Nottingham Silent Film Festival (pt2) :Road to Happiness [7/10], Downhill [5/10], etc

Published on: May 16th, 2006

DAY THREE : Saturday 8th April : The Road to Happiness, Downhill
DAY FOUR : Sunday 9th April : Daughter of the Regiment
(coverage of the event's first two days is available here)

THE ROAD TO HAPPINESS : [7/10] : Fiaker Nr.13 aka Cab No.13 : Germany (Ger/Aut/UK) 1926 : Michael CURTIZ (aka Mihaly KERTESZ) : 78m (timed) : projected from celluloid; accompanist Philip Carli (piano)

STORY : Sentimental, romantic melodrama in which Lilian (Lili Damita), a beautiful 18-year-old Parisienne, discovers that her father isn't actually the kindly old cab-driver (Paul Biensfeldt) who raised her from a baby, but in fact a millionaire coffee-importer keen to provide her with a life of luxury. Lilian's true ancestry was traced by gold-digging chancer Tapin (Jack Trevor), who romances her with a view to marrying into a wealthy family. But Lilian already has a boyfriend: talented but hard-up composer Lucien (Wolf Rilla)…

PLUSSES : Tale is corny but undeniably effective: skilfully and sincerely handled by Curtiz/Kertesz – who soon after went to Hollywood and found fame with the likes of Casablanca. Like that perennial favourite, The Road to Happiness features a woman torn between two lovers, though here the choice is rather more straightforward from an audience-sympathy perspective: the first time we meet Tapin, he's breezily forging the signature of Martin Luther. And just as Rick and Ilsa would "always have Paris," the city's atmosphere is a strong point here – although the production is so international (typical of the period, when how the actors spoke wasn't an issue) that you're never sure where any particular sequence is being shot. Pleasing finale in which all characters receive their just desserts: a heartwarming happy ending.

MINUSES : Lilian's shallow fickleness is somewhat off-putting, and it's disappointing that she so readily falls for the caddish Tapin's schemes – but then again, she is only 18 and does rather rapidly see the error of her ways (moving into high society, she's rapidly afflicted by nostalgie de la boue.) Picture is essentially a morality-play – rather predictable that Lilian will end up picking the "humble tenement" over the "palace," and that water will prove just as thick as blood.

NOTES : Curtiz/Kertesz was born Mano Kertesz Kaminer. French-born Damita was Kertesz's wife from 1925 to 1926 – they divorced after he moved to Hollywood. She eventually followed him across the Atlantic and nine years later married a then-unknown Tasmanian named Errol Flynn. Her Road to Happiness co-star Walter Rilla (who looks eerily like Ernst Deutsch – The Third Man's conspiratorial Baron Kurtz) was the father of Village of the Damned director Wolf Rilla.

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DOWNHILL : [5/10] : aka When Boys Leave Home : UK 1927 : Alfred HITCHCOCK : 113m (timed) : projected from DVD; accompanists Gunther Buchwald (violin), Neil Brand (piano), Stephen Horne (piano), John Sweeney (piano), Philip Carli (organ)

STORY : Based on a hit play by Ivor Novello and Constance Collier, Hitchcock's fourth completed feaure stars Novello himself as public schoolboy Roddy, son of Sir Thomas (Norman McKinnel) and Lady (Lilian Braithwaite) Berwick. Roddy seems set for a glowing future – until he takes the "fall" for a fellow-student's "indiscretion" and finds himself on a downward spiral into shame and exile.

