Category Archives: silent cinema

Shakespeare 400: Film and TV

There have been many, many screen versions of Shakespeare’s plays – please follow the links below to my lists on Letterboxd to find a range of straight adaptations and versions inspired by the Bard’s work.

Such a rich store of films, television and recordings from the RSC, the National Theatre, the Globe, and Digital Theatre exist to prove the Bard remains relevant 400 years after his passing.

tragedieshamlet

Shakespeare – The Tragedies (http://boxd.it/8yDy), covering 11 of the 37 plays: Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, Troilus and Cressida.

Five to try:

  • Antony and Cleopatra (1974, dir Jon Scoffield, with Richard Johnson and Janet Suzman).  This will be released by Network Distributing later this year.
  • The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir Akira Kurosawa).  A Japanese loose version of Hamlet.
  • Macbeth on the Estate (1997, dir Penny Woolcock, with James Frain).
  • Othello (1990, dir Trevor Nunn, with Willard White and Ian McKellen).
  • Romeo and Juliet (1984, from the Royal Ballet, with Wayne Eagling and Alessandra Ferri, to Kenneth Macmillan’s choreography).

comediescomedydench

Shakespeare – The Comedies (http://boxd.it/8yDS), covering 12 of the 37 plays: All’s Well That Ends Well, The Comedy of Errors, As You Like It, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Measure for Measure, Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing.

Five to try:

  • The Comedy of Errors (1976, dir Trevor Nunn, with Judi Dench, with music by Guy Woolfenden).
  • McLintock! (1963, dir Andrew V. McLaglen, with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara).  A Western inspired by The Taming of the Shrew.
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935, dir Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle).  A Hollywood fantasy with Mickey Rooney as Puck.
  • Much Ado About Nothing (2012, dir Joss Whedon).
  • The Merchant of Venice (1972, dir Cedric Messina, with Frank Finlay as Shylock and Maggie Smith as Portia).

historiesrichardshaw

Shakespeare – The Histories (http://boxd.it/8yEc), covering 10 of the 37 plays: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, Henry V, Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, Richard III, Henry VIII, King John.

Five to try:

  • Richard III (1995, dir Richard Loncraine, with Ian McKellen).  Set in the Nazi era with a modern feel.
  • Henry V (1944, dir by and starring Laurence Olivier).  A stirring version made during the Second World War.
  • King John (1984, dir David Giles, with Leonard Rossiter, for the BBC Shakespeare).
  • Henry VIII (2010, dir Mark Rosenblatt, for Globe on Screen, with Dominic Rowan).
  • Richard II (1978, dir David Giles, with Derek Jacobi, for the BBC Shakespeare).

romancestempestglobe

Shakespeare – The Romances (http://boxd.it/8yEw), covering 4 of the 37 plays: Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest.

Five to try:

  • Prospero’s Books (1991, dir Peter Greenaway, with John Gielgud).  Inspired by The Tempest.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1999, dir Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher, for the RSC).
  • The Tempest (1908, dir Percy Stow).
  • Cymbeline (2013, dir Michael Almereyda, with Ethan Hawke).  With an urban gang setting.
  • The Winter’s Tale (1910, dir Thanhouser).

 

 


Shakespeare 400: The Complete Walk and Shakespeare Live! (RSC)

The 23rd April is both St George’s Day and the anniversary of both the birth and death of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and as we have now reached 400 years since the poet/playwright’s death, both the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have created projects which happened this weekend.

completewalk

The Complete Walk presents all 37 plays in chronological order in a route starting at St Thomas’ Hospital with The Two Gentlemen of Verona and finishing at Potters Fields Park with The Tempest.

We saw eleven of the plays between Hungerford Bridge (Titus Andronicus, with Peter Capaldi, rather battling against the noise of the trains above), to the back of the Oxo Tower (The Merry Wives of Windsor, with Mel Giedroyc).  Three screens (The Comedy of Errors, Henry IV Part 2, and Much Ado About Nothing) were not working as we passed, and I understand technical issues have plagued this project a bit on a windy, cold and showery day yesterday – hopefully today will have more of a hit rate.

  1. Titus Andronicus (under Hungerford Bridge).  Filmed in Rome, this shows a different side of Capaldi than is familiar to most these days from Doctor Who.
  2. Henry VI Part 2 (under Golden Jubilee Bridge).  Filmed at Spitalsfield Market, this was a very modern take of a little-known history play.
  3. Romeo and Juliet (opposite Royal Festival Hall).  Filmed at Verona with Jessie Buckley and Luke Thompson in glorious blue tints in the closing tomb scene, this was well acted and also featured scenes from the Globe’s production with Ellie Kendrick and Adetomiwa Edun.
  4. Richard III (next to Waterloo Bridge).  Filmed in the Tower of London, with a glorious monologue from Claire Higgins, Queen Margaret’s speech from Act 4.
  5. Love’s Labour’s Lost (in front of the National Theatre).  Filmed in Navarre, with Gemma Arterton and David Dawson.  Beautifully shot but the volume made it hard to follow.
  6. King John (in front of the National Theatre).  The Hubert and Arthur scene, filmed a the Holy Sepulchre, with the right amount of murderous intent and tension.
  7. Richard II (Observation Point).  Filmed in Westminster Hall, with James Norton in the abdication and ‘I have wasted time’ scenes.  An actor I don’t care for, but I wanted to see more of this.
  8. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Gabriel’s Wharf Bandstand).  Filmed at Wilton House, with the Theseus and Hippolyta scenes, and the wall scene with ‘the rude mechanicals’.  Funny but lacking the play’s magic.
  9. The Merchant of Venice (Riverside Slice).  Filmed in the Jewish Ghetto, Venice, with Jonathan and Phoebe Pryce reprising their roles as Shylock and Jessica alongside scenes from the Globe production.  Looks great but the sound was drowned out by an adjacent screen.
  10. Henry IV Part 1 (Bernie Spain Gardens).  Filmed at the George Inn, Southwark, with Toby Jones as a drunken Falstaff we first meet passed out in a cubicle in the Gents.  Very funny but far too loud.
  11. The Merry Wives of Windsor (behind the Oxo Tower).  The scene between the Mistresses discussing Falstaff and the basket, with one of them in drag.  Plays like a comedy sketch.

