JAMES EARL JONES REMEMBERS ( Filming “THE COMEDIANS” with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and Alec Guinness )

The Comedians - table scene

Long before he provided the ominous tones for Darth Vader and created the most iconic-sounding villain in screen history, James Earl Jones made his mark in a number of major productions of stage and screen. It was his role in Jean Genet’s groundbreaking play The Blacks, first staged in New York in 1961, and running for a record-breaking 1408 performances, that led to one of his most memorable early film experiences.

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson in The Blacks

Polish poster for The Comedians

Polish poster for The Comedians

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville

Peter Glenville, a leading British director of the time who had closely collaborated with Graham Greene and Tennessee Williams, was looking for a number of black actors to take roles in his forthcoming film of Greene’s The Comedians, set amidst the turmoil of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti.  Going to The Blacks, which was one of the top off-Broadway hits of the decade, Glenville was presented with an embarrassment of acting riches.  Jones was not the only one to be cast in the film as a result of his performance in the play: joining him were Cicely Tyson, Zakes Mokae, and Roscoe Lee Brown.  Also in the film was a young Gloria Foster, who later made a mark as the Oracle in the first two Matrix pictures.

Jones and Zakes Macae

The-Comedians James Earl Jones

For Jones, working on The Comedians was memorable both on, and off, screen. For rarely can a young actor have found himself spending time with such a luminous A-list cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, not to mention the legendary star of silent pictures, Lillian Gish.

Peter Glenville with the cast of The Comedians

Peter Glenville (c., standing) with the cast of The Comedians

A few years ago I produced an oral history of the life and work of Peter Glenville, and James Earl Jones kindly agreed to share his reminiscences with Susan Loewenberg, Producing Director of L.A. TheatreWorks, who commissioned the history on behalf of the Peter Glenville Foundation.

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

Peter Glenville directing Ustinov and Taylor

The segment about The Comedians was my favorite, enlivened by Jones’s commentary, his extraordinary presence, and that voice. (In a technical sidebar, that voice was so resonant with bass frequencies that the engineer had quite some trouble recording it without distortion).

Jones and Burton

Now you can enjoy his story too……

Narrator: Martin Jarvis.  Voice of Peter Glenville: Simon Templeman.

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You_Only_Live_Twice_-_Gun_Barrel

In 2008, TV’s best series on the arts, The South Bank Show, trained its telescopic sight on James Bond, to coincide with Daniel Craig’s second outing as 007 in Quantum of Solace.  The result was one of the best documentaries on the film series of Ian Fleming’s iconic creation, and includes a rare interview with Sean Connery, plus some marvelous behind-the-scenes footage.

PART 1:

 

Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming on location for Dr. No

Ursula Andress and Ian Fleming on location for Dr. No

 

PART 2:

 

Bond ian_fleming

 

PART 3:

 

Fleming and Connery on location for From Russia with Love

Fleming and Connery on location for From Russia with Love

 

PART 4:

 

Connery, Shirley Eaton, Fleming on set of Goldfinger

Connery, Shirley Eaton, Fleming on set of Goldfinger

 

PART 5:

 

Daniel Craig

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NAPOLEON REDUX ( The Emperor of Films Returns )

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) looks at the Polyvision rig for the film's 3-screen climax

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) stands next to the Polyvision camera rig for the film’s 3-screen climax

I wouldn’t say it is the greatest movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the greatest moviegoing experiences you will ever have.

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Audiences worldwide may have thrilled to the silent-movie charms of 2011’s Oscar-winner, The Artist, but Londoners are soon to have the chance to take the ultimate cinematic ride – and the ultimate trip into cinema’s haloed past.  On November 30th the Royal Festival Hall plays host to a rare screening of 1927’s Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance in the most recent restoration by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow.  When this made its American début last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Times could merely exclaim, breathlessly: “Napoleon came. Napoleon was seen. Napoleon conquered.”

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This was no mere hyperbole. I was there. Twice. And, even though I had been present at this restoration’s fabled first screening in London over thirty years ago, the screenings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, a beautifully restored art-deco extravaganza, were in a class of their own. Just entering the lobby transported you into another world.

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Then, as the film itself began, the 21st century receded, and for the next 5-1/2 hours one was was completely immersed in the world of the French Revolution, brought to life with a veracity, vigor and, conversely, modernity, that has yet to be matched. By the time the final triptych had unspooled my 15-year old daughter was rendered speechless with awe.

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She made up for her uncharacteristic muteness by telling everyone during the following weeks she had seen the greatest film ever made. E-V-E-R.

