Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, London
11 July 2017
The Kennington Bioscope was bowing out tonight for its summer recess with another selection of 9.5mm films from the collection of renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow who was there in person to introduce the films. The 9.5mm format, was conceived as an inexpensive way to provide copies of commercially made films to home users and was extensively marketed by studios such as Vitagraph and Pathe. Although the films distributed on 9.5mm were frequently edited versions of the cinema release, they are now often the only versions to have survived so they do throw up some real rarities. But there was a slight downside to the evening. In a late screening change, we were not going to get a chance to see Henri Fescourt’s 1927 film La Glu, which was a shame as, having been bowled over this year on seeing Fescourt’s sweeping adaptions of Les Miserables (1925) and Monte Cristo (1929) it would have been nice to contrast these with a more intimate of his films. But hopefully La Glu will be shown at a later date.
The evening’s first screening was Alias Jimmy Valentine (1928). The normally very authoritative silentera.com website lists this as a film ‘presumed lost’ as does Fritzi Kramer at moviessilently.com so clearly Kevin Brownlow’s copy of this film, a version made for the French market (albeit pared down from the original 88 minute running time to less than an hour and with a modified plot), is an extreme rarity! Directed by Jack Conway, the film was MGM’s first part-talkie picture. Originally shot as a silent, dialogue was subsequently added via Vitaphone discs.
The (silent) version we watched tonight began with Jimmy Valentine (William Haines), a master safe cracker, working with two accomplices to rob a mail office and then employ an ingenious alibi to fool police inspector Doyle (Lionel Barrymore). While planning a further robbery, Jimmy meets and falls for Rose (Leila Hyams). To persuade Jimmy not to leave town, Rose gets her father to offer him a job in the bank he owns. Deciding now to ‘go straight’, Jimmy has been working at the bank for six months when Doyle believes he has tracked him down but Jimmy, now using an alias, manages to convince him otherwise. Just as Doyle is about to leave thinking that he has got the wrong man, Rose’s little sister gets locked in the bank vault. Unable to stand by and see her suffocate, Jimmy uses his safe cracking skills to get her out after which he expects Doyle to arrest him. But convinced now that Jimmy is indeed going straight, Doyle offers him a knowing glance and leaves on his own.
Alias Jimmy Valentine was a pretty light-weight romantic crime drama, but fun nevertheless. Made on what appeared to be a shoestring budget, the somewhat unlikely plot held your attention and there were some amusing moments, mostly featuring Billy Butts as Rose’s little brother. William Haines (right) was convincing as the charming and debonair thief. This film, together with a starring role in Show People (1928) along side Marion Davies cemented Haines’ position as a major star and top box office draw by the late 1920s. Although he made a successful transition to talkies, his refusal to agree to a sham marriage when it was revealed that he was gay led Louis B Mayer to fire him from MGM. Instead, Haines and his partner went into the interior design business and remained together until both of their deaths in 1973, described by Joan Crawford as “the happiest married couple in Hollywood”. Leila Hyams (left, with Haines in a scene from the full length film) wasn’t called on to do a great deal as Rose other than look attractive and blush occasionally. Having made her first film in 1924, she had gradually worked her way up to starring roles by the time of Alias Jimmy Valentine. Successfully making the transition to talkies she is probably best remembered as Venus, the wise-cracking but kind-hearted circus performer in Freaks (1932) before retiring from the screen in 1935. First acting on stage in 1893 and then in films from 1908, Lionel Barrymore as Inspector Doyle was already a veteran performer by the time of Alias Jimmy Valentine but would have even greater success in the sound era (including Grand Hotel (1932), You Can’t Take it with You (1938), Its A Wonderful Life (1946), Key Largo (1948) as well as no less than nine Dr Kildare/Dr Gillespie films).
John Sweeney’s piano accompaniment to the film helped build the tension nicely.
Not surprisingly there is no sign of Alias Jimmy Valentine being available in any format. Is it possible that Mr Brownlow has the only copy in existence
Next up was The Younger Generation (1929), in some ways a companion piece to the previous film in that it was Columbia Studios first part-talkie production. Directed by Frank Capra, his memories of it in his autobiography ‘The Name Above The Title’ sounded like something straight out of Singing in the Rain (1952), with experienced actors overcome with stage fright as they had to memorise lines, forgetting where the microphones were hidden, everyone suffering from the heat from more intense lighting to cope with the change from 16 to 24 frame per second film speed and the strain of squeezing a hugely overweight cameraman and his noisy camera into a sauna-like sound proof box.