It’s a varied project, and an accomplished one.  The YouTube channel for Shakespeare’s Globe includes trailers for Timon of Athens (with Simon Russell Beale) and King Lear (with Kenneth Cranham).  I hope this project – which also ran in Liverpool this weekend, but mainly in interior locations – has an additional life beyond the opportunity to see the films in situ.

shakespearelive

In the evening, there was a television broadcast live from Stratford-upon-Avon which mixed music (excerpts from West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, opera and ballet, jazz and hip hop, and appearances from Rufus Wainwright and tenor Ian Bostridge), comedy (a delightful ‘nine Hamlet’ sketch which includes Cumberbatch, McKellen, Dench and others, including Prince Charles, advising on how to speak the classic ‘To Be or Not To Be’ soliloquy), speeches (Ian McKellen as Thomas More, Roger Allam as Lear, Judi Dench as Titania with Al Murray as Bottom, Rory Kinnear and Ann-Marie Duff as the Macbeths) and filmed inserts (Joseph Fiennes within the Shakespeare Trust properties at Stratford, and Simon Russell Beale doing part of the John of Gaunt speech from Richard II).

Uneven at the start, this settled into a classy piece of live theatre, although it was not quite as good as the earlier ‘National Theatre at 50’.  Appearances from the likes of Helen Mirren, David Suchet, and the aforementioned Dame Judi and Sir Ian interested me more than a group of students performing Bernstein or a poorly spoken Juliet in the balcony scene.  Still, there was a good range of plays represented, and a strong sense of how Shakespeare has moved into many areas of popular culture.

olivierhamet

To close this post, I will share the costume from the 1948 film of Hamlet, starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, which can be found in the BFI Southbank’s small Shakespeare on Film exhibition in their Mezzanine (above the box office), which accompanies their rather populist season of screenings.


Review of 2015

This is the point where, now 2016 has started with the traditional fireworks and hangovers, we have a look back to the good (and bad) of 2015.

Theatre

In January I saw two productions, the frankly disappointing ‘Potted Sherlock’, and the excellent ‘Taken at Midnight’, in which Penelope Wilton excelled as a woman whose son was in the hands of the Nazis.

February brought a new Tom Stoppard at the National, ‘The Hard Problem’, which tried to mix academia with personal relationships, but didn’t really do either justice.

In March I enjoyed the revival of ‘Harvey’, starring James Dreyfuss, which stopped off at Richmond before a run in the West End, and I travelled to Hampstead for my first visit to the theatre there to see Zoe Wanamaker in the revival of ‘Stevie’ (a piece I know well from the Glenda Jackson film).

April brought three top-class musicals associated with Stephen Sondheim: first, the show on which he wrote lyrics, ‘Gypsy’, at the Savoy, which some of you will have seen and enjoyed when it was on television over the Christmas break, and second, the transfer of ‘Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ at the ENO, with Bryn Terfel, Emma Thompson, and the welcome return to these shores of Philip Quast.  Finally, the concert version of ‘Follies’, at the Royal Albert Hall, which was ridiculously overpriced but certainly star-studded.

In May, a silly but perfectly-pitched tribute to the Bonzo Dog frontman, Vivian Stanshall, who died twenty years ago, was on for one night only at the Bloomsbury.  ‘Radio Stanshall’ teamed old hands with a fun reboot of the Sir Henry at Rawlinson End tales.   Meanwhile, over at the Globe Theatre Jonathan Pryce impressed as Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’, and on transfer from Stratford-upon-Avon, Antony Sher and Harriet Walter reteamed for the first time since the late 90s Macbeth for ‘Death of a Salesman’, which was a definite highlight of the year.

June at the Barbican heralded the Beckett International Festival, of which I chose to see the starry ‘Waiting for Godot’ with Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, and Philip Quast (again!).  I love the play, and this production seemed to polarise audiences, but I found it very good indeed.

In July, there was comedy at the National in ‘The Beaux’ Strategem’, and a major misfire at the Young Vic with a head-scratching version of ‘The Trial’, in which a conveyer belt set and Rory Kinnear were excellent but the translation was not.  Closer to home, Julian Clary headlined the Ealing Comedy Festival, while in town, David Suchet donned a dress for a hilarious take on Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.

August brought us one of the year’s total turkeys, at the Charing Cross Theatre, where the dreadful ‘Dusty’ had cast changes, delayed press nights and worse.  Back at the National, ‘Three Days in the Country’ was a new and truncated version of the Turgenev play, which had a bit of overacting from John Simm but a finely judged comic bit from Mark Gatiss.

