Fifth Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Cinema Museum, London

                                     1-2 June 2019

 

(Warning:  Contains Spoilers Throughout)

 

Barely had the mirth from the Kennington Bioscope’s  Silent Laughter Weekend died away than we find ourselves back at the Cinema Museum (whose future is worryingly still far from secure) for the fifth KenBio Silent Film Weekend and another cornucopia of delights. The programme looked good on paper, with the KenBio’s usual emphasis on the rarities, the rarely screened and the occasionally downright obscure elements of the silent film pantheon….but how would it shape up on the screen.  

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First up was The Cruise of The Jasper B (1926), with Rod La Rocque as the happy-go-lucky descendent of a successful pirate who learns that he must find a wife by his imminent twenty fifth birthday or he will loose his inheritance.  But the woman who he finds to marry (Mildred Harris) is also in danger of being cheated out of her inheritance by her unscrupulous uncle (Snitz Edwards). There were some good gags along the way, as would be expected from a director who would go on to shoot Keaton in College (1927) and Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West (1937).  La Rocque and Harris made a good lead pair.  He certainly didn’t take himself too seriously and was ready to demonstrate his physique at every opportunity although the California sunshine (either that or a sun lamp) did tend to give him something of the appearance of Thalos, the bronze man from Jason and the Argonauts (1963)!  There were some good laughs along the way, especially the novel way in which Harris got the will written on her back (producing the funniest inter-title of the day ‘Don’t let him wash my back!’ as she tries to evade Edwards) although the film did run out of steam a little before a rousing finale. A mention also for Jack Ackroyd as Wiggins, La Rocque’s ever helpful butler, if only for his willingness to climb under the bed clothes to help his master put on his trousers!.  

Live piano accompaniment for the film came from Lillian Henley who nicely captured the often frenetic pace of the action.

The Cruise of The Jasper B (1926) is available on disc from Grapevine Video and can also be watched on-line via YouTube.  

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 We then had a complete change of pace with The Stone Rider (Der Steinerne Reiter, 1923), a screening which nicely dovetailed in with the BFI’s current Weimar Cinema season. The film had something of a Beauty and the Beast feel to it as Hirtin (Lucie Mannheim) seeks out the evil baron (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) responsible for her sister’s death but eventually falls in love with and ultimately saves him from execution. Although some of the rather sudden changes of pace in the film perhaps hint at missing footage, the really impressive aspect of The Stone Rider was the almost hyper-expressionist look of the costumes and sets.  These were the work of artist Heinrich Heuser and art director Karl Volbrecht, the latter who would go on to work on a range of Fritz Lang films including Der Nibelungen (1924), Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929).  In a further link with Lang, The Stone Rider was scripted by Thea von Harbou (then married to Lang and, perhaps a little awkwardly on set, also previously married to Klein-Rogge).  She would go on to script numerous Lang films including Metropolis.  Klein-Rogge was excellent as the baron, driven to live up to his evil reputation, almost against his better judgement.  This was but one of his many roles as the villain in Lang films, most memorably as the mad scientist Rotwang in Metropolis.  Equally good was Lucie Mannheim as Hirtin, whose grim determination for revenge fades as she gets to know the baron and is then faced with the dilemma of betraying her fellow villagers to engineer his escape. Although probably best remembered as Annabella Smith, the blond whose early death sets Robert Hanney off on his search for The 39 Steps (1935), Mannheim was also notable in G W Pabst’s debut feature The Treasure (1923).  Of note also was the cinematography from Carl Hoffmann (also responsible for Variety (1925), Faust (1926) and The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929)) and Gunter Rittau (Metropolis (1927), Asphalt (1929) and The Blue Angel (1930)).  Amongst many stunning scenes, one in particular stood out when the evil baron’s shadow falls across the peasant village as he approaches.  

Adding to all the drama and excitement of the film was John Sweeney on piano.