Based upon the Fannie Hurst play It Is to Laugh, the film follows the fortunes of the Goldfish family (left), Jewish immigrants initially living in the poor tenements of New York’s lower east side. Even as a youngster, son Morris demonstrates his financial acumen and his mother Tilda (Rosa Rosanova) believes he will become a successful businessman, in contrast to his work-shy father Julius (Jean Hersholt). Daughter Birdie has a thing for Eddie Lesser, the boy next door. Years later Morris (Ricardo Cortez) is indeed a successful antiques trader, living with the rest of his family on swanky Fifth Avenue. Tilda is comfortable in her new surroundings, but Julius and Birdie both feel out of place and unhappy in the new neighbourhood.
When the still poor Eddie (Rex Lease) comes to visit Birdie (Lina Basquette) he’s told by the increasingly socially conscious Morris that he is not welcome. Julius’ feelings are also hurt when Morris announces that he has changed his name to Fish in order to better fit in with his new social circle. After being unwittingly caught up in a robbery scheme Eddie secretly marries Birdie before turning himself in to the police and going to jail. Morris tells Birdie that she has disgraced him and, unbeknownst to Tilda and Julius, throws her out while preventing her from contacting them. Two years pass and Julius, now seeing Morris’ house more as a prison than a home, sets out to track down Birdie. From Eddie’s mother he learns that he is now a grandfather and celebrates with all of his old friends. He meets Tilda and together they return to Morris’ apartment bedecked with presents from their friends But they are humiliated when they meet Morris, leaving with his posh friends, who addresses them as servants. Julius is taken ill and Morris agrees to Birdie returning with her daughter, who Julius gets to see just before he dies. When Birdie, Eddie and their daughter leave, Tilda decides to go with them, leaving Morris alone.
With an original running time of 75 minutes, the (silent) version of Younger Generation that we watched tonight was clearly an edited version. However, it retained a cogent structure and proved to be both an entertaining and interesting picture. But it was very much a film in two halves. To begin with it had a light, almost humorous touch as the young Morris fights with Eddie, starts a fire but saves the family valuables. Even when the family move into Morris’ apartment the film played for laughs, with Julius refusing to get out of bed if he had to have a bath because he’d “already had one this month”. But when Birdie is thrown out, it took on a much darker tone, with Morris becoming, in Capra’s own words, “a social climbing super-Jew who denied his parents”. The director’s use of shadows cast be the descending window blinds to convey the image of being behind bars was really effective, underlining Julius’ feeling of imprisonment. With Julius’ death, there looked to be the faint hope that perhaps the family might be coming together once more (although quite how Morris could be so easily forgiven was open to question) but then, with Tilda’s departure, that was snatched away and Morris was left alone. As those window blinds and their prison bar like shadows came down once more was there then the realisation that the world he had worked so hard to achieve had become just an isolated and lonely prison for him.
Rosa Rosanova and particularly Jean Hersholt were excellent as Ma and Pa Goldfish. She made something of a speciality of playing matronly immigrant parts while Hersholt had a much more varied character list. He was suitably wretched as Marcus Schuler in Greed (1924) and excellent as the brash Ed Munn in Stella Dallas (1925). Ricardo Cortez as Morris was born plain old Jacab Krantz but had his name and image transformed by Paramount who attempted to market him as the next Valentino but he lacked that authentic Latin flair and was instead saddled with a string of somewhat run-of-the-mill roles. These roles continued into the talkie era and he made a somewhat underwhelming Sam Spade in the 1931 version of the Maltese Falcon.
But the real surprise in the cast was Lina Basquette (right, and below left with Rex Lease) . Not a name I had come across before she was excellent as the outgoing and self confident daughter Birdie. Spurred on by a pushy mother Basquette started on stage as a child dancer when, at age eight, she signed for Universal and appeared in a series of shorts, the Lena Baskette Featurettes (1916-17). She also had bit parts in two early Lois Weber films The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) and Shoes (1916). By 1923 she was a featured dancer in the Ziegfield Follies, working alongside Louise Brooks. Ballerina Anna Pavlova spotted her and wanted to groom her as a successor but Lina’s mother thought there was more money in films. In 1925, aged 18, she married 38 year old movie mogul Sam Warner and you would have thought that this, together with her talent, drive and good looks, would have meant a glittering film career. But Warner’s sudden death two years later led to a series of hard-hitting personal problems including two attempts at suicide and her film career pretty much petered out. Over the course of another eight marriages she emerged as a champion breeder of Great Dane show dogs and came out of retirement at the grand old age of 84 to appear in the independent feature Paradise Park (1991) before her eventual death in 1994.
