Yorkshire Silent Film Festival 6 May 2017

Saturday 6 May, Abbeydale Picture House Sheffield: The Cameraman; Girl with a Hatbox; Man Without Desire; Flesh and the Devil

A lucky coincidence of travelling led me to Abbeydale this chilly day in May, for a nostalgic visit to the superb 1920s Abbeydale Picture House, the first place I ever saw a subtitled film on the big screen, travelling boldly to its Sunday film club with my pal from sixth form on the Sheffield bus from Chesterfield one day in the 60s and alighting in the unknown lowlands of Heeley bottom. That first film was Deserto Rosso, and we were bedazzled by it – not at all sure what was going on in it to make it so powerful but, wow, we wanted more of the same, and returned several times, though nothing had the impact of that first experience there (I’ve seen the film since and sadly found it less impressive, even a little bit comical in its self-importance. Austerely beautiful, all the same.) So, entering the cavernous space I was unexpectedly overwhelmed with emotion, and stood watching the end of the earlier cartoons programme – the darkness, the mystery, the smell of other times, the laughter, the piano, the simple, slightly blotchy, innocent black and white – feeling shaken with something far more than nostalgia.

First up for me was a rarely seen Buster Keaton film, The Cameraman (1928). It was his first film for MGM, and his last as (part) director, with the many battles for control during its making, and complete loss of autonomy in subsequent films leading him to say the move was the worst deal he ever did. He plays a simple ‘tintypes’ street photographer, who falls in love with a passing girl, and follows her to her office, which turns out to be the newsreel department of MGM. His attempt to to gain her love leads him to buy a dodgy movie camera and try to become a cameraman himself. While not quite achieving the sublime comedy of his more famous creations, it’s a fine film, crammed with large knock-about and subtle small-scale gags, including the ongoing satirical look at filming itself. And as Keaton always miraculously manages, it portrays basic human feelings – love, sadness, disappointment and joy – as both silly and terribly important, and totally without sentimentality – something Chaplin, for example, never quite got. There’s clever use of real newsreel footage, and one of the joys is in seeing the actuality of real unvarnished 20s New York life, from the crowded trolleybuses to the public swimming pool. And there’s a real déjà vu moment when our happy but drenched hero splashes in the rain (though not singing or dancing) along the street having said goodnight to the love of his life, observed by a shining wet-mac-clad policeman. Did Comden and Green see this film, I wonder?

A quick sortie into the interesting streets of Abbeydale, dotted with various junk/antique shops, tearooms and bakeries, restaurants of varied ethnicity, and a shop offering soap-making parties. Not that it’s a nouveau-genteel area at all, but has a mixed, raffish and even tattered edge, trees, a huge house-side mural, a big Tesco metro and a narrow sloping community green for meetings and celebrations between terraced houses. Above it rises the huge off-white-tiled bulk of the Picture House, which happily survived the indignity of becoming a showroom then being closed off for years, recently to rise again for events such as this. There’s still some way to go inside, but the stalls are fitted out with the original, and surprisingly comfortable, 70s seats, which were miraculously stored upstairs intact, there’s a cafe, toilets (the ladies with sunglasses-worthy 70s sugar pink fittings), its projection and acoustics are superb, and it smells great – not of damp but of oldness and darkness and expectation. Upstairs the billowing, ornate balconies suggest years of renovation may produce something wonderful.

After a swift, delicious vegan sandwich in the foyer, back inside for a rare find. Girl with a Hat Box is a Russian silent comedy, directed by Boris Barnet, born in 1902 in Moscow of an English grandfather, a name practically unknown here but highly regarded by such as Scorsese, Godard and Rivette. Barnet had already studied painting, served in the army and then trained as a medic when he was ‘discovered’ and taken up as an actor when spotted as a prizefighter (and with that face he would certainly be a casting director’s dream for one). He began to direct in 1926, and this is one of his earliest films. It has all the brio of a young director, very funny and lively, crammed with interesting images and details of life in a Soviet city, cramped trains, icy streets and busy people. Its use of the enormous close-ups beloved of Soviet Social Realists is used to great effect, but that’s pretty much all it has in common with them. (‘I am not a theoretical kind of person; I take the material for my films from life,’ said Barnet.) Made in part to promote the national lottery, its theme is actually one of personal dreams of wealth, individual enterprise, and sufficient money being a key to happiness. Not very communist. Natasha (a very young and bubbly Anna Sten) is a lively business-like young woman living in the country with her grandfather, making hats which she sells to a milliner’s shop in Moscow. The hats are high-fashion, the shop owner ‘Madame Irène’ elegantly exotic and high-living. The action is fast-moving – there’s a lottery ticket, a lovelorn young station master, a penniless student (a fluid mover with fetching Petrushka-type felt boots), a lovable old granddad out of many a communist propaganda film, and a pompous husband. Above all there’s a tremendous feeling of fun.

Barnet’s The House on Trubnaya Street is being shown in Sheffield Showroom 23 May and Leeds Hyde Park 28 May.

Man Without Desire (Adrian Brunel) may begin with some of the same verve, as we watch Count Dandolo romancing his way be-cloaked and be-sworded around 18th century Venice and falling in love with a wealthy woman in a loveless marriage. Dandolo is played by British heart-throb, composer and singer Ivor Novello. Only 3 years later Novello was to play against type as a serial killer in Hitchcock’s The Lodger, seen here last night in the Festival’s grand opening, with a new score written and played by the wonderful Neil Brand. Here Novello is in his more usual matinee-idol mode. It’s an odd film, dabbling in romance, fantasy and comedy, as the Count enters a kind of suspended animation (we’re mostly spared the bubbling test tubes and electric flashes) and Novello shows a nice comedic touch to debunk his own glamour. The tragedy, though it’s never felt that strongly, is that on waking up he finds that being frozen in time doesn’t really go away, and though he rediscovers his true love in the form of a descendant, his desire has faded. The film was enlivened by a wonderful and ingenious accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who single-handedly provided piano, accordion, flute, various percussion, and (I think) a Tibetan singing bowl acompaniment.

After a trip to the nearby Broadfield Ale House for pie and mushy peas enhanced by glugs of Henderson’s Sauce (Sean Bean’s favourite – see even the food has cinematic links), I’m back for my final film, Flesh and the Devil (Clarence Brown), with Greta Garbo and John Gilbert. I never saw Gilbert before, and on the strength of his photographs could never understand his huge reputation. No longer. His tremendous screen charisma and ability to convey intense emotion, joy, and in particular desire, perfectly match similarly powerful qualities in Garbo, the effect somehow enhanced by the lack of words, to make this one of the most erotic movies I’ve ever seen. The plot may be preposterous but the passion is real. As in the previous film, love for a married woman brings nothing but trouble, when Felicitas (Garbo) becomes first beloved by charming scallywag Leo (Gilbert) then by the wealth of his lifelong pal Ulrich (Lars Hanson). That the boys are as far along the spectrum of male friendship as possible on screen then brings in even more tacit steaminess into the mix. The look of the thing is incredible, from the rapturous liaisons wreathed in smoke and silks to a wonderfully dynamic scene in a railway station, and an ice-bound death. Then out into night-time Abbeydale still all atremble.

Those with more stamina and closer homes to go to were able to enjoy a final late-night horror treat in Behind the Door, ‘one of cinema’s most notorious films’. And all this, as well as a programme of cartoons in the morning, cost only £25.The Yorkshire Film Festival continues throughout the month, with screenings right across the county. Details on http://www.yorkshiresilentfilm.com/

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