And who amongst those who were there could argue with her? Napoleon is a complete one-off, a film sui generis. The apogee of the silent movie art. To see it under these optimal conditions is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Napoleon_Triptych_LG w:orchestra b&w

How could a modern, plugged-in teenager be so completely wowed by a nearly 90-year old silent picture?

Paramount audience

The audience at the Paramount watches, rapt

For starters, the film operates on a level of visual innovation and spectacle that today’s movies are still catching up with. (Gance even did tests for shooting some of it in 3D). Then there are those obsessively detailed sets and costumes which give the film an incredibly authentic feel and texture. Scenes in Corsica were shot in Napoleon’s actual family home on the island.

Napoleon in corsica

The performances range from grand to intimate, with a sense of commitment that is riveting.

Young Napoleon

Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoleon

Robespierre

Edmond van Daele as Robespierre

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Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon) embraces Josephine (Gina Manes) and the world

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Abel Gance as the charismatic St. Juste

Death of Marat

Death of Marat (Antonin Artaud)

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

Then there’s Carl Davis’s score, performed by a live orchestra, which forms a visceral conduit into both the period and the emotions of the drama. (Comparing it to the insipid score by Carmine Coppola, the only music Americans had heard during previous road shows of the restoration in this country, provides an object lesson in good and bad film scoring.)

Davis rehearsing Napoleon

Carl Davis rehearsing the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the Paramount Theater

The audience in London, like that in Oakland, will be seeing the most complete version of the film in existence, a restoration that has occupied Brownlow for a lifetime, funded by the British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions.  It will be projected at the correct speed (making movement more naturalistic), and is hand tinted. Accompanying it will be that same original score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Over a period of more than four decades, Davis and Brownlow, together with producing partners Patrick Stanbury and David Gill (who died in 1997), have done more than anyone to bring silent films back from the grave of decaying film libraries, where 73% of films made before the coming of sound have crumbled into dust. Through a plethora of documentaries and live presentations in grand theatres with symphony orchestras, classics like Greed and Ben-Hur, as well as lesser-known gems like The Wind and The Chess Player, have all left viewers agog at the forgotten accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era.

poster italian napoleon gance

Napoleon, though, is the one to beat: a film whose ambition to redefine the art-form is evident in every frame. Originally intended to be six films covering Bonaparte’s entire life, in the end Gance blew his entire budget on Part One.

Napoleon the french epic film poster

By the time of its première at the Paris Opéra in 1927 the film had already being cut down by its nervous producers.

Napoleon newspaper review

In the succeeding decades the film was scattered across archives, private collections, and flea markets around the world.

Napoleon book cover

Gance himself never regained his full creative powers: a later, sound version of the film that incorporates some of the original footage has none of the original’s flair. By 1953, when the 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow, already an avid collector of silent films, screened fragments of a home-movie version in his makeshift home cinema, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie histories. The story of Brownlow’s quest to restore the film, and Gance’s reputation, is one of those tales from the back rooms of film history that is as riveting as the film itself.

Brownlow and Gance triptych

The film covers Napoleon’s childhood days at military school, the Revolution and his rise to power, his romance with Josephine, and climaxes with his leading the French army to liberate Italy.  I was lucky enough to be present at the restoration’s first, now legendary screening, at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square, back in 1980.

Napoleon at Empire

It was the only venue with a screen wide enough to accommodate the 3-screen/3-projector finale, and an auditorium big enough for a 60-strong symphony orchestra.  From the start you could tell you were watching something unique.  The effect on the audience was no different from what Brownlow remembers when he first ran fragments of the film on his 9.5mm home projector as a teenager.  “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of.  It was beautifully, brilliantly staged.  It looked like an 18th century newsreel.  You couldn’t believe this had been shot in the 20s.”

Napoleon on ship

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

When the first of many bravura editing sequences unspooled, the audience knew it was in for a rollercoaster.  A snowball fight between two “armies” of young cadets, in which the young Napoleon demonstrates his aptitude for future military leadership by successfully charging and occupying the opposing camp, turned into a pyrotechnical workout for the camera as it was hurled, literally, into the action.

Young Napoleon

It was many years into his quest for lost footage before Brownlow first clapped eyes on this sequence.  He was sitting in the archives of the French Cinémathèque, an organization which had already demonstrated its disdain for what it considered the hubristic efforts of an Englishman daring to restore a French classic. Left alone for a few moments with an unlabelled can of film, Brownlow examined the reel within against the light: “I couldn’t believe it! This snowball fight was like “Rosebud” [in Citizen Kane].  It was constantly talked about as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, but was never seen. And I happened to be very interested in rapid cutting. I thought it had been invented by Eisenstein. When [the archivist] Marie Epstein came back in she was quite upset that I had started looking in her absence, but she had a good heart and coaxed the film through the flatbed viewer, and I always regard that experience as one of the greatest moments of my life.

