Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

A prisoner escapes from Dartmoor prison. The guards look for him. They go to a cottage near by, where they believe he is headed to. Then, in one of the great transitions to a flashback, using intertitles as both a cut and spoken words, we are told what has happened. And what we are told is one of the swansongs of (British) silent cinema, one that keeps you hooked, and certainly one of my favourites.

Director Anthony Asquith's reputation has been defined by his sound films, seen too often as film versions of well-made plays, in particular those of Terence Rattigan. This is unfair for two reasons: the first is that the films themselves are sometimes quite good ("Pygmalion", "The Importance of Being Earnest", "The Browning Version"); and the second is that it neglects his four silent features. Recently, both "A Cottage on Dartmoor" and "Underground" have been restored by the BFI, made available on DVD (or will soon) and reassessed for the wonderful works that they are. Of course, “A Cottage on Dartmoor” is a dreadful title, which probably hasn't helped – suggesting too much an idyllic England and very little going on the screen. And what goes on the screen feels, to modern audiences anyway, more like Hitchcock than theatre. Asquith's use of effects, camera angles and photography, borrowing a bit from German expressionism, is both confident and original.

The film is full of wonderful little moments - the suggestion to see a talkie (oh, the irony...); the sequence at the cinema; the lost card that was supposed to come with the flowers; and above all the reality and regrets of relationships, in one of cinema's most honest moments - for once, we get to see what really goes on after the "happily ever after". Asquith's direction is certain but it also benefits from a great script and an astonishing trio of leads (one Swede, one British, one German), in particular Uno Henning (as the barber). I definitely think I'll try to see more of his work.

To finish, I should mention something about the actual screening (well, actually two things). One is that I saw this a few months ago, and the post is based on notes I did at the time: reality has been biting and time to blog has not been much. So if I don't make full justice to the film, is because I saw it over three months ago. The second thing, is that, like most silent film screenings, this one had a live piano accompaniment, this one by Stephen Horne, who provided one of the best accompaniments of a silent film I have had the chance to listen to and certainly enhanced my experience of the film.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Man's Castle (1933)

Frank Borzage's "Man's Castle" is, like a few of his other films, the story of two misfits (in this case, Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young) whose love brings a hitherto unknown depth to their lives. Yes, this sounds incredibly pretentious, but the films are usually better than they sound. And "Man's Castle" really has a lot of fans out there, some who consider it one of the director's best film, if not the best. Borzage is a director that can as easily engage me as well as leave completely cold. In the first category are the Margaret Sullavan MGMs, "Mannequin", "Desire" and the first 70 minutes of "7th Heaven"; in the second, the rest of "7th Heaven", "The Spanish Main" and "Strange Cargo" (which I really, really, really hated, but that's another story). "Man's Castle" lies somewhere in the middle. With so much praise going around, I really wanted to like it. Alas, its gender politics and misplaced over-romantism really got on my nerves.

Borzage had a tendency to idealise the world in his films, his characters inhabiting something slightly nobler than the world that surrounds them. In "7th Heaven" he pulls it off, creating a self-contained world, where two almost magical beings live (Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, both possessing an ethereal quality, also shared by Margaret Sullavan in the MGM films) and a medium (silent film) that help it all work. "Man's Castle" on the other hand, belongs to the hard world of the Depression: poverty, shanty towns, unemployment, hunger, alcoholism, crime, are all here. Not a place where for ethereal characters, clearly not helped by the casting of Spencer Tracy, one of the most earth-bound actors ever. But it was Loretta Young's character "look at me, I'm making a home now" that lost me entirely. She spends most of the film washing, cooking or taking care of the house for a man that is hardly ever there and when he is, is not exactly the most engaging of partners, wishing clearly he was somewhere else. This idea that all a woman wants is a man that might leave her at any moment and a stove is something that sent several shivers down my spine - when she said she'd give up her baby if that would make him happy, I cringed.

There are some positives as well - the opening sequences are quite good (perhaps Young is too clean and composed for someone with nowhere to live, but I put that down to 1930s Hollywood) and got my attention. Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young do a wonderful job of what is, in my opinion, a very flawed script, Tracy in particular. The supporting cast, lead by Glenda Farrell and Walter Connolly are excellent, although Arthur Hohl overdoes the sliminess from time to time. Finally, as a Pre-code title, there's plenty of sexual innuendo as expected (mostly cortesy of Ms Farrell, while trying to seduce Tracy) and an out-of-wedlock baby.