son has been killed in the Great War.

There’s a terrific sequence when Don Miguel goes into the old mission at San Luis Rey to pray for his loss, he is connected to his son through his faith just as much as his housekeeper who believes that the still flaming lamp in his room, lit by his mother, shows he still lives.

Don Miguel in mourning
Indeed, young Mike is very much alive, a tragedy for father and son, and the film is as much about his saving the family honour as finding the love of his life… rights must be wronged and the Spanish-Irish Farrells must recover their ground to overcome both Yankee corporate manoeuvres and opportunist land-gabbing from Japanese property investors… specifically, and this is the difficult bit, Warner Oland in heavy make-up as Fuji Okada: a clumsy stereotype of the yellow peril.

“Land deals with Japs are not very popular in California…”

Okada’s business is buying up Californian land for “Japanese colonization” and he relies on the “shiftlessness” and “short sightedness” of the fun-loving but commercially incompetent Latinos… living la vida loca without managing cash-flow or sustainable business strategies. It is a bit rich but at least we have a baddie and injustice to be prevented.

Okada is travelling by train along with Kay Parker and her father John (Alfred Allen) who is going to foreclose on the mortgage on the Farrell’s El Palomar ranch, which the family has seemingly failed to manage. A young army officer joins them, instantly charming young Kay with his impressive character and firm jaw… he is, of course, Don Miguel “Mike” Farrell.

Travelling in style... Forrest Stanley, Alfred Allen, Warner Oland and Marjorie Daw
The two talk on the train and it’s only when he departs that she realises who he is and how he will be affected by her father’s business aims. A war moratorium means that Mike will now have twelve months to raise the $300,000 needed to settle the mortgage his father was forced to take. It’s a tough task but he soon finds that Loustalot, an ill-shaved local rancher (bad moustache) not only owed his dad over $100,000 but continues to graze his cattle on Farrell land. He’s a tricky customer backed by Parker and even more so by – boo! – Okada.

There’s also an irrigation project under construction which would, interestingly, turn the land into a bit of a goldmine  (worth $5 million!) if only Farrell could afford to keep it… so close yet so far from redemption. There’s also a rather splendid racehorse called Panchito that might, if I were you, be worth a few bob in the Kentucky Derby…

Now, I think you’ll be in little doubt how all of this will develop but its skilfully wrought by director, cast and crew. As Patrick Ford Bowering says in his essay The Path to the Summit, Palomar “demands to be seen” serving as “an important stylistic link for Borzage, with hints and treats not seen in Borzage’s prior feature films, but would appear again in his later work.” with the director’s “romanticized and gorgeous approach” in evidence, even amidst the stranger moments of the film. Back to those stunning visual set-pieces and an almost magical realist approach… life, death, balancing of the books, love and honour.

An almost mystical return...
I especially liked the repeated shots of the line of trees near the opening to the ranch; characters come and go through this tunnel as though to another world. When Mike walks back home for the first time, Kay waits for him behind a tree and as his faithful pet dog runs to greet him, the light is lovely and love is, indeed, in the air. Borzage stages some great set-piece action scenes, the pursuit of Loustalot is across stunning valley views and the horse racing scenes are genuinely exciting. It is a satisfying and well-made film.

Yes Don dresses up in disguise as a Mexican slobby gambler and he is wounded by a Chinese man with a grudge (they’re all in together these "orientals"…) and his house servant Pablo (Tote Du Crow) gets caught dozing a few times, but there are far more loyal and decent people all round than baddies. Mike even has a childhood sweetheart Anita Supvelda (Carmen Arselle) who Kay thinks will be his wife… Most importantly, the "Mexicans" win and the Gringo’s have to respect them.

I hope there are plans for The Pride of Palomar's wider release - I will try find out! I look forward to more such projects, would it be too much to ask if the Norma Talmadge/Borzage collaborations could be next? Maybe it’s time to get more involved - we're ready to help in any way we can silent compadres.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Anoushka Shankar interviewed for Shiraz (1928), in cinemas from 2nd February.

