Archive for Sidney Gilliat

Phantom Electric Theatres of Leith, Part 2

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 11, 2013 by dcairns

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Our trawl around the ghost cinemas of Leith seemed to do Fiona good — or else it coincided with a period when she was starting to feel better. It gave an added purpose to going for a walk other than exercise and fresh air, and allowed us to look at familiar places in a fresh way. So we did it again.

Leith Walk is a big hill a mile long leading into town. We’d looked at the defunct cinemas on its lower stretch, so we headed further up to see what we could find. According to Brendon Thomas’ The Last Picture Shows: Edinburgh, there were once several cinemas along here — we used the book as our Baedeker, but also freely pillaged from the indispensable website, the Scotland Cinemas and Theatres Project, which is where I found the image above.

The Petit Paris is one of the most mysterious of all these vanished picture houses. Thomas supplies no address, only an area, Shrub Hill, which is rarely referred to anymore, outside of a bus stop reading “Shrub Place”. The theatre, originally named The New Electric Cinema, opened on Hogmanay 1908 “with staff dressed in Napoleonic costume.” The first film advertised was BLUEBEARD, but I’m unable to be sure which version — maybe the date is wrong on this Charles Ogle version?. Children, who were apparently encouraged to see this bloody story, received a free stick of “New Electric Rock” (rock: a tube of hard candy with a logo printed all the way through the centre). The cinema was either closed within a year, or else it burned down in 1912.

Nothing remains, even of the building which replaced it.

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Further up, however, is the site of another cinema about which more is known, and the building still stands. Pringle’s Palace Roller Skating Rink was originally a veterinary college, then a cinema. It opened in that capacity in 1908, under the auspices of one Ralph Pringle, a Northerner who got bit by the movie bug while touring with his Animatograph (sample Animatograph titles: AN OPERATION IN A DENTIST’S CHAIR and AN AMERICAN LYNCHING SCENE. All very mondo).

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Atmospheric interior.

At one point, it had what I consider the most beautiful of all Edinburgh cinema names — The Atmospheric Picture Palace. Later it was Millicent Ward’s Studio Theatre, The Repertory Theatre, The Festival Theatre, The Broadway and finally The Gateway, run by the Church of Scotland. They opened it in 1946 with OUR TOWN, supported by the Ken Annakin short WE OF THE WEST RIDING.

And then it was acquired by Scottish Television to use as a studio, then I think Queen Margaret’s college had the run of it, and now it’s been turned into apartments, still preserving the Gateway name. But think how much better if they had been called The Atmospheric Apartments! Still, those lucky tenants, passing through the carbon-charged air once stabbed by a smoky projector beam!

A side street on the right as you ascend Leith Walk, Annandale Street now contains no trace of the mighty Olympia, adapted from a roller rink in 1912. It sat 1,800 — a vast size even then, and proved unprofitable, switching to circus shows a few years later.

At the very top of the walk is Baxter’s Place, and this was home to what my Dad dubs “a flea-pit,” naturally known as The Salon (see top), now a burnt-out shell concealed within a woodchip box. I caught up with this one on  a separate outing, since it isn’t mentioned in Thomas’s book. Walking in the area, I bumped into my friend Graham Dey, and he pointed it out to me, reminiscing the while on an epic early seventies screening of THE LAST VALLEY which marked him for life. I believe it was the site of my parents’ disastrous second date — THE VIRGIN SPRING is not recommended to courting couples.

Diversion — a right turn onto Broughton Street immediately presents us with the site of the Theatre Royal, which ran summer season films shows until it closed in 1946. Demolition took place in 1960. Carrying further down would take us to Rodney Street, where another cinema formerly stood —

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The Ritz was all-talking from the start, opening in 1929 with THE SINGING FOOL. It closed in 1981, so why don’t I remember it? I don’t think I was ever there. It’s the true lost cinema of my life.

Back to Leith Walk, which ends in a big roundabout, and we get The Playhouse, a working theatre specialising in big musicals, and possibly still capable of showing movies. Edinburgh International Film Festival used it as a venue during the 80s and 90s, and Fiona and I attended a screening of the Lon Chaney PHANTOM OF THE OPERA with live orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.

