A Little Birthday Gilliam ( without so much rat in it )

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Before Munchausen and Brazil there was:

and Tales of Brave Knights:

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The occasional documentary:

Re-inventing movie trailers (oh, if only they were all like this):

He can be a bit of a klutz….

— but with visions like this (long before the advent of CGI and done with no budget) —

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— all is forgiven:

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Thanks Mr. Gilliam! And Happy Birthday!

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WHEN MARTIANS ROAMED THE EARTH ( THE STORY BEHIND “THE WAR OF THE WORLDS” )

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Ever wondered what an alien invasion sounds like?

Well, 75 years ago, on October 30th 1938, large swathes of America got to find out. Listeners to CBS radio heard their regular programming interrupted by news reports of strange eruptions in space, and objects crashing to earth.  That was only the beginning. It wasn’t long before the eastern seaboard was gripped by panic, and people were flooding into the streets – trying to escape what they thought was a full-scale Martian invasion.

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Meanwhile, word of the panic spread to the CBS studio, where Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre company of actors were gleefully rampaging their way through Howard Koch’s adaptation of this science-fiction classic.

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With little inkling of the furore outside, Orson Welles decided to defuse the situation. After speaking the last scripted lines of Professor Pierson, he announced – “out of character” – that the program had “…no further significance than the holiday offering it was intended to be”. With an impish smile in his voice he concluded: “And remember, please, for the next day or so, the terrible lesson you learned tonight.  That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living-room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and there’s no-one there, that was no Martian… it’s Halloween.”

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They went off-the-air. Then, leaving the cocoon of the studio, Welles was confronted by the magnitude of the panic he had unleashed. The laughter died on his lips. Even the master showman had been blindsided.

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History was made that night. It was the first major media “Got ya!” and it turned Welles, already a cause célèbre in the theater world, into a media star. Hollywood came calling with an unprecedented contract, which resulted in the equally unprecedented innovations of Citizen Kane and a film career of, in equal measures, maddening genius and frustrated intentions. Maybe the Martians had the last laugh after all.

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When I was producing radio theater for National Public Radio I had occasion to revisit that legendary night of broadcasting. L.A.TheatreWorks decided to record an updated version of Howard Koch’s script for Orson Welles with members of Star Trek, old and new generation.

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Thus Wil Wheaton and Gates McFadden joisted at the microphones with Brent Spiner, while Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, took the central role of Professor Pierson.

Leonard-Nimoy-MRT-Friday-AdventureHis voice commanded the airwaves in a manner all of these Hollywood old-timers, who grew up doing radio, theater and live TV, have to themselves. You felt every syllable of his awe and fear in the face of the alien invader. Researching the script for a subsequent rebroadcast on Halloween (naturally) I delved into the history of that original transmission, and of the book that started it all. There were a few surprises along the way. (In particular, Simon Callow’s excellent biography of Orson Welles provided a wealth of anecdotal material and pertinent observation, some of which I reference in the following.)

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H.G. Wells at the microphone in 1929

Science fiction, it is fair to say, was invented by H.G. Wells, along with Jules Verne.

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Wells had found a new way to explore the greatest aspirations and deepest fears of humanity through the metaphors of science and technology, and the worlds they were unveiling.  But he knew the quest for knowledge was a double-edged sword, and fully exploited the unease that walks hand-in-hand with our boundless curiosity for the unknown.

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For his most famous prophetic warning of the fragility of  civilisation, Wells exploited the current fascination with the possibility that “We are not alone”.

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In 1894, the planet Mars had been near enough to Earth to be observed in detail. The Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli identified linear patterns on the surface that he named “canalli” which, in Italian, means “channels”.

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A page from Schiaparelli’s diary, 1890.

But in one of the great mistranslations of all time, English-speaking peoples thought he meant “canals”, leading to widespread speculation about the possibility of life on the red planet. Another observer claimed to have seen a strange light flashing on Mars, fuelling the debate.

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Schiaparelli’s map of Mars, 1888

Meanwhile H.G. Wells was making his own observations closer to the Earth.  Germany had unified, and embarked on a program of militarization. Wells and others feared this might lead to war in Europe. Inspired to fire his own warning shot, he turned to the public’s fascination with the possibility of life on Mars as a way to warn of the danger.

