The 1846 Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney was an atmospheric venue for the opening night of Australia’s Silent Film Festival 2010 - a rare showing of 1981 restoration of the Australian silent For the Term of His Natural Life (1927).
Any scholar of Australian silent film can’t help but approach `For The Term of His Natural Life’ with a degree of trepidation. This is the film that marked the literal and symbolic end of large-scale silent film production in Australia - the massively expensive penultimate production of Australasian Films; the film for which our finest silent director, Raymond Longford, was overlooked in favor of a little-known American director, Norman Dawn.
One film historian once told me he was glad the film was rediscovered and restored so that history may know exactly how bad it was. I don’t share that view, though I do agree that the film is, in the end, a collection of intriguing parts that never quite coalesce into a compelling whole.
Dawn had a complex story to put on screen. Based on a classic work of early Australian literature, it is the story of Richard Devine, a British aristocrat who witnesses the murder of a man whom, he has just discovered, was his father. He assumes the identity of his dissolute identical half-brother, John Rex, and in taking responsibility for the murder so that his illegitimacy is not discovered and his mother’s honour is preserved, he is transported to the harsh Australian penal colony of Macquarie Harbour where he assumes a third identity, naming himself Rufus Dawe.
Dawn worked from directly from the book - which is itself episodic - rather than a continuity script, and it does show. A good deal of the above information is conveyed in the first five minutes of the film, via weighty intertitles taken directly from the novel.
Where Dawn succeeds is in his strong visual style. Location shots are atmospheric, and a favourite technique is to situate a small domestic scene in the foreground of a whirl of activity (a vast convict treadmill, a wedding dance party) which is only tantalisingly glimpsed in the background. A lightning-struck prison break is a standout.
Today, Dawn is best remembered for his innovations in special effects. In particular, he is credited with the invention of the glass matte shot, which is used very effectively here. Most strikingly, a matte is combined with the still-extant ruins of the famous Port Arthur jail, to restore the complex to its original convict-era appearance. In another, a vaulted ceiling is added to the interior of a mansion. They’re every bit as well achieved as similar shots in The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind over a decade later.
Less effective is Dawn’s handling of his cast, which is uneven. Hollywood actress Eva Novak is appropriately peppy as the governor’s compassionate daughter Sylvia, but the local actress Jessica Harcourt has the juicier female role as a woman convict, and makes the most of it, especially in her early scenes. The talented Australian actor Arthur Tauchert is unfortunately under-used, his naturalism contrasting with the scenery-chewing of Arthur McLaglen (the Australian-based brother of Victor McLaglen, star of films such as A Girl At Every Port) as the psychopathic criminal, Gabbett.
Musician Colin Offord, using a variety of indescribable home-made string and pipe instruments, provided a stark and spare accompaniment (see the video for an excerpt). There were echoes of convict hornpipes and didgeridoos, appropriately bleak for a story of an isolated penal colony. Occasionally it seemed slightly too spare, but particularly in the closing scenes, it was chillingly effective.
A number of people associated with the restoration were in attendance, including historian and editor Graham Shirley, who spoke afterwards. He had a lot of information that was new to me - including the fact that he had met Norman Dawn in the late 1970s, and worked directly off his annotated personal copy of For the Term of His Natural Life in compiling the 1981 restoration from two incomplete copies, one from the Australian version, the other from the quite different American release.
Unfortunately, he had no word on how close we are to a new restoration that incorporates the lost footage that has been found since 1981, but there was the exciting news that Dawn’s original glass paintings have recently been found and are being restored for exhibition.
Dekigokorois a late silent film - in Japan, they continued to be made until the mid 1930s - and an early work of the Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu. It was made a year after his most famous silent, I Was Born, But … (1932), and like the earlier film it’s a warm, gently funny story about the relationship between children and adults.
Kihachi (Sakomoto Takeshi) is a dissolute beer factory labourer who has more time for drinking sake than he does for working - or for his young son, a marvellously droll little fellow named Tomio (a remarkable performance by Tomio Aoki).
Tomio is the exact opposite of his father - bookish, poker-faced, and unamused by the desperate measures he has to go to in order to wake his father each morning and convince him to get to work on time. How Tomio came to have no mother is never really discussed, but the eye patch Tomio wears when we first meet him - whose existence (and later disappearance) is also unremarked upon - quietly suggests that the lad could be better cared for.
Kihachi meets, and unsuccessfully attempts to seduce, a sweet young woman named Harue, who takes a job at a neighbouring cafe. When he finds out that Harue regards him as an `uncle’ rather than potential romantic partner, it triggers the nasty realisation that life has begun to pass him by, and responsibilities he has not met have ominously begun to pile up.
In her introduction to the film, Dr Carol Hayes (of the Japan Centre at the Australian National University) speculated on the purpose of the film’s name. What exactly is the `Passing Fancy’ that is referred to? It has also been translated as `Acting on Impulse’, itself a translation of the evocative Japanese phrase `to act with your heart coming out’.