In September, the delightful Rattigan play ‘Flare Path’ stopped by at Richmond, while ‘Mr Foote’s Other Leg’ did well at Hampstead before a West End transfer – I especially liked Dervla Kirwan’s delicate actress-whore.    And the month ended with the new version of the Bristol production of ‘Jane Eyre’, a high-energy adaptation which was a total joy to watch.

October saw a trip to the Bridewell Theatre for an excellent version of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ by the amateur Geoids Musical Theatre, an ensemble I would happily watch again.

In November the final piece of the RSCs King and Country puzzle fell into play with the showing of ‘Henry V’, which I liked a lot, and which, coming so soon after the Paris attacks, felt oddly relevant and very moving.

Meanwhile, December brought the undoubted un-highlight of the year, with the National’s jaw-droppingly terrible ‘wonder.land’.   I would recommend a trip to the National’s Shed instead to see the fun ‘I Want My Hat Back’, and New Year’s Eve brought the year to a sentimental close with ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’.

Concerts and live cinema relays

The Southbank Centre hosted a special ‘Friday Night is Music Night’ in February which I really enjoyed: with the Light Programme being represented with everything from Max Miller and Roy Hudd to Flanders & Swann and Gilbert & Sullivan.  The concert a week later in the same series, looking at post-1959 music, was fun, but not quite in the same league.

On Valentine’s Day the Berlin Philharmonic with their conductor Sir Simon Rattle was in residence at the Royal Festival Hall, with a programme showcasing their splendid rendition of Mahler No 2.   And on the big screen there was a live relay from the Royal Opera House of ‘The Flying Dutchman’, with Bryn Terfel, which was another of the year’s highlights: he really had made this role his own.

In April Daniel Barenboim was at the Royal Festival Hall with the Staatkapelle Berlin, playing Elgar, and it was an honour to be there, especially to see him awarded the Elgar Medal which he dedicated to his late wife, Jacqueline du Pre.   This month also saw a live musical accompaniment to a little-seen Lillian Gish film, ‘Annie Laurie’, at the Barbican.

In October, the London Literature Festival gave us both Terry Gilliam (with a video retrospective of some of his films), and Tom Jones (who sang, and by heck, is he still good).  The end of the month had a return visit to the Royal Festival Hall from Randy Newman, who with just a piano, was rather marvellous.

December was the month of NT Live screenings, with the Broadway production of ‘Of Mice and Men’ and the Barbican ‘Hamlet’ (which I didn’t add here for some reason, but which can be seen in my review over on Letterboxd).  We ended the year in concert mode with the professional gloss of Andre Rieu and his Johann Strauss Orchestra at Wembley Arena.

Film

Letterboxd (where I post as loureviews) tells me I watched 451 films – including shorts and miniseries, in 2015.  Eight of those merited a full, five-star score, and all were rewatches: Mary Poppins, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lifeboat, I Know Where I’m Going, Guys and Dolls, Witchfinder General, Rebecca, and The Snowman.

There were, however, some four and a half star films I had seen for the first time, so these are my picks of the year: Night Will Fall (2014), Laughter in the Dark (1969), Her (2013), Maxine Peake in Hamlet (2015), Mr Axelford’s Angel (1974), The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), Contempt/Le Mepris (1963), Shylock’s Ghost (2015), Night and Day (2015), and Tony Benn: Will and Testament (2014).

The turkeys of the year, the true stinkers, number ten: Carry on England (1976), Happy Hooligan (1903), Ride Along (2014), Sherlock Holmes (2011 – and it isn’t the Asylum one), The Other Woman (2014), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), The Nut Job (2014), Annie (2014), Bed and Breakfast (1938), and The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978).

Tributes

I marked a trio of anniversaries this year.  Twenty years since the death of Vivian Stanshall, thirty-five years since the death of AC/DC frontman Bon Scott, and twenty-six years since the death of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.  You can find links to all these in the ‘Index to tribute profiles’ at the top of the page.

Exhibitions

In January, the London Transport Museum was the venue for ‘Goodbye, Piccadilly’, which I loved.  Later in the year, the Hayward Gallery hosted the thoughtful ‘History is Now’, which was odd but engaging.

 


The Rattlesnake, 1913 – ★★★

The Rattlesnake (1913), dir Romaine Fielding for Lubin Manufacturing Company. 

Romaine Fielding (1868-1927) was one of the most fascinating characters of early silent cinema. A maverick who created a new identity and background for himself, he was a flamboyant actor, writer and director who created many westerns set in New Mexico for the Lubin studios, becoming by 1915 the most popular screen personality in the United States.

Sadly, few of his films (70 as director, more than 60 as actor) have survived the passage of time. Many perished in a fire at the Lubin HQ in 1914, and the few which remain survive in a poor state or are unrepresentative of his best contributions to cinema (he crops up in a couple of Alice Guy melodramas – Mixed Pets (1911) and Greater Love Hath No Man (1912) where his style of acting looks 19th century and theatrical; and can also be seen in a handful of comedies which are held by archives around the world, but by all accounts these are not representative of his talent).

