Archive for John Maxwell

The Monday Intertitle: Loose Lip Synch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2014 by dcairns

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There’s a lot to enjoy in Alain Resnais’s PAS SUR LAS BOUCHE (I’m slowly familiarising myself with his post-sixties career, aided by the fact that Fiona seems to enjoy all of them, despite never having cottoned to MARIENBAD.) In fact, what is there NOT to enjoy in it? But most enjoyable of all may be Lambert Wilson (above, right).

Lambert is playing Mr. Eric Thompson (NOT Emma Thompson’s dad, the one who re-voiced The Magic Roundabout for the BBC), an American in Paris, and with his exquise comic timing he is partaking in a proud French tradition — the unconvincing American. For while his attempts to speak French clumsily and with an American intonation are quite good, they’re not exactly believable, and that adds to their hilarity.

The first French talkie was LES TROIS MASQUES (1929), a Pathe-Natan shot at Pinewood by special arrangement with John Maxwell, the Scottish lawyer-turned-exhibitor-turned-producer who had been working with Alfred Hitchock. Pathe head Bernard Natan seems to have gotten along well with Scots — his TV company was co-founded with John Logie Baird. But LES TROIS MASQUES is a dreadful film, stilted and static in the manner associated with the worst of early talkies. It’s as if British reserve somehow soaked into the celluloid and stifled any Gallic joie de vivre.

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Much, much better is CHIQUÉ, a forty-five minute comedy set in a Montmartre dive and exploiting that old joke about the American tourist who doesn’t realize the apache dance is an act. Adrien Lamy plays the American, who says things like “Pas Anglais! Amurrican I am!” He’s wonderfully, hilariously awful. The film is everything its predecessor is not — fluid, rhythmic, pacy, atmospheric, alive. Pierre Colombier directed it, and went on to make Pathe-Natan’s best comedies.

Another early precedent for Lambert’s perf must be the 1931 film version of the same operetta, co-directed by Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays Thompson. A Russian playing an American in France — I assume he’s enjoyable, but I haven’t tracked down the film.

My faulty memory tells me there are other examples of Frenchmen playing Americans, also Brits playing Americans, and also Americans who aren’t actors playing Americans, but I can’t seem to put a name to them. Let me know if you think of any!

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Everything in the Resnais film is in quotes — a theatrical piece from a bygone age performed, archly, on artificial sets by artistes who disappear by slow dissolve each time they start to exit a scene, with a sound midway between applause and a batting of wings. Such artifice courts sterility, but in Resnais’s hands it’s both funny, the way it would have been on stage in 1925, and something else — a scientific experiment in temporal bilocation, perhaps.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh Interlude: Dalry, Gorgie, and Beyond the Infinite

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 24, 2013 by dcairns

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A cinema full of cars, but it’s not a drive-in cinema. Photo via Scottish Cinemas.

The big Part 2 I’ve got planned may have to wait until after the Film Fest, but I thought I could tick off some outliers which Fiona and I visited earlier in June.

We didn’t go to Corstorphine. It’s miles away, and there’s nothing there. But it was once home to the mighty 1228-seater, The Astoria, demolished for a supermarket in 1974. Sic Transit Gloria Swanson.

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We started at Haymarket, which feels isolated from the rest of Edinburgh by the tramworks, Edinburgh’s huge, dizzyingly expensive and Sisyphean public works project. I swear I passed a bus stop with a two-year-old movie poster on it — that’s how long streets have been closed. Haymarket is home to The Scotia, AKA The Haymarket, which is long closed — the front of house is now a pub and a tattoo parlour. The back, which would have been the auditorium, is a car hire company, now seemingly closed. So the building has been subdivided into movement, pictures and refreshments. The interior of the pub and tattooist’s are very similar in style, suggesting that may have been the original look.

Turning to Brendon Thomas’s The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, we learn that The little Scotia (675 seats) was once run by John Maxwell, later Hitchcock’s producer in the twenties, and Bernard Natan’s business partner. This was Edinburgh’s oldest purpose-built cinema. It opened in December 1912, and stayed open for more than fifty years, despite most “bijou” cinemas closing when sound came in.

It closed in 1946 with THE WINGS OF EAGLES (Maureen O’Hara) and GUN GLORY (Rhonda Fleming). A red-headed finish.

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A long walk in a straight line brings us to Gorgie Road and the New Tivoli, now a church owned by the same group as the former Central in Leith. We weren’t able to get inside this one on the day but were invited to come back and try again. The Tiv was and is an impressive, slightly brutalist deco construction, now robbed of the neon which beautified it.

