Archive for Lillian Hall-Davis

A Few Bubbles

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 18, 2009 by dcairns

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“The lowest ebb of my career,” was how Hitchcock remembered CHAMPAGNE, his penultimate silent movie (sort of). He pitched British International Pictures (which is it? British, or international?) a project about a girl from champagne country who quits her job in the winery and heads for Paris, where she enjoys the high life, tasting champers for the first time, then falls to the low-life, then returns home, sadder and wiser, sickened by the very sight of bubbly. But B.I.P. wanted another comedy in the vein of THE FARMER’S WIFE, which had done rather well, so the film ended up being a rather shambling and insignificant light cham-rom-com. “It had no story,” was Hitchcock’s dismissive verdict.

He’s kind of right, but thanks to the exuberance of star Betty Balfour (a big deal in British silent cinema) and Hitchcock’s inventiveness, the movie is still quite watchable.

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The “story” — Betty plays wild child daughter of champagne magnum magnate Gordon Harker, who proves his versatility by wearing a suit and puffing a big cigar, after his lower-class turns in previous Hitchcocks THE RING and THE FARMER’S WIFE. Dad goes broke, forcing Betty to try and make a living on her own. Then there’s a plot twist which everybody gives away but which I won’t. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s there if you want it.

All the story really needs to deliver is this: Betty learns the error of her ways, while struggling to earn a living and cope without servants. After many comic blunders, she shows her fortitude and impresses dad, while also winning the man of her dreams, who realises he cares for more than her money. The trick is to do all this in an amusing manner, but otherwise it seems pleasingly predictable and easy-on-the-mind. Unfortunately, practically none of the above actually happens, or not sharply enough. Betty shows her good nature by sticking by dad, but her life skills don’t really get tested. She certainly never gets good at anything.

(The documentary HITCHCOCK, SELZNICK AND THE DEATH OF HOLLYWOOD suggests that working for Selznick forced Hitchcock to get into his female character’s minds, and thus into the audience’s, ultimately deepening his storytelling and leading to his mature masterpieces. Looking at the silent work seems to suggest that may be at least partially true — the women should be strong, central figures of empathy, but so far it hasn’t happened. EASY VIRTUE is the clearest attempt at that, but it’s so misconceived structurally it hasn’t a chance. THE LODGER is a sensational film and pulls off some good female-centred scenes, but they’re not as centrally placed as they would be in, say, SHADOW OF A DOUBT.)

I quickly decided that the piano score was dragging things down (trying hard for liveliness, but too sparse) so I muted it and ran Joseph Kosma’s soundtracks from Renoir films instead. Since that album also reproduces chunks of dialogue and sound effects from the Renoir movies, the film’s French setting was enhanced considerably. Sometimes it really felt like the voices were issuing from the characters, and since I don’t speak French worth a sous, I could imagine that the dialogue matched the intertitles. When stray bits of audio like train engines came chuffing across the scene, the effect admittedly became rather Bunuelian, although sometimes this too worked, in an odd way. Betty served up a slice of veal, accompanied by the thud of a shoe falling to the floor. The young suitor (described by Dad Harker as both a “boulevard sheik” and a “cake hound”) thrusts his hands into his pockets and there’s a jangling of metallic tools, as if his trousers were stuffed with spanners. And still I maintain that this did not violate Hitchcock’s intentions.

(Everybody try this! DO NOT be satisfied with the music provided. Ken Russell first experienced the joys of mixing images with music when he projected METROPOLIS in 16mm with a gramophone playing Arthur Bliss’s suite from THINGS TO COME. It’s good practice.)

The plot may be shambolic and uninvolving, but Harker and Balfour are good value (I can’t see why Harker dropped out of Hitchcock’s films when sound came in, apart from a bit in ELSTREE CALLING) — both were better known for working class and cockney characterisations, but here they play millionaires, with Betty as a sort of Paris Hilton playgirl, only less appallingly unnecessary. Her extremely lively performance helps jolly the film along from one situation to another, without much help from the script ~

Hitchcock helps in his own way. His preoccupation with food (I guess this was the period when he was transforming from the relatively svelte, mustachioed man-about-town we see in early snaps, to the classic Hitchcockian tub-o-lard) is much to the fore, with a series of lurching shots traversing arrays of luxurious grub, vividly evoking the sea-sick state of the passengers on a luxury liner. And this kind of subjective effect is Hitchcock’s main trope — the film is virtually bracketed by shots from the POV of a champagne drinker, looking through the glass.