Which brings us to ‘The Rattlesnake’, a film he directed and starred in, which was filmed wholly on location in that New Mexico outpost. It is missing the final few minutes due to nitrate decomposition, and the print shows significant damage, but this film, which was publicised on its release with the blurb “Man who threatens society with a dangerous snake returns to sanity after an encounter with a young girl”, zips along well enough.

Fielding plays the bad guy, a Mexican who, crazed with jealousy, wishes to kill the good guy, who has married his former girl (Mary Ryan), but of course he finds redemption by the closing reel. He’s an unconventional filmmaker with a back-story which would do any fiction scenario writer proud, which makes it frustrating in a way that there isn’t enough of a body of work to see this performer reappraised in any meaningful way.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews


Cinema review: Napoleon (1927), Royal Festival Hall

Abel Gance’s ‘Napoleon’, a French film from 1927, has achieved almost mythical status due to its continued unavailability to audiences on home video or DVD in a version which matches as closely as possible the vision of its director. You can of course obtain the Zoetrope sanctioned release, butchered in length and speeded up so it runs just four hours, and with a frankly obvious and pedestrian score by Carmine Coppola (which was the only version you could see live in the United States until last year, when the full restoration finally got its premiere) – but that’s not what we are looking at here.

The Royal Festival Hall, all day yesterday, showed for the third time since 2000 the full five and a half hour restoration of Gance’s film which has represented nearly fifty years of dedication and work by Kevin Brownlow, bringing together elements thought to be long lost, assembling them in the right order by means of consultation of a shooting script which has survived through the years, and presenting the finished work with a score by Carl Davis which mixes original themes with borrowings and arrangements from a range of classic composers to provide an emotional punch which really cannot be equalled as a cinematic experience.

napoleon1

The film itself is presented in several parts – the first has the young Napoleon as a boy at Brienne-le-Château, a military school where he spent his formative years, a proud exile from Corsica disliked by his peers. His only friend is an eagle he had been given as a present, and his days are spent in an angry combination of writing and fighting – Gance allows us two set-pieces in this first section, both stunning: a snowball fight with some clever photography and superimposed images between Napoleon and a rival faction of boys; and a pillow fight in the dormitory which leaves the room and the film frame covered in feathers. Vladimir Roudenko plays the young Napoleon, his expressive face showing his pride and resourcefulness, and in one arresting image, his happiness in the company of his beloved eagle. He is a wonderful little actor who doesn’t seem to have appeared on camera again following this film.

Secondly, we have the seeds of the French Revolution. A section where Danton, Marat and Robespierre plot becomes a fully-fledged recital of “La Marseillaise” – at the close of this, we see a solitary figure at the edge of the crowd, in the familiar hat and profile; this is the adult Napoleon, now played by Albert Dieudonné. He will become linked with the Revolution throughout the rest of the film. The playing of the revolutionaries (Alexandre Koubitzky as Danton, Antonin Arnaud (deliberately exaggerated) as Marat, Edmond Van Daële as Robespierre) may be a little on the broad side, but this serves to place focus on Dieudonné’s quietly authoritative army lieutenant. In his close-ups and emotional responses, we see flickers of greatness – and this being a French film, it very much presents its subject as a hero figure, a saviour who eventually grows to be the one who saves France from doom and degradation. However, as the film shows, it was an uphill struggle, with Napoleon in poverty in indifferent lodgings (from which in one impressive sequence he watches the mob take over Paris).

The third part of the ‘first epoch’ is set in Corsica, where Napoleon visits his family and aims to save the island from betrayal to the English. This is perhaps the slowest sequence, although it has its moments, notably the sea-bound central figure heading for France with just the Tricolour for a sail. The pomposity and preposterous nature of this sequence is nicely underlined by a shot showing the English Admiral Nelson proposing to blow up the ship which eventually rescues Napoleon from the waters, to be told not to waste ammunition on ‘such an insignificant target’.

The second epoch is mainly the siege of Toulon, and Napoleon’s triumph as a military commander. This is the sequence mainly missing from the available version on DVD, and it is a pity – there is humour (the little boy in the inn mimicking Napoleon’s walk as he follows him), action, and a storm sequence which uses the full potential of camera tricks available to Gance at this time. By the time we find Napoleon asleep with his head on a drum, with an eagle again landing to push home the point, we are ready, if you like, for the main events to come.

napoleon2

The Terror which has taken hold of Revolutionary France is presented in part three, from the quiet gallows humour of a clerk who eats indictments to prevent executions, to the unholy trinity of Robespierre, with his cruel and pinched face; Saint Just (an appearance from Abel Gance himself, his handling of a rose and wearing of earrings somehow enhancing his cruel streak); and Couthon (Louis Vonelly), a villain worthy of Bond film in a wheeled chair with a pet rabbit. We see a claustrophobic prison where Josephine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès) cheats death by the chivalry of her husband’s sacrifice. Later we see the same setting as the venue for a decadent ‘Victim’s Ball’ where despite the charms and nudity on offer, Napoleon prefers to play chess in a corner, with Josephine as the obvious prize, flirting behind a fan.

The romance between Napoleon and Josephine is perhaps the weakest part of the film, although it has clever sequences (Josephine’s face appearing on a globe caressed by her suitor), the military genius almost forgetting his own wedding. Gina Manès is a rather obvious leading lady, in typical style for the silent screen, she’s pretty, conniving, and not much more. Still, she captures our subject’s heart and his great love for her pushes him on to the final section of the film, and the one people who have seen it will talk most about, the conquest of Italy.

