British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

Would Hitchcock ride to the rescue after lunch? Charles Barr was on hand to introduce us to two different films that the young Alfred Hitchcock had had a hand in: both directed by George Fitzmaurice, both from 1922, both from Famous Players-Lasky’s “Islington experiment”. First up, The Man From Home gave us a transatlantic clash of cultures when young American girl Anna Q Nilsson travels to Italy, falls in love with a dubious prince, and her beau from back home (Norman Kerry) rides into town to clear up the mess. The plot was more than a touch convoluted but the comedy was effective if broad, and cor, look at the scenery. We were directed by Barr to note the hand of Hitchcock in a sketch Kerry uses to order “ham and eggs” at a swanky hotel. M’colleague Henry K Miller ventures that the high-angled shots of European coastlines and hotel terraces recall the fun bits of Easy Virtue. You could stretch your hand out further and almost swipe at To Catch a Thief too. But this was mostly fun – undoubtedly enhanced by Günter Buchwald’s exquisite accompaniment on violin and piano, and also Neil Brand, who was reading out the English translations of the intertitles from the back of the room. Very pleased that Brand saw fit to “do the voices” – less pleased that he didn’t treat us to a rendition of My Old Kentucky Home when Nilsson sat down to the piano back in Kokomo.

Three Live Ghosts is a live ghost itself. Thought to be lost and gone for years, but it was here all along, mislabelled in a Russian archive as a sound film. Hitchcock designed the intertitles for this film, but they are definitely missing. As was much of the plot, the setting and even the characters’ names. The trouble is that TLG had been radically re-edited for Russian release – with the story tangled, extra images almost certainly inserted and names, characters and incidents rebuilt via the intertitles and so on. What we saw was hugely entertaining, utterly bizarre, far away from what George Fitzmaurice etc intended and ever so slightly frustrating. If you wanted to look “through” the film to see the hand of Hitch, you would have to declare yourself ‘cock-blocked. There were layers upon layers of mystery here. We’ll have to wait and see whether anyone gets to the bottom of it

Axel Lindblom on location in the Arctic Ocean during the filming of Den starkaste (1929). Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1929 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.
Axel Lindblom on location in the Arctic Ocean during the filming of Den starkaste (1929). Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1929 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.
The two “Hitchcock” films were punctuated by a Swedish film, The Strongest/Den Stakraste (1929), which I confess I “sat out”, having seen it in Pordenone two years back. Reports came back that it had lost none of its power to enthral and shock. In fact, several people seemed to be traumatised by the violence. What sensitive animal-loving souls we are.

Michel Strogoff (1926)
Michel Strogoff (1926)
To the finale then, and the only mania here was that slight buzz you sense when the audience sits down for an epic show. Questions hang heavy in the air. Will we make it through? Will it prove worth the time put in? Was it wise to order that glass of Merlot? At just over two and a half hours, you might think that Michel Strogoff (1926) would have to rely on something more than just the pungent charisma of leading man Ivan Mosjoukine and his sexy beard. Hmmm … Well, there was far more to our tale than that, not least John Sweeney’s heroically dramatic accompaniment, but even the gruesome violence, sugar-shaded Pathécolor and general epic design could not hold a candle to the film’s smouldering hero. I was there for him and almost him alone. An intense and captivating close to the day’s play that I haven’t even begun to process at this late/early hour.

Most appealing invitation of the day

  • I would, of course, dearly like to join the crew from Not For Sale on a “jolly old low-brow bank holiday”. Wouldn’t you?

Screening trend of the day

  • Spoken intertitles. A selection of foreign prints led to members of the BSFF crew and coterie taking up duty as the “voice of god”. Who knew Ivan Mosjoukine sounded just like Michael Eaton?

Comic relief heroes of the day

  • The war correspondents stole the show in Michel Strogoff, for me at least. Harry Blount of the Daily Telegraph and his Parisian counterpart offered humorous interludes in a heavy-going drama, supported each other through thick and thin, and God knows, they filed plenty of copy. Models for us all!
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5 thoughts on “British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2”

  1. Indeed, we will be most disappointed if today Scoop Hutchinson is not sporting Harry Blount-style loud check suit, deerstalker, and wire rimmed glasses. De Rigeur….but Sideburns
    optional…..re. the intertitle narration , for many of us Bryony Dixon has been the Voice of God for years now…..today was no different. 🙂

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