For her first film score, Anoushka Shankar not only succeeded she excelled. Given that this was a silent film and a long one, and that her work was to be unveiled live – without a safety net - the rapturous reception it received at last year’s London Film Festival Restoration Gala is even more remarkable, yet from the very start of our discussion I began to understand the reasons why.

I met Anoushka in her London studio and was very kindly offered tea in a mug on which the following question was written: What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail? I put this to Anoushka as my first question, hoping that other mugs would soon arrive with further questions… and it evinced the first burst of laughter from a woman who is as gracious as she is talented; she laughs like a lark but is very focused even in the face of my random question.

“To fly! I always had flying dreams as a kid, it was my big obsession…” but as soon as she thinks of applying this to the real world, she says “I almost wonder if that takes away the fun of trying to be honest… there’s a tension in trying something new and unknown, …from not knowing if it’s going to work or not, so it would almost take the interest away.”

Luckily this ties right into the question of why you would tackle a project like Shiraz, not just a huge exercise in scoring but also one that would be given a live premier in front of thousands. But clearly, it’s a question of “what would you do if you knew you could fail”?

AS I like to challenge myself and this was two-fold; there was the act of writing my first film score and having that be augmented by writing for a silent film and how much more was required for that…Then there was the fact that right from the beginning it was booked to be a live premier and that really intrigued me, I’d only seen a couple of films with live music being played and found it really electrifying. The dual element of having to compose and perform I found fascinating.

On stage and on screen at the Barbican. Photograph - and above - from Darren Brade.
PJ It must be very hard to not overstate and to draw the focus away from the film; some modern scores have taken over the narrative in a way but not yours, you kept the balance.

AS Yes, I saw that you said I hadn’t done that and that’s one of the things I appreciate, so thank you…

PJ: I wrote that before I knew I was coming here…

AS (Laughs…) That’s lucky then!

I grew up as an accompanist, so much of my playing was as the second sitarist to my father and so I have a good training in being the side person who is there to augment and I think that’s really important. Sometimes there is a clash - there can be an ego desire to play the very best, the most clever line there is and sometimes that’s just not appropriate in that moment, the choice to do it less or do it a little bit differently… it might not show in that moment the best of you but it’s best for the bigger picture. I had that experience in my past, so I kind of knew to do that in scoring a film.

But ultimately, people are coming to watch a film and if there was ever that experience of them being torn away from the film by me trying to take attention then that wasn’t going to work. So hopefully we would come across well…

PJ In some ways that’s kind of Rule #1 for silent film and yet it is so hard to apply in practice - which is why your score is so striking.

AS It was a great way to have a first experience, ‘wow, the Barbican Gala! OK!’ It was an electrifying night I thought, one of my more memorable shows I think.

PJ I saw Shiraz again last week and if anything, it’s even more powerful second time around. How does it compare with other collaborations?

AS The thing that felt scariest was the level of responsibility involved, with the fact that there was no one there who had been part of making the film to help instruct me as to what the intentions were. In any given scene I could easily chose the wrong way or read it the wrong way. So, if something was meant to be a very, obvious signifier of something to come, for example or if I just noticed it because I saw it 30 times and actually it’s not meant to be you know… Those are things that a director would tell you how to do as a composer and that director wasn’t there, so I did feel the weight of that responsibility of wanting to really try and have the film play as it as intended…

PJ Other directors are available… did your husband (director Joe Wright) help?

AS Laughs… Yes, I played it for him at the beginning and then half way through. It was helpful because at the very beginning we watched it together and he gave me a couple of pointers about pulling out just what I thought the themes were and always trying to decide that any given scene was about one of those themes or sometimes more than one that could make for interesting counter play. That was really helpful because it gave me a bit of a template to start with… and yet, for any director, it’s not their film so they still don’t know what the other person intended so there was still that shooting in the dark feeling, so, I hope we did that the best we could.