Not content with using camera tricks, image overlays, mirror images, and other things not tried before in silent cinema, Gance uses the final section of his film to introduce a new system of projection, Polyvision, in which images are shown on three screens at the same time, side by side. It’s a little like Cinerama in the 1950s, but with the crucial difference that where the widescreen process presented one image across a wide area, Gance’s film often presents three different images at the same time, which is almost overwhelming, and by the end, with the eagle soaring, the colours of the French flag painting the frames, and the climactic music of the Davis score, is the last word in patriotism.

According to the programme which accompanied this screening, when the restoration was first presented on an outdoor screen in 1979, Gance (at nearly ninety years old) watched from his hotel window and stood throughout. The standing ovation this screening received last night was a tribute to him just as much as for Photoplay and Brownlow, and for Carl Davis and the Philharmonia Orchestra. The greatest film ever made? Perhaps – perhaps not. But as a cinematic experience, and an example of live silent cinema, it cannot be equalled.


My DVD Library – a gallery!


Letting go of your DVD collection?

The Minimalists made this curious post which caught my eye, along with some pretty startling statements like “Are you one of those people who collects DVDs, proudly displaying your stockpile on a wall or shelf or special area designated for your dozens of favorite movies? Have you ever thought about why you own all those DVDs? Do you plan to rewatch the same movies three or four times? If so, we’d like to posit a solution: get a life.”

Now at the last count we had more DVDs in the house than we will probably ever have time to watch, and I doubt the collection will ever be ‘complete’. Many of these discs are favourite films or TV shows I have loved all my life – do I rewatch them? You bet. And even if I haven’t watched them for a while, I know they are there, and I see that as ‘a good thing’.

You hear of houses groaning to the rafters with books, and they are described as personal libraries. Why are plastic cases and their contents seen as ‘trash’? I will never be a minimalist, and my little sitting room with its TV, Sky+ box, DVD/HD set, and those thousands of titles, is my favourite place to relax. There are books in here, too, and a ghetto blaster tape/radio/CD player, half of my CD collection, a phone, and a lava lamp. There are soft toys, ceramic cats, paperweights, pictures on the walls (a Gone With The Wind poster, a Bonzo Dog print), and an antique mirror, postcards, photos, and a clock which gently ticks.

My DVD collection is part of the fabric of this room. From where I am sitting I have access to sets of plays by Shakespeare, Shaw, Ibsen, Chekhov, Terence Rattigan, Oscar Wilde, Alan Bennett, as well as runs of Play for Today and Armchair Theatre. I have Monty Python’s TV show and films, all the Blackadders, Dad’s Army, Hancock, and Steptoes. I have period dramas from books by Dickens, Austen, Brontes, Hardy, and Catherine Cookson. I have historical dramas about the Tudor kings and queens. I have most of the Masterpiece Theatre and Mystery! shows, and a large collection relating to Sherlock Holmes. I have over 400 musical films. I have all the BFI industrial and documentary sets, and silent films ranging from Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy and Keaton through to Caligari, Nosferatu, Metropolis (four versions), Sunrise, Greed, The Blot, It, and Napoleon.

I even have three of those cheapo Mill Creek multi-packs of 50 B pictures, because there are gems within. I have American, Spanish, Greek, French, German, Australian, and Dutch releases. The Forbidden Hollywood sets and the Treasures of American Cinema sets have pride of place with Upstairs Downstairs (the original) and collections of the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and Ken Russell. And there’s crime, too – Ruth Rendell, PD James, Barbara Vine, Minette Walters, Murder in Mind. There’s the big educational series of times past – Civilisation and The Ascent of Man – I don’t yet have America. And there are PIFs too – Charley Says, Apaches, Tufty and the Green Cross Code.

Children’s TV is here too – Bagpuss and the Clangers, Camberwick Green, Willo the Wisp, Pipkins. Thrillers, sitcoms, anthology series, horror films, girly weepies. Everything currently available by Dennis Potter. A bit of Pinter. Bilko, Dick Cavett, Face to Face, Edward Murrow. And dance too – Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Michael Clark, Matthew Bourne.

Far from not having ‘a life’ these discs have impacted on my life, reminding me of places I have visited, people I have known. Old favourites have stories and memories attached. New discoveries bring pleasure and peace.

No, my minimalist friends, I will not be letting go of this collection.


The rescue of the ‘Hitchcock 9’

For the past couple of years, the British Film Institute has been involved in a major project to restore all of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, and over the past three months these have been premiered with new scores across London. I previously reported on The Pleasure Garden at the Wilton Music Hall, and since then I have caught up with a further three restorations at the BFI Southbank.

First up was Downhill, starring Ivor Novello, Isabel Jeans, and Ian Hunter, from the play by Novello and Constance Collier. A rather mature Novello gets expelled from school when he takes the blame for a shopgirl’s pregnancy (his friend is the one responsible), and we follow his descent (and ascent, and descent) literally from rugby ace and head boy to chorus boy, gigolo, and destitute beggar before the inevitable happy ending as the film comes to a close. Hitchcock used stairs and escalators to represent the descent of his leading man. Jeans plays the flighty and two-faced actress who only throws herself at Novello when he improbably inherits money from a distant relation. She and her fancy man soon work through this money and our hero is left again to fend for himself. This film has previously been badly served in DVD releases – its inclusion in ‘Hitchcock – The British Years’ presented the film without a soundtrack, while a substandard print appeared on a release in Greece. Now it looks approximately as the director must have intended, tints and all. I didn’t see the version with the ‘beatbox’ score, but rather a more sedate but enjoyable one from John Sweeney.

