Silence still golden for Garbo, Chaplin and Co
THIS YEAR'S 26th London Film Festival was arranged to go out with a bang on the spectacular two day season of Thames TV silents at the Dominion: — two of the silent classics resuscitated by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, and presented, as were their previous Festival revivals of Abel Gance's Napoleon and King Vidor's The Crowd, with full orchestral accompaniment composed and conducted by Carl Davis with the Wren Orchestra.
It might be more nearly correct to say two and a half classics, for in addition to Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926) starring Garbo and John Gilbert, and Show People (1928), there followed a shortish Chaplin feature How to Make Movies (1918), undiscovered until Brownlow unearthed it this year in the course of his researches. My revered colleague, Philip French, recommending his readers not to miss this unrepeatable programme, described it as "the major experience the Festival has to offer."
Sharing the same expectation, it was with pride and excitement that I devoted my weekend to seeing these half-century old movies. Even modern filmgoers have probably seen Garbo and Gilbert together in Queen Christina, when I did not think Gilbert's voice sounded as fatal to his career as in fact it proved. But Flesh and the Devil was Garbo's first movie with Gilbert, while he was the great star.
I never saw Garbo in her "vamp" period. The very notion of her as a vamp and symbol of evil always seemed to me inept. An impression confirmed by the later scenes in Flesh and the Devil after Felicitas (Garbo) has clearly become the villainess.
Only in earlier scenes as a very young seductress can we recognise Garbo's unique beauty and spell which made Louise Brooks call Garbo, "Queen of all movie stars now and forever."
The story is good old fashioned 19th century melodrama from a novel by Hermann Sudermann. But it had enough dramatic contents to elicit Clarence Brown's fine direction, solid but sensitive, and the creative lighting of William Daniels, head MGM cameraman, whose work on almost every Garbo movie made an important contribution to her historic screen image. One of the saddest losses with that of silent films is the disappearance of slapstick comedy at which even the primitive cinema had become expert. Most of the authorities agree that pretty Marion Davies, after the Hearst millions had failed to make her a successful romantic star, found her own forte as an hilarious film comedienne.
Show People had been intended also as a tribute to its great director, the warmhearted, human and richly innovative King Vidor whose death shortly before the Festival, sadly rendered the tribute posthumous.
Charlie Chaplin in his hey-day was of course the inspired king of slap-stick on the screen; and who could resist the discovery of his unknown half-hour's authoritative lesson on How to Make Movies!
This is a most engaging modest little picture about film studios and what goes on in them, made by Chaplin in 191718 but never released. The studios for which Chaplin was working disapproved of telling the public so much of what went on behind the scenes and Chaplin himself did not think the film worth pursuing.
But Brownlow in his researches came across not only the two reels of the movie, but Chaplin's instructions for cutting it together. So he is reasonably sure the present revision is edited as Chaplin intended and thought it legitimate to show what might be called the sketch book from one of the great figures of filmdom.
The unmistakable enjoyment shown by the huge numbers of admirers at the Dominion of the unhibited hilarity of Marion Davies and William Haines in Show People left me in no doubt that a season of such early comedies would be a boon and blessing to modern audiences. Both films convinced me of the rightness of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill's view that silent cinema is a separate art from sound-film and in no way inferior.
They convinced me, too, that if this great enterprise does lead to a real renewal of silent cinema, then the third partner, Carl Davis, composer and conductor of music, will be of equal importance with the other two. To be carping, I did think that in Flesh and the Devil the orchestra over-stressed a dramatic point but in general the music is invaluable.
A fellow member of the audience stressed the need for live music of some kind to prevent reliance on tinned taping — after all we used to have live piano music in the good old days!
One of the sideshows of the Festival was again the presentation of the "Best of the Year" awards by the film critics — the Film Section of the Critics' Circle. I cannot pretend that this year my vote was with the majority of my colleagues as it was last year. Rather, I endorse their choice of Mephisto as best foreign language film, their "special award" to David Puttnam for his contribution to British films; and to the designers of Blade Runner. Where I disagree is over Missing which the critics voted best English language film, best direction (Costa-Gavras) and best screenplay. Even had my reservations about the film been fainter, I could not see it as of the calibre to run away with all the firsts. If the general impression of the Festival was unsensational, except perhaps the opening Gala quartet — The Captain's Doll, The Draughtsman's Contract, Scrubbers and Hero — most people will still have carried away recollections of four or five films to cherish and impressions of a pretty fair average.
From myself I offer tempered enthusiasm for half a dozen movies I have not yet reviewed. Antonioni's Identification of a Woman was my own highest hope and correspondingly disappointed me. I have been a devotee of Antonioni since the first of his films I saw, L 'A vventura.
My instant — and undying enthusiasm — must have been for the exterior attractiveness of his style. For it was a difficult film. In his rather erratic record since then I had hoped his work was growing more intelligible. But I must admit that this complex examination of a film director's hunt for the woman whose image he means to star is both as obscure as anything of Antonioni's and rather more distasteful. Peter Bogdanovich is another director whose first film or two raised the highest hope but whose record since might be called unpredictable, though his last year's offering was the magnificent Saint Jack. This year his They All Laughed got off to a rather uncertain start when crowds of people milled around the airport without giving much clue of their destination. Hopes were held high by the presence of Ben Gazzarra (Saint Jack) and the irreplaceable Audrey Hepburn, and the vaguely amusing ensemble is given some sense and direction when it becomes clear that one is a private eye.
Barry Levinson's Diner did not belong to my age group. But I shall be neither surprised nor unsympathetic if it turns into a popular cult film, as they say, for the young. It is an entirely friendly picture, fondly and affectionately mocking about a group of young men in that embarrassing verge between adolescence and manhood. Most of them have no fixed ambition, family or of course religion. Most of their time is spent meeting and eating at the not very inspiring "diner" which becomes the centre of their lives or talking to each other about life as it crops up. An endearing and enjoyable picture.
Scandinavian films seem to be developing a number of women directors. Leila Mikkelsen's Little Ida is a modestly interesting and appealing little Norwegian film about a sweet little blonde girl growing up in a North Norwegian village or small town during the Second World War. Her mother cooks for the Germans. Ida observes the vehemence of grown-up reactions, and when liberation at last is announced with the Vtheme from London, Ida learns that "girl-friends of the Germans" get their heads shaved. When I first went to Norway I was amazed that we have such a strong impression of the gloom and melancholy of Scandinavian drama, rather than the gaiety of the people and the sunlit snow and greenery of the mountains — until I came down the mountain into the dark corner where the sun never penetrated. There are spells of both moods in Little Ida.
On second thoughts, Va Banque, the amusing Polish skit on a bank robbery does seem to me as good as any such movie since Rififi, object-lesson for bank-robbery movies.