Currently screening: Ghost, from the Swayze/Moore movie. Fiona points out that nearly all the shows playing are based on movies.

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The Playhouse opened in 1929, having converted to sound as it was constructed — THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, starring Ruth Chatterton and based on a work by Scottish playwright J.M. Barrie, was the first film shown. By wild coincidence, today I randomly picked up a copy of Projections 2, the John Boorman/Walter Donohue movie publication, and here’s Sidney Gilliatt recalling that movie —

ds“Now it’s totally forgotten. I suppose it had little merit, but it completely fascinated me because it was a complete thing on its own. The lighting was different from what you got on silent films because of the incandescent lamps, which they used because of the soundtrack, and that gave it a different look. I still felt that talkies had nothing to do with art, but did have something very immediate. The audience felt a part of a whole new medium.”

I’d like to see THE DOCTOR’S SECRET, if anyone out there has a copy. It was directed by William C. DeMille, brother of the more celebrated Cecil, and featured sexy Jesus H.B. Warner.

Next to The Playhouse is The Vue, a modern multiplex, part of a mall, only a few screens, but one of them is a luxury cinema where you get served beer, like a PULP FICTION Dutchman. We saw THE NEW WORLD there, because it was the only cinema showing it. Very comfortable, but it still did little to change my view that a multiplex is not a cinema, it’s merely a place to see films.

This is no longer remotely Leith — Fiona and I walk on into the city centre, but that’s another story, for another day.

To Be Continued…

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The Cad!

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2009 by dcairns

Not George Sanders, this time. Emlyn Williams. In FRIDAY THE 13TH. No, not that one.

This is an all-star multi-story British feature of the ’30s, which uses the same gimmick as the later and superior TRAIN OF EVENTS: we start with a crash, in this case a bus (you can guess what crashes in T.O.E.), after which we flashback to find out the individual stories of the passengers, a couple of who we learn are going to die (but we don’t know which). Well, after the scene above, we have a sneaking idea who one of them might be.

Also in the cast are Jessie Matthews and Ralph Richardson, an unlikely romantic couple, and music hall star Max Miller, who can’t act but can do his enervating “cheeky chappy” routine at his fellow players. I was kind of willing him to be decapitated by a sheet of glass, but no joy.

The trouble with this kind of thing is that interweaving multiple stories — as we can see with the excellent but slow-developing Psychoville on BBC2 just now — can lead to very slow narrative development. The speed gained by jumping from one tale to another is kind of frittered away when each tale is interrupted before it can take more than a single step.

Victor Saville directs, from a script patched together by Sidney Gilliat, GH Moresby-White (?) and Emlyn himself.

Raking over the Ashes

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 24, 2009 by dcairns

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Art, which we can barely see, by Felix Topolski, creating a modern version of 18th century cartoons.

THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, directed by Sidney Gilliat, is the film Francois Truffaut says he likes when Hitch asks him if he ever saw any Launder & Gilliat movies. In FT’s opinion, GREEN FOR DANGER “didn’t quite work,” a frustratingly brief critique, but not as frustrating as the fact that, having raised the subject, Hitchcock doesn’t offer an opinion himself.

Well, time has been good to GREEN FOR DANGER, which has received the deluxe Criterion treatment and been discovered by American cinephiles who would mostly have been unaware of its existence. Here in Britain it’s an acknowledged classic, which means that the general public is even more unaware of its existence. A sort of combination of whodunnit, character comedy and giallo, GFD is a delightful, quirky and intelligent entertainment from the pinnacle of British cinema’s golden age. THE RAKE’S PROGRESS, meanwhile, is almost impossible to see — unscreened on television for years, never revived, unavailable on tape and disc.

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I finally tracked down a curiously flickering copy of the film, which proved mildly disappointing, but not by any means bad. Detailing the misadventures of a reckless, increasingly caddish scamp, played by Rex Harrison, the movie seemed most useful as an illustration of the late Leslie Halliwell’s ability to colossally miss the point.

