More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)
23 January (1 February, updated with commentary on the film / more of the introduction)
Lucy Porter’s rather scatty introduction – but we forgave her that for her enthusiasm for the film to come (with even an assurance of A raunchy sex-scene involving a boiled egg*) – conjured with names such as Warner Bros, Ernst Lubitsch and Marie Provost (who, as Lucy said, stole every scene)…
The Marriage Circle (1924), via @SlapstickFest at @wshed, sets standards that films 90 years later overlook : poise, irony, pacing, editing.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 23, 2015
We learnt, also, that it was Ernst Lubitsch’s second feature, after having come to Hollywood at the behest of Mary Pickford. [The screenplay was ‘drafted’ – so the word has it in the credits – by Paul Bern, after the stage-play by Lothar Schmidt.] Adolphe Mejou (Professor Stock) was to become best known for Howard Hughes’ The Front Page (1931), and, for The Birth of a Nation (1915) [directed by one of Pickford’s fellow United Artists], actor Monte Blue (who gives us the smooth, if guileless, Dr Braun) had been a stuntman.
More curiously still, Lucy dispelled the story that Marie Prevost had committed suicide and been eaten by her dog : it appears that (a little as in >The Artist (2011) ? - please also see below), she had actually ‘piled on the pounds’, but then dieted to excess, and succumbed to malnutrition. As Lucy commented, an unusual piece of information to precede a comedy, but all was well, because, when Elizabeth-Jane Baldry had been enthusiastically welcomed, they quipped again about that moment with the boiled egg !
Even more so than exponents of the guitar, those of the harp love the form that their instruments take. Yes, sax-players, too, will exhale breathily through their instruments, and also use the sound of their opening and closing keys, and the rods and key touches that operate them, but a concert harp is large (so is, in its way, a theorbo – with its long, free strings), and hence, for example, tapping, knocking or running one’s fingers along the soundboard or body all have much resonance to them.
Composer and harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry is acutely aware, in her film-scores for solo harp, that cinema is not only a visual, but also a tactile medium, and so she has given great thought to being ingenious with the production not of every sound-effect (for this is not [attempting to be] live foley, and the best accompaniment to silent film is more like poetry than absolute mimesis), but the ones that psychologically speak volumes** (in a highly Freudian film), amongst which are :
* The springs of Professor Josef Stock’s exercise-machine (in which, to the exclusion of his younger wife Mizzi (Marie Prevost), he seems overly interested)
* A shutting series of doors (there are many opening and closing doors in The Marriage Circle) as Dr Franz Braun leaves the Stocks’ apartment
* Mizzi’s shock, as she depresses a cluster of notes on the piano keyboard, when she realizes that she has already met Charlotte’s husband
* Chimes that reinforce the sense of urgency as Dr Braun realizes that he cannot afford to wait for another taxi
* Tense moments when the telephone jaggedly rings and is answered to significant effect
At @wshed, @SlapstickFest gave us two wonderful things : The Marriage Circle (1924) and @oldweirdbritain's new score. Together ? Stunning !
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 23, 2015
The film is a delight, but bring an intelligent piece of cinema alongside a score that has viewed the film with great intelligence and which is played with conviction and verve, and everything is enhanced, the knowingness of the screenplay and direction, the sharpness of the editing, and the depth of the acting :
Even knowing John Sweeney / @oldweirdbritain [Elizabeth-Jane Baldry], they amazed at @SlapstickFest with how they inform with their playing.
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 23, 2015
The synergy has been demonstrated again and again, from (to name but two) Neil Brand’s (@NeilKBrand’s) playing Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (1930) at Cambridge Film Festival / #CamFF 2014 (@camfilmfest) to Elizabeth-Jane with The Phantom of The Opera (1925, but revised 1929) at the curious St Bart’s Hospital Pathology Museum… !
To give just a flavour of Elizabeth-Jane’s skilled approach, because one really does need to hear it live, one can characterize the accompaniment to the opening titles as being suitably strophic, and then, in the opening scene (as Professor Stock (the hangdog Adolphe Menjou) considers the state of his socks), a hint of lullaby – odd, we think, because we soon realize that it is morning, not night, except that, yet the scene develops in such a way that Stock and his wife both take a turn to dive back under the covers !
And that is where Elizabeth-Jane weaves in what we probably realized, if at some subliminal level, was a calypso, contrasting with this scene in Vienna in 1923, but for a purpose. Later, comes tango, too, and what she usefully identified afterwards (since a name to put to it in the in-screen notes had been lacking) as the cha-cha-cha.
To those elements, often in varied form and more disguised than this description can suggest, she adds, then, a theme suggestive of displacement (as we switch from the perspective of the street to what turns out to be that of Stock), one of transformation (when Mizzi powders herself) and then re-engagement with the calypso (she drapes herself carefully on the chaise longue), and, just before it, captures the world-weariness of Dr Braun at his practice.