The first cinema on the site was built in 1913. A correspondent in the Evening News recalled the Tiv’s audiences as noisy, requiring regular intervention by the “chucker-out.” Edinburgh’s chuckers-out were busy men. Often unable to identify specific miscreants at children’s matinees, they would eject the first three rows to be safe. My Mum got kicked out in this fashion.

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In 1933 they knocked down the old Tivoli and built The New Tivoli, which opened with Buster Crabbe as KING OF THE JUNGLE, showcasing Paramount’s zoom lens and more wildcats than you can shake a stick at (never shake a stick at a wildcat). The cinema had mood lighting controlled by the projectionist (“for DRACULA, it was always dark blue”). The cinema struggled on into the sixties, rescued from bingofication by a children’s petition on one occasion. It closed in 1973 with PLANET OF THE APES and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. “Ma-ma!”

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Another long walk brings us to a bed shop. But this was once Poole’s Roxy, run by the great cinema-owning family. Built in the art deco style, it opened with James Stewart in SEVENTH HEAVEN and Dick Foran in SUNDAY ROUNDUP. It was 1937. The local branch of the Mickey Mouse Club, formerly based at the Tivoli, moved here and was a huge success. The doors closed in 1963 with Val Guest’s 80,000 SUSPECTS and Rock Hudson in THIS EARTH IS MINE.

My Dad has a personal connection to the Roxy, because as a young electrician he was part of the team that maintained and repaired the neon. As he tells it, the job was to switch it off, fix it, and switch it on to see if it worked. “But it takes 5,000 volts so you want to be standing well away from it when it comes on.”

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The team was at work on their ladders when the foreman signaled to the boy on the ground to get the coffee — a raising the wrist gesture. But to his puzzlement, the boy did not head for the van to fetch the thermos, but went into the cinema. Suspecting what had happened — the boy had mistaken the wrist-raising gesture for a switch-flicking gesture, he told his men to move away from the neon. And just then the sign came on. The boy caught hell from his workmates that day.

So my father narrowly avoided being assassinated by a cinema fifty years ago.

Horribly, last week his bicycle tried to finish the job, throwing him and breaking his arm. So he’s laid up at the moment, not very comfortable, and unable to make it to the Film Festival or get out on his bike. Please send him healing thoughts. It won’t help him — he has a broken arm. But it will make you feel virtuous.

Phantom Electric Theatres of Edinburgh # 1

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2013 by dcairns

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Last we saw, Fiona and I had trudged up Leith Walk, observing the many defunct cinemas along its length. Just after the top of the Walk, we come to the city centre, home to numerous bygone screens. Here’s one site ~cine2 018

Just before Princes Street, we entered the city’s Georgian New Town — well, technically we stopped for a scrambled egg roll, a latte and a scone the size of George Wendt, but we entered the Georgian New Town immediately after that, albeit walking slightly slower. The Queen’s Hall on Queen Street was until recently the home of the BBC’s Edinburgh offices, but in 1897 T.J. West’s Modern Marvel Company held sway with their Analyticon, projecting stereoscopic transparencies on a ten foot screen. Some kind of movie show was common there until 1915.

Where the St Andrew’s Square bus station now stands, there was once The St Andrew’s Square Cinema, seating 1,500. It opened in 1923 with Harold Lloyd in A SAILOR-MADE MAN, and converted to talkies in 1929 with KING OF THE KHYBER RIFLES. In 1952, after screening Basil Dearden’s THE GENTLE GUNMAN with Dirk Bogarde (never seen it, but I must!), the cinema burned to the ground.

Princes Street (“the most beautiful street in the world” ~ William Goldman) is the capital’s main shopping street, with the Gardens and the Castle on one side and a steadily growing number of empty retail facilities on the other. Apart from shops, the street was once home to three big screens. Leading from east to west, they were –

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The Palace (a popular name) was at number 15, in a Georgian-fronted building which still stands, the North British Hotel building. It opened on Christmas Eve 1913, with a cafe and smoking rooms following a few months later. One of the owners also owned the Powderhall dog track, and a film of the Powderhall Sprint was shown in 1914. The cinema delayed converting to sound until late in 1930, when it reopened with the Janet Gaynor musical SUNNY SIDE UP. (Click for musical interlude: play eerie warbles in background as you read on.)