Napoleon snowball fight

“It was the most astonishing piece of editing I had ever seen, and it was a perfect example of the avant-garde in the mainstream of French cinema.  Gance tried to make the audience into active participants.  You get punched on the nose, you fall over, and you run away.” (The editing throughout Napoleon is all the more extraordinary for the fact that it was done by hand, without the benefit of a flatbed or movieola; Gance would hold the film up to the light to figure out where to make his cuts).

Napoleon snowball fight storming barricades

BouleDeNeiges

Crew filming the snowball fight. Note the camera mounted on a sled. Gance is circled.

Crew filming the snowball fight, with cameraman sitting on a sled.

Later on, during a dormitory pillow fight, Gance not only accelerates the tempo of his editing with cuts that last as little as a few frames, but also divides the screen into multiple segments, all with their own independent fast-cutting images.

Napoleon pillowfight multiscreen

This he considered the first use of what he called Polyvision, which in the final section of the film became three screens – pre-dating Cinerama by twenty-five years.

Polyvision_rig

Polyvision rig for triptych

Abel Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion, and his editing was as much about conjuring ideas as it was emotions.  Brownlow: “In a scene in which Napoleon was escaping from Corsica in a dinghy, he gets caught in a storm and it intercuts with a riot in the Revolutionary Convention.  Gance wanted to express Victor Hugo’s thought that to be a member of the Convention was like being a wave on the ocean, and the technical director built a pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the studio, to swing the camera over the extras.  I remember Gance saying that the crowd reacted in their cringing very effectively, and you do get the feeling that you’re in the storm at sea, as well as in the storm of the Convention, and you can see a man drowning among his fellow members of the Convention.”

Napoleon in storm

This sequence had a powerful effect on the English director Sir Alan Parker, who was then shooting the big-screen adaptation of Pink Floyd The Wall:  “After seeing Napoleon I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.”

The Wall Geldof in pool

Parker continues: “We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras.  Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.”

Here, from 1980, is a short film in which Kevin Brownlow talks about Gance and his many innovations, with extensive clips from Napoleon:

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

The great American film director King Vidor once said that music was responsible for half of a film’s emotion and effectiveness.  Brownlow is quick to acknowledge that a huge part of the success of his restoration is owed to composer/conductor Carl Davis.

Carl Davis w: score

Davis, who was born in New York, is a true polymath, having grown up listening to and performing every kind of music, from jazz to ballet. His move to London in the early 1960s was prompted by the excitement of the arts scene there, and a desire to write music for drama. “There was a lot of classic theater, there was film and the standards of television were very, very high. What went on English TV was very ambitious, and still is.”

Davis met up with Brownlow and his then producing partner David Gill for a TV documentary series about the silent era, Hollywood (1980) which had grown out of Brownlow’s defining book on the subject, The Parade’s Gone By.

Brownlow:Davis:Gill

Brownlow (l), Davis (c) & David Gill

Over the course of thirteen one-hour programs Davis had supplied a huge range of music in a multiplicity of styles and orchestrations.  In preparation he had spoken to numerous musicians of the silent era, and had integrated their techniques of matching borrowed music with original themes.  When it was announced that Napoleon would be their first “live” presentation of a silent, he had just over three months to come up with five hours of music. There simply wasn’t the time for him to compose a completely original score.

Brownlow: “Carl came up with this fantastic idea, an idea of genius, which was to use composers that were alive when Napoleon was alive, which gave the film the most extraordinary authentic feeling, which it has anyway, but it enhances it tremendously.”

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

At the core of this group of composers was Beethoven, who had famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to scratch out the dedication upon hearing of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.

eroica title page

Davis: “Beethoven did four versions of the Eroica theme – the symphony, a set of piano variations, a ballet (The Creatures of Prometheus), and a contredanse.  It was an idée fixe for him.  I also used Egmont, music for plays, marches, minuets.  The idea from an artistic view was not to make it seem random.  If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time.  Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck….“

In typically impish fashion, Gance decided to throw down his own musical challenge. A long, central sequence features Parisians hearing the anthem of the Revolution, the Marseillaise, for the first time, and learning to sing it.  This in a silent film! Davis rises to the occasion with a virtuoso set of variations, and elsewhere throws in other popular songs of the period for good measure.