The Stone Rider is available on DVD from Cinema Rarities and can be viewed on YouTube         

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Next up was The Price of Pleasure (1925), an everyday story of millionaire Garry Schuyler (Norman kelly) deciding to take out shop-girl Linnie Randall (Virginia Valli) for a week to bring some joy to her humdrum life (as you do!). Of course, by the end of the week they’ve fallen in love and got married.  But then Schuyler’s mother and sister return, take an instant dislike to Linnie who subsequently runs away.  Chasing after her in his car Schuyler accidently knocks her down and thinks he has killed her. He has a nervous breakdown and departs for Europe but unbeknownst to him Linnie recovers and gives birth to his son.  When Schuyler’s mother discovers this there is a battle for custody of the child, while keeping the truth from her son. But eventually Schuyler and Linnie are reunited.  The Price of Pleasure was a strange mishmash of genres, veering wildly from romance, to comedy, to melodrama with even an element of a chase movie thrown in and the end result was not exactly satisfying. Both Valli and Kelly were adequate in the lead roles but the film was saved by a couple of good performances in supporting slots, particularly Louise Fazenda (Image right, with Virginia Valli) as Linnie’s determined friend Stella, demonstrating a comedic talent honed previously as part of Mack Sennett’s Keystone troop.

Lillian Henley on piano had the challenge of keeping up with the film’s various changes of pace and style, which she did most effectively.  

No sign of The price of Pleasure being available either on disc or on-line.      .      

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The next session then proved to be a real (reel!) mixed bag.  Drawn from a batch of original nitrate films discovered by film collector David Eve at the now closed Ben Shaw music and toy shop in Workington, the films were transferred on to safety film at George Eastern House (the BFI having proved unhelpful! Surprise, surprise!).  Amongst the films screened in this session were some early Selig shorts (The Roller Skate Craze (1907) and Tempted by Necessity (1912)), some early British shorts (Wait Till I Catch You (1910) and Fighting Fluid (1910)) as well as a Mack Sennett produced short, Great Scott (1920).  But the highlight had to be a stencil coloured short from Pathe Freres, Living Flowers (1906), with photography and trick effects by Segundo de Chomon.  Beautifully restored in stunning colour, this was a delight.

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Then it was back to the feature programme and Beauty’s Worth (1922) starring Marion Davies.  In this Cinderella like story Davies plays a strait-laced quaker visiting relatives at a posh society resort.  Initially humiliated due to her gauche attire and manners, she is transformed by the efforts of a young artist (Forrest Stanley) who sees her inner beauty. Initially attracted to a rich society man (Hallam Cooley) she eventually chooses the artist, who loves her for what she is rather than what she has become.  Although not an out and out comedy like the better-known Show People or The Patsy (both 1928), Beauty’s Worth gave Davies another opportunity to break out of the big historical epics strait-jacket so favoured by her long-time partner William Randolph Hearst.  The film, and Davies’ performance, is amusing rather than laugh out loud funny while the big centrepiece musical number, in which Davies recreated performances from her Ziegfeld Follies days, did at least offer Hearst the opportunity to see his mistress in the opulence and grandeur that he felt she most suited.  

The excellent piano accompaniment for the film came from John Sweeney.

Beauty’s Worth is available on DVD from Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions.  A poor quality version is available on YouTube.  

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The final film of the day was a Norwegian romantic drama Laila (1929).  Having first seen this at HippFest earlier in the year, where it was one of the festival’s undoubted highlights, this was a welcome opportunity to catch up with it once again.  Set in northern Norway, the film follows Laila, the daughter of Norwegian traders, initially as an infant, separated from her parents and rescued by indigenous Sami people. Eventually she is reunited with her parents but then orphaned by a plague.  Saved again by the Sami people, she grows to adulthood with them.  Unaware of her Norwegian origins and looking destined to marry the son of the  Sami tribe’s headman, Laila (Mona Martenson) then meets Anders (Harald Schwenzen), another Norwegian trader and there is an immediate attraction.  But long-standing ethnic prejudices look set to scupper their relationship until an eventual wedding day showdown when Laila’s true origin is revealed.  

