Kennington Bioscope’s Silent Guns Day – 2018

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum

                              17 November 2018

(Warning: Contains spoilers throughout)

We really have been spoilt by the Kennington Bioscope this year.  Not only have we had their regular Wednesday evening screenings but there has been a Silent Comedy Weekend, a Silent Film Weekend and a Silent Train Day. And now, to (almost) round off the year we are given a Silent Guns event, a whole day of films focused upon the First World War, screened to mark the 100th anniversary of that first Armistice Day.

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The morning’s first film was Comradeship (Dir. Maurice Elvey, UK, 1919) introduced by Maurice Elvey expert Dr Lucie Dutton.  The film revolves around middle-class shop owner Bob Armstrong (Gerald Ames, image right, with Lily Elsie).  Left-leaning and something of a loner, he opposes military conflict and when war breaks out initially refuses to join up.  But eventually he is shamed into enlisting due to his love for the upper class Betty Mortimer (Lily Elsie). Once in the army, Armstrong discovers genuine comrades and friendship, particularly with the boisterous Ginger Dickens (Teddy Arundell). During an offensive, Armstrong saves the life of an officer but is blinded in the process.  Invalided back to Britain he still loves Betty but refuses to marry her as he does not want to burden her with a blind husband.  He fills his time by organising a local Comrades Society for ex-servicemen.  At the society’s opening event Betty arrives and she herself proposes to Armstrong, who accepts.  After they are married, he successfully undergoes an operation to restore his sight.

In her informative introduction, Lucie Dutton explained that this was the first venture into film production by the Stoll Company, until then one of Britain’s leading film exhibitors.  Inspiration came from King George V’s wish that “…the spirit of comradeship on the battlefield will be kept alive in peace…”.  The film was intended as a fund-raiser for actual Comrades groups (which would subsequently become part of the British Legion) with actors and director donating part or all of their salaries and Stoll offering 60% of the profits.

As well as being particularly well made (the Elvey touch, of course), Comradeship was a surprising film on several levels.  The relationship between Armstrong and Ginger was particularly interesting. In addition to the usual obvious male bonding, here were two men shown frankly discussing their inner most thoughts, their fears of going into battle, even breaking down in tears in front of one another, a relative rarity in film even now and particularly so in films of this vintage.  Similarly, what other (serious) film of this era would have a woman proposing to a man!  There was even a controversial (for its time) sub-plot involving shop girl Peggy (an excellent Peggy Carlisle, image right) having an affair with and becoming pregnant by fellow worker Otto Leibmann (Dallas Cairns).  In these aspects, the film had a surprisingly modern feel to it yet in other ways it retained the more conservative traditions of the times.  In particular, there was the sledge-hammer like subtlety by which Betty and her family convinced Armstrong to enlist (very much in the style of the “Women of Britain say…GO!”propaganda poster) and the way in which a spell in the army and the love of a good woman ‘cures’ Armstrong of his more firebrand political tendencies.   

Amongst the cast, Gerald Ames was excellent as Armstrong as was Teddy Arundell as Ginger. But as for stage actress Lily Elsie (image below left), in a rare film role as Betty, in her introduction Lucie quoted a contemporary review highlighting her performance as ‘good if somewhat understated’.  Well if that’s her understated acting, I really can’t imagine what an overstated performance from Miss Elsie would be like.  As for director Maurice Elvey, not only did he have another hit on his hands but the film was also interesting in that he seemed to be experimenting at times with the idea of wide screening, not by increasing the screen width but by blacking out the top and bottom thirds in some shots to give a letter-boxed screen format. There were also some interesting exterior shots of London during the Armistice celebrations, particularly the shots of captured artillery on display on The Mall, although I have to say that the shots of the battlefront contained the most immaculately manicured trenches I have ever seen, with not a puddle of mud in sight!.

Overall, Comradeship proved to be both an entertaining and thought provoking film and one which benefited greatly from the sympathetic accompaniment on piano by Meg Morley.

Comradeship is available on disc from the Silent Gems collection.

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Next up we had When Fleet Meets Fleet (aka Wrath of the Sea (Die Versnkene Flotte) (Dir. Manfred Noa, Ger 1926), introduced by Lawrence Napper from Kings College, London.  