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Another seasickness effect shows three Betty Balfours, two rocking from side to side in alternating rhythm, while the third swings right at us, then away again, then back… It’s a bizarre, quasi-nightmarish effect that wouldn’t look out of place in VERTIGO. Well, actually, it would look quite seriously out of place in VERTIGO, but you get what I mean.

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Hitch also squeezes in several fast tracking shots, straight at, or away from his subject. Sometimes these too are POV shots.

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Subjective camera: Betty Balfour withdraws from a paternal kiss. The focus puller gives up in despair and lets the middle of the very fast track-back go completely out of focus.

The casting interests me. Obviously, actors like Lillian Hall-Davis, Betty Balfour and Gordon Harker could slide up and down the class scale in silent cinema far more easily than they could when talkies came in. Even today, a bit of casting like Kathy Burke as Queen Mary in ELIZABETH is rather unusual, and it’s significant that she was cast by an Indian director, I think. It’s accepted and praiseworthy for an English actor like Johnny Lee Miller to assume a regional dialect in TRAINSPOTTING, but for an actor to portray a member of a radically different social class is quite rare.

Hitchcock, in his next film, would cast a Danish man and a Polish-Czech-Austrian-German-French woman in a movie entitled THE MANXMAN, and nobody thought anything of it. That’s silent cinema for you.

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Final Cut

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by dcairns

I belatedly thought of checking Matthew Sweet’s Shepperton Babylon for any interesting insights into Hitchcock’s silent period, and was very glad I did. When I first read the book, I didn’t know who Lillian Hall-Davis was, but I was moved by her story. Now I’ve seen her in THE RING and THE FARMER’S WIFE, and her story breaks my heart.

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LHD was born, without her hyphen, in Mile End, a working class area of London. As a silent movie star, she was able to affect a more high-class persona, but when sound came in, her accent gave her away. Work dried up. In 1933, she turned on the gas taps and cut her throat.

Quite apart from the tragedy and horror of this tale, there’s a point to made about Britain and its cinema. In both Hitchcock films, Lillian played working-class characters. But it was not acceptable for her to SOUND like one. This may be a small part of why Britain struggled while Hollywood thrived. Authentic working-class accents were scarcely heard in British films, except in regional comedies, and even then, they were often music-hall concoctions. Leading men and leading ladies always sounded like upper-middle-class tennis-playing toffs. The stage informed British acting, whereas in America, a purely cinematic approach seemed to evolve naturally. As we approach the period of Hitchcock’s early talkies, this subject may come up again…

E. I. E. I. O.

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2009 by dcairns

If you’re having trouble with the title of this post, I suggest you sing it aloud.

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Our subject is Hitchcock’s THE FARMER’S WIFE, a theatrical adaptation not much to his liking. A farmer and widower resolves to remarry, and approaches four unsuitable candidates for the position of wife, with putatively hilarious consequences. In the end, he recognises that the perfect spouse was under his nose the whole time, in the form of his devoted housekeeper.

In approaching this one, I began to concoct a scheme for rating its interest, since it was soon clear it wasn’t going to be funny enough to enjoy just as a comedy. The interest breaks down into several categories.

1) Laughs. There are only a few. Although Gordon Harker, in a prominent supporting role as “Churdles Ash”, handyman, is a fine grotesque, and watching him try to push a bath-chair while his trousers are falling down is sort of fascinating, it’s the marital candidates who score those few actual snorts of humour the film generates. Olga Slade, as the fat postmistress who just sort of grins idiotically at everything until the farmer’s badly expressed proposal sends her into a distressing fit of hysterics/epilepsy/something, is very good value indeed. (See top of page for onset of fit.)