On first seeing Laila I thought it was an great film but on a second viewing it just gets even better.  Initially it is the action scenes which stand out.  These are brilliantly captured, not just the dramatic chases through icy wilderness but the river rapids and reindeer race scenes. Yet even when there isn’t much happening, the film is consistently beautiful to look at, with dramatic landscapes and midnight suns.  Perhaps not surprisingly, director George Schneevoigt started out as a cinematographer, working on early C T Dreyer films such as The Parson’s Widow (1920) and Master of the House (1925).  Although these were both superbly shot films, they were both fairly intimate, personal dramas giving no hint of the epic sweep that he was to bring to Laila.

Then there was the acting. Schneevoigt elicited marvellous performances from virtually the entire cast, a mix of professional and amateur players.  Peter Malberg was superb as tribal head Aslag Laagje.  The scene where he realises that the Norwegian trader and his distraught wife are in fact the infant Laila’s true parents is amazing, his face changing almost imperceptibly as he realises the consequences and that he is duty bound to return the infant. As Laila, Mona Martenson was equally good.  Confident and outgoing as the herdswoman, she could ride, lasso, canoe and rough-house with the best of them.  But as her feelings for Anders grew there was a deeper uncertainty and self-doubt, where just a hesitant handshake could convey huge meaning. Martenson was a contemporary of Garbo, attending the same drama class and appearing alongside her in Mauritz Stiller’s The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924).  Apparently turning down an offer from Hollywood, she opted to remain in Sweden making occasional films and continuing her stage work until her death in 1956.  

In an essay accompanying the restored film’s DVD release, cinema historian Casper Tybjerg described Laila as “the crowning achievement of Norwegian silent cinema” an opinion its difficult to argue with.  It really is a stunning film.  

At the piano, Lillian Henley put in a marathon performance accompanying this 150 minute epic without a break, capturing both the dramatic action and the intimate drama quite beautifully.                  

Laila is available on DVD from Flicker Alley and can be watched on-line on Vimeo and YouTube.  

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Day 2 of the Kennington Bioscope’s fifth Silent Film Weekend kicked off with yet another title unknown to me, Souls For Sale (1923), starring Eleanor Boardman as the oddly named Remember ‘Mem’ Steddon.  The film opens on a train with the newly married Mem harbouring growing concern regarding her new husband’s real motives.  Turns out he’s a serial killer who marries women and kills them for the insurance money.    In a panic she jumps from the train only to find herself stranded in a desert without water.  On the point of passing out she is rescued by a film crew shooting on location.  Returning with them to Hollywood, Mem eventually gets an acting job and begins to work her way up the stardom ladder, with leading man Frank Mayo and director Richard Dix both competing for her affections.  But as stardom beckons her husband reappears with murderous intent.  During the filming of a climactic storm engulfing a circus tent a real storm breaks out and the circus goes up in flames.  Amidst the conflagration Mem’s husband, jealous of her affections for the director, tries to kill him but is killed himself instead. Mem and the director are happily reunited.

As with yesterday’s The Price of Pleasure, Souls For Sale was a bit of a hotchpotch of genres.  Beginning in thriller mode with the murderous husband it then switched to light comedy and a foretaste of Marion Davies’ Show People as Mem breaks into the film business and her fame grows.  But when her husband returns we are back to thriller mode and, in the climactic fire scenes, with a dollop of epic thrown in. Then there were the ‘guest’ appearances, as we got to see the film studios in action, with scenes of Chaplin, Vidor and Von Stroheim supposedly directing a veritable galaxy of stars including Jean Hersholt, ZaSu Pitts, Bessie Love, Blanch Sweet and Hobart Bosworth.  While these behind-the-scenes elements were interesting, this and the changing genres made for something of a disjointed whole.  But what ultimately made the film watchable was the climactic scenes of the fire in the big top. These were superbly shot as the storm and then the fire took hold, the panic of the crowd as they fight to escape and the final fight scene centred on the runaway wind-machine.  