In one sense, the film is (like I Was Born, But …) about a quintessentially Japanese moral dilemma: in a society where filial piety is a prized over all other qualities; where the concept of respect is so formalised that you refer to a person based on their level of seniority - what happens when a parent clearly does not meet up to the expectations of their child?
In another, it’s a universal story. We have all known Hikachis - child-men who, whilst waiting for some ethereal signal that they should finally begin taking life seriously, suddenly find themselves paunchier, balder and older than they ever dreamed; bewildered by a world that has moved on from them. The most touching scene epitomises the relationship between the father and boy. Tomio, already in a bad mood at having been teased by his classmates about his illiterate father, tears apart his father’s prized bonsai tree. Hikachi begins to slap him. All of a sudden, the roles change. It is Tomio slapping Hikachi as if he were a disobedient child. Slap after slap lands on the man’s motionless, achingly defeated face. Keep going, his expression seems to say.It’s no more or less than I deserve.
Though Hikachi sets aside his own feelings to help Harue find a good husband, and through other events becomes a more attentive father, we come away with the uneasy feeling that things will never really change. His childlike inability to think things through will continue to be his undoing. It is a credit to Takeshi that despite his shortcomings, Hikachi remains a sympathetic figure. Initially, I was concerned by the accompaniment by master shakahachi player Riley Lee. For one thing, it was extremely quiet. It also had a mournful quality that initially seemed to jar with the gentle comedy onscreen. Its transformation over time was quite extraordinary, becoming - in the best sense of the word - invisible; or to put it another way, indivisible from the images on screen. Ozu’s imagery - tattered banners waving in the breeze, gas bells looming in the distance - is similarly unadorned and evocative. All in all, a different and very enjoyable viewing experience.
Source: Internet Movie Database
The Italian Straw Hat’ (1927)
The premise of `The Italian Straw Hat’ is simple - a gentleman’s horse eats a prized hat. It belongs to a woman who is on a secret jaunt with army lieutenant lover. Under threat of having his house ransacked by the lieutenant, who is now very nervous about being found out, the man must find a replacement for the hat. The complication? He is en-route to his own wedding, and must procure it amidst the festivities without anyone noticing.
It took me a while to get into this film. It starts a little slowly, there are very few intertitles, and those there are do not give any particular `flavour’ to proceedings. The tone also had me confused - was it a sophisticated ensemble comedy with occasional outlandish moments (somewhat like its cinematic ancestor Four Weddings and a Funeral), straight farce, or something in between?
For that matter, why would the bridegroom so fear the preposterous, blustering lieutenant (Geymond Vital, in my favourite performance from the film)? Why would he care about the pair’s adultery being exposed?
In fact, Clair gives us a world of near-Kafkaesque absurdity: what happens if, on the most important day of your life, a psychopath is threatening to destroy you if you don’t replace his girlfriend’s hat? You jolly well get on with finding the hat, of course. Once I realised Clair’s intent, the rest became simple.
The Belle Epoque is conjured with great beauty - the street scenes in particular are like a Gustave Caillebotte slice-of-life painting come to life - but even more so, they evoke the cinema of that time, as does The Italian Straw Hat as a whole. The first moving images we have are from that time and place. Cinema’s first gag - a boy tricking a man into squirting himself in the face with a garden hose in L’arroseur arrosé (1895) – would have been quite at home in this film, made a generation later. Did I glimpse a peeling street poster advertising Lumiere’s Cinematographe in a street scene? Clair deliberately set the film in the year of cinema’s birth, so he must surely be in on the joke.
That being said, the deliberate simplicity of style occasionally sits uneasily with the parts that are more characteristic of a later era. A nightmarish sequence in which the groom envisions his house literally being torn to pieces owes a great deal to Clair’s earlier experiments in Dadaism, and while I found them interesting (and more importantly, funny), they did stand out somewhat from their surrounds. The real heart of the film is the ensemble cast - a hodge-podge of nervous parents, eccentric half-remembered aunts and mysterious family friends who are only ever seen at events such as these; in other words, just like a real wedding party. Mirroring the bridegroom’s own quandary, the best scenes involve their attempts to unobtrusively solve their own small dilemmas. There are missing gloves, tight shoes, and much fun with a deaf old uncle and his defective ear trumpet. By definition, these dilemmas must be worked out in silence, and it is in silence that they find their most effective rendition.
The standout is a howlingly funny scene in which the mother of the bride subtly attempts to get her husband to reattach his errant necktie. Not only is every little nudge massively misinterpreted, but the disease spreads, and before long, the entire room are nervously straightening their collars or picking things from their teeth. It’s an exemplar of the ability of silent film to comment on the nature of silence itself. We misinterpret silence as emptiness, when in reality it is often fuller and more meaningful than the babble we use to distract ourselves from it.
