BFI Southbank, London
24 September 2017
(Warning: Contains Spoilers)
Its a Sunday afternoon at the BFI, they’re screening a silent, so that should keep the crowds away! But wait, what’s this, a packed auditorium, so much so that they’ve run out of programme notes! What could it be, Nosferatu? Caligari? The Wind? No, its a quaint little British comedy, one that barely anyone has heard of, let alone seen. But its managed to make a rare escape from the confines of the BFI archives, for which we should all be grateful. The film is Not For Sale (1924) which, when last seen at the British Silent Film Festival two years ago, was a big hit and left the audience captivated. But would it do the same on a second viewing?
The film opens with work-shy young aristo Martin Dering (Ian Hunter) living the high-life on a generous allowance provided by his father, the Earl of Rathbury. The two people he ‘trusts most in the world’ are his fiancé Virginia (Phyllis Lytton) and her even more indolent brother Bertie (Lionelle Howard), because both he and they know that their loyalty is dependent upon his (or rather his father’s) money. But when Martin bank-rolls Bertie’s latest money-making wheeze and it singularly fails to make money, he’s left broke. His pleas to his father for an advance are the last straw for the Earl, who cuts his son off and throws him out with just a ‘fiver to his name, telling him to find a job.
Forced to go slumming it in Bloomsbury (oh, how things have changed!) Martin takes a room at a guest house run by Annie Armstrong (Mary Odette). Annie, mischievous brother John (Mickey Brantford) and sister Tibbles (!) (Julie Keene) are impoverished following the death of their father and forced into taking in paying guests, much to John’s disgust. But he soon sees in Martin an ally in his campaign against the other, stuffier lodgers. Meanwhile, Martin and Annie also take a cautious shine towards each other.
To help look after her lodgers, Annie recruits Florrie (Gladys Hamer) from the local orphanage as a maid. But when John sub-contracts his shoe polishing chores to Sunny Jim (W G Saunders), the local petty villain, its only the street-wise Florrie who stops all the household shoes disappearing. And pretty soon she’s turned Jim into reformed character who takes on the role of butler and romance blossoms here too.
To pay his way, Martin fins a job as chauffeur to nouveau-rich mother and daughter (Minnie Leslie and Maureen Prettyman) and gets a taste of what its like to be a lowly servant. But just as he’s getting used to this working-for-a-living lark a pair of his employers ear-rings go missing and he gets the blame. When the police are called and he is fired, Annie’s self-righteous lodgers demand that such a ‘dangerous criminal’ be thrown out. Although Annie resists, he does the honourable thing and leaves.
But with Martin now working in the hop fields of Kent, Bertie tracks him down to reveal that he has finally come up on one of his schemes. With his money returned Martin cables Annie to say he’s now wealthy so they can get married. However, Annie’s not a girl who’s head will be swayed by money or title and she turns him down flat, saying she is ‘Not for sale’.
Distraught, Martin’s life falls apart and, by the time Annie discovers him, he is living in a slum rooming-house, sick with fever. She gets Martin back to his family home and then gives it to the Earl with both barrels over his failure to teach his son the necessary life skills and then turning him out, unprepared, into the world. Shamed (but impressed) by Annie’s forthrightness, father and son are reconciled, as are Martin and Annie, (with the Earl’s blessing).
Not For Sale is about as charming a film as your ever likely to see. Its well plotted, nicely acted and just hilarious in parts. Ian hunter, making his screen debut as Martin Dering, is a solid if unspectacular leading man. He went on to make a number of further silents, including three directed by Hitchcock The Ring (1927), When Boys Leave Home (1927), and Easy Virtue (1928). But it was the advent of the talkies, with his cultivated, stage trained voice, that led to his career taking off. He starred with Gracie Fields in Sally of Our Alley (1931) and spent periods working in Hollywood with stars such as Bette Davis (The Girl From 10th Avenue (1935)) and Clark Gable (Strange Cargo (1940)) and is perhaps best known as the distinguished Richard the Lion-Heart in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He remained very active in film and TV work until his retirement in 1963. French born Mary Odette was good as the feisty Annie Armstrong. She was already something of a veteran of silent film having started aged 15 with Cynthia in the Wilderness (1916), initially using her original name, Odette Goimbault. But in 1918’s Peace, Perfect Peace she played a character called Mary Odette and subsequently took on this name. She starred in films made in France, the Netherlands and Germany as well as Britain but retired from acting in the late 1920s.