In the film, Commander Barnow (Bernhard Goetzke) is the head of naval gunnery for the Imperial German Fleet at Kiel.  He has an English wife, Erica (Agnes Esterhazy) but is becoming increasingly pre-occupied with his work.  Noticing Barnow’s apparent disinterest in his wife, a junior officer, Lt Arden (Nils Asther), begins to pay her more attention.  Barnow and Erica’s closest friend is an English naval officer, Commander Richard Norton (Henry Stuart) who visits during Kiel Navy Week with his warship, HMS Invincible. When Arden expresses his growing affection for Erica she reveals this in a message to her husband, berating him for his inattention.  Barnow challenges Arden to a dual but before this can take place Germany begins to mobilise against Russia and France.  As the British warships hastily depart, Barnow and Norton reaffirm their friendship.  Eventually the German fleet emerges into the North Sea to engage the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland.  In the conflict, both Barnow and Norton’s warships are sunk and both are feared dead.  Arden survives but is rejected by Erica for the hurt he caused to her husband before his death.  Arden is re-assigned to a submarine.  Erica then learns that Norton has in fact survived and is a German prisoner.  She nurses him back to health and as the war ends both she and Norton return together to England.  Arden dies destroying his own submarine to prevent its falling into British hands.

In his introduction Lawrence Napper explained that although often referred to as an Anglo-German co-production there was little sign of British input to this film other than a British technical advisor. So, for a German film to give such an even-handed portrayal of the eventual naval conflict between the two countries was perhaps somewhat surprising. A couple of factors may go some way in explaining this.  Firstly, although Britain and Germany had been engaged in a costly naval arms race before the outbreak of war, there was a long-standing mutual respect between the two navies with regular visits to each other’s ports, The German Kaiser was a great admirer of the Royal Navy, its capabilities, its history and its traditions which he sought to emulate in his own naval forces. This may well have been reflected in the film.   Secondly, When Fleet Meets Fleet is known to have been made in two versions, one for a domestic German audience and one for an English speaking audience.  Only the English version survives.  It is possible therefore that the domestic version contained a less complimentary portrayal of the British position.  

But the film as it stands is excellent.  The story is largely believable (except perhaps for Lt Arden’s play for a senior officer’s wife, which was a guaranteed career stopper). The acting is uniformly excellent. While Bernhard Goetzke (image right, studio shot) may have been a little too stern faced as the uber-professional Teutonic officer type, he had an excellent acting track record having appeared in a sting of Fritz Lang films (Destiny (1921), Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) and Die Nibelungen (1924) etc).  Agnes Esterhazy (image left, studio shot) was also excellent as Erica.  A real life Hungarian countess she appeared in films by Michael Curtiz in Austria and Hanns Schwarz in Germany before getting a starring role in G W Pabst’s Joyless Street (1925) alongside Greta Garbo and Asta Nielson but her career petered out with the coming of sound.  Nils Asther (Lt Arden) of course went on to greater things in Hollywood.  Manfred Noa was a highly thought of German director of the early 1920s, with hugely popular films such as Nathan the Wise (1922) and Helena (1924), based on Homer’s Iliad.  But both he and his films are now almost completely forgotten. When Fleet Meets Fleet featured some stunning stock footage of WW1 naval conflict for its representation of the Battle of Jutland (some perhaps actually of the battle itself) but was also noteworthy for what was likely to be the best inter-title of the day as the ever-professional Barnow says to his long-suffering wife “Be reasonable dear. German naval gunnery is far more important than our happiness together”. What dedication!!

Live piano accompaniment for the film came initially from Meg Morley and then, following a seamless transition mid-film, John Sweeney. Both were excellent.  

This appears to be another film unavailable in any format.  