Sharolyn Kimmorley’s piano rendition of Rodney Sauer’s score kept things moving along in a very nice fashion, not only with the effective incorporation of period music such as Offenbach’s 'Tales from Hoffman' but the brilliant use of something that is extremely hard to pull off – silence itself. Very appropriate after all I’ve just said. This is a film that I took a while to warm to – but it will definitely reward a second viewing.
Source: Internet Movie Database
BARDELYS THE MAGNIFICENT (1926) King Vidor is one of those directors who, from the first frame, tells you `Sit back. I know exactly what I’m doing, and I’m damn good at it. Just enjoy’. And a light but rip-roaring, high-quality adventure it is.
Bardelys (John Gilbert) is the Casanova of King Louis XIII’s court - envied by men, beloved by women, and the gossip of both. An arch-rival gives him the new challenge of winning the hand of the beautiful Roxalanne de Lavedan (Eleanor Boardman). Against the wishes of the King, he departs the court in search of the elusive Roxalanne.
By coincidence, the film then unites themes already seen earlier in the festival, in For the Term of his Natural Life and Dekigokoro. Bardelys finds a dying man, and assumes his identity. Little does he know that the man was Rene de Lesperon, enemy of the king and leader of the resistance movement. Injured while escaping arrest for treason in the personage of Lesperon, Bardelys is taken in by a family of anti-monarchists and nursed back to health by their daughter - none other than Roxalanne de Lavedan. Roxalanne is highly critical of the King’s court, and everything represented by the ghastly Bardelys fellow who is supposed to be in pursuit of her. In stepping outside his persona, Bardelys realises the shallowness of courtly life and his womanizing ways. The two fall in love, but Bardelys’ true identity begins to catch up with him.
The standout here is an astounding love scene between Gilbert and Boardman. It’s simply one of the most lovely and original I’ve ever seen in a silent film. Not unlike Clarence Brown in Gilbert and Garbo’s famous garden scene from `Flesh and the Devil’ a year later, Vidor encloses the lovers in their own small world, dappled with darkness and light, as their boat drifts between the branches of a weeping willow tree. To think that time might have deprived us of this scene is a chilling thought.
There is also a spectacular escape later in the film. Contemporary audiences would have been as quick - and fair - to draw comparisons with Fairbanks, and like the film as a whole, it’s slick, well-directed and entertaining. We are so lucky to have another example of Gilbert at the top of his game, while Boardman’s odd mix of pragmatism and hauteur serves her perfectly as the strong willed Roxalanne. It’s a shame the story was not revived in the sound era (possibly, it was due to the same copyright problem that almost saw us lose this movie). You can easily imagine Errol Flynn making a cracking Bardelys. Robert Constable provided an excellent and highly varied improvised piano accompaniment, with a particularly nice love theme.
Source: Internet Movie Database
This is the session I was looking forward to most of all, and it didn’t disappoint a bit. What a crackerjack of a film - whip-smart, sophisticated, adult entertainment of just the sort that was neutered by the Hays Code. I loved it.
As with Bardelys the Magnificent, the world of the film is beautifully established from the first moment. We pan over Roxie Hart’s apartment - Spanish shawls, boudoir dolls, cheap ornaments, a player piano bought on credit; souvenirs of a life of vulgar thrills lived one step ahead of the debt collector. There’s dirty dishes in the sink, a puddle of girlish clothes on the floor, an oversleeping Roxie, and a blindly loving husband who will make everything all right.
This is not the Chicago you know from the 2002 film or the Bob Fosse musical - the character of Velma appears so briefly she is not even named - but the basic story and most especially, the spirit, remain startlingly similar. It deals with phenomena we’re just as familiar with in 2010 as 1927: crime masquerading as entertainment, and entertainment masquerading as journalism.
I’ve expressed my huge admiration for Mauro Colombis’s accompaniments in the past, and I must do so again here. His sense of pace is exquisite - he knows when to embellish and when to back off. Most importantly in a story like this, which could easily tip over into the merely trite and cynical, he knows when to respond to the pathos which, to me, is the key to this film. Behind the glitz, it’s a tale of sad and desperate people.
Amos Hart is a character who, in subsequent adaptions, is the butt of fun. Victor Varconi’s Amos is a principled man who gives his love innocently and, just as innocently expects it to be returned and is horribly hurt when it isn’t. It’s as much his film as Haver’s, who plays the part of Roxie with just the right amount of brattish charm.
The film ends on a somehow ominous note. I will not spoil Amos’s final, noble act except to say that it seems symbolic of the end to an era whose frivolity was sometimes built on broken dreams, and whose paper tigers would soon find themselves blown away by the new order of things. Soon, it would no longer be enough for a woman to dig gold, or for a man to provide it.
Varconi is excellent as mentioned, and Phyllis Haver may have won her millionaire in real life, but that meant she retired in 1930 with plenty of good parts ahead of her. You can’t help but lament the loss of a star who would have shone in the sort of roles that Marion Davies played in the mid 1930s.