BFI Southbank, London
7 April 2019
(Warning: Contains Spoilers Throughout)
One o’clock on a rather damp and dreary Sunday afternoon may not have been the best time to be taking our seats for a steamy late night dance hall melodrama but when the BFI offers a rare showing of Maurice Elvey’s 1928 film Palais de Danse who are we to argue. Providing an excellent introduction to the film, noted Elvey expert Dr Lucie Dutton presented Palais de Danse as yet another challenge to the notion that British cinema of this era was incapable of matching the quality of films produced elsewhere in Europe or America. Indeed, she quoted Elvey himself, speaking in 1929, already arguing that the country’s cinema industry was a casualty of a characteristic British ‘mock modesty’ that was undervaluing its output. So, as the lights went down, the question was, how would Palais de Danse compare to its continental or Hollywood counterparts?
The film opens with a street waif (Mabel Poulsen) being invited in to play Cinderella in an introductory tableau for an upmarket charity ball at the Palais de Danse. Placing the glass slipper on her foot is eligible aristocratic bachelor Tony King (Robin Irvine) and there is an immediate mutual attraction between the two. In return for playing Cinderella, the street waif asks for a job as a dancing partner at the Palais. After an audition with the head dancer, the overly sleazy ‘No. 1’, she gets a job and becomes ‘No.16’. Meanwhile, Tony King’s mother, Lady King (Hilda Moore) is involved in a secret affair with who she thinks is the aristocratic Count Alban but, unbeknownst to her, he is in fact the very same No.1 dancer at the Palais.
As No.16 and Tony King begin to see more of each other, Lady King decides to put an end to her son’s burgeoning relationship with a girl she regards as being unworthy of her son. But visiting the Palais to forbid No.16 from seeing her son again she instead encounters No.1 and realises the true identity and status of her own lover. He now attempts to blackmail her over an incriminating photograph she had given him previously. This conversation is overheard by No.16.
No.16 reasons that if she can get hold of the photograph and return it to Lady King her relationship with Tony will be looked on more favourably. But when Tony finds her in No’1’s lodgings she cannot reveal why she is there without giving away Lady King’s secret and their relationship looks to be over. Eventually No.16 manages to get hold of the incriminating photograph and gives it to Lady King just as she is meeting No.1 to hand over the money. At that moment Tony also arrives and discovers the truth of his mother’s relationship with No.1. As No.1 tries to grab the money a furious fight breaks out with Tony which leads the two of them eventually to the glass roof of the Palais, from where No.1 falls to his death. The film ends with Tony and No.16 proceeding down the wedding aisle, married with Lady King’s blessing!
In a film-making career of some 45 years, Maurice Elvey notched up almost 200 directorial credits and, in doing so, still retains the title of Britain’s most prolific director. Of all of these films though, the one which still stands out for me as the epitome of Elvey’s film making talent must remain his stunning 1927 version of Hindle Wakes (although Comradeship (1919) and The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) do also come close). And in looking at other Elvey works it is difficult not to find one’s self judging them in comparison to the lofty benchmark set by Hindle Wakes (reviewed here ).
Certainly Palais de Danse and Hindle Wakes do plough similar themes, in particular the issues of class and money, but in very different ways. In Hindle Wakes, the mill worker Fanny has an affair with the boss’s son, but when their respective parents find out and both decide that marriage is the only course of action it is the spirited ‘Lancashire lass’ who decides against it, going instead her own way. In Palais de Danse, it is Lady King who decides that No.16 is unsuitable for her son. But then, when she discovers that she too has been ‘involved’ with the lower classes, there is a change of heart and we’re suddenly in for a happy ending.
Then there is the acting. In Hindle Wakes every character comes across in the most realistic and believable manner, Fanny’s combative mother and her cowed and down-beaten father, Jeffcote senior the bluff businessman and his wife the overprotective mother, and Fanny herself as the epitome of the self possessed and independent female. Yet in Palais de Danse, the senior male figures (No’16’s disabled war veteran father or John King’s judge father) are little more than caricatures. Tony King is something of a cypher while No.16 is prone to the sort of wrought, over emotional theatricality of an earlier acting era. Although No.1 does perhaps somewhat overplay the sleazy element of the character he does at least remain this side of believable but it is really only the Lady King character who captures the believability of her situation, particularly in the scene when she realizes not only that ‘Count Alban’ is a fraud but that she has been taken in by the same sort of lowly type that she finds just so unsuitable for her son.