During WWII, the cinema was a garrison-Sunday cinema, according to Thomas, but he doesn’t seem inclined to explain what that was. Movie shows for the troops? It closed in 1955 with ON THE WATERFRONT and THE MATING OF MILLIE starring Glenn Ford.

At number 56 stood The New Picture House, yet another cinema that opened a hundred years ago — 1913 was obviously a huge year for cinematic expansion. It aimed at refinement and gentility, with marble walls and pillars and elegant tea rooms. It sat nearly 1,000. Now the whole building is gone. An ugly Marks and Spenser’s store stands in its place.

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The first movie screened was HAMLET with Johnstone Forbes-Robertson, a film so popular the star remade it just two years later.

In 1929 the New screened Edinburgh’s first talkie, Al Jolson in THE SINGING FOOL, which didn’t impress Sidney Gilliatt but did clinch the success of talkies overall. The cinema closed in 1951 with PAGAN LOVE SONG and Tay Garnett’s exhausting thriller CAUSE FOR ALARM.

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The New lobby.

The Princes Cinema opened at number 131 in September 1912, with a continuous programme of shorts which patrons could walk into at any time. It came with a tea room and smoking room, could seat around 600, and had a six-piece orchestra to provide live accompaniment.

The Princes closed in 1935 with British comedies starring Stanley Holloway and Jack Hulbert, but then reopened as The Monseigneur, a “news theatre” dealing exclusively in newsreels. It acquired a wide screen in 1953 to show the film of the Queen’s coronation, but apparently nobody on the staff understood about aspect ratios, and audience’s complained that the top and bottom of the films was being cropped out.

The Monseigneur became The Jacey around 1964, becoming what one manager termed “a specialist kinky film cinema,” with mainly European product. Chabrol’s LES BICHES was translated as THE BITCHES. The last movie shown was the bluntly titled I AM SEXY.

The facade of this, the last of Princes Street’s cinemas, remains largely unaltered, I’m pleased to report.

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Shandwick Place, at the end of Princes Street, contains the former Albert Institute of Fine Arts, conceived as Scotland’s answer to the V&A Museum. The building quickly became moribund, and in the early 20th century cinema shows were one of the ways it was used. BB Pictures used it for films on a religious theme, but in 1913 it reopened with DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (with James Cruze) and WILD BEASTS AT LARGE (a Vitagraph comedy). It converted to sound but the cost eventually bankrupted the business in 1932, when VENGEANCE with Jack Holt became the last feature to play there. The building is now largely converted to flats.

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The Caley is the first of Lothian Road’s many cinemas. The building still has a lot of retro style (see top). In opened in 1923 with THE GAME OF LIFE, starring Lillian Hall-Davis and directed by G.B. Samuelson, whose son Sydney found the UK’s top movie lighting company. In the fifties, the cinema installed CinemaScope and stereophonic sound, and treated locals to THE ROBE. Edinburgh-set THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE played there for six weeks. This was also the base of the Edinburgh Film Guild, the world’s longest-running film society, which now operates out of Filmhouse across the road. At the time of Thomas’s book (1984) The Caley was still showing films as well as concerts, but it turned into a horrible disco shortly after that — it’s now an attractive music venue entitled, aptly, The Picture House.

poolesynodUp Castle Terrace is the Saltire Court, a big space age building — when it was new and unoccupied, me and my pal Morag McKinnon shot part of a film in there with Stratford Johns. What we didn’t realize was that it was previously the site of a legendary Edinburgh cinema, Poole’s Synod Hall. Originally a theatre, then a church, it was cursed with sixteen entrances, which made it easy for schoolkids to sneak each other in to the popular horror shows of the fifties and sixties (“good, wholesome, creaking door entertainment”). My pal Lawrie told me that Poole complained to the local headmaster about this practice, and the head responded by placing the cinema entirely off-limits. Not the result Poole had hoped for.

Edinburgh Council forced the Synod to close in 1965, but it went out on a high, with Losey’s THE DAMNED doubled with Polanski’s REPULSION.

A little further up Lothian Road we have The Usher Hall, which shows a movie every Halloween, using the mighty organ as accompaniment, and the Traverse Theatre and the Royal Lyceum which, according to the Scottish cinemas website, have shown movies at some point.

But over the road we have a proper, working cinema, Filmhouse, converted from a church (whereas several Edinburgh cinemas have become churches) and rumoured to be haunted. Well, Diane Ladd sensed something strange when she visited with WILD AT HEART at the Film Festival.