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We then had Glen Mitchell and Dave Wyatt introducing a series of short films highlighting ‘America at War – Hollywood on the Ground’.  The first of these was a compendium of shots from Pearl White’s Pearl Of The Army serial. Although it was not possible to follow the plot it did give a sense of the action and of course at the end of the day Pearl emerged victorious.  We then had Who Done It? (1917), a late entry in the ‘Joker’ series of comedies made by Carl Laemmle.  Although directed by William Beaudine who went on to many much greater things, this was not a great comedy short but was relevant to today’s proceedings due to a scene in a cinema where a recruiting film was being shown at which point the real film then cut to a shot of actor William ‘Billy’ Franey’s actual draft registration document, clearly in an effort to show to the audience that he was ready to go if called and encourage others to register. Next up was The Bond (1918) with a gently amusing and somewhat avant-garde comedy sketch between Charlie Chaplin and Edna Purviance which leads in to a pitch for the audience to go out and buy wartime Liberty Bonds. Chaplin then re-appeared in animated form in the story of How Chaplin Captured The Kaiser (1918), one of a series of somewhat crudely animated films (supported and encouraged by Chaplin himself) made by the Pat Sullivan studios, the success of which together with the experience gained in making them would eventually lead to the studio developing the hugely popular Felix cartoon series. Lastly in this segment we had a Harry Langdon short, All Night Long (1924).  When Harry gets locked in a theatre overnight he comes across his former army sergeant breaking in to the theatre safe.  Then in flashback comes the story of their army days together in France and Harry stealing the sergeant’s girl.  Made in the early days of Langdon’s innocent lost-child persona, the film serves to remind just what an under-rated comedian he has become.

On the piano to accompany this varied collection was Colin Sell.  

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It was then back to the war at sea with Q-Ships (Dir.Geoffrey Barkas/Michael Barringer, UK, 1928), introduced once again by Lawrence Napper.  

Q Ships is an early dramatised documentary which, despite its title, looks much more widely at many aspects of the naval conflict in the First World War. It charts the initial success of German submarine warfare, particularly after the switch to unrestricted warfare and attacks on any merchant ships in the Atlantic in an effort to starve Britain into surrender. As Britain began to develop better detection technology with the use of a crude hydro-phone system merchant ship losses began to decline.  This and the switch to a convoy system meant that German U-boats were forced to focus more on lone merchant vessels.  In response, Britain deployed Q-Ships, armed merchant vessels but with the weapons concealed, the intention being to tempt a U-Boat to surface and attack with its own gun rather than using a more valuable torpedo. The merchant ships guns would then be quickly activated in the hope of sinking the U-Boat before it could fire.

In his introduction, Lawrence Napper pointed out that films like Q Ships were something of a response to Hollywood’s focus upon America’s role in the war, with Britain’s contribution not getting a look in.  As a result, a series of films emerged from studios such as New Era and British Instructional Films (including The Somme (1927), Ypres (1925), Battles of the Coronel and the Falklands (1927) and Q Ships (1928)) which sought to redress this imbalance and present the war from a British perspective. These films carried neither a pro or anti war message but had an emphasis on authenticity (employing actual wartime weapons and vessels, using surviving officers and men to portray themselves, even down to bringing actual soil from France in which to dig trenches for re-enactments) , on telling it ‘how it was’, an act of remembrance of what the combatants went through.

As a documentary, Q-Ships provided a useful visual guide to the naval conflict in the Atlantic and the way in which technical developments tilted the battle first one way and then the other.  It was also interesting in providing both a British and (imagined) German perspective, with the dramatised German submarine headquarters.  Clearly the development of the hydro-phone system (an early precursor to sonar) made a great difference although there was a somewhat fanciful rendition of defences at the Scapa Flow Naval Anchorage.  But it was in the second half of the film that the dramatic element came to the fore, with a retelling of the story of the Q-Ships using many of the original officers and crew of the actual vessels.  In particular, the actions of the Q Ship ‘Stockforce’ stood out.  Hit by a German torpedo, the ships ‘panic crew’ feign abandoning the vessel while the captain and gun-crews wait in hope that the submarine will surface and they will have their chance.  When the submarine appears the tension rises as gun crews must wait for it to come within their firing arc.  But then a US liner appears and the submarine challenges and boards the vessel to check for war cargo.  With the tension now almost unbearable the submarine resumes its approach to the Stockton and at last the ship’s guns come into well honed action and the submarine is destroyed.

In a near perfect model for how a drama-documentary should be made, the only real downside to Q Ships is the now racially unacceptable language used towards the STOCKFORCE’s only black crewman.

Live piano accompaniment for the film came once again from John Sweeney whose superb playing just served to ramp up the tension even further.  

Q Ships is available on disc from Grapevine Video.    