Not For Sale also had nice performances by some early British character actors including Gladys Hamer (image left) as the teary maid Florrie, Mary Brough (image, right) as one of the other more fearsome lodgers and Moore Marriot as the Earl’s solicitor. But the real star of the film was Mickey Brantford as John Armstrong. His sham nervous tic, something akin to a youthful Hunchback of Notre Dame, was gloriously funny. A child star, having appeared in A Man The Army Made (1917) aged five, for those at this year’s British Silent Film Festival, he was most recently seen seen as Private Pettigrew, the young upper-class soldier who deserted over the wire in the rarely screened early talkie Suspense (1930). Although Brantford continued to appear in minor film roles until the mid-1930s he subsequently gave up acting, working instead in film production management.
Director W P Kellino (born William Philip Gislingham, image left, with Estelle Brody) was a circus acrobat, a member of the ‘Flying Kellinos’ troop, before embarking on a career in film. He began directing shorts in 1912, often turning out in excess of twenty films per year until he graduated to feature length productions around 1919. By the time he retired in the mid-1930s he had directed some 160 films, including Rob Roy (1922), Alf’s Button (1930) and the intriguingly titled The Rocket Bus (1929), a ‘Pat and Patachon’ comedy.
While cast and director deserve praise for Not For Sale, much of the credit for the film must go to screenwriter Lydia Haywood. Indeed, as the BFI’s Bryony Dixon made clear in her introduction, this screening is part of an effort by the BFI to highlight the role played by women in early British cinema. Starting out as an actress, Hayward soon gave this up to concentrate on screen-writing, and in particular, adapting books for the screen. Her first success came with an adaption of Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1920) and its spin off, Monty Works The Wires (1921), her only original screenplay (sadly both films are considered lost). Both were directed by Horace Manning Haynes and the success of these films prompted a very productive relationship between Manning Haynes and Hayward adapting the stories of author W W Jacobs for the screen. The end result was eleven films (five now considered lost) made between 1922 and 1924. Sadly, these films are as little known and as rarely screened as Not For sale but of those I have seen, they all display a similar level of gentle charm and dry humour to Not For Sale. They deserve to be much more widely known.
When Artistic, the production company responsible for these pictures failed, Hayward moved on to join Stoll productions where she was teamed up with Kellino. Together they made five films, all five adapted from novels written by women and all featuring feisty heroines together with a regular theme, as in Not For sale, of upper-class characters as downwardly-mobile romantic leads. By all accounts the films were popular successes and all five are extant. It would be nice to get the opportunity to see others in this series. Sadly, so little is known about Lydia Hayward. More informative than most on her somewhat unconventional life and career is Christine Gledhill writing at the Women Film Pioneers Project Here
Its disheartening that these Lydia Hayward films remain so little known. Querying the BFI as to why they can’t get a wider audience, perhaps on DVD, the answer is always ‘There isn’t the market for them’. Of course there isn’t!! People don’t know they exist! They need promoting. What about putting them on the BFI-Player or having a short Manning Haynes/Kellino/Hayward season. And if the BFI can have a tie-in with Talking Pictures TV to screen some well-meaning but hardly enthralling travelogues from their archives, then why not offer a few of these titles. Compared to some of the Z-grade programmes screened on the channel, films such as Not For Sale, The Skipper’s Wooing (1922) or A Will and a Way (1922) are veritable Oscar material. Yet coming back to the world of reality, Not For Sale is now to return to its dark, lonely archive shelf, from whence it is unlikely to reappear for many a year. But come on BFI, can’t you see that a packed house for this screening is trying to tell you something!
And last but by no means least, John Sweeney provided an excellent piano accompaniment for this afternoon’s film and it was evident from his playing that he was enjoying the film as much as the rest of the audience.