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Further up is The Odeon, formerly The ABC, The Cannon, originally The Regal. The frontage is more or less original, but the contents of the building have been ripped out, with one screen making way for three, then five. The ABC chain of cinemas was for years one of only two major exhibitors in the country, and it may have begun in Scotland. John Maxwell, a significant figure in the career of Alfred Hitchcock, may have started his movie career with the Scotia in Dalry Road, according to Thomas. More on this later.

The Regal opened in 1938 with Charles Laughton in VESSEL OF WRATH, and visitors over the years have included the Beatles and Laurel & Hardy. The three-screen complex opened in 1969, and it’s this incarnation I remember — we were weirded out as kids by LOGAN’S RUN, but screamed with joy at the verboten bosoms of Victoria Vetri in WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH. I remember the big, dark foyer, 1970s decor and colours, and the little windows through which you could peek at the screening you were waiting to end. I remember screen one with its curving, cinerama-type screen.

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Carrying on up the road to Tollcross, we find a cluster of cinemas in various stages of existence/non-existence. The Cameo is a beautiful bijou indie/arthouse with a noble history. It’s also a tale of hope — the cinema was closed when Thomas’s book was written, but re-opened a few years later and has been with us ever since. In my student days, this was a favourite for its late-night double-bills: a grindhouse-level scratchiness marred THE DEVILS, but the chance to see LISZTOMANIA projected was not to be sniffed at. The persistent pairing of BETTY BLUE and BLUE VELVET puzzled me at the time — they seemed very different movies. As I acquired a more questioning attitude to sexual politics in the movies, I could see that BETTY BLUE was the kind of “romance” Frank Booth might have made.

Across the road is the King’s Theatre, a variety theatre still specialising in popular fare — we recently saw a fairly wretched Agatha Christie piece there, as guests of the delightful Lysette Anthony, who was appearing in it.

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And here’s the only picture I could find of the long-vanished Tollcross Cinema, which opened in 1912 and closed in 1947 with one of those looong programmes auld folks still remember — the remake of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with Emlyn Williams in yellowface, MYSTERY OF THE RIVERBOAT with, um Lyle Talbot (oh, and a reliable Hollywood Scot, Alec Craig), a supporting western, and Popeye.

Also in Tollcross stand the Methodist Central Halls — apparently the site of occasional film shows in years gone by.

Up on Lauriston Street, near my workplace (Edinburgh College of Art) The Beverley, or Blue Rooms, hung on as a crumbling warehouse for decades. I used to pass it daily and wonder what it was. And yet — maybe I’m misremembering, because Thomas has the building demolished for a pub much earlier than my memory of it. Maybe what I saw really was the  ghost of a cinema? I never thought to ask anyone else, “That building there: do you see it too?”

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The Blue Halls opened in 1930 with WHITE CARGO, a part-talkie converted to sound alongside Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL, and as The Beverley it closed in 1959 with CAROUSEL and YACHT ON THE HIGH SEAS, a TV play starring Nina Foch (and written by Lenore Coffee) which evidently got a cinema release over here as a B-picture.

We finish our jaunt with Fountainbridge, site of Sean Connery’s milk round, and present home of the CineWorld multiplex. My only interaction with that place is when it’s used for the Film Festival. It’s metallic chill is a bit of a buzz-killer, but I’ve had some good times there, usually with the onstage interviews with stars or technicians.

The Palladium, a circus that slowly morphed into a cinema between 1908 and 1911, no longer remains. Though it converted to sound using the unusual Edibell Talkie System, it didn’t survive for long, and a 1931 double bill of MISCHIEF (a Jack Lynn comedy) and SKY SPIDER (thriller directed by Richard Thorpe) closed its doors. It became a Bingo Hall, then became derelict, then got knocked down.

Closer to Lothian Road, The Coliseum looks to be going the same way. It opened as a skating rink, was converted in 1911, but closed in 1942 with NAVY BLUES (Jack Oakie) and ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA (story by Sam Fuller). I actually visited the building during its subsequent incarnation as a Bingo Hall, as some of my students were making a short documentary about the place. It was vast — in its heyday it sat 1,800. Such auditoria didn’t do well in the sound era. Though kept clean and shiny for bingo, the place had a palpable aura of sadness, either because it was full of pensioners filling their last hours with pointless (but pleasantly sociable) activity, or because it had once reverberated with the sounds of youth. Look at it now –

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Part 2 of this epic piece will take us from the old Odeon Clerk Street, haunt of my youth, down to the Bridges and then down the High Street to the Calton Studios. After that — Portobello, Stockbridge, and beyond the infinite…

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