Thursday, 7 September 2017

NZIFF Live Cinema: It (dir. Clarence G. Badger)

Released in 1927, this film stars the original 'It' Girl Clara Bow, a massive star of the Twenties.

Shop girl Betty Lou (Bow) has a crush on her boss, Mr Waltham (Antonio Moreno). While he quickly falls under her spell, their romance is jeopardised when Betty Lou puts her reputation on the line to save her roommate's child from being taken away by welfare workers. Sadly, Waltham's idiotic buddy Monty (William Austin) witnesses this ruse and runs off to tell his bro. Despite the source, Waltham believes that she is an unwed mother, and hence spoiled. Waltham declares that, while he loves her, she can only be his mistress, and nothing more. Heartbroken, Betty Lou breaks off heir relationship. In time-honoured tradition, Betty Lou realises what has happened and goes after the moron to win him back.

A lively audio-visual experience, this film proves that silent cinema can only truly be appreciated on the big screen.

In the title role, Clara Bow is terrific. Based on her reputation, I went in expecting something more overtly carnal (she is held up as an exemplar of the kind of cinema that the Production Code was designed to quash). What was striking about It is how much agency the character has, and how that agency is not conveyed as sheer lasciviousness (which is the stereotype I was expecting). Bow is interested in her boss, but she is also interested in having her own life and independence - it's a combination that you do not see a lot of in classic Hollywood cinema m(or a lot of modern-day rom coms, to be honest). She does not have the firecracker intensity of Louise Brooks (who does?) but she has a bolshiness and charisma that are extremely watchable.

For the time I am guessing Bow's forthrightness was pretty outrageous, but there is a sense of agency and confidence that feels timeless. This is especially true in the scene where she pretends to be an unwed mother to protect her flatmate from losing her baby. It is a mark of the times that her character is never punished (to be honest she does not really do anything that bad).

The times make themselves felt in less appealing ways - the movie betrays a casual disregard for women who are not in Bow's position - Waltham's fiancĂ© is a doormat who exists purely to highlight how fixated Waltham is on the new 'it' girl in his life. And while the movie is based around Betty Lou's subversion of traditional patriarchy, the third act boils down to a final romantic clinch with Waltham. While the movie ridicules him as a pompous idiot, it feels a little too convenient for them to wind up together, considering his earlier behaviour.

William Austin as dim bulb Monty
The performances by the rest of the cast are perfectly attuned to the tone of the piece. While the style is broader than sound features, it feels appropriate to the story and the limitations of the medium. The standout is William Austin as Waltham's dumb(er) friend Monty. He becomes a romantic rival to Waltham, and is the one who informs him that Betty Lou is a scarlet woman. His reactions provide some of the biggest laughs in the movie; he really is the standout comic character.

Stylistically, this movie is fascinating as it shows how, by 1927, filmmakers had developed the basic cinematic grammar that we now know as classic continuity filmmaking. The limited use of close-ups and title cards to convey key points of information - it is like a jigsaw puzzle where the audience can fill in the obvious detail. It reminded me of the Lubitsch equation for filmmaking: if you show the audience '1 + 1', they can figure out the sum by themselves. Clarence G. Badger is not a director I'm familiar with, but his work is pretty solid here (according to Wikipedia, Josef Von Sternberg also had a hand in directorial chores, although it is hard to identify his stamp on the final product).

Yes, It is an artefact from another era. But do not confuse age with irrelevance or lack of entertainment value. It's a fun movie, and a great instalment of the film festival's Live Cinema showcase.

Ethel & Ernest (dir. Roger Mainwood, 2016)
One of the movies I ushered, this adaptation of Raymond Briggs' autobiographical graphic novel is wonderfully understated. Staring Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blythen in the title roles, the movie is a collection of key scenes from their marriage, from first meeting to their deaths - only months apart - in 1971.

Animated in a way that evokes Briggs' visual style, the film is relatively restrained and is largely confined to the family home. The movie begins in 1927, with the pair's initial meeting. Raymond himself is a side character, popping in and out of the story - sent away during the Blitz and away at university in the sixties. One element of the film that is noteworthy is how Briggs does not try to sand off his parents' rough edges - casual sexism; class consciousness; and the couple's political differences are all foregrounded. They feel more real.

We go through the depression, the build-up toward WW2, the Blitz and then the rise of the post-war welfare state (delighting his Labour-voting Dad, and inversely his Tory mum). Using sound bytes from the era, including radio broadcasts from the likes of Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. Some of this historical signposts come off a little obvious, but most of the time they become are a part of the background detail.

While some of the historical signposting is obvious, it is not a detriment. The film's simplicity is a major asset, as it reinforces Briggs' focus on two ordinary people who are extraordinary simply for being themselves. Having a child; buying a new home or appliance; or strolling through the park - this film is about the simple pleasures that come with living.
    One of the most empathetic and human films I saw at the film festival, Ethel & Ernest is worth hunting down.

    Other festival reviews

    2017 Dramas

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