Halliwell, a ubiquitous film writer who penned the first film dictionary I owned (and just about the only one available here in the 80s, save Ephraim Kurtz’s less all-encompassing but far more intelligent rival volume), once wrote that the climax of THE RED SHOES suggested that Powell and Pressburger had run out of ideas and couldn’t think of how to end their film, which kind of demonstrates the scale of ass the man could be. With THE RAKE’S PROGRESS he surpasses even that: “with silly endpapers in which, quite out of character, the rake becomes a war hero.” The reason that’s dumb is that the entire point of the film illustrates a notion of Gilliat’s, which I suspect is true, that a certain kind of man — arrogant, reckless, fearless, motivated by thrill-seeking and attention-seeking — who is a total liability in time of peace, can be a very useful asset in time of war. The film’s greatest achievement may be the fact that it makes this point forcefully (it’s hard to see how anyone could miss it) without insulting Britain’s WWII heroes.

Sexy Rexy begins the film being heroic in a tank, and then we flash back to his youth, getting sent down from Oxford for climbing monuments (and putting chamberpots on top of them — the inter-war equivalent of TP-ing, I guess), a relatively harmless jape, it’s true. Meanwhile he’s carrying on with a friend’s girl, a less innocent form of fun.

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His M.P. father finds him a job in a South American coffee business, an opportunity he blows when he realises how inefficient and inhumane the corporation is (nothing about exploiting the natives, however: Sexy Rexy gets himself fired after a researcher is made redundant). Returning to England, Rex seduces his friend’s girl again, but she’s now the guy’s wife, so that ends badly. A short career as a racing driver offers some success, but when the major European races are cancelled due to impending war, Rex is on his uppers again.

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Now comes the strongest part — Lili Palmer (real-life Mrs. Harrison) enters the film (1hr 10mins in) as a Jewish refugee looking for a husband who can get her British citizenship. She has a bit of money to pay Rex’s debts, and motivated by some genuine unselfish feeling (hearing a Hitler speech booming out in the night) he agrees to help. But he’s not that nice — he invents a £3,000 debt in England which she has to pay too (this cleans her out), so that he can pocket the money. This is pretty nasty behaviour for a hero in a film of this period. Of course, the joke’s on him when his equally caddish best mate embezzles the money from him and loses it in a stock market gamble.

I was delighted to realise this must have been a film my late friend Lawrie assisted on. He worked on GREEN FOR DANGER the previous year, as replacement 3rd Assistant Director, and told me he had made a film with Harrison and Palmer, but didn’t seem to remember what it was. Mainly he remembered them constantly swearing at each other, “the filthiest language I’d ever heard” — and he had been in the Royal Air Force.

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After destroying his marriage AND his father, Rex drifts into the seedy night-life of the taxi-dancer, at which point I realised the film was following the same path as Hitchcock’s DOWNHILL, which I had just seen. What makes THE RAKE more fun than the sombre (but still enjoyable) Hitch silent, is the way Rex manages to have a fair bit of fun on his road to ruin, and is generally completely guilty of everything he’s accused of. He’s a refreshingly irredeemable swine for a film of this era, and it’s a courageous way to depict an officer and a gentleman in 1945 (we also get glimpses of police corruption, class prejudice in action, quietly tolerated adultery, and a few other surprises). My guess is that Launder & Gilliat were still in their left-leaning, angry young men phase (they turned conservative soon after, as men if not as filmmakers: some of their later works do still show sparks of wild invention).

The ending is sweet. Rex’s pal and a senior officer look at his body in a bombed-out cellar, and hear of his dying words, “…a good year.” The officer remarks that it’s men like Rex who have made it one. The witness to the death says that he thinks Rex was referring to the champagne bottle he’d been glugging from. “He died as he lived: drinking champagne he hadn’t paid for.”

The officer says he considers the remark in very poor taste, and strops off.

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“You’d have appreciated it,” says the cad to the dead rake.