As for director Frank Capra (right), little more needs to be said about his career other than it remained on a stella upward trajectory. With an academic background in engineering Capra was one of the few directors not phased by the transition to sound and he played a large part in transforming Columbia Pictures from a poverty row producer to a major player in the business with films such as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938) and Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939).
Piano accompaniment came from Cyrus Gabrysch who very effectively captured the darkening tone of the film.
The Younger Generation is available on DVD from distributors Loving the Classics. Only short clips are available on YouTube.
Our last film of the evening was in complete contrast to what had come before. Made at around the same time as Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) but released a year later The Marvellous Life of Joan of Arc (aka La Merveilleuse Vie de Jeanne d’Arc, 1929) directed by Marco de Gastyne was almost completely eclipsed by Dreyer’s adaption and is now virtually forgotten. But with an original running time of some 125 minutes, the 9.5mm edited version being screened tonight runs for just two reels or about 25 minutes.
Despite its edited format, this version follows closely the full story of Joan of Arc, from her learning of the fate of France from passing soldiers, hearing the voice of god telling her to leave her home to go to the defence of France and her journey to French Royal Court at Chinon where, in the process, she successfully passes the test of picking out the real dauphin (right) from amongst his courtiers. Impressed by her spirit, the re-energised dauphin dispatches Joan with an army to defeat the English and lift the siege of Orleans which , despite being wounded, she does. The dauphin is then crowned Charles VII in Rheims. But after a string of further victories, Joan is captured by Burgundian troops and handed over to the English. Put on trial, she is tricked into making a confession and tricked a second time into violating its terms which resulted in the death penalty, after which she is burned at the stake.
Gastyne’s adaption of the Joan of Arc story was in complete contrast to that of C T Dreyer’s. Instead of the focusing solely on Joan’s trial in what was a highly claustrophobic, almost visceral cinematic experience, Gastyne opened the story out into an almost action-adventure film. The battle scenes were on a massive scale with what looked to be thousands of extras and apparently filmed around the actual medieval walled city of Carcassonne while the coronation scenes at what I presume was the actual Rheims Cathedral (left) were stunning. In its full version this must be a seriously epic film.
Central to the film’s appeal also was the performance of Simone Genevois (below right) as Joan. Fresh from her role as Pauline Bonaparte in Gance’s Napoleon, she was just 16 when playing Joan, very similar to Joan of Arc’s actual age. Although Renée Jeanne Falconetti put in a stunning acting performance as Joan in Dreyer’s version, she was 36 at the time so in some ways was unable to convey Joan’s youthful innocence, which Genevois captured perfectly. I have been able to uncover very little of her career other than that she made her first film appearance aged one and that she continued to appear periodically in films until around the mid-1930s.
Director Gastyne started out as a painter and illustrator before moving on to film direction but I am not familiar with any of his other films. He continued to direct up until the the mid-1960s.
Cyrus Gabrysch provided a suitably stirring piano accompaniment to match the action on screen.
Restored by Cinematheque Francaise sometime last decade the film has previously had a video release but I can find no trace on DVD. A very poor quality version without sound but with English translation is available on YouTube.
And with that another season of silents at the KenBio drew to a close. As usual, the selection of films was varied, comprising crime thriller, social drama and historical epic and as always the emphasis was on the rare and little seen., Although Alias Jimmy Valentine and The Younger Generation were both edited versions I felt that they both effectively captured the story and the spirit of the originals and I particularly enjoyed the latter film. In contrast, I thought that the edited version of The Marvellous Life of Joan of Arc tried to cram in too much of a story into just two reels and suffered as a consequence from being something of a hotch-potch of the key moments. But it certainly whetted the appetite to see the full length restored version. So if, KenBio, you have any gaps in the programme for next season……? Oh, and I haven’t forgotten about Henri Fescourt’s La Glu. They’d make a good French-themed evening!
The Kennington Bioscope’s Autumn season kicks off on 6 September with The Goose Woman (1925) a Clarence Brown directed drama with Louise Dresser.