So, in using the exoticism of the calypso in particular, this lovely score gently let us in on the secret of a world that we can pretend to be exterior to, but with the frisson of interiority. If, as the film goes on to show us, Mizzi is careful about arranging many aspects of what she is about, even more so is Elizabeth-Jane, with her skilled performance evoking the shifting, sometimes playful, and always ironic world of the Vienna that we are shown :
Conveniently, of course, making palatable the infidelities and lascivious desires seem those of a libertine folk in another land (as, in its more patent way, does Menschen am Sonntag), and so enjoyable by licence, almost by proxy, as we might that suggestive moment, at breakfast, with a thick, dark coffee – and a boiled egg !
Now added : more commentary on the film itself
Nicely restored, and with only occasional use of segments from an inferior-quality print (or a few jumps within scenes in the latter part), what we were shown seemed a very complete survival*** of a film from ninety years ago : it was only those tiny technical imperfections that served to remind that it had such a provenance, because the film is so fresh.
By contrast, however much some may have talked of The Artist (2011) with the hope that its audience would be inspired to seek out films from the so-called silent era, this film and it have nothing in common : one can barely believe that anyone credited the latter as a modern silent film, or even as in genuine homage to the period. Indeed, the comparison is almost as little cogent as suggesting that Titanic (1997) was going to cultivate a real interest in marine engineering and / or biology.
So, for example, the contrasted, sparing use of inter-titles in The Marriage Circle, with some of them as ironic as There is more danger in dancing than in dining (and so serving another cause than reporting speech, or facts), has several implications : the film-makers expect an element of lip-reading (or of construing gestural language used for our benefit), and they throw us back both on our wits, and on taking as many cues as possible from the composition of shots, scenes and story, e.g. how light (literally and otherwise) is being used, and what it highlights or throws into relief.
“Nobody should try to play comedy unless they have a circus going on inside” – Director Ernst Lubitsch #bornonthisday pic.twitter.com/MjpBbSCQGU
— BFI (@BFI) January 29, 2015
When Charlotte is at Mozart Gasse 12, not so much plucking as wrenching roses on her balcony, the dropped bloom (brought out, in the score, by a downward glissando) is more weighty than the apparent lightness suggested by what is visible, as the inter-title has advised us… Likewise, in the case of Franz Braun’s earlier arrival (with the parcel that we saw him carrying earlier – and which turns out to be flowers for his wife Charlotte), the scene has been set up by her singing Grieg’s setting of Ich liebe dich**** (‘I love you’) when Mizzi comes to call on her.
It develops with Mizzi accompanying Charlotte (though she does not know to whom Charlotte is singing), and is then punctuated by our knowing response to the inter-title Did you ever see a man like him ?, which sets out her words to Mizzi. The moment when Mizzi powders herself has already been mentioned, and there is a wonderful freedom and delicacy to how this scene is lit, before, with the collusion of her maid, we then see her, in a very staged way, work out how to comport herself on the chaise-longue, ready to ring the doctor.
His ultimately purporting, caught in guiltiness, to reach for Mizzi’s pulse is done with such knowingness, but we do not even know the best of it yet – that, as this is Wien (Vienna, the home of psychoanalysis), his partner and he specialize in Nervöse Leiden, ‘nervous disorders’. For this is 1923, and, in 1926, Arthur Schnitzler was to write his Traumnovelle, on which Stanley Kubrick was to found the screenplay of his Eyes Wide Shut (1999) (also for Warner Brothers).
For those still challenged by the new century, early in The Marriage Circle (1924), Charlotte has written to Mizzi, dating it May 25 / 23
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) February 1, 2015
As Brief Encounter (1945) also suggests (or, since then, Vendredi soir (Friday Night) (2002) and Ficció (Fiction) (2006), for example), we may be willing an outcome, but the films have other ideas, and we can be caught short by finding what they are :
In the case of Ficció, the considerable tension that has been built up for much of the film, and how it resolves, is a work of sublime restraint. In The Marriage Circle, by contrast, the closing gesture, although daring, releases us more casually, and in a carefree spirit, later caught also by that of Some Like It Hot (1959) : although the daringness to question norms is there, we are swept away from contemplating it overly much beyond as caprice, as a light ending to a film that has challenged our morality (in the six weeks or so from 25 May to 5 July), and found us wanting what ?
* Meret Oppenheim, eat your heart out !
** In Elizabeth-Jane’s score for The Phantom, we had the sound of the unusual alarm, which warned of intruders in the cavernous parts outside The Phantom’s dwelling.
*** However, information suggests that, when The Museum of Modern Art did so, with funds from The Film Foundation, it ran to 103 mins…
**** To a text by Hans Christian Andersen, though commonly sung in German translation.
If you want to Tweet, Tweet away here
Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)