Written, produced and directed by Rupert Hughes, uncle of Howard Hughes and the man who facilitated his nephew’s entry into the film business, the film was based upon his serialised story of the same name .  Although apparently reflecting some of the Hollywood scandals of the time (Roscoe Arbuckle, William Desmond Haines etc) the film itself is also something of a paean to the hard working folks of Hollywood, going through all manner of adversity just to bring entertainment to you and I, the humble viewers!

Providing the excellent piano accompaniment to this somewhat jumbled collection of genres was Meg Morley.

Souls For Sale is available on disc from Warner Archive Collection and can be viewed on YouTube.

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Next up was a feature length film without any inter-titles and, no, it wasn’t The Last Laugh (1924). Pre-dating Murnau’s inter-title free masterpiece by a good three years was The Old Swimmin’ Hole (1921) directed by Joe De Grasse.  Focusing upon the youthful and somewhat indolent Ezra (Charles Ray), work-shy, usually late for school and most likely to be found larking around the old swimming hole with his pals.  What plot there was revolved around Ezra hoping to win the affections of upmarket classmate Myrtle (Laura La Plante).  Yet she in turn favours the fat boy, obviously known as Skinny (Lincoln Steadman).  But just when all seems lost for Ezra along comes the homely Esther (Marjorie Prevost) to take him in hand.

In watching the film I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gregory’s Girl (1981).  If you can imagine swapping rural America for Glaswegian new town and replacing Myrtle’s interest in Skinny with Dorothy’s focus on football then they have a lot in common.  Neither has much by way of plot, both had the same innocent, almost childlike naivety and each had some wonderfully gentle comedic moments.  Playing the youthful Ezra, Charles Ray was in fact almost 30 years old.  He had made quite a career out of this type of ‘country bumpkin’ role but by 1920 he had acquired a reputation of being difficult to work with and this, together with his escalating salary demands, resulted in Paramount letting him go.  Ray formed his own production company, with The Old Swimmin’ Hole being its only feature length output.  Signing subsequently with United Artists, Ray sought to change his image by starring in an epic historical drama The Courtship of Miles Standish (1923), but as costs rose he poured more and more of his own money into the project, eventually loosing some $2 million (around $30 million at today’s prices) when the film bombed at the box office, leaving him bankrupt and his career in ruins.  By the time of his death in 1943 he was working as an unknown extra on $11 a day.  In contrast, this was one of co-star Laura La Plante’s first starring roles and she would go on to much greater things including Smouldering Fires (1925), Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) and The Cat and the Canary (1927) before a successful switch to talkies.

Helping no end to catch the rural charm of this film was the live piano accompaniment from Meg Morley.

The Old Swimmin’ Hole is available on disc from Grapevine Video and there is a version, albeit of very poor quality, on YouTube.

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In complete contrast, the next feature was a grim tale of big city crime and corruption, Common Ground (1916) directed by William de Mille, Cecil’s big brother.  In the film, Judge Evans (Thomas Meighan) is an upstanding judge determined to find the ‘Mr Big’ at the top of a major corruption syndicate.  Unbeknownst to the judge, his ‘Mr Big’ is in fact the father of the judge’s fiance, and he is determined that the judge doesn’t get his man.  When the judge is framed and disgraced it is a feisty factory girl, known as ‘the Kid’ (Marie Doro) who comes to his aid, repaying the judge’s faith in her when she had previously come up before him on equally trumped up charges.  