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Title page from 1913 edition

In his hands, the utopian vision of disparate cultures uniting, of civilisation reaching beyond the stars, disintegrated in the beam of a heat ray.

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1899 Cover Art

Instead humanity faced the nightmare of a pre-emptive first strike by superior technologies of Armageddon, serving masters whose only thought was: what was the point of sharing when you could have it all?

Title page of 1st edition, 1898.

Title page of First Edition, 1898

Wells told his fantastical fable in a semi-documentary style, giving it a credibility and power it might have otherwise lacked.

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When, in 1938, Howard Koch came to adapt War of the Worlds for the radio broadcast by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre on the Air, he faced two major challenges. How to find a modern-day equivalent for the book’s hyper-realistic style, and how to overcome the dated, provincial aspects of the novel because of its period setting in  England. He decided to move the action to America, randomly selecting the New Jersey village of Grover’s Mill as the site of the invasion. From then on, realistic imperatives drove the script. Koch made the medium the message, turning radio’s ability to broadcast live events as they happened into an integral part of telling the story.

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Welles with John Houseman

It was a brilliant narrative strategy, but Orson Welles and John Houseman, co-founders of the Mercury Theatre Company, were initially underwhelmed by the script. Preoccupied by what had turned into a hellish theatre production of Danton’s Death, they picked at the script in their usual way, pulling it about structurally and demanding more realism.  Welles dismissed it as “corny”. A lot of emphasis was placed on sound effects, in the hope they would distract attention from the thinness of the piece.

Despite – or because of this – Welles and his fellow actors went for broke, playing it for all it was worth.

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Everything was pushed to the extreme – the apparent breakdowns in transmissions, the desperate eruptions of dance music – all held longer than would be thought possible in order to build suspense. The vividness of the dramatization echoed the real-life newscasts whose bulletins so frequently concerned events ominously gathering in Europe. But whether Houseman or Welles intended any serious parallel is debatable: they just wanted to liven up the story, using what was going on all around them, on the air and in the papers.

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So why did listeners think there was a real invasion from Mars being reported? Houseman attributed it to a chance circumstance. Broadcasting on another wavelength was the hugely popular Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.

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At twelve minutes past eight the improbable principal act –  a ventriloquist and his assorted dummies – took a break, and so did listeners. They reached for their dials, surfed the frequencies, and happened upon a news report, well under way, of the Martian invasion.  As the play progressed so did the hysteria.

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An estimate for the number of American families who had radios at the time was  twenty seven-and-a-half million. The radio was frequently the principal, and often the only, source of information for Americans about the wider world.  And in those days listeners trusted unquestioningly that what they heard was the truth. Despite announcements that this was a dramatization of a book, people took to the streets, screaming that it was the end of the world.

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There are many colorful stories of that night. Here’s one of them. In Staten Island, Connie Casamissina was about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. As Connie recalled: “Everyone ran to get their coats.  I took the microphone and started to cry – Please don’t spoil my wedding-day! – and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.”

After the program went off the air, terrified listeners who’d called CBS angrily threatened violence against Welles and the company, after discovering they were victims of what they thought had been a malicious hoax. One employee recalled: “Someone had called threatening to blow up the CBS building, so we called the police and hid in the ladies’ room on the studio floor.”

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The fallout from the broadcast was extensive. How would the populace have reacted in the event of a real air raid?

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There were calls for censorship,  but freedom of speech on the airwaves was fiercely defended.  In a striking piece in the New York Tribune,  columnist Dorothy Thompson acclaimed the broadcast as “one of the most fascinating and important events of all time… It is the story of the century… Far from blaming Mr. Orson Welles, he ought to be given a Congressional medal and a national prize for having made the most amazing and important of contributions to the social sciences… He made the scare to end all scares, the menace to end menaces, the unreason to end unreason, the perfect demonstration that the menace is not from Mars but from the theatrical demagogues.”

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Danish edition

As for Orson, he made a chastened appearance in a newsreel, adopting the air of a schoolboy who’s not sure whether he’s gotten away with a prank.