And Maud Gill has the look of a myopic tortoise in the throes of electro-galvanism, which is entertaining in itself. Hardcore Hitchcockians will recall that, before deploying the first exponential zoom to simulate the hero’s high anxiety in VERTIGO, the Master of S. attempted to use it in REBECCA, to simulate the feeling of the world receding around you, which you tend to get just before you faint. (I’ve never actually fainted, but I’ve had this feeling, most recently during an unexpected cutaway to Nicole Kidman and her forehead during the Oscars two years ago.) The shot was abandoned in REBECCA when Hitch and cameraman George Barnes couldn’t get it to work. In THE FARMER’S WIFE, rather brilliantly, Maud Gill achieves a similar effect simply by backing slowly into the scenery.

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Her servant is also quite funny. She freaks out at the farmer’s intense stare, and later appears sobbing with a dripping tray of melted ices. I don’t usually find people crying funny (I’m too soft-hearted), but the combination of weeping with dribbly tray was somehow poetically humorous.

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2) Wrongness. In an indifferent comedy, the stuff that sticks out as weird or inappropriate can make all the difference. When a supporting player crosses the line from “comic caricature” to “Dr Seuss flesh-cartoon”, we know we’ve intruded on strange and disturbing terrain. The man-oid pictured below doesn’t belong in any place where the sane gather, and will probably haunt my subconscious until such time as somebody invents a squeegee for cleaning nightmares.

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The fact that the farmer is arrogant and downright offensive in his approaches to the women he wants to marry (he’s somewhat humbled at the end, but not for long) is another factor that fills the dead spots between rib-tickling with a welcome bit of skin-crawling. I didn’t really want him to find a wife, though.

3) Technique. Hitch admitted to Truffaut that, although he didn’t think T.F.M. was much good, it had at least been filmed from inside the action. Hitchcock’s use of P.O.V. is effective in itself (the shots of the dead wife’s empty chair are poignant, and when edited into place next to reaction shots of the stoic farmer, the old Kuleshov effect kicks in and we can see all sorts of emotion in his face) although it does nothing for the comedy. If you’re wondering whether it was inevitable that Hitch would gravitate to thrillers, his sympathy for this kind of technique might be an early indication of YES.

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In one scene, the camera adopts the POV of a little boy confronted with a table of food, and lunges at the sweet stuff with a very fast tracking shot indeed. Hitchcock no doubt related to the lad’s food-lust. Effects like this are all the more impressive considering that Hitch’s cameraman became ill and A.H. ended up shooting a good portion of the film himself. It’s uniformly well-lit (with very nice fireside scenes), well-composed and well-operated (in early scenes, the camera has to swing about to follow the perpetually bustling housekeeper, played by Lillian Hall-Davis, who’s much more effective here than in THE RING.

4) Narrative. In adapting the play, Hitch makes a fairly major blunder, of the kind he was later to avoid. In order to illustrate the widower’s situation, and dramatise his desire for a new wife, Hitch and regular scenarist Eliot Stannard open with the some scenic views, proceed to the wife’s death, and thence to the daughter’s wedding, which plants the idea of matrimony in the protag’s noggin. This one-the-face-of-it reasonable strategy has the undesirable effect of delaying the plot’s arrival until the end of act one. In effect, we’re meeting the characters outside of the drama and comedy, in a passive and uninteresting state, and watching lengthy scenes in which all the personae can do is gossip about the sort of plot they might be getting in half an hour or so. It nearly sinks the film completely.

In later years, Hitch decried the practice of “opening out” plays, and he’s broadly right — certainly what he’s done here causes an unacceptable delay in the story. But early Hitch is striking for its structural looseness and even sloppiness (EASY VIRTUE follows the same plan as TFW, so that the real story doesn’t begin until halfway through, when it’s already been pre-empted by the more melodramatic conclusion of the first half). This free-and-easy approach accounts for some of the energy, helter -skelter charm and unpredictability of the early talking thrillers, where it really is one damn thing after another (is there any particular reason why NO. 17 must end with a bus chase?) — I’m going to have to see how I feel about that when I revisit those films…

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