PLUSSES : Superlative technique from the 27-year-old Hitchcock almost – but not quite – compensates for the major script problems (see below). Camerawork is consistently imaginative and ahead-of-its-time, including some startling hand-held sequences towards the end as Roddy staggers, fever-stricken, off a boat. Most breathtakingly virtuouso touch is a complex shot pulling back from Roddy adjusting his tie – we think he's dressing up for a fancy evening out, then realise he's working as a waiter, and then realise he's playing a waiter on stage. Brilliantly done. Hitchcock is clearly not especially interested in the story (who can blame him?) but uses it as an excuse to explore the medium (much use of colour-tints to indicate the 'moods' of various scenes) and generally learn the ropes. Despite being in his early thirties during filming, Novello is surprisingly convincing as an 18-year-old schoolboy in the opening sections. Strong, naturalistic performance from Hitchcock regular Ian Hunter as West End bloke-about-town Archie – Roddy's rival for the affections of prominent actress Julia (Isabel Jeans, also quite nifty).

MINUSES : Script and story! Dated, misogynistic rubbish in which all of Roddy's problems are caused or severely exacerbated by women: during his fever-dream, he imagines all of these harpies sitting around a table having a jolly good laugh at his expense. His mother remains very much in the background (it's his relationship with his stern dad which causes him most concern), and the only woman who does him a good turn is an unseen benefactress who leaves him  £30,000 in her will. This occurs some way into the narrative, which means that Roddy's progress isn't entirely "downhill." Of course, he fritters away the money very quickly – or rather, he allows Julia to fritter it away on fancy clothes. Roddy is in many ways the least sympatehtic and interesting person in the whole film – Downhill is in effect the story of a louse, one whose final "redemption" and "triumph" are somewhat hard to stomach, especially as the symbol of his success is scoring a try at his school's "old boys' match." Most alienating sequence is at a dance in a gloomy Parisian hall, where Roddy finds a sympathetic female keen to help him out – only to recoil in horror when the windows are suddenly opened and she's revealed as ageing and dowdy. Hitchcock does this with typical panache, via a slow pan which ends with a close-up of the woman's face – but it's Roddy's reaction which is repellent, not his hapless interlocutor's features.

NOTES : The version shown at Nottingham (in the atmospheric surroundings – and among the somewhat uncomfortable pews – of St John's Church) was from DVD: the transfer from celluloid to digital was slightly, but conspicuously, slower than the ideal (most sources list the running time at between 74 and 80 minutes.)

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DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT
: [6/10] : Die Regimentstochter : Germany (Ger/UK) 1929 : Hans BEHRENDT : 57m (timed) : projected from video; accompanist John Sweeney (piano)

STORY : Based (fairly loosely) on G.Donizetti's Tyrol-set opera La fille du regiment, here transplanted to on the French/Spanish border. It's the location of a garrison whose "mascot" is the delectable Marie (Betty Balfour), who arrived as a foundling and was brought up by the soldiers. It emerges that she is in fact the daughter of local nobility, and must reluctantly leave 'home' to be educated in the ways of the debutante. But nurture proves rather stronger than nature, and it isn't long before Marie heads back to the action…

PLUSSES : Undemanding, amiable romantic fluff – a pleasant diversion within its limited ambitions. Nice external shooting in the dusty, sunny countryside: Paris is all shadows and gloom in comparison. Balfour lively and engaging, and has a convincingly warm 'father-daughter' relationship with garrison commander Quippo (Kurt Gerron). Pleasing (if plausibility-straining) finale ties everything up in a shimmering bow.

MINUSES : Story is fairly silly morality-tale melodrama: our heroine has an unlikely operetta-style romance with dashing local bandit-chief Tonio (Alexander D'Arcy), and it turns out that neither party is quite what they seem. But it seems churlish to object to such genial, unpretentious, eager-to-please fare.

NOTES : In contrast to Downhill (see above), the version shown at Nottingham was projected a fraction too quick, resulting in some jerkiness of image and the picture clocking in at less than an hour. Kurt Gerron's tragic later life (he was gassed at Auschwitz) was the subject of acclaimed Holocaust documentary Prisoner of Paradise (2002).

Neil Young
16th May 2006

The Road to Happiness and Daughter of the Regiment seen at the Broadway Cinema, Nottingham; Downhill seen at St John's Church, Nottingham. Official website : British Silent Cinema Festival. Click here for roundup of the event written for Tribune magazine.