Archive for Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

Peepshow Creepshow

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on March 29, 2018 by dcairns

BANG!

Ever the thrifty one, I have recycled my programme notes from the Bo’ness Hippodrome as this fortnight’s Forgotten — the subject is The Ultimate Film of Sensation — SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN!

You’re welcome.

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Lon Again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on March 28, 2018 by dcairns

These are my programme notes for Hippodrome Silent Film Fest’s screening of THE PENALTY. As you’ll see, I was aiming to introduce Lon Chaney and his film to an audience who may not be familiar with him, while trying to include less familiar info or observations for those already versed in the Chaneyesque grotesque. Now read on ~

Lon Chaney was born to be a silent film actor, even though the movies didn’t exist at the time of his birth on April Fool’s Day 1883: since his parents were both deaf, he learned to communicate by pantomime from an early age. Becoming an actor, he used make-up and a powerfully expressive face and body in his performances.

Working his way up from supporting roles in the movies, he showed an ability to steal the show with eye-popping characterisations, eventually bringing to Hollywood a taste for the grotesque hitherto unknown, which would mutate in the coming years and decades into a whole new genre: the horror film.

But in Chaney’s day, these were merely melodramas, often with crime themes. But the versatile star’s use of the make-up kit, along with other, more novel tricks, brought to these movies a rogue’s gallery of physical deformities and disabilities, served up with lurid brio.

Wallace Worsley would direct Chaney in one of his signature roles, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the two were already regular collaborators, uniting for the first time on 1920’s The Penalty. For this film, Chaney undertook the eye-catching role of Blizzard, a double-amputee gangster running San Francisco’s underworld without the benefit of lower legs.

Within the limits of 1920s special effects, there was no way to show an anatomically whole man moving about without legs, but Chaney undertook the task, strapping his legs up behind himself and walking on his knees, a classic instance of the love of suffering at the root of his art. Audiences of the shuddered as he strutted about with the aid of crutches, gasped as he climbed a wall, and winced as he jumped off a table. They still do.

The star’s masochism is served up with ample sadism too (a perversion that usually has more box office appeal). From its opening maiming, the movie serves up relentless displays of violence: a knifing, vicious hair-pulling,and the savagery of Chaney’s own performance, which dominates the whole film even though he’s nominally the villain.
Blizzard’s megalomania, the result of a cranial injury sustained at the same time as his loss of limb, has led him to plan to loot the whole of San Francisco. His villainy goes beyond normal mob boss ambition and into Bond villain territory. He even has an underground lair and a secret laboratory, but to what malign end?

What all this suggests, apart from an uproarious good time, is that the horror movie as we know it today evolved not purely from Gothic fiction or ghost stories, but from the gangster picture. Chaney’s films (see also The Unholy Three, The Blackbird, Outside the Law) united the dubious pleasures of that form–violence, sadism, law-breaking–with grotesque disfigurements and disguises which could exploit his mastery of make-up and willingness to subject himself to painful transformations. What unites the crime thriller with the monster movie is a thoroughly anti-social appreciation of destruction, mayhem and ugliness, not for their own sake, but as liberating escapes from the strictures of normality, peace and civilisation.

All this unalloyed evil must be punished at the end, of course, to allow the audience to feel virtuous in spite of the vicarious pleasure they’ve just experienced at wanton acts of cruelty and pillage. And so the penalty must be paid, though just how the movie-makers tried to achieve this, and what alterations they had to make to appease the censors, is best discovered by watching the movie. It turns out, however, that the arbiters of morality could be even more blood-thirsty than the filmmakers…

The Sunday Intertitle: You Bad Ass

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2018 by dcairns

Movies from 10.30 a.m. until around midnight yesterday at the Hippodrome (and also at Bo’ness Railway Station). The one film I was unsure of, the recently rediscovered early ‘3-s Chinese film, STRIVING, turned out to be a highlight. For all its blatant propaganda content (“Bullets dodge brave soldiers,” one intertitle tells us — and we learn how the Chinese defeated the Japanese, which is pretty counter-factual), I actually like it better than the admired THE GODDESS. It’s in perfect nick, and Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius really brought it to life with their accompaniment.