Learning the Marseillaise

Learning the Marseillaise

However, one important visual and thematic strand of the film did not yet have a musical identity.  Davis: “There was an almost sci-fi view of Napoleon as omniscient, linked to some great force of nature, unstoppable, implacable – an expression of an ideal that had to do with the 1920s as opposed to the 1790s.

Napoleon Dieudonne profile

“There I had to write something myself that was more like a Hollywood kind of theme – grand, noble, immediately accessible, memorable.”

Young Napoleon, taunted by his classmates and disciplined by his teachers, is left alone in a freezing garret.  There he is visited by his pet eagle, and in a vivid inspiration, Gance turns the eagle into the visual metaphor for Napoleon’s destiny, to re-appear at key turning points in the film. It is a moment rife with danger, so on-the-nose that it could easily elicit titters rather than awe from the audience.  But Davis steps forward with his majestic theme to nail the emotion and the idea behind it.  Patrick Stanbury, now Brownlow’s co-producer, but in 1980 just a member of the audience at the first screening, recalls that moment:  “Suddenly it was magic.”

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Behind the scenes at that first performance in 1980, Davis was heroically keeping the orchestra in sync to the film by his wits alone (disdaining technological assists like click tracks), while the performers were wrestling with some unexpected problems.  Davis: “The actual quantity of music that was sitting on the music stands grew and grew, and finally when we got to the third part, which was very long and very stuck together with tape, suddenly all the music fell on the floor.  It was in the middle of the Bal des Victimes – very lively using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  I suddenly lost three quarters of the orchestra, and there is actually a recording of me shouting “Play! Play! Please play!” And we were down on the ground trying to put the music back on the stands again.”

Napoleon w: orchestra @Paramount

In the following videos, Carl Davis talks at greater length about his score.

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

On that faraway day in 1980 at the Empire, Leicester Square, I — like my daughter over thirty years later — would never forget the overwhelming impact of the last act of Napoleon. Suddenly, the curtains at the side of the screen drew back, and the image expanded to fill my field of vision. The audience gasped as one — an effect repeated even more emphatically at the Paramount, thirty two years later. Before us unfurled the spectacle of Napoleon’s army on three conjoined screens, in crystalline black and white.  Sometimes the screens join to create continuous panoramas; sometimes they fragment into three sets of evolving images.  It’s a spectacle made all the more vivid for its capture by relatively primitive technology. But that does not account for the artist’s eye, of Gance and of his brilliant cinematographers and camera operators. In this triptych sequence the film expands literally and thematically in every direction, juggling static and moving panoramas and montages that gather together all the imagery of the proceeding five hours, hurling it at you with ever increasing density. Those screens are so bright with the projectors’ reflected light it’s as if the theater’s roof has been lifted off and daylight is streaming in on the audience — a cinematic sunrise.

triptych double stacked

Napoleon - tryptich 7

Napoleon - tryptich 8

Napoleon tryptich 5

Napoleon tryptich 6

Napoleon tryptich 11

napoleon_triptich horse on ridge

Accompanying this spectacle are the rousing cadences of the music’s climax, a mash-up of Beethoven in full cry with Davis’s own transcendent “Eagle of Destiny” theme.

Back in 1980, when Napoleon finally came to an end (and at a certain point it feels like it will never end — the film just keeps topping itself), the theatre erupted into bravos as the film detonated into the red, white and blue tricolor of its final frames spread across three screens.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

For Brownlow, after a lifetime struggling to bring this forgotten masterpiece back into the light, the full force of the experience hit home. In his book he recalls that moment: “I looked at the picture as though I’d never seen it before.  I recalled Lillian Gish talking about the premiere of The Birth of a Nation: ‘I sat at the end of a row with men, and during some parts the whole row shook with their sobs, it was so moving.’  Well, I shook my row, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I was overcome with relief and suffused with joy that the film was at last being seen as it was supposed to be seen.”

napoleon on mountain ridge

For those heading to the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, that moment can be relived again in all its cinematic glory. Wish I could be there…..

Gance's inscription

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Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

Gance with dog

The following “review” of Napoleon includes more excerpts from the film, including the snowball fight (though without Carl Davis’s score, alas).

You can read my full interview with director Sir Alan Parker talking about Kevin Brownlow here. And you can view clips from another classic silent, Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, with original music by Carl Davis here.

FILMMAKERS on FILMMAKERS ( ALAN PARKER on KEVIN BROWNLOW )

filming Napoleon

As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences welcomes Kevin Brownlow to introduce two of his classic silent movie restorations, “The Crowd” and “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg”, here is my tribute to this maverick filmmaker and inspirational film historian. I begin with an overview of his career, followed by an interview about Brownlow with his colleague and admirer, Sir Alan Parker.