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Returning once more to America at War, but this time to Hollywood in the Air, renowned film collector and historian Kevin Brownlow (who also provided many of the day’s films) recounted the story of Wings (1928).  Using footage from his own highly acclaimed 1980 Hollywood TV series (will this ever get a release on disc!!?) he tells of the making of the film, its larger than life director William Wellman and some of the films it inspired including Lilac Time (1928) and Hell’s Angels (1930).

This was an excellent round-up of this particular genre, providing a reminder if one were ever needed of just how good the action scenes in Wings really are, how dangerous life was for a film stunt flyer (particularly if the director was Howard Hughes) and how I need to get to see the previously unknown to me Lilac Time starring Colleen Moore and Gary Cooper.

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Having seen how the Americans did it, there was now a chance to see a selection of short films showing Europe at War.   First up was Victory And Peace (aka The Invasion of Britain)(1918).  Introduced by Lucie Dutton this appeared to be a shining example of the dangers not only of producing a film by committee but of producing it by multiple committees. Instigated in 1917 by the National War Aims Committee and encouraged by the success of D W Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918), the film was meant as a wartime propaganda piece intended to highlight the continuing German threat to Britain by postulating a German invasion of the country.  But as the complexities of film production became apparent, responsibility for its completion passed through numerous government departments, each seeking to shift the blame onwards.  Then, when the film was finally completed, a fire destroyed the negative and it all had to be re-shot.  By then, the war was over and the completed film was never released.  In fact, it was not even preserved.

The only remaining footage of this project is a single reel of fragments which is what was screened today.  Although there was insufficient material to even guess at a cogent plot, that which did survive indicated a film of considerable production values. The film was directed by noted Irish-American Herbert Brenon and the script was by popular novelist Hall Caine. The War Department supplied extensive military forces for the scenes of conflict, there was a surprisingly effective air-raid scene and noted stage actress Ellen Terry appeared in a rare film outing. Its a shame that not more of the film survived.

The surviving fragments of Victory And Peace can be viewed on the BFI Player.

We then had a recently rediscovered and restored French short, Noel de Garre (aka Wartime Christmas (1916), in which the destitute wife of a soldier away fighting at the front tries to provide for herself and her small son.  But Christmas presents for the boy appear out of the question.  As Christmas approaches the boy writes to Jesus asking that he not be forgotten.  A kindly postman, whose own son has just died, reads the letter and on Christmas morning visits the boy, bringing with him his own son’s toys as a gift.  A somewhat overly sentimental, even maudlin, story, I was about half way through the film before it dawned on me that what I thought to be the daughter was in fact a boy!

Lastly in this section we had the two surviving reels of Nurse and Martyr (1915) a version of the Edith Cavell story.  In the first reel, a trainee German nurse comes to work for Cavell in Belgium but her workshy antics get her dismissed and she promises revenge on Cavell.  In the second and concluding reel of the film she gets her revenge by informing on Cavell’s efforts to save and repatriate British soldiers.  After a trial in which the chief witness is the German nurse’s paramour, she is found guilty and the same chief witness leads the firing squad.  

With a production budget of what looked to be about two-and-six, this was a fairly crude piece of wartime propaganda.  Its closing line of “The blood of the martyr calls to you” was clearly intended to encourage militart recruitment. Cora Lee as Nurse Cavell had the facial expression of a piece of granite while her arms were a classic of windmill like ‘woe is me’ type acting.  A film interesting for its time and purpose but best quickly forgotten although it did have the second best inter-title of the day when the judge at Cavell’s trial studiously considers the evidence before concluding “Bah! She’s British. They should all die!”.

The surviving reels can be viewed on the BFI Player.

John Sweeney was again providing the excellent accompaniment to this somewhat mixed bag.

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And then, all too soon it was time for the final feature of the day, but it was certainly a ‘big’ ending in a literal sense.  The Big Parade (Dir. King Vidor, US, 1925) is generally held to be one of the finest films to emerge from the silent era. Although this evening’s screening sadly lacked live accompaniment it did benefit from being shown with the recorded but still awesome Carl Davis orchestral soundtrack.