Himansu Rai and Charu Roy at the Taj Mahal
PJ I’ve been listening a lot to (Anoushka's latest album) Land of Gold and listening to tracks like Disolving Boundaries you feel like you’re wrapped up in the centre of a defined musical narrative: it starts in a disparate way before pulling together with an uplifting and forceful piano line as you're moved along; it’s very effective and very cinematic music.

AS Thank you, I really appreciate that. I’ve heard people use the word cinematic about my music for years and I can’t say I always knew what that meant but I liked it and I thought that now I’m writing for a movie I won’t know how to make it cinematic – laughs – now that I’m thinking differently!

PJ There must be the concern that you over think it and start to undermine your natural instincts?

AS It was just a question of doing it over and over again really. One good decision I made was not to start at the beginning… and not to work in order. So, we ended up with really-random patchworks and then each bit would inform the next, and kept going back over it and sieving though it and one more time and one more time… We were able to build in a lot of detail and a lot of quite specific structure within it.

PJ There’s a lovely bit when Shiraz is chasing after Selima is kidnapped and there’s a riot of counter-rhythms from the tabla and other percussion.

AS We started with one percussion and then a second percussion and then a third… we wanted it to feel chaotic whilst he was chasing and lost… we were quite careful about how we would use surround sound, it was quite minimal, and we wanted it to have impact when we did it. That was the first moment where we used an element of surround sound, so the percussion starts coming form all over the place it enhances the feeling. There’s a moment when they all charge to chase after him and that’s the point when all the percussion snaps together and starts playing in unison… Stuff like that was really fun to get to play with which I would never have thought of if I was just writing for an album.

PJ The music is so well edited as part of the film and it struck me that the sitar was almost like the narrator and that when you’d have an intertitle the sitar would solo, pausing the action between the scenes and preparing for changes in mood.

AS I’m aware of myself as a band-leader in the context of it being a live show as well – again I was building this soundtrack knowing that it would be a live show as well, so I was having to build it in a way that it would work live, so there was an element of thinking who was playing what and needing to make sure I could lead in a song… For me I often err on the side of caution where I’m paranoid that I’m taking up too much space with my instrument so I almost back out of pieces too much at first when I’m writing and give all the melodies away to other people. It usually takes someone else coming in and saying ‘where’s the sitar? I haven’t heard it for three scenes?!' and I have to go ‘alright!’, I’ll just be sat there and need to put myself back in. You have to find a balance but no I tend to be quite paranoid of being too showy.

PJ What other concerns did you have about the project?

AS Time period was another one and stylistic choices. I know I’m already known for making music that’s quite multi-cultural, with an Indian centre and yet incorporating other elements, so when the BFI commissioned me I figured it was with an openness to that. I assumed I had the freedom to chose whatever pallet I wanted to but that was a bit paralyzing at the beginning… I keep coming back to this but that fact that it was booked as a live premier was really useful because I had to commit right at the beginning to what my ensemble was going to be and that meant I knew who I was writing for. But at the beginning I could have gone in any direction, I could have chosen a full ensemble of eight purely traditional Indian instruments in order to make a fully authentic Indian score or I could have gone a bit more Avant Garde and just gone sitar with a quartet, electronica and made it be a more London-based soundtrack…

In the end I settled on a mixed Indian and Western ensemble that would help me give a lot of variation through what’s a very long film. I made the decision to start very authentically in the way one would expect with the opening credits: ‘this is an Indian film from the 1920s…’ and slowly from there to start to bring in developments in a way that wasn’t too jarring…

PJ Does that development come with the emotional flow of the film?