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Director Alan Parker

There are many who would argue that film lost a certain magic in the transition from “silents” to “talkies”.  The literalness of adding speech, the specificity of anchoring images to sound, created a new filmic “reality”.  In the process we lost an elusive element of poetry that suffused the combination of image and music that was the silent film.  (The “silents” were never silent — there was always live music, both in the theaters, and on set when filming).

Silent movie musicians

Some would say the “talkies” have never fully recaptured that original magic, that poetry.

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Kevin Brownlow

One of the people who would be first to agree is Kevin Brownlow, the man who can rightly claim to have alerted more people to the wonders of the silent era than any other. And not just from writing about it, although he has done that better than anyone. Through restorations, theatrical presentations and documentaries, Brownlow has always used his own considerable filmmaking skills to turn faded curiosities into vibrant, vital film experiences for packed houses and millions of television viewers.

Reconstructed by Kevin Brownlow

As a boy he fell in love with the forgotten silents he watched in his makeshift home cinema, the classics and rare treasures he would bring home from flea markets and buy in catalogues.  He became a filmmaker himself, co-directing with his friend Andrew Mollo the startling It Happened Here (1964), a nightmarish fugue that imagined life in England if the Nazis had won the War.  It was the original low-budget indie before such a thing existed.  He also worked as an editor in the British film industry – on films like Tony Richardson’s iconoclastic Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) (which he described to me as “professionally the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.”)

Polish Poster

Polish poster for Charge of the Light Brigade

But his greatest passion remained that long forgotten era in Hollywood, when the most recognizable people on the planet – Valentino and Garbo, Chaplin and Keaton, Pickford and Fairbanks – created a new art-form among the orange groves of Hollywood.

HollywoodHS-1906

Hollywood c.1906 (the High School is the white building in center)

Chaplin's Film Studios in the 20s

Chaplin’s Film Studios in the 20s

I first became aware of Brownlow’s work at school, thanks to the same enterprising schoolmaster who had introduced me to the notion that film could be more than just entertainment via movies like Stagecoach and Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game and Un Chien Andalou. He screened a documentary Kevin had made about the French director Abel Gance, and his “lost” silent epic Napoleon, that Kevin had been painstakingly reconstructing over the years.  That documentary, The Charm of Dynamite, was revelatory. I had never seen film used like this. Every element of the medium was pushed to the limit to immerse the viewer as deeply as possible into the drama, the emotion, the poetry of what was unfolding on the screen.

napoleon-9-screen

I immediately read Kevin’s seminal history of the silent era, The Parade’s Gone By, and was transported into another world. Through the detailed reminiscences of everyone from stars to cameramen to stunt-men and directors, the silent era was transformed into a kind of cinematic Camelot.  It was a gilded age of kings and queens, princes and princesses; with court intrigues and pretenders to the throne; errant knights, court jesters and the occasional damsel in distress — all working to create a new art-form and entertainment industry first in New York, then in the wild, wild west of California.  The Parade’s Gone By was to form the basis for the subsequent groundbreaking, 13-hour television series, Hollywood.

Hollywood2

In an irony not lost on its creators, Hollywood was funded and produced by a television company, Thames, part of Britain’s commercial network.  The dreaded box in the living-room, which had brought the film industry to its knees in the 50s and 60s, turned out to be the vehicle that preserved and celebrated Hollywood’s neglected history at a time when the studios were still mindlessly chucking out their archives, to end up as landfill for freeway construction. And it was a British television company to boot.

The success of Hollywood brought unforeseen gifts.  One Saturday morning I found myself with my best friend riding a train from Oxford to London to attend an occasion neither I, nor, I suspect Kevin, ever imagined would take place.  It was a full theatrical screening of the now completed Napoleon, accompanied by a symphony orchestra performing a specially composed score, in one of London’s grand movie palaces, the Empire Theatre, Leicester Square.

Napoleon at Empire

It all started in the morning.  No film started in the morning!  Well this one did, because it lasted all day!  Up to the podium strode composer/conductor Carl Davis, a striking figure with a flowing mane of curly hair, Liszt-like, every inch the showman and maestro.

Carl Davis conducting

He had to be.  He was going to be spending the next five-and-a-half hours leading his musicians without anything to keep him in sync with the film beyond his own instincts and sheer nerve. In musical terms, it was a high wire act, without a safety rope, over the Grand Canyon.  With forecasts of windy gusts and rain.