Next was Easy Virtue, again with Jeans in the lead, but this time suffering from the loss of an original negative which means ‘restoration’ is not quite of a quality which could be broadcast or easily watched. The elusive twenty minutes which seems to be missing when comparing the original running time and the one it has now has not been located, and so this adaptation of Noel Coward’s play is simply good – but not great. The inter-titles have however been redone and look pristine. This film has not looked as appealing as this for a long time, regardless of it still having the feel of squinting through the fog, and Stephen Horne’s piano accompaniment was a suitably classy side dish.

The final film of the three I watched was The Ring, which showcases the ill-fated Lilian Hall-Davis, the Danish actor/singer Carl Brisson, and Ian Hunter (again – he also makes an appearance in Easy Virtue). Perhaps one of Hitch’s greatest silents, and his first from an original screenplay rather than a published or performed source, this story of many rings – a boxing ring, a wedding ring, a bracelet – sparkled with the jazz score of the Soweto Kinch Sextet, which fitted perfectly with the action, which revolves around a rivalry for the top in the boxing ring, and for the girl. This film is lively, and Hall-Davis in particular is a delight to watch.

 


50 greatest films: my nominations

Every ten years, a section of film aficiandos and experts receive an invitation to submit their selections for the Sight and Sound ‘Greatest Films of All Time’, and 2012’s selections were announced yesterday, with the big news being that after fifty years, Citizen Kane has been toppled from the top spot by Vertigo.

To me, a film becomes ‘great’ if it is innovative, interesting, or informative – in short, if it has something to say, and stays in my memory. This can apply whether the film is a silent romance, a musical, a war film, a women’s weepie, or a kitchen sink drama. In my list you will find examples of all of these, and more. It is a purely personal list, however, and rather than sort it by numbers, I have chosen to break down my selections into decades.

The 1910s

1 The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919). Innovative, and still feels fresh.

The 1920s

2 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Dreyer, 1927). Contains perhaps the greatest acting performance of all time, from Maria Falconetti.
3 Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (FW Murnau, 1927). Not necessarily better than Nosferatu or Faust, but engrossing on many levels.

The 1930s

4 Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933). A bubbly comedy of manners with Jean Harlow, Marie Dressler and the two Barrymore brothers.
5 Fury (Fritz Lang, 1936). An early Spencer Tracy film with a message about vigilantes and lynch mobs.
6 Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933). The greatest of all pre-Code musicals.
7 Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). A great, epic, glossy soap opera of the American Civil War.
8 Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander, 1936). The Swedish original of the great romance between musicians.
9 Mr Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936). A charming slice of Capra-corn whimsy.
10 Ninotchka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Garbo laughs!
11 Stagecoach (John Ford, 1939). A career defining performance from John Wayne in Ford’s memorable Western.
12 Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935). Polished floors, inky canals, and Fred and Ginger.
13 The Women (George Cukor, 1939). The greatest ensemble cast of ladies in the history of cinema.

The 1940s

14 Bambi (James Algar & Samuel Armstrong, 1942). Disney’s most emotional achievement, and one of the funniest.
15 Black Narcissus (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1947). The Archers’ colourful and over-wrought production set in a house of nuns.
16 A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1944). A quirky, unique, and unusual war film.
17 The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945). Judy Garland in her first non-musical role in this charming romance.
18 It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). Perhaps the best of all ‘what if’ films.
19 Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer, 1949). A delicious crime caper with a twist.
20 Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944). A drama of obsession.
21 Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944). Hitch’s claustrophobic and clever anti-Nazi film.
22 The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941). A remake, but an excellent one, and the first film by Huston.
23 Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Joan Crawford suffers in a typical ‘women’s picture’.
24 Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942). And Bette Davis does the same.
25 Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947). Deeply subversive and beautifully performed British classic.
26 Pimpernel Smith (Leslie Howard, 1941). The Scarlet Pimpernel set in wartime.

The 1950s

27 All About Eve (Joseph L Mankiewicz, 1950). An acerbic drama of theatrical poison.
28 An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, 1951). For the dance sequence at the end alone, and Gene Kelly’s enthusiasm.
29 Born Yesterday (George Cukor, 1950). One of the rare handful of appearances by Judy Holliday as the scatty Billie Dawn.
30 From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953). Career-defining on so many levels, and remembered largely for Deborah Kerr in the sea, but has much more to it.
31 High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952). Anti-McCarthyism at its best. I could have picked the much later film of The Crucible, for the same reasons.
32 Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950). The strange story of Norma Desmond, and her iconic close-up.
33 Twelve Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). A stifling and wordy courtroom drama which never tires.

The 1960s

34 A bout de souffle (Breathless) (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960). For Jean Seberg’s smile.
35 Les demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967). High energy and enthusiasm in this French love letter to the American musical film.
36 Mary Poppins (Robert Stevenson, 1964). Simple perfection, and a perfect marriage of live action and animation.
37 This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963). Angst on the rugby field and by the kitchen sink.
38 The Trap (Sidney Hayers, 1966). Notable for Rita Tushingham’s mute performance.
39 West Side Story (Robert Wise & Jerome Robbins, 1961). The greatest of all dance films, and a potent love story based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
40 Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968). A chilling horror film which does not have its tongue in its cheek.
41 Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964). An example of the stirring ‘boy’s own’ epic, with great music and three-dimensional characters.

