Archive for Annie Laurie

Old Dark House Valuation

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2019 by dcairns

These are my programme notes from Hippfest’s screening of Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY ~

John Willard’s 1922 comedy-thriller play The Cat and the Canary has been filmed four times: probably the 1939 version with Bob Hope is the most-screened; the second version, The Cat Creeps, from 1930, sadly seems to be lost, apart from a few fragments; the 1978 remake, a rare fully-clothed outing from soft-porn specialist Radley Metzger, is an oddity. But it’s this 1927 production from the German émigré director Paul Leni, that really tickles the ribs and sends shivers up the spine at the same time: a cinematic workout for the whole skeleton.

All the surviving footage from the 1930 version.

It’s also a highly cinematic spectacle, with a mobile camera that looms and lurches (at one point even taking the point-of-view of a painting as it falls from a wall), expressionistic sets, eccentric title cards and artful superimpositions – the invalid Cyrus West, encased in the medicine bottles that give him life, is attacked by giant black cats, embodiments of his greedy relatives: a startling image! And that’s just the opening sequence.

Leni had directed Waxworks in Germany, likewise a riot of visual ideas, but he had a playful side too: he seems to be the only man ever to adapt a crossword puzzle into a film. Sadly, he died too soon, but not before giving us a trio of superbly atmospheric, macabre movies, rounded out by The Last Warning (another horror-comedy) and The Man Who Laughs (indescribable: a Victor Hugo period drama which inspired Batman’s ever-grinning foe, the Joker). Another hit, the Charlie Chan thriller The Chinese Parrot, is sadly lost.

An eerie mansion; a bickering throng of relatives; a will to be read at midnight; an escaped lunatic; sliding panels and hidden passages; a vanishing corpse – the story offers a dizzying array of melodramatic clichés, sent up with gusto and presented with all the shadowy spookshow atmospherics Hollywood could muster. While Lon Chaney’s freaky revenge thrillers were certainly a major influence on the horror cycle of the thirties (Dracula, Frankenstein et al), this macabre caper provided a lot of the inspiration too. The sepulchral sets were designed by Englishman Charles D. Hall, who had come to the States to work for Chaplin and would go on to create the creaky castles for most of the later Universal Studios monster movies.

It’s very much an international affair, reminding us how Hollywood has always sucked into its orbit the top filmmaking and acting talent of the world: Irishman Creighton Hale is the timorous hero, the kind of role he would reprise several times: he’s one of the Hippodrome’s favourite actors, having previously been screened in Annie Laurie and last year’s hit Seven Footprints to Satan. Hale had played staunch leading man types in movie serials of the teens (e.g. The Exploits of Elaine) before donning Harold Lloyd specs here to embody a comic milquetoast. The glamorous Laura La Plante, former bathing beauty, a big star of the silent and early talkie era, is top-billed, but it’s the grotesque supporting players who really bring out the goose-pimply fun…

The cadaverous Tully Marshall, resembling a kind of silly-putty skeleton, makes a lugubrious lawyer; Martha Mattox as the housekeeper, Mammy Pleasant, manages to make any shot she appears in startling, then unsettling; Flora Finch flutters as daffy Aunt Susan, and even the small role of a passing milkman becomes an exercise in grotesquerie, thanks to the chinless Joe Murphy, who was best-known for embodying yokel Andy Gump, a newspaper cartoon character.

And that’s what this is, in many ways, a live-action cartoon, with animated intertitles and a painted mansion to add to the funny-pages feel. Everything, from the actors to the sets to the exciting, swooping camerawork is designed to add to a heightened sense of macabre hilarity: Leni proves that German expressionism isn’t just there for the nasty things in life, it can be good for a laugh, too.

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The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Clan Gathering

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2015 by dcairns

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I already wrote about ANNIE LAURIE here, but that was based on a very fuzzy copy — nothing about the experience could compare to seeing the film on 35mm at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, accompanied by Shona Mooney and her ensemble. The news that HippFest was commissioning scores from respected musicians new to silent film accompaniment had been both exciting and worrisome. I certainly hope Jane Gardner is back next year. But the policy was an undoubted success, due partly to the sheer talent of Moishe’s Bagel (who scored SALT FOR SVANETIA) and Shona Mooney, and partly to the policy of having experienced accompanists mentor the composers. Stephen Horne advised on this one.