AS Yes and it was a kind of narrative as again it was following the story of the film. There is that point in the film that you talked about where Selima is kidnapped, it’s such a dramatic moment that it felt appropriate to introduce a new instrumental sound and once the piano is in you can begin to establish other sounds and so, by the end of the film you’re in what almost could be a more pop-feeling arrangement with sitar being like a vocal and having full verse/chorus elements in that final love scene... but you had to get there carefully, and if we’d have brought that in at the beginning it would have felt strange. It’s a process of going one way and then another and then another before fitting it all together: it feels very fulfilling I think? I Hope! (Laughs!)

PJ I think the film’s not an obvious film either, it ends with the love of the Prince and Shiraz and their mutual dedication to honouring Selima.

Charu Roy and Enakshi Rama Rau
AS I think a lot of people are surprised with which man she chooses in the end… which is funny when you think of what the film’s about…

PJ …and he seemed a nice prince too, perhaps just a little harsh on occasion?

AS Yes, just a bit! It does twist and turn in tone and you can play with that and then you’ve got Daliah, who’s just such a great character to write for.

PJ Have you seen A Throw of Dice and Seeta Devi’s other films? It has a soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney but there could be room for another one?

AS She’s brilliant isn’t she… and, well no! (smiles) I watched it for Nitin’s score years ago not knowing that I would end up doing one as well, so I didn’t pay as much attention beyond the music I think. But yes, she’s wonderful and she gives a different colour. It was nice to have a couple of moments to play with humour, it’s very serious and it’s very epic and so on, but we did try and have a giggle now and then!

PJ There are some moments as with the elephant’s foot, when it starts off a bit funny and then…

AS I found that scene incredible even without music, it was really well done.

PJ The way it was cut, you were convinced that Shiraz is going to get squashed… And there’s something about that character too, and the actor, Himansu Rai, he’s so relate-able, humorous and serious in turns.

AS He’s very likable, you identify with him, he’s the kind of everyman isn’t he?

Seeta Devi
PJ He’s totally naturalistic in the same way that Seeta Devi is as well… that’s something you find even this early, with some people, whether it’s because they’re acting themselves, fundamentally, or just acting “well”. You look at Seeta once and she reaches across the decades and feels very fresh. And that’s where the music helps… in this connection.

AS Well that’s the aim, you want people to be able to reconnect with this film and the music is what brings them back into the film. The first time I watched the film it was silent…I found it amazing and impressive but it was a very disconnected experience my first time watching a film with absolutely no sound and I was struck by how two dimensional it felt without the music.

I’m so curious to know what music was played with it at the time. It’s really wonderful that the BFI have restored it this way… I’m so glad I did it!

PJ You can say that now… but was there any point when you thought you’d bitten off too much?

AS Yes, definitely… especially in the final weeks. We had a big technical issue and had to re-do a lot of the things we had to in the last three weeks. The sheer volume was really quite insane. So that was the black moment! I work with incredible people, my soundman and my cellist/pianist who worked co-arranging a lot of things, were brilliant and we all just pulled in and did it together.

PJ How do you approach composing for western instruments?

AS I feel woefully ill-equipped in comparison to on the Indian side, I can’t notate and I have very little understanding of harmonic structure, so I tend to write melodies and then I’ll work with someone to help me ground things. They’ll help me understand what I’ve done because it’s more instinctive than from knowledge,  I’ll write the Indian notation for that part of the ensemble and then I’ll need to work with someone to notate that into western score

The great Himansu Rai
PJ We’re no longer talking about “world music”, just music – “thank goodness!” – and in terms of experimenting and blending styles, your music is innovative but from the point of view of a virtuoso… always balanced even when it’s pushing boundaries.

AS When I started moving into, I guess, multi-cultural or experimental music, that was one of my aims, because I grew up in a classical world, I know the standard with which people listen to a classical musician and they expect a certain qualitative element to be there. I hope that anything I work on, that people listening with other ears, that are trained in other cultures, would be able to find those same elements of quality in the elements I use even if I’m not an expert in them, so that’s where the collaborative approach comes in where I need to work with other experts who can help me make sure of quality in areas that I might not be aware of. 