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Welles at press conference after the broadcast

He wasn’t as worried about society’s judgment as he was about potentially more serious, legal penalties.  In the end nothing stuck, and it all turned out to be one of the most fortuitous events of his career.  But his personal creative responsibility for the show had been negligible, beyond the flair of his direction and performance.  In a foreshadowing of his attempts to take credit away from Herman Mankiewicz for the script of Citizen Kane, Welles repeatedly attempted to deny Howard Koch’s authorship of War of the Worlds. Unsuccessfully, to his considerable annoyance.

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There’s no evidence to support his contention that the program was planned as a Halloween prank all along. The idea was improvised on the spot as a sop to the panic released during the broadcast. Nor was there a conscious attempt to play on fears of a European invasion. The fact was that Welles barely thought about the program, being completely occupied until the last minute by his losing struggle with the theatre production of Danton’s Death.

However, he did get a Hollywood contract out of it.

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Grover's Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, at the site of the supposed Martian landing.

FILMMAKERS on FILMMAKERS ( ALAN PARKER on KEVIN BROWNLOW )

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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.”)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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).

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

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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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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 –

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

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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….

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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

THE GARBO EFFECT

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Today would have been Greta Garbo’s 108th birthday. She is still considered one of the greatest sirens of the silver screen, a truly iconic figure embodying all the mystery and allure that the camera can bestow on the feminine form.

Garbo The Temptress

Want proof? Look no further than the following.

The year was 1926.

Filming a pivotal scene for Flesh and the Devil, the story of an illicit romance á la Anna Karenina, director Clarence Brown had little idea of how life was about to mirror art.

It was the scene where the leading lady, Greta Garbo, was to meet her great love, John Gilbert, for the first time. In real life as well as on screen.

Flesh and the Devil station

It’s the scene in the train station (alas, not available in clip form). When you watch it, you can almost believe you are watching the actors falling in love at the same time as their characters do. According to Gilbert’s daughter, Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, whom I met at a screening of the film in New York, that is exactly what happened.

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Director Clarence Brown later remarked upon his leading lady:  “She had something behind the eyes that told the whole story. On the screen Garbo multiplied the effect of the scene I had taken. It was something she had that nobody else ever had.”

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Creating Garbo’s deliriously sensual aura was the work of cinematographer William Daniels, a veteran collaborator of maverick director Erich von Stroheim. Using heavy gauzes and filters over the camera lens, he wraps the lovers in a shimmering passion and eroticism.

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Listen to how Carl Davis’s score enhances the effect with its allusions to Richard Strauss, especially the Moonlight music from Capriccio.

You’re about to watch the climactic scene where the lovers kiss for the first time. It begins at a ball. Gilbert can think only of the woman he met at the train station. Will he see her again?

They move into the garden…..

Gilbert and Garbo were to marry. The story goes that, on his wedding day — a grand, Hollywood affair — Garbo failed to show. Gilbert got drunk and took it out on his boss, Louis B. Mayer. Mayer swore he would destroy Gilbert’s career. Gilbert never made the transition to talkies, ostensibly because of his reedy voice. But maybe the apocryphal version of how events unfolded holds the greater truth: could any man ever survive loving Garbo? (Or pissing off Louis B.?)

Garbo insisted that Gilbert co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

Even though Gilbert’s career was in decline, Garbo insisted that he co-star with her in Queen Christina (1933)

While Gilbert spiraled downwards, Garbo continued to ascend higher into the Hollywood heavens. With the arrival of talkies her accented voice beguiled as much as her looks, and she later revealed a talent for comedy in Lubitsch’s sublime Ninotchka (1939). Audiences were so accustomed to Garbo smoldering rather than smirking that the studio used her new-found levity as a log-line on their posters.

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If you’re ever in need of a cinematic pick-me-up, look no further.

Garbo and Lion

Even MGM’s Leo the Lion seems cowed by the Legend that was Garbo

Forget Helen of Troy.  It was Garbo who not only launched a thousand and more ships of romantic dreams, but then dashed them upon the rocks of her early retirement and retreat from the world. She was, finally, alone.

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But in the garden of film immortals she awaits her lovers still….

Garbo reclining