Napoleon in rain

The theatre was full of London’s cultural elite and movie buffs, with assorted movers, shakers and politicos thrown in for good measure.  What were we expecting?  Something great, something special, but absolutely not the utterly overwhelming experience that was actually delivered.  As the drama reached its climax with Napoleon’s invasion of Italy, the film exploded the bounds of the frame by expanding onto three screens in the final triptych sequence.  With Beethoven’s Eroica theme and Carl’s own transcendent “Destiny” theme thundering (with added organ now) from the orchestra, the theatre trembled, whole rows of grown men and women shaking with emotion.

Napoleon tryptich 11

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Napoleon tryptich 5

The triumph of Napoleon ushered in a golden age for Kevin, his producing partner David Gill (at right), and composer Carl Davis (center).

Brownlow:Davis:Gill

They embarked on a series of documentaries and theatrical rebirths of silent classics, all presented in exquisitely restored prints with brand new orchestral scores.

Ben-Hur poster

Ben-Hur, The Big Parade, Thief of Baghdad, Flesh and the Devil, The Wind  — I saw them all and more, and began writing articles about what was fast becoming an exciting phenomenon in festivals and movie houses across the world: “live” cinema.

The Wind - sold out

I got to know the team, and during the season at Radio City Music Hall, found myself chatting with Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Lauren Bacall, John Gilbert’s daughter, and other luminaries of old Hollywood.  When I moved to Los Angeles, Kevin delighted in telling me that one of the greatest of all Hollywood directors, Josef von Sternberg (The Blue Angel, Morocco), had lived a couple of blocks away from my apartment; his son still resided in the same house.

During one of my visits to Kevin and David’s offices, I noticed their walls were decorated with a series of acerbic, and very funny, cartoons about the biz by the British director Alan Parker (Midnight Express, Mississippi Burning, The Commitments).

INT-ROOM-NIGHT-800x686 Parker

It turned out that Kevin, like every film maker struggling to make a career within the insular, perennially on-the-edge-of-the-abyss British Film Industry, recognized a fellow rebel when he saw one. He mentioned something about Alan being a regular at their screenings, and having “borrowed” Abel Gance’s idea of using a camera suspended from a pendulum for his film of Pink Floyd The Wall.  I was always a fan of Alan Parker, especially of The Wall and Shoot the Moon, the latter a searingly honest examination of a disintegrating marriage that contains career-topping performances by Diane Keaton and Albert Finney.  Parker was an unabashedly commercial director who brought real fire and passion to his work, and wasn’t afraid to cock a snook at the doggedly inward-looking (some would say constipated) ethic of mainstream British film.  For me, his act of hommage to Abel Gance confirmed his class: he stole only from the best.

So when, last year, I was writing a piece about the triumphant screenings of Napoleon at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, I thought it would be interesting to contact now Sir Alan Parker for his thoughts on another maverick, now Oscar-winner Kevin Brownlow.

kevinbrownlow_oscar

This is what he had to say….

Parker shooting The Wall

Alan Parker (l.) shooting Pink Floyd The Wall

When and how did you first meet Kevin Brownlow? What were your impressions of him?

I first met him in David Puttnam’s office in the early seventies but didn’t really get to know him until about 1982/3 when he and David Gill asked me to do one of the segments for their Thames series “British Cinema: A personal view.” I wrote and directed one of these films: it was called “A Turnip Head’s Guide to British Cinema.” Kevin was a fan of my rather irreverent and subversive cartoons commenting on the film industry, which we developed into the film.

Parker - British Film Industry

Lindsay Anderson and Richard Attenborough also did segments of their own. David Lean was also meant to do one, but pulled out.

My first impressions of Kevin were of a shy, owlish, bookish individual: he looked like a history teacher from Tom Brown’s Schooldays or a bureaucrat from MI-6 .

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I was fascinated by the miniature notebooks he carried; the pages of which he covered with the tiniest handwriting. It could be a quote, an obscure film fact, or a rude put-down – into the book it all went. 

Did you read his book “The Parade’s Gone By”, and if so what kind of impact did it have on you?

Parade's gone by

I loved The Parade’s Gone By.  It’s one of the best books on the history of film and probably the best on the silent movie era. Although scholarly and erudite it was totally engaging, put together by someone who not only knew his stuff but also loved every person and every frame in it. He was the first to realize that an entire generation responsible for early cinema might not be around much longer, and his interviews with the significant, surviving players became an evocative and definitive history of the period.

Can you talk about your experience of seeing “Napoleon” for the first time: your impressions of the film, the effect of the music, and any influence the experience had on your own work?

I was certainly influenced by it.  After seeing the film I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene in Pink Floyd The Wall where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.

The Wall Geldof in pool

Bob Geldof as Pink

We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras. Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.