The 1970s

42 The Devils (Ken Russell, 1971). Derek Jarman’s designs and Ken Russell’s direction lift this film to greatness.
43 The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972). The blueprint for all crime epics to follow.
44 Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). A blackly comic exploration of the influence of television on the masses.
45 Sunday, Bloody Sunday (John Schlesinger, 1971). A milestone in gay cinema, and full of unusual shots and ideas.

The 1980s

46 Chariots of Fire (Hugh Hudson, 1981). The greatest and best film about sport, which still feels relevant today.
47 Educating Rita (Lewis Gilbert, 1983). Michael Caine’s best performance and a touching portrait of adult education and self-awareness.

The 1990s

48 The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliott, 1994). A vibrant musical comedy, and perhaps the defining image of a transsexual character on screen, who gets her happy ending.
49 Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999). Bonkers, clever, unnerving.
50 Trois couleurs bleu (Three Colours Blue) (Krzysztof Kieślowski, 1993). All the trilogy could be included, but this is the best of the three on all levels.


Cinema review: Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden – restored

The BFI’s ‘Genius of Hitchcock’ project launched this week with the restoration of the director’s first film from 1926, ‘The Pleasure Garden’, now with original tints and extended to a length of twenty minutes more than has previously appeared on DVD releases.

The setting for this first screening (with live accompaniment from the Royal Academy of Music Manson Ensemble, to a new piece composed by Daniel Patrick Cohen) was the charming but dilapidated Wilton’s Music Hall, in Whitechapel, just a short walk from Tower Hill tube station. Given the young Hitchcock’s love for the theatre (which is shown by the opening shots of this film, featuring blonde chorus girls) it was the perfect venue, and it was fitting that with the launch of this season the announcement was made that Wilton’s has gained Lottery funding – of £56,000, as it turns out.

The film itself is a potboiling melodrama with a leering villain (Miles Mander), a sweet chorus girl (Virginia Valli), a gold-digging bitch (Carmelita Geraghty), and a nice but dim chap (Hugh Fielding). There’s also a cute dog to rival ‘The Artist’ and Uggie. Although it isn’t top drawer Hitch, there is much to enjoy in this piece from the fledgling director, and from this beautiful restoration.

The remaining eight silent features are to be restored for this year’s Cultural Olympiad (The Ring, The Lodger, Blackmail, Downhill, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Farmer’s Wife, The Manxman), and donations can still be made via the BFI website .


Classic cinema: Beggars of Life (1928), Barbican Centre

In the Barbican’s long-running Silent Film and Music series, the silent version of William Wellman’s 1928 feature ‘Beggars of Life’ was shown yesterday with accompaniment by that peerless pianist Neil Brand, and the skiffle band The Dodge Brothers (http://www.dodgebrothers.co.uk/, comprising Mike Hammond, Mark Kermode, Aly Hirji and Alex Hammond).

‘Beggars of Life’ stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, and was made in both silent and part-talkie versions. It is the story of an abused female orphan who kills her tormentor and then while on the run joins up with a gang of rough hoboes who move around the country by hopping on frieght trains and live by stealing what they can get. Brooks is the girl killer who, disguised as a boy and with the help of Arlen’s hungry tramp, hopes to cross the border to Canada and get the law off her trail.

First billed but with a fairly small (if significant) part, Wallace Beery is the violent hobo (‘Oklahoma Red’) who despite initially appearing to be another dangerous predator, eventually shows himself to have a soft centre. You can see why he would go on to have a lucrative career in the days of talking pictures.

As for the music, well, we were warned at the start that it would be largely improvised, and so it may well have been, but it fitted the pictures being projected so well that it was a real marriage of the two artforms. Even using the occasional song (which I don’t really like when I’m trying to watch a film, feeling that the words detract from the plot and the performances) didn’t spoil the mood and in fact in a couple of places worked extremely well.

The film itself is not that well-known, with its only DVD releases to date being from public domain specialists Grapevine and Loving the Classics, both utilising poorer prints than the one projected today at the Barbican. Despite the high standing of Louise Brooks amongst silent cinema officiandos, it isn’t the film you immediately think of when she is mentioned, as ‘Diary of a Lost Girl’ and ‘Pandora’s Box’ are much better known. Despite her boy disguise, she is still recognisably Brooks in ‘Beggars of Life’ with the distinctive haircut and dark eyes making an appearance. Richard Arlen is less watchable as his performance harks back to the traditional silent days. He’s perhaps best known these days for ‘Wings’, another late silent, but he did go on to appear in sound films up until the 1970s.

Is it worth your time to seek out? Yes. But try to catch a screening with this particular accompaniment as it showcases five fine musicians as well as the film itself.


Silent cinema review: The Battle of the Somme, with Ealing Symphony Orchestra

St Martin’s Church, West Acton, was the venue of last night’s screening of the Imperial War Museum’s restoration of the 1916 propaganda film ‘The Battle of the Somme’, performed to Laura Rossi’s score by the Ealing Symphony Orchestra, conducted by John Gibbons.