In the film, James Apperson (John Gilbert) is the idle son of a wealthy industrialist, a complete contrast to his studious, hard working brother Harry.  When America enters the war, Apperson initially resists pressure from his father to enlist but encouraged by some friends he eventually joins up, much to the concern of his mother and his fiancé Justyn (Claire Adams).  Shipped off to France he makes friends with the jovial Bull (Tom O’Brien) and the somewhat intellectually challenged Slim (Karl Dane). Billeted in a French farmhouse he befriends the daughter of the house, Melisande (Renee Adoree) and the two gradually fall in love, despite neither speaking the other’s language.  But after an argument over Justyn the two separate and there is little time for reconciliation as Apperson’s unit is suddenly moved to the front line, but he promises to return.

Once at the front Apperson’s unit is thrown immediately into action, marching against German positions during which many men are cut down by sniper and machine gun fire.  Pinned down in a shell-hole as it grows dark, Slim sets out to knock out a machine gun post but is shot.  Apperson and Bull set out to rescue him but he is already dead and Bull is also shot and killed.  Apperson is shot and wounded but grievously wounds his German attacker.  The two share a cigarette before the German dies.  The next morning, an American offensive sees the German lines pushed back and Apperson is rescued and hospitalised.  From another wounded soldier he learns that Melisande’s farm is the scene of ferocious fighting and, despite his wounds, he sets out to find her.  But the farmhouse is a wreck and Melisande is gone.  A new German attack leaves him wounded once more but he escapes with the retreating US forces.  

With the war over, Apperson returns home where his family discover he has had a leg amputated.  Just before his arrival Apperson’s mother also discovers that Justyn and Harry are romantically involved. Apperson, depressed at having apparently lost Melisande, reveals to his mother that he has met a girl in France.  His mother advises that he should go and find her. As Melisande and her mother are ploughing a field, she sees a distant figure.  As he approaches it is revealed to be Apperson and the two are e-united.         

There probably isn’t much to say about The Big Parade that hasn’t already been said.  Its just a joy to watch throughout, especially on the big screen.  The opening hour is pretty much played for rom-com and there could perhaps be a little less of the sign language romantics between Gilbert and Adoree.  But this gentle comedy does serve to establish the emotional ties between Apperson, Bull and Slim, which serves to underline the sense of loss (both to Apperson and the viewer) as the latter two are killed and also presents a dramatic contrast to the violence and brutality of the second half of the film. The action when it does come is graphically but very cleverly portrayed.  As the US troops advance we only gradually become aware of their numbers being picked off by German snipers. But as the machine guns open up they fall in a sickening slaughter.  And when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, this is brutal and visceral.  

John Gilbert (Apperson) was already a big name but The Big Parade made him a star and justifiably so with a talent displayed here not only for light comedy but also for the dramatic and action roles. Renee Adoree had a lot less to do although she made a credible Melisande.  Although she looked set to make a successful transfer to sound films her career was curtailed by TB and she died in 1933.  Danish-American actor Kurt Dane was excellent as Slim.  Having virtually given up hopes of an acting career he was plucked from virtual obscurity for this supporting comedy role and continued to act in sound films (albeit usually him playing characters called Svenson, Olaf or Swede!) until his early death in 1933.  Tom O’Brien was equally good as Bull.  As for director King Vidor, this was not only probably his best but also his highest earning film.  It was also MGM’s biggest earner until Gone With The Wind.  But in one of Vidor’s few film career errors he allowed the studio to buy him out of his  20% share of the profits contract and settled for a much more modest set fee instead. The film is estimated to have grossed at least $18-22 million worldwide!

Finally a word about the Carl Davis score.  In the first hour this is pleasant but perhaps unexceptional, with a variety of themes based on popular tunes of the era.  But the score comes into its own during the battle scenes, particularly as the soldiers advance and it is the music itself which first highlights to the viewer the soldiers being picked off by sniper fire.  Then as the advance picks up pace the music adopts a thunderous and rhythmic pounding matching the pace of the troops and reaches a pitch in the melee of grappling soldiers.  Gripping stuff indeed.

The Big Parade is available on disc in a number of versions and with differing soundtracks.   

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And that was it.  A triumphant end to another great day hosted by the Kennington Bioscope.  Their final event of the year is Tod Browning’s 1922 romantic melodrama The Virgin of Stamboul on 5th December  Don’t miss it!