But perhaps the high point of unbelievability for Palais de Danse is the final scene. As Tony King and No.16 marry, with Lady King’s apparent blessing, isn’t this just too much (and too unrealistic) of a happy ending (even for Cinderalla?). Great store had been set by all concerned in avoiding scandal, yet here was a dead gigolo, involved in an illicit affair with the wife of a senior judge! Where was the scandal? And what of Tony King? He had just killed a man in a fight witnessed by hundreds. Yet instead of jail time here he was getting married! And here too was the aristocratic Lady King, suddenly the happy mother-in-law of a penniless street waif that she had earlier despised! Several steps too far in the credibility stakes methinks (even if we are talking about a film seeking to portray itself as an updating of a fairy story). .
And yet, breaking away from the Hindle Wakes perspective, there were elements to recommend Palais de Danse. The cinematography from Percy Strong was excellent, particularly of the dance scenes (with 1,500 extras recruited to shoot the scenes at the Tottenham Palais). Indeed, even these scenes also brought back memories of Hindle Wakes and the dance scenes shot at the Blackpool Tower ballroom. Strong had worked previously with Elvey on films such as Balaclava (1928) and would do so again with You Know What Sailors Are (1928) and High Treason (1929). Then there was the terrific comedy support role of Chilie Bouchier (image, right) as the hard-bitten and perennially gum chewing dancer No.2 and the ‘gentlemen’ who competed, or at least brought dance tickets, for her affections.
Amongst the stars of Palais de Danse, Mable Poulten (image, below left) seemed in some ways a strange choice as lead. Although aged 27 at the time she looked more like a 14 year old with a diminutive stature, in some ways a Mary Pickford type presence. She may have been the ideal street waif but she was hardly a convincing professional dance partner. And yet, there was a certain charm to her performance, not least in the early tableaux scene in which Prince Charming, having failed to fit the glass slipper to either of the ugly sisters then struggles to fit it to Cinderella’s foot, much to their mutual amusement, and hinting at the fraught nature of their future relationship. But Poulten’s main weakness in the film was her overly dramatic and unconvincing acting style, particularly at moments of high drama. And yet she did not lack for popular screen adulation. Making her debut in 1921’s Nothing Else Matters alongside Betty Balfour she was second only to Balfour in audience popularity by mid-decade. After making a big hit alongside Ivor Novello in the somewhat risqué The Constant Nymph ( 1928) she looked to be seriously in the running for a lead role in Abel Gance’s Napoleon but this was not to be and eventually, at the onset of the talkies, her strong cockney accent caught up with her and her acting career petered out.
John Longden, who played the scheming No.1 (and also wrote the film’s screenplay) had a long career in film (including five early Hitchcocks – he was Anny Ondre’s detective boyfriend in Blackmail (1929) and latterly television before his death in 1971. And as for Hilda Moore (Lady King) much more might have been expected of her with a move in 1929 to Hollywood but having contracted blood poisoning from her infant son she died the same year before completion of her first American film.
As for Maurice Elvey himself (image, right), he was to make a seamless transition to sound films, continuing to direct until the late 1950s. But his subsequent films were never to achieve the same level of quality that they did in the silent era. As one writer pointed out, “Elvey died in 1967, at the age of 79, remembered, if at all, as a journeyman who turned out low-budget quickies that defined the mediocrity of the British film industry. In 1927, at least, he was in its vanguard.”
So how does Palais de Danse compare, both in terms of Elvey’s other output and in comparison to European and American films of the era. Well, its certainly no Hindle Wakes. That was a film tackling serious issues in a serious way. There was no happy ending tacked on. But it was also a better directed film, with not a wasted shot let alone scene. In contrast, the direction in Palais de Danse was much looser, the acting more theatrical and the film less realistic. However, that’s not to say it was a poor film. It could certainly hold a candle to much of Hollywood’s output of the time in terms of direction, performances, plotting and production values and would certainly support Dr Dutton’s introductory challenge that British cinema of this era was indeed capable of matching the quality of films produced elsewhere in Europe or America.
Live piano accompaniment for the film came from Costas Fotopoulos who faced the daunting challenge of matching the constant changes of pace from a variety of dance hall rhythms not to mention the gradually unfolding melodrama and comedy interludes but he nevertheless coped admirably.
There is no sign of Palais de Danse being available either on disc or on-line.