Everybody’s favourite intertitle came from this film: “You bad ass!” a charming mistranslation which meant to come out as “You awful jerk!” or something. Difficult to find an idiom that carries the meaning and feels natural but doesn’t sound too, well, idiomatic.

The day began with Baby Peggy in THE KID DETECTIVE and Neil Brand at the piano. Neil told us that he’s actually played before B.P. herself. He asked her if they played music on set when she acted, and she said yes, there was one piece that would always make her cry. So when he accompanied her film he played it, and glanced into the audience, and sure enough, there were tears running down her face. I wish we’d had her with us yesterday. She was a big hit, especially in drag with tweed suit and inverted Hitler mustache.

Then there was the very peculiar SAVING SISTER SUSIE, a 1921 Christie Comedy with Dorothy Devore, who I hadn’t seen before. On the slenderest pretext, Devore is forced to dress as a child so she can’t steal her sister’s rich beau, but he falls for her anyway, the “Buster Brown” costume failing to put him off — maybe it even encourages him. This foretaste of THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR meant that the naive little farce stood out in a day full of imperilled virigins and sexual threat, as perhaps the most disturbing film of all.

DER SCHATZ (1923), the first film of GW Pabst, was impressive, but hampered by the score. The Hippodrome set like a good improvisation as much as the next silent film geek, but we like to feel the musician is improvising TO the film. Alois Kott had laid down a sound bed of strange noises, which sometimes changed in sync with the scenes, and then he added another layer of abstract musical noise with an amazing instrument that looked like a cross between a cello and a Curly-Wurly™. None of the sounds would necessarily have been inappropriate for this film, though the intergalactic computer twinkling was something you might want to be careful with. But none of them seemed to follow or reflect the action, tone, mood of the characters or create either tension or space. The effect became like watching a good film (with Werner Krauss and THE 39 STEPS’ Lucie Mannheim) through a thick pane of frosted glass: music as barrier.

We did learn that Kott has provided live improvised accompaniment to football matches, though. I like that idea — sounds like about the only thing that could make the experience of a football match tolerable to me.

Oh, somewhere in there I accidentally won a chocolate egg in a quiz, which I then shared with random audience members. Seemed only fair since I’d guessed half the answers.

Tom Mix and his Wonder Horse, Tony, starred in THE GREAT K & A TRAIN ROBBERY (1926), where the clean-cut hero pretends to be a bandit in order to thwart real outlaws. Heroine Dorothy Dwan (fresh from the ’25 WIZARD OF OZ) seems to be serious obsessed with bandits, fantastising Mix as Dick Turpin via match dissolve, and gloating lustfully over her big book of Romantic Highwaymen. Who knew that highwayman porn was a thing? Second favourite intertitle stemmed from this film, where an effete villain is introduced with the words, “if he’s a college man — it must have been Vassar.” It’s at 2.36 in the above YouTubing. The movie is impossibly innocent — six-shooters blast all over the Colorado setting, but nobody ever gets shot, but it IS a bit heteronormative, I guess you could say.

John Sweeney pounded the ivories to strong dramatic effect despite the chill of the open-air performance amid the Bo’ness steam locomotives.

Then came the double feature of THE PENALTY and SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, which I’d written programme notes for. Graeme Stephen & Pete Harvey provided a beautiful score for the former, quite light and airy for this sadistic gangster-horror melodrama, and maybe a counter-intuitive choice to use strings for a film about a mad pianist (Lon Chaney) — but it worked!

I’m biassed, but Jane Gardner’s score for SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, performed with Roddy Long on violin, was my favourite of the day. It started with jaunty tunes from piano and bow, then when the going gets spooky, Jane switched to electronic keyboard and Roddy added an array of filters to his violin for an eerie selection of drones, pulses, throbs, wails and screeches — but not forgetting the tunes. This movie originally had a Vitaphone soundtrack, now lost, and while it would be unlikely that Jane happened on any of the precise effects of the original (apart from the gong), I could well believe that her work complimented the film every bit as effectively. Director Benjamin Christensen must be looking up from Hell, smiling.