The Wall - Geldof on floor 

Earlier, before the film, Pink Floyd and Gerald Scarfe in the mammoth stage version of The Wall (early 1980) had used three projectors in sync, creating a triptych image on the giant ‘wall’ screen.

The Wall "live" in 1980

The Wall “live” in 1980

Scarfe’s animation looked extraordinarily powerful in this form. Whether they borrowed this from Gance I don’t know, as it was before my time.

For anyone who has never seen “Napoleon”, what would you tell them to prepare themselves for?

Everything that was ever invented in cinema is here. It’s a masterpiece of course and overwhelming. A lot of people find the acting rather over-the-top and earnest but the film is so big, seemingly no screen is big enough to contain it. And how can you resist the smouldering, sharp nosed features of the actor who plays Napoleon with the dramatic god-given name of Albert Dieudonné!

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

Brownlow introducing Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne)

How did Kevin’s and David Gill’s series of live presentations of silent movies with live orchestra, and their various documentary series, change your perception and opinion of the silent film era in movies?

I think, as a young filmmaker, it was impossible not to be affected by the invention and sheer craft of the work. And unlike us lot, following in their large footsteps, they were the first to do it. They were making up the rules, the grammar as they went along. The power, simplicity and beauty of images and music together is an extraordinary way to communicate to an audience.

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Flesh and the Devil (1926)

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Lillian Gish in The Wind

The Phantom arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

The Phantom (Lon Chaney) arrives at the Ball, Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

Sets for Thief of Baghdad (1924)

I had been captivated by the original Unknown Chaplin series in particular – being a Chaplin nut – and so the Chaplin films would have been particularly important to me.

Chaplin on sofa

You have always used music very creatively in your own films — why do you think Carl Davis’s scores for these silent films are so effective?

First and foremost they are an adjunct to the storytelling and not too self important or distracting. They meld with the pictures, creeping up on you rather than set you humming. They are not flashy, but serve the images.

Carl Davis and friend

Carl Davis and friend

Why do you think Kevin has been such an effective force in the promotion of the silent era in film-making?

His endless fascination with the minutiae of film is extraordinary. It seems he lives and breathes and loves it.

Brownlow at homeKevin is a great film historian who made us all realize the wealth of our cinematic heritage at a time when people had all but forgotten it. And he realized it fifty years before The Artist.

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Brownlow and Gill talking to Gloria Swanson

What were the most striking qualities of Kevin Brownlow’s own films “It Happened Here” and “Winstanley”?  Why you think it was so challenging for Kevin to make these kinds of films at that time in Britain?

it happened here poster

Both It happened Here and Winstanley were films that just wouldn’t have been made in the run of normal British film fodder.

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Winstanley

There was no such thing as “Indie film” at the time and It Happened Here took so long to make the trials and tribulations of making it were like Werner Herzog films: probably more interesting than the films themselves. I have the powerful image in my head – that has stayed since seeing the original film – of a platoon of German soldiers, in immaculate Andrew Mollo [brother of Star Wars costume designer John Mollo] uniforms, marching past Big Ben.

 It Happened Here (1964)

British film at the time was a curious sixties potpourri from brilliant to dire – and all financed by the mainstream film companies. It was a mixed bag from dopey Carry on… films, to the brilliance of Kubrick and Lean, to the sixties visions of Dick Lester and the Beatles. Brownlow must have appeared as a maverick loony.

Brownlow shooting 2

Do you have any particularly good stories about Kevin?

I remember a dry sense of humour. I was bemoaning the unpleasantness of the film critic, Alexander Walker, and Kevin said: “The problem with Alex is that his ad libs sound like they’re on their eighth draft.”

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Frankly-Seth-800x718 Parker

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LILLIAN GISH in “The Wind”

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In celebration of Lillian Gish whose 120th birthday falls today. Below you can watch her introducing one of her greatest films, The Wind (1928).

The Wind main title

It is one of the most remarkable American films of the silent era, produced by its star, and helmed by the Swedish director Victor Sjostrom (anglicized to Seastrom), who later in life played the old Professor in Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”.

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The version to see is the one presented by TCM in collaboration with Oscar-winning film historian, Kevin Brownlow, with a specially composed musical score by Carl Davis. (Music buffs might be interested to know that the orchestrators on this score, which includes all manner of orchestral “special effects”, were Colin and David Matthews, leading avant-garde composers in their own right. Colin has also worked extensively with the Benjamin Britten Estate to bring many of Britten’s “lost” compositions back into the repertoire).

Lillian Gish The wind 3

I attended the premiere of this version of The Wind at the London Film Festival in the 80s, and it was a knockout.