Shot by official cameramen Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, this film is mainly real scenes with a couple of reinactments (the ‘over the top’ and ‘through the barbed wire’ scenes). The film has no plot as such, but in five parts it shows the highs and lows of warfare, with sight of weaponry and shells, of war horses, and of the inevitable death toll of battle.

Rossi’s score is punctuated by imitations of gunfire, lots of strings, and the occasional quiet passage of harp and woodwind. As such it highlights the constant changes of mood of the piece of propaganda, firmly aimed in the British camp.

In the preceding Q&A, a pertinent question was asked concerning the Somme and how many Germans died in the conflict – although we hear of British and French casualties we rarely hear about the ‘enemy’ losses (which are shown here in detail). However, this film is very effective a century on, showing the excitement of troops heading to the front, the boredom and fear of waiting, the dedication to work, and the happiness of hearing material from home. Now it looks odd to have no story and no actual characters, but weaving a drama around a current conflict would not have been the right way to represent it.

Ealing Symphony Orchestra gave a good account of themselves, too, in this last date of a small tour showcasing this film with live accompaniment. The restored film has been made available on DVD since the ninetieth anniversary of the conflict in 2006.


Silent cinema review: Faust (1926), with Philharmonia Orchestra

The Royal Festival Hall on London’s Southbank was the venue for last night’s screening of FW Murnau’s ‘Faust’ (1926), starring Gösta Ekman, Emil Jannings and Camilla Horn, which was also the premiere of a new score by Aphrodite Raickopoulou, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra with Gabriela Montero improvising on the piano.

Faust is a German classic, based on the story of the old man who sells his soul to the devil, initially so he can heal plague victims but eventually so he can snatch back his own youth.  But Mephisto is a clever chap who is one step ahead of Faust, tricking him at every turn.  At first this shows flashes of humour – Mephisto’s dalliance with Aunt Marthe, for example – but with the introduction of Gretchen (‘an innocent girl running to a priest’) the story takes a darker turn.

With primitive special effects and some ripe performances (mainly from Jannings as the Devil and Wilhelm Dieterle – who went to Hollywood to direct – as Gretchen’s brother) Faust can be said to show its age, but still, it has power, emotion, and energy, as well as some clever and imposing shots.  The death riders through the sky.  Mephisto enveloping a whole town with the Black Plague.  The wretched Gretchen’s visions which seal her fate.  The final shots, in which the Devil’s spell is broken, and he is cast out from the presence of God by the one word which blocks his power – ‘love’.

Raickopoulou’s score fits perfectly with the film, and was played beautifully.  I could have done without the lame puns of her celebrity friend, Hugh Grant, who showed a profound ignorance of the film and its period when he introduced it.  Best to let films of this age speak for themselves.  Faust was one of Murnau’s great silent classics – the others are Nosferatu (1922, based unofficially on Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Der letzte Mann/The Last Laugh (1924), both made in Germany, and Sunrise (1928), made in the USA.

Murnau never got to enjoy a career in the talkies as he died in a car accident in 1931, with his final film Tabu released a week after his death.


Silent cinema review: Salome (1923)

The Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre last night played host to a screening of the Nazimova classic silent ‘Salome’, based on the play by Oscar Wilde, and designed and costumed from the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley.

Charlie Barber’s percussion-based music, punctuated by singing in Hebrew, fits perfectly with the strange story of the daughter of Herodias and the prophet John the Baptist.  In a costume which includes a wig adorned with white globes glowing like stars, Nazimova (already a mature woman in 1923 and hardly the innocent child the part demands) pouts and grimaces at her stepfather’s attentions.    But he is the powerful Tetrarch and should not be disobeyed.

British-born Nigel de Brulier plays the mysterious Prophet John, the ‘man who has seen God’.  He is perhaps best known as a succession of cardinals, bishops, judges and other such characters in both silent and sound pictures up to his death in 1943.  His sad face and expressive eyes are perfect for the head which will drive Salome to frenzy and eventual destruction.

Mitchell Lewis is the randy Herod, who first lusts after Salome and then recoils from her in horror after hearing the price she demands for dancing in front of him.  Lewis would continue to make uncredited and small roles for the cinema for another thirty years after this film.  As his wife, and the mother of Salome, Rose Dione, the French actress, is effectively raging at the threat to her position as the first lady of the country.

But this is Nazimova’s film, and rightly so.  Her second costume change, to a silver wig and many veils as she dances, is stunning, and for a woman of over forty she moves like a young lady and passes (just about) as the picture of innocence.  Shown in a lovely tinted print, this film retains its power and is faithful to its source material.


Welcome to LouReviews!

Starting in 2012, this is the place for film, television, theatre, and concert reviews from my own personal perspective.  Comments and interaction are welcome, otherwise, sit back and enjoy this eclectic mix. 

In this blog you will find thoughts on some new cinema releases (starting with the new Mission Impossible), on archive television DVD releases, on classic cinema, on recent television broadcasts, on theatre productions across London and the South East of England, and on concerts and other miscellaneous live performances.

There might even be a smattering of reviews of sporting events as we go into the Olympic year!


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Classic movies, Classic stars

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TV, film, documentary, animation and music talk

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Amy Steele on music, books and other (mostly alternative) entertainment

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A lifestyle blog with a little bit of everything.

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