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The folk song Annie Laurie is one of the most beautiful pieces of music Scottish culture has provided, and Mooney used it eloquently, weaving it in with other themes and building the emotion of this rip-roaring melodrama/historical farrago to a perfect series of crescendos. A particularly striking effect was the use of silence, always timed to heighten key moments: the music drops out, one character looks at another, there’s a moment of understanding, and then the score starts up again. Powerful.

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On the big screen, MGM’s lavish production values could be fully appreciated, with a studio Scotland concocted from models, glass paintings, capacious castle interiors and papier-mache boulderscapes in the manner of Welles’ MACBETH. All this expenditure resulted in a loss for the studio and accelerated the end of Lillian Gish’s stardom, but the Hippodrome was packed with enthusiastic movie lovers. Probably half the crowd was Scottish, enjoying the blatant traducement of our history and culture — we were just flattered that a Hollywood studio would think it worth doing. I described the film to curious prospective viewers as “BRAVE without the bears,” but it also has bloody limb-loppings, homoerotica (hulking clansmen recalling Groundskeeper Willie’s frequent shirtless action scenes; girl-on-girl kissing with Gish and her BFF) and David Torrence (brother of the more famous Ernest), an actual, honest-to-God Scotsman ~

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An audible gasp from the assembly when the print blossomed into Technicolor at the end.

The Bo’ness Hippodrome knows how to do these things — there’s a sense of occasion, dressing up, informative and funny introductions (Bryony Dixon this time), a short subject with some light-hearted connection to the main film, and a great sense of social gathering, with friends from all over and a community spirit too. It would be great to get some of this going on in our larger film festivals.

I Was Hippodrome’s First Victim

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by dcairns

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I got an early heads-up on the programme for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, unspooling in scenic Bo’ness in March (18th-22nd), and it’s exciting stuff. I think the choices have been getting bolder each year as the films play to packed houses. It’s one thing to run Chaplin films with live music, it’s another to add Ozu to the mix. This year we have forgotten movie stars and filmmakers known to silent buffs but unfamiliar to the general public, but the loyal audiences of Bo’ness can be trusted to trust the Fest in turn and show up, knowing it’ll be worthwhile, even as a devoted crowd of silent movie buffs descends on the sleepy town for whing-ding, I believe it’s called.

Very excited about William S. Hart’s HELL’S HINGES, to be accompanied by Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers. They performed along to BEGGARS OF LIFE last year and it was unbelievably entertaining. There’s still a lot of love for westerns among the older generation in Scotland so I think this chance to discover one of the earliest important cowboy stars will only create an appetite for more. This could be addressed further down the line with Tom Mix, Borzage’s early self-starring oaters, or THE COVERED WAGON and THE IRON HORSE.

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The screening of ANNIE LAURIE pleases me greatly because it was something I suggested a couple of years ago — I have no idea if my hint found its way to the right ears, or if it’s just a coincidence. The Scottish connection makes it a natural choice, and Lillian Gish is overdue for an appearance. It’ll be great to finally see a good print, especially with the Technicolor sequence.

Also Scottish-themed, in a way, is Oscar-winner Kevin MacDonald’s documentary CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH, telling the story Eric Campbell (he of the eyebrows), who liked to claim he was from Dunoon (due west of Bo’ness on the opposite coast). Fresh information, as they call it, has since come to light, but I’m glad MacDonald got his Scottish-funded doc made before research cut the legs from under it… It’ll also be great to see the man-mountain E.C. on the big screen, menacing Charlie as usual.

Surprise choices CHILDREN OF NO IMPORTANCE and SALT FOR SVANETIA continue to broaden the fest’s scope in bold new directions. I’m excited about the rarely-seen SYNTHETIC SIN with Colleen Moore, and favourites PICCADILLY, THE NAVIGATOR and the Barrymore DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE all make appearances with exciting new music.

A shame there’s no Jane Gardner this year, but addicts can check out her trio at The Wash House, Portobello this weekend, with screenings of THE BLACK PIRATE on Friday and SEVEN CHANCES (with ONE WEEK) on Saturday. Yay!