This was an enjoyable crime melodrama, despite some pretty hefty plot improbabilities (like why wouldn’t an upstanding judge send a young and attractive female offender to his house in the country for a month’s ‘rehabilitation’ !)  While the film’s star may have been Thomas Meighan, most interest focused upon Marie Doro.  Despite playing ‘the Kid’ Doro was already 28 years old and a theatre star of considerable talent and popularity as well as stunning beauty.  In his autobiography, Charles Chaplin speaks of being infatuated with her as a bit part player in a London stage production of Sherlock Holmes in which she was a star performer, but of being too tongue tied and in awe to ever speak to her.  Years later when they met again with Chaplin now the star, she had no memory of her earlier work with him and in response to the revelation of his infatuation could only reply ‘How thrilling’. In Common Ground, despite the improbability of the plot, she puts in a convincing performance as ‘the Kid’ free from the over-theatrical cinematic acting style typical of the time. Although Doro continued stage and film work into the early 1920s, she became increasingly disillusioned with acting, drawn to a more spiritual life.  She eventually gave up her career to study theology and adopted a reclusive lifestyle until her death in 1956.  Sadly, most of her films have been lost, in particular a fascinating sounding version of Oliver Twist, Oliver (1916), with Doro in the title role and co-starring with Herbert Bosworth and Tully Marshall.

As for Meighan himself, this was but one of eight films he made in 1916.  Already a considerable star his career would really take off in the 1920s with big hits including steamy melodrama The Mating Call and seminal crime thriller The Racket (both 1928).  

Providing live piano accompaniment which effectively caught the suspense and drama of the film was Costas Fotopolous.

No sign of Common Ground being available on disc or of even a clip being available on-line.  A real pity.

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We then had a second session of material from David Eve’s discovery of  a stash of forgotten films at the Ben Shaw music and toy shop in Workington.  These included a veritable smorgasbord of shorts including The Lost Mail Sack (1914), one of Kalem studios’ The Hazards of Helen series, the somewhat maudlin Mario’s Swan Song (1910) a Vitagraph story about a dying child violinist and the wildly eccentric and surreal The Of-Course-I-Can Brothers (1913) a Hepworth pastiche on the Dumas story The Corsican Brothers an adaption of which was released by the Edison Company the previous year.  But head and shoulders above all of these was a stencil coloured travelogue film focusing upon the cherry blossom in Kyoto, Flowerland Awakens in Japan (1916), made by Pathe Freres.  The colouring on the film was not just stunning but of incredible quality, largely free from the normal ‘shimmer’ of stencil colour and looking more like having been shot on actual colour film stock, making it just a joy to watch.

The challenge of providing live piano accompaniment to this varied collection of films fell to Colin Sell who rose equally well to the task.  

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Returning once more to features, next up was On To Reno (1928), a late silent comedy starring Marie Prevost and Cullen Landis. Prevost plays Vera, somewhat disillusioned with life married to Bud (Landis).  Overhearing rich client Mrs Holmes (Ethel Wales) at the law firm for which she works wishing someone could take her place for three months in divorce capital Reno while she awaits her annulment, Vera volunteers. Bud of course fears that Vera is divorcing him for real and rushes after her. Also arriving in Reno is Mr Holmes (Ned Sparks) hoping for a reconciliation with his wife.  The scene is then set for mistaken identity upon mistaken identity, rising to a finale where Mrs Holmes herself arrives to find out just what has been going on in Reno.   This is silent comedy at its hilarious best, successful not only as a result of perfect timing but also because no one is playing it for laughs.  The seriousness of all involved just makes it so much funnier. High points are Bud’s encounter with the all female Alimony Club and getting caught up in the hazardous-to-health ladies apache dance, along with Ned Sparks’ ‘au natural’ visit to the swimming pool.  Sparks is excellent as the deadpan husband trying to save his marriage as is Prevost as Vera.   Sadly, her career was already in decline.  Badly affected by the death of her mother and by being dropped by Warner Bros, both in 1926 she had begun to drink heavily.  An ill-fated affair with Howard Hughes accelerated her depression.  Film work became harder to find and, destitute, Prevost eventually died of alcoholism in 1937.  

Providing live piano accompaniment to the film was Colin Sell.

There is no sign of On To Reno being available on disc or on-line which is a real pity as it is a superb comedy which deserves to be better known.  