Lillian Gish The Wind 5

At a later screening in New York’s Radio City Music Hall I had a chance to meet Ms. Gish, and she was the personification of charm and old-world Hollywood graciousness. The following clip, alas, features music other than Carl’s, but it gives you an idea of the extraordinary imagery that drives this story of a girl pushed to the limit of her sanity by events in this inhospitable, windswept country.

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Lillian Gish The Wind 1

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HOLLYWOOD by STEICHEN

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Years before Gloria Swanson declared she was ready for her close-up and took the long walk down that storied staircase on Sunset Boulevard, she sat for another close-up with the legendary photographer Edward Steichen, and created the indelible image above.

It’s an image which embodies something essential about our relationship with screen goddesses. The combination of her direct gaze, mediated by the presence of a veil, captures the pull-push dynamic of the Hollywood glamour shot at its zenith. “Come here, this is all for you, just for you, EXCEPT — don’t touch! Merely watch. Keep your distance. Get too close and you might end up like William Holden — face down in my swimming-pool.”

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The other day I was strolling with my 16 year-old daughter through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (which, funnily enough, we had reached by driving down Sunset Boulevard), when we found ourselves confronted with the arresting image of Gloria Swanson in her prime.  We were in an obscure corner of the American galleries and had stumbled upon a treasure trove of Edward Steichen’s work, some of it less well-known.

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It was a newly endowed collection of Steichen’s photos, focusing mainly on Hollywood stars and some choice photos from the pages of Vogue and Vanity Fair. It’s fair to say that during his years working for Conde Nast, Steichen more or less invented glamour photography and the high toned advertising money-shot. “Steichen was a perfectionist,” says Howard Schatz, a fashion photographer whose portraits of actors appear in Vanity Fair. “His precise eye for lighting and design makes his pictures from the ’20s and ’30s, though clearly of their time, still much admired by fashion photographers today.”

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Steichen is the photographer by whom all others must be judged.  His photos feel as if they are alive, and his portraits – drawing on his background as an accomplished painter – use light and shade to draw out the inner life of his subjects like an old master.  Indeed, walking past a Sargent and a Rembrandt later in our perambulations we did not find Steichen wanting in the comparison.

In fact, in this early self-portrait which opens the exhibit, you can see how Steichen has physically manipulated the emulsion to bring a mysterious, painterly quality to the image. It’s as if the subject of the self-portrait wants to hide within the image.

steichen self portrait

Contrast this with his famous self-portrait of later years which is all about the virtues of modern photography: clarity and candor in the pose and lighting.  Yet there is a mysterious force in those eyes, a power that draws the viewer in. “See what I see” they temptingly offer, “if you dare.”

Steichen self portrait w:camera

Looking at the photos of Hollywood celebrities, it was striking how Steichen had managed to reveal some of the more hidden corners of his subjects’ personalities, and in the process modify the way we view them.

Chaplin’s obsessiveness –

chaplin steichen

Lillian Gish’s poise, confidence, and a beauty more profound than that habitually revealed by the moving camera in her films….

lillian gish steichen

Clara Bow’s sadness and even loneliness – all the flap of the “It” girl lost in a gaze to a horizon she can no longer see….

Steichen clara bow

Garbo’s abiding discomfort within her own skin….

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Loretta Young, stranded at the top of a staircase, seems lost and imprisoned at the same time….

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Douglas Fairbanks, almost lost in shadow, shares an intimacy with Joan Crawford…

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This photo of Walt Disney (not in the exhibit, but I just had to include it) is prescient in its placing of Mickey and Minnie in the power position. Walt looks like a man trying to shake off a pair of gremlins whose malevolence has been manifested in oversized ears. “Yes” he seems to say of his teenage offspring,”I know they’re mine, but you can’t hold me responsible for everything they get up to!”

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Again not in the exhibit is this portrait of legendary interpretive dancer, Isadora Duncan. The setting perfectly mirrors her absorption in classical notions of dance….

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The exhibit is rounded out by some non-celebrity photos, providing a resonance that seems to then inform how one looks at the more famous portraits. (Unfortunately I could not find online samples of Steichen’s early “product placement” advertising shots).

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My daughter declared the following her favorite. I am inclined to agree. Steichen has caught a sublime moment of connection between a couple. Completely wrapped up in each other, they see not the world around them. But for the prescience of the lurking photographer, we easily might not have seen them either.

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Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Steichen in 1955 assembling an exhibition of photos for New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Photography records the gamut of feelings written on the human face, the beauty of the earth and skies that man has inherited, and the wealth and confusion man has created. It is a major force in explaining man to man.  

Edward Steichen (1879 – 1973)

The Child Man Steichen