I love all kinds of music and I’m very open, but it will make me wince sometimes if someone who is a fantastic musician from a non-Indian culture, just doesn’t understand what they’re doing when they choose an Indian melody or line, you know and just stick it on there. It’s a tough call – sometimes it could sound pretty to someone who doesn’t understand but to someone who does understand it sounds all wrong or out of tune or expressed weirdly… all those things, so I know that way of listening and I would hate for someone to listen to something I’ve used and feel the same way.

PJ I listened to a couple of Mogwai remixes of tracks from Land of Gold - and I love Mogwai - yet they’re very masculine in their approach but good at structuring sound. They did a good job – your tune and their sound blend so well.

AS Thank you, I love Mogwai too!

Recommended and don't miss the remixes!

PJ What was the response in India to Shiraz?

AS It was equivalent, it was good. We did 4/5 shows and they all had the same immediate response that we had at the Barbican at the end. I think that there was perhaps an added element of the emotion involved in watching something from your own culture that’s been restored. A lot of people were watching a film from their own country that was older than anything they’d ever seen before. There were some chiming moments in a couple of the cities during the first kissing scenes, people just gasped dramatically all the way across the hall because they weren’t expecting that because we’d generally grown up with not seeing that… I gasped and my Mum gasped as most people would never have seen a black and white film with a kiss in it… and then there were two! So, there were lovely moments like that.

PJ Do you have any other film projects?

AS I’m touring at the moment, then working on a new album sometime this summer, so it’s a question of seeing how we go. I definitely found it very fulfilling to write for a film and would so I love to do more… whether another silent film falls into my lap or not I don’t know, but film hopefully. I would be curious to learn how to write for a non-silent film at this point because, in a way, that has a completely different set of challenges. That would be interesting and that might have more scope for opportunity as well.

Shiraz opens on Friday 2nd February for runs at the BFI and Home, Manchester and then around the UK until the end of March. A digital release will follow but I would urge you to not miss it on the big screen and with the full might of the Shankar score! Full details are on the BFI site.

Details of Anoushka's tour and impressive back-catalogue can be found on her website.

My review of the now legendary Gala Performance is here.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The People’s Pictures… Slapstick Festival Gala Friday, Bristol Watershed and Colston Hall

My third year at the Slapstick Gala and again I marvel at the event’s support from the city of Bristol; the Colston Hall was filled to the rafters not just by curious locals or travelling hipsters but by local folk who know how to have a grand time! No one talked throughout the show, continually checked their phones, laughed at the quaintness of it all or, indeed, some of Tim Vine’s jokes*… they get it: they know Stan and Buster and they really understand Charlie and Oliver. Heck, even the obscure Arthur Lake, casually dropping a baby in convenient dump bins… they got him too.

Waves of laughter flowed around the Hall, genuine, belly laughs, all feeding each other as recognition of the ridiculous, the daft and the jaw-dropping was shared by the warmest audience you’ll find in all the kingdom. Bristol, you are the most educated and fun-to-be-with crowd! Comedy is a team sport and in this respect, you are City and Rovers united.

I had a conversation with my mother-in-law about why she hadn’t found Chaplin as funny as she’d expected up to now but what’s been missing is an audience and a live musical setting – tonight’s showing of A Dog’s Life (1918) took the roof off and she laughed.

The Bristol Ensemble played Chaplin’s own score and Günter A. Buchwald conducted for a film that is so much more knowing than most “civilians” would expect… aside from this crowd that is. From Edna Purviance’s tear-jerking singing – buckets of tears… a splash in the face for those who talk “sentimentality” – to Charlie’s knowing look at the end, the film is razor sharp.

Laurel and Hardy kicked us off in fine style with Angora Love (1929) – accompanied by maestro John Sweeney on the Hall’s amazing grand and Frank Bockius on percussion. This film may well have been the origin of the “don’t work with animals” rule as the lads just about manage to cope with a goat that just won’t let them go.