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Then, all too soon we have our final screening of the weekend,  Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) with silent heart throb Rudolph Valentino.  In this swashbuckling romantic melodrama Valentino plays the Duke de Chartres, a French nobleman in the court of King Louis XV.  On meeting Princess Henriette (Bebe daniels) he is immediately smitten but, on account of wider political intrigues within court, the princess takes an immediate dislike to him.  When Chartres is instructed by the King to marry Henriette he refuses and flees the country for England.  Here, while living in disguise in Bath, he makes a name for himself as Beaucaire, barber to the French ambassador.  However, while  enjoying life as a ‘commoner’, Beaucaire sees and is immediately infatuated by English beauty Lady Mary Carlisle (Doris Kenyon) yet due to his lowly status he is precluded from meeting her. Whilst profitably engaging various English aristocrats in gambling games he catches the Duke of Winterset (Ian Maclaren) cheating and blackmails him into arranging a meeting with Lady Mary in the guise of an aristocrat. Lady Mary is entranced by Beaucaire but subsequently rejects him when Winterset (who also has his eye on Lady Mary) reveals him to be but a commoner.  Eventually Beaucaire reveals his true identity as the Duke de Chartres and shows up Winterset for the cad that he is.  Lady Mary seeks a reconciliation with Chartres but he now decides that his true love is Henriette and he returns to France where the two are happily reunited.  

I have to confess at the outset that I’m not a Rudy fan.  I can never see what the attraction is (Same goes for that dodgy Russian, Ivan Mosjoukine, although I realise that in admitting this I risk the wrath of every female silent film fan out there).  And yet this is a film that I find quite watchable.  Valentino’s propensity for over theatricality is nicely rendered null and void amongst the supposed arch mannerisms and over politeness of Georgian England. And yet the film on its initial release was more of a miss than a hit, with the blame being laid on Valentino’s then wife Natacha Rambova  (real name Winifred Shaughnessy!).  Critics decried her undue influence on the costumes, set and direction of the film, with disapproval of Valentino’s on-screen persona with his heavy make-up, frilled attire, and arch mannerisms overly feminizing Monsieur Beaucaire.  In fact, there were wider objections to Rambova’s influence on Valentino.  She may have been instrumental in his split with the hugely successful screenwriter June Mathias and in Valentino’s later contract with United Artists, she was specifically excluded from having any involvement in subsequent film productions. However, later reappraisals of Monsieur Beaucaire have focused more heavily on Sidney Olcott’s overly pedestrian direction. But whatever the criticisms of the film, I found it a moderately enjoyable romp, at least for a Valentino film!

Providing a live piano accompaniment to match up with the thrills and excitement of the film was Cyrus Gabrysch.  

Monsieur Beaucaire is available on disc from Grapevine Video (although beware, there is criticism of the picture quality) and can be watched on-line in a very poor quality version on YouTube.

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And that was it, another Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend draws to a close. So what were the highs and lows.  Biggest disappointment was the attendance, particularly on Saturday (and especially for Laila!).  But there was stiff competition, from a Weimar study day at BFI and from some guys kicking a football around in Barcelona.  Sadly, these people just didn’t know what they were missing!  As for the films themselves, perhaps a couple didn’t quite measure up to expectation.  While The Price of Pleasure and Souls For Sale had their plus points they were both a bit disappointing, although others begged to differ (see here).  But on the plus side, where else but the KenBio would I have been introduced to the work of Marie Doro (and how on earth can I get to see more of her films?).  Then there was The Stone Rider with its unforgettable expressionist imagery and On To Reno a wonderfully funny comedy that cries out for wider recognition. Lastly there was Laila, seen before but worthy of a second viewing. When screened at HippFest this came with an impressive live accompaniment from a Scottish/Norwegian folk due and the worry was that it would not live up to a second look.  But I shouldn’t have worried as the picture remained superb and on piano Lillian Henley played a blinder and made the film her own. Hats off to another successful KenBio weekend and keep up the good work.

And don’t forget, the last film in the KenBio’s Spring/Summer season is Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), screening at The Cinema Museum on 19 June.