Archive for Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

The Sunday Intertitle: Raw

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on April 14, 2019 by dcairns

Seeing WITH LOVE AND HISSES at Hippfest with an audience and live accompaniment by Jane Gardner was great — it’s nobody’s idea of prime Stan and Ollie, but it’s a perfectly successful laugh-generator on the big screen. The boys are practically a trio in this, with James Finlayson granted a lot of screen time.

Fiona was convinced that Ollie is swearing in the above scene — “You bastard!” she read his lips. The DVD is definitely not sufficiently hi-res to allow me to confirm this.

But I felt sure Ollie mouths the words “Oh shit!” here, when he and his troop, having lost their clothes in a freak bathing and lit match accident, encounter a couple of dames out horse riding. H.M. Walker’s intertitle supplies more palatable dialogue —

(Lots of discretely framed nudity in this one, allowing us to observe how surprisingly buff Stan is in the buff. Ollie plays his sergeant character as very ruddy-faced, but it may just be his natural golfer’s tan, suggests Stephen C. Horne.)

None of which is as striking as the moment in PERFECT DAY, an early L&H talkie, when Edgar Kennedy actually says “Oh shit!” live, on camera, in the miracle of synchronized sound, and apparently nobody noticed in the general hubbub and chaos that is a Hal Roach production.

 

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The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.

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.