Arthur Lake’s Whose Baby (1929) may well have completed the other half of that rule as our rarely-screened hero has to cope with looking after a baby whilst convincing his girl that it’s not his. I use the term “looking after” loosely as Arthur dumps the kid in bins, lets his pram run into traffic and hangs him up on hooks. It’s all in the best of bad taste but a riot all the same.

Sherlock Jnr (1924) was the headline act and not the first time Buster’s meta-masterpiece had an audience gasping in disbelief as he puts his body on the line for laughs in some of his best stunts. The action is far-fetched but as the boy in the row behind observed, these things make sense as he’s in a dream… this Bristol audience is well informed at all ages!

Gunter played along on violin and piano with The European Silent Screen Virtuosi featuring Frank Bockius (percussion), Romano Todesco (double bass) and Marc Roos (trombone). The acoustics in the Hall are darned good to my ears and, sat dead centre, the music was rich and satisfying.

A stunning end to a full Friday which began with...

The Three Keatons
The Young Keaton (1895-1917) with David Robinson

David Robinson talked us through the golden age of vaudeville and variety and the birth of Buster! Keaton’s remarkable theatrical career began in 1899 aged 3, and we learned that it was not Harry Houdini who earned him his nickname but another vaudevillian who witnessed his fall down the stairs. Keaton’s father was an astute self-publicist and came up with the “better story” later. It was a tough existence and seeing Buster talk on film later in the day, you got the impression that he was a forceful, intelligent man with intent forged on the road in medicine shows and lower-league theatres. 
By the time he stepped in front of a camera he was a comedy seventh dan ready to knock his block off for our delight.

Betty Balfour's eyes

Vagabond Queen (1929), Betty Balfour with introduction form Lucy Porter

In which our Queen of Happiness plays Sally a humble maid in a London boarding house who temporarily becomes the Princess of Balonia – a woman she resembles to the last freckle – in order to act as a decoy on coronation day as rebels in the fake Balkan state, use knives, bombs and bullets to try and assassinate their future monarch.

It is an aptly named country and there’s a certain Marx Brothers zaniness to Douglas Furber’s script: “My friends and Balonians!”, directed with brisk efficiency by Géza von Bolváry. The film was essentially a silent but had a recorded soundtrack added post-production to turn it into a “talkie” of sorts. The score was from John Reynders – a renowned musical compiler – and sticks like glue to the narrative with sound effects galore as it follows the action like a shadow.

Betty is super-charged charm throughout and is aided by Ernest Thesiger as Lidoff, the Balonian diplomat and young Glen Byam Shaw as her boyfriend Jimmie. The real Princess’s actual husband, Prince Adolphe, as played by the decidedly louche Charles Dormer, is in a drunken confusion wondering how his poor Zonia has lost her loving feeling.

Like anyone introducing their mate to a party, Lucy Porter perhaps worried that we’d not get Betty, but who couldn’t love Chester-le-Street’s finest: she does indeed still make us happy!

Seff on the left and Cocl on the right
Cocl & Seff: Austria’s Laurel & Hardy, introduced by Chris Serle

Now here’s a couple of queer fish… one of cinema’s very first double acts who from 1913 appeared in many films sometimes together and sometimes apart. Both Austrian boys, Rudolf Walter (Cocl) and Josef Holub (Seff) had the distinguishing traits of most double acts: one tall, one short and one brainy the other less so… as things progressed Seff – who on this evidence was slightly funnier – evolved to look a little like Harold Lloyd.

Their earlier shorts shown lacked the finesse of a Chaplin or Mabel Normand but by the twenties they were more oddball. One film was set in a hotel with the characters all moving like jazzed automatons, John Sweeney expertly followed their rhythm and it was an hilarious combination.

The funniest film was a Seff solo from 1926: Seff on the way to power and beauty (extracting der Mikel from the earnest Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit) which was a commercial for the Viennese Dairy that – wait for it! – milks the association for everything it’s worth. Also features cheese.

John Sweeney and Elizabeth Jane Baldry took turns accompanying and played together to sublime affect. Let’s have more piano and harp!

Lost and Found… David Robinson, Elizabeth Jane Baldry and Daan van den Hurck

Mr Robinson was on fine form today and took us through some enthralling snippets starting with the Odd-Father of Slapstick film, Leopoldo (Luigi) Fregoli a hugely-popular transformist, a quick-change artist, who could go from old gentlemen to lady… and young man faster than you could say, er, David Robinson.

There followed an English film featuring a lady on skates flying through the streets at an incredible whack, causing all manner of chaos; well done that stunt man!

Next an Italian film, featuring a lady whose huge hatpins knock into the heads of all around her and wonderful solo accompaniment from Elizabeth Baldry who plays her harp as percussion, rhythm and lead – a one-woman band who finds rich tones from deep bass, atonality (scratched strings) as well as the gorgeous lines you’d expect: a joy to watch her work form the second row!

André Deed – the World’s first comic superstar and a man of many monikers, featured in Boireau déménage (Boireau Changes House) and a bonkers tale of a door fitter creating mayhem with his door en route to a job… improvised and shot mostly on location, these are fascinating as well as funny.

As David Robinson said, there’s hardly any visual gag going that Max Linder didn’t invent or improve and we got to see a sample of his earlier work in Two Great Sorrows (1908) that even David hadn’t seen. It was a darkly comic tale about a young widower and a young widow that showed the root of Linder’s appeal was his ability to act…

Marcel Perez
Marcel Perez – who had even more names than Monsieur Deed – was next Mademoiselle Robinet (1912) in which he has to cross dress to cover up a dalliance with another man’s wife with the inevitable consequences.

Ray Hughes, a Chaplin imitator, was next in the genuinely “lost and found” Love and Lunch. I had no idea that there were Charlie tribute acts at the time but given his popularity it’s not too surprising… he’s pretty good but he’s no Charlie!

Lastly, we had a Stan Laurel treat, the recently recovered full version of his 1924 solo movie Detained (1924), provided by The Frisian Film Archive in Holland. Stan was great in this film and very funny; not for nothing did Buster consider him the greatest, he connects so well with the audience, even now, we’re all in on Stanley’s jokes!

Stanley hanging on...
As David said, having seen these films so often, they’re a lot funnier when accompanied by Elizabeth and Daan, there’s so much range in their playing and they make for an intuitively subtle combination –  as indeed did Elizabeth and John.

So Funny it Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM (2004), Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson

Perhaps the abiding memory of this day will be our Kevin and our David trading tales of meeting some of the artists featured: yes, Mr Brownlow met Buster Keaton and Mr Robinson met Laurel and Hardy.

They were in conversation after the screening of Brownlow’s documentary of Buster’s difficult years at MGM, a period of declining creative output despite commercial success. The Cameraman was perhaps the last film in which Keaton had something like full creative control and the MGM brass mistook its success for their own… With every subsequent film from Spite Marriage (screened the day before) onwards, the studio took more away from its star in an attempt to leave him as just a “performer”. Buster was more than that though and even though the film’s earned good money he 
wasn’t going to go quietly.

It’s a shame we can’t see more of Brownlow’s amazing interviews with Keaton and others but when studios are asking up to $600 per minute for use of footage integral to the stories in Hollywood and elsewhere, there’s no affordable way. So… the very same guys who wasted these talents and destroyed their work in the first place, now stand in the way of what remains being more widely seen. And yet… Warners can find the odd $70 million just for Justice League re-shoots and MGM/Sony $100s of millions for remakes of Death Wish and Tomb Raider. Valuable work gentlemen, valuable work.

If you want to see the true spirit of cinema, you only had to look at David and Kevin, two people in love with film and who, after many decades of involvement, are still youthfully excited about their subject. Right back at you boys!

Kevin Brownlow and David Robinson

*To be fair, Mr Vine was very funny too!